When seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal finds himself lost in space, separated from his family, he expects his next drift into cold sleep to be his last. After all, the planet he's orbiting is frozen and sunless, and the cities are dead. But when Toby wakes again, he's surprised to discover a thriving planet, a strange and prosperous galaxy, and something stranger still―that he's been asleep for 14,000 years.
Welcome to the Lockstep Empire, where civilization is kept alive by careful hibernation. Here cold sleeps can last decades and waking moments mere weeks. Its citizens survive for millennia, traveling asleep on long voyages between worlds. Not only is Lockstep the new center of the galaxy, but Toby is shocked to learn that the Empire is still ruled by its founding family: his own.
Toby's brother Peter has become a terrible tyrant. Suspicious of the return of his long-lost brother, whose rightful inheritance also controls the lockstep hibernation cycles, Peter sees Toby as a threat to his regime. Now, with the help of a lockstep girl named Corva, Toby must survive the forces of this new Empire, outwit his siblings, and save human civilization.
Karl Schroeder's Lockstep is a grand innovation in hard Science Fiction space opera.
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KARL SCHROEDER lives in Toronto, Ontario. He is the author of Ventus (New York Times Notable book for 2001), Permanence (winner of the 2003 Prix Aurora Award for best Canadian SF novel), Lady of Mazes, and the Virga Series, beginning with Sun of Suns.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
TOBY WYATT MCGONIGAL AWOKE to biting cold and utter silence. When he opened his eyes he saw nothing, only a perfect black.
“Hello?” His voice was a rough croak, its sound so surprising to him that he coughed. He tried to put his hand to his mouth, but it moved only a few centimeters before striking some flat surface.
A lid, covering him where he lay.
A momentary panic took him, but as he banged his knees, hands, and forehead against the cold curved substance, he realized something else.
He was weightless.
With that realization, all his muscles relaxed; he let all the air out of his lungs in a whoosh, then laughed. Of course he was weightless. He wasn’t on Earth, buried alive in some coffin. He was in space. He was on his way to do something, for the family, for his brother, and if he was awake now that meant he’d reached his destination. Hibernation time was over.
That single moment of panic had worn him out, but hibernation was like that; he remembered the weakness from last time. It should pass in a few hours.
Gradually his fluttering pulse slowed, and when he felt more in control he groped until he found his glasses, which he’d stowed at his side when he’d gotten into his little ship’s cicada bed, weeks—or was it months, now?—ago.
He slid on the augmented reality glasses, wincing at the icy cold against his temples.
“Ship, give me a status report,” he said. Nothing happened. “A little light, at least?”
Maybe the glasses’ batteries had drained. Considering how long he’d been out, that was likely. It was stupid that he hadn’t thought of that, though; he relied on them as his interface to everything—ship, communications, and the all-important gameworld, Consensus, where he spent most of his time.
Who knew what Peter had gotten up to in Consensus while he was asleep? His brother would have had time to invent whole new civilizations, colonize new systems—who knew what? Knowing what had happened in the game while he was asleep was nearly as important to Toby as making sure he’d arrived at Rockette on time.
Everything was still black; the ship hadn’t replied. “Glasses, load Consensus,” Toby said. Maybe there was a communications problem; since Consensus was local to the glasses, it at least should boot up if they were online at all.
Weak flickers of light appeared at infinity, then resolved into words: POWER CRITICALLY LOW. Toby had never seen that message before, but it was obvious what it meant.
“Consensus … load me some personalities. Sol? Miranda? Can you hear me?”
There was no answer from any of them, and suddenly panic had him shaking the cicada bed’s exit handles. An alarm buzzed and finally there was light outside of the glasses; more glowing letters had appeared in the translucent material: VACUUM DETECTED. “Crap!” Something was wrong, the ship’s systems had failed, he was stuck here with no way out—
“ Toby.” It was Miranda’s voice, coming through his glasses’ earpiece. “There’s an emergency suit under your mattress. Put it on and the bed will open.”
He felt around until he had the suit’s glove in his hand. He gave it a squeeze and the thing climbed over his body, its pieces snapping into place with reassuring precision.
When the helmet had built itself over his face, it signaled the bed, and with a sucking sound the canopy opened. Toby drifted off its surface and into a place he should know but which, as he looked around, had become frighteningly strange.
His headlamp showed him to be in a round room about thirteen meters in diameter. The place was full of jumbled shapes. Most were turning slowly in midair in zero gravity; all were covered with white, fuzzy hoarfrost.
The suit seemed to have power, so he ordered it to recharge his glasses. Then he said, “Miranda? Can you embody?”
“Yes,” she said, then a moment later, Sol added, “On my way, boss.”
