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Proxima

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Proxima

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Author: Stephen Baxter
Publisher: Gollancz, 2013
Series: Proxima: Book 1

1. Proxima
2. Ultima

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate/Parallel Universe
Colonization
Terraforming
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Synopsis

The very far future: The Galaxy is a drifting wreck of black holes, neutron stars, chill white dwarfs. The age of star formation is long past. Yet there is life here, feeding off the energies of the stellar remnants, and there is mind, a tremendous Galaxy-spanning intelligence each of whose thoughts lasts a hundred thousand years. And this mind cradles memories of a long-gone age when a more compact universe was full of light...

The 27th century: Proxima Centauri, an undistinguished red dwarf star, is the nearest star to our sun - and (in this fiction), the nearest to host a world, Proxima IV, habitable by humans. But Proxima IV is unlike Earth in many ways. Huddling close to the warmth, orbiting in weeks, it keeps one face to its parent star at all times. The 'substellar point', with the star forever overhead, is a blasted desert, and the 'antistellar point' on the far side is under an ice cap in perpetual darkness. How would it be to live on such a world? Needle ships fall from Proxima IV's sky. Yuri Jones, with 1000 others, is about to find out...P ROXIMA tells the amazing tale of how we colonise a harsh new eden, and the secret we find there that will change our role in the Universe for ever.


Excerpt

2166

I'm back on Earth.

That was Yuri's very first thought, on waking in a bed: a hard bed, stiff mattress and lightweight sheets and blankets, but a bed nonetheless, not a barrack bunk stacked four high in a dome on Mars.

He opened his eyes to bright light, from fluorescent bars on the walls. A clean-looking ceiling. People moving around him wearing green shirts and hygiene caps and masks, a low murmur of competent voices, machines that bleeped and chimed. Other beds, other patients. A classic hospital setup. He saw all this in his peripheral vision; he hadn't turned his head yet, he felt so heavy.

The last thing he remembered was the needle jabbed into his neck by that asshole Peacekeeper Tollemache. He had no idea how long he'd been out--months, if he'd been shipped back to Earth--and he remembered from his recovery after his decades in the cryo that it paid to take care on waking.

But he knew he was on Earth. He could feel it in his bones. Yuri had been born on Earth in the year 2067, nearly a hundred years ago, and, dozing in a cryo tank, had missed mankind's heroic expansion out into the solar system. He had woken up in a colony on what he had learned, gradually, was Mars. But now, after another compulsory sleep, this was different again. He risked lifting his hand. The muscles in his arm ached, just doing that, and he felt tubes dragging at him as he moved, and the hand fell back with a satisfyingly heavy thump. Beautiful Earth gravity, not that neither-one-thing-nor-the-other floaty stuff on Mars. It could only be Earth, home.

He had a million questions. Such as where on Earth? Why had he been sent back instead of being left to rot on Mars? And what kind of institution was he in now, what kind of prison this time? But not having answers didn't bother him. He'd had very few answers about anything since waking up on Mars, and besides, he hadn't cared enough to ask. The worst kind of cage on Earth, and no matter how much the place had changed since he'd gone into the cryo tank, was better than the finest luxury you could find on Mars. Because on Earth you could always just open the door and breathe the air, even if it was an overheated polluted soup, and just keep on walking, forever...

He closed his eyes.

"Rise and shine, sleepyhead."

There was a face looming over him, a woman, black, wearing a green shirt with a name tag he couldn't read, her hair tucked into a green cloth cap. She wasn't wearing a mask, and she smiled at him. She looked tired.

He tried to speak. His mouth was dry, and his tongue stuck painfully to the roof of his mouth. "I... I..."

"Here. Have a sip of water." She held a nippled bottle, like a baby's, for him. The water was warm and stale. She seemed to be having trouble holding up the bottle, like she was weak herself. "Do you know your name?" She glanced at the foot of the bed. "Yuri Eden. That's all we have for you. No recorded next of kin. Is that right?"

He just shrugged, a tentative movement, flat on his back.

