Whispers in the Vomit Vale.

.

 

The hatch closed at our backs, swallowing us in brief darkness; it brightened to dim twilight as our eyes adjusted to luciferin constellations glowing dimly on all sides. We stood on a catwalk half a meter above rock and drifts of thin soil. (Eri‘s botanicals take their lead from the rainforests of Earth’s long-dead tropics: impoverished soil, production and nutrients all locked up in the biomass.)

We followed the path. My BUD flickered.

The catwalk forked. Lian nudged me right: “This way.” After a few meters I closed my eyes experimentally, found myself just the tiniest bit uncertain where down was.

Glistening black meshes with gelatinous orbs— each the size of an eyeball— glowing at their interstices. Thick ropey trunks arching up through the vault like a great charred rib cage, festooned with vines and patio lanterns. They leaned just a little, as though bent by some prevailing wind.

BUD flickered again, faded, sparked back to life as one of the Glade’s mechanical moles snuffled past close enough to pinch-hit as a booster station. We pushed on in the direction of that imaginary wind. The trees leaned further as we advanced; their bases thickened and spread wide across the ground, trunks buttressed against forces that pulled simultaneously along different bearings. The Glade passes right over the Higgs conduit, between the core that contains our singularity and the maw where its wormhole emerges. The vectors get messy in between. Down is mostly coreward but a little forward too; how far those downs diverge depends on how fast Eri happens to be falling through the cosmos at any given moment. Twisted trees and Kai’s squicky inner ears are the price we pay for a reactionless drive.

BUD finally went down and stayed there: victim of signal-squelching rocks and bioelectric static and drive circuitry that couldn’t possibly be expected to control such vast energies without emitting some of its own. This dead link was our privacy alarm. As long as we were blind, we were alone.

“So what the hell were you doing, Li?”

She didn’t answer at first. She didn’t answer at all.

Instead: “You read books, right?”

“Sure. Sometimes.”

“You plug in, play realsies. Go touring. Watch ennies.”

“What’s your point?”

“You’ve seen the way people lived. Kids with cats, or hacking their tutors, or parasailing on their birthdays.”

“Yeah. So?”

“You’ve done more than see it, Sunday. You feed off it. You base your life on it. Our speech patterns, our turns of phrase— fuck, our swear words for chrissake— all of it’s lifted from a culture that hasn’t existed for hundreds of petasecs. We’ve been out here so very long, Sunday.”

I admit I rolled my eyes. “Enough with the world-weary ancient immortal shtick, okay? The fact that we’ve been out here for sixty million years—”

“Sixty-five.”

“— doesn’t change the fact that you’ve only been awake for twenty, tops.”

“My point is we’re living dead lives. Theirs, not ours. We never went hiking, or scuba diving, or—”

“Sure we have. We can. Any time we want. You just said so.”

“They cheated us. We wake up, we build their fucking gates, we recycle their lives because they never gave us any of our own.”

I should have pitied her. Instead, surprisingly, I found myself getting angry. “Do you even remember the shape Earth was in when we left? I wouldn’t trade this life for centuries on that grubby shithole if God Itself came through the gate and offered me a ticket. I like this life.”

We regarded each other through the gloom for a moment. Finally, Lian spoke— and there was none of my anger there, only sadness.

“You like it because they built you to. Because they’d never get any competent baseline to sign up for a one-way trip in a dead rock to the end of time, so they built this special model all small and twisted, like— like those plants they used to grow. In Japan or somewhere. Something so stunted it couldn’t even imagine spending its life outside a cage.”

Bonsai, I remembered. But I didn’t want to encourage her.

“You liked it here too,” I said instead. “You liked it just fine.” Until you broke.

“Yeah.” She nodded, and even in the dimness I got the sense of a sad smile. “But I got better.”

“Lian. What were you doing in the crawlway?”

She sighed. “I was running a bypass on one of the Chimp’s sensory trunks.”

“I saw that. What for?”

“Nothing critical. I was just going to— inject some noise into the channel.”

“Noise.”

“Static. To reduce signal fidelity.”

