Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2007
Fiction: Missile Gap by Charles Stross
It’s 1976 again. Abba are on the charts, the Cold War is in full swing—and the Earth is flat. It’s been flat ever since the eve of the Cuban war of 1962; and the constellations overhead are all wrong. Beyond the Boreal ocean, strange new continents loom above tropical seas, offering a new start to colonists like newly-weds Maddy and Bob, and the hope of further glory to explorers like ex-cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin: but nobody knows why they exist, and outside the circle of exploration the universe is inexplicably warped.
Gregor, in Washington DC, knows but isn’t talking. Colonel-General Gagarin, on a years-long mission to go where New Soviet Man has not gone before, is going to find out. And on the edge of an ancient desert, beneath the aged stars of another galaxy, Maddy is about to come face-to-face with humanity’s worst fear…
“With the dazzling success of his last two novels, including the Hugo-nominated Accelerando (2005), Stross is rapidly establishing himself as one of the preeminent masters of hard sf. Here he takes a breather from weightier fare with a bizarre, nevertheless brilliant alternate-history novella featuring a protracted U.S.-Soviet cold war…Once again, Stross sets the bar high for his colleagues, should they be feeling competitive, in this mind-bending, intriguing yarn.”
From Publishers Weekly:
“The result is a blend of 1900s H.G. Wells and 1970s propaganda, updated for the 21st century in the clear, chilly and fashionably cynical style that lets Stross get away with premises that would be absurdly cheesy in anyone else’s hands.”
From Green Man Review:
”There are some pretty creepy moments here including one that remminded me of the Cthulhu mythos. Or possibly the Pod People. Really. Truly. And the ending was a proper surprise, as I wasn’t sure how Stross would wrap it up. Indeed that’s the gold standard for good storytelling for me—interesting characters in a plausibe setting (no how farfetched it seems at first glance) with an ending that I wasn’t expecting. Bravo Stross!”
Gregor is feeding pigeons down in the park when the sirens go off.
A stoop-shouldered forty-something male in a dark suit, pale-skinned and thin, he pays no attention at first: the birds hold his attention. He stands at the side of a tarmac path, surrounded by damp grass that appears to have been sprayed with concrete dust, and digs into the outer pocket of his raincoat for a final handful of stale bread-crumbs. Filthy, soot-blackened city pigeons with malformed feet jostle with plump white-collared wood pigeons, pecking and lunging for morsels. Gregor doesn’t smile. What to him is a handful of stale bread, is a deadly business for the birds: a matter of survival. The avian struggle for survival runs parallel to the human condition, he ponders. It’s all a matter of limited resources and critical positioning. Of intervention by agencies beyond their bird-brained understanding, dropping treats for them to fight over. Then the air raid sirens start up.
The pigeons scatter for the treetops with a clatter of wings. Gregor straightens and looks round. It’s not just one siren, and not just a test: a policeman is pedaling his bicycle along the path towards him, waving one-handed. “You there! Take cover!”
Gregor turns and presents his identity card. “Where is the nearest shelter?”
The constable points towards a public convenience thirty yards away. “The basement there. If you can’t make it inside, you’ll have to take cover behind the east wall—if you’re caught in the open, just duck and cover in the nearest low spot. Now go!” The cop hops back on his black boneshaker and is off down the footpath before Gregor can frame a reply. Shaking his head, he walks towards the public toilet and goes inside.
It’s early spring, a weekday morning, and the toilet attendant seems to be taking the emergency as a personal comment on the cleanliness of his porcelain. He jumps up and down agitatedly as he shoves Gregor down the spiral staircase into the shelter, like a short troll in a blue uniform stocking his larder. “Three minutes!” shouts the troll. “Hold fast in three minutes!” So many people in London are wearing uniforms these days, Gregor reflects; it’s almost as if they believe that if they play their wartime role properly the ineffable will constrain itself to their expectations of a humanly comprehensible enemy.
A double-bang splits the air above the park and echoes down the stairwell. It’ll be RAF or USAF interceptors outbound from the big fighter base near Hanworth. Gregor glances round: A couple of oafish gardeners sit on the wooden benches inside the concrete tunnel of the shelter, and a louche City type in a suit leans against the wall, irritably fiddling with an unlit cigarette and glaring at the NO SMOKING signs. “Bloody nuisance, eh?” he snarls in Gregor’s direction.
Gregor composes his face in a thin smile. “I couldn’t possibly comment,” he says, his Hungarian accent betraying his status as a refugee. (Another sonic boom rattles the urinals, signaling the passage of yet more fighters.) The louche businessman will be his contact, Goldsmith. He glances at the shelter’s counter. Its dial is twirling slowly, signaling the marked absence of radon and fallout. Time to make small-talk, verbal primate grooming: “Does it happen often?”
The corporate tough relaxes. He chuckles to himself. He’ll have pegged Gregor as a visitor from stranger shores, the new NATO dominions overseas where they settled the latest wave of refugees ejected by the communists. Taking in the copy of The Telegraph and the pattern of stripes on Gregor’s tie he’ll have realized what else Gregor is to him. “You should know, you took your time getting down here. Do you come here often to visit the front line, eh?”
“I am here in this bunker with you,” Gregor shrugs. “There is no front line on a circular surface.” He sits down on the bench opposite the businessman gingerly. “Cigarette?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” The businessman borrows Gregor’s cigarette case with a flourish: the symbolic peace-offering accepted, they sit in silence for a couple of minutes, waiting to find out if it’s the curtain call for world war four, or just a trailer.
A different note drifts down the staircase, the warbling tone that indicates the all-clear these days. The Soviet bombers have turned for home, the ragged lion’s stumpy tail tickled yet again. The toilet troll dashes down the staircase and windmills his arms at them: “No smoking in the nuclear bunker!” he screams. “Get out! Out, I say!”
Gregor walks back into Regent’s Park, to finish disposing of his stale bread-crumbs and ferry the contents of his cigarette case back to the office. The businessman doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to be arrested, and his English nationalist/neutralist cabal interned: meanwhile, Gregor is being recalled to Washington DC. This is his last visit, at least on this particular assignment. There are thin times ahead for the wood pigeons.
It’s a moonless night and the huge reddened whirlpool of the Milky Way lies below the horizon. With only the reddish-white pinprick glare of Lucifer for illumination, it’s too dark to read a newspaper.
