W&N Fiction

On the Steel Breeze – Chapter 2

Gollancz Author: - September 10th, 2013
Alastair Reynolds, Extract

On the Steel BreezeIt’s time to share chapter two of Alastair Reynolds’ brilliant new SF novel, On the Steel Breeze. This is an absolute must-read for fans of epic SF, particularly if you are prepared to have your mind blown – we’re confident that this could redefine Space Opera. If you missed out on chapter one, fear not, you can catch up here. So, without further ado, let the story continue…

Belém was where she had met Pedro. It had not been long after her arrival in Lisbon. Both of them buying ice creams from the same stand and laughing as wickedly determined seagulls dived and skimmed to scoop away their purchases.

She went up onto the roof of the Monument to the Discoveries, with its sea­gazing ranks of carved navigators. It was the only place to get a decent view of the Wind Rose. It was a map of  the ancient world, laid  out across a wide terrace in slabs of red and blue marble. Galleons and seamonsters patrolled its fathomless seas and oceans. A kraken was hauling a ship to the depths in its  tentacles. Beyond the map, arrows delineated the cardinal compass points.

‘It’s good that you came.’

She turned around sharply. When she had arrived there had been no merfolk on the Monument’s viewing level, or at least none that she had recognised as such. It was a whisker after ten and she  assumed her late­ness had caused the agreement to be nullified. And yet here was Mecufi, stuffed now into an upright mobility exo.

‘You mentioned the ghost. I’ve seen it once already this morning, on the tram.’

‘Yes, it’s getting worse, isn’t  it? But we’ll talk about that later. There are a couple of other things on the agenda before that. Shall we fly?’

‘Fly?’

Mecufi looked up. Chiku followed his gaze, squinting against the haze. A shape detached itself  from a bright wheel of  gulls and grew larger as it descended. It was a flier, about as wide across as the top of the monument.

‘We have special dispensation,’ Mecufi said.  ‘They love us in Lisbon, after we installed the tsunami baffles. They’ve got long memories here – 1755 was yesterday.’ From the flier’s broad green belly came a warm downdraught. A ramp tongued down and Mecufi directed Chiku to step aboard. ‘Why do  you  hesitate? There’s no need not to trust us.  I gave you  the mote, didn’t I?’

‘Motes can be faked.’

‘Everything can be faked. You’ll  just  have to trust that it wasn’t.’

‘Then we’re back to square one, aren’t we? I have to trust that you’re trustworthy?’

‘Trust  is a fine and paradoxical thing. I promised I’d have you home before evening – will you take me at my word?’

‘We’re  just  going to the seasteads?’

‘And no further. It’s a beautiful day for it.  The qualityof light on water, as restless as the sea itself!  What better time to be alive?’

Chiku acquiesced. They escalated aboard, taking lounge seats in a generously proportioned cabin. The  cabin sealed itself  and the flier gathered speed as it rose. In a few breaths they were banking away from the coast. The waters were a gorgeous mingling of hues, lakes of indigo and ultramarine ink spilt into the ocean.

‘Earth’s quite nice, isn’t it?’  Mecufi’s exo  had deposited him in his seat  like a large stuffed toy, then folded itself away for the duration of the flight.

‘It was working out for me.’

‘The perfect backwater to study your family history? Crumbly old Lisbon, of all places?’

‘I thought I’d find some peace and quiet there. Evidently I was wrong about that.’

The flier kept low. Occasionally they passed a cyberclipper, pleasure yacht or small wooden fishing boat with a gaily painted hull. Chiku barely glimpsed the fishermen busy on deck as the flier sped past, fuss­ing with nets and winches. They never looked up. The aircraft was tidying up after itself, dissipating its own Mach cone so that there was no sonic boom.

Its hull would have tuned itself  to the colour of sky.

‘Let me  ask you about your counterparts,’ Mecufi said.

‘I’d rather you  didn’t.’

‘And yet I must. Let’s begin with the basics. Your mother and father were Sunday Akinya and Jitendra Gupta, both still living. You were born in what used to be  the Descrutinised Zone, on the Moon, about two  hundred years  ago.  Do you  dispute these facts?’

‘Why would I?’

