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Palimpsest

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Palimpsest

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Author: Charles Stross
Publisher: Subterranean Press, 2011
Ace Books, 2009
Orbit, 2009
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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction / Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (SF)
Time Travel
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Synopsis

Hugo-winning Novella

By mastering the mysteries of the Timegate, the clandestine, near-omnipotent organization Stasis has repeatedly steered mankind away from the brink of utter extinction. Through countless millennia, through the 'mayfly flickerings' of innumerable transient civilizations, its members have intervened at critical junctions, reseeding the galaxy with viable potential survivors. In the process, they have reconfigured the basic structure of the universe, all in the name of human continuity.

Pierce is a newly recruited member of the Stasis, serving out a complex twenty-year apprenticeship while struggling to find his way through the paradoxical maze of history (and unhistory) that surrounds him. As his once simple existence expands and replicates over vast stretches of time, Pierce uncovers a new and unexpected destiny, one that will embroil him in the larger purposes of the Stasis and in the ultimate, unresolved fate of humanity itself.

Skillfully merging the threads of an individual life with the grandest, most overarching concerns, Palimpsest offers both visionary brilliance and narrative excitement in equal measure. Powerfully imagined, beautifully constructed, and written throughout with great economy of means, it is the kind of mind-expanding mini-epic that only science fiction - and only a master practitioner like Charles Stross - could produce.


Excerpt

FRESH MEAT

This will never happen:

You will flex your fingers as you stare at the back of the youth you are going to kill, father to the man who will never now become your grandfather; and as you trail him home through the snowy night, you'll pray for your soul, alone in the darkness.

Memories are going to come to you unbidden even though you'll try to focus on the task in hand. His life - that part of it which you arrived kicking and squalling in time to share with him before the end - will pass in front of your eyes. You will remember Gramps in his sixties, his hands a bunch of raisin-wrinkled grape joints as he holds your preteen wrists and shows you how to cast the fly across the water. And you'll remember the shrunken husk of his seventies, standing speechless and numb by Gran's graveside in his too-big suit, lying at last alone in the hospice bed, breath coming shallow and fast as he sleeps alone with the cancer. These won't be good memories. But you know the rest of the story too, having heard it endlessly from your parents: young love and military service in a war as distant as faded sepia photographs from another generation's front, a good job in the factory and a wife he will quietly adore who will in due course give him three children, from one of whose loins you in turn are drawn. Gramps will have a good, long life and live to see five grandchildren and a myriad of wonders, and this boy-man on the edge of adulthood who you are compelled to follow as he walks to the recruiting office holds the seeds of the man you will remember ... But it's him or you.

Gramps would have had a good life. You must hold on to that. It will make what's coming easier.

You will track the youth who will never be your grandfather through the snow-spattered shrubbery and long grass along the side of the railroad tracks, and the wool-and-vegetable-fiber cloth that you wear - your costume will be entirely authentic - chafes your skin. By that point you won't have bathed for a week, or shaved using hot water: you are a young thug, a vagrant, and a wholly bad sort. That is what the witnesses will see, the mad-eyed young killer in the sweat-stained suit with the knife and his victim, so vulnerable with his throat laid open almost to the bone. He'll sprawl as if he is merely sleeping. And there will be outrage and alarm as the cops and concerned citizens turn out to hunt the monster that took young Gerry from his family's arms, and him just barely a man: but they won't find you, because you'll push the button on the pebble-sized box and Stasis Control will open up a timegate and welcome you into their proud and lonely ranks.

When you wake up in your dorm two hundred years-objective from now, bathed in stinking fear-sweat, with the sheet sucking onto your skin like a death-chilled caul, there will be nobody to comfort you and nobody to hold you. The kindness of your mother's hands and the strength of your father's wrists will be phantoms of memory, ghosts that echo round your bones, wandering homeless through the mausoleum of your memories.

They'll have no one to remember their lives but you; and all because you will believe the recruiters when they tell you that to join the organization you must kill your own grandfather, and that if you do not join the organization, you will die.

(It's an antinepotism measure, they'll tell you, nodding, not unkindly. And a test of your ruthlessness and determination. And besides, we all did it when it was our turn.)

