We went back home for another frustrating visit with our parents. Since, by then, travel was standardized, we all arrived at the same time, even though I was coming from Alaska, Jimbob from Zimbabwe, and Martie from Tibet.
We couldn’t help ourselves. As soon as we arrived, we tried to help out with the preparations for dinner.
Mom sliced vegetables.
I changed the tablecloth, put out clean dishes and silverware, poured waters for everybody, cleaned off the dining room chairs, brought one of the chairs into the kitchen to attack a stain on the upholstery, and brought another one down into the basement to sand one leg so the chair could balance properly again.
Pop picked out a bottle of wine.
Martie ran out for last-minute groceries, replaced the muffler in Pop’s car, cleaned and organized the refrigerator, finished the centerpiece that Mom had abandoned in the frenzy of cooking, and chopped down a balsam fir tree in the woods behind the house and dragged it into the living room.
Mom put the roast in the oven.
Jimbob cleaned the first floor bathroom, switched out Mom and Pop’s laundry in the basement, did Mom and Pop’s state and federal income taxes, re-caulked Mom and Pop’s shower tiles, decorated Martie’s fir tree, and cleaned the bathroom again.
Pop washed the small set of pots and pans Mom had used to cook the meal.
I brought out the food, lit the candles, put on some music, put Roscoe the family beagle behind the gate in the doorway to the family room, replaced all the batteries in Mom and Pop’s smoke alarms, mopped the kitchen floor, gave Roscoe food and water, emptied the last compost of the season into the big bin in the back yard, painted a new portrait of our family, and hung it above Mom and Pop’s fireplace.
We all sat down to eat.
The food was okay.
Any one of the three of us kids could have made something much better. Something astounding. But we just smiled and nodded and said thanks.
During the meal, we must have looked distracted.
Pop said, “Here and now, please,” the way he always used to when we were little.
That sent me on a whirlwind of elevated brain activity, racing through the archives of my own memory, which I had just recently reorganized and rebuilt. There we all were, sitting at family dinner table after family dinner table. Sometimes the three of us kids were all distracted, sometimes two of us, or one, or none. Combing through these memories (which, as refined and burnished as they were, were diagnostically limited) and cross-
referencing them with a river of research data I was filtering in from the outside, I tried to determine if there had been a genetic predisposition to the way I was now, or if everything was attributable to the tech.
Definitive conclusion not reachable.
As I had expected. After all, it was one of the nagging questions of our generation, and even with all of us millions and millions of high-functioning human machines, we had yet to crack the mystery.
This entire process was finished in under ten seconds, but that was enough for Pop to again say, “Here and now, please,” this time staring directly at me.
“The thing that really bothers me,” Pop said, after dinner, while we were all nursing additional wine in the living room, “is that even though the three of you still look like yourselves, I can barely tell any difference between you at all.”
Jimbob said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Martie integrates better than me and Dix. Dix is faster at finding useful information. I’m best at gaming out scenarios.”
Mom snorted. “But you all pretty much know the same stuff.”
Martie snorted right back. “No we don’t. We’re constantly updating, just like anyone else. Just like you and Pop.”
“Not just like us,” Mom said.
“Same principle,” Jimbob said. “Just faster.”
Pop shook his head and smiled. “You big brains. ...”
That night, I found myself wondering, in the middle of all the other processes firing in my conscious (and sub- and un-) thought, what would happen if we took away the synthetic interfaces we used with them, talked with them the way we talked with each other.
Maybe five minutes after I knew Mom and Pop were asleep by the pace of their breathing (amplified hearing), Martie and Jimbob knocked on my door.
We spent most of the rest of the night sneaking around the house, sealing up leaks, replacing lights, improving the efficiency of the wiring, building a new version of Mom and Pop’s oven that worked slightly better. Whatever we could find.
In the morning, we looked for signs that they had noticed anything. Mom and Pop have always had great poker faces. It was a little unnerving that we still had trouble reading them. Maybe a lifetime of keeping their emotions hidden from their children had prepared my parents for contemporary life.
