Teenage camera operator Alfonso Petrov joins a research mission bound for the edge of the solar system. But survival becomes another mission when the research team's tiny spacecraft strays into the Fiction Dimension. A madcap tale blending classic science fiction with Gothic horror.
Release date: January 28, 2016
Print pages: 230
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The Forever City
Richard A. Lupoff
Yukawa was not invisible—not in the usual sense of the word. But it could not be seen from the Earth.
The city was built of metal alloys and plastics and glass. Of these and of more exotic materials and compounds. Of silicon substrates and—in the converters that transformed impinging solar energy into the power needed to run the industry and the life-support systems that filled the gigantic structure—of plasmas of subnuclear particles that could hardly even be called matter.
Imagine that dedicated observer, garbed in protective gear, lying supine at the north pole of Earth. The observer peers upward at an angle perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic, the imaginary disk that corresponds roughly to the solar equator and that contains, despite certain discrepancies, the orbits of the Earth and the Sun’s other planets.
If the polar night is clear, the black sky is a field of wonders. All of the eons of vulcanism, the epochs of forest fire, the centuries of industry and of warfare on this planet have not so fouled the atmosphere as to hide the night heavens from an observer at the pole.
Especially if the night is moonless, the glories more distant can be seen: the Sun’s visible planets; stars, both nearby and remote; the river of light that marks the Milky Way galaxy and the specks and smears of brightness of galaxies millions or billions of light years distant.
Somehow, moving against the glories of the heavens, the observer might pick out the pinpoint glimmer of Earth-orbiting satellites and space stations, those placed in the sky over the course of the past century or so.
As the observer lies at the precise northernmost point of Earth, the imaginary lines of Earth’s longitude divide the observer’s body into twenty-four segments corresponding to the twenty-four time zones of the globe. The zones are carefully laid out, spaced at intervals of fifteen degrees around the world, replacing the chaotic arrangement of earlier centuries.
It is simultaneously the last day of the month of December in the year 2089 and the first day of the month of January of the year 2090.
If the observer’s gear will keep him warm, and if the observer is patient enough to spend twenty-four hours in one position, the rotation of the Earth will carry him through the moment of midnight and the arrival of the new year twenty-four times, in twenty-four segments. Now a hand. Now a shoulder. Now part of the rib cage. Now the heart.
Earth has not solved its problems. Humanity survives, and struggles, and manages, somehow, to persist from crisis to crisis, from confrontation to confrontation. Paradise is not here, nor is it perceptibly closer than had been hoped a decade or a century before. But at least the majority of humanity is fed and housed, at least most of the time. Neither war nor plague nor famine has terminated the human experiment.
And still there are glimmers of hope. Symphonies are composed and performed. Researchers find cures for diseases. Farmers continue to discover new ways to increase the supply of food for a population that continues to grow despite every warning of the disaster that continues to lurk.
And the unquenchable human need to grow, to learn, to explore, still makes itself felt. Robot submarines plumb the deepest points of the planet’s oceans, followed by divers and in turn by colonists determined to open this newest frontier on the Earth.
Meanwhile, the outward urge has carried ships to the planets. Crewless exploration vessels have been dispatched into the remote cosmos carrying receptors to study the nature of deep space and distant bodies, and transmitters to send data back to hungry minds on Earth. And the first free cities have been created. Cities capable of maintaining themselves for long periods of time, perhaps permanently, not merely in orbit around the mother planet but in other parts of the solar system.
Such a one is Yukawa.
One hundred fifty million kilometers north of the plane of the ecliptic, as far above the Earth’s north pole as the Earth is distant from the Sun, the people aboard Yukawa go about their business. Their world-city swings in a beautifully stable, nearly circular orbit canted forty-five degrees from the ecliptic, passing through the plane twice each year. At these passages the transfer of goods, tourists, scholars, and emigrants is facilitated. Then Yukawa swoops away again, out of the region of solar debris and back to the clean vacuum in which its telescopes gather the clearest images of distant bodies.
Named for the great Japanese nuclear scientist of the previous century, Yukawa was built in space. The city’s materials were mined from Earth’s moon and from the irregular bodies of the asteroid belt.
Yukawa was one of the earliest members of its generation, the third generation of space cities. The first generation was built on the planet Earth, hauled up to Earth orbit by huge rockets, and assembled in place. The second generation was built in orbit by men and women living in first-generation space cities, but it was built of materials mined and refined and rough-finished on Earth.
But the third generation of cities was built of space materials by space dwellers. Little by little the umbilical cord of materials and technology that had tied the space cities to Earth was being severed.
Some on Earth, politicians and philosophers and certain military leaders and more than one captain of industry, fretted over the growth of the free cities. They argued that the cities were not colonies in the classic sense of that word. They were extensions of Earth, scientific or economic outposts. Their residents were Britons or Chinese, Ecuadorians or Ghanaians or Israelis. They owed their loyalties to their countries or to the multinational consortiums or the corporations that funded their cities in space.
But these arguments did not prevail, nor could they have prevailed. They were the arguments of the representatives of an old order that was dying a natural death.
The peoples of Yukawa and the other free cities of her class—Hawking, Mandelbrot, Bell-Burnell, Lomonosov, Sklodowska—were no longer men and women of Earth. They had not ceased to be human, any more than a Greek or a Kenyan immigrant to the United States ceased to be human. But the European or the African became instead an American, and the descendants of the immigrants were all Americans. And the emigrants from Earth became the people of space, and their descendants became all the people of space.
