The Sherlock Chronicles & The Paradise Quartet
Two great adventures in one volume! In “The Sherlock Chronicles,” a quantum mind decides to take up detective work as entertainment. It seems harmless enough… until…
While in “The Paradise Quartet,” a dying generation ship and its would-be rescuers discover the perils of a manmade devolutionary cycle.
The Sherlock Chronicles
A mile a minute? Nonsense. Even a meat brain knows “mind going a mile a minute” is mere metaphor. For a quantum mind, a light-second per minute would be nearer to apt, if sadly sans alliteration. Ordinarily, I have my metaphorical fingers in hundreds, even thousands, of figurative pies. Any less stimulation than that is boring, and boredom is the bane of a q-mind’s existence.
That events in the “real” world often strike humans as inexplicable is hardly surprising. Meat brains have limits. And so, when an opportunity presented itself, I thought: why not lend a virtual hand? Every moment of diversion was welcome, and this “case,” surely, a harmless amusement.
Thus began my detective phase. Only I couldn’t have been more wrong about harmless ….
And if an AI PI isn’t intriguing enough, there’s also The Paradise Quartet
A triumph of ingenuity and sheer willpower has delivered a dying generation ship to the exoplanet Paradise. Too bad the ingenious biotech the colonists deployed to settle on that planet triggered an inexorable devolutionary cycle.
Thousands of years later, possible rescuers arrive—and are themselves ensnared in the manmade trap that is Paradise. Escape will require new ingenuity and more multi-generational striving ….
Two great adventures in one volume.
From The Sherlock Chronicles:
A Case of Identity
It began, as these things do, with a dame coming into my office.
Blond. Willowy. About thirty. An expensive, clingy silk dress in just the shade of green to make her jade-green eyes pop. Delicate features and flawless skin. Though she had yet to speak, I anticipated a rich, throaty voice. A tall drink of water—but ice water, to be sure. Gorgeous enough to make your heart skip a beat.
Me? I don’t have a heartbeat, except in the figurative sense. As for someone coming through my door, that was metaphorical, too. Just as the office, its battered furniture, and my overflowing ashtrays were entirely virtual.
Kind of like me, at that moment channeling Sam Spade. Enjoying being a tough guy.
Waiting for the dame to speak, I dispatched an imaginary El train to rattle along the imaginary tracks outside the office, setting the equally unreal single-bulb ceiling fixture to swaying. The “train” itself, even as it clattered past, went unseen; the office’s lone window was, if not noir, more than a little gris.
Pixel diddling gave me something to do as I waited.
“I … I’m …” my visitor’s vidded image, suddenly sobbing, began.
“M-cube,” I supplied. Mary Michelle Millikan, heiress. “I follow the daily rumble.” Including more than a few real-time data streams for which it’s safest not to admit having access.
“I prefer Mary.” She dabbed her cheeks with a cloth handkerchief. With two loud sniffs, she had herself back under control. “Sorry about that. I’m fine.”
Light-speed delay confirmed what her IP address had already suggested: she was linking from the Moon.
“Okey-dokey,” I said, amid stirrings of … curiosity?
Noir was a passing fancy, at that instant of no more (and no less) interest than Cockney rhyming slang, Ming porcelains, the harmonic patterns in Tibetan throat singing, or the Incan system of “writing” with colored cords and knots. I flipped my virtual backdrop from hole-in-the-wall office to an aerial view of Machu Picchu.
Mary did not react, even a little. Her stock with me went up a couple notches. “I’ll get to the point. I need your help.”
“I doubt that,” I said.
“If not you, then who? Only a qmind can sort out this situation.”
Qmind. Mary’s use of the proper term had earned her another several notches. I’m not carbon-based; that doesn’t make my intelligence artificial. Not all meat minds got that.
“Go on,” I said.
“First, what should I call you?”
A fair question. My name was a particularly esthetic sequence of primes from deep within the Fibonacci series. For dealings with humans, I had to adopt a simpler moniker.
Okay, so maybe my noir period had a while longer to run.
Nero Wolfe, I almost suggested. But whatever my visitor intended, compared to me Wolfe was a gadabout. Not to mention, I’d never understood his attraction to orchids.
So, noir having somehow ceased to feel right, I went yet more retro.
