Authors: Peter F. Hamilton
“Sorry I’m late, man,” Ozzie said. He gave the Vice President a friendly wave as he walked over to the last empty chair. As he passed behind Nigel, he patted him on the shoulder. “Good to see you, Nige, it’s been a while.”
“Hi, Ozzie,” Nigel said casually, refusing to be out-cooled. It had been seventeen years since they’d last seen each other in the flesh.
Ozzie finally made it to his chair and sprawled in it with a happy sigh. “Anyone got some coffee? I’ve got a bitch of a hangover.”
Nigel gave a quick flick of his finger, and Daniel Alster had a cup taken over. Several Council members were struggling to keep their disapproval from showing at the legend’s disrespectful attitude. Which was, as Nigel well knew, what Ozzie was hoping for. There were times when he considered Ozzie having a rejuvenation to be singularly pointless; the man could be extraordinarily juvenile without any help from the popping hormones of an adolescent body. But the acceptance and adoration he was granted by the Commonwealth at large must have made that same young Afro-Latino kid finally feel content. Even in the politically correct twenty-first century those two cultures had never mixed, not out on the San Diego streets where he came from. Ozzie had gotten the last laugh there.
“Are you here in an official capacity, Mr. Isaac?” Crispin Goldreich asked, in a very upper-class English accent, which simply reeked of censure.
“Sure am, man, I’m the CST rep for this gig.” In his casual lime-green shirt and creased ochre climbing trousers he looked hugely out of place around that table of masterclass power brokers. It didn’t help that he still had his big Afro hairstyle; in over three centuries of arguing, pleading, and downright mockery, Nigel had never persuaded him to get it cut. It was the one human fashion that had never, ever, come around again. But Ozzie lived in hope.
“Don’t look at me,” Nigel said. “I’m the operations side of CST; Ozzie is the technical advisor to this Council.”
Ozzie gave Crispin Goldreich a broad grin, and winked.
“Very well,” Elaine Doi said. “If we could proceed.”
The large wall-mounted portal overlooking the table bubbled into life. Tangerine and turquoise lines scudded backward into a central vanishing point, looking like some antique screen-saver pattern. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” the Sentient Intelligence said smoothly. “We are happy to be in attendance at what will surely be an historic meeting.”
“Thank you,” the Vice President said. “All right, Brewster, if you would, please.”
The presidential science advisor looked around the table. “There isn’t actually much I can add to the unisphere news reports, except to confirm that it’s real. At our request, CST has opened an exploratory wormhole in interstellar space beyond Tanyata, and used its own instruments to confirm the envelopment event.”
“Our equipment is considerably more sophisticated than the telescopes used by Dudley Bose,” Nigel said. He ignored the quiet snort from Thompson Burnelli. “Even so, there is very little raw data available. The entire process takes about two-thirds of a second. We don’t believe the barrier can be a physical shell, it must be some kind of force field.”
“One which cuts off the visual spectrum?” Lee Ki asked.
“In scale alone, this technology is way beyond anything we have,” Brewster Kumar said. “The damn thing is thirty AUs in diameter. I wouldn’t even expect it to be anything similar to our molecular bonding shields, or even a quantum field.”
“Are there any realistic theories about what the barrier is?”
“We’ve got two dozen in every university physics department across the Commonwealth. But that’s hardly the point; it’s what it does which is interesting. It’s an infrared emitter, which means it’s preserving the solar system inside.”
“How’s that?” Gabrielle Else asked him.
“Essentially there is no buildup of energy inside the barrier. When the star’s electromagnetic output hits the barrier, it passes through to be emitted as heat. If it didn’t, if the barrier contained it, well, the effect would be like a pressure cooker in there. We believe the barrier radiates the solar wind as infrared energy as well, although at this distance it’s difficult to tell.”
“In other words,” Nigel said, “whoever put them up around the Dyson Pair is still living happily inside. The conditions in there haven’t changed from before.”
“Which brings us to the next consideration,” Brewster Kumar said. “Were these barriers erected by the aliens living at the stars, or were they imposed on them? Neither case is particularly helpful to us.”
“How can isolationism be detrimental to us?” Rafael Columbia asked.
