Read an Excerpt
By Robinson, Kim Stanley
Orbit Copyright © 2012 Robinson, Kim Stanley
All right reserved.
The sun is always just about to rise. Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do. Many have made this a way of life. They walk roughly westward, staying always ahead of the stupendous day. Some of them hurry from location to location, pausing to look in cracks they earlier inoculated with bioleaching metallophytes, quickly scraping free any accumulated residues of gold or tungsten or uranium. But most of them are out there to catch glimpses of the sun.
Mercury’s ancient face is so battered and irregular that the planet’s terminator, the zone of the breaking dawn, is a broad chiaroscuro of black and white—charcoal hollows pricked here and there by brilliant white high points, which grow and grow until all the land is as bright as molten glass, and the long day begun. This mixed zone of sun and shadow is often as much as thirty kilometers wide, even though on a level plain the horizon is only a few kilometers off. But so little of Mercury is level. All the old bangs are still there, and some long cliffs from when the planet first cooled and shrank. In a landscape so rumpled the light can suddenly jump the eastern horizon and leap west to strike some distant prominence. Everyone walking the land has to attend to this possibility, know when and where the longest sunreaches occur—and where they can run for shade if they happen to be caught out.
Or if they stay on purpose. Because many of them pause in their walkabouts on certain cliffs and crater rims, at places marked by stupas, cairns, petroglyphs, inuksuit, mirrors, walls, goldsworthies. The sunwalkers stand by these, facing east, waiting.
The horizon they watch is black space over black rock. The superthin neon-argon atmosphere, created by sunlight smashing rock, holds only the faintest predawn glow. But the sunwalkers know the time, so they wait and watch—until—
a flick of orange fire dolphins over the horizon
and their blood leaps inside them. More brief banners follow, flicking up, arcing in loops, breaking off and floating free in the sky. Star oh star, about to break on them! Already their faceplates have darkened and polarized to protect their eyes.
The orange banners diverge left and right from the point of first appearance, as if a fire set just over the horizon is spreading north and south. Then a paring of the photosphere, the actual surface of the sun, blinks and stays, spills slowly to the sides. Depending on the filters deployed in one’s faceplate, the star’s actual surface can appear as anything from a blue maelstrom to an orange pulsing mass to a simple white circle. The spill to left and right keeps spreading, farther than seems possible, until it is very obvious one stands on a pebble next to a star.
Time to turn and run! But by the time some of the sunwalkers manage to jerk themselves free, they are stunned—trip and fall—get up and dash west, in a panic like no other.
Before that—one last look at sunrise on Mercury. In the ultraviolet it’s a perpetual blue snarl of hot and hotter. With the disk of the photosphere blacked out, the fantastic dance of the corona becomes clearer, all the magnetized arcs and short circuits, the masses of burning hydrogen pitched out at the night. Alternatively you can block the corona, and look only at the sun’s photosphere, and even magnify your view of it, until the burning tops of the convection cells are revealed in their squiggling thousands, each a thunderhead of fire burning furiously, all together torching five million tons of hydrogen a second—at which rate the star will burn another four billion years. All these long spicules of flame dance in circular patterns around the little black circles that are the sunspots—shifting whirlpools in the storms of burning. Masses of spicules flow together like kelp beds threshed by a tide. There are nonbiological explanations for all this convoluted motion—different gases moving at different speeds, magnetic fields fluxing constantly, shaping the endless whirlpools of fire—all mere physics, nothing more—but in fact it looks alive, more alive than many a living thing. Looking at it in the apocalypse of the Mercurial dawn, it’s impossible to believe it’s not alive. It roars in your ears, it speaks to you.
Most of the sunwalkers over time try all the various viewing filters, and then make choices to suit themselves. Particular filters or sequences of filters become forms of worship, rituals either personal or shared. It’s very easy to get lost in these rituals; as the sunwalkers stand on their points and watch, it’s not uncommon for devotees to become entranced by something in the sight, some pattern never seen before, something in the pulse and flow that snags the mind; suddenly the sizzle of the fiery cilia becomes audible, a turbulent roaring—that’s your own blood, rushing through your ears, but in those moments it sounds just like the sun burning. And so people stay too long. Some have their retinas burned; some are blinded; others are killed outright, betrayed by an overwhelmed spacesuit. Some are cooked in groups of a dozen or more.
Do you imagine they must have been fools? Do you think you would never make such a mistake? Don’t you be so sure. Really you have no idea. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. You may think you are inured, that nothing outside the mind can really interest you anymore, as sophisticated and knowledgeable as you are. But you would be wrong. You are a creature of the sun. The beauty and terror of it seen from so close can empty any mind, thrust anyone into a trance. It’s like seeing the face of God, some people say, and it is true that the sun powers all living creatures in the solar system, and in that sense is our god. The sight of it can strike thought clean out of your head. People seek it out precisely for that.
So there is reason to worry about Swan Er Hong, a person more inclined than most to try things just to see. She often goes sunwalking, and when she does she skirts the edge of safety, and sometimes stays too long in the light. The immense Jacob’s ladders, the granulated pulsing, the spicules flowing… she has fallen in love with the sun. She worships it; she keeps a shrine to Sol Invictus in her room, performs the pratahsamdhya ceremony, the salute to the sun, every morning when she wakes in town. Much of her landscape and performance art is devoted to it, and these days she spends most of her time making goldsworthies and abramovics on the land and her body. So the sun is part of her art.
Now it is her solace too, for she is out there grieving. Now, if one were standing on the promenade topping the city Terminator’s great Dawn Wall, one would spot her there to the south, out near the horizon. She needs to hurry. The city is gliding on its tracks across the bottom of a giant dimple between Hesiod and Kurasawa, and a flood of sunlight will soon pour far to the west. Swan needs to get into town before that happens, yet she still stands there. From the top of the Dawn Wall she looks like a silver toy. Her spacesuit has a big round clear helmet. Her boots look big, and are black with dust. A little booted silver ant, standing there grieving when she should be hustling back to the boarding platform west of town. The other sunwalkers out there are already hustling back to town. Some pull little carts or wheeled travois, hauling their supplies or even their sleeping companions. They’ve timed their returns closely, as the city is very predictable. It cannot deviate from its schedule; the heat of coming day expands the tracks, and the city’s undercarriage is tightly sleeved over them; so sunlight drives the city west.
The returning sunwalkers crowd onto the loading platform as the city nears it. Some have been out for weeks, or even the months it would take to make a full circumambulation. When the city slides by, its lock doors will open and they will step right in.
That is soon to occur, and Swan should be there too. Yet still she stands on her promontory. More than once she has required retinal repair, and often she has been forced to run like a rabbit or die. Now it will have to happen again. She is directly south of the city, and fully lit by horizontal rays, like a silver flaw in one’s vision. One can’t help shouting at such rashness, useless though it is. Swan, you fool! Alex is dead—nothing to be done about it! Run for your life!
And then she does. Life over death—the urge to live—she turns and flies. Mercury’s gravity, almost exactly the same as Mars’s, is often called the perfect g for speed, because people who are used to it can careen across the land in giant leaps, flailing their arms for balance as they bound along. In just that way Swan leaps and flails—once catches a boot and falls flat on her face—jumps up and leaps forward again. She needs to get to the platform while the city is still next to it; the next platform is ten kilometers farther west.
She reaches the platform stairs, grabs the rail and vaults up, leaps from the far edge of the platform, forward into the lock as it is halfway closed.
SWAN AND ALEX
Alex’s memorial ceremony began as Swan was straggling up Terminator’s great central staircase. The city’s population had come out into the boulevards and plazas and were standing in silence. There were a lot of visitors in town as well; a conference had been about to begin, one that had been convened by Alex. She had welcomed them on Friday; now on the following Friday they were holding her funeral. A sudden collapse, and they hadn’t been able to revive her. And so now the townspeople, the diplomat visitors: all Alex’s people, all grieving.
Swan stopped halfway up the Dawn Wall, unable to go on. Below her rooftops, terrace patios, balconies. Lemon trees in giant ceramic pots. A curved slope like a little Marseilles, with white four-story apartment blocks, black iron-railed balconies, broad boulevards and narrow alleys, dropping to a promenade overlooking the park. All crowded with humanity, speciating right before her eyes, each face intensely itself while also a type—Olmec spheroid, hatchet, shovel. On a railing stood three smalls, each about a meter tall, all dressed in black. Down at the foot of the stairs clustered the sunwalkers who had just arrived, looking burnt and dusty. The sight of them pierced Swan—even the sunwalkers had come in for this.
She turned on the stairs and descended, wandered by herself. The moment she had heard the news, she had dashed out of the city onto the land, driven by a need to be alone. Now she couldn’t bear to be seen when Alex’s ashes were scattered, and she didn’t want to see Mqaret, Alex’s partner, at that moment. Out into the park, therefore, to wander in the crowd. All of them standing still, looking up, looking distraught. Holding each other up. There were so many people who had relied on Alex. The Lion of Mercury, the heart of the city. The soul of the system. The one who helped and protected you.
Some people recognized Swan, but they left her alone; this was more moving to her than condolences would have been, and her face was wet with tears, she wiped her face with her fingers repeatedly. Then someone stopped her: “You are Swan Er Hong? Alex was your grandmother?”
“She was my everything.” Swan turned and walked off. She thought the farm might be emptier, so she left the park and drifted through the trees forward. The city speakers were playing a funeral march. Under a bush a deer nuzzled fallen leaves.
She was not quite to the farm when the Great Gates of the Dawn Wall opened, and sunlight cut through the air under the dome, creating the usual horizontal pair of yellow translucent bars. She focused on the swirls within the bars, the talcum they tossed up there when they opened the gates, colored fines floating on updrafts and dispersing. Then a balloon rose from the high terraces under the wall, drifting west, the little basket swaying under it: Alex; how could it be. A surge of defiance in the music rumbled up out of the basses. When the balloon entered one of the yellow bars of light, the basket blew apart in a poof, and Alex’s ashes floated down and out of the light, into the air of the city, growing invisible as they descended, like a shower of virga in the desert. There was a roar from the park, the sound of applause. Briefly some young men somewhere chanted, “A-lex! A-lex! A-lex!” The applause lasted for a couple of minutes, and arranged itself as a rhythmic beat that went on for a long time. People didn’t want to give it up; somehow that would be the end, they would at that very moment lose her. Eventually they did give it up, and lived on into the post-Alex phase of their lives.
