Welcome to the book club. Here is a short story that holds a lot of meaning.
Slide Show is a story about priorities. Which decision is bets for humanity? Which decision is best for personal gain? Can the two meet somewhere down the middle?
You will notice many thematic plot details such as the existential decision making (what is the cost of one life compared to many?), as well as the oft repeated personal struggle with the desire to travel (such as GRRM had while growing up in Bayonne, NJ), flashy-dashy that wins them over (a la Good Queen Alysanne at the Night’s Watch), battle between the ‘gods’, color association, ant/insect associations, and the use of long term survival by hiding underground as the earth’s surface is no longer safe. It is the slide show itself that gives ASOIAF readers a sense of what Bran was experiencing during his coma dream, and then flips over to ideas and thoughts like Daenerys. And as always, a precursor to the idea of Greenseeing means Enlightenment, as Martin thematically blurs the line between outer space and under the sea.
This story is bittersweet for me as it is the last of the published GRRM material that was left for me to read. However, the saying “best for last” really pulled through here as I found this to be another short, yet strong, story. If you are curious what stories by George R.R. Martin I have read, you can find the list here.
For now I am keeping my notes to a minimum, but I will go back and make additions later. Also, per the usual, I have not changed any punctuation or grammar weirdness because you don’t mess with perfect imperfection. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment detailing your finds.
Like each book club story on this blog, the reading and commenting is done at your own pace. Have fun and enjoy!
I will add Bran’s coma dream in full at the end of this story. but for now I want to start with this excerpt from A Dance with Dragons, Barristan- The Discarded Knight:
…She wants fire, and Dorne sent her mud.
You could make a poultice out of mud to cool a fever. You could plant seeds in mud and grow a crop to feed your children. Mud would nourish you, where fire would only consume you, but fools and children and young girls would choose fire every time.
Behind the prince, Ser Gerris Drinkwater was whispering something to Yronwood. Ser Gerris was all his prince was not: tall and lean and comely, with a swordsman’s grace and a courtier’s wit. Selmy did not doubt that many a Dornish maiden had run her fingers through that sun-streaked hair and kissed that teasing smile off his lips. If this one had been the prince, things might have gone elsewise, he could not help but think … but there was something a bit too pleasant about Drinkwater for his taste. False coin, the old knight thought. He had known such men before.
Slide Show by George R.R. Martin
Becker was the second speaker on the program. So he waited patiently.
The man who preceded him was a doctor, the head of some sort of charity clinic in one of the undercities. Tall, gaunt, and elderly, he spoke in a droning monotone, and kept running his hands nervously through his sparse gray hair. The audience, some thirty-odd plump upperlevel matrons, was trying hard to pay attention, but Becker could sense their restlessness.
He didn’t blame them. The presentation wasn’t very effective. The doctor was telling medical horror stories, of under-city kids too poor to get decent hospital care, of needless deaths, and of long-cured diseases that still flourished down below. But his voice and his manner drained the punch from his words. And his slides, as well as being of the old-fashioned flat kind, were woefully ill chosen. Instead of moving photos of sick kids and undercity squalor, there were tedious pictures of the clinic and its staff, and then even blueprints of the proposed expansion.
Becker fought to stifle hos own yawns. He felt a little bit sorry for the doctor. But only a little bit. Mostly he was still feeling sorry for himself.
Finally the doctor concluded his presentation with a halting, self-conscious plea for funds. The ladies gave him a round of polite applause. Then the chairwoman turned to Becker. “Any time you’re ready to begin, Commander,” she said pleasantly.
Becker rose from his contour chair and flashed a plastic smile. “Thank you,” he said, as he made his way to the front of the plushly furnished living room. He waited a moment while the doctor cleared the old slide projector from the speaker’s table, then swung up his portable holocaster to take its place. “You can take down the screen, ladies,” he said. “My machine doesn’t need it. And clear a circle around- oh- there.” He pointed.
The women hastened to comply. Becker watched them and smiled at them. But inside, as usual, he felt only a vague distaste for the whole thing.
Even in the darkened living room, he cut a much more imposing figure than the doctor, and he knew it. He was big and broad of shoulder, and the soft gray uniform he wore hinted at his athletic build. He had a classic profile, a decisive chin, and thick black hair with just a touch of gray at the temples. And his steel-blue eyes were perfectly matched by the leather of his boots and belt, and the scarf that was casually knotted about his neck, under the open collar.
