By the time she’d climbed to the top of the giant kapok tree her hand-grips were slick with sweat, and her lungs were pumping rapidly. Spinner-of-Rope took off her spectacles and wiped the lenses on a corner of her loincloth. Zero-gee or not, it still took an effort to haul her bulk around this forest… an effort that seemed to be increasing with age, despite all the AS treatment in the world.
She was at the crown of the kapok. The great tree was a dense, tangled mass of branches beneath her. Seeds drifted everywhere, filling the rippling canopy with points of light — like roaming stars, she thought. Somewhere a group of howler monkeys shrieked out their presence. Their eerie ululations, rising and falling, reminded her of the klaxon which had once called the Undermen to their dreary work…
She put that thought out of her mind with determination. She pulled some dried meat from her belt and chewed on it, relishing the familiar, salty taste. She felt tired, damn it; she’d come here, alone, because she wanted — just for a few hours — to put all of the strangeness below the forest Deck, and beyond the skydome, out of her mind, to immerse herself once more in the simple world in which she’d grown up.
In the distance a bird flapped, shrieking, its colors gaudy against the bland afternoon blue of the skydome.
The bird was flying upside down.
The voice was close to her ear. Still chewing her meat, Spinner turned, slowly.
Louise Ye Armonk hovered a few feet away, standing on the squat, neat platform of a zero-gee scooter. Louise grinned. “Did I make you jump? I’m sorry for cheating with this scooter; I’m not sure I would have managed the climb.”
Spinner-of-Rope glared at her. “Louise. Never — never — sneak up on someone at the top of a tree.”
Louise didn’t look too concerned. “Why not? Because you might lose your grip, and drift off the branch a couple of feet? What a disaster.”
Spinner tried to maintain her anger, but she started to feel foolish. “Come on, Louise. I’m trying to make a point.”
Louise, skillfully, brought her scooter in closer to Spinner; without much grace she clambered off the scooter and onto the branch beside Spinner. “Actually,” she said gently, “so am I.” She breathed deeply of the moist forest air, and looked around the sky. “I saw you watching that bird.”
Spinner pushed her spectacles up the bridge of her nose. “So what?”
Louise picked at the tree bark. “Well, the bird seems to be doing its best to get by, in zero-gee.”
“Maybe. Not everyone here is doing so well,” Spinner said heavily. The loss of gravity was, slowly but surely, devastating the forest biota. “The higher birds and animals seem to be adapting okay… The monkeys quickly learned to adjust the way they climb and jump. But otherwise, things are falling apart, in a hundred tiny ways.” She thought of spiders which could no longer spin webs, of tree-dwelling frogs which found their tiny leaf-bound ponds floating away into the air. “We’re doing our best to keep things working — to save whatever we can,” she said. “But, damn it, even the rain doesn’t fall right any more.”
Louise reached out and took her hand; the old engineer’s skin was cold, leathery. “Spinner, we have to reestablish all of this. Permanently.” Louise lifted her face; the diffuse light of the dome softened the etched-in age lines. “I designed this forest Deck, remember. And this is the only fragment of Earth that’s survived, anywhere in the Universe — as far as we know.”
Spinner-of-Rope pulled her hand away. “I know what your little parable about the bird was about, Louise. I should adapt, just like the plucky little bird. Right? You want me to come back to the nightfighter.”
Louise nodded, studying her.
“Well, it was a dumb parable. The bird is the exception, not the rule. And — ”
“Spinner, I know you needed a break. But you’ve been climbing around these trees for a long time, now. I need you to come back — we all do. I know it’s difficult for you, but you’re the only person I have who can do the job.”
Spinner watched her face, skeptically. “But we’re not talking about mere discontinuity-drive jaunts around the Solar System now. Are we, Louise?”
“No.” Louise wouldn’t meet her eyes.
Spinner felt a hollowness in her chest — as if it had expanded, leaving her heart fluttering like a bird in some huge cavity. Hyperdrive…
“Spinner, we need the hyperdrive. You understand that, don’t you? The Sun is dying. Perhaps we could attempt to establish some sort of colony here, in the Solar System. But we need to find out what’s happening beyond the System. Are there any people left, anywhere? Maybe we can join them — find a better place than the Solar System has become.
