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Edward M. Lerner

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A New Order of Things
Edward M. Lerner

 

The InterstellarNet gave some preparation for real First Contact—but that did
not
mean it would be simple or easy!

 

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”
—Niccolà Machiavelli

PROLOGUE

Good fences, said the poet, make good neighbors … and interstellar distances made very good fences.

For a century and a half, Earth and a growing number of its interstellar neighbors had been in radio contact. A vigorous commerce in intellectual property had resulted, accelerating and converging the technical progress of all the species involved. The crowning achievement of InterstellarNet was the development of, and cross-species agreement upon, artificially intelligent surrogates as local representatives for distant societies.

Quarantine procedures strictly governed the delivery and operational environment of each alien agent, protecting agents and their host networks from subversion by the other. Some thought of this trade mechanism as a fence within a fence. Only once, more than half a century earlier, had an inner fence been breached. A trapdoor hidden within imported biocomputers, technology that had been licensed by Earth from the intelligent species of Barnard’s Star, was exploited by their trade agent. The attempt at extortion had been foiled, the unsuspected vulnerability of adopted technology expunged, and the AI returned to its containment.

Good fences make good neighbors, and interstellar distances made very good fences.

Made
very good fences….

The ship hurtled through the darkness, a tiny bubble of purpose within an uncaring void. Its interior could be called warm only by comparison to the near absolute zero that surrounded it, of benefit to the proper functioning of shipboard mechanisms but far too cold to sustain any known form of life.

Relative to the binary star toward which the ship aimed, it had a velocity just above one-tenth light speed. Mostly it coasted; only occasional mid-course corrections, and even rarer blasts from its anti-space-junk lasers, revealed the presence of intelligence guiding the traveler.

That shipboard intelligence was artificial, and its mission was nearly complete. Responsive to the final directives it had been given many years earlier, it now transmitted by tight radio beam to the looming solar system.

“This is lifeboat three of
Harmony
. The crew-kindred are dead. Repeat: The crew-kindred are dead.

“My data are fragmented and inconsistent. Downloads from
Harmony
appear to indicate that systems became erratic and unstable. Records are unreliable.

“Of ten lifeboats, only seven launched successfully. None but this vessel remains. In deep space, the interstellar drive exhibits an unexplained variability. Telemetry and analysis to follow.”

But the only further information sent ahead, as lifeboat three transformed into an eruption of pure energy, was by the imprinting of its one-time velocity into the blue shift of gamma rays.

CHAPTER 1

Art tried to take life one day at a time, but sometimes several days conspired to attack him at once.

Two messages tagged with the highest possible priority code reached him moments apart, and at a spectacularly inconvenient time. He’d never received a communication of that urgency; his habit, at times when others simply disabled their neural infosphere interfaces, was to block traffic below the threshold he privately termed TEOTWAWKI.

The end of the world as we know it.

He was thirty meters behind the power boat, intent on mastering a skill easily within the capabilities of a modestly coordinated ten-year-old. A modestly coordinated Earth-reared ten-year-old, anyway. Exercise and a nanotech-enhanced skeleton only went so far … Art’s reflexes remained those of a native Martian, raised in gravity scarcely one-third standard. But wasn’t the purpose of a vacation to try new things?

White knuckled, he clutched the wooden handle of the tow rope. His skis slap-slapped over the swells that had from inside the boat appeared the merest of ripples. In jaw-clenched acquiescence to gestured encouragement from the boat, he was, at the instant the first alarm buzzed inside his head, sliding down the outside edge of the vee-shaped wake.

Startled, Art let dip the tip of one ski. The water ripped the ski off his foot. From the stern of the boat, the resort’s spotter shouted advice. Improbably, Art got the bare foot safely to the rear of his other ski.
Route to voicemail
, he ordered his implant as he wobbled.

Then the second call came. The remaining ski slewed out from under him and went flying. Momentum propelled him forward even as the boat throttled back. Time slowed to a crawl as the lake surface rose up inexorably to smack him. Belatedly, he released the tow handle.

He was bobbing in the water, kept afloat by his life jacket, when the launch circled back. “You okay, Art?” called the spotter. “Arthur?
Dr. Walsh!

Reluctantly, he returned his attention to the physical world. “I’m fine. A bit surprised is all.” Only when he tried to dog-paddle to the launch did Art notice the improbable bend in his right forearm. He tipped his head at the ladder just hung over the boat’s side. “Mind giving me a hand up? My arm seems to be broken.”

Wincing with each wave the boat hit as it sped him to the pier, he began placing his own infosphere calls. They were rated TEOTWAWKI, too.

While Art’s grandparents and parents, like most Martians, showed little interest in pre-immigration genealogy (dubbed “ancient history”), his great-grandparents claimed roots from across Europe. His appearance supported their assertions. He had classical Mediterranean features and body build—this trip he’d seen the like on statues in museums throughout Spain and Greece—incongruously paired with pale blue eyes and blond, almost white hair. The latter part of his heritage had vigorously asserted itself as sunburn the first day of his vacation. It brought with it a random snippet of memory, something about mad dogs and Englishmen.

The sunburn itched. The skin under his hour-old cast itched. Most of all, his curiosity bump itched.
That
he had been able to do something about.

From his villa balcony, a panorama of sky and sand and the Mediterranean Sea glowed in shades of blue and white not to be seen on Mars. Art closed his eyes, the better to take in his mind’s-eye view. Across the visualized table of a virtual office an avatar awaited. The infosphere representation of Bhai Banda Singh, secretary-general of the Interstellar Commerce Union, was impeccably tailored and dignified in bearing. Bhai’s control was first-rate; for all Art knew, his boss was wearing pajamas and drinking hot cocoa.

