Greg Egan: The Clockwork Rocket

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ORTHOGONAL: BOOK ONE



THE

CLOCKWORK

ROCKET




GREG EGAN





NIGHT SHADE BOOKS

San Francisco




Orthogonal: Book One: The Clockwork Rocket © 2011 by Greg Egan

This edition of Orthogonal: Book One: The Clockwork Rocket

© 2011 by Night Shade Books


Jacket art and design by Cody Tilson

Interior layout and design by Ross E. Lockhart



All rights reserved





First Edition


ISBN: 978-1-59780-227-7

EISBN: 978-1-59780-351-9



Night Shade Books

Please visit us on the web at

http://www.nightshadebooks.com











1






When Yalda was almost three years old, she was entrusted with the task of bearing her grandfather into the forest to convalesce.

Dario had been weak and listless for days, refusing to move from the flower bed where the family slept. Yalda had seen him this way before, but it had never lasted so long. Her father had sent word to the village, and when Doctor Livia came to the farm to examine Dario Yalda and two of her cousins, Claudia and Claudio, stayed close to watch the proceedings.

After squeezing and prodding the old man all over with more hands than most people used in a day, Doctor Livia announced her diagnosis. “You’re suffering from a serious light deficiency. The crops here are virtually monochromatic; your body needs a broader spectrum of illumination.”

“Ever heard of sunlight?” Dario replied caustically.

“Sunlight is far too blue,” Doctor Livia countered, “too fast for the body to catch. And the light from the fields is all sluggish red. What you’re lacking lies between those extremes; a man of your age needs umber and gamboge, saffron and goldenrod, jade and viridian.”

“We have all those hues right here! Have you ever seen such glorious specimens?” Dario, who’d taken to resting limbless, budded a lone finger from the middle of his chest to gesture at the garden around them. Yalda, whose job it was to tend the flower bed, warmed with pride, though the blossoms he was praising were closed for the day, their luminescent petals furled and dormant.

“Those plants are merely decorative,” Doctor Livia replied dismissively. “You need a full range of natural light, at much greater intensity. You need to spend four or five nights in the forest.”

When the doctor had left, Yalda’s father, Vito, and her uncle, Giusto, talked the matter over with her grandfather.

“It sounds like quackery to me,” Dario declared, snuggling deeper into his indentation in the soil. “‘Umber and gamboge’! I’ve survived for two dozen and seven years with sunlight, wheatlight and a few floral adornments. There’s nothing healthier than farm life.”

“Everyone’s body changes,” Vito said cautiously. “There must be a reason you’re so tired.”

“Years of hard work?” Dario suggested. “Or don’t you think I’ve earned a rest?”

Giusto said, “I’ve seen you shining yellow at night. If you’re losing that hue, what’s putting it back?”

“Yalda should have planted more goldenrod!” Claudio blurted out accusingly. Giusto shushed him, but Claudia and Claudio exchanged knowing glances, as if they were the doctors now and they’d finally exposed the root of the problem. Yalda told herself that it was only an adult’s admonition that meant anything, but her older cousins’ smug delight in her supposed failure still stung.

Vito said, “I’ll go with you to the forest. If the doctor’s right, it will give you back your health. And if she’s wrong, what harm can it do?”

“What harm?” Dario was incredulous. “I don’t have the strength for a twelfth of that journey, and I doubt you could carry me even halfway. It would finish us both off!”

Vito’s tympanum became rigid with annoyance, but Yalda suspected that her grandfather was right. Her father was strong, but Dario had always been the heavier of the two and his illness hadn’t changed that. Yalda had never even glimpsed the forest, but she knew it was farther than the village, farther than anywhere she’d been. If there had been a chance of hitching a ride on a truck then someone would have raised the possibility, but the route must have been so rarely traveled as to make that an unlikely prospect.

In the awkward silence that followed, Giusto’s rear gaze fell on Yalda. For a moment she thought he was merely acknowledging her presence with a friendly glance, but then she understood why she was suddenly worthy of attention in the midst of this serious, adult debate.

“I know who could carry you, Father!” Giusto announced happily. “There and back, with no trouble at all.”


The next day, the whole family woke before dawn to help the three travelers prepare. By the soft red light of the fields around them, Lucia and Lucio, Yalda’s brother and sister, darted back and forth from the store-holes, packing provisions for the journey into the generous pouches that their father had formed along his sides. Claudia and Claudio tended to Dario, helping him rise and eat breakfast then taking him by the shoulders and walking him around the clearing to prepare his body for the long ride.

Yalda’s other cousins, Aurelia and Aurelio, acted as stand-ins for Yalda’s passenger as Uncle Giusto coached her on her quadrupedal posture. “Make your front legs a bit longer,” he suggested. “Your grandfather will need somewhere to rest his head, so it would be good if your back sloped higher.” Yalda extruded more flesh into her two front limbs; for a moment her legs wobbled beneath her cousins’ weight, but she managed to stiffen them before she lost her balance. She waited until she felt the central shafts harden and the old joints ossify, then she cracked a new pair of knees higher up and re-organized the surrounding muscles. The last part was the most mysterious to her; all she was conscious of was a sense of pressure moving down her limbs and imposing order, as if her flesh were a bundle of reeds being passed through a comb to rid it of tangles. But her muscles weren’t merely straightening themselves out; they were making sense of their new surroundings and preparing for the new tasks that would be demanded of them.

Giusto said, “Try a few steps now.”

Yalda moved forward tentatively, then broke into a slow trot. Aurelia kicked her sides and shouted, “Yah! Yah!”

“Stop it, or I’ll throw you!” Yalda warned her.

Aurelio joined her in rebuking his co. “Yeah, stop it! I’m the driver.”

“No you’re not,” Aurelia retorted. “I’m in front!”

“Then I should be in front.” He grabbed Aurelia and tried to swap places with her. Yalda quashed her irritation at her squirming cousins and decided to treat it all as good practice; if she could keep her footing while these idiots sprouted arms just to wrestle with each other, she ought to be able to manage anything her ailing grandfather did.

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