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Tau Zero [Secure eReader]
eBook by Poul Anderson

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Poul Anderson's Tau Zero is an outstanding work of science fiction, in part because it combines two qualities that are often at odds in this genre: an interest in the emotional lives of its characters and a fascination with all things technological and scientific. In Tau Zero these components are not merely fused; they work together with a remarkable synergy that makes the novel much more than just a deep space adventure story. The novel centers on a ten-year interstellar voyage aboard the spaceship Leonora Christine, and it opens with members of the crew preparing for their departure from earth. It is an especially moving departure because they know that while they are aboard the ship and traveling close to the speed of light, time will be passing much more quickly back home. As a result, by the time they return everyone they know will have long since died. From practically the very first page, therefore, Tau Zero sets the scientific realities of space travel in dramatic tension with the no-less-real emotional and psychological states of the travelers. This is a dynamic Anderson explores with great success over the course of the novel as fifty crewmembers settle in for the long journey together. They are a highly-trained team of scientists and researchers, but they are also a community of individuals, each trying to make a life for him or herself in space. This is the background within which the action of the novel takes place. Anderson carefully depicts the network of relationships linking these people before the real plot begins to unfold. The voyage soon takes a unexpected and disastrous turn for the worse. The ship passes through a small, uncharted, cloudlike nebula that makes it impossible for the crew to decelerate the ship. The only hope, in fact, is for the ship to speed up. But acceleration towards the speed of light means that time outside the spaceship passes even more quickly, and the crew finds itself hurtling deeper into space and further into the future. Anderson's experience as a physicist is evidenced in the knowledgeable way he discusses the technical details of space and time travel, although his explanations never become burdensome or tedious. More to the point, the painstaking care with which he has drawn the characters ensures that the action is both imaginatively compelling and emotionally meaningful. It is a combination that is unfortunately all too rare in science fiction.

eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks
Fictionwise Release Date: July 2002

125 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter 1

"Look -- there -- rising over the Hand of God. Is it?"

"Yes, I think so. Our ship."

They were the last to go as Millesgarden was closed. Most of that afternoon they had wandered among the sculptures, he awed and delighted by his first experience of them, she bidding an unspoken farewell to what had been more a part of her life than she had understood until now. They were lucky in the weather, when summer was waning. This day on Earth had been sunlight, breezes that made leaf shadows dance on the villa walls, a clear sound of fountains.

But when the sun went down, the garden seemed abruptly to come still more alive. It was as if the dolphins were tumbling through their waters, Pegasus storming skyward, Folke Filbyter peering after his lost grandson while his horse stumbled in the ford, Orpheus listening, the young sisters embracing in their resurrection -- all unheard, because this was a single instant perceived, but the time in which these figures actually moved was no less real than the time which carried men.

"As if they were alive, bound for the stars, and we must stay behind and grow old," Ingrid Lindgren murmured.

Charles Reymont didn't hear her. He stood on the flagstones under a birch tree, whose leaves rustled and had begun very faintly to turn color, and looked toward Leonora Christine. Atop its pillar, the Hand of God upbearing the Genius of Man lifted in silhouette against a greenish-blue dusk. Behind it, the tiny rapid star crossed and sank again.

"Are you sure that wasn't an ordinary satellite?" Lindgren asked through quietness. "I never expected we'd see--"

Reymont cocked a brow at her. "You're the first officer, and you don't know where your own vessel is or what she's doing?" His Swedish had a choppy accent, like most of the languages he spoke, that underlined the sardonicism.

"I'm not the navigation officer," she said, defensive. "Also, I put the whole matter out of my mind as much as I can. You should do the same. We'll spend plenty of years with it." She half reached toward him. Her tone gentled. "Please. Don't spoil this evening."

Reymont shrugged. "Pardon me. I didn't mean to."

An attendant neared, stopped, and said deferentially: "I am sorry, we must shut the gates now."

