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Authors: Alastair Reynolds,Sophia McDougall,Adam Roberts,Kaaron Warren,E.J. Swift,Kameron Hurley

The Lowest Heaven

BOOK: The Lowest Heaven
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THE LOWEST HEAVEN

EDITORS
Anne C. Perry & Jared Shurin

IMAGES
National Maritime Museum

COVER
Joey Hi-Fi

First published 2013 by Jurassic London

www.pandemonium-fiction.com

978-0-9571696-4-7 (Limited Edition)

978-0-9571696-9-2 (Trade Paperback)

978-0-9571696-1-6- (Paperback)

978-0-9571696-5-4 (eBook)

Introduction © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

“Golden Apples” copyright © Sophia McDougall 2013

“A Map of Mercury” copyright © Alastair Reynolds 2013

“Ashen Light” copyright © Archie Black 2013

“The Krakatoan” copyright © Maria Dahvana Headley 2013

“An account of a voyage from World to World, 1726” copyright © Adam Roberts 2013

“WWBD” copyright © Simon Morden 2013

“Saga’s Children” copyright © E. J. Swift 2013

“The Jupiter Files” copyright © Jon Courtenay Grimwood 2013

“Marcus Lucretius” copyright © Mark Charan Newton 2013

“Air, Water and the Grove” copyright © Kaaron Warren 2013

“Only Human” copyright © Lavie Tidhar 2013

“Uranus” copyright © Esther Saxey 2013

“From This Day Forward” copyright © David Bryher 2013

“We’ll Always Be Here” copyright © S. L. Grey 2013

“Enyo-Enyo” copyright © Kameron Hurley 2013

“The Comet’s Tale” copyright © Matt Jones 2013

“The Grand Voyage” copyright © James Smythe 2013

Images © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Cover by Joey Hi-Fi

eBook conversion by handebooks.co.uk

The right of the authors to be identified as the authors 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, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owners.

To curiosity
(big and little c)

INTRODUCTION

It should come as no surprise that the relationship between astronomy and science fiction has always been a close one. After all, even in the Space Age, the nearest most of us will get to experiencing the wonders of deep space for ourselves is through the medium of books, films and television (and perhaps, if we’re lucky, virtual reality too).

Modern astronomy is characterised by vast distances and immense spans of time which challenge the imagination of even the most hardened cosmologist. Douglas Adams perhaps came closest to a concise description of the true scale of the Universe when he wrote “Space is big”, but such enormous numbers are almost impossible to grasp in any meaningful way beyond the purely mathematical. However, science fiction can give us a way to make at least some sense out of those mind-blowing figures. By setting human stories within that immense canvas writers can help us to see ourselves as part of the wider cosmos, and perhaps give us an inkling of what that might actually mean. No wonder that many of today’s professional astronomers can trace their interest, at least in part, to an early encounter with science fiction.

The connection between science fact and science fiction has never been more pervasive than it is today. The visual language of astronomy is everywhere in contemporary science fiction, from book covers to the backdrops of films and television shows. Vistas from the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Cassini probe have inspired the scenery for
Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica
and
Doctor Who
, and with their enormous popularity these shows and movies bring astronomical imagery to a much wider audience. Artistic licence even allows them to ignore the fact that that the original images have been enhanced and manipulated, and rarely show the Universe as it would appear to human eyes.

The connection works both ways. As yesterday’s science fiction becomes today’s science fact it can sometimes seem as though we live in a science-fictional universe. Above our heads, Arthur C. Clarke’s geostationary satellites encircle the equator, while the imprints of human boots still mark the surface of the Moon. Further out, a fleet of robot craft explores the distant reaches of the Solar System and rovers trundle across the dusty landscapes of Mars. And for the first time in human history we can now look up at a night sky full of stars and know for sure that almost every one of them is a sun with its own system of planets orbiting around it.

