Her name was Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird and she had travelled a long way to make her case. The faint possibility of failure had always been at the back of her mind, but now that her ship had actually delivered her to the Congressional capital world, now that she had actually frameshifted to New Far Florence across all those dizzying light-years, the faint possibility had sharpened into a stomach-churning conviction that she was about to suffer imminent and chastening defeat. There had always been people eager to tell her that her proposal was doomed, but for the first time it occurred to her that they could be right. What she had in mind was, even by her own admission, a deeply unorthodox suggestion.
“Well, it’s certainly a nice day for it,” said Rudd Indigo Mammatus, joining her on the balcony, high above the cloud-girdled tiers and gardens of the Congress building’s footslopes.
“Abject humiliation, you mean?”
Rudd shook his head good-naturedly. “It’s the last perfect day of summer. I’ve checked: tomorrow will be cooler, stormier. Doesn’t that strike you as suitably auspicious?”
“I’m worried. I think I’m going to make an idiot of myself in there.”
“We’ve all made idiots of ourselves at some point. In this line of work it’s almost obligatory.”
Chromis and Rudd were politicians, political friends from different constituencies of the Congress of the Lindblad Ring. Chromis spoke for a relatively small grouping of settled worlds: a mere one hundred and thirty planet-class entities, packed into a volume of space only twenty light-years across. Rudd’s constituency, located on the edge of the Ring—where it brushed against the fractious outer worlds of the Loop II Imperium—enveloped a much larger volume of space but only a third as many planet-class entities. Politically, they had very little in common, but by the same token they had very little worth squabbling over. Once every five hundred years, when the representatives were summoned to New Far Florence, Chromis and Rudd would meet to swap world-weary tales of scandal and chicanery from their respective constituencies.
Chromis fingered the ring on her right index finger, tracing the interlocking, hypnotically complex design embossed into its surface. “Do you think they’ll go for it? It’s been eighteen thousand years, after all. It’s asking a lot of people to think back that far.”
“The whole point of this little exercise is to dream up something to commemorate ten thousand years of our glorious Congress,” Rudd said, with only the slightest trace of irony. “If the other representatives can’t get off their fat backsides and think back another eight thousand years before that, they deserve to have the reeves set on them.”
“Don’t joke,” Chromis said darkly. “I heard they had to send in the reeves on Hemlock only four hundred years ago.”
“Messy business, too: by all accounts there were at least a dozen non-recoverable dead. But I wasn’t joking, Chromis: if they don’t bite, I’ll personally recommend a police action.”
“If only everyone else felt the same way.”
“Then damn well go in there and see to it that they do.” Rudd offered his hand. “It’s time, anyway. The last thing you want to do is keep any of them waiting.”
She took his hand chastely. Rudd was an attractive man, and Chromis had it on good authority that she had many admirers in the Congress, but their friendship was strictly platonic: they both had partners back on their home-worlds, held in stasis cauls until they returned from New Far Florence. Chromis loved her husband, although many days might pass between thoughts of him. Without his help convincing one hundred and thirty worlds that this was something they had to support, the memorial plan would have stalled long ago.
“I’m really worried, Rudd. Worried I’m about to screw up nearly a thousand years of preparation.”
“Keep your nerve and stick to the script,” Rudd said sternly. “No last-minute clever ideas, all right?”
“Same goes for you. Remember: ‘intended recipient’.”
Rudd smiled reassuringly and led her into the stratospheric vastness of the meeting room. The chamber had been constructed in the early centuries of the Congress, when it had aspirations to expand into territory now occupied by neighbouring polities. Space not being at a premium on New Far Florence, the hundred-odd representatives were scattered across nearly a square kilometre of gently sloping floor space, and the ceiling was ten kilometres above their heads. Slowly rotating in the middle of the room, lacking any material suspension, was the display cube in which their enlarged images would appear when they had the floor. While it waited for the session to begin, the cube projected the ancient emblem of the Congress: a three-dimensional rendering of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of a naked man encompassed within a square and circle, his limbs drawn twice so that he stood upon, and touched, both shapes.
