Read The Eternal Flame Online

Authors: Greg Egan

Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Fiction

The Eternal Flame

Night Shade Books

San Francisco

Other books by Greg Egan:

An Unusual Angle

Quarantine

Permutation City

Distress

Diaspora

Teranesia

Schild’s Ladder

Incandescence

Zendegi

Orthogonal: Book One: The Clockwork Rocket

Orthogonal: Book Two: The Eternal Flame
© 2012 by Greg Egan

This edition of
Orthogonal: Book Two: The Eternal Flame
© 2012 by Night Shade Books

Jacket art and design by Cody Tilson

Interior layout and design by Amy Popovich

All rights reserved

First Edition

ISBN: 978-1-59780-293-2

Night Shade Books

http://www.nightshadebooks.com

BOOK TWO:
THE ETERNAL FLAME

1

“C
arlo! I need your help!”

Carlo opened his rear eyes to see his friend Silvano halfway down the ladder that led into the workshop. From the tone of his words this was not a casual request.

“What is it?” Carlo turned away from the microscope. A bright afterimage of the fragment of wheat petal he’d been examining hovered for a moment against the soft red light from the walls.

Silvano halted his descent. “I need you to kill two of my children,” he said. “I can’t do it myself. I’m not that strong.”

Carlo struggled to make sense of these words. He had seen his friend’s co just a few days before, and she’d been as emaciated as any woman on the
Peerless
.

“How could there be four?” he asked, not wanting to believe that there were any, that Silvana had given birth at all. As far as he knew she’d still been studying, and if the event had been planned they’d never mentioned it to him. Maybe this request was some kind of sick prank. He’d drag himself all the way to their apartment and there Silvana would be, whole as ever.

“I don’t know,” Silvano replied. He offered no why-would-you-doubt-me bluster, no theories about the reason for the calamity—none of the adornments it would be tempting to add to bolster a fabrication. Carlo scrutinized his face as well as he could in the moss-light, and lost hope of any kind of deception.

He extinguished the microscope’s lamp, then pulled himself away from the bench and moved quickly around the workshop, two hands on the guide ropes as he gathered the drugs and equipment he’d need. He knew exactly what doses would euthanize a vole or a shrew by body mass, and it didn’t take much calculating to extrapolate from that. He wasn’t committed to any course of action, but if he ended up doing what Silvano had asked of him any delay would only make it harder.

Carlo grabbed a small box to hold the paraphernalia and moved toward the ladder, packing as he went. Silvano ascended quickly ahead of him. It was only when they were traveling side by side down the corridor, their ropes emitting the same forlorn twang, that Carlo dared to start searching for a way out.

“Are you sure no one’s offering an entitlement?” he asked. It was a desperately slim chance, but they could detour to the relay station and check.

“I spent the last three stints looking,” Silvano replied. “No one’s selling at any price.”

A small group of people had entered the corridor behind them; their voices echoed off the gently curved walls. Carlo increased his pace, then asked quietly, “So you were planning to have children?”

“No! I just wanted to find a way for Silvana to stop starving herself.”

“Oh.” Everyone craved the same kind of ease, but to put too much hope in such a slender prospect was asking for disappointment.

“Her studies were becoming harder and harder,” Silvano continued. “She couldn’t concentrate at all. I thought it would be worth it, just to let her stop worrying and eat normally. An extra entitlement wouldn’t have committed us to anything, and I could have re-sold it if we’d ended up not needing it.”

“So why didn’t you wait?” Carlo demanded angrily. “How many people did you expect to die in
three stints
?”

Silvano began humming and shivering. “She couldn’t take the hunger any more. She kept saying, ‘Let’s do it now, and at least my daughter will have a few years before it’s her turn to suffer.’”

Carlo didn’t reply. It was hard enough watching someone you loved tormented by the need to convince her body that it was living in a time of famine, but to learn now that all of this self-deprivation had been to no avail was cruel beyond belief.

They reached the ladder leading inward to the apartments. Carlo forced himself to continue. A generation ago, anyone in his place would have offered to forego a twelfth of their own entitlement to help out their friend, and with enough contributors the extra mouths would have been fed. That was what his parents had done. But the crop yields hadn’t risen since, and he wasn’t prepared to diminish his family’s share any further, forcing his own descendants into an even more precarious state. As for the chance of Silvano finding a dozen such benefactors, it was nonexistent.

At the top of the ladder it was Silvano who hung back. Carlo said, “You stay here. I’ll come and get you.” He started down the corridor.

Silvano said, “Wait.”

Carlo halted, fearful without quite knowing what he dreaded. What could make this worse? Some complicated directive on how he should choose which pair should survive?

“You don’t think you and Carla might…?” Silvano began haltingly.

“You left that too late,” Carlo said. He spoke gently, but he made sure not to offer his friend the slightest hope.

“Yes,” Silvano agreed wretchedly.

Carlo said, “I won’t be long.”

