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an extract from the novel

by M John Harrison

Seria Mau woke up in her tank and experienced a moment of profound emptiness. "I'm back," she Light by M John Harrisontold the ship's mathematics angrily. "Why do you send me there? What is the point of that?"

No answer.

The mathematics had woken her, relinquished control of the ship, and slipped quietly back up into its own space, where it began to sort the quanta leaking from significant navigational events in non-local space, using a technique called stochastic resonance. Without quite knowing why, Seria Mau was left feeling angry and inadequate. The mathematics could send her to sleep when it wanted to. It could wake her up when it wanted to. It was the centre of the ship in some way she could never be. She had no idea what it was, what it had been before K-tech webbed them together forever. The mathematics was wrapped around her -- kind, patient, amiable, inhuman, as old as the halo. It would always look after her. But its motives were completely unknowable.

"Sometimes I hate you," she advised it.

Honesty made her amend this. "Sometimes I hate myself," she was forced to admit.

Seria Mau had been seven years old the first time she saw a K-ship. Impressed despite herself by its purposeful lines, she cried excitedly, "I don't want to have one of those. I want to be one." She was a quiet child, already locked in confrontation with the forces inside her. "Look. Look." Something took her and shook her like a rag; something -- some feeling which would eventually marshall all of her other feelings -- rippled through her. That was what she wanted then.

Now she had changed her mind, she was afraid it was too late. Uncle Zip's package taunted her with its promise, then delivered nothing. A sense of caution had led her to isolate it from the rest of the ship.

The visible part of it lay on the deckplates in a small room in the human quarters, in a shallow red cardboard box tied with shiny green ribbon. Uncle Zip had presented it to her in his typical fashion, with a signed card depicting putti, laurel wreaths and burning candles; also two dozen long-stemmed roses. The roses now lay scattered across the deck, their loose black petals stirring faintly as though in a draught of cold air.

The box, however, was the least of it. Everything inside was very old. However Uncle Zip dressed it up, neither he nor anyone else could be sure of its original purpose. Some of these artefacts had identities of their own, with expectations a million years out of date. They were mad, or broken, or had been built to do unimaginable things. They had been abandoned, they had outlived their original users. Any attempt to understand them was in the nature of a guess. Software bridges might be installed by men like Uncle Zip, but who could be sure what lay on the other side of them? There was code in the box, and that would be dangerous enough in itself: but there was a nanotech substrate of some kind too, on which the code was supposed to run. It was supposed to build something. But when you dialled it up, a polite bell rang in empty air. Something like white foam seemed to pour out and spill over the roses, and a gentle, rather remote female voice asked for Dr Haends.

"I don't know who that is," Seria Mau told the package angrily. "I don't know who that is."

"Dr Haends, please," repeated the package, as if it hadn't heard her.

"I don't know what you want," said Seria Mau.

"Dr Haends to surgery, please."

Foam continued to cover the floor, until she closed the software again. If she could smell it, she thought, it would smell strongly of almonds and vanilla. For a moment she had a recollection of these smells so clear it made her dizzy. Her entire sensorium seemed to break its twenty year connection with the White Cat, toppling away into night and helpless vertigo. Seria Mau flailed about inside her tank. She was blind. She was wrong-footed. She was terrified she would lose herself, and die, and not be anything at all. The shadow operators gathered anxiously, clinging up in the corners like cobwebs, hushing and whispering, clasping their hands. "That which is done," one reminded another, "and that which remains undone."

"She is only little," they said in unison.

Her answering cry could barely contain the force of all her grief and self-disgust and unvoiced rage. Whatever she had told them in the Motel Splendido parking orbit, she had changed her mind. Seria Mau Genlicher wanted to be human again. Although when she looked at her passengers, she often wondered why.

There were four or five of them, she thought. From the beginning they were hard to count because one of the women was a clone of the other. They had come aboard with a round tonne of field-generating equipment and a confident saunter. Their clothes looked practical until you saw how soft the fabrics were. The hair of the women was brush-cut and lightly moussed to have a semiotic of assertion. The men wore discreet brand-implants, animated logos, tributes to the great corporates of the past. The White Cat, with her air of stealth and clear military provenance, brought out the boy in them. None of them had ever talked to a K-captain before. "Hi," they said shyly, unsure where to look when Seria Mau spoke.

And then, to each other, as soon as they thought they were alone: "Hey! Yes! Weird or what?"

"Please keep the cabins tidy," Seria Mau interrupted them.