Chromis and Rudd took their positions on either side of the floor. The last few delegates were arriving by transit caul: black humanoid shells popped into existence in the chamber before dissipating to reveal the occupants within. The femtomachinery of the cauls merged seamlessly with the local machinery of the Congress building. Every artificial object in the Congress of the Lindblad Ring—from the largest frameshift liner to the smallest medical robot—comprised countless copies of the same universal femtomachine element.
Routine business consumed the first hour of the meeting. Chromis sat patiently, shuffling mental permutations, wondering whether she should consider a change of approach. It was difficult to judge the mood of the gathering. But Rudd’s advice had been sound. She held her nerve, and when she had the floor she spoke the words she had already committed to memory before leaving home.
“Honoured delegates,” she began, as her magnified image appeared in the display cube, “we are nearing the ten thousandth year since the founding of our first colony—the beginning of what we now recognise as the Congress of the Lindblad Ring. I believe we are all of a mind in one respect: something must be done to acknowledge this coming milestone, something that will reflect well upon our administration, especially in light of the similar anniversaries that have recently been celebrated in two of our neighbouring polities. There have been many suggestions as to how we might mark this occasion. A civic project, perhaps, such as a well-deserved terraforming or a timely stellar rejuvenation. A Dyson englobement—purely for the hell of it—or the frame-shifting of an entire world from one system to another. Even something as modest as the erection of a ceremonial dome or an ornamental fountain.” Chromis paused and looked pointedly at the delegates who had proposed these latter projects, hoping that they felt suitably abashed at their dismal lack of vision.
“There have been many excellent proposals, and doubtless there will be many more, but I wish to suggest something of an entirely different magnitude. Rather than creating something for ourselves, a monument in our own galactic backyard, I humbly suggest that we consider something altogether more altruistic. I propose an audacious act of cosmic gratitude: the sending of a message, a gift, across space and time. The intended recipient of this gift will be the person—or the descendants of the person—without whom the very fabric of our society would look unrecognisably different.”
Chromis paused again, still unable to judge the mood of the delegates, the blank faces of those close enough to see conveying neither approval nor disapproval. She took a deep breath and pressed on. “Doubtless we would have achieved some of the same advances eventually—but who is to say that it wouldn’t have taken tens of thousands of years rather than the mere handful of millennia it actually took? Instead of a mosaic of polities spread across nearly twelve thousand light-years of the galactic disc, we might very well be confined to a handful of systems, with all the risks that such close confinement would inevitably entail. And let us not forget that the insights that have allowed us to leapfrog centuries of slow development were given to us freely, with no expectation of reward. Our Benefactor sent that data back to Earth because it was the right thing to do.” Here Chromis swallowed, uncomfortably aware that some might be thinking—not without cause—that the very same data had almost wiped out humanity as it struggled to assimilate dangerous new knowledge. But at a remove of eighteen thousand years, such thoughts were surely churlish. Fire had singed more than a few fingers before people learned how to use it.
She heard a few unconvinced grumbles, but no one chose to interrupt her. Chromis steeled herself and continued, “I know that some of us have forgotten the precise nature of that act of charity. In a moment, I hope to jog our collective memory. But first let me outline exactly what I have in mind.”
She craned her neck to look at the display cube. On cue, her image was replaced by a simulation of the galaxy, as if viewed from far outside: ancient and huge, littered with the humbling relics of the Spicans but empty of life—so far as anyone knew—save for the smudge of human presence spreading out from one spiral arm, like an inkblot.
“The Benefactor and her people are still out there somewhere,” Chromis said, “almost certainly beyond the Hard Data Frontier—perhaps even outside the galaxy itself. But unless the universe has more tricks up its sleeve than we suspect, they can’t be more than eighteen thousand light-years away, even if they’re still moving away from us. And perhaps they’ve already arrived wherever they were headed. Either way, I think it behoves us to try to send them a message. Not a transmission, easy and cheap though that would be, but rather a physical artefact, something that we can stuff with data until we’re knocking on Heisenberg’s own back door. Of course, there’s an obvious problem with sending a physical artefact as opposed to an omnidirectional signal: we have no idea where to send it. But that’s easily remedied: we’ll just send out a lot of artefacts, as many as we can manufacture. We’ll make them by the billions and cast them to the four winds. And hope that one of them, one day, finds its intended recipient.”
