11520 words, novelette, REPRINT
The Clear Blue Seas of Luna
You know many things, but what he knows is both less and more than what I tell to us.
Or especially, what we all tell to all those others—those simple humans, who are like him in their limits.
I cannot be what you are, you the larger.
Not that we are not somehow also the same, wedded to our memories of the centuries we have been wedded and grown together.
For we are like you and him and I, a life form that evolution could not produce on the rich loam of Earth. To birth forth and then burst forth a thing—a great, sprawling metallo-bio-cyber-thing such as we and you—takes grander musics, such as I know.
Only by shrinking down to the narrow chasms of the single view can you know the intricate slick fineness, the reek and tingle and chime of this silky symphony of self.
But bigness blunders, thumb-fingered.
Smallness can enchant. So let us to go an oddment of him, and me, and you:
A long thin hard room, fluorescent white, without shadows.
Metal on ceramo-glass on fake wood on woven nylon rug.
A granite desk. A man whose name he could not recall.
A neat uniform, so familiar he looked beyond it by reflex.
He felt: light gravity (Mars? the moon?); rough cloth at a cuff of his work shirt; a chill dry air-conditioned breeze along his neck. A red flash of anger.
Benjan smiled slightly. He had just seen what he must do.
“Gray was free when we began work, centuries ago,” Benjan said, his black eyes fixed steadily on the man across the desk. Katonji, that was the man’s name. His commander, once, a very long time ago.
“It had been planned that way, yes,” his superior said haltingly, begrudging the words.
“That was the only reason I took the assignment,” Benjan said.
“I know. Unfortunately—”
“I have spent many decades on it.”
“Fleet Control certainly appreciates—”
“World-scaping isn’t just a job, damn it! It’s an art, a discipline, a craft that saps a man’s energies.”
“And you have done quite well. Personally, I—”
“When you asked me to do this I wanted to know what Fleet Control planned for Gray.”
“You can recall an ancient conversation?”
A verbal maneuver, no more. Katonji was an amplified human and already well over two centuries old, but the Earthside social convention was to pretend that the past faded away, leaving a young psyche. “A ‘grand experiment in human society,’ I remember your words.”
“True, that was the original plan—”
“But now you tell me a single faction needs it? The whole moon?”
“The Council has reconsidered.”
“Reconsidered, hell.” Benjan’s bronze face crinkled with disdain. “Somebody pressured them and they gave in. Who was it?”
“I would not put it that way,” Katonji said coldly.
“I know you wouldn’t. Far easier to hide behind words.” He smiled wryly and compressed his thin lips. The view-screen near him looked out on a cold silver landscape and he studied it, smouldering inside. An artificial viewscape from Gray itself. Earth, a crescent concerto in blue and white, hung in a creamy sky over the insect working of robotractors and men. Gray’s air was unusually clear today, the normal haze swept away by a front blowing in from the equator near Mare Chrisum.
The milling minions were hollowing out another cavern for Fleet Control to fill with cubicles and screens and memos. Great Gray above, mere gray below. Earth swam above high fleecy cirrus and for a moment Benjan dreamed of the day when birds, easily adapted to the light gravity and high atmospheric density, would flap lazily across such views.
“I am no longer an officer. I resigned before you were born.”
“By your leave, I meant it solely as an honorific. Surely you still have some loyalty to the Fleet.”
Benjan laughed. The deep bass notes echoed from the office walls with a curious emptiness. “So it’s an appeal to the honor of the crest, is it? I see I spent too long on Gray. Back here you have forgotten what I am like,’” Benjan said. But where is “here”? I could not take Earth full gravity any more, so this must be an orbiting Fleet cylinder, spinning gravity.
A frown. “I had hoped that working once more with Fleet officers would change you, even though you remained a civilian on Gray. A man isn’t—”
“A man is what he is,” Benjan said.
Katonji leaned back in his shiftchair and made a tent of his fingers. “You . . . played the Sabal Game during those years?” he asked slowly.
Benjan’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, I did.” The Game was ancient, revered, simplicity itself. It taught that the greater gain lay in working with others, rather than in self-seeking. He had always enjoyed it, but only a fool believed that such moral lessons extended to the cut and thrust of Fleet matters.
“It did not . . . bring you to community?”
“I got on well enough with the members of my team,” Benjan said evenly.
“I hoped such isolation with a small group would calm your . . . spirit. Fleet is a community of men and women seeking enlightenment in the missions, just as you do. You are an exceptional person, anchored as you are in the Station, using linkages we have not used—”
“Permitted, you mean.”
“Those old techniques were deemed . . . too risky.”
Benjan felt his many links like a background hum, in concert and warm. What could this man know of such methods time-savored by those who lived them? “And not easy to direct from above.”
The man fastidiously raise a finger and persisted: “We still sit at the Game, and while you are here would welcome your—
“Can we leave my spiritual progress aside?”
“Of course, if you desire.”
“Fine. Now tell me who is getting my planet.”
“Gray is not your planet.”
“I speak for the Station and all the intelligences who link with it. We made Gray. Through many decades, we hammered the crust, released the gases, planted the spores, damped the winds.”
“Three hundred of us at the start, and eleven heavy spacecraft. A puny beginning that blossomed into millions.”
“Helped by the entire staff of Earthside—”
“ They were Fleet men. They take orders, I don’t. I work by contract.”
“A contract spanning centuries?”
“It is still valid, though those who wrote it are dust.”
“Let us treat this in a gentlemanly fashion, sir. Any contract can be renegotiated.”
“The paper I—we, but I am here to speak for all—signed for Gray said it was to be an open colony. That’s the only reason I worked on it,” he said sharply.
“I would not advise you to pursue that point,” Katonji said. He turned and studied the viewscreen, his broad, southern Chinese nose flaring at the nostrils. But the rest of his face remained an impassive mask. For a long moment there was only the thin whine of air circulation in the room.
“Sir,” the other man said abruptly, “I can only tell you what the Council has granted. Men of your talents are rare. We know that, had you undertaken the formation of Gray for a, uh, private interest, you would have demanded more payment.”
“Wrong. I wouldn’t have done it at all.”
“Nonetheless, the Council is willing to pay you a double fee. The Majiken Clan, who have been invested with Primacy Rights to Gray—”
“—have seen fit to contribute the amount necessary to reimburse you—”
“So that’s who—”
“—and all others of the Station, to whom I have been authorized to release funds immediately.”
Benjan stared blankly ahead for a short moment. “I believe I’ll do a bit of releasing myself,” he murmured, almost to himself.
“Oh, nothing. Information?”
“The Clans have a stranglehold on the Council, but not the 3D. People might be interested to know how it came about that a new planet—a rich one, too—was handed over—”
Best to pause. Think. He shrugged, tried on a thin smile. “I was only jesting. Even idealists are not always stupid.”
“Um. I am glad of that.”
“Lodge the Majiken draft in my account. I want to wash my hands of this.”
The other man said something, but Benjan was not listening. He made the ritual of leaving. They exchanged only perfunctory hand gestures. He turned to go, and wondered at the naked, flat room this man had chosen to work in: It carried no soft tones, no humanity, none of the feel of a room that is used, a place where men do work that interests them, so that they embody it with something of themselves. This office was empty in the most profound sense. It was a room for men who lived by taking orders. He hoped never to see such a place again.
