Weidenfield and Nicolson
... and some samples.
At the centre of the Galaxy, Lobsang looked up. ‘That,’ and he pointed to the brightest shadow-creating star in the sky, ‘is artificial.’
Joshua laughed. ‘You know, Lobsang, I’ve known you for forty years now and you can still make my jaw drop. How the hell can a star be artificial?’
‘But it’s not a star,’ Indra said. ‘It’s a planet.’
Lobsang consulted a handheld tablet. ‘Our spectroscopes show it. It can’t possibly be natural; it’s too small to be a star, and too heavily enriched with helium. What you have there, Joshua, is a helium star. Once it was a gas giant, or maybe a mash-up of more than one planet – it’s more massive than Jupiter.’
‘Why build such a thing? What’s the point?’
‘Perhaps to prepare for the future,’ Indra said. She looked uncertainly at Lobsang.
Again he encouraged her. ‘Go on.’
‘When hydrogen burns at the heart of a star like the sun, it produces helium as ash. But at the end of the sun’s life the helium burns in turn, and you get lots of heavy elements, all the way up to iron. Which is how the interstellar medium gets enriched with that stuff, as old stars die. In the far future, as generations of stars pass and process the matter of the universe over and over again, there will be new elements – stable nuclei but very massive, with masses of neutrons and protons clinging together. We’ve glimpsed some of these, formed one nucleus at a time in high-energy collisions in particle colliders. Elements whose properties we can only guess at.’
‘But maybe they’ll be necessary,’ Lobsang said. ‘In the next stellar age, when the bright stars begin to fade away. There will be new kinds of chemistry, maybe entirely new forms of life, based on those elements. I believe that burning planet is a processing factory, producing a mass of exotic heavy elements. Maybe whoever built that helium star was thinking on very long time scales, Joshua. It’s a factory of the future age.’
But by now, Joshua was no longer listening. Standing a little way back from the monoliths, he had a wider view of the landscape than the others. In what he tentatively labelled the ‘east’, a sun was rising at last, a splash of light surrounded by what looked like a complex, textured mass of cloud. Or maybe it wasn’t a cloud. He shielded his eyes to see better.
No, Joshua realised, that lenticular object around the sun was no cloud. Hanging in the sky, dominating the eastern horizon, it was too big, too symmetrical to be any kind of cloud system. A big ellipse, he thought. Or maybe some kind of disc, tipped up from his viewpoint . . .
Joshua frowned, cursing his rheumy eyes as he squinted into the sky. There was shading on the surface of that tilted disc, he could swear. Concentric bands around the sun at the centre: a kind of washed-out red towards the middle, splashes of pale green and pale grey further out. And the surface was textured, not perfectly flat. Wrinkles, like mountain ranges on the moon. Wrinkles that cast a shadow, from that central sun.
A world shaped like a disc.
‘Lobsang, you ought to take a look at this. I think they left other signatures.’
Joshua hobbled over to him, grabbed his shoulders, physically manoeuvred him out of the shadow of the monoliths, and made him face the eastern horizon. The rising sun was dazzling now, but the air was clear, and the reality of the object in the sky was obvious.
‘Oh,’ said Lobsang.
Indra emitted a burst of quicktalk.
Maggie looked at her. ‘What did you say, dear?’
Indra pursed her lips. ‘A rough translation - holy crap.’
‘It’s an Alderson disc,’ Lobsang said.
Maggie snorted. ‘Of course you’d have a name to slap on the thing straight away.’
‘But it’s so, Captain. A tremendous artefact – we don’t know how far we are from that sun; it must span planetary orbits. It may oscillate around the sun so both sides are illuminated, in turn. There must be some kind of artificial gravity, to keep everything stuck to the disc. Look, you can see different climatic zones depending on the radial distance from the sun. Desert-like zones towards the centre, more temperate, perhaps Earth-like climates further out.’
Joshua shook his head. ‘Got to hand it to you, Lobsang. You’re one heck of a bluffer. Totally unaware of this thirty seconds ago, you didn’t even notice it, and out you come with an off the cuff analysis like that.’
Lobsang was unperturbed. ‘Perhaps that is a tribute to the human imagination. We encounter a superhuman artefact, but it is as engineers of the past have imagined. Sketching with pencil and paper, scribbling down numbers. Still they were able to antiuciupate this.’
‘But nobody ever imagined a Skein before,’ Indra said.
‘No. That’s true.’
‘That big thing in the sky, though. You’d have to take whole planets apart to make it, right? Why bother, when you have perfectly sensible planets like this one hanging around? And it looks kind of – fragile – to me. Is it dynamically stable? Must need a lot of maintenance. That’s a cushy career for an engineer.’
‘A whole dynasty of engineers,’ Lobsang said.
‘I can think of two reasons to build such a thing,’ Indra said.
Maggie raised her eyebrows. ‘Go on.’
‘First, as a shield.’ She glanced at Lobsang. ‘You say supernovas are a hazard here. I presume the disc would have two habitable sides? If a supernova threatened above, you could simply move below, and let the shield structure protect you. A population equivalent to many planets could be sheltered with simple safety procedures.’
‘Well, that makes sense,’ Maggie said. ‘And your second reason?’
Indra stared up at the sky, and she smiled, and to Joshua it was as if a second sun had risen. She said, ‘You’d build it because you could. To go exploring on it. Look at it! You have whole worlds kind of mashed up together. You could walk interplanetary distances, walk from one planetary type to another, from Venus to Earth to Mars.’
Maggie smiled. ‘I think I’d take a bus, but I know what you mean.’
Joshua grinned. ‘Someday we’ll come back with those GapSpace people and a proper rocket ship, and do precisely that.’
‘Hm,’ Indra said, and she looked more thoughtful. ‘Landing on the thing may be tricky. It would depend if it were spinning or not . . . I imagine the gravity field would be complex.’
Maggie said, ‘The engineers may have thought of that. There ought to be systems to help you.’
‘Tractor beams to guide you down?’
‘Something like that. Alternatively there could be defence systems to shoot you down. Rogue asteroids must be a threat . . .’
Joshua said to Lobsang, ‘No city lights up there.’
Lobsang shrugged. ‘In the old science fiction I ever read, on artefacts like that, civilisation mostly falls. People forget they are even living on a disc. It’s almost mandatory.’‘You think this is what we’re going to find, Lobsang? If we go further into the Skein? Monoliths, and monuments in the sky - mighty ruins . . .’
Lobsang grinned. ‘Won’t it be fun?’
Ben shrieked, ‘Go away!’
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that, Ben,’ Lobsang said calmly.
Agnes, sitting with her sewing basket, suppressed a sigh, and steeled herself not to intervene.
Lobsang, standing over Ben and the cat-litter box, said, ‘You’ve done a good job with the litter, Ben. Shi-mi will appreciate it. But now you have to get washed because it will be time for supper soon, and I’m making mushroom soup. Look, there’s the pan on the hearth. You like mushroom soup.’
‘I hate ‘shroom soup!’
‘Then I’m puzzled. That’s not what you said yesterday.’
Lobsang laughed, as if the boy - now five years old, two years after their arrival here at New Springfield - had made a witty debating point. ‘That’s arguable.’
‘You’re also ugly. Ugly an’ stupid.’
‘That is a question of taste.’
‘You’re not my real Dad, you stupid!’
‘Well, now, Ben, you know that’s true, we’ve been through it -’
‘Hate you, hate you!’ Ben tipped up the plastic box so the litter of sand and fine gravel spilled over the kitchen floor. Then he ran out into the stockaded yard, banging the screen door behind him.
Lobsang stood and stared after him, arms folded. Then he turned to Agnes. ‘You could have helped.’
‘I’m helping by not helping.’
‘You’re the one with experience of these creatures.’
‘Children, Lobsang. They’re called children.’
‘Anybody who could raise Joshua Valienté to fully functioning adulthood – well, reasonably fully functioning – knows what they’re doing.’
‘So, then – if my prosthetic limb was malfunctioning, I’d call in a prosthetics expert. My relationship with Ben is evidently malfunctioning. You’re the expert.’
‘And you’re the one who wanted to be a father. Well, now’s your chance.’ She made shooing motions with her arms. ‘Go ahead – father!’
He shook his head and spread his hands, the way she remembered he used to when she had made him sweep the leaves in his troll reserve back in the Low Earths, and she’d said he’d done a shoddy job and made him start over. ‘But I don’t know where to begin. He hates me.’
‘No, he doesn’t.’
‘He said so!’
‘He’s five years old. He’s trying to jab at you. He barely knows what he’s saying.’ She sighed. ‘Look, Lobsang. Try to find out what’s really bothering him. That’s all the advice I’m going to give you.’
She held up a finger. ‘And if you try to drag me into this I’ll leave the room. Might even have one of my naps.’
‘Oh, yes,’ he said bitterly, ‘your strategic naps.’
‘This is what you wanted,’ she repeated. ‘This is why we’re here.’
Lobsang heaved a sigh. ‘Well, I’d better get a broom to pick up this litter. At least I’m good at that.’
‘Leave some for Ben to clean up. Just to make the point.’
Two years into their New Springfield experience, they were both still learning – just as, Agnes supposed, had been the Irwins and the Todds and the Bells and the Bambers and all the other folk who’d been here for years before they showed up. But that was the plan. Lobsang, who had been observing the pioneering of the Long Earth for years, now wanted to try it out for himself, as ‘George’.
Of course the New Springfielders had already achieved a lot, and one reason Lobsang and Agnes had chosen to come here was because of their evident basic competence. They knew about hygiene, for instance. Their plumbing was good enough, they washed their hands regularly – they even made their own soap, from animal fat and potash from their charcoal burners. They had worked out some folk remedies in addition to the supplies they acquired from the Low Earths, such as quinine from wild cinchona, and willow bark for pain relief. They even had poppies for opium, growing from seeds they’d brought.
And they had figured out how to make the best of local resources, notably the trees, the basic stock of this forest of a world, and the way you used different types of wood for different purposes: burning, building, tool making. They maintained a pottery kiln, and a forge, although they had inherited the latter from the rather more industrious first pioneers. They had started making their own clothes as the stock they had brought from the Datum slowly wore out. They gathered hemp, flax, cotton, and wool from their sheep and now Lobsang’s, which they were learning to card, spin and weave. They even made foul-smelling candles from the fat of the pigs that had gone wild in the forest.
They did cheat, as Agnes had slowly learned. You saw few old folk, few very sick. One of the community, Bella Sarbrook, had some medical training, basic equipment such as a stethoscope and thermometer and blood pressure tester, and was studying midwifery and dentistry and other essential skills – for Bella it was a way to make a living after the death of her husband. But when people got old, or seriously ill, or in one case when a couple had borne a disabled child, they tended to drift off back to the more sophisticated facilities of the Low Earths. A visit from a Navy twain, heroically chasing up voter registration across the US Aegis for that November’s presidential election, had inspired a few more to pack up and go ‘home’. Conversely the homegrown medicines and toiletries and stuff were supplemented by a trickle of produce from the Low Earths or Valhalla, either fetched back after visits there or supplied by itinerant vendors. Agnes didn’t see anything wrong with this. As long as the Low Earth communities existed, why not use them?
Lobsang meanwhile was running experiments in farming.
With the help of the neighbours he’d cleared some of the old fields the first settlers had laid out, and ploughed the land with his horses and cattle and some human labour, and had tried out his first crops: wheat in the more clay-like soil, oats and potatoes where the ground was heavier. Working to a careful schedule he was rotating peas and beans to put nutrients back in the soil, and enriching the ground with the dung from the animals that he fed from the root crops and beets he planted. Now Lobsang was hard at work setting up a water-driven millstone down at Soulsby Creek. The first wheat harvest, small as it was, had drawn curious volunteers, to reap with handheld sickles, to thresh and winnow. While not primarily here to farm themselves, the adults saw it all as good fun, and ‘George’s’ small farm as a kind of open-air schoolroom was a welcome addition to the education of their kids.
Agnes sometimes wondered if the Long Earth was getting more peaceful, overall. Yellowstone had uprooted billions of people from their homes, and had had effects that had rippled out across the stepwise worlds, psychological as well as physical. She suspected that nobody felt safe any more. Maybe you ought to welcome the refugee into your home, then, because next time it could be you needing shelter.
Lobsang, sweeping the floor, sighed. ‘Ben’s been too long. I guess I’d better go fetch him -’
Agnes heard footsteps. ‘No. Wait.’
Shi-mi came popping through the hinged flap Lobsang had cut for her in the screen door. And then Ben came bustling through the door after her.
Shi-mi went straight over to the spilled litter. She scuffed at it with her paw, then looked up mournfully at Ben.
‘You want your litter, puss? Ben’s sorry, I made a mess.’ He set the box upright, then scooped in handfuls of the spilled litter off the floor. Lobsang quietly went to the cupboard, and brought back a broom and a dustpan and brush.
For a few minutes Lobsang and Ben, father and son, worked together sweeping up. Agnes sat and did her sewing, pretending not to watch.
And the cat sat and licked her paws. The fiction they still maintained in front of Ben was that the cat was just a cat, there was never even a suggestion that she could talk. Some day Ben might find out otherwise, and some day he’d probably have to know the truth about his parents’ android-like nature too. But until then they wanted Ben to have as normal a life as possible. So the cat obeyed the house rule, and stuck at being a cat. But she glanced over at Agnes, who raised her thumb, out of sight of Lobsang and Ben. Thanks.
The cat actually winked. Don’t mention it.
‘Well done,’ Lobsang said to Ben.
‘She likes her litter,’ Ben said. ‘Likes to sleep in there. She’s getting old.’ Ben pulled his face long like Lobsang’s, and imitated his serious voice. ‘Getting o-o-old. Like us all.’
Lobsang laughed. ‘“As are we all.” That’s near enough. Well, you do a good job of sorting out her litter for her.’
‘My job. She’s my cat.’
‘Yes, she is. And she loves you just as much as we do. Now listen, Ben – you got angry before.’
‘You’re not in trouble, don’t worry. Let’s just talk a bit.’
Ben pursed his lips. ‘What about?’
‘Well, look. I know you like school. And you like Mrs Irwin, don’t you?’
‘But,’ Lobsang was saying now, ‘I’ve noticed that sometimes when you come home you seem a little. annoyed.’
Good choice of word, Agnes thought. If you were angry it was your fault; if you were annoyed, it was the fault of whoever did the annoying.
‘It’s Jimmy Bamber.’
‘Do I know him?’
‘Yes, George,’ Agnes intervened. ‘Redhead. From those folk who live on their raft on the fringe of the wetland -’
‘I know. He doesn’t seem a bad lad.’
‘He’s OK,’ Ben said. ‘But he picks on me.’
‘About you.’ He glanced at Agnes. ‘You and Mom. He says you’re not my real folks.’
‘Well, you know that’s true, Ben. We talked about that. You’re adopted. Your real mother and father -’
‘And he says you’re kinda weird.’
Lobsang glanced at Agnes, and she felt faint alarm. Folks in New Springfield generally minded nobody’s business but their own. But if their artificial nature was becoming apparent, in spite of all their efforts at concealment.
Luckily for her, Lobsang spoke first, and he didn’t jump to any conclusions. ‘Weird how?’
‘He says you’re old. You know.’
Agnes suppressed a sigh of relief. If you were just five, old age was weird enough; being artificial hadn’t even been noticed.
Lobsang said, ‘Older than the other parents. Is that it?’
‘Yeah. They’re all young, and you’re like grey and wrinkled.’
‘Umm. Sorry about that.’
To fake their ambulant units’ ages as fifties or upwards had been an instinctive choice. They had both, after all, been old, depending on how you measured Lobsang’s age, before they’d both suffered a version of that ultimate old-age calamity, death. Maybe, once you’d been old, you could never be truly young again. But it did mean that they were a lot older than the other parents who gathered at the Irwin home to collect their kids from school every day.
Lobsang said, ‘But the kids will understand why. I mean, everybody knows you’re adopted.’
‘And look at it this way. There are other “funny” sort of parents around, aren’t there? Look at the Bells. Those kids don’t have parents at all,’ because a young couple had wandered off into the green, leaving their twin babies behind, ‘and so it’s Grandma and Granddad who bring them to school. And poor Nell Clayton only has a Mom, doesn’t she?’
‘Her Daddy died.’
‘I know, son. So other people have “funny” parents too. Does Jimmy Bamber laugh at them too?’
Ben thought that over. ‘I guess.’
Lobsang snorted. ‘Well, there you go. Maybe he’s laughing at everybody else to make sure nobody laughs at him. And if he’s laughing at everybody, who cares if he’s laughing at you?’
‘And, about whether you’re ours or not. Our son. Look at Shi-mi. Who does she belong to?’
‘Me,’ he said promptly. ‘She’s my cat.’
‘But you’re not her real Dad, are you?’
‘No. I’m not a cat.’
Lobsang playfully poked his belly. ‘And you’re certainly not her Mom.’
Ben giggled. ‘No. I’m not a girl.’
‘And, you know what? She’s older than you. How about that?’
‘I know. I’ve seen the lambs and kids and piglets being born.’ For all the kids in New Springfield, any live birth was a major event. ‘I never saw her get born. I know she’s older than me, she was born before I was.’
‘Good logic. So why is she yours, then?’
‘Cos I look after her.’
‘Yes. You fix her litter.’
‘I get her food on Saturdays.’
‘That’s it. So who looks after you?’
Ben looked shy. ‘Well -’
‘Who gets your food on Saturdays?’ Lobsang grabbed him, pulled the boy onto his lap, and began to wrestle playfully. ‘Who fixes your litter? Hey?’
Ben was giggling now. ‘I’m a boy. I don’t have a litter. Stop tickling me!’
With perfect timing, Shi-mi woke up, looked around, and dashed out of the door flap.
Ben wriggled away from Lobsang and ran after her. ‘Mouse! Mouse!.’
Lobsang blew out his cheeks and stood up, as stiffly as he’d sat down. He glanced at Agnes. ‘Well? How’d I do?’
‘Lobsang, if you want me to give you marks out of ten, you still don’t get it.’
‘Thanks,’ he said grumpily.
‘Of course Shi-mi helped a lot.’
‘Oh, of course she did!’
‘By the way.’
‘Your mushroom soup is boiling over.’
‘Oh, crap -’
As he fussed, Agnes looked around, at this home they were building. They’d got on with it quicker than Agnes might have expected, but they had had their headstart with the contents of the gondola, and the basics of this house, and the availability of cut timber and such from the other abandoned homes up here on Manning Hill. Lobsang had gone so far as to build himself a study. This little room was half Victorian English gentleman, with a deep leather armchair and open fire – a style he’d always favoured, for some reason of his own - and the other half, reflecting deeper origins, was like a small Buddhist temple, with a polished wooden floor, walls coated with panels brought from the Low Earths, ornately decorated with red, gold, and splashes of green. All this was a long way from Agnes’s own Catholic tradition, but she liked Lobsang’s ‘temple’: the sense of symmetry and order, the scent of incense, and the smile on the face of the statue of the Buddha – quite a contrast to the anguished expression of the crucified Christ. And little Ben liked the bright colours, which he said were ‘Christmassy’.
They were happy here, Agnes decided. On balance. Life, as ever, was far from perfect. Sometimes all Agnes could see were the problems. But she had the wider perspective to see that overall, as best she could judge, these people were getting it more right than wrong. Figuring out a new way of living, based on the long experience of mankind, and their own sturdy common sense. If this was why Sally Linsay had brought them here, it was a good choice.
The only problem was that Agnes was still having trouble sleeping.
In the course of her long mission, Captain Maggie Kauffman would always remember the day of the launch of the expedition of the Armstrong and Cernan.
Capitol Square, Madison West 5, was like a movie set, Maggie had thought, not without pride. Here she was with her crew (make that crews) at her side, drawn up in parade order before the steps of the Capitol building, under a clear blue Low-Earth January sky. The air was cold but blessedly free of the Datum’s smog and volcano ash. A presidential podium had been set up before the building’s wooden facade, a very mid-twenty-first-century image with hovering cameras and a fluttering flag, the holographic Stars and Stripes of America and its stepwise Aegis. On the stage a few guests waited for the President himself, as he made his latest public appearance at his new capital.
‘Notice that young woman.’ Lobsang, watching the speech on TV, pointed to a slim young woman on the stage.
‘I know her,’ Joshua said. ‘Met her once. Roberta Golding -’
‘Originally from Happy Landings. When she was fifteen she was already notorious for having been the only western student to travel with the Chinese on that mission to Earth East Twenty Million. Before the eruption of Yellowstone she was invited to the White House as some kind of intern; before you know where you are she’s a guest on the President’s Science Advisory Council. Still only twenty, or less.’ He glanced at Joshua. ‘Makes you think, doesn’t it?’
Nobody begrudged Brian Cowley a Constitution-bending FDR-style third term. The consensus seemed to be that whatever the murky processes that had first propelled Brian Cowley to office back in 2036 - at the head of his destructive, divisive, ‘Humanity First’ anti-stepper movement – he’d stepped up to the plate when the supervolcano had gone up during his innings. Continuity in what was still an ongoing crisis had to be a good strategy, there was no candidate right now who would obviously do a better job – and everybody could see how much the burden was taking out of Cowley himself, who was ageing before everybody’s eyes, live on TV. In fact his unofficial election slogan had been ‘It’s hurting me more than it’s hurting you.’
But with his background as a bar-room barnstormer, he did like to put on a performance.
Joe Mackenzie grumbled to Maggie now, as they waited in the gathering crowd, ‘What’s the man going to do, wait until we all pass out?’
‘Mac, this mission is kind of – complicated. We carry a freight of symbolism. The overt purpose of it is to go further stepwise than any ship before us, even those Chinese ships before Yellowstone. But the deeper meaning is that we’ll be a visible demonstration of the recovery of America – we’ll show that Americans can do more than just shovel ash. Mac, we’ll go down in history.’
‘Or in flames.’
‘And you’ll be there to salve the wounds as always.’
Suddenly, shadows from the sky striped across the square.
Maggie tipped up her head to see, and shielded her eyes. Precisely at noon, three airships had appeared above their heads.
The two brand new Navy craft, the USS Neil A. Armstrong II, and the USS Eugene A. Cernan, were whales in the sky. And between the Navy ships, stepping in at precisely the same moment in a neat bit of synchronisation, was a smaller ship but just as sturdy-looking, its hull painted white and blue with a proud presidential seal emblazoned on its flanks and tail fins. Popularly known as Navy One, this twain was the President’s own dedicated craft, heavily defended and bristling with armour and, it was rumoured, luxuriously appointed within.
Now, with a hum of powerful engines, a soft downwash of air and some neat navigation, Navy One descended towards the Capitol building, and a hatch in the base of the gondola opened up to allow a staircase to extend smoothly to the stage.
With secret service agents front and back, the unmistakeable form of Brian Cowley came down the ramp. The band struck up Hail to the Chief, there were good-natured cheers from the gawking crowd out beyond the perimeter, and Cowley worked his way along the line of the dignitaries with handshakes. He was an overweight man in a crumpled suit.
At last Cowley stepped up to the microphone, and grinned at the gathering before him. ‘My fellow Americans, and people of the planet Earth – all the planet Earths.’
Cowley had always had the easy, graceful command of a natural orator – well, his whole career had been predicated on that one skill – and as his gaze swept over her, Maggie felt herself swell with pride, just a little. Asshole the man may once have been, and may still be, but he was the President, the office was always greater than any one man - and since Yellowstone Cowley had demonstrated that there had been far worse incumbents before him.
Now Cowley looked up at the new vessels, hovering above the Capitol. ‘Beautiful new ships, aren’t they? The product of American technical ingenuity, and the generosity of our own people and our partners from overseas.’ He pointed. ‘Neil Armstrong. Eugene Cernan. I’m sure you all grew up knowing the first of those names. But what of the second? I bet you looked it up before you came out here today.’ A ripple of laughter. ‘So you see, the names are kind of fitting. And I want you to think of the mission I’m launching today as being a Project Apollo for our generation. This is our moon shot – and let me tell you, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper!’
Beyond the Low Earths, the only major milestone anybody in the US Navy was aware of was the Gap, at around West two million, where a hole in the Long Earth string of worlds, a missing Earth, allowed easy access to space in at least one universe, and a nascent space exploration and exploitation industry had grown up as a result. Maggie was looking forward to seeing this, in fact.
Surely there were human colonies beyond the Gap. Explorers at least, or combers, the barefooted take-each-day-as-it-comes wanderers who increasingly suffused the Long Earth, throwing off the shackles of complex civilisation and living off the low-hanging fruit, of which there was always plenty, if not in this world then in the next. If they were out there nobody in an official capacity knew about it, and Maggie had a brief to keep a weather eye out for such distant wanderers.
But her ultimate goal was to travel far beyond the Gap – if the twains worked to their design capacity.
‘They go to see what’s out there,’ Cowley said ringingly. ‘They will go, not two million steps like Joshua Valienté fifteen years ago, not twenty million like the great Chinese mission of discovery five years ago – their target is two hundred million Earths, and more. They will map, they will log, they will study, and they will plant the flag. They go to find out who’s out there. And they go to extend America as far as the footprint of this great nation can be said to exist. And, if it’s humanly possible, they will bring home the lost crew of the Neil Armstrong.
I, lost all these years.’
Cheers and whoops.
Mac grunted sourly. ‘This from the man who used to claim stepping folk were either demons sent by the Devil or a species of subhuman.’
‘We all make mistakes,’ Maggie whispered back with a grin.
The quartermaster, Jenny Reilly, was growing concerned about a discrepancy in what she called, for Maggie’s sake, her balance sheet. ‘It’s simple enough, Captain. We got so many warm bodies on board. It’s not hard to tally up the losses we’ve taken in terms of numbers, including leaving a squad behind with the Napoleons. Think of the ship as a huge processor, air and water and food in end, sewage out the other.’
‘Lovely image, Jenny.’
‘The trouble is, it doesn’t tie up. As if we’ve got one warm, healthy, hungry and thirsty body too many on this ship. Whereas the numbers for the Cernan match perfectly.’
Maggie rubbed her face, trying to focus. ‘But Ed Cutler is running a rather more vanilla crew over there, isn’t he? By which I mean, human. We’ve got trolls on board, big muscular animals.
A canine humanoid. Not to mention a whole bunch of marines, who the Navy classes as a separate species. I’m not trying to give you any offence, Jenny -’
‘None taken. But I do try to account for all that. We have Ensign Snowy, for example, wired up to monitor his unusual metabolism. He takes that in good part.’
‘Glad to hear it.’ Maggie wanted to leave the issue in a ‘pending’ tray in her head, writing it off as one of the many small but baffling mysteries you had to expect when you tried to run a ship as complex as this full of creatures as complex as human beings, not to mention her non-human guests. ‘Look, Jenny, don’t fret about this, until the discrepancies start to grow any wider.’
But Jenny was still unhappy. ‘I think we got a stowaway, Captain.’
Now Cowley was growing more reflective. ‘Our nation has suffered a great blow. We all know that; only the very youngest among us cannot remember the time of plenty before Yellowstone, which we compare to the deprivation of the present. Well, recover we will, as the might and resources of the new worlds of the Long Earth come to the aid of the old.
‘But America can do more than merely recover. America is more than that. I know there are some who say that Yellowstone was an instrument of God – a punishment for the sins of our nation, like the Flood that once cleansed a sinful Earth. But I say this: God may have sent the Flood, but He also gave Noah the Ark, a means for humanity to survive, a second chance that Noah and his children gratefully grasped. Yellowstone expresses the ineffable wrath of God. Yet at the same time He has given us an Ark, each and every one of us, in our spirit, in our strong limbs and clean minds, in our hearts, in our nation’s values.’
At around Earth West 230,000,000 the oxygenation of the air returned, and a few million worlds further on, they came to a belt of worlds with complex life of bizarre forms, and even more bizarre biochemistry according to Gerry Hemingway, even though the geology of these worlds could be quite different from the Datum.
They moved on, logging one strange world after the next, many of them hosting complex biospheres adapted to exotic conditions: greater or lesser gravities, longer or shorter days, skies with multiple moons or no moon at all.
Cowley was battling to be heard now over the predictable cheers.
‘This is a time of recovery from disaster. But it is also a time of coming together, of a rebuilding of strength. A time that will be remembered as long as humanity survives. I say to you young people gathered before me: go out in these great Arks of the sky. Go out into the new worlds God has given us. Go out there, and found a new America!’
Even the military crew, supposedly still at attention, broke out into cheers and hat-hurling now. And –
‘Why, Mac. I’ll swear that’s a tear on your grizzled cheek.’
‘He’s just a soapbox Joe. But, damn, he’s good.’
‘Godspeed, Armstrong! Godspeed, Cernan!’
Short fiction in the universe of ‘Proxima’, exclusive to this website.
2166.Yuri had to kick Lemmy awake.
Lemmy stirred slowly, feeling around for his jumpsuit in the dark of the barrack. Yuri always thought it was amazing the kid slept at all, what with his scurvy, as the Martians called it, the stuffy head and the nausea and the disorientation, the result of a profound non-adaptation to the low gravity, and that was despite him having spent half his nineteen years up here. Whereas Yuri sometimes wondered if he’d slept properly at all since being thawed out here, eighty years out of his time. He lay in his narrow bunk every night, listening to the snoring of the men around him in the barrack and the shuffling of the bed-hoppers, like it was some border-control prison back in Manchester. And behind all that there were the uncomfortable sounds of Mars itself, the unending wheeze of the pumps and fans, the popping of the dome shell as the temperature swung through its day and night extremes, and the occasional distant artillery-shell crump that might be a meteorite, or something worse. Sleep, for Yuri, was a luxury on Mars. But Lemmy slept like a baby.
Anyhow, as soon as Lemmy woke up he remembered what they’d planned for today, and he grinned as he pulled on his bright green jumpsuit, his wheezy breath rattling.
Once dressed, the two of them padded barefoot through the barrack. A few inmates were awake, Yuri could tell; eyes gleamed in the dark, predatory or fearful. But nobody bothered them. Yuri still had enough of his Earthborn strength to be able to swing a fist effectively. Which was one reason why Lemmy, smart but small and sickly, hung around with him.
Once out of the barrack they hurried through corridors, heading for the dome wall. All was quiet, save for a couple of squat maintenance robots working their dull way across the scuffed plastic floor. Partitions sliced up the dome’s inner space, and Yuri imagined sleepers racked up in their bunk beds behind these smooth walls. But over their heads the bland surface of the main dome stretched, shutting out the sky. They passed a row of VR booths, all occupied. Always somebody trying to escape from Mars, and prepared to spend their hard-earned scrip to do it, whatever the time of day or night.
‘Told you it would be quiet,’ Lemmy murmured. ‘Supposed to be a twenty-four-hour shift pattern here, WorkTherapy all day and all night. But the handover from late night to early morning is always a slack time.’
‘Good for us.’
They reached the outer wall of the dome, a sheet of plastic reinforced by ribs of Martian steel that sloped sharply down to meet the flooring in a tight seal. With a shambling run Lemmy led Yuri around the curve of the wall, which was plastered with UN posters in Spanish, English, French, Russian, even some in Chinese, exhorting you to eat, sleep, exercise, to obey the Peacekeepers and accept whatever verdict the Community Council handed down to you, and to throw yourself into your WorkTherapy. All the posters had been systematically marred by graffiti.
‘So where is this lock?’
‘Not far now. Keep your voice down.’ Lemmy looked up nervously at the black snubs of the Peacekeepers’ surveillance cameras, everywhere. Of course they would be seen, their identities observed, every movement recorded; it was just a question of whether they could get to where they wanted to be before they were stopped.
They stopped at a stretch of wall covered by a new poster, taller than Yuri was, plastered against the sloping face. It showed an astronaut in a snazzy black and silver pressure suit, smiling out at you while pointing to a cluster of stars in the night sky: JOIN ME AT FAR CENTAURUS, said the slogan, in the blocky modern font Yuri had so much trouble reading. Somebody had scratched a UN-dollar sign into his forehead. Lemmy briskly ripped this off the wall, to reveal another poster reassuring you that gen-enged Martian wheat from the province of Cadiz was wholesome to eat despite the rumours, and under that –
A hatchway. A metal door with rivets, rounded corners.
