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Touching Centauri

Fermi obsesses me (Malenfant wrote to his grandson). I know it does. Your grandmother—Emma, who died before you were born—must have spent half her life telling me as much.

But the more I think about it the more puzzling it gets.

The more I think there must be something wrong with the universe. That’s all there is to it.

Kate Manzoni was there the day Reid Malenfant poked a hole in the wall of reality.

When she arrived in the auditorium, Malenfant was speaking from a podium. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to JPL, and the climax of Project Michelangelo. This truly is a historic moment. For today, June 14 2025, we are anticipating the returned echo of the laser pulse we fired at the planet Alpha Centauri A-4, more than eight years ago…’

It was her first glimpse of Malenfant. He stood in a forest of microphones, a glare of TV lights. To either side of Malenfant, Kate recognized Cornelius Taine, the reclusive mathematician (and rumoured marginal autistic) who had come up with the idea for the project, and Vice President Maura Della, spry seventy-something, who had pushed the funding through Congress.

Kate was here for the human angle, and by far the most interesting human in this room was Malenfant himself. But right now he was still talking like a press release.

‘Four light years out, four light years back: it has been a long journey for our beam of light, and only a handful of plucky photons will make it home. But we’ll be here to greet them—and think what it means. Today, we will have proof that our monkey fingers have touched Centauri…’

Kate allowed her attention to drift.

JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had turned out to look like a small hospital, squashed into a cramped and smoggy Pasadena-suburb site dominated by the green shoulders of the San Gabriel Mountains. This was the von Karman auditorium, the scene of triumphant news conferences when JPL had sent probes to almost every planet in the solar system. Heady days—but long gone now, and JPL had been returned to the Army to do weapons research, its original purpose.

Well, today the big old auditorium was crowded again, with mission managers and scientists and politicians and journalists—like Kate herself—all crammed in among the softscreen terminals. Camera drones drifted like party balloons overhead, or darted like glittering insects through the air.

She walked past display stands, between scrolling softscreen images and bullshitting nerd-scientist types, all eager to lecture the gathered lay folk on the wonders of Project Michelangelo.

She could learn, for example, how the planets of the twin star system Alpha Centauri had first been detected back in 2010, by a European Space Agency planet-hunter probe called Eddington. Working with robotic patience in the silence of space, Eddington had detected minute oscillations in Alpha A’s brightness: the signature of a whole system of planets passing before the star’s face.

Of most interest was the fourth planet out, Alpha A-4. Not much bigger than Earth, A-4 orbited in the so-called Goldilocks zone: not too far from its sun for water to freeze, not so close to be too hot for life. Follow-up studies had shown that A-4’s atmosphere contained methane. What was significant about that was that it was chemically unstable: there had to be some mechanism to inject such a reactive gas into A-4’s unseen air.

Most likely candidate: life.

But still, despite these exciting hints, A-4 was little more than a dot of light, huddled blurrily close to its sun. There were plans underway to launch high-resolution space telescopes to image the continents and oceans of this second Earth, as everybody hoped it would turn out to be.

But now, ahead of all that, here was Reid Malenfant fronting up Project Michelangelo: an audacious attempt to bounce a laser beam off a planet of Alpha Centauri.

Malenfant had come down off his podium. Standing under an image of Michelangelo’s God and Adam—the famous fingertip touch that had become a clich'ed icon for this kind of endeavour—he was mixing it with the journos and pols and various VIP types at the front of the auditorium. Everybody was talking at once, though not to each other, all of them yammering into com systems mounted on their wrists and lapels.

But even so, for this bitty, distracted audience, Malenfant was holding forth about life in space. ‘For me the whole course of my life has been dominated by a simple question: Where is everybody? Even as a kid I knew that the Earth was just a ball of rock, on the fringe of a nondescript galaxy. I just couldn’t believe that there was nobody out there looking back at me down here…’ In his sixties, Malenfant was tall, wiry slim, with a bald head shining like a piece of machinery. Close to, he looked what he was, a grounded astronaut, ridiculously fit, tanned deep. ‘I lapped up everything I could find on how space is a high frontier, a sky to be mined, a resource for humanity. All that stuff shaped my life. But is that all there is to it? Is the sky really nothing more than an empty stage for mankind? But if not, where are they? This is called the Fermi Paradox…’

He fell silent, gazing at Kate, who had managed to worm her way to the front of the loose pack. He glanced at her name-tag. ‘Ms Manzoni. From—?’

‘I’m freelancing today.’ She forced a smile. She could smell desert dust on him, hot and dry as a sauna.

‘And you think there’s a story in the Fermi Paradox?’

She shrugged, non-committal. ‘I’m more interested in you, Colonel Malenfant.’

He was immediately suspicious, even defensive. ‘Just Malenfant.’

‘Of all the projects you could have undertaken when you were grounded, why front a stunt like this?’

He shrugged. ‘Look, if you want to call this a stunt, fine. But we’re extending the envelope here. Today we’ll prove that we can touch other worlds. Maybe an astronaut is the right face to head up a groundbreaker project like this.’


His grin faded.

Fishing for an angle, she said, ‘Is that why you’re here? You were born in 1960, weren’t you? So you remember Apollo. But by the time you grew up cheaper and smarter robots had taken over the exploring. Now NASA says that when the International Space Station finally reaches the end of its life, it plans no more manned spaceflight of any sort. Is this laser project a compensation for your wash-out, Malenfant?’

He barked a laugh. ‘You know, you aren’t as smart as you think you are, Ms Manzoni. It’s your brand of personality-oriented cod-psychology bullshit that has brought down—’

‘Are you lonely?’

That pulled him up. ‘What?’

‘The Fermi Paradox is all about loneliness, isn’t it?—the loneliness of mankind, orphaned in an empty universe… Your wife, Emma, died a decade back. I know you have a son, but you never remarried—’

He glared at her. ‘You’re full of shit, lady.’

She returned his glare, satisfied she had hit the mark.

But as she prepared her next question, the auditorium crowd took up chanting along with a big softscreen clock: ‘…Twenty!… Nineteen!… Eighteen!…’ She looked away, distracted, and Malenfant took the opportunity to move away from her.

She worked her way through the crowd until she could see the big softscreen display at the front of the auditorium. It was a tapestry of more-or-less incomprehensible graphic and digital updates.

She prepared her floating camera drones, and the various pieces of recording technology embedded in her flesh and clothing. The truth was, whatever data came back with those interstellar photons wouldn’t matter; today’s iconic image would be that pure instant of triumph when that faint echo returned from Alpha A-4, and those graphs and charts leapt into jagged animation. And that, and the accompanying swirl of emotions, would be what she must capture.

But in the midst of her routine she found room for a sliver of wonder. This was after all about reaching out to a second Earth, just as Malenfant had said—maybe it was a stunt, but what a stunt…

Everybody was growing quiet, all faces turned up to the big softscreen.

