The Tinker and the Timestream
by Carolyn Ives Gilman
The Taghrib Colony had existed for almost two hundred years, and all that time it had been waiting to die. Then one night Rustem, tinker of Biskra, discovered a nova in the sky.
The beautiful, deadly sun had just gone down, and the twilit air was intoxicating with the breath of plants exhaling in relief when Rustem climbed the clock tower to make his nightly measurements. He had done so almost every night for the last twenty years—first toddling up the stone steps with his mother, and then, when she had grown too weak, on his own. Now, what had started as her pet project was his.
On the roof, the radio dish was a giant ear listening to the cosmos. As he looked up, a bright, slow-moving star arced overhead—the orbiting colony ship that had brought his ancestors, still lit by the sun. It had been mothballed for a century, but still lifted hearts when people saw it, a symbol of possible escape. Aside from symbolism, the ship was almost useless—so low on fuel that there was just enough left for one more burn of the engines before it became a piece of space junk.
In the northern and southern sky lay the stars Rustem had come to measure—Tiaret and Chlef, the closest stable stars to Taghrib but still light-years distant. He was building a record of their motions and spectra in hopes of determining whether either one might have a habitable planet. His equipment was not quite up to the task, but he was constantly working to improve it.
He started up his small generator and proceeded with his readings. A light breeze stroked his cheek as if trying to distract him. The vegetation smelled especially sweet tonight. All his life he had known that any day might be the last, and tomorrow the unstable sun might flare and incinerate them all—plants, people, cats, carpets, spoons, shoes, all fused into a red-hot layer of melted silica. Then, once the planet’s surface cooled, the resilient plants would creep out from the crevices and recolonize. And in 20,000 years or so it would all smell just as sweet.
First he measured Tiaret, then Chlef, then the unnamed star that lay even closer—a neutron star/white dwarf pair that he kept an eye on in case gravitational disturbances from it were what set off the sun. When he was done he still lingered, gazing upward, thinking about the noble, foolish optimism of plants and people. And as he watched, a new star appeared in the sky, like a light switching on.
It was such an extraordinary event that he scrambled to aim his small reflector telescope at it. Under magnification the nova did not resolve into a disc, as the planets did, but remained a light-emitting point. So he hurried to start up his generator again in order to bring the large telescope with the spectrograph to bear on it. He worked fast, fearing it would disappear again before he had a chance to capture measurements. But it remained steady at around magnitude 1, outshining the stars around it.
When he had a spectrum downloaded onto his battered electronic tablet, he hurried down the steps to bring it to the only person alive that he trusted to tell, his tutor Mustafa.
The town’s electricity had gone off an hour ago, so the only light in the main street was a single streetlamp running on batteries. As he passed down the street, the habitations all lay on his left—multistory stacks of apartments carved into the rock cliff. Living underground would not, of course, save them if the sun did flare; but at least it gave people a feeling they had taken some precaution. For half a mile, windows and doorways pocked the cliff, a chaos of overlapping arches that defied geometry. They all faced the souq and the river, flowing soundlessly on his right.
Mustafa’s door was on the ground floor, as befitted his age and profession. Rustem knocked on the metal-veneered wood.
“Who is it?” Mustafa’s voice came from within.
“It’s Rustem. There is something I need to show you, something extraordinary.”
“Then I need to come in and wake you up.”
With a rattle, the door came open. Mustafa was not even close to asleep. There was an oil lamp burning and a disassembled machine spread out on his worktable. He was the town’s current tinker, soon to retire and pass his duties on to Rustem.
“There’s a new star!” Rustem blurted out as soon as he saw Mustafa’s face.
“A what? That’s impossible.”
“Nevertheless, it is there. Come see for yourself.”
The old man searched around for some shoes, grumbling under his breath, but he followed Rustem out onto the street.
“There it is,” Rustem said, pointing. “In the constellation Vahna.”
Mustafa peered up, blinking.
“You’ve got your glasses on,” Rustem pointed out.
“Oh. So I do.”
He took them off and looked up again. “Well. I’ll be . . .”
“Don’t blaspheme. Not now.” The old man was an unbeliever, and it distressed Rustem.
“We’ve got to take a spectrum,” Mustafa said.
“I’ve done that. Here it is.”
Mustafa studied the display on Rustem’s screen. “Hmm,” he said. He was clearly seeing what Rustem had also seen. “This is not normal.”
“I know. We need to analyze it to be sure, but it looks like the light’s blueshifted.”