She looked him over, peered into his eyes, checked some kind of monitor beside the bed. "My name is Dr. Poinar. I'm ISF. I have a crew rank but you can call me Doctor. You've taken your time coming out of the induced coma the Peacekeepers put you into. Still, it was easier to ship you through the launch that way. More than half the crew dreamed it all away, in fact. I'm going to see if I can sit you up. OK?" She pressed a button.

With a whir of servos the back of his bed began to tip up, lifting him, bending him at the waist. He felt weak, and his head was like a tub of sloshing liquid. The ward grayed around him. He felt a crawling sensation in his right arm, some kind of fluid being pumped into him.

Dr. Poinar watched him carefully. "You OK? All right. Here's the five-second briefing--you'll be put through a proper induction process later, everybody's going through that in stages, classroom stuff and data access first while you get your strength back, then physical work later, including your share of maintenance chores." She glanced at his notes. "More of that if you end up on a punishment detail, and looking at your record that seems more than likely. But the priority for you is reconditioning. Your body needs to relearn how to handle full gravity. The nerve receptors that handle your posture, positioning and movement are all baffled right now. Your inner ear doesn't know what the hell's going on. Your fluid balance is all wrong, and you're going to have low blood pressure symptoms for a while. Here, drink this."

She handed him another flask, and this time he took it for himself. It was a briny fluid that made him splutter.

"You'll get courses of injections to rectify your bone calcium loss and such. And physio to build up your muscle strength and bone mass. Do not skip those. Oh, and your immune system will be hit. Every virus everybody brought into this hull has been running around like crazy; you'll have a few weeks of fun with that. Later on there will be further medical programs, pre-adaptation for Prox, preventive surgery of various kinds." She grinned, faintly cruelly. "How are your teeth? But that won't be for another year or more."

Prox?

A baby started to cry, not far away.

Dr. Poinar asked, "Any questions? Oh, I'm sure there are masses. Just use your common sense. For now just sit there and let the dizziness pass. Don't lie down again. I'll come by later and see if you can take some solid food. And watch out for the catheter. The nurse will remove that later. Take it easy, Yuri Eden." She walked out of his view.

Still that baby cried, not far to his left.

Very cautiously he turned his head that way; the graying returned, and a ringing in his ears, but he waited until it passed. He saw more beds crowded into a room that couldn't have been more than seven, eight meters across, smaller than he had expected. Some of the beds had cloth partitions around them. More medical types and a couple of servo-robots glided through the narrow spaces between the beds. Equipment dangled from the ceiling, including what looked like a teleoperated surgical kit, all manipulator arms and laser nozzles and knives.

In the bed closest to Yuri, to his left, lay a young woman, a girl really, pale, blond hair, fragile-looking. Intensely beautiful. She cradled a baby, a bundle of blankets; as she rocked it, the crying slowly subsided. She saw Yuri looking. He turned his head away, making his vision spin again. At Eden he'd developed the habit of avoiding eye contact, of giving people their own bubbles of privacy.

"It's OK." Her accent was soft, maybe eastern European.

He looked back. "Didn't mean to stare." His voice was a husk.

"Well, little Cole was crying, disturbing everybody." She smiled. "Sorry if he woke you up."

That puzzled him. Then he realized she was joking. He tried to smile, but he had no idea what kind of grimace his numb face was pulling.

"My name is Anna Vigil."

"I'm Yuri."

"Yuri Eden. I heard the doctor say." Little Cole wriggled and gurgled softly. "He's fine. I'm the one who had to come in here. A cold virus laid me out; I'm still weak from nursing. Of course we shouldn't be here at all. I was heavily pregnant when the sweep came. There was a mix-up. Cole's the only child in here."

"Cole, huh. Nice name."

She seemed to think that over, as if his responses were a little off. "I named him for Dexter Cole, of course. The first guy to Proxima."

Of course. Who? Where? He backed away from the puzzling little conversation, retreated into himself.

"Hey, buddy."