The ticking clock moved into the positive.

The shimmering graphs remained flatlined.

There was silence. Then, as nothing continued to happen, a mutter of conversation.

Kate was baffled. There had been no echo. How could that be? She knew this was an experiment that would have been accurate to a fraction of a second; there was no possibility of a time error. Either the receiving equipment had somehow failed to work—or else the laser pulse from Earth had gone sailing right through planet Alpha A-4 as if it was an image painted on glass…

She peered around frantically, trying to get a first impression of the principals’ reaction. She saw the back of Malenfant’s head as he stared stolidly at the unresponsive screen, as if willing the displays to change. Veep Della frowned and stroked her chin.

Cornelius Taine was grinning.

Something is very, very wrong here. And you want to know something else?

Kate floated in the dark, freed of gravity and sensation, listening to her own voice.

‘Tell me,’ he whispered.

It’s getting wronger. They tested the whole set-up the day before with a bounce off a deep-space comet a hundred astronomical units out—twice as far as Pluto. I happen to know they repeated the echo test off that same comet a few hours after the Centauri experiment failed.

‘And they couldn’t find the comet.’

You’re getting the idea. Michelangelo shouldn’t have failed. It couldn’t have failed…

This was one of her virtual correspondents, an entity (maybe multiple) she knew only as Rodent, his/her/their anonymity protected by layers of encryption and chaff. But the transmission was encoded in her own voice; she liked to imagine it was the other half of herself, dreaming-Kate whispering across her corpus callosum, that bridge between her brain’s hemispheres within which was embedded the implant that had dropped her into this virtual world.

But the images that floated before her now, of angular, expensive machinery, had come from no dream.

The laser burst was generated in low Earth orbit by a nuclear fusion pulse. A trillion watts of power compressed into a fraction of a second. They have been building toys like this for decades, at places like Lawrence Livermore. Got a big boost under Gore-Clinton, and even more under Clinton-Clinton…

Much had been learned about other worlds, even from Earth, by techniques like Michelangelo’s: the cloud-shrouded surface of Venus had first been studied by radar beams emitted from giant ground-based radio telescopes, for instance. But Alpha A-4 was more than seven thousand times as far away as Pluto, the solar system’s outermost planet. Michelangelo’s vast outreaching was orders of magnitude more difficult than anything attempted before—and in some quarters had been criticized as premature.

Maybe those critics had been proved right. ‘So the experiment failed. It happens.’

Kate, the laser worked. Look, they could see the damn pulse as it was fired off into the dark.

‘But that’s just the first step. You’re talking about a shot across four light years, of projecting planetary movements across four years’ duration.’ The scientists had had to aim their pulse, not at A-4 itself, but at the place A-4 was expected to be by the time the light pulse got there. It had been a speed-of-light pigeon shoot—but a shoot of staggering precision. ‘And Alpha Centauri is a triple star; what if the planet’s motions were perturbed, or—’

A-4 is so close to its parent that its orbit is as stable as Earth’s. Kate, believe me, this is just Newtonian clockwork; the predictions couldn’t have gone wrong. Likewise the geometry of the reflection. Once those photons were launched, an echo had to come back home.

‘Then maybe the receiving equipment is faulty.’

They were watching for those photons with equipment on Earth, in low Earth orbit, on the Moon, and with the big Trojan-point radio telescope array. Short of the sun going nova, what fault could take down all of that? Kate, Michelangelo had to work. There are inquiries going on at every level from the lab boys to the White House, but they’ll all conclude the same damn thing.

In swam an image of Malenfant, justifying himself on some TV show. ‘There’s nothing wrong with our technology,’ he was saying. ‘So maybe there is something wrong with the universe…’


Kate sighed. ‘So what’s the story? Obscure space experiment fails in unexplained manner… There’s no meat in that sandwich.’

Do what you do best. Focus on the people. Go find Malenfant. And ask him about Voyager.

Voyager—the spacecraft?’

You know, when it fires, that damn laser destroys itself. Makes a single cry to the stars, then dies, a billion dollars burned up in a fraction of a second. Kind of a neat metaphor for our wonderful military-industrial complex, don’t you think?

She failed to find Malenfant. She did find his son. She cleared her desk and went to see the son, two days after the failed experiment.

Meanwhile, so far as she could see, the world continued to turn, people went about their business, and the news was the usual buzz of politics and personalities—of Earthbound matters like the water war in the Sahel, the latest Chinese incursion into depopulated Russia, the Attorney General’s continuing string of extra-marital affairs.

Most people knew about the strange news from Alpha Centauri. Few seemed to think it mattered. The truth was, for all the mutterings of Rodent and his ilk, she wasn’t sure herself. She still sensed there was a story here, however.

And she was growing a little scared.

Mike Malenfant, aged 30, lived with his wife, Saranne, in a suburb of Houston called Clear Lake.

He opened the door. ‘Oh. Ms Manzoni.’

‘Call me Kate… Have we met?’

‘No.’ He grinned at her. ‘But Malenfant told me about you, and what you said to him the night of Michelangelo. Seemed to bug him more than the failure itself.’

She thought, He calls his dad by his surname? Father-son rivalry? He didn’t look much like his father: rounder, smaller, with dense black hair he must have inherited from his mother. ‘Uh, would you rather I left?’

‘No. My dad is a little 1970s sometimes. I don’t have a problem with what you do. How did you find me? We keep our name out of the books.’

That wouldn’t have stopped her, she thought. But it had been easier than that. ‘I played a hunch. Malenfant used to live here, with Emma. So I guessed—’

He grinned again. ‘You guessed right. Malenfant will be even more pissed to know he’s so predictable.’ He took her indoors and introduced his wife, Saranne: pretty, heavily pregnant, tired-looking. ‘Tea?’

With a camera drone hovering discreetly at her shoulder, Kate began gently to interview the couple.

Close to the Johnson Space Center, Clear Lake was a place of retro-chic wooden-framed houses backing onto the fractal-edged water. This had long been a favoured domicile of NASA astronauts and their families. When Malenfant’s career had taken him away from Houston and NASA, son Mike had happily—so it seemed—taken over the house he had grown up in, with its battered rowboat still tied up at the back.

Some of what Mike had to say—about the life of a soft-muscled, intellectual boy growing up as the son of America’s favourite maverick astronaut—was illuminating, and might make a useful colour piece some day. So Kate wasn’t being entirely dishonest. But her main objective, of course, was to keep them talking until Malenfant showed up—as he surely would, since she’d sent a provocative note to his message service to say she was coming.

Mike hadn’t followed his father’s career path. He had become a virtual character designer, moderately successful in his own right. Now, with his business-partner wife expecting their first child, this was maybe a peak time of his life. But even so he didn’t seem to resent the unspoken and obvious truth that Kate was here because he was Malenfant’s son, not for himself alone.

