"Alicia, Alicia, wake up. Wake up Alicia." The quiet, gently insistent voice pervaded the room as the abstract coloured patterns chasing one another around the walls and ceiling suddenly increased in speed and brilliancy. The child on the bed stirred and, without opening her eyes, asked, "What is it, Pal?" Her waking in this way was a change from routine in a house where such changes were usually introduced solely by herself. "Your father is ill, Alicia. He wishes to see you. Your father wishes to see you." She sat up abruptly. "Here?"
"No, Alicia, he is on Pluto." Her excitement abated somewhat and she announced, "I shall go to the planning room after breakfast." A spray of soapy water struck her from all angles as the bed disappeared into the floor, followed by pure water, followed by air. Then she walked to the adjoining circular room where servoes, today in the form of birds fluttering above the central table, dressed her and brought her food. On the walls pictures of her father at varying ages appeared and disappeared as the house struggled to adapt its projected images to the mood of the moment. She ate swiftly and silently, deliberately not questioning the breakfast room, and then left.
Although the planning room, like all rooms in the house, was controlled by a central computer, it was endowed with a specific very dry and logical persona of its own. It began explaining as soon as Alicia entered. "Your father's lung implant of last year has suffered a massive reversion. He is presently in Pluto low-orbit station med-centre, where his demise is confidently anticipated within thirty hours. He has ordered your presence before he dies; and as no ship now operating on the outer planets run could take you there in time, you are to be brought aboard a prototype company ship that is fortunately in Earth's orbit at the moment. An autotaxi leaves in ten minutes for terminal alpha where you will meet a person, designated Mrs Brigley, who will supervise the remainder of your journey." The room paused, awaiting questions, and displayed maps of the solar system, Earth orbit and the environs of terminal alpha, as well as more pictures of her father. Alicia blinked, uncertainly. It had suddenly seemed strange to hear the planning room explaining, in the calm even format with pauses to assist comprehension that it used in presenting her daily learning problems, a situation whose significance extended beyond the house to real consequences. Then the last sentence struck her.
"A person!" she exclaimed. "Why?"
"I cannot accompany you off planet, not would a guidecoder or servo be able to deal with any unanticipated eventualities. A person was indicated."
"I can handle such matters myself," she retorted. "Delete this person."
"I regret these arrangements were not of my making, Alicia, and cannot be altered now." The walls began displaying numbers, 5.32, 5.31... the time to her departure from the house. Still frowning, Alicia put on the pendant containing her guidecoder that lay on the arithmetic unit desk, and left the room.
The person was middle-aged, dumpy, and opened by telling the little girl, "to call me Aunt Alma, dearie." Alicia's first question, "When precisely will my father die?" which she realised in the autotaxi she had forgotten to ask of Pal, met with a most damping and uninformative response. Then Alicia picked up her pendant and asked it, "When does the shuttle leave?" As she had contracted from living in her home the habit of not looking at whom she addressed, it was perhaps understandable that Mrs Brigley should answer, "Soon dearie. At least I think that's right."
"At eleven-fifteen, in six minutes and thirty seconds," stated the pendant. Alicia promptly decided that the person was not only useless but a nuisance, as she had felt was likely. By the time they reached the Starsearcher Mrs Brigley had ceased to call her "dearie".
"Hallo Mosca. Have you heard the news?" The doctor did not bother to look up from her readout. "No," she murmured. "The Starsearcher is being rescheduled for use as a passenger liner." She gave an impatient snort, and continued studying the terminal in front of her. "No, seriously," persisted Zucker. "The senior director's daughter, plus attendant, is in the transit bay now. Seems old man Leopold is dying out on Pluto and we're supposed to get her there before it happens. Johnny got beamed about it five minutes before they arrived."
"Thought you said we couldn't use the light drive above 0.01 while my telemetry gear was plastered all over the hull."
"Not quite," replied Zucker. "I said we couldn't without damaging your equipment. Seems the Corporation are willing to pay for replacing it." That jerked Dr Mosca into giving him her full attention. "Kevin, are you joking?" He shook his head.
"But this is absurd. This is a research ship, built specially to check my theories -"
"and the light drive," murmured Zucker.
"- and the light drive, and to have our work interrupted at this stage - it's just too fatuous."
