Authors: Gregory Benford
The Martian Race
The Stars in Shroud
Shiva Descending (with William Rostler)
Heart of the Comet (with David Brin)
A Darker Geometry (with Mark O. Martin)
Beyond the Fall of Night (with Arthur C. Clarke)
The Galactic Center Series
In the Ocean of Night
Across the Sea of Suns
Great Sky River
Tides of Light
Sailing Bright Eternity
Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2004 by Abbenford Associates
All rights reserved.
Time Warner Book Group
1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Visit our Web site at www.twbookmark.com.
Printed in the United States of America
First Printing: March 2004
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Beyond infinity / Gregory Benford.
1. Life on other planets-Fiction. 2. Human-animal relationships-Fiction. 3. Space travel-Fiction. 4. Women-Fiction. I. Title.
To Arthur Clarke, without whom…
Thought shall be harder,
—“The Battle of Maldon”
thought that she was, well, a bit too intense. She seemed to have too much personality for one person and yet not enough for two.
Perhaps the cause lay in her upbringing. She had been most attentively raised by her Meta, an ancient term for the meta-family. Hers had several hundred loosely related people clustered in ever-shifting patterns. It provided an overview, a larger vision of how to grow up.
The Meta had spotted her as a wild card early on. It made no difference. Though hers, the Hard River Meta, was entirely, deliberately populated by Naturals—those without deep-seated connections to external machine intelligences—not many were Originals. Cley was an Original of particularly primordial type, based on genes of great vintage. Other Originals carried genes that had passed through revisions so many times that, by comparison, Cley’s genetic suite was a fossil.
This gave her a kind of status. Not many true Originals walked the Earth, though the historians who pestered her early education said there had once been billions of them afoot. Billions! There were hardly a tenth that many now in all Earthly humanity. Not that she cared much about such numbers. Mathematics was a fossil art. Few in her time bothered to scale those heights of analysis with their majestic, abstruse peaks that the ancient civilizations had climbed, marked as their own, and finally abandoned as too chilly, remote, and even inhuman.
She cared far more for things close by, not abstractions. That was the gift of living in Hard River Meta—the natural world, custom-made for Naturals. They had enough technology to be comfortable but did not waste time tending to it. Nobody much cared about events beyond the horizon.
She had dozens of good friends and saw them daily. Children had jobs that meant something—farming, maintenance, big-muscle stuff—and nobody lorded it over others. Leadership rotated. Kids tried on jobs like clothes. Her life was one of small, steady delights.
She was happy, but—The filling in of the rest of that sentence would, she knew quite early, occupy the rest of her life. And she knew even then that the things she sought in life could disappear even as she reached for them, the way a fist went away when she opened her hand.
She suspected her antic energy came from a heavy genetic legacy. She belonged to the narrowest class of the Ur-humans—a genuine Original, and as such, something of a puzzle to her Meta of Naturals and much-revised Originals. A rarity.
She knew herself to be something of a hothouse plant. Not an orchid, no. More like a cactus, feverishly flowering under the occasional passing cloudburst. Anyone who showered her with attention got her one-plus-some personality, ready or not. She wore people out.
Especially, she tired her fellow Naturals in their orderly oatmeal lives. She secretly suspected that she also carried some Supra genes, or maybe some of the intermediate breeds of human that had been in vogue through the last several hundred million years. She tried to find out if this might be so, but hit the stone wall of Meta security, whose motto in most matters genetic was “Best not to know.”
So she watched herself for telltale signs of intermediate forms. Nobody would help her, and she was too close to herself to be objective—and who wasn’t? A stutter she developed at age nine—could that be a sign? She worried endlessly. Bit off fingernails, even when they were part of her extendable tools. Chewed her lip. Then the stutter went away. Another sign?
She felt as though she might very well spend the rest of her life with her button nose pressed against the glass of a room where she should be, only she couldn’t find the door.
Her Meta never told her exactly who her parents were. There were Moms, which stood for
mother of the moment
, who tended to her upbringing for years, then handed her off to another Mom. All her previous Moms stayed in the background, ready to help.
