Gwyneth Jones. Collision.

‘Collision‘ first appeared in ‘When It Changed’ (ed Geoff Ryman 2009) and is copyright Gwyneth Jones, with whose kind permission it is reprinted here.


Does size matter? You can build a particle accelerator on a desk top, but the Buonarotti Torus was huge, its internal dimensions dwarfing the two avatars who strolled, gazing about them like tourists in a virtual museum. Malin had heard that the scale was unnecessary; it was just meant to flatter the human passion for Big Dumb Objects: a startling thought, but maybe it was true. The Aleutians, the only aliens humanity had yet encountered, had never been very good at explaining themselves.

Nobody would have been allowed to keep the Buonarotti on a desk top on Earth, anyway. The voters were afraid an Instantaneous Transit Collider might rend the fabric of reality and wanted it as far away as possible. So the aliens had created the Torus and set it afloat out here in the Kuiper Belt as a kind of goodbye present — when they’d tired of plundering planet Earth and had gone back from whence they came.

Wherever that was.

But the Aleutians had departed before Malin was born. The problem right now was the new, Traditionalist government of the World State. A fact-finding mission was soon to arrive at the Panhandle station, and the Torus scientists were scared. They were mostly Reformers, notionally, but politics wasn’t the issue. Nobody cared if flat-earthers were in charge at home, as long as they stayed at home. The issue was survival.

Malin and Lou Tiresias, the Director of Torus Research, were using high-res medical avatars to check rad levels after a recent gamma burst. There was a gruesome fascination in watching the awesome tissue damage rack up on their eyeball screens… Luckily the beast needed little in-person, hands-on maintenance. Especially these days, when it was so rarely fired-up.

No transiters would ever take any harm, either. They weren’t flesh and blood when they passed through this convoluted way-station.

“At least the mission’s staffed by scientists,” said Lou. “My replacement, the Interim Director, is a high-flying, gold-medal neurophysicist and a media star.”

“Huh. I bet she’s a flat-earther of the worst kind,” growled Malin. “What d’you think’s going to happen, Lou?”

The world government was supposed to leave the Panhandle scientists alone. That was the deal. In return for past services the researchers would rather, it must be admitted, forget —

“I’m afraid they’re going to shut us down, my child.”

Lou gave a twirl and a crooked grin. Hir avatar wore a draped white gown, a blue-rinsed perm, rhinestone wingtip glasses, and a pantomime beard: an ensemble actually quite close to the Director’s real world appearance. Lou, the funky, reassuringly daft, all-purpose parent figure.

“It’s a question of style,” he explained, ruefully.

There were few of Malin’s colleagues who hadn’t fooled around most un-traditionally with their meat-bodies, and few who respected the boring notion of mere male or female sex.

Malin digested the thought that Lou was to be replaced by some brutal, totalitarian, politicized stranger.

“Will we be blacklisted?”

“Not at all! They’ll send us home, that’s all.”

Malin had glimpsed movement, on the edge of her screen: sensed a prick-eared scampering, a glint of bright eyes. Who was that, and in what playful form? People often came to the Torus: just to hang out in the gleaming, giant’s cavern, just to delight in the sheer improbability of it… They say deep space is cold and bare, but Malin lived in a wild wood, a rich coral reef, blossoming with endless, insouciant variety. It thrilled her. She loved to feel herself embedded in the ecology of information, set free from drab constraint: a droplet in the teeming ocean, a pebble on the endless shore —

“I don’t want to go home,” she said. “This is home.”

#

To the Deep Spacers, mainly asteroid miners, who used their sector of the Panhandle as an R&R station, the Torus was a dangerous slot machine that occasionally spit out big money. They didn’t care. The scientists were convinced their project was doomed and terrified they’d never work again once the IT Collider had been declared a staggering waste of money. The night before the Slingshot was due to dock they held a wake, in the big canteen full of greenery and living flowers, under the rippling banners that proclaimed the ideals of Reform, Liberté Egalité Amitié… They toasted each other with the Semillon they’d produced that season, and talked about the good times. It all became very emotional. Dr. Fortune, of the DARPA detector lab, inveterate gamer and curator of all their virtualities, had arrived already drunk, attired in full Three Kingdoms warrior regalia. He had to be carried out in the end, still wildly insisting that the Torus staff should make a last stand like the Spartans at Thermopylae and sobbing —

An army of lovers cannot lose!

