A Large Bucket, and Accidental Godlike Mastery of Spacetime

by Benjamin Crowell

Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, December 2009. A Russian translation will appear in the magazine Если.

Sidibé Traoré ended up as Earth's diplomatic representative because she was an astronaut who loved to pop the blisters on a sheet of bubble wrap. Sidi volunteered without any expectation of being chosen. What she did expect was that her training was about to become obsolete, so she decided to visit what little family she had left in Bamako before deciding what to do next with her life. On the way out the door of her apartment in Houston she was intercepted by her neighbor.

Mrs. Forrest leaned over her walker and squinted through her bifocals. “Cindy, darling, are you getting sick?”

“Afraid so, ma'am,” Sidi said. “Thanks for watering my fern while I'm gone.”

“Of course, dear. Hold on, I have something for you.” She produced a little box of See's candy with a well-worn red bow on it.

“Oh, that's sweet of you.” The thought of food nauseated her.

“Nuts and chews. If you don't need the bow I can use it again. The Mexican girl on the news says the aliens are practically in our lap already, because they sent us the radio signals from the spaceship, but the ship is coming in almost as fast as sound.”

“Light.” Her sinuses hadn't hurt this much since decompression training.

“She said sound. I don't see why they have to whiz on past like our whole world is just a whistle stop. Plenty of people like me would like to meet them. You know I get along fine with colored people, so why should it be any different for ones with tentacles?”

“I'm sure they'd like to stop and visit, but the Bus is the size of a city, and when you're going that fast you can't stop and start again. That's why it just sort of loops around the galaxy and picks up representatives of species that are ready to graduate into the GalCiv.” She told Mrs. Forrest she had to get to the airport.

Sidi didn't waste much time worrying about the gruesome things that the aliens had to do to a human body to boost it to near light speed in a matter of days. (The press used words like “iron maiden,” “julienne,” and “Frankensteining.”) Nor did she agonize over the prospect of only having bug-eyed monsters to socialize with for the rest of her life, while relativistically compressed centuries rolled by back on earth. She wouldn't be picked. She'd only volunteered because — well, the U.S. astronaut corps was almost the only family she had left, and not to step forward — she knew the word the Americans would use: “chickenshit.”

Her connection to Paris was going to be delayed because of weather. While they were taxiing in at JFK she got a call from Matti Karjalainen, who'd been on two long orbital missions with her. She didn't want to talk, so she let her avatar take a message and then played it back. Bonsoir, Sidi. Ah ... I know you volunteered. I did too, but, well ... I don't know about you, but a lot of us are having second thoughts. Slice you like French fries, ow, right? Cologne says now we have these infos about the procedure, they don't blame anyone that takes his name out of the hat. Anyway, I'm talking to a headhunter from SpaceX, and he says they like to hire ex-astronauts as managers. I told him Traoré is the Terminator, she never stops. Her avatar had taken the headhunter's number.

On the monitor at the gate they were listing her flight as canceled, and the agent said the next one that might actually go was at five in the morning. Sidi sat down and checked her phone, and from the subject lines in her in-box it looked like there were a lot of messages similar to Matti's zipping around the tight-knit social network of the world's various astronaut corps. Her head was throbbing. It seemed like everyone was ducking out. Should she do the same?

It wasn't the kind of decision she wanted to make right there, feverish and sleepy in a deserted airport terminal. She fished the box of chocolates out of her carry-on and ate one, absentmindedly popping one of the bubbles on the packaging. She calculated that if she popped one bubble every three minutes, tuning out the rest of the world, it would get her through to five o'clock. She pushed her phone down into the bottom of her bag and didn't allow herself to look at it again until the last bubble was gone.

When she pulled it back out again at five, there were nineteen new messages, of which the AI had judged one from Zhang-Yu Wen to be the highest priority. Hi, Sidi. I am sorry to bother you late at night in America. It's only that ... I got a phone call from big party boss, and he says many candidates were scared away. He has seen the list, and now your name is number two and I'm number one. I'm just wondering, because my girlfriend is pregnant, and we're thinking to get married.

The Galactic Civilization's automated diplomatic ship continued on its broad, preprogrammed circuit through the Milky Way, passing out of the Orion Arm and back into the Perseus Arm. Some seven hundred-odd representatives were now aboard. In one of its compartments, two of them were trying to set up diplomatic relations, with their artificial intelligences acting as translators and go-betweens.

“I can't negotiate on behalf of my entire genus,” Sidi warned the alien. Its body was like a spider and an octopus in flagrante delicto.

Their AIs worked out a round of translation. “Your planet is also the homeworld of ...” The Snow White woodcut Sidi had chosen as an avatar for the alien's AI raised its eyebrows and batted its delicate black lashes.

“Yes, the other hominids graduated into the GalCiv in earlier cohorts,” she told her own AI's visual representation, which was the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.

“But there is continuity between your cultures?”

