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Lockstep

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Lockstep

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Author: Karl Schroeder
Publisher: Tor, 2014
Series: Lockstep: Book 1

0. The Million
1. Lockstep

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Hard SF
Terraforming
Human Development
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Synopsis

When seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal finds himself lost in space, separated from his family, he expects his next drift into cold sleep to be his last. After all, the planet he's orbiting is frozen and sunless, and the cities are dead. But when Toby wakes again, he's surprised to discover a thriving planet, a strange and prosperous galaxy, and something stranger still - that he's been asleep for 14,000 years.

Welcome to the Lockstep Empire, where civilization is kept alive by careful hibernation. Here cold sleeps can last decades and waking moments mere weeks. Its citizens survive for millenia, traveling asleep on long voyages between worlds. Not only is Lockstep the new center of the galaxy, but Toby is shocked to learn that the Empire is still ruled by its founding family: his own.

Toby's brother Peter has become a terrible tyrant. Suspicious of the return of his long-lost brother, whose rightful inheritance also controls the lockstep hibernation cycles, Peter sees Toby as a threat to his regime. Now, with the help of a lockstep girl named Corva, Toby must survive the forces of this new Empire, outwit his siblings, and save human civilization.


Excerpt

One

Toby Wyatt McGonigal awoke to biting cold and utter silence. When he opened his eyes he saw nothing, only a perfect black.

"Hello?" His voice was a rough croak, its sound so surprising to him that he coughed. He tried to put his hand to his mouth, but it moved only a few centimeters before striking some flat surface.

A lid, covering him where he lay.

A momentary panic took him, but as he banged his knees, hands, and forehead against the cold curved substance, he realized something else.

He was weightless.

With that realization, all his muscles relaxed; he let all the air out of his lungs in a whoosh, then laughed. Of course he was weightless. He wasn't on Earth, buried alive in some coffin. He was in space. He was on his way to do something, for the family, for his brother, and if he was awake now that meant he'd reached his destination. Hibernation time was over.

That single moment of panic had worn him out, but hibernation was like that; he remembered the weakness from last time. It should pass in a few hours.

Gradually his fluttering pulse slowed, and when he felt more in control he groped until he found his glasses, which he'd stowed at his side when he'd gotten into his little ship's cicada bed, weeks--or was it months, now?--ago.

He slid on the augmented reality glasses, wincing at the icy cold against his temples.

"Ship, give me a status report," he said. Nothing happened. "A little light, at least?"

Maybe the glasses' batteries had drained. Considering how long he'd been out, that was likely. It was stupid that he hadn't thought of that, though; he relied on them as his interface to everything-- ship, communications, and the all-important gameworld, Consensus, where he spent most of his time.

Who knew what Peter had gotten up to in Consensus while he was asleep? His brother would have had time to invent whole new civilizations, colonize new systems--who knew what? Knowing what had happened in the game while he was asleep was nearly as important to Toby as making sure he'd arrived at Rockette on time.

Everything was still black; the ship hadn't replied. "Glasses, load Consensus," Toby said. Maybe there was a communications problem; since Consensus was local to the glasses, it at least should boot up if they were online at all.

Weak flickers of light appeared at infinity, then resolved into words: POWER CRITICALLY LOW. Toby had never seen that message before, but it was obvious what it meant.

"Consensus... load me some personalities. Sol? Miranda? Can you hear me?"

There was no answer from any of them, and suddenly panic had him shaking the cicada bed's exit handles. An alarm buzzed and finally there was light outside of the glasses; more glowing letters had appeared in the translucent material: VACUUM DETECTED. "Crap!" Something was wrong, the ship's systems had failed, he was stuck here with no way out--

"Toby." It was Miranda's voice, coming through his glasses' earpiece. "There's an emergency suit under your mattress. Put it on and the bed will open."

He felt around until he had the suit's glove in his hand. He gave it a squeeze and the thing climbed over his body, its pieces snapping into place with reassuring precision.

When the helmet had built itself over his face, it signaled the bed, and with a sucking sound the canopy opened. Toby drifted off its surface and into a place he should know but which, as he looked around, had become frighteningly strange.

His headlamp showed him to be in a round room about thirteen meters in diameter. The place was full of jumbled shapes. Most were turning slowly in midair in zero gravity; all were covered with white, fuzzy hoarfrost.

The suit seemed to have power, so he ordered it to recharge his glasses. Then he said, "Miranda? Can you embody?"

