David Brin's EARTH

Earth sample chapters

(description and bonus information)

PART 1: PLANET

     First came a supernova, dazzling the universe in brief, spendthrift glory before ebbing into twisty, multispectral clouds of new-forged atoms. Swirling eddies spiraled until one of them ignited -- a newborn star.
     The virgin sun wore whirling skirts of dust and electricity. Gas and rocks and bits of this and that fell into those pleats, gathering in dim lumps ... planets ...
     One tiny worldlet circled at a middle distance. It had a modest set of properties:

 
     mass -- barely enough to draw in a passing asteroid or two;
     moons -- one, the remnant of a savage collision, but big enough to tug deep tides;
     spin -- to set winds churning through a fuming atmosphere;
     density -- a brew that mixed and separated, producing an unpromising surface slag;
     temperature -- heat was the planet's only voice, a weak one, swamped by the blaring sun. Anyway, what can a planet tell the universe, in a reedy cry of infrared?
 
"This exists," it repeated, over and over. "This is a condensed stone, radiating at about three hundred degrees, insignificant on the scale of stars.
     "This speck, a mote, exists."
     A simple statement to an indifferent cosmos -- the signature of a rocky world, tainted by salty, smoke-blown puddles.
     But then something new stirred in those puddles. It was a triviality -- a mere discoloration here and there. But from that moment the voice changed. Subtly, shifting in timbre, still faint and indistinct, it nevertheless seemed now to say,

     "I... am...."

• Core (chapter 1)

     An angry deity glowered at Alex. Slanting sunshine cast shadows across the incised cheeks and outthrust tongue of Great Tu, Maori god of war.
     A dyspeptic idol, Alex thought, contemplating the carved figure. I'd feel the same if I were stuck up there, decorating a billionaire's office wall.
     It occurred to Alex that Great Tu's wooden nose resembled the gnomon of a sundial. Its shadow kept time, creeping to the measured ticking of a twentieth century grandfather clock in the corner. The silhouette stretched slowly, amorously, toward a sparkling amethyst geode -- yet another of George Hutton's many geological treasures. Alex made a wager with himself, that the shadow wouldn't reach its goal before the sinking sun was cut off by the western hills.
     And at this rate, neither would George Hutton. Where the devil is the man? Why did he agree to this meeting, if he didn't plan on bloody showing up?
     Alex checked his watch again, even though he knew the time. He caught himself nervously tapping one shoe against the nearby table leg, and stopped doing it.
     What have Jen and Stan always told you? "Try to learn patience, Alex."
     It wasn't his best-known virtue. But then, he'd learned a lot the last few months. Remarkable how it focused your mind, when you guarded a secret that might mean the end of the world.
     He glanced toward his friend and former mentor, Stan Goldman, who had set up this appointment with the chairman of Tangoparu Ltd. Apparently unperturbed by his employer's tardiness, the slender, aging theoretician was immersed in the latest issue of Physical Review.
     No hope for distraction there. Alex sighed and let his eyes rove George Hutton's office one more time, hoping to get a measure of the man.
     Of course the conference table was equipped with the best and latest plaques, for accessing the World Data Net. One entire wall was taken up by an active-events screen, a montage of real-time views from random locations across the Earth -- zeppelins cruising above Wuhan... sunrise in a North African village... the urban lights of any city in the world.
     Original holographic sculptures of mythical beasts shimmered by the entrance to the suite, but nearest the desk were Hutton's dearest treasures, minerals and ores collected over a lifetime grubbing through the planet's crust -- including a huge blood zircon, glittering on a pedestal just below the Maori war mask. It struck Alex that both objects were products of fiery crucibles -- one mineral, the other social. Each denoted resilience under pressure. Perhaps this said something about George Hutton's personality, as well.
     But then, perhaps it meant nothing at all. Alex had never been a great judge of men. Witness the events of the last year.
     With a sudden click and hum, the hallway doors parted and a tall, brown man appeared, breathing hard and coated with perspiration.
     "Ah! You made yourselves at home. Good. Sorry to keep you waiting, Stan. Dr. Lustig. Excuse me, will you? I'll only be a moment." He peeled a sweaty jersey off broad shoulders, striding past a window that overlooked the sailboats of Auckland harbor.
     George Hutton, I presume, Alex thought as he lowered his outstretched hand and sat back down. Not much for formality. But that's just as well, I suppose.
     From the open door to the lavatory, Hutton shouted. "Our game had delay after delay for injuries! Minor stuff, fortunately. But I'm sure you understand, I couldn't let the Tangoparu team down when I was needed. Not during the finals against Nippon Electric!"
     Normally, it might seem odd for a businessman in his fifties to neglect appointments for a rugby game. But the brown giant toweling himself off in the loo seemed completely unselfconscious, aglow with victory. Alex glanced at his former teacher, who now worked for Hutton here in New Zealand. Stan only shrugged, as if to say billionaires made their own rules.
     Hutton emerged wearing a dressing gown and drying his hair with a terry-cloth towel. "Can I offer you anything, Dr. Lustig? How about you, Stan?"
     "Nothing, thank you," Alex said. Less reticent, Stan accepted a Glenfiddich and spring water from his employer's hand. Then Hutton settled into a plush swivel chair, stretching his long legs beside the kauri-wood table.
     Whatever happens, Alex knew, this is where the trail ends. This is my last hope.
     The Maori engineer-businessman regarded him with piercing brown eyes. "I'm told you want to discuss the Iquitos incident, Dr. Lustig. And the miniature black hole you let slip out of your hands there. Frankly, I thought you'd be sick of that embarrassment by now. What did some press hacks call it then? A possible China Syndrome?"
     Stan cut in. "A few sensationalists set off a five-minute panic on the World Net, until the scientific community showed everybody that tiny singularities like Alex's dissipate harmlessly. They're too small to last long by themselves."
     Hutton raised one dark eyebrow. "Is that so, Dr. Lustig?"
     Alex had faced that question so many times since Iquitos. By now he had countless stock answers -- from five-second sound bites for the vid cameras to ten-minute lullabies for Senate investigators... all the way to hours of abstruse mathematics to soothe his fellow physicists. He really ought to be used to it by now. Still the question burned, as it had the first time.
     "Talk to me, Lustig," the reporter, Pedro Manella, had demanded on that ashen afternoon in Peru, as they watched rioting students set Alex's worksite ablaze. "Tell me that thing you made isn't about to eat its way to China."
     Lying had become so reflexive since then, it took some effort to break the habit today. "Um, what did Stan tell you?" he asked George Hutton, whose broad features glistened under a thin gloss of perspiration.
     "Only that you claim to have a secret. Something you've kept from reporters, tribunals... even the security agencies of a dozen nations. In this day and age, that's impressive by itself.
     "But we Maori people of New Zealand have a saying," he went on. "A man who can fool chiefs, and even gods, must still face the monsters he himself created.
     "Have you created a monster, Dr. Lustig?"
     The question direct. Alex realized why Hutton reminded him of Pedro Manella on that humid evening in Peru, as tear gas wafted down those debris-strewn streets and canals. Both big men had voices like Hollywood deities. Both were used to getting answers.
     Manella had pursued Alex onto the creaking hotel balcony to get a good view of the burning power plant. The reporter panned his camera as the main containment building collapsed amid clouds of powdery cement. Cheering students provided a vivid scene for Manella to feed live to his viewers on the Net.
     "When the mob cut the power cables, Lustig," the persistent journalist asked while shooting, "that let your black hole out of its magnetic cage. It fell into the Earth then, no? So what happens now? Will it emerge again, blazing and incinerating some hapless place halfway around the world?
     "What did you make here, Lustig? A beast that will devour us all?"