He looked very much like a SPACE recruiting poster. Of late, he’d regretted that. There were times, in recent years, when he’d have given anything for a hook nose, or weak chin, or a receding hairline.
- A Storm of Swords, Davos V: “Under the sea the old fish eat the young fish,” the fool muttered at Davos. He bobbed his head, and his bells clanged and chimed and sang. “I know, I know, oh oh oh.”
- This is very much a set up between elemental gods. The ice and fire of the plot. These gods have to appeal to the upperlevel matrons for survival, also known as the fates of various mythologies.
The holocaster was set up and humming, and the audience was waiting. Becker pushed thoughts aside and thumbed the first slide.
- In this story, the holocube seems to act as the fires Melisandre looks into to get her visions. It seems there is a chance Davos and Bran maybe have a vision experience with the flames, but at this point we do not know for sure yet. What I do know that is this ‘vision screen’ idea is used repeatedly across Martinworld literature by means of televisions, viewports, and even a wall of changing images (used to manipulate). These instances are also all used by the ‘fire’ element characters as well.
In the circle the women had cleared, a cube of deeper darkness appeared. Darkness touched by stars. In one corner of the cube, Earth floated in silent blue-green majesty. But the center of the holograph was occupied by the ship. a fat silver cigar with a pot belly. Or a pregnant torpedo. There were many ways to describe it, and most of them had been used at one time or another.
- A Game of Thrones, Daenerys IV: Only men were allowed to set foot on the Mother, Dany knew. The khal’s bloodriders would go with him, and return at dawn. “Tell my sun-and-stars that I dream of him, and wait anxious for his return,” she replied, thankful. Dany tired more easily as the child grew within her; in truth, a night of rest would be most welcome. Her pregnancy only seemed to have inflamed Drogo’s desire for her, and of late his embraces left her exhausted.
Appreciative murmurs sounded from the audience. The holoslide was very real, and very striking. Becker, smiling, began smoothly. “This is the Starwind, one of the four SPACE starcruisers. The cruisers are stellar exploration ships, each with a crew of more than a hundred. Anti-spacejump generators give them speeds many times that of light. These four frail ships, even as I speak, are carrying the destiny of our race, and making man’s age-old dream a reality. They are giving man the stars.”
- A Clash of Kings, Prologue:
“I am pleased to hear it, my lord.” Lady Selyse was as tall as her husband, thin of body and thin of face, with prominent ears, a sharp nose, and the faintest hint of a mustache on her upper lip. She plucked it daily and cursed it regularly, yet it never failed to return. Her eyes were pale, her mouth stern, her voice a whip. She cracked it now. “Lady Arryn owes you her allegiance, as do the Starks, your brother Renly, and all the rest. You are their one true king. It would not be fitting to plead and bargain with them for what is rightfully yours by the grace of god.”
God, she said, not gods. The red woman had won her, heart and soul, turning her from the gods of the Seven Kingdoms, both old and new, to worship the one they called the Lord of Light.
A practiced note of warm fondness crept into his voice, and he gestured at the silver shaped afloat in the cube of black. “The Starwind was my ship,” he said. “I was one small member of its crew during its last voyage. The slides you are about to see were taken during that voyage, a voyage that must rank among the most eventful in history. At least I’d say so.” He smiled. “But then, I’m prejudiced.”
His voice went on, detailing the size, design, and capabilities of the starcruiser and its crew. But he never got too technical, and there were always human touches and even hints of poetry to spice presentation. Becker was too good at his job to bore his audience.
But even as his tongue went through its familiar paces, his mind was elsewhere. Out with the Starwind, in the sunless void of antispace. Out among the stars.
Where is she now? he thought. It’s been almost a year now since she left. On this new trip. Without me. God knows what new worlds they have found while I’m stuck back here, feeding slick crap to old ladies.
And there was an old bitterness to his thoughts, and old longing in his stomach. And he grew aware, for the millionth time, of how much he hated what his life had become. But no hint of that crept into his smooth and warm and very professional speech.
- A Dance with Dragons, Daenerys I: Dany had wanted to ban the tokar when she took Meereen, but her advisors had convinced her otherwise. “The Mother of Dragons must don the tokar or be forever hated,” warned the Green Grace, Galazza Galare. “In the wools of Westeros or a gown of Myrish lace, Your Radiance shall forever remain a stranger amongst us, a grotesque outlander, a barbarian conqueror. Meereen’s queen must be a lady of Old Ghis.” Brown Ben Plumm, the captain of the Second Sons, had put it more succinctly. “Man wants to be the king o’ the rabbits, he best wear a pair o’ floppy ears.”
