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Authors: Charles Stross

Wireless (6 page)

BOOK: Wireless
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We are not alone. We can only speculate about why we might have been brought here by the abductors, but we can be certain that it is only a matter of time before we encounter an advanced alien civilization that may well be hostile to us. This briefing film will now continue with an overview of our strategic preparations for first contact, and the scenarios within which we envisage this contingency arising, with specific reference to the Soviet Union as an example of an unfriendly ideological superpower . . .
After two weeks, Maddy is sure she’s going mad.
She and Bob have been assigned a small prefabricated house (not much more than a shack, although it has electricity and running water) on the edge of town. He’s been drafted into residential works, put to work erecting more buildings: and this is the nearest thing to a success they’ve had, because after a carefully controlled protest his status has been corrected, from just another set of unskilled hands to trainee surveyor. A promotion of which he is terribly proud, evidently taking it as confirmation that they’ve made the right move by coming here.
Maddy, meanwhile, has a harder time finding work. The district hospital is fully staffed. They don’t need her, won’t need her until the next shipload of settlers arrives, unless she wants to pack up her bags and go tramping around isolated ranch settlements in the outback. In a year’s time the governor has decreed they’ll establish another town-scale settlement, inland near the mining encampments on the edge of the Hoover Desert. Then they’ll need medics to staff the new hospital: but for now, she’s a spare wheel. Because Maddy is a city girl by upbringing and disposition, and not inclined to take a job hiking around the bush if she can avoid it.
She spends the first week and then much of the second mooching around town, trying to find out what she can do. She’s not the only young woman in this predicament. While there’s officially no unemployment, and the colony’s dirigiste administration finds plenty of hard work for idle hands, there’s also a lack of openings for ambulance crew, or indeed much of anything else she can do. Career-wise it’s like a trip into the 1950s. Young, female, and ambitious? Lots of occupations simply don’t exist out here on the fringe, and many others are closed or inaccessible. Everywhere she looks she sees mothers shepherding implausibly large flocks of toddlers, their guardians pinch-faced from worry and exhaustion. Bob wants kids, although Maddy’s not ready for that yet. But the alternatives on offer are limited.
Eventually Maddy takes to going through the “help wanted” ads on the bulletin board outside city hall. Some of them are legit: and at least a few are downright peculiar. One catches her eye: field assistant wanted for biological research.
I wonder?
she thinks, and goes in search of a door to bang on.
When she finds the door—raw wood, just beginning to bleach in the strong colonial sunlight—and bangs on it, John Martin opens it and blinks quizzically into the light. “Hello?” he asks.
“You were advertising for a field assistant?” She stares at him. He’s the entomologist, right? She remembers his hands on the telescope on the deck of the ship. The voyage itself is already taking on the false patina of romance in her memories compared to the dusty present it has delivered her to.
“I was? Oh—yes, yes. Do come in.” He backs into the house—another of these identikit shacks,
colonial, family, for the use of
—and offers her a seat in what used to be the living room. It’s almost completely filled by a worktable and a desk and a tall wooden chest of sample drawers. There’s an odd, musty smell, like old cobwebs and leaky demijohns of formalin. John shuffles around his den, vaguely disordered by the unexpected shock of company. There’s something touchingly cute about him, like the subjects of his studies, Maddy thinks. “Sorry about the mess, I don’t get many visitors. So, um, do you have any relevant experience?”
She doesn’t hesitate: “None whatsoever, but I’d like to learn.” She leans forward. “I qualified as a paramedic before we left. At college I was studying biology, but I had to drop out midway through my second year: I was thinking about going to medical school later, but I guess that’s not going to happen here. Anyway, the hospital here has no vacancies, so I need to find something else to do. What exactly does a field assistant get up to?”
“Get sore feet.” He grins lopsidedly. “Did you do any lab time? Fieldwork?” Maddy nods hesitantly so he drags her meager college experiences out of her before he continues. “I’ve got a whole continent to explore and only one set of hands: we’re spread thin out here. Luckily NSF budgeted to hire me an assistant. The assistant’s job is to be my Man Friday; to help me cart equipment about, take samples, help with basic lab work—very basic—and so on. Oh, and if they’re interested in entomology, botany, or anything else remotely relevant, that’s a plus. There aren’t many unemployed life sciences people around here, funnily enough: have you had any chemistry?”
“Some,” Maddy says cautiously; “I’m no biochemist.” She glances round the crowded office curiously. “What are you meant to be doing?”
He sighs. “A primary survey of an entire continent. Nobody, but nobody, even bothered looking into the local insect ecology here. There’re virtually no vertebrates, birds, lizards, what have you—but back home there are more species of beetle than everything else put together, and this place is no different. Did you know nobody has even sampled the outback fifty miles inland of here? We’re doing nothing but throwing up shacks along the coastline and opencast quarries a few miles inland. There could be anything in the interior, absolutely anything.” When he gets excited he starts gesticulating, Maddy notices, waving his hands around enthusiastically. She nods and smiles, trying to encourage him.