He turned his head to the right.

In the bed on that side was a man, around thirty, Asiatic. His scalp was swathed in bandages, and the left side of his face was puffed up with bruising that almost closed one eye. Even so, he smiled. "You OK?"

Yuri shrugged stiffly.

"Listen. It's just the go-to-sleep stuff the cops give you. They don't use it sparingly. I took a couple of doses of that myself, while I tried to explain in a calm manner that as a foreign national I did not belong in their sweep for the Ad Astra. Takes you time to wake up from that. Don't worry, the fog will clear." His accent sounded American, west coast maybe, but Yuri's ear was a hundred years out-of-date.

Yuri said, "Thanks. But I'm guessing that's not why you're in here. The sleep thing."

"You ought to be a doctor. No, the big guy put me in here this time. Although the time before it was a couple of Peacekeepers--they managed to break a rib while persuading me--"

"The big guy?"

"Gustave Klein, he's called. I guess you wouldn't know that. King of the Hull, or thinks he is. Watch out for him. So, Yuri Eden, huh? I never came across you on Mars. My name is Liu Tao." He spelled it out.

"You American?"

"Me? No. But I learned English in a school for USNA expats in New Beijing. That's why my accent is kind of old-fashioned; everybody picks up on that. I'm Chinese. I'm actually an officer in the People's space fleet. Yuri Eden? Is that really your name? You lived in Eden, right?"

"Yeah."

"What was it like?"

Lacking any kind of common reference with this guy, Yuri tried to describe it. Eden had been the UN's largest outpost on Mars, and one of the oldest. People lived in cylindrical bulks like Nissen huts that were the remains of the first ships to land, tipped over and heaped with dirt and turned into shelters, and in prefabricated domes, and even in a few buildings of red Martian sandstone blocks. The whole place had had the feel of a prison to Yuri, or a labor camp. And all this was just a pinprick, a hold-out; the scuttlebutt was that a colony like this would be dwarfed by the giant cities the Chinese were building on the rest of the planet, like their capital, Obelisk, in Terra Cimmeria.

Liu Tao listened, his face neutral.

Yuri asked, "So how did you end up here?"

"Bad luck. I was piloting a shuttle down from Red Two, that's one of our orbital stations, heading for our supply depots and manufactories in the Phaethontis quadrangle, when we had an auxiliary power-unit failure. We had to bail out at high altitude, my buddy and I, which is no joke on Mars. He got down safely--well, I guess so; I was never told. My clamshell, my heat shield, had a crack. I was lucky to live through it. But I came down near Eden, and a couple of your Peacekeepers were the first to get to me.

"They held on to me, in defiance of various treaties. I was put through a lot of 'questioning.'" He let that word hang. "They wanted me to tell them the inner secrets of the Triangle. You know about that? The big trade loop we're developing, Earth to asteroids and Mars and back. But I'm a Mars-orbit shuttle jock, that's all. By Mao's balls, it's not as if we're spying on you guys at Eden!" He laughed at that idea. "Well, they kept me in there, and I started to think they were never going to let me go--I mean maybe they'd told my chain of command they'd found me dead or something. What were they going to do to me, kill me? I guess it's no surprise that they threw me into the sweep and locked me up in this hull, right? Out of sight, out of mind. But we're all prisoners here..."

"Nobody's a prisoner," said Dr. Poinar, bustling down the ward with a tray of colorful pills. "That's what the policy says, so it must be true, right? Now take this, Yuri Eden. You need more sleep."

Confused, as weak as Anna's baby, yet still elated at the basic fact that he'd come home,even if he was stuck in this "hull," Yuri obediently took his tablet and subsided into a deep dreamless sleep.

After a day of cautious bending, stretching, walking, and using a lavatory unaided, Yuri was told by Dr. Poinar that his time was up. "We need your bed. Sorry, buddy. You'll be assigned a bunk later. Any possessions you had--"

Yuri shrugged.

"Right now you're late for a class."

"What class?"

