Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams





I was on my way to Teatro del Sale when I saw the crow that hangs around near the entrance to the Newton strut. Birds don’t generally do all that well on Speranza. Jay says it’s because they like light and the whole inside of Speranza is like an Earth city night, with the lights along the struts and the street lighting. It’s never really dark, but it’s never really as light as an Earth day would have been, except under the farm lights, and of course they discourage birds from hanging around the crops. Besides, he says, they might have trouble with what happens with gravity if you go up the struts, and the most trouble of all with the freefall zone in the middle. So birds are mostly in pictures, and in the gene freezers. This one family of crows seems to keep on thriving, all the same.

Mei Ju startled when she saw it, but I like them. They remind me of my family, not the most refined, perhaps, but getting along. The crow flew up off the ground and away over the rooftops, calling out his hoarse squawk, not a proper song the way birds are supposed to. “We’re okay here,” is what it seemed to say, then repeated it, “Okay here. Okay right here.” Then off it flapped, big black wings pointed and divided at the ends like fingers.

My name is Fedra Oreille. I was born in the year of the Water Rat and grew up in the Ditch. My family still live there. My mamma has got by most of her life on baby supplements. She was lucky there, as all her kids bar Lou were born at the time when we were a little light on people and you got a subsidy for having them. It was pure dumb luck and not a calculated strategy, because if she’d done it on purpose she’d have held off a year on having Lou and come out no worse than breaking even instead of taking the hit she did. It speaks well of her that she doesn’t blame Lou, crazy as that would be, plenty would. Population on Speranza is kept even by what Jay calls “mild social and financial pressures,” which means baby supplements when births are lower than they should be and baby fees when they are higher. The rate for any given year is announced each New Year’s for the next year after, so as to give everyone plenty of time to make plans. My mamma didn’t pay any attention to this, but enough people do that population pretty much does stay even—nine hundred thousand people left Earth a hundred and twenty-five years ago and we’re just under a million now. Jay says there are laws on the books for strongly encouraging or discouraging births but they’ve never been needed. Some people disapprove of people who don’t have any children—though I don’t see it. They’ve made their contribution to the gene banks, haven’t they? More people disapprove of people like my mamma who have seven babies with seven different fathers, six of them timed well enough that she can live in the Ditch in reasonable comfort.

By the day Mei Ju and I saw the crow, which was late in the year of the Fire Rat, I didn’t live in the Ditch any more, though I went back there often to see Mamma and the little ones. I got out of there through my own efforts, Serendipity, and the redeeming power of Ballette. Ballette is a form of dance done in partial gravity halfway up a strut. It’s based on an ancient Earth form of dance called Ballet, pronounced “bal-ay,” which was done in full gravity but used a lot of the same kinds of music and the same kinds of movements, but hampered by gravity. In Ballette you can rise off your pointes and turn four or five times in the air before landing perfectly back on them, facing the audience, and gliding off again. When I was eleven years old, back in the Year of the Water Pig, my school class got taken up the Newton strut to the Theatre Coppelie to see a performance. It was “Orpheus and Eurydice” and it changed my life. I couldn’t speak, coming out, I was so full of it. I could barely understand that it hadn’t had the same transformative effect on my friends, who had found it boring, or pleasant enough, or mildly fun, the way most kids are when exposed to most arts. Only I had been enraptured. Some dancers don’t like doing school matinees, they say the kids don’t understand it and don’t sit still. I always remember sitting there completely caught up in the moment, and think as I warm up that I will dance for that one child among the shuffling multitudes.

Of course, once I knew Ballette existed, I wanted to see more, and more, I wanted to do it. I wanted it in a completely different way from the way in which I had wanted things in my life up until then. It was as if I knew from the very first leap that Ballette was mine. I wanted it with a fierce burning determination. I knew nobody could stop me, and nobody could. I asked my mother, who was amiably bemused about the whole subject. She was heavily pregnant with what would be my sister Laura. My brother Lenny, just weaned, was constantly tugging at her for attention. I asked the teacher who had taken us to the Theatre Coppelie, M. Agostini, and she said she believed dancers started training at seven and there was in any case no Ballette at our school. I went online and found classes, all of them naturally at studios up the struts and way out of my price range. Undeterred, I started searching for scholarships. All of them were for younger children—M. Agostini had been right that Ballette training began young. I persisted, with ever more esoteric queries, and that was when I met Jay.

