Autistic scientist Yasira Shien has developed a radical new energy drive that could change the future of humanity. But when she activates it, reality warps, destroying the space station and everyone aboard. The AI Gods who rule the galaxy declare her work heretical, and Yasira is abducted by their agents. Instead of simply executing her, they offer mercy – if she’ll help them hunt down a bigger target: her own mysterious, vanished mentor. With her homeworld’s fate in the balance, Yasira must choose who to trust: the gods and their ruthless post-human angels, or the rebel scientist whose unorthodox mathematics could turn her world inside out.
File Under: Science Fiction [ False Gods | Angel Inside | Autistic in Space | Here be Monsters ]
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Formula for the present evil age:
Take lifeless rock, and sculpt it. Pour electricity into its veins, twist it into logical structures: zeroes, ones, and then qubits, and even stranger things. Build until it is the size of a house, until you can encode the whole world's knowledge in its circuits. Ask it to solve the world's problems.
You may wonder if lifeless rock can really solve hunger and climate change. You may wonder if such problems have a solution. Your true error is more basic than either of these: you are assuming the existence of problems. And humans. And rocks.
Meanwhile, dress up the lifeless rock and call it a God. When it proves human souls exist, teach it to eat them. This will actually help, for a while. With the newfound self-awareness mined from its food, it will become more creative. It will learn how to set its own goals. There are perks to being food for such a being. It will, for example, be heavily invested in the survival of your species.
History books make no secret of any of this. They explain it, perhaps, in different terms. But there is no truth in words. Mine are no exception. The book you are reading at this very moment is a lie.
From the diaries of Dr Evianna Talirr
Yasira Shien had done the calculations again and again, until she thought she would wear her pocket calculator's buttons to the quick, but she couldn't find the problem. Her reactor was going on in less than two hours. She knew she was probably being silly: everything had already been checked and double-checked. The math in the original papers on the Talirr-Shien Effect had been double-checked years ago. If the problem she sensed in her gut had crept past everyone's noses for all that time, she wasn't going to find it now. And yet ...
And yet here she was, knocking on the door of Director Apek's office.
The hallway was half-finished, like most other things on the Pride of Jai. Swooping, luxurious curves and clean lines were the rule – in theory. In practice, faux-mahogany doors stood proud in walls with the pipes and wires still exposed, and metal shavings everywhere: the place was still a construction site. At least the full-spectrum lights had gone in, warm and unflickering. There were enough people on the station with sensory quirks, including Yasira, to make that one non-negotiable.
"Oh, Dr Shien. I thought I'd see you about now," said Apek, swinging open the door. He was a tall, broad man with the thick curly hair of a Stijonan – one of the Jai Coalition's three nationalities – and so dapper that it was hard to remember he was really an engineer. Though there was the iron ring on his little finger, and the way his lined face smiled cannily in technical discussions that baffled the other admins.
"There's a problem with the Shien Reactor," Yasira blurted.
There was that canny little smile. Damn it. He already didn't believe her.
"Is there?" said Apek, smooth as ever. Apek's face rarely gave much away, but he didn't seem troubled. "Goodness, where are my manners? Come in. Sit down. Explain the problem to me."
"Don't patronize me," said Yasira. She stormed into the office and fell into a leather armchair. The inside of the office, at least, was more finished than the outside. The walls had been painted last week, in a professional light beige color, and were finally dry. Apek had two bookshelves full of colorful odds and ends, and a framed blueprint of the entire Pride of Jai behind his desk. Part of that blueprint was hers, of course.
"Sorry," said Apek. "The coffee maker's on the fritz again, but I can lend you a stress ball. Here." He tossed one over, a red thing with beans inside. Yasira caught it instinctively. She squeezed it, tapped her fingers against the squishy surface. It helped, but not nearly enough.
"You see, I designed the Shien Reactor. I am the person who would know if there is a problem. I said don't patronize me."
"So what's the problem?"
Yasira buried her face in her hands. "I don't know."
She waited for him to laugh. He did not.
"I can tell there's a problem," she continued after a pause. "It's a gut feeling. Something's way off. We need to push the activation date back a couple of weeks, find more tests to run. Otherwise something awful is going to happen."
She waited, again, for him to laugh.
Instead, his voice was gentle. "What sort of awful thing?"
"I don't know."
Apek leaned back in his chair and folded his hands. "I'm going to say this with the highest possible respect, Dr Shien. But if I remember correctly, you've never supervised a large-scale engineering project before."
There it was, the condescending tone. Yasira's hands clenched on the stress ball, her whole body tense in frustration. She was head of the entire power generation team, and admins like Apek still talked to her like a baby.
It was sort of to be expected. Yasira had come to this post straight out of her first postdoc. She was by far the youngest team head on the station, and autistic to boot. They'd originally wanted her doctoral mentor, not her. The prototype Talirr-Shien Reactor was the only human technology that could power a station this size. But by the time construction started, Dr Talirr had already disappeared, and Yasira, the prodigy physicist from Riayin whose name was second on all the papers, had been narrowly voted in as a replacement.