"Orientation 101," Liu Tao said. "Some astronaut showing us pretty pictures." He laughed, though he winced when he opened his bruised mouth wide.

"You're in the same class, Liu. Why don't you show your new best friend the way?" Poinar dumped heaps of basic clothing on their beds, bright orange, and walked away.

Yuri had thought the medical ward was crowded, noisy. But once Liu led him outside, into a space that struck Yuri at first glance as like the inside of a big metal tower, he realized that the ward had been a haven of peace and harmony. Looking up he saw that the tower wasn't that tall, maybe forty, forty-five meters, and was capped off by a big metal dome. It was split into stories by mesh-partition flooring; there were ladders and a kind of spiral staircase around the wall, and a fireman's pole arrangement that threaded through gaps in the partitions along the tower's axis. The walls were crusted with equipment boxes and stores, but in some places he saw tables and chairs, lightweight fold-out affairs, and enclosures, partitions inside which he could see bunk beds, more fold-outs. There were folk in there evidently trying to sleep; he had no idea how they'd manage that. It looked like sleep was going to be a luxury here, just like on Mars.

And in this tank, people swarmed everywhere, most of them dressed like Yuri and Liu in bright orange jumpsuits, a few others in Peacekeeper blue, or a more exotic black and silver. They were all adults that he could see, no kids, no infants. Their voices echoed from the metal surfaces in a jangling racket. And over all that there was a whir of pumps and fans, of air-conditioning and plumbing of some kind, just like in Eden. Like he was in another sealed unit.

Liu, moving cautiously himself--evidently it hadn't been just his face that had taken the beating--took Yuri to that outer staircase, steps fixed to the curving wall with a safety rail, and led him up.

At least, just like on Mars, Yuri didn't find the stuff herehard. Since his first waking, he'd found twenty-second-century technology easy to work. User interfaces seemed to have settled down to common standards some time before he'd been frozen. Even the language had stabilized, more or less, if not the accents; English was spoken across several worlds now and had to stay comprehensible to everybody, and there was a huge mass of recorded culture, all of which tended to keep the language static. The vehicles and vocabularies of the year 2166 were easy. It was the people he couldn't figure out. And now Yuri climbed through a blizzard of faces, none of them familiar.

He looked for a window. He still had no idea where on Earth he was. And why the enclosure? Maybe he was in some mid-latitude climate refuge; he'd heard that since his day the whole middle belt of the Earth had heated up, dried out and been abandoned. He could be anywhere. But that steady pull of gravity was reassuring, even as he labored up the stairs with his Mars-softened muscles. He wondered when his first physio was going to be.

They reached a space enclosed by movable partition panels, with fold-out chairs set in rows like a lecture theater. Some guy in a uniform of black and silver stood at the front, facing away from the dozen or so people in the room, talking through a series of images, star fields and space satellites.

A woman in a similar uniform, standing at the door with a slate, stopped Liu and Yuri as they entered. Yuri read her name tag: ISF LT MARDINA JONES. Maybe thirty, she was very dark, with tightly curled black hair. "You're late," she said.

"Sorry. Just out of medical." Liu gave their names.

"Name tags?"

Liu dug his out of a pocket and showed it to her; she scanned it with her slate. She turned to Yuri. "You?"

Yuri just shrugged.

Liu said, "Like I said, just out of medical."

"Just awake, huh." Jones shook her head and made a note on her slate. "Typical. Make sure you sort it out later." She had a thick Australian accent. "Sit, you're late."

Finding a seat in the semidarkened little theater turned out to be a problem. Three guys sat together on a row of a dozen otherwise empty seats. When Yuri went to sit down in the row, Liu prodded him in the back. "Move on," he whispered.

Yuri had been quick to anger ever since he'd first woken up on Mars. "Why should I?"

"Because that middle guy is Gustave Klein. Wait until you're beefed up before you take him on."