Benjan turned. Stepped—the slow slide of falling, then catching himself, stepped—
You fall over Gray.
Skating down the steep banks of young clouds, searching, driving.
Luna you know as Gray, as all in Station know it, because pearly clouds deck high in its thick air. It had been gray long before, as well—the aged pewter of rock hard-hammered for billions of years by the relentless sun. Now its air was like soft slate, cloaking the greatest of human handiworks.
You raise a hand, gaze at it. So much could come from so small an instrument. You marvel. A small tool, five-fingered slab, working over great stretches of centuries. Seen against the canopy of your craft, it seems an unlikely tool to heft worlds with—
And the thought alone sends you plunging—
Luna was born small, too small.
So the sun had readily stripped it of its early shroud of gas. Luna came from the collision of a Mars-sized world into the primordial Earth. From that colossal crunch—how you wish you could have seen that!—spun a disk, and from that churn Luna condensed redly. The heat of that birth stripped away the moon’s water and gases, leaving it bare to the sun’s glower.
So amend that:
You steer a comet from the chilly freezer beyond Pluto, swing it around Jupiter, and smacked it into the bleak fields of Mare Chrisium. In bits.
For a century, all hell breaks loose. You wait, patient in your Station. It is a craft of fractions: Luna is smaller, so needs less to build an atmosphere.
There was always some scrap of gas on the moon—trapped from the solar wind, baked from its dust, perhaps even belched from the early, now long-dead volcanoes. When Apollo descended, bringing the first men, its tiny exhaust plume doubled the mass of the frail atmosphere.
Still, such a wan world could hold gases for tens of thousands of years; physics said so. Its lesser gravity tugs at a mere sixth of Earth’s hefty grip. So, to begin, you sling inward a comet bearing a third the mass of all Earth’s ample air, a chunk of mountain-sized grimy ice.
Sol’s heat had robbed this world, but mother-massive Earth herself had slowly stolen away its spin. It became a submissive partner in a rigid gavotte, forever tide-locked with one face always smiling at its partner.
Here you use the iceteroid to double effect. By hooking the comet adroitly around Jupiter, in a reverse swingby, you loop it into an orbit opposite to the customary, docile way that worlds loop around the sun. Go opposite! Retro! Coming in on Luna, the iceball then has ten times the impact energy.
Mere days before it strikes, you blow it apart with meticulous brutality. Smashed to shards, chunks come gliding in all around Luna’s equator, small enough that they cannot muster momentum enough to splatter free of gravity’s grip. Huge cannonballs slam into gray rock, but at angles that prevent them from getting away again.
Earth admin was picky about this: no debris was to be flung free, to rain down as celestial buckshot on that favored world.
Within hours, Luna had air—of a crude sort. You mixed and salted and worked your chemical magicks upon roiling clouds that sported forked lightning. Gravity’s grind provoked fevers, molecular riots.
More: as the pellets pelted down, Luna spun up. Its crust echoed with myriad slams and bangs. The old world creaked as it yielded, spinning faster from the hammering. From its lazy cycle of twenty-eight days it sped up to sixty hours—close enough to Earth-like, as they say, for government work. A day still lazy enough.
Even here, you orchestrated a nuanced performance, coaxed from dynamics. Luna’s axial tilt had been a dull zero. Dutifully it had spun at right angles to the orbital plane of the solar system, robbed it of summers and winters.
But you wanted otherwise. Angled just so, the incoming ice nuggets tilted the poles. From such simple mechanics you conjured seasons. And as the gases cooled, icy caps crowned your work.
You were democratic, at first: allowing both water and carbon dioxide, with smidgens of methane and ammonia. Here you called upon the appetites of bacteria, sprites you sowed as soon as the winds calmed after bombardment. They basked in sunlight, broke up the methane. The greenhouse blanket quickly warmed the old gray rocks, coveting the heat from the infalls, and soon algae covered them.
You watched with pride as the first rain fell. For centuries the dark plains had carried humanity’s imposed, watery names: Tranquility, Serenity, Crises, Clouds, Storms. Now these lowlands of aged lava caught the rains and made muds and fattened into ponds, lakes, true seas. You made the ancient names come true.
Through your servant machines, you marched across these suddenly murky lands, bristling with an earned arrogance. They—yourself!—plowed and dug, sampled and salted. Through their eyes and tongues and ears you sat in your high Station and heard the sad baby sigh of the first winds awakening.
The Station was becoming more than a bristling canister of metal, by then. Its agents grew, as did you.
You smiled down upon the gathering Gray with your quartz eyes and microwave antennas. For you knew what was coming. A mere sidewise glance at rich Earth told you what to expect.
Like Earth’s tropics now, at Luna’s equator heat drove moist gases aloft. Cooler gas flowed from the poles to fill in. The high wet clouds skated poleward, cooled—and rained down riches.
On Earth, such currents are robbed of their water about a third of the way to the poles, and so descend, their dry rasp making a world-wide belt of deserts. Not so on Luna.
You had judged the streams of newborn air rightly. Thicker airs than Earth’s took longer to exhaust, and so did not fall until they reached the poles. Thus the new world had no chains of deserts, and one simple circulating air cell ground away in each hemisphere. Moisture worked its magicks.
You smiled to see your labors come right. Though anchored in your mammoth Station, you felt the first pinpricks of awareness in the crawlers, flyers and diggers who probed the freshening moon.
You tasted their flavors, the brimming possibilities. Northerly winds swept the upper half of the globe, bearing poleward, then swerving toward the west to make mild the occasional mild tornado. (Not all weather should be boring.)
Clouds patroled the air, still fretting over their uneasy births. Day and night came in their slow rhythm, stirring the biological lab that worked below. You sometimes took a moment from running all this, just to watch.
Lunascapes. Great Grayworld.
Where day yielded to dark, valleys sank into smoldering blackness. Already a chain of snowy peaks shone where they caught the sun’s dimming rays, and lit the plains with slanting colors like live coals. Sharp mountains cleaved the cloud banks, leaving a wake like that of a huge ship. At the fat equator, straining still to adjust to the new spin, tropical thunderheads glowered, lit by orange lightning that seemed to be looking for a way to spark life among the drifting molecules.
All that you did, in a mere decade. You had made “the lesser light that rules the night” now shine five times brighter, casting sharp shadows on Earth. Sunrays glinted by day from the young oceans, dazzling the eyes on Earth. And the mother world itself reflected in those muddy seas, so that when the alignment was right, people on Earth’s night side gazed up into their own mirrored selves. Viewed at just the right angle, Earth’s image was rimmed with ruddy sunlight, refracting through Earth’s air.
You knew it could not last, but were pleased to find the new air stick around. It would bleed away in ten thousand years, but by that time other measures could come into play. You had plans for a monolayer membrane to cap your work, resting atop the whole atmosphere, the largest balloon ever conceived.
Later? No, act in the moment—and so you did.
You wove it with membrane skill, cast it wide, let it fall—to rest easy on the thick airs below. Great holes in it let ships glide through and fro, but the losses from those would be trivial.
Not that all was perfect. Luna had no soil, only the damaged dust left from four billion years beneath the solar wind’s anvil.
After a mere momentary decade (nothing, to you), fresh wonders bloomed.