"Oh!" Lindgren started, glanced at her watch, looked over the terraces. They were empty of everything except the life that Carl Milles had shaped into stone and metal, three centuries ago. "Why, why, it's far past closing time. l hadn't realized."

The attendant bowed. "Since my lady and gentleman obviously wished it, I let them alone after the other visitors left."

"You know us, then," Lindgren said.

"Who does not?" The attendant's gaze admired her. She was tall and well formed, regular of features, blue eyes set wide, blond hair bobbed just under the ears. Her civilian garments were more stylish than was common on a spacewoman; the rich soft colors and flowing draperies of neomedieval suited her.

Reymont contrasted. He was a stocky, dark, hard-countenanced man who had never bothered to have removed the scar that seamed his brow. His plain tunic and trews might as well have been a uniform.

"Thank you for not pestering us," he said, more curt than cordial.

"I took for granted you wished freedom from being a celebrity," the attendant replied. "No doubt many others recognized you too but felt likewise."

"You'll find we Swedes are a courteous people." Lindgren smiled at Reymont.

"I won't argue that," her companion said. "Nobody can help running into it, when you're everywhere in the Solar System." He paused. "But then, whoever steers the world had better be polite. The Romans were in their day. Pilate, for instance."

The attendant was taken aback at the implied rebuff. Lindgren declared a little sharply, "I said älskvärdig, not artig." ("Courteous," not "polite.") She offered her hand. "Thank you, sir."

"My pleasure, Miss First Officer Lindgren," the attendant answered. "May you have a fortunate voyage and come home safe."

"If the voyage is really fortunate," she reminded him, "we will never come home. If we do--" She broke off. He would be in his grave. "Again I thank you," she said to the little middle-aged man. "Good-by," she said to the gardens.

Reymont exchanged a clasp too and mumbled something. He and Lindgren went out.

High walls darkened the nearly deserted pavement beyond. Footfalls sounded hollow. After a minute the woman remarked, "I do wonder if that was our ship we saw. We're in a high latitude. And not even a Bussard vessel is big and bright enough to shine through sunset glow."

"She is when the scoopfield webs are extended," Reymont told her. "And she was moved into a skewed orbit yesterday, as part of her final tests. They'll take her back to the ecliptic plane before we depart."

"Yes, of course, I've seen the program. But I've no reason to remember exactly who is doing what with her at which time. Especially when we aren't leaving for another two months. Why should you keep track?"

"When I'm simply the constable." Reymont's mouth bent into a grin. "Let's say that I'm practicing to be a worrywart."

She glanced sideways at him. The look became a scrutiny. They had emerged on an esplanade by the water. Across it, Stockholm's lights were kindling, one by one, as night grew upward among houses and trees. But the channel remained almost mirrorlike, and as yet there were few sparks in heaven save Jupiter. You could still see without help.

Reymont hunkered down and drew their hired boat in. Bond anchors secured the lines to the concrete. He had obtained a special license to park practically anywhere. An interstellar expedition was that big an event. Lindgren and he had spent the morning in a cruise around the Archipelago -- a few hours amidst greenness, homes like parts of the islands whereon they grew, sails and gulls and sun-glitter across waves. Little of that would exist at Beta Virginis, and none of it in the distances between.

"I am beginning to feel what a stranger you are to me, Carl," she said slowly. "To everyone?"

"Eh? My biography's on record." The boat bumped against the esplanade. Reymont sprang down into its cockpit. Holding the line taut with one hand, he offered her the other. She had no need to lean heavily on him as she descended, but did. His arm scarcely stirred beneath her weight.

She sat down on a bench next the wheel. He twisted the screw top of the anchor he grasped. Intermolecular binding forces let go with a faint smacking noise that answered the slap-slap of water on hull. His movements could not be called graceful, as hers were, but they were quick and economical.

"Yes, I suppose we've all memorized each other's official accounts." She nodded. "For you, the absolute minimum you could get by with telling."

