Fortress on the Sun

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9780451456267: Fortress on the Sun

When a bizarre epidemic threatens the inmates of the twenty-first-century labor camp run by planet Earth on the distant planet of Ra, one man's search for a cure leads him to uncover a colossal conspiracy. Original."

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From the Publisher:

Re-issue in trade paperback format of the critically acclaimed novel by the author of 'Engines of Dawn.'

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Emerging from a thicket of birch trees that flanked a narrow meadow, a man appeared in the quiet of the night. He was a large individual, yet he moved across the brittle grass with an athlete's grace. His was an intentional carefulness, not wanting his pres­ence there to disturb the peacefulness they had worked so hard to achieve. In fact, he did not want his presence to disturb anything at all, ever again.

Ian McFarland Hutchings, Ph.D., renowned biotech chemist and history's greatest killer of men, made his way slowly across the meadow as he did every night at that hour. Hutchings was not prone to bouts of his community's mysterious new quick-sleep--or any kind of sleep for that matter--but making this final circuit of their little corner in Hell before turning in did seem to relax him somewhat. During the daylight hours, Hutchings' mind con­cerned itself with the stewardship of the one hundred and three men and women of their community whose exile he shared. At night, however, his mind would fill with the banshee voices of a guilty conscience: Murderer! those voices would whisper. Annihilist! Suffer in Hell for the rest of your days! Solace from those voices seemed to come only when he took his final tour through the meadow.

Illuminated by brilliant constellations overhead, Hutchings walked across the glade, mindful that his 250 pounds--forty of it contained in bracelets of solid gold at his ankles and wrists, his "shackles," as he referred to them--didn't further damage the hybrid grass of the meadow floor.

The meadow, however, could never offer him the genuine consolation he knew his conscience needed. Ultimately, the only acceptable expiation for his crimes would be his death, a demise that would more than likely come in the form of a few billion tons of super-heated hydrogen plasma imploding down around him. His life would be over in a trillionth of a second, well before his brain would even register the fact. One moment he would be alive, worrying about the welfare of his friends; the next, he--and those very same friends--would be atomic mist.

At the opposite end of the meadow, about forty yards away, lay Hutchings' pride and joy: a gazebo made of real, handcrafted wood. While the manufac­ture of the meadow had necessarily been a group effort, Hutchings himself had built the gazebo. It was based on one of the few childhood memories he had. His Uncle Buck owned a small farm on the outskirts of Lowell, Massachusetts. Adjacent to the farm were five acres of unmown pasturage surrounded by el­derly birches. The meadow upon which Hutchings now stood had been modeled after it. Though a much smaller meadow--it was approximately fifty yards wide and about eighty yards long--theirs was just as real as his uncle's spread. The grass and the trees most certainly were.

Hutchings was very proud of his creation.

Standing in the lower half of the meadow next to the mirror surface of their fake pond, Hutchings hap­pened to glance at his feet. There was no real reason for it, really. Just instinct.

There in the fragile grass adjacent to the pond he discovered several long gouges, dark moist earth against the white of the sage. They were clearly div­ots, clumps of torn-up soil. He scanned the area around him, squinting in the darkness, and noticed several other ragged holes.

"Christ on a stick," he growled. The gouges were hash marks, goal lines. That meant that several little Boys, against orders, had been up there earlier play­ing football. To his further dismay, he found that a large section of the meadow had been scrimmaged upon. A lot of little Boys had been up there, it seemed.

"Damn it! Com, open. Boys' dorm!" he snapped.

A faint chime went off beside his right ear as their communications system opened a channel to the dor­mitory which housed their little Boys.

"Wake up, you little bastards! This is Hutchings and I'm in the meadow. I want to know who was up here this afternoon. Answer me or I'll tell the Spanker for sure this time!"

A dozen little Boys roused from sleep started yam­mering into the com at once, the cacophony of their replies filling Hutchings' right ear. It was the threat of the Spanker that got their attention. The Children feared the Spanker as much as the adults feared the Vapor. And while the Spanker was a fiction, the Vapor most assuredly was not.

Hutchings did not wait for a confession. He had a good idea of who might have organized a football game. "Matthew White, wake up! You're responsible for this.

