The intriguing story of how a bold but tiny group of beleaguered humanity—financed by a rogue billionaire—undertake the top-secret colonization of a nearby star system In this collection of sci-fi stories, heralded writer Carter Scholz explores a variety of sociopolitical themes. In the novella Gypsy, a few visionary scientists, chosen and nurtured by an eccentric billionaire undertake humankind’s most expansive adventure—a generations-long voyage to a distant planet. The story “The Nine Billion Names of God” uses a classic sci-fi text to deconstruct literary deconstruction itself, with hilarious results. “Imprecations” is an unforgiving examination of the primary lies in popular culture. An interview with the author, in which Scholz reveals his sources, frustrations, forbidden delights, and demonic designs, is also included.
About the Author
Carter Scholz is an acclaimed science fiction writer and the author of The Amount to Carry and Radiance. He lives in Berkeley, California.
Read an Excerpt
By Carter Scholz
PM PressCopyright © 2015 Gypsy, Carter Scholz
All rights reserved.
The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.
When a long shot is all you have, you're a fool not to take it.
— Romany saying
The launch of Earth's first starship went unremarked. The crew gave no interviews. No camera broadcast the hard light pulsing from its tail. To the plain eye, it might have been a common airplane.
The media battened on multiple wars and catastrophes. The Arctic Ocean was open sea. Florida was underwater. Crises and opportunities intersected.
World population was something over ten billion. No one was really counting anymore. A few billion were stateless refugees. A few billion more were indentured or imprisoned.
Oil reserves, declared as recently as 2010 to exceed a trillion barrels, proved to be an accounting gimmick, gone by 2020. More difficult and expensive sources — tar sands in Canada and Venezuela, natural gas fracking — became primary, driving up atmospheric methane and the price of fresh water.
The countries formerly known as the Third World stripped and sold their resources with more ruthless abandon than their mentors had. With the proceeds they armed themselves.
The US was no longer the global hyperpower, but it went on behaving as if. Generations of outspending the rest of the world combined had made this its habit and brand: arms merchant to expedient allies, former and future foes alike, starting or provoking conflicts more or less at need, its constant need being, as always, resources. Its waning might was built on a memory of those vast native reserves it had long since expropriated and depleted, and a sense of entitlement to more. These overseas conflicts were problematic and carried wildly unintended consequences. As the president of Venezuela put it just days before his assassination, "It's dangerous to go to war against your own asshole."
The starship traveled out of our solar system at a steep angle to the ecliptic plane. It would pass no planets. It was soon gone. Going South.
Trying to rise up out of the cold sinking back into a dream of rising up out of the. Stop, stop it now. Shivering. So dark. So thirsty. Momma? Help me?
* * *
Her parents were wealthy. They had investments, a great home, they sent her to the best schools. They told her how privileged she was. She'd always assumed this meant she would be okay forever. She was going to be a poet.
It was breathtaking how quickly it went away, all that okay. Her dad's job, the investments, the college tuition, the house. In two years, like so many others they were penniless and living in their car. She left unfinished her thesis on Louis Zukofsky's last book, 80 Flowers. She changed her major to Information Science, slept with a loan officer, finished grad school half a million in debt, and immediately took the best-paying job she could find, at Xocket Defense Systems. Librarian. She hadn't known that defense contractors hired librarians. They were pretty much the only ones who did anymore. Her student loan was adjustable rate — the only kind offered. As long as the rate didn't go up, she could just about get by on her salary. Best case, she'd have it paid off in thirty years. Then the rate doubled. She lost her apartment. XDS had huge dorms for employees who couldn't afford their own living space. Over half their workforce lived there. It was indentured servitude.
Yet she was lucky, lucky. If she'd been a couple of years younger she wouldn't have finished school at all. She'd be fighting in Burma or Venezuela or Kazakhstan.
At XDS she tended the library's firewalls, maintained and documented software, catalogued projects, fielded service calls from personnel who needed this or that right now, or had forgotten a password, or locked themselves out of their own account. She learned Unix, wrote cron scripts and daemons and Perl routines. There was a satisfaction in keeping it all straight. She was a serf, but they needed her and they knew it, and that knowledge sustained in her a hard small sense of freedom. She thought of Zukofsky, teaching for twenty years at Brooklyn Polytech. It was almost a kind of poetry, the vocabulary of code.
* * *
Chirping. Birds? Were there still birds?
No. Tinnitus. Her ears ached for sound in this profound silence. Created their own.
* * *
She was a California girl, an athlete, a hiker, a climber. She'd been all over the Sierra Nevada, had summited four 14,000-footers by the time she was sixteen. She loved the backcountry. Loved its stark beauty, solitude, the life that survived in its harshness: the pikas, the marmots, the mountain chickadees, the heather and whitebark pine and polemonium.
After joining XDS, it became hard for her to get to the mountains. Then it became impossible. In 2035 the Keep Wilderness Wild Act shut the public out of the national parks, the national forests, the BLM lands. The high country above timberline was surveilled by satellites and drones, and it was said that mining and fracking operators would shoot intruders on sight, and that in the remotest areas, like the Enchanted Gorge and the Muro Blanco, lived small nomadic bands of malcontents. She knew enough about the drones and satellites to doubt it; no one on Earth could stay hidden anywhere for more than a day.
