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Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 53


  Olmy felt a sting of shock at the mention of that name. The conversation had suddenly become more than a little risky. He shook his head vigorously. “I do not acknowledge even knowing of such a place,” he said.

  “You know more than I do,” the partial said. “I’ve been assured that it’s real. Way Defense tells the Office of Way Maintenance that it now threatens us all.”

  “I’m not comfortable holding this conversation in a public place,” Olmy protested.

  This seemed to embolden the partial, and she projected her image closer. “This area is quiet and clean. No one listens.”

  Olmy stared up at the high glass ceiling.

  “We are not being observed,” the partial insisted. “The Nexus and Way Defense are concerned that the Jarts are closing in on that sector of the Way. I am told that if they occupy it, gain control of the Redoubt, Thistledown might as well be ground to dust and the Way set on fire like a piece of string. That scares my original. It scares me as I am now. Does it bother you in the least, Olmy?”

  Olmy looked along the rows of urns…Centuries of Thistledown history, lost memory, now turned to pinches of ash, or less.

  “Yanosh says he’s positive you can help,” the partial said with a strong lilt of emotion. “It’s a way to rejoin the living and make a new place for yourself.”

  “Why should that matter to you? To your original?” Olmy asked.

  “Because my original still regards you as a hero. I still hope to emulate your service to the Hexamon.”

  Olmy smiled wryly. “Better to find a living model,” he said. “I don’t belong out there. I’m rusted over.”

  “That is not true,” the partial said. “You have been given a new body. You are youthful and strong, and very experienced…” She seemed about to say more, but hesitated, rippled again, and faded abruptly. Her voice faded as well, and he heard only “Yanosh says he’s never lost faith in you—”

  The floor of the columbarium trembled. The solidity of Thistledown seemed to be threatened; a quake through the asteroid material, an impact from outside…or something occurring within the Way. Olmy reached out to brace himself against a pillar. The golden spheres vibrated in their suspensions, jangling like hundreds of small bells.

  From far away, sirens began to wail.

  The partial reappeared. “I have lost contact with my original,” it said, its features blandly stiff. “Something has broken my link with City Memory.”

  Olmy watched Neya’s image with fascination as yet untouched by any visceral response.

  “I do not know when or if there will be a recovery,” she said. “There’s a failure in Axis City.” Suddenly the image appeared puzzled, then stricken. She held out her phantom arms. “My original…” As if she were made of solid flesh, her face crinkled with fear. “She’s died. I’ve died. Oh my God, Olmy!”

  Olmy tried to understand what this might mean, under the radical new rules of life and death for Geshels such as Neya. “What’s happened? What can we do?”

  The image flickered wildly. “My body is gone. There’s been a complete system failure. I don’t have any legal existence.”

  “What about the whole-life records? Connect with them.” Olmy walked around the unsteady image, as if he might capture it, stop it from fading.

  “I kept putting it off…So stupid! I haven’t put myself in City Memory yet.”

  He tried to touch her and of course could not. He could not believe what she was saying, yet the sirens still wailed, and another small shudder rang through the asteroid.

  “I have no place to go. Olmy, please! Don’t let me just stop!” The ghost of Neya Taur Rinn drew herself up, tried to compose herself. “I have only a few seconds before…”

  Olmy felt a sudden and intense attraction to the shimmering image. He wanted to know what actual death, final death, could possibly feel like. He reached out again, as if to embrace her.

  She shook her head. The flickering increased. “It feels so strange—losing—”

  Before she could finish, the image vanished completely. Olmy’s arms hung around silent and empty air.

  The sirens continued to wail, audible throughout Alexandria. He slowly dropped his arms, all too aware of being alone. The projector flew in a small circle, emitting small wheeping sounds. Without instructions from its source, it could not decide what to do.

  For a moment, he shivered and his neck hair pricked—a sense of almost religious awe he had not experienced since his time on Lamarckia.