Mustafa nodded. “Whatever it is, it’s coming toward us.”
* * *
The colonists had never intended to come to this planet. The story everyone told was that a navigational error had occurred during the long years of cryogenic sleep, and by the time the automated system woke them, they were not approaching their new home, or anything else; they were marooned in a starless stretch of space without any clear destination. They spent years getting to the closest star, only to find the planets uninhabitable. So they set out again, searching. Finally, their fuel almost spent, they arrived in the Taghrib system and landed joyfully to set about creating a new home. It was twenty years before they began to suspect that the regular layers of melted rock underfoot were not volcanic, and another twenty before the evidence became conclusive that the sun was unstable. At that point, factions formed: one argued for leaving again and using the last remaining fuel for a trip to a new star that might or might not have a livable planet; the other favored staying and hoping for the best. Neither choice was good: a fast death by fire, or a slow death in a failing ship unable to reach a haven. As they debated, inertia and denial weighed in, and “hoping for the best” won out. From time to time, the argument still flared again.
As a child, Rustem always zeroed in on the beginning of the story. He had a recurring nightmare of floating in black space, nothing but distant stars below, above, and around him. He would try kicking to move in some direction, but it just sent him spinning. And all the while he knew he was drifting farther and farther away from home and everything he knew. He would wake up sweaty and tense and have to light the bedside oil lamp to reassure himself he was really back home—where the sun might kill him tomorrow. It was hard to get back to sleep.
As he grew older, he tried to tame the problem with logic. “How could they make a navigational error?” he asked his mother and Mustafa on one of the nights when they were relaxing over chorba, flatbread, and tea. It seemed to him that between mathematics and the stars, they ought to have steered better.
The two adults exchanged a look to see who would answer. They were old friends. Later, Rustem would wonder why they had never married. Both too independent, he supposed.
“Stellar navigation isn’t easy,” his mother, Ayala, said. “The problem is, everything in space is moving—the ship, the star it is heading for, the light from the stars, and every landmark along the way. There are no fixed points for measuring your position.”
“What about distant galaxies?” Rustem demanded. He was proud of his knowledge then.
“That might tell you where you are in the abstract, but not in relation to anything you could hope to get to. It’s not like navigating on a planet. Imagine that the hills and rivers were all moving around like clouds.”
“Maybe they did steer by distant galaxies,” Mustafa said. He was always trying to deflate Rustem’s certainty, even as Ayala tried to encourage it. “Maybe they reached the exact point in space they were aiming at, and their destination star had actually been there when it emitted the light they saw when they set out. But nothing in the sky is really where it appears to be. Even when they started toward it, it had moved on, and when they arrived centuries later, it was nowhere to be seen.”
“They should have known that,” Rustem said, still convinced he would have done better.
“I’m sure they did,” Ayala said. “But to intercept a moving star, you have to aim for where it will be in the future, and for that you have to know precisely how far away it is, what direction it is going, and how fast it is. It takes years of observation to determine stellar motions and velocities—and of course, the place you’re observing from is moving as well. The tiniest error can throw you off by parsecs. You might not have enough fuel to chase your destination down.”
Years later, when he was resurrecting some old archival data, Rustem came across a 500-year-old table of stellar velocities and directions of motion, measured from some other planet whose location had long since changed. There was a range of uncertainty in all the measurements. Looking at it with adult eyes, he thought it was a miracle they had ever reached any place at all.
* * *
“We need to consult the archives,” Mustafa said.
It was morning, and they had reconvened after a break for a nap and a change of clothes. Since seeing the nova, Rustem had been so absorbed in the mystery that he couldn’t think of anything else. Now, mention of the archives brought back the memory of his mother with a pang.
She had been the archivist. It had been more than a job for her. She had believed that residents of the Taghrib were living in a shadow age, the grandeur and enlightenment of the colonization era long past. Her mission had been to bring some of the lost knowledge of the Founders back, to recapture their learning and wisdom.
Everyone had thought it was a quaint, hopeless cause, but they had so admired her dedication and indomitable spirit that they said nothing to her face. Rustem had seen the head-shaking and eye-rolling that went on behind her back, and it had stung him.
Now he gave a heavy sigh. Finding information in the archives was like one of the impossible labors of Hammad in the folktale. And yet, he saw Mustafa’s point.
“The nova could be something relatively close by, or it could be far away and very bright,” Mustafa said. “We need to compare this spectrum to an exploding star, an approaching spaceship, a comet, and other possibilities we have not thought of. The archives may contain spectral records to reference.”