‘Told you.’ Lemmy punched a bypass code into a panel, then worked a heavy manual handle, a stiff bar that needed all his weight to turn. ‘Used when they first built this place, but now it doesn’t pass the safety-standard checks. But they never seal anything up. You never know what you’ll need in an emergency.’ The door hissed open, pulling inward.
Yuri had been born on Earth in the year 2067, nearly a hundred years ago, and, dozing in a cryo tank, had missed mankind’s heroic expansion out into the solar system. But after a year in this place he understood a few details about living off the Earth, like this door, that it was designed to open inward so that the dome’s air pressure would keep the hatch closed rather than push it open.
Beyond the hatch fluorescents blinked reluctantly to life. They hurried down a short corridor, towards another hatch. The air smelled musty.
The second hatch was stiffer, but Lemmy got them through. Now they entered a small compartment, which had windows to the outside showing streaky Martian dawn light, and the domes and blocks of Eden, this UN township.
Yuri went straight to a window and pressed his hands against it. Every atom in his body longed to be out there on the Martian ground, frozen, ultraviolet-blasted desert though it might be. He’d been taken through spacesuit and airlock drills for the sake of emergency training, but he’d never been outside. Mostly he never even got to look through a window.
He turned and inspected the chamber. There was nothing in here but four holes in the wall with some kind of plastic diaphragm over them about as wide as his waist, and shelves with a clutter of elderly gear on it: jars of skin cream, an empty water bottle, a heap of dirty clothing.
‘Is this an airlock? How do we get outside?’
Lemmy grinned. ‘Shoes off.’ He kicked off his soft-soled slippers. Then he got hold of a hand rail over one of those holes in the wall, lifted himself up with a grunt, and slid his legs feet-first through the hole. The diaphragm, flaps of flexible plastic, swallowed his lower body. He looked back at Yuri. ‘Try it. One size fits all.’ And he raised his arms above his head, and slipped bodily through the hole and out of sight.
Yuri had no choice but to trust him. He went to another hole in the wall, kicked away his own shoes, grabbed the bar, jumped up and swung. The plastic flaps slid around him easily, and he felt his legs being guided into tubes of fabric. With a faint misgiving he let go of the bar, wrapped his arms around his torso, and let himself fall through the hole – and found himself standing up, inside some kind of pressure suit, outside, on the Martian surface. His head had ended up in a bubble visor. His legs had slid easily into the lower part of the suit, the leggings and boots, but his arms were still clasped around his chest. He heard the suit come alive now he was inside it, the high-pitched hum of fans, and the material squirmed around his legs and feet, evidently adjusting to fit.
The helmet, and the whole back of the suit, was fixed to the wall behind him, as if glued. But he was outside. Through the visor he saw a panorama of dusty buildings and equipment.
Beside him, Lemmy stood inside another suit, similarly pinned at the back to the wall. Lemmy was working his arms inside dangling sleeves, and a neck light inside his helmet showed his face. ‘Told you.’ His voice came over a crackly radio link.
Yuri found the arms of his own suit, and pushed his hands down the sleeves and into gloves. The suit chafed in places, and he could see the outer layer was grubby and worn.
Lemmy sneezed spectacularly, spraying the inside of his dome helmet. ‘Shit. Dusty in here.’ A small white shape wriggled around inside the helmet, pink eyes peering out fearlessly.
‘So you brought Krafft along.’
‘What, you think I’d leave him in the barrack? Good boy, Krafft.’ The rat wriggled and disappeared.
‘What kind of suits are these, that you don’t put on inside a lock?’
‘Planetary protection gear. Designed to keep humans and their mucky bodies sealed off completely from Mars. And vice versa. From back in the day when they cared about such things. Look, you just have to pull away from the wall. One, two, three -’ He braced, leaned, and Yuri saw his suit seal part from the wall, with a spray of ancient dust. Everything got dust-covered on Mars.
Yuri knew nothing about the air of Mars, except there wasn’t much of it and he couldn’t breathe it, and he’d freeze to death even before he got a lungful. He didn’t let himself hesitate, didn’t stop to think what would happen if this decades-old seal failed on him. He just pulled himself forward, there was a smacking sound like a noisy kiss, and there he was, free of the wall, standing independently on Mars.
He tried a step or two. He felt just as light as he did inside the dome, and the suit wasn’t much of an encumbrance; he could hear the whir of elderly exoskeletal artificial muscles helping him bend the joints. At his feet, there was dust heaped everywhere, the relic of many storm seasons; this area was evidently unused. When he kicked, the dust fell like crimson snow, in the gathering red-brown light of a Martian dawn. Out.
Lemmy coughed again; his breath was a wheezy rattle.
Yuri said, ‘So which way’s the rover?’
‘This way. Come on. Let’s get to it before some Peacekeeper crawls out of his bed and comes after us .’
Yuri followed Lemmy away from the dome.
Eden was the UN’s largest outpost on Mars, and one of the oldest. You could see its history in the jumble of buildings around the dirt-track streets. The cylindrical bulks like Nissan huts were the remains of the first ships to land, tipped over and heaped with dirt and turned into shelters. Then had come domes like the one Yuri had been assigned to, built of panels or inflatable habs prefabricated on Earth and shipped out here, and covered over with dirt as a shield from meteorites and solar radiation. Then there were a few buildings of blocks of red Martian sandstone – the newest structures, and made of local materials, but they being built of stone looked the oldest to Yuri’s Earthborn eye, like the archaeological remains that survived among the sprawl of the cities of his native North Britain. The whole place had the feel of a prison to Yuri, or a labour camp. And all this was just a pinprick, a hold-out; the scuttlebutt was that a colony like this would be dwarfed by the giant cities the Chinese were building on the rest of the planet, like their capital, Obelisk, in Terra Cimmeria.
Just to be out was a relief, to be able to walk more than fifty metres or so and not be stopped by a wall. But he longed to rip off this enclosing suit, he longed to run, off into the lapping desert.
They came to a kind of parking lot where ground vehicles were gathered around big pressurised maintenance workshops. The vehicles ranged from little one-person dust buggies, to huge diggers intended for the work of extending Barsoom-type canals to the south pole ice cap, and drilling rigs with ground anchors to hold themselves down against the low gravity while they extracted water from deep aquifers. All these great engines were coated with the clinging dust of Mars, all reduced to the same washed-out reddish-brown, their paintwork obscured. The area was quiet, nobody around; Lemmy had been right about this window of small-hours stillness.
‘Here.’ Lemmy led him to a boxy vehicle with a big sealed compartment at the back, and a smaller two-seat cabin up front. With six big bubble wheels and a boat-like lower hull, the rover was dust-covered like the rest, but Yuri saw from scuffs and smears that a big heavy airlock door at the rear had been opened recently. Lemmy said, ‘Just a rover, for getting workers from A to B. It ain’t pretty, but it is fast. And stupid enough to do what we tell it.’ He walked up to a smaller lock that led into the drivers’ cabin, punched a code and pushed open the lock door.
Lemmy was good at this kind of stuff, knew his way around. Which was one reason why Yuri hung around with him - the other being, Yuri sometimes admitted to himself, a need to protect somebody even weaker than himself, here on Mars. Like Lemmy with his rat Krafft, so it was with Yuri and Lemmy.
As the cabin pressurised they opened up their suits. The cabin was a two-seater, with two sets of controls, two wheels. A hatch at the back evidently led to the rear pressurised bay. Lemmy deferred to Yuri and let him take the left-hand seat. Settling in the right seat, Lemmy punched a few panels and murmured a few commands, while his pet rat crawled around his neck and inside his jacket. ‘That’s it. Safety overrides off. Of course alarms will be ringing in the domes.’
‘So we’ll get our butts kicked.’ Yuri strapped himself in tightly with a wraparound belt. ‘But not yet.’ He started punching buttons, and grabbed the joystick before him.
Soon they were rolling away from the vehicle lot. Panels lit up with red flags, and a ponderous automated voice in what sounded to Yuri like a Bostonian accent instructed them to turn back, but Lemmy shut it all down.
It was the first time Yuri had driven since his cryo-freezing, and the first time he’d driven any kind of vehicle on Mars. But he found the controls hadn’t changed much, in a century, and on a different world; you just pointed and steered with the joystick and squirted the gas with your foot, even if the ‘gas’ here was methane manufactured out of Martian air and water. There was even some kind of manual override on the transmission if you needed it.
Since his waking, he’d found twenty-second-century technology easy to work. User interfaces seemed to have settled down to common standards some time before he’d been frozen. Even the language had stabilised, more or less, if not the accents; English was spoken across several worlds now and had to stay comprehensible, and there was a huge mass of recorded culture, all of which tended to keep the language static. The vehicles and vocabularies of the year 2166 were easy. It was the people he couldn’t figure out.
Lemmy performed another miracle. He produced a plastic flask full of a clear liquid from inside his pressure suit. Yuri grabbed it, unscrewed the cap using his teeth, and swigged. He knew what it had to be: vodka made by a group of Ukrainians in their illegal still in Y Dome, from stolen gen-enged potatoes. ‘Suddenly the day got better yet.’
‘So, this Chaos we’re heading for. Which way?’
Yuri turned the rover that way, following a dusty trail that was not much more than a braid of overlapping tyre tracks. He knew where he was, more or less, in an area called Atlantis in the southern hemisphere. So he took his alignment from the sun, which was rising now, a small, pale, distorted disc whose light turned the sky a kind of diarrhoea brown, washing out the last of the starlight. He got up some speed, and a plume of dust rose up behind them, ancient Martian dust that got endlessly sifted around this snow-globe of a planet, never settling, never raining out, never consolidating. Lemmy whooped in exhilaration, though it quickly broke up into a cough.
They soon left the colony behind. The last buildings were big translucent domes that sheltered the artificial marshland that was the hub of the city’s recycling system: the shit marsh, as it was fondly known by those who had to work there. Then they passed through fields, most of them covered over with clear plastic, where UN scientists were experimenting with gen-enged wheat and potatoes. But some of the fields were open to the air, and here banks of lichen, green and purple, stained the rocks. Some of these lichen, native to Mars but some kind of relation to Earth life, were being gen-enged too, more experiments to find a way to farm Mars. They were the most advanced life forms on Mars, although Yuri had learned that the ground beneath the human fields and domes was rotten with native bugs, dreaming the millennia pointlessly away.
All this soon cleared away too, and then, under the dung-coloured sky, there was nothing but the trail, and the vehicle, and the two of them, and barely a sign that humans had ever come this way before. Directly ahead Yuri made out what looked like a range of low, eroded hills, looming on the close horizon. The Chaos, whatever it was, where they were going to have some fun.
Not far from the colony Lemmy pointed to a mound of stuff that they passed a little way off the track, a heap of boxes and canisters, some of them broken open already, and a fallen parachute draped over the dirt. All of it was stamped with UN roundels, evidently a supply drop gone wrong. Eden relied on supplies dropped from orbit, because most of the rest of Mars was owned by the Chinese. It was like the Berlin airlift, somebody had once told Yuri, as if he would remember an event that was over a century before he was even born.
They went over a pothole in the track, and the rover bounced on its fat tyres with an eerie low-gravity slowness. As they hit the dirt once more Yuri thought he heard a noise in the rear compartment, like a grunt. But he listened closely, and heard no more.
After that Lemmy went quiet, and when Yuri looked over he saw he had fallen asleep. Even the rat was dozing on his shoulder. Lemmy was only nineteen, a year younger than Yuri biologically, but he looked older, sallow, the dirt accentuating the lines in his face, even when he slept. Well, his silence suited Yuri. He wanted nothing more in all this shrivelled-up cage of a world than to be left alone. And here in this hijacked rover, with his only companions sound asleep, Yuri was about as alone as he’d been since the medics had woken him up from his cryo tank. He grinned, and put his foot down harder.
They came upon the Chaos before he knew it. Distances were evidently tricky here, with the near horizon, the dry but dusty air.
The Chaos was a bunch of irregular mounds sticking out of the ground, big slabs like some huge piece of Martian crust had been picked up and dropped and allowed to shatter. All of it was softened, eroded under the dusty yellow-brown sky, but he could see a few sharp edges and sheer cliffs. He drove into shadow, between two huge hill-slabs like the paws of some tremendous animal. He found himself in a kind of valley, a gully. He could tell no water had ever run here, or not enough to carve this feature; it was just a break in the slabs.
A screen on the dash pinged and lit up with some kind of map, along with more red warning lights. Lemmy, woken by the ping, tapped a pad until the flags went away. ‘Safety off. But you might want to slow down -’
‘Not just yet.’ Yuri put his foot down further.
They raced through a nest of mesas, buttes and hills, chopped through by valleys that looked as if they had been carved out by some huge laser beam. It was a hell of a country, like nothing he’d ever seen on Earth - not that landscapes had ever been his bag anyhow. It was kind of like a ride he’d once had in a high-speed two-man jetski through the concrete canyons of a drowned Canary Wharf, in Londres. Or maybe it was more like a game, the kind of VR game he used to play back on Earth, a chase, a multi-player shooter – not the slow boring dreams of oceans and clouds that they offered you in the booths in Eden. He whooped, ignored the pinging of the warning flags, and pushed the rover even harder, and the vehicle bounced on its tyres. Again he thought he heard some kind of grunt come from the rear cabin, but it must be a creaking of the hull.
But the valley he was following narrowed suddenly, like a funnel, he couldn’t slow down in time, he was charging down its throat. A slope rose up out of the dust under his left wheels, like a purpose-built ramp.
The hurtling rover flipped neatly up and over. Suddenly Yuri was sailing through the thin air, the shifting shadows of this canyon, upside down. The flight seemed to take an age in the low gravity. Lemmy closed his eyes. The rat squealed. Yuri laughed out loud.
The rover hit with a slam, and slid on its roof deeper into the canyon. Yuri, strapped upside down in his seat, was enough of a Martian by now to listen for the signs of a hull breach, the whistling of a leak, the ear-popping of decompression. But the hull held. The rover rammed itself between narrowing walls, and came to a sudden, juddering halt.
Yuri and Lemmy exchanged a look.
‘They’ll put us in the shit marsh for a year after this,’ Lemmy said, upside down, slightly strangulated, his harness around his neck.
‘It’s worth it. Ten years is worth it.’ Yuri reached to his waist, hit the release, and tumbled out of his seat and down into the inverted cabin roof. He reached up to help Lemmy down. The rat clung to Lemmy’s collar as if nothing had happened. ‘So now what?’
‘So now we wait for rescue, and to have our asses kicked by the Peacekeepers. I think there’s a coffee maker -’
Yuri held up his hand. A distinctive scraping was coming from the hatch to the rear compartment. The sound of a handle turning, a wheel.
Both of them turned and watched the hatch. Even the rat sat still.
The hatch swung back, awkwardly pushed; whoever was back there was upside down too. Then a head and shoulders thrust through the hatch. The face was a tattooed mask, under a scalp shaven in elaborate whorls. A woman’s face. She had some kind of white dust scattered over her shoulders, and the black jacket she wore. She was mad as hell. ‘Which of you two fuckers is the driver?’
The woman reached through the hatch with a clenched fist, every finger laden with a massive steel ring, and slammed a punch into Yuri’s nose.
When he woke, his whole face felt like a bruise. He was lying on his back, over the joystick which dug into his spine, with his head resting on the windscreen. He touched his nose cautiously to find both nostrils bunged up by bits of ripped cloth.
They were both looking at him.
Lemmy huddled in a corner of the cab, with a swelling over his right eye, either from the crash or from a second punch. ‘Sorry about the first aid, man. Your nose wouldn’t stop bleeding.’
And the woman, sitting in the open hatchway, was chewing what looked like shreds of tobacco. The tattoos on her face were solid black slabs, and seemed designed to emphasise the glare of her pale blue eyes. Yuri could see more of that white dust on her black tunic and charcoal-coloured leggings.
Yuri struggled to sit up. His back ached like hell, and his face was a mass of throbbing pain. When he was settled on the inverted cabin roof Lemmy handed him a plastic mug of coffee, cold, but he wolfed it down gratefully. He said to Lemmy, ‘So we’ve not been saved yet.’
Lemmy shrugged. ‘You’ve only been out about five minutes.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said the woman. ‘Peacekeeper Tollemache is on his way.’
‘Why him? How do you know? .’ But the woman just glared back at him, and he filled in the blanks: because Tollemache already knew about whatever she was up to, in the back of this anonymous rover. That was the Peacekeepers for you, always in somebody’s pocket.
She said, ‘Give me more of that coffee, you little prick.’ Lemmy scrambled to comply. ‘My name is Delga. And you owe me money.’ She glanced down at the spilled powder on her tunic.
Yuri had no intention of paying anything, come what may. ‘How much?’
‘I’ll let you know. I’ll want it in UN dollars, by the way, not the local scrip.’
‘And how much for Peacekeeper Tollemache?’
That might have earned him another punch. Instead she just grinned. ‘The Peacekeepers know I provide a necessary service.’
‘I offer escape, from this place.’
‘You’re a regular social worker.’
She frowned. ‘A what? . I know who you are. The ice boy, right? Your name is Yuri. What the hell kind of a name is that?’
‘Not my name.’
‘Then why are you called it?’
‘Some joker called me that when they woke me up, here on Mars. It’s the name of an astronaut. Or a cosmonaut. The first one, I think.’
She shrugged. ‘Never heard of him. So what’s your real name?’
He looked away.
‘You’ve put aside your lousy past, is that it? What kind of accent is that, Australian?’
‘North British. I grew up in Manchester, at the border with Angleterre, the Euro province.’
‘You sound Australian to me.’
‘You all sound sort of Hispanic to me.’
‘How long were you frozen, a hundred years?’
‘And now here you are. Were you one of the Heroic Generation? What did it feel like to be a Waster?’
‘We weren’t called those names then. I was too young anyhow.’
She grunted. ‘Surprised they don’t call you as a witness in the trials. But you escaped it all, didn’t you? You in your freezer tray.’
He was reluctant to answer, but it was hard to turn away from her iron gaze. ‘It wasn’t my choice. It was an experiment. There were too many of us, my generation. So they tried freezing us in these big honeycomb banks, under the ground, in Antarctica. We’d have less of a footprint that way.’
‘Your parents got rid of you. That’s what happened. Whereas now they get rid of us to Mars. I suppose it was cheaper to ship you out still frozen than to deal with you any other way.’
There was motion outside. Somebody in a pressure suit, the helmet UN blue, shone a flashlight through the cabin window. Then there was more movement, vehicle lights, a big bundle being offloaded from a rover.
‘They’ll put a dome up around us,’ Lemmy said. ‘Get us out that way. It’s a whole squad of Peacekeepers, out here because of us. Look at how they’re moving. See, that jerky way? They’ve got military enhancements. Oh, boy, are we in trouble.’
Delga grinned at Yuri. ‘On behalf of the future, welcome to the butthole of the solar system, my friend.’
He glared at her, defiant. ‘If it’s so bad why are you here?’
She shrugged. ‘We’re here, the UN is here, because the Chinese are here. We can’t let them have Mars all to themselves, can we? And the UN has these big ships now, the hulks, big powerful engines. Nothing like the steam-engine put-puts they had in your day, I bet. Now they can afford to send people to Mars who don’t even want to go. That’s progress for you.’
At last the hatch opened, with a hiss of equalising air pressure. A man, hefty, thrust his head and shoulders into the inverted cabin. He wore an armoured pressure suit, military specification, but he had his helmet off. He looked maybe forty years old. Behind him Yuri could see the translucent walls of a temporary bubble-dome, heard the clatter of a portable air supply system.
The guy glared around the cabin, at the three of them. ‘Who’s responsible for this?’
Delga smiled easily. ‘Good morning, Peacekeeper Tollemache. I was asleep in the back, after my last shift. You can check the records. I only woke up when -’
‘It was me,’ Yuri said.
‘Sure it was.’ Tollemache reached forward and inspected the bits of cloth stuck in Yuri’s nose. ‘Disgusting. You’re the ice boy, right? Nothing but a pain in the butt since they defrosted you.’ He leaned into the cabin and loomed over Yuri. Smiling, spacesuited, he suddenly reminded Yuri of the astronaut in the ‘Far Centaurus’ poster. ‘Well, you won’t be my problem much longer.’ With a gloved fist he jammed a needle into Yuri’s neck.
Once again the red-brown Martian light folded away.
For Frank Wood, the Gap had turned out to be his chance to recover the Dream.
His life changed forever when he was recruited by Gareth Eames. Before then Frank hadn’t even heard of GapSpace. But he had been working at the Kennedy Space Center, what was left of it, and it was sad.
They weren’t taking care of the rockets any more. You could see the salt corrosion eating its way in. That was in the rocket garden, of course, the open-air museum. They still flew unmanned satellite launches, but for a man who would have flown in space such routine shots had all the drama of a garage sale. If there ever was a Dream, then it had gone.
Frank remembered when he was a kid and watched bright-eyed men on TV explaining how they were going to put mass drivers on the moon, and break up asteroids for their metals, and build tin-can worlds in space, and set up beanstalks, ladders into the sky from the surface of the Earth. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
And then the Steppers were invented. Frank was thirty-one years old on Step Day, and had just been accepted into NASA’s astronaut corps. But now you had the Steppers, and the Long Earth. Mankind suddenly had all the space it wanted, a cheap route to a billion Earths, a trillion Earths, so many Earths you couldn’t hope to count them. With all that, who wanted to go up into the freezing, scorching emptiness in a spacesuit smelling faintly of urine? The spaceships stayed on the launch pad of the imagination.
Once Frank Wood had dreamed of flying to the planets, if not the stars. Now, as he worked through his life towards retirement in what was left of KSC, he felt like an early mammal scuttling around the bones of the last dinosaurs ...
Frank was just closing up his bus and coming off-shift. The fellow approaching him was a small man in a grey suit, around forty, the sort of man who would be inconspicuous if you shared a phone booth with him. A conspicuously English accent, however. Frank had noticed him on the tourist bus, but it was an effort to remember.
‘Yeah, that’s me.’
‘Visiting the scene of the crime, eh?’
The man smiled in what he probably thought was a friendly way, and indicated the technological tombstones around them. ‘Would you like to have been an astronaut? Don’t answer that. I know you would. You were in the last astronaut cadre NASA selected, weren’t you? None of whom ever flew in space.’
‘I didn’t catch the name. Well, I don’t think you actually threw it.’
‘Gareth Eames. I would like to talk to you.’
Frank set off for the office. He instinctively didn’t like Gareth Eames. ‘Don’t think so.’
‘It is vital that we talk,’ Eames said, following Frank, hopping crabwise along the hot concrete path, ‘absolutely vital.’
‘Please, Mr Wood. I wish to employ you. We wish to employ you.’
He looked desperate. Frank was annoyed enough to find out how desperate. ‘I’ve got a job,’ he said.
‘Yes. Driving a bus. Worthy but dull.’
‘It pays the rent.’
‘Only just.’ Eames said this in the clipped, certain way who knows someone else’s bank statement better than his own, especially all the red bits.
‘I see,’ Frank said. It suddenly fitted in with Eames’s studied anonymity. ‘What is this job? Government?’
He tried: ‘Well paid?’
Eames pulled a face. ‘Negotiable. Frankly, Mr Wood, it’s the job itself that will appeal to you. I’ve got no doubt about that. Pay will be an irrelevance.’
Frank stood still. ‘OK, Mr Eames. Let’s go somewhere and get to know each other better.’
Eames shook his head, now that he knew Frank was hooked. ‘When you get back to your apartment there’ll be an envelope. There’s no commitment. Listen to me, Mr Wood. I urge you to take a chance. Make a leap into the unknown. I did. Have you ever heard of the Great Bog Off?’
‘Britain, England, where I was born, didn’t take too well to stepping. We were a small, crowded island, and even the new Britains East and West, choked with oak forest, seemed small and crowded too. It wasn’t like the US, where for better or worse your government had a vision about the potential of the Long Earth from the start. Our ruling elites, in the south-east of the country, were much too comfortable to be doing anything useful with the Long Earth. Except maybe as an exotic site for a garden party. So, people like me -’
‘In the end, we left. Anybody with a spark. Anybody disenfranchised and disempowered – whole populations from the battered old industrial cities of the north, the Welsh and Scots who were tired of surviving in an English empire run from London -’
‘You bogged off.’
‘Right. Now there are new Industrial Revolutions going on in the Low Earths. Some of us are going much further. Even the government is having to wake up, now that its tax base is stuffed. But it took each of us the individual courage to take that first step, that one small step, that giant leap.’
‘Very cutely put.’
‘And now, in a north-west corner of a distant footprint England – well. Something magnificent is being built. I urge you to consider our offer, sir.’ And he turned and walked away.
Back in Frank’s apartment at Cocoa Beach, there was indeed an envelope. The envelope turned out to contain a twain ticket, five thousand dollars and –
And a photograph of a spaceship.
The travellers were walked through the Wheel’s main power plant. There was some suncatcher technology, stores for solar energy, clean and effective but rather primitive to Zoe’s eyes. But much of the colony’s power came from heavy-duty fusion generators of an even earlier technological generation. The various vehicles, including the one-person scooters, passenger transports and freighters, and the specialised mining machinery, mostly relied on chemical-fuel engines. And the fuel was essentially methane, which was, she learned, mined from the moon Titan.
‘Fascinating,’ the Doctor murmured. ‘All these technologies of various vintages - it was always this way in the early days of spaceflight. The engineers, faced with the novel challenges of space and other worlds, often reached back to older technologies. Whatever worked, and worked robustly, they used.’
‘It only just worked, I should think,’ Zoe said. ‘It’s more like a museum than a technology park. I mean, look at that suncatcher store. It’s so obviously - wrong!’
‘That’s because nobody’s thought up the various improvements realised by future generations yet. Everything’s obvious after the fact, Zoe.’
‘Oh, I understand that. But don’t you long to tinker with it all - fix the most obvious flaws?’
‘Well, that would be quite wrong, of course. But I do know what you mean, Zoe. I do rather tend to get involved in things myself. And when I do - well, I’m not much of a one for the rules. Which will probably be my downfall one of these days.’
‘Doctor - Sonia showed me a trajectory chart. There are beacons, spanning the inner solar system, following highly elliptical trajectories, from the orbit of Mercury out beyond Mars. They are the basis of interplanetary navigation, warning systems, even shelter in emergencies. They’re just small unmanned stations, but -’
‘Ah. Perhaps they are the precursors of your own Stations. Smaller, cheaper, more primitive.’
‘I don’t know anything about the history. Not even about the Stations!’
‘But that’s not your fault, is it, my dear? And in the meantime, here we are, in this place now, and we ought to start paying attention to it. Has anybody noticed what it is we’re passing through?’
They had reached the upper sections of a defunct craft, its hulk incorporated into the Wheel, stepping along walkways that passed through cutaway bulkheads. Now they were in what had been a control cabin; Zoe saw blank screens, dead switches and dials with faded labels, hollows where electronics had been stripped out for cannibalisation, brackets where three acceleration couches had once been fixed.
‘Ah know this beastie,’ Jamie breathed. ‘We rode it tae the moon. Or summat similar.’
‘Yes, I think it’s an ion rocket of the old Eldred design. One of a fleet rather hastily constructed, I imagine, in the rush to return to rocketry after the T-Mat debacle. Hah! I was right. Look here, Zoe.’ Under what had been a communications console a small panel bore call signs and a vessel code. ‘ZA 874. I thought so. This whole place really is a museum, isn’t it? Which is ironic if you remember where we first met poor old Professor Eldred.’
There was a pointed cough, from up ahead.
Jamie nudged the Doctor. ‘As ye were sayin’, Doctor, we’d better start payin’ attention afore they lock us up agin.’
‘Follow me, you don’t need to queue up with the rest of this rabble.’ Florian Hart strode forward, and the people, recognising the mine’s Administrator, stepped out of her way without a murmur.
The Doctor raised his eyebrows at Zoe.
At the central tower Florian Hart led the travellers into a small cubicle, metal-walled, evidently some kind of lift. Though there was room for more passengers, the door slid closed behind the three of them. Set in the wall there was a bank of buttons, each clearly labelled: HABITATION SURFACE. SWITCHOVER LEVEL. MNEMOSYNE LEVEL A. LEVEL B. Another label read IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. Before operating the lift Florian tapped this label and a seamless panel swung out from the wall, revealing skinsuits neatly folded on shelves.
Zoe saw that the cupboard of skinsuits was labelled, inevitably, SKINSUITS. She giggled. ‘Doctor, they have those great big obvious labels on everything. Isn’t it funny?’
‘Ms Hart, tell me. Why are some of these suits silver-coloured, and the others transparent?’
‘On the Wheel all workers under eighteen have to wear transparent skinsuits. For identification, you see. To be sure they aren’t carrying weapons they shouldn’t be.’
The Doctor frowned. ‘That sounds somewhat draconian. You routinely treat your children as suspects?’
‘Well, they’re not my children, Doctor. And you should see what they get up to.’ Florian tapped the ‘LEVEL A’ button.
With a brittle warning blare, the lift began slowly to rise.
‘And,’ Zoe murmured to the Doctor, ‘all the sounds, I mean the public alarms and even this lift, are all computer-generated. So shrill.’
‘But not entirely unlike your own Station, Zoe. Period chic, it seems.’
They were rising now, and a section of the wall turned transparent, revealing a view of the township of the bubble, and the rest of the Residential Three sector.
Florian said, ‘The apparent gravity will of course drop as we move inward toward the axis of rotation, at the moon. But the Coriolis force persists. The sideways push of the rotation. There are harnesses, and handholds.’
The handholds were each labelled HANDHOLD.
‘If you are feeling at all queasy there are bags -’
‘Thank you,’ the Doctor said primly. ‘We are both practiced space travellers.’
‘I’m sure you are,’ Florian said, her voice dripping with condescension.
Lifting very slowly, they rose out of the bubble dome through a kind of airlock and up into space, and headed up a strand of cables towards the moon’s pocked face, directly above them. Theirs was one of a chain of cars, ascending and descending on parallel tracks. Below, the bubble from which they had risen rising was revealed as one of a chain, bubbles of green, blue and white linked by lumps of metal, the line slowly rising up to left and right to become an arch of glittering ice and metal, standing proud over the moon at the centre. All this was embedded in a slowly turning sky, and bathed by Saturn’s autumn-gold light.
‘Almost like a funfair ride,’ the Doctor said wistfully. ‘It is a marvellous view. If only there wasn’t a hideous mine-working in the middle of it all.’
Alone, Zoe Heriot rose above the plane of the rings of Saturn. She wore a colony skinsuit - an adult version, opaque silver, though in one of the smaller sizes available.
She was deep in shadow. Before her the planet itself was a grey-black disc that occluded the distant sun, a disc cupped by a greenish crescent rim. The rings below her were darkened, but to either side, left and right, she saw them emerge into the sunlight, the long shadow cast by the planet terminating in dead straight lines. And, below her feet, beyond the spreading sparkle of her scooter’s exhaust, she saw a muddled glow of light, yellow and green and blue: the lights of a colony of people from Earth a billion kilometres from home, bravely defying the empty darkness.
But all that filled Zoe’s head was how much she hated her scooter.
The controls were twist-handles; the left controlled your attitude, the direction you were pointing, the right your acceleration. The methane rocket squirted gusts of exhaust from the one big propulsion nozzle beneath her feet, and smaller nozzles the size of egg cups on the body of the scooter for attitude control. The main rocket fired with a steady whoosh, but the little attitude-control rockets went off in short bursts like impacts that shook her to the bone.