"Yes," she said, then a moment later, Sol added, "On my way, boss."

Two headlamps snapped on off to his left, and moments later two space-suited figures were bumping their way through the debris, the cones of light flicking off now this, now that odd shape. The jumbled stuff was mostly butlers and grippies--bigger and smaller robots that could conspire with your glasses to pretend to be other people or walls or trees or furniture in a virtual world like Consensus. The little grippies could change their shape and texture and pretend to be anything you might pick up. Combined with the glasses' visual and auditory illusions, they'd made this cramped little ship tolerable for Toby on the flight out. At least until he'd gone into hibernation.

"Ship?" he asked again; there was still no response. "What happened?" he asked the other two.

"We've lost main power," said Sol Norton, his voice coming clearly through Toby's glasses. "But I don't know why, and I don't know how long ago."

"What does that mean? Did we miss Rockette?"

There was a long pause. "I'm not jumping to any conclusions," said Sol curtly.

Rockette was the dormant comet their little ship had been headed to. It had just been discovered, and Dad suspected it might be in a very long orbit around the dwarf planet Sedna, which would make it a moon. In order to keep their family's claim on Sedna, all the little world's moons had to be claimed by a McGonigal. Because Dad was on his way to Earth to formalize the claim, Toby had been sent to rendezvous with Rockette. His job was to claim it and then turn around and return to Sedna.

It was a pretty big responsibility; he was only seventeen. He was getting used to doing stuff like this, though. Helping run his parents' colony on Sedna was all-consuming, just as taking care of his traumatized brother, Peter, had been in the year leading up to their leaving Earth.

"We're going down to the bot room," continued Sol. "See what else we can get under manual control."

"Thanks." Toby wasn't surprised that all the other ship's systems might have failed but that his cicada bed had worked just fine. The hibernation beds--technology his parents had bought and perfected--were amazingly reliable. They were what had made it possible for the family to homestead here, with a couple dozen close friends and volunteers, far beyond the orbit of Pluto.

"Well, we can use some of this stuff," said Miranda as she and Sol cast their helmet lamps into the bot room. She sounded optimistic and calm, as always. That was why he'd thought of her when he'd called on his Consensus allies; Miranda, like Sol, was always able to encourage Toby when things became difficult.

Toby bounced over to perch next to them at the hatch. "Why were we woken up? And what's all this weird frost all over everything?"

"It's air, Toby," Miranda said. "Frozen air. Sol, do you see that?"

"Yeah." Sol flipped through the hatch and kicked off through a constellation of motionless robots. These were mostly maintenance and repair bots that were supposed to be able to fix anything that went wrong with the ship. All were dark and lifeless.

He leaned close to the wall to look at the frost. The little forest of white spikes was perfectly clear for a second, then it began to shimmer. The little light on his helmet was enough to evaporate it. Toby had seen that before, back on Sedna. It meant the temperature in here was not far above absolute zero.

"Hey, wait up!" He clumsily batted aside the dead bots, following the guide of the others' lights. He found them at the back of the bot room, which was the aft-most living chamber in the ship. There was an airlock here, and lots of stowage and tools. And...

A hole in the back wall.

It was about a meter across, with odd blocky edges, and outside it he could see stars and the black silhouette of the ship's engine spine. "The bots tried to patch it," said Miranda, pointing to the squared edges of the hole, "but it was too big. Anyway, all the air

would have gone out in the first few seconds."

Sol was cursing under his breath. "But what made it?" He jumped

back the way they'd come and after a minute shouted, "Found another!"

It turned out there was a coin-sized hole, clogged with frozen air, through the wall between the main chamber and the bot room. And when they went to the front of that room they found a tiny, pinhead-sized hole there, too.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," said Toby. Miranda was moving kind of slowly; he hoped her suit wasn't running out of power. "What happened?"

"We hit a pebble," said Sol. "More of a sand grain, actually, from the size of that first hole. We're going so fast that it hit us hard as a bomb. See that first hole? By the time it came through, it was exploding, but it went through us so quickly that the explosion was only this big"--he spread two fingers just a bit--"by the time it hit the back wall there, and only this big"--he spread his arms to the width of the hole in the back of the bot room--"when it left us. That's okay--we can patch up Life Support. The big question is whether it hit the drive unit."

"Oh..." And that was all Toby could say, as it began to finally sink in just how much trouble they were in. For the next few minutes all he could do was follow the other two back and forth as they tried to revive parts--any parts--of the ship's systems. It turned out their suits really were getting low on power, like Toby's. If it ran out, he'd lose both of them.