Maddy is old enough to remember a time when night was something else: when darkness stalked the heavens, the Milky Way a faded tatter spun across half the sky. A time when ominous Soviet spheres bleeped and hummed their way across a horizon that curved, when geometry was dominated by pi, astronomy made sense, and serious men with horn-rimmed glasses and German accents were going to the moon. October 2, 1962: that’s when it all changed. That’s when life stopped making sense. (Of course it first stopped making sense a few days earlier, with the U-2 flights over the concrete emplacements in Cuba, but there was a difference between the lunacy of brinksmanship—Khrushchev’s shoe banging on the table at the UN as he shouted “we will bury you!”—and the flat earth daydream that followed, shattering history and plunging them all into this nightmare of revisionist geography.)
But back to the here-and-now: she’s sitting on the deck of an elderly ocean liner on her way from somewhere to nowhere, and she’s annoyed because Bob is getting drunk with the F-deck boys again and eating into their precious grubstake. It’s too dark to read the ship’s daily news sheet (mimeographed blurry headlines from a world already fading into the ship’s wake), it’ll be at least two weeks before their next landfall (a refueling depot somewhere in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration surveyors—in a fit of uncharacteristic wit—named the Nether Ocean), and she’s half out of her skull with boredom.
When they signed up for the Emigration Board tickets Bob had joked: “A six month cruise? After a vacation like that we’ll be happy to get back to work!”—but somehow the sheer immensity of it all didn’t sink in until the fourth week out of sight of land. In those four weeks they’d crawled an expanse of ocean wider than the Pacific, pausing to refuel twice from huge rust-colored barges: and still they were only a sixth of the way to Continent F-204, New Iowa, immersed like the ultimate non-sequitur in the ocean that replaced the world’s horizons on October 2, 1962. Two weeks later they passed The Radiators. The Radiators thrust from the oceanic depths to the stratosphere, Everest-high black fins finger-combing the watery currents. Beyond them the tropical heat of the Pacific gave way to the sub-arctic chill of the Nether Ocean. Sailing between them, the ship was reduced to the proportions of a cockroach crawling along a canyon between skyscrapers. Maddy had taken one look at these guardians of the interplanetary ocean, shuddered, and retreated into their cramped room for the two days it took to sail out from between the slabs.
Bob kept going on about how materials scientists from NOAA and the National Institutes were still trying to understand what they were made of, until Maddy snapped at him. He didn’t seem to understand that they were the bars on a prison cell. He seemed to see a waterway as wide as the English Channel, and a gateway to the future: but Maddy saw them as a sign that her old life was over.
If only Bob and her father hadn’t argued; or if Mum hadn’t tried to pick a fight with her over Bob—Maddy leans on the railing and sighs, and a moment later nearly jumps out of her skin as a strange man clears his throat behind her.
“Excuse me, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“That’s alright,” Maddy replies, irritated and trying to conceal it. “I was just going in.”
“A shame: it’s a beautiful night,” says the stranger. He turns and puts down a large briefcase next to the railing, fiddling with the latches. “Not a cloud in sight, just right for stargazing.” She focuses on him, seeing short hair, small paunch, and a worried thirty-something face. He doesn’t look back, being preoccupied with something that resembles a photographer’s tripod.
“Is that a telescope?” she asks, eyeing the stubby cylindrical gadget in his case.
“Yes.” An awkward pause. “Name’s John Martin. Yourself?”
“Maddy Holbright.” Something about his diffident manner puts her at ease. “Are you settling? I haven’t seen you around.”
He straightens up and tightens joints on the tripod’s legs, screwing them into place. “I’m not a settler, I’m a researcher. Five years, all expenses paid, to go and explore a new continent.” He carefully lifts the telescope body up and lowers it onto the platform, then begins tightening screws. “And I’m supposed to point this thing at the sky and make regular observations. I’m actually an entomologist, but there are so many things to do that they want me to be a jack of all trades, I guess.”
“So they’ve got you to carry a telescope, huh? I don’t think I’ve ever met an entomologist before.”
“A bug-hunter with a telescope,” he agrees: “kind of unexpected.”
Intrigued, Maddy watches as he screws the viewfinder into place then pulls out a notebook and jots something down. “What are you looking at?”
He shrugs. “There’s a good view of S-Doradus from here,” he says. “You know, Satan? And his two little angels.”
Maddy glances up at the violent pinprick of light, then looks away before it can burn her eyes. It’s a star, but bright enough to cast shadows from half a light year’s distance. “The disks?”
“Them.” There’s a camera body in his bag, a chunky old Bronica from back before the Soviets swallowed Switzerland and Germany whole. He carefully screws it onto the telescope’s viewfinder. “The Institute wants me to take a series of photographs of them—nothing fancy, just the best this eight-inch reflector can do—over six months. Plot the ship’s position on a map. There’s a bigger telescope in the hold, for when I arrive, and they’re talking about sending a real astronomer one of these days, but in the meantime they want photographs from sixty thousand miles out across the disk. For parallax, so they can work out how fast the disks are moving.”
“Disks.” They seem like distant abstractions to her, but John’s enthusiasm is hard to ignore. “Do you suppose they’re like, uh, here?” She doesn’t say like Earth—everybody knows this isn’t Earth any more. Not the way it used to be.
“Maybe.” He busies himself for a minute with a chunky film cartridge. “They’ve got oxygen in their atmospheres, we know that. And they’re big enough. But they’re most of a light year away—far closer than the stars, but still too far for telescopes.”
“Or moon rockets,” she says, slightly wistfully. “Or sputniks.”
“If those things worked any more.” The film is in: he leans over the scope and brings it round to bear on the first of the disks, a couple of degrees off from Satan. (The disks are invisible to the naked eye; it takes a telescope to see their reflected light.) He glances up at her. “Do you remember the moon?”
Maddy shrugs. “I was just a kid when it happened. But I saw the moon, some nights. During the day, too.”
He nods. “Not like some of the kids these days. Tell them we used to live on a big spinning sphere and they look at you like you’re mad.”
“What do they think the speed of the disks will tell them?” She asks.
“Whether they’re all as massive as this one. What they could be made of. What that tells us about who it was that made them.” He shrugs. “Don’t ask me, I’m just a bug-hunter. This stuff is big, bigger than bugs.” He chuckles. “It’s a new world out here.”
She nods very seriously, then actually sees him for the first time: “I guess it is.”
“So tell me, comrade colonel, how did it really feel?”
The comrade colonel laughs uneasily. He’s forty-three and still slim and boyish-looking, but carries a quiet melancholy around with him like his own personal storm cloud. “I was very busy all the time,” he says with a self-deprecating little shrug. “I didn’t have time to pay attention to myself. One orbit, it only lasted ninety minutes, what did you expect? If you really want to know, Gherman’s the man to ask. He had more time.”
