And so some day
The mighty ramparts of the mighty
Ringed around with hostile force
Will yield and face decay and come
crumbling to ruin…
Drifting between worlds, the spacecraft was itself a miniature
planet, a bubble of ocean just yards across.
The water was sufficient to protect its occupants from cosmic and solar radiation. And the water sustained concentric shells of life: a mist of diatoms feeding off the raw sunlight, and within them, in the deeper blue water, a shell of krill and crustaceans and small fish schools, hunting and browsing.
And, at the center of it all, a single enhanced cephalopod.
Here was Sheena, swimming through space.
She glided at the heart of the
When the ship’s roll took her into shadow, she hunted and browsed.
She would rest on the sand patches that had been stuck to the metal, changing her mantle color so as to be almost invisible. When the fish or the krill came by, all unawares, she would dart out and snatch them, crushing them instantly in her hard beak, ignoring their tiny cries.
Such simple ambushes were sufficient to feed her, so confused did the fish and krill appear in this new world that lacked up and down and gravity. But sometimes she would hunt more ambitiously, luring and stalking and pursuing, as if she were still among the rich Caribbean reefs.
But all too soon the ship’s languid roll brought her into the light, and brief night gave way to false day.
Rippling her fins, she swam away from the machinery cluster, away from the heart of the ship, where she lived with her shoals offish. As she rose the water flowing through her mantle cooled, the rich oxygen thinning. She was swimming out through layers of life, and she sensed the subtle sounds of living things washing through the sphere: the smooth rush of the fish as they swam in their tight schools, the bubbling murmur of the krill on which they browsed, the hiss of the diatoms and algae that fed
And just as each successive sphere of water was larger than the one it contained, so Sheena knew there was a hierarchy of life. To sustain
And if there had been other squid, of course, those numbers would increase. But there was no other squid here but herself.
She could see, through misty, life-laden water, the ship’s hull, a membrane above her like an ocean surface. Except that it
This was self-evidently a complex world, a curved world, a world without the simple top and bottom of the ocean; and the light was correspondingly complex, its polarization planes random, or else spiraling down around her.
But Sheena hunted in three dimensions. She could come to terms with all this strangeness. She knew she must, in fact.
She reached the wall of the ship.
The membrane was a firm, if flexible, wall. If she pushed at it, it pushed back.
Human eyes could see that the wall was tinted gold. Dan had told her how beautiful this great golden egg had been in the skies of Earth, as it receded to the stars.
Grass algae grew on the wall, their long filaments dangling and wafting in the currents. Crabs and shellfish grazed on the grass algae. The benthic grazers helped feed her, and in the process kept the walls clean.
Every creature in this small ocean had a part to play. Here, for instance, she drifted past a floating bank of seaweed. The seaweed cleaned the water and used up drifting food that the algae and diatoms could not consume. And the seaweed was useful in itself. One of Sheena’s jobs was to gather the weed, when it grew too thick, and deliver it to a hopper in the machinery cluster. There it could be spun into fibers that Dan called sea silk. The sea silk would be used when she got to her destination, to make and repair the equipment she would use there.
Now the ship’s slow rotation carried Sheena into the light of a milky, blurred disc. It was the sun — dimmed by the membrane so it did not hurt her eyes — with, near it, a smaller crescent. That, she knew, was the Earth, all its great oceans reduced to a droplet. The craft scooted around the sun after Earth like a fish swimming after its school, seeking the rock that was the target for this mission.
Once, swimming under the arching membrane like this, she had been startled by a starburst of light, only a few moments’ swim from her. It had disappeared as soon as it had occurred, but it had seemed to her that there was a flaw in the membrane — a small patch that had lost its lustrous glow. She had been able to see from the muddled polarization how the composition of the water had been disturbed beneath the flaw.
Then she had seen something moving, outside the membrane. She cowered, flashing signals of false threat and concealment, thinking it was some deep-space predator.
It was no predator. It was just a box that squirted back and forth, emitting gentle little farts of glittering crystals. It was pulling a patch over the hole.
Dan told her it was a firefly robot, a smart little box with its own power supply and fuel and miniaturized machinery and cameras and machine intelligence. The ship carried a shoal of these small craft for external inspection and repairs like this.
But the little craft’s life was limited, intended for a single use only, and it could achieve only one thing, which was to fix the membrane — unlike Sheena, who could do many different things. When its job was done, its fuel expended, the craft neatly folded away its tool-bearing arms and used the last breath of its fuel to push itself away from the ship. Sheena had watched as the little craft, discarded, dwindled to a sunlit point.
She had learned that her ship leaked all the time anyway, from tiny flaws and miniature punctures. And every few days the throwaway robots would scuttle over the membrane, tracking the vapor clouds, fixing the worst of the leaks before sacrificing themselves.
She let the lazy, whale-like roll of the ship carry her away from the glare of the sun, and she peered into the darkness, where she could see the stars.
The stars were important. She had been trained to recognize many of them. When she had memorized their positions around the ship she would return to the machinery cluster and work the simple controls Dan had given her. By this means she could determine her position in space far more accurately than even Dan could have, from far-off Earth.
Then the rockets would flare, sending hails of exhaust particles shooting into space. They would push at the hide of the ship like a squid shoving at the belly of a whale. Waves, flaring with light, pulsed back and forth across the meniscus, illuminating the drifting clouds of algae, and Sheena could detect the subtle wash of gravity around her as the great mass of water was nudged back to its proper trajectory.
But to Sheena the stars were more than navigation beacons. Sheena’s eyes had a hundred times the number of receptors of human eyes, and she could see a hundred times as many stars.
To Sheena the universe was
But there was only Sheena here to see it.
She found it hard to rest.
Sheena was utterly alone. Though she knew that there were no predators here, that she was as safe as any squid had ever been, she could not rest: not without the complex protection of the shoal around her, its warnings and sentinels. And, of course, without the shoal she was cut off from the society of the squid, the mating and learning and endless dances of daylight.
Dan had provided a kind of dream shoal for her: squidlike shapes that swam and jetted around her, glimmering. But the polarization of the light from their false hides was subtly wrong, and the fake shoal was no comfort. She was surprised Dan had not understood.
As the mission progressed, as she grew progressively more weary, her loyalty to Dan crumbled, grain by grain.
And we return to our main story, the developing crisis around the illegal space launch by the Bootstrap corporation from their Mojave facility. It has become clear that the authorities, far from granting the approvals Bootstrap is seeking, were in fact moving to close down the operation completely. Joe…
Thanks, Madeleine. We do know that Cruithne was not the original target of Reid Malenfant’s interplanetary ambitions. Originally he was planning to head for Reinmuth, another asteroid that is much richer in metals than Cruithne. So, why Cruithne?
It’s now emerged, from sources inside Bootstrap itself, that in recent months Malenfant has become convinced that the world itself may be coming to an end — and that this global doom is somehow linked to asteroid Cruithne. What are we to make of this remarkable twist in this spectacular story?
We’ve been trying to determine if there is more to Malenfant’s fears about the future than mere paranoia. It is said there are respectable scientists who claim that it is a statistical fact that the world will end, taking all of us with it, in just a few centuries. Apparently this has been known in government circles since the 1980s. Again the administration declined to comment. Madeleine…
Joe, Reid Malenfant, fifty-one, is highly charismatic and popular. Since the announcement of his interplanetary venture he has become something of a cult figure. In fact last year’s best-selling Christmas toys were models of Bootstrap’s so-called Big Dumb Booster, along with action figures and animated holograms of the intelligent squid crew, and even of Reid Malenfant himself.
But, while undoubtedly an attractive figure, Malenfant has long been regarded by commentators as an unstable personality.
However Bootstrap spokespersons are saying this is all scurrilous rumor put out by enemies of Reid Malenfant, perhaps within his own corporation.
Yes, they threw me out of the Flying Mountain Society.
And screw Reid Malenfant. Malenfant is a wimp.
Yes, he got his bird off the ground. But to continue to launch with 1940s-style chemical rockets is at best a diversion, at worst a catastrophic error.
People, you can’t lift diddly into space by burning chemicals.
There has been a solution on the drawing boards since the 1960s: Project Orion.
You take a big plate, attach it by shock absorbers to a large capsule, and throw an atomic bomb underneath.
Your ship will move, believe me.
Then you throw another bomb, and another.
For an expenditure of a small part of the world’s nuclear stockpile you could place several million pounds in orbit.
I believe in the dream. I believe we should aim to lift a
Yes, this will cause some fallout. But not much, compared to what we already added to the background radiation. What’s the big deal?
Malenfant is right; we are facing a crisis over the survival of the species. Hard times make for hard choices. Omelettes and eggs, people.
Anyhow, those bombs aren’t going to go away. If America doesn’t use them, somebody else will.
My name is Art Morris and I am forty years old. I am a Marine,
or used to be until I got disabled out.
My most prized possession is a snapshot of my daughter, Leanne.
In the snap she’s at her last birthday party, just five years old, in a splash of Florida sunshine. The snap’s one of those fancy modern ones that can show you movement, and it cycles through a few seconds of Leanne blowing at her cake. And it has a soundtrack. If you listen under the clapping and whoops of the family and the other kids, you can just hear her wheeze as she took her big breath. What you can’t see off the edge of the picture is me, just behind Leanne’s shoulder, taking a blow myself to make sure those damn candles did what she wanted them to do, making sure that something in her world worked, just once.
It wasn’t long after that that we had to put her into the ground. I didn’t understand half of what the doctors told me was wrong with her, but I got the headline.
She was a yellow baby, a space baby, a rocket baby.
Maybe by now she would have been one of these smart kids the news is full of. But she never got the chance.
I rejoiced when they shut down the space program. But now those assholes in the desert have started firing off their damn rockets again, regardless.
I keep Leanne’s picture taped to the dash of my car, or in my pocket.
Look what you did, Reid Malenfant.
Madame Chairman, this is not some wacko stunt. It is a sound
Here’s the plan from here on in.
Cruithne is a ball of loosely aggregated dirt: probably eighty percent silicates, sixteen percent water, two percent carbon, two percent metals. This is an extraordinarily rich resource.
Our strategy is to aim for the simplest technologies, fast return, fast payback.
The first thing we’re going to make up on Cruithne is rocket fuel. The fuel will be a methane-oxygen bipropellant.
Then we’ll start bagging up permafrost water from the asteroid, along with a little unprocessed asteroid material. We’ll use the propellant to start firing water back to Earth orbit — specifically, a type of orbit called HEEO, a highly eccentric Earth orbit, which in terms of accessibility is a good compromise place to store extraterrestrial materials.
Thus we will build a pipeline from Cruithne to Earth orbit.
This will not be a complex operation. The methane rockets are based on tried and trusted Pratt and Whitney designs. The cargo carriers will be little more than plastic bags wrapped around big dirty ice cubes.
But in HEEO this water will become unimaginably precious. We can use it for life support and to make rocket fuel. We think
But we are also intending to trial more complex extraction technologies on this first flight. With suitable engineering, we can extract not just water but also carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sulfur, ammonia, phosphates — all the requirements of a life-support system. We will also be able to use the asteroid dirt to make glass, fiberglass, ceramics, concrete, dirt to grow things in.
We are already preparing a crewed follow-up mission to Cruithne that will leverage this technology to establish a colony, the first colony off the planet. This will be
And the colonists will pay their way by further processing the Cruithne dirt to extract its metals. The result will be around ninety percent iron, seven percent nickel, one percent cobalt, and traces. The trace, however, includes platinum, which may be the first resource returned to the surface of the Earth; nickel and cobalt will probably follow.
Incidentally, I’m often asked why I’m going to the asteroids first, rather than to the Moon. The Moon seems easier to get to, and is much bigger than any asteroid besides. Well, the slag that is left over after we extract the water and volatiles and metals from asteroid ore — the stuff we’d throw away — that
Later we’ll start the construction of a solar power plant in Earth orbit. The high-technology components of the plant — such as guidance, control, communications, power conversion, and microwave transmission systems — will be assembled on Earth. The massive low-tech components — wires, cables, girders, bolts, fixtures, station-keeping propellants, and solar cells — will all be manufactured in space from asteroid materials. This plan reduces the mass that will have to be lifted into Earth orbit severalfold. This plant will produce energy — safe, clean, pollution free — that we can sell back to Earth.
And that’s the plan. In the next few years Cruithne volatiles will support the space station, more Earth-orbital habitats, and missions to the Moon and Mars, as well as the first self-sufficient off-Earth colony.
That little lot ought to see
But what about beyond that?
Beyond that, the Galaxy awaits, and all the universe. Virgin territory. All we need is a toehold. And that’s what Bootstrap will give us. America has discovered a new frontier, and we will become great again.
Frankly, Madame Chairman, I think I’ve spent enough time in front of Congressional committees like this and other boards of inquiry. All I need is for you to let me carry on and do my job. And I don’t see I have a damn thing to apologize for.
Swimming through space, despite her consuming weariness,
Sheena 5 had work to do.
She explored the complex knot of equipment that was the center of her world. It was like swimming around a sunken boat.
The machinery was covered with switches and levers, labeled with black-and-white stripes and circles so she could recognize them. And there were dials designed for her eyes — dials coated with stripes like the hide of a squid, dials that could send out pulses of twisting polarized light. The dials told her what was happening inside the equipment, and if anything was wrong she was trained to turn the levers and switches to make it right.
Sometimes she had to chase away curious fish as she did so.
If anything more serious was wrong she could ask Dan for help, and he always knew the answer, or could find it out. She would fit the plastic cup to her eye, and speckled laser light would paint images on her retina, distorted diagrams and simple signs that showed her what to do.
The machinery contained whirring motors that drove pumps and filters: devices that, coupled with the flow of heat from the sun, drove steady currents. The currents ensured that the waters mixed, that no part became too hot or cold, too rich with life or too stagnant. Otherwise the diatoms and algae would cluster under the bubble’s skin, where the sunlight was strongest, and would grow explosively until they had exhausted all the nutrients available and formed a dank cloud so thick the water would die.
And the filters removed waste from the water, irreducible scraps that no creature in this small world could digest. But something had to be done with those wastes, or gradually they would lock up all the nutrients in the water. So the machine contained a place that could burn the wastes, breaking them down into their component parts. The products, gas and steam and salts, could then be fed back to the plants and algae.
Thus, in Sheena’s spacecraft, matter and energy flowed in great loops, sustained by sunlight, regulated by its central machinery as if by a beating heart.
Dan told her that she was already a success: in her management of the equipment, she had shown herself to be much smarter and more adaptable than any human-made machine they could have sent in her place.
She knew that in their hearts the humans would prefer to send machines, mindless rattling things, rather than herself. That was because they knew they could control machines, down to the last clank and whirr. But they could never control
Perhaps they were jealous.
How strange, she thought, that her kind should be so well adapted to this greater, infinite ocean, so much better than humans. As if this was somehow meant to be. It seemed to Sheena that it must be terribly
At first she had found it strangely easy to accept that she would die without seeing Earth’s oceans again, without rejoining the shoals. She suspected this was no accident, that Dan had somehow
Which was, of course, not true.
But as her restlessness and tiredness gathered, as her isolation increased, the importance of Dan and his mission receded, and her sense of loss grew inexorably.
And, of course, there was a final complicating factor nestling in her mantle cavity.
She would have to release her eggs eventually. But not yet. Not here. There were many problems that day would bring, and she wasn’t ready for them.
So, swimming in starlight, Sheena cradled her unhatched young, impatiently jetting clouds of ink in the rough shape of the male she had known: the male with the bright, mindless eyes.
It was some weeks after the woman had come to the village that
Stef called him.
“I have to go away,” Stef said. “So do you.”
Michael didn’t understand. Stef, with his machines and his food and his girls, was the most powerful person in the village, far more powerful than the headman or the herbalist. Who could make
And besides, Michael had never been more than a few hundred yards outside the village, never slept anywhere but in a village hut. He wasn’t sure what “going away” might actually mean, what he would be made to do.
It seemed unreal. Perhaps it was all some game of Stef’s.
“I don’t want to go,” Michael said. But Stef ignored him.
He slept, trying not to think about it.
But the very next day they came for him.
* * *
A car pulled up outside the village. Big smiling women got out. Cars came to the village every day, stayed a few hours, left again. But this day, for the first time in his life, Michael would have to get into the car, and leave with it.
He took his clothes, and the flashlight Stef had given him. Stef had given him new batteries too, long-life batteries that would not run down so quickly. Michael didn’t want to go, but the big women, their smiles hard, made it clear there was no choice.
“I’m sorry,” Stef said to Michael. “We never finished our lessons. But you’ll be okay. You’ll keep learning.”
Michael knew that was true. He knew he couldn’t stop learning. Even when he was alone, even in the dark, he would just keep working, learning, figuring out.
Even so he was frightened.
“Take me with you,” he said.
But Stef said no. “They won’t even let me take Mindi,” he said. Mindi had been his favorite girl. Now, pregnant, she had gone back to her mother, because no man would have her. “They’ll look after you,” Stef said to Michael. “You’re a
That was the first time Michael had heard that word, the English word, used like that. He didn’t know what it meant.
He wondered if he would ever see Stef again.
He was taken through a series of bright buildings, a barrage of voices and signs, nothing of which he could understand. Even the smells were strange.
At one point he was in an airplane, looking down over parched land and blue sea.
Afterward he thought he must have slept a great deal, for his memories of the journey were jumbled and fragmented, and he could put them in no logical order.
So he came to the School.
Thanks to the unauthorized launch, the spectacular sight of the golden spacecraft leaving Earth orbit, Malenfant had become a popular hero. This was his Elvis year for sure, the media advisers were telling them, and they were working hard on making
him even more mediagenic.
But he had made an awful lot of very powerful enemies. Opposition to Malenfant had erupted, as if orchestrated, right across the financial and political spectrum. Right now, it seemed to Emma, they were farther away than ever from being certificated to fly again, and farther still from being licensed to keep any money they made out of Cruithne, assuming
Emma called a council of war in the Bootstrap offices in Las Vegas: herself, Malenfant, Maura Della. She didn’t invite him, but Cornelius Taine came anyhow.
Malenfant stalked around the office. “I can’t believe this shit.” He glared at Emma. “I thought we figured out our prebuttals.”
“If you’re blaming me I’m out of here,” she said. “Remember, you never even warned me you were going to fire off your damn rocket.”
Maura said evenly, “I know what you tried to do, Malenfant. You thought that by simply launching, by proving that your system worked safely, you could cut through the bureaucratic mess, as well as prove your technical point.”
“Damn right. Just as I will prove my economic point when we start bringing the goodies home.”
Maura shook her head. “You’re so naive. You showed your hand. All you did was give your opponents something to shoot at.”
Cornelius Taine steepled his elegant fingers. “But they can stop you from launching again, Malenfant.”
“And they can throw you in jail,” Emma said softly. “We mustn’t argue among ourselves. Let’s go over it point by point.” She tapped the tabletop; it turned transparent, and an embedded softscreen brought up a bullet chart. “First, the NASA angle.”
Malenfant laughed bitterly. “Fucking NASA. I couldn’t believe the immediate one-eighty they pulled about the feasibility of my BDB design,
“Why are you surprised?” Cornelius Taine asked. “They hoped you would fail technically. Now that that is not possible, they intend to ensure you fail politically.”
“Yeah, that or take me over.”
It seemed to be true. With indecent haste — leading Emma to suspect they had been working on precisely this move in advance, and waiting for the moment to strike — NASA had come up with counterproposals for BDB designs, issuing formal Requests for Proposals to prospective industry partners. NASA claimed they could start flying BDBs of their own in five or ten years’ time — after ensuring that all the relevant technologies were “understood and in hand.”
Not only that, they were absorbing Malenfant’s long-term goals as well, with proposals for an international program to reach and exploit the asteroids.
“I’m not sure how we can win this one,” Maura said. “After all, NASA is supposed to be
“But,” Cornelius said heavily, “this process of assimilation is precisely how NASA has killed off every new space technology initiative since the shuttle.”
“Yeah,” Malenfant growled. “By turning it into another aerospace industry cartel feeding frenzy.”
Maura held her hands up. “My point is NASA may well win. If they do, we need a way to live with that.”
“Next,” Emma said warily. “Congressional funding.”
“We’re not reliant on federal funds,” Malenfant snapped.
“That’s true,” Maura said dryly. “But you’ve been happy to accept whatever general-purpose funding you could lay your hands on. And that’s turning into a weakness. We’re being caught between authorization and appropriation. You need to understand this, Malenfant. These are two phases. Authorization is a wish list. Appropriation is the allocation of funds to the wish list. Not every authorized item gets funded.” She paused. “Let me put it simply. It isn’t wise to spend authorized money as if it were appropriated already. That’s what you did. It was a trap.”
“It was peanuts,” Malenfant growled. “And anyhow I don’t know why the hell you Congress critters can’t just make a simple decision.”
Maura sighed. “Federal government is a complex thing. If you don’t use the processes right—”
“And,” Emma said, “next year looks even worse. The bad guys all sources of federal funding we budgeted for and have put in place recision and reprogramming processes to—”
“Then we rebudget,” Malenfant said. “We cut, trim, rescope, find new funds.”
“But the investors are being frightened off,” Emma said. “That’s the next point. It started even before the launch, Malenfant. You knew that. Now they’re hemorrhaging. The problems we’ve had with the regulatory agencies have scared away even more of them.”
“But,” Cornelius Taine said evenly, “we must continue.”
Oh, Christ, Emma thought.
Cornelius looked from one to the other, his face blank. “Don’t any of you understand this? Who do you
Emma said sharply, “I’ll tell you the truth, Cornelius. From where I’m sitting you’re part of the problem, not the solution. No wonder the investors took flight. If any of your kook stuff has leaked out—”
Cornelius said, “The Carter catastrophe is coming no matter what you think of me.”
Maura frowned. “The
Emma took a breath. “Malenfant, listen to me. Everything we’ve built up so far will be destroyed. Unless we start to take action.”
“Action? Like what? A sellout to NASA?”
“Maybe. And you have to cut your links with this character.”
Cornelius Taine smiled coldly.
Malenfant’s hands, clasped behind his back, showed white knuckles.
The meeting broke up without agreement on a way forward. And on the way out, Maura whispered to Emma, “Carter? Who the hell is Carter?”
Emma didn’t get to her apartment until midnight that night. When she walked in the door she told the TV to turn itself on. And there, on every news channel, was Cornelius Taine.
Yes. We believe so.
You’re asking me about causal paradoxes. The downstreamers are saving their grandmothers, us, from drowning. But if she
There’s a lot we don’t understand about time. What happens if you try to change the past is at the top of the list. Let me try to explain. It is a question of transactions, back and forth in time.
The Feynman radio works on the notion of photons — electromagnetic wave packets — traveling back in time. Fine.
But photons aren’t the only waves.
Waves lie at the basis of our best description of reality. I mean, of course, the waves of quantum mechanics. These waves represent flows of — what? Energy? Information? Certainly they crisscross space, spreading out from every quantum event like ripples.
We have good equations to tell us how they propagate. And if we know the structure of the waves we can tell a great deal about the macroscopic reality they represent. A clumping of the waves
But, like electromagnetic waves, quantum wave packets emitted from some event travel both forward and backward in time. And these backward waves are vital to the structure of the universe.
Suppose you have an object of some kind that changes the state of another: a source and a detector, maybe of photons. The source changes state and sends quantum waves off into future and past. The future-traveling wave reaches the detector. In turn this emits waves traveling into both future and past, like echoes.
Here’s the catch. The quantum echoes cancel out the source waves, both future and past,
It’s called a transaction, as if source and detector are handshaking. “Hi, I’m here.” “Yes, I can confirm you are.”
So it seems. But you don’t have to worry about them.
No. There are no back-in-time paradoxes, you see, because the backward waves only work to set up the transaction; you can’t detect them otherwise.
And that’s how our reality works. As the effects of some change propagate through space and time, the universe knits itself into a new form, transaction by transaction, handshake by handshake.
Oh, you can forget all
No. Perhaps you haven’t heard me. It just doesn’t work like that.
There is only one universe at a time. New universes may bud off from others, but they are not “parallel” in the way you say. They are separate and entire, with their own self-consistent causalities.
