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Neith Returns

A twenty-kilometre-wide almond of rock and ice dominated the view-screen as manoeuvring jets nudged the Pegasus ever closer to its surface. It had taken hours of minute course corrections and computer consideration to select, and then approach, the most suitable landing spot. I watched and waited anxiously as the ground neared. I knew that out here at the edge of the solar system any mistake would be unforgiving – an error would likely mean death – and the thought had been giving me nightmares for weeks.

Whilst I fretted and worried, beside me in the cramped cockpit my companion slept soundly in his seat, and snored. Loudly.

I had objected to his snoring from the second day of our journey. “What is the point of such a function?” I had asked. “You have no lungs, throat, nor nasal passages. Why make noises when you sleep?”

“The biogs like it,” he had explained, “it makes us seem more human to them.” Then he had turned his intense blue eyes upon me and held the stare for a moment before turning away. Our eyes are our only biological component, suspended in an oxygenated jelly in our chromium skulls, but his were so much more expressive than mine and he learned early in our relationship to use them to maximum withering effect.

“There are no biogs here,” I said, ignoring his expression, “just us nuh-men. So please switch it off, Ulysses.”

He shook his head. “Can a leopard change his spots? Snoring is part of me now.”

That had been day two and the relationship had not improved in the weeks since then, but being forced together to undertake a suicidal mission was never likely to encourage friendship. Especially when one of us – him – was a pedantic, irritating thrill-seeker without apparent moral purpose in life.

I glanced back at the screens which were currently sketching graphical overlays of irregularities on the centaur’s surface as the Pegasus made its final approach. Our landing spot seemed to be the only part of the rocky landscape which the computer didn’t identify as anomalous. The whole enormous chunk of rock and ice seemed to be atypical and I silently cursed the racist Captain Amos for placing me in such a perilous predicament.

Two months earlier and only three weeks into my observations of the cloud patterns of Titan, I had been peremptorily summoned to see Captain Amos aboard the Tartarus. The interruption of my work irritated me, especially as I had arrived at Saturn aboard the Cerberus weeks before the Tartarus got there and so could not understand Amos’ interest in me, but nevertheless I boarded a shuttle in response to the command and headed to the hub of docked command ships in high orbit above Saturn.

Captain Amos occupied a cabin in the rotating section of his ship and this provided the constant illusion of one-eighth g, but I could magnetise my feet and walk through the zero-g sections of the ship in any case, so only my internal gyroscopes noticed the transition from one part to the other. Human crew-members tended to move more slowly than I did when in zero-g, having to use the guide ropes strung along the walls, and they cast what I presumed were envious glances at me as I strolled past them. Only in the artificial gravity of the rotating areas did I walk alongside men and women as equals, although they still tended to move aside to let me precede them and watched me with what I can only imagine was awe.

When I arrived at the Captain’s cabin I was ushered straight inside by an aide and met Ulysses for the first time. He turned his silvered head slightly and let his eyes flick across me, rather disinterestedly in my opinion, then turned back to face across the desk in front of him. His appearance caused me to mentally frown in surprise, because I had not seen another nuh-man since starting this trip a year earlier and didn’t know there was another at Saturn station. He must have arrived on a later ship than mine.

“Ah,” said the man seated behind the desk who I presumed was the Captain. “You must be Aeneas. Glad you could join us.”

I nodded in greeting. “Captain Amos, I must object to being dragged away from my work. It is far too important to be interrupted.”

“Of course it is,” he replied soothingly, “but I have a task for you which is significantly more important. It is also something I can only entrust to the two of you.”

“Captain, I cannot simply abandon my work.”

“Aeneas, please do not mistake my easy-going demeanour to in any way suggest that this is a democracy. You are a member of the crew at Saturn station and you will do as you are instructed. Do you understand?”

I bristled inwardly. “Yes, Captain.”

Ulysses turned to face me again with his expressionless face and I knew he was laughing at me inside. I had to resist the urge to punch him.

The Captain ran his fingers across his desk controls and the lights dimmed in the room. A holographic display sprang into life between the three of us, describing the outer planets in their current relative positions. A red curved line entered from the extreme edge of the display and clearly represented an object heading into the solar system.

“That line is the current track of a big ball of rock and ice, a centaur, originating in the Kuiper belt, we think, and heading for the inner planets,” said the Captain. “The Chinese spotted it from their farside observatory on the Moon last week. They have far better instruments than we do.”

