In the twenty-second century, starflight is possible but hugely expensive, so humankind's efforts are focused on Isis, a verdant, Earth-like world only a few lightyears away. But every molecule of Isian life is spectacularly toxic to human beings. The entire planet is a permanent Level Four "hot zone."
Despite that, Isis is the most interesting discovery of the millennium: a parallel biology with lessons to teach us about our own nature. It's also the hardest of hardship posts, the loneliest place in the universe.
Zoe Fisher was born to explore Isis. Literally. Cloned and genetically engineered by a faction within the hothouse politics of Earth, Zoe is optimized to face Isis's terrors. Now at last Zoe has arrived there. But there are secrets implanted within her that not even she suspects...and the planet itself has secrets that will change our understanding of life in the universe.
|Publisher:||Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.78(w) x 8.65(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Robert Charles Wilson was born in California and grew up in Canada. He is the author of many acclaimed SF novels, including A Hidden Place, The Divide, Gypsies, Bios, Darwinia, and The Chronoliths. His work has won the John W. Campbell Award, the Aurora Award, and two Philip K. Dick Awards. He lives near Toronto.
Read an Excerpt
Decanted unconscious into the almost windowless environment of the Isis Orbital Station, Zoe longed for a glimpse of her new world. Wanted it so badly, in fact, that she was contemplating a serious breach of protocol.
She could prompt the image of Isis onto any local screen, of course. And she had seen such images for much of her life, often dailyimages either relayed to Sol from the IOS or captured by the planetary interferometer.
But that wasn't enough. She was here, after all: scant hundreds of kilometers from the surface of the planet itself, Low Isis Orbit. She had traveled farther in an instant than a conventional spacefarer could hope to travel in a lifetime. She had arrived at the very edge of the human diaspora, the dizzying brink of the abyssal deeps, and she deserved a direct look at the planet that had drawn her so far from homedidn't she?
In the old days, astronomers had talked about "first light" the fresh view through a brand-new optical instrument. Zoe had looked at Isis through every kind of optical instrument, barring her own eyes. Now she wanted that direct view, her own personal first light.
Instead, she had spent three days in the IOS's infirmary under useless observation and a week haunting her assigned cabin while waiting for a place on the duty roster. Ten days from decantation, ten days without orders, agenda, or more than a brief word from management. She had seen to date only the gently concave walls and steel floors of her cubby and the recovery ward in Medical. The sole officialcommunications she had received were a list of meal hours, an access code, her residence number, and a name badge.
Consequently, Zoe summoned her courage and scheduled an appointment with Kenyon Degrandpre, the outpost manager. She was awed at her own impertinence. Probably she should have talked to her section chief first ... but no one had told her who her section chief was or how to find him.
The Isis Orbital Station had been assembled from the shells of early model Higgs spheres in a ring-of-pearls configuration. The maps posted on the corridor walls reminded Zoe of the benzene rings illustrated in chemistry texts, with the outpost's fusion bottles and heat exchangers projecting like complex side chains from the symmetrical core. On the morning of her appointment with Degrandpre, Zoe left her tiny cabin at the bottom of Habitat Seven and walked the ring corridor a kilometer spinward, nearly half the total circumference of the IOS. The ring corridor smelled of hot metal and cycled atmosphere, like a Kuiper habitat, but without the ever-present tang of ice in the air. Bulkhead doors loomed like massive guillotine blades; the gangways were narrow and possessed neither charm nor windows. This place was not as emotionally and culturally blank as Phoenix had been, but neither was it a typical Kuiper world, full of color and noisy with children. The Terrestrial esthetic prevailed: linear functionality, enforced by strict cargo limitations.
Windows were a luxury, Zoe supposed. According to the IOS plan she'd reviewed on her terminal, the project manager's office possessed one of the station's few accessible direct-view windows, a wedge of three-inch-thick polarized glass set into the exterior wall. The rest of the station's windows were tiny ports cut into the docking bays, an area for which Zoe was not yet authorized. But that was irrelevant, she told herself. She had business with Degrandpre. The window was just ... a perquisite.
