Ben Bova
Mercury

History will remember the inhabitants of [the twentieth] century as the people who went from Kitty Hawk to the moon in sixty-six years, only to languish for the next thirty in low-Earth orbit. At the core of the risk-free society is a self-indulgent failure of nerve.

— Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 astronaut

A species with all its eggs in one planetary basket risks becoming an omelet.

— Stephen Webb
Where Is Everybody (Copernicus Books, 2002)

To the memory of my friend and colleague, the star-seeker Robert Forward;

and to A.D., of course;

but most of all to the beauteous Barbara.

PROLOGUE: THE LONG SEARCH

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state…

As he had every night for more than twelve years, Saito Yamagata wearily climbed the winding dark stone stairway to the top of Chota Lamasery’s highest tower. He could feel the cold winter wind whipping down from the low entrance to the platform at the top. It was going to be a long, bitterly cold night. No matter. Yamagata was seeking atonement, not comfort. Atonement—and something more.

Once he had been a giant of global industry. Yamagata Corporation had even reached beyond the Earth to build the first solar-power satellites. Men trembled at his slightest frown; fortunes were made when he smiled. Then he had been struck down by an inoperable brain cancer and died.

That had been Yamagata’s first life. Yamagata’s only legitimate son, Nobuhiko, had personally administered the lethal injection that allowed the doctors to pronounce him clinically dead. More carefully than an ancient Pharaoh, Yamagata was preserved in a stainless steel sarcophagus filled with liquid nitrogen to await the day when his tumor could be safely removed and he might be brought back to life.

By the time he was cured and revived, Nobu was physically the same age as his father. Yamagata burst into laughter when he first saw his son: it was like looking into the mirror when he shaved. With great wisdom, he thought, Yamagata declined to resume his position at the head of the corporation. Nobu had done well, and to demote him now would shame his son intolerably. So the elder Yamagata retired to this lamasery carved into the distant Himalayas to contemplate his first life. However, he did not live as the lamas did; he had comfortable furniture and decorations carried laboriously up the mountains to his bare stone cell. He maintained contact with the outside world through the latest electronic communications systems, including a satellite relay lofted especially for him alone. To the despair of the grand lama, who earnestly wanted to teach Yamagata the way to enlightenment, he brought in his own cook and even managed to gain weight. And he began to write his memoirs.

Perhaps because he dwelt on his former life, Yamagata found it impossible to stay entirely away from the corporation he had founded. He spoke to his son often over the videophone system in his quarters. He began to offer advice to Nobu. He envisioned a grand plan for Yamagata Corporation, a plan that extended far beyond the Earth. He led the corporation into the Asteroid Wars.

It took the slaughter of the Chrysalis habitat to shock Yamagata into realizing what he had done. More than a thousand helpless men, women, and children were massacred senselessly, needlessly.

I did not order the attack, he told himself. Yet he found that he could not sleep. Even his cook’s most tempting preparations became tasteless, unappetizing to him. In his mind’s eye he kept seeing those terrified, innocent people screaming in helpless horror as their space habitat was torn apart.

It took Yamagata many weeks to realize that he felt more than guilt. For the first time in his lives he felt shame. He was ashamed of what he had set in motion. I did not order the attack, he repeated to himself. Still, it was the inevitable consequence of the war that I willingly started.

Unsure of himself for the first time in his life, racked by a sense of shame he had never felt before, Yamagata begged for a private audience with the grand lama, hoping the old man could soothe his inner turmoil.

“There has been a tragedy,” he began, hesitantly.

The grand lama waited for him to continue, sitting in silent patience on the low couch of his chamber, his head shaved bald, his ascetic face bony, hollow-cheeked, his dark mahogany eyes squarely on Yamagata.

“There is a war going on in space,” Yamagata continued. “Far from here. In the Asteroid Belt.”

“Even here, such rumors have been whispered,” said the grand lama, his voice little more than a soft murmur.

“A few days ago more than a thousand people were killed,” Yamagata stumbled on. “Slaughtered. In a space habitat.”

The lama’s lean face went gray.

His heart pounding, Yamagata finally blurted, “It may have been my fault! I may have caused their deaths!”

