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by David Brin

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● Exosphere (chapter 4, continued)

          "Maneuver completed. Switching to hook-rendezvous program."
          "Yo," Teresa acknowledged. She toggled the Ku band downlink. "MCC Colorado Springs, this is Pleiades. We've finished siphoning External Tank residuals to recovery cells and jettisoned the ET. Circularization completed. Request update for approach to Ere—" Teresa stopped, recalling she was talking to Air Force. "— for approach to Reagan Station."
          The controller's tinny voice filled her earphones.
          "Roger, Pleiades. Target range check, ninety-one kilometers... mark."
          "Yes?" Randall interrupted with a weak smirk. It was a stale joke which, fortunately, control didn't hear.
          "Doppler twenty-one meters per second... mark. Tangential v, five point two mps... mark."
          Teresa did a quick scan. "Verified, control. We agree."
          "An' thar she blows," said Mark, peering through the overhead window. "Erehwon, right on schedule."
          "Ixnay, Mark. Open mike."
          Randall hand signed so-what indifference.
          "Roger, Pleiades," said the voice from Colorado Springs. "Switching you over to Reagan Station control. MCC out."
          "Reagan, shmeagan," Mark muttered when the line was clear. "Call it peeper heaven."
          Teresa pretended not to hear. On the panel by her right knee she punched the PROG button, then tapped 319 EXEC. "Rendezvous and retrieval program activated," she said.
          Between their consoles there appeared a holographic image of Pleiades itself — a squat dart, black on the bottom and white on top, her gaping cargo bay radiators exposed to the cooling darkness of space. Filling the greater part of the bay was a closed canister of powder blue. The peepers' precious spy-stuff. Col. Glenn Spivey's treasure. And heaven help anyone who laid even a smudge on its wrapper.
          Behind the cargo several white spheres held tons of supercold propellants, recovered from the towering External Tank after it had fueled the shuttle through liftoff. Dumping the two million liter tank into the Indian Ocean had been their preoccupation early in orbital insertion — a routine waste that used to outrage Teresa, but she no longer even thought about anymore. At least they were rescuing the residuals these days. All that leftover hydrogen and oxygen had countless uses in space.
          While Mark talked to Erehwon control, Teresa caused the snare mechanism to rise from the rim of the cargo bay. The stubby arm — sturdier than the remote manipulator used for deploying cargos — extended a telescoping tip ending in an open hook.
          "Erehwon confirms telemetry," Mark told her. "Approach nominal."
          "We've got a few minutes then. I'll go look in on the passengers."
          "Yeah, do that." Of course Mark knew she had another reason for getting up. But this time he judiciously kept silent.
          Unbuckling, then swiveling to use the seat back as a springboard, Teresa cast off toward the rear of the flight deck. Before automation, a mission specialist used to watch over the cargo from there. Now only a window remained. Through it she surveyed the peepers' package, and beyond, the cryo-canisters. If the coming hook-snatch maneuver worked, they'd save half the hydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide back there, as well — another valuable bonus to offload. Otherwise most of the reserve would be used up matching orbits.
          She brought her head near the chill window to peer at the snare arm, rising from the starboard platform. It was locked, just as the computer said. Just checking, Teresa thought, unrepentant of her need to verify in person.
          She twisted and dove through a circular opening in the "floor." Five Air Force officers in blue launch suits looked up as she swam into the spacious cabin known as mid-deck. Two of the passengers looked sick, averting their eyes as Teresa floated by. At least there were no windows here, so they were spared the added misery of horizon disorientation. A third of all first-timers had to adapt several days before their fluttering stomachs allowed them to appreciate scenery, anyway.
          "That was a smooth launch, Captain," the elder sickly one enunciated carefully. He wore two drug-release patches behind one ear, but still looked pretty shaky. Teresa knew the man from other flights, and he'd been ill on those too.
          Must be pretty damned irreplaceable if they keep sending him up. As Mark Randall colorfully put it, guys like this never had to prove they had guts.
          "Thank you," she replied. "We aim to please. I just wanted to see how you all were doing, and to say we'll be meeting the Nearpoint snare in about twenty minutes. Station personnel will need an hour to offload cargo and salvaged residuals. Then it'll be your turn to ride the elevator to Central."
          "That's if you manage to hook the snare, Ms. Tikhana. What if you miss?"
          This time it was the man seated forward on the left, a stocky fellow with eyes shaded by heavy brows, and bright colonel's eagles on one shoulder. White sideburns offset his roughened skin — a patchy complexion that came from repeated treatments to slough off pre-cancerous layers. Unlike Ra Boys or other ground-side fetishists, Glenn Spivey hadn't acquired his blotchy pigmentation on any beach. He had won the dubious badge of honor the same way Jason had — high over Uruguay, protected by just the fabric of his suit as he fought to save a top-secret experiment. But then, what were a dozen or so rads to a patriot?
          They obviously hadn't mattered to Jason. Or so her husband implied from his recovery bed after his own encounter with the South Atlantic Radiation Zone.
          "Hey look, hon. This doesn't change our plans. There are sperm banks. Or, when you're ready, we can make some other arrangement. Some of our friends must have some of damn high quality... Hey, babe, now what's the matter?"
          The infuriating density of the man! As if that had been foremost on her mind while he lay in a hospital with tubes in his arms! Later, the subject of children did contribute to the widening gulf between them. But at the time her only thought was, "Idiot, you might have died!"
          With professional coolness, Teresa answered Col. Spivey. "What if the station can't hook Pleiades mid-pass? In that case we'll do another burn to match orbits the old fashioned way. That'll take time though. And there'll be no residual propellant to offload after docking."
          "Time and hydrazine." Spivey pursed his lips. "Valuable commodities, Ms. Tikhana. Good luck."
          Twice, since she had come down here, the colonel had glanced at his watch — as if nature's laws could be hurried like junior officers, with a severe look. Teresa tried to be understanding, since it did take all kinds. If it weren't for vigilant, paranoid spy-types like Spivey, always poking and peeping to see to it the provisions of the Rio Treaties were kept, would peace have lasted as long as it had? Ever since the Helvetian War?
          "Safety first, Colonel. You wouldn't want to see us wrapped in twenty kilometers of spectra-fiber tether material, would you?"
          One of the younger peepers shivered. But Spivey met her eyes in shared understanding. They each had priorities. It was far more important they respect than like each other.

          Back at her console, she watched the bottom portion of the station come into view — a cluster of bulbous tanks and plumbing hanging from a silvery line. Far above, other station components glittered like jewels strung far apart on a very long necklace. Most distant, and invisible except by radar, lay Farpoint Cluster, where Jason worked on things she still knew next to nothing about.
          They were passing over the Alps now, a battered, crumpled range, whose bomb craters were only now emerging from winter's coating of snow. It was an awesome juxtaposition, showing what both natural and man-made forces could do, when angry.
          But Teresa had no time for sightseeing. Her attention focused on Nearpoint — hanging like a pendulum bob, closest to the Earth.
          Just below the fluid-pumping station hung a boom which flexed and stretched as its operator played out line like a fisherman, casting for the big one.
          Teresa's eyes roamed over her instruments, the station, the stars, absorbing them all. Moments like this made all the hard work worthwhile. Every part of her felt unified, from the hands lightly flexing Pleiades' vernier controls to the twin hemispheres of her brain. Engineer and dancer were one.
          For the present all anxieties, all worries, vanished. Of the countless jobs one could have, on or off the world, this one gave her what she needed.
          "We're coming in," she whispered.
          Teresa knew exactly where she was.

