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(Part 8 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")
Fire came to Huygens.
The star erupted.
Stranded ships, filled with children doomed by a second's last delay, still milled around the former Earth transit point. Too many doomed ships, far too many doomed ships. They should have left a minute early, just to be sure; but the temptation to load in that one last child must have been irresistable. To do the warm and fuzzy thing just this one time, instead of being cold and calculating. You couldn't blame them, could you...?
Yes, actually, you could.
The Lady Sensory switched off the display. It was too painful.
On the Huygens market, the price of a certain contract spiked to 100%. They were all rich in completely worthless assets for the next nine minutes, until the supernova blast front arrived.
"So," the Lord Pilot finally said. "What kind of asset retains its value in a market with nine minutes to live?"
"Booze for immediate delivery," the Master of Fandom said promptly. "That's what you call a -"
"Liquidity preference," the others chorused.
The Master laughed. "All right, that was too obvious. Well... chocolate, sex -"
"Not necessarily," said the Lord Pilot. "If you can use up the whole supply of chocolate at once, does demand outstrip supply? Same with sex - the value could actually drop if everyone's suddenly willing. Not to mention: Nine minutes?"
"All right then, expert oral sex from experienced providers. And hard drugs with dangerous side effects; the demand would rise hugely relative to supply -"
"This is inane," the Ship's Engineer commented.
The Master of Fandom shrugged. "What do you say in the unrecorded last minutes of your life that is not inane?"
"It doesn't matter," said the Lady Sensory. Her face was strangely tranquil. "Nothing that we do now matters. We won't have to live with the consequences. No one will. All this time will be obliterated when the blast front hits. The role I've always played, the picture that I have of me... it doesn't matter. There's... a peace... in not having to be Dalia Ancromein any more."
The others looked at her. Talk about killing the mood.
"Well," the Master of Fandom said, "since you raise the subject, I suppose it would be peaceful if not for the screaming terror."
"You don't have to feel the screaming terror," the Lady Sensory said. "That's just a picture you have in your head of how it should be. The role of someone facing imminent death. But I don't have to play any more roles. I don't have to feel screaming terror. I don't have to frantically pack in a few last moments of fun. There are no more obligations."
"Ah," the Master of Fandom said, "so I guess this is when we find out who we really are." He paused for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't seem to be anyone in particular. Oh well."
The Lady Sensory stood up, and walked across the room to where the Lord Pilot stood looking at the viewscreen.
"My Lord Pilot," the Lady Sensory said.
"Yes?" the Lord Pilot said. His face was expectant.
The Lady Sensory smiled. It was bizarre, but not frightening. "Do you know, my Lord Pilot, that I had often thought how wonderful it would be to kick you very hard in the testicles?"
"Um," the Lord Pilot said. His arms and legs suddenly tensed, preparing to block.
"But now that I could do it," the Lady Sensory said, "I find that I don't really want to. It seems... that I'm not as awful a person as I thought." She gave a brief sigh. "I wish that I had realized it earlier."
The Lord Pilot's hand swiftly darted out and groped the Lady Sensory's breast. It was so unexpected that no one had time to react, least of all her. "Well, what do you know," the Pilot said, "I'm just as much of a pervert as I thought. My self-estimate was more accurate than yours, nyah nyah -"
The Lady Sensory kneed him in the groin, hard enough to drop him moaning to the floor, but not hard enough to require medical attention.
"Okay," the Master of Fandom said, "can we please not go down this road? I'd like to die with at least some dignity."
There was a long, awkward silence, broken only by a quiet "Ow ow ow ow..."
"Would you like to hear something amusing?" asked the Kiritsugu, who had once been a Confessor.
"If you're going to ask that question," said the Master of Fandom, "when the answer is obviously yes, thus wasting a few more seconds -"
"Back in the ancient days that none of you can imagine, when I was seventeen years old - which was underage even then - I stalked an underage girl through the streets, slashed her with a knife until she couldn't stand up, and then had sex with her before she died. It was probably even worse than you're imagining. And deep down, in my very core, I enjoyed every minute."
"I don't think of it often, mind you. It's been a long time, and I've taken a lot of intelligence-enhancing drugs since then. But still - I was just thinking that maybe what I'm doing now finally makes up for that."
"Um," said the Ship's Engineer. "What we just did, in fact, was kill fifteen billion people."
"Yes," said the Kiritsugu, "that's the amusing part."
"It seems to me," mused the Master of Fandom, "that I should feel a lot worse about that than I actually do."
"We're in shock," the Lady Sensory observed distantly. "It'll hit us in about half an hour, I expect."
"I think it's starting to hit me," the Ship's Engineer said. His face was twisted. "I - I was so worried I wouldn't be able to destroy my home planet, that I didn't get around to feeling unhappy about succeeding until now. It... hurts."
