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Celso and I were ejected from the Sally Brind. Frank Paulis had brought us to the Oort Cloud, that misty belt far from the sun where huge comets glide like deep-sea fish.

Before us, an alien craft sparkled in the starlight.

On the inside of my suit helmet a tiny softscreen popped into life and filled up with a picture of Paulis. He was wizened, somewhere over eighty years old, but his eyes glittered, sharp.

Even now, I begged. ‘Paulis. Don’t make me do this.’

Paulis was in a bathrobe; behind his steam billowed. He was in his spa at the heart of the Brind—a luxury from which Celso and I had been excluded for the long hundred days it had taken to haul us all the way out here. ‘Your grandfather would be ashamed of you, Michael Malenfant. You forfeited choice when you let yourself be put up for sale in a debtors’ auction.’

‘I just had a streak of bad luck.’

‘A streak spanning fifteen years hustling pool and a mountain of bad debts?’

Celso studied me with brown eyes full of pity. ‘Do not whine, my friend.’

‘Paulis, I don’t care who the hell my grandfather was. You can see I’m no astronaut. I’m forty years old, for Christ’s sake. And I’m not the brightest guy in the world—’

‘True, but unimportant. The whole point of this experiment is to send humans where we haven’t sent humans before. Exactly who probably doesn’t matter. Look at the Bubble, Malenfant.’

The alien ship was a ten-foot balloon plastered with rubies. Celso was already inspecting its interior in an intelligent sort of way.

Paulis said, ‘Remember your briefings. You can see it’s a hollow sphere. There’s an open hatchway. We know that if you close the hatch the device will accelerate away. We have evidence that its effective final speed is many times the speed of light. In fact, many millions of times.’

‘Impossible,’ said Celso.

Paulis smiled. ‘Evidently, not everyone agrees. What a marvellous adventure! I only wish I could come with you.’

‘Like hell you do, you dried-up old bastard.’

He took a gloating sip from a frosted glass. ‘Malenfant, you are here because of faults in your personality.’

‘I’m here because of people like you.’

Celso took my arm.

‘In about two minutes,’ Paulis said cheerfully, ‘the pilot of the Sally Brind is going to come out of the airlock and shoot you both in the temple. Unless you’re in that Bubble with the hatch closed.’

Celso pushed me towards the glittering ball.

I said, ‘I won’t forget you, Paulis. I’ll be thinking of you every damn minute—’

But he only grinned.

My name is Reid Malenfant.

You know me, Michael. And you know I was always an incorrigible space cadet. I campaigned for, among other things, private mining expeditions to the asteroids. I hope you know my pal, Frank J. Paulis, who went out there and did what I only talked about.

But I don’t want to talk about that. Not here, not in this letter. I want to be more personal. I want you to understand why your grandpappy gave over his life to a single, consuming project.

For me, it started with a simple question: What use are the stars?

Paulis had installed basic life-support gear in the Bubble. Celso already had his suit off and was busy collapsing our portable airlock.

Through the net-like walls of the Bubble I looked back at the Sally Brind. I could see at one extreme the fat cone shape of Paulis’s Earth return capsule, and at the other end the angular, spidery form of the strut sections that held the nuke reactor and its shielding.

Beside our glittering toy-ship the Brind looked crude, as if knocked together by stone axes.

I had grown to hate the damn Brind. In the months since we left lunar orbit, she had become a prison to me. Now, as I looked back at her, drifting in this purposeless immensity, she looked like home.

When I took off my suit off I found I’d suffered some oedema, swelling caused by the accumulation of fluid under my skin—in the webs of my fingers, in places where the zippers had run, and a few other places where the suit hadn’t fit as well as it should. The kind of stuff the astronauts never tell you about. But there was no pain, no loss of muscle or joint function that I could detect.

‘Report,’ Paulis’s voice, loud in our ears, ordered.

‘The only instrument is a display, like a softscreen,’ said Celso. He inspected it calmly. It showed a network of threads against a background of starlike dots.

‘Your interpretation?’

‘This may be an image of our destination. And if these are cosmic strings,’ Celso said dryly, ‘we are going further than I had imagined.’

I wondered what the hell he was talking about. I looked more closely at the starlike dots. They were little spirals.


Celso continued to poke around. ‘The life-support equipment is functioning nominally.’

‘I’ve given you enough for about two months,’ said Paulis. ‘If you’re not back by then, you probably won’t be coming back at all.’

