The Medusa Chronicles
The waves of the midwinter ocean crashed against the hull and spat their foam over the railings around the bow. They might as well have been dashing against cliffs for all the difference it made to the great ship. On deck there was not a trace of the swell, not a trace of rocking. The Sam Shore felt as solid and still as if it were anchored to the seabed.
So what was wrong?
Falcon’s eyes swept to port and starboard.
Zoom and focus.
Machines frolicked in the grey waters, their pale white bodies easily mistaken for living things.
Track and enhance.
The sleek forms, each a few metres long and equipped with cameras, grabber arms and miniaturised sonar pods, swam gracefully alongside the tremendous hull. At times they came alarmingly close, and Falcon wondered how safe such activity could be, given the choppiness of the sea. What if they collided with the carrier’s hull? The safety of President Jayasuriya was at stake . . .
“Whale watching, are we, Howard?”
Falcon turned with some reluctance, the balloon wheels of his
undercarriage slipping on the damp deck. But human company, after all, was why he was here; not even Howard Falcon was reclusive enough to turn down an invitation from the World President to join her for New Year on the world’s largest cruise ship. Especially not this New Year, the birth of the twenty-second century. And he wasn’t surprised to see who had found him, with no less than the Captain in tow. Both shielded their faces against the cold and the spray, eyes narrowed to squints.
“Geoff Webster,” Falcon said. “I’m barely off the shuttle and you’ve already tracked me down.”
Webster grinned. “Howard, every time you descend from space I hear celestial trumpets.”
Webster, more than sixty years old, was one of Falcon’s oldest friends: one of the few he’d kept in touch with since the Queen Elizabeth IV accident. Webster’s manner towards Falcon since his rebuilding hadn’t changed one iota, being just as ornery and honest as he’d ever been. And, since Webster was Administrator of the Bureau of Long Range Planning, one of the most significant branches of the Strategic Development Secretariat, he was a useful ally. Indeed Webster had provided crucial backing for backed Falcon’s latest, career-defining venture: his solo journey into the clouds earlier, from which he’d returned only months ago.
Now Webster grinned and presented his companion. “Howard Falcon, I want you to meet Captain Joyce Embleton.”
To her credit, Embleton didn’t hesitate to stick out a hand in welcome, and she managed not to grimace when Falcon took it with what passed for his own hand. “Very good to have you aboard, Commander Falcon.”
She was trim, upright, fashionably bald under an elaborate peaked cap that was jammed down hard against the wind and the spray. And to Falcon’s surprise she sounded impeccably British, here at the helm of what had once been the pride of the US Navy. But then it had been more than sixty years, he supposed, since Britain and America had been united in the Atlantic Partnership.
“You’re quite the celebrity, Commander. We all followed your jaunt into the depths of Jupiter, earlier in the year. You may find yourself pestered for autographs by some of the younger crew. Although—” She glanced at Falcon’s upper body.
Falcon said dryly, “Believe it or not, I can still sign my name.”
Webster glared at Falcon. “Howard, we’re guests. Be nice.”
Embleton walked around Falcon, inspecting him in a no-nonsense fashion. “Well, you don’t strike me as a shrinking violet. There’s still something of the human in you, isn’t there? That is the face your mother gave you, even if it’s become a somewhat immobile, leathery mask.”
“They warned me you were blunt, Captain Embleton. I thought they had to be exaggerating.”
“They weren’t. Bluntness is a time-saver, I find.” She cocked her head at him. “Ah, I see you’re trying to smile.”
“I promise not to scare your guests by doing that too often.”
“I have an impulse to ask if you need anything to keep you warm. Most of our guests require something in this damp Atlantic wind, though of course the worst of the weather is kept off by our sonar and electromagnetic screens.” She snapped her fingers. “Conseil?”
A dustbin-sized robot rolled away from another clump of guests and towards the Captain. “May I serve you?”
Falcon, surprised, found himself nostalgically charmed. “Hello, little fellow. Are you any use at making snowmen . . . ?”
Webster raised his eyebrows.
Embleton said, “We can get you anything you need, Commander.”
“Most people in these situations ask if I’m liable to rust.”
“I did think of it. Anyhow, I’m sure you won’t feel out of place here.” She leaned over and murmured discreetly, “You aren’t our only guest from outer space. Look over to starboard.”
Falcon made out a group of passengers, tall, elegant; when they moved metal glinted on their limbs, and even from here he could hear a whir of servomotors. “Martians?”
“Third generation. Bigwigs in Port Lowell. On Earth, they can’t get out of bed without their exoskeletons. And I’m told that the intensive work done to save you pushed that technology ahead by leaps and bounds.”
“Glad to be of service,” Falcon said.
Embleton nodded. “You may not be very good at smiling, Commander, but you can tell a joke.” They took a step closer to the railings around the edge of the deck. “And you seem to be taken by our sea sprites.”
“Is that what you call them . . . ? Captain, my background is the World Navy, but I’m out of my depth here. Took me a while to figure out that these beasts were mechanical, rather than exotic dolphins.”