Each quantum event emerges into reality as the result of a feedback loop between past and future. Handshakes across time. The story of the universe is like a tapestry, stitched together by uncountable trillions of such tiny handshakes. If you create an artificial timelike loop to some point in spacetime within the
negative light cone of the present—
If you were to go back in time and try to change the past, you would nullify all those transactions, the handshakes between future and past. You would damage the universe, erasing a whole series of events within the time loop.
So the universe starts over, from the first point where the forbidden loop would have begun to exist. The universe, wounded, heals itself with a new set of handshakes, working forward in time, until it is complete and self-consistent once more.
We don’t know. How could we? We’ve never tried this before. But we think it’s possible a conscious mind
Because consciousness, like life itself, is structure. And structure persists as the cosmic tapestry changes.
Think about a DNA molecule. Some of the genes are important for the body’s structure; some are just junk. If you could perturb reality, consider possible alternate destinies for that molecule, you could see a lot of variation in the junk without affecting the operation of the molecule in any significant way. But if there’s a change in the
Then maybe we’ll be able to perceive a change, an adjustment of the past. Of course this is speculative.
Free will is a second-order effect. Even life is a second-order effect. Light dancing from the rippled surface of time’s river. It is not the cause even of the ripples, let alone the great majestic flow itself.
You know, our time is just a bubble far upstream that must seem utterly insignificant compared to the great enterprises of the future. But it isn’t insignificant, because it’s
The media types had it all: the Carter prediction, the message from the future, the real reason for the redirection of the
Emma was convinced it was Cornelius himself who had leaked the Carter stuff. It increased the pressure on Bootstrap hugely, but that only seemed to reinforce Malenfant’s determination to fight his way through this: to maintain his links with Cornelius, continue on to Cruithne, and launch
Which, of course, was exactly what Cornelius wanted. She had been outflanked.
She spent a sleepless night trying to figure out what to do next.
At first the School seemed a good place to Michael. Better than
the village, in fact.
The clothes were clean and fresh. The food was new and sometimes tasted strange, but there was always-a lot of it. In fact there were refrigerators that lit up and had food and drink inside, food the children could help themselves to whenever they wanted. Michael found he missed baobab fruit, though.
There were lots of children here, from very small to young teenagers. They lived in dormitories, which were bright and clean.
At first the children had been wary of each other. They had no common language, and children who could speak to each other tended to gather in groups. There was nobody who spoke
Michael’s language, however. But he was used to being alone.
This was a place called Australia. It was a big empty land. He saw maps and globes, but he had no real understanding of how far he had come from the village.
Except that it was a long way.
There were lessons. The teachers were men and women called Brothers and Sisters.
Sometimes the children would be gathered in a room, ten or fifteen of them, while a teacher would stand before them and talk to them or have them do work, with paper and pen or softscreen.
Michael, like some of the other children, had a special softscreen that could speak to him in his own tongue. It was comforting to hear the little mechanical voice whisper to him, like a remote echo from home.
The best times of all were when he was allowed to go explore, as if the softscreen were a window to another world, a world of pictures and ideas.
He had no interest in languages or music or history. But mathematics held his attention from the start.
He drank in the symbols, tapping them onto his softscreen or scratching them on paper, even drawing in the dust as he had at home. Most of the symbols and their formalism were better than the ones he had made up for himself, and he discarded his own without sentiment; but sometimes he found his own inventions were superior, and so he kept them.
He loved the strict rigor of a mathematical proof — a string of equations, statements of truth, which nevertheless, if manipulated correctly, led to a deeper, richer truth. He felt as if his own view of the world were crystallizing, freezing out like the frost patterns he watched inside the refrigerators, and his thinking accelerated.
Soon, in math class, he was growing impatient to be forced to work at the same pace as the other children.
Once, he grew restive.
That was the first time he was punished, by a Sister who yelled at him and shook him.
He knew that that was a warning: that this place was not as friendly as it seemed, that there were rules to learn, and that the sooner he learned them the less harm would come to him.
So he learned.
He learned to sit quietly if he was ahead of the rest. He could do his work almost as effectively that way anyhow.
Michael seemed to be the one who enjoyed mathematics the most. But most of the children had one or two subjects in which they excelled. And then it was Michael’s turn to sit and struggle, and the others’ turn to race ahead, risking the wrath of the teachers.
Any children who showed no such talent were soon taken out of the School. Michael didn’t know what happened to them.
It was a paradox. If you weren’t smart enough you were taken out of the School. If you were too smart you were punished for impatience. Michael tried to learn this rule too, to show just enough ability but not too much.
It didn’t matter anyhow. Most of his real work he did in his head, in the dark, and he never told anybody about it.
There were many visitors: adults, tall and dressed smartly, who walked around the classes and the dormitories. Sometimes they brought people with cameras who smiled as if the children were doing something of great importance. Once a woman even took away Michael’s softscreen, looking at the work he had recorded there with exclamations of surprise. He was given another softscreen, but of course it was empty, containing none of the work he had completed. But that didn’t matter. Most of it was in his head anyhow.
There was a girl here called Anna, a little older and taller than the rest, who seemed to learn the rules more quickly than the others. She had big gray eyes, Michael noticed: gray and watchful. She would speak to the others — including Michael, through his softscreen — trying to help them understand what was wanted of them.
It meant she was in line for punishment more often than most of the others, but she did it anyway.
Many of the children drew blue circles on their books or their softscreens or their skin or the walls of the dormitories. As did Michael, as he had for a long time. He didn’t know what that meant.
Those days — in retrospect, strange, bright days — didn’t last long.
* * *
Michael couldn’t know it, but it was the publicizing of the
Carter prophecies — the end-of-the-world news — that forced
the change in the Schools, including his own.
Because suddenly people grew afraid: of the future, of their
Frankly our biggest problem, since this damn end-of-the-world Carter bullshit broke, has been absenteeism. We’re up over 100 percent nationally. Not only that but productivity is right down, and our quality metric program shows a massive decline in all functions — except Accounting, for some reason. We’ve also had a number of incidents of violence, immoral behavior, and so forth in the workplace, some but not all related to alcohol and/or drugs.
It’s as if they all
I know our competitors are suffering, too. But we can’t go on like this, ladies and gentlemen; our costs are skyrocketing, our profits hemorrhaging.
I’m pleased to see the federal government is finally taking some positive action. Gray-suited spokesmen denouncing Carter and Eschatology as moonshine were all very well. What they are doing now — pumping out free twenty-four-hour sports, comedy, softsoaps, and synth-rock on TV — is a somewhat more practical
We’ve already installed giant video walls in our workplaces in Tulsa and Palm Beach. Productivity took a hit, of course, but happily nowhere near as bad as in other sites without the wall-to-wall pap. We’ve also provided free e-therapy up to four hours a week per permanent employee. For now I agree with the government analysis that an anesthetized workforce is preferable to a workforce plunged into existential gloom.
But this is just a palliative. We have to find a long-term way to handle this. The end of the world may or may not be inevitable.
Our stockholder meeting is inevitable, however. I’m open to further suggestions.
›Mail this on to ten people you know, and tell them to send it to ten people they known and so on. We have to inoculate the species against the contagion of madness that is plaguing humankindi or this damn Carter hypothesis is going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. HOW TO DEBUNK CARTER
› 1) First of
› 2) Don’t insult your opponent. Start with the premise that people aren’t stupid, whether they know science and math or not. If you insult them you’ll be seen as arroganti and you’ll lose the argument.
› 3) The best attack on Carter is the notion that the cosmos is radically indeterministic. You can argue from quantum physics to justify thisi if you can keep your audience with youi or from’ free will if not. There is no way, even in principle, to say how many humans might exist in the future. So the Carter analogy between humankind and balls in an urn breaks down.
› 4) If your audience is sophisticated enoughn remind them that the whole argument is based on Bayesian statistics, which is a technique to refine probabilities of an event
› 5) Reduce the argument to the trivial. It’s trivially obvious that people discussing Carter’s argument find themselves alive today, not hundreds of years in the future. But nothing nontrivial follows from a triviality. Since no humans of the future are yet alive, it isn’t in the least surprising that we aren’t among them
› 6) You could try a reductio ad absurdum. On any scale an exponential curve looks the same. You always seem to be at the beginning, minuscule compared to what is to come. So the catastrophe will always be just over the horizon. (Of course this argument falls down unless the exponential curve of the human population really does extend to infinity. Any finitude and something like Carter comes into play- But you don’t have to mention that unless challenged.)
› 7) Appeal to common sense. Look back in time. A human of, say, A.D. 1000 would likewise have been sitting on top of an exponential curve reaching back to the Paleolithic. Would she have been correct to deduce she was in the last generations? Of course
And it took our modern-day sophistication to come up with the Carter argument in the first place. So we have formulated the Carter prophecy at precisely the moment it is most applicable to us. But then you can argue that they are appealing beyond the statistics.)
‹continuing list snipped›
› Rememberi though!
› The objective here isn’t to disprove Carter — that may be impossible. You can hole the argument but you can’t sink it, and anyhow the one true invalidation will be our continued survival in 201 years — but we must stop this ludicrous panic over Carter before it eats us all up like a brush fire.
Doom soon was all rather difficult to believe,
But this was just the general grind of federal government. It was as if illegal rocket launches in the desert, the dire warnings of doom, had never happened.
The federal government think tanks who had tried to flesh out the Carter catastrophe hypothesis had provided her with some gloomy reading.
On the one hand, nobody could definitively undermine the argument itself on philosophical or mathematical grounds. No tame expert would stand up and say he or she could demonstrate the damn thing was bullshit in simple enough terms for the president to deliver to the nation, the panicking world.
On the other hand the think tanks could come up with a lot of ways the world
War, of course: nuclear, biological, chemical, A disaster from genetic engineering, malevolent or otherwise. The report recalled one near-miss in the early ‘OOs in Switzerland, concerning a birth-control vaccine. A genetically altered salmonella bacterium had been supposed to cause a temporary infection in the female gut that triggered antibodies against sperm. It had, of course, mutated and gotten out of control. A hundred thousand women had been rendered permanently infertile before the bug was stopped.
Environmental catastrophes: the continuing collapse of the atmosphere’s structure, the greenhouse effect.
Ecoterrorism: people waging war both for and against the environment. Witness the ground-to-air missile that had recently brought down the
But much worse was possible. The environment was essentially unstable, or at least only quasi-stable. If somebody found a way to tip that stability, it might only need a small nudge.
That was the man-made stuff. Then there were natural disasters. That hoary old favorite, the asteroid strike, was still a
And the Earth, she read, was overdue for a giant volcanic event, one of a scale unseen in all of recorded history. The result would be a “volcano winter” comparable to nuclear-war aftermath.
Or the radiation from a nearby supernova could wipe the Earth clean of life; she learned that the Earth, in fact, was swimming through a bubble in space, a bubble blown clear in the interstellar medium by just such a stellar explosion.
And here was something new to her: perhaps a new ice age would be triggered by the Earth’s passage through an interstellar cloud.
The report concluded with more outlandish speculations. What about annihilation by extraterrestrials? What if some alien species was busily transforming the Solar System right now, not even aware that we existed? .
Or how about “vacuum decay”? It seemed that space itself was unstable, like a statue standing on a narrow base. It could withstand small disturbances—”small,” in this case, including such things as galactic-core explosions — but a powerful enough nudge, properly applied, could cause the whole thing to tip over into
Et cetera. The list of apocalypses continued, spectacular and otherwise, at great length, even to a number of appendices.
The report authors had tried to put numbers to all these risks. The overall chance of species survival beyond the next few centuries it put as 61 percent — the precision amused Maura — a result they described as “optimistic.”
That wasn’t to say the world would be spared all the disasters; that wasn’t to say the human race would not endure death and suffering on giant scales. It wasn’t even a promise that human civilization in its present form would persist much longer. It was just that it was unlikely that the world would encounter a disaster severe enough to cause outright human extinction. Relatively unlikely, anyhow.
Whether or not the world was ending, the prediction itself was having a real effect. The economy had been hit: crime, suicides, a loss of business confidence. There had been a flight into gold, as if
1950s, the world two centuries hence would have seemed im-
possibly remote. Now it seemed around the corner, awfully
close, within the bounds of current plans and thinking.
It was ironic that people had begun to imagine the deeper future just as it was snatched from them.
It was a complex of responses, an unstable species sent into a spin by the bad news from the future. Perhaps what would bring down humankind in the end was not nature or science, but a creeping philosophical disaster.
In the midst of all this, Malenfant was summoned to appear before the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology in Washington, D.C., an appearance that might be — as Maura realized immediately — his last chance to save his sorry ass.
On the morning Malenfant was due to give his testimony,
Emma — nervous, unsleeping — was up early.
She took a walk around Washington, D.C. It was a hot, flat morning. The traffic noise was a steady rumble carried through the sultry air.
She followed the Mall, the grassy strip of parkland that ran a mile from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. The grass was yellow, the ground baked hard and flat, though it was only April. The heat rose in waves, as if she were walking across a hot plate. From here she could see several of the nation’s great buildings: seats of government, museums. A lot of neoclassical marble, grandly spaced: This was an imperial capital if ever there was one, a statement of power, if not of good taste.
She considered going to see the asteroid-exploration VR gallery Malenfant had donated to the Air and Space Museum. Typical Malenfant: influencing public opinion with what was ostensibly a gesture of generosity. Maybe another day, she thought.
She reached the. Washington Monument: simple and clean, seamlessly restored since its ‘08 near-demolition by Christian libertarians. But the flags that ringed it were all at half-mast in recognition of the American lives lost in the latest anti-American terrorist outrage in
And then she turned, and there was the White House, right in front of her: still — arguably — the most important decision-making center on the planet. There was what looked like a permanent shantytown on the other side of the road, opposite the White House, panhandlers and protesters and religious crazies doing their stuff in full view of the chief executive’s bedroom window. Police drones buzzed languidly overhead.
D.C. was dense, real, crusted with history and power. Compared to this, Malenfant’s endeavors in the desert and off in space seemed foolish, baroque dreams.
Nevertheless, here Malenfant was, ready to fight his corner.
Maura eyed Emma. “So, about Malenfant. What is it with you two?”
“I can’t understand how come you’re still together.”
Emma sighed. “It’s a long story.”
Maura grunted. “Believe me, at my age, everybody has a long story.”
To loosen them both up, Maura Della had taken Emma as a special guest to the House gym, in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. It was smaller than Emma had expected, with a pool, steam and massage rooms, a squash court, and exercise equipment. Maura and Emma had opted for a swim, steam, and massage, and now Emma felt herself relax as her mechanical masseur pounded her back with plastic fingers.
They had married young — he in his thirties, she in her twenties.
Emma had had her own career. But she had been excited at the prospect of coming with him, of following his charming, childlike, outlandish dreams of a human expansion into space. She had known her public role would be as an air force wife, perhaps as a NASA wife, and those institutions were old and hidebound enough that she knew she would be forced to let her career shadow his. Raising air force brats, in fact. But the truth was they were partners, and would be for life.
But Malenfant had washed out of NASA at the first hurdle.
She had been stunned.
He had come back silent, sullen. He had never told her what
went wrong; she had learned not to press him on it.
And after that, nothing had been the same.
He was floored by his setback for a whole year before he resigned from the air force and started finding other directions to channel his energy. That had been the start of Bootstrap Incorporated, of Malenfant’s journey to riches and power. Emma had worked with him, even in those early days. But he had started to push her away.
“I still don’t understand why,” she told Maura. “We’d planned children, family years, a home somewhere. Somehow, all that had disappeared over the horizon. And then—”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
Emma smiled, feeling tired. “It’s in the gossip columns. He had an affair. I found them together. Well, the marriage was finished. I’ll tell you the strangest thing. I’ve never seen him so unhappy as at that moment.”
In fact it had seemed to her that Malenfant was working to finish it, digging at its foundations: that he had taken a lover only to drive away Emma.
Her e-therapists had said he was reacting to the thwarting of his true ambition. Now that he knew he would never achieve his dreams, Malenfant was playing with the toys of youth one more time before the coffin lid started to creak down over him.
Or maybe, some of the e-therapists argued, it was just some hideous andropause thing.
“The only advantage of e-therapists,” Maura murmured, “is that their horseshit is cheaper than humans’.”
“Well, whatever, it hurt.”
“And it still does. Right?”
Emma shrugged. “Someday I’ll understand.”
“And then you’ll walk out the door?”
“That’s my plan. So. You think we’re going to get through
“I think so,” Maura said briskly, turning to business. “The danger man is Harris Rutter, from Illinois. One of the Gingrich generation. You know, once they arrive here people never leave, in office or not. You have strata of power, going back decades. Rutter has a
“Federal pork. Or at least, the promise of a slice, if Malenfant gets his way.”
“That’s looking a long way ahead, isn’t it?”
“You have to stay ahead of the power curve in this town, Emma,” Maura murmured, and she closed her eyes with a sigh, as her massager went back to work. “Did you know they didn’t let women in this gym until 1985?”
The hearing, here in the Rayburn building, took place in a cramped, old-fashioned conference room cooled by a single inadequate air conditioner. There were two rows of conference tables down the middle of the room, with nameplates for the representatives on one side, and for the testifiers on the other. It was a place of judgment, of confrontation.
Malenfant was here. He looked crisp, calm, confident, composed, his bald pate gleaming like a piece of a weapons system.
Emma looked into his eyes. He looked as innocent and sincere as if he’d just been minted.
Malenfant took the stand, and Emma and Maura took seats side-by-side at the back of the room. Two representatives took the lead: Harris Rutter, the former lawyer, and Mary Howell of Pennsylvania, once a chemical engineer. Both of them were Republicans.
The purpose of the hearing was for Malenfant to justify, once more, why he shouldn’t be shut down. Rutter questioned Malenfant hard about the dubious legality of his operations, particularly his first launch.
Malenfant’s answers were smooth. He allowed himself to sound irritated at the maze of conflicting legislation Bootstrap had had to tiptoe through, and he launched into a rehearsed speech about his manned space program to come: how he had four astronaut candidates already in training, chosen to be representative of the U.S. demographic mix. “It wasn’t hard to find volunteers, sir, even though we emphasized the dangers to them — not of the space mission, but of being grounded without making the flight.” A little sympathetic laughter.
“In this country we have a huge reservoir of expertise in launching space missions, reserves of people laid off by the space and defense industries, people champing at the bit to be let to work again. In my view it’s a crime to waste such a skilled resource.” Then he went on to how the mission was being assembled mainly from components supplied, not by the usual aerospace cartels, but by smaller — sometimes struggling — companies right across the United States. Malenfant was able to outline a glowing future in which the benefits of the new, expansive space program would flow back from the Mojave in terms of profits and jobs to districts right across the country, not least to Illinois and Pennsylvania, home states of his inquisitors.
Emma whispered to Maura, “Laying it on thick, isn’t he?”
Maura leaned closer. “You have to see the big picture, Emma.
Most big pork-barrel projects gain broad support in their early stages, when there are a lot of representatives who can still hope for a slice of the ultimate pie. If Malenfant can promise to bring wealth to as many districts as possible, all for a modest or even zero government outlay, then he’s convincing people at least to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Malenfant seemed to have survived Rutter’s grilling. But now — to Emma’s surprise — into the attack came Howell, the engineer from Pennsylvania. She was a tough, stockily built woman of about fifty, her defiantly gray hair tied back in a bun. She looked sharp, vigorous, and spoiling for a fight.
“Colonel Malenfant. Bootstrap is about more than engineering, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Howell held up a copy of the
“That news release was nothing to do with me.”
“Come, Colonel Malenfant. I’ve absolutely no doubt that news management like this goes on only with your tacit approval. So the question is why you feel this kind of message from-the-future mumbo jumbo helps your cause. Now, you have a background in engineering, don’t you, Colonel? As I do.” She eyed him. “I daresay we’re about the same age. So we’ve both witnessed the same changes in our society.”
“The distrust of technology. The loss of faith in scientists, engineers — in fact, a kind of rejection of the scientific method itself, and of the scientific explanation of the world. Do you agree that we’ve seen a flight to the irrational?”
“Yes. Yes, I agree with that. But I don’t necessarily agree with
your implication, that the irrational is all bad.”
“Oh, you don’t.”
“There are many mysteries science has not dealt with, perhaps never will. What is consciousness? Why does anything exist, rather than nothing? Why am I alive here and now, and not a century ago, or a thousand years from now? We all have to confront such questions in the quiet of our souls, every minute of our lives. And if the irrational is the only place to look for answers, well, that’s where we look.”
Representative Howell rubbed her temples. “But, Colonel Malenfant, you must agree that it is our brains, our science, that have made the world around us. It is science that has given the planet the capacity to carry many billions of people. ‘It is only the intelligent management of the future that can get us through the next decades, assure us of a long-term future.’ I know you agree with that, because it’s a direct quote, from your own company report last year. Now. Let’s not hear any more bullshit philosophizing.”
Maura leaned over to Emma. “Representatives get to edit the Congressional Record. Witnesses don’t, unfortunately.”
“Do you really believe it is responsible to try to gain public support for your highly dubious activities by whipping up hys teria over nonsense about the end of the world and messages from the future?”
But now Rutter from Illinois was leaning forward. “Will thlady yield on that? If you’ll yield for a moment I have something to ask.”
Howell glared at him, realizing her attack was being dissipated.
Rutter was a corpulent, sweating man with an anachronistic bow tie. To Emma he looked as if he hadn’t been out of Washington in twenty years. “I was interested in what you had to say, Colonel Malenfant,” he said. “Most of us don’t see any ethical problems in your links with organizations like Eschatology. Somebody has to think about the future constructively, after all. I think it’s refreshing to have a proposal like yours in which there is a subtext, as you might call it, beyond the practical. If you can go to the stars, bring home a profit
“Thank you, Representative,”
“Tell me this, Colonel. Do you think your mission to Cruithne, if successful, will help us find God?”
Malenfant took a deep breath. “Mr. Rutter, if we find everything we hope to find on Cruithne, then yes, I believe we will come closer to God.”
Emma turned to Maura Della, and rolled her eyes. Good grief,
There were follow-up questions from Howell, among others. But that, as far as Emma could tell, was that.
Maura was grinning. “He had them eating out of his hand.”
“All but Representative Howell.”
“The question he planted with Rutter put a stop to her.”
“Oh, of course he did. Come on, Emma; it was too obvious, if anything.”
Emma shook her head. “You know, I shouldn’t be shocked any more by anything Malenfant does. But I have to tell you he is not a Christian, and he does not believe in God.”
Maura pursed her lips. “Lies told to Congress, shock. Look, Emma, this is America. Every so often you have to push the God button.”
“So he won.”
“I think so. For now, anyhow.”
Representative Howell, the engineer from Pennsylvania who had argued for rationalism, pushed between them with a muttered apology. Howell looked distressed, frustrated, confused.
Malenfant, when he emerged, was disgustingly smug. “To
Cruithne,” he said.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Dan began, “welcome to JPL. Today, June eighteenth, 2011, a U.S. spacecraft piloted by a genetically enhanced cephalopod is due to rendezvous and dock with near-Earth object designated 3753, or 1986TO, called Cruithne, a three-mile-diameter C-type asteroid. We should be getting images from a remote firefly camera shortly, and a feed from the
As Dan lectured his slightly restive audience, Maura allowed her attention to drift.
JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had turned out to look like a small hospital, squashed into a cramped and smoggy Pasadena-suburb site dominated by the green shoulders of the San Gabriel Mountains. A central mall adorned with a fountain stretched from the gate into the main working area of the laboratory. And on the south side she had found the von Karman auditorium, the scene of triumphant news conferences and other public events going back to NASA’s glory days, when JPL had sent probes to almost every planet in the Solar System.
Absently she listened to the talk around her, a lot of chatter about long-gone times when spirits were high, everybody seemed to be young, and there was a well-defined enemy to beat.
Heady days. All gone now.
Well, today the big old auditorium was crowded again, almost like the old days, mission managers and scientists and politicians and a few aging sci fi writers, all crammed in among the softscreen terminals.
Just as NASA had declared that Malenfant’s BOB design was a criminal joke that could never fly until it
some approving public attention.
And so, as Sheena 5 neared Cruithne, here everybody was,
basking in reflected cephalopod glory.
As they waited for the rendezvous, Dan launched stiffly into a
formal presentation on the technical aspects of the spacecraft.
