Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Engine City

The Stunning Conclusion to the Engines of Light

Engines of Light (Volume 3)

Ken MacLeod

Tor Books


The Advancement of Learning

The jump is instantaneous. To a photon, the whole history of the universe may be like this: over in a flash, before it's had time to blink. To a human, it's disorienting. One moment, you're an hour out from the last planet you visited—then, without transition, you're an hour away from the next.
Volkov spent the first of these hours preparing for his arrival, conscious that he would have no time to do so in the second.
* * *
My name is Grigory Andreievich Volkov. I am two hundred and forty years old, I was born about a hundred thousand years ago, and as many light-years away: Kharkov, Russian Federation, Earth, in the year 2018. As a young conscript, I fought in the Ural Caspian Oil War. I was with the first troops to enter Marseilles and to bathe their sore feet in the waters of the Mediterranean. In 2040,1 became a cosmonaut of the European Union, and three years later made the first human landing on the surface of Venus. In 2046 I volunteered for work on the space station Marshal Titov, which in 2049 was renamed the Bright Star. It became the first human-controlled starship. In it I traveled to the Second Sphere. For the past two centuries I have lived on Mingulay and Croatan.
This is my first visit to Nova Terra. I hope to bring you…
* * *
What? The secret of immortality?
Yes. The secret of immortality. That would do.
Strictly speaking, what he hoped to bring was the secret of longevity. But he had formed an impression of the way science was conducted on Nova Terra: secular priestcraft, enlightened obscurantism; alchemy, philosophy, scholia. A trickle of inquiry after immortality had exhausted hedge-magic, expanded herbalism, lengthened little but grey beards and the index of the Pharmacopia, and remained respectable. Volkov expected to be introduced to the Academy as a prodigy. Before the shaving-mirror, he polished his speech and rehearsed his Trade Latin.
The suds and stubble swirled away. He slapped a stinging cologne on his cheeks, gave himself an encouraging smile, and stepped out of the cramped washroom. The ship's human quarters were sparse and provisional. In an emergency, or at the owners' convenience, they could be flooded. In normal operation, it was usual to travel in one or other of the skiffs, which at this moment were racked on the vast curving sides of the forward chamber like giant silver platters. The air smelled of paint and seawater; open channels and pools divided the floor, and on the walls enormous transparent pipes contained columns of water that rose or fell, functioning as lifts for the ship's crew. Few humans, and fewer saurs, were about in the chamber. Volkov strolled along a walkway. At its end, a low rail enclosed the pool of the navigator. Eyes the size of beach balls reflected racing bands of color from the navigator's chromatophores and the surrounding instrumentation. Wavelets from the rippling mantle perturbed the water. Lashing tentacles broke the surface as they played over the controls.
Volkov was halfway up the ladder to the skiff in which he had spent most, and intended to spend the rest, of the brief journey, when the lightspeed jump took place. The sensation was so swift and subtle that it did not endanger his step or grasp. He was aware that it had happened, that was all. In a moment of idle curiosity—for he'd never been within sight of a ship's controller at such a moment—he glanced sideways and down, to the watery cockpit twenty-odd meters below.
The navigator floated in the middle of the pool. His body had turned an almost translucent white. Volkov was perturbed, but could think of nothing better to do than scramble faster up the ladder to the skiff.
The door opened and he stepped inside, rejoining his hosts. Esias de Tenebre stood staring at the display panel, as though he could read the racing glyphs that to Volkov meant nothing. Feet well apart, hands in his trouser pockets, his stout and muscular frame bulked further by his heavy sweater, his shock of hair spilling from under his seaman's cap. Though in the rough-duty clothes that merchants, traditionally wore on board ship, he had all the stocky and cocky dignity of Holbein's Henry—one who did not kill his wives, all three of whom stood beside him. Lydia, the daughter of Esias and Faustina, lounged on the circular seat around the central engine fairing behind her parents, returning Volkov's appeasing look with sullen lack of interest. Black hair you could swim in, brown eyes you could drown in, golden skin you could bask in. Her oversized sweater and baggy canvas trousers only added to her charm. The other occupant of the vehicle was its pilot, Voronar, who sat leaning forward past Esias.