Bitterly, Rustem said, “Finally, we have an urgent need of something in the archives, and my mother will never know her work was vindicated. Only months after she dies, she is proven right.”
Mustafa was gazing at him sadly. He also had mourned Ayala’s death, Rustem knew, but would not talk about it. Now, the old man just said, “She knew she was right. She never needed others to tell her.”
“They still should have honored her more. It was her life’s work.”
Slowly, Mustafa shook his head. “No. You were her life’s work.”
“What a waste of time,” Rustem said.
Mustafa was gazing thoughtfully past him. “Your mother burned brightly, like the sun. She nourished and warmed but also concealed. Now that she no longer shines, we can see the true Rustem revealed, like the night sky.”
“Dark and empty.”
“Full of stars and mysteries.”
When Rustem left Mustafa’s house, the Biskra souq was coming to life outside. Farmers were arriving with baskets of cucumbers and radishes, and vendors were setting up bright-patterned cloth tents for their displays of handicrafts. In the food stalls, men were firing up grills for roasted meats to be ready by midday.
He cringed on hearing that voice and pretended he hadn’t heard. But it was no use. The girl was persistent as a blackfly.
She caught up and fell into step beside him. “Where are you going?” she demanded.
Firni had always been the outcast of his generation, the odd and awkward girl no one wanted around and everyone picked on. They called her a moron, but it wasn’t true. She was smart in many ways, just not in the ways of navigating normal life. Rustem had once made the mistake of sticking up for her when she was being unjustly tormented, and she had decided he was her friend. He didn’t want her around but couldn’t bring himself to be cruel enough to shake her off.
“Where are you going?” she asked again.
“To the archives,” he said.
“To look something up.”
“It’s really none of your business, Firni.” You had to be direct with her.
She considered his answer, then asked, “Do you still work there, even though your mother’s dead?”
He was losing patience. “A tinker has to go everywhere,” he said.
“To fix things, you mean?”
“Yes. Don’t you have something to do?”
“Of course. They want me to look for an iron mine.”
It was Firni’s one remarkable ability that she could see magnetic field lines, and thus locate buried anomalies. Long ago, someone had thought it was a good idea to introduce an avian protein into the human genome to allow people to see magnetism the way migratory birds did. The gene still turned up from time to time.
“You want to come?” she asked.
“No, I’m busy. You’d better go do it.”
That finally got through to her. “I’ll see you around,” she said.
He continued on down the road. The archives lay just outside the town, in a large, dry cave carved from the bluff. The entrance was adorned with a grand arch of the local caliche, fashioned into reliefs of calculus equations. Once, someone had felt awe for the repository of so much lost learning.
Inside, the archive was cool and dim. As his eyes adjusted, he saw around him the familiar heaps of old electronics—drives and memory cylinders, backups and distributors, some of which hadn’t been looked at since the day they were salvaged from the ship. Ayala had put young Rustem to work fixing some of the old machines, and that was how she had discovered his aptitude for tinkering. He had scavenged enough old parts to get some of the information machines running again for the first time in decades.
The results had been disillusioning. Most of what the Founders had stored in their memory devices was useless garbage. Large parts of it were simply random gibberish. The parts that could be read at all were mostly trivial or irrelevant. Ayala had found no libraries of classics, no wisdom of the ages. Every now and then there had been a useful jewel in the slag heap—enough to keep her going, hoping to hit a vein of hidden treasure, some message from the golden age. As for Rustem, his opinion of the Founders had declined sharply. How could you respect people who didn’t sort the significant from the trash, but simply kept it all?
Ghalib, her apprentice, came out from the back to see who had come in. He was archivist now, unworthy as he was. Rustem suspected him of sleeping most of the day. He had never made any discernable headway in sorting and cataloging the data.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said when he saw Rustem. “What do you want?”
“I came to see if you have any spectral records.”
“Sure,” the archivist said, waving a hand at all the wrecked hardware. “I’ve got heaps of ghost data.”
“I meant spectra, not specters.”
“Oh. No idea. You’re welcome to look.”
Rustem often wanted to break something over Ghalib’s head. But not something fixable.
He went on into the brightly lit inner workspace where his mother had toiled and sat down at one of the old terminals. He ran some obvious searches and found nothing, so he studied the structure of the catalog to narrow down his search to astronomical data.