“The membrane that is the core of the ship’s design is based on technology Bootstrap developed for undersea methane-extraction operations. As far as the biosphere itself is concerned, efficiency is the key. Phytoplankton, one of the most efficient life-forms known, can convert seventy-eight percent of available nitrogen into protein. The simplicity of the algae — no stems, leaves, roots, or flowers — makes them almost ideal crop plants, one hundred percent foodstuff. Of course the system is not perfect — it’s not completely closed, and imperfectly buffered. But it’s still more robust, in terms of operational reliability, than any long-duration mechanical equivalent we can send up. And a hell of a lot cheaper. I have the figures that—”
He looked uncomfortable. “Sheena has had to spend more time acting as the keystone predator than we expected.”
“Culling pathological species that get out of hand. And you have to understand that the system is inherently unstable. We have to manage it, consciously. Or rather Sheena does. We have to replace leaked gases, regulate the temperature, control the hydrological cycle and trace contaminants
And so on. What Ystebo didn’t say, what Maura knew from private briefings, was that this could be a very near thing. It’s so fragile, Maura thought. She imagined the tiny droplet of water containing Sheena drifting in the immensity of interplanetary space, like a bit of sea foam tossed into the air by a wave, never to rejoin the ocean.
At that question, Dan seemed to falter.
Maura knew that Sheena had been refusing to participate in her “medical briefings,” or to interface with the remote diagnostics that Dan used to monitor her health. Not that Dan, or anybody else, knew
“You understand I can only speak to her once a day, when the spacecraft is above the horizon at Goldstone. She is in LOS — loss of signal — for fifteen hours a day.”
Again Dan blustered. “Actually the simplification of the mission goals has worked benefits throughout the profile. The cost of the return — the mass penalty of return leg propellant and comestibles and the aerobrake heat shield — multiplied through the whole mission mass statement.”
Dan was squirming. “Bootstrap has plans to deal with the ethical contingencies.”
Technocrat bullshit, Maura thought; whoever coached this poor sap did a bad job. But she pitied Dan, nonetheless. He was probably the only person on the planet who truly cared about Sheena 5 — as opposed to the sentimental onlookers on TV and on the Net — and here he was, having to defend her being sentenced to death, alone in space.
And now, at last, an image came through on the big wall-mounted softscreen. Pictures from space. A hush spread over the hall.
It took Maura some seconds to figure out what she was seeing.
It was an asteroid.
It was misshapen and almost black, the craters and cracks of its dusty surface picked out by unvarying sunlight, a potato left too long on the barbecue. And a spacecraft of rippling gold was approaching, dwarfed by the giant rock.
There was applause, whooping.
Dan fumbled at a touchpad, and a new image came up on the softscreen: Sheena 5, a Caribbean reef squid, drifting in blue-gold shadows, live from
Then the cephalopod pulled back, leaving the metal mask dangling in the water, and she began an elaborate dance. It was enchanting: her chromatophore organs pulsed with colors and shapes, black and orange and aquamarine and ocher, and her tentacles and arms flashed as she arced, twirled, and pirouetted through the tank. She was very obviously producing signals: one, even two a second, signals that flowed into each other, varying remarkably in their intensity.
Hesitantly he began to translate.
“Now this is what we call the pied pattern.
His posture was stiff as he stared at the screen, the separation from his dancing friend a tangible, painful thing.
The audience was silent, Maura noted absently: stunned by this shard of cheap emotion.
The digital displays told her the moment of rendezvous was near. The remote firefly-camera images returned to the soft-screen, a stop-start sequence updated every few seconds. The gold spark tracked across the blackened surface.
The asteroid was big now, covering almost half of the sky.
She could see the asteroid’s surface, as if she were drifting over Caribbean sand flats. It was dull and dark. But its polarization was rich. She was searching for the shading and twinkling that meant frozen water.
Sheena touched her waldoes, and the ship hovered above the depression.
She knew it would take a long time for Dan to learn of her success. She trembled with anticipation.
Gripping the circular support with her arms, Sheena inserted her two long tentacles into the smooth, flexible sheaths, and touched the central pad with her beak.
Two three-hundred-foot cables, aping the motion of her tentacles, began to unwind from the hull of
She sensed the cables touch the bottom, touch the asteroid. Contact.
She flexed her suction cups to grip the surface. Slowly she contracted her tentacles, drawing herself down until she could see the smallest details of the asteroid, even her ship’s small shadow.
She had practiced this maneuver in deep space, over and over. It was probably the most important task she would ever have to complete, after all; if she failed at this one thing, the mission itself would fail.
Finally she felt a gentle pressure wave pulse through the water and through her own body, letting her know that she had come to rest.
The asteroid, this great black whale of space, was her prey, and she, the hunter, had captured it.
Pride surged, chromatophores pulsing over her body.
Some minor planets, of course, already have roles in astrology. Since these worlds weren’t known to the ancients, their roles are the subject of modern interpretation and some debate.
So it is proving with Cruithne.
Perhaps we can take some guidance from the derivation of the name.
A further blurring of the name’s meaning comes from the fact that some early writers claim that Pictish lineage was traditionally taken from the mother’s line, not the father’s. So perhaps Cruithne — if such an individual existed at all — was not a man, but a woman.
As far as its astronomical properties go, Cruithne is again an unusual world.
Perhaps uniquely among astrological subjects, it wanders far from the plane of the ecliptic and far from the traditional Houses; in fact at times it can be seen, by telescope, above (or beneath) Earth’s poles. And yet it is intimately linked to Earth; we know that its peculiar “horseshoe” orbit is dominated by Earth’s gravity.
And, of course, the most direct link of all has now been established, as the squid, Sheena, has become the first Earth creature since the Apollo astronauts to reach another world.
It is of course true, but irrelevant, that the name
She could not leave her water habitat; yet she was able to explore.
Small firefly robots set off from the habitat, picking their way carefully over the surface of the asteroid. Each robot was laden with miniature instruments, as exquisite as coral, all beyond her understanding.
But the fireflies were under her control.
She used the waldo, the glovelike device into which she could slip her long prehensile arms and so control the delicate motions of each firefly. Cameras mounted in the carapace of the firefly brought her a view through her laser eyecup of what the firefly was seeing, as if she were swimming alongside it. The gravity was so low that a careless movement would have sent the little metal devices spinning away from the surface, to be lost forever. So the limbs of the fireflies carried hooks and suction devices to ensure that at every moment they were anchored to the thin re-golith. And, with delicacy and care, she was able to ensure the fireflies avoided ravines and deep craters, and so were never in danger.
Her fireflies scuttled hundreds of yards from the slumped membrane
Sheena thought all this was remarkable.
She had come to awareness in a universe that was three-dimensional and infinite. Slowly she had come to understand that the ocean she inhabited was part of the skin of a giant sphere. She had seen that ocean-world from outside, seen it diminish to a pale dot of light.
And now she had come to a world that was so small she felt she could enclose its curve in her outstretched arms, and her eyes picked out the starry universe through which this little world swam. Entranced, munching absently on the krill the currents brought to her beak, she watched the new world —
And she knew, at last, she was ready.
Mission control for the
Dan had a cubicle to himself. He had a softscreen draped over his lap, and he wore a virtual-reality helmet that fitted tightly over his head, like a swimming cap, hiding his eyes behind rubber pads. There was kipple everywhere: pictures of the
Dan turned to them and smiled. It was disconcerting, with his eyes concealed. “Yo, Malenfant, Emma. Welcome to the geeko-sphere.” Maybe, for him, they were floating against coal-black Cruithne. But she noticed he seemed to be able to work his softscreen, despite its awkward draping over his lap, without glancing down. “You want coffee, or soda? There’s a Shit machine—”
“Just give me some news, Dan,” Malenfant said. “As good as possible.” His voice sounded tight with stress.
Dan pushed his VR hood off his face. His eyes were reddened and sore, and the mask had left white marks across his forehead and cheeks. “Pay dirt,” he said. “The carbonaceous ore contains hydrogen, nitrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ammonia—”
“Water?” Emma asked.
He nodded. “Oh, yes. As permafrost and hydrated minerals. Twenty percent by mass, by God. Every prediction fulfilled, exceeded in fact.”
Malenfant smacked his hands together. “It’s a warehouse up there.”
Dan plastered a big softscreen over the posters and photos and memos and other crap on the wall, and tapped its surface. Up came an image of the asteroid’s surface — gritty and crumpled, Emma thought, like roadside slush — and there was one of the microrobots they were calling “fireflies.”
As she watched, a tiny puff of vapor vented from the base of the firefly. It jetted sharply up away from the asteroid ground, swiveled neatly, then shot out a little dart that trailed a fine cable, like fishing line. The dart buried itself in the loose rock. The line went taut and began to haul itself in, neatly dragging the firefly back to the surface.
“The fireflies are working great,” Dan said. “We should be able to find a hundred applications for these babies: in LEO, other asteroids, even on the Moon. The propulsion system is neat. It’s a digital propulsion chip: a little bank of solid rocket motors, and you can address the motors individually,
Emma asked, “And Sheena is running these things?”
“Oh, yes.” Dan grinned proudly. “She has a big waldo glove in the habitat she can fit her whole body right inside. Of course that took some designing. Because she lacks bones, Sheena doesn’t have a good sense of where her arms are in space. So the wal-does feed back information about pressure and texture. She does a fine job. She can run
“And yet we sent her out there, to die,” Emma said.
There was an uncomfortable silence, as if she’d been impolite to mention such a thing.
Dan pulled his VR mask over his face and started to scroll through more results from the asteroid, and Emma went in search of a coffee machine.
And on Cruithne, Sheena laid her eggs.
They were cased in jelly sacs, hundreds of them in each tube. There was no spawning ground here, of course. So she draped the egg sacs over the knot of machinery at the heart of her miniature ocean, which had now anchored itself to the surface of Cruithne. The gardens of egg cases dangled there, soft and organic against the hard machinery.
Small schools of fish came to nose at the eggs. She watched until she was sure that the fish were repelled by the jelly that coated the eggs, which was its purpose.
She had no instinct to return to the eggs, to cradle them. But she knew this was an unusual circumstance; this small ball of water, collapsed to a fat lens against the asteroid, was no enriching ocean. So she developed a habit of visiting the eggs every few hours, of squirting gentle water jets over them to keep them aerated.
All this was out of sight of Dan’s cameras. She did not tell him what she had done.
More children arrived, but now they seemed bewildered and frightened. They always had blue circles crudely stitched onto their shirts or jackets. The children would complain and cry until they learned the first of the rules Michael had learned, which was never to complain or cry.
Some children were taken away, too.
Many were taken by concerned-looking people who would put their arms around a frightened child. Michael didn’t know what this meant. Perhaps it was a trick.
The children taken away all had white skin. The children who were brought in mostly had black or brown skin. Soon, most of the children who were left behind, including Michael, had brown or black skin. He didn’t know what this meant either.
One day he saw a Brother wearing a gold ring.
Michael was fascinated by the gold, the deep luster of the time-stretched electrons in its structure. He came forward and stared at it. The Brother smiled at him and held out his hand so he could see.
Then, without warning, the Brother swung back his arm and slammed his fist into the side of Michael’s head. Michael could feel the ring dig into his flesh, warm blood spurting. The Brother smiled and walked away.
To his shame, Michael was crying.
He ran back to his dormitory. He ran across the floor toward his pallet. But there was a Sister here, and she grabbed his arm and shouted at him. He didn’t understand, but then she pointed at the floor. He had left a trail of blood. He had to get a mop and bucket and scrape his drying blood off the floor. But still the blood flowed, and he had to work harder to keep it off the floor, and it seemed as if it would never stop.
That snapshot, the incident with the ring, divided Michael’s life in two, as light from dark.
The visitors grew fewer, until they stopped coming altogether.
And the lessons were more infrequent. Sometimes they were replaced by work sessions, in which the children had to paint the huts or clean floors or mop out the toilet blocks. Sometimes they were just canceled altogether.
The refrigerators and bowls of food were taken away. Now there was only food at mealtimes, twice a day.
The children were no longer issued fresh clothes. They were given shirts and shorts and shoes that were marked with small blue circles, just one set per child. The clothes soon became dirty and threadbare.
The last lessons were stopped, and the softscreens were taken away.
Many of the children wept and fought at that, but not Michael.
He had expected this to happen someday. The School had been like a strange dream anyway.
He would be able to work in his head. As long as he was left alone, as he had been in the village.
Each morning now, Emma had to run the gauntlet of the noisy mobs outside Bootstrap’s Vegas office. This morning, as her car approached, a few of them burst through the police line. The car sensed warm human bodies ahead and slowed to a halt. Emma made sure her windows were sealed up, overrode the Smart-Drive, and inched the car forward.
Slowly the people parted, but not before they got close enough to scream in through the windscreen at her. There were eco types in body paint, a lot of religious groups she couldn’t identify, and also counter-protesters, people actually in favor of Bootstrap and its projects, mostly young white males with U.S. flags and other national emblems, chanting about pioneers and the new frontier. Some of them wore animated T-shirts with an image of Malenfant making a speech somewhere: a few words and a smile, cycled over and over on the crumpled cloth. She grimaced; she wondered how much money some remote corner of Bootstrap was making out
Here was a beefy guy with shaved hair, dressed in a green T-shirt and pants as if he were some kind of veteran. He was limping, one of his legs betraying him. He was carrying a blown-up picture of a sickly looking kid blowing candles on a birthday cake. He was shouting. “Yellow babies! Look what you did, Malenfant! Look what you did!”
Emma recoiled from his anger.
But once she was inside, and the gate had sealed itself shut behind her, she couldn’t even hear the protesters’ chants any more: only a soft white noise, barely audible, like rushing water.
She arrived at the conference room late. She took a seat quietly at the back of the darkened, half-empty room and tried to follow what was going on.
George Hench was chairing an engineering seminar on the design of a hab module for the proposed human-manned follow-up missions to Cruithne.
At the front of the room a technical type was standing at a lectern; a softscreen the size of a curtain was hanging on the wall behind him. Other techs sat around the first few rows, their arms draped over the backs of their chairs, their feet up before them.
These technicians were mostly men, mostly badly dressed, generally bearded. They were laden with doctorates and other qualifications. Many of them came from NASA itself, from corners of that sprawling bureaucratic empire called things like the Mission Definition Office or the Mars Exploration Studies Office. Behind each of these guys lay a whole fleet of beautiful spacecraft that had existed only in blueprints and mass estimates and a few items of demonstration technology, and that had landed on the Moon or Mars only in clean, software-generated NASA imagery, and in the dreams of their creators.
After Malenfant’s electrifying first launch, and his announcement that he was proposing manned missions to Cruithne and beyond — and despite the outstanding legal difficulties the company faced — Bootstrap had had no difficulty recruiting guys like these.
The speaker was describing the high-level design of the Cruithne mission’s hab module. He spoke in a mumble, directly to his softscreen, and the screen behind him showed a blizzard of bewildering images.
The hab was little more than a can, fifteen yards long. It had a small Earth-return capsule — a cone shaped like an Apollo capsule — glued to its lower end. The capsule would also serve as a solar storm shelter. Big winglike solar cell panels were fixed to struts extending from the can’s sides. Various antennae, thruster assemblies, and ports were visible through layers of powder-white insulation blankets. It reminded Emma a little of prehistoric images
Life-support systems engineering was far from Emma’s area of expertise. But attending meetings like this was all part of her general ongoing strategy to contain Reid MalenfanL She’d been around Malenfant long enough to know that it was worth her while to cast her net as wide as possible, to follow as much as possible, to anticipate as much as she could. Because, even here at the heart of Reid Malenfant’s secretive empire, she could never be sure under which rock the next rattlesnake lay coiled.
It was characteristic of Malenfant to be pressing ahead with the design, assembly, and even fabrication of his asteroid-pioneer spacecraft while the slow wheels of official approval still ground on. Not only that, he had become even more unobtainable than usual because he had launched himself into every aspect of the training of Bootstrap’s cadre of prospective astronauts, even to the extent of racking up flying hours and time in the centrifuge.
Meanwhile, Bootstrap’s destiny remained unresolved.
The fact that this next flight would — if it flew at all — be carrying human passengers just made the bureaucratic tangle that much worse. It had shocked Emma to learn that even comparatively unambitious human spaceflights incurred a
Beyond the shelter of Earth’s magnetic field, for example, the astronauts would be bombarded by radiation, sporadically violent flares from the sun, and a steady drizzle of fast-moving cosmic rays: relics from remote parts of the universe, a single particle of which, George Hench had once told her, could pack as much punch as a baseball. Then there were the familiar hazards of zero gravity: bone decalcification, immune and cardiovascular system degradation, muscular atrophy.
Emma formed a bleak image of the crew limping across space in a cramped, stinking, spinning module, earnestly pounding away at their treadmills just to keep alive, cowering every time the sun belched. There was something un-American about it, she thought, something dogged and Soviet.
What might save Bootstrap was once again the weakness and ambiguity of the current regulatory regime. For example, OSHA actually had no radiation exposure standards for human exploration missions. NASA had adopted supplementary standards drawn up by bodies like the National Academy of Sciences and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements as the agency’s standard for crew dose limits. But even then NASA had left loopholes, saying the standards should be applied to all but “exceptional exploration missions.”
Where NASA led, Reid Malenfant was happy to follow.
The presenter was nearing the end of his talk, and he had started to wax philosophical.
Whoops, raised fists, a scattering of applause.
These technicians had tunnel vision, she thought. To them the mission was everything, the various obstacles a frustration that stopped them from doing things. And when they were forced to confront those obstacles they resorted to hopeful button pushing: Ptolemaic spheres, the frontier, the American dream, can-do attitude, the spirit of Wright and Lindbergh and Armstrong, the organizational will that enabled us to cover a continent, win the Second World War, blah blah.
But, she thought, maybe they
Now another technician got up to show a new type of chart. It represented a flow of raw materials to a schematic of the hab’s manufacture: electrical components from factories around the United States; structural parts from the big aerospace companies; raw materials from a variety of producers; a web of sources, flows, and sinks.
There was one box at the lower left corner that Emma had trouble reading. She sat forward and squinted.
The source box was marked “Dounreay.” And the product flowing out of it was “enriched U-235.”
And Emma had spotted her rattlesnake.
She got out of her seat and slipped out of the room.
When she got back to her office she booted up her softscreen and started to find out about Dounreay.
And, immediately after that, she booked a flight to Scotland.
She arrived at a place called Sandside: a tiny village, just holiday homes and a pub. She got out of the car — no SmartDrive — and climbed a low hill at the edge of the village.
She was on the north coast of Scotland, just a few miles from John O’Groats, the miniature tourist trap that was the northernmost point of mainland Britain. There was a sweeping beach before her, and then the sea itself, wild and gray under a flat lid of sky. On the horizon she glimpsed more landmasses, the Old Man of Hoy and the Orkneys. It was a rugged place suffused by wind noise, poised between sea and sky, and the wind seemed to suck the warmth from the core of her body.
And there, sprawled across the eastern horizon, was Dounreay: a mile-long sprawl of buildings, a giant golf ball shape, huge gray and brown sheds and chimneys. Somehow, oddly, even though she knew what this place represented, it did not offend the eye.
Here came Malenfant, his gaunt frame swathed in a giant quilted coat. He climbed up the little hillock beside her.
“You look ill,” she said.
He shrugged. “I don’t think the climate suits me. Even though I’ve got some Scottish blood. Maybe all that Vegas sunshine has diluted it.”
“What have you been up to this time, Malenfant?”
He sighed. “Doing what needs to be done.”
She faced him. “Listen to me for once, you asshole. If you’re planning to launch nuclear materials into space, if you’re even intending to move nuke stuff around the planet, you’re committing a whole series of offenses. And if you’re going to involve Bootstrap in that — if you’re going to involve me — then tell me about it.”
“I will, I will,” he soothed. “But we don’t have a choice.”
“Oh, Malenfant. You never do.”
He took her arm, and they walked along the hillock.
He picked out some of the sights of Dounreay for her. This was the second-largest nuclear installation in Britain, after Sella-field. Once it had generated power, made medical isotopes, run three reprocessing lines and a nuclear waste-packaging plant. The golf ball shape was a fast reactor, built in 1959. It had caught fire and overheated several times. Now it was shut down and preserved, bizarrely, by a heritage ministry. The big gray sheds were for reprocessing nuclear waste, extracting usable fuel from spent material. Behind the golf ball there was a waste shaft two hundred feet deep that contained fifteen thousand tons of waste mixed with uranium and plutonium. It was very unstable; it had already suffered two hydrogen explosions, spraying radioactive waste everywhere.
“Jesus,” she said. “What a folly. Another generation’s dreams of cheap power. And we have to live with the shit forevermore.”
“Well, it didn’t go entirely to plan,” he conceded. “Originally this was going to be a nuclear park. Six reactors. But the technology was ahead of its time.”
“Everything was within the guidelines of the time. Even the secrecy, if you want to know. You have to remember it was the Cold War. They didn’t have the same obsession with safety we have now. An obsession that has stunted us since, conservatively, 1970. And guess what? The local people now love the plant. If it never produces another watt, Dounreay is going to be around for a hundred years. Four generations of high-quality, highly skilled local employment. Because it will take that long to decommission it.”
“So tell me something else. If the U.K. government shut this place down in the 1990s, how come you managed to acquire enriched uranium here?”
He said gently, “There’s nothing illegal.”
“My God, Malenfant.”
“Look.” He dug a small, crumpled softscreen out of his pocket, unfolded it with stiff fingers. It showed an image of something like a rocket engine, a sky-blue nozzle mounted by complex machinery, tall and skinny. The diagram was labeled with spidery text much too small to read. Malenfant said, “This is what we’re building. It’s a nuclear reactor designed for space missions. Here’s the reactor at the top.” He pointed with a thumbnail and worked his way down. “Then you have pumps, shielding, and a radiator. The whole thing stands about twelve feet tall, weighs about a ton. The reactor has a thermal output of a hundred and thirty-five kilowatts, an electrical supply of forty kilowatts…
“Emma, you have to understand. If we have humans aboard a new
“And this is what you’re planning to build?
He looked pleased with himself.
“But the Russians flew nuclear power sources on reconnais-
sance missions back in the 1960s, and they even test-flew a de-
sign called Topaz, which is what we based this baby on. Of
course we were able to tune the design a hell of a lot.”
He tapped the little screen. “All we need is fifty pounds of en-
riched U-235, in the form of uranium dioxide pellets. The mod-
erator is zirconium hydride, and you control the reaction by
rotating these cylinders on the outside of the core, which—”
“How are you smuggling this shit into the Mojave?”
“Smuggling is a harsh word.”
“Come on, Malenfant. Those desert skies are pretty clear. Surveillance satellites—”
“You really want to know? All the satellites’ orbital elements are on the Net. You can work out where they will be at any minute. You just shut down until they’ve passed overhead. Even better, make sure you hit the night shift at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency down at Fairfax. There’s always something more interesting to look at than pictures of an old buzzard like me jerking off in the desert.”
“Act now; justify later. Like the BDB launch. Like most of the actions in your life.”
“Emma, you have to trust me on this one. If I can run a Topaz or two, prove it’s safe, I can get the authorizations I need. But I have to get the nuke stuff to run the tests in the first place.”
“And the citizens of Las Vegas have to trust you, too, until enriched uranium comes raining down out of the sky? You know, you’re a dreamer, Malenfant. You actually believe that one day we will all come to our senses and agree with you and hail you as a hero.”
“I’m already a hero.” He winked. “There are T-shirts that say it. Look, Emma. I won’t pretend I’m happy with everything I’m having to do. No more than you are. But we have to go on. It’s not just Bootstrap, the profits: not even about the big picture, our future in space—”
“Cornelius. The Carter catastrophe. Messages from the future.”
He eyed her. “I know how you’re dealing with this. You’ve put it all in a box in your mind that you only open when you have to.
“Neutrinos, Malenfant,” she said gently.
“We’re in this too deep, Emma. We have to go on.”
She closed her eyes. “Malenfant, patience has always been your strength. You don’t need lousy Russian reactors and dubious uranium shipments. Take your time and find another way to build your spaceship.”
His voice was strained. “I can’t.”
And, of course, she knew that.
He bent down and kissed the top of her head.
