Louise Ye Armonk stood on the pod’s short ladder. Below her, the ice of Callisto was dark, full of mysterious depths in the smoky Jovian ring-light.
She felt a starburst of wonder. For the first time in a thousand subjective years she was going to walk on the surface of a world.
She stepped forward.
Her feet settled to the ice with a faint crunch. Her boots left well-defined, ribbed prints in the fine frost which coated Callisto’s surface.
The thick environment suit felt heavy, despite the easiness of Callisto’s thirteen-percent-gee gravity. Louise lifted her hands and pressed her palms together; she was barely able to feel her hands within the clumsy gloves. The suit was a thousand years old. Trapped inside this thing she felt deadened, aged, as if she were forced to work within some glutinous fluid.
She looked around, peering through her murky faceplate, squinting to make out detail through the plate’s degraded image-enhancement. As her sense of wonder faded, she felt irritation grow; she knew it was weak of her, but, damn it, she missed the crystal clarity of her Virtual dioramas.
Jupiter and Sol were both below the little moon’s infinite-flat, icy horizon: but Jupiter’s new rings arced spectacularly out of the horizon and across the sky. The ring system’s far edge occluded the stars, razor-sharp, and the ice and rock particles of the rings sparkled milky crimson in the cool, distant sunlight.
The rings were like a huge artifact, she thought. Here, a mote on a plain of ice, she felt dwarfed to insignificance.
She tipped back her head and looked at the stars.
It had already been a year since the Northern’s speed had dropped sufficiently for the last relativistic effects to bleach from the Universe, a year in which they’d slowly coasted in from the outer System to Jupiter. The Northern had been in orbit around the Jovian moon for several days now, and Morrow had been working down here for most of that time. Preliminary scans from the Northern had told them that there was something buried inside the freshly frozen Callisto ice — something anomalous. Morrow, with his team of ’bots, was trying to find out what that was.
But this was Louise’s own first trip down to the surface. And the experience of being immersed in a sky — a genuine, spread out, distortion-free starry sky — was an unnerving novelty to Louise, after so long being surrounded by the washed-out starbow of near-lightspeed.
But what a sky it was — a dull, empty canopy of velvet, peppered by the corpses of stars: wizened, cooling dwarfs, the bloated hulks of giants — some huge enough to show a disc, even at interstellar distances — and, here and there, the traceries of debris, handfuls of spider-web thrown across the sky, which marked the sites of supernovas.
There was a grunt, and a diffuse shadow fell across the ice.
Louise turned. Spinner-of-Rope was making her slow, cautious way out of the pod after her. Spinner’s small body, made bulky by the suit, was silhouetted against the pod lights. She placed each footstep deliberately on the surface, and she held her arms out straight.
Louise grinned at Spinner. “You look ridiculous.”
“Oh, thanks,” Spinner said sourly. Through the dully reflective faceplate Louise could see the glint of Spinner’s spectacles, the glare of face paint, the white of Spinner’s teeth. Spinner said, “I just don’t want to go slip-sliding across this ice-ball of a moon.”
Louise looked down and scuffed the surface with her toe, leaving deep scratches. Within the ice she could see defects: planes, threads and star-shaped knots, imperfections left by the freezing process. “This is ice, but it’s not exactly smooth.”
Spinner waddled up to her and sniffed; the noise was like a scratch in Louise’s earpiece. “Maybe,” Spinner said. “But it’s a lot smoother than it used to be.”
“Look,” Spinner said, pointing. “Here comes the Northern.” Louise turned and peered up, dutifully. The Northern, trailing through its hour-long orbit, was a thousand miles above the surface. Subvocally she ordered her faceplate to enhance the image. The ship became a remote matchstick, bright red in the light of Sol; it looked impossibly fragile, like some immense toy, she thought. The asteroid ice which had provided reaction mass for so long was a dark, anonymous lump, barely visible now that the great blue flame of the GUTdrive had been stilled after its thousand-year service. The spine, with its encrustation of antennae and sensor ports, was like an organic thing, bony, coated by bleached parasites. Red sunlight pooled like blood in the antennae cups. Still fixed to the spine was the wreckage of the worm-hole Interface — twisted so that its tetrahedral form was lost-beyond recognition, the electric-blue sparkle of its exotic matter frame dulled.
And the lifedome itself — eggshell-delicate — was huge atop that skinny spine, like the skull of a child. Most of the dome was darkened — closed up, impenetrable — but the upper few layers still glistened with light.
Within those bland walls, Louise reflected, two thousand people still went about their small, routine lives. Beyond Louise and her close companions, there were very few within the lifedome’s fragmented societies who even knew that the Northern’s immense journey was, at last, over.
“How are you doing down there?”
She winced. The sudden voice in her ear had been raucous, overloud — another problem with this damn old suit.
