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Authors: Charles Stross

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BOOK: Palimpsest
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A Brief Alternate History of the Solar System: Part One

What has already happened:

SLIDE 1.

Our solar system, as an embryo. A vast disk of gas and infalling dust surrounds and obscures a newborn star, little more than a thickening knot of rapidly spinning matter that is rapidly sucking more mass down into its ever-steepening gravity well. The sun is glowing red-hot already with the heat liberated by its gravitational collapse, until …

SLIDE 2.

Ignition! The pressure and temperature at the core of the embryo star has risen so high that hydrogen nuclei floating in a degenerate soup of electrons are bumping close to one another. A complex reaction ensues, rapidly liberating gamma radiation and neutrinos, and the core begins to heat up. First deuterium, then the ordinary hydrogen nuclei begin to fuse. A flare of nuclear fire lashes through the inner layers of the star. It will take a million years for the gamma-ray pulse to work its way out through the choking, blanketing layers of degenerate hydrogen, but the neutrino pulse heralds the birth cry of a new star.

SLIDE 3.

A million years pass as the sun brightens, and the rotating cloud of gas and dust begins to partition. Out beyond the dew line, where ice particles can grow, a roiling knot of dirty ice is forming, and like the sun before it, it greedily sucks down dirt and gas and grows. As it plows through the cloud, it sprays dust outward. Meanwhile, at the balancing point between the star and the embryonic Jovian gravity well, other knots of dust are forming …

SLIDE 4.

A billion years have passed since the sun ignited, and the stellar nursery of gas and dust has been swept clean by a fleet of new-formed planets. There has been some bickering—in the late heavy bombardment triggered by the outward migration of Neptune, entire planetary surfaces were re-formed—but now the system has settled into long-term stability. The desert planet Mars is going through the first of its warm, wet interludes; Venus still has traces of water in its hot (but not yet red-hot) atmosphere. Earth is a chilly nitrogen-and-methane-shrouded enigma inhabited only by primitive purple bacteria, its vast oceans churned by hundred-meter tides dragged up every seven-hour day by a young moon that completes each orbit in little more than twenty-four hours.

SLIDE 5.

Another three billion years have passed. The solar system has completed almost sixteen orbits of the galactic core, and is now unimaginably distant from the stellar nursery which birthed it. Mars has dried, although occasional volcanic eruptions periodically blanket it in cloud. Venus is even hotter. But something strange is happening to Earth. Luna has drifted farther from its primary, the tides quieting; meanwhile, the atmosphere has acquired a strange bluish tinge, evident sign of contamination by a toxic haze of oxygen. The great landmass Rodina, which dominated the southern ocean beneath a cap of ice, has broken up and the shallow seas of the Panthalassic and Panafrican Oceans are hosting an astonishing proliferation of multicellular life.

SLIDE 6.

Six hundred and fifty million years later, the outlines of Earth’s new continents glow by night like a neon diadem against the darkness, shouting consciousness at the sky in a blare of radio-wavelength emissions as loud as a star.

There have been five major epochs dominated by different families of land-based vertebrates in the time between slides 5 and 6. All the Earth’s coal and oil deposits were laid down in this time, different animal families developed flight at least four times, and the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere rose from around 4 percent to well over 16 percent. At the very end, a strangely bipedal, tailless omnivore appeared on the plains of Africa—its brain turbocharged on a potent mixture of oxygen and readily available sugars—and erupted into sentience in a geological eyeblink.

Here’s what
isn’t
going to happen:

SLIDE 7.

The continents of Earth, no longer lit by the afterglow of intelligence, will drift into strange new configurations. Two hundred and fifty million years after the sixth great extinction, the scattered continents will reconverge on a single equatorial supercontinent, Pangea Ultima, leaving only the conjoined landmass that was Antarctica and Australia adrift in the southern ocean. As the sun brightens, so shall the verdant plains of the Earth; oceanic algal blooms raise the atmospheric oxygen concentration close to 25 percent, and lightning-triggered wildfires rage across the continental interior. It will be an epoch characterized by rapid plant growth, but few animal life-forms can survive on land—in the heady air of aged Earth, even waterlogged flesh will burn. And the sun is still brightening …

SLIDE 8.

Seven hundred and fifty million years later. The brightening sun will glare down upon cloud-wreathed ancient continents, weathered and corroded to bedrock. Even the plant life has abandoned the land, for the equatorial daytime temperature is perilously close to the boiling point of water. What life there is retreats to the deep ocean waters, away from the searing ultraviolet light that splits apart the water molecules of the upper atmosphere. But there’s no escape: the oceans themselves are slowly acidifying and evaporating as the hydrogen liberated in the ionosphere is blasted into space by the solar wind. A runaway greenhouse effect is well under way, and in another billion years Earth will resemble parched, hell-hot Venus.

SLIDE 9.

