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Troika
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Troika

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Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Subterranean Press, 2011
Science Fiction Book Club, 2010
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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Time Travel
First Contact
Space Opera
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Synopsis

Hugo-nominated Novella

In novels such as Chasm City and Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds established himself as an indisputable master of the far-flung intergalactic epic. Reynolds brings that same deceptively effortless mastery to the shorter fictional forms, a fact that Troika, his elegant, compulsively readable new novella, amply demonstrates.

Troika tells the story of men and women confronting an enigma known as the Matryoshka, a vast alien construct whose periodic appearances have generated terror, wonder, and endless debate. During its third "apparition" in a remote corner of the galaxy, a trio of Russian cosmonauts approach this enigma and attempt to penetrate its mysteries. What they discover--and what they endure in the process--forms the centerpiece of an enthralling, constantly surprising narrative.

Troika is at once a wholly original account of First Contact and a meditation on time, history, and the essentially fluid nature of identity itself. Suspenseful, erudite, and gracefully written, it is a significant accomplishment in its own right and a welcome addition to a remarkable body of work.


Excerpt

By the time I reach the road to Zvezdniy Gorodok acute hypothermia is beginning to set in. I recognise the symptoms from my training: stage one moving into two, as my body redirects blood away from skin to conserve heat - shivering and a general loss of coordination the result. Later I can expect a deterioration of vasomotor tone as the muscles now contracting my peripheral blood vessels become exhausted. As blood surges back to my chilled extremities, I'll start to feel hot rather than cold. Slipping ever further into disorientation, it will take an effort of will not to succumb to that familiar and distressing syndrome, paradoxical undressing. The few layers of clothes I'm wearing - the pyjamas, the thin coat I stole from Doctor Kizim - will start feeling too warm. If I don't get warm soon they'll find me naked and dead in the snow.

How long have I been out? An hour, two hours? There's no way to tell. It's like being back on the Tereshkova, when we slept so little that a day could feel like a week. All I know is that it's still night. They'll find me when the sun is up, but until then there's still time to locate Nesha Petrova.

I touch the metal prize in my pocket, reassuring myself that it's still there.

As if invoked by the act of touching the prize, a monstrous machine comes roaring towards me out of the night. It's yellow, with an angled shovel on the front. I stumble into the path of its headlights and raise a wary hand. The snowplough sounds its horn. I jerk back, out of the way of the blade and the flurry of dirty snow it flings to one side.

I think for a moment it's going to surge on past, but it doesn"t. The machine slows and stops. Maybe he thinks he's hit me. It's good - a robot snowplough wouldn't stop, so there must be someone operating this one. I hobble around to the cab, where the driver's glaring at me through an unopened window. He's got a moustache, a woollen hat jammed down over his hair and ears, the red nose of a serious drinker.

Above the snorting, impatient diesel I call: "I could use a ride to town."

The driver looks at me like I'm dirt, some piece of roadside debris he'd have been better shovelling into the verge. This far out of town, on this road, it doesn't take much guesswork to figure out where I've come from. The hospital, the facility, the madhouse, whatever you want to call it, will have been visible in the distance on a clear day - a forbidding smudge of dark, tiny-windowed buildings, tucked behind high, razor-topped security fencing.

He lowers the window an inch. "Do yourself a favour, friend. Go back, get warm."

"I won't make it back. Early-onset hypothermia. Please, take me to Zvezdniy Gorodok. I can't give you much, but you're welcome to these." My fingers feel like awkward tele-operated waldos, the kind we'd had on the Progress. I fumble a pack of cigarettes from my coat pocket and push the crushed and soggy rectangle up to the slit in the window.

"All you've got?"

"They're American. You know how hard these are to come by now."

The driver grunts something unintelligible, but takes the cigarettes anyway. He opens the pack to inspect the contents, sniffing at them. "How old are these?"

"You can still smoke them."