We knew our extra work around the house bothered them. They regarded it as excessive, and mostly unnecessary. They also were great believers in the ancient, well-trod, and anachronistic tradition of The Guest, a figure who should be coddled and pampered, and never asked to lift even a finger in anything that could, in any sense, be classified as Work.
That morning, on a family walk in the woods, Pop asked what we had all been up to recently.
“I’ve been trying to help the monks find a quicker path to enlightenment,” Martie said, “so they can move on and do some other stuff.”
For those of us possessed of the proper data receptors, this statement was accompanied by a flood of information, from breathing statistics to personal videos to heartrate averages to nutrition charts to brain activity read outs, and on and on and on. And on.
From the expression on Jimbob’s face, I could tell he was funneling all the supplementary information directly into his permanent-delete trash bin.
I, on the other hand, kept it all, because I keep everything.
“Oh,” Pop said. “Anything to add to that?”
“I guess not,” Martie said, seeming a little put out.
“And what about you?” Pop said to Jimbob.
Jimbob gave a loud, irritated sigh, the way he does when he doesn’t really want to talk about something, which is most of the time. “Just been working with local compatriots to try to rebuild local micro-economies, in tandem with the larger Rebuild Africa movement. Should be caught up with the wealthiest countries in another year. Then we start exporting our systems to the rest of the world.”
“Wow,” Pop said. “Sounds really important.”
“I guess,” Jimbob said, kicking at a rock in the path.
He hadn’t bothered to turn on any supplemental information, which made his answers seem as thin and vacuous to me as they probably had to Mom and Pop. Maybe more so.
“And you?” Pop said, turning to me.
“Getting rid of oil,” I said. “Almost done.”
“Really?” Pop said. “What are you doing with it?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.”
“Oh come on. What am I going to do, drive up there and steal whatever’s left, so I can sell it to a culture that doesn’t use it anymore?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but the protocol is that I can’t tell anyone what we’re specifically doing.”
“You mean you can’t tell anyone from my generation what you’re doing …”
“Yes, that is, in fact, what I mean. I was just trying to be nice about it.”
“Look,” Pop said, “we were only doing what we had to do.”
“I know that, Pop,” I said, holding up my hands. “It’s all over with. There’s nothing to fight about now.”
He shook his finger at me. “But you were judging me, as soon as we started talking about it.”
“No I wasn’t,” I said, even though I had been.
“Well, whatever,” Pop said. “Maybe once you’re done, you can move on to fixing other things I messed up.”
This conversation went mostly the way I expected. Still aggravating, though.
“Now that you’re in a good mood,” Martie said to Pop, “there’s something else we have to tell you.”
Pop put his hands in his pockets and slowed his stride. “What is it?”
Martie took a deep breath. “We’ve decided not to have any children.”
Mom and Pop looked shocked. “What,” Mom said, “all three of you?”
“All-all of us,” Jimbob said.
“Our entire generation of human beings,” I said. “Plus the younger generation.”
“Did you all meet in a big room to decide this?” Pop said with a grumpy frown.
“Yes,” Jimbob said, “in a manner of speaking. It’s a virtual forum we can all access.”
“So what are people supposed to do without babies?” Mom said.
“Not decided yet,” I said. “There will be something, but it won’t be babies.”
“I would like to have something I can bounce on my knee,” Pop said.
“I’ll be sure to forward your suggestion on to the Group,” Jimbob said.
“You know your father and I have been looking forward to grandchildren for a long time,” Mom said. Her voice wasn’t cracking. Only by force of will, I hypothesized.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Martie said. “If it helps, Dix and I voted in favor of the old way of doing things.”
Mom and Pop turned two accusing glares on Jimbob.
“Hey,” he said, raising his hands. “The resolution passed with tens of millions of more votes for than against. And, besides, this is the best long-term strategy for the human race at this point.”
“Strategy,” Pop snorted.
We walked on in silence.
On a high point of the trail, overlooking the river, Mom said, “Well, now it’s our turn to upset you. Your father is very sick.”
Add the ability to completely blindside us to the list of unnerving talents still possessed by Mom and Pop.
