by Jean-Louis Trudel
The day before he left, Indrek Kelm met his patron for the first time. Should he thank her? He’d run scenarios where he did. In his head, the old-fashioned way. The problem was that he didn’t know what to hope for. If he couldn’t select the best approximation, trying again with fresh variations was pointless.
And so was his gratitude, it turned out.
“I’ve been outbid for your contract renewal,” she announced. “Somebody thinks you’re a genius.”
How did she manage to make that sound like a snarl without raising her voice?
“Does that mean my stipend will be increased?”
She laughed. He looked up from his plate. Until then, he had been enjoying the meal in one of Moon’s finest restaurants. The chef used only the best from the South Pole farms, shipping the restaurant’s wastes in exchange for lunar rice, gene-wrought greens, live tilapia, and frozen pork. The mushrooms were local to Flag City, though.
Serafina Baker–an appropriate name for an angel investor–could afford the fare, even though she didn’t look the part. It occurred to Indrek that she might have dressed down to attract less attention, not only to match his own lack of fashion sense. After all, she didn’t need to spare the feelings of one of her charity cases.
“More time on the Sverdrup q-computer?” he ventured hopefully.
“No. It means your life is in danger,” she said flatly.
He ate faster, no longer savouring the risotto.
“There were other bidders. The winning bid for your future model runs is a logical one. Your latest results intrigued all the space-based industries. However…”
She appraised him coldly. No doubt she had weighed the value of her research asset as dispassionately as he assessed the variables in the starting configuration of a simulation. And yet, now that he was out of her league, there was the merest hint of new-found respect. What you can’t have is worth having.
“Who’s against improved interstellar flight?”
“You’re smarter than that. We’re not talking fanatics, just people willing to consider all the ways of improving the next quarterly earnings report.”
“Don’t they realize that the long-term returns…”
“They’re oblivious to the long run. They care about short-term losses.”
“What should I do?”
“That’s better. The Moon is a dangerous place for a man like you. One puncture can void the air of an entire warren. Let alone that of a single apartment inhabited by a lonely dreamer. And a high-velocity bullet will tear through aggregate shielding as easily as a meteoroid from outer space.”
“Are you saying…
“Leave the Moon. Tomorrow at the latest. I’ll give you the contact info of the winning bidder. Diego Salazar, in Santiago, Chile. He’s paying me to handle the transition and he will help you hide. Earth is a bigger place.”
“Bigger. And heavier. I came to the Moon to get away from that added weight. I’m not sure my heart can take it if I go back.”
“You were supposed to disclose all existing health conditions in your annual filings.”
“My endurance scores are in there. Nobody complained as long as I was delivering the goods. There’s nothing wrong with me that regular exercise wouldn’t fix, but who has the time?”
“Salazar can’t protect you here. However, he did allow me to hire a professional shoulderwatcher to stay with you until you leave.”
Shoulderwatcher. Indrek knew the term from the poorly translated holonovelas almost everybody watched in the warrens. Baker wasn’t joking if she was ready to get her pet physicist an actual bodyguard.
“I can also pay for a hotel room until the next departure for Quito’s Pail. With an anonymity guarantee. And a gym for your training program.”
“To be perfectly frank, I’ve never been able to stick to a training schedule.”
“How about a personal coach?”
“Nor do I react well to slave drivers. That’s why I moved to the Moon. And why I work alone.”
“I guess I should be glad I got as much out of you as I did,” she muttered, “well, you could chance it. Hardly anybody dies from ship acceleration stress nowadays.”
“I could also chance staying on the Moon.”
“Are you truly willing to risk your life just to keep working here?”
A fair question. He could say yes, get up, turn his back on a free meal, and walk out the door. He might be shot in the street or he might resume his research at home, trying to figure out what kind of universe would allow for artificial gravity.
“It’s worked out so far.”
“Or I can buy you a ticket on the Carousel if you’re that scared of Earth gravity.”
“That’s the big centrifuge, right?”
Indrek almost took out his screen to check, in spite of the restaurant’s prohibition on public interfacing.
“The Moon’s largest. Technically, it’s a high-speed train on a large circular track. Speed is ramped up over several days, tilting the local vertical and increasing the weight of everybody aboard. You’ll be getting the exercise you need without even having to work out.”
“An unbalanced one, if I’m always walking at an angle.”
“Give the designers some credit. Trial and error isn’t the key to everything. The train moves up an inclined track as well and the floor adjusts. The end result is a very convincing illusion: a long corridor lined with rooms, subjected to slowly rising gravity.”
