The Eternal Flame

by Greg Egan

B B   A A A A A

This is an excerpt from the novel The Eternal Flame by Greg Egan, first published in the United Kingdom by Orion/Gollancz and in the United States of America by Night Shade Books. Copyright © Greg Egan, 2012. All rights reserved.

Publication history


“Carlo! I need your help!”

Carlo opened his rear eyes to see his friend Silvano halfway down the ladder that led into the workshop. From the tone of his words this was not a casual request.

“What is it?” Carlo turned away from the microscope. A bright after-image of the fragment of wheat petal he’d been examining hovered for a moment against the soft red light from the walls.

Silvano halted his descent. “I need you to kill two of my children,” he said. “I can’t do it myself. I’m not that strong.”

Carlo struggled to make sense of these words. He had seen his friend’s co just a few days before, and she’d been as emaciated as any woman on the Peerless.

“How could there be four?” he asked, not wanting to believe that there were any, that Silvana had given birth at all. As far as he knew she’d still been studying, and if the event had been planned they’d never mentioned it to him. Maybe this request was some kind of sick prank. He’d drag himself all the way to their apartment and there Silvana would be, whole as ever.

“I don’t know,” Silvano replied. He offered no why-would-you-doubt-me bluster, no theories about the reason for the calamity – none of the adornments that it would be tempting to add to bolster a fabrication. Carlo scrutinised his face as well as he could in the moss-light, and lost hope of any kind of deception.

He extinguished the microscope’s lamp, then pulled himself away from the bench and moved quickly around the workshop, two hands on the guide ropes as he gathered the drugs and equipment he’d need. He knew exactly what doses would euthanise a vole or a shrew by body mass, and it didn’t take much calculating to extrapolate from that. He wasn’t committed to any course of action, but if he ended up doing what Silvano had asked of him any delay would only make it harder.

Carlo grabbed a small box to hold the paraphernalia and moved towards the ladder, packing as he went. Silvano ascended quickly ahead of him. It was only when they were travelling side by side down the corridor, their ropes emitting the same forlorn twang, that Carlo dared to start searching for a way out.

“Are you sure no one’s offering an entitlement?” he asked. It was a desperately slim chance, but they could detour to the relay station and check.

“I spent the last three stints looking,” Silvano replied. “No one’s selling at any price.”

A small group of people had entered the corridor behind them; their voices echoed off the gently curved walls. Carlo increased his pace, then asked quietly, “So you were planning to have children?”

“No! I just wanted to find a way for Silvana to stop starving herself.”

“Oh.” Everyone craved the same kind of ease, but to put too much hope in such a slender prospect was asking for disappointment.

“Her studies were becoming harder and harder,” Silvano continued. “She couldn’t concentrate at all. I thought it would be worth it, just to let her stop worrying and eat normally. An extra entitlement wouldn’t have committed us to anything, and I could have resold it if we’d ended up not needing it.”

“So why didn’t you wait?” Carlo demanded angrily. “How many people did you expect to die in three stints?”

Silvano began humming and shivering. “She couldn’t take the hunger any more. She kept saying, ‘Let’s do it now, and at least my daughter will have a few years before it’s her turn to suffer.’”

Carlo didn’t reply. It was hard enough watching someone you loved tormented by the need to convince her body that it was living in a time of famine, but to learn now that all of this self-deprivation had been to no avail was cruel beyond belief.

They reached the ladder leading inwards to the apartments. Carlo forced himself to continue. A generation ago, anyone in his place would have offered to forego a twelfth of their own entitlement to help out their friend, and with enough contributors the extra mouths would have been fed. That was what his parents had done. But the crop yields hadn’t risen since, and he wasn’t prepared to diminish his family’s share any further, forcing his own descendants into an even more precarious state. As for the chance of Silvano finding a dozen such benefactors, it was non-existent.

At the top of the ladder it was Silvano who hung back. Carlo said, “You stay here. I’ll come and get you.” He started down the corridor.

Silvano said, “Wait.”

Carlo halted, fearful without quite knowing what he dreaded. What could make this worse? Some complicated directive on how he should choose which pair should survive?

“You don’t think you and Carla might . . . ?” Silvano began haltingly.

“You left that too late,” Carlo said. He spoke gently, but he made sure not to offer his friend the slightest hope.

“Yes,” Silvano agreed wretchedly.

Carlo said, “I won’t be long.”

The corridor was empty as he approached the apartment, but the fixed gaze of the same three faces kept repeating as he dragged himself past a long row of election posters, all bearing the slogan MAKE THE ANCESTORS PROUD. The fact that he was still in Silvano’s sight made hesitation unthinkable: he pushed the curtains aside and followed the guide ropes in. There were no lamps burning, but even by moss-light Carlo could see at a glance that the front room was deserted. Silvana’s notebooks were stacked neatly in a cabinet. He felt a pang of grief and anger, but this wasn’t the time to indulge it. He made his way into the bedroom.