The backcountry she mourned was all Earth to her. To lose it was to lose all Earth. And to harden something final inside her.
One day Roger Fry came to her attention — perhaps it was the other way round — poking in her stacks where he didn't belong. That was odd; the login and password had been validated, the clearance was the highest, there was no place in the stacks prohibited to this user; yet her alarms had tripped. By the time she put packet sniffers on it he was gone. In her e-mail was an invitation to visit a website called Gypsy.
When she logged in, she understood at once. It thrilled her and frightened her. They were going to leave the planet. It was insane. Yet she felt the powerful seduction of it. How starkly its plain insanity exposed the greater consensus insanity the planet was now living. That there was an alternative —!
* * *
She sat up on the slab. Slowly unwrapped the mylar bodysuit, disconnected one by one its drips and derms and stents and catheters and waldos and sensors. Let it drift crinkling to the floor.
Her breathing was shallow and ragged. Every few minutes she gasped for air and her pulse raced. The temperature had been raised to 20°C as she came to, but still she shivered. Her body smelled a way it had never smelled before. Like vinegar and nail polish. It looked pale and flabby, but familiar. After she'd gathered strength, she reached under the slab, found a sweatshirt and sweatpants, and pulled them on. There was also a bottle of water. She drank it all.
The space was small and dark and utterly silent. No ports, no windows. Here and there, on flat black walls, glowed a few pods of LEDs. She braced her hands against the slab and stood up, swaying. Even in the slight gravity her heart pounded. The ceiling curved gently away a handsbreadth above her head, and the floor curved gently upward. Unseen beyond the ceiling was the center of the ship, the hole of the donut, and beyond that the other half of the slowly spinning torus. Twice a minute it rotated, creating a centripetal gravity of one tenth g. Any slower would be too weak to be helpful. Any faster, gravity would differ at the head and the feet enough to cause vertigo. Under her was the outer ring of the water tank, then panels of aerogel sandwiched within sheets of hydrogenous carbon-composite, then a surrounding jacket of liquid hydrogen tanks, and then interstellar space.
What had happened? Why was she awake?
* * *
Look, over seventy plus years, systems will fail. We can't rely on auto-repair. With a crew of twenty, we could wake one person every few years to perform maintenance.
And put them back under? Hibernation is dicey enough without trying to do it twice.
Yes, it's a risk. What's the alternative?
What about failsafes? No one gets wakened unless a system is critical. Then we wake a specialist. A steward.
That could work.
* * *
She walked the short distance to the ship's console and sat. It would have been grandiose to call it a bridge. It was a small desk bolted to the floor. It held a couple of monitors, a keyboard, some pads. It was like the light and sound booth of a community theater.
She wished she could turn on more lights. There were no more. Their energy budget was too tight. They had a fission reactor onboard but it wasn't running. It was to fire the nuclear rocket at their arrival. It wouldn't last seventy-two years if they used it for power during their cruise.
Not far from her — nothing on the ship was far from her — were some fifty kilograms of plutonium pellets — not the Pu-239 of fission bombs, but the more energetic Pu-238. The missing neutron cut the isotope's half-life from twenty-five thousand years to eighty-eight years and made it proportionately more radioactive. That alpha radiation was contained by iridium cladding and a casing of graphite, but the pellets still gave off heat, many kilowatts' worth. Most of that heat warmed the ship's interior to its normal temperature of 4°C. Enough of it was channeled outward to keep the surrounding water liquid in its jacket, and the outer tanks of hydrogen at 14 Kelvins, slush, maximally dense. The rest of the heat ran a Stirling engine to generate electricity.
First she read through the protocols, which she had written: Stewards' logs to be read by each wakened steward. Kept in the computers, with redundant backups, but also kept by hand, ink on paper, in case of system failures, a last-chance critical backup. And because there is something restorative about writing by hand.
There were no stewards' logs. She was the first to be wakened.
They were only two years out. Barely into the Oort cloud. She felt let down. What had gone wrong so soon?
All at once she was ravenous. She stood, and the gravity differential hit her. She steadied herself against the desk, then took two steps to the storage bay. Three quarters of the ship was storage. What they would need at the other end. What Roger called pop-up civilization. She only had to go a step inside to find a box of MREs. She took three, and put one into the microwave. The smell of it warming made her mouth water and her stomach heave. Her whole body trembled as she ate. Immediately she put a second into the microwave. As she waited for it, she fell asleep.
* * *
She saw Roger, what must have happened to him after that terrible morning when they received his message: Go. Go now. Go at once.
He was wearing an orange jumpsuit, shackled to a metal table.
How did you think you could get away with it, Fry?
I did get away with it. They've gone.
But we've got you.
That doesn't matter. I was never meant to be aboard.
Where are they going?
Alpha Centauri. (He would pronounce it with the hard K.)
Very likely. But that's where they're going.
It's less impossible than here.
