The Fleet of Stars
By Anderson, Poul
Tor Science Fiction Copyright © 1998 Anderson, Poul
All right reserved.
In the ancient faith of her people, Amaterasu was the Sun Goddess, from whom flowed the light that gives life. The discoverers of a world far and strange named it for her because they hoped that someday their kind would make it blossom. The explorers that first went there were not human. Nor were the pioneers that followed, but they wrought mightily, until at last this Amaterasu could begin to nurture a people.
One evening about fifty Earth-years later, Anson Guthrie and Demeter Daughter left Port Kestrel, seeking solitude. They could have talked at home, but the news he bore would not let him sit quietly, and she was always glad of open sky. The little town--boats, bridges, brightly colored buildings--soon fell behind them, screened off by its trees except for a slender communications mast. A path took them along a fork of the Lily River, beneath whispery poplars, to the seashore, where it bent south.
Plantations and industry lay northward. Here was parkland, turf starred with dandelions and harebells, down to a strip of sand. Beyond lapped the Azurian Ocean. On several islets grass had taken hold, shivering pale in the wind. The sun had gone so low that haze turned its disk golden-orange. A broken road of brightness ran from it over the wavelets, casting glitter to either side. They were purple in the distance, tawny closer to hand. Here and there swayed dark patches, nativethalassophyte; but overhead, in heights still blue, shone the wings of three gulls.
On the left, hills rolled upward, shadowful, their groves and greennesses drenched with the long light, houses scattered across them, windows shining. Air blew mild, murmurous, not every daytime fragrance departed. To someone newly come from Earth it would have felt mountaintop-thin; but then, weight was only nine-tenths, and besides, to Guthrie, Earth was a remote memory; to Demeter Daughter, scarcely even that. Elsewhere on the fourth planet of Beta Hydri, glaciers reared above deserts where machines and microbes toiled to broaden the domain of life. On this big subtropical island Tamura, Amaterasu Mother had won her victory and reigned in peace.
Or so it had seemed.
Man and woman walked awhile along the shore, silent, before Guthrie cleared his throat. "Well--" he began. It trailed off into the wind.
She regarded him. At forty-one biological years--seventy-two of Earth's--he remained large, burly, vigorously striding; but furrows crossed the rugged features, the once reddish hair tossed scant and white, the eyes had faded from steel to smoke. They squinted ahead of him as keenly as ever, though, and the bass voice had lost no force. In contrast to her graceful, colorful tunic and cloak, sandals on her feet, he wore just a coverall and his battered old hiking boots.
"Is what you have to tell hard for you?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Not exactly." He flashed her half a grin. "Which you must well know, sweetheart," after this lifetime together, and all the centuries and embodiments before. His gaze lingered on her: tall, slim, hazel-eyed, high-cheeked face marked by age mainly in deepening of the amber complexion and graying of the black, shoulder-length hair. "No, I started to speak," he said, "and then suddenlike got to remembering." Another coast, another woman, but she had been very young, a girl, and he was in his first life, a mortal like her, and it was on Earth. "No importe. Before your time."
Her hand closed on his for a moment, as much as sizes allowed. They walked onward. A massive live oak and a garnet-leaved Japanese maple spread their canopies ahead, some meters from the strand. A squirrel scampered up a bole and two crows took flight, hoarsely cawing. "Yon should be a good spot for us," Guthrie suggested.
His companion nodded. "Yes. You can really feel the presence of the Mother here, can't you?"
"Think she'll listen in?"
"Probably not. She has the whole world to look after, and especially now, with the ecological balance in New India crashing--" It was always precarious, when life sought a foothold in realms that had been wholly barren, or that at most held a few tiny, primitive native organisms. Nothing less than an integration of that life itself, globally, through a single awareness, could make it flourish in a span humanly, rather than geologically, meaningful.
He deferred to her intuition. She had, in sense, herself been Demeter Mother. If now, in the flesh, her memories of that existence were dim, fragmentary, like scraps of dream, nevertheless they were a dower of something beyond human ken; and this would be true of every De-meter Daughter, for as long as the race went starfaring.
"Okay, we'll tell her later," Guthrie said, deliberately prosaic. "And everybody else. But I did want you and me to talk first."
They settled down under the oak, side by side, leaning back against its sun-warmed roughness, their vision turned west overseas. Brighter but more distant than Sol from Earth, therefore smaller in heaven, Beta Hydri sank out of sight with a quickness increased by the planet's twenty-hour rotation period. A cloud bank on that horizon burned red and molten gold. The gulls skimmed low, mewing.
"It happened while I was gone, didn't it?" the woman prompted. She had been on the Northland continent, where nature was well-established on the eastern seaboard, visiting one of their sons, his wife, and especially the grandchildren. Guthrie had been too engaged with his latest project, a shipyard, to go along.