“Isolationism in our history is traditionally enacted in times of hostility,” Nigel said. “Such a situation must have existed at the Dyson Pair when this happened. If it is the alien civilizations of these two star systems who erected the barriers, we have to consider the possibility that their motive was defensive. If so, that was one god-awful weapon they were protecting themselves against. The alternative is just as bad, that some other alien species feared them so much, they wanted them contained. Either way, there could well be two alien species out there, both with weapons and technology so far ahead of ours it might as well be magic.”
“Thank you, Sir Arthur,” Ozzie muttered.
Nigel grinned at his old friend; he doubted anyone else in the room got the reference. They were all too young by at least a century.
“I think you’re wrong in assigning them human motivations,” Gabrielle Else said. “Couldn’t this simply be a case of stop the universe I want to get off? After all, the Silfen are fairly insular.”
“Insular?” Rafael Columbia exclaimed. “They’re so spread out we don’t even know how many planets they’re settled on.”
“It is the purpose of this Council meeting to take the worst-case scenario into account,” the Vice President said. “And the hostile locale scenario is certainly plausible.”
“Speaking of the Silfen,” Ozzie said. “Why don’t we ask
what’s going down there?”
“We have,” the Vice President said. “They say they don’t really know.”
“Hell, man, they say that about everything. Ask them if there’s going to be daylight tomorrow and they’ll scratch their asses and ask you what you mean by ‘tomorrow.’ You can’t just ask them a straight question like that. Goddamn loafing mystics, they’ve got to be chased down and fooled into giving us an answer.”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Isaac, I am aware of that. We do have a great many Silfen cultural experts, all of whom are pursuing this avenue as a matter of urgency. Hopefully, they will coax a more coherent answer from the Silfen. Until that happens, we are left on our own resources. Hence the need for this Council meeting.”
Ozzie frowned furiously and snuggled down into his chair for a good sulk.
“I don’t believe the barrier could have been imposed on those stars by an external agency,” Lee Ki said. “It’s not logical. If you fear someone so much and have the ability to imprison entire stars, then you would not make the barrier permeable. You would
it as a pressure cooker, or do worse than that. No, for my money it was defensive. Something very nasty was heading toward the Dyson Pair, and they slammed the gates shut in its face.”
“In which case, where is it now?” Thompson Burnelli asked.
“Exactly,” Brewster Kumar said.
“It no longer exists,” Ozzie said. “And you guys are all far too paranoid.”
“Care to qualify that?” Thompson Burnelli said impassively.
“Come on, man; the Dyson Pair are over twelve hundred light-years away from Tanyata. This all happened when the fucking Roman Empire ruled the Earth. Astronomy is history.”
“It was closer to Genghis Khan than the Romans,” Brewster Kumar said. “And no culture as powerful and advanced as the Dyson Pair or their aggressor is going to fade away in a single millennia. We certainly won’t, and we’re nowhere near that technology level yet. You can’t just bury your head in the sand over this and hope it all blew away all those years ago.”
“I agree,” the Vice President said. “Far Away is only five hundred and fifty light-years from the Dyson Pair, and they’re observing the barrier still intact.”
“One other piece of information which CST hasn’t made public yet,” Nigel said. “We also used our exploratory wormhole to track down the envelopment time for Dyson Beta. Unfortunately, our first guess was the right one.”
Rafael Columbia was suddenly very attentive. “You mean they’re the same?”
“Yes. As seen from Tanyata, the Pair have a two-light-year linear separation distance. We opened a wormhole two light-years closer to Beta from where we made our observation of Alpha’s enclosure. We saw Beta’s enclosure, which is identical to Alpha’s. They occur within three minutes of each other.”
“It’s defensive,” Eugene Cinzoul said. “It has to be. A civilization inhabiting two star systems was approached by an aggressor.”
“Curious coincidence,” Ozzie said.
“What is?” the Vice President asked.
“Something aggressive and immensely powerful closes in on the one civilization in this part of the galaxy that was technologically savvy enough to protect itself from them. I don’t believe it, man. Galactic timescale simply won’t allow that to happen. We only coexist with the Silfen because they’ve existed for like millions of years.”
The Vice President gave the SI portal a troubled look. “What is your interpretation of this?”
