THE CASSINI DIVISION
To Mairi Ann Cullen
Thanks to Carol, Sharon and Michael; to John Jarrold and Mic Cheetham; to Iain Banks and Svein Olav Nyberg; to Andy McKillop, Jo Tapsell, Paul Barnett and Kate Farquhar-Thompson.
Thanks also to Tim Holman for editorial work at Orbit; to David Angus for pointing me to the map of Callisto; and to the socialists, for the Earth.
Man is a living personality, whose welfare and purpose is embodied within himself, who has between himself and the world nothing but his needs as a mediator, who owes no allegiance to any law whatever from the moment that it contravenes his needs. The moral duty of an individual never exceeds his interests. The only thing which exceeds those interests is the material power of the generality over the individuality.
--JOSEPH DIETZGEN, "The Nature of Human Brain Work"
There are, still, still photographs of the woman who gate-crashed the party on the observation deck of the Casa Azores, one evening in the early summer of 2303. They show her absurdly young--about twenty, less than a tenth of her real age--and tall; muscles built-up by induction isotonics and not dragged down by gravity; hair a black nebula; dark skin, epicanthic eyelids, a flattish nose, and thin lips whose grin is showing broad white teeth. She carries in her right hand a litre bottle of carbon-copy Lagrange 2046. Her left hand is at her shoulder, and on its crooked forefinger is slung a bolero jacket the colour of old gold, matching a gown whose almost circular skirt's hem is swinging about her ankles as she strides in. What looks like a small monkey is perched on her right, bare, shoulder.
Something flashed. I blinked away annular afterimages, and glared at a young man clad in cobalt-blue pyjamas who lowered a boxy apparatus of lenses and reflectors with a brief apologetic smile as he ducked away into the crowd. Apart from him, my arrival had gone unnoticed. Although the deck was a good hundred metres square, it didn't have room for everybody who was invited, let alone everybody who'd turned up. The natural progress of the evening, with people hitting off and drifting away to more private surroundings, would ease the pressure, but not yet.
There was room enough, however, for a variety of activities: close dancing, huddled eating, sprawled drinking, intense talking; and for a surprisingnumber of children to scamper among them all. Cunningly focused sound systems kept each cluster of revellers relatively content with, and compact in, their particular ambience. The local fashions seemed to fit the party, loose and fluid but close to the body: women in saris or shifts, men in pyjama-suits or serious-looking togas and tabards. The predominant colours were the basic sea-silk tones of blue, green, red, and white. My own outfit, though distinctive, didn't seem out of place.
The centre of the deck was taken up by the ten-metre-wide pillar of the building's air shaft. Somewhere in one of the groups around it, talking above the faint white noise of the falling air, would be the couple whose presence was the occasion for the party--the people I'd come to speak to, if only for a moment. There was no point in pushing through the crowd--like anyone here who really wanted to, I'd reach them eventually by always making sure I was headed in their direction.
I made my way to a drinks table, put down my bottle and picked up a glass of Mare Imbrium white. The first sip let me know that it was, aptly enough, very dry. My slight grimace met a knowing smile. It came from the man in blue, who'd somehow managed to appear in front of me.
'Aren't you used to it?'
So he knew, or had guessed, whence I came. I made a show of inspecting him, over a second sip. He was, unlike me, genuinely young. Not bad-looking, in the Angloslav way, with dirty-blonde tousled hair and pink, shaved face; broad cheekbones, blue eyes. Almost as tall as me--taller, if I took my shoes off. His curious device hung on a strap around his neck.
'Comet vodka's more to my taste,' I said. I handed the glass into the monkey-thing's small black paws and stuck out my hand. 'Ellen May Ngwethu. Pleased to meet you, neighbour.'
'Stephan Vrij,' he said, shaking hands. 'Likewise.'
He watched as the drink was returned.
'Smart monkey,' he said.
