Courtesy of 47North, SF Signal has 3 copies of Christian Cantrell’s new novel Containment.
What’s it about? Here’s the synopsis:
The colony on Venus was not built because the destruction of Earth was possible, but because it was inevitable…
A brilliant young scientist and one of the first humans born on Venus, Arik works tirelessly to perfect the science of artificial photosynthesis, a project crucial to the future of his home, V1. The colony was built on the harsh Venusian surface by the Founders, the first humans to establish a permanent extraterrestrial settlement. Arik’s research becomes critical when he awakens from an unexplained, near-fatal accident and learns that his wife is three months pregnant. Unless Arik’s research uncovers a groundbreaking discovery, V1’s oxygen supply will not be able to support the increase in population that his baby represents.
As Arik works against time, he begins to untangle the threads of his accident, which seem inextricably linked to what lies outside the protective walls of V1—a world where the caustic atmosphere and extreme heat make all forms of known life impossible. For its entire existence, Arik’s generation has been expected to help solve the problems of colonization. But as Arik digs deeper and deeper, he discovers alarming truths about the planet that the Founders have kept hidden. With growing urgency and increasing peril, Arik finds himself on a journey that will push him to the limits of his intelligence and take him beyond the unimaginable.
Read on for a free excerpt of Containment and instructions on how to win a free copy…
by Christian Cantrell
Although Arik was home from the Doc Pod, he still had to go in several times a week for physical therapy. He was only going into the Life Pod a few days a week now, partially because of headaches, partially because of Cadie. When they were both at work at the same time, they kept the polymeth wall between their offices opaque, and they made it a point to check to see if the other one was in the dome before going in themselves. If Arik was there during lunch, he usually brought Cadie a boxed meal, but after she thanked him, he carried his own back to his office and ate alone.
Arik swallowed two pain pills then dimmed the wall lights in his home office to ease the stress on his eyes. He brought his workspace up on the wall and immediately noticed the string of characters in the lower right-hand corner of the polymeth:
His initial thought was that nothing was going to boot because of an unrecoverable error in the shell program, but when his workspace appeared just as he’d left it the night before, he assumed Fai’s team was just doing some debugging on the live system. V1CC (the V1 Computing Cloud) was usually capable of debugging itself either proactively by using idle CPU cycles to look for potential errors in byte code, or in real time by verifying processor instructions as they were being executed. But sometimes humans were just smart enough to introduce bugs that even computers couldn’t catch, which meant they had be tracked down manually.
Most software engineers resented having to manually debug code. It was considered a waste of their time, a task that was beneath senior engineers and architects, which meant that it was usually delegated to those with less seniority. But Arik actually enjoyed debugging. He found the process stimulating, even rewarding. Most errors were predictable and relatively easy to fix, but occasionally an anomaly was so complex and subtle and elegant that tracking it down and holding it all in your head at once actually pushed you to the edges of your comprehension. Sometimes fully and completely grasping both a problem and its solution simultaneously felt like stopping time.
To Arik, these moments were euphoric.
The message remained in the corner of his workspace for the next several hours, and Arik became increasingly curious. It wasn’t uncommon to see diagnostic output for a few seconds or maybe even a few minutes while someone tried to track down a problem with the live system, but he’d never seen something like this remain visible for an entire day. He was thinking of contacting someone in the Code Pod when he got a video message from his father asking him if he had time to look into what he called the “anomalous string” that was appearing in the corner of everyone’s workspace. Darien seemed to be in a hurry, and sent off the message without any additional information or details. Arik looked at the time and realized that Cadie would be home from work within the hour. He knew that they would have to discuss the baby very soon, but now that he had a new problem that needed solving, it wouldn’t have to be tonight.
Arik wondered why the request to debug the problem had come from his father. Darien was a chemical and structural engineer. He headed up the Wet Pod and had designed several of the buildings in V1. Like all engineers, he knew computers well, but he didn’t have any obvious stake in bugs in the shell program. He was good friends with Fai, however, which suggested to Arik that Fai had probably asked Darien for his son’s help. Fai would have been too proud to ask Arik for help directly, and Arik imagined that the circuitous request through his father was still presented more as the Technology Department simply not having the time or resources to be distracted by such a trivial issue. But if the request did in fact originate from Fai, that meant the message was not simply diagnostic output, but probably a series of error codes that were unusual enough that nobody in the Code Pod had any idea what they meant.
Arik stood up in front of the polymeth wall and stretched while bringing up the source code for the shell program. He had been taking pain medication all day, and he needed to stand and move around the room in order to clear his head and stay focused.