Meanwhile, science fiction itself is colonising the Solar System. There’s a Martian crater called Asimov and an asteroid named 25924 Douglasadams (not to mention 18610 Arthurdent). The icy plains of Saturn’s giant moon Titan are being named after fictional planets from Frank Herbert’s
Dune
novels, its mountains for the peaks and ranges of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And in 2012 the site where NASA’s Curiosity rover touched down on Mars was christened Bradbury Landing in honour of the writer whose
Martian Chronicles
inspired generations of scientists and engineers to set their sights on the Red Planet.

Science fiction also has the luxury of being able to pursue an idea just because it’s interesting, fun or beautiful, even when science has abandoned it and moved on. In the 1890s, astronomer Percival Lowell’s Martian canals were the subject of serious debate, while H. G. Wells’ “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” were not entirely inconsistent with the latest thinking in planetary science. Within a few years the Royal Observatory’s E. Walter Maunder had shown that the canals of Mars were an optical illusion, and new observations confirmed the Red Planet’s freezing temperatures and a flimsy atmosphere devoid of oxygen. Even so, the idea of ancient Martians irrigating the deserts of a dying world continued to inspire writers and artists well into the twentieth century. Today, these unscientific fictions, inspired by astronomy but not constrained by it, still say something important about our place in the Universe. Ray Bradbury’s stories of Mars, written in the 1940s, retain their power because they capture something about the human urge to explore beyond our home planet, and our inability to leave our foibles and failings behind us. This would be true whether or not his poetic evocations of the Martian landscape resembled the high-definition images beamed back by NASA’s Curiosity rover (although, eerily, they do).

This anthology of contemporary science fiction stories is being published to coincide with the exhibition
Visions of the Universe
at Royal Museums Greenwich. Using just over a hundred astronomical photographs and drawings the exhibition sets out to show how advances in imaging technology have repeatedly transformed our understanding of the Universe and our own place within it. But, as well as explaining the history and the science behind the images, Visions of the Universe deliberately presents them as beautiful and awe-inspiring objects in their own right. Like the stories in this book, it encourages a very human response to scientific data.

The Lowest Heaven
demonstrates what happens when a group of today’s most imaginative writers are let loose in the gigantic playground of the Solar System. Some of these stories use cutting-edge science to give us a plausible glimpse of what the future might have in store. Others take their inspiration from the rich history of speculation, legend and myth with which past generations have tried to make sense of the cosmos.

Each story is illustrated by an image selected from the historical collections of Royal Museums Greenwich. Sometimes the connection is obvious, in other cases more oblique, perhaps inspired by a mood or a line of dialogue. The wonderfully retro cover artwork, specially commissioned from the artist Joey Hi-Fi, is inspired by another object from the Museum’s collection: a wall hanging showing the orbits of the planets and other Solar System bodies. Produced in the 1850s by the Working Men’s Educational Union it was designed to explain the latest ideas about the cosmos to an audience eager for new ideas. It’s an attempt to encapsulate what humans have discovered about the cosmos and their place in it. Like the stories in this book, it makes us think again about what it means to be alive in an astonishing, beautiful and sometimes frightening universe.

Marek Kukula

Public Astronomer

Royal Observatory Greenwich (part of Royal Museums Greenwich)

May 2013

The sunlight shone scarlet through her lips and cheeks, illuminating the lacework of veins like bare trees against a sunset.

One of a set of hand-painted magic lantern slides depicting sunspots and other solar activity. These were designed by the photographers and slide-manufacturers York & Son to accompany a lecture on the Sun. (c1880)

GOLDEN APPLE

SOPHIA MCDOUGALL

“Mother, give me the sun”
Ghosts
, Henrik Ibsen

The process of transforming sunlight into a solid object had been complete about a month when we broke into the lab and stole as much as we could carry.

Carrying it was an issue, actually – obviously we were fairly sure it wouldn’t weigh much. But what do you carry sunlight in? Some sort of vacuum flask seemed appropriate. We didn’t want the sunlight to leak, or get contaminated. But would it die, somehow, if we shut it up in the dark?

