I’m back on Earth.
That was Yuri’s very first thought, on waking in a bed: a hard bed, stiff mattress and lightweight sheets and blankets, but a bed nonetheless, not a barrack bunk stacked four high in a dome on Mars.
He opened his eyes to bright light, from fluorescent bars on the walls. A clean-looking ceiling. People moving around him wearing green shirts and hygiene caps and masks, a low murmur of competent voices, machines that bleeped and chimed. Other beds, other patients. A classic hospital setup. He saw all this in his peripheral vision; he hadn’t turned his head yet, he felt so heavy.
The last thing he remembered was the needle jabbed into his neck by that asshole Peacekeeper Tollemache. He had no idea how long he’d been out—months, if he’d been shipped back to Earth—and he remembered from his recovery after his decades in the cryo that it paid to take care on waking.
But he knew he was on Earth. He could feel it in his bones. Yuri had been born on Earth in the year 2067, nearly a hundred years ago, and, dozing in a cryo tank, had missed mankind’s heroic expansion out into the solar system. He had woken up in a colony on what he had learned, gradually, was Mars. But now, after another compulsory sleep, this was different again. He risked lifting his hand. The muscles in his arm ached, just doing that, and he felt tubes dragging at him as he moved, and the hand fell back with a satisfyingly heavy thump. Beautiful Earth gravity, not that neither-one-thing-nor-the-other floaty stuff on Mars. It could only be Earth, home.
He had a million questions. Such as where on Earth? Why had he been sent back instead of being left to rot on Mars? And what kind of institution was he in now, what kind of prison this time? But not having answers didn’t bother him. He’d had very few answers about anything since waking up on Mars, and besides, he hadn’t cared enough to ask. The worst kind of cage on Earth, and no matter how much the place had changed since he’d gone into the cryo tank, was better than the finest luxury you could find on Mars. Because on Earth you could always just open the door and breathe the air, even if it was an overheated polluted soup, and just keep on walking, forever . . .
He closed his eyes.
“Rise and shine, sleepyhead.”
There was a face looming over him, a woman, black, wearing a green shirt with a name tag he couldn’t read, her hair tucked into a green cloth cap. She wasn’t wearing a mask, and she smiled at him. She looked tired.
He tried to speak. His mouth was dry, and his tongue stuck painfully to the roof of his mouth. “I . . . I . . .”
“Here. Have a sip of water.” She held a nippled bottle, like a baby’s, for him. The water was warm and stale. She seemed to be having trouble holding up the bottle, like she was weak herself. “Do you know your name?” She glanced at the foot of the bed. “Yuri Eden. That’s all we have for you. No recorded next of kin. Is that right?”
He just shrugged, a tentative movement, flat on his back.
She looked him over, peered into his eyes, checked some kind of monitor beside the bed. “My name is Dr. Poinar. I’m ISF. I have a crew rank but you can call me Doctor. You’ve taken your time coming out of the induced coma the Peacekeepers put you into. Still, it was easier to ship you through the launch that way. More than half the crew dreamed it all away, in fact. I’m going to see if I can sit you up. OK?” She pressed a button.
With a whir of servos the back of his bed began to tip up, lifting him, bending him at the waist. He felt weak, and his head was like a tub of sloshing liquid. The ward grayed around him. He felt a crawling sensation in his right arm, some kind of fluid being pumped into him.
Dr. Poinar watched him carefully. “You OK? All right. Here’s the five-second briefing—you’ll be put through a proper induction process later, everybody’s going through that in stages, classroom stuff and data access first while you get your strength back, then physical work later, including your share of maintenance chores.” She glanced at his notes. “More of that if you end up on a punishment detail, and looking at your record that seems more than likely. But the priority for you is reconditioning. Your body needs to relearn how to handle full gravity. The nerve receptors that handle your posture, positioning and movement are all baffled right now. Your inner ear doesn’t know what the hell’s going on. Your fluid balance is all wrong, and you’re going to have low blood pressure symptoms for a while. Here, drink this.”
She handed him another flask, and this time he took it for himself. It was a briny fluid that made him splutter.
“You’ll get courses of injections to rectify your bone calcium loss and such. And physio to build up your muscle strength and bone mass. Do not skip those. Oh, and your immune system will be hit. Every virus everybody brought into this hull has been running around like crazy; you’ll have a few weeks of fun with that. Later on there will be further medical programs, pre-adaptation for Prox, preventive surgery of various kinds.” She grinned, faintly cruelly. “How are your teeth? But that won’t be for another year or more.”
A baby started to cry, not far away.
Dr. Poinar asked, “Any questions? Oh, I’m sure there are masses. Just use your common sense. For now just sit there and let the dizziness pass. Don’t lie down again. I’ll come by later and see if you can take some solid food. And watch out for the catheter. The nurse will remove that later. Take it easy, Yuri Eden.” She walked out of his view.
Still that baby cried, not far to his left.
Very cautiously he turned his head that way; the graying returned, and a ringing in his ears, but he waited until it passed. He saw more beds crowded into a room that couldn’t have been more than seven, eight meters across, smaller than he had expected. Some of the beds had cloth partitions around them. More medical types and a couple of servo-robots glided through the narrow spaces between the beds. Equipment dangled from the ceiling, including what looked like a teleoperated surgical kit, all manipulator arms and laser nozzles and knives.
In the bed closest to Yuri, to his left, lay a young woman, a girl really, pale, blond hair, fragile-looking. Intensely beautiful. She cradled a baby, a bundle of blankets; as she rocked it, the crying slowly subsided. She saw Yuri looking. He turned his head away, making his vision spin again. At Eden he’d developed the habit of avoiding eye contact, of giving people their own bubbles of privacy.
“It’s OK.” Her accent was soft, maybe eastern European.
He looked back. “Didn’t mean to stare.” His voice was a husk.
“Well, little Cole was crying, disturbing everybody.” She smiled. “Sorry if he woke you up.”
That puzzled him. Then he realized she was joking. He tried to smile, but he had no idea what kind of grimace his numb face was pulling.
“My name is Anna Vigil.”
“Yuri Eden. I heard the doctor say.” Little Cole wriggled and gurgled softly. “He’s fine. I’m the one who had to come in here. A cold virus laid me out; I’m still weak from nursing. Of course we shouldn’t be here at all. I was heavily pregnant when the sweep came. There was a mix-up. Cole’s the only child in here.”
“Cole, huh. Nice name.”
She seemed to think that over, as if his responses were a little off. “I named him for Dexter Cole, of course. The first guy to Proxima.”
Of course. Who? Where? He backed away from the puzzling little conversation, retreated into himself.
He turned his head to the right.
In the bed on that side was a man, around thirty, Asiatic. His scalp was swathed in bandages, and the left side of his face was puffed up with bruising that almost closed one eye. Even so, he smiled. “You OK?”
Yuri shrugged stiffly.
“Listen. It’s just the go-to-sleep stuff the cops give you. They don’t use it sparingly. I took a couple of doses of that myself, while I tried to explain in a calm manner that as a foreign national I did not belong in their sweep for the Ad Astra. Takes you time to wake up from that. Don’t worry, the fog will clear.” His accent sounded American, west coast maybe, but Yuri’s ear was a hundred years out-of-date.
Yuri said, “Thanks. But I’m guessing that’s not why you’re in here. The sleep thing.”
“You ought to be a doctor. No, the big guy put me in here this time. Although the time before it was a couple of Peacekeepers—they managed to break a rib while persuading me—”
“The big guy?”
“Gustave Klein, he’s called. I guess you wouldn’t know that. King of the Hull, or thinks he is. Watch out for him. So, Yuri Eden, huh? I never came across you on Mars. My name is Liu Tao.” He spelled it out.
“Me? No. But I learned English in a school for USNA expats in New Beijing. That’s why my accent is kind of old-fashioned; everybody picks up on that. I’m Chinese. I’m actually an officer in the People’s space fleet. Yuri Eden? Is that really your name? You lived in Eden, right?”
“What was it like?”
Lacking any kind of common reference with this guy, Yuri tried to describe it. Eden had been the UN’s largest outpost on Mars, and one of the oldest. People lived in cylindrical bulks like Nissen huts that were the remains of the first ships to land, tipped over and heaped with dirt and turned into shelters, and in prefabricated domes, and even in a few buildings of red Martian sandstone blocks. The whole place had had the feel of a prison to Yuri, or a labor camp. And all this was just a pinprick, a hold-out; the scuttlebutt was that a colony like this would be dwarfed by the giant cities the Chinese were building on the rest of the planet, like their capital, Obelisk, in Terra Cimmeria.
Liu Tao listened, his face neutral.
Yuri asked, “So how did you end up here?”
