The Light of Other Days
By Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen Baxter, Jane Johnson, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2000 Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
All rights reserved.
The Casimir Engine
A little after dawn, Vitaly Keldysh climbed stiffly into his car, engaged the SmartDrive, and let the car sweep him away from the run-down hotel.
The streets of Leninsk were empty, the road surface cracked, many windows boarded up. He remembered how this place had been at its peak, in the 1970s perhaps: a bustling science city with a population of tens of thousands, with schools, cinemas, a swimming pool, a sports stadium, cafés, restaurants and hotels, even its own TV station.
Still, as he passed the main gateway to the north of the city, there was the old blue sign with its white pointing arrow: TO BAIKONUR, still proclaiming that ancient deceptive name. And still, here at the empty heart of Asia, Russian engineers built spaceships and fired them into the sky.
But, he reflected sadly, not for much longer.
The sun rose at last, and banished the stars: all but one, he saw, the brightest of all. It moved with a leisurely but unnatural speed across the southern sky. It was the ruin of the International Space Station: never completed, abandoned in 2010 after the crash of an aging Space Shuttle. But still the Station drifted around the Earth, an unwelcome guest at a party long over.
The landscape beyond the city was barren. He passed a camel standing patiently at the side of the road, a wizened woman beside it dressed in rags. It was a scene he might have encountered any time in the last thousand years, he thought, as if all the great changes, political and technical and social, that had swept across this land had been for nothing. Which was, perhaps, the reality.
But in the gathering sunlight of this spring dawn, the steppe was green and littered with bright yellow flowers. He wound down his window and tried to detect the meadow fragrance he remembered so well; but his nose, ruined by a lifetime of tobacco, let him down. He felt a stab of sadness, as he always did at this time of year. The grass and flowers would soon be gone: the steppe spring was brief, as tragically brief as life itself.
He reached the range.
It was a place of steel towers pointing to the sky, of enormous concrete mounds. The cosmodrome — far vaster than its western competitors — covered thousands of square kilometers of this empty land. Much of it was abandoned now, of course, and the great gantries were rusting slowly in the dry air, or else had been pulled down for scrap — with or without the consent of the authorities.
But this morning there was much activity around one pad. He could see technicians in their protective suits and orange hats scurrying around the great gantry, like faithful at the feet of some immense god.
A voice floated across the steppe from a speaker tower. Gotovnosty dyesyat minut. Ten minutes and counting.
The walk from the car to the viewing stand, short as it was, tired him greatly. He tried to ignore the hammering of his recalcitrant heart, the prickling of sweat over his neck and brow, his gasping breathlessness, the stiff pain that plagued his arm and neck.
As he took his place those already here greeted him. There were the corpulent, complacent men and women who, in this new Russia, moved seamlessly between legitimate authority and murky underworld; and there were young technicians, like all of the new generations rat-faced with the hunger that had plagued his country since the fall of the Soviet Union.
He accepted their greetings, but was happy to sink into isolated anonymity. The men and women of this hard future cared nothing for him and his memories of a better past.
And nor did they care much for what was about to happen here. All their gossip was of events far away: of Hiram Patterson and his wormholes, his promise to make the Earth itself as transparent as glass.
It was very obvious to Vitaly that he was the oldest person here. The last survivor of the old days, perhaps. That thought gave him a certain sour pleasure.
It was, in fact, almost exactly seventy years since the launch of the first Molniya — "lightning" — in 1965. It might have been seventy days, so vivid were the events in Vitaly's mind, when the young army of scientists, rocket engineers, technicians, laborers, cooks, carpenters and masons had come to this unpromising steppe and — living in huts and tents, alternately baking and freezing, armed with little but their dedication and Korolev's genius — had built and launched mankind's first spaceships.
The design of the Molniya satellites had been utterly ingenious. Korolev's great boosters were incapable of launching a satellite to geosynchronous orbit, that high radius where the station would hover above a fixed point on Earth's surface. So Korolev launched his satellites on elliptical eight-hour trajectories. With such orbits, carefully chosen, three Molniyas could provide coverage for most of the Soviet Union. For decades the U.S.S.R. and then Russia had maintained constellations of Molniyas in their eccentric orbits, providing the great, sprawling country with essential social and economic unity.
Vitaly regarded the Molniya comsats as Korolev's greatest achievement, outshining even the Designer's accomplishments in launching robots and humans into space, touching Mars and Venus, even — so nearly — beating the Americans to the Moon.
But now, perhaps, the need for those marvelous birds was dying at last.
The great launch tower rolled back, and the last power umbilicals fell away, writhing slowly like fat black snakes. The slim form of the booster itself was revealed, a needle shape with the baroque fluting typical of Korolev's antique, marvelous, utterly reliable designs. Although the sun was now high in the sky, the rocket was bathed in brilliant artificial light, wreathed in vapor breathed by the mass of cryogenic fuels in its tanks.
