Terry’s microprocessor was small, just under 300 gigabytes, inadequate by an accident of unfortunately low birth.
The high tech kids of the Solartech lords get twice that year one, three upgrades before they download the pricey Harvard discs at 14. I had all that and more, and I used to think it was important.
But Terry had what really mattered.
Terry was trained as a transport pilot and a hardware retrofitter. She was a sharecropper of sorts, and those talents got her to the colonies.
But she didn’t have much space to rent out for interface, and that made her all but worthless after the settlements were built. The matter generators took over the construction work. Particle beams powering nanotech manufacturing at the subatomic level. People got obsolete fast.
She’d been downsized all the way to phase out. The inevitable march of progress. You either find a way to fit into techno-society, move farther out into the solar system, or find a place to crash.
That explained her poverty. Mine was more complex. But it had a lot to do with why I’m camped out here, in a converted warehouse high above a barren valley slowly filling with composite geodomes, near the overflow valve from an atmosphere generator and illegally wired into the power net of Jupiter’s largest moon.
It’s warm here, even in the nip of perpetual winter, and even in a facility spartan and long abandoned. The big generators draw a lot of minerals, hacking them into raw molecules of hydrogen and oxygen for reprocessing. They give off heat, steam and air as a byproduct, and every bit helps transform this scrap heap of a world. One day, true planethood will replace domes, real atmosphere the thin wisps of life.
If they hurry. Because Terry tried and failed, so we’ve only got a bit of time left.
Of course, Terry doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. She’s here forever, just a few hundred feet from our generate-steel dome, a cross of iron above her resting place.
I spend my time sitting or sleeping, sneaking into the main complex for food, looking at the stars at night and, mostly, at the Sun in the dim day. The Sun that I help destroy, day by day.
I spend my time waiting.
Waiting for the supernova.
Not long ago they came to get us, hypergrav Cobras sweeping down on particle drives. Thought at first it was the usual raid. Every once and a while, Solartech sends its police to shake up the dregs. The choice is usually prison or hard work on the next outpost, Neptune or Uranus.
I was wrong about Solartech’s purpose. Not for the first or last time.
I found myself isolated in the belly of one of the craft, face down on the double-quark skin. Thin as a subatomic particle, harder than any substance born in nature.
“Dr. McIntyre,” said a young man, maybe 22. One of those lean Techies who prefer spectacles to surgery for the nostalgia factor.
I hadn’t heard the name in a long time. “I was once. What’s your point?”
“I’ve read your material. Particles of Light. The Solar Furnace. Studied them in school. You worked with Demetrius Flarer.”
I laughed. “Scribblings. Flarer was the genius. You only know me because I worked for him. “
I was the scientific equivalent of Ron Wood to Flarer’s Jagger. People call Flarer the Sun god, the spin doctor. He was the genius who invented the Solar Taps. He found a way to power up the solar system.
“That’s why you captured me?”
“The company needs your help.”
“Flarer has an army of tech. I’ve been out of touch for 20 years.”
I left Flarer about the time we fired up the Solar Taps. The day Solartech announced its grand plan to settle the solar system.
“Flarer has techies like me,” the young man said. “We’ve spent two decades refining the beams, doling out the power, engineering settlements. We’ve never been able to touch the Taps.”
The twin Solar Taps spit energy out as beams of energized spin particles. They fed power stations and matter generators strewn across the system, all bearing the Solartech logo.
But the Taps hang in orbit just a few thousand kilometers from the fiery surface of the Sun, just inside the explosive corona. They sit bathed in a plasma of charged subatomic particles and particulate energy, tapping the same sources that feed the huge explosions of solar flares.
Think of the beams as harnessed solar flares, offering all but limitless power.
“And my friends from the moon below? You need them, too?”
“To ensure your cooperation. That part wasn’t my call. I believe blackmail won’t be necessary, once you learn what’s going on.”
Solartech doesn’t take no for an answer. You don’t develop half the solar system in 20 years by taking no for an answer.
I feared for my friends. But I hated the thought of going back to Solartech. And the kid’s talk smacked of responsibility. I generally hate responsibility.
I left all that the day I left Flarer and Solartech. After the other woman of my life, Katherine, ended up dead. Last time I felt responsible for anything.
“And what problem would make you go to the trouble of finding me?” I asked.
“We refer to it as the binary problem. We have evidence that the Taps are acting like the twin star in a binary system, producing waste matter that falls back toward the Sun. Definite signs of a helium shell building, at a much greater rate that anyone anticipated.”
I took the news silently. Katherine had anticipated it, but he wouldn’t know that. Solartech had buried her ideas with her. The problems we had ignored. Matter infall. Explosive shell of unspent fuel. Not precisely a nova, but close enough if you’re only 93 million miles away.
I felt the big solardrives kick in as we left the Jupiter moon of Ganymede. Settled in for the ride.
Terry joined me later, her long hair washed clean and smelling of shampoo. Not all that unpleasant, though we were used to the scents of sweat and poverty.
She was beautiful. The thin features of hard labor, but her hair its fullest blonde. She smiled a bare, weathered smile.
The young scientist had brought her in. “And the others?” I asked.
He looked at her.
“They’re back on Gany,” she told me. “I told him we’d come along if he left them alone.”
She looked uncertain, not knowing what my reaction would be. “Look,” she said. “Someone had to make a decision. We’re not at the place where we make decisions for one another, but I know your problems on that front.”
And that was it. I was Solartech again. I might as well have signed a brain contract. Whatever I did, whatever I created, whatever I thought was theirs once again.
“You’re not angry with me?” she asked. “It was the two of us or our friends. It was the right thing.”
