Read Infinity Beach Online

Authors: Jack McDevitt

Infinity Beach

Jack McDevitt
Infinity Beach

 

For the Brunswick Five:

Ted Barton,

John Goff,

Jack Kraus,

Ron Peiffer, and

George Tindle

They haven’t quite worked out the secret of life, but they know it has something to do with lunch.

We have always stood along a beach opening onto an infinite sea. That sea beckons us, but for ages we were limited to looking across its expanse with our telescopes and our imaginations. In time, we learned to build outriggers and we got to a few of the barrier islands. Today we have finally in our hands a true four-master, a ship that will take us beyond whatever horizons may exist.

—K
HALID
A
LNIRI,
The “Infinity Beach”
Speech at Wesleyan

We’ve known for a long time that contact might eventually happen, maybe would have to happen, and that when it did it would change everything, our technology, our sense of who we are, our notions of what the universe is. We’ve seen this particular lightning strike coming and we’ve played with the idea of what it might mean for eleven hundred years. We’ve imagined that other intelligences exist, we’ve imagined them as fearsome or gentle, as impossibly strange or remarkably familiar, as godlike, as remote, as indifferent. Well, I wonder whether the bolt is about to arrive. With you and me at the impact point.

—S
OLLY
H
OBBS
to K
IM
B
RANDYWINE
,
On the occasion of their visit to
Alnitak

Contents

Prologue

“Don’t do it.” Kane, covered in
blood, stood framed in…

1

“Nova goes in three minutes.”

2

In effect, Kim and her charges, a combination of
commentators,…

3

The Germane Society held its monthly luncheon on
the first…

4

It was after eleven-thirty when they lifted off the
Gateway’s…

5

“You really weren’t
rattled?”

6

“We should do more of this,” Matt said.
“Get ahead…

7

The following evening, Kim caught a shuttle to the
Star…

8

In the morning Kim ate breakfast with Cole, thanked
him…

9

The big push at the Institute was to lay
out…

10

Kile’s widowed mother, Sara Tripley Baines,
lived in Eagle Point…

11

The package arrived at midafternoon. They checked
the contents, a…

12

Kim caught the red-eye back to Seabright and
addressed the…

13

It was close at both ends.

14

“Of course I remember you.” Jorge Gould
smiled pleasantly and…

15

“You should never have done that,” said
Solly. He was…

16

“Do you know,” asked Solly, “how
long it would take…

17

Solly’s analysts thought the Hunter logs were
accurate to the…

18

Never go to bed angry.

19

The Hammersmith passed into hyperspace at 12:41
A.M., Saturday, March…

20

“If it were going to blow us up,” said
Kim,…

21

In the morning, they searched the vessel again, all
three…

22

Kim was barely aware of being retrieved by the
Patrol.

23

The Valiant stood on its shelf, polished and
brilliant. Its…

24

The ruined buildings cast long shadows in the
moonlight. A…

25

The flyer was too slow.

26

She woke up in a pleasant sun-drenched room. Yellow
curtains…

27

Kim was up early next day. She had a
light…

28

“It’s the most beautiful thing
I’ve ever seen.” It was…

29

Kim reran the sequence in the cargo hold. She
froze…

30

“And you thought Tripley’s grandmother
put the body in the…

31

Kim slept soundly through the night and was up
at…

32

Matt met her at the boarding tube. She was
carrying…

33

Kim was sitting with Ali in the pilot’s room
when…

34

By morning nothing had changed. “To tell you
the truth,”…

35

Kim had little opportunity to celebrate her
victory. Within an…

Epilogue

The stone was set in a corner of Cabry’s
Beach,…

 

Dates, unless otherwise indicated, are given in the Greenway calendar, whose Year 1 coincides with the first landing on that world in 2411 of the common era. The Greenway and terrestrial year are almost identical in duration, which is one of the reasons that world was selected for terraforming.

April 3, 573

“Don’t do it.” Kane, covered in blood, stood framed in the doorway.

“—no choice—” Tripley called as the flyer lifted off the pad. “Do what you can for her.”

As he’d feared, the bastards did not show up on his screen. But he could
see
their eerie companion, the spectral thing that floated through the moonlight. It was tracking northwest, toward Mount Hope. He had to assume it was escorting them. Riding shotgun.