Welcome to the Stasis, Agent Pierce! You're rootless now, an orphan of the time stream, sprung from nowhere on a mission to eternity. And you're going to have a remarkable career.


Yellowstone

"You've got to remember, humanity always goes extinct," said Wei, staring disinterestedly at the line of women and children shuffling toward the slave station down by the river. "Always. A thousand years, a hundred thousand, a quarter million - doesn't matter. Sooner or later, humans go extinct." He was speaking Urem, the language the Stasis used among themselves.

"I thought that was why we were here? To try and prevent it?" Pierce asked, using the honorific form appropriate for a student questioning his tutor, although Wei was, in truth, merely a twelfth-year trainee himself: the required formality was merely one more reminder of the long road ahead of him.

"No." Wei raised his spear and thumped its base on the dry, hard-packed mud of the observation mound. "We're going to relocate a few seed groups, several tens of thousands. But the rest are still going to die." He glanced away from the slaves: Pierce followed his gaze.

Along the horizon, the bright red sky darkened to the color of coagulated blood on a slaughterhouse floor. The volcano, two thousand kilometers farther around the curve of the planet, had been pumping ash and steam into the stratosphere for weeks. Every noon, in the badlands where once the Mississippi delta had writhed, the sky wept brackish tears.

"You're from before the first extinction epoch, aren't you? The pattern wasn't established back then. That must be why you were sent on this field trip. You need to understand that this always happens. Why we do this. You need to know it in your guts. Why we take the savages and leave the civilized to die."

Like Wei, and the other Stasis agents who had silently liquidated the camp guards and stolen their identities three nights before, Pierce was disguised as a Benzin warrior. He wore the war paint and beaten-aluminum armbands, bore the combat scars. He carried a spear tipped with a shard of synthetic diamond, mined from a deep seam of prehistoric automobile windshields. He even wore a Benzin face: the epicanthic folds and dark skin conferred by the phenotypic patches had given him food for thought, an unfamiliar departure from his white-bread origins. Gramps (he shied from the memory) would have died rather than wear this face.

Pierce was not yet even a twelve-year trainee: he'd been in the service for barely four years-subjective. But he was ready to be sent out under supervision, and this particular operation called for warm bodies rather than retrocausal subtlety.

Fifty years ago, the Benzin had swept around the eastern coastline of what was still North America, erupting from their heartland in the central isthmus to extend their tribute empire into the scattered tribal grounds of post-Neolithic nomads known to Stasis Control only by their code names: the Alabamae, the Floridae, and the Americae. The Benzin were intent on conquering the New World, unaware that it had been done at least seventeen times already since the start of the current Reseeding. They did not understand the significance of the redness in the western sky or the shaking of the ground, ascribing it to the anger of their tribal gods. They had no idea that these signs heralded the end of the current interglacial age, or that their extinction would be a side effect of the coming Yellowstone eruption - one of a series that occurred at six-hundred-thousand-year intervals during the early stages of the Lower First Anthropogenic epoch.

The Benzin didn't take a long view of things, for although their priest-kings had a system of writing, most of them lived in the hazily defined ahistorical myth-world of the preliterate. Their time was running out all the same. Yellowstone was waking, and even the Stasis preferred to work around such brutal geological phenomena, rather than through them.

"Yes, but why take them?" Pierce nodded toward the silently trudging Alabamae women and children, their shoulders stooped beneath the burden of their terror. They'd been walking before the spear points of their captors for days; they were exhausted. The loud ones had already died, along with the lame. The raiders who had slain their men and stolen them away to a life of slavery sat proudly astride their camels, their enemies' scalps dangling from their kotekas like bizarre pubic wigs. "The Benzin may be savages, but these people are losers - they came off worse."

Wei shook his head minutely. "The adults are all female, and mostly pregnant at that. These are the healthy ones, the ones who survived the march. They're gatherers, used to living off the land, and they're all in one convenient spot."

Pierce clenched his teeth, realizing his mistake. "You're going to use them for Reseeding? Because there are fewer bodies, and they're more primitive, more able to survive in a wilderness ... ?"

