Kind of getting away: 6

Sometimes I cannot remember the people with whom I came. It’s strange. I just cannot remember them. I can remember the names, of course. Those are not difficult. But no image attaches itself to the names. A side effect of living like this, I suppose. But Helper is almost always company enough.

Today I went to see O. I don’t forget him. This is mostly because he’s the only person I see. This is not purely coincidental. We agreed on Scafell that we were going to be the two stationed furthest away from the Main Building. I made that happen.

The main thing about O. is that he’s just a fundamentally decent guy all the way down. He talks more than I do but does not talk much. His field is evolutionary bio, so he’s horrifically busy now[1]. He often talks about his work, and it’s very interesting.

I took the road to his place. I got the Volkie all the way down to the bridge where the road began. The road is a dark resin. It is inert. It glints. I stood there for some time and looked at it. The bridge, I mean. I looked at the place where it came out of the earth. Somehow it not easy to put together. You would expect a joint somewhere. But there is none.

This bridge is a truss bridge. It makes a virtual tunnel of latticework. When I looked down its length I could see the road going on for a little bit more and then it curved out of sight around the coast. I don’t know very much about bridges. I know that they are subject to certain forces – tension, compression, bending, torsion, shear – but I barely know what a bridge does to negotiate among these. And there are so many different types of bridges. Bridges are not, as it were, alive to me.

The drive there was strange. When I lived on Dyhaus there were many times when I had to make long trips and this felt like being there again even though it was not the same at all. I kept looking into the little empty spaces beside the road, expecting to see hitchhikers, browned from the sun. I used to pick them up on Dyhaus. They were never the same. I usually listened to them talk as they sat beside me. Many didn’t talk but some did. When they did talk I listened to find some commonality among all their experience. Some way in. I tried to build them into patterns. There weren’t any, I think. There were some small things, but those were trivial, tight bundles that didn’t unravel. Some kind of unease at the idea of steadiness. A preference for tragedies of goodwill over just letting the hours roll on one way or another. But none of this was interesting. Apart from this there was nothing more. Some of them were like characters from a movie. They were mad or nearly it. They asked for permission to masturbate. Some had thought very clearly and painfully about the things happening to them and were embarrassed when they asked if I could stop to let them piss. Some didn’t know what they were doing at all, and were utterly at home with that. Some had a plan, and this was just a part of it. Some preached doctrines about the end of the world, big fluorescent ideologies, carried Do Not Fear The End badges, and ranted about sex and neon and the transcendental urges that addictions shat in their heads. Two had insisted – these ones stand out – that they were Carriers, or something close enough, that they had met Haccieters, were destined for some grotesque fate. One hitchhiker had climbed on nearly catatonic and asked for alcohol. I kept some in the boot in Dyhaus and he hit off it really hard while I watched and said nothing and then tried, I think, to kill me.

It is a little odd that I should think of Dyhaus while on this road, in this place, but there you go. It happens. It’s all strange now. There are many strange things. This road. Built with so much thought for this place. No passing through sensitive spots, no destruction of breeding sides, no interruption of migratory routes. C.D.s working from so many intricate manuals only they are familiar with. So many things to take note of, making this tiny winding thing, and I am driving over it just like that. I put my arms out of car and felt the air move past me. I clawed my fingers and could actually hold it, plump and struggling. Doing this always gives me a kind of buzz. A little undeserved rush. It’s good. I realised today that I’ve stopped thinking the air here has a smell. It’s gone. Can’t detect it anymore, even if I try.

Why did I keep picking up those hitchhikers? I can sort of guess at an answer now. I keep noticing things when I write. I like migratory things. It’s what I specialise in. Terns. Whales. All that stuff I wrote on the Littorian displacements on Stize. Things that never arrive at any place and which are only possible to understand as being about to depart.

Wasn’t I talking about O.? But the drive there was very interesting. It was just like autumn. In fact it is now what you might call the height of summer. It’s a long summer[2]. Today it was not exactly warm, I guess, but it was about as warm as it gets. It was so warm I put on the radio[3] because it felt correct.

The road led straight to O.’s. It’s a coastal house, like mine. He knew I was coming and was waiting for me in the doorway[4]. He’s a big guy. He likes to look down when he talks. There’s this demure physicality about him which is really quite unexpected. Now, of course, I am familiar with it. But the first time that was unexpected. Also unexpected, even now, is how excited he can suddenly get over the littlest things.

“I’ve got lunch,” he said, when I walked up.

“I’m starving,” I said, even though I wasn’t that hungry. O. cooks. When he was on Stize his college was Inkper and he picked up some very Inkper things[5]. So he cooks. I don’t know enough people who actually cook to tell if he cooks well. But it’s never worse than the rations we have, and our rations are quite good. And there is something else. Just looking at someone else working on something, making something – that’s nice. O. keeps telling me that when the people back at Anhedonia – yes, I’ll use the name – decide for certain what things on Tokata we are or are not allowed to eat he’ll try his hand there[6].