“Must be expensive.”
“How long would I be stuck inside?”
“The gravitope offers acclimatization to higher gravity that is slow and gradual over a total of fifteen days. If you so wish, you’ll be able to make use of the offices for hire and isolation cubicles aboard the train.”
There would be no way to exit the train. Once inside, he would be sealed in for the full two weeks. Not only would he be living in a rabbit hutch, he would be at the mercy of any hunter dogged enough to search him out. With no way out, he would die like a whimpering bunny torn to shreds by a hound.
The day he boarded the Carousel, Indrek joined a party for the first time in years. The fun began as soon as the train started moving. Music blared, drowning out the announcements outlining safety procedures. An unforgiving rhythm began to shake the train’s frame. Even muted to a deep rumble, the jackhammer aggression of Born Adamant sent a message.
For the Carousel riders, this was one last opportunity to enjoy their accustomed weight. Indrek strained to hear the final recommendations of the safety spiel as the train picked up speed.
He gave up in disgust. The disregard for the Moon’s safety culture underlined that it was a one-way trip. The riders were investing two weeks of their life to get used to higher gravity. It only made sense for those with a medical need. And those contemplating a long, possibly permanent, stay on Earth.
It was a farewell to the Moon. Indrek decided that he wanted in. He chose the direction where the music seemed loudest.
The train was over a kilometer long. Several cars held only cabins like his own. Others included larger suites, cubicles for hire, old-fashioned ubicadoras for telepresence, and secluded nooks for socializing, with couches and a snack synthesizer close at hand. Every car included a heavy extruder designed to output towels, sponges, bathrobes, everyday clothes, and assorted toiletries.
How old was the place? Indrek hadn’t looked up the history of the Carousel. While every surface was spotlessly clean, the functional design recalled an earlier era, when human survival on the Moon was never taken for granted.
The dining car was crowded with executive types already sitting down for supper. Ice mines, helium-3 extraction startups, federal farms, and cargo ship launching were no doubt among the industries in the room. Indrek identified a few quasi-colleagues, observers attached to the far side telescopes hiding from the Earth’s broad-spectrum glare. He knew them from the chattersphere, but he didn’t care for astrophysics banter just then.
The music was already louder, though less focused on sheer obliteration. Instead of Born Adamant, jazzo nuevo.
The entrance to the next car was labelled with an imperious No thrill interfacing, setting it aside for conversations free of unnecessary screen use.
It was empty, Indrek thought at first. The physicist only realized that he was being watched halfway through the maze of small tables ringed with sturdy chairs designed for Earth gravity. Ensconced in a chair backed into a corner, the Carousel rider’s stillness had allowed him to escape Indrek’s notice.
The man’s long mane of blond hair was silky smooth, setting off his dark skin. Genetics? Exposure to Mercury-orbit sunlight? High-density melanocytes activated to provide additional UV protection?
The young physicist briefly contemplated a scenario where the stranger would shoot him and find a way off the train before it reached the gravitope’s circular track. There would be no witnesses. And the man was sitting beneath one of the tiny fish-eye lenses set in every corner of every car. The only functioning one in the car, perhaps, and it would only show the top of the man’s head.
When Indrek reached the door to the next car, he glimpsed a dancer through the window. Slivers of motion, flashes of human beauty. He forgot about the man reading in the corner. He forgot about Baker’s warnings. His eyes never leaving the woman, he pushed through.
From the back, she could have been a boy. Slim and lithe, she wore her hair short and her dance suit was a dark green, nearly military in its severity. The fabric clung to her body without seeming to move when she did, as if unaffected by her movements.
The car was devoid of any furniture, save a dance mat. The walls were lined with spectators, two or three deep, squeezing together to grant the woman as much as space as possible. Indrek stopped and watched as she danced to the music’s breathless syncopation.
In the next car over, people were swaying and swinging to the very same music, but the woman danced alone. Who was she? A performer paid to keep the Carousel riders entertained? An artist returning to Earth and taking advantage one last time of the Moon’s feeble grip?
Not a word escaped the lips of the spectators, only scattered gasps when the dancer rose so high that she had to bend backbreakingly to avoid smashing into the ceiling.
She flew at will, arms outstretched, feet arcing languidly between every plummet back to the train’s floor. Each new cadenza launched her anew, her eyes scanning the audience as she rotated in mid-air.