“No,” she admitted, knowing it would cost her in prestige to be unable to claim a closer relationship with species that had already graduated into the GalCiv. “They migrated off-world at some point, and they did a pretty good job of cleaning up after themselves. We do have a few artifacts from the Neanderthals that are very interesting. Chipped flint, bone flutes.” Maybe that would count for something, like a high school yearbook picture that showed a future movie star playing tuba next to you in marching band.

“You smell good,” Snow White said, then gazed raptly at a monochrome butterfly on her finger while the giant hairball she spoke for swayed closer to Sidi. Sidi forced herself not to flinch in her chair, the only furniture in the compartment. She remembered her first semester at MIT, fresh off the plane from Bamako, when she'd made the American students uncomfortable by standing too close to them. It was one of those cultural things that her American father had never thought to tell her while he was teaching her to read English from Dr. Seuss books.

She batted a tentacle away from her eye. “Cat, I need some clarification on that.”

There was an invisible electronic powwow while the Caterpillar took a drag on its hookah and Snow stared off into the distance as lifelessly as if she'd returned to the printed page. “It's a ritual phrase,” the Caterpillar said finally. It spoke in the slow-talking provincial Finnish accent she'd grafted onto it, a verbal plug-in module that Matti Karjalainen had given her as a going-away gag joke.

“Like what? Is it a compliment, like, Nice tie you've got there? Sexual overtones?” These things were hermaphrodites, weren't they?

Another consultation. “It seems to be about dominance. You smell like you would be good to eat. But that's not the real meaning, just the literal one.” She stifled a giggle at the way it said leeeeeteral. Cat was the closest thing to a human she was going to see for the rest of her life — unless she met an uplifted Neanderthal or something — so there was no point in hurting its simulated feelings. It occurred to her that the way she'd piled him together wasn't so different from the way her own body had been taken apart and then Frankensteined back together after being accelerated to match velocities with the Bus.

A ritual phrase. Maybe like saying inshallah automatically, or bless you when someone sneezed. Sidi told herself to look on the bright side. At least they had enough in common psychologically that she could understand the macho posturing. This was a promising contact, definitely a better prospect than any of the others she'd made since boarding the Bus as Earth's diplomatic representative. Should she tell the thing that she herself was fond of calamari in a lemon vinaigrette? No, she'd lose for sure if she tried to play the dominance game according to cultural rules that it knew and she didn't. Better to shift the battle to territory she was familiar with.

“We have a problem,” she told the squirming mass of seafood salad. “When I meet with someone, I expect it to do its homework properly. Apparently you haven't bothered to learn anything of our customs. For an important meeting like this you need to provide bottled water and a tray of assorted muffins, and those need to be placed on a large conference table.”

The crab-legs stopped threshing the air for a moment. “Virtual representations of these things would suffice?”

“Yes,” pretending reluctance. “I suppose so.” It wasn't as if the thing would have real muffins in its shipboard personal food supply.

“You should give the same things to me,” Snow White translated, a doubtful expression on her her two-dimensional baby-face.

“Of course.”

“Very well,” Snow White said.

“If you'll both step to one side,” Caterpillar asked politely.

The two avatars jointly conjured the table and victuals. Sidi carefully pulled her real chair up to the virtual table, seated herself, and pretended to unscrew the cap from a water bottle. The medusoid whacked a simulated muffin with a knifelike appendage as if to slaughter it, and pretended to pop the halves into a different orifice than the one Sidi had been assuming was the mouth.

The relationship with the alien she thought of as Mopsy flourished and then foundered in a single day of ship time — 220 years on Earth. Mopsy's curiosity about the caterpillar icon — “is that a Homo erectus?” — inspired an attempt at cultural exchange: Lewis Carroll, Mother Goose, and Dr. Seuss in return for some proofs in number theory. Then Horton Hears a Who led to a discussion of Earth's wildlife. By that evening they were in one of the Bus's big kilometer-wide compartments hunting cartoon mammoths (Sidi with a simulated spear, Mopsy bare-clawed). But the next morning when Sidi woke up there was a message for her from Mopsy, translated as sorry things didn't work out better between us, and the comm showed that Mopsy was blocking calls from her.

It wouldn't be long now until the Bus completed its circuit and this cohort was initiated into the mysteries of the GalCiv. Thirty-two days of ship-time had passed, and if nothing changed in the week she had left, it didn't look like Sidi would have a damn thing to show for her diplomatic efforts.

Feeling glum, she kept her regular breakfast date in the oxygen-breathers' refectory with the alien that she called Bonsai because it reminded her of a small, reddish pine tree. She slurped her millet porridge while Bonsai sat under the table and scraped daintily at the corn on Sidi's big toe. At least Bonsai really did want to eat her, as opposed to playing mind games about it. Too bad that they'd never been able to establish communication about anything more substantial than which tissues it could nibble at without hurting her. She hoped she was at least building up some of what the Chinese called guanxi, like giving a carton of Marlboros to your boss for the lunar new year.