“A lot of what I’m doing is the sort of thing they were doing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Take samples, draw them, log their habitat and dietary habits, see if I can figure out their life cycle, try and work out who’s kissing cousins with what. Build a family tree. Oh, I also need to do the same with the vegetation, you know? And they want me to keep close watch on the other disks around Lucifer. ‘Keep an eye out for signs of sapience,’ whatever that means: I figure there’s a bunch of leftovers in the astronomical community who feel downright insulted that whoever built this disk and brought us here didn’t land on the White House lawn and introduce themselves. I’d better tell you right now, there’s enough work here to occupy an army of zoologists and botanists for a century; you can get started on a PhD right here and now if you want. I’m only here for five years, but my successor should be okay about taking on an experienced RA . . . The hard bit is going to be maintaining focus. Uh, I can sort you out a subsistence grant from the governor-general’s discretionary fund and get NSF to reimburse him, but it won’t be huge. Would twenty Truman dollars a week be enough?”
Maddy thinks for a moment. Truman dollars—the local scrip—aren’t worth a whole lot, but there’s not much to spend them on. And Rob’s earning for both of them anyway. And a PhD . . .
That could be my ticket back to civilization, couldn’t it?
“I guess so,” she says, feeling a sense of vast relief: so there’s something she’s useful for besides raising the next generation, after all. She tries to set aside the visions of herself, distinguished and not too much older, gratefully accepting a professor’s chair at an Ivy League university. “When do I start?”
Misha’s first impressions of the disturbingly familiar alien continent are of an oppressively humid heat and the stench of decaying jellyfish.
Sergei Korolev
floats at anchor in the river estuary, a huge streamlined visitor from another world. Stubby fins stick out near the waterline, like a seaplane with clipped wings: gigantic Kuznetsov atomic turbines in pods ride on booms to either side of its high-ridged back, either side of the launch/recovery catapults for its parasite MiG fighter-bombers, aft of the broad curve of the ekranoplan’s bridge. Near the waterline, a boat bay is open: a naval
team is busy loading their kit into the landing craft that will ferry them to the small camp on the beach. Misha, who stands just above the waterline, turns away from the giant ground-effect ship and watches his commander, who is staring inland with a faint expression of worry. “Those trees—awfully close, aren’t they?” Gagarin says, with the carefully studied stupidity that saw him through the first dangerous years after his patron Khrushchev’s fall.
“That is indeed what Captain Kirov is taking care of,” replies Gorodin, playing his role of foil to the colonel-general’s sardonic humor. And indeed, shadowy figures in olive green battle dress are stalking in and out of the trees, carefully laying trip wires and screamers in an arc around the beachhead. He glances to the left, where a couple of sailors with assault rifles stand guard, eyes scanning the jungle. “I wouldn’t worry unduly, sir.”
“I’ll still be happier when the outer perimeter is secure. And when I’ve got a sane explanation of this for the comrade general secretary.” Gagarin’s humor evaporates: he turns and walks along the beach, toward the large tent that’s already gone up to provide shelter from the heat of noon. The bar of solid sunlight—what passes for sunlight here—is already at maximum length, glaring like a rod of white-hot steel that impales the disk. (Some of the more superstitious call it the axle of heaven. Part of Gorodin’s job is to discourage such non-materialist backsliding.)
The tent awning is pegged back: inside it, Gagarin and Misha find Major Suvurov and Academician Borisovitch leaning over a map. Already the scientific film crew—a bunch of dubious civilians from TASS—is busy in a corner, preparing cans for shooting. “Ah, Oleg, Mikhail.” Gagarin summons up a professionally photogenic smile. “Getting anywhere?”
Borisovitch, a slight, stoop-shouldered type who looks more like a janitor than a world-famous scientist, shrugs. “We were just talking about going along to the archaeological site, General. Perhaps you’d like to come, too?”
Misha looks over his shoulder at the map: it’s drawn in pencil, and there’s an awful lot of white space on it, but what they’ve surveyed so far is disturbingly familiar in outline—familiar enough to have given them all a number of sleepless nights even before they came ashore. Someone has scribbled a dragon coiling in a particularly empty corner of the void.
“How large is the site?” asks Yuri.
“Don’t know, sir.” Major Suvurov grumps audibly, as if the lack of concrete intelligence on the alien ruins is a personal affront. “We haven’t found the end of it yet. But it matches what we know already.”
“The aerial survey—” Mikhail coughs, delicately. “If you’d let me have another flight, I could tell you more, General. I believe it may be possible to define the city limits narrowly, but the trees make it hard to tell.”
“I’d give you the flight if only I had the aviation fuel,” Gagarin explains patiently. “A chopper can burn its own weight in fuel in a day of surveying, and we have to haul everything out here from Archangelsk. In fact, when we go home we’re leaving most of our flight-ready aircraft behind, just so that on the next trip out we can carry more fuel.”
“I understand.” Mikhail doesn’t look happy. “As Oleg Ivanovitch says, we don’t know how far it reaches. But I think when you see the ruins you’ll understand why we need to come back here. Nobody’s found anything like this before.”
“Old Capitalist Man.” Misha smiles thinly. “I suppose.”
“Presumably.” Borisovitch shrugs. “Whatever, we need to bring archaeologists. And a mass spectroscope for carbon dating. And other stuff.” His face wrinkles unhappily. “They were here back when we would still have been living in caves!”
“Except we weren’t,” Gagarin says under his breath. Misha pretends not to notice.
By the time they leave the tent, the marines have gotten the Korolev’s two BRDMs ashore. The big balloon-tired armored cars sit on the beach like monstrous amphibians freshly emerged from some primeval sea. Gagarin and Gorodin sit in the back of the second vehicle with the academician and the film crew: the lead BRDM carries their
escort team. They maintain a dignified silence as the convoy rumbles and squeaks across the beach, up the gently sloping hillside, then down toward the valley with the ruins.
BOOK: Wireless
12.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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