In his Nebula Award-nominated novel The Collapsium, acclaimed author Wil McCarthy introduced a richly imagined future of boundless possibility, where poverty, war, and even death are banished forever. Only now that world's exquisite perfection propels one restless young man toward the ultimate challenge.
For the children of immortal parents, growing up can be hard to do. A prince will forever be a prince--leaving no chance for Bascal Edward de Towaji Lutui to inherit his parents' throne. So what is an angry young blue blood to do? Punch a hole in the shadow he's been living in by rallying his equally disgruntled companions to make an improbable spaceship, busting out of the so-called summer camp in which their parents have stowed them and making a daring escape across the vastness of space. Ne'er-do-well Conrad Mursk is just along for the joyride--until he realizes this is no typical display of teenage angst. The children are rising up in an honest-to-gods revolution. And, boyo, things are going to get raw.
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March 03, 2003
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Excerpt from The Wellstone by Wil McCarthy
The spheres of heav'n
One man in a sphere of brass.
One man alone in the vacuum of space.
One man hurtling toward solid rock at forty meters per second--fast enough to kill him, to end his mission here and now, to cap a damnfool end on a long and decidedly damnfool life. To leave his children defenseless.
In the porthole ahead is the planette Varna, his destination, swathed in white clouds and shining seas, in grasslands, in forests whose vertical dimension is already apparent against the dinner-bowl curve of horizon. Not planet: planette. It looks small because it is small, barely twelve hundred meters across. Condensed matter core, fifteen hundred neubles--very nice. The surface workmanship is exquisite; he sees continents, islands, majestic little mountain ranges jutting up above the trees. Telescopes, he realizes, don't do justice to this remotest of Lune's satellites.
The man's name is Radmer, or Conrad Mursk if you're old enough. Very few people are old enough. Radmer's own age would be difficult to guess--his hair is still partly blond, his weathered skin not really all that wrinkled. He still has his teeth, although they're worn down, and a few of them are cracked or broken. But even in zero gravity, as he kicks and kicks the potter's wheel that winds the gyroscopes which keep the sphere from tumbling, there's a kind of weight or weariness to his movements that might make you wonder. Older?
To be fair, the air inside the three-meter sphere isn't very good. Cold and damp, it smells of carbon dioxide, wet brass, and the chloride tang of spent oxygen candles. Old breath and new--the only way to refresh the air is to dump it overboard, but after two and a half days he's out of candles and out of time, and there's a healthy fear stealing upon him as the moment of truth approaches. Opening the purge valve would be a highly risky stunt right now.
Giving the winding mechanism a final kick, he ratchets his chair back a few notches and unfolds the sextant. This takes several seconds--it's a complicated instrument with a great many appendages. When it's locked into the appropriate sockets on the arms of his chair, and then properly sighted in, he takes a series of readings spaced five clock-ticks apart, and adjusts a pair of dials until the little brass arrow stops moving. Then, sighing worriedly, he folds the thing up again, stows it carefully in its rack, and clicks the chair forward again to kick the potter's wheel a few more times. Course correction needs a stable platform, you bet.
When he's satisfied the gyros are fully wound, he takes up the course-correction chains, winces in anticipation, and jerks out the sequence the sextant has indicated. Wham! Wham! The sphere is kicked--hard--by explosive charges on its hull. Caps, caps, fore, starboard, starboard . . . It's quite a pummeling, like throwing himself under a team of horses, but before his head has even stopped ringing he's setting the sextant up again and retaking those critical measurements.
The planette's atmosphere is as miniature as the rest of it, and there's the problem: from wispy stratosphere to stony lithosphere is less than half a second's travel, if he comes straight in. That's not long enough for the parachute to inflate, even if his timing is perfect. To survive the impact, he has to graze the planette's edge, to cut through the atmosphere horizontally. Shooting an apple is easy; shooting its skin off cleanly is rather more difficult, especially when you're the bullet.
Could he have sent a message in a bottle? A dozen messages in a dozen bottles, to shower every planette from here to murdered Earth? That would be an empty gesture, albeit an easier one. God knows he's needed elsewhere, has been demanded in a dozen different elsewheres as the world of Lune comes slowly unraveled. But somehow this dubious errand has captured his imagination. No, more than that: his hope. Can a man live without hope? Can a world?
Alas, the sextant's news is less than ideal: he's overcorrected on two of three axes. Sighing again more heavily, he stows the thing and gets set up for the next course correction, gathering the chains up from their moorings. When he jerks on the first one, though, no team of horses runs him over. Nothing happens at all.
With a stab of alarm, he realizes he's been squandering correction charges, not thinking about it, not thinking to save a few kicks on each axis for terminal approach. Can he recover? By reorienting the ship, which he needs to do for landing anyway? Yes, certainly, unless he's been really unlucky and run out of charges simultaneously on all six of the sphere's ordinal faces.
Outside the forward porthole, there is nothing but Varna: individual trees beneath a swirl of cloud, growing visibly. There is, to put it mildly, little time to waste.