“Mark, I’m fine. How are you?”
“What can you see? What are you thinking?”
“Mostly I can see the inside of this faceplate. Couldn’t you have got it cleaned up? It smells like something’s been living in it for a thousand years.”
“…I see the stars. What’s left of them.”
“Yes.” Mark was silent for a moment. “Well, it’s just as we suspected from the deconvolved reconstructions during the flight… but never quite believed, maybe. It’s the same picture all over the sky, Louise; we’ve found no exceptions. It’s incredible. In the five million years of our flight, stellar evolution has been forced through at least five billion years. And the effect isn’t limited to this Galaxy. We can’t even see the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, for example.”
The sky was lowering, oppressive. She said, “Superet got it about right, didn’t they? Remember the projections they showed us in the Virtual dome in New York, when they recruited us?”
“Yes… wizened stars, faded galaxies. Depressing, isn’t it?”
She smiled. “Maybe. But the sky’s become an astrophysicist’s dream lab.”
“But it can’t have been much of a dream for anyone left alive here, in the Solar System, when those novae and supernovae started going off. The sleet of hard radiation and massive particles must have been unrelenting, for a million years…”
“Yes. A hard rain indeed. That will have sterilized the whole damn place — ”
” — if there had been anyone left alive here by then. Which we’ve yet to find evidence of. Well, we’re still following up our four leads — the maser radiation coming out of the Sun, the very strange gravity waves coming from Sagittarius, the artifact in the ice, here on Callisto, and that weak beacon in transPlutonian space… But we’re no further forward understanding any of it.”
“I can see the forest,” Spinner murmured, her faceplate upturned.
Louise studied the lifedome more carefully, enhanced the image with artificial colors — and there, indeed, she could see a thin layer of Earth green at the leading edge of the life-dome, the layer of living things stained dark by the aged sunlight.
That pet forest, she thought suddenly, might be the only green left, anywhere in the Universe.
Absurdly, she felt her throat tightening; she found it difficult to pull her gaze away from that drifting particle of home.
There was a hand on her arm, its weight barely registering through the numbing, stiff fabric of the suit. Spinner smiled. “I know how you feel.”
Louise peered through the faceplate at this odd girl-woman, with her glinting spectacles and her round, childish face.
After Spinner’s father had wrecked the Interface — and with it, any chance of getting home again — Louise had offered Spinner and her people AS-treatment. And, looking at Spinner now, fifty years later, it was hard to remember that this was no longer a child, but a sixty-five-year-old woman.
“I doubt you know how I feel,” she said coldly. “I doubt it very much.”
Spinner studied her for a few moments, her painted face expressionless behind her plate.
They climbed back into the pod.
The little ship rose to a height of a mile, then levelled off and coasted parallel to the surface. Louise looked back. Their landing jets had blown a wide, shallow crater in the ice; it marred a plain which stretched, seamless and featureless, to the close horizon.
Louise sat in her seat; surrounded by the disconcertingly transparent hull, she felt — as always, in these pods — as if she were suspended in space. Below them the Callisto plain was a geometrical abstraction; above them. Northern climbed patiently past the deep, gleaming rings of Jupiter, a spark against those smooth arcs.
The main activity on Callisto was centered around Morrow’s excavation site on the far side of the moon, the Jupiter-facing side. The purpose of this jaunt was to have a general scout, and to give Spinner-of-Rope some more experience of working outside the ship, the feel of standing on a planet surface… Even, Louise thought, a surface so featureless, and with a sky so bare, that the moon had become almost an abstract representation of a planet.
Still, Louise knew it did her good to get away from the ship that had been her home, and prison, for so many centuries — and which, barring a miracle, was going to have to sustain her and her people for the rest of her life. Callisto was — had been — Jupiter’s eighth moon, one of the four big Galilean satellites. At the time of Northern’s launch Callisto had been a ball of water ice and rock, heavily cratered. Debris had been sprayed across the mysterious surface from the bright cores of the impact craters; from space, Callisto had looked like a sphere of glass peppered by gunshots. One basin — called Valhalla — had been four hundred miles across, an immense amphitheater surrounded by concentric terrace-like walls.
Louise remembered how human cities, feeding on Callisto’s ancient water, had glinted in the shadows of Valhalla’s walls, shining like multicolored jewels.
Well, the craters had gone now — as had Valhalla, and all the cities. Gone without trace, it seemed. Callisto had been wiped smooth, unblemished save for her own footsteps.
During, or after, the depopulation, Callisto had been caused to melt. And, when the moon froze once more, something had been trapped in the ice…
The pod skimmed around the smooth limb of the moon. They were heading over the moon’s north pole, and soon, Louise realized, they would be passing over the sharp terminator and into daylight.
…Or what passed for daylight, in these straitened times, she thought.
