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“This story is my attempt at pushing the envelope and writing the broadest possible scope for a short story, with vast vistas, incredibly high technology, and deep time scales, while still being plausible hard SF. It’s been through several major revisions over a period of years, and I’d like to thank Marti McKenna for the very helpful feedback that made it what it is today.”

I WAS BORN ON EARTH, but my life didn’t really begin until the day they took Mars apart.

I awoke in a sweat, as usual, choking and gasping because my sleep helmet’s air filter was clogged again. As soon as I pulled the soundproofed, opaque helmet off my head, the buzz of my roommate Meyerowitz’s malfunctioning worksystem and the unavoidable sweat-stench of eight guys crammed into less than a hundred cubic meters assaulted my senses. I kept my eyes shut against the light while I cleaned the dusty gray gunge out of the air filter by feel, but by the time I got the helmet back on my head I was well and truly awake. I sighed and decided to go to work early, maybe beat the worst of the crowds.

As I waited for the bathroom I checked the latest news about the Marscracker on my watch. After so many years of delays and setbacks, all was finally in readiness — the first full-scale detonation would be some time that day.

My roommate Higashi rolled his eyes as he emerged from the bathroom and saw what I was watching. “What, still got your hopes pinned on that Mars thing?” He made a rude noise. “It’ll be just like Earth Two, or EcoRecovery, or that oxygen whatsit. Pipe dreams and moonbeams.”

“This is different,” I said.

He laughed in my face.

I squeezed past him and shut the door behind myself. None of my roommates believed in the Marscracker project. But I was a structural engineer, working to squeeze more and more people in taller and taller buildings into less and less optimal sites, and in my professional opinion it looked like the one crazy idea that might actually work.

Even with an early start, my commute was hell. Sweaty, stinking people shouldered me aside in crowded corridors, jostled my elbow in shuddering elevators, and pressed against me in tight-jammed lurching trams. But I kept my watch pressed to the lens of my breathing mask, and turned up the volume in my earbuds to dangerous levels — I didn’t want to chance missing the Marscracker moment.

It came two hours into my commute, on the moving walkway between the tram and my workplace. Even on my watch’s tiny, flat screen, the images were riveting. The ancient, useless desert planet seemed to open like a sprouting seed, revealing its inner secrets and making its hidden resources available for our use. And the scale of it! It had a grandeur that made my spirit thrum with excitement. I was so engrossed I missed my exit, and had to scramble upstream through swearing crowds to avoid getting shunted onto the express walkway.

In the following years the hope that Mars represented for me was the only thing that made life bearable. I had pictures from the new frontier as backgrounds in all my dataspaces, the clean sharp images from space my only relief from the inescapable heat and stink of my everyday existence. I studied physics and neomagnetics in my spare time, saving every kilobuck I could, while my friends indulged in expensive simulated vacations.

And then came the day that one of the agents I’d set up peeped in my ear, in the middle of one of those interminable meetings where you have to show your face no matter how little it means to you. I risked a surreptitious glance at my watch, and saw that the price of a ticket to Mars had just been temporarily reduced.

The number on the screen was just less than my bank balance.

I swallowed hard. I’d been scraping and saving for so long  . . . but I hadn’t expected this moment to come for months yet. Was I ready to take the leap, to commit my life savings to a wild gamble?

There was no indication how long this low fare would be available.

I excused myself from the meeting, stepping on toes in my haste. In the hall outside, piled with drifts of papers, I held my breath and keyed the transaction.

My scream of joy when it went through made the President of the corporation stop his droning and come out into the hall after me. “What in Hades are you hollering about?”

“I’m going to Mars!” I shouted. “I just bought a one-way ticket.”

“And here I thought you had a good head on your shoulders.” He shook his head. “You could have been somebody in this company.”

I gave him a wry grin. “Oh, I will be somebody  . . . but not in this company.” I tucked my corporate ID into his breast pocket, gave it a pat. “And not on this planet. Sir.”

I walked away from the spluttering old fool and headed straight to the spaceport. There was nothing in my office or apartment worth the expense of transporting it.

Once I arrived at Mars space, I gave up my old name and started calling myself Harken, because I liked the sound of it. Many of us took new names in those days. I soon found work piloting a pusher, shepherding rocks around and assessing their composition. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but it paid my bills and got me into the action. Everyone was sure that something really exciting would be starting soon. Macrostructures was the buzzword in all the late-night kif bars; we were as high on possibility and promise as we were on the drugs.

That was where I met Merganther, in a kif joint called “Fear and Panic.” I first saw him through a swirl of sweet smoke, gesticulating wildly as he argued with a gorgeous young woman about whether synthetic diamond would ever be a viable construction material. She had vivid red hair and a fabulous body, but every single one of the observers was focused on Merganther.

