Kind of getting away: 8

I killed something today.

Accident. Volkies are nearly invisible. It was going to happen sooner or later. Coming back from O.’s in the evening when suddenly there was something on the road improbably dark and tight against the beam. Small. It sensed the air moving, maybe it heard something, and then exploded blackly upward and for a moment it was harsh in the light. I remember the clutching feet, small clutching feet put out ahead of itself. Then there were only small motes dusting the edge of the beam and nothing else.

I got out and went to see what it was. There was blood matted into its feathers[1]. I didn’t know what it was. Its body was heavy and felt like it was coming apart. I turned it around and the colour got me. If you went and queried the undergrowths across the universe they would nominate this colour as the contraction of their being. The eyes were from another universe entirely. Small things like moths batted at me.

I should probably let the Volkie drive itself. At night, at least. It’s for my safety too.

[1] It’s the wrong word. But it’s the one we use.


Leviathan arrived on Stizostedion, as he (a he this time, it was well known) always had, with moderate fanfare indicating the confluence of huge excitement and a population too sophisticated (intimidated?) to attempt a proper expression of it. This was news passed in peristaltic fashion through long conversations had for the most part in the eternally dishevelled air that gyrated outside butteries – conversations self-aware enough to vigorously acknowledge their own speculative nature and rapidly divert themselves to the unsung mysteries of digestion—

Such were things on Stize. There were oddities reasonably to be expected of a University older than most civilisations and that had managed to swallow an entire planet. Even with the inconvenience occasioned by the intermittent closing of border crossings caused by deep methodological disputes among departments, university life built up around itself a thick plaque, a jus of joys mostly intimated, epileptic compilations that colluded to a rich mucilage without rote or indeed fantasy, a brew in which oddities accreted into institutions, into certain forms of assault . Stizostedion, so formally called, was under the good watch of Quistclose, an endlessly helpful, considerate, compassionate, murderous AI that (some argued, mostly keeping Petromyzon in mind, but of course everything was argued here, was it not? was this not essential in the specification?) was the most powerful (contested term) in the Kingdom, the most magical and hieroglyphic, the most known and unknown, the one with colour. It had loaded Stize’s fat skies with a sheen of Compydust (a tragic name of QC’s own making) soupy enough to instantaneously dissolve all unpermitted peoples into a sanguinated cloud, a halo of florid light, and to send any ships unfortunate enough to have Breached Two Tiers (of Protocol eith Notice and Without Due Consideration) hulking aflame into the sea, or if that was not possible/desirable to grind them into a metallic mash deposited as exquisite spangly powders over the spires and buttresses of the 322 colleges. QC’s favourite phrase, which was a much-checked fact on public record, was “—terribly sorry.”

Upon arrival Leviathan was admitted promptly into Way-on-Hill, starry tabernacle of the academic firmament, and before the month had passed during which people were meant to get acquainted with the air of essential shabbiness fundamental to academic life was saddled with a devastating trinity of tutors: Kramnik, from the SM Faculty, sexless, urbane, endlessly mild-mannered, vague and brilliant as cheesecloth, sometime contributor to the fabled Field Guide to the Stray Shopping Carts of the Western Paleartic (also, everyone noted, rumoured to have been once involved in a near-fatal smiling accident); Crane, sweating, massive, dewlapped, tumescently brainy, orbiculate body barely keeping viable a head in which arguments mated noisily, bred, and died; proof-annihilator, brash, antiprolix, wearyingly acute, famed amicus to the great Erskine judgment, a colossus rudely – nakedly – triumphantly!— bestride the Ethics Faculty; and the one they called Tehayanianatu, lodged nominally in the Logic Faculty, the only metavirus in stable human residence, the only tutor on Stize no-one had heard physically speaking, unknowable and brooding and black in its ancient chambers, absent at all Formals to no inconsiderable relief of most fellows of Way-on-Hill, devourer of (at latest count) three undergraduates, one colleague, and a small loop of QC itself (the furore was immense; one could have built civilisations off it), controversially described by the worshipful who braved its supervisions as speaking – speaking, despite the common knowledge! –  in a manner soft and kind and toneless and terrifying as it hung down from the dark spaces in its rooms, hierophant to infinitary logics, dripping, redolent of blood, and loose – far too loose, oh! how very loose, do not laugh – with the forest of teeth serrated and secreted in its blind head.