“But, without the hyperdrive, journeys like that would take millennia, more even with the discontinuity drive. And I don’t think we have millennia…”
Spinner took a deep breath. “Yes, but… Louise, what will happen when I throw the switch? How will it feel?”
Louise hesitated. “Spinner, I don’t know. That’s the truth; that’s what we want to find out from the first flight. We aren’t going to know for sure until we try it in anger. Mark and I have only just begun to put together theories on how the damn hyperdrive works… Spinner, all we know is it’s something to do with dimensionality.”
A conventional craft (Louise said) worked in a “three-plus-one” dimensional spacetime — three spatial dimensions, plus one of time. And within those dimensions nature was described by a series of fundamental constants — the charge on the electron, the speed of light, the gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, and others.
But — humans believed — physics was governed by the Spin (10) theory, which described symmetries among the forces of nature. And the symmetries needed to be expressed in higher dimensions than four.
“So, Spinner-of-Rope, there are more than three spatial dimensions,” Louise said. “But the ‘extra dimensions’ are compactified—”
“Collapsed down to the smallest possible scale — to the Planck scale, below which quantum physics and gravitation merge.”
Once — just after the initial singularity — the forces of physics were one, and the Universe was fully multi-dimensional. Then the great expansion started.
“Three of the spatial dimensions expanded, rapidly, to the scales we see today. The other dimensions remained compactified.”
“Why did three dimensions expand? Why not four, or two, or one — or none at all?”
Louise laughed. “That’s a good question, Spinner. I wish I had a good answer.
“Geometrically, three-dimensional spaces have some unique attributes. For instance, only in three dimensions is it possible for planets to have stable orbits governed by the central forces exerted by stars. Did you know that? Planets in a four-dimensional cosmos would drift into space, or spiral into their suns. So if life needs billions of years of a stable planetary environment, three dimensions are the only possibility. Matter isn’t stable in higher dimensions, even: the Schr"odinger wave equation would have no bound solutions… And waves can propagate without distortion, only in three dimensions. So if we need high-fidelity acoustic or electromagnetic signals to be able to make sense of the world, then again, three dimensions is the only possibility.
“Spinner, maybe there are alternate universes, out there somewhere, where more than three dimensions ballooned up after the initial singularity. But as far as we can see, life — our kind of life — couldn’t have evolved there; the fundamental geometry of spacetime wouldn’t have allowed it…
“Remember, though, the extra dimensions are here, still, but they’re rolled up very tightly, into high-curvature tubes a Planck length across.”
“So we can’t see them.”
“No. But — and here’s the trick we think the Xeelee have exploited, Spinner — the extra dimensions do have an impact on our Universe. The curvature of these Planck tubes determines the value of the fundamental constants of physics. So the way the tubes are folded up determines things like the charge of an electron, or the strength of gravity.”
Spinner nodded slowly. “All right. But what has this to do with the hyperdrive?”
“Spinner-of-Rope, we think the Xeelee found a way to adjust some of those universal numbers. By changing the constants of physics — in a small region of space around itself — the hyperdrive can make spacetime unfurl, just a little.” Louise lifted her face. “Then the nightfighter can move, a short distance, through one of the higher dimensions.
“Think of a sheet of paper, Spinner. If you’re confined to two dimensions — to crawling over the paper — then it will take you a long time to get from one side to the other. But if you could move through the third dimension — through the paper — then you could move with huge apparent speed from one place to another…”
Spinner frowned. “I think I see that. Is this something like wormhole travel?”
Louise hesitated. “Not really. Wormholes are defects in our three-plus-one dimensional spacetime, Spinner; they don’t involve the higher collapsed dimensions. And worm-holes are fixed. With a wormhole you can travel only from one place to another, unless you drag the termini around with you. With the Xeelee drive — we think — you can travel anywhere, almost at will. It’s like the difference between a fixed rail route and a flitter.”
Spinner thought it over. “It sounds simple.”
Louise laughed. “Believe me, it’s not.” She turned, distracted. “Hey. Look,” she said, pointing to the skydome.
Spinner looked up, squinting through her spectacles against the glare of the dome. “What?”
Louise leaned closer so that Spinner could sight along her outstretched arm. “See? Those shadows against the dome, over there…”
The shadows, ten or a dozen forms, clambered across a small corner of the skydome, busy, active.