She popped her daily blue pill — “Reduces depression, homicidal impulses, and gibbering!” — and clicked through the latest news from Earth as translated by Cat. French was a dead language now, English unrecognizable. A new world government had come to power and sent her its “vision statement,” which ran to well over a hundred pages. She was to publish it to the other representatives (there was a note from Cat saying that he'd already done so) and realign her diplomatic efforts accordingly. The first page was a preamble about mankind's spiritual destiny, weasel-worded in ways that suggested it had been written by a big committee that didn't agree on much. She stopped and checked the later news. Yes, that muddled theocracy had fallen in a coup, so she could skip studying its manifesto. She wished that Earth could have come up with a more peaceful mode of cultural stagnation since she'd left. At least the population was back up to seven digits after that nasty war with the mitochondrial weapons. The species seemed too crotchety to admit that its only important job right now was to avoid extinction until it was time to graduate. Maybe it would have helped if the GalCiv had been able to explain to the primitives what graduation really involved. Was H. sap. expected to start vacating the planet to make room for the whales or the bonobos to take over in a million years?

Here was something interesting: a communication to her directly from an alien planet. She remembered the species, cryogenic pools of silvery liquid that lived in vacuum and ate infrared. Early in the trip she'd wasted half a day trying to communicate with its representative, doing it on an ornery whim because the AI matchmakers had ranked the species 837th out of the 837 in the cohort for compatibility with H. sapiens. As far as she could tell the AIs had been absolutely right. She'd never succeeded in teasing even one word out of Pool. The thing reminded her of a laconic postdoc from Minnesota her roommate had once set her up with.

What could be the point of initiating direct contact from their homeworld? Wouldn't this cohort have graduated already by the time signals could make the round trip? She opened a map.

Aha! Pool had been one of the first species to come aboard. The Bus's path was roughly a circle (you don't take tight corners at ultrarelativistic speeds), and now they were closing the loop, their trajectory taking them right past Pool's home planet again. The signal had only taken three days, ship-time, to get here.

Esteemed human, we note with pleasure your visit to our representative. We regret that differences in our styles of thought may have made communication difficult. We operate by sequential computation, rather than the parallel style that we have learned is common in brains made of cellular tissues. As a group we can make up for this by cooperating on parallel trains of thought, but an individual of our race is at a great disadvantage in its ability to think at a pace that can match yours.

Sidi's heart thudded. A real lead! She jumped up, eliciting a squeak from Bonsai. “Sorry,” she said, doubting that the apology would get across.

She headed for the liftshaft, reading as she went. She realized that she was only wearing one sandal, kicked it off and stuck it under her arm. Pool lived outside the hull, on the upper deck. Sandals wouldn't fit in a pressure suit anyway.

The GalCiv has tried to accommodate our special needs with AI support, but any binding decisions must be made by our representative, not an AI. We believe we may have found a solution to the problem. Hmm, still looking for a “solution” this late in the game? The implication was that Pool's diplomacy was going just as badly as Sidi's. The spacetime within the Bus's passenger compartment is nearly flat, but the region farther from the hull is highly noneuclidean, and there are fringing fields in the space in between, strengthening exponentially as one moves outward. Our representative has noticed that time on its deck runs slightly more quickly than in the rest of the ship. Extrapolation suggests that if he was moved about ten meters farther out from the hull, his thought processes could be made comparable in speed to yours, probably without exposing him to unacceptable tidal forces.

“Probably!” Merde, you'd need guts to venture out near the maelstrom of magnetic monopoles and microscopic black holes that surrounded the ship like a swarm of gnats. Most likely you'd get sucked straight out into space and find yourself pureed into a soup of particles that the physicists back on Earth didn't even have names for yet.

The liftshaft accelerated her upward with an eerie lack of physical sensation. She skimmed the rest of the communique from the flimsheet, but it didn't say much more except to suggest the general idea that Pool might need her physical help carrying out the plan. She realized belatedly that she hadn't even commed him to let him know she was coming. She messaged him, wondering how much good it would do if his brain was really that slow. No wonder she'd had no luck before with two-way communication!

The topmost interior deck was for low-gravity, low-pressure anaerobes. She stepped into the vestibule, which, through some technomagic, functioned as an airlock without having any physical doors. This was where she kept her pressure suit — she'd insisted on bringing an Earth-tech skinsuit, since that was what she understood. At least it was modern enough not to need prebreathing. A companionway led up to another spooky airlock, and then to the weather deck.

She looked around and took her bearings. If she leaned way back she could get a view through her visor of the zenith, out ahead along the Bus's trajectory where the whole microwave sky shrank and dopplered itself into a crazy fisheyed view like a fuzzy little cotton ball. Her eyeballs were sneaking up sideways on these photons and clobbering them, making even the ones coming from behind the ship look like they were from out in front. As for the witch's cauldron of exotic particles that surrounded the ship, they seemed to be completely invisible. It was humbling enough to think about the godlike mastery of matter and energy that was needed to propel a giant spaceship so close to the speed of light, but even more of a comedown to be unable even to perceive the technology.