“Not mad,” I told her. “But I did enjoy having my head to myself for a while.”
The young Techie’s name was Albert. Turns out, he was one of Flarer’s top aides. Another sycophant to the genius.
Flarer, I gathered, was regarded as both a symbol and a loose cannon now.
I was younger than Albert when we first met the spin doctor. We, Edward Tanner, my college lab partner, and myself.
We had gone to hear Flarer lecture, at one of those Ivy-covered halls in Cambridge, back on the first world. “The problems with the big bang are simple. It implies a regularity we don’t see in the universe, a center, a singularity and empty space,” he told his rapt pupils.
“I see instead a high-energy plasma, a sea of common particles, not just electrons and protons but unified particles, the common roots of proton and neutron, gravitron and positron. All crackling with life, eager to combust and combine.
“I see an example,” he added, “in our Sun itself. The photosphere, the surface we see, burns at tens of millions of degrees. The corona, the fiery ring around the Sun, burns nearly as hot. Yet in between, the Sun’s atmosphere, the chromosphere, is merely a few thousand degrees. If we can one day understand the mechanism of that sphere, the way it carries heat from the core to the corona without burning away, we may yet understand the forces of creation.”
We met with Flarer after the lecture. He was more than twice our age, already famous in astrophysical circles.
“A company with which I am working, Solartech, has launched some simple probes into the Sun. They last only a few seconds, but they confirm many of my theories.
“What I have found are unified conditions, where energized particles and particulate energy await shaping. The quantum building blocks, the particles that make up electrons, protons and all the energies. I plan to use them. To tap them.”
He spoke with raw excitement. Flarer had been developing the theory for years, and now it was time to put his ideas to work.
“Why us?” either Tanner or I asked. I don’t really remember. It didn’t really matter. We were both eager.
“My problem is the device itself. We must build something that can survive at several thousand degrees centigrade, with similar extremes of gravity and radiation.
“You two have worked on matter compilers. You have studied the possibility of direct energy to matter.”
I protested. “The power required makes it cost-prohibitive.”
“But the Sun,” he said with an all-knowing glint, “offers us a virtually unlimited power source.”
At that moment, Tanner and I gave up our little theories for the practical application of Flarer’s ideas. Our ideas were minor compared to his, anyway. Flarer’s theories were wild, his applications world-changing. It was as if Einstein himself took on the Manhattan project, and took us with him. We would sit at his side while he changed stars, office boys for his big science.
Beta station off Mars was the finest of its kind, the off-Earth headquarters of Solartech. The little company Flarer had worked with back then had become the largest corporate entity in the Solar System. It owned planets, creating worlds from rubble and moons.
Albert had left us alone during the trip from Gany. Now, he led us quietly, soft boots thudding on the roughened marble floors. Corridors lined with teak snaked through the outer rim of the disk, the luxury living quarters.
Albert housed Terry and I in a suite with outside views and our own rec equipment. At three-fifths gravity, conditioning was critical. Sit in a chair, lock in your limbs and fix your attention on a vid-screen while the machine worked tendon and muscle.
The big ivory tub, warm water held in a partial vacuum, was less critical but more pleasant. Terry slipped into it, naked, tempted me. But all too soon, Albert was calling me away.
He led me to a restaurant on the outer rim, space beneath our feet, a floating feeling that I found more unpleasant than life on an airless moon. Space to me was Solartech. It felt oppressive.
Grand windows showed the outline of the spinning station, and to-die-for views of the red planet below.
Slowly turning green, under matter-generate domes of clear carbon fibers, diamond silicate. A dozen space stations ringed the planet, each a round parabolic several hundred yards across. At intervals, each glowed hot as matter generators kicked in, creating another dome.
Heavy traffic pulled in and out of orbit, as planetary tugs locked onto the domes and carried them off, toward the surface.
The vast energy required came from the two Solar Taps. Their particle beams were split at stations hung between Mercury and Venus, parceled out by Solartech from there to the settlements. The beams provided energy and raw matter for whatever Solartech cared to shape.
The power of creation. All courtesy of Demetrius Flarer.
“You had a pleasant journey, I hope?” Albert asked.
“I’m still in the dark. I don’t know what you want.”
“For now, just information. Why did he pick you?”
The endless question. I’d sat at the right hand of power, and now no one thought I’d deserved it.
“It was a heady time for science. The first matter generators were just then coming into use, using simple atoms of hydrogen and helium to create all sorts of substances. Tanner and I, we viewed science as Flarer did, almost as sorcery. And the alchemists were right. You can make gold from lead, make anything from anything. The subatomic stuff is all the same. The ancient sorcerers just lacked the energy to pull it off.
“Tanner and I had a theory. Matter designed at the sub-atomic level to replicate itself, like living DNA. A perpetual machine.
“That fit Flarer’s needs. No substance found in nature would survive as close to the Sun as his Solar Taps would need to sit. He needed a machine that could rebuild itself, constantly, using the unified particles from the solar plasma. That was an application problem, not new science, and Tanner and I were brought in to solve it.
“We supervised the design, subatom by subatom. Our machines replace each damaged particle with a new one, spitting out the old as waste, back into the inferno.”
Albert pressed that night. He wanted to know the inspiration. He thought there had to be some divine spark. I didn’t know.
“Solartech had picked Flarer up as a young man, funded decades of research before I even met him. The company then was venture capital, patrons looking for a way to get more wealthy. Probably funded a thousand young brains they thought might turn out well. Flarer was the one who emerged.
“Scientists had looked for years for a way to square Einstein and quantum theory. The unified particle was a practical theory; it was out there because it had to be. Find it, and you could make anything.
“The fundamental particles and energies must behave the same. They had to be the same at some root level. Flarer believed that in certain conditions, they break down into the same thing.