Silvano had left the children encased in a tarpaulin that was tethered to two of the ropes that crossed the room. Carlo couldn’t help imagining the couple themselves inside the same enclosure, steadying their bodies for the bitter-sweet end. He had never had the courage to ask any of his older friends – let alone his father – what they believed had passed through their co’s mind in those final moments, what comfort the women took from the knowledge that they were creating new lives. But at least Silvana would have had no way of knowing that nature in its capriciousness was about to deliver twice the consolation she’d been expecting.

Carlo dragged himself closer to the bundle. He could see movement, but mercifully there was still no sound. The tarpaulin had been rolled into a rough cylinder, with the cord that threaded through the holes along two of the sides pulled tight to close the ends. He unknotted the cord at one end and began loosening it, his hands trembling as he felt the infants respond to the disturbance. Part of his mind skidded away from the task, conjuring fantasies of a different remedy. What if he could call on, not a dozen friends, but the entire crew? When a woman scourged her body with hunger to protect the Peerless, surely they all owed her children a simple act of decency – whether they were close to her family or not. A few crumbs less in so many meals wouldn’t be missed.

But he was deluding himself. Sharing the load among strangers wouldn’t diminish it: when the pleas started coming from every corner of the mountain – once every stint, not once in a lifetime – all those lesser demands would still add up the same way. In the long run nothing mattered but the size of the harvest and the number of mouths to be fed. If the rations were spread any thinner one bad harvest could see the entitlements torn up – and a war over the crops would leave no survivors.

One end of the tarpaulin was open now. Carlo peered into the gloom of the tunnel, then reached in and took the nearest infant in his hands. She was a tiny limbless thing, her eyes still closed, her mouth gaping for food. Her tympanum fluttered, but the membranes were not yet stiff enough to make a sound.

The child squirmed in his grip. Carlo emitted a series of soothing chirps, but they had no effect. This girl knew that he was not her father, not the one who had promised to protect her. He reached down and placed her on the bed below, where a second tarpaulin covered the sand.

The next one he extracted was her sister, not her co. Both were distressingly undersized, but both appeared equally healthy. Carlo had been clinging to the hope that with so little maternal flesh to go around one of the pairs would have died of natural causes already, or failing that a stark asymmetry in their prospects might have spared him any need to make the choice himself.

He placed the second girl on the bed; her sister was already drifting, her wriggling launching her up from the tarp. “Stay there,” Carlo entreated them both, pointlessly.

Some instinct had driven their brothers to retreat into the dark depths of the birth tent; Carlo pulled the cord out completely at his end and opened up the whole thing to the moss-light. Against the spread of the gaily patterned cloth the boys looked impossibly diminutive and fragile, and they chose this moment to become audible, humming plaintively for their father. Carlo wished he’d sent Silvano further away. If these children had been his own, this was the point when he might have lost his mind and tried to kill the man he’d sent to halve their number.

This was wrong, it was insane, it was unforgivable. If he reneged now, what would happen? A few of Silvano’s friends would take pity on him, and help keep the family of five from starving. But once those friends had children of their own, the cost of their charity would grow much steeper – and once Silvano’s children had children, the situation would be impossible. Unless Carlo was willing to declare to his co: “These two belong to us now, to raise as our own. You’d better stuff yourself with holin, because in my weakness this is what I’ve done to you: your flesh that was made for the ages will perish now, just like mine.”

Carlo dragged himself along the rope and snatched the nearest of the boys. The child writhed and hummed; Carlo spread his hand wide to deaden the boy’s tympanum. “Which one is your co?” he muttered angrily. He grabbed the side of the bed and pulled himself down. Co recognised co from the earliest age, and their fathers could always see the link, but how was a stranger who hadn’t witnessed the fission itself meant to be certain?

He held the boy beside each female sibling in turn. Carlo was humming now himself, though not as loudly as the unrestrained brother. He tried to picture all four bodies still in contact, before the partitions softened into skin and split apart: first the primary one dividing the pairs, then the secondary ones dividing co from co. He’d watched the whole process often enough in animals. With a free hand he prodded the underside of the boy’s torso, the place where he would have been connected to his co more recently than he’d been joined side by side with his brother. Just beneath the skin there was a patch of unusual rigidity, flat but irregularly shaped. Carlo probed the same spot on one of the girls. Nothing. He checked her sister, and found the mirror image of the boy’s fragment of the partition.

He hesitated, crouched above the bed, still trying to imagine how this could have ended differently. What if the four friends had made a pact, long ago, to feed each others’ children and forgo their own, if it ever came to that? Was that the stark, simple answer that they’d all failed to see – or would the promise of security have poisoned them against each other, leaving them afraid that it would be exploited? Carla had never starved herself quite as diligently as Silvana, so what kind of life would she have had if she’d been endlessly harangued by a woman with every reason to urge her to show more restraint?

Carlo scooped up the chosen boy’s co and pulled himself along the rope into the front room, a child clutched awkwardly in each free hand. From the box he took two clearstone vials and a syringe. He extruded an extra pair of arms, uncapped the first vial and filled the syringe with its orange powder. When he held the sharp mirrorstone tip to the base of the boy’s skull he felt his own body start shuddering in revulsion, but he stared down his urge to take the child in his arms and soothe him, to promise him as much love and protection as he would lavish on any child of his own. He pushed the needle into the skin and searched for the angle that would take it between two plates of bone – he knew the invariant anatomy here was not that different from a vole’s – but then the tip suddenly plunged deeper without the drop in resistance he’d been expecting upon finding the narrow corridor of flesh. The child’s skull wasn’t fully ossified, and his probing had forced the needle right through it.