Mecufi paused to smear some lavender ­smelling oil onto himself from a small dispenser. ‘You had a carefree and prosperous childhood. You  grew up in a time of  tremendous peace and beneficial social and technological change. A time free of wars and poverty and nearly all illnesses. You were extraordinarily fortunate – billions of  dead souls would have traded places with you  in a heartbeat. And yet as you en­tered adulthood you detected an emptiness inside yourself. A lack of direction, an absence of  moral purpose. It was hard, growing up with that name. Your parents and grandparents and great­-grandparents moved mountains. Eunice opened up the solar system for deep­-space settlement and exploitation. Sunday and your other relatives opened up the stars!  What could you possibly do that would compare with any of that?’

Chiku folded her arms. ‘Are you done?’

‘Not remotely. That’s the trouble with being very long-­lived: there’s an awful lot of life to catch up with.’

‘So perhaps you should think about cutting to the chase.’

‘When you were fifty years old, a new technology came to fruition and you made a momentous decision. You engaged the firm Quorum Binding to produce two clones of you using rapid phenotyping. In a few months the clones were fully formed physically, but little more than semi­con­scious blank canvases. They had your face but not your memories; none of your scars,  none of the marks life  had left on you, nothing of your developmental or immunological history. But that was also part of the plan.

‘While the clones matured, you submitted your own body to a pro­cess of structural adjustment. Medical nanomachines gorged you  down to a woman­-shaped core. They took apart your bones and muscles and nervous system and remade them so that they were genetically and functionally indistinguishable from those of your clone siblings. A front of neural machines tore through your brain like a wildfire. They record­ed your idiosyncratic connectome – the detailed pattern of your own mental wiring. At the same time, similar machines – scriptors – wrote those same patterns into the minds of  your siblings. Their minds had always been similar to your own, but now they were  identical – even down to the level of memory. What you recollected, they recollected. The process was a kind of stochastic averaging. Some of the innate struc­tures of your siblings were even transcribed back  into your head. By the end of it,  by the time the three of you were  hauled out of the immer­ sion vats, there was  literally no way to tell you apart. You looked and thought the same. The telomeric clock of  your cells had been wound back to zero. Epigenetic factors had been corrected and reversed. Since you all  had access to the same memories, you could not even say for yourselves which was  the original. That was  precisely the point: that there should not be a favoured sibling. And the firm that had done this to you, Quorum Binding – even they didn’t know which one of you was authentic. Their process was rigorously blind. Their customers expected nothing less.’

‘And  this would be your business, exactly, because . . .?’

‘You have always been our business, Chiku, whether you  like it or not. Tell me  how you  selected your individual paths.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s the one part of your history I can’t get at.’

Six months after the procedure, the three of  them had reconvened in Equatorial East Africa.  It was a warm day;  they decided on a picnic away from the household. They had gone out in three air-pods, skim­ming low and fast  until they found a suitable spot. She  remembered the air-pods resting on the ground and a table set  beneath the drowsy shade of  a  candelabra tree. Upon some impulse they had agreed to select their individual fates by breaking bread. The loaves contained coloured paper lots, the nature of which they had agreed on beforehand. Two of the siblings would embark on different enterprises which entailed a measure of risk.  The  third sibling would remain in the solar system as a kind of insurance policy, the only requirement being that she  live a life of relative safety. With the family’s investments still grow­ing exponentially, the third sibling would not need to work unless she wanted to.

Each secretly desired to be the third sibling. There was no dishonour in that.

Chiku remembered breaking bread three times, from the simultane­ous perspective of each woman. After the breaking of the bread they had all undergone the periodic sharing of each other’s memories, and of course those memories all contained the recollection of that day under the tree, seen from a different perspective. The mixture of emotions was in each case  distinct, like three photographs that had been tinted in varying hues.

For the sibling who broke her bread to reveal a pale­-green lot,  the expedition to Crucible beckoned. She  experienced a sort of dizzy and delighted apprehension, like the sensation of approaching the first peak of a roller coaster. She would be leaving Earth behind and committing to a century and a half within the stone bowels of a holoship. The risks were difficult to assess:  the holoships were  new, untested, and such a thing had never been attempted before. But  the reward at  the end of that crossing – the right to set foot on a new world, orbiting a new sun – was incalculable.