Over there was Pool's living space. The gravity on the weather deck was pretty low. She loped across the charcoal-black deckplates, reminding herself that she'd better not let her strides take her too high, if all relativistic hell broke loose only ten meters up.

There he was, looking as placid as ever in his little basin surrounded by Arabian Nights blobules. She was careful not to shine her helmet lamp directly on him. It would be a shame to start an interstellar diplomatic incident by boiling the ambassador.

Now what?

“Ah, hello, Pool? I realize that you can't process what I'm saying in real time, but anyway I'm honored to be invited back for a visit. Um, Cat?”

Her AI popped, seated on a protuberance that looked like a bidet, and blew a smoke ring. “Yes?”

“You know that message from Pool's home planet? I can't really discuss it directly with Pool because he doesn't think fast enough when he's by himself. Could you ping his AI?”

“Certainly. Do you want me to manifest it as an image this time?”

“Ah ... what's that flying sofa thing from the Oz books? They roped it all together and sprinkled the powder of life on it.”

“The Gump? Okay.”

The bundle of furniture rose gracefully from the quicksilver like Venus from the sea. Its elk's head looked down at her, lordlike, from the plaque it was mounted on. “Hello again,” it said in a thick American accent.

“Hello. Ah, I assume you've seen the message from your principal's home planet?”

“Yes, but I'm afraid I can't make any decisions on his behalf,” it said, with its whiskery chin held high as if it didn't really care very much. It reminded Sidi of the dean's secretary at MIT. “It will take him a while to think it over.”

“If we were to do this, what would his life-support requirements be?”

The Gump gestured with a palm-frond wing. “You can see that he doesn't need much. You'd need to keep him in one piece, and make sure he wasn't exposed to too much heat.”

“So ... a bucket or something?”

“That would be fine, as long as the bucket was cold. I think you could just leave it out here for a while and it would cool off enough.”

“How big is he?”

“About twenty liters, a hundred kilograms.”

“A big bucket, then, but I think I could still lift it in this gravity. And, what, we just use a tall stepladder to get him up there?”

“That might be difficult,” the mounted head said, a little toss of its antlers giving a strong impression that any difficulty would be due Sidi's inadequacy. “The physicists from the home planet sent some calculations —”

“— just a summary, please.”

“He's affected by electromagnetic fields. Once he gets two or three meters up, they think the net force will be upward, and there may also be some lateral instability.”

“So let me get this straight. I'm imagining tying a rope to the handle of the bucket, and it's swooping around over my head like a kite?”

“Probably.”

“Probably. I see. So I think we want a lid for this bucket. How much tension in the rope?”

“Equivalent to a few hundred kilograms in Earth gravity.”

“I'll need a pulley, then. And what happens if I lose control of the bucket-kite?”

“In the worst case, the Bus's automatic safety systems should intervene before he can fly off and accrete himself onto one of the micro-black holes.”

“Good, no thermonuclear explosions, then.”

“Probably not.” A dismissive flick of a palm-frond wrist.

“Probably not.” Mon Dieu, the AI seemed almost as crazy as the Oz character she'd chosen to represent it.

“We're quite certain there are good safety systems,” it said. “After all, the Bus has been flying for half a million years. We just don't know the details.”

“Safety” would mean the safety of the Bus itself. Maybe they'd zap Pool like a bug to keep him from blowing everything up. The ship's mysterious absentee landlords seemed benevolent enough, but there had to be a limit to what they'd tolerate. Quand même, the risk was Pool's to take. It looked like this plan was her best chance to accomplish something useful for her species, and it would be easier to ask forgiveness than permission. And anyway what did she have to lose on a personal level? The unseen galactic top dogs claimed that it was impossible to explain much about what life would be like for the representatives after the Bus's circuit was complete, but it was clear that it was a one-way ticket. Maybe she'd stand around in a toga, reminiscing about Africa with the erectuses and habilises over brandy and cigars. Anyhow, this whole thing wasn't about her, it was about the job.

“I'm willing to help,” she told Gump, “but it depends on whether Pool can make the decision soon enough.”

She took her leave of the AI, wondering what to do next. How much could she trust these calculations? She imagined a bunch of silvery alien profs lounging in bathtubs around an equation-covered blackboard. They were extrapolating, and that was always risky. She retrieved the sandal from the airlock and came back out onto the deck. Hmm, it wouldn't take much of a pitch to make the sandal rise ten meters in this gravity, but throwing something straight up and then leaning back to watch it seemed like one of those tasks that was anatomically impossible in a pressure suit. She lay down on her back.

“Cat?”

He materialized over in the corner of her eye. “Yes?”

“I'm going to throw this sandal up into the air — I mean into the vacuum — or — well, whatever that stuff is up there. I want you to observe from ten meters to the side or so. You can do that, can't you?” She was vague on how his interface to the GalCiv sensors worked.

“Yes.”

“Okay, so you can tell me how high it went, and catch the whole thing on video for analysis.”

“All right.”

She put the sandal between her palms like a Christian praying, then flicked it upward gently, being cautious about how hard she threw it. It took a long time to rise and come back down.