'That's right,' I replied, unhelpfully. Smart spacesuit, was the truth of it, but people down here tended to get edgy around that sort of stuff.
'Well,' he went on, 'I'm on the block committee, and tonight I'm supposed to welcome the uninvited and the unexpected.'
'Ah, thanks. And to flash bright lights at them?'
'It's a camera,' he said, hefting it. 'I made it myself.'
It was the first time I'd seen a camera visible to the naked eye. My interest in this wasn't entirely feigned in order to divert any questions about myself, but after a few minutes of his explaining about celluloid film and focal lengths he seemed unsurprised that my glazed-over gaze was wandering. He smiled and said:
'Well, enjoy yourself, Ellen. I see some other new arrivals.'
'See you around.' I watched him thread his way back towards the doors. So my picture would turn up in the building's newspaper, and a hundred thousand people would see it. Fame. But not such as to worry about. This was the middle of the Atlantic, and the middle of nowhere.
The Casa Azores was (is? unlikely--I'll stick to the past tense, though the pangs are sharp) on Graciosa, a small island in an archipelago in the North Atlantic, which is (probably, even now) an ocean on Earth. It was so far from anywhere that, even from its kilometre-high observation deck, you couldn't observe its neighbouring islands. The sea and sky views might be impressive, but right now all the huge windows showed was reflected light from within. The lift from which I'd made my entrance was at the edge, and I had to get to the central area within the next few hours, sometime after the crowd had thinned but before everyone was too exhausted to think.
I drained the glass, picked up a bottle of good Sungrazer Stolichnya, gave the monkey a clutch of stemmed goblets to hold in its little fingers, and set out to work the party.
'Nanotech's all right in itself,' a small and very intense artist was explaining. 'I mean, you can see atoms, right? Heck, with the bucky waldoes you can feel them, move them about and stick them together. It's mechanical linkages all the way up to your fingers. And to your screen, for that matter. But all that electronic quantum stuff is, like, spooky ...'
She had other listeners. I moved on.
'You're from space? Oh, great. I work with the people in the orbitals. We do zaps. Say you've got a replicator outbreak somewhere, natural or nano, like it makes a difference ... anyway, before the zap we all sorta wander around the evac zone, one, to check there's nobody there and, two, just to soak up and record anything that might get lost. You don't get much time, you're in an isolation suit that has to be flashed off you before you come out, for obvious reasons--takes most of your body hair with it, too--but even so, you can see and feel and hear a lot, and for hours or days, depending on how fast the outbreak's spreading, there's nobody else around for tens of kilometres. You know, just about every one I've done, I've picked up a species that wasn't in the bank. Genus, sometimes. Not known to science, as they say. Ran out of girlfriends to name them after, had to start on my actual relatives. And then you come out, and you sit around with the goggles and watch the zap. I mean, I like to see the flash, it's the next best thing to watching a nuke go off.'
The ecologist stopped and took another deep hit on the hookah. I waved away his offer of a toke. He sighed.
'The times when there's nobody around but you ... You just gotta love that wilderness experience.'
I had reached halfway across to the centre of the room. I wanted to offer the stoned scientist a shot of vodka, but the monkey had, in a moment of abstraction, devoured my last spare glass. The man didn't mind. He assured me he'd remember my name, and that some beetle or bug or bacterium would, one day, be named in my honour. I realised that I couldn't remember his name. Or perhaps he hadn't told me, or perhaps ... a certain amount of passive smoking was going on around here. I thanked him, and moved on.
'And don't do things like that,' I murmured. 'It's conspicuous.' A cold paw teased my ear, and a faint, buzzing voice said:
'We're low on silicates.'
I scratched the little pseudo-beast in response, and hoped no one had noticed my lips move. I felt a sudden pang of hunger and a need for a head-clearing dose of coffee, and stopped at the nearest buffet table. A woman wearing a plain, stained white apron over a gorgeous green sari ladled me a hot plate of limpets in tomato sauce. (All real, if it matters. I guess it must: my mouth waters at the memory, even now.) I decided on a glass of white wine. There were empty chairs around, so I sat. The woman sat, too, at the other side of the table, and chatted with me as I ate.