"What's going on?"
The saur's elliptical eyes spared Volkov a glance, then returned to the display.
"Nothing out of the ordinary," said Voronar. His large head, which lent his slender reptilian body an almost infantile proportion, tipped forward, then nodded. "We are an hour away from Nova Terra."
"Could you possibly show us the view?" said Esias.
"Your pardon," said Voronar.
He palmed the controls, and the entire surrounding wall of the skiff became pseudotransparent, patching data from the ship's external sensors and automatically adjusting brightness and contrast: Nova Sol's glare was turned down, the crescent of Nova Terra muted to a cool blue, its night side enhanced. Scattered clusters of crowded lights pricked the dark like pleiads.
"That's a lot of cities," Volkov said.
Compared with anywhere else he'd seen in the Second Sphere, if not with the Earth he remembered, it was.
"There's only one that matters," said Esias. He did not need to point it out.
Nova Babylonia was the jewel of the Second Sphere. Its millennia-old culture, and its younger but still ancient republican institutions, made it peacefully hegemonic on Nova Terra, and beyond. The temperate zones of Nova Terra's continents were placid parks, where even wildernesses were carefully planned landscape features. All classes of its people were content. Academicians and artists assimilated the latest ideas and styles that trickled in over the millennia from Earth; patricians and politicians debated cordially and congratulated themselves on their fortune in knowing, and avoiding, the home world's terrible mistakes. Merchants traded the rare goods of many worlds. Artisans and laborers enjoyed the advantages of a division of labor far wider than any the human species could have sustained on its own. Emigration was free, but the proportion of emigrants insignificant. The hominidae cheerfully tended and harvested the sources of raw materials, and the saurs and krakens exchanged their advanced products and services for those of human industry and craft. As an older and wiser species, the saurs were consulted to settle disputes, and as a more powerful species, they intervened to prevent any from getting out of hand.
The lights of Nova Babylonia shone just short of the terminator, and somewhat to the north of the halfway point between the pole and the equator. Genea, the continent on whose eastern shore the city stood, sprawled diagonally across the present night side of the planet and southward into the day and the southern hemisphere. Its ragged coastline counterpointed that of the other major continent, Sauria, a couple of thousand kilometers west: the two looked as though they had been pulled apart and displaced, one northward, the other south. Much of the southern and western part of Sauria was wrapped out of sight around the other side of the planet, at this moment; in the visible part, even at this distance, the rectangular regularity of some of its green patches distinguished manufacturing plant from jungle and plain.
"Do any humans live in Sauria?" Volkov asked.
Esias shrugged. "A few thousand, maybe, at any one time. Short-term contract employees, traders, people involved in travel infrastructure and big-game hunting. Likewise with saurs in Genea—lots of individuals, no real communities, except around the hospitals and health services."
Hospitals and health services, yes, Volkov thought, that could be a problem.
"What about the other hominidae?"
"Ah, that's a more usual distribution, except that they have entire cities of their own." Esias pointed; it wasn't much help. "Gigants here, pithkies there. Forests and mines, even some farming. More of a surprise than the cities, that; it's only developed in the last few centuries. They've always been herding, of course."
As the ship's approach zoomed the view, the city and its surroundings expanded and sharpened. The immediate vicinity and hinterland of the city was a long, triangular promontory, about a thousand kilometers from northwest to southeast and five hundred across at its widest extent. It looked like a smaller and narrower India: an island that had rammed the continent at an angle. Very likely it was—the ice of a spectacular and recent mountain range glittered white across the join. The west coast of this mini subcontinent was separated from the mainland of Genea by a semicircular sea, three hundred kilometers across at its widest, its shore curving to almost meet the end of the promontory just south of the metropolis. From the mountains sprang a dozen or so rivers whose confluence channeled about halfway down to one major river, which flowed into the sea near the tapered tip. The central, and oldest, part of Nova Babylonia was on an island about ten kilometers long that looked wedged in that river's mouth.
The city drifted off center in the view, then swung out of sight entirely as the ship leveled up for its run into the atmosphere. Why the great starships approached on what resembled a long, shallow glide path was unknown, and certainly unnecessary, but it was what they always did. The air reddened around the ship's field and, following another unnecessary and invariable habit, its human passengers returned to their seats.