He thumbed the holocaster, and the slide changed. Now the cube was blinding white, flecked with pits of pulsing black. And in the center of the projection was a thing that looked like a floating black octopus with crimson veins.
“This is the antispace,” Becker said simply. “Or at least, this is how human eyes perceive antispace. The mathematicians are still trying to figure out its true nature. But when our jump-generators are on, this is how we see it. Almost like a photographic negative: white darkness, and sparkling black stars.”
He paused, waiting for the inevitable question. And, as always, it came. “Commander,” one of the women said, “what’s that-that thing in the middle?”
He smiled. “You’re not the only one who’d like to know,” he said. “Whatever it is, it has no counterpart in normal space. Or at least, none that we can see. But it and things like it have been sighted several times by starcruisers in antispace. This slide, taken by the Starwind on its last voyage, is the best picture we’ve ever gotten of one. The creature-if it is a creature, which is still only a guess-is larger than a ship. By a good deal. But it seems to be harmless.”
His voice was reassuring. His mind wandered. Seems to be harmless, he thought. Yeah. But this one seemed to be after the ship. There are still arguments about whether it could have done anything if it caught us. Maybe this time it did. Maybe it got them this trip. I always said it was possible. Although the brass doesn’t like to admit it. They’re afraid there’ll be more budget cuts if they admit the program is dangerous. So they pretend that everything is safe and sane and bland out there, just like Earth. But it isn’t. Is isn’t. Earth died of dullness years ago. Out there man can still live, and feel, and dream.
He finished his spiel on antispace. His thumb moved. The cube of white vanished. Instead, a huge red globe burned in the center of the room.
“The Starwind’s first stop was this red giant, still unnamed,” Becker told the women. “The crew nicknamed it Red Light. Because it stopped us. And because it is a red light, rather obviously. There were no planets, but we circled this star for a month, taking readings and sending in probes. The information we gathered should tell us a lot about stellar evolution.”
I remember the first time I saw it, he was thinking as he spoke. God! What a sight! My first star- Sol doesn’t count. Wilson was on wacth with me, but he was so damned busy taking readings he hardly bothered to look. Yet now he’s out here again. And I’m here, There’s no justice….
- A Game of Thrones, Prologue:
They were gone. All the bodies were gone.
“Gods!” he heard behind him. A sword slashed at a branch as Ser Waymar Royce gained the ridge. He stood there beside the sentinel, longsword in hand, his cloak billowing behind him as the wind came up, outlined nobly against the stars for all to see.
A new slide. This time a mottled globe of orange and blue floated int he cube. Behind it, a bright yellow sun only slightly smaller than Sol.
Becker’s voice became solemn. “Our first planetfall,” he said. “And one of the greatest moments in human history. That is the planet we named Anthill. I’m sure you’ve read all about it by now, and seen the holoshows. But remember, for us it was new and strange and unexpected. This was humanity’s first contact with another sentient race.”
He thumbed for the next slide, one of the big ones. And when it flashed into view, there were the expected gasps of awe and admiration. The audience held its collective breath.
There was a vast, dark plain in the center of the cube, under a blood-red sky where scuttling black clouds obscured by the alien sun. And rising from the plain, the towers. Thin and black and twining, twisting around each other, branching together and splitting again as they rose. They rose for nearly a mile, and all around them were the fragile weblike bridges that linked each to its brothers to make an intricate whole. A river ran through the middle of the city, and gave a clue to the vast size of the structure.
“One of their cities,” Becker said. And the slight note of awe was real. “The home of more than a million of them, by our estimate. We called the builders Spiderants. Because there was something of the spider web in the cities that they built. And because-well, look.”
The city vanished. The new slide was a closeup. A thick black strand looping through the cube. From it hung what looked like a four-foot-long ant. But appearances were deceiving.
There were a few murmurs of revulsion, even though most of the audience had probably seen photos before. Becker quelled them quickly. “Don’t be fooled,’ he cautioned. “Despite what your eyes tell you, that’s not a big ant. It’s not even an insect. No exoskeleton, for example, although it looks like one at first glance. And that bug, we think, is quite intelligent. Their culture is very different from ours. But they have their own sense of beauty. Look at their city again.”
He touched the holocaster. The hanging Spiderant vanished, and again the towers rose amid the carpet. The same angle. But this time, night. And it made a difference.
