I’ve been publishing digitally for probably half my life, from flash fiction to webcomics to ebooks. This 10,000 word story is offered as a pay-what-you-like/tip jar situation. If you enjoy it and you have a spare coin, here’s the jar.
I crested the plateau and stopped for a moment, wondering if I were the first person to breathe the air out here.
The indigenous populations of the Star Mountains in Papua New Guinea have always been understood to be thinly scattered. The Stars were generally understood to be one of the last, if not the last, of the undiscovered places on Earth.
The air was thin, wet and cold. I trained for three months to function at this altitude, and I still didn’t think it was enough. The plateau wasn’t as flat as the word suggests: it rolled and dipped, and had dark hilly rises. Even a mile up, there were still wide ponds, and the limestone ground was thick with vegetation evolved to cling and live. Just like us. Clinging on and living as best we can.
To the east, one rise seemed darker than the rest. Walking around carefully – you did everything carefully up there – I realized why. There was a cave behind the brush.
I slipped the small flashlight from its waterproof sheath and moved in. The Stars are among the rainiest places on Earth, and any marks around the cave, even in the rock, would have washed away long enough. So I stepped into the cave, and played the light around. The cave roof canted down. On an angle away from the rain, I found what I feared.
The language was some mix of Telefolmin and Wopkaimin. Perhaps some fusion that evolved up here. Intelligible to both language groups. A shared context. The markings read “We were here. We could see all across the world. We stayed as long as we could.”
I know I sighed. I looked into the cave, and the walls were alive with markings and pigments.
We cling to the rocks, and then we die. Just once, I would have liked to have been the first person standing somewhere. To have known that I’d reached the walls of the world. To not be standing on top of the bones of the human dead, like every other damn place I’d been.
The United Nations would have to make this a protected conservation region. There was that, at least.
I shrugged off my pack, unbagged my tools and cameras, and began to look for the story of the people who lived in the last place on Earth.
“Do you want to do something wonderful?” he asked me, with an Ahab glitter in his eye.
“Are you high already?” I moved closer to the balcony, to take in the Aspen view and to try and tune Peak out. “I’m amazed you even got to stay in the country after that appearance on Colbert. Psilocybin as productivity enhancer? Take it somewhere else, Peak.”
I hated having people around after I’d done a presentation. Having to put that much energy into a room full of people taps me out, and the self-loathing involved in comparing what I do to business and society makes me want to throw up over the nearest rail for hours afterwards.
“Keep your damn voice down,” Peak Saxon said, invading my space at the balcony rail. “It’s a really simple question, Sam.”
Who calls their kid Peak? And doesn’t expect them to turn out off-putting and broken?
“You don’t have time or space for asking questions,” I said. “Last time I looked, you were running a car company, a space company, an AI company and an internet payments company that funds all the other stuff. And one of your labs exploded this year. I don’t know what you’re doing here, and I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“You’re here because the Aspen Futures Agenda pays anyone who might have an angle on what’s next to come here and press the flesh, and you need the money. Just like all the other thought-leader and influencer events I meet you at. Don’t get shitty just because you’re uncomfortable about being the poorest person they’ll ever meet.” He put his hand on my shoulder and dropped his voice. “My lab didn’t blow up.”
“That’s not what the tv news said.”
“You are literally the only person here who watches tv news. And, anyway, we lied. We had a breakthrough propulsion event.”
I turned to him and put out my hand. “Hi. I thought we’d met many times and gotten drunk together at least twice, but apparently we haven’t met. I’m Sam Finn. I live in the woods and dig stuff up. I have no idea what you just said and you know it.”
Peak Saxon batted my hand away. “You’re not working the marks, you’re talking to me, so don’t play dumb. We accidentally launched something that wasn’t expected to do anything. The side of the lab came off because we sent a steel egg through it under an acceleration of one gravity.”
“Is that fast?”
“If it’d happened in space? And the 1G force was constant? You’d whip past the moon in two or three hours.”
This was the problem with Peak Saxon. He routinely organized amazing things, and frequently said incredible things, but his sheer skill at using his economic power and his ambition was continually undercut by his weird fanatic affect and his utter inability to stop bullshitting.
“That’s nice,” I said. “Why lie to the press about it? You’ve got a new launcher. You could probably just fire your satellites into orbit like you had a giant space gun.”
“1G doesn’t meet escape velocity. It can’t get you to orbit. But once you were in orbit…”
“You could fire steel eggs at the moon until you ran out of fuel. Cool.”
That glitter in his eyes. The gaze of someone who’s seen what he wants and will drown any man to get it. “Sam. You’re not thinking. I own a spacelaunch company. I can link two heavy lifters together and yank that thing into orbit. Sam. Under constant 1G power, I can get to Mars in a matter of days.”
“You and Mars,” I said. Peak Saxon’s Mars obsession was well known. It was a kid’s dream of dropping houses on a different planet and playing spaceman.
“I want my grandkids to email me from Mars when I’m old. Is that such a bad thing?”
“You called your kid Kal-El. The whole family’s going to cut you off.”
“Fuck you. My kid’s going to be a superman. Carinthia said so.”
“Carinthia thinks she speaks to space gods on DMT and they’re waiting for you inside a cosmic superstring. She calls you Starman when you have sex.”
“She told you that?”
“Yes, Peak. At the Next Normal event at that place in Big Sur. She wanted me to fuck her up against an old tree so she could, quote, feel the Gaian mycelial network computing.”
“Well, damn,” he said mildly. “The rules are that she tells me who she’s going to hit on before she hits on them. Did you?”
“No. I lied and told her I liked you. What do you want, Peak?”
“What do you want?”
“Okay, I’m done.”
“Sam. You pretty much live outdoors. You’re a forensic archaeologist, you retrained in at least two other fields I’m aware of, and you spend your time exploring places nobody else had been – or was willing to go to – and dig shit up and find new things and see sights nobody else has. The world is fast running out of those things. What do you want?”
“I want to keep doing it,” I said, reflexively.
“Right,” Peak said, triumphant. “And it’s getting harder, right? And it’s expensive. So you come to these things and do your little money dance. Knowing full well that sooner or later you’ll be done. Nothing left.”