* * *
Volkov leaned on the rail of the open sea-level deck of the starship and gasped morning-cool fresh air. The star-ship had, to the best of his knowledge, no air-recycling or air-circulating mechanisms whatsoever, and after a couple of hours even its vast volume of air grew slightly but noticeably stale. Around him, unregarded, the ship's unlading went on, bales into boats and sometimes into skiffs. The machinery that he had imported from Mingulay and Croatan—marine engines and diving equipment, mostly—would be a small fraction of the de Tenebres' cargo, and that itself insignificant beside the wares of the ship's real owners and major traders, the krakens. Beneath him, the ship's field pressed down like an invisible, flexible sheet on the waves, flattening them to a waterbed wobble. Under that rippling glassy surface, the krakens from the ship and from the local sea flashed greetings to each other. Off to Volkov's right, behind the bulk of the ship, the sun was just up, its low full beam picking out the city, about a mile away across the water, in rectangles of white glare and long triangles of black shade. Ten thousand years of heaping one stone upon another had stacked the architectures of antiquity to the heights of modernity. A marble Manhattan, massive yet soaring, it looked like something from the mind of a Speer with humanity, or a Stalin with taste. The avenues that slotted the island metropolis from east to west were so broad that Volkov could see the sky on the far side through the one directly opposite him. Bridges, sturdy as ribs, joined both shores to districts that stood, less grand only by contrast, on either bank.
Starships by the score dotted the broad estuary. Skiffs flitted back and forth between the sound and the city like Frisbees in a park. Long-limbed mammals like flying squirrels—this world's equivalent of birds—skimmed the waves and dived for fish and haunted the wakes of fishing boats in raucous flocks. Above the city, airships and gliders drifted, outpaced and dodged by the flashing skiffs. Between the starships, tall junks and clippers tacked in or out of the harbor and both branches of the river, and among them feluccas darted, their sails like the fins of a shoal of sharks. At this distance, the city's dawn din of millions of wheels and feet rose in a discernible and gradually increasing hum.
For a moment the immensity and solidity of the place made Volkov's heart sink. The stone crescendo that rose before his face was like some gigantic ship against whose bow history itself cleaved and fell back to slip along its flanks and leave a wake of churned millennia. And yet ultimately it was only an idea that kept it afloat and forging forward, a thought in millions of all-too-fragile skulls. Let them lose that thought, and in a year, the place would sink. Volkov had set himself the harder task of raising it, and at that, he felt weak.
He heard and smelt Lydia behind him, and turned as she stepped up to the rail. She gazed hungrily at the city, transfixed.
"Gods above," she said, "it's good to see it again." She smiled at him wryly. "And good to see it hasn't changed much." Another, more considering, look at the city. "Except it's higher."
"It's impressive," Volkov allowed.
"And you want to change it."
Volkov jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the work being done behind them. "You're the revolutionaries," he said. "Bring in enough books and ideas, and the city will change itself. All I want to do is make sure it's still there the next time you come back."
He grinned at her, controlling his features. His heart was making him shake inside. "If I believed in your people's ideas of courtship, I would offer it for your hand. I would tell Esias that I could take this city and lay it at your feet."
Lydia, to his surprise, blushed and blinked. "That's what Esias is afraid of," she said.
She stared away, as though weighing the city, and the suggestion.
"Gregor offered more," she added, "and he delivered it, too, but he didn't want me after all. No, I'm not open to that kind of offer. Not after that."
"I see," said Volkov. "I'll just have to fall back on my fine physique and engaging personality."
Lydia laughed. "I can never tell if you're joking or not."
"Neither can I," said Volkov in a gloomy tone.
She punched him lightly. "There you go again."
He turned to her, with a smile to cover his confusion, and even more to cover his calculation. He did not know how he felt, or what if anything his feelings meant. A few weeks earlier, his affair with Lydia's mother, Faustina, had come to a mutually agreeable end. He got on best with women of his own apparent age, or older; preferably married, or otherwise unlikely to form a permanent—and from his point of view, all too temporary—attachment. He wasn't in love with Lydia, or even infatuated with her. He didn't think about her all the time. But whenever he saw her, he felt an electric jolt inside him, and he found it difficult to look away from her. It was embarrassing to find himself stealing glances like some besotted youth, but there it was.