Celso nodded.

‘Time’s up,’ Paulis said. ‘Shut the hatch, Malenfant.’

I shot back, ‘You’ll pay for this, Paulis.’

‘I don’t think I’ll be losing much sleep, frankly.’ Then, with steel: ‘Shut the hatch, Malenfant. I want to see you do it.’

Celso touched my shoulder. ‘Do not be concerned, my friend.’ With a lot of dignity he pressed a wall-mounted push-button.

The hatch melted into the hull, closing us in.

The Bubble quivered. I clung to the soft wall.

Paulis’s voice cut out. The sun disappeared. Electric-blue light pulsed in the sky. There was no sensation of movement.

But suddenly—impossibly—there was a planet outside, a fat steel-grey ball. A world of water. Earth?

It looked like Earth. But, despite my sudden, reluctant stab of hope, I knew immediately it was not Earth.

Celso’s face was working as he gazed out of the Bubble, his softscreen jammed against the hull, gathering images. ‘A big world, larger than Earth—but what difference does that make? Higher surface gravity. More internal heat trapped. A thicker crust, but hotter, more flexible; lots of volcanoes. And the crust couldn’t support mountains in that powerful gravity… Deep oceans, no mountains tall enough to peak out of the water—life clustering around deep-ocean thermal vents—’

‘I don’t understand,’ I said.

‘We are already far from home.’

I said tightly, ‘I can see that.’

He looked at me steadily, and rested his hands on my shoulders. ‘Michael, we have already been projected to the system of another star. I think—’

There was a faint surge. I saw something like streetlamps flying past. And then a dim pool of light soaked across space below us.

Celso grunted. ‘Ah. I think we have accelerated.’

With a click, the hull turned transparent as glass.

The streetlamps had been stars.

And the puddle of light was a swirl, a bulging yellow-white core wrapped around by streaky spiral-shaped arms.

It was the Galaxy. It fell away from us.

That was how far I had already come, how fast I was moving.

I assumed a foetal position and stayed that way for a long time.

As a kid I used to lie out on the lawn, soaking up dew and looking at the stars, trying to feel the Earth turning under me. It felt wonderful to be alive—hell, to be ten years old, anyhow. Michael, if you’re ten years old when you get to read this, try it sometime. Even if you’re a hundred, try it anyhow.

But even then I knew that the Earth was just a ball of rock, on the fringe of a nondescript galaxy. And I just couldn’t believe that there was nobody out there looking back at me down here. Was it really possible that this was the only place where life had taken hold—that only here were there minds and eyes capable of looking out and wondering?

Because if so, what use are the stars? All those suns and worlds, spinning through the void, the grand complexity of creation unwinding all the way out of the Big Bang itself…

Even then I saw space as a high frontier, a sky to be mined, a resource for humanity. Still do. But is that all it is? Could the sky really be nothing more than an empty stage for mankind to strut and squabble?

And what if we blow ourselves up? Will the universe just evolve on, like a huge piece of clockwork slowly running down, utterly devoid of life and mind? What would be the use of that?

Much later, I learned that this kind of ‘argument from utility’ goes back all the way to the Romans—Lucretius, in fact, in the first century AD. Alien minds must exist, because otherwise the stars would be purposeless. Right?

Sure. But if so, where are they?

I bet this bothers you too, Michael. Wouldn’t be a Malenfant otherwise!

Celso spoke to me soothingly. Eventually I uncurled.

The sky was embroidered with knots and threads. A fat grey cloud drifted past.

After a moment, with the help of Celso, I got it into perspective. The embroidery was made up of galaxies. The cloud was a supercluster of galaxies.

We were moving fast enough to make a supercluster shift against the general background.

‘We must be travelling through some sort of hyperspace,’ Celso lectured. ‘We hop from point to point. Or perhaps this is some variant of teleportation. Even the images we see must be an illusion, manufactured for our comfort.’

‘I don’t want to know.’

‘But you should have been prepared for all this,’ said Celso kindly. ‘You saw the image—the distant galaxies, the cosmic strings.’

‘Celso—’ I resisted the temptation to wrap my arms around my head. ‘Please. You aren’t helping me.’

He looked at me steadily. Supercluster light bathed his aquiline profile; he was the sort you’d pick as an ambassador for the human race. I hate people like that. ‘If the builders of this vessel are transporting us across such distances, there is nothing to fear. With such powers they can surely preserve our lives with negligible effort.’