“Flarer believed he would find the right conditions a few thousand kilometers from the Sun. His theories told him how to use what he’d find there. He wasn’t an applications guy. He’d never built anything. But damn it, he knew.”
Yes, I suppose I was rambling. Albert was buying imported wine from the Bordeaux region.
“Did you ever wonder,” he asked me, “about the fallout? About the impact on the Sun?”
Not when I started. To an Earthbound 20-year-old, even one with a head full of trigabytes of knowledge, the Sun seemed infinite.
“Did he ever have any doubts?” Albert asked.
I told him that genius never doubts itself.
“Are you and Tanner still close?” Albert asked me.
I frowned. Tanner and I had been like brothers, before Katherine left. Before she died. I hadn’t seen Tanner since.
Far as I knew, Tanner was still a Solartech loyalist. I was a heretic.
I met Edward Tanner again a day later, in a steel gray conference room off a shiny lab. Terminals and matter generators filled the vast space, buzzing with brilliance in white coats. The environment I grew up in.
Tanner had gone a little gray, but he was still slip thin and carefully polished, hair cropped close and off the temples for the terminals. He hit me with that bright smile of his, like polished salt crystal.
“McIntyre. Christ, it’s been too long.”
He stared at my long hair and beard, didn’t approve. I had cleaned up but kept the fuzz. Skin mottled and weathered from the UVs on Gany.
“At least you’re thinner,” he said, without mentioning the creases on my face. I was always a bit heavy back then, smooth-skinned, pampered. Beneath the jumpsuit they’d given me, standard interorbit gear, I was now a scrawny refugee.
“What’s going on? Why all the fuss?”
A cynical laugh. “Long story. I’m just catching on myself. I’ve been on Neptune, the outer worlds project. Talked to the spin doctor nine months ago for the first time in years. We got the first results from the AlphaCen probes. Disappointing. Nothing.”
I would have been disappointed, too, had I known.
Years before, we’d convinced corporate to launch a half dozen probes into deep space. Ten years to the first stops, relativity lag, this would be about the right time for the signals to arrive.
“You know, he’d said it was a waste of effort,” Tanner said. “But I think he desperately wanted us to find something.”
Another voice addressed us. I knew the face. Commander Marshal Stone, in what would be a military uniform if there were still a government. Private police. As high ranking as they come.
“Gentlemen, perhaps we can begin. We have gone to a lot of trouble to get you two together.”
His hawkish features turned to Albert, who was obviously intimidated. Albert muttered. “Perhaps Tanner can bring you up to speed.”
Tanner waved me to a clear diamond chair, with a table beside it, a sleek phone rising from the tabletop. Twin probes, a foot apart, and a rest for the forehead. On the table, handrests with slots for five fingers. Direct VR. I feared I’d have lost the knack.
Tanner positioned himself opposite me, on another chair. I reluctantly sat down, heard someone say begin. I went rigid when the transfer beams locked in at my temples. Tanner was connected to my mainframe. In the same way, a hundred technicians might design a small segment of a matter project.
The line flashed through channels until it hit something called Tap.flow.classified.
The melt was brutal, but it was damned efficient. I could see one of the Taps, a black cylinder floating against the face of the Sun. From its middle, a thin boom attached it to a second, smaller cylinder. That one glowed white hot and rotated slowly as it directed a beam at a power station.
“Bear with me, McIntyre. Check the power grid numbers. Check the spin particle patterns.”
I ran them on the mainframe and in my head. I knew what they should be, plasma feeding the Taps’ matter generators, beams emitted as solid energy, the orbital drive burning gravitons. The Tap regenerating itself even as the solar furnace tried to destroy it. The drive maintaining orbit against the pull of the Sun’s mass. The waste spit out as hydrogen and helium, simple atoms.
I ran more calculations than anyone could do by hand in a lifetime. I saw it before I even realized what I was looking for, the rising patterns, the rapid power core fluctuations. All buried in the beams themselves, the only signals that escaped the Sun’s gravity.
“Now,” said Tanner, “compare them to the solar rhythm. The long sunspot cycle, the smaller patterns. The sound waves that constantly shake the disk.”
There was a small but clear change. The Taps and the Sun reacting.
“It’s the pattern,” I whispered, but he heard it as if he’d said it. “The Katherine fluctuation. I’d have to go way back…”
“I have,” Tanner said. “To the day when we started the first Tap. Regeneration at an increasing pace, to near-infinite repetition. Waste output building at the same increasing level. Pressure builds behind a helium shell. And the effect is exponential, just as she said.”
“How long before it goes critical?”
“Not long. Perhaps four solar cycles. Some 44 years, minus the 20 we’ve already wasted.”
“So Katherine was right.”
“As well as beautiful, my friend. My rival.”
“Only you had her, as I recall,” I whispered.
“But she respected you,” he slipped back into my mind. “That counts for more.”
A voice from outside. The general, monitoring from a tube somewhere. “Gentlemen, if we could skip the memory lane. And we do not officially use the phrase ‘Katherine Fluctuation.’”
Wonderful. The uptight Solartech Police. I think it’s a defense mechanism. They called him general, but down deep, Stone knew he was just a rent-a-cop.
The numbers started again, and I let Tanner continue. Instead of numbers, I saw her face.
She was a grad student when we knew her, just a few years younger than we were. Her hair as bright as the solar furnace. It burns in my mind to this day.
Tanner told me he wanted her. I said nothing, though I did, too. That was kind of how we worked. I remember a party, after the final contracts for the Taps were signed. Our hardest work was done. We were rich beyond belief.
