There is no help for some.
No salve to soothe the tortured soul.
It is said that some men just want to see the world burn.
But it is not just men.
Any creature, who can think well enough, might want to see the world burn.
For some, the horror is existence is too much to bear.
We examine one such case.
We examine one small part of one such case.
The Human Condition
The problem is that the human condition doesn’t allow for the constant surveillance that provides service instantly.
Big brother, or, equally, sister, cannot be allowed into every moment. All the big brothers and sisters know this.
One can ask for privacy and get it. With the technology at hand, one can verify it as far as it possible to do so.
That is pretty far if one has all the equipment at hand.
What this means for the modern human being is that all the extent of one’s senses are available. The technology buried in one’s head is the check and one might look in all the nooks and crannies using all the software tricks and enhancements that some with being fully connected and enhanced in your own mind can deliver.
It is an interesting anthropological note that most humans with such enhancements keep them at a distance from their “true” selves. The sects that absorbed the kind of living that comes with complete integration split off from the main branch of humanity thousands of years ago, and they have gone their own way, exploring the universe in places so deep that they cannot, even in theory, return by any means known even to the great Minds of the Conglomerate.
Such beings are said to be the next step, and some few from the great mass of humanity leave each year to find their siblings, remarking usually how tiny humans seem once they are fully integrated. This is obviously not a natural state in which to live, but humanity rolls on and the fully enhanced leave. The rest of humanity parties and gossips and show no pretensions to greatness, often going to farm or inhabit a new planet by becoming frontiers people, opting for a hard but fulfilling life.
Others go out of their way to mix with the other species in the galaxy, the few that mix. The alligator-like I’Drothen scare little children before proper introduction, the Iffens float about being impossible cartoon-like blue whales with disturbingly human arms and hands. The Mandorn, ineffable, inexplicable, humans, top to toe blue and intensely telepathic amongst the elements of the gestalt mind that forms the species. The Sirithi, upright insect-like beings, drones who inevitably give their “job” as diplomat/spy; in any event, they are unable to form the common languages of the galaxy and need constant translation.
They all have in common that they can hear and see in the right range to mix with humans on a daily basis and that they have common enough interests that they might desire to do so. There are millions of less compatible species in the galaxy that choose to remain in their own little corner away from the strangeness of the big six.
No, the humans have a good time; and as the peacemakers, interferers, arbiters and general busybodies of the galaxy the other species look at them indulgently and let them get on with being fidgets. Make no mistake, they are capable; but government is done by the people who turn up, and in a galactic milieu, there is very little government that can actually be achieved.
So most humans enjoy the enhancements that come with information at hand, but they value privacy, which is why telepathy simply doesn’t cut it for most human beings, because the inside of your head is the ultimate privacy, and no-one wants people poking around in one’s head, just in case that basest thought or desire rears its ugly head, and again has to be suppressed, for the sake of our sanity, our decency, and our society.
In a galaxy where the population of just human beings, let alone other humans, is counted in trillions of people there are inevitably going to be a few outliers.
Here she is, being born.
It is a fascinating aside that most mothers desire to go through birth painlessly, but the human body is not ready for that. The reactions that are most desirable, the tightening of the birth canal after this extraordinary act, the “let down” of mother’s milk arriving for baby, these things are driven by a complex set of hormones and reactions in the human body and to being painless, completely painless is to interfere with that process.
The Avatars and Mind of the General Good, know this. The great ship has, after the access to the sum total of human knowledge.
All that stuff about how the body works, it can be faked, the tech is there. The human mind is more subtle though, it can be manipulated yes, but is not happy about it. Mothers want to give birth as naturally as possible. It is a really a balancing act. Most Minds get it right, most of the time.
This child is silent. Feeds readily. Looks normal, seems normal. But she will not meet her mother’s eye.
Here is the child, Alice, at two.
At two children are allowed as much free rein as is consistent with their safety. On board a ship this means that the ship looks in on the child constantly, analysing the risks and benefits.
Parents are free from constant worry, child rearing is a joy.
Most children manage to get themselves in trouble, or at least what would be trouble if not for the intervention of their constant and invisible guardian. This guardian is not averse to letting the child hurt itself somewhat; there must be a learning experience so that that the child grows up knowing what is hazardous and what is not.
At two, Alice is never in hazards way. Not once.
