The last thing computer circuit planner Daniel Kitajima remembered was being hit by a crane at an orbital construction site. Waking up 80 years later - in 2089 - he found that most of his body had been destroyed...but he had survived. A group of doctors had constructed an artificial body that gave him superhuman strength, the ability to survive without food or air, the powers of radar and infrared vision. All Daniel wanted was to resume a normal life. But his new-found strengths had attracted the attention of powerful people with a devastating secret - that the solar system only has a few centuries to live...
Release date: December 17, 2015
Print pages: 320
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Richard A. Lupoff
“How’re you coming, Dan?” He looked up as Avram Novon’s voice crackled through his helmet radio.
“Okay. Be a lot happier once this glitch is cooled.” He could see Novon, his flat-white suit marked with distinctive incandescent green recognition panels, riding a medium-duty materials hefter. Dan could make out the howitzer-like barrel of a 150-centimeter-diameter telescope clutched in the hefter’s waldoes.
“You ’stronomy kids never cease to,” Dan dug at Novon. “All the radiation-sensing work of the past fifty years, and probes to go look at the local dumps, and here you are playing with optical gear again. What’s next, horoscopes?”
“Never mind, bucko,” Novon snapped back. “You get that coffin full of tubes and wires working and then we can talk about something real.” Novon turned back to his work, gingerly fitting the massive barrel to the brackets where it would remain while it was sighted in.
Forgetfully, Dan started to wipe his forehead with the back of his hand. He remembered his spacesuit and instead moved his head against the helmet pad. The suit’s air-recycling system and monitoring circuits carefully adjusted the level of moisture at all times, just as the temperature control maintained a steady comfortable level for him. Dan shouldn’t be sweating. Certainly the sweat shouldn’t roll down his forehead into his eyes and make them sting fiercely. Not here in free-fall balanced carefully at the leading point of a static earth-moon triangle.
But it did.
He returned his concentration to his work. He spoke a log entry into the suit’s recorder pickup and tapped out a set of instructions on the keyboard inside the suit’s elephantine wrist.
Servos hummed softly and the suit retracted the electro-stethoscope Dan had been using; in its place, the suit extended a hex-collared Phillips-head blade.
Dan nodded, blinked, pressed the blade against the plate-retainer nut nearest him and twisted a gnarled cylinder.
The blade responded, locking against the retainer nut, and began smoothly to revolve.
When the last retainer nut was undogged, Dan swung the plate back from the processor service panel. He looked away again, his attention caught by the planet below. He could see his native California, the Sierras looming rugged and slatelike, sloping away through autumn-brown farmlands to the low coastal region and the offshore fogbanks and cloud systems that covered the eastern portion of the Pacific.
He didn’t check the time on any chronograph other than the steady progress of the terminator across the North American continent. Robert and Elizabeth would have finished their afternoon naps by now, and their mother, Marie-Elaine, would be getting them up, changing them, putting them in their playpen.
Probably Daniel’s mother Janice was with Marie-Elaine, chattering, offering advice, providing companionship while Dan carried out his duties halfway to the moon. He knew that his mother enjoyed being with Marie-Elaine and the twins; she was performing no selfless service staying with them in his absence. Still, he was relieved that Marie-Elaine had the older woman to provide help and company.
Over Dan’s shoulder the sun was a perfect white disc.
He pressed the display command override on the processor module and grunted at the numbers that glowed back at him the color of a polished emerald. He tapped out a message on his wrist-keyboard, watched the Phillips-head blade retract and a skeletal full-hand waldo hum into position in its place. He laid his hand over the waldo master-plate and ran a series of exercises, smiling at the performance of the hand. He had designed most of its control circuits.
“You busy, Avram?” he radioed.
“Hey, just for fun, give me something easy for this box to translate.”
“Any particular languages? Hebrew to Oglala Sioux?”
“Hey, make it easy for starters.”
“Okay.” A pause while Novon gathered his thoughts. “Okay,” he repeated, “English to Esperanto. ‘How many kilometers to Venus, Jack?’ That do it, Dan?”
“Let me know.”
