The sun is always just about to rise. Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over its rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do. Many have made this a way of life. They walk roughly westward, staying always ahead of the stupendous day. Some of them hurry from location to location, pausing to look in cracks they earlier inoculated with bioleaching metallophytes, quickly scraping free any accumulated residues of gold or tungsten or uranium. But most of them are out there to catch glimpses of the sun.
Mercury's ancient face is so battered and irregular that the planet's terminator, the zone of the breaking dawn, is a broad chiaroscuro of black and white—charcoal hollows pricked here and there by brilliant white high points, which grow and grow until all the land is as bright as molten glass, and the long day begun. This mixed zone of sun and shadow is often as much as thirty kilometers wide, even though on a level plain the horizon is only a few kilometers off. But so little of Mercury is level. All the old bangs are still there, and some long cliffs from when the planet first cooled and shrank. In a landscape so rumpled the light can suddenly jump the eastern horizon and leap west to strike some distant prominence. Everyone walking the land has to attend to this possibility, know when and where the longest sunreaches occur—and where they can run for shade if they happen to be caught out.
Or if they stay on purpose. Because many of them pause in their walkabouts on certain cliffs and crater rims, at places marked by stupas, cairns, petroglyphs, inuksuit, mirrors, walls, goldsworthies. The sunwalkers stand by these, facing east, waiting.
The horizon they watch is black space over black rock. The superthin neon-argon atmosphere, created by sunlight smashing rock, holds only the faintest predawn glow. But the sunwalkers know the time, so they wait and watch—until—a flick of orange fire dolphins over the horizon and their blood leaps inside them. More brief banners follow, flicking up, arcing in loops, breaking off and floating free in the sky. Star oh star, about to break on them! Already their faceplates have darkened and polarized to protect their eyes.
The orange banners diverge left and right from the point of first appearance, as if a fire set just over the horizon is spreading north and south. Then a paring of the photosphere, the actual surface of the sun, blinks and stays, spills slowly to the sides. Depending on the filters deployed in one's faceplate, the star's actual surface can appear as anything from a blue maelstrom to an orange pulsing mass to a simple white circle. The spill to left and right keeps spreading, farther than seems possible, until it is very obvious one stands on a pebble next to a star.
Time to turn and run! But by the time some of the sunwalkers manage to jerk themselves free, they are stunned—trip and fall—get up and dash west, in a panic like no other.
Before that—one last look at sunrise on Mercury. In the ultraviolet it's a perpetual blue snarl of hot and hotter. With the disk of the photosphere blacked out, the fantastic dance of the corona becomes clearer, all the magnetized arcs and short circuits, the masses of burning hydrogen pitched out at the night. Alternatively you can block the corona, and look only at the sun's photosphere, and even magnify your view of it, until the burning tops of the convection cells are revealed in their squiggling thousands, each a thunderhead of fire burning furiously, all together torching five million tons of hydrogen a second—at which rate the star will burn another four billion years. All these long spicules of flame dance in circular patterns around the little black circles that are the sunspots—shifting whirlpools in the storms of burning. Masses of spicules flow together like kelp beds threshed by a tide. There are nonbiological explanations for all this convoluted motion—different gases moving at different speeds, magnetic fields fluxing constantly, shaping the endless whirlpools of fire—all mere physics, nothing more—but in fact it looks alive, more alive than many a living thing. Looking at it in the apocalypse of the Mercurial dawn, it's impossible to believe it's not alive. It roars in your ears, it speaks to you.
Most of the sunwalkers over time try all the various viewing filters, and then make choices to suit themselves. Particular filters or sequences of filters become forms of worship, rituals either personal or shared. It's very easy to get lost in these rituals; as the sunwalkers stand on their points and watch, it's not uncommon for devotees to become entranced by something in the sight, some pattern never seen before, something in the pulse and flow that snags the mind; suddenly the sizzle of the fiery cilia becomes audible, a turbulent roaring—that's your own blood, rushing through your ears, but in those moments it sounds just like the sun burning. And so people stay too long. Some have their retinas burned; some are blinded; others are killed outright, betrayed by an overwhelmed spacesuit. Some are cooked in groups of a dozen or more.
