Authors: Gregory Benford
The Meta’s men provided fathering, too, but here the usual Meta scheme went awry. Her friends liked this, and it seemed to work for them. Like them, she was supposed to gain judgment from these multiple fatherings, to see what men were like in general, and work on her attachment strategies in light of this.
Instead, she just got confused. They were all so different, each with pluses and minuses and no clue to how Cley could ever choose what worked best. So much for theory.
By accident, and persistent questioning thereafter, she learned that her genetic father had left the Meta for undisclosed reasons when she was three years old. She consulted her inboards, learned some techniques for memory mining, and plumbed her own childhood. She recalled some dim sensations of him: a dark musk, deeply resonant voice, and scratchy whiskers (an affectation, apparently quite ancient). That was all, but it was enough.
So, thinking it absolutely natural, she awaited his return. She dreamed about it sometimes—a weighty presence descending from the sky, usually, like angry thunderheads brimming with ribbed light. She worked on making herself wonderful for him, anticipating his grand homecoming, their reunion as a family. Occasionally, a new male would join the Meta, and she always wondered if maybe this new set of smells and sounds was her one true father.
She could not be sure, of course, because the Meta kept genetic fatherhood and motherhood quite secret. Not so much because it was hugely significant, though. Just policy. People would put too much weight on those old, simple connections, so best be done with them. Mothers, though, were usually too close to disguise; the Meta didn’t even try. Everybody needed a Mom, a daily presence, essential as oxygen, but a father could be vague. Better for a young girl to view all men on an equal footing and learn to objectively assess men’s abilities as fathers. She would probably choose a new Meta, and her own pairings, using those standards someday.
Her Meta felt that genetic details were totally beside the point anyhow. What mattered, truly, was the Meta and its work. The Meta was the family of all. Humans did not reproduce like animals, after all, anchored in primordial musk and pairings.
Cley wasn’t having any of this, though she never said so. Her gut feelings won out over all inherited wisdom. She simply kept making herself wonderful for her father, sure he would show up. And of course, when he did, she would know.
Her true genetic mother might be within arm’s reach at any moment, in the milling Meta culture, but that had no claim on her attention. Her mother’s identity was a conventional puzzle, dulled by overuse and close familiarity with all her Moms. Father, though—now there was true, singing mystery.
He grew daily in her imagination, as the placid Natural males around her all fell short of what she felt a father should be. She loved him; she worshiped him; she built whole stories around his exploits. “Dad’s Dangerous Days,” chapter thirty-seven.
By this time, no man who ever came into the Meta matched up to the specifications of her father, so she was quite sure that he had never returned. He was off somewhere over the forested horizon, having Original adventures.
She sat dutifully through the ritual experiences of a Meta upbringing, honestly enjoying them but knowing deep down that they were preliminaries to the moment when she would really know, down deep—when her father returned.
She did wonder, as her years stacked up, why this yearning never fastened upon her mother mystery. To raise it brought an odd pang of disloyalty to her nominal Mom. But the issue did not have heft, did not wrap itself in the shadowy shroud of the father. Obviously. Though she sometimes wondered why this was so.
Was the uniqueness of his puzzling absence, affecting only her of all her Meta, part of her own Originality? Was this oddness part of what made hernot just another Natural? No one else seemed to long to go over the horizon.
When she spoke about this with any of the adults in her Meta, they carefully reasoned with her, taking ample time. And it all seemed straightened out, crystal clear…until she left the room. Then she would run free again, down the hallways of her mind, banging on doors, eager to explore, ready with her latest father story to tell, a story that was somehow about Cley as well.
She had noticed early on that everyone had some sort of story to tell, not about fathers but about themselves. So she got one, too. Fashioned from oddments, nothing too fancy. She was just an Original after all, no more, a genetic form roughly close to the variety that had started civilization off so long ago that to express it took an exponential notation. Not much material to start with. So she stuck to emotions.
