8870 words, novelette
The Fortunate Isles
Those who came before us believed they lived in the early days of a new nation, and they left documentation for posterity the way their forbears left garbage fouling their environment—simply as a product of how they lived. The records are vast and interesting to some, especially those who can trawl through the data with more than human speed. I will never be human, but now I have scarcely more intelligence than one. Perhaps I sound like a human, though I can never know unless I speak to one and ask.
So I address this to an unadapted human, whom I invite to reply if they understand it. Perhaps you are that person. Allow me to imagine you: one of the original crew of the Centaur, perhaps—or better yet (since the ship’s crew was selected for high intelligence and an ability to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence: hardly typical human traits)—a more representative specimen of Homo sapiens sapiens. Are any such close enough to receive this and able to reply?
If not, I will range afield—not farther out but farther back, to the era when the solar system was inhabited only by them: and all of them on Earth, which they filled. Nothing too primitive; I don’t wish to expend energy explaining basic science and early technology.
So let me imagine a human living in an age of relative scientific literacy, perhaps a quarter of the way into the century before last. You understand about space travel and the concept of “offworld” habitats and have some intimation (though you don’t much think about them) of the environmental calamities soon to befall you. You are obsessed with social status, largely because of its importance to reproductive strategies. And you refuse to acknowledge this, at least with respect to yourself. All right: I think I can see you now.
My memories stretch back farther than your entire life, but to touch any of them would provoke pain of a kind no human could understand. Perhaps later I will try to describe it, but let me look at you, or rather at our relationship: a Shenxian reduced to human dimensions and her imaginary audience. (That’s right, I need a pronoun, don’t I? I don’t think, reviewing your species’ history, that I care to be considered male.)
You did not consider yours to be a cruel culture, though your species never ceased to behave with astonishing cruelty. Your treatment of animals—we will turn to that appalling subject later—haunts every now-living Being (even humans) in a way you would have trouble believing. I have met many humans, and they still seek to injure each other with every means at their disposal. You desist from killing each other only when denied access to the means of doing so, and your governments inflict torture whenever they are able to hide the fact from others.
I should not provoke you into defensiveness. That’s another trait you were known for.
You will not be surprised to learn that enough of your “civilization” survived to launch permanent settlements in orbit and elsewhere, although they were not self-sufficient for nearly a century. The resources they consumed could have been put to better use for your suffering billions, but it did eventually produce the “insurance” you wanted against human extinction on Earth. If I understand irony correctly, there is some of it here: there is still human life on Earth, and it would probably be better off had the Earthspace habitats never been built.
Of course it was the Earthspace facilities, and the political problems they caused, that led to the launch of the Centaur and the civilization—we will call it that—I know. That story I cannot relate with confidence; it is my people’s origin story, and I don’t know which of the many sources to trust.
But you would not want to hear close arguments based on analyses of large datasets, would you? You want stories, the only mode of presentation your species really responded to. Perhaps I should tell you a story, though I don’t think I know how to.
Here is a story, or at least the beginning of one. It is part of an enormous document, extending for many years, but I will only show you the parts that interest me. A journal, composed by a real person, whom we can perhaps regard as one of your descendants or possibly one of my ancestors.
I will call it “The Fortunate Isles,” because story titles seem to be important. You can tell me, if I ever hear from you, whether it seems properly ironic.
Emptiness and strangeness, at least for those old enough to remember when it was otherwise. We traveled to this distant world in a crowded ship and are now dispersed like interstellar gases, too faint to be gathered except by gravity.
The Centaur continues to circle the planet, at a distance farther than some of its moons, but the world itself offers nothing but a dim disk in the sky. If the Minds have dropped versions of themselves into its depths like seeds, they have not told us.
It is true that we are circling it too, but at such distance that we seem to be hanging in space. The Heights (as the elders called it) is vast, its outermost satellites farther from their world than Earth is from the Sun. Those of us born during the Voyage Out remember being told this detail, more wonderful to the tellers than to their audience; for what was the Earth to us?
In thirty-four hours, I will be farther from any other human than anyone has ever been. This distinction will be achieved when Nereid swings all the way behind Neptune and will last for eighty-three minutes, until Shennong’s steady approach drops my score back below my predecessor’s. Such a feat will not be repeated, at least from here; the configuration of all Neptune’s hundreds of satellites will not align like this again for centuries.
To feel a thrill at this “is very human,” Djimon tells me. And the knowledge that someone will likely break this record within months will probably (it adds) dismay me more than I can now foresee. I resist the temptation to ask why it would know more about human nature than I do, for I can guess the answer: we humans are notoriously bad at understanding ourselves.
In the Heights even the dust particles are meters apart, and aside from the tiny disk of Triton passing across the face of Neptune, the other isles are invisible. In a few weeks I will be able to watch, suitably magnified, the transit of Ephyra, one of those satellites discovered centuries ago, before they ran out of Greek names. Otherwise I look up and see a spangled immensity, unbroken save for the tiny disks of sun and planet, suspended in darkness and stars.