She needed to go up and join the rest of Alex’s family. She groaned at the thought, wandered the farm. Finally she walked up the Great Staircase, stiffly, blindly, pausing once to say, “No, no, no,” for a time. But that was pointless. Suddenly she saw: anything she did now would be pointless. She wondered how long that would last—seemed like it could be forever, and she felt a bolt of fear. What would change to change it?
Eventually she pulled herself together and made her way up to the private memorial on the Dawn Wall. She had to greet all those who had been closest to Alex, and give Mqaret a brief rough hug, and withstand the look on his face. But she could see he was not home. This was not like him, but she could fully understand why he might depart. Indeed it was a relief to see it. When she considered how bad she felt, and then how much closer Mqaret had been to Alex than she had been, how much more of his time he spent with her—how long they had been partners—she couldn’t imagine what it would feel like. Or maybe she could. So now Mqaret stared at some other reality, from some other reality—as if extending a courtesy to her. So she could hug him, and promise to visit him later, and then go mingle with the others on the highest terrace of the Dawn Wall, and later make her way to a railing and look down at the city, and out its clear bubble to the black landscape outside it. They were rolling through the Kuiper quadrant, and she saw to the right Hiroshige Crater. Once long before, she had taken Alex out there to the apron of Hiroshige to help with one of her goldsworthies, a stone wave that referenced one of the Japanese artist’s most famous images. Balancing the rock that would be the crest of the breaking wave had taken them a great number of unsuccessful efforts, and as so often with Alex, Swan had ended up laughing so hard her stomach hurt. Now she spotted the rock wave, still out there—it was just visible from the city. The rocks that had formed the crest of the wave were gone, however—knocked down by the vibration of the passing city, perhaps, or simply by the impact of sunlight. Or fallen at the news.
A few days later she visited Mqaret in his lab. He was one of the leading synthetic biologists in the system, and the lab was filled with machines, tanks, flasks, screens bursting with gnarled colorful diagrams—life in all its sprawling complexity, constructed base pair by base pair. In here they had started life from scratch; they had built many of the bacteria now transforming Venus, Titan, Triton—everywhere.
Now none of that mattered. Mqaret was in his office, sitting in his chair, staring through the wall at nothing.
He roused himself and looked up at her. “Oh, Swan—good to see you. Thanks for coming by.”
“That’s all right. How are you doing?”
“Not so well. How about you?”
“Terrible,” Swan confessed, feeling guilty; the last thing she wanted was to add to Mqaret’s load somehow. But there was no point in lying at a time like this. And he merely nodded anyway, distracted by his own thoughts. He was just barely there, she saw. The cubes on his desk contained representations of proteins, the bright false colors tangled beyond all hope of untangling. He had been trying to work.
“It must be hard to work,” she said.
After a blank silence, she said, “Do you know what happened to her?”
He shook his head quickly, as if this was an irrelevance. “She was a hundred and ninety-one.”
“I know, but still…”
“Still what? We break, Swan. Sooner or later, at some point we break.”
“I just wondered why.”
“No. There is no why.”
“Or how, then…”
He shook his head again. “It can be anything. In this case, an aneurysm in a crucial part of the brain. But there are so many ways. The amazing thing is that we stay alive in the first place.”
Swan sat on the edge of the desk. “I know. But, so… what will you do now?”
“But you just said…”
He glanced at her from out of his cave. “I didn’t say it wasn’t any use. That wouldn’t be right. First of all, Alex and I had seventy years together. And we met when I was a hundred and thirty. So there’s that. And then also, the work is interesting to me, just as a puzzle. It’s a very big puzzle. Too big, in fact.” And then he stopped and couldn’t go on for a while. Swan put a hand to his shoulder. He put his face in his hands. Swan sat there beside him and kept her mouth shut. He rubbed his eyes hard, held her hand.
“There’ll be no conquering death,” he said at last. “It’s too big. Too much the natural course of things. The second law of thermodynamics, basically. We can only hope to forestall it. Push it back. That should be enough. I don’t know why it isn’t.”
“Because it only makes it worse!” Swan complained. “The longer you live, the worse it gets!”
He shook his head, wiped his eyes again. “I don’t think that’s right.” He blew out a long breath. “It’s always bad. It’s the people still alive who feel it, though, and so…” He shrugged. “I think what you’re saying is that now it seems like some kind of mistake. Someone dies, we say why. Shouldn’t there have been a way to stop it. And sometimes there is. But…”
“It is some kind of mistake!” Swan declared. “Reality made a mistake, and now you’re fixing it!” She gestured at the screens and cubes. “Right?”
He laughed and cried at the same time. “Right!” he said, sniffing and wiping his face. “It’s stupid. What hubris. I mean, fixing reality.”
“But it’s good,” Swan said. “You know it is. It got you seventy years with Alex. And it passes the time.”
“It’s true.” He heaved a big sigh, looked up at her. “But—things won’t be the same without her.”
Swan felt the desolation of this truth wash through her. Alex had been her friend, protector, teacher, step-grandmother, surrogate mother, all that—but also, a way to laugh. A source of joy. Now her absence created a cold feeling, a killer of emotions, leaving only the blankness that was desolation. Sheer dumb sentience. Here I am. This is reality. No one escapes it. Can’t go on, must go on; they never got past that moment.
So on they went.
There was a knock at the lab’s outer door. “Come in,” Mqaret called a little sharply.
The door opened, and in the entry stood a small—very attractive in the way smalls often were—aged, slender, with a neat blond ponytail and a casual blue jacket—about waist high to Swan or Mqaret, and looking up at them like a langur or marmoset.
“Hello, Jean,” Mqaret said. “Swan, this is Jean Genette, from the asteroids, who was here as part of the conference. Jean was a close friend of Alex’s, and is an investigator for the league out there, and as such has some questions for us. I said you might be dropping by.”
The small nodded to Swan, hand on heart. “My most sincere condolences on your loss. I’ve come not only to say that, but to tell you that quite a few of us are worried, because Alex was central to some of our most important projects, and her death was so unexpected. We want to make sure these projects go forward, and to be frank, some of us are anxious to be sure that her death was a matter of natural causes.”
“I assured Jean that it was,” Mqaret told Swan, seeing the look on her face.
Genette did not look completely convinced by this reassurance. “Did Alex ever mention anything to you concerning enemies, threats—danger of any kind?” the small asked Swan.
“No,” Swan said, trying to remember. “She wasn’t that kind of person. I mean, she was always very positive. Confident that things were going to work out.”
“I know. It’s so true. But that’s why you might remember if she had ever said anything out of keeping with her usual optimism.”
“No. I can’t remember anything like that.”
“Did she leave you any kind of will or trust? Or a message? Something to be opened in the event of her death?”
“We did have a trust,” Mqaret said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t have anything unusual in it.”
“Would you mind if I had a look around her study?”
Alex had kept her study in a room at the far end of Mqaret’s lab, and now Mqaret nodded and led the little inspector down the hall to it. Swan trailed behind them, surprised that Genette had known of Alex’s study, surprised Mqaret would be so quick to show it, surprised and upset by this notion of enemies, of “natural causes” and its implied opposite. Alex’s death, investigated by some kind of police person? She couldn’t grasp it.
While she sat in the doorway trying to figure out what it could mean, trying to come to grips with it, Genette made a thorough search of Alex’s office, opening drawers, downloading files, sweeping a fat wand over every surface and object. Mqaret watched it all impassively.
Finally the little inspector was done, and stood before Swan regarding her with a curious look. As Swan was sitting on the floor, they were about eye level. The inspector appeared on the verge of another question, but in the end did not say it. Finally: “If you recall anything you think might help me, I would appreciate you telling me.”
“Of course,” Swan said uneasily.
The inspector then thanked them and left.
What was that about?” Swan asked Mqaret.
“I don’t know,” Mqaret said. He too was upset, Swan saw. “I know that Alex had a hand in a lot of things. She’s been one of the leaders in the Mondragon Accord from the beginning, and they have a lot of enemies out there. I know she’s been worried about some system problems, but she didn’t give me any details.” He gestured at the lab. “She knew I wouldn’t be that interested.” A hard grimace. “That I had my own problems. We didn’t talk about our work all that much.”
“But—” Swan started, and didn’t know how to go on. “I mean—enemies? Alex?”
Mqaret sighed. “I don’t know. The stakes could be considered high, in some of these matters. There are forces opposed to the Mondragon, you know that.”
“I know.” After a pause: “Did she leave you anything?”
“No! Why should she? I mean, she wasn’t expecting to die.”
“Few people are. But if she had concerns about secrecy, or the safety of certain information, I can see how she might think you would be a kind of refuge.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, couldn’t she have put something into your qube without telling you?”
“No. Pauline is a closed system.” Swan tapped behind her right ear. “I mostly keep her turned off these days. And Alex wouldn’t do that anyway. She wouldn’t talk to Pauline without asking me first, I’m sure of it.”
Mqaret heaved another sigh. “Well, I don’t know. She didn’t leave me anything either, as far as I know. I mean, it would be like Alex to tuck something away without telling us. But nothing has popped up. So I just don’t know.”
Swan said, “So there wasn’t anything unusual in the autopsy?”
“No!” Mqaret said, but he was thinking it over. “A cerebral aneurysm, probably congenital, burst and caused an intraparenchymal hemorrhage. It happens.”
Swan said, “If someone had done something to—to cause a hemorrhage… would you necessarily be able to tell?”
Mqaret stared at her, frowning.
