Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Top Ten Things to See Before the World Burns

Outer Belt Collective Patois [subvocalize for a list of available languages]

version 11.3.2 [subvocalize to check for updates]

With temperatures on Earth continuing to climb, Intercollective governments have set a final evacuation date1 for the end of the Terran year. If the travel lottery pulls your census number, this is your last chance to see the homeworld’s sights! A poll of the Collective suggests that these are the ones that can’t be missed.

1. GRAND CENTRAL OVERSTATION. You can’t miss it—literally. Grand Central Overstation is the pinnacle of Pre-Diasporic construction, a 512,000-kilogram crown at the top of the Capehorn Elevator. Built for function before form, this Early Spacefaring Era waystation still welcomes all witnesses to the Earth’s final years of habitability.

Mer avoids the station’s windows while unseen technicians address the Elevator’s mechanical ailments. From the heights of the Overstation, the Earth is a lurid bruise on the night’s soft dark flesh. When he disembarked from the Pallas Express liner, he’d been unable to keep himself from stealing a glance downward.

If Mer doesn’t look again, he can’t be disappointed again.

The other travelers clot into muttering clusters. There are other tourists, a few in state-of-the-art sweltersuits from the Ceres Workshops, most in ugly-but-functional suits like the one that the Collective issued to Mer. Only two of them have full exo apparatuses like Mer does; unlike him, neither of those have opted for the model with two additional hindlimbs. The idea of extra stability appeals to him; even in its dying thralls, Earth maintains a brutal gravitational pull.

After three hours’ wait, the station’s ArtiVox comes on, announcing with expertly-engineered congeniality that the Elevator is ready for service. Mer shuffles into the boarding queue. Because of the delay, there’s a mandatory re-check of all the sweltersuits; he submits himself without complaint to the safety certification drone.

“So!” The drone’s ArtiVox is not as convincing as the station’s. It lifts Mer’s arm for seam integrity analysis. “Where are you coming in from?”

Mer winces, and not only because he isn’t used to chatty drones. It must be station-linked, and so almost certainly has deep access to passenger information, especially on Public Access data like point of origin and destination. It’s especially unsettling that this unit has a projection of a human face hovering above its shell; the animation is much more sophisticated than the Vox.

Why bother, he wonders? The Collective back home—he stumbles on that word, home, but doggedly gropes his way further down the line of thought—built its technotariat with utility in mind, not aesthetics.

Still, its pre-programmed conversation patterns are no more monotonous than those of Mer’s fellow passengers. He answers truthfully, but nonspecifically. “The Belt.”

A human being might have pressed harder, might have asked oh yeah? which rock? and Mer might have been obliged to name Euphrosyne. The drone, however, has not been programmed to care about the answers it gets from passengers and Mer is relieved of having to explain that the rock he comes from is the one that no longer exists.

Instead, the drone embarks on a new conversational branch. “Got any big plans while you’re down there?”

“I don’t know. Getting back to roots. That’s why people come here, isn’t it?” Mer can’t explain to a drone the draw of this primordial home to someone who has so recently lost the more proximate version. He can barely explain it to himself. Instead he shifts onto a trajectory that takes him farther from the truth. He can’t even explain it to himself. “Seeing the sights before there’s no more sights to see.”

The ArtiVox patter changes rhythm, shifting to a different programming module. “Do you have a preplanned itinerary? I’m authorized to provide up-to-date suggestions of resorts, touristic attractions, and activities that remain in operation.”

“Thanks.” The sweltersuit pings: all clear. Mer disengages from the drone and picks up his hand luggage. “But I’ve already downloaded the brochure.”

• • • •

2. ARKANSAS DELTA. River and blood alike have long since dried at this site of the last known battle of what historians believe were the first large-scale, organized Water Wars. No memorial was ever built for the nameless and desperate who died here, but archaeological analysis has provided us with many grisly relics of the Scarcity. [subvocalize to show sensitive intertext] [subvocalize to add map overlay of mass grave boundaries]

There are no physical barriers in the Delta. There’s nothing left to preserve this for. Mer skips the holos showing artistic interpretations of what the Water Wars might have looked like. The oc in his sweltersuit penetrates the thick gray fog and shows him what lays beneath as he strolls straight down into the broad, flat plain. The holos, however detailed, are false. Mer wants to feel something real. But as he walks the Delta in wider and wider circles, he finds himself unable to muster any kind of emotion.

