Subject S.K.S./915265-002—memory complex 00238521787
With a word she lifted the blackout on the far wall. All at once, was the city.
It was a superhuman vista before and beneath her—the view from the 171st floor of the Raheja Helium hadn’t gotten ordinary yet. It might never have, but this was one of the last times she’d ever take the time to look at it. Swastika Shah would cherish the memory.
The sunset over the Mahim Bay turned the water and dust in the air into diffuse fire. Every few minutes the glass of one of the old traditional skyscrapers below caught the sun’s reflection in a great flare of light, burning for long minutes before the Earth slouched to the east and extinguished them. They had their place in the mosaic of her city, but she barely noticed them at all.
Her eyes were level, watching the half dozen glittery prismatic jewels claw their way up into the sky around her, modern, disjoint frames of transparent aluminum twisting and soaring, great tumescences, cathedrals to themselves. Within their crystalline hulks, the black and white boxes and tubes of rooms and offices and elevators and cables all appeared to hang in the air, borne curiously and magically, supported by nothing but the pressure of refracted light.
Soon the city would glow with its own, the active surface on each building radiating in its own idiosyncratic spectrum, each tiny automobile adding to the solid rivers of neon color that cut between the buildings and, for the past few years now, sped in discrete bits along the elevated magnetways that cost रू60,000 a month and you needed a specialized vehicle to drive on.
The Helium lifted her one thousand eighty meters above the Dahravi district, and from here Swastika could easily follow the magnet traffic over Bandra to the west, and ascending and descending over the bay. Once night fell, they would cluster like fireflies around the middle floors of the Raheja Xenon, right now the third-tallest building in the world. The Xenon was special, her favorite part of the city, and it stood over Mahim like a god’s discarded knife.
But she’d never actually been there. Never would. She imagined that from the inside there was no great quality that really separated it from where she already was. Mega-engineering, like all things, was best appreciated from a certain critical distance.
From here, the beauty of the city’s great buildings could hold her fascination for minutes. She loved standing at the window, looking at the Xenon as the planet turned its back on the light. The Xenon was a second sun, almost close enough to touch.
She would never be satisfied till she had the real thing. She knew this was surely the best sky Earth had to offer; she was a vyomanaut, waiting for her chance to see a better one.
She heard him approach; it had never been very easy to sneak up on her. Even when her mind was long gone somewhere else, her ears stayed put. Her hearing was excellent, but it didn’t have had to be to recognize him—Geoffrey was awkward in that American way, practically stomping across the living room, and he came in without any other warning.
The doors without locks were part of the experiment they had all agreed to take part in. Swastika realized—could imagine all too well—that the conditions on the other side would likely make the current arrangements seem private. It didn’t stop her from nursing a great annoyance at the company’s decision to test the seventy of them, to inoculate them to the others’ idioscyncracies and tics and odors and schedules. They’d redesigned the whole floor when they bought it a year ago, put them all in the same wing, in what was becoming a single increasingly cramped apartment.
Swastika was luckier than some in that she got a view. She was a candidate for the most important job on the ship, and the company’s embrace of meritocracy had few bounds.
She’d told herself she could handle anything for this. So far it was true. She was going to live to see glories—true glories, not the impressive but manufactured triumph of a milespire, but God’s own glories. She was going to Trisanku’s Heaven.
That was the name the company was using for the planet in the press materials, because Alpha Centauri B c
was an ugly, clinical mess, unlikely to inspire lots of public spending. By contrast, the mythological spaceman identified with the star resonated. She supposed it didn’t matter very much, and it wasn’t a decision she had any input in, but she might have pointed out that Trisanku was caught in an inferior heaven, between the divine inhospitality of Indra and the powers of an arrogant mortal sage. All the people here just called it what they’d always called it. When asked where they were going, they grinned, and they told you, “Alpha Cen.”
She knew already that whatever sacrifices were necessary were worth it; she’d known before she ever signed up; she’d known her whole life. Whatever happened on another planet, she didn’t quite see the need of this forced intimacy on Earth.
But listening to Geoff curse at inanimate objects in the kitchenette, she had to suppose it had its benefits.
Hanging weightlessly at eye-level, just above the upper reaches of the jut of Worli on the southern side of the bay, were two small windows contained in the active surface LED that covered every square meter of the apartment. One was a flightplan that she’d been agonizing over and hadn’t made headway on for six hours; the other was a music video that she didn’t find very interesting either. She casually closed the the former, knowing that she was even less likely to get anything done now. What she had managed to complete today had already been saved, backed up locally, and transmitted in full to five computer centers in four countries, every five seconds. She nodded her head in reluctant time with the listless Marathi woman singer, figuring that something better would have to come along eventually.
She’d realized some time ago that if the company had wanted to truly prepare them for the colonizing experience, they’d have cut off their Internet. Of course, then they’d have set the building on fire.
