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Starfall. Part 7

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Flood walked to the rim of the logic pool. "To put an end to that."

Now the Empress spoke. "You are Flood."

He bowed. "Empress-"

"s.h.i.+ra will do."

"Yes. s.h.i.+ra is your name. It always was, wasn't it? I am here to discuss terms."

Stillich said tensely, "Keep it brief, farmer. We don't have much time."

"Brief I can manage. Your Empress must stand down. This logic pool must be shut down-here, now, immediately, before my eyes. And we begin the establishment of a const.i.tutional convention. A new relations.h.i.+p between the free worlds of all mankind."

"How civilised," Kale said. "A const.i.tutional convention, or global obliteration."

"Admiral," Stillich snapped. "We don't have the time. Flood-why the logic pool? This is at the centre of everything, isn't it?"

Flood faced s.h.i.+ra. "The centre of all she is doing. Isn't that true, ma'am?"

"How little you understand," s.h.i.+ra said.

"Oh, I think I understand well enough." Flood faced the Navy men. "You know her story by now. She is a refugee from the future-from a time that, even nine hundred years later, is so far remote it remains remains the future. And she is going home the long way, year by year, heartbeat by heartbeat. But it isn't the future she longs for - is it, s.h.i.+ra? You don't want to be in this universe at all ... " the future. And she is going home the long way, year by year, heartbeat by heartbeat. But it isn't the future she longs for - is it, s.h.i.+ra? You don't want to be in this universe at all ... "

Kale had tried to explain s.h.i.+ra's extraordinary ideas to Stillich, and Stillich thought he understood. "Ma'am? Is he right?"

"None of this is real," s.h.i.+ra said, her voice a husk. "It is all transitory. We are simply forced to endure the motion of our consciousness along one of the chains of quantum functions, a sequence of potentiality to be collapsed, discarded, by the Ultimate Observer at timelike infinity ... "

Stillich tried to control his impatience. "This is just anachronistic philosophy. I don't see what it is that she's doing here that disturbs you, Flood."

"She longs for her Ultimate Observer. And she thought she could find her quantum messiah in mathematics ... "

The logic pool, he said, was a meta mathematical universe. While not infinite it comprised more mathematical understanding, far more, than had yet been explored by mankind-and in principle, somewhere within the meta mathematical branching of the pool, any algorithm possible might exist.

s.h.i.+ra said softly, "All our science is based on the search for simple rules underlying complex phenomena. Simple algorithms can be shown to generate complexities, from the turbulent flow in a gla.s.s of water to the spiral structure of the Galaxy itself."

"You see the idea," Flood said. "There's a lot of nonsense in there, but also a lot of treasure to be dug out. It's as if you have a tank full of every possible combination of words in Earthish. Most of it is dross. But in there to be discovered are the finest works of human literature-even those not written yet."

"And similarly, I suppose," Stillich said, "scientific understanding not yet acquired."

"Well, yes. But s.h.i.+ra has always been more ambitious than that, haven't you, Empress?"

s.h.i.+ra said, "Human consciousness is likewise the product of simple algorithms with particularly complicated outcomes. And similarly, any mind imaginable-human, post-human or alien-must be there to be discovered, in the pool, in metamathematical stasis."

Flood grimaced. "The Friends of Wigner were prepared to destroy Jupiter to send a message to the Ultimate Observer. Now this lunatic believes she can find the Observer in a tank of light."

"Show some respect," Stillich said sharply.

"But whether or not she ever achieved her goal, she is in danger of unleas.h.i.+ng much greater threats on humanity. For some some of the minds in there are not content with stasis, with waiting to be discovered. Look at this." He summoned up a Virtual of his own. "We've been tracking this for years. Decades. We have our spies, in Sol system. Look at this. It's a neutrino scan we made from the of the minds in there are not content with stasis, with waiting to be discovered. Look at this." He summoned up a Virtual of his own. "We've been tracking this for years. Decades. We have our spies, in Sol system. Look at this. It's a neutrino scan we made from the Freestar Freestar just hours ago." just hours ago."

It took Stillich a moment to work out that he was looking at a cross-section of the Earth, deep below the granite raft of Manhattan, and the imperial bunker. And down there, swimming in the mantle, was a shape, perhaps organic, perhaps artificial, a winged shape like a stingray, like a sycamore seed.

"It isn't fully formed," formed," Flood said grimly. "Not fully operational. But it soon will be." Flood said grimly. "Not fully operational. But it soon will be."

Kale asked, "What is it?"

"In the Friends' accounts of their dark future, there are hints of a race even more threatening to mankind than the occupiers of Earth from whom they fled. A race called-" His p.r.o.nunciation was uncertain: "Chee-lee, Zee-lee. They, or their potentialities, are lurking in the logic pool. And they are trying to break out." They, or their potentialities, are lurking in the logic pool. And they are trying to break out."

