Check out Lockstep, a space opera by Karl Schroeder, available March 25th from Tor Books!
When seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal finds himself lost in space, separated from his family, he expects his next drift into cold sleep to be his last. After all, the planet he’s orbiting is frozen and sunless, and the cities are dead. But when Toby wakes again, he’s surprised to discover a thriving planet, a strange and prosperous galaxy, and something stranger still—that he’s been asleep for 14,000 years.
Welcome to the Lockstep Empire, where civilization is kept alive by careful hibernation. Here cold sleeps can last decades and waking moments mere weeks. Its citizens survive for millennia, traveling asleep on long voyages between worlds. Not only is Lockstep the new center of the galaxy, but Toby is shocked to learn that the Empire is still ruled by its founding family: his own.
Toby Wyatt McGonigal awoke to biting cold and utter silence. When he opened his eyes he saw nothing, only a perfect black.
“Hello?” His voice was a rough croak, its sound so surprising to him that he coughed. He tried to put his hand to his mouth, but it moved only a few centimeters before striking some flat surface.
A lid, covering him where he lay.
A momentary panic took him, but as he banged his knees, hands, and forehead against the cold curved substance, he realized something else.
He was weightless.
With that realization, all his muscles relaxed; he let all the air out of his lungs in a whoosh, then laughed. Of course he was weightless. He wasn’t on Earth, buried alive in some coffin. He was in space. He was on his way to do something, for the family, for his brother, and if he was awake now that meant he’d reached his destination. Hibernation time was over.
That single moment of panic had worn him out, but hibernation was like that; he remembered the weakness from last time. It should pass in a few hours.
Gradually his fluttering pulse slowed, and when he felt more in control he groped until he found his glasses, which he’d stowed at his side when he’d gotten into his little ship’s cicada bed, weeks—or was it months, now?—ago.
He slid on the augmented reality glasses, wincing at the icy cold against his temples.
“Ship, give me a status report,” he said. Nothing happened. “A little light, at least?”
Maybe the glasses’ batteries had drained. Considering how long he’d been out, that was likely. It was stupid that he hadn’t thought of that, though; he relied on them as his interface to everything— ship, communications, and the all-important gameworld, Consensus, where he spent most of his time.
Who knew what Peter had gotten up to in Consensus while he was asleep? His brother would have had time to invent whole new civilizations, colonize new systems—who knew what? Knowing what had happened in the game while he was asleep was nearly as important to Toby as making sure he’d arrived at Rockette on time.
Everything was still black; the ship hadn’t replied. “Glasses, load Consensus,” Toby said. Maybe there was a communications problem; since Consensus was local to the glasses, it at least should boot up if they were online at all.
Weak flickers of light appeared at infinity, then resolved into words: POWER CRITICALLY LOW. Toby had never seen that message before, but it was obvious what it meant.
“Consensus… load me some personalities. Sol? Miranda? Can you hear me?”
There was no answer from any of them, and suddenly panic had him shaking the cicada bed’s exit handles. An alarm buzzed and finally there was light outside of the glasses; more glowing letters had appeared in the translucent material: VACUUM DETECTED. “Crap!” Something was wrong, the ship’s systems had failed, he was stuck here with no way out—
“Toby.” It was Miranda’s voice, coming through his glasses’ earpiece. “There’s an emergency suit under your mattress. Put it on and the bed will open.”
He felt around until he had the suit’s glove in his hand. He gave it a squeeze and the thing climbed over his body, its pieces snapping into place with reassuring precision.
When the helmet had built itself over his face, it signaled the bed, and with a sucking sound the canopy opened. Toby drifted off its surface and into a place he should know but which, as he looked around, had become frighteningly strange.
His headlamp showed him to be in a round room about thirteen meters in diameter. The place was full of jumbled shapes. Most were turning slowly in midair in zero gravity; all were covered with white, fuzzy hoarfrost.
The suit seemed to have power, so he ordered it to recharge his glasses. Then he said, “Miranda? Can you embody?”
“Yes,” she said, then a moment later, Sol added, “On my way, boss.”
Two headlamps snapped on off to his left, and moments later two space-suited figures were bumping their way through the debris, the cones of light flicking off now this, now that odd shape. The jumbled stuff was mostly butlers and grippies—bigger and smaller robots that could conspire with your glasses to pretend to be other people or walls or trees or furniture in a virtual world like Consensus. The little grippies could change their shape and texture and pretend to be anything you might pick up. Combined with the glasses’ visual and auditory illusions, they’d made this cramped little ship tolerable for Toby on the flight out. At least until he’d gone into hibernation.
“Ship?” he asked again; there was still no response. “What happened?” he asked the other two.
“We’ve lost main power,” said Sol Norton, his voice coming clearly through Toby’s glasses. “But I don’t know why, and I don’t know how long ago.”
“What does that mean? Did we miss Rockette?”
There was a long pause. “I’m not jumping to any conclusions,” said Sol curtly.
Rockette was the dormant comet their little ship had been headed to. It had just been discovered, and Dad suspected it might be in a very long orbit around the dwarf planet Sedna, which would make it a moon. In order to keep their family’s claim on Sedna, all the little world’s moons had to be claimed by a McGonigal. Because Dad was on his way to Earth to formalize the claim, Toby had been sent to rendezvous with Rockette. His job was to claim it and then turn around and return to Sedna.
It was a pretty big responsibility; he was only seventeen. He was getting used to doing stuff like this, though. Helping run his parents’ colony on Sedna was all-consuming, just as taking care of his traumatized brother, Peter, had been in the year leading up to their leaving Earth.
“We’re going down to the bot room,” continued Sol. “See what else we can get under manual control.”
“Thanks.” Toby wasn’t surprised that all the other ship’s systems might have failed but that his cicada bed had worked just fine. The hibernation beds—technology his parents had bought and perfected—were amazingly reliable. They were what had made it possible for the family to homestead here, with a couple dozen close friends and volunteers, far beyond the orbit of Pluto.
“Well, we can use some of this stuff,” said Miranda as she and Sol cast their helmet lamps into the bot room. She sounded optimistic and calm, as always. That was why he’d thought of her when he’d called on his Consensus allies; Miranda, like Sol, was always able to encourage Toby when things became difficult.
Toby bounced over to perch next to them at the hatch. “Why were we woken up? And what’s all this weird frost all over everything?”
“It’s air, Toby,” Miranda said. “Frozen air. Sol, do you see that?”
“Yeah.” Sol flipped through the hatch and kicked off through a constellation of motionless robots. These were mostly maintenance and repair bots that were supposed to be able to fix anything that went wrong with the ship. All were dark and lifeless.
