Two months since the stars fell...
Two months since sixty-five thousand alien objects clenched around the Earth like a luminous fist, screaming to the heavens as the atmosphere burned them to ash. Two months since that moment of brief, bright surveillance by agents unknown.
Two months of silence, while a world holds its breath.
Now some half-derelict space probe, sparking fitfully past Neptune's orbit, hears a whisper from the edge of the solar system: a faint signal sweeping the cosmos like a lighthouse beam. Whatever's out there isn't talking to us. It's talking to some distant star, perhaps. Or perhaps to something closer, something en route.
So who do you send to force introductions on an intelligence with motives unknown, maybe unknowable? Who do you send to meet the alien when the alien doesn't want to meet?
You send a linguist with multiple personalities, her brain surgically partitioned into separate, sentient processing cores. You send a biologist so radically interfaced with machinery that he sees x-rays and tastes ultrasound, so compromised by grafts and splices he no longer feels his own flesh. You send a pacifist warrior in the faint hope she won't be needed, and the fainter one she'll do any good if she is. You send a monster to command them all, an extinct hominid predator once called vampire, recalled from the grave with the voodoo of recombinant genetics and the blood of sociopaths. And you send a synthesist an informational topologist with half his mind gone as an interface between here and there, a conduit through which the Dead Center might hope to understand the Bleeding Edge.
You send them all to the edge of interstellar space, praying you can trust such freaks and retrofits with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find.
But you'd give anything for that to be true, if you only knew what was waiting for them...
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PETER WATTS lives in Toronto, Canada.
Blood makes noise.
Imagine you are Siri Keeton.
You wake in an agony of resurrection, gasping after a record-shattering bout of sleep apnea spanning one hundred forty days. You can feel your blood, syrupy with dobutamine and leuenkephalin, forcing its way through arteries shriveled by months on standby. The body inflates in painful increments: blood vessels dilate, flesh peels apart from flesh, ribs crack in your ears with sudden unaccustomed flexion. Your joints have seized up through disuse. You're a stick man, frozen in some perverse rigor vitae.
You'd scream if you had the breath.
Vampires did this all the time, you remember. It was normal for them, it was their own unique take on resource conservation. They could have taught your kind a few things about restraint, if that absurd aversion to right angles hadn't done them in at the dawn of civilization. Maybe they still can. They're back now, after all--raised from the grave with the voodoo of paleogenetics, stitched together from junk genes and fossil marrow steeped in the blood of sociopaths and high-functioning autistics. One of them commands this very mission. A handful of his genes live on in your own body so it too can rise from the dead, here at the edge of interstellar space. Nobody gets past Jupiter without becoming part vampire.
The pain begins, just slightly, to recede. You fire up your inlays and access your own vitals. It'll be long minutes before your body responds fully to motor commands, hours before it stops hurting. The pain's an unavoidable side effect. That's just what happens when you splice vampire subroutines into Human code. You asked about painkillers once, but nerve blocks of any kind compromise metabolic reactivation. Suck it up, soldier.
You wonder if this was how it felt for Chelsea, before the end. But that evokes a whole other kind of pain, so you block it out and concentrate on the life pushing its way back into your extremities. Suffering in silence, you check the logs for fresh telemetry.
You think: That can't be right.
Because if it is, you're in the wrong part of the universe. You're not in the Kuiper Belt where you belong: you're high above the ecliptic and deep into the Oort, the realm of long-period comets that only grace the sun every million years or so. You've gone interstellar, which means (you bring up the system clock) you've been undead for eighteen hundred days.
You've overslept by almost five years.
The lid of your coffin slides away. Your own cadaverous body reflects from the mirrored bulkhead opposite, a desiccated lungfish waiting for the rains. Bladders of isotonic saline cling to its limbs like engorged antiparasites, like the opposite of leeches. You remember the needles going in just before you shut down, way back when your veins were more than dry twisted filaments of beef jerky.
Szpindel's reflection stares back from his own pod to your immediate right. His face is as bloodless and skeletal as yours. His wide sunken eyes jiggle in their sockets as he reacquires his own links, sensory interfaces so massive that your own off-the-shelf inlays amount to shadow puppetry in comparison.
You hear coughing and the rustling of limbs just past line of sight, catch glimpses of reflected motion where the others stir at the edge of vision.
"Wha . . . " your voice is barely more than a hoarse whisper, ". . . happ . . . ?"
Szpindel works his jaw. Bone cracks audibly.
". . . Sssuckered," he hisses.
You haven't even met the aliens yet, and already they're running rings around you.
So we dragged ourselves back from the dead: five part-time cadavers, naked, emaciated, barely able to move even in zero g. We emerged from our coffins like premature moths ripped from their cocoons, still half-grub. We were alone and off course and utterly helpless, and it took a conscious effort to remember: They would never have risked our lives if we hadn't been essential.