“Time.” His interrogator sighs and leans his chair back on two legs. It’s a horribly old, rather precious Queen Anne original, a gift to some Tsar or other many years before the October revolution. “What a joke. Ninety minutes, two days, that’s all we got before they changed the rules on us.”
“‘They,’ comrade chairman?” The colonel looked puzzled.
“Whoever.” The chairman’s vague wave takes in half the horizon of the richly paneled Kremlin office. “What a joke. Whoever they were, at least they saved us from a pasting in Cuba because of that louse Nikita.” He pauses for a moment, then toys with the wine glass that sits, half-empty, before him. The colonel has a glass too, but his is full of grape juice, out of consideration for his past difficulties. “The ‘whoever’ I speak of are of course the brother socialists from the stars who brought us here.” He grins humorlessly, face creasing like the muzzle of a shark that smells blood in the water.
“Brother socialists.” The colonel smiles hesitantly, wondering if it’s a joke, and if so, whether he’s allowed to share it. He’s still unsure why he’s being interviewed by the premier—in his private office, at that. “Do we know anything of them, sir? That is, am I supposed to—”
“Never mind.” Aleksey sniffs, dismissing the colonel’s worries. “Yes, you’re cleared to know everything on this topic. The trouble is there is nothing to know, and this troubles me, Yuri Alexeyevich. We infer purpose, the engine of a greater history at work—but the dialectic is silent on this matter. I have consulted the experts, asked them to read the chicken entrails, but none of them can do anything other than parrot pre-event dogma: ‘any species advanced enough to do to us what happened that day must of course have evolved true Communism, comrade premier! Look what they did for us! (That was Shchlovskii, by the way.) And yes, I look and I see six cities that nobody can live in, spaceships that refuse to stick to the sky, and a landscape that Sakharov and that bunch of double-domes are at a loss to explain. There are fucking miracles and wonders and portents in the sky, like a galaxy we were supposed to be part of that is now a million years too old and shows extensive signs of construction. There’s no room for miracles and wonders in our rational world, and it’s giving the comrade general secretary, Yuri, the comrade general secretary, stomach ulcers; did you know that?”
The colonel sits up straight, anticipating the punch line: it’s a well-known fact throughout the USSR that when Brezhnev says ‘frog,’ the premier croaks. And here he is in the premier’s office, watching that very man, Aleksey Kosygin, chairman of the Council of Ministers, third most powerful man in the Soviet Union, taking a deep breath.
“Yuri Alexeyevich, I have brought you here today because I want you to help set Leonid Illich’s stomach at rest. You’re an aviator and a hero of the Soviet Union, and more importantly you’re smart enough to do the job and young enough to see it through, not like the old farts cluttering up Stavka. (It’s going to take most of a lifetime to sort out, you mark my words.) You’re also, you will pardon the bluntness, about as much use as a fifth wheel in your current posting right now: we have to face facts, and the sad reality is that none of Korolev’s birds will ever fly again, not even with the atomic bomb pusher-thing they’ve been working on.” Kosygin sighs and shuffles upright in his chair. “There is simply no point in maintaining the Cosmonaut Training Centre. A decree has been drafted and will be approved next week: the manned rocket program is going to be wound up and the cosmonaut corps reassigned to other duties.”
The colonel flinches. “Is that absolutely necessary, comrade chairman?”
Kosygin drains his wine glass, decides to ignore the implied criticism. “We don’t have the resources to waste. But, Yuri Alexeyevich, all that training is not lost.” He grins wolfishly. “I have new worlds for you to explore, and a new ship for you to do it in.”
“A new ship.” The colonel nods then does a double take, punch-drunk. “A ship?”
“Well, it isn’t a fucking horse,” says Kosygin. He slides a big glossy photograph across his blotter towards the colonel. “Times have moved on.” The colonel blinks in confusion as he tries to make sense of the thing at the centre of the photograph. The premier watches his face, secretly amused: confusion is everybody’s first reaction to the thing in the photograph.
“I’m not sure I understand, sir—”
“It’s quite simple: you trained to explore new worlds. You can’t, not using the rockets. The rockets won’t ever make orbit. I’ve had astronomers having nervous breakdowns trying to explain why, but the all agree on the key point: rockets won’t do it for us here. Something wrong with the gravity, they say it even crushes falling starlight.” The chairman taps a fat finger on the photograph. “But you can do it using this. We invented it and the bloody Americans didn’t. It’s called an ekranoplan, and you rocket boys are going to stop being grounded cosmonauts and learn how to fly it. What do you think, colonel Gagarin?”
The colonel whistles tunelessly through his teeth: he’s finally worked out the scale. It looks like a flying boat with clipped wings, jet engines clustered by the sides of its cockpit—but no flying boat ever carried a runway with a brace of MiG-21s on its back. “It’s bigger than a cruiser! Is it nuclear powered?”
“Of course.” The chairman’s grin slips. “It cost as much as those moon rockets of Sergei’s, colonel-general. Try not to drop it.”
Gagarin glances up, surprise and awe visible on his face. “Sir, I’m honored, but—”
“Don’t be.” The chairman cuts him off. “The promotion was coming your way anyway. The posting that comes with it will earn you as much honor as that first orbit. A second chance at space, if you like. But you can’t fail: the cost is unthinkable. It’s not your skin that will pay the toll, it’s our entire rationalist civilization.” Kosygin leans forward intently.
“Somewhere out there are beings so advanced that they skinned the earth like a grape and plated it onto this disk—or worse, copied us all right down to the atomic level and duplicated us like one of those American Xerox machines. It’s not just us, though. You are aware of the other continents in the oceans. We think some of them may be inhabited, too—nothing else makes sense. Your task is to take the Sergei Korolev, the first ship of its class, on an historic five-year cruise. You will boldly go where no Soviet man has gone before, explore new worlds and look for new peoples, and to establish fraternal socialist relations with them. But your primary objective is to discover who built this giant mousetrap of a world, and why they brought us to it, and to report back to us—before the Americans find out.
The cherry trees are in bloom in Washington DC, and Gregor perspires in the summer heat. He has grown used to the relative cool of London and this unaccustomed change of climate has disoriented him. Jet lag is a thing of the past—a small mercy—but there are still adjustments to make. Because the disk is flat, the daylight source—polar flares from an accretion disk inside the axial hole, the scientists call it, which signifies nothing to most people—grows and shrinks the same wherever you stand.
There’s a concrete sixties-vintage office block with a conference suite furnished in burnt umber and orange, chromed chairs and Kandinsky prints on the walls: all very seventies. Gregor waits outside the suite until the buzzer sounds and the receptionist looks up from behind her IBM typewriter and says, “You can go in now, they’re expecting you.”