Kind of getting away: 3

I’ve not written about the arrival yet. That strikes me as rather strange. Now that I think about it I didn’t particularly enjoy the arrival, but I certainly do enjoy the memory of it. So I should probably write something about it.

We arrived on IMV Scafell. Scafell’s a really nice ship. It was kind to me. Mostly its kindnesses involved arranging things so that I didn’t have to be at the long planning meetings. It’s good knowing it’s never too far off now. It’s having a good time. It told me as much; coming to an unexplored place like this was something it had wanted to do for a long time.

We all spent a couple of weeks in orbit. It was an unbearable time, but in a good way. I could feel moments passing. It’s what anticipation is like – it’s like having, for the first time in your life, a new sense, or a new limb, one that only detects time. There were many things to do and this new sense ached at it, chafed. We got the immunisation treatment and all felt strangely exhausted after that. I talked to Henroe about it and she told me that the treatment basically put the immune system into a calibrated overdrive and then grafted a great whomping cocktail of Factors onto it so complex that it was likely that no-one onboard could fully understand how it worked. There is a sense in which this complexity represents the brute totality of what we are doing here. First we are up there and mystified by things of our own making, then we go down and are mystified by things which we have had no part in.

So we were all tired for four or five days, getting used to that. We looked at the pictures that the satellites sent back.  O. printed them out and lined the walls of his room with them. I went to his room and touched the pictures. They were, indeed, nothing more than that: pictures. Quite often I went to the viewing port and just stood there. Only rarely was I alone.

We also got our blood changed. It didn’t really feel like anything, since the atmosphere down here pretty similar to standard and the changes were minor. More to prevent oxygen toxicity than anything else[1].

Did I enjoy that particular period? I don’t know. The people who volunteered for this are not the most sociable bunch, naturally. Scafell had some beautiful public spaces but they were usually empty. I’m not complaining; I appreciated this very much. Even Scafell was a quiet ship. It generally spoke only when spoken to. I think it took a liking to me, but it is entirely possible that it was a good to everyone as it was to me. I didn’t ask about this, of course.

I came here to be alone, in a specific sense. It was that stuff with L. and the child[2] that settled it. Well, this is not totally honest, is it? I like coming out and sort of getting away from it all. But L. helped to make the decision clearer.

Eventually we had to come down, and we did. There was nothing dramatic but there was nothing to compare it to either. The air outside turned from black and blue and then we were there.

It’s called TKTA-11, but we call it Tokata.

We spent another three months at Base, now the Main Building, when we all touched down. It was a good time. The first four days in tents while the Main Building was erected. There was an unspoken communality to the whole thing. Us living together in little fabric spaces, caught up in the unexpected simplicity of what we were doing. I think people – we – were aware that very soon we would all have take our stations. It was like holding something small and thrumming alive in the hand, knowing it soon had to go. People were generous to each other, even more so than usual. Do you know what really captures this? Running out. Because something was going, was disappearing fast, and we could tell, but it was going in a direction at rights angles to everything else, going outwards, escaping and glad for it.

At night people would make trips to each other’s tents, tell big stupid stories about the things they planned to do. Laughed a lot. This was really strange. It’s obvious now. But we were all on a new world, staggering about, and it was inevitable.  We’re really not by design the most sociable bunch[3].

We had landed on a clean site. The landing had been near the base of a big low rocky hill and some of us went up it, a kilometre or so, in the long evenings. A bunch of us went on the second day, to watch Tokata’s sunset. Deep light, a whole morningtide of it, a flood without form or function except for wildness. Blueness that looked like it could never be covered or made to go away. Tokata has got 4 moons; only two were visible then. I am remembering all of this and so I might not have gotten all of this correct. But I’m trying to record my memories, not the real thing, so I can’t get worried about these small things.

