Fix the past. Save the present. Stop the future. Master of science fiction Alastair Reynolds unfolds a time-traveling climate fiction adventure in Permafrost—available March 19th from Tor.com Publishing.
2080: at a remote site on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a group of scientists, engineers and physicians gather to gamble humanity’s future on one last-ditch experiment. Their goal: to make a tiny alteration to the past, averting a global catastrophe while at the same time leaving recorded history intact. To make the experiment work, they just need one last recruit: an ageing schoolteacher whose late mother was the foremost expert on the mathematics of paradox.
2028: a young woman goes into surgery for routine brain surgery. In the days following her operation, she begins to hear another voice in her head… an unwanted presence which seems to have a will, and a purpose, all of its own – one that will disrupt her life entirely. The only choice left to her is a simple one.
Does she resist … or become a collaborator?
After I shot Vikram we put our things in the car and drove to the airstrip. Antti was nervous the whole way, knuckles white on the steering wheel, tendons standing out in his neck, eyes searching the road ahead of us. When we arrived at the site he insisted on driving around the perimeter road twice, peering through the security fencing at the hangars, buildings and civilian aircraft.
“You think he’s here?”
“More that I want to make sure he isn’t.” He drove on, leaning forward in his seat, twitchy and anxious as a curb-crawler. “I liked Miguel, I really did. I never wanted it to come to this.”
I thought about what we had to do this morning.
“In fairness, you also liked Vikram.”
“That took a little time. We didn’t click, the two of us, to start with. But that was a long while ago.”
“I wish there’d been some other way; any other way.” He slowed, steering us onto a side road that led into the private part of the airstrip, at the other end from the low white passenger terminal. “Look, what you had to do back there…”
I thought of Vikram, of how he’d followed me out into the field beyond the farm, fully aware of what was coming. I’d taken the artificial larynx with me, just in case there was something he wanted to say at the end. But when I offered it to him he only shook his head, his cataract-clouded eyes seeming to look right through me, out to the grey Russian skies over the farm.
It had taken one shot. The sound of it had echoed back off the buildings. Crows had lifted from a copse of trees nearby, wheeling and cawing in the sky before settling back down, as if a killing was only a minor disturbance in their daily routine.
Afterward, Antti had come out with a spade. We couldn’t just leave Vikram lying there in the field.
It hadn’t taken long to bury him.
“One of us had to do it,” I answered now, wondering if a speck on my sleeve was blood or just dirt from the field.
Antti slowed the car. We went through a security gate and flashed our identification. The guard was on familiar terms with Antti and barely glanced at his credentials. I drew only slightly more interest. “Trusting this old dog to take you up, Miss…” He squinted at my name. “Dinova?”
“Tatiana’s an old colleague of mine from Novosibirsk,” Antti said, shrugging good-humouredly. “Been promising her a spin in the Denali for at least two years.”
“Picked a lovely day for it,” the guard said, lifting his gaze to the low cloud ceiling.
“Clearer north,” Antti said, with a breezy indifference. “Got to maintain my instrument hours, haven’t I?”
The guard waved us on. We drove through the gate to the private compound where the light aircraft were stabled. The Denali was a powerful single-engine type, a sleek Cessna with Russian registration and markings. We unloaded our bags and provisions, as well as the airtight alloy case that held the seeds. Antti stowed the items into the rear of the passenger compartment, securing them with elastic webbing. Then he walked around the aircraft, checking its external condition.
“Will this get us all the way?” I asked.
“If they’ve fuelled it like I requested.”
“We’ll need to make an intermediate stop, before or after the Ural Mountains. It’s not as if I can file an accurate flight plan. My main worry is landing conditions, once we get near the inlet.” He helped me aboard the aircraft, putting me in the seat immediately to the left of the pilot’s position. My eyes swept the dials and screens, the ranks of old-fashioned switches and knobs. There were dual controls, but none of it meant much to me. “Sit tight, while I go and fake some paperwork.”
“And if I see Miguel?”
Covering himself, Antti reached into his leather jacket and extracted the Makarov semiautomatic pistol I’d already used once today. He had already given me a good description of Miguel.
“Make it count, if you have to use it. Whatever Miguel says or does, it’s not to be trusted.”
He stepped off the plane and went off in the direction of the offices serving the private compound.
Could you do it, if you had to?
I brought the automatic out from under my jacket, just enough to see a flash of steel.
Why not? I did it to Vikram.
I was glad to see Antti coming back. He had his jacket zipped tight, his arm pressed hard against his side, as if he was carrying a tranche of documents under the jacket. Paperwork, maybe, for when we got to the north. He stooped down to pull away the chocks under the Denali. He got in and started the engine without a word, bringing it to a loud, humming intensity. The propeller was a blur. Almost immediately we were moving off. I didn’t need to know much about flying to understand that there was a sequence of procedures, safety checks and so on, that we were ignoring completely.
The engine noise swelled. It was too loud to talk, and he hadn’t shown me how to use the earphones. I leaned back, trusting that he knew what he was doing. We rumbled onto the strip, gathering momentum. It only took a few seconds to build up to takeoff speed, and then we were up in the air, ascending steeply and curving to the north. Soon the clouds swallowed us. Eventually Antti got us onto something like a level, steady course, ploughing through that grey nothingness. He reduced the power, adjusted our trim and tapped a few commands into the GPS device mounted above the instrumentation.
Only then did he take the time to plug in my earphones and select the intercom channel.
“You can put the gun away. We won’t be needing it now.”
“What if we run into Miguel, farther north?”