She monitored their affairs, especially their almost constant sexual activity, through nanocameras lodged in corners, or folds of clothing, or drifting about the human quarters like specks of dust. Dial-up, at almost any time, brought in ill-lit, undersea images of human life: they ate, they exercised, they defecated. They copulated and washed, then copulated again. Seria Mau lost count of the combinations, the raised buttocks and straddled legs. If she turned up the sound, someone would always be whispering, "Yes." All the men fucked one of the women; then the woman fucked her clone while the men watched. In daily life, the clone was pliable, tender, prone to fits of sudden angry weeping or to asking financial advice. She was so unsure, she said. About everything. They fucked her, slept, and later asked Seria Mau if she could turn the artificial gravity off.

"I'm afraid not," Seria Mau lied.

She was both disgusted and fascinated by them. The poor resolution of the nanocams gave their actions something of the quality of her dreams. Was there some connection?

She practised murmuring, "Oh yes, that."

At the same time she examined the equipment stowed in the White Cat's hold. As far as she could see it had little to do with exogeology, but was designed to maintain small quantities of isotopes in wildly exotic states. Her passengers were prospectors. They were on the Beach, just like everyone else, looking for an earner. She became inexplicably angry, and the ship's mathematics sent her to sleep again.

It woke her almost immediately.

"Look at this," it said.


"Two days ago I deployed particle detectors astern," it said (although "astern", it felt bound to warn her, was an almost meaningless direction in terms of the geometries involved), "and began counting significant quantum events. This is the result."

"Two days ago?"

"Stochastic resonance takes time."

Seria Mau had the data piped into her tank in the form of a signature diagram and studied them. What she saw was limited by the White Cat's ability to represent ten spatial dimensions as four: an irradiated-looking grey space, near the centre of which you could see, knotted together, some worms of spectral yellow light, constantly shifting, pulsing, bifurcating and changing colour. Various grids could be laid over this model, to represent different regimes and analyses.

"What is it?" she said.

"I think it's a ship."

Seria Mau studied the image again. She ran comparison studies. "It isn't any kind of ship I know. Is it old? What is it doing out there?"

"I can't answer that."


"I'm not yet entirely certain where 'out there' is."

"Spare me," said Seria Mau. "Do you know anything useful at all?

"It's keeping pace with us."

Seria Mau stared at the trace. "That's impossible," she said. "It's nothing like a K-ship. What shall we do?"

"Keep sorting quanta," said the mathematics.

Seria Mau opened a line to the human quarters of the ship.

There, one of the men had launched a holographic display and was clearly making some kind of presentation to the rest of them, while the female clone sat in a corner painting her fingernails, laughing with a kind of weak maliciousness at everything he said, and making inappropriate comments.

"What I don't understand," she said, "is why she never has to do that. I have to do it."

The display was like a big smoky cube, showing fly-by images from the Radio Bay cluster, which contained among others Suntory IV and 3-alpha-Ferris VII. Low-temperature gas clouds roiled and swirled, failed old brown dwarf stars blinking through them like drunks crossing a highway in fog. A planet jumped into resolution, mushroom-coloured, with creamy sulphurous-looking bands. Then there were images from the surface: clouds, chaotic streaming rain, less weather than chemistry. A scatter of non-human buildings abandoned two hundred thousand years before: something that looked like a maze. They often left mazes. "What we've got here is old," the man concluded. "It could be really old." Suddenly the camera jumped to an asteroid in full view of the Tract, which blazed out of the display like costume jewellery on black velvet.

"I think we'll leave that for a later trip," he said.

Everyone laughed except the clone, who spread her hands in front of her. "Why do you all hate me so," she said, looking at him over her bright red nails, "that you make me do it and not her?"

He went over and drew her gently to her feet. He kissed her. "We like you to do it because we love you," he said. "We all love you." He took one of her hands and examined her fingernails. "That's very historical," he said. The hologram blinked, expanded until it measured four or five feet on a side, and was suddenly showing the clone's face in the throes of sexual arousal. Her mouth was open, her eyes wide with pain or pleasure, Seria Mau couldn't tell. You couldn't see what was being done to her. They all sat down and watched, giving the hologram their full consideration, as if it were still showing images of Radio Bay, old alien artefacts, big secrets, the things they most wanted. Soon they were fucking again.

Seria Mau, who had begun to wonder if she knew their real motives for being aboard, watched them suspiciously for some minutes more. Then she disconnected.

© M John Harrison 2002

Light by M John Harrison
Light is published in the UK by Gollancz (£17.99, ISBN 0575070250; trade paperback, £10.99, ISBN 057507026; 31 October 2002).

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