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COBWEBS IN THE SKY
2160.8.17 Standard Mission Time 10 July, 2163U.T.
Peter Alander looked down at his handiwork with something approaching a smile, imagining what it would be like to have his first bath in over a hundred years.
It would be hot, for starters. He would make sure of that. Disabling the temperature receptors in his skin and rugging up against the subzero chill just wasn't the same thing as being warm right through.
At the end of the bath he would be clean—really clean. Although nanos were supposed to take care of that, their efforts were ineffective at best. They left his face feeling oily and his joints gritty. The combination was unpleasant; every time he rubbed his eyes, he felt as though they were being sandpapered.
His body wasn't meant to need cleaning or heating, but that didn't stop his desire for it. Even though technically he had never experienced either before, he still missed them, nonetheless.
Finally, the bath would be peaceful.
He bent to check the seals one last time.
"You really are crazy," said a voice from over his shoulder.
He didn't need to turn to know who the voice belonged to. "Here to gloat, are you, Cleo?"
Cleo Samson, the mission's organic chemist, laughed softly. "You should know me better than that, Peter." Her voice was like rocks tumbling down a hillside: all rough edges and bass, with a promise of trouble. "I'm here to applaud your efforts."
"Even while declaring them worthless, no doubt."
He reached over to switch on the heater coil and glanced up at her. "Look, Cleo, why don't you do us both a favor and—"
"I'm not interested in doing anyone a favor." She stood on the edge of the overhang with her arms folded, watching him work. As usual, she hadn't gone to the trouble of blending in: her blond hair didn't reflect the purple of the sky, she didn't cast a shadow, and he could see part of the far canyon wall through her silver jumpsuit. She was ghostly, anachronistic.
"That doesn't surprise me." He didn't hide the irritation in his voice.
He nodded. "Really."
He watched as she unfolded her arms and walked around the edge of the overhang. The camp was cluttered, confined as it was to a narrow ledge on the wall of the 5,000-kilometer-long canyon he was supposed to be exploring. The flaps of his shelter rustled in a breeze that he knew she didn't have the physical form to actually feel, yet when she came up to him and put one hand on his shoulder, he clearly felt the pressure of her fingers through his environment suit.
He brushed her hand away—or tried to, at least. His hand went completely through her forearm. But it had the effect he wanted. She pulled back, and the false sensation of her touch faded.
"Leave me alone," he said, turning back to his work. The element was hot; he could smell burning carbon compounds coming off the coil. Reaching for one end of a thick, black hose lying nearby, he lifted it over the edge of the bath and made sure it was secure.
"Is that really what you want, Peter? To be left alone?"
"I wouldn't have asked if I didn't."
"What about Lucia?"
"What about her?"
"Would you choose solitude over her company?"
"What sort of stupid question is that? I can't have her, so what's the point of—?"
"Wishing?" she cut in quickly, smiling. "We all wish, Peter. It's very much a human quality."
"Listen, Cleo," he said as firmly as he could. Too much talking dried out his throat, but he refused to use the other options unless he had to. "I need time to work things out. So if you could just let me have that, if you'll just let me be, everything will work out for the best, I'm sure."
"And when Caryl notices?"
He didn't need to look up to know that she was referring to the bath. "To hell with Caryl."
He could feel a heat on his neck and back, as though she was standing close behind him. "Don't do anything too hasty, Peter."
When he turned to reply—to tell her that, hasty or not, at least he was finally doing something—she had already gone.
* * *
Cleo Samson always had to have the last word. Alander knew that, but still it rankled. They were all the same, up in the Tipler. That was the problem with traveling in a group of experts: everyone knew best; no one wanted to compromise. They all needed someone they felt they could dominate, control, bully, and it was starting to feel that he was that someone. It had been too long since he had been one of them.
Within moments of Samson leaving, his thoughts were back on nothing more deliberately complex or malicious than the water for his bath. The black hose led to the compound's storage tank, a 10,000-liter aluminum drum one third full of hard-won moisture. Vapor condensers had sucked at the parched air for days to gain that small amount for use as reaction mass the next time the shuttle visited. His instructions were simply to watch out for leaks in the tank and make sure it didn't overflow; no one had mentioned anything about taking a bath in it. Then again, he reasoned, nobody had forbidden him from doing it, either. He would scrub the water clean afterward so no damage would be done. Of course, Caryl Hatzis, SMC of the survey mission, might not see it that way. But that was a risk he was prepared to take.
The water coming out of the hose was steaming hot. He would lose a little back to the air, but not much. As he waited for the bath to fill, he stripped out of his environment suit and stood naked under the alien sky. The sun was riding high above him, visible as a bright orange patch in the perpetual cloud cover. The steep-walled canyon allowed him barely an hour of relatively direct light; the rest of the time he had to content himself with the purple haze of an Adrasteian day.