Soon he was sucked in by some salvaged information he had never seen before, an article on cosmology. It was completely useless to him, but he loved the way the Founders had thought—so logical, so rigorous, so backed up by evidence. They had lived in a more orderly universe than his—one that was understandable, not full of injustice and senseless discontinuities.
Ghalib had come up behind him, so he went back to the catalog, guilty to have gotten distracted. When he glanced up, Ghalib was holding an ancient book—a physical book with paper pages. He held it out, open to a page of diagrams. “This might be helpful,” he said.
It was an old astronomy text, still in remarkably good condition. The page Ghalib had found showed sample spectra of various sorts of novae. Rustem took it eagerly. “Thanks, Ghalib. This is really helpful.”
“You don’t need to sound so surprised,” Ghalib said drily.
Rustem was surprised that Ghalib knew the archives better than he did, but he shrugged and started reading. With growing excitement, he took out his tablet and compared the spectrum he had observed to the ones in the book. Then he took a picture of the page and stood up. He was absolutely certain now. What he had seen was no nova, no comet, but an approaching spacecraft.
The Founders were coming back to rescue them.
The idea made him feel quivery. What had changed in the centuries since the Taghrib colonists had left? What new wonders would the Founders bring? He felt lucky be alive to experience this moment—then came a pang of regret, that his mother hadn’t lived to see it. What a reward it would have been for her to meet the very people she had devoted her life to studying.
“Got what you wanted?” Ghalib said.
“Yes,” Rustem answered. What I’ve wanted all my life.
Everything was about to change.
* * *
A month later, Rustem stood again on his tower overlooking the town, but this time Mustafa was with him. The dish of the radio antenna was now aimed at the ship-star, broadcasting a message of welcome.
The radio had been surprisingly controversial. The town’s governing Shura was dominated by cautious traditionalists, and when Mustafa and Rustem had gone to them with the momentous news, they had not received it with jubilation. Rustem had brought along all his evidence to convince them it was a spacecraft; but that turned out to be easy. If Mustafa said it was a ship, it was a ship. What was difficult was to convince them it was the colony’s salvation.
“What do they want with us?” demanded old Ahlam, the imam. “Have they come to conquer or rob us? What if they attack? Let us conceal ourselves until we know they are friendly.”
The members of Shura had argued back and forth, as they always did. Other villages called them Bickering Biskra because they could never agree on anything. Finally, when it looked as if they might deadlock, Rustem had spoken out of turn: “What do we have to lose? We’re all going to die anyway. This might be our last chance to get help.”
That blunt argument had finally turned the scale. Biskra would try to attract the heavenly visitors.
So the two tinkers had set up the radio and gotten it broadcasting. So far, they had received no message in return. Every night the ship-star had grown measurably brighter. “They are probably decelerating,” Mustafa said. “The night when you first saw them was when they turned on their engines to start slowing. It will take a long time. Then they will go into orbit and look for a place to land. That is when we will have to redouble our effort to signal them.”
Accordingly, they were now assembling a laser device, in case radio was not the wavelength the outsiders used. Rustem had been working on it all day, and now he straightened up to rest his back and look at the sky.
It was a spectacular sight. The ship-star had grown so bright that it was visible by day, easily the brightest thing in the sky. In the street below, the anticipated arrival had given extra gaiety to the annual tafsut festival. The electric lights were on for the occasion, and the sounds of music, dancing, and rowdiness filtered up from below. Most of the celebrants were Rustem’s age, letting loose on the first occasion they had ever had for genuine optimism.
“You ought to be down there with your friends,” Mustafa said.
Rustem shook his head. “I don’t want to celebrate yet. Not until we’re sure.”
In the tower below them, the clock struck eleven.
On the last reverberation of the bell, the ship-star flared, growing bright enough to cast a shadow.
“What’s happening?” Rustem said.
Mustafa looked dumbfounded. “I don’t know. It shouldn’t be doing this.”
Rustem had a panicky thought that it might not be a ship at all, but an asteroid about to annihilate them. But no, an asteroid wouldn’t have been glowing, not out in space. Then it occurred to him that it had exploded on entering the atmosphere, and flaming debris would soon rain down on them.
“We ought to ring the alarm bell,” he said.
There was no need. Down on the street, everyone had noticed. The music faltered to a stop. There were oohs and aahs of wonder; then, when the star flared even brighter, cries of alarm.
It all happened too fast to react. The point of light became a ball, clearly visible now, smaller than the sun but almost as bright, descending through the atmosphere straight at them.