Merganther wasn’t much to look at — stringy blond hair that would never stay put, loose gangly limbs with prominent joints, a big beak of a nose — but he had a commanding deep voice and when he talked, people shut up and listened. Even more than the voice, it was something about the eyes. When you looked into those eyes you knew that whatever he said next was going to change your life.

What he said to me was “Dyson sphere.”

This wasn’t the first time the idea had been proposed. Even the Marscracker had been positioned as a first, crude step toward englobing the Sun and controlling all its energy. But Merganther was the first to devise a practical plan to attain that ancient goal. It was his genius to see the synergy between neomagnetics and the new field of singularics, and having seen it, to extend that synergy into a radiant vision. I was immediately captivated when he explained how the combined technologies could transform Jupiter’s mass into a gigantic swarm of independent bodies, moving in carefully controlled orbits, eventually providing enough power and living space for a thousand times the current human population.

(It was never the plan to construct a solid sphere. Such a sphere would be inherently unstable, would require unimaginable advances in gravitics to keep the people and atmosphere stuck to the surface  . . . and you couldn’t see the stars! Merganther never even considered the idea.)

Though enthralled by Merganther’s vision, I thought it was impractical — too far beyond the state of the art — and I told him so. To my surprise, he welcomed my objections, and invited me to speculate as to how the problems could be overcome. Breezily, I built a house of cards, based on improbable assumptions about available energy and strength of materials. But Merganther moved right into that house, showing how clever applications of new technologies could turn my hypothetical solutions into realities. A few hours and a lot of kif later we were both scratching equations on the table top with an emergency rescue tool, shouting back and forth and grinning like idiots while an enthusiastic crowd looked on. When we ran out of table we started in on the wall. Eventually the management noticed what we were doing, docked my card for a new table, and threw the lot of us out into the corridor. We stormed back in and grabbed that table — we’d paid for it, after all — then dragged it back to Merganther’s quarters and kept arguing over it until the start of the next shift.

A section of that table top hung on Merganther’s office wall for the next several centuries. If it still exists, it’s probably in some museum.

Bright and talented people were drawn to the flame of Merganther’s intellect. People like Firedrake, the redhead from the bar on the first night, who was soon the Solar System’s leading expert in practical singularics, and later became my lover as well as Merganther’s. People like the brilliant mathematician Demetrius, who was just a pimply-faced kid when we first met him, but Merganther saw what he could become. People like Cassiopeia, my best friend after Merganther — she was the only person to whom I ever lost a bet about structural engineering.

Over the next fifty years, that mass of brains and talent grew and grew, developing an almost gravitic attraction for money. Our little group grew into an association, then an organization, and finally a corporation — the Marduk Project. We had arguments, of course, some of them heated, and individuals and groups sometimes splintered off. What else could you expect from a bunch of smart, opinionated people committed to saving humanity? But the core group never lost its focus.

Which was a good thing, because the technical challenges were ferocious. Singularics was little more than a theory, and we were trying to turn it into a dependable technology. Years of work could be destroyed in a moment by an erratic piece of equipment, and it could take months even to figure out what had gone wrong. Promising solutions often led to nothing but dead ends. Entire theoretical constructs had to be revised down to the fundamental principles again and again. But we pressed on, with a sense of urgency that I think people today simply can’t comprehend. In those days backups were expensive and unreliable, so permanent death was a constant danger.

During that period I traveled to Earth only when there was no alternative. By comparison with the clean expansive future we hoped to bring about, Earth seemed a sewer jammed with people too stupid to see how badly they were fouling their own nest. New technologies were squandered on entertainment, tied up in litigation, or simply made the problem worse, as life extension had led inevitably to crushing overpopulation. I always returned from Earth full of despair for humanity, but Merganther never failed to revive my enthusiasm by holding out the promise of near-infinite space and energy  . . . if we could get the science, the technology, and most especially the money to line up.

It always came down to the money. Hard work, late nights, and creativity we had in abundance, and most any technical problem could eventually be conquered by sufficient application of these. But money was a people problem, and people were unpredictable and fickle. Spinoff technologies and angel investors brought in enough to keep the corporation going, but no more than that, and Merganther had grander ambitions.

So one day, after a longer-than-usual period of silent cogitation, Merganther called us all together in the big lab. In that cavernous space, where quantum singularities spat and sizzled under their blue-glowing protective domes, he gave the speech of his life.

“We’ve been working on this project a long time,” he began, and he used that commanding low tone that made you absolutely certain he was talking to you and you alone. “We’ve made good progress, made money for our investors. Nothing to be ashamed of.” He went on in that vein for a while, summing up our recent achievements, pacing back and forth. But then he stopped for a moment, facing away from us. Suddenly he whipped around, his long coat flaring around him. “I think we can do more.”

