by Greg Egan

B B   A A A A A

This is an excerpt from the novel Scale by Greg Egan, first published in 2023. All rights reserved.

Publication history


As the phone started ringing, the leftmost indicator bulb in the row of seven lit up, blinking in time with the jangle of the buzzer but bright enough to shine clearly through the red gel and a patina of dust. Sam hesitated, doubting his own eyes for a moment, then tempted to assume a wrong number and spare both parties the nuisance of a protracted conversation.

But he couldn’t let the call ring out. Even a wrong number from Scale One would be the most interesting thing that had happened to him all week.

He lifted the handset. “Lucid Investigations,” he announced, then he jabbed the DONE button. The exchange let him hear the slow bass rumble as it replayed his taped voice three octaves deeper, then he listened in as it gathered the reply. He could follow most Scale Three and Scale Five speech effortlessly, but he struggled to get any purchase on the tortured syllables splayed out in these strange groans before the exchange stepped in and spared him the effort.

“Do you take clients from District One?”

Not a wrong number, then. The caller was fluent in Panscala, but it was hard to discern anything else. They sounded anxious, but reading too much into any rescaled voice would be folly.

“I’d be happy to,” Sam replied. He’d never had an offer before. But if his policy wasn’t an automatic refusal, what should it be in detail? “My standard rate’s ten dollars per minute, but for a cross-scale case that might include periods of significant inefficiency, where I’m carrying out enquiries that I could normally complete much faster. So I’d need a five-hundred dollar deposit wired to the company before I start.”

“That’s fair,” the caller conceded.

“I’m Sam Mujrif, principal investigator. Please, go ahead. Tell me about the case.”

“My name is Jessica Leon. My sister Cara is missing. No one’s seen her for nearly two weeks.”

“Have you contacted the police?”

“Of course. But they don’t seem to be doing anything. Maybe they’re bogged down in all the cross-jurisdictional nonsense.”

“What’s the issue? How is District Four involved?”

“Cara’s in business, importing electronics from D4. I went to her office and checked her diary, and she’d arranged a meeting on the river with one of her suppliers. I’ve spoken to the man, David Landau from Dawn Thermionics; he says he boarded her yacht for the meeting, and she was fine when he left. But it’s still tied up at the docks, and there’s no sign of her there. I’ll need to sail it home soon, or the Harbour Authority will impound it.”

“Would I be able to take a look at it first?” Sam asked.

“That was what I was hoping for. I can get there myself and let you in. Berth one-seven. In two hours?”

Sam was about to reply that he intended to be fast asleep in two hours – but then, if Jessica ever chose to be equally inflexible, he’d be the one enduring the more frustrating hiatus.

He checked his watch. “Let’s say 14:15?”

“I’ll see you there.”

Sam flipped through the phone book and found Dawn Thermionics. Landau’s assistant tried to brush him off, but Sam persisted and managed to get an appointment in six minutes.

It was a long walk, but it gave him time to clear his head of the distracting buzz that emanated from the sheer novelty of the case. Part of his brain was intent on cataloguing all the obstacles he could expect to face, while another was already imagining how much it might burnish his reputation if he managed to find this missing woman – or how thoroughly it might trash it if he failed.

He stopped at a drinking fountain, then rested for a moment; the avenue was shaded by trees and awnings, but the afternoon heat was still fierce. To the west, the jagged tiers of the city rose up like some magnified urban mirage, but the distant buildings needed no tricks from the shimmering air to tower above the shops and cafés around him. As a child, Sam had feared the very idea of the occupants of such daunting structures, until his father had reminded him that their own house would look much the same to the denizens of District Seven. “Right in the middle is the best place to be,” he’d suggested. “With empathy for everyone.” It was a nice idea, so long as you didn’t fall into the trap of believing that sharing some aspects of another scale’s viewpoint meant you understood everything about them.

The Dawn Thermionics factory was a small cluster of buildings, almost at the border with District Three. Sam arrived with half a minute to spare. He sat in the reception lounge flipping through trade magazines, which all seemed to carry the same advertisement showing wide-eyed children peering through the airflow holes of their family’s entertainment system at the warm glow of the vacuum tubes within.