"Once upon a time, the great hero, Rangi-rua, lost his beautiful Hine-marama. She died, and her spirit went to Rarohenga, the land of the dead.
          "Rangi-rua was beset with grief. Inconsolable, he declared that he would follow his wife into the underworld and fetch her back again to Ao-marama, the world of light.
          "With Kaeo, his ever faithful companion, Rangi-rua came to the swirling waters guarding the entrance to Rarohenga. There, he and Kaeo dove into the mouth of hell, down where the heartbeat of Manata sends shivers through the earth. Against this power they swam and swam until, at last, they reached the other bank, where the spirit of Rangi-rua's lovely wife awaited him.
          "Now, to be fair it must be said that Rangi-rua and Kaeo may not have been the only mortals to accomplish this feat. For the pakeha tell a similar story of one called Orpheus, who did the very same thing for the sake of his lover — and it is said he even managed the crossing on his own.
          "But Rangi-rua outdid Orpheus in the most important thing. For when Rangi-rua emerged again into the light of father sun, both his friend and his lover were at his side.
          "But Orpheus failed because, like all pakeha, he just couldn't keep his mind on one thing at a time."

● Core (chapter 5)

Sitting in front of his holographic display — sole illumination in the deserted lab — Alex recalled George Hutton's performance at the celebration, earlier in the evening, reciting Maori legends to the tired but happy engineers by firelight. Especially appropriate had been the Tale of Rangi, speaking as it did of fresh hope, snatched from the very gates of Hell.
          Later, though, Alex found himself drawn back to the underground laboratory. All the machinery, so busy earlier in the day, now lay dark and dormant save under this pool of light, which spilled long shadows onto the nearby limestone walls.
          Rangi's legend had touched Alex, all right. It might apply to his present state of mind.
          Don't look back. Pay attention to what's in front of you.
          Right now what lay before him was a depiction of the planet, in cutaway view. A globe sliced like an apple, revealing peel and pulp, stem and core.
          And seeds, Alex thought, completing the metaphor.

computer image of Earth's core

          The eye couldn't make out Earth's slight deviations from a sphere. Mountain ranges and ocean trenches — exaggerated on commercial globes — were mere dewy ripples on this true-scale representation. So thin was the film of water and air compared to the vast interior.
          Inside that membrane, concentric shells of brown and red and pink denoted countless subterranean temperatures and compositions. With a word, or by touching the holo's controls, Alex could zoom through mantle and core, following rocky striations and myriad charted rivers of magma.
          Okay George, he thought. Here's a Pakeha allegory for you. We'll start by cutting a hole straight through the Earth.
          From the surface of the globe, he caused a narrow line to stab inward, through the colored layers. Drill a tunnel, straight as a laser, with mirror-smooth walls. Cover both ends and drop a ball inside.
          It was an exercise known to generations of physics students, illustrating certain points about gravity and momentum. But Alex played the scenario in earnest.
          Assuming inertial and gravitational mass balance, as they tend to do, anything dropped at Earth's surface accelerates 9.8 meters per second, each second.
          His fingers stroked knobs, releasing a blue dot from the outer rim. It fell slowly at first, even with the time rate magnified. A millimeter here stood for an awful lot of territory in the real world.
          But after the ball falls a good distance, acceleration has changed.
          In 1687, Isaac Newton took several score pages to prove what smug sophomores now demonstrated on a single sheet — ah, but Newton did it first! — that only the spherical portion "below" a falling object continues to apply net gravity, until acceleration stops altogether as the ball hurtles through the center at a whizzing ten kilometers per second.
          It can't fall any farther than that. Now it's streaking upward.
          (Answer a riddle — where is it you can continue in a straight line, yet change directions at the same time?)
          Now more and more mass accumulates "below" the rising ball. Gravity clings, draining kinetic energy. Speed slackens til at last — neglecting friction, coriolis effects, and a thousand other things — our ball lightly bumps the door at the other end.
          Then it falls again, hurtling once more past sluggish, plasti-crystal mantle layers, past the molten dynamo of the core, plummeting then climbing til finally it arrives "home" once more, where it began.

          Numbers and charts floated near the giant globe, telling Alex the round trip would take a little over eighty minutes. Not quite the schoolboy perfect answer, but then schoolboys don't have to compensate for a real planet's varying density.
          Next came the neat trick. The same was true of a tunnel cut through the Earth at any angle! Say, forty-five degrees. Or one drilled from Los Angeles to New York, barely skimming the magma. Each round trip took about eighty minutes — the period of a pendulum with the same span as the Earth.

Alex's drawing

          It's also the period of a circular orbit, skimming just above the clouds.
          Alex soon had the cutaway pulsing with blue dots, each falling at a different angle, swiftly along the longer paths, slowly along short ones. Besides straight lines there were also ellipses, and many-petaled flower trajectories. Still, to a regular rhythm, they all recombined at the same point on the surface, labeled Peru.
          Of course, things change when you include Earth's rotation... and the pseudo-friction of a hot object pushing against material around it...
          Alex was procrastinating. These simulations were from his first days in New Zealand. There were better ones.
          His hands hesitated. The palms were still blotchy from skin grafts after that helium explosion debacle. Ironically, they hadn't trembled half as much, then, as after today's astonishing news.
          Alex wiped away all the whirling dots and called another orbit from memory cache. This figure — traced in bright purple — was smaller than the others — a truncated ellipse subtly twisted from Euclidean perfection by irregularities in the densely-packed core. It didn't approach Peru anymore.
          This was no theoretical simulation. When their first gravity scans had shown the thing's awful shadow, horror had mixed with terrible pride.
          It didn't evaporate immediately, he had realised. I was right about that.
          It was awful news. And yet, who in his position wouldn't feel heady emotions, seeing his own handiwork still throbbing, thousands of miles below the fragile crust?
          It lived. He had found his monster.
          But then it surprised him yet again.

