by Christopher McKitterick






If the shell is broken too soon, there is nothing to be done but make a bad omelette. But if it isn't broken at the proper time, the chick dies and stinks.

� H.G. Wells


We have reached the end of this brief music that is Man.

� Olaf Stapledon


There is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice.�All else is only the barrier of your blindness.�One day we'll all be mind to mind and heart to heart.

� Alfred Bester


There is nothing safe in this world.
And there's nothing sure in this world,
and there's nothing pure in this world,
and if there's something left in this world...
start again!

� Billy Idol



ONE: Outerlimits

Triton 1: Liu Miru

A tenuous breeze hissed across Liu Miru�s suit as he crossed a ridge of nitrogen ice. Neptune filled the sky, lighting Miru�s path about as brightly as, though shades bluer than, the full Moon on Earth. Thoughts of Earth reminded him that somewhere in the recesses of space, not far away now, an invading warship from that world blazed nearer. Why now? Why here? Of all times and places, why start a war here and now when we are so close to . . . to discovering something great. He almost laughed, but he knew to do so would reduce him to tears of frustration.

This was seventy-two hours before the end of the human race as he knew it.

Miru paused to look up. He could see no metal sliver slicing the black of space, no hot exhaust, nothing unusual. He continued walking.

Miru knew he might be dead in hours. That did not slow his pace; rather, he hurried, dedicated. He hoped the knowledge he gathered could divert the brewing war that would, he was certain, consume all the worlds of the Solar System.

He thought only of the object. Triton was a largely worthless world that had revealed most of its secrets long before he arrived. But Project Hikosen gave him purpose. When he first saw the object�which he was careful not to call "alien" to anyone but himself�it had seemed that he�d awakened from a long sleep.

Miru�s first months of exertion building Jiru City were joyous. He had almost forgotten the passions of his youth when the Project had re-aroused them. In retrospect, the interim seemed like sleep.

Soon, the tractor-worn path turned off the ridge. Miru stopped for a moment and looked to the foreshortened horizon across pockmarked terrain, the peculiar "grapefruit" texture of Triton�s Eastern Hemisphere, methane and nitrogen ice encrusting the rock. He drew a deep breath and turned toward the shallow excavation. Unmarked, it looked like nothing more than a test dig. He smiled at the irony. Things are not always as they appear, he thought, recalling the words of a childhood tutor.

Miru�s heart rate increased as he climbed down a gleaming staircase melted from the ice. As he descended the few meters into the pit, the wind quieted and the walls constricted the dome of stars overhead. His breathing seemed to grow louder within his helmet.

He reached the bottom of the excavation and stared at the object. Silence ruled down here, except for the mechanical sounds of his breathing apparatus and the crunch of ice crystals beneath his boots. With his headlamp off, the pit was lit by stars and a blue glow cast from the orb of Neptune.

Miru laid his gloved palm against the nitrogen and methane frost that glazed the sphere�s surface, black beneath a wispy pink icing. He switched off his suit�s comm system, which ordinarily transmitted full 3D-virtual-reality information about his surroundings to his brain implants. Now he could observe with naked eyes. Such disconnection from the cybernetic world was rare in this day of perpetual uplink. However, Miru often found it useful to compare naked-eye observations to those taken with cybernetic enhancement.

With this data-feed turned off, the simple geometric shape suddenly transformed into a walled temple, and it was as if he stood on the surface of another world. The horizons wore an amalgam of colors like clouds of different liquids, mixing and swirling. This was not unlike the kind of overlay or annotated reality that so many people used to edit their view of the world around them, but was instead some as-yet unmeasurable effect on his brain.

A grin of curiosity and expectation briefly touched his lips, as during previous visits. He was a child again, exploring places where he liked to pretend that no man had gone before. Except now it was true.

A wall, invisible to all but those who observed with unaided eyes, stretched out around him. It was smooth, black, three meters high, curving away in both directions so that it seemingly encompassed a space about 100 meters in diameter. Miru began recording a narrative of what he saw, subvocalizing because it seemed disrespectful to speak aloud in the vicinity of such a find. Besides, this narrative was the only way to record his observations, because recording equipment didn�t respond to the object in the same way a naked mind did. Experiments had proven that what he observed, he saw with his mind, not any of his physical senses.