Do you imagine they must have been fools? Do you think you would never make such a mistake? Don't you be so sure. Really you have no idea. It's like nothing you've ever seen. You may think you are inured, that nothing outside the mind can really interest you anymore, as sophisticated and knowledgeable as you are. But you would be wrong. You are a creature of the sun. The beauty and terror of it seen from so close can empty any mind, thrust anyone into a trance. It's like seeing the face of God, some people say, and it is true that the sun powers all living creatures in the solar system, and in that sense is our god. The sight of it can strike thought clean out of your head. People seek it out precisely for that.
So there is reason to worry about Swan Er Hong, a person more inclined than most to try things just to see. She often goes sunwalking, and when she does she skirts the edge of safety, and sometimes stays too long in the light. The immense Jacob's ladders, the granulated pulsing, the spicules flowing… she has fallen in love with the sun. She worships it; she keeps a shrine to Sol Invictus in her room, performs the pratahsamdhya ceremony, the salute to the sun, every morning when she wakes in town. Much of her landscape and performance art is devoted to it, and these days she spends most of her time making goldsworthies and abramovics on the land and her body. So the sun is part of her art.
Now it is her solace too, for she is out there grieving. Now, if one were standing on the promenade topping the city Terminator's great Dawn Wall, one would spot her there to the south, out near the horizon. She needs to hurry. The city is gliding on its tracks across the bottom of a giant dimple between Hesiod and Kurasawa, and a flood of sunlight will soon pour far to the west. Swan needs to get into town before that happens, yet she still stands there. From the top of the Dawn Wall she looks like a silver toy. Her spacesuit has a big round clear helmet. Her boots look big, and are black with dust. A little booted silver ant, standing there grieving when she should be hustling back to the boarding platform west of town. The other sunwalkers out there are already hustling back to town. Some pull little carts or wheeled travois, hauling their supplies or even their sleeping companions. They've timed their returns closely, as the city is very predictable. It cannot deviate from its schedule; the heat of coming day expands the tracks, and the city's undercarriage is tightly sleeved over them; so sunlight drives the city west.
The returning sunwalkers crowd onto the loading platform as the city nears it. Some have been out for weeks, or even the months it would take to make a full circumambulation. When the city slides by, its lock doors will open and they will step right in.
That is soon to occur, and Swan should be there too. Yet still she stands on her promontory. More than once she has required retinal repair, and often she has been forced to run like a rabbit or die. Now it will have to happen again. She is directly south of the city, and fully lit by horizontal rays, like a silver flaw in one's vision. One can't help shouting at such rashness, useless though it is. Swan, you fool! Alex is dead—nothing to be done about it! Run for your life!
And then she does. Life over death—the urge to live—she turns and flies. Mercury's gravity, almost exactly the same as Mars's, is often called the perfect g for speed, because people who are used to it can careen across the land in giant leaps, flailing their arms for balance as they bound along. In just that way Swan leaps and flails—once catches a boot and falls flat on her face—jumps up and leaps forward again. She needs to get to the platform while the city is still next to it; the next platform is ten kilometers farther west.
She reaches the platform stairs, grabs the rail and vaults up, leaps from the far edge of the platform, forward into the lock as it is halfway closed.
SWAN AND ALEX
Alex's memorial ceremony began as Swan was straggling up Terminator's great central staircase. The city's population had come out into the boulevards and plazas and were standing in silence. There were a lot of visitors in town as well; a conference had been about to begin, one that had been convened by Alex. She had welcomed them on Friday; now on the following Friday they were holding her funeral. A sudden collapse, and they hadn't been able to revive her. And so now the townspeople, the diplomat visitors: all Alex's people, all grieving.
Swan stopped halfway up the Dawn Wall, unable to go on. Below her rooftops, terrace patios, balconies. Lemon trees in giant ceramic pots. A curved slope like a little Marseilles, with white four-story apartment blocks, black iron-railed balconies, broad boulevards and narrow alleys, dropping to a promenade overlooking the park. All crowded with humanity, speciating right before her eyes, each face intensely itself while also a type—Olmec spheroid, hatchet, shovel. On a railing stood three smalls, each about a meter tall, all dressed in black. Down at the foot of the stairs clustered the sunwalkers who had just arrived, looking burnt and dusty. The sight of them pierced Swan—even the sunwalkers had come in for this.
