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Edward M. Lerner is the author of nine solo science fiction novels, plus five more in collaboration with Larry Niven. His short work is regularly featured in Analog. This is his first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

THE TORCHMAN'S TALE
by
Edward M. Lerner

It was, according to the calendar, All Hallows’ Eve. Trick or treat. Costumes and revelry. Jack-o’-lanterns. Crisp weather. The chill, at the least, we had. Outside, the temperature almost reached sixty degrees.

Kelvin.

With the sun no more than a bright star in the sky, the hour on the clock seemed as irrelevant as the calendar.

Gripping a sodden rag, I chased slop and spills around the bar. (Not that any of the hard-drinking spacers who frequented the saloon would care. I cared; it was the curse of owning the place.) The snowball I had come to call home offered but three percent of a standard gravity, and to collect rather than scatter the mess took, if not skill, at least attention to detail. Focused on my task, not looking up, I said to the approach of clanking footsteps, “We don’t serve your kind.”

Because what would a robot imbibe, anyway? Who wanted to drink even cheap beer or rotgut around the smell of 5W40? And I say this, no sarcasm intended, despite the fact that some of my best friends are bots.

“My kind. You mean ghosts? Today of all days you should make an exception.”

Beneath that flat, synthesized voice I intuited humor, but lifting my gaze I saw only a cheap robot: not quite a meter and a half tall, tarnished from boxy head to toeless foot, socketed wrists for interchangeable tools/hands.

“Boo,” it said.

That hardly sounded like a bot. A mobile, then? Only I had yet to meet an upload, mobile or otherwise, with any more sense of humor than a bot. I wondered if maybe the transfer process had been improved recently, had started retaining a bit more of the original’s personality. Barring some horrible accident, I was a couple decades removed from needing to study the matter. “What can I do for you?”

It projected a holo over the bar. “Do you recognize him?”

I looked. It wasn’t even a proper picture, but rather a rendering of the sort cop software interpolates from witness descriptions. A guy in a plain jumpsuit. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Bland expression. Setting aside the heavy, almost biblical, black beard, ordinary looking. “No,” I said. “That doesn’t mean much. Lots of folks pass through here.”

“Look closer,” it urged.

I looked. I shrugged.

It projected a few more images, removing the beard, fleshing out the face, aging him.

I shrugged again. If the job were open, this guy could be the poster child for nondescript.

The holo changed once more, this time offering an actual camera image. The torchship, at rest upon some featureless icy plain, wasn’t quite a museum piece in the same league as a Conestoga wagon. (Hey, I’d been to Earth, back when I was young and could bear that hellish gravity.) The damned ungainly vessels were too cheap and, with lots of labor-intensive maintenance, too reliable ever to go entirely out of service. Still, for at least a century no one with an extra solar to his name would fly in one. Apart from, perhaps, a unique piebald arrangement to its collection of replacement hull segments, nothing distinguished this space scow from any of its antique kind.

“I don’t believe so,” I said. “I haven’t seen a torchship in years. But I’m a homebody.”

“Thanks, anyway.” It clanked off to speak with that morning’s meager clientele: two regulars and two spacers I’d not laid eyes on before that day. Those inquiries appeared to yield no more useful result than it had had with me.

“So it goes.” The bot clanked back to the bar, the clatter reminding me of … something. “A whiskey, please.”

I tucked away the rag. “No offense, but why?”

“None taken.” It synthesized what might have been a laugh. “Things aren’t always what they seem.”

Studying the metal body before me, I noticed, just above the base of its neck, a little brass grommet securing a slitted rubber diaphragm. That intake appeared compatible with the nipple of a drink bulb. “And therein hangs a tale?”

“Long and sad,” the bot agreed. “And for a bulb of your finest, you’ll have it.”

As I filled a drink bulb, still wondering what a bot could want with liquor, the stranger began ….

***

“This all started”—it paused dramatically (and for a long sip through the cervical intake I’d just spotted)—“many years ago.”

It? No, he, I decided, with no more basis for that identification than turns of phrase. Certainly he never offered a name, and I never asked. Even among the regulars, I disbelieved many of the names I’d been given. Lots of people come to the Dark to hide. My business was to offer drinks, and an ear to those who needed one, not to judge.

“Before my time,” he amplified. “Early in the Migrations. I won’t bore you with the particular heresy my people embraced, because that doesn’t in any way impact the story. I’ve come to understand it’s not even all that heretical anymore, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Anyway, my ancestors left Earth on a handful of ships like this”—once again, he flashed the image of a timeworn torchship—“but new at the time. We settled on a world bigger than Mars, deep within the Cloud.”