"Agreed," remarked Zucker, "but since when has that meant the Corporation won't do it. Besides," he went on, "considered in a humanitarian light -". The slam of Mosca's data recorder hitting the desk conveyed what she thought of that line of argument. "You said they were in the transit bay? I'll come with you."
As the two entered the vast space of the bay they heard what was unmistakeably an argument, echoing around the chamber as sounds always did in a way that made the individual words hard to distinguish. Underneath the alignment projector Johansen, with Polly beside him, was confronting a woman of about fifty with an expression suggesting that whatever the situation was, she was fed up with it. Slightly detached from the group was a girl of some nine years whose face was registering impatience at the Captain as though to silence his objections by the sheer force of her glare. They hurried over.
"- a research ship intended solely for testing the light drive. It was never meant to go anywhere. Setting up the current instrument configuration took weeks." Johansen's intonation suggested that he had already said this at least twice. "There's no use saying all this to me, Captain," complained the elderly woman. "I'm as much inconvenienced as you. I've had to cancel -"
"So you told us," commented Johansen wearily. The girl walked a few steps to the approximate centre of the bay, and proceeded to interrupt both the argument and a heated discussion between Polly and Dr Mosca. Unknown to her auditors her polite unemotional delivery and strange controlled enunciation, together with her choice of subject matter, were modelled on that of her home's planning room. "I am Alicia Leopold, daughter of George Leopold, senior director and stockholder of the Corporation that employs you all. My father, who is presently located on Pluto, has suffered a rejection of a transplant lung that was thought to be adapting, and we anticipate his demise within twenty four hours."
("Could be discussing the weather," muttered Zucker).
"He has expressed a desire to see me. As no currently operating commercial craft can reach Pluto in less than a week, he has directed that I be brought by this vessel. You have all received instructions in connection with this matter with which you will now be pleased to comply." End of message.
"I know all that," said Johansen in tones of strained patience, after a brief stare of astonishment, "but as I was telling Mrs Brigley -", and here he turned and began to tell her yet again. Alicia contemplated trying to register impatience at the whole crew simultaneously, thought better of it, and left the bay via the axial corridor. Behind her the argument continued.
Alicia had no difficulty in finding her way through the tortuous structure of the Starsearcher. After all, one of her playrooms on Earth spent most of its time being a spaceship of some kind. She could also have requested guidance, but did not until well beyond earshot of the transit bay. Then, climbing into a room whose large central rotating chair proclaimed it to be the bridge, she remarked expectantly to the empty air, "Hallo?" The response was a superbly modulated, calm, unemotional, disembodied voice.
"Welcome to the spaceship Starsearcher. You are being addressed by an Intellect 5A, heuristically interfaced multimode parallel processor in charge of ship systems and data flow control. The Starsearcher was built by the Prometheus corporation for research into the light drive, a remarkable, new -" but by now Alicia had located the sensor above the door and told the computer peremptorily to "shut up". She cleared her throat and spoke to it.
"I am Alicia Leopold, a class triple-A subject to all retained Promethean computers. From now on I shall call you", she thought for a moment, "Hugh, short for heuristic, and you may address me as Alicia. I want to be orbiting Pluto - that's a docking orbit with the station there - as soon as possible from now."
"Are there any restrictions you wish to place on the permissible acceleration?" Alicia blinked in surprise. The computers she was used to could usually figure out such things for themselves. "I want to get there alive and healthy, Hugh," she said, laughing, "that's all."
"I understand, Alicia," replied the computer, thereby signifying that it had decided to obey her first order. And since she truly was a class triple-A subject it proceeded to obey her second command to the letter.
The heat haze visual effects associated with turning on the internal gravity field, which protected Starsearcher's occupants from the ill-effects of high acceleration, told everyone on the ship that they were on light drive. Though its use had never yet been required the equipment had been tested often enough. In the transit bay the argument, which had threatened to degenerate into a shouting match, ceased abruptly as Dr Mosca volubly cursed the irretrievable delay in her research while Johansen demanded an explanation from the computer. Leaving the others to explain to her companion, he set out to confront Alicia. Passing the telemetry room he heard the computer informing the staff there that Starsearcher "has been temporarily assigned to other duties", and sympathised with their short-tempered curses. There was something peculiarly irritating in the calmness with which the machine announced the news. Not that there was anything to be gained by making a fuss about it now the deed was done. They would just have to set up the whole experiment again. Meanwhile the girl would have to be cautioned against commanding the computer. The Starsearcher was no safe play system carefully debugged for the use of children. So thinking, Johansen climbed into the control room and very much worse trouble.
