Chapter 30. Refuge

The Gaijin flower-ship soared on a fast, efficient, powered trajectory into the crowded heart of the Solar System. The Sun grew brighter, swamping the subtleties of the star-laden sky, its glaring light more and more the dominant presence in the universe.

Madeleine felt an unreasonable, illogical sense of claustrophobia. There were no walls here, and there was room for whole planets to swim through the dark; and yet this place felt oppressive, closed in, like the heart of a city. She spent much time with the lander’s windows opaqued against the yellow-white glare, drifting beneath a cool, austere virtual Neptune.

The Gaijin refused to carry Madeleine any closer to the Sun than the orbit of Earth. She was going to have to proceed on to Mercury in the cramped confines of a lander designed primarily for orbit-to-ground hops.

The few hundred refugees from Triton who had followed her back into the heart of the system would have to endure the same rigors. The transfer into the landers was ill-tempered, chaotic.

It had proved impossible to communicate to the deep-ocean aquatics the need to evacuate. So she had been forced to leave them behind, those dolphinlike posthumans, abandoning them to whatever mysterious fate awaited them, without ever even knowing if they understood what was happening to them.

Just as, perhaps, the retreating Gaijin wondered of her.

As she watched the flower-ship sail away back into the outer darkness, she felt an entirely unexpected pang of loneliness, of abandonment.

She’d always suspected that Malenfant’s habit of giving his Gaijin companion a name — of treating Cassiopeia as some analog of a human individual — was just anthropomorphism, sloppy sentimentality. But the fact was she actually liked these aloof, stately, rational Gaijin a lot more than she liked some humans — notably the racist-type surface colonists she had encountered on Triton. The Gaijin were ancient, much-traveled, had endured experiences unimaginable to most humans; to them, a single, short-lived human and her concerns must seem as evanescent, as meaningless — and yet perhaps as beautiful — as the curl of a thread of smoke, the splash of a single raindrop.

At last, ten days after the Gaijin had left her, planet Mercury sailed into view. She was approaching at an angle from the night side, so to her it was a bony crescent against the black, slowly opening up, its cratering apparent even from a great distance.

She slid into orbit and was held there while an electronic bureaucracy — run by a governing body called the Coalition — processed her requests to land, machines separated by centuries of technical and social development seeking a way to speak to each other.

Mercury, turning beneath her, was like the Moon’s elder brother, just a ball of rock with a pale, thickly cratered surface. But there was no Mercury equivalent of the Moon’s great maria; whatever process had formed those great lunar seas of frozen lava hadn’t operated here. And there were features unlike anything on the Moon: zones of crumpling, ridges and folds and cracks like the wrinkled skin of a dried tomato, as if the planet had shrunk after its formation.

The stand-out feature was one immense impact basin, maybe thirty degrees north of the equator. She sailed over a ragged ring of mountains — not a simple rim, but a structure, with the tallest mountains innermost, and lower foothills farther out. Inside the ring there was a relatively smooth floor scarred by ridges, folds, and rifts that followed roughly concentric patterns, like the glaze on an old dinner plate. It was a fantastic sight, a basin that took her lander long minutes to skim over on its first approach pass, circles of mountains big enough to neatly encompass the Great Lakes.

And, in the deep shadows right at the huge crater’s heart, she saw lights, a hint of order, buildings and tracks. It was a human settlement, here in the deepest scar on the most inhospitable planet in the Solar System. She ought to have been uplifted by the spectacle. But that tiny spark in the midst of such ferocious desolation seemed merely absurd.

There was a lot of traffic in the sky.

They were human ships. Most of them were driven by solar sails, filmy and beautiful, wispy shapes that tacked against Mercury’s impassive rocky face, the slow evolution of their forms betraying the intelligent control that guided them. The ships rode the hail of photons that came from the huge nearby Sun, a much more effective means of transportation here than at Earth’s orbit and beyond.

It was immediately obvious that there were more ships arriving than leaving. But then there was no other place for humans to go, here in the Solar System of the year A.D. 3793; Mercury was a sink of people, not a source.

On the far side of Mercury she saw a type of landscape she’d never seen before: broken up, chaotic, almost shattered. She worked out that it was at the exact antipode of that giant impact structure, the target of converging spherical shock waves that must have traveled around the world; rock-smashing energies had focused here and made the land flex and crumble and boil.

