It’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?’
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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’