I spread my palms: So?

“I was trying to take back a little control, okay? For all of us!”

“How in Christ’s name does compromising Chimp’s—”

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

“You were increasing the uncertainty threshold…” I murmured.

“Yeah. Exactly.”

Because the only reason Eri shipped out with meat on board in the first place was for those times when the Chimp didn’t feel up to managing a build on his own, when he needed some of that organic Human insight to get him past the unknown variables and halting states. And the less reliable his data, the less certain he’d be that he could handle it on his own. Lian was trying to tilt the algos towards Human input.

In principle, it was a pretty clever hack. In practice…

“Even if you figured out some way to keep the Chimp from just— finding your monkey wrenches and fixing them while we’re all down for the count, do you have any idea how many of those cables you’d have to jam up before you even started to make a dent in the redundant systems?”

“Somewhere between two thousand and twenty-seven hundred.” Then added: “You don’t have to cut the inputs, you just have to— fog them a little. Widen the confidence limits.”

“Uh huh. And how many of those nerves you hacked into so far?”

“Five.”

I guess maybe I thought that she’d realize how insane the whole idea was if she said it aloud. Nothing in her voice suggested she had.

“Why do you even want this? It’s not like Chimp’s fucking up the builds when we’re not up to keep an eye on him.”

“It’s not about the builds, Sun. It’s about being Human. It’s about getting back a little autonomy.”

“And what are you gonna do with that autonomy when you get it?”

“First, gain freedom. Lots of time to figure out what to do with it afterward.”

“You think if Chimp wakes us up often enough he’ll just roll over, suggest we all go back to Earth to drop off anyone who’s got bored along the way? You think if we just circle back around to the last build and wait for a while, some magic silver ship is gonna sail out and give all first-class tickets to the retirement paradise of our choice?” There’d actually been some talk about that, back at the beginning. It may even have been part of the original mission profile, before those first few gates opened up and spat out nothing but automation and ancient binary. Before the next few just sat there empty. Before the gremlins started. But it must have been thirty million years since I’d heard anyone bring up the subject as anything other than a cheap punchline.

“What were you thinking?” I finished.

Something changed in her posture. “I suppose I was thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every century or two, building toys for ungrateful grandchildren and knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like—” She glanced around— “a nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.”

“Li, seriously.” I tried to de-escalate. “I don’t understand the problem. Any time you want a— a green forest, just plug in. Any time you want to hike the desert or dive Europa or, or fly into the sunset, just plug in. You can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.”

“It’s not real, okay?”

“You can’t tell the difference.”

“I know the difference.” She looked back at me from a face full of blue-gray shadows. “And I don’t understand you either, okay? I thought we were the same, I thought I was just following in your footsteps…”

Silence.

“Why would you think that?” I asked at last.

“Because you fought it too, didn’t you? Before we ever shipped out. You were always pushing back, you were always challenging everyone and everything about the mission. You were, like, six years old and you called bullshit on Mamoro Sawada. Nobody could believe it. I mean, there we all were, programmed for the mission before we were even born, everything preloaded and hardwired and you— threw it off, somehow. Resisted. Way I hear it they nearly kicked you out a few times.”

“Where did you hear that.” Because I was really damn sure that Lian Wei and I did not go through training within ten thousand kliks of each other.

“Kai told me.”

“Kai talks too much.”

Her shoulders rose, fell. “What happened to you, Sunday? How did you go from Hell-raiser to Chimp’s lapdog?”

“Fuck you, Lian. You don’t know me.”

“I know you better than you think.”

“No you don’t. The fact that you thought for one cursed corsec that I could ever be anything like you just proves it.”

She shook her head. “You can be such an asshole sometimes.”

I can be an asshole? How about a show of hands” —raising mine— “everyone who hasn’t stabbed anyone in the face today?” She looked away. “What’s that? Just me?”

“Case in point,” she whispered.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday April 05 2017at 06:04 am , filed under fiblet . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

30 Responses to “Whispers in the Vomit Vale.”

  1. I love these Eris fiblets. The impossible weight of all that time and distance from the world crushes my mind in the most delightful way and gives you such a fun perspective to play with, throwing our reality into sharp relief.