One thing that was immediately nailed home in her awareness was how much Mike—and, it seemed, Malenfant himself—missed Emma: Mike’s mother, Malenfant’s wife, taken away by cancer before she was forty. She wondered how much of a difference it might have made to everybody’s lives if Emma had survived.

As the low-afternoon sun started to glint off the stretch of lake out back, the old man arrived.

He launched into her as soon as he walked in the door. ‘Ms Manzoni, the great pap-peddler. You aren’t welcome here. This is my son’s home, and I have a job to do. So why don’t you take your drones and your implants and shove them up—’

‘As far as the implants are concerned,’ Kate said dryly, ‘somebody already did that for me.’

That got a laugh out of Mike, and the mood softened a little.

But Malenfant kept up his glare. ‘What do you want, Manzoni?’

‘Tell me about Voyager,’ she said.

Mike and Saranne looked quizzical. Malenfant looked away.

Aha, she thought.

Voyager,’ she said to Mike and Saranne. ‘Two space probes designed to explore the outer planets, launched in the 1970s. Now they are floating out of the solar system. About a decade ago they crossed the heliopause—the place where the star winds blow, the boundary of interstellar space—right, Malenfant? But the Voyagers are still working, even now, and the big radio telescopes can still pick up their feeble signals… A heroic story, in its way.’

Mike shrugged. ‘So, a history lesson. And?’

‘And now something’s happened to them. That’s all I know.’

Malenfant was stony-faced, arms folded.

For a moment it looked like developing into an impasse. But then, to Kate’s surprise, Saranne stepped forward, hands resting on her belly. ‘Maybe you should tell her what she wants to know, Malenfant.’

It was as if Malenfant was suddenly aware she was there. ‘Why?’

‘There’s a lot of buzz about your experiment.’ Saranne was dark, her eyes startling blue. ‘There’s something strange going on, isn’t there? Don’t you think we’ve a right to know about it?’

Malenfant softened. ‘Saranne—it’s not so easy. Sometimes there is no use asking questions, because there are no meaningful answers.’

Kate frowned. ‘And sometimes there are answers, but there’s nothing to be done—is that it, Malenfant? Don’t tell the children the truth, for fear of frightening them—’

His anger returned. ‘This has nothing the hell to do with you.’

Saranne said, ‘Come on, Malenfant. If she’s found out something, so will everybody else soon enough. This isn’t 1960.’

He barked a bitter laugh.

Voyager,’ Kate prompted.

Voyager. Okay. Yesterday the Deep Space Network lost contact with the spacecraft. Both Voyagers 1 and 2. Within a couple of hours.’

Mike said, ‘Is that so significant? They were creaky old relics. They were going to fade out sometime.’

Malenfant eyed his son. ‘Both together? After so long? How likely is that? And anyhow we had a handle on how much power they had left. It shouldn’t have happened.’

Kate said, ‘Was this after the comet, or before?’

Mike said, ‘What comet?’

‘The one that went missing when your father’s laser tried to echo-sound it.’

Malenfant frowned. Evidently he hadn’t expected her to know about that either. ‘After,’ he said. ‘After the comet.’

Kate tried to put it together in her head. A series of anomalies, then: that missing planet of Alpha Centauri, a comet out in the dark, the lonely Voyagers. All evaporating.

Each event a little closer to the sun.

Something is coming this way, she thought. Like footprints in the dew.

A softscreen chimed; Mike left the room to answer it.

Malenfant kept up his glare. ‘Come on, Manzoni. Forget Voyager. What do you really want here?’

Kate glanced at Malenfant and Saranne, and took another flyer. ‘What’s the source of the tension between you two?’

Malenfant snapped, ‘Don’t answer.’

But Saranne said evenly, ‘It’s this.’ She stroked her bump. ‘Baby Michael.’ She watched Malenfant’s uncomfortable reaction. ‘See? He’s not even happy with the fact that we know Michael’s sex, that we named him before his birth.’

‘You know it’s not that,’ Malenfant growled.

Kate guessed, ‘Has the child been enhanced?’

‘Nothing outrageous,’ Saranne said quickly. ‘Anti-ageing treatments: telomerase, thymus and pineal-gland adjustments. In the womb he’s been farmed for stem cells and organ clones. And we chose a few regenerative options: regrowing fingers, toes and spinal column…’

‘He’ll be able to hibernate,’ Malenfant said, his tone dangerously even. ‘Like a goddamn bear. And he might live forever. Nobody knows.’

‘He’s going to grow up in a dangerous world. He needs all the help he can get.’

Malenfant said, ‘He’s your kid. You can do what you like.’

‘He’s your grandson. I wish I had your blessing.’ But her tone was cool; Kate saw she was winning this battle.

Malenfant turned on Kate. ‘How about your family, Ms Manzoni?’

She shrugged. ‘My parents split when I was a kid. I haven’t seen my father since. My mother—’

‘Another broken home. Jesus.’

‘It’s not a big deal, Malenfant. I was the last in my high school class to go through a parental divorce.’ She smiled at Saranne, who smiled back.

But Malenfant, visibly unhappy, was lashing out at Kate, where he couldn’t at Saranne. ‘What kind of way to live is that? It’s as if we’re all crazy.’

Saranne said carefully, ‘Malenfant has a certain amount of difficulty with the modern world.’

Kate said, ‘Malenfant, I don’t believe you’re such a sour old man. You ought to be happy for Saranne and Mike.’

Saranne said, ‘And I sure have the right to do the best for my kid, Malenfant.’

‘Yes. Yes, you do,’ he said. ‘And the responsibility. God knows I admire you for that. But can’t you see that if everyone does what’s best for themselves alone, we’re all going to hell in a handbasket? What kind of world will it be where the rich can buy immortality, while the poor continue to starve as fast as they breed?’

Kate thought she understood. ‘You always look to the big picture, Malenfant. The Fermi Paradox, the destiny of mankind. Right? But most people don’t think like that. Most people focus the way Saranne is focused, on whatever is best for their kids. What else can we do?’

‘Take a look around. We’re living in the world that kind of thinking has created.’

She forced a smile. ‘We’ll muddle through.’

‘If we get the chance,’ Malenfant said coldly.

Mike came back into the room, looking stunned. ‘That was the Vice President. There’s a helicopter on the way from Ellington Air Force Base. For you, Malenfant.’

Malenfant said, ‘I’ll be damned.’

Saranne looked scared. ‘The Vice President?’

Kate frowned. ‘Malenfant, don’t you think you should find out what’s going on before you get to Washington?’ She walked to a wall and slapped it, opening up its comms facilities. ‘Maybe you ought to ask Cornelius Taine.’