Once Madeleine had hurled moons around the outer Solar System. Now she felt awed, humbled, by the evidence of such huge forces. Overwhelmed by a sense of impotence.

She was brought to land near the main human settlement. This was in a wide crater called Chao Meng-Fu, another giant impact structure, this one almost covering the south pole.

The gravity startled her with its strength, around twice that on the Moon. Strange for such a small planet, really little larger than the Moon; Mercury was very dense, another Cannonball.

Madeleine suited up. It was straightforward; through the centuries, in contrast to comms units and coffee machines, she’d found that life-critical equipment like pressure suits and air locks remained easy to operate, its operation obvious.

She stepped out of the tractor. Once again I set foot on a new world, she thought. Do I hold the record?

Within Chao Meng-Fu there were power plants and automated strip-mining robots. The surface structures cowered in rim mountain shadows, avoiding the Sun, which glared down for 176 Earth days at a time — an unexpected number; Mercury’s “day” was fixed, by tidal effects, as two-thirds of the little planet’s 88-day year, and so its calendar was a complex clockwork.

She looked up, toward the Sun, which was low on the horizon. Filters in her helmet blocked out the disc of the Sun itself, but that disc was three times as large as Earth’s Sun, a bloated monster.

She saw no humans above ground, none at all.

Her arrival at Chao City was processed by crude virtuals. These software robots had been designed to handle the arrival of speakers of incomprehensible languages from all over the Solar System. Their humanity smoothed out, they guided her wordlessly with simple mime and gesture. Chao City was a warren of corridors and tunnels hastily cut out of the bedrock. It was crowded with a dozen diverse races, a place full of suspicion and territoriality.

She was assigned a poky room, another cave like the one she’d endured on Triton — though this time, at least, carved from familiar silicate rock rather than water ice. How strange it was that humans, on whatever world they settled from one end of the Solar System to the other, were driven to burrow into the ground like moles.

The room contained a comms interface unit, inevitably of a very different design from those on Triton, with which, wearily, she battled. At last she found a way to instruct a contemporary analog of a data miner to find Nemoto — if she was indeed here on Mercury.

The comms unit began to ping softly. After no more than thirty minutes’ probing she found out that the sound meant the unit contained a message, waiting for her. Come see me. Nowadays I live in a crater called Bernini, not so far away from Chao. You’ll enjoy the view. It named a place and time.

It was from Dorothy Chaum.

She was kept waiting another twenty-four hours. Then she was taken to see somebody called an immigration officer. More bureaucracy, she thought with a sinking heart. Just like Triton; a universal human trait.

The immigration officer actually tried to speak to her in Latin. “Quo vadis? Quo animo?” — Where are you going? With what intention? She had brought her pressure-suit helmet with its embedded translator suite, and the office had similar facilities, so she waited patiently for the equipment to work.

The officer’s name was Carl ap Przibram. He was a native of an asteroid: tall, spindly, with a great eggshell of a skull under thick hair, and long bony fingers, a clich? pianist’s. His skin was pale, his features smoothed out, as if his skin was stretched; perhaps there were folds at his eyes, traces of an Asian ancestry, but any ethnic antecedents from Earth were long mixed and blurred. He seemed profoundly uncomfortable — as well he might, Madeleine thought, as he was effectively operating in multiples of the gravity he was used to.

When they were able to communicate he took her name, requested various identification numbers she didn’t have, then asked for a summary of her background. She listed her voyages beyond the stars. Using a workstation built into his desk, he brought up, from some deep database, a record on her, maintained over centuries. Ap Przibram seemed immersed in his job, all the documentation and procedure, utterly uninterested in the reality of the exotic fossil before him. It was a reaction she’d encountered on Triton, and many times before.

He requested that she make a donation of DNA samples. It was logical — a scheme to keep mankind’s small, isolated gene pools refreshed — though she’d heard of travelers who had patronized a flourishing black market in traveler genetic samples, notably sperm; the latter-day legend, happily encouraged by some travelers, was that the good stuff from these crude near-barbarians from a thousand years ago was more vigorous, more potent than the etiolated modern vintage.

At last he handed her a piece of plastic embedded with temporary ident codes, preliminary to a full implant; she took it gravely. “You are welcome here,” he told her.