The driver leans over to the open the other door. "Get in. I'll take you as far as the first crossroads on the edge of town. You get out when we stop. You're on your own from then on."

I'll agree to any arrangement provided it gets me a few minutes in the warmth of the cab. For now I'm still lucid enough to recognise the hypothermia creeping over me. That state of clinical detachment won't last forever.

I climb in, taking deep, shivering breaths.

"Thank you."

"The edge of town, that's as far as we go," he says, in case I didn't get it the first time. His breath stinks of alcohol. "I'm caught giving you a ride, it won't be good for me."

"It won't be good for either of us."

The driver shifts the snowplough back into gear and lets her roll, the engine bellowing as the blade bites snow. "Whoever you are, whatever you're doing, it won't work. They'll find you in Zvezdniy Gorodok. It's not a big place and there's nowhere else to go. In case no one pointed it out to you, this is the arse end of nowhere. And the trains aren't running."

"I only need to get to town."

He looks at me, assessing the shabbiness of my dress, the wild state of my beard and hair. "Wild night ahead of you?"

"Something like that."

He's got the radio on, tuned to the state classical music channel. It's playing Prokofiev. I lean over and turn the volume down, until it's almost lost under the engine noise.

"I was listening to that."

"Please. Until we get there."

"Got a problem with music?"

"Some of it."

The driver shrugs - he doesn't seem to mind as much as he pretends. Panicking suddenly, imagining I might have dropped it in the snow, I pat my pocket again. But - along with Doctor Kizim's security pass - the little metal box is still there.

It takes all of my resolve not to take it out and turn the little handle that makes it play. Not because I can stand to hear it again, but because I want to be sure it still works.

* * * * *

The snowplough's tail lights fade into the night. The driver has kept to his word, taking us through the abandoned checkpoint, then to the first crossroads inside the old city boundary and no further. It's been good to get warm, my clothes beginning to dry, but now that I'm outside again the cold only takes a few seconds to reach my bones. The blizzard has abated while we drove, but the snow's still falling, coming down in soft flurries from a milky predawn sky.

We'd passed no other vehicles or pedestrians, and at this early hour Zvezdniy Gorodok gives every indication of being deserted. The housing blocks are mostly unlit, save for the occasional illuminated window - a pale, curtained rectangle of dim yellow against the otherwise dark edifice. The buildings, set back from the intersecting roads in long ranks, look drearily similar, as if stamped from the same machine tool - even the party images flickering on their sides are the same from building to building. The same faces, the same slogans. For a moment I have the sense of having embarked on a ludicrous and faintly delusional task. Any one of these buildings could be where she lives. They'll find me long before I have time to search each lobby, hoping to find a name.

I'd shown the driver the address I'd written down, pulled from the public telephone directory on Doctor Kizim's desk. He'd given me a rough idea of where I ought to head. The apartment complex is somewhere near the railway station - I'll have to search the surrounding streets until I find it.

"I know where the station is," I tell the driver. "I was here when it was a sealed training facility."

"You had something to do with the space program?"

"I did my bit."

Zvezdniy Gorodok - Starry Town, or Star City. In the old days, you needed a permit just to get into it. Now that the space program is over - it has "achieved all necessary objectives", according to the official line of the Second Soviet - Zvezdniy Gorodok is just another place to live, work and die, its utilitarian housing projects radiating far beyond the old boundary. The checkpoint is a disused ruin and the labs and training facilities have been turned into austere community buildings. More farmers and factory workers live here now than engineers, scientists and former-cosmonauts.

I'm lucky to have got this far.

I escaped through a gap in the facility's security fence, in a neglected corner of the establishment tucked away behind one of the kitchens. I'd known about the breech for at least six months - long enough to reassure myself that no one else had noticed it, and that the break could not be seen from the administrative offices or any of the surveillance cameras. It was good fortune that the fence had that gap, but I still wouldn't have got far without the help from Doctor Kizim. I don't know if he expects me to succeed in my escape attempt, but Doctor Kizim - who had always been more sympathetic to the Tereshkova's survivors than any of the other medics - had turned a conveniently blind eye. And it was his coat that I had taken. It wasn't much of a coat for blizzards, but without it I doubt that I would have made it as far as the snowplough, let alone Zvezdniy Gorodok. I just hope he doesn't get into too much trouble when they find out I took it.