‘Ask him what?’

She thought quickly, wondering where those footsteps would next fall. What was the furthest planet from the sun?… ‘Pluto. Ask him about Pluto.’

Malenfant evidently didn’t enjoy being told what to do by the likes of Kate Manzoni. But he punched in ident codes, and began to interact with a small patch of the wall.

Kate and the others waited; it wasn’t a moment for small talk. Kate strained to hear the sounds of the chopper.

At length Malenfant straightened up. Before him, embedded in the smart wall, was an image of a planet: blue, streaked with white cloud.

Kate’s heart thumped. ‘Earth?’

He shook his head. ‘And not Pluto either. This is a live image of Neptune. Almost as far out as Pluto. A strange blue world, blue as Earth, on the edge of interstellar space…’

Saranne said uneasily, ‘What’s wrong with it?’

‘Not Neptune itself. Triton, its moon. Look.’ He pointed to a blurred patch of light, close to Neptune’s ghostly limb. When he tapped the wall, the patch moved, quite suddenly. Another tap, another move. Kate couldn’t see any pattern to the moves, as if the moon was no longer following a regular orbit.

‘I don’t understand,’ she said.

‘Triton has started to… flicker. It hops around its orbit—or adopts another orbit entirely—or sometimes it vanishes, or is replaced by a ring system.’ He scratched his bald pate. ‘According to Cornelius, Triton was an oddity—circling Neptune backwards—probably created in some ancient collision event.’

‘Even odder now,’ Mike said dryly.

‘Cornelius says that all these images—the multiple moons, the rings—are all possibilities, alternate outcomes of how that ancient collision might have come about. As if other realities are folding down into our own.’ He searched their faces, seeking understanding.

Mike said, ‘Malenfant, what has this to do with your laser shot?’

Malenfant spread his hands. ‘Mike, I talk big, but we humans are pretty insignificant in the bigger scheme of things. Out there in the dark, somebody is playing pool with a moon. How can we have affected that?’

Kate took a breath. Neptune: a long way away, out in the dark, where the planets are cloudy spheres, and the sun’s light is weak and rectilinear. But out there, she thought, something strange is stirring: something with awesome powers indeed, beyond human comprehension.

And it’s coming this way. Whatever it is. She shuddered, and suppressed the urge to cross herself.

Saranne asked, ‘Are the stars still shining?’

It struck Kate as an odd, naive question, but Malenfant seemed touched. ‘Yes,’ he said gently. ‘Yes, the stars are still shining.’

Kate heard the flap of chopper blades. On impulse she snapped, ‘Malenfant—take me with you.’

He laughed and turned away.

Mike said, ‘Maybe you should do it, Malenfant. I have the feeling she’s smarter than you. Somebody needs to be thinking when you meet the Vice President.’

Malenfant turned to Kate. ‘Quite a story you’re building up here, Manzoni.’

If, she thought, I ever get to file it.

Outside, the noise of the descending chopper mounted. The reddening evening light dappled on the water of the lake, as it had always done, as if the strange lights in the sky were of no more import than a bad dream.

The limo pulled away. Malenfant, in his Navy uniform, was tweaking his cuffs. A blank-faced young soldier waited at his arm, ready to escort them into the building.

The Vice President’s official residence was a rambling brick mansion on a broad green lawn, set at the corner of 34th Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Kate, who wasn’t as accustomed to Washington as she liked to pretend, thought it looked oddly friendly, like a small-town museum, rather than a major centre of federal power.

Beyond the security fence city life went on as usual, a stream of Smart-driven traffic washing with oily precision along the street, tourists and office workers drifting along the sidewalk, speaking into the air to remote contacts.

Malenfant said, ‘You wouldn’t think the damn sky was about to fall, would you?’

‘Everybody knows as much as we do,’ she said. ‘Nothing stays secret. So how come there isn’t—’

‘Panic buying?’ he grinned. ‘Rutting in the streets? Running for the hills? Because we don’t get it, Manzoni. Look in your heart. You don’t believe it, do you? Not deep down. We’re not programmed to look further than the other guy’s nose.’

Unexpectedly the young soldier spoke up. ‘“This is the way I think the world will end—with general giggling by all the witty heads, who think it is a joke.”’ They looked at him, surprised. ‘Kierkegaard. Sorry, sir. If you’re ready, will you follow me?’

When they reached Maura Della’s office, Cornelius Taine was already there, sitting bolt uptight on one of the overstuffed armchairs, already talking.

‘Past speculation on artificial realities provides us with clues as to our likely response to finding ourselves in a “planetarium”. You may remember movies in which the protagonist is the unwitting star of a TV show or movie, who invariably tries to escape. But the idea that the world around us may not be real reaches back to Plato, who wondered if what we see resembles the flickering shadows on a cave wall. And the notion of creating deceptive artificial environments dates back at least as far as Descartes, who in the seventeenth century speculated on the philosophical implications of a sense-manipulating “demon”—effectively a pre-technological virtual-reality generator…’

Della, listening, waved Malenfant and Kate to seats. Kate selected an expensive-looking upright that creaked under her weight.

The office was large and spacious. The furniture was stuffed leather, the big desk polished mahogany, the wallpaper and carpets lush. But Maura Della had stamped her personality on the room; on every wall were cycling softscreen images of the surfaces of Mars and Io, the gloomy oceans of Europa, a deep-space image of a galaxy field.

Malenfant leaned forward. ‘Planetarium? What the hell are you talking about, Cornelius?’

Cornelius regarded him coolly. ‘The logic is compelling, Malenfant. Your own logic: the Fermi Paradox, which you claim has driven your life. The Paradox defies our intuition, as well as philosophical principles such as the assumption of mediocrity, that it is only on our own apparently commonplace world that mind has evolved. The Paradox is surely telling us that something is fundamentally wrong with our view of the universe, and our place in it.’

Malenfant prompted, ‘And so…’

‘And so, perhaps the reason that the universe does not appear to make sense is that what we see around us is artificial.

Malenfant let his mouth drop open.

Kate sat as still as she could, unsure how to react.

They were both looking at the Vice President, waiting for her lead.

Della sighed. ‘I know how this sounds. But Cornelius is here at my invitation, Malenfant. Look, I have plenty of people explaining the rational possibilities to me. Perhaps we’re in the middle of some huge solar storm, for instance, which is disrupting communications. Perhaps the solar system has wandered into a knot of interstellar gas, or even dark matter, which is refracting or diffusing electromagnetic radiation, including your laser beam—’

‘None of which hangs together,’ Kate guessed.

Della frowned at her. Malenfant quickly introduced Kate as a personal aide.