She turned on the stairs and descended, wandered by herself. The moment she had heard the news, she had dashed out of the city onto the land, driven by a need to be alone. Now she couldn't bear to be seen when Alex's ashes were scattered, and she didn't want to see Mqaret, Alex's partner, at that moment. Out into the park, therefore, to wander in the crowd. All of them standing still, looking up, looking distraught. Holding each other up. There were so many people who had relied on Alex. The Lion of Mercury, the heart of the city. The soul of the system. The one who helped and protected you.
Some people recognized Swan, but they left her alone; this was more moving to her than condolences would have been, and her face was wet with tears, she wiped her face with her fingers repeatedly. Then someone stopped her: "You are Swan Er Hong? Alex was your grandmother?"
"She was my everything." Swan turned and walked off. She thought the farm might be emptier, so she left the park and drifted through the trees forward. The city speakers were playing a funeral march. Under a bush a deer nuzzled fallen leaves.
She was not quite to the farm when the Great Gates of the Dawn Wall opened, and sunlight cut through the air under the dome, creating the usual horizontal pair of yellow translucent bars. She focused on the swirls within the bars, the talcum they tossed up there when they opened the gates, colored fines floating on updrafts and dispersing. Then a balloon rose from the high terraces under the wall, drifting west, the little basket swaying under it: Alex; how could it be. A surge of defiance in the music rumbled up out of the basses. When the balloon entered one of the yellow bars of light, the basket blew apart in a poof, and Alex's ashes floated down and out of the light, into the air of the city, growing invisible as they descended, like a shower of virga in the desert. There was a roar from the park, the sound of applause. Briefly some young men somewhere chanted, "A-lex! A-lex! A-lex!" The applause lasted for a couple of minutes, and arranged itself as a rhythmic beat that went on for a long time. People didn't want to give it up; somehow that would be the end, they would at that very moment lose her. Eventually they did give it up, and lived on into the post-Alex phase of their lives.
She needed to go up and join the rest of Alex's family. She groaned at the thought, wandered the farm. Finally she walked up the Great Staircase, stiffly, blindly, pausing once to say, "No, no, no," for a time. But that was pointless. Suddenly she saw: anything she did now would be pointless. She wondered how long that would last—seemed like it could be forever, and she felt a bolt of fear. What would change to change it?
Eventually she pulled herself together and made her way up to the private memorial on the Dawn Wall. She had to greet all those who had been closest to Alex, and give Mqaret a brief rough hug, and withstand the look on his face. But she could see he was not home. This was not like him, but she could fully understand why he might depart. Indeed it was a relief to see it. When she considered how bad she felt, and then how much closer Mqaret had been to Alex than she had been, how much more of his time he spent with her—how long they had been partners—she couldn't imagine what it would feel like. Or maybe she could. So now Mqaret stared at some other reality, from some other reality—as if extending a courtesy to her. So she could hug him, and promise to visit him later, and then go mingle with the others on the highest terrace of the Dawn Wall, and later make her way to a railing and look down at the city, and out its clear bubble to the black landscape outside it. They were rolling through the Kuiper quadrant, and she saw to the right Hiroshige Crater. Once long before, she had taken Alex out there to the apron of Hiroshige to help with one of her goldsworthies, a stone wave that referenced one of the Japanese artist's most famous images. Balancing the rock that would be the crest of the breaking wave had taken them a great number of unsuccessful efforts, and as so often with Alex, Swan had ended up laughing so hard her stomach hurt. Now she spotted the rock wave, still out there—it was just visible from the city. The rocks that had formed the crest of the wave were gone, however—knocked down by the vibration of the passing city, perhaps, or simply by the impact of sunlight. Or fallen at the news.
A few days later she visited Mqaret in his lab. He was one of the leading synthetic biologists in the system, and the lab was filled with machines, tanks, flasks, screens bursting with gnarled colorful diagrams—life in all its sprawling complexity, constructed base pair by base pair. In here they had started life from scratch; they had built many of the bacteria now transforming Venus, Titan, Triton—everywhere.
Now none of that mattered. Mqaret was in his office, sitting in his chair, staring through the wall at nothing.
He roused himself and looked up at her. "Oh, Swan—good to see you. Thanks for coming by."
"That's all right. How are you doing?"
"Not so well. How about you?"
