Monday, December 17, 2012

Life As We Know It

It was a slow night at the Still Point. A little after midnight, Aeshma was thinking of closing up when an old man ankled up and slid onto one of the stools and asked for a shot of Bluewater Collective pear brandy.

'You still carry that stuff don’t you?’

‘This is the only bar in Paris that does,’ Aeshma said, although yo had to root around at the bottom of the racks before yo found the dusty bottle.

The old man closed his eyes after the first sip, saying at last, ‘That’s so like your classic Proustian moment it isn’t even funny.’

He was dressed in red leggings and a black jumper cinched with an antique utility belt. A narrow seamed face, white hair shaved at the sides to leave a crest along the top of his scalp, in the manner of pilots a century ago.

‘I thought I’d stop by, like I did in the old days,’ he said, after taking another sip from his tube of brandy. ‘See if this place was still here. And here it is, exactly as I remember it. Amazing.’

It was a small place, the bar, tucked into the corner of a cut-through in the low-rise neighbourhood of bars, teahouses, restaurants, theatres and song clubs around the Central Market. A bamboo and canvas shack with a counter of polished impact glass and four stools, a little hotplate on which Aeshma prepared snacks, and bottles racked in front of a big mirror, many labelled with the names of regular customers. Aeshma’s grandsire had rebuilt it after the war, and it had been handed down from sire to scion ever since.

The old man introduced himself, Herschel Wu, and said, ‘I guess you must be Aeshma’s kid. Yo’s scion, as you people have it.’

‘You knew my sire?’

‘About a hundred years ago. No, closer to a hundred fifty. Before the Quiet War.’

‘Then you knew my great-grand sire, Aeshma One. I am Aeshma Four.’

‘Yo didn’t call yoself “One”, but yeah. You look just like yo. I guess that isn’t surprising, the way you people do, but that robe of yours, that green leaf pattern, you wore one just like it. Aeshma, Aeshma One, is he still around?’

‘Yo died in the war.’

‘Yeah?  I’m sorry to hear it. A lot of people did. And those that didn’t, most of my friends and relatives, mostly just died of old age while I was away. Back then, before the war, I was a free trader. Mostly lived on my ship. But whenever I was in Paris I’d come here, shoot the shit with your great-grandsire, catch up on news, gossip, tips. And then the Greater Brazilians and the other political gangsters from Earth moved on the Outers, the Quiet War and all that, and some of us took off before they rounded us up or killed us. The Free Outers, we called ourselves. You heard of us, maybe.’

Aeshma shook his head. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be. It’s ancient history. We moved to Uranus at first, and then the Greater Brazilians caught up with us there, so we moved on to Neptune. And then to one of the Centaurs. Nepenthe. We built a nice little garden there. I raised a family, but my partner died and I got the itch to move on. Ended up doing a little tour of the Kuiper belt, which is why I’m here. A science jamboree wants me to talk about what I found out there, what some people call the progenitor bug. Maybe you’ve heard of it.’

Aeshma apologised again, saying that he didn’t keep up with science.

‘No reason why you should, I guess. What are you drinking, Aeshma?’

Aeshma hesitated.  He didn’t like the way Herschel Wu had referred to ‘you people’, as if androgyne neuters were a separate species of human being, suspected that he harboured an ancient prejudice to neuters and their cloned lineages Outers had mostly forgotten. But the old man was an old customer of the Still Point, he’d known Aeshma One, and beneath his bluster he seemed lonely and a little lost. So Aeshma said that he would also have a brandy, and dispensed a shot into a fresh tube and refreshed the old man’s, telling him it was on the house.

‘That’s mighty kind of you,’ the old man said, raising his tube. ‘To your great-grandsire.’

They talked about Aeshma One, and Paris in the old days, the days before the war, before the defeat of Earth’s Three Powers and the re-establishment of the Outers’ hegemony.

‘They tell me this is a golden age of peace and prosperity,’ Herschel Wu said.

Aeshma shrugged. ‘Business here is much as it always was.’

‘You always worked here?’

‘I helped my sire until yo retired, three years ago.’

‘And you’ve always lived on Dione, in Paris.’

‘Of course.’

‘Never went on a wanderjahr, took off on a whim to some other city, some other moon?’