‘Or sit on our skulls with less.’

‘There is nothing to fear save your own human failings.’

I sucked weak coffee from a nippled flask. ‘You’re starting to sound like Paulis.’

He laughed. ‘I am sorry.’ He turned back to the drifting super-cluster, calm, fascinated.

Just think about it, Michael. Life on Earth got started just about as soon as it could—as soon as the rocks cooled and the oceans gathered. Furthermore, life spread over Earth as fast and as far as it could. And already we’re starting to spread to other worlds. Surely this can’t be a unique trait of Earth life.

So how come nobody has come spreading all over us?

Of course the universe is a big place. But even crawling along with dinky ships that only reach a fraction of lightspeed—ships we could easily start building now—we could colonize the Galaxy in a few tens of millions of years. 100 million, tops.

100 million years: it seems an immense time—after all, 100 million years ago dinosaurs ruled the Earth. But the Galaxy is 100 times older still. There has been time for Galactic colonization to have happened many times since the birth of the stars.

Remember, all it takes is for one race somewhere to have evolved the will and the means to colonize; and once the process has started it’s hard to see what could stop it.

But, as a kid on that lawn, I didn’t see them.

Advanced civilizations ought to be very noticeable. Even we blare out on radio frequencies. Why, with our giant radio telescopes we could detect a civilization no more advanced than ours anywhere in the Galaxy. But we don’t.

We seem to be surrounded by emptiness and silence. There’s something wrong.

This is called the Fermi Paradox.

The journey was long. And what made it worse was that we didn’t know how long it would be, or what we would find at the end of it—let alone if we would ever come back again.

The two of us were crammed inside that glittering little Bubble the whole time.

Celso had the patience of a rock. Trying not to think about how afraid I was, I poked sticks into his cage. I ought to have driven him crazy.

‘You have a few “human failings” too,’ I said. ‘Or you wouldn’t have ended up like me, on sale in a debtors’ auction.’

He inclined his noble head. ‘What you say is true. Although I did go there voluntarily.’

I choked on my coffee.

‘My wife is called Maria. We both work in the algae tanks beneath New San Francisco.’

I grimaced. ‘You’ve got my sympathy.’

‘We remain poor people, despite our efforts to educate ourselves. You may know that life is not easy for non-Caucasians in modern California…’ His parents had moved there from the east when Celso was very young. ‘My parents loved California—or at least, the dream of California—a place of hope and tolerance and plenty, the society of the future, the Golden State.’ He smiled. ‘But my parents died disappointed. And the California dream had been dead for decades…’

It all started, he said, with the Proposition 13 vote in 1978. It was a tax revolt, when citizens began to turn their backs on public spending. More ballot initiatives followed, to cut taxes, limit budgets, restrict school-spending discretion, bring in tougher sentencing laws, end affirmative action, ban immigrants from using public services.

‘For fifty years California has been run by a government of ballot initiative. And it is not hard to see who the initiatives are favouring. The whites became a minority in 2005; the rest of the population is Latino, black, Asian and other groups. The ballot initiatives are weapons of resistance by the declining proportion of white voters. With predictable results.’

I could sympathize. As a kid growing up with two radicals for parents—in turn very influenced by my grandfather, the famous Reid Malenfant himself—I soaked up a lot of utopianism. My parents always thought that the future would be better than the present, that people would somehow get smarter and more generous, overcome their limitations, learn to live in harmony and generosity. Save the planet and live in peace. All that stuff.

It didn’t work out that way. Where California led, it seems to me, the rest of the human race has followed, into a pit of selfishness, short-sightedness, bigotry, hatred, greed—while the planet fills up with our shit.

‘But,’ Celso said, ‘your grandfather tried.’

‘Tried and failed. Reid Malenfant dreamed of saving the Earth by mining the sky. Bullshit. The wealth returned from the asteroid mines has made the rich richer—people like Paulis—and did nothing for the Earth but create millions of economic refugees.’

And as for my grandfather, who everybody seems to think I ought to be living up to: his is a voice from the past, speaking of vanished dreams.

Celso said, ‘Is there really no hope for us? Can we really not transcend our nature, save ourselves?’

‘My friend, all you can do is look after yourself.’

Celso nodded. ‘Yes. My wife and I could see no way to buy a decent life for our son Fernando but for one of us to be sold through an auction.’

‘You did that knowing the risk of coming up against a bastard like Paulis—of ending up on a chute to hell like this?’