Gregor goes in. It’s an occupational hazard, but by no means the worst, in his line of work.
“Have a seat.” It’s Seth Brundle, Gregor’s divisional head—a grey-looking functionary, more adept at office back-stabbing than field-expedient assassinations. His cover, like Gregor’s, is an innocuous-sounding post in the Office of Technology Assessment. In fact, both he and Gregor work for a different government agency, although the notional task is the same: identify technological threats and stamp on them before they emerge.
Brundle is not alone in the room. He proceeds with the introductions: “Greg Samsa is our London station chief and specialist in scientific intelligence. Greg, this is Marcus.” The bald, thin-faced German in the smart suit bobs his head and smiles behind his horn-rimmed glasses. “Civilian consultant.” Gregor mistrusts him on sight. Marcus is a defector—a former Stasi spook, from back before the Brezhnev purges of the mid-sixties. Which puts an interesting complexion on this meeting.
“Murray Fox, from Langley.”
“Hi,” says Gregor, wondering just what kind of insane political critical mass Stone is trying to assemble: Langley and Brundle’s parent outfit aren’t even on speaking terms, to say the least.
“And another civilian specialist, Dr. Sagan.” Greg nods at the doctor, a thin guy with sparkling brown eyes and hippyish long hair. “Greg’s got something to tell us in person,” says Brundle. “Something very interesting he picked up in London. No sources please, Greg.”
“No sources,” Gregor echoes. He pulls out a chair and sits down. Now he’s here he supposes he’ll just have to play the role Brundle assigned to him in the confidential briefing he read on the long flight home. “We have word from an unimpeachable HUMINT resource that the Russians have—” he coughs into his fist. “Excuse me.” He glances at Brundle. “Okay to talk about COLLECTION RUBY?”
“They’re all cleared,” Brundle says dryly. “That’s why it says ‘joint committee’ on the letterhead.”
“I see. My invitation was somewhat terse.” Gregor stifles a sigh that seems to say, all I get is a most urgent recall; how am I meant to know what’s going on and who knows what? “So why are we here?”
“Think of it as another collective analysis board,” says Fox, the man from the CIA. He doesn’t look enthused.
“We’re here to find out what’s going on, with the benefit of some intelligence resources from the other side of the curtain.”
Doctor Sagan, who has been listening silently with his head cocked to one side like a very intelligent blackbird, raises an eyebrow.
“Yes?” asks Brundle.
“I, uh, would you mind explaining that to me? I haven’t been on one of these committees before.”
No indeed, thinks Gregor. It’s a miracle Sagan ever passed his political vetting: he’s too friendly by far with some of those Russian astronomer guys who are clearly under the thumb of the KGB’s First Department. And he’s expressed doubts—muted, of course—about the thrust of current foreign policy, which is a serious no-no under the McNamara administration.
“A CAB is a joint committee feeding into the Central Office of Information’s external bureaux on behalf of a blue-ribbon panel of experts assembled from the intelligence community,” Gregor recites in a bored tone of voice. “Stripped of the bullshit, we’re a board of wise men who’re meant to rise above narrow bureaucratic lines of engagement and prepare a report for the Office of Technology Assessment to pass on to the Director of Central Intelligence. It’s not meant to reflect the agenda of any one department, but to be a Delphi board synergizing our lateralities. Set up after the Cuban fiasco to make sure that we never again get backed into that kind of corner by accidental group-think. One of the rules of the CAB process is that it has to include at least one dissident: unlike the commies we know we’re not perfect.” Gregor glances pointedly at Fox, who has the good sense to stay silent.
“Oh, I see,” Sagan says hesitantly. With more force: “so that’s why I’m here? Is that the only reason you’ve dragged me away from Cornell?”
“Of course not, Doctor,” oozes Brundle, casting Gregor a dirty look. The East German defector, Wolff, maintains a smug silence: I are above all this. “We’re here to come up with policy recommendations for dealing with the bigger picture. The much bigger picture.”
“The Builders,” says Fox. “We’re here to determine what our options look like if and when they show up, and to make recommendations about the appropriate course of action. Your background in, uh, SETI recommended you.”
Sagan looks at him in disbelief. “I’d have thought that was obvious,” he says.
“We won’t have any choice,” the young professor explains with a wry smile. “Does a termite mound negotiate with a nuclear superpower?”
Brundle leans forward. “That’s rather a radical position, isn’t it? Surely there’ll be some room for maneuver? We know this is an artificial construct, but presumably the builders are still living people. Even if they’ve got green skin and six eyes.”
“Oh. My. God.” Sagan leans forward, his face in his hands. After a moment Gregor realizes that he’s laughing.
“Excuse me.” Gregor glances round. It’s the German defector, Wolff, or whatever he’s called. “Herr Professor, would you care to explain what you find so funny?”
After a moment Sagan leans back, looks at the ceiling, and sighs. “Imagine a single, a forty-five RPM record with a centre hole punched out. The inner hole is half an astronomical unit—forty-six million miles—in radius. The outer edge is of unknown radius, but probably about two and a half AUs—two hundred and forty five million miles. The disk’s thickness is unknown—seismic waves are reflected off a mirror-like rigid layer eight hundred miles down—but we can estimate it at eight thousand miles, if its density averages out at the same as Earth’s. Surface gravity is the same as our original planet, and since we’ve been transplanted here and survived we have learned that it’s a remarkably hospitable environment for our kind of life; only on the large scale does it seem different.”
The astronomer sits up. “Do any of you gentlemen have any idea just how preposterously powerful whoever built this structure is?”
“How do you mean, preposterously powerful?” asks Brundle, looking more interested than annoyed.
“A colleague of mine, Dan Alderson, did the first analysis. I think you might have done better to pull him in, frankly. Anyway, let me itemise: item number one is escape velocity.” Sagan holds up a bony finger. “Gravity on a disk does not diminish in accordance with the inverse square law, the way it does on a spherical object like the planet we came from. We have roughly earthlike gravity, but to escape, or to reach orbit, takes tremendously more speed. Roughly two hundred times more, in fact. Rockets that from Earth could reach the moon just fall out of the sky after running out of fuel. Next item:” another finger. “The area and mass of the disk. If it’s double-sided it has a surface area equal to billions and billions of Earths. We’re stuck in the middle of an ocean full of alien continents, but we have no guarantee that this hospitable environment is anything other than a tiny oasis in a world of strangeness.”
The astronomer pauses to pour himself a glass of water, then glances round the table. “To put it in perspective, gentlemen, this world is so big that, if one in every hundred stars had an earth-like planet, this single structure could support the population of our entire home galaxy. As for the mass—this structure is as massive as fifty thousand suns. It is, quite bluntly, impossible: as-yet unknown physical forces must be at work to keep it from rapidly collapsing in on itself and creating a black hole. The repulsive force, whatever it is, is strong enough to hold the weight of fifty thousand suns: think about that for a moment, gentlemen.”