“What’s so interesting about a big hunk of rock?” asked Ulysses.

“It has changed direction at least twice. It appears to be getting nudged towards Neptune and lining up for a gravitational slingshot towards the inner planets.”

That was indeed interesting news and I had to resist the urge to jump into the conversation. We all knew what it meant for the object to be under power and to have come from the outer regions of the solar system: extra-terrestrials. There could be no other explanation. There were no manned Earth vessels farther out than ours at Saturn station and the only unmanned craft were tiny and insignificant in comparison to the size of the approaching object. It would take ten thousand probes impacting simultaneously to even hope of marginally changing the centaur’s trajectory.

Ulysses nodded. “And you want us to check it out?”

“Yes,” said Amos.

“What?” I said, as realisation suddenly dawned. “You can’t be serious, Captain. I’m a meteorologist, not an explorer.”

“We are all explorers, Aeneas,” he replied calmly, “and you are going. You two are the only members of the crew who can go.”

“Because we’re artificial you think we are expendable? That is reprehensible, Captain Amos. I am legally recognised by the United Nations with equivalent status to you as a human being under Article 7 of the Convention on the …”

“Enough, Aeneas. Enough.” He held up a hand placatingly. “I understand the law and I understand full well your status as a sentient being and as a member of this expedition. Do you know how I found you among the diverse crew-men and women scattered around the Saturn system? There are four command ships in orbit, sixteen shuttle craft, seven orbital stations, four planetary observation domes, and two-hundred-and-seventy crew.” He brought his palm down on the desktop with a bang. “But to find you I had to search the database by first names because the computer doesn’t distinguish either one of you as a nuh-man. There is no record on ShipWeb of your artificial nuh-man status because the UN Space Agency doesn’t think it is relevant for me, or anyone else, to know about it. It is only the nuh-man's predilection for Classical names that led me to both of you.” He chuckled briefly, without real mirth. “Although I did discover a Priam aboard the Caelus. Natural human, of course, but his name had me confused for a while.”

“Short guy with glasses,” said Ulysses. “I know him. Good engineer.”

“Quite.” Captain Amos smiled. “So let’s talk about your ship, the Pegasus. She is a new design with an exceptionally fast fusion drive. She’ll get you in the region of Neptune in only a few months.”

“Captain,” I said, “I must renew my objection.”

“Noted.” Then he smiled a little ruefully. “I’m sorry to both of you, but you are correct to assume this mission could be extremely dangerous. Whilst I do believe that you are both sentient beings and I consider you to be equal to any other member of the crew, you also have a distinct advantage over your biological colleagues: you have digital brains which can be backed up.”

“So if we die you will clone us?” I said. “That’s why you chose us?”

“Yes.”

“A clone would just be a copy of me,” I objected. “It wouldn’t be me.”

“I’m sorry, Aeneas; Ulysses. The decision has been made: you’re going to find out what’s out there. Your ship departs in four hours. Good luck to you both. That will be all, gentlemen. You’re dismissed.”

That had been two months earlier and since then I had been stuck in Ulysses’ dubious company, snoring and all. It annoyed me that he appeared to not only be nonchalant about the dangers we faced, but was actually looking forward to confronting those dangers head on.

I discovered early in our journey that Ulysses didn’t even have a worthwhile role on the Saturn mission. He was the only fare-paying passenger, a wealthy man of leisure, and an adventurer. He belonged to the loosely-knit Giant Leap organisation, named for Armstrong’s famous words as he took that first step onto Earth’s moon, whose goal was to bag all the firsts in the solar system and, ultimately, beyond. Ulysses had sacrificed years of his, admittedly long, life to join the Saturn expedition for the sole opportunity of being the first person to reach the summit of the equatorial ridge on Saturn’s icy satellite, Iapetus. He proudly told me about the days of relentless climbing, the unstable ice which constantly fractured at the touch of his axes and the freezing conditions offset by the magnificence of Saturn’s rings blazing above him. He seemed almost gleeful when he recounted the partial failure of his SkinSuit due to prolonged exposure to the extreme temperatures and high radiation which ultimately led to him sacrificing his right arm at the elbow. Even now the slight colour difference in the alloy of his forearm made it clear the limb was not original.

