[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


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Opening Chapters

HUMANS

Volume 2 of The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.


Hardcover: Tor, February 2003, ISBN 0-312-87691-2
Paperback: Tor, September 2003, ISBN 0-765-34675-3


Spoiler Alert! Don't read this until after you've finished Hominids, the first volume in the trilogy.


Prologue

       "I've done a terrible thing," said Ponter Boddit, straddling the saddle-seat in Jurard Selgan's office.

       Selgan was a member of generation 144, ten years older than Ponter. His hair was a wise gray, and his part had widened into a deep river of scalp, emptying onto the low forehead above his browridge. "Go on."

       "I felt I had no choice," said Ponter, looking down, his own browridge shielding him from having to meet Selgan's emerald eyes. "I felt I had to do it, but ..."

       "But you regret it now?"

       Ponter was silent, staring at the room's moss-covered floor.

       "Do you regret it?"

       "I — I'm not sure."

       "Would you do it again, if you had the moment to live over?"

       Ponter snorted a laugh.

       "What's so funny?" asked Selgan, curiosity, rather than irritation, in his voice.

       Ponter looked up. "I thought it was only physicists like me who engaged in thought experiments."

       Selgan smiled. "We're not so different, you and I. We each seek to find the truth, to solve mysteries."

       "I suppose," said Ponter. He looked at the smooth, gently curving wooden wall of the cylindrical room.

       "You haven't answered my question," said Selgan. "Would you do it again, if you could?"

       Ponter was silent for a time, and Selgan let him be silent, let him consider his answer. "I don't know," Ponter said at last.

       "Don't you? Or is it that you simply do not wish to say?"

       Again, Ponter was silent.

       "I want to help you," said Selgan, shifting on his own saddle-seat. "That's my only goal. I won't judge you."

       Ponter laughed again, but this time it was a rueful laugh. "That's the whole point, isn't it? Nobody judges us."

       Selgan frowned. "What do you mean?"

       "I mean, in that other world — that other Earth — they believe there is a ... well, we have no word for it, but they call it God. A supreme, incorporeal being who created the universe."

       Selgan shook his head. "How can the universe have a creator? For something to be created, it has to have a beginning. And the universe didn't. It has always existed."

       "You know that," said Ponter. "I know that. But they don't know that. They think the universe is only — well, they'd say twelve billion years old; a hundred and fifty billion months or so."

       "Then what existed before that time?"

       Ponter frowned, remembering back to his conversations with the female Gliksin physicist Lou Benoît — how he wished he could pronounce their names properly! "They say there was no time before then, that time began when the universe was created."

       "What an astonishing notion," said Selgan.

       "That it is," agreed Ponter. "But if they accepted that the universe had always existed, there would be no role for this God of theirs."

       "Your man-mate is a physicist, isn't he?" asked Selgan.

       "Adikor Huld," said Ponter, naming him. "Yes."

       "Well, I'm sure you often get to talk about physics with Adikor. Me, I'm more interested in other things. You brought up this — this `God' — in connection with the concept of judging. Tell me more about that."

       Ponter was quiet for a few moments, trying to figure out how to present the concept. "It seems most of them, these other humans, believe in what they call an `afterlife' — an existence that follows death."

       "But that's ridiculous," said Selgan. "It's a contradiction in terms."

       "Oh, yes," said Ponter, smiling. "But such things are common in their thinking — so common that they give them a special name, as if by naming them it resolves the paradox. I can't quite say it the way they do; it's something like ox-uh-mor-on."

       Selgan smiled "I would love to treat one of them — learn how such a mind functions." He paused. "This existence that follows death: what do they believe it is like?"

       "That's the most interesting thing," said Ponter. "It can take one of two forms, depending on how you comported yourself while living. If you have lived a virtuous life, then you are rewarded with an exceedingly pleasant existence afterward. But if your life — or even a single major action you did during it — has been evil, then the subsequent existence is one of torment."

       "And who decides?" said Selgan. "Oh, wait. I get it. This God decides, right?"

       "Yes. That's what they believe."

       "But why? Why would they believe something so outlandish?"

       Ponter lifted his shoulders slightly. "Supposed historical accounts of those who have communicated with God."

       "Historical accounts?" said Selgan. "Does anyone currently communicate with God?"

       "Some claim to. But I gather it has not been substantiated."

       "And this God, he serves as judge of every individual?"

       "Supposedly."