Making soil from gritty grime was work best left to the micro-beasts who loved such stuff. To do great works on a global scale took tiny assistants. You fashioned them in your own labs, which poked outward from the Station’s many-armed skin.
Gray grew a crust. Earth is in essence a tissue of microbial organisms living off the sun’s fires. Gray would do the same, in fast-forward. You cooked up not mere primordial broths, but endless chains of regulatory messages, intricate feedback loops, organic gavottes.
Earth hung above, an example of life ornamented by eleborate decorations, structures of forest and grass and skin and blood—living quarters, like seagrass and zebras and eucalyptus and primates.
Do the same, you told yourself. Only better.
These tasks you loved. Their conjuring consumed more decades, stacked end on end. You were sucked into the romance of tiny turf wars, chemical assaults, microbial murders and invasive incests. But you had to play upon the stellar stage, as well.
You had not thought about the tides. Even you had not found a way around those outcomes of gravity’s gradient. Earth raised bulges in Gray’s seas a full twenty meters tall. That made for a dim future for coastal property, even once the air became breathable.
Luckily, even such colossal tides were not a great bother to the lakes you shaped in crater beds. These you made as breeding farms for the bioengineered minions who ceaselessly tilled the dirts, massaged the gases, filtered the tinkling streams that cut swift ways through rock.
Indeed, here and there you even found a use for the tides. There were more watts lurking there, in kinetic energy. You fashioned push-plates to tap some of it, to run your sub-stations. Thrifty gods do not have to suck up to (and from) Earthside.
And so the sphere that, when you began, had been the realm of strip miners amd mass-driver camps, of rugged, suited loners . . . became a place where, someday, humans might walk and breathe free.
That time is about to come. You yearn for it. For you, too, can then manifest yourself, your Station, as a mere mortal . . . and set foot upon a world that you would name Selene.
You were both Station and more, by then. How much more few knew. But some sliver of you clung to the name of Benjan—
—Benjan nodded slightly, ears ringing for some reason.
The smooth, sure interviewer gave a short introduction. “Man . . . or manifestation? This we must all wonder as we greet an embodiment of humanity’s greatest—and now ancient—construction project. One you and I can see every evening in the sky—for those who are still surface dwellers.”
3D cameras moved in smooth arcs through the studio darkness beyond. The two men sat in a pool of light. The interviewer spoke toward the directional mike as he gave the background on Benjan’s charges against the Council.
Smiles galore. Platitudes aplenty. That done, came the attack.
“But isn’t this a rather abstract, distant point to bring at this time?” the man said, turning to Benjan.
Benjan blinked, uncertain, edgy. He was a private man, used to working alone. Now that he was moving against the Council he had to bear these public appearances, these . . . manifestations . . . of a dwindled self. “To, ah, the people of the next generation, Gray will not be an abstraction—”
“You mean the moon?”
“Uh, yes, Gray is my name for it. That’s the way it lookled when I—uh, we all—started work on it centuries ago.”
“Yet you were there all along, in fact.”
“Well, yes. But when I’m—we’re—done.” Benjan leaned forward, and his interviewer leaned back, as if not wanting to be too close. “it will be a real place, not just an idea—where you all can live and start a planned ecology. It will be a frontier.”
“We understand that romantic tradition, but—”
“No, you don’t. Gray isn’t just an idea, it’s something 1’ve—we’ve—worked on for everyone, whatever shape or genetype they might favor.”
“Yes yes, and such ideas are touching in their, well, customary way, but—”
“But the only ones who will ever enjoy it, if the Council gets away with this, is the Majiken Clan.”
The interviewer pursed his lips. Or was this a he at all? In the current style, the bulging muscles and thick neck might just be fashion statements. “Well, the Majiken are a very large, important segment of the—”
“No more important than the rest of humanity, in my estimation.”
“But to cause this much stir over a world which will not even be habitable for at least decades more—”
“We of the Station are there now.”
“You’ve been modified, adapted.”
“Well, yes. I couldn’t do this interview on Earth. I’m grav-adapted.”
“Frankly, that’s why many feel that we need to put Earthside people on the ground on Luna as soon as possible. To represent our point of view.”
“Look, Gray’s not just any world. Not just a gas giant, useful for raw gas and nothing else. Not a Mercury type; there are millions of those littered out among the stars. Gray is going to be fully Earthlike. The astronomers tell us there are only four semiterrestrials outside the home system that humans can ever live on, around other stars, and those are pretty terrible. I—”
“You forget the Outer Colonies,” the interviewer broke in smoothly, smiling at the 3D.
“Yeah—iceballs.” He could not hide his contempt. What he wanted to say, but knew it was terribly old fashioned, was: Damn it, Gray is happening now, we’ve got to plan for it. Photosynthesis is going on. I’ve seen it myself—hell, I caused it myself—carbon dioxide and water converting into organics and oxygen, gases fresh as a breeze. Currents carry the algae down through the cloud layers into the warm areas, where they work just fine. That gives off simple carbon compounds, raw carbon and water. This keeps the water content of the atmosphere constant, but converts carbon dioxide—we’ve got too much right now—into carbon and oxygen. It’s going well, the rate itself is exponentiating—
Benjan shook his fist, just now realizing that he was saying all this out loud, after all. Probably not a smart move, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Look, there’s enough water in Gray’s deep rock to make an ocean a meter deep all the way around the planet. That’s enougn to resupply the atmosopheric loss, easy, even without breaking up the rocks. Our designer plants are doing their jobs.”
“We have heard of these routine miracles—”
“—and there can be belts of jungle—soon! We’ve got mountains for climbing, rivers that snake, polar caps, programmed animals coming up, beautiful sunsets, soft summer storms—anything the human race wants. That’s the vision we had when we started Gray. And I’m damned if I’m going to let the Majiken—”
“But the Majiken can defend Gray,” the interviewer said mildly.
Benjan paused. “Oh, you mean—”
“Yes, the ever-hungry Outer Colonies. Surely if Gray proves as extraordinary as you think, the rebellious colonies will attempt to take it.” The man gave Benjan a broad, insincere smile. Dummy, it said. Don’t know the real-politic of this time, do you?
He could see the logic. Earth had gotten soft, fed by a tougher empire that now stretched to the chilly preserve beyond Pluto. To keep their manicured lands clean and “original” Earthers had burrowed underground, built deep cities there, and sent most manufacturing off-world. The real economic muscle now lay in the hands of ther suppliers of fine rocks and volatiles, shipped on long orbits from the Outers and the Belt. These realities were hard to remember when your attention was focused on the details of making a fresh world. One forgot that appetites ruled, not reason.
Benjan grimaced. “The Majiken fight well, they are the backbone of the Fleet, yes. Still, to give them a world—”
“Surely in time there will be others,” the man said reasonably.
“Oh? Why should there be? We can’t possibly make Venus work, and Mars will take thousands of years more—”
“No, I meant built worlds—stations.”
He snorted. “Live inside a can?”
“That’s what you do,” the man shot back.
“I’m . . . different.”
“Ah yes.” The interviewer bore in, lips compressed to a white line, and the 3Ds followed him, snouts peering. Benjan felt hopelessly outmatched. “And just how so?”
“I’m . . . a man chosen to represent . . . ”
“The Shaping Station, correct?”
“I’m of the breed who have always lived in and for the Station.”
