Ben peered from his window, silent, withdrawn.
Perhaps a hundred kilometers south of the Alice, they saw a structure of bright blue, a dot in the desert. A tent.
The shuttle dipped, fell like a brick, and skidded to a halt half a kilometer distant from the tent.
Nobody came to meet them. After a few minutes they climbed down to the ground and walked toward the tent.
The land was an immense orange-red table, the sky a sheet of washed-out blue. There was utter silence here: no bird song, no insects. The Sun was high, ferocious, the heat tremendous and dry. They walked cautiously, unused to Earth's heavy gravity.
Madeleine felt overwhelmed. Save for a few space walks, it was the first time she had been out of a cramped hab module, out in a landscape, for years.
Ben touched her arm. She stopped. Through the heat haze of the horizon, something moved, stately, silent.
"It looks like a lizard," she whispered. "A komodo dragon, maybe. But--"
"But it's immense."
"Another Gaijin experiment, you think?"
"I think we ought to keep still," he said.
The lizard, a Mesozoic nightmare, paused for long seconds, perhaps a minute, a tongue the length of a whip lashing out at something unseen. Then it moved on, turning away from the humans.
They hurried on.
Their host was a woman: an American, small, compact, stern-faced, her thick black hair tied back severely behind her head. She was dressed in a silvery coverall. She was called Carole Lerner.
Lerner looked them up and down contemptuously. "Nemoto told me to expect you. She didn't tell me you were two babes in the wood." She eyed them with hard suspicion. "I have a hoard."
Ben frowned. "What?"
Lerner said. "I'm not about to tell you where. If I die my caches will self-destruct."
Madeleine understood quickly. Medicine had collapsed, along with everything else, when the ice had come. So no more antiaging treatments. Such supplies had become the most precious items on the planet. She held up her hands. "We're no threat to you, Carole."
Lerner kept watching them.
At last, sternly, she brought them into the tent, which was blessedly cool, the air moist. She dug out a couple of coveralls, indicated they should put them on. "These are priceless. Literally. Therm-aware clothing, all but indestructible. Nobody makes them anymore. People hand them down like heirlooms, mother to child. Be careful with them."
"We will," Madeleine promised.
The tent had no partitions. Ben shrugged, stripped naked, and climbed into his coverall. Madeleine followed suit.
Lerner began to boil water for a drink, and she gave them food: a rehydrated soup, its flavor unidentifiable. She looked about sixty. She was in fact much older than that. She turned out to be
Carole Lerner, the woman who had -- following another project of Nemoto's -- descended into the clouds of Venus and become the first, and only, human to set foot there.
Ben glanced around, at piles of rock samples, data discs, a few old-fashioned paper books, heavily thumbed, their pages dusty and yellowed.
"My work," Lerner growled, watching him. "I'm a geologist. No previous generation has lived through the onset of an Ice Age."
"Are there still journals, science institutes, universities?" Ben asked.
"Not on Earth," Lerner said, scowling. "I'm caching my samples and notes. Buried deep enough so the animals can't get 'em. And I post my results and interpretation to the Moon, Mars." She eyed Madeleine, hostile. "I know what you're thinking. I'm some old nut, an obsessive. Science doesn't matter anymore. You star travelers make me sick. You hop and skip through history, and you don't see a damn thing. I'll tell you this. The Gaijin work on long time scales. We're mayflies to them. And that's why science matters now. More than ever. So we can stay in the game."
Madeleine raised her hands. "I didn't..."
But Lerner had turned her attention to her soup, her anger subsiding. Ben touched Madeleine's arm, and she fell silent.
This is a woman, she thought, who has spent a
Lerner had a small car, just a bubble of plastic on a light frame, powered by batteries kept topped up by a big solar-cell array, and with a gigantic tank of water strapped to its roof. The next day she piled them in and drove them west.
After a couple of hours they reached an area that seemed a little less arid. Madeleine saw green vegetation, trees, tufts of grass, birds wheeling. They came to a shallow creek, dry, that Lerner turned to follow. They passed what appeared to be an abandoned farm, burned out.