For the towers glowed.
Black and reddish daylight, now they shone with a soft green light. A gorgeous glow tracery against the darkness, they rose and rose and twisted, and every loop and web had a soft radiance all its own. Unbelievable intricate.
- A Dance with Dragons, Prologue:
The things below moved, but did not live. One by one, they raised their heads toward the three wolves on the hill. The last to look was the thing that had been Thistle. She wore wool and fur and leather, and over that she wore a coat of hoarfrost that crackled when she moved and glistened in the moonlight. Pale pink icicles hung from her fingertips, ten long knives of frozen blood. And in the pits where her eyes had been, a pale blue light was flickering, lending her coarse features an eerie beauty they had never known in life.
She sees me.
Becker, despite himself, still shivered at the slide. As he had the first time he had seen it. In person. The holo woke dreams and memories, and made him hate his reality all the more.
They’ve taken this away from me, he thought. Forever. And given me-what? Nothing. Nothing I want anyway.
But he said only, “And when the dawn comes…” And the slide changed.
Now a reddish-yellow glow suffused the horizon behind the city, and the radiance of the towers was paler and dying. But something new, and just as awesome, has been added. For now the web of the city was aswarm with life. From each branch and strand and loop, Spiderants hung. Dangling even from the highest towers, nearly a mile above the ground. Clustered together, crawling over each other, yet somehow orderly. The whole city.
“They do this every dawn,” Becker said. “And as their sun rises, they sing to it.”
If you can call it song, he thought. To my ears, that first night outside the landing craft, it was moaning. But weird. Rising and falling, up and down, for hours and hours. Even Wilson was awestruck. A million beings moaned together, moaning a hymn to their sun.
His thumb flicked down and up, and suddenly they were looking at a closeup of a web strand, laden heavy with Spiderants. Then it moved once more, and there was another view of the city. And after a while still another, and another. And all the time his voice went on, telling of this curious race and the little they had learned about it.
- A Game of Thrones, Prologue, description of the Others: They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … Ser Waymar may have felt the cold that came with them, but he never saw them, never heard them. Will had to call out. It was his duty. And his death, if he did. He shivered, and hugged the tree, and kept the silence.
“The Starwind lay off the Anthill for more than six months, sending down landing craft regularly,” he said. “But the Spiderants are yet a race of unanswered questions. We still have not cracked their language, or determined how intelligent they really are. They seem to have no technology, as we know it. But they have- well- something else.”
- A Game of Thrones, Prologue: The Other said something in a language that Will did not know; his voice was like the cracking of ice on a winter lake, and the words were mocking.
- A Storm of Swords, Samwell I:
Do it, Sam. Was that Jon, now? Jon was dead. You can do it, you can, just do it. And then he was stumbling forward, falling more than running, really, closing his eyes and shoving the dagger blindly out before him with both hands. He heard a crack, like the sound ice makes when it breaks beneath a man’s foot, and then a screech so shrill and sharp that he went staggering backward with his hands over his muffled ears, and fell hard on his arse.
When he opened his eyes the Other’s armor was running down its legs in rivulets as pale blue blood hissed and steamed around the black dragonglass dagger in its throat. It reached down with two bone-white hands to pull out the knife, but where its fingers touched the obsidian they smoked.
More views of the city came and went. And then of other, like cities. And some not so like- one that rose from the planet’s brackish sea, and another where the towers jutted sideways to join two mountains in a twisted embrace.
- A Dance with Dragons, Melisandre I: Visions danced before her, gold and scarlet, flickering, forming and melting and dissolving into one another, shapes strange and terrifying and seductive. She saw the eyeless faces again, staring out at her from sockets weeping blood. Then the towers by the sea, crumbling as the dark tide came sweeping over them, rising from the depths. Shadows in the shape of skulls, skulls that turned to mist, bodies locked together in lust, writhing and rolling and clawing. Through curtains of fire great winged shadows wheeled against a hard blue sky.
“We had been there nearly a month before we were allowed up in the towers,” Becker continued. “And even then it took us a while before we realized that the cities of the Spiderants were not built, but grown. Those towers are not buildings at all. They are plants: huge, incredibly hardy, incredibly complex. But, for all that, plants.”
Lawrence was the first one to find that out, he remembered. He was so damned excited when he got back that he incoherent. But he had a right to be. It was our first clue. Before that, nothing made sense. Mile-high towers without machines were especially nonsensical. At least I thought so. Hell. I wonder where Lawrence is now.