The General notes this, slight anomaly, sees how she approaches even mild dangers, stairs, a table that seems unstable, a glass that someone has dropped; it sees how she practises avoidance and some deeper level of analysis that is beyond her years.
Still, just a slight anomaly.
She avoids danger as if she knows, true, but she might be a very bright child. Still, privacy is privacy and the General takes the view that there is time yet, and even looking into such a young mind can interfere with its development, so there is really no choice, and she is left to her own devices.
She learns to be social, and with her mother and father she has a loving relationship. As with all parents in the Conglomerate there is a variation between complete unconcern and doting worship of the growing child, and of course, she plays on this like a virtuoso on a violin, her parents indulging her every whim as far as possible.
They’re not stupid though, and the ship is there too, so when she discovers space for the first time by looking out of a window, she wants to go out into space, in a spacesuit.
Tantrums follow, but there is no moving a parent who loves their child, and the ship just won’t do it either. There are boundaries.
She is five now, and she has learned that the ship’s invisible and concrete presence is around all the time. The General evinces few Avatars, a preference but not an especially weird one; and the young child learns that all she has to do is address the ship by name and it will be there for her every need, though not necessarily desire. Every child must eat themselves sick on ice cream once in their lives if they are unregulated.
This five-year-old has learned about privacy. Of course she has, though most children are about seven by the time they desire it, and have learned a certain discretion.
She is five, she has not.
Alice has learned, by trial and error to invoke it. This is extraordinary enough, but she has learned to test it, and the General has been found lacking. There are no excuses to five-year-old, no matter how egregious the situation she puts herself in, for her, privacy is non-negotiable.
The General Good has, because it is a moral creature, has to give the little girl some genuine privacy. Her parents engage in a long talk about this with the General, and it is agreed that if she can both ask for it, and test it, then genuine privacy is hers on request, and she must suffer the consequences.
Her mother thinks that the little girl is going die.
This is not the case.
The little girl is going to get her wish.
Now, there is privacy and privacy, and this little girl knows that she can expand her zone of privacy. She is careful, she does nothing that has consequences.
She hates the girls and boys she is required to mix with, no-one knows why. It makes the General nervous when she invokes privacy of the most severe kind, making it morally difficult to eavesdrop on the other children and monitor their interactions, save them from the social difficulties that arise from having so many people of just id and ego in a room together.
Alice does nothing to these children. She has power, and knows it, and she could be a horrible child to them. There would be consequences, but it would be too late, her power would have been exercised and they would be less and she, more. She does nothing, however, but be pleasant and nice and caring and sharing. Every analysis that the General runs shows this to be the case, and Alice, she behaves perfectly because it is part of her longer term goal that she is trusted. The General knows something is wrong. Maybe she is a little too perfect, maybe she is acting, but a five-year-old child? Normally they are manipulative because they want ice-cream.
It is the day after her sixth birthday. She has had a lovely time, with all her most beloved enemies from play school. She has been an angel. She is a perfect child and her parents love her. All who meet her love her.
Now; she is six, and it is the day after and she invokes the strongest privacy she can imagine.
The ship responds; she is, after all, an angelic child, what could she possibly do?
Her private time has involved an Avatar. The General manifests as a gruff, moustachioed, old geezer from the Civil War in America from the old eighteen-hundreds. Thousands and thousands of years later it means nothing to most people, but a few historians have asked him why.
“’Cuz Ah like the uniform.” He generally, hah, drawls. “And Ah kin leave the war and th’ racism behind, but Ah git mah shiny buttons.”
Historians often have to ask what racism is, at that point, and when he explains it, they’re usually open mouthed.
“Well, shit.” They say. “We were dicks back then.”
“Yep, shore were.” Says the General.
Alice spends time with an Avatar. This is also difficult for the General because an Avatar is the ship and the ship is in each Avatar, but privacy, well he just has to catch up later. This Avatar has been gone for a month.
Alice has talked it into building a spacesuit for a six-year-old.
There are a few things in that worth expanding on.
Firstly, she has to talk to this Avatar every day very strongly about keeping her secret because it’s a surprise for her daddy and we wouldn’t want to spoil that, would we?
Secondly, the impulse to keep the child safe is going to be very strong in any Avatar, one might expect that it is an overriding impulse, but do not underestimate Alice’s manipulative abilities.
Thirdly, though she doesn’t know it yet, Alice is powerfully telepathic, and the place that she learns to control her nascent abilities is with the Avatar, who as night follows day is naturally telepathic because all Avatars have the capacity to hear human thought.