"What? I didn't do anything!" piped a voice foggy from sleep.

"Don't give me that. You guys were up here this afternoon playing football. The place is wrecked now!"

"It's not wrecked, you big fat liar," the Boy protested.

"You ruined what took us months to cultivate!"

"Bobby made all the holes!" White contended.

"Bobby Nakamura is only five years old and he'd never disobey me. Besides, Lorraine said she saw you making a football in the Fiddler's den the other day. She told me."

"She did not, you liar!"

Hutchings shook his head in disgust. "Christ, I knew you'd do something like this. It was just a mat­ter of time."

Several of the little Boys down in their dorm rooms started talking and hooting into their corns at once. "Leave him alone, Ian!" "You're just a bully!" "You're a big fat bully!" Several juicy raspberries followed from the little Boys' dorm.

"I'm going to tell you this one time," Hutchings said. "It took us a year to generate viable topsoil, and it's not for you to ruin. This place is off-limits from now on. Do you hear me?"

"Then where are we gonna play?" Matt White protested. "The ball always bounces off the roof of the Rough-house and you can't tackle anybody there `cause you slide and hit the wall"

"The meadow was designed for general use. It's a park, not a football field."

"It's more like a cemetery, if you ask me."

"Watch it, Matt."

Matthew White, a twenty-eight-year-old shuttle pilot, had one of their worst cases in retrograde am­nesia. His entire adult life had been erased from his mind, leaving him with the mental abilities--to say nothing of the concomitant maturity--of a seven-year-old boy. Hutchings should have known better than to leave any of the Children unsupervised, espe­cially the little Boys.

Matt White then said, "Hey, are you up there with your shackles on? I'll bet you are! I'll bet you're up there right now walking all over the place making holes with those big shackles on!"

"Their weight is negligible," Hutchings retorted.

"I'll bet you're mashing all kinds of holes up there! I'll bet you a million bucks!"

Hutchings said, "Hey, I designed this place. I'm very careful where I go."

"You're such a liar, Ian! You're a liar and a bully! I hate you a million times! I hate you, I hate you!"

Hutchings heard the closing chime as the twenty-eight-year-old little Boy went off-line. The closing chimes of the other little Boys followed like tinny sprites vanishing into thin air.

He rubbed his eyes. The strain of the last three years was beginning to get to him. Lately, he seemed too quick to anger, too eager to lash out and vent his pent-up feelings.

Recalling his own mother's tirades, he knew that having a houseful of children was in truth Hell itself. Chaos ran amok, with Pandemonium right behind snapping at its heels. However... Hutchings had to remind himself that life with real children was only one kind of Hell. There was a much, much greater Hell still.

And he was living in it.

*****

Hell was Sunstation Ra, a giant metals production factory floating on the surface of the sun where es­cape was impossible and death but an eye-blink away. The meadow upon which he stood had been built in what once was a spacious arboretum that occupied the two upper floors of the facility. Only recently had they got its ecosystem up and running, having taken nearly a year to cultivate the soil, breed the right kind of grass, then accelerate the growth of the doz­ens of bonsai trees which the former science crew of Ra had left behind when the System Assembly pulled them off.

Since its completion, Hutchings had been spending quite a lot of time in the meadow, particularly late at night. As present Administrator, his duties should have kept him so busy during the day that some form of rest at night was inevitable. But Hutchings rarely slept, thanks in part to certain biotech enhance­ments in his brain, as well as a haunting sense of moral obligation to make up for his criminal past.

No one else on the Hot Rock bore the weight of the crime he had committed, even if everyone there, including the severely memory-wiped Children, were also supposed to be the worst civilization had ever seen. In another life, they would have been executed. Yet, from the perspective of the System Assembly, the governing body that lorded over two planets, twelve inhabited moons, and two giant LaGrange colonies, it did make sense to locate them where they could do no harm, someplace, even, where they might be of some practical use. And that place was a battleship-sized fusion facility on the surface of the sun.