Four-point-two billion years after the brief cosmic eyeblink of Earthly intelligence, the game is up. The dead Earth orbits alone, its moon a separate planet wandering in increasingly unstable ellipses around the sun. Glowing dull red beneath an atmosphere of carbon dioxide baked from its rocks, there will be no sign that this world ever harbored life. The sun it circles, a sullen-faced ruddy ogre, is nearing the end of its hydrogen reserves. Soon it will expand, engulfing the inner planets.

But events on a larger scale are going to spare the Earth this fate. For billions of years, the galaxy in which this star orbits has been converging with another large starswarm, the M-31 Andromeda galaxy. Now the spiraling clouds of stars are interpenetrating and falling through each other, and the sun is in for a bumpy ride as galaxies collide.

A binary system of red dwarfs is closing with the solar system at almost five hundred kilometers per second. They are going to pass within half a billion kilometers of the sun, a hairbreadth miss in cosmic terms: in the process they will wreak havoc on the tidy layout of the solar system. Jupiter, dragged a few million kilometers sunward, will enter an unstable elliptical orbit, and over the course of a few thousand years it will destabilize all the other planets. Luna departs first, catapulted out of the plane of the ecliptic; Earth, most massive of all, will spend almost five million years wobbling between the former orbits of Venus and Saturn before it finally caroms past Jupiter and drifts off into the eternal night, the tattered remnants of its atmosphere condensing and freezing in a shroud of dry ice.

Slow Recovery

Pierce was to remain on official convalescent leave for an entire year-subjective. His heart had been torn to shreds by a penetrator round; repairing the peripheral damage, growing a new organ in situ, and restoring him to physical condition was a nontrivial matter. Luckily for him, the fatal shooting had happened in the middle of a multiple-overwrite ambush that was finally shut down by Control Majeure using weapons of gross anachronism, and they’d whisked his bleeding wreckage out through a timegate before he’d finished drumming his heels.

Nevertheless, organ regeneration—not to mention psychological recovery from a violent fatal injury—took time. So, rather than shipping him straight to the infirmary in the alpine monastery in Training Zone 25, he was sent to recover in the Rebirth Wing of the Chrysanthemum Clinic, on the Avenue of the Immortals of Medicine, in the city of Leng, on the northeastern seaboard of the continent of Nova Zealantis, more than four billion years after the time into which he had been born.

The current Reseeding was Enlightened; not only were they aware of the existence of the Stasis, but they were a part of the greater transtemporal macroculture: speakers of Urem, obedient to the Stasis, even granted dispensation to petition for use of the timegate in extraordinary circumstances. In return, the Hegemony was altogether conscientious in observing their duties to the guardians of history, according Pierce honors that, in other ages, might have been accorded to a diplomat or minor scion of royalty. Unfortunately, this entailed rather more formality than Pierce was used to. The decor, for one thing: they’d clearly studied his epoch, but modeling his hospital suite on Louis XV’s bedroom at Versailles suggested they had strange ideas about his status.

“If it pleases you, my lord, would you like to describe how you entered the celestial service?” The journalist, who his bowing and shuffling concierge explained had been sent by the city archive to document his life, was young, pretty, and shiny-eyed. She’d obviously studied his public records and the customs of his home civilization, and decided to go for the throat. Local fashion echoed the Minoan empire of antiquity, and her attire, though scholarly, was disconcerting: a flash of well-turned ankle, nipples rouged and ringed—Pierce realized he was staring and turned his face away, chagrined.

“Please?” she repeated, her plump lower lip quivering. Her cameras flittered below the ceiling like lazy bluebottles, iridescent in the afternoon sunlight, logging her life for posterity.

“I suppose so …” Pierce trailed off, staring through the open window at the lower slopes of the hillside on which the clinic nestled. “But there’s no secret, really, none at all. You don’t approach them—they approach you. A tap on the shoulder at the right time, an offer of a job, at first I didn’t think it was anything unusual.”

“Was there anything leading up to that? My lord? What was your life like before the service?”

Pierce frowned slightly as he forced his sullen memory to work. There were gaps. “I’m not sure; I think I was in a car crash, or maybe a war ...”

His cardiac leech pulsed against his chest like a contented cat. Sunlight warmed the side of his face as he watched her sidelong, from the corner of his eye.
How far will she go for a story?
he wondered idly.
Play your cards right and

well, maybe.
His temporarily heartless condition had rendered amorous speculations—or anything else calculated to raise the blood pressure—purely academic for the time being.

“My lord?” He pretended to miss the moue of annoyance that flitted across her face, but the very deliberate indrawn breath that followed it was so transparent that he nearly gave the game away by laughing.

“I’m not your lord,” he said gently. “I’m just a scholar-agent, halfway through my twenty years of training. What I know about the Guardians of Time”—that was what the Hegemonites called the Stasis, those in power who had polite words for them—“and can tell you is mere trivia. I’m sure your Archive already has it all.”

