Acadia: A New Sci-Fi Novel (Excerpt)

Enjoy the first chapter of a new novel from James Erwin, creator of Rome Sweet Rome. If you'd like to support it, Erwin has established a crowdfunding project where you can order DRM-free ebooks and hardcopies.

Kate’s alarm went off at six. She stretched, setting off a string of pops in her limbs and back. Frowning, she swung her legs and sat up. Her eyes half-open, she noticed that the usual warmth was missing from the light coming through her window. The light seemed thinner somehow, stretched and fading. She closed her eyes, a sense of foreboding descending on her. She stood and pressed her palm against the glass. She opened her eyes.

Kate’s window looked out over Lake Michigan, a finger of wooded land stretching out on her left into the dawn mist. She frowned. A cold tingling crawled up her back. In the distance, a pair of egrets burst up from the lakeshore.

“Goddammit, Virgil,” she hissed.

The window stuttered to a blinding white and went dark. The lights came up overhead. Kate held up her hand and walked to the bathroom.

“Kate, I-“

“Privacy.”

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Kate walked back and stood in the center of the room, her arms folded. She kept her face still. She’d be damned if she made it easy for him. Easier than it usually was, anyway.

“I should have seen it. I am deeply sorry.”

Kate tried to keep her breathing steady but she knew Virgil would notice something. Something that told him he’d hit the mark.

“Kate, you know I do what I do out of the best intentions. It’s not always enough. I will remember this in the future.”

Kate’s lip twitched, in a gesture that wasn’t nearly as sardonic as she’d hoped. “You always keep your promises.”

“I always have.”

“Past tense? Keeping your options open?”

“Kate.” Virgil’s tone was warm, playful. But just back far enough from cheerful. Glad she’d let things go. Just enough reserve there to remind them both that they were both doing a job, that he was watching her. Kate smiled.

“They made you too perfect, Virgil.”

“That’s not a compliment, is it?”

“Could be if my coffee’s ready.”

“It’s not. I thought you would come out to the living room and look at today’s schedule before asking for it.”

Kate shook her head in mock disappointment. “Don’t fall apart on me, Virgil.” She scratched the back of her neck absently as she reflected that she’d never even gotten out her complaint. Virgil had shifted the conversation, ended it before it started with her full participation – and, dammit, yes, left her cheerful. She walked to the living room, more frustrated with herself than Virgil. Thinking about him was about the only hobby she had left.

It occurred to Kate that Virgil would know that. That a simple mistake, one easily explained away and just as easily shelved, would let Virgil test her while giving her something to focus on. If you defined focus as disappearing down the rabbit hole and thinking about thinking about Virgil. Was he running a diagnostic check, occupying another dark, quiet day?

“Virgil,” Kate called, “are you fucking with me?”

“Kate, I never fuck with you. If you quit and make me defrost another engineer, I’ll have to spend hours figuring out how the new one works.”

Kate rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to win. I give up. Give me the schedule.”

As she grabbed her pad and flopped onto the couch, the living room’s wall blinked twice and went dark, her workspace coming up. Virgil spread out a web of interconnected checklists and incident reports, all minor, green tags pulsing indifferently. A single yellow tag. Kate quirked an eyebrow at it and the incident’s folder splayed across the wall, videos and charts and projections. Interesting work, she decided. Worth checking out. She stood up to grab a coffee.

A small machine chimed from the other end of the living room.

“Coffee’s ready,” said Virgil.

Showered and dressed, Kate snagged a couple of strawberries from her garden wall and a lunch pack from her refrigerator. She palmed open her door.

Virgil had a butler waiting for her. Kate usually went South on foot, but time was an issue today. She climbed aboard and buckled in. The butler whistled once as its treads picked up speed. They passed out of the Home torus and through the chilly, dark corridors of the Silo. There were almost 10,000 people sleeping in the Silo, tucked into hibernation pods, but their quiet presence only made the place lonelier. You could feel the rotation down here too, the Coriolis forces just a shade stronger at your feet. Fifteen hundred meters. Kate hated every one of them, right up to the South wall.