The Cloud. By comparison, this ice ball, the entire Kuiper Belt, was in the solar tropics. The Cloud had exactly nothing to offer that the Belt didn’t, apart from yet more yawning void between worlds. Only the most extreme of the extreme ever settled in the Cloud. Back in the day, these folks must’ve been real unpopular or antisocial. Maybe both.

I judged the time had come for an encouraging comment. “Go on.”

He saluted me with the bulb, a very human gesture. “We got our privacy, all right, and the opportunity to live free of condemnation and harassment. If the rest of the Solar System forgot we had ever existed—and, as it turns out, it has—so much the better.

“Time passed. For awhile, we prospered. The merest fraction of the water ice of our new world provided enough deuterium to power our fusion reactors for many millennia. The ‘rocky’ parts furnished enough ores of enough kinds for anything we would care to print. The glancing blow of another Cloud object, in some unknowably distant past, had left behind a huge mass of carbonaceous material for whatever organics we might ever want to synth.”

“Sounds idyllic.” Mentally I added: in a reclusive sort of way.

“I’m told it was … until it wasn’t. Our world turned out to have far less in the way of several rare-earth elements than the founders had estimated.” He paused for another sip. “Ever hear of Easter Island?”

I shook my head.

“Well, neither had we. I learned about it after I left.”

From a table in the corner, where conversation had stopped, one of my regulars piped up, “Middle of some Earth ocean? Place with big stone heads?”

“That’s the one,” our metallic visitor agreed. “Except that situation is a lot stranger, and sadder, than some enigmatic statues. People came to the island aboard big log boats. It must have been some kind of paradise when they found it, and the population grew and grew—until it crashed. They’d exhausted some of the critical resources.”

“Including trees?” I guessed.

“Indeed. They were stranded.” He held out his drink bulb.

Our arrangement, such as it was, had been for just the one serving, but I was sufficiently intrigued not to quibble. I refilled the bulb and gave it back. “Rare-earth elements,” I prompted.

“Used in superconducting magnets, needed for fusion reactors.” He raised a metallic hand in another very human-seeming gesture. “Yeah, yeah. Modern superconductors don’t use rare earths. And modern fusion reactors don’t require superconductors. We didn’t have that tech.”

In the course of this narration, one of the regulars had sidled up to the bar. “So you looked elsewhere. I assume that’s what you did?”

“No more trees,” I guessed. “I mean, no more ships.”

The stranger nodded. Minutes earlier, the hinge-like motion, all that that cheap robotic body could manage, would have seemed appropriate. No matter that I had yet to understand, the gesture now was simply wrong.

“Ships’ reactors had been used to bootstrap the colony. As the population grew, and as the old reactors required more and more maintenance, we found ourselves running low of those absolutely critical rare-earth elements. Conservation measures sufficed for a while. Eventually we had to scavenge some reactors for parts and materials to keep others running. Once power rationing began, there was no denying that our long-cherished isolation was a mixed blessing.

“We’d kept one ship intact for emergencies—our smallest vessel, operable with a two-person crew. Of course, now that an emergency had come around, time and neglect had rendered that ship unusable. We got it fixed up, scavenging what we could from the reactorless hulks—fortunately, those hadn’t yet been completely recycled—and printing everything else. Filling its tanks damn near depleted our deuterium reserves. And here is where we depart history and begin my story. Someone needed to ride along in case the fusion drive needed maintenance. I’m a reactor engineer, as close to a torchman as any of us got, and I volunteered.”

I said, “I’ll guess you didn’t find what you needed.”

“And you’re right. With a fleet of ships, an army of planetary geologists, and more time to search than we could spare, maybe the outcome would have been different. Maybe. Instead, as power rationing became severe, the decision was made to buy supplies from the … well, let’s just say our culture had become insular, and our term for anyone in-system was less than flattering. No matter that our world lacked rare-earth elements, we had noble metals, and in particular, palladium and gold, in abundance.”

Someone snorted. “Why wouldn’t you? Those are common enough all over. Inner and outer Belts.”

“Which is one of the ironies,” our storyteller said. “But again, that’s getting ahead of events. So: two of us volunteered to make the long voyage in-system. As captain and navigator”—illustrated with the momentary reappearance of the rendering—“George, though I know he’s changed names at least once since. As engineer, as you will have guessed, myself.”

“So, okay,” one of my newcomers said, “the bearded guy is George. And you are?”

“Screwed.”

At which everyone laughed.

I’m incapable of going longer than a few minutes without wiping down the bar. For no better reason than habit, I started polishing. “Sounds like a lot of responsibility to put on just two people.”

