From the upper forest Deck to the loading bay at the base, lights blazed from the Northern’s battered lifedome. The human glow flooded over impassive Xeelee construction material, evoking no reflection.
Spinner-of-Rope sat in her cramped pilot’s cage. Her helmet was filled with urgent chatter relayed from the lifedome.
Her hands fidgeted, plucking at the seams of her gloves; they looked like nervous, fluttering birds, she thought. She rested the hands deliberately against the material of her trousers, stilling them. The crew still weren’t ready. How much of this waiting did they think she could endure?
Behind her, the smooth lines of the nightfighter’s discontinuity-drive wings swept across space, outlined in blood-red by the bloated hulk of the Sun. The lifedome of the Great Northern — severed from its columnar spine — had been grafted crudely onto the shoulders of the nightfighter, pinned within a superstructure of scaffolding which embraced the lifedome and clasped it to the nightfighter. Behind the dome a GUTdrive power source, cannibalized from the abandoned Northern, sat squat on the nightfighter, cables snaking from it and into the dome. And, cradled within the attaching superstructure. Spinner could see the short, graceful profile of the Great Britain: the old sea ship, preserved from abandonment once more by the sentimentality of Louise Ye Armonk, was a dark shadow against the life dome, like some insect clinging to its glowing face.
The lifedome was a mile-wide encrustation on the cool morphology of Xeelee technology; it dwarfed the Xeelee ship which carried it, looking like a grotesque parasite, she thought.
Spinner closed her eyes, trying to shut out the surrounding, pressing universe of events. She listened to the underlying wash of her own, rapid, breathing. Under her helmet her spectacles pinched the bridge of her nose with a small, familiar discomfort, and she could feel the cool form of her father’s arrowhead against her chest. Clinging biostat telltales clung to her flesh, sharp and cold, but the little probes had at least become familiar: not nearly as uncomfortable as she’d found them at first. The environment suit smelled of plastic and metal, and a little of herself; but there was also a sparkle of orange zest, from one of the helmet nipples.
The voice emerged from the background lifedome babble like the clear voice of an oboe within an orchestra. (And that, she thought, was a metaphor which wouldn’t have occurred to her in the days before she’d poked her head out of the forest.)
“I hear you, Louise.”
“I think we’re ready.”
Spinner laughed. “Are you joking? I can’t imagine you all sounding less ready.”
Louise sighed, clearly irritated. “Spinner, we’re as ready as we’re ever going to be. We’ve been working on this for a year now. If we wait until every bolt is tightened — and until every damn jobsworth in the Decks, every antique anal retentive on every one of Morrow’s damn launch committees, is prepared to give his or her grudging acquiescence — we’ll still be sitting here when the Sun goes cold.”
“It’s a little different from your old days, Louise,” Spinner said ruefully. Spinner had seen images of the Northern’s first launch — the extravagant parties that had preceded it, the flotilla of intraSystem craft that had swirled around the huge GUTship as it had hauled itself out of the System.
Louise grunted. “Yeah, well, I guess those days are gone. Things are a little more seat-of-the-pants now, Spinner.”
Yes, Spinner thought resentfully, but the trouble is it’s my seat; my pants.
Louise said, “We’re ready technically, anyway, according to all of Mark’s feedbacks. We’ve laid the coordinates of the flight into your waldo systems… all we can do now is see if they work.”
“Right.” Sourly, Spinner asked, “Shall I do a countdown? You could relay it through the Decks; it might be fun. Ten — nine — ”
“Come on, Spinner. Don’t play games. It’s time to do it. And, Spinner — ”
Spinner stared at the Sunlight. “Yes?”
Spinner’s resentment grew. She knew what that meant. If anything went badly wrong with this first, full hyperdrive flight — so bad that it hadn’t been predicted by the endless Virtual scenarios, so bad that the automatics couldn’t cope — then it was going to be up to her, Spinner-of-Rope, and her famous seat-of-the-pants. And that was why she was still here, in this damn open cage: because Louise and Mark had failed to find a way to automate out that human element.
On her reactions and quick thinking, she knew, could depend — not just her own life, and the lives of her friends, the safety of the forest — but the future of the species.
I should have stuck to rope-spinning, she thought gloomily.
She reached out toward her hyperdrive waldo. She found herself staring at her own hand and arm, becoming aware of the enormity of the action she was about to take. The light of the dying Sun flooded the cage in shades of blood-red; gaudy golden highlights glimmered from the material of her glove.