“Okay,” I said, “let’s say you’re right, and let’s say I’m not going to knock your teeth out if you keep giving me that shit-eating grin. What’s it to you?”
“You know what Tiree is?”
“It’s the most western island in the Inner Hebrides off Scotland.”
“It’s an asteroid. Now I know this made the tv news.”
“I switch the space stuff off, in case I see your grinning face.”
“Tiree is a big old asteroid in a very eccentric orbit between Mars and Earth. The same day we had the propulsion event at my lab? Tiree span up.”
“It did what?”
“The albedo changes caught astronomers’ attention. At first they thought some cryovolcanos went off on its surface – some of these big old rocks spit out a bunch of salty mud when they face the sun. But they weren’t. They were thrusters. Tiree is spinning along an axis. So NASA got some telescope time retasked. And the back end of Tiree has detached. A clean slice, like you slit the end off a potato to stand it on end.”
“I’m not completely following you. Space isn’t my thing.”
Peak was frustrated and excited all at once. His face was going through changes, anger and elation and an utter determination to make me see what he wanted.
“It’s spinning, Sam. Spinning things generate gravity. Tiree is old and it’s in a strange orbit passing between Mars and Earth and it’s fired thrusters and the end’s come off. And it happened the same day I fired off an engine with 1G thrust. The sort of engine you’d need for common interplanetary travel. Sam, if you run an 1G engine for a year it approaches lightspeed. That puts the nearest star with a planetary system five years away. And you. You want to get out. You want to go to places nobody’s been and you want to discover things so old that they’re new again.”
“Peak, I am the furthest thing from a spaceman you’ve ever met.”
“Sam, you’re not getting it still. You don’t have to be a spaceman. 1G thrust means your spaceship has Earth gravity all the way there. And Tiree has spun up to 1G. And. It’s only going to take you three days to get there. And. It’s my bet you’re going to find a hatch in the back when you arrive. So. Do you want to do something wonderful?”
“That’s a small office block,” I said, tilting my head back to take it all in.
“That’s your ship,” Peak said.
“Bullshit. You couldn’t launch that.”
“My heavy lifters could put a submarine in orbit if I wanted to. With the new drive working in tandem with them, this is going to be the easiest launch I ever did.”
“I still don’t see how you expect to get there first. NASA must have already sent a probe, right? And you have to finish this thing and test-fly it and all.”
“NASA aren’t sending a probe.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because I paid them not to.”
“Do they still want their satellites launched? Do they still want crew sent to the ISS, and food and water fired at them to keep their crews alive? I do all that, Sam. Me. Spaceflight isn’t the work of states any more. States have no real meaning outside of legal documents. Spaceflight is the work of corporations, just like everything else you can think of. The US Army hires what it’s pleased to call ‘military contractors’ to fight wars for them, and wars were pretty much the last thing left for states to do. I paid them, Sam. This world, and all the others, belong to people like me now.”
I refused to make eye contact with him. I did not want to see what was in his eyes.
“Besides,” he added, “there’s not going to be a test flight. We’re going straight up.”
“Why are there cameras all over this place?” I was in a mock-up build of one of the ship’s wide cabins.
“We’re beaming all the video capture back as well as storing it in servers on the ship,” Peak said, brimming with pride as he wandered around the cabin.
“Peak. I’m not playing twenty questions with you.”
“We’re recording everything you say and do and experience. We’re going to cut it together really fast and stream it for a premium. I control the streaming rights to the first crewed flight of my new engine. A flight that does something nobody has done before. It’s going to pay for almost everything and it sets the stage for what we’re really doing. It’s IP, Sam. I own everything that happens and everything you see and do. It’s almost as good as going myself.”
“There’s plenty of space in here. You can still come with us. I promise not to fire you out of an airlock.”
“I said almost. Going off to do the thing is grand. Being the man who stays behind to run it all… well, that’s gold.”
“You and I are very different people, Peak.”
“You’re people,” Peak said. “I’m the Starman. Now, look here – this is how the cabins rotate in place to orient themselves to the floor gravity created by the constant 1G thrust…”
The engines are on balls. It’s the oddest thing. They can all roll around independently. I don’t know how pointing one way when the balls are pointing in an entirely different direction wouldn’t tear the spaceship apart. But, then, I also don’t really know how the engines work. The explanations always start with something that sounds simple, like “electrogravity,” and then it gets into “vacuum energy,” “quantum foam,” and “local spacetime deformation,” and I just quit.
All I know is that I want to get out. All the way out. As far from the world as possible. And Tiree is about as out as anyone can get.
Well. If Peak figures out how to land on Mars and relaunch off of it, I guess Mars would be new territory. But nothing’s lived there, and nothing ever will. He and I have had a few… well, he calls them talks, I call them arguments. Let’s say discussions on the subject. In his view, humans can and should achieve anything they can imagine, especially if they have access to unimaginable riches through selling bad cars and sneaking ten cents off the top every time you have to send money to your mom over the internet. In my view, the solar system is an uninhabitable shithole and no amount of wishful thinking will make it otherwise. Go and visit and explore, sure. That’s what we’re wired for. We’ve been to the North Pole and the South Pole. Nobody has ever made a permanent hole in either of those places. This is because you cannot change these places to make them not kill you. Same thing applies to Mars. Drop a research base, sure, and change out the researchers every couple of years after they fill up with cancers, but don’t even think about living there. The Inuit don’t think about living at the North Pole, and the North Pole has the signal advantages over Mars of having breathable air and not being a lethal radiation bath.
I’ve been to the North Pole. It was so quiet I could hear my own blood hissing around in my head. After a while, it started driving me mad, so I headed for…. Well. Not home. I haven’t had one of those for some time. Let’s say I headed back towards the noise and the lights.
There were old flags at the North Pole.
Last month, it occurred to me that maybe Tiree would fix me. That going out as far as that, to something that old, that nonetheless held the promise of something under its dirt that hadn’t ever been seen with human eyes…. That that might finally be enough. Tiree is certainly escape. And maybe I’ll bring something back, and say, look, I’m not escaping, I just went somewhere you weren’t prepared to go, and look at the wonders I found. Because maybe it was ego all along. Last of the explorer archaeologists, someone who outlived his breed and maybe his time. Nobody can say I’m a man out of time when I fly to a rock in a spaceship that was invented back in the spring. I’m not a relic: I just find them.