When her gaze found Indrek, she blinked. Unbidden, another scenario gelled in the young man’s head. This was the woman who would bed him, betray him, and smother him with her powerful thighs before the night was out. Or not.
Once the music stopped, the spectators filed out, perhaps to join a dance at once more carnal and more communal elsewhere. Indrek did not move. When the woman completed a final pirouette, she arranged to land and fall to her knees in front of him.
Indrek’s first evening on the Carousel ended with a guided tour. Esteban was an Earther, every part of him bulging with sinewy muscle. Esteban’s loose vest added bulk to his upper body, so much so that Indrek figured he could hide behind his guide in case of gunfire.
The hulking figure had introduced himself as Baker’s hired bodyguard.
“I was expecting you to show up at the station.”
“The station police were keeping a close eye on you. I boarded as early as possible to get to know the train.”
“What’s the verdict?”
“There are no large hiding places and lots of sensors. Any danger will come from the other people along for the ride. What did Valory tell you?”
“Valory Jamal. Former star of the Schauspielhaus Berlin. She’s an exile now, surviving on the returns of an investment portfolio.”
“Oh, the dancer. She didn’t introduce herself, but she seemed to know something of my work.”
“And what is it you do?”
The man looked unsure they were speaking the same language.
“Is that a line of work where you come from?”
“I dream up better worlds. Usually, we’re called virtual physicists.”
“Or simulationists, right?”
“Or explorers of parameter space, if you prefer the spin of the media releases. Others might call me a teleologist.”
“And this dancer knew that?”
“Should I worry?”
“It’s suspicious, but I wouldn’t rate her a major risk.”
He turned, noting the way minute Coriolis forces tugged at his inner ear as he did so. A younger woman, wearing a colourful uniform of neon green, fuchsia, and lime yellow, bowed in the old Japanese manner, though she didn’t look the part.
“I’m Damia Salgado, the conductor.”
“Are you taking tickets? Or driving the train?”
Two nonsensical questions, but Indrek couldn’t figure out what the woman did. And his brain hurt from processing visual input. That uniform!
“I’m the social conductor. People are going to live side by side for the next two weeks, shut inside narrow cars. My job is to create unusual conversations and rewarding encounters during that time, to make them forget their aching muscles and heavy hearts. I see you’re a simulationist. Can I put you down for our hard science node?”
“What would it imply?”
“That you’ll meet, when convenient, with passengers to talk about physics and reality over coffee or tea.”
“Seems harmless en…”
Indrek stopped to glance at Esteban’s scowling face, but the bodyguard nodded his assent.
“Wonderful. Everybody has a part to play in the performance I’m putting together.”
`We’re just travelling to improve our muscle tone,” he retorted drily.
“Sure. Whatever. Me, I’m conducting a symphony of sociability.”
She walked away and Indrek turned to Esteban.
“She’s not wrong. The goal of a job should not be confused with its content.”
“What’s your endgame, señor Kelm?”
“Controlling gravity so completely that neither centrifuges nor gravitopes like the Carousel will ever be needed again.”
“Ambitious. Mine is to make enough money to pay for a ticket to another solar system.”
“Depends how much I net by keeping you alive.”
“I’ll do what I can to help you achieve that goal.”
“Good. Let’s start with orientation. You’re on a train to nowhere, going around in circles. And that’s great because it means no windows, no scenery, no exit and no ingress. A closed train following a closed loop.”
Esteban cocked a quizzical brow at his charge.
“An old physics joke.”
The first day Indrek awoke aboard the Carousel, Valory joined him for breakfast. He was lounging in a private nook, with a breakfast ordered from a synthesizer.
The pineapple juice truly tasted as if it were spit out by a machine. Indrek was on the verge of giving up on his food when the dancer showed up.
“Good morning. It didn’t take you long to find me.”
“I’m a regular. I know the Carousel like the balls of my feet.”
Her self-deprecating smile sparked a sudden warmth inside Indrek.
“You have a lot of business on Earth?” he asked.
“Actually, I never leave the Moon. I just like taking this train. Aboard, I can dance as if I were back on Earth.”
“Why not make the trip? On Earth, you could dance to your heart’s content.”
“It’s not so simple. My old bones are too brittle for Earth gravity. A few days in the gravitope are all I can tolerate. The anti-train, I call it. Because it always takes me back to my starting point.”