At the other end of the scale, almost balancing that, there was the knowledge that in terms of Nova Babylonian—and Trader—custom, they were potentially good partners. Marriage was a business, affairs an avowed diversion; issue, inheritance, and fortune the only serious matters, over which geneticists and astrologers and matchmakers kept themselves profitably occupied.
In between, at the balance point, he and Lydia had developed a sort of tempestuous friendship, which every so often blew up in clashes in which his values and ideas appeared to her as a jaded cynicism, and her passionately held ethics to him seemed ancient prejudices, immaturely held. At the moment, their relationship was going through one of its calmer patches. He didn't know whether a squall would have been better. More bracing, certainly; but there was no need to bring it on. It would come of itself soon enough.
"Can we at least be friendly, for the moment?"
She smiled back. "You may be sly, Grigory Andreievich, but I do like you. Sometimes."
* * *
The first skiff slid out of its slot in the rack and skimmed across the navigation pool and out of one of the ship's side openings. It soared to an altitude of a couple of hundred meters and flew into the city, the other skiffs carrying the rest of the clan and the crew following one by one at intervals of about half a minute. Voronar took his time, evidently enjoying showing off to Volkov the city's towers and his own skill in flying between them. From above, the city looked astonishingly green. Trees lined the streets, and stories rose in steps like terraces, many of which supported grass and gardens: the hanging gardens of Nova Babylonia, a wonder greater than their ancient original. Monkeys scrambled and swung on long vines and branches; goats grazed the lofty lawns and capered up or down external stairways; flying squirrels, their fur bright and various as the feathers of parakeets, flashed across the artificial canyons.
The skiff dipped, making the view tilt alarmingly while the internal gravity remained rock solid. Volkov glimpsed a buttress on which was carved an eagle, wings outspread to ten meters, and beneath it the inscriptions "IX" and "SPQR"; and then, before he could quite grasp the allusive stir of memory, they were past it and sidling in to a tower, down whose fifty-meter lower tier a column of neon spelled out DE TENEBRE. The skiff landed on one of the building's terraces and everyone except the pilot descended the ladder onto soft turf, and the skiff flitted away to make room for the rest of the skein.
"Sliding glass doors," Volkov murmured to Lydia, as they walked toward the entrance. "It's been a long time."
"Oh, so they had them on Earth?"
From the sliding doors emerged a crowd of the clan's retainers and office workers, and—as Volkov learned in the swirl of fast introductions as the new arrivals were ushered inside—members of the home-staying branch, the oldest of whom might remember from childhood someone old enough to have been alive when the ship had departed. Also in the crowd were saurs, for whom the past two centuries were an episode in their lives, and who swiftly renewed old acquaintances among their counterparts in the traveling crew. For all of them, human and saur alike, the return of the ship was a major event and a huge celebration. This floor of the building was evidently the function suite, a vast deck whose open space was only interrupted by support pillars, and on it a thousand or so people were partying. Most of them wore some kind of pleated kimonos, with variations in cloth, cut, texture, and pattern that differentiated the sexes in predictable ways. Others wore loose jackets and trousers, likewise varied.
Volkov circulated, nibbled and sipped, chatted discreetly. Esias's family and the few crew members who knew who Volkov really was had agreed to keep it to themselves and to the saurs, at least until the Academy, the Electorate, the Senate, and the Assembly of Notables had had a chance to consider the situation. He introduced himself as an immigrant marine engineer importing some new technology, which was true as far as it went. A slow circumnavigation of the room took him back to Lydia's orbit.
He gestured at his clothes and hers, then at those of the other revelers. "Doesn't this make you feel a little…underdressed for the occasion?"
Lydia brushed her hands on her hips, leaving crumbs on canvas. "Not at all," she said. "Traveling gear is the most prestigious garb at this party, I'll tell you that. If we were to come here in what were our best clothes when we left, we'd look as though we were in some kind of antique costume." She looked around critically. "Mind you, I can see where this sort of silk origami style came from, and I'm quite looking forward to trying it, but there's no way I'd change into it straight off the ship. I'd look as ridiculous as I'd feel."