The village fell away, and he was out over the lake. He switched to manual, climbed to fifteen hundred meters, and gave it everything it had, which wasn’t much. The flyer rattled and creaked but got up to two hundred fifty klicks. To his surprise he saw that he
was
gaining ground.

Was that possible? Or had the
thing
slowed down, to lure him on?

Three of Greenway’s moons, in their first quarter, floated in a cloudless sky, illuminating the distant peaks, the cool, dark lake, the dam, the fleeing cloud.

What was it anyhow?

It had drawn itself almost into a sphere, trailing long, hazy tendrils. Like a comet, he thought; unlike any other that had sailed past the world. Lethal and efficient and starkly graceful, framed against the snowcapped mountains.

But the sensor return was getting louder. He
was
gaining.

In these first quiet moments since everything had come undone, he listened to the wind and the burble of his elec
tronics, and he wished desperately he could go back and change everything.

Ahead, the comet-shape was moving ever slower. And beginning to dissolve.

Tripley braked.

He knew that the ship would be continuing straight on. He laughed, thinking of it in those terms. A
ship
that no one could see, that didn’t show up on the screens, that could lose itself out there without any fear of being found.

And there lay the problem. He could not follow without the telltale cloud to lead him. And he would have to kill the cloud to survive himself. How in hell had things gotten so desperately out of hand?

Kill the cloud.

Was the damned thing even alive?

They’d passed over the northwest shore. Dark forest lay below, the Gray Mountains rose ahead.

It turned to confront him.

He watched it spread across the night, opening for him, expanding into a kind of
blossom
, waiting to receive him. It had filaments, backlit by the moons, through which something, a nutrient, a life force, pulsed steadily.

He hesitated briefly, suddenly fearful, and then accelerated again to full throttle. He would kill the bastard or die himself.

Close the vents. Check windows and doors. He didn’t want any part of it getting into the cabin.

The night was full of regrets. He’d made the wrong call at every turn, had gotten people killed, and God knew what he’d unleashed on the world. But maybe he could start making amends now.

The wind roared across his stubby wings, and the creature floated in the moonlight, waiting. He could see the constellations in its veils.

It was unspeakably lovely, a mixture of mist and starlight, moving easily with the wind. He aimed directly at the center of the thing. He’d plow through and come around and rip into it again and
keep
slicing it apart until it was scattered across the sky.

And when that was done, he’d get back on the base course of the fleeing ship. There
had
to be a way to run it to ground. But one thing at a time.

The comm buzzer alerted him that someone was trying to reach him.

Kane.

The apparition began to move, tried to draw aside. Tripley felt a surge of joy. It was afraid of him.
No, you son of a bitch.
He adjusted course to keep it in his mental crosshairs.

The buzzer sounded again.

He knew what Kane would say.
She’s dead.
And:
Let it go.
But it was too late now for common sense. Wasn’t that what Kane had been saying from the beginning: Use common sense? But it had been hard to sort out, to know what to do—

Tripley braced himself, not knowing what to expect. The cloud was growing thinner as he approached, but that might have been an illusion, the way mist seems to dissipate when one plunges into it.

“I’m sorry,” he said, not sure to whom he was speaking.

And then he ripped into the cloud. Through it. Came out into clear starlight.

He looked back and saw that he’d blown a hole through its center. Parts of it were drifting away.

He went hard right, circling around for a second pass. He was confident now that it couldn’t hurt him. Its suppleness appeared to be gone. It was struggling.

He raced through it again from a different angle, hurling its fragments into the night, exhilarated by the taste of vengeance.

That was for Yoshi.

And this—

Everything failed. The soft murmur of the magnetics changed to a whine and died.

The instrument panel lights blinked out. And suddenly the only sound was the whisper of the wind.

The flyer fell through the night.

He fought the controls, trying frantically to restart as the
trees rushed up. Above him, silhouetted against Glory, the largest moon, the cloud was trying to re-form. And in those last moments, riven with fear and despair, a brilliant white light erupted on the slopes of Mount Hope. A second sun. He watched it expand, watched it engulf the world.

And he felt a final rush of satisfaction. It
had
to be the ship. The thing’s masters, at least, were dead.

And then it ceased to matter.

