Wandering Off the Path

I was tidying up some paper files today, and came across something I typed out a year or two ago.  If I recall properly, it was in response to a writing prompt, although I cannot remember precisely how it was worded, or who gave it to me (Adam, maybe?).  I still like the little vignette very much indeed, and since I haven't been able to find it published in a previous blog post, I thought I'd polish it up a bit and share it today.  (There is a bit of a tangential tie in to this post from 2010, which is set further in the future of this Universe, but which also explains one key piece of terminology.)


My eldest daughter does not take the results well.

"This is bullshit," she rages, and I wince.  So does the clerk, although surely he is more used to people screaming obscenities than I am.  I have a sudden flashback to Kaia as a toddler, smiling up at me like a miniature sun, her teeth tiny perfect pearls against her smooth dark skin.  "Busha!" she crows, and I know I am going to catch it when her mother hears this exciting new exclamation.

"Ms. Sejoh," says the clerk, eyes carefully avoiding my own.  "Perhaps you'd like to further discuss your questions... in private?"

"No, I don't want to discuss anything 'in private'," she snaps.  "You can explain to me, to both of us, in exquisite detail, just why my father's application has been rejected!"

It isn't really 'my' application, I think to myself.  I'm not the one who submitted it, after all.

The clerk sighs in a way that is meant to be understanding, but which I understand to be simply tired.  "It's the results of his medical exams.  There are concerns that his body will not be able to handle the effects of wet-hi."

"What do you mean, concerns?"  Kaia's eyes narrow in challenge.  "Is this because of his age?  He's only ninety-two!  There are plenty of older colonists-"

Old.  Old.  I do not think of myself as 'old'.  This is not to say that I'm under any sort of illusion that I am 'young'- all the rejuves my well-intentioned daughters have 'gifted' me with cannot keep me from feeling the weight of my years in my heart, in my soul- but I am not 'old'.  Cannot be old.  The trees I recall from my youth were old.  Mountains are old.  Stars are certainly old.  Humans can never be truly old.

But they can be young, as this solemn, white-frocked clerk is young.  He must be at least thirty years junior to Kaia, which is probably part of why she's so frightened.  Yes, frightened.  My daughter has always transmuted fear to rage, ever since her mother died.

"It's not about his age, Ms. Sejoh, although just to clarify," his lips purse in disapproval, "what you see on the clips is not particularly indicative of the reality of the situation.  Certainly there are a handful of celebrities who can afford the extra procedures- procedures that never get mentioned in the clips, mind you- the extra procedures required to help an older body deal with wet-hi, but they are the exception, not the rule."

"If this is about money-"

"It's not about money, either."

"Then what is it about?"

The clerk holds up perfectly manicured hands, as if to physically halt Kaia's fury.  I feel I should warn him it will only do the opposite.  "Your father has genetic markers which indicate that he is part of a small percentage of the population for whom wet-hi, for whatever reason, does not work."

"What?  Why have I never heard about this?" Her voice is suspicious, as though she believes the clerk has made up this condition just to thwart her.  I try not to smile.

"The layman's term is 'Falfurrias Condition'," he says patiently, "and, as I said, it affects only a small- a very small- percentage of the population."

"How small?"

He sighs again.  "Literally one in a million, if that many."

"Hah!"  The laugh escapes before I can stop it; they both turn to look at me, but I pretend to be coughing.  'One in a million'!  How Sehme would laugh to hear her words applied to me in this new, strange context.  Of course, she always used to follow it with the cheeky reminder that, if it didn't work out with me, she'd just go find one of the other 1.5 million she might have a shot with.

I consider this, sobering.  One and a half million people who cannot get Off: cannot escape our dying planet.  Doesn't seem like such a small number when you put it like that.  I slide my eyes over to my daughter and see her making similar calculations.  Her full lips have compressed into a brittle line.

"This is unacceptable."

"This is reality, Ms. Sejoh." The man's voice starts hard, then gentles as he adds, "I'm sorry it had to happen to you and your family."

Reality happens to everyone, I think.  What is there to be sorry about?

"I'm getting a second opinion," she snaps, shoving to her feet.  I take a little more time about it.  I've never been one to rush.

"Please do.  I hope they prove us wrong," says the clerk, and I almost think he means it.  Almost, but not quite.

We leave the office too slowly to make a truly dramatic exit, but Kaia's glares more than make up for that, I think.  As we retrace our steps to the parking pad she mutters under her breath.  At first I think she is still cursing the clerk, but then I realize she is calling my youngest daughter, Dalili.

Lili got Off ages ago, when she was still a teenager.  In those days it was only the young and adventurous who took such gambles- this was before people realized that the greater gamble was how much longer our world could survive.  She'd paid for it by going as a mentary, creating clips of her experiences so the world could watch in fascination.  As such she had been popping in and out of wet-hi every three years for the past four decades, which meant she would be a lot older than her compatriots when they finally landed, but also a lot wealthier.  She was currently awake, and scheduled to be that way for at least two more months.

I watch her clips, of course- the nets turn three months of constant recordings into two seasons of shows, not to mention tie-in material- but I have never accustomed myself to how young she stays.  Neither, although she would never admit it, has Kaia.