'I've just spoken to our special guests,' she said. She had an unusual accent. 'Such interesting people. An artificial woman, and a man from the stars! And back from the dead, in a sense.' She looked at me sharply. 'Perhaps you'll have met them before, being from space yourself?'
I smiled at her. 'How come everyone knows I'm from space?'
'Your dress, neighbour,' she said. 'Gold is a space thing, isn't it? It isn't one of our colours.'
'Of course,' I said. For a moment I'd thought she'd guessed it was a spacesuit. After she'd spoken, after I'd had a minute to observe how she moved, the subtle way her face cast its expressions, it was obvious that she was well into her second century. There would be no fooling her. She looked right back at me, her eyes shining like the pins in her piled-up black hair.
'Gold is such a useful metal,' she said. 'You know, Lenin thought we'd use it for urinals ...'
I laughed. 'Not his only mistake!'
Her reply was a degree or two cooler that her first remarks. 'He didn't make many, and those he did were the opposite of ... what's usually held against him. He thought too highly of people, as individuals and in the mass. Anyway,' she went on, complacently, 'some of us still think highly of him.'
I'd placed her accent now. 'In South Africa?' They were a notoriously conservative lot. Some of them were virtually Communists.
'Why, yes, neighbour!' She smiled. 'And you're from ... now don't tell me ... not near-Earth; not Lagrange ... and you're no Loony or Martian, that's for sure.' She frowned, watching as I lifted my glass, looking past me at, perhaps, her memory of how I'd walked up to the table. Weighing and measuring my reflexes. 'Yes!' She clapped her hands. 'You're a Callistan girl, aren't you? And that means ...'
Her eyes widened a fraction, her brows rose.
'Yes,' I said quietly. 'The Cassini Division. And yes, I've seen your guests before.' I winked, ever so slightly, and made a tiny downward movement with my fingers as I reached across the table for a piece of bread. Not one in a hundred would have as much as noticed the gesture. She understood it, and smiled, and talked about other things.
The Cassini Division ... In astronomy, the Cassini Division is a dark band in the rings of Saturn. In the astronautics of the Heliocene Epoch, the Cassini Division was the proud name--originally given in jest--of a dark band indeed, a military force in the ring of Jupiter. You know about the ring of Jupiter--but to us it was more than a remarkable product of planetary engineering, it was a standing reminder of the power of our enemies. It was our Guantanamo, our Berlin Wall. (Look them up. Earth history. There are files.)
The Cassini Division was the Solar Union's front-line force, our collective fist in the enemy's face. In our classless society it was the closest thing to an élite; in our anarchy, the nearest we came to a state; in our commonwealth, it held the greatest share of riches. Its recruits chose themselves, and not many could meet a standard of that rigour. In terms of sheer fire power the Division could have flattened all the states Earth ever knew, and still had enough left over for a bit of target practice to occupy the afternoon. The resources it controlled could have bought everything on Earth, in the age when that world was owned--and it still stood ready for the exchange, to give as good as it got, to pit our human might against the puny wrath of gods.
In other words ... the Division was there to kick post-human ass. And we did.
(And yes. I'm still proud of it.)
The South African woman might have had unsound views about Vladimir Ilyich, but she turned out to be one of the 'old comrades'. Although the International had long since dissolved into the Union, its former members maintained their contacts, their veterans' freemasonry. I'd never really approved of this, but it helped me here. She introduced me to one of herfriends, who introduced me to another, and so on. By an unspoken agreement they passed me along their chain of acquaintance, moving me through the crowd a lot faster than I'd managed on my own. Only half-an-hour after I'd finished my coffee, I found myself among a small cluster of people, at the focus of which were the party's special guests: the artificial woman, and the man who had come back from the stars, and from the dead. Even five years after their arrival, they could still pull a crowd--all the more so because they seldom did, preferring to wander around and talk to people they happened to meet.