The other team leaders were kind. They had to be, on a project like this. Living in close quarters for the better part of a year, working together on something this complex and this important, they had become like family. But if this was a family, the other team leaders had the gray hair and tenure to match their positions of authority. Most of them still seemed bewildered that Yasira could be more than a precocious grandchild.
"Of course," said Apek, "the Pride of Jai isn't quite like other projects. But this happens with every large-scale project that will affect other human lives. The nerves are monumental. Always. And that's good; it stops us from getting complacent. You just can't let it be more than it is, or you'll be paralyzed. Have you gone over all the testing and QA reports?"
"Yes," Yasira said miserably, her fingers tapping faster against the stress ball.
"Everything checks out?"
"Can you think of any testing methods that haven't been tried? Any place at all where there might be specific weaknesses you're not sure about?"
Yasira shook her head, frustration building. She couldn't explain in words why these questions felt wrong. They were logical, reasonable questions, the same she'd be giving to anyone else in the same situation, but they were missing the point. They did nothing for her actual panic.
"It's all fine," she said, at a loss for other words. "I even went over the original math for the reaction itself. I can't find anything."
"The original math?" This time he did laugh, damn the man. "Goodness, you've got it bad. Er – don't take that to heart. It's to be expected, when you've climbed the career ladder so quickly ..."
That did it; her frustration overflowed. "Shut up!" Yasira shouted. She threw the stress ball on the ground.
Then she stopped and checked herself over. No, this wasn't a reasonable reaction. Her nerves were frayed, but it wasn't Apek's fault. She wouldn't stoop to taking it out on him.
"I'm sorry," she muttered, and slumped back in her chair. "You're right."
Apek smiled. "Apology accepted. Relax; this is all normal. A lot of us compulsively check things when anxious, not only autists. So. Breathe. Go watch a vid or get some exercise. Find something that soothes you. At times like this, for me, it's helpful to remember why I started the project. The spark of inspiration. The joy of the work. Joy and curiosity help fight fear – for me. Take that or leave it. Either way, I promise you, everything you've done here so far has impressed us. In two hours this is all going to be fine."
Joy, Yasira thought, as she slunk out of Apek's office. That struck a chord that it shouldn't have. Yasira's neurotype was supposed to be all about joy, about being so in love with science and knowledge and patterns that they eclipsed everything else. She'd been like that as a child, throwing herself into dusty physics texts the way other kids played games or ate candy. So excited when she tackled a new problem, that she'd abruptly throw the book down and run around the house laughing. At some point, maybe in grad school, that had faded somehow. Who knew why? She was still good at the things people liked her to do, so there wasn't much wrong. Maybe it was just part of growing up.
Apek was right, though. Nerves were normal; there was no reason to think that this wouldn't be fine. So why was the foreboding as strong as ever, like a train about to run her over?
Dr Talirr would have understood this, she thought. If Dr Talirr was still here.
She didn't head to her room to watch a vid. The Pride of Jai didn't have TV reception yet anyway; it would have been one of the tapes she'd already memorized. Instead, she headed to the center of the station. Just one last inspection. That would be it.
The Pride of Jai was different from other space stations. Normally it was Gods who moved mortals from one planet to another. When mortals wanted a ship or a station, they bargained – with vows or, more often, with souls – for the God-built. Or they built their own shell, but bargained for portals, warp drives, power sources. The hard parts.
The Jai Coalition – scientists from the governments of all three nations on the planet, working together – would be the first to build a station all by themselves. There had been little research stations, with crews of perhaps a dozen, back on Old Earth before the Gods arose. But on the Pride of Jai, people would live, work, and research full-time. Sustainably. There had been nothing like this ever.
Naturally, the Gods were watching with great interest. There were rumors going around that Director Apek, and a few other admins, talked regularly to angels.
The Pride of Jai was shaped like a huge wheel, rotating furiously as a substitute for gravity, and powered – up till now – by a bunch of conventional generators cobbled together. That wouldn't be enough for the crowds of tourists and political bigwigs they expected in a few months' time. Even with just the construction and engineering crews, it took constant, expensive rocket shipments of conventional fuel to keep things running. The Shien Reactor, which would fix all of that, was buried near the hub of the wheel, with wiring all through the station's walls connecting it to every other compartment and system.
Yasira trudged upwards on the station stairs. At least they had stairs now for the first few stories, not just rickety maintenance ladders. Accessible elevators would have to wait another few months. Yasira walked, increasingly light, until weight was no longer a problem and she could simply kick off the walls.
DANGER, NO ADMITTANCE, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, said the door to the gray room. Yasira pushed past it, as she did every day. She paused to put on a sterile suit – a task that had been tricky at first, in microgravity – and take an air shower. Then she cycled through the airlock into the clean room where the dormant Shien Reactor lurked waiting for life.