Her face was unlined, but stern enough to lend credence to her claim. Even with the best treatments, a long stay on the Moon resulted in dramatic bone loss. Bone mass could be recreated on Earth, but only as long as it was possible to travel there.
“I’m from Earth as well,” he put in. “Originally.”
“Not that long ago. You’re going back.”
In one scenario, she was only interested in him because she wanted something from him. In another, she was the killer set after him. If he didn’t care for those alternatives, he had to nurture the one slim, hopeful shoot entwined with so many branchings, either useless or deadly.
The one where Valory Jamal was interested in him because she still treasured a man able to surprise her.
“Try the bread,” he suggested as she turned to face the synthesizer. “The garlic butter is a decent fake.”
She joined him with a single plate.
“Thanks for the recommendation.”
“Last night, you never told me why you were so eager to keep me company.”
“The answer is simple. I follow gravity research like a hawk. I recognized you.”
“I’m a star?”
“Are you kidding? Everybody’s buzzing about the hints you dropped. Yesterday, you gave me hope.”
“Just because my next model runs will probe new ways to manipulate gravity?”
“That’s not how you put it. It sounded more like poetry. Variable-gravity dancing as a role reversal for dancers, who would be pulling the strings of gravity instead of being its puppets.”
“I was drunk.”
“You’re allowed when you’re going home. Yes, you’re big news, señor Kelm. All the gravity research forums have linked to your statement.”
“I don’t do the heavy lifting. I’m just the one pointing the way to the q-computer running my software. Trying to find the best route to my desired destination. I can never be sure that my model runs will yield something useful.”
“But you’re there to pick up hints along the way. Did I tell you why I love trains? Years ago, I took one in Spain, out of Compostela. Night fell and I watched hillsides burn. The July heat had turned the Galician woods into tinder for the flames snaking up and down the slopes. Like Christmas ornaments come to life, writhing and sparking. Except that instead of silvery tinsel, they were an angry orange, burning hot and deadly.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Nothing has grown in these hills for centuries. Even less a forest.”
“It’s been a long time, more than a century in fact, but you’re exaggerating a bit.”
How old was she? The Global War had ravaged the planet’s population over a century earlier. Among the survivors were a handful of viable mutants. The bearers of lethal mutations had been culled by the war, leaving just the lucky ones with a few extras, including longer life. It wasn’t that different from his own pruning, except that he didn’t deal with vanishingly rare possibilities made flesh.
“But climate change…”
“The land was already turning into desert, though none of us aboard that train understood what we were seeing.”
“The beginning of doom?”
“The promise of salvation. Because we would have to leave that burning planet. When it became possible, I took the hint and I departed for the Moon. Life here has been kind to me, letting me outlive everybody else.”
So, perhaps she wasn’t a mutant. Just a very fortunate old woman.
“I’ve been happy here,” he confessed. “Though I didn’t expect to become a celebrity.”
“You’re famous for the right reasons.”
“I don’t know what happens next.”
“Well, my little señorito, me, I’m hoping that breakthrough leads to application. I’m not the only one on the Moon with brittle bones. The gravitope is an expensive tubular prison and a time-consuming remedy. An easier way of generating gravity would make it easier to adapt again to higher gravity. Or to move on to other, more distant worlds.”
Indrek sipped the hot coffee he’d kept for last.
“Believe a sob story and you’re a chump. Disbelieve a sob story and you’re a jerk. That’s why people like me hate to let emotions get to them.”
“You can’t win.”
“There is no best path, is how I’d phrase it.”
“One solution is well-adjusted sociopathy.”
“I couldn’t be a sociopath. I care.”
He fell silent, letting her decide. Letting her choose between Kelm, the cold-hearted physicist who cared only for an easier way to reach the stars, and Indrek, the out-of-shape loner who might open his soul to a woman willing to listen.
She glanced at the djinn strapped to her wrist, flashing blue.
“Time for my workout. I’d love to tell my mates on the forum that we’ve met. Can I buy you lunch in the Beak?”
He did care for the physics of space travel. But not only. He nodded in agreement.
Riding an anti-train to nowhere proved restful as long as Indrek forgot why Esteban shadowed him everywhere.
By the third day, the simulationist had settled into a routine. He worked alone in his cabin, rewarded himself with a proper noontime meal in the dining car, and burned it all off in the exercise car, walking ten kilometres on a treadmill, surrounded by virtual greenery, recorded birdsongs, and his favourite soundtracks.