For the sibling choosing to travel out into space and find the drifting hulk of  the Winter Queen  – her  lot was a pinkish red  – the apprehen­sion was  sharper and arrived with oboe-­like undertones of  dread. The risks of  this expedition were much more immediately quantifiable. She would be going out alone, pushing a little spacecraft to the outer envelope of  its performance. On the other hand, when she returned home with the prize, her debt to posterity would be paid. This was high risk,  but maximum reward. And whereas the sibling on the holoship would share her achievement with millions, this triumph would be hers alone.

For  the sibling who had to stay at home, the sibling who drew the yellow lot, the feeling was one of relief. She had drawn the easy duty. But at the same time she felt a sharp, brassy stab of resentment that she would be denied the individual glories of Crucible or the reaching of Winter Queen.  Nonetheless, this was what they had agreed. She had no need to feel ashamed of herself. Any of them could have drawn this lot.

There was a wooden box on the table. As one, their hands moved to open it.  They laughed at the awkwardness of this moment, its betrayal of their fixed behaviour. Then by some silent consensus, two of them moved their hands back into their laps and allowed the third – Chiku Yellow  – to open the lid.

The box contained an assortment of  Akinya heirlooms, which were few in number. There were some pencils that had belonged to Uncle Geoffrey and a pair of scuffed Ray­Ban sunglasses. There was a print of a digital photograph taken of  Eunice when she was  little, by her own mother Soya,  when the two of them had been climate refugees in some kind of  transit camp. There was a rare Samsung mobile telephone, a Swiss Army knife, a compass and a thumb-­sized digital memory device in the form of a key  ring. There was a tattered copy of Gulliver’s  Trav­els which appeared to be missing some pages. There were  six wooden elephants, each fixed onto  a coal­coloured plinth  –  bull, matriarch, two young adults and two calves. The elephants were divided  be­ tween the two siblings venturing into space. This was what they had agreed.

After they had divided up the other items, the only thing remaining in the box was a simple wooden charm. It hung from a thin leather strap, a circular talisman of unguessable age.  They all knew it had be­ longed to their great­grandmother, and that it had passed from Eunice to Soya: not the Soya who was Eunice’s mother, but the daughter of Eu­nice’s former husband Jonathan Beza. Soya had in turn gifted the charm to Sunday, during her time on Mars,  and Sunday had passed the charm on to her  daughter, Chiku Akinya.

Now  they were  three.

‘It should remain here,’ said Chiku Green, the version of Chiku trav­elling to Crucible.

‘I  agree,’  said Chiku Red,  the version of  Chiku pursuing Winter Queen.

‘We could cut it into three,’ Chiku Yellow ventured, but that was an idea they had already raised and dismissed on a dozen occasions. The simple fact was that the charm belonged on Earth or  near to it.  It had no business leaving the solar system.

Chiku Yellow  took the charm and slipped the cord around her neck. They were all riding the tramlines of different fates  now, but for the first time since the drawing of the lots, she had some tangible sense of her own diminished future. She was not going out there.

‘It began well,’  Mecufi said.

‘Most  things do.’

Mecufi popped the oil dispenser back into its pouch next to his seat and picked up his potted narrative of  Chiku’s life. ‘The  idea was that the three of  you would have different experiences but remain essentially the same individual. You would go off and live independent lives,  but the readers and scriptors in your heads would hold your memories in strict congruence, like bookkeepers maintaining identical sets of accounts. What one of  you  experienced, so would the other two. It was meant to be a process of  periodic realignment rather than constant synchronisation, but for one reason or anoth­er  you gradually drifted apart. You remained in contact with each other, but the relationships grew distant, strained. You stopped feel­ing  as if you had much in common. There was a catalysing event, of course—’

‘I thought you  had something to tell  me,’  Chiku said.  That was how she thought of herself, not as Chiku Yellow. The colours were for keep­ing  tabs on her siblings, not herself. She added: ‘If this is all you’ve got, I think we need to go back  to Lisbon.

‘We haven’t got  to the ghost yet.’

‘What about it?’

‘One  of you is trying to re­establish contact. You have disavowed the readers and scriptors from touching your memories, so  your sibling is attempting to reach you  by other means. Of course, we know which one of you it has  to be.’

‘No prizes for that – there are only two  of us left.’