"I doubt that."
Lydia acknowledged the compliment with a shake of the head. "And how do you feel?"
"Somewhat overwhelmed by all this, to tell you the truth. Not just the occasion, but the city."
"Aha," said Esias, looming into view behind a brandy balloon. "I detect a bad case of cultural cringe. I can see it in your eyes, Volkov. Relax, my friend. We're the hosts here, remember. And from our point of view, we attend such occasions every few months."
"Perhaps at the next one," Volkov murmured, "all the people here will be there."
Esias raised a finger, then winked. "But yes," he said, "an interesting thought…I've set some wheels in motion about a hearing from the Academy, by the way. It'll take a day or two, of course. In the meantime, I'll deal with the usual turnaround business, and you…"
"I'll sell machines," said Volkov.
* * *
Volkov spent the next few days wandering around the city, sometimes in Lydia's company, sometimes on his own. From street level, the terracing gave an illusion of its being built on a human scale. From the pavement, the nearby towers would seem only a few storeys high, those farther away like cliffs striated with verdant ledges. Awnings and cloisters, courtyards and porticoes, plazas and fountains, and the long shadows of the buildings themselves, made the air on the streets bearable, almost cool. Higher up, breezes did the same work. Access to the upper levels was by lifts, or interior stairs, or by perilous stairways that zigzagged up their outer walls. The whole city ran on a like combination of muscle power and electricity. Less dense than it had looked from the sea, it contained endless pocket parks and gardens, fertilized by draft-animal dung, whose collection and distribution was a business in itself. Hardly a splash of shit ever reached the streets. Processing human waste was another specialization, conducted with such skill and speed that Volkov for a long while did not catch more than a passing whiff of it.
The gardens in the business district were decorative, but elsewhere, their floral fringes enclosed vegetable patches, small rice paddies, beds of herbs, tiny meadows for the goats, guinea pigs, and other minor livestock; the trees of the avenues and parks were harvested for fruit, and even timber. It was not something Lydia or anyone else explained to him, it was something he worked out with pencil and paper: The city was a permaculture, self-sufficient in at least its basic necessities. The cash-crop latifundia of its hinterland brought in money, not food, or at most brought variety to the diet.
Its biggest external source of food was the sea, or rather two seas: the Half Moon Sea and the Eastern Ocean. The feluccas fished the former, and the big oceanworthy junks trawled the latter. Even the harbor was clean enough to sustain a fishery of its own, conducted by hordes of boys and girls who sat along the piers from morning to evening with long bamboo rods. In the dusk they sold basketloads of small fry to the felucca skippers for bait, and sizzled the remainder on roadside griddles long into the night.
Volkov, too, hawked wares around the docks, every day lugging samples of the smaller devices, models, and plans of the larger, around shipping and fishing companies. He knew from decades of experience where to go, usually not to the offices but the sheds, not to the owners or administrators but the engineers, who, once they were sold on a new idea, did his selling for him. He picked up the local vernacular as he went; gradually, his Trade Latin approximated to a sort of Trade Italian, and he made enough deals to reassure him that even if nothing came of his larger plans, he could make a living here. There was a kind of contentment in the work that warred with his ambition.
Guilds, associations, companies, cooperatives, and corporations combined the hustle of private enrichment or survival with the stability of municipal administration and held the city's economic life in what Volkov—used as he was to the less regulated markets of the outer, younger worlds—could only think of as a strangling net. Even the European Union's "feasible and sustainable socialism" had been, to his recollection, much more dynamic. Artels plus electrification, he thought wryly, added up to something that wasn't capitalism and wasn't socialism. Its exact classification puzzled the residually and obdurately Marxist modules of his mind until he arbitarily consigned it to the conceptual catch-all of "pre-capitalist." From this society, capitalism could emerge, and—with more upheaval and less substantial change—socialism too, but Volkov's fingers still smarted from a previous experiment in detonating a bourgeois revolution.