That left evenings for fun, but he never missed Valory’s daily performance. At first, she was as quick and graceful as the day of their departure. Her muscles mocked the Moon’s puny pull, even augmented by the tug of the train’s acceleration. By the fifth day, she was less nimble–or perhaps she feared landings more.
Indrek watched her intently, looking for the moves she altered from one day to the next. Travellers leaving the Moon were so eager for a talk with her that the physicist didn’t get another chance to invite her before the Carousel was attacked.
It happened on the sixth day. Indrek had gone back to his room with a coffee, nursing a counter-intuitive strategy for channeling dark matter to increase felt gravity.
The whole train shuddered. Emergency braking.
The second word shaped by the cabin’s wallscreen smashed into Indrek’s coffee bottle. Inertia also kept him moving at a fraction of his original speed. Though he’d started to jerk away, the bulkhead crashed into him as well.
The Carousel accelerated again within minutes. Indrek had researched the train’s safety features. Any stones strewn across the track would have been whisked away at superhuman speeds by robots emerging from the maintenance niches in the tunnel’s walls.
Esteban was waiting outside the cabin when Indrek crawled out, favouring his right arm.
“How are you?” the bodyguard asked.
“Did someone just try to destroy the Carousel to kill me?”
“I have no idea. How are you?”
“I’m in need of…”
The walls flashed another message. Full acceleration resuming. Half Earth normal. Brace. Esteban reached out in time to scoop up Indrek as he toppled over.
Later, in the dinner lounge, Indrek watched Valory head for their table. She was moving more slowly. He didn’t blame her. The afternoon’s emergency had reminded him of the sheer thuggishness of Earth’s gravity. Mistakes hurt.
The train’s doctor had enveloped his broken arm in an active cast, to repair and stimulate regrowth. It would come off in a couple of days, replaced by an inert model intended only for protection. He was not the only traveller hobbled by a cast. The light-haired man he’d spotted the first day was sitting at a nearby table, his outstretched right leg sporting a bulky knee brace. Damia Salgado had been luckier, and she was working her way across the room, the social conductor finding a word of comfort for each of the injured.
“Indrek,” Valory said, reaching their table before Salgado.
He looked into her eyes. She had used his given name for the first time.
“What is it?”
“I was worried that…”
She sat down abruptly, without waiting for an invitation or paying any attention to Esteban’s glowering bulk.
“I’m all right. The Carousel’s builders took into account many contingencies.”
“Isn’t that what you do?”
“Rather the reverse. I want to eliminate them.”
He took out his screen to order, flashing towards Valory the teaser put together by Salgado, to advertise his availability:
Science was the first crowdsourced app. But federal science has recently been adding to the crowd. It’s no longer a game reserved for inquisitive gentlefolk or obsessive craftsmen. Science is taking advantage of creative dreamers, whose intuitions guide quantum computers able to blunder into a billion blind alleys before hitting upon the one true path. We have one of the inner system’s top simulationist and he is definitely one of the Carousel’s great meets this year!
“A few nibbles. I’m beginning to think that people just don’t like to hear that our reality is underdetermined.”
“I thought physics had a theory of everything.”
“The problem is that everything includes our whole universe as a mere speck lost in a scattering of myriads. And we don’t know which speck is the right one.”
“Which is where you come in?”
Her face shone with a groupie’s ecstatic admiration. And a touch of personal hope.
He wanted to demur. All he did was sift through motes. And yet, knowing the constraints on a speck’s possibilities translated into more control over its future. Humanity’s future.
He resorted to a comparison he’d used before.
“Imagine if you could bring down the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostela by taking out one stone. In our world, no single block would suffice. But alter one of reality’s basic parameters and the entire edifice might float away like a leaf. Change another parameter and its mass could go critical. Modify yet another and the whole structure might just turn into a black hole.
“What we call reality is, if you come right down to it, a lucky guess. By whatever you want to call the entity throwing dice. It’s easier to be unlucky than lucky if you approach it randomly. But modern science does not rely on randomness.”
“It relies on you.”
There it was again. The light in her eyes. Reminding him that Valory was less entranced by the man than by his work. Yet, since she couldn’t fall in love with a q-computer…
“Modern science depends on all of the world’s simulationists, supported by wealthy patrons who wish to advertise their good works. Not me alone.”
“If I make it back to Earth thanks to you, I won’t waste my gratitude on your sponsor.”
“You could. I’m certainly grateful for her money.”
Esteban grunted. Indrek assumed his shoulderwatcher was just as grateful. Just as much, but no more.