Before he even had a chance to begin his debugging ritual, he recognized the first number in the error code, 2519658000000, as a date. Since computers weren’t inherently able to distinguish one absolute date from another, they used relative dates expressed as some unit of time since a known epoch. V1CC inherited the ancient convention of expressing moments in time as the number of milliseconds since midnight on January 1, 1970. Since numbers like 2.5 quadrillion didn’t come up very often in day-to-day computing tasks, when they did, it was usually safe to assume that they were machine-readable dates. And since the last six digits were all zeros, Arik could even tell that the number probably pointed either to exactly noon, or exactly midnight.
The date was most likely what programmers referred to as a “time stamp.” Error codes almost always came with time stamps so whoever was debugging the problem could figure out exactly how long ago it happened, or could try to recreate the conditions that led to the problem. But when Arik did the math of subtracting the error code’s time stamp from a time stamp representing the current time, he was surprised to find that the result was a negative number. The computer wasn’t reporting a problem that occurred in the past; it was predicting an error 2.75 days in the future.
Although computer models were used to predict the probability of errors and failures all the time, as far as Arik knew, V1CC was not programmed to perform predictive diagnostics on itself. It was far more likely that the computer’s clock had wandered prior to printing out the message, or was even wandering now. As powerful as computers were, left to their own devices, they were astonishingly lousy timekeepers. In order to keep their internal clocks accurate, they needed frequent calibration. Every ninety minutes, V1CC received a signal from a satellite that passed overhead which contained one of the most accurate clocks ever built. The clock used twelve lasers to monitor the optical light emitted by the electrons in a single atom of ytterbium. Counting the tiny pulses of light allowed the clock to break a second down into almost a quadrillion parts. By the time the sun burned through most of its hydrogen gas and expanded to the point that all life in the solar system was destroyed, the ytterbium clock would have likely strayed less than one second. Of course, for V1CC to benefit from the accuracy of their micro-gravitational optical atomic clock, it would have to successfully receive the time calibration signal.
Arik instinctively checked his watch, which consisted of two separate dials: a digital module that calibrated with V1CC, and an analog mechanical movement that used a steel spring, rotor, gear train, escapement, and about two hundred additional parts to keep time to within about a second a day without relying on any external power source or time calibration signal whatsoever. Although mechanical watch movements were mostly favored by obsessive and anachronistic hobbyists, several of the computer scientists in V1 found them useful for keeping tabs on V1CC. There was no way a mechanical watch could detect a fraction of a second drift in V1CC’s timekeeping, but it could detect a loss or gain of time adding up to a couple of minutes or more. When things like the life-support system relied on the computer maintaining almost perfect time, and the computer relied on an atomic clock orbiting twelve thousand kilometers above the surface of the planet, it seemed like a good idea to have some kind of an isolated analog backup.
But both times on Arik’s watch agreed to within a few seconds, and a quick review of the logs showed that V1CC had only missed a handful of time calibrations in Arik’s entire lifetime, the last one being over four and a half years ago. Whatever the time stamp meant, it was probably accurate.
Arik ran the shell program inside of another program that could trace the rendering of each pixel back to the exact line of code that initiated the drawing instruction. He drew a rectangular debug region around the message in the lower right-hand corner of his workspace, and restarted the shell. He found that the message was being rendered by a little over a hundred lines of code interspersed throughout the shell’s source, nestled in among other similar lines of rendering code with such apparent randomness that it had to have been done intentionally. Each component of the message was calculated using a long and complex equation. Some of the variables in the equations were even random numbers, yet each formula was orchestrated in such a way as to somehow compensate, always yielding the exact same result.
Now that Arik was sure that the message was intentionally injected into the shell program, he believed it had to be an attempt to communicate with someone inside of V1-very possibly him. He looked at the second and third numbers again, and now that he had a fresh perspective, he recognized them instantly. They were radio frequencies. The first frequency, 922.76 MHz, was what the Earth Radio Pod used to communicate with the satellites that relayed signals to and from Earth, and 40.002 MHz was the frequency that V1 used to communicate with the ERP. The ERP was isolated from V1 so that in the event of a catastrophic accident, it might still remain functional. It was a small structure only large enough for one or two people, and it was located a full kilometer south of V1 where it was well out of range of fires or shrapnel should the unthinkable occur. It had its own computer system, power supply, and miniature life-support system based on tanks of compressed air. The only connection between V1 and the ERP was the 40.002 MHz radio link.