She sighed. “You know I won’t betray you. I’ve been sucked in too deep with you for a long time, for half my life. But do you ever consider the ethics of implicating me, and others, in this kind of shit? You have to be open with me, Malenfant.”
“I will,” he said. “I promise.”
She knew, of course, that he was lying.
In fact she was more useful to him if she
But that wouldn’t be uppermost in his mind; it was just an incidental. What drove Malenfant was maximizing her utility in the drive toward his ultimate goals — -just like any of the tools he deployed.
She understood all that. What she really didn’t know, in her heart of hearts, was why she continued to put up with it.
She linked her arm through his, and they huddled together against the wind, looking over Dounreay. Mist swept in off the sea, covering the plant in grayness.
How can we turn asteroid rock into rocket fuel? Sounds like
magic, doesn’t it?
First we’ll crack asteroid water into hydrogen and oxygen with electrolysis. Remember high school science classes, the Pyrex beakers and the wires and the batteries? All you have to do
is pass an electric current through water to break it down. That’s
what we do. But the units we use are a little more advanced.
This is a solid polymer electrolyte, or SPE, electrolyzer. What you have is sandwiched layers of electrolyte-impregnated plastic separated by metal meshes. The whole assembly is compressed by metal rods running the length of the stack.
SPEs have been used extensively on nuclear submarines and on the space station. They run for thousands of hours without maintenance.
As for the methane, we will extract some directly from the asteroid material, and more by processing carbon dioxide. We use something called a Sabatier reactor. Slide. We liquefy the hydrogen from the electrolyzer banks, and feed it into the reactor with carbon dioxide. Out the other side comes water and methane — which is just a compound of carbon and hydrogen. The reaction is very efficient, ninety-nine percent in fact, and is exothermic, which means it requires no input of heat to make it work, just the presence of a ruthenium catalyst.
Sabatier units have been used in space before, for life-support applications. They have been tested by NASA and the Air and Space Force and have also been used on the space station.
There is further information in your packs on how we intend to optimize the ratios of the methane-oxygen bi-propellant, and various subsidiary processes we need. We can show you a demonstration breadboard prototype. Oxygen-hydrogen is of course the most powerful chemical-rocket propeOant of all. But hydrogen is difficult to liquefy and store: low temperature, large bulk. Methane is like oxygen, a soft cryogenic, and that guided our choice.
AH this sounds exotic. But what we have here is very robust engineering, gaslight-era stuff, technologies centuries old, in fact. It’s just a novel application.
Ladies and gentlemen, mining an asteroid is easy.
The babies were already being hatched: popping out of their dissolving eggs one by one, wriggling away, alert, active, questioning. With gentle jets of water, she coaxed them toward the sea grass where they would browse until they were mature.
She tried not to think about what would happen then.
Meanwhile, she had work to do.
When Sheena powered up the rock eater, she was more nervous than at any time since the landing itself. She lay as still as she could inside her waldo glove and tried to sense the eater’s systems — the gripping tracks that dug into the asteroid’s loose surface, the big gaping scoop of a mouth at the front, the furnace in its belly like a warm heart — as if she herself had become the fat clanking machine that would soon scuttle crablike across the asteroid floor.
She understood why she felt so tense.
The rock eater was a complex machine. It would need monitoring as it chewed its way around the asteroid, to make sure it didn’t burrow too deeply into the surface, or spin its tracks on some loose patch of rock and throw itself into the emptiness of space, beyond retrieval.
But it was no more difficult to control, in principle, than the little firefly robots, and she was used to
It wasn’t even the importance of this operation for her mission that made her anxious. She knew the fireflies had done no more than measure, weigh, analyze, monitor. Now, for the first time, she was going to do something that would
But that wasn’t why she was so anxious.
To fail would mean that her young would die here, as she would, cut off from the shoal, for no reason.
Therefore — exhausted, aging as she was — she would not weaken, would not fail.
It was time. She pushed at the glove.
And she felt the eater dig its scooplike jaw into the loose soil at the surface of Cruithne.
Her first motions were clumsy. From the microcameras embedded in the eater’s upper surface she saw chunks of regolith sail up before her, dust and larger fragments. The fragments disappeared from her view, following loose, looping paths. Some of them escaped the asteroid’s tiny gravity field altogether and sailed off on new orbits of their own, new baby asteroids circling the sun.
Patiently she slowed, tried again, adjusted the angle of the scoop and the speed at which it plowed into the surface. Soon she had it right, and a steady stream of asteroid rock worked its way in through the scoop to the eater’s hopper.
Now little belts and shovels forced the captured regolith into the processing chambers. First the ore was ground up and sieved by rocking mechanical jaws and rollers and vibrating filter screens. Next, magnetic fields sucked out nickel-iron metal granules. Then the crushed ore was passed to a furnace that was powered by the sun’s focused heat.
Liquid, baked from the rock, began to gather in the condenser tanks, big low-gravity globules drifting around the thin walls.
This one roving rock eater, patiently working its way over the asteroid’s surface, would deliver pounds of precious water every day from the unpromising rock of the asteroid. The water would be processed further and used in many of the other, more complex machines. And so this asteroid would be transformed from a lump of ancient slag into something wonderful, something alive.
When she was happy with the eater’s operation, she pulled herself out of the glove. She swam down to where the pipe trailing back from the eater met the habitat membrane. And she found a trickle of fresh asteroid water.
She swam through the asteroid stream, let it wash under her carapace and through her gills. It was warm, perhaps from the heater at the heart of the rock-eating robot, and there was only a trickle of it, seeping into the great mass of the habitat. But Sheena swam back and forth through it, her hide pulsing excitedly.
She was the first creature from Earth to swim in water not of her native planet, water that had formed before the sun itself — water that had lain dormant, bound into this dark lump of rock, until
She knew this was Dan’s mission, not hers; she knew she was Dan’s creature, not her own. But she was proud, because she was the first; no other creature who had ever lived or ever would live could claim this honor from her.
She swooped and pulsed her j oy.
Sheena sent the fireflies to converge at one pole of Cruithne. There, patiently, piece by piece, she had them assemble a small chemical factory, pipes and tanks and pumps, and a single flaring nozzle that pointed to the sky. Borers began to dig into the surface of Cruithne, drawing up surface regolith and the rock and ice that lay deeper within. Precious solar panels, spread over the dusty surface of the asteroid, provided power via cables strung out over the regolith.
The factory began its work, turning ancient asteroid rock into something new.
The whole process — to take ancient rock and ice, and to transform it into something new — seemed remarkable to Sheena.
At last, under Sheena’s control, simple valves clicked open. Through firefly cameras, the images were relayed to the laser projectors cupped over her eyes. Sheena could see a flame erupt from the nozzle, flaring up into the sky. And now combustion products emerged, ice crystals that caught the sunlight, receding in perfectly straight lines. It was a fire fountain, quite beautiful.
Humans could control operations from Earth from now on. Asteroid water and raw, unprocessed rock would be swallowed into giant bags and, pushed by rockets like this test rig, steered through the empty ocean of space toward Earth, as if by a squid’s mantle jet.
Dan would tell her there was much celebration within Bootstrap. He did not say so, but Sheena understood that this was mainly because she had finished her task before dying.
She turned away from the waldo glove and the imagers, the human machines, and sought out her young.
* * *
They were growing explosively quickly, converting half of all the food they ate to body mass.
At first they had been asocial, foraging alone in the beds of sea grass. But already — though still tiny — they had developed shoals. She watched the males fighting — aggressive signaling, fin beating, chasing, and fleeing — miniature battles that prefigured the greater conflicts to come at breeding time.
Some of the young were already hunting the smaller fish, adopting behavior patterns her kind were hatched with, even talking to each other in the simple, rich sign language that Dan said was hardwired into their brains by millions of generations of ancestors: /
She knew that Dan must be aware of the existence of the young by now. The growing imbalance in the small ecosphere could surely not be ignored. But he said nothing; and she volunteered nothing.
Most of the young were dumb. Four were smart.
She took the smart ones to one side. She swam at the heart of their small shoal. She was growing old now, and she tired easily. Nevertheless she taught the smart ones how to hunt, sophisticated techniques beyond their dumber siblings.
She taught them how to lure foolish fish. They would hold up their arms with blanched tips, waving them, distracting the attention of the fish from the far more dangerous tentacles, waiting to strike.
She taught them how to stalk, gradually approaching a fish from behind, where its vision was poorest.
She taught them how to chase, pursuing fleeing prey with careful watchfulness until close enough to make the final, decisive lunge.
She taught them to hunt, disguised. They would mimic sar-gassum weed, hanging in the water with arms dangling, ready to dart out at incautious fish. Or they would swim backward with false eye spots and arms held together and waved like the tail of a fish.
They practiced on the smaller fish, and some of them eyed the other squid, their siblings.
She taught them about the reef, the many creatures that lived and died there, how they worked together, even as they competed and fought and hunted. She tried to teach them about predators.
She role-played, swooping down on them like a moray eel, trying to catch tiiem with her arms and beak. But they were young and agile and easily evaded her, and she sensed they did not believe her stories of monsters that could nip off a squid’s arms, or even swallow a squid whole, enhanced brain or not.
And she taught them language, the abstract signs Dan had given her. As soon as they had the language their mantles rippled with questions.
She did not always have answers. But she showed them the machinery that kept them alive, and taught them about the stars and the sun, and the nature of the world and universe, and about humans.
The young ones seemed to understand, very quickly, that Sheena and all her young would soon exhaust the resources of this one habitat. The habitat had been designed to support one squid, herself, for a fixed period of time, a time that was almost expired. Already there had been a number of problems with the tightly closed environment loops — unpredictable crashes and blooms in the phytoplankton population, depletions or excessive concentrations of trace elements — and corresponding impacts on the krill and the fish.
The young were
For instance, they said, perhaps they should not simply repair this fabric shell, but
Sheena, trained only to complete her primary mission, found this a very strange thought.
There weren’t enough fish, never enough krill. The waters were stale and crowded.
This was clearly unacceptable.
So the smart young hunted down their dumb siblings, one by one, and consumed their passive bodies, until only these four, and Sheena, were left.
His memories were jumbled.
When tourists had come to the village they would take snapshots with their cameras, and sometimes they would send them to the village. Michael would see himself in the pictures, a person who no longer existed, smiling up at somebody who was no longer there, like two ghosts. Sometimes the pictures would arrive out of order, so he would see himself in a T-shirt with a hole in it, and in the next picture there he would be, a little shorter maybe, with the T-shirt magically fixed.
When he had been taken out of the village he had understood almost none of what happened to him, and his memories had become jumbled, like the snapshots.
But there was still a sky above him, with stars and a Moon, even though they were in different places from when he was in the village.
And -when he closed his eyes — on his pallet at night, in the stillness of his blanket, with no sound or sensation — he could feel deep inside himself that time wore on, passing inexorably, measured invisibly by the evolution of his own thoughts. It didn’t matter that his memories didn’t make sense, that what had happened to him had no logic or explanation. It was enough that he knew, deep inside, that the universe still worked.
The rules, here in the School, became simple.
Food was everything.
You could not be sure when another meal might come, so you had to eat or hoard every scrap of food you could find.
In fact it was better to hoard as much as possible, to hide it in your clothes or in a cache, like Michael’s store in the wall of the dormitory hut, to make it last longer.
If you had food you had power. If another had food, they had power over you.
There were other rules.
For example: at night the children were not allowed to go outside their dormitory room to relieve themselves. There was always a Sister or a Brother in the dormitory to ensure this was so. There was a single slop bucket at night, set in the middle of the floor. It was not big enough and soon filled up. If it spilled on the floor, you would be punished. If you made a mess, if you wet your bed or relieved yourself where you shouldn’t, you would be punished. Many of the younger children were quite clumsy, and so would often knock over the bucket or otherwise mess the place up. They were punished often.
At night Michael would hear children crying in pain as they tried to resist the temptation to use the bucket. And he would hear Anna’s quiet, grave voice, helping them stay quiet, overcome the discomfort.
New children, arriving here in their shirts marked with crude blue circles, would often cry and complain, and suffer when they broke the rules. They soon learned, however.
Michael had one possession he cared about. It was the flashlight Stef had given him. Michael used the flashlight sparingly, and the new batteries had hardly dimmed.
At night, he would crawl under his bed, in utter silence. He had some pieces of scrap metal into which he had knocked small holes with a headless nail.
He shone the flashlight on one metal scrap and looked at the spot of yellow light he cast on the wall. He saw a bright central spot surrounded by a band of half shadow, and darkness beyond. Then he put another scrap in that spot, punctured by a second hole, so that the light he cast was stretched thinner.
The spot of light cast by the second hole was different. He saw the central spot and the outer darkness, but between them there were intricate patterns of light and dark, concentric rings. There was color here, blue and orange and red rings overlapping. The rings, in the silent dark, were quite beautiful. He was seeing waves, like ripples on a pond, places where the bits of light —
He found a scrap of cellophane, bright blue, and put that over one of the holes. Now he saw a simpler system of concentric rings, painted in blue only. He found the blue circles comforting. He imagined they were doors painted on the wall, and that he might pass through them, to go home to the village, or somewhere even better.
He kept pulling his apparatus apart. Perhaps he could stretch it so much that only one light bit at a time, one photon, would pass through the holes. He never managed that, but it didn’t matter; he could see in his mind what the result would be.
He would see a stream of photons speckling against the wall, nudging and jostling, working together to make the glowing bands.
But one photon, alone, separate from the others, was like a thrown stone. What was affecting
The answer was obvious. The photon was being nudged and jostled into the right place, just as it had been when part of a flood. So there must be things coming from the holes to jostle the photon, even when only one photon at a time passed through the holes. Those things behaved exactly like photons, except he could not see them.
They were ghost photons, he thought. Partners of the “real” one, the one he could see. The real photon reached forward in time, inquiring. And a flood of ghosts from the future came crowding back in time, along every possible path it could take. And yet they
For every photon, there was an uncounted flood of ghosts, of possible futures, just as real as the photon he saw.
And so, surrounding every person, there must be a flood of future ghosts, representing all the unrealized possibilities, all equally real.
Michael, with his flashlight and metal scraps, surrounded by ghosts, smiled in the dark. Perhaps the future Michaels were happy.
One day a Brother found his food cache, and the flashlight, and the scraps of metal, all buried in the wall.
The children in the dormitory were made to stand in a line, before their beds, while the Brother barked at them. Michael did not understand the words, but he knew what would happen. The Brother wanted the owner of the cache to step forward. If nobody volunteered as responsible, all the children would be beaten. And then, when the Brothers were gone, the other children would beat Michael.
Still, he waited. Sometimes a child, one who was not responsible, would step forward and take the punishment for another. Anna often did this, but today she was not here. Michael had done it once, to spare a sickly boy.
Today, nobody came forward.
Michael took a step.
His punishment was severe.
And later the Brother stamped on the flashlight, smashing it. Michael was made to sweep up the pieces, the bits of broken glass, with his bare hands. The fragments of glass that stuck in his fingers made them bleed for days.
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When the storm broke about the baby squid, Maura flew straight
out to Vegas to confront Malenfant and Emma.
She found them in Emma’s office. Emma was sitting at her desk, her head in her hands. Malenfant was hyped up, pacing, hands fluttering like independent living things.
Maura said quietly, “You fool, Malenfant. How long have you known?”
He sighed. “Not long. A couple of weeks. Dan had suspicions before we got confirmation, the actual pictures from Cruithne. Imbalances in the life-support systems—”
“Did you know she was pregnant before the launch?”
“No. I swear it. If I’d known I’d have taken her off the mission.”
She looked skeptical. “Really? Even given the launch window constraints and all of that technical crap? It would have meant scrubbing the mission.”
“Yes, it would. But I’d have accepted that. Look, Congress-woman. I know you think I’m some kind of obsessive. But I do notice how the world works. A mission like Bootstrap needs public support. We’ve known the ethical parameters from the beginning.”
“But we’re not sticking to those parameters any more, are we? We’d got to the point where the bleeding-heart public would have accepted Sheena’s death. The asteroid colony, a permanent tribute to a brave and wonderful creature. But this has changed everything.”
It was true. Since the latest leak, support for Bootstrap’s Cruithne project and its grandiose goals had evaporated.
All the tabloid-fed hysteria, the religious ravings, the pompous and hostile commentaries, made no sense, of course. If to abandon ten or a thousand sentient squid was a crime, so was abandoning one.
But when, she thought sourly, had sense and rationality been a predominant element in public debates on science and technology?
Malenfant spread his hands. “Look, Representative, we spent the money already. We have the installation on Cruithne.
“Malenfant, we are soon going to have an asteroid full of sentient-squid corpses up there. People will think it is
He thought that over. “You’re talking about shutting us down?”
“Malenfant, the practical truth is you’re already dead. The body hasn’t gone cold yet, is all.”
“It isn’t your decision. The FAA, the White House people, the oversight committees—”
“Without me, and a few others like me, Bootstrap would have been dead long ago.” She hesitated, then reached for his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Malenfant. Really. I had the same dream. We can’t sell
“We’ll do it with decency,” Emma said slowly. “We won’t kill Sheena. We’ll let her die in comfort.”
“And the babies?”
She shrugged. “We’ll turn away the communications dishes and let nature take its course. I just hope they forgive us.”
“I doubt that,” Malenfant said, and he began pacing again, back and forth, compulsively. “I can’t believe we’re going to be blocked by this: this one small thing.”
Maura said to Emma, “Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes.” Emma looked up and contrived a smile. “We’ve been lower than this. We’ll manage.”
Meaning, Maura realized, she will manage Malenfant. Bring him through this. You don’t deserve your friends, Malenfant, she thought.
They began to go through details.
She could feel the soft tug of Cruithne’s gravity field pulling her to the dark base of the habitat. She drifted, aching arms limp, dreaming of a male with bright, mindless eyes.
There were no fish left, scarcely any krill or prawns. The water that trickled through her mantle was cloudy and stank of decay. She felt life pulse through her, ever faster, as if eager to be done. And she seemed so weak, as if her muscles themselves were being consumed; it was a long time since the great ring muscles of her mantle had been strong enough to send her jetting freely, as once she had done, through this ocean she had brought across space.
But the young wouldn’t let her alone. They came to her, shook her limbs, seeking guidance. She summoned the will to open her chromatophores.
And it would soon consume these hapless young, too, she knew. Dan and Bootstrap had promised to keep her alive. But they would shut down the systems when she was gone. She wondered how the young knew this. They were smarter than she was.
When they swam out of her field of view, oddly, she forgot they were there, as if they ceased to exist when she could not see them. Her mind itself was weakening. She knew she could never hunt again, even if she had the strength.
But then the children would return, clamoring, demanding.
And she tried to explain it to them. Yes, they would all die, but in a great cause, so that Earth, the ocean, humans, could live. Humans and cephalopods, a great world-spanning shoal. It was a magnificent vision, worthy of the sacrifice of their lives.
But they knew nothing of Dan, of Earth. They wanted to hunt in shoals and swim through the ocean, unhindered by barriers of soft plastic.
They were like her. But in some ways they were more like their father. Bright. Primal.
She could see them chattering, rapidly, one to the other, too fast for her to follow.
She probably hadn’t explained it as well as Dan could. She tried again.
At JPL, at the appointed time, Dan logged on for his daily uplink to the
There had been nothing but inanimate telemetry for days. He wasn’t even sure — couldn’t tell from the muddled telemetry — if Sheena was in fact still alive.
Maybe this would be his last contact. He’d be glad if he could spare himself any more of this shit.
He was clearing his desk. He looked around the cubicle he was dismantling, the good old geekosphere: a comfortable mush of old coffee cups and fast-food wrappers and technical manuals and rolled-up softscreens, and the multi-poster on the partition that cycled through classic
Dan was going back to Key Largo. He planned to resign from Bootstrap, get back to the biorecovery and gen-eng work he’d started from. To tell the truth he was looking forward to moving back to Florida. The work he would do there would be all for the good, as far as he was concerned. None of the Nazi-doctor ethical ambiguities of Bootstrap.
But he was hoping to hang around JPL long enough to be with Sheena when she died. And the bio-signs in the telemetry indicated that wouldn’t be so long now. Then the Deep Space Network radio telescopes would be turned away from the asteroid for the last time, and whatever followed would unfold in the dark and cold, unheard.
Here was a new image in his softscreen. A squid, flashing signs at him, a mixture of the passing cloud and a sign he’d taught Sheena himself, the very first sign:
He couldn’t believe it. “Sheena?”
He had to wait the long seconds while his single word, translated to flashing signs, was transmitted across space.
“Oh.” One of the young.
The squid turned, strong and confident, and through a forest of arms predator eyes seemed to study him.
“Sheena Five? I know.”
She’s talking about the habitat biosphere, he realized. She wants me to tell her how to repair the biosphere. “That’s not possible.”
He had given Sheena no sign for
But he was telling the truth.
Wasn’t he? How the hell could you extend the fixed-duration closed-loop life-support system in that ball of water to support
But it needn’t stay closed-loop, he realized. The
You’d need machinery to get at all that stuff. But there
His brain started to tick at the challenge.
But there were other problems. When the comms uplink shut down in a few weeks, he wouldn’t be able to run the operation.
In that case, he realized, he’d just have to train the squid in the principles of what they were building. How to run it, repair it for themselves. Even extend it.
It might work. Sheena had been smart.
It would be a hell of an effort, though. And for what?
What’s this, Ystebo? Are you growing a conscience, at last? Because if you are, that damn piece of calamari up there knows how to play on it.
And besides, he thought, maybe I can convince Reid Malen-fant that this is the best thing to do, a way to keep the greater goals of the project in progress, with official sanction or not. If the squid, by their own efforts, refuse to die, maybe we can turn around public opinion one more time.
Do it now, justify later. Isn’t that what Malenfant says?
“I’ll help you,” he said. “I’ll try. What can they do, fire me?”
Dan placed a call to Malenfant. And then a second, to Florida, to tell the people there he wouldn’t be joining them just yet.
The squid turned away from the camera.
Cornelius Taine came to Emma’s office.
“We think it worked,” he said, breathless. “We found him.”
Emma was not glad to see Taine once more. “Found who? What are you talking about?”
Cornelius handed over a document. It was a report prepared by a professor of physics from Cal Tech. Emma leafed through it. It was heavy on text and laden with equations, difficult to skim.
Cornelius said, “It’s an analysis of material found on a softscreen. The math was difficult to decipher. Unconventional formalism. But it’s all there.”
Cornelius sat down and visibly tried to be patient. “It’s a sketch of the foundations of a theory of quantum gravity, which is a unification, awaited for a century, of general relativity and quantum theory, the two great pillars of physics.”
“I thought we had that. String theory.”
“String theory is part of it. But string theory is mathematically dense — after thirty years the theorists have only extracted a handful of predictions from it — and it’s limited besides; it doesn’t incorporate curved space in a natural way. And—”
Emma pushed the report away. “What does this have to do with us?”
He smiled. “Everything. The material turned up in a Foundation School in Australia, their Northern Territory. Produced by one of the inmates there.”
“Yes. A ten-year-old from Zambia.”
He handed over a photograph. A frightened-looking boy, strong white teeth, round eyes. “My God,” she said. “I know this boy.”
“I know.” Taine looked at the image hungrily. “He’s the one we’ve been looking for. Don’t you see?”
“No, I don’t.” She thought over what he had said. “You’re saying that finding this one boy was the objective of the whole program?” She pushed away the report. “Cornelius, I’m amazed you’ve come to me with this. In case you’re not aware of it, we’re being shut down up on Cruithne. In three months of surface operations we’ve discovered nothing to justify the diversion of the mission away from Reinmuth, with all the complication that brought us.”
“We’ve gone over this many times,” he said tightly. “You’re well aware that the firefly robots have been restricted to a small area around the
“Sure,” she said harshly. “Or maybe all we were picking up was the Fermilab air-conditioning turning itself on and off. What do you think?”
He eyed her, eyes bright, mouth small and tense. He seemed to be rocking back and forth in his chair, almost imperceptibly. “Emma, there is much,
She sighed. “So now what?”
“Now we have to go get him.”
“Perhaps he will remember you.”
Sheena 6 was the smartest of the young.
It was no privilege. She had to work hard to absorb the new signs and concepts Dan sent to her.
And there was much work to do.