       "But there are 185 million people in the world, with many thousands dying every day."

       "That's in this world. In the other world, there are over six billion people."

       "Six billion!" Selgan shook his head. "And each one is assigned, somehow, at death, to one of the two possible further existences you mentioned?"

       "Yes. They are judged."

       Ponter saw Selgan make a face. The personality sculptor was clearly intrigued by the details of Gliksin belief, but his real interest was in Ponter's thoughts. "`Judged,'" he repeated, as if the word were a choice piece of meat worth savoring.

       "Yes, judged," said Ponter. "Don't you see? They don't have Companion implants. They don't have alibi archives. They don't keep perfect records of every action they take in their lives. They don't have any of that, because they don't believe they need it. They think this God is watching over all, seeing all — even looking out for them, protecting them. And they think that it's impossible to get away — to really, ultimately — get away with an evil act."

       "But you did something terrible, you said?"

       Ponter looked out the window, out at his world. "Yes."

       "Over there? In the other world?"

       "Yes."

       "And you do not accept the existence of this God of theirs?"

       Ponter made a derisive sound. "Of course not."

       "And so you believe that you will not ever be judged for this bad thing you feel you did?"

       "Exactly. I won't say it's the perfect crime. But there is no reason why suspicion will ever fall on me in that world, and no reason why anyone here would ever have cause to demand to see that portion of my alibi archive."

       "You called it a crime. Was it a crime by the standards of this other world you were in?"

       "Oh, yes."

       "And would we have considered it a crime, had you done it here?"

       Ponter nodded.

       "What did you do?"

       "I — I am ashamed to say," said Ponter.

       "I told you, I will not judge you."

       Ponter found himself surging to his feet. "That's the whole point!" he shouted. "No one will judge me — not here, not there. I have committed a crime. I enjoyed committing the crime. And, yes, to indulge in your thought experiment, I would do it again if I had the opportunity to relive the event."

       Selgan said nothing for a time, apparently waiting for Ponter to calm down. "I can help you, Ponter, if you'll let me. But you have to talk to me. You have to tell me what happened. Why did you commit this crime? What led up to it?"

       Ponter sat back down, swinging his legs over the saddle-seat. "It began on my first trip to the other Earth," said Ponter. I met a woman there, named Mare Vaughan ..."

      

Chapter 1

       It was Mary Vaughan's final evening in Sudbury, and she was experiencing decidedly mixed feelings.

       She had no doubt that getting out of Toronto had done her good. After what had happened down there — My God, she thought, had it really only been two weeks ago? — leaving town, getting away from all the things that would have reminded her of that horrible night, was surely the right course. And although it had ended on a melancholy note, she wouldn't have traded her time here with Ponter Boddit for anything.

       There was an unreal quality to her recollections; it all seemed so fantastic. And yet there were countless photographs and videos and even some x-rays to prove that it had really happened. A modern Neanderthal from a parallel version of Earth had somehow slipped into this universe. Now that he was gone, Mary hardly believed it herself.

       But it had happened. Ponter had really been here, and she had indeed ...

       Was she overstating it? Magnifying it in her mind?

       No. No, it was indeed what had occurred.

       She had come to love Ponter, maybe even to be in love with him.

       If only she'd been whole, complete, unviolated, untraumatized, perhaps things would have been different. Oh, she'd still have fallen for the big guy — of that she was sure — but when he'd reached out and touched her hand that night while they were looking up at the stars, she wouldn't have frozen.

       It had been too soon, she'd told him the next day. Too soon after ...

       She hated the word; hated to think it, to say it.

       Too soon after the rape.

       And tomorrow she had to go back home, back to where that rape had occurred, back to the campus of Toronto's York University, and her old life of teaching genetics.

       Her old life of being alone.

       She'd miss many things about Sudbury. She'd miss the lack of traffic congestion. She'd miss the friends she'd made here, including Reuben Montego and, yes, even Louise Benoît. She'd miss the relaxed atmosphere of tiny Laurentian University, where she'd done her mitochondrial DNA studies that had proven Ponter Boddit was indeed a Neanderthal.

       But, most of all, she realized, as she stood at the side of the country road looking up at the clear night sky, she'd miss this. She'd miss seeing stars in a profusion beyond counting. She'd miss seeing the Andromeda galaxy, which Ponter had identified for her. She'd miss seeing the Milky Way, arching overhead.

       And —

       Yes!