They climbed a shallow rise, and Lerner slowed the car, let it run forward almost noiselessly. Finally, as they neared the crest, she cut the engine and let the car's momentum carry it forward in silence.
As they went over the rise, the land opened up before Madeleine.
There was water, a great calm blue pool of it, stretching halfway to the horizon, utterly unexpected in this dry old place. She could actually smell the water. Her soul felt immediately lifted, some primitive instinct responding.
And it took a full minute of looking, of letting her eyes become accustomed to the landscape, before she could see the animals.
There was a herd of what looked like rhinoceros, lumbering cylinders of flesh, jostling clumsily at the water's edge. But they had no horns. One of them raised a massive head in which small black eyes were embedded like studs. It was quite spectacularly ugly. She saw that it had small, oddly human feet; it trod delicately.
Lerner murmured. "Very common now."
Madeleine made out kangaroolike creatures of all sizes -- bizarre, overblown animals, some so huge it seemed they could barely lift themselves off the ground; but jump they did, in clumsy lollops. There were creatures like ground sloth that Lerner said were a variety of giant wombat.
And there were predators. Madeleine saw packs of wolf-sized animals warily circling the grazing, drinking herbivores. Some resembled dogs, some cats.
"It's the same elsewhere," Lerner said. "As the ice spreads, the grasslands and forests of the temperate climes are retreating, to be replaced by tundra, steppe, spruce forests."
"Places these reconstructed creatures can survive," Ben said.
"Yes. But the Gaijin aren't responsible for everything. In Asia there are reindeer, musk oxen, horses, bison. In North America, the wolves and bears and even the mountain lions are making a recovery." She smiled again. "But in the valley of the Thames, I've heard, there are woolly mammoths... Now
I'd like to see."
They sat for long hours watching antique herbivores feed.
They drove on. They drove for hours.
It was only after they had returned to Lerner's camp, with the shuttle parked patiently by, that Madeleine realized she hadn't seen a single human being, not one, nor any sign of recent human habitation, all day.
They stayed three days. Gradually Lerner seemed to learn to tolerate them.
At the end of the last day, Lerner made them a final meal. As the Sun sank to the horizon, they sat sipping recycled water in the shade of Lerner's tent.
They swapped sea stories. Lerner told them about Venus. In return, they told her of the Chaera, huddling in the dismal glow of a black hole. And they talked of the changes that had come over humanity.
"There were a lot of
Lerner said sourly.
"Refugee, relocate, discontinuity, famine, disease, war.
There was death on a scale we haven't seen since the twentieth century. And people keep right on being born. You know what the average age of humans is now?"
"Fifteen years old. Just fifteen. To most people on the planet
is normal." She waved a hand, indicating the depopulated town, the ice-transformed climate, the strange reconstructed animals, the wispy flower-ships that crossed the sky above. "We're in the middle of a fucking epochal catastrophe here, and people have
She spat in the dirt and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
Ben leaned forward. "Carole. Do you think Nemoto is right? That the Gaijin are trying to destroy us?"
Lerner squinted. "I don't think so. But they don't want to save us either. They are... studying us."
"What are they trying to find out?"
"Beats me. But then, they probably wouldn't understand what
trying to find out."
After a time, Lerner went out to fetch more drink.
In Ben's arms, Madeleine murmured, "We humans don't seem to age very well, do we?"
But then, she thought, humans aren't meant to live so long. Maybe the Gaijin are used to this perspective.
aren't. And the feeling of helplessness is crushing. No wonder Lerner is an obsessive, Nemoto a recluse.
Ben was silent.
"You're thinking about Lena," she said. "Are you frightened?"
"Why should I be frightened?"
"A hundred years is a long time," Madeleine said gently.
"But we are
he said. "We are matched."
She hesitated. "And us?"
He just smiled, absently.
Too hot, she peered up at the sky. There was a lot of dust suspended in the air, obscuring many of the stars, and the Moon was almost full, gray splashed with virulent green. Nevertheless, she could see flower-ships swooping easily across the sky. Alien ships, orbiting Earth, unremarked.