She learned to use the glovelike systems that made the firefly robots clamber over the asteroid ground, that strange place beyond the ship wall where there was no water. The mining equipment, designed to extract methane and water for the rocket fuel, was adapted to seek out essentials for the phytoplankton — nitrates and phosphates. No more sacks of water and dirt were fired to Earth. Under her command, fireflies took apart the methane rocket plants at the poles and began to haul the parts over the surface for new uses.
Even in the hab itself there was much to do.-Dan showed her how to keep the water pure. Oxygen could be produced by the great metal cells, to keep the water fresh and vitalizing. There were beds of charcoal filters through which the water was pumped. But the charcoal had to be replaced by carbon extracted from asteroid material, burned in sun fire.
Dan also tried to show her how to interpret the elaborate automatic monitoring systems that checked that the closed loops remained healthy. But this was no use to her. Squid senses were delicate. If the water was unbalanced, she could see, taste, smell it as it passed through her mantle, over her gills. She could see the twisting polarization of the light caused by murky pollutants. She could even hear the tiny cries of the plankton. She
The processes were complex. But at heart, she learned, there was a simple principle. Her world, this droplet of water clinging to a rock, was so small it could not sustain itself. She took food out of it by feeding on krill; so she must find ways, direct or indirect, of returning raw materials for that food to the world.
In the midst of this activity, Sheena 5 grew weaker. Sheena 6 tried to pummel her awake, a few hours longer.
At last, though, Sheena’s black eyes clouded. Her young gathered around her.
Last confused words, picked out in blurred signs on a mottled carapace, stiff attempts at posture by muscles leached of strength.
Sheena 6 hovered close to her mother. What had those darkening eyes seen? Was it really true that Sheena 5 had been hatched in an ocean without limits, an ocean where hundreds — thousands, millions — of squid hunted and fought, bred and died?
Sheena 5’s arms drifted purposelessly, and the soft gravity of Cruithne started to drag her down for the last time.
Sheena’s young fell on her, their beaks tearing into her cooling, sour flesh.
With time, the
But it was too small.
It had been built to sustain one squid. There were four of them now — four of Sheena’s young.
The shortage of food wasn’t the only problem. At times Sheena 6 ached with the need to rip open the mantle of her most foolish brother.
So Sheena, under instruction from Dan, went to work. Under her guidance the firefly robots began to assemble new engines, new flows of material. Dan tried to teach her sign labels for the chemical processes involved.
Here was a small plant, for instance, that burned hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce water and carbon monoxide. Then the carbon monoxide burned with further hydrogen to produce water and ethylene, and then the ethylene was used to produce polyethylene and polypropylene
The truth was she understood little. But she understood the end product.
With plastics she could make anything. She had the firefly robots toil over the plastic sheets and artifacts, cutting and joining. The shining sheets spread around the rocket at the pole and the glimmering habitat
These toy factories had been intended as trials of technologies and manufacturing processes that would have supported a human colony on Cruithne. But no humans had come to Cruithne.
Soon there were four habs, linked by tunnels, one for each of Sheena’s young, the smart survivors.
The habs filled up with water from melted asteroid substance. The krill and diatoms bred happily to fill the volume available. The habs were splashes of water and life on the asteroid’s crumbling, coal-dark surface; they looked like living things themselves, spawning and breeding.
But already another cephalopod generation was coming: sacs of eggs clung to asteroid rock in all the habs.
So they extended the habs further.
And the greater volume required more power. Sheena extended the solar cell arrays that coated the surface of the asteroid, around the pole.
But this wasn’t enough. So Sheena 6 found a way to make glass from Cruithne silicon compounds, and ceramics to make frames that held great wings of solar receptors in space, away from the surface.
Unremarked by humans, the young of Sheena swarmed over their asteroid.
The third generation emerged from their shells and started to look at their expanding world with new, curious, resentful eyes.
Perhaps a fifth of them were smart. A fifth seemed a small number.
As the young hunted their mindless brothers, Sheena wondered if there were ways to increase that proportion. And to make the squid smarter.
And live longer.
Sheena 6 thought about the future.
It wouldn’t stop, Sheena 6 saw, more generations of young and more habs, until the asteroid was full, used up. What then? Would they turn on each other at last?
But there was nobody to discuss her ideas with.
The truth was, Sheena was isolated. Her siblings, even her own young, were remote from her.
This new shoal had been hatched in the strangeness of space, and they swam in asteroid water, not the oceans of Earth. That was true of Sheena 6 also, of course, but she had worked with humans, with Dan, as had her mother before her. Perhaps she was closer to Earth than they were.
Sheena 5 had talked about the great shoals of Earth, their dreaming songs of the million-year-deep past. These new squid cared nothing for Earth, nothing for the past. And their dreams, their dances and songs, were of the future.
The siblings found new ways to control the firefly robots. They had begun to send firefly robots to explore the asteroid, places neither Sheena 5 nor even Sheena 6 had seen. They signed pictures to each other Sheena 6 couldn’t recognize: great starburst explosions, squid writhing and dying.
It seemed they had found something on the far side of the asteroid. Something strange.
They would not discuss it with her. When she sent a firefly robot crawling over there to investigate, they turned it around and sent it back.
The siblings took to wearing sigils on their chromatophore-rich hides. Bright circles. Dan told her they were blue.
Sheena 6 swam restlessly through the
She longed for the shoal. But she had never known the companionship of the true shoal; she had been born too late to have shoaled with the great clouds of squid on Earth, too early to join with these new, bright-eyed creatures of space. She was neither one nor the other.
She had no purpose. She may as well die.
Still, the restlessness burned in her, and curiosity itched.
What was it that the others had found on the far side of the asteroid?
She sent another firefly, but it too was turned back.
Once, Sheena 5, her mother, had crossed space, traveled between worlds. Perhaps it would be appropriate if Sheena 6 — the closest of Sheena 5’s young, the last to have communicated with a human — were to do something similar.
She. gathered her remaining machines and began to plan something new.
There were legs before Michael when he opened his eyes. Pillars
of cloth. A man’s legs.
He tried not to move. He closed his eyes again. Perhaps if the man thought Michael was asleep he would go away, choose someone else. There was a strange, unearthly silence in the room. He imagined the others lying rigid, feigning sleep as he did.
The Brothers hardly ever came here. The Sister, in her glass-fronted office at the end of the dormitory, would only come out if someone had done something wrong, like spill the slop bucket.
It was never good when something unusual happened, because it meant that somebody was going to get hurt. All you could do was find ways to stop it being you.
But tonight, it seemed, it was Michael’s turn.
The man’s voice barked. It was the language they spoke here, not Michael’s language, and so he didn’t understand. Best not to say anything.
But the man was still speaking to him, angrier now, too loud for him to ignore, to feign sleep.
And now a fist the size of a child’s head came down and grabbed Michael’s grubby T-shirt. He felt the cloth dig under his arms, and he heard a seam rip. Michael was lifted up, bodily, his legs dangling.
He hung there limp. A face like a cloud, puzzled and angry, loomed before him.
He was set down on his bare feet, hard. He stood there and looked up at the man. It wasn’t one of the Brothers. The man turned away and spoke some more, this time to the Sister, who was standing at the end of Michael’s bed.
The Sister took hold of Michael’s hand. He made a fist so she couldn’t take his fingers, but she shook his hand, hard, until his fingers uncurled, and then she grabbed them and squeezed them tightly.
The Sister dragged him out of the dormitory. It was early morning. The gray of dawn had washed out, leaving the sky an empty blue, as always, and the bleached buildings of the School stretched away around him.
The Sister took him to a smaller building, a place he’d never been into before. She opened the door and pushed him inside.
He thought it was the cleanest place he had ever seen. The walls were white and so smooth they looked like skin. There were gleaming metal fixtures set in the roof, and bright strip lights that turned the air gray.
The Sister started pulling at his clothes, lifting or ripping them off him. He endured this passively. He would get them back later.
He reached out and touched the smooth wall. The grime on his palm left a mark. He snatched back his hand and looked at the Sister, wondering if she would punish him for that, but she didn’t seem to have noticed.
When she had removed all his clothes she pushed him into the middle of the room, away from the walls. Then she walked out of the door and pulled it closed behind her.
He just stood there in the middle of the room, because nobody had told him to do anything else.
And then water began to gush from the ceiling, hard needle jets of it. It hissed against the walls, and battered at his flesh. At first he thought it might be rain. There used to be rain at home, in the summer. But there was never rain here.
The roof rain grew harder, so hard it stung. There was an odd smell in it, like the smell of the liquid the Sisters sometimes used to hose out the dormitory. And it was getting hotter. He stumbled back, fetching up against the hard, slippery wall, but the rain seemed to follow him and there was nowhere to run, not even other children to hide behind.
Perhaps this was his punishment, then. Perhaps it was because of the flashlight.
He huddled down in the corner, wedged into the angle of the walls. He could see water trickling off his body into a hole in the middle of the floor. The water was stained brown and black, but after a time it began to run clear.
Emma had become increasingly dismayed by the bad news that surrounded the Blue-children Schools. Nothing, however, could have prepared her for the reality of Red Creek.
Red Creek turned out to be an Aboriginal reserve in Australia’s Northern Territory, reinstated by the Terra Nullius national government. A section of it had been hastily cordoned off to site this Foundation School. They were shown around by a “Brother” — a young Portuguese, darkly handsome and composed, dressed in a flapping black gown and dog collar.
It was a bleak place.
There were huts, like barracks, that had once been painted white, but the paint had faded to an indiscriminate pink. Otherwise there seemed to be no color at all, save the grayish red of the dust, here at the baked, eroded heart of Australia. The dust lay everywhere; as she walked she was trailed by a great cloud of it. Away from the reception area there seemed to be absolutely no vegetation, not a blade of grass. There was a hot, dry smell, of dust, dirty clothing, feces, and urine.
They weren’t allowed into the huts. She saw no children.
Here in Red Creek, three hundred children lived in administered squalor. Cornelius and the Brother remarked on none of this. The Brother talked instead of economies-of-scale joint administration of the School and the rest of the
Terra Nullius — the name of Australia’s governing party — meant “empty land.” It referred to the old fiction that Australia was unoccupied when Captain Cook planted the flag here, that the Aborigines had no rights to the lands they had inhabited for millennia. It was a good name for the policies the government followed ruthlessly.
The native Australians had suffered a couple of centuries of persistent discrimination, with the dispossession of land, the separation of children from parents for indenture as servants and laborers, and so on. There had been a brief summer of hope, hi the 1970s and after, when liberal, if flawed, protective legislation had been passed. It had all evaporated when the economy down-turned at the start of the new century and the soil erosion began to hit.
Today, black children made up 3 percent of the youth in Australia, but 60 percent of those in prison. International human rights groups and Aboriginal organizations talked of torture and beatings. And so on.
Modern Australia was a good place for a school like this. And the people who staffed it.
The Portuguese Brother belonged to a Christian group called the Order of Christ. This was part of the shadowy coalition that supported the Milton Foundation. The Order turned out to have roots going back to the fourteenth century. It was a religious-military society originally set up to attack Islam in its own territories. The Order had included Vasco da Gama, for example, one of whose specialities was hanging Muslims from his masts and using them for crossbow practice.
In the year 2011, here was the Order in the black heart of Australia, running a school. And it was partly funded by Bootstrap, with money that had passed through Emma’s control.
Appalled, ashamed, she drew Cornelius aside. “Dear God, Cornelius.”
He frowned. “You’re distressed.”
“Hell, yes. I never imagined—”
“There is no crime here,” Cornelius said smoothly. “The Brothers are actually here to protect the children. The Blues.”
“Does Malenfant know about this?”
Cornelius smiled. “What do you think?”
Emma took deep breaths. Compartmentalize, Emma. One issue at a time.
“Cornelius, how can a child, alone and uneducated, in this godforsaken School in the Australian outback, come up with a theory of everything?”
“I could point to Einstein. He was a patent clerk, remember.
His education was flawed. He didn’t even have access to experimental evidence. He just dreamed up relativity from first principles, by
“Well,, it’s possible Michael has had a little help.”
“What kind of help?”
He looked into the air, his pale blue eyes milky with light. “You have to think like a downstreamer. Anticipate them.”
“You really are insane, Cornelius.”
He smiled. He turned and walked away after the Portuguese Brother.
She had no choice but to follow him.
They returned to the reception area, and waited for the child, Michael, to be brought to them.
In the rain house, the water stopped. He sat, shivering.
Then warm air gushed from the ceiling over him. The light grew strange, and he felt his skin tingle.
The door banged open, and the Sister returned.
He cowered, burying his hands between his thighs, but she hauled his hands out and dragged him to his feet.
She pulled him from the room into the open air. The sun felt harsh on his skin, which no longer had its warm screen of dirt. There were clothes here, but they weren’t his. She prodded him. Her meaning was clear.
Reluctantly he bent down and picked up the clothes, and pulled them on. They were crisp and white, a T-shirt and long trousers and even socks and a pair of shoes. But they scratched his denuded skin. Besides, they had no blue circle, and he was confused.
When he was dressed, the Sister grabbed his hand again and dragged him once more.
Now they walked the length of the School compound. The Sister took great long strides with a harsh, regular gait, and he had to half run to keep up. Once he almost fell. She screamed at him, evidently concerned he might have dirtied his new clothes.
They soon left behind the dormitory blocks, their paint peeling in the endless sunlight.
He started to feel frightened again. Although it was just a short walk from his own block, he didn’t recognize the buildings here. He must have been brought past them when he arrived here, but he didn’t remember, and he had never been so far since. Would he know his way back to his dormitory again? He tried to memorize the buildings he passed, but there was too much newness here.
He tried dragging his toe in the dirt, so as to leave a trail he might follow to get back. But when the Sister saw him she shouted at him because he had soiled his new white shoes, and she cuffed his head.
They were coming toward one of the buildings now. It had an open door, darkness inside. There was a fence beyond this building, and beyond that the desert stretched away, flat and empty.
The Brothers had told them all about the desert. It stretched away a long way from the School, so far you would soon collapse of thirst, and even if you did manage to cross it you would find people who would punish you and send you back. So even if you somehow got out of the School there was nowhere to go, nobody to help you.
The Sister dragged him toward the dark doorway. He couldn’t help but pull back. This was the end of the journey, and whatever awaited him, whatever he had been prepared for in the building with the rain and the light, was here, inside this building.
Sometimes children were taken away from the dormitory and never came back. Would he find their bleached bones piled up here?
The Sister dragged him inside, and he tried not to scream.
I can tell you now why I believe Michael is so important.
I have had long arguments with Malenfant over this: Malenfant, who feels it is callous to manipulate the lives of children so.
But Michael is not merely a child.
The Milton project was, of course, a cover. We have our own theory on the origin of the Blues, the bright children.
We believe the downstreamers must be trying to signal us. Because
Perhaps instead the downstreamers are also targeting something else. Perhaps they are targeting the most widespread programmable information storage system on the planet.
I mean, of course, the human brain. Especially the brains of the young: empty, impressionable, easily shaped.
We don’t know how. We don’t know what it would
Or perhaps we do — perhaps we always have — but we just don’t recognize them.
Quite a thought, isn’t it? Is it possible that Michael — born into ancient dust and squalor, unable to read or write, and yet dreaming of a four-dimensional universe — is more than some precocious genius, that he is actually being influenced, somehow, by time-traveler beams from the future?
It may sound fantastic, a dip into insanity.
But what if it’s true?
Perhaps this has been going on a long time.
Michael is a treasure beyond price. Malenfant seems to understand this now.
None of us yet knows where this extraordinary multifaceted journey is taking us. But it is clear to me that the boy, Michael, and this man, Malenfant, together are the key element.
I feel I have been groping in the dark. And yet I feel proud to have reached so far, to have been the catalyst to this essential relationship.
The first time Malenfant met Michael he seemed electrified, as if by recognition.
The fate of the other Blue children, incidentally, is irrelevant.
Inside the building it was
The Sister pushed him to a chair opposite the table. He sat down.
The Sister went to one of the doors. She opened it, and he glimpsed people beyond: adults talking and holding glasses, drinks. The door closed behind the Sister, and he was left alone.
He glanced around. There was nobody here. He could see no cameras or softscreens.
He slid off the chair and crossed to the table, feet padding on the hard floor. There was a paper plate on the table with something on it, curling and dry and brown. Perhaps it was the rind of some fruit. He crammed a piece of it into his mouth and pushed the rest inside his shirt. The rind was sharp on his tongue, tough and hard to chew.
The door opened abruptly. He turned. People came in: the Sister and another woman.
When the Sister saw him with the plate her face twisted. He saw her fist bunch, but something made her keep from hitting him. Instead she bent down and grabbed his face, pinching his cheeks until he had to spit out the rind onto the floor.
The other woman came forward. She looked familiar.
Memory floated into his head, unwelcome. She had come to the village, in the days before.
Suddenly he knew what they were going to do to him. After Stoney had come to the village, he had been taken to this School. Now here she was again, and he would be taken away again, somewhere worse than this, where he would have to learn the rules over again.
Stoney took a step toward him.
He fell to the ground, covering his belly and head, waiting for the blows.
But Stoney was reaching for him with open hands. She stroked his back. He looked up in surprise.
She was doing something he had never seen an adult do before. Something he’d thought only children did.
She was crying.
A week after Emma got back from Australia, Cornelius called a meeting-at the Mount Palomar Observatory, from where he had been trying to observe Cruithne.
Emma — working furiously, unable to sleep, unable to put out of her mind what she’d seen in Australia — tried to veto this. But of course she was overruled.
And so, at the behest of Cornelius Taine and his bright insanities, she was dragged across the country once more.
To reach Mount Palomar, Emma had to fly into San Diego, and then she faced an hour’s drive east up into the San Jacinto Mountains. The highway was modern. Her driver — a chatty, overweight woman — told her the highway had been laid by prisoners from a local jail.
They reached the group of telescopes that made up the observatory. The site was dominated by the dome of the giant two-hundred-inch reflector: a national monument, its heart a mirror made of twenty tons of honeycombed glass. But tonight, even though the skies were clear — if stained a little by sodium-lit smog — the big dome was closed up.
Cornelius Taine met Emma at her car. She turned away from him, refusing to speak.
Apparently undisturbed, he led her to a small support building. Brightly lit, the hut was crammed with humming information technology, much of it looking a little antiquated. There were a few junior researchers working here, quietly bullshitting as they gave up another night of their lives to this slow, obsessive work, waiting for Earth to pass through the starlight shadow of some rock in space. The dedication, the ingenuity with which data was squeezed out of such invisibly small opportunities, was awesome.
They aren’t here, she thought, unlike Cornelius, because of the Carter catastrophe, whatever Cruithne means for him. They aren’t even paid well. They just do it because…
Actually, she didn’t really understand why they did it.
In this nervous, overcompensating crew, Cornelius in his black suit looked ice-cool and in control.
They reached a small, cluttered office. Emma had arrived late; the others, it seemed, had already started.
Malenfant was pacing the room, his movements large and aggressive and exaggerated. She hadn’t seen him since she got back from Australia. Dan Ystebo was sitting there, cradling a doughnut, looking obscurely pleased with himself.
And Emma was deeply disturbed to see that Michael was here: the boy from Africa whom she had retrieved from the nightmare camp in the Australian desert. He was wearing loose, clean clothes. He was sitting in a corner of the office with his back to a wall. He was playing with a prism, letting its scattered light wash over his eyes.
She hissed to Malenfant, “What is he doing here?”
“I don’t know yet, Emma,” Malenfant said. “I know it seems wrong. But I don’t think we have any choice.”
She frowned. He sounded frightened.
Cornelius stood by them. “Michael is safe and well, his situation legally controlled.” His eyes were very pale, like pieces of glass. “You know, Emma, if you were so concerned about this boy, you could have taken the initiative. You could have tried to find him a guardian of your choice, for instance. But you didn’t. You’re like all the bleeding hearts who have been shouting loud and long recently about the Schools and the treatment of the Blue children. As long as the kids were out of sight you didn’t care what happened to them.”
She found she couldn’t meet his eyes.
She noticed that even as Michael watched his prism, his eyes flickered, his gaze traveling over the adults. He doesn’t trust us, she thought. He’s expecting us to turn on him again, as we — the adult world — have done before.
She sat down, troubled. “Let’s get this over with.”
Tense, excited, Malenfant said, “You got something, haven’t you? Something on Cruithne.”
Cornelius nodded curtly. “To business. One thing at a time, yes? Thanks to our friend Dan here, the squidjiave survived on Cruithne.” He tapped at touchpads embedded in the table surface. “Unfortunately they aren’t talking to us. They are even turning away fireflies controlled by the squid faction who have remained in the primary
Malenfant said to Emma, “Ironic because we sent the squid up there in the first place to give us a better look at Cruithne.”
Cornelius started to bring up data — graphs, bar charts — on the softscreens embedded in the tabletop. “You’d be surprised how much we can figure out about an asteroid just by looking at it. We can see how bright our asteroid is by comparing it with nearby stars, see how fast it’s moving by watching it against the background sky, see how its brightness changes so we can guess its shape, see what color the rocks are and so guess what they’re made of. Also we use radio telescopes to bounce radar beams off Cruithne’s surface. By comparing the echo with the outgoing beam, we can tell even more about the asteroid: its shape, rotation, surface properties, position and velocity, composition.
“We’ve found that the surface morphology of some parts of the asteroid is unusual. And not just because of the presence of the squid habs. We did manage to pick up a signal from one of the firefly drones that got close enough to return an image, a partial image, before it was turned away.”
Malenfant snapped, “Close enough to what?”
For answer, Cornelius flashed up an image in the tabletop softscreens.
Emma shared a firefly’s view of Cruithne:
A star field; a lumpy horizon; a broken, pitted, dark gray surface highlighted by a light source somewhere behind her, presumably fixed to the robot whose electronic eyes she was looking through. She saw bits of the firefly in the foreground: a metal manipulator arm, a couple of tethers pinning the drone to the surface. Her view was restricted; the drone was low, hugging the surface, bringing the asteroid’s horizon in close.
And on that horizon she saw—
It was an arc, bright blue. It seemed utterly smooth, geometrically pure. It stretched from one side of the frame to the other, obviously artificial.
She felt cold. This was strange, utterly unexpected.
“Holy shit,” Malenfant said. “It’s an artifact, isn’t it?”
Emma leaned forward. She saw a potato-shaped object — gray, lumpy, and scarred — against a dark background. “Cruithne,” she said.
The image was animated; Cruithne rotated, gracefully, about its long axis, bringing something into view. Standing in a pit, deep and neatly round, there was a structure.
It was a blue circle.
Overenlarged, it was just a ring of blocky pixels. It was obviously the extension of the arc the firefly had approached. She had no way of gauging its size. There were squid habs clustered around the circle, golden splashes, not touching it directly.
Within the circle itself there was only darkness.
“It’s about thirty feet tall. We tried bouncing radar and laser signals off the artifact. It doesn’t have the same reflective properties as the rest of the asteroid. In fact we don’t seem to be getting any radar echo at all. It’s hard to be definitive. The clutter from the surrounding surface—”
Malenfant said, “So what does that mean?”
“Maybe it’s perfectly absorbent. Or maybe it’s a hole.”
Malenfant frowned. “A hole? What kind of hole?”
“An infinitely deep one.” Cornelius smiled. “We’re looking for a better explanation. We’ve also detected other anomalies. Radiation, high-energy stuff. Some oddities, pions and positrons. We think there must be high-energy processes going on there.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t seem to reflect light. That blue glow comes from the substance itself. It has no spectral lines. Just a broad-spectrum glow.”
Emma shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“If it were made of atoms,” he said patiently, “any kind of atoms, it would emit precise frequencies, because the electrons in atoms jump between quantized energy levels.”
“So this isn’t made of atoms,” Dan said, wondering.
“We should soon get back direct control of a couple of robots,” Cornelius said. “Then, if this is a hole in space, let’s find out where it leads. We’ll send in a firefly.”
Malenfant paced, obsessive, exultant. “So it’s true. It’s an artifact, out there on Cruithne. You were right, Cornelius.
Emma looked inside herself, searching for awe, even terror perhaps. She found only numbness.
Malenfant’s mind was immediately on the implications for his projects, Emma realized, his business. Not on the thing itself, its blunt reality. And yet, if this was real, everything was different.
Cornelius was smiling. Dan was sitting with his mouth open. Michael’s prism-lit eyes were on her, empty and open.