The butler pulled in its treads and extended its four spindly but inhumanly graceful and strong arms. Strapped to its back, Kate smiled at the memory of watching butlers move around the ship. With their deft arms and bug eyes, they looked more like a child’s drawing of a praying mantis than billion-dollar machines capable of juggling ten-kilogram balls.

The butler climbed the stairs to the central shaft. As they climbed, the sensation of spinning grew stronger and stronger. Kate’s stomach clenched and she made a face.

“How are we doing?”

Kate snapped a thumb up. “Just peachy, Virgil.” She dug a strawberry out of her pocket and bit into it nonchalantly.

“Good to hear.”

The butler reached the top of the stairs. It flipped up a red safety cover to reveal a chrome toggle switch straight out of a NASA fetishist’s collection. Kate strongly suspected it might actually be a piece of 20th-century engineering; she’d found Easter eggs like that all over the ship, little flourishes by the thousands of technicians and designers who’d had a hand in building Acadia.

The butler whistled twice as the top rungs of the staircase disengaged from the spinning wall and began braking. The butler and Kate became weightless as their smaller ring slowed and latched to the Spine, the corridor that ran down Acadia’s center. Behind them, the Silo continued to whir past at 16 meters a second.

Kate’s hair floated up in her face as the butler opened a hatch and clambered into the Spine. Irked, she snatched a ponytail holder out of her sleeve pocket. Dealing with Coriolis forces would leave you dizzy. And zero gravity would let your hair float free. These were not difficult things to foresee.

Virgil would be watching, of course. He’d note Kate’s lapse of judgment.

The butler exited the Spine a hundred meters or so down, deep in the Factory. The lights were already on, but it was cold enough for Kate’s breath to show.

The butler zipped up next to a dressing station and whistled twice. Kate unbuckled herself and nestled against the dressing station’s cushioned bars. She was annoyed at herself but not too annoyed to refuse the butler’s help as she wrestled into her spacesuit. Science and engineering had made a great deal of progress, but the requirements of the human body and the rigors of interstellar vacuum had left the dream of a comfortable spacesuit in the dwindling realm of science fiction.

Finally, the butler tugged a couple of latches into place and nodded, turning on her airpack with a final satisfied whistle. Kate nodded and gestured to the dressing station. Her suit’s boots could stick to the floor as well as the butler’s treads, so she walked into the airlock as the dressing station slid aside to reveal it.

“Five seconds, Kate.”

Kate nodded. “Sounds good.”

Precisely five seconds later, Virgil pumped the atmosphere out of the airlock. The outer door opened, and Kate stepped onto the surface of Acadia.

Five years ago, Kate jumped on every opportunity to come out here. She’d loved the thrill of staring off the ship’s stern, watching the Sun slowly shrink, peering as closely at the white-hot thrusters as she could before Virgil shut off her visor. She’d loved looking forward at Acadia’s magnetic scoop, trying to catch some glimpse of the invisible cone that was funneling the vacuum’s stray atoms into its antimatter furnace. In those days, she’d even grinned at the dizzying challenge of spacewalking on a rotating cylinder. But that was five years ago.

From her vantage point on the Factory section, Kate could see the thrusters’ glow at the edge of her vision. Looking forward, she watched the Silo and Home rotating around the Spine. Past them, the magnetic scoop’s dish was hidden, as was the field of charged plasma it was using to swallow every atom in the ship’s path. Kate quickly looked back at her feet. She hooked two carabineers to a tramline. Looking up the line, she swallowed quickly.

“Couple of spiders, Virgil.”

“You got it.” Virgil’s voice was quiet, almost tense. Whatever Kate thought of Virgil, she knew that he genuinely did not want her flying off the ship and tumbling through the void at half the speed of light. Two spider robots came alongside Kate as the tramline pulled her along the ship’s hull, arms hovering respectfully a few centimeters above Kate as they escorted her. They waddled, wiggling each foot to confirm it was stuck to the ship before moving forward. Their bodies were hidden inside crumpled layers of gold radiation foil, redundant strings of eyes and infrared sensors and x-ray probes studding their utilitarian surfaces. The spiders weren’t nearly as cute as the butlers, but being cute wasn’t their job. Kate liked them.

They came to a bump in Acadia’s hull, the anchor for a sensor pod. Kate unhooked herself and planted her boots on the surface. Her heart was pounding.