At that point Sagan looks around and notices the blank stares. He chuckles ruefully.
“What I mean to say is, this structure is not permitted by the laws of physics as we understand them. Because it clearly does exist, we can draw some conclusions, starting with the fact that our understanding of physics is incomplete. Well, that isn’t news: we know we don’t have a unified theory of everything. Einstein spent thirty years looking for one, and didn’t come up with it.
But, secondly.” He looks tired for a moment, aged beyond his years. “We used to think that any extraterrestrial beings we might communicate with would be fundamentally comprehensible: folks like us, albeit with better technology. I think that’s the frame of mind you’re still working in. Back in sixty-one we had a brainstorming session at a conference, trying to work out just how big an engineering project a spacefaring civilization might come up with. Freeman Dyson, from Princeton, came up with about the biggest thing any of us could imagine: something that required us to imagine dismantling Jupiter and turning it into habitable real estate.
“This disk is about a hundred million times bigger than Dyson’s sphere. And that’s before we take into account the time factor.”
“Time?” Echoes Fox from Langley, sounding confused.
“Time.” Sagan smiles in a vaguely disconnected way. “We’re nowhere near our original galactic neighborhood and whoever moved us here, they didn’t bend the laws of physics far enough to violate the speed limit. It takes light about 160,000 years to cross the distance between where we used to live, and our new stellar neighborhood, the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. Which we have fixed, incidentally, by measuring the distance to known Cepheid variables, once we were able to take into account the measurable red shift of infalling light and the fact that some of them were changing frequency slowly and seem to have changed rather a lot. Our best estimate is eight hundred thousand years, plus or minus two hundred thousand. That’s about four times as long as our species has existed, gentlemen. We’re fossils, an archaeology experiment or something. Our relevance to our abductors is not as equals, but as subjects in some kind of vast experiment. And what the purpose of the experiment is, I can’t tell you. I’ve got some guesses, but…”
Sagan shrugs, then lapses into silence. Gregor catches Brundle’s eye and Brundle shakes his head, very slightly. Don’t spill the beans. Gregor nods. Sagan may realize he’s in a room with a CIA spook and an East German defector, but he doesn’t need to know about the Alienation Service yet.
“Well that’s as may be,” says Fox, dropping words like stones into the hollow silence at the table. “But it begs the question, what are we going to tell the DCI?”
“I suggest,” says Gregor, “that we start by reviewing COLLECTION RUBY.” He nods at Sagan. “Then, maybe when we’re all up to speed on that, we’ll have a better idea of whether there’s anything useful we can tell the DCI.
Madeleine and Robert Holbright are among the last of the immigrants to disembark on the new world. As she glances back at the brilliant white side of the liner, the horizon seems to roll around her head, settling into a strange new stasis that feels unnatural after almost six months at sea.
New Iowa isn’t flat and it isn’t new: rampart cliffs loom to either side of the unnaturally deep harbor (gouged out of bedrock courtesy of General Atomics). A cog-driven funicular railway hauls Maddy and Robert and their four shipping trunks up the thousand-foot climb to the plateau and the port city of Fort Eisenhower—and then to the arrival and orientation camp.
Maddy is quiet and withdrawn, but Bob, oblivious, natters constantly about opportunities and jobs and grabbing a plot of land to build a house on. “It’s the new world,” he says at one point: “why aren’t you excited?”
“The new world,” Maddy echoes, biting back the urge to say something cutting. She looks out the window as the train climbs the cliff-face and brings them into sight of the city. City is the wrong word: it implies solidity, permanence. Fort Eisenhower is less than five years old, a leukaemic gash inflicted on the landscape by the Corps of Engineers. The tallest building is the governor’s mansion, at three stories. Architecturally the town is all Wild West meets the Radar Age, raw pine houses contrasting with big grey concrete boxes full of seaward-pointing Patriot missiles to deter the inevitable encroachment of the communist hordes. “It’s so flat.”
“The nearest hills are two hundred miles away, past the coastal plain—didn’t you read the map?”
She ignores his little dig as the train squeals and clanks up the side of the cliff. It wheezes asthmatically to a stop besides a wooden platform, and expires in a belch of saturated steam. An hour later they’re weary and sweated-up in the lobby of an unprepossessing barrack-hall made of plywood. There’s a large hall and a row of tables and a bunch of bored-looking colonial service types, and people are walking from one position to another with bundles of papers, answering questions in low voices and receiving official stamps. The would-be colonists mill around like disturbed livestock among the piles of luggage at the back of the room. Maddy and Robert queue uneasy in the damp afternoon heat, overhearing snippets of conversation. “Country of origin? Educational qualifications? Yes, but what was your last job?” Religion and race—almost a quarter of the people in the hall are refugees from India or Pakistan or somewhere lost to the mysterious east forever—seem to obsess the officials. “Robert?” she whispers.
“It’ll be alright,” he says with false certainty. Taking after his dad already, trying to pretend he’s the solid family man. Her sidelong glance at him steals any residual confidence. Then it’s their turn.
“Names, passports, country of origin?” The guy with the moustache is brusque and bored, irritated by the heat.
Robert smiles at him. “Robert and Madeleine Holbright, from Canada?” He offers their passports.
“Uh-huh.” The official gives the documents a very American going-over. “What schooling have you done? What was your last job?”
“I’ve, uh, I was working part-time in a garage. On my way through college—I was final year at Toronto, studying structural engineering, but I haven’t sat the finals. Maddy—Maddy’s a qualified paramedic.”
The officer fixes her with a stare. “Worked at it?”
“What? Uh, no—I’m freshly qualified.” His abrupt questioning flusters her.
“Huh.” He makes a cryptic notation against their names on a long list, a list that spills over the edge of his desk and trails towards the rough floor. “Next.” He hands the passports back, and a couple of cards, and points them along to the row of desks.
Someone is already stepping up behind them when Maddy manages to read the tickets. Hers says TRAINEE NURSE. Robert is staring at his and saying “no, this is wrong.”
“What is it, Bob?” She looks over his shoulder as someone jostles him sideways. His card reads LABORER (unskilled); but she doesn’t have time to read the rest.
Yuri Gagarin kicks his shoes off, loosens his tie, and leans back in his chair. “It’s hotter than fucking Cuba!” he complains.
“You visited Cuba, didn’t you, boss?” His companion, still standing, pours a glass of iced tea and passes it to the young colonel-general before drawing one for himself.