She was filled, suddenly, with a profound sense of melancholy. She stifled a cry; the mood was so powerful it was almost overwhelming…
And the flood of emotion was coming from outside her. It came from her companion, she realized; her silent, invisible companion, here in the cage…
Louise sounded tense, almost unbearably so. “Spinner? We’re waiting.”
Spinner-of-Rope looked around at the empty sky of the Solar System: at the ruin of the Sun, the glistening Jovian accretion disc. Despite the alienating devastation, it was strange to think that she would be the last human to witness this aching, echoing, cathedral of space and history. “Louise — no one’s ever going to come back here, are they?”
“To the Solar System? No,” Louise replied briskly.
“It doesn’t seem right,” she said slowly.
“That we should simply leave like this. Louise, we’re the last humans. Shouldn’t we — ”
Louise laughed. “What? Nail a plaque to Callisto? Make a speech? ‘Last one to leave, turn off the lights’?”
“I don’t know, Louise. But — ”
“Spinner.” It was always very obvious when Louise was forcing herself to be patient. “It’s over. Just push the damn button.”
Spinner-of-Rope closed her hand around the waldo.
Spinner-of-Rope was switched into darkness, into a sea of shadows which flooded the cage. She glanced down at her lap. The only illumination was a dim crimson glow — far less brilliant than Sol’s — which barely revealed the outlines of her own body.
The hyperdrive transit was as sudden and seamless as the test runs. There was no internal sense of motion at all: merely a lighting change, as if all of this were no more than some shallow Virtual stunt.
She twisted in her couch. Behind her, the lifedome still sat on the frail looking shoulders of the Xeelee craft, apparently undamaged; yellow human light, aping lost Sol, still blazed from a hundred sources, pale against the emptiness of space.
And beyond the lifedome there was a star, near enough to show a globe — as red as Sol but evidently much dimmer, cooler. The star provided the little light available. Beyond the star’s glowing limb, six distant stars — a little brighter than the average — trailed across the sky in a zigzag shape. The star at one end of the compact constellation, ruby red, shone through the tenuous outer atmosphere of the nearby star globe.
The more remote constellations were an array of crimson and yellow spread across the sky. They were unchanged, as far as she could tell. Well, that was no surprise: she knew Louise hadn’t planned to come far on this first jaunt.
“How are you, Spinner-of-Rope?”
“Fine,” Spinner said briskly. “As I’m sure you know better than I do, thanks to Mark’s telltales.”
Louise laughed. “I’ve learned never to trust these damn gadgets. How did the trip feel?”
“As good as ever. As bad as ever… I take it we all survived.”
“I’m just checking my summaries. No structural damage, as far as I can see. One case of shock — ” She snorted. “A man who fell out of your big kapok tree, Spinner-of-Rope, when the Sun disappeared. The fool floated around until he could be snagged and hauled in. As we hoped, the nightfighter’s domain-wall inertial shielding protected the whole of the lifedome from any side-effects of the jump… Spinner, I don’t think many people in the Decks have even realized we’ve jumped.”
“Good. I guess it’s better that way.” Spinner-of-Rope stared around the sky. “Louise, I thought the Solar System was depressing enough. But this system is a tomb.”
“I know, Spinner. I’m sorry. But it is in our flightpath. Spinner, we’re going to head out of the plane of the Galaxy, in the direction of the Centaurus constellation: toward the Great Attractor…”
“The Xeelee Ring.”
“If that’s what it is, yes. And this star lies in Centaurus also.”
The main stars of the Centaurus constellation were ranged over distances from four light-years to five hundred light years from the Sun. Northern, piggy-backing the Xeelee nightfighter, was going to move, in a rough straight line, out through this three-dimensional layout — and then beyond, out of the Galaxy and toward the Great Attractor itself.
“Spinner, would you believe I decided we should come here, on the first hop, for sentimental reasons?”
“Sentimental? About this place? Are you kidding?”
“Spinner, that dull globe is Proxima Centauri: the nearest star to the Sun, less than four light-years out. When I was a kid, growing up on Earth, we’d barely reached the stars with the first GUTships. Systems like Proxima were places of wild romance, full of extraordinary adventure and possibility. Superet’s somber warnings of implacably hostile alien species Out There Somewhere just added to the allure for kids like me… I felt I had to get out here and see for myself.”
