1. ISOL AND THE ENGINE
Day’s end: 5433.
Base beacon delay: 3 years, 351 days.
Speed: approaches 0.265 lights.
Fixed Stars Estimate Navigational Error: 0.0134.
Direction: Barnard’s Star, holding.
Immediate Region: infestation of scattered micrometeors within density spectrum 0.001 to 0.032/m3. Bhupal halo configuration suggests ancient significant explosion. Expansion suggests incident congruent with Earth geotime 246BC: Archimedes works on his principles, Buddhism spreading over India, Punic Wars in full swing.
Crystals of water present; saturation density per cubic metre 4 3 10-6; also frozen nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen; also carbon in the form of complex organic molecules within outer shells of iron and non-Earthlike fullerenes. Iron ores and silicates predominate. Free gases remain as negligible traces within immediate region.
Damage sustained: catastrophic puncturing of primary skin, significant punctures of secondary skin. Heavy-particle absorption decreased to 45%. Radiation count falling by 6 rads/minute. Essential gas loss at 32%.
A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile . . .
Voyager Lonestar Isol was holed like a Swiss cheese, peppered with tiny wounds like a bird caught in a blast of shot. Much more of this and her Mites would fail, her immune system become stagnant from too high a demand, her fuel absorption become disproportionate to the fuel available ahead of her.
And I knew that if I had my chance . . .
Isol continued to hurtle through the scouring degradation of the meteor field, still in shock at its sudden appearance in her path. The constant bombardment, which had felt like a rough sanding at first, was now razing her. She hurt, she bled, but her colossal inertia drove her into the grit with the force of a missile, so that pieces only micrometres in diameter pierced straight through her at whatever vector she struck them.
Even when she’d seen it, it had been far too late to turn. She’d had a warning of exactly 1.6108 seconds and, if she cared to love her numbers, by then it was a whole Golden Ratio too late—an entire Fibonacci crisis of suicidal beauty, fuck it. And in another few seconds it would be over, one way or another.
Did you write the book of love?
She’d had only two femtoseconds to realize that no diver- sion she could make was going to steer her clear of the ring of crap that had suddenly manifested itself. It hadn’t appeared in her awareness until the last moment, due to a lack of light in this star-forsaken region. That, combined with a lack of expectation in her mind and her overconfidence in her own ultra-high-resolution optics and the data from the fixed solar scanners back home. No telescope had reported any big dusts, so she’d assumed there weren’t any. Isol could process memories at fifty times the speed of an Unevolved human and have it feel like real time; but she couldn’t think of what to do when she saw the problem, and by then it had been too late. Two femtoseconds wasn’t even enough for the brain to make the first connection towards starting a gasp—if you had lungs.
A long, long time ago, when she was little, she’d danced in a field of poppies listening to “American Pie,” not understanding a single word, around her the world as wide as a blue sky could stretch. The track had lasted half a second in those days, played as fast as she could comprehend it at the time—thinking she was some kind of genius as she dashed through one era of music after another. “American Pie” and its mystery had lasted time enough for one sharp intake of breath.
These days she could play her music at far greater speeds without losing any nuance; Earth’s entire repertoire took only two years to listen to end to end—more than enough time to find favourites and make lists and endless recombinations of accompaniment to the cacophony of the universal radio.
Now she played it slower than that, one line for every second. It seemed important as never before to understand it, reviewing and discarding all the billions of databased papers already written on its lyrics in order to find her own unique take on its perfect capture of the ineffable. She wanted to hear it so loud that the sound of her own death wouldn’t eclipse it.
Do you have faith in God above?
She saw the curve of her future suddenly start to veer into the cubic . . . the quartic . . . heading into its visible limit. It was too late, and it had been too late since the first day of her life when, as an extrasolar explorer, she’d been set on a track for speed and silence and the infinite depths of an ocean beyond all vastness. Even a Forged life is so short and this place is so very big. How could you stand to be late?
Do you believe in rock and roll?
A rock—much bigger than the rest—smashed through her right sailfin, punching a hole in it more than half a metre across. Numbness began to creep into her side. From the edges of the wound hydrocarbons and silicates bled out into a whitening tail behind her.
Suddenly, as if the lump had left a secret decoder in its violent passage, Isol understood the song, even the line about the levee, although she didn’t know what a levee was. (Her insentient memory supplied some kind of ditch full of water runoff from green fields and a river, sodden with rain to bursting point.) It told her the song was about the death of Buddy Holly and the crash of his plane. But she knew it was for her, because she was the plane and the passenger and the song and the words, and the father, son and holy ghost were out beyond the light horizon.