But it was already too late, Yuri realized. Klein was white, maybe fifty years old, hefty if not overweight, head elaborately shaven. His fists, resting on his knees, were like steam hammers. And Yuri had made eye contact with him. He barely noticed the two guys with Klein, typical attack dogs. Klein leered at Liu, taking in his injuries, and looked away, dismissive.

They moved on, cautious in the dark. "What's so special about him?"

"He was the best Sabatier-furnace engineer in his colony," Liu whispered. "That's part of the recycling system--you know that, right? And he fixed it so that nobody else could touch those systems. He was a damn water king. No wonder they shipped him out. And it looks like he's fixing to get the same hold here."

"A water king." Yuri grinned. "Until it rains, right?"

Liu looked at him strangely.

Somebody hissed. "Yuri! Hey, Yuri! Over here!" A skinny, shambling form hustled along a row, clearing two spaces, to muttered complaints from the people behind.

"Lemmy?" It was the first familiar voice he'd heard since waking in the can. Yuri sat beside him, followed by Liu.

"Awake at last, huh?" Lemmy's whisper was soft, practiced. "That bastard Tollemache really shot you up, didn't he? Well, he got what he deserved."

Yuri tried to figure it out. Lemmy Pink, nineteen years old, had been the nearest thing to a friend Yuri had made on Mars. Even if Lemmy was only looking for protection.

The last Yuri remembered of Mars was that he and Lemmy had busted out of their dome. Yuri had had to get out. Every atom in his body longed to be out there on the Martian ground, frozen, ultraviolet-blasted desert though it might be. He'd been taken through spacesuit and airlock drills for the sake of emergency training, but he'd never been outside. Mostly he never even got to look through a window. So they'd stolen a rover, made a run for the hills, a local feature called the Chaos--flipped the truck, been picked up by the Peacekeepers. He remembered Tollemache. You're the ice boy, right? Nothing but a pain in the butt since they defrosted you. Well, you won't be my problem much longer. And with a gloved fist he had jammed a needle into Yuri's neck, and the red-brown Martian light had folded away...

And he'd woken up in this tank.

"What do you mean, he got what he deserved?"

"He's here too. In the hull. Ha! He got what was coming to him, all right. But it was because he didn't stop us pinching that rover in the first place, rather than what he did to you."

Yuri mock-punched his arm. "Good to see they brought you home too, man."

Lemmy flinched back. "Don't touch me. I'm full of the fucking sniffles that are going around this coffin, typical of me to get them all."

"What about Krafft?" Lemmy's pet rat, back in the dome.

Lemmy's face fell. "Well, they took him off me. What would you expect?"

"I'm sorry."

They were disturbing the astronaut type giving his lecture. Mardina Jones was right behind them, her voice a severe murmur. "If you two buttheads don't shut up and listen to Major McGregor I'll put you on a charge."

They shut up. But when she withdrew, Lemmy was staring at Yuri, in the shadowy dark. "What was that you just said?"

"What? About the rat?"

"No. Something about them bringing us home."

"I don't know, man. I don't know if I'm asleep or awake." But Lemmy kept staring at him.

Yuri, disoriented, confused, distracted by the noise of the crowds just half a meter beyond the partition, looked up at the astronaut at the lectern in his glittering black-as-night uniform. On Mars everybody had hated the astronauts, because they were rotated, they got to go home. Yuri tried to concentrate on what he was saying.

"Even a single pixel from these very early images of the new world told the astronomers a great deal. Spectral analysis revealed an atmosphere with free oxygen, methane, nitrous oxide."

Major McGregor, maybe late twenties, was tall, upright, whip-thin but athletic, with a healthy glow to his cheeks in the light of the images he showed. He had a slick Angleterre accent, and his hair, blond, brushed, oiled, looked like it got more care than most of the people in this facility.

"Oxygen, think of that! Suddenly we had a habitable world, right on our doorstep. All of you have had experience of the colonies on Mars and the moon--bleak, inhospitable worlds, and yet the best the solar system has to offer. And now, suddenly, this.