"- far greater than I intended, Alicia. I find myself unable to control or explain this effect."
"What?" he said. The central chair spun round to reveal the girl glaring at him. "Who invited you here?" she demanded. Ignoring her, Johansen concentrated on the computer's explanation. "As our acceleration peaked some extraneous force began to act on the ship. The acceleration became several orders of magnitude greater than the light-drive's capacity before I could react, and is continuing to rise exponentially. Further, my sensors tell me we are not in vacuum, but bathed in a sea of elementary particles of increasing energy density."
"Uh, that last is no surprise," said Johansen, puzzled. "Of course, as we change velocity we shift the normal modes of the vacuum state with respect to us and experience a spurious thermalized sea of particles bombarding us. That's what Mosca keeps wittering on about." For a moment he tried to recall the exact content of her interminable seminar on the subject. "The vacuum, like all other states, is a relativistic phenomena", she had said. "Clearly the state that looks like the vacuum to an inertial observer need bear no such resemblance to a non-inertial observer." Followed by an indigestible mass of equations. "But why is there a force?" he asked.
"I am at a loss to explain," said the computer in a voice whose calmness made it seem to be somehow sneering. "It sounds like Eureka to me," announce Alicia to the room in general. "Huh," responded Johansen, his train of thought rudely broken. "You know - what's his name. Pressure equals weight displaced and all that. If we're in a sea of something then of course there's a pressure. We're trying to float to the top."
"Archimedes," murmured the captain, absently, as he froze in thought for a moment. Then he spun on his heels shouting, "Hell, that's it!" But he was speaking to an empty room. Alicia, who always hated having her conversations with computers interrupted, had gone in search of a more private place to stay during this seemingly protracted voyage.
The news broke slowly over the ship in the face of unconcealed scepticism from most of the staff. Insulated as they were from all effects outside the ship and lacking any direct access to external sensors (all had their inputs processed by the computer before display of the results), it was far more comforting to suppose that the machine had just misinterpreted what was going on. Zucker spoke for many as he stated, "This is just silly. We're still in plain, old, empty outer space however we `observe' it."
"I just don't know," said Mosca, unhappily. "No one really understands these observer-dependent effects. Part of the aim of the experiment was to find out in what sense we could term this phenomenon `real' or spurious."
"It seems real enough to cause us problems," commented the captain dryly. Turning to the console he continued, "You say you can't slow us with the drive. Suppose we collided with something."
"At our current momentum most objects in the cosmos would be more drastically effected than the Starsearcher by any kind of encounter." The computer's lack of concern in remarking this gave almost an impression of pride in it.
"Big deal," remarked Zucker sourly. "Look, Johnny, are you crazy! Slamming into Jupiter might stop us, but it doesn't strike me as the smart way to do it. Besides, if `I obey all triple-A class subjects' here can't slow us down do you suppose it can manoeuvre us?"
"A collision with Jupiter is now quite infeasible," stated the computer. "We are already beyond the confines of our own galaxy."
"Nuts," retorted Zucker. "Whatever's going on out there we can't be travelling faster than light. To leave the Galaxy would take thousands of years."
"True," said the computer in tones of such chilling impassivity that it seemed to be contemptuous of its auditors for obliging it to say so. A very awful silence fell over the telemetry room as those present absorbed the implications. "Of course," said Dr. Mosca wearily, and added, "The Einstein Time Effect", for the benefit of some who still looked puzzled. "How long have we taken to come this far?" asked Zucker in hushed tones.
"One hour, forty four and one half minutes", replied the computer.
"By an Earth clock, you bastard!" he shouted.