Kate waited, listening to her own breath. She was waiting for Virgil to say something, do something. For him to just pick her up with a spider and drag her back to the airlock, shove her forward, anything. But Virgil stayed quiet and did nothing. The silence stretched on. A stray fiber set off an itch above her hip.

“Virgil,” she said quietly. “Losing my nerve.”

“I know, Kate.”

“I don’t like it out here.”

“You can come back inside.”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean… I think I’ve made a mistake.”

“Kate, please come back to the lock if you’d like to talk.”

Kate set her jaw. “I should just get this done.”

“The spiders can do this.”

Kate knelt down to peer at the anchor. The emergency bolts had fired, and the 200-kilometer wire anchored to it had spun off into space. Kate gestured and the incident folder scrolled across her display. Images from a nearby sensor pod; a single flash. Kate spun through the overlays; x-ray, infrared, visual.

The sensor pods poked out past the diameter of the scoop, sampling the vacuum. They were vulnerable out there, but hard enough to take the impact of the occasional stray atom. This pod had encountered the unthinkable; a bit of rock or ice far from home, maybe a gram or so. Their collision set off an explosion that rivaled an atomic bomb. The blast triggered the bolts, sending the damaged antenna whipping into space before it could flail into Acadia.

It was wildly improbable. It was ridiculous. And if one of those magnetic charges had gone off a millionth of a second late, the whole ship might have been at risk.

“The risk is over now, right, Virgil? The odds of that happening twice. Impossible.”

“The risk tomorrow is exactly the same as it was yesterday.”

Kate bit her lip hard. Of course it was. Basic probability, stuff she’d picked up at her grandfather’s knee. She was an engineer. She was a professional. She was a politician. She’d outsmarted Paul Nakamura, the uncrowned king of the Asteroid Belt. She’d beaten thousands of engineers to get this slot, she’d climbed to the top of the Cooperative and NASA before that. She’d had to excel at everything she’d done, she’d fought hard to get to where she was, riding 500,000 metric tons of metal and plastic and carbon to Alpha Centauri. Her cheeks burned hot. She was smarter than this, better than this.

A spider squatted down nearby, a set of replacement bolts and a fresh sensor pod strapped to its back. Kate glanced past it, to see two spiders carefully bringing up a meter-wide spool of new wire. Two hundred kilometers long and a millimeter thick, ridiculously overengineered.

The bolts were nothing. The wire was the hard part. It was prone to kinking if treated carelessly, and the angle had to be maintained precisely to stay inside Acadia’s inertial field while poking outside the ramscoop’s diameter. For the hours it took to deploy a new sensor pod’s wire, the ship was blind on part of its perimeter and vulnerable to another accident if the wire was deployed with a kink in it.

Virgil could handle the computations easily, but he’d have to directly puppet a couple of spiders to run the spool out. He’d have to drop concentrating on a few of the thousands of tasks he was concurrently monitoring. Kate knew he was uncomfortable spending that much time imagining himself embodied as a spider, or anything else. Sending Kate out – and keeping her motivated – was less of a hassle for jobs like this.

“Alright,” she said, “I’m back. Displays up.” Her helmet pinged and animated lines surged off into space, indicating the angle for the wire. She gestured at the spiders, setting them to replace the bolts. “Ready when you are.”

Kate rubbed some sand out of her eyes. For the third day in a row, she’d been taking on tedious work for the sake of filling time. To be honest, she hadn’t done anything that couldn’t have been done faster by a butler or a spider, or even a mouse or bee or one of Virgil’s more specialized robots. But everything she had done, she’d done well. The line of her welds might betray the shakiness of mere muscles, but they’d hold against space as well as the micron-precise work of a butler.

She’d barely acknowledged to herself that she was getting bored when Virgil interrupted her in the Factory, watching a printer build up some prototypes she’d designed for a new dressing station setup.

“I like this,” Virgil mused. “The new set of bars; they make it easier to kick the legs up.”

Kate nodded. “I always do that little bounce getting into the waist piece.”

“Doesn’t fold up as neatly.”

Kate shrugged. “It doesn’t need to be out of the way. It needs to do a job.”

