We’re going to hit. We’re aiming to hit, we’re going to let the lesser monster devour us before the greater one devours it in turn. We’ll lower Eriophora by her own bootstraps, sink through roiling bands of hydrogen and helium and a thousand exotic hydrocarbons, down to whatever residual deep-space chill Thule’s been hoarding since — who knows? Maybe almost as long as we’ve been in flight.
It won’t last, of course. Thule’s been warming ever since it started its long fall from the long dark. Its bones will survive passage through the stellar envelope easily enough but it’s going to be a hell of a long weekend. Most of the ice giant’s atmosphere will be gone by the end of it, boiled away in layers. It’ll be tricky, balancing in that ever-shrinking sweet spot between a scorching sky and the pressure cooker at Thule’s core.
The numbers say it should work.
Hakim should know this already. He would have awakened knowing, if not for that idiotic rebellion of theirs. But they chose to blind themselves instead, burn out their links, cut themselves off from the very heart of the mission. So now I have to explain things. I have to show things. All that instantaneous insight we once shared, gone: one ancient fit of pique and I have to use words, scribble out diagrams, etch out painstaking codes and tokens while the clock runs down. I’d hoped that maybe, after all these red-shifted millennia, they might have reconsidered; but the look in Hakim’s eyes leaves no doubt. As far as he’s concerned it all happened yesterday.
I do my best. I keep the conversation strictly professional, focus on the story so far: a build, aborted. Chaos and inertia, imminent annihilation, the insane counterintuitive necessity of passing through a star instead of going around it. “What are we doing here?” Hakim asks once I’ve finished.
“It looked like a perfect spot.” I gesture at the tank. “From a distance, anyway. Chimp even sent out the recon vons, but—” I shrug. “The closer we got, the worse it turned out to be.”
He stares at me, so I add context: “Far as we can tell something big came through a few hundred thousand years back, knocked everything haywire. Over a dozen planetary masses and not one of them’s even on the ecliptic any more. Plus there’s a shitload of rogues zipping around in the halo— but by the time those numbers came back, we were already committed. So now we just buckle down through the heavy traffic, steal a gravity-assist, get back on the road.”
He shakes his head. “What are we doing here?”
Oh, that’s what he means. I tap an innerface, timelapse the red giant. It jerks in the tank like a fibrillating heart. “Turns out it’s an irregular variable. One complication too many, right?” Not that we’ll be able to thread the needle any better than the Chimp can (although of course Hakim’s going to try, in these few hours left to him). But the mission has parameters. The chimp has his algorithms. Too many unexpected variables and he wakes up the meat. That’s what we’re here for, after all.
That’s all we’re here for.
One more time, Hakim asks: “What are we doing here?”
“You’re the numbers guy,” I say after a moment. “One of ’em, anyway.” Out of how many thousand, stored down in the crypt?
Doesn’t matter. They probably all know about me by now.
“Guess it was just your rotation,” I add.
He nods. “And you? You a numbers guy too, now?”
“We come back in pairs,” I say softly. “You know that.”
“So it just happened to be your rotation as well.”
“Nothing at all to do with your Chimp wanting its own personal hand-puppet keeping an eye on things.”
“Fuck, Hakim, what do you want me to say?” I spread my hands. “That he might want someone on deck who won’t try to pull the plug the first chance they get? You think that’s unreasonable, given what happened?” But he doesn’t even know what happened, not first-hand. Hakim wasn’t up when it all went down; someone obviously told him, down through the epochs. Christ knows how much of what he heard is truth, lies, legend.
A few million years go by and suddenly I’m the bogeyman.