Nobody blamed him. The DARPA bums (the lab teams were all nicknamed after ancient search engines) had switched off their circadians and worked flat out for the last 240 hours, gobbling glucose and creatine, trying to nail one of those elusive turnaround results that might save this small, beloved world; and they had failed.

#

The “fact-finders” arrived and immediately retired to the visitors’ quarters, where they could enjoy stronger gravity and conduct their assessment without bothersome personal contact. The Interim Director herself, alas, was less tactful. The science sector was a 4-spaced environment, permeated by the digital: Dr. Caterina Marie Skodłodowska didn’t have to signal her approach by moving around in the flesh. You never knew when or where she would pop up — and her questions were casual, but merciless.

She asked Lou could “he” envisage building another Torus. (Dr. Skodłodowska didn’t buy unisex pronouns.)

“Of course! Eventually we’ll need a whole network.”

Lou was wise, but s/he lacked cunning.

“Eventually. Mm. But you’ve analyzed all those esoteric Aleutian materials, and you can synthesize? Strange that we haven’t been told.”

“We don’t have to synthesize, we can clone the stuff. Like growing a cell culture, er, on a very large scale —”

“So you don’t yet know what the T is made of?”

“But we know it works! Hey, you use Aleutian gadgets you don’t understand all the time on Earth!”

#

She asked Lemuel Reason, the fox-tailed, clever-pawed technical manager of the Yahoo lab, exactly how many lives had been lost?

“Very few!” said Lemuel, glad to be on safe ground. “Er, relatively. We don’t fire-up unless we’re pretty sure the destination is safe.”

The Deep Spacers were volunteer guinea pigs, in a lottery sanctioned and encouraged by the World Government. They could apply for rights to a sector of Local-Space and transit out there to see what they could find. Some went missing or returned in rather poor shape, but a respectable minority hit paydirt: an asteroid rich in gold or exotics; an exploitable brown dwarf. These sites couldn’t yet be exploited, but they were already worth big bucks on the Space Development futures market.

“I was thinking of the so-called Damned, the political and Death Row prisoners shipped out here for so-called Transportation. I believe you’ll find the losses were 100 percent, and the numbers run into many hundreds.”

Skodłodowska was referring to a sorry episode in the Panhandle’s history. The “Damned” had been dispatched to supposedly Earth-type habitable planets, the nearest of them thousands of light years “away” by conventional measure. They’d been told that their safe arrival would be monitored, but that had been a soothing lie, for only consciousness, the information that holds mind and body together, can “travel” by the Buonarotti method. Did Lemuel have to explain the laws of neurophysics?

“The mass transits were recorded as successful!” cried the Yahoo.

Dr. Skodłodowska smiled sadly.

“The operation was successful, but the patient died, eh?”

#

They did their best to look busy, to disguise the fact that the great Collider had been more or less in mothballs for years. It was useless, Skodłodowska knew everything, but they had to try. Malin was a JANET, a wake-field analyst. She worked on her core task, sifting archived bit-streams for proof that non-Local transiters had actually arrived somewhere: but she couldn’t concentrate. She was poking around in an out-of-bounds area, when her screen flagged a warning and switched to the Buonarotti video, digitized from analog, that she was using as a safety net… One of the few records of the real Buonarotti to have survived, and quite possibly her only media interview.

“You’re going to break the speed of light this way?” asks the journalist.

“Break the what — ?” says the direly dressed, slightly obese young woman, in faux 4D: twisting her hands, knitting her scanty brows, speaking English with a pronounced, hesitant European accent. “I don’t understand you. Speed, or light, neither is relevant at all. Where there is no duration there is no speed.”

Coming over as both arrogant and bewildered —

Terrible combination, muttered Malin, shaking her head.

“The shiny blue suit and the hair? Or the genius and the journalist?”

The new boss was at Malin’s shoulder. Dr. Caterina Marie in the flesh, slender yet voluptuous in her snow-white labsuit and bootees and (you betcha) absolutely darling lingerie underneath. The female lead for a C20 sci-fi movie: brave, maverick, beautiful lady scientist. But there’s a Y chromosome in there somewhere, thought Malin, malignly. She didn’t have the genemod for detecting precise shades of sexual identity, but she had friends whodid, and something must have rubbed off —

“The format.” Shame at her secret rudeness made Malin more open. “Imagine how it sounded. Kirlian photography. Auras. Breaking the mind-matter barrier. All those ideas, totally bizarre to the general public of the time. But tv interviews aren’t everything. Give her a smartboard, let her turn her back on the audience, she’d dazzle you —”

“I think you like her,” remarked Caterina, in a voice like dark honey.