“Two point six meters,” Cat said.

“Did anything look strange do you?”

“Strange in what way?”

“Like, ah, you know, violating the laws of physics?”

“Which laws of physics?”

“Never mind.” Strengthening exponentially, Gump had said.

She fetched the sandal and launched it again, faster. It rose for about ten seconds, then it reached a certain height and suddenly it was as if it had been hit by a gale-force wind. It seemed to shiver like a fish and get swept violently upward, its languid spin becoming a propeller-blade blur. Then just as suddenly the same invisible giant's hand slammed it back toward the deck, straight at Sidi. She rolled frantically out of the way, inadvertently bouncing herself several meters above the deck before she came back down.

“Where did it hit?” she yelled when she had scrabbled to a stop.

“It's still falling,” Cat said.

She looked, and he was right. It was coming back down at an ordinary speed again.

“Oh, those laws of physics,” Cat said.

A bucket. Bargaining for material objects was surprisingly easy compared to sealing interstellar alliances. I have X, you have Y. Let's swap. It was a message that tended to translate well. Someone did have a bucket, she learned: a paranoid, fuzzy little creature that wouldn't allow her into the compartment where it spent all its time snuggled up in a pile of animatronic representations of its kind. Sidi didn't have what the fuzzy wanted, but she found someone who did, and constructed an intricate chain of trades. The sequence ended with four pairs of Sidi's cotton socks, which the final customer used to keep its pseudopods from drooping in the too-high gravity on the upper chlorine-breathers' deck.

An even more convoluted series of transactions got her a strong, flexible steel cable brought aboard as snack food by one of the high-gravity types. By this time she was known as the go-to girl for unobtanium. Species whose systems of communication were too foreign would bring in intermediaries to explain their wants. Sidi neglected her diplomatic duties. Cat started maintaining a database for her.

All she needed now was a pulley. Well, she did have a fancy engineering degree from MIT, didn't she? Compared to the technology they were surrounded by, a pulley was like banging two rocks together. Pulleys simple and compound, fixed and movable — she might be weak on grand unified theories, but this was the sort of elementary stuff she'd gone over a hundred times as a grader for freshman classes. Easy.

Except that it wasn't so easy. She didn't have a spool or a grooved wheel. No axles or bearings, no ratchets, no hooks or clips or eye-bolts — not even a paperclip or a roll of sticky tape. Archimedes, she was certain, would have been an abject failure if he'd had to work aboard a starship.

No. Merde, that was those little blue pills encouraging her to make excuses. Archimedes would have done something halfway competent. If she corrected for the effect of the happy-zap drug, things were much worse: she was failing at this plan, just as she'd failed at everything else aboard the Bus, and now that she'd failed, she could spend the rest of her life in solitary confinement contemplating her failure. Was that assessment more objectively reasonable? How would she know, with the pills skewing her judgment? It was intolerable. She ran into the bathroom, got out what was left of her forty-day supply of the pills, and dumped them in the toilet.

She was pounding on the mirror when a comm came in. She made an effort to compose herself. “Cat, can you take it?”

“It's Mopsy, and Snow says it's not about a trade.”

“Mopsy? All right, put it on.” She grabbed a wad of toilet paper and came out of the bathroom.

A three-dimensional Mopsy and a flat Snow White sprang up in the comm portal.

“Mopsy, I'm ... surprised to hear from you.”

Snow made an operatic gesture with her arms. “Sidibé Traoré, has it been long enough? / Will you please reconsider your cruel rebuff?”

“I — what?” She tried to be unobtrusive about wiping her nose.

“Putting out that vision statement / really took me in parfaitement.”

“Um, that actually doesn't rhyme. The ‘n’ and the ‘t’ are silent, and the accent is supposed to be on the last syllable. Why are you speaking in poetry?”

“The books were mostly in verse.” Snow looked anxious. “Is prose better for this? I wasn't sure.”

“I think it depends on what ‘this’ is.”

Snow wrung her hands. “When you disdained even to take a share of the kill, I —”

“Wait, what kill?”

“The mammoth.” Now Snow was the one holding back tears.

“Oh.” The cartoon mammoth they'd brought down? Some kind of cultural misunderstanding — did Mopsy see her as the dominant one now? “You smell good,” she said experimentally.

The tentacles drooped, and Snow clasped her hands and lowered her head. Bingo, ça y est! But now she did feel a little cruel. She felt a contrite impulse to offer Snow the wad of toilet paper.

“It's all right, Mopsy. Pecking order isn't quite as important to our species as it is to yours. Would you like to resume cultural exchanges?”

“You don't need to keep up the pretense. I understand now.”

“You do?”

“Once I read If I Ran the Zoo, I understood that your species' carefully cultivated image as a pushover was a ruse.”

“You did?”

“Yes. Your true self-image shows through clearly in your children's literature: the cages, the urge to conquer. Then when I went back over the vision statement that Cat put out, I saw it for the honey-tongued propaganda that it really was.”