Daniel glanced at Novon again, centering on the other man’s green square panels. Past Novon a huge crane, holding itself stable with little vernier puffs of compressed air, fitted giant plates into position for welding crews.
A touch to a pressure plate brought the processor keyboard to life. The letters on the keys glowed red; the numbers, yellow. Dan turned on readout display, checked the printer to see that it was turned off. He entered Novon’s message into the processor’s in-buffer, read the sentence back from red lettering, then hit the controls for translate, from, tapped in the code for English, hit to, coded Esperanto, hit read, then execute.
The machine didn’t make any sound. Dan provided that in his imagination, summoning up the clicks and chuckles of a spaceborne computer center from fifteen or twenty years before, from some television show seen in the living room of his parents’ house on Steiner Street in San Francisco, or a big-screen spectacle at the Northpoint.
The readout display flashed a meaningless jumble of red letters and yellow numbers.
Dan wiped the entire procedure from the machine and started over, carefully double-checking each step, muttering log entries via his suit-mike.
Again he hit execute and again the readout flashed a senseless garble of yellows and reds. He tried to wipe the sweat from his eyes, batted his waldo-hand against his helmet, cursed vehemently and leaned against the absorption pad inside the helmet. At least that worked the way it was supposed to. It was almost as good as wiping your forehead with a big old bandana.
“How did it work?” Novon’s voice crackled inside Daniel’s helmet.
Dan flashed a glance at the Israeli worker. “Terrible. I’m going to pull this damned processor and work on it in the shuttle. If I can’t fix it there, I’ll have to take it back to Palo Alto and fix it. Or more likely, just throw the damned thing away and have ’em send up another.”
“Must be sunspots.”
Daniel looked at the sun, his helmet polarizing and darkening to shut out the blinding glare and actinic rays that would otherwise damage his retinas. “You kidding?”
Novon paused before answering. Daniel waited, holding himself steady with one hand on the processor cover plate. “I don’t know,” Novon finally said. “I thought I was kidding, but if solar flares can knock out video transmissions—”
“Oh, they can glitch up computers all right! That’s not even a question, Avram. I didn’t know there’d been any unusual solar activity, is all.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s part of the rush on this scope. We want to study the corona—the visual astronomy gang does, that is. Nothing naked-eye visible, but there’s been a little extra activity lately and they’re pretty excited.”
“Swell. Is anything going on now?”
Beyond Novon, the sun glowed unchangingly.
“Now?” Daniel could see Novon shift his position to cast a brief look at the sun, then turn back. “Well, at 150,000,000 kilometers—”
“You know what I mean. Anything happen up there eight minutes ago, that would be glitching my circuits now?”
“Can’t tell. But it’s been going like this for a while.”
Daniel cursed again. “I don’t know why they never tell me anything. Maybe nobody knows how to put things together. That’s probably the cause of all this mess, and I’m up here, they’re spending a fortune on me, using up shuttle space; all they need to do is wait for the flares to die down. Or just shield these processors better, the way we’re always begging them to do.”
“What are you griping about, Dan? Don’t like the bucks?”
“I like ’em fine. And my family can really use a little extra money. Kids are expensive.”
“But it’s still a waste.” He glared angrily at the processor, tapped a message into the keyboard and waited for the display that would contain the machine’s response. “Look, Avram, I’m going to run some more diagnostics anyhow, just to make sure. I wouldn’t want to go home and start bitching about inadequate shielding and solar flares causing all the trouble we’ve had up here, and then find out that some assembler slipped in a module backwards to start with and that’s been the trouble all the while.”
“Yeah. I’d better get back to this tube anyhow. Don’t want Cris chewing on me for dogging on the job.”
Dan squinted at the sun as if he could have seen the causes of his problems crawling across its face, then turned back to the keyboard. “How many kilometers to Venus, Jack?” he whispered to himself. “Nov shmoz ka pop. Ask a silly question.”
He reached into his service kit and extracted a read-only memory chip containing a diagnostic program. He slipped it into place on the processor, hit read, waited for the machine to blink its completion signal back to him—it took the readout lights longer to glow into legibility than it took the machine to absorb and store the program from the ROM chip—and hit execute.