He looked around at us then, and somehow in that one searing glance he peered directly into every one of our hearts.

“Tell me  . . . do we want to push rocks around and play with little black holes for the rest of our long, long lives?”

He waited for a response. He was very, very good at waiting. No matter how uncomfortable the silence became, Merganther would never be the one to break it.

It was Cassiopeia who spoke first. “No,” she said, and several others followed.

“No,” Merganther repeated. “And can we be content in our comfortable corporate hab while most of humanity suffers at the bottom of a well?”

I said “No,” and so did most of the rest.

“Will we let anything stand in the way of the fruition of our decades of work?”

No!” we all shouted.

Merganther jumped up on one of the containment rigs, the singularity fizzing between his feet. “Do we want to carry our plans into concrete action?”

“Yes,” we all said.

“Are we willing to take  . . . risks?


“Do we want to make  . . . history?

YES!” we all screamed. “YES, YES, YES!

By the end of that meeting, we had all agreed to sell the development rights to our genomes, pool the proceeds, and use the money to move the corporation to Jupiter space. It was a tremendous risk, but Merganther’s words carried us over that barrier without a pause and not one of us ever regretted it.

The view of Jupiter from up close was spectacular. I awoke every day to the sight of a horizon-wide sphere, banded in ochre and sienna, constantly churning like a pot of soup on a slow boil. Some mornings I found the sight daunting  . . . how could mere humans dare to assault a Roman God? On other days Jupiter’s bulging belly was a challenge and an inspiration. Not that I had much time to admire the view. Most days I never left the workshop where the first of the Funnels was taking shape, a kilometers-long knobby construct whose polysteel skeleton was my design and my responsibility.

It’s possible that, eventually, some other genius would have conceived of the Funnel, but I doubt anyone other than Merganther could have found a way to implement it. It was simple in concept, devilishly complicated in execution. Six singularities were placed into a tight orbit around their common center, the orbits stabilized by neomagnetic fields. When brought into proximity to Jupiter, their combined gravity would pull up a glob of the planet’s gas and their rotation would spin it into a tornado — an inverted storm dozens of times the size of the Earth, siphoning off hydrogen and helium into space as a whirling tube of gas at usable density.

Once the gas was boosted out of the planet’s gravity well, it could be herded into manufacturing facilities by conventional means and processed into stabilized metallic hydrogen — a standard building material today, but at the time it was exotic. The leftover helium would be fused to power the rest of the project.

That was the theory, anyway.

Just getting the black holes to stabilize was a nightmare. The only tools we had were superconducting magnets the size of small moons, and if one of them decided to quench you wouldn’t even have the time to say your prayers. We lost half the hole team in one instant, when someone bobbled the matter feed and hole number four went straight from black to white without stopping for breakfast. We had invested a substantial portion of the genome money in the latest backup and restore equipment, of course, but every time we powered the thing up, I had to swallow the cold hard knowledge of exactly how long it had been since my last backup and how much I would lose if I died right now.

Eventually we got a half-dozen holes stable and chivvied into their mutual orbits, and the day came to try the Funnel out for the first time. Merganther and I, along with the rest of the core team, closeted ourselves in the control center, but every one of the Project’s hundreds of theoreticians, accountants, cooks, and maintainers put on their suits and went outside to watch it. No point in slaving away on their regular jobs that day, because if the Funnel didn’t work we would all be going home soon as impoverished, misguided idiots.

The working part of the Funnel was nearly invisible, a thin ring of distortion that could be seen only when it eclipsed a star or the planet’s limb. But the huge, jerry-rigged industrial complex of neomagnets and manipulators that kept the holes in line crept slowly toward the planet’s roiling surface, while the stabilization and guidance teams kept up a constant chatter of technical gibberish on the quantar channels. (We had to use quantar, despite its unreliability — the buzzsaw of gravity and magnetism at the Funnel’s business end shredded radio waves into confetti.)

For a long time it looked like nothing was happening. Then it seemed a new weather system was beginning, a slow elliptical turn of lighter yellow and ochre in one of the planet’s lighter-colored bands. But that system was right under the tip of the Funnel, and, slow though it was, it grew faster than any natural storm.

The system gathered speed and strength, swirling with yellow and orange and red as different hydrocarbons boiled up from lower levels of the atmosphere. Counter-vortices appeared at its edges, whirling off into the turbulence between the affected band and the adjacent dark-colored zones, where the winds blowing in the opposite direction at hundreds of kilometers per hour tore the little stormlets to bits. But still the main storm built and built, a roiling rolling oval that soon became nearly as big as the Great Red Spot — two or three times the size of the Earth.

