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Authors: Brian Stableford

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Critical Threshold

BOOK: Critical Threshold
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CRITICAL THRESHOLD

Copyright © 1977, 2011 by Brian Stableford

FIRST BORGO PRESS EDITION

Published by Wildside Press LLC

www.wildsidebooks.com

Borgo Press Books by Brian Stableford

Alien Abduction: The Wiltshire Revelations

The Best of Both Worlds and Other Ambiguous Tales

Beyond the Colors of Darkness and Other Exotica

Changelings and Other Metaphoric Tales

Complications and Other Science Fiction Stories

The Cosmic Perspective and Other Black Comedies

Critical Threshold
(Daedalus Mission #2)

The Cthulhu Encryption: A Romance of Piracy

The Cure for Love and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution

The Dragon Man: A Novel of the Future

The Eleventh Hour

The Fenris Device
(Hooded Swan #5)

Firefly: A Novel of the Far Future

Les Fleurs du Mal: A Tale of the Biotech Revolution

The Florians
(Daedalus Mission #1)

The Gardens of Tantalus and Other Delusions

The Great Chain of Being and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution

Halycon Drift
(Hooded Swan #1)

The Haunted Bookshop and Other Apparitions

In the Flesh and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution

The Innsmouth Heritage and Other Sequels

Kiss the Goat: A Twenty-First-Century Ghost Story

Luscinia: A Romance of Nightingales and Roses

The Mad Trist: A Romance of Bibliomania

The Moment of Truth: A Novel of the Future

Nature's Shift: A Tale of the Biotech Revolution

An Oasis of Horror: Decadent Tales and Contes Cruels

The Paradise Game
(Hooded Swan #4)

The Plurality of Worlds: A Sixteenth-Century Space Opera

Prelude to Eternity: A Romance of the First Time Machine

Promised Land
(Hooded Swan #3)

The Quintessence of August: A Romance of Possession

The Return of the Djinn and Other Black Melodramas

Rhapsody in Black
(Hooded Swan #2)

Salome and Other Decadent Fantasies

Swan Song
(Hooded Swan #6)

The Tree of Life and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution

The Undead: A Tale of the Biotech Revolution

Valdemar's Daughter: A Romance of Mesmerism

The World Beyond: A Sequel to S. Fowler Wright's The World Below

Xeno's Paradox: A Tale of the Biotech Revolution

Zombies Don't Cry: A Tale of the Biotech Revolution

CHAPTER ONE

I collected the cards and began to shuffle them halfheartedly, wondering whether I could squeeze a few last drops of competitive enthusiasm from my turgid brain. It didn't seem likely.

Karen watched me. She was fully awake and comfortable. I was too fully awake, and not so comfortable. “You want to play again?” I asked.

She didn't. She shook her head. “You could use some sleep,” she said. “I have to be here. I'm on eight hour shifts for the duration. I don't need anyone to keep me company. Do you know what time it is?”

My eyes went to the clock and stared blindly at its face.

“No,” I told her. “To be quite honest, I don't. I see where the hands are pointing, but I just don't see that it means anything. How can it? It didn't even make sense last time we made landfall—it didn't match local time, it wasn't even registering the right length of day. It's been ticking away merrily even since we left Earth, but it doesn't even tell us what time it is on Earth. It isn't any time at all on Earth. We're taking a short cut through spacetime, dodging round the laws of physics while their backs are turned. We're outside the whole fabric of existence. So what the hell does the clock think it's telling us?”

She sighed. “It ought to be telling you that it's time to get some sleep,” she said.

“Well it isn't getting the message across.”

“Having trouble with our circadian rhythms?” she said, blandly.

I shrugged. “Circadian rhythms weren't evolved to cope with faster-than-light travel. Mine don't like it. They rebel against the shallow lies told by the clock.”

“Claustrophobia,” she said. “You should have been screened for that before we took off.”

“It's not the physical confinement I object to,” I told her. “It's the intellectual confinement. My mind's in a cage and it doesn't like it. I just don't know how the others manage to regulate themselves so easily. I don't work that way.”

According to the clock it was nearly two o'clock in the morning. We'd been in flight for about two weeks, out of Floria heading for Dendra. It wasn't just that I'd become used to Florian time, with days that weren't twenty-four hours long, that made an absolute fool of the stubborn atomic clock aboard the
Daedalus
. It was something more—something about the experience of interstellar flight itself.

Karen didn't understand. She wasn't about to make any attempt to understand, but was simply content to be amused. She was crew, and her life was ruled by standard time even when we made landfall. She had the timetable written into her nervous system.

“What do you think about?” I asked. “When you're out here on watch, obliged to be awake when everyone else is asleep? It's not as if you had anything to do except check the tell-tales every now and again. You don't even have to be in the cockpit. How do you occupy your thoughts?”