This was a formally declared Science Epoch, in which a whole series of consecutive Reseedings were dedicated to collating the mountain-sized chunks of data returned by the Von Neumann probes that had been launched during the last Science Epoch, a billion years earlier. They and their descendants had quietly fanned out throughout the local group of galaxies, traveling at barely a hundredth of the speed of light, visiting and mapping every star system and extrasolar planet within ten million light-years. There was a lot of material to collate; The Zealantian Hegemony’s army of elite astrocartographers, millions strong, would labor for tens of thousands of years to assemble just their one corner of the big picture. And their obsession with knowledge didn’t stop at the edge of the solar system.

(“A civilization of obsessive-compulsive stamp collectors,” Wei had called them when he briefly visited his ex-student. “You’ve got to watch these Science Cults; sooner or later they’ll turn all the carbon in the deep biosphere into memory diamond, then where will we be?”)

“The Archive doesn’t know everything, my lord. It’s not like the Library of Time.” There was a strangely reverent note in her voice, as if the Library was somehow different. “We don’t have permission to read the forbidden diaries, my lord. We have to accept whatever crusts of wisdom our honored guests choose to let fall from their trenchers.”

“I’m not your lord. You can call me Pierce, if you like.”

“Yes, my, ah. Pierce? My lord.”

“What should I call you?” he asked after a pause.

“Me? I am nobody, lord Pierce! I am a humble journal-keeper—”

“Rubbish.” He looked directly at her, taking in everything: her flounced scholar-lady’s dress, the jeweled rings through her ears and nipples, her painstakingly knotted chignon. This was a high-energy civilization, but a very staid, conservative one with strict sumptuary laws: were she a commoner, she would risk a flogging for indecency, or worse, dressing above her station. “Who are you really? And why are you so interested in
me
?”

“Oh! If you
must
know, I am doctor-postulant Xiri, daughter of doctor doctor professor archivist His Excellency Dean Imad of the College of History, and Her Ladyship doctor professor emeritus Leila of the faculty of hot super-Jovian moons”—she smiled coyly—“and I have been charged, by my duty and my honor as a scholar, to study you in absolute detail by my tutors. They have assigned you to me as the topic of my first dissertation. On the hero-guardians of time.”

“Your
first
dissertation—” Her parents were a professor and a dean; she might as well have said
sheikh
or
baron
. “Do I have any choice in the matter?”

“You can refuse, of course.” She shivered and tugged her filmy shawl back into position. “But
I
can’t.”

“Why? What happens if you refuse?”

She shivered. “I would forfeit my doctorate. The shame! My parents”—for a moment the bright-eyed optimism cracked—“would blame themselves. It would cast doubt on my commitment.”

Was failure to make tenure track justification for an honor killing? Pierce shook his head, staring at her. “I’m just a trainee!” He reached for the bed’s control, stabbing the button to raise his back. The interview was out of control, heading for deep waters, and lying down gave him an unaccountable fear of drowning. “
I’m
the nobody around here!”

“How do you know that, my lord? For all you know, you might be destined for glory.” She tugged at her shawl again and smiled, an ingenue trying to look mysterious.

“But I don’t have any—” He switched off the bed lift once he was level with her, looked her in the eyes, and changed the subject in midsentence. “Have your people ever met me before?”

The hardest part of arguing with her, he found, was avoiding staring at her chest. She was really very pretty, but her pedigree suggested he’d be wise to abandon that line of thought; she’d be about as safe to seduce as a rattlesnake.

“No.” Her smile widened. “A handsome man of mystery and a time hero to boot: yes, they told us why you were here.” Her gaze briefly covered his chest.

For the first time in many months, Pierce resorted to his native language. “Oh,
hell
.” He glanced at the window, then back at Xiri. “Everybody wants to study me,” he confessed. “I don’t know why, I really don’t …” He crossed his arms, looked at her. “Study away. I am at your disposal.” At least it promised to be a less harrowing experience than Kafka’s cross-examination.

“Oh! Thank you, my lord!” She placed a proprietorial hand on the side of his bed. “I will do my utmost to make it an enjoyable experience.”

“Really?” There was something about her tone of voice that took him aback, as if he’d answered a question that he didn’t remember being asked. The idea of being studied struck Pierce as marginally more enjoyable than banging his head on the wall, but on the upside, Xiri was high-quality eye candy. On the downside—
Don’t go there,
he reminded himself. “Where would you like to begin?”

“Right here, I think,” she said, sliding her hand under the covers.

“Hey! I! Huh.” Pierce found, to his mild alarm, that her busy hand was getting results. “Um. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but we really shouldn’t—why are you—aren’t you going to shut off your cameras—”

“I have read about your culture.” She sat down on the bed beside him with a rustle of silk. “In some ways, it sounded very familiar. Did they not record everything that happened to them? Did they not talk about people marrying their work? Well, that is just how we do that here.”

“But that’s just a metaphor!” He tried to push her hand away, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“Hush.” She responded by making him shudder. “You’re the subject of my dissertation! I’m going to find out
all
about you. It’s to be my life’s work! I’m so happy! Just relax, my lord, and everything will be wonderful. Don’t worry, I have studied the customs of your time, and they are not so very alien. We can talk about the wedding tomorrow, after you’ve met my father.”

BOOK: Palimpsest
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