by William Squirrell
“In those days,” said Grandpapa from his recliner, “space was not yet a vacuum, and hellfire had a name unmathematical.”
The older kids playing poker at the table rolled their eyes. The little ones on the floor kept setting up Mousetrap.
“But Grandpapa,” Ivy looked up from the instructions. “Space was always a vacuum.”
“Now you’ve done it,” groaned Rory and threw his cards down.
“In those days,” said Grandpapa, “the universe was saturated with the aether and the starships could not fly willy-nilly hither-and-yon. They were swept before currents and winds.”
“Willy-nilly,” said Rory and the kids at the table laughed.
“The stars were lagoons,” said Grandpapa, “tidal pools into which life was tossed like so much flotsam and jetsam.”
“Tossed willy-nilly,” said Rory to another laugh.
“We couldn’t quite escape, you see,” said Grandpapa, “we had not yet tamed the demons. Not entirely.”
“What demons?” Ivy asked. “What are you talking about?”
“He means fusion reactors,” said Rory.
“You thought there were demons?” asked Ivy. “In the spaceships?”
“There still are,” said Grandpapa.
“What kind of demons?”
The game on the floor had passed her by and Rory was dealt back in at the table.
“Climb up and I’ll tell you.”
So she did, settling herself against his shoulder, into the smell of no-name laundry detergent, cheap cigars, cherry cough drops.
“Nazradeen, Shazaboo, Miramalamax the Hungry; infernal engines all, those were the heroes of the age. Not the navigators and the pilots you learn about in school.
“I worked a freighter on the Transneptune run,” Grandpapa said, “called the Flower of Perspicacity, and we were on the homeward haul when we got the call. Out on Eris, where they conducted the great experiments, there was trouble: A big accident, a catastrophe. A demon had broken free and only the scientist Jarvenpaa was left alive.”
“The Flower was the only ship close enough. It was us to save him, or no one. But we were just a broken-down old trader; even without a detour it was a tight run thing to get home. Our demon Jezereel was cantankerous and difficult at the best of times, and we were low on fuel.”
“Fuel?” asked Ivy. “What kind of fuel?”
“What do you think?” he grinned. “What would you feed a demon to make it burn brightly?”
“I don’t know, souls, maybe?”
Grandpapa laid a long bony finger against his nose and winked: “Souls! You bet! And innocent ones, by gum!”
“I don’t understand.”
“It was my job to stand at the furnace, when I was no older than Rory, mind you, and hurl baby after baby into the eternal explosion that was the demon-engine Jezereel.”
Ivy sat bolt upright.
“You fed babies to a demon?”
“How did you think we got away from earth? How did you think we conquered the stars?”
“Fusion reactors,” said Ivy and the big kids all laughed.
“Freedom,” said Grandpapa, “is not purchased cheap, my dear. In those days we could not hide behind fancy calculus and noumenonic cloning and economies of scale. It was blood and sweat and tears and back-breaking graft just to stay alive.”
“But they were babies.”
“They had to be. To generate the kind of energy we needed.”
“But Grandpapa, they were babies.”
“Not happy ones, not babies with a future. They were all carefully selected: babies with chronic diseases, genetic malfunctions, babies purchased from poor families, and single moms, no-hopers and the like, not babies like you were, or your cousins.”
“Do you want to hear this story or not?”
“I do, but…”
“Then you just have to accept that that was how things were; that was how we did it back then, that was how we survived and prospered and proliferated.”
“Everything we have we owe to those demons and their terrible appetites: this house, the clothes on your back, good jobs, good schools, good food, good air. Why, without them, you wouldn’t even exist. I only met your grandmother because she worked in the nursery.”
“The problem to be solved, Ivy,” said Grandpapa. “The real problem, the actual problem, was not whether to kill babies, but where to get more babies to kill.”
Ivy sighed and settled back down.
“It was one of the navigators who suggested it. There was a religious colony on Sedna, some sort of God-cult, a bunch of reality deniers, and the best thing about such people is they always have lots and lots of kids…”
Grandpapa found his rhythm and the cards snapped against the table. Ivy closed her eyes.
“…a gravitational slingshot to build up speed, but in the meantime we had to feed Jezereel something, anything…”
The women were still cleaning up in the kitchen. Ivy imagined the citric tang of the dish soap, the sun in the suds, dancing along the chrome, the leftovers in Tupperware, coffee brewing, the pie in the oven. The men were outside, talking politics and business, telling jokes, waiting for desert.
“…my bunkmate Trevor drew the short straw, which was bad luck for Jezereel. Trevor’s was the dirtiest, most sullied soul on the ship, but we only needed a few hours more…”
She felt Grandpapa’s heart through his shirt, behind his ribs, in the hot cavern of his chest, an eternal engine pounding away, her own murmuring heart a little echo of his. She was engulfed in his warmth, in his love. His happiness washed over her like the salty surf, back and forth. Soon she would be too old to sit on his lap, to fall asleep there, soon she would be slapping cards down on the table, being ironic, being a smartass. She knew that soon she would know numbers instead of names, ideas instead of things, but not yet, not now, not yet.
About the Author
William Squirrell lives and writes in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Drabblecast, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Daily Science Fiction and other venues.
Website: http://www.blindsquirrell.com twitter @billsquirrell
World's Shortest Author Interview
Squishy: In a Russian accent, please explain why I can't have another glass of milk:
Squirrell: Because if you drink that glass milk I shall have to report you to my local soviet.
Squishy: If you had to sing the story of your life, what would the chorus be and what existing melody would you use?
Squirrell: Chorus and melody: Ode to Joy: "I'm in the kitchen, I cannot remember, why I came here or where I was."
About the Artist
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology. He does the Space Squid cover designs and other squid stuff.