Excerpt: 'Transcendent'

Transcendent

Book critic Alan Cheuse includes Transcendent in his list of preferred holiday fiction titles on All Things Considered this year: "Stephen Baxter collaborates from time to time with Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and his own work comes close to inducing the same sense of wonder as Clarke's."

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Excerpt: Chapter One

The girl from the future told me that the sky is full of dying worlds.

You can spot them from far off, if you know what you're looking for. When a star gets old it heats up, and its planets' oceans evaporate, and you can see the clouds of hydrogen and oxygen, slowly dispersing. Dying worlds cloaked in the remains of their oceans, hanging in the Galaxy's spiral arms like rotten fruit: this is what people will find, when they move out from the Earth, in the future. Ruins, museums, mausoleums.

How strange. How wistful.

My name is Michael Poole.

I have come home to Florida. Although not to my mother's house, which is in increasing peril of slipping into the sea.

I live in a small apartment in Miami. I like having people around, the sound of voices. Sometimes I miss the roar of traffic, the sharp scrapings of planes across the sky, the sounds of my past. But the laughter of children makes up for that.

The water continues to rise. There is a lot of misery in Florida, a lot of displacement. I understand that. But I kind of like the water, the gentle disintegration of the state into an archipelago. The slow rise, different every day, every week, reminds me that nothing stays the same, that the future is coming whether we like it or not.

The future, and the past, began to complicate my life in the spring of 2047, when I got an irate call from my older brother, John. He was here, in our Miami Beach house. I should "come home," as he put it, to help him "sort out Mom." I went, of course. In 2047 I was fifty-two years old.

I had been happy in Florida, at my parents' house, when I was a kid. Of course I had my nose in a book or a game most of the time, or I played at being an "engineer," endlessly tinkering with my bike or my in-line roller skates. I was barely aware of the world outside my own head. Maybe that's still true.

But I particularly loved the beach out in back of the house. You understand this was the 1990s or early 2000s, when there still was a beach in that part of Florida. I remember I would walk from our porch, with its big roof-mounted swing chairs, and go down the gravel path to the low dunes, and then on to the sandy beach beyond. Sitting there you could watch space shuttles and other marvels of rocketry from Cape Canaveral rising into the sky like ascending souls.

Mostly I'd watch those launches alone. I was out of step with my family over that one. But once, I believe around 2005, my uncle George, my mother's brother visiting from England, walked out with me to watch a night launch. He seemed so stiff and old, barely able to make it down to sit on the scrubby dune grass. But I guess he was only in his forties then. George was an engineer, of sorts, in information technology, and so a kindred spirit.

Of course that's all gone now, thanks to the Warming, the rising sea levels, the endless Atlantic storms; Canaveral is a theme park behind a sea wall. I guess I was lucky to be ten years old and able to watch such things. It was like the future folding down into the present.

I wonder what ten-year-old Michael Poole would have thought if he could have known what the girl from the future told me, about all those old and dying worlds out there waiting for us in space.

And I wonder what he would have thought about the Transcendence.

I think over those strange events, my contact with the Transcendence, one way or another, all the time. It's like an addiction, something you're aware of constantly, bubbling beneath the surface level of your mind, no matter how you try to distract yourself.

And yet I can remember so little of it. It's like chasing a dream after waking; the more you focus on it, the more it melts away.

Here's what I make of it now.

The Transcendence is our future—or a future, anyhow. A far future. The Transcendents had made (or will make) themselves into something unimaginably powerful. And now they were on the cusp, the cusp of a step to change into something new altogether.

After this point they would transcend to what we would think of as godhood—or they would subside to defeat, at the hands of a foe I barely glimpsed. Either way they would no longer be human.

But at this point, on this side of the cusp, they were still human. And they were tortured by a very human regret, a regret that had to be resolved now, before they proceeded and shed their humanity for good. This was what I was drawn into, this strange inner conflict.

Everybody knows about my work on the climate disaster. Nobody knows about my involvement in something much larger: the agonies of a nascent superhuman mind of the far future, in the culminating logic of all our destinies.

The future folding down into the present. That ten-year-old on the beach would probably have loved it, if he'd known. It still scares me to death in retrospect, even now.

But I guess even then I had my mind on other things. For the most remarkable thing I saw on that beach wasn't a spaceship being launched.

The woman who came to the beach was slim and tall, with long, strawberry-blond hair. She would wave and smile to me, and sometimes call, though I could never make out what she said for the noise of the waves and the gulls. She always seemed to stand at the edge of the sea, and the sun was always low, so the sea was dappled with sunlight like burning oil, and I had to squint to make her out—or she would show up in some other equally difficult place, hidden by the light.

When I was a kid she visited occasionally, not regularly, maybe once a month. I was never frightened of her. She always seemed friendly. Sometimes when she called I would wave back, or yell, but the crashing waves were always too loud.

I would run after her sometimes, but running in soft wet sand is hard work even when you're ten. I never seemed to get any closer, no matter how hard I ran. And she would shrug, and step back, and if I looked away she was gone.

It was only much later that I worked out who she was, how important she would become to me.

Uncle George never saw her, not during his one and only viewing of a spaceship launch from the beach. I wish he had. I'd have appreciated talking it over with him. I didn't know much about ghosts when I was ten; I know only a little more now. George knew a lot of things, and he had an open mind. Maybe he could have answered a simple question: can you be haunted by spirits, not from the past, but from the future?

For, you see, the mysterious woman on the beach, who visited me intermittently all my young life, was another visitor from the future. She was Morag, my dead wife.

The future folding down into the present.

Excerpted from Transcendent by Stephen Baxter. Copyright © 2005 by Stephen Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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