Interlude with the Confessor (4/​8)

(Part 4 of 8 in “Three Wor­lds Col­lide”)

The two of them were alone now, in the Con­fer­ence Chair’s Priv­ilege, the huge pri­vate room of lux­ury more suited to a planet than to space. The Priv­ilege was tiled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with a most ex­cel­lent holo of the space sur­round­ing them: the dis­tant stars, the sys­tem’s sun, the flee­ing nova ashes, and the glow­ing em­ber of the dwarf star that had si­phoned off hy­dro­gen from the main sun un­til its sur­face had briefly ig­nited in a nova flash. It was like fal­ling through the void.

Akon sat on the edge of the four-poster bed in the cen­ter of the room, rest­ing his head in his hands. Weari­ness dul­led him at the mo­ment when he most needed his wits; it was always like that in crisis, but this was un­usu­ally bad. Un­der the cir­cum­stances, he didn’t dare snort a hit of caf­feine—it might re­order his pri­ori­ties. Hu­man­ity had yet to dis­cover the drug that was pure en­ergy, that would im­prove your think­ing with­out the slight­est touch on your emo­tions and val­ues.

“I don’t know what to think,” Akon said.

The Ship’s Con­fes­sor was stand­ing stately nearby, in full robes and hood of silver. From be­neath the hood came the for­mal re­sponse: “What seems to be con­fus­ing you, my friend?”

“Did we go wrong?” Akon said. No mat­ter how hard he tried, he couldn’t keep the de­spair out of his voice. “Did hu­man­ity go down the wrong path?”

The Con­fes­sor was silent a long time.

Akon waited. This was why he couldn’t have talked about the ques­tion with any­one else. Only a Con­fes­sor would ac­tu­ally think be­fore an­swer­ing, if asked a ques­tion like that.

“I’ve of­ten won­dered that my­self,” the Con­fes­sor fi­nally said, sur­pris­ing Akon. “There were so many choices, so many branch­ings in hu­man his­tory—what are the odds we got them all right?”

The hood turned away, an­gling in the di­rec­tion of the Su­per­happy ship—though it was too far away to be visi­ble, ev­ery­one on board the Im­pos­si­ble Pos­si­ble World knew where it was. “There are parts of your ques­tion I can’t help you with, my lord. Of all peo­ple on this ship, I might be most poorly suited to an­swer… But you do un­der­stand, my lord, don’t you, that nei­ther the Babyeaters nor the Su­per­hap­pies are ev­i­dence that we went wrong? If you weren’t wor­ried be­fore, you shouldn’t be any more wor­ried now. The Babyeaters strive to do the baby-eat­ing thing to do, the Su­per­hap­pies out­put the Su­per Happy thing to do. None of that tells us any­thing about the right thing to do. They are not ask­ing the same ques­tion we are—no mat­ter what word of their lan­guage the trans­la­tor links to our ‘should’. If you’re con­fused at all about that, my lord, I might be able to clear it up.”

“I know the the­ory,” Akon said. Ex­haus­tion in his voice. “They made me study metaethics when I was a lit­tle kid, six­teen years old and still in the chil­dren’s world. Just so that I would never be tempted to think that God or on­tolog­i­cally ba­sic moral facts or what­ever had the right to over­ride my own scru­ples.” Akon slumped a lit­tle fur­ther. “And some­how—none of that re­ally makes a differ­ence when you’re look­ing at the Lady 3rd, and won­der­ing why, when there’s a ten-year-old with a bro­ken finger in front of you, scream­ing and cry­ing, we hu­mans only par­tially numb the area.”

The Con­fes­sor’s hood turned back to look at Akon. “You do re­al­ize that your brain is liter­ally hard­wired to gen­er­ate er­ror sig­nals when it sees other hu­man-shaped ob­jects stat­ing a differ­ent opinion from your­self. You do re­al­ize that, my lord?”

“I know,” Akon said. “That, too, we are taught. Un­for­tu­nately, I am also just now re­al­iz­ing that I’ve only been go­ing along with so­ciety all my life, and that I never thought the mat­ter through for my­self, un­til now.”

A sigh came from that hood. “Well… would you pre­fer a life en­tirely free of pain and sor­row, hav­ing sex all day long?”

“Not… re­ally,” Akon said.

The shoulders of the robe shrugged. “You have judged. What else is there?”