    After all, it’s not like any of us here on Earth could know what it’s like hurtling pointlessly endlessly through space, on a stone ship we can’t leave, pre-programmed for a dull propagative purpose, and desperate to carve out for ourselves any semblance of freedom from that reality, right? :)

    Forgive me if you’ve said in the past and I’ve forgotten: Are these pieces of a story? A series of stories? A new novel in progress?

  2. OOH! Sunflowers stuff. Yes please.

    Also, a nice bit of visualization in there. A little more visually descriptive than we sometimes get from you. Very nice.

  3. Hell yeah, more Sunflowers.

    …sooooo, um, who did she stab in the face? I won’t ask why, I’m sure the asshole had it coming.

    Case in point.” You know what? I take it back; fuck *you*, Lian.

  4. Oh…very nice. As noted earlier, the level of visual description is great, and I just freaking love even the hints we’ve seen of this story so far. WANT! Shut up and take my money, Peter!

  5. Opening shot of The Rebellion?

    After seeing Sunday get brought onside (brought to heel?) in Hot Shot, I’ve been wondering how the whole thing got going.

    Looking forward to reading the rest.

  6. Google’s telling me that a Ps is about 30 MY. So they’ve been out there about 2 Ps, not hundreds?

  7. So, Gremlins, huh. I have a feeling the wormhole network isn’t even used by humanity or its descendants anymore.

    The context in this story is so interesting, there’s so much to work with. The existentialism, the search for meaning and truth in a story where overwhelming cosmic dread isn’t the punchline but the introduction.

    Just like everyday life.

  8. Matthew: Forgive me if you’ve said in the past and I’ve forgotten: Are these pieces of a story? A series of stories? A new novel in progress?

    Novella. The Freeze-Frame Revolution

    DA: Also, a nice bit of visualization in there. A little more visually descriptive than we sometimes get from you.

    Actually, I cut 500 words of introductory description from the excerpt ’cause I thought it was excessive. Stuff about pouring bitumen through giant circulatory systems and then burning off the tissue with lasers and acetylene.

    A little of that goes a long way.

    Chinedum R. Ofoegbu: …sooooo, um, who did she stab in the face?

    Burkhart Schidkowski.

    I know. Most inoffensive guy you could ever meet.

    Ken Kennedy: Shut up and take my money, Peter!

    Hey, if you’re so desperate to give me money, why wait for me to write anything?

    Mark: Google’s telling me that a Ps is about 30 MY. So they’ve been out there about 2 Ps, not hundreds?

    Fuck. I get lost after about six orders of magnitude.

    Thanks. I’ll fix that.

    JohnD: So, Gremlins, huh. I have a feeling the wormhole network isn’t even used by humanity or its descendants anymore.

    Well, if it is, they really hate the grandparents…

  9. Peter Watts: Actually, I cut 500 words of introductory description from the excerpt ’cause I thought it was excessive.

    Quality, not quantity. It paints an interesting picture.

  10. DA: Quality, not quantity. It paints an interesting picture.

    Eh, I like reading PFH and M. John Harrison, bring on the unabridged version!

    But seriously, I really need to read this thing in its entirety.

  11. Thank you, sir!

    (I, for one, glazed over the intro description.)

    Keep ’em coming, please!

  12. Peter Watts: Novella. The Freeze-Frame Revolution

    So this is a prequel to The Island? Or similarly themed but unrelated? Any other works set in this universe? I must have missed something, no idea what the Sunflowers thing that someone mentioned is… :-/

  13. By the way, thanks a lot. The images are very suggestive. The crew being bonsai living fossils, like nautilus in a snow water ball thrown to vast distances in space and time. Getting back to life at the call of the onboard AI, taking decisions with a mental background that mimicks a world and a way of doing things long dead. This while the reader sits in what is nothing but another snow ball–planetary size or not, fragile for sure.

    Very powerful images and ideas, those that you manage to conjure, yet easy to read. Thanks.