It took Cornelius another week to set it up.
Sitting in her office in Vegas autumn sunlight, trying to deal with her work — the complex, drawn-out destruction of Bootstrap, the various related scandals concerning the end of the world and the Blue children and the squid — what she had seen on Mount Palomar seemed unreal. A light show.
Artifacts on an asteroid? A hole in space?
And yet she found it unaccountably hard to concentrate.
Malenfant, during this period, was a pain in the ass. He threw himself into Bootstrap affairs, but it was obvious he was trying to distract himself: angry, vigorous, frustrated, burning up nervous energy. Emma did her best to keep him away from the press.
At last Cornelius called Emma and Malenfant to a meeting at Eschatology’s offices in New York. Emma considered ignoring the request: excluding Cornelius, and the strain of madness and inhumanity he had introduced into her life.
But, she found, she couldn’t. She had to
With a sense of dread, she put her affairs on hold and flew out with Malenfant.
Cornelius met them at Reception and led them to a conference room.
At the closed door — a mundane oak panel in this plain carpeted corridor — he paused. “Be warned,” he said.
Emma’s hand crept into Malenfant’s.
Cornelius opened the door.
And Emma found herself on Cruithne: black sky, dull black surface curving under her feet, the light from a powerful sun, hanging above her, drowning the stars. And, in a neatly excavated pit in front of her, there was a blue artifact: thirty feet tall, shining, perfectly circular, like some piece of blunt municipal sculpture. Waiting.
She walked forward, hesitantly, her eyes slowly adjusting. When she looked down she saw that her feet were a little below the coal-black asteroid surface, as if she were paddling in a shallow pool. Of course, she felt nothing.
Cornelius said, “We papered the walls with softscreens. Not quite immersive VR. Much of the imagery comes directly from the various camera feeds we’re managing to operate up there. The rest is software extrapolation. I’ve been preparing our firefly robot probe. But—”
“But what?” Malenfant said.
Cornelius sighed. “An hour ago this happened.” He tapped at a desk surface.
A firefly robot materialized from a pixel hail in front of them. Using its cables and pitons to drag at the coarse surface, it made its painstaking way toward the artifact. Lines trailed back from it, out of their view.
Malenfant said, “That’s our robot?”
“No. Not ours. Just watch.”
And now an object like a huge beach ball, attached to the long lines, came washing into the virtual reconstruction, towed by the firefly. It was water, Emma saw: a droplet wrapped up in a shimmering golden blanket, complex waves molding its surface as it bounced gently on the regolith.
Within the blanket something was moving.
“It’s a squid,” Emma said.
“Yes.” Cornelius rubbed his nose. “We think it’s a Sheena. That is, from the faction that still inhabits the
The firefly, with a neat pulse of microrockets, leapt through the portal. It was briefly dwarfed by the great blue circle. Then it disappeared; Emma glimpsed a red flash.
The cables that trailed back to the beach ball oscillated, but they did not grow slack. The golden beach ball sat on the surface, quivering.
Malenfant stepped forward, hands on hips, studying the image. “Where did the firefly go? Did it come out the other side of the hoop?”
“We think so,” Cornelius said. “But the other side doesn’t seem to be on Cruithne.”
There was a long silence.
The squid in the golden beach ball jetted back and forth, patient. Then the cables grew taut again and began dragging the beach ball forward.
Watching the cables disappear into the artifact, apparently not connected to anything, was eerie.
It took just seconds for the beach ball to complete its series of awkward, slow bounces to the blue circle. Then, after a single liquid impact with the blue circle itself, the beach ball shimmered through the hoop. As the curved golden wall hit the dark disc, it seemed to flatten out, Emma thought, quickly reddening to darkness. At last the beach ball was squashed to an ellipse, dimmed to a sunset glimmer.
Then it was gone, not a trace remaining.
“Holy shit,” Malenfant said.
Cornelius held his hand up. “Wait.”
There was a screech, loud enough to sting Emma’s eardrums. “What was that?”
“A radio signal,” Cornelius said. “Very high intensity. Coming from the artifact. I cleaned it up, and got this.”
It was a TV image of a squid: coarse, the colors distorted, in golden gloom. She was repeating a simple sign, over and over.
Cruithne’s wheeling black sky, legs crossed, sipping latte. bmma
watched Earth and Moon climb through Cruithne’s fifteen-
minute night, blue spark with pale gray-brown companion.
“I have only partial answers.” Cornelius’ face was heavily shadowed, its expression impossible to read. “The Sheena obviously survived. She used a camera in her hab bubble to send back that message. But she’s… somewhere else. I suspect we’re dealing with an Einstein-Rosen bridge here.”
“A multiply connected space.” He waved his hands. “A bridge between two points in space and time, otherwise separated. Or maybe even between two different spacetimes altogether, different levels of the manifold.”
“The manifold?” Emma asked.
“The ensemble of possible universes,” Cornelius said. He took his softscreen and folded it over, pinching two places together with thumb and forefinger. “You must be familiar with the principle. If I take this flat space, two-dimensional, and fold it over in the third dimension, I can connect two points otherwise far separated. And the point where they meet, the place between my thumb and finger, is a circle, a flat place.”
“So if you fold over our three-D space in four dimensions—”
“The interface you get is three-dimensional. A box of some kind, where the two spaces touch.”
“You’re talking about a wormhole,” Malenfant said.
Cornelius said seriously, “A wormhole is only one possibility. An Einstein-Rosen bridge is a generic term for any such interface, which is Lorentzian. That is, it transforms like special relativity—”
Malenfant snapped, “I thought you needed a lot of energy to make a wormhole. Funny physics.”
Cornelius sighed. “You do indeed. To keep their throats open, wormholes have to be threaded with exotic matter.” He looked at them. “That means negative energy density. Antigravity.”
“I didn’t see any antigravity machines out there on the asteroid,” Emma said.
Cornelius shook his head. “You don’t understand. General relativity is barely a century old. We haven’t even observed a black hole directly yet. And we believe that relativity is only a partial description of reality anyhow. We have no idea how a sufficiently advanced society might set up an Einstein-Rosen bridge: what it might look like, how it might behave. For example, it’s possible the ring itself contains something like cosmic string. Channels of unified-force energy. Very massive, very powerful gravity fields.”
“How could you manipulate such stuff?” Emma asked.
“I don’t know.” He smiled.
“How that thing works is less important right now than what it does,” Malenfant said. “If the ring is some kind of wormhole, a gateway to somewhere else—”
“Then the Sheena isn’t dead. And if she stepped through that gateway, she can step back again. Right?”
Cornelius shook his head. “We think this particular bridge is one-way. That’s theoretically possible. The Kerr-Newman singularity, for instance—”
Emma faced him.
“Because we can’t see through it. Because light falling on it, even sunlight, is absorbed completely.” He gazed at her. “Emma, if it was two-way, we’d be able to see Sheena. Wherever she is.”
Malenfant growled, “So what do we do?”
Cornelius smiled. “Why, we send through our firefly, as we planned.”
They invested another hour while Cornelius finalized the setup of his firefly robot. It had been loaded up with every sensor Cornelius could think of, mostly stuff Emma had never heard of.
Emma stretched, paced around this strange VR representation ofCruimne.
None of this is real, she thought. It is a light show from the sky. None of it matters, compared to the mountain of mails that must be mounting up in her “In” tray even now, compared to the complexities of the human world in which she had to survive. And when it all proves to be some dumb illusion, then we’ll get back to work.
Without warning Cornelius collapsed the VR walls. Emma found herself in a bare, black-walled room illuminated by a single wall-mounted softscreen. The screen showed a slab of dark sky, a stretch of regolith; it was the single point of view returned by their firefly’s camera.
Cornelius, working at a desktop softscreen, sent a command.
Long time-delayed minutes later, the firefly started trundling toward the portal. The screen image shuddered, ground and sky lurching, as the firefly snaked its way across Cruithne’s battered surface. Data returned in a chattering stream to Cornelius’software.
Then the firefly stopped, maybe six feet short of the portal itself. The portal loomed against a star-scattered sky, bright blue, a hole of emptiness.
“This is it,” Cornelius whispered. “Well. I wonder what we’re going to see.” He grinned coldly.
The robot, autonomous, moved forward once more.
The portal surface loomed larger, the blue ring at its boundary passing out of the image, only a thin dusting of Cruithne regolith at the base of the image giving any sense of motion.
There was a blue flash. Then darkness.
real — Spike, think about the implications.
If Reid Malenfant’s light show from Bootstrap has any validity at all — and our experts here at the think tank, e and otherwise, have a consensus that it does — then the old arguments about mutually assured destruction, the nuclear winter and so forth, no longer apply.
The only question is who will control that future.
Many of us think our best strategy right now is to throw out the steering wheel.
And that’s why we must consider a first strike.
I know this is a controversial view, Spike. But you have a seat on Marine One. If anybody has a chance to enact this, to press it on the president, it’s you.
The image broke up into static, restabilized.
Emma felt bewildered. “Has the firefly gone through?”
“We lost a couple of systems,” Cornelius said. “Overloads. I think…”
Emma leaned forward. The screen was empty, dark
The firefly seemed to be rolling forward. A spot of ground directly in front of it was lit up by the small floodlights it carried. Farther out the ground was illuminated by a softer glow: not sunlight, or even starlight, she realized. The light seemed diffuse, as if from some extended source, a glowing ceiling somewhere out of her view.
There were no stars in the sky.
Suddenly a bright yellow light washed over the regolith, drowning the firefly’s feeble glow.
Emma was dazzled. “What’s that? Is something wrong?”
“No. I just turned on the floods. We can’t see into the portal, but we can fire light beams through from the other side.”
Malenfant said, “I think the firefly is panning the camera.”
The image crept sideways: empty sky, broken regolith in a wash of light.
“Shit,” Malenfant said. “It looks like Cruithne.”
“I think we
“What does that mean?”
“Cruithne has lost a little mass.”
Cornelius just glared.
A blue ring scanned slowly into the picture. Its interior was shining, bright, and yellow.
“The portal,” Cornelius said. “That light is our flood, shining through. In fact when the sun comes up on our side, the sunlight should reach the far side—”
“If this is Cruithne,” Malenfant said, “where the hell are we? The far side, the pole?”
“You don’t understand,” Cornelius whispered.
The firefly was moving its own small spotlights. The glowing ellipses swept across the regolith and fell on the portal.
Malenfant grabbed a softscreen and began flicking through camera angles. “If it is possible to get back through that portal—”
“We should be able to see the firefly’s glow, coming back through this side,” Cornelius said. “Good thinking.”
They found a stable external image of the portal from
Cornelius nodded, looking pleased.
“Damn it, Cornelius,” Emma snapped. “This means the Sheena won’t be able to get back. Doesn’t it?”
He seemed surprised by her anger. “But we knew that already. This just reinforces the hypothesis.”
“And that pleases you.”
“Of course it does.” He was puzzled.
Emma took a breath to calm herself.
“If the firefly’s light isn’t making it back,” Malenfant said, “how come its radio signal is?”
“I don’t think it is. I think the portal — the far end — is picking up the firefly’s transmissions and rebroadcasting them, maybe through some kind of Feynman radio. And I think the portal at
“Like Sheena’s initial screech.”
“What kind of Feynman radio? Neutrinos?”
“There is a higher neutrino flux coming from the portal since we started this,” Cornelius said. “But I’m guessing. We’re dealing with capabilities far beyond our own.”
The firefly’s camera angle continued to scan across the asteroid’s horizon; the eerily glowing portal, standing alone, started to move out of the picture.
A crater came into the field of view: so vast and deep only its near rim, high and sharp, was visible.
“Not yet,” Cornelius murmured.
“Think about it. If there had been a crater like that on Cruithne in the past, what could have erased it?”
“How far in the future?”
“I’ve no way of telling,” Cornelius said. “There’s no sign of residual radioactivity from that crater. If it was caused by a nuclear weapon the detonation must have been ten, a hundred thousand years ago.”
“That’s a minimum. The maximum
“What does that mean?”
“Hard to say. We’ve gone forward less than a billion years, perhaps.”
Emma said, “My God, Cornelius. You
“I didn’t know what we would find. I didn’t want to rule out anything.”
“How can you think that way?”
He smiled slyly. “I’m an obsessive. You know me, Emma.” He tapped his forehead.
“There,” Malenfant said, pointing at the big softscreen. “The Sheena.”
The golden beach ball was sitting on the asteroid ground, under the black sky. And something was reflected in the golden meniscus: something above the frame of the image, up in the sky. Swirling light, washing across the gold.
A shadow swam within the beach ball.
“Can we speak to her?” Emma said.
“We can pass radio signals into the portal, like our floodlights. The Sheena should be able to pick them up.”
“And presumably she can speak to us, through the Feynman mechanism.”
“If she wants to.” Cornelius tapped his softscreen. “Just speak. The software will translate.”
“Sheena?” Malenfant said. “Sheena, can you hear me?”
They waited patiently through the time delay.
On the screen, the squid turned to look at the firefly. Cornelius’ software picked up a sign: simple, iconic.
“Not Dan. Friends. Are you healthy?”
They waited out another long pause.
Malenfant said tightly, “What in hell is she looking at? How can I ask her—”
“We can do better than that,” Cornelius said. He tapped his softscreen.
At Cornelius’ command, the firefly’s camera swiveled away from the beach ball and tipped up toward the sky, the way the Sheena was looking.
A ceiling of curdled light filled the camera’s frame.
“Shit,” Malenfant said. “No wonder there were no stars…”
Emma found herself staring at a Galaxy.
It was more complex than Emma had imagined. The familiar disc — shining core, spiral arms — was actually embedded in a broader, spherical mass of dim stars. The core, bulging out of the plane of the disc, was bigger than she had expected — a compact mass of yellowish light. Delicately blue spiral arms — she counted them, one, two, three, four — wrapped tightly around the core were much brighter than the core itself. She could see individual stars blazing there, a granularity, and dark lanes traced between each arm.
There was a surprising amount of structure, she thought, a lot of complexity; this Galaxy was quite evidently an organized system, not just some random mass of stars.
“So, a Galaxy,” Malenfant said.
“I think so,” Cornelius said. “Four spiral arms
“How did we
“I’d guess that Cruithne evaporated out of the Solar System.”
“It suffered a slingshot encounter, probably with Jupiter, that hurled it out of the system. Happens all the time. If it left at solar escape velocity, which is around a three-thousandth of light speed—”
Emma worked it out first.
Cornelius said, “Of course if that
Seventy-five million years was a long time. Seventy-five million years ago on Earth, the dinosaurs were dominant. Emma’s ancestors were timid mammals the size of rats and shrews, cowed by the great reptiles. Look at us now, she thought. And in another seventy-five million years, what will we have achieved?
Cornelius’ voice was tense, his manner electric. He’s waited all his life for this, Emma realized, this glimpse of the far future through an alien window.
“This opportunity is unprecedented,” Cornelius said. “I’m no expert on cosmology, the future of the Galaxy. Later we have to consult people who can interpret this for us. There is probably an entire conference to be had on that Galaxy image alone. For now I have some expert systems. I can isolate them, keep them secure—”
Emma said, “What did she mean,
“Most of the star formation going on now is happening in the spiral arms. The stars condense out of the interstellar medium, which is a rich, complex mix of gas and dust clouds.” Checking with his softscreen, he pointed to the spiral arms. “See those blisters? The e-systems are telling me they are bubbles of hot plasma, hundreds of light-years across, scraped out by supernova explosions. The supernova shock waves enrich the medium with heavy molecules — carbon, oxygen, iron — manufactured inside the stars, and each one kicks off another wave of star formation.” “Which in turn creates a few new giant stars, a few more supernovae—”
“Which stirs up the medium and creates more stars, at a controlled rate. So it goes: a feedback loop, with supernova explosions as the catalyst. The Galaxy is a self-regulating system of a hundred billion stars, the largest organized system we know of, generations of stars ending in cooling dwarfs or black holes. The spirals are actually waves of stellar formation lit up by their shortest-lived, brightest stars — waves propagating around the Galaxy in a way we don’t understand.”
“Like a reef, then,” Emma said. “The Sheena was right.”
Cornelius was frowning at his softscreen. “But…”
“There’s something not right. I — the e-systems — don’t think there are
“What,” Malenfant said evenly, “could be reducing the number of supernovae?”
Cornelius was grinning at him.
Emma looked from one to the other. “What is it? I don’t understand.”
“Life,” Malenfant said.
“And,” Cornelius said, “we’ve started farming the stars. Remarkable. Mind has spread across the stars. And just as we are already managing the evolution of life on Earth, so in this future time we will manage the greater evolution of the Galaxy. Like a giant life-support system. Closed loops, on a galactic scale
Malenfant growled. “I got to have this visual next time I give a speech in Delaware.”
“If this is intelligence,” Emma said, “how do you know it’s human?”
“What else could it be?”
“He is right,” Cornelius said. “We seem to be surrounded by a great emptiness. The nearest handful of sunlike stars shows no signs of civilization-produced radio emissions. The Solar System appears to be primordial in the sense that it shows no signs of the great engineering projects we can already envisage: for example, Venus and Mars have not been terraformed. The face of the Moon appears to have been essentially untouched since the end of the great bombardment four billion years ago.
“Even if They are long gone, surely we should see Their mighty ruins, all around us. But we don’t. Like an ant crawling around a Los Angeles swimming pool, we might have no idea what Their great structures are for, but we would surely recognize them as artificial.”
Malenfant said, “Today, there’s just us; in the future,
Cornelius said, “The nearest large Galaxy cluster is the Virgo Cluster. Sixty million light-years out. It’s plausible the biosphere might have reached that far by now.”
“We have to look,” Malenfant said. “Send through more fireflies. Maybe we could establish a science station there, on the future Cruithne.”
“Christ, Malenfant,” Emma said. “It’s a one-way trip.”
“Yeah, but there are resources on Cruithne, just as there are
now. Enough to sustain a colony for centuries. We’d have no
shortage of volunteers. For half a buck I’d go myself. Maybe we
could contact the downstreamers directly.”
Malenfant and Cornelius talked on, excited, speculating.
But they are missing the point, Emma thought. Why are we
being shown this? What do the downstreamers
There was a blur of movement in the corner of the softscreen image. It was out of focus, a flash of golden fabric.
“There’s the Sheena,” Emma snapped. “Cornelius, the camera. Fast.”
Cornelius, startled, complied. Again the agonizing wait as Cornelius’ command crept across space, through the portal, to this startling future.
The picture tipped up drunkenly, and Galaxy light smeared across the image. But they could see that the beach ball was rolling across the surface toward the portal.
Emma said, “She’s going to come back through.”
“You don’t understand,” Cornelius said tightly. “She won’t
“So if she steps through it, she will go—”
On the screen, the golden beach ball sailed into the interface — reddening, slowing, disappearing.
The firefly rolled forward, through soft Galaxy light, toward
the downstreamer gateway.
Open journal. October 22,2011.
Can it be true? Can it possibly? Do we
People seem to think I have a more privileged access to Malenfant and his projects than is the reality. I can’t tell whether those now-famous downstream images are a hoax, or a misinterpretation, or if they are real. I can’t tell if they represent the only future available to us, or one of a range of possibilities.
I don’t even know whether it has been to Malenfant’s help or hindrance to release the images. When you’re trying to build credibility in Congress it generally does not help to have most of the media and every respectable scientist on the planet calling you a wacko.
But I do know that the effect of the images on the world, real or false, has been astounding.
It has all been cumulative, of course: the hysteria over the Carter predictions; the strange, eerie, shameful fear we share over the Blue children; and now this downstream light show. And all of it wrapped up with Reid Malenfant’s outrageous personality and gigantic projects.
We shouldn’t dismiss the more extreme reactions we’re seeing. Violence, suicide, and the rest are regrettable of course, and there are a number of “leaders,” even some here on the Hill, who need, I would say, to keep a clearer head.
But how are we
None of us knows what the hell we’re talking about, of course. But I think it’s healthy. The debate has to start somewhere.
Maybe it’s all part of our growing up as a race. Maybe every technical civilization has crises to survive: the invention of weaponry that can destroy its planet, the acquisition of the capability to trash its environment. And now here is a philosophical crisis: we must come to terms with the prospect of our own long-
term destiny or demise.
Just as each of us as individuals must at last confront death.
Another flash of blue light. And—
The darkness before Emma was even more profound than the intergalactic night. And there was no sign of the Sheena.
“Shit,” Malenfant said.
“Everything’s working,” Cornelius said evenly. “We’re actually retrieving an image. And I’m picking up other telemetry. That is what the firefly is seeing.”
Emma said tightly, “Then where’s the Sheena?”
“Have it pan,” Malenfant said.
“I’ll try. But I don’t think we can communicate with the firefly any more. It’s passed through the portal again, remember, so it must have crossed a second Einstein-Rosen bridge. There’s no longer a line of sight connecting us. The communication is one-way now, through the Feynman radio—”
“Then what do we do?”
Cornelius shrugged. “We wait. The firefly has onboard autonomy. It’s programmed to investigate its own situation, to return what data it can.”
A blur, a wash of light, passed over the corner of the screen before the image stabilized.
Now Emma saw a battered plain, slightly tipped up, receding to a tight, sharp horizon. The craters and ridges were low and eroded, with shadows streaming away from the viewpoint.
“The light’s too poor to return any color,” Cornelius said.
“What’s the light source?”
“Floods on the firefly. Look at the way the shadows are pointing away from us. But the use of those floods is going to exhaust the batteries fast. I don’t know why it’s so dark…”
Malenfant said, “Micrometeorite impacts?”
“It’s possible,” Cornelius said. “But the micrometeorite sand-
blasting must be slow. I assume we’re still out in intergalactic
space. Matter’s pretty thin out here.”
Cornelius sighed. “I’d say we’re farther into the future by several orders of magnitude compared to the last stop.”
Emma asked Malenfant, “What’s an order of magnitude to a physicist?”
Malenfant grimaced. “A power often.”
Emma tried to take that in. Ten times seventy-five million. Or
a hundred, a thousand times…
The viewpoint was shifting. The landscape started to rock, drop away, return. Slowly more features — ancient, eroded craters — loomed up over the horizon.
Cornelius said, “The firefly is moving. Good.”
“The Sheena,” Emma said.
The beach ball was sitting on Cruithne’s surface once more, complex highlights picked out by the firefly’s light. Within, a shadow was visible, swimming back and forth.
“How extraordinary,” Cornelius said. “To see a living thing across such immense spans of time.”
“She looks healthy,” Emma said. “She’s moving freely; she looks alert.”
“Maybe not much longer,” Malenfant growled. “That damn water ball will freeze.”
“Do you think she understands any of what she is seeing?”
“I doubt it,” Cornelius murmured.
Now that she looked carefully Emma saw that the shadows the floods cast on the golden ball weren’t completely dark. The shaded areas were lit by some deep red glow.
“There’s something in the sky,” she said. “A light source.”
The image started to pan away from the cephalopod, jerkily.
More Cruithne craterscape slid across their field of view.
Then the landscape dropped out of sight, leaving a frame filled with darkness once more.
‘The firefly’s panning upward,” Malenfant said. “Come on…” And a new image resolved. “Oh, my,” he said.
At first Emma could make out only a diffuse red wash. Perhaps there was a slightly brighter central patch. It was surrounded by a blood-colored river of light, studded here and there by dim yellow sparkles. But the image kept breaking up into blocky pixels, and she wondered if the shapes she was per-
ceiving were real, or artifacts of her imagination.
“We’re right at the limit of the optical system’s resolution here,” Cornelius said. “If the firefly is smart —
The picture abruptly became much brighter — a wash of white and pale pink — but much more blurred, in some ways more difficult to see. Cornelius labored at his softscreens, trying to clean up the image.
Emma made out that great central glow, now brightened to a pink-white ball. It was embedded in a diffuse cloud; she thought she could see ribbons, streamers in the cloud, as if material were being dragged into that pink maw at the center.
The core and its orbiting cloud seemed to be embedded in a ragged disc, a thing of tatters and streamers of gas. Emma could make out no structure in the disc, no trace of spiral arms, no lanes of light and darkness. But there were blisters, knots of greater or lesser density, like supernova blisters, and there was that chain of brighter light points — yellow before, now picked out as bright blue by the enhancement routines — studded at regular intervals around the disc. Filaments seemed to reach in from the brighter points toward the bloated central mass.