Carlo turned the boy to face him then squeezed the plunger on the syringe. The child’s eyes snapped open, but they were sightless, rolling erratically, with flashes of yellow light diffusing all the way through the orbs. The drug itself could only reach a small region of the brain, but those parts it touched were emitting a barrage of meaningless signals that elicited an equally frenzied response much farther afield. Soon the tissue’s capacity to make light would be depleted throughout the whole organ. In this state, Carlo believed, there could be no capacity for thought or sensation.

When the boy’s eyes were still Carlo withdrew the needle. His co’s tympanum had been fluttering for a while, and now her humming grew audible. “I’m sorry,” Carlo whispered. “I’m sorry.” He stroked the side of her body with his thumb, but it only made her more agitated. He refilled the syringe with the orange powder, quickly drove the needle through the back of her skull, and watched the light of her nascent mind blaze like a wildfire, then die away.

Carlo released the limp children and let them drift towards the floor while he resorbed the arms he’d used to hold them. His whole body felt weak and battered. He spent a few pauses steadying himself, then he pushed out two fresh arms and filled the syringe from the second vial. When a speck of the blue powder spilled onto his palm the sensation was like passing his hand above a flame. He gathered the damaged patch of skin into a small clump then hardened the tips of two of his fingers and sliced it off.

He picked up the boy. A world away, his brother was still calling out for help. Carlo reinserted the needle and forced himself to take his time delivering the poison lest it burst from the wound and escape into the room. The boy’s eyes had already been dull, but now the smooth white skin of the orbs began to turn purplish grey.

When the plunger could be driven no further, Carlo withdrew the needle carefully and set the dead boy down beside the cabinet. He refilled the syringe and turned to the boy’s co. When he gripped her a spasm passed through her body; he waited to see if there was any more activity, but she remained still. He slid the needle into her brain and sent the blue powder trickling through.

Carlo returned to the inner room. He set the boy he’d spared down on the bed beside his co, then unknotted the end of the tarpaulin that had remained attached to the guide rope. In the front room he brought the bodies together, positioning them as they would have been before they’d separated, and rolled them into the tarpaulin. He folded the empty parts of the cloth together and secured the shroud with cord. Then he packed the syringe and vials back into the box he’d used to bring them.

As he approached Silvano in the corridor, his friend’s whole body contorted with anguish. “Let me see them!” he begged Carlo.

“Go and tend to your children,” Carlo replied. A woman was approaching them – one of Silvano’s neighbours on her way home – but then she saw what Carlo was holding and she retreated without a word.

“What have I done?” Silvano wailed. “What have I done?” Carlo pushed past him and moved quickly down the corridor, but he waited by the ladder until Silvano finally entered the apartment. Comforting the surviving children – holding them, feeding them, letting them know that they were safe – was the only thing that could help him now.

Carlo descended past the level of his workshop, past the test fields where the seedlings he was studying grew, past the shuddering machinery of the cooling pumps, until he reached the base of the ladder. He dragged himself along the outer corridor, picturing the void beneath the rock.

A man was emerging from the airlock as Carlo approached. He removed his helmet and glanced at the tarpaulin, then averted his eyes. Carlo recognised him: he was a miller named Rino.

“There’s no greater waste of time than the fire watch,” Rino carped, climbing out of his cooling bag. “I’ve lost count of how many shifts I’ve done, and I still haven’t seen so much as a flash.”

Carlo placed the children’s bodies on the floor and Rino helped him fit into a six-limbed cooling bag. Carlo hadn’t been outside for years; agronomy was considered important enough to keep him off the roster entirely.

Rino snapped a fresh canister of air into place and checked that it was flowing smoothly over Carlo’s skin.


Carlo said, “I won’t be out that long.”

“You want a safety harness?”


Rino took one from a peg on the wall and handed it to him. Carlo slipped it over his torso and cinched it tight.

“Be careful, brother,” Rino said. There was no hint of irony in his form of address, but Carlo had always found it grimly inane that the friendliest appellation some people could offer was a death sentence.

He carried the bodies into the airlock with him, slid the door closed and started laboriously pumping down the pressure. A loose edge of the shroud flapped in the surge of air across the confined space as he delivered each stroke. He unreeled a suitable length of the safety rope, engaged the brake on the reel and hooked the rope into his harness. Then he crouched down, braced himself against the outrush of residual air and pulled open the hatch in the floor.

A short stone ladder rising up beside the hatch made the descent onto the external rope ladder easier. Carlo used four hands on the rungs and held the children in the other two. As his head passed below the hatch the trails of the old stars were suddenly right in front of him – long, garish streaks of colour gouged out of the sky – while behind him the orthogonal stars were almost point-like. He glanced down and saw the fire-watch platform silhouetted against the transition circle, where the old stars blazed brightest before their light cut out.