“Yeah, thanks Misha.” The former first cosmonaut smiles tiredly. “Back before the invasion. Have a seat.”
Misha Gorodin is the only man on the ship who doesn’t have to give a shit whether the captain offers him a seat, but he’s grateful all the same: a little respect goes a long way, and Gagarin’s sunny disposition and friendly attitude is a far cry from some of the fuckheads Misha’s been stuck with in the past. There’s a class of officer who thinks that because you’re a zampolit you’re somehow below them, but Yuri doesn’t do that: in some ways he’s the ideal New Soviet Man, progress personified. Which makes life a lot easier, because Yuri is one of the very few naval commanders who doesn’t have to give a shit what his political officer thinks, and life would be an awful lot stickier without that grease of respect to make the wheels go round. Mind you, Yuri is also commander of the only naval warship operated by the Cosmonaut Corps, which is a branch of the Strategic Rocket Forces, another howling exception to the usual military protocol. Somehow this posting seems to be breaking all the rules…
“What was it like, boss?”
“Hot as hell. Humid, like this. Beautiful women but lots of dark-skinned comrades who didn’t bathe often enough—all very jolly, but you couldn’t help looking out to sea, over your shoulder. You know there was an American base there, even then? Guantanamo. They don’t have the base now, but they’ve got all the rubble.” For a moment Gagarin looks morose. “Bastards.”
“Yes. Shitting on a small defenseless island like that, just because they couldn’t get to us any more. You remember when they had to hand out iodine tablets to all the kids? That wasn’t Leningrad or Gorky, the fallout plume: it was Havana. I don’t think they wanted to admit just how bad it was.”
Misha sips his tea. “We had a lucky escape.” Morale be damned, it’s acceptable to admit at least that much in front of the CO, in private. Misha’s seen some of the KGB reports on the US nuclear capabilities back then, and his blood runs cold; while Nikita had been wildly bluffing about the Rodina’s nuclear defenses, the Americans had been hiding the true scale of their own arsenal. From themselves as much as the rest of the world.
“Yes. Things were going to the devil back then, no question: if we hadn’t woken up over here, who knows what would have happened? They out-gunned us back then. I don’t think they realized.” Gagarin’s dark expression lifts: he glances out of the open porthole—the only one in a private cabin that opens—and smiles. “This isn’t Cuba, though.” The headland rising above the bay tells him that much: no tropical island on earth supported such weird vegetation. Or such ruins.
“Indeed not. But, what about the ruins?” asks Misha, putting his tea glass down on the map table.
“Yes.” Gagarin leans forward: “I was meaning to talk to you about that. Exploration is certainly in line with our orders, but we are a trifle short of trained archaeologists, aren’t we? Let’s see: we’re four hundred and seventy thousand kilometers from home, six major climactic zones, five continents—it’ll be a long time before we get any settlers out here, won’t it?” He pauses delicately. “Even if the rumors about reform of the penal system are true.”
“It is certainly a dilemma,” Misha agrees amiably, deliberately ignoring the skipper’s last comment. “But we can take some time over it. There’s nobody out here, at least not within range of yesterday’s reconnaissance flight. I’ll vouch for lieutenant Chekhov’s soundness: he has a solid attitude, that one.”
“I don’t see how we can leave without examining the ruins, but we’ve got limited resources and in any case I don’t want to do anything that might get the Academy to slap our wrists. No digging for treasure until the egg-heads get here.” Gagarin hums tunelessly for a moment, then slaps his hand on his thigh: “I think we’ll shoot some film for the comrade general secretary’s birthday party. First we’ll secure a perimeter around the beach, give those damned spetsnaz a chance to earn all the vodka they’ve been drinking. Then you and I, we can take Primary Science Party Two into the nearest ruins with lights and cameras. Make a visual record, leave the double-domes back in Moscow to figure out what we’re looking at and whether it’s worth coming back later with a bunch of archaeologists. What do you say, Misha?”
“I say that’s entirely logical, comrade general,” says the political officer, nodding to himself.
“That’s so ordered, then. We’ll play it safe, though. Just because we haven’t seen any active settlement patterns, doesn’t mean there’re no aborigines lurking in the forest.”
“Like that last bunch of lizards.” Misha frowns. “Little purple bastards!”
“We’ll make good communists out of them eventually,” Yuri insists. “A toast! To making good communists out of little purple lizard-bastards with blowpipes who shoot political officers in the arse!”
Gagarin grins wickedly and Gorodin knows when he’s being wound up on purpose and summons a twinkle to his eye as he raises his glass: “And to poisons that don’t work on human beings.”
The following briefing film is classified COLLECTION RUBY. If you do not possess both COLLECTION and RUBY clearances, leave the auditorium and report to the screening security officer immediately. Disclosure to unauthorized personnel is a federal offense punishable by a fine of up to ten thousand dollars and/or imprisonment for up to twenty years. You have thirty seconds to clear the auditorium and report to the screening security officer.
Ocean—the final frontier. For twelve years, since the momentous day when we discovered that we had been removed to this planar world, we have been confronted by the immensity of an ocean that goes on as far as we can see. Confronted also by the prospect of the spread of Communism to uncharted new continents, we have committed ourselves to a strategy of exploration and containment.
An Atlas rocket on the launch pad rises slowly, flames jetting from its tail: it surges past the gantry and disappears into the sky.
A camera mounted in the nose, pointing back along the flank of the rocket. The ground falls behind, blurring into blue distance. Slowly, the sky behind the rocket is turning black: but the land still occupies much of the fisheye view. The first stage engine ring tumbles away, leaving the core engine burning with a pale blue flame: now the outline of the California coastline is recognizable. North America shrinks visibly: eventually another, strange outline swims into view, like a cipher in an alien script. The booster burns out and falls behind, and the tumbling camera catches sunlight glinting off the upper-stage Centaur rocket as its engine ignites, thrusting it higher and faster.
We cannot escape.
A meteor streaking across the empty blue bowl of the sky; slowing, deploying parachutes.
In 1962, this rocket would have blasted a two-ton payload all the way into outer space. That was when we lived on a planet that was an oblate sphere. Life on a dinner-plate seems to be different: while the gravitational attraction anywhere on the surface is a constant, we can’t get away from it. In fact, anything we fire straight up will come back down again. Not even a nuclear rocket can escape: according to JPL scientist Dan Alderson, escape from a Magellanic disk would require a speed of over one thousand six hundred miles per second. That is because this disk masses many times more than a star—in fact, it has a mass fifty thousand times greater than our own sun.
