Authors: Frank Schätzing
Jamie Lee Searle
First published in the German language as
by Frank Schätzing
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by
Jo Fletcher Books
An imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd.
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright © 2009, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne Germany Copyright © 2009, Frank Schätzing
‘Space Oddity’ Words and Music by David Bowie © 1969, Reproduced by permission of Onward Music Publishing Ltd/EMI Music Publishing Ltd, London W1F 9LD
‘New York, New York’ Words and Music by John Kander and Fred Ebb © 1977, Reproduced by permission of EMI Unart Catalog Inc, London W1F 9LD
The moral right of Frank Schätzing to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 84916 515 0 (HB)
ISBN 978 1 84916 516 7 (TPB)
ISBN 978 0 85738 540 6 (EBOOK)
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Brigitte and Rolf
who gave me life in the world
For Christine and Clive
who gave me a piece of the moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do
2 August 2024
I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep—
Good old Frankie-boy. Untroubled by urban transformation, as long as there was a stiff drink waiting for you when you woke up.
Vic Thorn rubbed his eyes.
In thirty minutes the automatic alarm signal would rouse the early shift from their beds. Strictly speaking he couldn’t have cared less. As a short-term visitor he was largely free to decide how he was going to spend the day, except that even guests had to adapt to a certain formal framework. Which didn’t necessarily mean getting up early, but they woke you anyway.
If I can make it there,
I’ll make it anywhere—
Thorn started unfastening his belt. Because he thought staying too long in bed was degrading, he didn’t trust anyone else’s automatic devices to allow him to spend as little time of his life as possible asleep. Particularly since he liked to decide for himself who or what summoned him back to consciousness. Thorn loved turning his music systems up to the max. And he preferred to entrust his wake-up call to the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Junior, the disreputable heroes of times past, for whom he felt an almost romantic affection. And up here nothing, nothing at all, was conducive to the habits of the Rat Pack. Even Dean Martin’s now famous observation that ‘You’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on’ was physically invalidated, and nor would the inveterate toper have been able to indulge his predilection for falling off his bar-stool and tottering out into the street. At 35,786 kilometres above the Earth’s surface there were no prostitutes waiting for you outside the door, just lethal, airless space.
King of the hill, top of the heap
Thorn hummed along with the tune, mumbling a wonky-sounding
New York, New York
. With a faint twitch, he pushed himself away and floated off his bunk, drifted to the small, round porthole of his cabin and looked outside.
* * *
In the city that never slept, Huros-ED-4 was on the way to his next assignment.
He wasn’t bothered by the cold of space or the total lack of atmosphere. The sequence of day and night which, at such a vast distance from the Earth, was in any
case based more on general agreement than on sensory experience, held no validity for him. His alarm call was made in the language of the programmers. Huros-ED stood for
Humanoid Robotic System for Extravehicular Demands
, the 4 placed him along with another nineteen of his kind, each one two metres tall, torso and head entirely humanoid, while their exaggeratedly long arms in their resting state recalled the raptorial claws of a praying mantis. When required, they unfolded with admirable agility, and with hands that were able to perform extremely difficult operations. A second, smaller pair of arms emerged from the broad chest, packed with electronics, and these were used to provide assistance. The legs, however, were completely absent. Admittedly the Huros-ED had a waist and a pelvis, but where the hips would have been in a human being there sprouted flexible grippers with devices that allowed him to fasten himself on wherever he happened to be needed. During the breaks he looked for a sheltered niche, connected his batteries to the mains supply, topped up the tanks of his navigation nozzles with fuel and settled down to a spot of mechanical contemplation.
By now the last break was eight hours ago. Since then Huros-ED-4 had been working away industriously in the most diverse spots of the gigantic space station. In the outer zone of the roof, as the part turned towards the zenith was called, he had helped to swap ageing solar panels for new ones, in the wharf he had adjusted the floodlights for Dock 2, where one of the spaceships for the planned Mars mission was currently under construction. Then he had been dispatched a hundred metres lower to the scientific payloads fastened along the cantilevers, to remove the defective platinum parts from a measuring instrument designed to scan the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador. After this reconditioning had been successfully completed, his task was to go back inside the spaceport to investigate one of the manipulator arms that had ceased to function in the middle of a loading process.
The spaceport: that meant descending a bit further along the outside of the station, to a ring 180 metres in diameter, with eight berths for incoming and outgoing moon shuttles, and a further eight for evacuation pods. Leaving aside the fact that the ships anchored there were passing through a vacuum rather than through water, what went on around the ring was not much different from what happened in Hamburg or Rotterdam, the big terrestrial seaports, meaning that it too had cranes, huge robot arms on rails, called manipulators. One of these had packed in halfway through the loading process of a freight and passenger shuttle that was to start its journey to the Moon in only a few hours’ time. The arm should have been working, but with mechanical stubbornness it absolutely refused to move, and instead hung, effectors spread, half inside the shuttle’s loading area and half outside, which meant that the ship’s opened body couldn’t be closed.
On stipulated flight-paths, Huros-ED-4 passed alongside docked shuttles, airlocks and connecting tunnels, spherical tanks, containers and masts until he reached the defective arm that glinted coldly in the unfiltered sunlight. The cameras behind the visor on his head and the ends of limbs sent pictures to the control centre as he passed close by the construction and subjected every square centimetre to detailed analysis. The control constantly compared these pictures with the images located in his data storage system, until it had found the reason for the failure.
The control instructed him to clean the arm.
He stopped. Someone in his central steering module said, ‘Fucking shit!’, prompting a query from Huros-ED-4. Although programmed to respond to the human voice, he could detect no meaningful order in the exclamation. The control room neglected to repeat the words, so at first he did nothing but examine the damage. Tiny splinters were wedged into the joint of the manipulator. A long, deep gash ran diagonally across the top of the joint’s structure, gaping like a wound. At first sight the electronics seemed to be intact, meaning that the damage was purely material although serious enough to have caused the manipulator to switch off.
The control room issued an instruction to clean the joint.
Had he been a human being, his behaviour might have been described as indecisive. At length he requested further information, thus indicating in his own vague way that the task was beyond his capabilities. Revolutionary a piece of engineering though he was – sensor-based steering, sensory impression feedback, flexible and autonomous operation – robots were still machines that thought in templates. He probably knew they were there, but he didn’t know
they were. Likewise, he recorded the tear, but was unable to match it with familiar information. As a result the defective places did not exist for him. Consequently it was hard to tell exactly what he was supposed to be cleaning, so he didn’t clean anything at all.
A smattering of consciousness, and robots would have realised that their lives were mercifully free of anxiety.
* * *
But everyone else was anxious enough to be going on with. Vic Thorn had had a long shower, listened to ‘My Way’, put on a T-shirt, trainers and shorts, and had just decided to spend the day in the fitness studio when the call came from headquarters.
‘You could be useful to us in solving a problem,’ said Ed Haskin, under whose responsibility the spaceport and the systems attached to it fell.