Spinner smiled. “Howler monkeys. They’ve colonized the skydome. I wonder how they got up there.”
“The point is,” Louise said gently, “they’ve adapted, too. Just like that parrot.”
“Another parable, Louise?”
Louise shrugged, looking smug.
Spinner felt, she decided, like one of Morrow’s Under-men. She was no longer free; she was bowed down by the need to serve Louise’s vast, amorphous project.
“All right, Louise, you’ve made your point. Let’s go back to the nightfighter.”
For the first time, Lieserl understood the photino birds.
She thought of novae, and supernovae.
As the newly shining stars had settled into their multi-billion-year Main Sequence lifetimes, the Universe must have seemed a fine place to the photino birds. The stars had appeared stable: eternal, neat little nests of compact gravity wells and fusion energy.
Then had come the first instabilities.
Red giant expansions and novae must have been bad enough. But even a nova was a limited explosion, which could leave a star still intact: survivable, by the infesting birds. A supernova explosion, however, could destroy a star in seconds, leaving behind nothing more than a shriveled, fast-spinning neutron star.
Lieserl tried to see these events from the point of view of the photino birds. The instabilities, the great explosions, must have devastated whole core-flocks. Perhaps, she speculated now, the birds had even evolved a civilization in the past; she imagined huge, spinning cities of dark matter at the heart of stars cities ripped apart by the first star-deaths.
If she were a photino bird, she wouldn’t tolerate this.
The birds didn’t need spectacular, blazing stars. They certainly didn’t need instability, novae and supernovae, the disruption of dying stars. All they demanded from a star was a stable gravity well, and a trickle-source of proton photino interaction energy.
She thought of Sol.
When the birds were finished with the Sun — after the superwind had blown through the wrecked System — a white dwarf would remain: a small, cooling lump of degenerate matter smaller than the Earth. The Sun’s story would be over. It could expect no change, except a slow decline; there would certainly be no cataclysmic events in Sol’s future…
But the dwarf would retain over half the Sun’s original mass. And there would be plenty of dense matter to interact with, and energy from the slow contraction of the star.
The Sun would have become an ideal habitat for photino birds.
Lieserl saw it all now, with terrifying clarity.
The photino birds were not prepared to accept a Universe full of young, hot, dangerous stars, likely to explode at any moment. So they had decided to get it over with — to manage the aging of the stars as rapidly as possible.
And when the birds’ great task was done, the Universe would be filled with dull, unchanging white dwarfs. The only motion would come from the shadowy streams of photino birds sailing between their neutered star-nests.
It was a majestic vision: an engineering project on the grandest possible of scales — a project which could never be equalled.
But it was making the Universe — the whole of the Universe — into a place inimical to humans.
She studied the swelling core of the Sun. Its temperature climbed higher almost daily; the helium flash was close — or might, indeed, already have occurred.
The humans seemed to have assimilated the data she had sent them. A reply came to her, via her tenuous maser-light pathways.
She translated it slowly. A smiling face, crudely encoded in a binary chain of Doppler-distorted maser bursts. Words of thanks for her data. And — an invitation.
Join us, the human said.
Once again, Spinner-of-Rope sat in the cage of the Xeelee nightfighter. Arcs of construction material wrapped around her; beyond them the bloated bulk of the Sun loomed, immense and pale, like some vast ghost.
She tried to settle into her couch. Between each discontinuity-drive jaunt she’d had Mark adjust the couch’s contours, but still it didn’t seem to fit her correctly. Maybe it was because of the biostat sensors with which she continued to be encrusted, for each flight…
Or maybe, she thought dispiritedly, it was just that she was so tired of this bombardment of strangeness.
She fingered her chest, against which — under her suit — lay her father’s arrowhead. Before her was the black horse shoe of the Xeelee control console, with its three grafted-on waldoes. She stared at the waldo straight ahead of her — the one which controlled the hyperdrive. Superficially the waldo was just another box of metal and plastic, its telltale lights glowing warmly; but now it seemed to loom large in her vision, larger even than the corpse of the Sun…
“Spinner. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, Louise. I’m here.”
“Are you all right? You’re in your couch?”
Spinner allowed herself a sigh of exasperation. “Yes, I’m in my couch, just where you saw me not five minutes ago.”
