A Belated Birthday Card (Not Afraid of Fiction #3)

A work of original fiction by mfptkd.

Everything surrounding the boy, floating relaxed and reclined in the open air enclosure, is artificial. He lays almost perfectly still, seemingly suspended magically in mid-air but is in reality buoyed up by an array of imperceptible anti-gravity rods streamed from the thin movable mat on the floor.  It is easily taken with him everywhere, so he is never without a place to sit.  His eyes are covered with small mirrored glasses which serve dual functions, protecting his retinas from the extraordinary brightness of Triton’s surface and connecting him to the colony’s vast communication and reference network.  He is linked, along with the other residents, through microscopic chips triggered by brain activity, embedded at his creation into his visual cortex. As is typical of most boys in the secondary service bracket during their social set period, he is playing a game, while reading, working a language puzzle, and modestly breaking the rules by occasionally adding some words to a report which according to regulations should only be modified during a performance set period.

A harried Over Seer message flashes in the corner of his eye. It is blinking red – URGENT!

His mind reaches in the file, opens and accesses the information.

“JSH 278 Reming S.S.:  Go and talk to the Grandfather.”  The OS always references your entire designation: Junior Systems Handler, Creation Number 278 at the Reming Shuttle Station.  Most everyone else simply refers to him as Josh.

He closes the im without responding, hoping it was a mistake, but with a sinking feeling it is not.  It returns in time with a displeasing whine intelligently designed to pierce the eardrum without damaging it.  He explains with a flash to his gaming companions, similarly situated across the satellite.

“OS sounding me.”

“What did you do?” Someone wisecracks.

Now even more leery, he opens the offending file.

“JSH 278 Reming S.S.: Go and talk to the Grandfather!”

Flicking half the focus of his mind to a contact file, Josh attempts to open a transmission line but is unsuccessful.  Relieved he sends back a reply.

“Can’t. He’s off circuit.”

The OS response is instantaneous. “No! JSH 278 Reming S.S. GO and talk to the Grandfather. Now!”

“What, physically?” Josh answers incredulous.  “That’s against the ordinances.”

Most corporal interaction on the transitional colonies was forbidden.  One instance of an entire expedition being wiped out by an unknown communicable ailment was enough to convince the financiers that such contact was undesirable.   All the bodily work was done by machines, operated through brain wave remotes.  The exchange of ideas through the revolutionary MPN (Mental Processing Network, circa 2111AD), was much faster and held a significantly lower probability of being misunderstood than traditional verbal communiqués.  It also served to eliminate bias, prejudice and a multitude of physical based tensions.  There was a brief uprising, on one of the early space stations, in which, although extensively screened, many of the occupants were still too bound in earthly relationships.  It was ultimately put down and planners began to quietly staff with pre-service bracket youth who would mature without any personal memory or attachment to tactility.  All employees’ physical needs were met through technology.  They were kept well conditioned in case of an emergency which might necessitate physical strength and endurance in an inhospitable environment.

“An exception is being made in this instance.  The Grandfather asked for you specifically to present yourself bodily in person.”  The OS replies emotionless.  The less curiosity and empathy you have in and for others, the more likely you will be selected to become an Over Seer.

“What is it about?” Josh asks nervously.

“Something concerning a time of creation.” The OS answers before moving on to the next task.

“A birthday,” Josh fails to halt the thought in his anxiety and it is transmitted to everyone on game.

“What’s a birth day?” The question comes from a multitude of sources.

It takes Neptune 164.79 Earth years to orbit the sun.  Due to the distance of the colony from the Earth, with the exception of the Grandfather and the copilot (who unfortunately died in route), all residents were created on site.  Even with extensive technology the present life expectancy of a human being was only 127 years.  They would never experience a true birthday on Triton. There was some brief discussion about measuring time based on the moon’s seasonal changes but as they only occurred every forty Earth years this seemed silly. One face of the moon was oriented toward the planet at all times so the light on their settlement was constant. There were no days and nights. The company, relying upon the Grandfathers experience and advice, decided to adopt his personal motto “Only and Always Moving Forward.”   Looking back, for any reason, was frowned upon and the study of Earth history forbidden in the ordinances.  Earth ways were purposefully abandoned.  Time was broken down into segmented periods based on how long the brain could work effectively without a rest period.

Josh, unaccustomed to the sick feeling rising up in his stomach, can not regain control of his mental impulses and issues an unwitting response.  “It’s a repeating celebration of the period you were birthed.”

“What do you mean?” Someone shoots back. “There are no period duplications.”

Josh stops himself before explaining it’s an old Earth idea and abruptly signs off circuit.  He tries to banish the thought in its entirety.  There are strict regulations against cerebral monitoring but now he is unsure as to how they are followed.  How else would they know?