He leaned close to the wall to look at the frost. The little forest of white spikes was perfectly clear for a second, then it began to shimmer. The little light on his helmet was enough to evaporate it. Toby had seen that before, back on Sedna. It meant the temperature in here was not far above absolute zero.
“Hey, wait up!” He clumsily batted aside the dead bots, following the guide of the others’ lights. He found them at the back of the bot room, which was the aft-most living chamber in the ship. There was an airlock here, and lots of stowage and tools. And…
A hole in the back wall.
It was about a meter across, with odd blocky edges, and outside it he could see stars and the black silhouette of the ship’s engine spine. “The bots tried to patch it,” said Miranda, pointing to the squared edges of the hole, “but it was too big. Anyway, all the air
would have gone out in the first few seconds.”
Sol was cursing under his breath. “But what made it?” He jumped
back the way they’d come and after a minute shouted, “Found another!”
It turned out there was a coin-sized hole, clogged with frozen air, through the wall between the main chamber and the bot room. And when they went to the front of that room they found a tiny, pinhead-sized hole there, too.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” said Toby. Miranda was moving kind of slowly; he hoped her suit wasn’t running out of power. “What happened?”
“We hit a pebble,” said Sol. “More of a sand grain, actually, from the size of that first hole. We’re going so fast that it hit us hard as a bomb. See that first hole? By the time it came through, it was exploding, but it went through us so quickly that the explosion was only this big”—he spread two fingers just a bit—“by the time it hit the back wall there, and only this big”—he spread his arms to the width of the hole in the back of the bot room—“when it left us. That’s okay—we can patch up Life Support. The big question is whether it hit the drive unit.”
“Oh…” And that was all Toby could say, as it began to finally sink in just how much trouble they were in. For the next few minutes all he could do was follow the other two back and forth as they tried to revive parts—any parts—of the ship’s systems. It turned out their suits really were getting low on power, like Toby’s. If it ran out, he’d lose both of them.
Funny, though, that the first coherent thought Toby over the next while was, Peter, I’m sorry I left.
How long now had his brother had been clinging to Toby like a life raft? So long that his emotional dependence had come to define both of them. Having Toby leave him for a few months for Rockette had devastated Peter. The separation was supposed to help Peter rebuild his own coping abilities. Their mother and sister would help, and Consensus was part of the plan, of course.
Toby had stayed awake as long as he could. During the weeks of the engine burn, Toby hadn’t once switched off his virtual views to look at the real ship that surrounded him. Peter had demanded that he stay awake, stay in Consensus and keep their versions of the gameworld synced.
So as he traveled he’d tangled anxious Peter up with the discovery of fantastic alien planets, and despicable enemies, cunning plots and rousing battles in a universe more colorful than the real one they lived on. Their shared world kept Peter focused and able to cope. What Toby hadn’t counted on was how the communications lag with the game servers back home kept growing. After twenty days, his version of Consensus was totally out of sync with Peter’s back on Sedna. And the math couldn’t be second-guessed: the tug’s life support was nearly half used up. It was time to enter cold sleep.
“Guys, we need to get communications up!”
“We know that, Toby.”
If the tug’s engines had died, if they’d missed Rockette… they
could keep on speeding on their course for another ten billion years and never encounter another grain of sand the size of the one they’d hit, much less another planet or a friendly spaceship ready to rescue them.
Toby suddenly had an overwhelming need to do something— anything. Sol and Miranda kept talking about power couplings and radioisotope generators as Toby knocked his way through the dead machines in the bot room. Their calm focus wasn’t reassuring anymore; after all, there was nothing really at stake for them. He reached the hole in the rear bulkhead and paused to inspect its edges. They were smooth, but he knew he should check for any razor-sharp edges. It wouldn’t do to cut his suit open.
He poked his head outside, and there were the stars—brighter and more overwhelmingly numerous than he’d ever seen on Earth. He’d seen them like this on the surface of Sedna, and they always seemed unreal, a fantasy painter’s version of the sky. But no. This was the reality of where he was.
Toby had looked up the distances once—just once. Light that could zip around Earth seven times in one second would take eleven hours to go from there to Sedna. After reading that, he’d stopped trying to picture the scale of their isolation. Yet the knowledge always hung there like a weight in the back of his mind.
He aimed his fading headlamp down the long open-work girder that joined the ship’s passenger unit to the drive section. He hadn’t spent much time inspecting the ship during the flight out, but still knew what things back there should look like.
“Just a minute, Toby.”
“No, really. You should see this.”
There were a bunch of bot-shaped silhouettes clustered around the engines. And they were moving.
“I think some bots are repairing the engines!”
“What?” In seconds, Sol was pushing past him, shining a blinding light out that erased the stars. “I should have been in the loop! Why can’t I get a signal out of them? Out of the way!”
Toby spotted a handhold on the outside hull; impulsively, he grabbed it and flipped himself out through the hole. Sol’s helmet appeared and he shone his own lamp at the bots. He cheered.
“Go, little guys!” Miranda’s helmet appeared next to his; for a while they chattered about rerouting power and recharging stuff. The lamplight turned the slowly working bots into dazzling white shapes, throwing everything else into blackness. Toby watched them for a while, then thought of the stars again. He turned away.
Reflected light outlined the ship’s curves in ghostly gray. You could still see stars beyond that, of course. He continued turning, following the twisting banner of the Milky Way as it wove toward the ship’s bow…
…And disappeared into a giant arc of blackness that took up a good third of the sky.
“What the—?” He looked around for a better vantage point. Belatedly he remembered that these emergency suits had coils of cable at their waists; he hooked one end of his to the first handhold and then launched himself around the tiny horizon of the ship. Now he could see the length of the bot room and past the living section beyond it to the tug’s bow. He should be seeing the cluster of telescopes and other instruments there, as silhouettes against the stars. There were no stars. Instead, a vast circle of perfect black loomed up ahead, with the ship aimed at its center like a dart.
He’d seen the radar profile of Rockette. It was a lumpy potato shape. This perfect circle… you only got that crisp perfection in things that were really, really big. Things like planets.
“Guys? Guys! We’re… I think we’re back at Sedna!”
There’d always been the chance that their little colony of one hundred people would end up frozen and dead. Maybe Pluto was as far as humans would ever get from Earth; maybe the stars really were too far away. Nobody had ever come up with a magical means of going faster than light, after all. Only governments and a few trillionaires could afford to send probes to Alpha Centauri or the other nearby stars, and even then they took decades to reach their destinations.