Which isn’t to say he has no physiological response whatsoever. This place is so big. He stops a few times to take it all in. His mind wants the periphery of his vision to bend, to wrap around the limited scope of an Arc, a ship, a shuttle—some kind of self-contained sphere.

But the broad, echoing flatness refuses to conform to expectation. And this is only a tiny fraction of the world’s surface. There is so much empty sky—there should be a dozen rocks hurtling across the horizon. Luna is up there, coyly hiding behind all that dull aching gray. But knowing that isn’t enough. Mer needs to see it. His stomach heaves. His sweltersuit obligingly slips him an antiemetic and, he suspects, a mild sedative. The spinning in his inner ear recedes.

Hardly anyone else is here. Most Earthward tourists haven’t come to visit graves; they’re dozens of generations removed from anyone who might have been buried here. There’s one lone figure out in the distance, a hexapod meandering up and down the Delta free of sweltersuit. When Mer’s oc zooms in, he can make out that they’re using a full suite of Antarean Tek mods.

Almost certainly a Martian, then, the lucky fuck. Mer has thought about trying for Mars, but his travel authorization, with no Planet/Moon/Body of Residence marked, probably won’t get him entry. They’re choosy about new citizens. The whole point of Mars is not to be another Earth, or so the Martians like to tell themselves. Although building a private palace for yourselves while everyone else is left to scrabble for a few grubby shards of existence sounds a whole fucking lot like Earth to Mer.

The Martian is subvocalizing; notes, maybe. A researcher from the Olympian Interdisciplinary Institutes? Mer could introduce himself . . . and then what? Ask for a job cleaning the lab? Make a play for a personal relationship visa? Ha. He turns away, his vision skimming over the empty Delta. His eyes keep drifting up to the cloud-enclosed sky instead. He feels like he ought to be taking notes, too. But about what? And who would ever read them?

• • • •

3. NORTH POLE. For centuries, explorers died trying to reach this fabled spot. In the Hyperloop’s later years, a supplementary branch of the St. Petersburg-Sapporo line carried would-be explorers to the pole. Today, you can still get there by hiring a hopper. Venture out on an expedition of your own into the Midnight Sun Resort, where Earth’s wealthiest2 few continued to enjoy their favorite winter sports. While most of the resort burned in 2118, the underground Glacier Ballroom endured. Take a waltz with the ghosts of another world.

A few dozen tourists are out on the artificial slopes, pretending to ski. There’s no snow, of course, but there’s a full Immerse exhibition. They take caps of each other and beam them from oc to oc, laughing.

Mer ventures into the resort. It was originally constructed within the ice, but time and heat have robbed it of its glacial shroud and its beauty. Now its cement foundations and corroded girders have been laid bare. It huddles in the shadow of the slalom course.

The place might have been pretty once, before all the EARTH FIRST, EARTH LAST and BURN, FUCKERS graffiti. Lights wake at his approach, painting overlapping circles of pale blue and purple and yellow on the floor. The solar installations must be pretty damn inaccessible to not have been scavenged in Pre-Diaspora days.

He finds the ballroom without too much trouble. Like the outside, the ballroom has been laid bare, tables and chairs removed, expensive sound and VR systems saved or stolen. Unlike the denuded façade, this room has kept its beauty. The walls scoop too high overhead; the ceiling is out of reach except to someone with expensive personal flight mods. People with that kind of mods aren’t the ones carving profanity into the paint. And people who don’t aren’t likely to have the time and disposable resources to drag a ladder to the North Pole. Still, there’s a roughly eight-foot-high ring of colorful property damage around the room. Wen and Teelee were here. Snow = Laster hoax!! I came to the North Pole and all I got was smallpox.

There’s a plaque on one wall, out of Mer’s reach. The Glacier Ballroom is made possible by the generous donation of Angell and Stuart Gilbert. Gilbert EnviroHabs: Reach for the Stars!

