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Lost in Transmission
By Wil McCarthy
Spectra Copyright © 2004 Wil McCarthy
All right reserved.
Chapter One no quiet today
"Hold on tight," Radmer says, too late to do any good. The first air pocket comes and goes like a kick on the guts. Whump!
Radmer is old enough more than old enough to remember the fiery slam and tumble of entering a planetary atmosphere from orbit. The howl of plasma, the glow of radiators ... Piercing the atmosphere of Lune is nothing like that. For one thing, he's coming in under four kps, so there is heat but not fire. For another thing his vehicle is not some graceful, gull-winged shuttle, but a crude sphere of brass, navigated by eyeball and sextant and steered with charges of dinite explosive. Inertial stability comes, in theory, from a gyroscope made of a potter's wheel, but Radmer has been too busy steering to kick the thing and wind it up. Beyond the bootside porthole, he can see the world of Lune spinning crazily.
The Squozen Moon: a world crushed and greened and left to its own devices, still in orbit around the pinpoint collapsar of Murdered Earth. Lune is so much smaller than a real planet. More delicate, more precious, and yet the largest by far the largest of the habitable worlds still bathing in the light of Sol.
No longer whispering, the air is dense enough now to sing and screech against the hull of the sphere. But even from this altitude, deep into the atmosphere now, this world looks small and very round. Because it is: barely 1400 kilometers across. The size of a province, an inland sea, a large hurricane. Not quite to human scale, but nearly. Nearly.
In the two-hundred and first decade of the death of the Queendom of Sol, in a space capsule made by armorers and watchmakers and artillerymen, General Emeritus Radmer once the architect Conrad Ethel Mursk is preparing to land in the province of Apenine, in the nation of Imbria, on this tiny world of Lune. Or hoping to, anyway. Where exactly he comes down will make the difference between a warm meal and a ghastly-
With a bump and a screech, the brass sphere hits another air pocket, an eddy in the storms of the upper atmosphere, and Radmer's payload-his most precious of cargoes is thrown hard against its restraints. The capsule whirls. Then there's another bump, and another, even harder one, and the screech of air is louder than ever, and Radmer realizes they're not in the upper atmosphere at all. They've just punched through into the troposphere. Where the weather lives.
The clouds are sparse today in this particular location, but they form a definite deck, a stratum of atmosphere rushing upward with visible speed. As the brass sphere spins down toward it, Radmer cannot help worrying that the rough ride will damage the payload. That would be bad very bad for the course of the war, because this particular payload has cost lives and fortunes to retrieve from the empty tropical paradise of the planette Varna.
"Isn't there a parachute?" the payload asks.
"Not yet, I'm afraid," Radmer answers.
The payload is a human being, yes a man with ancient and critical knowledge about the way things used to work. He is older than Radmer by several hundred years, and looks it. It seems incredible criminal! to subject his wizened frame to this jerking, hammering fall through the sky, but the world of Lune will not save itself. It is up to these ancient men, these Olders, to do what they can.
Radmer cannot pop the parachute because they are still too high, and the air too thin. Even if the chute opened fully, which he's not at all sure it would, the capsule could drift on the trade winds for hundreds of miles. And if they come down outside the borders of Imbria, then Radmer and the payload are in deep shit indeed. But Radmer has got to do something about this tumbling, or when he does open the chute it will foul, and kill them both with even greater certainty. He has landed on streamers before, but in the sheltered environment of a small planette. Lune is a much realer world, unforgiving of error.
"Rip another oxygen candle," he tells the payload, just to keep him busy. Then he leans his own seat forward and begins, finally, kicking the potter's wheel. The thing has wound down completely. It will take fifty kicks just to get the springs engaged. And after that, several minutes of steady kicking, steady spinning, to store the energy of his muscles in the flywheel made by Highrock potters and inserted into the capsule by master clockmaker Orange Mayhew.
Hopefully, by the time Radmer does pop the chute, the inertia of the spinning disc will have stabilized the capsule somewhat. If not, there are other tricks he can try: spinning the hull against the sphere's fixed inner platform, or even God help them popping open the hatch to serve as a kind of fin or rudder.
