New Year's Eve, 599
It seems safe now to assume that the terrestrial origin of life was a unique event. Some will quibble that we have, after all, seen only a few thousand of the billions of worlds drifting down the gently curving corridors we once called biozones. But we have stood on too many warm beaches and looked across seas over which no gulls hover, that throw forth neither shells, nor strands of weed, nor algae. They are peaceful seas, bounded by rock and sand.
The universe has come to resemble a magnificent but sterile wilderness, an ocean which boasts no friendly coast, no sails, no sign that any have passed this way before. And we cannot help but tremble in the gray light of these vast distances. Maybe that is why we are converting the great interstellar liners into museums, or selling them for parts. Why we have begun to retreat, why the Nine Worlds are now really six, why the frontier is collapsing, why we are going home to our island.
We are coming back at last to Earth. To the forests of our innocence. To the shores of night. Where we need not listen to the seaborne wind.
Farewell, Centaurus. Farewell to all we might have been.
Elio Kardi, "The Shores of Night," Voyagers, 571
"Nova goes in three minutes."
Dr. Kimberly Brandywine looked out across the dozen or so faces in the briefing room. In back, lenses were pointed at her, sending the event out across the nets. Behind her, projections read HELLO TO THE UNIVERSE and KNOCK and IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?
Several flatscreens were positioned around the walls, showing technicians bent over terminals in the Trent. These were the teams that would ignite the nova, but the images were fourteen hours old, the time required for the hypercomm transmissions to arrive.
Everyone present was attractive and youthful, except sometimes for their eyes. However vital and agile people were, their true age tended to reveal itself in their gaze. There was a hardness that came with advancing years, eyes that somehow lost their depth and their animation. Kim was in her mid-thirties, with exquisite features and hair the color of a raven's wing. In an earlier era, they would have launched ships for her. In her own age, she was just part of the crowd.
"If we haven't found anybody after all this time," the representative from Seabright Communications was saying, "it can only be because there's nobody to find. Or, if there is, they're so far away it doesn't matter."
She delivered her standard reply, discounting the great silence, pointing out that even after eight centuries, humans had still inspected only a few thousand star systems. "But you may be right," she admitted. "Maybe we are alone. But the fact is that we really don't know. So we'll keep trying."
Kim had long since concluded that Seabright was right. They hadn't found so much as an amoeba out there. Briefly, at the beginning of the Space Age, there'd been speculation that life might exist in Europa's seas. Or in Jupiter's clouds. There'd even been a piece of meteoric rock thought to contain evidence of Martian bacteria. It was as close to extraterrestrial life as we'd ever come.
Hands were still waving.
"One more question," she said.
She gave it to Canon Woodbridge, a science advisor for the Grand Council of the Republic. He was tall, dark, bearded, almost satanic in appearance, yet a congenial fiend, one who meant no harm. "Kim," he said, "why do you think we're so afraid of being alone? Why do we want so much to find our own reflections out there?" He glanced in the direction of the screens, where the technicians continued their almost-ceremonial activities.
How on earth would she know? "I have no idea, Canon," she said.
"But you're deeply involved in the Beacon Project. And your sister devoted her life to the same goal."
"I guess it's in the wiring." she said. Emily, her clone actually, had vanished when Kim was seven. She paused momentarily and tried to deliver a thoughtful response, something about the human need to communicate and to explore. "I suspect," she said, "if there's really nothing out there, if the universe is really empty, or at least this part of it is, then maybe a lot of us would feel there's no point to the trip." There was mo,re to it than that, she knew. Some primal urge not to be alone. But when she tried to put it into words she floundered around, gave up, and glanced at the clock.
One minute to midnight, New Year's Eve, in the two hundred eleventh year of the Republic, and the six hundredth year since Marquand's landing. One minute to detonation.
"How are we doing on time?" asked one of the journalists. "Are they on schedule?"