          After Pedro Manella's headlines had made him the world's latest celebrated bad-boy, it naturally came as a relief when the World Court dismissed all charges on a technicality in the Anti-Secrecy Laws. In truth, Alex was seen as the dupe of some unscrupulous generals. More fool than villain.
          It might have been better had they jailed and reviled him. At least then people in authority might have listened to him. As it was, his peers dismissed his topological arguments as "bizarre, overly complex inventions." Worse, special interest groups on the World Data Net made him a gossip centerpiece overnight.
          "... classic symptoms of guilt abstraction, used by the subject to disguise early childhood traumas..." one correspondent from Peking had written. Another in Djakarta commented, "Lustig's absurd hints that Hawking's dissipation model might be wrong mesh perfectly with the shame and humiliation he must have felt after Iquitos..."
          Alex wished his Net clipping service were less efficient, sparing him all the amateur psychoanalyses. Still, he made himself read them because of something his grandmother once told him.
          A hallmark of sanity, Alex, is the courage to face even unpleasant points of view.
          How ironic then. Here he was, vindicated in a way he could never have imagined. He now had proof positive the standard model of micro black holes was flawed... that he had been on the right path with his own theories.
          Right and wrong, in the best combination of ways.
          Then why can't I leave this cave? he wondered. Why do I feel it isn't over yet?
          "Hey, you stupid pakeha bastard!" A booming voice ricocheted off the limestone walls. "Lustig! You promised to get drunk with us tonight! Tama meamea, is this any way to celebrate?"
          Alex had the misfortune to be looking up when George Hutton switched on the lights. His world, formerly confined to the dim pool of the holo tank, suddenly expanded to fill the cavern-lab Hutton's wealth had carved under the ancient rock.
          Alex's blinking eyes focused on the thumper, a shining rod two meters in diameter and more than ten long, caged to a universal bearing in a bowl excavation larger than some lunar craters. It resembled the work of some mad telescope maker who neglected to make his instrument hollow, crafting it instead of perfect, superconducting crystal.
          The gleaming cylinder pointed a few degrees off vertical, just as they had left it after that final bracketing run. Banks of instruments surrounded the gravity antenna, along with ankle-deep layers of paper, shredded by the ecstatic technicians when the good news was finally confirmed.
          Beyond the thumper, a flight of steps led upward to where George Hutton stood, waving a bottle and grinning. "You disappoint me, fellow," the broad-shouldered billionaire said, sauntering downstairs unevenly. "I planned getting you so pissed you'd spend the night with my cousin's poaka of a daughter."
          Alex smiled. If that was what George wanted him to do, he was bound to comply. Without Hutton's influence he'd never have been able to sneak into New Zealand incognito. There'd have been no long hard search through the awesome complexity of the Earth's interior, improvising and inventing new technologies to hunt a minuscule monster. Worst of all, Alex might have gone to his grave never knowing what his creation was up to down below — if it was quietly dissipating or, perhaps, proceeding at a leisurely pace to devour the world.
          At first, sighting it several days ago on a graviscan display had seemed to confirm their worst fears. The nightmare, reified.
          Then, to everyone's relief and astonishment, hard data seemed to point another way. Apparently the thing was dying... evaporating more mass and energy into the Earth's interior than it sucked in through its narrow event horizon. True, it was thinning much more slowly than the obsolete standard models predicted. But in a few months, nevertheless, it would be no more!
          I really should celebrate with the others, Alex thought. I should put aside my last suspicions, crawl into any bottle George offers me, and find out what a poaka is.
          Alex tried to stand, but found he couldn't move. His eyes were drawn back to the purple dot, circling the innermost colored layer.
          He felt a large presence nearby. George.
          "What is it, friend? You haven't found an error, have you? It is..."
          Alex caught Hutton's sudden concern, "Oh, it's dissipating all right. And now..." He paused. "Now I think I know why. Here, take a look."
          With a word he banished the model of the Earth, replacing it with a schematic drawn in lambent blue. Reddish sparkles flashed at the rim of the object now centered in the tank. They swept toward a central point like beads caught in water, swirling down a drain.
          "This is what I thought I was making, back when His Excellency persuaded me to build a singularity for the Iquitos plant. A standard Kerr-Prestwich black hole."
          Hutton took a stool next to Alex and watched with those deceptive brown eyes. One might guess he was a simple laborer, not one of Australasia's wealthiest men.

computer image of black hole

          The image in the tank looked like a rubber sheet that had been stretched taut, heated, then had a small, heavy weight dropped onto it. The resulting funnel had finite width and depth in the display, but both men knew the real thing — the hole in space it represented — had no bottom at all.
          The reddish dots represented bits of matter drawn in by gravitational tides, caught in a swirling disk. The disk brightened as more matter fell, until a ring of fierce brightness burned near the funnel's lip. Below this came a sudden cutoff within which only pitch blackness reigned.
          Nothing escapes from inside a black hole's event horizon. At least, there's no direct escape.
          Alex glanced at George. "Cosmologists say many singularities like this must have been created when the Universe began. If so, only the biggest survive today. Smaller ones evaporated long ago, as predicted in the 1970s by Stephen Hawking. A simple singularity — even with charge and rotation — has to be extremely heavy to be stable... to pull in matter faster than it loses it by vacuum emission."
          He pointed to the outskirts of the depression, where bright white pinpoints flashed independent of the hot ring of accreting material.
          "Some distance out, the tight stress-energy of infolding gravity causes spontaneous pair production... ripping particle-antiparticle twins — an electron and a positron, for instance — out of the vacuum itself. It isn't exactly getting something from nothing, since each little genesis costs the singularity some field energy. And that's debited to its mass."
          The sparkles formed a halo of brilliance — creation in the raw.
          "Generally, one newborn particle falls inward and the other escapes, resulting in a steady weight loss. A tiny hole like this one can't pull in new matter fast enough to make up the difference. To prevent dissipation you have to feed it."
          "As you did with your ion gun, in Peru."
          "Right. It cost a lot of power to make the singularity in the first place, even using my special cavitron recipe. It took even more to keep the thing levitated and fed. But the accretion disk gave off incredible heat." Alex felt briefly wistful. "Even the prototype was cheaper, more efficient than hydro power."
          "But then you started having doubts," George prompted.
          "Yeah. The system was too efficient, you see. It didn't need much feeding at all. So I toyed with some crazy notions... and came up with this."
          A new schematic replaced the funnel. Now it was as if a heavy loop of wire had sunk into the rubber sheet. Still unfathomably deep, the depression now circled on itself.
          Again, reddish bits of matter swept into the cavity, heating as they fell. And again, sparkles told of vacuum pair production — the singularity repaying mass into space.
          "This is something people talked about even back in TwenCen," Alex said. "It's a cosmic string."
          "I've heard of them." George's broad, dark features showed fascination. "They're like black holes. Also supposed to be left over from that explosion you pakeha say started everything — the Big Bang."
          "Uh-huh. They aren't truly funnel-things drawn in circles, of course. There's a limit to how well you can represent..." Alex sighed. "It's hard to describe this without math."
          "I know math," George grumbled.
          "Mm, yes. Excuse me, George, but the tensors you use, searching for deep methane, wouldn't help a lot with this."
          "Maybe I understand more'n you think, white boy." Hutton's dialect seemed to thicken for a moment. "Like I can see what your cosmic strings got that black holes don't. Holes got no dimensions deep inside. But strings have length."
          Hutton kept doing this — play-acting the "distracted businessman," or "ignorant native boy," then coming back at you when your guard was down. Alex accepted the rebuke.
          "Good enough. Only strings, just like black holes, are unstable. They dissipate too, in a colorful way."
          At a spoken word, a new display formed.