My eyes flicked quickly between the structural stress readouts in front of me and the realtime view on the big screen above, but cold anxiety lay heavy in my gut. We’d had so many failures  . . .

Then one of the atmospherics team’s observers broke through the chatter with excited news. “We’ve got altitude variance! I repeat, we have an altitude variance!” I switched one of my displays to a view where the new storm was just at the planet’s horizon, and saw that there was, indeed, a barely perceptible bump of atmosphere rising below the shimmering ring of the Funnel.

Everything happened much faster now. The hump grew rapidly, rotating faster and faster as it drew the planet’s substance up into itself. Soon it was a hill, and then a mountain, casting a hazy triangular shadow across the planet’s face. Now the tip of the mountain began to steam, as though it were a volcano; wisps of vapor appeared at its tip and were snatched up into the Funnel’s spinning maw. Thicker and thicker they grew, twisting themselves into a long, writhing tube of gas that reached toward the Funnel like a questing tentacle. Then it reached the ring, and took a dramatic jump in speed, pulled through the zone of killing tidal forces and drawing huge quantities of gas up along its length.

As the tip of the twisting, spinning tornado of hydrogen and helium whirled into the square black opening of the processing plant, Merganther let out a triumphant shout. “Yes!” he yelled. “We’ve got it!” I screamed like a maniac, along with everyone else in the command center, and three hundred other maniacs scattered all across Jupiter space screamed along with us.

Six people were killed at the party that night, none of them seriously, and two babies were conceived.

That was the beginning. Over the next couple of hundred years we learned a lot, built seven more Funnels, and converted almost seventy percent of Jupiter’s mass into usable construction materials. Oh, there were problems all right — the quantar links kept breaking down, and we rarely had more than five Funnels working at once — but the project as a whole was a wild success.

Dozens of corporations appeared in Jupiter space to build habitats and platforms and energy collectors from our materials, and most of the finished products wound up in Solar orbit at a distance of one AU — the beginnings of a Dyson sphere for humanity. Merganther insisted all those habitats be loaded down with redundant material, so it would be available later whenever and wherever the population burgeoned; apart from the Funnel, that was probably his single greatest idea. And from the Project’s enormous profits, we established grants so that anyone who wanted to could start a new life in space.

But while those of us who had invested early in the Project grew wealthy, poor Jupiter wasted away. His weather systems disrupted by the constant sucking of the Funnels, old Jove shrank from a proud banded beauty to a muddy, muddled yellow-brown gasball, and even his retinue of attendant moons was cleared away to create a safer work environment. I found the sight depressing, so I buried myself in my work. I was now vice-president of the Architectural and Structural Consulting division, helping to design ever larger and more luxurious habitats and platforms for the growing spaceborne population. Not that I needed the money — I simply never learned how to do nothing.

Unfortunately, my job took me to Earth with some regularity. Though billions had moved to new habitats in the Sphere, billions more had been born, leaving Earth as crowded and filthy as ever. On one particularly horrific trip to San Angeles, when I literally stumbled over a decomposing human body in the gutter outside my hotel, I resolved to wash my hands of Earthbound humanity and rededicate myself to helping those willing to take some action to help themselves.

The disaster occurred five days after I returned from that trip.

I was suited up and in vacuum, leading a group of executives on a tour of a platform under construction. All around us welders were at work, sending out spherical clouds of sparks into the vacuum like old-fashioned fireworks, so we had our helmet filters damped down and none of us noticed anything unusual until the collision klaxon cut into our suit radios.

While the welders busied themselves shutting down their equipment, the executives and I were politely but firmly directed to an emergency refuge. Trapped inside, we scanned all the available frequencies, desperate to find out what was happening. To no avail. The public chat channels were too chaotic to get any sense out of, while the official channels were so focused on the specifics of disaster reaction that there was no room for news on the disaster itself. Whatever it was, it was big — I recognized the names of platforms and craft all over Jupiter space.

As I said, I never learned how to do nothing.

I went to the junior tech who had been assigned to keep the VIPs out of trouble, a skinny kid with a beryllium nose. Retro metal parts were all the rage that year. “We’re not doing any good here,” I said to him.

“We’re not supposed to do anything,” he said. “We just wait here until we get the all-clear.”

I put a hand on his shoulder. “Do you know who I am?”

He gave me an of-course-I-do-I’m-not-stupid look. “Harken.”

“And do you think I got to be Harken by waiting for someone else to solve problems?”

Fear of Harken warred in his face with fear of whatever the hell was happening outside. But then he found a tiebreaker. “I can’t leave here. I have to protect these people.” He gestured to the milling executives, a trillion solars’ worth of useless.