We watched sakers[4] sky violently up into the air, a raft of dark points. Some of us started at the noise. All around we could sense peripheral life. Small things, the sorts that seem in perpetual retreat from the world, things with black odorous sounds. Coloured the common colours of the undergrowth in all possible worlds. From the height we were at we could see our tents quite clearly. Those that had put the allweathers on were dim zygotic bundles, but those who braved the cold nights and wore the allweathers instead had let the tents deform into lanternlike shapes, crumpled things standing against the evening. The evening gave the image vintage. The air here is slightly denser than standard. There is a mantling quality to it, a big arch that comes over your head, and it can take away your warmth fast. It is fat and tactile.

On the third day, I think, there was a massive storm[5] and people didn’t leave the tents. I was in my tent with Ogford & Co. and we thought we heard Mika’s tent get blown down. Turned out that it hadn’t but it had come pretty close. All around us for 6+ hours yellow fabric pulsing and flapping, struts bowing in & out terrifyingly. The rain made a very specific sound against the sides of the tent. It was a hard and flat sound, like branches snapping.

I remember that O. said something like, “I swear I’m going to get away from the equator. This is just not acceptable,” and I said, “As long as you still contribute to the power and the glory –” and we started laughing like complete idiots. That does not look so funny when I write it down like that. But it happened.

Scafell asked to help the next day. Come through the clouds and came up to the site and asked if Winnfield was around.

“I could help with the building,” it said. The Helpers were doing a good job. I think by that time we had one Turer going, and the south wing of the complex was already up.

“It’s all right,” W. said. “The main thing now is just raw material.” It was funny, seeing W. standing there while the vast shadow of Scafell sort of loomed over her.

“I could help get the metals from V4[6].”

“Are you cleared for superlifting?”

“Well – no. But it wouldn’t be too difficult. I’d quite like something to do.”


Scafell is really big and has some old-fashioned expressive mannerisms. It sort of waggled a bit from side to side[8], a small motion that was incongruously exaggerated by the fins. W. smiled. Scafell said, “Will it know? I mean, it will know, but will it really bother to ask? But in any case I’m pretty sure I could justify things[9].”

“If you say so. Thanks. As the helpers for the details of what we need.”

“Already did. I’ll get going.”

[1] Although we did get an infusion of Very Fast Clotting Factor (VFCF), which I am told can do some miraculous things. O. said that they don’t fool around with haemoglobin too much since – and I quote – “iron is very promiscuous”.

[2] This was w.r.t. the TOA we signed with the Union. Am I allowed to say this? Well. Not much can be done about it now, so it probably doesn’t matter. We’d gotten the 3rd House largely swung to our side. It had been a very difficult thing to do. Getting the Faroes bought over had been meant to settle it. It didn’t. The rest took lots of effort and gentle cajoling and calculation from Petr. It was very difficult. When the Outer Region Conference proposed a bill to extend a very minimal redistribution regins to Index Class II services it passed (furore in the U., lots of celebrating on Stize) in the 3rd. but then got stuck at 2nd. Things rarely got stuck at 2nd. It was unelected and the understanding was that generally it might comment but not interfere. But there were two representatives who were giant assholes about it. Petr. thought about it and decided that all things considered it was the slightly more junior of the two who was probably the gutsier. So we spoke to him personally. I say we, really it was L. and Petr. who made the decision. I think we might actually have sent the message via a Descendant. It must have been terrifying for him. We thought we’d scare the shit out of him – call him Giant Dickhead (GDH). But there was some hidden variable. This was a shock. There are no hidden variables with Petr.; it does not happen. But something was there, embedded just outside detection, because GDH said no. He said no. He understood what we were doing; he thought it was not democratic. Here was something we knew about him: he loved his family. Utterly devoted to his children (wife had died; unimportant), in particular his second daughter – 2 y.o. He didn’t use his children for political gain. Was of what Petr. called a rare type. He’d left office for 1 yr to get his first son through school. We put something in his second daughter that caused something like 55?56? very specific point mutations in approx. 90% of her cells. Effects were varied. Illustration: one of the mutations was at position 1824 of the LMNA gene; a CàT switch.  Gene encodes prelamin A, which becomes lamin A – stabilizes the nuclear wall. The CàT switch means that the mRNA transcript is usually short. Effect: abnormal protein folding. Effect: farnesyl group cannot be removed from prelamin A. Effect: protein is anchored to nuclear wall. Effect: abnormally shaped nucleus. Effect: cell division is fucked. Effect: aging at approx. 11X? the normal rate. Effect: death at approx. 13 standard years due to usually arthrosclerosis though many fucked-up ways of dying are very plausible. Union tech could detect the mutation; best treatment involved stopping bodily production of prelamin A altogether. But the other 50+ mutations produced shall we say extremely painful and unbelievably debilitating diseases some of which were designed with the sole object of making normal treatment paths impossible. So the 2nd daughter sort of drowned on her own blood + lost all her hair & gastrointestinal tract & lived off machines for 2 yrs before GDH realized what was going on. GDH must have considered going public but at some point recognized the obvious risks, so we got a message: okay, I’ll do it. So he pulled off a major policy turnaround and apologized to his electorate and said he would not run for office again, and pulled enough votes from various places to get the Bill passed in 2nd. He might have assumed that we’d help the daughter. We didn’t. She died. So the point was made. GDH did resign, and ended up running for office again; got reelected largely on the back of an apparent perception that he had drifted towards the center. We asked him after the first time, without ever mentioning his daughter, for a few more things. He never said no. He had other children.  Do I have thoughts about this? Well, yes. It was the best thing we could have done. There might be something more, though. Why did I just write all of that using “we”? That has to be understood in purely nominal terms. I’m trying to be outside all of this. I’m trying to look in. It’s not easy. The only way I have of knowing is to be there on the inside, but I’m trying, I really am.