Carlo descended until he felt the safety rope grow taut. He clung to the children, unsure what he should say before releasing them. This boy should have lived for three dozen years, and died with children of his own to mourn him. This girl should have survived in those children, her flesh outliving every man’s. What was life, if that pattern was broken? What was life, when a father had to plead for an assassin to murder half his family, just to save the rest from starvation?

So who had failed them? Not their mother, that was sure. The idiot ancestors who squatted on the home world, waiting to be rescued from their own problems? The three generations of agronomists who had barely increased the yield from the crops? But then, what good would it do if the fourth generation triumphed? If he and his colleagues found a way to raise the yield, that would bring a brief respite. But it would also bring more four-child families, and in time the population would rise again until all the same problems returned.

What miracle could put an end to hunger and infanticide? However many solos and widows chose to go the way of men, most women would rather starve themselves in the hope of having only one daughter than contemplate a regime where for every two sisters, one would be compelled to die childless.

And if he was honest, it was not just down to the women. Even if Carla, given her say, had proved willing, he would not have been prepared to throw away his chance of fatherhood to raise these children as his own.

“Forgive us,” Carlo pleaded. He stared down at the lifeless bundle. “Forgive us all. We’ve lost our way.”

He let the children slip from his arms, and watched the shroud descend into the void.


Straining against the harness that held her to the observation bench, Tamara cranked the azimuth wheel of the telescope mount. Each laborious turn of the handle beside her nudged the huge contraption by just one arc-chime, and though she still had strength to spare there was nothing to be gained from it: a governor limited the speed of rotation to prevent excessive torques that might damage the gears. The soft, steady clicking of the wheel, usually a reassuring, meditative sound, drove home the machine’s serene indifference to her impatience.

When the telescope was finally pointed in the direction of her last sighting of the Object, she lay flat on the bench and wriggled into place beneath the eyepiece. As she brought the image into focus she was granted as glorious a vision as she could have hoped for: there was nothing to be seen here but the usual mundane star trails.

The trails were exactly as Tamara remembered them, so she knew that she hadn’t mis-set the coordinates. Twice now, the Object had escaped the field of view that had framed it just one day earlier. Such elusiveness proved that it was crossing the sky faster than anything she’d seen before.

Tamara turned the secondary azimuth wheel until she was rewarded with a small grey smudge of light at the top of the field, then she adjusted the altitude to centre it. To the limits of the telescope’s resolving power, the Object was simply a point. Nothing in the cosmos was close enough to the Peerless to reveal its width, but even those orthogonal stars that had remained fixed in the sky for three generations showed colour trails at this magnification. To possess a point-like image the Object had to be moving slowly – but the only way a slow-moving body could cross the sky as rapidly as this was by virtue of its proximity.

She ran her fingertips over the embossed coordinate wheels, recorded the numbers on her chest, then computed the angle between the Object’s last two bearings. Symbols blossomed on her forearm as she worked through the calculation. In both of the intervals between sightings the grey smudge had moved about two arc-pauses – but the second shift was slightly greater than the first. The true speed of the Object was unlikely to have changed, so its quickening progress against the background of stars could only mean that it had already moved measurably closer.

The change was far too small to yield accurate predictions, but Tamara couldn’t resist working through some crude estimates. Within a period perhaps as short as four stints – or perhaps as long as five dozen – the Object would make its closest approach to the Peerless. Just how close that would be was impossible to say without knowing how fast the thing was moving through the void, but the lack of a discernible colour trail put a ceiling on its speed. The upshot was that the Object would pass by at a distance of, at most, nine gross severances. In astronomical terms that was positively propinquitous: about a twelfth the distance of the home world from its star. No living traveller among them had ever been so close to another solid body.

Possible trajectories for the Object

Tamara resisted the urge to bolt from the observatory and start spreading the news; the protocols dictated that she should complete her shift in the face of anything less than an imminent collision. But it would not be wasted time; the Object could easily be accompanied by fellow travellers, fragments from the same parent body with similar trajectories. So she duly worked her way across her allotted segment of the sky, hunting for another speck of light or a dark silhouette against a star’s band of colours. Field after field was unblemished, as usual, but whenever the tedium of the search reached the point where her thoughts began to stray to the emptiness in her gut, she turned her mind back to the Object itself and savoured again the thrill of discovery.

When she’d done her duty – with no further revelations – Tamara slipped out of the harness and pushed herself through the hatch at the base of the observatory. She drifted across the gap that separated the telescope’s stabilised mount from the imperceptibly spinning rock below, and her momentum carried her into the entrance tunnel, returning her to the Peerless proper. She grabbed a guide rope and dragged herself along to the office. Roberto was there, ready to start his own shift, while Ada was studying for an assessment, poring over a tattered set of notes on the art of navigational astrometry.

“I do believe we should expect company!” Tamara announced. She gave her fellow observers the three data points and waited while they made their own calculations.

“It does look close,” Roberto confirmed.

“How bright is it?” Ada asked.

“Five,” Tamara said.

“And you’ve only just seen it?”