“What I know of her, I think I like. But Buonarotti is ancient history, and we don’t have her notes. The important thing is that our Torus works —”

“I keep hearing that. The Torus does something,” corrected the Director, “It makes people disappear, very expensively. Igrant you that.”

Malin forced a smile: it hurt her face. The Transportation episode had been before her time, but she still felt that guilt. So now it was Malin’s turn to get fried, or to win the boss over. Ten seconds to save the world —

They didn’t have Buonarotti’s notes. Everything had been lost in the chaos of the Gender Wars: all they had were fragments and the prototype “device” that had been rescued by the Aleutians from the wreckage of battle. To Malin the truth was still self-evident: but Skodłodowska and her bosses might well feel differently. They were flat-earthers, after all —

“Peenemunde Buonarotti invented a means of sending human beings, translated into code by her scanner-couches, around a big collider buried under the rocks of Europe. She split those transcendental packets of code into two and ramped up the energies so that when they collided, they broke the mind-matter barrier. Nobody human understood her, but the Aleutians did, and that’s how we got the Torus. For an instant, transiters are where speed, time, duration, distance don’t exist. If they’ve been programmed with a 4-space destination, then instantly that’s where they’ll be. No matter how far —”

The Torus was a black box that seemed, fairly definitely, to take people instantaneously across light years. But proof was elusive.

“You can’t shut us down!” Malin began to babble, unnerved by Dr. Skodłodowska’s silence. “This is the gateway to the stars! We have gas giant moons, asteroid areas, planetoids, where the prospects for mining are fabulous. We have the habitable planets, where you could move in next week. Okay, okay, it’s all in need of development, but what we do isn’t magical, it’s proven. There’s absolutely no doubt that instantaneous transit happens. We see the event. The only thing we don’t have —”

She was out of breath, out of time.

“Is a repeatable experiment,” said Caterina, dryly. “Isn’t that what divides science from pseudoscience? Oh, don’t look like that —” She laid a hand on Malin’s arm, and the touch was a shock, warm and steady. Her dark eyes glowed. “Your enemies are back on Earth. I’m on your side.

Yeah, right, thought Malin. That’s why you’re asking all the awkward questions and sending our stupid babbling straight back to Earth. But when Caterina had gone she thought it over, staring at the movie of Buonarotti: and then, with sudden decision, opened the file she’d been working on before the boss appeared. Not exactly secret, but a little hard to explain —

The DARPA team, as their nickname suggested, were all about destination coordinates: how the linkage between consciousness and specific 4-space location happened. The Yahoos and the Googles studied the human element, the transiters themselves. The possible JANETs (named for a long ago academic and science network) looked for news from nowhere, postcard from Botany Bay… Somewhere in the wake of the monstrous energies of collision, there should be buried fragments of sense-perceptions from the other side. The S-factor, the physical organism, had arrived in another place. Eyes had opened on alien scenes, skin had felt the touch of another planet’s air. There must be some irrefutable trace of that landfall, leaking back from the future. The JANETs hadn’t found it yet, but they lived in hope.

Malin had been figuring out ways of reducing the P-factor interference (essentially, stray thoughts) that disturbed the wake of a collision. It had been observed that certain transiters, paradoxically, seemed to dream in non-duration. There were brainstates, neuronal maps that cognitive analysis translated as weird images, emotional storms, flashes of narrative. It was rich stuff, but all useless crap, since everything had the signature of internally generated perception. But why were some transiters having these dense and complex dreams? What did it mean?

What if you flip the gestalt, see the noise as signal?

#

Malin searched in forbidden territory, the personal files of the Damned. Alone in a virtual archive room, in the middle of the night, she felt herself watched. She looked over her virtual shoulder and, inevitably, there was Caterina — leaning against a filing cabinet, dark hair a shining tumble: hands in the pockets of a white silk dressing-gown.

Malin’s avatar wore nubbly old Rocketkid pajamas.

“Of course, you can explain yourself,” said the vision. “You wouldn’t be doing something so illegal and unprofessional if you didn’t have very good reason. Do you know how much trouble you’re in?”