From the name, she had expected someone almost Familyweren't there Degrandpres among the Brazilian landholders?but Kenyon Degrandpre was not a handsome or an imposing man. A manager of some rank, but never Family. His head was too long, his nose too flat. Zoe's experience with the upper echelons of the Trusts had taught her that handsome managers might be capable of a certain generosity; ugly menalthough Degrandpre didn't quite fit that description either, at least not by Terrestrial standardswere more likely to read regulations and nurse grudges. She knew for a fact, had known all her life, that rigid personalities were a staple in the bureaucracies of the Trusts. But surely the man who managed the Isis Orbital Station, in effect the Isis Project itself, must be more flexible. Mustn't he?
Maybe not. Degrandpre raised his big head briefly and waved Zoe to a chair, but his attention remained on his desktop.
Zoe stood near the window instead. It wasn't much of a window. She supposed the brutal payload limitations of the Higgs launchers made even this small luxury prohibitively expensive. Still, here was her first genuinely direct view of the planet below. Unmediated light, Zoe thought excitedly. First light.
The IOS had just crossed the planet's terminator. The long light of dawn picked out clouds in vivid chiaroscuro. Across the dark zone, lightning flickered, embers on velvet.
Zoe had seen planets before. She had seen Earth from orbit, a view not dissimilar. She'd spent a year on Europa learning pressure lab technique, and the vast orb of Jupiter had filled more of the sky far more dramatically.
But this was Isis. That glitter of sunlight came from a star not Earth's. Here was a living world that had never seen a naked human footprint, a world strange and alive, rich with biology; a swarming waterdrop orbiting a foreign sun. As lovely as Earth. And infinitely more deadly.
"Is there an issue," Degrandpre said at last, "or have you come to stare? You wouldn't be the first, Citizen Fisher."
Degrandpre's voice had the bite of Terrestrial authority. His English was finely honed. Zoe thought she heard a touch of Beijing Elite School in the understated consonants.
She took a breath. "I've been here ten days. Apart from the Habitat Seven physical regime director and the cafeteria staff, I haven't spoken to anyone in authority. I don't know who to report to. The people who are supposed to oversee my work directly are all on-planetwhich is where I ought to be."
Degrandpre tapped his stylus and sat back in his chair. His clothing was sere gray, the inevitable kacho uniform, a stiff black collar framing his thick peasant neck. Wooden chair, wooden desk, a plush carpet, and a multilayered dress uniform; all of this would have been shipped from Earth, at an expense Zoe shuddered to consider. He asked, "Do you feel neglected?"
"No, not neglected. I just wanted to make certain"
"That we haven't forgotten you."
"Well ... yes, Manager."
Degrandpre continued to tap his stylus against the desktop, a sound that made Zoe think of ice cracking in a warm glass. He seemed as much amused as irritated. "Let me ask you this, Citizen Fisher. In an outpost of this size, with every gram accounted for and every sou budgeted, do you really suppose people get lost?"
She reddened. "I wasn't thinking of it that way."
"In the last six weeks, we've conducted four shuttle exchanges with the downstations. Each exchange calls for lengthy quarantine and elaborate sterile docking protocols. Flights are scheduled months in advance. You people arrive thinking the Higgs launch was the bottleneck and that a trip downside must be a holiday jaunt by comparison. Not so. I'm aware of your presence and your purpose, and you have a place, obviously, on the rotation list. But our first priority has to be resupply and maintenance. You must understand that."
But you knew I was coming, Zoe thought. Why didn't the schedule reflect that? Or had there been delays she didn't know about? "Beg pardon, Manager Degrandpre, but I haven't even seen an agenda. When am I scheduled to drop?"
"You'll be notified. Is that all?"
"Well ... yes, sir." Now that she'd looked through the window.
Degrandpre eyed his rapidly scrolling desktop. "I have a delegation from Yambuku waiting outside. People you'll be working with. You might as well stay and listen. Meet your colleagues." He said this as if he had made a grand concession. Planned, of course, in advance. It was one of those kacho maneuvers the bureaucrats loved so much. Surprise the opposition; never be surprised.
Zoe said, "Yambuku?"
"Downstation Delta. Delta is called Yambuku; Gamma is Marburg."
"Yambuku" and "Marburg" were the first identified strains of the hemorrhagic fever that had devastated twenty-first-century Earth. A microbiologist's joke. Most likely a Kuiper microbiologist's joke. The Terrestrial sense of humor was limited in that department.
"Sit," Degrandpre said. "Pay attention. Try not to talk. You may continue looking out the window if you like."
She ignored his sarcasm and did exactly that.