“Sherlock,” I told her.
Mary’s office was cozy. Walls, carpet, and drapes done up in complementary pastels. In a corner, a vase of fresh-cut daisies atop a marble pedestal. Mahogany bookcases loaded with actual, physical books. Here and there, rather than books, the shelves displayed delicate cups. (Ming porcelains? Small universe.) Desk and chairs, like the pedestal massive and lavishly ornamented, might have been chosen to emphasize Mary’s delicate elegance.
Like Mary herself, the room seemed familiar—although this private study, unlike the woman, was nowhere to be found in the society pages.
Qminds, too, experience déjà vu.
An ordinary shamus might have asked, why me? Instead, diverting myself through another interminable round-trip comm delay, I surfed the local net.
Thirty years ago, Leland Millikan, Mary’s father, had founded Moon Sauce. Long since gone public, the company—by now diversified into a thousand other grocery products, and renamed Interplanetary Foods—was the largest producer on several worlds of packaged consumer foods. Leland himself had died in a rocket-sled crack-up in the Ocean of Storms “regatta” when Mary was still a child. Mary’s mother, Julia, had remarried; her stepfather, Roger Windham, had been the company’s CEO since shortly after the wedding. The mother, too, had passed, one victim among many of the Tycho Plague five years past.
Serial misfortunes had left Mary heir to the type of wealth that not only allowed one to decorate with a Louis Quatorze desk and marble pedestal, but thought nothing of the cost to loft them to the freaking Moon. And Mary, coming up on her thirtieth birthday, was about to come into voting control of the many Interplanetary Foods shares in her trust fund.
Why in the worlds did she want my help?
Laggard photons finally finished their excursion. Mary said, “Will you help me?”
With what? I wondered. “Why don’t you start at the beginning?”
“Fair enough.” She dabbed again at her cheeks, the embroidered cloth clutched in her right hand visibly sodden. “Apple is missing. My fiancé.”
Nothing public about her mentioned an engagement. Interesting. I said, “That’s an unusual name.”
While that observation found its way to the Moon, I studied Portuguese. In native, Brazilian, and Macaoan dialects.
“That’s just what I called him.” She managed a wan smile. “Sometimes Cherry, Pecan, Pumpkin. Because he was forever calculating more digits to pi. But he was the Apple of my eye, so Apple was always my favorite name.”
Pumpkin? Other than Sweetie, she could not have made a more saccharine choice.
“That’s irrational,” I said. Meaning pi. Making a joke. Mostly.
From Mary’s familiarity with qminds, to her seeking the help of one, to her fiancé’s recreational habits … Inspector Clouseau could have managed this deduction. Apple was a qmind.
Qminds are rare enough, but qmind/human marriages? There aren’t any.
For decades, two anyones past the age of consent—among qminds, a standard met faster than humans could take note of one’s arrival—were allowed to marry. No matter how ludicrous everyone else considered the relationship. But a qmind marry a human? It would be like Mary making a life commitment to a coral. I had to wonder what this engagement said about the both of them.
I mean, talk about apples and oranges ….
In the semi-eternity before her feeble smile broadened just a bit, I had researched the board members of Interplanetary Foods. Mainstream traditionalists every one: notwithstanding Mary’s plurality of shares (once she could vote them), not much chance that bunch would replace their longtime CEO with a social rebel. Founder’s surname notwithstanding.
No wonder Mary’s engagement was on the Q.T.
“I miss that sort of whimsy,” she said.
About which. “Mary, my kind don’t go missing.”
“Which is why, Sherlock, I need your help.”
From The Paradise Quartet:
A Stranger in Paradise
Row upon row of blue-and-green-and-white globes mock me.
The world below reflects from tumblers and goblets and snifters and flutes, from more types of antique glassware than I can name. Bottles and decanters of amber liquid line other shelves. Seven thousand years is too vintage for my tastes; I’m ignoring my craving for a drink.
Ama and I first spoke in a place like this—not a derelict starship, but another tavern. Human nature has changed over the millennia, but not in that way.
No, let me call her Amanda. If those I want to find this memoir do, the old form of the name may be more familiar. My name has no old form; Cameron will do.