Then they heard another tap at the lab’s outer door. They looked at each other, sharing a little frisson. Mqaret shrugged; he had not been expecting anyone.
“Come in!” he called again.
The door opened to reveal something like the opposite of Inspector Genette: a very big man. Prognathous, callipygous, steatopygous, exophthalmos—toad, newt, frog—even the very words were ugly. Briefly it occurred to Swan that onomatopoeia might be more common than people recognized, their languages echoing the world like birdsong. Swan had a bit of lark in her brain. Toad. Once she had seen a toad in an amazonia, sitting at the edge of a pond, its warty wet skin all bronze and gold. She had liked the look of it.
“Ah,” Mqaret said. “Wahram. Welcome to our lab. Swan, this is Fitz Wahram, from Titan. He was one of Alex’s closest associates, and really one of her favorite people.”
Swan, somewhat surprised that Alex could have such a person in her life without Swan ever hearing of it, frowned at the man.
Wahram dipped his head in a kind of autistic bow. He put his hand over his heart. “I am so sorry,” he said. A froggy croak. “Alex meant a great deal to me, and to a lot of us. I loved her, and in our work together she was the crucial figure, the leader. I don’t know how we will get along without her. When I think of how I feel, I can scarcely grasp how you must feel.”
“Thank you,” Mqaret said. So strange the words people said at these moments. Swan could not speak any of them.
A person Alex had liked. Swan tapped the skin behind her right ear, activating her qube, which she had turned off as a punishment. Now Pauline would fill her in on things, all by way of a quiet voice in Swan’s right ear. Swan was very irritated with Pauline these days, but suddenly she wanted information.
Mqaret said, “So what will happen to the conference?”
“There is complete agreement to postpone it and reschedule. No one has the heart for it now. We will disperse and reconvene later, probably on Vesta.”
Ah yes: without Alex, Mercury would no longer be a meeting place. Mqaret nodded at this, unsurprised. “So you will return to Saturn.”
“Yes. But before I go, I am curious to know whether Alex left anything for me. Any information or data, in any form.”
Mqaret and Swan shared a look. “No,” they both said at once. Mqaret gestured. “We were just asked that by Inspector Genette.”
“Ah.” The toad person regarded them with a pop-eyed stare. Then one of Mqaret’s assistants came into the room and asked for his help. Mqaret excused himself, and then Swan was alone with their visitor and his questions.
Very big, this toad person: big shoulders, big chest, big belly. Short legs. People were strange. Now he shook his head and said in a deep gravelly voice—a beautiful voice, she had to admit—froggy, yes, but relaxed, deep, thick with timbre, something like a bassoon or a bass saxophone—“So sorry to bother you at a time like this. I wish we could have met under different circumstances. I am an admirer of your landscape installations. When I heard that you were related to Alex, I asked her if it might be possible to meet you. I wanted to say how much I like your piece at Rilke Crater. It’s really very beautiful.”
Swan was taken aback by this. At Rilke she had erected a circle of Göbekli T-stones, which looked very contemporary even though they were based on something over ten thousand years old. “Thank you,” she said. A cultured toad, it seemed. “Tell me, why did you think Alex might have left a message for you?”
“We were working together on a couple of things,” he said evasively, his fixed gaze shifting away. He didn’t want to discuss it, she saw. And yet he had come to ask about it. “And, well, she always spoke so highly of you. It was clear you two were close. So… she didn’t like to put things in the cloud or in any digital form—really, to keep records of our activities in any media at all. She preferred word of mouth.”
“I know,” Swan said, feeling a stab. She could hear Alex say it: We have to talk! It’s a face world! With her intense blue eyes, her laugh. All gone.
The big man saw the change in her and extended a hand. “I’m so sorry,” he said again.
“I know,” Swan said. Then: “Thank you.”
She sat down in one of Mqaret’s chairs and tried to think about something else.
After a while the big man said in a gentle rumble, “What will you do now?”
Swan shrugged. “I don’t know. I suppose I’ll go out on the surface again. That’s my place to… to pull myself together.”
“Will you show it to me?”
“What?” Swan said.
“I would be very grateful if you were to take me out there. Maybe show me one of your installations. Or, if you don’t mind—I noticed that the city is approaching Tintoretto Crater. My shuttle doesn’t leave for a few days, and I would love to see the museum there. I have some questions that can’t be resolved on Earth.”
“Questions about Tintoretto?”
“Well…” Swan hesitated, unsure what to say.
“It would be a way to pass the time,” the man suggested.
“Yes.” This was presumptuous enough to irritate her, but on the other hand, she had in fact been searching for something to distract her, something to do in the aftermath, and nothing had come to her. “Well, I suppose.”
“Thank you very much.”
Ibsen and Imhotep; Mahler, Matisse; Murasaki, Milton, Mark Twain;
Homer and Holbein, touching rims;
Ovid starring the rim of the much larger Pushkin;
Goya overlapping Sophocles.
Van Gogh touching Cervantes, next to Dickens. Stravinsky and Vyasa. Lysippus. Equiano, a West African slave writer, not located near the equator.
Chopin and Wagner right next to each other, equal size.
Chekhov and Michelangelo both double craters.
Shakespeare and Beethoven, giant basins.
Al-Jāi, Al-Akhal. Aristoxenus, Ashvaghosha. Kurosawa, Lu Hsün, Ma Chih-yüan. Proust and Purcell. Thoreau and Li Po, Rūmī and Shelley, Snorri and Pigalle. Valmiki, Whitman. Brueghel and Ives. Hawthorne and Melville.
It’s said the naming committee of the International Astronomical Union got hilariously drunk one night at their annual meeting, took out a mosaic of the first photos of Mercury, recently received, and used it as a dartboard, calling out to each other the names of famous painters, sculptors, composers, writers—naming the darts, then throwing them at the map.
There is an escarpment named Pourquoi Pas.
SWAN AND WAHRAM
It was not difficult to spot the Titan, standing there by the city’s south lock door at the appointed hour. He was in form spherical, or perhaps cubical. As tall as Swan, and Swan was pretty tall. Black hair in tight curls like sheep’s wool, cut close to his round head.
Swan approached him. “Off we go,” she said gracelessly.
“Thank you again for this.”
Terminator began to glide past the platform that held the Tintoretto tram station. They walked through the lock directly into a waiting tram, along with about a dozen other people.
The tram, when it departed, moved much faster than Terminator did, zipping off west on ordinary tram tracks and soon reaching a couple hundred kilometers an hour.
Swan identified a long low hill on the horizon as the outer wall of Hesiod Crater. Wahram consulted his wristpad: “We slide between Hesiod and Sibelius,” he announced with a little smile. His pop eyes had brown irises, flecked with radial streaks of black and pumpkin. His wristpad meant he probably did not have a qube stuck in his head, and if he did, it would not be a bitch trying to ruin his day. Pauline was murmuring stuff in her ear, and when Wahram got up to look out the other side of the tram, Swan muttered, “Don’t bother me, Pauline. Don’t interrupt me, don’t distract me.”
“Exergasia is one of the weakest of the rhetorical devices,” Pauline opined.
After another hour they had a good lead on Terminator, and the tram glided up to the outer wall of Tintoretto Crater, where the tracks led into a tunnel in the rugged wall of old ejecta. As they exited the tram, it announced they had two hours before it would return to the city. Through the vestibule of the museum, then to a long arcing gallery. The inner curve of the chamber was a single recessed window wall, giving them an excellent view of the crater’s interior. It was a small but steep-walled crater, a handsome circular space under the stars.
But her Saturnian did not appear to be interested in Mercury. He walked facing the outer wall of the gallery, moving slowly from painting to painting. He planted himself in front of them each in turn, stood staring impassively.
The canvases ranged in size from miniatures to gigantic wall-fillers. The palette of Renaissance Italy fleshed out crowded scenes from the Bible: the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, Paradise, and so on. Mixed in was a bit of classical mythology—including a portrait of Mercury himself, with stylish gold shoes covering his feet, the shoes sporting slots through which Mercury’s wings emerged. There were also many portraits of individual sixteenth-century Venetians, vivid to the point of breaking into speech. Most of the paintings were the originals, moved here for safekeeping; the rest were copies so perfect that it would take a chemical analysis to tell them from the originals. As with many of Mercury’s single-artist museums, the hope was to gather all the original paintings here and locate only copies on Earth, to take on the intense assault of that most volatile environment—oxidation, corrosion, rust, fire, theft, vandalism, smog, acid, daylight…. Here, in contrast, everything was controlled, benign—safer. Or so it was said by Mercurial curators. The Terrans were not always so sure.
Toad Man was very slow on his feet. He stood right next to the paintings, for a long time, sometimes with his nose only a centimeter from the paint. Tintoretto’s Paradise was twenty meters wide and ten tall—the notes said it was the largest painting ever painted on canvas—and very crowded with figures. Wahram moved all the way back to the clear inner wall to look at this one for a while, then took his more usual position nuzzling it. “Interesting how he has angels’ wings as being black,” he murmured, breaking his silence at last. “It looks good. And look here, see how the white lines in this one angel’s black wings actually form letters. C H E R, see? Then the rest of the word is hidden in a fold. That’s what I wanted to check. I wonder what that was about.”
“Some kind of code?”
He didn’t reply. Swan wondered if this was his usual response to art. He ambled on to the next painting. Possibly he was humming to himself. He was not interested in her response to these paintings, even though he knew she was an artist. She wandered on her own, looking at the portraits. The big crowd scenes were too much for her, like epic movies all jammed into a single frame. The subjects of the portraits, on the other hand, looked at her with expressions she recognized immediately. “I am always me, I am always new, I am always me”—for eight centuries they had been saying it. Nothing but women and men. One woman had her left nipple exposed, just under the curve of a necklace; in most periods that would have been transgressive, she seemed to recall. Almost all the women were very small-breasted and big-waisted. Well-fed, under-exercised; didn’t nurse their own babies; not working people. The bodies of nobles. Beginning of speciation. Tintoretto’s Leda looked quite fond of the swan ravishing her, in fact was protecting the swan from an intruder. Swan had once or twice been swan to a Leda, not violently of course—at least not physical violence—and she recalled some of the Ledas had liked it. Others not.