1

New Year’s Eve, 599

It seems safe now to assume that the terrestrial origin of life was a unique event. Some will quibble that we have, after all, seen only a few thousand of the billions of worlds drifting through the gently curving corridors we once called bio-zones. But we have stood on too many warm beaches and looked across seas over which no gulls hover, that throw forth neither shells, nor strands of weed, nor algae. They are peaceful seas, bounded by rock and sand.

The universe has come to resemble a magnificent but sterile wilderness, an ocean which boasts no friendly coast, no sails, no sign that any have passed this way before. And we cannot help but tremble in the gray light of these vast distances. Maybe that is why we are converting the great interstellar liners into museums, or selling them for parts. Why we have begun to retreat, why the Nine Worlds are now really six, why the frontier is collapsing, why we are going home to our island.

We are coming back at last to Earth. To the forests of our innocence. To the shores of night. Where we need not listen to the seaborne wind.

Farewell, Centaurus. Farewell to all we might have been.

—E
LIO
K
ARDI,
“The Shores of Night,”
Voyagers, 571

“Nova goes in three minutes.”

Dr. Kimberly Brandywine looked out across the dozen or
so faces in the briefing room. In back, lenses were pointed at her, sending the event out across the nets. Behind, her projections read
HELLO TO THE UNIVERSE
and
KNOCK
and
IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?

Several flatscreens were positioned around the walls, showing technicians bent over terminals in the
Trent
. These were the teams that would ignite the nova, but the images were fourteen hours old, the time required for the hypercomm transmissions to arrive.

Everyone present was attractive and youthful, except sometimes for their eyes. However vital and agile people were, their true age tended to reveal itself in their gaze. There was a hardness that came with advancing years, eyes that somehow lost their depth and their animation. Kim was in her midthirties, with exquisite features and hair the color of a raven’s wing. In an earlier era, they would have launched ships for her. In her own age, she was just part of the crowd.

“If we haven’t found anybody after all this time,” the representative from Seabright Communications was saying, “it can only be because there’s nobody to find. Or, if there is, they’re so far away it doesn’t matter.”

She delivered her standard reply, discounting the great silence, pointing out that even after eight centuries humans had still inspected only a few thousand star systems. “But you may be right,” she admitted. “Maybe we
are
alone. But the fact is that we really don’t know. So we’ll keep trying.”

Kim had long since concluded that Seabright was right. They hadn’t found so much as an amoeba out there. Briefly, at the beginning of the Space Age, there’d been speculation that life might exist in Europa’s seas. Or in Jupiter’s clouds. There’d even been a piece of meteoric rock thought to contain evidence of Martian bacteria. It was as close to extraterrestrial life as we’d ever come.

Hands were still waving.

“One more question,” she said.

She gave it to Canon Woodbridge, a science advisor for the Grand Council of the Republic. He was tall, dark, bearded,
almost satanic in appearance, yet a congenial fiend, one who meant no harm. “Kim,” he said, “why do you think we’re so afraid of being alone? Why do we want so much to find our own reflections out there?” He glanced in the direction of the screens, where the technicians continued their almost-ceremonial activities.

How on earth would she know? “I have no idea, Canon,” she said.

“But you’re deeply involved in the Beacon Project. And your sister devoted her life to the same goal.”

“Maybe it’s in the wiring.” Emily, her clone actually, had vanished when Kim was seven. She paused momentarily and tried to deliver a thoughtful response, something about the human need to communicate and to explore. “I suspect,” she said, “if there’s really nothing out there, if the universe is
really
empty, or at least
this
part of it is, then maybe a lot of us would feel there’s no point to the trip.” There was more to it than that, she knew. Some primal urge not to be
alone
. But when she tried to put it into words she floundered around, gave up, and glanced at the clock.

One minute to midnight, New Year’s Eve, in the two hundred eleventh year of the Republic and the six hundredth year since Marquand’s landing. One minute to detonation.

“How are we doing on time?” asked one of the journalists. “Are they on schedule?”

“Yes,” Kim said. “As of ten
A.M.
this morning.” The hypercomm signal from the
Trent
required fourteen hours and some odd minutes to travel the 580 light-years from the scene of detonation. “I think we’re safe to assume that the nova is imminent.”