“You know what it’s like, trying to spot things close to the horizon.”

To Tamara, they both sounded a shade resentful. She knew there’d been no special skill in what she’d done, and her luck would attract no great esteem. But what lay ahead now was open to everyone: the chance to observe a body of orthogonal matter in unprecedented detail.

“I wish we had some way to pin down the distance,” Roberto lamented.

“Do I detect a hint of parallax envy?” Tamara joked. On the home world, astronomers had had it easy: wait half a day and your viewpoint moved by the planet’s width; wait half a year and that became the width of the orbit. Once those baselines had been measured, the shifting angles they created had been revelatory. But whether you imagined it was the Peerless itself that was moving day by day, or the Object, without knowing the relative velocity to fix the baseline between successive views the most you could glean from the angles alone was the timing of the encounter, not the distance.

Roberto hummed with frustration. “This thing might come close enough for us to resolve its shape – and maybe even structural features, impact craters . . . who knows? Think how much more valuable all that would be if we knew their scale!”

Ada said, “It sounds like the perfect job for an infrared colour trail.”

“What kind of gratitude is this?” Tamara demanded. “I bring my two friends the find of a lifetime, and all I get are fantasies about how things could be better!”

Ada was indignant. “What fantasy? I’m serious! The chemists have never made infrared a priority before, because they’ve never had a good enough reason.”

Chemicals sensitive to ultraviolet light had been known since before the launch, but no one had managed to achieve the same feat at the infrared end of the spectrum. Imaging a slow-moving object’s colour trail in ultraviolet wasn’t all that helpful; even infinitely fast UV would lie closer to violet in the trail than violet was to red. But an infrared trail could stretch out to many times the length of the visible portion.

“And this will count as a good reason?” Roberto was amused. “The last time I asked for a favour from the chemists, I was told to wait until they’d solved the fuel problem.”

Ada said, “Maybe we can find a chemist who’s itching for a break. If you’ve spent half your life bashing your head against the same old problem, why not try something easier?”

“No, they all want the glory too badly for that,” Roberto declared. “Who’s going to waste their time inventing infrared-sensitive paper when they might be on the verge of inventing a way home?”

Tamara tried to put herself inside a chemist’s skin. The Peerless's reserves of sunstone, burnt in the usual manner, would barely be enough to bring the mountain to a halt, let alone carry their descendants back to the home world. She’d understood that unsettling fact since childhood, but to someone who’d made the fuel problem their vocation what interest could there be in the astronomers’ petty concerns? The orthogonal cluster and the debris that surrounded it were just obstacles to be avoided, and while gathering statistics on the distribution of this hazard was a worthwhile activity, it wouldn’t take an infrared colour trail to recognise a head-on collision.

Then again, surely every chemist was at least a little curious as to how the sprinkling of orthogonal dust that had adhered to the surface of the Peerless had threatened to set the rock on fire, in the days before spin. Tamara wondered if she could sell them on the notion that establishing the size of any craters on the Object might shed light on that mysterious reaction. The trouble was, any ordinary rock that had struck the Object would have done so at such a great speed that the most likely result would have been, not a crater, but an all-obliterating fireball. The Peerless itself was almost certainly the only ordinary object in the region that had ended up more or less matching velocities with the orthogonal material – and if a leisurely encounter between the two kinds of matter was ever to be repeated, the Peerless would have to be involved again.

Tamara looked up at her friends and realised just how blind she’d been. Roberto had been right to refuse to accept the same old regime of half-useless observations; Ada had been right to insist that there could easily be better methods within their reach. But all three of them had been too timid by far.

Tamara said, “Why don’t we go there?”

Roberto blinked. “What?”

Ada emitted an excited chirp. “You mean start the engines and—?”

“No, no!” Tamara cut her off. “The Peerless is too big and unwieldy, and it would be insane to waste that much fuel. We should build a smaller rocket, just for this journey – something we can take as close to the Object as we dare. Then we can measure what we like, observe what we like . . . carry out experiments, maybe even bring back samples.”

Ada held up her navigator’s manual, regarding it with an almost fearful new respect. When Tamara had studied the same notes, she’d assumed that the only use she’d ever make of them would be to teach the theory to the next generation, keeping the knowledge from withering away while they waited for the infinitely remote prospect of commencing the journey home.

Roberto’s stunned expression gave way to one of pure delight. “If the tiniest speck of orthogonal rock is a liberator for calmstone,” he said, “who knows what the same material in bulk could do to our fuel?”

Tamara said, “I think we might be able to interest the chemists in helping us find the answer to that.”


Carla opened the valve at the top of the lamp, allowing a trickle of liberator to fall onto the sunstone. She started at the sudden hissing sound and the dazzling eruption of radiance, and her hand moved quickly to the dousing lever that would bury the flame in sand. But after a moment the noise settled to a steady splutter, and though the beam escaping through the aperture in the lamp’s cover retained its formidable intensity, it appeared to be stable.