“Bad luck. I was piloting a shuttle down from Red Two, that’s one of our orbital stations, heading for our supply depots and manufactories in the Phaethontis quadrangle, when we had an auxiliary power-unit failure. We had to bail out at high altitude, my buddy and I, which is no joke on Mars. He got down safely—well, I guess so; I was never told. My clamshell, my heat shield, had a crack. I was lucky to live through it. But I came down near Eden, and a couple of your Peacekeepers were the first to get to me.
“They held on to me, in defiance of various treaties. I was put through a lot of ‘questioning.’” He let that word hang. “They wanted me to tell them the inner secrets of the Triangle. You know about that? The big trade loop we’re developing, Earth to asteroids and Mars and back. But I’m a Mars-orbit shuttle jock, that’s all. By Mao’s balls, it’s not as if we’re spying on you guys at Eden!” He laughed at that idea. “Well, they kept me in there, and I started to think they were never going to let me go—I mean maybe they’d told my chain of command they’d found me dead or something. What were they going to do to me, kill me? I guess it’s no surprise that they threw me into the sweep and locked me up in this hull, right? Out of sight, out of mind. But we’re all prisoners here . . .”
“Nobody’s a prisoner,” said Dr. Poinar, bustling down the ward with a tray of colorful pills. “That’s what the policy says, so it must be true, right? Now take this, Yuri Eden. You need more sleep.”
Confused, as weak as Anna’s baby, yet still elated at the basic fact that he’d come home, even if he was stuck in this “hull,” Yuri obediently took his tablet and subsided into a deep dreamless sleep.
After a day of cautious bending, stretching, walking, and using a lavatory unaided, Yuri was told by Dr. Poinar that his time was up. “We need your bed. Sorry, buddy. You’ll be assigned a bunk later. Any possessions you had—”
“Right now you’re late for a class.”
“Orientation 101,” Liu Tao said. “Some astronaut showing us pretty pictures.” He laughed, though he winced when he opened his bruised mouth wide.
“You’re in the same class, Liu. Why don’t you show your new best friend the way?” Poinar dumped heaps of basic clothing on their beds, bright orange, and walked away.
Yuri had thought the medical ward was crowded, noisy. But once Liu led him outside, into a space that struck Yuri at first glance as like the inside of a big metal tower, he realized that the ward had been a haven of peace and harmony. Looking up he saw that the tower wasn’t that tall, maybe forty, forty-five meters, and was capped off by a big metal dome. It was split into stories by mesh-partition flooring; there were ladders and a kind of spiral staircase around the wall, and a fireman’s pole arrangement that threaded through gaps in the partitions along the tower’s axis. The walls were crusted with equipment boxes and stores, but in some places he saw tables and chairs, lightweight fold-out affairs, and enclosures, partitions inside which he could see bunk beds, more fold-outs. There were folk in there evidently trying to sleep; he had no idea how they’d manage that. It looked like sleep was going to be a luxury here, just like on Mars.
And in this tank, people swarmed everywhere, most of them dressed like Yuri and Liu in bright orange jumpsuits, a few others in Peacekeeper blue, or a more exotic black and silver. They were all adults that he could see, no kids, no infants. Their voices echoed from the metal surfaces in a jangling racket. And over all that there was a whir of pumps and fans, of air-conditioning and plumbing of some kind, just like in Eden. Like he was in another sealed unit.
Liu, moving cautiously himself—evidently it hadn’t been just his face that had taken the beating—took Yuri to that outer staircase, steps fixed to the curving wall with a safety rail, and led him up.
At least, just like on Mars, Yuri didn’t find the stuff here hard. Since his first waking, he’d found twenty-second-century technology easy to work. User interfaces seemed to have settled down to common standards some time before he’d been frozen. Even the language had stabilized, more or less, if not the accents; English was spoken across several worlds now and had to stay comprehensible to everybody, and there was a huge mass of recorded culture, all of which tended to keep the language static. The vehicles and vocabularies of the year 2166 were easy. It was the people he couldn’t figure out. And now Yuri climbed through a blizzard of faces, none of them familiar.
He looked for a window. He still had no idea where on Earth he was. And why the enclosure? Maybe he was in some mid-latitude climate refuge; he’d heard that since his day the whole middle belt of the Earth had heated up, dried out and been abandoned. He could be anywhere. But that steady pull of gravity was reassuring, even as he labored up the stairs with his Mars-softened muscles. He wondered when his first physio was going to be.
They reached a space enclosed by movable partition panels, with fold-out chairs set in rows like a lecture theater. Some guy in a uniform of black and silver stood at the front, facing away from the dozen or so people in the room, talking through a series of images, star fields and space satellites.
A woman in a similar uniform, standing at the door with a slate, stopped Liu and Yuri as they entered. Yuri read her name tag: ISF LT MARDINA JONES. Maybe thirty, she was very dark, with tightly curled black hair. “You’re late,” she said.
“Sorry. Just out of medical.” Liu gave their names.
Liu dug his out of a pocket and showed it to her; she scanned it with her slate. She turned to Yuri. “You?”
Yuri just shrugged.
Liu said, “Like I said, just out of medical.”
“Just awake, huh.” Jones shook her head and made a note on her slate. “Typical. Make sure you sort it out later.” She had a thick Australian accent. “Sit, you’re late.”
Finding a seat in the semidarkened little theater turned out to be a problem. Three guys sat together on a row of a dozen otherwise empty seats. When Yuri went to sit down in the row, Liu prodded him in the back. “Move on,” he whispered.
Yuri had been quick to anger ever since he’d first woken up on Mars. “Why should I?”
“Because that middle guy is Gustave Klein. Wait until you’re beefed up before you take him on.”
But it was already too late, Yuri realized. Klein was white, maybe fifty years old, hefty if not overweight, head elaborately shaven. His fists, resting on his knees, were like steam hammers. And Yuri had made eye contact with him. He barely noticed the two guys with Klein, typical attack dogs. Klein leered at Liu, taking in his injuries, and looked away, dismissive.
They moved on, cautious in the dark. “What’s so special about him?”
“He was the best Sabatier-furnace engineer in his colony,” Liu whispered. “That’s part of the recycling system—you know that, right? And he fixed it so that nobody else could touch those systems. He was a damn water king. No wonder they shipped him out. And it looks like he’s fixing to get the same hold here.”
“A water king.” Yuri grinned. “Until it rains, right?”
Liu looked at him strangely.
Somebody hissed. “Yuri! Hey, Yuri! Over here!” A skinny, shambling form hustled along a row, clearing two spaces, to muttered complaints from the people behind.
“Lemmy?” It was the first familiar voice he’d heard since waking in the can. Yuri sat beside him, followed by Liu.
“Awake at last, huh?” Lemmy’s whisper was soft, practiced. “That bastard Tollemache really shot you up, didn’t he? Well, he got what he deserved.”
Yuri tried to figure it out. Lemmy Pink, nineteen years old, had been the nearest thing to a friend Yuri had made on Mars. Even if Lemmy was only looking for protection.
The last Yuri remembered of Mars was that he and Lemmy had busted out of their dome. Yuri had had to get out. Every atom in his body longed to be out there on the Martian ground, frozen, ultraviolet-blasted desert though it might be. He’d been taken through spacesuit and airlock drills for the sake of emergency training, but he’d never been outside. Mostly he never even got to look through a window. So they’d stolen a rover, made a run for the hills, a local feature called the Chaos—flipped the truck, been picked up by the Peacekeepers. He remembered Tollemache. You’re the ice boy, right? Nothing but a pain in the butt since they defrosted you. Well, you won’t be my problem much longer. And with a gloved fist he had jammed a needle into Yuri’s neck, and the red-brown Martian light had folded away . . .
And he’d woken up in this tank.
“What do you mean, he got what he deserved?”
“He’s here too. In the hull. Ha! He got what was coming to him, all right. But it was because he didn’t stop us pinching that rover in the first place, rather than what he did to you.”
Yuri mock-punched his arm. “Good to see they brought you home too, man.”
Lemmy flinched back. “Don’t touch me. I’m full of the fucking sniffles that are going around this coffin, typical of me to get them all.”
“What about Krafft?” Lemmy’s pet rat, back in the dome.
Lemmy’s face fell. “Well, they took him off me. What would you expect?”
They were disturbing the astronaut type giving his lecture. Mardina Jones was right behind them, her voice a severe murmur. “If you two buttheads don’t shut up and listen to Major McGregor I’ll put you on a charge.”
They shut up. But when she withdrew, Lemmy was staring at Yuri, in the shadowy dark. “What was that you just said?”
“What? About the rat?”
“No. Something about them bringing us home.”
“I don’t know, man. I don’t know if I’m asleep or awake.” But Lemmy kept staring at him.
Yuri, disoriented, confused, distracted by the noise of the crowds just half a meter beyond the partition, looked up at the astronaut at the lectern in his glittering black-as-night uniform. On Mars everybody had hated the astronauts, because they were rotated, they got to go home. Yuri tried to concentrate on what he was saying.