Dutifully, the payload loosens his harness, leans back his seat, opens the cabinet behind him with hands stretched out behind his head. He finds the steel canister of an oxygen candle, clutches it between his legs, then closes the cabinet and readjusts his seat and straps.
"This is the last of them," the payload says.
"That's fine," Radmer answers distractedly. It doesn't matter. At this point they will either land safely or die, and the freshness of the air will make no difference at all. But the payload pulls the canister's ripcord just the same, then holds on for a minute, feeling for the heat of the iron/chlorate reaction. Then, satisfied, he pulls the old canister out of its niche and places the new one where it sat, pulling down the bracket to hold it in place. Then he leans back, opens the cabinet again, and places the spent canister where the fresh one had sat.
This task requires no great genius to accomplish, but Radmer is relieved by the sight of it nonetheless. The payload can still learn, still reason, still take on and master a new task he has previously only seen. This is good news indeed: he is not one of the indeceased, the Olders whose neural pathways have simply worn out. Over the fifty-seven hours of their voyage and the weeks of preparation that preceded it, Radmer has felt some doubt on this point. The two of them had quickly run out of conversation, and without it the old man retreated into a kind of stupor, simply waiting for something to happen.
But perhaps this was merely patience. One does not live long not this long without patience.
"I may throw up," the payload warns. "I'm not accustomed to this spinning. To any movement, I suppose."
"Go ahead if you must," Radmer says. "But I would rather you watched the ground for glints."
"Of light. The sunlight reflecting from our enemies as they move across the landscape. If it's all the same to you, sir, to the extent that we can steer this tub, I would rather not drop in their midst."
"Hmm. I see."
And perhaps he does. The details of the war seem to slide off him without effect, but the gist of it cannot be too hard to grasp. He leans forward to peer through the porthole.
While the payload is absorbed in this task, Radmer winds the wheel and winds it, and winds it some more. And indeed, the tumbling of the craft has begun to slow, its momentum soaked up by the wheel. He would of course need three wheels, arranged at right angles, to really stabilize the capsule. Or if he had the time, he could reorient the entire ship and soak up angular momentum on each axis singly. But even without any of that, this humble mechanism works surprisingly well. Perhaps the chute will not foul.
"There is a mountain," the payload says.
Radmer looks down, follows the old man's gaze. Indeed, he can make out of the green sprawl of the Aden Plateau in the twirling landscape beneath them as, in a brief flicker of whiteness, the cloud layer comes and goes. The capsule has fallen a long way, tens of thousands of kilometers. Now it is barely a kilometer from the high ground of the plateau, and it truly is time to deploy the parachute. Radmer gathers up the chains that control it, stares out the window for a moment, then yanks hard.
The parachute doors clang open, and the drogue snaps in the breeze for a moment before hauling the orange-and-white silk of the main chute out behind it. Radmer can feel but not see the canopy as it inflates, and the capsule jerks as if caught by something springy. The lines of twisted, vacuum-weakened hemp creak with sudden strain, but decide to hold.
So. Aden Plateau, an uninhabited area, is not where Radmer had intended to land. But things could be worse; the city of Timoch is only twenty-two kilometers beyond the bluff's easternmost edge, so perhaps his navigational abilities or his luck are not as hopeless as he'd feared. Unfortunately, the easterly winds are carrying the capsule to that edge. It appears, in fact, that the capsule will land on the slopes of the plateau, rather than on its flat summit. This is extremely dangerous, because there will be nothing to prevent the capsule from rolling down a sixty-degree slope two kilometers long. Aye, and a battering tumble like that could easily kill the payload, not to mention strange thought Radmer himself.
His steering authority is virtually nil, but with no better prospects at hand, he tugs the chains to pull in one side of the chute, to encourage both a slow curl to the west and a more rapid descent. To race, in effect, against this unlucky wind. The effect is subtle but definite. Using the plateau's eastern watchtower as a reference, he can gauge his change of course and see with considerable relief that it is enough. The capsule will stay clear of the edge, and alight on the plateau's flat upper surface.
