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art by Shane M. Gavin

Ryan's World

Paul Ebbs writes for film, television, radio, and children (even those without televisions or radios). He wrote the BBC Doctor Who novel “The Book of the Still” and has four novels forthcoming for young readers in 2012-13. You will be able to read his Steampunk novella “Space 1889: To Ceres By Steam” (Untreed Reads) in spring 2012. His first feature, a horror film “The Woodz” is due to begin filming next summer for Big Bright Pictures. For television he has written for Casualty, Doctors, The Bill and got totally fired from EastEnders. He lives with two gerbils--one called Marilyn and another called Manson. He thinks this is much funnier than it actually is.

I go to the grave after the service on Sundays. I leave Cal with Florence, our neighbor, and walk the dusty trail up the hill alone. It's ok because Cal enjoys the time with Florence; she plays games with him much better than I can. I'm not, I guess, that kind of father. My old man was the same, no less loving but emotion didn't come easily to either of us. You might, if you wanted to make something of it, call us both distant.
I just suppose it rubbed off on me.
From the hillside above the town you can sometimes catch the burn of a struggling cargo-lifter looping up from the harbor into the low cloud, or scrappily wheezing down on the last dregs of fuel. I prefer the days when I visit the grave to be accompanied by lifters coming and going. It reminds me of home.
The grave is a simple affair, just a plot and a stone with her name carved on it. I didn't have the cash to spring for an inscription. But I know Laura wouldn't have minded. She wasn't sentimental.
But me? I have more than the occasional ache of nostalgia for our years together. It gets me sometimes, gets me right here... you know?
Especially when I think about what she sacrificed for Cal.
What I allowed her to sacrifice.
And that's why I go up to the grave, after the service, every Sunday. That guilt. Monday to Saturday, it's just a razor sadness, but on Sundays, it hooks me and drags me up that hill.
I sit in the cattle grass with my hand on the dirt covering her body. That's the only time I can really remember her face. That's the only time I can remember the sound of her voice, and that's the only time I think I can remember what she smells like.
I wish I could afford a better memory, but I can't.
And then, when I get hungry, because that's what I have to tell myself the hollow feeling in my gut really is, I come down the track to the valley, and Cal always waits for me outside Florence's pre-fab. Florence will have made dinner as usual, and as usual she'll offer it to me, and as usual I'll respectfully decline. I know in my heart that Florence is not offering out of charity. Donald, her husband was… well, he fell asleep… just a month before Laura. We would hear Florence crying softly to herself as Laura and I lay in bed at night after it happened. Laura would pull me close and hold me tight and make me promise that I would never leave her. Whether she was alive or... asleep.
We both knew that it would have to be this way, that when her time came, our meager savings could not be used on Laura. Cal's heart had the same defect--how could it not? He was, after all, her son too. There would come a day when her heart would fail, as so many of the farmer's hearts on Ryan's World do, and it would be she who would... fall asleep. Only I could continue to work the land to keep Cal safe until his heart failed, so that I could save him.
So it was Laura, that early summer morning, I let drift away. I could see there was forgiveness in her eyes. But that doesn't make it any easier, you know?
It's funny how we use euphemisms to cover up what we really mean, isn't it? "Use the facilities" instead of "defecating," "Built for comfort, not speed" for "being fat," "Fell Asleep" instead of… well, what happened to Laura and Donald.
I maintain the pretence for Cal's sake, he's a sensitive one and likes to think of Mommy asleep on the hill, rain or shine, snow or storm. I have often heard him moving around his room at night--I've watched him through the crack in the door and seen him climbing on his trunk and pressing his nose to the window to look up to the hill. Sometimes I swear I can hear him saying "Goodnight Mom," before the springs of his mattress creak as he rolls back into bed.
But I don't take him to the grave on a Sunday.
That's my time with Laura.
This morning Cal didn't wake up.
I came to his room when he wasn't on time for breakfast, and found him, skin darkening and eyelids fluttering, breathing shallow and those weak breaths blowing ice right into my heart.
It was time.
I carried Cal down to the harbor to await the Wednesday lifter.
The harbor is a desolate strip of windswept plasticrete two klicks from town. The lifters come in on Wednesday regular, and Sundays if they are running a supplemental. They bring grain, seed, clone-meat, and tech to those who can afford it. I've never bought from the Vendor machines because I knew this day would come, and I would need every penny for Cal. Mostly we're dirt farmers, poorer than the dirt we plough.
The Lifters'll stop coming when the contract cash runs out I reckon, and then we'll either make this dirt work for us, or we'll... well, all fall asleep. There would never be enough money again to fix Cal. Not in this lifetime anyway.
The lifters drop out of burn high up, steeply dive in, flop onto the plasticrete like iron albatrosses tired from weeks at sea. They steam and fart and their atmos-engines vomit ice and debris on the wind down cycle.
We drew glances from the harbor crews, but when they saw Cal's face they turned away. This was a scene all too familiar too them. They didn't want to intrude on my grief. I just hoped that the credit chip would hold enough cash to fix Cal. Insurance for situations like this were not a luxury I could afford, this would be a one-off deal for Cal, and I'd have to hope he would grow strong and hardy. Maybe with both of us working the land, we could make enough to make this trip again in the far off future....