“When we discovered that , we began to wonder whether the Spiderants were intelligent after all. We got our answer when we branched out from the original landing site. This was one of the things we saw.”
Red-black gloom suddenly filled the cube. Through it flapped something huge and green and triangular. Airborne and manta-like, with a long tail that split in half over and over again until it was trail of thin, whiplike tendrils.
- A manta pin is what GRRM uses in his story Dying of the Light that the Rhaegar-like character named Jaantony Riv Wolf high-Ironjade Vikary uses to mark his ‘territory’ of his girlfriend Gwen (A strong Lyanna-type). So the way Martin tends to fantasies-up and uses the manta rays is as a sea behemoth, or, water dragon in some cases.
Far below it, a city. On top, Spiderants. “This is a domesticated flying creature, almost as big as a jet. It has to stay low, of course, And it doesn’t have anything like an airplane’s speed. But then, it doesn’t pollute, either. And it gets around.”
- Proto-Ice Spiders, big as hounds? Read about them here.
- Ice can grow if it is super cooled. Readers know the Others bring a different kind of cold, a kind so deep and frigid it hurts to breath. Watch video on how to grow ice.
We got around faster, though, he thought. I remember that afternoon I trailed one with a flyer. God, but those things are slow. Still, sort of majectic. And when those incredible wings flap with that funny rippling motion, it’s something to see. Of course, that ass Donway had to try buzzing it. At least he’s down, too. I couldn’t stand it if he had gone out again.
“What it is, of course,” he was saying, “is another plant. A mobile, flying plant. When it’s not transporting Spiderants, it flies up high and catches the sun. And it takes in nourishment through that tail structure, which is actually a root of sorts. A lot more complicated than anything any Earth plant has, of course.”
He went through several more slides, showing other mantas, and then several of them in formation. “We think that these things were bred deliberately by the Spiderants. As were the towers. If the theory is right, then we’ve stumbled across the greatest biological engineers you could ever want. There’s a lot to be learned from them, if we can crack the communications barrier. Anthill will be a regular stop for our starcruisers from now on.”
Including the Starwind, of course. She was scheduled to visit there again this mission, Maybe she’s there now. Maybe Lawrence and Wilson and the rest are listening to the Spiderants right at this moment. While I talk. Or sing. My performance doesn’t much compare to theirs.
He paused. “We spent more than six months on Anthill, and had to cut out much of our scheduled mission because of our overstay. But I think you’ll agree that it was worth it.”- with a smile, and the ladies in the audience mumbled agreement. “Finally, however, we had to move on. There was still time for one more stop before we turned around and began to jump for home.”
- A Dance with Dragons, Jon VI: Jon watched the riders go from atop the Wall—three parties, each of three men, each carrying a pair of ravens. From on high their garrons looked no larger than ants, and Jon could not tell one ranger from another. He knew them, though. Every name was graven on his heart. Eight good men, he thought, and one … well, we shall see.
- A Dance with Dragons, Daenerys X:
“Remember who you are, Daenerys,” the stars whispered in a woman’s voice. “The dragons know. Do you?”
The next morning she woke stiff and sore and aching, with ants crawling on her arms and legs and face. When she realized what they were, she kicked aside the stalks of dry brown grass that had served as her bed and blanket and struggled to her feet. She had bites all over her, little red bumps, itchy and inflamed. Where did all the ants come from? Dany brushed them from her arms and legs and belly. She ran a hand across her stubbly scalp where her hair had burned away, and felt more ants on her head, and one crawling down the back of her neck. She knocked them off and crushed them under her bare feet. There were so many …
It turned out that their anthill was on the other side of her wall. She wondered how the ants had managed to climb over it and find her. To them these tumbledown stones must loom as huge as the Wall of Westeros. The biggest wall in all the world, her brother Viserys used to say, as proud as if he’d built it himself.
He hit the button, and the last view of Anthill died. The holo that was born in its stead was spectacular. The matrons greeted it with gasps. They’d seen it before, on magazine covers and news broadcasts. But the holoslide captured more, much more.
“The world we called Storm,”Becker said. Very softly. And then fell silent while they looked.
A surly green sea was wrestling the wind. From it rose the volcano: a trident in blueish-black stone whose triple peaks dripped fire. Smoke whipped up to mix with the glowering sky, lava coiled down to stream hissing into the ocean.
- Mix of Valyria and Dance of Dragons 2.0- either the Trident river or over God’s Eye.
