Just a few islands in a planetwide ocean, Thalassa was a veritable paradise—home to one of the small colonies founded centuries before by robot Mother Ships when the Sun had gone nova and mankind had fled Earth.
Mesmerized by the beauty of Thalassa and overwhelmed by its vast resources, the colonists lived an idyllic existence, unaware of the monumental evolutionary event slowly taking place between their seas. . . .
Then the Magellan arrived in orbit carrying one million refugees from the last, mad days on Earth. And suddenly uncertainty and change had come to the placid paradise that was Thalassa.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Random House Worlds|
|Product dimensions:||4.18(w) x 6.73(h) x 0.71(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:December 16, 1917
Date of Death:March 19, 2008
Place of Birth:Minehead, Somerset, England
Place of Death:Sri Lanka
Education:1948, King's College, London, first-class honors in Physics and Mathematics
Read an Excerpt
THE BEACH AT TARNA
Even before the boat came through the reef, Mirissa could tell that Brant was angry. The tense attitude of his body as he stood at the wheel — the very fact that he had not left the final passage in Kumar's capable hands — showed that something had upset him.
She left the shade of the palm trees and walked slowly down the beach, the wet sand tugging at her feet. When she reached the water's edge, Kumar was already furling the sail. Her "baby" brother — now almost as tall as she was, and solid muscle — waved to her cheerfully. How often she had wished that Brant shared Kumar's easygoing good nature, which no crisis ever seemed capable of disturbing ...
Brant did not wait for the boat to hit the sand, but jumped into the water while it was still waist deep and came splashing angrily toward her. He was carrying a twisted mass of metal festooned with broken wires and held it up for her inspection.
"Look!" he cried. "They've done it again!"
With his free hand, he waved toward the northern horizon.
"This time — I'm not going to let them get away with it! And the mayor can say what she damn well pleases!"
Mirissa stood aside while the little catamaran, like some primeval sea-beast making its first assault on the dry land, heaved itself slowly up the beach on its spinning outboard rollers. As soon as it was above the high-water line, Kumar stopped the engine and jumped out to join his still-fuming skipper.
"I keep telling Brant," he said, "that it must be an accident — maybe a dragging anchor. After all, why should the Northers do something like this deliberately?"
"I'll tell you," Brant retorted. "Because they're too lazy to work out the technology themselves. Because they're afraid we'll catch too many fish. Because —"
He caught sight of the other's grin and sent the cat's cradle of broken wires spinning in his direction. Kumar caught it effortlessly.
"Anyway — even if it is an accident, they shouldn't be anchoring here. That area's clearly marked on the chart: KEEP OUT — RESEARCH PROJECT. So I'm still going to lodge a protest."
Brant had already recovered his good humor; even his most furious rages seldom lasted more than a few minutes. To keep him in the right mood, Mirissa started to run her fingers down his back and spoke to him in her most soothing voice.
"Did you catch any good fish?"
"Of course not," Kumar answered. "He's only interested in catching statistics — kilograms per kilowatt — that sort of nonsense. Lucky I took my rod. We'll have tuna for dinner."
He reached into the boat and pulled out almost a meter of streamlined power and beauty, its colors fading rapidly, its sightless eyes already glazed in death.
"Don't often get one of these," he said proudly. They were still admiring his prize when History returned to Thalassa, and the simple, carefree world they had known all their young lives came abruptly to its end.
The sign of its passing was written there upon the sky as if a giant hand had drawn a piece of chalk across the blue dome of heaven. Even as they watched, the gleaming vapor trail began to fray at the edges, breaking up into wisps of cloud, until it seemed that a bridge of snow had been thrown from horizon to horizon.
And now a distant thunder was rolling down from the edge of space. It was a sound that Thalassa had not heard for seven hundred years but which any child would recognize at once.
Despite the warmth of the evening, Mirissa shivered and her hand found Brant's. Though his fingers closed about hers, he scarcely seemed to notice; he was still staring at the riven sky.
Even Kumar was subdued, yet he was the first to speak. "One of the colonies must have found us."