Akon stared straight at that anonymiz­ing robe, the hood con­tain­ing a holo of dark mist, a shadow that always ob­scured the face in­side. The voice was also anonymized—al­tered slightly, not in any ob­tru­sive way, but you wouldn’t know your own Con­fes­sor to hear him speak. Akon had no idea who the Con­fes­sor might be, out­side that robe. There were ru­mors of Con­fes­sors who had some­how ar­ranged to be seen in the com­pany of their own se­cret iden­tity...

Akon drew a breath. “You said that you, of all peo­ple, could not say whether hu­man­ity had gone down the wrong path. The sim­ple fact of be­ing a Con­fes­sor should have no bear­ing on that; ra­tio­nal­ists are also hu­man. And you told the Lady 3rd that you were too old to make de­ci­sions for your species. Just how old are you… hon­or­able an­ces­tor?”

There was a silence.

It didn’t last long.

As though the de­ci­sion had already been fore­seen, pre­made and pre­planned, the Con­fes­sor’s hands moved eas­ily up­ward and drew back the hood—re­veal­ing an un­blended face, strangely col­ored skin and shock­ingly dis­tinc­tive fea­tures. A face out of for­got­ten his­tory, which could only have come from a time be­fore the ge­netic mix­ing of the 21st cen­tury, un­touched by DNA in­ser­tion or di­as­pora.

Even though Akon had been half-ex­pect­ing it, he still gasped out loud. Less than one in a mil­lion: That was the per­centage of the cur­rent hu­man pop­u­la­tion that had been born on Earth be­fore the in­ven­tion of an­ti­a­gath­ics or star travel, five hun­dred years ago.

“Con­grat­u­la­tions on your guess,” the Con­fes­sor said. The un­altered voice was only slightly differ­ent; but it was stronger, more mas­culine.

“Then you were there,” Akon said. He felt al­most breath­less, and tried not to show it. “You were al­ive—all the way back in the days of the ini­tial biotech rev­olu­tion! That would have been when hu­man­ity first de­bated whether to go down the Su­per Happy path.”

The Con­fes­sor nod­ded.

“Which side did you ar­gue?”

The Con­fes­sor’s face froze for a mo­ment, and then he emit­ted a brief chuckle, one short laugh. “You have en­tirely the wrong idea about how things were done, back then. I sup­pose it’s nat­u­ral.”

“I don’t un­der­stand,” Akon said.

“And there are no words that I can speak to make you un­der­stand. It is be­yond your imag­in­ing. But you should not imag­ine that a vi­o­lent thief whose clos­est ap­proach to in­dus­try was sel­l­ing un­cer­tified hard drugs—you should not imag­ine, my lord, my hon­or­able de­scen­dant, that I was ever asked to take sides.”

Akon’s eyes slid away from the hot gaze of the un­mixed man; there was some­thing wrong about the thread of anger still there in the mem­ory af­ter five hun­dred years.

“But time passed,” the Con­fes­sor said, “time moved for­ward, and things changed.” The eyes were no longer fo­cused on Akon, look­ing now at some­thing far away. “There was an old say­ing, to the effect that while some­one with a sin­gle bee sting will pay much for a rem­edy, to some­one with five bee stings, re­mov­ing just one sting seems less at­trac­tive. That was hu­man­ity in the an­cient days. There was so much wrong with the world that the small re­sources of al­tru­ism were splin­tered among ten thou­sand ur­gent char­i­ties, and none of it ever seemed to go any­where. And yet… and yet...”

“There was a thresh­old crossed some­where,” said the Con­fes­sor, “with­out a sin­gle apoc­a­lypse to mark it. Fewer wars. Less star­va­tion. Bet­ter tech­nol­ogy. The econ­omy kept grow­ing. Peo­ple had more re­source to spare for char­ity, and the al­tru­ists had fewer and fewer causes to choose from. They came even to me, in my time, and res­cued me. Earth cleaned it­self up, and when­ever some­thing threat­ened to go dras­ti­cally wrong again, the whole at­ten­tion of the planet turned in that di­rec­tion and took care of it. Hu­man­ity fi­nally got its act to­gether.”

The Con­fes­sor worked his jaws as if there were some­thing stuck in his throat. “I doubt you can even imag­ine, my hon­or­able de­scen­dant, just how much of an im­pos­si­ble dream that once was. But I will not call this path mis­taken.”