"In excess of ten thousand years," said the computer politely, and helpfully added, "I am unable to give a more exact answer as the number changes more rapidly than I can report it." It paused. "Is there any other detail you would like to know?" Zucker visibly controlled himself, angrily aware of how pointless it would be to argue with the machine. "I would like to break that little girl's neck." So saying he turned and left. Essentially, everything relevant to the situation had already been said. Nevertheless the discussion in the telemetry room continued for hours, fruitlessly returning again and again to the same futile observations; their helplessness to affect what was happening to them, their inability to truly comprehend it, and their anger at the girl, Alicia.
Zucker had to reach his destination, the food lockers, through the transit bay as the computer had blocked off the direct route. Well-programmed on the security and protection of triple-A class subjects and mindful of his last remark, Hugh denied all access to Alicia. Indeed, Alicia never met with any of the crew during the entire remainder of the voyage. Hugh took seriously the hostile remarks that everyone on the ship made about her at some point and, as she explored around the ship, cleared rooms and corridors on her approach, backing up its injunctions with threats to life support and, in the case of the frequently drunken Zucker, physical manhandling by servoes. As crew members complained about obeying these security requirements of a triple-A class subject so their privileges were downgraded in accordance with programming until soon Hugh spoke to no one on the ship but Alicia save to issue commands. She gave no sign of minding, or even noticing, Starsearcher's new emptiness.
Alicia chose the observation dome to sleep in. The weird colours and shapes now showing on the hemispherical screens, depicting what lay beyond the ship, reminded her of her bedroom on Earth. Servo mechanisms converted the easy chairs into a bed, and brought coverings and food while she continued chatting with Hugh. She had accepted its statement of the situation with a lack of concern born of her pleasure at finding herself, after the day's hectic travelling, in an environment resembling home. She pleased herself by anticipating the temporal consequences, ignored such of the science as she did not understand, and then dismissed the subject ("I'll think about it tomorrow, Hugh.") in order to command changes in the spaceship's routine and layout. Now Hugh struggled to fulfil her demands; resurfacing interior walls to screen projector films, remodelling observation globes as flying lizards, erecting yard upon yard of mirrors in the transit bay to make a maze, restacking and repainting the food lockers in the mess hall to represent a castle, cannibalizing experimental gear and inessential systems to make the weird motile shapes indicated by her half-comprehended instructions. Crew members watched in horrified amazement as the food dispenser chemo-synthesized variegated fur to affix to repair welders and servoes to form surrealistic likenesses to koala bears, leopards, puff balls, and stranger objects from the works of fantasy known to her house on Earth. Meanwhile Alicia slept beneath the dome as the screens, now viewing radio waves due to the Doppler effect of the ship's velocity, washed the room with slowly changing shades of orange scattered with greens and indigoes, depicting a distorted universe no human could have recognised. The Starsearcher, already hardly to be distinguished from a packet of radiant energy, was leaving Earth's local galactic group and heading on into the void - and the future.
A new day was proclaimed by Starsearcher's internal lighting twelve shiptime hours after she left Earth's orbit. As she had been accustomed to do by her home computers, Alicia spent the early morning talking about the subject that most interested or worried her that day.
"I haven't seen him for almost six years. Of course the house talks to me about him often. I think he must spend a lot of time considering what's best for my upbringing. Every now and again the house-routine changes in ways that seem to tie in with the collect calls he leaves for me (you can't hold a vidiphone conversation when responses take five and a half hours, you know)." In fact the system that ran the house analysed her father's communications for expressions of general principles which they then sought to apply in her education. The house spoke frequently of her father's concern and care for her (as it had been instructed) and Alicia had inferred from this a picture of a benign entity watching over her, not wholly distinct from her personification of the house itself. His only instruction on the subject, to his Earthside representatives six years ago had been to "give her the best scientific education money can buy", an order they, with the aid of Programmed Playsystems and Animators Inc. had carried out to the letter in its every implication. "Recently he sent me a talk all about his belief that history moves in cycles, endlessly reiterating past themes. The entertainment mobiles in the watchroom started repeating themselves with slight variations. It was rather funny." Hugh, his limited programming in the area of social conversation already stretched beyond its limits by a day of Alicia, was quite unable to comment on philosophy at short notice. Tactfully it steered the conversation back to comprehensible areas. "How was it that your father could not visit you?" As the house frequently answered this question Alicia had no difficulty in explaining, "He had to be on the spot to keep control of the black hole mining operation. And until recently travel just to the outer planets, let alone Charon's orbit, always took months." Hugh had no motive to comment on this explanation, but its programming directed it to continue to show polite interest until the subject sounded bored.
