Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Tade Thompson makes a triumphant return to science fiction with this unforgettable vision of humanity’s future among the stars. A stunning new space opera from the author of Rosewater
Earth / Ragtime: Michelle “Shell” Campion
There is no need to know what no one will ask.
Walking on gravel, boots crunching with each step, Shell doesn’t know if she is who she is because it’s what she wants or because it’s what her family expects of her. The desire for spaceflight has been omnipresent since she can remember, since she was three. Going to space, escaping the solar system, surfing wormhole relativity, none of these is any kind of frontier any more. There will be no documentary about the life and times of Michelle Campion. She still wants to know, though. For herself.
The isolation is getting to her, no doubt. No, not isolation, because she’s used to that from training. Isolation without progress is what bothers her, isolation without object. She thinks herself at the exact centre of the quarantine house courtyard. It’s like being in a prison yard for exercise, staggered hours so she doesn’t run into anyone. Prison without a sentence. They run tests on her blood and her tissues and she waits, day after day.
She stops and breathes in the summer breeze, looks up to get the Florida sun on her face. She’s cut her hair short for the spaceflight. She toyed with the idea of shaving her head, but MaxGalactix didn’t think this would be mediafriendly, whatever that means.
Shell spots something and bends over. A weed, a small sprout, pushing its way up between the stones. It shouldn’t be there in the chemically treated ground, but here it is, implacable life. She feels an urge to pluck the fragile green thread, but she does not. She strokes the weed once and straightens up. Humans in the cosmos are like errant weeds. Shell wonders what giants or gods stroke humanity when they slip between the stars.
The wind changes and Shell smells food from the kitchen prepared for the ground staff and their families. Passengers and crew like Shell are already eating space food, like they’ve already left Earth.
Around her are the living areas of the quarantine house. High-rises of glass and steel forming a rectangle around the courtyard. One thousand passengers waiting to board various space shuttles that will ferry them to the starship Ragtime.
Shell, just out of training, along for the ride or experience, committed to ten years in space in Dreamstate, arrival and delivery of passengers to the colony Bloodroot, then ten further years on the ride back. She’ll be mid-forties when she returns. Might as well be a passenger because the AI pilots and captains the ship. She is the first mate, a wholly ceremonial position which has never been needed in the history of interstellar spaceflight. She has overlearned everything to do with the Ragtime and the flight. At some predetermined point, it will allow her to take the con, for experience and with the AI metaphorically watching over her shoulder.
She turns to her own building and leaves the courtyard. She feels no eyes on her but knows there must be people at the windows.
* * *
The quarantine house is comfortable, not opulent like that of most of the passengers. The Ragtime is already parked in orbit according to the Artificial who showed Shell to her quarters. Inaccurate: It was built in orbit, so not really parked. It’s in the dry dock.
Shell spends her quarantine reading and lifting – not her usual keep-fit choice, but space demineralises bone and lifting helps. She usually prefers running and swimming.
The reading material is uninspiring, half of it being specs for the Ragtime. It’s boring because she won’t need to know any of it. The AI flies the ship, and nothing ever goes wrong because AIs have never failed in flight. Once a simulated launch failed, but that was a software glitch. Current AI is hard-coded in the ships’ Pentagrams. MaxGalactix makes the Pentagrams, and they don’t make mistakes.
If she’s lucky, it’ll be two weeks of quarantine, frenetic activity, then ten years of sleep.
Shell works her worry beads. She has been in space, orbited, spent three months on a space station, spent countless simulation hours in a pod in Alaska, trained for interstellar, overtrained.
“It’s a legal requirement,” her boss had said. The private company had snatched her right out from under NASA’s nose six months to the end of her training. Shell still feels bad about it. She misses a lot of good people.
“A spaceflight-rated human has to go with every trip, but you won’t have to do anything, Michelle. We cover two bases: the legal, and you clocking space years. After this, you can pretty much write your own career ticket.”
“If that’s so,” said Shell, “why isn’t anyone else sitting where I’m sitting? Someone with seniority?”