But it was still possible—barely—to stake your own claim on an entire planet. Out past the edge of the solar system, thousands of orphan worlds drifted. The known ones had strange names like Quaoar, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. All were impossibly cold and distant, but if you could be the first person to step onto one, you could own it.
Toby’s parents owned Sedna.
Back home on Earth, if you weren’t already one of the trillionaires, you’d never be more than a servant to those who were. So his parents had scraped together several generations’ worth of inheritances and come to homestead in a vast region of space so empty that you could hide a thousand solar systems in it with room to spare. Out here, the nearest boulder-size object was probably farther away than Jupiter was from the sun. Toby had once heard that the Eskimos had fifty words for snow. Out here, you needed at least fifty for empty.
The calm tones of Miranda’s voice were reassuring. She and Sol were excitedly reviewing the work the repair bots had done back at the engines. Maybe they could tease some power out of it—get working laser comms going, maybe some heat and light. Unfreeze the air in the cabin.
While they did that, Toby perched on the nose of the ship and stared down at the planet. It was a big black nothing, of course, but he’d watched Sedna recede through the ship’s telescope when they’d first left, and he knew one thing should be visible in that vast round cutout in the star field.
There should be a single tiny, forlorn pinprick of light down there, near the equator. Home.
“Let’s fire it up. Toby, you coming in? We’ll get a better view through the light amplifiers.”
“Sure.” Sol and Miranda were getting more optimistic by the minute, but Toby’s heart was sinking as he flipped back through the hole in the hull and went forward to the inflatable airlock Sol had glued around the main compartment hatch. Toby decided not to mention the absence of the little star that should be down there.
He stayed silent as the other two tested then started the power diverters. Lights flickered on throughout the long cylindrical cabin, starkly gleaming off the frozen sides of the butlers and grippies. Sol and Miranda cheered.
“Now to get some communications going,” said Sol.
“Oh, heat and air first, please,” pleaded Miranda. “Toby needs to get out of that suit!”
Heating the crew quarters took a long time, as the interstellar cold had to be driven out of everything in the place. Heaters roared, the hoarfrost melted, and eventually the temperature edged up above minus fifty. Sol took of his helmet and gave a virtual sniff. “Like breathing fire,” he said. “But it’ll get better. And now that the primary CPU’s online…” He moved to a metal keypad and touched a few buttons.
All around Toby the butlers and grippies were stirring, but Sol quickly shut them down, too. “We don’t need more of them going than we’ve already got,” he pointed out.
“Now to see where we are.” Sol connected the telescope feed to Toby’s glasses; the tug’s walls faded and the pale curve of the planet appeared.
The ship’s telescope could amplify the thin trickle of starlight touching this world and make out color and detail thousands of kilometers below. For a minute or so, Toby, Sol, and Miranda all stared in silence at what it showed. Then Sol said, “Well…”
Toby shook his head; it was just what he’d feared. “That’s not Sedna.”
It was a crimson world. The screen showed mountains, canyons, and vast flat plains that might be frozen oceans. All were painted in shades of rust and scarlet, as if a vast drop of blood had been hung here in deep space, scattered perhaps by some wounded god a billion years ago.
In this way the planet was exactly like Sedna, or Eris, or any of the millions of comets that peppered interstellar space. All had this bloodred hue. Somebody had explained to Toby that over aeons of time, the slow trickle of cosmic radiation cooked the surfaces of these worlds, producing complex organic molecules— tholins, they called them—that were deep red.
In every other respect, this place was unlike Sedna. Sedna was tiny, its gravity barely able to keep it round. It was absolutely featureless, like a billiard ball. This planet had mountains.
“It’s as big as Earth!” Sol was reading the other instruments. “If we can get the engines running… find out where we are…”
Toby had been examining the mysterious orb. Now he pointed at the image. “What’re those?”
“What?” Sol seemed eager for the distraction.
“Those… pits? Circles?”
There were more than a dozen on the visible hemisphere: circular white formations, each two hundred or more kilometers across, surrounded by curls and lines of white like splash marks. “Meteor craters,” said Miranda dismissively. “Sol, what did the GPS say?”
“No…” Toby put two fingers on the screen and zoomed in. “Look there—at the center…”
Aeons ago, before the planet was ejected from the star system of its birth, this might have been an ocean shoreline. On one side of the circular white area, the surface was perfectly flat; on the other, hills and rugged canyons meandered into what looked like continental interior. It looked weirdly like someone had thrown a giant white paint bomb across the landscape—yet at its center…
Black lines, perfectly straight, crisscrossing each other. Dark rectangles and perfect circles, some tiny, some hundreds of meters across.
Toby zoomed out and then in on another of the white patches. It also radiated out from a mesh of black lines and dots. He guessed that the others would, too.
“Cities.” Sol grinned tightly at Miranda. “Saved, who would have believed it? Just gotta… get the comms working…”
But she was frowning. “Where are the lights?”
That was true—there were no windows glowing down there, no greenhouse dome lights to keep the eternal darkness of interstellar night at bay. Toby ventured, “Maybe they’re underground? A subsurface ocean? Can we look at this in infrared?”
Sol grunted and made some adjustments. The image flickered into false color—bright blues, whites, and mauve. “The colors show differences in temperature to a tenth of a degree or so,” he said. The city structures were barely distinguishable from the frozen landscape surrounding them. And the ambient temperature was about the same as Sedna’s: a balmy three degrees above absolute zero. Cold enough to turn water ice hard as granite, freeze air, and make any life or mechanical motion impossible.
“Dead,” Toby mumbled.
Sol breezily waved a hand. “It’s the find of the century, Tobe! We just gotta find out where we are and phone home…” He was flipping through diagnostic windows, trying different things, but Toby could see exactly what those windows were saying.
“Sol… Sol, stop! The engines are dead!”
He glanced back. “Yeah, but—”
“They’re dead. The bots kept them alive just long enough to put us in orbit here. They’re not coming back. And… we’re nowhere near home, are we?”
Sol shrugged and started to say something, but Toby had finally had enough.
Both of his companions turned to stare at Toby.
“Drop the personalities,” he said. “Just tell me what’s going on!”
In a more level voice, Miranda said, “Even if we got a message off to Sedna—and we doubt we have the power—this world is uncharted. It must be so far away from Sedna, they could never mount a rescue mission. The ship’s clocks have been affected so we can’t tell you how long it’s been…”
“We’ve got enough power to cycle the hibernation system one more time,” Sol added, his voice equally calm. “We can set it to go into deep dive. A controlled freeze, so we don’t have to leave it to chance about when the power fails totally.”
