John Burridge writes science fiction, fantasy and horror. He is an active member and current co-chair of The Eugene Wordos, a professional writers’ workshop (http://www.wordos.com). He has a writer’s beard, IT job, and obligatory cats. He lives with his family in Eugene, Oregon. He is probably over-caffeinated. This is his third short story in “On The Premises.” You can read more about John at http://johnburridge.blogspot.com.
Dust to Smart Dust
by John Burridge
The entire extended family—even the ones from Sarah-station at Iapetus—wanted to see who would have the final word at Ruth-station: my Grandma Ruth, the high admin; or Grandpa Joe, the man who was running out on her. So we were hosting multiple events. I was the youngest person at Grandpa Joe’s ceremony in corridor eight, which suited me fine. It was better than being with some panting, pawing younger son at the singles’ party going on in the cargo bay. Mostly.
I reminded myself that old folks like vid-loops of waves sweeping over an endless expanse of sand, and that the one being projected on the corridor’s bulkhead was a symbolic representation of voyaging on the oceans of Earth, but it still made me want to check the station’s systems for a burst water line. At least the vid-loop made the repetitive expanse of metal and plastic look more interesting.
Mom assigned me the task of inventorying the gifts for Grandpa’s final voyage, or I would have watched the group dynamics from a short distance spinward. Instead, I stood in the middle of everything.
We’d slowed the station down to accommodate the older folks, but the weight at the station’s rim was still more than one G. I propped up my left arm so I could use my media bracelet to JPEG another voyage gift—a q-RAM card this time—as one of my smelly, older uncles posed with it for me.
I hadn’t expected the displays of manliness from the knot of uncles and male cousins clustered around the floor hatch to Grandpa’s escape pod. They wore sleeveless undersuits; some of them hadn’t seen the inside of a spacesuit in decades. Drumbeats, hand-claps, and men’s chanting echoed off the bare walls as they competed to see who could lower the most radiation shield bricks, tanks of water, and electronics through the hatch. In terms of ritual, it was typical man stuff. Grandpa’s brother, Grandbro Sam, officiated. He didn’t give a damn about family politics or their consequences. He embraced the whole male-mysteries-psychopomp role. I guess if my brother—if I had one—was flying off to become a part of the smart dust computing network accumulating at the sun’s heliopause, I’d want some official job to do, too.
It’s a men’s mystery exactly what they did so Grandpa would survive the trip to the Oort Cloud. Traditionally, only his wife or partnered men are allowed inside an elder’s final pod. Presumably they fitted Grandpa’s naked body with bio-tech.
In an arc behind me, a gaggle of chatting aunts and older female cousins flitted between tables loaded with bacon seaweed snacks, various melons, deviled eggs, and a fortune in lemonade. Judging by some of the little smiles on their faces, my aunts appreciated all the arm flexing and weight lifting. At least Dad hadn’t grunted or anything when he’d presented his ten liters of water.
Dealing with my entire extended family was easier when I thought of them as subjects in a sociology practicum field study. The trick was to look for what they weren’t saying. Some of the family saw the final-voyage-ceremony-disguised-as-a-birthday-party as a great excuse for flirting and presenting eligible sons and nubile daughters. But the question nobody wanted to ask out loud was whether my Grandmother Ruth, high admin of Ruth-station, would appear and issue the codes needed to launch Grandpa’s escape pod.
The men’s chant ended. The last echos of the drums faded and still Grandma had not appeared. Grandpa’s menfolk watched Grandbro Sam for what would come next.
Some sensed cracks in Grandma’s administration and hoped for an edge in the markets in the Saturn exchange. To my left, my mother’s oldest brother’s wife, Auntie Lucy, said to my mother, “Martha, if Ruth isn’t going to send Joe on his final voyage, you should. His window is closing,” she added in a too-smooth voice. This was an exaggeration; the launch could still happen within an hour.
Mom ignored Auntie Lucie. “Mother should be the one launching him,” said Mom to her sister, my Aunt Julia.
Grandpa called from below. “I can hear you. The hatch is still open. I’m a big boy, I can launch myself.”
Some of the older men traded satisfied-looking smiles. Auntie Lucy smiled, too.
Grandbro Sam stood before the airlock, raised his bare arms, held his hands high, and proclaimed, “Let us clap the rhythm, ‘Riding to the Heliopause.’”
He said it majestically, but they’d already performed it twice.