"Morning, commissar." Isaac Szpindel reached one trembling, insensate hand for the feedback gloves at the base of his pod. Just past him, Susan James was curled into a loose fetal ball, murmuring to herselves. Only Amanda Bates, already dressed and cycling through a sequence of bone-cracking isometrics, possessed anything approaching mobility. Every now and then she tried bouncing a rubber ball off the bulkhead; but not even she was up to catching it on the rebound yet.
The journey had melted us down to a common archetype. James's round cheeks and hips; Szpindel's high forehead and lumpy, lanky chassis--even the enhanced carboplatinum brick shit house that Bates used for a body--all had shriveled to the same desiccated collection of sticks and bones. Even our hair seemed to have become strangely discolored during the voyage, although I knew that was impossible. More likely it was just filtering the pallor of the skin beneath. Still. The pre-dead James had been dirty blond, Szpindel's hair had been almost dark enough to call black, but the stuff floating from their scalps looked the same dull kelpy brown to me now. Bates kept her head shaved, but even her eyebrows weren't as rusty as I remembered them.
We'd revert to our old selves soon enough. Just add water. For now, though, the old slur was freshly relevant: The Undead really did all look the same, if you didn't know how to look.
If you did, of course--if you forgot appearance and watched for motion, ignored meat and studied topology--you'd never mistake one for another. Every facial tic was a data point, every conversational pause spoke volumes more than the words to either side. I could see James's personae shatter and coalesce in the flutter of an eyelash. Szpindel's unspoken distrust of Amanda Bates shouted from the corner of his smile. Every twitch of the phenotype cried aloud to anyone who knew the language.
"Where's--" James croaked, coughed, waved one spindly arm at Sarasti's empty coffin gaping at the end of the row.
Szpindel's lips cracked in a small rictus. "Gone back to Fab, eh? Getting the ship to build some dirt to lie on."
"Probably communing with the Captain." Bates breathed louder than she spoke, a dry rustle from pipes still getting reacquainted with the idea of respiration.
James again: "Could do that up here."
"Could take a dump up here, too," Szpindel rasped. "Some things you do by yourself, eh?"
And some things you kept to yourself. Not many baselines felt comfortable locking stares with a vampire--Sarasti, ever courteous, tended to avoid eye contact for exactly that reason--but there were other surfaces to his topology, just as mammalian and just as readable. If he had withdrawn from public view, maybe I was the reason. Maybe he was keeping secrets.
After all, Theseus damn well was.
She'd taken us a good fifteen AUs toward our destination before something scared her off course. Then she'd skidded north like a startled cat and started climbing: a wild high three-g burn off the ecliptic, thirteen hundred tonnes of momentum bucking against Newton's first. She'd emptied her Penn tanks, bled dry her substrate mass, squandered a hundred forty days' of fuel in hours. Then a long cold coast through the abyss, years of stingy accounting, the thrust of every antiproton weighed against the drag of sieving it from the void. Teleportation isn't magic: the Icarus stream couldn't send us the actual antimatter it made, only the quantum specs. Theseus had to filterfeed the raw material from space, one ion at a time. For long dark years she'd made do on pure inertia, hording every swallowed atom. Then a flip; ionizing lasers strafing the space ahead; a ramscoop thrown wide in a hard brake. The weight of a trillion trillion protons slowed her down and refilled her gut and flattened us all over again. Theseus had burned relentlessly until almost the moment of our resurrection.
It was easy enough to retrace those steps; our course was there in ConSensus for anyone to see. Exactly why the ship had blazed that trail was another matter. Doubtless it would all come out during the post-rez briefing. We were hardly the first vessel to travel under the cloak of sealed orders, and if there'd been a pressing need to know by now we'd have known by now. Still, I wondered who had locked out the Comm logs. Mission Control, maybe. Or Sarasti. Or Theseus herself, for that matter. It was easy to forget the Quantical AI at the heart of our ship. It stayed so discreetly in the background, nurtured and carried us and permeated our existence like an unobtrusive god; but like God, it never took your calls.
Sarasti was the official intermediary. When the ship did speak, it spoke to him--and Sarasti called it Captain.
So did we all.
He'd given us four hours to come back. It took more than three just to get me out of the crypt. By then my brain was at least firing on most of its synapses, although my body--still sucking fluids like a thirsty sponge--continued to ache with every movement. I swapped out drained electrolyte bags for fresh ones and headed aft.
Fifteen minutes to spin-up. Fifty to the post-resurrection briefing. Just enough time for those who preferred gravity-bound sleep to haul their personal effects into the drum and stake out their allotted 4.4 square meters of floor space.