It was true, then. He was dead. He had been ever since that meteor had hit the ship. This time—a brief waking above a planet that was also dead—was just a last spasm of the ship’s systems.
Even if he’d had engines, this little ship wasn’t designed to land on big worlds. The nearest craft that could do that were back at Sedna. This was a comet runner, incapable of landing near one of those frozen cities. He was stuck in orbit.
There were only two choices now: stay alive as long as possible, eking out a few last days and hours as the lights dimmed and interstellar cold wormed its way through the walls, finally to freeze to death as the ship’s power failed; or voluntarily enter the cicada bed, surely never to awake again, and end it all now.
He looked from Sol to Miranda. Their faces were blank, no longer full of that optimistic energy they’d had a few moments ago. Of course it was gone, he didn’t need that from them anymore. In fact, he no longer needed them, either.
“You’re no good to me anymore,” he said. “Switch off.” They nodded, and their faces disappeared from the open ovals of the two space suits. Those faces had been projections in his augmented reality glasses anyway. What was left in the suits were the intertwined grippies and butlers that had moved their arms and legs to make it seem like there were people in them. Sol and Miranda— companion personalities that were really just game characters from Consensus—were gone.
Now there was complete silence, and the solitude came crushing in on Toby. Fine. He wanted to be true to who he was, and where he was, if these were his last hours. No more simulated friends to share the moment with; no more softening the reality of it.
He grabbed his suit’s helmet. “Get the bed ready,” he told the ship. “I’m gonna take one last look around.”
With no audience to witness it, he felt no urge to cry. But there was no way the last thing he’d see would be just a picture on a screen. He climbed out onto the ship’s hull and looked down at the mysterious planet with his own eyes. There was nothing to see, of course, just a black cutout interrupting the stars. The stars, though… they really were beautiful.
He turned around, staring, and then around again. If this were the online world of Consensus, something would appear to save them all—a rescue ship, an alien artifact—and it would appear right… about…
He held his breath and waited. The moment dragged on.
“Toby?” It was the ship, speaking for the first and last time in its own flat voice. “Your bed is ready.”
He opened his mouth, closed it, then said, “All right. I’m coming.”
Warmth and soft blankets cocooned him. Toby wanted to burrow deeper into them to escape the light, and he did. For a while he lay in timeless bliss, unthinking. Then…
Then he shouted and flung the blankets aside, and sat up. He stared around, unable to believe what he was seeing.
He was in a big four-poster bed in a… well, not exactly a sumptuous bedroom, but a decent one, with tall windows that let in the amber-red light of sunset or sunrise. A soft breeze, somewhat chilly for a virtual world, teased the sinuous drapes.
For a moment he wondered. This couldn’t be real, but why then that chill in the air, the cracks in the plaster by the window? He touched his face, but he wasn’t wearing glasses. You could implant the visual and auditory interfaces, of course, but the metal and electronics had different thermal characteristics from flesh: they and hibernation technology didn’t mix well.
But this had to be a simulation—somewhere in the Consensus Empire he’d built with Peter. If he were in reality back on Sedna, he’d be waking in some drafty plastic cell somewhere. Not to open windows and what looked like a truly gorgeous sunset.
He examined the room again. All the styles seemed familiar, reminiscent of the subdued Art Nouveau and Space Modern mix he and Peter had favored for the Consensus Empire. The patterns on the drapes weren’t entirely alien, either… but maybe he was just imagining things.
There was a dressing bot at the foot of the bed, waiting patiently for him to wake up. It wasn’t holding out clothes, at least not with its front arms. Instead, it was offering him a pair of leg exoskeletons, the sort of mechanical assist you gave to people who weren’t used to the higher gravity of places like Earth.
The bots in the online worlds never did that sort of thing, because nobody ever pretended that their world had gravity different from Earth normal.
Toby threw his legs over the side of the bed and knew that this was no simulation. His feet crashed to the floor of their own accord, nearly taking the rest of him with them. He had to brace himself against the cushions as an invisible force tried to suck him down. Gravity—real gravity.
Numbly, he let the bot clamp the unfamiliar braces around his calves and thighs. It offered a second piece for his back, but though the exos were thin and graceful, designed to be invisible under clothing, Toby waved it away. The bot offered a shirt and trousers, and he put them on—and damn it, they were in the Consensus Empire style, too, though with odd differences here and there. More details, different materials.
He stood up and the exo made the motion as easy as if his body had been virtual. The only problem with that idea was that he could still feel gravity pulling on his insides, which it never did in a simulation.
Toby walked to the open window and looked out on a grand avenue choked with vehicles and moving people. Tall towers soared into the sky, and there were real trees on the nearby rooftops and more down by the street. For a moment he forgot everything else, consumed with the intricate beauty of their leafy canopies.
It was a beauty that shimmered under the light of a strange sky. There was a sunsetlike quality to the light, but there was no sun; instead, the radiance came from a kind of red curling aurora that filled the whole sky. Lines of yellow and pale green flickered and fluttered up and down this astonishing firmament. He was able to open the window farther and crane his neck outside. There was a chill in the air, but he ignored that and gawked upward.
“Ah! So you’re awake.”
Toby banged his head on the lintel and winced. The voice was a man’s, deep but thin somehow, so he went from being startled to puzzled when he turned and saw a slender woman standing in the room’s only doorway.
“H-hello—” He’d been about to say more but his hands went to his throat. “What—?” His own voice was absurdly deep, a bullfrog rumble.
The lady laughed, her voice a chop of drumbeats. She was older, though still pretty, and dressed in a flame-red gown. She radiated the confidence of wealth. It was the wealth of people like her that had squeezed Toby’s family relentlessly toward poverty. It was people like her who’d made his parents try to colonize Sedna. That was what Dad always said, anyway.
“The air gets them every time,” she rumbled. “The natural atmosphere on this planet is a neon and argon mix. We add some oxygen and warm it up, and we can breathe it. But it plays your vocal chords differently than nitrogen.”
Toby bowed cautiously. This place was so obviously real, yet so similar to the gameworlds where he spent so much time that he found himself wondering how he would approach a moment like this if this really were a game.
“Thank you for rescuing me,” he said, and his own voice was a deep cello. “My name is Toby McGonigal.”
Her eyes went wide and she took a step backward, but Toby barely noticed. He’d realized what he’d just said, and what he had not yet thought about. He felt instantly guilty. “My family,” he blurted. “I need to contact them.”
She tried to speak, oddly discomposed; then her eyelids lowered, and she turned slightly away. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That… that won’t be possible. They died… many years ago.”
