When We Were Real (Author's Preferred Edition)

Advertising Download Read Online




When We Were Real

a tale of the

Silvergirl Universe


William Barton

author’s preferred edition

94,000 words

Copyright © 1999, 2011 William Barton

Public Domain Cover Photo:

“Mt. Erebus,” by Richard Waitt, 1972,

courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

There’s nothing in life like loving someone... It’s all the difference between being dead or alive.

H.G. Wells



Anna Kavan


Cordwainer Smith

for the


of lost souls

Previous Books by

by William Barton

Hunting On Kunderer

A Plague of All Cowards

Dark Sky Legion

Radio Silence

Yellow Matter

When Heaven Fell

The Transmigration of Souls

Acts of Conscience

When We Were Real

Moments of Inertia


Collaborations by

William Barton and

Michael Capobianco


Fellow Traveler

Alpha Centauri

White Light

For more information visit:


website active Sept. 2011

Table of Contents


One. Stories, they say

Two. One last little stemshiny aside

Three. No one who hasn’t lived

Four. On our way from Telemachus Major

Five. I awoke with a hard start

Six. A couple of months after

Seven. So

Eight. Sirius is far away

Nine. Telemachus Major

Ten. There are moments

Eleven. The Nulliterrae Swarm

Twelve. It’s too easy

Thirteen. Down on Ogygeia

Fourteen: The war went on

eBooks to Come


How did it happen that a man some critics have harshly labeled “misogynist” came to write a science-fiction romance novel? Funny you should ask, because it happened like this:

Years earlier, back in the mid-1980s, during the great lacuna between my first and second careers, I decided it was time I created a new background universe. I had been working and reworking story backgrounds, what I have always called “planets” (for something like fantasy) and “universes” (for stuff that was clearly science fiction), that I’d created in the 1960s and early 1970s, up to the time I started writing professionally.

What I created was something I called “The Galactic Comity,” and I intended it to be the background for a vast tale of interstellar war in which humans were the merest pawns, no more important in the scheme of things than Robert Burns’ “wee mousie.” Michael Capobianco and I had finished up
and were making the rounds of the publishers, trying to find a buyer (with little success—it bounced twelve times before Doubleday and Bantam picked it up). I knew if
sold I’d be writing more, not just with Capo, but on my own.

The background languished for a few years, as
sold, and we did write more, both together and separately. In addition to novels, I wrote short fiction, and bits of the Galactic Comity background, allomorphs and silvergirls, robots and optimods, crept in here and there. If there’s a “first” Silvergirl story, it’s probably “When a Man’s an Empty Kettle,” the first one to have the look and feel of the whole.

While all this was going on, science fiction was evolving around me, and things were happening I didn’t necessarily like. Among them, was the fact that Star Trek, Star Wars, and other media-tie novels were beginning to dominate sales. I never really liked Star Trek, right from its “Wagon Train to the Stars” beginnings to the tie-in novels I found essentially unreadable. I liked Star Wars for its visuals and its actors, but not for its extremely derivative background universe.

Then again, I overheard a conversation between two editors at two different major New York publishers discussing how they were “moving their favorite Romance authors into SF” as quickly as they could manage. Why? I liked the few Romance writers I knew; professional genre writers face a lot of the same problems. But these people already had careers. Why not just get new SF writers from the hordes of newcomers trying to break in?

Okay. Ready-made audience of readers. Sort of like the way women will follow a hairdresser from one salon to another, right? As good a theory as any?

And then I began having trouble selling my next novel to my publisher. The editor there kept turning down outlines, with comments that essentially said, “too harsh.”

Eventually, I had a childish moment of, “I’ll show
,” and turned in an outline for something I wanted to call
War No More
, basically modeled on some things I knew, not only about Romance writing (because the nice ladies in that genre were just as willing to talk shop as anyone), but things I knew were popular with certain segments of the Star Trek tie-in audience.


Everything clicked except the title, which my editor replaced with
When We Were Real,
a phrase that emerged from a sentence in the book. It seemed a bit hard to pronounce, but what do I know? I’m the idiot who called a book
Hunting On Kunderer
and was unlucky enough no editor put their foot down.

When I showed the manuscript to a romance/SF writer I knew well, she was impressed, and told me it would be a best seller, and would get me the recognition I so obviously deserved. Always thrilling when a lovely, intelligent woman tells you something like that, and I’ve always been sorry it didn’t turn out that way.

Still, there was something unexpected about the book.

Not the love story.

Not the war story.

Something about the machines in the first chapter.

Something that tied back to the way I’d treated the artificial intelligences in
Acts of Conscience
, written a couple of years earlier.

I was dumped by my publisher immediately after that, long before sales figures for
When We Were Real
could emerge. Then I got divorced (again). Then I lost the job I’d had for the better part of fifteen years. Then I got really, really sick.

Somewhere in there, I began writing stories about the machine-people that were the main background of
When We Were Real,
and that’s how the real Silvergirl Universe (which many readers, I’m told, call the Optimods Universe) emerged. There are near-future ones like “Heart of Glass” where the Galactic Comity is nowhere to be seen, and far-future ones like “The Engine of Desire” where humanity has been destroyed and all that’s left are Silvergirls and Optimods, Allomorphs and robots, where the war between the Spinfellows and Starfish has all but run its course.