"Yes," Kim said. "As of ten a.m. this morning." The hypercomm signal from the Trent required fourteen hours and some odd minutes to travel the 580 lightyears from the scene of detonation. "I think we're safe to assume that the nova is imminent.
She activated an overhead screen, which picked up an image of the target star. Alpha Maxim was a bright AO-class. Hydrogen lines prominent. Surface temperature 11,000 degrees Celsius. Luminosity sixty times that of Helios. Five planets. All barren. Like every other known world, save the few that had been terraformed.
It would be the first of six novas. All would occur within a volume of space which measured approximately five hundred cubic lightyears. And they would be triggered at sixty-day intervals. It would be a demonstration that could not help but draw the attention of anyone who might be watching. The ultimate message to the stars: We are here.
But she believed, as almost everyone else did, that the great silence would continue to roll back.
We live along the shores of night,
At the edge of the eternal sea.
The effort was called the Beacon Project. Its sponsor was Kim's employer, the Seabright Institute. But even there, among those who had pushed the project, who had worked for years to bring it to fruition, there was a deep, pervading pessimism. Maybe it resulted form the knowledge that they'd all be dead before any possible answer could come back. Or maybe, as she wholeheartedly believed, it grew from a sense that this was a final gesture, more farewell than serious attempt at communication.
Emily, who had given her life to the great quest, would have been ashamed of her. It just demonstrated, Kim thought, how little the DNA really counted.
The Trent lay at a distance of five AU's from its target. The ship was an ancient cargo vessel refitted specifically for Beacon. Immediately after detonation, its crew and technicians would transfer to another vessel, which would transit into hyperspace, out of harm's way. The Trent would be left to probe and measure the nova until the blast silenced it.
Kim threw a switch and a computer-generated image of the LK6, a modified antique transport, formed in the center of the room. The LK6 was loaded with antimatter, contained within a magnetic bubble. It was traveling in hyperspace and, within a few seconds, would emerge in the solar core. If all went well, the resulting explosion would destabilize the star and, according to theory, ignite the first artificial nova.
A clock in the lower right hand corner indicated the time of the image, and a counter ticked off the last seconds, simultaneously the last of the century and the last before the LK6 entry.
Kim watched the numbers go to zeroes. The year rolled over to 600 and 580 lightyears away the missile inserted itself and its payload into the heart of the star.
Outside, the Institute people applauded. In the briefing room, the mood was strange, almost somber. Maxim was older than Helios, and there was a general sense that ending its existence was somehow wrong.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Kim, "the pictures will be in tomorrow and we'll have them for you at the news conference." She thanked them and stepped away from the lectern, and they began to file out of the room.
Woodbridge lingered, looking out the window at the Institute's grounds. They were covered with a thin layer of snow. He waited for Kim to join him. "I wonder," he said, "whether it's a good idea to advertise our presence until we know who the neighbors are." He wore a dark brown robe belted with a silver sash, and his sea green eyes were thoughtful.
"It's a valid question, Canon," she said, "but surely anyone intelligent enough to develop interstellar travel would be above shooting up strangers."
"Hard to say." He shrugged. "If we guess wrong, we could pay a substantial price." He looked up at the clear, bright sky. "It's obvious that Whoever designed the cosmos likes to put distance between his creatures."
They pulled on their jackets and walked out onto a terrace. The night was cold.
Seabright was only a few hundred kilometers north of the equator, but Greenway, despite its name, was not a particularly warm world. The bulk of its population was concentrated in equatorial latitudes.
An array of telescopes had been set up at the north end of the terrace, away from the buildings. A technician stood beside one with a girl. The telescope was pointed toward the
southeast, where Alpha Maxim was just one more pinpoint of light.
The girl's name was Lyra. She was the technician's daughter, probably ten years old, and could reasonably expect to live two centuries.
"I wonder if she thinks she'll be able to see the nova," said Woodbridge.
Kim smiled. "Ask her."
He did, and Lyra smiled one of those vaguely comtemptuous smiles that children use when they think adults are being condescending. "No, Canon," she said, while her mother looked pleased. "It will not change in my lifetime."