As soon as the water reached a decimeter above the bottom of the makeshift bath, he eased himself over the edge and into it. He crouched in the heat, balanced on his toes, splashing himself and enjoying the feel of the fluid against his new limbs. His skin looked purple in the light, and he couldn't be sure that wasn't actually the case. It wasn't human tissue, strictly speaking, although it was built from the human genome. The major veins were wider, more regular in angle and placement; his fingernails were nearly transparent and grew barely a millimeter a month; he had no hair at all. Yet he had genitals not dissimilar to the ones he was used to, and his face by reflection looked vaguely familiar. But then, the familiar in such an unfamiliar context seemed twice as alien.
He breathed in deeply and tasted the steam at the back of his throat. He allowed himself to relax back into the warmth, to let it embrace him. Lulled by the sound of trickling water, he closed his eyes and tried not to think.
As always, the memory surfaced. It was date-stamped 2049.9.29 Mission Time—the twenty-sixth of November on the old calendar—and covered the night before the first of the engrams were activated. He and Lucia Benck had been in her quarters at Entrainment Camp, discussing, like most people had been that night, what lay ahead.
"If not for us, then for who?" he had asked her. "Or whom? I can never remember which."
Her smile widened. The room's lights were doing a fair job of simulating candlelight; by it her skin was honey warm and smooth. Golden highlights in her dark hair glittered. Her eyes were deep brown and restless.
"It won't be us, Peter," she said. "And yet it will be. I try not to get tangled in the metaphysics of it all. I just prepare as well as I can in order to prepare each of them. I don't want to let anyone down, least of all myself."
"But you won't be one of them."
"No." Her brow creased slightly. "And neither will you. There's no way the program could afford to send even one of our bodies. We weigh too much; we sleep and eat too much; we get bored too easily—"
"I know, I know." He rolled onto his back; in the memory, his point of view shifted to show the ceiling. Her face followed him, coming back into sight closer than before as she rolled to lie next to him.
"We'll still be here," she said. "And that bothers me."
"It does?" His voice held surprise, although the memory captured none of the emotion.
"Of course. I want to be one of them, Peter ... out there, exploring, seeing things no one else has ever seen before." She shrugged lightly. "How could I not want that? I thought you did, too."
"Exploring, yes." He hesitated. "But not just to sightsee. I want to find answers, explanations for the things we still don't understand."
"Knowledge is the payoff," she said, "by which people like me have justified the entire program. I think the tourists outnumber the truth seekers, don't you?"
"Undoubtedly. And the truth seekers are happy to go along for the ride."
They had kissed then. Their relationship was still fresh enough for the experience to be a novelty but didn't have the desperate edge it once had. They were content to pull apart after a moment, albeit not very far.
"The question is: Where do we go from here?" She looked serious again, thoughtful. "While the engrams go off into space to visit a thousand different suns, what are we going to do? Do we carry on as we always did before we joined the program? Pretend that none of this has changed us? Will we ever know what our copies do or see? How do we kill time until we find out? What if one of them dies ... or we die? Are we immortal, or are we destined to die a thousand times?"
"I thought you said you weren't getting tangled in the metaphysics."
"I said I was trying not to." A wave of her hand encompassed everything: the room, UNESSPRO, Earth, the bubble of space 100 light-years wide that humanity was hoping to fill. "The engrams wake tomorrow. In a year, most of them will be gone. Then it's back to just us. You and me and Donald and Jene and Chrys and the others. We're the Viking widows waving off our husbands to be swallowed by the sea. Except they're not our husbands ... or wives or friends or anyone, for that matter. They're us."
"They're not really us, Lucia. They're just copies."
"I'm sure they won't take too kindly to you saying that, Peter," she said. "Remember, this conversation is being recorded for your copies' memories, and they'll think they're real enough."
The original Peter Alander had smiled broadly. "At this point in time, I don't particularly care to have a debate about whether or not they are real. Right here in this moment, Lucia, you and I are real, and nothing else matters to me right now. I don't even care that we're being recorded."
Her smile echoed his. "Just as long as it doesn't find its way into the public domain, right?"
They kissed again—and there the memory ended. He could have played the rest, but he preferred not to. It felt like pornography: distant and cold, as though it had happened to someone else. In a very real sense, it had. He was as far removed from that person called Peter Alander as he was from Lucia Benck. The send-off those two people had given their copies back on Earth, a century ago, was their business, not his.
But the memory kept surfacing and with it the words of his original: If not for us, then for whom?
The water was up to his waist and scalding him. He forced himself to reach out of the bath to turn down the current flowing through the heating coil. The air on his buttocks was icy; he sank gratefully back into the heat, stretching out his legs so they became completely immersed. The water continued to trickle into the bath unchecked; he would stop it when it was up to his chest. He hitched the back of his skull onto the lip of the bath behind him so he could recline without slipping down any farther, and stared up at the purple gray clouds for a long while, looking for patterns but finding none.