I had the credit chip clenched so tight in my hand that it was cutting into the flesh, almost drawing blood, but my eyes were set on Cal's all-too-pale face and his ever shallower breathing. His arm hung limply, flapping as I walked, banging into my thigh and counterpointing the click of my footsteps across the plasticrete.
The harbor was quiet.
Away from the buildings all I could hear was the distant hum of machinery working in the fields and the rustle of the wind in the scrub alongside the landing strip. I got as close as I dared to the dock machinery, which although automated, was supposedly intelligent enough not to run over a farmer and his sick boy.
I looked from Cal's too blue lips up into the grey clouds, the feeling of loneliness and desolation made all the more acute by the silence and the vast emptiness around me.
I kissed Cal's forehead, and he moved towards me, his mouth working gently, but making no sound that I could make out. The ache in my chest grew with those silent words. My eyes prickled and my mouth dried. I saw Laura in his face for a moment, the way she faded, the way she… went to sleep. The prickles became full-on tears, I felt them leaving cold trails down my cheeks, evaporating in chilly wind. I wasn't crying for Cal. In a few moments, God-willing, he would be fine. I was crying for Laura.
Cal's mouth stopped moving, and all that was left was the clicking of my heels and the movement of the breeze.
The woosh from above all but blew me off my feet. I looked up and saw a lifter homing in on the harbor, straining on the yellow air, lights winking along its flank and warp engines still steaming from being closed down before atmosphere-kiss.
It has been a long time since I'd been this close to a lifter, having only watched them from the cemetery above the town while I tended to Laura's grave. The whoosh turned into a bass roar and the lifter turned and extended its landers; thumping down on the plasticrete with an impact that sent shockwaves up through my legs, causing Cal to stir in my arms. The doomy clang of the cargo bay doors thumping into the ground startled me again and a billow of dust and grit blew across us.
The automatics geared up the dock machines, and the roar around us made me suddenly feel insubstantial and tiny and worthless.
I didn't know what to do.
I'd reached the clanking vendor machine as it disembarked and wiped the credit chip over the payment stub. The machine, old and rusty, coughed twice, shivered, and then deposited two packages in the basket instead of one.
I looked around.
What should I do?
There'd been a malfunction, but no alarms were sounding. The vendor just sat there, fresh from the lifter, and I felt a twist of awkwardness and paranoia in my gut. I was the only person near the vendor; it didn't seem to know it had made a mistake. I looked down at Cal; he was unconscious, but still breathing. If I stopped to open Cal's package now, someone might come, someone might realize the mistake and take the other package away.
I couldn't let that happen.
In that moment, I knew what I had to do.
I ran.
No one followed me up to the cemetery, but I didn't stop running until I was at Laura's grave.
As I looked back along the valley towards town, I saw the lifter heaving itself up into the sky on low burn. I thought I could hear the engines chuntering to me across the kilometers of air "Two packs, not one, two packs not one, two packs not..." and then the thud of the main burn kicking in and the boom as the lifter dragged itself up to orbit to start the journey back to Earth.
I'd made it.
I dug down into the dusty earth with only my bare hands to use as shovels. I uncovered Laura's coffin, and it was only a matter of moments before I'd cracked the seals with bleeding fingers and dragged her limp body up out of the hole. I laid her gently on the dirt next to Cal.
Down in the valley, where the squat pre-fabs huddled together, I could see Florence hanging out her washing on the line, rubbing the small of her back to ease the pain of carrying the big washing basket out into the yard.
Laura was just as beautiful as I remembered, her hair was still black and sheened like oil on water, her lips were a darker blue than Cal's for obvious reasons but I would have still kissed them there and then. I turned Laura's head to face Cal and turned Cal's head to face Laura. Then I opened both their shirts, and exposed their chests.
Cal's chest rose and fell with astonishing slowness, but it didn't matter anymore.
I took a deep joyful breath, feeling lighter and freer than I had for months.
Then I opened the packages, took out the hearts, fitted them into their chests and initiated the power start up sequence.
I took off my face, clicked out my memory and piggybacked it into Laura's so she'd know what she'd missed while she'd been asleep.
It would be good to be a family again. I would be able to finally explain to Cal why the humans had made us this way, why they needed us to be like them, their same frailties, their same defects. Because without those defects, like the first robots with real AI, we would have committed suicide once we grasped the futility of existence without struggle.
I held both their hands as they woke up and smiled.
Down in the valley I saw Florence taking off her head with both hands. She found it easier to reprogram the pain in her back that way.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Author Comments

In “Ryan’s World” I tried to imagine what you’d have to program into a near-Human Artificial Intelligence if you wanted it to work, strive, and produce for you. It occurred to me that the obvious quality you’d want to give an artificial person is the human desire to find meaning in struggle, otherwise why the hell would any of us bother?

- Paul Ebbs
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