  Olmy had started walking toward the end of the hall before he consciously knew what to do. He turned right to exit through the large steel doors and looked up through the thin clouds enwrapping the second chamber, through the glow of the flux tube to the axis borehole on the southern cap. His eyes were warm and wet. He wiped them with the back of his hand and his breath hitched.

  Emergency beacons had switched on around the flux tube, forming a bright ring two-thirds of the way up the cap.

  His shivering continued, and it angered him. He had died once already, yet this new body was afraid of dying, and its wash of emotions had taken charge of his senses.

  Deeper still and even more disturbing was a scrap of the old loyalty…To his people, to the vessel that bore them between the stars, that served as the open chalice of the infinite Way. A loyalty to the woman who had found him too painful to be with. “Neya!” he moaned. Perhaps she had been wrong. A partial might not have access to all information; perhaps things weren’t as bad as they seemed.

  But he knew that they were. He had never felt Thistledown shake so.

  Olmy hurried to the rail terminal three city squares away, accompanied by throngs of curious and alarmed citizens. Barricades had been set across the entrances to the northern cap elevators; all interchamber travel was temporarily restricted. No news was available.

  Olmy showed the ID marks on his wrist to a cap guard, who scanned them quickly and transmitted them to her commanders. She let him pass, and he entered the elevator and rode swiftly to the borehole.

  Within the workrooms surrounding the borehole waited an arrowhead-shaped official transport, as the Presiding Minister’s office had requested. None of the soldiers or guards he questioned knew what had happened. There were still no official pronouncements on any of the citizen nets. Olmy rode the transport, accompanied by five other officials, through the vacuum above the atmospheres of the next four chambers, threading the boreholes of each of the massive concave walls that separated them. None of the chambers showed any sign of damage.

  In the southern cap borehole of the sixth chamber, Olmy transferred from the transport to a tuberider, designed to run along the singularity that formed the core of the Way. On this most unusual railway, he sped at many thousands of miles per hour toward the Axis City at 4 ex 5—four hundred thousand kilometers north of Thistledown.

  A few minutes from Axis City, the tuberider slowed and the forward viewing port darkened. There was heavy radiation in the vicinity, the pilot reported. Something had come down the Way at relativistic velocity and struck the northern precincts of Axis City.

  Olmy had little trouble guessing the source.

  2

  A day passed before Olmy could see the Presiding Minister. Emergency repairs on Axis City had rendered only one precinct, Central City, habitable; the rest, including Axis Prime, were being evacuated. Axis Prime had taken the brunt of the impact. Tens of thousands had lost their lives, both Geshels and Naderites. Naderites by and large did not participate in the practice of storing their body patterns and recent memories as insurance against such a calamity.

  Some Geshels would receive their second incarnation—many thousands more would not. City Memory itself had been damaged. Even had Neya taken the time to make her whole-life record, store her patterns, she might still have died.

  The last functioning precinct, Central City, now contained the combined offices of Presiding Minister of the Way and the Axis City government, and it was here that Yanosh met w
ith Olmy.

  “Her name was Deirdre Enoch,” the Presiding Minister said, floating over the transparent external wall of the new office. His body was wrapped below the chest in a shining blue medical support suit; the impact had broken both of his legs and caused severe internal injuries. For the time being, the Presiding Minister was a functioning cyborg, until new organs could be grown and placed. “She opened a gate illegally at three ex nine, fifty years ago. Just beyond the point where we last repulsed the Jarts. She was helped by a master gate opener who deliberately disobeyed Nexus and guild orders. We learned about the breach six months after she had smuggled eighty of her colleagues—or maybe a hundred and twenty, we aren’t sure how many—into a small research center—and just days after the gate was opened. There was nothing we could do to stop it.”

  Olmy gripped a rail that ran around the perimeter of the office, watching Kesler without expression. The irony was too obvious. “I’ve only heard rumors. Way Maintenance—”

  Kesler was hit by a wave of pain, quickly damped by the suit. He continued, his face drawn. “Damn Way Maintenance. Damn the infighting and politics.” He forced a smile. “Last time it was a Naderite renegade on Lamarckia.”