At the center of what must have been a courtyard hidden behind the walls, stood the temple itself. It was an exact replica of the Great Temple of Mahabodhi, what his parents had called the ancient Buddhists� most sacred shrine. Miru remembered the day his parents took him on a 3VRD trip to this very temple. Though he had promised to return intheflesh some day, he never had. He wondered if they were secretly Buddhists, but that didn�t matter now.

An elongated pyramid with nearly vertical walls, the temple thrust what appeared to be 40 meters toward space. It was intricately carved with human statues in various postures he couldn�t identify from this distance. A conical structure rose from the truncated top. At the base stood a square foundation perhaps ten meters high, and miniature models of the temple rose at each of its corners. Below that, he couldn�t see, for the wall blocked his view.

He began to walk along the wall, resuming the search for an entrance. As he walked, his glove brushed what seemed to be an impassable barrier around the temple. He could not climb over, because the wall was as slick as the object itself�Perhaps it was the object, he subvocalized, and this barrier a representation of its impenetrable surface�and the ladder he had used last Tritonday was as functionless as the sensing instruments he and others brought to bear on the physical sphere; the wall simply grew taller with each step Miru took up the ladder. If he hadn�t pursued the impulse to shut down his headcard cybernetics during the investigation two days prior, this temple would still have been shrouded by the opaque barrier of ignorance.

He switched back on his headcard and external feed, then looked up. The temple vanished and the pit walls closed tight around him, now ammonia- and methane-ice rather than a distant, indefinite roiling of colors.

Miru decided that this would be the day he went inside, if an entrance existed.

Four meters overhead, an electromagnetic screen camouflaged the ten-meter-wide excavation. TritonCo, the corporation that owned Triton, was hiding this find from everyone until they knew more. President Dorei had stated that here lay TritonCo�s future. Triton might become the space for parley between the mega-corporations: EarthCo, composed of Earth�s Western nations such as the US, most of the EU, India, and Japan, plus a few small worlds such as Mars; and NKK, which encompassed almost all the other Asian, Middle-Eastern, and Pacific nations, as well as a few worlds such as Neptune. They seemed always at war, these corporations that owned their component countries, but expanding that perpetual war was lately gaining favor among the corporations� franchised, voting citizens.

So, even though Miru felt that telling everyone about the object could change their sentiment, his friend Jon Pang had pressed for secrecy.

"I know humanity too well," Pang had stated. His hard look explained what he meant. "We can inform the major corporations when the time is ripe and we are prepared."

Miru tried to forget his friend�s misgivings, concentrating on the potential for good in his fellow humans. But he understood Pang�s fear.

Twice they had talked significantly about their years on Earth. They had spoken of the pain inflicted by others, the loneliness inflicted by lack of others, and the odd coincidence of both at certain moments. During these talks, each had nearly lost his composure. Then they spoke no more of childhood fears and concerns. On Triton, they were safe. They were free to become men. Here they could pursue pure research without threat of war�something not true on Earth or the other inner planets.

That had changed with the coming of the Westerners aboard their EarthCo warship. Miru cleared his mind of those conversations and concentrated on his work.

The object�s dome rose nearly to the surface where the mine-test furrow had been cut. The channeler�s spade had sparked and bent its teeth; two hours later, Miru had been designated Project Director for studying the object. He looked down at his cleated boots.

Miru had left the object�s bottom half buried. Instruments declared it completely symmetrical: a perfect sphere, three meters in diameter, seemingly even in density�but no instrument could report its mass. Meaningful measurements had to be taken by hand, externally, without feed data. No one in Jiru City had training in such methods�nor did they wish to be isolated from feed by shutting down their cybernetics�except Miru, who had studied archaic methods of scientific research: that is, using his bare eyes and mind.

"Brother Liu!" Miru�s helmet earphone blared with the voice of Jon Pang. Accompanying the sound, a 3VRD of Pang spliced into view directly before Miru. Pang�s image looked absurd wearing coveralls in the near-vacuum, seeming to stand in the pit with Miru. Miru thought little of this: Such was how people communicated in the Virtual Age.

Miru pulled back his hand, self-conscious about his childlike wonder. He wished he hadn�t switched his headcard back on, even for a moment. A black handprint remained where his glove had rested against the sphere, trailing a dark smear where it had slid.

"You seem upset. What is it?" Miru asked his colleague�s 3VRD. The words sounded muffled and close in his bell-shaped ultraglas helmet.

"Brother Liu!" Pang said. "Computer projections show that the EarthCo warcraft�perhaps you remember it?�has altered trajectory and approaches Triton. You must return or seek shelter."