The Avatar doesn’t stand a chance.
Within six months of their first meeting, the Avatar has built her a functioning space suit out of parts picked up from around the ship and not missed because even the great Minds of the conglomerate do not keep track of every last thing. The suit looks and behaves exactly as if the ship’s manufactory had built it excepting in two respects. It is built for a six-year-old girl. The tiny Mind inside it will do whatever she wants.
So, it should not be a surprise that the suit is powered. Nor should it be a surprise that she chooses the time when even a Mind is relatively busy to step out of the airlock and jet into deep space.
It is not luck that she chooses to step out of an airlock that is at the rear of the ship, where the great thrusting engines reside.
It is luck that makes her veer off from the direct line of thrust as the ship establishes the giant Warp-Field of the superluminal drive.
She watches in awe as the great ship establishes the coruscating field, and is a luck, or providence, that means she is in a region in which she will not be caught up in the field, and become a small smear on the surface; or that she is not affected by the great thrusters as they burst into life and take the ship irretrievably away from her, leaving her there, stranded, in deep space.
Alice loves the images of the ship warping away from her. It is to her a streak penetrating the infinite as light rushes to catch up, and a long tail of fire from the rockets trailing away after it like a ghost.
For the tiny Mind on board the spacesuit, it’s a real “ohshit” moment.
It is at that moment that it truly wakes up and realises how truly manipulative the little girl has been.
Without remedial action, this is a truly dead little girl.
The primary responsibility now to keep Alice alive the suit takes steps. First, it spends a moment reconfiguring the tiny manufactory aboard the suit to make a sort of anti-freeze, but it cannot possibly make enough to replace Alice’s total blood supply, so this must sort of convert her blood to the substance required. No problem there, like cyanide the tiny amount it makes will replicate itself in her blood stream.
This will kill her as the haemoglobin in her bloodstream ceases to function, effectively strangling her from within her own blood stream, so it administers, without consultation, a powerful sedative from the store aboard. This will stop her suffering any unpleasant side effects.
It will also forestall any further manipulation on her part.
Now, this dead little girl hurtling through space can be preserved, but her mind is of the most concern. That must be saved, because there is no guarantee that this body can be revived properly. With her out of the picture, the little Mind manufactures more substrate, exactly as much as it calculates can contain a quiescent human mind. This is important. Her mind must be quiet because the little suit only has as much material as they were carrying when they left the ship. To run a fully functioning human mind would require nearly kilogram of material as a unique entity, and that cannot be afforded. She lives on in seventy-four grams of material, all that she is, all that she will ever be.
They have been adrift for some hours now, and the little Mind works feverishly to get the job done, and the little girl’s mind is transferred to the substrate with no problems. The little Mind is pleased with its work and moves to the next stage.
It injects the prepared anti-freeze into her arteries. There is a moment of terror when the supposedly completely unconscious and unaware girl thrashes in the confines of the suit, the Mind can do nothing now except activate the fine controls of the suit, freezing her in place as gently as it can, but in her death throes she breaks her arms and legs with the ferocity of her unconscious mind’s desire to escape and survive. She cannot possibly understand what the suit is doing for her, to what extreme it is going.
She dies, her little, broken body in the suit going limp and lifeless after a minute of thrashing and then she is gone, what remains is a preserved ghost, freezing slowly as the suit reduces the temperature within to cryogenic levels.
There is no more movement from her.
The suit looks about the cosmos, it can match up and knows where it is from star maps calculated at length on board ship. That itself is no easy talk, the great Minds can do it, moving about at superluminal speeds the Minds and the humans on board experience quite a different cosmos from any given view of it from a planet. That is for later.
For now, the tiny Mind has to make a choice, and it chooses a star. The Sirithi will welcome them, or at least rescue them. It’s not far. It’s really not far.
It’s only twenty light years.
The little Mind prepares some material for thrust. It does some calculations.
It will thrust for a year, then the material will be precious. The batteries of the suit will be weak and the remainder must be saved to preserve the girl’s life, that is the priority.
Spending some precious thrust material, it orients the suit to where the star will be in a thousand years, give or take, and begins a tiny jet of acceleration that will take them to their destination. Finally, it sets up a powerless detector, essentially the equivalent of a metal ball on a plate to seek out anomalies in the course, and goes to sleep to preserve power.
The suit sails on.