"With time, variations of brightness and spectral content told us something about the distribution of continents and oceans. More subtle variations had to reflect changing weather. Not only that, the presence of oxygen is a strong indicator of life, I mean native life, because something has to be putting all that oxygen in the air." He displayed graphs, wriggling lines. "This prominent feature in the red part of the spectrum indicated the presence of something like our own chlorophyll, some kind of light-harvesting pigment. All deduced from watching a single point of light..."

Yuri had no idea what he was talking about. But he had spent a great deal of his time since being woken on Mars not knowing what the hell was going on around him, and it didn't seem to make any material difference.

He was aware that that caveman Klein was watching him. He started to think of how he was going to deal with that, as the astronaut's voice droned on and on.

But Lemmy was still staring at him, as if he was working something out. "Nobody told you. My God."

"Told me what?"

Gustave Klein seemed to have an instinct for trouble. He leaned forward. "What's this?"

Lemmy ignored him. "You said something about being sent home. I just figured it out. You think this is home,don't you? You think this is--"

"Earth?" Liu Tao asked now, wondering, staring at Yuri.

Klein stood up. "He thinks what?What kind of asshole--"

The class was breaking up, the "students" turning in their seats to see what the commotion was. Major McGregor shut up at last, frowning in annoyance before his spectrograms.

Mardina Jones hurried up again from the back, tapping an epaulette on her shoulder. "Peacekeeper to Level 3, lecture room... What's going on here? Is this something to do with you, Eden?"

Yuri stood, hands spread, but he didn't reply. He'd long since learned that replying was usually pointless, it made no difference to the treatment he got. But he felt surrounded, by the astronauts, the students grinning to see someone else in trouble. Even Lemmy was staring at him.

And Gustave Klein was like a malevolent puppet master. "He doesn't know! You're right, you little runt," he said to Lemmy. His accent was thick Hispanic, despite his Germanic-sounding name. "He doesn't have a fucking clue. What a laugh."

Now Peacekeeper Tollemache came bustling in, fully uniformed, flanked by two junior officers. They all had nightsticks at the ready--no guns, though, Yuri noticed in those first moments.

"You," Tollemache said. "Ice boy. I should have known. Out of the med bay for five minutes and trouble already." He flexed his nightstick.

Yuri tensed, preparing to rush him.

Mardina Jones stood between them. "Stop this! That's an order, Peacekeeper."

"You don't outrank me."

"Oh, yes I do," she said coldly. "You know the policy. Take it up with the captain if you like. I wanted you down here to keep order, not break more heads. And you--whatever else you are, Yuri Eden, you're good at making enemies."

Tollemache glowered at Yuri, but backed off. "You're the reason I'm in this toilet, you little prick."

Yuri grinned. "Good to hear it, Peacekeeper."

Tollemache held his gaze for one more second. In the background Gustave Klein leered, drinking up the conflict.

Mardina Jones turned on Lemmy. "You. What do you mean, he thinks this is home?"

"Think about it. The Peacekeeper there knocked him out while he was still on Mars! He never saw a thing, the sweep, the loading, he didn't get any of the briefings we got. Such as they were. Also, he's out of his time. You must know that. He hasn't got the background to understand."

Mardina frowned, and glanced down at her slate; maybe she hadn't known that, Yuri thought.

"We all supposed he'd know what was going on. I guess. That he'd be able to figure it. But--"

"But maybe not." Major McGregor came up to the little group now, and studied Yuri with amused interest. "I heard about you. I knew we had one of you lot aboard, a corpsicle. A survivor of the Heroic Generation, eh? And now, here you are, and so confused. How funny." Apparently on impulse he said, "Follow me, Mr. Eden. Bring your little bed warmer if you like. You'd better come too, Lieutenant. And you, Peacekeeper, if you can control yourself. Just in case it all kicks off."

Mardina asked, "Where are you taking him?"

McGregor grinned and pointed upward. "Where do you think? It will be a fascinating experiment. Come along."