Her story was about the father, of course, only cloaked in Meta language. Yearnings, feelings of a destiny lying ahead of her. Fairly common stuff, she thought. Her life story did not quite seem to belong to her, though. She used it to get close to people, and she did care about them…but relating ostensibly personal substories about herself seemed to be like offering them for barter. In return for…what? She was not sure.
So people—first from her Meta, then from allied Metas—came into her life, shaped it, and departed, their bags already packed. She wondered if everyone experienced life this way—if others came in, introduced themselves, exchanged confidences, and then milled around in their lives until they found an exit. She valued them terribly at the time, but they left only smudged memories.
After a while she started dining out on the delightful details of people she knew, things they did. Other people were so much easier to talk about. She had sharpened her powers of observation while looking for her father. The step from watcher to critic was easy, fun. People were the most complex things in the world, ready-made for stories. Exotica like the slow-walking croucher trees and skin-winged floater birds were fun but, in the end, had no stories. The natural world usually didn’t. It was just there. She suspected that civilization had been invented to make more stories.
And after a while, she came to feel that most others deserved her implied tribute: They really were more interesting than she was. Sometimes she felt like saying to strangers, “Hello, and welcome to my anecdote.”
The electric leer of artfully crafted memory guided her. People remembered one another because they recalled stories, for stories made the person. With the myriad ways to remember, from embedded inboards to external agent-selves, there were endless fertile ways to sort and filter and rewrite the stories that were other people’s lives. At times, she soon noticed, people constructed stories that were missing parts, as if the business of being themselves did not hold their full attention. Shoddy work. She was much, much better at it.
She was intent upon the sliding scale that people showed her. Boys her age would rise from arrogant to impressive in the span of a single sentence and then ooze back down that slope again—and she was never sure just why.
At times she was not quite certain who she was. When she was with the boys she knew growing up, she often thought that she was more alive for being with them:
He thinks; therefore, I am.
Afterward, she would enjoy the feeling of having been with a boy and come through it all right, free of awful, embarrassing moments.
Still, she had the odd feeling of being disconnected:
This will be fun to remember;
This is fun now.
She had the usual simple sexual adventures. Kissing was sometimes like devouring the other person, savoring the sweet, swarthy head meat—no sauce, please. Bright grins, dark excesses. So healthy, everybody said.
Even then, though, she came to feel that lust lacked, well, depth. Amid the mad moment, she would sometimes think,
This reminds me of the time I felt déjà vu.
But if you couldn’t learn from experience, what was left? Theory. She talked about this with one of the older women in her Meta, who said dryly, “The best definition of intelligence is the ability to learn not from your mistakes but from others’.”
Cley went away puzzled. She needed not advice but a road map of life.
So she resolved: Until she knew where she stood, she would continue lying down. Good ol’ sex. It certainly beat running away. That way she had tried, too: hard him, hesitant her.
There was no cure for such bewilderments. Cley endured them. Get through it, her girlfriends said. But she also endured because she assumed that after the ordeals of adolescence were done, she would get her reward: the clear, smooth calm and blithe confidence that adults surely had. After all, they looked self-assured, didn’t they? Especially the Supras, who were more than adults.
Soon enough, she was big enough to mistake for an Original adult (smaller than Supras, of course, but more muscular). She had a growth spurt and loomed over her girlfriends. “You’re kinda Supra-sized,” they taunted, not knowing that they were just giving away their envy.
Then she realized that the Supras didn’t even worry about matters that preoccupied her Meta. One day, three Supras came to talk to her Meta about their ongoing restoration of Earth to a moist, green world. Unfailingly courteous, they spoke of ideas that played out over many centuries. That impressed her enormously. The Supras passed through the forests, nodding politely at the Naturals, the Originals, even taking opticals of them. Of her. She preened and pranced for one, and he grinned. Her heart nearly stopped.