Brant shook his head slowly but without much conviction. "Why should they bother? They must have the old maps — they'll know that Thalassa is almost all ocean. It wouldn't make any sense to come here."
"Scientific curiosity?" Mirissa suggested. "To see what's happened to us? I always said we should repair the communications link ..."
This was an old dispute, which was revived every few decades. One day, most people agreed, Thalassa really should rebuild the big dish on East Island, destroyed when Krakan erupted four hundred years ago. But meanwhile there was so much that was more important — or simply more amusing.
"Building a starship's an enormous project," Brant said thoughtfully. "I don't believe that any colony would do it — unless it had to. Like Earth ..."
His voice trailed off into silence. After all these centuries, that was still a hard name to say.
As one person, they turned toward the east, where the swift equatorial night was advancing across the sea.
A few of the brighter stars had already emerged, and just climbing above the palm trees was the unmistakable, compact little group of the Triangle. Its three stars were of almost equal magnitude — but a far more brilliant intruder had once shone, for a few weeks, near the southern tip of the constellation.
Its now-shrunken husk was still visible, in a telescope of moderate power. But no instrument could show the orbiting cinder that had been the planet Earth.CHAPTER 2
THE LITTLE NEUTRAL ONE
More than a thousand years later, a great historian had called the period 1901–2000 "the Century when everything happened." He added that the people of the time would have agreed with him — but for entirely the wrong reasons.
They would have pointed, often with justified pride, to the era's scientific achievements — the conquest of the air, the release of atomic energy, the discovery of the basic principles of life, the electronics and communications revolution, the beginnings of artificial intelligence, and most spectacular of all, the exploration of the solar system and the first landing on the Moon. But as the historian pointed out, with the 20/20 accuracy of hindsight, not one in a thousand would even have heard of the discovery that transcended all these events by threatening to make them utterly irrelevant.
It seemed as harmless, and as far from human affairs, as the fogged photographic plate in Becquerel's laboratory that led, in only fifty years, to the fireball above Hiroshima. Indeed, it was a by-product of that same research and began in equal innocence.
Nature is a very strict accountant and always balances her books. So physicists were extremely puzzled when they discovered certain nuclear reactions in which, after all the fragments were added up, something seemed to be missing on one side of the equation.
Like a bookkeeper hastily replenishing the petty cash to keep one jump ahead of the auditors, the physicists were forced to invent a new particle. And, to account for the discrepancy, it had to be a most peculiar one — with neither mass nor charge, and so fantastically penetrating that it could pass, without noticeable inconvenience, through a wall of lead billions of kilometers thick.
This phantom was given the nickname "neutrino" — neutron plus bambino. There seemed no hope of ever detecting so elusive an entity; but in 1956, by heroic feats of instrumentation, the physicists had caught the first few specimens. It was also a triumph for the theoreticians, who now found their unlikely equations verified.
The world as a whole neither knew nor cared; but the countdown to doomsday had begun.CHAPTER 3
Tarna's local network was never more than ninety-five percent operational — but on the other hand never less than eighty-five percent of it was working at any one time. Like most of the equipment on Thalassa, it had been designed by long-dead geniuses so that catastrophic breakdowns were virtually impossible. Even if many components failed, the system would still continue to function reasonably well until someone was sufficiently exasperated to make repairs.
The engineers called this "graceful degradation"— a phrase that, some cynics had declared, rather accurately described the Lassan way of life.
According to the central computer, the network was now hovering around its normal ninety percent serviceability, and Mayor Waldron would gladly have settled for less. Most of the village had called her during the past half hour, and at least fifty adults and children were milling round in the council chamber — which was more than it could comfortably hold, let alone seat. The quorum for an ordinary meeting was twelve, and it sometimes took draconian measures to collect even that number of warm bodies in one place. The rest of Tarna's five hundred and sixty inhabitants preferred to watch — and vote, if they felt sufficiently interested — in the comfort of their own homes.