“In that case, I’ll spare a kind thought for your backers.”
“That said, Valory, please don’t get your hopes up. I’m not sure virtual singularities can form near massive bodies. I may end up being able to play with gravity within spaceships in deep space, and no more.”
“You don’t speak like a beaten man.”
“I’ve changed goals. Have you heard of Urwaldt’s work?”
“The modern Einstein?”
“He pointed the way to faster-than-light travel, but his theory is hard to apply and leaves out things that we know should fit… I’ve been working to design realities that make it easier to achieve practical FTL.”
“Isn’t reality, well, real?”
“Of course. But what we know of it is incomplete. Lots of dim corners are left. How long do protons last if it isn’t forever? How many flavours of dark matter are streaming through us right now? How much energy does the vacuum store up? You don’t know, I don’t know, nobody knows.”
“But if it’s real, how can you change it?”
“It’s not so much a matter of changing it as of finding a path. My task is to come up with a destination worth travelling to. Like Compostela. But it has to get two things right. First, it must match all known observations. Second, it must be compatible with practical FTL travel.”
“A new theory of everything?”
“That was the old approach. The original Einstein battered his head to a pulp trying to do that, just like everybody else. No, I set a q-computer to run through endless iterations that are constrained by my dream of Compostela. The q-computer will run up blind alleys, follow paths that lead nowhere, but it will end up, from time to time, with a model of the universe that comes closest to my ultimate goal. And one that can be tested.”
“The way to Compostela.”
“And easier space travel.”
“But no artificial gravity?”
Indrek tried to soften the blow the only way he knew how. With an explanation.
“Next month, on Earth, picking up my screen, I’ll be fighting, with my Moon-weakened arm, the force exerted by the whole planet. And I’ll beat that force with one hand tied behind my back. Which is why artificial gravity is hard. It requires duplicating the effect of a planetary mass.”
“Which is also why dance is a thing of beauty.”
He gladly agreed. She forgot dessert to tell him more about dance than he’d ever expected to know. Her hands darted and dived to show him that her body’s movements needed to be as precise as his thoughts. She explored a space of her own when she moved her body, aware of every quirk of the Carousel’s merry-go-round physics.
The train’s acceleration forced her to adjust to the daily increase of felt gravity. The Coriolis effect tried to bend her and, often, she twisted preventively to make it seem like she was unaffected by it. Sometimes, she yielded instead, delivering seemingly out-of-balance leaps that would have been impossible in a different reference frame.
Indrek discarded impossibilities, but she revelled in beating them. If he hadn’t been so bone-tired, he would have suggested a more physical meeting of opposites. But Esteban was still playing the chaperone, and Indrek was young enough to let embarrassment overcome lust.
With every passing day, the train sped around the track ever faster, chasing its own tail. Indrek fought with fatigue, ate less, and strolled the length of the train four times a day. Yet, he managed to work. Deeply buried reserves from his days on Earth were surfacing. The simulationist even dared to think that he would not just crumple into a heap when the Earth shuttle blasted off.
If he no longer feared the trip back, leaving the Carousel was another matter. It would mean never seeing Valory again. He no longer thought of the age difference, if he had ever cared that she was older than his grandparents. All he knew was that she could match his passion with her own.
Back in the Beak, two days before the end of their Carousel ride, they hogged a table as close as possible to the forward bay. A missing wall, so transparent that a glance was enough to feel sucked in by the tunnel on the other side, the lights ahead endlessly rushing to meet the train.
He avoided her gaze, intent on his soup. Now that fresh ingredients were running low, the fare was saltier and spicier, to hide the reheated blandness of the menu.
“Next week, I’ll be back on Earth.”
“Will you come back up to visit?”
“It’s a long trip. And what keeps me from staying would keep me from returning, even for a visit.”
“What would it take for you to stay?”
He looked up, possible answers running through his mind. Courage. A death wish. Unreasoning love. A higher bid. A rival simulationist forestalling his own discoveries to come. Or an even unlikelier turn of events.
“I’d have to know it’s the way to Compostela.”
“Sometimes, you have to walk a path all the way to the end to know it was the right one.”
That evening, he was among the few to follow her to the far end of the train as she danced from car to car. She struggled in the narrower hallways, but it underscored the boundless freedom she had lost.
She had soared at will, the first time. Her feet had teased the floor like a lover’s fingers running along a beloved companion’s smooth skin. Her outstretched arms had reached for the stars beyond the metal ceiling.