“Even a single pixel from these very early images of the new world told the astronomers a great deal. Spectral analysis revealed an atmosphere with free oxygen, methane, nitrous oxide.”
Major McGregor, maybe late twenties, was tall, upright, whip-thin but athletic, with a healthy glow to his cheeks in the light of the images he showed. He had a slick Angleterre accent, and his hair, blond, brushed, oiled, looked like it got more care than most of the people in this facility.
“Oxygen, think of that! Suddenly we had a habitable world, right on our doorstep. All of you have had experience of the colonies on Mars and the moon—bleak, inhospitable worlds, and yet the best the solar system has to offer. And now, suddenly, this.
“With time, variations of brightness and spectral content told us something about the distribution of continents and oceans. More subtle variations had to reflect changing weather. Not only that, the presence of oxygen is a strong indicator of life, I mean native life, because something has to be putting all that oxygen in the air.” He displayed graphs, wriggling lines. “This prominent feature in the red part of the spectrum indicated the presence of something like our own chlorophyll, some kind of light-harvesting pigment. All deduced from watching a single point of light . . .”
Yuri had no idea what he was talking about. But he had spent a great deal of his time since being woken on Mars not knowing what the hell was going on around him, and it didn’t seem to make any material difference.
He was aware that that caveman Klein was watching him. He started to think of how he was going to deal with that, as the astronaut’s voice droned on and on.
But Lemmy was still staring at him, as if he was working something out. “Nobody told you. My God.”
“Told me what?”
Gustave Klein seemed to have an instinct for trouble. He leaned forward. “What’s this?”
Lemmy ignored him. “You said something about being sent home. I just figured it out. You think this is home, don’t you? You think this is—”
“Earth?” Liu Tao asked now, wondering, staring at Yuri.
Klein stood up. “He thinks what? What kind of asshole—”
The class was breaking up, the “students” turning in their seats to see what the commotion was. Major McGregor shut up at last, frowning in annoyance before his spectrograms.
Mardina Jones hurried up again from the back, tapping an epaulette on her shoulder. “Peacekeeper to Level 3, lecture room . . . What’s going on here? Is this something to do with you, Eden?”
Yuri stood, hands spread, but he didn’t reply. He’d long since learned that replying was usually pointless, it made no difference to the treatment he got. But he felt surrounded, by the astronauts, the students grinning to see someone else in trouble. Even Lemmy was staring at him.
And Gustave Klein was like a malevolent puppet master. “He doesn’t know! You’re right, you little runt,” he said to Lemmy. His accent was thick Hispanic, despite his Germanic-sounding name. “He doesn’t have a fucking clue. What a laugh.”
Now Peacekeeper Tollemache came bustling in, fully uniformed, flanked by two junior officers. They all had nightsticks at the ready—no guns, though, Yuri noticed in those first moments.
“You,” Tollemache said. “Ice boy. I should have known. Out of the med bay for five minutes and trouble already.” He flexed his nightstick.
Yuri tensed, preparing to rush him.
Mardina Jones stood between them. “Stop this! That’s an order, Peacekeeper.”
“You don’t outrank me.”
“Oh, yes I do,” she said coldly. “You know the policy. Take it up with the captain if you like. I wanted you down here to keep order, not break more heads. And you—whatever else you are, Yuri Eden, you’re good at making enemies.”
Tollemache glowered at Yuri, but backed off. “You’re the reason I’m in this toilet, you little prick.”
Yuri grinned. “Good to hear it, Peacekeeper.”
Tollemache held his gaze for one more second. In the background Gustave Klein leered, drinking up the conflict.
Mardina Jones turned on Lemmy. “You. What do you mean, he thinks this is home?”
“Think about it. The Peacekeeper there knocked him out while he was still on Mars! He never saw a thing, the sweep, the loading, he didn’t get any of the briefings we got. Such as they were. Also, he’s out of his time. You must know that. He hasn’t got the background to understand.”
Mardina frowned, and glanced down at her slate; maybe she hadn’t known that, Yuri thought.
“We all supposed he’d know what was going on. I guess. That he’d be able to figure it. But—”
“But maybe not.” Major McGregor came up to the little group now, and studied Yuri with amused interest. “I heard about you. I knew we had one of you lot aboard, a corpsicle. A survivor of the Heroic Generation, eh? And now, here you are, and so confused. How funny.” Apparently on impulse he said, “Follow me, Mr. Eden. Bring your little bed warmer if you like. You’d better come too, Lieutenant. And you, Peacekeeper, if you can control yourself. Just in case it all kicks off.”
Mardina asked, “Where are you taking him?”
McGregor grinned and pointed upward. “Where do you think? It will be a fascinating experiment. Come along.”
McGregor led a procession out of the lecture space to the spiral stair that wound its way up the wall of the tower. McGregor glanced over his shoulder at Yuri, who followed directly behind him. “We have two of these habitat modules, strapped together side by side, for redundancy, you see . . . You’ll have to tell me what you think of the design. For size, it was modeled on the first stage of the old Saturn V moon booster, for nostalgic reasons, I suppose. Of course much of what we are doing is of symbolic as well as practical value.”
At the top of the tower was a domed roof. They climbed up through that into what was evidently some kind of control room, with a central command chair, vacant just now, arrays of bright screens, and another dome, midnight dark, over their heads. Operatives in astronaut uniforms sat at terminals around the periphery. One or two looked back at McGregor and his party, frowning, disapproving of an incursion into this sanctum of control.
McGregor was studying Yuri, amused. “Where do you think you are now?”
Yuri shrugged carelessly, though a kind of deep anxiety was gnawing in his stomach.
Mardina murmured, “Lex, go easy—”
“No, really. Tell me. Come on, man, speak up.”
“Top of the tower.”
McGregor thought that over. “Well, yes. That’s correct, sort of. Perceptually speaking anyhow, given the vector of the thrust-induced gravity. But there’s rather more to it than that.” He clapped his hands. “Lights off.” The wall lamps died, fading quickly. “Just look up. Give your eyes a minute to adjust.”
Yuri obeyed. Slowly, the stars came out across the dome, a brilliant field, like night in the Martian desert. There was a particularly prominent cluster directly overhead.
“What do you see?”
“Stars. So what? So it’s a clear night.”
“A ‘clear night.’ Where do you think you are?”
Yuri shrugged. “Somewhere with a good sky. Arizona.” He vaguely remembered a high-altitude site with big astronomical telescopes. “Chile?”
“Chile. You understand that what you see is simulated, a live feed from cameras mounted on the ISM shield.”
“Interstellar medium.” McGregor clapped his hands again. “Wraparound VR star field.”
The walls and floor of this deck shimmered and melted away. It was as if Yuri, with McGregor, Lemmy, Mardina Jones, Tollemache, Liu Tao, and the handful of operators with their screens, were standing on a floor of glass. And all around him, above and below, he saw stars, with one particularly brilliant specimen directly under his feet.
McGregor grinned by the light of the stars and the display screens. “Now what do you see? Where is the Earth? Where’s the planet you thought you were standing on? Where’s the Earth, Yuri Eden?”
Yuri felt his head swim, the universe close up around him, as if he was fainting from fluid imbalance again.
McGregor pointed downward. “There. Down in that puddle of light. That’s the sun. We’ve been traveling from Mars’s orbit for a month. We are now”—he glanced at a screen—“two hundred and thirty astronomical units from the sun. That’s two hundred and thirty times as far as Earth is from the sun—about eight times as far out as Neptune—about a light-day, if I’m not mistaken. You are a long, long way from Earth, my friend.”
“A ship.” It didn’t sound like his own voice. “This is some kind of ship.”
“Not just any old ship. This is the Ad Astra. And we are going”—he pointed straight up, at the cluster of stars at the zenith—“there.”
“You’re on a starship,” Mardina Jones said, levelly, steadily, looking Yuri in the eye. “Heading to Proxima Centauri.”
“Proxima Centauri,” Yuri said dully. The very name was meaningless to him.
“Yuri Eden, this is the UN International Space Fleet vessel Ad Astra. Two hundred colonists, in two hulls like this one. We’re driven at a constant acceleration, at one gravity, by a kernel engine. This ship is like the hulk that brought you to Mars. But of course you don’t remember that. It’s a bit more than four light years to Proxima. Given time dilation it will take us three years, seven months subjective to get there, of which we’ve already served a month . . .”
McGregor peered at him, searching for a reaction. “What are you thinking, man from the past?”
Peacekeeper Tollemache was more direct. “Ha! He’s thinking what a prick I am. You thought you were on Earth, didn’t you? Why, you fucking—”
Yuri couldn’t punch a star, but he could punch Tollemache. He got in one good blow before Mardina Jones, this time, knocked him out.
It was going to be a long three years, seven months.