"Obviously," he replied.
"A message from Centauri, no?" she asked softly.
"Huh?" he exclaimed, startled. "Did the Mother tell you?"
She shook her head. "I said I don't believe she's been paying close attention to secure places like this. In any case, if she did know but saw you wanted to keep it secret awhile, she would have likewise. You'd have your good reasons."
Reasons that Amaterasu Mother might well appreciate better than he did himself, Guthrie thought. Her vastness and diversity, growing and growing across this world--
As often in the past, the idea flitted through him that the name of his lady should, strictly speaking, be Amaterasu Daughter. Her incarnation, like his and that of every other first-generation colonist, had been the work of the Mother here
. Demeter Mother dwelt light-years hence, back at Alpha Centauri, abiding her doom. But...on that planet, his beloved had first come to being; and in his mind, through every lifetime they might ever share, she would always be Demeter Daughter.
"I was guessing," she went on. "But I do know the general situation." She smiled. "And I've gotten to know you rather well, querido."
The endearment touched his inmost spirit. The Kyra Davis part of her had used it, long and long ago.
He put on gruffness. "You know me too damn well, I sometimes think." He returned her smile. "But I wouldn't swap."
"Nor I," she murmured.
They were silent for a bit. The sunset flared brighter. A flight of cormorants winged across it.
"The news is troublous," she said. He had never quite wanted to ask her whether such occasional turns of speech came from her reading, wider than his despite his being centuries her senior, or from some deeper well-spring.
"Yeah," he admitted. Holding to his own style, as a kind of defense: "Not that we should keep it under the hatch for long--the communication team and now us two, I mean. I swore 'em to secrecy after they'd played it for me, but only till I'd've had a chance to palaver with you. The people have a right to know, and don't they know that!" Rambunctious lot, he thought, as free folk needed to be if they were to stay free.
"But if it's that...critical...shouldn't you have brought in the Mother immediately?"
"I wasn't sure. How much can she have to say about a business like this? You, you're human," in her way, as he in his. Mortal, she had the wisdom of mortality, together with as much of Demeter Mother's as a mere brain could hold. Amaterasu, however--
"You see, this may be more of a problem for us than for the, the gods," he continued awkwardly. "I can't tell how she'll take it. Maybe not even you can. Anyhow, we've been partners for quite a spell, you and me, haven't we?"
"Yes." Quite a spell. In these bodies, brought forth as youthful adults on this world. In the downloads before them, who had helped in the hard early work until a fraction of the planet was ready for flesh and blood, and who before then had made the voyage from Alpha Centauri. In the earlier bodies on Demeter, his built from a genome, hers from two others, an ideal, and a dream. Before then, for hundreds of years, in his first download and in Demeter Mother, whose mind had grown out of the minds of Kyra Davis and Eiko Tamura. Before then, afar on Earth, when his download had worked and fought and hoped together with those two women. And even before then, for into Demeter Mother had also gone his memories of Juliana, the wife of his first lifetime, when he was only a man, born and maturing and dying in the ordinary way.
"Okay," he said. "You're right, we've gotten a message from Centauri," more than a quarter century after it started out. "The Lunarians there, they've heard from Earth--from Sol, at least."
She caught her breath. The sunset light filled suddenly widened eyes. "O-o-oh. Finally, finally," she whispered. "I'd believed that-never--"
"Reckon we all did, huh?" he growled. "Our kind back at Earth, Luna, Mars, swallowed up--or whatever happened to them--taken up by the machines, not interested in us anymore. The Lunarian race maybe extinct, aside from those who moved to Centauri. Someday, someday we might go back and find out, but it's such a long way and we've got so much to do out here."
She seized his arm. "What has happened
"Sorry for rambling. But what we've received is hardly a story, it's more a history, knotted and tangled, and the laser beam conveyed little better than pieces of it, and I don't claim to savvy what the devil's been going on, not really." Guthrie paused, marshaling words. "Well, for openers, five-six hundred Earth-years back, the Lunarians there at Sol found a big, dense asteroid away off in the Kuiper Belt, amongst the comets, you know. They colonized it. Since then, they've been taking possession of other bodies in those frontier orbits."
"Wonderful," she almost sang. Anxiety struck. "But what about...our race?"
"Terrans, they're called these days, whether they live on Earth or not." Guthrie grimaced. "They don't go spacefaring any more, unless you count riding ferries between Earth and Luna, or sometimes Mars. They--" Again he stopped to find words. The wind, already cooling, rustled the leaves above them.