She activated an overhead screen, which picked up an image of the target star. Alpha Maxim was a bright AO-class. Hydrogen lines prominent. Surface temperature 11,000° C. Luminosity sixty times that of Helios. Five planets. All barren. Like every other known world, save the few that had been terraformed.

It would be the first of six novas. All would occur within a volume of space which measured approximately five hun
dred cubic light-years. And they would be triggered at sixty-day intervals. It would be a demonstration that could not help but draw the attention of anyone who might be watching. The ultimate message to the stars:
We are here.

But she believed, as almost everyone else did, that the great silence would continue to roll back.

We live along the shores of night,

At the edge of the eternal sea.

The effort was called the Beacon Project. Its sponsor was Kim’s employer, the Seabright Institute. But even there, among those who had pushed the project, who had worked for years to bring it to fruition, there was a deep, pervading pessimism. Maybe it resulted from the knowledge that they’d all be dead before any possible answer could come back. Or maybe, as she wholeheartedly believed, it grew from a sense that this was a final gesture, more farewell than serious attempt at communication.

Emily, who had given her life to the great quest, would have been ashamed of her. It just demonstrated, Kim thought, how little the DNA really counted.

The
Trent
lay at a distance of five AUs from its target. The ship was an ancient cargo vessel refitted specifically for Beacon. Immediately after detonation, its crew and technicians would transfer to another vessel, which would transit into hyperspace, out of harm’s way. The
Trent
would be left to probe and measure the nova until the blast silenced it.

Kim threw a switch, and a computer-generated image of the LK6, a modified antique transport, formed in the center of the room. The LK6 was loaded with antimatter, contained within a magnetic bubble. It was traveling in hyperspace and, within a few seconds, would emerge in the solar core. If all went well, the resulting explosion would destabilize the star and, according to theory, ignite the first artificial nova.

A clock in the lower right-hand corner indicated the time of the image, and a counter ticked off the last seconds, si
multaneously the last of the century and the last before the LK6 entry.

Kim watched the numbers go to zeroes. The year rolled over to 600 and 580 light-years away the missile inserted itself and its payload into the heart of the star.

Outside, the Institute people applauded. In the briefing room, the mood was strange, almost somber. Maxim was older than Helios, and there was a general sense that ending its existence was somehow
wrong
.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Kim, “the pictures will be in tomorrow, and we’ll have them for you at the news conference.” She thanked them and stepped away from the lectern, and they began to file out of the room.

Woodbridge lingered, looking out the window at the Institute’s grounds. They were covered with a thin layer of snow. He waited for Kim to join him. “I wonder,” he said, “whether it’s a good idea to advertise our presence until we know who the neighbors are.” He wore a dark brown robe belted with a silver sash, and his sea green eyes were thoughtful.

“It’s a valid question, Canon,” she said, “but surely anyone intelligent enough to develop interstellar travel would be above shooting up strangers.”

“Hard to say.” He shrugged. “If we guess wrong, we could pay a substantial price.” He looked up at the clear, bright sky. “It’s obvious that Whoever designed the cosmos wanted to put distance between His creatures.”

They pulled on their jackets and walked out onto a terrace. The night was cold.

Seabright was only a few hundred kilometers north of the equator, but Greenway, despite its name, was not a particularly warm world. The bulk of its population was concentrated in equatorial latitudes.

An array of telescopes had been set up at the north end of the terrace, away from the buildings. A technician stood beside one, talking with a girl. The telescope was pointed toward the southeast, where Alpha Maxim was just one more pinpoint of light.

The girl’s name was Lyra. She was the technician’s daugh
ter, probably ten years old, and could reasonably expect to live two centuries.

“I wonder if she thinks she’ll be able to see the nova,” said Woodbridge.

Kim stepped to one side. “Ask her.”

He did, and Lyra smiled one of those vaguely contemptuous smiles that children use when they think adults are being condescending. “No, Canon,” she said, while her mother looked pleased. “It will not change in my lifetime.”

Nor of her kids, thought Kim. Light was so
slow
.

Woodbridge turned back to her. “Kim,” he said, “may I ask you a personal question?”

“Of course.”

“Do you have
any
idea what happened to Emily?”