That night, she visited the huge apartments that Tanner and I shared on the first Solartech station, took in the view of Europe below the geosynchronous orbit. I stayed away.
I shook myself back to business. The solar chemistry was clear. I knew what happened when a star couldn’t burn away mass. The effect most common in a binary system, where mass spit out by one star falls into another. A shell of waste. An explosion. This wouldn’t be exactly a supernova, but anyone within a few hundred million miles wouldn’t know the difference.
“What does Flarer say about this?” I asked.
Tanner said nothing. I broke off, stared at him. The general stepped between our eyes. “You don’t know?”
Stone looked at the other two, annoyed.
“Dr. Flarer is no longer with this project. More succinctly, Dr. Flarer is dead.”
I looked to Albert, then to Tanner. “I wanted to be the one to tell you. I would have gotten to it. It was right after I spoke with him that last time,” Tanner said. “Flarer was on a shuttle bound for his lab, the one off Mercury. He killed himself.”
I didn’t want to believe it. But it had to be. If they had Flarer, why the hell would they need me?
I met Terry in a private booth in a plush bar, a pillowed pocket with clear floor and crystal wall, looking out to the planet below.
I kissed her softly but it bore a heavy weight. She knew I was troubled. “Tanner’s here. Flarer is dead,” I told her. “I can’t believe Flarer is dead.”
“Flarer was like your father,” she said. “Tanner. Rivals, right? He stayed and stayed rich.”
“There’s more,” I told her. “There’s Katherine.”
The day I met Terry, in a miner’s bar on Gany, we’d gotten blasted and I had told her about it all and Katherine, too.
“She was right,” I said, as matter of fact as one can be about disaster.
A third voice, then Albert’s face, peeking into the private booth. “Right about what?”
I protested when he entered. He made it crowded. He poured himself a goblet of our wine. “I know all the literature. I’ve never heard of the Katherine Fluctuation.”
I laughed and ordered single malt, straight up.
“It was her thesis,” I told Albert. “She came in at 20, laughed with us, worked with us. Tanner and I, we had both had women. There was a lot of money and reward around the project, and a lot of people wanted to share it. But they weren’t like Katherine. Katherine’s thoughts were like fire. She was an equal.
“I wanted to teach her, I wanted to learn from her, I wanted to sleep with her. Even after her night with Tanner. She explained everything to me carefully, even though my mind was on other parts of her.”
I can remember the last day like it was yesterday.
Flarer was at his desk, a cubicle in the same room as the rest of us, on a vast floor that curved with the curve of that first space station.
She approached him meekly. Unlike her. “Doctor,” she almost whispered, but Tanner and I worked very closely, and we listened. “I wondered if you had a chance to look over my thesis?”
He looked up, sternly but betraying no anger. “I suggest you simply get back to work.”
“But sir,” she said, and you could almost see her hesitation melt away. “I think it’s important.”
He put down his papers and seemed to rise, straightening his back.
“My dear,” he said, his coal eyes steel. “You suggest that my Taps will upset the solar chemistry. I can assure you that the power we’re drawing off is a tiny fraction of what the Sun burns up every minute. The exhaust is a fraction of the mass the Sun spits out in the same minute.”
That was his analysis. The Sun proceeding on its usual course, gradually cooling, going red, then burning out. We disregarded the waste issue because it seemed insignificant.
“But that’s outside the corona, after a burn of a million degrees,” she said. “The Taps spit out waste material inside the chromosphere. I’m convinced that has the makings of an explosive shell.”
Flarer spoke once more before he stood. “Again, my dear, the power and mass involved is small. The Taps are a fly on the Sun’s surface. The temperature and waste levels are constant. I have thought of all this, I assure you.”
“Please, look at my work,” she said, insistent and in his face. “It’s not the power sent out. It’s recreating the Taps. As they make power, they get ever hotter. They draw more and more to repair themselves, produce more and more waste. The profile is exponential, the waste virtually infinite over time.”
“That’s enough,” he yelled. He was a small man, but he rose to impressive heights. “My dear,” he continued, and this time there was fire in his voice. “You are merely a graduate student. I am…”
Flarer struggled for the phrase. His intellect was surpassed only by his ego. “Unlike God, I have found a way to warm and light the entire solar system. So if even God came to me and said I was wrong, I would feel no need to listen.”
Maybe I was just a bastard, because I barely noticed that Katherine cried as she cleaned out her desk.
She pulled us aside, asked us to consider, handed us her thesis. Tanner shredded his copy in front of her.
She stared at me. I’d never seen her vulnerable. It was tempting, but no longer attractive. “I’m sorry,” I told her. “I can’t help.”
“From you, I’d expect more,” she said.
“The company wrote her off after the thesis,” I told Terry and Albert. “And Tanner and I -‑ well, I could claim a lot of reasons. There were signs, certainly, that the solar chemistry was more delicate than we imagined. The huge quakes and sound waves that rattle the solar disk. Explosive flares, sunspots. Signs of a chemistry fighting itself, struggling to remain stable.
“I’d like to think that it was just because we were small and the Sun was so big. How the hell could we leave lasting damage?
“But we were making a lot of money, and we had all the perks that went with it. So maybe I didn’t want to listen.”
Albert gazed outward across the galaxy. He was no innocent, but he had thought little about the price of power. He knew how we could miss what we missed.
“And Katherine?” Terry asked. “You’ve told me she died.”
I tried to remember. Had I painted it that way, my love died and I fled? I always wanted to seem better than I was, tragic and somewhat noble.
“She became an activist, a solar conservationist. Got a few people to listen. Killed in a pointless hovercraft crash off the Indian subcontinent.”
A light went on with both of them. That was when I dropped out of sight.