But we know it’s not just that, don’t we?
Levi Marvin came out of the simulator room, smirking at the sight of me propped by the biggest window I could find and sketching engine balls in my ratty notebook. The guy looked maybe forty, but for the sprinkle of salt in his hair. According to the internet, the bastard was fifty-five. Peak, who liked to tell people he was on the autism spectrum but was actually just a classless dick, had introduced Levi to me as “the last Black man to fly on the Space Shuttle.” Levi, with that easy smile of his, just said “No, I’m the last Black to fly the Space Shuttle.”
“You look like a big ugly bird who flew into a zoo and can’t figure out how to fly out again,” Levi said.
“I think you’re supposed to fly me out,” I said. “How many times did you simulate killing us all in a space can today?”
“Not even once,” he said, leaning on the wall by the window. “Damn, I love that thing. You know what I found out today? The assisted-flight system is adapted from one of his cars.”
“You’re shitting me,” I said. “Those self-driving cars kill people every week.”
“Only because people moving around are too random for the car’s brain to process and drivers treat the cars like they’re smart, not like they’re assisting. Think of it more like power steering and satnav. It’s supposed to help you, not do the job for you.”
“So why are they called self-driving?”
“I dunno. Marketing? I’ve noticed Peak’s got kind of a loose relationship with… I wanna say ‘the truth’ but I might mean ‘reality.”
“You’re betting your life on his grip on reality,” I said.
Levi shrugged. He had no hard edges to him. He was as relaxed as only the guy who knew he was the best could be. “I’ve betted it before and gotten to fly in space. And in a lot of ways Shuttle was the scarier bet. It was a real rattletrap, and the way those solid rocket boosters burned, the ride up was rough as hell. This should be a cruise in comparison. You finished your zero-g training now?”
“Yeah,” I said, flinching at the memory of the Vomit Comet. “Still don’t see the need. Peak sold me on the basis of being in 1G the whole time.”
“Yeah, well,” Levi smiled. “He lied.”
“Halfway into the trip, we have to turn the bird around and fire the engines in the direction we’re headed, to slow down. Otherwise we’ll just shoot past Tiree. These things don’t come with brakes. So we will arrive in a zero-g condition. You’ll be floating while we figure out what we’re doing there.”
“I didn’t think of that. I’m not a space guy.”
“I know. You’re a bone-digging explorer guy. And some anthropology stuff too, right?”
“You looked me up?”
“Damn right. I looked all of you up. We may only be out a week or two, but it only makes sense to find out which of you are crazy.”
“All of you,” Levi Marvin laughed.
I found Jessie Yi drying her eyes in a corner of the crew dorm’s common room. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, dabbing the last dew of emotion from her lashes. “Just said my last goodbyes. It’s always a shit.”
“Worse this time?” I asked, sitting a few feet away to give her space. “I mean, you’ve been on the ISS.”
“I don’t know if it’s worse,” she said. “I mean, the ISS is a nightmare. The first thing you have to train yourself out of is worrying about living inside a tinfoil packet. The constant noise of the pumps and the fans. You have to wear earplugs some of the time, or else your hearing is permanently damaged. The microgravity messes with your bones, your muscle mass, your gut, your brain, and it stinks of people and food. And then you see a little white dot on one of the windows and you know a tiny little speck of rock has hit it and you’re kind of interested to see if the whole thing’s going to explode out. It’s a whole experience, you know? No guarantees you’re coming back. One day the whole thing’s going to pop like a balloon.”
“You make it sound so much fun.”
“You’ll see,” she said, pocketing her tissue. “It’s a nightmare right up until you look out the window. If it hasn’t got a crack in it. And see the Earth. Everyone says that, and you think it’s all mandated PR quotes, right up until you do it for yourself. Anyway. Last goodbyes all done. Time for the real work. Is it worse this time? Maybe. We’re doing something for the first time. But the probabilities are on our side. And it’s the IT challenge of a lifetime.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Really? That’s what you’re going to go with? IT?”
“Listen, nature boy. Saxon accidentally fired off a 1G electric drive. Something on a rock four hundred million kilometers away detected that. And span itself up to generate an internal gravity of exactly 1G. You know what I think? Gravity on Mars is 0.375 G. If someone on Mars had launched an electric drive at 0.375G it would have span up to 0.375G. Something up there has been looking for that event for a long time and has responded in relation to that event. That is information technology. There’s no way I can’t try to crack that rock and look inside. I couldn’t say no.”
I decided that Levi was right. We’re all nuts.
“Have you said your goodbyes?” she asked.
“Nobody to say goodbye to,” I said. All my goodbyes were made a long time ago.
Launching a spaceship on December 31 was a special kind of Peak Saxon crap.
Amanda Bakare was bouncing up and down on her heels. “Come on, come on, let’s go, let’s go.” We were waiting by the elevator for the lift up to the flight deck. Peak’s camera crews had finally left. Sixteen takes of us saying “Levi Marvin, command pilot. Amanda Bakare, flight engineer. Jessie Yi, mission specialist. Sam Finn, mission specialist.”
“Take it easy,” Levi said. “Enjoy your last breaths of uncanned air.”
“The hell with that,” Amanda said. “I was in the room when we fired the experimental article through the roof. I helped build the drive and I’ve spent all year inside and outside of it. I want it to go go go. Now now now!”
Peak appeared, moving at a clip. He pointed off at the elevator doors, which opened. “Go go go,” he said, a little breathless.
“You didn’t want cameras to show us going into the elevator?” I asked.
“Hustle,” he said, and shoved us into the elevator.
“What’s going on?”
“You are Going onboard. Going to Tiree. Now.”
The elevator had Perspex windows. Something out on the campus caught my eye. A flotilla of dark vehicles outside the perimeter fence. It looked like one of the bigger vehicles was attempting to drive through the fence instead of going through the gatehouse road. I saw a flash of light, and I knew from personal history what it was.
“Gunfire,” I said.