“True, and especially so in hindsight. But the fewer people aboard, the less strain on a temperamental and deteriorating life-support system.” He offered his bulb for yet another refill, and I obliged. “Early in the flight, still deep within the Cloud, George began, well, I don’t know what—rhapsodizing? Fantasizing? Obsessing?—about what life must be like on Earth.

“I must admit George got me to wondering, the more so as our long, tedious voyage continued. How can’t a person find some appeal in a world where a careless moment won’t necessarily be fatal? Where land and sea and sky teem with life forms beyond counting? Where the ocean, mother of us all, laps white sand beaches under a warm sun?”

Evidently he saw the incongruity of his questions, too, for he emitted another mechanical-sounding synthed laugh. “What use have I now for sun and sand?

“Anyway, George finally confessed to his plan. He had no intention of returning to our world. The colony, he argued, was doomed. Returning with a few supplies would only prolong the dying. How would it benefit anyone for the two of us to perish with them? Why shouldn’t we take the wealth aboard and use it to make new lives for ourselves? Why not bask in the sun on some secluded beach?

“I was shocked, horrified, aghast, and—the scariest of all—I was tempted. Still, I said no. Of course, I said no. I reminded him that every man, woman, and child at home was relying on us. I said that we had a duty to do as we’d promised. He relented after a heated argument, and I considered the matter settled. George prepped dinner for us both in the ship’s tiny galley. I ate. As my mind churned, reliving the quarrel, I was pleasantly surprised to catch myself yawning. Soon after, I fell asleep.

“I woke in a lifepod, adrift in space.”

***

“Why hadn’t he killed me outright? I don’t know. Easier on his conscience, I suppose, because he could always tell himself I’d be rescued.”

By now everyone, including some strangers and another three regulars, newly arrived, had abandoned all pretense of disinterest and sidled up to the bar. Our storyteller having, once again, fallen silent, one of the gang gestured she’d buy not only his refill, but a round for the house.

I still didn’t understand why a robot—even though he somehow wasn’t a robot—wanted or could use booze. And evidently that perplexity was written plain on my face.

“We’re coming to why,” the stranger said, saluting me and his benefactress with the refilled bulb. “There I was, awakening out of a stupor just in time to die alone in the dark. I was barely functional enough to understand George had drugged me, and too muddled to work out whether I’d freeze or suffocate first. And it was already damned cold ….”

“Bastard,” one of the crowd muttered.

“And yet,” the stranger continued, “however accidentally, George’s choice saved me. The drugs in my system—whatever the hell it was he’d synthed—and the cold, and hypoxia … together, somehow, they put me into a hibernating state before any one thing could kill me outright. And so, in a loose manner of speaking, I was alive as my pod coasted sunward.

“Some time later, a freighter in the inner Cloud spotted the lifepod, picked me up. Luckily—though whether of the good or ill variety, is open to debate—that crew had the sense to leave me undisturbed in the deep freeze till they got to a settled rock.”

“How long?” asked the woman who’d bought the round.

The stranger dipped a shoulder; I don’t doubt this was the nearest that metallic body could come to the sideways cant of a head in thought. “How long was I adrift? I have no idea. My people had abandoned the traditional calendar along with everything else they’d left behind. But surely months, and more likely years.

“My brain was, loosely speaking, intact, but several other organs were too damaged to save. The doctors who revived me offered two choices. They could upload my mind, which they strongly advised, or they could install my brain inside a robotic shell. They didn’t have many bots on hand to choose from, and I didn’t have long to decide. Even with massive life support, my body was shutting down.

“Uploading is familiar to you, but to me that technology was new and terrifying. I knew that I’d lost some memories. How many more would be lost—if the process worked at all—copying from a frost-damaged brain? And how many more could I lose and still be … me?

“Because I had to stay me. I had to retain what memories I could. Because I had to catch up with George.”

“For revenge,” I said, and the crowd growled its assent.

“That, too,” the stranger said. “But vengeance is the least of it. Just maybe, the people I left behind have managed to hold on. Just maybe, I can yet save them by returning with a reactor or two, and a wikiful of modern technology. But only if I can find George.

“Because chief among my lost memories is where, in all the vast Cloud, is home.”

***

As always, more and more people had wandered into the saloon as the lunch hour approached. A grizzled spacer I didn’t recognize, arriving near the end of that sad narration, whispered urgently with one of my regulars. The newcomer nodded along with the retelling, then called out, “Can I see the image of your torchship?”

“Of course.”

