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Authors: Colin Sullivan

Nature Futures 2 (9 page)

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Seventy years after his teenage captaincy and exploits, Smithik's Jamaican Clippers roam the world's oceans, connecting the world. And now, thanks to the advances of steam and steam-powered airships by the Icelandic Empire, Smithik Transport ships explore the skies.

*   *   *

“There it is,” Smithik shouts. A grey wall rises out of the Reef, which covers what was once the land of South America. And above the Stone Table rises The Tower.

I follow the bulk of the structure. It is too much. It is a mountain in the distance that tapers off into a needle that pierces the clouds. And keeps going.

“This is what the Reef was for,” Smithik yells into my ear. His eyes gleam.

*   *   *

Over some strong Blue Mountain coffee, back inside where it was warm, Smithik tells me: “Pre-Reef scientists had a theory called panspermia: they believed life on Earth was caused by small organisms aboard comets thrown from collisions in other solar systems crashed down to seed life here, and maybe elsewhere.

“So a follow up infection, that's not so hard to believe, yeah?”

I nodded and kept notes. I'd been paid to document his first trip to actually step onto Stone Table since Smithik's adventurers had found it and reported back.

*   *   *

We land on the massive Reef-grown artificial stone structure and moor the airship. The joint Japanese and Hawaiian expedition group, and the Icelandic scientists who'd beaten them there, greet us.

Pictures are taken with the excited scientists and the man who had funded the first expedition to Stone Table, found when Caribbean telescopes had spotted the slowly self-assembling tower to space.

“We can't say if the Reef is designed to create The Tower, programmed by some distant intelligence,” the scientists tell Smithik as I scribble. “It could just be the way the Reef reproduces, creating a way to fling its spores back into space.”

“But the Stone Table, and the grooves in The Tower, they'll allow us to climb it with a machine into space? Doesn't that prove it's made for intelligence?” Smithik asks.

“Sometimes nature builds something something else can use. Maybe it's hoping we'll spread Reef spore as we use this to get into space.”

“As if we were bees,” Smithik nods.

*   *   *

Late in the night I stand with Smithik at the base of The Tower, looking up at the night sky.

“Pre-Reef men once walked on the Moon,” he says.

“And you think we'll go back?”

“Whether we're part of some galactic ecosystem that the Reef is just a spore of, or whether something designed it, the more we explore out there the more we'll understand what happened down here.”

*   *   *

The great adventurer died that night. But his spirit lives on in the Smithik Ascender, a plan by the international scientists to build a steam-powered climber that will ascend The Tower to space.

What we will find, no one knows.

Tobias Buckell was born in the Caribbean but now lives in Ohio. His novels and more than 50 short stories have been translated into 17 languages and he has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. He can be found online at
www.TobiasBuckell.com
.

A Kiss Isn't Just a Kiss

Steve Carper

On its slowest day, Hong Kong International Airport fed tens of thousands of bodies into the jets bearing the insignia of 60 different airlines. Today, the bodies jostled one another in lines that boiled and roiled and dissolved and reformed as loved ones gave one another parting kisses. Then kissed friends, children, strangers, staff, crew, baggage handlers, taxi drivers and police, who kept threatening them with their clubs. The flu had arrived and they were the first wave out of the infected area.

Flu
.

In Chinese and English the word jumped at them, from newspaper headlines to the captioning of CNN International and SkyNet to the announcement tickers above every bank of screens. They were heading across the world: direct flights to almost every continent. Thousands would greet them at every airport, braving the clubs of their country's police and armed forces for the wonderful, life-granting prize of all prizes, the other word blazoned across every means of communication in the airport.

Cure
.

The first signs of the avian flu strain to be labelled H5LB7 appeared in villages in northern Vietnam in early February. Authorities quickly set up roadblocks and sent in teams to destroy the infected chickens, but rumours of an extraordinarily high percentage of deaths filtered out. It was later revealed that dead birds and dead humans alike were spirited across the border to the National Key Laboratory of Veterinary Biotechnology in Harbin.