Even the exos couldn’t keep Toby’s knees from giving out, though they did steer his collapse so he landed in a chair.
He’d exchanged his last e-mails with Peter and Evayne only a day ago, or so it seemed to him. How could they be gone? “How long… ?”
“The time stamps on your cicada bed said twenty years since you last went into cold sleep,” she said. “But before that, Toby— can I call you that?—you’d deep-dived for so long that your ship’s radiation shielding had drained off. You were being slow-cooked by cosmic rays.”
The superconducting magnets should have been able to keep their magnetic fields alive for… well, practically forever. Suddenly he didn’t want to know how long it had been. “Where are we? What is this world?”
She’d come to stand over him and looked startled at his sudden question.
“You’re on Lowdown,” she said. Her voice made the name into an impossibly deep chord, like the two bottom notes on a pipe organ. “We found your ship in orbit two weeks ago. We’ve been repairing and regenerating your body ever since. The doctors said you’d be fine to be awakened today.”
What she said made no sense. “Our ship in orbit… We arrived here two weeks ago? So the engines were working after all!”
But she shook her head. “Your engines had been dead for a long, long time. You’d been in orbit, as I said, for twenty years.”
Toby stood up and moved to the window. “But that’s impossible. The world we found was dead, a frozen chunk. I mean it had cities, but they were…” No, it couldn’t be… He turned to look at her. She nodded.
“Deep-dived,” she said. “We were wintering over, just like you. But for us, it wasn’t an emergency.”
“Then that’s not sunlight?” He nodded at the orange sky.
She laughed. “So far as we know, it’s the biggest neon lamp in the universe. We discharge electricity through the air itself and it glows. Quite handy, really.”
“But what are you doing out here? We were the first to settle this far out. Everybody told us we were crazy, that nobody could survive out here, but…” He waved at the obvious disproof of that idea, at the well-designed streets, the tall buildings, and the solid architecture of the room they were in. It was all proof that these people had been here a long, long time.
“You’re right,” the woman said, and now she sat on the edge of the bed, her expression very serious. “You and your family were the first to settle interstellar space. But Toby… that was fourteen thousand years ago.”
For a long moment there was just faint street noise murmuring up through the open window. The drapes drifted a bit in the cold breeze, but neither the woman nor Toby moved.
Then he was running.
He slammed out of the room before she could shout her surprise. This put him in a long corridor with orange daylight at one end. He ran to the light, passing bots carrying laundry and brooms. He found stairs, began clattering down them, trusting the exos to keep his legs from giving out. She was somewhere behind him, calling his name at first, then cursing, then calling to somebody else.
Down two flights and then he was in a high-ceilinged chamber with big open arches on one side. The building’s inner courtyard lay that way. He ran into it, passed six men of various ages who were sitting in wicker chairs around low tables that had drinks on them. The serving bots didn’t move as he ran by, but the men boiled out of their chairs, gabbling in shock.
“Ammond!” It was the lady, puffing into the courtyard.
“Damn it, Persea, you couldn’t handle a simple task like waking the kid up?”
“He just bolted! I—”
“Forget it. I’ll deal with him.”
Toby’s back was seizing up. Even with the help of the exoskeleton, his muscles simply couldn’t handle this gravity. He found himself swerving, staggering, but he kept on going until he found another corridor and at its end another walled courtyard. A gate here seemed to lead to the street. He ran for it but was so deconditioned from weeks in zero gravity that he fell. He was puffing and nearly fainting. All he could see was spots while the world spun, and he felt like puking. His whole body was soaked in sweat.
Suddenly, he was aware of eyes watching him—from his own level near the ground. He blinked. They blinked back from only a couple of paces away.
The head was catlike, its body more an otter’s, though the tail, again, was cat. It was perhaps a little bigger than a house cat, but would have been easy to carry. The creature was crouched in the shadow of one of the entranceway pillars, its head cocked as it seemed to be thinking about what to do with Toby.
Two boots appeared behind it, and it looked up. So did Toby.
It was a girl, roughly his own age, dressed in long open-hooded coat and black leggings. A cap of dark hair framed even blacker eyes. A larger version of the creature that crouched in front of Toby was sitting on her shoulder.
“Quick! They’re coming.” She reached down and the cat-otter swarmed up her arm, clambered around the one there, and disappeared into a half-visible backpack over her shoulder.
She looked Toby in the eye and shook her head. “You never saw me,” she said. “I’m not here.”
Then she ran to another entrance that led into the main building, but not, apparently, into the same corridors as he’d just come out of. Before he could shout after her, she was gone.
Toby was so busy staring after her that he didn’t hear footsteps approaching behind him. Suddenly a large hand landed on his shoulder, clapped it gently.
“Aw, McGonigal,” rumbled a voice of subterranean depth. “There was never gonna be an easy way to tell you.”
Toby stood up shakily, waving away help from the man who had followed him out of the building. He was middle-aged, with crow’s-feet at the corners of his striking gray eyes, a long face, and a bent nose that looked like somebody might have broken it a long time ago.
His hand rose from Toby’s shoulder, was held out now to shake. “I’m Ammond Gon Alon,” he said.
“Welcome to your future, son.”
It was all too much, and Toby found himself being led back to his bed, where he proceeded to sleep for nearly a day. He finally dragged himself to the marble-tiled bathroom and allowed a couple of bots to cycle him through a shower and provide new clothes. Then he staggered downstairs to find a vast meal waiting in a tall room with arched stained-glass windows along one wall. The man who’d introduced himself as Ammond was waiting there, as was the woman.
She held out her hand for him to shake. “Persea Eden,” she said. “We never finished our introductions yesterday.”
She had the cosmetic perfection you expected from rich Earthlings, but she was more likely Martian because she was very tall and slender.
Toby could ask about that, but he had other questions first. He also had questions he didn’t want to ask; just thinking about them made him feel sick.
“Did you rescue me?” he asked Ammond.
The older man nodded. “Well, strictly speaking, one of our orbital bots did. Your ship was spotted as we were coming out of dormancy; the telescopes do a census of orbiting and landed ships while the cities are waking up. The bots assumed you were just a visitor from some backwater planet, but Persea’s systems are always on the lookout for… unusual patterns.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Would that be a good way to put it?” She nodded. “Your ship looked different. There was a red light on our board when we woke up, so I sent a salvage tug to investigate. The rest you know.”
Toby had sat down in front at the long table, which was piled with food he hadn’t seen since he’d left Earth. You couldn’t get blueberries on Sedna, or mangoes. There were flapjacks, bacon, croissants, and was that maple syrup? His mouth watered just looking at it all.