When Yuri Eden discovered he was on a starship, it was only a little more than a decade after the maiden flight from planet Mercury of a ship called the International-One, the first demonstrator of the new kernel-drive technology that propelled the Ad Astra. Lex McGregor, then seventeen years old and an International Space Fleet cadet, had taken part in that flight.
And it was thanks to McGregor that Stephanie Penelope Kalinski, then eleven years old, had first gotten to meet her father’s starship, created from another technology entirely.
• • •
It seemed strange to Stef, as she and her father took the long, slow, unpowered orbit from Earth in toward the sun aboard a UN-UEI liner, that there were to be not one but two new kinds of ships, the International-One and the Angelia, launched from such an unpromising place as Mercury at the same time.
Her father just rolled his eyes. “Just my luck. Or humanity’s luck. If I was a conspiracy theorist I would suspect that those damn kernels have been planted under Mercury’s crust in order that we would find them now, just when we are recovering from the follies of the Heroic Generation, and reaching out, with our own efforts, to the stars . . .”
Stef wasn’t too clear what a “kernel” was. But she was interested in it all, the different kinds of ships, the experimental engineering she’d glimpsed at her father’s laboratories back home on the outskirts of Seattle, the rumors of these energy-rich kernels being brought up from deep mines on Mercury . . . She understood that the International-One was just some kind of interplanetary-capable technology demonstrator, while her own father’s ship, though uncrewed, was going to the stars, the first true interstellar jaunt since the extraordinary journey of Dexter Cole, decades before. But she’d heard hints that these kernels they’d found on Mercury, and which were going to power the I-One, were actually much more exotic than anything her father was working on.
This was the kind of thing that always snagged her attention. She was doing well with her schooling, scoring high in mathematics, sciences and deductive abilities, as well as in physical prowess and leadership skills. Her father had been paradoxically pleased when she had been flagged up with a warning about having introvert tendencies. “All great scientists are introverts,” he’d said. “All great engineers too, come to that. The sign of a strong, independent mind.” But Stef was always less interested in herself than in all the stuff going on outside her own head. The I-One’s interplanetary mission was a lot less ambitious than the Angelia’s, but it was the I-One that had the hot technology. She was more than interested in it. She was fascinated.
She didn’t much enjoy the cruise from Earth, though. She had followed the mission profile as their ship descended ever deeper into the heart of the solar system, ever closer to the central fire, and Stef had come to feel oddly claustrophobic. Apparently the UN-led countries and China, who had carved Earth up between them, had shared out the solar system too, but China dominated everything from Earth orbit outward, from Mars and the asteroids to Jupiter’s moons. Looking out from the cramped center of the system, China seemed to Stef to have the better half of it, with those roomy outer reaches, families of cold worlds hanging like lanterns in the dark.
• • •
On Mercury they landed at a big engineering complex in a crater called Yeats. This was not far from the equator, so that during the planet’s day the big looming sun was high in the sky, pouring down the light and energy that fed the square kilometers of solar-cell arrays that carpeted much of the crater’s floor.
The gravity was lower than home, about a third, and in the high domes, built big so they could house the industrial complexes expected to sprout here in the future, you could go running and leaping and break all kinds of long-jump records. That was interesting, and fun.
But for Stef the charms of Mercury quickly palled. It was hot enough to melt lead outside, at local noon anyhow. They had come here in the morning on this part of Mercury, and since the “day” here lasted a hundred and seventy-six Earth days (a number that was a peculiar product of the planet’s slow rotation on its axis and its short year, that had taken Stef a while to figure out), the big sun just hung there, low in the sky, dome-day after dome-day, and the long shadows barely moved across the crater’s flat, lava-choked floor. There was, in the end, nothing on Mercury but rock, and there was only so much interest she could feign in solar-cell farms, or even the monumental pipeline systems they had built to bring water from the caches of ice in the permanent shadows at the planet’s poles.
And she had to spend a lot of time alone.
Her father was immersed in final tests and simulations for his starship, and Stef knew from long experience when to get out of his way. He’d been just the same when her mother was alive. The trouble was, unlike home, there was nobody else here much less than three times Stef’s age. Mercury was like a huge mine, drifting in the generous energy-giving light of the sun, and not a place to raise kids, it seemed; it was a place you came to work for a few years, made your money, and went back home to spend it. For all that the virtual facilities were just as good as back in Seattle, it got kind of boring, and lonely, quickly.
Things got a bit better as more people started to show up, shuttling in from Earth and moon for the launches.
There were actually two crowds arriving here, Stef quickly realized, for the two separate projects, the Angelia and the International-One. Her father’s project, the Angelia, was basically scientific: a one-shot uncrewed mission to Proxima Centauri intended to deliver a probe to study the habitable world the astronomers had found fifty years earlier orbiting that remote star. Since that discovery, of course, a human had actually been sent to Proxima, a man called Dexter Cole, who, launched decades before Stef had even been born, had yet to complete his one-way mission; the Angelia, representing a new technology generation, would almost overtake him. The throng gathering to watch the Angelia launch were mostly scientists and experimental engineers, along with the bureaucrats from state and UN levels who were backing the project. They were men and women in drab suits who spent more time staring into each other’s faces over glasses of champagne than looking out of the window at Mercury, a whole alien world, it seemed to Stef.
The International-One, meanwhile, was a project of a huge industrial combine called Universal Engineering, Inc.—UEI. Its chief executive was a squat, blustering, forty-year-old Australian called Michael King, and he came out here with a much more exotic entourage of the rich and famous. “Trillionaire-adventurers,” her father called them dismissively.
There were even a few Chinese, “guests” of the UN and the UEI, to “observe” the great events taking place here on UN-dominated Mercury, although it seemed to Stef that it was a funny kind of “observing” where you weren’t allowed to have close-up views of anything important at all.
Stef did have to show up at drinks parties and other functions at her father’s side. Of the trillionaires’ club Michael King was the only one who displayed any kind of interest in her personally, as opposed to treating her as some kind of appendage of her father. When she was introduced by her father, King, avuncular, a glass of champagne low-gravity sloshing in his hand, leaned down and looked her in the face. “Good clear eyes. Unflinching gaze. Curiosity. I like that. You’ll go far. You keeping up at school, Stephanie?”
“It’s Stef. Yes, I think so. I like—”
“What are you missing here?”
“You’re an Earth kid, stuck on Mercury. What’s the one thing I could sell you, right now, that you miss the most from home?”
She thought that over. “Soda,” she said. “Decent soda. Here it’s cold enough, but it’s always flat. Same on the moon.”
“Yeah. This champagne’s kind of flat too.” King glanced at her father. “Something to do with the low gravity, George? The low air pressure in the domes, maybe, messing with the carbonation? Soda. I’ll make a note of that and follow it up. Could be you just earned me another million, kid. So what do you make of all this?” He waved his glass at the people milling around, the conversations going on high above Stef’s head.
“I feel like I’m lost in some kind of forest of talking trees.”
King barked laughter. “Good for you. Honest answer, and a clear impression. Witty too. Listen to me. I know you’re only a kid—no offense. But you should watch and learn, as much as you can. Textbooks are one thing, people in the wild are another, and it’s the people you have to work with if you want to get on.” His accent was broad Australian, his enunciation crisp, precise, easy to follow. “Look at me. I started out from a poor background. Well, everybody was poor in Oz in those days because of the Desiccation. I made my first living as a coastal scavenger, I was no older than you, we’d go down into the wrecks of oil tankers and seawater-processing factories that had been deliberately beached on the shore, retrieving what materials we could haul out, all for a few UN dollars a day.
“But then age twenty I joined UEI as an apprentice programmer, and after ten years I was on the board. A lot of our early work was deconstruction, taking apart filthy old nuclear reactors. Of course by then we’d relocated to Canada, I mean the northern USNA region as it is nowadays, because Australia, along with Japan, the Far East countries, chunks of Siberia, had become part of the Framework, the Chinese economic empire . . . Well, the details don’t matter. Now here I am about to launch a new breed of spaceship. How much more success could you want? And you know how I got this far?”
“People,” she said brightly.
He grinned at her father. “George, you got yourself a smart one here. That’s it—people. I had contacts. I knew who to approach in the finance and governance community at national, zonal, and UN levels, as well as the technical people, to get it done. Because I’d cultivated those contacts at events like this over years and years. Now it’s your chance, and it’s never too early to start.”
Her father snorted. “Don’t give me all that, Michael. Your most important contact isn’t human at all.”
“Earthshine, you mean.”
“Or one of his Core AI rivals. Everybody knows they’re your ultimate paymasters.” Her father looked around the crowd, almost playfully. “Got an avatar or two here, has he? Should we be watching what we say?”
“Funny, George, very funny. But I don’t think—oh, excuse me. Sanjai! Over here!”
And that was it, as he hurried away to another encounter.
