Here's the beginning of Earth by David Brin, a scientifically faithful tale of the fate of our world and the havoc mankind wreaks upon it . . .
First came a supernova, dazzling the universe in brief, spendthrift glory before ebbing into twisty, multispectral clouds of new-forged atoms. Swirling eddies spiraled until one of them ignited – a newborn star.
The virgin sun wore whirling skirts of dust and electricity. Gas and rocks and bits of this and that fell into those pleats, gathering in dim lumps . . . planets . . .
One tiny worldlet circled at a middle distance. It had a modest set of properties:
mass – barely enough to draw in a passing asteroid or two;
moons – one, the remnant of a savage collision, but big enough to tug deep tides;
spin – to set winds churning through a fuming atmosphere;
density – a brew that mixed and separated, producing an unpromising surface slag;
temperature – heat was the planet’s only voice, a weak one. swamped by the blaring sun. Anyway, what can a planet tell the universe, in a reedy cry of infrared?
‘This exists,’ it repeated, over and over. This is a condensed stone, radiating at about three hundred degrees, insignificant on the scale of stars.
‘This speck, a mote, exists.’
A simple statement to an indifferent cosmos – the signature of a rocky world, tainted by salty, smoke-blown puddles.
But then something new stirred in those puddles. It was a triviality – a mere discoloration here and there. But from that moment the voice changed. Subtly, shifting in timbre, still faint and indistinct, it nevertheless seemed now to say.
‘I . . . am . . . ’
An angry deity glowered at Alex. Slanting sunshine cast shadows across the incised cheeks and outthrust tongue of Great Tu, Maori god of war.
A dyspeptic idol, Alex thought, contemplating the carved figure. I’d feel the same if I were stuck up there, decorating a billionaire’s office wall.
It occurred to Alex that Great Tu’s wooden nose resembled the gnomon of a sundial. Its shadow kept time, creeping to the measured ticking of a twentieth century grandfather clock in the corner. The silhouette stretched slowly, amorously, toward a sparkling amethyst geode – yet another of George Hutton’s many geological treasures. Alex made a wager with himself, that the shadow wouldn’t reach its goal before the sinking sun was cut off by the western hills.
And at this rate, neither would George Hutton. Where the devil is the man? Why did he agree to this meeting, if he didn’t plan on bloody showing up?
Alex checked his watch again, even though he knew the time. He caught himself nervously tapping one shoe against the nearbytable leg, and stopped doing it.
What have Jen and Stan always told you? ‘Try to learn patience, Alex.’
It wasn’t his best-known virtue. But then, he’d learned a lot the last few months. Remarkable how it focused your mind, when you guarded a secret that might mean the end of the world.
He glanced toward his friend and former mentor, Stan Goldman, who had set up this appointment with the chairman of Tangoparu Ltd. Apparently unperturbed by his employer’s tardiness, the slender, aging theoretician was immersed in the latest issue of Physical Review.
No hope for distraction there. Alex sighed and let his eyes rove George Hutton’s office one more time, hoping to get a measure o fthe man.
Of course the conference table was equipped with the best and latest plaques, for accessing the World Data Net. One entire wall was taken up by an active-events screen, a montage of real-time views from random locations across the Earth – zeppelins cruising above Wuhan . . . sunrise in a North African village . . . the urban lights of any city in the world.
Original holographic sculptures of mythical beasts shimmered by the entrance to the suite, but nearest the desk were Hutton’s dearest treasures, minerals and ores collected over a lifetime grubbing through the planet’s crust – including a huge blood zircon, glittering on a pedestal just below the Maori war mask. It struck Alex that both objects were products of fiery crucibles – one mineral, the other social. Each denoted resilience under pressure. Perhaps this said something about George Hutton’s personality, as well.
But then, perhaps it meant nothing at all. Alex had never been a great judge of people. Witness the events of the last year.
With a sudden click and hum, the hallway doors parted and a tall, brown man appeared, breathing hard and coated with perspiration.
‘Ah! You made yourself at home. Good. Sorry to keep you waiting, Stan, Dr Lustig. Excuse me, will you? I’ll only be a moment.’ He peeled a sweaty jersey off broad shoulders, striding past a window overlooking the sailboats of Auckland harbor.
George Hutton, I presume. Alex thought as he lowered his outstretched hand and sat back down. Not much for formality. That’s just as well, I suppose.
From the open door to the lavatory, Hutton shouted. ‘Our game had delay after delay for injuries! Minor stuff, fortunately. But I’m sure you understand, I couldn’t let the Tangoparu team down when I was needed. Not during the finals against Nippon Electric!’
Normally it might seem odd for a businessman in his fifties to neglect appointments for a rugby game. But the dusky giant toweling himself off in the loo seemed completely unselfconscious, aglow with victory. Alex glanced at his former teacher, who now worked for Hutton here in New Zealand. Stan only shrugged, as if to say billionaires made their own rules.