[3] The Main Building was officially christened Anhedonia. What can I say?

[4] One of the few good names we came up with. The sound of the word matches them.

[5] What W. says is that Tokata’s air at the equatorial latitudes is oddly clean; no condensation nuclei. So there aren’t many storms, but when they do come they are huge and almost inevitably hurricane-force.

[6] So one of the things about Tokata is that there are some (sort-of) open bodies of water whose chemical composition differs substantially from the rest of the ocean because of very concentrated undersea volcanic activity (Gerring is so excited he looks sick most of the time). One of the big sides was called V4, and the exudate there was rich in REMs. I can’t actually remember this; I just looked it up on the records.

[7] W. always uses the full name. Everyone else says BWL.

[8] “Meh.”

[9] It’s to be expected, in a way, but I find how blasé non-descendant AIs are about their possible death a bit unsettling. As in – how do I say this – they don’t like dying since they get upset on behalf of all the people they know feel affection for them, but they just cannot understand the pure atavistic fear of not existing that infects (I think) most of us. It’s an entirely rational assessment of death. The metaphysical has been entirely crowded out. It is very strange.

Letters, Rewritten: 1

Dear John,

I am not dead. We are all waiting and tense – scouts never came back – but I am alive. This is my first letter to you – isn’t it strange that we are forced to do this, to actually write on paper before they scan it all – and that we enjoy it – maybe it is the sentimentality of it – what Hatherance calls Old School – but I am not familiar with this, and so I think I must right away reassure you that I am alive and well because that is probably what you are thinking about now – at least I must hope so.

I know what you will be thinking – but do not doubt this. I am alive. It is true, what you are thinking – what I know you must be thinking, if I know you at all – there are others who have written dozens of letters, prepaid for all of them, and asked for them to be sent in staggered order, automatically – one every two, three weeks, or so – all this so that even if they die the letters from them will continue to be sent – I ask myself when their partners will discover this and what they will think and if this is a kind of compassion or cruelty. But this is a letter from me, alive.