“The fuck?” Amanda said, and clapped herself to the window, searching.
Peak Saxon sucked his teeth. “So,” he said. “You remember when I said I paid NASA to stay the hell away from my operation?”
“So. That might not have been completely true.”
“Peak, I’m going to beat the crap out of you.”
“But if we launch, they have no choice but to let us support the mission. So we go. Right?”
“Right,” said Amanda.
I looked at Levi. He was thinking.
“Right,” he said, after a beat.
“Levi, come on. You’re supposed to be the sane one.”
“I came here to fly a bird nobody ever flew before, and if NASA has an issue about it, they should have brought it up through channels months ago instead of taking his money and then letting the government storm our launch center.” He gave me that gentle smile. “I said you all were crazy. I didn’t say I wasn’t.”
“Go,” said Jessie. “There will be nothing like this mission ever again.”
Peak watched me. That damned glitter in his eyes. I said nothing.
“We can go without Sam,” said Amanda, rocking on her heels.
“No, you can’t,” said Peak. “I hired Sam for this before any of you. You’re all brilliant, but you’ve not been anywhere that hasn’t been explored first. And that’s all Sam Finn does. At the end of the day, you all have homes to go back to. Sam doesn’t. Sam just goes out into nowhere.”
Peak fixed my eyes with his. “I know Sam Finn. Nowhere is all Sam Finn has.”
“Fuck you, Peak.”
“So I’m going,” I said. And then I hit him.
Which turned out to save his worthless life, because two seconds later a bullet plowed through the elevator and passed through the space his head has occupied immediately previous to my punching it.
Ever sit on a chair with your back on the seat and your legs hanging over the top of the chair’s back? That’s how we went up. At Levi’s mark, Jessie activated the process of swivelling the launch seats around and rotating the cabins into flight orientation. Everything came the right way up, and I was sitting normally in normal gravity.
“I thought we were going to coast in microgravity before lighting the main engine?”
“I made an executive decision,” Levi said. “If we orbited, we could have been made to do a direct abort and go straight back. So I kept the drive lit. We are under 1G thrust, on a direct insertion to Tiree.”
“Isn’t that… okay, first off, isn’t that against the law or the rules or something? And Mission Control are gonna have to play catch-up to you, so –”
“Sam, please remain calm. You are riding in the first spaceship that fully responds like a plane. Or maybe a car, if that helps. Up until now, almost all spacecraft have been basically ballistic missiles. Point and shoot. Not this one.” He laughed. “I’m flying.”
I unbelted and stood up. “This feels completely normal,” I said.
Amanda stood up and did a handstand. “There we go,” she said, upside down.
“Jessie,” said Levi. “Time to talk to Mission Control.”
“Oh, I can’t wait for this conversation,” she said. “I wonder if Peak made it?”
“You all realise we’re probably space criminals now, right?” I said.
“Space pirates!” Jessie yelled.
“I can’t believe Peak just named the ship Tiree One,” Amanda commented. “He and Carinthia are normally much better at naming stuff.”
“Capcom,” said Jessie into a mic, “this is Tiree One. Be advised our callsign is changing to Whydah. Repeat, Whydah. Over.”
Everyone looked at her.
“Whydah,” she said, spelling it. “It was a slave ship that was taken over by pirates, who included freed slaves and criminals on the run in their number. The only wrecked pirate ship to be found in North American waters, in fact.”
“Yeah. I would have thought of a Korean name, but we actually just sank pirate ships, because we’re hardcore like that. Also, I decided that Whydah is short for whydah fuck are we doing this.”
“If anyone wants me,” I said, “I’ll be throwing myself out the airlock.”
“Don’t do that, Sam,” Levi said. “I’m going to need your help to throw Jessie out the airlock.”
Jessie gripped her station with both hands. “Noooooo.”
“Guys,” said Amanda, pointing at the cameras on the walls. “They’re streaming all this back to Mission Control.”
“Click ‘like’ on this,” I said, giving the nearest camera the finger.
The Whydah was tall, and the cabins were, in thrust orientation, assembled like floors in a building, with the engines in the basement. The crew lounge was down two floors from the flight deck. 1G thrust meant we could eat reasonable approximations of actual food, and Amanda and I found that we were suddenly unreasonably hungry. The two space veterans stayed on the flight deck and nibbled on protein bars.
The cabin sang. The whole ship sang, very softly, like someone gently running a striker over a gong. Amanda said it was the drive resonating with the hull.
“Whydah,” Amanda muttered to herself with a smile. “Do you believe in inherited pain?”
“I try not to. But, you know…”
“Are you okay with the name?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Mostly. It just kinda points up the one thing that’s kept me up at night about all this.”
“One thing? I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since July.”
“Worrying about whether or not I’m going to blow us all up is daytime stuff,” she said. “Peak is what gives me insomnia. He’s a colonizer. He doesn’t want to land on Mars. He doesn’t even want to go to Mars. He wants to send people to colonise it for him. And I’ve never felt good about that.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” I said. “They’ll all die.”
“So did most people in Jamestown, Sam. You know this. Colonists kept coming back, trying to make it work. And after a while they brought slaves to do the work for them. Jamestown is where slavery started in America. What bothers me is that Peak sees Tiree as an island to colonise, like Roanoke. Is this how we want to go to space? As colonisers?”
“And you built the engine that puts space in reach.”
“I did. And Peak owns it. Imagine being the asshole in the 1500s who owned sailing ship technology.”
“Imagine sailing to Africa or North America and discovering there’s no air there,” I said.
“You’re more skeptical than I expected,” Amanda said.
“I’ve spent most of my life among the bones of explorers and colonisers, and going out in the spaces past where they fell and died. Humans are pretty amazing. They can adapt to an incredible amount of variables. But, ultimately, they evolved within some very specific conditions. Take one of them away and we just die. Peak’s going to get an awful lot of people killed for nothing.”
The tone of the cabin’s song shifted, just a tiny bit. Amanda heard it.
“Anything to worry about?”
“We don’t worry during the daytime,” she smiled. “I’ll go and check, but I think it’s just a little thrust change. We might be pushing through a dust cloud or something.”