"You realize," he said, "the word is not from any of them but from the Lunarians on that asteroid, Proserpina they call it. They're far from the inner Solar System and, well, there seems to be considerable mutual hostility with the order of things on Earth and her neighbor planets. The message speaks of intelligent machines--sophotects, you may recall is the term--pretty much ruling the roost there. Not that the Terrans are enslaved or anything like that. Contrariwise, is the impression I got. But the smartest sophotects are smarter than they are in more ways than you or 1 could measure, and at the top of the pyramid is something they call the Teramind."
"Something foreseen," she said very low, "perhaps inevitable. The ultimate, awesome intellect....But it's constantly growing, changing, evolving itself further and further--isn't it?"
"Seems like. Bear in mind, the original message was from one set of Lunarians to another, two sets that'd lived four-plus light-years apart and out of touch for centuries. And then the Centaurian Lunarians reworded it, to pass on to us whatever of the information they chose. Not everything by a long shot, I'd guess from the skimpiness of what we've received."
She heard, but her thoughts stayed on course. "The ancestors on Demeter, and your download, and Kyra's and Eiko's--Demeter Mother wasn't in being, not yet--they saw this coming, didn't they? Back when the people in the Solar System stopped transmitting because they claimed they'd grown too different from our kind of humans....But they didn't foresee Proserpina. Nobody could have. The Lunarians at Centauri must be happy about that."
"Yes and no. The Proserpinans themselves aren't happy any longer. At least, one thing that nudged them into trying to reestablish contact, even though they knew Demeter hasn't got much time left, one thing was--the machines, the cybercosm, whatever you call it--the system that rules over Sol's planets in all but name--it never wanted that Proserpina colony. That's what the message says, anyhow. A wild card, a chaos factor, the. long-term consequences unpredictable and uncontrollable. The cybercosm did its best to keep the existence of the asteroid secret; then when the news got out, it tried to discourage migration there; then when that happened regardless, it tried to keep the colony tiny and isolated; and now lately--
"Of course, this is the Proserpinans' side of the story, as filtered through the Lunarians at Centauri. Prejudiced, no doubt. Just the same--"
"Yes?" she urged softly.
"Well, they speak of something new being suppressed, hints of a tremendous discovery made by a solar gravitational lens way out in space, denials of this that don't quite ring true. And when they tried to set up a lens of their own, the effort failed, and they're convinced that it was sabotage."
She frowned. Paranoia was foreign to her. "Need it have been?"
"I suppose not. Still, judging by what we've received, the cybercosm seems quite well-informed about goings-on at Proserpina, distant and lonely though it is." Guthrie did not frown, he scowled, and his tone harshened. "Which does suggest to me that the cybercosm and its people weren't entirely truthful when they broke off communications with us out here, claiming there could be no more shared interests. It could've had its spy robots at Centauri all along. They could be in this system right now, mini jobs we'd likely never detect unless we knew exactly what to scan for." He made a chopping gesture. "Be that as it may, the Proserpinans report they've run surveillance missions through the inner Solar System and found that antimatter production has started up again on Mercury."
"It had ceased?"
"Yes, for a long time, A stable economy, which Earth and Luna had reached, didn't need any energy source so concentrated, and a plentiful reserve was stored in orbit. But now--resumed--Could it be to power c
-ships? The Proserpinans also report detecting signs of what they strongly suspect are spacecraft of some exotic kind, leaving the Solar System at bat-out-of-hell speeds, or once in a while entering it."
She stared into the sunset. It was swiftly losing color, the sky above the clouds going from blue to violet. "We didn't think they ever would, the machines," she breathed.
"Naw," he agreed. "I figured those great minds were too concerned with their fancy mind-games--theory, math, esoteric abstract art forms, contemplating their electrophotonic navels. Maybe I was wrong."
She shivered. "What would, what could it--the, the Teramind--desire?"
"Quien sabe? But if it is setting out to plant cybercosms in the galaxy--then machines can expand their range a lot faster and more thoroughly than life can, you know."
A point of light blinked forth in the west; dusk had advanced enough that Amaterasu's moon had become visible there. Day drowned the weak, fitful gleam of a fifty-kilometer rock, a captured asteroid. Artificial satellites often shone brighter. Guthrie missed Lunalight. He had missed it on Demeter too, but there Alpha Centauri B, the companion sun, blazed brilliant, from two hundred to two thousand times the radiance.
Life missed it worse, he reflected fleetingly. Without a freakishly huge moon like Luna to stabilize it, the spin axis of an otherwise Earthlike planet was apt to wander chaotically, with consequences falling anywhere between a runaway glaciation and a runaway greenhouse. Without something gigantic like Jupiter to deflect smaller bodies, the planet would be subject to relentless bombardment, a KT-type event not every few scores of millions of years, but every few thousand. And the many other parameters that had to be right for the miracle to happen--
No wonder life was so heartbreakingly rare in the universe (in that infinitesimal minim of the universe we know) and intelligence might well have arisen only on Earth out of all creation....Amaterasu, like Demeter and Isis, was extraordinary. There evolution had gotten to photosynthesizing organisms that produced an atmosphere humans could breathe. Yes, ships had also reached Hestia, akin to them, and its fantastic neighbor Bion, but the sun of those two worlds lay far and far....