Antti looked at me for a few seconds. It was only then that I saw the stain under his jacket, the wound he’d been applying pressure to when he came back to the plane.
More specifically: past-directed time travel.
It was what had taken me from Kogalym in 2080 to that aircraft in 2028, assuming the identity of another woman, ferrying a case of seeds to an uncertain destination in the north, still reeling with the horror of what I had done to Vikram.
Before the plane, though, before the airstrip, before the farmhouse, before the incident in the hospital, there had been my first glimpse of the past. I had been expecting it to happen at some point, but the exact moment that I became time-embedded wasn’t easily predictable. No one could say exactly when it would happen, or—with any accuracy—where in the past I would end up.
I was primed, though: mentally prepared to extract the maximum possible information from that first glimpse, no matter how fleeting it would be. The more reference points I could give Cho, the more we understood about the situation—how far back I was, what the host’s condition was like, how the noise constraints stood—the better our chances of prolonging further immersions and of achieving our objective.
Which was, not to put it too bluntly, saving the world.
When the glimpse came it was three weeks since I had been moved onto the pilot team, following the bad business with Christos. I’d been there when it went wrong, the catastrophic malfunction in his neural control structure that left him foaming and comatose. The problem was a parasitic code structure that had found its way into his implants. It had always been a danger. Cho had been scraping around for the world’s last few samples of viable neural nanotechnology and had been forced to accept that some of those samples might be contaminated or otherwise compromised.
Cho tried to reassure me that I wasn’t at risk of the same malfunction, that my implants were civilian-medical in nature and not susceptible to the same vulnerability. They had injected them into me after my stroke, to rebuild the damaged regions of my motor cortex and help me walk again, and now—with a little reprogramming, and a tiny additional surgical procedure—they could be adapted to let me participate in the experiment, becoming time-embedded.
I was on the Vaymyr, talking to Margaret as we headed back to our rooms down one of the icebreaker’s metal corridors. Before meeting Margaret in the canteen I’d been in the classroom most of the day, studying archival material—learning all I could about the customs and social structures of the pre-Scouring. Studying computer systems, vehicles, governmental institutions, even foreign languages: anything and everything that might prove useful, even in the smallest way. The other pilots were there as well: Antti, Miguel, Vikram, all of us with our noses pressed to books and screens, trying to squeeze as much knowledge as possible into our skulls, waiting for the moment when we dropped into the past.
Leaning on my stick as I clacked my way down the corridor, I was telling Margaret about Kogalym, sharing my fears that my pupils wouldn’t be looked after properly during my absence.
“Nobody thinks it matters anymore,” I said. “Education. Giving those girls and boys a chance. And in a way I understand. What’s the point, if all they’ve got to look forward to is gradual starvation or a visit to the mobile euthanisation clinics? But we know. We know there’s a chance, even if it’s only a small one.”
“What did you make of him, Valentina, when Director Cho came to Kogalym?”
“I thought he’d come to take me away, because I’d made an enemy of someone. That’s what they do, sometimes—just come in a helicopter and take you away.”
“World Health is all we have left,” Margaret said, as if this was a justification for their corrupt practices and mob-justice.
“Then he started going on about nutrition, and I didn’t know what to think. But at least I knew he wasn’t there to punish me.” I looked down at Margaret. “Did you know much about him?”
“Only that he was a high-up in World Health, and had a background in physics. They say he was very driven. The project wouldn’t exist without Director Cho. There’s a decade of hard work behind all of this, before any of the ships arrived.”
“Was he married?”
“Yes, and very happily by all accounts. But she became ill—one of the post-Scouring sicknesses. Director Cho was torn. He wanted to spend time with her, but he knew that the project would falter without his direct involvement. He brought the Brothers together, chose this exact location for the experiment , designed the control structure protocol… every detail was under his direct management. But it cost him terribly, not being able to be with his wife in those final months.”
“He seems a good man,” I said.
If Margaret answered, I didn’t hear her.
I was somewhere else.
It was another corridor, but completely different from the metal confines of the ship. There were walls of glazed brick on either side, painted in a two-tone scheme of grey and green. Above was a white ceiling with wide circular lights. Under me was a hard black floor, gleaming as if it had just been polished.
My point of view had swooped down, my eye-level more like a child’s. There was a smooth flow of movement on either side, instead of the gently shifting eye-level of a walking gait.
I was being pushed along in a wheelchair, my hands folded in my lap.
Not my hands, exactly: someone else’s: still female, but much less wrinkled and age-spotted. Ahead of me—me and whoever was pushing the chair—loomed a pair of red double doors, with circular windows set into them.
Above the doorway was a sign. It said Radiology. On the double doors were many warning notices.
I stumbled, back in my own body—my own self. Tightened my hand against my cane.
My own, old hand.
“Are you all right?”
“It happened,” I said, almost breathless. “It just happened. I was there. I was time-embedded.”
“It was a corridor. I was in a wheelchair, being pushed along.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t a flashback to something that happened to you after your stroke?”
“Totally. I was never in a place like that. Anyway, the hands, her hands… they weren’t mine. I was in someone else’s body.”
Margaret clapped in delight. She lifted her head to the ceiling, eyes narrowing behind her glasses. Her fringe fell back from a smooth, childlike brow.
She looked jubilant, transfixed in a moment of pure ecstasy.
“We need to speak to Director Cho. Now. Before you forget the tiniest detail. You’ve done it, Valentina. The first of any of us. The first person to go back in time.”
Excerpted from Permafrost, copyright © 2019 by Alastair Reynolds.