(Charles Jan Reymont. Citizenship status, Interplanetarian. Thirty-five years old. Born in the Antarctic, but not one of its better colonies; the sublevels of Polyugorsk offered only poverty and turbulence to a boy whose father had died early. The youth he became got to Mars by some unspecified means and held a variety of jobs till the troubles broke out. Then he fought with the Zebras, with such distinction that afterward the Lunar Rescue Corps offered him a berth. There he completed his academic education and rose fast in rank, until as colonel he had much to do with improving the police branch. When he applied for this expedition, the Control Authority was glad to accept him.)

"Nothing whatsoever of yourself," Lindgren observed. "Did you even give that away in the psychological testing?"

Reymont had gone forward and cast off the bow line. He stowed both anchors neatly, took the wheel, and started the motor. The magnetic drive was soundless and the propeller made scant noise, but the boat slipped rapidly outward. He kept his eyes straight ahead. "Why do you care?" he asked.

"We'll be together for a number of years. Quite possibly for the rest of our lives."

"It makes me wonder why you spent today with me, then."

"You invited me."

"After you gave me a call at my hotel. You must have checked with the crew registry to find where I was."

Millesgarden vanished in swift-deepening darkness aft. Lights along the channel, and from the inner city beyond, did not show whether she flushed. Her face turned from him, though. "I did," she admitted. "I... thought you might be lonely. You have no one, have you?"

"No relatives left. I'm only touring the fleshpots of Earth. Won't be any where we are bound."

Her sight lifted again, toward Jupiter this time, a steady tawny-white lamp. More stars were treading forth. She shivered and drew her cloak tight around her, against the autumnal air. "No," she said mutedly. "Everything alien. And when we've hardly begun to map, to understand, that world yonder -- our neighbor, our sister -- to cross thirty-two light-years--"

"People are like that."

"Why are you going, Carl?"

His shoulders lifted and dropped. "Restless, I suppose. And frankly, I made enemies in the Corps. Rubbed them the wrong way, or outdistanced them for promotion. I was at the point where I couldn't advance further without playing office politics. Which I despise." His glance met hers. Both lingered a moment. "You?"

She sighed. "Probably sheer romanticism. Ever since I was a child, I thought I must go to the stars, the way a prince in a fairy tale must go to Elf Land. At last, by insisting to my parents, I got them to let me enroll in the Academy."

His smile held more warmth than usual. "And you made an outstanding record in the interplanetary service. They didn't hesitate to make you first officer of your first extrasolar ship."

Her hands fluttered in her lap. "No. Please. I'm not bad at my work. But it's easy for a woman to rise fast in space. She's in demand. And my job on Leonora Christine will be essentially executive. I'n have more to do with... well, human relations... than astronautics."

He returned his vision forward. The boat was rounding the land, headed into Saltsjön. Water traffic thickened. Hydrofoils whirred past. A cargo submarine made her stately way toward the Baltic. Overhead, air taxis flitted like fireflies. Central Stockholm was a many-colored unrestful fire and a thousand noises blent into one somehow harmonious growl.

"That brings me back to my question." Reymont chuckled. "My counter-question, rather, since you were pressing in on me. Don't think I haven't enjoyed your company. I did, much, and if you'll have dinner with me I'll consider this day among the better ones of my life. But most of our gang scattered like drops of mercury the minute our training period ended. They're deliberately avoiding fheir shipmates. Better spend the time with those they'll never see again. You, now -- you have roots. An old, distinguished, well-to-do family; an affectionate one, I gather; father and mother alive, brothers, sisters, cousins, surely anxious to do everything they can for you in the few weeks that remain. Why did you leave them today?"

She sat unspeaking.

"Your Swedish reserve," he said after a while. "Appropriate to the rulers of mankind. I ought not to have intruded. Just give me the same right of privacy, will you?"

And presently: "Would you like to join me at dinner? I've found quite a decent little live-service restaurant."