"Yes. For a successful Reseeding we need at least twenty thousand bodies from as many diverse groups as possible, and even then we risk a genetic bottleneck. And they need to be able to survive in the total absence of civilization. If we dumped you in the middle of a Reseeding, you would probably not last a month. No criticism intended; neither would I. Those warriors" - Wei raised his spear again, as if saluting the raiders - "require slaves and womenfolk and a hierarchy to function. The tip of your spear was fashioned by a slave in the royal armories, not by a warrior. Your moccasins and the cloth of your pants were made by Benzin slaves. They are halfway to reinventing civilization: given another five thousand years-subjunctive, their distant descendants might build steam engines and establish ubiquitous recording frameworks, bequeathing their memories to the absolute future. But for a Reseeding they're as useless as we are."

"But they don't have half a deci - "

"Be still. They're moving."

The last of the slaves had been herded between the barbed hedges of the entrance passageway, and the gate guards lifted the heavy barrier back into position. Now the raiders kicked their mounts into motion, beating and poking them around the side of the spiny bamboo fence in a circuit of the guard posts. Wei and Pierce stood impassively as the camel riders spurred down on them. At the last moment, their leader pulled sideways, and his mount snorted and pawed at the ground angrily as he leaned toward Wei.

"Hai!" he shouted, in the tonal trade tongue of the northern Benzin. "I don't remember you!"

"I am Hawk! Who in the seventh hell are you?"

Wei glared at the rider, but the intruder just laughed raucously and spat over the side of his saddle: it landed on the mud, sufficiently far from Wei to make it unclear whether it was a direct challenge.

Pierce tightened his grip on his spear, moving his index finger closer to the trigger discreetly printed on it. High above them, a vulturelike bird circled the zone of confrontation with unnatural precision, its fire-control systems locked on.

"I am Teuch," said the rider, after a pause. "I captured these women! In the name of our Father I took them, and in the name of our Father I got them with children to work in the paddies! What have you done for our Father today?"

"I stand here," Wei said, lifting the butt of his spear. "I guard our Father's flock while assholes like you are out having fun."

"Hai!" The rider's face split in a broad, dust-stained grin. "I see you, too!" He raised his right fist and for an instant Pierce had an icy vision of his guts unraveling around a barbarian's spear; but the camel lifted its head and brayed as Teuch nudged it in a surprisingly delicate sidestep away from Wei, away from the hedge of thorns, away from the slave station. And away from the site of the timegate through which the evacuation team would drive the camp inmates in two days' time. The prisoners would be deposited at the start of the next Reseeding. But none of the Benzin would live to see that day, a hundred thousand years-objective or more in the future.

Perhaps their camels would leave their footprints in the choking, hot rain of ash that would roll across the continent with tomorrow's sunset. Perhaps some of those footprints would fossilize, so that the descendants of the Alabamae slaves would uncover them and marvel at their antiquity in the age to come. But immortality, Pierce thought, was a poor substitute for not dying.


Paying Attention in Class

It was a bright and chilly day on the roof of the world. Pierce, his bare head shaved like the rest of the green-robed trainees, sat on a low stool in a courtyard beneath the open sky, waiting for the tutorial to begin. Riding high above the ancient stone causeway and the spiral minarets of the Library Annex, the moon bared her knife-slashed cheeks at Pierce, as if to remind him of how far he'd come.

"Good afternoon, Honorable Students."

The training camp nestled in a valley among the lower peaks of the Mediterranean Alps. Looming over the verdant lowlands of the Sahara basin, in this epoch they rose higher than the stumps of the time-weathered Himalayas.

"Good afternoon, Honorable Scholar Yarrow," chanted the dozen students of the sixth-year class.

Urem, like Japanese before it, paid considerable attention to the relative status of speaker and audience. Many of the cultures the Stasis interacted with were sensitive to matters of gender, caste, and other signifiers of rank, so the designers of Urem had added declensions to reflect these matters. New recruits were expected to practice the formalities diligently, for a mastery of Urem was important to their future - and none of them were native speakers.

"I speak to you today of the structure of human history and the ways in which we may interact with it."