Two radio frequencies and a date three days in the future suggested to Arik that the message wasn’t so much a message in and of itself as it was instructions on where and when to find the real message. The problem was that Arik wasn’t able to listen in on either of those two frequencies. All communications to and from Earth were highly secured using encryption algorithms that Arik would be hard-pressed to break anytime in the next decade, even with a multi-core electron computer. That, Arik believed, was what explained the word “DELTA.” In the context of radio communication, “delta” was usually used in place of the letter “D,” however an alternative interpretation-the variation of a variable or function, or the difference between two values-seemed to make much more sense. The difference between the two encrypted frequencies was 882.758 MHz-a frequency which, as far as Arik knew, wasn’t being used for anything, and which he should be able to easily tune in to using the V1 frequency scanner.
By this time, Arik was simultaneously disturbed and intrigued by the fact that he was almost positive the message was intended for him. He was also fairly certain that it was either a trick being played on him by a friend of his in the Code Pod, or possibly a test arranged by Dr. Nguyen or Priyanka to make sure Arik was still up to the task of solving AP. He checked the source control system’s logs to see who was responsible for the changes to the shell program, and was astounded to find that all of the revisions had been attributed to him.
This was almost certainly not a joke. Embedding “Easter eggs” in code for fun and covering your tracks was one thing, but attributing changes to another user was much more difficult, and in the case of Arik’s account, very nearly impossible for anyone except maybe Fai himself. Not only did Arik use the standard DNA identification protocol, but he was probably the only one in V1 who combined biometric identification with gesture identification. Gesture identification required that unique shapes or patterns be drawn in order to verify someone’s identity. Even if someone had figured out how to spoof his biometric signature, his gesture ID was complex enough that it couldn’t be guessed, and since he almost always used his BCI to draw it, it was unlikely that someone could have covertly recorded it, or deduced it from marks or prints left on a piece of polymeth. The likelihood that Arik’s account had been compromised was extremely low.
It was far more likely that Arik’s memory of hiding the Easter egg had been destroyed either by the accident, or in the surgery afterwards, and that the message was an attempt to pass along information to himself in the future. The theory made perfect sense except for one thing: it implied that he had somehow been able to predict the accident.
Arik felt like his hearing had become more sensitive since the accident. Even from outside the bedroom, he could tell that Cadie had just closed her workstation. Conductive polymeth was supposed to be completely silent, but Arik’s ears could pick up the infinitesimal vibrations of the excited molecules entombed deep in the thick plastic. It resonated throughout the pod just above the threshold of perception, and he usually wasn’t even aware that he was hearing it until it suddenly stopped. Perhaps his hearing had somehow improved, or perhaps Arik was so intent on avoiding Cadie now that he’d simply become much more attuned to her actions. Cadie turned the wall lights out and slid down in bed, and now Arik could hear her trying to find a comfortable position for her unfamiliar body.
He got up and stood in the doorway. Cadie was hugging a long latex foam pillow that went under her swollen belly and between her legs. She sensed him watching her and rolled over.
“Before you came home tonight, I was working on something.”
“I’m not sure. But I think it was something important.”
“The error codes?”
“They weren’t error codes,” Arik said. “I think it’s a message.”
Arik paused before he answered. He was still trying to make sense of it himself. “From me.”
“From you? What do you mean?”
“I think I sent myself a message before the accident.”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know yet.” He paused in a way that indicated that he wasn’t finished, but didn’t quite know how to go on. “But I think once I figure it out, everything is going to change. I think we need to talk about the baby.”
Cadie watched Arik for a moment in the dark, then pulled herself up and leaned against the headboard. She drew her legs up to make room on the bed, and Arik sat down. Neither of them reached for the light.
They each waited for the other to start. Arik had constructed this conversation in his mind dozens of times since he’d returned home from the hospital, and he knew that there was no way to avoid asking Cadie one simple and direct question:
“It isn’t mine, is it?”
“It isn’t complicated. We both know it isn’t mine.”
Arik’s eyes were adjusting to the dark, and he could see Cadie watching him carefully.
“We need to talk about more than just the baby.”
“It’s Cam’s, isn’t it?”
“I need you to listen to me. I need to tell you something, and I need to start from the beginning.”
Arik could see that Cadie had rehearsed this. He understood his wife well enough to know that she would have to do this in her own way.
She took a moment to prepare herself. She looked down and watched her hands while she spoke.
“We all thought you were going to die,” she said. “Your father contacted me at the Life Pod and told me to meet him here. When I got here, he said you’d been involved in a very serious accident, and that without surgical assistance from Earth, they didn’t think you’d live.”