That'
s what's wrong with you,” she said, ignoring the question. “Utter boredom. Hell, Alex—it's only three weeks at a time. We were on Floria for a year, we'll likely be on Dendra for another. You ought to be glad of three weeks rest in between.”

“It's not the length of time,” I said. “It's the emptiness of it. Trying to fill it is such an effort. We do our work, and then we make a little extra, or do it again. We play word games, card games, sex games. And somehow it just doesn't fill up. There's a perpetual sense of dislocation.”

“Oh, there's that,” she agreed. “Unnatural. Cutting corners. Arriving before we set off, relatively speaking, and still spending three weeks doing it. But don't let your imagination overact. You can't face the thing with common sense, because the universe doesn't work according to common sense notions. It's just something you have to get used to. If it really bothers you, take something.”

I shook my head.

“It's funny,” she said. “This doesn't bother me at all—being in the ship, in ultraspace. You know when I start getting dislocated? The day we stop. When we land on some crazy world that feels almost like Earth, with air almost like Earth's, which looks almost like Earth, you know—so similar, but so different.
That
throws me. When the days and the nights stop agreeing with the clock, with
real
time.”

I grinned, leaning back in my chair to stretch my arms. “One of us,” I murmured, “is backwards.”

“Well,” she said, “I can honestly look myself in the eye and say, ‘it isn't me'.”

I smiled politely at the wordplay. Word games. Trivial, but they helped.

“You didn't answer my question,” I said. “What do you think about, when the schedule leaves you on your own?”

“Anything,” she said. “Everything. I don't get hypnotized waiting for the tell-tales to wink. I read, I talk to insomniacs. Maybe Pete holds mystic communion with the machines and the infinite, but I'm boring. I just do what's there to be done, take it easy, make it easy.”

Maybe I can make it easy too, I thought. Maybe there is some easy way to stop the idea that we were alone and insignificant in an unimaginable gulf preying on my consciousness. Not to mention my subconscious.

Sometimes, in the thin spaces of the
Daedalus
, I wondered whether I was really cut out for deep space and the recontact mission. It was something I'd been waiting all my life to do, but that's not necessarily a guarantee of competence. I was supposed to be an expert on alien environments, but the environment of the ship itself—perhaps the mission itself—sometimes seemed a little too alien. More alien, anyhow, than the colony worlds themselves.

It was me, I decided, that was backwards. Karen made more sense.

“If you're going to sit up and challenge your mind with great philosophical questions of our time,” she said, “then you can make the coffee while you're doing it. I'll be back in two minutes.”

She disappeared in the direction of the control panel.

I made the coffee, and put the cards away. When she came back I was staring at a spot on the ceiling.

“Isn't it amazing,” I commented, “that even in the most rigorously sterile environments, spots appear on the ceiling.”

“And you also get dirt under your fingernails,” she said. “Let's for God's sake not bore each other to death. Talk about something sensible. Help me overcome my inevitable dislocation, tell me Dendra's guilty secrets.”

I looked at her pensively, slightly reluctant to be jerked out of my desolate mood. She stared at me. She had quite a powerful stare. I was tempted to fix my gaze on the ceiling again.

“You've read the reports,” I said. “You know exactly as much as I do.”

“No chance,” she replied. “I read the reports, they're words. But to you, they mean something. They build up a picture in your mind, an idea of what it's like. I just get a blur. I'm a mechanic, not an ecological romantic.”

“We all have our problems,” I commented, dryly. But I wasn't unwilling to talk about Dendra. I
did
have a picture, of sorts. Trying to describe the picture would probably help to clarify it. Sometimes you don't know what you think until you try to explain it.

“It's a forest,” I said. “A very, very big forest. Not homogeneous, geographically speaking, but continuous. One vast expanse of trees running right around the planet. The planet's unusual because it's too ordinary—you know what I mean?”

She nodded. “No axial tilt. Spins in the plane of its orbit. Two moons, both tiny, in the same plane. Very orderly. No seasonal changes to speak of.”

“More than that,” I said. “There's one vast continent girdling the world around the equator, stretching north and south to the forty-third parallel, or thereabouts, on either side. There are two large polar seas with jagged edges. Such wonderful symmetry. Low altitude airstreams blow more or less constantly from the poles towards the equator—gigantic convection currents which bring rain to feed the forest and the rivers. All of which means that conditions are very stable all over the land surface. Remarkably so. The temperate zones are very temperate, and the climate changes according to a smooth progression as you go north or south toward the tropics. Comfortable, reliable.”

“Like Floria.”

“Not like Floria. Floria's supposed stability is really just lethargy. No tides, no definite motor of change—but change is going on, and there's a wide range of conditions geographically speaking. There are forests and deserts and marshes and savannah. But on Dendra, there's only the forest. It stretches everywhere, and only the tallest mountains have slopes above the tree line where virtually nothing can flourish. Dendra is just one vast, continuous habitat.