“Of course. You're more sophisticated than that.”

The tentacles undroopified a little, and Snow hazarded a little smile. “But this covert commercial network you've been building, it's masterful.”

“Why ... thank you.”

“I assume that your true object is nothing less than —” Snow's eyebrows ascended.

“Ah, you guessed —”

“Complete galactic domination —” Snow stamped her feet and squealed “— I knew it!”

Mopsy must think Sidi was a lot smarter than she really was. Even to dominate this cohort would be a goal as absurd as teaching an army of cats to march and salute.

“Rumors do get around,” Snow continued, seeming to mistake Sidi's nonplused reaction for reticence. “When the day comes, and we link up with the GalCiv, obviously some of us have to end up at the top of the food chain.”

Sidi hoped that was only a metaphor. “Of course you wouldn't want to let anyone else in on our little secret.”

“No, never!” Snow waved a finger no, and Mopsy imitated her, a little overenthusiastically, with a tentacle. “But is there some way that my people could be ...”

“Included? Why yes, I think so. Ah, tell me, Mopsy, how much weight can those limbs of yours lift?”

Sidi finished her preparations for the flight of the kite-bucket, already regretting her impulsive decision to dump the pills, and dreading what it would be like to come off of the drug the next day. She woke expecting a Richter-nine headache, black stormclouds, delirium tremens, and demons with pitchforks.

Nothing.

She formed a suspicion that the pills had been a placebo. So what did that say about her? Had they determined through psychological screening that she was some kind of natural-born hair-shirt hermit? “Oh, send Traoré, she won't mind. Went on three dates in four years at MIT. She won't mind a life sentence to solitary confinement. Give her a placebo to make her happy.” Well, to hell with them, those UN witch-doctors had all been dead of old age for weeks anyway. She wasn't doing this for them, she was doing it because she wasn't a chickenshit, and that was reason enough for her. She felt surprisingly happy, in a hopeless, bitter, world-hating sort of way. She got dressed, and found herself humming an old Malian pop song her mother had liked.

Le dimanche a Bamako, c'est le jour de mariage.

Sunday in Bamako is wedding day.

The comm burbled. “Yes.”

The Gump appeared. “My principal has agreed to the experiment.”

“How's that, Pool?” Sidi, Cat, and Gump lay side by side on their backs, watching the upside-down bucket dangling lazily over their heads at the end of the cable.

There was a pause. She watched the ripples playing across the quicksilver and suddenly realized that she felt seasick. Ouf. She'd never thrown up in a pressure suit, and didn't want this to be her first time. Was it the low gravity? Surely she wasn't that much of a tenderfoot in space. She swallowed uncomfortably.

Cat relayed a message from Pool. “He says it's good.” Another pause. “More.”

“Mopsy, play out another ten centimeters, okay?”

“Ten centimeters,” Snow White's voice confirmed over the suit's comm from down below in the airlock.

A snake-wiggle climbed lazily up the heavy cable, then suddenly accelerated as it entered the fast-time zone. The bucket pitched back and forth as fast as the buzz of a fly's wing, and Pool sloshed to and fro much faster than he should have been able to without spattering himself over the brim.

“Ask him how that is,” she told Cat.

“He says that's good,” Cat translated, this time without any noticeable pause. So this was it: godlike manipulation of time and space. Now she just needed to get fitted for a toga. “He says that the derivative of x squared is two x,” Cat continued. “I think he's trying to confirm that we have two-way communication.”

“Okay, tell him that the integral of x is a half x squared.”

The cable seemed tighter now. The quicksilver in the bucket rippled, and another wave of nausea swept over her.

“He says you forgot the constant of integration,” Cat said.

“Oh —” She found out what it was like to vomit in a pressure suit, and it was every bit as unpleasant as she'd been told.

“Sidi?” Cat asked. “Gump wants to know if something's wrong. (He seems a lot less haughty now, maybe Pool took him down a notch.) Please don't be angry, he says. Pool was right about the constant of integration, you know. I think he just doesn't understand about human standards of tact and diplomacy.”

“No, no, I'm just having a physical problem, a minor physical problem. It's all right, everything's okay.” She closer her eyes and turned the helmet's air blower on full blast. “Uh, tell him I'm honored that his civilization chose to send me that communique, and I'm confident that we'll have a very productive session today.”

“I'll try to translate that.”

Sidi tried experimentally to get some of the mess off of her face by shaking her head, and found that it was a serious mistake. Her brain felt like it was rattling around inside her skull in the low gravity.

“Gump doesn't think Pool understands,” Cat said.

“Well, he understands that we've got two-way communication, right? And he knows about the communique, right? So how about confirming that I received the communique.”

“Well, Gump doesn't think Pool really understood the diplomatic aspects of the communique. His species didn't actually write that, apparently.”

“They didn't?”

“Er, no. Gump says the pools suggested the physics thing, but fitting it into the framework of a human-style diplomatic note — they couldn't have come up with that. All of that was ghostwritten for them by another species, from what Gump has heard.”