She had spun, whirled in mid-air, floated, held positions impossible to prolong on Earth. She had flown and flitted like a butterfly wandering from one bloom to the next.
Now, she was dancing in chains. The grip of gravity dragged her down, slowed her leaps, and caught her again before she could rise.
And it was heartbreakingly beautiful. She was dancing for every survivor weighed down by guilt, every traveller going home with shattered dreams, every older and wiser head regretting the wasted opportunities of youth.
She was gravity’s captive, now, and she danced for the riders of the Carousel who would soon be falling back to Earth, broken-winged.
Indrek was reminded, as intended, that grace under pressure could move an audience, perhaps even more than effortless charm. Afterwards, she was carried away, exhausted, and he was left alone.
The last day brought him his first invitation for a sit-down talk with a physics groupie. On the last day? It was odd, but Indrek surmised one of the astronomers from the Farside might be looking for a like-minded researcher to get into the right frame of mind before resuming their research on Earth. The name wasn’t familiar, but then, observational astrophysics wasn’t his specialty.
Still, enough discrepancies had piled up that Indrek was not entirely surprised when he entered the boardroom and faced a weapon pointed at his midsection.
The needlegun was trained on him by Damia Salgado. Which was slightly more surprising.
“How are you going to get rid of the gun?” he asked once she relieved him of his screen.
“Always thinking ahead, right? Simple. Nobody is going to look for one.”
“Aren’t you going to shoot me?”
“Only if you force me to. Don’t try. I’ll earn extra because it will make things harder for me. I’d rather do it the easy way.”
Indrek considered. He wasn’t as cool and calculating as she thought. Mostly incredulous.
“Esteban assured me there were no guns aboard. Just the security tasers.”
“I had it printed by an extruder after the rock fall, using my authority as conductor to override the failsafes since I had reasonable cause.”
The gun’s manufacturing would have been recorded, but no suspicion would attach to Salgado as long as the gun wasn’t used.
“So that’s why a rock fall was triggered. Or was it?”
“Save your breath. You’re going to need it.”
That light-headed feeling… Indrek had assumed he was scared, but he realized he could hear a faint hissing. As he did so, Salgado took out an oxygen mask.
“What did you do?”
“I made a hole,” she answered, her voice muffled.
“During the rock fall.”
“Nobody noticed the blast. I needed a small one to puncture the outer skin. It’s pretty tough, but I was able to patch the hole until today.”
“Seems very roundabout.”
“It’s going to be a locked room mystery. More precisely, an unlocked room since I can’t lock you in. The door’s sensors are too smart to allow that when the air pressure is low and somebody’s inside.”
Salgado was leaning against the door, holding the needlegun with one hand and the handle with the other. It was all becoming painfully clear. She was going to watch Indrek suffocate and then leave. The door would swing open, the draft would trigger an alarm, and his lifeless body would be found inside a room leaking air but with no indication as to why he hadn’t just left.
“Nobody is going to believe I killed myself,” he argued.
“Nobody is going to be able to trace the explosive. I was able to smuggle in a small wad past the train’s security systems. Inside me. No bigger than an apricot pit. I had to be able to pass it off as an undigested piece of gum. Still enough to blow your brains out if I could have stuck it to the back of your neck. But managing that would have been tricky given the cameras watching us all, not to mention Esteban. Whereas it was my job to inspect these small boardrooms.”
Indrek guessed that she’d holed the train’s side, patched the puncture, and probably sabotaged the air pressure sensors all at the same time. Her presence in the corridor would have been recorded at the time, but only as one of many suspects as long as she had booked other groups in the same room afterwards.
He had to assume she’d done something more drastic to the hallway surveillance before entering to wait for him. A maintenance check? A software fault? Hands-on demolition?
“I have nothing to lose,” he countered. “I’ll force you to shoot.”
How badly did she want to avoid using the needlegun? He couldn’t think through the possibilities anymore. Though heavier than he’d been in years, he felt unsteady, ready to fall from the slightest push, let alone a needlegun burst.
“And why do they want to kill me?”
“I’m not sure, but I’m being paid a significant amount to get the job done.”
“They’re quite mistaken. What one person knows can be discovered by another.”
“Secrets are real. I managed to surprise your muscle-man, and I’m pretty sure you never suspected me. If I’m the only surviving witness to what happens in this room, the truth will remain a secret.”
“Too late,” he gasped, “No more secrets.”