As Grandpa’s menfolk began another session of drumming and thigh-slapping, Auntie Lucy tried to bait Aunt Julia with a pointed remark about stock values on the Saturn exchange.
Mom leaned toward me and said, “Pamela, why don’t you bring our guests some of our prize-winning oranges?”
I knew it was family double-speak for “See if you can get Grandma out of hydroponics before Grandpa’s launch window closes” and a reminder to Auntie Lucy about whose oranges came in second.
“Yes, admin,” I said and left the group.
Thanks, Mom, I thought as I approached the base of a station spoke’s ladder. I wasn’t sure if I should be pleased that Mom thought Grandma would be more likely to listen to me than anyone else, or annoyed that it would be my fault if Grandma stayed in hiding. I liked to think Mom thought that since I was the youngest daughter, Grandma would only yell at me a little bit.
I climbed. I had to think like a ninety-five year old, not a nineteen year old junior counselor. When I was six, Grandma explained to me, “The oldest daughter becomes the station’s high admin. The second daughter becomes first admin. And third daughters like you become station counselor.” Then she made me study the ancient Egyptian queen, Hatshepsut.
I reached level three. Technically, Grandpa needed launch authorization codes from Grandma before he could go. She wasn’t giving them to him. After kicking him out of their quarters, she acted as if he’d never been on the station. It made her look senile and her administration look in disarray; stations with bad administrations couldn’t command top prices on the Saturn exchange. Already we were seeing a drop in our citrus fruits’ trading value.
The pull of the station’s spin lessened. As I neared level two, the thumps of the visiting cousins’ music became clearer. My older sisters, Amanda and Penny, were hosting a party for the unmarried and kids in cargo bay four. It was an excuse to interview previously-virtual future husbands in real life. I was sure there would be displays of manliness there, too.
I hoped Amanda would jettison Lennie Judyson’s proposal because he was a smug know-it-all; he would make a terrible bro. She might marry him, though; when I was eleven, I watched Amanda’s hormones launch her brains out of the airlock. Penny’s followed when I was thirteen. By then I had been studying England’s Elizabeth I, and I vowed then and there I was never going to fall in love, or at least wait until I was really old, like twenty-seven. I renewed that vow as I climbed past level two.
The party music faded. Grandpa’s next launch window wouldn’t be for another five days, during which we’d be expected to host everyone. During that time, they’d be looking for any evidence of cracks in Grandma’s administration.
Hydroponics was the next level, near the station’s rotational axis. The old folks said it was easier on the joints, but the micro-gravity plugged up my sinuses. I still wasn’t sure what I’d do or what I’d say to Grandma. I never expected to watch her bring our trading index on the Saturn exchange down. All because of a quarrel with Grandpa. It was as if she never understood the histories she’d made me read. I’d have to figure out if this was a lover’s spat or a control issue. Or both.
I found her in Hydroponics-1, in the seed lab, sterilizing growing bins at an ultraviolet hood. The lab’s a homey place, with white countertops and green cabinets decorated with children’s pictures of flowers.
“Hi Gran,” I said as I floated closer to her. “Can I help?”
She smiled, but the wrinkles at the corner of her eyes creased, so I knew she was suspicious. And tired.
Mom would have argued with her and tried to boss her, matriarch to matriarch. Aunt Julia would have tried ineffective coaxing. I don’t know what Grandpa would have done. So I went direct. “Grandpa’s leaving soon. Is there anything you’d like me to do?”
She detached the growing tray from of the hood, clacked its clear plastic lid closed, and placed it in a rack. “So,” she breathed. Then she opened a new tray, fixed it to the ultraviolet lamp hood, and turned it on. “You can tell the old goat he can go freeze his balls off in the Oort Cloud,” she muttered over the lamp.
The lamp dinged and turned off. I tucked my feet through the floor bars at the work station next to hers, and took the deconned grow tray from her. She got another Earth-new one.
I opened a cabinet, unpacked a bag of kale seeds, inflated it, and snaked in a short open-ended pipette. “I’ll tell him that,” I said, “if that’s the last message you want him to have.” I squeezed the bag and blew a few seeds through the pipette and into the tray’s sticky growing medium.
“Oh, I’ve got messages for him,” she said, and patted her media bracelet. While she waited for the lamp, she asked, “Did he send you, or did Martha?” The lamp dinged.
“Grandpa’s stubborn,” I said. “Just like his wife.” I put the seeded tray into a rack.
“Huh.” She thrust another deconned grow tray at me. “I see why she sent you.”