Two headlamps snapped on off to his left, and moments later two space-suited figures were bumping their way through the debris, the cones of light flicking off now this, now that odd shape. The jumbled stuff was mostly butlers and grippies—bigger and smaller robots that could conspire with your glasses to pretend to be other people or walls or trees or furniture in a virtual world like Consensus. The little grippies could change their shape and texture and pretend to be anything you might pick up. Combined with the glasses’ visual and auditory illusions, they’d made this cramped little ship tolerable for Toby on the flight out. At least until he’d gone into hibernation.
“Ship?” he asked again; there was still no response. “What happened?” he asked the other two.
“We’ve lost main power,” said Sol Norton, his voice coming clearly through Toby’s glasses. “But I don’t know why, and I don’t know how long ago.”
“What does that mean? Did we miss Rockette?”
There was a long pause. “I’m not jumping to any conclusions,” said Sol curtly.
Rockette was the dormant comet their little ship had been headed to. It had just been discovered, and Dad suspected it might be in a very long orbit around the dwarf planet Sedna, which would make it a moon. In order to keep their family’s claim on Sedna, all the little world’s moons had to be claimed by a McGonigal. Because Dad was on his way to Earth to formalize the claim, Toby had been sent to rendezvous with Rockette. His job was to claim it and then turn around and return to Sedna.
It was a pretty big responsibility; he was only seventeen. He was getting used to doing stuff like this, though. Helping run his parents’ colony on Sedna was all-consuming, just as taking care of his traumatized brother, Peter, had been in the year leading up to their leaving Earth.
“We’re going down to the bot room,” continued Sol. “See what else we can get under manual control.”
“Thanks.” Toby wasn’t surprised that all the other ship’s systems might have failed but that his cicada bed had worked just fine. The hibernation beds—technology his parents had bought and perfected—were amazingly reliable. They were what had made it possible for the family to homestead here, with a couple dozen close friends and volunteers, far beyond the orbit of Pluto.
“Well, we can use some of this stuff,” said Miranda as she and Sol cast their helmet lamps into the bot room. She sounded optimistic and calm, as always. That was why he’d thought of her when he’d called on his Consensus allies; Miranda, like Sol, was always able to encourage Toby when things became difficult.
Toby bounced over to perch next to them at the hatch. “Why were we woken up? And what’s all this weird frost all over everything?”
“It’s air, Toby,” Miranda said. “Frozen air. Sol, do you see that?”
“Yeah.” Sol flipped through the hatch and kicked off through a constellation of motionless robots. These were mostly maintenance and repair bots that were supposed to be able to fix anything that went wrong with the ship. All were dark and lifeless.
He leaned close to the wall to look at the frost. The little forest of white spikes was perfectly clear for a second, then it began to shimmer. The little light on his helmet was enough to evaporate it. Toby had seen that before, back on Sedna. It meant the temperature in here was not far above absolute zero.
“Hey, wait up!” He clumsily batted aside the dead bots, following the guide of the others’ lights. He found them at the back of the bot room, which was the aft-most living chamber in the ship. There was an airlock here, and lots of stowage and tools. And …
A hole in the back wall.
It was about a meter across, with odd blocky edges, and outside it he could see stars and the black silhouette of the ship’s engine spine.
“The bots tried to patch it,” said Miranda, pointing to the squared edges of the hole, “but it was too big. Anyway, all the air would have gone out in the first few seconds.”
Sol was cursing under his breath. “But what made it?” He jumped back the way they’d come and after a minute shouted, “Found another!”
It turned out there was a coin-sized hole, clogged with frozen air, through the wall between the main chamber and the bot room. And when they went to the front of that room they found a tiny, pinhead-sized hole there, too.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” said Toby. Miranda was moving kind of slowly; he hoped her suit wasn’t running out of power. “What happened?”
“We hit a pebble,” said Sol. “More of a sand grain, actually, from the size of that first hole. We’re going so fast that it hit us hard as a bomb. See that first hole? By the time it came through, it was exploding, but it went through us so quickly that the explosion was only this big”—he spread two fingers just a bit—“by the time it hit the back wall there, and only this big”—he spread his arms to the width of the hole in the back of the bot room—“when it left us. That’s okay—we can patch up Life Support. The big question is whether it hit the drive unit.”
“Oh…” And that was all Toby could say, as it began to finally sink in just how much trouble they were in. For the next few minutes all he could do was follow the other two back and forth as they tried to revive parts—any parts—of the ship’s systems. It turned out their suits really were getting low on power, like Toby’s. If it ran out, he’d lose both of them.
Funny, though, that the first coherent thought Toby had over the next while was, Peter, I’m sorry I left.
How long now had his brother had been clinging to Toby like a life raft? So long that his emotional dependence had come to define both of them. Having Toby leave him for a few months had devastated Peter. The separation was supposed to help Peter rebuild his own coping abilities. Mom and Evayne would help, and Consensus was part of the plan, of course.