In the end we used Tupperware and a rucksack.

For what it’s worth: we wouldn’t have stolen the solidified light if we’d had any other options or had not been at the very end of our rope. We would have paid for it if we could. We’ve become quite good at raising money, even while never having close to enough: we’ve raised almost two hundred thousand over the last few years for projects that had seemed saner but hadn’t done us any good in the end. We were up against the clock. We knew we weren’t thinking very clearly but we didn’t care, we knew we might be messing up (though not how badly) and we didn’t care about that either; in fact, by this point, we didn’t even really care about each other, despite the fact we were barely having full conversations with anyone else.

It’s quite liberating. The not caring.

It was a long drive to the lab but Jan and I had nothing to talk about in the car. We’d agreed beforehand that if it came to it, we’d both deny she knew anything about it; if at all possible we’d see to it I’d go to prison so there’d be someone to look after Daisy. I had no particular feelings about this other than mild guilt that my end of the bargain seemed easier.

Jan had bought us convincing replica guns, and by then it wasn’t so much that we objected to real ones as that we didn’t know how to get them and were afraid of getting caught before we could get hold of the sunlight. I am glad about that, now, we didn’t have real guns; things might have gone worse; people in our state of mind shouldn’t have guns. Not that we felt bad. In fact, I felt better than I had for years, and I say we weren’t thinking clearly but it felt clear, like all the horror and exhaustion and rage was washing out of me at last, and I was filling up with light, with light, with light.

To be doing something, you know?

To feel like it was going to be over?

It was a clear night, but it had been raining for days before, and as we broke clear of the trees and began our sprint across the field, the ground was like crude oil underfoot. I slipped right over once and Jan gave me a hand up in the kind of perfectly synchronised, perfectly impersonal way one assassin might help another. Didn’t look at my face, or at anything but the low white building ahead.

It shone worryingly bright; the moon was full, and that rhyme I used to sing Daisy came into my head:
Girls and boys come out to play, the moon is shining as bright as day
and while I was giving Jan a leg-up over the wall part of my brain got a little lost in how it’s really all sunlight, hurling through space, bouncing off cold stone, raining down on the wet grass, sunlight trapped for years and at last released in the lamps above the laboratory’s little car park, and it was sunlight powering my muscles to lift Jan and then myself, sunlight squeezing and releasing our lungs and hearts.

I’d been thinking so much about light recently, you see.

Jan spoke for the first time in hours: “We’re leaving footprints,” she whispered. “We’re going to track this mud all over the floors. They’ll be able to get a lot of information from that.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.

Jan only paused for a second. “No,” she agreed, “it doesn’t.”

“We’ll dump the shoes later,” I said, but she was already tramping on ahead through the mud, and didn’t answer, and I knew she wasn’t even thinking about it any more.

We weren’t particularly sophisticated about it. We just bashed in a window and of course alarms started screaming. We’d known that would happen but I couldn’t help getting a little jumpy, and this is why I say it’s just as well our guns weren’t real because a security guard found us not long after that. And while Jan was aiming her fake pistol at him and shouting, I had trouble not breaking down in giggles because it was so
easy
, and I kept expecting it to be harder; I kept thinking he’d realise the guns weren’t real and we weren’t actually breaking into the lab and handcuffing a man to a chair, we weren’t the sort of people who do things like that.

Jan didn’t seem to have any trouble keeping a straight face though, as far as you could tell through the balaclava; she pressed her gun against the man’s temple and he
shook
, he was so
scared
of tiny Jan and used-up, middle-aged me, and I stopped finding it funny and thought good, he should be. And I stopped thinking we weren’t the sort of people who would do this; we were, and that was fine, perfect. “Where’s the light?” I barked in his ear. “You know what we want; where’s the light?”