“Well, there are dolphins around, and all manner of other wildlife. The seas have rather recovered, you know, since the bad old days. No, these sprites are best thought of as wardens—and very helpful to us they are. Come, walk with me . . .”
It was a reasonable hike. The carrier’s flight deck was a mile long, the passengers had been told, and quilted with hatches that had once released fighter aircraft and smart missiles. To Falcon, looking ahead from near the bow of the craft, the great superstructures and fin-shaped hydroplanes at the stern were faded grey by mist.
Embleton said, walking slowly, “Commander, the dear old Sam Shore is a war veteran, ninety years old, and spends much of its time in dry dock. When at sea we use any intervals when we’re not under power, like this one, to allow the sprites to tend to the hull, the engine vents—even keeping off the barnacles is a challenge.”
“The sprites are independently powered? Autonomously controlled?”
“Self-powered, yes of course, but only a small degree of autonomy. The sprites are controlled from the ship, by the Bosun—”
“Our main computer. Which itself is essentially subordinate to the commands of the crew.” She glanced down at Conseil, which had followed them, holding an empty drinks tray in one flexible manipulator. “Interesting to reflect that the most advanced artificial intelligence on board is actually this little chap.”
Falcon bent to read the robot’s manufacturer’s plaque. He learned that “Conseil” was a General Purpose Homiform Mark 9, a product of Minsky & Good, Inc., of Urbana, Illinois, United States, Atlantic Partnership. Falcon knew the name; Minsky specialised in computing technology. They marketed the best desk-top models available, and some of their advanced minisecs were small enough to fit into a pocket.
“An experimental model, able to take the initiative to some extent. Makes his own decisions about which guest to serve next, to anticipate requests, that sort of thing. And he has some emergency-response capabilities. I’m told that in fact he’s capable of a good deal more independent thought and decision-making than our Bosun. And here he is serving drinks—but that’s the way we like it, of course. With people in charge.”
Webster asked, “Conseil? Why that name?”
Falcon tutted. “Philistine. A Jules Verne reference, of course.”
Webster wasn’t impressed. “That’s rich coming from someone who looks like a prop from a Verne movie . . .”
“What about time delay?”
Embleton looked up at Falcon. “I’m sorry?”
“In your control of the sprites. Here they are playing around within metres of what I believe are your main ballast tanks, running along the hull here.”
Embleton smiled. “You’ve looked us up, I see. Given what happened with the Queen Elizabeth, I see why you’d be concerned about time delays and reaction times . . .”
A signalling time delay between a remotely operated camera platform and its distant human controller had been a crucial factor in the crash of the dirigible. When the platform had hit turbulent air, the controller had been too far away to react, the platform itself too simple to respond autonomously . . . The result had been catastrophic, for the platform itself, for the airship—for Howard Falcon. He wasn’t likely to forget.
Embleton went on, “But you needn’t worry about the sprites. The signal delays are minimal, we have a suite of backup options, and the sprites are tightly programmed. If they’re not sure, they just shut down.”
“But the most elaborate failsafes can go wrong. Yes, as happened with the camera platform that brought down the QE IV.”
Webster pointed up. “A platform not unlike that one, coming towards us.”
Light flared down from a camera platform hovering silently not two metres above their heads.
And just as the light hit Falcon, a man came striding up, brisk, handsome, dressed in a crisp World Navy uniform. A small entourage trailed him, including a younger man continually glancing at the blocky minisec in his hand. The leader looked around forty, but Falcon knew that with the life-extension therapies that were becoming available, looks could be deceiving.
Falcon recognised him. He could hardly not. This was Captain Matthew Springer, conqueror of Pluto: this year’s other hero of space exploration.
Springer took Falcon’s artificial hand without flinching. “Commander Howard Falcon! And Administrator Webster. Captain, forgive me for interrupting. Commander, I was so pleased to learn you’d be on this cruise . . .”
Falcon was aware of the camera platform descending, eager to capture this historic encounter, but with its multiple lenses all trained on Springer.
And Springer was staring closely at Falcon. “Hey—you’re breathing.”
“So are you,” Falcon said dryly.
Webster rolled his eyes.
But Springer seemed immune to irony. “Makes sense, I guess. A touch of humanity. And you can speak more or less naturally. As opposed to through some kind of loudspeaker attachment, right? So what do you use for lungs?”
“I’ll mail you the specifications.”
“Thanks. You know, I followed your exploits as a boy. The ballooning stunts. And I have to tell you that of the last generation of technological pioneers, you’re the one I most—” His aide touched his arm, murmured something, pointed to his minisec. Springer held up his hands. “Got to go—drinks with the World President. You jump when called, right, Commander? Catch you later—and please come to my talk about Icarus and my grandfather, which will be in the—” He pointed at Embleton.
“The Sea Lounge,” Captain Embleton said with good grace, even as Springer retreated.
“And with that he was gone,” Webster said. “Trailed by his fan club like a comet tail, and by that damn platform.”
“Not that the camera spent too long looking at me,” Falcon said.