Arik had never even seen Cadie cry before-at least not as an adult. The way her features changed, and the way she moved her head to the side and her straight black hair fell beside her cheeks, made her look like an entirely different person. It suddenly occurred to Arik what an incredibly sheltered life they had all lived up until now. They had never lost a family member or a friend, and until Arik’s accident, nobody they knew had ever been seriously injured. There weren’t even any pets in V1 to run away, or to get old and die. Living in such a carefully controlled environment had a tempering effect designed to keep emotions as well balanced as the atmosphere.
“The next day, Priyanka came to see me. He said there wasn’t a lot of time, and that if we were going to save any part of you, we were going to have to act quickly. He said I had a responsibility to V1.”
“A responsibility to do what?”
Cadie looked up. “To replace you.”
“Why would I need to be replaced?”
“You have no idea who and what you really are, do you?”
“What are you talking about, Cadie?”
“I’m talking about your purpose,” she said. “You were born to solve problems that no other human being can solve. All of us were.”
“Who’s all of us?”
“Gen V,” Cadie said. She wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. “Our parents were selected. Our genes were selected. We were taught math and biology and physics and computers and every other science practically since the day we were born. We knew the scientific method before we could even feed ourselves. Everything from the formula we were given to the amount and types of stimulation we got to the games we played were all designed to make us the best problem solvers the world had ever seen.”
“We were raised by engineers and scientists,” Arik said. “Of course we were taught to solve problems. I doubt we were raised any differently from kids on Earth with parents like ours. In fact, kids on Earth have access to a lot more resources than we do. Their education is probably much better than ours.”
“Arik, think about it. V1 is an entirely isolated and controlled environment. Food, oxygen, stimulation, genetics, even lighting. Everything here is controlled. There are no distractions, and there are no options. Our housing is taken care of for us. Our meals are taken care of for us. Our careers were assigned to us. Even our marriages were practically arranged. Whether we like it or not, our lives are entirely dedicated to nothing but scientific advancement.”
Arik knew everything Cadie was saying was true, but he had never thought of his upbringing as being in any way malicious or exploitive. It was no secret that they were being groomed to inherit V1-to help improve and expand the colony-but Arik had always thought of this expectation as a privilege.
“What do they want us to do?”
“Expand, of course,” Cadie said. “Colonize the rest of Venus, then the rest of the solar system, then other solar systems, and eventually other galaxies.”
“That’s not even possible,” Arik blurted out. “You’re not making any sense.”
“It all makes perfect sense. The human race has already learned how dangerous it is have our entire population on a single planet. It’s far too vulnerable. If we don’t destroy ourselves, we’ll eventually be destroyed by a comet or an asteroid, or some sort of solar prominence, or a nearby gamma ray burst, or a pandemic. There are an infinite number of scenarios that could lead to human extinction. Everyone agrees it’s not a question of if-it’s a question of when. The GSA has one single directive: preserve the human race by promoting self-sustaining colonies throughout the solar system, galaxy, and the universe. And they can’t do that without us.”
“Cadie, you’re talking about technology that’s hundreds or even thousands of years away, if it’s even possible at all. It’s completely unrealistic. We’ve barely left Earth, and we’re already struggling.”
“It’s not technology that limits us. We’re the limitation. Our technology is an expression of our intelligence and creativity, so the limitations of our technology are a reflection of our own limitations. We can’t fundamentally advance technology until we fundamentally advance ourselves. That’s what Gen V is all about.”
“But the whole point of technology is to push us beyond our own limitations and capabilities. That’s why we have computers that can perform calculations quadrillions of times faster than the human brain.”
“Arik, you know as well as anyone that computers are capable of far more than even the most complex tasks we give them. Computers aren’t limited by hardware. They’re limited by the software that humans write. That’s why you’re so important. I don’t think you realize this, but you’re already considered one of the best computer scientists in history. At your age, you’re already far beyond Fai, and nobody here or on Earth can use a BCI like you. You have the potential to solve problems that nobody else has even dreamed of solving-that nobody else can even conceptualize. V1 needs you more than you realize. The GSA needs you. When Kelley talks about the Pinnacle of Human Achievement, he’s mostly talking about you, Arik.”
Arik watched her for a moment in the dark. “Priyanka told you all this?”
Cadie nodded. Arik looked down at the bed. He could feel his reality shifting as he began to grasp what Cadie was telling him. Everything she said made sense. In fact, on some level, he felt like he already knew most of it. If the Founders had tried to conceal their plans for Gen V, they had concealed them in plain sight. To see them, you only had to look at the big picture, to broaden your perspective, to stop looking at time in terms of weeks, months, or years, and to start thinking in terms of generations. To really understand your own place in history, you needed to be able to see yourself in the past tense.