To distract herself from the rapid beat of her own heart, she described her impressions out loud, as if she were preparing a report for a supervisor back on Station W3. ‘The vessel is compact. I am standing on a platform, my feet in toe straps, and holding a handle at chest height. The technicians adjusted the dimensions for my size.’ Which had been a humiliating process. She was dwarfed by the lanky colonists, especially the younger ones who had grown tall in the low gravity. One of then had patted her on the head. ‘Clearly fuel-efficient, and running on the combustion of methane. The controls are simple, and the displays are hard-wired for robustness. And labelled.’ FUEL CONSUMPTION. COORDINATE COMPONENTS X, Y, Z. VELOCITY VECTOR COMPONENTS X, Y, Z. Oh, I loathe this thing!’
‘Och, dinna fash yersel’, miss.’ The voice was soft and, coming from the speakers in her ears, appeared to be resonating deep in her skull.
‘I was talking to myself. I didn’t realise you were listening in. I mean -’
‘Dinna fret. I didnae mean to intrude. But I can override yer privacy settings. It’s a safety thing.’
‘A backup system.’
‘Aye. Well, that’s me, now my days of colony-buildin’ are done. I’m just one big fat backup system these days.’ And he laughed.
MMAC’s voice was nothing like the shrill monotones of the robots and computers of her age, or of the Wheel of Ice. This laugh was a deep belly laugh that made her visualise a big, jolly man, strong but kindly. Like Jamie in middle age, perhaps, she thought fondly, with a few more kilograms on his frame, and grey hairs, and a dram of a decent single malt in his hand. She wondered if she would still know Jamie when they reached that sort of age. Perhaps not. She hadn’t been with the Doctor long, but she sensed that life with him would be chaotic. Discontinuous. She felt wistful to think like this, and it was odd to be wistful about the future rather than the past.
A shadow swept over her, blocking out a little more of the reflected sunlight. She looked up, startled. A giant saucer shape, bristling with manipulator arms, rocket nozzles and sensor pods, rose up before her. Lights on her scooter lit up automatically, casting spots over the object’s surface. From a distance the only visible marking was a white X-shape against a dark blue background: the flag of Scotland, she recognised. But as the saucer loomed closer she saw more detail, the surface devices and access hatches for maintenance. And as it came closer still, she saw the close-up detail, scratches from clumsy dockings, pinprick craters from micrometeorite impacts, paintwork faded and peeling from long exposure to unfiltered sunlight and radiation. MMAC was an old machine, old and battered, yet sturdy.
And it was looming awfully near, and closing very fast. She forced herself not to move.
At the last second rockets flared around the rim of the craft, and she saw particles of exhaust streaming on dead straight lines away into space. The bulky craft swivelled neatly, and a big manipulator arm came sweeping towards her. Its long sections were connected by glistening ball-and-socket joints, and it ended in a cage, open, almost like a huge mock-up of a human hand - a hand that reached for her, cupped her, with long articulated bars closing around her like fingers. Took hold of her, scooter and all, as gently as she might pick up a baby bird. She punched a button that shut down her scooter’s systems, for safety.
‘Gotcha,’ said MMAC.
‘Thank you, MMAC. That rendezvous was well done.’
‘Aye, well, that’s ma job.’ With the gentlest of thrusts, transmitted to her through MMAC’s huge mass, the great spider-like robot began to climb up and away from the ring system, heading anticlockwise, tracking the rotation of the planet. ‘Ye’re safe noo.’
She felt embarrassed. ‘It’s the lack of backup that worries me.’ She patted the handle of her inert scooter. ‘There are so many ways for this thing to go wrong!’
‘If ye were tae lose control, it would fly ye home. Like one of ma uncle Murdo’s homin’ pigeons back in Govan.’
Zoe looked back at the scarred, elderly bulk of the robot. With time and experience, artificial intelligences had a tendency to drift beyond their programming. She suspected MMAC had become much more than those who had created him imagined he would ever be.
And now, quite suddenly, they rose into sunlight. The sun itself was a tiny disc, brighter than any star, dead ahead of her, rising above Saturn. The planet was a fat crescent, brownish-green, and the rings, spreading out now as she rose up, were bands of dim colour around its waist. The big moons cast perfectly circular shadows on the planet’s face. They rose in silence, the system shifting around them as if they were inside some vast clockwork model.
After an unmeasured time MMAC said, ‘Tell me what ye see.’
Lit by the distant sun, the light was gentle, the glow from Saturn dim, a rich green-brown. She had been sealed away from the seasons in the City, in the School of Parapsychology. But she had visited Earth’s seasons with the Doctor, though not necessarily in the right order.
‘Autumn. I see autumn.’
‘What are these things? Living, artificial? Alien?’
Zoe had a good deal of experience in encountering alien creatures, and alien machines, and she tried to think, to put aside her instinctive panic, to categorise what she saw. ‘Living or not - who can say? If the technology is advanced enough, if a species transforms itself sufficiently, there may be no meaningful difference.’ She was thinking of the Cybermen. ‘And, alien? Perhaps. But it can’t be a coincidence they look human, or humanoid. They must have something to do with our presence here.’
Sinbad was looking at her curiously. ‘How do you know so much?’
‘I was always a good student.’
The Doctor mused, ‘Dolls and mannequins can be so terrifying, especially when animated.’
‘I never had dolls,’ Zoe said, matter-of-fact.
‘You poor thing,’ Sinbad said. ‘I did.’
‘And then there’s the childlike appearance,’ the Doctor continued. ‘Another source of horror, for some adults. The child: the cuckoo in the nest, endlessly demanding, destined inevitably to replace you. Why, we see a war on the children being played out in the Wheel right now. And what are these Dolls but monstrous copies of children?’
‘In the City we never called it childhood,’ Zoe said. ‘It was merely a series of developmental stages. We were given instructional tapes, with key stage highlights.’
‘Very rational,’ the Doctor said sadly.
It took forever, and a heap of arguments, before the group got the dome up to Sam’s satisfaction. And then there was more work to be done fitting it out, with a small methane-burning power plant, and lights strung up from the support struts, and little chemical toilets and neat little machines that produced liquid water from Titan ice and even food, slabs of unprepossessing sludge pumped out by something called a ‘CHON food factory.’ Phee and others tended to their wounded, the girl who seemed to have broken her leg in the landing and now wore a heavy cast, and Dai and Sanjay were given mild sedatives to help with the shock of their encounter with the T-shark. Teams working outside covered the dome’s outer surface with tholin-rich dirt to hide it from aircraft - it was invisible to satellites because of the smog in the atmosphere which completely hid the ground. Titan was a big moon to search, and it wasn’t hard to hide.
Even after all that it took forever to get everybody to agree who was sleeping where on the dome’s big open floor.
And when that was done they were all too excited to sleep, and held a jam session with their home-made musical instruments.
‘Aye, but that were my favourite part o’ the whole day, Doctor,’ Jamie whispered later. He was talking to the Doctor in secret; in his skinsuit once more he had crept out of the dome’s little airlock to make this covert call. The Doctor had promised he would keep the secret of the young rebels’ location as long as he felt it was safe to do so.
‘I imagine it was, Jamie.’
‘Ye’d like some of these gadgets. Like the CHON food machine, whatever that is.’
‘CHON - carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen. Titan has all the ingredients for life. All you have to do is scoop them up and put them together. Titan will always be an important resource base, for rocket fuel and other purposes, off in the future. One day there will even be hospitals here, treating alien life forms.’
‘Aye, well, there’s alien critters here already, thanks very much. It took them forever to get everything sorted out. It was either votes or fist fights.’
The Doctor laughed. ‘How interesting!’
‘Just kids being kids, I suppose.’
‘Yes, but young people who are trying to build their own society, from scratch. How fascinating it would be to come back in a year, or five or ten, and see how they got on - if they were left alone. Did you ever read Lord of the Flies, Jamie? I think it’s in the TARDIS library somewhere.’
‘They got it tucked away in the end - for today, anyhow. And then we played music. I joined in with their own stuff. Some of it wasnae bad. But then I played them some of ma old songs, the stuff we used to march to. "The Wearing of the Green.”’
‘It seemed to calm them right down. It were funny. As if they’d heard ma tunes before. But they couldn’t have, could they?’
‘I don’t imagine so, Jamie. But those old melodies are a product of their own deep ancestry - the Scottishness they share with you. Ralph Vaughan Williams once told me -’
‘A composer, Jamie, and a very good one. When he first heard old English folk music, he said it was something he’d known all his life, but he hadn’t known he’d known it.’
‘Aye. That’s it, I suppose, that was how it felt.’
Now time is running out if the Doctor is to solve that mystery.
And save the Wheel of Ice and all aboard it.
And avert a threat to the entire solar system.
After a slow, relentless cooling lasting some fifty million years, permanent ice was increasingly prevalent on the surface of planet Earth. But from millennium to millennium the details of how that ice waxed and waned depended on the complexities of the planet’s rotation and its orbit around the sun. Because of the nodding of its spin axis and the slowly changing ellipticity of its orbit, at any point on the world’s surface the intensity of sunlight on a warm summer’s day could vary considerably. When that intensity fell far enough the ice would form, the sheets seeping out from their centres at the high latitudes and in the mountains. But when the sun’s intensity rose again the warmth would work at the ice, beginning the slow process of destabilising the continent-spanning sheets.
Some ten thousand years before the birth of Christ, the climate shifted - and with dramatic suddenness. Millennia-old ice receded north. The landscape revealed, scoured to the bedrock, was tentatively colonised by the grey green of life. Migrant herds and the humans who depended on them slowly followed.
With so much water still locked up in the ice, the seas were low, and all around the world swathes of continental shelf were exposed. In northern Europe Britain was united with the continent by a bridge of land, a country that became rich terrain for the humans who explored its water courses and probed the thickening forests for game. This was Northland, which connected the land the people called the Continent to the peninsula they called Albia.
Meanwhile, even as life took back the land once more, the world was not at rest. Meltwater fuelled rising seas, and, relieved of the weight of ice, the very bedrock rebounded and flexed. These relentless evolutions were punctuated by more dramatic catastrophes - random punches by falling comets and asteroids, gases and ash spewed by volcanoes. In a process governed by geological chance, coastlines advanced and receded, so that even the basic shape of the world changed around the people who inhabited it.
In Northland the rising ocean probed continually from north and south. Perhaps it would have severed the neck that joined Albia to the Continent, had it not been for a woman called Ana. Under her leadership, slowly at first, with flood-resistant mounds and heaped-up dykes of stone and earth and drainage ditches scratched in the ground, the people of Northland began to defy the ocean.
Far to the east, other new ideas were emerging. People had long tracked wild sheep and goats, and encouraged nutritious cereal plants. Now, as people sought more reliable food supplies in response to climate shocks, such practices intensified. Herds were corralled, fields planted. Soon, here too people were managing water on a large scale, just as in Northland, with great irrigation systems that turned arid lands green.
Populations bloomed. The farmers, driven by climate collapse and over-exploitation, spread west along the river valleys and ocean coasts, taking their animals and seeds with them. Soon, across Europe, forest was cleared, and threads of smoke rose from small, compact farming communities.
By two thousand years after Ana’s death the farmers’ culture had reached the shore of the Atlantic. But here the farmers encountered another sort of way of life altogether. Northland by now was a culture still living off the produce of the wild earth, but literate, technically advanced, strong, and already able to recount a history two millennia deep. The Northlanders traded and learned, but farming held no interest for them.
Again and again the climate shifted, and humanity’s fragile cultures flowed and changed in response. In the east the farming communities coalesced into towns and cities, and soon empires bloomed like mushrooms on a log, and trading routes laced Europe and Asia. The Northlanders, by now ocean travellers with millennia of experience, traded with and supported the blossoming states of the Americas.
But still the dance of sea and air went on. Six thousand years after Ana’s death a particularly savage drought pressed the agricultural polities of Greece, Egypt and the Hittite empire almost to destruction. Collapse was averted by the decisive intervention of the Northlanders - that and the Northlanders’ gift of potatoes and maize, New World crops to feed the Old. The old empires survived, though new city-states like Carthage and Rome were founded by those seeking to evade their suffocating grasp.
A longer-term cooling trend resumed. North of the Danube arable farmland was abandoned and a territorial culture of cattle-rearing, forts and chiefs emerged. Iron, no longer a monopoly of the Northlanders or the Hittites, replaced bronze as the basis of tools and weapons. The southern empires occasionally forayed northwards, but the chill conditions that inhibited the agriculture of the Mediterranean gave them little encouragement to stay. Northland flourished, not through numbers or military prowess in which it was no match for the swarming farmers, but through advanced knowledge and skilful political mediation.
Under Northland’s strong cultural influence, across much of the northern Continent the forests recovered. Albia even retained the archaic forests that had first grown up after the retreat of the ice millennia before; the peninsula was like a natural temple to the older gods.
In the Greek city-states new ideas of rationalism and democracy flourished - but thinkers from Pythagoras onwards fled a region dominated by the looming empires of the Hittites and the new Achaemenid dynasty in Persia, to settle in the cool air of Northland. Later, the work of teachers like Lao Tzu and the Buddha and even Confucius were brought here, civilising philosophies born of dissatisfaction with the inequalities of the farming empires, taken to be nurtured by the calm civilisation of the northern hunters. A kind of super-pantheon was developed in the colleges of Northland, a wisdom developed that sought to emphasise unities among mankind’s religions, not their differences.
Wars forever flared around the bowl of the Mediterranean. Hittites and Persians went to war over the Levant, a campaign won brilliantly by the Macedonian-born Hittite general Alexander. Later, after a few centuries of rivalry over Egyptian wheat, Hittites and Carthaginians combined to put down the upstart Romans. At last the region settled down to an uneasy peace based on the spheres of influence of rival empires, the Hittite, Egyptian, Carthaginian and Persian.
In the centuries after the death of Christ - it had been a peaceful end for a favoured son of Hittite Judea - a deteriorating climate brought more unrest, with waves of nomadic immigrants pushing west from the desiccating steppes of Asia. An outbreak of bubonic plague, caused by these tremendous flows of people, devastated populations across the crowded agricultural states.
In the aftermath of these disasters Islam rose from the Arabian desert and began an explosive expansion. Unable to score conclusive victories against the Christian Hittites or the Persians the Muslim armies turned west, overrunning Egypt. Carthage survived, but briefly became a Muslim state itself. The Islamic military expansion went no further than North Africa, though soon its missionaries were spreading the Prophet’s words to India, China and further afield.
In the wider world, far to the east, China, unified under the Song dynasty, was undergoing expansion and intellectual growth of its own. There was even the beginning of industrialisation, with extensive coal mining and iron-working. Trading links with Northland, mediated by Muslim traders opening up a nascent Silk Road, prompted a sharing of ideas and a burst of inventiveness in both regions. In North America, meanwhile, complex cultures emerged and spread across the southern half of the continent. In Mesoamerica the Northlanders’ intervention had ensured a greater continuity between the Olmec cultures and those that followed.
But all the while, beneath the churning of human affairs, deep changes were underway. As early as Ana’s time, the world’s complex rotational adjustments had caused the sunlight intensity to begin another of its periodic dips.
Unobserved by mankind, on islands in the Arctic north of the Americas, the snow that fell had begun to linger through the summers. After a few years the fallen snow became granular, and at last compacted into hard ice that pooled in hollows and shadows. Year on year the thickness of the accumulating ice increased, until at last, by now some tens of metres thick, it began to flow down river valleys from the higher grounds. In the past these locations had served as the seed bed for the formation of the great North American ice sheet, the largest in the world. Now, as the glaciers spilled down to the lower ground, that process began again.
It had been eleven thousand years since the last retreat of the ice. Human lives were brief. The ice was remembered only in myth, if at all.
But the ice had not forgotten.
And now the long retreat was over.
The creature that would become known as First Person Singular was immensely old by any human standard. She was almost as old as her Earth, or indeed the Long Earth.
On her Earth, as on many Earths, the early ages of life were long aeons of struggle for survival, by half-formed creatures that had not yet discovered how to use DNA to store genetic information, whose control over the proteins from which all living things were constructed was as yet poor. There had been billions upon billions of swarming cells in the shallow oceans, but they were not yet sophisticated enough to be able to afford to compete with each other. Instead, they cooperated. Any useful innovation flashed from cell to cell. It was as if everything in this global ocean operated as a single mega-organism.
With time, on most worlds, complexity and organisation reached a point where individual cells could survive unaided. And then, on most worlds, competition began; the great kingdoms of life began to separate, oxygen bled into the air from creatures that had leaned how to harness the power of sunlight; and the long slow climb towards multicelled forms began. The age of global cooperation vanished, leaving no trace save enigmatic markers in genetic composition.
On most worlds, but not here. Lobsang would call it a Joker. Here, the gathering complexity drove a familiar-looking evolutionary story, but the unity of that single global organism was never lost. She: she was more like a maturing biosphere than a creature like a human.
As complexity increased, knots of control formed, scattered throughout the giant organism’s diffuse structure. Eventually, to grow further, it became necessary for the information structure to construct and contain a copy of itself, for the whole to become self-reflective. That is, conscious.
There was a spark.
Under a cloudy sky the entirety of a turbid sea crackled with a single thought.
Her Earth turned. Sometimes the sun shrivelled her mother sea. At other times ice drove her extremities from the northern reaches.
She sought ways to look harder, closer. She directed the evolution of cellular complexes that became eyes. It took millions of years, but First Person Singular worked on evolutionary timescales. She had millions of years. Fleshy telescopes rose up from the glistening surface of her sea, staring at the land. And then, one bright night, they peered up at the stars.
However, no matter how smart she grew, no matter how much she learned, there was one thing every human child would have understood that she did not, not yet. That she was alone.
And then, suddenly, she was not.
The trolls, a band of fifty or more, moved in a tight, compact group, with a single elderly female at the centre.
They had already been through a trauma. Several worlds back they had stepped into an empty place that none could understand. They had lost some of their number during those awful moments of silence and brilliant light and falling. More had died in the days that followed, in agony. Even now, one older male coughed up a bloody froth. A younger female seemed no longer able to step, and had to be carried between the worlds by two adults. And a mother carried an infant who was long dead, as she knew, though she was not yet ready to accept it.
Now they had come to this barren shore. No trees, no scrub, nothing but moss and lichen. The troll scouts, exploring, hooted their dismay. The chorus gathered, a lovely contralto song of loss and bafflement.
The land was empty because First Person Singular, unconsciously, had ensured that it would forever be so. By now all of her Earth’s evolutionary potential had been funnelled into her own globe-spanning carcass.
And the trolls could not step past this world because of First Person Singular, and her density of mind. It was like pushing into rock, or a bank of trees, a space so dense you couldn’t step in it. A place that hurt your head, deep inside, and made you want to flee.
At last one scout, a young male, starving, went down to the water. He found a crab, small, pale, pink. Its shell softly gave when he compressed it between his fingers, and crunched between his powerful jaws. There wasn’t much meat, but it was better than nothing.
First Person Singular, watching through a myriad eyes, was fascinated. Astonished.
The creatures were on the land. They moved. They were held up against the pull of the world by bones within.
She could see their eyes. These creatures looked at each other. First Person Singular had never clearly conceived of the other before today. Yet now she wished she was one of that group. She felt envy.
One of the trolls came down to the water’s edge. It seemed extraordinary that he stayed balanced. She decided she would embrace him.
The trolls saw a green mass surge out of the water, like a freak wave, but with tentacles waving, strands like vines glistening with mucus. This mass overwhelmed the scout at the water’s edge. His song of terror was still in a moment, and then he too was gone. The ripples smoothed over quickly, so glutinous was the water.
The trolls’ song became discordant, fragmented into panicky snatches. Already spooked, now they reacted to this new horror. One by one they flickered out of existence. Back they would go, back into the band of worlds sandwiched between one horror and this other, but worlds that at least looked familiar, where at least they could feed. In desperation, ultimately some of them would find their way across the lethal Gap itself. Their song dwindled, until with a single defiant screech the last troll vanished.
No, not the last. Two were left behind. The corpse of an infant, already long dead, at last abandoned by her mother. And a young female, short, slim for a troll, only just an adult. There was nothing wrong with her, save for the thing that was broken in her head, the thing that had enabled her to step. Others had carried her here. Now they had forgotten her.
She crouched by the infant’s little corpse. It was cold, stiff, but at least it was familiar. She whimpered. Urine trickled down her leg. She sang a song, or a part of one. It made no sense without the others’ voices, yet she sang even so.
The only voice in the world.
First Person Singular saw her through a thousand eyes. Heard her song carrying through air and water to a thousand exotic ears.
She longed to reach out. But if she killed this one there might never be another.
She considered. She thought of how these trolls approached each other. She concentrated, summoning her will, shaping her physical essence.
The troll female watched as something rose out of the water. She scuttled back, expecting the grabbing arms that had taken the scout. But this was just a kind of hump, coated by mucus and dense with living things, that rose up into a pillar. Then the pillar split, shaping legs, arms from streams of water. Features swarmed over the ‘head’, forming a face. A mouth opened.
It was grotesque. The troll screamed and ran.
By the end of the second day, the troll had been tempted back by an offer of fish, neatly killed and dumped on the shore.
On the third day First Person Singular, concentrating hard, began to make the avatar move, copying the troll’s gestures and expressions. The troll screamed and ran.
On the fifth day First Person Singular tried to make sounds. The troll screamed and ran.
By the ninth day they were singing together.
By the nineteenth day they were beginning to understand each other.
And First Person Singular was no longer alone.
The troll aged, sickened and died. In the end she was taken into a cold embrace, and her last few heartbeats of life were spent in agony as a myriad tiny creatures bored into her, and tentacles that stung parted her flesh, as First Person Singular tried to figure out how she worked, and why she was broken.
First Person Singular assimilated the data she had acquired from her brutal study. It took her a thousand years.
Then she extruded a probe. It looked like a cephalopod, a big-brained mollusc. The probe was itself smart, like a cut-down version of First Person Singular herself. First Person Singular had learned that the probe had to be smart to be able to step at all; stepping was a function of cognition.
The probe vanished, the way the other trolls had gone. Then it came back. First Person Singular absorbed it - it died instantly, yielding its findings in a worshipful spasm - and First Person Singular considered the data it had gathered.
With grim satisfaction, First Person Singular prepared her campaign.
She gathered a membrane around herself, so that she became like a tremendous cell miles across. This was the core of her. She abandoned the rest, and stepped away from her birth world.
She broke into new Earths, assimilating creatures in the sea and on land as she progressed. Taking them into herself with curiosity and love.
Everywhere First Person Singular looked for trolls, or other smart, independent creatures with whom she could talk. She encountered only creatures who fought to save their individuality, or fled - especially trolls, who always seemed to know what was coming, and always stampeded away along the chain of worlds.
And she sensed Joshua - a mind oddly like her own, a small echo coming from far down the tunnel of worlds.
So First Person Singular continued, her progress growing subtly faster with each step. World after world she devoured, leaving nothing independently alive.
World after world. Heading relentlessly, remorselessly, East.
Until she could go no further.
A barrier! A limit to the Long Earth! Even First Person Singular’s mighty grasp could not span the Gap.
She drew back, through ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred worlds. Here she would wait, she decided. She had much to learn, of the myriad worlds she had taken, of herself. And of the Gap in the chain of worlds she had discovered.
She would observe. She would contemplate.
She sent chains of drones up and down the band of worlds she had crossed. She developed more and increasingly sophisticated sense organs. Ears the size of river valleys heard the slow churn of the core of worlds, and radio-sensitive eyes like lakes of mucus saw the lumpy curvature of cosmoses. And she looked deep within herself, at the minute molecular machinery that controlled and built everything that she was - and deeper yet, developing subtle senses that could probe reality on ever smaller scales.
She relaxed her sense of scale. The large and small merged, as if closing a circle, so that there seemed no difference between the width of an electron and the broad sink of a star’s gravity well. This was the web of reality that lay beneath crude animal perceptions. She saw the Long Earth in all its grand multiversal tangle.She waited, by the Gap in the worlds. And then -
Copyright Stephen Baxter 2011. Exclusive to this website
The launch was flawless; the probe crossed the orbit of Mars and safely traversed the Asteroid Belt. In August 1993, Pioneer 34 approached Jupiter.
The flight plan called for Pioneer to skirt the gravitational well of Jupiter, its course being little deflected by the giant planet’s gravitational field. It would then move on to a further
rendezvous with Saturn, using that planet’s gravity for a slingshot effect to speed it on its way to Neptune. The gravity field of Jupiter would theoretically be preferable to use for this, being more intense than Saturn, but Jupiter’s powerful and damaging radiation belts would have made it necessary for Pioneer to waste payload mass on screening for its delicate instrumentation.
Pioneer therefore crept timidly around Jupiter, taking a sidelong glance at the giant planet. It was at this point that the craft’s instruments began to report certain anomalies.
Readings suddenly ceased from the instruments observing Jupiter. Pioneer’s onboard computer quickly tested for damage, but found that its instruments were functioning normally.
Pioneer was therefore left with two alternatives: a) its own position had suddenly been changed; b) the position of Jupiter had suddenly been changed. To a human this would seem to present no real alternative; however, no-one had ever explained to Pioneer 34 that instantaneous transportation was ‘impossible’; it therefore calmly placed the problem into its robot equivalent of a ‘pending tray.’
Meanwhile Pioneer’s position sensors were also reporting anomalies. There were three sensors: one for the star Canopus, one for the Sun, and one for Jupiter itself. The Canopus sensor reported temporary loss of contact with its target, which it quickly regained; however the other two sensors presented Pioneer with a further problem. The Sun sensor had lost its target, and had been unable to relocate it; instead it had found an object which appeared to be the Sun as it had appeared some twenty months earlier, when the craft was still in near-Earth space. The Jupiter sensor reported a similar anomaly.
Pioneer correlated these two pieces of information and came to a conclusion which also solved its earlier problem: the craft had indeed been transported away from Jupiter, and was now in the vicinity of Earth.
Since Pioneer saw this as no more than an unforeseen deviation from its flight plan, it did not waste time on such questions as how such a thing could have occurred; instead it moved at once to the question of what to do next.
Since there was a great deal of capital, both fiscal and political, riding on Pioneer, the probe’s designers had introduced certain new factors to the craft: one of these was its independent position determination system. Pioneer also had a rudimentary self-repair capacity: this saved weight on back-up systems. Furthermore Pioneer had a directive which would operate should it find itself cut off from Earth and if the flight plan appeared to have irrevocably broken down. It was, if possible, to establish itself in an orbit about the nearest planetary body, and was to broadcast to Earth a certain code signal. It was then to wait for further instruction.
Due to circumstances beyond Earth’s control, it had lost touch with its probe shortly after its launch; however the flight plan had continued more or less as required and so the directive had not come into operation. Now the flight plan had quite clearly broken down; Pioneer’s survival directive therefore took over.
Pioneer was equipped with a quite large rocket engine and a liberal supply of fuel, intended to place it in orbit about Neptune: it was therefore quite simple for it in a series of pre-calculated bursts to place itself into a fairly circular orbit about the nearest planetary body, which happened to be the Earth.
And so Pioneer, now orbiting five hundred miles above the surface of the Earth and broadcasting its code signal, had fulfilled its survival directive: now nothing further remained for it to do but wait.
It therefore waited.
Meanwhile, on Earth, it was 8 December 1991.
The appearance of a memoranda on the desk of Herman P. Schwartz, Director of NASA, advising him that an object had suddenly appeared in Earth orbit bearing Pioneer 34’s call sign, was causing some consternation.
To begin with, radar tracking stations reported that the object had definitely not been launched from Earth. That left two alternatives that the object was Pioneer 34, or that the object was an artefact of some extraterrestrial intelligence. The first seemed impossible, since Goldstone was at the moment in contact with Pioneer 34, which was speeding on its way towards Neptune. The second alternative seemed unlikely: why should an alien intelligence broadcast Pioneer’s distress signal, at exactly the power and frequency of Pioneer’s transmitter?
The problem seemed insoluble with the fact at hand: scientists everywhere clamoured for more facts.
By a happy chance, the Americans had on the launching pad a shuttle which was to have delivered Intelsat-12 into a synchronous orbit: they took out the Intelsat, put in hefty remote-handling apparatus, and sent the shuttle up to catch the mystery object and bring it down to Earth.
The shuttle landed on 11 December.
Herman Schwartz was an administrator, rather than a scientist. He was more suited to wheedling more money out of scientifically ignorant Congressmen that he was to constructing hypotheses from new information: however, he was a great believer in order, logic, consistency: these he sought everywhere.
This is why the affair of the mystery object upset him greatly: here was an affair in which there seemed no order, no logic. The strain of trying to accept this was reflected in his voice as he greeted his chief scientific advisor Dr William Russell.
Dr Russell felt just as weary, tense and irritable, though for vastly different, and arguably less important reasons. He slumped into a chair before Schwartz’s desk and slapped down a sheaf of reports. ‘Oh, it’s Pioneer alright. Down to the last square micromillimetre of printed circuit. It’s exactly the same craft we launched eleven days ago. We even found "Kilroy was here" scratched onto one of the inner surfaces. A technician owned up later. A senior technician too. Makes you sick.’
‘What about Goldstone?’
‘Oh, they’re still tracking it. They say everything’s going as planned.’
Russell got up and began to pace about tensely. ‘Schwartz, there are some really - strange aspects to this. For one thing, it’s riddled with micrometeorite holes. You’d expect it to be so bad only after a year or so, at least. Also we did an analysis of the protective paint on some of the compartments. The analysis shows that it’s been exposed to constant sunlight for eighteen months at least, probably longer. That backs up what we found in the computer’s memory. It’s incredible, Schwartz. You’d never believe it.’
‘Try me,’ murmured Schwartz, miserably. He felt he could believe anything now. At least it wouldn’t surprise him. Nothing is a surprise anymore when you have positive proof that an object several million miles away from Earth and receding rapidly is at the same time eighteen months older and is lying about in small pieces on the floor of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
‘Let’s look at it logically - or as logically as possible,’ said Russell, eyes half-closed in concentration. ‘It seems we must accept J.P.L.’s evidence - in other words the object that appeared in Earth orbit a week ago is Pioneer 34, as it seems. That means we have to conclude that Pioneer was - will be - transported in some inexplicable fashion through space - and through time.’
Schwartz sighed, sadly.
‘Now,’ went on Russell, ‘it can either have been transported by a natural phenomenon, or by some - intelligence - since it has no capacity for so transporting itself. Since the intelligence hypothesis presumably rests on some undiscovered (by us) natural property of time-space, it seems reasonable to assume the simpler hypothesis-’
‘Simpler!’ said Schwartz, hollowly.
‘- of a natural phenomenon. Well, that’s about as far as logic gets us. Now we have to move into the realm of pure speculation-’
Schwartz vaguely wondered what realm they were moving out of, in that case.
‘Fortunately, one of our junior technicians reads rather a lot of science fiction - you’re heard of science fiction?’
Schwartz nodded bleakly.
‘Well, it seems that one of the common ideas - one of the standard devices, so to speak - is the idea of a space warp.
Schwartz sighed again, thinking of the long-discarded Superman magazines of his youth.
‘It’s quite a simple concept in essence,’ said Russell. ‘You see, you have to assume that space time is a four-dimensional object which can be - uh - warped, through a fifth dimension.’
Schwartz wasn’t surprised as his Chief Adviser, a solid, conservative scientist, suddenly broke into a talk of five - five! - dimensions. He felt that all capacity for surprise had been burned out of him.
‘Suppose - uh - do you mind?’ said Russell, taking a sheet of paper from Schwartz’s desk ‘Suppose this two-dimensional piece of paper is a - a little universe, inhabited by two-dimensional people. I fold it thus - now, you see, two different areas in this two-dimensional world are joined together where my thumb and finger join. The two-dimensional continuum has been folded through a third dimension.
‘Now, suppose you were one of the flat inhabitants of this world, and you walked into this place, between my thumb and finger. You would suddenly find yourself in a completely different part of your universe.
‘Well, that’s basically what we think has happened to Pioneer. It was whisked from one place to another by a fifth-dimensional fold in our four-dimensional continuum. That’s the idea, anyway.
‘Only I hope it’s incorrect.’
So did Schwartz, for his sanity’s sake. He raised his eyebrows in query.