Hutton emerged wearing a dressing gown and drying his hair with a terry-cloth towel. ‘Can I offer you anything, Dr Lustig? How about you, Stan?’
‘Nothing, thank you,’ Alex said. Less reticent, Stan accepted a Glenfiddich and spring water. Then Hutton settled into a plush swivel chair, stretching his long legs beside the kauriwood table.
Whatever happens, Alex knew, this is where the trail ends. This is my last hope.
The Maori engineer-businessman regarded him with piercing brown eyes. ‘I’m told you want to discuss the Iquitos incident, Dr Lustig. And the miniature black hole you let slip out of your hands there. Frankly, I thought you’d be sick of that embarrassment by now. What did some press hacks call it then? A possible China Syndrome?’
Stan cut in. ‘A few sensationalists set off a five-minute panic on the World Net, until the scientific community showed everybody that tiny singularities like Alex’s dissipate harmlessly. They’re too small to last long by themselves.’
Hutton raised one dark eyebrow. ‘Is that so, Dr Lustig?’
Alex had faced that question so many times since Iquitos. By now he had countless stock answers – from five-second sound bites for the vid cameras to ten-minute lullabies for Senate investigators . . . all the way to hours of abstruse mathematics to soothe his fellow physicists. He really ought to be used to it by now. Still the question burned, as it had the first time.
‘Talk to me, Lustig,’ the reporter, Pedro Manella, had demanded on that ashen afternoon in Peru, as they watched rioting students set Alex’s work site ablaze. ‘Tell me that thing you made isn’t about to eat its way to China.’
Lying had become so reflexive since then, it took some effort to break the habit today. ‘Um, what did Stan tell you?’ he asked George Hutton, whose broad features still glistened under a thin gloss of perspiration.
‘Only that you claim to have a secret. Something you’ve kept from reporters, tribunals . . . even the security agencies of a dozen nations. In this day and age, that’s impressive by itself.
‘But we Maori people of New Zealand have a saying,’ he went on. ‘A man who can fool chiefs, and even gods, must still face the monsters he himself created.
‘Have you created a monster, Dr Lustig!’
The question direct. Alex realized why Hutton reminded him of Pedro Manella on that humid evening in Peru, as tear gas wafted down those debris-strewn streets and canals. Both big men had voices like Hollywood deities. Both were used to getting answers. Manella had pursued Alex onto the creaking hotel balcony to get a good view of the burning power plant. The reporter panned his camera as the main containment building collapsed amid clouds of powdery cement. Cheering students provided a vivid scene for Manella to feed live to his viewers on the Net.
‘When the mob cut the power cables, Lustig,’ the persistent journalist asked while shooting, ‘that let your black hole out of its magnetic cage. It fell into the Earth then, no? So what happens now? Will it emerge again, blazing and incinerating some hapless place halfway around the world?
‘What did you make here, Lustig? A beast that will devour us all?’
Even then, Alex recognized the hidden message between the words. The renowned investigator hadn’t been seeking truth; he wanted reassurance.
‘No, of course I didn’t,’ Alex remembered telling Manella on that day, and everyone else since then. Now he let go of the lie with relief.
‘Yes, Mr Hutton. I think I made the very Devil itself.’
Stan Goldman’s head jerked up. Until this moment, Alex hadn’t even confided in his old mentor. Sorry, Stan, he thought.
Silence stretched as Hutton stared at him. ‘You’re saying . . . the singularity didn’t dissipate like the experts said? That it might still be down there, absorbing matter from the Earth’s core?’
Alex understood the man’s incredulity. Human minds weren’t meant to picture something that was smaller than an atom, and yet weighed megatons. Something narrow enough to fall through the densest rock, yet bound to circle the planet’s center in a spiraling pavane of gravity. Something ineffably but insatiably hungry, and which grew ever hungrier the more it ate . . .
Just thinking about it put in sudden doubt the very notions of up and down. It challenged faith in the ground below your feet. Alex tried to explain.
‘The generals showed me their power plant . . . offered me a blank check to construct its core. So I took their word they’d be getting permission soon. Any day now, they kept telling me.’ Alex shrugged at his former gullibility. An old story, if a bitter one.
‘Like everybody else, I was sure the Standard Physical Model was correct – that no black hole lighter than the Earth itself could possibly be stable. Especially one as tiny as we made at Iquitos. It was supposed to evaporate at a controlled rate, after all. Its heat would power three provinces. Most of my colleagues think such facilities will be cleared for use within a decade.
‘But the generals wanted to jump the moratorium—’
‘Idiots,’ Hutton interrupted, shaking his head. They actually imagined they could keep a thing like that secret? These days?’
For the first time since Alex’s bombshell, Stan Goldman put in a comment. ‘Well George, they must have thought the plant well isolated in the Amazon.’