That was Rudd’s cue to interject. “That’s all very well on paper, Member Chromis, and I don’t doubt that we have the industrial capacity to make such a thing happen. But I wonder if you’ve considered the risks of such an object falling into the wrong hands. Not all of our neighbours are quite as enlightened as we might hope: we already have enough trouble policing the harmful-technologies moratorium as it stands. Stuffing all our worldly wisdom into a bottle and tossing it into the great blue yonder doesn’t strike me as the wisest course of action, no matter how well intentioned the gesture.”
“We’ve thought of that,” Chromis said.
“Oh? Do tell.” Rudd sounded innocently intrigued.
“The artefacts will have the ability to protect their contents from unintended recipients. They won’t unlock themselves unless they detect the presence of the Benefactor’s mitochondrial DNA. There’ll be a margin of error, of course—we won’t want to exclude the Benefactor’s children, or grandchildren, or even more distant descendants—but nobody else will be able to get at the treasure.”
Again, Rudd played his part expertly. “Nice idea, Chromis, but I’m still not convinced that you’ve done the detailed work here. There is no Benefactor DNA on file in any Congress archive. All biological records were lost within a century of her departure.”
“We’ve got her DNA,” Chromis said.
“Now, that is news. Where from, might I ask?”
“We had to go a long way to get it—back to Mars, as it happens—but we’re confident that we’ve retrieved enough of a sample to lock out any unintended recipients.”
“I thought they’d already drawn a blank on Mars.”
“They did. We dug deeper.”
Rudd sat down heavily, as if the wind had been snatched from his sails. “In which case . . . I must congratulate you on your forward thinking.”
“Thank you,” Chromis said sweetly. “Any further questions, Member Rudd?”
There were disgruntled murmurs from some of the delegates, but few of them could begrudge Chromis and Rudd this little piece of theatre. Most of them had participated in similar charades at one time or another.
“Member Rudd is right to draw attention to the technical difficulties associated with this proposal,” Chromis said, “but let’s not allow ourselves to be daunted. If the project were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. We’ve had ten thousand years to do the easy stuff. Now let’s bite off something big, and show history what we’re made of. Let’s reach across space and time and give something back to the Benefactor, in return for what she gave us.”
Chromis allowed herself a pause, judging that no one would interrupt her at this crucial moment. When she continued speaking, her tone was measured, conciliatory. “I don’t doubt that some of you will question the wisdom of this proposal, even though it has already been subjected to every conceivable scrutiny by the combined intelligence of one hundred and thirty worlds. The problem is that, for most of us, the Benefactor is no more than a distant historical figure—someone with whom we have no emotional connection. But there is every chance that she is still out there somewhere, still living and breathing. She’s not a God, not a mythic figure, but a human being, as real as any of us. There was a time when I had trouble thinking of her that way, but not any more. Not since we recovered this, and heard her speak.” Chromis nodded gravely in response to her audience’s speculative murmurs. “That’s right: we’ve recovered an intact copy of the transmission that started all of this: the Benefactor’s original statement of intent; her promise to give us all that she could. Recovering this transmission was, in its way, as difficult as finding a sample of her DNA. The difference was that the recording was always part of our data heritage: just misplaced, buried, corrupted beyond recognition. It took centuries of forensic skill to piece it together, frame by frame, but it was, I believe, worth the effort.”
Chromis looked to the display cube and sent a subliminal command, causing it to begin replaying the clip. Music welled up and an ancient symbol—a globe and three letters in an alphabet no one had used for nearly fourteen thousand years—spun before them. “Please adjust your language filters,” Chromis said, “for English, mid twenty-first century. You are about to hear the voice of the Benefactor.”
Right on cue, she spoke, identical copies of her face projected on each facet of the cube. A delicate-boned woman: looking less like the kind of person who made history than the kind who became a victim of it. She sounded diffident, uncertain of herself, forced into saying something that did not come naturally to her.
“I’m Bella Lind,” she said, “and you’re watching CNN.”