“Mr. Landau will see you now,” the assistant announced, gesturing to Sam to enter the office. The door was already open, and Landau rose and approached to shake his hand before ushering him into a chair.

“You’re working for Cara Leon’s sister?” Landau asked, clearly dismayed that the matter remained unresolved. He was a smooth-faced, balding man, maybe five years old.

“That’s right. I’m meeting her in person soon, but I’m hoping you can bring me up to speed on some things about Cara faster than her sister could.”

“We’ve been doing business for about four months,” Landau said. “It’s worked out pretty well. She wires through her orders, and we load them onto her boat. She always pays on time; I wish all my local retailers were as punctual.”

“What was the meeting about?”

“I was showing her some new products.”

“Any luck with that?” Sam wondered.

“She passed,” Landau admitted. “Still too soon for most of her customers. District One is easy in some ways, tough in others. There’s always a burst of enthusiasm when they’re introduced to something new, but once they’ve made the first big leap they don’t like to take the next steps too quickly.”

“Don’t you have to tailor things for them specially?” Sam asked.

“To a degree. They need different speakers, and larger control panels, but we design most of the other components so they can be customised for the different frequency ranges just by wiring a couple of jumpers differently. I had some Scale One demonstration models made up; we would have gone into production if the orders came through.”

“Did Cara say anything about her plans? Was she expecting anyone else on the boat, or was she heading straight home?”

“I don’t know,” Landau replied. “I wished her a safe journey as I was leaving, and she didn’t correct me, but it was really none of my business if she had other appointments. I was the one who’d asked her to make the trip, and she did warn me that she’d be hard pressed to take a new product line six weeks after the last one.”

“How was her mood? Did she seem cheerful, worried, distracted?”

Landau looked at him oddly. “I haven’t spent that much time with her. I didn’t grow up in D1; no one from there is an open book to me.”

“No.” Sam felt foolish; he had friends from D3 and D5, but that should have taught him to temper his expectations.

He changed tack. “Was there any kind of commercial rivalry you’re aware of, that might have caused someone to have a grudge against Cara?”

Landau frowned, bemused. “We’ve had no interest from other importers in D1, and the arrangement wasn’t exclusive anyway; we’ll happily sell to whoever wants to buy from us. So she wasn’t standing in anyone’s way.”

“And what about the other direction? Could Cara have been looking for other suppliers?”

“Maybe for other products,” Landau replied. “Dawn’s the only company that makes consumer goods with vacuum tubes in the whole city.”

Sam was surprised. “Weren’t they invented by someone in Scale Six?”

“Sure, but even D5 have moved on by now.”

“There’s a replacement for vacuum tubes, already?” Sam was pretty sure he hadn’t even heard of the things until after Idris was born, eight months ago.

“Yes. Much smaller, with lower power consumption. Don’t ask me to explain how they work, though; I’m still catching up.”

“Why haven’t we moved on, like D5?”

Landau laughed. “The same reason I can’t sell my latest models to D1. People don’t want to replace everything that quickly. But I’m keeping an eye on it, and at some point I might have to start importing components; the plants are too complicated and expensive for me to build my own.”

“Okay.” Sam didn’t envy him; it sounded like the whole electronics business was more precarious than he’d realised. “And what about Cara? Do you think she might have considered skipping your new models and going straight to D5?” Even if her customers wouldn’t fork out again so soon for incremental improvements, she might have hoped to sell them on a whole new technology.

The suggestion seemed to irritate Landau. “Anything’s possible,” he conceded. “Like I said, I don’t claim she was an open book. I never heard of anyone in D5 selling that far upscale; the speakers and the cabinets just become unwieldy for them. Maybe in D1 they could import the guts from D5, and build their own speakers – the way the movie industry uses equipment they make themselves, except for the sound amplifiers. But if Cara had some plan like that, she wasn’t sharing it with me.”

Sam didn’t pursue the notion any further. Landau might have profited from undermining such a scheme, so long as whoever took Cara’s place was content with the status quo. But how lucrative were exports to D1, when the customers held on to whatever they bought for so much longer than locals did? There was clearly enough demand to make the trade worthwhile, but that didn’t mean it was crucial to Dawn’s business.