I don't expect to get the chance to apologise to him.

The snow's stopped falling completely, and the sun - pink and depleted of heat - is beginning to break through the gloom on the eastern horizon, when I find the railway station. I begin to explore the surrounding streets, trying to find the address. More lights have come on now and I'm noticing the beginning of daily activity. One or two citizens pass me in the snow, but they have their heads down and pay me no special attention. Few vehicles are on the roads, and since the trains aren't running, the area around the station is almost totally devoid of activity. When a large car - a Zil limousine, black and muscular as a panther - swings onto the street I'm walking down, I don't have time to hide. But the Zil sails by, tyres spraying muddy slush, and as it passes I see that it's empty. The car must be on its way to collect a party official from one of the better districts.

I've been walking for an hour, trying not to glance over my shoulder too often, when I find Nesha's building. The apartment complex has an entrance lobby anyone can enter. It smells of toilets and alcohol. Some of the windows in the outer wall are covered by plywood panels, where the glass has broken. It's draughty and unlit, the tiled floor filthy with footprints and paper and smashed glass. There's a door into the rest of the building, but it can only be opened by someone inside. In my cold, sodden slippers I squelch to the buzzer panel next to the mailboxes.

I catch my breath. Everything hinges on this moment. If I'm wrong about Nesha, or if she's moved elsewhere, or died - it's been a long time, after all - then everything will have been for nothing.

But her name's still there.

It may not mean anything. She may still have died or been moved on. I reach out a numb finger and press the buzzer anyway. There's no sound, no reassuring response. I wait a minute then press it again. Outside, a stray dog with mad eyes yellows the snow under a lamppost. I press the buzzer again, shivering more than when I was outside.

A woman's voice crackles through the grille above the buzzers. "Yes?"

"Nesha Petrova?" I ask, leaning to bring my lips closer to the grille.

"Who is it?"

"Dimitri Ivanov." I wait a second or two for her to respond to the name.

"From building services?"

I assume that there's no camera letting Nesha see me, if there ever was. "Dimitri Ivanov, the cosmonaut. I was on the ship, the Tereshkova. The one that met the Matryoshka."

Silence follows. I realise, dimly, that there's an eventuality I've never allowed for. Nesha Petrova may be too old to remember anything of importance. She may be too old to care.

I shuffle wet feet to stave off the cold.

"Nesha?"

"There were three cosmonauts."

I lean into the grille again. "I'm one of them. The other two were Galenka Makarova and Yakov Demin. They're both dead now. The VASIMIR engine malfunctioned on the way home, exposing them to too much radiation. I'm the only one left."

"Why should I believe you?"

"Because I'm standing here in pyjamas and a stolen coat. Because I've come all the way from the facility just to see you, through the snow. Because there's something I want you to know."

"Then tell me."

"I'd rather show you, Nesha. Besides, I'm going to die of cold if I stand here much longer."

I look to the outside world again, through one of the panes that hasn't been broken and covered over with plywood. Another Zil slides by. This one has bodies in it: grey-skinned men sitting upright in dark coats and hats.

"I don't want any trouble from the police."

"I won't stay long. Then I'll be on my way, and no one will have to know that I was here."

"I'll know."

"Please, let me in." I haven't bargained for this. In all the versions of this encounter that I've run through my mind before the escape, she never needed any persuasion to meet me. "Nesha, you need to understand. They tried to bury you, but you were right all along. That's what I want to tell you about. Before they silence me, and no one ever gets to find out."

After an age she says: "You think it matters now, Dimitri Ivanov?"

"It matters more than you can imagine."