Beside her, Spinner fitted her faceplate over her head, leaving it open below her mouth. She peered around, through the flimsy walls of the pod. From the absent, unfocused expression in her eyes, Louise could tell she was using the plate’s enhancement and magnification features.
“I can see moons,” Spinner said. “A sky full of moons.”
“Nice for you,” Louise said drily. “There should be eight — there used to be eight beyond Callisto. Small, irregular: probably captured asteroids. The outer four of them were retrograde, moving backwards compared to the planet’s own rotation.”
“I’m surprised any moons survived the destruction of the planet.”
Louise shrugged. “The nearest of the outer moons was a hundred and fifty Jovian radii from the primary, before the planet imploded… even Callisto survived, remember, and that was a mere twenty-six radii out.” The orbits of the surviving moons had been disturbed by the Jovian event, of course; the implosion had sent them scattering with a shock of gravity waves, and now they swooped around their shattered parent along orbits of high eccentricity, like birds disturbed by earth tremors.
Within the orbit of Callisto, nothing had survived.
Now, as the pod passed over the pole, the Jovian ring system unfolded like a huge floor before Louise, infinite-flat and streaked with shadows.
This new ring system, the debris of worlds, lay in what had been Jupiter’s equatorial plane — the plane once occupied by the vanished moons. Callisto still lay in the equatorial plane, patiently circling the site of the giant planet just outside the ring system, so that the disc of ring material — if it had stretched out so far — would have bisected Callisto neatly.
The ring system didn’t terminate at a sharp inner boundary, like Saturn’s. Instead the creamy, smoothed-out material stretched inwards — this system was actually more a disc than a ring system, Louise realized slowly. As her eyes tracked in toward the center the system’s texture slowly changed — becoming more rough, Louise saw, with knots of high density locked into the churning surface, orbiting through tight circles, swirling visibly.
The whole assemblage was stained crimson by scattered sunlight.
The rings were almost featureless — bland, without the complex colors and braids which characterized Saturn’s system. Louise sighed. The gravitational interaction of moons had provided Saturn’s rings with their fantastic structure. The trouble was that Jupiter’s remaining moons simply weren’t up to the job of shepherding the rings. For poor, dead Jupiter, only a single dark streak marked the orbital resonance of Callisto itself.
Now, the center of the ring-disc rose above Callisto’s sharp horizon. Louise could clearly see inhomogeneities churning around the geometric center of the disc, twisting through their crowded, tortured orbits. But the disc center itself was unspectacular — just a brighter patch, spinning with the rest of the disc. It was somehow frustrating, as if there were something missing.
Spinner sounded disappointed. “I can’t see anything in the middle. Where the planet used to be.”
Louise grinned. “You’d hardly expect to. A black hole with Jupiter’s mass would have a diameter of just twenty feet or so…”
“There’s plenty to see in higher frequencies,” Mark cut in. “The X-ray, and higher…
“Toward the heart of the system we have a true accretion disc,” he went on, “with matter being heated tremendously before falling into the black hole itself. It’s small, but there’s a lot of structure there, if you look at it in the right bands.”
Spinner, with apparent eagerness, adjusted her plate over her face, and Mark told her how to fix the settings. Soon, Spinner’s eyes assumed that unfocused look again as they adjusted to the enhanced imagery.
Louise left her own visor in her lap; the black hole, and its huge, milky ring, depressed her enough in visible light.
Jupiter’s new ring system, with its bland paleness, and the jostling, crowding swirl at the center, was far from beautiful, on any wavelength. It was too obviously a place of wreckage, of destruction — a destruction which was visibly continuing, as the black hole gnawed at its accretion disc. And, to Louise’s engineer’s eye, with its empty center the system had something of an unfinished, provisional look. There was no soul to this system, she thought, no balance to the scale of the rings: by comparison, Saturn’s rings had been an adornment, a necklace of ice and rock around the throat of an already beautiful world.
Spinner turned to her, her bespectacled eyes masked by the faceplate. “The whole thing’s like a whirlpool,” she said.
Louise shrugged. “I suppose so. A whirlpool surrounding a hole in spacetime.”
“A whirlpool of gas — ”
— gas, and rock and water ice: bits of smashed-up worlds —
Louise started to tell Spinner-of-Rope about the vanished moons of Jupiter. She remembered Io with its volcano mouths and their hundred-mile-high vents, its sulfur-stained surface and its surrounding torus of volcano-fed plasma; she remembered Io’s mineral mines, nestling in the shadow of the huge volcano Babbar Patera. She told Spinner of Ganymede: larger than Mercury, heavily cratered and geologically rich — the most stable and heavily populated of all the Jovian moons. And Europa, a ball of ice, with a bright smooth surface — constantly renewed by melting and tectonic stress — covering a liquid layer beneath. Europa had been a bright precursor of this smoothed-over corpse of Callisto, perhaps.