The presence, in the cage with her, seemed amused at this — even satisfied, Spinner thought.
Spinner grunted and picked at the material of her suit. “Well, you made it to Proxima at last. And I’m touched by these childhood reminiscences,” she said sourly.
You’re too harsh on her, Spinner-of-Rope…
Spinner went on, “This Proxima looks like a red giant. So I guess the photino birds have already done their work here…”
“No,” Louise said. “Actually, Spinner, Proxima is a red dwarf… It’s a Main Sequence star, quite stable.”
“Really?” Spinner-of-Rope twisted in her seat and stared into the dull disc of Proxima. “You mean it’s always been like this?”
Louise laughed. “I’m afraid so, Spinner. It’s just a lot less massive than the Sun, and so has always been much dimmer — twenty thousand times less luminous than the Sun, in fact. The photino birds didn’t need to turn it cool and red, like the Sun; Proxima has always been a dwarf. Stable, and harmless — and quite useless.”
“Useless for us. For baryonic life. But maybe not for the birds.”
“No,” Louise said. “I guess a red dwarf is the ideal stellar form, for them: the model toward which they are guiding every damn star in all the galaxies. Of course Proxima has its moments: it’s quite a brilliant flare star — a UV Ceti type. It can vary in brightness by up to a magnitude…”
“It can?” For a few seconds Spinner studied the bland crimson disc. “You want we should wait around and see if it does something exciting?”
“No, Spinner. Anyway, I suspect the photino birds will have put a stop to such frivolities by now… Oh. One thing. Spinner-of-Rope, turn around.”
Loosening her restraints. Spinner twisted in her seat. “What now?”
“Spinner, do you see that constellation just to the right of Proxima’s disc?”
Louise must mean the jagged row of six stars behind Proxima, Spinner decided. “Yes. What about it?”
“From Earth, that constellation used to be called Cassiopeia: named after the queen of Cepheus, the mother of Andromeda…”
“Save the fairy tales, Louise,” Spinner growled.
“But from here, the constellation looks different. From here, the pattern’s distinctive W-shape is spoiled a bit by the addition of that bright red star at the left hand end of the row.”
Spinner stared; the star was a ruby jewel glimmering through the hazy outer layers of Proxima.
“The first colonists of Proxima — or rather, of the Alpha system, of which Proxima is a part — called the new constellation the Switchback.
“Spinner, that extra star is the Sun. Our Sun, seen from Proxima. Another jump and Sol will be invisible; Spinner-of Rope, yours are the last human eyes ever to look at Sunlight…”
Giant Sol glowed through the crimson velvet of Proxima; Spinner stared at it, trying to make out a disc, until her eyes began to ache.
At last she tore her gaze away. “Enough,” she said. “Come on, Louise; no more of the past.”
“All right, Spinner…”
Spinner closed her hand around the waldo once more.
…And the brooding globe of Proxima was replaced, abruptly, without any internal feeling of transition, by a new star system. This was another red star — huge, ragged edged — but this time with a companion: a smaller yellow star, a point of light, barely a diameter away from the red globe. The giant was pulled into an elliptical shape by the dwarf companion, and Spinner thought she could see a dim bridge of material linking the two stars, an arc of red glowing star stuff pulled out of the giant.
“Yes, Louise. I’m still here. You’re really showing me the sights, aren’t you?”
“This is Menkent — Gamma Centauri. We’re further through the Centaurus constellation: a hundred and sixty light-years from Sol, already. Menkent used to be a glorious A-class binary… But the photino birds have been at work. Now, one of the companions is going through its giant stage, and the other has already been reduced to a dwarf. Disgusting. Depressing.”
Spinner-of-Rope studied the twin stars, the lacy filaments of crimson gas reaching out of the giant to embrace its dwarf twin. “Depressing? I don’t know, Louise… It’s still beautiful.”
Yes, Spinner-of-Rope. And this is the last star we’ll visit that was significant enough to be named by Earth-bound astronomers, before spaceflight. Another gloomy little milestone…
“Don’t you get morbid too,” Spinner said.
“Nothing. Sorry, Louise.”
“All right, Spinner, we’ve established everything is functioning well enough. I’m going to cut in the main navigation sequence now, and we’ll try some major jumps… Do you think you’re ready?”
Spinner closed her eyes. “I’m ready, Louise.”