Can music save your mortal soul?
At last she was in the clear, beyond the cloud of infinitesimal stones. But her body was failing. The damaged sailfin wouldn’t eat anymore, wouldn’t feel the soft breath of the solar winds or the hard blast of her reactor output. The drop in radiation made her feel a cold foreboding that was more than a physical chill. She didn’t need to create the graph to know the game was done.
Slowing, she maintained course along the thread of light towards Barnard’s Star. Everything about her ached with regret and fury at her hot-headedness. Now she would drift until she died, for there were no stars close enough to supply sufficient energy to solve her shortfall. Barnard’s Star was to have been the first of many stops. She hadn’t even got to first base.
I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck . . .
If only she’d seen it sooner. Then she might have had the time to make plans rather than simply seeing the stark promise of a detour and its deceleration. She might have had time to think, to slow down, to turn. But although her brain was made for the task, her eyes simply weren’t up to the job. Not that those who had made her could have known that—they’d never tested any prototypes in the field, for there could be no prototypes, only people; when you made someone you tried to give them the best possible shot, surely, didn’t you? Being among the first, she should have expected a few flaws, perhaps. But her head was made for speed and the silent heaven. She was perfect for this. Almost.
The day the music died . . .
Furious, she looked back at the debris field. All but invisible until you were right on it—positioned, as it was, far from stars and their planetary systems, far from the light of nebulae-scatter with nothing to cast its shadow upon, nothing at this range to reveal its proximity against the backdrop of glitter and dust, where worlds larger than the sun made a pinprick on her lenses no larger than an atom’s width. But with a second glance she saw that this was no comet-and-rock incident. The signatures of the elements, the shapes of the pieces . . . this huge mess wasn’t a cosmic accident of two bits of dumb mass colliding. It was an explosion with a centre and among its remains were fragments of complex organic material.
That strange flavour of burning that now seemed so flat on her tongues: this was carbonization. The little pieces had been alive, and the huge lump that had taken away her only chance of survival with a single blow was a block of highly refined metals of non-natural type that had liquefied and congealed within moments—a bit of technology that was now a lump of heat-processed slag.
For a second her astonishment outweighed her terror.
This whole savage cloud had once been somebody.
Bye-bye, Miss American Pie . . .
This person had been undergoing their violent expansion for over a thousand years. Such a short time in cosmic terms, less than a moment. Not even a gasp.
Isol turned away from her horrible intimacy with it—with them. Horror and disgust mingled with elation and made her feel sick. And here she was, dead as well, fulfilling her mission goal and her life’s dream in one move.
She laughed at the irony, deep in her core chamber where the superhot reactions of nuclear fission juddered and the unequal slams of free electrons let the elements do her sobbing for her. Eventually the reaction would eat her up if she let it run hard. Switch it off, and she could freeze solid instead.
So Isol makes the fundamental inherited goal of all explorers—contact—and in doing so is murdered accidentally by the long-dead native before introductions can be made: she often thought of herself in the third person. It was a way of looking at her insignificance. Now that seemed ludicrous, verging on the insane, as though she’d been writing her own story in a book: engineering it towards the triumph and victory of a happy ending with such determination that she hadn’t noticed when the plot went wrong. What a way to live.
She kept on laughing, drifting away from the field on her single, one-shot trajectory, wondering if she should tell Earth about this or keep it to herself as the final word on a life that could never have had any other purpose, although it might have had another outcome.
Mental note to Creators (you boz-eyed shitbags): beware of roadkill.
The pain from the sailfin began to ache and bite as she withdrew support from it. Cold stiffened it and froze its thin, tattered panes. She cut the circulation at her shoulder and kept her song on replay, humming along, eyes closed as she watched her deceleration to 0.25 lights. She felt very tired suddenly. The rebellion in her against the Earthbound ancestors, which had previously been a burning vision strong enough to fuel her through anything, exhausted itself—so much so that she longed for a sight of the planet now, blue and green and white, afloat on its prosaic round.
Her daily-link notes came in, relayed by beacons she had left behind her, their hominid-centric news mere years out of date. She deleted them.
I met a girl who sang the blues . . .
And then you get slammed by some other luckless schmuck’s corpse and you realize—what?
Excerpted from Natural History by Justina Robson. Copyright © 2004 by Justina Robson. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.