“No, I can’t imag­ine,” Akon said quietly. “I once tried to read some of the pre-Dawn Net. I thought I wanted to know, I re­ally did, but I—just couldn’t han­dle it. I doubt any­one on this ship can han­dle it ex­cept you. Honor­able an­ces­tor, shouldn’t we be ask­ing you how to deal with the Babyeaters and the Su­per­hap­pies? You are the only one here who’s ever dealt with that level of emer­gency.”

No,” said the Con­fes­sor, like an ab­solute or­der handed down from out­side the uni­verse. “You are the world that we wanted to cre­ate. Though I can’t say we. That is just a dis­tor­tion of mem­ory, a ro­man­tic gloss on his­tory fad­ing into mist. I wasn’t one of the dream­ers, back then. I was just wrapped up in my pri­vate blan­ket of hurt. But if my pain meant any­thing, Akon, it is as part of the long price of a bet­ter world than that one. If you look back at an­cient Earth, and are hor­rified—then that means it was all for some­thing, don’t you see? You are the beau­tiful and shin­ing chil­dren, and this is your world, and you are the ones who must de­cide what to do with it now.”

Akon started to speak, to de­mur -

The Con­fes­sor held up a hand. “I mean it, my lord Akon. It is not po­lite ideal­ism. We an­cients can’t steer. We re­mem­ber too much dis­aster. We’re too cau­tious to dare the bold path for­ward. Do you know there was a time when non­con­sen­sual sex was ille­gal?”

Akon wasn’t sure whether to smile or gri­mace. “The Pro­hi­bi­tion, right? Dur­ing the first cen­tury pre-Net? I ex­pect ev­ery­one was glad to have that law taken off the books. I can’t imag­ine how bor­ing your sex lives must have been up un­til then—flirt­ing with a woman, teas­ing her, lead­ing her on, know­ing the whole time that you were perfectly safe be­cause she couldn’t take mat­ters into her own hands if you went a lit­tle too far—”

“You need a his­tory re­fresher, my Lord Ad­minis­tra­tor. At some suit­ably ab­stract level. What I’m try­ing to tell you—and this is not pub­lic knowl­edge—is that we nearly tried to over­throw your gov­ern­ment.”

“What?” said Akon. “The Con­fes­sors?

“No, us. The ones who re­mem­bered the an­cient world. Back then we still had our hands on a large share of the cap­i­tal and tremen­dous in­fluence in the grant com­mit­tees. When our chil­dren le­gal­ized rape, we thought that the Fu­ture had gone wrong.”

Akon’s mouth hung open. “You were that prude?”

The Con­fes­sor shook his head. “There aren’t any words,” the Con­fes­sor said, “there aren’t any words at all, by which I ever could ex­plain to you. No, it wasn’t prud­ery. It was a mem­ory of dis­aster.”

“Um,” Akon said. He was try­ing not to smile. “I’m try­ing to vi­su­al­ize what sort of dis­aster could have been caused by too much non­con­sen­sual sex—”

“Give it up, my lord,” the Con­fes­sor said. He was fi­nally laugh­ing, but there was an un­der­tone of pain to it. “Without, shall we say, per­sonal ex­pe­rience, you can’t pos­si­bly imag­ine, and there’s no point in try­ing.”

“Well, out of cu­ri­os­ity—how much did you lose?”

The Con­fes­sor seemed to freeze, for a mo­ment. “What?”

“How much did you lose in the leg­is­la­tive pre­dic­tion mar­kets, bet­ting on what­ever dread­ful out­come you thought would hap­pen?”

“You re­ally wouldn’t ever un­der­stand,” the Con­fes­sor said. His smile was en­tirely real, now. “But now you know, don’t you? You know, af­ter speak­ing to me, that I can’t ever be al­lowed to make de­ci­sions for hu­mankind.”

Akon hes­i­tated. It was odd… he did know, on some gut level. And he couldn’t have ex­plained on any ver­bal level why. Just—that hint of wrong­ness.

“So now you know,” the Con­fes­sor re­peated. “And be­cause we do re­mem­ber so much dis­aster—and be­cause it is a pro­fes­sion that benefits from be­ing five hun­dred years old—many of us be­came Con­fes­sors. Be­ing the voice of pes­simism comes eas­ily to us, and few in­deed are those among the hu­man kind who must ra­tio­nally be nudged up­ward… We ad­vise, but do not lead. De­bate, but do not de­cide. We’re go­ing along for your ride, and try­ing not to be too shocked so that we can be al­most as delighted as you. You might find your­self in a similar situ­a­tion in five hun­dred years… if hu­man­ity sur­vives this week.”