     Even then, Alex recognized the hidden message between the words. The renowned investigator hadn't been seeking truth; he wanted reassurance.
     "No, of course I didn't," Alex remembered telling Manella on that day, and everyone else since then. Now he let go of the lie with relief.
     "Yes, Mr. Hutton. I think I made the very Devil itself."
     Stan Goldman's head jerked up. Until this moment, Alex hadn't even confided in his old mentor. Sorry, Stan, he thought.
     Silence stretched as Hutton stared at him. "You're saying... the singularity didn't dissipate like the experts said? That it might still be down there, absorbing matter from the Earth's core?"
     Alex understood the man's incredulity. Human minds weren't meant to picture something that was smaller than an atom, and yet weighed megatons. Something narrow enough to fall through the densest rock, yet bound to circle the planet's center in a spiraling pavane of gravity. Something ineffably but insatiably hungry, and which grew ever hungrier the more it ate...
     Just thinking about it put in sudden doubt the very notions of up and down. It challenged faith in the ground below your feet. Alex tried to explain.
     "The generals showed me their power plant... offered me a blank check to construct its core. So I took their word they'd be getting permission soon. Any day now, they kept telling me." Alex shrugged at his former gullibility. An old story, if a bitter one.
     "Like everybody else, I was sure the Standard Physical Model was correct -- that no black hole lighter than the Earth itself could possibly be stable. Especially one as tiny as we made at Iquitos. It was supposed to evaporate at a controlled rate, after all. Its heat would power three provinces. Most of my colleagues think such facilities will be cleared for use within a decade.
     "But the generals wanted to jump the moratorium --"
     "Idiots," Hutton interrupted, shaking his head. "They actually imagined they could keep a thing like that secret? These days?"
     For the first time since Alex's bombshell, Stan Goldman put in a comment. "Well George, they must have thought the plant well isolated in the Amazon."
     Hutton snorted dubiously, and in retrospect Alex agreed. The idea was hare-brained. He'd been naïve to accept the generals' assurances of a calm working environment, which proved as untrustworthy as the standard models of physics.
     "In fact," Goldman went on. "It took a leak from a secrets registration service to set that Manella character on Alex's trail. If not for that, Alex might still be tending the singularity, safe inside its containment field. Isn't that right, Alex?"
     Good old Stan, Alex thought affectionately. Still making excuses for his favorite student, just as he used to back in Cambridge.
     "No, it's not. You see, before the riot, I was already preparing to sabotage the plant myself."
     While this seemed to surprise Goldman, George Hutton only tilted his head slightly. "You had discovered something unusual about your black hole."
     Alex nodded. "Before 2020, nobody imagined such things could be made in the laboratory at all. When it was discovered you could actually fold space inside a box and make a singularity... that shock should have taught us humility. But success made us smug, instead. Soon we thought we understood the damned things. But there are ... subtleties we never imagined."
     He spread his hands. "I first grew suspicious because things were going too bloody well! The power plant was extremely efficient, you see. We didn't have to feed in much matter to keep it from dissipating. The generals were delighted of course. But I started thinking... might I have accidentally created a new type of hole in space? One that's stable? Able to grow by devouring mere rock?"
     Stan gaped. Alex, too, had been numbed by that first realization, then agonized for weeks before deciding to take matters into his own hands, to defy his employers and de-fang the tiny, voracious beast he'd helped create.
     But Pedro Manella arrived first, amid a flurry of accusations, and suddenly it was too late. Alex's world collapsed around him before he could act, or even find out for certain what he'd made.
     "So it is a monster... a taniwha," George Hutton breathed. The Maori word sounded fearsome. The big man drummed his fingers on the table. "Let's see if I've got this right. We have a purported stable black hole, that you think may orbit thousands of miles below our feet, possibly growing unstoppably even as we speak. Correct? I suppose you want my help finding what you've so carelessly misplaced?"
     Alex was nearly as impressed with the fellow's quickness as irked by Hutton's attitude. He suppressed a hot response. "I guess you could put it that way," he answered, levelly.
     "So. Would it be too much to ask how you'd go about looking for such an elusive fiend? It's a little hard to go digging around down there in the Earth's core."
     Hutton obviously thought he was being ironic. But Alex gave give him a straightforward answer. "Your company already makes most of the equipment I'd need... like those superconducting gravity scanners you use for mineral surveys." Alex started reaching for his valise. "I've written down modifications --"
     Hutton raised a hand. All trace of sardonicism was gone from his eyes. "I'll take your word for now. It will be expensive, of course? No matter. If we find nothing, I'll take the cost out of your pakeha hide. I'll skin you and sell the pale thing in a tourist shop. Agreed?"
     Alex swallowed, unable to believe it could be so simple. "Agreed. And if we do find it?"
     Lines furrowed Hutton's brow. "Why... then I'd be honor bound to take your pelt anyway, tohunga. For creating such a devil to consume our Earth, I should..."
     The big man stopped suddenly. He stood up, shaking his head. At the window, Hutton stared down at the city of Auckland, its evening lights beginning to spread like powdered gemstones across the hills. Beyond the metropolis lay forested slopes slanting to Manukau Bay. Twilight-stained clouds were moving in from the Tasman Sea, heavy with fresh rain.
     The scene reminded Alex of a time in childhood, when his grandmother had taken him to Wales to watch the turning of the autumn leaves. Then, as now, it had struck him just how temporary everything seemed... the foliage, the drifting clouds, the patient mountains... the world.
     "You know," George Hutton said slowly, still contemplating the peaceful view outside, "back when the American and Russian empires used to face each other at the brink of nuclear war, this was where people in the Northern Hemisphere dreamed about fleeing to. Were you aware of that, Lustig? Every time there was a crisis, airlines suddenly overbooked with "vacation" trips to New Zealand. People must have thought this the ideal spot to ride out a holocaust.
     "And that didn't change with the Rio Treaties, did it? Big War went away, but then came the cancer plague, greenhouse heat, spreading deserts... and lots of little wars of course, over an oasis here, a river there.
     "All the time though, we Kiwis still felt lucky. Our rains didn't abandon us. Our fisheries didn't die.
     "Now all those illusions are gone. There's no safe place any longer."
     The big man turned to look at Alex, and despite his words there was no loathing in the tycoon engineer's eyes. Nor even bleakness. Only what Alex took to be a heavy resignation.
     "I wish I could hate you, Lustig, but you've obviously subcontracted that job quite ably yourself. And so you deprive me even of revenge."
     "I'm sorry," Alex apologized sincerely.
     Hutton nodded. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
     "All right then, let's get to work. If Tane, father of the Maori, could go into the bowels of the Earth to battle monsters, who are we then to refuse?"