She returned to Wahram, who was again inspecting Paradise, this time from as far away as he could get, thus at a slant. To Swan it still seemed a mess. “It’s very crowded,” she said. “The figures are in too symmetrical a pattern, and God and Christ look like doges. Indeed the whole thing looks like a Venetian senate meeting. Maybe that was Tintoretto’s idea of paradise.”
“Hmm,” he said.
“You don’t agree. You like it.”
“I’m not sure,” he said, and walked a few meters away from her.
He didn’t want to talk about it. Swan went off to look at more Venetians. For her art was something to make, first and foremost, and after that something to talk about. Ineffable aesthetic responses, communing with a work—these struck her as too precious. One of the portraits glowered, another tried to suppress a little ironic smile; they agreed with her. She was out here with a stick of a toad. Mqaret had said Alex revered this man, but now she doubted it could be true. Who was he? What was he?
A low recorded announcement informed them it was time for the tram to take them back to Terminator, which would soon be catching up to their longitude—as would the sun. “Oh no!” Wahram exclaimed faintly as he heard the announcement. “We’ve only just started!”
“There are over three hundred paintings here,” Swan pointed out. “One visit will never do. You’ll have to come back.”
“I hope,” he said. “These are really magnificent. I can see why they called him Il Furioso. He must have worked every day.”
“I think that’s right. He had a place in Venice that he rarely left. A closed shop. His assistants were mostly his children.” Swan had just read this on one of the notes.
“Interesting.” He sighed and followed her to the tram.
On the ride back to the city, they passed a group of sunwalkers, and Swan pointed them out. Her guest roused himself from his reverie and looked.
“So they have to keep moving,” he said. “How do they rest, eat, sleep?”
“We eat on our feet, and sleep in carts pulled by companions,” Swan said. “We take turns at that, and on it goes.”
He gave her a look. “So you have an inexorable spur to action. I can see the appeal.”
She almost laughed. “Do you need such a spur?”
“I think everyone does. Don’t you?”
“No. Not at all.”
“But you join these ferals,” he said.
“That’s just to do it. To see the land and the sun. I check out things I made, or do a little crack mining. I don’t need to find reasons to stay busy.”
This was exactly backward, she realized, and shut her mouth.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “Most people do.”
“Do you think?”
“Yes.” He gestured at the sunwalkers, whom they were rapidly leaving behind. “What happens if you run into an obstruction that keeps you from continuing westward?”
“You have to avoid those. In some places they’ve built little ramps that go up cliffs, or trail systems that get through chaotic terrain quickly. There are routes established. Some people stick to certain routes, some do them all. Others like to try new terrain. It’s pretty common to do a complete circumnavigation.”
“Have you done that?”
“Yes, but it’s too long for me. I usually go out for a week or two.”
It was pretty clear he didn’t.
“We were made to do this, you know,” she said suddenly. “Our bodies are nomads. Humans and hyenas are the two predators that chase their prey down by wearing it out.”
“I like walking,” he allowed.
“So what about you? What do you do to occupy your time?”
“I think,” he said promptly.
“And that’s enough for you?”
He glanced at her. “There’s a lot to think about.”
“But what do you do?”
“I suppose I read. Travel. Listen to music. Look at the visual arts.” He thought some more. “I work on the Titan project, that’s very interesting, I find.”
“And the Saturnian league, more generally, Mqaret tells me. System diplomacy.”
“Yes, well, my name came up in the lottery and I had to do my time, but it’s almost over now, and then I plan to return to Titan and get back to my waldo.”
“So… what were you and Alex working on?”
His pop eyes took on a look of alarm. “Well, some of it she wouldn’t want me to talk about. But she spoke of you often, and now that she’s gone, I just wondered if she might have left you a message. Or even arranged things such that you might be able to step in a bit in her absence.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you designed many of the terraria out there, and now they form the bulk of the Mondragon Accord. They would listen to you, perhaps, knowing you were one of Alex’s closest confidantes. So… possibly you could go out with me and meet some people.”
“What, to Saturn?”
“To Jupiter, actually.”
“I don’t want to do that. My life is here, my work. I traveled the system enough when I was young.”
He nodded unhappily. “And… you are quite certain Alex didn’t leave anything for you? Something to give to me, in case something happened to her?”
“Yes, I’m sure! There’s nothing! She didn’t do things like that.”
He shook his head. They sat in silence as the tram slid over the dark face of Mercury. To the north some hilltops were just sparking white with the rising sunlight. Then the top of Terminator’s dome appeared over the horizon, like the shell of a transparent egg. As it cleared the horizon, the city looked like a snow globe, or a ship in a bottle—an ocean liner on a black sea, caught in a bubble of green light. “Tintoretto would have liked your city,” Wahram said. “It looks like a kind of Venice.”
“No it doesn’t,” Swan said crossly, thinking hard.
Terminator rolls around Mercury just like its sunwalkers, moving at the speed of the planet’s rotation, gliding over twenty gigantic elevated tracks, which together hold aloft and push west a town quite a bit bigger than Venice. The twenty tracks run around Mercury like a narrow wedding band, keeping near the forty-fifth latitude south, but with wide detours to south and north to avoid the worst of the planet’s long escarpments. The city moves at an average of five kilometers an hour. The sleeves on the underside of the city are fitted over the track at a tolerance so fine that the thermal expansion of the tracks’ austenite stainless steel is always pushing the city west, onto the narrower tracks still in the shade. A little bit of resistance to this movement creates a great deal of the city’s electricity.
From the top of the Dawn Wall, which is a silvery cliff forming the eastern edge of the city, one can see the whole town stretching out to the west, green under its clear dome. The city illuminates the dark landscape around it like a passing lamp; the illumination is very noticeable except at those times when high cliffs west of the city reflect horizontal sunlight into town. Even these mere pinpricks of the dawn more than equal the artificial lights inside the dome. During these cliffblinks nothing has a shadow; space turns strange. Then the mirrors are passed; that light fades. These shifts in illumination are a significant part of the sensation of movement one has in Terminator, for the glide over the tracks is very smooth. Changes in light, slight tilts in pitch, these make it seem as if the town were a ship, sailing over a black ocean with waves so large that when in their troughs, the ship drops into the night, then on high points crests back into day.
The city sliding at its stately pace completes a revolution every 177 days. Round after round, nothing changing but the land itself; and the land only changes because the sunwalkers include landscape artists, who are out there polishing mirror cliffs, carving petroglyphs, erecting cairns and dolmens and inuksuit, and arranging blocks and lines of metal to expose to the melt of day. Thus Terminator’s citizens continuously glide and walk over their world, remaking it day by day into something more expressive of their thoughts. All cities, and all their citizens, move in just such a way.
SWAN AND ALEX
The next day Swan returned to Mqaret’s lab. Again he was in his office staring at nothing. Suddenly Swan realized it was a relief to have something to be angry at.
Mqaret roused himself. “How was your trip out with Wahram?”
“He’s slow, he’s rude, he’s autistic. He’s boring.”
Mqaret smiled a little. “Actually it sounds like you found him interesting.”
“Well, I can assure you Alex found him interesting. She spoke of him pretty often. A few times she made it clear they were involved in things she thought were very important.”
This gave Swan pause, as it was meant to. “Gran, can I have another look around her study?”
Swan went down the hall to Alex’s room at the end, entered, and closed the door. She went to the one window and looked out at the city, all roof tiles and greenery from this vantage point.
She wandered around the study, looking at things. Mqaret had not yet changed anything. She wondered if he would, and if so, when. All Alex’s things, scattered as always. Her absence was a kind of presence, and again grief stabbed through Swan’s middle and she had to sit down.
After a while she stood and began a more methodical examination. If Alex had left something for her, where would she have put it? Swan could not guess. Alex had wanted always to keep her business offline, out of the cloud, unrecorded, live only, in real time only. But if she had done anything like this, she would have to have figured out some kind of method. Knowing her, it might be a purloined-letter type of thing: a paper note, for instance, right there on her desktop.
So Swan hunted through small stacks of paper on her desk, still thinking it over. If she had had information she wanted Swan to pass along, without Swan necessarily knowing what it was… if there were a lot of data… possibly it would be more than a paper note. And possibly she would want only Swan to find it.
She began to wander the room, talking to herself, and looking closely at things. The room’s control AI would know the room was occupied by only a single person and, with voice and retina, could certainly be set to identify the person.
There was a little toilet room attached to the study, with a sink and mirror, so now she went into it. “I’m here, Alex,” Swan said sadly. “I’m here if you want me.”
She looked into the wall mirror, then into a little oval mirror on a stand next to the sink. Sad Swan’s bloodshot eyes.
A jewelry box next to the oval mirror fell open; Swan jumped back into the wall, then collected herself. She looked in the box. Jewelry tray; take it out; and under it were three small white paper envelopes. All had written on one side In Case of My Death; on the other sides they were marked For Mqaret, For Swan, and For Wang on Io.
Hands trembling, Swan took the one marked for her and tore it open. Two little data tabs fell out. One of them was murmuring, “Swan, Swan, Swan.” Swan put it to her ear, her teeth clenched, tears starting to her eyes.
“My dear Swan, I am sorry you are hearing this,” Alex’s voice said. It was just like hearing a ghost, and Swan clutched her hands over her chest.
The little voice went on: “Very sorry, in fact, because if you’re hearing this, it means I’m gone. My room AI has heard about my death, and it knows to open this box if you come in here alone. It’s the best plan I could think of. Sorry to intrude on you like this, but it’s important. This is kind of an insurance policy, because I’ve got some things going on that need to continue even if I die, and I don’t want to tell anyone else here about them. And really at our age you can go any time, so I’m setting this up. If you’re hearing this, I need your help. Please take the envelope for Wang out to Io and give it to him in person. Wang and I and a few others are working on a couple of very important projects together, and we’ve been trying to keep completely offline with them, which is very difficult to do when we live so far apart. You can help me hugely by taking him his envelope. But please keep the matter entirely to yourself. Also, if you would let your Pauline read the other chip in your envelope and then destroy the chip, that would serve as a secure backup. They both are one-reads. I hate to do even this much. But I know you don’t usually link Pauline to other qubes, and if you would keep it that way, it would be better for our plan. Wang will explain more to you, as will Wahram from Titan. Good-bye, my Swan. I love you.”