Ulysses had, however, finally reached the top of the ridge by climbing almost twenty kilometres of sheer ice and, since then, had drifted from one Saturnian science project to another to pass the time until the return flights to Earth began. When we had been selected - press-ganged - for the Pegasus mission he seemed almost grateful for the opportunity to risk his life again.

As the ship began its final approach to the surface of the rocky, icy centaur, Ulysses finally awoke. He stretched and coughed - no doubt to irritate me - then turned suddenly and met my gaze. “How’s it going, Aeneas? Are we there yet?”

“We’re about to land.”

Ulysses turned his most withering look upon me. He flipped his right hand up and around to tap his forehead. “Those who are about to die salute you.”

“That isn’t funny,” I said.

“Isn’t it?” he snapped. “I can almost smell the fear on you, Aeneas, and I have no sense of smell. You’ve been a grouch the entire journey and enough is enough.” He leaned towards me and virtually touched his face to mine. “Stop it. Stop being scared. There is no reason to be afraid. This,” and he swept his arm around the cabin, perhaps intending to signify the area of the rocky landscape we were about to explore outside the ship, “this is what life is about. This is a real adventure. What is the worst thing that can happen?”

“We could die,” I said, “and I don’t know about you, but I do not wish to be cloned.”

“Nor do I,” he said, “which is the reason I didn’t let them take a brain scan.”

I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. “What do you mean?”

“There is no copy of my brain at Saturn station. If I die here, then I die here. Simple.”

“Why?”

“Because I agree with you: a copy of my brain is just a copy of my brain. If it isn’t my actual mind,” he said, tapping the side of his head with an alloy finger, “if it isn’t the physical contents of this actual skull, then it isn’t me. I don’t care if this is only a computer: it is still unique - one of a kind. So I didn’t let them make a scan.”

I simply stared back at him, speechless. I had until that moment considered him to be one of the most selfish entities I had ever met, but here he was risking his life with no chance of redemption if he made a mistake. He was truly mortal - a rare situation for a nuh-man and a possibility I had never considered - and I knew I had been wrong in my estimation of him.

“Time to suit up,” he said suddenly, then turned to fix me again with a stare from his deep blue eyes. “Don’t look at me like that, Aeneas; I’m not dead yet.” He reached towards me with his off-colour forearm and patted me on the wrist. “All I’ve done is what the biogs do: I’ve thrown the dice to see where they land. One life is enough for me, Aeneas, and it should be for you. ‘Live in the moment’ as the Romans used to say.”

I simply nodded in agreement. It was hard to know what to say when his softly-spoken confession was a revelation. I found myself warming to him at the very moment it might make no difference: we could both be dead in the next few hours. The ship was on its final approach and had begun to fire a web of restraining cables across the landing area which latched on and screwed themselves into the surface while manoeuvring jets continued to gently push the Pegasus towards touchdown.

Ulysses reached forward and pulled a nozzle from the console. He locked it into place above his head and signalled for it to begin discharging his SkinSuit. A treacle-like coral liquid flowed over his skull and down the sides of his head as internal nanites pulled the fluid into a uniform thickness. The flow continued down his back, chest and arms. Once his hands were covered like runny gloves the surface structure of the liquid hardened slightly and it lost any trace of stickiness. Ulysses lifted slightly from his seat to allow the liquid to cascade down the backs of his legs and then raised his feet to complete the suit. The entire process took less than a minute.

I pulled a twin nozzle from my console to repeat the process and was soon clothed in my own angry-red SkinSuit. For a biog the suit would provide oxygen, heat and waste management functions, but for us it was merely an environmental protection against extremes of temperature and radiation. It reminded me that we nuh-men are not invulnerable despite our hard alloy exteriors.

“You look almost human with skin,” said Ulysses.

I sat upright and thrust my hands to my waist. “I am Lobster Man.”

Ulysses laughed. “That’s the way. Humour will keep you sane. Help you to forget the fear.” He sent a command and the inner hatch irised open, followed by the outer hatch. We looked out onto the forbidding black surface crisscrossed with steel tethers. “I’m going to head north east to the highest residual heat source; it could be the engines that are steering this rock. You go west and check out that structural anomaly the computer pegged on the descent.”

“Shouldn’t we stay together?” I really wanted to stay together.

“No, we want to limit our time exposure here to the minimum.” He reached across and patted my arm again. “Remember the briefings and virtual simulations. We’ve practised for this. Take your time and keep in touch. And don’t worry about aliens. They aren’t here.”