Embleton laughed. “Well, we wouldn’t want to scare the sea sprites, Commander.” They set off towards the stern again, trailed by Conseil. “I’m sure there are plenty of people on board who’ll be fascinated to meet you. We even have one of the medical team who treated you aboard. But I insist you allow me to give you the guided tour . . . The Shore’s keel was laid at the peak of the last period of real global tension, but the ship never bared its fangs in true anger, I’m happy to say. As a Navy officer yourself you might find elements of the design interesting. Of course, nowadays we’re famous for our world-class passenger facilities.” She glanced over Falcon’s seven-foot-tall body. “I wonder how you’d fare on the ice rink?”
Webster laughed out loud. “He could skate, if we swapped his wheels for blades. But it wouldn’t be pretty.”
“Commander Howard Falcon.” The voice was a gravelly growl.
And—as a group of passengers passed them, drinks in their hands, gaudy as flowers against the Atlantic grey, all no doubt fabulously rich—Falcon stopped and found himself facing a group of chimpanzees.
There were a dozen, of whom three or four glared at the humans with undisguised hostility. The chimps wore no clothes save for loose stringed jackets heavy with pockets, even though some were evidently shivering with the cold. They huddled down on the deck, their closed fists scraping the metal surface. Their apparent leader was older, grizzled grey around the muzzle, and he stood a little taller than the rest.
Embleton stepped forward briskly. “I should make proper introductions. You know Commander Falcon already. Commander, this is Ham 2057a, Ambassador to the World Council of the Independent Pan Nation, and another guest of President Jayasuriya.”
Falcon tried not to stare. This was the first simp—superchimp—he’d seen since the crash of the QE IV. “I’m glad to meet you, sir.”
“And I you, Commander.”
“Are you enjoying the cruise?”
“Missing home in Congo treetops, to tell truth . . .” The Ambassador spoke distorted but comprehensible English, evidently with some effort. One of his aides seemed to be an interpreter, relaying the speech to the others in pant-hoots and gestures. “Know you, of course. To us, Howard Falcon famous for more than Jupiter.”
“The crash of the Queen.”
“Many simps died that day.”
“And many human crew—”
“Simps! Given slave names, like my own. Dressed like dolls. Made to work on cruise ship grander than this one, Boss.”
Falcon was aware of Webster flinching at that word. “Well, now, Bittorn’s programme was well intended,” said the Administrator. “It was meant as a way to establish a bridge between cousin species—”
Ham snorted. “Simps! So damn useful, clambering around space stations in zero G—climbing in airship rigging. And so funny-funny cute in little slave uniforms, serving drinks. Other animals too. Smart dogs. Smart horses . . . Smart enough to know humiliation and fear. All dead now . . .
“Then, ship crashed. You barely survived. Millions spent saving you. Some simps survived, barely. They not saved. Millions not spent. Simps euthed.”
Embleton stepped forward. “Ambassador, this is hardly the time or the place—”
Ham ignored her. “But you, Commander Falcon. Records of crash. No cameras, but forensics, word of survivors. Some simps lasted long enough to tell story. The ship, doomed. You heading down, down to bridge, risk life to save ship, if you could. And you found frightened simp. You stopped, Commander. Stopped, calmed him, told him go, not down, down, but up, up to observation deck. Where he would have best chance. You said, ‘Boss—boss—go!’”
Falcon looked away. “He died anyway.”
“Did your best. His name, Baker 2079q. Eight years old. We remember, you see. All simps. Remember them, every one. They were people. Better times now.” He surprised Falcon by reaching up with one hand. Falcon had to lower his upper body to take it. “You come visit Independent Pan Nation.”
“I’d like that very much,” Falcon said.
“I’m always up for a challenge.”
Embleton smiled. “Not until you’ve tried ice skating, Commander—”
But a voice cut across her words: “Whale ahoy! Starboard side!”
Falcon turned with the rest.
* * * *
The whales were heading north.
Looking out over this grey ocean, under a grey sky, the great bodies looked like an armada, a fleet of ships, not like anything living at all. Of course they were dwarfed by the tremendous length of the carrier, but there was a power and purpose about them that no machine of mankind could ever match: a fitness for purpose in this environment.
Now one tremendous head lifted out of the water not thirty, forty metres from the flank of the Shore, misshapen to Falcon’s untutored gaze, and battered. Pocked and scarred like the surface of some asteroid. But a vast mouth opened, a cave from whose roof dangled the baleen plates that filtered this beast’s diet of plankton from the upper levels of the sea, a thin gruel to power such a tremendous body. And then an eye opened, huge but startlingly human.
As he looked into that eye, Falcon felt a jolt of recognition.
He had travelled to Jupiter, where, in layers of cloud where conditions were temperate, almost Earthlike, he had encountered another tremendous animal: a medusa, a creature the size of the Shore itself, swimming in that unimaginably remote sea. This whale had been shaped by evolutionary pressures in an environment not entirely dissimilar to Jupiter’s hydrogen-helium air-ocean, and surely had much in common with the
medusae. And yet Falcon felt a kinship of common biology with this tremendous terrestrial mammal that he knew he could never share with any Jovian medusa.
Ham, the simp Ambassador, was at his side. “There you are, Commander Falcon. Another Legal Person (Non-human).” And he pant-hooted with laughter.