image of the loop

          The rubber sheet was gone. Now they watched loop in space, glowing red from infalling matter, and white from a halo-fringe of new particles, showering into space. Inflow and outgo.
          "Now I'll set the simulation in motion, stretching time a hundred-million-fold."
          The loop began undulating, turning, whirling.
          "One early prediction was that strings would vibrate incredibly fast, influenced by gravitational or magnetic..."
          Two sides collided in a flash, and suddenly a pair of smaller loops replaced the one large one. They throbbed even faster than before.
          "Some astronomers claim to see signs of gigantic cosmic strings in deep-space. Perhaps they even triggered the formation of galaxies, long ago. If so, the giant ones survived because their loops only cross every few billion of years. Smaller, quicker strings cut themselves to bits..."
          As he spoke, both little loops made lopsided figure eights and broke into four tinier ones, vibrating madly. Each of these soon divided again. And so on. As they multiplied, their size diminished and brightness grew — bound for annihilation.
          "So," George surmised. "Small ones still aren't dangerous."
          Alex nodded. "A simple, chaotic string like this couldn't explain the power curves at Iquitos. So I went back to the original cavitron equations, fiddled around with Jones-Witten Theory a bit, and came up with something new.
          "This is what I thought I'd made, just before Pedro Manella set off his damned riot."
          The tiny loops had disappeared in a blare of brilliance. Alex uttered a brief command, and a new object appeared. "I call this a tuned string."
          Again, a lambent loop pulsed in space, surrounded by white sparks of particle creation. Only this time the string didn't twist and gyre chaotically. Regular patterns rippled round its rim. Each time an indentation seemed about to touch another portion, the rhythm yanked it back again. The loop hung on, safe from self-destruction. Meanwhile, matter continued flowing in from all sides.
          Visibly, it grew.
          "Your monster. I remember from when you first arrived. I may be drunk, Lustig, but not so I'd forget this terrible taniwha."
          Watching the undulations, Alex felt the same mixed rapture and loathing as when he first realised such things were possible... when he first suspected he had made something this biblically terrible, and beautiful.
          "It creates its own self-repulsion," he said softly, "exploiting second and third order gravities. We should have suspected, since cosmic strings are superconducting —"
          George Hutton interrupted, slapping a meaty hand onto Alex's shoulder. "That's fine. But today we proved you didn't make such a thing. We sent tuned waves into the Earth, and echoes show the thing's dissipating. It's dying. Your string was out of tune!"
          Alex said nothing. George looked at him. "I don't like your silence. Reassure me again. The damned thing is for sure dying, right?"
          Alex spread his hands. "Bloody hell, George. After all my mistakes, I'd only trust experimental evidence, and you saw the results today." He gestured toward the mighty thumper. "It's your equipment. You tell me."
          "It's dying." George said, flat out. Confident.
          "Yes, it's dying. Thank Heaven."
          For another minute the two men sat silently.
          "Then what's your problem?" Hutton finally asked. "What's eating you?"
          Alex frowned. He thumbed a control, and once again a cutaway view of the Earth took shape. Again, the dot representing his Iquitos singularity traced lazy precessions among veins of superheated metal and viscous, molten rock.
          "It's the damn thing's orbit." Equations filed by. Complex graphs loomed and receded.
          "What about its orbit?" George seemed transfixed, still holding the bottle in one hand, swaying slightly as the dot rose and fell, rose and fell.
          Alex shook his head. "I've allowed for every density variation on your seismic maps. I've accounted for every field source that could influence its trajectory. And still there's this deviation."
          "Deviation?" Alex sensed Hutton turn again to look at him again.
          "Another influence is diverting it. I think I've got a rough idea of the mass involved...."
          The bigger man swung Alex around bodily. The Maori's massive right hand gripped his shoulder. All signs of intoxication were gone from Hutton's face as he bent to meet Alex's eyes.
          "What are you telling me? Explain!"
          "I think..." Alex couldn't help it. As if drawn physically, he turned to look back at the image in the tank.
          "I think something else is down there."
          In the ensuing silence, they could hear the drip-drip of mineral-rich water, somewhere deeper in the cave. The rhythm seemed much steadier than Alex's heartbeat. George Hutton looked at the whiskey bottle. With a sigh, he put it down. "I'll get my men."
          As his footseteps receded, Alex felt the weight of the mountain around him once more, all alone.

▣ In ages past, men and women kept foretelling the End of the World. Calamity seemed never farther than the next earthquake or failed harvest. And each dire happening, from tempest to barbarian invasion, was explained as wrathful punishment from Heaven.
          Eventually, humanity began accepting more of the credit, or blame, for impending Armageddon. Between the World Wars, for instance, novelists prophesied annihilation by poison gas. Later it was assumed we'd blow ourselves to hell with nuclear weapons. Horrible new diseases and other biological scourges terrified populations during the Helvetian struggle. And between wars, of course, our burgeoning human population fostered countless dread specters of mass starvation.
          Apocalypses, apparently, are subject to fashion like everything else. What terrifies one generation can seem obsolete and trivial to the next. Take our modern attitude towards war. Most anthropologists now think this activity was based originally on theft and rape — perhaps rewarding enterprises for some caveman, or Viking, but no longer either sexy or profitable in the context of nuclear holocaust! Today, we look back on large scale warfare as an essentially silly enterprise.
          As for starvation, we surely have seen some appalling local episodes. Half the world's cropland has been lost, and more is threatened. Still, the "great die-back" everyone talks about always seems to lie a decade or so in the future, perpetually deferred. Innovations like self-fertilizing rice and super-mantises help us scrape by each near-catastrophe in just nick of time. Likewise, due to changing lifestyles, few today can bear the thought of eating the flesh of a fellow mammal. Putting moral or health reasons aside, this shift in habits has freed millions of tons of grain, which once went into inefficient production of red meat.
          But has the Apocalypse vanished, then? Certainly not. It's no longer the hoary Four Horsemen of our ancestors that threaten us now, but new dangers, far worse in the long run. The by-products of human short-sightedness and greed.
          Other generations perceived a plethora of swords hanging over their heads. But generally what they feared were shadows, for neither they nor their gods could actually End the World. Fate might reap an individual, or family, or even a whole nation, but not the entire world. Not then.
          We, in the mid-twenty-first century, are the first to look up at a sword we ourselves have forged, and know, with absolute certainty, it is real....
          — from The Transparent Hand, Doubleday Books, edition 4.7 (2035). [▣ hyper access code 1-tTRAN-777-97-9945-29A.]

● Exosphere (chapter 6)

"All right, babe. The first elevator heading down will be crammed with cargo, but Glenn Spivey put in a word, so I should be able to hitch a ride on the next one. I may even be in Central before you."
          Teresa shook her head, amazed. "Spivey arranged it? Are we talking about the same Colonel Spivey?"
          Her husband's face beamed from the telecom screen. "Maybe you don't know Glenn as I do. Underneath that beryllium exterior, there's a heart of pure —"
          "— of pure titanium. Yeah, I know that one." Teresa laughed, glad to share even a weak, tension-melting joke.
          So far, so good, she thought. Right now it felt good just looking at him, knowing he was a mere forty kilometers away, and soon would be much closer. Jason, too, sounded eager to give this a try.
          Someone once told Teresa it was too bad about her husband's smile, which sometimes transformed his intelligent features into those of an awkward puppy dog. But Teresa found his grin endearing. Jason might be insensitive at times — even a jerk — but she was sure he never lied to her. Some faces just weren't built to carry off a lie.
          "By the way, I watched you snag that hook, first pass. Did you take over from the computer again? No machine pilots that smoothly."
          Teresa knew she was blushing. "It looked like the program was stuttering again, so I..."
          "Thought so! Now I'll have to brag insufferably at mess. It'll be your fault if I lose all my friends up here."
          The capture maneuver was actually simpler than it looked. Pleiades now hung suspended below the space station, from a cable stretched taut by gravitational tides. When it was time to go, they'd simply release the hook and the shuttle would resume its original ellipse, returning to mother Earth having saved many tons of precious fuel.
          "Well, I reckon it's cause I'm paht Texan," she drawled, though she was the first in all her lineage ever to see the Lone Star State. "Ergo mah facility with the lasso."
          "It also explains why her eyes are brown," Mark Randall inserted from nearby.
          Jason's image glanced toward Teresa's co-pilot. "I don't dare comment on that, so I'll pretend I didn't hear it." Then, back to Teresa, "See you soon, Rip. I'll reserve a room for us at the Hilton."
          "I'll settle for a broom closet," she answered, and hang it if Randall took the wrong meaning. Some people just couldn't imagine that a husband and wife, meeting for the first time in months, might want above all else to make contact, to talk quietly and preserve something neither of them wanted to lose.
          "I'll see what I can arrange. Stempell out."