To Hutchings, it made sense in a very poetic--and quite ironic--way. Ra could not be operated effi­ciently by robots, yet it had been deemed far too dangerous for a crew of volunteers. So they were elected. Those Raians who were able, fused metal alloys in the Suncup--the gold in his shackles came from there--distilled from the 6,000-degree plasma that raged just beyond the Renner force-shield that protected them all. Other inmates tended to the sta­tion's basic maintenance; still others tended to those who could not tend to themselves: the Children and the bindlestiffs, inmates so devastated by the horror of their incarceration that they could not function at all. The `stiffs spent their time wandering the free zones, sleeping in the halls when quick-sleep over­took them, eating whenever they could get near a food processor. But Children they were not.

To Hutchings, the memory-cleansing process was their most cruel and unusual punishment. And it made no sense to him that he, the greatest scourge mankind had ever seen, could remember up to his postdoctoral days in college--but not his specific crimes--while some inmates were reduced to the mental states of three-year-olds. If the punishment fit the crime, then he should have been regressed to an embryo, if not executed outright. Instead, he was a twenty-eight-year-old postdoctoral student stuck in a middle-aged man's body.

Hutchings tamped down the divots as best he could. In the morning he would put a few eager Fid­dlers, once-engineers barely at the level of college, to repair the damage. The Fiddlers were always looking for something to fiddle with.

Hutchings turned his attention to the gazebo. The wooden edifice actually served a dual purpose. Its stage concealed the Shunt platform upon which they had arrived three years ago. It was a moment Hutch­ings remembered well--for he had been the first to set foot on that fantastic island on the sun. He was the first to be told who they were and why they were there; he was the first to be told what they could do to redeem themselves: send the System Assembly newly fused metals and the SA would mark their effort. As such, for some, parole off the Hot Rock was possible.

But not for the butcher of a billion people.

Hutchings searched the stars of their planetarium sky. Once a week their Suncup engineers sent up ingots of precious metals forged in the Suncup's fu­sion chamber. An unmanned ore scow, protected by a Renner shield of its very own, would dip into the sun's twenty-million-degree corona, lock onto Ra's Renner-protected matter-transmission corridor, and take back Ra's plasma-fused booty in one big teleported gulp. So they did their good deeds, some of them. They maintained the sunstation, some of them. They main­tained each other, some of them. And Hutchings did what he could, though none of his efforts counted for anything in the eyes of the System Assembly.

Hutchings ran a hand through his bristly white hair. He guessed that he was about forty-five years old, but he felt as if he were a thousand. He shouldn't have barked at Matt. After all, the Boy was only seven years old, just a kid.

Hutchings looked up one final time into their glit­tering starscape, feeling the winds of October drift across their ersatz meadow. He sighed.

Then stumbled backwards.

A bright star had suddenly appeared overhead, a star that wasn't there a few moments ago... a star that didn't belong in any constellation of their artifi­cial night sky.

"Yes!" Hutchings shouted. "Yes!"

Their main computer had been programmed to project onto the planetarium dome any ship that aligned itself with the monopole transmission corri­dor above the sunstation. But by the size and shape of the "star" overhead, Hutchings knew that this ship was different. Glowing a brilliant green, it meant that the ship was Bold Charon, the System Assembly's personnel transfer shuttle.

It was not an ore scow: People were coming down!

Hutchings stared at the gazebo's stage. The green "star" rolled across Ursa Major's generous ladle as it aligned itself within the monopole corridor a million miles above the sunstation, the only place, and a dangerous one at that, where any kind of teleportation could be done.

They had waited three years for this moment.

Hutchings ran toward the gazebo where a gossa­mer haze had begun to manifest on the stage. There, he counted the human forms now appearing. One, two... three, four... five, six.

Six new inmates!

The star representing Bold Charon overhead then vanished as the ship dashed away from the danger­ous solar atmosphere, its purpose fulfilled.

"Meadow!" Hutchings shouted. "Lights up, twelve noon!"

The planetarium night vanished with astonishing suddenness as a brilliant blue sky speckled with clouds took its place.

On the stage six startled human beings stared with amazement at the world about them--the meadow, the forest of stately white birches, and the huge man with the massive golden wrist- and ankle-bracelets standing next to the mirror of a fake pond.

"Welcome to Hell," Ian Hutchings said breath­lessly. "Welcome!"

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