“Now, I know it’s going to be hard, but it will help if you keep in mind an understanding of what you’re going to see. We’re heading out of the Galaxy, at around twenty degrees below the plane of the disc. We’re going to attempt thirty five light-years every jump — and we’ll be trying for a jump every second. At that rate, we should cover the hundred and fifty million light-years to the Attractor in — ”
” — in around fifty days. I know, Louise.”
“I’m in the forest, Spinner. I’m looking out through the skydome, with Morrow and Uvarov, Trapper-of-Frogs, a few of the others. So you’re not alone, out there; we can see what you can see. Spinner — ”
“Another pep-talk? I know, Louise. I know.” She sighed. “Louise, you’re a great engineer, and a strong human being. But you’re a damn awful leader.”
“I’m sorry, Spinner. I — ”
“Let’s do it.”
Impulsively, Spinner slapped her hand down on the waldo.
— and the brooding coupled stars of Menkent were replaced, instantaneously, by another binary pair. This time the stars — twin red giants — seemed more equally matched, and a bridge of cooling, glowing material linked them. A wide, spreading spiral of dim gas was curled tightly around the giants, and -
— before she had time to think about it here was still another binary pair, this time much further from the ship, with a bright, hot blue star traversing the decaying hulk of a dim red giant. She saw how the giant hung behind the blue star like smoke behind a diamond -
— when she was whisked away yet again and now, before her, hung a softly shimmering globe of light: a planetary nebula, she recognized, the expanding corpse of a red giant, blown apart by its bird-induced superwind, but before -
— she could wonder if Sol would one day look like this, the nebula had gone to be replaced by an anonymous, distant star field which -
— vanished, because now she was surrounded by a dim, red smog; she was actually inside a giant star, she realized, inside its cooling outer flesh and -
— that was gone too, replaced by a huge, ragged nebula — a supernova site? — which -
— imploded and -
— a star loomed at her, swollen, ruddy, achingly like Sol, but not Sol, and -
— and — and — andandand —
The stars were a huge, celestial barrage around her head. Beyond the immediate battering of light, the more distant constellations slid across space, elegant, remote, like trees in a forest.
Spinner sat rigidly in her crash-couch, letting the silent explosions of starlight wash across her cage.
…And, abruptly as it had begun, the barrage of starfields thinned out, diminished, vanished. Before the nightfighter now was only a uniform, restful darkness; a soft pink light, from some source behind her, played over the surfaces of the cage.
Spinner-of-Rope felt herself slump in her couch. She felt as if her bones had turned to water. She cradled her visor in her glove, shutting out the Universe, and sucked on an orange juice nipple; the sharp, homely taste seemed to fill up her head.
She felt herself retreat into the small cosmos of her own body once more, into the recesses of her own head. It’s comfortable in here, she thought groggily. Maybe I should never come out again…
“Spinner-of-Rope.” Louise’s voice, sounding very tender. “How are you feeling?”
Spinner sucked resentfully on her orange juice. “About as good as you’d expect. Don’t ask stupid questions, Louise.”
“You did bloody well to withstand that.”
Spinner grunted. “How do you know I did withstand it?”
“Because I didn’t hear you scream. And because my telltales are showing me that you aren’t chewing the inside of your helmet. And — ”
“Louise, I knew what to expect.”
“Maybe. But it was still inhuman. A Xeelee might have enjoyed that ride… People, it seems, need to work on a smaller scale.”
“You’re telling me.”
“…When you’re ready, take a look behind you.”
Spinner lifted her face from the nipple. The pinkish light from the source behind her still played over the surfaces of the waldoes, the crumpled suit fabric over her thighs.
She loosened her restraints, carefully, and turned around.
There was a ceiling of light above her. It was an immense plane of curdled smoke: lurid red at its heart and with violent splashes of colors — yellow and orange and blue further out. The plane was foreshortened, so that she stared across ridged lanes of gas toward the bulging, pregnant center. Smoky gas was wrapped around the core in lacy spirals of color.
The plane of light receded, almost imperceptibly slowly, from the ship. The plane was a cathedral roof, and the nightfighter — with its precious burden of people, and all the hopes of humanity — was a fly, diving down and away from that immense surface.
“Louise, it’s beautiful. I had no idea…”
“Do you understand what you’re seeing, Spinner-of-Rope?” Louise’s voice sounded fragile, as if she were struggling with the enormity of what she was saying. “Spinner, you’re looking up at our Galaxy — from the outside. And that’s why that barrage of stars has finished… Our Galaxy’s disc is only around three thousand light-years thick. Traveling obliquely to the plane, we were out of it in just a couple of minutes.”