He began voraciously piling a plate with stuff. After a couple of minutes he noticed the silence and looked up. Ammond and Persea were watching him, identical expressions of bemusement on their faces.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s just I haven’t eaten in fourteen thousand years.”
Just saying this made his stomach knot with grief, but they laughed, which was what he wanted. After stuffing a whole pancake into his mouth (and yes, it really was maple syrup in that little white pitcher) he remembered them again and said, “So you own tugs? What do you do, traffic control?”
This was meant as another joke—in the two years they’d been at Sedna, no one and nothing had come into orbit around the little world. The very idea that you’d need traffic control around an orphan world in between the stars was absurd. But Ammond nodded.
“It’s one of my businesses. Lowdown is booming, there’s a ridiculous amount of immigration these days. You probably noticed how new this city is.”
“Were there other ships in orbit?” He remembered the emptiness, the stars, and a vast circular cutout that was the planet. Nothing had ever seemed so empty, except maybe Sedna in their first days there.
“Uh, over two thousand, I think.” Ammond grinned. “Pretty crowded for a little world like ours.”
“But… there was no radio chatter. And all your cities were…”
“Wintering over. So were the ships. You had the bad luck to arrive while everybody was dormant.”
“But why were you all hibernating? That’s just… weird.”
Ammond exchanged a glance with Persea. “It’s true, then. You’ve never heard of the locksteps.”
He said the word as though it meant something important. Toby shook his head.
Ammond blew out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t even know where to start,” he said.
Persea frowned in thought. “Let’s start with this city,” she said.
Toby ate a huge amount of everything, then promptly fell asleep on a couch under a stained-glass window. When he awoke the light was just the same, but he sensed some hours had passed. A bot had noticed he was stirring and went to fetch his rescuers.
“Want to go for a ride?” asked Ammond.
The house was at least four floors tall and wrapped around a big central courtyard. It came as no surprise that it had an inside garage with five vehicles in it. Ammond and Persea picked a big lozenge-shaped ground-effect car, and Ammond sat in the front with a bot driver while Toby and Persea took up the back. In moments they slid out into an orange-lit street full of other cars and bots and bicycles and dashing pedestrians.
The city went on for kilometers. There might be a million people here, most living in glass-walled condominium towers. Presiding over it all was that bizarre orange sky—a giant neon lamp, Persea had claimed.
“It all looks ordinary enough, right?” Ammond said as he let the bot steer them through the dense traffic. “I mean, you might think the whole planet was like this. But it isn’t.”
Toby remembered what he’d seen from orbit. “There’re only a few cities, and there’re these big splash marks around them…”
“Yes! You saw that, good. It’ll make it all easier.” They’d come to a roadway and were zipping along at a hundred or more kilometers per hour. In a couple of minutes the towers were behind them, and ahead was an empty snowscape where vast dunes of white marched away into deepening darkness. Some of the dunes were carved by deep runnels and canyons of trickling water, and tortured spires and pillars of ice jutted up here and there like sentinel towers. Blustery gray clouds scudded low over the scene.
Toby looked back, and now he could see how the orange banners of light that lit the city curved up and over its buildings to make a flickering dome. Their light reflected off the clouds that tumbled around the horizon, but past that everything was dark. Midnight dark.
“We can’t heat the whole planet,” Ammond explained. “First of all, that would take a ridiculous amount of power. We’re nowhere near the Laser Wastes here. Second, if we heated the whole place above freezing, the mountains would melt. The continents would dissolve… They’re all made out of ice, aren’t they? So we light up our cities when we’re done wintering over, and heat up the air, but even that makes these giant storms—”
There were no roads out here. The car was skating over windwhipped snowbanks, its fans sending up billows of white. Overhead the clouds were even lower, some twirling in tornadolike gyres. Driving snow was quickly reducing visibility to a few meters.
“It wasn’t snowing in the city!”
“Oh, this stuff wouldn’t make it that far,” said Ammond. “It’s mostly carbon dioxide, with some nitrogen slush. Things cool down pretty quickly once you leave the city limits.”
The structures they’d seen from orbit had been surrounded by these big target-shaped splash marks. Now Toby knew why: they were the eyes of local storms while their citizens were awake. He barked a laugh. Persea turned to see where he was looking.
“Impressive, isn’t it? I almost couldn’t believe those storms myself, when I first moved here,” she said.
The storm was abating. Toby looked back and up, at a skytopping mountain of cloud lit with lightning flashes and traces of a hellish orange glow.
“You said you’d been asleep for twenty years. How long do you stay awake?” Toby asked her.
“Actually, we sleep for thirty years. You drifted into Lowdown’s orbit ten years into our ‘winter.’ We sleep for thirty years, and then we’re awake for a month. That’s known as a turn.”
He stared at her. “A month? That’s… that’s ridiculous!”
“What’s important is the ratio,” explained Ammond. “The ratio between dormancy and living time in a turn. You could use any sort of ratio—five to one, two to one, a hundred to one. We use 360-to-one.”
“But why? Does it take that long to recover from these storms?”
“No, though that’s a good guess. It’s not just Lowdown that uses the 360-to-one ratio. There’s over seventy thousand other planets do the same.”
“Almost all of them,” added Persea, “nomad worlds like this one, drifting in interstellar space between the solar system and Alpha Centauri.”
Toby had taken a crash course in astronomy before they left for Sedna, and it was only then that he’d learned that interstellar space wasn’t completely empty. There were a hundred thousand nomad planets for every star in the galaxy. Most were frozen like Sedna and Lowdown, but some—the really big ones—cradled the heat from their birth for billions of years. These could sustain volcanoes and oceans under thick blankets of atmosphere. Sunless worlds, impossibly lonely, but life might actually exist on these ancient nomads.
But… all of these worlds switching themselves off and on like lights? And all on the same weird schedule. “Why? It’s crazy,” he said. “Why would you possibly want to do that? Go into cold sleep after a month, then sleep for years…”
The clouds were clearing, revealing the vast spangling of stars above a black landscape. There were the familiar constellations, proof that they were no more than a few light-years from Earth. Less, if Ammond was telling the truth.
“Two reasons,” said Ammond. “You can stop here,” he told the driver. They were now perched at the top of a hill overlooking a plain where floodlights showed busy graders and excavators chomping at the landscape. In the distance were more lit buildings, maybe factories.