‘I did it knowing that Paulis’s money would buy my Fernando a place in the sun—literally. And Maria would have done the same. We drew lots.’

‘Ah.’ I nodded knowingly. ‘And you lost.’

He looked puzzled. ‘No. I won.’

I couldn’t meet his eyes. I really do hate people like that.

He said gently, ‘Tell me why you are here. The truth, now.’

‘Paulis bought me.’

‘The laws covering debtor auctions are strict. He could not have sent you on such a hazardous assignment without your consent.’

‘He bought me. But not with money.’

‘Then what?’

I sighed. ‘With my grandfather. Paulis knew him. He had a letter, written before Reid Malenfant died, a letter for me…’

A paradox arises when two seemingly plausible lines of thought meet in a contradiction. Throughout history, paradoxes have been a fertile seeding grounds for new ways of looking at the world. I’m sure Fermi is telling us something very profound about the nature of the universe we live in.

But, Michael, neither of the two basic resolutions of the Paradox offer much illumination—or comfort.

Maybe, simply, we really are alone.

We may be the first. Perhaps we’re the last. If so, it took so long for the solar system to evolve intelligence it seems unlikely there will be others, ever. If we fail, then the failure is for all time. If we die, mind and consciousness and soul die with us: hope and dreams and love, everything that makes us human. There will be nobody even to mourn us…

Celso nodded gravely as he read.

I snorted. ‘Imagine growing up with a dead hero for a grandfather. And his one communication to me is a lecture about the damn Fermi Paradox. Look, Reid Malenfant was a loser. He let people manipulate him his whole life. People like Frank Paulis, who used him as a front for his predatory off-world capitalism.’

‘That is very cynical. After all this project, the first human exploration of the Bubbles, was funded privately—by Paulis. He must share some of the same, ah, curiosity as your grandfather.’

‘My grandfather had a head full of shit.’

Celso regarded me. ‘I hope we will learn enough to have satisfied Reid Malenfant’s curiosity—and that it does not cost us our lives.’ And he went back to work.

Humans fired off their first starships in the middle of the twentieth century. They were the US space probes called Pioneer and Voyager, four of them, launched in the 1970s to visit the outer planets. Their primary mission completed, they sailed helplessly on into interstellar space. They worked for decades, sending back data about the conditions they found. But they haven’t gone too far yet, all things considered; it will take the fastest of them tens of thousands of years to reach any nearby star.

The first genuine star probe was the European-Japanese D’Urville: a miniaturized robot the size of a hockey puck, accelerated to high velocity. It returned images of the Alpha Centauri system within a decade.

The D’Urville found a system crowded with asteroids and rocky worlds. None of the worlds was inhabited… but one of them had been inhabited.

From orbit, D’Urville saw neat buildings and cities and mines and what looked like farms, all laid out in a persistent hexagonal pattern.

But everything had been abandoned. The buildings were subsiding back into the yellow-grey of the native vegetation, though their outlines were clearly visible. Farms and cities: they must have been something like us. We must have missed them by no more than millennia. It was heartbreaking.

So what happened? There was no sign of war, or cosmic impact, or volcanic explosion, or eco-collapse, or any of the other ways we could think of to trash a world. It was as if everybody had just up and left, leaving a Marie Celeste planet.

But there were several Bubbles neatly orbiting the empty world, shining brightly, beacons blaring throughout the spectrum.

Since then more probes to other stars, followers of the D’Urville, have found many lifeless planets—and a few more abandoned worlds. Some of them appeared to have been inhabited until quite recently, like Alpha A-IV, some deserted for much longer. But always abandoned.

And everywhere we found Bubbles, their all-frequency beacons bleeping invitingly, clustering around those empty worlds like bees around a flower.

After a time one enterprising microprobe was sent inside a Bubble.

The hatch closed. The Bubble shot away at high speed, and was never heard from again.

It was shortly after that that Bubbles were found in the Oort cloud of our own solar system. Hatches open. Apparently waiting for us.

Paulis had set out the pitch for me. ‘Where do these Bubbles come from? Where do they go? And why do they never return? My company, Bootstrap, thinks there may be a lot of profit in the answers. Our probes haven’t returned. Perhaps you will.’

Or perhaps not.

It doesn’t take a Cornelius Taine to figure out that the Bubbles must have something to do with the fact that my grandfather’s night sky was silent.