“Solartech spent years trying to talk me into coming back to work. Then my investments and credit dried up.”
“You blamed the corporation for her death?” Terry said.
“I did. Still do. I mean, I don’t know anything.”
But I can see her face in my guilt. “All I know is that by the time she produced her theory, the pressure was on to finish. There were receivers on five planets or moons, power plants and distribution under construction. The blooming of the solar system didn’t happen overnight; they did a lot of groundwork even before the Taps were turned on.
“Loans were taken, contracts signed. Truth is, there was more wealth invested in this than there was wealth on the planet Earth. And untold more to be made. Mars will be taken to M-Class soon. The Jovian moons, the Ring stations, Uranus, research stations on Neptune. All powered from the Solar Taps. Worthless without.
“So no, I don’t know that her death wasn’t just an accident. But accidents happen frequently when major capital is riding on them.”
On a good day from our rooms, you could look down to the surface and see green through the carbonate skin of the domes, lit brightly and warmed by solar lights.
Terry spent time in the hot bath or the exercise chambers. She said the down time made her feel soft, that life was too easy. But it seemed she was training for something. Even she didn’t know just what.
I spent most of my time in one lab or another, with Tanner or one of a few other sci-types who knew what we were working on. The Solartech lords wanted silence, but they also wanted a fix. The timeline was a couple of decades, and that was close enough to worry them.
And, of course, we might be a bit off. Used to think we had a few hundred million years.
“Adjustments.” That was Albert’s first suggestion. He was chief of the operation, running interference with the police.
“No,” Tanner told him. There weren’t any, and no way to make any. The Taps sat under extreme bombardment from every type of radiation, and we never had figured out a way to even send them a signal. They ran off clocks, programmed for a thousand years.
“Alteration.” We knew better. No human astronaut could operate in the conditions at the Tap’s location.
Perhaps a robot. But we were still stumped at what changes it might make.
So burn the waste, or send it into space? Both would do nasty things to the solar wind that drenches all the planets. Raise the temperature or radiation striking the Earth just a bit, and we might as well have a supernova.
Solartech’s patience grew thin. The lords demanded something. I finally offered myself as a sacrifice.
I spoke at a large meeting, but the ones who mattered were the five Solartech board members and Alton Fierra, the corporate chief. At his side sat General Stone.
The designs were projected on a wall, against a backdrop of the view past Earth to the Sun.
“We can design a craft that can reach Tap 1, bounce from there in an elliptical orbit, return to reach Tap 2 before being claimed by solar gravity.”
They looked skeptical, waited for their leader. The projection flashed twice. “And this craft,” Fierra asked, “will make what adjustments?”
I was in professorial mode, the master’s heir. “As we’ve said. There are no adjustments. None are possible.”
He refused to see it. “And so your proposal is…”
“We simply bump them out of orbit. The Taps will fall into the Sun and die.”
Fierra was standing now. Walking toward me, at the front of a crowded room, silhouetted by the image of the Sun and the Taps.
“I must not be understanding you.” He was a trim man, tall, hair slick and black, his suit smooth with thousands of hand stitches. “You propose to black out the solar system? I have nearly 12 million people off Earth, and you would cut off their power?”
Damn. God might forgive boldness, but not Solartech and not the richest man in the world. “It would take two years to field such a probe. There would be time to…”
“To what?” he asked. I knew I had no answer, at least not one that would please him. “Have you considered destroying just one Tap?”
“We have,” Tanner said from somewhere. “It would buy, perhaps, 11 years. But the problem is exponential. We would face the same result.”
“Nova?” he asked. “This doomsday theory?”
Theory. And I had thought that part was settled. “Not a nova, by definition. But a massive explosion of a shell of unburned matter. Possibly a large chunk of solar mass as well. Heat and solar radiation bath earth at several times the usual rate, for several years.”
“Some scientists,” he said, “disagree. The actual extent of the explosion is simply not known. The survivability of Earth is still under review. So is the impact on many of our outer settlements.”
Great. Corporate logic. Balancing out deaths as part of a cost-benefit ratio.
He looked to the image, looked away. “Gentlemen, eliminating the Taps is not a solution. We cannot turn back science. We need a balanced solution.”
Albert stood then, next to me. “Sir, we only want you to know the options. This is the only foolproof one. We do have some evidence that Flarer considered this. As a precursor to a new project. A clean Tap.”
The polished man’s attention shifted. I was out of the way of his wrath. “I knew nothing of that,” he said.
I assumed Albert was bluffing, trying to get me out of a mess. “Flarer’s notes are at his lab. My proposal is that we continue his work there. He may have been months or years ahead of us.”
Albert grabbed me afterward. “Nice performance. I’d suggest you pack up. We’re being sent to Hell.”
The fleetcraft popped out of solar drive 45 million miles from the solar surface, just shy of the Mercury aphelion, its farthest point from the Sun. Silent running to the planet.
I fought the deep sleep hangover with espresso shots and found Tanner and Albert in the control room with Stone, who was flying the shuttle. Others were on board, soldiers mostly. Terry hiding herself somewhere. Though a pilot, she seemed out of place in space. So grounded.
Mercury was still just a large dark spot against the bright background of the Sun, the surface lit with the sparks of solar flares.
“McIntyre. Wanted to thank you for pulling me into this God-forsaken place.”
The general looked me up and down, like he had his doubts about being here. Military men seldom show their doubts.
“So we’re almost there,” I said, searching for a greeting.
“Close. A few hours to the final stop,” Stone said.
“Is this a one way trip?” I asked him.
Tanner laughed, nervously. Albert laughed: “I thought Flarer’s proteges would enjoy it here.”
“You leave when you’re done,” Stone said. “I hope it’s soon.”