Jay was a Metal Dog, two years older than I was. That’s nothing when you are both adults but an eternity when you are thirteen and eleven. He couldn’t have been more different from me. He was from Massima, near the head of Copernicus strut, a neighbourhood about as far removed from the Ditch as you could be in a world as small as Speranza. He was an only child. His parents were rich. His mother was an engineer and his father a professor of literature. They lived up the strut in gravity too low for a child—leaving Jay alone with nannies and tutors. He was desperately lonely, though he says he did well enough. He kept a flag out for under-fifteens doing interesting searches, and when one of my more desperate Ballette school queries triggered it, he suddenly popped up in my chat window. To Jay, I was a project, a cause, something to care about and change. To me he was a gift from the Google-gods, literally; he was Serendipity in person. Jay was Serendipity’s darling. He used to joke that he had the Index, and I sometimes thought he really did. He found the program for older Ballette beginners and the obscure needs-based scholarship I needed and showed me how they could work together. He even helped me apply. Then, at the last minute, when it seemed that getting to classes would be impossible—the law is absolutely inflexible on children sleeping in full gravity—he found me a travel grant out of nowhere. I learned later that he’d set it up himself, out of his allowance, but had told me it was another grant to save my pride. By the time I actually met Jay, when he was eighteen, we’d already been friends for years.

“That crow startled me,” Mei Ju said as we walked around the strut to the entrance.

“You must have seen it before?”

“Only coming here. There are lots of bats up around Kong Fu, and I have seen an owl, but these are the only crows I know about.”

I knew Mei Ju through Jay, who knew her through the same flagging program which had connected us. I don’t know what interesting search led Jay to her. She’s a massotherapist and a poet, a year older than me and a year younger than Jay, a Yin Metal Pig. Jay and I are both Yang, of course, which might be part of our problem.

We reached the tiny unobtrusive door to Teatro del Sale, distinguished only by the gold letters spelling out “Florentia” over the lintel. Mei Ju pushed open the door and we both walked in. We showed our membership cards, though I’m sure Maddalena would have let us in without. She barely glanced at them. “Buon giorno,” she said.

“Buon giorno,” we chorused back. While neither of us is opted Italian, we’ve been coming to Teatro del Sale for long enough that we understand lots of it.

Teatro del Sale means the Theatre of Salt, and it’s a lunch club, just under the foot of Newton strut, which gives it its strange shape and cavernous ceiling. It’s a theatre too, mostly classic Commedia del Arte, but with occasional vaudeville or political satire in Italian. (My least favourite. I don’t understand that much Italian, and politics is boring enough even when you do understand all the words.) The place has been in existence, and been a theatre and lunch club, ever since our ancestors came onto Speranza, and it has the look of venerability and tradition that so few places do. It’s supposed to be based on a place just like it in Florence, and I liked to imagine Machiavelli and Dante and Savonarola rushing up when the gnocchi was announced or cheering when meat was led in with a fanfare. It was, needless to say, another of Jay’s finds. Serendipity Search will find anything for anyone, but the problem with it is that it will either find what it thinks you want or else bury you in data. Jay, thanks to his miserable childhood, had it eating out of his hand.

Jay and Midge and Genly were sitting at our favourite table, a sixer down near the stage. Teatro del Sale has everything from small tables for singles and couples to huge trestles for enormous parties. One of the things I like about it is the way you see people of all ages there—groups of old people, courting couples, groups of young friends, families with little kids, mixed-age families, working people, business people, students. It costs five hundred a year, but you can eat there every day for that if you want to. Yes, there are cheaper lunch clubs, the one my mamma belongs to only costs eighty, but Teatro del Sale gives you twelve courses, and it includes wine and as much water as you want, and they often have truffles and even meat. I’ve bought memberships for my sister Lucy, and my brothers Luke and Liam, as eighteenth birthday presents. Liam was still in his first year for another couple of weeks. Lucy didn’t renew after her year was up, but Luke did—I caught sight of him sitting on a table for two over against the wall. I waved, but he ignored me, intent on his companion, a long-haired Sino.