Lili has always reminded me of Sehme, although the two only had eighteen months together- and nine of those months Lili was cradled beneath Sehme's heart.  But she has the same bright spark that drew me to her mother, the same bright spark that draws everyone.  She loves freedom and adventure and love in general.  It seems appropriate that she should remain young, not just cosyoung but truly young, while the rest of us age.  It's not that different from my amber-trapped memories of Sehme.

Kaia is... I wonder, sometimes, if she might have been more like me in temperament, if not for her mother's early death.  But then I remember how the shape of her scowl is exactly that of my own mother's, and I think perhaps we must be who we must be, regardless of the circumstances.  Kaia is very serious, and very controlled: strong and competent, and not one to suffer nonsense.  When Kaia decides a thing will get done, it Gets Done.

She is not used to being successfully thwarted.  The term "genetic marker" might have brought most people to a screeching halt, faced with a variable that was set before I was even born- but not my eldest.

"I'm not going to just leave him!" Kaia exclaims, and my wandering mind is brought back to the present.

It is highly doubtful that Lili suggested- or even implied- that Kaia 'just leave me'.  This makes no difference to what Kaia has heard, however, and she begins to rail against her 'irresponsible, feckless child' of a sister.  Poor Lili.  It is hard to bear the weight of others' regrets.

We cannot exit the building until we have suited up, and of course we cannot suit up so long as Kaia is still so enthusiastically ranting.  I sidle over to one of the windows and stare up and out at the sky.  The skins on the window make it a dull orange-brown, of course- but even if the skins weren't there, it wouldn't be the clean blue I remember from childhood.  Kaia and Lili never knew skies like that.  The thought makes me wistful.  But then I remember that the new worlds have blue skies, and I am happy.

Eventually Kaia comes and finds me, scolds me for not already suiting up, and bustles me out to where our pod is waiting.  I think we are going home, but as the moments pass I realize Kaia has keyed in entirely unfamiliar coordinates.

The pod moves in and out of the flow as efficiently as if Kaia herself had been guiding its movements.  She is on the nect again, but since she is suited up I cannot decipher who she is speaking to.  I turn my attention instead to the gracefully curving lines of our pod: it's top of the line, the interior smelling of warm leather, orange-oiled wood, and the vanilla of Kaia's perfume.  I'm glad we bought it- it's much more comfortable than our previous pod- but there are days when I sorely miss the wild, manual-driving days of my youth, nothing but two tons of metal and sheer nerve between you and destruction.

I am drawn abruptly from my memories when we arrive at a hospital- not my hospital, that I am so familiar with, but a hospital.  I assume Kaia has decided there's no time like the present for second opinions.

"Wait here, father," she says, climbing out the door onto the cold blue-gray of the pad.  Her plum skirt hikes up, but she jerks it viciously back into place.  "I'm going to see what I can arrange."  Kaia always does her best 'arranging' face-to-face.  Her presence can be... intense.

I do wait.  In my defense, I do wait an entire three minutes.  And then I key in some coordinates of my own.

When I was a boy and wanted to escape, I would go to a green place and hide, free from my father's walls, my mother's expectations, free to breathe in air that had been to places I would never see.

These days, of course, I do not have such a luxury.  No one does.  But the city's biodens are close enough for my purposes.  I program the pod to fly home, knowing it will give me a little longer on my own, and I enter the dome.

Being rich was never a goal for either Sehme or myself- it was one of those things that just sort of happened while we were busy working hard.  Most of the time I don't think about it, but times like this, times when I can enjoy the privileges of a biome Pillar Level membership, I am grateful.  Kaia calls it 'an unnecessary expense', but I, as is my right as patriarch, insist it is quite necessary.

Anyway it's my money.

I make my way, slowly, from one bioden to the next.  I could hop on a slidewalk, of course, but I find more satisfaction using my own legs, at my own pace.  I am so rarely allowed to do things for myself these days.  And what's the point of all these rejuves if I'm not going to keep using the limbs they claim to be preserving?

The biodens remind me of the women I have loved.  Do love.  Sehme, of course, because she loved all growing things.  Kaia, because she, too, will always find a way to adapt and survive, as so many of these little plants have.  And Lili, because, like my youngest daughter, this small part of the world remains young and fresh while the rest of us age... and die.

The world is dying.  It is sick, so sick- just as Sehme was.  Sick, and dying- but beautiful nonetheless.

I pass through woodland and scrub, taiga and tundra.  I come at last to desert, and it is here that I wander off the path and into the shimmering dunes.

There are certain privileges to being old and very wealthy.  If they catch me, they will shoo me out in the kindest way possible.  But they rarely catch me, because who in their right mind goes wandering around a desert biome?

I do.  And I do it for a specific purpose.

Once the pathways are out of sight, I settle down into the trough of a dune and run my fingers through the hot, silken sand, digging down to the cooler layers beneath.  The desert has many secrets, and it just so happens that we share this one.

"Hello, Sehme," I say.  She is in these sands, her ashes mixed to the point of disappearing, but she is here nonetheless.  The curator would be horrified if he knew what I'd done- as would Kaia- but I like to think that Lili would understand.  Sehme needed to be part of the world, not bottled up and kept on a shelf.

I must have dozed, because the next thing I know, one of the young caretakers is gently shaking my shoulder, and the light has taken on a certain slant that tells you it's later in the day.

"Mr. Sejoh," he says shyly, "Your daughter is here, and I think you do not want to be officially discovered off the paths."

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