The door buzzes. She's letting me in.

* * * * *

"It's blacker than I was expecting."

"Of course it's black," I said, pausing in my ham-fisted typing. "What other colour were you expecting?"

Yakov was still staring out the porthole, at the looming Matryoshka. It was two hundred kilometres away, but still ate up more than half the sky. No stars in that direction, just a big absence like the mother of all galactic supervoids. We had the cabin lights dimmed so he could get a good view. We had already spread the relay microsats around the alien machine, ready for when the Progress penetrated one of the transient windows in Shell 3. But you couldn't see the microsats from here - they were tiny, and the machine was vast.

"What I mean is ..." Yakov started saying.

"Is that it's black."

"I mean it's more than black. It's like - black was black, and now there's something in my head that's even darker, like a colour I never imagined until now. But which was always there, just waiting for this moment."

"I'm concerned about you, comrade," said Galenka, who was riding the exercise cycle in one corner of the module. She was wearing a skin-tight load-suit, designed to preserve muscle tone even in weightlessness. Maybe I'd been in space too long, but she looked better in that load-suit every day.

"You don't feel it, then?" Yakov asked, directing his question to both of us.

"It's just dark," I said. "I guess nothing's really prepared us for this, but it's not something we should be surprised about. The last two apparitions ... "

"Just machines, just dumb space probes. This is the first time anyone's seen it with their own eyes." Yakov turned slowly from the porthole. He was pale, with the puffy, slit-eyed look we'd all developed since leaving Earth. "Don't you think that changes things? Don't you think us being out here, us being observers, changes things? We're not just making measurements on this thing from a distance now. We're interacting, touching it, feeling it."

"And I think you need to get some sleep," Galenka said.

I folded the workstation keyboard back into its recess. I had been answering questions from schoolchildren; the selected few that had been deemed worthy of my attention by the mission schedulers.

"Tell me you don't feel a little freaked out, Dimitri."

"Maybe a bit," I allowed. "But no more than I'd feel if we were in orbit around Mars, or Venus, or creeping up on an asteroid. It's a very big thing and we're very small and a long way from home."

"This is also a very alien big thing. It was made by alien minds, for a purpose we can't grasp. It's not just some lump of rock with a gravitational field. It's a machine, a ship, that they sent to our solar system for a reason."

"It's a dead alien thing," Galenka said, huffing as she cycled harder, pushing through an uphill part of her training schedule. "Someone made it once, but it's broken now. Fucked like an old clock. If it wasn't fucked, it wouldn't be on this stupid elliptical orbit."

"Maybe this orbit is all part of the plan," Yakov said.

"He's starting to sound like Nesha Petrova," Galenka said teasingly. "Be careful, Yakov. You know what happened to her when she didn't shut up with her silly ideas."

"What plan?" I asked.

"That thing must be thousands of years old. Tens of thousand, maybe more. The fact that it's been on this orbit for twenty two years proves nothing. It's an eye-blink, as far as that thing's concerned. It might just be waking up, running systems checks, rebooting itself. It came through a wormhole. Who knows what that does to something?"

"You certainly don't," Galenka said.

"She's right," I said. "It's dead. If it was going to wake up, it would have done so during the first two apparitions. We poked and prodded it enough the second time; nothing happened."

"I wish I shared your reassurance."

I shrugged. "We're just here to do a job, Yakov. Get in, get out. Then go home and get the glory, like good cosmonauts. Before I worried about the Matryoshka, I'd worry about not screwing up your part in it."

"I'm not going to screw up." He looked at me earnestly, as if I had challenged him. "Did I ever screw up in the simulations, Dimitri? Did I ever screw up once?"

"No," I admitted. "But this isn't a simulation. We're not in Star City now."

He winked at me. "Absolutely sure of that, comrade?"

Copyright © 2010 by Alastair Reynolds


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Troika - Alastair Reynolds

- valashain
  (4/13/2014)

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