“Mr. Isaac is correct in stating that such a conflict between two balanced powers is extremely unlikely,” the SI said. “We know how rare it is for sentience to evolve on any life-bearing planet; as a consequence, technological civilizations rarely coexist in the galaxy—although the High Angel is an exceptional case. However, the proposition cannot be excluded simply because of this. We also acknowledge Mr. Kumar’s point, that any civilization capable of performing such a feat will not quickly disappear from the galaxy.”
“They can evolve,” Ozzie said quickly. “They can throw off all their primitive instincts. After all, we leave a lot of our shit behind us.”
“You also generate a great deal of new ‘shit,’ ” the SI said. “All of which is depressingly similar to your old ‘shit.’ And no primitive culture could erect these barriers around the Dyson Pair. But again, we concede the point. The barrier mechanism may simply be an ancient device that has been left on for no good reason other than its creators have indeed moved onward and upward. There are endless speculations which can be made from the presently observed data. None of which can be refined as long as that data remains so scarce and so old.”
“What are you suggesting?” the Vice President asked.
“That is obvious, is it not? This Council was brought into existence to formulate a response to any perceived threat to the Commonwealth. No coherent response to the Dyson Pair can be made based on the currently available data. More information must be acquired. You must visit the Dyson Pair to ascertain their current status, and the reason behind the enclosures.”
“The cost—” exclaimed the Vice President. She gave Nigel a quick guilty glance.
He ignored it; the SI had made things considerably simpler for him. “Yes, it would cost a lot to reach the Dyson Pair by conventional methods,” he said. “We’d have to locate at least seven H-congruous planets, stretched out between the Commonwealth and the Dyson Pair, and then build commercial-size wormhole generators on each of them. It would take decades, and there would be little economic benefit.”
“The Commonwealth treasury can hardly subsidize CST,” Crispin Goldreich said.
“You did for Far Away,” Nigel said mildly. “That was our last alien contact.”
“One station on Half Way!” the Senator said hotly. “And if nothing else, that convinced me we should never do such a thing again. Far Away has been a total waste of time and effort.”
Nigel resisted the impulse to comment directly. The Halgarths had direct allies around the table in addition to Rafael, and their family were the main beneficiaries of Far Away. Not, as they’d be the first to admit, that there were many benefits.
“I would like to propose something a little more practical than consecutive wormholes,” Nigel said. Everyone around the table looked at him expectantly, even Ozzie, which was quite an achievement. The Vice President’s expression of interest tightened at the simple demonstration of true political power.
“I’m in total agreement with the SI that we need to know exactly what has happened at the Dyson Pair,” Nigel continued. “And we can neither afford the cost nor the wait to build a chain of wormholes to take us there. So I suggest we build a starship instead.”
The idea was greeted with several nervous smiles. Ozzie simply laughed.
“You mean a faster-than-light ship?” Brewster Kumar asked. There was a strong note of excitement in his voice. “Can we actually do that?”
“Of course. It’s a relatively simple adaptation of our current wormhole generator system; instead of a stable fixed wormhole which you travel through, this will produce a permanent flowing wormhole that you travel inside of.”
“Oh, man,” Ozzie said. “That is so beautiful. Whaddayaknow, the space cadets won after all. Let’s press the red button and zoom off into hyperspace.”
“It’s not hyperspace,” Nigel answered, slightly too quickly. “That’s just a tabloid name for a very complex energy manipulation function, and you know it.”
“Hyperspace,” Ozzie said contentedly. “Everything we built our wormhole to avoid.”
“Except in cases like this, when it makes perfect sense,” Nigel said. “We can probably build this ship inside of a year. A crack exploratory team can go out there, take a look around and tell us what’s happening. It’s quick, and it’s cheap.”
“Cheap?” Crispin Goldreich queried.
“Relatively, yes.” The starship proposals had been sitting dormant in Nigel’s personal files for over a century. An exercise in wishful thinking, one he hadn’t managed to fully let go. He’d never quite forgotten (nor erased) his feeling of admiration when he watched the
fly gracefully out of the Martian horizon to settle on Arabia Terra. There was something noble about spacecraft voyaging through the vast and hostile void, carrying with them the pinnacle of the human spirit, everything good and worthwhile about the race. And he was probably the last human alive who remembered that.
he corrected himself,
not the last
. “The CST corporation and Augusta Treasury would be prepared to fund up to thirty percent of the hardware costs.”