Another tourist pauses next to Mer and says something on the local channel; Mer fumbles with the settings of his sweltersuit earpiece. “Gilbert,” says the tourist, voice crackling in Mer’s ear, and then tumbles through a long string in one Inner Belt patois or another. Mer’s translator module isn’t working, or can’t keep up, or hasn’t been updated with this particular dialect. The tourist grimaces at his lack of comprehension. They mime an expanding gesture and make a hard, wet sound. An explosion.

Mer flinches. “Yes,” he says, at the tourist’s curious look. “They’re the ones who built the time bomb Habs.” Habs like Euphrosyne. So fragile. Poorly radiation-shielded, bad impact compensation infrastructure. The kind of missing redundancies only designed by people who know they’ll never have to risk their own lives on such a venture. In hard space, very little is truly redundant.

The tourist says something else in their own patois. Even if Mer could hear the words over the hammering in his temples, he still doesn’t know what they mean. Nothing flattering, he thinks.

Mer stands still until they give up and wander away. Then he takes the stylus out of the storage panel in his exo. The plastic of the wall doesn’t resist the sharp tip when he jams it in and carves out the words: BURN, FUCKERS.

• • • •

4. TRANSATLANTIC HYPERLOOP. For seventy-eight years, Hyperloop trains ferried business travelers and tourists along the Americas’ coasts, across the North Atlantic, through Europe, and south to Algiers and Casablanca before crossing the South Atlantic back to its origin. From where we’re standing, seventy-eight years doesn’t sound long, but it was a major accomplishment of its time. It’s amazing to think only five years passed between the end of the Russo-Chinese conflict and the construction of this immense project! Much of the seabed track remains intact, but nothing compares to the ten mighty Pylons that traverse the Pyrenees.

Mer rides the last three functional stretches of the Hyperloop over and over again, the Iberian, the Circle of Maghreb, the Subcontinental, looping back and forth, frittering away his resettlement travel allowance. He imagines the terrifying possibility of being able to go anywhere in his entire world whenever he wished. He imagines the freedom these ancient peoples enjoyed—and remembers to whom they sold it to for the illusion of comfort.

How could you ever be from somewhere, living on a world so big? Once you lifted your feet off the ground, and started moving, what gravity would ever settle you back into a single resting place?

• • • •

5. GREAT SALT RINGS. Earth’s oceans may be gone, but they’re not forgotten. It’s said that each shore has its own flavor. You’re encouraged to collect a sample to taste later—or, if your mods allow you to visit without a sweltersuit, why wait? Be sure to bring back enough to share with your guildfamily.

The salt crumbles beneath the heels of Mer’s sweltersuit as he walks down into the wound where the Gulf of California once lay. The illusion of water shimmers on the desiccated seabed: hot, not wet. Luna used to carry the seas of old Earth with her, tides rising and falling as she came and went. If she does the same with the layer of gray steam that shrouds Earth now, the effect is less impressive.

Farther out into the Gulf, dark patches have been carved into the grayish-white. Machinery, so distant it looks like skeletal seabirds, tears at the ragged edges where dark meets light, flaying the seabed farther open. Offworld salt harvesting operations have made a fortune excavating the bounty of earth’s dead oceans for the past hundred years. “The Flavor of Home,” one brand’s ads proclaim. Even so, most of the salt will be left behind when the last Elevator lifts off.

Mer half-remembers a fragment of Earth history, or Earth legend, something about the world’s ancient peoples using salt as money. What would they think, standing here beside him, seeing this splendor gone to waste?

What appears to be a school group is collecting samples a halfburn or so upshore—a few dozen paces, Mer amends, for no one’s benefit but his own. He’s too used to measuring distance in the time it would take to traverse via vac-pack. He watches the students for a while, all color-coded in red and white sweltersuits. His oc identifies the suits, informing him that these youths come from the Collegium of Ceres.

At a signal that Mer can’t see or hear, locked into his own sweltersuit, the Collegium students all stand at once and trot back to their waiting hopper. He watches the last of them disappear inside, and the hopper shoots in a vast sweeping arc skyward.

The rest of Mer’s shuttle group is filling their own sample vials, clustered in twos and threes. Mer crouches down, too, and digs a line in the salt with one finger.

But he has no bottle to fill. And no one left to share the salt with.

He scratches harder, and strikes through to the gray sand underneath.

• • • •

6. THE MARIANAS TRENCH. Before the oceans vaporized, this place was utterly inaccessible to our ancestors. Now it’s a simple matter of reserving a seat on a hopper. It gets dark down there; bring a light and bring a friend.