McGregor led a procession out of the lecture space to the spiral stair that wound its way up the wall of the tower. McGregor glanced over his shoulder at Yuri, who followed directly behind him. "We have two of these habitat modules, strapped together side by side, for redundancy, you see... You'll have to tell me what you think of the design. For size, it was modeled on the first stage of the old Saturn V moon booster, for nostalgic reasons, I suppose. Of course much of what we are doing is of symbolic as well as practical value."

At the top of the tower was a domed roof. They climbed up through that into what was evidently some kind of control room, with a central command chair, vacant just now, arrays of bright screens, and another dome, midnight dark, over their heads. Operatives in astronaut uniforms sat at terminals around the periphery. One or two looked back at McGregor and his party, frowning, disapproving of an incursion into this sanctum of control.

McGregor was studying Yuri, amused. "Where do you think you are now?"

Yuri shrugged carelessly, though a kind of deep anxiety was gnawing in his stomach.

Mardina murmured, "Lex, go easy--"

"No, really. Tell me. Come on, man, speak up."

"Top of the tower."

McGregor thought that over. "Well, yes. That's correct, sort of. Perceptually speaking anyhow, given the vector of the thrust-induced gravity. But there's rather more to it than that." He clapped his hands. "Lights off." The wall lamps died, fading quickly. "Just look up. Give your eyes a minute to adjust."

Yuri obeyed. Slowly, the stars came out across the dome, a brilliant field, like night in the Martian desert. There was a particularly prominent cluster directly overhead.

"What do you see?"

"Stars. So what? So it's a clear night."

"A 'clear night.' Where do you think you are?"

Yuri shrugged. "Somewhere with a good sky. Arizona." He vaguely remembered a high-altitude site with big astronomical telescopes. "Chile?"

"Chile. You understand that what you see is simulated, a live feed from cameras mounted on the ISM shield."

"ISM?"

"Interstellar medium." McGregor clapped his hands again. "Wraparound VR star field."

The walls and floor of this deck shimmered and melted away. It was as if Yuri, with McGregor, Lemmy, Mardina Jones, Tollemache, Liu Tao, and the handful of operators with their screens, were standing on a floor of glass. And all around him, above and below, he saw stars, with one particularly brilliant specimen directly under his feet.

McGregor grinned by the light of the stars and the display screens. "Now what do you see? Where is the Earth? Where's the planet you thought you were standing on? Where's the Earth,Yuri Eden?"

Yuri felt his head swim, the universe close up around him, as if he was fainting from fluid imbalance again.

McGregor pointed downward. "There. Down in that puddle of light. That's the sun. We've been traveling from Mars's orbit for a month. We are now"--he glanced at a screen--"two hundred and thirty astronomical units from the sun. That's two hundred and thirty times as far as Earth is from the sun--about eight times as far out as Neptune--about a light-day, if I'm not mistaken. You are a long, long way from Earth, my friend."

"A ship." It didn't sound like his own voice. "This is some kind of ship."

"Not just any old ship. This is the Ad Astra. And we are going"--he pointed straight up, at the cluster of stars at the zenith--"there."

"You're on a starship," Mardina Jones said, levelly, steadily, looking Yuri in the eye. "Heading to Proxima Centauri."

"Proxima Centauri," Yuri said dully. The very name was meaningless to him.

"Yuri Eden, this is the UN International Space Fleet vessel Ad Astra. Two hundred colonists, in two hulls like this one. We're driven at a constant acceleration, at one gravity, by a kernel engine. This ship is like the hulk that brought you to Mars. But of course you don't remember that. It's a bit more than four light years to Proxima. Given time dilation it will take us three years, seven months subjective to get there, of which we've already served a month..."

McGregor peered at him, searching for a reaction. "What are you thinking, man from the past?"

Peacekeeper Tollemache was more direct. "Ha! He's thinking what a prick I am. You thought you were on Earth, didn't you? Why, you fucking--"

Yuri couldn't punch a star, but he could punch Tollemache. He got in one good blow before Mardina Jones, this time, knocked him out.

It was going to be a long three years, seven months.

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Baxter


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