Down on the street, the partygoers screamed as they ran for shelter. Rustem and Mustafa were too stunned to move. They watched as the flaming sphere hurtled down till it seemed to hang directly over the village; then, without a sound, it slowed, hovered, and delicately came to rest on the clifftop plateau above the valley. Then, as if a switch had gone off, it stopped glowing.
Still blinking away afterimages, Rustem dashed for the stairs. Reaching the street, he found people still cowering or peering out from windows where they had taken shelter. He raced through the remains of the festival—fallen decorations, lost shoes, overturned tables—toward the stone stairs that led up the cliff to the plateau.
A few others, mostly his age or younger, had had the same idea and now joined him racing up the steps. When he emerged, winded, onto the level plain above the town, there was already a small group of children and dogs gathered, staring.
The sphere towered silently above them, the size of a four-story building, gleaming gray in the starlight. Where it rested in a slight depression, the ground looked scorched, but now moisture was condensing on the surface of the globe and beginning to trickle down.
It was, Rustem realized, the largest manmade thing he had ever seen. He felt uplifted at the sight, as if a curtain obscuring the unimagined had opened, showing the landscape of beyond.
And yet, it was smaller than any spacecraft Rustem had ever imagined—unless this was the shuttlecraft of an unseen orbiter. There were no visible engines or thrusters, no windows, just that seamless, glossy surface, fogged and sweating a little.
No one dared to approach it. A dog wandered forward, ignoring its owner’s calls, smelling the ground. Then it crouched and started barking.
An oval flaw had appeared in the shell of the sphere. Then an extrusion the shape of a flower petal bloomed from it, drooping gracefully onto the ground so that it formed a ramp. The oval spot dissolved away and light spilled from inside the spacecraft. Then, outlined against the door, appeared the most outlandish creatures anyone had ever seen.
They were tall and spindly, dressed in form-fitting suits. At first Rustem thought they were wearing helmets or masks, since their faces and hairless heads were so smooth. He quickly realized it was their skin; but it seemed to be a strange gray-green color in the light escaping from the craft.
There were three of them. They descended and stood at the base of the ramp looking around at the crowd of children, young people, and dogs gaping at them from a safe distance.
Then one person broke from the crowd and walked fearlessly toward them. It was Firni. People called out to her to stop and come back, but she ignored them. A few feet away from the visitors, she halted and stared at them. All around Rustem, people were muttering about what an idiot she was. But then she asked what everyone was wondering.
“Are you aliens?”
The three visitors conferred with one another, consulting a small device one of them held. At last they seemed to reach consensus, and the one holding the device spoke stiffly, with an odd accent.
“Howdy do, honored lady.”
There was a stir of surprise among the onlookers, that anyone should mistake Firni for a lady, much less honored. Rustem felt embarrassed that his village had made itself a laughing-stock with such an envoy.
“Of human people are we,” the visitor went on. “Your family.”
“Then why do you look like grasshoppers?” Firni demanded.
The visitors took even longer to answer this question. At last the spokesperson said, “Hop grass not do we. Hop stars, yes.”
“You’re starhoppers?” Firni said in amazement. They responded by pumping their fists up and down as if pounding invisible nails.
“Idiot girl!” Dihya hissed. She was standing beside Rustem. “Somebody get her out of there.”
“Can I go inside your ball?” Firni asked.
No one else seemed willing to take responsibility, so Rustem stepped forward. As he walked toward the spaceship, people behind him actually applauded. Later, they would tell him what a historic moment it was; but at the time it just seemed like he needed to do something practical to keep Biskra from shaming itself.
Close up, the visitors looked even odder; their eyes were too big and their noses almost bridgeless. It was impossible to tell if they were male or female. He said slowly, “Welcome to Biskra, voyagers! We are pleased to see you. My name is Rustem.”
“Howdy do, honored sir. I am Kanakamana-ano. This is Pikake-apikaila and Onaona-keola.”
The names sounded like water trickling over rocks. They were unlike any Founder names in the records. “Where are you from?” Rustem said.
Their translation device seemed to be catching on. “Wayfarers are we,” said the spokesperson, Kanakamana-ano. “From beyond the slowtime. Our home here see you, our skipjack.” They gestured at the ship.
One of the silent starhoppers whispered something to their spokesperson, who then said, “Where are we?”
Rustem hesitated, uncertain what this meant. At last he said, “This town is called Biskra. You are in the Taghrib system. Our planet used to be known as Eta Chingobo 2.”