The grand lama clutched at his saffron robe with both hands. Yamagata thought the old man was having a heart attack. He stood before the lama, stiff with shame and guilt, silent because he had no words to express what he felt.

When at last the grand lama recovered his self-control he looked into Yamagata’s eyes with a stare that pierced to his very soul.

“Do you accept responsibility for these murders?” he asked, his voice now hard as iron.

It was not easy for a man of Yamagata’s pride and power to stand there humbly asking forgiveness from this aged, robed lama. He feared that the old man would expel him from the lamasery, shame him, accuse him of polluting the very air they were breathing.

“I do,” he whispered.

The grand lama said, “For more than four years you have lived among us, but not as one of us. You have used our sanctuary and our way of life for your personal convenience.”

Yamagata said nothing. It was true.

Slowly, in words as hard and unyielding as the stones of the mountain aerie itself, the grand lama told Yamagata that he must seek true atonement or suffer the deadly weight of guilt forever.

“How do I do that?” Yamagata asked.

The lama was silent for many moments. Then, “Become one of us, not merely among us. Accept our way. Seek your path to atonement. Seek enlightenment.”

Yamagata bowed his acceptance.

Heavy with remorse, Yamagata started out on the path to atonement. He sent his cook back to Japan, got rid of his comfortable furniture and electronic equipment, moved into a bare cell, and tried to live as the lamas did. He fasted with them, prayed with them, slept on a hard wooden pallet. And every night, winter or summer, he climbed the high tower to spend hours alone in contemplation, trying to meditate, trying to find true atonement in his soul.

The grand lama died, since the sect did not believe in rejuvenation treatments, and was replaced by a younger man. Still every night Yamagata climbed his weary way and sat cross-legged on the cold stone floor of the tower’s platform, waiting for—what? Forgiveness? Understanding?

No. Yamagata realized over the slow passage of the years that what he truly sought was enlightenment, a satori, a revelation of the path he must follow.

Nothing. Night after night, year after year, not a glimmer of a hint. Yamagata prayed to the deaf heavens and received nothing in return. He wondered if the fault was in him, if he was not worthy of a sign from the vast universe. Deep in his soul, though, he thought that perhaps all this meditation and mortification was nothing more than cleverly packaged nonsense. And this troubled him, because he realized that as long as he harbored such thoughts, he would never find the path he so desperately sought.

So he hunkered down against the stone rail as the cold night wind gusted by, his teeth chattering despite the padded coat he had wrapped around himself, his fur hat pulled down over his ears, his chin sunk on his chest, his inner voice telling him that he was a fool for going through all this pain and humiliation. But doggedly he remained there, waiting, hoping, praying for a revelation.

It was a bitterly cold night. The moaning wind was like daggers of ice that cut through him mercilessly. Yamagata sat alone and miserable, trying to ignore the freezing wind, trying to find the path to atonement. Nothing. Only darkness and the glittering points of thousands of stars staring down at him from the black bowl of night.

He stared back at the stars. He could make out the Big Dipper, of course, and followed its Pointers to the North Star. Polaris was a thousand light years distant, he remembered from an astronomy lecture many years ago.

The nearest star was Alpha Centauri, but it was too far south to be seen from these frigid mountains.

Suddenly Yamagata threw his head back and laughed, a hearty, full-throated roar of delight that he hurled back into the teeth of the keening night wind. Of course! he said to himself. The answer has been all around me for all these years and I was too blind to see it. The stars! My path must lead to the stars.

BOOK I
THE REALM OF FIRE

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.

ARRIVAL

Saito Yamagata had to squint against the Sun’s overwhelming glare, even through the heavily tinted visor of his helmet.

“This is truly the realm of fire,” he whispered to himself. “Small wonder our ancestors worshiped you, Daystar.”

Despite his instinctive unease, Yamagata felt physically comfortable enough inside his thickly insulated spacesuit; its cooling system and the radiators that projected from its back like a pair of dark oblong wings seemed to be working adequately. Still, the nearness, the overpowering brightness, the sheer size of that seething, churning ball of roiling gases made his nerves flutter. It seemed to fill the sky. Yamagata could see streamers arching up from the Sun’s curved limb into the blackness of space, huge bridges of million-degree plasma expanding and then pouring back down onto the blazing, searing surface of the photosphere.