"Yes," she answered. "Thank you. I would."

She rose to stand beside him, laying one hand on his arm. The thick muscles stirred beneath her fingers. "Don't call us rulers," she begged. "We aren't. That's what the whole idea was behind the Covenant. After the nuclear war... that close a brush with world death... something had to be done."

"Uh-huh," he grunted. "I've read an occasional history book myself. General disarmament; a world police force to maintain it; sed quis custodiet ipsos Custodes? Who can we trust with a monopoly of the planet killer weapons and unlimited powers of inspection and arrest? Why, a country big and modem enough to make peace-keeping a major industry; but not big enough to conquer anyone else or force its will on anyone without the support of a majority of nations; and reasonably well thought of by everyone. In short, Sweden."

"You do understand, then," she said happily.

"I do. Including the consequences. Power feeds on itself, not by conspiracy, but by logical necessity. The money the world pays, to underwrite the cost of the Control Authority, passes through here; therefore you become the richest country on Earth, with all that that implies. And the diplomatic center, goes without saying. And when every reactor, spaceship, laboratory is potentially dangerous and must be under the Authority, that means some Swede has a voice in everything that matters. And this leads to your being imitated, even by those who no longer like you. Ingrid, my friend, your people can't help turning into new Romans."

Her gladness drooped. "Don't you like us, Carl?"

"As well as anybody, considering. You've been humane masters to date. Too humane, I'd say. In my own case, I ought to be grateful, since you allow me to be essentially a stateless person, which I think I prefer. No, you've not done badly." He gestured toward the towers down which radiance cataracted, to right and left. "It won't last, anyhow."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. I'm only certain that nothing is forever. No matter how carefully you design a system, it will go bad and die."

Reymont stopped to choose words. "In your case," he said, "I believe the end may come from this very stability you take pride in. Has anything important changed, on Earth at least, since the late twentieth century? Is that a desirable state of affairs?

"I suppose," he added, "that's one reason for planting colonies in the galaxy, if we can. Against Ragnarok."

Her fists clenched. Her face turned upward again. The night was now entire, but few stars could be seen through the veil of light over the city. Elsewhere -- in Lapland, for instance, where her parents had a summer cottage -- they would shine unmercifully sharp and many.

"I'm being a poor escort," Reymont apologized. "Let's get off these schoolboy profundities and discuss more interesting subjects. Like an apéritif."

Her laugh was uncertain.

He managed to keep the talk inconsequential while he nosed into Strömmen, docked the boat, and led her on foot across the bridge to Old Town. Beyond the royal palace they found themselves under softer illumination, walking down narrow streets between high golden-hued buildings that had stood much as they were for several hundred years. Tourist season was past; of the uncounted foreigners in the city, few had reason to visit this enclave; except for an occasional pedestrian or electrocyclist, Reymont and Lindgren were nearly alone.

"I shall miss this," she said.

"It's picturesque," he conceded.

"More than that, Carl. It's not just an outdoor museum. Real human beings live here. And the ones who were before them, they stay real too. In, oh, Birger Jarl's Tower, the Riddarholm Church, the shields in the House of Nobles, the Golden Peace where Bellman drank and sang -- It's going to be lonely in space, Carl, so far from our dead."

"Nevertheless you're leaving."

"Yes. Not easily. My mother who bore me, my father who took me by the hand and led me out to teach me constellations. Did he know what he was doing to me that night?" She drew a breath. "That's partly why I got in touch with you. I had to escape from what I'm doing to them. If only for a single day."

"You need a drink," he said, "and here we are."

The restaurant fronted on the Great Marketplace. Between the surrounding steep facades you could imagine how knights had clattered merrily across the paving stones. You did not remember how the gutters ran with blood and heads were stacked high during a certain winter week, for that was long past and men seldom dwell on the hurts that befell other men. Reymont conducted Lindgren to a table in a candlelit room which they had to themselves, and ordered akvavit with beer chasers.