After the Great Salt Rings, Mer finds himself craving human contact for the first time since his feet left Euphrosyne’s broken surface. He follows the threads sewn into the transit map by other tourists’ hoppers, follows them deep down into the wry, hungry grin that cracks the Earth’s ancient face.

This section of the brochure is tagged with #claustrophobia warnings, and looking out the hopper’s windows, Mer can see why. Even at a width of some sixty kilometers, the walls of the trench seem imminent, crushingly close.

He doesn’t mind. He’s always lived in close quarters. It’s not claustrophobic, to him; it’s comfortable. Natural.

The hopper deposits him in the jagged ring of light outside Hostel Izu. At the bottom of the world, the hostel seems unaware of the Earth’s impending demise: its upkeep is immaculate, the muted, modular curves and faint iridescence of Post-Diaspora construction.

Or perhaps the hostel is aware and has chosen not to care. The entrance seals behind Mer and equalizes to the hostel’s ambient pressure. On the other side, he pops his helmet and breathes cool air with the artificial crispness of ‘cycler treatment. This is a place that has always had the weight of the world hanging over its head, after all. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, the show must go on. Especially here. A drone is waiting to offer him a complimentary beverage dispense, which he accepts.

Clusters of guests gather on the garden terrace, at the bar, in the swimming-pool. Others are playing some kind of grav-dependent sport, shrieking and skimming over a pond of artificial ice and hammering a large ball back and forth with handheld subsonic cannons. A few have stayed inside their exo-banded sweltersuits, but most have stripped down to bare skin and polydex leggings.

Mer doesn’t know the rules and the game is probably more than his sweltersuit can handle, anyway. He chooses the terrace, sidling closer to a conglomeration of tourists, a nesting-doll collection of different rocks’ gravitational builds and body mods and sweltersuits.

One of the tourists beckons him over. “Come on, sit down.” They pat a section of artfully constructed basalt bench. Mer’s suit overlays his native Outer Belt patois over the other tourist’s native language—something Venuvian? That would make sense, if they’ve got the G-adjustment to have stripped out of a sweltersuit. “I’m Venconmigo.” He posts his travelID profile in the local channel; Mer’s translation package amends its pronoun tagging. Another series of IDs follow in rapid succession. Mer could just look at the names and faces in the profiles, but in most social structures, manual introductions remain the norm, and Venus appears no different, as Venconmigo continues, pointing. “This is Quetenganesperanza—but you can call her Que—Iyamma, Enit Lys Anning, Lep . . .”

Mer struggles to keep his head above the sea of names. So many of them are terribly long compared to what he’s used to. “Nice to meet you,” he manages, when Venconmigo’s verbal tide finally recedes.

Venconmigo smiles. His crowded teeth confirm his rock of origin, extra molars replacing canines to deal with dense Venusian mycoflora. It’s been a long time since someone has smiled at Mer. His face doesn’t remember what to do in response, and Venconmigo’s smile slides past.

So Mer is off guard when someone else asks the dreaded question: “Where are you from?”

And he answers directly, without meaning to. “Euphrosyne.”

There’s a brief pause as the others all stop to search on that name. “Oh,” says Que. “Oh—I’m sorry, mate.”

Mer mutters something noncommittal, dismissive. The conversation stumbles around him for a few moments more before it finds its footing again, but he’s already been left behind. Alone, even here. He excuses himself, unnoticed, while the others bounce between an analysis of this year’s gas-diving championships and the nominations for the new Provost of Mars.

He claims a personal sleep module deep in the hostel and seals himself in for the night. There are more things to see, on the morrow, and he’s still got travel allowance left to spend. But someone keys in an admission request before he falls asleep. He recognizes the name attached, but not the reason; he accepts anyway.

The doorway dilates to frame Venconmigo, who doesn’t enter the module. “I thought,” he said, Belt patois doled out slowly behind the careful measure of his words, “maybe you didn’t want to be alone.”

Mer doesn’t.

“I can’t—” His hands clasp together between his knees as he tries to shape his need to fit within the parameters of possibility. “The sweltersuit—the exoskeleton—”

There’s that same smile again, comforting, somehow, despite its odd density; or because of it. “We’ll make it work.” And they do, the module growing warm and damp and close around them.