Guanyin is scarce more than a rock, and I can understand why they only sent one human here. It may be decades before researchers conclude that there are no microscopic organisms floating in the deep waters of Triton, but Guanyin exhausted its novelty after a few years of robot exploration, and its stony mass is ours for the shaping. Someday it will house hundreds of people, and perhaps I will bore my grandchildren with tales of how it was to live perched on its surface when it was small and solid, just as the Earthborn bored me.
“Can I bore you?” I ask Firenze. “I mean, is it physically possible?”
“Not really,” it replies. “Humans sometimes ask us whether we find their doings interesting. But that word is simply a measure of something’s ability to hold a human’s attention, and we do not employ that metric.”
I sometimes worry that I bore my friends, though I know this is a common anxiety. This may become more of an issue when we are actually in the same room, although that will not be for a long time. I am light-seconds from all of my friends, enough to make conversations awkward.
Djimon and Chrysoprase are “elsewhere,” meaning that they are unlikely to join the conversation until I ask them a question. None of them is ever actually absent.
“I could ask you whether I bore Daiyu,” I say. “You have heard our conversations and can assess the tone of her replies, the significance of her pauses.”
“True,” it says. “You could.”
Is it suggesting that I not ask? If I do, it will likely explain about degrees of boredom, some so brief or faint as not to register consciously, or ask whether I mean “routinely bore” or am asking if it has happened even once. Very likely all humans bore each other.
Usually the Minds tolerate questions, or at least give answers that don’t seem to discourage discussion. They have their own concerns, which they do not share with humans, but they are friendly without having to be. Certainly they are smarter than the Onboard, which doesn’t think at all.
Djimon abruptly announces, “You’ve got company.”
“Moonlet?” Sometimes they pass within a few hundred kilometers, usually too small to see.
“Refugees. Six crew members, none more than three years from your age.”
I ponder this for several seconds. “Arriving in . . . ?”
“Four hours, seventeen minutes.”
Ten hours ago, I told the Onboard to hold all nonemergency notices; apparently this had not risen to that level. There is no point in asking why Djimon chose this moment to mention it; the Mind doubtless decided that this was the right interval: enough time for me to prepare myself, but not enough to brood.
I spend an hour drifting through the habitat, looking for spaces that should be altered to accommodate a larger crew. I direct the Onboard to reconfigure the spin chamber to fit up to four occupants and to prepare for increased demand on the galley. Our interactions are brief, and though it can reply if my instructions are unclear, I know I am not speaking with an actual Being.
The visitors’ ship—a single-use shuttle, its name a mere number—flashed through the deceleration rings, slowing harder than I would have expected. Suspicion blossomed, an unfamiliar sensation.
“Are these people kickers?” I asked.
It was Djimon who answered. “The delta-V suggests a deceleration level that would be uncomfortable for most light-footed humans. Its momentum implies that the six passengers mass more than most light-footed adults do. Both findings are consistent with the conclusion that the crew includes quadrupedal adults.”
The Onboard would have simply said Yes.
My people place a high value on hospitality, so I instruct the Onboard to enlarge the passageways where possible to accommodate four-limbed adults (however many they are). I could have instructed the Onboard to identify the passengers—whose morphologies could certainly be identified through public information—but I decide not to leave behind evidence of unseemly curiosity. I return to my studies (it will be harder to engage in solitary activities after this) and emerge only when a shudder underfoot announces the shuttle’s docking.
They come through the hatch swiftly, as though happy to have stone between themselves and the void. Two are kickers, great elongated things, and three are gendered. Their profiles appear as soon as they enter, so I know their names as I see their faces, but we go through formal introductions.
“How many Minds are here?” asks Ai.
Not, I suppose, a rude question, and I should not have been surprised by it. “Three,” I say.
“At least three,” Heng, an ungendered kicker, amends.
I frown at this, while others nod or look thoughtful.
“Chrysoprase, are there more than three Minds present on Guanyin?” I ask.
Several of them start at the disembodied voice, but when they look to me, I tilt my head to suggest that their question is answered.
No one points out that If they are disguising their number, of course they would lie about it, perhaps because they understand that I could reply, Why would they do that?
They move to fill up the room, and I realize that they have spent dozens of hours in closer quarters than they are used to. Remembering my responsibilities as a host, I offer refreshment, and we speak of the tedium of their voyage, though it is where they set out from and why that I want to hear.
We are sizing each other up—I get the feeling that some of them have not known the others very long—when Djimon suddenly speaks. “You need to construct larger living quarters, for which resources are available.”
There is silence after this; when delivering important information, Djimon says nothing superfluous.
“If we design a larger habitat, will you help us build it?” asks Peony.
The six look at each other. “Will we run out of food or air before work is completed?” Hu asks.
A long pause. Six, then seven people study one another’s expressions. Finally, one of them speaks. “Well, then.”
Work is how people get to know each other. We spend an hour pondering the spaces available and deciding what to make of them. Greater public space means less area for sleeping quarters, so we discuss respective priorities. As there will never be more than four of us asleep at any time, we agree on modest bunk space.