One hundred years, one month, and eighteen days—or so it had been according to Earth, by the new calendar. For those aboard the Frank Tipler, traveling at 80 percent of the speed of light, time had passed relatively quickly. Just forty-two years, three months, and three days had elapsed since leaving Sol when the survey vessel finished deceleration and arrived in orbit around Upsilon Aquarius, a greenish star over seventy-two light-years from Earth. It had seven planets: three gas giants (none of them close to Jupiter in mass); three inner, terrestrial worlds; and one distant mass straddling the divide between planet and planetismal, much as Pluto did back home. Of the inner worlds, one was too close to the sun—airless and boiling—and one was too far away—similarly airless, but icy instead. The third, sandwiched between the two extremes, was the source of the oxygen and water spectra detected from the interferometers around Sol. But it was no Earth, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Adrasteia was small, dense, and rugged, bombarded by rubble left over from its evolution and at the mercy of severe plate tectonics. Its atmosphere was substantial enough to give rise to dramatic pressure differentials: At the bottom of the canyon Alander inhabited, the air was far too dense to be comfortable, while at the top of the nearest peak it might as well have been a vacuum. The average temperature was below the freezing point of water, and what little oxygen existed was mostly generated by cyanobacteria sharing the air with the clouds above—clouds trapped in warmer atmospheric layers and never yielding rain. Apart from the clouds, the planet's main water reserves lay underground. It probably wouldn't be that way forever—or even for long, if the terraformers got their way—but for now, the only remotely habitable planet around Upsilon Aquarius was proving to be a pain in the ass. Certainly nothing as wonderful as his original self must have imagined it would be.
But there was life of a kind. Apart from faint hints in the deep equatorial basins some of his fellow surveyors were exploring, the cyanobacteria in the clouds proved once and for all that such life could evolve independently on another world. There was no way they could have come from Earth, as did, some skeptics still believed, those found on Mars and Io. And the fact that they were little different from the ones back home added credence to the original Peter Alander's theories concerning the origins of life in the universe, not to mention why there were no aliens waiting to greet the survey teams when they arrived.
His original would have been pleased, that was for sure. The Adrasteian cyanobacteria had never evolved into anything terribly sophisticated. There seemed to be no reason why they shouldn't have, though; conditions here were not fundamentally dissimilar to those that existed on Earth, Mars, or Europa. Adrasteian life-forms hadn't evolved any further, his original would have argued, because the odds were stacked so far against such a thing happening that it shouldn't happen even once in the lifetime of the universe. In fact, life should not have evolved at all, even to the level of bacteria.
The fact that it had evolved suggested otherwise, unless one viewed the early universe as a massive quantum computer, a near-infinite number of parallel universes engaged in incomprehensible "computations" from the moment of its creation—smashing elements together, creating new compounds and smashing those together in turn—until something appeared that could be called alive. This unicellular life wasn't conscious, but it appeared and flourished everywhere, on numerous worlds, multiplying and evolving in the strange, uncollapsed place that was the unobserved universe.
The moment consciousness occurred, though, down one of those possible reality paths, the collapse occurred. The universe, observed, could no longer nurture the conditions required to parallel-process bacteria to consciousness. Once just one being saw, it robbed all other life-forms of the chance to evolve. Rapid evolution stopped in its tracks, confined as the universe now was to just one track at a time. Even with a near-infinite number of stars in the universe, the odds shrank to almost zero that other conscious life-forms would emerge from primitive organisms, since it was too unlikely to happen in a single universe, and thus the majority of worlds humans surveyed would be inhabited by nothing more exciting than bacterial sludge that had evolved in the past.
Excerpted from Echoes of Earth by Sean Williams, Shane Dix. Copyright © 2002 Sean Williams and Shane Dix. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted July 9, 2007
You will be stunned. The personalities are real, flawed, and engage your hopes, and your anger at their failings. The story line is astoundingly complex, and intellectually challenging. The varying levels of scientific sophistication in the several human and alien civilizations challenge the mind, and are based on plausible and sober projections of known trends in science. I was just flabbergasted to find such sophistication in a science fiction novel. The much touted 'Foundation' trilogy, by Azimov, is intellectually thin, with wooden character development, in comparison with the plot, personalities, and layers of conflict, doubt, and confusion to which the protagonists in Echoes of Earth must react. There is no puerile Hollywood ending. Read this for realistic (plausible) projections of future science, human evolution, and a rip-roaring mystery. Goodness me. What a book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 28, 2004
I just finished reading 'Orphans of Earth', the second in this series and after both books asked myself, 'Why?' Why would Williams & Dix, two of my preferred authors, write such disappointing junk? I have certainly enjoyed their books in the past. I read a lot of science fiction and these books are not IMHO up to the standards the authors have set for themselves in the past. Why would I continue to read these books? In hind sight I should have quit when I first commented to my wife that I felt like I was wasting my time. The potential was there but this series just doesn't deliver. There are too many really good books to read with too little reading time available to wade through this kind of stuff. I see there is a third one now ...NO WAY!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 19, 2002
The authors have created a spellbinding tale that draws you into the characters quickly and deeply. The plot is crafted in such a way as to lead you to conclusions that make the true outcome even more enjoyable. And the ending is complete enough to give closure, yet open enough to see many future possibilities. Truly an outstanding read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.