Arik felt like he should be angry, but the clarity he was starting to experience felt positive and somehow empowering. He was starting to feel focused, and to realize a new and tangible sense of purpose. But there was also the sense that he was considered nothing more than a resource-that he would only be allowed to reach his full potential in areas that happened to align with V1’s best interests. Arik knew there was more in what Cadie was telling him-more for them to discuss and explore-but all of that would have to wait.
“Tell me about the baby.”
Cadie took a deep breath and continued. “Priyanka brought me a DNA sample. He said if we could recover some part of you, nothing would have been lost but time.”
“Priyanka?” Arik interjected. He recalled his discussion with Priyanka before he’d been allowed to leave the hospital, and specifically the way he’d brought up the baby.
“Arik, you have to understand that I didn’t do it for him, or for V1, or for the GSA. I did it for me. You’re all I have. If you died, I’d be completely alone for the rest of my life. Can you understand that?”
“But what did you do, Cadie?”
“I created our baby.”
Arik stared at her across the bed. He was shaking his head. “What are you saying?”
“I used an infection,” Cadie said. “A virus. I used your DNA to create our baby.”
“Listen,” Cadie said. Arik could see that she was changing roles and starting to talk to him now as a biologist rather than his wife. She leaned toward him. “Most people think of viruses as parasites, but they aren’t parasites at all. An organism has to be considered alive to be classified as a parasite. Viruses don’t do any of things living organisms do. They don’t grow, they can’t move on their own, and they don’t metabolize. They don’t even have cells. But the one thing a virus is very good at is reproducing. When it finds a suitable host cell, it attaches itself and injects its DNA through the cell’s plasma wall. The virus’s genes are transcribed into the host cell’s DNA, and the host cell’s genetic code is rewritten. Whatever its job was before, its new job is to do nothing but produce copies of the original virus, usually until it’s created so many that the cell bursts open and spreads the infection.”
“What does this have to do with the baby?”
“Everything,” Cadie said. “Because the thing about viruses is that they’re easily manipulated. The DNA they inject doesn’t have to be destructive. It can be replaced with almost any kind of DNA you want, and it can be programmed to only replace certain parts of the host’s genetic code. In other words, viruses are perfect vectors for genetic engineering.”
Arik could see where she was going. “But you’d have to have an embryo first, wouldn’t you?”
“Not an embryo,” Cadie said. “By that time, it’s too late. You need a zygote. A zygote gets half of its genetic material from the mother and the other half from the father. Before the zygote becomes an embryo, you have a short window of time in which you can make genetic modifications. And the best way to make those modifications is to let a genetically engineered virus make them for you. Do you understand?”
Arik nodded. He was following what Cadie was telling him, but still not entirely comprehending the implications.
“Arik,” Cadie said, “the baby started out as Cam’s, but it’s as much yours now as if we conceived it ourselves.”
She waited for Arik’s reaction, but he was completely still. He didn’t know what to feel. It occurred to him that human emotion had not evolved quickly enough to keep up with what mankind’s scientific capabilities demanded of it. Sometimes the tiny components that made up an experience just didn’t fit in to existing emotional receptors, and the result was simply numbness.
“Arik,” Cadie said, “the baby is yours. It’s ours.”
“Did you test the DNA Priyanka gave you?”
“No, because I didn’t use it,” Cadie said. “I used your DNA from ODSTAR instead. It was the only way I could be sure it was yours. I had to destroy the project, but it worked. She’s a perfectly healthy baby girl. She’s our baby girl.”
Cadie’s tearful smile was all Arik needed to tell him how to feel. For the first time, he reached out and touched his child. Cadie took his fingers away, pulled up her gown, and held his hand firmly against her flesh.
Arik looked up from Cadie’s belly. “She’s going to have that image of Earth inside her forever. Blue Marble. Like a genetic tattoo.”
“I know,” Cadie said. “I think it’s beautiful. Wherever she ends up, whatever ends up happening to her, she’ll always have something inside of her that no one can take away.”
Here’s how you can enter for a chance to win one of 3 copies of Containment:
- Send an email to contest at sfsignal dot com. (That’s us).
- In the subject line, enter ‘Containment‘
- Geographic restrictions: This giveaway is open only to residents of Canada and the U.S.
- In the email, please provide your mailing address so the book can be mailed as soon as possible. (The winning addresses are forwarded to the publisher who will mail it to you. All other address info is purged once the giveaway ends.)
- Only one entry per person please. Duplicate entries will be re-routed to Venus. If you’ve won something from us in the past, please give someone else a chance.
- The giveaway will end Friday, August 17, 2012 (09:00 PM U.S Central time). The winners will be selected at random, notified, and announced shortly thereafter.