“Hmm.” The newcomer slowly circled the holo, parting the crowd like Moses at the Red Sea. “Yes. Yes, I’ve seen it. Somewhere.” Frowning, tattooed arms folded across his barrel-like chest, he at last summoned up, “On Triton? Pluto? No, somewhere farther out. It was Makemake. Two years ago, if it was a day. Standard.”

Of course, standard years. No person alive, not even an upload, had seen Makemake—or any Kuiper Belt Object—make a full circuit around the sun. Makemake’s “year” was more than three hundred standard.

“Two years,” our tale-teller echoed. His torso held but one vid output, and he switched the projection to George. “And him?”

“Possibly I saw your guy, without the beard,” the newcomer said, doubtfully. “A beer,” he added to me.

“Where was the ship going next?”

The newcomer shrugged. “Can’t say. I don’t believe I ever knew, I just saw it in port.”

I filled and handed off a bulb. “There’s something I don’t understand. You say George stole the ship to go to Earth. Why keep looking out here?”

“And here’s where the irony kicks in.” The metal man had another nip of whiskey, then returned the bulb to me.

How much booze till a voice-synthesizer slurs its speech? Wrong question, obviously. How little booze does it take to pickle a disembodied brain, without a body to soak up most of the alcohol? I said, “Maybe that’s enough for awhile.”

He favored us with another awkward robotic shrug. “I haven’t consumed a tenth of it. It’s mostly in a reservoir for later. I’m still human enough to worry where my next drink will come from. And that it not be a glucose solution.”

A few bulbfuls were a modest enough recompense for this story. I gave him another refill. “Now about George and irony?”

“Remember our precious cargo? A load of, as it turned out, all but worthless metal. And George’s knowledge of navigation, or of anything else, for that matter, is as hopelessly obsolete as mine of reactor technology. Far from buying an island like he wanted, he was broke and unequipped for any but the most menial Earth jobs. His one useful skill was flying our torchship. So that’s what he’s been doing, hauling freight, and anyone who’d hire such an old tub isn’t exactly paying top solar for the service. Meanwhile, anyone he can find to keep a torchship flying can charge pretty much whatever George has managed to accumulate. It’ll be a long while, if ever, before he can afford Earth.”

And with that, we seemed to have reached the saga’s inconclusive conclusion. Along the bar, in twos and threes, conversations began. Other people wandered off to tables. Our storyteller decanted his latest bulb, synthed a sigh, and gave me the empty. He turned toward the door.

“Wait,” I called after him. “Where will you go? What will you do?”

“What I’ve done, for nearly ten years, on every rock and snowball I reach. I’ll stop into every watering hole and greasy spoon, every flophouse and whorehouse, that spacers and dockhands frequent. I’ll ask my questions, I’ll tell my tale, over and over. That’s how I first discovered George had left the Cloud, made his way into the Belt, changed his name. And if I don’t learn anything newer than what I just heard? Then I’ll work my way, somehow, to Makemake. Someone there will know where George was headed.

“Mark my words: someday, I will find him. Someday, I’ll beat out of him the orbital parameters of our home world, and I’ll lead back a relief mission. Somehow.” With magnetized feet clanking, he started to go.

“The Kuiper Belt is huge,” I said. “The odds of you catching up …”

“Are astronomical? True enough. But no longer than the odds of me surviving in that lifepod and being rescued.” He gestured at his metal body. “Of me turning into a pumpkin.”

He made his way to the exit, turned left into the corridor, vanished from view. For the longest while I listened to the soft clatter of footsteps—like the jangling chains of a ghost—as they receded.

When that spectral rattle was lost in the distance, I dug out a dry rag and resumed polishing the bar.

Copyright © 2017 Edward M. Lerner

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

The Editor's Word

FICTION
ZOMBIES ANONYMOUS
by Larry Hodges
GIOVANNI’S TREE
by Nick DiChario

THE WATERS AND THE WILD
by Mercedes Lackey
TO THEM WE ARE MERELY CLAY
by Liz Colter
WE GET WHAT WE DESERVE
by Kevin J. Anderson
and Neil Peart

IT’S NOT A PURPLE
PEOPLE EATER

by Marina J. Lostetter.

THE TORCHMAN’S TALE
by Edward M. Lerner
ELITES
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

WITHIN
by Fabio F. Centamore

FAREWELL MY SOLDIER, MY HUSBAND, MY LOVE
by Paul Eckheart
SCHERZO WITH TYRANNOSAUR
by Michael Swanwick

INTERVIEW
Robert Silverberg

by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
Double Star (Part 1)
=Heinlein's First Hugo Winner=
by Robert A. Heinlein

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford
Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2017. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.