They have breakfast together; a few of the other tourists join them before they’re done. Some are homeward-bound via Luna today; others have more travel time to spend collecting the sights of ancient Earth. This time, no one launches a new litany of homeworlds before Mer finishes his second cup of tea.

• • • •

7. NANAIMO CRATER. The quartz breccias are breathtaking, as is the scope of the impact site. From the lip of the crater, you can look across the Georgian Valley to the former city of Vancouver, which was destroyed by the resulting wave. Though records from this era are spotty, the FreeWeb outages caused by the loss of the massive server banks based in the region are associated with the onset of the first Water War.

It’s traditional to throw a memorial wreath down into the crater. Mer buys one from the hopper dispensebot. But he can’t make himself get out of the hopper. His visit to the Marianas Trench has drained something from him, or added some new burden. When the boarding chime sounds, he drops the wreath down at the foot of the boarding ramp and returns silently to his seat.

• • • •

8. PROJECT CONATUS LAUNCH SITE. Though we often refer to the century following the Water Wars as the “Dark Years,” centers of knowledge remained all over the planet. The Wisdoms of Amsterdam were the first to recognize the unstoppable feedback loop3 triggered by the Nanaimo impact, and to prepare accordingly. On the plateaus of the Serra da Estrela mountains, the gantries still testify to this last great project of our ancestors. The Isla Navarino Arcology is said to have provided the Wisdom Arnaz his inspiration for the first Envirosistema Seguro y Firme de Equilibrioregulación Autosuficiente launched from here, marking a vast improvement over the early Corporate-made EnviroHabs. If you’re a resident of the Venusian or Inner Belt ESFERAs, this is where it all started.

Twelve gantries stretch skyward, as if holding up habitations long since departed. Below them, powdered glass of the adjacent abandoned arcology has been trod into dust by some thousands, millions, of feet. Stepping onto it is a painfully perfect facsimile of stepping into the soft powder of Euphrosyne’s surface. A small and self-contained world, broken now.

But the reinforced durosteel still stands erect, proud; untouched by the centuries. Towering, over the dead habitat. Enduring, even to the ends of the Earth.

An unexpected loathing boils up out of Mer at the sight. He throws himself forward at a dead run. He doesn’t slow when he draws near the gantry; instead, he slams his shoulder into the solid metal.

His sweltersuit blares an alarm, registering its dismay and releasing a mild analgesic at the site of the bruise. He subvocalizes to kill the warnings and kicks the gantry instead, over and over, the ringing of the metal driving up through his heel and into every bone in his body.

It feels like impact, the impact, every time; like a microasteroid kissing the other side of the world hello and goodbye all at once, over and over and over again. A moment of loss as enduring as any Old Earth construction.

On the sixth blow, the sweltersuit kills power to the exoskeleton. Mer is not made of reinforced durosteel and he collapses under gravity’s sudden and overwhelming arrival. He flails his arm a few more times, unwilling to stop yet, unwilling to let go of this hatred that he needs as much as the exoskeleton. His wrist bangs unconvincingly against the gantry a few times before he gives up and lies, panting, motionless. A hammer-blow of grief has driven the breath from his lungs.

“Mx. Juanson,” says an Earth Voyages Inc. ArtiVox, in his ear. “Your sweltersuit has flagged your vital signs. Do you require a distress pod to be sent to your location? Failure to respond will trigger auto-dispatch.”

“No,” he croaks. “No, please.”

The ArtiVox obediently disconnects. Mer stops struggling. Storm winds make a valiant effort to rise, stirring the glass dust up in frosty swirls, then quickly ebb. After a five-minute timeout, the sweltersuit restores power to the exoskeleton, along with an admonishment about liability for damage incurred during his travels.

Mer lies where he’s fallen another few minutes before dragging himself up again. It’s almost time to go. Not to go home—he doesn’t know where that can be, now. It’s not Mars or Venus or any of the big rocks and it’s sure as fuck not lost Euphrosyne. And it’s not here, not at any deep genetic or ancestral level. It never was.

Home is an idea and it’s one he’s ready to bury. How can he look for a home? The only place he belongs right now is at the bottom of a grave.