* * * * *

      For more than two decades, we at The Mother have maintained our famed list of Natural Tranquility Reserves -- rare places on Earth where one might sit for hours and hear no sounds but those of wilderness.
     Our thirty million worldwide subscribers have led in vigilantly protecting these reserves. All it takes is a single thoughtless act, by air traffic planners for instance, to convert a precious sanctuary into yet another noisy, noisome place, ruined by the raucous clamor of humanity.
     Unfortunately, even so-called "conservation-oriented" officials still seem obsessed by archaic, TwenCen views of preservation. They think it's enough to save a few patches of forest here and there from development, from chemical leaks or acid rain. Even when they succeed however, they only celebrate by opening hiking trails and encouraging ever higher quotas of sightseers, who predictably leave litter, trample root systems, cause erosion, and worst of all jabber at the top of their lungs in gushing excitement over "being one with nature."
     It's surprising the few animals left can find each other amid the bedlam, to breed.
     Excluding Greenland and Antarctica, seventy nine Tranquility Reserves were reported in our last roundup. We're now sad to report that two failed this year's test. At this rate, soon there will be no terrestrial silence zones left at all.
     And our Oceania correspondents report matters growing worse there, as well. Too many landlubbers seem to be heading off the standard shipping lanes -- vacationers who seek out nature's serenity, but in so doing bring to silent places the plague of their own voices.
     (And then there is that catastrophe, the Sea State, perhaps better left unmentioned here, lest we despair entirely!)
     Even the southern Indian Ocean, Earth's last frontier of solitude, trembles under the cacophony of our cursed ten billions and their machines. Frankly, it wouldn't surprise this writer if Gaia eventually had enough, if she awoke from her fitful slumber and answered our noise with a shaking such as this tired planet has never known.
-- from the March 2038 edition of The Mother. [Net Access PI-636-AA-1-888-66-7767.]

• Holosphere (chapter 2)