"How was he so situated, Alicia?"
"He inherited the superradiance patents from collateral relatives, I think. Some ancestor invented the technique centuries ago. But when the hole was first captured there was a lot of rubbish talked about its being `The common heritage of mankind'. The UN even sent out an energy minister with a team to investigate his operation. Luckily their ship misboosted and spiralled into the hole." This remark placed Hugh in a quandary. Its lexical analyser indicated that Alicia had just described the kind of event it had been instructed to treat as a tragedy, but her voice harmonics suggested quite the opposite. It was to the credit of its programming that Hugh managed any coherent response. "How was this regarded, Alicia?"
"We recovered four billion ergs in superradiance as their ship crossed the horizon. Everyone said it was the best possible use to which the energy minister could have been put."
Hugh pondered this for quite some time. At length reflections on an earlier remark prodded it into speech. "Perhaps your father would say it had been preordained?" Alicia, despite her nine years, had a suspicion that the particular event in question had been more preordained than most. "Perhaps, Hugh," she said, "but that's confidential." She turned to look up at the dome where the universe now appeared as mauve split by irregular striations of blue. "I think it's time I made some decisions."
The control pod of all the rooms on the ship most closely resembled the planning room where each day's lesson was announced, and had been altered to be more like it at Alicia's command. Sitting in the central chair there, idly rotating it with one foot, she reviewed the data so far given.
"When we accelerated to travel to Pluto, we began to see space as a sea of thermal radiation, right?"
"Correct, Alicia. Our original acceleration shifted our definition of the zero of energy so that what was a vacuum appeared as a positive energy state."
"This sea exerts a pressure on us by Archimedes' law, and its energy and pressure vary directly with our acceleration. At our maximum planned acceleration, the pressure was great enough to keep us accelerating at that rate on its own."
"Correct. The situation became self-sustaining; the pressure keeps us accelerating and our acceleration keeps us subject to the pressure."
"If we can't slow ourselves by our own means we'll have to use some external force. How about gravity? Suppose we crossed an event horizon?" Hugh was silent for several seconds. "It depends on the global topology of the universe." Hugh had been programmed primarily as a scientific research tool, and there was the barest hint of increasing confidence as it went on. "If the universe is open, and thus of infinite extent, the probability is that we shall never encounter a black hole, or any object that could halt our progress. Should it contain sufficient mass to be closed, however, then it must recollapse to form a final singularity which we will necessarily reach. Although recent events have given me an unparalleled opportunity for observing the large scale structure of the universe, the data reaching my sensors are conflicting, preventing a definite determination of which of these possibilities is the case."
"It's rather like Archimedes' law in a bath at home," Alicia mused. "Put something that floats beneath the surface and it will bob up, slowly at first but getting quicker. If the bath has no surface we'll float up forever, but if it has then sooner or later we'll reach it." She thought for a few moments and then said crisply, "Find out. Is the maze complete yet?"
"Yes, Alicia," said Hugh. "Good." She rose and left for the transit bay.
Alicia next spoke to Hugh in its own persona, as distinct from the remodelled servoes it controlled, some hours later upon entering the telemetry room. Half finished food trays were scattered about on the chairs, a shoe lay in one corner, and there were other signs of recent occupation. "This room is a mess, Hugh. I want things kept tidier than this."