There had also been two calls from the provincial governor, one from the president's office, and one from the North Island news service, all making the same completely unnecessary request. Each had received the same short answer: Of course we'll tell you if anything happens ... and thanks for your interest.
Mayor Waldron did not like excitement, and her moderately successful career as a local administrator had been based on avoiding it. Sometimes, of course, that was impossible; her veto would hardly have deflected the hurricane of '09, which — until today — had been the century's most notable event.
"Quiet, everybody!" she cried. "Reena — leave those shells alone — someone went to a lot of trouble arranging them! Time you were in bed, anyway! Billy — off the table! Now!"
The surprising speed with which order was restored showed that, for once, the villagers were anxious to hear what their mayor had to say. She switched off the insistent beeping of her wrist-phone and routed the call to the message center.
"Frankly, I don't know much more than you do — and it's not likely we'll get any more information for several hours. But it certainly was some kind of spacecraft, and it had already reentered — I suppose I should say entered — when it passed over us. Since there's nowhere else for it to go on Thalassa, presumably it will come back to the Three Islands sooner or later. That might take hours if it's going right round the planet."
"Any attempt at radio contact?" somebody asked.
"Yes, but no luck so far."
"Should we even try?" an anxious voice said.
A brief hush fell upon the whole assembly; then Councillor Simmons, Mayor Waldron's chief gadfly, gave a snort of disgust.
"That's ridiculous. Whatever we do, they can find us in about ten minutes. Anyway, they probably know exactly where we are."
"I agree completely with the councillor," Mayor Waldron said, relishing this unusual opportunity. "Any colony ship will certainly have maps of Thalassa. They may be a thousand years old — but they'll show First Landing."
"But suppose — just suppose — that they are aliens?"
The mayor sighed; she thought that thesis had died through sheer exhaustion centuries ago.
"There are no aliens," she said firmly. "At least none intelligent enough to go starfaring. Of course, we can never be one hundred percent certain — but Earth searched for a thousand years with every conceivable instrument."
"There's another possibility," said Mirissa, who was standing with Brant and Kumar near the back of the chamber. Every head turned toward her, but Brant looked slightly annoyed. Despite his love for Mirissa, there were times when he wished that she was not quite so well informed and that her family had not been in charge of the Archives for the last five generations.
"What's that, my dear?"
Now it was Mirissa's turn to be annoyed, though she concealed her irritation. She did not enjoy being condescended to by someone who was not really very intelligent, though undoubtedly shrewd — or perhaps cunning was the better word. The fact that Mayor Waldron was always making eyes at Brant did not bother Mirissa in the least; it merely amused her, and she could even feel a certain sympathy for the older woman.
"It could be another robot seedship, like the one that brought our ancestor's gene patterns to Thalassa."
"But now — so late?"
"Why not? The first seeders could only reach a few percent of light velocity. Earth kept improving them — right up to the time it was destroyed. As the later models were almost ten times faster, the earlier ones were overtaken in a century or so; many of them must still be on the way. Don't you agree, Brant?" Mirissa was always careful to bring him into any discussion and, if possible, to make him think he had originated it. She was well aware of his feelings of inferiority and did not wish to add to them.
Sometimes it was rather lonely being the brightest person in Tarna; although she networked with half a dozen of her mental peers on the Three Islands, she seldom met them in the face-to-face encounters that, even after all these millennia, no communications technology could really match.
"It's an interesting idea," Brant said. "You could be right."
Although history was not his strong point, Brant Falconer had a technician's knowledge of the complex series of events that had led to the colonization of Thalassa. "And what shall we do," he asked, "if it's another seedship, and tries to colonize us all over again? Say, 'Thanks very much, but not today'?" There were a few nervous little laughs; then Councillor Simmons remarked thoughtfully, "I'm sure we could handle a seedship if we had to. And wouldn't its robots be intelligent enough to cancel their program when they saw that the job had already been done?" "Perhaps. But they might think they could do a better one. Anyway, whether it's a relic from Earth or a later model from one of the colonies, it's bound to be a robot of some kind."