‘I hope it’s wrong because of the position of Pioneer relative to Jupiter when this - this warp must have been reached.
‘You see, we can tell pretty accurately how long Pioneer was in space before the warp, from the paint discolouration, and the state of the probe’s thermonuclear reactor, among other things.
‘If the flight went - will go - oh, hell went, more or less according to plan, then at that point in the mission, Pioneer should have been at Jupiter encounter when - the warp -’
‘Well, if you remember the flight plan, Pioneer is supposed to skirt right around Jupiter, avoiding the radiation belts. It works out that it goes past the - uh - leading edge of Jupiter.’
‘Hang on,’ said Schwartz. ‘You mean this warp thing is in an area into which Jupiter itself is going to move?’
Russell nodded, miserably. ‘You do see the implications, don’t you? We might suddenly get Jupiter appearing in near-Earth space. Earth would be sucked out of its orbit, either right into Jupiter, or slingshot away. In either case ...’ He left it unsaid.
‘But - but you’ve had to make a lot of assumptions, haven’t you, even if you accept the warp hypothesis? I mean, you have to assume that Pioneer was transported into near-Earth space -’
‘True, but we know Earth was the nearest planet - remember the survival directive?’
‘Well - well, you have to assume that Pioneer made Earth orbit almost immediately after the warp thing - don’t you?’
‘No way. There’s a special memory - kind of a black box - built into Pioneer which is activated if the survival directive takes control. So we know that Pioneer was only in near-Earth space for a few days after ...’
‘How long would it take Jupiter to reach the warp thing? After Pioneer went through, I mean?’
‘About nine days.’
‘It reached our side of the warp on 5 December. And today is -’
‘14 December. Nine days later.’
The two men looked at each other.
‘Of course,’ said Russell, ‘we could be wrong. I mean, the whole hypothesis is probably just empty speculation.’
But Schwartz was no longer listening. Looking through his office window, he could see a thin arc of salmon-pink push its way into the sky.
Once the ice had sprawled in sheets that covered continents. The silence of the world had been profound. Eventually, grudgingly, the ice retreated to its fastnesses in the mountains and at the poles. Across the world humans spread northward, colonising the recovering land. They lived sparsely, their lives brief. Soon the ice was remembered only in myth.
Yet the world around them continued to endure significant changes. As the ice melted the land rose and flexed as it was relieved of the burden of its weight, and meltwater flowed into the oceans and pooled in hollows on the land. Rising seas bit at the coastlines of Northland, the great neck of land that still connected the peninsula called Albia, Britain, to the Continent, Europe. Perhaps that neck would have been severed altogether - if not for the defiance of Northland’s people, who, tentatively at first, with crude flood-resistant mounds, drainage ditches scratched in the ground, and heaped-up dykes of stone and earth, resisted the ocean’s slow assaults.
Meanwhile, far to the east, other new ideas were emerging. People had long tracked wild sheep and goats and encouraged the more nutritious cereal plants. Now, as people sought more reliable food supplies, that practice intensified. Herds were corralled, fields planted. Populations bloomed.
The ice was not done with mankind. A remnant ice cap over the western continent collapsed, and chill waters poured down the river valleys to the ocean. Sea levels rose in a great pulse. Northland survived this too, its already ancient network of sea walls and dykes and drainage channels and soakaways able to withstand the shock.
But the drastic injection of chill meltwater caused ocean currents to fail, and the world suffered a cold snap that lasted centuries. The eastern farmers, driven out of their homes by climate collapse and over-exploitation, spread west along the river valleys and ocean coasts, taking their animals and seeds with them. In a slow wave that unrolled across the Continent, forest was cleared, and threads of smoke rose from new farming communities.
After two thousand years the farmers’ culture reached the shore of the Atlantic, the Western Ocean - but here the wave broke. If the Northlanders had not existed, perhaps the farmers and their culture would have colonised the shore lands and islands of the ocean fringe. But Northland, still a culture living off the produce of the wild earth, was literate, technically advanced, strong, self-confident. The Northlanders traded and learned, but farming held no interest for them.
Again the climate shifted, with a spasm of drought heralding a new age of warm, dry conditions; again humanity’s fragile cultures flowed and changed in response. In the east the farming communities coalesced into a new phenomenon: towns and cities, major gatherings of population, centrally controlled, dedicated to the great task of maintaining complex nets of irrigation channels in increasingly dry landscapes. Empires bloomed like fungi on a log. Soon trading routes spanned the Continent, carrying amber from the north, silver from the south, timber from the west, tin and lapis lazuli from the east. Bronze was everywhere, in cups and ornaments and statuary, in the body armour and swords of the new warrior kings. The trading, warring empires of east and south probed west and north. But again the old Northlander culture stood strong, and older ways were preserved.
The dance of sea and air went on. Over an ocean on the far side of the world, elaborate cycles of heat and moisture collapsed, resumed - changed. The consequences rippled around the world, in more waves of flood and drought, famine and disaster.
They were heading for a branch of one of the five great canals that dominated the landscape, named for the three little mothers and for Ana and Prokyid. These canals fed into subsidiary channels which in turn fed lesser gullies and drains. This vast network had evolved across the generations by trial and error, punctuated by massive redesigns and rebuilds. Its purpose was to divert all of Northland’s excess water away to the great river valleys that bounded it to east and west, or into the natural sinks of the wetlands, or to stations where it could be pumped over walls and dykes to higher ground and ultimately allowed to run off into the sea. These works framed the human landscape - but much of the land that was still essentially wild, with wide stretches of marsh, open water and ancient forest. There were no farms in Northland, unlike the Continent, unlike even Albia; the people lived off the fruit of forest and stream and marsh as they had always done, and they preserved the wild places as carefully as a farmer would his grain store.
But as they walked to the canal, that spring day, Milaqa saw signs of change. They passed an area of wetland, where a party of ragged-looking men and women were struggling to assemble eel traps from willow cuts. Milaqa recognised none of them - and Northland was not a place of crowds; you had a good chance of getting to recognise, if not to know, everybody living within a few days’ walk of your home. A man of the House of the Vole was helping the strangers; he was recognisable by the otter-fur hat he wore. Staring curiously, Milaqa saw that the strangers were living in shabby huts of piled-up reed, they had scrawny children picking desultorily at the water - and, leaning against one of their shacks, was a machine of poles with a stone blade at the end. A plough. These were refugees, probably, immigrants from the lands of the farmers off to the east where - it was whispered by the likes of the Dumnoes, in dark tones over a glass or two of mead - years of drought and failing crops was driving people to starvation, flight and warfare, among other horrors. Well, perhaps it was true, if a band like this had made it all the way to the heart of Northland. But she knew very well that Northland, its population kept purposefully small, could accommodate few strangers.
One woman caught her looking, and stared back defiantly. The woman was small, her back bent, and when she stood she seemed to hobble. Milaqa looked away, embarrassed, and hurried on.
Qirum jumped off the cart before it had stopped moving.
The party had drawn up at the centre of the hearthspace. Qirum stalked around, staring at the houses around the space, and the countryside around as revealed by the broad open tracks, the neat patches of forest, a glimmer of open water.
A handful of children came running out to see the newcomers. And a flock of wheatears rose up, disturbed, very beautiful little birds with pale brown chests and distinctive black masks over their eyes. Milaqa’s gaze followed them up into the sky.
But she was soon drawn back to Qirum. His every move was physical, muscular, tense, as if he wanted to pick a fight with the very earth. He was out of place here in Northland, in the air and the open spaces, his bronze chest plate glittering in the brilliant midsummer light; he was like a slab of some darker eastern rock dropped out of the sky onto the sandy earth.
‘What is this place?’ He stalked about the hearthspace, kicking up dust. A gaggle of the children followed him, fascinated but warily keeping out of his reach.
A few adults were watching now, from the shade of their houses. The locals seemed amused by Qirum’s noisy posturing, rather than alarmed.
Bren said gently, ‘This is one of our larger communities. This is called the Place of the Chaffinch, for the priests of the people here traditionally choose that bird as their other.’ He paused. ‘A chaffinch is a small bird with an orange breast, which -’
‘One of your larger communities? What community?’ The Trojan turned around, arms extended. ‘This? A few houses, a mound, a barren patch of land? In the east we wouldn’t call this a "community". It’s not a city. Why, I’d ride through it not even noticing it was here!’
Kilushepa climbed down from the cart where she had been sitting; she elegantly stretched her arms, twisting her long neck. Voro saw to the horses, whose tenders were loosing their harnesses so they could be taken to water.
‘But this is how we live,’ Milaqa said, stepping down to join Qirum. ‘All the way across Northland we’ve been trying to show you. And all the way you’ve been complaining about it. It’s not sinking in, is it?’
He grunted. ‘I apologise for my Trojan stupidity. Perhaps I’ve been hit on the head once too often. But what is there to understand? There’s nothing here!’
Kilushepa murmured to Qirum in her own tongue, then, softly, perhaps thinking that the others would not hear, or if they did they would not understand. But Milaqa understood.
‘Perhaps it would pay you to be more patient, Trojan. Think like a soldier. What if you wished to take this place, to hold it? It is not like a citadel of stone walls to storm; your siege engines and ladders would be of little use here. These people are few, but I have the impression they are a sturdy lot, and they are not fools. You might call them to battle - they might not respond. They might let hunger defeat you first. If you wished to be king of the Chaffinch folk, how would you manage it?’
The thought evidently intrigued him.
‘And,’ Bren said, drawing the two of them aside so they faced the broad track heading north, ‘look that way.’
The landscape opened up before them, revealed by the track, a typical Northland vista of woodland clumps, green swards, marshland and open water. The sun was low to the west, and cast long shadows from the land’s gentle folds through a layer of light mist. And on the very northern horizon there was a thin band of white, dead straight, almost like ice, Milaqa thought, incongruously gleaming on this midsummer day. It was the Wall. Here and there she saw a splash of colour that must be a Giving-day banner, already in place.
Bren smiled at Kilushepa and Qirum. ‘And that, Trojan, Tawananna, is the centre of our culture and our greatest historic achievement: the Wall of the north.’
Kilushepa said nothing; if she was impressed, she didn’t show it.
But Qirum seemed exhilarated. He whooped and punched the air, as if he owned the Wall itself. ‘At last. Something real, in this land of dreams and shadows! Come. Let’s have done with this journey.’ He stalked towards the carts. ‘You. Voro. Get those horses harnessed up. We’re moving out. There’s no point staying here in this, this blank place.’
Voro protested mildly, ‘But the horses need a break. The heat -’
‘This isn’t heat. I’ve been to Egypt. I’ve fought with the pharaoh’s armies there, and against them. That is heat, and you, my friend, would melt. Do as I say. We aren’t going to waste any more time here.’
Voro glanced at Bren, who shrugged. Voro went to the men tending the horses.
They returned to their carts, and soon they were rolling forward toward the great track north.
It was several days after Deri’s party had landed at the Ice Giant’s Cupped Palm before Medoc was able to convince Vala that Xivu and Caxa were ready for a walk to some of the sights of the island - and then inland, to a special feast laid on by his friends the Ice Folk. He had Mi to run ahead to have the Ice Folk prepare; Mi was growing up to be a fast runner and a good archer, her stepfather boasted. Tibo and Deri were to come along too.
The party formed up early in the morning, all the men save Xivu bearing heavy packs. Xivu and Caxa had been loaned suitable clothes: thick cloth tunics, leather leggings, heavy cloaks, boots stuffed with the feathers of baby gulls, hats filled with straw.
Xivu looked deeply uncomfortable. Spring on Kirike’s Land was evidently harsher than the worst winter in the land of the Jaguar; Tibo had learned that the Jaguar folk had no words for ‘snow’ or ‘hail’ or even ‘frost’, and the only ice they ever encountered was high in the mountains. The winter was going to be a shock then, even in Northland.
Caxa seemed to like the outfit. She actually smiled as she turned around before Tibo, and the low sun of Kirike’s Land glinted from the jade bead in her nose.
They began with a walk east along the coast, where seabirds nested all along the cliff faces. Tibo pointed out kittiwakes and gulls, and puffins on an offshore island, and cormorants diving into the ocean. Children clambered over the cliff faces, thoughtlessly risking their little lives in search of eggs.
Tibo enjoyed Caxa’s shy efforts to pronounce Northlander names. But she flinched at the seals she saw basking on the rocks beneath the puffin nests. Tibo saw why; with their bodies like fish and faces like dogs, the seals were like the half-human monsters with whom she had had to share the holy house on the Altar of the Jaguar.
And they saw the fishing industry that went on here in the Ice Giant’s Cupped Palm. Cod, haddock, redfish, herring and shrimp were gathered in huge quantities from the chill but fecund seas, far more than the islanders could eat. They used the surplus as trade goods, or ground it up and scattered it on their fields to help their crops grow.
Xivu, a man deeply involved in the running of a complicated society, was interested in numbers, how much was caught, what it was bartered for. Medoc tried to describe the whaling that went on, from a harbour along the south coast beneath a community called The Black - a place at present overwhelmed by the ash cloud from the Hood.
One crew brought in a dolphin. Caxa stared wide-eyed at its glistening grey flanks. ‘If I know - sea - if I -’
Xivu had to translate for her. ‘If she had known the sea contained such monsters, she never would have got into Deri’s fragile boat.’
They cut away from the coast and set off inland. Away from the ocean breeze the distant stink of sulphur and ash grew stronger, and when Tibo looked to the east he saw that the big column of smoke and ash was still rising.
For a while they followed a river valley, that cut through a broad plain where a low leafy plant grew thickly.
Xivu was astonished. ‘Potatoes!’
‘The very same.’
‘I thought you people didn’t farm. And - why potatoes?’
Medoc said, ‘Well, I’m told they grow well in the heavy soil just here. And we do farm, but only to keep the other farmers away.’ And he told a complicated story about how the produce of farms like these, and in Albia and Gaira, was mashed up and sold to the starving countries of the eastern Continent, the true farmers, to keep them at bay. ‘But none of those eastern fellows is ever likely to come to Kirike’s Land, and never likely to see how the mash he feeds his babies is grown!’
‘And so Northland retains its power,’ Xivu murmured, thoughtful.
They walked up from the valley bottom and out onto higher, more open country, moorland studded with clumps of birch forest. White-streaked mountain peaks stood in the distance. Swans sailed on broad lagoons, whiter than the snow on the distant peaks, and birds of prey hung in the air. There was a kind of falcon found only here, Medoc said, and much prized when captured.
And then he stopped and pointed. Off in the distance a herd of horses ran, a distant, noiseless cloud. ‘There are reindeer here too. Brought from Northland long ago, you understand.’ At his feet, he pointed out the droppings of a fox. ‘The fox is said to have been the only animal here when Kirike found the place. People brought everything else.’
Xivu looked less than impressed, Tibo thought, to be presented with a turd to inspect. Medoc marched on regardless, in search of the next spectacle.
The afternoon seemed to rush upon them. Medoc led them all to a glade of birch trees to find shelter for the night.
Xivu seemed oddly surprised. ‘But the sun never rose high in the sky - a part of me thought it was still the morning, even though we had walked so long.’
‘You are very far north,’ Deri reminded him, dumping his pack to the ground.
While Medoc and Deri went foraging for wood, Tibo tentatively showed the others how to set up a shelter. He hauled fallen branches over to make a lean-to against a tree trunk, then took waterproof leathers from the packs and spread them over the frame. He encouraged Xivu and Caxa to help him spread more foliage over the top. ‘There,’ he said. ‘It will be warm and will keep out the water, if it rains. Now we must prepare a hearth -’
Xivu snorted. ‘These are not skills a Leftmost ever requires.’
But Caxa seemed to enjoy the work, to be building something. She crawled in and out of the little shelter with a kind of shy delight.
Medoc and Deri returned with arms full of dry wood. Soon a fire was blazing, and they ate dried fish and horsemeat soaked with a tasty herb sauce prepared by Vala, and a flavourless mash that turned out to be potato.
The night was reasonably clear, despite the smoke cloud. Xivu was fascinated by the stars. ‘They are so different from the sky I knew at home! As if the heavens have been tipped over.’
Deri smiled. ‘I am in the House of Swallows, to which all long-distance seafarers and navigators belong. There is a kind of romance about the sky, if you understand how it works. You have come to the tipped-over summit of the world. And at the peak of the summer here, the night can be as short as one tenth part of the full cycle of the day - that is, when the sun is below the horizon.’
‘Yes. And in the winter the day is only one tenth part of the whole daily cycle. And that’s not all. There is a place on this island, on the very north side, when for a few days in winter, the sun never rises; there is merely a glow like the dawn, that soon fades.’
Xivu tried to imagine this, and evidently failed.
As they spoke of stars and sun and moon, and as old Medoc slumped back into a contented sleep, Tibo sat by Caxa. She was staring at the fire, her eyes wide.
The breeze shifted, and he heard Xivu complain as smoke from the plume to the east covered over the stars.
In the morning they packed up quickly. Medoc promised to take them to much more exotic landscapes yet.
They climbed higher, heading steadily inland, until they were walking on open moorland, too high for trees. Here the ground was broken by huge craters, scoops in the soil, revealing dark rock.
And Medoc led them forward boldly over ground that was so warm it steamed, soft, muddy, damp. No grass grew, or trees, but vivid green moss clung to the mud. The stink of sulphur was strong. Caxa dug her hand into the warm mud, drew out a handful, and began to work it with her fingers.
‘Extraordinary,’ Xivu said. Carefully he immersed his hand in a shallow puddle. ‘Almost scalding!’
‘Heat,’ Medoc said boastfully. ‘The special gift of this island, where the little mother of the earth comes to sleep. Vala will take you to mud pools that bubble with heat - she swears by it for aches and pains and disorders of the skin. And there is a place where a jet of hot water gushes out of the ground, shooting up many times higher than a man! And if you wait for a hundred breaths it does it all again.’
Xivu looked east, to where the smoke tower billowed. ‘And your mountains spew ash and smoke.’
Medoc looked that way. ‘There’s no danger now. The last time that mountain did anything dramatic was when my father was a boy. It’s just the little mother of the earth turning over in her bed.’
But a thunderous, complaining rumble came from deep within the belly of the earth. Xivu was uneasy, Tibo thought.
Caxa was concentrating on the lump of mud, which was soft and pliable, working it with her fingers, digging in her thumbs. He saw that she was making a head, with the same blocky proportions as the monuments on the Altar of the Jaguar. But it was a child’s face, you could see immediately, round, crying.
Medoc wanted to walk on. But Caxa would not be moved until she had finished. So they sat by the bubbling mud, and ate their dried fish and drank water, while Caxa worked on the face of the weeping child.
By the evening Medoc had brought them to the summer camp of his friends the Ice Folk, at the head of a high valley.
The Ice Folk lived in a small tent of skin over a frame of birch saplings, set up over a pit dug into the ground, that you climbed into down a sloping tunnel. Medoc told his visitors they should come in the winter, and see the houses of ice blocks the Folk made up on the glaciers, or even out on the frozen sea, where they trapped the seals that came up through the ice for air.
Inside the house lived a single family, stocky round people wrapped up warmly in seal fur, though the day was not very cold. Knowing that Medoc and his friends were coming, they had prepared a feast, a special meal. Over a blazing fire they roasted a seal on a spit, whole. With knives of bone set with tiny stone blades, they sliced open the seal’s belly, and roasted sea birds fell out, having been stuffed within the animal.
When she saw the carcasses of the birds fall from the stomach of the seal, Caxa began to scream.
And in the south of the island, under a shuddering mountain, molten rock surged restlessly, seeking escape.
Watching from the long grass above the beach, Milaqa and Mi saw Nago fall. In an instant his body was lost as the fighting closed over him like a bloody tide. Since the landing and the resistance to it, slaughter that now filled the bay, a press of squirming meat and blood and metal.
And still the ships further out crowded in, trying to land.
‘No.’ Mi covered her mouth. ‘Uncle Nago!’
Milaqa, feeling she might rush forward, put her arm around her cousin and held her close. ‘It’s all right. He died well. He killed two, three, four. He died quickly.’
‘It was Qirum.’
Qirum, yes, Milaqa thought, Qirum fighting for his own life - Qirum who had now cut away another piece of her family, another bit of her heart - Qirum who had come to this land to destroy her country, and replace it with a vision of his own. Qirum, the spearhead of an invasion ultimately fuelled by the detonation of the fire mountain on far Kirike’s Land. Qirum whose whirling, dancing savagery in the bloody foam captivated her as no other.
‘The day is lost,’ Mi whispered. ‘There are too many of them.’
Milaqa tried to think like Deri, like Teel, tried to see the wider picture. ‘We have fewer fighters, but we have advantages. Thanks to Bren’s treachery few of the enemy ships were lost to our underwater traps. But they are all being forced to try to land here. All the Trojans are having to push through the neck of a flask, just here. We can’t hold them for long, but we can kill a good number of them before they break through.’
‘And they will break through -’
‘Weakened. And we who survive will fall back.’
‘And then what?’
‘And then we will harass them as they try to advance, and we will see their chariots bog down in the marshlands, and we will starve them when they seek food. They are far from home and they are few -’
‘But we are few too.’
‘Every one that falls cannot be replaced. And if each of us takes three of them with him, as uncle Nago did, Northland will not fall. Come on.’ She tugged at Mi’s sleeve. ‘Deri told us to pull back and report on what we saw, the ships we counted. That’s our job now.’
Mi looked at her bleakly. Then she took her quiver of arrows, and her finely made Kirike’s-Land bow, and she fired off her arrows one by one, sending them high into the air so they fell among the incoming ships, and were sure to kill only an enemy. Only when all their arrows were gone would she follow her cousin away from the beach, and the continuing battle.
They stopped a night in a little community called Mother’s Fingernail, after a distinctively shaped arc of sandstone that dominated its hearthspace. Deri had a friend here called Boucca, widow of an old companion from the fishing boats. The place was not far from My Sun, and had suffered from Trojan raids. Now the people lived in lean-tos and shacks amid the ruins of their houses, rings of burned-out stumps in the ground. But it was surviving, and the travellers were shown hospitality. That night Deri and Milaqa huddled under borrowed blankets in Boucca’s lean-to, windproof and warm.
And the Trojans came at dawn.
Milaqa was woken by the cries of the scouts.
In the dark, Boucca was already stirring. She had her cloak around her shoulders, her boots on, her youngest, a nursing infant, in her sturdy arms. Squatting, she glanced around the lean-to. ‘That’ll do. Nothing left for the Trojans. Come on, you two.’ She shuffled out of the lean-to’s low entrance.
Deri pulled on his own boots, reaching for his weapons. ‘We have to get to the flood mound. That’s where the people will make their stand -’
Milaqa, sleepy, her hair in her eyes, fumbled for her clothes, more irritated than afraid. Outside the air was chill, but not freezing; a thick dew lay on the churned-up ground of the hearthspace. The sky was all but pitch dark, covered by the layer of clouds that had kept the frost away. The big communal fire still burned, huge logs glowing bright red, but men were kicking dirt over it.
By the fire’s dim light, men, women, children, old folk, were all abandoning the shacks and lean-tos and hurrying in to the big old mound at the centre of the hearthspace. Milaqa could hear people muttering prayers to Ana and the other mothers, as they clambered up rope ladders dangling down the mound’s steepened sides. The mound had been built to save lives in the event of a flood, a tradition that dated back to the mother goddess Ana. Now the mound had been rebuilt and reinforced to keep out another sort of peril.
A scout came running into the clearing. ‘They’re coming! Men and horses -’ He was just a boy, maybe eleven years old, wearing only a light tunic, kilt, sturdy boots. He hunched over, panting from his run, his breath steaming in the chill air. A woman, perhaps his mother, wrapped a cloak around him and led him off towards the mound.
And now Milaqa could hear the Trojan raiders in the distance - the war cries, the heavy rumble of hooves on the hard, half-frozen earth, even the singing of swords being drawn from their scabbards. It was like a storm brought down to the earth, a thrilling sound despite the danger it threatened.
She was slow to move. Her uncle grabbed her hand and pulled her towards the mound.
The mound’s walls had been steepened and coated with slippery pitch, to make them harder to climb, and the ladders that draped down its sides were just knotted rope. Milaqa pulled herself up easily enough, from one knot to the next. To either side she saw people helping each other, an arthritic old man being carried on a younger man’s back, a baby being passed from hand to hand. There was urgency, but no panic.
On top of the mound a curtain of untreated hide had been set up around the big communal house, a barrier two or three times as tall as a man. Men and women were hurling buckets of water over the hide curtain, and some of the men were pissing up it, hosing great steaming streams from night-full bladders. The purpose of the hide screen was to keep out fire arrows. One man’s fountain splashed through a slit window cut in the barrier. There was a cry of protest from inside, and a ripple of laughter.
Once inside the hide curtain Milaqa followed the rest through a narrow doorway into the big house. This too had been extensively rebuilt, with a tent of stitched, soaked hide hung over the thatch roof, and panels of sandstone set up over the old external walls. The sandstone slabs had been cut from the stone outcrop in the hearthspace that gave the place its name. Inside, a low fire burned, and smoke curled under the thatch roof. People were huddling amid heaps of stores, buckets and sacks of water and fruit juices, and salted meat, dried fish, fruit, herbs, nuts, mushrooms, stored in boxes and pits cut into the floor.
Boucca waved. She had saved a place on the floor near the back wall, away from the main door, and she had her little boy asleep on her lap. Milaqa and Deri went over to join her.
People were settling down all around the house, the old folk and nursing mothers and children huddled on the floor, everybody else manning the defences. Some children cried at having been woken too early, but others laughed at the antics of the dogs who had been brought into the house, and ran around yapping. It was hard to pick out family groups, for widows, widowers and orphans, survivors of previous raids, helped each other with the burden of survival. There were even old wounds, mutilations, burns, easy to see as the people pressed into this small space. There was an air of urgency, but no sense of fear.
All these measures - the flood mound turned into a fortress, the hide curtain to keep out fire arrows, the rope ladders, the central store - had had to be worked out through painful experience in the months since My Sun, and at the cost of many lives. The lessons learned were spread across the country by travelling priests, and Hatti veterans and warriors. This was how you dealt with the Trojans; this was how you survived - by thinking, learning, talking, and making preparations with utter ruthlessness.
Deri was impressed. ‘People have become hardened - Let’s hope we can all become un-hard again when the Trojans are gone -’
The cry went up: ‘They’re here! They’re here!’
A sound like thunder burst over the settlement - hooves on the ground, deep male voices roaring. Despite all their preparations, now that the crux was here the people in the house cowered back, mothers clinging to their children.
And there was a whoosh of fire.
Boucca shouted over the din, ‘They’re torching the lean-tos. Using embers from our own fire probably. Let them. It only takes a day to build another.’ She cradled her baby, and yawned elaborately. But Milaqa suspected she was more afraid than she showed.
Now arrows hissed. Through the door space and window slits Milaqa glimpsed droplets of fire arcing, landing on the hide screens, and there was a smell of scorching leather. Men, women and older children ran out of the door with buckets of earth and water
. ‘Fire arrows,’ Milaqa breathed.
‘Yes,’ Deri said grimly. ‘Dipped in pitch. But you saw the soaked hides -’
‘The Trojans will just keep trying. All they need is one lucky shot -’
‘Which the mothers will push away, I have no doubt,’ said Boucca calmly. ‘Mother Ana always taught us that the mothers will help you if you help yourself. And besides, we’re getting to know the Trojans. If they don’t have quick successes they give up easily. After all there’s nothing for them to eat out there. We will suffer this for a day, two days. And then they will give up and slink away like wolves.’
Deri said grimly, ‘But we must survive those two days.’
Now cries were going up from the raiders in the hearthplace outside. The Northlanders screamed abuse back down at them.
Milaqa listened. ‘I can hear their orders. The Trojans. They are trying to climb the mound.’ She glanced at Deri. ‘I’m going out.’
She was already moving. She got up, grabbed her knife and short spear, and crossed the floor of the house, stepping over old folk and babies. Deri, with a growl, stood and followed after her.
In the space between the hide and the house wall the defenders were loosing arrows down through the window slits. At their feet were heaps of swords, stabbing spears, bows and quivers of arrows - and coils of rope, evidently the ladders pulled up beyond the reach of the Trojans. Buckets stood on the floor, water and piss ready to keep the walls soaked. The only light came from the slowly brightening dawn sky, the flickering fires of the burning settlement, the arrows’ shifting glow. Milaqa saw all this in glimpses and shards, like a scene from a nightmare.
The priest, a man called Van, walked steadily around the circular space. His hair was a shock of sky blue, and the circle-and-slash mark of Etxelur was bright on his cheek. ‘Don’t fire until you have a clear shot. Make every arrow count - By the mercy of the little mother of the sky, make these arrows fly like thunderbolts! And, mother, send rain, rain to soak our hides and to turn the mound walls into heaps of mud to drown those who have come here to harm us -’
There was a roar, and the hide wall bulged. A huge Trojan, presumably having made it up the slope by sheer momentum, had slammed into the screen, and Milaqa saw his outline in the distorted hide.
Deri took a single stride forward and slid his sword blade through the hide and into the man’s carcass. He was rewarded by a liquid, crunching impact, a frothy gurgle. The man fell back, and Deri had to brace himself to keep hold of his sword without pulling the screen down. He looked at Milaqa and grinned. ‘You get to know where these fellows have gaps in their armour.’
‘Here they come again!’ somebody yelled.
Milaqa grabbed a bow and quiver from the heaps by the house wall. The bow was heavy, a big hunting bow, difficult to manage in the narrow space, but it would do. She notched an arrow and peered out through a window slit.
She saw Trojans scrambling to scale the sheer walls of the mound. They were heavy with armour and weapons, the mud gave beneath their booted feet, and they faced a barrage of arrows and stones. Yet still they came on. Milaqa fired an arrow at the nearest Trojan. It bounced off his chest plate. She fired another, and this one grazed his arm. He glanced at the wound, ignored it, and kept climbing.
Van, the priest, had to shout at her over the din of roared challenges. ‘You’ve only made him mad. And you’ve wasted a couple of arrows. Remember -’
‘Every arrow counts. I know. I’m doing my best.’
‘Use this.’ He pointed at a bucket at her feet; it contained a smear of brownish paste.
‘What is it?’
‘Snake venom. Just dip your arrow-head. And don’t let it touch you -’
Cautiously Milaqa lowered her next arrow into the venom, notched it, and grinned as she aimed it at the bleeding warrior who approached her.
And now a new cry went up. ‘They’re bringing ladders! Fetch the oil, the pitch, the torches! -’
In the end it took three days before the frustrated Trojans withdrew.
When they’d gone, the people moved out of the house on the mound and worked gingerly through the wreckage of the hearthspace, picking over the remains of the lean-tos. Even the central hearth had been kicked apart and pissed on. But it would not take long to fix any of this. Just as in settlements across Northland now, the only serious investment in structures was in the citadel-like houses on their fortified flood mounds.
The most urgent task was to deal with the corpses. The bodies of any Northlanders killed had been mutilated and cast into the river in an effort to poison the water. It was a sad duty, led by the priest, to gather up these rent and damaged corpses and take them to improvised sky burials high in oak trees; the Trojans burned burial platforms when they got the chance.
The Trojans had taken away their own dead - but one man had been left behind. He had died of a poisoned wound in his belly that oozed blue sticky-black fluid. Evidently his companions had not wished to touch the body. The priest knew the poison, its effects and its antidotes, and he knew how to handle such bodies. He led a small party that took the corpse away before the children and dogs could get anywhere near it. The Northlanders did not believe in dishonouring the enemy dead, but this man’s bones would not be placed in the great tombs in the Wall, for it was believed that the bones of enemies would work to sabotage that great barrier.
And while this work of recovery continued the scouts and sentries went out into the country once more, for it had been learned from hard experience that the Trojans had an unpleasant habit of feigning withdrawals, and would return to finish the job. But this time the Trojans showed no signs of coming back.