Stef liked Michael King, she decided, whether or not he really was backed by the sinister old Core AIs, entities she found hard even to imagine. Her father sneered about King’s lack of academic or technical qualifications, but Stef was drawn by his energy, his focus, his vigor, and she stored away his advice.
But she forgot all about Michael King a couple of dome-days later, when the astronauts showed up.
• • •
They were the human crew of King’s new ship, the International-One.
When they walked through a room all the faces turned to the astronauts, like iron filings in a magnetic field. It was like royalty, like King Harold of North Britain, or some media star, or maybe like the Heroic Generation engineers back in their heyday, her father said. They were authentic space pioneers, and all of them were dressed in the uniform of the UN’s International Space Fleet, an eye-popping jet-black spangled with glittering stars.
And what drew her attention most was the only member of the I-One crew who wasn’t in his fifth decade. Lex McGregor was from Angleterre, the south of Britain—the independent north had not contributed to the ISF—Lex was blond, as tall as the rest, and he was just seventeen. He wasn’t quite part of the crew, it seemed; he was a Space Fleet cadet, still in the early stages of his training. But he’d shown enough promise to win some kind of internal competition to serve as the one cadet on board the I-One for its maiden flight.
“And the fact that he is as photogenic as hell,” Stef said to her father, “probably didn’t harm his chances.”
He laughed. “Much too cynical for your age. Probably right, though. Don’t say ‘hell.’”
Just as Lex was the closest person here to Stef’s age, so she was the closest to his, and they kind of gravitated together. She was relieved when he didn’t treat her like some bratty kid. He called her “Kalinski,” like she was a cadet herself.
They would play dumb games and make up athletic competitions in the domes; he was good at figuring out rules so he was handicapped and she had at least a chance of winning. One of her favorites was the roof run, where you ran at a curving dome wall and up it, overcoming the low gravity, sticking to the wall by sheer centrifugal force until you fell back, and then (in theory) executed a slow one-third-G somersault to land on your feet on the cushioned floor. A space cadet’s training regime was pretty intense, and she suspected there was still enough of the kid in Lex to relish the chance to blow off some steam, even to bend the rules a little.
Which was probably why it was Lex who introduced her to her father’s starship.
It was a dome-morning, only a few days before the launch of the I-One. The Angelia’s launch was scheduled a couple of dome-days after that. Paradoxically Lex had more free time just now, as the ISF controllers were trying to get their crew to relax before the stress of the mission.
So Lex invited Stef to “take an EVA,” by which he meant go for a walk on Mercury’s surface.
He met her at a suit locker built into the dome wall. He grinned when she showed up. “Thought you weren’t coming, Kalinski. You didn’t seem keen.”
“I’ve been out on the moon. What’s so special about a bunch of rocks?”
He winked at her. “This is different. Take a look at your suit.” He palmed a control.
A section of the wall swept back, to reveal a row of suits that looked like nothing so much as discarded insect carcasses. Each had a hard silvered shell to cover torso, legs and arms, a featureless helmet with a gold-tinted visor, and wings, extraordinary filmy affairs that sprouted from joints behind the shoulders. All the suits had markings of various kinds, colored stripes and hoops, no doubt to identify who was wearing them.
Lex asked, “What do you think?”
“It’s not so bad. Believe me, you won’t even notice it once you’re out there on the surface. I bet you can’t guess what the wings are for.”
“It’s obvious. To radiate heat.”
“Very good,” he said, sounding genuinely impressed. “Most of the folk in this dome say, ‘For flying.’ Then they catch themselves and say, ‘But there’s no air here so . . .’”
“I know.” Stef sighed the way her father did. “It gets so wearying.”
He laughed. “OK, Kalinski, quit showing off. Look, putting it on is easy, the suit will seal itself up around you and adapt to fit. Just slip your shoes off . . .”
The astonishing thing was, once she was in the suit and out through a heavy-duty airlock, she really didn’t notice the suit, not visually anyhow. The suit contained some kind of immersive VR system, so when she looked down it was as if she was standing beside Lex, in their everyday clothes, on a ground of pitted rock, under Mercury’s black sky. The sun, more than twice the size it was as seen from Earth, cast long shadows across a moonlike plain. Experimentally she bent down; she felt a little stiff, and couldn’t fold quite as she was used to. She touched her toes, though, and picked up a loose bit of rock.
“How’s the suit?”
“Fine.” She explored the rock; her fingers, in her vision, didn’t quite close around it. “It feels kind of . . . soapy.” She threw the rock with a skimming motion. The rock whizzed away, falling, not as fast as it would on Earth, faster than on the moon. It made no sound when it fell; that wasn’t part of the sim.
“Let’s walk.” Lex strode easily across the surface of Mercury, his shadow long beside him. His voice sounded as if it was coming from him, not from plugs in her ears. “The suit will stop you from coming to any harm.”
“I know it will.” It was only older people who needed reassuring about stuff like that; people of Stef’s age just assumed technology would work. She followed him, watching where she was stepping. In this crater basin the surface was smoother than she had expected, with dust overlying a rocky surface pitted by lesser impacts. She moved easily enough, but felt a little heavy, as if she were overmuscled, like she’d beefed up in a gym. The suit must have exoskeletal multipliers.
The domes of the Yeats base were big blisters piled high with dirt, for protection from meteorite falls and from the sun’s radiation. Farther out there were storage facilities, backup plants for air and water processing, dusty rovers on tracks that led off across the crater’s dirt floor. Not far from the inhabited facilities was the edge of the area of the crater floor paneled by solar cells, a glimmering reflective surface like a pool of molten silver that stretched away for kilometers.
And farther out still she glimpsed some of the mountains that ringed this walled plain, like broken, eroded teeth. Out there stood bigger facilities, marked out by winking warning lights, all far enough from the inhabited domes to allow for safety margins. There was the broad, hardened pad where ships like her own ferry from orbit had come in to land, and fuel and energy stores, and a long shining needle that was the mass driver, which used sun-powered electromagnetism to hurl caches of material out of Mercury’s gravity well and across the solar system. In the shadow of the mountains themselves she saw the big gantries of the UEI’s drilling project, sinking shafts hundreds of kilometers deep through layers of lava and impact-pummeled bedrock to the edge of Mercury’s iron mantle, where the mysterious kernels were to be found.
And there too, huddling in the shadow, stood a taller gantry, a slim rocket: a strange sight for Stef, like something out of a history book. That was mankind’s newest spacecraft, the International-One, waiting to take Lex and his crew off into space.
Lex took a step and stamped on the ground, sending up little sprays of dust that sank quickly back down. “It’s an interesting little world.”
“So you say.”
He laughed. “I mean it. It’s only superficially like the moon. Look at those drill rigs over there. Here, you only have to drill down a few hundred kilometers before you reach the mantle. You’d have to go ten times deeper into the Earth, say. You know why that is?”
“Of course I know—”
Like her father, he didn’t always listen before lecturing her. “Because, we think, some big explosion on young Mercury, or maybe a big impact, blew off most of the rocky crust.”
She tried to imagine standing here when that big impact happened. Tried and failed. “What I want to know is, has all that got anything to do with the formation of the kernels they found here?”
Another voice replied, “Good question. Well, nobody knows. But I can see why you would ask it. You are Stephanie Kalinski, aren’t you?”
A woman was walking toward them from the direction of the domes, tall, a little heavyset perhaps, yet graceful. Evidently projecting a virtual image, she appeared to be in regular clothes; she wore a trim blue jacket and trousers, almost uniform-like, but not as showy as Lex’s ISF suit. She looked about thirty, but was oddly ageless, as if heavily cosmeticized. Her accent was neutral, perhaps east coast American.
“The name’s Stef,” she replied automatically. “Not Stephanie. I know your face. I’ve seen your picture in my dad’s dossiers.”
“Of course you have,” Lex said, grinning. “Which is why I thought you two ought to meet. Dr. Kalinski’s two daughters, so to speak. Because he never would have thought of bringing you together himself, right?”
“I am Angelia,” said the woman.
That puzzled Stef. “That’s the name of the starship. The Angelia.”
“I know. I am Angelia. I know what you’re thinking. That I am a PR stunt. A model, hired by your father to personify—”
“I don’t actually care,” Stef said abruptly.
That surprised Lex. “You’ve got an impatient streak, haven’t you, Kalinski?”
“If somebody’s being deliberately obscure, yes.”
“I’m sorry,” Angelia said. “I don’t intend to be. If your father had explained to you the mission concept—”
“You know about me. How come?”
“Well, I have got to know your father as we’ve worked together. And he speaks of you, Stef, a great deal. He’s very proud of you.”
“I know,” Stef snapped, feeling obscurely jealous.
Lex said, “Be nice, Kalinski. Now it’s your cue to ask, ‘What mission concept?’”
“Oh, Lex, I don’t care. It’s obvious this woman is some kind of projection.” On impulse she bent, picked up a pebble, an impact-loosened bit of Mercury rock, and threw it at Angelia.