Garbled yellow and red.
Dan took a hard copy of the message, muttered a log entry, pulled the diagnostic and began demounting the processor. “The gostok distims the doshes,” he grumbled to himself. “I had one grunch but the eggplant over there. Glitches, glitches, glitches.”
The perspiration spreading from his forehead stung his eyes and he remembered to move his head against the helmet pad instead of trying to wipe his forehead with his hand.
HOURS later he sat at dinner, inside the shuttle, with Avram Novon and Novon’s boss, Crista Balbo. They used a combination of Esperanto and half a dozen natural languages for conversation, but English predominated.
“It’s too bad your problem couldn’t hold off a little longer,” Cris said. “Once we turn on the spin and get some gravity in the Island, things should be a lot pleasanter.” Her blue Piedmontese eyes flashed.
“I don’t mind working without it,” Dan said.
“You’ve been up before?”
“Couple of times. You know, things got so specialized in my field, for a while there, nobody could do anything outside his little bailiwick.” He gave a short, barklike laugh. “I remember for a while, a circuit designer, a materials engineer, a machine operator, and half a dozen kinds of programmers would have to have a meeting and a building full of support people to do anything. Anything!
“Got so cumbersome, we couldn’t slice a leaf of lettuce in half without a ten-megabuck conference. Now, at least, we’re giving people a few skills again. Maybe we’ll catch up with our Russian pals yet.”
Avram Novon grunted, “We’d better.”
“You’ll be uncomfortable if you don’t,” the Israeli said. “But we’ll be wiped out.”
There was an uncomfortable silence as the three of them concentrated on their food.
Crista broke the tension. “How about something a little more amusing? Vidi, anyone?”
Novon reached and turned on a wall unit. “We’re in line with the satellite; we ought to get a good projo.”
The framed area on the shuttle’s wall glowed into life. In the illusion of a window, pseudo-three-dimensional figures took form. Novon studied the figures for a moment, then adjusted the controls, sharpening and brightening them.
“You a sports fan, Daniel? That’s your team. It’s World Series time, isn’t it? I could never understand the fascination of American baseball. Could you, Cris?”
She shook her head, no.
“Well, I’m not a big fan,” Daniel said. “But it is my hometown team there. My dad used to take me down to Seals Stadium to watch ’em now and then. I always had a good time. Besides, the park was in the warmest part of the city.”
In the holo window an Asian-featured pitcher in a green baseball cap was throwing warmup pitches.
“That’s Skeeter Nakamura,” Dan said. “Twenty-three and nine this year. Lives over in San Leandro, I think.”
Novon turned to the other man. “Is he on the—what do you call them—the Seals? You pull for them, he’s your hero?”
Crista Balbo said, “I think he looks a little like you, Daniel.”
He shook his head. “We’re not related. And he’s not on the Seals. He’s pitching against us tonight.”
“Well, if you are not really fanatical about it, I’d like to pass up this game and see what’s in the general news.”
“Go ahead, Crista. I’m not an athlete. I’d just like to live like one. Do you know what Nakamura makes a year? More than the President of the United States does!”
“Huh! He’s probably better at his job, too.”
She switched the vidi to a news broadcast, adjusted controls until the focus and gain were in balance and slid back on magnetized boots to her seat.
“Look at that. More stuff on the Russian stations. How many people do they have up now?”
“Three hundred, the last I knew,” Novon supplied.
“Huh! They’ll be beaming power down in another year if nothing goes wrong.” Crista Balbo turned a mildly accusing glance on Daniel. “Why didn’t you push on with your work when you were ahead? You could have been as far along as the Russians are now, ten or twelve years ago. More interested in baseball, I suppose.”
“Hey,” Daniel said. “Don’t point the finger at me, Cris. I didn’t make those decisions. I was a little kid playing with yoyos twenty years ago. I didn’t make those decisions.” He didn’t feel as blameless as he claimed to be, and wiped his hand across his face, embarrassed at his own heat and growing hotter at the embarrassment.