What stops it collapsing into a sphere? Nobody knows. Physicists speculate that a fifth force that drove the early expansion of the universe—they call it ‘quintessence’—has been harnessed by the makers of the disk. But the blunt truth is, nobody knows for sure. Nor do we understand how we came here—how, in the blink of an eye, something beyond our comprehension peeled the earth’s continents and oceans like a grape and plated them across this alien disk.
A map. The continents of earth are laid out—Americas at one side, Europe and Asia and Africa to their east. Beyond the Indonesian island chain Australia and New Zealand hang lonely on the edge of an abyss of ocean.
The map pans right: strange new continents swim into view, ragged-edged and huge. A few of them are larger than Asia and Africa combined; most of them are smaller.
Geopolitics was changed forever by the Move. While the surface topography of our continents was largely preserved, wedges of foreign material were introduced below the Mohorovicik discontinuity—below the crust—and in the deep ocean floor, to act as spacers. The distances between points separated by deep ocean were, of necessity, changed, and not in our geopolitical favor. While the tactical balance of power after the Move was much as it had been before, the great circle flight paths our strategic missiles were designed for—over the polar ice cap and down into the Communist empire—were distorted and stretched, placing the enemy targets outside their range. Meanwhile, although our manned bombers could still reach Moscow with in-flight refueling, the changed map would have forced them to traverse thousands of miles of hostile airspace en route. The Move rendered most of our strategic preparations useless. If the British had been willing to stand firm, we might have prevailed—but in retrospect, what went for us also went for the Soviets, and it is hard to condemn the British for being unwilling to take the full force of the inevitable Soviet bombardment alone.
In retrospect the only reason this was not a complete disaster for us is that the Soviets were caught in the same disarray as ourselves. But the specter of Communism now dominates western Europe: the supposedly independent nations of the European Union are as much in thrall to Moscow as the client states of the Warsaw Pact. Only the on-going British State of Emergency offers us any residual geopolitical traction on the red continent, and in the long term we must anticipate that the British, too, will be driven to reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union.
A silvery delta-winged aircraft in flight. Stub wings, pointed nose, and a shortage of windows proclaim it to be an unmanned drone: a single large engine in its tail thrusts it along, exhaust nozzle glowing cherry-red. Trackless wastes unwind below it as the viewpoint—a chase plane—carefully climbs over the drone to capture a clear view of the upper fuselage.
The disk is vast—so huge that it defies sanity. Some estimates give it the surface area of more than a billion earths. Exploration by conventional means is futile: hence the deployment of the NP-101 Persephone drone, here seen making a proving flight over land mass F-42. The NP-101 is a reconnaissance derivative of the nuclear-powered D-SLAM Pluto missile that forms the backbone of our post-Move deterrent force. It is slower than a strategic D-SLAM, but much more reliable: while D-SLAM is designed for a quick, fiery dash into Soviet territory, the NP-101 is designed to fly long duration missions that map entire continents. On a typical deployment the NP-101 flies outward at thrice the speed of sound for nearly a month: traveling fifty thousand miles a day, it penetrates a million miles into the unknown before it turns and flies homeward. Its huge mapping cameras record two images every thousand seconds, and its sophisticated digital computer records a variety of data from its sensor suite, allowing us to build up a picture of parts of the disk that our ships would take years or decades to reach. With resolution down to the level of a single nautical mile, the NP-101 program has been a resounding success, allowing us to map whole new worlds that it would take us years to visit in person.
At the end of its mission, the NP-101 drops its final film capsule and flies out into the middle of an uninhabited ocean, to ditch its spent nuclear reactor safely far from home.
A bull’s-eye diagram. The centre is a black circle with a star at its heart; around it is a circular platter, of roughly the same proportions as a 45 rpm single.
A rough map of the disk. Here is the area we have explored to date, using the NP-101 program.
(A dot little larger than a sand grain lights up on the face of the single.)
That dot of light is a million kilometers in radius—five times the distance that used to separate our old Earth from its moon. (To cross the radius of the disk, an NP-101 would have to fly at Mach Three for almost ten years.) We aren’t even sure exactly where the centre of that dot lies on the disk: our highest sounding rocket, the Nova-Orion block two, can barely rise two degrees above the plane of the disk before crashing back again. Here is the scope of our knowledge of our surroundings, derived from the continental-scale mapping cameras carried by Project Orion:
(A salmon pink area almost half an inch in diameter lights up around the red sand grain on the face of the single.)
Of course, cameras at an altitude of a hundred thousand miles can’t look down on new continents and discern signs of Communist infiltration; at best they can listen for radio transmissions and perform spectroscopic analyses of the atmospheric gasses above distant lands, looking for gasses characteristic of industrial development such as chlorofluorocarbons and nitrogen oxides.
This leaves us vulnerable to unpleasant surprises. Our long term strategic analyses imply that we are almost certainly not alone on the disk. In addition to the Communists, we must consider the possibility that whoever build this monstrous structure—clearly one of the wonders of the universe—might also live here. We must contemplate their motives for bringing us to this place. And then there are the aboriginal cultures discovered on continents F-29 and F-364, both now placed under quarantine. If some land masses bear aboriginal inhabitants, we may speculate that they, too, have been transported to the disk in the same manner as ourselves, for some as-yet unknown purpose. It is possible that they are genuine stone-age dwellers—or that they are the survivors of advanced civilizations that did not survive the transition to this environment. What is the possibility that there exists on the disk one or more advanced alien civilizations that are larger and more powerful than our own? And would we recognize them as such if we saw them? How can we go about estimating the risk of our encountering hostile Little Green Men—now that other worlds are in range of even a well-equipped sailboat, much less the Savannah-class nuclear powered exploration ships? Astronomers Carl Sagan and Daniel Drake estimate the probability as high—so high, in fact, that they believe there are several such civilizations out there.
We are not alone. We can only speculate about why we might have been brought here by the abductors, but we can be certain that it is only a matter of time before we encounter an advanced alien civilization that may well be hostile to us. This briefing film will now continue with an overview of our strategic preparations for first contact, and the scenarios within which we envisage this contingency arising, with specific reference to the Soviet Union as an example of an unfriendly ideological superpower…
After two weeks, Maddy is sure she’s going mad.
She and Bob have been assigned a small prefabricated house (not much more than a shack, although it has electricity and running water) on the edge of town. He’s been drafted into residential works, put to work erecting more buildings: and this is the nearest thing to a success they’ve had, because after a carefully-controlled protest his status has been corrected, from just another set of unskilled hands to trainee surveyor. A promotion of which he is terribly proud, evidently taking it as confirmation that they’ve made the right move by coming here.
