The action-packed seventh novel in James S. A. Corey’s New York Times bestselling science fiction series, the Expanse, now a major TV series
Almost three decades had passed since Paolo Cortazár and the breakaway fleet had passed through Laconia gate. Time enough to build a little civilization, a city, a culture. Time enough for him to confirm that alien engineers had designed the protomolecule as a bridge builder. They had thrown it into the stars like seeds to hijack whatever organic life it encountered and create ring gates into a pocket universe, a nexus between worlds. Until they died out, the slow zone and its rings had been the hub of an empire that defied human comprehension. And now, it would be again. A little bridge-building mechanism that overcame locality changed everything for all humanity.
Not that Paolo cared about all humanity. For him, the fact of the protomolecule and the technologies it opened was all-encompassing. It not only changed the shape of the universe around him but also altered his personal and professional life. For decades, it had been his only obsession. In the fight that ended their relationship, his most recent boyfriend had accused him of actually loving the protomolecule.
Paolo hadn’t been able to deny it. It had been so long since Paolo felt anything approaching love for another human that he’d lost the context for what did and didn’t qualify. Certainly, studying the protomolecule and all the myriad branches of scientific insight that came from it took most of his time and attention. Understanding the ways in which it interacted with the other alien artifacts and technologies would be the work of lifetimes. He made no apology for his devotion. The tiny, beautiful speck so rich with implicit information was like a rosebud that never stopped blooming. It was beautiful in a way that nothing else could ever be. His lover had been unable to accept this, and the end of their relationship felt inevitable in retrospect. Paolo did miss him, in an abstract sort of way. Like he might miss a lost pair of comfortable shoes.
There were so many other wonderful things to occupy his time.
On the viewscreen in front of him, a latticework of carbon grew and unfolded in intricate, interwoven patterns. Given the correct environmental conditions and the right growth medium, the protomolecule defaulted to building these lattices. The material created was lighter than an equal volume of carbon fiber and had greater tensile strength than graphene. The Technology Directorate of the Laconian Military Council had asked him to explore its possible use in armor for infantry units. The lattice’s tendency to permanently bond to human skin made that problematic from an engineering standpoint, but it was still beautiful.
Paolo adjusted the sensitivity of the electron stream and leaned in toward the monitor, watching as the protomolecule picked up the free-floating carbon atoms and neatly wove them into the grid like it was a child focused on its play.
“Doctor Cortazár,” a voice said.
Paolo answered with a grunt and a wave of his hand that meant Go away, I’m busy in any language.
“Doctor Cortazár,” the voice repeated, insistent.
Paolo pulled his gaze away from the screen and turned around. A pale-skinned person of indefinite gender stood in a lab coat, holding a large hand terminal. Paolo thought their name was Caton? Canton? Cantor? Something like that. One of the lab’s army of technicians. Competent, as far as Paolo could recall. But now interrupting him, so there would have to be consequences. The nervous look on Caton/Cantor/Canton’s face told him they were very aware of this fact.
Before Paolo could speak, the tech said, “The director asked me to remind you that you have an appointment. With”—the tech’s voice went low, almost to a whisper—“him. With Him.” The tech did not mean the director. There was only one Him.
Paolo turned off the video display and checked to make sure the monitoring systems were recording everything before he stood up.
“Yes, of course,” he said. And then, because he was making an effort these days, “Thank you. Cantor?”
“Caton,” the tech replied with visible relief.
“Of course. Please let the director know I’m on my way.”
“I’m supposed to accompany you, Doctor,” Caton said, tapping on the hand terminal as though this fact was on a list somewhere.
“Of course.” Paolo pulled his coat off a rack by the door and headed out.
The bioengineering and nanoinformatics lab of the University of Laconia was the largest research lab on the planet. Possibly in the entirety of human space. The university campus spread across nearly forty hectares of land on the outskirts of the Laconian capital city. His labs accounted for almost a quarter of that space. Like everything on Laconia, it was orders of magnitude larger than it needed to be for the people who inhabited it now. It had been built for the future. For all those who would come after.
Paolo walked briskly along a gravel path, checking the monitor on his forearm as he went. Caton jogged along behind.
“Doctor,” the lab tech said, pointing in the opposite direction, “I brought a cart for you. It’s in Parking C.”
“Bring it around to the Pen. I have something to do there first.” Caton hesitated for a moment, caught between a direct order from him and the responsibility of being his chaperone.
