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Flint of Outworld
The old man and the young man lay in the cool of pre-dawn, looking up at the stars. The old man wore a ragged tunic; under it his skin was an off-shade of white. The young man was naked, and was a delicate green all over. He was large and muscular, even for Outworld.
"Can you see Arcturus, boy?" the old man asked.
"Yes, Shaman," Flint said with good-natured respect. He was no longer a boy, but he made allowances for the old man's failing vision. If there was one thing the wise Shaman had taught him—and indeed there were many things—it was not to take offense irresponsibly. "Shining as always, about third magnitude."
"Yes, fourth magnitude." Each distinction of magnitude meant a star was about two and a half times as bright, or dim. It seemed to help the Shaman to be reminded that Vega was dimmer than Arcturus, so Flint always repeated the information. On cloudy nights these magnitudes changed, if the stars were visible at all. He could have called them out from memory, but the Shaman had also taught him never to lie unnecessarily.
A pause. Then: "Sirius?"
"Fainter. Fifth magnitude."
"And—and Sol?" The old man's voice quavered.
"No. Too faint."
"Use the glass, boy," the Shaman said.
Flint raised the small old telescope, a relic of the first colony ship that had brought his ancestors, over a century ago. He oriented on faint Sirius, then slid toward the nearby region where Sol was to be found. The instrument magnified ten times, which meant that stars of up to eight and a half magnitude should be visible. But magnification was not enough: the scope did not fetch in sufficient light to provide proper clarity at night. So Sol, magnitude seven and a half, was a difficult identification, even for Flint's sharp eye. For the half-blind Shaman, it was impossible.
Now Flint was tempted to lie, knowing how important it was to the old man to spot Sol, even secondhand, this night and every night of the season it was in the night sky. But the Shaman had an uncanny knack for spotting that sort of thing.
Then, faintly, he saw it. "Twin stars! Sol and Toliman!" he cried exuberantly.
"Sol and Toliman!" the Shaman echoed. The words were like a prayer of thanksgiving.
Flint set down the telescope. The ritual had been honored. They had seen Sol tonight.
There was still an hour until dawn, and the Shaman made no move to rise for the walk down the mountain. Flint had work to do, but he had learned not to hustle the old man. The Shaman had never quite acclimatized to the fifteen-hour days of Outworld. He would sleep one full night, seven and a half hours, then stay up a day and a night, fifteen hours straight, then nap in the daytime. He had, he said, been born to a twenty-four hour cycle, eight hours asleep and sixteen awake, and this was as close as he could make it on Outworld. Flint had once tried to duplicate that odd rhythm, but it had made him irritable and muddle-minded. No one could adept Shaman ways except the Shaman.
Sometimes the Shaman liked to talk a bit, as he neared the end of his day-night vigil. Flint pretended to the other tribesmen that he merely humored the old fogy, but the truth was that the Shaman's words were almost always fraught with meaning and unexpected revelations. He had taught Flint amazing things, and some of the best had been by accident.
"Shaman, if I may ask—"
"Ask, boy!" the man replied immediately, and Flint knew that this was, indeed, a talking night. Perhaps it would make his early awakening worthwhile, apart from the necessity of helping the old man up the steep hill.
"What was it like—on Sol?"
"Not Sol, Flint. Earth. Sol is the star, Earth the planet, just as Etamin is the star here, and Outworld the planet. A small star, Sol, and a small planet, 'tis true, but the home of all men and still lord of all Sol Sphere."
Flint knew. Etamin was a hundred times as brilliant as Sol, and Outworld twice Earth's mass. That was why Outworld, though ten times as far from its star as Earth was from Sol, had a similar climate. Lower density, heavier atmosphere, and faster rotation brought the surface gravity down to within 10 percent of Earth's, effectively, so man had been able to colonize and survive here. Of course Outworld's year was thirty times as long, but what the Shaman called a severe precessional wobble provided seasons similar to Earth's. All this was but a fraction of the knowledge the Shaman had dispensed in the course of prior conversations. The tribesmen hardly cared, as long as hunting was good, but Flint was fascinated, and always wanted to comprehend more.
"Earth, of course," Flint said. "But the planet—was it like this? With rains and vines and dinosaurs?"
The Shaman laughed, but had to stop when it triggered his cough. "Yes and no," he gasped after a bit. "Rains, yes, every few days in some sections. But no vines, not such as you mean. None you could really climb on. Dinosaurs—not today, only long ago, a hundred million years ago. Only birds and mammals and fish and a few small reptiles and not many wild animals, with the human species overrunning the last wilderness areas. Earth is crowded, boy, more crowded than you can imagine. Hundreds, thousands of people per square mile. Even more!"
Flint had heard this before, too, but he allowed for exaggeration. It would be impossible for the land to support more than ten or fifteen people per square mile; the game would all be destroyed by overhunting. He had had experience hunting; he knew the limits. "Why is there such a difference, Shaman? Why isn't Outworld just like Earth, since it was colonized directly from Earth?"