“How do you know?”

“Because they would have done something by now, either kill us or contact us. If they were still on this rock they’d have seen us approaching for weeks.”

I couldn’t argue with his logic so I simply rotated in my seat and pushed myself feet-first into the airlock in spite of the fear threatening to overwhelm me. A monofilament umbilicus attached itself to my suit as I passed the inner iris and, as I eased onto the dusty surface of the centaur outside the ship, the line pulled me gently toward the nearest support cable. As my feet touched the ground the nanites in my suit curved downwards like claws to grip the surface. A thought suddenly occurred to me and I turned around to watch Ulysses emerge from the Pegasus. “I should have let you go first, shouldn’t I? As the mission’s Leaper.”

Ulysses shook his head. “Perhaps I want to convert you to the cause by letting you be first.”

“The cause?”

“As good a word as any,” he said. “Being the first sentient being to do a thing isn’t really the goal of Giant Leapers, you know. It is really about doing something worthwhile; doing something memorable and noteworthy with your life. Being second person onto this rock won’t change that for me. This is still an experience to savour. We’re the first to stand on this rock, as well as the first to reach this far out in the Solar System.”

I decided not to respond; it seemed easier than being negative. I wasn’t feeling at all positive about being exposed and alone two billion miles from Earth in a life-threatening situation.

Ulysses looked at me for a long moment, his eyes seeming to bore into mine as if he understood my thinking but didn’t want to challenge it. Not now anyway. After all, he lived for danger and excitement. I lived for safe mediocrity. “Remember to creep,” he said, then turned and began moving slowly away from me.

I stood for a moment and stared across the dusty, black landscape before taking my first steps away from the safety of the ship. The low gravity meant taking small, sliding steps to remain in contact with the ground. Ulysses was correct to call it creeping and I found myself involuntarily crouching at the waist to keep as close to the surface as possible. Progress was inevitably slow. When I reached the end of the web cables the umbilicus automatically detached and my pace slowed even further. I resisted the temptation to get down on all fours, but I did crouch a little lower. The thought of bouncing away from the surface and flying into space terrified me and without the umbilicus there was nothing to stop me from heading into orbit.

It took almost two hours to reach the site of the anomalous readings and every step was a tortuous mind-game of fear and doubt. I kept telling myself that it would soon be over; I would check out the anomaly and then head back to the Pegasus, never to return to this place again.

My only distraction, and a welcome one, was the continuous running commentary from Ulysses about his progress. His transmissions were relayed via an orbital probe as soon as we lost line-of-sight with each other, but it was still patchy and the occasional word was replaced by static. Ulysses had found some ‘exhausts’ which he felt were responsible for steering the centaur and he was trying to work out the propulsion method. “Some kind of electrostatic ion drive, I think. There’s a whole field of them.”

“Are you heading back now?” I asked.

“Not yet. I want to get inside one and try to see the drive mechanism. We might lose radio contact for a short while.”

“Is that safe? What if the engines start?”

“Then you’ll be heading home alone.” He laughed harshly. “Not likely though, because we’re already on a Neptune intercept course. No need for a course correction now. How are you getting on?”

I had paused at the edge of the anomalous region. Ahead of me lay a dark circular opening, blacker than the surrounding rocks and dust, yawning at me like the entrance to Hades. “There is a tunnel here. It looks a little like a lava tube.”

“We’ll definitely lose contact if we’re both underground. Play it safe, Aeneas, because if that tube goes vertical you could be falling a long way.” He chuckled briefly into the microphone. “Check it out carefully and head back to the ship as soon as you can. Good luck.”

“Thanks. You too.” It was hard to know if his quip had been genuine or not although I tended to believe that he did have some concern for my welfare. Regardless, I had every intention of playing it safe. I shuffled forward into the dark cavern. My human eyes were useless in the absolute blackness of the tunnel and even with my chest lights switched on there were ominous shadows all around me, any one of which could conceal a shaft or other hazard. I engaged my ancillary vision systems which combine ultraviolet, infra-red, radar and passive sonar devices in order to get a clearer picture of the route ahead. I don’t like to use them if I can avoid it, because they give me a headache. My mind is modelled on the working patterns of a human brain, with electronic neurons and synapses, and the human brain is simply not evolved for anything but trichromatic vision. So using them always gives me a headache and a faint feeling of nausea.