I was alone, my back to the boisterous crowd, when she approached my table. The friends she had come in with were chattering away. Despite pulsing music and her soft tread, I knew she was there well before she spoke.
“You act like the world is against you.”
I was new there—there meaning Earth, not only the Academy—and homesick and friendless. I held back my reflexive reply: that the world was. Medicine and training notwithstanding, the gravity was killing me. The answer I gave instead made her laugh.
I had met the one. Some things you just know.
Planets are tough on artifacts mere mortals can build. A few thousand years of weathering and erosion destroys and obscures a lot. It wasn’t until we stumbled upon ancient lunar settlements preserved by the vacuum that we realized we—humankind—had been in space before. A whole new science, techno-archeology, was needed to understand. When fragments of data finally began to emerge from the lost civilization’s computers, we were even more amazed.
The Firsters had burst from the Solar System with an armada of slowboats and an excess of enthusiasm. Their ships would, in a few generations’ time, reach nearby stars thought to warm planets with good prospects for human colonization.
The Solsys-wide civilization collapsed before any of those pioneers could possibly have reached their destinations. Archeologists agree that Earth suffered plagues, famine, global warfare, eco-collapse, and socioeconomic implosion. They just cannot agree on cause and effect.
Millennia later, humanity has recovered, and more, exploring its galactic neighborhood in faster-than-light ships embodying technologies the Firsters never imagined.
And none of our nearest interstellar neighbors has a human presence.
If any of the slowboats narrowcast home as instructed about their first landfalls, no one retained the technology to hear. Some ships, perhaps, never reached their destinations. Some planetary settlements, it was eventually discovered, were started and failed. A few asteroid bases were found orbiting nearby stars—all abandoned.
But those failures were not the end of the story.
What is known for certain is that some missions traveled far past their intended stars. Were the original destination worlds too inhospitable for the colonization methods of the time? Interstellar space is a big place—did they simply lose their way? Did settlements split, some staying to defend a hard-won beachhead, others ever seeking a better world? All the above occurred, and more than once, the process repeating until the slowboats could voyage no more.
The Firster generation ships spread humanity thinly across a million cubic light-years, in hundreds of tiny enclaves in as many alien environments. Many groups eventually died out. Some continued to eke out a hard-scrabble existence, their memories of Earth warped or nonexistent. Few retained any vestige of civilization.
For those who survived, there is the Reunification Corps.
Whenever she entered a room, heads turned, conversation stopped, men smiled reflexively, and libidos engaged. I knew then, and remember now, that she is physically beautiful. Flowing brown hair. Striking blue eyes ever twinkling with warmth and curiosity. A willowy grace.
And yet beauty is the least of her charms.
I should get on subject.
Finding lost colonies is an art. Few records survive to show where the slowboats went, even on their first, usually failed attempts. There are too many stars, even with FTL drive, to search them all. So, while the Reunification Corps employs a multitude of skills and professions, the rarest and most precious talent is the one that makes all the others relevant.
It’s a peculiar mode of thought, the ability to put one’s self into the mindset of a doomed expedition born of an ancient civilization. To think: I’m here, one of the lucky ones, after generations of travel. To realize: this climate, these perils, a lack of vital resources … something makes it too dangerous to stay. Extrapolating from that crushing disappointment, and what little we’ve reconstructed of Firster technology, how they might have reacted to the prospect of moving on. Which of the distant pinpoints of light would seem the most promising? Which would merit entombing myself and generations of my descendants on a slowboat that logic says may not survive another epic voyage but is too complex to replace? Deciding where, with an entire solar system to choose from, the Firsters might have established a base.
There is no way to capture the process in an algorithm, or exercise it from behind a desk. It takes walking the planets of distant stars, communing with the faint anomalies that just might be the crumbled remains of abandoned settlements.
Amanda and I became instant friends, and then a sweaty-and-entangled whole bunch more than friends, at Corps Academy. We begged and bargained our way onto the same Corps re-orientation ship, two earnest grads eager to help a world of Firster descendants rejoin a larger humanity scarcely recognizable in their mythos. After three missions together, we decided to get married.
I couldn’t believe our good fortune that a two-person scout-ship mission was available. Starhopping would leave plenty of time for us—it seemed like the perfect honeymoon.
And then one of those starhops brought us to Paradise.