His Demeter was reproaching him: "You shouldn't say that. Anything that acts, thinks, feels, is aware--it's alive."
He spread his palms. "As you like. A semantic question. I mean organic life, then. Our kind."
"The difference isn't absolute, you know."
Most certainly and deeply he knew. Had he not witnessed the coming into existence of Demeter Mother, and afterward of Amaterasu Mother, while other Guthries were present at the geneses of Isis Mother and Hestia Mother? What but cybernetic technology had allowed the downloading of those patterns that were human personality into organometallic matrices, and their joining to form something immensely more than the sum of them, and its fostering and guidance of nature everywhere around a whole world? "No, no, sure, of course not," he said. "I've been a sort of machine myself, after all. Nevertheless--"
"Need the cybercosm be any threat to us?" she pursued. "Why not a friend? Aren't the humans, the Terrans, on Earth and Luna and Mars happy?"
"Pet animals generally are," he snapped. After a moment: "Sorry. Never mind. The situation's doubtless nothing like that simple. And the Lunarians, those wildcats, it might actually be a good idea to keep 'em curbed. I dunno. Certainly what we've gotten is an edited extract from an original message that must itself be one-sided, tendentious, incomplete, and full of superstitions. We'll have to study it and study it, and then I think we'll still be puzzled."
He paused. The last hues drained from the clouds, and dusk thickened with subtropical haste. She drew her cloak about her against the wind. He ignored it.
"I don't think we can afford puzzlement, though," he said at length. "Not when the stakes are as high as this!"
"The entire universe and future. Yeah, that may be exaggerated. But I don't propose to sit idle waiting for whatever wants to come along."
"What can you do?" She divined his meaning. Dismay moaned, "Oh, no."
He nodded. "You guessed it. I'd better get back there and try to find out."
"Over those distances, into that unknown? Anson, Anson!" She gripped his arm. "Somebody else," she pleaded. "We've plenty of brave men and women."
His tone went gentle. "I am the jefe, darling." She understood full well everything he would say, but he must say it. "We call this a republic, and I've done my damnedest to keep us simply two citizens of it--so have you--but it can't be helped; we are what we are." The eternal hero, the incarnation of the Life Mother. "No decent comandante sends his men into risks he won't take himself."
She rallied. "I should have known it of you. I did. Always I did."
He attempted a laugh, "Anyhow, not me
, you realize. I aim to live out my days here with you, making love and raising Cain till our great-grandchildren finally and with relief scatter our ashes and compose our mendacious obituaries--after which we'll scandalize them afresh in our new bodies."
"A download of you. Yes, that's clear. But he--"
"He won't thank me? He might, sort of. It's bound to be quite an adventure."
"That whole enormous way, alone."
"Not straight to Sol. At the moment, I reckon my--his best bet will be to first go back to Centauri and confer with the Lunarians there. By that time, they should have lots more information."
"But that adds light-years to the journey," she protested. "Even in a c
-ship--" Her voice faltered. "You--he will get to Centauri after Demeter is destroyed."
He winced. "Uh-huh. That hurts. However, the Lunarians should be okay on their asteroids, mostly. In fact, they should be able to outfit my alter ego for the trip on to Sol. He'll arrive in style, loaded for bear."
"Do you mean he'll make that leg in a cruiser? But it will take decades longer!"
"What's a few decades more or less, given the scale of space-time?"
Guthrie was mute for another while. Stars were appearing now in the west as well as the east. Among them he recognized Sol. It glimmered insignificant, about fourth magnitude, near Ursa Minor. Twenty light-years, an abyss denumerable but unimaginable by humans, was too small a reach in the galaxy to affect constellations much. But Polaris was not the lodestar of Amaterasu.
He rose. Light from above, in this clear air, and light cast off the sea were ample to find one's way by. "Let's go home," he proposed.
"I would like some closeness and comfort," she admitted.
"You know," he said, "I can hope that in the end, maybe a hundred years from tonight, my download will come back here and get reborn." He stroked her hair. "And there'll be a you for him."
She tried to speak as cheerfully. "By then he may well find this planet entirely green."
"That's our goal, isn't it?" he said. "What the travel and labor are for. Homes, elbow room, personal gain, yeah, but way down the pike, the object of the game is to make the universe come alive."
Unspoken:--with our kind of life.
Copyright 1997 by The Trigonier Trust Continues...
Excerpted from The Fleet of Stars by Anderson, Poul Copyright © 1998 by Anderson, Poul. Excerpted by permission.
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