Milaqa and Deri stayed for half a day to help. By then the clean-up was much advanced - the dead cleared, the sick tended to, the big communal hearth blazing with a new fire. Then they said their goodbyes to Boucca and the rest, and continued their own journey south.
Milaqa was not as brave as she pretended to be, she admitted to herself in the silence of the night. She could keep functioning in the middle of a battle. She could even fight back. But she was always too aware that she could be struck down at any moment, even by accident, by a clumsily wielded sword, a misdirected arrow - crippled, maimed, killed. She wondered how it would feel when death at last came to her - when, finally, it was her turn. Would others mourn for her, as she seemed unable to mourn for others?
Was she as alone as she sometimes felt? Would the world end with her?
Perhaps death by some random act would seem a fitting end to her stay in a world that always seemed random to her, for in the chaos and brutality of life and death she had never perceived the guidance of the little mothers or the Storm God, or any other deities, as others seemed to.
The people walked silently, the carts rattling, the oxen grunting, as the party approached the burning ditches that ringed New Troy. The fires had burned all winter, fed by oil and pitch brought from across Northland, and a pall of greasy yellowish smoke hung over the town. And under that pall the town itself was slumped, blackened, silent and still, only a few smoky fires burning.
Milaqa, walking beside Deri, was glad of the scented linen mask she had tied over her face. It was meant to keep out plague breath, but it kept the smoke out too. And Milaqa was perversely glad of the warmth of the fire in the ditches, though it was the first day of spring. They had woken to frost on their gear, to steaming breaths, and in the country there were patches of dirty winter snow that had not yet melted.
But overhead, up above the smoke, over a town that was now no more than a stain on Northland’s green, a deep blue spring sky stretched high - a sky bluer than she could remember for some while. Perhaps the fire-mountain haze was finally clearing, even if warmth had yet to return to the world.
Milaqa had a sharp stab of memory, of the spring days of childhood, blue skies like this. She had always been a restless kid, never content, always rebellious. But she had been happy then, she realised now, happier than she could ever have realised at the time, happier than she ever could be again, after the terrible journey of adulthood. Before she had somehow become, in Teel’s words, a monster.
Deri saw her looking up. As they walked, he took her hand and held it gently.
A deep, agonised groan came from one of the carts behind them, from one of the not-yet-dead. The party just carried on, ignoring this cry of distress.
They stopped short of the burning ditches. They had come to the only remaining way through to the city, an earthen ramp that spanned the ditches. A squad of Trojan soldiers squatted on the earth on the far side, their spears leaning against each other in frames like tents, a small fire burning desultorily. Milaqa knew that like the ditches the soldiers were there not to defend the city, but to stop the remaining city folk escaping to the outside world. Since the coughing plague, everything about the world had been inverted.
Deri called softly, a soldier’s greeting in Trojan.
One of the soldiers by the fire stood stiffly, took a spear, and came walking to the lip of the ditches, fixing his plumed helmet on his head. It was Protis, the last survivor of Qirum’s senior commanders. His pale, beautiful face unmarked even by the plague, he had been the most terrifying of Qirum’s soldiers, Milaqa had always thought, a man who killed without rage or malevolence - yet now this was the man who had assumed responsibility for New Troy and its inhabitants in its final days. He had even shown a remarkable mercy, early in this process, when he had delivered to the Northlanders a child he said was Hadhe’s, saved by Qirum despite Hadhe’s attempt on his life. The child, spared by Qirum’s impulsive mercy, was free of the plague, and was prospering with his mother’s family.
‘More meat, I see,’ Protis said in his native Greek. ‘But of what kind?’
Milaqa murmured a translation for Deri. Of all the roles she had played in this gruesome saga, as spy, warrior, and plague whore, in the end she reverted to the first of all, which was translator.
Deri replied, ‘Both kinds. A cart of veal and fish. And a cart of the dead and dying. But these are the last, we think.’
Protis nodded, and beckoned to another of the group by the fire. ‘Urhi, take a note.’ One of them stood - not a soldier, he was a scribe, handling tablets under his cloak. Milaqa recognised him; he was the weary-looking older man who had been forced to make notes at Qirum’s hectic, insane wedding party. Now he here was counting the dead and dying. She wondered where he had come from, what kind of life he had once led, how he had come to be with Qirum. The Trojan had made many lives into strange stories.
Protis said, ‘We will take them. But for us too the disease has run its course, we think. One in twenty of our people survive -’ He glanced at the scribe. ‘King Qirum had many faults, but he did set up an effective administration. We knew how many people once lived in New Troy, at its brief and glorious peak, and we know how many are left. But those who live carry the blight. We are going nowhere; we built this kingdom, and we die with it.’
‘That is noble,’ Deri said.
Protis shrugged. ‘Who has been chosen to live and who to die is as ever a matter for the gods alone. And as ever they have been perverse.’ He pointed a finger at Milaqa, who flinched as if he had notched an arrow. ‘They spared you, for example. The King’s lethal lover.’
‘We were never lovers,’ she said.
‘But you were lethal. I can see you have suffered. You are as thin as my spear-shaft, and your skin is mottled like the skin of a frog. You will never be beautiful again, will you? And you feel old - in your skin and bones, heart and lungs - you will never feel young again. And yet you live, you who brought the plague here in the first place, you who unleashed it into the world.’
‘It was not my intention. It was not I who planned this -’ Yet she knew such excuses were not enough. ‘I must live with the memory of this for the rest of my life.’
Protis nodded. ‘And that is why you have been spared. A rich joke of the gods, either yours or mine.’
They had spoken Greek. Deri could not follow their words, and Milaqa had not translated, but perhaps he understood the tone.
Protis turned to Deri now. ‘Of course there are some of you still in here, within the perimeter. Northlanders.’
Deri frowned at Milaqa’s translation. ‘I thought you released the prisoners and slaves, the healthy ones.’
‘So we did; you have them. But there were some who did not want to leave.’ He grinned. ‘Women who fell in love with Greeks, believe it or not. Men born to hunt little piglets in the forest, who found they preferred to live and die as a farmer, a warrior - as a man.’
‘And they choose to stay?’
‘All of them. Perhaps nobility is like a plague too, eh? But there is one man who begs to be released. Who neither fell in love with a Greek or lusted to wage war. All he wanted was to bring down your Annid -’
‘Bren,’ Milaqa breathed.
‘So he lives?’ Deri asked. ‘How perverse the gods are, indeed, that he should survive the plague while so many good people died. My own son. Raka. Even my brother Teel. Those two gave their lives rather than abandon Milaqa.’
‘He asks to be taken back. He asks you to let him live.’
‘He betrayed us all,’ Deri growled. ‘Who knows how many lives he cost? No - let him walk with you to the underworld, where he will answer to the little mothers.’
Protis grinned, wolf-like. ‘It will be my pleasure to accompany him. Let’s get this done. For the last time we will take your dead.’
‘Thank you,’ Deri said.
But Protis had already turned away. He snapped a command.
Two of his men got up reluctantly and came to the ditch. Meanwhile Deri and Milaqa stood back as two Northlanders goaded the oxen until the carts had been moved forward onto the narrow causeway over the ditch. The handover was efficient; it had been achieved a score of times before. The Northlanders never came near the Trojan soldiers to whom they passed on the carts.
But as the second cart, full of the dead and dying, came past Deri and Milaqa, there was a commotion inside. Under a cover of ox-hide to keep out the weather, the cart was a sealed cage of wooden bars. Now a man’s face was pressed to the bars, dark, wasted, and skeletal hands grasped the wood. ‘Milaqa? Deri? -’ The voice was hoarse, and he coughed, spraying blood. ‘I knew I heard your voice! Speak to me - oh, in the name of the old gods, speak to me!’
The men, startled, paused, and let the cart rattle to a halt.
Milaqa was as shocked as if one of the dead had come back to life. Most of those in the last stages of the illness were either too weak to speak, or consumed with their coughing and bloody vomiting - or, more rarely, were accepting of their lot; they did not resist when placed in the carts for New Troy. And though Milaqa understood his words, for a heartbeat, in her bewilderment, she could not remember which language he spoke. Since her own illness her thinking had been muddy.
Then she had it. ‘Xivu?’
‘Yes! Yes!’ He grabbed the bars with bloody hands, and tried to pull himself upright. ‘It is me, Xivu - the Leftmost Claw on the Front Right Paw of the -’ He coughed, doubling over, and almost fell back. ‘Of the Jaguar King - I learned some of your crude tongue, but such is the blight of this illness my head emptied entirely, and now I have nobody to speak to, nobody who understands me.’
‘I have not seen her in months. Certainly not since I fell ill. You must get me out of here, Milaqa.’ He tried to pull at the bars, but had no strength. ‘I am not like these others. I am not meant to be in here, in this cart - I am not meant for the pit of this blackened city!’
She didn’t know what to say. ‘I am sorry. If you are here, the priests have said that you will not recover.’
‘Priests! You call those capering toothless idiots of yours priests? I crossed the ocean -’ Again he coughed. ‘I crossed the Western Ocean to ensure that Caxa fulfilled her role properly.’
‘Caxa is fine. She was spared the illness altogether. Now she lives among us, as one of us. She uses her talent, which is much prized by our people. She organised the Words on the Wall during the Trojan siege, with which the Annids were able to talk to the people.’
‘But that’s not why she’s here, you stupid girl!’
Milaqa flinched. ‘I know why she’s here. She came to carve the head of Kuma, my mother, the Annid of Annids. Through the winter she has made her sculpture - and she has carved a head for Raka, who also died. The sculptures are almost ready to be revealed.’
‘You know what must become of Caxa after the work is done. She must go back. She must lie down beneath her last sculpture, her life’s work, the head of the Jaguar King. This is our way, Milaqa. The work is not done without that final step. An obsidian blade must be used - Let me out of here, and I will ensure -’
‘No,’ Milaqa snapped. ‘I will not speak of this. Enough have died. Now let this die with you.’
‘But the gods -’
‘You may discuss it with them in the underworld.’ She looked at him, this wretched man, dying in a cart of the dead, anguished by doubt, and she felt an intense stab of pity. But there was nothing she could do for him. ‘Let it be, Xivu. Caxa will remember you, and in due course will send word to your family in the Land of the Jaguar - Go to your death in peace.’
Deri murmured to the men, and the cart pulled forward once more.
Xivu mewled like an injured dog, and continued to protest in a weakening voice interrupted by coughing spasms. ‘The gods will punish you for this! They will punish you! -’
When the carts were delivered, Protis ordered more men forward. With bronze shovels they dug out the causeway across the ditch, a way which would never be used again. Then Protis himself pitched in a barrel of oil, and stood over it until it was set alight.
The Northlanders were already walking away.
They made slow progress. It would be a long way back to the Wall for those of the party, including Milaqa, who had had their strength sapped by the plague.
As evening drew in they came to the camp site they had built last night, just off the road. Wearily they stepped off the track and prepared for the night, fixing the lean-tos, relighting the fires; the soldiers scooped up months-old snow in their helmets to melt.
Later, Milaqa sat by the fire, swaddled in her cloak, exhausted. Deri came to her, tapped her shoulder, and pointed south.
A strong red light gathered there, rising above the flat horizon, like a false dawn, streaked with towering flames and billowing smoke. Protis had performed his last duty; New Troy was burning. Milaqa knew that the priests had ordered that the site be left abandoned for a generation. Only then would Northlanders venture in, retrieve the bones of the many dead, and bring them at last to the Wall for the long sleep of interment. Milaqa watched the fires burn, and wondered if she would hear Bren’s screams.
The ice waited in its fastnesses in the mountains, at the poles. Millennia had passed since its last retreat. Human lives were brief; human minds were occupied with love and war. The ice was remembered only in myth.
But the ice remembered.
And already the long retreat was over.
In an early draft of my novel ‘The H-Bomb Girl’, my fictitious Merseybeat band Nick O’Teen and the Woodbines played a gig at my old school, Saint Edward’s College in West Derby, Liverpool, in 1962. In fact the Beatles really did play at Saint Edward’s, but in October 1961, not 1962. Apparently the highlight was Paul McCartney singing ‘Besame Mucho’. Sadly the passage got cut from the final version of the novel - but here it is.
Laura remembered the newspaper Nick had given her. She dug it out of her inside blazer pocket. MERSEY BEAT - Merseyside’s Own Entertainments Paper - Price Threepence. It was a fan thing, cheap and flimsy and the ink came away on her hands. She flicked through it until she found a small boxed ad:
DIRECT FROM BOOTLE
JOHN SMITH AND THE COMMON MEN
NICK O’TEEN AND THE WOODBINES
Saint Edward’s College, West Derby, Liverpool 12.
Sunday 14th October 1962. 6:30 p.m.
Admission One Shilling. No Bopping or Jiving.
She wasn’t much interested in music, though. Back in Wycombe she’d been taken to a few concerts by Mum and Dad. But they had been folk music, which was old men in woolly hats with their fingers in their ears, or trad jazz, which was old men in bowler hats belting out show tunes on trumpets. Everybody said trad jazz was the next big thing in popular music. The sixties would be the trad decade.
As for pop music, she had dutifully listened to scratchy 45s by Cliff Richard and Tommy Roe on her friends’ gramophones, and had tried to do the Twist to ‘Let’s Dance’ by Chris Montez. In February, one of her friends had gone in for a record Twist in Harlow. Twenty thousand women, thirty thousand men. Part of it was just being different. Even your older brother or sister hadn’t bought pop singles, just a few years ago, it was all that new.
Music was fun, but it didn’t mean much to Laura. In fact the lilting tunes and the popstar boys’ high-pitched voices mooning over their ‘sweet angels’ just annoyed her.
So going to this concert wasn’t all that appealing. But at the end of the school day Bernadette had off-handedly told her about a coffee bar where they could meet on Sunday, and they could go see Nick together. After Mort and his Barbie doll, it sounded a good idea. Even if the groups were rubbish, it would be an excuse to get out of the house.
And a chance to make better friends with Bernadette. Bernadette had struggled in lessons, but she had strength, confidence, as if she was somehow a bit more grown-up than the other kids around her. With that cold whiff of strangeness about Miss Wells, Laura was glad to have Bernadette’s solid company in school.
She folded the newspaper up again. On the front page was a grainy photo of four skinny young men in suits, and half of the rest of the page was taken up by a huge ad:
BACK AT THE CAVERN AT LAST
DIRECT FROM HAMBURG
!! BEATLES !!
Of course the big question was what to wear on Sunday. She started to go through her suitcase.
The Woodbines’ gig was at Saint Edward’s College, a big Catholic boys’ school set in leafy grounds in the middle of West Derby.
They had to walk up a cut from the main road. They came to a queue of teenagers lining up before the gate, girls in tottering heels and strappy dresses and boys with towering quiffs. Laura felt her own pulse quicken, in the glittering dark of the Sunday evening.
Nick, as a band member, had a letter that got them past the queue, past a boy collecting money at the college gate, and past a stern old man in a black cassock who circled, restless and suspicious, like a vulture. This was a Christian Brother, one of the Irish order of monks who ran this place.
Nick was all for going on to the assembly hall where the bands would be setting up, but Bernadette pulled Laura back into the shadows.
‘Business first. Normally I’d take an hour getting ready. But today’s an emergency, I suppose. Want a ciggie?’
‘Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.’ Bernadette briskly opened Laura’s coat and inspected her dress. It was black, cut below the knee, with a white cotton panel buttoned up at the throat. Bernadette snickered. ‘Who buys your clothes? Your mother?’
‘You need to get some money of your own, kid. In the meantime it’s an emergency.’ She undid the buttons at Laura’s throat and tucked the white cotton panel inside the black main body of the dress. ‘In all black you’ll look like a beat girl. In the dark, anyhow. You need to lose this.’ Bernadette fingered the Key on its chain.
Laura couldn’t quite bear to take it off. She tucked it out of sight. She glanced down at her chest, embarrassed. ‘Aren’t I showing too much?’
‘No. Not that you’ve got anything to show. Here.’ Bernadette dug into her bag and pulled out a handful of tissues. ‘Give nature a helping hand.’
Laura goggled. ‘Are you joking?’
Bernadette cupped her own chest proudly. ‘How do you think I came by these? They won’t let you in if you look too young.’
‘All right.’ Laura took the tissues and, turning her back, stuffed them inside her Marks and Spencers bra. When she was done, she let Bernadette put lipstick on her mouth and mascara around her eyes.
Bernadette said, ‘We’ll do a better job next time. But nobody will notice in the dark, nothing but the lippie.’
Friendless Laura was warmed to hear that casual phrase, next time. But she thought it was odd that Bernadette, who made such a fuss about her looks, stuck to her school uniform.
The school assembly hall was a big box of a room, all ink-stained wood, with a stage at one end. Musicians were setting up on the stage, a drummer with his kit, guitarists plugging in amps. The big bass drum had WOODBINES written on its skin. Nick was already up there on stage, blowing into a microphone. ‘One two one two.’
The hall smelled of school, all ink and chalk dust. But tonight there was an odour of Brylcreem and makeup, ciggie smoke and after-shave and perfume, and hundreds of kids ran and bopped and wrestled like chimps, their voices echoing from the panelled walls. More Christian Brothers stalked about like prison warders.
‘The Brothers don’t know what they’re letting themselves in for,’ Joel said.
Bernadette shrugged. ‘They should do. The Beatles played here last week.’
Laura asked, ‘Who?’
‘Come on. Let’s get a good speck.’ She lowered her shoulders and shoved her way through a gathering crush to the front.
There were a lot of bikers in the crowd, in leather coats with metal studs, and greasy slicked-back hair. Laura’s head filled with the stink of ciggie smoke, and there was booze on a lot of breaths. She had never been anywhere like this in her life. She felt a thrill of danger.
Somebody twanged a guitar, a single electrical chord that crashed out of the loudspeakers stacked up on the stage. A shock ran through the crowd. Everybody roared, and pushed forward. Laura had to struggle to stay with Bernadette and Joel.
Nick, holding his microphone stand, was stalking about the front of the stage, grinning at the girls in the crowd. Aside from Nick the group had two guitarists, a bass player and a drummer. The drummer, a plump, good-looking boy with a sullen mouth, did a brief roll on his snare drum. A couple of girls screamed.
‘That’s him,’ Bernadette said. She looked more animated than she had since Laura had met her. She waved. ‘Billy! Billy Waddle!’
The drummer saw Bernadette waving. But he looked away, and grinned at a girl a bit closer to the front.
Bernadette was furious. ‘You don’t half irk my shingles, Billy Waddle,’ she shrieked. ‘Leave those scrubbers alone!’ Some of the girls laughed, and Billy looked furious.
Nick watched from the stage, his expression complicated. And Joel looked at the floor.
Laura saw all this. There was a lot going on here, she thought. A lot of ties between these people, whose lives she had just walked into. In a way, it was just like at home. And she wasn’t a part of any of it.
Nick pulled his microphone to his face. ‘Good evening!’ His voice echoed from the speaker stacks, and there was a howl of feedback. ‘John Smith and the Common Men will be playing for you later.’ Another roar. ‘But first you’ll have to put up with us. I’m Nick O’Teen, and we are the Woodbines.’
Close to Laura, some of the bikers had noticed Joel. They closed in.
Nick looked straight at Laura. ‘We’ll kick off with a song that was playing in the Jive-O-Rama a bit earlier, but we didn’t all know what we were listening to, did we? You know who you are, H-Bomb Girl.’
The bikers were poking Joel. One of them grabbed his hat, but Joel held on to it. Laura could hear what they were saying. ‘Niggy, niggy. Niggy nigritta.’
Bernadette moved in, tall, commanding. ‘Hey, face ache. Leave him alone.’
‘It’s a concert favourite by the Beatles.’ Just the name got the loudest whoop of the night. ‘It’s by Mister Chuck Berry, and it’s called "Roll Over Beethoven”. You might want to jig about a bit. Or not, it’s up to you, it’s all the same to us, we get paid anyway. OK Billy, lads? A one, two, three -’
A wave of noise came crashing down from the stage, a tremendous pulsing guitar riff. Then a hammering drum beat and punching rhythm guitar joined in. Suddenly everybody was jumping and screaming.
Laura had never heard anything like this before. It was music transformed into a battering ram. She was electrified.
Nick started dancing with his mike stand, playing it like a guitar, jigging back and forth across the stage to the music. He had seemed out of place to Laura since she had met him. Now he looked as if he fit right in.
And then the fight started. Laura couldn’t see what it was about. Maybe Joel threw the first punch, or Bernadette, or one of the bikers. It just exploded all around her, a riot out of nothing, with fists flying, people screaming.
She heard a yelp.
She turned to see a fat Ted who must have been thirty, with black sunglasses and sideburns like strips of carpet. He had taken the chance to grab a double handful of Bernadette’s backside. ‘Come on, darling. How about a bit of finger pie?’
‘Get your hands off me, you coffin dodger!’ She was pop-eyed furious, but, hemmed in by the fighting, she couldn’t beat him off.
Laura didn’t stop to think. She bunched her right fist, swung it at the end of her arm, and slammed it into the big Ted’s nose. Blood splashed over his mouth, and he fell back out of sight.
Bernadette stared, amazed. She mouthed, ‘Ta.’
But Joel was buried somewhere under the brawling bikers. Bernadette yelled, ‘Get off him, you hard-faced gets!’ She jumped back in.
As the fight swirled, the song belted on. Nick didn’t want to see the fighting. He just wanted to sing. But at last he broke off, dumped his mike, and yelled, ‘Geronimo!’ He dived into the crowd, arms and legs outspread. He landed in the middle of the bikers and knocked the whole lot to the ground.
With a flash and a pop, the music stopped in mid-chord. The crowd’s fighting stopped as if a switch had been pulled, and there was a collective groan. A black-robed Christian Brother marched up and down the stage, haranguing the crowd in a powerful Irish accent. ‘That’s got to stop! It’s just not good enough! It’s all too much!’
Bernadette pulled Joel out from the mass of bikers. Joel had his hat in his hand. He looked furious, but none the worse for wear.
Nick clambered back onto the stage, his carefully assembled Ted gear messed up, his hair a tangle. But his voice, unamplified now, carried over the crowd. ‘Oh, well. What shall we do while we wait for Uncle Albert to change the fuse on the Vox? How about a singalong? She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes. Honk! Honk!’
The crowd joined in, Mods and Rockers, bikers and schoolkids alike.
They’re all mad, Laura thought. I must be mad to be here.
But for now, sweating, breathless, dirt-streaked, her fist aching from the punch, she stood with her arms around Bernadette and Joel and sang as lustily as the rest.
Carl Couzens (Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation): You know, those people from OurWorld should be proud.
Ever since the first WormCam gear was delivered to the Bureau offices, there has been a line to use it a half-mile long. Of course sometimes even the WormCam isn’t conclusive. We’re still struggling with Kate Manzoni’s case, for instance. But, yes, we’ve been successful, incredibly so. And that’s satisfying, believe me.
We stopped a serial killer in Atlanta, for instance. One of the smartest guys I ever came up against. I truly believe that without the WormCam it would have taken us years more to catch him, if ever, and he would surely have gotten to hundreds more victims. Turned out he was choosing his victims based on phone directory matches to digits from the number pi.
Maybe the future isn’t so rosy for us, though. When you think about it, every step of our criminal system is going to be transformed by the WormCam. Already law enforcement agencies like ourselves are using it as a powerful new investigative arm.
Then you have to look at the courts. Our whole adversarial judicial process is built around the premise that arguments have to be contested, evidence questioned, until a judge and jury can reach a view beyond reasonable doubt. But now the WormCam will let us reach a point beyond any doubt very quickly, in most cases. Who need armies of forensics experts now?
And the lawyers will be out of a job too. The only questions to be contested will concern motive, responsibility, sanity. Even the jails are seeing WormCam changes. We’re filling ‘em up as never before.
Our priority is still crime detection and prevention, using the WormCams’ real-time facilities. But once the past-viewing facilities became available we started to go through outstanding and unresolved cases. At first it seemed we’d been given an incredible power, to cut through all the deduction and bullshit we have to go through to get to the truth. Now we can just dial up the WormCam and see a crime as it took place.
You understand that WormCam evidence still isn’t admissible in the courts - though that’s only a matter of time. But what we see shows us the truth, of course, and usually indicates ways we can turn up evidence the courts will recognise. Of course that will get harder in the future, as the bad guys get used to the idea that some cop in the future might be watching them some day.
Interviewer: So you think the WormCam has been a force for good. Not all the press response has been favourable.
Couzens: Oh, come on. Most of the hostility has come from sleazebags with something to hide. When the real-time viewing capability became public knowledge, a lot of people immediately cleaned up their acts. But you can’t wipe out the past. And now with the WormCam we can see that past.
Interviewer: And you caught a lot of those sleazebags, as you put it.
Couzens: Sure. I guess the world is being cleaned up, and that has to be a good thing. But we also turned up a lot of murky nonsense. I tell you, if I have to watch another fat fifty-year-old businessman groping some girl half his age as if she was a rubber doll, I’ll heave. Call me innocent, but I never knew so many people have so much sex, of one kind or another, all the time. It sure makes you look at people differently. Like we’re a bunch of apes, shaved and straightened up a little.
Interviewer: Maybe it will be a good thing if we all lose a few taboos.
Couzens: Well, maybe. I just wish it was a little more, umm, aesthetic. And there’s more of it to come. You people seem to extend the reach of the WormCams deeper into the past every day. I suppose the revelations will go on until we can see back before the birth of anyone alive now.
And then we’ll start rewriting the history books.
From the flat-topped summit of the mound, Qili looked around.
To the north he made out the island, the bay; to the south stretched away a landscape of rolling hills and valleys, glimmering with water and studded with stands of trees - a landscape green and bursting with life on this summer’s day. This was Northland. He could see that Bark was right; this ridge could reasonably be called a boundary between one land and another, for the land that lay spread out before him was quite different in character from forest-choked Albia. The trees grew so dense on the peninsula that, the priests liked to say, an eagle flying high overhead could swoop from east to west, north to south, ocean to ocean, and scarce see a break in the endless canopy through to the floor, save for the occasional scrap of higher ground.
At last, prompted by subtle, cyclic shifts in Earth’s orbit, the climate shifted, with dramatic suddenness. Over a few decades the dirty white ice receded north. The revealed landscape, scoured to the bedrock, was tentatively colonised by the grey-green of life. Migrant herds and the humans who depended on them slowly followed, taking back landscapes on which there was rarely a trace of forgotten ancestors.
With so much water still locked up in the giant ice caps, the seas were low, tens of metres lower than in later times, and great swathes of continental shelf were exposed, all around the world.
In northern Europe, Scotland and Ireland were joined, and eastern Britain was united with continental Europe by a plain that ran from the Tyne estuary in the north down to Beachy Head in the south. This was rich terrain for the humans, who spread down the water courses and probed the thickening forests for game.
But the Earth was not at rest.
The continents are granite rafts floating on magma, the liquid rock of the mantle. The great weight of the ice had depressed the land beneath it, pushing it down into the magma. Now, released from the burden of the ice, Scotland and Scandinavia were rising up, immense, buoyant. But the land’s movement was not simple, and tilting caused other areas to sink: southern England, France, the Low Countries, subsiding into the sea at a rate of centimetres a year. At the same time the seas rose steadily, filling up with chill meltwater. As a result of these processes, everywhere a complex redistribution of land and sea continued.
In Northland, from north and south the ocean probed steadily into the wide, rolling plains that still connected the British-Irish peninsula to Europe. The basic geometry of the world changed around the people, generation on generation. And, year on year, the chill oceans bit at the bare land.
‘Yes. After the moon of ice lifted from the world, the little mothers led the people and the animals north into the exposed land, and the people named names and sang songs about where they walked. And we still sing those songs now, about the shape of the hills, and the bend of a river.’
He frowned. ‘The little mothers are gods too?’
‘They are the children of the first mother. The three mothers became the gods of the land, and the coast, and the sea.’
‘That’s a lot of gods. It isn’t as complicated as that for us. We have tree gods. We are all named for parts of trees, or things they give us - like myself, for the shade. That’s all, really. Trees.’
‘You surprise me.’
He pointed. ‘How do the birds at that end of the flock know how to fly to keep the shape being set by the birds at the other end? It’s as if, when they fly up together, they stop being individual birds and become bits of a god.’
‘There was a heavy dew this morning,’ she said. ‘And a spider had built her web across the house’s poles, at the top. It was thick with dew and it shone where the light caught it. I wanted to show it to you, but I could never have saved it. It had all evaporated away long before noon.’
‘How I love this place,’ he murmured.
And the sea beds, too, massaged by shifting masses of water and ice, suffered their own spasms of compression and release.
Far to the north the sea bed was unstable. The world’s skin shuddered. Strange weather systems gathered over the shifting sea bed, ocean storms whose rumbling thunder could be heard far away.
Given enough time, a more significant adjustment was inevitable.
It was not a huge landslip, on a planetary scale. Only a volume the size of a small country, a mass of mud entirely submerged, sliding deeper into the abyss. But an equivalent volume of water, pushed aside by the silt, had to find somewhere to go.
Those who survived called it the Great Sea.
She looked south, back the way they had come, towards the northern shore of Flint Island. There were the beached animals, the dolphin and the whale. Some children had discovered the wreck of the boat and were playing around its exposed timbers. All the way back to the shore she could make out people working, the whole of Etxelur save for the very smallest children out on the sea bed, raiding it for its treasures. Black with mud, they looked like animals themselves, toiling in the dirt. But when she looked to her left and right, to east and west, she saw how the sea had exposed a swathe of landscape that ran all the way along the coast. Everywhere she saw glinting pools of remnant water, and the green of seaweed and the silvery gleam of fish, some of them heaped up into reefs that must contain whole shoals; all along the coast, from more distant communities, she saw more people venturing out into the sea bed for its pickings.
The dolphin was a big animal, sleek and muscular. It flopped as helpless as the fish, far from the sea that had betrayed it, and lifted its head with its long beak-like mouth and uttered its odd, clattering cries, a voice Dreamer had become so familiar with in her time in Kirike’s boat. People were rushing to the dolphin. Dreamer heard men ordering others back to the land, to fetch ropes. A dog ran around the animal, excited, and it bit into the roughened edge of a flipper and tugged, its little paws slithering over the sea-bottom mud.
‘Do you think they’re trying to save it?’ she asked Novu. ‘Maybe they could drag it to the sea - wherever the sea has gone.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Novu muttered.
‘That man is stroking it. Looking into its eyes.’
‘Apologising before he kills it and butchers it. Look at the knife he’s holding.’
‘Dolphins saved my life,’ she murmured. ‘Myself and my baby. The dolphin is her totem.’ She shifted the pack on her back so she could feel her sleeping baby’s weight. ‘I hope the death doesn’t distress her.’
There was a sound of thunder, far out away from the land. Like a tremendous stampede, returning.
She climbed up onto the broken-open midden. She glanced around at the ancestors’ bones, exposed and scattered by a wave which had shown as little compassion for the dead as for the living. It was a long way to bring each corpse, she thought now, when all who had survived would be busy with the simple work of staying alive. Perhaps she could work out some interim arrangement - move the bodies away from the living spaces first, and then bring them here. Yet she felt it was right that the dead should rest where the bones of her ancestors had always been laid, from the grandest matriarch to the smallest lost newborn.
She heard shouts from the beach. Dreamer had found something strange washed up, a plump form with heavy brown hair - a seal, perhaps, or some dead animal plucked by the waves from the land. Close by, Lightning was exploring another limp body.
And Novu was shouting too, jumping in his excitement and pointing out to sea.
It was a boat, Ana saw, still far out, being paddled by two figures too remote to make out. That could be her father - but his hadn’t been the only boat out yesterday. She refused to get excited, not until the boat had made it to shore.
She slid down the midden’s broken flank, and crossed the beach to Dreamer and her find. Dreamer stood over it, looking puzzled but excited.
It was a fat beast, four-legged, but like no animal Ana had ever seen before. It would have been short if it stood upright, no higher than chest height to Ana. Its legs were like trees stumps, its feet were round and flat, and it had a big head from which a long nose dangled - limp as seaweed now, but it looked flexible and muscular. From one side of its mouth a kind of long tooth curled, gleaming white.