“You’re late, get your chickpeas before they’re all gone,” Jay said.

“As long as we haven’t missed the gnocchi,” Mei Ju said.

“They’re about to call it, I think.” Jay always sat where he could look into the kitchen. He says the drama there is better than the drama on the stage, and he’s often right. I went to the back of the room and loaded up a plate of chickpeas. I tapped Luke on the shoulder on my way past; he looked up and grinned but didn’t speak, so I didn’t stop. If he was on a date, I didn’t want to interrupt.

“So the lung capacity tweak definitely scaled up to rabbits,” Midge was saying as I squeezed in next to Jay. On the stage, Pierrot and Columbine were miming their eternal tragic love. Midge was a Sino who’d opted Anglo. Genly had met her at Ting when he was taking some bio class she was teaching. She was Jay’s age, twenty-seven now, another Metal Dog. “I’m going to apply to take it further. They don’t like large animal tests, but this is going to make such a difference.”

“What are you going to test on next?” I asked.

“Sheep, if they let me,” she said, shovelling in the last of her chickpeas. I ate mine. They were very good.

“More sheep tests means more delicious lamb,” Genly said. “I’m in favour.” Genly was another person whose searches had come up in Jay’s flag. He was a Water Ox, a year younger than I was. He was a hydro engineer and fiendishly smart, I was a little in awe of him. The group of people who clustered around Jay all tended to be much better educated than I was, since while I was always taking Ting classes in something or other my only real expertise was in Ballette. After all, Midge had a PhD and talked casually about tweaking animal genes. But Genly was some whole other kind of genius. His parents were Franco, and one of the few times I’d had a real conversation with just him it had been about the way French terms were used in Ballette—one of the things it inherited from the original Ballet.

“I wish you were on my committee,” Midge said to Genly. “It would be so much easier to make the argument. More sheep equals more lamb on the menu. No need to justify it with how useful it will be when we get to the New World.”

“We’ll never get to the New World,” Jay said.

Just then, Il Magnifico stood up, flourished his red cape, and called the gnocchi. Kitchen workers processed out singing, carrying the flat, steaming trays, and we made a mad dash, along with everyone else in the room, to get it while it was hot.

“What do you mean?” Mei Ju asked as we stood in line. “We’ll get to the new world in a hundred and twenty-five years.”

“Indeed, saying anything different is like questioning gravity,” Genly said.

Jay laughed, and held up his hands, pale palms towards us. “Speranza will get there, sure as taxes. But we will not. We’ll be dead. If you have grandchildren, perhaps they’ll get there as old people. Your great-grandchildren will no doubt settle it. But us? No. Were our ancestors who got onto Speranza going to the New World? Were their parents who died on Earth? Were theirs who never even heard of the Starship Project? How about my ancestors dragged across the Atlantic from Africa in the hold of a slaver, were they on their way to the stars?”

The line moved forward and we moved with it. “They were in a way. Their genes were going. Our genes will get there,” Midge said.

“The only thing you care about is genes,” Genly said, grinning.

“Whereas I,” said Jay, reaching the head of the line and putting his plate out for the server to ladle the gnocchi onto it, “care nothing about genes at all.” Jay despised his parents. He hadn’t even wanted to make his Contribution, even though nobody gets to be an adult without. I’d eventually persuaded him that just as he’d give a kidney to save a life, making his Contribution was giving his genes to help some infertile or consanguineous couple after he was dead. “Maybe the genes of my poor devil slave ship ancestors will get to the New World, maybe the genes of all our ancestors back to Olduvai Gorge. But I won’t. And I’m glad I won’t.” He bowed to the server. “Grazie, mille grazie.”

He took his plate back to the table. I waited, thanked the server as she loaded mine, then followed him. “How can you be glad?” I asked him. The gnocchi were heavenly, they always are. I’ve had gnocchi elsewhere and even made them myself, but they’re nothing compared to the way they do them at Teatro del Sale. They taste the way I imagine Ambrosia would taste.

“I’m glad because I like living on Speranza,” he said. “I think life farming on the New World sounds tedious in the extreme. And I think you’d hate it even worse than I would.”

“It won’t all be farming,” Genly said, with his mouth full.

