“Incunabulum,” part II

Start here: “Incunabulum,” part I

Between yesterday evening and this morning, a few more millimeters of T’s skin had been made scripture. I showed the skintext to J last night. She doesn’t believe it’s a language. She’s convinced that something about the geometry of the clusters is protective of whatever organism causes the disease. I said some arrogant thing about Turing tests — the disease passing, her failing — and she left for work sour as well as worried. I do wonder about my own motivations in interpreting this illness. Do I have a stake in its being a linguistic disease? Is this what I want for my son, a mystery doctors can’t solve? There is an old comic, deliberately poorly drawn, depicting a computer programmer swinging in on a vine with the war cry, “I know regular expressions!” — is this the game I’m playing with my son’s health?

The doctor gave me a deep, appraising look when I brought T in for diagnosis. This moon is airless by disposition, and air is recycled and replenished at astonishing speeds over epic distances; the right airborne pathogen would rack and shred us like a rabid dog on a squirrel, and no physician wants to be the one who overlooked Patient Zero. I didn’t say anything about the text on T’s skin; I wanted the doctor to be the one who found it, so I didn’t have to say anything about it. I don’t know why I expected a pediatrician to take a microscope to a bit of innocuous discoloration. I didn’t know what to do when he prescribed an antibiotic and a follow-up visit in a week. I walked out of the clinic holding T’s hand, wondering how I was going to explain this to J when we got home — but I couldn’t make myself ask the doctor to read an unknown language on my son’s skin.

A train was just arriving as we entered the subway station. “Let’s run to get the train, buddy,” I said, or something much like it; I was too wrapped up in my own thoughts to remember that T was sick and shouldn’t be running. But he let go my hand and streaked ahead of me as soon as I could say “run,” and my heart sank briefly into my stomach as I lost sight of him — but it was only for a second, and we reunited on the train. T likes me to sit while he stands; I think he likes the opportunity to look me in the eye without craning his neck, like an equal. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Tired,” he said. “Dad, what’s arbitrary?” He pronounced the second “a” as “ah” — “ar-bit-rah-ry.”

“It means… you can call something arbitrary,” I said, pronouncing it correctly, “if it didn’t have to be what it is. Like, we didn’t have to get on this car of the train; there was another one that was just as close to us. But you arbitrarily chose this one when you ran off ahead of me. Which was a dangerous thing to do, by the way.”

“I had a reason,” he said.

“Oh yeah?” I asked. “What’s so great about this car, then?”

He looked at me like I was an idiot. “It’s the place we were going to be, Dad,” he said. I laughed; T gave me another one of those looks. By way of punishment, I think, he looked around the train for something more interesting. I’m still impressed and stung by that behavior. I’m glad my boy has a grasp of social nuance, but I wish he wouldn’t use it against me. What other antagonists does he have, though?

His gaze wandered with disinterest over the dust-smeared gravity techs coming home from the four-to-noon shift, the professionals en route from important luncheons, the sailors on shore leave, then lingered on a kid a few years older with the telltale blank stare and subtle dystonia of immersion in some virtual world. My generation is the children of terraformers and militia, men and women with a vital interest in matter, or of immigrants with no access to the high-flown information technologies of Earth’s middle class; it’s only our kids who are comfortable enough with the ethereal to adopt virtuality with any real vigor. T’s stare was equal parts desire and performance. J and I don’t want him to get into immersive virtuality in such a neuroplastic stage of his life; that will all come soon enough. But, by age six, a boy with a grasp of social nuance has generally learned to recognize status, and desire it.

T finally turned back to me. “Is arbitrary the same as unfair?”

“Sometimes,” I said. “People often use it to mean unfair. But it really means, you know, random. Sometimes randomness is unfair and sometimes it isn’t. For example, if you want to encourage people to do good work, you can’t reward them arbitrarily.”

“When is it fair to be arbitrary?”

“When the alternatives are all the same as one another.”

T gave me another idiot-look. I guess I deserved it, although I didn’t understand it at the time.


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