"How?" Kale snapped. "By constructing this s.h.i.+p, deep in the Earth? How are they doing that?."

"We have no idea," Flood said. "Our only concern was to stop it, before this s.h.i.+p bursts from the Earth like a bird from its egg. I mean, this is a threat so potent it is trying to strike at us out of nothing more than a statement of the logical possibility of its own existence! If this thing had got out of the mantle, I don't imagine our four light years' separation would have saved Alpha system. Now do you see why it was necessary to wage this war? It wasn't just for our freedom from s.h.i.+ra's political domination. It was to free all mankind all mankind of this terrible threat-for s.h.i.+ra, your Empress from the future, was endangering all of us." of this terrible threat-for s.h.i.+ra, your Empress from the future, was endangering all of us."

Stillich looked at the Admiral's grim face.

"Decision time," said Kale.

"Yes, sir. My view? It's not worth risking Earth to save this project of the Empress's-"

"The Project is worth any price," s.h.i.+ra murmured. "Even that."

Kale turned to her. "Ma'am-we have no time. We must accept his terms. We can discuss the details of your abdication later-the legitimisation of an interim government ... " He turned to Flood. "You have won, star-farmer."

Flood picked up the nanotechnological box, and dropped it in the logic pool. It sank with barely a ripple, and then seemed to dissolve. Flood watched the pool, as the writhing metamathematical bifurcations withered, and the pale light began to die. "It is done."

Stillich said urgently, "And call off your relativistic attack dog."

Flood smiled. "Done."

"None of this is real," s.h.i.+ra murmured. She rolled back into the shadows.

Kale faced Flood. "You will pay for all you have done."

Flood gazed at him, his eyes full of regret. "Oh, I have paid, soldier. Believe me, I have paid."

And then the bunker shuddered, and a wave like a tide pulsed through Stillich's gut.

Kale staggered. "What was that?" that?"

When Stillich had recovered, s.h.i.+ra was gone.

AD 4820.

S-Day plus 11 Asteroid Belt

Earth was so close now that Densel Bel could see it, an image magnified and heavily corrected for relativistic distortions, suspended over his head-he could see it in real time, a blue marble, achingly beautiful, and yet scarred by war. But he could never touch it. The vast pulse of kinetic energy that had been injected into this s.h.i.+p by years of GUTdrive acceleration separated him from his home world just as much as if he had been stranded in another universe.

Only subjective minutes remained before his life ended, and Earth died with him.

Once more Flood appeared before him. "It's over," he said, smiling.

"What is?"

"The war. s.h.i.+ra is abdicating-we are free. Now you must destroy the Fist Two." Fist Two."

"Me? Why me?"

"This was your purpose, Densel Bel. You are my failsafe. I needed somebody on board who I knew knew would terminate the mission, even at the cost of his own life. And that's you, a man loyal both to Earth, where you were born, and Footprint, where you have your family. You have the authority. Just say aloud, 'let it end'. The AI will do the rest. Goodbye, Densel Bel. I hope you feel the sacrifice you are making is worth it." would terminate the mission, even at the cost of his own life. And that's you, a man loyal both to Earth, where you were born, and Footprint, where you have your family. You have the authority. Just say aloud, 'let it end'. The AI will do the rest. Goodbye, Densel Bel. I hope you feel the sacrifice you are making is worth it."

"Flood. Wait-"

"Yes?"

"Would you have done it? Would you have let the Fist Fist strike the Earth?" strike the Earth?"

"Oh, yes. To stop what s.h.i.+ra was doing-believe me, there was no choice. Good luck, Densel Be!." He broke up into a cloud of pixels and disappeared.

Densel Bel looked up at the blue Earth, and thought of Su-su and Fay. "let it end."

Light flared, an instant of intense white pain-

AD 4820.

S-Day plus 7 months Earthport

The flitter rose from Earth like a stone thrown from a blue bowl. The little cylindrical craft tumbled slowly as it climbed, sparkling.

Peering out from the rising flitter, Stillich had to admit that the Freestar, Freestar, which he had come to inspect on behalf of the Navy, looked spectacular, with the newly constructed wormhole Interface, a bright blue tetrahedron with milky-gold faces, slung beneath its angular spine. When Flood and his crew returned to Alpha system in a couple of months, they would take the grudging good wishes of Earth's interim government with them, and the business end of a new wormhole, which would link the worlds of Alpha and Sol forever. which he had come to inspect on behalf of the Navy, looked spectacular, with the newly constructed wormhole Interface, a bright blue tetrahedron with milky-gold faces, slung beneath its angular spine. When Flood and his crew returned to Alpha system in a couple of months, they would take the grudging good wishes of Earth's interim government with them, and the business end of a new wormhole, which would link the worlds of Alpha and Sol forever.