  Olmy nodded.

  “This time—Geshel. Even worse—a member of the Openers Guild. I never imagined running this damned starship would ever be so complicated. Makes me almost understand why you long for Lamarckia.”

  “It wasn’t any easier there,” Olmy said.

  “Yes—but there were fewer people.” Yanosh rotated his support suit and crossed the chamber. “We don’t know precisely what happened. Something disturbed the immediate geometry around the gate. The conflicts between Way physics and the universe Enoch accessed were too great. The gate became a lesion, impossible to close. By that time, most of Enoch’s scientists had retreated to the main station, a protective pyramid—what she called the Redoubt.”

  “She tapped into chaos?” Olmy asked. Some universes accessed through the Way were empty voids, dead, useless but relatively harmless; others were virulent, filled with a bubbling stew of unstable “constants” that reduced the reality of an observer or instrumentality. Only two such gates had ever been opened in the Way; the single fortunate aspect of these disasters had been that the gates themselves had quickly closed and could not be reopened.

  “Not chaos,” Kesler said, swallowing and bowing his head at more discomfort. “This damn suit…could be doing a better job.”

  “You should be resting,” Olmy said.

  “No time. The Openers Guild tells me Enoch was looking for a domain of enhanced structure, hyperorder. What she found was more dangerous than any chaos. Her gate may have opened into a universe of endless fecundity. Not just order: creativity. Every universe is in a sense a plexus, its parts connected by information links; but Enoch’s universe contained no limits to the propagation of information. No finite speed of light, no separation between anything analogous to the Bell continuum…and other physicality.”

  Olmy frowned, trying to make sense of this. “My knowledge of Way physics is shaky…”

  “Ask your beloved Konrad Korzenowski,” Kesler snapped.

  Olmy did not react to this provocation.

  Kesler apologized under his breath. He floated slowly back across the chamber, his face a mask of pain, a pathetic parody of restlessness. “We lost three expeditions trying to save her people and close the gate. The last was six months ago. Something like life-forms had grown up around the main station, fueled by the lesion. They’ve become huge, unimaginably bizarre. No one can make sense of them. What was left of our last expedition managed to build a barrier about a thousand kilometers south of the lesion. We thought that would give us the luxury of a few years to decide what to do next. But that barrier has been destroyed. We’ve not been able to get close enough since to discover what’s happened. We have defenses in that sector, key defenses that keep the flaw from being used against us.” He looked down through the transparent floor at the segment of the Way twenty-four kilometers below.

  “The Jarts were able to send a relativistic projectile along the flaw, hardly more than a gram of rest mass. We couldn’t stop it. It struck Axis City at twelve hundred hours yesterday.”

  Olmy had been told the details of the attack: a pellet less than a millimeter in diameter, traveling very close to the speed of light. Only the safety and control mechanisms of the sixth chamber machinery had kept the entire Axis City from disintegrating. The original of Neya Taur Rinn had been conducting business on behalf of her boss, Yanosh, in Axis Prime while her partial had visited Olmy.

  “We’re moving the city south as fast as we can and still keep up the evacuation,” Kesler said. “The Jarts are drawing close to the lesion now. We’re not sure what they can do with it. Maybe nothing—but we can’t afford to take the chance.”

  Olmy shook his head in puzzlement. “You’ve just told me nothing can be done. Why call me here when we’re helpless?”

  “I didn’t say nothing could be done,” Kesler responded, eyes glittering. “Some of our gate openers think they can build a cirque, a ring gate, and seal off the lesion.”

  “That would cut us off from the rest of the Way,” Olmy said.

  “Worse. In a few days or weeks it would destroy the Way completely, seal us off in Thistledown forever. Until now, we’ve never been that desperate.” He smiled, lips twisted by pain. “Frankly, you were not my choice. I’m no longer sure that you can be relied upon, and this matter is far too complicated to allow anyone to act alone.”

  Neya had not told him the truth, then. “Who chose me?” Olmy asked.