       Yes!

       She'd especially miss this: the aurora borealis, flickering and weaving across the northern sky, pale green sheets of light, ghostly curtains.

       Mary had indeed hoped to catch another glimpse of the aurora tonight. She'd been on her way back from Reuben Montego's place out in Lively (hah!), where she'd had a final barbecue dinner with him and Louise, and she'd pulled over at the side of the road specifically to look up at the night sky.

       The heavens were cooperating. The aurora was breathtaking.

       She'd forever associate the northern lights with Ponter. The only other time she'd seen them had been with him. She felt an odd sensation in her chest, the expanding feeling that went with awe battling the contracting sensation that accompanied sadness.

       The lights were beautiful.

       He was gone.

       A cool green glow bathed the landscape as the aurora continued to flicker and dance, aspens and birches silhouetted in front of the spectacle, their branches waving slightly in the gentle August breeze.

       Ponter had said he often saw the aurora. Partly that was because his cold-adapted people preferred more northerly latitudes than did the humans of this world.

       Partly, too, it was because the phenomenal Neanderthal sense of smell and their ever-vigilant Companion implants made it safe to be out even in the dark; Ponter's home town of Saldak, located at the same place in his world as Sudbury was in this world, didn't illuminate its streets at night.

       And partly it was because the Neanderthals used clean solar power for most of their energy needs, rendering their skies far less polluted than the ones here.

       Mary had made it to her current age of thirty-eight before seeing the aurora, and she didn't anticipate any reason to come back to Northern Ontario, so tonight, she knew, might well be the last time she'd ever see the undulating northern lights.

       She drank in the view.

       Some things were the same on both versions of Earth, Ponter had said: the gross details of geography, most of the animal and plant species (although the Neanderthals, never having indulged in overkilling, still had mammoths and moas in their world), the broad strokes of the climate. But Mary was a scientist: she understood all about chaos theory, about how the beating of a butterfly's wing was enough to affect weather systems half a world away. Surely just because there was a clear sky here on this Earth didn't mean the same was true on Ponter's world.

       But if the weather did happen to coincide, perhaps Ponter was also looking up at the night sky now.

       And perhaps he was thinking of Mary.

       Ponter would, of course, be seeing precisely the same constellations, even if he gave them different names — nothing terrestrial could possibly have disturbed the distant stars. But would the auroras be the same? Did butterflies or people have any effect on the choreography of the northern lights? Perhaps she and Ponter were looking at the exact same spectacle — a curtain of illumination waving back and forth, the seven bright stars of the Big Dipper (or, as he would call it, the Head of the Mammoth) stretching out above.

       Why, he might even right now be seeing the same shimmying to the right, the same shimmying to the left, the same —

       Jesus.

       Mary felt her jaw drop.

       The auroral curtain was splitting down the middle, like aquamarine tissue paper being torn by an invisible hand. The fissure grew longer, wider, starting at the top and moving toward the horizon. Mary had seen nothing like that on the first night she'd looked up at the northern lights.

       The sheet finally separated into two halves, parting like the Red Sea before Moses. A few — they looked like sparks, but could they really be that? — arced between the halves, briefly bridging the gap. And then the half on the right seemed to roll up from the bottom, like a window blind being wound onto its dowel, and, as it did so, it changed colors, now green, now blue, now violet, now orange, now turquoise.

       And then in a flash — a spectral burst of light — that part of the aurora disappeared.

       The remaining sheet of light was swirling now, as if it were being sucked down a drain in the firmament. As it spun more and more rapidly, it flung off gouts of cool green fire, a pinwheel against the night.

       Mary watched, transfixed. Even if this was only her second night actually observing an aurora, she'd seen countless pictures of the northern lights over the years in books and magazines. She'd known those still images hadn't done justice to the spectacle; she'd read how the aurora rippled and fluttered.

       But nothing had prepared her for this.

       The vortex continued to contract, growing brighter as it did so, until finally, with — did she really hear it? — with what sounded like a pop, it vanished.

       Mary staggered backward, bumping up against the cold metal of her rented Dodge Neon. She was suddenly aware that the forest sounds around her — insects and frogs, owls and bats — had fallen silent, as if every living thing was looking up in wonder.

       Mary's heart was pounding, and one thought kept echoing through her head as she climbed into the safety of her car.

       I wonder if it's supposed to do that ...


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An excerpt from Humans by Robert J. Sawyer. Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.


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