Will he ask me to kill stuff for him? That’s a thought. I’m not sure I could – hunt, that’s the word, I guess – on this world. And there would be amazing amounts of admin to settle if I killed things for NR purposes.

I recall thinking this when Skeffie came in and said, “He’ll be asking you to kill things for him, you know,” and O. immediately said no, he couldn’t possibly.

O. calls his helper Skeffie. Skeffie is not very much like Helper[7]. Helper likes going outside. Skeffie does not mind but likes the lab and compiles reports with frightening skill. Skeffie is also incredibly cynical, sometimes. O. never seems to mind, though.

When O. said, I’ve got lunch, he had not meant that he had already prepared lunch. He meant to say that he was going to cook lunch. So I sat and looked out of the window while he cooked. He’s rigged an oven in his place and actually uses it, so he’s got bread. He started talking halfway through about his work on tk-chlorocuorin. I listened. There is a strange quality to this sort of conversation. He talks; I idly listen, understanding quite a lot but not all of what he is talking about; I ask questions; he stops and backtracks and sometimes leans against the kitchen counter and thinks, nodding to himself, thinking yes, I did not put that well, looking at the floor. After a while when the entire place smelt of butter he started talking instead about the problems they’re having with Hox genes: they can’t find any. He thinks that maybe they’re just got the gene sequencing technology botched up. Or maybe there are – and this is truly interesting, he says – too many sets of Hox genes, and we’re staring at them without realising that there is no single basic structure for many apparently closely related species.

Today he was pretty measured. He’s not always like that. The second time I visited me he ran out, yelling slip sequences. It wasn’t even anything very spectacular; it had just been that they’d discovered that the t/DNA[8] on Tokata contains very large concentrations of apparent slip sequences.

When we were just about done when he said, “You know, I could stay here for a long time.”

“I think most of us would stay here for a long time,” I said. “It’s it strange how it always feels like autumn?” I got the plates out.

During the meal we talked mostly about my Excursion. It wasn’t going to happen until another two weeks, but that time would past fast. Will pass fast. And then he said, “I really could stay here.” His big hands moved and he ate. He ate as if he was very hungry. I wondered if he always cooked. Does it matter? Nonetheless I was seized by the thought, at the time.

“Wait for the winter,” I said. “We’ve not been here that long.”

“I don’t think it matters. I don’t go out that much.” He spooned something into his mouth. “I’ll be busy most of the time. Are you done?”

“It’s a lot of food,” I said.

He took the dishes to the sink. He never gets Skeffie to do any of this stuff. I wondered if he was always this hungry.

“If Winnfield and the rest go I would still want to stay,” he said. He didn’t say exactly this, but this was what he meant, I remember. I think what he actually said was less terse and precise than that.

“All alone?” I said. There is a little vane anemometer, a windmeter, outside O.’s place, a little way down from the house. The little turbine was going fast. The thing flicked one way and then another. The wind was coming up. I could even see, from here, the dimples and the white furrows it made in the water. This is a bad habit of mine. I do this when things become important and I’m not ready.

“Maybe,” he said. “You know, the main thing now is the place.”

I knew what he meant. “You liked your time on Inkper,” I said.

“Yes. Is it the same thing, though? I don’t think it’s the same thing.”

I’m very familiar with O.’s house. I know where the tables are, exactly, where he likes to position the chairs, and I also know what he keeps in each every drawer in every cupboard and table. My home is large; it extends all the way from my house to this place, a hundred and thirty ks in total. I know how O. places the screens for his computer on this workdesk. I know where he keeps the paper and the pencils he waited for two months to get[9]. There a notice board above his desk. It’s an old thing with photographs, the printed type, and things he writes to remind himself. On one corner of the board he keeps the drawings. I used to draw a lot when I was studying. I was attracted to it because it was something people did in the past, when there were no pictures. They went out and what they saw they drew. I like the idea of being perched on that past, gripping it just so. A couple of times since I’ve arrived I’ve drawn things. The second time Helper and I went into the woods I saw a Gosser and I let Helper go ahead and I got a sketch, nothing more than lines, a contour, some inkling/suspicion of its bearing, that kind of compressed aggression. I got a few more detailed things done, but that was the first one I drew, and even though it had been a silly impulse it set something going. O. likes talking about his children. They’re very young. QC had given him permission seven years ago and he gets a little breathless talking about them. Not breathless, but he talks like he is, the sentences come out tapered. You cannot imagine, he says, its not just like you’ve made – its growing in you, like you’ve become bigger and its taking away but also giving – but suddenly you’re given this, and you are holding it feeling, you know, I don’t know, miraculous. So the first time I visited I got my drawings out and said, you could bring this back for them. He had taken them and said, looking down again, thanks, thanks a lot. He knew they were not good drawings. He hadn’t even looked at them properly, which I suppose was a relief for me. But the next time I came he had put them up beside the photos of his kids on the notice board and there was a note saying Keep!