“Yes, Doctor,” Caton said, then ran off in the other direction.
As he walked, Paolo scanned through his task list for the day to be sure he wasn’t forgetting anything else, then plucked his sleeve down over the monitor and looked up at the sky. It was a lovely day. Laconia had a bright cerulean-blue sky, with a few cottony white clouds scattered about. The massive rigging of the planet’s orbital construction platform was very faintly visible, all long arms and empty spaces between, like a massive oligonucleotide floating in space.
The gentle wind carried the faint burned plastic scent of a local fungus analog releasing what passed for spores. The breeze pushed the long fronds of dogwhistles across his path. The grunchers—approximately the same ecological niche as crickets with even a few morphological similarities—that clung to the plants hissed at him when he got too close. He had no idea why the weeds had been named dogwhistles. They looked more like pussy willows to him. And naming an insect analog that looked like a cricket with four limbs a gruncher made even less sense. There didn’t seem to be any scientific process to the naming of the local flora and fauna. People just threw names at things until a consensus arose. It annoyed him.
The Pen was different from the other lab buildings. He’d had its walls built from single sheets of high-impact armor plating welded airtight into ninety-degree angles to make a dark metallic cube twenty-five meters on a side. At the building’s only entrance, four soldiers wearing light armor and carrying assault rifles stood at alert.
“Doctor Cortazár,” one of the four said, holding out a hand in the universal gesture for Stop walking.
Paolo pulled his ID badge on its lanyard out from under his shirt and presented it to the guard, who plugged it into a reader. He then touched the reader to the skin on Paolo’s wrist.
“Nice day,” the guard said pleasantly, smiling as the machine did its work of comparing Paolo’s ID to his physical measurements and his identifying proteins.
“Lovely,” Paolo agreed.
The machine pinged its acceptance that he was actually Paolo Cortazár, the president of Laconia University and head of its exobiological studies lab. The guards had all known that by sight, but the ritual was important for more reasons than one. The door slid open, and the four guards stepped aside.
“Have a nice day, Doctor.”
“You as well,” Paolo said as he stepped into the security airlock. One wall hissed as hidden nozzles blasted him with air. Sensors on the opposite wall tested for explosives and infectious materials. And possibly even bad intentions.
After a moment, the hissing stopped, and the inner airlock door slid open. Only then did Paolo hear the moaning.
The Pen, as it was called by everyone in spite of not having an official name in any documentation, was the second highest security building on Laconia for a reason. It was where Paolo kept his milking herd.
That name had come from an early fight with his ex‑lover. He’d meant it as an insult, but it was an apt analogy. Inside the Pen, people and animals that had been deliberately infected with the protomolecule lived out the remainder of their lives. Once the alien nanotech had appropriated their cells and begun reproducing, Paolo’s staff could drain the bodies of their fluids and filter out the critical particles from the matrix tissue. When the bodies were exhausted, any remaining fluids could be incinerated without losing anything of value. There were bays for twenty-four, but only seventeen were occupied at the moment. Someday, with a wider population base, subjects would be more abundant.
The great works of Laconia depended on communicating with the underlying technology the long-dead alien civilization had left behind. The protomolecule hadn’t been designed as a universal control interface, but there was a modularity to the alien technology that let it function that way often enough for the work to proceed. It was Paolo’s job to supply the active samples needed. One of his jobs.
As he walked toward his office in the rear of the building, he paused on a catwalk over one of the holding pens. Half a dozen people in early stages of infection wandered around the cramped, metal-walled space. They were still in the pseudo-hemorrhagic fever phase the techs called Pukers. They could manage no more than a shambling walk and occasional violent bouts of vomiting. It was the protomolecule’s means of ensuring the infection would spread quickly. Once the bodies had been removed from the space, every centimeter of its metal walls and floor would be torched to destroy any biological debris.
They’d only had one accidental infection in the history of the lab, and Paolo intended to keep it that way.
Dr. Ochida, head of the Pen and Paolo’s second in command, spotted him from across the holding area and rushed over.
“Paolo,” Ochida said, clapping him on one shoulder in a friendly greeting. “Just in time. We finished pulling the stem cultures an hour ago, and the injections are prepped.”
“I recognize that one,” Paolo said, pointing at a hairy, muscular man in the Pen.