Worlds, all populated — all gone.
Louise hoped fervently that there had been time to evacuate the moons before the final disaster. If not, then — drifting through Jovian orbit among the fragments of rock and ice which comprised those rings — there would be bits of humanity: shards of shattered homes, children’s toys, corpses.
Spinner pushed up her faceplate and rubbed her eyes. “I’d have liked to have seen Jupiter, I think, with its moons and all those cities… Perhaps Jupiter could have been saved. After all, the implosion must have taken thousands of years, you told me.”
Louise bit back a sarcastic reply. “Yes. But picking black holes out of the heart of a gas giant was evidently a bit too difficult, even for the humans of many millennia beyond my time.”
Jupiter had been wrecked by the actions of the Friends of Wigner.
The Friends were human rebels from a Qax-occupied future, who had fled back in time through Michael Poole’s time-tunnel wormhole.
The Friends had had in mind some grand, impossible scheme to alter history. Their plan had involved firing asteroid-mass black holes into Jupiter.
The Friends’ project had been interrupted by the arrival of Qax warships through Poole’s wormhole — but not before the Friends had succeeded in spearing the giant planet with several of their tiny singularities.
The pinprick singularities had looped through the thick Jovian atmosphere like deadly insects, trailing threads of plasma. When the holes met, they had whirled around each other before coalescing, their event horizons collapsing into each other in Planck timescales.
The vibration of merging event horizons had emitted vicious pulses of gravity waves. Founts of thick, chemically complex atmosphere had been hurled out of the planet, bizarre volcanoes on a world of gas.
The Friends’ ambitions had been far-reaching. Before the final implosion they’d meant to sculpt the huge planet with these directed gravity-wave pulses, produced by the complex interactions of their singularity bullets.
Louise now stared morosely at the bland, displeasing disc of glowing rubble. Well, the Friends had certainly succeeded in part of their project — the reduction of Jupiter. Quite a monument to such ambition, after five million years, Louise thought: a collapsed Jovian, and a string of crushed human worlds.
And all for what? A black hole of the wrong size…
“It’s getting brighter over there,” Spinner said, pointing.
Louise looked right, across Callisto. A dull, flat crimson light was spreading across the ice. The glow cast long, disproportionate shadows from the low irregularities in Callisto’s smooth surface, turning the ice plain into a complex landscape of ruby-sparkling promontories and blood-red pools of shadow.
At the horizon, smoky tendrils of crimson gas were rising across the sky.
“Sunrise on Callisto,” Louise said sourly. “Come on; let’s land. We don’t want to miss the full beauty of the Solar System’s one remaining wonder, do we?”
On the surface of Callisto, standing beside Louise in her environment suit. Spinner held up her arms, framing the Sun with her outspread hands; standing there on the light-stained ice floor, with the swollen globe reflected, distorted, in her faceplate, Spinner-of-Rope looked more than ever like a child.
Sol, looming over the horizon, was a wall of blood-red smoke. It was transparent enough to see through to the distant stars for perhaps a quarter of the disc’s radius — in fact, the material was so thin that Louise could make out the steadily deepening color of the thicker layers toward the core.
The Sun didn’t even look like a star any more, she thought tiredly. A star was supposed to be hard, bright, hot; you weren’t supposed to be able to see through it.
“Another astrophysicist’s dream,” Mark said drily. “You could learn more about the nature of stellar evolution just by standing there and looking, than in all the first five millennia of human astronomy.”
“Yes. But what a price to pay.”
Once, from Jupiter’s orbit the Main Sequence Sun would have been a point source of light — distant, hot, yellow. Now, the Sun’s arc size had to be at least twenty degrees. Its bulk covered fully a fifth of Louise’s field of view: twenty times the width of the full Moon, as seen from Earth.
Jupiter was five AU from the Sun’s center — an AU was an astronomical unit, the radius of Earth’s orbit. For the Sun to subtend such an angle, it must be two AU across, or more.
Two astronomical units. In exploding out to become a giant, the Sun had swallowed the Earth, and the planets within Earth’s orbit — Venus, Mercury.
Spinner-of-Rope was studying her, concern mixing with curiosity behind those pale spectacles.
“What are you thinking, Louise?”
“This shouldn’t have happened for five billion more years,” Louise said. Her throat was tight, and she found it difficult to keep her voice level. “The Sun was only halfway to turnoff — halfway through its stable lifecycle, on the Main Sequence.
“This shouldn’t have happened. Somebody did this deliberately, robbing us of our future, our worlds — damn it, this was our Sun…”
“Louise.” Mark’s synthesized voice was brisk, urgent.
She breathed deeply, trying to put away her anger, her resentment, to focus on the present.
“What is it?”
“You’d better come back to the Northern. Morrow has found something… Something in the ice. He thinks it’s a spacecraft.”