Authors: Adam Roberts
Tags: #General, #Science Fiction, #War and civilization, #Life on other planets, #Space colonies, #Fiction
I would like to thank the following people: Steve Calcutt and the Anubis Agency; Simon Spanton; Malcolm Edwards; Tony Atkins; Katharine Scarfe-Beckett; Angela Bloor; Sara Salih; Oisin Murphy-Lawless
Salt is crystal compounded of Sodium and Chlorine; faceted and transparent. Simple and pure. What life could there be without salt? It is known as God’s diamond, by which we should be aware of the infinite variability of scale for the divine perspective. This tiny fragment of halite, it is a dot, an atom; but to God it can never be lost, it can never be overlooked or unnumbered. Every grain is a landscape, a world. It is a great cliff, a diamond as big as a mountain, a massive cube of ice. In it are embedded woolly mammoths, grimacing men in hides and skins, buildings, cars, trees, all at angles to one another. The surface of the world is a sheet, smooth as polished plastic, plain as glass.
And salt combines the good and the evil, yin and yang, God and the Devil. Take sodium, which is the savour of life. Without corporeal sodium the body could not hold water in its tissues. Lack of sodium will lead to death. Our blood is a soup of sodium. And here is the metal, so soft you can deform it between your fingers like wax; it is white and pearl, like the moon on a pure night. Throw it in water, and it feeds greedily upon the waves; it gobbles the oxygen, and liberates the hydrogen with such force that it will flame up and burn. Sodium is what stars are made of. Sodium is the metal, curved into rococo forms, that caps the headpiece and arms of God’s own throne.
But here is chlorine, green and gaseous and noxious as Hell’s own fumes. It bleaches, burns, chokes, kills. It is heavier than air and sinks, bulging downwards towards the Hell it came from. And here are we, you and me, poised between Heaven and Hell. We are salty.
We had been travelling for thirty-seven years. Not counting the eighteen months it took us to assemble in Earth orbit, and accelerate slowly with displacement rockets on a capture orbit to grab our comet. Nor the two weeks we spent grappling with that steaming ice-world; to fix our tether (my primary area of expertise); to set up burners in a zodiacal circuit around the central cable, and then to settle our final orientation with thrust-explosives. Then, pointed in the right direction, we began to speed up. Our comet, fuel and buffer, building speed slowly. Us, strung out along the cable behind, eleven little homes like seashells on a child’s necklace-string. Do you know how long it took us to reach travelling speed? At accelerations of over 1.1g, we accelerated for over a year. A year of gravity, when there could be no hibernation; a year awake, crammed in with our sisters and brothers, our children, our friends and enemies, our lovers and ex-lovers. A year of feeling trapped and heavy, of smelling sweat and shit; of eating recycled food. A year of games, and talk, and meditation, and nothing to do and nothing to be done but hope our comet would lead us on to the brave new world.
And worry, of course, because there are many things that can go wrong. The comet can fracture, break apart like a gemstone under a hammer. No matter how expertly the tether is fixed, there can be flaws that it irritates, and that eventually shake it loose under the pressure of acceleration. And if that happens (I have seen visuals) then the whole ice-worldling simply bursts, breaks up like a blizzard of paper, like a storm of – well, salt. Then, if the acceleration has not built up too great a speed, you must use your precious fuel to slow down, to turn about, and return home at the slow, slow pace of the displacement rockets; which can take years. Twelve years, one recorded case. And if the acceleration has gone too far, if you are travelling at too great a fraction of c, then there is nothing to be done.
You would burn all your fuel trying to slow; you are in the blackness, in the nothingness. No comets to grab, to fuel a homeward trip. The best thing is to settle down, go to sleep, let the ships trundle onwards, hope that you will last the fifty years, or the hundred years, or the thousand years it will take to reach your destination without full speed. You won’t, of course. You will go mad. Or, without a comet buffer, you will be battered to shreds yourself by the detritus of deep space. The mites, the specks. Even a speck can kill at fractions of c. This is another reason why we hide behind big lumps of ice-rock on our journey, to clear a pathway.
Sometimes a comet meets too large an obstacle. That happens, we suppose, but if it does who will survive to tell the history? Ships get lost. Some ships may be lost that we, knowing no better, assume are well. We think they have arrived at their destination, and have beamed a message the twenty light-years backwards to say so. And for those twenty years we think hopefully, we assume the best. But when no message comes, and no message comes after twenty-five years, or thirty years, we begin to doubt. Are they still travelling, slowed by some calamity? Or did their passage bump, at .7 c, into a medium-sized lump? Some effective barrier that happened to be in the way? Cosmic mine, laid by God. Think of the impact, the hugeness of the force. Even with our ships strung out the best part of a kilometre behind the buffer, the results would be catastrophic.
We are so fragile. We dissolve in immensity like salt in water. Ah, but I mustn’t strain the analogy.
Shall I tell you the intimacy of living during the year of acceleration? The constant presence of other people, the lack of privacy such that privacy became a distantly remembered concept. People shat whilst nearby other people chewed their mid-morning meal, too bored even to glance. Lovers would copulate and within spitting distance an old man and an old woman would be bitterly arguing, oblivious. The sickly artificial lighting clicked on at dawn with a brutal suddenness; clicked off at dusk like hope being snuffed out. The dark would be filled with grunts, farts, sniffles, coughs. The murmuring of people still talking, but without the energy of a normal
nightlife, because we were in the darkest of nights, the night-time of the interstellar hollow. To speak loudly, to sing or dance, seemed somehow impertinent in that dark and all that could be heard was the muttering of people talking to themselves in madness or despair. Curious, how the murmuring of someone in conversation, even if the interlocutor is only silently listening, is so distinct from the mutter of the solitary person. Shall I tell you what struck me the most during the first months? How bad people’s skin became. We took supplements, vitamin, mineral, but nonetheless people’s complexions faded and became pustulous. Blotches and spots, all manner of carbuncles and rashes. A beautiful woman, my lover before embarkation, developed great cold sores all about her lips, the same lips I had used to kiss with such passionate pleasure. Like decaying constellations in the sky, a ring of red, angry-looking sores, all about her lips. Like a mockery of her beautiful, kissing mouth; like a satire on the human desire to kiss with the mouth. But she was not alone. We all got spotty, we all felt our skin grow dry, and sore, and we all broke out. I did not dare go near a mirror; I did not dare. I was too scared to see how my own elegant features had been disfigured. People have always said I am a fastidious man; a few have been bold enough to call me vain. Perhaps I am vain, and maybe that year was a mortification for my vanity. God’s movement is mysterious, like the motion of a dance we do not understand.
We sweated, and our clothes stank. Nobody could be bothered with washing their clothes, for all that we spent all our time in bored yearning for something to do. We all shat in the communal vat, where the machines would process our waste and give us blocks for re-eating. Am I revolting you? Perhaps I am revolting you. But you must understand how life lost its savour. The vending restaurants added salt to everything, but the salt did not add savour to our living. The light hurt our eyes, and eventually our sight dulled under the fluorescence. Everything became faded. Friendships faded, love faded, memory faded. We woke with the clicking-on of the great lights, and went about our business yawning and scratching, working from habit and not from conviction. We could barely stay awake
during the day, so wearisome the routine seemed. And then at night, the lights would blink out, leaving only a dying afterglow in the panels; and then it would be black, the blackness of the spaces between the stars. Human beings need some comfort to remain in the darkness, some sense of faint luminescence, a skinny moon behind dark clouds; in the total dark we find it too hard to settle. We could not sleep; we would lie awake and mutter to one another.