Carla had prepared the liberator herself, extracting the active ingredient from sawflower roots then diluting it with crushed powderstone, checking the proportions three times and running the mixture through an agitator to be sure there were no clumps. But even these precautions couldn’t assuage her fears entirely. Fire of every kind crossed the Cornelio line into positive temperatures, but the act of igniting sunstone felt like summoning a malevolent creature out of the sagas. It might sit on the bench and amuse you with its tricks, but you knew that what it really wanted was to bring its whole world of bright chaos through the crack you’d opened up between the realms.

A lens over the lamp’s aperture partly countered the natural spreading of the light. Carla placed a small mirror in its path; mounted diagonally on a pegged holder, it sent the beam straight down through a hole in the bench-top. She knelt and fitted a triangular prism into place to intercept the vertical beam, then she ran an upturned hand through the space below it, to watch the brilliant spectrum glide over her skin. Sunstone disquieted her, but no other source produced such pure, intense colours.

A robust clearstone container sat on the floor beneath the bench. Apart from the corners, rounded for strength, it was almost box-like in shape, and the gravity here was strong enough to hold it in place by friction alone. At the bottom of the container was a flat rectangular mirror, freshly polished. The spectrum from the prism fell along the length of the mirror, with a thin strip of colours spilling off one edge onto a sheet of gridded paper, making it easy to see the position of every hue. Carla noted the locations of the red and violet ends; some space remained beyond them where the mirrorstone would be exposed to invisible wavelengths. Half of the spectrum reflecting off the mirror showed up on the underside of the bench-top, with the rest reaching an adjacent wall, but Carla felt no urge to contain the spilt light. It was no longer part of the experiment, and the streak on the wall made a cheerful decoration.

The prism she was using had been calibrated against a light comb by an earlier custodian of the workshop – the neatly written table was dated just a dozen and four years after the launch – allowing her to assign a precise wavelength to each line on the grid. She verified the overall calibration with half a dozen spot checks, then glanced at the clock. Going on what Marzio had told her, and accounting for the strength of the beam, she had planned for an initial exposure of one day.

Marzio was one of the most respected instrument builders on the Peerless. Four years ago, he’d been asked by the astronomers to construct a wide-field camera that could function in the void, in the hope of capturing sharper images than those taken behind the clearstone panels of the observatory domes. Like most such cameras his design had included a mirror to divert the light path, making it easier to keep the gas that activated the sensitised paper from leaving a residue on the lens. The device he’d built had been successful enough, but when Carla had run into him recently he’d told her something curious: the mirror had grown tarnished more rapidly than the corresponding part in any camera he’d built before. This was not what anyone would have expected; the gradual loss of reflectivity in polished mirrorstone had always been attributed to some kind of slow chemical reaction with the air.

Marzio had speculated that perhaps the activating gas, which seemed to cause no problems with the mirrors in air-filled cameras, was behaving differently in the vacuum – although it still did its job perfectly well. And the tarnish on the mirror, he admitted, bore no signs of being an entirely new phenomenon: it was indistinguishable from the patina that appeared under ordinary conditions. It merely arrived sooner in the absence of air.

Carla had had no good theories about any of this, but Marzio’s observation had nagged at her. If it wasn’t air that tarnished mirrors, what was it? Exposure to light, or simply the passage of time? It would have been absurd to ask Marzio to build a whole new camera for her to play with, so she’d set up this simple test. To measure the effect of time alone, a second mirror in its own evacuated container had been shut away in a light-proof box.

Carla stood by the bench, eyeing the lamp warily. She’d had to beg Assunto to approve the use of sunstone, though this handful was nothing to the quantity the Peerless's cooling system burnt up every day. “What’s the purpose of this experiment?” he’d asked irritably. He’d have to justify his decision to the Council in person at the next meeting, so he needed as pithy a summary as possible.

“Understanding the stability of matter.”

“And how exactly will a tarnished mirror help with that?”

“If the surface of a mirror can change in a vacuum,” Carla had argued, “that’s not a chemical reaction, it’s something simpler. If the luxagens in the mirrorstone are rearranging themselves in response to light, that could provide us with a mildly unstable system that we’d have a chance to manipulate and study—”

“As opposed to the kind that explodes in your face.” Assunto was of the school that believed luxagens would turn out to be pure fiction – he preferred to think of matter as a continuum rather than a collection of discrete particles – but in the end he’d signed the requisition for six scroods of sunstone.

Carla had reread and signed the safety regulations. A sunstone lamp could not be left unattended. She went and stood at her desk, but kept her rear eyes on the lamp’s fizzing crucible as she marked her optics students’ assignments. After the first half-dozen it was tedious work, but she forced herself to wait as long as she could before taking a break.

Carla had been told that she’d have to share this cramped workshop with Onesto, the archivist, until one of the senior experimentalists in the main facility retired and freed up a bench there. But she and Onesto usually managed to choose shifts with as little overlap as possible, to avoid disturbing each other, and there were advantages to working on her own.

When the clock struck the fourth bell she stopped to wind it, then she went to the cupboard and took out a bag of groundnuts. She cupped one hand and tipped three of the aromatic delicacies onto her palm, then closed her fingers over them to trap the exhilarating scent. Her whole body tingled with anticipatory pleasure, casting off the lethargy that had begun to afflict her. But Carla had the timing down to an art: just before the muscles in her throat threatened to start gulping down an unsatisfying emptiness, she tossed the nuts back into the bag and quickly returned them to the cupboard.