The three of us started to talk at once. At the same time, our data ports were all flung wide open, our brains searching for physical clues we had overlooked previously. In came: slower, possibly impaired breathing, impaired liver function, damaged immune system, tumor-like objects in multiple systems, clotting issues. And so on.
“Will the three of you just shut up for a second?” Pop said.
“It’s a cancer,” Mom said.
“We can see that,” Martie snapped, before looking contrite and saying, “Sorry, Momma.”
Interesting reversion, thought a small scrap of my brain that wasn’t already engaged in diagnosing Pop and preparing for his treatment.
“Let’s get him back to the house,” Jimbob said.
We had Pop opened up for exploratory surgery on the dining room table before he could say, “This is why we didn’t tell you right away, damn it! We knew you’d overreact and do something stupid!”
He was able to speak because we had shut down his pain receptors manually and dampened his ability to be horrified at seeing his own innards. I tried to keep myself from exploring the issue of why we hadn’t bothered to dampen his anger. Maybe we felt guilty.
“I can’t find anything,” Jimbob said.
“Me neither,” Martie said. “This is ridiculous.”
“Will you please stop that?!” Mom shrieked. She’d always had a strong stomach, so this jolted me into action.
“What are you doing?” Jimbob said.
“I’m closing him up,” I said. “We’d have seen it already if there was something we knew to see.”
“He’s perfectly fine this way,” Martie said. “We can keep him open almost indefinitely while we look.”
“Still some minimal risk,” I said, “and any risk is unacceptable right now. I’m sure we have at least a little bit of time.”
They wanted to continue arguing with me, but I’d already finished.
Later, while Pop was recovering in his bed and we were all crowded in around him, Mom said, “If you’d given us a chance to talk first, we would have been able to tell you that we’ve already taken him to every specialist we can find in our generation, and even had a couple of doctors from your generation look at him.”
“That explains the relatively recent scarring,” I said.
“There are no doctors in our generation,” Jimbob said, “or we’re all doctors.”
“You know what I mean,” Mom said.
“It’s not actually cancer,” Martie said, “even if it acts like it. It’s clearly something new, or at least previously undocumented. We’d be justified in bringing his case before the Group as one where we can devote more resources.”
“Already done,” Jimbob said.
“You didn’t have the right!” Mom yelled.
“What are you talking about?” Jimbob said, his voice rising ever so slightly in annoyance and surprise. “I don’t have the right to care for my own father?”
“You don’t have the right to violate his privacy and share our problems with the whole world!” Mom said.
Jimbob had the good grace to at least look a little sheepish, but he still said, “I have a right to do everything in my power to save his life.”
“Look,” I said, “what’s done is done. The Group is already working on it. Let’s just relax and see what happens.”
Mom stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
We all ate dinner off of trays in the master bedroom that night. Mom put on some music in the living room and turned the volume up. I lit some candles. Martie picked out a bottle of wine. Jimbob just sat there in a chair with his arms folded, watching Pop. Roscoe whined and whined until Mom fed him.
The three of us all received the Group’s verdict at exactly the same time. Martie and Jimbob deferred to me, since I was the oldest.
“They’re going to keep working on it,” I said to Pop, “in order to help future cases. But there’s not enough time to solve it for you.”
I guess I was expecting Mom and Pop (or at least Mom) to lose it, so it came as something of a jolt to the nervous system (might have been literal; haven’t bothered to run a diagnostic) when they nodded and clasped each other’s hands.
“That means you’re going to die,” I said.
“Yes,” Pop said, “I understood you the first time.”
“We’ve known that was a strong possibility for some time,” Mom said.
“But you didn’t even give us a chance to help,” Jimbob said.
“And now that you’ve had a chance,” Mom said, “were you able to do anything?”
Jimbob blubbered out something that sounded like, “NobutweIgah! …”
“Exactly,” Mom said. “Listen, I know you three want to think of yourselves as our own personal superheroes, but you’re not all powerful. And I’m sorry you needed to learn that the hard way.”
After that, the three of us did what anyone in our generation did when they were feeling frustrated, angry, sad, etc.