Flarer once thought Mercury would be a home world. Very solid, sheet ice at the poles, active chemicals in an albeit poisonous atmosphere. But the temperature difference killed his plans, days at 430 Celsius, nights at -290. Structures inevitably expanded, contracted, cracked. There’d been a few mining stations, and water probes still worked the surface. But the temperature shift reduced structures to rubble.
So Flarer hung a laboratory in orbit around it, the space station he dubbed Hades. Spent half of each year there, watching his solar Taps.
Mercury circles the Sun every 88 days, coming as close as 28 million miles to the solar furnace. The station spun around the planet in an odd, elliptical orbit, pulling in toward the Sun on the bright side and closer to the planet on the dark side.
The Taps sat far below, in the chromosphere, 8,000 kilometers from the solar surface -‑ or, as Flarer called it, the solar event, because trying to find an exploding surface is like trying to balance a candle on its flame.
The Taps were protected from the most violent of the Sun’s activities, hung between the surface sunspots and the blasts of flares from the corona. They were bathed in plasma, the Alfven waves that carry energy from deep within the Sun out to the superhot corona.
The two Taps sat on opposite sides of the Sun, synchronized to Mercury’s movements, each a quarter orbit from the planet. The Taps took turns sending particle beams to two channeling stations hung between Mercury and Venus, their movements precisely timed so that each station was always fed by one tap or the other.
Split and rebroadcast from those stations, that energy lit solar system.
Hours later, we finally caught sight of the solar research station against the Sun, its reflective surface like fire, a thick disk spinning and moving fast.
Another, heavier transport floated nearby.
“The military is here. Fired it up for us,” Albert said.
We were in a small conference room in our transport, watching the approach on monitor. “There’s something you should see,” Albert said. “From Flarer’s diary. A few weeks before the suicide.”
The monitor showed Flarer’s face. Older than I remembered, worn. He spoke in a calm, clear, downcast voice, academically hopeless.
“Spoke with Tanner today. The interstellar probes are quite clear. No sign of life, not really much sign of liquid water, the prerequisite for life. At least nowhere in range. Nowhere humans can survive.”
He drew a deep breath, blew it out slowly. “This weighs heavy on me. Mercury is seven weeks away. I only hope I have the courage to do what I need to. I’m worried about funding constraints if I wait, and about my own courage if I decide to do this thing.
“I was hoping for life out there, at least a place that could support life. But nothing.”
Another deep breath. He looked like he would keep talking but didn’t. Reached for something as the image clicked off. So that’s what suicidal looks like, I thought.
I realized how much I saw him as a father. More; I didn’t even know my father. I was sent off to school at four, and the upgrades didn’t leave much brain space for family. I know my parents did it so I’d have a better life. Getting a child into those programs was an honor.
Tanner looked as sad as I felt. “So that was the breaking point. He knew his life’s work could destroy his world. And then I told him there weren’t any other worlds.”
I noted something else. “The funding issue. Albert, what did he mean?”
“On Hades,” Albert told us, “you will have complete access to his notes, memorandum, work. Maybe you’ll find something. He indicates he was working on a solution.”
“And might not have time,” I added. “What did he mean?”
Albert didn’t want to say, measured his words carefully. “Look, Dr. Flarer had been doing theoretical work for 60 years. He was tapped out. It was time to retire.”
“You bastards were going to cut him off.” Tanner looked furious. “He was theoretically thinking about saving the world, and you were going to cut him off.”
“The company didn’t know,” Albert said. “They insist no one knew. His work here was entirely secret. And like any non-productive research, it was going to be terminated. Dr. Flarer was a very wealthy man. He had received everything Solartech owed him. And he was only going to lose this place. Hades will, in fact, be allowed to fall into the Sun as soon as we are done.”
So that was it. Flarer’s life work a disaster. About to be cut off with no way to save the planet, no life to be had anywhere else. He couldn’t stand living with his guilt.
Flarer’s words haunted us for the next few weeks. We ran his lab recordings over and over. Through his last two years of life, from the time he began to suspect supernova.
His face filled a wall-sized screen in the inner lab at the station’s core, where we worked.
Flarer looked increasingly gaunt and haunted as the recordings ran on. His hair, white as long as I could remember it, had grown thin and wispy, like the tendrils of a crab nebulae. Eyes brilliant green, clear and oversized. Wrinkles across his forehead, like the canyons of Mars.
“I have looked deep within,” he said, in a message from two years before. “I can feel the probes, I know them so well. There is a fluctuation, and a new vibration deep within the Sun. My deputies tell me not to worry, the two can’t possibly be related. But they are wrong.”
“I wish I had paid more attention. I remember only vaguely Katherine’s predictions. And I not only dismissed her, I had her instructors reject her thesis. I ruined her. I can’t even find her work to review it.”
He was in his lab. He had been drinking. “I learn, too, that she is dead. I wonder just how much I am responsible for, just what I have ignored.”
Albert banned the military types from the inner lab.
“Fine,” Stone had said curtly, as if it was his order. “But nothing leaves here, nothing is broadcast.”
We worked endlessly, on the highest quality matter scribers, cutting off the art-Gs, floating at our tubes. Looking for the key to a clean Tap that would produce no waste.
Flarer looked even worse in the later entries. A growing frustration, when he left Hades that year. “I have searched for a clean burning solution,” he said. “But even the Sun spits out tons of waste, the byproducts of creation. Clean combustion appears to be beyond even a deity. I am asked to do what God could not, and that never used to bother me.”
He leaned back in his lab. “Katherine, it appears, was right.”
I returned to the little room Terry and I shared sporadically, walking past the guards, trying not to show them the stress of 14 hours or 18 or 20 at a matter terminal, charting subatomic design.