Toby had stayed awake as long as he could. During the weeks of the engine burn, Toby hadn’t once switched off his virtual views to look at the real ship that surrounded him. Peter had demanded that he stay awake, stay in Consensus and keep their versions of the gameworld synced.
So as he traveled he’d tangled anxious Peter up with the discovery of fantastic alien planets, and despicable enemies, cunning plots and rousing battles in a universe more colorful than the real one they lived on. Their shared world kept Peter focused and able to cope. What Toby hadn’t counted on was how the communications lag with the game servers kept growing. After twenty days, his version of Consensus was totally out of sync with Peter’s back on Sedna. And the math couldn’t be second-guessed: the tug’s life support was nearly half used up. It was time to enter cold sleep.
“Guys, we need to get communications up!”
“We know that, Toby.”
If the tug’s engines had died, if they’d missed Rockette … they could keep on speeding on their course for another ten billion years and never encounter another grain of sand the size of the one they’d hit, much less another planet or a friendly spaceship ready to rescue them.
Toby suddenly had an overwhelming need to do something—anything. Sol and Miranda kept talking about power couplings and radioisotope generators as Toby knocked his way through the dead machines in the bot room. Their calm focus wasn’t reassuring anymore; after all, there was nothing really at stake for them. He reached the hole in the rear bulkhead and paused to inspect its edges. They were smooth, but he knew he should check for any razor-sharp edges. It wouldn’t do to cut his suit open.
He poked his head outside, and there were the stars—brighter and more overwhelmingly numerous than he’d ever seen on Earth. He’d seen them like this on the surface of Sedna, and they always seemed unreal, a fantasy painter’s version of the sky. But no, this was the reality of where he was.
Toby had looked up the distances once—just once. Light that could zip around Earth seven times in one second would take eleven hours to go from there to Sedna. After reading that, he’d stopped trying to picture the scale of their isolation. Yet the knowledge always hung there like a weight in the back of his mind.
He aimed his fading headlamp down the long open-work girder that joined the ship’s passenger unit to the drive section. He hadn’t spent much time inspecting the ship during the flight out, but still knew what things back there should look like.
“Just a minute, Toby.”
“No, really. You should see this.”
There were a bunch of bot-shaped silhouettes clustered around the engines. And they were moving.
“I think some bots are repairing the engines!”
“ What?” In seconds, Sol was pushing past him, shining a blinding light out that erased the stars. “I should have been in the loop! Why can’t I get a signal out of them? Out of the way!”
Toby spotted a handhold on the outside hull; impulsively, he grabbed it and flipped himself out through the hole. Sol’s helmet appeared and he shone his own lamp at the bots. He cheered.
“Go, little guys!” Miranda’s helmet appeared next to his; for a while they chattered about rerouting power and recharging stuff. The lamplight turned the slowly working bots into dazzling white shapes, throwing everything else into blackness. Toby watched them for a while, then thought of the stars again. He turned away.
Reflected light outlined the ship’s curves in ghostly gray. You could still see stars beyond that, of course. He continued turning, following the twisting banner of the Milky Way as it wove toward the ship’s bow …
… And disappeared into a giant arc of blackness that took up a good third of the sky.
“What the—?” He looked around for a better vantage point. Belatedly he remembered that these emergency suits had coils of cable at their waists; he hooked one end of his to the first handhold and then launched himself around the tiny horizon of the ship. Now he could see the length of the bot room and past the living section beyond it to the tug’s bow. He should be seeing the cluster of telescopes and other instruments there, as silhouettes against the stars. There were no stars. Instead, a vast circle of perfect black loomed up ahead, with the ship aimed at its center like a dart.
He’d seen the radar profile of Rockette. It was a lumpy potato shape. This perfect circle … you only got that crisp perfection in things that were really, really big. Things like planets.
“Guys? Guys! We’re … I think we’re back at Sedna!”
* * *
THERE’D ALWAYS BEEN THE chance that their little colony of one hundred people would end up frozen and dead. Maybe Pluto was as far as humans would ever get from Earth; maybe the stars really were too far away. Nobody had ever come up with a magical means of going faster than light, after all. Only governments and a few trillionaires could afford to send probes to Alpha Centauri or the other nearby stars, and even then they took decades to reach their destinations.
But it was still possible—barely—to stake your own claim on an entire planet. Out past the edge of the solar system, thousands of orphan worlds drifted. The known ones had strange names like Quaoar, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. All were impossibly cold and distant, but if you could be the first person to step onto one, you could own it.
Toby’s parents owned Sedna.
Back home on Earth, if you weren’t already one of the trillionaires, you’d never be more than a servant to them. So his parents had scraped together several generations’ worth of inheritances and come to homestead in a vast region of space so empty that you could hide a thousand solar systems in it with room to spare...
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