“If we tried to live like this all the time we’d use up these little worlds in no time,” said Ammond. “That’s reason one. We live like arctic flowers, with a short growing season and long winter. It works for them, it’ll work for us. But secondly…”
Persea put a hand on his arm. Toby’s head was drooping with sudden exhaustion—and from the reminder of how far through time he’d fallen and how much was now lost to him.
“Maybe… we’ll talk about that another time,” said Ammond.
They drove back to the city in silence.
The city turned off its orange canopy to create a local night. As it came back on to create a new morning, Toby lay in the sumptuous bed he’d been provided. In a half-waking reverie, he found the amber light reminding him of sunsets on Earth, and he ached with longing to see one again.
As his mind drifted, though, it was one particular sunset that memory summoned. He’d been younger by a few years, and full of nervous energy. On this evening he was in the family’s rooftop garden, staring out beyond the manicured lawns and well-trimmed trees, the perfect shingled angles of the neighbors’ roofs. A tall wrought-iron fence surrounded this little enclave of civility, and on the other side of it, people were rioting.
He’d seen his father’s car pull up a few minutes before, so he knew Dad was safe. The skittering crowds and the clouds of tear gas were unnerving, though. What if they got in? That was impossible, Mom had insisted. But Toby was not so sure.
Indifferent to the chaos in the streets below, the sky was a magnificent ocean of light, fading from mauve behind Toby to shades of lime green and canary yellow near where the sun had just disappeared. The radiance gave everything a half-real aura, just as distance reduced the shouting and screams of the mob to a grumbling murmur.
He heard a louder sound behind him and turned to see his father stepping out of the glass doors of the dormer room. “Toby! Come away from there.”
“I want to see, Dad.”
“It’s not safe.”
“Mom said it was.”
Father came to stand next to Toby. He pointed, and Toby could see little sparks of red peppering the air above the fence. He’d assumed these were firecrackers somebody was setting off. “Those are bullets being exploded by the community laser defense. People are shooting at us, Tobe. If just one gets through…”
Alarmed, Toby had followed his father back to the center of the garden, out of sight of the riot. Only then had he noticed that his dad’s eyes were red and that his mouth had a bitter downturn to it. Toby had never seen him like this.
His father made him sit next to him on a bench under a cherry tree. He hunched forward, clasping his hands nervously between his knees. “I… I saw Terry Idris as the car was coming through the gate. You remember Terry? He used to come to dinner a lot. Tall, black hair… ?” Toby shook his head.
“Terry’s a good friend.” Dad’s voice cracked on that last word. “And he’s out there throwing stones at the fence—at our fence. He saw me, I know he did. I… I would have picked him up, brought him… it’s dangerous out there, but…”
Toby stared at his father in wonder. “What? Why didn’t you?”
“We can’t be seen to be sympathizing with the rioters.” His father hung his head. “We’d lose our membership, have to move out into the city…” Toby understood that this would be a bad thing to do. “It’s not right, Toby. Terry’s my friend. They… they were all my friends.”
Toby wasn’t sure who they were, but he sensed that this was far too important a moment to interrupt.
“Listen, Toby, we can’t ever talk about this. The house, the car— they can overhear us anywhere.” This was a different they now, and Toby knew his dad was talking about their business partners, the political authorities, and everybody else who served the dwindling circle of the trillionaires. You were either in that circle, or outside, with the starving mobs. Toby did understand that.
Now his father turned to him. “We can’t talk about it from this day on, but I want you to know something, Toby. You must understand that I’m not going to stand for it. I’m going to do something to help change things, and it could get rough for us for a while. You may not understand everything that’s happening. Just remember, whatever happens, that it’s happening to help them.” He nodded in the direction of the muffled shouting. “Because they don’t deserve what’s happening to them.”
Toby couldn’t remember the rest of that evening. He knew they’d spoken no more about it after they went inside. It wasn’t that the house was bugged, exactly. It was that the bots and screens and devices it was crammed with had their own tiny minds, and those minds had been designed to be archconservative, suspicious snoops. The TV, the air-conditioning system, the duster bots— they were all tattletales, loyal not to the people who owned them but to the people who’d built and sold them.
Since he remembered no more, Toby’s thoughts drifted away, and he fell asleep again—until suddenly he saw his sister and mother standing in front of him. This was a memory, too, but one from a different time than the first. Here, Evayne was surrounded by a little retinue of walking dolls, their artificial minds set to trauma mode so that they cooed and comforted her as she went about her day. Mother had no such help, and she twisted her hands together as she said over and over, “He’ll come back to us. I know he will.”
Toby sat up with a shout and was back on Lowdown. And though the amber morning was silent and the skies serene, he was shaking.
The days inched by. Toby would rise shortly after the sky was turned on and eat a gigantic breakfast before starting his exercises. After a couple of weeks he’d been able to lose the exoskeletons, but real gravity was still tough on him. He walked a little more every day.
He wasn’t allowed on the streets. When he asked Persea why, she shrugged and said, “We do a pretty good job of keeping ahead of disease these days, but there’s still ten thousand years’ worth of new and evolved bugs out there. We need to immunize you by stages before you start even going close to other people. That’s partly why it took us so long to wake you up—we had to clear our own systems first.”
The vaccines were in the food, apparently. When Persea explained all this to Toby, he almost told her about his encounter with the girl in the outer courtyard; but if she or the animal had given him something, it was probably too late now anyway. He stayed silent, but the idea of countless new diseases lurking in wait for his unsuspecting immune system kept him slightly on edge.
He couldn’t go out, but he could walk the rooftops and galleries that stretched between the buildings of Ammond’s estate. From there, he could see people in the streets below and almost hear the murmur of their conversations. He kept hoping that he would see the girl again. He hoped she’d been a legitimate visitor to the estate, but her words to him—“I’m not here”—suggested she might have been an intruder. Whichever she was, either she hadn’t come back or wasn’t allowed to see him in his current state of quarantine.
A clue to why she might have been here lay in one of the estate’s central courtyards. There, a series of cages held many little catlike creatures like the one that confronted him that first day. Persea and Ammond didn’t keep them in the main house, but apparently they bred them.
The city outside was full of chattering, lively people, and when Toby knelt on the edge of the rooftop he could hear their voices. They spoke a bewildering variety of languages. They dressed just as diversely. That uneasy familiarity still lay at the heart of all the fashions he saw and in the architecture of the coral-colored towers. Toby couldn’t figure it out but soon got used to it.
He probably should have investigated. He should have asked questions. But, on the third day of his waking, Persea gave Toby the personal effects he’d brought with him in the tug. Amid all that were his glasses, and he snatched them up and put them on.