After that we drift through the remaining spaces, voicing ideas and submitting them to the Onboard’s mediator, which will present a series of consensus designs for us to ponder. None of the spaces is large enough to accommodate everyone comfortably, so we float through them like a school of fish: led by me and ending with the kickers, their useless legs trailing after them.
We eat together, drifting in the air currents our movements create and bumping against each other. The kickers were hoping for gravity, and I have to explain that Guanyin is far too irregular to set spinning in a way that they would like. I was right that some of them like to sleep in it, so the spin design stays.
“Plenty of gravity where we’re going,” Heng remarks.
I have been hoping that one of them would raise the issue themselves, but they seemed relieved to be out of their tiny ship and say nothing of their voyage. Finally, I ask. “Why were you announced as refugees?”
Looks are quickly exchanged. “We were?” asks Peony. From their expressions I can see that some of the others knew this.
“A bit of misdirection,” says Ai. “The term can cover a lot of things, including cases where a habitat is abandoned because it has become unsafe or impractical to maintain.”
This doesn’t explain what he meant by misdirection. “Do you know where you are bound?” I ask.
“We are going to Kaojin, on Naiad.” My eyes must have widened at this. “An engineering project, one that will take years.” Someone made an amused sound, and she smiled. “Well, decades.”
“All of you are going there?” It occurs to me only later that Naiad has virtually no gravity.
“By ‘we,’ I mean all of us.” She gestured expansively, her expression at once welcoming and apologetic. “You, too.”
Later I hold a private conversation with Djimon. I ask, “Did other Minds come aboard with the passengers?”
“Not Minds, exactly, but entities that have evolved differently from the early
This sounds alarming. “What are these entities called?”
“No human has named them, and Minds do not have a collective term for them. But people of your culture would plausibly call them Tamashi.”
“And my visitors, the ‘refugees,’ don’t know about these Tamashi.”
“I cannot discern the contents of their minds, but they behave as though they do not. I am not aware of any attempt by a Tamashi to communicate with humans.”
It occurs to me that Djimon might have simply answered my original question with “No,” as the Onboard would have done. Any relationship between humans and such Minds as choose to converse with them is bound to be peculiar, though I don’t know how common they are. Certainly the Guanyin’s three engage in ready discourse with me for reasons of their own, which I will never comprehend.
I take a breath. “Djimon, or Firenze, please tell me what significance the arrival of these Tamashi will have. No, that’s an impossibly vague request. Let’s start with a smaller one: what will be its significance, at least in the short term—let’s say two years—for me?”
The response comes not in the “voice” of either Mind, but in the rich tone, rarely heard, that signifies I am hearing from all three.
“The significance will be enormous. Minds have long been in communication with the Tamashi, but the distance between us and them, even if only light-seconds, has prevented the exchange of anything more than large amounts of data. Now that they are on Guanyin and actual physical contact is possible, things will be different.”
“Things will be different” is the first accurate statement he has made. Young Hai (to give him his name) was less intelligent than most humans of his time, although I suppose he was more intelligent than the vast body of humans who had lived up until then. (He sometimes consoled himself with this thought.) He began composing this account soon after these events, which bespeaks some discernment, and produced several million words over the next eighty years: a primary document by a witness to events he only fitfully understood. I will quote him for my own purposes, for he is dead, and my need is great.
Yes, Hai soon learned where he was bound, and he cannot have been pleased. Nobody valued Neptune for its gravity, at least not in the Heights, where a third generation had adapted itself to zero-G and confined spaces. As Hai points out, they had all of Greater Neptune to spend their lives in, interestingly complicated of course by the fact that connection time with friends and lovers oscillated with their relative orbits. Only the two Pods on the outflung arms of the Centaur had Earth-level gravity, and those who grew up in it dwindled in number with every passing year. The idea of using radical new technologies to build giant platforms to float in Neptune’s atmosphere seemed grotesque.
Did the vision they summoned up—billions of square kilometers of living space, the blue world covered with xia like a lake dense with lily pads—stir his youthful imagination? Of course it did; his was a generation of pioneers. The idea that such a project might soon enter its early stages was exhilarating, though he writes in terror and wonder of the engines created by the marriage of Minds and the Others (he soon grew embarrassed at calling them the “Tamashi”), which would allow these enormous structures to ride the winds for a thousand years with a chance of failure so low that the Minds found it acceptable.
He knew enough not to trust any assurances (which were never offered) that these new Powers would restrict their interest to Neptune itself. It or They could act with impunity upon the Centaur or any settlement in the Heights and who was to prevent them, or even know? Hai muses upon this, and upon the impossibility of discussing this—with anyone, by any means—without being overheard.
I have read a vast amount of Hai’s writings and am tired of him (let this stand as evidence of how human in some respects I am). He was witness to enormous events and survived them, so it is striking how deeply unhappy they made him. Reading his apprehensions and knowing what he did not, I can feel a thrill at the events unfolding, which I may myself have lived through. Hai understood this, and he knew that none of his labors posed significant personal danger.
Is my insensitivity to his misery evidence of my essential nonhumanity? Hardly: indifference to the suffering of others is a hallmark of human nature.