Identifying a ruling class and state posed no such problem. The upper and usually senior ranks of the various corporate bodies, patricians and patriarchs of the merchant houses, administrators of cooperatives, guildmasters and latifundists, heads of religious orders and philosophical schools, retired courtesans, professors emeritus, and so on and so forth, formed what was blatantly called the Electorate, who just as blatantly elected the Senate and staffed its administration, and that was that. Volkov had no scruples about elites—having been part of one—and was surprised to find himself shocked by the sheer effrontery of the Republic's lack of the forms of democracy. All his experience had been with people who insisted on at least the illusion of popular rule, and it was disquieting to encounter a people who seemed satisfied with the substance of self-government in everyday life while letting high politics and statecraft go on over their heads—as it almost always and everywhere did, of course.
As he walked through mazes of markets and malls, past workshops and mills, glimpsed ranks of pale-faced clerks filing and scribbling and ringing up totals on calculating machines, and marveled at the countless threads of communication—the racing messenger boys' bare feet slapping in echoing stairwells, the cyclists yelling and dodging in the streets, the long sigh of pneumatic tubes and the ring of telephony—Volkov realized that this city could become the hub of a militarily and industrially formidable state without changing a single institution. All it needed was information.
They already had some—news of the arrival of the Bright Star, and bits and pieces of the recent knowledge it had brought, had trickled in long before the de Tenebres' ship had set out to bring back as much as possible. And they had the means to disseminate and discuss it—the press here was multiple and full of rude vigor, as were the numerous radio channels. The massive addition to knowledge that had just arrived would set the place intellectually alight. Rumors of it were already setting everyone agog.
The banner of his revolution would be: Knowledge is power.
* * *
The Academy's interior was cool—its granite blocks retaining, it seemed, a nip of cold from the previous winter—and quiet. Its air carried a tang of wood polish and disinfectant; aeons of application of the former had given the high doors of the Senate Chamber a patina millimeters deep, and ages of the latter had worn centimeters of dip into the sandstone steps.
"No," said Volkov, belying it slightly by fingering the knot of his tie. He was wearing a hastily tailored but reasonably accurate copy of his old dress uniform, made after the photograph taken on the day of his investiture as Hero of the European Union (First Class) which he still carried around in his wallet. Esias, in a magnificent fur-trimmed brocade robe at least two centuries out of fashion, looked scarcely less quaint and exotic.
The black iron handle of the double doors was turned from within and the doors swung back, silent on well-oiled hinges. Volkov had assumed they would creak. A lean, elderly servitor in a long black gown bowed through the widening gap, then stepped aside. Volkov hesitated.
"After you," growled Esias. "You're my guest, not a captive specimen."
"I'll try to remember that," Volkov said, and with a nod to the servitor, marched into the Senate Chamber. It was about thirty meters high, illuminated by electric lamps and a roseate skylight. Semicircular tiers of benches rose from the podium to the rear, and on them sat a grave multitude of ancient men, among whom were a modicum of younger but still mature men and a very few women. One long-bearded, long-gowned sage stood by the podium, a hand out in a beckoning gesture. Volkov reminded himself that he was older and probably wiser than anyone else present, and strode over to shake the extended hand, rather to the recipient's surprise.
"My name is Luke Sejanus," the scholar murmured, "president of the Academy of Sciences."
He turned, threw out an arm with a practised flourish, and announced: "My lords, ladies and gentlemen, I present our distinguished visitor, Grigory Andreievich Volkov! Cosmonaut of the European Union, colonel in the European People's Army, Hero of the European Union…"
He rolled on through a list Volkov's achievements, including the succession of his business ventures on Mingulay and Croatan, several of which Volkov had thought he had taken to the obscurity of a marked but empty grave in the centuries during which the Cosmonauts had concealed their longevity. He had, however, mentioned them to Esias.
Esias had taken a vacant place at the end of one of the lower rows. Volkov glared at him; Esias smiled back.
Sejanus stepped aside, sat down in the front row, and added his expectant face to a thousand others. Volkov swallowed hard and wished there was a glass of water in front of him. Or vodka.
"Thank you, President Sejanus. My lords, ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to stand before you. What is unusual about my life is not what I have accomplished—though I can look back on it with more satisfaction than regret, thanks be to the gods. What is unusual about my life is…its length. I am here to show you how you too can live as long a life, and in health and vigor—even those of you who are already old.