She was about to climb the ladder when Jessie jumped down it. She fist-bumped with Amanda and Amanda clambered up.
“Sam!” Jessie announced. “Make me dinner!”
There was a little handheld vacuum cleaner slotted into the table, for sucking up crumbs. We’d been told not to worry too much, as we wouldn’t be in space for that long. But Jessie reminded everyone that the ISS stank of rotten food from all the crumbs stuck in station cavities, and that we’d be making a lot of crumbs because not all our food was standard astronaut feed. And so, every minute or so of munching through the meal I’d slapped together for her, she unslotted it and vacuumed up the table. “The crumbs will jump when we turn around to decelerate and they’ll float when we go zero-g.”
“Got it,” I said. “I’ll do a full clean before both of those events. I don’t have much else to do until we get there, after all.”
“You bother me,” she said, pointing at me with her fork, which I have been told is rude.
“Because you all have proper jobs and I’m a tourist?”
“No,” she said. “Because you had nobody to say goodbye to.”
“How is that your business?”
“If you have nobody and nothing to go back to, then you have no reason to be careful about returning alive. There are no stakes for you beyond saving your own skin. And up there, that’s never enough.”
“You think I’m going to get sloppy because I’m alone?”
“Maybe you’re alone because you’re sloppy. And maybe you think you’re alone even when you’re with us. We can’t all rely on each other when one of us thinks he’s up here on his own.”
“That’s a lot to unpack,” I said.
“Try,” Jessie said. “Don’t get me wrong. I like you. I’m having dinner with you. But you bother me. And I’d like it if you didn’t.”
“All right,” I said. “You could say it all started when one of my parents killed the other.”
“Your dad killed your mom? That’s rough.”
“Sorry,” I said. “My mother killed my father, while my father was trying to escape the apartment with me. I was two. She killed three other people in the apartment building before the cops shot her. You assumed the other thing because that’s how it usually works.”
“You set me up for that,” she scowled.
“Nope. I just showed you the bones and you made an assumption based on, like I say, how it usually works. Turned out my mother was abused by her father, though, and the damage went on.” A thin smile sneaked up on me. “Inherited pain. Anyway. I went through a bunch of children’s homes and foster homes, but, funnily enough, I wasn’t crazy about being in small rooms. I wanted to go outside. And the thing about being outside is, at some point, you realise you’re walking on buried bodies all the time. Millions and millions of years of things dying and going in the dirt. The bones tell the story. History is the story of consequences. Just like the consequences of me not picking that thing up and hoovering the crumbs off the table. I’m rambling, aren’t I?”
“Yes. But I’m okay with it. Ramble on.”
“As I grew up, I found I wanted to understand consequences and inherited pain. And to be as free of them as I could. You minimize consequences by minimizing actions and interactions. You’re right. When I’m out in the field, it’s just me, and I have to rely on myself and my choices. But I’m fully aware I can’t do that here. Not if I want what Peak promised me.”
“And what was that?”
“Maybe a way to escape the pain? But probably a way to convince myself that I can go as far as a human being reasonably can from that little apartment room, an actual endpoint to exploring, and find that it’s still there and I’m going to have to live with it.”
She watched me with a small frown.
“Now,” I said, “imagine having to put up with all that shit in the context of a relationship, and ask yourself why I didn’t have anyone to say goodbye to.”
“So this is why you go to the remotest places on Earth and rediscover old shit and bones? So you can reach the end of the world while leaving the lightest possible footprint and cause no pain.”
“That’s part of it, sure.”
“Or: being around people hurts you, and you want to find someplace where you can be completely alone because you think that’ll heal you.”
“You’re right,” she said. “No woman on Earth has masturbated to the idea of Indiana Jones in therapy.”
The Whydah flipped over. Levi didn’t even turn the engines off. Just realigned them on the balls, flipped us like a pancake, laughed at the sound of me trying not to throw up, and had Jessie rotate the cabins again.
It would have been worse if the Whydah had had windows, but Peak’s people didn’t have time to test the proposition of portholes in an office block travelling at insane speed under constant thrust. Instead, we had recessed cameras all over the hull, and floor-to-ceiling screens in all the cabins.
The grey smudge in the middle of the flight deck window-screen was Tiree.
“Maneuver complete,” said Levi. “We are on track for Tiree interception.”
It was still all bizarre to me. I’ve been on longer boat rides. And the screens didn’t serve the same psychological function as a window. I still felt sealed in a can and blind. I didn’t even get to see the whole “blue marble” Earth-from-space image, or see the Moon whip by. I was already losing track of clock time. I’d slept once, but my body was unsure of what schedule it was on.
I got up and went upstairs (previously downstairs, before we flipped) to the crew lounge. The big screen up there was showing the same image. I thought of something. I went to the screen and pulled at its plastic with both hands like it was a big smartphone. Sure enough, the image zoomed in. Software ground away at the image until it resolved some detail.
I found the wall intercom and thumbed it. “Hey, Levi. Any chance you could swing in towards Tiree at a wide angle? So that we’re coming in towards the exposed end?”
“Hey, nature boy,” said Jessie’s voice. “You don’t just change a spacecraft’s trajectory like that. All we’ve got is what we’re carrying, so we don’t have time or space to screw around, and these angles are planned –”
“Hey. IT support. This can’s provisioned for three months, the engine makes thrust for free out of electromagnetic field interactions with the fabric of spacetime, and Levi says he can zap this thing around in space like it’s a racing car.”
There was a moment of silence. In the end, Jessie said, “You mean you actually understood some of what we’ve been trying to explain to you for three goddamn months and you never said anything?”
Levi’s voice came over. “Give me reasons,” he asked.
“None of the telescope work got a good look at the back end. I’d like to get us so we can put a zoom camera on it, so I can start to think about what’s there before we actually get there.”
“Good enough for me. Let me run the numbers – actually, no. Let me actually just do it and the system will figure it all out.”
“Damn, man. You really have been listening.”
I took a can of protein drink and sipped it while I waited. Astronauts may be used to space rations, but I’m used to high-protein, high-calorie processed food products supplemented by foraging. I know what to do when I need to be sharp, and right then I needed all the lights on in my head. I watched the potato of Tiree shift in the screen, and felt the ship bow and lean as Levi took it on a wider loop.