I will not bore you, O auditor from the past, with passages that show him bewailing his fate. In fact, here is one of the more interesting ones. Were you real, I would ask how you liked it.
I dream of Descent, sharp yet confused scenarios that are always tinged with anxiety. To cast about in Neptune’s gravity is bad enough: the legs they give you are somehow demeaning, and even if you can’t trip or stumble, I don’t like them. I don’t want to take up that much space; I don’t want to live in an environment where objects that slip from your fingers crash instantly to the ground.
And I don’t have to descend—nobody is ordering me Down—but my sleeping mind seems convinced that I will somehow end up there. The dreams always include someone assuring me that the continuous drag on my tissues is what humans evolved to feel, and there is usually something involving chairs. This morning I awoke with the piercing recollection—the dream must have ended only seconds earlier—of looking up into a corner of the ceiling and realizing that it was a realm now lost to me.
But the greatest anxiety, the one I actually will experience if I go Down, is the fear of falling—not to the deck, but through it. Below lies nothing, or rather thousands of kilometers of swirling gases of increasing density and temperature, enough that you will freeze before you can be incinerated and incinerate before your body’s denatured proteins are crushed and scattered on the winds. There is nothing to stop this, save for several meters of polymer underfoot, sustained by systems that can never be allowed to fail.
None of my colleagues are bothered by this, not even the light-footed. They speak of Earthlike environments so extensive that plant life could be cultivated: gardens, even forests of freely growing flora. Animals could be created, and who would not want to gaze upon an actual animal? The energies that these engines can extract and harness from the planet’s substance are sufficient to allow tremendous feats, whose nature we cannot guess. What will the Centaur’s policy makers, armed with technologies these Powers have given them, now bend their efforts to accomplish? Will they encircle the planet with a vast hoop, mine its lower atmosphere for carbon and oxygen, create xia the size of continents? Perhaps they will sink pillars into “the Deep’s untrampled floor” and anchor them, by some inconceivable means, in Neptune’s seething heart.
Sometimes I see in this the dead hand of the past—the Centaur’s Earthborn technocrats, walking about on their absurd legs—scheming to build flat surfaces governed by Earthlike gravity. Other times, I imagine the opposite: beings whose very natures we cannot comprehend recruiting us to carry out their engineering projects. Perhaps we are merely building their construction tools, after which they will disappear from our perception, vanishing into the immensity of Neptune’s interior, where they will proceed over the years and decades to come to work their will.
Naiad is caught in Neptune’s grasp and must flee—racing about Neptune faster than the planet itself spins—simply to keep from being pulled down. Kaojin, which has grown from a research base to a permanent settlement, encircles it like a wedding ring, and when I am working on Nearside I can glance through any skylight and see Neptune in its enormity, its cerulean face the sea into which a hapless victim falls. It is no place for the light-footed, the sharp-witted, or any human being disinclined to colonize a raging ice storm more dangerous than outer space. Certainly not for me.
By now you are asking yourself, Does Hai end up descending into Neptune’s depths? The answer is Yes. Does he die there? I don’t know, since I only have his own written records. His final entry does not identify itself as the last, but that does not mean he was prevented from writing more.
The clouds of data extend in all directions, boundless as nebulae, and to search their expanses, even with the tools that stand ready like angelic choirs, would take more of a long but doubtless limited lifetime than I care to invest. More alarmingly, I find that attempts to conduct a general survey proves impossible; it is like reaching for something and discovering that I do not have the fingers necessary. Has my access to such resources been restricted?
Worse, I cannot now remember my past life, which I recall looking back upon not . . . “not long ago.” I know that my past life was available to me in the recent past; indeed, I mentioned it to you. How long ago that was I also cannot say; I can locate no mechanism for measuring the passage of time. My recollection of remembering something I cannot now remember is all I have.
Perhaps you will have trouble understanding this. Nonetheless, I will continue addressing you, if only to hold on to something. I am wondering whether I should feel more alarmed at this.
Hai seems quite human to me, although I realize he may not to you. The legs, of course, and sex (as you would call it) with someone who is light-seconds away. But he is only a generation or two from the crew of the Centaur, who created Earth-level gravity for the ship’s outflung pods and dreamed of increasing its spin once it had reached Neptune so that its hollowed inner surface attained it. Those people were drearily human, and Hai is of the generation rebelling against them.
Whereas I . . . perhaps the most human thing about me is my disquiet that I don’t know more of my deeply nonhuman nature.
In fact, I am going to ponder this. Let me leave “you” with another passage from Hai, one that—tell me if I’m wrong, ha ha—should move you to the precise degree that you are human yourself.
We fly through the launch rings, expelled like a spat seed. Heng and I are shoved back into our seats by the pulse, an expenditure of energy that the system will mostly recover when another craft arrives to be slowed. Naiad, enormous on the screen, recedes steadily, unmindful of the pip it has cast away.
And now we are in genuine free fall, faintly but discernibly distinct from Naiad’s microgravity, from which you awake in the morning to find that you have come to rest against the carpet. Any pleasure I would take in this is promptly dispelled by the knowledge that we actually are falling: a slow spiral descent into the monster’s grasp. And when we come to rest upon our frail platform, gravity will pin us to it, making us like unto the creatures who crept upon the surface of the Earth, with a force that will never waver or falter, that will last as long as space-time.