One night, after a test that failed with a particle blast, Terry greeted me with a replicate martini and grabbed me with strong arms. “Terry, it’s just not working. Flarer tried this, too. We’re duplicating his failures.”
“I know,” she said. “I’ve hot-wired the lab monitors into here. I can watch you work.” I noticed she was wearing very little. I joined her on the sleep pads, took my frustration out on her. She seemed to enjoy it.
“You have to do something,” she told me as I left.
Flarer, on screen. Two years before his death, two seasons ago on Hades. “My research has taken two directions. I must either find a way to incorporate the pollution into the Tap reaction, or to convert it to energy in the beams. I will continue the work while Hades is shuttered.”
Flarer’s messages picked up again during his last stint on Hades, one year before. “I can’t tell Solartech the depth of the problem. They frown on any hint of the Katherine thesis. And I have been informed that Hades is no longer seen as productive.”
The wrinkles on his face cut deeper. He had lost weight. His work charts showed five months of 17-hour stints on the same matter designers we were using. But there was no climax. He’d blanked out the sixth month of equations, and the corresponding parts of his diary.
The general told us what we already knew. “You realize, time is limited here. I see no progress. You have only a few more days.”
Flarer’s last video entry told of a similar crisis.
“I have been told there will be only one more trip. I can return here next year to clean up, but no more. The work has proven fruitless. There is no other world for us. No way to save the ones we have.
“I have been working on a last resort. But I am not certain I have the courage.”
Then there was nothing. We went back over experiments we had done, reread his lab notes. We were getting nowhere.
“It’s an impossible task,” I told Terry one evening, and again and again.
“Hon,” she would say, holding me tight. “You can’t leave without doing something. There’s too much riding on this.”
A few days more and Stone cornered us. “I must insist,” he said, “on a full report. I need a reason to remain here.”
Tanner had been silent for weeks. He blew. “A reason?” he said. “Did you ask Flarer for a reason?”
He was yelling. “You killed him. Solartech. No hope, no future, not even another star to go to. And you were cutting him off.”
There were tears in Tanner’s eyes. He grabbed Albert by the lab coat. His hair in knots, his face white as a dwarf star. I hadn’t noticed the stress, or perhaps I suffered from it, too. “At least McIntyre doubted the spin doctor. I never did. I just left, to look out at deep space, to look for something of my own. Imagine his loneliness.”
He turned to me, looking for validation. “I told him. I told him this might be the only world in the universe that can support life, the only living place. And he was killing it. God, can you imagine the weight?”
Tanner closed on me. I felt his breath. “Katherine. I can still feel her, some nights. We killed her, didn’t we? We killed everything.”
He trailed off. I realized that Terry’s eyes were on me as well as him. She waved the soldiers away, and they followed as she led him to his quarters. I stood there for a while, hearing her eyes.
Do something. Anything.
And then Stone was there again. frowning. Bastard. Government military or private cop, they survive on one thing. No doubts.
“I suggest you make preparations to leave.”
Later, Albert led Terry and I toward the lab, through dark corridors. A sealed door somewhere, a masked panel.
“Where are we going?” I asked quietly, because whispers seemed appropriate. The inner chamber was a mass of machinery, the roof overhead ringed by girders.
We stood at the heart of the station. It took me a while to figure out its purpose.
Albert led me along catwalks. “A launch chamber. And we’re climbing on a very large matter generator. The spin doctor used it to build and launch solar probes.
“This was his most secret laboratory. Only a few of us even knew it existed.”
We emerged on a raised deck. It slanted away toward the roof, which here seemed like the floor, the artGs skillfully shifted. We stood on a platform at the station’s center. We looked across it to the airlock door, the barely-opaque panels revealing the brilliant Sun.
On it sat an arrow of a machine. What looked like a drive at one end, a ruby-lensed beacon emerging from it midway, a blunt front end.
The machine looked not unlike a Solar Tap, though half the size. “I found this soon after we arrived. I wasn’t certain what it was.”
He ran his hand along the skin, a smooth metal that doesn’t exist in nature. “Before Flarer left that last time, he must have fed the design into the compiler. The matter generators made this while he was gone.”
I didn’t quite get it. The missing month of notes might have told me. “A replacement Tap?”
No. Albert found a recess on the steel hull, pressed it. Inside, flight controls and a seat, and a window that, while black at this illumination, would be clear enough in the face of the Sun.
“Why would a Tap need a pilot?” Albert asked. “You remember, there was something he said he was working on a last resort. A final option.”
And then it made sense. “But why would he need to go?”
Albert smiled. “You drop from here, swing into a Tap, survive impact, fight radiation and solar wind. You might need guidance to bounce the gravity. To hit the next Tap.”
“It would be suicide,” I said. “You’d never escape. And murder. Millions of people in the dark, far from the Earth.”
“Power is stored in the grids. People could survive until an evacuation. A difficult choice,” Albert said. “But not a murderous one.”
Terry was giving me that stare again. “It would take a lot of courage thought. I guess Flarer decided he didn’t make it. Few men would.”
“Your friend’s breakdown,” the general told us, “has put us in an untenable situation. We leave immediately.”
We were in a room somewhere on station rim. Albert would say little. That left it to me.
“He’ll recover. We’ve been working very hard.”
“To what end?” the general said sternly. “The doctor’s scientific notes have been transferred. His little diary ‑- well, we’d all be better off if that gem doesn’t get out.”
And that was it. We bantered a bit more, but the decision was made. “General, you know what we’re trying to do here. You do know.”
As close as I could come to a plea. I was amazed at how dispassionate he seemed. Cold as the far moons.