They indicated no recognition of any of these names. Rustem said, “How did you find us?”
“Scouting the upstream islands are we. Of inhabited timewells there are rumors. Obviously, true are they.”
“Did you know we were here?”
They made a gesture with one hand held horizontal, swiping back and forth as if polishing a surface. Maybe their odd necks didn’t allow them to shake their heads.
“Then why did you come?”
“Wonder vendors are we. To the curious dicker we the unexplored and unexpected. Unexpected is this place.”
Firni whispered loudly, “Ask them if we can go inside.”
“Not now, Firni. Later, maybe.” Right now, he needed to get someone in authority to take charge. “Would you like to speak to our Shura?” he asked.
They raised their hands and waggled their fingers. Did that mean assent? Assuming so, he turned and gestured them to follow him. But when the strangers took a step forward, the dog took a stance in their way, growling ominously, its hair bristling.
“Your noise-making device is going off,” the starhopper observed.
Apologetically, Rustem explained, “It’s not a device, it’s a dog.”
“Really? Alive is it? Can we have it?”
“Uh . . . we have better ones than this.” He grabbed Firni by the arm and whispered to her, “Run down and tell the Shura we’re bringing the visitors to see them. Take the dog with you.”
She nodded and dashed off, whistling to the dog. It hesitated a moment, then chased her to the head of the stairs, where they both disappeared.
The rest of the onlookers parted silently as Rustem led the starhoppers toward them, then fell in behind, so that they formed a procession.
When they reached the edge of the cliff and could see the main street all lit up for the festival, the visitors made noises of astonishment. For a moment Rustem thought Biskra had impressed them; then Kanakamana pointed at the river. “Is that water? Out in the open leave it you?”
“Yes, I guess we do,” Rustem said.
The visitors talked animatedly amongst themselves. Then the starhopper said, “Where is the city?”
“This is the closest thing we have to a city,” Rustem said. He realized he sounded apologetic, so he added, “The planet’s not very densely populated. We mostly live here and in a few other villages, strung out along the river.”
They conferred with each other in perplexity.
As he led the way down the steps, Rustem had a thousand questions he wanted to ask: What had happened since the colonists left? How did the starhopper ship work? How many could it carry? But it was not his prerogative to ask questions; that was the duty of the Shura, and he had to respect that.
By the time they got to the bottom of the steps, word had spread and the festival crowd had gathered to gawk at the strangers. The musicians started to play, and the celebratory mood spread to the dancers. Soon the procession from the clifftop was surrounded by a boisterous welcoming party. Celebrants tossed clouds of sparkling mica flakes in the air, which made the visitors gape and laugh at each others’ glittery appearance.
Firni pushed through the crowd and came to Rustem’s side. “The Shura is waiting,” she said, pointing to the tent that had been erected on the riverbank for the festival.
When they arrived, the elders were seated in a circle, with another circle of the town’s older generation around them. Rustem was cheered to see that Mustafa was present. He led the guests forward to the three seats set aside for them in the center circle, then withdrew to his proper place among the observers, standing behind Mustafa.
The pace slowed dramatically as the Shura greeted the visitors with much formality and tea-drinking. When the welcoming ceremonies were over, old Ghair stood to give a speech telling the history of the colony, from their setting out to the present day. In his stylized telling it sounded like a folktale, but without a good ending. At last he said, “We wish to show our appreciation to you for coming. Please, tell us what you seek.”
The voyagers conferred amongst themselves before answering, “Water need we, and food.”
Ghair nodded and waved a hand. By custom, food and water were never sold, only given. “You shall have both. What else?”
“In knowledge trade we,” Kanakamana said. “Novelties, innovations, amazements.”
The onlookers stirred and exchanged looks. There was absolutely nothing novel or amazing about Biskra; everyone liked it that way. Their dreams of aid from above were evaporating. Then Rustem remembered something.
“They wanted a dog,” he said.
The starhoppers pumped their fists eagerly. “Amazing is the dog.”
Ghair gave a dismissive gesture. “You may take as many as you like. They eat us out of house and home. There are far more valuable things here.”
The visitors looked inquisitive, but Ghair found it difficult to think of anything.
“We keep a great deal of ancient historical information in our archive,” Ahlam said, stroking his beard. The starhoppers looked politely uninterested.
“Our artisans are very skilled,” suggested another elder.
“We have metals to spare. Gold, silver, uranium, iron. We even have a girl who can find them, like a dowser.”