“Now, that’s what I’m sure our audience really wants to get into. After all, the moon won’t be ready for a long time. But you—an ancient artifact, practically—are more interesting.”
“I don’t want to talk about that.” Stony, frozen.
“Why not.” Not really a question.
“You’re here as a public figure!”
“Only because you require it. Nobody wants to talk to the Station directly.”
“We do not converse with such strange machines.”
“It’s not just a machine.”
“Then what is it?”
“An . . . idea,” he finished lamely. “An . . . ancient one.” How to tell them? Suddenly, he longed to be back doing a solid, worthy job—flying a jet in Gray’s skies, pushing along the organic chemistry—
The interviewer looked uneasy. “Well, since you won’t go there . . . Our time’s almost up and—”
Again, I am falling over Gray.
Misty auburn clouds, so thin they might be only illusion, spread below the ship. They caught red as dusk fell. The thick air refracted six times more than Earth’s, so sunsets had a slow-motion grandeur, the full pallet of pinks and crimsons and rouge-reds.
I am in a ramjet—the throttled growl is unmistakable—lancing cleanly into the upper atmosphere. Straps tug and pinch me as the craft banks and sweeps, the smoothly wrenching way I like it, the stubby snout sipping precisely enough for the air’s growing oxygen fraction to keep the engine thrusting forward.
I probably should not have come on this flight; it is an uncharacteristic self-indulgence. But I could not sit forever in the Station to plot and plan and calculate and check. I had to see my handiwork, get the feel of it. To use my body in the way it longed for.
I make the ramjet arc toward Gray’s night side. The horizon curves away, clean hard blue-white, and—chungl—I take a jolt as the first canister blows off the underbelly below my feet. Through a rearview camera I watch it tumble away into ruddy oblivion. The canister carries more organic cutures, a new matrix I selected carefully back on Station, in my expanded mode. I watch the shiny morsel explode below, yellow flash. It showers intricate, tailored algae through the clouds.
Gray is at a crucial stage. Since the centuries-ago slamming by the air-giving comets, the conspiracy of spin, water and heat (great gifts of astro-engineering) had done their deep work. Volcanoes now simmered, percolating more moisture from deep within, kindling, kindling. Some heat climbed to the high cloud decks and froze into thin crystals.
There, I conjure fresh life—tinkering, endlessly.
Life, yes. Carefully engineered cells, to breathe carbon dioxide and live off the traces of other gases this high from the surface. In time. Photosynthesis in the buoyant forms—gas-bag trees, spindly but graceful in the top layer of Gray’s dense air—conjure carbon dioxide into oxygen.
I glance up, encased in the tight flight jacket, yet feeling utterly free, naked. Incoming meteors. Brown clouds of dust I had summoned to orbit about Gray were cutting off some sunlight.
Added spice, these—ingredients sent from the asteroids to pepper the soil, prick the air, speed chemical matters along. The surface was cooling, the Gray greenhouse winding down. Losing the heat from the atmosphere’s birth took centuries. Patience, prudence.
Now chemical concerts in the rocks slowed. I felt those, too, as a distant sampler hailed me with its accountant’s chattering details. Part of the song. Other chem chores, more subtle, would soon become energetically possible. Fluids could seep and run. In the clotted air below, crystals and cells would make their slow work. All in time . . .
In time, the first puddle had become a lake. How I had rejoiced then!
Centuries ago I wanted to go swimming in the clear blue seas of luna, I remember. Tropical waters at the equator, under Earthshine . . .
What joy it had been, to fertilize those early, still waters with minutely programmed bacteria, stir and season their primordial soup—and wait.
What sweet mother Earth did in a billion years I did to Gray in fifty. Joyfully! Singing the song of the molecules, in concert with them.
My steps were many, the methods subtle. To shape the mountain ranges I needed further infalls from small asteroids, taking a century—ferrying rough-cut stone to polish a jewel.
Memories . . . of a man and more. Fashioned from the tick of time, ironed out by the swift passage of mere puny years, of decades, of the ringing centuries. Worlds take time.
My ramjet leaps into night, smelling of hot iron and —chung!—discharging its burden.
I glance down at wisps of yellow-pearl. Sulphuric and carbolic acid streamers, drifting far below. There algae feed and prosper. Murky mists below pale, darken, vanish. Go!
Yet I felt a sudden sadness as the jet took me up again. I had watched every small change in the atmosphere, played shepherd to newborn cloud banks, raised fresh chains of volcanoes with fusion triggers that burrowed like moles—and all this might come to naught, if it became another private preserve for some Earthside power games.
I could not shake off the depression. Should I have that worry pruned away? It could hamper my work, and I could easily be rid of it for a while, when I returned to the sleeping vaults. Most in the Station spent about one month per year working;. Their other days passed in dreamless chilled sleep, waiting for the slow metabolism of Gray to quicken and change.
Not I. I slept seldom, and did not want the stacks of years washed away.
I run my tongue over fuzzy teeth. I am getting stale, worn. Even a ramjet ride did not revive my spirit.
And the Station did not want slackers. Not only memories could be pruned.
Ancient urges arise, needs . . .
A warm shower and rest await me above, in orbit, inside the mother-skin. Time to go.
I touch the controls, cutting in extra ballastic computer capacity and—
—suddenly I am there again, with her.
She is around me and beneath me, slick with ruby sweat.
And the power of it soars up through me. I reach out and her breast blossoms in my eager hand, her soft cries unfurl in puffs of green steam. Aye!
She is a splash of purple across the cool lunar stones, her breath ringing in me—
as she licks my rasping ear with a tiny jagged fork of puckered laughter,
most joyful and triumpant, yea verity.
The Station knows you need this now.
Yes, and the Station is right. I need to be consumed, digested, spat back out a new and fresh man, so that I may work well again.
—so she coils and swirls like a fine tinkling gas around me, her mouth wraps me like a vortex. I slide my shaft into her gratefully
as she sobs great wracking orange gaudiness through me,
her, again, her,
gift of the strumming vast blue Station that guides us all down centuries of dense, oily time.
You need this, take, eat, this is the body and blood of the Station, eat, savor, take fully.
I had known her once—redly, sweet and loud—and now I know her again,
my senses all piling up and waiting to be eaten from her.
I glide back and forth, moisture chimes between us, she is coiled tight, too.
We all are, we creatures of the Station.
It knows this, releases us when we must be gone.
I slam myself into her because she is both that woman—known so long ago, delicious in her whirlwind passions, supple in colors of the mind, singing in rubs and heats
I knew across the centuries. So the Station came to know her, too, and duly recorded her— so that I can now bury my coal-black, sweaty troubles in her, aye! and thus in the Shaping Station, as was and ever shall be, Grayworld without end, amen.
Resting. Compiling himself again, letting the rivulets of self knit up into remembrance.
Of course the Station had to be more vast and able than anything Humanity had yet known.
At the time the Great Shaping began, it was colossal. By then, humanity had gone on to grander projects.
Mars brimmed nicely with vapors and lichen, but would take millennia more before anyone could walk its surface with only a compressor to take and thicken oxygen from the swirling airs.
Mammoth works now cruised at the outer rim of the solar system, vast ice castles inhabited by beings only dimly related to the humans of Earth.