…Or maybe we aren’t alone, but we just can’t see them. Why not?

Maybe the answer is benevolent. Maybe we’re in some kind of quarantine—or a zoo.

Maybe it’s just that we all destroy ourselves in nuclear wars or eco collapse.

Or maybe there is something that kills off every civilization like ours before we get too far. Malevolent robots sliding silently between the stars, which for their own antique purposes kill off fledgling cultures.

Or something else we can’t even imagine.

Michael, every outcome I can think of scares me.

Celso called me over excitedly. ‘My friend, we have travelled for days and must have spanned half the universe. But I believe our journey is nearly over.’ He pointed. ‘Over there is a quasar. Which is a very bright, very distant object. And over there—’ He moved his arm almost imperceptibly. ‘I can see the same quasar.’

‘Well, golly gee.’

He smiled. ‘Such a double image is a characteristic of a cosmic string. The light bends around the string. You see?’

‘I still don’t know what a cosmic string is.’

‘A fault in space. A relic of the Big Bang, the birth of the universe itself… Do you know much cosmology, Michael?’

‘Not as such, no.’ It isn’t a big topic of conversation in your average poker school.

‘Imagine the universe, just a few years old. It is mere light years across, a soup of energy. Rapidly it cools. Our familiar laws of physics take hold. The universe settles into great lumps of ordered space, like—like the freezing surface of a pond.

‘But there are flaws in this sober universe, like the gaps between ice floes. Do you understand? Just as liquid water persists in those gaps, so there are great channels through which there still flows energy from the universe’s earliest hours. Souvenirs of a reckless youth.’

‘And these channels are what you call cosmic strings?’

‘The strings are no wider than ten hydrogen atoms. They are very dark, very dense—many tons to an inch.’ He cracked an imaginary whip. ‘The endless strings lash through space at almost the speed of light, throwing off loops like echoes. The loops lose energy and decay. But not before they form the kernels around which galaxies crystallize.’

‘Really? And what about this primordial energy?’

‘Great electric currents surge along the strings. Which are, of course, superconductors.’

It sounded kind of dangerous. I felt my stomach loosen—the reaction of a plains primate, utterly inappropriate, lost as I was in this intergalactic wilderness.

But now there was something new. I looked where Celso was pointing—

—and made out a small bar of light. It moved like a beetle across the background.

‘What’s that? A bead sliding on the string?’

He grabbed a softscreen, seeking a magnified image. His jaw dropped. ‘My friend,’ he said softly, ‘I believe you are exactly right.’

It was one of a series of such beads, I saw now. The whole damn string seemed to be threaded like a cheap necklace.

But now the perspective changed. That nearest bar swelled to a cylinder. To a wand that pointed towards us. To a tunnel whose mouth roared out of infinity and swallowed us.

We sailed along the tunnel’s axis, following a fine thread beaded with toy stars—a thread that had to be the cosmic string. The stars splashed coloured tubes on the tunnel walls; they hurtled by like posters in a subway to hell.

I clung to the Bubble walls. Even Celso blanched.

‘Of course,’ he yelled—and stopped himself. There was no noise, just the feeling there ought to have been. ‘Of course, we have still less reason to fear than before. Our speed must be vastly less than when we were in free space. And I believe we’re still slowing down.’

I risked a look.

We were dipping away from the axis. Those tremendous bands of light flattened out and became landscapes that streamed beneath us.

We slowed enough to make out detail.

One model sun was a ruddy giant. By its light, fungi the size of continents lapped vast mountain ranges.

The next sun was a shrunken dwarf; oceans of hydrogen or helium slithered over the tunnel walls. I saw something like an enormous whale. It must have had superconducting fluid for blood.

So it went, sun after sun, landscape after landscape. A subway filled with worlds. Worlds, and life.

Celso’s dark eyes shone with wonder. ‘This tunnel must be a million miles across. So much room…’

We dipped lower still. Atmosphere whistled. The latest sunlight looked warm and familiar, and the walls were coated with a jumble of blue and green.

The huge curved floor flattened out into a landscape, exploded into trees and grass and rivers; suddenly we landed, as simple as that.

Gravity came back with a thump. We fell into the base of our Bubble.

Without hesitation Celso pulled on his suit, set up our inflatable airlock, and kicked the hatch open.

I glimpsed grassy hills, and a band of night, and a white dwarf star.

I buried my face in the wall of the Bubble.

Celso came to me that evening.