“Ah, yes,” Akon said dryly. “The aliens. The cur­rent prob­lem of dis­course.”

“Yes. Have you had any thoughts on the sub­ject?”

“Only that I re­ally do wish that hu­man­ity had been alone in the uni­verse.” Akon’s hand sud­denly formed a fist and smashed hard against the bed. “Fuck it! I know how the Su­per­hap­pies felt when they dis­cov­ered that we and the Babyeaters hadn’t ‘re­paired our­selves’. You un­der­stand what this im­plies about what the rest of the uni­verse looks like, statis­ti­cally speak­ing? Even if it’s just a sam­ple of two? I’m sure that some­where out there are lik­able neigh­bors. Just as some­where out there, if we go far enough through the in­finite uni­verse, there’s a per­son who’s an ex­act du­pli­cate of me down to the atomic level. But ev­ery other species we ever ac­tu­ally meet is prob­a­bly go­ing to be—” Akon drew a breath. “It wasn’t sup­posed to be like this, damn it! All three of our species have em­pa­thy, we have sym­pa­thy, we have a sense of fair­ness—the Babyeaters even tell sto­ries like we do, they have art. Shouldn’t that be enough? Wasn’t that sup­posed to be enough? But all it does is put us into enough of the same refer­ence frame that we can be hor­rible by each oth­ers’ stan­dards.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” the Con­fes­sor said, “but I’m glad that we ran across the Babyeaters.”

Words stuck in Akon’s throat. “What?”

A half-smile twisted up one cor­ner of the Con­fes­sor’s face. “Be­cause if we hadn’t run across the Babyeaters, we couldn’t pos­si­bly res­cue the ba­bies, now could we? Not know­ing about their ex­is­tence wouldn’t mean they weren’t there. The Babyeater chil­dren would still ex­ist. They would still die in hor­rible agony. We just wouldn’t be able to help them. If we didn’t know it wouldn’t be our fault, our re­spon­si­bil­ity—but that’s not some­thing you’re sup­posed to op­ti­mize for.” The Con­fes­sor paused. “Of course I un­der­stand how you feel. But on this ves­sel I am hu­man­ity’s to­ken at­tempt at san­ity, and it is my duty to think cer­tain strange yet log­i­cal thoughts.”

“And the Su­per­hap­pies?” Akon said. “The race with su­pe­rior tech­nol­ogy that may de­cide to ex­ter­mi­nate us, or keep us in prison, or take our chil­dren away? Is there any silver lin­ing to that?

“The Su­per­hap­pies aren’t so far from us,” the Con­fes­sor said. “We could have gone down the Su­per Happy path. We nearly did—you might have trou­ble imag­in­ing just how at­trac­tive the ab­sence of pain can sound, un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances. In a sense, you could say that I tried to go down that path—though I wasn’t a very com­pe­tent neu­ro­eng­ineer. If hu­man na­ture had been only slightly differ­ent, we could eas­ily have been within that at­trac­tor. And the Su­per Happy civ­i­liza­tion is not hate­ful to us, what­ever we are to them. That’s good news at least, for how the rest of the uni­verse might look.” The Con­fes­sor paused. “And...”

“And?”

The Con­fes­sor’s voice be­came harder. “And the Su­per­hap­pies will res­cue the Babyeater chil­dren no mat­ter what, I think, even if hu­man­ity should fail in the task. Con­sid­er­ing how many Babyeater chil­dren are dy­ing, and in what pain—that could out­weigh even our own ex­ter­mi­na­tion. Shut up and mul­ti­ply, as the say­ing goes.”

“Oh, come on!” Akon said, too sur­prised to be shocked. “If the Su­per­hap­pies hadn’t shown up, we would have—well, we would have done some­thing about the Babyeaters, once we de­cided what. We wouldn’t have just let the, the—”

“Holo­caust,” the Con­fes­sor offered.

“Good word for it. We wouldn’t have just let the Holo­caust go on.”