Ana said, ‘I never saw anything like it.’
‘Nor I.’ Dreamer frowned, and looked to the north, across the sea. ‘But we have legends of creatures like this. With teeth like spears, and noses like snakes, and hair that was coarse and brown. They all died when the Sky Wolf smashed the world. But they were big. Taller at the shoulder than a hunter. Taller than this.’
‘Evidently not all. Maybe it is a baby.’
‘No. It, she, has udders. See?’ The udders looked swollen with milk. ‘The waves swept across the ocean. Maybe they washed this strange corpse from some distant island.’ Ice Dreamer took off her sling and laid her baby down on the sand, carefully. Then she took her stabbing spear and held it over the inert animal. ‘Once my people hunted your kind across the roof of the world. Yet we revered you. Now I am the last of the True People, as you perhaps, are the last of your kind. I honour you with a good death.’ And she thrust the spear, as hard as she could, into the animal’s side, aiming for a space between its ribs.
Ana glanced along the beach to where that boat was pulling in to shore, to be greeted by Novu. And closer by she saw what Lighting was so interested in. It was a human body, washed up from the sea, limp and unrecognisable. She began to walk that way. The dog barked in his excitement, wagging his tail. The boat landed. Novu helped one of its occupants pull it up the beach. The other occupant jumped out and came running towards her, hobbling on a damaged leg.
And as Ana neared that broken body, as she looked at the red, tightly curled hair, the strong arms splayed in death. Something in Ana died in that moment, leaving only that hard black core.
She was barely aware of it when Arga, stinking of salt, her skin burned by the sun, hurled herself into her arms. ‘It’s all right,’ Arga said, burying her face in Ana’s chest. ‘You had to save the baby. It’s all right.’
Lightning was whining, licking the dead man’s salt-crusted face, trying to make his master wake up, as he always had before.
Dreamer’s face was strongly shadowed by the sun, and age showed in the lines around her eyes and mouth, and in the grey streaks in her tied-back hair. Yet she was still beautiful, Ana thought, strong and beautiful. No wonder her father hadn’t been able to abandon this woman when he found her on that distant shore. Kirike’s and Dreamer’s was one story among many cut short by the Great Sea.
‘I have told you how my people remember the world,’ Dreamer began. ‘Once the world was rich, warm. It teemed with game, huge animals, which the True People hunted. But then the Sky Wolf smashed the land in his jealousy. The world went from warm to cold in a day and a night. Many of the animals vanished, but others who liked the cold came creeping down from the north, and the True People hunted, gloriously, with their huge spear points. The world warmed again, and the big animals retreated to the cold in the north. The True People survived, but there was nothing for them to hunt, and the world swarmed with cowardly sub-men who -’
‘We know this story,’ Novu said gently.
‘All right. But hear the pattern. The world was warm, then it became cold, then warm again. Suppose it was the same here, in your world. Once it was warm. The people here - your grandfathers - grew confident and strong. They hunted the cattle that ran here in great herds, just as they do now, in your day. Maybe that’s why the cattle are remembered in some of your rituals - why it is always cattle you pursue in the wildwood challenges with the Pretani. And they built boats, big boats that sailed west, even to my country, maybe, and left the Etxelur marks on the stones of the coast. And they built the Door as a place to keep their boats safe, and from where their riches could be Given in splendour. Etxelur was great, in those days. So great that people still remember how it was.
‘But then the cold came, just as in my country. There were no more cattle. The great deer came down from the north, and other animals who like the cold. The grandchildren of those who built the Door forgot what it had been for. But still the Door was magnificent. So the new people put their greatest woman, or man, into the stone house they built on the central mound: a woman riding a huge deer, the animal that fed them. They put this on top of the cattle skulls left behind by their grandfathers.’ She mimed this with her hands, one palm on top of another, and she looked at Ana searchingly, seeking understanding. ‘Do you see? This is how people build, the new laid down on the old.
‘But then the cold turned to warm, and the great deer left for the north where they still live, so you say, Novu. The deer hunters could not live as they once had. But again, to their grandchildren the world was new. Again they forgot those who went before them, who had built the Door and why. And they started to build afresh. This time they built middens, Ana, great circular bands echoing the ancient shape of the Door - and you still maintain the holy middens on Flint Island.’
Arga frowned. ‘But why didn’t they build on top of the Door?’
‘The sea covered it over. Perhaps it happened in a night and a day, like the cold that destroyed my people, like the Great Sea. But still it is remembered, in the shape of the middens.’ She touched Arga’s belly and smiled. ‘And in the sign of Etxelur, in the tattoo you will wear some day, Arga, when your blood tide comes.’ She shrugged. ‘That’s my story.’
‘We can never know if this is true,’ Novu said practically.
‘Of course not.’
‘Perhaps you are drawing too much on the memories of your own people. Perhaps the warm and cold were not the same here.’
‘Perhaps not. How can we ever know?’
‘But,’ Ana said, ‘it makes sense.’ She felt deeply excited by this story of layers of time, of boat makers and deer hunters, a world warm and cold and warm again. On impulse she hugged Arga. ‘What a wonderful story we have been given. A gift from the past. And it’s all thanks to you, Arga.’
Arga submitted to the hug but soon wriggled free. ‘The question is, what do we do now?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We’ve found the Mothers’ Door. It’s drowned, under the sea. But it’s our treasure. So we can’t leave here. We can never leave this place -’
Ana said slowly, ‘You’re right. We would forget. Living somewhere in the south or in Pretani, mixed up with the snailheads and all the others, we would forget the Door - forget who we are.’
They could not leave.
But how could they stay?
‘That might be true in Jericho,’ Arga snapped at him. ‘It’s not the way people think here. "Why can’t we just get on with living our lives, and let the world be?”’
Ana looked at her sharply. ‘You’re quoting somebody.’
‘Yes. But I won’t say who,’ Arga said bravely. ‘She wouldn’t want to get in trouble with you, Ana. But that’s what she said, that’s what she thinks, and that’s the way people think here. We never bothered the world before; we just took what it could afford to give us. Why should we change now?’
‘Because,’ Novu said simply, ‘the Great Sea nearly scraped us all off into the ocean - and nearly killed you, Arga. It’s a case of either taming the world, as you tame this little dog, or running away like the snailheads.’
Jurgi stiffened. ‘You shouldn’t repeat stuff like that outside. People are uncomfortable if they feel they are defying the little mothers. They wouldn’t like it.’
‘And nor would the snailheads,’ Dolphin put in.
‘Or the dogs, even,’ Kirike said, and he leaned over to pat the stirring Thunder.
‘But he’s right,’ Ana said. ‘We have to build the dykes and drain the Bay Land. Either that or run away. What we have to do is find a way to keep on doing that. Arga, you said this friend of yours wouldn’t speak up because she’s frightened of me.’
‘Yes. I’m sorry to say it.’
‘Don’t be. I don’t mind being scary if it gets the job done.’ She smiled, and just for a heartbeat her face lit up with youth, or a memory of it, Dolphin thought, an echo of the girl she must once have been. ‘If my father could see what’s become of me! Or my mother … I don’t mind of they fear me. I don’t mind if they love me. I mean, if they think I’m here to look after them, to keep them alive and safe.’
‘Many do, I think,’ Jurgi reassured her. ‘Most, I’m sure.’
She said thoughtfully, ‘I have to be bigger than they are, in a way. As a parent is bigger than a child. Bigger in spirit and wisdom, not physical strength. Then they will follow me - but how far?’
In Northland, as the seas rose, perhaps the flooding from north and south would continue, until the ocean broke through from north to south, separating Britain from Europe with a tongue of ocean.
Or perhaps humans could make a difference.
Time would tell.
He turned away, and began the long walk home.
Jackie Benacerraf sat alone on the floor of the lounge, waiting for the pictures of her mother’s first footsteps on Titan.
The big softscreen on the wall was blank right now, save for schematics and timelines and a couple of animated sponsors’ logos. But sound was coming through: astronauts’ voices, as per tradition distorted and overlaid with pops and crackles, and with a judder imposed by the lousy bandwidth of the compressed signals.
‘For the record, we have a go for vent. Affirmative, we’re all sealed up. Go for vent. All right.’
Jackie couldn’t even tell which voice was her mother’s. There they were, the astronauts, solemnly reporting each step as if working on an unexploded bomb. All for the benefit of those who might follow one day.
But, of course, nobody would. Not ever.
Anyhow, it was hard to concentrate. She was worried about the kids.
This was Jackie Benacerraf’s home, in Seattle, capital of New Columbia. It was the year 2014.
She was always worried about the kids.
Their suits were gleaming white, with their names stitched to their chests, and bright blue overboots, and the NASA logo and the Stars and Stripes proudly emblazoned on their sleeves. In the bulky suits, hardly able to move in the cramped cabin, they looked faintly ludicrous, like two snowmen, Paula Benacerraf thought.
One last time, Rosenberg checked his suit display, and the status of the lander from a control panel. Then he closed a switch on the wall.
Vents in the base and apex of the lander opened up. There was a harsh hiss.
There was a muddy brown swirl around Paula’s feet. The thick air of Titan was forcing its way into the lower-pressure cabin of Bifrost. She watched the little dials on the instrument panel, yellow and green and red, bright primary Earth colours. The smog of Titan dimmed them, washing the dials over in an orange-brown murk.
‘Okay,’ Rosenberg said. ‘Everything is go. We are just waiting for the cabin pressure to equalise with the exterior sufficiently to open the hatch.’
His voice is becoming stilted, Paula thought. He’s speaking for the camera. For the history books.
The hiss died away.
Rosenberg checked his gauges. ‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘One and a half bars; pressure has equalised. You should be able to open the hatch now, Paula.’
Her heart thumping, suddenly conscious of the camera on her, Paula turned.
Bifrost’s hatch was a rectangle, two feet high and three wide, behind the centre couch of the cabin. There was a window in the middle of it, already stained with tholin smears.
Paula pulled at the hatch’s single handle. She could hear the twelve locking latches click open. The hatch swung outward, easily.
The open doorway framed a rectangle of mud-brown ground, laced by some darker substance. The lander seemed to have sunk into the slush, almost to the depth of the door frame.
She looked back at Rosenberg, who was standing between the two couches, watching her, in the heart of this warm Earth-made nest, here on Titan.
At least Fred had grown out of his Nullist phase, and he was having some of the image-tattoos removed. That was leaving marks on his skin, but the doctors were saying they shouldn’t be permanent - unlike hers - because he was still young enough. That skin cancer he’d developed when one of the laid-bare patches had been exposed to the sun was more worrying, but again the specialists said it would clear up.
What bothered her more right now was his determination to quit school and go join the Hunter-Gatherers in Central America.
Jackie had listened to the arguments and lectures until she thought her head would bust open.
The agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago was now pretty much accepted as a global disaster. So her son told her, anyhow. The archaeology showed the incidence of tooth cavities rose seven-fold; mothers were badly under-nourished; anaemia became much more common, and so did tuberculosis. We were better off, so ran the argument, so argued Fred, before agriculture. It was true that farming a piece of land could support ten times as many people as the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But that didn’t buy you much; today there were seven billion people in the world, almost all of whom were worse nourished than their Stone Age ancestors. And so on.
Once, Jackie would have been passionate about such arguments, either for or against. Now, all she cared about was Fred.
The governments cooperating in the Central American park scheme - Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize - had pledged to protect and shelter the young from the US and New Columbia and Canada and independent Idaho flooding down there, to - in theory - rediscover an ancient lifestyle. There was supposed to be no regulation, beyond a simple limit on numbers - but, of course, no communication was possible once you went inside.
Jackie pulled at a tuft of hair. All she could do was keep talking, trying to persuade Fred to think again, to wait, to stick with college.
It was just like the arguments her mother had with her. Maybe she was doomed to turn into her mother, just as her own kids seemed to be turning into her.
‘You ready for your one small step?’
Astronaut humour, Jackie thought bleakly.
To get out of the narrow hatch, Paula had to turn around and crawl out backwards. Rosenberg, keeping the camera focused on her, guided her. ‘You’re lined up nicely. Come back towards me. Okay, put your foot down. you’re doing fine. A little more.’
At last she found herself with her head outside the conical hull of Bifrost, one foot on the floor of the capsule, and the other resting on the edge of the hatch.
She looked around.
It was dark.
Darker than she expected, like a late, murky evening. The Huygens images and Bifrost’s own monitors, light-enhanced, had fooled her.
The ground was a plain, slightly undulating, thick with slush. A reddish-brown colour dominated everything, although swathes of darker, older material streaked the landscape. The lander sat squat, a metal tent on a muddy, empty plain. The slush must be deep, she thought; even here, at the centre of Bifrost’s splash crater, no bedrock water ice was exposed.
She couldn’t see the horizon through the dense, smoggy air. She knew that if she could crack her helmet, the air’s cargo of hydrocarbons would have made it smell like an oil refinery.
She lit up her helmet lamp. A pool of white light splashed on the ground. Organics glistened on the surface of the slush, moist, like flayed human tissue.
Rosenberg passed her the TV camera. She fixed it to a bracket which folded out of the exterior hull of Bifrost. Rosenberg tested the image on a monitor inside the lander.
It was routine, just like the sims. They worked in silence.
The irony was, science was making a certain comeback. The environmental problems were becoming so pressing and complex that President Maclachlan had reopened some of the university science labs and departments he’d ordered shut down.
Even in Seattle, a clear-plastic uv filter over your lawn was now almost as common as a sprinkler system.
It was as if humans were studying the ecology by testing it to destruction, in a kind of huge, one-off, millennial experiment. Maybe when we’ve reduced the whole thing to the grass and the ants, Jackie thought bleakly, we’ll understand how it all used to work.
It was the plankton crash in the oceans that seemed to be scaring the scientists most: a crisis that, it was said, might actually make the planet uninhabitable, ultimately. And in the short term the big problem was the rice crop. There was a blight with an unpronounceable name that was laying waste to crops all over the planet. The price in the Seattle stores - particularly Italian rice, for some reason - had gone through the roof. In the longer term, it was said, people would be starving, especially in the major rice-producing countries: China, India, Britain.
It was all to be expected, said the doom-mongers. World-wide, humanity got more than fifty per cent of its calories from just three carbohydrate-rich crops: wheat, rice and maize. Gigantic monocultures, exceptionally vulnerable to disease.
It was all hubris, fourteen-year-old Ben explained to her earnestly. Humanity had been pursuing a gigantic project, the construction of a technosphere, within which the human species could effectively be freed of its dependence on the Earth: isolated, like his grandmother in her metal ship, Ben said. She let him talk. Jackie had a bigger argument to win with Ben. The destiny of the human species was a piece of ground she could afford to concede.
Okay, the picture’s good. A little dark and drab maybe, but nothing that a little image processing can’t fix.
Now, at last, the screen filled up. In the foreground Jackie could see what looked like the white-tiled hull of a lander, splashed with some kind of mud, and a little further away the ghostly form of an astronaut, a bulky suit topped by a visor that returned brief highlights from the cabin lights. Beyond, no landscape was visible, save only a few yards of what looked like orange-brown swamp.
The astronaut seemed to be pawing at the surface with one foot.
It was, Jackie thought, probably her mother.
She lifted her left foot off the door frame, reached out, and pushed it into the Titan gumbo. She tested her weight. She could feel the slush compacting, but even so her foot sank in several inches.
She tried to lift her foot out. The gumbo was clinging, heavy, and as it came free her boot made a sucking sound that carried through her helmet.
She left behind a saucer-sized crater, into which the gumbo oozed slowly. There was no distinguishable footstep - unlike Neil Armstrong’s, she thought wistfully, which ought to persist in the crisp lunar dust for a million years. And when she tried to dig a furrow in the gumbo with her toe, she created a shallow valley that filled in almost immediately, without leaving a mark.
There was already tholin, splashed up from her tentative explorations, staining the white fabric coating her legs.
‘The lander has sunk into the surface through several inches, before the slush compacted to stop it. I can’t see any exposed ice. The basic colour of the slush is a deep orange, or brown, but it’s laced with purples and blacks. Organics, I guess. It looks like nothing so much as mud - Houston gumbo, with a little industrial waste laced in.’
Still analysing, Jackie thought. Still doing science, even out there, a billion miles from home, one little woman scratching at the surface of a whole world and reporting, busily. As if any conclusions she came to made a damn bit of difference.
After all, this wasn’t Apollo 11. Hardly anyone was watching these four-hours-old images. The broadcast, on a minor cable channel, wasn’t exactly illegal, but it also wasn’t encouraged by the authorities either. After all, here were these Americans bounding around in a place the current orthodoxy said didn’t even exist.
Jackie was supposed to be studying the Summa Theologiae by St Thomas Aquinas. It was what they were teaching the kids at school now; by law, every parent had to learn this stuff too. The Summa - the original written in 1266 - was a kind of theological Theory of Everything, justifying Christian theory by uniting it with Aristotelian physics. Transubstantiation, for instance: the moment in the Catholic Mass in which the bread and wine held by the priest became the body and blood of Christ: the stuff might still look like bread and wine, but - according to Aristotle - the form and the substance of every object were different. And at the moment of transubstantiation, while the form was unchanged, the substance of the bread became that of Christ’s body. And so on.
It made a kind of logical sense, Jackie understood. It just wasn’t science. Which was why they’d started teaching Aristotelian physics in the schools.
The kids these days were getting the whole shebang. Even the cosmology: the spheres of Moon and sun, the fixed stars beyond. Technology was allowed to continue as long as it was limited to practical, Earth-bound applications. Even low Earth orbit satellites were okay, because they were beneath the sphere of the Moon. But you weren’t supposed to look up at the sky, for fear of getting scared. In greater Seattle, they’d even banned telescopes.
The President, Xavier Maclachlan, was putting mankind back at the centre of the universe. He said he wanted to heal the spiritual dislocation that science had caused. Who was she to say Maclachlan was wrong, if it made people happier? To most people the Earth might as well be flat anyhow. The sun might as well be a disc of fire floating round the sky, for all the difference it made. Et cetera. And there were compensations. Aristotle taught the interconnectedness of everything; that wasn’t not a bad thing for kids to learn.
It made it difficult, however, to explain to the boys exactly where their grandmother had gone.
‘All right. I’m going to step out of Bifrost now.’
Jackie leaned forward. This is it, she thought. This is the peak of my mother’s life. Her crowning achievement, her moment in history.
She replaced her left foot, and then lifted her right foot out over the bottom of the hatchway and planted it in the gumbo, still holding onto the hatchway with both hands.
She let the gumbo take her weight.
She sank a few inches. But the combination of the slush’s consistency and her own lightness in this one-seventh gravity stopped her falling further.
She let go of the door frame, and she was standing on Titan.
A breeze, fat and massive, buffeted her; the thick air moaned around her helmet.
She took some experimental steps forward, walking away from the lander. She found it a real effort to lift her feet out of the clinging, sticky slush.
She felt light, but there was none of the exhilarating balloon-like floating which the Apollo astronauts had been able to achieve, bouncing off the hard surface of the Moon. The gumbo sucked at her feet, and her backpack, while not heavy, was an obvious mass at her back, throwing off her centre of balance.
She could feel the tubes of warm water wrapped around her limbs; the water seemed to slosh as she walked. Actually she liked the feeling; it was as if she was encased in a little shell of Earth-fluid which cradled her, here in the freezing slush of Titan.
But even so she felt cold. She could feel the heating system of her suit trying to work, the hot little chicken-wire diamonds close to her flesh. It didn’t seem to be sufficient. Her fingers, especially, seemed chilled, scarcely protected by the gloves; they were going to have to be careful of frost bite.
In fact, the cold seemed to deepen the further she got from Bifrost.
The picture was full of digital flaws, rectilinear cross-hatchings and missing pixels, so that you could never forget it was artificial. When the astronaut moved about, so poor was the image quality that she trailed ghosts, pale shadows of limbs and head and torso. In fact it was oddly like the films of the first, crude television pictures from Apollo 11, Armstrong and Aldrin moving around like ghosts up there.
What bullshit it all was; what damage space had done to the cause of science, in America and the rest of the world. Twenty billion dollar golf shots. Maybe, she thought, we ought to see the space program - not as the culmination of some huge project of science and technology - but as a gigantic, alienating disaster. Maybe if not for the space program, my kids wouldn’t be forced to listen to two-thousand-year-old cosmology every day.
But perhaps, on the other hand, space had made no difference. Maybe science and technology had reached the end of their usefulness anyway. Humans were becoming overwhelmed by their own sophisticated machinery, because the intelligence required to build a certain level of technology was less than that needed to survive it. There were endless examples: all the nuclear-industry catastrophes leading up to Chernobyl, her own mother’s Columbia crash, even the new airborne AIDS variants.
Her mind came back to the kids, to Ben, with a wrench.
To hell with science, the future of the species, the space program. Who is there to tell you what to say when your fourteen-year-old son comes home and says he wants to get pregnant?
She stopped, maybe twenty feet from the lander, and turned around.
Bifrost was a teepee before her, stuck in a broad splash crater. It had very evidently been dropped, from a great height, into the gumbo. The slush had washed up, viscous and sticky, against the lower hull, swamping the lower reaction thruster nozzles; and the powder-white upper surface was streaked with purplish tholin deposits. In the open hatchway, Rosenberg was framed against a rectangle of glowing white light; it looked blue-green, in fact, Earth-like, in contrast with the burned orange of the rest of the landscape.
The camera sat on its stand, panning and focusing automatically.
She turned away.
Bifrost had come down in a shallow depression. Towards the horizon, beyond this slushy plain, there were rolling hills. They were the foothills surrounding Mount Othrys, she knew, Titan’s tallest ice mountain. The horizon itself was lost in gloom and haze.
The peaks were stained dark red and yellow, with slashes of ochre on their flanks, and streaks of grey, exposed water-ice at the higher elevations. The landscape looked as if it had been water-coloured by an unimaginative, heavy-handed child. There were visible scars in the hills’ profiles, left by recent icefalls. The profiles looked oddly softened: these were mountains of ice, not rock, after all. Clouds, red and orange, swirled above the hills. The clouds were fat methane cumuli, fifteen or twenty miles high, dark and oppressive.
This is ancient, unmarked terrain, she thought. There had been no births here; there were no bodies buried under this complex ground.
It was midday on Titan: as bright as it would get. It was like a dim twilight on Earth. Standing in the gumbo in this muddy light, in fact, was like being at the bottom of a pond.
Ben said he was gay. He was in love, with a boy a couple of years older. He wasn’t a virgin any more, he said. And, he said, he wanted a kid.
Of course that was possible now, with cloned fetuses being implanted directly into the stomach wall of a father. It was even safe, they said, more so than natural childbirth.
Jackie found herself sounding like her own mother again, and she hated it. You’re too young. Wait. Don’t make any decisions now that you can’t unpick later. Finish your education.
But then, she reflected, if it made Ben happy now, maybe she should let him go ahead. Maybe I should just let Fred go too, go seek a better solution in the jungles.
She wasn’t convinced that to plan for a long and happy life was a rational decision any more.
Her mother, moving about in the dense orange atmosphere of Titan, looked less than human. Like some kind of deep sea fish.
Her visor had gotten streaked with tholin slush, as if she had been caught in some filthy industrial rain. She lifted her right hand and wiped at the visor with her glove, but that just smeared the slush, making it worse.
Suddenly she realised where she was.
It was a surge of perspective, as if the walls of the universe opened out around her. She had let this sunless bubble-world of ice and gumbo and haze eat into her imagination, until it was as if the gumbo extended on, beyond the visible, to infinity.
In fact, she was crawling over a ball of ice, six years and a billion miles from the warmth of the sun.
I’m on Titan, she thought. Here I am - Paula Benacerraf, human, American, grandmother - on Titan, with the rings of Saturn itself somewhere up above the haze.
I made it.
She knelt down, pushing against the resistance of the suit, in the slush. Where her knee took her weight she could feel the diamond patterns of the wires and tubes sewn into her heating garment, and the chill of the slush penetrated to her flesh and bone. The orange-brown, sticky gumbo lapped over her legs, coating the pristine whiteness of her Beta-cloth suit. The ground was streaked, complex, inhomogeneous, full of chemistry.
This was no dead world, of rocks and geology, like the Moon. This material had been processed, for four billion years. She could tell, just looking at it. Save for the home world itself, this must be the most Earth-like world in the System.
She reached down, and dipped her blue gloves into the slush. The sticky gumbo dripped down through her fingers, like ocean bottom ooze.
‘This is the stuff of life,’ her mother, on Titan, said, as she stuck her hand in the mud.
Oh, God, mother, I wish you were here.
Plotting for the worst case:
‘You know that I work for Eschatology, Inc.,’ Jerzy Glemp said to Patrick Groundwater, walking over. ‘We are an independent company backed by such organisations as the Rand Corporation and the Lifeboat Institute. Our task is to brainstorm ways by which the extinction of mankind can be averted.’
Extinction. That was a dread, heavy word on such a beautiful Denver morning, Patrick thought.
‘We have worked with the LaRei people for some time, hoping to find ways to stimulate the funding of practical solutions by resourceful leaders -’
Edward Kenzie held up a finger. ‘Wait. Sorry, Jerzy. Look, I don’t mean to take over the show. But before we go any further, you remember what I said yesterday, and in my notes to you both. I’m convinced of the need for absolute secrecy concerning this project, right from the off. What is to take place in this room over the next few hours will be life-changing for all of us who take part. Life-defining. Nothing will be the same. And this won’t be something you can walk away from, not ever, any more than you can resign from al-Qaeda.’
Patrick frowned. ‘That sounds threatening.’
‘Not at all. For now we haven’t done anything, I’ve made no record of the meeting yet - if any of you walk out now, it will be as if you were never here at all. But if you stay, you’re in.’ He glanced at the security people.
Patrick, feeling bombarded, wondered if he really wanted to be part of this thing; he suspected working with Kenzie and Glemp wasn’t going to be easy. He looked for Holle. ‘What about the kids?’
A montane extinction:
For once it was a beautiful Colorado afternoon of the old kind, the mountain sky deep blue, the surviving trees and fields a vivid green. But the human world was a muddy brown, with the only colour in the Candidates’ gaudy costumes.
In the four years since President Vasquez had spoken to the Ark workers the sea had swept a further three hundred kilometres west across North America, and now lapped across Nebraska. The Rockies still stood tall, but the rising sea had lifted the air and the weather systems with it, pushing the snow line up towards the sky. A town like Aspen now had a climate as Denver’s had once been, with a winter low temperature of only a few degrees below zero, and maybe a metre of snow instead of the seven or eight metres that had once attracted millions of tourists.
And the summits of the Rockies had suffered a subtle extinction event. The rising climate bands had eliminated the upper Alpine-tundra zones, scraped them right off the peaks, leaving no room for the hardy lichen and marmots and ptarmigans that had once lived there.
Crisis and near-cancellation:
Jerzy Glemp said gravely, ‘You know as well as I do that if you walk around Denver or Aspen or Boulder or Gunnison, the project is inspiring a sense of purpose, a sense that as bad as things are getting the government is still working, that we are still trying to come up with a solution. And, Colonel, if you’re so convinced the project is finished - if you’re so sure about what you’re going to recommend to the President - why are we still sitting here?’
Mel Belbruno surprised Holle by standing up. He pushed back his chair, and stood geometrically straight and tall in his crisp uniform. ‘If I may answer that, sir?’
Gordo Alonzo frowned, but nodded.
‘Despite what you’ve said, you’re here to give this project one last chance. To see if the people gathered here can’t yet come up with some way to shove this wayward bird back on course. You’re here to give me one last chance to fly to the stars. And by God, sir, you give me that chance and I’ll take it, and I won’t let you down.’ He sat, his spine so straight it didn’t come into contact with the back of the chair.
There was a stunned silence. Gordo just stared at Mel. Then he burst out laughing. ‘Jesus Christ, boy, who trained you to do that? There ain’t a dry eye in the house.’
Mel stiffened. ‘I don’t know what you mean by that, sir.’
‘Yeah, sure you do.’ Gordo stood before the table, and his fountain pen tapped on the tabletop, chit, chit, chit.
But if it had been some trick of that kind, cooked up by Harry Smith or Magnus Howe or even Edward Kenzie, and despite Gordo seeing through it, maybe it worked anyhow, Holle thought, for the tone of the meeting changed from then on.
‘My God,’ Holle said. ‘The road’s full, as far as I can see.’
‘A ragged army, armed with pitchforks and knives,’ said a man behind her. He wore a patched AxysCorp coverall; he was aged perhaps fifty, but looked strong, like a farmer, with big, dirt-encrusted hands. ‘Like a medieval army, a crusade - a people’s crusade. Though no crusade, even, amounted to as many souls as this. And as for the defences, they are virtually Iron Age.’ He pointed. ‘The ditch especially. You can see how the attackers will have to run down that slope, exposed to fire from the other side, and then struggle up the steeper side -’
As he spoke, she thought she heard another sound under the distant battle noises, a kind of thrumming that sounded familiar. ‘I don’t know much about the Iron Age.’
‘No.’ He smiled at her. ‘Nor much about concrete mixing, I’ll bet? I was behind you in the line.’
‘And you do?’ she said defiantly. ‘What are you, a professor of history?’
‘No, just a schoolteacher, back when the schools taught more than survival skills.’ He looked at his big hands. ‘But I used to run a smallholding, on the east bank of Back Squirrel Creek. I can use my hands. I can dig a ditch or lay a fence, I think.’
Loading the Ark:
‘We’re archiving, creating vaults, physical and digital, of all the resources we can think of. The Library of Congress records. The big genetic libraries the Mormons built up. We’ve been using hackers to download all they can from the big computer centres as they’ve finally gone offline. Stuff from overseas, that we’ve been dredging up. You’re English, aren’t you?’
‘Someone told me once we even got hold of the letter Henry VIII wrote to the Pope saying he was divorcing his wife. Jesus! We’ve five objectives. We’re making this stuff as secure as we can against the day when, I don’t know, when the dolphins learn to read. Two. We’re finding someplace safe for the President and his administration to hide out. The continuity of the nation. That’s Ark Two, and even I don’t know anything about that. Three. Security. Holding the yoogees at bay, on land and on sea. That gets harder as the sea rises, and more of us turn into more of them, but still - Four. Building rafts. And five.’
Mel thrust the pack into her arms. Then he grabbed her, and pressed his naked body against hers. He smelled of bed, and his skin was greasy with sweat. ‘We said it all. We did it all. We had time, didn’t we?’
‘We could have had forever.’
‘Nobody gets that much - not even you, Holle Groundwater.’ He kissed her hungrily, his mouth and tongue hot. ‘Now piss off.’ He grabbed her shoulders, spun her around, shoved her out of the door, and slammed it closed behind her.
She stood in the corridor, stunned. No more arguments, no more goodbyes.
Since going to warp, Venus and her team had continued to use the Ark as a mobile telescopic platform for inspecting the nearby stars and their planets, extending the depth and quality of the searches that had been possible from Earth, and indeed from the Ark itself at Jupiter. Holle gazed on beautiful, spectacular images of young stellar systems, a million years old or less, in the throes of formation from an interstellar cloud.
Venus said, ‘It’s like we’re putting together an album of the birth of a solar system, frame by frame. You see how the young star, having collapsed out of the cloud itself, starts to interact with the cloud remnant. A central collapsed disc slices the wider cloud in two ...
‘Look at these pictures. See how these planetary systems start out? Just clouds of rock and ice, nothing acting on them but their own gravity. Yet you give it a few hundred million years to bake, and out pops a solar system and a new star, every one of them as rich in worlds as our own - every one of them different. The universe is more than some mathematical exercise, Holle. It generates complexity, richness, diversity - all of it starting from scratch. And that’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? But what’s the point of all that richness if there’s no eye to see it?’