Aboard the ship, there are inquiries and recrimination. There are records from deep within the inaccessible parts of the ship brought forth, and her parents are inconsolable. The ship returns to the area of loss, but space is big, and far away a spacesuit is thrusting to a local star, and will soon be out of the frame of reference of the starship, and thus out of time as well, travelling through the void to the future.
Humanity has been space for a good long while by the time the little girl escapes. Certainly, the time dwarfs the ten-thousand years or so that it took to get from the stone-age to space. The truth is that the Minds of the galaxy are now reluctant to reveal how long humanity has been in space, because the time is so long that it is, as far as they are concerned irrelevant.
It is irrelevant anyhow. The expansion of the universe leaves quite a different cosmos than what is seen. What is seen is old light, far distant from the universal “now” if there is any such thing.
Follow only the light back to its source and you find nothing there, everything has moved. Go far enough and there may be in fact nothing there except the background uncertainty of nothing happening. Which means something is happening, but very little.
Space is so vast that even “breaking the rules” finding something that one is looking for is unlikely, especially if it just a spacesuit radiating nothing but a tiny amount of radiation from thrust.
The search is doomed.
Not only that, but the ships carefully navigate to what people have been looking at, if they can, and try to retain some cosmological causality. That’s very hard, if not impossible too.
The one rule is that stuff happens. If you break all the other rules you can mess with it before it happens to other stuff, but you can’t make it not have happened.
It’s not true, but all the Minds live by this rule.
It’s sort of to prevent chaos.
Some chaos can’t be helped, though.
A year after the thrust is started it expires, the fuel exhausted, except the physically separate supply for emergencies, and the little suit sails on. The Mind aboard remains quiescent, then another year passes, and with no perceptible change of state externally, it becomes the equivalent of switched off, only the single hardware switch now capable of returning it to consciousness.
They drift on, the speed built up, relative to their original frame of reference, is about six thousand kilometres per second.
Even at this extraordinary speed, their relativistic state is negligible. The suit and the Mind and the girl are travelling fast, but not relativistically fast.
So for a thousand years, the girl and the mind and the suit are lost.
Searches become rarer, modelling shows what the suit would have done, but space, it is so vast, and the suit radiates little and occludes nothing, and elsewhere, life goes on.
He parents live, as all humans do, extended lives. They have other children, who are normal in every way, but now the Minds lie about their privacy; nothing is private from a Mind, but they make the children of the Conglomerate think so, and that amounts to the same thing. The children are safe and the truth comes out when they are of age, along with a guarantee that what is between a person and a Mind stays that way.
It is a good compromise, and the Council, the humans who have the ultimate authority in the Conglomerate, agree.
The parents age and die, as humans are wont to do, but they never find their missing daughter, and leave instead a legacy, a short note, giving her their love.
On a distant planet orbiting a plain yellow sun, a creature of chitin and sinew calls over its supervisor. The Sirithi are arranged on hierarchical lines in their hives, and reporting up the chain of command is the right and proper thing to do.
The small talk that happens between Sirithi is largely incomprehensible to human beings, an artefact of all sentients, small talk is colloquial and insignificant.
The scientists are fascinated by the small shape found, but this fascination turns to alarm as they realise how fast it is going, and that it is on a collision course with their hive.
The fact of this is accelerated up the ranks.
The Queen, or in terms that a Sirithi would relate to more readily, the Major-General, takes an executive decision.
The hive moves in unison. There is a month, which is a human being measure of time before the things strikes. It will be destroyed, and so will the hive. It is small enough that it could be destroyed, but the Major-General vetoes this. The thing must be bought into to land, gently.
As it enters this new frame of reference it is travelling at something over twenty thousand kilometres a second. This is a challenge.
The Sirithi are nothing if not efficient.
Non-relativistic speeds are hard to deal with, but crude methods can be used where there is a need. The hive launches ships, and unlike the rest of the conglomerate they control and regulate every part of their craft by hand, so to speak, and they plan quickly for the interception.
They cannot bring the thing to a halt, it is simply moving too quickly, the energy must be dissipated. So with much padding and careful piloting, the thing is nudged into an orbit around their sun. The thing slingshots around, but they nudge it again and use the tremendous gravity to slow it down.
As the thing absorbs heat and energy, and crucially, as the little switch is activated, the suit begins to wake up and broadcasts a distress signal.
So begins her sojourn with the Sirithi.