Della said, ‘Okay. You’re right. Nobody has come up with anything that works. It isn’t just a question of some new anomaly; we have a situation for which, as far as I understand it, no explanation within our physical law is even possible… But here is Cornelius, with a proposal that is frankly outrageous—’

‘But an outrageous problem requires outrageous proposals,’ Cornelius said, his smile cold.

Malenfant said, ‘Just tell me what you’re talking about, Cornelius.’

Cornelius went on, ‘Think about it. What if we have been placed in some form of “planetarium”, perhaps generated using an advanced virtual reality technology, designed to give us the illusion of an empty universe—while beyond the walls with their painted stars, the shining lights of extraterrestrial civilizations glow unseen?’

‘Which would resolve Fermi,’ Malenfant said. ‘They’re there, but they are hiding.’

‘Which would resolve Fermi, yes.’

‘And now the planetarium’s, uh, projector is breaking down. Hence A-4, Neptune and the rest. Is that what you’re saying?’


Kate thought it over. ‘That’s what the Fermi experts call a zoo hypothesis.’

Cornelius looked impressed. ‘So it is.’

‘It belongs in a zoo,’ Malenfant said. ‘For one thing it’s paranoid. It’s classic circular logic: you could never disprove it. We could never detect we were in a planetarium because it’s designed not to be detected. Right?’

‘Malenfant, the fact that a hypothesis is paranoid doesn’t make it wrong.’

Della said, ‘Let me see if I understand you, Cornelius. You’re suggesting that not everything we see is real. How much of everything?’

Cornelius shrugged. ‘There are several possible answers. It depends on how far the boundary of the artificial “reality” is set from the human consciousness. The crudest design would be like a traditional planetarium, in which we—our bodies—and the objects we touch are real, while the sky is a fake dome.’

Malenfant nodded. ‘So the stars and galaxies are simulated by a great shell surrounding the solar system.’

‘But,’ said Kate, ‘it would surely take a lot to convince us. Photons of starlight are real entities that interact with our instruments and eyes.’

Malenfant said, thinking, ‘And you’d have to simulate not just photons but such exotica as cosmic rays and neutrinos. You’re talking about some impressive engineering.’

Cornelius waved a hand, as if impatient with their ill-informed speculation. ‘These are details. If the controllers anticipate our technological progress, perhaps even now they are readying the gravity-wave generators…’

‘And what,’ asked Della, ‘if the boundary is closer in than that?’

Cornelius said, ‘There are various possibilities. Perhaps we humans are real, but some—or all—of the objects we see around us are generated as simulations, tangible enough to interact with our senses.’

‘Holograms,’ Kate said. ‘We are surrounded by holograms.’

‘Yes. But with solidity. Taste, smell…’

Malenfant frowned. ‘That’s kind of a brute-force way of doing it. You’d have to form actual material objects, all out of some kind of controlling rays. How? Think of the energy required, the control, the heat… And you’d have to load them with a large amount of information, of which only a fraction would actually interact with us to do the fooling.’

Della said, ‘And would these hologram objects be evanescent—like the images on a TV screen? In that case they would need continual refreshing—yes?’

Again Cornelius seemed impatient; this is a man not used to being questioned, Kate saw. ‘It is straightforward to think of more efficient design strategies. For example, allowing objects once created to exist as quasi-autonomous entities within the environment, only loosely coupled to the controlling mechanism. This would obviate the need, for example, to reproduce continually the substance at the centre of the Earth, with which we never interact directly. But any such compromise is a step back from perfection. With sufficient investment, you see, the controllers would have full control of the maintained environment.’

Della said, ‘What would that mean?’

Cornelius shrugged. ‘The controllers could make objects appear or disappear at will. The whole Earth, if necessary. For example.’

There was a brief silence.

Della got out of her chair and faced the window. She flexed her hands, and pressed her fingertips against the sunlit desk top, as if testing its reality. ‘You know, I find it hard to believe we’re having this conversation. Anything else?’

Cornelius said, ‘A final possibility is that even our bodies are simulated, so that the boundary of reality is drawn around our very consciousness. We can already think of crude ways of doing this.’ He nodded at Kate. ‘For example, the fashionable implants in the corpus callosum that allow the direct downloading of virtual-reality sensations into the consciousness.’

‘If that was so,’ said Della, ‘how could we ever tell?’

Cornelius shook his head. ‘If the simulation was good enough, we could not. And there would be nothing we could do about it. But I don’t think we are in that situation.’

‘How do you know?’

Because the simulation is going wrong. Alpha A-4, the evaporation of the Oort Cloud, Neptune, the vanishing of Saturn’s rings…’

Kate hadn’t heard about Saturn; she found room for a brief, and surprising, stab of regret.

‘I think,’ said Cornelius, ‘that we should assume we are in a planetarium of the second type I listed. We are “real”. But not everything around us is genuine.’

Della turned and leaned on her desk, her knuckles white. ‘Cornelius, whatever the cause, this wave of anomalies is working its way towards us. There is going to be panic; you can bet on that.’

Cornelius frowned. ‘Not until the anomalies are visible in our own sky. Most of us have remarkably limited imaginations. The advance of the anomaly wave is actually quite well understood. Its progression is logarithmic; it is slowing as it approaches the sun. We can predict to the hour when effects will become visible to Earth’s population.’ His cool gaze met the Vice President’s. ‘That is, we can predict when the panicking will begin.’

Kate asked, ‘How long?’

‘Five more days. The precise numbers have been posted.’ He smiled, cold, analytical. ‘You have time to prepare, madam Vice President. And if it is cloudy, Armageddon will no doubt be postponed by a few hours.’

Della glowered at him. ‘You’re a damn cold fish, Cornelius. If you’re right—what do you suggest we do?’

‘Do?’ The question seemed to puzzle him. ‘Why—rejoice. Rejoice that the facade is cracking, that the truth will soon be revealed.’

A phone chimed, startling them all. Malenfant looked abstractedly into the air while an insect voice buzzed in his ear.

He turned to Kate. ‘It’s Saranne. She’s gone into labour.’

The meeting broke up. Kate followed Malenfant out of the room, frustrated she hadn’t gotten to ask the most important questions of all:

What controllers?

And, what do they want?

Her own voice wafted out of the dark.

You know who’s really taking a bath over this? The astrologers. Those planets swimming around the sky are turning their fancy predictions into mush. And if this is the end of the world, how come none of them saw it coming?…

It was the fourth day after the Alpha echo had failed to return. Three days left, if Cornelius was right, until…

Until what?

‘Don’t talk about astrology,’ she whispered. ‘Tell me about reality.’

Okay. Why do we believe that the universe is real? Starting with Bishop Berkeley, the solipsists have wondered if the apparently external world is contained within the observer’s imagination—just as this virtual abyss we share is contained within the more limited imagination of a bank of computers.

‘I don’t see how you could disprove that.’