"Or until the next political crisis," Flood said dryly.

"There is that."

"Look-here comes another s.h.i.+pment of green muck from t.i.tan."

It was a cargo pellet slung from t.i.tan that had crossed the system unpowered, and now made an entry into Earth's atmosphere, cutting a bright contrail across the blue sky. This crude s.h.i.+pment method was an interim emergency measure, until the great s.p.a.ce elevators were hung in the sky once more.

"Not 'green muck'," Stillich said. "Algal concentrate."

Flood pulled a face. "Next time you visit Footprint, be my guest at dinner."

"That might be some time away," Stillich said gently.

They both knew that was likely to be true. Too many had died, on Earth and elsewhere, for the populations of Sol system to forgive their colonial cousins for the war, whatever the retrospective justification in terms of s.h.i.+ra's murky crimes.

But it would come in time, Stillich knew. Already Earth was recovering, as people and machines laboured to repair the damage done, and the vast resources of s.p.a.ce were reattached to the damaged planet. And likewise Sol system was making conciliatory gestures to the starborn. The Facula Facula was en route back to Tau Ceti, taking the abducted colonists home. Stillich had made sure Pella was on that mission. She was a bright officer, but she needed to acquire the humanity that informed good judgement was en route back to Tau Ceti, taking the abducted colonists home. Stillich had made sure Pella was on that mission. She was a bright officer, but she needed to acquire the humanity that informed good judgement "I saw your report on s.h.i.+ra's escape," Flood said now. "You were serious in your conclusions?"

"There's no real doubt about it." s.h.i.+ra had stashed many treasures from her lost future down in that bunker, and among them was what appeared to be a transdimensional transport system: s.h.i.+ra had disappeared from the bunker by stepping sideways into one of the universe's many extra compactified dimensions. "If that doesn't qualify as a 'hyperdrive' I don't know what does."

Flood shook his head. "She had a hyperdrive. And she kept it to herself all these centuries, while the rest of us limped across the Galaxy in sublight GUTs.h.i.+ps. Just so she had a last-resort escape hatch. How selfish."

"Maybe it's just as well. Anyhow I guess we are due to acquire the technology in a few centuries. Certainly it will transform the face of war." Stillich and Flood were both key witnesses at an inter-governmental inquiry into the course and conduct of the war, an experience Stillich suspected had increased both their understandings. "When you think about it, an interstellar war fought out with sublight drives is right at the limit of the possible. For a start you need a strong reason to do it; almost nothing is worth fighting such a campaign for."

Flood grunted. "You should read more history. Our fear of what s.h.i.+ra was up to was comparatively rational as a casus belli. casus belli. Another global threat, experiments with vacuum energy, which could destabilise the entire universe, say, might be another. But horrific wars have been fought over splinter-fine differences in ideologies. look up the crusades some time." Another global threat, experiments with vacuum energy, which could destabilise the entire universe, say, might be another. But horrific wars have been fought over splinter-fine differences in ideologies. look up the crusades some time."

"But when we get hyperdrive," Stillich said, "and as a consequence-perhaps-we get an authentic first alien contact, rather than these dark hints and glimpses from the future, we might soon see a transformation both of our means of fighting war, and of our choice of opponents. This might be remembered as mankind's last great conflict."

"The end of human war?" Flood laughed. "I knew you were imaginative, Stillich. I didn't have you down as a dreamer ... "

An alarm chimed, as the flitter prepared to dock with the Freestar. Freestar. Stillich straightened his uniform, preparing for duty. Stillich straightened his uniform, preparing for duty.

As it turned out, Flood was wrong.

It was only a few years later that Pella, en route to Tau Ceti, sent Stillich a packet message to announce contact with an alien species. He took the call in his apartment in the clouds over London.

"As far as we can tell they are aquatic group-mind multiple creatures. Fish-like. They have an interstellar network of trading colonies. Their name for themselves"-a thin squeal, heavily processed from the creatures' own sounds, 'Ss-chh-eemnh'-means something like the Wise Folk. 'Ss-chh-eemnh'-means something like the Wise Folk. Rather like Rather like h.o.m.o sapiens. h.o.m.o sapiens. Captain, here's the thing. They were heading for Sol system! They picked up some kind of signal from s.h.i.+ra's escape. The hyperdrive she used must have been one of their drives, or a human derivative. The question is, sir, how our descendants managed to take such a prize away from the Captain, here's the thing. They were heading for Sol system! They picked up some kind of signal from s.h.i.+ra's escape. The hyperdrive she used must have been one of their drives, or a human derivative. The question is, sir, how our descendants managed to take such a prize away from the Ss-chh-eemnh Ss-chh-eemnh ... " ... "

Everything was different, then, Stillich thought; this was a discontinuity in human history. He looked away from the busy bowl of the city, to the silent stars, wondering what came next.

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