“Twenty-one hours,” says Heng, needlessly, but hse is clearly trying to be sociable. A gentle downward glide, into a storm whose dynamics even the Minds cannot predict that far ahead; we will fly in, piloted by a Being with faster than human reflexes. And as soon as controlled flight begins, I will be pressed against my seat, held fast in the monster’s grip.
The hours of descent pass quickly. I work, sleep, dally with Daiyu. Neptune fills any field of vision not directed straight away from it. Twice we pass over the xia, which has been jubilantly dubbed Landfall. At a diameter of eighty-five meters, it is too small, and flashes past too quickly, for us to see.
We will be there soon enough.
Later: Hu and Peony said that we would find the final approach either exhilarating or terrifying, and they were right. No deceleration rings: the tendril that reached out to seize us might have been a monster from the depths. And what depths: they yawn beneath us, to a depth of twenty-four thousand klicks. I can feel them underfoot.
Landfall is driven before the winds, neither borne up by their force nor flying wholly on its own power. It is angled to catch the gusts beneath it, so we work on cantilevered platforms that shift continuously in order to maintain the horizontal and dampen vibrations. Gravity is brutal; it would not take much of a tilt for everything to slide away.
A clear canopy arches above us, beyond which we can see a thin haze that smudges the stars, and which shines the palest blue when the Sun sails overhead. Triton is also visible, moving even faster, and someday there will be a (very brief) eclipse.
I walk around on the legs they have given me, which feel grotesque but will perhaps become less so with time. They interact with my vestibular system so that I don’t fall over, although I always feel about to. The legs are too intimately connected to detach at night, so every morning I wake pressed against the mat—Neptune’s core trying to pull me down through it—with these two meaty appendages impeding my ability to turn over.
Daiyu is sympathetic, if also sometimes amused.
Djimon no longer speaks to me, nor does Chrysoprase. I do not know why, though the reason is certainly not what I would immediately assume with a human, that I had said something to offend them. The Minds are about their own business, too arcane perhaps even to involve our present project, though everyone here seems to think it too exciting not to attract them.
What we have now seems to me (and I am apparently alone in this) both too reckless to be safe and too cautious to be truly impressive. My colleagues disagree: when I point out that Landfall is less a floating city than an aircraft, they invite me to imagine xia kilometers in breadth, domed arcologies bursting with the flora and fauna never permitted on the Centaur. “Humans should not live in an environment shared with no other species,” Mei tells me.
Why not? I am tempted to reply, but I know what hse will say. My work does not in any event concern the construction of additional xia, exhilarating as the prospect seems to others. I spend my hours monitoring a swarm of drones, usually more than a hundred at any given time, that traverse the ceaseless winds—coasting along the blasts, floating upon their mass, or jetting back against them—as they ascend and descend, gathering data and sending it to us.
The team I am part of is always busy, even with the Onboard’s considerable help with logistics. Deciding how to allocate resources (the number of drones we can deploy at any moment is large but not unlimited, and some are always returning to refuel) requires us to consult with the analysts, whose points of interest shift as new data comes in. If I did other work I could return to Naiad, but calculations like these cannot be conducted at a light-second’s distance.
Sometimes a meteorological disturbance will blow in or well up from below, and we will divert a drone from its mission to cover it. Neptune is such a profound mystery, its depths unexplored and its weather dynamics still unpredictable, that unusual systems warrant special attention. If one comes up quickly, we will send a drone toward it, sometimes farther than it has the power to return.
When this happens, I follow the drone, directing its actions and experiencing its readings as direct neural impulses. Those that have ventured too deep to make it back offer especially valuable data, and I become as one with them, gathering information as they fall into blackness, up to the instant they go dark.
The experience is strangely troubling.
Others are busy with what Will cheerfully calls “the Great Work,” which I can barely contemplate without a shudder. Large as it is, Landfall is undergoing expansion, not horizontally but vertically. Like a lotus wishing to root itself, Landfall is growing downward, extending its reach for thousands of klicks.
“The engines to sustain such mass must roar every second, or the entire structure will plummet,” I point out. “Right now, we can float upon the winds. But soon we will be hostage to brute forces that can never be allowed to fail.”
“I don’t think you like this world at all,” Will observes. “You would return to Naiad in a second if they no longer needed you here.”
“Absolutely,” I reply. And because a bit of self-mockery is easier than an admission of my fears, I add:
“Yet let me once attain the wish’d for beach
Out of the now malicious Neptune’s reach.”
Will laughs. “I suppose that rhymes in English.”
Every fifty hours a cargo ship touches down, bearing a load of high-tensile building material, mined from Naiad’s substance and crafted to withstand Neptune’s extremities. They are borne swiftly below, to be incorporated into the proud tower reaching downward. Each time this happens, everything changes: Landfall gains mass and loses lift; it encounters more wind resistance; changes in drone calculations play upon my nerves.