          After securing the hook, their first task had been to offload tons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Likewise the extra orbital maneuvering propellants Teresa's careful piloting had saved. Every kilo of raw material in orbit was valuable, and the station offloading crew went through the procedures with meticulous care.
          The holo display showed Pleiades suspended, nose upward, just below the bottom portion of the station — Nearpoint — the section closest to Earth. It was a maze of pipes and industrial gear hanging by slender, silvery threads many miles into the planet's gravity well. Teresa watched nervously as three station operators in spacesuits finished draining the aft tanks. Only when the hoses were detached at last did she release a knot of tension. Explosive, corrosive liquids, flowing only meters from her heat shielding, always made her edgy.
          "Crew chief requests permission to commence cargo offloading," Mark told Teresa.
          From the maze above, a giant, articulated manipulator arm approached Pleiades' cargo bay. A spacesuited figure waved from the bay, guiding the arm gingerly toward the mysterious Air Force package.
          Colonel Glenn Spivey observed from the window overlooking the bay. "Easy does it. Come on, you bastards, it's not made of rubber! If you ding it —"
          Fortunately, the crew outside couldn't hear his back-seat driving. And Teresa didn't mind. After all, he was charged with equipment worth several hundred million dollars. Some anxious muttering at this point was understandable.
          So why do I detest the man so much? she wondered.
          For months Spivey had been working closely with her husband on some unspoken project. Perhaps it was her dislike of being excluded, or that nasty word "secrecy." Or perhaps the resentment came simply from seeing the colonel take up so much of Jason's attention, at a time when she was already jealous of others.
          "Others"... meaning that June Morgan woman, of course. Teresa allowed herself a brief remise of resentment. Just don't let it cause an argument, she reminded herself. Not this time. Not up here.
          She turned away from Spivey and scanned the status boards again — attitude, tether-strain, gravity gradient — all appeared nominal.
          In addition to the hook-snatch docking trick, tethered complexes like this one offered many other advantages over old-style "Tinkertoy" space stations. Long, metalized tethers could draw power directly from the Earth's magnetic field, or let you torque against those fields to maneuver without fuel. Also, by yet another quirk of Kepler's laws, both tips of the bola-like structure experienced faint artificial gravity — about a hundredth of a g — helpful for living quarters and handling liquids.
          Teresa appreciated anything that helped make space work. Still, she used remote instruments to examine the braided cables. Super-strong in tension, they were vulnerable to being worn away by microscopic space debris, even meteoroids. Statistical reassurances were less calming than simply checking for herself, so she scanned until sure the fibers weren't on the verge of unraveling.
          Overhearing Spivey, clucking like a nervous hen as his cargo cleared the bay, Teresa smiled. I guess maybe we're not that different in some ways.
          The Russians and Chinese had similar facilities in orbit, as did Nihon and the Euros. But the other dozen or so space-capable nations had abandoned their military outposts as costs rose and the skies came increasingly under civil control. Rumor had it Spivey's folk were trying to cram in as much clandestine work as possible before "secrecy" became as outmoded up here as below.
          The crane operator loaded the Colonel's cargo into an old shuttle tank — now the station freight elevator — and sent it climbing toward the weight-free complex, twenty klicks above.
          "Request permission to prepare airlock for transit, Captain." Spivey was already halfway down the companionway to mid-deck, impatient to join his mysterious machine.
          "Mark will help as soon as the tunnel is pressurized, Colonel."
          One spacesuited astronaut examined the transparent transitway connecting Pleiades' airlock to Nearpoint. He waved through the rear window, signing "all secure."
          "I'll see to Spivey," Mark said, and started to unstrap.
          "Fine." But Teresa found herself watching the spaceman outside. He had remained in the bay after finishing, and she was curious why.
          Climbing atop one of the tanks at the aft end, the station crewman secured his line to the uppermost insulated sphere... then went completely motionless, arms half outstretched before him in the limp, relaxed posture known as the Spacer's Crouch.
          Teresa quashed her momentary concern. Of course. I get it.
          A little ahead of schedule for once, the fellow was seizing a chance that came all too rarely. He was watching the Earth roll by.
          The planet filled half the sky, stretching toward distant, hazy horizons. Directly below paraded a vastly bright panorama that never repeated itself, highlighted topographies that were ever-familiar and yet always startling. At the moment, their orbital track was approaching Spain from the west. Teresa knew because, as always, she had checked their location and heading only moments before. Sure enough, soon the nubby Rock of Gibraltar hove into view.
          Great pressure waves strained against the Pillars of Hercules, as they had ever since that day, tens of thousands of years ago, when the Atlantic Ocean broke through the neck of land connecting Europe and Africa, pouring into the grassy basin that was to become the Mediterranean. Eventually, a new balance was struck between sea and ocean, but ever since then it had remained an equilibrium of tension.
          Where the great waterfall once surged, now diurnal tides interacted in complex patterns of cancellation and reinforcement, focused and reflected by the funnel between Iberia and Morocco. From on high, standing waves seemed to thread the waters for hundreds of kilometers, yet those watery peaks and troughs were actually quite shallow, and had only been discovered after cameras took to space.
          To Teresa, the patterns proved beautifully, once again, Nature's love affair with mathematics. And not only the sea displayed wave motion. She also liked looking down on towering stratocumulus and wind-shredded cirrus clouds. From space the atmosphere seemed so thin — too slender a film to rely all their lives upon. And yet, from here one also sensed that layer's great power.
          Others knew it too. Teresa's sharp eyes picked out sparkling glints which were aircraft — jets and the more common, whale-like zeppelins. Forewarned by weather reports on the Net, they were turning to escape a storm brewing west of Lisbon.
          Mark Randall called from the mid-deck tunnel. "The impatient so-and-so's already got the inner door open! I better take over before he causes a union grievance."
          "You do that," she answered quietly. Mark could handle the passengers. She agreed with the cargo-handler, out in the bay. For a rare instant no duties clamored. Teresa let herself share the epiphanic moment, feeling her breath, her heartbeat, and the turning of the world.
          My God, it's beautiful....
          So it was that she was watching directly, not through Pleiades' myriad instrumentalities, when the color of the sea changed — subtly, swiftly. Pulsations throbbed those very storm clouds as she blinked in amazement.
          Then the Earth seemed suddenly to bow out at her. It was a queer sensation. Teresa felt no acceleration. Yet somehow she knew they were moving, rapidly and non-inertially, in defiance of natural law.
          It did occur to her this might be some form of spacesickness — or maybe she was having a stroke. But neither consideration slowed the reflex that sent her hand stabbing down upon the emergency alarm. With the same fluid motion, Teresa seized her space helmet. In that time-stretched second, as she spun around to take command of her ship again, Teresa caught one indelible glimpse of the crewman in the cargo bay, who had turned, mouth open in a startled, silent cry of warning.