“It looks like a Galaxy,” Malenfant said.
Emma saw he was right. It was like a caricature of the Galaxy she had watched just minutes before. But that central mound was much more pronounced than the Galaxy’s core had been, as if it were a tumor that had grown, eating out this cosmic wreck from the inside.
Cornelius was consulting his softscreen, asking questions of the hierarchy of smart software that was poring over the images. “It probably
Malenfant said, “Is it
“I don’t know,” Cornelius said. “Probably. Perhaps Cruithne entered some wide orbit around the center. Or Cruithne might have had time to reach another Galaxy. There’s no way of knowing.”
“If that’s our Galaxy,” Emma said, “what happened to all the stars?”
“They’re dying,” Cornelius said bluntly. “Look — all stars die
Our sun is maybe halfway through its life. In five billion years or so, it will become a red giant, five hundred times its present size. The inner planets will be destroyed. The sun will span the sky, and Earth will be baked, the land hot enough to melt lead…”
“But there will be other stars,” Emma said. “The Galaxy reef.”
“Yes. And the smallest, longest-lived dwarfs can last for maybe a hundred billion years, a lot longer than the sun. But the interstellar medium is a finite resource. Sooner or later there will be no more new stars. And eventually, one by one,
Malenfant said grimly, “And then what?”
“You see the way the matter streams are straight, not twisted? That means the central hole isn’t rotating. Wait.”
“The firefly is returning the relic temperature. The Big Bang glow. Well, well. It’s down to one percent of one degree above absolute zero. A little chilly.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I know where we are. Or rather,
The numbers seemed monstrous to Emma. “I can’t take that in,” she said.
Cornelius glared at her. “Then try this. These powers of ten are zoom factors. With every extra power of ten you zoom out another notch, shrinking everything. You see? This downstream universe is so old that the whole history of our world — from its formation to the present — compares to this desert of future time as… let me see… as your own very first day of existence compares to your whole life.”
Malenfant, looking stunned, his mouth tight, just shook
“So this is the end,” Emma said. “The end of life.”
“Oh, no.” Cornelius sounded surprised. “Not at all.” He
pointed to the clusters of brighter light around the rim of the
but still glowing in the visible spectrum.”
“How is that possible?” Malenfant said. “I thought you said
all the star stuff was used up.”
“So it is, by natural processes,” said Cornelius.
“Oh. So these stars can’t be natural.”
“That’s right.” Cornelius turned to Emma, his pale eyes shining. “You see? Somebody must be gathering the remnant medium, forming artificial birthing clouds. Somebody is still gardening the Galaxy, even so far downstream. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Good God, Cornelius,” Malenfant said. “That’s a lot to deduce from one smudgy image.”
“I’ve been thinking about this all my life,” Cornelius said. “Plotting the survival of humankind, of intelligent life, into the far future. Mind games played against an unyielding opponent — time — with the laws of physics as the rules. And the farther downstream we look, the more we are constrained by the laws of physics. The future
Now the image lurched. The wrecked Galaxy slid out of the frame, to be replaced by a glaring wash of light. The firefly adjusted its receptor to visible light, and the floodlit plain of Cruithne was revealed once more.
There was no sign of the golden bubble, or the firefly patiently towing it.
“The Sheena has gone,” Malenfant said immediately. “She must have gone back to the portal again.”
“Christ,” Emma said. “She’s trying to get home.”
“But she’s only succeeded in traveling farther downstream,” said Cornelius. The image lurched again as the firefly began to toil toward the portal once more. “And so, it seems, must we. The firefly doesn’t know what else to do.”
Emma found she was making a fist, so hard her nails were digging into her palm. “I don’t want to see any more.”
“I don’t think there’s a choice,” Malenfant said grimly.
The image of the portal expanded out of the camera’s field of view, and once more that deep black, blacker than galactic night, confronted Emma.
There was a flash of electric blue.
Another black sky, another Cruithne. The patient firefly crept forward, shining its own fading light over the crumpled surface of the asteroid, seeking the Sheena.
Emma would not have believed that the ground of Cruithne could look more aged than it had before. And yet it did, its craters and ridges and scarps all but invisible under a thick blanket of dust. As the firefly labored Emma could see how its pitons and cables kicked up great sprays of regolith.
The three of them watched in somber silence, oppressed by time’s weight.
“How long, Cornelius?” Malenfant asked, his voice hoarse.
Cornelius was studying his data. “I don’t know. The relic temperature is too low to read. And…”
And there was a dawn, on far-downstream Cruithne.
Emma gasped. The sight was as unexpected as it was beautiful: a point of yellow-white light, sunlike. The light rose in clumsy stages as the firefly labored toward it. Shadows of smooth eroded crater rims and ridges fled across the smooth landscape toward her, like bony fingers reaching. It was so bright it seemed to Emma she could feel its warmth, and she wondered if somehow this long journey through time had looped back on itself, returning her to the dawn of time, the birth of the Solar System itself.
But, she quickly realized, this was no sunrise.
A glaring point was surrounded by a tilted disc, glowing red, within which she could trace a tight spiral pattern. And there seemed to be lines of light tracing out from the poles of that central gleam, needle-thin. Farther out she saw discs and knots of dull red matter, much smaller than the big bright core object. The central light actually cast shadows through the crowded space around it, she saw, shadows that — if this was a galactic-scale object — must have been thousands of light-years long.
It was oddly beautiful, a sculpture of light and bloodred
smoke. But it was chilling, inhuman, even compared to the last
grisly galactic vision; there was nothing she could recognize
here, nothing that looked like a star.
“Our Galaxy?” Malenfant asked.
Cornelius studied his data. “Perhaps. If it is, it’s extremely shrunken. And I’m seeing objects away from the disc itself now: a scattering of low-energy infrared sources, all around the sky. Stellar remnants, I think.”
Malenfant said grimly, “What you said. Evaporated stars Right?”
“Yes.” Cornelius studied the screen. “At a guess, I’d say ninety
percent of the objects in the Galaxy have evaporated away, and
maybe ten percent are gathering in the core object.”
“The black hole. That’s what we’re seeing.”
“Yes. We’ve come a long way, Malenfant, and our strides are
increasing. These processes are
Emma barely listened.
The camera swung from the bright black-hole structure, to the folded asteroid dirt, to sweeping empty sky.
“No sign of Sheena,” she murmured. “Maybe the portals don’t always work consistently. Maybe she’s been sent on somewhere else, out of our reach—”
Malenfant briefly hugged her. “Emma, she’s been out of our reach since the first time she bounced through that portal. Whether we see her or not hardly matters.”
“But it feels like it does. Because we’re responsible for her being there.”
“Yes,” he said at length.
They fell silent, but they stayed close to each other. Emma welcomed Malenfant’s simple human warmth, the presence of his flesh, the soft wash of his breath on her face. It seemed to exclude the endless dark of the future.
Meanwhile Cornelius was staring up at the image, interrogating the smart systems, speculating, theorizing, obsessing.
“The light we see is coming from that central accretion disc, where matter is falling into the black hole and being absorbed. Intensely bright, of course; probably more energetic than the combined fusion energy of all the Galaxy’s stars in their heyday. The hole itself is probably a few light-months across. Those beams coming from the poles — perhaps they are plasma directed by the magnetic field of the disc, or maybe the hole itself. Like a miniature quasar.” He frowned. “But that’s
“Wasteful?” Malenfant snapped. “What are you talking about, Cornelius? Wasteful to who?”
“The downstreamers, of course,” Cornelius said. “The down-streamers of this era. Can’t you see them?” Cornelius froze the camera’s shuddering image. “Can’t you see? Look at these smaller satellite holes. Look how uniform their size is, how regular the spacing.”
“You’re saying this arrangement of black holes is artificial,” Emma said.
“Why, of course it is. I suspect the downstreamers are using the smaller holes to control the flow of matter into the central hole. They must be regulating every aspect of this assemblage: the size of the satellite holes, the rate at which they approach the central core. I think the downstreamers are mining the Galaxy-core black hole of its energy.”
He shrugged. “There are a whole slew of ways even we can dream up. If you coalesce two black holes, you get a single, larger hole — with an event horizon ringing like a bell — but you also get a monumental release of gravitational energy. Much of a spinning hole’s energy is stored in a great tornadolike swirl of space and time, dragged around by the hole’s immense inertia. You could tap this energy by enclosing the hole in a great mesh of superconducting cables. Then you could thread the tornado swirl with a magnetic field, to form a giant electrical power generator. Or you can just throw matter into the central hole, feeding off the radiation as it is crushed
Cornelius tapped his softscreen. “A guess, based on the nature of that black hole? Ten to power twenty-four years: a trillion trillion years. Ten
“Jesus,” Malenfant said. “A long time.”
Cornelius said testily, “Remember the zoom factors. We just zoomed out again. The universe must have expanded to, umm, some ten thousand
“And yet there is still life.”
“The Sheena,” Malenfant said.
There was the golden beach ball, lurching over the surface, cables glimmering in the firefly’s floods. A cephalopod was clearly visible within, swimming back and forth, curious. The camera swept the Cruithne landscape as the firefly turned to follow the Sheena.
“She’s going back to the portal,” Malenfant said. “She’s going on.”
Something shrank, deep inside Emma. Not again, she thought.
“Perhaps it’s a kind of morbid curiosity,” Cornelius said dryly. “To keep on going forward, on and on, to the end of things.”
“No,” Emma said. “You saw her. She’s not morbid.”
“It’s as if she’s looking for something. But what? The more I see of this future universe, the more it seems—”
“Pointless?” asked Malenfant.
She was surprised at that, from him. “Yes, exactly.”
His face wore a complex expression. He’s taking it hard, she thought, this cold, logical working-out of his dreams. Malenfant campaigns for an expansive future for humankind: survival, essentially, into the far downstream. Well, here it is, Malenfant: everything you dreamed of.
And it is appalling, terrifying: proof that if we are to survive we must sacrifice our humanity.
“And in fact
“The manhood of the race,” Emma said dryly.
“And are they like us?” Emma asked.
“What does it matter? Your thinking is so small. Modern humans could never handle such projects as this. We can’t imagine how it is to be such a creature, to think in such a way.
“Perhaps there is no real comparison between them and us, no contact possible. But it does not matter. They are magnificent.”
She was repelled. She thought:
But then, she had no children. So these black-hole miners, however remote, however powerful, were not
The firefly worked its painful way across the time-smoothed landscape toward the portal.
I support Bootstrap. I’m a big fan of Reid Malenfant and everything he’s trying to do. The time I spent working with you on those BDBs in the Mojave desert was probably the most meaningful of my life.
It’s just that when all that Carter stuff came out of the media, well, maybe I went a little crazy. If the world’s going to end anyhow, what’s the point of paying taxes?
That was why I, umm, disappeared.
Anyhow I saw what Malenfant broadcast, the galaxies and the black holes and all. And now I feel different. Who wouldn’t? Now I know my children have a chance to grow old and happy, and
Life is worth living again.
I know there are those who say it doesn’t matter. That if the fu ture is going to be so wonderful anyhow we don’t need to do anything
So I’m coming back to the Mojave. I have clearances from the rehab and detox clinics, as well as from the parole board. I hope you’ll welcome me back.
People have been arguing for months about whether this Carter stuff can be correct. And now they’re arguing about whether the far-future visions are hoaxes.
Of course they can’t both be true.
And it’s amazing that you have stock market crashes and suicide cults and wackos who think they need to rip up the cities because the end of the world is coming, and another bunch of nuts doing exactly the same thing because the end of the world
This is our fate. And it’s fantastic! Wonderful! Don’t you think so?
Have you even thought where you’d like to travel if you had a time machine, and could go anywhere, past or future? Maybe you would go hunt T Rex, or listen to Jesus preach, or sail with Columbus. What do you think? I know what I’d do. I’d ride off to join the black-hole miners in the Incredible Year A.D. Four Hundred Billion. Man, will those guys party.
What? How come I know the future stuff is real? Because I’ve seen it myself. Also, as you probably know, there were secret codes in the
I have a Cap — careful with it! — and when I wear it,
This time the golden beach ball was visible as soon as the firefly emerged from the blue flash of transition. The beach ball was standing on a smooth, featureless plain, square in the middle of the softscreen. An arc of the portal was visible beside the beach ball, a bright blue stripe.
The sky was dark. The black hole rose had disappeared. The only light falling on the beach ball seemed to be the glow of the firefly’s dimming floods. The belt of horizon Emma could see looked like a perfect circular span, unmarked by ridges or craters.
The squid swam through her bubble of water, lethargic.
Emma watched the Cruithne landscape slide past the firefly’s panning camera lens. Its smoothness was unnerving, unnatural. She felt no awe, no wonder, only a vague irritation.
“That damn asteroid has taken a beating,” Malenfant said. “Look at that mother. Smooth as a baby’s butt—”
Malenfant said, “A sphere? How the hell?”
“I thj.nk this is liquefaction. If that’s so, it means that proton decay lifetimes must exceed ten to power sixty-four years — and
“Whoa, whoa.” Malenfant held up his hands.
“No. What is there to heat it up?”
“Malenfant, over enough time, the most solid matter will behave like a very viscous liquid. All solid objects flow. It is a manifestation of quantum mechanical tunneling that—”
Malenfant said, “I don’t believe it.”
“You’re seeing it,” Cornelius said tightly. “Malenfant, the far future is
Cornelius checked his softscreen. “A minimum of ten to power sixty-five years. Umm, that’s a hundred thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. Look. Start with a second. Zoom out; factor it up to get the life of the Earth. Zoom out
The camera image swept away from the beach ball, away from the blank liquefied ground, and swept the sky.
Malenfant pointed. “What the hell is
It was a blur of gray-red light in an otherwise empty sky. The firefly switched to infrared, and Cornelius cleaned up the image. Emma saw a rough sphere, a halo of motes of dim light that hovered, motionless, around—
Around what? It was a ball of darkness, somehow darker even than the background sky. It looked about the size of the sun, seen from Earth; the motes were like dimly glowing satellites closely orbiting a black planet.
Cornelius sounded excited. “My God. Look at this.” He magnified the image, picking out a point on the rim of the central ball, enhancing as he went.
Emma saw rings of red light running around the rim, parallel to the surface.
“What is it?”
“Gravitational lensing. Bent light. That means
“This is probably the remnant of a supercluster. Just as what’s left of a Galaxy after star evaporation collapses into the central hole, so galactic clusters will collapse in turn, and then the superclusters.
“That hole might have a mass of anything from a hundred trillion to a hundred
“I don’t understand,” said Emma. “Where did the Galaxy go?”
“Our Galaxy hole was surely carried to the heart of the local galactic cluster black hole, and then the supercluster.”
“And we were dragged along with it.”
“If it’s a hole it has no accretion disc,” Malenfant said.
“Malenfant, this thing is ancient. It ate up everything a hell of a long time ago.”
“So how come those motes haven’t been dragged down?” Malenfant said.
“Life,” Emma said. “Even now. Feeding off the great black holes. Right?”
“Maybe,” Cornelius said, grimly. “Maybe. But if so they aren’t doing enough. Even gravity mines can be exhausted.”
“Hawking radiation,” Malenfant said.
“Yes. Black holes evaporate. The smaller the hole, the faster they decay. Solar mass holes must have vanished already. In their last seconds they become energetic, you know. Go off with a bang, like a nuke.” He smiled, looking tired. “The universe can still produce occasional fireworks, even this far downstream. But ultimately even this, the largest natural black hole, is going to evaporate away. What are the downstreamers going to do then? They should be planning now, working. There will be a race between the gathering and management of energy sources and the dissipative effects of the universe’s general decay.”
Malenfant said, “You’d make one hell of an after-dinner speaker, Cornelius.”
The camera had panned again, and it found the Sheena in her beach ball.
“I think her movements are getting labored,” Emma said.
Cornelius murmured, “There’s nothing we can do. It’s
They watched in silence.
Sheena’s firefly, tethered to the beach ball, jerked into motion. It floated toward Emma’s viewpoint, across the eerily smooth surface of the liquefied asteroid.
It drifted to a halt and reached out with a grabber arm to touch its human-controlled cousin. In the softscreen image, the arm was foreshortened, grotesquely huge.
Then the firefly turned and drifted out of shot, toward the portal, towing the beach ball.
“Onward,” Emma whispered.
Another transition, another blue flash.
The camera performed a panorama, panning through a full three hundred and sixty degrees. The portal, a glaring blue ring still embedded in the asteroid ground, slid silently across the softscreen. There was the Sheena’s bubble, resting on the surface, lit only by the robot’s lights and by the soft blue glow of the portal itself. The Sheena tried to swim, a dim dark ghost behind the gold. But she fell, languidly, limbs drifting.
And then, beneath a black sky, there was only the asteroid surface, smooth: utterly featureless, rubbed flat by time.
“It’s just like the last stop,” Emma said. “As if nothing will ever change again.”
“Not true,” Cornelius said. “But this far downstream, the river of time is flowing broad and smooth—”
“Down to a sunless sea,” Emma said.
“Yes. But there is still change, if only we could perceive it.”
The camera tipped up, away from the asteroid, and the softscreen filled up with black sky. At first Emma saw only darkness, unrelieved. But then she made out the faintest of patterns: charcoal gray on black, almost beyond her ability to resolve, a pattern of neat regular triangles covering the screen.
When she blinked, she lost it. But then she made out the pattern again. Abruptly it blurred, tilted, and panned across the screen.
Now the triangles showed up pinkish white, very blurred but regular, a net of washed-out color that filled space.
“The firefly is using false color,” Cornelius said.
The pattern slid across the screen jerkily as the remote firefly panned its camera. And beyond the net Emma saw a greenish surface, smoothly curved, as if the netting contained something.
“It must cut the universe in half,” Emma said.
More of the framework slid through the screen, blurring as the camera’s speed outstripped the software’s ability to process the image.
“It looks like a giant geodesic dome,” Malenfant said.
Cornelius said, “I think it is a dome. Or rather, a sphere. Hundreds of thousands of light-years wide. A net. And there’s only one thing worth collecting, this far downstream.” He pointed to the complex, textured curtain of greenish light visible through the interstices of the dome. “Look at that. I think we’re seeing black hole event horizons in there. Giant holes, galactic super-cluster mass and above. They are orbiting each other, their event horizons distorting. I think the holes have been gathered in there, deliberately. They are being merged, in a hierarchy of more and more massive holes. I imagine by now the down-streamers can manage hole coalescence without significant energy loss.”
“How the hell do you move a black hole? Attach a tow rope?”
Cornelius shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe you use Hawking radiation as a rocket. The details hardly matter. The dome seems to be an energy collector. Like a Dyson sphere. Anything still alive must be living on those struts, feeding off the last free energy: the slow Hawking radiation of the black holes. But it’s a damn thin trickle.” He glanced at his softscreen. “We can postulate strategies for survival. Maybe they eke out their dilute resources by submitting to long downtimes: hibernation, slow computation rates, stretching an hour of awareness across a million years…”
Perhaps, Emma thought. Or perhaps they are conscious continually even now, in this ruin of a universe. Frozen into their black hole cage, unable to move, trapped like Judas in the lowest circle of Hell.
Cornelius said, “It may seem strange to you how much we can anticipate of this remote time. But the downstreamers are walled in by physical law. And we know they will have to manage their black hole resources. The supercluster holes are the largest to have formed in nature, with masses of maybe a hundred trillion suns. But even they are evaporating away.
“Which will be cooler.” Malenfant nodded. “It will evaporate more slowly. So you can stretch out its lifetime.”
“They’re probably coalescing holes in hierarchies all over the reachable universe. This site, immense as it is, might be just a rung on the ladder.
“The engineering details are tricky. You have to bring the holes together fast enough that they don’t evaporate away before you’ve harvested them. On the other hand it mustn’t be so rapid that you form a hole so huge it evaporates too slowly and you are starved of usable energy
Cooperation, Emma thought, spanning a universe, projects lasting millions, even billions of years. Whatever these people
have become, she thought, they are
Emma turned back to the screen, where Malenfant was staring.
Across a broad circular region the geodesic network was disrupted. It looked as if some immense fist had punched through it from the inside, ripping and twisting the struts. The tips of the damaged struts were glowing a little brighter than the rest of the network; perhaps there was some form of repair effort under way.
And beyond the damaged network she could see the event horizons of giant coalescing black holes — each, perhaps, the mass of a supercluster of galaxies or more — the horizons distorted, great frozen waves light-years long visible in their cold surfaces.
“What do you think?” Emma said. “Some kind of breakdown?”
“Or war,” Malenfant said.
“War? Here, so far downstream? That’s insane.”
“Maybe not,” said Cornelius. “These people have responsi-
bility for the whole of the future. They are managing the last
of the universe’s energy resources. With responsibility comes
tension, disagreement. Conflict.”
Malenfant said, “To have come so far, to see this. How depressing.”
“No,” Cornelius said irritably. “We have no idea what kind of minds inhabit these giant structures. They may inhabit hierarchies of consciousness far above us. Their motivations are probably so far removed from ours that we can’t even guess at them—”
“Maybe.” Malenfant growled. “But I’m just a poor
Reluctantly, Emma asked, “How far have we come?”
Cornelius studied his softscreens again. “Even the e-systems
are giving up on me now.
“Suppose we’ve taken another scale-factor jump downstream of the same kind of size as last time. That puts us at around ten to power one hundred years remote. What does that mean?” He rubbed his forehead. “To these downstreamers, the early days of their empire — zoom factors often or a hundred or ten thousand back, maybe, when even medium-sized black holes could still exist —
“Malenfant, I once asked you if you understood,
“And the immensity of the responsibility. We have to spread across the universe, make it possible for human descendants of the far downstream to have the power to do
“But this is a process without limit.” Malenfant frowned. “This is a strategy that offers the prospect of eternal life
“No,” Cornelius said sadly. “At least we don’t think so. There’s a paradox. You have to have some kind of framework, a structure to gather your energy, house your souls.”
“The Disneyland sphere.”
“Yes. The structure grows with time. And even if matter is stable, which it may not be, the structure has to be upgraded, repaired. The maintenance requirements go up with time, because the structure is getting bigger, but the energy available is going down with time.
“It’s a squeeze, Malenfant. And it isn’t possible to win. This black hole management policy is a good idea — the last, best idea — but in the end,
Abruptly the camera angle swung again. The smoothed-out asteroid, the portal, tilted crazily.
The beach ball was moving, half bouncing, half rolling toward the portal. It left a trail of pits and scrapes in the smooth metallic-dust surface of the asteroid.
Emma said sadly, “So Sheena hasn’t yet found peace.”
The camera swung around once more, and Emma got a last glimpse of the mighty, broken empire of the black hole engineers.
It was magnificent, she thought, and it would last an unimaginable time, zoom factors beyond puny human scales. But it was an epic of futility.
“What now?” Malenfant muttered. “What is left?”
Emma didn’t know. But, she found, she welcomed the obliter-
ating blue flash.
Once more, emptiness.
A.piton, trailing a tether, was drifting across the field of view. The little gadgets were lit up brightly by the firefly’s floods, a brightness that only contrasted with the illimitable darkness beyond.
Malenfant growled, “So why can’t we see the asteroid?”
“Because we aren’t on a solid surface. The firefly’s accelerome-ters show it is rolling, tumbling in space.”
Now there was something new in the frame, beyond the writhing tether. It was a blue circle, suspended in the darkness, glowing bright, turning slowly. And alongside it was a slack golden ball, oscillating in space, returning languid highlights.
Emma said, “That’s the artifact. And Sheena. Is she—”
The camera zoomed in on the ball until it filled the screen. The squid within was turning slowly, gently drifting. The only light falling on her, save for the soft blue glow of the portal, was from the firefly’s dimming flood.
“She’s receding,” Emma said. “Moving away from the firefly, and the portal.”
“Yes,” Cornelius said. “Her momentum, as she came through the hole, is taking her away.”
Malenfant asked, “So what happened to the asteroid?”