Tri. Dva. Odin. Zashiganiye!
As Kate Manzoni approached the OurWorld campus, she wondered if she had contrived to be a little more than fashionably just-late-enough for this spectacular event, so brightly was the Washington State sky painted by Hiram Patterson's light show.
Small planes crisscrossed the sky, maintaining a layer of (no doubt environmentally friendly) dust on which the lasers painted virtual images of a turning Earth. Every few seconds the globe turned transparent, to reveal the familiar OurWorld corporate logo embedded in its core. It was all utterly tacky, of course, and it only served to obscure the real beauty of the tall, clear night sky.
She opaqued the car's roof, and found afterimages drifting across her vision.
A drone hovered outside the car. It was another Earth globe, slowly spinning, and when it spoke its voice was smooth, utterly synthetic, devoid of emotion. "This way, Ms. Manzoni."
"Just a moment." She whispered, "Search Engine. Mirror."
An image of herself crystallized in the middle of her field of vision, disconcertingly overlaying the spinning drone. She checked her dress front and back, turned on the programmable tattoos that adorned her shoulders, and tucked stray wisps of hair back where they should be. The self-image, synthesized from feeds from the car's cameras and relayed to her retinal implants, was a little grainy and prone to break up into blocky pixels if she moved too quickly, but that was a limitation of her old-fashioned sense-organ implant technology she was prepared to accept. Better she suffer a little fuzziness than let some cack-handed CNS-augment surgeon open up her skull.
When she was ready she dismissed the image and clambered out of the car, as gracefully as she could manage in her ludicrously tight and impractical dress.
OurWorld's campus turned out to be a carpet of neat grass quadrangles separating three-story office buildings, fat, top-heavy boxes of blue glass held up by skinny little beams of reinforced concrete. It was ugly and quaint, 1990s corporate chic. The bottom story of each building was an open car lot, in one of which her car had parked itself.
She joined a river of people that flowed into the campus cafeteria, drones bobbing over their heads.
The cafeteria was a showpiece, a spectacular multilevel glass cylinder built around a chunk of bona fide graffiti-laden Berlin Wall. There was, bizarrely, a stream running right through the middle of the hall, with little stone bridges spanning it. Tonight perhaps a thousand guests milled across the glassy floor, groups of them coalescing and dispersing, a cloud of conversation bubbling around them.
Heads turned toward her, some in recognition, and some — male and female alike — with frankly lustful calculation.
She picked out face after face, repeated shocks of recognition startling her. There were presidents, dictators, royalty, powers in industry and finance, and the usual scattering of celebrities from movies and music and the other arts. She didn't spot President Juarez herself, but several of her cabinet were here. Hiram had gathered quite a crowd for his latest spectacle, she conceded.
Of course she knew she wasn't here herself solely for her glittering journalistic talent or conversational skills, but for her own combination of beauty and the minor celebrity that had followed her exposure of the Wormwood discovery. But that was an angle she'd been happy to exploit herself ever since her big break.
Drones floated overhead, bearing canapés and drinks. She accepted a cocktail. Some of the drones carried images from one or another of Hiram's channels. The images were mostly ignored in the excitement, even the most spectacular — here was one, for example, bearing the image of a space rocket on the point of being launched, evidently from some dusty steppe in Asia — but she couldn't deny that the cumulative effect of all this technology was impressive, as if reinforcing Hiram's famous boast that OurWorld's mission was to inform a planet.
She gravitated toward one of the larger knots of people nearby, trying to see who, or what, was the center of attention. She made out a slim young man with dark hair, a walrus mustache and round glasses, wearing a rather absurd pantomime-soldier uniform of bright lime green with scarlet piping. He seemed to be holding a brass musical instrument, perhaps a euphonium. She recognized him, of course, and as soon as she did so she lost interest. Just a virtual. She began to survey the crowd around him, observing their childlike fascination with this simulacrum of a long-dead, saintly celebrity.
One older man was regarding her a little too closely. His eyes were odd, an unnaturally pale gray. She wondered if he had possession of the new breed of retinal implants that were rumored — by operating at millimeter wavelengths, at which textiles were transparent, and with a little subtle image enhancement — to enable the wearer to see through clothes. He took a tentative step toward her, and orthotic aids, his invisible walking machine, whirred stiffly.
Kate turned away.
"... He's only a virtual, I'm afraid. Our young sergeant over there, that is. Like his three companions, who are likewise scattered around the room. Even my father's grasp doesn't yet extend to resurrecting the dead. But of course you knew that."