Right. But when Boswell asked Dr Johnson about the impossibility of refuting Berkeley’s theory, Johnson kicked a large rock and said, ‘I refute it thus.’ What Johnson meant was that when the rock ‘kicked back’ at his foot, he either had to formulate a theory of physical law which explained the existence and behaviour of the rock—or else assume that his imagination was itself a complex, autonomous universe containing laws which precisely simulated the existence of the rock—which would therefore, imagination plus rock, be a more complex system. You see? If we’re in a planetarium there must be some vast hidden mechanism that controls everything we see. It’s simpler to assume that what looks real is real.

‘Occam’s razor.’

Sure. But Occam’s razor is a guide, not a law of physics… And turn it around. What if the universe is a simulation? Then we can use Dr Johnson’s criterion to figure out what is required of the controllers.

‘I don’t understand.’

The model universe must have a lot of industrial-strength properties. For instance it must be consistent. Right? In principle, anybody anywhere could perform a scientific experiment of the finest detail on any sample of the universe and its contents, and find the fabric of reality yielding consistent results. The rocks have always got to ‘kick back’ in the same way, no matter where and how we kick them. So you have to build your cage that way. Expensive, right?

And the environment has to be self-contained: no explanations of anything inside should ever require the captives to postulate an outside. Kate, I bet if you had been born in this darkness you could figure out there has to be something beyond. How could your consciousness have emerged from this formless mush?

And so on. The technical challenge of achieving such a deep and consistent simulation should not be underestimated—and nor should the cost… Oh. It just reached Jupiter. Wow, what a spectacle. You want to see?

Her field of view filled up abruptly with fragmentary images, bits of cloud fractally laced, stained salmon pink.

She turned away, and the images disappeared.

Strange thought, isn’t it? What if Cornelius is right? Here you are in one virtual reality, which is in turn contained within another. Layers of nested unreality, Kate…

Kate felt a sudden revulsion. ‘Wake up, wake up.’

For long minutes she immersed herself in gritty reality: the pine scent that came from the open window of her bedroom, the song of the birds, the slow tick of the old-fashioned clock in the wall.


On impulse, she closed her eyes. ‘Wake up. Wake up.’

The clock continued to tick, the birds to sing.

Civil defence programmes were activated, Cold War bunkers reopened, food stocks laid down. Various space probes were hastily launched to meet the advancing anomaly. There was even an extraordinary crash programme to send an astronaut team to orbit the Moon, now seen as the last line of defence between Earth and sky.

Kate knew the government had to be seen doing something; that was what governments were there for.

But she knew it was all futile, and in its own way damaging. Though reassuring talking heads from the President on down tried to tell people to keep calm—and, more importantly, to keep showing up at work—there was growing disruption from the preparations themselves, if not from the strange lights in the sky, still invisible to the naked eye.

Of course it all got worse when Cornelius’s countdown timetable became widely known.

She did a little digging into the history of Cornelius Taine.

He had been an academic mathematician. She hadn’t even recognized the terms his peers used to describe Cornelius’s achievements—evidently they covered games of strategy, economic analysis, computer architecture, the shape of the universe, the distribution of prime numbers—anyhow he had been on his way, it seemed, to becoming one of the most influential minds of his generation.

But his gift seemed non-rational: he would leap to a new vision, somehow knowing its rightness instinctively, and construct laborious proofs later. Cornelius had remained solitary: he attracted awe, envy, resentment.

As he approached thirty he drove himself through a couple of years of feverish brilliance. Maybe this was because the well of mathematical genius traditionally dries up at around that age. Or maybe there was a darker explanation. It wasn’t unknown for creativity to derive from a depressive or schizoid personality. And creative capacities could be used in a defensive way, to fend off mental illness.

Maybe Cornelius was working hard in order to stay sane. If he was, it didn’t seem to have worked.

The anecdotes of Cornelius’s breakdown were fragmentary. On his last day at Princeton they found him in the canteen, slamming his head against a wall, over and over.

After that Cornelius had disappeared for two years. Emma’s data miners had been unable to trace how he spent that time. When he re-emerged, it was to become a founding board member of a consultancy called Eschatology, Inc.

She took this to Malenfant. ‘Don’t you get it? Here’s a guy who sees patterns in the universe nobody else can make out—a guy who went through a breakdown, driven crazy by the numbers in his head—a guy who now believes he can predict the end of humanity. If he came up to you in the street, what would you think of what he was muttering?’

‘I hear what you say,’ he said. ‘But—’

‘But what?’

What if it’s true? Whether Cornelius is insane or not, what if he’s right? What then?’ His eyes were alive, excited.

‘He’s gone to ground, you know,’ she said.

‘We have to find him.’

It took two more precious days.

They tracked Cornelius to New York. He agreed to meet them at the head offices of Eschatology, Inc.

Kate wasn’t sure what she had expected. Maybe a trailer home in Nevada, the walls coated with tabloid newspaper cuttings, the interior crammed with cameras and listening gear.

But this office, here in the heart of Manhattan, was none of that.

Malenfant was glaring at Cornelius. ‘You know, I have the feeling you’ve played me for a patsy through this whole damn thing. You’ve always known more than me, been one step ahead, used me to front your projects without telling me the full logic—’

Cornelius laughed at him, with a chilling arrogance. He barely sees us as human beings at all, Kate realized. He said, ‘Sore pride, Malenfant? Is that really what’s most important to you? We really are just frightened chimpanzees, bewildered by the lights in the sky—’

‘You arrogant asshole.’

Kate looked around the small, oak-panelled conference room. The three of them sat at a polished table big enough for twelve, with small inlaid softscreens. There was a smell of polished leather and clean carpets: impeccable taste, corporate lushness, anonymity. The only real sign of unusual wealth and power, in fact, was the enviable view—from a sealed, tinted window—of Central Park. She saw people strolling, children playing on the glowing green grass, the floating sparks of police drones everywhere.

The essentially ordinariness made it all the more scary, of course—today being a day when, she had learned, Mars had gone, vanishing into a blurring wave of alternate possibilities, volcanoes and water-carved canyons and life traces and all.

Kate said, ‘Malenfant’s essentially right, isn’t he? On some level you anticipated all this.’

‘How can you know that?’

‘I saw you smile. At JPL.’

Cornelius nodded. ‘You see? Simple observation, Malenfant. This girl really is brighter than you are.’

‘Get to the point, Cornelius.’

Cornelius sighed, a touch theatrically. ‘You know, the facts are there, staring everybody in the face. The logic is there. It’s just that most people are unwilling to think it through.

‘Take seriously for one minute the possibility that we are living in a planetarium, some kind of virtual-reality projection. What must it cost our invisible controllers to run? We are an inquisitive species, Malenfant. At any moment we are liable to test anything and everything to destruction. To maintain their illusion, the controllers would surely require that their simulation of every object should be perfect—that is, undistinguishable from the real thing by any conceivable physical test.’