“Thank you.” She raised the issue of her companions from Triton.

“Their applications will be processed as speedily as possible.” He fell silent, his drawn face impassive.

She tapped the desk with a fingernail. She found it hard to read his posture, the language of his face. “They’ve flown across the system, across thirty astronomical units, in landers designed for hundred-kilometer orbital hops. Those things are flying toilets. We have children, old people, disabled, ill…”

“We are processing their applications. Until that is concluded there’s nothing I can do.”

His eyes were hollow. The man is exhausted, she thought. He is overwhelmed, as Mercury is; and here I am with more refugees, boatloads of resentful ice dwellers from Triton. In such circumstances, bureaucracy is a medium of civilized discourse; at least he isn’t throwing me out.

She resolved to be patient.

At the appointed time she set off to meet Dorothy. There was a monorail link from Chao City to Bernini — slow, bumpy, uncomfortable, real pioneer stuff — and then she had to take a ride in an automated tractor, a thing of giant wire-mesh wheels, over lightly occupied Mercury.

She arrived at what Dorothy had referred to as a solarsail farm.

Outside the tractor she studied the sky.

She could see few stars. Solar-sail ships swam, dimly visible, like sparks from a fire, swarming around Mercury’s equator, bringing more refugees. But there was a haze across the sky, a mistiness surrounding that too-large Sun disc, and a pale wash farther out, like a starless Milky Way. She was seeing the Sun’s tenuous atmosphere, made visible by the artificial occulting of the central star. And the flat belt of light farther out was the zodiacal light, the shining of dust particles and meteorites and asteroids in the plane of the ecliptic. Once Gaijin cities had shone there; now the asteroid belt was deserted once more.

When she cupped her hands around her faceplate she could see the tail of yet another giant comet, smeared milkily over the black dome of the sky. She couldn’t see any Cracker ships, of course — not yet — even though, it was said, they had broken through the orbit of Neptune.

As the Oort war had turned sour, Mercury had been annexed by a coalition of nations from the asteroid colonies: the near-Earths, the main belt, even a few from the Trojans in Jupiter’s orbit. It was hardly an occupation; nobody but a few hermit types had been living here anyhow. The setup here was barely democratic — a situation which, to their credit, appeared to disturb the emergency government, the Coalition. But it was functioning.

The colonists had adapted technologies that had once been used in the initial colonization of the Moon: Once more, humans were forced to bake their air out of unyielding rock. But there were plans for the longer term — such as a Paulis mine at Caloris Planitia, the giant impact crater she’d observed from orbit. But this was not the Moon. Mercury was all iron core, with a little rocky rind. A different world, different challenges.

Now she picked out a double star, a bright double pinpoint, one partner strikingly blue, the other a pale gray-white…

“Earth, of course.” Here was Dorothy standing close by her side, in a suit so coated with black Mercury dust it was all but invisible, despite the brightness of the Sun. Her helmet was heavily shielded, just a golden bubble; Madeleine couldn’t see her face.

They exchanged meaningless pleasantries, awkward; there were no obvious protocols for a relationship such as theirs.

Then Dorothy loped heavily across the dusty plain. Madeleine, reluctantly, followed.

The regolith crunched under her feet, the noise clearly audible, carried through her suit. In the virgin dust she left footprints, clear and sharp as on the Moon, and the dust she threw up clung to the fabric of her suit. But her footing was heavy, in this double-Moon gravity. No bunny-hop moonwalking here.

It was like the Moon, yes — the same undulating surface, heavily eroded, crater on crater, so the surface was like a sea of dusty waves. But if anything the erosion was more complete here. There were hills — she was close to the rim wall of crater Bernini — but they were stoop-shouldered, coated in regolith. The smaller craters were little more than shadows of themselves, palimpsests, their features worn away.

She hadn’t met Dorothy since they had been with Malenfant on the Gaijin’s home world and the three of them had set off to return to the Solar System by their different routes. Dorothy seemed different to Madeleine: more closed-in, secretive, perhaps obsessive. Somehow older.

Dorothy paused and pointed to a hole in the ground. “Here’s where I live. Subsurface shelter. It isn’t so bad. Not if you’ve already spent subjective years in spacecraft hab modules.”