That was it. Swan tried to listen to it again, but it was inert.
She put the other tab up to Pauline’s membrane, in the skin at the base of her neck. When Pauline said “Done” she put the inert tabs and the two remaining envelopes into her pocket and went to find Mqaret.
He was in his office, poking around in a 3-D image of what looked like a protein. “Look what I found,” Swan said. She explained what had happened.
“That box was locked,” Mqaret said. “I knew it was her jewelry, and I figured I would run into the key some time or other.”
He stared blankly at his envelope, seeming in no hurry to open it; possibly even a little afraid of it. Swan let him be, went out of the room. “Pauline,” she said after she left, “you got the contents of that tab?”
“What was on it?”
“I am instructed to convey the information to Wang’s qube, on Io.”
“But tell me just generally what’s on it.”
Pauline did not reply, and after a while Swan cursed her and turned her off.
Both tabs were now inert; Alex’s ghost had departed. Swan was not entirely sorry. The shock of hearing Alex’s voice speaking to her was still causing her to tremble.
She went back into Mqaret’s office. He was white-faced, his mouth a little knot. He looked up at her.
“She gave you something to take to Io?”
“Yes. Do you know what it’s about?”
“No. But I do know Alex had an inner group of especially close associates. Wahram was one of them, and Wang too.”
“And what were they up to?”
Mqaret shrugged. “She spared me that kind of thing. But I could see she thought it was important. Something about Earth, I think.”
Swan thought it over. “If it was important, and she was keeping things off the record, she would have known her death might cause problems. So she left us these little recordings.”
“It was like her ghost,” Mqaret said shakily. “She spoke to me.”
“Yes,” Swan said, unable to say more. “Well… I guess I’m going to take the third envelope she left to Io, like she told me to.”
“Good,” Mqaret said.
“Wahram already asked me to go out there, now that I think of it. And he kept asking if she left us anything for him.”
Mqaret nodded. “He was part of it.”
“Yes. And that inspector too. So I guess I’ll go. But I don’t think I want to tell him about these messages. Alex didn’t say anything about that.”
“He may guess, just by the fact you’re going.”
“Let him guess.”
Now Mqaret regarded her with a sympathetic squint. “You’re going to have to figure things out as best you can. You may even have to step in and do some of the things Alex would have done.”
“How can I do that? No one can do that.”
“You don’t know. Pauline will help you, and maybe this Titan of yours also. And if you have to act in Alex’s place—she would have liked that.”
“Maybe.” Swan was not so sure.
“Alex will have had a plan. She always did.”
Swan sighed, lanced again by the thought of Alex’s absence. These ghostly messages were not even close to an adequate replacement for her. “All right, then. I’ll go out to see this Wang.”
“Good. And be ready to act.”
Swan found out where the offworld diplomats still in town were staying, went to the terrace where the Saturnian delegation had been housed. When she entered the courtyard of the place, she immediately came on Wahram, head down as he conferred with the little police inspector, Jean Genette. The sight of the two of them together gave her a shock, and something in their body language said they were well acquainted. Co-conspirators, by the look of them.
Cheeks burning, Swan approached them. “What’s this?” she demanded. “I didn’t know you two knew each other.”
Neither of them at first replied.
Finally the small waved a hand. “Fitz Wahram and I often work together on various system issues. We were just now deciding to visit a mutual acquaintance.”
“Wang?” Swan said. “Wang of Io?”
“Why… yes,” the inspector said, looking up at her curiously. “Wang is an associate of ours, as he was of Alex. We were working together.”
“As I mentioned to you,” Wahram said in his low croak. “When we were coming back from Tintoretto.”
“Yes, yes,” Swan said sharply. “You asked me to join you on that trip, without really explaining why.”
“Well…” The toad man’s broad face was looking a little discomfited. “It’s true, but you see, there are reasons to be discreet….” He looked down at Genette as if hoping for help.
“I’m going,” Swan said, interrupting their glance. “I want to go.”
“Ah,” Wahram said with another quick glance at Genette. “Good.”
Take an asteroid at least thirty kilometers on its long axis. Any type will do—solid rock, rock and ice, metallic, even ice balls, although each presents different problems.
Attach a self-replicating excavator assembly to one end of the asteroid, and with it, hollow out your asteroid along its long axis. Leave the wall at least two kilometers thick at all points except for your entry hole. Assure the interior integrity of the wall by coating it with a dura of suitable strength.
As your assembly hollows the interior, be aware that ejection of the excavated material (best aimed toward a Lagrange salvage point, to collect the salvage fee) will represent your best chance to reposition your terrarium, if you want it in a different orbit. Store excess ejecta on the surface for later use.
When the interior is hollowed out, leaving an empty cylinder at least five kilometers in diameter and ten kilometers long (but bigger is better!), your excavator assembly will return to the access hole and there reconfigure itself into your terrarium’s propulsion unit. Depending on the mass of your new world, you may want to install a mass driver, an antimatter “lightning push” engine, or an Orion pusher plate.
Beyond the forward end of the cylinder, on the bow of your new terrarium, attach a forward unit at the point of the long axis. Eventually your terrarium will be spinning at a rotational rate calculated to create the effect of gravity on the inner surface of the interior cylinder so that when you are inside, you will be pulled to the floor as if in a gravity field. This is the g equivalent, or gequivalent. The forward unit will then be connected to the bow of the terrarium by a geared axle, to allow the forward unit not to spin but instead to stay fixed. It will be nearly weightless in this bowsprit chamber, but many functions of the terrarium will go better without the spinning, including docking, viewing, navigating, etc.
It is possible to build an interior cylinder that spins freely inside an asteroid that does not spin—the so-called prayer wheel configuration—and this does give you both an interior with g effect and a non-spinning exterior, but it is expensive and finicky. Not recommended, though we have seen some good ones.
When stern and bow are properly installed and configured, and the asteroid is set spinning, the interior is ready to be terraformed.
Begin with a light dusting of heavy metals and rare earths, as specified for the biome you are trying to create. Be aware that no Terran biome ever began with the simple ingredients you will be starting with on an asteroid. Biospheres need their vitamins right from the start, so be sure to arrange for the importation of the mix you want, usually including molybdenum, selenium, and phosphorus. These are often applied in “puff bombs” set off along the axis of the cylindrical space. Don’t poison yourself when you do this!
After that, string the axis of the cylinder with your terrarium’s sunline. This is a lighting element, on which the lit portion moves at whatever speed you choose. The lit portion of the sunline usually starts the day in the stern of the cylinder, after a suitable period of darkness (during which any streetlights overhead will serve as stars). The lit portion of the line, appropriately bright, then traverses the sunline from stern to bow (or east to west, as some describe it), taking usually the same time as a Terran day, as measured by the latitude of your biome on Earth. Seasons inside your terrarium will be rendered accordingly.
Now you can aerate the interior to the gas mix and pressure you desire, typically somewhere between 500 and 1100 millibars of pressure, in something like the Terran mix of gases, with perhaps a dash more oxygen, though the fire risk quickly rises there.
After that, you need biomass. Naturally you will have in your spice rack the complete genetic codes of all the creatures you intend to introduce into your biome. Generally you will be either recreating some Terran biome, or else mixing up something new, hybrid biomes most people call Ascensions, after Ascension Island on Earth, the site of the first such hybrid (started inadvertently by Darwin himself!) All the genomes for all the species of your particular biome will be available for print on demand, except for the bacteria involved, which are simply too numerous and too genetically labile to categorize. For them you will have to apply the appropriate inoculant, usually a muck or goo made of a few tons of the bacterial suite that you want.
Luckily bacteria grow very fast in an empty ecological niche, which is what you now have. To make it even more welcoming, scrape the interior wall of your cylinder, then crumble the rock of the scrapings finely, to a consistency ranging from large gravel to sand. Mixed with an edible aerogel, this then becomes the matrix for your soil. Put all the ice gathered in your scraping aside, except for enough when melted to make your crumbled rock matrix moist. Then add your bacterial inoculant and turn up the heat to around three hundred K. The matrix will rise like yeasted dough as it becomes that most delicious and rare substance, soil. (Those wanting a fuller explanation of how to make soil are referred to my bestselling All About Dirt.)
With a soil base cooked up, your biome is well on its way. Succession regimens at this point will vary, depending on what you are looking for at climax. But it’s true to say that a lot of terraria designers start out with a marsh of some kind, because it’s the fastest way to bulk up your soil and your overall biomass. So if you are in a hurry to occupy, this is often a good way to start.
When you’ve got a warm marsh going, either freshwater or salt, you are already cooking good. Smells will rise in your cylinder, also hydrological problems. Fish, amphibian, animal, and bird populations can be introduced at this point, and should be if you want maximum biomass growth. But here you have to watch out for a potential danger: once you get your marsh going, you may fall in love with it. Fine for you, but it happens a bit too often. We have too many estuarine biomes now, and not enough of the other biomes we are hoping to cook out here.
So try to keep your distance at this point; keep a depopulate marsh, or stay away from it during this part of the process. Or join a trading scheme in which you trade asteroids when they are at the marsh point, so that you come into a new one wanting to change things, unattached to what’s already there.
With the hefty biomass created by a marsh, you can then build up land using some of your excavated materials, saved on the surface of the asteroid for this moment. Hills and mountains look great and add texture, so be bold! This process will redirect your water into new hydrologies, and this is the best time to introduce new species, also to export species you no longer want, giving them to newer terraria that might need them.