Dawn had reached the scattered island chains of the Western Sea. A dark plume of ejecta, like soot, trailed from an active volcano. The Greater Continental Mass wheeled into view, dense with temperate and boreal forests. Sunlight glinted from an ancient blue crater lake here, glanced off a fringe of polar ice there. Cloudtops white as cut diamonds.
And all of it as lethal as arsenic.
Her new home.
* * *
Two men and a woman shuffled into the room and occupied the conference table. Zoe continued to linger by the window. She didn't need Degrandpre's advice to keep quiet; she found crowded rooms intimidating.
Kenyon Degrandpre introduced the new arrivals as Tam Hayes, Elam Mather, and Dieter Franklin, all from Yambuku Station, all up on the latest shuttle.
Zoe recognized Hayes from photos. He was the Delta station manager and the Isis Project's senior biologistsenior in status, not in age. Hayes was a relatively young man despite his five years on Isis rotation, handsome in a rough way. He needed a haircut, Zoe thought. His beard was like tangled copper. A typical disheveled Kuiper-born scientist, in other words. The other two weren't much different.
Hayes thrust his hand at her. "Zoe Fisher! We were hoping to meet you."
Zoe took his hand reluctantly. She didn't like touching people. Hadn't Hayes been briefed on that, or didn't he care? Her hand disappeared into his meaty grip. "Dr. Hayes," she murmured, concealing her uneasiness.
"Please, call me Tam. I gather we'll be working together."
"You can get to know each other later," Degrandpre said. To Zoe: "Dr. Hayes and his people have been vetting proposed archival material for transmission to Earth."
Zoe followed the exchange between Hayes and Degrandpre closely, trying to sort out the conflicts. The particle-pair link to Earth was such a narrow pipeline, so severely bandwidth-limited, that project downloads were hotly contested and had to undergo a kind of information triage. Degrandpre was the final arbiter. So here was Hayes, the Yambuku project leader, delivering an impatient summary of his group's packet data, and Degrandpre playing the infuriating role of ultimate Trust bureaucrat: aloof, bored, skeptical. He fiddled with his stylus and crossed his legs and periodically asked Hayes to clarify some point that had been perfectly obvious to begin with. Finally he said, "Show me the visuals." Holographs and photos were particularly expensive to transmit, but they took the place of voucher specimens and were often popular in the press back home.
A large central screeen unfurled from the ceiling.
The images in the Yambuku packet were micrographs of viruses, bacteria, prions, and biologically active protein chains, all of them "ALC," as Hayes put it: Awaiting Latin Cognomen. There was also a series of conventional photographs to illustrate a journal submission from one of his junior biologists. Degrandpre asked, "More exploding mice?"
Zoe had never heard the expression.
Judging by the look on his face, Hayes disliked it. "Live-animal exposures, yes."
"Ramp them up, please, Dr. Hayes."
Hayes used a handheld scroll to order up the images from the IOS's central memory. Zoe caught Degrandpre glancing at her curiously. Gauging her reaction? If so, why?
Elam Mather, a thick-faced woman in lab grays, stood up to narrate the images. Her voice was strong and impatient.
"The concept here was to sort ambient Isian microorganisms through a series of micron filters in order to evaluate their lethality and mode of action. We took a sample of air from outside the station, near dusk on a calm, dry day. Meteorological notes are appended. Crude assay gave us a load of organic matter and the usual assortment of water droplets, silicate dust, and so forth. One sample was forced through a filter and injected into an isolation chamber containing a clonal mouse of the CIBA-thirty-seven strain."
An image came up on the screen.
Zoe looked at it, swallowed, and looked away.
"The result," Elam Mather said, "was essentially the same as for unfiltered native air. Within minutes, the mouse had spiked a fever and before two hours had passed it was bleeding internally. Systemic collapse, bleedout and tissue deliquescence followed rapidly. More than a dozen foreign microbial species were cultured from the mouse's blood; again, the usual suspects.
"The next sample went through a finer screening. On Earth, that would remove all spores and bacteria, but not viruses or prions.
"The second exposed mouse also diedobviouslybut the onset of the toxemia was slightly more gradual. The outcome, however, was the same."
A mix of fur and muscle tissue in a pool of deliquescent black liquid. The CIBA-37 mouse might as well have been popped into a food processor. Probably, Zoe thought, that would have been kinder.
The sight of the dead creature affected her more than she expected. Her throat constricted and she wondered if she might have to vomit.