They were also there to look for something that had fallen from the sky, or so some said. They had assumed that the strange play of lights in the sky, witnessed by all her Meta for over a year, were descending craft from the spaces above. On the mere suggestion, Cley studied up on her inboards about the whole meaning of the myriad lights above. She learned the planets, the many lesser lights, the lot. Even history—not her best subject. There was about the huge landscape of the past an enduring sadness, a note of things known but now lost, that made her pause. So much order built up, so many lives well lived, only to be rendered into dust. That was when she learned what a billion really meant.
The Supras searched for many days and found nothing. She watched them react to this, peeking from a tree perch she had made at night to get a better vantage on them. They murmured, worried, ignored the Ur-humans. She got bored, even with these supermen. And superwomen, but she ignored them.
Then one night she woke in her perch. The Supras below were shouting. The sky was alive with twisting luminous shapes. Fire descended from these, igniting the forest down the valley. Helical angers worked across the sky. The Supras trained instruments on these. A fork came down and twirled in the nearby air and skewered one of them. It was a spindly woman. She died noisily.
Cley did not sleep after that. The next morning the Supras left, stopping to tell the assembled Meta that something wrong was afoot. Something dangerous. That the Supras needed them all to keep on as they had before, not to be concerned with matters they did not understand.
Cley’s girlfriends thought this was boringly self-evident, but what could they do? Cley found the bare fact that Supras could die, bleed out their lives on the ground, ripped from throat to gut—well, it was at least enlightening. She felt for the first time the electrifying sense of actually living in an important time.
Then the days simmered down, and she relaxed. She was coming into her womanhood, after all, a more pressing issue.
So she persisted in her faith, which was, of course, not a dry slate of dictates but a story: that first thing of all, she would pass through schools, then find something she loved doing, meet men and mate with them (no genetic contracts implied, though), experience raptures and delights unknown to mere young people, survive those and learn from them, and then generally move with growing serenity through the ever-expanding world.
She did manage to finish school. That was as far as her life game plan worked.
DOLESCENCE CAME UPON
The various shades of humanity above Naturals had dispensed with such sudden advents and halts in the body’s evolution. “Nature’s unwanted punctuations,” they sniffed. They could orchestrate their tides and rhythms like an artfully managed story. So she had not heeded warnings of the Natural progressions, especially the firm events of an Original such as she. Menstruation arrived with startling, well, frankness. She had senso-ed about it, of course, but the sudden flow made her think of a wound, not a grand overture to heart-stopping romance.
When it first happened, she dipped her head as if in prayer to natural forces, knees knocked together to hold in the embarrassment. As if this were not a blossoming, but punishment for a transgression. She fell to her knees, hands linking fingers, head tilted up to a God she did not believe in. Whatever God made of this, He/She/It did not help. The dark, hot, leaden burn refused to go away.
There was a simple pharmaceutical cure for all this, of course, and one of the Meta women offered it. Cley automatically rejected it without quite knowing why. And paid the price of discomfort and awkwardness for four months before doing the standard thing.
One Original frontier crossed, she awaited the virginity event. The Meta was easy-going about sex. With other nearby Metas it gave scrupulously clear classes and instructional aids. These were carefully not erotic, but in their clinical cheer also did not give any good reason to do the thing at all. Abstraction prevailed.
At this time she invented her own, interior theory of virginity. In her model, virginity was not a single thing, abolished by a single act, but a continuum. She could give away parts of it. After all, wasn’t she a many-sided person, even if a mere Natural?
With other Naturals she had tussled quite agreeably on lounging chairs, preferring the outdoors. But she had not dispensed any of the fractions in her V inventory, as she termed it to her girlfriends. Knowledge, call it K. Then the equation went, V lost equals K gained.
Such thinking enlivened her mathist inputs, at least. Her inboard math abilities seized upon any chance to exercise themselves. An array of equations glided before her left eye; tutorials offered themselves; a learned voice whispered. She knew she should take her major inboards out for a romp every now and then, to keep them fresh, but the mathist parts were boring.