Funny, though, that the first coherent thought Toby over the next while was, Peter, I'm sorry I left.

How long now had his brother had been clinging to Toby like a life raft? So long that his emotional dependence had come to define both of them. Having Toby leave him for a few months for Rockette had devastated Peter. The separation was supposed to help Peter rebuild his own coping abilities. Their mother and sister would help, and Consensus was part of the plan, of course.

Toby had stayed awake as long as he could. During the weeks of the engine burn, Toby hadn't once switched off his virtual views to look at the real ship that surrounded him. Peter had demanded that he stay awake, stay in Consensus and keep their versions of the gameworld synced.

So as he traveled he'd tangled anxious Peter up with the discovery of fantastic alien planets, and despicable enemies, cunning plots and rousing battles in a universe more colorful than the real one they lived on. Their shared world kept Peter focused and able to cope. What Toby hadn't counted on was how the communications lag with the game servers back home kept growing. After twenty days, his version of Consensus was totally out of sync with Peter's back on Sedna. And the math couldn't be second-guessed: the tug's life support was nearly half used up. It was time to enter cold sleep.

"Guys, we need to get communications up!"

"We know that, Toby."

If the tug's engines had died, if they'd missed Rockette... they

could keep on speeding on their course for another ten billion years and never encounter another grain of sand the size of the one they'd hit, much less another planet or a friendly spaceship ready to rescue them.

Toby suddenly had an overwhelming need to do something-- anything. Sol and Miranda kept talking about power couplings and radioisotope generators as Toby knocked his way through the dead machines in the bot room. Their calm focus wasn't reassuring anymore; after all, there was nothing really at stake for them. He reached the hole in the rear bulkhead and paused to inspect its edges. They were smooth, but he knew he should check for any razor-sharp edges. It wouldn't do to cut his suit open.

He poked his head outside, and there were the stars--brighter and more overwhelmingly numerous than he'd ever seen on Earth. He'd seen them like this on the surface of Sedna, and they always seemed unreal, a fantasy painter's version of the sky. But no. This was the reality of where he was.

Toby had looked up the distances once--just once. Light that could zip around Earth seven times in one second would take eleven hours to go from there to Sedna. After reading that, he'd stopped trying to picture the scale of their isolation. Yet the knowledge always hung there like a weight in the back of his mind.

He aimed his fading headlamp down the long open-work girder that joined the ship's passenger unit to the drive section. He hadn't spent much time inspecting the ship during the flight out, but still knew what things back there should look like.

"Hey, guys."

"Just a minute, Toby."

"No, really. You should see this."

There were a bunch of bot-shaped silhouettes clustered around the engines. And they were moving.

"I think some bots are repairing the engines!"

"What?" In seconds, Sol was pushing past him, shining a blinding light out that erased the stars. "I should have been in the loop! Why can't I get a signal out of them? Out of the way!"

Toby spotted a handhold on the outside hull; impulsively, he grabbed it and flipped himself out through the hole. Sol's helmet appeared and he shone his own lamp at the bots. He cheered.

"Go, little guys!" Miranda's helmet appeared next to his; for a while they chattered about rerouting power and recharging stuff. The lamplight turned the slowly working bots into dazzling white shapes, throwing everything else into blackness. Toby watched them for a while, then thought of the stars again. He turned away.

Reflected light outlined the ship's curves in ghostly gray. You could still see stars beyond that, of course. He continued turning, following the twisting banner of the Milky Way as it wove toward the ship's bow...

...And disappeared into a giant arc of blackness that took up a good third of the sky.

"What the--?" He looked around for a better vantage point. Belatedly he remembered that these emergency suits had coils of cable at their waists; he hooked one end of his to the first handhold and then launched himself around the tiny horizon of the ship. Now he could see the length of the bot room and past the living section beyond it to the tug's bow. He should be seeing the cluster of telescopes and other instruments there, as silhouettes against the stars. There were no stars. Instead, a vast circle of perfect black loomed up ahead, with the ship aimed at its center like a dart.

He'd seen the radar profile of Rockette. It was a lumpy potato shape. This perfect circle... you only got that crisp perfection in things that were really, really big. Things like planets.

"Guys? Guys! We're... I think we're back at Sedna!"

There'd always been the chance that their little colony of one hundred people would end up frozen and dead. Maybe Pluto was as far as humans would ever get from Earth; maybe the stars really were too far away. Nobody had ever come up with a magical means of going faster than light, after all. Only governments and a few trillionaires could afford to send probes to Alpha Centauri or the other nearby stars, and even then they took decades to reach their destinations.