“You would be as­tounded, my lord, at what hu­man be­ings will just let go on. Do you re­al­ize the ex­pen­di­ture of cap­i­tal, la­bor, maybe even hu­man lives re­quired to in­vade ev­ery part of the Babyeater civ­i­liza­tion? To trace out ev­ery part of their star­line net­work, push our tech­nolog­i­cal ad­van­tage to its limit to build faster ships that can hunt down ev­ery Babyeater ship that tries to flee? Do you re­al­ize—”

“I’m sorry. You are sim­ply mis­taken as a ques­tion of fact.” Boy, thought Akon, you don’t of­ten get to say that to a Con­fes­sor. “This is not your birth era, hon­or­able an­ces­tor. We are the hu­man­ity that has its shit to­gether. If the Su­per­hap­pies had never come along, hu­man­ity would have done what­ever it took to res­cue the Babyeater chil­dren. You saw the Lord Pilot, the Lady Sen­sory; they were ready to se­cede from civ­i­liza­tion if that’s what it took to get the job done. And that, hon­or­able an­ces­tor, is how most peo­ple would re­act.”

“For a mo­ment,” said the Con­fes­sor. “In the mo­ment of first hear­ing the news. When talk was cheap. When they hadn’t yet vi­su­al­ized the costs. But once they did, there would be an un­easy pause, while ev­ery­one waited to see if some­one else might act first. And faster than you imag­ine pos­si­ble, peo­ple would ad­just to that state of af­fairs. It would no longer sound quite so shock­ing as it did at first. Babyeater chil­dren are dy­ing hor­rible, ag­o­niz­ing deaths in their par­ents’ stom­achs? De­plorable, of course, but things have always been that way. It would no longer be news. It would all be part of the plan.

“Are you high on some­thing?” Akon said. It wasn’t the most po­lite way he could have phrased it, but he couldn’t help him­self.

The Con­fes­sor’s voice was as cold and hard as an iron sun, af­ter the uni­verse had burned down to em­bers. “In­no­cent youth, when you have watched your older brother beaten al­most to death be­fore your eyes, and seen how lit­tle the po­lice in­ves­ti­gate—when you have watched all four of your grand­par­ents wither away like rot­ten fruit and cease to ex­ist, while you spoke not one word of protest be­cause you thought it was nor­malthen you may speak to me of what hu­man be­ings will tol­er­ate.”

“I don’t be­lieve we would do that,” Akon said as mildly as pos­si­ble.

“Then you fail as a ra­tio­nal­ist,” the Con­fes­sor said. His un­hooded head turned to­ward the false walls, to look out at the ac­cu­rately rep­re­sented stars. “But I—I will not fail again.

“Well, you’re damn right about one thing,” Akon said. He was too ex­hausted to be tact­ful. “You can’t ever be al­lowed to make de­ci­sions for the hu­man species.”

“I know. Believe me, I know. Only youth can Ad­minis­trate. That is the pact of im­mor­tal­ity.”

Akon stood up from the bed. “Thank you, Con­fes­sor. You have helped me.”

With an easy, prac­ticed mo­tion, the Con­fes­sor slid the hood of his robe over his head, and the stark fea­tures van­ished into shadow. “I have?” the Con­fes­sor said, and his re­cloaked voice sounded strangely mild, af­ter that ear­lier mas­culine power. “How?”

Akon shrugged. He didn’t think he could put it into words. It had some­thing to do with the ter­rible vast sweep of Time across the cen­turies, and so much true change that had already hap­pened, deeper by far than any­thing he had wit­nessed in his own life­time; the re­quire­ment of courage to face the fu­ture, and the sac­ri­fices that had been made for it; and that not ev­ery­one had been saved, once upon a time.

“I guess you re­minded me,” Akon said, “that you can’t always get ev­ery­thing you want.”

To be con­tinued...


A re­minder: This is a work of fic­tion. In real life, con­tin­u­ing to at­tempt to have sex with some­one af­ter they say ‘no’ and be­fore they say ‘yes’, whether or not they offer force­ful re­sis­tance and whether or not any visi­ble in­jury oc­curs, is (in the USA) defined as rape and con­sid­ered a fed­eral felony. I agree with and sup­port that this is the cor­rect place for so­ciety to draw the line. Some peo­ple have worked out a safe­word sys­tem in which they ex­plic­itly and ver­bally agree, with each other or on a signed form, that ‘no’ doesn’t mean stop but e.g. ‘red’ or ‘safe­word’ does mean stop. I agree with and sup­port this as carv­ing out a safe ex­cep­tion whose ex­is­tence does not en­dan­ger in­no­cent by­stan­ders. If ei­ther of these state­ments come to you as a sur­prise then you should look stuff up. Thank you and re­mem­ber, your safe­word should be at least 10 char­ac­ters and con­tain a mix­ture of let­ters and num­bers. We now re­turn you to your reg­u­larly sched­uled read­ing. Yours, the au­thor.