‘We are happy here.  Life is good.  Why change it?’

‘Something I asked myself a hundred years ago,’ Herschel Wu said, ‘when I decided that I’d grown too comfortable, in Nepenthe. That I hadn’t seen all I needed to see. Some of us had been to Pluto, in the old days, and we went back. But there were already people there, and I decided to go further out.’

‘To the Kuiper belt.’

‘There are people in the Kuiper belt, now. But back then, not so much. I plotted a grand tour, skipping from kobold to kobold all the way to the far edge of the belt, sleeping out the transits. I had a good motor on my ship, but distances between kobolds are very large out at the edge, and I used minimum-energy courses to conserve reaction mass. I visited eight in all, over the course of a hundred years. And on one of them I found this,’ Herschel Wu said, and conjured a small sphere of translucent plastic between finger and thumb. ‘The progenitor bug. Go ahead, take a look. It’s laminated. Quite safe.’

Ghostly soap-bubble structures flashed inside the plastic sphere as Aeshma turned it in the glow of one of the star lanterns strung along the fringe of the bar’s canopy.

‘It’s a bacterial cell,’ Herschel Wu said. ‘A specimen of a very big, very strange, very old species of bacteria. They grow in a little subsurface sea I discovered in one of the kobolds I visited. Place almost as big as Pluto, with a moon as big as Pluto’s biggest moon. The sea’s rich in ammonia, kept just the right side of freezing by warmth from tidal friction and residual radioactive decay in the kobold’s core. And these big old bacteria live there. Although strictly speaking they’re not really bacteria. They use RNA instead of DNA, like some viruses, a zoo of short RNA strands in a cytoplasmic matrix. They cleave hydrogen from sulphides, use the energy to fix primordial inorganic carbon dissolved in the sea. And they grow very very slowly, divide once in maybe a hundred thousand years. The scientists are very excited by them. Some claim they are the progenitors of all life in the solar system. You know how life was supposed to have started on Mars?’

‘Not really.’

‘Mars is smaller than Earth, so it cooled more quickly after it formed, and life got started on it while Earth’s oceans were still boiling. And some of that life, Martian bacteria, fell to Earth inside rocks knocked off Mars by big impacts, and kick-started Earth’s biosphere. Also Europa’s. So you might say that we’re all Martians. But then I discovered these RNA bacteria, and now there’s an argument about whether they’re a separate evolutionary domain, or whether they’re the true progenitors of life in the Solar System, unchanged because there’s no evolutionary pressure to change, in their cold little sea. That’s what this jamboree’s all about,’ Herschel Wu said. ‘I’m one of the keynote speakers. Funny
how life turns out, uh?’

‘It’s quite a story,’ Aeshma said, and handed the plastic sphere back.

‘Isn’t it? And it’s better than most traveller’s tales because every word is true.’

They sipped their brandies and talked a little more about old days Aeshma knew only by hearsay. After the old man had gone, Aeshma closed up the bar and drifted home.

Halfway there, yo paused on a slender bridge that arched over the river that ran through the quiet, dark city. Yo was a little dizzy from the brandy, and the cool air above the black water was refreshing. Slow fat waves reflected the webs of little lights strung through the chestnut trees along the banks. Saturn’s big crescent gleamed through the tent’s panes, slanting above flat rooftops. Two people went by on the far bank, shadows under the constellations of the trees. One of them, a woman, laughed at something the other said.

Two lovers in Paris, under Saturn. Aeshma thought of fat, slow globs of slime floating in a frigid sea under the icy skin of a planetoid in the outer dark, undisturbed for billions of years until Herschel Wu came along.  Remote, ancient, strange, nothing at all to do with ordinary life, but why did yo find the thought of them so disturbing?

Aeshma lived in a commune with yo’s scion, yo’s sire, and the members of four other androgyne neuter lineages.  Yo perched on the edge of the sleeping niche of yo’s scion, watching the small child sleep. Three years old, cute as a bug, thumb socketed in yo’s mouth, stirring when Aeshma stroked yo’s fine blond hair. In the commons, Aeshma Three reheated some soup from the stockpot, asked about Aeshma’s day.

‘Oh, you know. The usual.’


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