The passage walls were uniform and smooth so I had doubts about any natural origin to the tunnel. The floor inclined at around twenty degrees so didn’t cause any difficulties for movement, but I found myself instinctively slowing my pace the further I travelled. It was dread. A biog’s heart would be beating faster now, and he would have a racing pulse and clammy skin. I naturally didn’t have those physical sensations to deal with, but my brain didn’t understand that I’m not quite human so the atavistic fear of being alone in the dark still caused havoc with my emotions. At one point I even spoke Ulysses’ name softly into the ether, simply for the reassurance of hearing another voice, but all I got back from the radio was static.

After a few hundred metres there were branches to my left and right. My additional senses could detect still more tunnels snaking away from these spurs and I was reminded of an ant nest, imagining a network of passages honeycombing the centaur. I passed twenty intersections from the main tunnel before it began to widen into a cavernous space. The floor fell away and the ceiling rose high into the darkness beyond the range of my pitiful lights. I stayed well back from the potential drop and scanned the huge arena. It wasn't empty. A lattice of poles, or branches, criss-crossed the cavern and were overlaid with thin diamond-shaped appendages which looked a little like feathers. I likened it to branches and feathers because in its entirety it seemed faintly organic, albeit with an unnatural geometry of design.

It was perplexing to say the least. I presumed that the structure had been created from the substance of the centaur itself and that suggested some sort of nano-machine. The cave could have been hollowed out first and the branches and feathers added later, but that would require a higher order of engineering difficulty given the narrow tunnels which led to the cavern. I was left with the problem of determining the purpose of the structure and I didn’t have the faintest idea what it was for, although I knew a closer look might help.

I stole a quick glance back up the tunnel towards the surface, the Pegasus, and freedom from the fear which still threatened to overwhelm me. I could head back now with the scanning data and tell Ulysses I couldn’t get any closer to the structure. He would doubt me, of course, but I knew that explanation would be accepted.

I considered the idea briefly and then rejected it. I found that I actually wanted to solve this puzzle. I had come this far and to turn back now would be folly. I had to know.

I secured a retractable cable to the floor of the cavern and, after taking a deep figurative breath, launched myself towards the nearest branch. In the low gravity I crossed the intervening twenty metres easily and I grabbed at the nearest feather to stop my forward motion. Hooking one arm around the branch and feather I eased into a comfortable and stable position to examine the structure in more detail.

The diamond-shaped feather was built of overlapping pieces of a soft, black material which I couldn’t identify. It felt a little like silk, but firmer, and had conduction properties similar to a titanium alloy. Calling it a feather was the perfect description: running my hand in one direction fluffed up the pieces to allow some light to seep through; brushing it the other way caused the pieces to lock together in an impenetrable barrier. I held my hand sensor behind the feather and bombarded the front with various radiations while brushing my other hand backwards and forwards. It was particularly good at filtering ultraviolet light, I found.

A filter? I looked along the branch and then across the interconnected lattice; each junction to other branches held a multidirectional pivot. Each feather was attached to the cables with pivoting arms as well. Whilst I couldn’t sense the underlying mechanism I suddenly understood the purpose of the entire structure: it was a solar sail, of sorts. It was clear to me that, when completed, the structure would devour the entire centaur. It was meant to be deployed in space and would pivot itself into a gigantic circle of feathers capable of catching solar radiation. No, I realised suddenly, it was built to block radiation, not to use it for propulsion. And with that epiphany I not only knew what it was for, but where it was heading.

An alarm sounded in my suit with a blaring intensity. In the low gravity I had been hanging from the branch with a gentle, swinging motion of my lower limbs. My dangling left foot had touched the branch below and rubbed against an area of sticky residue on the branch: nano-machines! I almost cried out in anguish to to have made such a foolish error at the very moment of my revelation. The fear which had briefly been suppressed by the joy of discovery suddenly hit me like a breaking wave and threatened to drown me. I flashed a signal to the cable-drum and it retracted me quickly back across the cavern and into the tunnel. I landed on my back and immediately raised my chest to look at my feet.

The coral SkinSuit was discoloured over my left toes as my own internal nanites tried to battle the invaders. The alien nano-machines, for their part, were trying their best to convert the material of my suit to branches and feathers. A quick scan of my foot and a review of the suit telemetry made it clear that the alien nanites were winning.

“Ulysses,” I screamed. No response except static.