“I’ll use that to segue into my next agenda item. The midcourse correction.”

Kate nodded. A lot of Acadia’s fuel was being held in reserve for the midcourse correction, the last full-power thruster firing before the ship approached its destination and began braking. The trip to Alpha Centauri was almost half over, and it had been undertaken at a terrifying but uneven velocity; as the ramscoop fed the atoms it collected into the ship’s engines, it picked up speed. The acceleration was unpredictable, which led to infinitesimal drift. And as Acadia approached Alpha Centauri, its instruments were continually refining its model of the planetary system. Virgil had been tweaking his simulations since before Acadia passed Jupiter on its way out of the solar system. The slightest miscalculation would doom the ship and everyone aboard it.

“I assume you’ll want me to lift some constraints on your computing power?”

“So to speak. I want you to help me.”

Kate blinked. “Wouldn’t you rather… I mean, navigation isn’t my specialty.”

“Kate, I have to stop a half-million-ton behemoth going 150,000 klicks per second and ease it into orbit around a planet that I am still trying to get a decent photo of. There are a lot of basic scenarios I still haven’t thoroughly gamed out. All hands on deck.”

Kate gave Virgil a thumbs up. “So I’m still useful to you?”

“Best friends forever.”

Kate’s alarm went off at six. She rolled over in bed, cracking her neck. Warm light came in through the window, a salt ocean breeze with it. Kate stared at the Caribbean for a while, listening to pelicans.

“This is too fucking cheery for me today, Virgil.”

“You’re right. This day has been a shitshow from start to finish.”

Kate rubbed her eyes, burrowing into her comforter. “What’s on the schedule today?”

“Nothing. Unless you want to go down to the Factory and print out five centimeters of plastic tubing.”

“Pass. Seriously, there’s nothing today?”

“We’ve been a good team lately and you’ve put in twelve long days in a row. I wouldn’t assign you anything if I had it. Game of chess? Movie marathon?”

Kate got out of bed. She was restless, fidgety. Days of staring at numbers and trajectory cones and barely moving.

“Going for a jog, down in the Silo. Pipe my workout music down there, please. And I’ll think about today’s agenda. Maybe I’ll read the news for once, find out about the big vote.”

“The results reached us twelve days ago.”

“Spoil it and I’ll unplug you.”

Kate grinned as she jogged through the Silo. At half the radius of the Home torus, the Silo was actually fun to run through in a certain frame of mind. Kate could feel the cylinder spin under her feet, her head being left behind as it pulled to the right. Once she found the timing, it actually helped her focus. She felt like a sailor getting her sea legs.

Her feet struck, again and again, music echoing in her ears. Prokofiev, Mission of Burma, Godwin, Vesta Chorale. After a while, it faded; the drift, the music, the exhilarated exhaustion, the pounding feet and pounding heart, it was a meditation. Kate closed her eyes, trusting her feet to carry her. Left and right, she moved forward.

A stab of icy pain lanced across her left foot, and she fell forward. Kate gasped, her eyes jerking open as she stumbled forward. She landed hard on her right knee and shoulder, her head knocking against the floor. She bit her tongue.

“Fuck,” she spit out, curling up. She clenched herself and stretched out, her fists balled and eyes tearing up. She sat up, wiping angrily at her eyes. She wasn’t hurt badly, but it was a stupid mistake. Jogging with her eyes closed in a dark spinning cylinder, dozens of little robots underfoot, a stray cable maybe, a thousand things she could have foreseen without a whole lot of work. She shook her head.

Kate grabbed hard at her shoulder, scooting back against a hibernation pod. She flexed her feet and knees. With a last deep breath, she looked behind her to see what had tripped her. There was nothing there, nothing but corridor stretching into the darkness.

Kate noticed the music had stopped.

“Virgil?”

The silence stretched out. Kate slid quietly to her feet, holding her breath.

“Virgil! VIRGIL!”

There was no response. Kate immediately glanced at the nearby pods. Their displays all blinked with cheery greens and purples. Kate began moving to the front of the Silo. She whistled for a butler. Kate gestured for her displays, and they scrolled up through her vision. Green everywhere, Virgil online and everything else functioning.