The starhoppers consulted their translator for the word “dowser.”
“That’s not exactly true, Laila,” Ghair said. “She can only find magnetized ores, because she sees the magnetic field lines.”
“Truly?” The starhoppers looked up, fascinated and suspicious.
“It’s a recessive gene, but every now and then someone has it.”
“Can we have her?” the spokesperson said.
Ghair looked like he was on the verge of dismissing Firni the way he had dismissed the dogs, but caught himself in time. “It would depend on what you can offer us.”
Rustem felt a little indignant that Ghair should use Firni as a bargaining chip.
“The knowledge of the galaxy bring we. Arts, sciences, history, bakery. Whatever want to know you, name it.”
The members of the Shura exchanged a look. Ghair said, “Can you stabilize our sun?”
The starhoppers looked at each other, weighing how to respond. At last one made a back-and-forth hand motion. Kanakamana said, “Regretful apologies. Repair flaming stars not do we.”
The crowd gave out a breath like something deflating. Rustem gave a mental shrug. It had been worth asking. At least the traders were honest.
The elders made a show of being disappointed. It was a good bargaining tactic. “Well then,” Ghair said, “How many would you be able to transport to a safer planet?”
“Transport?” The starhopper looked startled. “In our skipjack? Two or three. Large not is it.”
“Can you sell us fuel for our own ship, then?”
“What sort of fuel?”
The elders looked nonplussed, as if there were only one kind of fuel. Rustem waited for Mustafa to clarify, but when he stayed silent, Rustem spoke up: “Combustion fuel.”
“Ah.” Kanakamana glanced at one of the others, who made the negative gesture. “Flaming fuel not carry we.”
“It seems you have little to offer us,” Ghair said.
Rustem knew it wasn’t true. Surely it was just a bargaining ploy. The starhoppers were conferring. Rustem felt a hollow anxiety that they would move on.
“Unless . . .” Ghair said thoughtfully.
The starhoppers looked up.
“Have you scouted the nearest star systems to us, Tiaret and Chlef?”
“Possibly,” said Kanakamana.
“Then you can tell us if their planets are habitable.”
“Many are the habitable planets.”
“But the close ones. Have you investigated them or not?”
The starhoppers held up their hands in a gesture that required no translation: it was the universal shrug. The audience stirred restlessly, suspecting a ruse. How could they not know?
Rustem could contain himself no longer. “Elders, may I speak?” he said.
Ghair frowned, but gave him a wave of permission.
“Our visitors will not know the stars by name, of course. But I have spectra of all the nearby stars. They are as good as fingerprints. If our guests have documented the systems nearby, we can find the planet we seek, if there is one.”
Ghair turned to the starhoppers. “There it is. Will you allow Rustem to view your records?”
The starhoppers looked agreeable but puzzled. “Of course, if prefer you. Or just go and visit the stars could we.”
As if it were that simple. Rustem said, “The closest one is three light-years away. The other is five.”
“And too long to wait is ten years?”
Rustem’s mind was crowded with all the impossibilities of making a five light-year round-trip journey in ten years when he stopped. “Wait. How fast does your starship go? For that matter, if it doesn’t use fuel, how does it work?”
“Ah,” said the starhopper. “Reveal that can we, in exchange for the dog and the dowser.”
Ghair said sternly, “We need planetary profiles. Atmosphere, temperature, existing ecosystems, magnetic fields, gravity of any habitable planet within five light-years. Give it to us now or give it to us in ten years, and you have a bargain.”
“Wait a minute!” Rustem protested. “You can’t just trade Firni away like that. She’s a human being, for God’s sake.”
Ghair frowned at him. “This information could be the salvation of the colony. It’s a fair trade.”
“But it’s immoral!”
“Shut up, Rustem,” came a voice from the back of the crowd. He turned to see Firni pushing forward through the onlookers, a look of determination on her face. “I want to go with the starhoppers. No one likes me here. I’d rather go with them.”
“Firni, you don’t understand,” he said.
Irritated, Ghair said, “Do you want the colony to survive or not?”
“You can’t tell me not to go,” Firni declared. She pushed her way over to stand by the strangers.
Rustem stood speechless, stinging as if he’d been slapped. The transaction was practically human trafficking.
Kanakamana stood and held a palm out upright for Ghair to touch. The bargain concluded, the starhopper turned to the crowd with a genial gesture. “Provide planetary information will we. And now of the skipjack tell you I, as a friendship gift.”