As the flu spread across Vietnam into Laos and Guangxi and Guangdong provinces, virologists adapted a technique that had earlier proved useful against the H5N1 strain. Unlocking the virus's genome, they cloned segments of its DNA and proceeded to mutate genes and reintroduce them into the genome. By July they had a stable strain of the virus that acted as a viable vaccine.

It was almost too late. Shenzhen Airlines was no longer flying out of Nanning in the affected provinces. Xiamen Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, Sichuan Airlines and both China Eastern and China Southern Airlines had been forced to shut down all but a bare few emergency flights to and from surrounding countries.

“The vaccine works,” reported Dr Cao Xiping. “The new virus displays both the haemagglutinin and neuraminidase antigens. We added to those genes a half-dozen others known for their ability to grow inside eggs as a base medium, which we can then refine to capture the vaccine.”

“Eggs?” asked the agriculture minister. “How long to grow a billion doses inside eggs?”

Dr Cao gave the number. Too long. Too expensive. Too difficult. Everything was against it. The minister tried to wipe the look of scared horror off his face sufficiently to look angry and threatening, with minimal success.

“We do have another idea,” said Dr Zhu Yi. “Naturally, it has never been tested. But it does have the advantage of the quickest and cheapest wide-scale dissemination of the vaccine practicable.”

“Let's hear it,” the minister said.

He didn't like it. He was against it. He went into a tirade that would have intimidated anyone not as bone-tired and single-minded as the virologists had become after weeks of unending death. The meeting went on for hours. At midnight the minister capitulated. He did not look happy. His expression did not change even after Dr Zhu gave him a long and somewhat sloppy kiss. He wiped his mouth with a napkin left over from the dinner and hurried home to kiss his wife and children.

None of them contracted the flu.

Technicians at the National Key Laboratory started incubating eggs, while virologists mutated more genes on the already mutated virus. Doses of the vaccine were refined at almost the same rate and number as the list of airports, seaports and border checkpoints being sealed off because of the spreading infection.

Meetings at the Ministry of Agriculture grew in similar hypertrophic fashion, as representatives of the ministries of health, science and technology, communications, foreign affairs, state security and national defence joined around ever-larger tables. Their decision went out through all state-run media. Volunteers would gather at the Hong Kong International Airport in one week's time. All travel expenses would be paid. So would their burial expenses if anything went wrong, although that part was whispered to them as they gathered.

The news exploded onto the world to be greeted with an array of emotions as vast as all humanity. The Chinese had perfected a cure for the deadliest strain of flu ever encountered. There was no time to inoculate everyone. A faster mode of transmission was necessary. And the fastest mode of transmission known to mankind was … mankind.

Dr Zhu and Dr Cao had modified the virus/vaccine to be transmissible by human-to-human contact. It lived — thrived! — in saliva. Kissing was an exemplary use of the human vector. People met people faster than any other form of contact, short of spraying from aeroplanes. There were technical reasons why that wasn't feasible, but they were lost under the sounds of the explosion as the world learned that to save itself it had to — as the British tabloids headlined over and over —
snog
.

The first wave funnelled through the newly reopened Hong Kong International Airport on Chek Lap Kok, kissing everyone within reach. They fanned out through the cities of dozens of nations, an exponential force, disinfecting dozens in each. Men kissed men, women kissed women, all kissed children and babies, and those who fought the contact were, it is accurate to say, sometimes kissed against their will. Few of those who successfully resisted died, but that was because by then so few successful carriers surrounded them.

The H5LB7 flu killed several million people in south Asia and smaller numbers elsewhere. About a billion people who might otherwise have died did not.

Some of them actually looked forward to the next year's flu season.

Steve Carper's F&SF stories are collected in
Tyrannosaur Faire
. His new website is
www.flyingcarsandfoodpills.com
, an in-depth celebration of the future we all once believed in.

Life, Abundant and with Simple Joy

Sarah K. Castle

Eshe Mintz was one of the lucky millions who experienced the Martian first contact as it occurred. She was up giving the Batemans' baby, Madeline, a bottle at 09:13 GMT on 7 November 2018.