He did not know those constructions. But he had been there, in inherited memory, when the Station was born. For part of him and you and me and us had voyaged forth at the very beginning . . .
The numbers were simple, their implications known to school children.
(Let’s remember that the future belongs to the engineers.)
Take an asteroid, say, and slice it sidewise, allowing four meters of head room for each level—about what a human takes to live in. This dwelling, then, has floor space that expands as the cube of the asteroid size. How big an asteroid could provide the living room equal to the entire surface of the Earth? Simple: about two hundred kilometers.
Nothing, in other words. For Ceres, the largest asteroid in the inner belt, was 380 kilometers across, before humans began to work her.
But room was not the essence of the Station. For after all, he had made the Station, yes? Information was her essence, the truth of that blossomed in him, the past as prologue—
He ambled along a corridor a hundred meters below Gray’s slag and muds, gazing down on the frothy air-fountains in the foyer. Day’s work done.
Even manifestations need a rest, and the interview with the smug Earther had put him off, sapping his resolve. Inhaling the crisp, cold air (a bit high on the oxy, he thought; have to check that) he let himself concentrate wholly on the clear scent of the splashing. The blue water was the very best, fresh from the growing poles, not the recycled stuff he endured on flights. He breathed in the tingling spray and a man grabbed him.
“I present formal secure-lock,” the man growled, his third knuckle biting into Benjan’s elbow port.
A cold, brittle thunk. His systems froze. Before he could move, whole command linkages went dead in her inboards. The Station’s hovering presence, always humming in the distance, telescoped away. It felt like a wrenching fall that never ends, head over heels—
He got a grip. Focus. Regain your links. The loss!—It was like having fingers chopped away, whole pieces of himself amputated. Bloody neural stumps—
He sent quick, darting questions down his lines, and met . . . dark. Silent. Dead.
His entire aura of presence was gone. He sucked in the cold air, letting a fresh anger bubble up but keeping it tightly bound.
His attacker was the sort who blended into the background. Perfect for this job. A nobody out of nowhere, complete surprise. Clipping on a hand-restraint, the mousy man stepped back. “They ordered me to do it fast.” A mousy voice, too.
Benjan resisted the impulse to deck him. He looked Lunar, thin and pale. One of the Earther families who had come to deal with the Station a century ago? Maybe with more kilos than Benjan, but a fair match. And it would feel good.
But that would just bring more of them, in the end. “Damn it, I have immunity from casual arrest. I—”
“No matter now, they said.” The cop shrugged apologetically, but his jaw set. He was used to this.
Benjan vaguely recognized him, from some bar near the Apex of the crater’s dome. There weren’t more than a thousand people on Gray, mostly like him, manifestations of the Station. But not all. More of the others all the time . . . “You’re Majiken.”
“At least you people do your own work.”
“We have plenty on the inside here. You don’t think Gray’s gonna be neglected, eh?”
In his elbow he felt injected programs spread, clunk, consolidating their blocks. A seeping ache. Benjan fought it all through his neuro-musculars, but the disease was strong.
Keep your voice level, wait for a chance. Only one of them—my God, they’re sure of themselves! Okay, make yourself seem like a doormat.
“I don’t suppose I can get a few things from my office?”
The man shrugged, letting the sarcasm pass. “They want you locked down good before they . . . ”
“Make their next move, I’d guess.”
“I’m just a step, eh?”
“Sure, chop off the hands and feet first.” A smirking thug with a gift for metaphor.
Well, these hands and feet can still work. Benjan began walking toward his apartment. “I’ll stay in your lock-down, but at home.”
“Hey, nobody said—”
“But what’s the harm? I’m deadened now.” He kept walking.
“Uh, uh—” The man paused, obviously consulting with his superiors on an in-link.
He should have known it was coming. The Majikens were ferret-eyed, canny, unoriginal and always dangerous. He had forgotten that. In the rush to get ores sifted, grayscapes planed right to control the constant rains, a system of streams and rivers snaking through the fresh-cut valleys . . . a man could get distracted, yes. Forget how people were. Careless.
Not completely, though. Agents like this Luny usually nailed their prey at home, not in a hallway. Benjan kept a stunner in the apartment, right beside the door, convenient.
Distract him. “I want to file a protest.”
“Take it to Kalespon.” Clipped, efficient, probably had a dozen other slices of bad news to deliver today. To other manifestations. Busy man.
“No, with your boss.”
“Mine?” His rock-steady jaw went slack.
“For—” he sharply turned the corner to his apartment, using the time to reach for some mumbo-jumbo—“felonious interrogation of inboards.”
“Hey, I didn’t touch your—”
“I felt it. Slimy little gropes—yeccch!” Might as well ham it up a little, have some fun.
The Majiken looked offended. “I never violate protocols. The integrity of your nexus is intact. You can ask for a scope-through when we take you in—”
“I’ll get my overnight kit.” Only now did he hurry toward the apartment portal and popped it by an inboard command. As he stepped through he felt the cop, three steps behind.
Here goes. One foot over the lip, turn to the right, snatch the stunner out of its grip mount—
—and it wasn’t there. They’d laundered the place already. “Damn!”
“Thought it’d be waitin’, huh?”
In the first second. When the Majiken was pretty sure of himself, act—
Benjan took a step back and kicked. A satisfying soft thuuunk.
In the low gravity the man rose a meter and his uungh! was strangely satisfying. The Majiken were warriors, after all, by heritage. Easier for them to take physical damage than life trauma.
The Majiken came up fast and nailed Benjan with a hand feint and slam. Benjan fell back in the slow gravity—and at a 45-degree tilt, sprang backward, away, toward the wall—
Which he hit, completing his turn in air, heels coming hard into the wall so that he could absorb the recoil—
—and spring off, head-height—
—into the Majiken’s throat as the man rushed forward, shaped hands ready for the put-away blow. Benjan caught him with both hand-edges, slamming the throat from both sides. The punch cut off blood to the head and the Majiken crumbled.
Benjan tied him with his own belt. Killed the link on the screen. Bound him further to the furniture. Even on Gray, inertia was inertia. The Majiken would not find it easy to get out from under a couch he was firmly tied to.
The apartment would figure out that something was wrong about its occupant in an hour or two, and call for help. Time enough to run? Benjan was unsure, but part of him liked this, felt a surge of adrenaline joy arc redly through his systems.
Five minutes of work and he got the interlocks off. His connections sprang back to life. Colors and images sang in his aura.
He was out the door, away—
The cramped corridors seemed to shrink, dropping down and away from him, weaving and collapsing. Something came toward him—chalk-white hills, yawning craters.
A hurricane breath whipped by him as it swept down from the jutting, fresh-carved mountains. His body strained.
He was running, that much seeped through to him. He breathed brown murk that seared but his lungs sucked it in eagerly.
Plunging hard and heavy across the swampy flesh of Gray.
He moved easily, bouncing with each stride in the light gravity, down an infinite straight line between rows of enormous trees. Vegetable trees, these were, soft tubers and floppy leaves in the wan glow of a filtered sun. There should be no men here, only machines to tend the crops. Then he noticed that he was not a man at all. A robo-hauler, yes—and his legs were in fact wheels, his arms the working grapplers. Yet he read all this as his running body. Somehow it was pleasant.
And she ran with him.