“Oh. I see.”

“Now Pool says every integer has a unique prime factorization.”

“We're not here to trade math trivia. Euh, don't translate that, but ... we're never going to get anywhere at this rate. Have Gump ask him if he thinks he'd be okay with another ten centimeters of altitude.”

“He says that's fine.”

This time she was careful not to watch the cable or the bucket. Her stomach felt as tight as the head of a drum. It couldn't just be the gravity, because she'd been up here twice before and felt fine. Miserably, she decided that the pills hadn't been placebos after all.

“Wow, he's much faster now,” Cat said. “We can't really translate in real time. He's spewed out a bunch of math, five hundred pages worth, with his personalized annotations of the passages he thinks might be hard for someone of your ... that might be hard for you.”

“Good, thank him for initiating the cultural exchange —”

“He won't understand that.”

“Okay, well ... all right, access the library, and feed him the complete works of J.S. Bach, and ... and Shakespeare” — that would give the supercilious puddle something to chew on, no matter how fast its brain was now.

The response was almost instantaneous. “He says the sound structures are mostly a trivial corollary of mathematical principles already discovered by his species, and some of them aren't even self-consistent. The Shakespeare plays ... he thinks there was a transmission error, because he did an intensive statistical analysis, and he couldn't detect any information patterns.”

As a diplomatic effort, the first flight of the kite-bucket had been a disappointment, but “give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” The trial flight established the fundamental engineering principle involved. Soon afterward, she got her first hint that it would turn everything on the bus upside-down. A comm came in from the chlorine-breathing ameboid. The portal showed not just the ameboid but a grid of a half-dozen other generic avatars as well. One of them waved its stick-figure finger at Sidi.

“Do you intend to be completely merciless about exploiting this monopoly?” it demanded.

Monopoly?

“Excuse me, but I'm a little confused,” Sidi said. She shot a glance at Cat, who shrugged. “Why are there so many avatars at once?”

The stick man turned and mimed communication with the one next to it, which then passed the message down the chain. While the chain continued, the first one replied directly to Sidi. “It will take a moment for the translation, but I can give you a general answer. The chlorine-breather feels that it has been taken advantage of. When you originally spoke to it to negotiate for the bucket, the translation was rough, but it thought it understood well enough to carry out what seemed to be an innocuous trade. Now that we realize the full dimensions of your plan, we need more accurate and nuanced communication, and we've only been able to achieve that by constructing a sequence of AIs to minimize the size of the leaps from one conceptual framework and the next.”

The message reached the ameboid, which gestured wildly with its cotton-socked pseudopods, its cilia sproinging out as if someone had given it an electric shock. Sidi took advantage of the delay for return translation to look up the species of the passengers whose AIs formed the chain. She stifled a chuckle when she saw that Bonsai was one of them.

“First it says essentially what I just told you,” the final stickman said. “Then it asks you to show mercy for its delicate condition.”

“Condition?”

“It's ripening for fission.” The blob did look a little narrower around the waist than it had before. “It's been trying to suppress the urge — that can be terribly uncomfortable, I hear — but it doesn't think it will be able to hold out until after we make the transition into the GalCiv. It doesn't want its two daughter-selves to graduate while they're still in a postmitotic stupor. They'd need at least three or four weeks postpartum to get back up to a normal mental level.”

Sidi finally understood. They'd heard rumors that she'd helped Pool to visit the accelerated-time zone, but they didn't know any of the details of how it worked. “It wants to buy some time?”

“Buy?” The stick figure turned and started the translation before Sidi could explain that it was only a figure of speech.

The ameboid got a jury-rigged birthing nest, but its delegation was only the first. Everyone aboard the Bus was feeling the pressure of time as the end of the voyage approached. Sidi stopped taking incoming comm messages, and she posted Mopsy outside her door to keep from being bothered at all hours. She'd heard once that the hardest part of building an observatory was laying the road up to the mountaintop, and something similar seemed to apply here. The first big scramble was to round up a crew of volunteers who had pressure suits (or who, like Pool, could live in vacuum without them), and get them, along with a big cargo net full of cannibalized construction materials, up into the fast zone. A crow's nest sprouted in the exotic vacuum, seeming to observers down on the deck like one of those time-lapse photos of a flower blooming.

Once Sidi finally found a good straw boss (Mopsy scared everyone too much), she moved upstairs herself, and once again had time to sleep and eat occasionally. The original mast and crow's nest had by now metastasized into a Daliesque favela.

Sidi's office was at the top, in the fastest space they could push into before construction materials started misbehaving in mysterious ways. She learned not to turn her head too quickly to keep from insulting her inner ear with pseudo-Coriolis forces. The room, made from a food container one of the big hot-Jupiter types had brought aboard, was small and cold, and when it was quiet (which wasn't often) you could hear the air hissing out through the badly assembled vacuum seals.

Her desk was a door-panel resting unevenly on two crates. She peered down over its edge at an alligator-pancake who was prone to hysterics. “I don't think it really meant to step on you,” she told it.