"Don�t be absurd," Miru responded. "Why would EarthCo attack TritonCo? Hasn�t Dorei contacted Neptunekaisha Protection?" He referred to the security force of the planet they orbited, Neptune. Neptune boasted a sovereign corporation of its own, though it retained heavy ties to NKK and was probably owned by the megacorp.

"He has, brother. They sent the warning. Coordinator Chang of Neptunekaisha Protection verified the report."

Miru stiffened. "She must be mistaken. We have nothing of value to EarthCo here."

"We have the object," Pang whispered, as if anyone with sufficiently advanced anti-cryptography who was eavesdropping on their bandwidth could not hear. "Anyway, Protection says this warcraft has gone renegade. Those aren�t regular cosmonauts. They�re insane."

"I see," muttered Miru, watching pink crystals drift down from the rough-cut pit walls onto his boots as wind swirled in from above.

Insane, yes; that is the problem with humans, Miru thought. He knew from experience. He glanced at the object, his brow wrinkling. Then he relaxed.

"At least we don�t have to worry about this," he said, again resting his hand on the sphere. Not even accelerator drills had grazed it; any particle or energy they directed at its surface was deflected with no apparent effect. Various craters and melts in the pit�s dirty-ice walls testified to these attempts.

"Liu," said Pang, shaking his head, long dark hair swaying from side to side, "try to think about something beyond the object for once. Think about this: Our Jiru City is not quite as sturdy as the object. Hmmm?"

Miru thought about it.

"Barbarians," Miru said. "TritonCo is the only corp interested in funding our research here. If Jiru City is destroyed, NKK will likely abandon TritonCo . . . and stop funding our project. TritonCo itself has no money. We�"

"Liu!" the other shouted, shaking a fist. "What do you suppose will happen to us if that warcraft blasts through Neptunekaisha�s defenses? It devastated NKK�s defenses on Phobos."

Miru shrank back a step, unnerved by this display of emotion in Pang. Then the implications of the man�s words soaked through:

"If we die, no one will continue our work," he said.

Pang sighed, his fists relaxing and falling to his sides.

"You need to find shelter before it arrives, in an estimated twenty minutes," Pang said. His image slowly shook its head and vanished.

Miru drew a deep breath, cleared his mind, then turned his attention back to the object. He wondered if perhaps this was more than merely a ball of starstuff created by alien hands�this was wild speculation for a man such as Miru. Perhaps it was an alien lifeform, itself. Where would such a thing have evolved? Not on Triton . . . or maybe so. This world was one of the few active satellites in the Solar System, bristling with volcanic and geologic activity, and Neptune provided plenty of energy.

He flicked off his headcard and watched the temple re-emerge, pointing to the stars: a schizophrenic monument to humanity�s past, a surreal gem set into the near-absolute-zero ice of a place as far from Earth as the race had settled.

And now Miru, burning with the anger and frustration he had learned in his childhood aboard Ryukyu Floating Island on Earth, felt a surge of happiness. Happiness, why? he wondered. Yet, even as he asked himself, the answer crystallized.

This moment was the pinnacle of his life. Every moment leading up to now, every person�friend or otherwise�every action he had taken, and every piece of data he had studied . . . all this led to now, to this place, to this gleaming crystal in time.

He smiled to himself, watching colored snowflakes drift down around him into shadows at his feet. He felt more than happy. He had earned this place, this moment, yes, but he had also been given the gift of being aware he was happy. He had walked beyond happiness into the pure emotional world of joy. Even fear of death did not diminish his joy; indeed, that fear spurred him. He possessed something more powerful than fear of death or war. He stood at the gate of a great discovery, was about to open the door to knowledge, joyous knowledge that promised . . . who knows? And that was the point of his work after all, the point of all scientific inquiry.

"It�s time we told everyone in the Solar System about you," he told the temple�s gleaming walls, patting the hard surface. This time, he disarmed the overhead electromagnetic shield and threw open his suit�s transmitter. He hoped President Dorei wouldn�t block retransmission of the stream of data he began to narrate for anyone who happened to be listening.

Miru thought of the approaching warship.

He might die. But we all die, he thought. Better to die at life�s summit with a panoramic view of one�s existence than at its pain-bouldered basin. He would die, if necessary, spreading knowledge . . . and hope.

He again set off in search of an entrance.