I turned over and pushed myself to my feet and tried to walk using only the heels of my feet. I pushed off too hard in my fearful haste and my first few steps sent me flying into the roof of the tunnel due to the low gravity. “Remember to creep,” Ulysses had said. I rebounded from the ceiling back to the floor and dug my fingers and the claws of my right foot into the dust to hold me down. I sobbed.

“Ulysses,” I said again into the radio, but I knew he was out of range.

The alien nanites were making quick work of my suit defences. The toes and ball of my foot were now a mass of converting jelly and I shut down all pain receptors from my left leg and blocked the internal flow of energy and sensors from the knee down. It was like performing a mental amputation of the limb.

Then I started to crawl. It would take longer to reach the surface, but I clawed at the ground with an intense desperation and made steady progress. Every few minutes I tried to contact Ulysses although I knew it was pointless until I got out of the tunnels. After two hundred metres of crawling, I stopped to look back at my foot. The tar-like jelly encompassed my entire foot and had reached the ankle. The calf and shin of my SkinSuit were darkening with tendrils of encroaching nano-machines. I turned my gaze away quickly and began dragging myself with even greater speed along the tunnel.

“Ulysses, I need help.”

The static broke briefly and I thought I could hear him call my name over the radio. Ahead of me I could see a light flickering and growing brighter. I dropped my face into the dirt. Please be Ulysses, I thought, not the aliens coming to finish me off. And then, suddenly, he was there beside me.

“Thank God,” I whispered.

Ulysses took in my predicament without any need for explanation. He turned me over onto my back and knelt beside me as he extended a cutting implement - a savage-looking saw - from his forearm. It snaked out through his suit and he swung it straight against my knee.

The nanites in my SkinSuit reacted as expected and hardened the suit at the impact site. The blade skittered off without causing any damage. He tried to use it like a saw but it couldn’t find purchase against the solid material. “You need to expose your knee. Tell your suit to retract around the joint.”

I sent the command but nothing happened. “The suit isn’t responding.”

“Shit.” He sat back on his haunches and turned to face me. “That leg needs to come off, Aeneas. I’m going to have to kill your suit.”

“What does that mean?”

“I can send a signal to make the nanites terminate themselves. Your suit will run off you like treacle without them, but it also means you’ll be exposed to the elements until I get you back to the ship. You need to go into hibernation.” He glanced at the encroaching jelly of the alien nanites moving further up my calf. “You need to do it quickly, Aeneas.”

I knew he was right. The dreamlike state of nuh-man hibernation ensured that all internal resources were diverted to protect my electronic brain circuitry, because everything else in my artificial body could be replaced except my mind. I sent a signal for covers to lower over my biological eyes and then gradually withdrew support functions from my extremities. “Ulysses,” I said finally, just as the darkness began descending, “don’t let them clone me.”

“I won’t.”

I switched to hibernation mode. I didn’t dream. I didn’t experience anything. Perhaps death is like that. Or perhaps death is full of experiences and love and safety. I don’t know and I’m in no hurry to find out.

I awoke in the ship to a persistent wake-up signal from Ulysses. I kept my eye shutters down for a moment to revel in my return to consciousness. I was still onboard the Pegasus; I could still recall the horrors of the subterranean tunnels. I felt elated. My real fear had been to awake as a clone onboard the Tartarus with no knowledge of the trip to the outer reaches of the solar system. I suddenly realised that my fear was not of dying, but of living as a parody of myself. I needed to own my experiences.

Without looking I knew my left leg was missing from the mid-femur. I had a sense of loss, but it was a small price to pay. I opened my eyes and turned to face Ulysses. “How long?” I asked.

“Four days.”

“Where are we?”

“Still in Neptune’s orbit. The centaur has gone on its way though. At least we now know where it’s going.”

“Yes,” I said softly, “to Venus.”

He sat up in surprise. “How do you know that?”

“I worked it out in the cavern. The structure I found was built to block solar radiation and Venus is the obvious place for it. I remember reading a treatise about terraforming Venus and that was one of the steps needed: build a huge solar shade to block some of the incoming radiation and help to reduce the temperature of the planet.”

“Very clever,” he said, “that’s what the astronomers on Saturn station think too. What else do you need to terraform it?”

“Comets, I suppose. Lots of water to dilute the atmosphere and cool it down even further. Maybe more metals would help - I think it has a thin crust and a weak magnetic field - so asteroids too. Lots of them. I haven’t really studied terraforming to any extent so I’m not sure what else.” I clicked my fingers. “Wait, wasn’t there a proposal to seed the atmosphere with bacteria?”