OF COURSE I DIDN'T. The centaur-anemone stamped half a dozen of its hooves. The vibration made the leaking seals hiss louder. IT WAS AN ACCIDENT, said the word-balloon that popped up over its head (for Sidi had found that personified avatars made conflict resolution more difficult). I DIDN'T SEE HIM THERE ON THE FLOOR OF THE AIRLOCK.

MY PLANET IS NOT WITHOUT MILITARY RESOURCES, the pancake shot back heatedly, its word-balloon rearing up higher than the centaur's and whacking at it.

“Please, please, this doesn't need to be an interstellar incident, does it?” Sidi said. “Monsieur crepe-croc, perhaps you could start manifesting a red flag above yourself, to make yourself more ... ah ... visible in high-traffic public spaces? Now I'm afraid I have another appointment. If you two could adjourn this discussion to the anteroom, I think we already have on hand the ingredients for a successful settlement. Could I suggest a cultural and scientific exchange? I understand that the crocs have a very ancient and fascinating type of dance suite that takes a full lunar month to perform.”

She ushered them out as forcefully as she could without stubbing her toe on the croc. The clock showed four minutes until her next appointment. She put her head down on her arms the way the nuns had made them do when she was a little girl, so long ago and far away in Bamako. She had a hammock stashed in one of the crates, and if she strung it up taut and high, almost to the ceiling, the four minutes could become a fifteen- or twenty-minute nap. It wasn't too hard to sleep through the occasional static discharges from the monopoles and strangelets whizzing by just above the ceiling — she'd gotten used to them like a Chicagoan with a bedroom window facing the “L.” She really ought to prepare more for this next meeting, but she was feeling so very, very tired.

She remembered the day she'd thrown the happy pills in the toilet, and how she'd thought of herself as being condemned to life in solitary confinement. A little solitude would be heavenly right now. Oh, the croc was basically a good sort, just a little hotheaded. But why couldn't any of them deal with their problems without coming to her?

She was sure that the pills would have long since run out, although she had only a vague idea of how much time had passed since that day on her biological clock. Four or five months? It was endlessly confusing, the way everybody's time ran at different rates.

Complete galactic domination. At the time she'd had to grit her teeth to keep from laughing at how silly it was. How could Mopsy's rumor of a suspicion of an absurdity have become so real, and such a heavy weight to bear?

Cat's voice: “There's someone who wants to talk to you.”

Had she already been asleep? She checked the time. “It isn't time for the appointment yet, not according to my clock.”

“No, not that, it's someone from outside the ship.”

“We are outside the ship.”

“No, I mean someone from the GalCiv. There's a ship the size of a sunflower seed, it's matched trajectories with us. Someone's on board. I don't know, maybe it's an AI or a personality upload, or maybe the crew had a swig from a bottle labeled DRINK ME.”

“So this is it? We meet the representative from the GalCiv? They're early, though, aren't they?” There'd be hell to pay for all the dismantled equipment. Maybe that was why they'd shown up early. “All right, put it on.”

“They're here physically. I think.”

“Physically? All right.” It must be really bad, then. She squared her shoulders. She'd done the best she knew how to do. Obviously she was a perfect little merdeuse, and now it was just a relief that it was all over.

A bipedal hominid in a toga was sitting there in a human-style chair that hadn't been there before. His flattish nose reminded her of a pet guinea pig she'd had once. He handed her one of two snifters of brandy — those hadn't been there before either. “It's not easy, is it?” he said in an Eton accent.

“Are you from the GalCiv? I hadn't thought it was time yet for ... whatever it is that happens. I guess now I need to hand things off to you. Sorry about the mess, that's all my responsibility. The others aren't to blame.”

“You're correct that it wasn't really time yet, but sometimes a cohort is a little fast out the gate, eh?”

“What?”

“This is it, you graduated yourselves,” the Homo erectus said with a vague wave at their surroundings. “What you've done on your own is the ‘whatever it is that happens.’ No great trick to it really, just grab the spacetime tiger by the tail and don't let go. I'm afraid there's no handing things off, though. Bloody hard work, being a godlike master of matter and energy.”

“I don't understand.”

“Means you're in charge.”

“No!”

“'Fraid so. There'll be some formalities, of course, but your cohort has obviously chosen to treat you as their leader.”

“I was only — you can't — I don't really know what I'm doing. They didn't vote for me or anything.”

“Vote? Oh, pardon me, this cultural overlay isn't very good, but I think I know what you mean. We can't use voting as the criterion, much too species-specific. Generally we go by body count. Your cohort managed to harness relativistic technology to meet its common goals, and you did it without having anyone eat anyone else or blow them up or anything dreadfully unpleasant like that.”

“You would have let that happen?”

“Oh, everyone's already been taken apart and put back together once, and we still have all the data we would have needed for re-Frankensteining the victims.”

“It's just that I'm not ... nobody else ... I was only taking care of things the best I knew how.” She was having trouble catching her breath.

A wry grin. “Same here, old girl, same here.”