Yarrow, the Honorable Scholar, was of indeterminate age: robed in black, her hair a stubble-short golden halo, she could have been anywhere from thirty to three hundred. Given the epigenetic overhaul the Stasis provided for their own, the latter was likelier - but not three thousand. Attrition in the line of duty took its toll over the centuries. Yarrow's gaze, when it fell on Pierce, was clear, her eyes the same blue as the distant horizon. This was the first time she had lectured Pierce's class - not surprising, for the college had many tutors, and the path to graduation was long enough to tax the most disciplined. She was, he understood, an expert on what was termed the Big Picture. He hadn't looked her up in the local Library Annex ahead of time. (In his experience it was generally better to approach these lessons with an open mind. And in any case, students had only patchy access to the records of their seniors.)

"As a species, we are highly unstable, prone to Malthusian crises and self-destructive wars. This apparent weakness is also our strength - when reduced to a rump of a few thousand illiterate hunter-gatherers, we can spread out and tame a planet in mere centuries, and build high civilizations in a handful of millennia.

"Let me give you some numbers. Over the two and a half million epochs accessible to us - each of which lasts for a million years - we shall have reseeded starter populations nearly twenty-one million times, with an average extinction period of sixty-nine thousand years. Each Reseeding event produces an average of eleven-point-six planet-spanning empires, thirty-two continental empires, nine hundred and sixty-odd languages spoken by more than one million people, and a total population of one-point-seven trillion individuals. Summed over the entire life span of this planet - which has been vastly extended by the cosmological engineering program you see above you every night - there are nearly twenty billion billion of us. We are not merely legion - we rival in our numbers the stars of the observable universe in the current epoch.

"Our species is legion. And throughout the vast span of our history, ever since the beginning of the first panopticon empire during our first flowering, we have committed to permanent storage a record of everything that has touched us - everything but those events that have definitively unhappened."

Pierce focused on Yarrow's lips. They quirked slightly as she spoke, as if the flavor of her words was bitter - or as if she was suppressing an unbidden humor, intent on maintaining her gravitas before the class. Her mouth was wide and sensual, and her lips curiously pale, as if they were waiting to be warmed by another's touch. Despite his training, Pierce was as easily distracted as any other twentysomething male, and try as he might, he found it difficult to focus on her words: he came from an age of hypertext and canned presentations and found that these archaic, linear tutorials challenged his concentration. The outward austerity of her delivery inflamed his imagination, blossoming in a sensuous daydream in which the wry taste of her lips blended with the measured cadences of her speech to burn like fire in his mind.

"Uncontrolled civilization is a terminal consumptive state, as the victims of the first extinction discovered the hard way. We have left their history intact and untouched, that we might remember our origins and study them as a warning; some of you in this cohort have been recruited from that era. In other epochs we work to prevent wild efflorescences of resource-depleting overindustrialization, to suppress competing abhuman intelligences, and to prevent the pointless resource drain of attempts to colonize other star systems. By shepherding this planet's resources and manipulating its star and neighboring planets to maximize its inhabitable duration, we can achieve Stasis - a system that supports human life for a thousand times the life of the unmodified sun, and that remembers the time line of every human life that ever happened."

Yarrow's facts and figures slid past Pierce's attention like warm syrup. He paid little heed to them, focusing instead on her intonation, the little twitches of the muscles in her cheeks as she framed each word, the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed in and out. She was impossibly magnetic: a puritan sex icon, ascetic and unaware, attractive but untouchable. It was foolish in the extreme, he knew, but for some combination of tiny interlocking reasons he found her unaccountably exciting.

"All of this would be impossible without our continued ownership of the timegate. You already know the essentials. What you may not be aware of is that it is a unique, easily depleted resource. The timegate allows us to open wormholes connecting two openings in four-dimensional space-time. But the exclusion principle prevents two such openings from overlapping in time. Tear-up and tear-down is on the order of seven milliseconds, a seemingly tiny increment when you compare it to the trillion-year span that falls within our custody. But when you slice a period of interest into fourteen-millisecond chunks, you run out of time fast. Each such span can only ever be touched by us once, connected to one other place and time of our choosing.