Rustem still felt unsettled, but he was not about to object now. He had asked, after all.
“At the beginning of the universe starts my story.”
In the surrounding crowd, people began settling down, since this promised to take a long time.
“In the beginning, there was no time, and so no motion, no space, no light. A one-dimensional point was all.”
“We know this,” Rustem said defensively. Biskra was not such a backwater as not to have heard of the Big Bang.
“Ah, but did know you that when began time, running was it at all possible rates?”
Rustem was silent. The starhoppers evidently told the story differently.
“At first, intermingled were all the rates of change,” Kanakamana continued. “Eventually, into pockets and clumps collected the slowtime, for attractive force has it. Slowtime loves matter and itself, say they. Around it formed stars and galaxies. But unfriendly is the quicktime, so quicktime pockets stayed smaller than atoms, repelling the whole universe, and expanding everything. Like a sea are they, permeating all.”
They were telling the story backward, just like they talked, Rustem realized. The way he had learned it, matter played the starring role, attracting other matter through gravity, and forming stars and galaxies, which had the incidental effect of slowing time in their vicinity by bending spacetime. The starhopper version made matter just a bystander to the real cosmic drama of slow and quick time. Time influenced matter, not the other way around.
The starhopper continued, “A dynamic landscape is timespace today. Hills there are of quicktime, and valleys of the slow. Winds of quicktime blow away from matter, rivers of slowtime flow toward it. Matter collects in the slow valleys and shuns the quick peaks, for it seeks the slow, as if searching for a place where time stops and change ends. Ever more big and heavy becomes the slow, tiny and light is the quick. But in the end, they say, what will win is quick.”
Thoughtfully, Rustem said, “So this sea of quicktime particles . . .”
“Not particles are they,” the starhopper corrected.
“All right, these tiny pockets of quicktime—that’s what dark energy is? The quicktime sea distributed everywhere, repelling itself? And the slowtime would be dark matter.”
The starhoppers had to consult their translator for “dark energy” and “dark matter.” “Ancient is your language,” one of the hitherto silent ones remarked. At last, the spokes-starhopper made the nail-pounding gesture a little hesitantly. “Alike seems it.”
Kanakamana resumed, “Difficult is travel. The quicktime sea resists matter in motion, so massy and slow becomes the moving body. The faster try you to go, the more slowtime collect you, and the heavier becomes your skipjack.”
Mentally translating, Rustem thought: kinetic energy increases mass, and therefore slows time. Or the other way around. Did he believe this?
“Guessed the obvious solution, have you?” The starhopper looked at him expectantly.
Nothing was obvious at all. Rustem glanced at the elders. They looked baffled, but no more so than if the conversation had been about electric generators.
“No, what’s the solution?” he said.
“Why, make quick your skipjack!” The starhoppers all wiggled their fingers as if playing invisible pianos. Were they laughing at the ignorant rustics—or pulling their legs?
“A bubble of quicktime around our ship generate we. The quicker our bubble, the lighter are we, and unhindered pass we through the sea, quick as a photon.”
“Literally?” Rustem said. “You travel at light speed?”
“Well, very close. Disadvantages are there.”
Rustem was thinking it through, trying to spot the flaws in the story. “Wait. If you are in a bubble where time is passing very fast, don’t you age and die very fast, too?”
The starhopper looked pleased. “Aha, the problem see you. Generate a second bubble must we, inside the first, so for us can last the journey as long or as little as prefer we, regardless of what passes outside.”
“But on the planet you left behind . . .”
The starhopper gave a dismissive gesture. “Nothing can we do for planets.”
So, if he could believe them, it was possible to cross the immense distances between stars by light speed in a subjective second—as long as one was willing to dismiss the planets, and let them go along at their own pokey pace. Rustem looked at Firni. “Firni, are you understanding this?”
“Of course I am,” she said defensively.
“Then you understand that if you leave with them, all the rest of us could be elders by the time you come back.”
She looked defiant. “What do I care? That’s your problem.”
Rustem turned back to the starhoppers. “How do you generate the time bubble?”
They conferred amongst themselves. “That have we to show you. Tomorrow, perhaps.”
Kanakamana drew up straight, hands held at shoulder height. “Honorable dickerers are we.”
“And your propulsion system. I’d like to see that.”
They had to look up “propulsion” and confer. One of them made the flat-handed polishing gesture. Kanakamana said, “Propulsion not have we.”
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Copyright © 2023. The Tinker and the Timestream by Carolyn Ives Gilman