* * *
When she opened her eyes, her second meal had cooled, but she didn't want it. Her disused bowels protested. She went to the toilet and strained but voided only a trickle of urine. Feeling ill, she hunched in the dark, small space, shivering, sweat from her armpits running down her ribs. The smell of her urine mixed with the toilet's chemicals and the sweetly acrid odor of her long fast.
pleine de l'âcre odeur des temps, poudreuse et noire full of the acrid smell of time, dusty and black
Baudelaire. Another world. With wonder she felt it present itself. Consciousness was a mystery. She stared into the darkness, fell asleep again on the pot.
* * *
Again she saw Roger shackled to the metal table. A door opened and he looked up.
Your ship, your crew, your people — they don't exist. No one will ever know about them.
Roger was silent.
The ones remaining here, the ones who helped you — you're thinking we can't keep them all quiet. We can. We're into your private keys. We know everyone who was involved. We'll round them up. The number's small enough. After all your work, Roger, all their years of effort, there will be nothing but a few pathetic rumors and conspiracy theories. All those good people who helped you will be disappeared forever. Like you. How does that make you feel?
They knew the risks. For them it was already over. Like me.
Over? Oh, Roger. We can make "over" last a long time.
Still, we did it. They did it. They know that.
You're not hearing me, Roger. I said we've changed that.
The ship is out there.
No. I said it's not. Repeat after me. Say it's not, Roger.
* * *
BUFFER OVERFLOW. So that was it. Their datastream was not being received. Sophie had done much of the information theory design work. An energy-efficient system approaching Shannon's limit for channel capacity. Even from Alpha C it would be only ten joules per bit.
The instruments collected data. Magnetometer, spectrometers, plasma analyzer, cosmic-ray telescope, Cerenkov detector, et cetera. Data was queued in a transmit buffer and sent out more or less continuously at a low bit rate. The protocol was designed to be robust against interference, dropped packets, interstellar scintillation, and the long latencies imposed by their great distance and the speed of light.
* * *
They'd debated even whether to carry communications.
What's the point? We're turning our backs on them.
Roger was insistent: Are we scientists? This is an unprecedented chance to collect data in the heliopause, the Oort cloud, the interstellar medium, the Alpha system itself. Astrometry from Alpha, reliable distances to every star in our galaxy — that alone is huge.
Sending back data broadcasts our location.
So? How hard is it to follow a nuclear plasma trail to the nearest star? Anyway, they'd need a ship to follow. We have the only one.
You say the Earth situation is terminal. Who's going to receive this data?
* * *
So: Shackleton Crater. It was a major comm link anyway, and its site at the south pole of the Moon assured low ambient noise and permanent line of sight to the ship. They had a Gypsy there — one of their tribe — to receive their data.
The datastream was broken up into packets, to better weather the long trip home. Whenever Shackleton received a packet, it responded with an acknowledgement, to confirm reception. When the ship received that ACK signal — at their present distance, that would be about two months after a packet was transmitted — the confirmed packet was removed from the transmit queue to make room for new data. Otherwise the packet went back to the end of the queue, to be retransmitted later. Packets were time-stamped, so they could be reassembled into a consecutive datastream no matter in what order they were received.
But no ACK signals had been received for over a year. The buffer was full. That's why she was awake.
They'd known the Shackleton link could be broken, even though it had a plausible cover story of looking for SETI transmissions from Alpha C. But other Gypsies on Earth should also be receiving. Someone should be acknowledging. A year of silence!
Going back through computer logs, she found there'd been an impact. Eight months ago something had hit the ship. Why hadn't that wakened a steward?
It had been large enough to get through the forward electromagnetic shield. The shield deflected small particles which, over decades, would erode their hull. The damage had been instantaneous. Repair geckos responded in the first minutes. Since it took most of a day to rouse a steward, there would have been no point.
Maybe the impact hit the antenna array. She checked and adjusted alignment to the Sun. They were okay. She took a routine spectrograph and measured the Doppler shift.
No. Their velocity should be 0.067 c.
Twelve years. It added twelve years to their cruising time.
She studied the ship's logs as that sank in. The fusion engine had burned its last over a year ago, then was jettisoned to spare mass.
Why hadn't a steward awakened before her? The computer hadn't logged any problems. Engine function read as normal; the sleds that held the fuel had been emptied one by one and discarded as the fuel had been burned — all as planned. So, absent other problems, the lower velocity alone hadn't triggered an alert. Stupid!
Think. They'd begun to lag only in the last months of burn. Some ignitions must have failed or underperformed. It was probably antiproton decay in the triggers. Nothing could have corrected that. Good thinking, nice fail.
It angered her. The impact and the low velocity directly threatened their survival, and no alarms went off. But loss of comms, that set off alarms, that was important to Roger. Who was never meant to be on board. He's turned his back on humanity, but he still wants them to hear all about it. And to hell with us.
Excerpted from Gypsy by Carter Scholz. Copyright © 2015 Gypsy, Carter Scholz. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Nine Billion Names of God,
The United States of Impunity,
"Gear. Food. Rocks." Outspoken Interview with Carter Scholz,
About the Author,