Thus over time you can transform the interior of your terrarium to any of the 832 identified Terran biomes, or design an Ascension of your own making. (Be warned that many Ascensions fall as flat as bad soufflés. The keys to a successful Ascension are so many that I have had to pen another volume, How to Mix and Match Biomes!, now available.)
Ultimately you will need to make many temperature, landscape, and species adjustments, to get to the kind of stable climax community you want. Any possible landscape is achievable; sometimes the results are simply stunning. Always the entire landscape will be curving up around you, rising on both sides and meeting overhead, so that the look of the land will envelop you like a work of art—a goldsworthy inscribed on the inside of a rock, like a geode or a Fabergé egg.
Obviously it is also possible to make interiors that are all liquid. Some of these aquaria or oceanaria include archipelagoes; others are entirely water, even their walls, which are sometimes refrozen transparently so that in the end when you approach them, they look like diamonds or water droplets floating in space. Some aquaria have no air space in their middles.
As for aviaries, every terrarium and most aquaria are also aviaries, stuffed with birds to their maximum carrying capacity. There are fifty billion birds on Earth, twenty billion on Mars; we in the terraria could outmatch them both combined.
Each terrarium functions as an island park for the animals inside it. Ascensions cause hybridization and ultimately new species. The more traditional biomes conserve species that on Earth are radically endangered or extinct in the wild. Some terraria even look like zoos; more are purely wilderness refugia; and most mix parkland and human spaces in patterned habitat corridors that maximize the life of the biome as a whole. As such, these spaces are already crucial to humanity and the Earth. And there are also the heavily agricultural terraria, farmworlds devoted to producing what has become a very large percentage of the food feeding the people of Earth.
These facts are worth noting and enjoying. We cook up our little bubble worlds for our own pleasure, the way you would cook a meal, or build something, or grow a garden—but it’s also a new thing in history, and the heart of the Accelerando. I can’t recommend it too highly! The initial investment is nontrivial, but there are still many unclaimed asteroids out there.
WAHRAM AND SWAN
Although no doubt they were simply the result of an engineering response to an engineering problem, regarded as an aesthetic matter the Mercurial launching gyres were interesting. A maglev tube twisted in a cone set on its point, increasing in size as it rose. The tip of the cone was secured to a platform that moved in a circle, about the size of the widest part of the cone. The movement of the platform exaggerated very effectively the force of acceleration on the ferries as they were being magnetically thrown up the tube. Thus the ferry they were in had them seated sideways to the ground, but as it careened around and up, their floor became most definitely down, and then with dizzying speed they were launched into space, going so fast that if there had been an atmosphere they would have burned to a crisp the moment they left the tube. The effect as seen from the spaceport resembled some kind of antique carnival ride. From inside the ferry it proved to be a quite serious acceleration, very near the maximum allowed in commercial travel, which was 3.5 g.
Swan Er Hong had strapped herself into the seat beside Wahram just before takeoff, grimacing apologetically at the cliché of her lateness. Now she leaned toward him to look out the little window at the rapidly receding craterscape of her home world. Quickly the land changed from a plane to a ball, a thin crescent of it bathed in sunlight, the gibbous nightside black. Mercury was an interesting place, but Wahram was not unhappy to leave; despite the locals’ best efforts to spruce it up with art, the landscape was a cindery clinker. And the truth was that when he was inside its marvelous gliding city, the sudden blink of illumination on high points to the west always reminded him of the sun, following them relentlessly, always about to burst over the horizon and torch everything.
Their ferry was going to catch the terrarium Alfred Wegener, which was moving so fast that the ferry would have to make another long three-g burn to catch up. During this time, Wahram shifted his seat into bed mode and endured like everyone else. Across the room Swan groaned and curled around herself on her bed. Wahram forbade himself to think about the studies that had been made on the effect of g-forces on the human brain, delicate goo that it was, trapped without much padding inside its hard prison walls. Then the Wegener caught them and reeled them in with a final little squish of g, as if to emphasize the problem.
After that Wahram and the other passengers had to adjust to the sudden weightlessness, and pull themselves from the ferry into the terrarium’s dock, then through the neck and down broad padded stairs to the cylinder floor.
The interior space in the Wegener was pretty substantial, about twenty kilometers long and five across, spun to a one-g equivalent. The great majority of the interior space was park, with a few small towns scattered mostly fore and aft. The mix of savanna and pampas was very attractive, Wahram thought as he walked toward the first village, looking up at the land overhead. Grass prairie and patches of forest arched like a giant Sistine Chapel overhead, a Sistine on which Michelangelo had painted a version of Eden—a savanna, the first human landscape, appealing to something very deep in the mind. Although terrarium topology always made Wahram feel as if he were inside a map that had been rolled into a tube. As one looked along the longitude line one occupied, the land always appeared as a long U-valley, with nearby trees topped by higher, more distant trees, tilting toward the valley bottom in a curve of ever-steepening parkland, up to vertical side walls, as in certain great glacial U-valleys—but then the walls continued up and folded over, breaking past verticality in a manner very distinct to the eye. Above that line the landscape was simply overhead, and quite undeniably upside down. As now, for instance, when beyond a cloud he saw the tops of a sheet of flocking birds, flying over the surface of a lake hanging directly over his head.
Wahram went to a little Saturn House in the first town, called Plum Lake, and checked in. They kept a restaurant in the ground floor, so he signed up for kitchen duties (he liked all the simplest chores), and after showering he took a walk around the town. It was a handsome place, with a lakefront and a hill, and a tram station at its eastern end. Trams ran through parkland to the other towns. The central plaza was full of Venusians, presumably on their way home: tall broad-shouldered young Chinese, for the most part, with intent eyes and big smiles. They were working on Venus hip deep in dry ice, doing dangerous things. Wahram engaged in similar work when he was home on Titan, but Titan had only .14 g, and this had often saved him from little accidents; Venus, at .9 g, impressed him as dangerous.
At the edge of town he came to a line of trees and a fence. He signed in at a little kiosk and read on a plaque that his new acquaintance Swan Er Hong had designed the biome here some seventy years before. This was a surprise; he had heard she had once been a designer, but she had shown no interest in the Wegener when they arrived.
Wahram took a little stun gun out of a box of them, put it in the pocket of his coat, and let himself through the gate into the park. He walked at an angle up the curve of the land. The soil was a thick black loam, with a mixed Tanzanian and Argentinian provenance, he had read at the kiosk. A stand of broad-topped acacia trees showed signs of elephant damage on their trunks. Treetops directly overhead looked like round bumps of lichen. Tall clumps of grass obscured the view beyond his immediate locality; one could see more up where the park curved over the nearby treetops. Up to his left, over the trees, a little knoll of rocks looked like a good lookout; although of course that might have occurred to a puma or a hyena, so he was careful as he approached. Most animals were wary of humans, but he didn’t want to surprise anybody. You don’t need danger to get your thrills, his mother used to tell him. That would be decadent, and I don’t like decadence! The rest of his parents had not been so judgmental, perhaps considering that as they were all living around Saturn, their take on danger might be skewed. But his mother had made her point, and Wahram was not decadent; he was continually shocked by the new; and now his heart was pounding a little.
The knoll was empty, however. The rocks were spotted with actual lichen, as if sprayed with a surfacing of semiprecious stones, yellow and red and pale green. He crouched in a crack and had a look around.
There were a mother cheetah and two cubs, below him in clumps of bunchgrass. The mother’s attention was focused on some pampas deer grazing in the mid-distance. Wahram wondered what pampas deer made of cheetahs—whether there had been any predator that fast in South America. It seemed unlikely.
He felt lucky to see cheetahs on their feet, as it seemed they were usually asleep. It looked like this mother was trying to teach her cubs how to hunt; she squashed one down with a forepaw to get it to flatten. The chiral wind was rushing down from the left, so he was crosswind to the cats; they would not smell him. Or so it seemed, although in fact many animals’ senses were so sharp as to make humans seem deaf and dumb.
He settled down to watch. The cubs, still brindled, were looking confused, as if they didn’t even comprehend the concept of a lesson. They batted each other still, as if wanting to play. The peak point of brain growth was also the peak point of playfulness.
They were downwind of the deer, who looked unruffled and were coming their way. The mama cheetah crouched in the grass, and now her cubs were doing likewise, their tails twitching uncontrollably.
Then the mama was off in a burst of grass blades, and the cubs bounded after. The deer dashed away in great pronging leaps, leaving the cheetahs in the dust; but then the deer had to diverge around some trees, and the mother cheetah intercepted the last deer in one group and knocked it over in a tangle of fur that ended with her on top, teeth sunk in the spine at the deer’s neck, holding on. The deer heaved up a little and then was still. The sight of blood was its usual red shock. The cubs arrived late, and Wahram wondered if their lesson had taught them anything but the need to grow up, the need to run fast.
He found he was standing. And now, looking left at some motion, he saw another person: Swan. Surprised, he waved to her, and she lifted her chin as she continued to watch the cheetah kill. The mother was now teaching the kittens how to eat a deer, not that they needed much instruction there. Wahram surveyed the scene. The lit part of the sunline was now far toward the fore end of the terrarium, its light slanting back with a sunset tint. Masses of grass clumps waved in the wind. It felt like an ancient moment.
Swan walked over to him and ascended the knoll. It was going to be a little embarrassing to be found out here alone, which in some parks was not legal, and in general was not considered prudent. Then again, here she was too.
He nodded his greeting, formal but not unfriendly. “Unusual luck to see such a thing,” he remarked as she approached.
“Yes,” she said. “Are you out here alone?”
“I am. And you?”
“Alone, yes.” She was looking at him curiously. “I’m surprised to find you out here, I must confess. I didn’t know you liked this kind of thing.”
“Mercury isn’t really where you would find out.”
She gestured at the cats. “You aren’t worried?”
“They’re scared of people, I find.”
“Well, but if they’re hungry…”
“But they never are, that’s the thing. There’s so much easy prey.”