“True. They’ll also need genetic engineers and also plumbers, and possibly massotherapists as well, which is all right for Midge and you and Mei Ju. But they’re unlikely to need artists, which scrapes for me, and as for Fedra, well, Ballette isn’t possible in full gravity. Even if it was, the first generation down will be scraping away at the planet, they’ll have a completely different kind of civilization. Our ancestors who got onto Speranza had the sense to make it a metropolis, and we enjoy a metropolitan style of living, with arts and scientific research and a high culture.”

“I am not a plumber,” said Genly, getting up and heading back to see if there was any gnocchi left.

“We get scientific data from Earth,” Midge said.

“Art too. And we send it back. But as it takes years going to and fro, it’s not part of the conversation.”

“In science it is,” Midge said. “Really, you know nothing about this, Jay, any more than our ancestors who fretted that they were taking their descendants out of the mainstream of human culture.”

“They were,” Jay said. “They didn’t realise that we’d like it this way.”

“I like it,” Midge said. “But I’m working every day for when we get there. When our descendants get there.” Midge had a two-year-old who lived with his father, so she was the most likely of all of us to have literal descendants. I didn’t know whether I did yet. I’d donated a whole ovary with no conditions as my Contribution, because you get a bonus that way and I wanted the money to get out of the Ditch, and also for a breast tuck so I could keep on with Ballette. I had the other left in case I wanted kids when I was too old to dance.

“Your real work is for the future. Mine is for today. I love Speranza. I love the colours of light on the spurs and the colours of light in the growing tents. I love lunch clubs and art openings and Ballette. I love gnocchi and dim sum and food as art. I love living in a city where there’s always something going on. I love finding things.”

“There’ll be plenty to find there,” Mei Ju said.

“And Serendipity Search won’t know about any of it,” Jay said. “It will be a different kind of finding out. You’d like it. I wouldn’t. I love this world, the world we’ve made on this city, this ship. There won’t be much of an audience for poetry on the New World.”

Mei Ju writes wonderful poetry in English. She only hasn’t opted Anglo because she doesn’t want to upset her parents, which is probably the most Sino thing about her. I asked her once whether they hadn’t guessed, and she said no, they just thought she was very clever. “I don’t see why people colonising a new planet won’t want poetry, or art either,” she said. “I should think it would be an inspiration for all kinds of things to write about. New stories.”

Genly came back with another plate of gnocchi, and I wished I’d gone back too. There usually isn’t anything left over. “Do you really mean that they won’t have Ballette?” I asked. “I never thought of that before.”

“Yes, Ballette will die with this voyage,” Jay said. “It was invented on Speranza. Other ships won’t necessarily ever think of it, and certainly they won’t develop our styles and traditions. It’s a very transitory art you practice, two generations old and doomed to die in another two.”

To Jay this was an interesting idea, slightly sad but perfectly endurable. He was even smiling slightly. I wanted to cry, or scream, or throw something at him. It was a good thing that the saxophonist came out of the kitchen at that moment and started blowing a fanfare as Il Magnifico announced a spaghetti carbonara. All the actors came onto the stage and bowed towards the kitchen. They always make a huge fuss when there’s meat, to make sure we appreciate what we’re getting. Usually I do, but that day I really didn’t care. “I don’t want Ballette to end,” I said, barely in control of my voice.

Genly, who is genuinely kind and sensitive as well as being a genius, saw that I was really upset. He put his hand on my arm.

“What are you saying?” Jay asked. Everyone had got to their feet and was drifting towards the back of the room, where we were going to be last in line.

“I don’t think we should condemn our children to this,” I said, quoting President Murphy’s speech forbidding US embarcation in Speranza, the reason Anglos are still a minority on Speranza today.

Jay snorted.

“We can’t lose Ballette,” I said. “It’s too important. We just can’t.”

“It’s inevitable,” Midge said.

“We’ll see about that,” I said.