He saw beside him a miner-bot, speeding down the slope. Yet he knew it was she, Martine, and he loved her.
He whirred, clicked—and sent a hail.
You are fair, my sweet.
Back from the lumbering miner came, This body will not work well at games of lust.
No reason we can’t shed them in time.
To what end? she demanded. Always imperious, that girl.
To slide silky skin again.
You seem to forget that we are fleeing. That cop, someone will find him.
In fact, he had forgotten. Uh . . . update me?
Ah! How exasperating! You’ve been off, romping through your imputs again, right?
Worse than that. He had only a slippery hold on the jiggling, surging lands of mud and murk that funneled past. Best not to alarm her, though. My sensations seem to have become a bit scrambled, yes. I know there is some reason to run—
They are right behind us!
The Majiken Clan! They want to seize you as a primary manifestation!
Damn! I’m fragmenting.
You mean they’re reaching into your associative cortex?
Must be, my love. Which is why you’re running with me.
What do you mean?
How to tell her the truth but shade it so that she does not guess . . . the Truth? Suppose I tell you something that is more useful than accurate?
Why would you do that, m’love?
Why do doctors slant a diagnosis?
Because no good diagnostic gives a solid prediction.
Exactly. Not what he had meant, but it got them by an awkward fact.
Come on, she sent. Let’s scamper down this canyon. The topo maps say it’s a short cut.
Can’t trust ‘em, the rains slice up the land so fast. He felt his legs springing like pistons in the mad buoyance of adrenaline.
They surged together down slippery sheets that festered with life—spreading algae, some of the many-leaved slim-trees Benjan had himself helped design. Rank growths festooned the banks of dripping slime, biology run wild and woolly at a fevered pace, irked by infusions of smart bugs. A landscape on fast forward.
What do you fear so much? she said suddenly
The sharpness of it stalls his mind. He was afraid for her more than himself, but how to tell her? This apparition of her was so firm and heartbreakingly warm, her whole presence welling through to him on his sensorium . . . Time to tell another truth that conceals a deeper truth.
They’ll blot out every central feature of me, all those they can find.
If they catch you. Us.
Yup. Keep it to monosyllables, so the tremor of his voice does not give itself away. If they got to her, she would face final, total erasure. Even of a fragment self.
Save your breath for the run, shesent. So he did, gratefully.
If there were no omni-sensors lurking along this approach to the launch fields, they might get through. Probably Fleet expected him to stay indoors, hiding, working his way to some help. But there would be no aid there. The Majikan were thorough and would capture all human manifestations, timing the arrests simultaneously to prevent anyone sending a warning. That was why they had sent a lone cop to grab him; they were stretched thin. Reassuring, but not much.
It was only three days past the 3D interview, yet they had decided to act and put together a sweep. What would they be doing to the Station itself? He ached at the thought. After all, she resided there . . .
And she was here. He was talking to a manifestation that was remarkable, because he had opened his inputs in a way that only a crisis can spur.
Benjan grimaced. Decades working over Gray had aged him, taught him things Fleet could not imagine. The Sabal Game still hummed in his mind, still guided his thoughts, but these men of the Fleet had betrayed all that. They thought, quite probably, that they could recall him to full officer status,and he would not guess that they would then silence him, quite legally.
Did they think him so slow? Benjan allowed himself a thin, dry chuckle as he ran.
They entered the last short canyon before the launch fields. Tall blades like scimitar grasses poked up, making him dart among them. She growled and spun her tracks and plowed them under. She did not speak. None of them liked to destroy the life so precariously remaking Gray. Each crushed blade was a step backward.
His quarters were many kilometers behind by now, and soon these green fields would end. If he had judged the map correctly—yes, there it was. A craggy peak ahead, crowned with the somber lights of the launch station. They would be operating a routine shift in there, not taking any special precautions.
Abruptly he burst from the thicket of thick-leaved plants and charged down the last slope. Before him lay the vast lava plain of Oberg Plateau, towering above the Fogg Sea. Now it was a mud flat, foggy, littered with ships. A vast dark hole yawned in the bluff nearby, the slanting sunlight etching its rimmed locks. It must be the exit tube for the electromagnetic accelerator, now obsolete, unable to fling any more loads of ore through the cloak of atmosphere.
A huge craft loomed at the base of the bluff. A cargo vessel probably; far too large and certainly too slow. Beyond lay an array of robot communications vessels, without the bubble of a life support system. He rejected those, too, ran on.
She surged behind him. They kept electromagnetic silence now.
His breath came faster and he sucked at the thick, cold air, then had to stop for a moment in the shadow of the cruiser to catch his breath. Above he thought he could make out the faint green tinge of the atmospheric cap in the membrane that held Gray’s air. He would have to find his way out through the holes in it, too, in an unfamiliar ship.
He glanced around, searching. To the side stood a small craft, obviously Jump type. No one worked at its base. In the murky fog that shrouded the mud flat he could see a few men and robo-servers beside nearby ships. They would wonder what he was up to. He decided to risk it. He broke from cover and ran swiftly to the small ship. The hatch opened easily.
Gaining lift with the ship was not simple, and so he called on his time-sense accelerations, to the max. That would cost him mental energy later. Right now, he wanted to be sure there was a later at all.
Roaring flame drove him into the pearly sky.
Finding the exit hole in the membrane proved easier. He flew by pure eyeballed grace, slamming the acceleration until it was nearly a straight-line problem, like shooting a rifle. Fighting a mere sixth of a g had many advantages.
And now, where to go?
A bright arc flashed behind Benjan’s eyelids, showing the fans of purpling blood vessels. He heard the dark, whispering sounds of an inner void. A pit opened beneath him and the falling sensation began—he had run over the boundaries this body could attain. His mind had overpowered the shrieking demands of the muscles and nerves, and now he was shutting down, harking to the body’s calls . . .
I am here, m’love. The voice came warm and moist, wrapping him in it as he faded, faded, into a gray of his own making.
She greeted him at the Station.
She held shadowed inlets of rest. A cup brimming with water,
a distant chime of bells, the sweet damp air of early morning.
He remembered it so well, the ritual of meditation in his Fleet training,
the days of quiet devotion through simple duties that strengthened the mind.
Everything had been of a piece then.
Before Gray grew to greatness, before conflict and aching doubt,
before the storm that raged red through his mind, like—
—Wind, snarling his hair, a hard winter afternoon as he walked back to his quarters . . .
—then, instantly, —the cold prickly sensation of diving through shimmering spheres of wate rin zero gravity. The huge bubbles trembled and refracted the yellow light into his eyes. He laughed.
—scalding black rock faces rose on Gray. Wedges thrust upward as the tortured skin of the planet writhed and buckled. He watched it by remote camera, seeing only a few hundred yards through the choking clouds of carbon dioxide. He felt the rumble of earthquakes, the ominous murmur of a mountain chain being born.
—a man running, scuttling like an insect across the tortured face of Gray. Above him the great membrane clasped the atmosphere, pressing it down on him, pinning him, a beetle beneath glass. But it is Fleet that wishes to pin him there, to snarl him in the threads of duty. And as the ship arcs upward at the sky he feels a tide of joy, of freedom.
—twisted shrieking trees, leaves like leather and apples that gleam blue. Moisture beading on fresh crimson grapes beneath a white-hot star.
