Extract / Preview: Limit by Frank Schatzing

CB - JF - Nov - Limit

PROLOGUE

EVA
I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep—
Good old Frankie-boy. Untroubled by urban transformation, as long as there was a stiff drink waiting for you when you woke up.
Vic Thorn rubbed his eyes.
In thirty minutes the automatic alarm signal would rouse the early shift from their beds. Strictly speaking he couldn’t have cared less. As a short-term visitor he was largely free to decide how he was going to spend the day, except that even guests had to adapt to a certain formal framework. Which didn’t necessarily mean getting up early, but they woke you anyway.

*

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere—

Thorn started unfastening his belt. Because he thought staying too long in bed was degrading, he didn’t trust anyone else’s automatic devices to allow him to spend as little time of his life as possible asleep. Particu- larly since he liked to decide for himself who or what summoned him back to consciousness. Thorn loved turning his music systems up to the max. And he preferred to entrust his wake-up call to the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Junior, the disreput- able heroes of times past, for whom he felt an almost romantic affection. And up here nothing, nothing at all, was conducive to the habits of the Rat Pack. Even Dean Martin’s now famous observation that ‘You’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on’ was physically invalidated, and nor would the inveterate toper have been able to indulge his predilection for falling off his bar-stool and tottering out into the street. At 35,786 kilometres above the Earth’s surface there were no prostitutes waiting for you outside the door, just lethal, airless space.

King of the hill, top of the heap

Thorn hummed along with the tune, mumbling a wonky-sounding New York, New York. With a faint twitch, he pushed himself away and floated off his bunk, drifted to the small, round porthole of his cabin and looked outside.

 

In the city that never slept, Huros-ED-4 was on the way to his next assignment.

He wasn’t bothered by the cold of space or the total lack of atmos- phere. The sequence of day and night which, at such a vast distance from the Earth, was in any case based more on general agreement than on sensory experience, held no validity for him. His alarm call was made in the language of the programmers. Huros-ED stood for Humanoid Robotic System for Extravehicular Demands, the 4 placed him along with another nineteen of his kind, each one two metres tall, torso and head entirely humanoid, while their exaggeratedly long arms in their resting state recalled the raptorial claws of a praying mantis. When required, they unfolded with admirable agility, and with hands that were able to perform extremely difficult operations. A second, smaller pair of arms emerged from the broad chest, packed with electronics, and these were used to provide assistance. The legs, however, were completely absent. Admittedly the Huros-ED had a waist and a pelvis, but where the hips would have been in a human being there sprouted flexible grippers with devices that allowed him to fasten himself on wherever he hap- pened to be needed. During the breaks he looked for a sheltered niche, connected his batteries to the mains supply, topped up the tanks of his navigation nozzles with fuel and settled down to a spot of mechanical contemplation.

By now the last break was eight hours ago. Since then Huros-ED-4 had been working away industriously in the most diverse spots of the gigantic space station. In the outer zone of the roof, as the part turned towards the zenith was called, he had helped to swap ageing solar panels for new ones, in the wharf he had adjusted the floodlights for Dock 2, where one of the spaceships for the planned Mars mission was currently under construction. Then he had been dispatched a hundred metres lower to the scientific payloads fastened along the cantilevers, to remove the defective platinum parts from a measuring instrument designed to scan the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador. After this reconditioning had been successfully completed, his task was to go back inside the spaceport to investigate one of the manipulator arms that had ceased to function in the middle of a loading process.

The spaceport: that meant descending a bit further along the out- side of the station, to a ring 180 metres in diameter, with eight berths for incoming and outgoing moon shuttles, and a further eight for evacuation pods. Leaving aside the fact that the ships anchored there were passing through a vacuum rather than through water, what went on around the ring was not much different from what happened in Ham- burg or Rotterdam, the big terrestrial seaports, meaning that it too had cranes, huge robot arms on rails, called manipulators. One of these had packed in halfway through the loading process of a freight and passenger shuttle that was to start its journey to the Moon in only a few hours’ time. The arm should have been working, but with mechanical stubbornness it absolutely refused to move, and instead hung, effectors spread, half inside the shuttle’s loading area and half outside, which meant that the ship’s opened body couldn’t be closed.

On stipulated flight-paths, Huros-ED-4 passed alongside docked shut- tles, airlocks and connecting tunnels, spherical tanks, containers and masts until he reached the defective arm that glinted coldly in the unfil- tered sunlight. The cameras behind the visor on his head and the ends of limbs sent pictures to the control centre as he passed close by the construction and subjected every square centimetre to detailed analysis. The control constantly compared these pictures with the images located in his data storage system, until it had found the reason for the failure.

The control instructed him to clean the arm.