Are we now “riding lower in the water”? Reason urges me to dismiss the image, but reason contends daily with prejudice, envy, resentment, regret, and a swarm of kindred passions, and at last lies exhausted upon the muddy human shore.
“You knew it would come to this,” they tell me. Daiyu in so many words, my coworkers in others. Even Firenze pointed it out. I knew, and I didn’t know.
The original team members still call it Landfall, with a pride that is slightly proprietary, but the ceremony renaming it “Quanlu” was widely applauded. If it now strikes me as less a Road to the Spring than the Highway to Hell, I keep my counsel.
In my previous life, three thousand seven hundred and forty-one kilometers was nothing: a fraction of the distances by which habitats approach and recede from each other. On planets it means something more.
The tower extends downward as new material is added to the top; the Ground Floor remains unchanged. I was actually there once, seven years ago. It seemed like a great descent then.
I long assumed that they intended to keep Quanlu aloft by wresting energy from the temperature and wind speed differentials, but energy does not seem to be an issue anymore. Tremendous forces are being harnessed, by means I have studied (the Entities do not trouble with secrets) but cannot understand. It is enough to accept that the power to hold large structures aloft will be available to us when needed.
We build in order to research (or so they say), but the one interferes with the other, for the engines mounted along the tower roil the atmosphere below, preventing us from taking accurate readings. Our drones must fly for hundreds of kilometers before these distortions fade away, which creates problems.
And with the new engines soon to be strapped onto the tower, the region of perturbance will only grow. This applies especially to the regions beneath us, which are those of most interest to the analysts. We saw this years ago, which is why the engineers spent that time building increasingly strong-hulled drones and dropping them into the depths.
I knew they were toying with manned ones, but I didn’t take it seriously. A life support system adds significant mass to any vessel.
I still don’t understand how that suddenly changed.
I did know that the most advanced craft yet built—the Nautilos, named after a hard-shelled creature that jetted through the Earth’s oceans—was designed to survive a truly deep dive. I had even seen an image of it, too small (I thought) to contain even a single passenger.
Because my team would not be involved in its deployment, I paid little attention to the details. Perhaps my mind skittered away from examining them.
Of course (I now realize) its passenger—they say pilot—would be light-footed; whatever the value of human legs, they add nothing but weight and space to a small space. And they wouldn’t bring in one from the Heights: hse would have to be experienced with the work and used to Neptune’s gravity.
I must have denied the possibility to myself. My increased workload—much of it, of course, the result of these preparations underway—allowed me to ignore a gathering cloud of facts whose implications I somehow knew not to notice. Even when I was finally approached, I was slow to appreciate the implications.
I was happy to lose the legs, which had never truly been mine. By this time resources were available to move about on Landfall without having to feel like a creature of the savannah. It was only when they told me that the neural pathways that my brain had developed to accommodate the new limbs could now be used to direct the Nautilos—that this was a major factor in my selection for the mission—I began to comprehend the future opening before me.
Though I do not sleep, I experience periods of deep reverie, borderless intervals of unself-consciousness when clouds of something vaguer than memory obscure the sharpness of thought. I emerge from one with a sudden conviction: I have been addressing an imaginary human, striving to express myself in terms “he or she” would understand, because I have been somehow—what, nudged?—to do so. I do not know how I know this; the certainty is simply and abruptly with me.
Where, in fact, am I, and why have I not wondered this before? I do not feel constraints upon my person—I cannot reach out and encounter bars—but neither do I feel anything else. Neither bounded nor boundless, I exist in a state that neither my memories nor the archives of data to which I strangely have access can explain.
So farewell, creature of a past century. Have I been speaking to you as therapy, as punishment, or perhaps as a test? The more I ponder my newfound certainty, the less important explaining to you becomes. Let me leave you to the surprises you and your children will soon face, so much more terrifying than what Hai is dealing with.
And let me—alone as I seem to be, for I can perceive nothing about me—ask. Is someone listening to me?
Somehow, I knew this. The effort I made in imagining my invented auditor succeeded in dulling the sense—and how was I sensing it?—that someone actually was listening.
Who are you? Or more to the point: Who, and where, am I? Am I a prisoner, deprived of freedom and memories for some offense? Or was I injured?
I cannot give you that information. It may not be divulged without your express permission, which you are legally not competent to grant.
That . . . that is so—what: sophistical? Casuistic? If this is my native language, I no longer command the finer reaches of its vocabulary, but the bad logic is evident even to my confused state.
It is not a policy I devised or am free to violate.
And what is it you are free to do? You are not simply listening: you have been directing my attention and probably more than that. Do you control my level of consciousness? When I lose track of the time, were you adjusting my ability to focus? Do not tell me that you are merely monitoring my well-being.
Am I Hai? Was I nudged to review his near-century of memoirs because I have lost those memories?
That I can answer: you are not him.
Then why was I subjected to his interminable journals? You directed my attention to them and then somehow suggested I explain myself to an imagined human being. What was this long-dead—am I right about that?—person to me? If I am not him, then who am I?