  14. Michael Carradice: Any other works set in this universe?

    Why, yes. “Hotshot” takes place before Eriophora even departs on the mission; “Giants” takes place well after this novella, but before “The Island”. (The whole lot of them are pdf’d over on the backlist page). I have the broad strokes of a whole, multibillion-year mission in my head and my hard drive, but how much of that makes it onto the page (or some other medium) remains to be seen.

  15. Peter Watts,

    Peter Watts: Why, yes. “Hotshot” takes place before Eriophora even departs on the mission; “Giants” takes place well after this novella, but before “The Island”. (The whole lot of them are pdf’d over on the backlist page). I have the broad strokes of a whole, multibillion-year mission in my head and my hard drive, but how much of that makes it onto the page (or some other medium) remains to be seen.

    Thousands of people living in month long increments over billions of years. Each with their own perspectives, relationships, passions and trauma’s. There’s potential here for multiple authors to contribute story lines. Each with their own characters (that never have to interact directly) reason’s for rebelling, star systems to explore.

    Have you considered the possibility of converting this over to an anthology series a la, theives world, wildcards &tc?

  16. Greggles: Have you considered the possibility of converting this over to an anthology series a la, theives world, wildcards &tc?

    I’ve considered the possibility of converting this to a video game— or rather, releasing this in concert with a video game that encompassed other events in the same mission (since the elements that make a good written story are different from those that make a good game scenario). In fact, I originally conceived of this as a game.

    Dreams die so hard.

    A shared universe might work if my profile ever rose above midlist stature. Some dreams don’t even get born.

  17. You’ve got me absolutely lusting for more Eriophora. I think it’s time to go back and read the other shorts again. Maybe take notes this time. And gremlins! Color me intrigued.

  18. Peter Watts: “Hotshot” takes place before Eriophora even departs on the mission; “Giants” takes place well after this novella, but before “The Island”. (The whole lot of them are pdf’d over on the backlist page). I have the broad strokes of a whole, multibillion-year mission in my head and my hard drive, but how much of that makes it onto the page (or some other medium) remains to be seen.

    Thanks, I will check them up, and wait for the new stories.

    Maybe there would be matter enough for a dedicated volume (perhaps a fix-up), eventually?

  19. Peter Watts: A shared universe might work if my profile ever rose above midlist stature. Some dreams don’t even get born.

    I’d love to see a Sunflowers volume get the full novel treatment. I’m not remotely an expert on the fiction market, but I always thought the Sunflowers setting was your most commercially viable. It has a flexible premise that allows for potentially endless stories and characters, and a good episodic “mystery of the week” format (a lot of great science fiction is built around a good mystery). The Chimp makes a great recurring frenemy. It’s even fairly optimistic, by Wattsian standards, though still with plenty of room for talking heads to tell you how screwed you are.

    Only my two cents, but I’d much rather see that than you resorting to going “full Dan Brown”, as you have in some of your previous bouts of frustration.

  20. Peter Watts

    Dreams die so hard.

    You ever watch any Stewart Lee, Mr Watts?. I feel there might be a certain affinity in outlook. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qr-Y4E2jkHA

  21. Have you read Liu Cixin’s Death’s End?

  22. Peter Watts: In fact, I originally conceived of this as a game.

    I have been trying for years to figure out what genre it would be. Adventure-ish is my best guess.

  23. Peter Watts:Dreams die so hard.

    Maybe this next suggestion is torture but: ever watch the first season of Red Dwarf? I keep seeing The Chimp as a malign idiotic Holly.

    Incidentally, I’ve been enjoying how these fiblets have been presented. They keep introducing mysteries about the rebellion (revolt? uprising? insurrection?).
    The Island: There’s a rebellion happening, and it seems Sunday is the instigator. Giant’s: There are collaborators, and the Chimp is trying to subvert it. Having a link is clearly a declaration of loyalty, was anyone coerced into burning it out? Does this change a person? Turn them into a Rebel? Hotshot: wait, Sunday isn’t the instigator? She’s onside? Was the suntrip a deliberate act of callibration/brainwashing? How’d it get started? Fiblet: She sympathizes with the Chimp? WTF? Fiblet: Okay, Liam-RH-McStaberson instigates, who the hell is she? What brings Sunday back? Was it The Goblins?