“Virgil, you’re there. I know you’re there. Quit-“

Kate didn’t finish the sentence. Once again, something like a bar of ice slammed into her foot. This time, it didn’t trip her – it pulled her down.

Kate screamed as she turned around. A blur of white, low to the ground, almost faster than she could see, disappearing behind a hibernation pod. Kate scrambled after it, hauling herself around the pod. She saw nothing.

Kate was shaking, her fingers ice cold. Goosebumps raked up and down her scalp.

“Virgil,” she whispered, “please.”

A low titter answered her. A child’s laugh. Her heart caught in her throat and tears rolled down her cheeks. Little feet ran, tapping echoes through the Silo. They were in every direction. Kate backed up against a hibernation pod, arms folding across her chest.

Choking, rocking back and forth, Kate blinked through the tears. She forced her head to the left.

A tiny hand rested against the floor, palm up. The arm behind it was hidden by a pod. Kate’s throat swelled up, and her breath came out in a shaky hiss.

The hand curled up slowly.

“Come look,” said a child’s whisper, and Kate sucked in her breath and screamed.

Kate came to in the corridor outside her apartment, strapped to a butler. The seat was reclined as a stretcher, and the butler was twisted around to look at her. She held up her hand and the butler stopped rolling.

She looked around. The corridor was quiet, bright, nothing wrong in any direction. Nothing out of the ordinary.

She stank. Her clothes were soaked with sweat.

“Kate?”

Kate ignored Virgil. She unbuckled herself, wincing as she bent her injured knee. A bruise, a scrape. Nothing. She dismissed the butler and went inside.

“Kate. What happened?”

Kate grabbed a glass and poured herself water. She gulped it down.

“You tell me what happened, Virgil.”

“You fell while jogging. You didn’t respond to my calls, and you fainted before I could dispatch a butler to you.”

“So you just heard me scream, and you swooped in to rescue me, and here I am.”

“You have the essence of it.”

Kate wiped her mouth. “I remember it differently.”

“How differently?”

Kate remained silent. She went to the couch and took off her shoes.

“Kate, this is distressing.”

“Understatement.” Kate stared at the window. With a chill, she tightened her grip on the glass. “Virgil. Do me a favor. Slideshow the alarm panoramas.”

Virgil complied, starting with the Caribbean. Back past Olympus Mons, three days of African savannah, an Australian forest. He paused.

“Kate, this is about the Lake Michigan panorama.”

“Play it.”

“I assumed the location itself was the problem, but looking back over my logs I notice-“

“Play it, you fucking machine!”

Virgil let the silence stretch out. He stuttered the window white.

The Lake Michigan panorama started. A distant loon cried, and the lake lapped against the shore, driftwood creaking nearby. Kate’s eyes brimmed with tears as mist drifted over the water. With a whir of wings, two white shapes splashed out of the reeds and began flying. Kate blinked, spilling the tears. She turned on her heel.

“I need a shower. You’re not coming back in here until I call you back in here.”

“Kate, this is-“

“Out. That’s it.”

“Okay then.” There was no indicator light, no drop in volume, no slammed door, but Kate knew immediately when she was alone. She pawed the tears out of her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. She gestured for her displays and ran a few checks. She solemnly began locking Virgil out of her systems and private areas. She could be assured of a certain level of privacy. Virgil would still record everything she did and said, but he’d compartmentalize the memories; he wouldn’t be able to access them unless a subconscious part of him deemed something Kate did a threat to the mission or the ship. There was a risk; if he was in the wrong frame of mind, he would already be looking for threats. And he’d always know how and when she locked him out. AIs were carefully inoculated against paranoia, but they were always dangerous to cross.

Kate had to take the chance. She brought up her workspace on her wallscreen and began navigating the library. She pulled up a cluster of documents around the Valley Forge incident. She singled out one cloud and flipped its surfaces idly; video, databases, analyses, browsing records. She stopped to take in one image, a handsome man in a blue jumpsuit, lit by the glow of a huge instrument panel. He was gouging out his own eyes.

Acadia: A New Sci-Fi Novel from James Erwin on Kickstarter.

James Erwin lives in Des Moines, Iowa. Follow him on Twitter.

Published 12:19 pm Mon, Sep 9, 2013

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