(Evening? The toy sun slid along its wire and dimmed as it went. In the night, I could see Earthlike landscape smeared out over the other side of the sky.)

‘I want you to know I understand,’ Celso said gently. ‘You must come to terms with this situation. You must do it yourself. I will wait for you.’

I shut my eyes tighter.

The next morning, I heard whistling.

I uncurled. I pulled on my suit, and climbed out of the bubble.

Celso was squatting by a stream, fishing with a piece of string and a bit of wire. He’d taken his suit off. In fact, he’d stripped down to his undershorts. He broke off his whistling as I approached.

I cracked my helmet. The air smelt funny to me, but then I’m a city boy. There was no smog, no people. I could smell Celso’s fish, though.

I splashed my face in the stream. The water felt pure enough to have come out of a tap. I said: ‘I’d like an explanation, I think.’

Celso competently hauled out another fish. (At least it looked like a fish.) ‘Simple,’ he said. ‘The line is a thread from an undergarment. The hook is scavenged from a ration pack. For bait I am using particles of food concentrate. Later we can dig for worms and—’

‘Forget the fishing.’

‘We can eat the fish, just as we can breathe the air.’ He smiled. ‘It is of no species I have ever seen. But it has the same biochemical basis as the fish of Earth’s oceans and rivers. Isn’t that marvellous? They knew we were coming—they brought us here, right across the universe—they stocked the streams with fish—’

‘We didn’t come all this way to bloody fish. What’s going on here, Celso?’

He wrapped the line around his wrist and stood up. Then, unexpectedly, he grabbed me by the shoulders and grinned in my face. ‘You are a hero, my friend Michael Malenfant.’

‘A hero? All I did was get out of bed.’

‘But, for you, that step across the threshold of the Bubble was a great and terrible journey indeed.’ He shook me gently. ‘I understand. We must all do what we can, yes? Come now. We will find wood for a fire, I will build a spit, and we will eat a fine meal.’ He loped barefoot across the grass as if he’d been born to it.

Grumbling, I followed.

Celso gutted the fish with a bit of metal. I couldn’t have done that to save my life. The fish tasted wonderful.

That night we sat by the dying fire. There were no stars, of course, just bands of light on the horizons like twin dawns.

Celso said at length, ‘This place, this segment alone, could swallow more than ten thousand Earths. So much room… And we flew over dozens of other inside-out worlds. I imagine there’s a home for every life form in the universe—perhaps, in fact, a refuge for all logically possible life forms…’

I looked up to the cylinder’s invisible axis. ‘I suppose you’re going to tell me the whole thing’s built around a cosmic string. And the power for all the dinky suns comes from the huge currents left over from the Big Bang.’

‘I would guess so. And power for the gravity fields we stand in—although there may be a simpler mechanism. Perhaps the tube is spinning, providing gravity by centripetal forces.’

‘But you’d have to spin the tube at different rates. You know, some of the inhabitants will be from tiny moons, some will be from gas giants…’

‘That’s true.’ He clapped me on the shoulder. ‘We’ll make a scientist of you yet.’

‘Not if I can help it.’ I hunched up, nostalgic for smog and ignorance. ‘But what’s the point of all this?’

‘The point—I think—is that species become extinct. Even humans… I did not always work in the algae farms. Once I had higher ambitions.’ He smiled. ‘I would have been an anthropologist, I think. Actually my speciality would have been palaeoanthropology. Extinct homs.’


‘Sorry: field slang. Hominids. The lineage of human descent. I did some work, as a student, in the field in the desert heartlands of Kenya. At Olduvai I was privileged to make a key find. It was just a sharp-edged fragment of bone about the size of my thumb, the colour of lava pebbles.’

‘But it was a bit of skull.’

‘Homs don’t leave many fossils, Michael. You very rarely find ribs, for example. Until humans began to bury each other, a hundred thousand years ago, ribs were the first parts of a corpse to be crunched to splinters by the carnivores. It took me months before I learned to pick out the relics, tiny specks against the soil…

‘Well. Believe me, we were very excited. We marked out the site. We broke up the dirt. We began to sieve, looking to separate bits of bone from the grains of soil and stone. After weeks of work you could fit the whole find into a cigarette packet. But that counts as a phenomenal find, in this field.

‘What we had found was a trace of a woman. She was Homo erectus. Her kind arose perhaps two million years ago, and became extinct a quarter-million years ago. They had the bodies of modern humans, but smaller brains. But they were highly successful. They migrated out of Africa and covered the Old World.’