The artificial woman was called Meg. She didn't look artificial right now, and indeed her body--cloned from that of some long-dead Malaysian-American porn actress, I understand--was in some respects more natural than mine. Only her personality was artificial. It was a human personality in every way we'd ever been able to observe, but it was--she'd always insisted--running on top of a genuine artificial intelligence.
In which case the small, pretty woman standing a couple of yards away from me, elegantly smoking a tobacco cigarette, with her black hair hanging to her waist, and wearing a long black silk-satin shift and (unless my eyes deceived me) absolutely nothing else, was the only autonomous AI on Earth. A troubling thought, and it had troubled me ever since I'd met her.
The autonomous AI hadn't noticed me yet. She was looking at her companion, Jonathan Wilde, the man who had come back. Wilde, as usual, was holding forth; as usual, waving his hands; as usual, smoking tobacco, a vile habit that seemed hardwired into him and Meg both. He was a tall man, sharp-featured, hook-nosed, loud-voiced. His accent had changed, but still rang strangely in my ears.
'--never actually met him,' he was saying, 'but I did see him on television, and read some of what he put out during the Fall Revolution. I must say it's a surprise to find him still remembered.' He paused, flashing a quick, rueful smile. 'Especially since I'm forgotten!'
People around him laughed. It was one of Wilde's standing jokes that the ideas he--or rather, the human being of which he was a copy--had espoused back in the twenty-first century were now of interest only to antiquarians, and that his name was only a footnote in the history of the Space Movement. In some odd way, this very obscurity flattered his vanity.
As he stood there grinning he saw me. He stared at me, as if momentarily confused. Meg turned and saw me and gave me a welcoming smile. Wilde nodded slightly, and returned to his discourse. I didn't know whether to feel slighted or relieved. As the first person he'd seen on his emergence from the wormhole, I had some importance in Wilde's life ... but I didn't want him introducing me as such, and thus letting everyone present know where I was from.
Meg stepped over and caught my hands.
'It's good to see you again, Ellen.'
'Yeah, you too,' I said, and meant it. Her personality might be synthetic, but its appeal was genuine. I'd sometimes wondered what she saw in Wilde, whose fabled charm had never worked on me.
'What brings you here?' Meg asked.
'You don't make yourselves easy to find,' I said lightly. 'So I thought I'd take the opportunity.'
Meg smiled. 'You're a busy woman, Ellen. You want something.'
'Oh, you know,' I said. 'Perhaps we can talk about it later?'
She was looking up at me, a small frown on her smooth brow.
'Of course,' she said. 'Things should quiet down, soon.'
I laughed. 'You mean, like when Wilde's spoken to everybody?' 'Something like that.' She drew me to a nearby seat, just outside the huddle, and I sat down with her. 'This is all a bit exhausting,' she said absently. She stroked one bare foot with the other, and stubbed out her cigarette. The monkey hopped from my shoulder and clutched the edge of the ashtray, its big eyes entreating me. I shook my head at it. It bared its teeth, then turned away from me and let Meg play with it.
Wilde's voice, carrying:
'--this whole thing: turning his sayings into a scripture, and him into a martyred prophet--it's almost the only irrationality you people have left! I think he would have laughed!' And with that Wilde's laugh boomed, and those around him joined in, hesitantly. The conversation broke up over the next few minutes, and Wilde ambled over and sat down beside me. The three of us were perched as if on a log in an eddied swirl. Around us people partied on; now and again someone would drift over, see no response signalled, and turn away. Some left, but most hung around, tactfully out of earshot.
We exchanged greetings and then Wilde leaned away from me and sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Meg.