The corridor was empty as he approached the apartment, but the fixed gaze of the same three faces kept repeating as he dragged himself past a long row of election posters, all bearing the slogan MAKE THE ANCESTORS PROUD. The fact that he was still in Silvano’s sight made hesitation unthinkable: he pushed the curtains aside and followed the guide ropes in. There were no lamps burning, but even by moss-light Carlo could see at a glance that the front room was deserted. Silvana’s notebooks were stacked neatly in a cabinet. He felt a pang of grief and anger, but this wasn’t the time to indulge it. He made his way into the bedroom.

Silvano had left the children encased in a tarpaulin that was tethered to two of the ropes that crossed the room. Carlo couldn’t help imagining the couple themselves inside the same enclosure, steadying their bodies for the bittersweet end. He had never had the courage to ask any of his older friends—let alone his father—what they believed had passed through their co’s mind in those final moments, what comfort the women took from the knowledge that they were creating new lives. But at least Silvana would have had no way of knowing that nature in its capriciousness was about to deliver twice the consolation she’d been expecting.

Carlo dragged himself closer to the bundle. He could see movement, but mercifully there was still no sound. The tarpaulin had been rolled into a rough cylinder, with the cord that threaded through the holes along two of the sides pulled tight to close the ends. He unknotted the cord at one end and began loosening it, his hands trembling as he felt the infants respond to the disturbance. Part of his mind skidded away from the task, conjuring fantasies of a different remedy. What if he could call on, not a dozen friends, but the entire crew? When a woman scourged her body with hunger to protect the
Peerless
, surely they all owed her children a simple act of decency—whether they were close to her family or not. A few crumbs less in so many meals wouldn’t be missed.

But he was deluding himself. Sharing the load among strangers wouldn’t diminish it: when the pleas started coming from every corner of the mountain—once every stint, not once in a lifetime—all those lesser demands would still add up the same way. In the long run nothing mattered but the size of the harvest and the number of mouths to be fed. If the rations were spread any thinner one bad harvest could see the entitlements torn up—and a war over the crops would leave no survivors.

One end of the tarpaulin was open now. Carlo peered into the gloom of the tunnel, then reached in and took the nearest infant in his hands. She was a tiny limbless thing, her eyes still closed, her mouth gaping for food. Her tympanum fluttered, but the membranes were not yet stiff enough to make a sound.

The child squirmed in his grip. Carlo emitted a series of soothing chirps, but they had no effect. This girl knew that he was not her father, not the one who had promised to protect her. He reached down and placed her on the bed below, where a second tarpaulin covered the sand.

The next one he extracted was her sister, not her co. Both were distressingly undersized, but both appeared equally healthy. Carlo had been clinging to the hope that with so little maternal flesh to go around one of the pairs would have died of natural causes already, or failing that a stark asymmetry in their prospects might have spared him any need to make the choice himself.

He placed the second girl on the bed; her sister was already drifting, her wriggling launching her up from the tarp. “Stay there,” Carlo entreated them both, pointlessly.

Some instinct had driven their brothers to retreat into the dark depths of the birth tent; Carlo pulled the cord out completely at his end and opened up the whole thing to the moss-light. Against the spread of the gaily patterned cloth the boys looked impossibly diminutive and fragile, and they chose this moment to become audible, humming plaintively for their father. Carlo wished he’d sent Silvano further away. If these children had been his own, this was the point when he might have lost his mind and tried to kill the man he’d sent to halve their number.

This was wrong, it was insane, it was unforgivable.
If he reneged now, what would happen? A few of Silvano’s friends would take pity on him, and help keep the family of five from starving. But once those friends had children of their own, the cost of their charity would grow much steeper—and once
Silvano’s children
had children, the situation would be impossible. Unless Carlo was willing to declare to his co: “These two belong to us now, to raise as our own. You’d better stuff yourself with holin, because in my weakness this is what I’ve done to you: your flesh that was made for the ages will perish now, just like mine.”

Carlo dragged himself along the rope and snatched the nearest of the boys. The child writhed and hummed; Carlo spread his hand wide to deaden the boy’s tympanum. “Which one is your co?” he muttered angrily. He grabbed the side of the bed and pulled himself down. Co recognized co from the earliest age, and their fathers could always see the link, but how was a stranger who hadn’t witnessed the fission itself meant to be certain?

He held the boy beside each female sibling in turn. Carlo was humming now himself, though not as loudly as the unrestrained brother. He tried to picture all four bodies still in contact, before the partitions softened into skin and split apart: first the primary one dividing the pairs, then the secondary ones dividing co from co. He’d watched the whole process often enough in animals. With a free hand he prodded the underside of the boy’s torso, the place where he would have been connected to his co more recently than he’d been joined side by side with his brother. Just beneath the skin there was a patch of unusual rigidity, flat but irregularly shaped. Carlo probed the same spot on one of the girls. Nothing. He checked her sister, and found the mirror image of the boy’s fragment of the partition.

He hesitated, crouched above the bed, still trying to imagine how this could have ended differently. What if the four friends had made a pact, long ago, to feed each other’s children and forego their own, if it ever came to that? Was that the stark, simple answer they’d all failed to see—or would the promise of security have poisoned them against each other, leaving them afraid that it would be exploited? Carla had never starved herself quite as diligently as Silvana, so what kind of life would she have had if she’d been endlessly harangued by a woman with every reason to urge her to show more restraint?

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