I did swallow them, she told herself, wiping her hand over her lips, slipping three fingers into her mouth. That’s the aftertaste.

She picked up the stack of assignments again, then glanced back over the ones she’d marked so far. The men were doing better than the women, she realised – not by a lot, and not in every case, but it was impossible to miss the pattern. Carla thumped the side of the desk angrily; the lamp three strides away hissed and flickered in response. After seeing so many women slip behind in her final year, she’d promised herself that the same thing wouldn’t happen to her own students. She always pushed the women in her class to participate, to ask and answer questions so they couldn’t glide through the lesson in a hunger daze, but she was going to have to pay more attention and pick out the ones who were losing focus.

The ones who might be headed where Silvana had gone.

“Yeah,” she muttered. “Then I’ll hand out bags of nuts. Problem solved.”

“Are you sure you’ll be all right with this?” Carla asked Onesto.

He looked over the apparatus, respectful but not intimidated. “If in doubt, I’ll just kill the flame,” he said, gesturing at the lamp’s dousing lever. “You can always complete the experiment with a second exposure, can’t you?”

“Of course,” Carla replied. It was kind of him to agree to take responsibility for the lamp; she could have enlisted one of her students, but since Onesto was going to be at his desk a few strides away regardless, it did make sense.

“Are you seeing your co tonight?” he asked, doing his best to make it sound as if he viewed the question as nothing more than ordinary small talk.

“In a couple of days.” Carla had been open about the arrangement; she was hoping more people would try the same strategy, but most of her colleagues had greeted the news with embarrassment or confusion.

“Ah.” Having broached the subject Onesto backed away from it. “I put my name down for the Gnat yesterday. For the lottery.”

“The Gnat?”

“That’s what they’re calling the little rocket now,” Onesto explained.

“Isn’t this all a bit premature? We still don’t even know how far away the Object is.” Carla caught the tone of irritation in her voice. Why should she be annoyed that the astronomers’ plans were progressing, as they waited for the tools they’d need to bring the project to fruition? When she’d first heard of the discovery she’d been thrilled.

She could smell Onesto’s last meal through his skin.

Onesto glanced down at the mirror in its container. “I don’t suppose that will be sensitive to infrared?”

Carla said, “If it is, it would still take half a year’s exposure to record any kind of colour trail.”

“Right.” Onesto stretched his arms behind his back. “You seem tired, Carla. You should go. I’ll look after everything, I promise.”

Carla’s new apartment was six levels closer to the axis than the workshop. She climbed ladder after ladder in the walls’ red glow; all the shafts looked the same, and at some point in the journey she lost track of where she was, unsure how much of her growing sense of lightness was down to her location and how much to hunger.

At home she took her holin dose, chewing the green flakes slowly. Her body begged for something more, but she lay down in the sand of her bed and pulled the tarpaulin into place.

She woke a bell earlier than she’d intended, thinking about the loaf in the cupboard barely four strides away. What difference would it make, to eat the same meal a little earlier on the very same day?

But Carla knew the answer. She’d be hungry again, from habit alone, at the time she was accustomed to eating. Then she’d be twice as hungry in the middle of the day, and so ravenous by the evening that she’d be struggling not to eat again. Her body had never experienced the home world’s cycle of plant light by night and sunshine by day, but it could still be pushed to follow a diurnal schedule more easily than any other routine. If she let the timing of her meals slip out of synch with that internal rhythm she would have lost her best and strongest ally.

She lay half awake beneath the tarpaulin, watching the clock in the moss-light, imagining Carlo beside her. Taking her in his arms, naming their children, promising to love and protect them as he drove her hunger away.

Onesto said, “No fireworks, no downtime, no problems at all.”

Carla was relieved. “Thank you. I hope the lighting didn’t distract you from your work.” The spillage from the lamp’s beam filled the room with patches of brightness and deep shadow, and though she’d become used to it the day before the contrast now made her eyes hurt.

“Not at all.” Onesto was trying to reconstruct a notebook belonging to one of the first-generation physicists, Sabino. It had turned up recently in a woeful state, and Carla didn’t envy him the days he was spending squinting at the torn sheets with their smudged dye.

Onesto put away his materials and left. Carla had no more marking to do, so she stood and reviewed her notes for the next optics lesson, trying to think of ways she could convey to the students the maddening intractability of the field’s unsolved problems without scaring them off completely. Most of what she taught hadn’t changed since Sabino’s day – and while much of that legacy possessed an indisputable elegance and consistency, and might well deserve to be passed unaltered down the ages, the rest was a perplexing mess.

No one had been able to improve on Nereo’s equation, which connected light to the “source strength” of the hypothetical particles he’d called luxagens, much as Vittorio’s equation connected gravity to mass. Sabino had demonstrated that the force implied by Nereo’s equation was real, by showing that it could hold two tiny mineral grains together, despite a visible gap between them. But taking all of Nereo’s ideas at face value soon led to predictions that simply weren’t true.