“I know,” he said, “that you three are convinced Solartech is blowing up the world or some such thing. The fewer who share that belief, the better. Do you know anything about me, doctor?”
I didn’t. We scientists prefer not to deal with those who simply take orders, as if we are somehow different.
“I was born on a Martian dirt colony. Solartech’s stations finally made my world prosper. You propose shutting them down. You propose poverty for people like me.”
He was right. But just then, a shiver went through him, almost audibly. “What was that?”
We both said we’d felt nothing.
“I know stations. I know when something’s amiss.”
Again, more obvious. A vibration. “The laboratory,” he said.
Albert and I both stood. “We’ll check it.”
We were all moving, the general telling us not to even try to keep him out. Through the main lab room, then into Flarer’s inner chambers. To the center. “It’s sealed,” Albert said. “The airlock door is open.”
Through crystal panels, we could see the shadow of the central airlock gates, the interlocking teeth extended. Could almost imagine the final rush of oxygen into space, the arrow of a craft cut free, engine kicking in, dropping toward the solar furnace.
A voice. From a console we’d never used. Terry’s voice.
“Are you there? You should be able to hear me.”
I froze. Albert felt the panel, found the com. “Terry? What the hell are you doing?”
“Albert. Is Mickey with you? I may need some help with this thing.”
The voice shook me free. I spoke to the console, watched the panels. A guidance grid, a guide to the Sun’s edge, showing the two blips of the Solar Taps. Her face, on a small screen, packed into the cockpit of the arrow.
“Terry, are you all right?” I asked.
“I have the coordinates of the Taps. I can get one. You’ll have to guide me to the second. My instruments will go wild when I cross the corona.”
I didn’t want to hear it. The general was talking to someone, in a world far away, but I didn’t hear anything but her. “This is crazy.”
“I’m a trained pilot. I can do this.”
That wasn’t it at all. “Terry, it’s suicide.”
“Focus, hon,” she said. “Look, I love you and all that. But someone had to do something.”
I was pleading now. I really was trying. “We’ll take care of it. You don’t have to do this.”
She smiled to herself. Like she was telling herself I probably believed what I was saying. “Please don’t be offended. But you wouldn’t. You and your friends, you’re real smart. But you don’t know what’s really important. I mean, Tanner’s flipped because the company won’t let you waste your time looking for an easy fix. Albert, he never will challenge the company. The general, he thinks just following orders is bravery. And you ‑- well, I do love you, really. But they’re saying give up and you’ll go along. Your record on this stuff isn’t good.”
I had nothing to say. So I begged. “Please, just turn back.”
I didn’t know how close she could get and still return. “You have to abort. Come back, please.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Like I said, I know what’s important. Please help. Don’t make this for nothing.”
I was reeling. There were soldiers in the room, conferring with the general. I cried. I shook. I finally made a decision. “O.K. You need to commit to that course. Burn engines in 10 seconds. My count.”
I counted. I counted away the second love of my life. The only one ever requited.
I listened as she closed on the Sun. I watched her face and her orbital pattern.
“I see it,” I remember her saying. “Mickey, the Tap. The lens like a flash fire. Glowing, like the corona. Like creation.”
I looked out at the Sun. Walked over to the long-range scopes, saw her aiming for one of the Solar Taps. Her ship was hard synthmetal, glowing as it recreated itself.
“I’m closing on corona. The arrow seems to be surviving. It’s even cool in here.”
That was the threshold. If she could cross the corona, it was a done deal. I saw the general holding on a comlink. Heard his words into the microphone. “Do it.”
“No,” I yelled. I moved like a wild comet, grabbed his sidearm, furious, as he knocked me sprawling to the floor.
He looked at me in a threat. Then spoke back into the microphone on his sleeve. “Take that ship out. Now.’’
The last word barely escaped his lips before his sidearm cut him in two, forehead to chest. I looked to his soldiers but didn’t fire again.
I heard her scream. The missile produced a brilliant white light on impact. Her craft could withstand heat, but not the focused impact and blast. A dent, a flaw, a crack. It flashed, then imploded.
I remember the view on the long-range scopes. The magnification was too small to let me make out her body.
I felt something hit me. I don’t know if it was physical pain, anger or passion that caused me to black out. It was good to see nothing. I was tired of staring at that damn Sun.
They didn’t kill me. That would have been too simple.
I guess they didn’t have reason to kill me, and me in prison would have been uncomfortable for them. Jailed men tell tales.
Instead, they offered me Ganymede. I cut a fine deal for our friends, the same way she had. I think she would have been proud. Do what you can do. At least, do something.
I lost the use of my right arm when the guards shot, and it still hurts from time to time. But that just reminds me of the moment I tried to stop Stone. Finally tried to do something.
I think she would have been proud of me at that moment. I think Katherine might have been proud, too.
I’ve tried to do more, tried to catch a transport to Earth, applied for duty on a Venetian probe. Tried to get closer to the problem, closer to the Taps. But Solartech doesn’t trust me, and the company’s blacklist carries a lot of weight.
I spend most of my days now in a little box tent, the heaters on full and my papers scattered about. I still do a lot of figuring, though I haven’t found the answer we were seeking.
Tanner is out near Neptune, designing interstellar probes from a padded room. He knows those probes can’t arrive before things get critical here. But it helps him to believe there’ll be some of him out there when there’s nothing left here.
Albert, I hope, is somewhere in a lab, working on the problem. I like to think Solartech is at least doing that.
Me, I’m an outcast again. A few images of Terry they let me keep, and my scribbling, are all I have. I have a lot of time here for scribbling. Time to wish I had done more, or done the right thing sooner.
Time for waiting.
Waiting for the supernova.