“Besides, we were busy carrying half the world with us. Where would Europe be now if the U.S. hadn’t spent a hundred billion bucks to build it up and hold the Russians back for forty years?”
“Hmph. I suppose,” Novon raised a finger tentatively, “somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. Pretty well where it is now. Don’t you think?”
There was a brief silence while Balbo and Novon waited to see whether Daniel was going to explode or not. When he indicated that he was not going to explode, they relaxed.
“Well, if we succeed,” Cris said, “we’ll be ahead of them again. I’ve always felt that earth-orbit technology was self-limiting.”
“LaGrange Islands aren’t the ultimate answer either,” Dan asserted.
“No, I didn’t mean to imply that they were. But it’s the next logical development. I think the Russians are just staying in earth orbit because they’re inherently cautious. It’s part of their culture. They always have wanted to expand, but they’ve also wanted to keep their lines of supply and communication as short and as direct as possible. Any time they tried to go too far, to jumptoad—?”
“Thank you. To leapfrog they have suffered for it. Look at what happened to them in Cuba!”
“I remember it well,” Dan said through clenched teeth.
“Well, but we of the West—I include Israel in the West, Avram, even though it is technically an Asian state.”
“You are too kind.”
“We have always made the breathtaking leaps. Da Vinci, Columbus, Fermi, Marconi.”
“Do I notice a pattern?” Novon shot at Daniel.
“The facts are the facts,” Crista Balbo shoved away a lock of soft platinum hair that had swung before her eyes in the gravityless environment of the shuttle. “Oh, what a pleasure it will be once we get gravity going in the Island!”
“Hah! That won’t be for months.” Novon took a bite of hamspread sandwich and chewed it seriously. “You’ll be long gone by then, Daniel. Home happily in California, eh? While we intrepid space pioneers suffer the deprivations and perils of homesteading humanity’s newest frontier here in the heavens. Pass me a can of Piper-Heidsieck, will you? Thanks.”
He popped the seal on the can and slid his thumb over its plastic drinking nozzle. “Anybody care for a drop? Well, here’s to the sabras of tomorrow, the first generation of kids born up here in the LaGrange Islands!”
“That won’t be for a while,” Cris said. “Daniel, are you going to have to ferry that processor down with you, or do you think you can get it running right up here?”
Daniel blinked a couple of times. “I’m not certain yet. It would really be something if it’s just sunspots causing the glitch.”
“Then you won’t need to repair it at all?”
“Not immediately. But that will be the worst case, actually. If this processor is really faulty, we’ll get ’er running again or just replace the damned thing if we have to. And that’s no big problem.”
“No? At the kilogram charge on the shuttle?”
“I didn’t mean it wouldn’t be expensive. But even so … But if there’s nothing wrong with the processor, and we have to reshield all our electronic gear up here, what a blow! Do you know what a complete retrofit would—”
“The vidi seems to be working fine.”
“By God, Crista, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that? Now, why would something as trivial as an entertainment holo run like a jewel, and something as important as a major control-system data processor glitch up? We must have a Jonah up here with us.”
“I doubt that. Or if we do, Daniel, I suppose it’s you.”
“Oh no. You’re not going to pin that on me. The problem turned up first, then you sent for me, at straight passenger-kilo rates, too, if you remember.”
“Your company will take a charge-back, Dan. The machine is their responsibility. They have to make it work.”
“Well, the lawyers and accountants will take care of that.”
“How soon do you think you’re going back down? The next shuttle down should be in a day and a half.”
“I’m going to try for it. In the meanwhile, what about taking another look at that ball game. Anyone object?”
LATER he was back in his flat-white and rust-red spacesuit, reinstalling the processor in the shell of the Island. Inside the shuttle, laid out on a test-bench, the machine had performed perfectly. He’d even surprised Avram Novon with a perfect Esperanto version of “How many kilometers to Venus, Jack?”
A brief conference with the astronomy gang had got him a new reading on the sunspot and solar flare situation. Cycles upon cycles, it was like the old Ptolemaic model of the universe with the earth surrounded by concentric shells of blackness and specks of light.