“And it's teeming with life. Thousands of species. Insects, vertebrates, a fuller range than Earth. Life's been hard on Earth, and a lot of potential groups never made it. But on Dendra, the evolution of the forest has stabilized the whole pattern of change within it. The larger, fiercer creatures that seem to dominate much of Earth's evolutionary history aren't there. In a forest, it pays to be small. But the sequence of physical development is strikingly similar. You can't use terms like
insect
and
mammal
exactly when you talk about an alien life-system—you're always drawing analogies rather than making a rational classification—but on Dendra there are insects which are for all the world like Earth insects, and mammals like Earth mammals. There are birds, there are frogs, and some things we'll have to make up new names for. But by and large, the animal population of Dendra is strikingly similar to the animal population of any subtropical forest on Earth—only more so. And the whole planet is one enormously complex community, in ecological terms.”

I paused, waiting for her to stop me because I was being boring, or to ask questions, or simply to invite me to go on.

I think she was amused by the way the words flowed: a little too fast, a little less than certain.

“So?” she prompted.

“The implications,” I said, “are legion. You've seen what the survey team wrote in terms of general conclusions. They advised against colonization.”

“I know what they advised,” she said. “But I don't know why. It seemed, by all accounts, a very hospitable world. And they were overruled—a colony was sent out.”

“It's difficult,” I said. “Maybe the survey scientists themselves couldn't put forward an itemized list of reasons why Dendra was unsuitable. It's just that the whole thing has the wrong
feel.

“One point is that there seems to be a relationship between the stability of communities and their complexity. And there's a sort of feedback loop which means that the more complex a situation becomes the more stable it can become, and if it does become more stable it finds extra opportunities for complexification. On Earth, the loop isn't important because changes in circumstances—weather, geological factors, etc.—put a limit on stability. But on Dendra that limit is very different. The opportunities for stabilization and complexification are much greater. Unless, of course, an invader moves in from outside—a human invader.”

“You mean they might trigger changes which would upset the whole system?”

“Maybe...or maybe the whole system would be so efficient that it wouldn't permit them to make changes at all. Or maybe nothing. It's the sort of factor which just can't be weighed. You can't find out until you try. And if you find out that the answer is disaster....”

“It's already too late.”

“Quite so.”

“You think the colony may have failed?”

“I'm not about to lay any bets either way.”

“You must have an opinion.”

I shook my head firmly. “On the contrary. I
mustn't
form an opinion. That's the trap. When you don't have enough data, you have to be content to be undecided. That's why the survey report ran into trouble with the UN. The men who compiled the report were undecided, because they didn't have enough information to decide—but the UN wouldn't accept that. The survey simply reported a vast profusion of unknown factors—not simply because of the question of the stability of the Dendran ecosphere, but its complexity too. The survey team had a limited time. There was no way they could begin a full investigation of a life-system as complex as Dendra's. They looked hard, and everything they saw looked good, but it was what they never got a chance to look at that worried them most. They could no more compile a full dossier on Dendra's life-system than they could count and classify every star in the known universe. That's a job for a lifetime—a hundred lifetimes. And it would never be wholly done. What the survey team had to do was guess the whole pattern from the pieces they had. Usually, teams feel confident enough to say that they have an educated guess, a good guess. The Dendran team didn't feel that confident. They had an educated guess, all right, but they didn't feel that it was a good one.”

“If that's the case,” she said, “why
did
they send a colony to Dendra?”

“Political minds work to a different set of criteria,” I said, with vague traces of sarcasm. “And in addition, there was probably a little double-dealing. Ask Nathan. He could read between those particular lines far better than I can.”

“Nathan's sleeping the sleep of the just,” she pointed out.

Just what? I wondered. But I didn't say it.

“If you like,” I said, “I'll tell you what my nasty little mind suspects. But I could be wrong. Political waters run deep. And murky. I may be doing someone an injustice.”

And, I added, under my breath, pigs might have had wings in those days.

“I'm listening,” she said. “It all helps to fill up the time.”

“Look at it this way,” I said. “Exploratory vessels go out looking for Earth-type worlds. When one of them finds one it makes a few elementary observations from orbit, and then goes on somewhere else. It isn't equipped to land. When it gets home, all its data are examined. The worlds which might prove hospitable are sorted out, and survey teams go out—at colossal expense—to land, stay about a year, and make a supposedly-thorough examination of the prospects for human habitation. They can't find out everything, but they use their time as efficiently as possible, and the idea is that they should find out
enough
. Only what's ‘enough'. Who can tell? And—more important, perhaps—who gets to decide?

BOOK: Critical Threshold
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