"Terrible," Swan confessed, feeling guilty; the last thing she wanted was to add to Mqaret's load somehow. But there was no point in lying at a time like this. And he merely nodded anyway, distracted by his own thoughts. He was just barely there, she saw. The cubes on his desk contained representations of proteins, the bright false colors tangled beyond all hope of untangling. He had been trying to work.
"It must be hard to work," she said.
After a blank silence, she said, "Do you know what happened to her?"
He shook his head quickly, as if this was an irrelevance. "She was a hundred and ninety-one."
"I know, but still…"
"Still what? We break, Swan. Sooner or later, at some point we break."
"I just wondered why."
"No. There is no why."
"Or how, then…"
He shook his head again. "It can be anything. In this case, an aneurysm in a crucial part of the brain. But there are so many ways. The amazing thing is that we stay alive in the first place."
Swan sat on the edge of the desk. "I know. But, so… what will you do now?"
"But you just said…"
He glanced at her from out of his cave. "I didn't say it wasn't any use. That wouldn't be right. First of all, Alex and I had seventy years together. And we met when I was a hundred and thirty. So there's that. And then also, the work is interesting to me, just as a puzzle. It's a very big puzzle. Too big, in fact." And then he stopped and couldn't go on for a while. Swan put a hand to his shoulder. He put his face in his hands. Swan sat there beside him and kept her mouth shut. He rubbed his eyes hard, held her hand.
"There'll be no conquering death," he said at last. "It's too big. Too much the natural course of things. The second law of thermodynamics, basically. We can only hope to forestall it. Push it back. That should be enough. I don't know why it isn't."
"Because it only makes it worse!" Swan complained. "The longer you live, the worse it gets!"
He shook his head, wiped his eyes again. "I don't think that's right." He blew out a long breath. "It's always bad. It's the people still alive who feel it, though, and so…" He shrugged. "I think what you're saying is that now it seems like some kind of mistake. Someone dies, we say why. Shouldn't there have been a way to stop it. And sometimes there is. But…"
"It is some kind of mistake!" Swan declared. "Reality made a mistake, and now you're fixing it!" She gestured at the screens and cubes. "Right?"
He laughed and cried at the same time. "Right!" he said, sniffing and wiping his face. "It's stupid. What hubris. I mean, fixing reality."
"But it's good," Swan said. "You know it is. It got you seventy years with Alex. And it passes the time."
"It's true." He heaved a big sigh, looked up at her.
"But—things won't be the same without her."
Swan felt the desolation of this truth wash through her. Alex had been her friend, protector, teacher, step-grandmother, surrogate mother, all that—but also, a way to laugh. A source of joy. Now her absence created a cold feeling, a killer of emotions, leaving only the blankness that was desolation. Sheer dumb sentience. Here I am. This is reality. No one escapes it. Can't go on, must go on; they never got past that moment.
So on they went.
There was a knock at the lab's outer door. "Come in," Mqaret called a little sharply.
The door opened, and in the entry stood a small—very attractive in the way smalls often were—aged, slender, with a neat blond ponytail and a casual blue jacket—about waist high to Swan or Mqaret, and looking up at them like a langur or marmoset.
"Hello, Jean," Mqaret said. "Swan, this is Jean Genette, from the asteroids, who was here as part of the conference. Jean was a close friend of Alex's, and is an investigator for the league out there, and as such has some questions for us. I said you might be dropping by."
The small nodded to Swan, hand on heart. "My most sincere condolences on your loss. I've come not only to say that, but to tell you that quite a few of us are worried, because Alex was central to some of our most important projects, and her death was so unexpected. We want to make sure these projects go forward, and to be frank, some of us are anxious to be sure that her death was a matter of natural causes."
"I assured Jean that it was," Mqaret told Swan, seeing the look on her face.
Genette did not look completely convinced by this reassurance. "Did Alex ever mention anything to you concerning enemies, threats—danger of any kind?" the small asked Swan.
"No," Swan said, trying to remember. "She wasn't that kind of person. I mean, she was always very positive. Confident that things were going to work out."
"I know. It's so true. But that's why you might remember if she had ever said anything out of keeping with her usual optimism."
"No. I can't remember anything like that."
"Did she leave you any kind of will or trust? Or a message?
Something to be opened in the event of her death?"