We prepped the house for demolition that night, building a shed, moving things out of the house into the shed, throwing other things out, shutting off water and electricity. In the morning, Martie ran into town to secure a building permit and buy materials. By the time Mom and Pop got back from their post-lunch walk, the old house was completely gone, and the new, much larger house was already starting to take shape.
We kept it mostly to one floor so that Pop wouldn’t have to exhaust himself going up and down stairs, but we made that one floor quite expansive, figuring that he could always ride a cart around.
We finished in time for dinner, which we cooked ourselves, and served on the new dishes Jimbob had picked up only five minutes earlier.
“Thank you,” Pop said.
“I don’t know why you had to do that,” Mom said, smacking plates down on top of each other as she cleared the table. “That house meant a lot to us. Your father spent most of his childhood summers there.”
“I’ve always hated that house,” Jimbob said. “Too small and funky for me.”
“Maybe you should have tried downloading some of my memories before acting on your own feelings,” Pop snapped.
“If you let me cut into your brain and do some scans,” Jimbob said, “I can retrieve those memories and paste them onto the interior of the new house.”
“No thanks,” Pop said.
He and Mom asked that we leave them alone for the rest of the evening, which was disconcerting on a whole new level.
“What do we do?” Jimbob said to me and Martie once we were on our own.
“Maybe we could start by apologizing,” Martie said.
“Uh-uh, no way,” Jimbob said. “I don’t apologize for improving people’s lives.”
“You don’t have to mean it,” I said.
“Not going to lie to them either,” Jimbob said.
“Maybe,” Martie said, “we can ask if there’s something they’d like us to do.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
We went to bed in our respective rooms. After the way things had gone, I didn’t dare get up and do any additional work, but lay on the bed and contented myself with researching on the network. Based on breathing patterns, and network usage, I knew the others were following my lead.
At breakfast, we asked them if they had any requests.
“I’ve always wanted to see the Earth from the Roosevelt Platform,” Pop said.
“They restrict access to the Platform pretty tightly for the older generation ...” Martie said, at roughly the same time as I said, “No problem.”
Martie and Jimbob looked at me. I shrugged and said, “That is something we can do for him.”
The Roosevelt Platform sat at the top of the Chicago Space Elevator. There were a lot of space elevators, but Chicago’s was the tallest. The view of the Earth was magnificent.
I’d been up there several times, and I knew my siblings had as well. As per Martie’s advisory, the older generation was not permitted to visit any of the space platforms until they had gone through months of training and evaluation, been fitted for the necessary spacesuit, etc.
They (the members of the older generation) also needed to be scheduled for time on the particular platform. The platforms existed because the younger generation was starting to flex its know how in the exploration of space. The members of the younger generation knew how (and were generally able) to take care of themselves on a platform, but there were any number of experiments conducted on platforms in a given day that could be instantaneously fatal to an older person.
It was my long-held opinion that this was as much about bigotry as about safety.
With Pop’s condition, both the being-sick and the not-very-much-time-left factors, we all knew that formal application for a trip to the Roosevelt Platform was a nonstarter, which meant an informal visit, and, therefore, some risk for Mom and Pop.
I was not worried.
We left for Chicago the next day. On the way, Jimbob, Martie, and I took turns darting into stores and finding supplies. Between the three of us, we were able to build them both suits that were well above the minimum required specs.
There was no security around the Space Elevator. Older folks had no way of accessing it, and younger folks were not restricted.
There was an information desk, occupied by a man even younger than Martie. He rose, smiling, if mildly unsure of what we were doing there. A palette of questions erupted from his data projectors before we were within speaking distance.
I signaled the siblings and the three of us simultaneously cut off input from all in the Group but ourselves. We could still hear the voices of our compatriots on the periphery of our awareness, but we were now a hardened and closed circle of three.
The information desk man got to his feet, frowning, projecting something more like concern. I flooded his receptors with a cocktail of signals that would incapacitate him long enough for us to begin our ascent. This is something that we youngsters can normally fend off with great ease. However, as we have a protocol of behavioral standards we all (usually) follow, not all of us have our defenses up at any given moment.