The voice in her ear had made her jump. She turned, and found herself looking into the face of a young man: perhaps twenty-five, jet-black hair, a proud Roman nose, a chin with a cleft to die for. His mixed ancestry told in the pale brown of his skin, the heavy black brows over startling, cloudy blue eyes. But his gaze roamed, restlessly, even in these first few seconds of meeting her, as if he had trouble maintaining eye contact.
He said, "You're staring at me."
She came out fighting. "Well, you startled me. Anyhow I know who you are." This was Bobby Patterson, Hiram's only son and heir — and a notorious sexual predator. She wondered how many other unaccompanied women this man had targeted tonight.
"And I know you, Ms. Manzoni. Or can I call you Kate?"
"You may as well. I call your father Hiram, as everyone does, though I've never met him."
"Do you want to? I could arrange it."
"I'm sure you could."
He studied her a little more closely now, evidently enjoying the gentle verbal duel. "You know, I could have guessed you were a journalist — a writer, anyhow. The way you were watching the people reacting to the virtual, rather than the virtual itself ... I saw your pieces on the Wormwood, of course. You made quite a splash."
"Not as much as the real thing will when it hits the Pacific on May 27, 2534 A.D."
He smiled, and his teeth were like rows of pearls. "You intrigue me, Kate Manzoni," he said. "You're accessing the Search Engine right now, aren't you? You're asking it about me."
"No." She was annoyed by the suggestion. "I'm a journalist. I don't need a memory crutch."
"I do, evidently. I remembered your face, your story, but not your name. Are you offended?"
She bristled. "Why should I be? As a matter of fact —"
"As a matter of fact, I smell a little sexual chemistry in the air. Am I right?"
There was a heavy arm around her shoulder, a powerful scent of cheap cologne. It was Hiram Patterson himself: one of the most famous people on the planet.
Bobby grinned and, gently, pushed his father's arm away. "Dad, you're embarrassing me again."
"Oh, bugger that. Life's too short, isn't it?" Hiram's accent bore strong traces of his origins, the long, nasal vowels of Norfolk, England. He was very like his son, but darker, bald with a fringe of wiry black hair around his head; his eyes were intense blue over that prominent family nose, and he grinned easily, showing teeth stained by nicotine. He looked energetic, younger than his late sixties. "Ms. Manzoni, I'm a great admirer of your work. And may I say you look terrific."
"Which is why I'm here, no doubt."
He laughed, pleased. "Well, that too. But I did want to be sure there was one intelligent person in among the air-head politicos and pretty-pretties who crowd out these events. Somebody who would be able to record this moment of history."
"No, you're not," Hiram said bluntly. "You're being ironic. You've heard the buzz about what I'm going to say tonight. You probably even generated some of it yourself. You think I'm a megalomaniac nutcase —"
"I don't think I'd say that. What I see is a man with a new gadget. Hiram, do you really believe a gadget can change the world?"
"But gadgets do, you know! Once it was the wheel, agriculture, iron-making — inventions that took thousands of years to spread around the planet. But now it takes a generation or less. Think about the car, the television. When I was a kid computers were giant walk-in wardrobes served by a priesthood with punch cards. Now we all spend half our lives plugged into SoftScreens. And my gadget is going to top them all. ... Well. You'll have to decide for yourself." He studied Kate. "Enjoy tonight. If this young waster hasn't invited you already, come to dinner, and we'll show you more, as much as you want to see. I mean it. Talk to one of the drones. Now, do excuse me...." Hiram squeezed her shoulders briefly, then began to make his way through the crowd, smiling and waving and glad-handing as he went.
Kate took a deep breath. "I feel as if a bomb just went off."
Bobby laughed. "He does have that effect. By the way —"
"I was going to ask you anyhow before the old fool jumped in. Come have dinner. And maybe we can have a little fun, get to know each other better ..."
As his patter continued, she tuned him out and focused on what she knew about Hiram Patterson and OurWorld.
Hiram Patterson — born Hirdamani Patel — had dragged himself out of impoverished origins in the fen country of eastern England, a land which had now disappeared beneath the encroaching North Sea. He had made his first fortune by using Japanese cloning technologies to manufacture ingredients for traditional medicines once made from the bodies of tigers — whiskers, paws, claws, even bones — and exporting them to Chinese communities around the world. That had gained him notoriety: brickbats for using advanced technology to serve such primitive needs, praise for reducing the pressure on the remaining populations of tigers in India, China, Russia, and Indonesia. (Not that there were any tigers left now anyhow.)
After that Hiram had diversified. He had developed the world's first successful SoftScreen, a flexible image system based on polymer pixels capable of emitting multicolored light. With the success of the SoftScreen Hiram began to grow seriously rich. Soon his corporation, OurWorld, had become a powerhouse in advanced technologies, broadcasting, news, sport and entertainment. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen Baxter, Jane Johnson, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2000 Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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