I never could fool her. I blew seeds into the new tray. “I was taught by you—and he can’t bring his escape pod up here—so…” I put a little bit of her steel in my voice. “‘The old goat can go freeze—’”
“Stop,” she said. Her shoulders drooped. “Just stop.” The lamp dinged off again, but Gran left the tray in it. “Did he bother to tell you that this was his decision and that he sprang it on me?”
And you kicked him out, I thought. So this was about control and love. I didn’t say anything. I turned toward her. A few questions flew through my head, but I kept them unasked and instead placed my hand over hers.
After a minute she said, “It’s easy for you to be strong. You’ve nothing to lose.” This wasn’t true—if I didn’t get her on corridor eight, Auntie Lucy would see the Ruth-Station’s admins in disarray, our trading index would drop more, and Mom would blame me.
I figured Grandma already knew about our trading values.
“He must have asked you to come with him,” I said.
The steel returned to her voice. “Why do you suppose that?”
“Because he’s an old, romantic IT nerd. Together? With you forever? As part of a smart-dust network? It must be his idea of a Vinge paradise.”
She snorted. “No.” She shook her head. “Not really. The garden recyclers frighten him.”
“Oh.” I checked my bracelet. I was running out of time. If I made this about the station instead of about their relationship I might get her to fulfill her duty. “I told Mom I’d bring oranges back to corridor eight—and it would keep Auntie Lucy and the other station admins from gossiping and damaging our trade index if you came back with me.” I left unsaid that it wouldn’t look as though Grandpa was leaving behind her back if she issued the launch codes.
“If he would just stay here….” Grandma’s voice trailed off. In that moment, she reminded me of an ancient statue of Hatshepsut I’d seen: the lithe queen sat motionless on a simple throne, but one that constrained her nevertheless.
“Pamela, don’t fall in love. But if you do, fall in love with the station—or a woman, not a man.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. Especially if it means avoiding a future like this, I thought.
She gave me a calculating glance. “There are some ripe oranges in bay four. Go get them and meet me back here.”
She had something planned—I was certain of it—but at least it sounded as if she was going to come with me. I left the comforting enclosure of the lab and zoomed off to bay four in long leap-hops. It wasn’t far, only one bay over.
My sinuses were congesting. Besides the stuffy nose, another reason I don’t spend too much time in hydroponics is that the growing bays seem to press in on me. In the lab it wasn’t so bad, but in growing area, the ways the floors and ceilings obviously curved, and how all the tree trunks poked up out of the growing spheres and pointed at the station’s rotational axis—it was as if everything was leaning over me. The microgravity increased the disorientation.
I found a mesh bag and filled it with five oranges.
When I rushed back into the seed lab, Grandma was waiting.
“Here,” she said, and slipped off her media bracelet. “I loaded this with things for him.” She slipped it over my free hand and it knocked against my smaller, newer bracelet. Then she held out a spray of lemon flowers—a small treasure of white floral stars; we’d be short on lemons next cycle. “Place this in his hands.” Lemon and orange scent pressed against me. “Tell them I am tending the memorials in the recycler’s garden. Which will be true.”
“But—you’re high admin—who?” He still couldn’t launch without her codes.
“You.” She patted her bracelet on my arm. “I invested my launch codes with you.”
In a way, it made weird sense. I wasn’t exactly in the admin chain. Grandma kept her high admin control by making me, and not Mom or my older sisters, her proxy. It sent a message about who was still in charge to Mom, Auntie Lucy, and Grandpa.
“Now go,” she said. “His launch window’s closing.”
I held out my hand. The two bracelets gently clicked together on my wrists. “Come with me. Let yourself be his partner.”
I’d said too much.
She looked irritated. “Give in, you mean.” She still loved him, but she still had to be in control.
“Fine, then,” I said. “If that’s your choice. I’ll tell him he can freeze his balls off—”
“You wouldn’t dare.” Her face flushed.
“You’re the one choosing to hide up here,” I said.
“You!” she yelled.
She lunged for her bracelet, but I pulled my hands back. The sudden motion made me lose my footing. Denied, she slapped my face and I tumbled back to the main hatch.
I could have handled that better. I’d been expecting her to vent, and I’d seen her lose her temper before, but never at me.
I caught a grab-bar. “I’m leaving now,” I said. “But if you’re willing, I’d like to talk more later.”
I pushed off for the ladder. It would be a long time before I could smell oranges and lemons without remembering the sting on my cheek.