     There are many ways to propagate. (Such a lovely word!) This late in her long life, Jen Wolling figured she knew just about all of them.
     Especially where the term applied to biology -- to all the varied means Life used to foil its great enemy, Time. So many were those ways, Jen sometimes puzzled why everyone fussed so over the traditional one, sex.
     True, sex had its points. It helped ensure variability in a species -- a gambler's game, mixing one's own genes with another's, betting that beneficial serendipities will outweigh the inevitable errors. In fact, sex had served most higher life forms well enough, long enough, to become reinforced with many pleasurable neural and hormonal responses.
     In other days Jen had plumbed those pathways in vivo and with gusto. She had also mapped those same roads more precisely, in charts of pristine yet still passionate mathematics. Hers had been the earliest computer models to show theoretical bases for feeling, logical rationales for ecstasy, even theorems for the mysterious art of motherhood.
     Two husbands, three children, eight grandchildren and one Nobel Prize later, Jen knew motherhood from every angle, even though its fierce hormonal flows were now only memories. Ah well. There were other types of propagation. Other ways even an old woman might leave an imprint upon history.
     "No, Baby!" she chided, pulling a bright red apple away from the bars dividing the spacious lab in two. A gray tentacle waved between the steel rods, snatching at the fruit.
     "No! Not till you ask for it politely."
     From her desk nearby, a young black woman sighed. "Jen, will you stop teasing the poor creature?" Pauline Cockerel shook her head. "You know Baby won't understand unless you accompany words with signs."
     "Nonsense. She comprehends perfectly. Observe."
     The animal let out a squeaky trumpet of frustration. Acquiescing, it rolled back its trunk to wind the tip round a mat of shaggy fur, hanging low over its eyes.
     "That's a good girl," Jen said, tossing the apple. Baby caught it deftly and crunched happily.
     "Pure operant conditioning," the younger woman sniffed. "Hasn't anything to do with intelligence or cognition."
     "Cognition isn't everything," Jen replied. "Politeness, for instance, needs to be ingrained at deeper levels. It's a good thing I came down here. She's getting spoiled rotten."
     "Hmph. If you ask me, you're just rationalizing another bout of PNS."
     "PNS?"
     "Post Nobel Syndrome," Pauline explained.
     "Still?" Jen sniffed. "After all these years?"
     "Why not? Who said anyone recovers?"
     "You make it sound like a disease."
     "It is. Look at the history of science. Most prizewinners turn into either stodgy defenders of the status quo -- like Hayes and Kalumba -- or iconoclasts like you, who insist on throwing stones at sacred cows --"
     "Mixed metaphor," Jen pointed out.
     "-- and carping about details, and generally making nuisances of themselves."
     "Have I been making a nuisance of myself?" Jen asked innocently.
     Pauline cast her eyes heavenward. "You mean besides coming here randomly, unannounced, and meddling in Baby's training?"
     "Yeah. Besides that."
     With a sigh Pauline plucked one data plaque from a jumble of the wide, wafer-thin reading devices. This one was dialed to the latest issue of Nature... a page in the letters section.
     "Oh, that," Jen observed. She had come here to the hermetic, air-conditioned pyramid of London Ark, in order to escape the flood of telephone and Net calls piling up at her own lab. Inevitably, one would be from the director of St. Thomas's, inviting her to a pleasant lunch overlooking the river, where he'd once again hint that an emeritus professor in her nineties really ought to spend more time in the country, watching ultraviolet rays turn the rhododendrons funny shades of purple, instead of gallivanting around the globe poking her nose into other researchers' business and making statements about issues that were none of her concern.
     Had anybody else spoken as she had, at last week's World Ozone Conference in Patagonia, they would have returned home to more than mere letters and phone calls. In today's political climate, the gentlest outcome might have been forced retirement. Goodbye lab in the city. Goodbye generous consultancies and travel allotments.
     That little Swedish medal certainly did have its compensations. To become a laureate was a little like being transformed into that famous nine-hundred pound gorilla -- the one who slept anywhere it wanted to. Glimpsing her own tiny, wiry reflection in the laboratory window, Jen found the metaphor delicious.
     "I only pointed out what any fool should see," she explained. "That spending billions to blow artificial ozone into the stratosphere isn't going to solve anything. Now that greedy idiots have stopped spewing chlorine compounds into the air, the situation will correct itself soon."
     "Soon?" Pauline was incredulous. "Decades is soon enough to restore the ozone layer? Tell that to the farmers, who have to fit their livestock with eye-covers."
     "Shouldn't eat meat anyway," Jen grumbled.
     "Then tell all the humans who'll get skin lesions because..."
     "The U.N. supplies hats and sunglasses to everyone. Besides, a few pence worth of cream clears away precancerous --"
     "What about wild animals then? Savannah baboons were doing fine, their habitat declared safe just ten years ago. Now so many are going blind they have to be collected into the arks after all. How do you think we'll cope with that here?" Pauline gestured into the vast atrium of London Ark, with its tier upon tier of enclosed, artificial habitats. The huge edifice of hanging gardens and meticulously regulated environments was a far cry from its origins in the old Regent's Park Zoo. And it was only one out of almost a hundred such structures, scattered all over the world.
     "You'll cope the way you have all along," Jen answered. "By stretching facilities, putting in extra hours, making do --"
     "For now! But what about tomorrow? The next catastrophe? Jen, I can't believe I'm hearing this. You led the fight for the arks, from the beginning!"
     "So? Am I a traitor then, if I say that part of the job has succeeded? Why, in some places we've even made additions to the gene pool, like Baby here." She nodded toward the furry pachyderm inside the big cage. "You should have faith in your own work, Pauline. Habitat restoration will come off the drawing boards someday. Most of these species should be back outside in only a few centuries --"