Here the shells were not physical constructs but temporal ones. Short cycles and longer epicycles and still longer, what could you call them, hypercycles? Sometimes they ran in opposite directions, a high point on a lower level cycle coinciding with a dip in a higher level cycle, the two phenomena damping each other’s effect, or canceling it totally for the moment.
And sometimes they ran parallel, a minor and a major cycle peaking or dipping simultaneously and reinforcing rather than damping each other. And when all the cycles moved in the same direction, piling their effects one upon another …
He had the processor reinstalled, carefully placed a diagnostic ROM chip in position and hit read, then execute. The pattern of red and yellow lights in the display matched the result that his service kit predicted. He exercised the circuits a few times, ran some more diagnostics and decided that the processor was running flawlessly.
The glitches had all been transient, and Daniel was more worried than ever. When he got his report in to his company, the shuttle and the Island would swarm with instrumentation gangs lashing additional shielding onto every bit of electronic gear they could find. Meanwhile, downstairs on earth they’d be cranking new specs into the next generation of processors so the shielding would be implicit in the hardware design and not have to be lashed onto the outside like—Daniel smiled to himself—like so many old tires lashed onto the gunwales of a tugboat.
He bolted the cover plate back onto the processor and checked his chronograph. Time to kill before the next shuttle flight back downstairs. He looked around at the shuttles that were tethered to the half-finished Island. They were used as temporary housing for the onboard construction crews, makeshift warehouses, workshops, mess halls and rec centers. Once the Island was airtight and spinning most of the shuttles would be freed up and returned to their proper use, as passenger and cargo transports.
Dan spotted his friend Avram Novon emerging from the same small port above the cargo bay of the shuttle he had himself left a while before. He called to Novon and the Israeli waved back.
“I am just about finished with the scope, Daniel. How is your work coming along?”
Dan said that he was finished and just about to head back into the shuttle.
“How would you like to peep through my toy?” the Israeli asked.
Dan decided that would be good fun. Something to tell his wife and friends about when he got home in another day or so. Otherwise it would be the old story. What did you do up in space, Danny? Nothing very interesting. Was it exciting? Spectacular? Frightening? No, none of the above, just a job. But what about the vistas of the universe? Well, I was busy running diagnostics on a data processor and the ROM chips kept jiggling around in null-grav, so I was too busy with that problem to look at the Milky Way.
Daniel left his safety tether hooked to a locking ring near the processor cover plate and shoved himself in the direction of Novon and the howitzer-like telescope barrel. He felt a sensation of movement only for a second, then floated effortlessly, Novon’s green-on-white figure growing larger as Daniel glided toward him. Beyond Avram, Daniel could see the heavy construction crew still at work, their huge cranes jockeying plates into position over the already completed skeleton of the Island.
Workers with vacuum electro-welders swarmed over the girders and the plates, making the permanent attachments that would turn the vast numbers of separate components into a single entity. Later Islands would draw their resources from the raw materials of the moon and the asteroid belt, processing materials and fabricating parts here in space. The Island civilization, if plans were met, would quickly become a self-sustaining economy, returning much of its surplus wealth to earth in the form of tightbeamed energy and absorbing emigrants from the swarming planet as the number of Islands grew exponentially. It would be generations before Avram’s sabras were born in sufficient numbers to obviate the need for emigrant citizens for the Islands.
But this was still the start-up phase. The half-completed first Island had to be built with components fabricated on earth and ferried up painstakingly and at the cost of constant shuttle flights between the downstairs spaceports and the LaGrange points.
Novon caught Daniel by the shoulders, steadying him with his thickly gloved hands.
“What would you like to see?” Novon asked.
Daniel said, “Can you point that thing downstairs? It would be fun to tell Marie-Elaine what she was wearing today if I could spot her in front of the house!”
Avram laughed. “Wrong time of day. I could show you what they’re wearing in Australia, except there would be no resolving the image from up here.”
“I thought you stargazers were so hot for putting telescopes up here because the seeing was so good. What was that line I heard, ‘We can see better from a pair of opera glasses in space than we can from Palomar?’ What about that?”
Novon’s chuckle crackled inside Daniel’s helmet.