The nightfighter had plunged out of the Galaxy at a point about two-thirds of the way along a radius from the center to the rim. The ship was going to pass under the center of the disc; that bloated bulge of crimson light would look like some celestial chandelier, thousands of light-years across, hanging over her head. Spiral arms — cloudy, streaming — moved serenely over her head. There were blisters of gas sprinkled along the arms, she saw, bubbles of swollen color.
“Spinner, the disc is a hundred thousand light-years across. It will take us just fifty minutes to traverse its width…”
Spinner heard Louise turn away and mumble something.
“What was that?”
“Your kid sister. Painter-of-Faces. She asked why we aren’t seeing relativistic distortion.”
Spinner grinned. “Tell her not to bother us with such stupid questions.”
“We aren’t all hardened space pilots like you, Spinner-of Rope…”
There was no relativistic distortion — no starbow, no red or blue shift because the nightfighter wasn’t moving through the Universe. The ’fighter was hopping from point to point like a tree frog, Spinner thought, leaping between bromeliads. And at the end-point of each jump, the ship was stationary — just for a second — relative to the Galaxy.
So, no blue shift.
But the nightfighter was falling out of the Galaxy at an effective velocity of millions of times lightspeed. It was the frequency of the jumps which gave Spinner this illusion of constant, steady motion.
It was working out, just as planned.
“We’re making it, Louise,” Spinner said. “We’re making this happen.”
“Yes… But — ”
Spinner let out a mock groan. “But now you’re going to tell me how things just ain’t what they used to be, again, aren’t you?”
“Well, it’s true, Spinner,” Louise said angrily. “Look at it… Even from this distance, outside the Galaxy, you can see the handiwork of those damn photino birds.”
The Galaxy contained two main classes of stars, Louise told Spinner. Population I stars, like the Sun, had evolved in the hydrogen-rich spiral arms, away from the center. Some of these — like the blue supergiants — had been hundreds of times larger than the Sun, blazing out their energy in a short, insanely profligate youth. Population I stars tended to explode, enriching the interstellar medium — and later generations of stars — with the complex products of their nucleosynthesis.
By contrast, Population II stars had formed in regions where hydrogen fuel was in scarce supply: in the old regions close to the core, or in the clusters outside the main disc. The II stars were more uniform in size, and — by the era of the earliest human astronomy — had already been old, characterized by jostling herds of red giants.
“Look at that disc,” Louise snapped. “I don’t suppose the damn birds had to do much to the dull, stable Population IIs; those things were half-dead already. But look — oh, look at the spiral arms…”
Spinner saw how ragged the spirals were, disrupted by the blisters of yellow-red light which swelled across the lanes of dust.
“Those blisters are supernova remnants,” Louise said bitterly. “Spinner, not every star would respond as peacefully to the photino birds’ engineering as did our poor old Sun. A lot of the more spectacular, and beautiful. Population I stars would simply explode, tearing themselves apart… Probably the birds set off chain reactions of supernovae, with the wreckage of one star destabilizing another.”
Spinner stared up at the wreckage of the disc, the muddled spiral arms.
…We’re already forty thousand light-years below the disc, Spinner, her companion said. The light you’re seeing now left the stars forty millennia ago… Think of that. Forty thousand years before my birth, humans were still shivering on the edges of glaciers, making knives out of bits of stone. And the further we travel, with every second, the light is getting older: Spinner-of Rope, you’re taking us through a hail of ancient light…
Spinner laughed. “You should have been a poet.”
“…Tell me what’s coming next, Louise.”
“All right. Spinner, do you know what a globular cluster is?”
Spinner frowned. “I think so.” She closed her eyes. “A stable ball of stars perhaps a hundred thousand of them orbiting around the main disc, in the Galactic halo.”
“Right,” Louise said. “They are Population II stars. And one particular cluster, called Omega Centauri, was one of the brightest clusters visible from old Earth.”
Spinner thought that over. “Omega Centauri. That name means it was in the line-of-sight of the Centaurus constellation.”
“You mean — ”
“We’re heading right for it. Keep your eyes tight shut, Spinner-of-Rope.”
Spinner turned, and looked ahead.
Beyond the fragile cage, giant stars ballooned at her, dazzling her with their billowing silence.