     "Centuries!"
     "Yes, surely. What's a few hundred years, compared to the age of this planet?"
     Pauline sniffed dubiously. But Jen cut in, putting on a touch of Cockney accent for good measure. "Cor, why d'ye take it all so bloody personally, dearie-o? Step back a minute. What's the worst that can happen?"
     "We could lose every unprotected terrestrial species massing over ten kilos!" the young woman replied fiercely.
     "Yes? For good measure, let's throw in the contents of these arks -- the protected species -- and every human being. All ten billion of us. That'd be some holocaust, to be sure.
     "But how much difference would it make to the Earth, Pauline? Say, ten million years from now? Not much, I'll wager. The old girl will wait us out. She's done it before."
     Pauline's mouth was slack, her expression stunned. For a moment Jen wondered if she'd really gone over the top, this time.
     Her young friend blinked. Then a suspicious smile spread. "You are awful! For a minute there I actually started taking you seriously."
     Jen grinned. "Now... you know me better than that."
     "I know you're an unrepentant curmudgeon! You live to get a rise out of people, and someday your contrary habits will be your undoing."
     "Hmph. Just how do you think I've remained interested in life this long? Finding ways to keep amused... that's my secret of longevity."
     Pauline tossed the reading plaque back onto the cluttered desk. "Is that why you're going to South Africa, next month? Because it'll outrage everybody on both sides?"
     "The Ndebele want me to look over their arks from a macrobiological perspective. Whatever their politics and race problems, they are still vital members of the Salvation Project."
     "But --"
     Jen clapped her hands. "Enough of that. It has nothing to do with our little project in stirpiculture, right here. Mammut americanum. Let's have a look at Baby's file, shall we? I may be retired, but I'll bet I can still recommend a better neural factor gradient than the one you're using."
     "You're on! It's in the next room. I'll be right back."
     With a youthful grace that Jen watched lovingly, Pauline hurried out of the lab, leaving Jen to ponder alone the mysterious ways of ambiguity in language.
     It was, indeed, a bad habit, this toying with people. But as the years flicked by it grew easier. They all forgave so, almost as if they expected it... demanded it of her. And because she tested everybody, taking contrary positions without prejudice, fewer and fewer people seemed to believe she meant anything she said at all!
     Perhaps, Jen admitted honestly, that would be the world's long-term revenge on her. To attribute everything she said to jest. That would be some fate for the so-called "mother of the modern Gaian paradigm."
     Jen stroked Baby's trunk, scratching the bulging forehead where induced neoteny had given the elephant-mammoth hybrid an enlarged cortex. Baby's brow-fur was long and oily, and gave off a pungent, tangy, yet somehow pleasant odor. The worldwide network of genetic arks had a surfeit of pachyderms, even this new breed -- "Mammontelephas" -- with half its genes salvaged from a 20,000 year old cadaver, exposed by the retreating Canadian tundra. So many of them bred true, in fact, that there were some to spare for experiments in extended childhood in mammals. Under strict supervision by the science tribunals and animal rights committees, of course.

     Certainly the creature seemed happy enough. "How about it, Baby?" Jen murmured. "Are you glad to be smarter than the average elephant? Or would you rather be out on the plains, rolling in mud, uprooting trees, complaining about ticks and getting pregnant before you're ten?"
     The pink-tipped trunk curled around her hand. She stroked it, tenderly. "You're awfully important to yourself, aren't you? And you are part of the Whole.
     "But do you really matter, Baby? Do I?"
     Actually, she had meant every word she said to Pauline -- about how even mass extinctions would be essentially meaningless in the long run. A lifetime spent building the theoretical foundations of biology had convinced her of that. The homeostasis of the planet -- of Gaia -- was powerful enough to survive even great cataclysms.
     Many times, sudden waves of death had wiped out species, genuses, even entire orders. Dinosaurs were only the most glamorous victims of one episode. And yet, across each murderous chasm, plants kept removing carbon dioxide from the air. Animals and volcanoes continued putting it back again, give or take a few percentage points.
     Even the so-called Greenhouse Effect that had everyone worried -- melting icecaps, spreading deserts and driving millions before the rising seas -- even that catastrophic outcome of human excess would never rival the great inundations following the Permian age.
     Jen very much approved of the way everyone marched and spoke out and wrote letters these days, passing laws and designing technologies to "save the Earth" from twentieth century errors. After all, only silly creatures fouled their own nests, and mankind couldn't afford much more silliness. Still, she took her own, admittedly eccentric view, based on a personal, quirky, never-spoken identification with the living world.
     Out in the atrium, a low rumble echoed off the walls of the glass cavern. She recognized the deep, purring growl of a tiger, her totem animal according to a shaman she spent one summer with, before the last century ended. He had said hers was "the spirit of a great mother cat..."
     What nonsense. But oh, what a handsome fellow he had been! She recalled his aroma of herbs and wood-smoke and male musk, even though it was hard right now to pin down his name.
     No matter. He was gone. Someday, despite all the efforts of people like Pauline, tigers might be gone, too.
     But some things endured. Jen smiled as she stroked Baby's trunk.
     If we humans annihilate ourselves, mammalian genes are rich enough to replace us with another, maybe wiser race within a few million years. Perhaps descendants of coyotes or raccoons, creatures too adaptable ever to need refuge in arks. Too tough to be wiped out by any calamity the likes of us create.
     Oh, Baby's delicate species might not outlast us, but Norway rats surely will. I wonder what kind of planetary custodians their descendants would make.