He stopped. Someone in his central steering module said, ‘Fucking shit!’, prompting a query from Huros-ED-4. Although programmed to respond to the human voice, he could detect no meaningful order in the exclamation. The control room neglected to repeat the words, so at first he did nothing but examine the damage. Tiny splinters were wedged into the joint of the manipulator. A long, deep gash ran diagonally across the top of the joint’s structure, gaping like a wound. At first sight the elec- tronics seemed to be intact, meaning that the damage was purely material although serious enough to have caused the manipulator to switch off.

The control room issued an instruction to clean the joint. Huros-ED-4  paused.

Had he been a human being, his behaviour might have been described as indecisive. At length he requested further information, thus indicating in his own vague way that the task was beyond his capabilities. Revolu- tionary a piece of engineering though he was – sensor-based steering, sensory impression feedback, flexible and autonomous operation – robots were still machines that thought in templates. He probably knew they were there, but he didn’t know what they were. Likewise, he recorded the tear, but was unable to match it with familiar information. As a result the defective places did not exist for him. Consequently it was hard to tell exactly what he was supposed to be cleaning, so he didn’t clean anything at all.

A smattering of consciousness, and robots would have realised that their lives were mercifully free of anxiety.

 

But everyone else was anxious enough to be going on with. Vic Thorn had had a long shower, listened to ‘My Way’, put on a T-shirt, trainers and shorts, and had just decided to spend the day in the fitness studio when the call came from headquarters.

‘You could be useful to us in solving a problem,’ said Ed Haskin, under whose responsibility the spaceport and the systems attached to it fell.

‘Right now?’ Thorn hesitated. ‘I was planning to spend a bit of time on the treadmill.’

‘Right now would be better.’ ‘What’s up?’

‘It looks as if there are problems with your spaceship.’

Thorn bit his lower lip. A thousand alarm bells went off in his head at the idea that his take-off might be delayed. Bad, very bad! The ship was supposed to leave the port at about midday, with him and another seven astronauts on board, to relieve the crew of the American moon base who, after six months of selenic exile, were succumbing to hallucinations of tarmac roads, carpeted flats, sausages, meadows and a sky full of colour, clouds and rain. On top of that, Thorn was scheduled to be one of the two pilots for the two-and-a-half-day flight and, to cap it all, to be leader of the crew, which explained why they were talking to him rather than anyone else. And there was another reason why any hesitation struck him as more than inopportune—

‘What’s up with the crate?’ he asked, with deliberate indifference. ‘Doesn’t it want to fly?’

‘Oh, it wants to fly all right, but it can’t. There was a glitch during loading. The manipulator broke down and blocked the hatches. We can’t shut the freight area.’

‘I see.’ Relief flooded through Thorn. A defective manipulator could be dealt with.

‘And you know why it broke down? Debris. A heavy fall.’

Thorn sighed. Space debris, whose unwelcome omnipresence was down to an unparallelled orbital congestion, begun in the 1950s by the Soviets with their Sputnik launches. Since then, the remnants of thou- sands of missions had circulated at every altitude: burnt-out propulsion stages, decommissioned and forgotten satellites, wreckage from count- less explosions and collisions, from complete reactors to tiny fragments of shrapnel, drops of frozen coolant, screws and wires, bits of plastic and metal, scraps of gold foil and vestiges of flaked-off paint. The constant fracturing of the splinters with each fresh collision meant that they were breeding like rodents. By now the number of objects larger than one centimetre was estimated at 900,000. Barely three per cent of these were constantly monitored, and the ominous remainder, along with billions of smaller particles and micrometeorites, was on its way elsewhere – in case of doubt, with the inevitability with which insects ended up on wind- screens, towards wherever you happened to be.

The problem was, a wasp hurtling at a luxury limousine with the momentum of an identically sized fragment of space debris would have developed the kinetic energy of a hand-grenade and written off the vehicle in an instant. The speeds of objects moving in opposite direc- tions became extreme in space. Even particles only micrometres across had a destructive effect in the long term: they ground away at solar panels, they destroyed the surfaces of satellites and roughened the outer shells of spaceships. Near-Earth debris burned up sooner or later in the upper layers of the atmosphere, but only to be replaced by new debris. With increasing altitude its lifetime extended, and it could theoretically have survived for all eternity at the level at which the space station was orbiting. The fact that several of the dangerous objects were known and their flight-paths could be calculated weeks and months in advance provided a certain consolation, because it allowed the astronauts just to steer the whole station out of the way. The thing that had crashed into the manipulator plainly hadn’t been one of those.

‘And what can I do about it?’ asked Thorn.

‘I know, crew time.’ Haskin laughed irritably. ‘Tightness of resources. The robot can’t sort it out all by itself. Two of us will have to go out, but at the moment I’ve only got one staff member available. Would you jump in?’