As the back end of Tiree came into view, I started zooming, driving the software crazy as I tried to sharpen up its focus. Jessie came up to find out what I was doing. “Hey. You’re eating a shitload of computer memory.”
“Sorry,” I said, framing my target with my hands, making little pulls and shifts to get at what I wanted. “Just trying to be useful.”
“Look at this.”
The back of Tiree looked like nothing so much as a giant hatch.
So, everyone figured there’d be something like that going on. The thing was, nobody knew how we’d open it when we got there. That was one reason why Jessie was on the team. If you assume networked computational systems were happening on Tiree, rather than a little grey alien dude throwing a switch and manually ejecting the back of an asteroid to reveal a hatch, then you needed a specialist to get into that system and instruct it to open the door.
We entered signal range just as I felt the gravity loosening. I found the cabinet of zero-g foodstuffs and heated a bulb of coffee for Jessie. “How we doing?”
“This is what I signed up for,” she said, taking the coffee without taking her eyes off the screens. “To make and use any compound tool, you have to be able to count and measure. Nothing works without numbers. For my first trick, I’m going to find out if we can even hear each other. Then I’m going to explain that we both know what a circle is.”
“Sure. The framing on that hatch is a circle. So, once I know their systems are picking up our signal, I’m going to blast pi at them in as many number bases as my systems can think of.”
I let her get on with the science gibberish. I had more thinking to do. The closer we got, the more detail the camera software was able to resolve on what we were all now calling the hatch.
Tiree woke up when the 1G drive was fired, and span itself up to generate 1G inside. So, unless it was a really simple beacon with nothing but a bunch of thrusters and insanely wide and fine-tuned detection gear inside, I assumed there was a cavity in there that was prepared for us to walk on.
It could have just been a really simple beacon, of course. But the end dropping away to reveal an artificial surface seemed to me to be a readiness procedure. If you detect someone firing an engine that could reach Tiree, then… you put out the doormat and make the house ready for visitors?
I was working on the theory that we were expected, and that Jessie wouldn’t have to hack the hatch. I didn’t mention it because her IT explorations would provide clues as to language and context. Context is the thing. We can’t communicate well with dolphins because we don’t have a shared context. We are self-reflective builders. Dolphins are basically recreational killers on vacation, farting around in the water and using baby porpoises as volleyballs when they think we’re not looking.
Something that hollows out an asteroid? That’s something we share a context with.
I was looking for markings inside the mouth of the cave.
“Sam,” Amanda said, “that might just say ‘no step’ or ‘mind the gap.’”
“It might. But it says something, right?”
“Unless it’s just exposed circuitry,” said Amanda. “Or scratches from when the portal cap deployed. We’re talking about aliens here. What if they communicate through smell or taste and have no written language? Maybe they just fart out words that hang in their air like rock tablets.”
“Then they wouldn’t evolve an electromagnetic detector that works at distances of millions of miles, because you can’t taste Earth from here, and you can’t preserve knowledge in a breeze,” said Jessie. “Preserved knowledge is added to and elaborated and you get from sitting on the shore to building one of these and setting off an alarm when we launch a 1G drive. There are markings around the hatch. They’re going to assume that if we got this far, we’d be able to read and able to recognize language when we see it.”
I was still looking at the markings. “This could just be the equivalent of the safety card you get given on an airplane, but I swear that bit there looks like — ”
The speakers at Jessie’s station bellowed. A sound like a million radios being murdered. Then the lights went out.
I took my flashlight out of my pocket and unsheathed it. I found Amanda’s hand and pressed the device into it. Microgravity and no lights or windows in a structure you’ve only spent a couple of days in is not a recipe for success. She used the light to find her station, and did something complicated and manual under her console.
The reactor restarted after five terrifying minutes. Jessie went to her station, as Levi fought to bring the Whydah back on course and Amanda checked all the systems.
“They talked back to us,” Jessie finally said.
“That wasn’t talking,” Amanda said.
“What happens if someone walks up to your ear and blasts music louder than a bomb going off?”
“Your eardrum probably bursts.”
“That’s what just happened. Their response flooded the bandwidth at incredible power and overloaded everything. A huge electromagnetic pulse sequence. Even if we could call home, it’d be too late.”
“Why call home?” Levi asked.
“Because that pulse sequence is a high-powered expanding sphere. It’ll reach Earth in six minutes and it’ll arrive like a solar storm. It’ll mess up satellites, ground communication, you name it. If that keeps happening…”
“Did your machines capture any of that burst?” I asked. “Or did its eardrums just blow out?”
“I’m looking,” said Jessie. “I’m just hoping the SSDs haven’t been wiped.”
The big screen came back on. It still had an angle on the hatch. From this angle, something caught my eye.
“It was just incredibly loud, fast streams of pulses,” Jessie muttered. “Compressed. Gibberish.”
“Gerhard Joksch,” I said.
“He designed the pictograms for the Munich Olympics. Simple icons followed by a single word describing that icon repeated in several languages. The marks around the hatch are repeating. I think they’re different languages. And I swear this one here is Sumerian.”
Levi was wrestling with the ship still. “So what does it say?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
“It’s Sumerian! It’s the first written language! It’s five thousand years old and nobody’s used it in two thousand years!”
“You’re a fucking archaeologist!”
“That’s how I know what it looks like! I never had to learn to read it!” Then it hit me. “Stop. Jessie. Is there a count of sixty in any of what you got?”
“Wait,” she said. “Yes. Maybe. Why?”
“Base sixty,” I said. “If you count on one hand, using your thumb to point at the three bones of each finger, you get to twelve. Count off the first twelve on your other hand. You get to sixty. Base ten came later. They used base sixty in Sumeria. Holy shit. They looked at us. But the last time they looked was the 25th Century BCE.”
“How does the history of graphic design and accounting help us here?” Levi asked. “Because this bird is fighting me and I could use a win here.”
“God damn,” said Jessie. “They heard us. I’ve got a mathematical expression of a circle in base sixty.”
“Jessie,” said Levi. “Send a message to Capcom. Let’s find out if they still have their ears on after that.”