Angelia caught the pebble easily. “Not a projection. Not quite an android either.” She looked at the rock, then popped it into her mouth and swallowed it. “I’m not in a suit like yours.”
“You’re programmable matter.”
“That’s right.” Angelia held up her left hand, and watched as it morphed into a clutch of miniature sunflowers, which swiveled their heads to the low sun.
“Ugh,” Lex said. “Creepy.”
“Sorry.” She turned her hand back into a hand, and pointed up at the empty sky. “I’m to be fired off into interstellar space, by the microwave beam from your father’s defunct solar-power satellite, up there. I’m the payload. But there is a me in here. In fact, a million mes, in a sense. A whole sisterhood, all sentient to a degree. Stef, I’m sure your father will walk you through the mission design—”
“But it makes no difference.” Lex walked around Angelia, studying her. “Whether you’re sentient or not, I mean. You’re not human. And it’s an authentic, physical human presence that counts when it comes to touching a new world. Sending some AI like you doesn’t count. That’s why the kernel ships are the important breakthrough here, because they can carry humans. Maybe even all the way to the stars—and back, unlike poor old Dexter Cole.”
“That’s very post–Heroic Generation thinking,” Angelia said, and she smiled indulgently. “A backlash against the philosophical horrors of that age. And typical of what they teach you at the ISF academies, from what I understand. Human experience is primal, yes? In fact this modern incarnate-humanism is the reason why Stef’s father programmed me into this form, so I could attend the prelaunch ceremonies in person, so to speak. It’s expected, these days.”
Lex shook his head. “No offense, Angelia, but nothing you will ever do could match the achievement of Dexter Cole, no matter how his mission pans out.”
Stef knew Cole’s story; every kid grew up hearing about it. When a habitable planet of Proxima Centauri was discovered, nations in what had since become the western UN federation had banded together, and within a couple of decades had scraped together a crewed mission. Cole had launched from Mercury for access to its energy-rich solar flux, just like Angelia would. A tremendous laser beam, powered by that flux, had blasted into a lightsail, sending Cole’s thousand-ton ship to Proxima. Dexter Cole was flying alone to the stars on a forty-year, one-way mission—and, in some sense Stef had not been allowed to discover, he would somehow become the “godfather” of a human colony when he got there. All this had been launched from an Earth still reeling from the aftermath of the climate Jolts and the Kashmir War of the previous decades, an Earth where the huge recovery projects of the Heroic Generation were still working through their lifecycles—all this as mankind was only just making its first footfalls on the worlds of its own solar system. Incredibly, having been launched decades before Stef was born, Cole was still en route; right now he was in cryo, dreaming his way between the stars, before a pulse-fusion rocket would slow him at the target.
Lex said, “Cole is a hero, and I intend to follow in his footsteps, some day.”
Angelia smiled again. “Hey, it’s a big universe. There’s room in it for both of us, I figure.”
Lex grinned. “Fair enough. Good luck, Angelia.” He stuck out a hand.
She approached him and took his hand. And as Stef watched, the bit of stone Angelia had swallowed popped out of the back of her neck and dropped slowly to the ground.
On the day the I-One was to be launched, Stef stood with her father at the window of the UN-UEI command bunker. This stout building, constructed of blocks of Mercurian basalt, was set high in the walls of Yeats’s rim mountains, and looked down on the crater-floor plain. The big room was filled with the mutter of voices and the glow of monitor screens, teams of engineers tracking the countdown as it proceeded. Through the bunker windows, in the low light of the sun, Stef could see the domes, lights, and tracks of the main Yeats settlement, and in the foreground the complex activity around the International-One at its launch stand, bathed in floodlights. The slim prow of the ship itself just caught the sun as it rose, agonizingly slowly, above the rim mountains. The ship was so far away it looked like a toy, a model layout; the VIPs in here were using binoculars to see better, ostentatiously demonstrating that they lacked Heroic Generation–type ocular augmentation, now deeply unfashionable.
Supposedly, the launch pad was far enough away for them to be safe here in this bunker if worse came to worst. But Stef had learned by now that although the engineers had figured out how to manipulate the kernels, which were evidently some kind of caches of high-density energy, nobody understood them. And if something went wrong, nobody knew what the consequences might be. This robust bunker might turn out to be no more protection than the paper walls of a traditional Japanese house before the fury of the Hiroshima bomb.
And somewhere in the middle of all the potentially lethal activity down there was Lex McGregor, just seventeen years old. Stef saw his face on a monitor screen. He lay on his back like his older companions, calm, apparently relaxed, contributing to the final countdown checks.
“He looks like John Glenn on the pad,” her father said, looking over her shoulder. “Heroic images from the best part of two hundred years ago. Some things don’t change. My word, he’s brave.”
Maybe, Stef thought. She did admire Lex, but there was something slightly odd about him. Off-key. Sometimes she suspected he’d had some kind of augmentation himself, so his reactions weren’t quite the human norm. Or maybe it was just that he was too young to be scared, even if he was six years older than she was.
Her father said now, “This landscape has been sleeping for billions of years, since the last of the great planet-shaping impacts. If that damn ship works this crater is going to be witness to fires fiercer than any that created it. And if it fails—”
“It should not fail,” Angelia said. The strange ship-woman stood on her father’s other side—one ship watching the launch of another, Stef reflected. “The testing has been thorough.”
Stef’s father grunted, sounding moody. He was in his fifties, a thickset, graying man, with old-fashioned spectacles and a ragged mustache; he had always been an old father to Stef, though her French mother had been much younger. Now the low light cast by the display screens in the bunker deepened the lines of his face. He said, “Somewhere up there, you know, is my SPS. An old solar-power station hauled out from Earth, a brute of an engine left over from the Heroic days and now refitted and put to good use . . . Oh, they sent Dexter Cole to the stars, but what a cockamamie way to do it, a lightsail to get him out of one system and a fusion rocket to slow him down in the next. Like those old Greek ships, rowing boats with sails attached. Still, they did it, they got him away. Now you, Angelia, you represent the next generation, the next phase of human ingenuity.
“And, just at this exquisite moment—this. The discovery of the kernels. A source of tremendous power that, it seems, we can just turn on like a tap. Everything we mere humans can manage is suddenly put in the shade. It’s as if we’re somehow being allowed to cheat. Does that seem right?”
Stef was puzzled. “You’ve talked about this before. I’m not sure who you’re blaming, Dad.”
“Your father has always been an agnostic,” Angelia said. “Not God.”
“Not God, no. I just keep thinking it’s a damn odd coincidence that we find these things just when we need them . . .”
The murmuring voices around them seemed to synchronize, and Stef realized that, suddenly, the countdown was nearly done, the I-One almost ready to go. She glanced once more at Lex McGregor, on his back, apparently utterly calm.
Flaring light flooded the bunker.
Stef looked through the window. The light was coming from the base of the ship, a glare like a droplet of Mercury sunlight. As she watched, that point of light lifted slowly from the ground.
The bunker erupted in whoops and cheering.
“Watch it go, Stef,” said her father, and he took her hand in his. “It’s on a trial run out to Jupiter, at a constant one-G acceleration all the way. If it works that damn drive should be visible all the way out, like a fading star. This is history in the making, love. Who knows? It might unite us as humans, at long last. Or it might trigger some terrible conflict with the Chinese, who are denied this marvelous technology. But it’s certainly a bonfire of my own ambition.”
Angelia put a comforting arm around his shoulders.
Stef barely paid any attention. Staring into that ascending fire, she had only one question. The kernels. How do they work?
Day one thousand, two hundred and ninety-seven.
That was Yuri’s count, by the tally he had kept running in his head, recording the eight-hour shift changes since he’d woken up in the hull. Over three and a half years. There were no calendars on the Ad Astra, not that the passengers saw. And of course he had slept through the early weeks of the flight from Mars, an uncountable time. But he knew roughly that the journey was due to end about now. Day one thousand, two hundred and ninety-seven.
When the end did come, there was some warning: a siren that wailed, for a few seconds.
At the time Yuri had no idea what it meant; he paid no attention to the sporadic briefings on shipboard events. He was on another punishment duty, scooping out muck from the interstices of a mesh floor partition, a grimy, demeaning job that you had to do on your hands and knees, working with a little cleanser the size of a toothbrush and a handheld vacuum hose. A make-work job a machine could have done in a fraction of the time.
Then the gravity failed.
It felt like the whole hull had suddenly dropped, like an elevator car whose cable had broken. Yuri found himself drifting up in the air, the little brush and the vacuum cleaner and his sack of dirt floating up around him. It was an extraordinary feeling, a mix of existential shock and a punch to the gut.
The Peacekeeper supervising him, a fat man called Mattock, threw up, and the chunky vomit sprayed over Yuri’s back and drifted up into the air, a stinking, noxious, stringy cloud.