So he told us, and where the key safe was, and he wasn’t lying about it (why should he? Why risk his life to protect an experiment?) so we stuffed a gag in his mouth and ran through the dark corridors, up a flight of stairs to the right room. Couldn’t get the keys to work for ages, metal turning slippery in our shaking hands with sweat. Opened the door.

There in the dark was the sunlight.

Jan had been the one to do most of the research; I think the scientists wanted the solid light for some kind of new fuel, (which was what we wanted it for too, of course) but I don’t know. They’d coaxed it into being on microscopic lattices under funnels of mirrors, I remember that. It was about persuading photons to act like electrons, to repel each other.

Maybe it was actually a weapon? Maybe all this would’ve happened anyway.

Each globe of light was gold and white and perfect, like a tiny sun or a huge pearl. Each about the size of my two fists they hung suspended within columns of glass, held in place, I think, by magnetic fields. I pulled open the port at the top of the nearest tube and the light sank slowly to the bottom like a wax in a lava-lamp. It quivered and warped a bit as it settled down, already a little ruined, but still there.

“Quick, get it out,” said Jan, voice jagged with desperation. I reached down into the tube and grasped the light.

What did it feel like? Spongy, slippery, without being wet; hot but not burning through my glove. Bits of it fizzed away as I touched it, escaped into little streaks of almost-normal light in the air, and we got worried it would dissipate completely, so we set to grabbing the light out of the tubes and loading it into our Tupperware.

We didn’t take it all but we did take most of it.

“I am sorry about this,” said Jan almost gently to the guard back in the office we’d broken into. “We had to.”

When we got home we didn’t so much as take off our coats, just ripped off the balaclavas and ran straight up the stairs. We didn’t like to charge into the room in the middle of the night, normally we tiptoed around it, but we were too scared to wait until morning, in case the police came before then or in case the sunlight wouldn’t last that long, before we’d tried.

We didn’t turn on the lights. The captured sunlight lit the room enough. And yet you could barely see there was anyone lying in the bed. The duvets piled over her erased all trace of her body, as surely as clay. Just the little skull on the pillow, raw within the taut casing of skin, the tangle of limp, dry hair. As always I held my breath until I could see the faint, faint movement of hers.

Sometimes I’d look at Daisy and all the ready-made words they use for dead girls would nearly choke me. Bubbly. Special. Princess. Awful, awful words, that get you the exact opposite of what they’re begging the walled-off world for:
please don’t just think of a corpse, please don’t think of this one photograph, please think of a person.

She never used to feel the cold at all. She used to like to stay outside as long as it was light and was baffled by the idea she ought to have anything on her arms. When she was seven she showed a slightly worrying interest in wounds and dead animals, but grew out of it. She was good at algebra. She could run fast but was hopeless at any sport involving catching or throwing. When she was eleven she found it essential to know her own exact favourite colour, considering that an answer as imprecise as “blue” showed a lack of spirit and self-knowledge. She collected colour cards from a paint shop, studied them solemnly for days and informed us at last that the chosen shade was
Majorelle Blue
. She began to lecture us on environmentalism but she never remembered to turn off the bathroom light. At fourteen she was still planning to live in a house with every room painted Majorelle blue, with a wooden bed painted lemon yellow. That same year she redesigned her own signature into an artfully elaborate logo for when she was famous. When she was fifteen her best friend gave her a silver necklace shaped like a daisy chain and Daisy never took it off if she could help it (it couldn’t have been cheap, that necklace, but that was the year Daisy’s illness became something more than an inconvenience). She made frequent mention of a redheaded boy in the year ahead of her while denying she liked him. She had, in my view as I had in hers, appalling taste in music.

She’d celebrated her sixteenth birthday in the bed she now lay in, weakly puffing out a single candle we’d stuck into a bar of cinnamon scented soap, cake being out of the question. The last week before we stole the light, she’d barely opened her eyes.

Jan dodged around the IV stand and sat down on the bed. Daisy moaned quietly and turned her head away from the light. Jan got one arm under her head and propped her up – she wasn’t hard to lift. The blankets slipped down her corrugated chest, resting on her tender, slightly swollen stomach, and releasing a drift of her sweet ammonia scent.