And above the volcano, literally leaning over it, a foam-flecked wall of green. Tidal wave? No. The Earth term didn’t apply. This was bigger. More spectacular. Looming larger than the mountain itself, caught seconds before impact.
“We couldn’t land on Storm,” Becker said. “There was no safe place to put down. But we sent manned probes into the atmosphere. This slide was taken by one of those probes.” He smiled again and put a note of pride into his voice. But in with the pride, just barely, was a taste of anger. “I’m happy to tell you it was my probe.”
At least they can’t take that away from me, he thought. They took away my stars, but they can’t take Storm. I captured it with this picture. The essence of a planet. The soul. There, in a holocube. And it’s mine.
And I was the only one to see the rest. Seconds after. When the wildwave hit, and the volcano broke and shattered under the blow, and the world was full of storm and steam and fire. And I was the only one to watch….
His voice was going on smoothly without him. “Storm is a young world,” it was saying. “Still very much a toddler on the celestial scale. But it’s a lusty kid. It’s mostly water, and what land there is is still volcanic. Earthquakes and eruptions are daily events- and they give birth to things like the wildwave you see in the cube. Winds average hundreds of miles an hour, and the electrical displays make common Earth lightening look pale and week. Look.”
The trident and wildwave vanished, and a skyscape took their place. There was ball lightening everywhere, and massive bolts that crackled and joined in a blinding net.
You can almost hear the thunder just looking at it. But on Storm, I didn’t just hear. I felt it. It was all around me, and the ship shook to it, and I was scared shitless. But at least I was alive. What am I now?
His thumb moved of its own volition, and a new view of Storm came oncube. And his voice continued its glib narration. But the rest of him was millions of miles away, lost in a land of lightening and wildwaves.
Storm was my favorite, his thoughts ran. Red Light was a heart-stopping first, and Anthill was haunting and puzzling and magical. But them I shared. Storm was almost my own. Only a handful of us got to swoop down, after Ainslie got careless and let his probe get blown against a mountain. But I was one of the handful. They can’t take that away, either.
His mind wandered. But all the while new vistas came and went in the cube, and his voice went on, and the ladies ooohed and aahed on schedule. And, finally, the end approached. And jerked him back to reality.
The next-to-last slide was the same as the first; the Starwind, in orbit around Earth. Waiting for new supplies, and new funding, and a new mission. And a few new men.
- The red comet from A Song of Ice and Fire.
- The Volcryn from Thousand Worlds universe, which also causes obsessive madness and sparks magic in those who have the ‘gene’, and most clearly interacted with and described in the story Nightflyers:When Jesus of Nazareth hung dying on his cross, the volcryn passed within a year of his agony, headed outward. When the Fire Wars raged on Earth, the volcryn sailed near Old Poseidon, where the seas were still unnamed and unfished… And now I am old and growing older and the volcryn will soon pierce the Tempter’s Veil where it hangs like a black mist between the stars. And we follow, we follow. Through the dark gulfs where no one goes, through the emptiness, through the silence that goes on and on, my Nightflyer and I give chase.
The last slide was an address. Glowing red letters floated in the white cube. And Becker, hating it, provided the narration.
“Space exploration is the greatest adventure in man’s history,” he said, smiling his plastic smile and talking with a plastic tongue. “And the stars are our joy and our destiny. Not everyone can go to the stars, of course. But all those who want to can share in the adventure, and help to build the destiny. Worldgov has many expenses, and many causes crying for priority. It can only fund a small part of the budget needed to operate the starcruisers. The rest, as you know, is provided by interested citizens.
“If you share our dreams, we ask you to join the fight. For only a hundred credits a year, you can become members of the Friends of SPACE magazine. And you’ll be giving a gift to your children. All your children, and all the children of man. You’ll be giving them the starts.
“For a gift like that, the price tag is pretty low.” He pointed at the address floating in the holocube. “If you’d like to help, send your contributions there- to SPACE, Box 27, Worldgov Center, Geneva.”
His smile broadened. “And of course, all contributions are tax deductible.” He bowed slightly, and flicked off the holocaster. “Whether you care to contribute or not, I hope you enjoyed the show.”
- The motto for my blog 🙂
Then the audience started applauding, and the lights came on, and the chairwoman rose to announce that refreshments would be served. While they were getting the food, a steady stream of women flowed up to Becker and thanked him effusively for his presentation and promised him support. He acknowledged their praise with nods and laughter and pleasant smiles.