"To show you, not to tell you. I am sorry that I cannot tell you. In the third and fourth decades of my life, I consumed many drugs and medicines that promised to preserve youth. As you can see, one of them, or some combination of them, worked. I do not know which, and because the formulae of these medicines were commercial secrets, I would be unable to reproduce it even if I knew which nostrum was, in fact, the panacea. I and the other Cosmonauts have consulted among ourselves, and we have failed to discover which medicine or medicines we had in common.
"What I can do, however, is this. I can show you the method by which you can independently discover the nostrum—the elixir—for yourselves. This would involve extracting material from my body and analyzing it—finding out what molecules are in my blood, for example, that are not in the blood of others. Possibly one or more of these molecules would provide a clue. Or perhaps you might find something unusual in the structures of my cells-I do not know, but that is what I would expect. At the same time, I can give you a list of the types of molecule which are known to have been used in the various medicines, and the parts of the human cells which these medicines were intended to—and were known to—affect. These could be tested on short-lived animals—rats and mice, let us say—then on monkeys, and finally on human volunteers. Many experiments would be necessary. Their results would have to be scrupulously recorded and carefully examined.
"It might be a long process. It might be costly. But we would have, to encourage us, the priceless knowledge that what we were attempting was possible, that it had been done once, and that it could therefore be done again.
"Thank you."
He bowed, and stood aside as Sejanus returned to the podium. Esias was nodding and smiling; almost everyone else seemed lost in thought.
"I shall now take questions," said Sejanus, looking as though he had some himself.
A middle-aged man near the front stood up. "Theocritus Gionno," he introduced himself, obviously unnecessarily for most of those present. "Chairman of the Department of Medical Sciences." He preened his robe for a moment. "In recent days, the Trader and Elector Esias de Tenebre has provided us with evidence for Colonel Volkov's remarkable, nay, extraordinary, claim. We have all had an opportunity to acquaint ourselves with it, and we must, I think, admit that it is extraordinary evidence. Documents of undisputed provenance, photographs, fingerprints.…Likewise, we and our predecessors have had many years indeed to examine such evidence of the level of scientific knowledge prevalent in the Solar System at the time of the, ah, Bright Star's departure as has trickled in over the past two centuries. We have no reason to doubt the possibility of the treatment of which the Colonel has spoken."
He cupped an elbow in one hand, his chin in the other, and gazed around the auditorium.
"However," he went on, "the method that the Colonel proposes by which we could independently, as he puts it, rediscover the nostrum must surely strike all men—and women!—of science as preposterously cumbersome and, above all, uncertain. This is not how science is done at all! The scientific method is based upon logical reasoning from observation, and from logical analysis of available data. An immense wealth of such data is available to us already. An even greater addition to it has been bestowed on us by the successful expedition of the family de Tenebre, which beyond the memory of the oldest man now living, set forth to bring from distant Mingulay the full fountainhead of that knowledge of which we and our predecessors have long lapped up the veriest drops and trickles. I have every confidence that a few years of careful study and exact reasoning will enable us to deduce the composition of the elixir."
A low hum of approbation greeted this. Others stood up, one by one, and held forth on the power of logic to reason from old facts to new.
"Let us take for example the theory of evolution," one man, depressingly young, said. "Could that have been discovered experimentally? No! A thousand years ago, Alexander Philoctetes stood in this very hall and explained to the Academy how in each generation more are born than can survive, how consequently there is a struggle for existence, and how therefore small variations conducive to survival must necessarily be preserved—and so on, in that masterly deduction of the origin of species with which we are all familiar. If Philoctetes had used this vaunted experimental method—fossicking about in quarries, no doubt-he would have found the most misleading results in the fossil record, and come up with some theory of successive creations, or spontaneous generation, or such like."
And more in the same vein. Volkov would have sat with his head in his hands if he'd had anywhere to sit. As it was, he just stood there, feeling his jaw muscles first slacken and then, increasingly, clench.
"Your pardon," he said finally to Sejanus, "but I must speak."
Sejanus bowed him to the rostrum. Volkov gripped it and leaned forward.