Gravity--or any centripetal facsimile thereof--did not appeal to me. I set up my own tent in zero g and as far to stern as possible, nuzzling the forward wall of the starboard shuttle tube. The tent inflated like an abscess on Theseus's spine, a little climate-controlled bubble of atmosphere in the dark cavernous vacuum beneath the ship's carapace. My own effects were minimal; it took all of thirty seconds to stick them to the wall, and another thirty to program the tent's environment.
Afterward I went for a hike. After five years, I needed the exercise.
Stern was closest, so I started there, at the shielding that separated payload from propulsion. A single sealed hatch blistered the aft bulkhead dead center. Behind it, a service tunnel wormed back through machinery best left untouched by Human hands. The fat superconducting torus of the ramscoop ring; the antennae fan behind it, unwound now into an indestructible soap bubble big enough to shroud a city, its face turned sunward to catch the faint quantum sparkle of the Icarus antimatter stream. More shielding behind that; then the telematter reactor, where raw hydrogen and refined information conjured fire three hundred times hotter than the sun's. I knew the incantations, of course--antimatter cracking and deconstruction, the teleportation of quantum serial numbers--but it was still magic to me, how we'd come so far so fast. It would have been magic to anyone.
Except Sarasti, maybe.
Around me, the same magic worked at cooler temperatures and to less volatile ends: a small riot of chutes and dispensers crowded the bulkhead on all sides. A few of those openings would choke on my fist: one or two could swallow me whole. Theseus's fabrication plant could build everything from cutlery to cockpits. Give it a big enough matter stockpile and it could have even built another Theseus, albeit in many small pieces and over a very long time. Some wondered if it could build another crew as well, although we'd all been assured that was impossible. Not even these machines had fine enough fingers to reconstruct a few trillion synapses in the space of a human skull. Not yet, anyway.
I believed it. They would never have shipped us out fully assembled if there'd been a cheaper alternative.
I faced forward. Putting the back of my head against that sealed hatch I could see almost to Theseus's bow, an uninterrupted line of sight extending to a tiny dark bull's-eye thirty meters ahead. It was like staring at a great textured target in shades of white and gray: concentric circles, hatches centered within bulkheads one behind another, perfectly aligned. Every one stood open, in nonchalant defiance of a previous generation's safety codes. We could keep them closed if we wanted to, if it made us feel safer. That was all it would do, though; it wouldn't improve our empirical odds one whit. In the event of trouble those hatches would slam shut long milliseconds before Human senses could even make sense of an alarm. They weren't even computer-controlled. Theseus's body parts had reflexes.
I pushed off against the stern plating--wincing at the tug and stretch of disused tendons--and coasted forward, leaving Fab behind. The shuttle-access hatches to Scylla and Charybdis briefly constricted my passage to either side. Past them the spine widened into a corrugated extensible cylinder two meters across and--at the moment--maybe fifteen long. A pair of ladders ran opposite each other along its length; raised portholes the size of manhole covers stippled the bulkhead to either side. Most of those just looked into the hold. A couple served as general-purpose airlocks, should anyone want to take a stroll beneath the carapace. One opened into my tent. Another, four meters farther forward, opened into Bates's.
From a third, just short of the forward bulkhead, Jukka Sarasti climbed into view like a long white spider.
If he'd been Human I'd have known instantly what I saw there, I'd have smelled murderer all over his topology. And I wouldn't have been able to even guess at the number of his victims, because his affect was so utterly without remorse. The killing of a hundred would leave no more stain on Sarasti's surfaces than the swatting of an insect; guilt beaded and rolled off this creature like water on wax.
But Sarasti wasn't Human. Sarasti was a whole different animal, and coming from him all those homicidal refractions meant nothing more than predator. He had the inclination, was born to it; whether he had ever acted on it was between him and Mission Control.
Maybe they cut you some slack, I didn't say to him. Maybe it's just a cost of doing business. You're mission-critical, after all. For all I know you cut a deal. You're so very smart, you know we wouldn't have brought you back in the first place if we hadn't needed you. From the day they cracked the vat you knew you had leverage.
Is that how it works, Jukka? You save the world, and the folks who hold your leash agree to look the other way?
As a child I'd read tales about jungle predators transfixing their prey with a stare. Only after I'd met Jukka Sarasti did I know how it felt. But he wasn't looking at me now. He was focused on installing his own tent, and even if he had looked me in the eye there'd have been nothing to see but the dark wraparound visor he wore in deference to Human skittishness. He ignored me as I grabbed a nearby rung and squeezed past.
I could have sworn I smelled raw meat on his breath.
Into the drum (drums, technically; the BioMed hoop at the back spun on its own bearings). I flew through the center of a cylinder sixteen meters across. Theseus's spinal nerves ran alo...
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