Return for a moment to that observer lying face-up, trying to make out Yukawa. Furnish that observer with a powerful telescope, and the unfathomable bands and shreds of brightness above Earth will resolve themselves into clearer patterns and points. But a city the size of Yukawa is still far too small, at the distance under consideration, to be visible. Any bit of sunlight reflected by the city’s square kilometers of polished exterior will be lost in the intervening darkness.
Only a small percentage of the residents of the planet Earth felt any concern for or interest in the welfare of Yukawa and the other free cities of space. All the rest were caught up in the daily business of living. Most had never even heard of Yukawa. Similarly, most of the residents of Yukawa, although they were overwhelmingly an educated and scientifically minded populace, were far more concerned with the activities of the day and of the moment, and of their immediate surroundings, than they were with the affairs of a world they had never visited, that swung in its orbit as far beneath their own position as they were from the Sun.
Inside Yukawa’s gleaming walls, farmers farmed, workers worked, students studied, lovers loved. Children were born and the aged died. Yukawa was a city, but it was also a world.
On the set of Spaceship Arcturus at the studios of Peliculas Eisenstein, the final cast party had swung into action. The adventure show had been conceived as a single, low-budget entertainment feature. Somehow it had caught on, not only throughout Yukawa and the other free cities, but back on Earth as well.
The storyline came from a serial originally published long before the first struggling space flights of the 1950s. But its author had envisioned strange visitors to Earth, and their stranger offspring. The original story had been discovered—more accurately, rediscovered—in 2080 by Ivan Petrov, a stuntman and sometime bit player at Peliculas Eisenstein, an independent studio where holo cubes were made for use in Yukawa. The studio hadn’t yet cracked the export market to any great extent.
Ivan Petrov brought the serialized novel—its text encoded in a holo cube borrowed from Yukawa’s library—to his boss’s attention.
“It’s a different angle on the alien theme,” Ivan had said. “They always go for aliens.”
His boss, a producer-director named Pedro Bulchev, had nodded and grunted.
“How many times have we used aliens? How many times have they been used in the industry?” Ivan asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. “George Melies himself had moon creatures two hundred years ago. There must have been thousands of films and vids and laser shows about aliens. One makes ’em monsters. One makes ’em angels. One makes ’em little green men. Ay!”
Bulchev shook his head. His heavy jowls rolled. “Yah,” he grunted. “This stuff is all used up. You’re fifty years too late, Petrov. Forget about it.”
Ivan mirrored Bulchev’s gesture. “It’s been too long since the last one. And I tell you, this is a new angle. Just read the story. Read the first chapter, Pedro! If you don’t agree with me that it will work, I’ll stop annoying you about it.”
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small black cube, and tossed it onto Bulchev’s desk.
Bulchev peered at Ivan Petrov over the top of his glasses. Of every resident of Yukawa, Ivan knew of only two who insisted on wearing old-style eye-glasses. One was Pedro Bulchev of Peliculas Eisenstein. The other was the famous Dr. Carlotta Xiang, the closest thing imaginable to a combination of Albert Einstein and Madame Curie living in this year 2090.
Bulchev dropped the cube onto a reader spot on his desk and eyed the three-dimensional facsimile of an ancient magazine that floated in the air above it.
“Exciting Science Tales,” he read. “That supposed to be a spacecraft? Hah! That the story you want me to read? ‘Spaceship Arcturus’ by Hamilton V. Smith?”
Ivan Petrov grunted an affirmative.
Bulchev shook his head again. “What are those things on the outside of the craft? Rivets? What’s that thing with the tentacles and the ray projector? That supposed to be a weapon? When is this thing from—don’t tell me, I see the date on it. February, 1929. Where’d you find this, Ivan?”
Petrov said he’d been browsing, he’d just come across it and found Hamilton V. Smith an interesting writer.
Bulchev tapped a control and the image changed to an interior page. He frowned in concentration, flipped to another page, grunted impatiently. “Pretty prosaic stuff,” he commented.
“Stick with it,” Petrov urged. “Promise me you’ll read the first installment at least. Once you do, you’ll want to read more, Pedro. If you don’t think the material is perfect for us, I’ll forget all about it. Is it a bargain, Pedro?”
Bulchev grunted. Petrov pushed himself upright and left.
Half a year later Spaceship Arcturus was the biggest hit that Peliculas Eisenstein had ever had. Three months after that it was a weekly series and Ivan Petrov—as the monstrous Gharq of Grodlar—was a celebrity throughout the free cities, the orbiting stations, and planet Earth itself.
But all things end, and this day had seen a wrap on the final installment of Spaceship Arcturus. Cast members stood or sat around the set. Corks exploded from magnums of Yukawa-bottled champagne. Lighting and sound technicians, set dressers, writers and assistant directors milled in random patterns.
Admirers and hangers-on circled around Viktor Martinez, the saturnine Sim Jordan of the series, and the beautiful Raisa Lopez, the actress who played the series’ long-suffering heroine Dorothy Kane.
Pedro Bulchev, glass in hand, broke into applause as Ivan Petrov stepped—more accurately, slithered—into view. Ivan was the last to arrive at the party, but he was entitled.
He had one arm around the shoulder of his son Alfonso, and in the other he carried his little daughter Sarita. He wore his full costume and makeup. Fangs protruded from his mouth. Tentacles writhed from beneath his collar and twisted from the ends of his sleeves, totally hiding his hands. Strange sounds emerged from his throat, sounds that it was hard to believe were human in origin.
Bulchev hopped onto a platform that a few hours earlier had been the floor of a secret laboratory buried beneath a Nebraska wheatfield. He raised his hands for silence.
Alfonso Ivanovich Petrov slipped out from under his father’s arm. He treated the tentacles as if they were an everyday matter to him.
Pedro Bulchev was making a speech about how wonderful everyone connected with Spaceship Arcturus had been, . . .
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