Exactly four years ago we met. I intend for this to be a brief chronicle of things that have happened to us – that we did – a remembrance of what I am told I should call an anniversary, when I saw you standing there over the opponent in the Ring, looking flatly, coldly – that is how you look – up at me, the one from S1P5 who had shot the exercise drone by accident – of the night we first spent together, I terrified, you amused – even now I am not sure, you are unreadable – amused, or wondering – us at the graduation where I tasted Muscatel for the first time and was shocked at its brilliance, and where you had far too much and sat there perfectly still and only very slightly smiling when I slowly slipped and fell off the chair without realising – and even then everyone too afraid of you to laugh – how I woke with a blinding ache the day after finding that the commanders had been honest about not letting the nanos help with the alcohol for that night and realised that I had to be carried back to the bunk and put to bed – that you had done it, impossibly, and I wondered what people must have thought who saw it. The first paired mission in Afar – two of us, two very soaked sergeants of the CM in the night not saying anything, just leaning over over the stele-light, looking at the warmth between us like a miracle – night over the great plains and navigating by stars that were only just familiar enough since we had no Globenet – no easy task even for me, you said – and then I for the very first time knew that maybe you respected me, in a way – finding the abandoned convertible and learning to make it move – the picnic, or so we called it, of rations and terrible coffee – the tent of light and warmth we made in the space under the rusting hulk of a while we did the twonight recce – the  bootlegged music you brought that Gryzhas had taken off the Stize web – Emperor Concerto, you had written on the black chip, assuring me that was not its real name – us listening with the muffler around us in that space and me wondering where such music came from and how it had been discovered as it roared around us in that small flickering space. After the success of that and our return the dinner at the Auburn – the privilege of that and the people who stared because we were too young and unranked for such a thing – the mission call – promises made – and back again this time to Lamarck – two nights before the departure us, again a little drunk, spending all night in a cinema and falling asleep locked in each other’s arms – waking and the shock of it and realising that we had not been discovered – me actually laughing in relief and you looking annoyed. Hatherance wanted a meal before we left but we – without speaking – agreed it was better if no-one felt our leaving and so we left her request unreplied to.

On Lamarck again nights like a prayer all strung together and punctuated by the fighting that you longed to throw yourself into but which we were not supposed to be a part of – the mountain pass and the wards all along it that made my heart hammer and that you said would not hurt us – the firefight in the ruddy mountain dawn – you losing an arm and high-fiving a child you saw on the way back down with your remaining arm, high on the meds – the bunk we found buried there in the mountain – the flare I sent up – cold blue in that crow sky as we watched  – I know what you noticed. I know you noticed and you did not speak to me about it. There are things about me that are not necessary to know about but I tell you now because we might be together again that what you saw happen was not something I willed – was not something that was important to me – not a part of me – come back and ask me and I will tell, I can explain. It was only a light, John – it was only a light.

Back and still surprised at our survival – at least I was and that was all I could tell those who asked – you carried already the awe around you that suppressed questions – the first time we fucked in my bunk and the first time I asked  – just after you appeared at the door and again people stared. Us hoping that because we were lieutenants we would get more time – but two weeks and then the mission call came – the misery of realising that we could not go together – your anger – I know it was anger although you called it other names – the dangerousness that you carried with you – you hurt Gryz badly when he asked, do you not know? – and me standing at the seawall at Thysbe – we said goodbyes, you fonder than I ever remembered – me tearful and stupid – Hatherance calling you a bastard for not saying anything or telling me your departure hour – that did hurt – I wanted to tell her about your way of doing things but that too felt like a betrayal, and my stupidity can govern me. The last quick drive over the cliffmount to the perch you showed me where the ships leave – your great metal insect borne speckling into the light and a roar that came through the air long after.

I watched till I could no longer see your convoy and everyone though again that I was staring into nothing. There was a long contrail left that glowed after night fell, catching stray light.

Do you remember at Afar how I told you that – looking up at the deep sky – it was hard to imagine that there is not a kindness looming somewhere – and you told me how many of the people we knew were dead and I was a stupid dreamer – I must confess that is a large part of what remains with me, this looming kindness I postulate to myself in my head over and over again – what else is there? We come into this place, this world or rock or planet perpetually falling in whatever rut it is lodged in, we improvise, and then we leave, never having had a chance to practise. Everything turns out so thin. I want this war to end.

I hope I see you soon, my love – I will write messages from the field for there is no one here to talk to and you have quelled my tendency to silence.

Remember me,