“Okay, you can stay. But I need to get out there and offer what help I can.” He started to object, but I cut him off. “Look, I take full responsibility for my own actions. If anything happens to me you can tell them you tried to stop me and I wouldn’t listen. You know they’ll believe it.”

He had to agree with that one.

I emerged into a motionless, darkened industrial station. The angular forms of platforms under construction jutted all around, harshly illuminated by white emergency pinpoints. Here and there a cable or tool floated free, left unsecured in the rapid evacuation, but there was no sign of the reason for that evacuation. Then I noticed that Jupiter, which had dominated the view from this point when I’d gone into the refuge, was no longer visible. The station had been turned so the bulk of the platform was between the planet and the working bays. Why?

I fired suit jets and moved cautiously through the abandoned complex, watching out for floating equipment or other people, but I was completely alone; everyone else was sealed into their refuges. That simple fact was enough to turn my guts to ice water — nothing had ever before stilled the factories — but it also pressed me forward, because whatever had happened must be so historic I had to see it with my own eyes. A few minutes later I reached the edge of the platform and peered over.

Jupiter was gone.

Where the planet had been was an irregular, expanding cloud of gas, filled with dark tumbling forms. Jagged, rocky-looking objects the size of moons emerged from the cloud, spewing vapor and spinning off in every direction. As I watched, one of the smaller rocks impacted a platform under construction nearby, crumpling it like paper and sending it tumbling into another. A hail of debris sent me scuttling back to the refuge, heart pounding and fingers trembling. There was nothing I could do other than hole up and hope to survive.

All that day we huddled in the refuge, hearts stopping whenever a rock hit our platform. But though those unpredictable hammer blows scared the crap out of us, none of them were enough to kill us. We were among the lucky ones.

The cause of the explosion didn’t become clear until years later. Jupiter’s core, a ball of rock and natural metallic hydrogen, had undergone a sudden and unexpected phase change when the pressure of the overlying atmosphere dropped below a certain critical point. A quadrillion tonnes of hydrogen flashed from solid to gas in an instant, blowing the core to pieces. Tens of thousands were killed — hundreds permanently, because all their backups were on destroyed stations in Jupiter space — and some basic theories about the nature of matter had to be revised.

Poor, exploited Jupiter had taken his revenge on the puny humans who had dared to steal his flesh.

And he wasn’t through yet.

Even as the shattered industrial zone around Jupiter tried to recover from the disaster, rescuing survivors and cobbling together functioning platforms and craft from the broken remains, the true magnitude of the calamity became apparent.

I was there when the news was presented to Merganther. He and I and a few others from the early days had gathered to toast the memory of Cassiopeia — she had been one of those lost forever — but not even our sorrowful reverie was more important than this.

The orbital tech burst into the room without knocking. “You’ve got to look this over right away,” he said, waving a sheaf of printouts.

Merganther peered at the numbers, then waved Demetrius the mathematician to his side. It was raw orbital data, meaningless to me, but plain as a picture to them  . . . and the expressions on their faces as they flipped through page after page showed that the picture wasn’t pretty. We left our drinks on the table and adjourned to a nearby conference room with a semi-functioning computer.

Pretty soon the bad news was plain to all of us. One of the largest fragments of Jupiter’s core, a steaming irregular mountain of rock and still-metallic hydrogen as big as five Earths, had been thrown into a new orbit — an eccentric ellipse whose perihelion was well inside Mercury’s. In about five years the Solar System would be treated to its most spectacular comet ever.

Along the way it would wipe out the Earth.

The core fragment’s projected orbital track was clear on the readout, and even the outermost edges of the margin of error held no room for hope. I felt nothing but a bleak hollow resignation — it was just one more catastrophe in a week full of catastrophes, most much more immediate and personal.

Merganther, though, took the news as a personal affront. He had lost an arm when a tumbling rock smashed into his craft, and there had been no time or facilities to replace it, but I was sure his lips were pressed together from anger and frustration more than from the pain. “Damn it, people,” he said, “there must be something we can do about this!”

He organized everyone who could be spared from immediate disaster recovery into hierarchical brainstorming teams: lower-level teams generated ideas, and higher-level teams immediately evaluated them, sending good solutions up the chain and problems back down for more brainstorming. It was a good technique, one that had paid off many times during the Project, and within a day it paid off again.

Firedrake outlined the plan with a child’s wax crayon on the cracked and darkened wall screen. We had three functioning Funnels, and a fourth that could perhaps be repaired. The core fragment carried with it a substantial atmosphere of its own evaporating substance, which would increase as it drew closer to the Sun’s heat. If we put all the Funnels on one side of the fragment, pulling atmosphere from it and spewing it into space, it would create a thrust. Not much of a thrust, by comparison with the fragment’s mass, but applied over years it might be enough to make the difference for Earth.