'Well, Ellen,' he said. 'You got us where you want us.' He lit a cigarette and accepted a shot of vodka. He looked down at his glass. 'This has already had several other drinks in it,' he observed. 'Nice thing about vodka, of course, is it doesn't matter. Any taste is an improvement. I'm drunk already. So if there's anything you forgot to ask us, in the debriefing--'
'Interrogation.' I always hated the old statist euphemisms.
'--go right ahead. Now's your chance.' He swayed farther back and looked at me with a defiant grin.
'You know what I want, Wilde,' I said heavily. I was a bit drunk myself, and more than a little tired. Gravity gets you down (and space sucks, but that's life). 'Don't ask me to spell it out.'
He leaned forward. I could smell the smoke and spirits on his breath.
'Oh, I know better than that,' he said. 'The same old question. Well, it's the same old answer: no. There is no way, no fucking way I'm going to give you people what you are so carefully not asking for.'
Always the same question, which always got the same answer:
'I won't let you lot get your hands on the place.'
I felt my fists clench at my sides, and slowly relaxed them.
'We don't want the wretched place!'
'Hah!' said Wilde, with open disbelief. 'Whatever. It won't be me who gives you the means to take it.'
It would have to be somebody else who did, then, I thought. I kept my voice steady, and quiet.
'Not even to fight the Outwarders?'
'You don't need it to fight the Outwarders.'
'Isn't that for us to judge?'
Wilde nodded. 'Sure. You make your judgements, and I'll make mine.'
I wanted to shake the answer out of him. I would have had no compunction about it. As far as I was concerned, he wasn't a human being, just a clever copy of one.
I also, paradoxically, wished I could regard him as a fellow human, as a neighbour. This just served to increase my frustration. If I could have taken Wilde into my confidence, and let him know just how how bad, how fast, things were going, he might very well have agreed to tell me all I needed to know. But the Division trusted him even less than he trusted us. Telling him the full truth might trigger things far, far worse. Wilde and Meg had both been in the hands of the enemy, were quite literally products of the enemy, and even now we weren't one hundred percent confident that they were--or were only--what they claimed, and seemed, to be. I thought for a moment of what it might be like if we ever had to treat them as an outbreak and hit them with an orbital zap. There would be no warning, no evacuation, no lastminute work for the ecologists.
The monkey-thing bounded from Meg's lap to mine. I let it scurry up my arm and nestle on my shoulder, and smoothed out the lap of my skirt. I looked up.
'That's fine,' I said. 'It's up to you.' I shrugged, the false animal's false fur brushing my cheek. 'You do what seems best.' I stood up and smiled at them both.
For a moment Wilde looked nonplussed. I hoped he'd be so thrown off balance by my lack of persistence that he would change his mind. But the ploy didn't work. I would have to go for the second option: more difficult, more perilous and, if anything, less likely to succeed.
'Goodbye,' I said. 'See you around.'
In hell, probably.
I leaned over the guardrail around the roof of the Casa Azores and looked down. The ground was a thousand metres below. I felt no vertigo. I've climbed taller trees. There were lights along the beach, bobbing boats in front of the beach, then a breakwater; and beyond that, blue-green fields of algae, fish-farms and kelp plantations and ocean thermal-energy converters, all the way to the horizon. Airships--whether on night-work or recreation I didn't know--drifted like silvery bubbles above them. The building itself, although in the middle of all this thermal power, drew its electricity from a different source. Technically the whole structure was a Carson Tower, powered by cooled air from the top falling down a central shaft and turning turbines on the way.
It was cold on the roof. I turned away from the downward view, wrapped the bolero jacket around my shoulders, and looked at the sky. Once my irises had adjusted, I could see Jupiter, among the clutter of orbital factories, mirrors, lightsails, satellites, and habitats. With binoculars, I could have seen Callisto, Io, Europa--and the ring. It was as good a symbol as any of the forces we were up against.
Our enemies, by some process which even after two centuries was, as we say, not well understood, had disintegrated Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede, to leave that ring of hurrying debris and worrying machinery. And--originally within the ring, but now well outside it--was something even more impressive and threatening: a sixteen-hundred-metre-wide gap in space-time, a wormhole gate to the stars.