—sharp synapses, ferrite cores, spinning drums of cold electrical memory. Input and output. Copper terminals (male or female?), scanners, channels, electrons pouring through p-n-p junctions. Memory mired in quantum noise.
Index. Catalog. Transform. Fourier components, the infinite wheeling dance of Laplace and Gauss and Hermite.
And through it all she is there with him, through centuries to keep him whole and sane and yet he does not know, across such vaults of time and space . . . who is he?
Many: us. One: I. Others: you. Did you think that the marriage of true organisms and fateful machines with machine minds would make a thing that could at last know itself? This is a new order of being but it is not a god.
Us: one, We: you, He: I.
And yet you suspect you are . . . different . . . somehow.
The Majiken ships were peeling off from their orbits, skating down through the membrane holes, into my air!
They gazed down, tense and wary, these shock troops in their huddled lonely carriages. Not up, where I lurk.
For I am iceball and stony-frag, fruit of the icesteroids. Held in long orbit for just such a (then) far future. (Now) arrived.
Down I fall in my myriads. Through the secret membrane passages I/we/you made decades before, knowing that a bolthole is good. And that bolts slam true in both directions.
Down, down—through gray decks I have cooked, artful ambrosias, pewter terraces I have sculpted to hide my selves as they guide the rocks and bergs—after them!—
The Majiken ships, ever-wary of fire from below, never thinking to glance up. I fall upon them in machine-gun violences, my ices and stones ripping their craft, puncturing. They die in round-mouthed surprise, these warriors.
I, master of hyperbolic purpose, shred them.
I, orbit-master to Gray.
Conflict has always provoked anxiety within him, a habit he could never correct, and so:
—in concert we will rise to full congruence with F(x)
and sum over all variables and integrate over the contour
encapsulating all singularities. It is right and meet so to do.
He sat comfortably, rocking on his heels in meditation position.
Water dripped in a cistern nearby and he thought his mantra,
letting the sound curl up from within him. A thought entered,
flickered across his mind as though a bird,
She she she she
The mantra returned in its flowing green rhythmic beauty and he entered
the crystal state of thought within thought,
consciousness regarding itself without detail or structure.
The air rested upon him, the earth groaned beneath with the weight of continents,
shouting sweet stars wheeled in a chanting cadence above.
He was in place and focused, man and boy and elder at once,
officer of Fleet, mind encased in matter, body summed into mind—
—and she came to him, cool balm of aid, succor, yet beneath her palms his muscles warmed, warmed—
His universe slides into night. Circuits close. Oscillating electrons carry information, senses, fragments of memory.
I swim in the blackness. There are long moments of no sensations, nothing to see or hear or feel. I grope—
Her? No, she is not here either. Cannot be. For she has been dead these centuries and lives only in your Station, where she knows not what has become of herself.
At last I seize upon some frag, will it to expand. A strange watery vision floats into view. A man is peering at him. There is no detail behind the man, only a blank white wall. He wears the blue uniform of Fleet and he cocks an amused eyebrow at:
“Recognize me?” the man says.
“Of course. Hello, Katonji, you bastard.”
“Ah, rancor. A nice touch. Unusual in a computer simulation, even one as sophisticated as this.”
And Benjan knows who he is.
In a swirling instant he sends out feelers. He finds boundaries, cool gray walls he cannot penetrate, dead patches, great areas of gray emptiness, of no memory. What did he look like when he was young? Where was his first home located? That girl—at age 15? Was that her? Her? He grasps for her—
And knows. He cannot answer. He does not know. He is only a piece of Benjan.
“You see now? Check it. Try something—to move your arm, for instance. You haven’t got arms.” Katonji makes a thin smile. “Computer simulations do not have bodies, though they have some of the perceptions that come from bodies.”
“P—Perceptions from where?”
“From the fool Benjan, of course.”
“He didn’t realize, having burned up all that time on Gray, that we can penetrate all diagnostics. Even the Station’s. Technologies, even at the level of sentient molecular plasmas, have logs and files. Their data is not closed to certain lawful parties.”
He swept an arm (not a real one, of course) at the man’s face. Nothing. No contact. All right, then . . . “And these feelings are—”
“Mere memories. Bits from Benjan’s Station self.” Katonji smiles wryly.
He stops, horrified. He does not exist. He is only binary bits of information scattered in ferrite memory cores. He has no substance, is without flesh. “But . . . but, where is the real me?” he says at last.
“That’s what you’re going to tell us.”
“I don’t know. I was . . . falling. Yes, over Gray—”
“And running, yes—I know. That was a quick escape, an unexpectedly neat solution.”
“It worked,” Benjan said, still in a daze. “But it wasn’t me?”
“In a way it was. I’m sure the real Benjan has devised some clever destination, and some tactics. You—his ferrite inner self—will tell us, now, what he will do next.”
“He’s got something, yes . . . ”
“Speak now,” Katonji said impatiently.
Stall for time. “I need to know more.”
“This is a calculated opportunity,” Katonji said off-handedly. “We had hoped Benjan would put together a solution from things he had been thinking about recently, and apparently it worked.”
“So you have breached the Station?” Horror flooded him, black bile.
“Oh, you aren’t a complete simulation of Benjan, just recently stored conscious data and a good bit of subconscious motivation. A truncated personality, it is called.”
As Katonji speaks Benjan sends out tracers and feels them flash through his being. He summons up input and output. There are slabs of useless data, a latticed library of the mind. He can expand in polynomials, integrate along an orbit, factorize, compare coefficients—so they used my computational self to make up part of this shambling construct.
More. He can fix his field—there, just so—and fold his hands, repeating his mantra. Sound wells up and folds over him, encasing him in a moment of silence. So the part of me that still loves the Sabal Game, feels drawn to the one-is-all side of being human—they got that, too.
Panic. Do something. Slam on the brakes—
He registers Katonji’s voice, a low drone that becomes deeper and deeper as time slows. The world outside stills. His thought processes are far faster than an ordinary man’s. He can control his perception rate.
Somehow, even though he is a simulation, he can tap the real Benjan’s method of meditation, at least to accelerate his time sense. He feels a surge of anticipation. He hums the mantra again and feels the world around him alter. The trickle of input through his circuits slows and stops. He is running cool and smooth. He feels himself cascading down through ruby-hot levels of perception, flashing back through Benjan’s memories.
He speeds himself. He lives again the moments over Gray. He dives through the swampy atmosphere and swims above the world he made. Molecular master, he is awash in the sight-sound-smell, an ocean of perception.
Katonji is still saying something. Benjan allows time to alter again and Katonji’s drone returns, rising—
Benjan suddenly perceives something behind Katonji’s impassive features. “Why didn’t you follow Benjan immediately? You could find out where he was going. You could have picked him up before he scrambled your tracker beams.”
Katonji smiles slightly. “Quite perceptive, aren’t you? Understand, we wish only Benjan’s compliance.”
“But if he died, he would be even more silent.”
“Precisely so. I see you are a good simulation.”
“I seem quite real to myself.”
“Ha! Don’t we all. A computer who jests. Very much like Benjan, you are. I will have to speak to you in detail, later. I would like to know just why he failed us so badly. But for the moment we must know where he is now. He is a legend, and can be allowed neither to escape nor to die. “
Benjan feels a tremor of fear.
