Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 06

Chapter 6

“We haven’t done that in a while,” said Yuri Radamacher. His voice was barely louder than a murmur, with complex undertones that conveyed satiety, exhaustion, smug self-satisfaction, bemused wonder at capabilities thought lost forever, and, most of all — the saving grace that would keep him from ridicule or possible bodily harm — full of affection for the person lying next to him.

Who, for her part, slapped him playfully on his bare midriff. That produced a meaty sound. Yuri was not exactly fat, but he was in no danger of being blown away by a gust of wind, either.

“Don’t sound so pleased with yourself,” she said. “Of course we haven’t done that in a while. We haven’t seen each other in… what’s it been, now? More than a T-year.”

“Three hundred and ninety-six standard days. God, I’ve missed you.”

Sharon Justice rolled onto her side and propped her head up on one hand. “I missed you too. But look at the bright side — for the first time in years, it looks like we’ll be able to see each other regularly and for… oh, hell, it could be a long time.”

Yuri hesitated, tempted to raise the subject of marriage. Even the Republic of Haven’s stringent rules concerning assignments for its officials were subject to relaxation and modification when married couples were involved. But after a moment, he decided to let it slide.

He knew that Sharon was twitchy on the subject. That was not unusual, of course. The whole subject of marriage had gotten very complicated and thorny since the development of prolong. That was especially true for a society like Haven’s, which tended to be conservative on social issues despite the often radical character of its politics.

The traditional concept of marriage was that of a union between two people which was expected to last a lifetime. Many did not, of course. Still, even people who got divorced generally viewed the divorce as a failure; an unfortunate and in some sense unnatural outcome.

But the same institution now had to be stretched across lifetimes that were measured in centuries, not decades. And to make things still more complicated, that greatly extended lifespan was characterized through at least eighty percent of its duration as the lifespan of a young person. Only toward the very end of the life of someone on prolong did the aging process and eventual decrepitude start manifesting itself. That stood in stark contrast to the ancient realities of human life, in which the period of vigorous youth was a fairly brief interlude between childhood and middle age.

The traditional institution of marriage was simply not well-suited for these new conditions. Much of its stability had been provided by the “natural” aging process. As a couple grew old together, they came to rely on each other for succor and support as much as intimacy. Prosaic as it might be, sharing aches and pains did a great deal to solidify a marriage; and, on the flip side, worked against any tendencies toward infidelity.

None of that was true any longer. Even the needs and demands of child-raising, traditionally the strongest bond in a marriage, was far less important. People on prolong could bear children throughout most of their now-very-long lives, but very few did so. Most couples would devote a few decades to having and nurturing children, but no more than that. Depending on the specific star nation and its customs, they might do their child-raising early in life or they might — this was the normal practice in Manticore, Beowulf and the Andermanni Empire — postpone having children until they were well-established in their careers and in a more solid financial position. But whatever stretch in their long lifespans they chose to devote to child-raising, once that was done they did not usually repeat the process. And in the doing they had only devoted ten percent or less of their lives — as opposed to the one-third or even one-half of a lifetime that child-bearing and rearing had traditionally occupied.

Under that pressure — it might be more accurate to say, sudden removal of pressure — the institution of marriage was undergoing profound and manifold transformations throughout the human-inhabited portions of the galaxy. Those changes had already been underway as a result of medical and technological advances, and prolong drove them even faster. In some adventurous societies — Beowulf being a prime example — a dizzying number of variations on marriage had emerged and were being experimented with. But in other, more staid societies, the reaction tended the other way. The lifelong nature of marriage was insisted upon even more firmly — with the inevitable consequence that fewer and fewer people entered into marriage. Instead, serial cohabitation without formal marriage was becoming the norm; or, at least, the most common pattern.

Even child-bearing and raising was adapting. As had always been the case in matrilineal societies, prolong society had effectively done away with the concept of bastardy. The reasons were different, but the end result was much the same: people in advanced societies who would live for centuries usually had such a deep and widespread safety net — some of it public, some of it private — that a single parent or a couple simply didn’t require marriage as a practical economic matter. The laws of most star nations did require an official recognition of parenthood, but that was separate from the legal requirements for marriage. That was to protect the children. You might not be formally married to the mother or father of your child, but you were still legally responsible for the children themselves.

All of which was well and good, and Yuri understood the dynamic on an intellectual level. The fact remained that he was a Havenite, not a Beowulfer, and like most people from Haven his basic emotional attitudes were conservative and old-fashioned. The years he’d spent as a State Security officer during the Pierre-Saint Just period compounded the problem. Early on, he’d developed sharp differences with their policies. Given the nature of their regime, he’d had to hide his real opinions and keep an emotional distance from everybody. The end result had been a man who was innately friendly and sociable transformed into a lonely soul.

Dammit, he wanted to get married.

But he was almost certain that Sharon would refuse and he’d learned long ago that if you thought the answer to a question was going to be “no,” it was better not to ask the question at all. Once stated openly, “no” tended to get locked in place.

So, partly out of frustration and partly out of a sense of duty, he rose from the bed, put on some clothes and headed for the kitchen. “Want some coffee?”

“Akh!” Sharon rose hurriedly from the bed and grabbed a robe. “Yes — but I’ll make it, thank you very much. You’ll break the coffeemaker.”

“Don’t be silly.”

She brushed past him, putting on the robe and moving quickly. “Fine. You’ll break the coffee.”

“That’s ridiculous. You can’t — ”

You can.” Sharon started working at the controls of a machine that, to Radamacher’s way of thinking, bore a closer resemblance to a computer terminal than a simple device to brew a drink that the human race had been enjoying for millennia. “I love you dearly, Yuri, but you make the worst coffee this side of a Navy mess hall.”

“That’s where I learned to make coffee in the first place.”

“I know.” She pushed buttons that did mysterious things. “For years, I had a secret belief that the reason we had such a hard time fighting the Manticorans was because of the Navy’s coffee. The deterioration that crap must have produced in the brains of our officers and ratings didn’t bear thinking about.”

The button-pushing ended with a triumphant glissando of flying fingers. Yuri had no idea what she was doing. Programming the heat death of the universe? It was a coffee maker, for God’s sake. What was wrong with letting the gadget’s own computer handle the business?

“And since I got here,” she continued, “my suspicion has been confirmed. I’ve talked to any number of Erewhonese who’ve had Manticoran Navy coffee, and they all swear it’s terrific.”

Her ritual apparently done, Sharon finished tying up her robe and sat down at the kitchen table. “Oh, stop pouting — and have a seat, will you? The coffee will take a few minutes.”

Yuri was tempted to respond my coffee gets done in no time at all but wisely restrained himself. As a friend who shared his own insouciant attitude toward making coffee had once said, “Gourmets are subtle and quick to anger.”

He pulled up a chair and changed the subject. “Speaking of the Erewhonese, I suppose you should bring me up to date. Seeing as how I’m Haven’s ambassador to Torch and — hold your breath, this takes a while — ‘high commissioner and envoy extraordinary’ to Erewhon. In the moments I can spare from being your sex toy.”

Sharon smiled. “‘Sex toy, is it? I’ll remember that.” The smile was replaced by a slight frown. “I assume the reason you didn’t replace Guthrie as the ambassador to Erewhon also is because the Erewhonese made it clear they were not too happy with us.”