Two centuries ago, the Outwarders--people like ourselves, who scant years earlier had been arguing politics with us in the sweaty confines of primitive space habitats--had become very much not like us: post-human, and superhuman. Men Like Gods, like. The Ring was their work, as was the Gate.
After these triumphs, nemesis. Their fast minds hit some limit in processing-speed, or attained enlightenment, or perhaps simply wandered. Most of them distintegrated, others drifted into the Jovian atmosphere, where they re-established some kind of contact with reality.
Their only contact with us, a few years later, was a burst of radio-borne information viruses which failed to take over, but managed to crash, every computer in the Solar System. The dark twenty-second century settled down like drizzle.
Humanity struggled through the Fall, the Green Death, and the Crash,and came out of the dark century with a deep disapproval of the capitalist system (which brought the Fall), for the Greens (who brought the Death), and for the Outwarders (who brought the Crash, and whose viral programs still radiated, making electronic computation and communication hazardous at best).
The capitalist system was abolished, the Greens became extinct, and the Outwarders--
The Outwarders had still to be dealt with.
I checked that I was alone on the roof. The chill, fluted funnels of the Carson process sighed in their endless breath, their beaded condensation quivering into driblets. I moved around in their shadow, and sighted on, not low-looming Jupiter, but the Moon. I squatted, spreading the dress carelessly, and reached up and scratched the monkey's head and whispered in its ear.
The monkey began to melt into the jacket's shoulder, and then dress and jacket together flowed like mercury, and reshaped themselves into a tenfoot-wide dish aerial within which I crouched, my head covered by a fine net that spun itself up from where the collar had been. A needle-thin rod grew swiftly to the aerial's focus. Threads of wire spooled out across the deck, seeking power sources, finding one in seconds. The transformed smart-suit hummed around me.
'It's still no,' I said. 'Going for the second option.'
'Tight-beam message sent,' said the suit. 'Acknowledged by Lagrange relay.'
And that was that. The recipients of the message would know what I meant by 'the second option.' Nobody else would. My mission was confined to more than radio silence; the whole reason I'd come here myself was that we couldn't even trust word-of-mouth. The narrow-beamed radio message would be picked up and passed on by laser, which had the advantage that the Jovians could neither interfere with nor overhear it. It would be bounced to our ship, the Terrible Beauty, which was at this moment on the other side of the Earth, and sent on to the Division's base on Callisto. There would be a bare acknowledgement from Callisto, in a matter of hours. I was not going to wait around for it, not like this. I stood up and told the suit to resume its previous shape. When the dress was restored I gave it an unnecessary but celebratory twirl, and spun straight into somebody's arms. As I stumbled back a pace I saw that I'd bumped into Stephan Vrij, the photographer.
We stood looking at each other for a moment.
'The things you see when you don't have your camera,' I said.
'I didn't follow you,' he said awkwardly. 'I was just looking around. Lastpart of my job for the evening. It's amazing the crazy things people do up here, after a party.'
'Can you forget this?' I asked.
'OK,' he said. He looked away.
'Then I'll promise to forget you.' I reached out and caught his hand. 'Come on. I've had a lot of drinks, and you've had none, right?'
'Yes,' he said, looking a bit puzzled as I tugged at his hand and set off determinedly towards the elevator shaft. I grinned down at him.
'What better way to start the night?'
'You have a point there,' he said.
'Well, no,' I said, 'I rather hope you ...'
Laughing, we went to his room.
When you are among another people, or another people is among you, and you lust after their strange flesh, go you and take your pleasure in them, and have sons and daughters by them, and your people shall live long upon the lands and your children shall fill the skies.
So it is written in the Books of Jordan, anyway. Genetics, chapter 3, verse 8.