‘I’ll tell you how I sold this place to the President. OK, we were sending you, Ark One, up and out. Maybe we should also think about a backup plan, I said, think about sending a crew the other way. So I told the President that as we’ve been betrayed by two of the elements, the water that drowns us, the air that is starting to suffocate us, we should turn to the others, earth and fire, the deep ground and the fire within, elements that may have borne life in the first place and have sheltered it since.
‘And that, my friend, is Ark Two. Down and in ... And you can go further.
‘I know Thandie told you about the mantle waves and whatnot she studies, trying to figure out why all the water got released. I’ll tell you what else some of us think we found evidence of down there, even deeper. Life - more life, a very exotic sort in the high pressures and the temperatures, feeding off the most abundant energy flow down there, which is radioactivity. Some of us call them neutron birds. We think we see them flock. And down there, believe me, they never even noticed the flood, never even noticed the great impacts, which affected only the top few per cent of the Earth’s volume.’
Kelly shook her head, bemused. ‘Dad, this is - remarkable. I’m no scientist ... But so what? I can imagine living off the worms and the crabs that live around Thandie’s black smokers. But who cares about the deep stuff, and these neutron creatures, if they exist? What can they have to do with us?’
A new universe:
In the cupola’s twilit, humming calm, with the hull of Halivah and the silent stars arrayed beyond the windows, Grace Gray tried very hard to understand what Venus was telling her.
‘I’ll tell you what I’ve come to believe, after eighteen years of contemplating the universe from inside this glass box. I believe we’ll come through this crisis - humans, I mean, life from Earth - one way or another, whether it’s on Earth, Earth II, Earth III. I don’t believe in our own imminent extinction.’ She raised her hands before her face, flexed her fingers. ‘The human experience of the universe is simply too rich for that to be conceivable. Do you know what I mean? Isn’t it true that that climatologist guy you knew predicted that the Earth after the flood, after that great erasing, would actually have a greater biomass than before?’
‘Gary Boyle. Yes, he believed that.’
‘Well, there you go. It’s been the same after every extinction event back to the dinosaurs, so I’m told. I’ll tell you what else I no longer believe in. I don’t believe in the dismal cosmologies that they came up with on Earth before the flood. I don’t believe in the Big Bang, or a universe tearing itself into pieces in a Big Rip. Bullshit. These are juvenile projections of current cosmic trends far beyond any possible range of validity.
‘Look around! We live in a universe of constantly increasing complexity, in which as each successive age passes new features, new phenomena emerge. Consider Earth. Given what it started out as, muddy pools of organic chemicals on a world so battered by impacts the rocks glowed red, could you have ever predicted lungs and wings and eyes, and cellphones and starships? Of course not. Yet all these things were somehow implicit in the fundamental properties of the universe.
‘I see the cosmos as a set of interacting adaptive autocatalytic systems, that is they drive themselves from simple to complex states. This basic creative process is all-pervasive and so overwhelmingly productive that if you ever wanted to call something divine, well, it’s that. And I simply can’t believe that somehow that fecundity of complexifying is going to stop any time soon. The universe just doesn’t feel like that.’
Faint alarm bells rang in Grace’s head whenever anybody aboard this tub used a word like ‘divine’. ‘OK,’ she said. ‘But is it any use?’
The Blow-Out Rebellion:
He barely seemed to know where he was. He was gone to some place beyond fear, maybe. He might even be in shock, which Grace had diagnosed for many of the crew, even days after the decompression disaster.
Holle asked, ‘You know why we put you in this cabin? I mean, this particular one?’
‘Because this was where Jenny Turco lived. Did you know her? Probably not. She was a Candidate, like me, like Wilson. Too old for you.’
‘What you want, Groundwater?’
‘But she’s dead now, because of the decompression. One of those who tried to hold her breath.’ Holle shook her head. ‘Funny. She was the only Candidate who died. And because of something that was drummed into us from when we joined the Academy, forty, forty-five years ago. After all that training, and on the Ark since, when the crisis finally came, instinct cut in, and she made the wrong choice, and died for it. She’s got a daughter, you know, born on the ship. And even a granddaughter, a second-generation shipborn -’
‘Not my fault.’
‘What did you say?’
‘It’s not my fault. I know what you’re thinking. I was with Wilson. It was those kids, those insane little bastards who blew us up.’
He was coming out of his shock. ‘Listen to me, Jeb. Things were already tough on this tub, and now they’re going to get even tougher. You worked for me before. You know what my responsibilities were, and still are.’ She saved a hand. ‘Everything inside the hull that keeps us alive - that’s my domain. But I took a battering. We lost a hull-load of air and water. We have reserves, we wouldn’t be alive if we didn’t. But the volumes, in the hull and in store, a down to the bare bones. It’s going to be hard. We’re looking at tough, endless work to keep the systems from failing. And even then I’ll have to impose some kind of rationing.’
‘Rationing?’ His eyes narrowed.
She smiled. ‘You see, you’re not stupid. Nobody likes rationing, do they? But it’s going to be essential. I can’t tolerate any defiance - any theft, any sabotage. That could kill us all. What I need -’
He saw it. ‘You’re offering me a job.’
She leaned closer. ‘It will be just like Homeland. Find some others, five or six. You report directly to me. You’ll secure the life support. Every aspect of it is to be under my control. Totally and exclusively. You understand?’
He grinned. But then a ghost of his fear came back, and he quailed back. ‘Do I get a choice?’
‘No. Not a meaningful one. Nobody else wants you, frankly. Wilson won’t be in a position to protect you. And there will be plenty out looking for revenge -’
‘It’s a deal,’ he said hastily. ‘When do I start?’
‘Now,’ she said immediately. ‘Find your team. Brief them. Be discreet. Set yourself up. I don’t have to tell you how to do that. You worked the systems before. You know what’s necessary. Try not to hurt anybody if you don’t have to.’
‘We had a good life under Wilson,’ he said, resentful, vengeful for one more instant. ‘You can’t blame a man for grabbing what he can.’
‘I wish I could say it will be a pleasure working with you, Jeb. It’s a necessity, that’s all. Screw up, go soft - or go corrupt, I’m not Wilson - and I’ll destroy you. Don’t doubt it for a second. You understand?’
And she pushed her way out of the poky cabin, into the bright light of the arc lamps. There she gave way to a shuddering that shook her to her bones.
‘You’ve got a thick blanket of air, plenty of carbon dioxide for greenhouse trapping, that transports the heat around the world. The atmosphere mix is heavy on carbon dioxide and is thicker, heavier surface pressure, but the oxygen content is actually closer to Earth’s than Earth II. Gravity is higher than Earth; we’ll have to live with that. This is a bigger world, an exoplanet of a kind we call a super-Earth. But that’s good, because the bigger the world, the longer plate tectonics last. And we can see that it’s active. We can see the volcano chains, the mountains; we can see volcanic gases in the air. We’ll have time on this planet, all the time we want.
‘Let me show you what else this system offers.’ She tapped her handheld and the image reduced, more planets swimming into view. ‘This is the system’s second planet. But it’s not unique. See this one, and this, further from the sun? More super-Earths, not as easy to colonise as Earth III, but they’re there for our descendants - new homelands just waiting in the sky for them, off in the future.
‘This is the Ark. After a voyage of forty years, here is your Ararat.
‘What happens next is up to you.’
It was something she ate, something from the sea that wasn't as familiar as it looked. It was a common way to die on the rafts. She was thirty-eight. She had survived on the rafts two years since the sinking of the Ark.
Her son Manco, orphaned aged twelve, was inconsolable.
There had been no peace between Kristie and her aunt. One way or another Lily's captivity had come between them most of Kristie's life, and now it pursued them to death.
That night, when Manco was sleeping, Lily took a look at Kristie's old handheld.
It had a calendar facility, but no satellite or radio link. And it had an extensive database that Kristie called her scrapbook. Lily remembered how she had started this thing, on her mother's dining table in Fulham, with an observation of an old man who couldn't get to the football because of floods in East Anglia. That snippet was still here.
She scanned through more items. Some were snippets from the net, or taken from the records of others, from handhelds or phones, including Lily's own. They were selected judiciously, and recorded verbatim, or written up with a hasty grace. Together they made up a kind of fragmented oral history of the flood. Maybe Kristie could have been a writer of some kind, maybe a journalist, in a more forgiving age.
One of the first entries was a kind of interview with Lily herself, which Lily vaguely remembered giving …
At Amanda's insistence Lily stayed the night at the old family home in Fulham, rather than slog back to her hotel.
After the flash floods in the spring, Amanda and her two kids effectively lived on the upper floor now. They had installed sofa beds and foldaway shelves so the bedrooms could double as living spaces, and one spare bedroom had been made over as a backup kitchen. Above that the loft had been made into a kind of refuge, with two-litre milk bottles full of fresh water, tins of food, blankets and spare clothes, torches, a wind-up radio. Amanda's papers, her passport and bank books, the kids' birth certificates and National Health cards were all stored up there in a fireproof iron box.
Lily was to sleep on the floor of Kristie's room. Officially Lily was supposed to have got the bed and Kristie the mattress on the floor. But the girl had looked so distressed at the thought of being turfed out of her bed, a pink nest festooned with teddy bears, that Lily relented. Anyhow she found she couldn't sleep on beds that were too soft; she'd had to ask for a thinner mattress at the Savoy.
It took a while for Kristie to settle. She was full on. She talked fast and hopped around the room and pulled one gadget after another out of her little pink backpack. She'd kept all her old mobiles because of the pictures and videos stored on them; Lily gazed at blurred images of nine- and ten- and eleven-year-olds mugging into the tiny lenses.
And Kristie let Lily try her Angel. The music sounded in her head, as if her skull had been hollowed out and a miniature stage set up inside. But the music, made by boys with guitars and drums just as it had been for sixty years, was surprisingly much to Lily's taste. Kristie showed no real curiosity about Lily and her experiences, and that was fine by Lily; it was the way things should be. And then Kristie crashed, all of a sudden. She kissed Lily on the cheek, rolled up under her duvet, and was gone, her breathing an even tide.
Lily, lying there on the floor, felt warm and oddly safe, probably because that was the way Kristie felt. But she could hear the rain hammering on the roof and gurgling in the drains, and even in this upstairs room the stink of damp plaster was strong.
She slept deeply.
Benj said, 'You missed the Olympics, Aunt Lily. You know, 2012.'
Amanda said, 'He went for the hundred-metres final. It was scrapped when all but one of the finalists failed his DNA test. Actually Benj is keener on the Free Olympics, aren't you?'
'They let you take drugs,' Kristie said brightly.
'And muck about with your DNA,' added Benj. 'It's well exciting. The hundred-metre record is under eight seconds now. You should see those guys go, especially the ones with augmented legs.' He made a rocket mime with his hand. 'Whoosh!'
'But isn't it dangerous?' Lily asked. 'All those unregulated drugs -'
But Benj just repeated, 'Whoosh!' He smiled at her.
Lily looked down on what was becoming of the south of the river, from Southwark through Waterloo to Lambeth. The river was seeping over the land, an oily black stain that spread visibly over Jubilee Gardens and around the Waterloo train station. From there it was flowing deeper inland along the Waterloo Road, channelled by raised railway embankments, gradually joining with flows along the other main routes that led inland from Central London's bridges, a traffic of water that came to a mighty confluence at the Elephant and Castle, a swirling inland sea that surged around the roundabouts and high-rise blocks of flats and the new glass towers.
Amanda sat with her arms around her children. Kristie had her face buried under her mother's blanket; she had said little since being reunited with Amanda. But she had her handheld in her lap, always recording. Benj, though he submitted to his mother's embrace, was staring at his own gadgets, his angel and his phone. Lily could see screens glowing, and Benj stabbed at keys with his thumb, but his scowl showed he was not getting the response he wanted.
Lily leaned to Amanda. 'You think he's OK?'
'Traumatised,' Amanda said. 'Phone amputation. You know, he handled things well when I was in a panic back at the Dome. I was quite proud of him, he coped better than I did.'
'He's demanding first use of the land line once we get home to Chiswick. Not as good as his mobile but -'
'He might be unlucky,' Lily said. 'I heard the pilots saying the big BT exchange at Waterloo has flooded out. That's half the lines in London gone.'
'Great.' Lily could see her anxiety deepen, new lines creasing her forehead.
Lily told Amanda about the state of Britain as a whole. Amanda, immersed in her local situation, lacked her sister's helicopter view. Kristie listened patiently, trying to understand.
'It's a mess, as you'd expect,' Lily said. 'The north-west coast pretty much drowned. In the east that inland sea that's pushing its way in through the Humber Valley has drowned much of Yorkshire, and is threatening to join up with a similar inundation spreading up through Lincolnshire from the Wash. London - well, you know about that. On the south coast we've lost Ramsgate, Eastbourne, Portsmouth, Bournemouth. Oh, and the poor soggy farmers are reeling from a foot and mouth outbreak. Contaminated water from a vaccine research laboratory was washed the wrong way down a flooded drain, and found its way into the environment …' She ran down. 'It's hard to take in, isn't it?'
'Well, one must do what one can, I suppose.'
But it wasn't all bad, Amanda thought. Britain still worked as a nation-state. In the north, the great industrial cities around the Pennines like Manchester, Sheffield, Bradford and Leeds still functioned, and were forming a new hub of manufacturing industry and power generation. The government itself had relocated to Leeds from a largely abandoned London. Traffic still flowed on the high roads, unifying the country, even some train lines were still operational, and there was always the river traffic on the new waterways that stretched to the heart of the country. The winters seemed to be mild now, and essential imports of oil and coal kept the lights burning. Though many land lines were down, mobiles worked thanks to constellations of satellites hastily thrown into orbit, and the main TV services were on a few hours a day. There was even a patchy internet coverage.
It wasn't a time when you could order a takeaway pizza or a book via the internet or even expect to find new clothes in the shops, and Amanda did miss all that. It was a time of survival, of massive and ongoing reconstruction on a national scale, as a shrunken, crowded country struggled to ground whole cities of refugees from the lowlands - and to prepare for the further flooding that most people thought likely. Of course there were tensions, flashpoints all over. Thousands had died in the floods, and even more tragically of hunger, a lack of clean water, disease. But the country was still as one, the government still functioned locally and nationally, you got visits from doctors and education advisors and agricultural experts and water engineers. There was much brave talk of how the British would get through an emergency even harsher than the Second World War ...
Lily knew something about the global picture.
'In what's left of the old UN they're coming up with a grand new plan. The average elevation of the continental land above the old sea-level datum was eight hundred metres - although only around a sixth of the global population lived above this altitude. Surely to God the water won't keep rising to a level like that, and even if it did, you're looking at decades before it gets so high to threaten such extreme altitudes. So that's what they're aiming for now, relocating and re-establishing as much as possible above that average line, while we still have the capacity to rebuild. There's feverish activity in western North America, in the Andes, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Afghanistan, the Himalayas. Geopolitics has a new form. But there are wars everywhere, like brushfire. Battles for the high ground.'
'Well, that's predictable,' Amanda said.
'And of course we still have wars of the old sort. Have you heard about Jerusalem?'
'The map is so strange,' Kristie said, looking at the real-time image. 'It doesn't look like America at all. I guess we'd get used to it, if we had time.'
And if the flood ever gave them a chance, Lily reflected. For the relentless rise continued, covering the steep slopes of the world's few remaining scraps of dry land, and forcing the huddled remnants of mankind to retreat further.
Certainly it was an unfamiliar image of land and sea that covered her cabin wall now, all that was left of the western US - indeed, all that was left of the US at all. When the map was stable she was able to recognise the long stripe of the Sierra Nevada, and the high country of Nevada and Idaho surrounding the steel grey of the Great Salt Lake Desert inland sea. Further to the east much of the high ground in the Rockies still survived, from Montana down through Wyoming and Colorado and down to New Mexico. But it was deeply incised by valleys flooded so deeply they had become more inland seas. Even the Grand Canyon was flooded now, and Lily had seen images returned by a low-flying drone aircraft processed and returned to her by Thandie Jones, of the complicated landscape above Lake Mead, the scraps of land that the Sanup Plateau that still protruded above the water that now concealed the Canyon's deep geological drama …
Once the Ark was gone and they were on the rafts, Kristie's access to global news had pretty much vanished, aside from scraps she heard over Nathan's clockwork radios. But her own world widened, oddly, as the raft communities crossing the world's oceans converged and dissipated, and bits of news were passed on among them.
Curious, Lily scanned through the last item Kristie had recorded. It was a report out of what was left of America, relayed by radio, that the horse was believed to be extinct.
Kristie had kept her little pink kid's backpack from London, and Lily went through it. Inside there were a few cheap plastic accessories, her ancient teddy. Lily offered Manco the teddy, but it was too babyish for him. He kept a string of amber-like beads, however. He wore them wrapped around his wrist.
In the morning Lily prepared Kristie's body as best she could. She stuffed the teddy back inside the backpack, and slung the pack around Kristie's neck.
Then she got help carrying the body to the edge of the raft. Aside from her pack, Kristie was sent naked into the sea. They couldn't spare the clothes. They didn't even have anything to weigh down her body. Her grave was the sharp teeth of the ocean.
So Lily and Manco were left alone together. They were from different worlds, like strangers. They fought and cried.
Indeed this was not her Mars. Most of this time-sliced world, for all its cities and canals, was cold, arid. She was not comfortable here. She built herself a shelter at the Martian north pole, a spire of ice. It was beautiful, pointlessly so, for there were none but her to see it.
When she saw the array of symbols burning in the ice of Earth, she was consoled. They gave her a shock of pleasure, a confirmation that though she was cut off from her own kind, mind was here in this new system with her, a mind on some level like her own.
But it was a cold comfort. She was the only one of her kind to have come through the crude time-slicing which had created this sampled copy of her home world. It struck her as an extraordinary misfortune. Or, at times, it seemed to her rather a great fortune, for she was the only one of her kind ever to have viewed this pocket universe, this other solar system with its array of blue worlds.
Her kind were not sexual as humans were, though she had been a mother; she was more 'she' than 'he'.
Before her stranding here she had never been alone, for her identity was less sharply defined than a human's. Yes, her body was a community of cells, but her form was unfixed, flowing between sessile and motile stages, sometimes dispersing, sometimes coalescing. She was more like a slime mould, perhaps, than a human. So she was never alone in that she was intimately connected to the tremendous networked communities of single-celled creatures which drenched her Mars. Nevertheless she was a pole of consciousness arising from those communities, and fully self-aware.
There had only ever been a few hundred thousand of her kind, spread across the seas and dust plains of Mars. Though they labelled the phenomena of the world around them, the Martians had never had names for themselves; there were only ever so few that names were unnecessary. She had been aware of every one of her companions, like voices dimly heard in the echoes of a vast cathedral. And she was very aware that they had all gone, all of them.
And the approaching Firstborn weapon, Mars's own Q-bomb, had gone too. That was the other thing she was aware of, from the moment of the discontinuity that had brought her here.
She had been working at the Martian pole, tending the trap of distorted spacetime within which she and her fellow workers had managed to capture the Firstborn Eye. In senses enhanced to 'see' the distortion of space, the coming weapon was very visible, at the zenith, driving straight down from the sky towards the Martian pole.
It had only been a few of Mars's days before the impact had been due. The consequences had been well modelled. It would mean the end of complex life on Mars, the end of all possibilities. Some had already escaped this dread fate, cutting themselves painfully out of the great planetary webs of life. Others scrambled to leave. She had volunteered to stay, to witness the end, and to continue the last project of trying to understand the Firstborn, the motives of those who were inflicting such a devastating blow on a living world.
And then came the time-slicing. The Eye remained in its cage. The Firstborn weapon was gone.
And she was alone. A toy of the Firstborn. Resentment seethed in her.
And of course every living thing on Earth was a cousin of her own, for life on Earth had evolved first on Mars.
In her time the very young Earth, so much more massive than Mars, was still a water-world, its deep lifeless oceans mud-brown with sediment, its thick air laced with steam, methane and carbon dioxide. Mars, smaller, lacking tectonic activity, and so much further from the sun, had more quickly cooled from the fires of its formation and dried. Very soon there was dry land, and Mars was a more welcoming crucible for life. In warm crater-lakes, and in the complicated environment of lake shores and tidal plains, life was created, stewed from organic material that was scattered over all the young worlds by the comets - or perhaps that first life blew in from some other, still older world; her people had never been able to determine the truth.
From the beginning the harsh caress of impacts blew Martian life into space and shed it over Earth and Venus, where it began independent evolutions. With time the great branches of solar life were still cross-linked by more meteorite transfers, but as the age of massive bombardment passed these transfers became more infrequent. The great sharing was in the beginning, when the worlds were young, and as much as half a tonne per year of material could be transferred from Mars to Earth.
But young Venus and Earth were hot, drowned. It was on Mars that evolution proceeded first, and fast. Soon the first photosynthetic organisms, ancestors of creatures like cyanobacteria, were pumping oxygen into the air, a poisonous cataclysm that caused the planet's first great mass extinction among its methane-breathers - and yet led to the possibility of still more advanced forms of life, fuelled by oxygen's potency. But the Martian environment was full of compounds that would bind the oxygen and so draw it down from the air: volcanic gases, the iron of the crust, and organic sediments, beds of tiny, rotting corpses. These reducing materials had to be used up before oxygen could accumulate in the atmosphere, and soon were. The crust rusted red, the volcanic gases dwindled, and the organic materials were buried in beds of sediments on the bottoms of the lakes and oceans.
On Earth it was different. There continuing tectonic activity churned up the organic sediments, and the endless volcanism spewed up more reducing compounds, that relentlessly removed oxygen from the air. It would take three billion years before sufficient oxygen accumulated for multicelled life forms to appear on the Earth.
On Mars, it took only a thirtieth part of that time.
The great experiments of life on the worlds of Sol ran in parallel, but with different outcomes. On Mars as on Earth there emerged three great domains of life, with equivalents of bacteria, archaea, and the viruses which were parasitical on the others. As on Earth the bacteria diversified into an array of remarkable biochemical machines, and the archaea colonised every environment available to them, even the roiling-hot interiors of the deep rocks. With free oxygen a great new experiment began, as the three domains fused to create a new order of life, called on Earth the eukarya, the grouping which would one day include fish and apes and humans.
When intelligence rose on Mars, there was enough similarity with the Earth of the age of mankind that some features of their civilisation were similar. The Martians manipulated their environment; they lit fires and built cities. But on a more fundamental level Martians were not like people. The Martians had a greater fluidity of form, a deeper interlinking to the underlying communities of single-celled organisms, and more permeable species barriers. When Martians bred, as much genetic information was transferred horizontally between individuals as vertically from 'parents'.
Martian individuals were harder to distinguish from each other and from their progenitors than humans, for they could share body parts. They were long-lived, slow-moving, contemplative. They were wise. For generations human astronomers would think of Mars as a world much older than Earth, inhabited by a race of philosophers. In a sense they were right.
And this fluidity of structure made for a faster evolutionary response to changes in environment. The last Martian understood that Mars would continue to cool rapidly; a mere half-billion years after her time the oceans would have frozen over, the water retreating underground to chill aquifers, or lost to space. The time-sliced Mars contained samples of what the planet had ultimately become, and the last Martian had inspected this relic with dismay: the atmosphere only a thin veneer of carbon dioxide, only traces of frost in the beds of the vanished oceans, and dust storms towering fifty kilometres tall over an arid landscape sterilised by the sun's ultraviolet. But, given the chance, perhaps her kind could have adapted even to these tremendous changes of conditions, learned to live on a Mars reduced to an arid desert.
But her kind were not given the chance. It pained her to study the rest of the Mars she had inherited. In places the cities of her kind still stood, abandoned, their lights burning. But her fellows were gone. And in places where more recent slabs of Mars had survived, when she dug into the arid, toxic dirt, she found only methanogens and other simple bacteria, thinly spread, an echo of the great rich communities which had once inhabited this world. And yet, she thought sadly, these scrapings were her own last descendants.
The last Martian understood. She pondered the signal from Earth, and considered whether she should act. Whether the Firstborn should be thwarted.
The approach of the Firstborn weapon to Mars had stimulated an explosive study of cosmology and cosmogony and spacetime physics, all of which were wrapped up in the Q-bomb. No way had been found to deflect or defuse the bomb. But a rapid mastery of the manipulation of spacetime had been achieved. When the Firstborn's hateful Eyes had appeared, more spacetime artefacts popping up all over Mars so the Firstborn could watch the destruction of a planet-wide culture, that new mastery had been used to trap an Eye. And before the Q-bomb could reach Mars, crystalline arks had lifted from the banks of the canals: ships that cruised on spacetime waves, built by a culture that had never used chemical rockets.
The Martians had not wanted to see their culture go to the fire for the sake of a neurosis born when the cosmos was young. So they fought back, and tried to escape.
Just as the creatures from Earth were trying to fight back now.
There was only one choice to make.
It took her seven Martian days to make the preparations. She believed that by imploding her spacetime cage she might destroy the trapped Eye, or at least cause it severe harm. And since all Eyes were connected to all other Eyes, it could be a way to assist the creatures of Earth in their struggle.
At any rate, it was the best she could do.
Unfortunately the implosion would damage her spire of ice. She began the construction of a new one, some distance away. The work pleased her.
The spire was no more than half-finished when the gravitational cage clutched at the Firstborn artefact, a fist enclosing an eyeball. Mars's gift to Earth.
One of those was to serve as a conduit of information.
When the Martian trap closed, the Eye there emitted a signal of distress. A shriek, transmitted to all its sister projections.
The Q-bomb heading for Earth was the only Firstborn artefact in the solar system, save for the Eye trapped in its Pit on Mars. And the Q-bomb sensed that shriek, a signal it could neither believe nor understand.
On The NIGHT
The WHOLE WORLD FROZE
U.S. Patent Pending
Emeline led them off the train and into the town. They were to stay the night here, before pressing on to Chicago itself. She said she hoped there would be room for them to stay at one of the town's two small hotels; if not they would have to knock on doors.
New Chicago was on the site of Memphis, but there was no trace of that city here, and nor was there more than an echo of old Chicago. With wooden buildings, brightly painted signs, horse rails and dirt-track streets, Bisesa was reminded of Hollywood images of the old Wild West rather than of a city of the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. And the main street, such as it was, was overshadowed by an immense statue set on a concrete base. A kind of junior Statue of Liberty, perhaps, it must have been a hundred feet tall, more, and its surface was gilded, though the gold was flecked and scarred.
'Big Mary,' said Emeline, with more than a trace of pride in her voice. 'Or, the Statue of the Republic. Centrepiece of the world's fair, that is the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, just a year before the Big Freeze. When we chose this site for New Chicago Mary was one of the first items we hauled down here, even though we barely had the capacity to do it.'
'It's magnificent,' Abdikadir said, sounding sincere. 'Even Alexander the Great would be impressed.'
'Well, it's a start,' Emeline said, obscurely pleased. 'You have to make a statement of intent, you know. We're here, and here we will stay.'
They were able to take rooms in the small Hotel Michigan, though Emeline and Bisesa would have to share. They left their bags, and Emeline bought them a roast beef sandwich each for lunch, and during the afternoon they went for a walk around the new city. It was nothing but street after dirt-track street of wooden buildings; only one of the bigger churches had been built in stone. But Bisesa saw this must already be a town of several thousand people - perhaps tens of thousands.
As the afternoon wore on they began to tire, but Emeline insisted on taking them to one of the new town's most cherished sites. It looked like just another hastily put together wooden building, but out front was a sign saying, EDISON'S MEMORIAL OF CHICAGO. A WONDER. TEN CENTS.
Bisesa glanced at Emeline. 'Edison?'
'He survived the Freeze - or rather, he happened to be in the city that night. He threw his labours and his ingenuity into helping the city survive. He's an old man now, and poorly, but still alive - or he was when I set out for Babylon.'
Abdi asked, 'And what is this place?'
Emeline smiled. 'You'll see.' She knocked on the door, and handed over thirty cents for the three of them to the bustling woman who answered. The woman led them into the house, which smelled of roast pork and polish, and then into a small back room which was lit only by a flickering lamp behind red glass. Three hard-backed chairs sat facing the wall. The room seemed otherwise empty.
Emeline hung up her coat on a hook on the wall. In the dark-room gloom, she said, 'We need to give our eyes time to adjust.'
Bisesa said, 'I arrived without money. I'll have to find some way of paying you back for all this.'
'Josh wouldn't have begrudged you,' Emeline said. Bisesa thought she could sense a smile. 'I, however, am running a tab.'
After perhaps ten minutes three small hatches opened at about chest height, in front of the chairs, to reveal peepholes. The idea was obvious. Abdi, Bisesa and Emeline sat before the peepholes, eyes pressed to the wall. At first all there was to see was white light. Then with a clattering noise something began to pass before Bisesa's eye, making a kind of flickering. And captions began to roll upwards past her eyes: CHICAGO, On The NIGHT The WHOLE WORLD FROZE, JULY 1894. A Production for the Edison-Dixon Kinetoscope, U.S. Patent Pending...
Then images of old Chicago appeared before Bisesa's eyes. It was like a very jerky cinema show, but there was a sense of motion.
Abdi was intrigued. 'Moving pictures! My father told me of this. How does it work?' And Emeline spoke of a spinning wheel with a narrow slit that allowed a momentary view of the frames passing before the shutter, forty or fifty per second, and Bisesa said something about the persistence of vision.
But then a piano began to play, off in the dark, a jangling sound all but out of tune wafting through the thin walls of the wooden house. They all fell silent, and watched the images.
The unnamed director of this primitive movie began with establishing images of the city before the night of the Freeze. Bisesa glimpsed a city that was already one of the greatest in America, somewhat frowned upon by the older cities of the east, but a pumping commercial heart. Traffic roared past her vision, silently, broughams and phaetons and other carriages, and crowded streetcars that a caption told her were called 'grip cars', for the way they clasped a moving cable that ran beneath the street, and trains roared through the streets, fully laden, apparently within touching distance of the jerkily-pictured pedestrians and cyclists. There were shots of towering skyscrapers, the first in all the world, and the glamorous stores on Michigan Avenue, and of the glimmering Lake Michigan, though Bisesa thought she saw sewage clouding the surface of this natural reservoir, and of the bustling Union Stock Yards at their height. All this took place under a sky that looked pregnant with soot and black smoke. But there were glimpses of poorer districts choked in trash and horse muck - and the corpses of horses, casualties of this horse-driven city, dumped in the street where they had died, in the winter frozen where they fell. The city was growing fast, as was attested by images of gas-lit streetlights hung out over the lines of streets yet to be built, on steaming undeveloped marsh land.
The very year before the Discontinuity the city had hosted the world's fair, the World's Columbian Exposition, mounted at colossal expense to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's voyage. The camera rode an elevated train along Sixty-third Street. Just before entering the fairground itself the camera swung to glimpse from its elevated position the vast arena of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Then the train passed over the fence and descended to its terminal to the rear of the 'Transportation Building'. The viewpoint walked a bit unsteadily through the Building past displays of locomotives, and what looked like a slice of ocean liner, and then out into the fairground itself, where a lagoon was skirted by a whole series of buildings that gleamed white, of classical influence with their pillars and facades but remarkably graceful in their composition and unity. THE WHITE CITY, said a juddering caption. Astonishingly for Bisesa, the delicate form of a Ferris Wheel towered over everything.
And then, a year after the fair, came the night of the Freeze. The moment of disjunction was celebrated with a clash of tinny chords on the piano.
The fairground itself was actually burning that night, after arson by the disaffected unemployed. The kinetoscope show told its story in captions and scattered, stark images, which must, Bisesa reflected, have taken both foresight and courage to capture.
The city was immediately plunged from the deep small hours to a cold dawn; that was the first shock, and Bisesa remembered her own experience of the Discontinuity when the sun had abruptly lurched across the sky of Pakistan. Snow had started to fall too, almost immediately, a tremendous shock as it was, or had been, a July night. The rioters in the White City were quickly subdued, the strikes they had called collapsed.