But it wasn’t going to be easy. “The fragment started with Jupiter’s orbital velocity, same as what we have now,” Firedrake explained. “It’s moving too fast relative to the inner System for anyone else to match orbits with it. And even we have barely enough delta-vee to do it. We have to start boosting immediately.” Merganther wasted no time, ordering every platform and craft with sufficient boost capability to begin matching orbits with the fragment, leaving only a skeleton crew in what we still called “Jupiter space.”

That was the beginning of what the histories call Merganther’s Run. But at the time it didn’t feel very heroic. Every day I dragged my aching body from my hammock to shore up cracked structural members, patch leaking seals, and nurse overstressed recyclers for twenty hours or more, then fell into bed for four or five hours of fitful sleep before waking up and doing it again. Just keeping the platforms functioning for the five months of unremitting acceleration we needed to catch up with the fragment, never mind repairing the damage inflicted by Jupiter’s explosion, was more than a full-time job. The farm modules, with their hectares of glass, had mostly been destroyed, so we were forced to eat and breathe our own reprocessed crap. And many of us, including myself, didn’t think Earth was worth the effort.

It’s really rather amazing that Merganther was able to hold us all together.

Shared adversity helped. As one platform after another collapsed under the strain of constant acceleration, we crowded more and more tightly together on the remaining ones, leading to a feeling of camaraderie. Merganther kept us busy, too, trying to repair the fourth Funnel and preparing equipment and strategies; the many technical challenges drew us together as they had at the beginning of the Project.

The fragment soon became a naked-eye object, a spectacular comet far bigger than any of the terrestrial planets. Its silvery tail stretched halfway across the asteroid belt, kinked and twisted by the fragment’s substantial magnetic field. But the tail wasn’t our objective — the head was. It grew and grew, changing from a distant comet to a roiling, spinning nebula of rock, ice, and gas that dominated our sky. Its raw, broken shape was even more overwhelming than Jupiter had been, even though it was only a fraction the size. Finally a week of punishing deceleration matched our orbits with the fragment’s, and the real work began.

For five years we fought the tumbling fragment, which continually fractured and burst as it drew closer to the Sun’s heat, requiring constant adjustments to our plans. We had no hope of assistance or resupply — we were already moving faster than anyone else in the Solar System, and accelerating as the fragment approached its perihelion — and our only weapons were the damaged, malfunctioning Funnels, which seemed to be fighting us as much as the fragment.

Death became a serious issue, since we had no functioning backup or restore facilities. At the very least, the dead were lost to us for the duration of the Run, and when restored would not remember the disaster or anything after it. And for the dozens whose backups had all been destroyed at Jupiter — including Merganther himself — death on the Run would be permanent. But I had no energy to spare for profitless fear of death, as every day brought a new emergency: failed equipment, depleted resources, exhausted people.

Every day also brought us closer to Earth, a ticking clock we could not ignore.

Paradoxically, we were pushing the fragment Earthward as fast as we could. Its path passed just outside Earth’s projected location, and by increasing its velocity we were widening that orbit still further. We had already prevented a direct collision, but we didn’t know whether or not the old home planet would survive the coming near-miss. Would it be shattered by the fragment’s tidal forces? Would its orbit be perturbed into instability? Would earthquakes and floods demolish the already-damaged ecosystem? There were too many unknown factors.

So we kept pushing, to widen the gap and give Earth as much of a chance as possible.

As for myself, though I couldn’t care less about Earth, I was fully engaged trying to keep us all alive, patching and taping and bracing overstressed structural elements. Whenever I could spare the time, I took a small one-person craft out for an inspection tour, trying to spot areas of weakness before they turned into serious problems. Our platforms were well inside the fragment’s expanding atmosphere now, and the ever-approaching Sun cast hard-edged shadows that stretched in straight lines, like moonbeams, away toward Neptune.

One month to go. We were now in constant near-realtime communication with scientists on Earth — whenever the finicky quantar transceivers could be persuaded to cooperate — and the forecast was cautiously optimistic. All we had to do was keep thrusting for one more month, and the fragment would pass just far enough away that Earth would suffer only major, not catastrophic, effects.

But Jupiter, like his mythical namesake, was a tenacious and vindictive sort, and he had one last thunderbolt in his bag.

It was just a few days before closest approach, and I was becoming increasingly concerned about the structural stability of DaVinci, our largest remaining platform. It housed over three-quarters of our people and almost all of our food reprocessing facilities; if it failed, the remaining habs and craft would never support us long enough to be rescued. I had been arguing for some days with Merganther to pull it away from the fragment and the stressful gravitic effects of the Funnels. He had refused, saying that all hands were needed to keep the fractious Funnels running right up to the last minute. The best I had been able to extract from him was a promise to disengage when we crossed the Moon’s orbit.