“That’s an exaggeration, I’m afraid. But it is not really much of one. The biggest problem with seeing, downstairs, is the few miles of earth’s atmosphere. Light that travels for millions of parsecs with perfect clarity gets fuzzed up and fogged out—if not completely lost—coming through the smoke and atmospheric moisture and miscellaneous gunk that covers the earth.
“That’s why we’ve been so eager to get our scopes upstairs. So we don’t have to watch everything through a smokescreen.
“But you see, if we look down through the atmosphere and try and see something, it’s just as bad as looking up through it. The way to see is away from here!”
He pointed dramatically.
Daniel nodded. “All right. What about a look at—” He paused and considered. Beyond the telescope and the tethered shuttles, a crane was swinging a gigantic cylindrical section of stressed metal toward waiting men. Daniel watched the operation. The mass of the plate would crush the workers like ants if it were not slowed almost to stasis before it reached them.
“How about Cerberus?” Avram suggested.
“You know, the little sub-satellite of Pluto. That’ll be something to tell about back home. They only found Pluto’s own moon, Charon, twenty years ago. Nobody downstairs has ever seen the little chunk of rock that orbits Charon. Too small. Too remote. We had to come upstairs to get a peep at the thing.”
“Here, hang on a minute,” Novon said. He pressed the transparent bubble of his suit against the eyepiece of the big scope’s little sighting scope.
“Damned inefficient way to work,” Daniel said. “You sky-boys going to suit up and exit the Island every time you want to do any observing?”
“Don’t be silly,” Novon grumbled. “Feeds and controls from inside. We’re going to have a luxury box in there that would put a World Cup soccer stadium to shame. This is temporary, till the Island is sealed. After the box is working, we will leave the controls and eyepieces out here as auxiliaries, but I think we’ll seldom use them. If ever.”
He shushed Daniel’s next question, concentrating on the eyepiece and the sighting controls of the telescope. Daniel watched huge cranes swinging their loads through the vacuum as he waited.
“All right,” Novon’s voice crackled.
“You keep an ephemeris in your head, Avram?”
“Most of one. Doesn’t everybody?” He guided Daniel to the sighting scope. “All right, I am going to give you a peep through the sighter, just to get a glimpse of the region we’re interested in. You should have no trouble seeing Pluto, and the dim speck at two o’clock, that will be Charon. Go ahead, look. Here, use this for fine focus. It is very tough to get a good focus when you have to wear a bubble over your head.”
Daniel pressed the front of his bubble helmet against the flexible eyepiece of the sighting scope. “Where—” He felt Avram guiding his hand to the focusing control of the scope. Daniel had tapped out the messages on his wrist keyboard that retracted all of the spacesuit’s waldo-hands and extended flexible gloves from both sleeves.
All he could see through the eyepiece was a pale, rounded blur against a dark background. The blurry object exhibited no clear-cut features but had a number of dark blotches scattered across its face.
“Looks like the moon,” he said to Novon. “The way it would look from the bottom of a full swimming pool on a smoggy night.”
“Hah! Not a bad approximation. All right, try the focus. You just have to play with it.”
Daniel tried. The pale, fuzzy disc in the middle of the sighting scope grew slightly brighter and considerably sharper. “Looks a lot like the moon!” he said.
“All right. Do you see a pale blob off the edge of the disc, upper right quadrant?”
Daniel grunted. “I think I do. Is that Cerberus? That little blob?”
“No, sir! That is Charon! That’s a couple hundred kilometers in diameter, Dan. Cerberus is about the size of a soccer field, maybe a hundred, hundred-twenty meters long. There is no way you could see Cerberus through that little sighter.
“Now, you have got to switch to the big scope.”
Daniel let Avram guide him from the little sighting telescope to the main barrel. “This one has electronic enhancement, doesn’t it?” he asked the astronomer.
“Yes, but you should be able to see Cerberus with just the optics. Here.” He guided Dan to a position at the eyepiece of the big telescope. “Now, you should have just about the same field of vision that you got through the sighter.”
“Yeah. Oh, but a lot brighter and sharper! Say, this. . .
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