"An excellent question! The experts have wrestled with that one for decades, Flint. The answer is, we don't really know. But we have some educated guesses."
"There must be a reason," Flint said complacently. "There's a reason for everything, as you have told me."
"Reason, yes. Understanding, no. But the prevailing theory—or it was when I left Earth—is called the principle of Temporal Regression, and it applies to all Spheres, not just ours. Earth is civilized, but since our fastest ships can achieve only half light-speed, it takes many years to reach the farther colonies. Vega is twenty-six and a half light-years from Sol, so it takes over fifty years to travel between them, one way. Sirius is within nine light-years of Sol; that's about eighteen years. Even Toliman—it was called Alpha Centuri—was just over four—"
Flint cleared his throat, gently.
The Shaman chuckled ruefully. "I ramble, I know. The point is this: it takes time to communicate between the colonies, so they are always somewhat out of date."
"Not with mattermission," Flint objected.
"Matter transmission is prohibitively expensive. It would be ruinous to transport a single man that way, let alone a factory. So we lack the base for an advanced technology."
"But we should not be more than two hundred years out of date," Flint protested. "Even without mattermission, Etamin is only a hundred and eight light-years from Sol."
"Only! It's Earth's farthest colony! Oh, there are a few men scattered farther out, and quite a few in the Hyades cluster, but those are really alien Spheres."
"There are some aliens here," Flint reminded him. "Polaroids."
"Don't call them that. Polarians. Don't assume they don't know the difference; they're as smart as we are, even though they do have trouble with our mode of speaking." He paused, letting the rebuke sink in. Then: "But they are in our Sphere, subject to our regulations. Just as the few men in Sphere Polaris are subject to Polarian government, according to galactic convention. Such admixture is good; it promotes better understanding between sapient species. We are fortunate that they are so similar to us."
Similar!" Flint snorted. "Know what Chief Strongspear calls them? Dinosaur T—"
"Chief Strongspear is a bigoted lout whose time is getting short. There are qualities in Polarians—and in all sapient aliens—well worthy of your respect. Remember that."
Flint raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I'll be extra nice to the next Pole I meet." Then he caught himself before the Shaman could protest. "Polarian, I mean." Despite his bantering tone, he intended to keep his promise. He was curious about the alien residents anyway.
"To return to your question," the Shaman said. He never lost a thread, no matter how far the conversation might wander. "Why aren't we within two hundred years of Earth, in culture and technology? That is the crux of dissension. There seems to be a cumulative regression, a logarithmic ratio—"
Flint cleared his throat again.
"All right, all right," the Shaman said, more than a tinge of petulance in his tone. "In nontechnical language, it gets worse as you get farther out from the center, unless progressive subcenters develop. Somehow that two hundred year delay multiplies, until—well, Outworld is frankly Paleolithic. Old Stone Age, to you."
"And a good thing," Flint said. "What would I do for a name if there were no stoneworking?"
The Shaman sighed. "What, indeed. Be glad you're not in Castor or Pollux or Capella, with their Victorian cultures and musket diplomacies."
"Why did you come here, Shaman? You had so many worlds to choose from."
The old man gazed at the first faint light of dawn, as mighty Etamin gave herald of his rising. The Shaman's eyesight improved greatly by day. "I suppose it was because of the challenge. Certainly I didn't relish the odds for survival. Only half the freeze-passengers ever make it, you know."
"What happens to the others?" This was new to Flint; he had assumed that all ships got where they were going without a hitch.
"Natural attrition. One ship in four is lost. Either it is struck by a meteor, or goes astray to perish in uncharted space, or its internal systems fail and destroy it. And one body in three, aboard the intact ships, does not revive."
"That's more than half lost," Flint said.
The Shaman smiled. "That is exactly half."
"Uh-uh. You taught me fractions, remember? Find the common denominator, add them up. One in four is three in twelve ships lost; one in three is four in twelve bodies dead. That's seven of twelve dead. More than half."
The old man chuckled. "Bright boy. But you are mistaken, because you have not really found the common denominator. You can't add ships and bodies."
"All right. If one ship in four is lost, all the bodies in it are lost. So that's still one body in four."
"But you are now counting bodies twice. Those in the last ships have to be excluded from the surviving ship tally."
Flint wrestled with that, but the concept was nebulous.
"It will come to you in time," the Shaman said. "The obvious is not always the truth, in mathematics or in life."
"Maybe so," Flint said dubiously. "Either way, it's one hell of a risk."
"I was not really aware of those statistics at the time I volunteered," the Shaman admitted. "And there is nothing very personal about it. It is not like fighting a dinosaur. The journey is like an instant. That's why I was able to leave Earth at age thirty-five and arrive here at thirty-five." He sighed again. "Thirty years ago."
"Another freezer is due soon, isn't it?" Flint asked.