“First,” I said. “Jessie. You have a machine learning system on board, right?”
“Right. Obviously. It ate up those pulses, I told it to look for base sixty and it makes best guesses. Bang, mathematical expression of a circle.”
“Have you got language databases on there?”
“Sure. But not your five thousand year old whatever.”
“Can you set it for Semitic languages? Specify ‘subject object verb.’ If it doesn’t like that, try just SOV.”
“Gimme a second. Are you thinking some of the other mess of pulses is trying to talk to us in your dead language?”
“Nobody knows what parts of Sumerian may have survived to the present day. But this might do something useful while you tell Capcom we have signs of occupation and to upload us a Sumerian database.”
“Don’t think we have time, guys,” Levi said. “If I were in my grandpa’s boat, I’d say I was trying to power my way out of a riptide.”
“Drive is green all across the board,” Amanda said. “You should have full maneuvering.”
“I do,” said Levi. “Something’s pulling us in.”
“Tiree,” said Amanda. “It’s spun up. Generating gravity.”
“It’s more than that,” said Levi, lips thinning. The hull groaned. “I’m going to quit fighting it. Brace. I’m killing the engine.”
“That seems extreme,” I said.
“Not taking flying lessons from the tourist,” Levi snapped. “The bird’s going to break her back if I push any more.”
Amanda and Jessie started arguing with Levi. I went back to the screen, desperately looking for context. Why would there be repeating statements in several different forms? Was I just making myself see languages? There were the pictograms that looked like old Sumerian. There were the pile of scratches. Four other groups of markings. Then they all repeated.
“Levi,” I yelled. “The direction of the pull. Does it take us into Tiree?”
Levi projected the curve of the pull. “We’re gonna bounce off the back end in fifteen minutes.”
“No, we’re not,” I said. “No step.”
“You were right all along,” I said. “It’s an instruction. In different languages. Telling us that we’re going to be pulled into the hatch.”
“That’s a reach,” Levi said. “And why a dead language? They think the only language on Earth was gonna stay Sumerian?”
“Maybe?” I said. “Maybe we just learned something. Maybe the aliens only had four languages for thousands and thousands of years. Once we got to written language, they figured, well, they got there.”
“I see six different sets of marks,” Amanda said.
“Yeah. The last one is Martian.”
Everybody laughed except me.
When they realized I wasn’t laughing, they stopped laughing.
Eventually I said, “Okay, I’ll throw myself out of the airlock.”
A tense fifteen minutes was punctuated first by a bunch of screaming from Capcom and then a Sumerian database that Jessie dropped into a 2-in-1 laptop armed with a fearsome machine learning system. I connected a camera to it and we started looking at possible Sumerian pictograms incised into a hatch screwed into an asteroid somewhere between Earth and Mars.
We came in nose on. The hatch disassembled itself. It flowered, and formed a bulb around it.
We drifted inside Tiree. Spiderwebs and locust arms glowing with chromatophores eased the Whydah into a drydock. We set down so gently we barely felt it. Gravity thrummed under our feet.
The clock ticked over.
The spacesuits were a nightmare. Because they weren’t spacesuits. They weren’t those big secure-looking inflated things you’re used to seeing. Peak’s people called them biosuits, Peak himself called them mechanical counterpressure suits, and I called them zentai suits for dying in space.
Humans are high pressure bags of skin. Put them in a no-pressure environment and their skin splits. This usually causes really disgusting-looking death. Spacesuits are filled with gas that press in on the human body. That’s why spacesuits are so big and puffy. Biosuits use elastics and memory materials to squeeze the body in. They’re thin-looking. They don’t look like they could survive a middling rainstorm without leaking. You pull them on, press a button to set off an electric current, and the suit shrink-wraps you.
I had my pack over my shoulder. We’d already sent a data burst home. It was time.
The Whydah’s front door has pressure sensors, to make sure we’re not opening the door on nothing, but they can’t tell you what’s floating around causing the pressure. So Levi didn’t want to take any chances. While absolutely insisting, with a mad smile, that we were all going outside to take a look. “No Mike Collins here,” he kept saying. “We’re all landing.”
Jessie accessed the cameras with a mini-tablet. A bridge was extending out to the door.
We were all standing, shrink-wrapped and shivering, in the outer airlock. “I don’t trust these damn sensor things,” Levi said. “Pressure your suits.”
We all made strangling noises as the suits sealed us in like ready-meals.
Levi cycled the door.
I could faintly hear machinery running, somewhere far away. And something else. The bridge curved upwards, to join the inner wall of Tiree.
I stopped on the bridge. I could hear sound through the helmet. It wasn’t resonating through my bones from the bridge. I went to my pack and unclipped my stormproof lighter. I’m not a hardcore bushcraft guy. I can’t be scraping at a firesteel all night. And they’re lousy at high altitude and in rainy season anyway. I have a stormproof jet lighter.
“What are you doing?” Levi said.
“There’s an atmosphere in here,” I said. And lit it.
“What if,” said Amanda, “lighting a spark in here would have blown us all up?”
I smiled at the jet of flame. “Invite us all the way here and put us in a tinderbox? No way. There’s just enough oxygen in here. Like a high altitude burn.”
“We can take our helmets off?” Amanda said.
“I wouldn’t,” I said. “This air is, I can tell you from experience, like being a mile high.”
And then I decided to take my helmet off anyway.
“I spent a while a mile high recently,” I said. “And I’m not built to walk around in bubbles and skin-suits.”
Levi looked at me like I was even more insane than he previously thought.
We walked. I stayed ahead of them, taking point like we were moving through the bush. I loosened the suit. I could feel their eyes on me, waiting for me to start coughing, fall over or explode. My eyes were everywhere.
Everywhere was dead. There was language here and there: the scratches. The camera connected to the laptop was grinding away at it all. But it was all dead. Curling beds of lifeless soil. The stains and bones of what I assumed were animals. I guessed that whoever built this has brought a biome from home with them. If we’d arrived earlier, maybe we would have had to stay in spacesuits, or be kept in a bubble. But with everything dead, Tiree’s systems just generated a human atmosphere for us. There was nothing left to protect with the air of home.