I was reviewing my shrinking inventory of repair materials when I felt a groan vibrating through the deck plates — the sound of a structural member under severe stress. Such groans were not unusual in those days, but something about this one was disturbingly reminiscent of a sound I’d heard in Fuller’s final days. I immediately suited up and took my inspection craft out. If the damage wasn’t too severe, it might not be too late to shore the damaged section up.

But when I found the problem, my mouth went dry. The platform’s main longitudinal spar was beginning to buckle, in exactly the same way Fuller’s had. These platforms were never designed to operate under so much stress for so long without proper maintenance. There was no question in my mind that the tidal forces of the upcoming encounter with Earth would be more than enough to push the failing spar beyond its limits.

I tried to place an urgent call to Merganther, on Funnel One, but the quantar link was down again — it had become more and more cranky as years wore on without proper replacement parts — and the radio was even more badly shredded than usual by Earth’s magnetic fields. All I could hear was the roar of static and occasional snatches of words. So I moved my little craft up and away from the platform, to a place where I could hit Funnel One with a comm laser.

That’s why I was the only one in position to spot the bloom of a major eruption: a boiling mushroom of gas that spewed from the fragment’s Sunward side. From the fragment’s perspective it was just a burp, a minor rearrangement of its substance in response to the Sun’s heat, but in just a few hours it would blow off enough matter to undo months of our work.

For a moment I just gaped at the sight — a jet of gas as big as three platforms spewing into space. Slowing the fragment down. Changing its orbit. By how much? Enough to make the difference between life and death for Earth?

Maybe. Probably. I couldn’t tell. Too many unknowns.

But I was certain that if I told Merganther about the bloom he would insist on keeping all our equipment — and all our people — engaged with the fragment all the way through the encounter with Earth, putting in every last bit of thrust to compensate for this new variable. And I was equally certain that doing so would sacrifice the lives of everyone in the Project.

Merganther, I was sure, would call that a fair exchange for saving tens of billions of people and the ancestral home of humanity.

But what was Earth to me? An abscess of a planet; a crowded, stinking, overheated cesspit filled with reactionaries, neophobes, and idiots. We had repeatedly offered them a clean life in space — endless room and energy, available to anyone with the gumption to apply for a grant — and they had spurned it.

To Hell with them.

If saving thirty billion strangers meant that all my friends and lovers had to die  . . . if Merganther, the greatest genius of the last thousand years, would be lost forever  . . .

It wasn’t worth it.

I keyed the laser with Merganther’s personal emergency code. He answered almost immediately.

“I just came from under DaVinci,” I said without preamble. “The main longitudinal spar is getting ready to buckle.”

It was a voice-only connection, but we’d worked with each other for centuries — I could hear his eyebrows draw together in concern. “The same as Fuller.”

“The same.”

“It can’t be repaired.” It wasn’t a question. He knew I wouldn’t use his emergency code for a mere status report.

“We have to disengage from the fragment immediately and move DaVinci into flat space, or the whole platform will collapse.” All of this was true.

“No alternative?”

“If we don’t break off now, we’ll all be dead this time next month.” This was also true.

There was a long pause, filled with static and digital artifacts. Had he noticed that I hadn’t actually answered his last question?

“Very well,” he said at last, and his voice was as firm and decisive as ever. “We’ve done all we can.”

I felt no sense of triumph.

After my ship had sent Merganther the necessary data to calculate a minimum-energy orbital transfer away from the fragment, I headed back to DaVinci and assembled a team to shore up the failing spar as much as possible. The damage was even worse than I’d thought, but we worked feverishly, and when we applied thrust to disengage from the fragment, the spar deformed horribly but held.

Once we were well away from the fragment, of course, the new bloom came into sight. Merganther and I were both on the bridge of DaVinci by then, and when he looked at me his eyes were hard and cold as vacuum. But neither of us said anything, and the moment passed. Merganther turned from me and demanded that the navigators find a way to reverse course.

The navigators did their best to comply, but it soon became clear that, even if we could somehow perform such a maneuver without destroying DaVinci, we didn’t have sufficient reaction mass to do it. I kept quiet during this discussion, already regretting my deception but unwilling to admit to it.

In the end, after much shouting and cursing, Merganther conceded to the inescapable physics of the situation. But then he asked that we all join him in a prayer for the Earth. It was the first time I had ever seen any hint of religiosity in him.

I bent my head with the rest, but my thoughts were empty.

