Light and Speed

It's not so easy to find a primitive, backward culture anymore. Satellite constellations can lay down a gigahertz on every square kilometer of the Earth's surface and where there's a signal there will be receivers. We need not even mention the orbitals. The painters may be naked - they may be using mud pigments and hair brushes. You might mistake them for a tiny group of prehistoric people somehow cut off from the march of progress for thousands of years. That would be a mistake. Machines dug this cave, the hair for the brushes was grown by bacteria in a bottle, and the design taking shape on the wall does not represent an animal to be hunted. Not exactly.

One man takes a sharp stone and scrapes it along his arm, breaking the skin. Blood drips onto the stone and he strikes it repeatedly on the wall, leaving a row of angular symbols that could be a spell or a signature or something else. "We gave them writing, so thoughts could be immortal." The painters murmur agreement.

One of the most sacred laws of technology - real technology, not the stuff you see on the advertisements - is that power comes in unimpressive packages. If you walked down the hall of a certain orbital university five years ago, dodging the canvassers with "Luna needs wimmin!" handbills (we gave them printing for mass communication) you might mistake a certain office door for just another grad student's hangout, buried knee-deep in empty juice cartons and computers and gravball equipment in a damaged condition. You might mistake the symbols on the whiteboard - red, angular symbols - for meaningless doodling, or a note like "Gravball meet at 0400" in a language like Cantonese. That would also be a mistake.

The room's usual occupant was in the library, sitting at a table near the top of the stacks with books and network terminals arranged in a circle around him. Above his head the Earth was clearly visible through a large window. It wasn't a real window - the orbital's rotation would cause a real window to alternate from blinding sunlight to velvety darkness every few seconds and convert any view of the home planet to a sickening blur. The computer had also been programmed to filter out the oceanic scars of seafloor fishing (we gave them sails to make the world smaller), the exhaust haze of the cities (we gave them cars and when the time came we gave them hydrogen), and the blinding points of light where, even today, the generating plants dumped waste phonons into sonoluminescent quench tanks. With energy so cheap, why recycle it? We gave them that, too.

He moved the stylus across the pad, forming row on row of symbols which arranged themselves into lines that combined and canceled, always simplifying, joining more and more levels into a pair of equations. You might think he was a genius, and you'd be right, but the machine would deserve most of the credit for finding the patterns, the fracture lines where structures could break and fold like an origami crane. It hurt perhaps more than you can imagine, but we gave them computers.

This wasn't a new problem. When I first studied physics, more years ago now than I care to talk about, I had a professor who would assign it with a wink as a bonus question on every final. His excuse was "Well, if it were possible, think how exciting it could be!" I gave him an impossibility proof. He said there was a logical flaw but I didn't truly believe that until I saw the painting. Then, I believed.

This student, however, was not looking for an impossibility proof. He was on the World Wide Web looking for the final piece to something very different. He was thinking about light and speed and elementary particles. He was cursing the advertisements which by now covered half the page. "We gave them the Web and they turned it into television!"

The woman beside him, a small, bright thing, looked up from the book she was reading. You might think that she was his lover - the library stacks were a nice private place even in those days - but that, too, would be a mistake. She was no man's lover. We gave them teledildonics and they used it only on each other. She said something, which I must not repeat and you wouldn't understand anyway, about the nuclear excitation states of the iron atom. He dropped the pad on the table with an air of finality. "Then it'll work." "Yes." "What will we do?" "I don't know."

But five years later, the painters know their craft and they know what they will do. Dropping their torches to burn out on the floor, they walk up the tunnel to a metal door set in the wall, put their clothes back on, and climb the stairs to the machine room. A coolant processor rolls neatly in front of the door to the tunnel.

Two floors up from the machine room, the control center already contains an assortment of Government officials in suits. We were glad to give them suits, provided we didn't wear them ourselves. All but the most important VIPs are confined by a velvet rope, like deuterons in a bottle.

The Governor walks irritably up to the chief engineer, gesturing up at the window (an almost-real window this time) and demanding to know when something will happen. She doesn't notice the scab on his arm, and he chooses to ignore her question, staring dreamily up at the moonlight glinting off the machine's curves. He is thinking about light and speed and a phased array antenna buried in the Antarctic ice.

"We gave them the moon for a plaything." The Governor doesn't understand what he's talking about. The phased array antenna was originally a military radar, meant to lock onto rocks falling out of the sky during the Second Lunar War. Mission Control was lucky to get the use of the tracking system, since none like it can be built today. Too few engineers left alive, too little understanding of the computers, too many sites contaminated with radioisotopes.

The leader gives me a nod and I slip out of the room and start climbing the stairs to the helipad. By the time the ship goes up I will be far away. It is a calculated risk - as long as I live the secret lives too, but someone must re-establish the organization. I was chosen for this duty by lot. Nobody contested the choice.

The engineers are all in place at the consoles and someone starts the big clock. The VIPs fall silent, overawed with the history about to be made. They don't really know what they are about to witness - "superluminal" is only a word to most of them - but in a tawdry postmodern way, they each have an idea of what it means to them. Light and speed and money, always money. I hate money! Sorry. I guess we gave them money already. Now they will touch the stars.