I distracted myself by casting Grandma as Victoria I, Grandpa as Albert, and the rest of the family as Disraeli, Peel, and the English parliament. When I climbed down to corridor eight, all eyes looked at the ladder above me. They were expecting Grandma.
I took a few steps away from the ladder and stopped. There’s nothing like the calculating looks of older relatives to give you the jitters. And I was still in high orbit after Grandma’s slap.
I took a deep breath. “High Admin Ruth sends her regrets.”
Mom clenched her teeth behind her smile. Aunt Julia’s poker face slipped a little. Auntie Lucy snorted; there went another market percentage.
“She sent me as her proxy,” I continued. I should have said that first. “She is tending the memorials in the recycler’s garden and will not be disturbed.” I held aloft the flowering lemon branch. “As the high admin’s proxy, I am to place this into Grandpa Joe’s hands.” Inspiration hit. “As a century celebration gift. And I have the launch codes.” I showed them Grandma’s bracelet.
Grandbro Sam stepped forward from the group of men around the floor’s airlock. “But you are not a married man.”
Damn, I’d forgotten about Grandbro. I suspected Grandma had not. “But wives are allowed into their husbands’ final pods,” I said. “And I’m Grandma’s proxy.”
“That does not make you Joe’s wife,” Grandbro said. “Give me the gift, and I will place it into my brother’s hands.”
Behind him, Dad looked to Mom for some sort of cue.
I stepped forward. “With all due respect, Grandbro, this is not Judy-Station, and on Ruth-Station a proxy may not make a proxy.”
“Spoken like a high admin,” Grandbro Sam said. But he crossed his arms and glared at me.
“Look,” I said. “Grandpa’s pod needs to launch within…” I looked at my bracelet. “Twenty-five minutes. If High Admin Ruth can make me her proxy, can’t you make me an honorary bro?”
The men behind him murmured.
Grandpa’s voice echoed up from the hatch. “Great Moons of Neptune! I adopt Pamela Ruthsdottir as my son. Now bring her—I mean him—in and let’s get the launch going.”
Grandbro Sam spun around. “Now wait just a minute!” he yelled down the hatch.
“Rhymes. With. ‘Merits,’” Grandpa said in a voice used by older brothers when they taunt younger ones.
The whole corridor froze. The air-handling units murmured above us and the faint sounds of the cargo hold party floated down from the ladder. This was about the fifth time in family history Grandpa had used the phrase to get something from Grandbro. Even I had heard the theories of carrots versus ferrets versus parrots.
“You wouldn’t,” Grandbro said.
Grandpa’s voice rose out of the airlock. “Years ago on Mars, Sammie—”
“Stop!” Granbro Sam waved me over. “Pam, what you are about to see is a mystery.”
He started a hand-clap rhythm which the other men took up. I figured it would be good form to copy them, and once I handed Mom the bag of oranges, I followed as best as I could while still holding the lemon branch.
Grandbro preceded me through the lock. As soon as I was through, I told him, “I promise not tell anyone what I’m about to see.”
Below me, he grunted.
The inside of the pod—an old-style escape pod designed to keep three people in deepfreeze—was cramped with water tanks and radiation shield bricks. The lemons’ aroma fought with the medical smell of alcohol, bleach and blood. Grandbro walked spinward along a narrow passage, past two passenger bays, and toward the front of the pod. Grandpa’s men-folk had filled the unused bays with network transmission hardware and wrapped them in word- and icon-covered graphene ribbons. It was a huge investment of resources, but whoever sent the most out now stood to reap benefits in increased computing power and bandwidth from the computing cloud later.
The pilot’s bay was tilted up. At first I only saw a metal mesh poking up at the top. Then I realized Grandpa’s hair, sparse for as long as I could remember, was gone and the mesh covered his skull. Grandbro stopped at the front the passage, at Grandpa’s feet. I followed so Grandpa could see me easily.
He lay in the pilot’s bay, in the grip of tubes and wires. They didn’t hide enough of his body and I quickly looked at his face. Small clear tubes led to his nostrils and the left corner of his mouth.
“Hey Pammy, so Sam let you in.” He pointed at my cheek with a wire-traced hand. Integrated circuiting had been painted onto his skin. “Looks like you’ve just been speaking with Ruth. Does she have any message for me?”
“I. Uh. Her last words to me were ‘You wouldn’t dare.’”