          Back in training, other candidates used to complain about the emergency drills, which seemed designed to wear down, even break the hothouse types who had made it that far. Whenever a trainee felt he had procedures down pat, or that she knew the drill for any contingency — some smartaleck in a white coat inevitably thought up ways to make the next practice run nastier. The chief of simulations hired engineers with sadistic imaginations.
          But Teresa never cursed the Tiger Teams, not even when they threw their worst at her. She used to see it as a never-ending exercise in skill. Perhaps that was why she didn't quail or flinch now, as a storm of noise assailed her.
          The master alarm barely preceded the first peal from the shuttle's backup gyroscope. As she was shutting that down, the characteristic buzzer of the number one hydraulics line started chattering. Station Control wasn't far behind.
          "Gotcha Pleiades, we're onto it.... It looks like... no..."
          Voices shouted in the background. Meanwhile, Pleiades' accelerometers began singing their unique, groaning melody.
          Teresa protested — We can't be accelerating! But her inner sense said differently. Logic would have her shut off the sensors — which were obviously giving false readings. Instead she switched on the shuttle's main recorder.
          Amber lights blazed. She acted quickly to close a critical OMS pressurization line. Then, as if she didn't already have enough troubles, Teresa's peripheral vision started blurring! She could still see down a tunnel. But the zone narrowed even as she shouted — "No. Dumpit, no!"
          Colors rippled across the cabin, turning the cockpit's planned intricacy into a schizophrenic's fingerpainting. Teresa shook her head sharply, hoping to drive out the new affliction. "Control, Pleiades. Am experiencing —"
          "Terry!" A shout from behind her. "I'm coming. Hold on..."
          "Pleiades, Control. We're... having trouble —"
          A shrill squeal interrupted over the open link from Erehwon; it made her wince in dread recognition.
          "Mark, check the boom!" Teresa cried over her shoulder as she peered through a narrowing isthmus at the computer panel by her right knee. The thing was so obsolete it couldn't even take voice commands reliably. So more by rote than sight she flipped a toggle over to MANUAL OVERRIDE.
          "Pleiades, we're going blind —"
          "Same here!" She snapped. "I've got acceleration too, just like you. Tell me something I don't know!"
          The voice fought through gathering static. "We're also getting anomalous increase in tether tension..."
          Teresa felt a chill. "Mark! I said check the boom!"
          "I'm trying!" He shouted from the ceiling port. "It... looks fine, Terry. The boom's okay —"
          "... extremely high anomalous electrical currents in the tether..."
          Two amber blurs switched over to red. "Put your helmet on and get ready to jettison the transitway," Teresa told her co-pilot as more alarms whistled melodies she had never before heard outside a simulator. Teresa felt rather than saw Mark slip into his seat as she pushed aside a switch guard and punched the red button beneath. Instantly they heard a distant crump as explosive charges tore away the plastic tunnel recently attached to their airlock.
          "Transitway jettisoned," Mark confirmed. "Terry, what the hell's going —"
          "Get ready to blow the boom itself," she told him. By touch, Teresa punched buttons on the Digital Autopilot, engaging the shuttle's smaller reaction-control motors. "DAP on manual. RCS engaged. When we break off we'll hang for a minute before dropping. But I think —"
          Teresa paused suddenly as one of the red smudges turned amber. "— I think —"
          Another switched from crimson to yellow-gold. And another. Then an amber light went green.
          As quickly as it had arrived, the frightening rainbow began melting away! She blinked twice, three times. Starting in the middle, the visual blurriness evaporated. Acuity returned as warning lights and musical alarms subsided one by one.
          "Pleiades..." Station Control sounded breathless. Buzzers were shutting down over there, as well."Pleiades, we seem to be returning —"
          "Same here," she interrupted. "But what about the tether tension!"
          "Pleiades, tether tension... is slackening." Control's tone was relieved. "Must have been transient, whatever the hell it was. There may be some backlash though..."
          Mark and Teresa looked at each other. She felt stretched, pummeled, abused. Was it really over? As more amber lights winked out, they inventoried damage. Miraculously, Pleiades seemed unharmed.
          Except, of course, for the million-dollar transit tube she'd just jettisoned. The passengers weren't going to appreciate being ferried like so many beachballs, in personal survival enclosures. But their resentment couldn't match that of the bean-counters in Washington, if no justification were at hand.
          "Jeez. What if we'd gone ahead and blown the boom?" Mark muttered. "Better put that squib on safety, Terry." He nodded toward the primed trigger, flashing dangerously between their seats.
          "Hold on a sec." Teresa's eyes roved the cockpit, seeking... anything. Any clue to the mysterious episode. She tapped her throat mike. "Control, Pleiades. Confirm your estimate that backlash will be minimal. We don't want to face —"
          That was when her gaze lighted on the inertial guidance display, showing where in space their ring laser gyroscope thought they were. She read it like a newspaper headline. The numbers were bizarre, and rapidly changing in ways Teresa didn't like at all!
          Eye-flicks took in the corresponding readouts of the star tracker and satellite navigation systems. They were in total conflict, and none of them agreed with what the seat of her pants was telling her.
          "Control! I'm disengaging, under emergency protocols."
          "Wait Pleiades! There's no need. You may increase our backlash!"
          "I'll take that chance. Meanwhile, better check your own inertial units. Have you got a gravitometer?"
          "Affirmative. But what..."
          "Check it! Pleiades out."
          Then, to Mark — "You blow the boom, I'll handle the DAP. Jettison on count of three. One!"
          Randall had his hands on the panel, still he remonstrated. "You sure? We'll catch hell . . ."
          "Two!" She gripped the control stick.
          "Terry —"
          Intuition tickled. She felt it — whatever it was — returning with a vengeance.
          "Blow it, Mark!"
          Before she even felt the vibration of the charges, Teresa activated her vernier jets in translational mode, doing as any good pilot would in a crisis — guiding her ship away from anything more substantial than a thought or a cloud.
          "What the hell is going on up here? Have you both lost your minds?"
          A sharp voice from behind them. Without turning she snapped, "Colonel Spivey, strap in and shut up!"
          Her harried, professional tone worked better than any curse or threat. Spivey might be obnoxious, but he was no fool. She sensed his quick departure and swept him from her mind as reaction jets wrestled the orbiter's reluctant mass slowly away from the station's tangle of cranes and storage tanks. On the back of Teresa's neck all the tiny hairs shivered.
          "Pleiades, you're right. The phenomenon is periodic. Anomalous tension is returning. Gravitometer's gone crazy... tides of unprecedented —"
          A second voice interrupted, cutting off the controller. "Pleiades, this is Station Commander Perez. Prepare to receive emergency telemetry."
          "Affirmative." Teresa swallowed, knowing what this meant. She felt Mark lean past her to make sure the ship's datasuck boxes were operating at top speed. In that mode they recorded every nuance for one purpose only, so endangered spacers could obey Rule Number One of their trade. . .
          Let the next guy know what killed you.
          The station commander was dumping his operational status into Pleiades in real time — a dire measure for the chief of a secret military station. That made Teresa all the more anxious to get away fast.
          She ignored navigational aids, checking orientation by instinct and estimate. Teresa groaned on realizing two main thrusters were aimed at Nearpoint's cryo tanks, risking a titanic explosion if she fired them. That left only tiny verniers to nudge the heavy shuttle. She switched to a roll maneuver, cursing the slowness of the turn.
          "Oh, shit! Mark, is that guy still in the cargo bay?"
          The creepy nausea was returning, she could tell as she fought the sluggish spacecraft. Nearby, Mark laughed suddenly, and a bit shrilly. "He's still there. Helmet pressed to the window. Guy's mad, Terry."
          "Stop calling me Terry!" she snapped, turning to get a fix on Nearpoint again. If the tanks were clear now...
          Teresa stared. They weren't there anymore!
          Nothing was there. Tanks, habitats, cranes... Everything was gone!
          Alarms resumed their blared warnings. With her instruments turning amber and red again, Teresa decided Erehwon was none of her business, now. She punched buttons labeled "X-TRANSLATIONAL" and "HIGH," then squeezed the stick to trigger a full-throated hypergolic roar, sending Pleiades where she figured the station and tether weren't.
          Mark called out pressures and flow rates. Teresa counted seconds as the blurriness encroached again. "Move, you dumpit bitch. Move!" She cursed the massive, awkward orbiter.
          "I found the station." Mark announced. "Jesus. Look at that."
          Through a narrowing tunnel Teresa glanced at the radar screen. She gasped. The bottom assembly was more than five kilometers below them and receding fast. The tether had stretched suddenly, like a child's rubber toy. "Damn!" she heard Mark Randall cry. Then Teresa had difficulty hearing or seeing anything at all.
          This time the squidgy feeling went from her eyes straight back through her central sinus. The blaring of new alarms mixed with strange noises originating within her own skull. One alert crooned the dour song of a cooling system gone berserk. Unable to see which portion, Teresa flicked switches by touch, disabling all the exchange loops. She had Mark close down the fuel cells as well. If the situation didn't improve before they ran out of battery juice, it wouldn't matter anyway.
          "All three APUs are inoperable!" Mark shouted through a rising roar of crazy noise.
          "Forget 'em. Leave 'em turned off."
          "All of them?"
          "I said all! The bug's in the hydraulic lines, not the APUs. All long fluid lines are affected."
          "How do we close the cargo bay doors without hydraulics?" he protested through rising static that nearly drowned his words. "We won't... able to... during re-entry!"
          "Leave that to me," she shouted back. "Close all lines except rear hypergolics, and pray they hold!"
          Teresa thought she heard his acknowledgment, and a clicking that might have been those switches being closed. Or it could have been just another weird sensory distortion.
          Without hydraulics they couldn't gimbal the main maneuvering rockets. She'd have to make do with RCS jets, flying blind in a chiarascuro of distortion and shadow. By touch Teresa disengaged the autopilot completely. She fired the small jets in matched pairs, relying on vibration alone to verify a response. It was true seat-of-the-pants flying, with no way to confirm she was moving Pleiades farther from that dangerously overstretched tether, or perhaps right toward it....
          Sound became smell. Roiling images scratched her skin. Amid cacophonous static Teresa thought she actually heard Jason, calling her name. But the voice blew away in the noisome gale before she could tell whether it was real or phantom — one of countless chimeras clamoring from all sides.
          For all she knew she was permanently blind. But that didn't matter. Nothing mattered except the battle to save her ship.