Five floors above the machine room the ship sits on the beryllium launch plate waiting for the last component - a small, bright thing, now almost fully formed in the acceleration tube under the launch plate. The pilot removes a little clock from the pocket of her flight suit and clips it to the window frame. She runs a lead from it to a connection point behind the main ignition console, a connection point not mentioned in any of the official mission documents but carefully designed all the same. I helped design it. We gave them design methodologies but some of us knew better.

She's grown up a lot in five years. We all have. Is she thinking about the wasted possibilities, the things that we won't be able to give them? I don't know. This will be the first time for a lot of things - the first superluminal travel, the first trip to the stars. Maybe she's thinking about virginity - and virgin sacrifices. Maybe before she thumbs on the radio she whispers a prayer to some virgin Goddess, who lives in the light and speed between the nuclear excitation states of the iron atom, the Goddess of those who create for others. "Shiftengines ready - let's give 'em some fireworks!"

Of course the important steps are done by machines - no human being could move fast enough. In keeping with the laws of real technology, the final trigger is not a ponderous lever, not a gleaming copper knife switch, not even the cliched little red button. The chief engineer has been typing for more than a minute now and it takes several full heartbeats before the Governor realizes that he has finished. The machines are quicker on the uptake.

In the machine room at the bottom of the acceleration tube a single antiproton separates from its parent atom and spirals into the center of the probability matrix. Pulses of electromagnetism shape for it a cloak of virtual particles. Wrapped in fields it drifts up the tube to join a small, bright thing - a "stringly" defect in the universe - nanometers above the theoretical surface of the launch plate. The shiftengine emits a femtosecond X-ray pulse which curves around the distorted space forming another string twice as long. Chaotic period doubling begins its march toward infinity.

The phased array antenna is already active, sweeping the sky with electronically-formed beams of microwaves. Every three milliseconds it generates a string of numbers representing the ship's position. The numbers are dumped onto the net for the viewing public in its billions. We gave them numbers. We were going to give them the net as well, but they came and took it before we were ready.

"Let's give 'em some fireworks". The engineers murmur agreement. The tiny clock on the window frame in the ship has reached zero. Even as the spatial defect changes from "stringly" to "gumly" and the shiftengine begins heating it to operating temperature, the clock changes its output from zero volts to five. Logical one. This ship is not going to Alpha Centauri. It isn't going anywhere. The ship's communication radio sends out a burst of something you might mistake for noise, and hidden inside the meter-thick beryllium plate, old-fashioned chemical explosives squeeze a sphere of much heavier metal. Of course it showed up on the inspection X-rays, but engineers were responsible for checking those...

We gave them the fission bomb.

In less time than you can imagine the entire complex is full of gamma rays. The ship and the launch plate are plasma. Three floors down the control center dies, machines and human bodies and the stone walls melting together, then vaporizing. Seismic waves spread out from the site, making the Earth ring like a great slow bell.

For a brief moment before the roof caves in, the pigments fluoresce and the cave painting becomes a study in light and speed and the machine in the picture looks almost alive, the bloody equations burning like the name of some dark Goddess, a Goddess of engineers and hackers and scientists and children wasting their virginity with bits of metal in the garage, a giving Goddess who maybe made a mistake and gave too much. Nobody sees it and the rock melts, but the painting has served its purpose - the hunt is over.

Of course it's temporary. Someday the television viewers will forget what they saw tonight and vote to try again. Even Challenger only lasted three or four years. Today's children will grow up to think about light and speed and someday one child will see a way to slip between the quantum states, cancel out the zeros, and fold the universe like an origami crane. Maybe I'll find you and explain about the birthright. Maybe I'll be convincing, but maybe I won't, and maybe the stars will fall and the world will become even smaller. Maybe we were wrong and it was a mistake and the world needs light and speed. There are too many maybes in this world, and too many mistakes, for anything to be sure or permanent.

But for now, we won't give them the stars.

[From February 1997.  Archived at]

Certainly Well Written...

...but I'm not sure I'm getting it all.

OK, the narrator's "we" group has decided that humanity's misuse of technology has gone as far as it should. And we seem to be in a world, after various Lunar Wars, where "the engineers" are scarce enough that they can stop things by themselves, albeit at the cost of sacrificing their lives to the cause.

But I get a bit muddled when "the scientists" are thrown into the mix. Education doesn't seem to be scarce, even if storage seems to be back at the pre-hi-tech level of library stacks (though in this case they're on a platform orbiting Earth).

At first, the story seems to be making a distinction between technology -- the "we gave them" folks -- and theoretical science. But I'm not sure that's still there at the end, when the narrator tells us that this catastrophic failure should delay things by a generation because someone will have to rediscover the breakthrough. (Or is it "just" a technological breakthrough?)

Maybe it's just that I don't want to see the point here, which seems to be about halfway toward C.M. Kornbluth's "Marching Morons" concept of a world where scientists have to clandestinely run the show and keep the too-stupid average citizens from hopelessly gumming up the works. (Hubris, anyone?)

Or it may be the naked-in-the-cave element from the opening: "the Devil made me do it" -- seemingly substituting some nebulous Earth-goddess for the demon in question. (OK, I suppose that's unfair. But to set the world's technology captive to the tune of a spiritual ceremony bothers the heck out of me, more so than any number of Lunar Wars.)

Oh, well. If I'm on the wrong track here, someone might want to tell me why/how.

Thanks, Eric

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