  “A gate opener. You made an impression on him when he escorted you down the Way some decades ago. He was the one who opened the gate to Lamarckia.”

  “Frederik Ry Ornis?”

  Kesler nodded. “From what I’m told, he’s become the most powerful opener in the guild. A senior master.”

  Olmy took a deep breath. “I’m not what I appear to be, Yanosh. I’m an old man who’s seen women and his friends die. I miss my sons. You should have left me on Lamarckia.”

  Kesler closed his eyes. The blue jacket around his lower body adjusted slightly, and his face tightened. “The Olmy I knew would never have turned down a chance like this.”

  “I’ve seen too many things already,” Olmy said.

  Yanosh moved forward. “We both have. This…is beyond me,” he said quietly. “The lesion…The gate openers tell me it’s the strangest place in creation. All the boundaries of physics have collapsed. Time and causality have new meanings. Heaven and hell have married. Only those in the Redoubt have seen all that’s happened there—if they still exist in any way we can understand. They haven’t communicated with us since the lesion formed.”

  Olmy listened intently, something slowly stirring to life, a small speck of ember glowing brighter.

  “It may be over, Olmy,” Yanosh said. “The whole grand experiment may be at an end. We’re ready to close off the Way, pinch it, seal the lesion within its own small bubble…dispose of it.”

  “Tell me more,” Olmy said, folding his arms.

  “Three citizens escaped from the Redoubt, from Enoch’s small colony, before the lesion became too large. One died, his mind scrambled beyond retrieval. The second has been confined for study, as best we’re able. What afflicts him—or it—is something we can never cure. The third survived relatively unharmed. She’s become…unconventional, more than a little obsessed by the mystical, but I’m told she’s still rational. If you accept, she will accompany you.” Yanosh’s tone indicated he was not going to allow Olmy to decline. “We have two other volunteers, both apprentice gate openers, both failed by the guild. All have been chosen by Frederik Ry Ornis. He will explain why.”

  Olmy shook his head. “A mystic, failed openers…What would I do with such a team?”

  Yanosh smiled grimly. “Kill them if it goes wrong. And kill yourself. If you can’t close off the Way, and if the lesion r
emains, you will not be allowed to come back. The third expedition I sent never even reached the Redoubt. But they were absorbed by the lesion.” Another grimace of pain. “Do you believe in ghosts, Olmy?”

  “What kind?”

  “Real ghosts?”

  “No,” Olmy said.

  “I think I do. Some members of our rescue expeditions came back. Several versions of them. We think we destroyed them.”

  “Versions?”

  “Copies of some sort. They were sent back—echoed—along their own world-lines in a way no one understands. They returned to their loved ones, their relatives, their friends. If more return, everything we call real could be in jeopardy. It’s been very difficult keeping this secret.”

  Olmy raised an eyebrow skeptically. He wondered if Yanosh was himself still rational. “I’ve served my time. More than my time. Why should I go active?”

  “Damn it, Olmy, if not for love of Thistledown—if you’re beyond that, then because you want to die.” Kesler grunted, his face betraying quiet disgust behind the pain. “You’ve wanted to die since I brought you back from Lamarckia. This time, if you make it to the Redoubt, you’re likely to have your wish granted.

  “Think of it as a gift from me to you, or to what you once were.”

  3

  “If you were enhanced, this would go a lot faster,” Jarr Flynch said, pointing to Olmy’s head. Frederik Ry Ornis smiled. The three of them walked side by side down a long, empty hall, approaching a secure room deep in the old Thistledown Defense Tactical College building in Alexandria.

  Ry Ornis had aged not at all physically. In appearance he was still the same long-limbed, mantislike figure, but his gawkiness had been replaced by an eerie grace, and his youthful, eccentric volubility by a wry spareness of language.

  Olmy dismissed Flynch’s comment with a wave of his hand. “I’ve gone through the important files,” he said. “I think I know them well enough. I have questions about the choice of people to go with me. The apprentice gate openers…They’ve been rejected by the guild. Why?”