“This shit is awful,” grumbled the American with the cropped red hair as he rifled through her miniature refrigerator. “There’s nothing here! You’d make a terrible wife.”
“Good,” she called.
“And you’re still out of beer.” He slammed the fridge door and moved to the freezer section. “Thus, I am forced to take your liquor. Hope you don’t mind.”
He’d already seized a bottle of vodka from within the appliance, and picked up the two shot glasses she kept on top. He walked in to the study, and held them up to her triumphally, as if he had caught them in the wild.
And her annoyance faded, as it usually did with him, even when he was bearing gifts that he had stolen from her. Geoffrey was a whinger of the worst sort, but she liked him a lot. She’d known him six months, and living next door, he practically lived in her shadow. He liked to randomly come into her room as if he belonged there, and an angry reaction seemed to give him great joy.
Initially she’d believed that he’d had a crush on her. Maybe he did, but it was a transitory thing that rarely survived contact with his moods, or hers.
In the spirit of the experiment, and in the spirit of spirits, she’d slept with him a few times; the last was almost two months ago. He hadn’t mentioned that he’d like to again, but she could tell he would, if she wanted. It was not unlikely, in some decade or other, out of boredom or convenience or both. She was, at turns, thankful that there had been no specifically romantic attachment.
Yet she almost regretted that there weren’t any team members she felt more for. Some had felt much more—two contemplated children already—and, even if it caused problems later—it almost certainly would—it might have been better than the alternative. The alternative, in all likelihood, was an existence completely devoid of love, and perhaps the hope of love for the rest of her very long life.
She expected well over another three hundred years. A lot of that was cryonic sleep, but the bulk was still conscious existence, and she didn’t want to be lonely. She could still feel loneliness, if less keenly than others. It had occurred to her, however, that if she had been made a man, she could plausibly seek love out of the second generation, once they were grown. It was, she understood, less likely that she would have same option.
But Geoff would be there. He would always be there, and she would never have to be lonely—that was more than enough for resolution.
“What do you want, Colonel?” she asked easily. His military title was more unusual in this team than his origins in the western hemisphere. She used it because she knew, without knowing exactly why, that it rankled him a little bit. Harmless rankling was a favorite pastime of every team member.
But it didn’t faze him. He grinned at her, and said, “To celebrate.”
“You already have been. I can smell you over here. What’s the occasion, Geoffrey?”
He gave her a strange look, and said: “You can get used to calling me Launch Commander—Flight Commander.”
A persistent, shocked expression latched onto her face.
She finally managed nonsense. “You’re serious—really? I’m—”
He nodded slowly. “No one’s told you yet,” he said, as a statement of fact.
“No. I’ve been—I’ve been left alone. You’re the first person I’ve seen all day. ”
He set the bottle and the glasses down on the table next to the wall-spanning window. He chuckled. “Well, I’m not surprised. My guess is Kenagzai and Deshmukh are pissed.”
“Deshmukh wanted to be flight commander so badly. That poor girl.” She said it automatically and without any conviction—even almost cruelly. Geoff smiled. “When did this happen? I didn’t even think we’d been approved. I—”
“God, Swas, check your damn messages. Hell, check the news! This all happened, like, two hours ago.”
“I never watch the news,” she mumbled, still stunned.
“Well. Your Prime Minister finally got it through the Parliament’s thick heads that if they didn’t want to waste the trillion dollars—” She’d recovered somewhat, and now eyed him with a hint of disaproval. “Sorry, I still think in dollars, not your Zelda money—”
“Twelve lakh-crore rupees,” she supplied, smiling at her own purposeful unhelpfulness.
of money it’s already cost!” he said decisively. “Apparently, they finally realized that nobody gives a damn about nukes in space anymore. I mean, America hasn’t for three years—it’s about time your guys got with the program.”
“So, really? Earlier today? Just like that?” she asked.
“Yup. Your people move fast, when they want. Two months from now, we’ll be on our way to Alpha Cen.”
She was laughing, and something compelled her to embrace him with an ecstatic enthusiasm, palming the sides of his head and planting a kiss on the Colonel’s face that approached an act of violence. He was surprised enough to almost drop the bottle and the glasses. She forgot everything about Geoff that she didn’t like, and with a loud voice close to a yell, declared, “I love you, Launch Commander!”
“Shut up!” he shouted. “Calm down!” he added, now laughing as he removed the vodka to the relative safety on her desk. “You do?”
“Not usually, but I do right now!” she admitted, laughing too.
“You’d better learn to. It’ll be three hundred sixty days before we clear the solar system and you take charge. For a year, I will be your one and only God.”
“And for that year, I will be asleep,” she demurred warmly. She sat down at the desk, closed the embedded monitor, and tried to take it all in. On the edge of her awareness, one of her favorite songs was playing, centered around a familiar one-string riff.