     Baby whimpered softly. The elephant-mammoth hybrid watched her with soft eyes that seemed troubled, as if the creature somehow sensed Jen's disturbing train of thought. Jen laughed and patted the rough gray flesh. "Oh, Baby. Grandma doesn't mean half the things she says... or thinks! I just do it to amuse myself.
     "Don't worry. I won't let bad things happen. I'll always be watching over you.
     "I'll be here. Always."

* * * * *

World Net News: Channel 265/General Interest/Level 9+ (transcript)

"Three million citizens of the Republic of Bangladesh watched their farms and villages wash away as early monsoons burst their hand-built levees, turning remnants of the crippled state into a realm of swampy shoals covered by the rising Bay of Bengal...."

[Image of tear-streaked brown faces staring in numb dismay at the bloated bodies of animals and canted, drowned ruins of farmhouses.]

[Viewer option: For details on cited storm, voice-link STORM 23 now.]

"These are the die-hards, who have refused all prior offers of resettlement. Now, though, they face a bitter choice. If they accept full refugee status, joining their brethren in Siberian or Australian New Lands, it will mean taking all the conditions attached, particularly that they swear population restriction oaths...."

[Image of a pregnant woman with four crying children, pushing her frightened husband toward fair-skinned medics. Zoom on one doctor's hammer and sickle shoulder patch... a nurse's Canadian maple leaf. Members of the screening team wear kindly smiles. Too nervous to show resentment, the young Bengali signs a clipboard and passes under the tent flap.]

[To read out specific oaths, voice-link REFUGE 43.]
[For specific medical procedures, voice-link VASECT 7.]

"Having reached their limits of endurance, many have agreed to the host nations' terms. However, it's expected some will refuse even this last chance, and elect instead the harsh but unregulated life as citizens of Sea State, whose crude rafts already sail the fens and shallows where formerly stretched great, jute estates...."

[View of barges, rafts, salvaged ships of all shapes and sizes, clustered under pelting rain. Crude dredges probe skeletons of a former village, hauling lumber, furniture, odds and ends to use or sell for scrap. Other, quicker boats are seen pursuing schools of silvery anchovies through newly inundated shoals.]

[Real-time image 2376539.365x2370.398, DISPAR XVII satellite. $1.45/minute.]

[For general background, link SEASTATE 1.]
[For data on specific flotilla, link SEA BANGLA 5.]

"Already, spokesmen for Sea State are asserting sovereignty over the new fishing grounds, by right of reclamation...."

[Ref. UN document 43589.5768/UNORRS 87623ba.]

[Diplomats in marble halls, filing papers.]
[Surveyors mapping ocean expanses.]

[Time-delayed images; APW72150/09, Associated Press 2038.6683]


"As expected, the Republic of Bangladesh has issued a protest through its U.N. delegation. Though, with their capital now underwater, the remonstrations begin to sound like those of a tragic ghost...."

[View of a brown-skinned youth in a greasy bandanna, grasping a rusty railing, staring toward an uncertain future.]

• Mesosphere (chapter 3)