As morning came, grey and unwelcome early, there was panic in the office of the Mayor and the police departments. The cold was deepening quickly; the summer city was unprepared. Though the city itself seemed to be functioning, with some disruption thanks to the disjunction of the clocks, the trains and carriages that would have been expected to be flowing into the city by now had failed to arrive; Chicago, a great centre of trade in lumber and iron and livestock, was suddenly cut off from its arteries. And trains which tried to set out from the city found they ran out of track, a few miles from the city limits in very direction - it took a few crashes, and the first reported fatalities, to establish that fact. Parties of policemen and volunteers who set out on foot recorded nothing but winter beyond the city. Stevedores, panicking and excited, reported glimpsing icebergs on Lake Michigan. And businessmen in their offices in the upper storeys of the great skyscrapers, the Rookery and the Montauk, looked to the north to see a line of white, dead flat, bone bright beneath a lid of grey cloud.
The snow continued to fall. There were shots of the hospitals, Rush Medical College and Cook County Hospital, were the first victims of the cold were being brought in, the old and the very young, cases of frostbite and hypothermia: people freezing to death in July. The Mayor had been out of town and was nowhere to be seen; his deputy desperately tried to make long-distance phone calls to New York and Washington, but to no avail; if President Cleveland still lived, out there beyond the ice, he could offer no help or guidance to Chicago.
The 'Chicago Tribune' published a late edition, that first day. Its headline became a classic of humour and courage in the strangest of adversities: 'WORLD CUT OFF FROM CHICAGO'.
Things deteriorated quickly in the days that followed. People began to run out of fuel for their fires. An emergency shelter was set up in the city's famous four-thousand-seater Auditorium. The intake valves that drew the city's drinking after from Lake Michigan froze up. There were images of steam-powered dredgers, and workers in overcoats and bowler hats, their breath steaming around their faces, striving to keep the valves open.
And then people began to run out of food. The Mayor's office locked down the food stores and imposed a system of rationing, and called out the National Guard to help control the panicky food riots that broke out everywhere. By now there had been no produce carts or trains for days from Chicago's hinterland. The police and soldiers sent out to explore returned with the shattering, inexplicable news that the great belt of farmland around Chicago had gone - as simple as that, lost under a sheet of ice that looked old.
It was at this point that the deputy Mayor made his best decision. As the city threatened to crumble around him, and the death toll continued to mount up at the freezing homes and overcrowded hospitals and at the food riots, he recognised the limits of his capacity, and formulated an Emergency Committee. With himself as chair, it included a representative of the city's leading citizens. Here were the chief of police and commanders of the National Guard, and top businessmen and landowners, and the leaders of all of Chicago's powerful unions. Here was Jane Addams, 'Saint Jane', a noted social reformer who ran a women's refuge for Hull House. Here was Thomas Alva Edison, the great inventor, forty-seven years old, caught by chance in Chicago by the Freeze and pining for his lost laboratories in New Jersey, but his formidable mind already fizzing with unprecedented solutions for a city with unprecedented problems. And here was Colonel Edmund Rice, a veteran of Gettysburg who had run the 'Columbian Guard', a dedicated police force for the world's fair a year before. The deputy Mayor gladly gave up his seat as chair of the Committee to Rice.
With what seemed to Bisesa remarkable realism, and a good helping of compassion, this Committee began to act to stabilise the present, and plan for the future. Whatever had happened, an act of God or nature, was inexplicable, but it had happened, and that was an end to it. It was no good hoping all this snow and ice and cold and bergs would all just evaporate away; they had to act as if it would not - and as if the outside world, if it could be reached at all, would be no help to Chicago.
Under martial law, the Committee tidied up and locked in place the deputy Mayor's hasty imposition of rationing of food and fuel and medical supplies. They set up a curfew system and established new medical centres, where a brisk triage system was established to save as many of those who could be saved. And, with remarkable foresight, they ordered the halting of the slaughter of the animals in the Union Stock Yards. Like seedcorn, these creatures now had to be preserved to provide breeding stock for the following spring, if spring ever came.
It was a grim time, those first months. As supplies of gas and coal ran down, the city began to consume itself to keep warm, even as the deaths continued in swathes, from hunger and cold, and later from epidemics of cholera and typhoid in a city whose infrastructure had not been designed to withstand these conditions. Eventually the population would stabilise at about half its pre-Freeze levels, though ever since the Freeze, Emeline murmured, every year deaths had outnumbered births.
And meanwhile the explorers had gone out, probing every further over a country suddenly locked in ice, city men and women quickly learning how to survive in these super-Arctic conditions, lessons paid for with lives. In Chicago, as the months turned into years, it became clear that the ice was not receding but advancing.
They had eventually come to understand what Bisesa had learned from the Soyuz photographs taken from orbit: that Chicago was an island of human warmth in a frozen, lifeless continent, stranded in a bit of the nineteenth century surrounded by antique ice. And the cold was only deepening as Mir, stitched together from eras of great climatic diversity, was knitting itself together, and plunging deep into a new Ice Age. The Soyuz had long since fallen from the sky, but scouts from Europe had reported an ice sheet covering the North American continent extending far south of the position of New York, just as in Europe it had reached the latitudes of London and Berlin.
And the gap in the ice where Chicago sheltered by its lake was only temporary, an artefact of the Discontinuity. As far as the ice cap was concerned, Chicago was a wound that had to be healed over. It would not be long before the glaciers, truncated by the Discontinuity, would advance to erase Chicago down to its foundations.
But there was a way out. Clearly you had to travel south, ever south, to find a liveable warmth. But there was a route, of sorts, if you followed the valley of the Illinois down to the site of St Louis, and then went on further south following the Mississippi, eventually you came to the edge of the ice, and then, if you crossed a cold, dusty, windswept desert that appeared to girdle the ice cap, you came to a place where the grass grew, green and open. It wasn't a countryside anybody recognised, and the exporters brought back images taken with their Kodak cameras of mastodons and mammoths and sloths, images nobody could believe. But at least there was a chance of establishing farmland there.
The site of Memphis was chosen as the nucleus of a new settlement, and gradually a transport route was established across the unforgiving terrain between frozen Chicago and its new offspring. Lumber was cut for buildings, and the stock from the Union Yards were driven down in carts and on sleds and on river boats and rafts. A scheme was established to run a rail track up form the new township as far north as it could be sustained, and to convert locos from Chicago's yards to burn wood. It wasn't long before food at last began to filter back from the township of the south to the city in the north. That was the fifth year after the Freeze.
The final decision was hard to make, but inevitable. As the ice closed in, of course Chicago had to be abandoned; already great swathes of the town were empty, lightless and lifeless, looted and burned out. Chicago was dying; the people it sheltered must move to its new twin, New Chicago, south of the ice. The migration would take years, decades to complete, for the tiny nuclei of townships in the south would be overwhelmed if all quarter-million surviving Chicagoans marched on it at once. And besides a gradual evacuation would allow the systematic saving of as many of the city's treasures and resources as was possible. The Committee had no ambition to see those under their charge slip back to primitive conditions; New Chicago would one day rise as grandly as the old, and become the nucleus for a new, retaken America - that was the plan.
The first symbolic act in the epic migration was to haul Big Mary across ice and down river to her new home in New Chicago. The last, still some years hence, would be a procession of the city's final citizens out of the city and to the waiting trains, after which the carcass of old Chicago would be given at last to the ice.
The flickering show ended, and Bisesa sat back. Their hostess took away the screens of stained glass over the room's lamps, and Bisesa blinked in suddenly bright light.
Emeline watched her. 'So that's our story.'
'I'm impressed. More than that.'
'You can see why we're proud of ourselves,' Emeline said. 'Once other towns looked down on Chicago; everybody knows that. But now Chicago is all that's left of America. And we can build it all again. We call it the "Chicago Spirit". We built the White City in just three years'...
'Of course they can,' the phone whispered to Bisesa. 'This was an age of enterprise, of building, building, building. This generation didn't just put up the first skyscrapers in Chicago, they built the Brooklyn Bridge, and laid down Central Park... They laid the foundations of the America that dominated the twentieth century. They did it once. Even dumped alone in an icebound America, of course they can do it again.'
For once Emeline didn't complain about the phone's interjection.
But Bisesa, sadly, thought of what the phone had had to say about the lethal expansion of this cosmos: that Mir, a heroically built New Chicago and all, may only have centuries more of existence before succumbing to a doom even more lethal than the ice.
2. Please Don't Feed The Humans. THANKS!
3. Earth turned, silent. Mankind was gone.
4. Child, I'm not Jesus. I'm you.
5. The hills are alive. Really. Run!
6. Big Bang. No God. Fadeout. End.
Human space travel was suspended. Wherever the great GUTship interplanetary freighters landed they were being broken up. The Poole wormhole fast-transit routes were collapsed. Humans were put to work on Squeem projects.
Resistance had imploded quickly.
Anna Gage - shocked, alone, stranded between worlds - tried to figure out what to do.
She was seventy nine years old, thirty eight physical. She was a GUTship pilot; for ten years she'd carried bulk cargo from the inner worlds to the new colonies clustered around Port Sol in the Kuiper Belt.
Since she operated her ship on minimum overheads, her supplies were limited. She couldn't stay out here for long. But she couldn't return to an occupied Earth and let herself be grounded. She was psychologically incapable of that.
Still outside the orbit of Saturn, she dumped her freight and began a long deceleration.
She began probing the sky with message lasers. There had to be others out here, others like her, stranded above the occupied lands.
After a few days, with the Sun still little more than a spark ahead of her, she got a reply.
She opened up her GUTdrive and skimmed around the orbit of Saturn.
It had never been very interesting.
When Gage approached Chiron, she found a dozen GUTships drifting like spent matches around the limbs of the worldlet. The ships looked as if they were being dismantled, their components being hauled down into the interior of the worldlet.
A Virtual of a man's head rustled into existence in the middle of Gage's cabin. The disembodied head eyed Gage in her pilot's cocoon. The jostling pixels of his head enlarged, as if engorging with blood; Gage imagined data leaking down to the worldlet's surface.
'I'm Moro. You look clean.' He looked about forty physical, with a high forehead, jet black eyebrows, a weak chin.
'Thanks a lot.'
'You can approach. Message lasers only; no wideband transmission.'
'Of course '
'I'm a semisentient Virtual. There are copies of me all around your GUTship.'
'I'm no trouble,' she said tiredly.
'Make sure you aren't.'
With Moro's pixel eyes on her, she brought the GUTship through a looping curve to the surface of the ice moon, and shut down its drive for the last time.
The ice was a rich crimson laced with organic purple. The suit's insulation was good, but enough heat leaked to send nitrogen clouds hissing around her footsteps, and where she walked she burned craters in the ice. Gravity was only a few per cent of gee, and Gage, Mars-born, felt as if she might blow away.
Moro met her in person.
'You're taller than you look on TV,' she said.
He raised a gun at her. He kept it there while her ship was checked over.
Then he lowered the gun and took her gloved hand. He smiled through his faceplate. 'You're welcome here.' He escorted her into the interior of Chiron.
Corridors had been dug hastily into the ice and pressurised; the wall surface Chiron ice sealed and insulated by a clear plastic was smooth and hard under her hand.
Moro cracked open his helmet and smiled at her again. 'Find somewhere to sleep. Retrieve whatever you need from your ship. Tomorrow I'll find you a work unit; there's plenty to be done.'
'I'm not a colonist,' she growled. 'You think we'll be here that long?'
Moro looked sad. 'Don't you?'
She found a cabin, a crude cube dug into the ice. She moved her few personal belongings into the cabin Virtuals of her parents on Mars, book chips, a few clothes. Her things looked dowdy and old, out of place.
The drives of some of the ships were dismounted and fixed to the surface, to provide power. The colonists improvised plants for air processing and circulation, for heating and for AS treatments. Crude distilleries were set up, with tubing and vessels cannibalised from GUTdrive motors.
Gage dug tunnels, tended vegetables, lugged equipment from GUTships of a dozen incompatible designs into the ice.
It was hard work, but surprisingly satisfying. The ache in her muscles enabled her to forget the worlds beyond Chiron, places she was coming to suspect she would never see again.
This was her home now, her Universe.
A mile below the surface the colonists dug out a large, oval chamber. The light, from huge strips buried in the translucent walls, was mixed to feel like sunlight, and soon there was a smell of greenery, of oxygen. People established gardens in synthesised soil plastered around the walls, and built homes from the ancient ice. The homes were boxes fixed to the ends of ice pillars; homes sprouted from the walls like flower stalks.
Each dawn arrived with a brief flicker, a buzz as the strip-lights warmed up, then a flood of illumination. Gage would emerge from her cabin, nude; she could look down the length of her home-pillar at a field of cabbages, growing in ice as old as the Solar System.
It was like being inside a huge, gleaming egg. She missed Mars, the warm confines of her pilot cocoon.
The colonists monitored the news from the occupied worlds. There seemed to be no organised resistance; the Squeem's action had been too unexpected, too sudden and complete. As far as the colonists knew they were the only free humans, anywhere.
But they couldn't stay here forever.
They held a meeting, in an amphitheatre gouged out of the ice. The amphitheatre was a saucer shaped depression with tiered seats; straps were provided to hold the occupants in place. As she sat there Gage felt a little of the cold of the worldlet, of two hundred miles of ice, seep through the insulation into the flesh of her legs.
Some proposed that the colony should become the base for a resistance movement. But if the massed weaponry of the inner planets hadn't been able to put up more than a token fight against the Squeem, what could one ad hoc colony achieve? Others advocated doing nothing staying here, and waiting until the Squeem occupation collapsed of its own accord.
If it ever did, Gage thought morosely.
A woman called Maris Mackenzie released her belt and drifted up to the amphitheatre's focal point. She was another pilot, Gage saw; her uniform was faded but still recognisable.
Mackenzie had a different idea.
'Let's get out of this System and go to the stars,' she said.
There was a ripple of laughter.
'One day Saturn or Uranus is going to throw this ice dwarf out of the System anyway,' Maris Mackenzie said. 'Let's help it along its way. We use the GUTdrive modules to nudge it into a close encounter with one of the giants and slingshot out of the System. Then - when we already have escape velocity - we open up a bank of GUTdrives and push up to a quarter gee. We can use water ice as reaction mass. In three years we'll be close to lightspeed -'
'Yes, but where would we go?'
Mackenzie was tall, thin, bony; her scalp was bald, her skull large and delicate: quite beautiful, like an eggshell, Gage thought. 'That's easy,' Mackenzie said. 'Tau Ceti. We know there are iron core planets there, but - according to the Squeem data - no advanced societies.'
'But we don't know if the planets are habitable.'
Mackenzie spread her thin arms theatrically wide. 'We have more water, here in the bulk of Chiron, than in the Atlantic Ocean. We can make a world habitable.'
'The Squeem will detect us when we open up the drives. They can outrun us with hyperdrive.'
'Yes,' said Mackenzie patiently, 'but they won't spot us until after the slingshot. By then we'll already have escape velocity. To board us, the Squeem would have to match our velocity in normal space. We've no evidence they've anything more powerful than our GUTdrives, for normal space flight. So they couldn't outrun us; even if they bothered to pursue us they could never catch us.'
'How far is Tau Ceti? It will take years, despite time dilation -'
'We have years,' Mackenzie said softly.
The time went quickly for Gage. There was plenty of work to do. Sensors were ripped from the GUTships and erected in huge, irregular arrays over the ice ship's surface, so they could watch for pursuit. Inside the ice cave, the colonists had to take apart their fancy zero gee homes on stalks. One side of the chamber was designated the floor, and was flattened out; squat igloos were erected across the newly levelled surface. The vegetable farms were reestablished on the floor and on the lower slopes of the walls of the ice cave.
The colonists gathered on the surface to watch the Saturn flyby.
Gage primed her helmet nipple with whisky from one of the better stills. She found a place away from the rest, dug a shallow trench in the ice, and lay in it comfortably; vapour hissed softly around her, evoked by her leaked body heat.
Huge storms raged in the flat infinite cloudscape of Saturn. The feathery surfaces of the clouds looked close enough to touch. Rings arched over Chiron like gaudy artifacts, unreasonably sharp, cutting perceptibly across the sky as Gage watched. It was like a slow ballet, beautiful, peaceful.
Saturn's gravitational field grabbed at Chiron, held it, then hurled it on.
Chiron's path was deflected towards the Cetus constellation, out of the plane of the Solar System and roughly in the direction of the Andromeda Galaxy. The slingshot accelerated the worldlet to Solar escape velocity. The encounter left the vast, brooding bulk of Saturn sailing a little more slowly around the remote Sun.
Under a quarter gee, Gage sank to the new floor of the ice cave. She looked up at the domed ceiling and sighed; it was going to be a lot of years before she felt the exhilarating freedom of freefall again.
A week after that, riding a matchspark of GUTdrive light, the Squeem missile came flaring out of the plane of the System. It was riding a full gee.
Gage lay with Moro in the darkness of her igloo. She cradled him in the crook of her shoulder; his head felt light, delicate in the quarter strength gravity.
'So we got two weeks' head start,' she said.
'Well, we'd hoped for longer '
'A lot longer.'
' but they were bound to detect the GUTdrive,' Moro said. 'It could have been worse. The Squeem must have cannibalised a human ship, to launch so quickly. So the missile's drive has to be human rated, limited to a one gee thrust.'
The Squeem had evidently been forced to concur with Mackenzie's argument, that pursuit with a hyperdrive ship was impossible; only another GUTdrive ship could chase Chiron, crawling after the rogue dwarf through normal space.
The woman's voice issued its final warnings, and the countdown reached zero.
The ice world shuddered. Gage felt as if a huge hand were pressing down on her chest and legs; suddenly Moro's head was heavy, his hair prickly, and the ice floor was hard and lumpy under her bare back. The crown of her igloo groaned, and for a moment she wondered if it would collapse in on them.
The bank of GUTdrive pods had opened up, raising Chiron's acceleration to a full gee, to match the missile.
If Mackenzie's analysis was correct Chiron couldn't outrun the missile, and the missile couldn't overtake Chiron. It was a stalemate.
Gage stroked the muscles of Moro's chest. 'It's actually a neat solution by the Squeem,' she murmured. 'The pursuit will take years to play out, but the missile must catch us in the end.'
Moro pushed himself away from her, rolled onto his front, and cupped her chin in his hands. 'You're too pessimistic. We're going to the stars.'
'No. Just realistic. What happens when we get to Tau Ceti? We won't be able to decelerate, or the missile will catch us. Although we may survive for years, the Squeem have destroyed us.'
Moro wriggled on the floor, rubbing elbows which already looked sore from supporting his weight in the new thrust regime. He pulled at his lip, troubled.
It was only after the storage of her zygote that Gage questioned her own motives in conceiving. How long was she expecting to be here? What kind of future did she think any of them could hope for?
The Squeem had been smart, Gage decided; they'd given the missile the ability to redesign itself in flight.
The colonists held another meeting to decide what to do. This time they sat around on the bare floor of their darkened ice cave; their elegant zero gee amphitheatre was suspended, uselessly, high on one wall of the cave.
Some wanted to stand and fight. But they had nothing to fight with. And Chiron, with its cargo of humanity, must be much more fragile than the hardened missile.
A few wanted to give up. They were still only fifty light days from the Sun. Maybe they could surrender, and return to the occupied worlds.
But most couldn't stand the idea; it would be better to die. Anyway, a semisentient Squeem missile was unlikely to take prisoners.
They voted to run, at two gee.
They had to rebuild their colony again. Drone robots crawled over the battered surface of the ice world, hauling water ice to the GUTdrive engines. Shields billowed wings of electromagnetic flux around the ice dwarf; they would soon be running at close to lightspeed, and the thin stuff between the stars would hit Chiron like a wall.
The beautiful ice cave was abandoned. It wouldn't be able to withstand the stress of two gravities. More tunnels were dug through the ice; new homes, made hemispherical for maximum strength, were hollowed out. The colonists strung lights everywhere, but even so Gage found their new warren-world gloomy, claustrophobic. She felt her spirits sinking.
The drives were ramped up to two gee in a day.
Only the strongest could walk unaided. The rest needed sticks, or wheelchairs. Broken bones, failing knees and ankles, were commonplace. Those like Gage who'd grown up on low gravity worlds, or in freefall, suffered the most. The improvised AS units were forced to cope with a plague of failing hearts and sluggish circulations.
It was like growing old, in twenty four hours.
Gage and Moro attempted sex, but it was impossible. Neither could support the weight of the other's body. Even lying side by side, facing each other, was unbearable after a few minutes. They touched each other tenderly, then lay on their backs in Moro's cavern, holding hands.
'The missile is changing again,' Mackenzie said. 'It's still maintaining its two gee profile, but its drive is flaring spasmodically. We think it's redesigning its drive; it's going to move soon to higher accelerations still. Much higher.'
Gage lay on her pallet; she felt as if she could feel every wrinkle in the ice world under her aching back. 'You can't be surprised. It was just a question of time.'
'No.' Mackenzie smiled weakly. 'I guess I've screwed us up. We could have just stayed in our quiet orbit between Saturn and Uranus, not bothering anybody, flying around in that beautiful freefall ice cavern.'
'The Squeem would have found us eventually.'
'We're using up so much of our water. It breaks my heart. My beautiful ocean, thrown away into space, wasted. But we can go faster. We can still outrun the damn thing.'
Gage knew that was true.
Once GUT energy had fuelled the expansion of the Universe itself. In the heart of each GUTdrive Chiron ice was compressed to conditions resembling the initial singularity the Big Bang. The fundamental forces governing the structure of matter merged into a single, Grand Unified Theory superforce. When the matter was allowed to expand again, the phase energy of the decomposing superforce, released like heat from condensing steam, was used to expel Chiron matter in a rocket action.
But none of that made a difference.
Gage sighed. 'We've already abandoned half our tunnels because of tiny gradients we didn't even notice under one gee. We're slowly dying, under two gee, despite the AS units. We can't take any more. I guess this latest manoeuvre of the missile will be the end for us.'
'Not necessarily,' Mackenzie said. 'I have another idea.' Gage turned her head slowly; she had to treat her skull as delicately as a china vase. 'Your last one was a doozie. What now?'
Eighty chose to survive, as best they could.
When her turn came Gage made her way, alone, to the modified AS machine at the heart of their warren of tunnels. The robot surgeon delicately implanted a sensor pad into her corpus callosum, the bridge of nervous tissue between the two hemispheres of her brain. It also, discreetly, pressed injection pads against her upper arms.
All around her, in the improvised infirmary, people were dying, by choice.
So was Gage, if truth be told. All that would survive of her would be a copy, distinct from her.
The callosum sensor would download a copy of her consciousness in about eight hours. Gage returned to her cavern, lay on her back with a sigh, and fell asleep.
She wasn't hurting any more. She was in zero gee. It felt delicious, like swimming in candy floss. She was in the
ice cave no, a Virtual reconstruction of the cave; the walls and house stalks were just a little too smooth and regular. No doubt the realism of detail would return as their minds worked at this shared world.
Moro approached her; he'd resumed the crude disembodied head Virtual form Gage had first encountered. 'Hi,' he grinned.
'I just died.'
Moro shrugged. 'Tell me about it. We're all stored inside the shelter now.' This was a hardened radiation shelter they'd built hurriedly into the heart of the ice world; it contained a solid state datastore to support their new Virtual existence, what was left of their vegetation, their precious clutch of human zygotes embedded in ice. 'Our bodies have been pulped, the raw material stored in a tank inside the shelter.' 'You've a way with words.'
'... We're up to a thousand gee,' Moro said.
Gage's Virtual reflexes hadn't quite cut in, so she made her mouth drop open. 'A thousand?'
'That's what the missile is demanding of us. All our tunnels have collapsed.'
'I never liked them anyway.'
'And the drones are having to strengthen the structure of Chiron itself; the thing wasn't built for this, and could collapse under the stress.'
At a thousand gee, the time dilation factor they would pile up would be monstrous. Gage found herself contemplating that, her growing isolation from home in space and time, with no more than a mild detachment.
Gage rubbed Virtual hands over her arms. Her flesh felt rubbery, indistinct; it was like being mildly anaesthetized. Perhaps she was, in some Virtual way.
'Come on,' she said. 'Let's see what the food is like here.'
Gage sat under (a Virtual image of) the sky, watching starlight bend itself into a bow around the ship. It was a beautiful sight; it reminded her of Saturn's rings.
Their speed was already so close to that of light that time was passing a thousand times as quickly inside Chiron as beyond it. Everyone Gage knew in the Solar System must be long dead, despite AS treatment.
She wondered if the Squeem occupation still endured. Maybe not. Maybe humans had hyperdrive ships of their own by now.
This solitary drama might be the last, meaningless act of a historical tragedy, yet to play to its conclusion.
Most of the eighty had retreated to Virtual playgrounds, sinking into their own oceanic memories, oblivious of the Universe outside, isolated even from each other.
But Gage was still out here.
New problems were looming, she thought.
She sought out Maris Mackenzie.
'We're going bloody fast,' she said.
'I know.' Maris Mackenzie looked lively, interested. 'This is the way to travel between the stars, isn't it? Carrying live, fragile humans through normal space across interstellar distances was always a pipedream. Humans are bags of water, unreasonably fragile. A starship is nothing but plumbing. Humans crap inordinate amounts, endless mountains of '
'Yes,' said Gage patiently, 'but we still can't stop. Where are we going? Tau Ceti is long behind us. And we're heading out of the plane of the ecliptic, remember; we're soon going to pass out of the Galaxy altogether.'
'Um.' Mackenzie looked thoughtful. 'What do you suggest?'
Gage set up a simulation of her old freighter's pilot cocoon; for subjective days she revelled in the Virtual chamber, home again.
But she got impatient. Her control and speed of reaction were limited.
She dismissed the cocoon and found ways to interface directly with the sensors of Chiron, internal and external.
The GUTdrive felt like a fire in her belly; the sensor banks, fore and aft, were her eyes.
It was odd and at first she ached, over all her imaginary body; but gradually she grew accustomed to her new form. Sometimes it felt strange to return to a standard human configuration. She found herself staring at Moro or Mackenzie, still seeing arrays of stars, the single, implacable spark of pursuing GUT light superimposed on their faces.
Gage had been a good pilot. She was prepared to bet she was a better pilot than the Squeem missile. If she learned to pilot Chiron, maybe she could find a way to shake off the missile.
She searched ahead, through the thinning star fields at the edge of the Galaxy. She had to find something, some opportunity to trick the Squeem missile, before they left the main disc.
The hole was four miles across, with about the mass of the Sun. Its companion was a red giant, vast and cool, its outer layers so rarefied Gage could see stars beyond its bulk.
Gage had found her opportunity.
She summoned Maris Mackenzie. A pale Virtual of Mackenzie's disembodied head floated over an image of the hole and its companion.
The hole raised tides of light in the giant. Material snaked out of the giant in a huge, unlikely vortex which marched around the giant's equator. The vortex fuelled an accretion disc around the hole, a glowing plane of rubble that spanned more than Earth's orbit around its Sun.
Some of the giant's matter fell directly into the hole. The infall was providing the hole with angular momentum making it spin faster. Because of the infall the hole was rotating unusually fast, thirty times a second.
'Hear me out,' Gage said.
'Go on,' said Maris Mackenzie.
'If a black hole isn't spinning and it's uncharged then it has a spherical event horizon.'
'Right. That's the Schwarzschild solution to Einstein's equations. Spherically symmetric '
'But if you spin the hole, things get more complicated.' It was called the Kerr Newman solution. 'The event horizon retreats in, a little way. And outside the event horizon there is another region, called the ergosphere.'
The ergosphere cloaked the event horizon. It touched the spherical horizon at its poles, but bulged out at the equator, forming a flattened spheroid.
'The greater the spin, the wider the ergosphere,' Gage said. 'The hole ahead is four miles across. It's spinning so fast that the depth of the ergosphere at the equator is a hundred and forty yards.'
Mackenzie looked thoughtful. 'So?'
'We can't enter the event horizon. But we could enter the ergosphere, or clip it, and get away safely.'
'Um. Inside the ergosphere we would be constrained to rotate with the hole.'
'That's the plan. I want to flyby, clipping the ergosphere, and slingshot off the black hole.'
Mackenzie whistled. Pixels fluttered across her face, as she devoted processing power to checking out Gage's proposal.' It could be done,' she said eventually. 'But we would have a margin of error measured in yards. It would require damn fine piloting.'
'I'm a damn fine pilot. And we can take a lot of stress, remember.' It's not as if we have to protect anyone living.
'Why do you want to do this?'
'Because,' Gage said, 'the missile will follow me through the ergosphere. But after we've passed through, the hole will have been changed. The missile won't be able to work out how ...'
'We'll have to get consent to this from the others. The eighty -'
'Come on,' Gage said. 'Most of them have retreated into their own Virtual heads. There's hardly anybody out here, still thinking, save you and me.'
Slowly, Mackenzie smiled.
Chiron approached the light-speed limit asymptotically.
By the time the hole approached, Chiron's effective mass had reached about a tenth of the Sun's. For every second passing in its interior, a hundred years wore away outside.
Behind her the redshifted emptiness was broken only by the patient, glowering spark of the Squeem missile.
The black hole was only seconds away. She could make those seconds last a Virtual thousand years, if she wished.
In these last moments, she was assailed by doubt. Nobody had tried this manoeuvre before. Had she destroyed them all?
Gage let her enhanced awareness pan through the bulk of Chiron. Years of reaction mass plundering had reduced the ice dwarf to a splinter, but it would survive to reach the lip of the black hole and so would its precious cargo, the awareness of eighty downloaded humans, the canister containing their clutch of frozen zygotes. That canister felt like a child, inside her womb of ice.
She reduced her clock speed to human perception. The black hole flew at her face
The misty giant companion star ballooned over Gage's head, its thin gases battering at her face.
Chiron's lower belly dipped fifty yards into the ergosphere. The gravitational pull of the hole gripped her. It felt like pliers in her gut. She was hurled around; she was a helpless child in the grip of some too strong adult. The fabric of Chiron cracked; Solar System ice flaked into this black hole, here on the edge of the Galaxy, flaring x radiation as it was crushed.
Then the gravity grip released. The hole system was
behind her, receding. The pit dug in spacetime by the hole's mass felt like a distant, fading ache.
She watched the patient GUTspark of the Squeem missile as it approached the hole. It matched her path almost exactly, she saw with grudging admiration.
The missile grazed the lip of the hole. There was a flare of x radiation.
The GUTspark was gone.
It's worked. By Lethe, after all these years, it's worked.
Suddenly Gage felt utterly human. She wanted to cry, to sleep, to be held.
Her boots had left crisp marks in the duricrust.
Gage wasn't nostalgic, usually, but since the hole flyby she had felt the need to retreat into the scenes and motifs of her childhood.
Moro and Mackenzie met her on this simulated Martian surface.
'It was simple,' she said.
Moro growled. 'You've told us.'
'We took so much spin from the black hole that we almost stopped it rotating altogether. It became a Schwarzschild hole. Without spin, its event horizon expanded, filling up the equatorial belt where the ergosphere had been.'
Chiron had clipped the ergosphere safely. The missile,
following Chiron's trajectory exactly, had fallen straight into the expanded event horizon.
The long chase was over.
'I guess the missile wasn't an expert on relativistic dynamics after all,' Mackenzie said.
'But we're not so smart either,' Moro said sourly. 'After all we're still falling out of the Galaxy even faster than before the hole encounter, in fact. A million years pass for every month we spend in here; we might be the only humans left alive, anywhere.' He looked down at his arms, made the pixels swell absurdly. 'If you can call this life. And we don't have enough reaction mass left to slow down. Well, space pilot Gage, where are we heading now?'
Gage thought about it. They could probably never return to their home Galaxy. But there were places beyond the Galaxy, massive stars and black holes that a pilot could use to decelerate, if she was smart enough.
And if they could find a place to stop, they could rest. Maybe Gage's awareness could be loaded back into some flesh and blood simulacrum of a human form. Or maybe not; maybe the role of Gage and the rest would simply be to oversee the construction of a new world fit for her child, and the other frozen zygotes.
She smiled. 'At this speed, we'll be there in a couple of subjective months.'