I said dryly, ‘Fascinating, Celso. And the significance—’

They are gone, Michael. This is what my field experiences taught me. Here was another type of human—extinct. All that is left is shards of bone from which we have to infer everything—the ancient homs’ appearance, gait, behaviour, social structure, language, culture, tool-making ability—everything we know, or we think we know about them. Extinction. It is a brutal, uncompromising termination, disconnecting the past from the future.

‘And for an intelligent species this over-death is an unbearable prospect. Everything that might make a life valuable after death—memory, achievement—is wiped away. There is nobody even left to grieve. Do you see?’

He was genuinely agitated; I envied his intensity of emotion. ‘But what has this to do with the builders?’

He lay on his back and stared at the empty sky. ‘I think the builders are planning ahead. I think this is a refugium, as the ecologists would say. A place to sit out the cold times to come, the long Ice Age of the universe—a safeguard against extinction.’ He sighed. ‘I think your grandfather understood about extinction, Michael.’

I stared at the fire, my mind drifting. He was thinking of the destiny of mankind. I was just thinking about myself. But then, I hadn’t asked to be here. ‘Maybe this is okay for you. Sun, trees, fishing, mysterious aliens. But I’m a city boy.’

‘I am sorry for you, my friend. But I, too, am far from my family.’

It was a long night, and not a whole lot of laughs.

A new sun slid down the wire. The dew misted away.

I rubbed my eyes; my back was stiff as hell from sleeping unnaturally without a mattress on the ground.

There were two alien Bubbles. They bobbled in the breeze, side by side.

One was ours. Its door gaped; I recognized our kit inside it. Within the second Bubble I thought I could make out two human forms.

I shook Celso awake. ‘We’ve got company.’

We stood before the new vessel. Its hatch opened.

There was a woman; a small boy clung to her. They were a terrified mess. When they recognized Celso—

Look, I have some decency. I took a walk along the stream.

After an hour I rejoined the family. They were having a nice fish breakfast, talking animatedly.

Celso grinned. ‘My friend Michael Malenfant. Please meet my wife, Maria, and Fernando, my son.’

Maria still wore the grimy coverall of an algae tank worker. She said: ‘The Bubble came and scooped me up from work; and Fernando from his school.’

I gaped. ‘The Bubbles have come to Earth?’

They had, it seemed: great gossamer fleets of them, sailing in from the Oort Cloud, an armada perhaps triggered by our foolhardy jaunt.

‘They make the sky shine,’ said the boy, beaming.

‘Of course it is logical,’ said Celso. ‘The aliens would want to reconstruct stable family units.’

‘I wonder how they knew who to bring.’

Celso smiled. ‘I would guess they studied us—or rather the Bubble did—during the journey. Whoever was most in our thoughts would be selected. The puzzles of the human heart must be transparent to the builders of such a monumental construct as this.’

‘We were scared,’ said Fernando proudly, chewing the flesh off a fishy spine.

‘I’ll bet.’ I imagined the scenes in those nightmarish farms as a Bubble came sweeping over the algae beds… ‘So now what? Do you think you’ll stay here?’

Celso took a deep breath. ‘Oh, yes.’

‘Better than the algae farms, huh.’

‘It is more than that. This will be a fine land in which to build a home, and for Fernando to grow. Other people will be brought here soon. We will farm, build cities.’ He took my arm. ‘But you look troubled, my friend. I must not forget you in my happiness. Was no one in your heart during our journey?’

In my hop-skip-and-jump life I’d never made the time to get close enough to anyone to miss them.

He put his hand on my arm. ‘Stay with us.’ His son smiled at me.

Once again I found myself unable to meet Celso’s kind eyes.

Michael, much of my life has been shaped by thinking about the Fermi Paradox. But one thing I never considered was the subtext.

Alone or not alone—why do we care so much?

I think I know now. It’s because we are lonely. On Earth there is nobody closer to us than the chimps; we see nobody like us in the sky.

But then, each of us is alone. I have been alone since your grandmother, Emma, died. And now I’m dying too, Michael; what could be lonelier than that?

That’s why we care about Fermi. That’s why I care.

Michael, I’m looking at you, here in this damn hospital room with me; you’re just born, just a baby, and you won’t remember me. But I’m glad I got to meet you. I hope you will learn more than I have. That you will be wiser. That you will be happier. That you won’t be alone.