‘No copy is perfect,’ Malenfant said briskly. ‘Quantum physics. Uncertainty. All that stuff.’

‘In fact your intuition is wrong,’ Cornelius said. ‘Quantum considerations actually show that a perfect simulation is possible—but it is energy-hungry.

‘You see, there is a limit to the amount of information which may be contained within a given volume. This limit is called the Bekenstein Bound.’ Equations scrolled across the table surface before Kate; she let them glide past her eyes. ‘The Bound is essentially a manifestation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, a reflection of the fundamental “graininess” of our reality. Because of the existence of the Bound, every physical object is a finite state machine—that is, it only requires a finite number of bits to replicate its every possible condition. Therefore a perfect simulation of any physical object can be made—perfect, meaning undistinguishable from the real thing by any conceivable physical test.’

Kate said uneasily, ‘Anything can be replicated?’

Cornelius smiled. ‘Including you, Kate. But perfect simulations are expensive. The bigger they are, the more energy they burn. And that is the chink in the controllers’ armour.’

‘It is?’

‘As human civilization has progressed, successively larger portions of reality have come within our reach. And the extent of the universe which must be simulated to high quality likewise increases: the walls around reality must be drawn successively back. Before 1969, for example, a crude mock-up of the Moon satisfying only a remote visual inspection might have sufficed; but since 1969, we can be sure that the painted Moon had to be replaced with a rocky equivalent. You see?’ He winked at Kate. ‘A conspiracy theorist might point to the very different quality of the Moon’s far side to its Earth-visible near side—mocked up in a hurry, perhaps?’

‘Oh, bullshit, Cornelius,’ Malenfant said tiredly.

Kate said, ‘You actually have numbers for all this?’

Malenfant grunted. ‘Numbers, yeah. The mathematics of paranoia.’

Cornelius, unperturbed, tapped at his desktop surface, and a succession of images, maps with overlays and graphs, flickered over its surface. ‘We can estimate the resources required to run a perfect planetarium of any given size. It’s just a question of quantum mechanics and thermodynamics.’ He flicked a smile. ‘Graduate physics. Two equations.

‘Look here. For much of its pre-agricultural history humanity consisted of small roaming bands with little knowledge, save for tentative trading links, beyond a disc on the Earth’s surface with radius of a few kilometres. To generate planetariums on such a scale would require no more than a few per cent of the energy available to a planetary-scale civilization: we could probably do it.

‘But by the time you have to fool a cohesive culture covering a hundred kilometres—that’s a lot smaller than the Roman Empire, say—the capabilities of that planetary-level civilization would be exceeded.

‘The bigger the planetarium, the harder it gets. We can characterize our modern globe-spanning civilization by the radius of Earth and a depth corresponding to our deepest mines. To generate a planetarium on such a scale would exceed even the capability of a civilization able to master the energy output of a single star.

‘A future human culture capable of direct exploration of the centre of the Earth, and able to reach comets twice as far away as Pluto, would exhaust the resources of a galaxy.

‘And if we reach the stars, we would test the resources of any conceivable planetarium…’

Kate was bewildered by the escalation of number and concept. ‘We would?’

‘Imagine a human colonization disc of radius a hundred light years, embedded in the greater disc of the Galaxy. To simulate every scrap of mass in there would exceed in energy requirements the resources of the entire visible universe. So after that point, any simulation must be less than perfect—and its existence prone to our detection. The lies must end, sooner or later. But, of course, we might not have to wait that long.’

‘Wait for what?’

‘To crash the computer.’ He grinned, cold; on some level, she saw, this was all a game to him, the whole universe as an intellectual puzzle. ‘Perhaps we can overstretch their capacity to assemble increasing resources. Rushing the fence might be the way: we could send human explorers out to far distances in all directions as rapidly as possible, pushing back the walls around an expanding shell of space. But advanced robot spacecraft, equipped with powerful sensors, might achieve the same result…’

‘Ah,’ said Kate. ‘Or maybe even active but ground-based measures. Like laser echoing. And that’s why you pushed Project Michelangelo.’

Malenfant leaned forward. ‘Cornelius—what have you done?’

Cornelius bowed his head. ‘By the logic of Fermi, I was led to the conclusion that our universe is, in whole or in part, a thing of painted walls and duck blinds. I wanted to challenge those who hide from us. The laser pulse to Centauri—a sudden scale expansion of direct contact by a factor of thousands—was the most dramatic way I could think of to drive the controllers’ processing costs through the roof. And it must have caught them by surprise—our technology is barely able enough to handle such a feat—those critics were right, Malenfant, when they criticized the project for being premature. But they did not see my true purpose.’

Kate said slowly, ‘I can’t believe your arrogance. What gave you the right—

‘To bring the sky crashing down?’ His nostrils flared. ‘What gave them the right to put us in a playpen in the first place? If we are being contained and deceived, we are in a relationship of unequals. If our controllers exist, let them show themselves and justify their actions. That was my purpose—to force them out into the open. And imagine what we might see! The fire-folk sitting in the air! / The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!… Do you know Gerard Manley Hopkins?’

Malenfant shook his head. ‘You were right, Kate. The guy is crazy.’

Cornelius studied them both. ‘To practical matters. When the anomalies are visible to all, disorder among the foolish herds will follow. Soon flights will be grounded, the freeways jammed. If you wish to leave—’

Malenfant touched Kate’s hand. ‘Where is home for you?’

She shrugged. ‘I have an apartment in LA. I don’t even know where my parents are. Either of them.’

‘It’s not a time to be alone. Go be with your mom.’

‘No.’ She was shuddering. Her involvement in all this had long passed that of a journalist attached to a story; now she was just another human being, staring bewildered at the approaching hurricane—but here she was at the eye of the storm, and something about Malenfant’s strength reassured her. ‘Let me stay. Please.’

He nodded brusquely, avoiding her eyes. ‘Cornelius, if you have nowhere else to go—’

Kate said, ‘How long?’

Cornelius shrugged. ‘The math is chancy. Twenty-four hours at best.’

It feels like half the population of the human race has downloaded.

‘Into what?’

Into anything they can find. Some folk are trying to create self-sentient copies of themselves, existing entirely within the data nets. The ultimate bunker, right?

‘I thought that is illegal.’

So what do you think the data cops are going to do about it today?

‘Anyhow it’s futile. A copy wouldn’t be you.

You tell me. There are philosophical principles about the identity of indiscernibles: if a copy really is identical right down to the quantum level, then it has to be the original… Something like that. Anyhow I doubt it’s going to be achieved in the time left.

‘I’m surprised we aren’t running out of capacity.’

There have been a few crashes. But as ends of the world go, this is an odd one, Kate. Even now it’s still just a bunch of funny lights in the sky. The sun is shining, the water supply is flowing, the power is on.