Thorn didn’t think for long. It was very important for him to get out of there on time, and besides, he liked space-walks.

‘That’s fine,’ he said.

‘You’ll be going out with Karina Spektor.’

Even better. He’d met Spektor the previous evening in the crew can- teen, an expert in robotics, of Russian origin, with high cheekbones and cat-green eyes, who had responded to his attempts at flirtation with seeming willingness to engage in further international  understanding.

‘I’m on my way!’ he said.

 

in a city that never sleeps—

Cities tended to generate noise. Streets in which the air seethed with acoustic activity. People drawing attention to themselves by beeping, calling, whistling, chatting, laughing, complaining, shouting. Noise as social putty, coded into cacophony. Guitarists, singers, sax players in house doorways and subway tunnels. Disgruntled crows, barking dogs.

The reverberation of construction machinery, thundering jackhammers, metal on metal. Unexpected, familiar, wheedling, shrill, sharp, dark, mys- terious, noises that rose and fell, that approached and fled, some that spread like a gas, others that caught you right in the pit of the stomach and the auditory canal. Background noises of traffic. The flashy bass baritone of heavy limousines vying with dainty mopeds, with the purr of electro- mobiles, the grandiloquence of sports cars, souped-up motorbikes, the thumping get-to-the-side of the buses. Music from boutiques, footstep concerts in pedestrian precincts, strolling, shuffling, strutting, rushing, the sky vibrating with the thunder of distant aeroplane turbines, the whole city one great bell.

Outside the space city: None of that.

Familiar as the sounds might have been inside the living modules, laboratories, control rooms, connecting tunnels, leisure areas and res- taurants distributed across an overall height of 280 metres, there was a ghostly feeling the first time you left the station for EVA, ‘Extravehicular Activity’, the external maintenance service. Suddenly, without transition, you were out there, really out there, more out there than anywhere else. Beyond the airlocks all sound stopped. Of course you didn’t go entirely deaf. You could hear yourself very clearly, and you could hear the rush of the air-conditioning unit built into the spacesuit, and of course the walkie-talkie, but it was all being played out inside your own portable spaceship.

All around you, in the vacuum, perfect silence reigned. You saw the mighty structure of the station, peered through illuminated windows, saw the icy radiance of the floodlight batteries high above, where enor- mous spaceships were being assembled, spaceships that would never land on a planet and only existed in weightless suspension, you were aware of industrial activity, the turning and stretching of the cranes on the outer ring and the shuttles from the inner zone, you observed robots in free fall, so like living creatures that you felt like asking them the way – and intui- tively, overwhelmed by the beauty of the architecture, the far-away Earth and the coldly staring stars, their light undispersed by the atmosphere, you expected to hear mysterious or dramatic music. But space stayed mute, its sublimity orchestrated only by your own breath.

In the company of Karina Spektor, Thorn floated through the emp- tiness and silence towards the defective manipulator. Their suits, fitted with steering nozzles, enabled them to navigate precisely. They slipped across the docks of the vast spaceport embraced by the tower-like con- struction of the space station, wide as a freeway. Three moon shuttles were currently anchored on the ring – two of them fixed to airlocks, Thorn’s spaceship in the parking position – and also the eight plane-like evacuation pods. Basically the whole ring was one great switching yard, around which the spaceships constantly changed location to keep the symmetrically constructed station in balance.

Thorn and Spektor had left Torus-2, the distributor module in the centre of the port, and headed for one of the external locks not far from the shuttle. White and massive, with opened loading hatches, it rested in the sunlight. The frozen arm of the manipulator loomed high above them, bent abruptly at the elbow and disappearing into the cargo zone. Huros-ED-4 hung motionless by its anchor platform. With his gaze fixed on the blocked joint, there was something unsettling about his posture. Only at the very last moment did he move slightly to the side so that they could get a glimpse of the damage. Of course his behaviour was not the result of cybernetic peevishness, as a Huros doesn’t even have the beginning of a notion of self hood, but his images were now surplus to requirements. From now on what mattered were the impressions that the helmet-cameras sent to the control room.

‘So?’ Haskin asked. ‘What do you think?’

‘Bad.’ Spektor gripped the frame of the manipulator and drew her- self closer to it. Thorn followed her.

‘Odd,’ he said. ‘It looks to me as if something’s brushed against the arm and torn this gaping hole, but the electronics seem to be undamaged.’

‘Then it should move,’ Haskin objected.

‘Not necessarily,’ said Spektor. She spoke English with a Slavic smooth- ness, rather erotic, Thorn thought. A shame, in fact, that he couldn’t stay another day. ‘The impact must have released lot of micro-debris. Perhaps our friend is suffering from constipation. Did the Huros perform an envir- onmental analysis?’