At Madeleine’s feet was a flattened boulder, its exposed top worn smooth, like a lens. She bent stiffly, scuffed at the soil, and prised the rock out of the dirt. Most of the rock had been hidden in the dirt, like an iceberg. Underneath, it was sharp, a jagged boulder.

“It probably dropped here a billion years ago,” Dorothy said, “thrown halfway around the planet by some impact. And since then any bits of it that stuck out have just been eroded flat, right here where it landed, layer by layer.”

Madeleine frowned. “Micrometeorite impacts?”

“Not primarily. At noon it gets hot enough to melt lead. And in the night, which lasts nearly six months, it’s cold enough to liquefy oxygen.”

“Thermal stress, then.”

“Yes. Shaped the landscape. Bane of the engineer’s life, here on this hot little world. Come on. Let me show you what I do for a living.”

They walked briskly through a shallow crater littered with bits of glass.

That, anyhow, was how it seemed to Madeleine at first glance. She was surrounded by delicate glass leaves that rested against the regolith, spiky needles protruding. There was, too, another type of structure: short, stubby cylinders, pointing at the sky, projecting in all directions, like miniature cannon muzzles. It was like a sculpture park.

Dorothy stalked on without pausing. Some of the petal-shaped glass plates were crushed under Dorothy’s careless feet; Madeleine walked more carefully. “We can just grow sail panels right out of the rock,” Dorothy said. “These things are gen-enged descendants of vacuum flowers from the Moon. I’ve made myself something of an expert at this technology. Good to have a profession, on a world where you have to pay for the air you breathe, don’t you think?” She tilted back her head, her face obscured. “Next time you see a solar sailing ship, think of this place, how those gauzy ships are born, morphing right out of the rocks at your feet. Beautiful, isn’t it?”

They walked on. Madeleine asked about Malenfant.

Dorothy shrugged. “I got back twenty years before you did. If he came directly back to the system after we parted, as he said he would, he might have arrived here centuries earlier yet. I don’t know what’s become of him.”

Madeleine studied her. “You’re troubled. The time we had on the Cannonball—”

“Not troubled, exactly. Guilty, perhaps.” She laughed. “Guilt: the Catholic church’s first patent.”

“And that’s why you work so hard here.”

“Analysis now, Madeleine?” Dorothy asked dryly. “I also work to live, as must we all… But still, yes, I failed Malenfant, there on the Cannonball. I used to be a priest. If ever there was a soul in torment, in his own silent, lonely way, it was Reid Malenfant. And I couldn’t find a way to help him.”

Madeleine scowled, irritated. “What happened on the Cannonball was about Malenfant, Dorothy, not about you and your guilt. Malenfant was a victim. A tool of the Gaijin, dragged across the Galaxy, part of plans we still know nothing about. Why should he put up with that?”

“Because he knew, or suspected, that it was the right thing to do, if the Gaijin had any hope—” She waved a gloved hand at the damaged sky. “ — of changing this. The rapacious colonization waves, the wars, the trashing of worlds, the extinctions. If there was even a chance of making a difference, it might have been right for Malenfant to sacrifice himself.”

“But he’s just a man, a human. Why should he give himself up? Would you?”

Dorothy sighed. “I’m not the right person to ask anymore. Would you?”

“I don’t know.” Madeleine was chilled. “Poor Malenfant.”

“Wherever he is, whatever becomes of him, I hope he isn’t alone. Even Christ had the comfort of His family, at the foot of the cross. You brought refugees here, didn’t you?”

Madeleine grunted. “I’m told that everybody here is a refugee. But here we are as safe as anywhere.”

Dorothy barked laughter. “You don’t get it yet, do you? Obviously you haven’t spoken to Nemoto… She’s still alive. Did you know that? Centuries old… Of all the places to come — this, Mercury, as the last refuge of mankind? Wrong.

“Mercury is deep in the inner system. So close to the Sun the Gaijin don’t want to come here.”

“But the Gaijin are not the enemy,” Dorothy hissed. “You have to think things through, Madeleine. We think we know how the Crackers work. They manipulate the target star, causing it to nova…” A nova: a stellar explosion, releasing as much energy in a few days as a star would have expended in ten thousand years. “The Crackers feed on the light pulse, you see,” Dorothy said. “They ride their solar-sail craft out to more stars, scattering like seeds from a burst fungus, sailing past planets scorched and ruined. We used to think novae were natural, a question of a glitch in a star’s fusion processes, perhaps caused by an infall of material from a binary companion. Now we wonder if any nova we have observed historically has been natural. Perhaps all of them, all over the sky, have been the responsibility of the Crackers — or foul species like them.”