“Hm? Oh. Yes, he was one of our guards, I think. His intake paperwork said ‘dereliction of duty.’ Caught sleeping on watch, maybe?”
“You tested them?” Paolo asked. He didn’t actually care about the hairy man in the pen, and Ochida’s answer had satisfied his curiosity.
It took Ochida a moment to realize they’d changed back to the original subject. “Oh, yes. I tested the samples for purity three times. Personally.”
“I’m going directly from here to the State Building,” Paolo said, turning to look Ochida in the eye.
His assistant knew what he was asking and replied, “I understand. These injections exactly meet your specifications.”
If anything went wrong, they both knew they’d be the next two placed in the Pen. They were valuable, but they weren’t beyond consequences. No one was. That was what Laconia meant.
“Excellent,” Paolo said, giving Ochida a friendly smile he didn’t actually feel. “I’ll take them now.”
Ochida waved at someone in a corner of the room, and a tech trotted over carrying a silvery metal briefcase. She handed the case to Paolo, then left.
“Is there anything else?” Ochida asked.
“I’m starting to see some growth,” Paolo said, pointing at a bone spur protruding from the hairy man’s spine.
“Yes,” Ochida agreed. “They’re nearly ready.”
* * *
In the time he’d worked with Winston Duarte, Paolo had found much to admire in the man. The high consul was intelligent, given to astounding leaps of comprehension on complex topics but still measured and thoughtful in his decision making. Duarte valued the counsel of others but was decisive and firm once the information was gathered. He could be charismatic and warm without ever seeming false or insincere.
But more than anything else, Paolo respected his total lack of pretension. Many lesser people, holding a position like absolute military dictator of an entire planet, would wrap themselves in pomp and glittering palaces. Duarte had instead built the State Building of Laconia. A massive construction of stone that towered over the rest of the capital city, it still somehow managed to feel comforting rather than intimidating. As though all its solidity and size was merely to house important works and solve serious problems. Not aggrandize those inside it.
Caton drove Paolo’s little cart up the wide street that led to the building’s front entrance. They were the only traffic. The street ended at a high stone wall, a narrow gate, and a guard post. Paolo climbed out of the cart, taking the metal briefcase with him.
“No need to wait for me,” Paolo said to Caton.
The tech hadn’t spoken since picking him up outside the Pen, and seemed relieved to be dismissed. “Yes, Doctor. Call if you—” But Paolo was already walking away. He heard the car’s electric whine as it left.
The narrow gate opened as he approached, and two soldiers left the guard post and fell in alongside him without a word. These were not like the lightly armored guards that stood watch at the university. These wore strength-augmenting suits of articulated composite plates, with a variety of weapons mounted on them. The suits were the same dark blue as the Laconian flag and had the same pair of stylized wings. A phoenix, he thought, but it might have been some sort of raptor. The pleasant color made the lethal war machines under it seem out of place. Their footsteps on the stone courtyard and the faint thrum of the power suits were the only noises that followed them to the State Building’s entrance.
At the door, his two guards stopped him, then spread out, one on each side. Paolo fancied he could feel the tickle of X‑rays and millimeter waves bouncing off his body as they scanned him head to toe. After a long moment one of them said, “The high consul is waiting for you in the medical wing,” and then they turned and walked away.
* * *
“Technically, yes. The dreams have stopped,” Duarte said as Paolo slid a hypodermic port line into a forearm vein and taped it down. He knew from experience that Duarte was distracting himself to keep from looking down and seeing the needles go in. It was endearing that the most powerful human in the universe was still a bit squeamish about needles.
“Have they?” Paolo asked. It wasn’t a casual question. The side effects of the incredibly experimental treatment Duarte was receiving were something to be kept close track of. “How long ago?”
Duarte sighed, and closed his eyes. Either relaxing as the first of the sedative mixture hit his veins, or trying to remember the exact date, or both. “The last one was eleven days ago.”
“Yes,” Duarte said with a smile and without opening his eyes, “I’m sure. Eleven days ago was the last time I slept.”
Paolo nearly dropped the IV line he was connecting to the port. “You haven’t slept in eleven days?”
Duarte’s eyes finally opened. “I don’t feel tired at all. Quite the opposite. Every day I feel more energetic and healthy than the last. A side effect of the treatment, I’m sure.”