‘Slight contamination. What about the splinters? Could they have caused the blockage?’

‘It’s possible. They probably come from the arm itself. Perhaps some- thing’s got twisted, and it’s under tension.’ The astronaut studied the joint carefully. ‘On the other hand, this is a manipulator, not a pastry fork. The object would have been seven or eight millimetres long at the most. I mean it wasn’t an actual collision, it should really be able to cope with something like that.’

‘You certainly know your way around these things,’ Thorn said appreciatively.

‘Party trick,’ she laughed. ‘I hardly deal with anything else. Space debris is our biggest problem up here.’

‘And what about this?’ He leaned forward and pointed to a spot where a tiny, bright shard protruded. ‘Could that come from a meteorite?’

Spektor followed his outstretched index finger.

‘At any rate it comes from the thing that hit the arm. The analyses will tell you more.’

‘Exactly,’ said Haskin. ‘So get a move on. I suggest you get the thing out with the ethanol blower.’

‘Have we got one of those?’ Thorn asked.

‘The Huros does,’ Spektor replied. ‘We can use his left arm, there are tanks inside and nozzles on the effectors. But it’ll take two of us, Vic. Have you ever worked with a Huros?’

‘Not directly.’

‘I’ll show you. We’ll have to turn him off partially if we want to use him as a tool. That means one of us will have to help stabilise him, while the other—’

At that moment the manipulator stirred into life.

The huge arm stretched out of the loading-space, pushed backwards, swivelled, grabbed the Huros-ED and shoved it away as if it had had enough of its company. Thorn automatically pushed his companion downwards and out of the collision zone, but couldn’t keep the robot from striking her shoulder and whirling her around. At the last second Spektor managed to cling on to the frame, then the manipulator crashed into Thorn, dragged him away from her and from the ring and cata- pulted him into space.

Back! He had to get back!

Fingers flying, he tried to regain control over his steering nozzles. He was followed by the pirouetting torso of the Huros-ED, which was get- ting closer and closer, as Haskin and Spektor’s shouts rang in his ear. The robot’s abdomen hit his helmet. Thorn somersaulted and started circling helplessly as he was slung over the edge of the ring-level and hurtled from the space station at terrifying speed. He realised with horror that in attempting to protect his companion he had lost his only chance of saving himself. In wild panic he reached around him, found the switches for the steering nozzles, turned them on to stabilise his flight-path with short blasts, to slow his circling trajectory, found he couldn’t breathe, realised that his suit had been damaged, that it was all over, waved his arms around, tried to scream—

His scream froze.

Vic Thorn’s body was carried out into the silent, endless night, and everything changed in the seconds of his death, everything.

 

***

You can read more on LIMIT on our Jul-Dec 15 Jo Fletcher Books page or our November New Book Recommends.

And there’s more extracts from our pick of titles – you can see in order of most recent in our EXTRACTS ARTICLES CATEGORY,  and below in order that we put them out!

DAVE VS THE MONSTERS: EMERGENCE – John Birmingham
SKY PIRATES – Liesel Schwarz
BLOOD RED CITY – Justin Richards
RADIANT STATE – Peter Higgins
THE SUMMONER – Taran Matharu
MARKED – Sue Tingey
BETE – Adam Roberts
FOUL TIDES TURNING – Stephen Hunt
STEEPLE – John Wallace
CRASHING HEAVEN – Al Robertson
BENEATH LONDON – James Blaylock
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS – Tom Pollock
CAUSAL ANGEL – Hannu Rajaniemi
YOUR SERVANTS AND YOUR PEOPLE – David Towsey
THE SEVENTH MISS HADFIELD – Anna Caltabiano
DETECTIVE STRONGOAK AND THE CASE OF THE DEAD ELF – Terry Newman
THE RELIC GUILD – Edward Cox
FOXGLOVE SUMMER – Ben Aaronovitch
THE MOON AND THE SUN – Vonda McIntyre
PATH OF GODS – Snorri Kristjansson
TIME SALVAGER – Wesley Chu
REGENERATION – Stephanie Saulter
THE SUPERNATURAL ENHANCEMENTS – Edgar Cantero
THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN – Mark Hodder
THE MARTIAN – Andy Weir
KOKO THE MIGHTY – Kieran Shea
THE UNNOTICEABLES – Robert Brockway
IF/THEN – Matthew de Abaitua
THE SAND MEN – Christopher Fowler
THE DRAGON ENGINE – Andy Remic
YOUR RESTING PLACE – David Towsey
THE NIGHT CLOCK – Paul Meloy
MYTHMAKER – Marianne de Pierres
THE RETURN OF THE ARINN – Frank P Ryan
WAY DOWN DARK – J P Smythe
LIMIT – Frank Schatzing