Louise laughed. “All right, Spinner, I’m sorry. I’m in the life-lounge. Look whatever risks you take in this, I’ll be right here sharing them…”
Now Spinner laughed. “Thanks, Louise; that’s making me feel a lot better.”
Louise was silent for a moment, and Spinner imagined her lopsided, rather tired grin. “I never was much of a motivator. It’s amazing I ever got as far as I did in life… Are you ready to start?”
Spinner took a deep breath; her throat was tight, and she felt light, remote as if this were all some Virtual show, not connected to anything real.
“I’m ready,” she said.
There was silence; Louise Ye Armonk seemed to be holding her breath.
“Spinner-of-Rope, if you need more time — ”
“I said, I’m ready.” Spinner opened her eyes, settled into her crash couch, and flexed her gloved fingers. Before her, the touchpads on the hyperdrive waldo glowed.
“Tell me what to do, Louise.”
The Sun was a brooding mass to her right hand side, flooding the cage with dull red light.
There were three touchpads in a row, all shining yellow. Without thinking about it. Spinner stabbed her forefinger at the middle touchpad.
The ambient light — changed.
She was aware that she had stopped breathing; even her pulse, loud in her ears inside this helmet, seemed to have slowed to a crawl.
She was staring at her gloved hand, the outstretched forefinger still touching the surface of the waldo; beyond that, in her peripheral vision, she could see the ribs of the construction-material cage. It was all just as it had been, a heartbeat before.
…Except that the shadows which her hand cast across the waldo box had altered, subtly.
Before, the diffuse globe of the Sun had flooded her field of view with a crimson, bloody glow, and her cage was filled with streaky, soft-edged shadows. But now the shadows had moved around, almost through a hundred and eighty degrees. As if the Sun — or whatever light source was acting now — had moved around to her left.
She lifted her hand and turned it over before her face, studying the way the light fell across her fingers, the creases in the glove material. The quality of the light itself had changed, too; now it seemed more diffuse — the shadows still softer, the light pinker, brighter.
She dropped her hand to her chest. Through layers of suit material she could feel the hard edges of her father’s arrow blade, pressing against her chest. She pushed the point of the head into her body, feeling her skin break; the tiny pinpoint of pain was like a single, stationary point of reality amid this Universe of wheeling light.
She turned her head, slowly.
The Sun had gone. Where its immense bulk had coated the sky with crimson smoke, there was only emptiness — blackness, a smearing of wizened stars.
And to her left there had appeared a wall of pinkish gas, riven by lanes of dark, its edges diffusing into blackness. It was a cloud full of stars; it must be light-years across.
She must have traveled hundreds — perhaps even thousands of light-years. And she’d felt nothing. A mere touch of a button…
She folded forward, dropping her head into her lap. She clutched the arrowhead to her chest, stabbing at her skin, over and over; she spread one hand against her faceplate and scrabbled at it, seeking her face. She felt her bladder loosen; warm liquid gushed through her catheter.
Hands on her shoulders, shaking her; a distant voice. Her thumb was crammed into her mouth. The pain in her chest had become a dull ache.
Someone pulled her hand away from her mouth, gently.
Before her there was a square, weary face, concern showing through an uneven smile, a crop of gray, stiff hair.
Louise’s smile broadened. “So you’re with us again. Thank Life for that; welcome back.”
Spinner looked around. She was still in her cage; the waldoes still sat on their jet-black horseshoe of construction material before her, their touchpad lights burning. But a dome of some milky, opaque material had been cast around the cage, shutting out the impossible sights outside.
Louise regarded her gravely. She hovered beyond the cage, attached by a short length of safety rope; reaching through the cage bars she held out a moistened cloth. “Here. You’d better clean yourself up.”
Spinner glanced down at herself. Her helmet lay in her lap. Her hands were moist with spittle — and she’d dribbled down her chin — and where Louise had opened Spinner’s suit at the chest, there was a mass of small, bleeding punctures.
“What a mess,” Spinner said. She dabbed at her chest.
Louise shrugged. “It’s no great trouble, Spinner. Although I had to move fast; I needed to get the air-dome up around you before you managed to open your faceplate.”
Spinner picked up her helmet; reaching through the faceplate, she found an apple-juice nipple. “Louise, what happened to me?”