I took the point and started hauling myself up the exterior of the elevator, hand over hand. Martie scooped up Mom and started a sort of one-handed-two-legged upwards gallop behind me. Jimbob did the same with Pop, being careful to cradle him to minimize the jolt of movement.
Because we all usually follow the protocol, there was an immediate spike in the volume and tone of voices in the Group, questioning what we were doing. My siblings and I were attracting a huge amount of interest. The growing consensus-admonition was that we should break off our ascent and return to ground immediately. Whispered synonyms of investigation, arrest, and trial darted here and there along the exterior of our mental stronghold.
The first compatriot to confront us descended from the platform itself. She rode gravity at terminal velocity, her arms stretched wide. She was not wearing a synthetic interface, which likely meant there were no older folks on the platform itself. Her unmasked face was brilliant with light and color, in the way that we all hoped to be, all of the time, one day. The light told us what she was made of, and what she was trying to do to us.
One alone was no match for the three of us. I didn’t even have to break stride with hands or feet as I analyzed the attack on the fly and threw countermeasure code up in short, calculated bursts. Occasionally, there was a burst of countermeasure from behind me, as Martie and Jimbob targeted bits of code that got by me.
We met the other head-on, using our superior combined kinetic energy to deflect the majority of her momentum back at her.
She fell then, off and away from the elevator shaft. She was paralyzed, but only temporarily. She’d have more than enough time to recover before impact, even if she didn’t have the strength to do much of anything else for a few days.
In her defense, we’d had a good two minutes more time to strategize.
I could hear Mom and Pop crying out behind me, which made sense since they wouldn’t have any idea of the fate of the falling woman.
Two more came down side by side at us, which seemed to indicate that there might not be that many young people on the platform. Otherwise, we would surely have been overwhelmed with superior numbers.
The two broke our stride, but after a struggle of less than a minute, with Jimbob holding onto both Mom and Pop, Martie and I were able to send the two earthward in the same paralyzed state as the first.
I threw myself up over the edge of the platform, prepared to take on whatever compatriots might remain. There was only one, and he was engaged in an experiment far at the other end, an analysis of radiation in the upper atmosphere below us. A few seconds of observation, and I was satisfied he was not even aware of our presence.
We sat on the edge of the Roosevelt Platform then, knowing we had only minutes before more compatriots showed up to confront us. Martie held Mom, and Jimbob cradled Pop, shifting accordingly to let him gaze upon the wide, bright Earth below.
I reached over and patted Pop on the shoulder. He shifted, and I heard him grunt. Then he said, quietly, “Now there’s something.”
Out of the corner of my awareness, I saw a focused gamma-ray burst shoot toward us from the compatriot’s experiment on the other end of the platform. I knew that Martie, Jimbob and I would be fine, but the burst was intense enough to burn right through the suits we had built for Mom and Pop. I scooped the two of them up in my arms and shielded them with my body, physically stretching out my own into an oval shape, in order to avoid exposing any part of them.
Pop, his eyes still fixed on the looming sphere of the Earth, leaned into me and said, “We love you too, Son.”
It seemed like a good time to leave. We jumped off the edge of the platform. The Earth slowly broadened itself and rose to meet us, crossing that invisible line between gigantic, glowing spheroid and gigantic, glowing flatspace.
We hit the ground with enough force to send shockwaves out for miles around. Martie, Jimbob, and I had calculated everything, of course, in order to keep ourselves—and especially Mom and Pop—safe.
Before the shockwaves had fully dissipated, the three of us had already combed the area for miles around, collected the unconscious bodies—old and young—within the blast radius, put out as many fires as we could find, repaired two bridges with varying degrees of structural damage, repaired and re-mounted various power lines, checked on Mom and Pop’s health and mental state, de-armored and de-
weaponized ourselves, re-built a couple of office buildings from the ground up, checked on Mom and Pop, zipped back to the house to walk Roscoe and make sure he had enough food and water.
We sat down and waited for the inevitable arrival of superior opposing numbers, and the moment of accountability that was to follow.
“Sometimes,” Mom said, staring at the rows of unconscious people laid out on the ground and shaking her head, “I wish you kids were as considerate as you are meticulous.”