And despised them, all the while. God, he thought, I hate this. They’ve taken away my stars and given me chattering fat ladies and phony upperlevel parlors. And I hate it. And it isn’t fair. Hell, it isn’t even life.
They gave him synthetic coffee and protein cookies. And he took them with a smile. And hated them. But he ate them, and stayed, and made small talk. That was SPACE policy. Finally, the audience began to break up and leave, one by one.
Just as Becker was beginning to think of leaving, the doctor drifted up, holding hos coffee limply. He didn’t seem quite as old with the lights on. But he looked very tired.
“That was quite a show, Commander.” he said with a wan smile. “I’m afraid you blitzed me. I have a hunch you’ll be getting all the contributions.”
Becker returned a professional smile. “Well, your own presentation was interesting, Doctor. And there’s certainly a need for your kind of work down in the undercitites. I wouldn’t be so pessimistic.”
The doctor frowned slightly, sipped his coffee, and shook his head. “Come, commander. Don’t humor me. I’m new at this game and I did very badly. And you’re good enough to know that.”
Becker, who was busy packing up his holocaster, gave the doctor and sharp glance and a genuine grin. He looked around to make sure none of the women were in range of the conversation, then nodded quickly. “You’re sharp. And right- your show was third-rate. But you’ll get better with time. And then the contributions will start to come in .”
“Hmmmm. Yes.” The doctor looked at him hard, paused. Then he seemed to make up his mind about something. And he continued. “Meanwhile, of course, thousands of kids down in the undercitites are hungry and sick. And they stay that way. And maybe die. Why? Because I’m not as slick as you.” His mouth set in a hard line. “Tell me honestly, Commander- don’t you ever feel guilty?”
The case on the holocaster snapped up with a sharp click, and Becker’s grin died. “No,” he said. There was a bite in his tone suddenly. “Doctor, you know taht there are four starcruisers. There could be forty. Or four hundred. There should be. But Worldgov won’t give us the money. Comments like you just made are costing us the stars.”
Are costing me the stars, he was saying to himself, his mind seething. So few ships, so many volunteers. And that damned waiting list…
What was it that General Henderson had said? Thousands, was it? Yes. “Commander, there are thousands of applicants for every starcruiser berth. And your performance on your first voyage was… well, adequate. But not outstanding. I’m afraid I’m going to have to turn down your application for permanent crew status. I’m sorry.”
And I said… what? I said, “you’re taking away my stars.” For the first time, if not the last.
“I’m sorry,” he said. That bastard. He never flew on a starcruiser in his life. That fatass would never leave Earth. “There’s nothing I can do. However, Commander, there’s still a place for you. You’re good-looking and articulate, and you believe in what we’re doing. SPACE needs men like you. We’re moving you to public relations. Without which, I might add, the starcruisers would be impossible.”
“I’m as compassionate as anyone,” Becker said, slinging the holocaster under an arm. “I think your work is vital. I feel for those kids. But you should try some empathy too. And try to understand what we’re doing.”
“What you’re doing is a luxury when kids are hungry on Earth,” the doctor said.
Becker shook his head. “No. There has to be room for both. Say you save a kid from death, Doctor. Fine. But what kind of life are you going to give him? A pretty drab one, without the stars. And hopeless one, in the long run. Maybe man can survive on Earth alone. I think he could. But his dreams can’t, and his myths can’t. There are too many people, and they’ve crowded out all the dreams. And there’s no life left for anyone. Just day-to-day survival.”
He paused there. It was good speech, his own restatement of arguments he had heard hundreds of times in SPACE headquarters. It was enough. But he wanted to add more. He was angry and resentful, and he went on.
“I’ll tell you something else, Doctor. I think we need both your work and mine, both Earth and the stars. But I think the balance is wrong. I think we need more stars.”
He slapped the holocaster with his free hand. “You think I like this sort of shit? I hate it, Doctor. Just like you’d hate it if you did it all the time. I’ve dreamed of the stars all my life, and now they tell me I’m not good enough to get a permanent berth on a starcruiser. Not that I’m bad, mind you. I’m just not outstanding enough. And there’s so little room.”
“Tell me, Doctor, how would you feel if Worldgov suddenly announced that only the best four hundred doctors in the world would be allowed to practice medicine? Would you make the grade? What would you do? Can you imagine what it’d be like? Going through life, day to day, knowing what you wanted to do- and knowing that it was denied to you, maybe forever. Try to imagine that, if you can. Try to taste it. That’s what it;s like for me, you see.”