So I was looking at the drawings, thinking how I’d forgotten everything I’d taught myself about varying line thickness, when I said, “Give it time.”

He said, “I’ve given it time. I’ve given it too much time, probably,” and winced. He looked nervous. He always looks nervous, a bit surprised at his own big body, but this wasn’t that kind of nervous.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” I said. There was a cup of something warm between my hands and I only noticed it then and remembered when he had put it down. I drank a bit of it. “Sometimes I think of that myself. But I have not thought properly about it. There will be a lot of things to do if we want to stay, you know. Who knows when the next research group will come.” Something occurred to me. “Can you imagine how many people there would be?  All waiting to use the road? I wouldn’t be the last house in the line anymore. The construction drones would come up and make it come from the bridge all the way up to my place.”

“Doesn’t it go to your place?” he said.

I hadn’t told him. “You can walk,” I said. “The bridge is there, but then it stops. You can walk, or just fly the Volkie.”

“What difference does it make, the road stopping there?” he said.

“I don’t know. But the idea of a road coming all the way to my place – I’m not sure how I’d sleep with that.”

“I understand where you’re coming from,” he said. It was funny, the way he said he it. He can make something like that sound like a joke. That makes it sound like he’s never funny. Oh well. That’s not true, but it’s not something I can put across like this.

(You see the way we both are? This kind of sameness must be unhealthy. It’s all on some level I can’t detect but it’s probably there. )

Skeffie came in again and said, “If Ogford wants to stay that’s all fine and good but you know it hurts me very much when I’ve not asked about these things.”

Skeffie is like that. We both know it would choose to stay without a second thought if O. stayed. But it will say these things. “We couldn’t possibly doubt you,” I said.

“I like it when you say that,” Skeffie said. I laughed.

[1] The ecology of Tokata is quite conventional in many respects – I’d place it somewhere near the middle of a Bridger-Green diagram (I think Bridger-Green diagrams are actually useful, which puts me in a rapidly shrinking majority). But there are some very striking things, the sorts of things that evolutionary biologists get very excited about. The most obvious thing is the fact that the biology of Tokata does not exhibit amino acid homochirality. Approx. 44% of the chordates here are use right-handed amino acids, 56% left-handed. This makes Tokata one of the only two planets so far known that does not exhibit biological homochirality, and the only known world where non-homochirality extends into multicellular creatures. Cue major puzzlement/excitement from the molecular+evo. biologists.

[2] It’s not a summer generated by axial tilt. Blame Tokata’s elliptical orbit.

[3] Have I mentioned this? Well, we have radio. Radio! The people back at the Main Building had been discussing this for some time. There were worries about how it might affect the environment, but eventually the consensus formed that it was probably alright if we used tropospheric tightbeam. So now we all have radio. We have three channels. One is basically a cycling update of discoveries, papers, possible new lines of research – functional but interesting stuff; one is devoted entirely to music from the Trove (I suspect Max was responsible for that – he’s attracted to obscurity); and one plays the popular stuff from Stize+Naze – what was popular when we left, I mean. Today I got Coyly If Anything She Comes and Torrential Train. Me, on the new road, on a new world, listening to Torrential Train. I must remember this.

[4] Volkies are great vehicles. You can’t tell if one is coming unless you’ve been told. They’re absolutely silent and nearly invisible.

[5] On his desk he always keeps a copy of Hyrum Kasakadei’s The Silence of Certain Questions. I tried to ask him about Extreme Quietism once and he told me immediately that he did not understand, quite literally, a single line in SCQ. Why had he bothered to obtain a physical copy of the monster then? He found it comforting, he said, and he didn’t know why.

[6] Ordinarily we can’t eat anything that’s right-handed; us poor left-handed biologicals can’t use right-handed amino acids to build proteins. We’d probably be able to digest a little, but most enzymatic processes would be so retarded as to be useless. But they’ve thought of that, of course. We’ve been packed full of artificial gut flora to do the digestion for us. Nonetheless can’t be too careful re these things I suppose.

[7] I’m not good with names. So my helper is called Helper. It does not seem to mind at all, and I’ve asked.

[8] The phosphate backbone is oddly constructed. I’ve not read up on the details yet. Also: 5 base pairs. Very inefficient, but maybe that has something to do with the fact that only about 85% of the t/DNA in large organisms here is non-coding.

[9] He has no need for pencils. But this is, yet again, an Inkper thing. I go out far more often than he does and I don’t think I have any pencils.