She matched him drink for drink, though she had less mass and less practice. The meal that followed was lengthy even by Scandinavian standards, with considerable wine during it and considerable cognac afterward. He let her do most of the talking.

--of a house near Drottningholm, whose park and gardens were almost her own; sunlight through windows, gleaming over burnished wood floors and on silver that had been passed down for ten generations; a sloop on the lake, heeled to the wind, her father at the tiller with a pipe in his teeth, her hair blowing loose; monstrous nights at wintertime, and in their middle that warm cave named Christmas; the short light nights of summer, the balefires kindled on St. John's Eve that had once been lit to welcome Baldr home from the underworld; a walk in the rain with a first sweetheart, the air cool, drenched with water and odor of lilacs; travels around Earth, the Pyramids, the Parthenon, Paris at sunset from the top of Montparnasse, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, the Kremlin, the Golden Gate Bridge, yes, and Fujiyama, the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls, the Great Barrier Reef--

--of love and merriment at home but discipline too, order, gravity in the presence of strangers; music around, Mozart the dearest; a fine school, where teachers and classmates brought a complete new universe exploding into her awareness; the Academy, harder work than she had known she could do, and how pleased she was to discover she was able; cruises through space, to the planets, oh, she had stood on the snows of Titan with Saturn overhead, stunned by beauty; always, always her kindred to return to--

--in a good world, its people, their doings, their pleasures all good; yes, there remained problems, outright cruelties, but those could be solved in time through reason and good will; it would be a joy to believe in some kind of religion, since that would perfect the world by giving it ultimate purpose, but in the absence of convincing proof she could still do her best to help supply that meaning, help mankind move toward something loftier--

--but no, she wasn't a prig, he mustn't believe that; in fact, she often wondered if she wasn't too hedonistic, a bit more liberated than was best; however, she did get fun out of life without hurting anyone else, as far as she could tell; she lived with high hopes.

Reymont poured the last coffee for her. The waiter had finally brought the bill, though he seemed in no more hurry to collect than most of his kind in Stockholm. "I except that in spite of the drawbacks," Reynont said, "you'll manage to enjoy our voyage."

Her voice had gotten a bit slurred. Her eyes, regarding him, stayed bright and level. "I plan to," she declared, "That's the main reason I called you. Remember, during training I urged you to come here for part of your furlough." By now they were using the intimate pronoun.

Reymont drew on his cigar. Smoking would be prohibited in space, to avoid overloading the life support systems, but tonight he could still put a blue cloud in front of him.

She leaned forward, laying a hand over his free one on the table. "I was thinking ahead," she told him. "Twenty-five men and twenty-five women. Five years in a metal shell. Another five years if we turn back immediately. Even with antisenescence treatments, a decade is a big piece out of a life."

He nodded.

"And of course we'll stay to explore," she went on. "If that third planet is habitable, we'll stay to colonize -- forever -- and we'll start having children. Whatever we do, there are going to be liaisons. We'll pair off."

He said, low lest it seem too blunt: "You think you and I might make a couple?"

"Yes." Her tone strengthened. "It may seem immodest of me, whether or not I am a spacewoman. But I'll be busier than most, the first several weeks of travel especially. I won't have time for nuances and rituals. It could end with me in a situation I don't want. Unless I think ahead and make preparations. As I'm doing."

He lifted her hand to his lips. "I am deeply honored, Ingrid. Though we may be too unlike."

"No, I suspect that's what draws me." Her palm curved around his mouth and slid down his cheek. "I want to know you. You are more a man than any I've met before."

He counted money onto the bill. It was the first time that she had seen him move not entirely steadily. He ground out his cigar, watching it as he did. "I'm staying at a hotel over on Tyska Brinken," he said. "Rather shabby."

"I don't mind," she answered. "I doubt if I'll notice."

Copyright © 1970 by Poul Anderson

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