The following hours were tense and silent, save for the incessant blare of news reports from Earth as it prepared for the coming encounter. I assembled my team to try to straighten the damaged strut, but we were worthless — every one of us just stopped and stared for minutes at a time at the tumbling, steaming fragment, as it hurtled toward Earth with excruciating slowness. Finally we gave in and returned to DaVinci’s observation deck, to watch the encounter with our loved ones nearby and a stiff drink in hand.

What can I say about the encounter that hasn’t already been said? It was the most thoroughly documented natural disaster ever. The floods, the storms, the earthquakes, the hails of stones  . . . we watched it all through a billion camera eyes. And at the end of that day, the longest day in human history, when it began to seem that Earth might just have survived, we were too exhausted to cheer. Most of us just wept quietly —some, including myself, not so quietly.

The following months were sheer hell, as a battered, exhausted fleet of craft designed for the cold of Jupiter space swept inside Mercury’s orbit, decelerating as hard as we dared. I lost all track of time, barely sleeping, spending every waking hour wringing with sweat and battling equipment that seemed determined to kill us all. But we did survive, rescued at last by a special fleet of swift Space Guard craft dispatched from Venus. The third thing Merganther said to the Space Guard captain as they shook hands was to commend me for keeping DaVinci in one piece long enough to be rescued.

After that  . . . I tried to lose myself in my work, but I could not. I was interrupted too frequently by observances, ceremonies, and testimonial dinners, and every one reminded me that I, Harken, the hero of Merganther’s Run, was really the one who had tried to kill the Earth  . . . and nearly succeeded. I donated all the awards and honors, and the bulk of my personal fortune, to the Earth Restoration Fund, but it didn’t help. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the horrific mushroom of the bloom.

Finally I simply withdrew from human company. Even with a population of hundreds of billions, the Sphere is very big, and I was able to disappear completely for over a century. During that period I didn’t leave my personal module at all; often I did little more than sleep for weeks at a time. If I’d had the initiative to turn off my implants I would certainly have died.

But, eventually, I began to take interest in the affairs of humanity again. Perhaps it’s because, as I said, I never learned how to do nothing. I suppose even severe depression finally became too boring to endure.

What I saw astonished me. Earth was restored to green and fruitful beauty, with most of the human population moved to orbital habitats or the Sphere. Traveling under my original name — though I needn’t have bothered, as not one person recognized me — I toured the Pyramids, and the restored savannahs of Africa where humanity was born, and the great Monument to Merganther’s Run and its attached museum. The air was sweet and clean; the sun and rain were a delight to my skin.

Merganther caught up to me in the reconstructed Venice.

I was sipping a caffè when I felt a presence behind me. I knew immediately it was him — even after over a century apart, the very weight of his shadow on my neck was familiar to me. “Merganther,” I said by way of greeting.

He slipped into the empty seat opposite me, looking exactly as he always had. “I’ve had people watching the Monument for the last seventy years. I knew you couldn’t resist knowing history’s judgment of you.”

“They made my nose too big in the mural,” I said, and ordered another caffè for him.

He made a show of considering my nose. “Perhaps,” he conceded. “But I was more interested in your reaction to a certain omission.”

He meant my role in the catastrophe, of which there had been no hint. “Your doing?”

“Only in that I didn’t share what I knew.” His drink arrived and he raised the cup to me in salute. “Just like you.”

A century’s worth of shame made me drop my eyes to my saucer. “Will you tell them now?”

He took a sip and sighed before answering. “Only if you want me to.”

I couldn’t respond to that.

Merganther spoke into my silence. “I’ve done a lot of research into the recovery. I’ve interviewed psychologists, politicians, and social scientists. And I’ve come to a few conclusions.” He leaned forward, elbows on the cool marble of the table top. “Only near-annihilation could have convinced the people of Earth to take a different course from the one they had followed for millennia. If the Fragment had not passed so close, they might have breathed a sigh of relief and continued on the same old self-destructive path.”

After what seemed like an hour, I found my voice. “So by abandoning Earth to its fate, I may have saved it.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” He spread his hands in an elegant shrug. “Life is an experiment with no control.”

Though that question will always remain open, I learned one thing for certain that day: I had finally come home. Truly home, in a deeper, realer way than even my own personal module, which I built with my own hands, could ever be. Perhaps it was the solid press of real gravity, perhaps it was the constant presence of the horizon behind every building, perhaps it was the magnetic field or the tug of the moon or something even more subtle than that. Whatever the cause, something in my bones knew where it needed to be, and that was Earth. I never returned to space.

I live on an island off the west coast of North America now. I build houses out of wood, with hand tools. I sell souvenirs to tourists. No one knows who I am.

And every night, the clear sky is filled with a million million moving stars — the dense traffic of the Sphere.

I sleep well.

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