There was no need to elaborate; everyone knew the fantastic difficulty and expense of manned interstellar flight. Even though technically possible, it was completely pointless. Robots could do the job a thousand times more cheaply.
"Robot or relic — what are we going to do about it?" one of the villagers demanded.
"It may not be our problem," the mayor said. "Everyone seems to have assumed that it will head for First Landing, but why should it? After all, North Island is much more likely —"
The mayor had often been proved wrong, but never so swiftly. This time the sound that grew in the sky above Tarna was no distant thunder from the ionosphere but the piercing whistle of a low, fast-flying jet. Everyone rushed out of the council chamber in unseemly haste; only the first few were in time to see the blunt-nosed delta-wing eclipsing the stars as it headed purposefully toward the spot still sacred as the last link with Earth.
Mayor Waldron paused briefly to report to central, then joined the others milling around outside.
"Brant — you can get there first. Take the kite."
Tarna's chief mechanical engineer blinked; it was the first time he had ever received so direct an order from the mayor. Then he looked a little abashed.
"A coconut went through the wing a couple of days ago. I've not had time to repair it because of that problem with the fishtraps. Anyway, it's not equipped for night flying."
The mayor gave him a long, hard look.
"I hope my car's working," she said sarcastically.
"Of course," Brant answered, in a hurt voice. "All fueled up, and ready to go."
It was quite unusual for the mayor's car to go anywhere; one could walk the length of Tarna in twenty minutes, and all local transportation of food and equipment was handled by small sandrollers. In seventy years of official service the car had clocked up less than a hundred thousand kilometers and, barring accidents, should still be going strong for at least a century to come.
The Lassans had experimented cheerfully with most vices; but planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumption were not among them. No one could have guessed that the vehicle was older than any of its passengers as it started on the most historic journey it would ever make.CHAPTER 4
No one heard the first tolling of Earth's funeral bell — not even the scientists who made the fatal discovery, far underground, in an abandoned Colorado gold mine.
It was a daring experiment, quite inconceivable before the mid-twentieth century. Once the neutrino had been detected, it was quickly realized that mankind had a new window on the universe. Something so penetrating that it passed through a planet as easily as light through a sheet of glass could be used to look into the hearts of suns.
Especially the Sun. Astronomers were confident that they understood the reactions powering the solar furnace, upon which all life on Earth ultimately depended. At the enormous pressures and temperatures at the Sun's core, hydrogen was fused to helium in a series of reactions that liberated vast amounts of energy. And, as an incidental by-product, neutrinos.
Finding the trillions of tons of matter in their way no more obstacle than a wisp of smoke, those solar neutrinos raced up from their birthplace at the velocity of light. Just two seconds later they emerged into space and spread outward across the universe. However many stars and planets they encountered, most of them would still have evaded capture by the insubstantial ghost of "solid" matter when Time itself came to an end.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Songs of Distant Earth"
Copyright © 1986 Serendib BV.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Beach at Tarna,
2. The Little Neutral One,
3. Village Council,
5. Night Ride,
7. Lords of the Last Days,
8. Remembrance of Love Lost,
9. The Quest for Superspace,
III. SOUTH ISLAND,
10. First Contact,
13. Task Force,
15. Terra Nova,
16. Party Games,
17. Chain of Command,
19. Pretty Polly,
23. Ice Day,
26. Snowflake Rising,
27. Mirror of the Past,
28. The Sunken Forest,
30. Child of Krakan,
V. THE BOUNTY SYNDROME,
37. In Vino Veritas,
39. The Leopard in the Snows,
41. Pillow Talk,
VI. THE FORESTS OF THE SEA,
46. Whatever Gods May Be ...,
VII. AS THE SPARKS FLY UPWARD,
49. Fire on the Reef,
VIII. THE SONGS OF DISTANT EARTH,
50. Shield of Ice,
52. The Songs of Distant Earth,
53. The Golden Mask,
56. Below the Interface,
IX. SAGAN 1WO,
57. The Voices of Time,