"Stasis Control thus has access to a theoretical maximum of 5.6 times 1021 slots across the totality of our history - but our legion of humanity comes perilously close, with a total of 2 times 10 19 people. Many of the total available slots are reserved for data, relaying the totality of recorded human history to the Library - fully ninety-six percent of humanity lives in eras where ubiquitous surveillance or personal life-logging technologies have made the recording of absolute history possible, and we obviously need to archive their lifelines. Only the ur-historical prelude to Stasis, and periods of complete civilizational collapse and Reseeding, are not being monitored in exhaustive detail.

"To make matters worse: in practice there are far fewer slots available for actual traffic, because we are not, as a species, well equipped for reacting in spans of less than a second. The seven-millisecond latency of a timegate is shorter by an order of magnitude than the usual duration of a gate used for transport.

"We dare not use gates for iterated computational processes, or to open permanent synchronous links between epochs, and while we could in theory use it to enable a single faster-than-light starship, that would be horribly wasteful. So we are limited to blink-and-it's-gone wormholes connecting time slices of interest. And we must conclude that the slots we allocate to temporal traffic are a scarce resource because - "

Yarrow paused and glanced across her audience. Pierce shifted slightly on his stool, a growing tension in his crotch giving his distraction a focus. Her gaze lingered on him a moment too long, as if she sensed his inattention: the slight hint of amusement, imperceptible microexpressions barely glimpsed at the corners of her mouth, sent a panicky shiver up his spine. She's going to ask questions, he realized, as she opened her lips. "What applications of the timegate are ruled out by the slot latency period, class? Does anyone know? Student Pierce? What do you know?" She looked at him directly, expectantly. The half smile nibbled at her cheeks, but her eyes were cool.

"I, um, I don't - " Pierce flailed for words, dragged back to the embarrassing present from his sensual daydream. "The latency period?"

"You don't what?" Honorable Scholar Yarrow raised one perfect eyebrow in feigned disbelief at his fluster. "But of course, Student Pierce. You don't. That has always been your besetting weakness: you're easily distracted. Too curious for your own good." Her smile finally broke, icy amusement crinkling around her eyes. "See me in my office after the tutorial," she said, then turned her attention back to the rest of the class, leaving him to stew in fearful anticipation. "I do hope you have been paying more attention - "

The rest of Yarrow's lecture slid past Pierce in a delirium of embarrassment as she spoke of deep time, of salami-sliced vistas of continental drift and re-formation, of megayears devoted to starlifting and the frozen, lifeless gigayears during which the Earth had been dislodged from its celestial track, to drift far from the sun while certain necessary restructuring was carried out. She knows me, he realized sickly, watching the pale lips curl around words that meant nothing and everything. She's met me before. These things happened in the Stasis; the formal etiquette was deliberate padding to break the soul-shaking impact of such collisions with the consequences of your own future. She must think I'm an idiot -

The lecture ended in a flurry of bowing and dismissals. Confused, Pierce found himself standing before the Scholar on the roof of the world, beneath the watching moon. She was very beautiful, and he was utterly mortified. "Honorable Scholar, I don't know how to explain, I - "

"Silence." Yarrow touched one index finger to his lips. His nostrils flared at the scent of her, floral and strange. "I told you to see me in my office. Are you coming?"

Pierce gaped at her. "But Honorable Scholar, I - "

" - Forgot that, as your tutor, I am authorized to review your Library record." She smiled secretively. "But I didn't need to: You - your future self - told me why you were distracted, many years-subjective ago. There is a long history between us." Her humor dispersed like mist before a hot wind. "Will you come with me now? And not make an unhappening of our life together?"

"But I - " For the first time he noticed she was using the honorific form of "you," in its most intimate and personal case. "What do you mean, our life?"

She began to walk toward the steps leading down to the Northern Courtyard. "Our life?" He called after her, dawning anger at the way he'd been manipulated lending his voice an edge. "What do you mean, our life?"

She glanced back at him, her expression peculiar - almost wistful. "You'll never know if you don't get over your pride, will you?" Then she looked back at the two hundred stone steps that lay before her, inanimate and treacherous, and began to descend the mountainside. Her gait was as steady and dignified as any matron turning her back on young love and false memories.

He watched her recede for almost a minute before his injured dignity gave way, and he ran after her, stumbling recklessly from step to stone, desperate to discover his future.

Copyright © 2009 by Charles Stross


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