"I fully understand," he said, "and deeply appreciate what the sciences of this great city have accomplished by examining and comparing information obtained by your own careful observations and from study of the information won on Earth in the past. You have indeed accomplished great things. But not all, not by any means all, of what anyone can see in this wonderful metropolis was built by such methods. No amount of reasoning, from observation or from first principles, could have built the machines I have seen in the shops, the ships I see on the ocean, the vehicles in your streets, and the crops in your fields. They were designed by the method I suggested, the empirical method, the method of trial and error, of hypothesis and induction as well as—indeed, hand in hand with—deduction. Your mechanics and artisans, your pharmacists and farmers, your fishers and flyers may not be able to tell you the method by which they have so successfully worked, but the fact of that method and its success are surely beyond dispute here. Let us reason and compare, to be sure, when we investigate the discoveries of others. But let us experiment and test when we wish to make new discoveries ourselves."
As he spoke, he glanced from face to face, and here and there he saw agreement, even—and it thrilled him to see it—enlightenment dawn, but these occurrences were few. The overwhelming mood of the assembly was bafflement, even affront. Theocritus Gionno was simmering, and jumped to his feet as soon as Volkov stepped back.
"Of course," said Gionno, "many of us here do appreciate the value, and understand the significance, of what the esteemed Colonel rightly calls the empirical or experimental method. Some here have devoted their lives as scholars to such works of the masters Bacon and Popper as have reached us. The commentaries upon The Advancement of Learning alone would fill a not insignificant shelf, and those upon The Logic of Scientific Discovery a small library. But there are many deep problems with such a method, and until they are resolved, it is best left to guide, consciously or otherwise as it may be, the crude blundering of mechanics, artisans, and herbalists. Such methods are no doubt good enough for them. The requirements of exact science are considerably more rigorous."
Volkov laughed. He had not intended to, and he saw at once that its effect was bad, but he could not help himself.
"Somewhere in one of the works of science in the de Tenebres' cargo," he said into a shocked silence, "you'll find a quote from a great scientist of Earth, one Poincare, who said: ‘Science advances, funeral by funeral.' I see that its truth is universal, and I bid you good day."
* * *
"Well," puffed Esias, having caught up with Volkov in the shade of a cloistered quadrangle, "that did not go down well."
Volkov ran his hand over his brush-cut hair. "No, it did not," he said. "My apologies, my friend. I hope I haven't dragged you down with me. But these scholars, my God! They'd sooner die than think. And they will."
Esias chuckled. "Some of them. Perhaps not all. Let us proceed to the refreshment patio and wait there, in as dignified a fashion as we can muster, and see if there are any exceptions to the rule." He clapped Volkov's shoulder. "The scientific method!"
"I don't want to hear those words again for a week," said Volkov. "But you're right. And I'm parched."
They sat at a table under an awning and gulped one glass and sipped a second glass of what Esias insisted was beer. Volkov knew better than to press the point. He relaxed and watched the students, at the other tables or walking in the quadrangle. Apart from the black bat-sleeved short robes they wore like overalls, they looked on the one hand like younger versions of the Academicians, and on the other like students everywhere, alternately earnest and relaxed. The proportion of female students was a good deal higher than it was among the scholars, though nowhere near parity. What a bloody waste, Volkov thought. Changing that alone would speed up development.
"You know," said Esias, "you may be underestimating the Academy. They are not dullards. They have millennia of experience behind them of teasing out unexpected implications. Your journey here will not be wasted. It may take them time, longer than you might wish, but the knowledge we have brought back will be assimilated and extended."
"All right," Volkov said. "Let the Academy rummage through books if it wants. What I'm more concerned about is the other institutions. Are they as hidebound? Because time is what we don't have. If the aliens turn up before this place has a space defense capability, then the question of longevity is, you might say, academic."
"Ah yes," said Esias. "The aliens." He glanced around. "I think any allusion to that matter is best…postponed, until we can put it before the Electorate—in the first in-stance; the Defense Committee of the Senate."
Volkov smiled. "That's how it was done on Earth. The consequences were not good."
"Oh," said Esias, looking over his shoulder again, "you won't find any of that paranoia here. You'll see."
But Volkov was only half listening; he was gazing away to the shade of the quadrangle, from which a dozen or so black-gowned figures had emerged blinking into the sunlight and were making their way over.

Copyright © 2003 by Ken Macleod