And beyond the ships, she saw flickers among the stars. In the direction of the great constellation of Orion, for instance. Sparks, bursts. As if the stars were flaring, exploding. She'd noticed this before, found no explanation. It was strange, chilling. The sky wasn't supposed to
Clearly, something was headed this way. Something that spanned the stars, a wave front of colonizing aliens, perhaps.
"I don't like it here," she said.
"You mean Australia?"
"No. The planet. The sky. It isn't ours anymore."
"If it ever was."
I'm frightened of the sky, Madeleine thought. But I can't run away again. I'm involved -- just as Nemoto intended.
I have to go to Triton.
To do what? Blindly follow Nemoto's latest insane scheme?
She smiled inwardly. Maybe I'll think of something when we get there.
Lerner brought back a bottle of some kind of hooch; it tasted like fortified wine.
She smiled at them coldly. "I heard that in Spain and France people have gone back to the caves, where the art still survives from the
Ice Age. And they are adding new layers of painting, of the animals they see around them. Maybe it was all a dream, do you think? The warm period, the interglacial, our civilization. Maybe all that matters is the ice, and the cave."
As the light failed, and the inhabited Moon brightened, they drank a series of toasts: to Venus, to the Chaera, to Earth, to the ice.Chapter 22
Even before Neptune showed a disc, Madeleine could see that it was blue, and Triton white. Blue planet, white moon, swimming mistily out of the huge slow-moving dark like exotic deep-sea fish.
Neptune swelled into a disc, made almost full by the pinpoint Sun behind her. The looming planet was dim, at first just a faintly blue hole against the stars, then gradually, as her eyes dark-adapted, filling with misty detail, becoming a ball of subtle blue and violet, visibly structured. Bands of darker blue girdled the planet, following lines of latitude. There were big storm systems, swirling knots like Jupiter's red spot. And there were thin stripes of white, higher clouds far above the blue, clouds that formed and dissipated within a few hours, surprisingly rapidly. Sometimes, when the angle of the Sun was right, she could see those high clouds casting shadows on the deeper layers beneath.
She was a
way from home.
It was impossible even to grasp the immensities of scale here. The Sun showed as no more than an intense star, bright enough to cast shadows, gray but razor sharp. The Sun's gravity grip was so loosened that Neptune took more than a hundred times as long as Earth to complete a single orbit. And Neptune was surrounded by emptiness more than ten times wider than Earth's orbit around the Sun -- an emptiness, indeed, that could have contained the whole of Jupiter's orbit.
Out here, in the stillness and cold and dark, the worlds that had spawned were not like Earth. Here the planets had grown immense, misty, stuffed with light elements like hydrogen and helium that had boiled away from the hot, busy inner worlds. So Neptune's rocky core was buried beneath thick layers of opaque gas; the blue was of methane, not water; there were no continents or ice caps here.
But she had not expected that Neptune would be so stunningly Earthlike. She felt tugs of nostalgic longing; for Earth itself, of course, was no longer blue, but a diseased white: the white of encroaching ice.
On the last day of its long flight,
engines blazing, swept around the limb of Neptune. The maneuver occurred in complete silence, and as Madeleine watched the huge world swim past her, it was as if she were flying through some cold, dark, gigantic cathedral.
And there was Triton, already bright and growing brighter, a pink-white pearl floating in emptiness.
The final approach to Triton was a challenge for the navigation routines. Triton, uniquely among the Solar System's larger moons, orbited Neptune in a retrograde manner, opposite to the spin of Neptune itself. And Triton's orbit was severely pitched up, some twenty degrees out of the plane of the ecliptic. It was thought these eccentricities of Triton were a relic of its peculiar origin: It had once been an independent body, like Pluto, but had been captured by Neptune, perhaps by impact with another moon or by grazing Neptune's atmosphere, a catastrophic event that had resulted in global melting before the moon had learned to endure its entrapment.