"I'm mostly just numb," the Lord Pilot said from the floor. "Well, except down there, unfortunately." He slowly sat up, wincing. "But there was this absolute unalterable thing inside me, screaming so loud that it overrode everything. I never knew there was a place like that within me. There wasn't room for anything else until humanity was safe. And now my brain is worn out. So I'm just numb."
"Once upon a time," said the Kiritsugu, "there were people who dropped a U-235 fission bomb, on a place called Hiroshima. They killed perhaps seventy thousand people, and ended a war. And if the good and decent officer who pressed that button had needed to walk up to a man, a woman, a child, and slit their throats one at a time, he would have broken long before he killed seventy thousand people."
Someone made a choking noise, as if trying to cough out something that had suddenly lodged deep in their throat.
"But pressing a button is different," the Kiritsugu said. "You don't see the results, then. Stabbing someone with a knife has an impact on you. The first time, anyway. Shooting someone with a gun is easier. Being a few meters further away makes a surprising difference. Only needing to pull a trigger changes it a lot. As for pressing a button on a spaceship - that's the easiest of all. Then the part about 'fifteen billion' just gets flushed away. And more importantly - you think it was the right thing to do. The noble, the moral, the honorable thing to do. For the safety of your tribe. You're proud of it -"
"Are you saying," the Lord Pilot said, "that it was not the right thing to do?"
"No," the Kiritsugu said. "I'm saying that, right or wrong, the belief is all it takes."
"I see," said the Master of Fandom. "So you can kill billions of people without feeling much, so long as you do it by pressing a button, and you're sure it's the right thing to do. That's human nature." The Master of Fandom nodded. "What a valuable and important lesson. I shall remember it all the rest of my life."
"Why are you saying all these things?" the Lord Pilot asked the Kiritsugu.
The Kiritsugu shrugged. "When I have no reason left to do anything, I am someone who tells the truth."
"It's wrong," said the Ship's Engineer in a small, hoarse voice, "I know it's wrong, but - I keep wishing the supernova would hurry up and get here."
"There's no reason for you to hurt," said the Lady Sensory in a strange calm voice. "Just ask the Kiritsugu to stun you. You'll never wake up."
"Why not?" asked the Lady Sensory, in a tone of purely abstract curiosity.
The Ship's Engineer clenched his hands into fists. "Because if hurting is that much of a crime, then the Superhappies are right." He looked at the Lady Sensory. "You're wrong, my lady. These moments are as real as every other moment of our lives. The supernova can't make them not exist." His voice lowered. "That's what my cortex says. My diencephalon wishes we'd been closer to the sun."
"It could be worse," observed the Lord Pilot. "You could not hurt."
"For myself," the Kiritsugu said quietly, "I had already visualized and accepted this, and then it was just a question of watching it play out." He sighed. "The most dangerous truth a Confessor knows is that the rules of society are just consensual hallucinations. Choosing to wake up from the dream means choosing to end your life. I knew that when I stunned Akon, even apart from the supernova."
"Okay, look," said the Master of Fandom, "call me a gloomy moomy, but does anyone have something uplifting to say?"
The Lord Pilot jerked a thumb at the expanding supernova blast front, a hundred seconds away. "What, about that?"
"Yeah," the Master of Fandom said. "I'd like to end my life on an up note."
"We saved the human species," offered the Lord Pilot. "Man, that's the sort of thing you could just repeat to yourself over and over and over again -"
The Master managed to hold a straight face for a few seconds, and then had to laugh.
"You know," the Kiritsugu said, "I don't think there's anyone in modern-day humanity, who would regard my past self as anything but a poor, abused victim. I'm pretty sure my mother drank during pregnancy, which, back then, would give your child something called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. I was poor, uneducated, and in an environment so entrepreneurially hostile you can't even imagine it -"
"This is not sounding uplifting," the Master said.
"But somehow," the Kiritsugu said, "all those wonderful excuses - I could never quite believe in them myself, afterward. Maybe because I'd also thought of some of the same excuses before. It's the part about not doing anything that got to me. Others fought the war to save the world, far over my head. Lightning flickering in the clouds high above me, while I hid in the basement and suffered out the storm. And by the time I was rescued and healed and educated, in any shape to help others - the battle was essentially over. Knowing that I'd been a victim for someone else to save, one more point in someone else's high score - that just stuck in my craw, all those years..."
"...anyway," the Kiritsugu said, and there was a small, slight smile on that ancient face, "I feel better now."
"So does that mean," asked the Master, "that now your life is finally complete, and you can die without any regrets?"
The Kiritsugu looked startled for a moment. Then he threw back his head and laughed. True, pure, honest laughter. The others began to laugh as well, and their shared hilarity echoed across the room, as the supernova blast front approached at almost exactly the speed of light.
Finally the Kiritsugu stopped laughing, and said:
"Don't be ridicu-"