"We did have a trust," Mqaret said, shaking his head. "It doesn't have anything unusual in it."
"Would you mind if I had a look around her study?"
Alex had kept her study in a room at the far end of Mqaret's lab, and now Mqaret nodded and led the little inspector down the hall to it. Swan trailed behind them, surprised that Genette had known of Alex's study, surprised Mqaret would be so quick to show it, surprised and upset by this notion of enemies, of "natural causes" and its implied opposite. Alex's death, investigated by some kind of police person? She couldn't grasp it.
While she sat in the doorway trying to figure out what it could mean, trying to come to grips with it, Genette made a thorough search of Alex's office, opening drawers, downloading files, sweeping a fat wand over every surface and object. Mqaret watched it all impassively.
Finally the little inspector was done, and stood before Swan regarding her with a curious look. As Swan was sitting on the floor, they were about eye level. The inspector appeared on the verge of another question, but in the end did not say it. Finally: "If you recall anything you think might help me, I would appreciate you telling me."
"Of course," Swan said uneasily.
The inspector then thanked them and left.
What was that about?" Swan asked Mqaret.
"I don't know," Mqaret said. He too was upset, Swan saw. "I know that Alex had a hand in a lot of things. She's been one of the leaders in the Mondragon Accord from the beginning, and they have a lot of enemies out there. I know she's been worried about some system problems, but she didn't give me any details." He gestured at the lab. "She knew I wouldn't be that interested." A hard grimace. "That I had my own problems. We didn't talk about our work all that much."
"But—" Swan started, and didn't know how to go on. "I mean—enemies? Alex?"
Mqaret sighed. "I don't know. The stakes could be considered high, in some of these matters. There are forces opposed to the Mondragon, you know that."
"I know." After a pause: "Did she leave you anything?"
"No! Why should she? I mean, she wasn't expecting to die."
"Few people are. But if she had concerns about secrecy, or the safety of certain information, I can see how she might think you would be a kind of refuge."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, couldn't she have put something into your qube without telling you?"
"No. Pauline is a closed system." Swan tapped behind her right ear. "I mostly keep her turned off these days. And Alex wouldn't do that anyway. She wouldn't talk to Pauline without asking me first, I'm sure of it."
Mqaret heaved another sigh. "Well, I don't know. She didn't leave me anything either, as far as I know. I mean, it would be like Alex to tuck something away without telling us. But nothing has popped up. So I just don't know."
Swan said, "So there wasn't anything unusual in the autopsy?"
"No!" Mqaret said, but he was thinking it over. "A cerebral aneurysm, probably congenital, burst and caused an intraparenchymal hemorrhage. It happens."
Swan said, "If someone had done something to—to cause a hemorrhage… would you necessarily be able to tell?"
Mqaret stared at her, frowning.
Then they heard another tap at the lab's outer door. They looked at each other, sharing a little frisson. Mqaret shrugged; he had not been expecting anyone.
"Come in!" he called again.
The door opened to reveal something like the opposite of Inspector Genette: a very big man. Prognathous, callipygous, steatopygous, exophthalmos—toad, newt, frog—even the very words were ugly. Briefly it occurred to Swan that onomatopoeia might be more common than people recognized, their languages echoing the world like birdsong. Swan had a bit of lark in her brain. Toad. Once she had seen a toad in an amazonia, sitting at the edge of a pond, its warty wet skin all bronze and gold. She had liked the look of it.
"Ah," Mqaret said. "Wahram. Welcome to our lab. Swan, this is Fitz Wahram, from Titan. He was one of Alex's closest associates, and really one of her favorite people."
Swan, somewhat surprised that Alex could have such a person in her life without Swan ever hearing of it, frowned at the man.
Wahram dipped his head in a kind of autistic bow. He put his hand over his heart. "I am so sorry," he said. A froggy croak. "Alex meant a great deal to me, and to a lot of us. I loved her, and in our work together she was the crucial figure, the leader. I don't know how we will get along without her. When I think of how I feel, I can scarcely grasp how you must feel."
"Thank you," Mqaret said. So strange the words people said at these moments. Swan could not speak any of them.
A person Alex had liked. Swan tapped the skin behind her right ear, activating her qube, which she had turned off as a punishment. Now Pauline would fill her in on things, all by way of a quiet voice in Swan's right ear. Swan was very irritated with Pauline these days, but suddenly she wanted information.