“You can’t live on Earth, Doctor. I can’t, anyway. I can exist, but I don’t call that living. I’ve seen the wildwaves of Storm and listened to the Spiderants sing their dawn. Am I supposed to content myself with mindspin trips and football games?” He snorted.
The doctor had calmly continued to sip his coffee during Becker’s outburst. Now he lowered his cup, sighed, and gave another tired shake of his head.
“Commander, I feel sorry for you.” he said. “You sound very bitter. Like you’ve been cheated. But you’ve been so incredible lucky. And you don’t realize it. You’ve done things most people only dream of, yet you complain of an empty life. I don’t buy that. You’ve flown on a starcruiser, even if it was only once. Commander, let me tell you something. Down in the undercity I’ve got patients who’ve never even seen the stars. And you’ve been there.”
Becker, his anger subsided, gave a wistful smile that seemed somehow out of character. But very genuine.
“I’ve thought of that,” he said sadly. “Sometimes. Maybe you’re right. But it doesn’t help, Doctor. I wish it did. But it doesn’t.” He thought a minute. “I’m sorry for your patients who’ve never seen the stars,” he said when he resumed. “You know, I think that’s almost as worse than hunger. Although that’s not fair for me to say, since I’ve never really been hungry. I hope someday you take your kids to the upperlevels, so they get a glimpse through the smog.”
- This almost feels like a scene between Davos and Stannis. A Storm of Swords; Davos V:
“Your Grace,” said Davos, “the cost . . .”
“I know the cost! Last night, gazing into that hearth, I saw things in the flames as well. I saw a king, a crown of fire on his brows, burning . . . burning, Davos. His own crown consumed his flesh and turned him into ash. Do you think I need Melisandre to tell me what that means? Or you?” The king moved, so his shadow fell upon King’s Landing. “If Joffrey should die . . . what is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?”
“Everything,” said Davos, softly.
- But then later Stannis has an epiphany. A Storm of Swords, Jon XI: Surprisingly, Stannis smiled at that. “You’re bold enough to be a Stark. Yes, I should have come sooner. If not for my Hand, I might not have come at all. Lord Seaworth is a man of humble birth, but he reminded me of my duty, when all I could think of was my rights. I had the cart before the horse, Davos said. I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne.” Stannis pointed north. “There is where I’ll find the foe that I was born to fight.”
Becker shrugged then. “They’re not the only ones I’m sorry for, though. I’m sorry for everyone who has seen the stars and can’t go there. And can’t go back. I guess that makes me selfish. But that’s the way it is, I’m afraid. And I try to live with it.
“And I do sort of believe in what I do. Maybe someday Worldgov will change its mind and we’ll get more starcruisers. And I can go out again. And take some of your kids with me, who knows? It’s for them too, you know.”
Becker wanted it to end there. But the doctor, still unconvinced, came back again. “That’s big of you,” he said. “But before you give them the stars, try giving them some food, or a healthy environment.”
Becker glanced around the room. It was very late, and most of the audience had gone home. Time to break it off, he thought. Another damned show tomorrow.
“I could answer that,” he said. “But I won’t. I’m not going to convince you, Doctor. And you’re not going to convince me, either, I’m afraid. So let’s call it a night. Peace?”
He smiled and offered his hand. The doctor shook it. Then Becker turned to the chairwoman and the few matrons who remained, and bade them goodnight. And left.
It was cold outside on the upperlevels, and there was a brisk night wind whistling down on the street between the towertops. Becker stopped briefly and his way to the interlevel tubes and looked up. But the smog was heavy, and he could not see the stars.
And maybe that was just as well.
Bran and his Slide Show…
Other transcribed stories can be found here:
- Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark– rubies, fire, blood sacrifice, and Saagael- oh my!
- A Night at the Tarn House– a magical game of life and death played at an inn at a crossroads.
- Men of Greywater Station– Is it the trees, the fungus, or is the real danger humans?
- The Computer Cried Charge!– what are we fighting for and is it worth it?
- The Needle Men– the fiery hand wields itself again, only, why are we looking for men?
- Black and White and Red All Over– a partial take on a partial story.
- Fire & Blood excerpt; Alysanne in the north– not a full story, but transcribed and noted section of the book FIre & Blood, volume 1.
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Thank you for reading along to the jambles and jumbles of the Fattest Leech of Ice and Fire, by Gumbo!