“That’s true. But if they have never run into people before, they’ll just think of you as a kind of chimp. Very tasty, no doubt. A delicacy. You hear of it happening. They have no experience of being hunted.”
“I’m aware we could be prey,” Wahram said. “I carry a little stunner just in case. Don’t you?”
“I don’t,” she admitted after a pause. “I mean, sometimes I do, but mostly to avoid spending a night in jail.”
She tilted her head, as if listening to a voice in her ear. She had had her qube implanted, Alex had told him, back when the idea was fashionable. “Speaking of eating,” she said, “shall we get something?”
They returned to the perimeter fence. When they reached it, they found a little group at the kiosk; these people saw Swan and crowded around her, greeted her cheerfully. “What do you think?” they asked her. “How do you like it now that it’s all grown up?”
“It’s looking good,” she told them in a reassuring tone. “We saw a cheetah take down a pampas deer. I thought maybe there were too many deer, actually, what’s that about?”
One of the group said deer were high because cats were still low, and Swan asked some questions about that. Wahram gathered that predator-prey populations went up and down in sine wave patterns tied together, and predators moved up or down a quarter of a cycle behind prey; there were further complications that Wahram couldn’t follow from what they were saying.
When Swan was done with her conversation, she led him along the street back to the town.
“So they knew you designed this terrarium,” Wahram said as they walked.
“Yes, I’m surprised anyone remembers. I hardly do myself.”
“So you were an ecologist?”
“A designer. It was a long time ago. I don’t like a lot of what I did, to tell the truth. These Ascensions are too much. We need all the terraria to be conserving species gone on Earth. I don’t know what I was thinking. But I wouldn’t say that to the people who live here. They’re into this, it’s their place.”
They hiked up the curve of the cylinder several degrees. A cloud they had seen overhead at sunset, hugging the land above like an orange shawl, had come round the cylinder and now immersed them in a diffuse fog. Things lost their shadows in the misty twilight, and the land above went invisible, the few lights on the other side like blurred stars. It seemed a different world now, an outie rather than an innie.
Wahram explained that he had signed up to run dishwashers in the Saturnian restaurant, so they made their back to the Saturn House in Plum Lake and ate there. Swan hadn’t signed up for any work; she seldom did, she said. As they sat there she grew quiet and distracted, looked out the window, then around the room, always moving just a little, tapping a foot, rubbing fingertips together. They ate and she went completely silent. No doubt she was still grieving for Alex. Wahram, often pierced by the thought of the loss himself, could only wordlessly sympathize; but then she tilted her head to the side and said, “Quit talking to me, I don’t want to hear you.”
“What’s that?” Wahram said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m talking to my qube.”
“Can you make it so that it speaks aloud?”
“Of course,” Swan said. “Pauline, you can speak up.”
A voice coming from the right side of Swan’s head said, “I am Pauline, Swan’s faithful quantum computer.” It sounded like Swan’s voice, except, as it was projected from speaker buds in her skin, a little muffled.
Swan made a face and began to spoon soup into her mouth. Nonplussed, Wahram focused on eating. Then Swan snapped, “Well then you talk to him!”
The voice from the side of her head said, “I understand you are traveling to the Jupiter system.”
“Yes,” Wahram said warily. If Swan had just assigned her qube to do her talking for her, that did not seem like a good thing. But he wasn’t sure that was what was happening.
“What kind of artificial intelligence are you?” he asked.
“I am a quantum computer, model Ceres 2196a.”
“She is one of the first and weakest of the qubes,” Swan said. “A feeb.”
Wahram pondered this. Asking How smart are you? was probably never a polite thing. Besides, no one was ever very good at making such an assessment. “What do you like to think about?” he asked instead.
Pauline said, “I am designed for informative conversation, but I cannot usually pass a Turing test. Would you like to play chess?”
He laughed. “No.”
Swan was looking out the window. Wahram considered her, went back to focusing on his meal. It took a lot of rice to dilute the fiery chilies in the dish.
Swan muttered bitterly to herself, “You insist on interfering, you insist on talking, you insist on pretending that everything is normal.”
The qube voice said, “Anaphora is one of the weakest rhetorical devices, really nothing more than redundancy.”
“You complain to me about redundancy? How many times did you parse that sentence, ten trillion?”
“It did not take that many times.”
Silence. Both of them appeared to be done with speech.
“Do you study rhetoric?” Wahram asked.
The qube voice said, “Yes, it is a useful analytic tool.”
“Give me an example, please.”
“When you say exergasia, synathroesmus, and incrementum together in a list, it seems to me that you have thereby given an example of all three devices in that same phrase.”
Swan snorted at this. “How so, Socrates?”
“ ‘Exergasia’ means ‘use of different phrases to express the same idea,’ ‘synathroesmus’ means ‘accumulation by enumeration,’ and ‘incrementum’ means ‘piling up points to make an argument.’ So listing them does all three, yes?”
“And what argument would you be piling up points in?” Swan asked.
“That I was giving you too much credit in thinking you were using many different devices, when really you only have the one method, because these are distinctions without a difference.”
“Ha-ha,” Swan said sarcastically.
But Wahram had only just kept himself from laughing.
The qube went on: “One could also argue that the classical system of rhetoric is a false taxonomy, a kind of fetishism—”
The silence stretched on.
“I’m going to help in the kitchen,” Wahram said, and got up.
After a while she followed him in and emptied dishwashers next to the window, looking out at the fog. There was a bottle of wine and she poured a glass. The wet clank of kitchen work always struck him as a kind of music.
“Say something!” she commanded at one point.
“I’m thinking about those cheetahs,” he said, startled, hoping she was speaking to him, even though there was no one else in the room. “Have you seen very much of them?”
No answer. They went out and washed down the tables, which took a while. Swan muttered; it sounded like she was arguing with her qube again. Once she bumped into Wahram and said, “Come on, move it! Why are you so slow?”
“Why are you so fast?”
Of course this kind of nervous rapidity was a notorious characteristic of qubeheads; but one couldn’t say that, and besides, she seemed worse than most. And possibly she was still distracted by grief and deserved a break. She did not answer him now but merely chucked away her apron and walked out into the fog. He went to the door to look after her; she veered suddenly toward a bonfire in the center of the square, around which people were dancing. When she was no more than a silhouette against the firelight, he saw her skip into the dance.
Habits begin to form at the very first repetition. After that there is a tropism toward repetition, for the patterns involved are defenses, bulwarks against time and despair.
Wahram was very aware of this, having lived the process many times; so he paid attention to what he did when he traveled, on the lookout for those first repetitions that would create the pattern of that particular moment in his life. So often the first time one did things they were contingent, accidental, and not necessarily good things on which to base a set of habits. There was some searching to be done, in other words, some testing of different possibilities. That was the interregnum, in fact, the naked moment before the next exfoliation of habits, the time when one wandered doing things randomly. The time without skin, the raw data, the being-in-the-world.
They came a bit too often for his taste. Most of the terraria offering passenger transport around the solar system were extremely fast, but even so, trips often took weeks. This was simply too much time to be banging around aimlessly; doing that one could easily slide into a funk or some other kind of mental hibernation. In the settlements around Saturn this sort of thing had sometimes been developed into entire sciences and art forms. But any such hebephrenia was dangerous for Wahram, as he had found out long before by painful experience. Too often in his past, meaninglessness had gnawed at the edges of things. He needed order, and a project; he needed habits. In the nakedness of the moments of exfoliation, the intensity of experience had in it a touch of terror—terror that no new meaning would blossom to replace the old ones now lost.
Of course there was no such thing as a true repetition of anything; ever since the pre-Socratics that had been clear, Heraclitus and his un-twice-steppable river and so on. So habits were not truly iterative, but pseudoiterative. The pattern of the day might be the same, in other words, but the individual events fulfilling the pattern were always a little bit different. Thus there was both pattern and surprise, and this was Wahram’s desired state: to live in a pseudoiterative. But then also to live in a good pseudoiterative, an interesting one, the pattern constructed as a little work of art. No matter the brevity of a trip, the dullness of the terrarium or the people in it, it was important to invent a pattern and a project and pursue it with all his will and imagination. It came to this: shipboard life was still life. All days had to be seized.
So the next morning he left the Saturn House after breakfast and walked back to the park, and at the kiosk joined a group going out to track a little elephant herd. After a while Swan too joined them, coming from farther in the park and looking a little flushed, as if she had been running. Their group had with them a device that shifted the elephants’ subsonic vocalizations up to human hearing levels, and Swan now frowned as she listened to them talking, or singing, as if she understood their language. When the elephants went silent, she asked the zoologist leading their group to explain why the sunline’s twilight had gone on so long the previous evening. Quickly Wahram gathered that this biome, being equatorial, should have had a very short twilight, as on Earth the equatorial sun dropped almost perpendicularly to the horizon, no matter the season. The zoologist, surprised that Swan had noticed, explained rather defensively that they were running an experiment that placed their terrarium at a twenty-three-degree latitude equivalent, because there were great swaths of Earth’s northern hemisphere along that latitude that were now as hot as the equator had been before Earth’s warming. Forests were turning into grassland, there was widespread desertification, so the assisted migration movement was investigating the possibility of relocating tropical semiarid populations like this one up to those latitudes. In the hope of giving them some preliminary data, the sunline regime in Wegener had been adjusted accordingly.
Swan did not look too satisfied with this explanation, and soon afterward she took off again on her own, ignoring the disappointment of the zoologist and the disapproval of some of the other guests. Wahram saw her later that evening at his restaurant; probably she too practiced some form of the pseudoiterative, as she too traveled a lot; and it was a natural human impulse. Wahram ate at the table next to hers and then went to wash dishes, and though he nodded politely to her, she did not speak. When he was done in the kitchen and went back out for a drink, she had gone. Down the street the bonfire was again burning, the dancers dancing.