Hutton snorted dubiously, and in retrospect Alex agreed. The idea was harebrained. He’d been naive to accept the generals’ assurances of a calm working environment which proved as untrustworthy as the standard models of physics.
‘In fact,’ Goldman went on. ‘It took a leak from a secrets registration service to set that Manella character on Alex’s trail. If not for that, Alex might still be tending the singularity, safe inside its containment field. Isn’t that right, Alex?’
Good old Stan, Alex thought affectionately. Still making excuses for his favorite student, just as he used to back in Cambridge.
‘No, it’s not. You see, before the riot I was already preparing to sabotage the plant myself.’
While this seemed to surprise Goldman, George Hutton only tilted his head slightly. ‘You had discovered something unusual about your black hole.’
Alex nodded. ‘Before 2020, nobody imagined such things could be made in the laboratory at all. When it was found you could actually fold space inside a box and make a singularity . . . that shock should have taught us humility. But success made us smug instead. Soon we thought we understood the damned things. But there are . . . subtleties we never imagined.’
He spread his hands. ‘I first grew suspicious because things were going too bloody well! The power plant was extremely efficient, you see. We didn’t have to feed in much matter to keep it from dissipating. The generals were delighted of course. But I started thinking . . . might I have accidently created a new type of hole in space? One that’s stable? Able to grow by devouring mere rock?’
Stan gaped. Alex, too, had been numbed by that first realization, then agonized for weeks before deciding to take matters into his own hands, to defy his employers and defang the tiny, voracious beast he’d helped create.
But Pedro Manella arrived first, amid a flurry of accusations, and suddenly it was too late. Alex’s world collapsed around him before he could act, or even find out for certain what he’d made.
‘So it is a monster . . . a taniwha,’ George Hutton breathed. The Maori word sounded fearsome. The big man drummed his fingers on the table. ‘Let’s see if I’ve got this right. We have a purported stable black hole, that you think may orbit thousands of miles below our feet, possibly growing unstoppably even as we speak. Correct? I suppose you want my help in finding what you so carelessly misplaced?’
Alex was nearly as impressed with Hutton’s quickness as he was irked by his attitude. He suppressed a hot response. ‘I guess you could put it that way,’ he answered, levelly.
‘So. Would it be too much to ask how you’d go about looking for such an elusive fiend? It’s a little hard to go digging around down there in the Earth’s core.’
Hutton obviously thought he was being ironic. But Alex gave him a straightforward answer. ‘Your company already makes most of the equipment I’d need . . . like those superconducting gravity scanners you use for mineral surveys.’ Alex started reaching for his valise. ‘I’ve written down modifications—’
Hutton raised a hand. All trace of sardonicism was gone from his eyes. ‘I’ll take your word for now. It will be expensive, of course? No matter. If we find nothing, I’ll take the cost out of your pakeha hide. I’ll skin you and sell the pale thing in a tourist shop. Agreed?’
Alex swallowed, unable to believe it could be so simple. ‘Agreed. And if we do find it?’
Lines furrowed Hutton’s brow. ‘Why . . . then I’d be honor bound to take your pelt anyway, tohunga. For creating such a devil to consume our Earth, I should . . . ’
The big man stopped suddenly. He stood up, shaking his head. At the window, Hutton stared down at the city of Auckland, its evening lights beginning to spread like powdered gemstones across the hills. Beyond the metropolis lay forested slopes slanting to Manukau Bay. Twilight-stained clouds were moving in from the Tasman Sea, heavy with fresh rain. The scene reminded Alex of a time in childhood, when his grandmother had taken him to Wales to watch the turning of the autumn leaves. Then, as now, it had struck him just how temporary everything seemed . . . the foliage, the drifting clouds, the patient mountains . . . the world.
‘You know,’ George Hutton said slowly, still contemplating the peaceful view outside, ‘back when the American and Russian empires used to face each other at the brink of nuclear war, this was where people in the Northern Hemisphere dreamed about fleeing to. Were you aware of that, Lustig? Every time there was a crisis, airlines suddenly overbooked with “vacation” trips to New Zealand. People must have thought this the ideal spot to ride out a holocaust.
‘And that didn’t change with the Rio Treaties, did it? Big War went away, but then came the cancer plague, greenhouse heat, spreading deserts . . . and lots of little wars of course, over an oasis here, a river there.
‘All the time though, we Kiwis still felt lucky. Our rains didn’t abandon us. Our fisheries didn’t die.
‘Now all those illusions are gone. There’s no safe place any longer.’
The big man turned to look at Alex, and despite his words there was no loathing in the tycoon-engineer’s eyes. Nor even bleakness. Only what Alex took to be a heavy resignation.
‘I wish I could hate you, Lustig, but you’ve obviously subcontracted that job quite ably yourself. And so you deprive me even of revenge.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Alex apologized sincerely.
Hutton nodded. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
‘All right then, let’s get to work. If Tane, father of the Maori, could go into the bowels of the Earth to battle monsters, who are we then to refuse?’