Her eyes narrowed, a question sticking in her throat. What do you mean?
She never got the chance to ask it. Behind her, somebody knocked and tried to come in.
Indrek had expected as much. When he made his move, Salgado shot and the needle volley pincushioned the wallscreen behind him.
Off-balance from the door opening, the conductor didn’t get off a second shot. The younger man wrestled the gun away before she could recover.
Valory stumbled in as Salgado released the door suddenly and the conductor leaped out, stepping with all her weight on the back of the dancer’s leg. Bone snapped with a sickening crack.
Indrek blanched. Still dizzy from the lack of air, he didn’t try to give chase. He helped Valory up. She winced, but the weight off her shattered leg granted her a moment’s grace. Or perhaps it was adrenaline.
The dancer stared at the ceramic cones embedded in the screen.
“How did she miss?”
“She assumed I would correct for the Coriolis effect. I didn’t.”
“You got that from me, didn’t you?”
“In effect, you saved me twice.”
Indrek peered out. Valory hadn’t gotten far. The light-haired man was standing over Salgado’s inanimate body. It looked like she’d run into his fists, hard.
“Are you all right?” the man asked, “You’re bleeding.”
Indrek realized that the muffled ache in his arm centered on a gaping hole, bleeding in spurts. He hadn’t dodged all of the needles after all.
“I could use…”
Pain throbbed suddenly as if waiting only to be noticed, and he never finished his sentence.
It was only later, in the train’s infirmary, after a generous dosing of painkillers, that Indrek returned to consciousness.
Valory was sitting by his bedside, her lower leg encased in a chunk of medical gear. The blond man was standing behind her and the physicist decided that it was time to ask the question.
“Who are you?”
“Eduardo Tench Carstairs. Señora Jamal’s bodyguard.”
Indrek looked then at the dancer.
“You bid for me, but you were outbid.”
She nodded, confirming his guess, but she had a question of her own.
“Why did I release all of my preliminary work this morning?”
Was it even the same day? Indrek decided it was. The Carousel’s acceleration weighed him down still, so their ride wasn’t over. Valory leaned over.
“I broke down that door to ask you, yes. Saved your life and had my leg broken like a stick. But I still want to know. Are you crazy? That’s surely forbidden by your contract.”
“My non-disclosure agreement only applies to actual results. I’ve thrown away my head start, that’s all. Everybody will be starting from the same point.”
“Your sponsor is going to drop you.”
“That’s the point. I needed to know if you would still like me to stay on the Moon once I wasn’t anybody special anymore.”
“Your value has dropped by 82% in the last hours.”
“Killing me has just become uneconomic.”
“And I might now have the means to buy your contract. How did you guess I’d be able to? My net worth is a closely guarded secret.”
“I didn’t guess. Once I knew where I wanted to be, I eliminated all the paths that led elsewhere.”
“You don’t control everything.”
“I don’t control anything, Valory. It’s a ride, a wild ride.”
He grinned, slightly manic, waving at her leg and his arm.
“Point taken,” she conceded.
“A ride with no way of knowing if I’ll get anywhere. But I could choose the places where I would be vulnerable. And discover if you would be part of my own private Compostela.”
“You very nearly failed, but we all fail in the end. I won’t hold it against you.”
He did not speak, waiting for more. Waiting to know if she needed him.
She waved Eduardo out of the room.
“You risked a lot, my señorito. And you’ve been lucky. You’re alive, I’m alive, and even Salazar’s hireling will make a full recovery. Though his pride may not.” Her gaze appraised him with unexpected warmth. “Other bidders will play the odds and think you won’t get so lucky again. I don’t think like that, Indrek. Luck only runs out if you’re willing to use it up. That’s what I’m looking for on the road. The willingness to get to the end. I love this reality where you turned out to be a risk-taker and we’ll go to Compostela together.”
A writer, translator, and historian of science fiction in Canada, Jean-Louis Trudel is a dual French and Canadian citizen, with degrees in physics, astronomy, and the history of science and technology. He has been writing science fiction since 1984, authoring over thirty books and more than a hundred short stories, either alone or with fellow Canadian writer Yves Meynard, under the name Laurent McAllister. While he writes most often in French, he has dabbled in writing short fiction and poetry in English. Recent publications include the story “The Many-Smiles Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” in the Canadian magazine On Spec and the poem “Offerings to a Voiceless Star” in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association’s journal Star*Line. His blog (in French) is at https://culturedesfuturs.blogspot.com/