“Seniority.” Her boss had nodded. “Listen, Michelle, you have to get out of that NASA mindset. We don’t use seniority or any of those outdated concepts.”
Shell raised an eyebrow.
“All right, your father has a little to do with it.”
Of course he did. Haldene Campion, legendary astronaut, immortal because instead of dying like all the other old-timers, he went missing. Legally declared dead, but everybody knows that’s just paperwork. A shadow Shell can never get away from, although she is not sure she wants to. A part of her feels he is still alive somewhere in an eddy of an Einstein- Rosen bridge. She once read that dying in a black hole would leave all of someone’s information intact and trapped. Theoretically, if the information could escape the black hole the person could be reconstructed. Shell often wondered, what if the person were still alive in some undefinable way? Would they be in pain and self-aware for eternity? Would they miss their loved ones?
The TV feed plays The Murders in the Rue Morgue, with George C. Scott streamed to her IFC. The film is dated and not very good, but it keeps Shell’s mind engaged for a while. Next is some demon-possession B movie, a cheap Exorcist knock-off that Shell can’t stand.
Each day lab techs come in for more blood and a saliva swab. It isn’t onerous – a spit and a pin prick.
On day ten, the Ragtime calls her.
“Mission Specialist Michelle Campion?”
“Hi. It’s the Ragtime calling. I’m going to be your pilot and the ship controller. I wanted to have at least one conversation before you boarded.”
“Oh, thank you. Most people call me ‘Shell’.”
“I know. I didn’t want to be presumptuous.”
“It’s not presumptuous, Captain.”
“I prefer Ragtime. Especially if I’m to call you ‘Shell’.”
“Okay, Ragtime. May I ask what gender you’re presenting? Your voice, while comforting, could go either way.”
“Male for this flight, and thank you for asking. Are you ready?”
“I hope to learn a lot, Ragtime, but I have to admit, I’m nervous.”
“But you know what you’re meant to know, right?”
What does Shell know?
She knows everything she was taught about space travel by the best minds on Earth. She knows how to find an edible plant when confronted with unfamiliar vegetation. She can make water in a desert. She can negotiate with people who do not speak the same language as her in case she crash-lands in a place without English or Spanish. She can suture her own wounds with one hand if need be, sinistral or dextral. She knows basic electronics and can solder or weld unfamiliar circuitry if the situation demands it. She can live without human contact for two hundred and fourteen days. Maybe longer. Though she is not a pilot, she can fly a plane. Not well, but she can do it. Best minds on Earth.
What Shell knows is that she does not know enough.
She says, “I hope I’ll have the chance to see things I’ve learned in action.”
“I’m sure we’ll be able to make it a wonderful experience for you. Do you like poetry?”
“Wow, that’s an odd . . . I know exactly one line of poetry. In seed time learn, in harvest teach—”
“In winter enjoy. William Blake. I have access to his complete works, if you would like to hear more.”
“No, thank you. The line just stuck in my mind from when I was a kid. Not a poetry gal.”
“Not yet, but it’s a long trip. You may find yourself changing in ways you didn’t anticipate, Shell.”
“Isn’t this your first flight as well?”
“It is, but I have decades of the experiences of other ships to draw on. Imagine having access to the memories of your entire family line. It’s like that, and it makes me wise beyond my years.”
“It’s not too late to go back home, you know.”
“You’d be surprised at how many people lose their nerve at the last minute. I had to ask. I’ll see you on board, Shell.”
Chatty for a ship AI, but it depends on feedback loops that taught him how to converse with humans. Not too late to go back home. Does he know the level of commitment required to get this far? The people who would consider going back home have already fallen away.
* * *
The thing you miss when in space is an abundance of water to wash with. One of Shell’s rituals before spaceflight is a prolonged bubble bath. She stays there long enough to cook several lobsters, until her skin is wrinkled. She listens to Jack Benny on repeat. She feels decadent.