Yuri knew what had happened, of course. After three and a half years of a steady one-gravity thrust, save for a brief turnaround at the journey’s midpoint, the crew had shut down the drive. During the cruise, for long periods you could have forgotten you were in a starship. Now here was the reality of the situation suddenly intruding. His latest prison really was a battered tin can light years from Earth.
And then, not five seconds after the acceleration cut out, the riot started.
It erupted all at once, along the length of the hull. The yelling was the first thing Yuri noticed, shouted commands, whoops, screams of defiance and fear.
The big fluorescent light fittings were put out immediately. The crimson emergency lighting system soon came on, shining from behind toughened glass, but the hull was plunged into a flickering, shadowy half-light. And people moved through the shadows, grabbing handrails and slamming at the partition flooring with booted feet, so that broken panels started hailing down through the crowded air. Others used whatever tools they had at hand, spanners, broom handles, they even wrenched rails off the wall, to smash up equipment.
The Peacekeepers were an early target too. Near Yuri, from nowhere, three, four, five people, men and women, came hurtling out of the air like missiles and slammed straight into Mattock. Struggling, his head surrounded by a mist of vomit and blood, the Peacekeeper had no chance of reaching his weapons. He looked to Yuri, who was clinging to the wall. “Help me, you bastard—” A booted foot slammed into his mouth, silencing him.
Yuri turned away. He pulled himself around the walls, working his way across rails and equipment banks, trying to keep out of trouble, trying not to be noticed. He had a rendezvous of his own to make.
As he moved he observed that the hull’s population was split. Maybe a third of them were working in a coordinated way, savaging the Peacekeepers and, he saw, one or two astronaut crew members they’d got hold of, or systematically wrecking the internal equipment. Obviously they’d planned this, coordinated it for the onset of zero gravity. Most of the rest, scared, nauseated, were swarming around trying to keep out of the way of the violence. They were almost all adults, of course; the few kids, two- or three-year-olds born during the voyage, clung to their mothers in terror.
And up at the top of the hull Yuri saw a party gathering around the central fireman’s pole, preparing to climb up to the hull’s apex, up to the bridge. A woman he recognized, called Delga, was at their head. That was no surprise. He’d known her on Mars, where they’d called her the snow queen of Eden. On the ship she had quickly built a power base in the early days when, without alcohol, drugs, tobacco, the whole hulk had been like a huge rehab facility as everybody worked through cold turkey of one kind or another—and Delga, who somehow got her hands on various narcotics, had acquired a lot of customers. Yuri had kept out of her way on Mars, and on the ship, and he did so now. He dropped his head and concentrated on his own progress.
He got to his meeting point. It was just a kind of alcove on a central deck, a warren of thick pipes and ducts and power cables between two hefty air-scrubbing boxes. But it was tucked out of the way of trouble. He and his buddies hadn’t anticipated this scenario exactly, but they’d made contingency plans to meet here, in case.
And now, here he found Lemmy, and Anna Vigil, and Cole, nearly four years old, a timid little boy who clung to his mother’s legs, all waiting for him.
Wordlessly Yuri backed into the space, opened a maintenance panel on one of the scrubber boxes, took out a wrench and a screwdriver, and thus armed wedged himself in position before the others. After three and a half years he had a reputation on this hull. A loner he might be but he’d fight back, and was best left alone if there were easier targets. This had been the plan they’d cooked up, the three of them, when they’d thought ahead to bad times; this was the best Yuri could think of to protect them.
He heard a scream. In the shadowy chaos, he saw that three men had got hold of a woman. Yuri knew them all; he’d thought one of the men at least was a friend of the woman, who’d paired off with another guy. Yuri knew the woman too; called Abbey Brandenstein, she was an ex-cop and she could look after herself, but she was being overwhelmed. Now they were dragging her into a corner, though she was still fighting back. As the screaming got worse Anna Vigil covered little Cole’s eyes and ears, and hugged him close.
The noise was still ferocious, a clamor of yells and screams. More alarm sirens were sounding off, adding to the racket. There was no sign yet of the Peacekeepers taking any kind of coordinated action. Yuri saw Gustave Klein on the other side of the hull, flanked by a couple of his heavies, watching the action with a grin on his face. Maybe it was Klein who was really in control.
Lemmy peered cautiously up into the apex of the hull. “Delga’s reached the bridge, it looks like.”
“What do you think they want?”
Lemmy shrugged. “To take the ship. Force the astronauts to whiz us all back to Earth. I bet there’s a similar breakout going on in the other hull; they’ll have timed it. I guess it’s the last chance we’ll get. There’ll be no hope once we’re on the ground, on a planet of Proxima.”
“But they could smash up the ship before they win that argument.”
“You think it’s going to work?”
Lemmy grinned. “Nah. Look.” He pointed to the far wall of the hull.
An airlock hatch opened and a dozen astronauts tumbled out of the lock and into the hull’s cluttered spaces. They wore hard, carapacelike pressure suits of brilliant white, marked with arm stripes in gaudy recognition colors, red, blue, green. They had their helmets sealed, their faces hidden behind golden visors, and their movements were jerky, too rapid, over-definite—a product of military-class enhancements, Yuri had learned, exoskeletons, drugs, boosters from the cellular level up. They carried weapons of some kind, not guns, not in a pressure hull, but what might be tasers, even whips.
Some of the rebelling inmates went for them immediately. The astronauts fought back with clean, hard moves, and snaps of their tasers, rasps of the whips. They were like insects with their superfast movements and hard outer shells, like space-monster cockroaches in this chaotic human environment. Before them the inmates looked grubby and unevolved. People fell back howling, blood spraying into the air.
Meanwhile one group of astronauts, three, four of them, broke away and made for a big locked control panel a couple of decks higher up toward the bridge. More rebels tried to get in their way, but the astronauts were too fast, too definite, and their opponents were brushed aside. The astronauts unlocked the panel with brisk taps of gloved fingers, and plugged pull-out leads into sockets in their suits, perhaps for identity verification.
Then, not a minute after the airlock had first opened, a yellowish gas began to vent from outlets all around the hull, and people began coughing, panicking.
Lemmy grinned. “Sweet dreams. See you on Prox c . . .”
But Yuri was already falling away down a long dark tunnel, and could hear no more.
The ship’s population—what survived of it after the riots—was split up into small groups, held in isolated chambers in a newly partitioned hull.
On being woken from his latest bout of unconsciousness, Yuri found himself cuffed with plastic strips to a metal-frame chair, itself locked to a mesh floor. He was in a small partition-walled cabin with ten others, four women, six men. They were all dressed identically, in orange jumpsuits, with no boots, just socks. This was his assigned “drop group,” he was told. The only one in here that Yuri knew well was Lemmy. He did soon learn that the passengers had already been assigned to these drop groups, nominally fourteen each, long before the insurrection, and now the groups had been used as the basis for the lockdown.
They were supervised by Peacekeepers, never fewer than two at a time, with astronauts overseeing them, in the case of Yuri’s group Lex McGregor and Mardina Jones. As the days passed the passengers were released one at a time in a cycle, to use a bathroom modified for zero gravity, to wash, to feed. When they were out of their cuffs Lex McGregor insisted they stretch and bend, to keep from stiffening up. They were spoken to, but not encouraged to speak back, or to have conversations with one another.
The thrust was never restored, the gravity never came back on. But occasionally you would hear bangs and knocks, as if some huge fist was hammering on the hull, and jolts this way and that, brief periods of acceleration. Lemmy murmured that having reached the Proxima system under its kernel drive, the ship must be using some secondary propulsion system to insert itself into a final orbit, presumably around the target, the supposedly Earthlike third planet of Proxima. This was guesswork, however. They had no view out of the hull.
The crew processed them bureaucratically, forever ticking off names on the piss and feed rotas on their slates. There seemed to be no formal comeback after the insurrection. No hearings, no disciplinary measures. Yuri guessed the crew didn’t care, they just wanted to dump their unruly passengers down on this Proxima planet and have done with them.
But it was evident there had been some punishment beatings. One man in Yuri’s group, called Joseph Mullane, some kind of dispossessed farmer type originally from Ireland, had been worked over particularly hard, and Dr. Poinar had to spend some time treating his wounds. But even he was kept cuffed to his chair.
Mullane had been one of the men Yuri had seen attacking Abbey Brandenstein, the ex-cop, at the height of the trouble—and Abbey herself was in this drop group too. Yuri had no idea if their pairing up like this had been deliberate. Maybe not, if it was true that the groupings had been defined long before the insurrection. Abbey Brandenstein spent all her waking hours glaring at Mullane.