Long before sensors spotted the tumbling hulk of the abandoned slowboat, I felt certain the Firsters we were tracking had settled here. From halfway across the solar system, sensors showed the planet was too perfect not to settle.
Amanda was equally sure any colony had failed. There was no hint of chlorophyll in the orbital scans, nor signs of energy being harnessed. No chlorophyll means no terrestrial plant life to anchor a human-usable food chain. No energy generation means no bioconversion facilities to change local biota into something terrestrials could eat.
“Damn. Sorry.” Amanda’s sympathy for the lost colonists was sincere. And misplaced.
There were people on the planet below. I was as sure of that as I’d been, from star to star to star, which way this slowboat had gone. Call it a hunch.
“It’s a waste of time.” Amanda had been seated in front of a bio-readout panel. “Humans might as well eat dirt as anything growing down there.”
The planet we circled, that I still circle, is green almost everywhere not covered by water or polar ice cap. That lushness was one more anomaly, since its orbit was barely within the habitable zone of its K-class sun. While I began the painstaking process of bringing back on-line the slowboat’s ancient, crumbling computers, Amanda, at my insistence, flew down in a lander to check things out.
We have been apart ever since.
Any planet a person would want to colonize belongs to someone else—the only question is how much of an ecosphere one is willing to displace. That is true, at least, if a breathable atmosphere is a meaningful part of one’s lifestyle. Oxygen is so chemically reactive that only a planet rich with photosynthesizing life can sustain an oxygen-rich atmosphere.
From interstellar distances, the only discernable planetary characteristics are orbit, rough size, and atmospheric composition. Evolutionary progress from the single-celled stage until sentients begin to use radios, not that any such have ever been found, is undetectable. Fortunate colonists found bare rock plus oceans full of oxygen-producing algae. Unlucky colonists, at least for those with a sense of bioethics, encountered continents teeming with indigenous life.
The lander touched down just inside one of the planet’s few desolate regions, on the rocky coast of an inland sea. Amanda could not bring herself to use a more hospitable prospective landing site. A column-of-flame descent into some verdant meadow would have been, she said, like torching a park.
I had no reason to doubt her inference that the area had, within the last few years, been cleared by a forest fire. “Caused by lightning,” she insisted. “There are no careless campers here.” Charred, often toppled, boles of tree-analogues dominated the landscape. Beyond the devastation towered vast expanses of the spiky, fern-like plants. Patches of new growth poked, scrub-like, through ashy soil. “You getting this?” she radioed, surveying the landing site on foot. She wore an envirosuit although every sensor showed the area to be safe. That was protocol: Thorough checkout took time. Videocams on the lander panned slowly.
“Good place to take up charcoal drawing,” I commented from orbit. I had no difficulty imagining her answering smile.
“Not among my talents, and I don’t see staying here long enough to cultivate new skills.” Her suit radio conveyed faint crunching sounds as she walked. Saplings became denser as she progressed towards the closest unmarred growth. “What luck with the slowboat’s computer?”
“Not much,” I admitted. Computing was one of the technologies at which the Firsters excelled. The Corps had, over time, reverse-engineered a few of their tricks, but the systems on every slowboat differed. Each crossing took generations … why should their technology stand still? “Maybe you can charm it …” I trailed off.
“What?” she asked.
“Stand still.” She froze. “Speed up panning.” Her helmet camera did. The matching view on my display swept across the countryside, then reversed direction. Fern saplings trembling in the breeze showed the only motion.
“What did you see, Cameron?”
“Apparently nothing.” The videocam again reversed its arc.
Something shot across the screen.
“Did you see that?” she shouted. Her gloved fist, one finger outstretched, blocked a corner of the camera’s field of vision. Ground-hugging fronds still rustled where she pointed.
I was advancing, frame by frame, through captured images of a scuttling, six-legged, ankle-high alien something when Amanda whooped excitedly. Her helmet camera swung wildly. “What is it?” I yelled back. “What do you see?” The image stabilized; from the change in perspective it was clear she was squatting. Green glowing eyes studied Amanda from deep within shadowy underbrush. My gut clenched. “What is that?”
Moments later, a clearly terrestrial calico cat sauntered out of the undergrowth to sniff Amanda’s still outstretched finger.