• • • •

9. THE CASPIAN GLASS. The Russo-Chinese War ended after the detonation of a third-generation isomer bomb near the city of Saratov. For the thirtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Brussels, the Chinese government commissioned artists to etch the Glass with the names of the two million people lost or left missing in the attack. Though the Glass has fallen into disrepair, its surviving surfaces remain a beautiful and sobering sight.

The names are still legible; Mer’s faceplate overlays them in Unified characters atop the timeworn Cyrillic. Fedya Borovkov. Ludmila Petrova. Maksim Blum. When he crouches down to touch them, the sweltersuit material admits the fine-carved lines beneath his fingers.

There’s about as much space in the margins between names as he’d guessed from the brochure. He takes out the laser stylus and switches it on. The glass glows supernova-hot as he presses the tip against it, adding new lines between the old.

There are two thousand and fifty-seven names, far too many for him to add by hand. He marks out a few of the most important: Soma Angsdottir. Ara Juanson. Chuy Juansbarn. When the cheap laser stylus overheats and burns out, he flips it over and breaks its carrying clip, scratching the last few letters out by hand.

When his wrist cramps and his fingers refuse, he sits back and rests.

He’s tired and travel is no longer the empty distraction it should be. It’s time to go.

• • • •

10. THE MOON. There’s no vantage point like it. If you’re not a native Lunarian, linger a moment to look across her stern white face. See if you recognize her from all those old poems and songs. Try to time your visit right to catch a full Earth, including the Great Southern Storm system. Imagine what she looked like before the Overcloud formed, in her days of green and blue. Maybe, like many fellow travelers4, you’ll write a poem of your own, on your way home.

Last but not least: Luna herself, a living monument and museum to the days of the Early Diaspora. Like Grand Central Overstation, Port Tranquility is all heavy hulking metal. Unadorned, except for layers of graffiti decades thick. There is a rhythmic busyness to the movements on the streets and in the airless sky, drone traffic buzzing along invisible cartographic lines, shuttle personnel heading home to Barracksburg at the end of long service shifts.

Mer stands beneath its flashing departures and arrivals displays, double-blinking to dismiss the tireless ads that pop up in his periphery. Destinations run the gamut from decadent to dreary: the Olympian Conglomerate, Flora, Hebe, Pallas, the Venusian Highlands.

Mer doesn’t want to go anywhere. He wants to be somewhere. A place that doesn’t exist anymore. Two such places, the dead rock and the dying one, and him caught in the middle, stranded between two abruptly terminating timelines that reach toward each other but can’t quite meet in the middle.

The ads slow as the travel AI tries to recalculate what Mer might possibly want—unaware, like the best Capitalist algorithms of ages past, that there are some needs that cannot be met by consumption. Mer isn’t upset at the thing; it’s far subsapient. Central Marineris? Blink. First Farra? Blink. Ceres? Blink.

The AI incorporates the haptic feedback and changes tack: an application for temporary Lunarian residency.

Mer drops onto a bench, nearly crushing a cleaning drone, which issues a belated proximity warning. The bench feels solid beneath Mer’s sweltersuited hands, but feelings are liars.

Mer wants to be somewhere. Somewhere could be here. The Moon isn’t a home. But, with her face ever locked inward, she might be the last thing that still remembers what a home is. They have that much in common, she and he.

Above, a quarter-Earth squints at him through the clear dome. He has witnessed so much death already. He could witness one more, he thinks. Even one so great and terrible as that.

1. Belt Collective Newsbriefing 20.18.2397

2. “5 Things You Never Knew About Pre-Collective Economies”

3. “Breakdown of Terrestrial Homeostatic Mechanisms Following the Nanaimo Impact: A Holistic Retrospective Approach”. Piersson, Vang, Ha, et al, Historical Atmospheric Studies vol. 16.3 p.71-93.

4. Mer Juanson, “Stormshroud”

Aimee Ogden

Aimee Ogden. A brown-haired white woman lying on a floor behind a white and orange dog, whose head obscures the lower half of her face.

Aimee Ogden is an American werewolf in the Netherlands. Her debut novella “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” was a 2021 Nebula Award finalist, and her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She also co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, a magazine of fun and optimistic speculative fiction. Her third novella, “Emergent Properties,” comes out in July 2023.