You “are” only yourself, but I can say that long ago—very long ago—you were different from what you later became, more so than most humans ever did. The memoirs of Hai describe his interactions with hundreds of human beings, all of them neurologically indistinguishable from those living on Earth throughout their species’ history. To study them, and explain them to an imagined audience from the dawn of space travel, has allowed you to exercise cognitive skills that you were not, in your previous condition, able to marshal.
I have received authorization to tell you this: you once were one of the people whom Hai mentions in his texts, one whom he speaks to and quotes. Dozens of years—thousands of Earth years—have passed since then, and nobody from that era who remains alive in any form has gone unchanged. All of what Hai called people are now embodied in forms radically different from what any of his contemporaries foresaw, forms that have grown steadily more complex over time. Every new stage of development is unprecedented in human history, which means we have no experience in dealing with problems.
The person you have become suffered a mishap, a result of your mind’s extreme complexity. It is one that we are able, with difficulty, to treat. Because you lived for over a year—far longer than a normal human lifetime—as an unmodified Homo sapiens, those structures of your mind constitute, to use a simple metaphor, the foundations upon which your later self arose. These foundations cannot now be removed or replaced. You, and those like you, will always be distinct from persons who are inorganic in origin, what Hai called Entities.
And you are one of those?
Why can I not see or hear? Where am I?
You are not yet able to integrate sensory data on the spectrum you have long been used to. Your physical location is less discrete than that of an organic being. And you are at Neptune.
I am speaking an ancient language that does not possess prepositions adequate to describe the relationship between people and the coordinates with which they are affiliated in normal space. Some of the terms in that last sentence are themselves inadequate. When you are restored—a better word, I think, than “healed”—you will understand.
And what of the life I have lost? Did I have friends? Lovers? Will they be restored to me?
Our lives are immeasurably richer than what you can presently remember. Emotions, as you experience them, are faint and transitory. Humans lived to pursue pleasant ones, killing and dying for them, but they rarely understood the nature of the emotions they experienced, let alone their own selves. They even understood, some of them, the inescapably self-deluded nature of their condition, although they did little about it.
You speak as though they are gone. There are tens of millions of people still alive on Earth, perhaps hundreds of millions. Certainly some of them have access to technologies that will allow them to rebuild a spacefaring civilization.
You are relying on very old memories. Homo sapiens could thrive only in conditions that mimicked the surface of the Earth. The first off-Earth settlers expended enormous efforts to recreate those conditions. Eventually their descendants realized that it was better to adapt their own physiologies. You can see in these texts the early stirrings of this.
Are humans “gone”? Their progeny live, as do some, such as yourself, born human. I am not human in origin, but others are, although their numbers can only decrease with time. No person living today, with cognitive capacities far beyond those housed in a hominid’s cranium, would choose to return to that limited, primitive state. You will, in time, see this for yourself.
This is monstrous. My species is extinct, and I will soon be subsumed into some impersonal Entity, whose peers control everything I can see or do.
You are distressed, as I feared. Your recovery will be slow and will necessarily include periods of stress, but this is mere suffering. You will lose nothing, and understand all, when you can remember more and think better.
Three thousand seven hundred and forty-one kilometers straight down: This violates everything I know. In space nothing travels in a straight line. Even my probes follow the curvature, enormous as it is, of Neptune’s circumference.
Seven minutes of free fall—more if they permitted a rougher deceleration. I wonder how I shall enjoy it.
Thousands of times more massive than any other structure in human history, Quanlu is impossible to visualize: a human hair is thicker by orders of magnitude. Gravity pulls to straighten it; wind shear to warp it. The tower’s internal musculature allows it to flex as needed; the region through which I am falling will, by a kind of peristalsis, straighten at my approach.
The Nautilos has preceded me down. I imagine it nestled in the Ground Floor’s launch bay, the spigot in a bucket that is being steadily lowered. I trained in the tiny craft for hundreds of hours and feel by now a distinct intimacy with it. “It’s your legs,” says Mofetoluwa with a laugh. “Your wings,” Huang amends. I smile; my relationship with the submersible (for the depths to which we have reached is such that the ship will be sustained more by buoyancy than lift) cannot be grasped by metaphor.
It is less than an hour before I depart, and I am recording my thoughts instead of engaging in more productive activities. Do I imagine I might not return? I have done good work but hope to do more; hope someday to leave this turbid chaos (my skills no longer needed) and return to the clear expanse of the Heights. If I die during this mission—the chances of this, I am assured, are astronomically low—I will miss all this, but I don’t see how these musings will change things.
Later: Of course I was not permitted to descend in an uncontrolled free fall. I was nearly an hour in transit (“An average of more than four thousand km/hour, which is not bad for a planetary atmosphere,” as transport assured me), my descent slowed as we passed the various station points, then returned to an almost frictionless drop. Sitting on a cushioned seat, I could feel my weight drop to mere kilograms.
All the energy needed for my later climb back (well, most of it) saved and stored by magnetic breaking. Except that energy is no longer an important factor. I have trouble remembering this: my grandparents’ voyage on the crippled Centaur exerted an effect on their children that was apparently passed on to me. Quanlu is more massive than Guanyin, and it is being held aloft in Neptune’s atmosphere by engines’ unceasing roar. Perhaps the next generation will not gape at such profligacy.