I said, ‘I guess we know the truth about Fermi now. As soon as intelligence emerges on some deadbeat world like Earth, along come the Bubbles to take everybody away. Leaving all the lights on but nobody home. That’s all there is to it.’

‘But what a vast enterprise,’ Celso said. ‘Remember, a key difficulty with the Fermi Paradox has always been consistency. If there is a mechanism that removes intelligent life from the stars and planets, it must do so unfailingly and everywhere: it must be all but omniscient and omnipotent.’

‘So the universe must be full of those damn Bubbles.’

‘Yes.’ He smiled. ‘Or perhaps there is only one…’

‘But why? Why go to all this trouble, to build this—this vast theme park?’

He grinned. ‘Extinction, Michael. This is a dangerous universe for fragile beings such as ourselves. Left to our own devices, it doesn’t look as if we are smart enough to get through many more centuries, does it? Maybe the Bubbles have come just in time. And remember that life can be readily destroyed—by impact events, volcanism and other instability—by chance events like nearby supernovae or the collision of neutron stars—by more dramatic occurrences like the collision of galaxies—and in the end, of course, all stars will die, all free energy sources dwindle… We are stalked by extinction, Michael; we are all refugees.

‘But one energy source will not fade away: the energy trapped in the cosmic strings. So I think they built this place, and they sent out their trawler-like vessels. The refugium is a defiance of extinction—a mechanism to ensure that life and mind may survive into the unimaginable future—’

I sniffed, looking up at a fake sun. ‘But isn’t that a retreat? This great sink of life isn’t our world. To come here is an end to striving, to ambition, to the autonomy of the species.’ I thought of the Bubbles clustering around Earth, like antibodies around a source of infection. I thought of human cities, New York and London and Beijing, emptied and overgrown like the dismal ruins of Alpha Centauri A-IV.

But Celso said, ‘Not really. They were just thinking of their children. Rather like me, I guess. And there are adventures to be had here. We will design flying machines and go exploring. There may be no limit to the journeys we, or our children, will make, up and down this great corridor, a corridor that encircles the universe, no limit to the intelligences we might meet. And here, sheltered in this refugium, the human species could last forever… think of that.’ He studied me. ‘As for you, I didn’t know you were so restless, Michael. Heroism, now wanderlust. You have travelled across half the cosmos, and at the end of your journey you found yourself. Maybe your grandfather’s genes really are working within you.’

The boy spoke around a mouthful of fish. ‘If you are lonely, sir, why don’t you go home?’

I smiled. ‘Easier said than done.’

‘No, really. You know the screen in the Bubble—the one that showed our destination?’

‘The cosmic string picture… what about it?’

‘Well, in your Bubble it’s changed.’

Celso stared at the boy, then ran to the Bubble. ‘He’s right,’ he breathed.

The screen showed a picture of the Earth—continents, grey-blue oceans—unmistakeable and lovely.

I kissed that damn kid.

Celso nodded. ‘They know you wish to leave.’ He shrugged. ‘The choice of the species is surely clear; this, not that beautiful, fragile blue bauble, is mankind’s destiny. But individuals are free…’

There was a distant shiver of motion. A third Bubble sailed towards us across the plain. I hardly noticed it.

Without hesitation I jumped into the open hatchway of our Bubble. ‘Listen,’ I said to Celso, ‘are you sure you don’t want to come? It’s going to be a tough life here.’

He rejoined his family. ‘Not for us. Goodbye, my friend. Oh—here.’ He handed me his softscreen. ‘With the information I have gathered in this you will become a rich man.’

The new vessel drifted to rest.

I couldn’t have cared less. I banged the button to shut the hatch. My Bubble lifted.

Through the net walls I could see the new arrival tumble out onto the raw earth. I recognized him. He was the reason the new Bubble had been summoned for me. The person who’d made sure he’d been on my mind throughout the whole journey.

Frank J. Paulis was wearing his bathrobe. He wailed.

Celso caught my eye and winked. Paulis would be doing a lot of worm digging before he was allowed back to his spa and Bootstrap and his sprawling empire. I wished I’d been there when that damn Bubble had shown up to scoop him away.

But maybe Paulis had got what he wanted, at that. The answer—in this universe, anyhow. My grandfather would have been pleased for him, I thought.

The landscape fell away, and I flew past toy stars.

Paradox | Phase Space | Lost Continent