I thought about it while I was eating. It was all tangled up with the fact that I wanted a future. I always had. I wanted children. And I wanted my children, and my grandchildren, and their children, to be able to watch Ballette, to be able to dance if they wanted to. I wasn’t planning to be one of those awful Ballette parents, pushing their kids harder than they wanted to be pushed. Marie, my best friend in Ballette school, had had a father like that, a father who lived for his daughter’s triumphs and wept at her setbacks. Marie gave up Ballette and opted Vietnamese, she went into navigation training and got married and had a baby when she was twenty-four. He’s the cutest thing. She lives up by Nav, which is hell to get to so I don’t see her very often. Her father tried to latch onto me when Marie dropped out, and I had to tell him in no uncertain terms to kagg off. I wouldn’t be like him. I wouldn’t force my children into Ballette, or anything else. It wasn’t that I wanted Ballette for them as much as I wanted it to be there for the kids like me, whoever they were, whoever their parents were. I didn’t want to live in a world without Ballette, and I didn’t want anyone to live in a world where that door was closed to them. I was really sure about that, as sure as I’d been about anything, ever.

Naturally, I turned to Jay. Two more courses had gone by—the carbonara and a spicy soup. On stage, Pulchinella was singing while some of the men clowned behind her. Teatro del Sale shook slightly as each lift went up the spur, and they were shuddering exaggeratedly every time and making it part of the act. “How could I make it so Ballette went on forever?”

“Well, Speranza would have to go on forever,” Jay said.

“Okay, how do I get that?” I asked.

“No, Fedra, it really is impossible,” Midge said. She had the faintest Chinese accent in English, it only showed when she was stressed. “We’ll reach—all right, our descendants will reach—the New World and that will be the end of the voyage.”

“What if we kept on going?” Jay asked.

“That would be crazy!” Mei Ju said. “What would be the point of that? Just going on and on forever?”

“We’d also run out of trace minerals and chemicals,” Midge said.

“Oh come on, we could get those from comets the same as we do extra water. We do that already,” Genly said. “Not that I’m necessarily endorsing this idea. But there’s no scientific reason we’d have to stop.”

“The scientists and the engineers want to get to the New World!” Midge said.

“They’re not going to,” Jay said. “And to answer Mei Ju’s very pertinent question, what’s the point of anything? We didn’t volunteer to be here, we’re here because our ancestors made certain decisions. We could change those decisions for ourselves, and for our descendants.”

“We could get to the New World and let some people off and have other people go back to Earth,” Genly said. “Then some people could get off at Earth and others could embark and turn around and go to the New World, and keep doing that. Over and over, like a lift going up a spur. That way Midge and Fedra would both get what they wanted.”

“Brilliant,” I said, and kissed Genly, who blushed. His skin is quite pale, so it really shows.

“It won’t work though,” Jay said. “Well, it might once it got going, but it won’t work the first time.”

“Why not? I see no technical problem.”

“No, technically it would work. It wouldn’t work for people reasons. All the scientists would get off, right? They’d be mad keen to explore the New World and get data.”

“Of course they would,” Midge said. “And so would lots of other people.”

“Exactly,” Jay said. “If it was us, now, getting there next year, you’d get off, and who else?”

Mei Ju raised her hand, and Genly held his out flat. “I’d have to think about it,” he said.

“I’d stay on,” I said.

“I’d stay on too, but just as the planet won’t need Ballette dancers and artists, the ship will need other people too. The engineers would stay on, probably, lots of them—their vocation is making Speranza go. But too many people would get off for us to be able to maintain a high civilization. We wouldn’t have enough audience for Ballette, or enough kids wanting to train for it. We’d be down to one lunch club.”

“This one,” I said, and simultaneously Genly said “Kam Fung,” which was the dim sum hall where we ate the other half of the time.

As if on cue, il Magnifico bellowed that there were deep-fried zucchini flowers, and we all rushed to get them.

“There is another problem,” Genly said, as we were all back in our seats and munching away. “I hadn’t remembered about the fusion drive.”

“What about it?” Jay asked. “Isn’t it good pretty much forever?”

“Not forever, but for thousands of years,” Genly said, in his precise way. “But the plan is that when we arrive at the New World it will be disassembled and taken down to provide power for the first years of the colony. If the ship were to return, that couldn’t happen.”

“Couldn’t we build another one?” I asked.

“I . . . don’t know.” Genly said. “It would certainly be a technical challenge. And it would be much easier to go with the plan and take down the one we have—it was designed for disassembly. That’s why I know about this, the design is an engineering classic. Combined with the human issue Jay saw, I think people would have a number of plausible objections.”