"In a couple of years, yes. They are spaced out about three ships to the century, so that at any given moment half a dozen ships are on their way here, or heading back. In this way there is a steady, if small, supply of educated Earth natives to guide us and see that Outworld progresses. The same is true for all Earth colonies, of course. Otherwise Sol would not be a true Sphere, but just a motley collection of settlements."
"Why didn't my ancestors travel by freezer?" Flint asked. "Then they would all have been Earthborn, and Outworld would have started civilized."
"Well, the survival rate is better in the lifeships. And without the complex, heavy freezing and resuscitation apparatus, twice as many people can be shipped in each vessel. So about three times as many make it to the colony, at a fraction the expense. With a program the size of Earth's, that's a critical saving. In fact, Outworld would not have been colonized at all, without the lifeships. But there is that one disadvantage: in the course of the seven isolated generations the trip takes, much regression takes place, even though books and tapes are available. The spaceborn just don't have the inclination to maintain complex systems of knowledge and rigorous skills that aren't needed aboard the ship itself. And once they emerge on the planet—"
"Who can study dull books when he's fighting a dinosaur?" Flint asked.
"That's about it. So I think we have a complex of reasons for the retardation. It starts in the original colony lifeships, and is not corrected by the freezers, because the majority culture is already set. Perhaps the lowered density of population has something to do with it. As you know, only so many people can survive on a square mile of land by hunting and gathering. Until rising population forces them to change, they take the easy way—and that's what you have here on Outworld. Enjoy it; it will not endure forever."
"You know what I said, when I learned I had been apprenticed to you?" Flint inquired mischievously. "'What? That old fool?'"
The Shaman laughed with him. "Right you were."
But Flint was abruptly serious. "No, I was the fool. You know so much, I can hardly comprehend it even when you tell it straight. But you're always right, when I finally figure it out. Compared to you, I know how stupid I am."
"Never that," the Shaman said. "Ignorant, yes; stupid, no. There's another fundamental distinction for you. I chose you because you were by far the brightest and most talented child in the tribe. You have a peculiar, special intense vitality. I saw real leadership in you, Flint, and I see it yet, stronger with every question you ask. You must work, you must learn, you must not be content like the others, for one day this tribe will be yours."
"But I am no Chief's son!" Flint cried, flattered.
The Shaman seemed not to have heard. "You will have to lead your people out of the Paleolithic, and into the Mesolithic—even the Neolithic, the New Stone Age. Progress is much faster here than it was on Earth, because now the knowledge exists. I have been teaching you to read; the books are here, waiting to teach you more than I have ever known. You can accomplish in a generation what took millennia on Earth. Centuries from now, Outworld will be civilized ..."
Flint let him ramble. He looked through the telescope again, locating Sirius, fainter now with the coming dawn, and then, with special effort, the twin stars of Sol and Toliman. This was his last chance before Etamin blotted them out for the day. Strange to imagine that man had evolved on that far little planet circling that almost invisible star—
"Shaman!" he exclaimed. "Sol's gone!"
The Shaman started, then relaxed. "That would be an eclipse. One of our satellites. With nine moons, these things happen." He paused. "Let me see— that would be Joan. She's the only moon in the Sirius constellation at this hour. I had forgotten."
"You need a memory bank," Flint said, smiling. If there was one thing that grew even longer and clearer with time, it was the old man's memory.
"I need a computer—to figure out all the nine orbits, the patterns of occlusion, so unpredictable by the naked mind. On Earth the early cultures, not far ahead of you, had a computer. A marvelous device. It was made of stone, huge stones, each weighing many tons, set in a monstrous circle. It was called Stonehenge by the later natives. With that, they could accurately track the phases of the sun—Sol sun, I mean—and predict the eclipses by Earth's moon, Luna. It was a monstrous moon."
"A moon covered up the sun?" Flint asked incredulously.
"It happened. Here, the moons are too small and distant. There, its disk appeared to be as large as that of Sol. The ancient astronomers went to extraordinary trouble to chart its cycles."
"Not the way you mean. It is true that there appears to have been a pattern of early artifacts on Earth, prehistoric yet vast. So vast that the evidences of primal civilization went virtually unnoticed for millennia, and only recently have they been appreciated for what they are. They—"
"That is the way I mean!" Flint said, growing excited. "Here on Outworld there are artifacts of Ancients, things we can't understand. Why not the same on Earth?"
"The Earth ancients dated from four or five thousand years ago," the Shaman said indulgently. "The Alien Ancients may date from four or five million years ago. There is no comparison! It's like the common error of putting cavemen and dinosaurs together, because both are prehistoric, when actually—"
Flint burst out laughing. The Shaman seldom made jokes, but when he did, they were beauties. "Cavemen and dinosaurs. It's an error to put them together, all right!"
Excerpted from Cluster by Piers Anthony. Copyright © 2008 Piers Anthony Jacob. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 1, 2013
Too many typos (probably due to uncorrected scanning); this book (and presumably, the whole series) would benefit from a real copy-editing pass to correct the text.
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