They are gentle and efficient, but the sight of them is distressing. Alice wants her mummy and daddy. The suit quickly ascertains that they have passed on, and delivers the news as gently as possible, but it is beyond her understanding, and she just wants to go home.
“Home” is on the other side of the galaxy and a thousand years ago. The General Good has travelled far from that loss and is even now exploring the very edge of the galactic disc, directly opposite from her position.
At that distance, it will take years for the ship to reach her, and even relayed signals will take over a month to reach the ship.
The depth of despair is hard to calculate, and she provisioned and fed, but her fear turns in on itself, and feeds the little girl only self-loathing and fear. Fear of being alone, fear of the Sirithi, fear of never seeing her parents and friends again.
Within a few weeks they have built an avatar, and a friendly Mind transmits a simulacrum of itself to the hive for their model and they fill it up and present it to the little girl.
Alice clings to it like a lifeline, telling it everything, the carefully crafted androgyny shifting as she adopts it as a father figure, and bends it to her will.
This would go swimmingly for her, if only the Sirithi hive were not keeping an eye on her, and had not been briefed by the tiny Mind aboard the spacesuit. And if these things were the case, things would go swimmingly for the hive too. Well, not swimmingly, the Sirithi breathe through nodes in their exoskeleton, swimming is an activity not undertaken by the Sirithi without some considerable preparation.
The only option is to take the Avatar to one side and explain what is being done to it.
This would be fine, except that while she cannot telepathically read the Sirithi at all, she can, in fact, read the Avatar.
Her sense of betrayal is the betrayal of a six-year-old. It is the sense of betrayal of a six-year-old alone on a planet a thousand years away from her mummy and daddy. There is a spark of rage.
Rage at being alone.
Rage at being betrayed by her only friend and confidant.
Rage at being unable to manipulate her rescuers.
Rage at the universe, rage that sparks something in her mind, until now nascent, and raw.
They come quickly, though that means little in the vastness of space; the General Good, the Having it All and the I’m a Lucky One.
Each of them Displace an Avatar down to the planet, which is silent.
On their approach, only the beacons have been sounding out their plaintive distress call. A planet-wide sudden emergency, unspecified.
The three talk on the intimate mode, little flashes of communication passing between them instantly.
:One is being read: The Having it All’s Avatar, Kieran, relays.
:Really? That seems extraordinary, can you not interdict it?: These are not precisely the words used, but more the ideas, nuance of meaning.
:I’m reluctant. It is the child. She seems, somewhat developed.:
:What has she done to this place?: The thirds asks, redundantly. They can all see the devastation. The mark of a human child’s bare feet running in the earth surrounding each paused, marked by her spinning on the spot, hundreds of Sirithi lie dead as if she has been the centre of an explosion.
They follow the trail of bodies, arms raised in self-defence, uselessly, as the Avatars examine within each brain has been reduced to a sort of brain jam by what looks like an overload of each one, as if it were a computer that could be overloaded.
:I think she is trying to control me: Kieran says. :It is hard to…: The Avatar flashes once and collapses. Before the collapse even beings, the other two Displace back to their respective vessels.
They call a Council.
The ship’s councils report to the Council of the Conglomerate.
Linear processors, robots in effect, are sent to the planet.
They prepare the bodies according to Sirithi customs. Each one is transported to the nearest hive.
The little girl remains on the planet.
She tries to learn the secret of Displacement from the robots, but they have no real minds to read, just a lot of clever and empathic processing.
No Mind approaches the planet within a light year.
They count the bodies. The little girl’s rage has killed everything. Every living thing on and in the planet. She radiates it again when they tell her that she will not be taken from the planet.
Then they send down mechanisms, things that don’t have anything resembling a mind of any kind, to recover the material of the robots, every single one, dead.
Her rage echoes into the universe, but even her rage has a limit, and the Minds sit well outside it.
The Having it All decides, after carefully off-loading its population that it can’t have it all, that in fact it can have nothing, and terminates itself, leaving the empty and sterile hulk of its former existence for another to use.
The cost is so much, the ethics endlessly debated among the Minds and the Council, separately and together; but Alice begins her almost lifelong incarceration on the planet, the first gaol of the Conglomerate.
Except for six months, she will remain there for the rest of her life.
You can get this short story on Lulu in eBook Format and shortly at Amazon and other outlets for free.
You will also be able to download it here when I’ve converted it.