     To Stan Goldman it was a revelation, watching Alex Lustig hurry from work site to work site under the vaulted, rocky ceiling. You never can tell about someone till you see him in a crisis, he mused.
     Take Alex's familiar gangling stoop. It no longer appeared lazy or lethargic down here, half a kilometer underground. Rather, the lad seemed to lean forward for leverage as he moved, pushing a slow-moving tractor here, a recalcitrant drill bit there, or simply urging the workers on. Air resistance might have been the only thing slowing him down.
     Stan wasn't the only one watching his former student, now transformed into a lanky, brown-haired storm of catalysis. Sometimes the other men and women laboring in this deep gallery glanced after him, eyes drawn by such intensity. One group had trouble connecting data lines for the big analyzer. Lustig was there instantly, kneeling on the caked, ancient guano floor, improvising a solution. Another team, delayed by a burned-out power supply, got a new part from Alex in minutes -- he simply ripped it out of the elevator.
     "I guess Mr. Hutton will notice when no one comes up for dinner," Stan overheard one tech say with a shrug. "Maybe he'll use a rope to lower us a replacement part."
     "Naw," another replied. "George will lower dinner itself. Unless Dr. Lustig plugs us all with intravenous drips so we don't have to stop to eat."
     The remarks were made in good humor. They can tell this isn't just another rush job, but something truly urgent. Still, Stan was glad necessity forced him to stay by his computer. Or else -- age and former status notwithstanding -- Alex would have drafted him by now to help string cables across the limestone walls.
     Moment by moment, a laboratory was taking shape below the mountainous spine of New Zealand's North Island.
     It was still only the three of them -- Stan, George, and Alex -- who knew about the lost singularity, the Iquitos black hole that might now be devouring the planet's interior. The techs had been told they were seeking a "gravitational anomaly" far deeper than any prior scan for trace ores or hidden methane had ever looked. But most of them knew a cover story when they heard one. The leading rumor -- exchanged with fleeting smiles -- was that the boss had found a map to the subterranean Lost World of Verne and Burroughs and TwenCen B movies.
     They'll have to be told soon, Stan thought. Alex and I can't handle the scans all by ourselves. Probing for an object smaller than a molecule, through millions of cubic kilometers of liquid metal and stressed minerals, would be like chasing a hurtling needle through countless fields of haystacks.
     As if they'd be able to do anything about it if they did find the taniwha down there. Even Stan, who understood most of Alex's new equations, could bring himself to believe the terrifying results for only a few seconds at a time.
     I have four grandchildren, a garden, bright students with all their creative lives ahead of them, a woman who has made me whole by sharing my life for decades.... There are books I've saved for reading "later." Sunsets. My paintings. Tenure...
     Such wealth, modest in monetary terms, nonetheless made George Hutton's billions seem like no big difference in comparison. It was hard, yet poignant, to be forced at this late date to take inventory and realise that.
     I am a rich man. I don't want to lose the Earth.
     Stan's satchel computer chimed, interrupting the morbid turn of thought. In a small volume above the open briefcase, an image took shape -- of a gleaming cylinder whose surface sheen wasn't quite metallic, nor plastic, nor ceramic. Rather, it glistened slickly, like a liquid held fast in some tubular constraint of force.
     That took long enough, he thought irritably, checking the figures. Good. The main antenna can be built using today's technology. Nothing complicated, just simple micro-constructors. Programing the little buggers, though... that's going to be a headache. Can't afford any lattice faults, or gravity waves will scatter all over the place.
     For longer than he could remember, Stan had heard excited predictions about how nanomachines would transform the world, create wealth out of garbage, build new cities, and save civilization from the dire prospect of ever-dwindling resources. They would also scour your arteries, restore brain tissue to youthful vigor, and mayhaps even cure bad breath. In reality, their uses were limited. The microscopic robots were energy gluttons, and they required utterly well ordered environments to work in. Even to lay down a uniform crystalline antenna, molecule by molecule in a nutrient-chemical bath, would require careful attention in advance to every detail.
     Carefully, he used Alex's equations to adjust the design, teasing the cylinder into just the right shape to send delicate probes of radiation downward through those fiery circles of hell below, in search of an elusive monster. It was blissfully distracting work.
     When the explosion struck, the initial wall of sound almost knocked Stan off his stool. Booming echoes reverberated down the rocky galleries. A scream followed, and a hissing roar.
     Men and women dropped tools, rushing to a bend in the cave where they stared in apparent horror. Alex Lustig plowed past the throng toward the commotion. Stan stood up, blinking. "What...?" But none of the running techs stopped to answer his question.
     "Get a ladder!" someone cried.
     "There's no time!" another shouted.
     Negotiating a maze of pipes and wires cluttering the floor, Stan finally managed to nudge past a rank of gawkers to see what had happened. It looked at first as if a steam line had broken, jetting hot vapor across a wall festooned with gridlike latticework. But the wind that suddenly hit him wasn't searing. It knocked him back with a blast of bitter cold.
     Is it just the liquid nitrogen? Stan worried, bending into the frigid gale. Or did the helium line break as well? The first would be a setback. The latter might mean catastrophe.
     He managed to join a crowd of techs sheltering behind one of the chemo-synthesis vats. Clutching flapping work-coats, the others stared toward the tangle of scaffolding, where a broken pipe now spewed cutting cold. Meters beyond that impassable barrier, two figures huddled on a teetering catwalk. The shivering workers were isolated, with no visible way to escape or to reach the cutoff valve atop the towering cryogenics tanks.
     Someone pointed higher, near the arched ceiling, and Stan gasped. There, dangling from a cluster of stalactites, hung Alex! He had one arm draped through a gap between two of the hanging rock forms, just above where they fused. It looked like an awfully precarious perch.
     "How'd he get up there?"
     Stan had to repeat the question over the roar of frigid, pressurized gas. A woman in a brown smock pointed where a metal ladder lay crystallized and shattered amid the jetting frost. "He was trying to get past the jet to the cutoff valve... but the ladder buckled! Now he's trapped!"
     From his perilous position, the young physicist gestured and shouted. One of the techs, a full-blooded Maori from George Hutton's own iwi, started scrambling for pieces of hardware. Soon he was whirling a heavy object at the end of a cable, sending it flying on an upward arc. Alex missed the tool itself, but caught the cable round his left arm. Bits of crumbling limestone rained from his shaky roost as he used his teeth and one hand to reel in a drill with a rock-bolt bit already in place.
     How can he find the leverage to...
     Amazed, Stan watched Alex throw his legs around the half-column. Hugging the stalactite, he applied the drill to the strongest section, just above his head. The hanging rock shuddered. Cracks appeared, crisscrossing the pillar at Alex's midriff. If he fell, he would carom off some toppled scaffolding straight into the supercold jet.
     Stan withheld breathing as Alex drove the bit, tested it, and quickly passed a loop of cable through the grommet, giving it his weight just as the greater part of the stalactite gave way, falling to strike the debris below with a crashing noise. The crowd shouted. Dangling in mid-air, Alex struggled for a better grip while everyone below saw what the tumbling stone had done to his inner thighs. Bleeding runnels dripped through the remnants of his tattered trousers, joining rivulets of sweat as he strained to tie a loop knot. Encountering the roaring gas, the bloody droplets exploded into sprays of reddish snow.
     Stan breathed again when Alex slipped his shoulders through the loop and let the cable take his weight. Still gasping, he turned and shouted over the noise. "Slack!... Pump!"
     Two of the techs holding the cable looked puzzled. Stan almost rushed over to explain, but the Maori engineer caught on. Gesturing to the others, he began letting out more cord, then pulled most of it back just before Alex's feet neared the icy jet. The process repeated, letting out rope, pulling it back. It was a simple exercise in harmonic resonance, as with a child's swing, only here the plumb was a man. And he wouldn't be landing in any sand box.
     Alex's arc grew as the tether lengthened. With each pass he came nearer the super-cold shroud of liquified air, a blizzard of sparkling snowflakes whirling in his wake. He called down to those manning the straining cable. "Fourth swing... release!"
     Then on the next pass -- "Three!"
     Then -- "Two!"
     Each time his voice sounded more hoarse. Stan nearly cried out as he saw the arc develop. They were going to release too soon! Before he could do anything though, the men let go with a shout. Alex sailed just over the jet, past the two stranded survivors, to collide with the tangled gridwork atop the centermost cryo tank. Immediately he scrambled for purchase on the iced surface. The woman next to Stan grabbed his arm and hissed sharply as Alex began a fatal slide...
     ... and stopped just in time, with one arm thrown around a groaning pipe.
     A sharp crackling noise made Stan jump back as one of the nearby chem-synthesis tanks crinkled, folding inward from the cold. Fiber-thin control lines flailed like wounded snakes until they met the helium jet, at which point they instantly shattered into glassy shards.
     "They've cut the flow topside," someone reported.
     Stan wondered, was the helium partial pressure already high enough to affect sound transmission? Or was the fellow's voice squeaky out of fear?
     "But there's too much already in those tanks," another said. "If he can't stop it, we'll lose half the hardware in the cavern. It'll set us back weeks!"
     There are three lives at stake, too, Stan thought. But then, people had their own priorities. Hands took his sleeve again... this time several senior engineers were organizing an orderly evacuation. Stan shook his head, refusing to go, and no one insisted. He kept vigil as Alex worked his way toward the cutoff valve, hauling himself hand over hand. The pipes were left discolored. Patches of frozen skin, mixed with blood, Stan realized with a queasy feeling.
     Centimeter by centimeter Alex neared the collapsed catwalk. One wall staple remained in place, imbedded in limestone. Barely able to see, Alex had to hunt for it, his foot repeatedly missing the perch.
     "Left, Alex!" Stan screamed. "Now up!"
     His mouth open wide, exhaling a dragon's spume of crystallized fog, Alex found the ledge and swung his weight onto it. Without pausing, he used it to hurl himself at the valve.
     After all his struggles getting there, turning the handle was anticlimactically easy. At least that part of the cryo system was built well. The wailing shriek tapered off, along with the icy pressure. Stan staggered forward.
     Past him sped rescue teams with ladders and stretchers. It took moments to pull down the two injured workers and hustle them away. But Alex would not be carried. He came down on his own, gingerly. Huddled in blankets, arms locked by those guiding him, he looked to Stan like some legendary Yeti, his bloodless face pale and sparkling under a crystal frosting. He made his escorts stop near Stan, and managed a few words through chattering teeth.
     "M-my fault. Rushing things-s..." The words drowned in shivering.
     Stan took his young friend's shoulder. "Don't be an ass; you were grand. Don't worry, Alex. George and I will have everything fixed by the time you get back."
     The young physicist gave a jerky nod. Stan watched the medics bear him away.
     Well, he thought, wondering at what the span of a few minutes had revealed. Had this side of Alex Lustig been there all along, hidden within? Or would it come to any man called upon by destiny, as that poor boy obviously was, to wrestle demons over the fate of the world?