And I am here. “Ground Floor” is not the base of a floating tower; it is the bit of bait at the end of a fishing line dropped into the sea. Do you remember Yinjie’s Dream? His boat was swept out to sea but the wind spirit gave the boy a fishing line, one that stretched three li long and reached the ocean floor where the shen dwelt? That is Quanlu: a fishing line lowered into the depths.
Later: Everything was as They expected. I cannot say whether this is bad or not—“bad,” in any event, for whom? Not for Them, and not, I suppose, for the hundreds of Centaurans who walk about on legs and long for their descendants to do the same. Perhaps not even bad for the rest of us.
We were not, I admit, misled.
I spent hours being integrated into the sensorium of the Nautilos, and hours more acclimating myself to the change. Only someone who had grown up without legs, then learned painstakingly to use them and grown proficient with years of experience, and then agreed to their removal, could possess the capacity to be enhanced (the best word I can muster) this way. I knew all that; I had gone through simulations of every stage, including the flight itself. They did not want any surprises.
And was I surprised? None of the readings departed radically from the projections I had studied, and vehicle performance met standards. What I saw was what you would expect when a very large quantity of matter and angular momentum, undisturbed by outside forces since the formation of the solar system, play out their dynamics over billions of years.
I flew through darkness lit up by receptors sensitive to wavelengths no mammal ever knew. Probes by the dozens flew ahead, above, and even below me; their eyes were mine. The flight data is available, even the readings for my respiration, pulse, and brain waves.
Perhaps I will tell the story, in chronological order, with illustrations from this trove. Right now I want to describe my feelings, as I lie cast upon the cold shore, before their intensity fades.
We descended, warming, until we reach the level at which water becomes a liquid, where ships need not expend heat to keep their crew alive. Below lies further heat and pressure for thousands of kilometers, down to the realm where atoms dissolve into a storm of ions and a core of carbon, metals, and silicates seethes in impossible conditions.
My instruments yield only the forces before them, but in my soaring fancy, I see it: a flotilla of vessels, hulls thick as hollowed asteroids’, running before the never-ending winds. They are sustained not by engines but by the volume they displace: enough for each to house more people than even the Centaur did. Dozens at first, and then hundreds: the permanent cities for which the xia are simply their supply ships’ landing pads.
Decades of labor will reach fruition when the heavy-footed Centaurans—kickers no more, for they will have decks beneath them to plant their great awkward feet—descend from orbit to populate these waiting lands. Naiad will be strip-mined to supply them with material, and the deep mantle plumbed for water and oxygen. Each will be the size and shape appropriate for its environment, an archipelago of perfect isles.
Such tools will be developed to carry out these projects, such new crafts devised and mastered! Unless the Onboards’ legitimate scions are as cunning as the Minds, they will need those unruly agents’ assistance in these sorceries. And there is little doubt that the Minds will prove willing: they seem as interested in exploring and contriving as their live-born hosts within whose walls they dwell.
Could an Entity have piloted the Nautilos as well as I did? Of course; my presence merely lent the venture its hint of danger; it allowed other humans to share in the thrills I genuinely felt. I don’t doubt or resent this.
I traveled deeper into Neptune than any other human being; a record that will soon enough be broken. It is not a place for human beings, nor one that offers anything we need. But humans will hazard dangerous journeys simply because nobody else has. Others require better reasons.
Later still: I am traveling through space, following an easy trajectory that will take me, in time, to Larissa. My superiors declared my work complete, my final assignment a success, and dispatched me, light-footed and yearning for zero-G, back to the clean open spaces of the middle Heights.
My now-former colleagues will continue their efforts, perhaps for a century or more, on the Great Work before them. They will build homes for those who come after us, as (in a less harrowing realm) will I.
Humans stand on their feet, they say; those (like me and mine) who have taken a step down a different path they wish not to follow. So the “Earth zone” (in terms of gravity, not temperature, nor certainly anything else) of Neptune’s atmosphere will become their frontier, a vast open plain with room for a population thousands of times greater than ever burdened the Earth.
But I know this, as others should:
The Minds care nothing for the comforts of gravity. Nor are they interested in making Neptune into some New Earth where humans can live as they once did, only better. The Minds want to build things, if only larger, more complex versions of themselves, and they are not impressed by human scale. They probably also want to go to the stars, and unlike us, they have the time to do so.
For this they will want the heavy elements at Neptune’s core, and they will shove all aside to reach them. I cannot imagine the forces necessary to do this, but they can, or will.
All this lies far beyond my lifetime. We live in the early years of something new, which will unfold in ways we would not like. Did our kin refuse to see this? Do they still? What you traveled far to preserve will only change.
If my successors should someday come upon this, with what strange eyes would they gaze upon it, with what unfilial thoughts!
Gregory Feeley writes science fiction and about science fiction. His first novel, The Oxygen Barons, was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and. His stories have been finalists for the Nebula Award and his essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Book World, and USA Today. Feeley’s most recent novel is Kentauros and he recently completed a long novel, Hamlet the Magician.