Sam thanked Landau and left his card in case he had any more thoughts on the matter. Back on the street, it was still sweltering, so he decided to take a tram home.

Noor and Idris were in the front room, playing chess. Sam kissed them both but didn’t want to interrupt the game, so he went to the kitchen and started on dinner.

“Who won?” he asked, as the three of them sat down together in the dining room.

Idris pulled a face. Sam said, “Your mother’s hard to beat. I’m lucky to win one game in ten.”

“I want to play against you,” Idris decided.

“Good choice. Maybe next time.”

After dinner, they listened to a short comedy play on the radio, but when the broadcast changed to orchestral music Idris started yawning.

“Bed time,” Noor declared.

“Tell me a story,” Idris pleaded, as Sam drew the blinds, blocking out most of the sunlight.

Sam sat down beside the bed. “All right. A long time ago ... maybe twenty thousand years—”

Idris snorted at the preposterous number, but then composed himself. “Sorry.”

“Twenty thousand years ago,” Sam continued, “you could find plants and animals of every size, all across the world, but people only came in one scale. No one knew why, but that was how it was, and everyone accepted it.

“Then one year, there was a village where some of the children were born half the size of the others. Their parents were confused, and worried, and afraid. They didn’t know how to care for children like that.

“But there were a few hunters in the village who’d kept their eyes on the small animals around them, even though their meat was inedible. They managed to capture some small wild goats, and they used their milk to feed the children. Later, they found where the right fruits and yams grew, which the children could eat without growing sick. It was hard, having to do things a new way, but everyone in the village loved the children and wanted them to be healthy.

“As the children grew older, they learned to walk and speak; their voices were faster and higher than other children, and their steps were quicker. And although they were small, they were strong and fast, and at half the age when most children could hunt, they could already chase down the kind of animals their parents could eat, as well as the ones they needed to feed themselves.

“Before long they had children of their own, the same size as they’d been at birth. The new scale of people grew in number, and it became easier for everyone to keep up the two ways of living, side by side.

“Then the day came when the first of the new children found himself growing weak with age. His parents started weeping; they still felt young, themselves. ‘Don’t leave us,’ they begged him. ‘Your life has gone too quickly.’

“He replied, ‘Though my days were fewer in number, each one held twice as much joy.’

“But his parents were inconsolable. And when his children saw how hard it was for their grandparents, they decided to leave the village and live apart, with others of the same scale.”

Idris’s eyes had fallen shut, but he wasn’t asleep. “When did all the other scales come?”

“No one really knows,” Sam admitted. “But I think it took hundreds of generations for each of them.”

“Could my children be Scale Five?” Idris wondered.

“Probably not,” Sam replied. “But I guess it’s not impossible.”

Idris opened his eyes. “Even if they are, that’s too long to wait. I want a small small brother right now.”

“Are you sure? What if he can beat you at chess when he’s half your age?” Sam stood up, then bent down and kissed him on the forehead. “Go to sleep now.”

Noor was in the front room, listening to music as she marked her students’ work. Sam still had no idea how she could read thirty essays on political philosophy by earnest adolescents without screaming and tearing up at least half the pages, but as ever she appeared perfectly calm. He made some tea and brought it to her.

“I’ll need to go out a bit later,” he said. “I’m meeting a woman on a boat.”

“Should I be jealous?” she teased him.

“Never. But least of all now.” He tipped his head and raised his eyes towards the ceiling.

“Should I be worried?” Noor asked.

“For my safety? Have you ever trodden on a Scale Seven mouse?”

“Six, I think, and it nearly broke my foot.”

“To be clear,” Sam said, “she’s hired me to find her sister, so I doubt she’s planning to stomp on me.”

“Just be careful of the river, then.”

“I will.”

Sam sat and listened to the radio in silence, letting Noor finish her work in peace.

When she rose, she said, “Write down exactly where you’re going, who you’re meeting, and who I should call first if you don’t come back.”

“All right.” He reached out and took her hand. “Don’t lose any sleep. As I said, she’s a client; she has no reason to wish me harm.”

Noor said, “Her sister’s missing, isn’t she? So someone meant somebody harm.”

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Scale / Scale excerpt / created Tuesday, 1 November 2022
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Copyright © Greg Egan, 2022. All rights reserved.