‘I understand why you drifted apart  from Chiku Green. The fur­ther away she  travelled, the longer the time lag  became. Weeks and months were almost  manageable.  But years? Decades? We’re not wired forthat. We’re  not built to maintain any kind of empathic connection with someone that far  from home. Especially when they begin to feel like a rival, someone living a  better, more adventurous life.  A  life with a purpose. When you both had children, you felt a  kinship – a  sense of shared achievement. Chiku Green had Ndege and Mposi. You had Kanu. But when your own son turned  from you—’

‘He didn’t turn from me. You turned him from everything he knew and loved – his  family, his world, even his species.’

‘Regardless,  his turning brought sorrow. After that, you couldn’t stand to share any part of Chiku Green’s existence. It wasn’t that you hated her  – how could you? That would be like hating  yourself. But you hated the idea  that there was  a version of you living a better life. As for your son – I would ask you not to blame us for the choices Kanu made.’

‘I’ll blame you for whatever I feel like.’

Mecufi twisted in his seat. Like a hyperactive child, he appeared easily distracted. ‘Look,  we’re coming up on our  islands!’

They were somewhere near the Azores. This, though, was  no natural island chain. These were vast  floating platelets, hexagonal platforms ten kilometres wide, jigsawed together in rafts and archipelagos, forming larger islands with their own angular coastlines, peninsulas, atolls and bays.

There were hundreds of  distinct island aggregations in the United Aquatic Nations. The smallest were nimble microstates,  formed from only a  few  linked  platelets. Others were supercolonies com­ posed of  thousands or tens of thousands of  platelets, but always in flux  – platelets breaking away, reshuffling, honeycombing  into new polities and  federations and alliances. There were also breakaway states, independencies, fractious alliances between rogue seastead­ers and the land powers. No maps existed for these nervous, jostling territories.

‘Where does he live now?’ she asked. ‘You’d know that, wouldn’t you? Even if Kanu doesn’t want to talk  to me?’

‘Your son is still on Earth, but on the other side of  Africa, in the Indian Ocean, working with krakens.’

‘You’ve met him, then.’

‘Not  personally, no. But  I have it on good authority that he leads a very happy and productive life. There would have been no ill will, Chiku, had you not tried to steer him from us.  But you cannot blame him for shunning you  now.’

‘And you can’t blame me for wanting to know how my son is doing.’

‘Then you are equal in your blamelessness.’

They were  flying lower and slower now.  No two of the platelets were exactly alike. Some had been turned over to agriculture, spawning  cloud-­piercing vertical farms. Others were frogspawned with sealed biomes,  replicating  specific terrestrial  ecosystems. Some were dense with dwellings, tier after tier of them, air­breathing arcologies as thriv­ing  and urban as any land-bound conurbation. They hauled their own little weather systems. Others were  gridded with elegant sun-­tracking mirror. Some had become leisure complexes, gravid with casinos and resort hotels. Near the equator, Chiku knew, a  few served as the an­chorpoints for space elevators. But that was the wave  of the past now, yesterday’s technology. From their seasteads, the merfolk were building daunting chimney­-like structures that pushed all the way out of  the atmosphere, enclosing a column of vacuum. She could see one of those towers now, a glassy chimney that was all but invisible except when she looked directly at it.  It rose  up  and up,  into the zenith, never ending. A ship was rising in silence: a tiny ascending spark of solar brightness.

‘Tell me  what you  know about the ghost.’

‘Chiku Green sent her, after the normal communication channel was blocked. She’s a flock  of data, circling the globe, looking for somewhere to land, and such phenomena attract our  attention. Do you  regret what you  did, with the blocking?’

‘I assumed it would be reversible.’

‘And  now?’

‘What’s done is done.’

She had asked Quorum Binding to exclude her  from the memory syn­ chronisations,  effectively isolating herself from her siblings. But then Quorum Binding had gone into administration during the fall of the Descrutinised Zone, and when their creditors stepped in and examined Quorum’s records, they could find no way of undoing Chiku’s request. A vital numeric code had been lost.

‘You’d burnt your last  mental bridge.’

‘And  your point is?’

‘There’s a chance we can unburn it – allow you to receive and trans­ mit memories again, to resume contact with Chiku Green. And find out exactly what it is she so very desperately wants you to know.’

‘Define “chance”.’

‘Let’s just say that the omens are propitious. But we’ll need a favour from you in return. We’ve  lost  touch with an old friend, and we think you  can help us re­-establish contact.’

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