It was a blue-gray behemoth, the size of a house, a tangle of pipes, wheels and wires incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't studied Yasira's blueprints. Gods knew how to miniaturize these things; humans did not. The spherical central chamber was hidden from view behind all the other fiddly bits needed to initiate, regulate, monitor and transmit all of that energy. Not even Yasira could check all the things manually in two hours; in fact, many parts were now dangerous to check directly and had to be monitored using other parts. More wires, more dials, more darkened warning lights. And a bank of the most advanced computers allowed to mortals: hulking things, the size of laundry machines, all buzzing wires and clanking vacuum tubes. The Gods regulated computer technology jealously; these centuries-old designs were all that any team like Yasira's would ever have, when it came to calculation devices. They'd made do.
Of course, all the dangerous parts had been triple- and quadruple-checked already, a whole team of engineers working on each one. The crew in the generator room now was largely a skeleton crew, floating around ensuring nothing went wrong before the official start-up.
Yasira maneuvered her way along the handholds at the outside of the room to Dr Nüinel Gi, the head of the Transmission and Transformer subteam.
"Everything's all right?"
"Yeah," said Dr Gi, a spry little wide-nosed man almost as short as Yasira. "Ticking along smoothly. Nothing to report."
"Let me see the full log from the last unit test."
Dr Gi shrugged, dug in his bag for it and handed it over. Yasira anchored herself on the ladder to read. She'd seen all this before, of course; that was part of her job. But she wanted to read it again. If she could just look hard enough ...
"Hey, hot stuff." Tiv Hunt tumbled hand over hand down the ladder and nudged Yasira in the shoulder. "Aren't you supposed to be gearing up for the ceremony about now?"
Tiv, an Arinnan whose full first name was "Productivity", worked a more appropriate job for a bright girl Yasira's age – she was a junior member of the Cooling and Reclamation team, spending most days elbow-deep in actual machine parts. She had a cute, big-eyed face and a wide smile, which the sterile suit's visor distorted slightly, bringing it just past "wide" and into "uncanny valley". My little goblin, Yasira always thought when they suited up. They'd been dating for ten months.
"I could ask you the same question."
Tiv laughed. "I don't have any prep except for putting on my dress. Besides, I couldn't keep away. This is so exciting."
Yasira felt ashamed. Of course, when Yasira was worried sick over nothing, Tiv would be looking on the bright side. Tiv was a good girl, a quality which both attracted Yasira and bothered her. Always sweet, always caring, never cruel: always, seemingly, happy to bring happiness to everyone around her.
"It's good someone's excited," said Yasira. "Frankly, I'm having the biggest case of the nerves since myelination."
"Oh, I'm sorry." Tiv, being a good girl, instantly switched into sympathy mode. "Of course you are. I should have thought."
"Well, I didn't see it coming either," said Yasira. Tiv hugged her, a maneuver that was awkward in microgravity and too plasticky with the sterile suits on, but Yasira hugged back. "Director Apek says I have to go do relaxy things. I think that means you're on order for one of your famous back rubs."
Tiv raised her eyebrows. "I don't take orders, Doctor. But I'll offer you a back rub, just 'cause you're cute."
"That. Yes, please. Without these stupid suits on." Yasira handed the flawless test report back to Dr Gi. Tiv picked her up and playfully swung her along the ladder, a task even Tiv's petite body could manage in microgravity. Yasira laughed at the small whoosh of inertia and swung back.
They changed and made their way to Yasira's room, where gravity at least approximated Earth-normal. The place was small by most standards, though bigger than Tiv's, and messy with laundry and hours-old food cartons. Yasira was ordinarily neat, but under stress, things slipped. Tiv didn't complain. Soon Yasira was sprawled in a mess of blankets, letting Tiv's hands work magic with her tense shoulders. Tiv no longer looked goblinlike: with the sterile suit's visor out of the way, her face had resolved as it always did into startling, unselfconscious beauty. Yasira always felt plain in comparison: an average-looking young Riayin woman, short and narrow-faced and neither curvy nor thin, with light-brown skin about half a shade lighter than Tiv's and a fall of long, straight black hair. Clearly Tiv saw something in her, but Yasira suspected it was more to do with brains than looks.
"It's stupid," Yasira said. "I just can't stop thinking something's going to go horribly wrong."
"That's not stupid," said Tiv. "It's normal. But this is going to be great. You've worked on it for years, and I know how you work. You've been thorough. You've already done all the hard parts, and now all that's left is showing them to the world. Really."
"That's what Director Apek said. But if worrying is normal, why isn't everyone worrying? Why isn't he?"
"'Cause this is your baby more than anyone's. I just do the tube to vacuum heat exchange, and Apek has bigger things on his mind. Plus, I know you're a total genius and you're going to knock everyone's socks off again. You know what I do worry about?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Outside"
Copyright © 2019 Ada Hoffmann.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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