Nor of her kids, thought Kim. Light was so slow.
Woodbridge turned back to her. "Kim," he said, "may I ask you a personal question?"
"Do you have any idea what happened to Emily?"
It was a strange question, coming apparently from nowhere. But maybe not, now that she thought about it. Emily would have wanted to be here tonight. Woodbridge had known her, and he understood that about her. "No," Kim said. "Got in that taxi and never showed up at the hotel. That's all I know." She looked past the telescopes. Lyra's mother had decided it was too cold to stay out any longer, and she was ushering the child inside. "We never heard a word."
Woodbridge nodded. "It's hard to understand how something like that could happen." They lived in a society in which crime was almost unknown.
"I know. It was hard on the family." She pulled her collar higher to ward off the night air. "She'd have supported Beacon, but she would have been impatient with it."
"Takes too long. We're trying to say hello in a scientific way, but nobody expects a reply for millennia. At best. She'd have wanted results tonight."
"What about you?"
"What about what?"
"How do you feel about all this? I can't believe you're satisfied with Beacon either."
She looked at the sky. Utterly empty, as far as the eye can see. "Canon," she said, "I'd like to know the truth. But it isn't something that drives my life." I am not my sister.
"I feel much the same way. But I must admit I'd prefer it if we're alone. Much safer that way."
Kim nodded. "Why did you ask?" she said. "About my sister?"
"No reason, really. You look so much alike. And you're both so caught up in the same issue. In there tonight, listening to you, I almost felt she was back."
Kim called a cab and went up to the roof. While she waited she checked her mail and found a message from Solly: "Don't forget tomorrow."
Solly was one of the Institute's pilots and a fellow diving enthusiast. They'd made plans several days ago to go down to the wreck of the Caledonian. That would be in the late afternoon, after the transmissions had come in from the Trent, and everyone had celebrated properly, and the media people had gone off to put together their stories.
Kim had visited the wreck before. The Caledonian was a fishing yacht, lying in twenty fathoms, on the seaward side of Capelo Island. She liked the sense of timelessness the sunken ship evoked, the feeling that she was living simultaneously in different eras. The excursion would also provide a break from the long hours and extended effort of the last few weeks.
The cab landed and she climbed in, touched her bracelet to the dex and told it to take her home. It lifted, arced around toward the east, and accelerated. She heard the blatt of a horn as she left, a final farewell from someone celebrating either Beacon or New Year's. Then she was sailing over forest and parkland. Seabright's towers in the north glittered with lights. The parks fell away into sandy beach and the cab glided out over the sea.
Greenway was predominantly a water world. Its single continent was Equatoria, and Seabright lay on its eastern coast. At its widest, it was just over seven hundred kilometers across. The globe-spanning ocean had no name.
The cab skimmed low over the water, crossed Bagby Inlet and the hotball courts on Branch Island. It sailed out beyond the channel, passed a couple of yachts, and began its approach to Korbee Island, a two-kilometer-long strip of land so narrow that many of its houses had ocean views front and back.
Kim's home, like most of the others in the area, was a two-story with a wraparound lower deck. It was rounded at the corners to counter the force of the winds that blew almost constantly off the ocean.
The cab descended onto her landing pad, which was located behind the house on a platform elevated over the incoming tide. She climbed down and stood wearily for a moment, listening to the sea. The rest of the island seemed dark and silent except for the Dickensons, who were still celebrating the new year. Out on the beach, she could see a campfire. Kids.
It had been a long day and she was tired and glad to be home. But she suspected her weariness was not a result of the sixteen or so hours that had passed since she'd left this morning. Rather it had risen from her knowledge that she'd come to the end of something important. Beacon had been launched, and the public relations aspect of it would be given over to someone else. She would go back to her regular fundraising duties. Damned poor career for an astrophysicist. The reality was that she didn't sparkle at her specialty, but she did have a talent for talking people into giving substantial contributions.