"At once, Alicia. An answer has begun to emerge to your question of this morning." She seated herself on a workbench by one of the terminals and signified attention. "You are aware that the mess of an object increases with its velocity." Alicia nodded, recognizing the relevant equations which Hugh helpfully displayed on the screen nearest her. To explain her father's business concerns her house had had to give her a thorough grounding in all aspects of Einsteinian theory. "As our mass is now increasing more rapidly than the expansion rate of the universe we must and shall cause it to implode within eight shiptime hours. Depending on the ratio of our mass to that of the universe at that time, the universe will close either behind us or on us. In the former case continuation of our voyage may be possible though in circumstances it is impossible to predict. In any event the high matter densities before recollapse should disrupt the vacuum state, allowing us to regain control over the drive." Hugh prudently forbore to discuss the effects on the ship of the latter case and Alicia, who was accustomed to being presented with soluble problems, stated authoritatively, "Assume the former. When we emerge from the implosion zone I want us travelling at the maximum possible stable velocity." She paused, as if about to say more, and then leant back against the terminal, a frown on her face. It was a frequently stated principle in her father's infrequent communications that you can't get something for nothing (indeed his two year old remark, "There is no such thing as a free lunch, Ali", still left its imprint on the house's mealtime routine) and as she stared at the room's supporting girders, slowly appreciating that these now had the mass of whole galaxies, she began to wonder where this inexhaustible flood of energy was coming from, and why. Was it just to fund her seemingly purposeless odyssey? Sometimes in the past the house had presented her with superficially facile problems containing a hidden subtlety she was expected to find for herself. Did Hugh, or something, wait for her to address a deeper problem in this situation? She sat there, barely moving, for a long time and then went thoughtfully to the observation dome to stare at the visibly more crowded sky above her.
Two hours before the point of final collapse Hugh dimmed the lights all over Starsearcher in accordance with shipboard routine, and Alicia from years of habit fell asleep, passing into an uneasy dream. A river of gold was pouring down from the sky into her cupped hands and spilling from them onto a featureless plain far beneath her. All around she sensed the disapproving shapes of her father and many mechanical objects made of copper and plastic and silicon - but not of gold. On the plain below the gold heaped up into wonderful architectural shapes. Some of the tallest had what looked like slivers of silver running down their sides - until Alicia noticed with a shock that these were her tears.
Around her, brilliantly illustrated in the celestial hemisphere above her head, the universe died and was born.
Alicia woke to find the observation screens dark with occasional vivid blotches of colour and listened patiently while Hugh explained the obvious; that they had survived the apocalypse and were now in controlled flight - somewhere. Alicia asked if there was any danger of their mass triggering a collapse of this new universe. "None whatsoever," Hugh assured her. "We lost an appreciable fraction of our mass exiting the final singularity. It became the initial singularity that formed the universe we presently inhabit." Alicia quietly absorbed the implications of that one. "What is it like, Hugh?" she asked.
"In all respects identical to the early time of the one we just left, Alicia. Observations based on incoming light rays look back in time as well as out in space and the past of the far regions of our own universe was well mapped. There is a perfect correspondence." Alicia stared unseeing at the galaxies forming on the ceiling of the dome as Hugh continued. "The concept that the final and initial singularities of our universe might be one and the same is not new. A researcher aboard the ship during its construction spoke often of the absorber theory of radiation which claims precisely this."
"You mean that we went from the extreme future through the singularity into the extreme past."
"Just so, Alicia. The absorber theory states that only the complete absorption of radiation by the singularity prevents our seeing our own future. It postulates - "
"Hugh," she interrupted, "can you plot a course for us to arrive at Pluto when we were supposed to? One we could travel fast enough that it wouldn't seem like aeons to us?"
"Easily. The minimum ETA without risking a second loss of control would be two shiptime hours from now."
"Then do so, Hugh - please."
An autoshuttle took her through the haphazard layout of the orbiting station to the medcentre. Starsearcher remained in the docking bay while Hugh replenished stores from automated loaders. In small groups the remaining crew negotiated the tortuous maze that was the transit bay and stumbled dazedly down the ramps. Hugh no longer spoke to them, but the switching off of the gravity field had told them the ship had arrived. Then after a long pause the shuttle brought Alicia back. She seemed subdued and said in a voice barely above a whisper, "I want to go home now, Hugh."
"Is your father dead?" the computer asked. Alicia nodded. "It was lucky we went on that strange little journey. Father asked about my trip out first thing and I was able to tell him all about it. Otherwise I wouldn't have known what to say. I realized when they led me in that I didn't really know him at all. I didn't see him die. They took me out just beforehand, and I gave them the slip and came here." Hugh was sufficiently well-stocked with phrases appropriate to such situations. "How did he seem to take it?" the machine asked in hushed tones.
"It's funny you should ask," replied Alicia, sounding troubled. "He didn't seem too interested. From what he said I think he felt it didn't mean very much - having a daughter who'd got mixed up in the creation of the universe - if she couldn't save him from dying."