I woke in a comfortable, if disorderly, bed. Stephan Vrij snored peacefully beside me. We were both naked, and I was under a quilt. I drew the quilt over him and he rolled over in his sleep.
From the angle of the light through the window, it was mid-morning on another fine day. The room was made of something that looked and smelled like pine, but it had never been cut into planks then hammered or glued together (which some people on Earth still do, as I later discovered, and not all of them because they have to but because they can afford the time to indulge such fads). Instead, it had been grown on-site, the walls and floor curving into each other, utility cables emerging like vines from the knotholes. Glossy monochrome pictures--of people, landscapes, seascapes--were stuck to the walls. They looked detailed and precise, just like photographs, apart from the lack of colour. Scattered about, on the low chairs and table or on the floor, was a rather embarrassing quantity and diversity of lingerie. Evidently I had been showing off, or the smart-suit had. My memories of the night were hazy, and warm.
I lay there a few minutes, smiling to myself and hoping I'd got pregnant. Doing so just before a war seemed perverse--it's traditionally done afterwards--but this war would be over before the pregnancy was noticeable. If we won, I might not be back on Earth for a long time, and we needed all the genes we could get. If we lost ... but defeat wasn't worth thinking about.
I rolled out of bed and gathered the bits and pieces and set them to work reassembling themselves into hiking gear, apart from the one or two itemsthat would be serviceable as underwear. Not that I actually needed underwear in a smart-matter spacesuit, but they were very nice. So, in their own way, were the shorts and socks, boots and rucksack that came together on the floor. The suit always did have good taste.
The apartment was pretty basic and standard, and the functional logic of it was familiar, so I had no difficulty in finding the makings of breakfast. I brought the breakfast through to Stephan, and we ate it, and made love for a final time. Stephan took some photographs of me, and I promised again to forget him, and we said goodbye.
I suppose he has forgotten me, by now, but I like to think that someone still has the photographs.
Down at ground level it was hot. The sun was high in the sky, enormous, so bright I could see it with my eyes closed and so hot it hurt my skin. Even the air was hot. It's one of the things they don't tell you about, like gravity.
Between the base of the tower and the beach were some low buildings. Stores and warehouses of equipment for use by people working in the blue-greens or playing on the beach, refreshment stalls, eating-houses, and so on. I wandered along the shore road, looking for the tourist place.
Naked small children ran about, yelling, racing from the tower to the beach and back. Somewhat older children lolled in shade and listened to adults or adolescents as they talked earnestly in front of a flip-chart or above a machine. Now and again a child would join one of these groups; now and again a child would rise, nod politely to the teacher, and wander off to do something else.
Two such children were minding the tourist place when I found it. The store was easy enough to spot, a rough construction of seacrete and plastic and what looked like driftwood, but was probably scrap synthetic wood. I told myself it must be more solid than it looked, as I ducked under the sea-silk awning and stood blinking in the cool, dim interior.
Inside, the walls were lined with sagging shelves, which were piled with everything a tourist might need. Old tin boxes of gold and silver coins, new plastic boxes of bullets, firearms oiled and racked, hats, scarves, boots. From the ceiling hung a wide range of casual clothing: loose sundresses, seal-fur suits, tee shirts and towelling robes. There seemed to be more possible destinations than the number of possible tourists. I was alone in the store, apart from a boy and a girl sitting on the counter with a chessboard between them.
The boy looked up. 'Hi,' he said. He waved his hand. 'Help yourself. If you want something that isn't there, let us know.' He smiled absently then returned to frowning over the chessboard.
I dug through clinking piles of dollars, roubles, marks, pounds, and yen tomake up sixty grams of gold and a hundred of silver, in the smallest coins I could find. From the weapons rack I selected a .45 automatic and a dozen clips of ammunition. Food and other consumables I could get anywhere, and the suit had produced better boots, socks, etc. than anything here. But I couldn't pass up the chance of an amazing penknife with a red handle marked with an inlaid steel cross within a shield. It had two blades and a lot of ingenious tools. I was sure I'd find a use for most of them.