He ponders this, as well as the bound to be unpleasant consequences of his recent activities, while walking through the encampment to the Grandfather’s room.  Rarely removed from the circuit, he is momentarily set off balance by the loud drumming of the generators needed to create breathable air from the Nitrogen atmosphere.  The constant noise is muted when interfaced so most residents leave their lines open, even when in a resting state.  He walks slowly, in as much an effort to remain standing as to delay the interview for as long as possible.

Josh cautiously peers inside the open entryway. The Grandfather’s room is the most cluttered space he has ever been in.  There is a pillow on the floor next to his anti-gravity mat and two straight backed chairs facing each other in the center. Lining the wall farthest from the door, there is a row of neatly stacked boxes. Gathering dust in the opposite corner next to a darkly shaded window is an antique telescope.  The Grandfather sits in one of the chairs, with military bearing, eyes intensely focused and alert.  His movements are slow and deliberate. They are the only indication of his advanced age.

“Come all the way in, sir!  Don’t just hover in the doorway.” The Grandfather instructs.

It takes Josh a moment to process the verbal instruction.  The voice is at the same time too loud and too soft, too fast and too slow.  Even though he practices daily with the vocal modulator, he has trouble controlling the intonation.  He also keeps automatically sending messages to the circuit which are denied.  Awkwardly aware of the Grandfather’s presence, he stumbles as he comes in with a hesitant “Yes, Sir.”

“Sit.” The Grandfather indicates the chair facing his.

The chair is an anomaly and distracts Josh from his unease as he tries to determine where to file and categorize the information.  Eventually he creates a new file on the eccentricity of founders.  He approaches the chair with trepidation, unsure of how it will hold his weight.  Josh sits stiffly, increasingly uncomfortable with the surface friction as well as being within someone’s reach.

The Grandfather stares at him silently thoughtful.

The silence chokes him and in a rush Josh comes clean.  “I can explain. You see I’m assigned to reporting system development and we need a way for the expeditions we send from here into the outer galaxy to get data back to us theoretically before they’ve arrived.  I mean – you understand – once they reach their destination, we will all have expired.  I devised a transfer model and thought Earth would be a good test but I needed a specific location so I opened some of the closed files.”

“The locked files?” the Grandfather inquires.

Unfamiliar with vocal inflections, Josh is unable to tell if he is being censorious, and lowers his gaze as he answers quietly, “Yes, Sir.”  But in a surge of curiosity and defiance he looks up and continues without pausing for a breath. “But I don’t understand why they are locked.  There was so much that was good. And even the things not needed here might still help in a way we don’t know…”

“Only and Always Moving Forward.” The Grandfather explains with a sigh.

“But did you know about what they did when…”

The Grandfather cuts him off.  “I was there.  Over two hundred earth years ago.  Looking back…”

“The stasis halted your aging temporarily.” Josh interrupts.

“Yes,” the Grandfather replies. “But, as you said, not the aging of those I left behind.”

“Why are they locked? Why can’t we know…”

The Grandfather sighs again. “It was the right thing to do at the time.  I believe it was the only way we could have advanced, the only way to accomplish the goal.”


“Yes.” says the Grandfather, “You understand that all worlds are finite.  This moon, for example, will be torn apart when it reaches the Roche limit.  The tidal forces from the planet will crush and disperse the material until it becomes another ring.  We must always be moving forward in order to survive.  The species survival is our paramount objective.  But looking back…”

Josh is on the edge of his seat drinking in the unexpected information when the Grandfather pauses struck.

“God, you look just like her. You are so much like her.  With all the variants that exist in the universe, how amazing and bizarre that you are so much like her.”

“Like who?”  Josh asks.  But the question is unheard.  The Grandfather is lost in a memory.

“She was supposed to come with me.  We organized and planned together.  But she backed out the day before lift, because I didn’t wish her a happy birthday. I told her she was being absurd. I didn’t understand why it was so important but now I can see what we are missing.  What we’ve lost.  What she tried to explain.”

“What do you mean?”  Josh asks confused.

“The celebrations,” answers the Grandfather, but Josh is unfamiliar with the word.  He offers no further explanation but with a sad understanding shake of his head, continues.  “Why did you think you were called here?”

“I went against regulations.”  Josh replies.

The Grandfather smiles to himself. “I’ll allow it in this case, if you tell me you can do it.”

“Do it, Sir?”

“Send a message back, to Earth.  Before now.”

“Yes, Sir. I believe I can – there will be no way of knowing, of course…”

“That will be enough.  I have a location for you and the data to be sent.”

“The data, Sir?” Josh questions.

“I didn’t wish her a happy birthday.” The Grandfather simply replies.


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