He shuddered inside the cramped confines of his suit. Enough sight-seeing, he told himself. You have proven your courage and audacity for all the crew and your guests to see and remember. Get back inside the ship. Get to work. It is time to begin your third life.

Yamagata had come to Mercury to seek salvation. A strange route to blessedness, he thought. I must first pass through this fiery inferno, like a Catholic serving time in purgatory before attaining heaven. He tried to shrug philosophically, found that it was impossible in the suit, so instead he lifted his left arm with the help of the suit’s miniaturized servomotors and studied the keyboard wrapped around his wrist until he felt certain that he knew which keys he must touch to activate and control his suit’s propulsion unit. He could call for assistance, he knew, but the loss of face was too much to risk. Despite the lamas’ earnest attempts to teach him humility, Yamagata still held to his pride. If I go sailing out into infinity, he told himself, then I can call for help. And blame a suit malfunction, he added, with a sly grin.

He was pleased, then, when he was able to turn himself to face Himawari, the big, slowly rotating fusion torch ship that had brought him and his two guests to Mercury, and actually began jetting toward it at a sedate pace. With something of a shock Yamagata realized this was the first time he had ever been in space. All those years of his first life, building the power satellites and getting rich, he had remained firmly on Earth. Then he had died of cancer, been frozen, and reborn. Most of his second life he had spent in the lamasery in the Himalayas. He had never gone into space. Not until now.

Time to begin my third life, he said to himself as he neared Himawari. Time to atone for the first two.

Time for the stars.

LANDFALL

Even with three subordinates assisting him, it took Yamagata nearly an hour to disencumber himself of the bulky, heavily insulated spacesuit. He was dripping wet with perspiration and must have smelled ripe, but none of his aides dared say a word or show the slightest expression of distaste. When they had helped him into the suit Yamagata had thought of a Spanish toreador being assisted in donning his “suit of lights” for the bullring. Now he felt like a medieval knight taking off his battered armor after a bruising tournament.

Going outside the ship in the spacesuit had been little more than a whim, Yamagata knew, but a man of his wealth and power could be indulged his whims. Besides, he wanted to impress his subordinates and guests. Even though his son Nobu actually ran Yamagata Corporation and had for decades, the elder Yamagata was treated deferentially wherever he went. Despite the years of patient instruction that the lamas had spent on him, Yamagata still relished being fawned upon.

Money brings power; he understood that. But he wanted more than that. What he wanted now was respect, prestige. He wanted to be remembered not merely as a wealthy or powerful man; he wanted to go down in history for his vision, his munificence, his drive. He wanted to be the man who gave the stars to the human race.

Yamagata Corporation’s solar power satellites were bringing desperately needed electrical power to an Earth devastated by greenhouse flooding and abrupt climate shifts. Under Nobuhiko’s direction, the corporation was helping to move Japan and the other nations crippled by the global warming back onto the road toward prosperity.

And freedom. The two went hand in hand, Yamagata knew. When the greenhouse cliff struck so abruptly, flooding coastal cities, collapsing the international electrical power grid, wrecking the global economy, Earth’s governments became repressive, authoritarian. People who are hungry, homeless, and without hope will always trade their individual liberties for order, for safety, for food. Ultraconservative religious groups came to power in Asia, the Middle East, even Europe and America; they ruled with an absolute faith in their own convictions and zero tolerance for anyone else’s.

Now, with the climate stabilizing and some prosperity returning, many of the world’s peoples were once again struggling for their individual rights, resuming the age-old battle that their forebears had fought against kings and tyrants in earlier centuries.

All to the good, Yamagata told himself. But it is not enough. The human race must expand its frontier, enlarge its horizons. Sooner or later, humankind must reach out to the stars. That will be my gift to humanity.

Can I do it? he asked himself. Do I have the strength and the will to succeed? He had been tough enough in his earlier lives, a ruthless industrial giant before the cancer had struck him down. But that had been for myself, he realized, for my corporation and my son’s legacy. Now I am striving to accomplish greatness for humanity, not merely for my own selfish ends. Again he smiled bitterly. Foolish man, he warned himself. What you do now you do for your own purposes. Don’t try to delude yourself. Don’t try to conceal your own ambitions with a cloak of nobility.