Malin nodded. “Yes, but these files are banned because of data protection, nothing scientific, and I’m not looking at personal information. I think I’m onto something. See here —” She shared her view. “See this? Hyper-development in the anterior insula and the frontal operculum? That’s not uncommon, it indicates a natural-born, life-experience augmented talent for handling virtual worlds: a gamer, a fantasist, a creative scientist. I have a group of these people, all showing the same very unusual P-stream activity in the event-wake. The backwash of the collision, that is. Like layers of new neuronal architecture —”

“What’s that extraordinary spike — ?”

“That’s what I’m talking about.”

“But these are induction scans, decades old. Are you telling me that what happened in the Collider retroactively appeared in their files?”

“Yep, it’s entanglement effect. We get them, spooky effects. In terms of intentionality, we’re very close to the Torus —”

Ouch. Traditionalists, Malin reminded herself, were repelled by the strangeness of the new science.

The boss did not flinch. “What d’you think’s going on?”

Desperation generates blinding insight. Back in the JANET lab, Malin had seen, grasped, guessed, that Caterina Marie Skodłodowska really was on their side. Her questions were tough, but that was because she had hardliners to convince at home. She wanted the Torus to live!

Malin drew a breath. “I’ve been trying to eliminate ‘stray thoughts’ from the information-volume where we’d hope to find S-traces from the remote site. Probability-tunneling back to us. In certain cases I’m seeing P-fragments of extraordinary complexity. I think they’re mapping the equation of the transit. When you have a problem that’s too big to handle, substituting imagery for the values is a useful technique —”

Caterina paid attention. “You mean, like a memory palace?”

“Yes! I think I’m seeing prepared minds, impelled by the collision with the mind/matter barrier to know what’s happening: where they’re going and how. They’re experiencing, processing this knowledge as a virtual world!”

“That sounds dangerously like meddling with the supernatural.”

It’s a bit late to worry about that, thought Malin, exasperated, forgetting that Cat was not the enemy. Down all the millennia, people like you have said science is “challenging the Throne of God.” The funny thing is, your “God” doesn’t seem to mind. Your “God” keeps saying to us, hey, wonderful! You noticed! Follow me, I have some other great stuff to show you —

“Not supernatural, purely neurology. Brain-training. We could do the work here on the Panhandle. We need to be able to handle complex virtual worlds, so we have the equipment. We’re just not allowed to ramp it up, because of that “destroying the fabric of reality” thing, you know, creating exotic brainstates close to the Torus —”

“I see you’ve given this some thought,” said Caterina, without a sign of alarm. “There would certainly be some risk.”

“I think it’s worth it. What’s happening here, in these files, is involuntary and uncontrolled. If we could get people to do the trick voluntarily, we’d have your repeatable experiment! I could be a candidate myself, I’ve spent enough time in virtuality —”

“You could turn yourself into a quantum computer?”

“I am a quantum computer,” said Malin (and heard herself, arrogant and bewildered as Buonarotti). “That’s what consciousness is, like the universe: a staggering mass of simultaneous, superimposed calculations —”

Caterina’s avatar was ripping through the data. “You’re saying that some of the Damned made successful transits. Why didn’t they come back?”

“Would you?”

“Good point.”

“Theoretically there’s no problem about ‘coming back.’ Imagine a stretched elastic. It wants to rebound. The difficulty should be staying, at the remote site, I mean. That is, until we have a presence there, to anchor people in the new reality. Another station.”

“What about the lost? Why didn’t they ‘rebound?’”

They died, thought Malin. They were annihilated, unless they had this fortuitous ability; or at least someone in the party did.

“I don’t know.”

That strange glow rose in Caterina’s eyes (her virtual eyes); which Malin had seen before and could not quite interpret.

“Well… I think you’ve set us a challenge, Malin.”

#

So they were off, Malin the possible JANET and her polar opposite. Skodłodowska chose the destination. She decided they might as well go for the big prize: one of the Transportation planets, where they should find Earth-type conditions. Maybe they’d meet some of the Damned! The science teams, in a fever of hope, prepared to fire-up the Torus. The fact-finders stayed in their quarters, and communications with Earth (as far as Lou could discover) continued undisturbed. It looked as if Caterina wasn’t telling her flat-earth bosses that she planned to take this crazy leap into the void.

Malin spent hours in the neuro-labs, getting her brain trained under the supervision of Dr. Fortune, gamer-lord of the Panhandle’s virtualities.

“You’re fraternizing with the enemy,” he warned her.

“Fraternizing is a dirty word. I’m offering the hand of friendship.”

“You’ll be sorry. You don’t know what she really wants.”