Maddy, meanwhile, has a harder time finding work. The district hospital is fully staffed. They don’t need her, won’t need her until the next shipload of settlers arrive, unless she wants to pack up her bags and go tramping around isolated ranch settlements in the outback. In a year’s time the governor has decreed they’ll establish another town-scale settlement, inland near the mining encampments on the edge of the Hoover Desert. Then they’ll need medics to staff the new hospital: but for now, she’s a spare wheel. Because Maddy is a city girl by upbringing and disposition, and not inclined to take a job tramping around the outback if she can avoid it.
She spends the first week and then much of the second mooching around town, trying to find out what she can do. She’s not the only young woman in this predicament. While there’s officially no unemployment, and the colony’s dirigiste administration finds plenty of hard work for idle hands, there’s also a lack of openings for ambulance crew, or indeed much of anything else she can do. Career-wise it’s like a trip into the 1950’s. Young, female, and ambitious? Lots of occupations simply don’t exist out here on the fringe, and many others are closed or inaccessible. Everywhere she looks she sees mothers shepherding implausibly large flocks of toddlers their guardians pinch-faced from worry and exhaustion. Bob wants kids, although Maddy’s not ready for that yet. But the alternatives on offer are limited.
Eventually Maddy takes to going through the “help wanted” ads on the bulletin board outside city hall. Some of them are legit: and at least a few are downright peculiar. One catches her eye: field assistant wanted for biological research. I wonder? she thinks, and goes in search of a door to bang on.
When she finds the door—raw wood, just beginning to bleach in the strong colonial sunlight—and bangs on it, John Martin opens it and blinks quizzically into the light. “Hello?” he asks.
“You were advertising for a field assistant?” She stares at him. He’s the entomologist, right? She remembers his hands on the telescope on the deck of the ship. The voyage itself is already taking on the false patina of romance in her memories, compared to the dusty present it has delivered her to.
“I was? Oh—yes, yes. Do come in.” He backs into the house—another of these identikit shacks, colonial, family, for the use of—and offers her a seat in what used to be the living room. It’s almost completely filled by a work table and a desk and a tall wooden chest of sample drawers. There’s an odd, musty smell, like old cobwebs and leaky demijohns of formalin. John shuffles around his den, vaguely disordered by the unexpected shock of company. There’s something touchingly cute about him, like the subjects of his studies, Maddy thinks. “Sorry about the mess, I don’t get many visitors. So, um, do you have any relevant experience?”
She doesn’t hesitate: “None whatsoever, but I’d like to learn.” She leans forward. “I qualified as a paramedic before we left. At college I was studying biology, but I had to drop out midway through my second year: I was thinking about going to medical school later, but I guess that’s not going to happen here. Anyway, the hospital here has no vacancies, so I need to find something else to do. What exactly does a field assistant get up to?”
“Get sore feet.” He grins lopsidedly. “Did you do any lab time? Field work?” Maddy nods hesitantly so he drags her meager college experiences out of her before he continues. “I’ve got a whole continent to explore and only one set of hands: we’re spread thin out here. Luckily NSF budgeted to hire me an assistant. The assistant’s job is to be my Man Friday; to help me cart equipment about, take samples, help with basic lab work—very basic—and so on. Oh, and if they’re interested in entomology, botany, or anything else remotely relevant that’s a plus. There aren’t many unemployed life sciences people around here, funnily enough: have you had any chemistry?”
“Some,” Maddy says cautiously; “I’m no biochemist.” She glances round the crowded office curiously. “What are you meant to be doing?”
He sighs. “A primary survey of an entire continent. Nobody, but nobody, even bothered looking into the local insect ecology here. There’re virtually no vertebrates, birds, lizards, what have you—but back home there are more species of beetle than everything else put together, and this place is no different. Did you know nobody has even sampled the outback fifty miles inland of here? We’re doing nothing but throw up shacks along the coastline and open-cast quarries a few miles inland. There could be anything in the interior, absolutely anything.” When he gets excited he starts gesticulating, Maddy notices, waving his hands around enthusiastically. She nods and smiles, trying to encourage him.
“A lot of what I’m doing is the sort of thing they were doing in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Take samples, draw them, log their habitat and dietary habits, see if I can figure out their life cycle, try and work out who’s kissing-cousins with what. Build a family tree. Oh, I also need to do the same with the vegetation, you know? And they want me to keep close watch on the other disks around Lucifer. ‘Keep an eye out for signs of sapience,’ whatever that means: I figure there’s a bunch of leftovers in the astronomical community who feel downright insulted that whoever built this disk and brought us here didn’t land on the White House lawn and introduce themselves. I’d better tell you right now, there’s enough work here to occupy an army of zoologists and botanists for a century; you can get started on a PhD right here and now if you want. I’m only here for five years, but my successor should be okay about taking on an experienced RA … the hard bit is going to be maintaining focus. Uh, I can sort you out a subsistence grant from the governor-general’s discretionary fund and get NSF to reimburse him, but it won’t be huge. Would twenty Truman dollars a week be enough?”
Maddy thinks for a moment. Truman dollars—the local scrip—aren’t worth a whole lot, but there’s not much to spend them on. And Rob’s earning for both of them anyway. And a PhD …that could be my ticket back to civilization, couldn’t it? “I guess so,” she says, feeling a sense of vast relief: so there’s something she’s useful for besides raising the next generation, after all. She tries to set aside the visions of herself, distinguished and not too much older, gratefully accepting a professor’s chair at an ivy league university. “When do I start?”
Misha’s first impressions of the disturbingly familiar alien continent are of an oppressively humid heat, and the stench of decaying jellyfish.
The Sergei Korolev floats at anchor in the river estuary, a huge streamlined visitor from another world. Stubby fins stick out near the waterline, like a seaplane with clipped wings: gigantic Kuznetsov atomic turbines in pods ride on booms to either side of its high-ridged back, either side of the launch/recovery catapults for its parasite MiG fighter-bombers, aft of the broad curve of the ekranoplan’s bridge. Near the waterline, a boat bay is open: a naval spetsnaz team is busy loading their kit into the landing craft that will ferry them to the small camp on the beach. Misha, who stands just above the waterline, turns away from the giant ground effect ship and watches his commander, who is staring inland with a faint expression of worry. “Those trees—awfully close, aren’t they?” Gagarin says, with the carefully studied stupidity that saw him through the first dangerous years after his patron Khrushchev’s fall.
“That is indeed what captain Kirov is taking care of,” replies Gorodin, playing his role of foil to the colonel-general’s sardonic humor. And indeed shadowy figures in olive-green battle dress are stalking in and out of the trees, carefully laying tripwires and screamers in an arc around the beachhead. He glances to the left, where a couple of sailors with a