There are now enough stories to make up the equivalent of two more novels, almost all of them published in
Asimov’s Science Fiction
, a few elsewhere. When I’ve written the last few waiting in the wings, I’ll issue two collections of them as well.

I originally thought, when I dreamed up the Galactic Comity, I’d write a trilogy set there.

And so I did.

—William Barton

September 2011, at the

Barking Spider Ranch

One. Stories, they say

Stories, they say, should always have happy endings. Only life is permitted to sputter out in a diminuendo of misery, dissolving through drab shades of gray before reaching some pointless fade to black.

When I was a boy, immersed in seemingly pointless study, I would read the biographies of the ancients and see that shadow hanging over every one of them. A man would be born, full of promise, would lead his famous life, fulfilling that promise, and then...

Well, you know.

Every biography is a tragedy.

The hero always falls.

The great man is always humbled in the end, no biography ever finishing up with “they lived happily ever after.”

Those were the days before humanity emerged from its ratty little world, when hope was a word you used with utmost caution, associated with the profound fantasy that life might really
a dream from which you’d one day awaken.

Here at the other end of history, we know better.

We know when a boy’s done dreaming about his Baedeker of wonder, he’ll realize those shades of gray can go on and on, waiting for a daybreak that might never come. Sown to the dark between the stars, we live our open-ended lives, freed from the valley of the shadow out on all our ratty little worlds.

My ratty little world, the place where they made a gray little boy, anticipating a gray little man, where I dreamed a boy’s grand dreams while reading those sad old tales, was called Audumla.

Down in the bayou country, down in Audumla’s belly, well away from the habitat’s endcaps and the settlements of the Mother’s Children, you can see the decay a century’s neglect has made. My father and I, when we visited the lowlands, would drive our cheap plastic boat down a wide, sluggish stream, tall, gray-green fronds of unnatural swampland blocking the view to either side, I would steer the skiff away from a long, iridescent blue oil slick, feeling the electric motor’s soft vibration through the tiller, while Father sat between the thwarts, fiddling with his tinker’s tools.

Overhead, you could see a long way, despite the haze. It was only hazy down by the ground anyhow, down where the air had gotten thick, most of the air conditioning returns long ago plugged up, overgrown. The sky was still quite clear, though nothing like I understand it used to be, dark blue up around the brilliant orange stemshine, purple shading off into brown everywhere else. Beyond it, you could see the bare outlines of Audumla’s other two habitat panels, between them, patches of empty sky, where the stars would glimmer at night. Ygg’s ruddy half-disk, almost hidden in the color of the sky, was peeking out from behind the edge of Panel Three like a hill of dull fire. 

My father looked up from his hardware, an agelessly grizzled man with a lean, handsome face, big beak of a nose, pale blue eyes, and said, “Darius. How much farther?”

I steered the skiff to one side of a big, flat mudbank that hadn’t been here last time, feeling the current surge under us, catching a whiff of organic stink from the shore. “Just a couple of kems, Daddy. A few more minutes.” Have I been down this stream a hundred times? Probably not, but he’s been bringing me here since I was a little kid... sixteen years old now? Maybe a hundred times after all.

“Good. Mrs. Trinket’s baby won’t wait.”

Baby. Funny to think of it like that—but I do too, natural I guess, coming out here with him, time and again, despite Mother’s disapproval. He always calls me by my Timeliner name, the one he gave me, pronouncing it the old way, Dar-eye-us. Darius Murphy.

I like to have my friends call me Murph, and that makes Mother angry too. Dagmar Helgasson. That’s your name. Your
name. The only kind of name a Mothersbairn
have. Mother won’t let him near my brother Lenahr. Not since she found out about the name.

We came around a bend in the river and there was the Himeran village on a little hill beyond the bank, a sparse collection of packing crates set up where they’d cleared away thicket. Beebee was waiting for us down by the shore, a tall, mirror-finish metal cylinder nearly two ems tall, standing on steel spiderlegs, waving assorted arms. You could hear him shouting, “Dr. Goshtasp! Dr. Goshtasp! Thank God, Dr. Goshtasp!”

Daddy muttered, “Just in time, I guess.”

 These trips down in the bayou country piss Mother off more than anything else. When I was very young, I supposed that marrying a resident alien, a Timeliner no less, rather than a Mother’s Son, had been her own act of youthful rebellion: Helga Rannsdottir, who hated her own Mother just
, eloping in the night with a hooknose tinker.

It makes a pretty, romantic story for a boy to tell himself, dreaming in his bed. Something that makes his tale of the wonder years to come more plausible. I imagined them as adolescent lovers, daring the disapproval of the Mother’s Children and...

Other books

Nemo and the Surprise Party by Disney Book Group
Here Comes Earth: Emergence by William Lee Gordon
Portrait of My Heart by Patricia Cabot
Highland Destiny by Hunsaker, Laura
Beyond Black: A Novel by Hilary Mantel
The Sari Shop by Bajwa, Rupa
The Rock Child by Win Blevins
The Vampire Stalker by Allison van Diepen
The Fix by Nick Earls