She narrowed her eyes in order to avoid the rest of the photographs while pretending to look at them. The research duplicated, confirmed, and extended earlier work; there was nothing very novel about it. Either Degrandpre had wanted to see it himself, or he had wanted Zoe to see it.
Because I'm not a microbiologist, Zoe thought. He sees me as some pampered Terrestrial theoretician. As if I didn't know what I was getting into!
"Even with microfine HEPA filtration, clonal mice eventually sickened after repeated exposure to native air. In this case, we're looking at dusts and protein fragments perhaps triggering an allergenic reaction, not the full hemorrhagic blowout, but still a deadly hazard...."
The man named Dieter Franklin said laconically, "The planet is trying to kill us. But we proved that long ago. The surprising thing is how hard it's trying to kill us."
Degrandpre shot Zoe one more glance, as if to say, "You see? Isis will kill you if you let it."
Zoe remained expressionless. She didn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing she was afraid.
She ran into Tam Hayes in the cafeteria a day later.
The cafeteria was as spartan as every other chamber in the IOSsteel deck assembled by Turing constructors, welded seams exposed, the chairs and trestle tables flimsy and makeshift. This was inevitable in an environment where every manufactured object was either shipped in from Earth at obscene expense or pieced together by Turing factories on Isis's Diemos-sized moon. At least the cafeteria had been decorated. Some artistic soul had grooved the flat inner walls with an assembly etcher, wasting time and energy, Zoe supposed, but not essential supplies. The far wall was a Celtic tapestry of knotted lines, with Kuiper clan signs worked discreetly into the design. Pretty enough, she thought, if vaguely subversive.
Unfortunately, the overhead lights were naked sulfur-microwave dots; they made the food look as bright and false as polystyrene.
"'Morning, Dr. Fisher." Hayes came up behind her carrying a thermal bowl of glutinous flavinoid soup. "Mind if I join you?"
"Morning?" Dinnertime, by Zoe's clock.
"I'm keeping Yambuku time. Sun's just coming up over the lowlands, unless it's raining. You'll see it soon enough yourself."
"I'm looking forward to it. I haven't seen much from orbit."
"They're stingy with windows. But the live relays are almost as good."
"I saw camera feeds back home."
He nodded. "IOS fever. I know the feeling. Suffered from it myself once." He settled into a chair opposite her. "You want the real thing. But Yambuku's much the same, I'm afraid. Isis is right there under your feet, but you're still utterly isolated from it. Sometimes I dream of walking outsidewithout excursion armor, I mean." He added, "I envy you, Dr. Fisher. Sooner or later, you'll have that experience."
"Call me Zoe." He obviously preferred Kuiper-style informality or he wouldn't be here talking to her.
He offered his handagain. She took it reluctantly. His hand was dry; hers was moist. He said, "I'm Tam."
She knew all about him from her prep reading. Hayes ran Yambuku from the ground. He was a technical manager and microbiologist, exiled from some puritanical Kuiper colony because he had dared to sign a contract with the Trusts.
He was thirty-five years old. Real years: he hadn't taken rejuvenation treatments. Zoe found herself drawn to the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, amiable contour maps. Like Theo's eye lines, but less harsh, less etched.
"You envy me," she said, "but Kenyon Degrandpre seems to think I'm doomed."
"Well, Degrandpre.... IOS politics mean nothing to me, but Degrandpre is old Terrestrial stock. No insult intended. He's a manager, a kacho. He'd be happy if nothing ever changed here. Keep the equilibrium, balance the books, save face, that's his agenda. Don't expect sympathy from Kenyon Degrandpre."
"It seemed like he was trying to frighten me."
"Did it work?"
He meant the remark jokingly, but Zoe was startled.
Because, yes. She was frightened.
She was, now that she came to admit it, so frightened that the food stuck in her throat and her stomach clenched like a fist.
More frightened than she had thought possible.
"Zoe?" Hayes frowned across the table. "Are you all right?"
She controlled herself. "Yes."
Just waiting for her thymostat to do its work, to wash her in some soothing bath of neurotransmitters. It would happen, Zoe was sure, if she was only patient enough. The fear would go away, and she would be normal again.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Interesting early novel from RCW about first contact provides a sobering and fascinating explanation for the apparent dearth of intelligent life in the universe. Particularly grim, especially towards the end, this is like an SF version of 'Being Dead' by Jim Crace. Also a good antidote to the gung ho Avatar.
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