“A year,” he muttered. “It was eighty days just to go to Titan. What’s four and a half times Hell?”
She raised her eyebrows in reproach. “You volunteered for the job, didn’t you?”
“First extrasolar mission in history, Swas?” he asked with a wide grin. “Hell yes
, I volunteered. I’m the only one who could handle it.”
She laughed with a bit of scoff, as he twisted open the bottle; she turned back to the window.
“It really is a pretty city from here,” he remarked.
She considered, and said, “Pretty city from anywhere, Geoffrey.”
“Nah. Too many people,” he replied, sitting across from her. “Are you going to miss it, Swas?”
“Home,” he clarified, pouring a shot into each glass.
“Do you think there’ll be people where we’re going? Cities?”
She thought about it. “I think I hope so.”
“You don’t know whether you hope or not?”
“No, I don’t.”
He thought about this for a moment, and decided, “That’s wise.” He chuckled to himself, and said, “I don’t hope, I just wonder. No, that’s not accurate—I worry.”
“What a surprise,” she said with a smirk.
He returned her expression, but continued undeterred. “First twenty floors of this building are a mall where a million people used to live. Salud,” he interjected, and he downed his drink. She hesitated, but followed suit, and he growled on. “God knows where they are now. Out in Ghandi Park, maybe. Maybe some other place. But not here. Not in the city. When we get to Alpha Cen, you figure we’re going to move whoever we find there too?”
She frowned, then realized he was at least half-joking, which in a way made it worse. She decided to simply ignore whatever point he was trying to make: “All we know is it’s a live planet with water and an atmosphere we can breathe.”
“All we know? It’s got animals. A green ecosystem provides too much incentive for free-riding, too much oxygen not to take advantage of. It has plants—and herbivores to eat the plants, and carnivores to eat them.”
“Don’t be so fantastic. They’re probably all bugs. A thirty percent oxygen atmosphere doesn’t suggest a massive animal population.”
“Are you kidding? It suggests massive animals. Full stop.”
“Do you want to see a dinosaur, Geoffrey?” she condescended.
“Yes,” he answered seriously. “You know that I love your accent?”
Somehow, the non sequitur made her blush, but he didn’t notice. “You’ve told me,” she said gently.
“At thirty percent oxygen, I just hope I don’t see a giant, man-eating centipede.”
She sighed. “You need to stop reading books about the Paleozoic.”
“You need to start! That’s where we’re going.”
“The biologists keep saying it’s not necessarily going to be analogous. Not even probably going to be. But, whatever way it goes—it’s why we’re bringing guns.”
“We should bring insecticides.”
“What are the odds they’d actually work? Right now, we don’t even know if their proteins are twisted the right way for us to eat. Which is why we’re bringing the seed garden and all that soil.” She frowned, adding, “I don’t want to have to farm.”
“Maybe we can get the natives to do it for us. After all, we’re bringing guns.”
“Stop saying things like that,” she told him.
“I’m kidding,” he answered.
“Even so. Besides—” She smiled again. “—Maybe they’ll have guns too.” Then she caught herself. “No, forget I said it,” she demanded, raising a hand against any imagined objection. “I don’t want to imagine it. I’ll only be disappointed.”
“You really think it’s so unlikely? Everything about that planet says that it’s had as long to build people as Earth has.”
“The odds of an intelligent species arising and then happening to build a civilization even in the same million years as us are ridiculously long. And if they were there, and remotely developed, we’d have noticed.” She sighed. “But—damn it, I do hope you’re right.”
“Oh yes. To be the first human to see a person from another world, Geoffrey... that would be worth everything. Even if it did eat me.”
“But stop getting my hopes up! No one’s home in Alpha Cen.”
“You’re basing that on what? Lack of radio waves? Deficit of carbon dioxide? So what?”
“That’s what the scientists figure on, and they say there can’t be any advanced civilization.”
“Maybe they’ve got the internet and fusion power, did you think of that?”
“If they had that, Geoff,” she said derisively, “they’d be visiting us.” Her lips curved into a small smile. “We could wave at them when we passed.”
“You’re not thinking time, Swas,” he said, shaking his head.
“I always think time. I’m the one in charge of hitting a bullseye on a dartboard here with a dart I threw from Mars, remember.”
“But you’re not thinking time. It’s more than half a century to Alpha Cen.”
“The day before the industrial revolution started, you couldn’t have seen the signs of our civilization from four light years.” He grinned. “If they built their first factory tomorrow, what could we expect by the time we got there? Airborne aliens. Atomic
aliens.” He poured two more shots. “And that’s only if they’re as dumb as we expect an intelligent species to be—from our sample size of one. Hell, imagine if they’re smarter.
” He picked up his glass.
“Well, with the current average in this room, I wouldn’t be surprised—I think you’re a little drunk,” she said happily.
“It’s a work in progress. Salud.”