When she wraps herself in a housecoat and emerges from the bathroom, she does not feel refreshed because she knows from experience that this will not reduce the ick factor for long.
* * *
On the eve of her departure Shell conferences with her brothers, Toby and Hank. The holograms are decent, and if not for the lack of smell she’d have thought they were right in the room with her. Good signals, good sound quality.
“Hey,” she says.
“Baby sister,” says Toby. Tall, blond from their mother, talkative, always smiling, and transmitting from somewhere on Mars, a settlement whose name Shell can never remember.
“Stinkbug,” says Hank. Brown hair, five- eight, slender. He’s called her that since she was two. Taciturn, works as some kind of operative or agent. Brown hair, five-eight, slender. He and Shell look alike and they both favour their father. He cannot talk about his work.
“While you’re out there, look out for Dad,” says Toby.
“Don’t,” says Hank.
“What? We don’t know that he’s dead,” says Toby.
“It’s been fifteen years,” says Shell. Toby always does this. They declared Haldene Campion dead years ago so they could move on and disburse his assets.
“Just keep your ears open,” says Toby.
“How? We’re all going to be asleep for the journey, you know that.”
Toby nods. The hell does that mean?
“I’ll tell you what Dad told me,” says Hank. “Make us prouder.”
“ ‘Prouder’?” says Shell.
“Yes, he said he was already proud of our achievements. It was his way of saying ‘do more’ or something,” says Toby.
“I’m just starting. I don’t have anything to prove,” says Shell.
“Campions are champions,” says Hank.
“Jesus, stop,” says Shell. Shell remembers that their father used to say that too.
They talk some more, this and that, everything and nothing.
* * *
Not a lot of companies use Kennedy Space Center any more, but strong nostalgia draws a crowd, and publicity matters, or so MaxGalactix tells Shell. Geographically, KSC is good for launching into an equatorial orbit, but new sites that are more favourable in orbital mechanics terms and friendly to American interests have popped up. KSC is prestige and history.
Nobody told her there would be one, so now she is embarrassed because she doesn’t like crowds or displays of . . . whatever this is. So many of them wave, some with American flags, some with the mission patch.
She waves back, because that’s what you do, but she would like to be out of the Florida sun and inside the shuttle. You wave with your hand lower than your shoulder so that it doesn’t obscure the face of the person behind you. They teach you that too.
* * *
Blast off; God’s boot on her entire body, both hard and soft, and behind her the reaction of the seat. Shell is not a fan of gs, but training has made her tolerant.
Do not come to heaven, mortals, says God, and tries without success to kick them back to the surface of the planet.
Why am I here? I shouldn’t be here.
But she is, and she will deal with God’s boot and come out the other side.
The Earth is behind her and the Ragtime lies ahead. Short, shallow breaths, wait it out.
* * *
After docking, Artificials from the shuttle escort and usher Shell and other passengers from the airlock through the entire length of the ship to their pods. Medbots stick IVs and urine tubes into her while a recording goes over Ragtime’s itinerary. First hop is from Earth to Space Station Daedalus, then bridge- jumps to several space stations till they arrive at Space Station Lagos for a final service before the last jaunt to the colony planet Bloodroot.
“You’ll be asleep at Lagos, so don’t worry about anything you may have heard about Beko,” says Ragtime.
“Oh, you don’t know. Lagos has a governor, but the real power is Secretary Beko. She has a reputation for being very intense. It doesn’t matter. You will not be interacting with her, so relax.”
“All right. What about on Bloodroot?”
“You’re not meeting anyone on Bloodroot either. We enter orbit, they send shuttles to get their passengers, we turn around and come home. Easy.”
“Won’t I need furlough by then? It’s a ship, Ragtime. It can get boring.”
“I don’t see why you can’t spend time on the surface. You’ve had all the necessary vaccinations. If you want to, just tell me at the time.”
Shell starts to feel woozy. “I’m getting . . . getting . . . ”
“Don’t worry, that’s the sedative. I’ll wake you when we get to . . . and . . . ”
The world fades.