So that second day had some elements of new habit; but the next afternoon the Wegener was making a close passby of Venus, using it as a gravity handle to help sling it faster out to Jupiter. Wahram took a tram forward to the bulkhead, then with the help of handholds pulled through the nearly weightless passageway to the observation room that bubbled out from the forward end of the asteroid. This chamber had a steady view of the hemisphere of stars arched over them—and there, swelling visibly ahead of them, was Venus. Wahram, who at home spent a fair bit of time in micro g like this, balanced happily with one hand holding a strap, eager to watch the second planet pass under them. Swan came in just as they made their final closing, hurrying as usual to avoid being late.
Venus’s atmosphere was now so reduced in density from its native state that it was transparent, and even though the whole planet was in the shadow of its sunshield and therefore in perpetual night, one could make out the dim white dry ice seas, and the black rock of the two continents partially blown and scraped free. Cloud patterns familiar from Earth and Mars swirled over snowy plains and the dry ice oceans, making a salt-and-pepper effect that could not be comprehended even with the most intense effort. The observation chamber rang with the sounds of excited and puzzled viewers. Black as high and white as low didn’t work very well for the human eye, and it was not that simple anyway. Even at their closest approach it was still a mess of stippling. They angled in at it and then Wegener shot by just above the atmosphere, maximizing the gravity sling. Below passed a cluster of lights that someone said was Port Elizabeth. Nearby there was a town called Billie Holliday, where Wahram had once worked in a giant waldo, covering the dry ice in the lowlands with foamed rock. Now they were doing similar things on Titan. Venus and Titan were really the best remaining candidates to join Mars as fully terraformed worlds—shirtsleeve worlds, as some called them, with free atmospheres humans could breathe. The example of Mars showed what could happen: an independent new world, free from all the troubles of the old one.
Swan was dancing by herself. “I want to go back,” she was chanting to no one in particular, or perhaps to her qube. “I want to feel the poison wind slap the poison sea.”
The Venusians had debarked before the swingby, so now Wegener was not as humanly interesting. No bonfires, no all-night dances. Wahram spent most of his days in the park; it became the heart of this particular pseudoiterative. They were trying to do a census of its birds and mammals. Often they spotted Swan out there, running by herself. She definitely slept out there, and one night in the kitchen remarked that she never slept indoors if she could avoid it, although of course the entire terrarium was indoors in a certain sense. Out in the park he saw signs that she was also trying to catch some of her food. They once found a rabbit caught in a little snare set by the creek side that spiraled through the park. This kind of thing was illegal, and, more importantly, not done. A few times they also saw the ashes of little fires, with little bones in them not fully burned. Rabbit or fawn, cooked over a little fire… One would have to keep an eye out for hyenas if one did that. Surely the excellent south Indian food in his restaurant was preferable.
Then one morning they came on Swan still crouched by her little fire, her face greasy and streaks of blood still on her hands, with a small mass of fur there between her feet. She looked up at them with a feral glare, very like the look one would have gotten from a hyena caught in the same moment, and for a long time no one knew quite what to say. Poaching was no more popular with the authorities than it had ever been, Wahram saw with a quick glance at the zoologist, although Swan would not get hung for it; and indeed, because of her founder status here, the locals, all half her age at most, were shuffling around, trying to find a way out of the situation.
“I guess this is what they meant by the phrase getting caught red-handed,” Wahram said in his most jovial voice. “But please, I want to see those elephants while I can, and they are moving away from us. I’m sure the situation here will soon revert to normal.” And he walked off in a way that shepherded his guides with him.
Better to explore the park in the other direction. Or he could track the little cheetah family. Once he saw Swan doing that too, but did not approach her. It was clear by now that she felt like being alone. In the town, if she came by his restaurant, she ate by herself. Wahram found that a little disappointing.
In the pseudoiterative, one performs the ritual of the day attentive to both the joy of the familiar and the shiver of the accidental. To be out at dawn was important. The sunny point in the sunline cast shadows up the cylinder, and overhead flocks of birds flew from one lake to another. The migratory birds pretended to migrate, he was told; they took off at dawn and flew around for most of the day, then came back to where they had begun. Perhaps all his movement was a similar thing.
He went forward to the observation bubble when Wegener passed the famous asteroid Programming Error. Here one of the excavators had missed one of its commands—the AI error perhaps caused by the unlucky hit of a cosmic ray, some postulated—so that after coring its large iron-nickel asteroid and leaving the interior space floored by steel, the machinery had looped back on itself and begun to eat the remaining rock of the asteroid across the tube of the first cavity; then every time it broke through to the surface of the asteroid, it turned and dived back in, building and leaving behind more tubing as it went. After a few years it had become clear that this process was never going to stop on its own, as the entire asteroid, considerably reduced, had ended up looking like braided steel rope tied in a knot. Some advocated letting the process go on to see what would happen, but there must have been someone who hadn’t agreed with this, because an explosion with an intense electromagnetic pulse had shattered the AI and frozen the thing in the middle of a turn, leaving the excavator snout sticking out of the side like the head of a snake. Indeed at that point the asteroid was a kind of Medusa’s head, a pretzel sculpture that some considered beautiful and others horrifying, the very image of AI foolishness, or the futility of human effort.
Now Wegener flashed by it so fast that the people in the observation bubble could not blink without missing it; it grew from a dot to a basketball to a dot in the course of a single indrawn breath. There were gasps, then cheers. It was in fact a very striking accidental artwork, Wahram judged, so bulging with curves that it seemed to be still squiggling, as if the head of Ouroboros were chasing a reluctant tail, or, as it occurred to him when describing it back in the kitchen, like a tangle of Klein bottles.
The next day they flashed by another famous error, and more went forward to see this one than had seen Programming Error, which Wahram found depressing. This terrarium, Yggdrasil, had suffered a catastrophic break; an unnoticed ice-filled crack had blown open, in more of an explosion than a leak. Only a few of the inhabitants had survived, something like fifty out of three thousand. It could happen to anyone who did not live on Earth or Mars. Wahram did not care to look.
Lying naked on a block of ice under a heat lamp
Spending five hours in a spacesuit with only four hours of air
Running around Mercury on the equator
Cutting a solar system diagram into the skin of her chest with a laser knife
Falling slowly (all day) down the Great Staircase, naked, as in Duchamp
Flying in a popper up from the terminator into the light of a coronal flare, ejecting, and crash-landing on spacesuit jets only
Sitting in a chair and staring into the eyes of people who sit down across from her, for a year
Dancing on fire in a flame-resistant clear bodysuit
Rolling bowling balls down the Great Staircase from the top of the Dawn Wall, for an entire day (Pachinko Day)
Spending a week in a worm box
Hanging in an upside-down crucified position in the light of the sun when the gates of the Dawn Wall are opened
Sitting for a week in a pile of onions, peeling one after the next
Leaving shelter in a spacesuit with air but no heat, to see how long she could stay out (fourteen minutes)
Leaving shelter in a spacesuit with air but no heat, to see how long she could stay out while walking in partial sunlight and its radiative heating (sixty-one minutes)
Leaving shelter in a spacesuit with heat but only a helmet full of air, to see how long she could stay out (eight minutes)
SWAN AND A CAT
Swan got off the Wegener feeling embarrassed and depressed by the horrid ideas of her youth, in this case the savanna-pampas Ascension—not to mention her own poaching in same, caught red-handed indeed, the smart-ass. But then it got even worse when their taxi unloaded them into a terrarium headed Jupiterward, and it turned out to be the Pleistocene, another of her youthful indiscretions, an ice age north with any number of spavined megafauna resurrected and clomping around in pathetic mutant versions of themselves. Giant short-faced bears, looking around in openmouthed confusion—also dire wolves, saber-toothed tigers, American cheetahs, mastodons, and woolly mammoths, most of them only semi-genuine revivals from ancient DNA, really synthetics, birthed from elephants or lions or Kodiak bears, and thus uneducated in the ways of their kind. It was sad. Swan cursed herself and went feral to get through the remaining week to Jupiter, and almost paid for it with her life; for one thing, it was painfully cold, and then one morning she woke up in a stupidly uncomfortable perch in a tree to find it shaking under the weight of a cat climbing it, a big cat, a who-knew-what—possibly just a mountain lion, maybe a snow leopard, it had such long fur—intent to get to her, and as it was no heavier than she was, it seemed like it could climb the tree high enough to make it happen. Maybe twelve meters to the ground, terrarium spinning at one g—for a second she cursed the long-ago shift away from Martian g in terraria, which at first had been the norm—then fear drove all thought from her head. Get out of the nest. Get higher than a cat your own weight can get: obviously a problem. She pulled herself up onto the branch over her, which pronged up much more vertically than her sleeping branch. The cat eyed her calmly, not moving yet. Topaz eyes in brindled long white fur; upper lip drawn back, teeth white and hungry. No malice in it. Up the vertical branch, feet deep in forks, painful twists to free herself, up and up. Swaying now in the canopy, all the branches around her equally thin and flexible. Some kind of oak. If she kicked it on the snout when it attacked, possibly it would miss and fall. Foreclaws would latch on to her; her kick would have to twist away—maybe up. She tried to get higher, couldn’t.
She was on the Pleistocene. She carried a stun gun.
But she had left it in the nest. “Shit.”
The cat began to shift onto Swan’s branch. Quite a weight to sway it that much.
“Pauline, any suggestions here?”
“Scare it,” Pauline said. “Adrenalate fully, then do something bizarre.”
Swan twisted and let go, fell feetfirst into the face of the cat, screaming as loud as she could. When her feet hit something else, she clasped branches to her and felt something smash into her ribs. Air knocked out of her, no more scream. She scrabbled with her feet for some purchase, found none, looked down. The cat was on the ground, looking up at her. Swan screamed again, felt the stab of a cracked rib. She changed to a raging shout, cursing the cat foully. Kill it like Archilochus. Grating, painful snarl of a voice, bitter shrieking that hurt her throat and screeched unbearably in her own ears, the sound making her aware she had lost it. The cat heaved a heavy sigh and padded away.
Excerpted from 2312 by Robinson, Kim Stanley Copyright © 2012 by Robinson, Kim Stanley. Excerpted by permission.
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