“So where did he flee? You’re the closest model of Benjan.”
I summon winds from the equator, cold banks of sullen cloud from the poles, and bid them crash. They slam together to make a tornado such as never seen on Earth. Lower gravity, thicker air—a cauldron. It twirls and snarls and spits out lightning knives. The funnel touches down, kisses my crust—
—and there are Majiken beneath, whole canisters of them, awaiting my kiss.
Everyone talks about the weather, but only I do anything about it.
They crack open like ripe fruit.
—and you dwindle again, hiding from their pursuing electrons. Falling away into your microstructure.
They do not know how much they have captured. They think in terms of bits and pieces and he/you/we/I are not. So they do not know this—
You knew this had to come
As worlds must turn
And primates must prance
And givers must grab
So they would try to wrap their world around yours.
They are not dumb.
And smell a beautiful beast slouching toward Bethlehem.
Benjan coils in upon himself. He has to delay Katonji. He must lie—
—and at this rogue thought, scarlet circuits fire. Agony. Benjan flinches as truth verification overrides trigger inside himself.
“I warned you.” Katonji smiles, lips thin and dry.
Let them kill me.
“You’d like that, I know. No, you will yield up your little secrets.”
Speak. Don’t just let him read your thoughts. “Why can’t you find him?”
“We do not know. Except that your sort of intelligence has gotten quite out of control, that we do know. We will take it apart gradually, to understand it—you, I suppose, included.”
“You will . . . ”
“Peel you, yes. There will be nothing left. To avoid that, tell us now.”
—and the howling storm breaches him, bowls him over, shrieks and tears and devours him. The fire licks flesh from his bones, chars him, flames burst behind his eyelids—
And he stands. He endures. He seals off the pain. It becomes a raging, white-hot point deep in his gut.
Find the truth. “After . . . after . . . escape, I imagine—yes, I am certain—he would go to the poles. “
“Ah! Perfect. Quite plausible, but—which pole?” Katonji turns and murmurs something to someone beyond Benjan’s view. He nods, turns back and says, “We will catch him there. You understand, Fleet cannot allow a manifestation of his sort to remain free after he has flaunted our authority.”
“Of course,” Benjan says between clenched teeth.
(But he has no teeth, he realizes. Perceptions are but data, bits strung together in binary. But they feel like teeth, and the smouldering flames in his belly make acrid sweat trickle down his brow.)
“If we could have anticipated him, before he got on 3D . . . ” Katonji mutters to himself. “Here, have some more—”
Fire lances. Benjan wants to cry out and go on screaming forever. A frag of him begins his mantra. The word slides over and around itself and rises between him and the wall of pain. The flames lose their sting. He views them at a distance, their cobalt facets cool and remote, as though they have suddenly become deep blue veins of ice, fire going into glacier.
He feels the distant gnawing of them. Perhaps, in the tick of time, they will devour his substance. But the place where he sits, the thing he has become, can recede from them. And as he waits, the real Benjan is moving. And yes, he does know where . . .
Tell me true, these bastards say. All right—
“Demonax crater. At the rim of the South Polar glacier.”
Katonji checks. The verification indices bear out the truth of it. The man laughs with triumph.
All truths are partial. A portion of what Benjan is/was/will be lurks there.
Take heart, true Benjan.
For she is we and we are all together,
we mere Ones who are born to suffer.
Did you think you would come out of this long trip alive?
Remember, we are dealing with the most nasty of all species the planet has ever produced.
We converge. The alabaster Earthglow guides us. Demonax crater lies around us as we see the ivory lances of their craft descend.
They come forth to inspect the ruse we have gathered ourselves into. We seem to be an entire ship and buildings, a shiny human construct of lunar grit. We hold still, though that is not our nature.
Until they enter us.
We are tiny and innumerable but we do count. Microbial tongues lick. Membranes stick.
Some of us vibrate like eardrums to their terrible swift cries.
They will discover eventually. They will find him out.
(Moisture spatters upon the walkway outside. Angry dark clouds boil up from the horizon.)
They will peel him then. Sharp and cold and hard, now it comes, but, but—
(Waves hiss on yellow sand. A green sun wobbles above the seascape. Strange birds twitter and call.)
Of course in countering their assault upon the Station I shall bring all my hoarded assets into play.
And we all know that I cannot save everyone.
They come at us through my many branches. Up the tendrils of ceramic and steel. Through my microwave dishes and phased arrays. Sounding me with gamma rays and traitor cyber-personas.
They have been planning this for decades. But I have known it was coming for centuries.
The Benjan singleton reaches me in time. Nearly.
He struggles with their minions. I help. I am many and he is one. He is quick, I am slow. That he is one of the originals does matter to me. I harbor the same affection for him than one does for a favorite finger.
I hit the first one of the bastards square on. It goes to pieces just as it swings the claw thing at me.
Damn! it’s good to be back in a body again. My muscles bunching under tight skin, huffing in hot breaths, happy primate murder-joy shooting adrenaline-quick.
One of the Majiken comes in slow as weather and I cut him in two. Been centuries since I even thought of doing somethin’ like that. Thumping heart, yelling, joyful slashing at them with tractor spin-waves, the whole business.
A hell of a lot of ‘em, though.
They hit me in shoulder and knee and I go down, pain shooting, swimming in the low centrifugal g of the Station. Centuries ago I wanted to go swimming in the clear blue seas of luna, I recall. In warm tropical waters at the equator, under silvery Earthshine . . .
But she is there. I swerve and dodge and she stays right with me. We waltz through the bastards. Shards flying all around and vacuum sucking at me but her in my veins. Throat-tightening pure joy in my chest.
Strumming notes sound through me and it is she
Fully in me, at last
Gift of the Station in all its spaces
For which we give thanks yea verily in this the ever-consuming moment—
Then there is a pain there and I look down and my left arm is gone.
Just like that.
And she of ages past is with me now.
—and even if he is just digits running somewhere, he can relive scenes, the grainy stuff of life. He feels a rush of warm joy. Benjan will escape, will go on. Yet so will he, the mere simulation, in his own abstract way.
Distant agonies echo. Coming nearer now. He withdraws further.
As the world slows to frozen silence outside he shall meditate upon his memories. It is like growing old, but reliving all scenes of the past with sharpness and flavor retained.
(The scent of new-cut grass curls up red and sweet and humming through his nostrils. The summer day is warm; a Gray wind carresses him, cool and smooth. A piece of chocolate bursts its muddy flavor in his mouth.)
Time enough to think over what has happened, what it means. He opens himself to the moment. It sweeps him up, wraps him in a yawning bath of sensation. He opens himself. Each instant splinters sharp into points of perception. He opens himself. He. Opens. Himself.
Gray is not solely for humanity. There are greater categories now. Larger perspectives on the world beckon to us. To us all.
You know many things, but what he knows is both less and more than what I tell to us.
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November 2002.
Gregory Benford is a professor of physics at the Universtiy of California, Irvine. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, was a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, and in 1995 received the Lord Prize for contributions to science. In 2007, he won the Asimov Award for science writing. His 1999 analysis of what endures, Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia, has been widely read. A fellow of the American Physical Society and a member of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences, he continues his research in astrophysics, plasma physics, and biotechnology. His fiction has won many awards, including the Nebula Award for his novel Timescape.