          Vision finally did clear, at last, with the same astonishing speed as it had been lost. A narrow tunnel snapped into focus, expanding rapidly till only the periphery sparkled with those eerie shades. Screaming alarms began shutting down.
          The transition left her stunned, staring unbelieving at the once-familiar cabin. The chronometer said less than ten minutes had passed. It felt like hours.
          "Um," she commented with a dry throat. Once again, Pleiades had the nerve to start acting as if nothing had happened. Red lights turned amber; amber became green. Teresa herself wasn't about to recover so quickly, for sure.
          Mark sneezed with terrific force. "Where — where's Erehwon? Where's the tether?" A few minutes thrust couldn't have taken them far. But the approach and rendezvous display showed nothing at all. Teresa switched to a higher scale.
          Nothing. The station was nowhere.
          Mark whispered. "What happened to it?"
          Teresa changed radar settings, expanding scale again and ordering a full-spectrum doppler scan. This time, at last, a scattering of blips appeared. Her mouth suddenly tasted ashen.
          "There's... pieces of it."
          A cluster of large objects had entered much higher orbit, rising rapidly as Pleiades receded in her own ellipse. One transmitted an emergency beacon, identifying it as part of the station's central complex. "We better do a circularization burn," Mark said. "to have a chance of rescuing anybody."
          Teresa blinked once more. I should've thought of that.
          "Check... check all the tank and line pressures first," she said, still staring at the mess that had been the core of Reagan Station. Something had rent the tethers... and all the spars connecting the modules, for good measure. That force might return anytime, but they owed it to their fellow spacers to try to save those left alive.
          "Pressures look fine," Mark reported. "Give me a minute to compute a burn. It'll be messy."
          "That's okay. We'll use up our reserves. Kennedy and Kourou are probably already scrambling launchers —" She stopped, ears perked to a strange tapping sound. Another symptom? But no, it came from behind her. She swiveled angrily. If that damned Spivey had come back...
          A face in the rear window made Teresa gasp, then she sighed. It was only their inadvertent hitchhiker, the spacesuited crewman, his helmet still pressed against the perspex screen.
          "Hmph," she commented. "Our guest doesn't look as pissed off as before." In fact, the expression behind the steamed-up face plate beamed unalloyed gratitude. "He must have seen Nearpoint come apart. By now it may already be in the atmos..."
          She stopped suddenly. "Jason!"
          "What?" Mark looked up from the computer.
          "Where's the upper tip? Where's Farpoint!"
          Teresa scrabbled at the radar display, readjusting to its highest scale on auto-frequency scan — taking in the blackness far from Earth just in time to catch a large blip that streaked past the outer edge of the screen.
          "Sweet Gaia... look at the doppler!" Randall stared. "It's moving at... at..." He didn't finish. Teresa could read the screen as well as he.
          The glowing letters lingered, even after the fleeting blip departed. They burned in the display and in their hearts.
          Jason, Teresa thought, unable to comprehend or cope with what she'd seen. Her voice caught, and when she finally spoke it was simply to say, "six... thousand kilometers... per second."
          It was impossible of course. Teresa shook her head in numb, unreasoning disbelief that Jason would have, could have done this to her!
          "Kakashkiya," she sighed.
          "He's leaving me... at two percent of the goddamn speed of light..."

▣ It was Ate, first-born daughter of Zeus, who used the golden apple to tempt three vain goddesses, setting the stage for tragedy. Moreover, it was Ate who made Paris fall for Helen, and Agamemnon for Breises. Ate filled the Trojans' hearts with a love of horses, whose streaming manes laid grace upon the plains of Ilium. To Ulysses she gave a passion for new things.
          For these and other innovations, Ate became known as Mother of Infatuation. For these she was also called Sower of Discord.
          Did she realize her invention would eventually lead to Hecuba's anguish atop the broken walls of Troy? Some say she spread dissension only at her father's bidding... that Zeus himself connived to bring about that dreadful war "... so its load of death might free the groaning land from the weight of so many men."
          Still, when he saw the bloody outcome, Zeus mourned. Gods who had supported Troy joined those backing Hellas, and all agreed to lay the blame on Ate.
          Banished to Earth, she brought along her invention, and its effects would prove as far-reaching as that earlier boon — the gift of Prometheus. Indeed, what could Reason ever accomplish for mankind by itself, without Passion to drive it on?
          Infatuation spread, for well and ill. Life, once simple, became vivid, challenging, confusing. Hearts raced. Veins sang with recklessness. Wild gambles paid off fantastically, or tumbled into memorable fiascos.
          There came to Earth a thing called "love".
          Infatuation forever changed the world. That is why some came to call it the "Meadow of Ate."