I opened the first tub and handed it to Jan. The light scoured the poor remnants of Daisy’s face, the red chapped skin around her lips and nostrils, the flint-edged shadows under cheekbones and eyebrows. Within the pitiless caverns of her skull, her eyes winced open.

“Daisy,” I said.

I got round to the other side of the bed, and picked up my daughter’s hand. It felt like a little pile of kindling in mine. Her skin was papery-dry and cold, always so cold.

“Daisy,” whispered Jan, “open your mouth, there’s a good girl.”

Daisy blinked up at us emptily. Her forehead creased a little in pain, and her eyes sank closed again. I knew her bones hurt constantly, the bed was never soft enough to cushion them from their own small weight. But she didn’t protest.

Obediently, she parted her lips and Jan slipped the first sliver of sunlight inside.

I suppose, if I could, I’d have to change what I’ve done. It’s useless to say that now, and doubly so because I can’t really imagine doing it differently. I know we did wrong, and I should feel worse about it, but I can’t do anything about that.

But I do feel guilty when I think of her swallowing the light. We should have told her what we were doing. We should have asked. She wouldn’t, before, have been so docile, so vacantly trusting. She would have wanted to know what on earth we were putting in her mouth.

The first word she ever said was “no.”

The sunlight shone scarlet through her lips and cheeks, illuminating the lacework of veins like bare trees against a sunset. Her throat glowed a softer rose as the sunlight slid down, fading to a faint ember gleaming through the wall of her chest, then vanishing.

Jan stroked her hair and crooned to her and reached for the next morsel of light.

The police came at dawn three days later. They leaned on the doorbell rather than knocking the door in, which I suppose we should have been grateful for, and piled into our kitchen in what seemed to us unreasonably large numbers. They looked faintly awkward, full of energy for pushing people around and turning over furniture, but not quite sure if that was allowed.

“Jan didn’t have anything to do with it,” I said, stupidly.

“It was some other five-foot-two female in possession of a firearm, was it?” asked the Inspector sourly. “Listen, you can both make it easier on yourselves by telling us what you’ve done with that light.”

There wasn’t any left. We’d fed Daisy all of it. We didn’t say anything.

“I know you’ve got a sick daughter,” said the Inspector, “so I’d like to do this nicely. It’d be nice if you’d get dressed and come down to the station without making a lot of fuss.”

“I can’t,” said Jan. “Someone’s got to look after our daughter.”

“You can ring a neighbour from the station.”

“No, no, they won’t know what to do, what if she gets worse while I’m gone...”

One of the police women looked past me at something and caught a breath; the others followed her gaze and everyone went quiet. Daisy, soundless on bare, emaciated feet, had come down the stairs into the kitchen doorway. I felt a spasm of ridiculous rage. They had the nerve to wince at the sight of her, they dared to think she looked bad now? She was walking, she wasn’t in pain.

Daisy beamed at everyone. “It’s all right,” she said. “I don’t need looking after.”

Her skin was warm to the touch when I hugged her goodbye. Her eyes shone.

I left her blithely making the police officers a cup of tea.

“She couldn’t absorb anything from food,” I told them. I found it wasn’t at all hard to explain, it was as if I’d been rehearsing for ages. Distantly, I imagined Jan in some other interview room, saying the same words, in perfect unison. “It’s a very extreme and very intractable form of Coeliac; at least, that’s the closest anyone’s been able to get to a name for it. Whatever it is, she’s the youngest case, the worst case. At first it was just... she couldn’t have bread. If she did she’d be sick for ages. Fine. We cut everything out. We were so careful. But it didn’t work. The villi – the little things like hairs in your gut – hers are all wrecked. There was nothing we could feed her that didn’t make it worse. She was losing her sight. She was starving to death, in front of us. The most basic thing you’re supposed to do for your child, feed them, and we couldn’t.”

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