Delighted to be part of the blog tour for Netherspace, a new collaboration project from Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster. Netherspace is start of a brand new science fiction series in which contact with aliens is only the beginning…
Contact with alien species was made forty years ago, but communication turned out to be impossible. There is only trade in technology, which allows humans to colonise the stars, but at a heavy cost: alien netherspace drives are exchanged for live humans. When a group of colonists are captured by a group of Cancri aliens, a human mission is sent to negotiate their release. But how can you negotiate when you don’t know what your target wants?
I’ve got an extract from the novel for you today. Enjoy!
Marc Keislack stared at the spherical display unit. On the other side of the crystalline metal his nanoforms were mixing and interacting like miniature weather systems. Each one was a different colour, separated from one another by a gooey transparent nutrient medium.
Despite the seals around the tank – still necessary when anyone was mucking around with nanoforms – the slightly vinegary smell of the nutrient medium hung in the air of his studio. Light from the large windows at the far end of the room illuminated the space. Dust hung and glittered in the buttresses of light, despite the best attempts of his cleaning bots to eradicate it. Outside, the rolling Welsh hills were illuminated by a low sun. Cows stood in small groups in the field that bounded his property, and larks drew scrolling lines across the deep blue of the sky, while inside the studio he was waiting for his own life – his own artificial life – to decide what it wanted to be. He ran a hand through his long hair. It needed cutting, but he had been so wrapped up in constructing this latest piece of art that he had forgotten about it. He would need to get it cut before the show. His agent, Darla, would insist upon it. “Don’t believe the crap about artists in garrets forgetting to eat or wash and still being romantic,” she’d told him at his last show. “People who can afford your art expect short hair and an expensive cologne. And don’t fall on the vol-au-vents like you’re starving.” She’d paused at that point, then added: “Of course, if there’s an alien in town, wanting to pick up some art in exchange for some new kind of battery or something, then all bets are off.”
“I was followed around by an Eridani for three weeks, remember? It took five art installations, leaving behind something GalDiv took away for deep investigation.” He’d laughed bitterly. “Who knows why the damn aliens trade anything?” He didn’t say – it wasn’t necessary, there were plenty who’d say it for him – that it was the Eridani interest that had made the unknown Marc Keislack rich and famous.
Darla had smiled tightly. “Of course I remember, darling. And I would have gotten you a much better deal – even with an alien.” She didn’t say that being the alien’s darling – the Eridani and more recently the Cancri still traded for his and only his artwork, no other artists need apply – meant that Marc didn’t need an agent at all, only a lawyer and an accountant.
He’d smiled back more gently. “That I would like to have seen.” Keeping alive the polite fiction that Marc Keislack was as talented as any other successful artist and not just a lucky bastard.
Now he glanced around the studio, at the works that were going into the show, which his agent wanted to call simply Here. Across the far side of the room was a tank of seawater in which luminescent Aurelia aurita the size of coins drifted, coming together and apart in a thousand different shades of colour, as dictated by the artificial genes that he had spliced into their DNA. The jellyfish were effectively immortal, as far as he knew. As long as they floated in a nutrient-rich broth and had a little natural light they would just keep on going, moving and glowing, forming different pictures as they did so. Given the human mind’s amazing ability to see patterns in chaos, if you stared into the tank long enough you would start to see faces staring back at you: grimacing, laughing, screaming. Marc had given it the title All Human Life Is Here, and Darla had said that if he parted with it for less than a hundred and fifty thousand virtscrip she would part with him, violently.
His gaze skipped to another piece: this one an earlier, unsold work. It was a self-portrait entitled My Life Is Here. Artificially grown muscle, fat and skin tissue, generated from stem cells taken from Marc’s own bone marrow, had been carefully arranged over a brass skull on a stand inside a transparent case. The flesh had been crafted to mimic his own face, but initially aged a hundred and twenty. The cells had been programmed in such a way that they would gradually alter over time: the skin becoming firmer, the fat reduced and the muscles better defined. His face would get younger as he, the artist, grew older. It had already regressed to the age of 115, although it had to be said that there was very little difference visible between now and when it had started. There would be a day when the two of them – the artwork and the model – would cross, and one of the terms of the sale was that Marc would, on that day, sit inside a similar case next to it, wherever the purchaser was displaying it, making himself part of the work. Another one of the terms of sale was that when the face had developed to infancy the work would be destroyed – a stipulation backed up by automatic cell death programmed into the artwork’s genes. The aliens wouldn’t understand the fine print, of course, but he didn’t care. The art was the art.
“Wonderful,” Darla had said when he had told her about the idea. “A reversed Picture of Dorian Gray reproduced with technology.”
“The what? Who?”
She had glanced at him, frowning. “Never mind. Just keep coming up with ideas.” Marc had no interest in the past, only his own present and future.
A momentary eddy in the tank beside him caught his attention. At the border between the mass of blue nanoforms and the transparent nutrient medium they existed within, small vortices were forming. It looked like the kind of effect one saw at the edge of fractals, or coastlines on a map. The nanoforms themselves were artificial, of course, but based on genetic material harvested from slime moulds of Fuligo septica. Their behaviour was pre-programmed in their simplified DNA and based on a handful of simple rules. Were they surrounded by others of their own colour, or by those of another colour? Were they in an area where nutrients were plentiful or sparse? Were they on the outside of a mass, exposed to ambient light, or on the inside, in darkness? How old were they? The rules themselves were simple, but the outcomes would be anything but. In computer simulations the virtual nanoforms automatically came together in small groups, which acted as individual entities: moving as one, co-operating with others of their kind, absorbing others not of their kind and then producing smaller versions of themselves which grew over time. It was emergent behaviour, not pre-programmed, but it seemed to replicate many of the features of more complicated life forms, all without instinct or intelligence. This one was entitled All Life Is Here, and he was still waiting to see how it developed.