And Madeleine started to see it. “How do you make a star nova?”

“Simple. In principle. You set a chain of powerful particle accelerators in orbit around your target star. They create currents of charged particles, which set up a powerful magnetic field, caging the star — which can then be manipulated.”

“…Ah. But you need a resource base to manufacture those thousands, millions of machines. And a place to make your new generation of solar sailing boats.”

“Yes. Madeleine, here in the Solar System, what would be the ideal location for such a mine?”

A rocky world orbiting conveniently close to the central star itself. A big fat core of iron and nickel just begging to be dug out and broken up and exploited, without even an awkward rocky shell to cut through…

“Mercury,” Madeleine whispered. “What do we do? Do we have to evacuate?”

“Where to?” Dorothy said, comparatively gently. “Meacher, remember where you are. We’ve already lost the Solar System. This is the last bolthole. All we can do is dig deep, deep down, as deep as possible.”

Something about her emphasis on those words made Madeleine look hard at Dorothy, but her face remained obscured.

“What are you doing here, Dorothy? You’re planning something, aren’t you?” Her mind raced. “Some way of striking back at the Crackers — is that what this is about? Are you working with Nemoto?”

But Dorothy evaded the question. “What can we do? The Crackers have already driven off the Gaijin, a species much older and wiser and more powerful than us. We’re just vermin infesting a piece of prime real estate.”

“If you believe we’re vermin, you really have lost your faith,” Madeleine said coldly.

Dorothy laughed. “Compared to the Gaijin, even the Crackers, what other word would you use?” She peered up at the sky, her face obscured by scuffed glass. “Remember, Madeleine. Tell them to dig deep. That’s vital. As deep as they can…”

She went back to Carl ap Przibram to discuss the issue of the Aborigines. Interstellar war or not, they still had no other place to go.

“Please be straightforward with me. I appreciate you’re trying to help. I don’t want to offend you, or imply—”

“ — that I’m some kind of immoral bastard,” he said tightly.

The archaic term surprised her. She wondered what thirty-eighth-century oath lay on the other side of the chattering translators.

“This isn’t an easy job,” he said. “People always find it hard to accept what I have to tell them.”

“I sympathize. But I need you to help me. I’m a long way from home — from my time. It’s hard for me to understand what’s happening here, to progress the issue.” She pointed to the ceiling. “There are two hundred people up there. They’ve come all the way in from Triton, the edge of the Solar System. They have absolutely no place to go. They are completely dependent, refugees.”

“We are all refugees.”

She grunted. “That’s the standard mantra here, isn’t it?”

He frowned at her. “But it’s true. And I don’t know if you understand how significant that is. I haven’t met a traveler before, Madeleine Meacher. But I’ve read about your kind.”

“My kind?”

“You were born on Earth, weren’t you? At a time when there were no colonies beyond the home planet.”

“Not quite true—”

“You are accustomed to think of us, the space dwellers, as exotic beings, somehow beyond the humanity you grew up with. But it isn’t like that. My home society, on Vesta, was fifteen centuries old. My ancestors spent all that time making the asteroid habitable. Centuries living in tunnels and lava tubes and caves, cowering from radiation, knowing that a single mistake could kill everything they cared about… We are a deeply conservative people, Madeleine Meacher. We are not used to travel. We are not world builders. We, too, are a long way from home.”

“You got here first,” Madeleine said. “And now you’re driving everybody else off.”

He shook his head. “It isn’t like that. If not for us, this — a habitable corner of Mercury — wouldn’t be here at all.”

She stood up. “I know you’ll do your job, Carl ap Przibram.”

He nodded. “I appreciate your courtesy. But you understand that doesn’t guarantee I will be able to let your party land here. If we cannot feed them…” He steepled his long fingers. “In the long run,” he said, “it may make no difference anyhow. Do you see that?”

If the Crackers win, if they come here. That’s what he means.

He studied her face, as if pleading for help, for understanding.

Everybody does his best, she thought bleakly. How little it all means.