But it was still possible--barely--to stake your own claim on an entire planet. Out past the edge of the solar system, thousands of orphan worlds drifted. The known ones had strange names like Quaoar, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. All were impossibly cold and distant, but if you could be the first person to step onto one, you could own it.

Toby's parents owned Sedna.

Back home on Earth, if you weren't already one of the trillionaires, you'd never be more than a servant to those who were. So his parents had scraped together several generations' worth of inheritances and come to homestead in a vast region of space so empty that you could hide a thousand solar systems in it with room to spare. Out here, the nearest boulder-size object was probably farther away than Jupiter was from the sun. Toby had once heard that the Eskimos had fifty words for snow. Out here, you needed at least fifty for empty.

The calm tones of Miranda's voice were reassuring. She and Sol were excitedly reviewing the work the repair bots had done back at the engines. Maybe they could tease some power out of it--get working laser comms going, maybe some heat and light. Unfreeze the air in the cabin.

While they did that, Toby perched on the nose of the ship and stared down at the planet. It was a big black nothing, of course, but he'd watched Sedna recede through the ship's telescope when they'd first left, and he knew one thing should be visible in that vast round cutout in the star field.

There should be a single tiny, forlorn pinprick of light down there, near the equator. Home.

"Let's fire it up. Toby, you coming in? We'll get a better view through the light amplifiers."

"Sure." Sol and Miranda were getting more optimistic by the minute, but Toby's heart was sinking as he flipped back through the hole in the hull and went forward to the inflatable airlock Sol had glued around the main compartment hatch. Toby decided not to mention the absence of the little star that should be down there.

He stayed silent as the other two tested then started the power diverters. Lights flickered on throughout the long cylindrical cabin, starkly gleaming off the frozen sides of the butlers and grippies. Sol and Miranda cheered.

"Now to get some communications going," said Sol.

"Oh, heat and air first, please," pleaded Miranda. "Toby needs to get out of that suit!"

Heating the crew quarters took a long time, as the interstellar cold had to be driven out of everything in the place. Heaters roared, the hoarfrost melted, and eventually the temperature edged up above minus fifty. Sol took of his helmet and gave a virtual sniff. "Like breathing fire," he said. "But it'll get better. And now that the primary CPU's online..." He moved to a metal keypad and touched a few buttons.

All around Toby the butlers and grippies were stirring, but Sol quickly shut them down, too. "We don't need more of them going than we've already got," he pointed out.

"Now to see where we are." Sol connected the telescope feed to Toby's glasses; the tug's walls faded and the pale curve of the planet appeared.

The ship's telescope could amplify the thin trickle of starlight touching this world and make out color and detail thousands of kilometers below. For a minute or so, Toby, Sol, and Miranda all stared in silence at what it showed. Then Sol said, "Well..."

Toby shook his head; it was just what he'd feared. "That's not Sedna."

It was a crimson world. The screen showed mountains, canyons, and vast flat plains that might be frozen oceans. All were painted in shades of rust and scarlet, as if a vast drop of blood had been hung here in deep space, scattered perhaps by some wounded god a billion years ago.

In this way the planet was exactly like Sedna, or Eris, or any of the millions of comets that peppered interstellar space. All had this bloodred hue. Somebody had explained to Toby that over aeons of time, the slow trickle of cosmic radiation cooked the surfaces of these worlds, producing complex organic molecules-- tholins, they called them--that were deep red.

In every other respect, this place was unlike Sedna. Sedna was tiny, its gravity barely able to keep it round. It was absolutely featureless, like a billiard ball. This planet had mountains.

"It's as big as Earth!" Sol was reading the other instruments. "If we can get the engines running... find out where we are..."

Toby had been examining the mysterious orb. Now he pointed at the image. "What're those?"

"What?" Sol seemed eager for the distraction.

"Those... pits? Circles?"

There were more than a dozen on the visible hemisphere: circular white formations, each two hundred or more kilometers across, surrounded by curls and lines of white like splash marks. "Meteor craters," said Miranda dismissively. "Sol, what did the GPS say?"

"No..." Toby put two fingers on the screen and zoomed in. "Look there--at the center..."