And, you know, in a way it’s an exciting time; inside here, anyhow. There’s a kind of huge technological explosion, more innovation in the last few hours than in a decade.

‘I think I should go now. I have people I’m meant to be with, physically I mean—’

Damn right you should go.


More room for me, sister.

She felt affronted. ‘What use is huddling here? This isn’t a nuclear war. It’s not even an asteroid strike. Rodent, there might be nothing left—no processors to maintain your electronic nirvana.’

So I’ll take my chance. And anyhow there’s the possibility of accelerated perception: you know, four subjective hours in the tank for one spent outside. There are rumours the Chinese have got a way to drive that ratio up to infinity—making this final day last forever—hackers are swarming like locusts over the Chinese sites. And that’s where I’m headed. Get out of here. There won’t be room for everybody.


Wake up, wake up.

Kate, with Malenfant and Cornelius, stood on Mike’s porch. Inside the house, the baby was crying.

And in the murky Houston sky, new Moons and Earths burst like silent fireworks, glowing blue or red or yellow, each lit by the light of its own out-of-view sun.

There were small Earths, wizened worlds that reminded her of Mars, with huge continents of glowering red rock. But some of them were huge, monster planets drowned in oceans that stretched from pole to pole. The Moons were different too. The smallest were just bare grey rock like Luna, but the largest were almost Earth-like, showing thick air and ice and the glint of ocean. There were even Earths with pairs of Moons, Kate saw, or triplets. One ice-bound Earth was surrounded by a glowing ring system, like Saturn’s.

Kate found it hard not to flinch; it was like being under a hail of gaudy cannonballs, as the alternate planets flickered in and out of existence in eerie, precise silence.

It was just seven days since the failed echo from Centauri.

‘I wonder what’s become of our astronauts,’ Malenfant growled. ‘Poor bastards.’

‘A great primordial collision shaped Earth and Moon,’ Cornelius murmured. ‘Everything about Earth and Moon—their axial tilt, composition, atmosphere, length of day, even Earth’s orbit around the sun—was determined by the impact. But it might have turned out differently. Small, chance changes in the geometry of the collision would have made a large difference in the outcome. Lots of possible realities, budding off from that key, apocalyptic moment…’

Malenfant said, ‘So what are we looking at? Computer simulations from the great planetarium?’

‘Phase space.’ Cornelius seemed coldly excited. ‘The phase space of a system is the set of all conceivable states of that system. We’re glimpsing phase space.’

Malenfant said, ‘Is this what we were being protected from? This—disorderliness?’

‘Maybe. As we evolved to awareness we found ourselves in a clean, logical universe, a puzzle box that might have been designed to help us figure out the underlying laws of nature, and so develop our intelligence. But it was always a mystery why the universe should be comprehensible to our small brains at all. Maybe we now know why: the whole thing was a fake, a training ground for our infant species. Now we have crashed the simulator.’

‘But,’ said Kate, ‘we aren’t yet ready for the real thing.’

‘Evidently not. Perhaps we should have trusted the controllers. They must be technologically superior. Perhaps we should assume they are morally superior also.’

‘A little late to think of that now,’ Malenfant said bitterly.

No traffic moved on the street. Everybody had gone home, or anyhow found a place to hunker down, until—

Well, until what, Kate? As she had followed this gruesome step-by-step process from the beginning, she had studiously avoided thinking about its eventual outcome: when the wave of unreality, or whatever the hell it was, came washing at last over Earth, over her. It was unimaginable—even more so than her own death. At least after her death she wouldn’t know about it; would even that be true after this?

Now there were firebursts in the sky. Human fire.

‘Nukes,’ Malenfant said softly. ‘We’re fighting back, by God. Well, what else is there to do but try? God bless America.’

Saranne snapped, ‘Come back in and close the damn door.’

The three of them filed meekly inside. Saranne, clutching her baby, stalked around the house’s big living room, pulling curtains, as if that would shut it all out. But Kate didn’t blame her; it was an understandable human impulse.

Malenfant threw a light switch. It didn’t work.

Mike came in from the kitchen. ‘No water, no power.’ He shrugged. ‘I guess that’s it.’ He moved around the room, setting candles on tables and the fire hearth; their glow was oddly comforting. The living room was littered with pails of water, cans of food. It was as if they were laying up for a snowstorm, Kate thought.

Malenfant said, ‘What about the softscreens?’

Mike said, ‘Last time I looked, all there was to see was a loop of the President’s last message. The one about playing with your children, not letting them be afraid. Try again if you want.’

Nobody had the heart.

The light that flickered around the edges of the curtains seemed to be growing more gaudy.

‘Kind of quiet,’ Mike said. ‘Without the traffic noise—’

The ground shuddered, like a quake, like a carpet being yanked from under them.

Saranne clutched her baby, laden with its useless immortality, and turned on Cornelius. ‘All this from your damn-fool stunt. Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone? We were fine as we were, without all this. You had no right—no right…’

‘Hush.’ Malenfant moved quickly to her, and put an arm around her shuddering shoulders. ‘It’s okay, honey.’ He drew her to the centre of the room and sat with her and the infant on the carpet. He beckoned to the others. ‘We should hold onto each other.’

Mike seized on this eagerly. ‘Yes. Maybe what you touch stays real—you think?’

They sat in a loose ring. Kate found herself between Malenfant and Saranne. Saranne’s hand was moist, Malenfant’s as dry as a bone: that astronaut training, she supposed.

‘Seven days,’ Malenfant said. ‘Seven days to unmake the world. Kind of Biblical.’

‘A pleasing symmetry,’ Cornelius said. His voice cracked.

The candles blew out, all at once. The light beyond the curtains was growing brighter, shifting quickly, slithering like oil.

The baby stopped crying.

‘Hold my hand, Malenfant,’ Kate whispered.

‘It’s okay—’

‘Just hold my hand.’

She felt a deep, sharp stab of regret. Not just for herself, but for mankind. She couldn’t believe this was the end of humanity: you wouldn’t exterminate the occupants of a zoo as punishment for poking a hole in the fence.

But this was surely the end of the world she had known. The play was over, the actors removing their make-up, the stage set collapsing—and human history was ending.

I guess we’ll never know how we would have turned out, she thought.

Now the peculiar daylight shone through the fabric of the walls, as if they were wearing thin.

‘Oh, shit,’ Mike said. He reached for Saranne.

Cornelius folded over on himself, rocking, thumb in mouth.

Malenfant said, ‘What’s wrong? Isn’t this what you wanted?…’

The wall dissolved. Pale, disorderly light spilled over them.

Kate watched the baby’s face. His new eyes huge, Michael seemed to be smiling.

Spindrift | Phase Space | The Twelfth Album