I said goodbye to the children, promised to pass on anything I didn't use (with a mental reservation about the knife), and stepped out again into the sunlight. After a few seconds I went back inside and picked up a pair of sunglasses. The girl's laughter followed me out.
Now that I didn't have to screw up my eyes to look up, it was easy to work out the location of the airport from the paths of the airships and microlights and helicopters. I followed the coast road for a couple of miles until I reached it. I got several offers of lifts on the way, but I declined them all. Despite the heat, and the gravity, and the moments of disorientation when some conservative part of my brain decided the horizon just could not be that far away, I had to get used to walking in the open on the surface of this planet; and soon, to my surprise, I found that I enjoyed it. The sea breeze carried the homely scent of blue-green fields, the distant converters shimmered and hummed, the nearby waters within the artificial reef sparkled, and on them swimmers and boating-parties filled the air with joyous cries.
The airport was on a spit of land that extended a few hundred yards, traversing the reef-barrier. Airships wallowed at mooring masts, 'copters and microlights buzzed between them. High overhead, the diamond-fibre flying-wings used for serious lifting strained at their cables like gigantic kites. I had arrived on one, from the Guiné spaceport, and it looked as if I'd have to leave on one. The thought of an airship passage was appealing, but it would take too long. I didn't know how much time I had to spare, but the final deadline, the Impact Event, was less than three weeks away. Whatever I did had to be done before that.
Just before the airport perimeter fence I turned and looked back at the Casa Azores. From here it was possible to see it, if not take it all in. A hundred and fifty metres square at the base, tapering in its kilometre height to a hundred at the top. The sides looked oddly natural, covered by climbing plants and hanging gardens, pocked by glider-ports, and by window-bays which shone like ice. Built and maintained by quadrillions of organically engineered nanomachines, it was almost as remarkable as a tree, and a good deal more efficient. The way of life that it and the surrounding aquaculture sustained was not mine, but it was one I was happy to protect. Plenty of interesting work, and plenty of interesting leisure; adventure if you wanted it, ease if you preferred that. Indefinitely extended youth and health. Anythingthat you couldn't get for the asking you could, with some feasible commitment of time and trouble, nanofacture for yourself.
The paucity of broadcast media, and the difficulties of real-time communication, were the only losses from the world before the Fall and the Crash. We had tried to make it an opportunity. All the entertainment and knowledge to be found among thirty billion people was (eventually) available on pipe, and live action provided by the steady, casual arrival and departure of entertainers and researchers and lecturers. The absence of artificial celebrity meant the endless presence of surprise.
Throughout the Inner System--Earth, near-Earth, Lagrange, Luna, Mars, and the Belt--variants of this same way of life went on. Cultures and languages were more diverse than ever, but the system that underpinned them was the same everywhere. In floating cities, in artificial mountains stepped like ziggurats, in towers like this or taller, in towns below the ground, in huge orbital habitats, in sunlit pressure domes, in caves of ice, most people had settled into this lifestyle: simple, self-sufficient, low-impact, and ecologically sound.
It was sustainable materially and psychologically, a climax community of the human species, the natural environment of a conscious animal, which that conscious animal, after so much time and trouble, had at last made for itself. We called it the Heliocene Epoch. It seemed like a moment in the sun, but there was no reason, in principle, why it couldn't outlast the sun, and spread to all the suns of the sky.
With our solar mirrors we controlled the polar caps. The glaciations and mass extinctions that had marked the Pleistocene were over; the next ice age, long overdue, would never come. With our space-based lasers and nukes, we could shield the earth from asteroid impacts. We could bring back lost species from the DNA in museum exhibits. Soon, any century now, we would control the Milankovitch cycle. We were secure.
No wonder they had so few tourists here: who would want to leave a place like this? I sighed, with a small shiver, and turned to the airport gate.
Copyright © 2009 by Ken MacLeod