Unfortunately, Aden is grassy on top, with no trees or other serious vegetation to cushion their fall. They come down just thirty meters to the west of the tower, and they hit the ground hard with a clang of metal and a whump of dirt and begin rolling at once. The view through the portholes is more confusing than informative as the whirling edge of the precipice looms, as the brass sphere wraps itself up in silk and parachute cords. But again luck seems to favor them: the inner platform remains stable, and with it the men themselves, who don't even get dizzy while the capsule rolls right up against the old watchtower's metal fence. And though the fence groans and falls back in protest, the capsule stops dead, fully ten meters from the drop-off.
They have arrived. Radmer has completed an interplanetary mission. An interplanette mission anyway using little more than a bridge and some pulleys, he and the artisans of Highrock have hurled this capsule at the sky, and then with dinite he's blasted it back off the surface of Varna, the tiny world where the payload lay marooned. And somehow, it all worked. Not quite according to plan, but well enough.
"Sorry," Radmer says, fighting a sudden wash of fatigue. "Welcome to Lune, sir."
"Hmm," the payload answers, peering around him uncertainly. Feeling the crush of gravity again, the insistent tug on limbs and jowls and eyelashes. He flexes an arm experimentally. "It feels ... different."
"What does?" Radmer asks. "The gradient?"
Lune, like Varna, was squozen to the point of Earthlike gravity and no farther. But the radius of Varna is three thousand times smaller; its gravity drops off much more rapidly with altitude. Still, Radmer had never felt that difference, or imagined that it could be felt.
The payload nods, though. "Yes, the gradient. This world is ... large." And since his name Bruno de Towaji is virtually synonymous with the study of gravity, and the interrelationships of gravity with electricity and information, biology and even politics, Radmer is inclined to believe him.
"It's a long time," the payload says, "since I felt the tug of a flat surface. But there's something right and proper about it, isn't there? Now, I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but you must get me outside. I need to stand; I need to breathe."
"As do I," Radmer assures him. Throwing off his harness, he drops to the curved hull beside the payload's chair, grabs the slick brass handle of the hatch, and turns it. There is a sound, not unlike a gasp of surprise, as the inner and outer airs mingle. And then gravity is pulling the hatch inward and down, and daylight floods the sphere's interior with jagged pools of light and shadow.
The capsule is cold inside, and the winter air of Apenine is colder still, though blissfully fresh as it oozes inside, pressed and tugged by a wind which sings against the hull.
"I will precede you," Radmer says to de Towaji. "A standard precaution in time of war; your life is vastly more important than my own."
Amused, the old man snorts. "That remains to be seen, lad. But out with you; I'm right behind."
Stepping out into the cold wind, Radmer stretches and yawns, then groans. Looking up, he sees right away that the watchtower has been ransacked. The enemy's forces do not burn, do not pillage per se, but in their quest for anything made of metal they have torn the tower apart, sundering its floors, scattering and pulverizing its contents. Little remains except the base of the outer shell itself, all cut stone and poured concrete.
"They have been here," he says. "Recently."
"Your enemies?" the payload asks, stepping up beside him to survey the damage.
"Yours now as well," Radmer corrects. "I'm sorry, sir, but they will likely kill you on sight."
"Perhaps," the payload says thoughtfully. "Or perhaps not."
To the east, the city of Timoch is visible in all its glory, a cluster of towers surrounding the Central Lake, with smaller buildings sprawling around it for many kilometers in a starburst of arrow-straight roads. In time, the sprawling, spreading city might have reached the slopes of Aden Plateau itself, had this bitter war not intervened.
Almost ten million people live here. And on Lune, that makes it a big city indeed. "That's the city of Timoch," Radmer says.
But de Towaji isn't even looking. His eyes are to the south. "There are glints of light," he says.
Radmer looks. Damn. The reflections are plainly visible in the midday sun, probably a squad of twenty. Radmer's luck which has held remarkably well up to now has finally run out. But a glance back in de Towaji's direction reveals the old man now studying the sky with that same slack interest.
"Did you lose something up there?" Radmer asks impatiently.
The payload says nothing for a moment and then murmurs, "Such a beautiful day. One forgets what a real sky is supposed to look like, so pale. Why, the horizon is nearly as white as the clouds! And to think, the sky of Earth was paler and brighter still. Terrible about the Earth, isn't it? How I miss that place, that enormous collection of places. Forged by God himself."
Excerpted from Lost in Transmission by Wil McCarthy Copyright © 2004 by Wil McCarthy. Excerpted by permission.
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