I did my best to look at the spot between Grandpa’s eyes; there was one tube I really hadn’t wanted to see. I think it was worse seeing it in front of Grandbro Sam than it would have been alone.
“Hey, Sam,” Grandpa said, “I’m having a private moment with Ruth’s proxy here.”
Brandbro’s hands clenched. “But—”
“Sam,” Grandpa said, “you’ve had your magician-king moment. And I want to thank you for everything you’ve done. Why don’t you lead a ‘Path to Dust’ rhythm?”
“Keep a place for me in the cloud,” Grandbro said.
“You know I will,” Grandpa said.
“Don’t. Touch. Anything,” Grandbro said as he squeezed past me.
I nodded my agreement.
Up above a moment later, a wordless hand-clap and foot-stomp began. Within the pod the sound was deeper.
Grandpa sighed. “That should get us about five minutes.”
I waved the lemon branch. “I’m supposed to put this in your hands. I also have messages for you in her bracelet.”
He held up his hand. “Here. Let me. I’m sure the IC paths they’ve painted on me are dry by now.”
I put everything into his hands.
He placed the bracelet into a reader, where it flashed as the data transferred. Then he rested the flowers on his chest. “Heh,” he said. “Did you know when we started Ruth-Station, your grandmother and I used to call it our lemonade stand?”
We had lemonade on celebrations, but I wasn’t sure what he meant by stand. “Oh,” I said.
“Hmm. No sugar or water, though. These flowers must be her way of saying, ‘Your lemonade’s gonna suck.’ They smell nice, though.”
“She said…” I began. “You…”
He silenced me with a gesture. “She’s right, you know. The recyclers do freak me out. I guess I didn’t realize that until she told you.” He winked, then smiled in a way that was one part mischief, one part smugness, and one part embarrassment.
“How?” I asked, “You spied on us in Hydroponics?”
“Girl, I’ve been sysadmin on this station since before your mother was born. I re-routed the data feed from the back-up security server. So I guess I know what I can do in the Oort Cloud.”
“I did ask her to come with me,” he said. “Together forever with her would have been a Vinge paradise.”
My ears burned hearing my own words repeated back at me.
“Why can’t you stay?” I asked.
“I’m going to go one way or another,” he said. “This way a part of me will still be useful for at least another hundred years.”
The bracelet went dark; the data transfer was complete.
“You heard her words,” I said, “But maybe not the meaning behind them.” I took a deep breath. “She said she still loves you,” I said. “She wished you would stay. She wishes it so hard she had to kick you out while she had the strength to let you go. She said she has to pretend you’re already gone, and she’s not strong enough to pretend if she came down and saw you off. She’s angry at death, and time, and love. And she needs to learn to deal with her anger instead of taking it out on her family.”
“She didn’t say that,” he whispered.
And, I thought, you didn’t say that meeting the smart dust freaks you out, too, only it does so less than the recycler’s garden.
Aloud I said, “She did.” I picked up the bracelet. “Everything but the last part about anger.” Who could be sure she wasn’t spying on us now like he had? I put the bracelet on my wrist. “Do you have any message you’d like me to tell her?”
A thoughtful look passed over his face. “Yeah.”
I pressed the bracelet’s record sequence.
He pointed with his chin. “I’ve got her picture on the dashboard.” I turned. Grandbro Sam must have been standing in front of it earlier: her picture was attached to the bulkhead between the instrument console and the viewports. In it, a younger version of Grandma wore a long green dress as she stood in the command center, at the high admin’s station. Her hair fell in a long brown and grey-streaked braid over her left shoulder.
Grandpa continued. “I should have left sooner, but I needed to see my brother, kids, and grandkids before I left. And,” he turned from the picture of Grandma to me, “although I regret all the craziness I’ve brought with my decision to go, I’ve never once regretted loving Ruth or the time we’ve spent together.” He turned back to her picture. “I’ve already said everything else.”
I nodded and turned off the bracelet. “I think Grandbro Sam is finishing up,” I said. “Are there any ritual words I need to say?”
“He’s probably already said, ‘The Hero’s Journey begins,’ but you could say it again and he’d take it from there.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Safe journey.”
“I’ll see you from heaven.nasa.gov.” He smiled at his own old-man joke and held up his free hand in the nerdy Vulcan salute he always did.
We’d already said our goodbyes.
I had to enter the authorization codes.
I walked toward the ceiling hatch, Grandma’s bracelet with Grandpa’s words on my wrist.
Copyright 2017 by John Burridge