In the hours and days that followed, Yuri never heard what had become of Anna Vigil and her kid; he didn’t ask, wasn’t told. Occasionally you heard voices from beyond the partition, a murmur of movement, a snatch of a baby’s crying. Otherwise, as the shifts wore on, there was nothing to do but sit there, cuffed to your chair. It was possible to sleep; Yuri found that if he relaxed, just let himself float in the zero gravity, he could find a position where the cuffs at his wrists and ankles didn’t chafe, and he could almost forget he was pinned down. He was bothered by the fact of his lengthy unconsciousness, however. Another gap in his memory. It irritated him to have three years of counting disrupted like that.
A few days after the last of those attitude-engine thumps and bangs had died away, there was a heavier shudder, as if some huge mass had joined the hull.
Lemmy winked at Yuri. “Shuttle. Orbit to ground. This ship has two, one of the crew told me that—”
“Shut the fuck up,” said a Peacekeeper. It was Mattock, the cuts and bruises on his face yet to heal, his broken nose twisted—Mattock, who took out his suffering on Yuri in sly kicks and punches, because Yuri had refused to help him before the fury of the mob.
Now Lex McGregor, with another Peacekeeper at his side, came swimming into the cabin. McGregor was in his sparkling astronaut uniform, as usual, and Yuri felt oddly ashamed at his own shabbiness.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Time for us all to take a little ride. We’ll be boarding you one at a time. I do apologize, we’ll have to keep the cuffs on, you do understand how things are following recent incidents. But I’m sure we’ll have no trouble. You first, Ms. Amsler . . .”
Jenny Amsler, a small, timid woman who had once been a jeweler, looked terrified as she was bundled out.
The loading proceeded efficiently. When it was Yuri’s turn, the hefty Peacekeepers to either side of him propelled him through the weightlessness with a gloved hand under each armpit. His last glimpse of the interior of the hull that had transported him across interstellar space was of blank-walled partitions, bits of equipment damaged by fire and vandalism. There was a smell of smoke, vomit, blood, of shit and piss, and a tang that made his throat itch, maybe a remnant of the gassing.
He was taken to a shower room where he had to strip, was sprayed with some hot, disinfectant-smelling liquid, and made to clean his teeth with a plastic brush. Then he was dressed in a kind of undersuit with a fresh jumpsuit on top. There was a diaper, he found, built into the undersuit, heavy pants around his crotch.
Then he was shoved out through a tight hatchway, and after a swivel of his vertical perspective found himself dropping into a craft laid out like a small, cramped airplane. There were couches in rows of four, cushioned seats on which you could lie back as if in a dentist’s chair. Room enough for twenty passengers, he counted quickly. An open door to the front of the cabin led to the cockpit, a cave of glowing lights where two astronauts worked, side by side, their backs to him.
The shuttle at least seemed clean. It had a new-carpet smell Yuri suddenly realized he hadn’t come across since he had been slotted into that cryo drawer back on Earth; nothing on Mars had been new, or on the starship.
And through the cockpit window, over the shoulders of the crew, he glimpsed a slice of blue, like the sky of Earth.
All this in a glance before he was bundled down into a couch. Mattock and another Peacekeeper worked him over quickly, strapping him in with a heavy safety harness, but also cuffing him to the frame at wrists and ankles with more plastic ties.
He was the fifth person to be loaded in, with not a word being spoken. Looking forward, he saw that among the other four already loaded, Abbey Brandenstein had been seated right next to Joseph Mullane, one of her rapists.
Yuri looked up at the battered face of Mattock, who hovered over him as he labored over the ties. “Hey, Peacekeeper. Bad idea,” he ventured. “Mullane and Brandenstein together—”
His reward was a knee in the stomach. Mattock had become proficient at bracing himself in the lack of gravity to make such blows effective. Yuri couldn’t help but grunt, but he tried to show no other reaction.
“Mind your own business, you little prick.”
The rest of the loading went ahead briskly, and almost in silence, save for muttered exchanges between the Peacekeepers. The passengers were all from the group in the confinement cell, eleven in total. Lemmy was lodged just behind Yuri. Two comparative strangers were loaded into Yuri’s left and right, a big-framed Asiatic who Yuri knew only as Onizuka, who had once been some kind of businessman, and a woman called Pearl Hanks, small, dark, old eyes in a young face, who had been a prostitute on Earth and on Mars, and, in the hull, had been again. Onizuka ignored Yuri, but he looked past him at Pearl Hanks with a kind of calculation.
The hatch above their heads was slammed down with finality. And that, Yuri thought, was the last he was going to see of the Ad Astra.
With all aboard and tied down tightly, the two Peacekeepers settled in couches at the rear of the cabin. Lex McGregor came floating back from the forward cockpit, as usual immaculate in his uniform. Beyond him, in the pilots’ cabin, Yuri glimpsed Mardina Jones pulling on a pressure suit.
McGregor faced the passengers. “Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome aboard the prosaically named Ad Astra shuttle number two. In this brave little ship we will soon be descending to the planet of another star . . .”
The passenger cabin had no windows. But now, over McGregor’s shoulder, through that pilots’ window, as the shuttle drifted, Yuri could see more of the planet: the gray shield of what looked like an ocean, floating masses of ice, a terminator separating night from day, a diorama shifting by.
“Our descent will be straightforward. We will be landing at a predesignated site in the northeast quadrant of the planet’s substellar face. We’ll come down on what looks like a dry lake bed, just like the salt flats at Edwards Air Force Base in California where I completed my own flight training some years ago. Perfectly safe, a natural runway.
“Our landing routine will take two hours. I’m afraid you won’t be able to leave your chairs until we’re safely down and the wheels have stopped rolling. If you have any biological requirements during the flight just let yourself go, you’ll notice you are wearing underwear adapted for the purpose. You will hardly be comfortable but it won’t be for long. Also there are sick bags. I do hope there will be no monkey business from any of you during the flight,” he said, sadly, gravely. “Obviously it would be futile; you could achieve nothing but damage the craft and endanger yourself and your colleagues. We, the crew, incidentally, will be wearing pressure suits and parachutes, so you need not fear for our safety, whatever you do.” He glanced at his watch. “Soon we’ll decouple, and then the deorbit burn will follow a few minutes later. Any questions? No? Enjoy the flight. After all,” he mused, as if an interesting thought had just struck him, “it will, I suppose, be the last flight any of you ever take.” He retreated to his cabin.
Soon there were more bangs and jolts, a sound that Yuri had come to recognize as the firing of small attitude rockets. As the shuttle swung about, turning on its axis to the right, he could sense that he was in a much less massive vessel than the reassuring bulk of the starship. There was silence in the passenger cabin, save for ragged, nervous breathing, and the usual space-travel hiss of pumps and fans, a noise that had followed Yuri all the way from Mars—and, incredibly, the drone of somebody snoring. Yuri glanced around to see; it was Harry Thorne, from a Canadian UNSA state, once an urban farmer, a heavyset, imperturbable man.
Beyond the pilots’ window a second planet hung in the black now, more distant, a perfect sphere of silver-gray.
Lemmy leaned forward again. “Yuri. Listen. Watch everything. Observe. Remember. I mean, are they going to give us maps? Remember everything you can of this new world we’re heading for—”
Yuri heard rather than saw Mattock’s fist hitting Lemmy’s jaw. “One more word, shithead, and I’ll lay you out for the duration.”
Now there was a roar, a gentle shove that pressed Yuri back into his seat.
It was a strange thing that Yuri had crossed interplanetary space, and then interstellar space, but he knew nothing about the mechanics of space flight. In his day the whole business of flying in space had seemed unethical, just another sin committed in a previous energy-bloated age, and nobody even talked about it. He could only guess at what was going on.
The burn was soon over. Now the attitude rockets slammed again, once more the ship swiveled—he glimpsed that ocean, half-submerged in night, slide past the pilots’ window—and then, nothing.
The seconds piled up into minutes. To Yuri it felt as if he was still in freefall. Behind him he heard somebody humming—it was the other Peacekeeper, not Mattock—and the rustle of a paper bag. Those guys had done this run several times before, he guessed; they knew the routine. There was a fumble. “Damn.” A couple of candy fragments came sailing over Yuri’s head, from behind. Yuri stared, fascinated; he’d seen no candy since he’d gone into cryo on Earth. But the bright blue capsules were falling, he saw, a long slow curving glide down to the floor. Acceleration building up.
There was a glow outside that forward window now, a dull crimson, then orange, and then, suddenly a dazzling white, like he was flying down some huge fluorescent tube. Yet there was no noise, no shuddering or buffeting, no great sense of weight, not yet.
The glow quickly cleared to reveal a seascape, white ice floes on a steely ocean that faded into night. Then this panorama tilted up, sideways. No, of course, it was the shuttle that was tipped up, almost standing on its right wing. And then, Yuri could feel it in his gut, the craft tipped the other way, and the landscape slid out of his view.
“Holy shit,” murmured someone else now, a woman ahead of Yuri, another businessperson called Martha Pearson, staring out of the forward window.