She only knew for sure that some pair among the sixty or so in her Meta had given birth to her genetically. But which pair? She had often wondered. It was usually reassuring that the genetic parents sometimes did not themselves recall—and sometimes it was not reassuring at all.
But then, growing up was not supposed to be easy. One Mom remarked offhandedly, “It’s the toughest work you’ll ever do.” For a long while Cley had thought this an exaggeration. Now she was not so sure she could even do it.
The troubling question was, when was growing up over? Maybe never.
So she took her earliest Mom as a model. That Mom was a stocky, affable woman of wide smile and high cheekbones. Cley had good, trim cheekbones like hers but had grown to be slim, tall, muscular, small-breasted. Were these differences clues to her father’s genes? She wished she had gotten more cleavage and an easier manner. But even Cley knew that gene combinations were not so simple.
In late childhood, when she first started to fret over such matters, she had mentioned her vague ideas about her father to her then-nominal Mom, who said, “You don’t need to know, dear, and anyway, he’s far away.”
“See the horizon?”
“Beyond those mountains?” She had never been that far.
“You’re looking at the wrong part of the view.”
This she did not understand at all, and so she pestered Mom for days. Only once did Mom’s patient smile fade. “You’ve had something caught crosswise in you all week, my girl.”
“But I need to know—”
“You need to get inside there and turn it right-wise. Go meditate a bit.”
She liked meditation, the feeling of lifting off the stolid, solid Earth and soaring up a solemn mountain of herself. It was satisfying. Three members of her Meta did little else. But it wasn’t for her. It made her feel wonderfully at peace, but eventually even peace got boring. She felt a restlessness that she hoped reflected the horizon-hopping aspect of her father.
“Was he like me?” she would ask Mom.
Mom gave her an arched eyebrow, no more. “Oh, yes, he was plenty self-full.”
To be full of self the Meta discouraged. Naturals were supposed to embody the primordial art of merging with the ancient world of forests and animals, to lose themselves in it. Naturals were to stay where and what they were, merging with the ample lands being reshaped by higher folk.
The word stung Cley.
“Self-full?” she fretted to one of her girlfriends. They were lying out on a fused stone parapet, lazily watching piping work-birds build their cute layer houses. It seemed a good time for gal-pal talk. “Really?”
“Um,” the friend said tactfully. “Maybe a little self-absorbed; could be, yup.”
“But is that really bad?”
“Y’know, worrying about it is self-full in itself.”
“Uh… Oh.” Caught in a logical trap. “Let’s talk about something else, then.”
Privately, she thought that having the spirit to leave the Meta was, well, a way of making oneself…better. Different. Another idea the Meta discouraged.
But then, there were Supras around, glimpsed as they passed through the Meta’s territory on their mysterious, important business. Supras were reminders that some people really
more than you. Worse, Supras were better in ways that were not even easy to put a finger on. Even the Supra children of her age were daunting. They ignored her, of course.
Cley had no more species politics than a bird, and not even one of the smart birds, either. Still, being snubbed went beyond theory, straight to the gut. So she inverted the snobbery, in her mind making Originals the true, secret elite, and the Supras into just afterthoughts. That worked, for a year or two.
The whole subject—sociogenetics, her inboards classified it when she went to them for background—was far too complicated. And ancient, as well. The torrent of information from her inboards made her think about it with a curious, dispassionate distance. She guessed that was how real grown-ups thought. It was a bit sobering to know that so much wisdom was buried in her spine somewhere, ready to leap into her head whenever she prompted the inboard summons.
The means of making a fresh person were so complex, she learned, that old ideas like simple parenting, with strictly assignable designer DNA, were useless. Meta loved her, brought her to the verge of first maturity, and so fell heir to the usual blame for the traumas everyone suffered just in getting that far.
Many women in her Meta Mommed Cley, as their time came available and their interest allowed. Some years it was smiling, big-breasted Andramana, and other years it was lean, cool, analytical Iratain. Others, too, maybe half a dozen—each fine in their moments, then receding into the background as others came to the fore.