    Fun stuff.

  24. N. Gorski: I have been trying for years to figure out what genre it would be. Adventure-ish is my best guess.

    My vote is for a puzzle platformer with a fancy gun that allows creative terrain traversal, and the Chimp as an AI antagonist.

    Been done? Drat.

    It doesn’t matter anyway. When you come back from getting a drink to sit down any play it, any authentic Watts-inspired game will just inform you that your unconscious mind has already beaten the game much more quickly than you could ever hope to, and roll the credits.

  25. DA: any authentic Watts-inspired game will just inform you that your unconscious mind has already beaten the game

    Some say that was in the Early Access version. Then at 1.0, after installing, the players fired the program, only to make no sense at first of what seemed to be happening. Further playtime bewildered them even more. It took them a while to realize that they were utterly defeated already; possibly had been even before starting the game. Some hints suggest that maybe even before getting up from bed that day.

    The confused player checked the settings only to find these difficulty options: Veteran, Default, Easy, More Easy, Super Easy, Story Mode, Baseline (legacy).

    Technical apendixes in the Release Notes document added explanations and commentary that accurately and informatively sink the player a little bit deper in the abysses of existential angst, feelings of obsolescence, realization of the inadequacy of some species–you get the idea. Sobered now, the player leaves the game, gets back to the world, makes it not necessarily better. He is still a bastard, but a better informed bastard. Species die, neurons die, warnings die. The end.

    It improved a lot in the Enhanced Edition. Scaling levels and optional use of ^Happy Ending$^(tm) technology, that became non-optional with the 1.7 patch, along with the texture filters. A sector of the crowd was outraged. Others like the (new!) Ice Ponies lowering the sea temperature with their piss and the Carbon Unicorns saving the world by sucking so much (air). People bootleg the classic version, that at the launch of the EE had been removed from all online stores.

    Then, Peter announces a sequel. The internet explodes.

    Or something like that. The guy who told me said he had been hearing some tap-tap-tapping in the wall all day. Strange ideas come out he-did-not-know-where. “At least I am not a fossil,” he said. “Of course, man,” I replied, then removed the chip from the socket, put it back in the case with its siblings and turned the computer off. You know, else they all start asking why are they suddenly in Toronto. I keep telling myself this is the best for them.

  26. @Michael Carradice

    Ha!

  27. Yet another story without cats
    Unlike life
    I wanna more more much more

  28. Peter Watts: A shared universe might work if my profile ever rose above midlist stature. Some dreams don’t even get born.

    Hey – I’M in. Sign me right up.

    Occurs to me what this would really suit is a *very* smart TV show for HBO or Netflix. Character driven, on-going narratives threaded in behind the Gate-building Business of the Day plot for each episode (or even Season!). Small scale, cult following. Some substantial CGI costs now and then, but set building would be a pretty limited expense.

    Dude, I want the novel this shit deserves, and I want it yesterday – I’m in withdrawal since Echopraxia.

    Hats Off.

  29. Richard Morgan: I’M in. Sign me right up.

    You’re one of the few people I’d trust with the property.

  30. Peter Watts:

    A shared universe might work if my profile ever rose above midlist stature.Some dreams don’t even get born.

    I’m sleep deprived and kinda loaded, but I”m imagining a GitHub style pile of lunacy. An open source shared universe, once you’ve established the boundary conditions… Supporting wiki entries so the ships geography can be kept straight. There are 10’s of thousands of people on board, so it’s inevitable that some would be into the undoubtedly esoteric sexual fetishes involving The Chimps teleops and whatever else the internet can produce.

    Curate the good ones, calling them cannon and banish all the others to The Outer Darkness.
    Before banishment, offer some writing tips “for a small fee” through your patented style of “writing technics” to help eliminate suppressive influences on their creativity.

    What could possibly go wrong?