Louise grinned and reached through the construction-material bars; with her old, leathery hand she touched Spinner’s cheek. “The hyperdrive happened to you. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of, Spinner. I knew this wouldn’t be easy, but I had no idea how traumatic it would be.”
Spinner frowned. “There was no sensation of movement at all. It seemed like magic, impossible. Even with the discontinuity drive there are visual effects; you can see the planets looming up at you, and the blue shift, and — ”
Louise sighed and rubbed her face. “I know. Sometimes, I think I forget that this is a Xeelee ship. It’s just not designed for human comfort… I guess we can conclude that the Xeelee are a little tougher, psychologically, than we are.”
“But did it work, Louise?”
“Yes. Yes, it worked, Spinner. We crossed over two thousand light-years — in a time so brief I couldn’t even measure it…”
Louise took her hand from Spinner’s cheek and rested it on her shoulder. “Spinner, I can de-opaque this dome. If you feel you want me to.”
Spinner didn’t want to think about it. “Do it, Louise.”
Louise picked up her helmet and whispered instructions into its throat mike.
The Trifid Nebula, from Earth, had once been a faint glow in the constellation of Sagittarius — as broad as the full Moon in the sky, but far dimmer; at over two thousand light-years from Earth, powerful telescopes had been needed to reveal its glorious colors. Light took fully thirty years to cross its extent.
Louise and Mark had chosen the Trifid as the first hyperdrive target. Even if the nightfighter’s trajectory was off by hundreds of light-years, the Nebula should surely be an unmistakable landmark.
But the waldo had worked. Louise’s programming had brought the nightfighter to within sixty light-years of the rim of the Nebula.
The Nebula was a wall, sprawled across half of Spinner’s sky. It was a soft edged study in pinks and reds. Dark lanes cut across the face of the Nebula in a rough Y-shape, dividing the cloud into three parts. The material seemed quite smooth, Spinner thought, like some immense watercolor painting. Stars shone through the pale outer edges of the Nebula — and shone, too, from within its bulk.
“This is an emission nebula, Spinner,” Louise said abstractedly. “There are stars within the gas; ultraviolet starlight ionizes hydrogen in the Nebula, making the gas shine in turn…” She pointed. “Those dark rifts are empty of stars; they’re dozens of light-years long. The Nebula is called the Trifid because of the way the lanes divide the face into three… see? And — can you see those smaller, compact dark spots? They’re called Bok globules… the birth places of new stars, forming inside the Nebula.”
Spinner-of-Rope turned to Louise; the engineer sounded flat, distant.
“Louise? What’s wrong?”
Louise glanced at her. “I’m sorry, Spinner. I should be celebrating, I guess. After all, the hyperdrive delivered us just where I expected to be. And I was only using the Trifid as a landmark, anyway. But — damn it, the Trifid used to be so much more, Spinner. The colors, all the way through the spectrum from blue, and green, all the way to red… There were hot, bright young stars in there which made it blaze.
“But now, those stars are gone. Snuffed out, or exploded, or rushed through their lifecycles; like every other star in the damn Galaxy.
“I just find it hard to accept all this. I try, but every so often something like this comes along, and hits me in the eye.”
Spinner turned to the Nebula again, trying to lose herself in its light.
Louise smiled, her face outlined by the Nebula’s soft light. “And what about you?… Why, Spinner, you’re crying.”
Surprised, Spinner raised the heel of her wrist to her cheeks. There was moisture there. She brushed it away, embarrassed. “I’m fine,” she said. “It’s just — ”
“It’s so beautiful.” Spinner stared at the eagle wings of the Nebula, drinking in its pale colors. “Louise, I’m so lucky to be here, to see this. Uvarov might have sent someone else through the Locks, that first time; not me and Arrow Maker. You might have asked someone else to learn to run your nightfighter for you — and not me.
“Louise, I might have missed this. I might have died without seeing it — without ever even knowing it existed.” She looked at Louise uncertainly. “Do you understand?”
Louise smiled. “No.” She reached into the cage and patted Spinner’s arm. “But once I would have felt the same way. Come on, Spinner. We’ve done what we came to do. Let’s go home.”
Spinner-of-Rope picked up her helmet. As she fastened up her suit, she kept her eyes fixed on the impossible beauty of the Trifid.