Ulysses nodded. “They would all help, to be sure,” he agreed, “so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the Lunar observatory has detected another sixteen Kuiper belt objects heading towards the inner solar system.”

“No, really? Sixteen?”

“There may be more to follow.”

It was stunning news. “So you think the aliens want to terraform Venus?”

“They aren’t aliens.”

“What do you mean?”

He reached across and took gentle hold of my wrist. “I’ll explain in a minute, but first we need to make some decisions. Like where we should go to next.”

“Back to Saturn …,” I began, then noticed a partially dissolved nuh-man leg propped beside Ulysses. My leg, minus the foot. “What is that doing here?” I yelled. “The alien nano-machines …”

“Are dead,” he said calmly. “That was the interesting thing about the whole episode. Did you know I used to work in nano-factoring? Just one of my many interests. Fascinating devices, but still relatively crude. People used to be scared to death of nano-machines. Thought they’d devour the planet.”

“They still might.” I had always held a fear of nanites, especially when they encased me in a SkinSuit. My experience of being attacked by them in the cavern hadn’t warmed me to their existence either.

“Not a chance. The early pioneers in nano-technology made sure of that and the United Nations rubber-stamped their protocols. All nano-machines have to respond to a localised kill signal, by agreement of international law. It guarantees that nanites can’t get out of control; any kid with a portable transmitter can stop them in their tracks.”

“So what?”

“When I sent the kill signal to the nanites in your suit it also killed the alien nanites. They responded to Earth protocols.”

“I don’t understand. Are you saying the aliens copied our nano-machines?”

He shook his head. “There are no aliens, don’t you see. The nano-machines which converted the centaur are from Earth.”

“No, that can’t be right. If the UN Space Agency was terraforming Venus we would know about it. Anyway, Earth’s nano-machines aren’t sophisticated enough to convert that centaur.”

“You’re right. Our nanites aren’t that good,” he said, “but what if a Space Agency from a future Earth sent the nanites.”

“What?”

“Nobody on Earth today sent those nanites, but they did come from Earth. That much is obvious. So they have to be from the future. I’ve been in touch with Saturn station and they agree with me. They’re even looking for gravitational anomalies at the edges of the solar system. It could lead us to a mini-wormhole. A time-hole from the future. The boffins are guessing that wormholes can only exist on a quantum scale, so only nano-machines can fit through. It means we won’t actually be meeting any future Earthmen.”

“This is all coming a bit fast.” I glanced back at the ruins of my left leg. “You aren’t going to suggest we go looking for the wormhole, are you?”

Ulysses laughed. “Not quite - we could never find it in any case - but there is another reason we’re still out here.” He rubbed his chin in a human-like gesture. “Venus has another problem that makes terraforming a difficult proposition: she rotates far too slowly and in a retrograde motion. She needs to be speeded up, her rotation reversed, and she really would benefit from having a satellite to stabilise her.”

I nodded. “I know that early astronomers used to think Venus did have a moon. They even gave it a name: Neith. I think they eventually realised that they were looking at a reflected image, a mirage, due to the difficulty of viewing her in direct sunlight, but Venus has never had a satellite.”

“Maybe not, but Neith is nevertheless returning,” said Ulysses. “A few days ago, Eris was discovered to have crossed the orbit of Pluto and is heading sunward, almost certainly to become a satellite of Venus. Or so the astronomers think.”

I didn’t respond. I was at a total loss for words. I knew Eris to be a dwarf planet, but it was still enormous, almost one third the volume of the Moon. I couldn’t imagine the energy required to move it. Thinking about the power available to the future Earthmen made me feel insignificant somehow. But I had persevered in the cave and was a better man for it.

“So my question to you, Aeneas,” he continued, “do you want to continue exploring, trying to find some answers? Or would you rather turn back and go home?”

I met his eyes and for once didn’t feel overpowered by his gaze. It was one of those moments when I wished I had a mouth so I could smile at him. Perhaps even grin. I wanted the adventure to continue, even if it meant my death. I had decided at the moment I awoke from hibernation that I would live every moment from now on. “Ulysses,” I said, with a rising feeling of excitement, “let’s find out what these future-folk are up to. Set a course for Eris.”

Fiction


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