She started toward the house and the taxi lifted off. Lights came on. The door opened for her. "Good evening, Kim," said Shepard. "I see the program went well." Shepard was the household AI.
"Yes, it did, Shep. As far as we know, everything's on schedule." Like all AI's, Shepard was theoretically not self-aware. Everything was simulation. True artificial intelligence remained beyond the reach of science, and the common wisdom now held that it was impossible. But one was never sure where simulation ended. "Of course we won't really know for another twelve hours."
"You had several calls," he said. "Mostly congratulatory." He ticked off a list of names, friends and professional colleagues and a few relatives.
"And at least one," she said, "that wasn't congratulatory?"
"Well, this one too commended you. But that wasn't the reason he called. It was from Sheyel Tolliver."
Sheyel? That was a name out of the past. Sheyel had been a professor of history at the university during her undergraduate years. He'd been a superb instructor, and he'd taken an interest in her despite the fact that she was a physics major. She was somewhat adrift then. Her parents had died in a flyer accident, the first one recorded in Seabright in five years. It had happened when she was a sophomore, and Sheyel had gone out of his way for her, had made himself available when she wanted to talk, had encouraged her, reassured her, and in the end got her to believe in herself. "Did he say what he wanted?"
"Only that he wishes to speak with you. I don't think he's well."
"Where is he?"
"In Tempest." Three hundred kilometers away.
She was pleased that he'd remembered her. But she couldn't imagine why he was contacting her after so many years. "That's really strange," she said.
"He asked that you call him directly when you returned home."
She glanced at her link. It was past 1:00 a.m. "I'll call him in the morning."
"Kim, he was quite specific."
"It'll have to wait. I'm sure he didn't expect me to get him up in the middle of the night." She went into the kitchen and made a cup of coffee, talked idly with the AI for twenty minutes, and decided to call it a night.
She showered, turned out the lights, and stood at her window looking at the breakers. The section of the sky which held Alpha Maxim had rotated up over the roof where she couldn't see it. The fire on the beach had apparently been abandoned but had not quite gone out. She watched sparks rising into the night.
"It is beautiful," said Shepard.
Something ached within her, but she couldn't have said what it was. The tide was out and had not yet turned, so the sea was silent. She could almost have believed it wasn't there tonight, gone into the dark with Emily.
It was hard, on this special night, to put her sister out of her mind. Their last day together had included a frolic in the surf. They'd had a rubber sea horse from which Kim kept deliberately sliding. Help, Emily. And the beautiful woman whose image she knew she'd one day inherit had pretended endlessly to be startled anew and would splash to her rescue. That Kim would one day be Emily had made her impossibly happy. There'd been pictures of Emily at seven, and Mom had always shaken her head over them. "Why, isn't that Kim?" she would say, knowing quite well who was in the picture.
At the end of that afternoon, Emily had told her she was going away for fifteen months. An eternity to a child. Kim had been angry, had refused to speak as they rode home in a taxi. It was the last time she saw her sister. And there had rarely been a day in all the years since that she had not wished she could get that taxi ride back.
A few months later she had been leaving for school and her mother had sat her down and told her something had happened, they weren't sure what, but.
Nobody could find her. Emily was supposed to have come home, and had come back to Greenway ahead of schedule. She'd come down from Sky Harbor into Terminal City and gotten into a cab with another woman to go to their hotel. But they never got there. And nobody knew what had happened.
Someone was walking on the beach. A woman with a dog. Despite the cold, Kim watched until they disappeared around the bend at the shoal and the beach was empty again. "Yes, it is beautiful, Shep," she said.
She pulled on a fresh pair of pajamas, which were of course connected to Shepard's systems and capable of producing appropriate sensations. The curtains rustled in a sudden breeze and she climbed into bed. Shepard turned out the lights. "Program tonight, Kim?" he asked.
"You wish me to choose?" She always left it to him. It was more exciting that way.
"Goodnight, Kim," he said.
Copyright © Cryptic, Inc. 2000