Whatever the fundamental constituents of a rock or a flower were, they either possessed the light-making property or they didn’t; it wasn’t something that could come and go. A few lines of mathematics proved that “source strength” was conserved, as surely as energy itself. So matter had to be made of something that possessed source strength, or no flower could glow, no fuel could burn. The trouble was, anything with source strength should give off some light, visible or invisible, all the time; only absolute stillness – or the equally unlikely contrivance of a pure high-frequency oscillation – could keep it from radiating. But a substance that emitted light could not be left unchanged by the process: the energy of the light had to be balanced by the creation of energy of the opposite kind. A flower could use its new-found energy to make food – but what was a rock to do? With a sprinkling of liberator a rock went up in flames, but why should it need that push? Why hadn’t every lode of sunstone simply blown itself apart, eons ago?

Carla disciplined herself not to so much as peek at the experiment before the exposure was complete. When the full twelve bells had passed, she knelt beside the clearstone container and checked that the spectrum had remained aligned with the same marks on the paper as before. Then she stood and extinguished the sunstone lamp. Onesto had lit an ordinary firestone lamp in the corner of the workshop; now she turned up its light to help her see clearly.

She slid the container out from under the bench and tipped it for a better view; the clearstone caught the light and confused her with its own reflections, but she was almost certain that the mirror’s sheen had been diminished. She fetched a needle and made a tiny hole in the container’s resin seal, then waited impatiently while the air squealed back in.

With the pressure safely equalised, she cut the seal away completely, removed the lid and took out the mirror, careful not to detach the gridded paper that she’d glued beneath it.

Carla held the mirror up to catch the light. There was an unmistakable dull white patina, uniform and complete across the width of the mirror – but not its length. It stretched from one end of the rectangle to a point about halfway along, where it disappeared abruptly. She summoned the calibration notes for the grid onto her thigh. The tarnished region corresponded to a portion of the spectrum running from infrared to green.

Why stop at green? The intense light from the sunstone beam would have shaken the luxagens, making them vibrate, making them radiate their own light in turn . . . giving them the energy they needed to break out of the mirrorstone’s regular structure, damaging the surface, spoiling the sheen. But why should the colour of the light have such a sharply delineated effect? The theory of solids held that a material’s only hope of stability was for its luxagens to sit in energy valleys whose natural frequency of vibration was greater than the maximum frequency of light – so at least that favoured, resonant frequency couldn’t generate radiation and aid in the material’s destruction. So why should light have the power to shake luxagens loose on the red side of green but not the blue side? Since every colour was far below the resonant frequency, the response should have varied smoothly across the spectrum, without any sudden jumps.

Carla turned the mirror back and forth in front of her eyes, wondering if it could all be an error, an artefact. Maybe an obstacle outside the container had intruded into the blue end of the spectrum – something Onesto had stashed under the bench for part of the night? But that was ridiculous; why would he have done that? And even if he’d set out deliberately to sabotage the experiment, she’d been present for the greater part of the exposure. Blue light had reached the mirror. The colour-dependence was real.

As the mirror flared in the firestone’s light, a new feature marring the surface jumped out for an instant and then vanished. It was like glimpsing a white thread on a white floor, only to lose it again. Carla cursed and repeated the motion, over and over, until she found herself staring at a second, faint edge. In the half of the mirror that had seemed to her before to be uniformly shiny and new, there was in fact another, very subtle change in its reflectivity. The tarnish that she’d thought had ended completely at green actually continued – vastly diminished – along a section that stretched almost down to violet. And beyond that? She was no longer prepared to assume that the surface remained pristine; all she could be sure of was that she’d exhausted the discriminatory powers of her vision.

But there were at least two abrupt transitions in the density of the tarnish: two sudden changes in the damage the light had done, depending on its colour.

Next to the calibration notes on her thigh, Carla wrote the wavelengths that marked these transitions. She committed them to memory, then started sketching luxagen arrays, doodling calculations, trying to make sense of the numbers. Maybe there was some kind of shift in the response of the mirrorstone when the light’s wavelength crossed some natural length scales dictated by its structure. Luxagens were expected to be separated from their nearest neighbours by roughly the same distance as light’s minimum wavelength, but other regularities showed up at greater distances.

There was no fit, though, between her two numbers and any of the known array geometries.

Carla paced the workshop. If not the wavelengths, what about the frequencies? She did the conversion: the green edge was at three dozen and three generoso-cycles per pause, the violet edge at two dozen and seven. But the frequencies at which luxagens were expected to vibrate, in mirrorstone or any other substance, could only be pinned down to within an order of magnitude – crudely constrained by the known properties of solids and the strength of Nereo’s force. So to what should she compare these frequencies?

To each other. They were in a ratio of five to four. Not exactly, but it was very close.

Carla remeasured the locations of the edges in the tarnish with scrupulous care, then recalculated everything.

Within the range of uncertainty imposed by the measurements, the ratio was indistinguishable from five to four.

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Orthogonal / The Eternal Flame excerpt / created Sunday, 8 July 2012
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