* * * * *

     Long ago, even before animals appeared on dry land, plants developed a chemical, lignin, that enabled them to grow long stems, to tower tall above their competitors. It was one of those breakthroughs that changed things forever.
     But what happens after a tree dies? Its proteins, cellulose and carbohydrates can be recycled, but only if the lignin is first dealt with. Only then can the forest reclaim the stuff of life from death.
     One answer to this dilemma was discovered and exploited by ants. One hundred trillion ants, secreting formic acid, help prevent a buildup which might otherwise have choked the world beneath a layer of impervious, unrotting wood. They do this for their own benefit of course, without thought of what good it does the Whole. And yet, the Whole is groomed, cleaned, renewed.
     Was it accidental that ants evolved this way, to find this niche and save the world?
     Of course it was. As were the countless other accidental miracles which together make this wonder work. I tell you, some accidents are stronger, wiser than any design. And if saying that makes me a heretic, let it be so.
--Jen Wolling. From The Earth Mother Blues, Globe Books, 2032. [hyper access code 7-tEAT-687-56-1237-65p.]

• Exosphere (chapter 4)

     Pleiades dipped its nose, and Teresa Tikhana welcomed back the stars. Hello, Orion. Hello, Seven Sisters, she silently greeted her friends. Did you miss me?
     As yet, few constellations graced the shuttle's forward windows, and those glittered wanly next to the dazzling Earth, with its white, pinwheel storms and brilliant vistas of brown and blue. Sinuous rivers and fractal, corrugated mountain ranges -- even the smokestack trails of freighters crossing sunburned seas -- all added up to an ever-changing panorama as Pleiades rotated out of launch orientation.
     Of course it was beautiful -- only down there could humans live without utter dependence on temperamental machinery. Earth was home, the Oasis; that went without saying.
     Still, Teresa found the planet's nearby glare irksome. Here in low orbit its dayside brilliance covered half the sky, drowning all but the brightest stars.
     Vernier rockets throbbed, adjusting the ship's rotation. Valves and circuits closed with twitters and low chuckles, a music of smooth operation. Still, she scanned -- checking, always checking.
     One plasma screen showed their ground track, a few hundred kilometers from Labrador, heading east by southeast. NASA press flacks loved ground path indicators, but the things were next to useless for serious navigation. Instead, Teresa watched the horizon's tapered scimitar move aside to show more stars.
     And hello, Mama Bear, she thought. Good to see your tail pointing where I expected.
     "There's ol' Polaris," Mark Randall drawled to her right. "Calculating P and Q fix now." Teresa's co-pilot compared two sets of figures. "Star tracker fix matches Global Positioning System to five digits, in all nine degrees of freedom. Satisfied, Terry?"
     "Sarcasm suits you, Mark." She scanned the figures for herself. "Just don't get into the habit of calling me Terry. Ask Simon Bailie, sometime, why he came home from that peeper-run wearing a sling."
     Mark smiled thoughtfully. "He claims it was 'cause he got fresh with you on the Carter Station elevator."
     "Wishful thinking," she laughed. "Simon's got delusions of adequacy."
     For good measure, Teresa compared satellite and star tracker data against the ship's inertial guidance system. Three independent means of verifying location, momentum, and orientation. Of course they all agreed. Her compulsive checking had become notorious, a sort of trademark among her peers. But even as a little girl she had felt this need -- one more reason to become a pilot, then astronaut -- to learn more ways to know exactly where she was.
     "Boys can tell where north is," other children used to tell her with the assurance of passed-down wisdom. "What girls understand is people!"
     To most sexist traditions, Teresa had been impervious. But that one seemed to promise explanations -- for instance for her persistent creepy feeling that all maps were somehow wrong. Then, in training, they surprised her with the news that her orientation sense was far above average. "Hyperkinesthetic acuity," the doctors diagnosed, which translated into measurable grace in everything she did.
     Only that wasn't how it felt. If this was superiority, Teresa wondered how other people made it from bedroom to bath without getting lost! In dreams she still sometimes felt as if the world was on the verge of shifting capriciously, without warning. There had been times when those feelings made her wonder about her sanity.
     But then everyone has quirks, even -- especially -- astronauts. Hers must be harmless, or else would the NASA psych people have ever let her fly left seat on an American spacecraft?
     Thinking of childhood lessons, Teresa wished at least the other part of the old myth were true. If only being female automatically lent you insight into people. But if it were so, how could things ever have gone so sour in her marriage?
     The event sequencer beeped. "Okay," she sighed. "We're on schedule, oriented for rendezvous burn. Prime the OMS."
     "Aye aye, Mem Bwana." Mark Randall flicked switches. "Orbital maneuvering system primed. Pressures nominal. Burn in one hundred ninety seconds. I'll tell the passengers."
     A year ago the drivers' union had won a concession. Non-members would henceforth ride below, on middeck. Since this trip carried no NASA mission specialists, only military intelligence officers, she and Mark were alone up here on Flight Deck, undistracted by nursemaid chores.
     Still, there were minimal courtesies. Over the intercom, Mark's low drawl conveyed the blithe confidence of a stereotypical airline pilot.
     "Gentlemen, by the fact that your eyeballs have stopped shiftin' in their sockets, you'll realize we've finished rotating. Now we're preparin' for rendezvous burn, which will occur in just under two and a half minutes...."
     While Mark rambled, Teresa scanned overhead, checking that fuel cell number two wasn't about to act up again. Station rendezvous always made her nervous. All the more so when she was flying a Model One shuttle. The noises Pleiades made -- its creaking aluminum bones, the swish of coolant in old-style heat-transfer lines, the squidgy sound of hydraulic fluid swiveling pitted thrusters -- these were like the sighs of a one-time champion who still competed, but only because the powers that-be found that less expensive than replacing her.
     Newer shuttles were simpler, designed for narrower purposes. Teresa figured Pleiades was perhaps the most complex machine ever made. And the way things were going, nothing like it would ever be built again.
     A glitter over near Sagittarius caught her eye. Teresa identified it without having to check. The old International Mars Mission -- scavenged for components, and the remnants parked in high orbit when that last bold venture had been canceled, back when she was still in grade school. The new rule for harder times was simple -- space had to pay for itself with near-term rewards. No pie in the sky. No investment in maybes. Not when starvation remained an all too likely prospect for such a large portion of humanity.
     "... checked our trajectory three different ways, folks, and Captain Tikhana has declared that all's well. Physics has not broken down..."
     Overlaid across the constellations were multicolored graphics displaying the vessel's orbital parameters. Also in the forward window, Teresa saw her own reflection. A smudge had taken residence on her cheek, near where a curl of dark brown hair escaped her launch cap... probably a grease speck from adjusting a passenger's seat before launch. Rubbing just smeared it out, however, overaccentuating her strong cheekbones.
     Great. Just the thing to make Jason think I'm losing sleep over him. Teresa didn't need any more aggravation, not when she was about to see her husband for the first time in two months.
     In contrast, Mark Randall's reflection looked boyish, carefree. His pale face -- demarcated from the white of his spacesuit by the anodized helmet ring -- showed none of the radiation stigmata that scarred Jason's cheeks... the so-called "Rio tan," acquired working outside through the sleeting hell of the South Atlantic magnetic anomaly. That escapade, a year ago, had won Jason both a promotion and a month's hospitalization for anti-cancer treatments. It was also about when troubles in their marriage surfaced.
     Teresa resented Mark's smooth complexion. It should have been a confirmed bachelor like him who volunteered to go out and save the peepers' beloved spy-eye, instead of Jason I'm-married-but-what-the-heck Stempell.
     It also should have been some bachelor who signed up to work cheek by jowl with that blonde temptress June Morgan. But once again, guess who raised his hand?
     Easy, girl. Don't get your blood up. The objective is reconciliation, not confrontation.
     Mark was still regaling the Air Force men below. "... remind me to tell you how one time she an' her old man smuggled a homemade sextant on a mission. Now any other married couple might've chosen something more useful, such as..."
     With her right hand, Teresa made a gesture whose meaning had changed little since the days of Crazy Horse. Spacer sign-talk for cut the crap.
     "Um, but I guess we'll save that story for another day. Please remain strapped in as we make our last burn before station rendezvous." Randall switched off the intercom. "Sorry, boss. Got a little carried away there."
     Teresa knew he was unrepentant. Anyway, that episode with the sextant wasn't much compared to the tall tales told about some astronauts. None of that mattered. What was important was that you lived, the ship lived, the mission got done, and you were asked to fly again.
     "Burn in five seconds..." she said, counting down. "... three, two, one..."
     A deep-throated growl filled the cabin as hypergolic motors ignited, adding to their forward velocity. Since they were at orbital apogee, this meant Pleiades' perigee would rise. Ironically, that in turn would slow them down, allowing their destination, the space station, to catch up from behind them.
     The station's beacons showed on radar as a neat row of blips strung along a slender string, pointing Earthward. The lowermost dot was their target, Nearpoint, where they'd offload cargo and passengers.
     Next came the cluster of pinpoints standing for the Central Complex, twenty kilometers farther out, where scientific and development work took place in free-fall conditions. The final, topmost blip represented a cluster of facilities tethered even higher -- the Farpoint research lab where Jason worked. They had agreed to meet at the halfway lounge, if offloading went well at her end, and if his experiments let him get away.
     They had a lot to talk about.
     All motors shut off as a sequencer by her knee shone zero. The faint pressure on her backrest departed again. What replaced it wasn't "zero-g." After all, there was plenty of gravity, pervading space all around them. Teresa preferred the classic term, "free fall." An orbit, after all, is just a plummet that keeps missing....
     Unfortunately, even benign falling isn't always fun. Teresa had never suffered spacesickness, but by now half the passengers were probably feeling queasy. Hell, even peepers were people.
     "Commence yaw and roll maneuver," she said, as a formality. The computers were managing fine so far. Thrusters in the shuttle's nose and tail -- smaller than the OMS brutes -- gave pulsing kicks to set the horizon turning in a complex, two axis rotation. They fired again to stabilize on a new direction.
     "That's my baby," Mark said softly to the ship. "You may be gettin' on in years, but you're still my favorite."
     Many astronauts romanticized the last Columbia-Class shuttle. Before boarding they would pat the seven stars painted by the shuttle's entry hatch. And, while it went unspoken, some clearly thought beneficent ghosts rode Pleiades, protecting her every flight.
     Maybe they were right. Pleiades had so far escaped the scrapyard fate of Discovery and Endeavor, or the embarrassing end that befell old Atlantis.
     Privately though, Teresa thought it a pity the old crate hadn't been replaced long ago -- not by another prissy Model III job, either, but by something newer, better. Pleiades wasn't a true spaceship, after all. Only a bus. A local, at that.
     And, despite all the so-called romance of her profession, Teresa knew she was little more than a bus driver.

Continue reading Earth.