“Proton decay,” Cornelius said immediately. “I’ve been expecting this.” He checked his expert systems for details. “There are three quarks inside a proton, you know; if you wait long enough you’ll see them come together to form a miniature black hole that immediately explodes
“Are you saying that
“On the longest time scales, yes. But it’s slow. The fact that you’re standing there — that you can survive your own mass — tells us proton decay must take at least a billion billion years. Your body contains so many protons and neutrons that any faster decay rate would give rise to enough energetic particles to kill you by cancer. Now we’ve
Malenfant said, “So the asteroid just evaporated.”
“Yes. It got smaller and smaller, warmed gently by the annihilation of electrons and positrons in its interior, a thin smoke of neutrinos drifting out at light speed.”
Emma asked, “How long this time?”
“The theories are sketchy. If you want me to put a number on it, I’d say ten to power a hundred and seventeen years.” Even Cornelius looked bewildered now. “More zoom factors.”
The cephalopod hab dwindled in the softscreen image, turning, receding.
“So where is everybody?” Malenfant snapped.
Cornelius turned to him, looking lost. “You’re not listening. There
“Even if the black hole farmers had tried to gather more material to replace what decayed away, they would have been beaten by the time scales. Matter was decaying faster than it could be gathered and used to record information, thoughts, life. And when their structure failed, the last black hole must have evaporated.” He looked misty. “Of course they must have tried. Fought to the last. It must have been magnificent.”
Emma studied Malenfant. “You’re
“But,” Malenfant said, “I hoped for eternity.”
Cornelius sighed. “The universe will presumably expand forever, on to infinity. But we know of no physical processes that will occur beyond this point.”
Emma said, “And all life, of any form, is extinct. Right?”
“In that case,” Emma said softly, “who is Sheena talking to?”
Sheena was blurred with distance now, her habitat a golden planet only dimly visible in the light of the robot’s failing lamps. Maybe Emma’s imagination was projecting something on her, like the face of the man in the Moon.
“I’m sure I can see her signing,” she said.
“My God,” Malenfant said. “You’re right.”
Emma frowned. “There
“She’s right,” Cornelius said, wondering. “Of course she’s right. There has to be an entity here, a community, manipulating the neutrino bath and sending signals to the past.”
“So where are they getting the energy from, to compute, to think?”
Cornelius looked uncomfortable; obsessively he worked his softscreen, scrolling through lists of references. “It’s very speculative. But it’s possible you could sustain computation without expending energy. We have theoretical models…
“What actually uses up energy during computation is discarding information. If you add two numbers, for instance, clearing out the original numbers from your memory store eats up energy. But if your computation is logically reversible — if you never discard information — you can drive down your processing costs to arbitrarily small values.”
“There has to be a catch,” Malenfant said. “Or somebody would have patented it.”
Cornelius nodded. “We don’t know any way of interacting with the outside universe without incurring a loss. No way of inputting or outputting data. If you want to remain lossless, you have to seal yourself off, in a kind of substrate. But then, nothing significant is going to change, ever again. So what is the use of perception?”
“Then what’s left?”
“Memory. Reflection. There is no fresh data. But there may be no end to the richness of understanding.”
Malenfant said, “If these ultimate downstreamers are locked into the substrate, how can Sheena talk to them?”
“Sheena is a refugee from the deepest past,” Cornelius said. “Perhaps they feel she is worth the expenditure of some of their carefully hoarded energy. They must be vast,” he said dreamily. “The last remnant particles orbit light-years apart. A single mind might span the size of a Galaxy, vast and slow as an empire. But nothing can hurt them now. They are beyond gravity’s reach, at last immune to the Heat Death.”
Emma said, “And these are our ultimate children? These wispy ghosts? The manipulation of structures spanning the universe, the endless contest of ingenuity versus entropy — was
it all for
“That’s the deal,” Cornelius said harshly. “What else is there?”
“Purpose,” Emma said simply. “We’re losing her.”
Sheena was drifting out of the picture.
Cornelius tapped his console. “The firefly is nearly out of attitude-control gas.”
Every few minutes the beach ball drifted through the frame of the softscreen as the firefly’s helpless roll carried it around. The image was dim, blurred, at the extreme range of the failing camera. Emma took to standing close to the softscreen frame, staring at the squid’s image, trying to read any last signs.
It’s like a wake, she thought.
“We have to consider our next step,” Cornelius murmured.
“Look at the image.
“We have to retrieve that artifact. If we can’t get it off the asteroid, we have to study it in situ. Malenfant, we have to send people to Cruithne. And we must show this to Michael.”
A look of unaccountable fear crossed Malenfant’s face.
In the softscreen Sheena was a blurred patch of light, shadows moving across her sides. Sheena signed once more — Emma struggled to see — and then the screen turned a neutral gray.
“It’s over,” Cornelius said. “The firefly’s dead. And so is Sheena.”
“No,” Emma said. “No, I don’t think so.”
Somehow, she knew, the Sheena understood what was happening to her. For the last thing Sheena had said, the last thing Emma could recognize before the image failed, was a question.
Open journal. October 22,2011.
I’ve never forgotten the first time I flew the length of Africa. The huge empty deserts, the mindless blankets of green life, the scattered humans clinging to coasts and river valleys.
I’m a city girl. I used to think the human world was the whole world. That African experience knocked a hole in my confidence of the power of humans, of us, to change things, to build, to survive. The truth is that humans have barely made an impression on Earth — and Earth itself is a mote in a hostile universe. This shaped my thinking. If humanity’s hold on Earth is precarious, then, damn it, we have to work to make it less so.
It’s only a generation since we’ve been able to see the whole Earth. And now, it seems, we can see the whole future, and what we must do to survive. And I hope we can cope.
I admit, though, I found the whole thing depressing.
It is of course the logical conclusion of my own ambition, which is that, on the whole, the human race should seek not to destroy itself — in fact, that it is our destiny to take over from the blind forces of inanimate matter and guide the future of the cosmos.
It’s just it never occurred to me before that, in the end, all there will be out there to conquer is rabble, the cooling rains of the universe.
I’m sixty-one years old. I’m not in the habit of thinking about death. I suppose I always had a vague plan to fight it: to use all my resources, every technique and trick I could find and pay for, to live as long as possible.
But is it worth it? To cling to life until I’m drained of strength
It seems to me that age, growing old, is a war between wisdom and bitterness. I’m not sure how I’ll come out of that war myself, assuming I get so far.
Maybe some things are more important than life itself.
Even as his representatives wrestled with the bureaucratic demons that threatened to overwhelm him — even as the world alternately wondered at or mocked his light-and-shadow images of the far future — Reid Malenfant sprung another surprise.
He went on TV and the Nets and announced a launch date for BDB-2, tentatively called
And as Malenfant’s nominal, fictional, technically-plausible-only launch date approached, events seemed to be coming to a head. On the one hand a groundswell of popular support built up for Malenfant, with his enterprise and defiance and sense of mystery. But on the other hand the forces opposing him strengthened and focused their attacks.
He was wasting a few million bucks, actually, Emma thought, with every aborted launch attempt. But Malenfant knew that, and it wouldn’t stop him anyhow, so she kept it to herself.
And she had to admit it worked: raising the stakes again, whipping up public interest to a fever pitch.
Then, a couple of days before the “launch date” itself, Malenfant asked Emma to come out from Vegas.
She refused Malenfant’s offer of a flight out to the compound. She decided to drive; she needed time to rest and think. She turned on the SmartDrive, opaqued the windows, and tried to sleep.
It was only when the car woke her, some time before dawn on Malenfant’s “launch day,” that she began to be aware of the people.
At first there was just a handful of cars and vans parked off the road, little oases of light in the huge desert night. But soon there were more: truck-camper vans, and cars with tent-trailers, and converted buses, and Jeeps with houses built on the back, and Land Rovers, and Broncos with bunks. There were tents lit from inside, people moving slowly in the predawn grayness. There were people sleeping in the cars, or even in the open, on inflatable mattresses and blankets.
As she neared the Bootstrap site itself the density of people continued to increase, the little groups crowded more closely together. She saw a place where a blanket spread out under the tailgate of an ancient convertible was almost overlapping the groundsheet of a much more elaborate tent. In another, right next to an upscale mobile home, she saw an ancient Ford, its hood held in place by what looked like duct tape, with a child sleeping in the open trunk and dirty bare feet protruding from all the windows. And as dawn approached people were rising, stirring and scratching themselves, making breakfast, some climbing on top of their cars to see what was going on at the Bootstrap compound.
She spotted what looked like a military vehicle: a squat, fierce-looking Jeep of some kind, with black, rectangular, tinted windows. A man was standing up, poking his head out of a sunroof. He was beefy, fortyish, shaven-haired. He shifted, as if he was having trouble standing. He was watching the compound with big, professional-looking binoculars. She thought he looked familiar, but she couldn’t think where from.
When she looked again the Jeep had gone. It could only have driven off, away from the crowded road, into the desert.
Farther in she spied uniforms and banners. There were religious groups here, both pro and anti Malenfant. Some of them were holding services or prayer sessions. There were animal rights campaigners holding animated posters of Caribbean reef squid, other protesters holding up images of sickly yellow babies. And then there was the spooky fringe, such as a group of women dressed in black shifts painted with bright blue circles, holding up sky-blue hoops to the sky.
But these agenda-driven types were the minority, Emma realized, flecks of foam on the great ocean of ordinary people who had gathered here, on the day of Malenfant’s “launch.” There were whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans. There were young people, some infants in arms, and a lot of oldsters who probably remembered
So how many? A million?
But why were they here? What had drawn so many of them from so far?
It was faith, she realized. Faith in Malenfant, faith that he could once more defy the various forces ranged against him: Reid Malenfant, an old-fashioned American can-do hero who had already brought back postcards from the future and was now about to launch a rocket ship and save the species single-handedly.
I have to admit, Malenfant, you hit a nerve.
And as she thought it through, as that realization crystallized in her, she understood, at last, what was happening today.
My God, she thought.
And she felt shock, even shame, that these strangers, so many of them, had understood Malenfant’s subliminal message better than she had.
She pressed forward with increasing urgency.
At last she was through the crowds and the security barriers and inside the compound. And there — still a couple of miles away — was Malenfant’s ship, BDB-2, called
She could see the slim profile of the booster stack: the angular space shuttle boat-tail at the base, the central tank with its slim solid boosters like white pencils to either side, the fat tube of the payload module on top. There were splashes of red and blue that must be the Stars and Stripes Malenfant had insisted must adorn all his ships, and the hull’s smooth curve glistened sharply where liquid air had frozen out frost from the desert night. The tower alongside the BOB looked minimal: slim and calm. There were clouds of vapor alongside the booster, little white knots that drifted from the tanks.
Bathed in a white xenon glow, the booster looked small, remote, even fragile, like an object in a shrine. This was the flame to which all these people had been drawn.
She got out of her car and ran to George Bench’s control
The blockhouse was small, cramped, with an air of improvisation. One wall was a giant window, tinted, giving a view of the pad itself, the splash of light around the waiting booster. Facing the window were consoles — just desks piled with manuals and softscreens and coffee cups — each manned by a young T-shirted technician. At the back of the room were more people, arguing, running back and forth with manuals and piles of printout. Cables lay everywhere, in bundles across the floor and along the ceiling.
In one doorway, being shepherded by one of Malenfant’s flunkies, there was a gaggle of what looked like federal-government types, gray suits and ties and little briefcases. One of them, protesting loudly, was Representative Mary Howell, Emma realized with a start, the former chemical engineer who had given Malenfant such a tough ride in the Congressional hearings.
In the middle of all this, surrounded by people, yelling instructions and demanding information, there was Malenfant himself, with Cornelius — and Michael, the boy from Zambia. Cornelius was holding Michael’s hand, which was balled into a fist. Malenfant hurried forward. “Emma. Thank Christ you’re here.”
She couldn’t think of a damn thing to say. Because all three of them — Malenfant, Cornelius, and Michael — were wearing one-piece orange garments covered in pockets and Velcro patches.
They were flight pressure suits. Space suits.
Art could see the rocket ship from the driving seat of the Rusty. But he was parked well away from the roads, on a patch of scrub it had been no trouble at all for the Rusty to reach.
This Rusty — strictly a Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Targeting Vehicle, or RST-V — was the Marine Corps’ replacement for the Jeep. Like the Jeep it was all but indestructible. And it ran with a hybrid electric power system, which used a diesel-power generator to produce power for electric motors mounted on each wheel. The design was slighter and much more compact than mechanical drive trains, and there was built-in reliability: If one wheel failed, he could just keep motoring on three, or even two if they weren’t on the same side. And the wheels worked independently; the Rusty could turn around and around, like a ballerina.
Best of all, when he turned off the generator and ran on batteries, there was no engine noise, no exhaust gases that might give away his position to any thermal sensors deployed by those guys on the fence.
Art loved this Rusty. But it wasn’t his, of course. The only personal touch Art allowed himself was the snapshot of his daughter, Leanne, taped to the dash.
The Rusty had been borrowed for him for the occasion by his good friend Willy Butts, who was still in the Marine Corps. Art’s first idea had just been to walk up to the compound and start blasting, but Willy had talked him out of it.
And Willy, as he always did, had come through, and here was Art, and there was the rocket, waiting for him.
He touched the ignition button. The Rusty’s engine started up with the quietest of coughs. He rolled forward, the big adjustable suspension smoothing out the ride for him over the hummocky ground.
No more yellow babies, Malenfant. He tapped his photo. His little girl blew her candles one more time.
Art switched over to silent running.
Mary Howell stepped forward. “This is a joke. Malenfant, I could ground you under child-protection legislation if I didn’t already have
Malenfant glared at Howell. “Representative, this has nothing to do with FAA regulations or any of that bullshit. This is personally vindictive.”
George Hench, a headset clamped to his ears, growled to Malenfant. “If we’re going to stand down I have to know now.”
Somehow the sight of Malenfant and Cornelius and a child, for God’s sake, trussed up in these astronaut suits, surrounded by the clamor of this out-of-control situation, summed up for Emma how far into lunacy Malenfant had slipped. “Malenfant, are you crazy?”
“We’re going to fly, Emma. We have to. It’s become a duty.”
“What about the four astronauts we trained up, at vast
“They were training
Cornelius Taine shrugged. “That was always the plan. Who is
“Another blind, Malenfant?”
“To care for Michael.”
George Hench was picking up something on his headset. He grimaced at Malenfant. “More inspectors incoming.”
“Who is it this time?”
“Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
Howell’s gaze flicked from George to Malenfant. “NRC? What’s this about the NRC?”
“Scottish uranium,” Emma said grimly. “If they’re here it’s all unraveling. We’ll be lucky to avoid jail.”
“But I’ve no choice.” Malenfant stared at her, as if trying to force her to agree with him through sheer power of personality. “Don’t you see that? I’ve had no choice since the moment Cornelius talked his way into your office.”
“This isn’t about mining the asteroids any more. Is it, Malenfant?”
“No. It’s about whatever is waiting for us on Cruithne.”
Cornelius grinned coldly. “And who knows ‘what that might
be? The answers to everything, perhaps. The purpose of life.
Who can say?”
Malenfant said desperately, “The logic of my whole life has led me to this point, Emma. I’m trapped. And so is Michael. He’s been trapped ever since
She felt oddly dizzy, and the colors leached from the world, as if she was about to faint. “What are you saying?”
“Come with me.”
“It’s the only way. Michael is terrified of me. And Cornelius, come to that. But you—”
“For God’s sake, I’m no astronaut. The launch would kill me.”
“No, it won’t. It’s no worse than a roller coaster. And once we’re gone, we’re gone. These assholes from the FAA can’t reach us in outer space. Anyhow, at least you’ll be out of the country when they prosecute.”
She sensed the great divergent possibilities, of past and future — for herself, Malenfant, perhaps the species itself — that flowed through this moment, as if her awareness were smeared across multiple realities, dimly lit.
She said, “You’re frightened, aren’t you?”
“Damn right. I’m terrified. I just wanted to go mine the asteroids. And now,
But now the others were crowding around Malenfant again. Here was Mary Howell, yammering about her FAA regulations. Cornelius had picked up a headset and was shouting about how the gate guards were going to have trouble stalling the NRC inspectors. And George Hench, his face twisted, was watching the clock and following his endless prelaunch checks.
Michael was crying.
Howell stepped forward. “Face it, Colonel Malenfant. You’re beaten.”
Malenfant seemed to come to a decision. “Sure I am. George, get her out of here. We have a spaceship to fly.”
George Hench grinned. “About time.” He wrapped his big arms around Howell and lifted her bodily off the floor. She screamed in frustration and kicked at his legs and swung her head back. She succeeded in knocking his headset off, but he just thrust her out of the room and slammed the door.
Emma was glaring at Malenfant. “Malenfant, have you any idea—”
George said, “Enough. You can debate it in space. Get out of here. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Malenfant clasped George’s beefy shoulder. “Thank you, my friend.”
George pushed him away. “Send me a postcard from Alcatraz.” He snatched another headset and started to yell at the technicians at their improvised consoles.
Malenfant faced Emma. He reached out and took her hand and gave it the gentlest of tugs.
As if in a dream, she followed him, as she always had, as she knew she always would.
As they walked out of the blockhouse into the gray of the Mo-jave dawn, she heard screaming, a remote crackle.
The Rusty performed beautifully. It was built to reach seventy on regular roads and maybe forty on
He drove hell for leather at the fence. In his IR viewer he saw company guards running along inside the fence, pointing to where he was coming from, then getting the hell out of the way.
He hit the fence. He barely noticed it as it smashed open around him.
Guards scattered before him. He heard the hollow slam of bullets hitting the armor. He hit the ignition and powered up the diesel; there was no point in running silent now. The engine roared and he surged forward, exhilarated.
“Look what you did, Malenfant!”
He saw the pad ahead of him, the booster lit up like a Disney-land tower. He gunned the engine and headed straight for it.
It was as if time fell apart for Emma, disintegrated into a blizzard of disconnected incidents, acausal. She just endured it, let Malenfant and his people lead her this way and that, shouting and running and pulling, through a blizzard of unfamiliar places,
smells, and equipment.
Here she was in a suiting room. It was like a hospital lab, gleaming fluorescents and equipment racks and medical equipment and a stink of antiseptic. She was taken behind a screen by unsmiling female techs, who had her strip to her underwear. Then she was loaded into her pressure suit, tight rubber neck and sleeves, into which she had to squeeze, as if into a shrunken sweater. The techs tugged and checked the suit’s seals and flaps, their mouths hard.
Here was a helmet of white plastic and glass they slipped over her head and locked to a ring around her neck. Inside the helmet she felt hot, enclosed, the sounds muffled; her sense of unreality
She heard Michael, elsewhere in the suiting room, babbling in his own language, phrases she’d picked up.
In some other world, she thought, I am walking away from here. Talking calmly to Representative Howell, fending off the NRC people, figuring out ways to manage this latest disaster. Doing my job.
Instead, here I am being prepped for space, for God’s sake, for all the world like John Glenn.
She was hurried out of her booth. The others were waiting for her, similarly suited up. Malenfant peered out of his helmet at her, the familiar face framed by metal and plastic, expressionless, as if he couldn’t believe he was seeing her here, with him.
And now, after a ride in an open cart, she was hurrying across the compound, toward the glare of light that surrounded the booster. Pad technicians ran alongside her,
Then they had. to climb, with a single burly pad rat, into the basket of a cherry-picker crane, enduring a surging swoop as it lifted them into the air. They rose through banks of thin, translucent vapor that smelled of wood smoke. She saw smooth-curving metal, sleek as muscle and coated in condensation and frost, just feet away from her, close enough to touch.
Michael seemed to be whimpering inside his helmet; Cornelius was still gripping the kid’s fist, hard. The pad rat watched this, his expression stony.
The cherry picker nudged forward until it banged against the rocket’s hull. The tech stepped forward and began to fix a ramp over the three-hundred foot drop that separated them from the booster.
Malenfant went first.
Then it was Emma’s turn. Hanging on to the pad tech’s arm, she stepped forward onto the ramp. She was looking through a gaping hole cut into the fairing that covered the spacecraft itself. The hull was covered by some kind of insulating blanket, a quilt of powder-white cloth. There was a hatchway cut into the cloth, rimmed with metal. Inside the hatch was a gray, conical cave, dimly lit, the walls crusted with hundreds of switches and dials. There were reclining bucket seats, just metal frames covered with canvas, side by side. They looked vaguely like dentist’s chairs, she thought.
There was the smell of a new machine: the rich flavor of oil, a sharp tang of welded steel and worked brass, the sweet scent of canvas and wall coverings not yet pumped full of stale body odor. The cabin looked safe and warm and snug.
Again, the crackle of gunfire, drifting up from the ground.
For George Hench, in these final minutes, time seemed to slow,
flow like taffy.
He tried to step back from the flood of detail. Now that the politicos and bureaucrats had been slung out of here, there was a welcome sense of engineering calm, of control. He heard his technicians work through the prelaunch events, calling “Go” and “Affirm” to each other. Both the hydrogen and oxygen main tanks were filled and were being kept topped up. Inertial measurement units had been calibrated, which meant the BOB now had a sense of its position in three-dimensional space as it was swept around the Earth by the planet’s rotation. The propulsion-system helium tanks were being filled, antenna alignment was completed.
His ship was becoming more and more independent of the ground.
Now the external supply was disconnected. The valves to the big oxygen and hydrogen tanks were closed, and the tanks brought up to pressure. With a minute to go, he handed over control to the BDB’s internal processors.
It was then he got the word in his ear.
He pulled himself away from the consoles and studied the images in the security camera feeds. The picture was blurred, at the limit of resolution.
He saw a smashed section of fence. Guards down, lying on the ground. Some kind of vehicle, a boxy military kind of thing, slewed around in the dirt. Somebody was standing up in the vehicle, lifting something to his shoulder. Like a length of pipe. Pointed at the booster stack.
The bad of the bad. “Do it, Hal.”
He could see the guards in the picture struggling to pull on their funny-faces, their M-17 gas masks. Meanwhile the guy in the truck was readying his weapon, clumsily.
It might have been comical, a race between clowns.
The guards won. A single shell was lobbed toward the truck.
George could barely see the gas that emerged. It was like a very light fog, colorless. When it reached the truck, the guy there started coughing. He dropped his bazooka, or whatever it was. Then he started vomiting and convulsing.
A masked guard ran forward and jammed something into the hatchway in the top of the truck. George knew what that was. It was a willy pete: a white phosphorus grenade.
The truck filled with light and shuddered. The guards moved closer.
There had been no sound. It was eerie to watch.
George turned back to the booster stack, which stood waiting for his attention.
The curving flank of the booster, just a couple of feet away from her, swept to the ground, diminishing with perspective like a piece of some metal cathedral. On the concrete pad at the booster’s base she could see technicians running, vehicles scattering away like insects. Farther out she could see the buildings of the compound, the fence, and the people swarming beyond: a great sea of them, cars and tents and faces, under the lightening dawn sky.
In one place the fence was dark, as if broken. She saw guards running. The distant crackle of gunfire drifted through the air. She saw a truck, a man dangling out of it, some kind of mist drifting, guards closing in.
She turned to the hatch. There was Malenfant, his thin face framed by his helmet, staring out at her.
“GB,” he said. “It was GB. That’s what the military call it”
“Sarin. Nerve gas. My God. You used
“It was brought here to be incinerated in the waste plant. Emma, I have always been prepared to do whatever I have to do to make this mission work.”
I know, she thought. I know more than I want to know.
I shouldn’t be here. This is unreal,
He held out his hand to her. Through the thick gloves, she could barely feel the pressure of his flesh.
Without looking back, she entered the humming, glowing, womblike interior of the spacecraft.
Pale fire burst from the base of the stack. Smoke gushed down the flame trenches and burst into the air like great white wings, hundreds of feet wide. And now the solid boosters lit, and the light was extraordinarily bright, yellow and dazzling as the sun.
The stack started to rise. But the noise hadn’t reached him yet, and so the booster would climb in light and utter silence, as if swimming into the sky.
George had worked on rockets all his life. And yet he never got over this moment, this instant when the great blocky machine, for the first and only time, burst into life and lifted off the ground.
And now the sound came: crackling and popping, like wet wood on a fire, like oil overheated in a pan, like a million thunderclaps bursting over his head. The rocket rose out of the great cauldron of burning air, trailing fire, rising smooth and graceful. At the moment it lifted off the booster was burning as much oxygen as half a billion people taking a breath.
George, exhilarated, terrified, roared into the noise.