Mqaret said, "So what will happen to the conference?"
"There is complete agreement to postpone it and reschedule. No one has the heart for it now. We will disperse and reconvene later, probably on Vesta."
Ah yes: without Alex, Mercury would no longer be a meeting place. Mqaret nodded at this, unsurprised. "So you will return to Saturn."
"Yes. But before I go, I am curious to know whether Alex left anything for me. Any information or data, in any form."
Mqaret and Swan shared a look. "No," they both said at once.
Mqaret gestured. "We were just asked that by Inspector Genette."
"Ah." The toad person regarded them with a pop-eyed stare. Then one of Mqaret's assistants came into the room and asked for his help. Mqaret excused himself, and then Swan was alone with their visitor and his questions.
Very big, this toad person: big shoulders, big chest, big belly. Short legs. People were strange. Now he shook his head and said in a deep gravelly voice—a beautiful voice, she had to admit—froggy, yes, but relaxed, deep, thick with timbre, something like a bassoon or a bass saxophone—"So sorry to bother you at a time like this. I wish we could have met under different circumstances. I am an admirer of your landscape installations. When I heard that you were related to Alex, I asked her if it might be possible to meet you. I wanted to say how much I like your piece at Rilke Crater. It's really very beautiful."
Swan was taken aback by this. At Rilke she had erected a circle of Göbekli T-stones, which looked very contemporary even though they were based on something over ten thousand years old. "Thank you," she said. A cultured toad, it seemed. "Tell me, why did you think Alex might have left a message for you?"
"We were working together on a couple of things," he said evasively, his fixed gaze shifting away. He didn't want to discuss it, she saw. And yet he had come to ask about it. "And, well, she always spoke so highly of you. It was clear you two were close. So… she didn't like to put things in the cloud or in any digital form—really, to keep records of our activities in any media at all. She preferred word of mouth."
"I know," Swan said, feeling a stab. She could hear Alex say it: We have to talk! It's a face world! With her intense blue eyes, her laugh. All gone.
The big man saw the change in her and extended a hand. "I'm so sorry," he said again.
"I know," Swan said. Then: "Thank you."
She sat down in one of Mqaret's chairs and tried to think about something else.
After a while the big man said in a gentle rumble, "What will you do now?"
Swan shrugged. "I don't know. I suppose I'll go out on the surface again. That's my place to… to pull myself together."
"Will you show it to me?"
"What?" Swan said.
"I would be very grateful if you were to take me out there. Maybe show me one of your installations. Or, if you don't mind—I noticed that the city is approaching Tintoretto Crater. My shuttle doesn't leave for a few days, and I would love to see the museum there. I have some questions that can't be resolved on Earth."
"Questions about Tintoretto?"
"Well…" Swan hesitated, unsure what to say.
"It would be a way to pass the time," the man suggested.
"Yes." This was presumptuous enough to irritate her, but on the other hand, she had in fact been searching for something to distract her, something to do in the aftermath, and nothing had come to her. "Well, I suppose."
"Thank you very much."
Ibsen and Imhotep; Mahler, Matisse; Murasaki, Milton, Mark Twain;
Homer and Holbein, touching rims;
Ovid starring the rim of the much larger Pushkin;
Goya overlapping Sophocles.
Van Gogh touching Cervantes, next to Dickens. Stravinsky and Vyasa. Lysippus. Equiano, a West African slave writer, not located near the equator.
Chopin and Wagner right next to each other, equal size.
Chekhov and Michelangelo both double craters.
Shakespeare and Beethoven, giant basins.
Al-Jāi, Al-Akhal. Aristoxenus, Ashvaghosha. Kurosawa, Lu Hsün, Ma Chih-yüan. Proust and Purcell. Thoreau and Li Po, Rūmī and Shelley, Snorri and Pigalle. Valmiki, Whitman. Brueghel and Ives. Hawthorne and Melville.
It's said the naming committee of the International Astronomical Union got hilariously drunk one night at their annual meeting, took out a mosaic of the first photos of Mercury, recently received, and used it as a dartboard, calling out to each other the names of famous painters, sculptors, composers, writers—naming the darts, then throwing them at the map.
There is an escarpment named Pourquoi Pas.