It was vast and empty and I was walking in the traces of the dead.
The helmet in my hand crackled. Behind me, the others stopped, cocking their heads.
I lifted the helmet to my ear. It was a voice message routed through the Whydah. It was Peak.
“You’re all amazing, guys. Outstanding. You’re securing a whole new territory for us. Tiree is now officially the property of my company by the law of finds.”
I looked back at the others. “Are you hearing this?”
“It’s maritime law,” Levi said. “Salvage just gets you recompense equal to the value of the object. The law of finds makes the object a personal possession. And the Outer Space Treaty of ’67 bans nations from owning celestial objects, but not private companies.”
“You,” said Peak, “have secured our first space colony.”
“How is he not in prison?” Amanda asked.
“Same way he got to do this,” said Jessie. “He has money. He’s bought himself an alien station inside an asteroid. And he used us to do it. Because all we could see was the amazing place to go to.”
The machine learning system was starting to make guesses. Strange to live in a time when translating an alien language was a relatively simple task for machines that take pictures and manipulate spreadsheets. I glanced at the screen, smiled and showed it to Amanda. “This is a first pass on the marks around the hatch.”
She read it with relish. “’We will carry you through the door. Take no action. Welcome to our watching place.’ That’s basically ‘no step.’”
“Yep. Instructions for approach.”
“Well, the machine’s not magic. This is all best guess. I’d say the Sumerian lexicon we got just doesn’t have a word for watchtower.”
We reached a vaulted hall. It had airlock-like doors, tall ones, on either side of a wide, abstract bas-relief fresco.
As we approached, the marks on the fresco began to shift. The emerging symbols could have been Sumerian, and were accompanied by the scratch-like marks.
Jessie set up the tablet and laptops and cameras and other devices in front of the fresco.
“This is going to be easy,” she said.
“You’re on an alien space station that’s broadcasting to us in a dead language,” I said. “How is that easy?”
“You even use that lens app on your phone that translates foreign-language signs in real time? They gave us a cheat sheet. Sumerian. Might be an incomplete cheat sheet, but it’s enough to get started. See how the scratches changed at the same time as the letterforms appeared? They’re subtitling their statements in their own written language.”
I walked around it a little, studying it carefully. I noticed that, in three small areas, the surface of the fresco seemed to tilt to follow me.
I pointed them out to Jessie. “I think we’re being watched.”
Jessie noted it, and began to move around herself. She isolated a little circle of active surface nearer the ground, and oriented one of her device screens towards it. “Excellent,” she said. The screen started comparing Sumerian icons with English words, displaying them for the recessed camera in the wall.
“Is something happening?” Levi asked.
“We’re about to have a conversation with Tiree,” Jessie said.
“Just like that?”
It was more like an hour than just like that. The fresco pulsed in time with the flashing images on the screens, and the screens flashed faster, and the fresco pulsed faster. After a while, there was sound from the laptops and from the walls, as they tested phonemes on each other.
“I don’t believe we can learn to talk to aliens in an hour,” Levi said.
“We’re not,” said Jessie. “We’re watching two computers learn to communicate with each other. Much faster.”
“It’s kinda boring,” Levi said.
The lighting suddenly started strobing hard, and the fresco exploded.
The billion motes of wall shrapnel reassembled themselves in the air around the crew. An alien landscape form. Etiolated structures, what may have been trees if they hadn’t somehow looked stretched, great banks of rocks floating in the sky above.
And a figure. Arachnid from some angles, fungoid from others. Three arms, each of which bifurcated into two forearms, each with ten manipulators. Base sixty. It turned slowly, as if viewing them. After a while, there was a voice.
Before you built your first city, there was us. As we reached into space, we discovered a place like the one you now stand it. It was constructed by a people who reached into space before we built our first city. As we learned its library, we found that they too were inspired by a place they found that was created before they built their first city.
We all just missed each other. We record this now, knowing we will never meet you. If you try to find us, it is likely you will find only our bones. Just as we found only the bones of the ones who left our station for us, and as they found only the bones of those who visited them.
We have learned, from the library of six different races who have attempted to open the door to their kin, that we are always too early and always too late. Space is vast and time is deep and the universe can neither see us clinging to our rock nor see us trying to reach out to each other.
You may hear this and think you are alone in the universe.
You are not. This place is proof of that. You were never alone. And you never will be.
Our door is open. Welcome to the home we made above yours. We invite you to learn our stories. And, one day, to reach out to others, and open your door. In this universe, it is all we can do. It is enough to know we have never been alone in it.
The helmet radios crackled. It was another voice message from Peak Saxon. He did not sound as happy as he did earlier.
“Fuck you, Sam,” he yelled. “Just fuck you. You can’t do this. I won’t let you. I’ll fight you forever. I’ll fight the entire United Nations. That place is mine. It’s my colony. It’s all mine. I spent all my money to get it and you won’t take it away from me –”
“The hell?” said Levi.
“With NASA breathing down his neck, he had to make all communications from us transparent,” I said. “So when we told them there were signs of occupation, he had to tell the world. Which activated my petition to the United Nations World Conservation Monitoring Center. I’m guessing they just announced that Tiree is a protected conservation region. Which makes it a commonwealth that no nation or private individual can lay claim to.”
I stood up and stretched. “Time for me to start surveying and logging. Time for you to go.”
“What?” Jessie said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Your work is done. Mine is just getting started.”
We negotiated over supplies. They wanted to leave me too much, but I didn’t trust the Whydah to get them home fast, and made sure they retained a good buffer of materials. I did, however, steal a portable composting toilet out of the back-up goods.
“I know what you’re doing,” said Jessie.
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Making sure I have to come back in a couple of months with more supplies,” she smiled.
“My door’s always open,” I said.
“I wish that were true,” she said.
I looked around. “I’m learning,” I said.
And it was true, to an extent. I’d gone as far as I could, and learned that there would always be someone who’d been there before me to leave traces. I couldn’t escape everything and everyone. I could never actually be alone. Which is what I thought I wanted.
It turns out that we are never really alone. And, up here in my watchtower, I will learn to live with it.
(c) Warren Ellis 2022 all rights reserved
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