● Core (chapter 7)

The last tremors were over, but it took several minutes for the technicians to crawl out from under their desks. Through cascading hazes of limestone dust they peered about, making sure the quake was really over. Some cast awed glances toward the nexus console, where Alex Lustig had remained throughout the unexpected temblors.
          One unspoken thought circulated among them — that any bloke who could make the Earth rattle was surely one to reckon with.
          Inside, Alex wasn't quite as calm as he seemed. In truth, exhaustion and sheer astonishment were what had kept him at his station while others dove for cover, far more than bravado or showy courage. This sudden power to cause earthquakes was a completely unexpected side-effect of their project, and of trivial importance next to the news he now saw before him.
          Unfortunately, they had found exactly what they were looking for.
          The cutaway hologram told the story. Where only one purple dot had been depicted before — looping a deeply buried orbit about the planet's center — now a second object could be seen circling even lower. What had been only dire suspicion was now reified and horrible.
          "It's down there, all right," George Hutton's chief physicist reported, lifting his hard hat to smooth back his sparse white hair. Stan Goldman's hands trembled. "We'll need data from other listening posts to pin it down precisely."
          "Can you estimate its mass?" Hutton asked. The Maori tycoon sat on the other side of the console, wearing a scowl that would have made the warriors of Te Heuheu proud. During the quakes he, too, had spurned shelter. But the techs only expected that of him.
          Goldman pored over his screen. "Looks like just under a trillion tons. That's several orders heavier than Alex's... than the first one. Than Alpha."
          "And its other dimensions?"
          "Too small to measure on linear scales. It's another singularity, all right."
          George turned to Alex. "Why didn't we detect this other thing before?"
          "It seems there are more ways to modulate gravity waves than anyone imagined." Alex motioned with his hands. "To pick any one object out of the chaos below, we have to calculate and match narrow bandwidths and impedances. Our earlier searches were tuned to find Alpha, and picked up Beta only by inference."
          "You mean..." George gestured at the tank, "there may be more of the things down there?"
          Alex blinked. He hadn't thought that far ahead. "Give me a minute."
          Speaking softly into a microphone, he pulled sub-routines from his utility library, creating charts and simulations near the hologram. "No," he said at last. "If there were more they'd affect the others' orbits. It's just those two. And my... and singularity Alpha is decaying rapidly."
          George grunted. "What about the big one? I take it that damn thing is growing?"
          Alex nodded, reluctant to speak. As a physicist he was supposed to accept the primacy of objective reality. Yet there remained a superstitious suspicion in his heart, that dark potentialities only become real after you have spoken them aloud.
          "Seems to be," he said, with difficulty.
          "I agree," added Stan.
          Hutton paced through the still-drifting dust, in front of the gleaming gravity-wave generator. "If it's growing, we know several things." He held up one finger. "First, Beta can't be terribly old, or it would have consumed the Earth long ago, neh?"
          "It could be a natural singularity left over from the Big Bang, which hit Earth only recently," Stan suggested.
          "Weak, very weak. Wouldn't an interstellar object be moving at hyperbolic speeds?" Hutton shook his head. "It might pass through a planet on a fluke, but then it'd just fly off into space again, barely slowed at all."
          Alex nodded, accepting the point.
          "Also," Hutton went on. "It stretches credulity such an object would happen to arrive just now, when we have the technology to detect it. Besides, you yourself said small singularities are unstable — be they holes or strings or whatever — unless they're specially tuned to sustain themselves!"
          "You're saying someone else has...?"
          "Obviously! Come on, Lustig. Do you think you're the only bright guy on the planet? Face it, you've been scooped. Preceded! Someone beat you to it, by inventing a better cavitron perhaps, or using something different.
          "Probably something different, more sophisticated, since this is worse than your pathetic thing, your Alpha!" George spread a grin absent of mirth. "Accept it, Alex-boy. Someone out there whipped you at your own game... somebody better at playing mad scientist."
          Alex didn't know what to say. He watched the big man's expression turn thoughtful.
          "Or maybe it's not just a lone madman this time. I wonder.... Governments and ruling cliques are good at coming up with ways to destroy the world. Maybe one was developing some sort of Doomsday Device? An ultimate deterrent? Maybe, like you, they released it by mistake."
          "Then why keep it secret?"
          "To prevent retribution, of course. Or to gain time while they plot an escape to Mars?"
          Alex shook his head. "I can't speculate about any of that. All I can do is —"
          "No." George stabbed a finger at him. "Let me tell you what you can do. First off, you can get busy confirming this data. And then, after that..."
          The fire seemed to drain out of Hutton's eyes. His shoulders slumped. "After that you can tell me how much time I have left with my children, before that thing down there swallows up the ground beneath our feet."
          The frightened techs shifted nervously. Stan Goldman watched his own hands. Alex, however, felt a different sense of loss. He wished he too could react in such a way — with anger, defiance, despair.
          Why do I feel so little? Why am I so numb?
          Was it because he'd been living with this possibility so much longer than George?
          Or is George right? Am I miffed that someone else obviously did a bigger, better job of monster making than I ever could?
          Whoever it had been, they were certainly no more competent at keeping monsters caged. Small satisfaction there.
          "Before we do more gravity probes," Stan Goldman said. "Hadn't we better find out why that last scan set off seismic tremors? I've never heard of anything like it before."
          George laughed. "Tremors? You want quakes? Just wait till Beta's grown to critical size, and starts swallowing up the Earth's core. Chunks of mantle will collapse inward... then you'll see earthquakes!"
          Swiveling in disgust, Hutton strode off toward the stairs to climb back to Ao-marama — to the world of light. For some time after he departed, nobody did or said much. The staff desultorily cleaned up. Once, Stan Goldman seemed about to speak, then closed his mouth and shook his head.
          A nervous engineer approached Alex, holding a message plaque. "Um, speaking of earthquakes, I thought you'd better see this." He slid the sheet onto the console between Stan and Alex. On its face rippled the bold letters of a standard World-Net tech-level press release:


          "Hm, what does this have to do with...?" Then Alex noticed — the Spanish quakes had struck at exactly the same time as the jolts here in New Zealand! Turning to the whole-Earth cutaway, he made some comparisons, and whistled. As nearly as the eyeball had it, the two swarms had taken place one hundred and eighty degrees apart — on exactly opposite sides of the globe.
          In other words, a straight line, connecting New Zealand and Spain, passed almost exactly through the planet's core.
          He watched the new singularity, the one called "Beta", follow a low, lazy trajectory, never climbing far from the inmost zone where density and pressure were highest, where its nourishment was richest.
          It does more than grow, Alex realized, amazed the universe could awe him yet again. It does one hell of a lot more than grow.
          "Stan —" he began.
          "You've noticed too? Puzzling, isn't it?"
          "Mm. Let's find out what it means."
          So they were immersed in arcane mathematics, barely even aware of the world outside the realm of numbers, when someone turned a dial to amplify the breathless voices of news reporters, describing a disaster in space.

THE END of these sample chapters


about this book

In EARTH it's fifty years from tomorrow. A microscopic black hole has accidentally fallen into the Earth's core and the entire planet is in danger of being destroyed within two years. A team of scientists frantically searches for a way to prevent the ultimate disaster. But while they look for an answer, others argue that the only way to save the Earth is to let the million-year evolutionary clock rewind and start over.

Copyright © 1990 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

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DAVID BRIN scientist

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David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
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