Paolo nodded at this, though it wasn’t anything he’d anticipated. His stomach gave a tiny spasm of worry. If there was an unexpected side effect this extreme, then what else was waiting for them? He’d asked Duarte to wait until they had more data, but the man had demanded they move forward, and how could he argue?
“I see that look, old friend,” Duarte said, his smile even wider. “You don’t need to worry. I’ve been monitoring it myself. If anything were out of balance, I’d have called you a week ago. But I feel fantastic, I’m not building up fatigue poisons, and the blood work promised I’m not psychotic. And now I get an extra eight hours every day to work. I couldn’t be happier.”
“Of course,” Paolo replied. He finished hooking the IV bag filled with its payload of protomolecule-modified human stem cells into the port. Duarte gave a tiny gasp when the cool fluid started to enter his vein. “But please, do remember to send along these sorts of details, even if they don’t seem to be a problem. Animal models are never perfect, and you’re the first person to receive this treatment. Tracking the effects is incredibly important to—”
“I will,” Duarte replied. “I have full confidence that your lab has everything working exactly as it’s supposed to. But I’ll make sure my personal doctor sends you all his daily notes.”
“Thank you, High Consul,” Paolo said. “I’m going to draw some blood as well and have my people do a workup. Just to make sure.”
“Whatever you need,” Duarte said. “But as long as we’re alone, please don’t call me ‘High Consul.’ Winston’s fine.” Duarte’s voice had grown mushy, and Paolo could tell the sedatives were taking effect. “I want us all working together.”
“We are working together. But a body needs a brain. Leadership, yes?” Paolo replied. He let the IV bag empty, used the line to draw a small sample of Duarte’s blood and put it in the metal briefcase, and quietly went about the process of doing a full body scan. The treatment had begun growing a small number of new organs in Duarte’s body that had been designed by the best experimental physiologists on the planet and implemented using lessons taught by the eternal protomolecule bloom. But there were still so many things that might go wrong, and tracking the development of the changes in Duarte was the most important aspect of Paolo’s job. Despite Duarte’s warmth and the genuine friendship he showed, if anything happened to the Laconian ruler, he would be executed shortly thereafter. Tying Paolo’s safety to his own was how Duarte could guarantee the scientist’s best efforts on his behalf. They both understood this, and there was no ill will attached. Paolo’s death wouldn’t be punishment, exactly. Just a clear disincentive to letting his patient die.
As relationships went, it was probably the most honest one Paolo had ever had.
“You know, Winston, that this is going to be a very long process. There may be imbalances small enough that they don’t appear for years. Decades.”
“Centuries,” he said, nodding. “It’s imperfect, I know. But we do what we have to do. And, no, old friend. I’m sorry, but I haven’t reconsidered.”
Paolo wondered if the ability to read minds was yet another unexpected side effect of the treatment. If so . . . well, that would be interesting. “I wasn’t suggesting that—”
“That you should undergo the treatment too?” Duarte said. “Of course you were. And you should suggest it. Make the best argument you can. I don’t believe you’ll change my mind, but I’d like it very much if you did.”
Paolo looked at his hands, avoiding Duarte’s eyes. Defiance would have been easier for him. The melancholy in the man’s voice was disturbing in a way he found hard to understand.
“The ironic thing?” Duarte said. “I’ve always rejected the great-man idea. The belief that human history was formed by singular individuals instead of broad social forces? Romantic, but . . .” He waved a hand vaguely, like he was stirring fog. “Demographic trends. Economic cycles. Technological progress. All much more powerful predictors than any one person. And yet here I am. I would take you with me if I could, you know. It’s not my choice. It’s history’s.”
“History should reconsider,” Paolo said.
Duarte chuckled. “The difference between zero and one is miraculous. But it’s as miraculous as it ever will be. Make it two. Three. A hundred. It becomes just another oligarchy. A permanent engine of inequality that will breed the wars we’re trying to end.”
Paolo made a small sound that could have been mistaken for agreement.
“The best governments in history have been kings and emperors,” Duarte said. “The worst ones too. A philosopher-king can manage great things in his lifetime. And his grandchildren can squander it.”
Duarte grunted as Paolo pulled the hypodermic port out of his arm. He didn’t need to place a bandage over the wound. The hole closed up before a drop of blood could escape. It didn’t even scab.
“If you want to create a lasting, stable social order,” Duarte said, “only one person can ever be immortal.”