In the unseen real world, waves lapped soothingly on the beach. Art took a deep breath. “We have a situation.” As though shouting TEOTWAWKI hadn’t already conveyed
that
. “About two hours ago, radio volume from Barnard’s Star jumped by a factor of thousands. The message body is encrypted, but it’s wrapped in standard InterstellarNet protocol and addressed to the Snake trade agent.” Barnard’s Star lay in the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder—which made its natives, colloquially, the Snakes. The time was long past when
Snake
was considered politically incorrect. It was the notion of being held or handled, in fact, which offended the aliens. Their name for themselves—and reserved for themselves—was Hunters. “A funny thing … between bursts of the new, loud message, we’re still getting signal at the usual power level.” That pretty well encapsulated the news flash that had cost Art his first ski.

Behind the thoughtful expression of his avatar, the ICU’s secretary-general was doing the math. The dim red dwarf sun known as Barnard’s Star was six light-years distant. Radio signals attenuate with the square of the distance. The bursts were thousands of times stronger than the background signal. If the new transmitter was comparable in strength to the old one, then…. “We have guests on our doorstep. How close are they?”

The calculation had a big margin of error, but bosses have prerogatives. “Triangulating bearings taken from Earth and the moon, my team says less than fifty billion kilometers.” That put the transmitter far outside the solar system—but also more than ninety-nine percent of the way here from Barnard’s Star. Radar would need days to confirm and refine the numbers.

Art tried and failed to reach an itch with a pencil, while—he hoped—his uninjured avatar sat professionally still at the table. Fortunately, the nanodocs should have the bones knitted within days. How did people ever wear casts for weeks? “Item number two is a call from Pashwah,” who was the Snakes’ artificially intelligent trade agent to humanity. Then Art shared the part of Pashwah’s call his boss could not have deduced, that had cost him his second ski and, damn the itch, a broken arm. “The starship is badly damaged.

“There is a crew on board, and they need our help.”

CHAPTER 2

InterstellarNet’s existence discouraged the observation of several nearby stars. Measurements by the locals were invariably better and cheaper than scrutiny from afar, so telescopes were reserved for stars too inconsiderate to have scientists who sent reports.

Before InterstellarNet, amateurs had directed their often-ingenious antenna arrays towards those same nearby stars in search of extraterrestrials. Now that ETs had been found, and humanity’s dealings with those aliens entrusted to securely encrypted commercial communications, the hobbyists, too, had lost interest in the immediate neighborhood.

In short, there was no good reason for anyone but the ICU to monitor Barnard’s Star. The only reason for someone else to start looking would be a disruption to InterstellarNet. The fast-approaching Snakes appeared to have worked that out—they limited their high-powered communications to bursts brief and infrequent enough to avoid clobbering redundant copies of the many-times-repeated interstellar messages. Megacorps across the solar system started griping about brief delays in receiving long-expected messages, and the ICU’s presumed incompetence. The ICU accepted the grumbling with uncharacteristic good humor.

And so the imminent arrival of the Snake starship remained a secret of the United Planets, and of the great powers to whom the UP secretary-general confided.

The courier had loomed encouragingly large as the shuttle from Earth approached it for docking. That appearance was deceiving; the hull enclosed mostly fuel tanks. The airlock’s inner hatch closed with what Art objectively knew to be a soft sigh; he heard, as always, a reverberating boom of finality. The habitable quarters were, to be charitable, compact; his cabin scarcely accommodated its fold-down cot. After dumping his flight bag and switching to microgravity Velcro slippers, Art went searching for someplace less claustrophobic.

The Snakes, still a light-day away, had signaled that, low on fuel and supplies, they were heading for Jupiter. There seemed little point in arguing, since a response would take two days to receive and might change nothing. The UP’s still-secret diplomatic mission, having discreetly recruited the best of the best from across the solar system, now scrambled to assemble itself at Callisto base, orbiting Jupiter.

“Hey,” he offered neutrally to the silent man and woman he found in the ship’s mess. They looked to be about his forty years old, give or take a few. Neither was in uniform, which made them fellow members of the mission. It took them a few seconds to look his way, presumably meaning they’d been off somewhere in the infosphere, before they stood. “Art Walsh. I’m with the ICU.”

“I am Eva Gutierrez, from the
Universidad Tecnológica Nacional
, the Buenos Aires campus.” The Spanish grace notes in her English were less noticeable than her British accent. She approached Art’s 180 centimeters in height and seemed fitter than he—not a challenge. Her thick black hair was pulled back into a shoulder-length ponytail, from which a few errant wisps had escaped. Her hazel eyes were widely spaced.

“Keizo Matsunaga, Stanford.” He was short and barrel-chested, with a thin mustache and a slightly askew smile. His T-shirt bore a faded image of one of the Rodin sculptures that adorned the Stanford campus.

They swapped bio files as earlier generations exchanged cardboard business cards. Art’s new colleagues startled, although their reactions showed only briefly. He got that response often enough not to react. Apparently he didn’t look the part of ICU Chief Technology Officer—whatever a CTO should look like. Older and wizened, perhaps. Smart enough to water ski without breaking things.

Acceleration warnings and pilot announcements truncated the social pleasantries.

This was going to be an energy guzzling, powered-all-the-way flight. Art had been promised they would hold the acceleration to one gee for a day to give his broken arm a fighting chance at healing. After that they would step up the pace.

Between interruptions, he established Eva was a theoretical physicist, investigating interstellar-drive technology, and Keizo was a xenosociologist. Art queried for their publications and anything else the ship’s AI could find before their high-energy boost made infosphere retrieval an expensive interplanetary transfer. They retreated to personal studies until the PA system stopped blaring.

BOOK: Edward M. Lerner
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