“She wants to make a transit, obviously. It’s her secret dream.”

“Yes, but why?”

“I’m hoping it’s the everlasting fame and glory,” said Malin.

The mystery bothered her, too.

All transiters, even the humble “prospectors” had to do some brain-training. They were schooled in handling, visualizing, internalizing their survival kit: so that the pressure suit, rations, air supply would transit with them, imprinted on the somatosensory cortex, and they wouldn’t turn up naked in hard vacuum. Malin had to do a lot more. She was building her memory palace, a map for the equation of the transit. They had decided, playing safe, that it should be a starship. Visualize this, Malin. Choose the details and imprint them. Internalize this skin, this complex exoskeleton. The ship is the journey. You are the ship, and you are with your crew, inside the ship —

“Conditions for supporting human life?” wondered Caterina. “Is that necessary? Why not a completely new body and chemistry?”

“Maybe it could be done,” said Malin. “Not easily. We unravel S from P by mathematical tricks in the lab, but consciousness and embodiment evolved together. They’re inextricable, far as we can tell.”

“So on the other side, it’s the real me, who I always was?”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

They had lain down like prospectors, in the Buonarotti couches in the transit chamber: and they had “woken up” on board. Malin remembered the transition, vaguely as a dream, but she’d forgotten it was real. Reality was the ship, the saloon, their cabins; the subliminal hum of the great engines. Malin’s desk of instruments, the headset that fastened on her cranium, sending ethereal filaments deep into her brain. She was the Navigator.

Caterina, of course, was the captain.

They lived together, playing games, preparing food, talking away the long idle hours, as they crossed the boundless ocean of information —

“My name isn’t really Skodłodowska,” Cat confessed.

“I didn’t think it was!”

“I liked you straight away, Mal, because you’re so normal, except kind of unisex. I’m sorry, but I find bodymods unnatural and repulsive —”

Oh yeah?, thought Malin; but she understood. Caterina hadn’t chosen her genemods. She had been compelled, by pressures no Reformer could understand, to make herself into a beautiful, risk-loving woman.

“My thoughts are very perverse,” she said, solemnly.

Caterina snorted. They giggled together; and Malin shyly reached out to take the captain’s hand. A shipboard romance; what could be more natural? What could be more likely to anchor them in the faux-reality and keep them safe?

Dr. Fortune had warned them that they would be scared, that what was “really happening” was utterly terrifying and it would bleed through. But what frightened them most, even in the closing phase, when Malin never left her desk, and the starship, rocked by soundless thunders, seemed to be trying to fall apart, was the fear that they would be enemies again, on the other side.

#

Landfall was like waking. Malin was lying on what seemed to be a mudbank, among beds of reeds as tall as trees. The air smelt marshy, acrid. She turned on her side, and she and Cat smiled at each other, rueful and uncertain.

They got to their feet and stared at each other.

Skodłodowska’s beautiful white scientist-suit was somewhat altered: wider across the shoulders, flat in the chest, narrow in the hips. Malin wore her ordinary station jumper, a little ragged at the wrist and ankle cuffs.

“Oh my God,” gasped Malin. “We made it!”

“I’m a man,” whispered Caterina, in tones of horror.

“Yeah, and I’m a woman. Shame, I always hoped I was an intersex in a woman’s body, deep down. It’s much cooler to be an inter! But hey, nobody’s perfect. Cat, pay attention, we’re here, we did it — !”

Malin had started skipping about, wildly excited.

“I thought breaking the barrier would give me my true body —”

“Oh for God’s sake, come on! We’ve done it! The repeatable experiment! Interstellar scheduled flights start here — !”

Four slender bipedal figures had appeared, beyond a gleaming channel that didn’t quite look like water. Scanty golden fur covered their arms and shoulders, longer fur was trained and dressed into curls in front of their ears, and they wore clothing. They kept their distance, murmuring to each other.

In that moment, still in the penumbra of the collision, Malin saw the future. She knew that she would be the first Navigator, carrying unprepared minds safely through the unreal ocean. She would see the Buonarotti Transit become a network, trained crews an elite, and these weird voyages frequent, though never routine. She saw, with a pang of loss, that the strangeness of the universe was her birthright; but there was another world, of brittle illusions and imaginary limits, that was forever beyond her reach.

But Caterina was shaking fit to tear herself apart, and Malin suddenly realized that what had happened to the lost could easily happen again, to the two of them. Quickly, rebound. Set the controls, the mental switches.

Return.