She'd been following one of the consensus-driven decapedes on the I-TV in the nursery. The decas were her favourite of all the robots dropped on Mars for the mission dubbed Robot Rain. A big, six-legged mother would go as far as it could, then reel out the decas. At half-a-metre long and ten centimetres wide, the ten-legged wonders could go anywhere.

This deca was exploring a lava tube near Tharsis Montes. The views were mostly of rough, black rock, but there was an action vote about every half-hour, which made it more exciting than the longer-ranging surface robots.

The viewers were considering whether to wiggle through a rock pile, hoping to find a side passage, or to continue down the main tunnel. The consensus-tracking bar showed opinions almost equally divided and bouncing towards the side exploration. Everybody loved mapping new passages, but the chatterbox showed strong opinions that they'd fallen too far behind the International Space Cooperative's scientist-driven decas. They'd gone farther down the main tunnel.

Because the side passage was slightly favoured, the deca poked its head into openings in the rock pile while the debate continued. During one of these pokes, Eshe thought she saw something light-coloured, unusual in a basalt tunnel. She leaned forward, tapping the screen to change her vote to favour the side passage, and her torso pushed Madeline's bottle aside, breaking the baby's suck.

Madeline cried. For her first few weeks as the Batemans' nanny, Eshe had taken the crying personally, thinking she'd done something wrong. Now she knew it was just a reaction to some discomfort the baby felt. As soon as she could make it right, the crying would stop. By the time she got the nipple back in, the chatterbox was filled with shouting.

“IT'S ALIVE! IT'S ALIVE!”

The consensus-tracker showed 96% had changed their votes to the side passage at the same time Eshe had. The consensus was so strong, the ISC decas had turned in their tracks and were coming back.

Eshe maximized the window, her hand shaking on the mouse. The deca had wriggled through the rock pile and come into a wide new tunnel. A line of slumped, lumpy figures stood in the view, glowing with faint white-orange light. They looked like white-sheet ghosts, sagging under the weight of their bulky heads. The deca triangulated to report a height of 1.3 metres. Still as statues, they might have been stocky stalagmites except for the roughly oval areas on each figure's crown, fading from pale pink to yellow. The colours streamed across their heads, travelling down the tunnel and out of sight, like lights along a runway.

Traffic jumped in the chatterbox. It switched to sample mode, randomly displaying from the submitted comments. Everyone shouted.

“STROMATOLITES?!?!”

“IS IT MOVING?”

“IT'S TRYING TO COMMUNICATE!”

The ISC decas arrived. Their cameras swept the scene methodically. One skittered towards a white figure and poked it with a tiny, tubular sampler. The lights on the figures' crowns quickly faded to a uniform deep red. The comments stopped streaming for long seconds until the colours returned to their paler shades, fading and travelling from figure to figure.

A new comment finally flashed on.

“IT SPOKE. IT'S ANGRY.”

Links appeared in the chatterbox, leading to sub-discussions with titles like ‘What Is It Saying?', ‘How Does It Eat?' and ‘Can It Know God?'. Madeline fell asleep, but Eshe couldn't take her eyes from the screen. She kept the baby cradled in her crossed legs. Comfortable, Madeline slept, her quick, wet breaths keeping a steady rhythm.

The results streamed in all night. The figures stood on a mass of water ice. The tunnel's atmosphere had a significant methane component. A steady breeze blew through, bringing dust particles from the surface, which caught on the figures' sticky skins. The sampled cells were prokaryote, but with a number of exotic cell types of unknown function.

When the sky turned from black to deep blue outside the nursery window, Eshe was tracking the ‘What Is It Saying?' discussion. Thousands of amateurs and dozens of professionals were analysing the sequence of colours modulating along the figures' crowns. Many claimed they'd identified patterns. Some experimented with transforming the flashes into sets of integers, trying to parse mathematical or grammatical syntactic units. Eshe thought she saw one or two figures keeping a steady tempo for short periods of time, but otherwise it looked random.

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