It was a strange question, coming apparently from nowhere. But maybe not, now that she thought about it. Emily would have wanted to be here tonight. Woodbridge had known her, and he understood that about her. “No,” Kim said. “She got in that taxi and never showed up at the hotel. That’s all I know.” She looked past the telescopes. Lyra’s mother had decided it was too cold to stay out any longer, and she was ushering the child inside. “We never heard a word.”

Woodbridge nodded. “It’s hard to understand how something like that could happen.” They lived in a society in which crime was almost unknown.

“I know. It was hard on the family.” She pulled her collar higher to ward off the night air. “She’d have supported Beacon, but she would have been impatient with it.”

“Why?”

“Takes too long. We’re trying to say hello in a scientific way, but nobody expects a reply for millennia. At best. She’d have wanted results tonight.”

“What about you?”

“What about what?”

“How do you feel about all this? I can’t believe you’re satisfied with Beacon either.”

She looked at the sky.
Utterly empty, as far as the eye can
see.
“Canon,” she said, “I’d like to know the truth. But it isn’t something that drives my life.”
I am not my sister.

“I feel much the same way. But I must admit I’d prefer it if we’re alone. Much safer that way.”

Kim nodded. “Why did you ask?” she said. “About my sister?”

“No reason, really. You look so much alike. And you’re both so caught up in the same issue. In there tonight, listening to you, I almost felt she were back.”

 

Kim called a cab and went up to the roof. While she waited she checked her mail and found a message from Solly:
Don’t forget tomorrow.

Solly was one of the Institute’s pilots and a fellow diving enthusiast. They’d made plans several days ago to go down to the wreck of the
Caledonian
. That would be in the late afternoon, after the transmissions had come in from the
Trent
, and everyone had celebrated properly, and the media people had gone off to put together their stories.

Kim had visited the wreck before. The
Caledonian
was a fishing yacht, lying in twenty fathoms, on the seaward side of Capelo Island. She liked the sense of timelessness the sunken ship evoked, the feeling that she was living simultaneously in different eras. The excursion would also provide a break from the long hours and extended effort of the last few weeks.

The cab landed and she climbed in, touched her bracelet to the dex, and told it to take her home. It lifted, arced around toward the east, and accelerated. She heard the
blatt
of a horn as she left, a final farewell from someone celebrating either the blast or New Year’s. Then she was sailing over forest and parkland. Seabright’s towers in the north glittered with lights. The parks fell away into sandy beach and the cab arced out over the sea.

Greenway was predominantly a water world. Its single continent was Equatoria, and Seabright lay on its eastern coast. At its widest, it was just over seven hundred kilometers across. The globe-spanning ocean had no name.

The cab skimmed low over the water, crossed Bagby Inlet and the hotball courts on Branch Island. It sailed out beyond the channel, passed a couple of yachts, and began its approach to Korbee Island, a two-kilometer-long strip of land so narrow that many of its houses had ocean views front and back.

Kim’s home, like most of the others in the area, was a modest two-story with a wraparound lower deck. It was rounded at the corners to counter the force of the winds that blew almost constantly off the ocean.

The cab descended onto her landing pad, which was located behind the house on a platform elevated over the incoming tide. She climbed down and stood wearily for a moment, listening to the sea. The rest of the island seemed dark and silent except for the Dickensons, who were still celebrating the new year. Out on the beach, she could see a campfire. Kids.

It had been a long day and she was tired and glad to be home. But she suspected her weariness was not a result of the sixteen or so hours that had passed since she’d left home this morning; rather it had risen from her knowledge that she’d come to the end of something important. Beacon had been launched, and the public relations aspect of it would be given over to someone else. She would go back to her regular fund-raising duties. Damned poor career for an astrophysicist. The reality was that she didn’t sparkle at her specialty, but she
did
have a talent for talking people into giving substantial contributions.

Damn.

She started toward the house and the taxi lifted off. Lights came on. The door opened for her.
“Good evening, Kim,”
said Shepard.
“I see the program went well.”
Shepard was the household AI.

“Yes, it did, Shep. As far as we know, everything’s on schedule.” Like all AIs, Shepard was theoretically not self-aware. Everything was simulation. True artificial intelligence remained beyond the reach of science, and the common wisdom now held that it was impossible. But one
was never sure where simulation ended. “Of course we won’t really know for another twelve hours.”

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