Aeons ago, before the planet was ejected from the star system of its birth, this might have been an ocean shoreline. On one side of the circular white area, the surface was perfectly flat; on the other, hills and rugged canyons meandered into what looked like continental interior. It looked weirdly like someone had thrown a giant white paint bomb across the landscape--yet at its center...

Black lines, perfectly straight, crisscrossing each other. Dark rectangles and perfect circles, some tiny, some hundreds of meters across.

A city.

Toby zoomed out and then in on another of the white patches. It also radiated out from a mesh of black lines and dots. He guessed that the others would, too.

"Cities." Sol grinned tightly at Miranda. "Saved, who would have believed it? Just gotta... get the comms working..."

But she was frowning. "Where are the lights?"

That was true--there were no windows glowing down there, no greenhouse dome lights to keep the eternal darkness of interstellar night at bay. Toby ventured, "Maybe they're underground? A subsurface ocean? Can we look at this in infrared?"

Sol grunted and made some adjustments. The image flickered into false color--bright blues, whites, and mauve. "The colors show differences in temperature to a tenth of a degree or so," he said. The city structures were barely distinguishable from the frozen landscape surrounding them. And the ambient temperature was about the same as Sedna's: a balmy three degrees above absolute zero. Cold enough to turn water ice hard as granite, freeze air, and make any life or mechanical motion impossible.

"Dead," Toby mumbled.

Sol breezily waved a hand. "It's the find of the century, Tobe! We just gotta find out where we are and phone home..." He was flipping through diagnostic windows, trying different things, but Toby could see exactly what those windows were saying.

"Sol... Sol, stop! The engines are dead!"

He glanced back. "Yeah, but--"

"They're dead. The bots kept them alive just long enough to put us in orbit here. They're not coming back. And... we're nowhere near home, are we?"

Sol shrugged and started to say something, but Toby had finally had enough.

"Stop!"

Both of his companions turned to stare at Toby.

"Drop the personalities," he said. "Just tell me what's going on!"

In a more level voice, Miranda said, "Even if we got a message off to Sedna--and we doubt we have the power--this world is uncharted. It must be so far away from Sedna, they could never mount a rescue mission. The ship's clocks have been affected so we can't tell you how long it's been..."

"We've got enough power to cycle the hibernation system one more time," Sol added, his voice equally calm. "We can set it to go into deep dive. A controlled freeze, so we don't have to leave it to chance about when the power fails totally."

It was true, then. He was dead. He had been ever since that meteor had hit the ship. This time--a brief waking above a planet that was also dead--was just a last spasm of the ship's systems.

Even if he'd had engines, this little ship wasn't designed to land on big worlds. The nearest craft that could do that were back at Sedna. This was a comet runner, incapable of landing near one of those frozen cities. He was stuck in orbit.

There were only two choices now: stay alive as long as possible, eking out a few last days and hours as the lights dimmed and interstellar cold wormed its way through the walls, finally to freeze to death as the ship's power failed; or voluntarily enter the cicada bed, surely never to awake again, and end it all now.

He looked from Sol to Miranda. Their faces were blank, no longer full of that optimistic energy they'd had a few moments ago. Of course it was gone, he didn't need that from them anymore. In fact, he no longer needed them, either.

"You're no good to me anymore," he said. "Switch off." They nodded, and their faces disappeared from the open ovals of the two space suits. Those faces had been projections in his augmented reality glasses anyway. What was left in the suits were the intertwined grippies and butlers that had moved their arms and legs to make it seem like there were people in them. Sol and Miranda-- companion personalities that were really just game characters from Consensus--were gone.

Now there was complete silence, and the solitude came crushing in on Toby. Fine. He wanted to be true to who he was, and where he was, if these were his last hours. No more simulated friends to share the moment with; no more softening the reality of it.

He grabbed his suit's helmet. "Get the bed ready," he told the ship. "I'm gonna take one last look around."

With no audience to witness it, he felt no urge to cry. But there was no way the last thing he'd see would be just a picture on a screen. He climbed out onto the ship's hull and looked down at the mysterious planet with his own eyes. There was nothing to see, of course, just a black cutout interrupting the stars. The stars, though... they really were beautiful.

He turned around, staring, and then around again. If this were the online world of Consensus, something would appear to save them all--a rescue ship, an alien artifact--and it would appear right... about...

Now.

He held his breath and waited. The moment dragged on.

"Toby?" It was the ship, speaking for the first and last time in its own flat voice. "Your bed is ready."

He opened his mouth, closed it, then said, "All right. I'm coming."

Copyright © 2014 by Karl Schroeder


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Lockstep

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