Midge had finished her zucchini blossoms and was looking at me very strangely. “Are you really serious about this?”

“Yes,” I said, emphatically.

Mei Ju sketched the sign for calm. “There’s nothing we can do about it. It will be up to our descendants to make up their own minds what to do.”

“We can make it harder or easier for them,” Genly said. “If we needed to make another fusion drive, for instance, it would be better to think about that in advance.”

“We can do something,” Jay said. He had his burning look, I don’t know how better to describe it. Jay has been my best friend since I was eleven and sometimes I don’t understand him at all. “Turnover,” he said. “We’re going to do it in a few months, right? The halfway point, the point where we stop accelerating away from Earth and start decelerating towards the New World.” Everyone was nodding, wondering where he was going. “We don’t have to do it. We’re not compelled to. We could just omit Turnover and keep on going.”

“But that would be—” Midge began.

“Condemning our children to this?” Jay asked. “We already did that one.”

Up to that moment I had mostly thought about Turnover in terms of the great arts festival that was being planned to celebrate it. I was playing the lead in Jin Cullian and the teacher in Flowers for Algernon, which has two wonderful but terribly difficult pas des deuxs. We were already in rehearsal.

“You mean we could persuade people to just keep going?” I asked.

“It would mean politics,” Genly said.

Despite what the idiotic American refusniks had thought, we had everything on Speranza, including politics. My Auntie Vashti had started off as a community organizer in the Ditch and was now one of the assistant mayors. She’d help me. And I had Jay, my secret weapon. Jay could find anything.

“You’re not serious?” Midge said. “This is ridiculous. We have to make Turnover.”

“I don’t think there’s time before Turnover to decide properly,” Mei Ju said. “We’d be deciding for our descendants.”

“We are anyway,” Jay said.

“But there are more choices when we get to the New World,” Mei Ju said. “Not turning over, just going on, would be closing off choices for them. They’d never be able to stop.”

Genly was sketching on his phone and ignoring us. After a moment he looked at Jay. “Can you find me the rejected designs for the fusion plant?”

Jay turned his wrist and typed for a moment, then Genly nodded and sank back into ignoring us. He even ignored dessert being announced. The rest of us went up to get it. My brother Luke deigned to introduce me to his date as we were in line, so we made small talk for a few minutes, which Jay hates, of course. Dessert was chocolate and hard sweet hollow cookies. I brought back extra chocolate for Genly, and a jug of water for all of us.

Genly glanced up from his phone when I put the chocolate and water down next to him. “I think I have it,” he said.


“If we could replicate the fusion plant, which is a challenge some of my colleagues would be delighted to have, then our descendants would have three choices. They could go down to the New World, as planned. They could stay on Speranza and turn it around to go back to Earth, which would have the problems Jay pointed out. Or they could keep Speranza in orbit as a city. They could use the rockets to go up and down. Those who want to colonize can colonize, they can come up every few months to see Ballette. They would be farmers, but they’d still have a metropolis to visit, and those who wanted metropolitan life could stay. And of course there are scientific uses to having a manned space station.”

“That’s amazing,” I said, seeing it at once. “That’ll actually work.”

“It might be easier to make the new fusion plant on the planet rather than copy the exact design.” He took some of the chocolate and smiled amiably.

“That’s just a plumbing detail,” Midge said.

“Plumbing beats politics every time,” Jay said.

“And of course, we can’t say what our descendants will want, any more than our ancestors knew what we want,” Mei Ju said. “They might all want to go down. Or they might all decide to turn back. Or somebody might invent something that changes everything.”

“That could always happen, at any moment,” Genly said. “What I want is to keep everyone’s options as open as possible, so that people can make their own choices when it’s the right time.”

“We’re okay here,” I said, thinking of the crow. “We’re okay here—and did I tell you that I’m dancing the lead in Jin Cullian in the Turnover Festival?”

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Jo Walton

Jo WaltonJo Walton is the author of nine science fiction and fantasy novels, including the Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others, a tenth, My Real Children is coming out in May. She has recently published a collection of her blog pieces, entitled What Makes This Book So Great. She also writes poetry and very occasional short stories. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal, where she writes, reads, and eats great food. It worries her slightly that this is so exactly what she always wanted to do when she grew up.