Persea and Ammond didn’t wear glasses, but he’d seen them issue silent orders to the household bots. They must have implants—not uncommon on Earth in Toby’s day but incompatible with the freeze-thaw cycles of hibernation. Toby hadn’t thought about that too much, since there was so much else to absorb about this world. As soon as he put on his own glasses he summoned the backups of Sol and Miranda stored in them, and he wept when they came to wrap their arms around him, because he couldn’t feel their touch.
“You stupid boy, you should be asking questions,” Miranda chided him a few days later, when she found out how little he knew. Toby hadn’t been spending much time with her; when he wasn’t walking the rooftops or exercising or eating, he retreated into the Consensus Empire. Peter had uploaded several months’ worth of moves before the accident that had knocked out the tug’s engines and brain. This was all new to Toby. He could pretend for hours at a time that Peter was still alive, and that his brother could still surprise him.
“Where’s the television, the movies?” Miranda had pressed. “What about music? I haven’t heard any since you put your glasses on. How does this world work? You have to find out, Toby.”
He did start asking, at first just to get Miranda off his back. The household bots were dumb as stumps and wouldn’t answer his questions. And the few humans other than Persea and Ammond whom he met mostly shrugged their shoulders when he asked them anything complicated.
So he knew he was skating along the surface of some more complex situation, seeing the streets, the people, and skies full of air traffic but understanding none of it. When he wasn’t being overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Lowdown he still couldn’t focus on the mystery of his current life. His thoughts always drifted back to his lost home, and when that would happen he would pick up his glasses and revisit it—or what little of it he actually had. Most of the glasses’ memory was taken up by the Consensus Empire.
The terrible thing was that before leaving for Rockette, he’d purged his glasses’ memory to make more space for Consensus. He had no pictures or video of his family, only Peter and Evayne’s Consensus avatars, who looked and sounded nothing like them.
It was in the real city that memory tended to clobber him. Walking above the hubbub, he kept thinking he saw his dad in the street below, or his mother half turned away in conversation. He’d leap to the railing with a shout, causing his robotic escort to jerk in reflexive surprise; and then he’d see that he’d been mistaken. Every time this happened—and it happened every day—that momentary leap of hope was instantly followed by a crushing sadness that practically stopped him in his tracks.
Down in the inaccessible streets (the city’s name was Windward, he’d learned) he saw people with black skin and long features, people with orange hair and blue eyes, even people whose skin was a pale green. They dressed in robes, in skin-tight jumpsuits, in dresses, skirts, tunics, space suits. They were all from here. He saw nobody from home.
After being away from Sedna for only a few weeks, he could barely remember the colony itself. It was a gray blur of plastic-sheet walls, cold pipes and crawl spaces, broke-down bots and industrial noise. His parents’ faces danced and wavered on that background, themselves threatening to fade just as quickly.
All of this drove him back to Consensus, where he could tell his miseries to game characters he’d known for years. Fake friends, but the only friends he had right now.
Two weeks after his awakening, he heard Ammond and Persea arguing. They were going at it pretty loudly, because they were audible several rooms away; but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. A little while later Ammond came to him, appearing cheerful and unconcerned—but maybe a little too cheerful. “Well, Toby,” he said, “are you ready to do some traveling?”
Toby was wrestling with some butler bots, which twisted and turned in ways guaranteed to give his muscles the best workout. He frowned at Ammond from a nearly upside-down position. “The south polar observatory?” Persea had talked about that; it was one of the places these two owned.
But Ammond shook his head. “Little Auriga. It’s a planet about half a light-year from here. We’ve got some friends there we’d like you to meet, and… well, let’s face it—it’s a beautiful world. I think you’ll like it.”
Toby gestured for the bots to let him go. “But even the fastest ship would take years to get there. Unless you’re antimatter powered, you’re looking at decades…”
Ammond shrugged. “A little over twelve years, but don’t worry. We’ll be home in a month.”
Freed of the bots and standing on his own, Toby still staggered. “What?”
Ammond laughed at the look on his face. “No, of course we’re not going to go faster than light! That’s impossible, right?
“But think about it, Toby. Little Auriga is a half light-year away. Even in the fastest possible ship any round-trip we took would mean being away from home for a year. But what if you could click a pause button when you leave—a pause button for your whole world? And when you get back from your round-trip, you unpause it and it’s like you were never away?
“That’s the main reason why our whole world winters over. All the Lockstep worlds pause and unpause on a schedule. We call the schedule a frequency, and each wake-sleep cycle is called a turn. That makes this is the only place in the universe where we can go to sleep on board a spaceship, wake up at another world a half light-year away, spend a month there, then come home to find only a month’s passed at home. There are tens of thousands of worlds open to us, and we could visit any of them and come home to find this one unchanged.”
Toby shook his head. “That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.” What was especially weird about it, though, was that it made perfect sense. He had gone into cold sleep to avoid the tedium of the five-month trip to Rockette. What if everybody back home had gone into hibernation at the same time? It would have felt like a pretty short trip. But anybody visiting Sedna in the middle of the whole thing would have found a cold, dead world…
He looked over; Ammond was grinning at him.
“What do you say, Toby?” He laughed again. “Would you like to see the universe?”
Toby opened his eyes with a start. Were they there already? It seemed like just a few seconds ago that he’d shut his eyes in his little wedge-shaped cabin aboard the Lockstep ship Vance II.
Suddenly something eclipsed his view of the far wall—a vast pale oval. He blinked at it, and it swam into focus.
A girl about his own age was eye to eye with him, her face just on the other side of the cicada bed’s plastic cover.
She rapped on the material and he jerked. “Can you hear me?” Her words were the first he’d heard in weeks that didn’t sound like a giant was speaking them; they must have swapped out the argon in the ship’s air. She sounded like a girl.
He nodded. She looked around, the flicking movement of her head making her hair swirl around her in zero gravity. Then she gripped both sides of the bed and stared in at him with unsettling intensity.
“We’ve only got a couple of seconds before the alarms’ll go off,” she said. “Listen to me! You can’t trust those people who found you. They are not your friends. Do. You. Understand?”
Dumbly, he shook his head. She cursed in frustration.
“You’ve got to get away from them! The first chance you get. Now, I—look, I gotta go. Before the bots spot me.”
Her face swept off and away, leaving only the blank wall.
“Wait, who—” He reached for the bed’s release switch, but she’d done something to it. His strength was failing, he felt again the spiral of overwhelming sleepiness that signaled the beginning of hibernation. He had time for just one last startled thought: she was the girl who’d spoken to him in Ammond’s courtyard that first day.
Lockstep © Karl Schroeder, 2014