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Authors: William Barton

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The Transmigration of Souls

BOOK: The Transmigration of Souls
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The Transmigration of Souls

adventures in a




William Barton

author’s preferred edition

138,500 words

Copyright © 1996, 2011 William Barton

Public Domain Cover Photo:

Aristarchus Crater from Apollo 15, courtesy NASA

As I walked through the wilderness of this world,

I lighted on a certain place where there was a den,

and laid me down in that place to sleep,

and as I slept I dreamed a dream.

—Pilgrim’s Progress
, John Bunyan



Edgar Rice Burroughs,

Olaf Stapledon,

E.E. Smith, Ph.D.,

and all the others

whose shadows,

despite a certain amount

of bad press,

still reach out

to infinity.

Previous Books by

by William Barton

Hunting On Kunderer

A Plague of All Cowards

Dark Sky Legion

Radio Silence

Yellow Matter

When Heaven Fell

The Transmigration of Souls

Acts of Conscience

When We Were Real

Moments of Inertia

Collaborations by

William Barton and

Michael Capobianco


Fellow Traveler

Alpha Centauri

White Light

For more information visit:

website active Sept. 2011


This book has less backstory than most. When I pulled the Great Switcheroo that resulted in
Radio Silence
being trunked and
When Heaven Fell
being submitted in its place, the contract I signed, as was usual in those days, included what’s called an “option book.” Publishers aren’t compelled to buy them, and often don’t, and the sad fact is,
Radio Silence
was the option book for
Dark Sky Legion
at Bantam. Since it’d already been withdrawn from Warner Aspect, I needed something else.

I have a vivid memory of sitting in Betsy Mitchell’s very nice Manhattan office one day in late 1993, telling her all about the epic tale I was concocting about an exploration of interdimensional travel in something called the Multiverse. I think I tried to babble about Bohm’s Alternative to the Standard Model while I was at it, and eventually she asked me what I planned to call this fine story.

Well, sez I, my working title is
The Space-Time Juggernaut.

Imagine the look on her face.

So I blurted, But I think
The Transmigration of Souls
would make a much better title.

Yes it would.

So it was.

And where did that title come from (other than certain ancient Greeks and Hindus)? As it happens, I had recently sold a story to
Tomorrow Science Fiction
, submitted under the title “The Transmigration of Souls.” Algis Budrys, the editor-publisher, hated that title, and decided to call it “Almost Forever,” instead. Fine title, and that left the other one free for reuse, so...

As for that working title...

When I was twelve or so, I read an Ace Double (F-227), on one side of which was
The Space-Time Juggler
, by John Brunner (flip side,
The Astronauts Must Not Land,
also by Brunner, ). A little friend of mine named Mike (but not the Mike with whom I am more usually associated), also read it and, for some reason, kept calling it
The Space-Time Juggernaut.

I kept wondering what the Hell a Space-Time Juggernaut might be, and, over the course of the next thirty years, came up with an idea.

People always ask science fiction writers where they come up with all those crazy ideas. And that’s where this one came from, a twelve year old boy who was probably a little dyslexic and another twelve year old boy who was as loony as the day is long.

And you know what’s worse? The Ace Double edition of
The Space-Time Juggler
is a reprint. It was originally published in 1953 as
The Wanton of Argus
. Sheesh. But my dyslexic friend also misread the central character’s name as Kelab the Conqueror, rather than Conjurer. Who knows what I might have written then?

—William Barton

September 2011, at the

Barking Spider Ranch

One. From the Earth to the Moon.

God is great.

God is great.

Omry Inbar awoke and, as always, opened his eyes slowly, morning lethargy filling his arms and legs like a weight of heated sand, looking up at the ceiling, at an interplay of random shadows in the steely half-light of subh.

God is great. The Caller’s voice echoing, hollow and eerie, from the cosmodrome’s public address system, Allahu... a long, mournful wail, crossing the stony desert land of the Maghrebi back-country, akbar chopped short, decisive.

I bear witness there is no god but God.

Omry Inbar stretching, feeling the rubbery muscles of his back arch, spinal cartilage crackling softly, rubbing the side of his face against a soft silk pillowslip, enjoying those last minutes of half-awareness, those last cloudy moments of sleep.

I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.

Surrenderers of the Path rising, tardy if they hadn’t already risen, completing their ablutions while the People of the Book slept on, getting out their rugs, preparing to submit...

Come to prayer.

Come to contentment.

Prayer is better than sleep.

Those interesting words of the
. Prayer is better than sleep. Sitting up now, feet on a soft, dark, intricately-patterned rug, listening to words that were infinitely more familiar than the prayers of his own long-lost faith.

There is no god but God.

Thinking, but here I am, merely a Jew, able to sit comfortably on the edge of my bed, while the Faithful scramble to prayer. The public relations people needed one of the six to be something other than
. A Christian, perhaps, as a sop to the United Arab Republic’s powerful fifteen percent minority. There were forty million of them, living in city ghettos and rural villages, stretching across the land from the Tigris frontier of Iran to the Maghreb’s Atlantic shore.

No. Too obvious. A
, perhaps? Someone from the small Levantine population, clustered around Beirut, a goodwill gesture to our supposed ally Iran, all that buffers us from the might of Green China...

But it needed to be someone who would fit in with the crew of
, someone who could do real scientific labor, this not being a public-relations expedition. What they found was a Jewish planetologist, a Jew who could stand in front of the TV cameras and reassure the world that this was a fair, democratic,
UAR. A Jew who could be counted on not to embarrass them with inappropriate Jewish prayers. Are we bitter then, Omry Inbar? Do we feel like some twentieth-century American nigger, condemned to stand at the back of the bus?

That’s the way
feel, it seems. TV news only yesterday, sandwiched between
’s launch preparations and film of the ongoing bloody war between Argentina and Brazil, proxies in the battle for preeminence of the UAR and China. Christians insisting they could
use the library of the Great
in Qahira, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were kept.

Bitter smile.

No Jew would dare ask, much less demand.

has been gone for a hundred years already.

He stood and walked to the open window, pushed the heavy draperies aside, looked out on morning light. The sky was bright blue-gray overhead, cloudless, tarnished by a high haze of tawny desert dust, the concrete and rocky sand below pale tan and gold, the air still cold with night, though, in another hour, it would be hot. Low, stuccoed buildings in the foreground, concrete basins with imported desert plants from around the world, an extravagant little fountain, spraying its pretty, rainbow-tangled mist.

Faithful taking up their positions, more or less lined up, facing the
of Islam. Open hands raised to shoulder height, uttering the Magnification together, dissociating themselves from all earthly affairs for the duration of the prayer. Over here a few Partisans of Ali, praying together.

Beyond them, a little knot of Faithless. Atheists and Secular Humanists standing idly by, because nothing compelled them to prayer, but the rules said you must stand politely, quietly while others prostrated themselves before God.

Three Christians kneeling beside the fountain, heads bowed over clasped hands. Here in the Maghreb, they’d be Roman-rite Catholics. Maybe there’d be a Jew standing safely among the atheists. Maybe not.
below, saying, “God is One, the eternal God, begetting not and unbegotten; none is equal to Him.”

Omry Inbar raised his eyes from the little square with its fountain and praying workmen, looked out across the desert to Hammaghir Cosmodrome’s main launch complex, and felt his heart pulse once, very hard, in his chest, felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle with anticipation.

There, amid the gantries and cranes, the golden cone of
rose out of the desert dust. Waiting. Waiting for me. My God. We’re going to the Moon again at last. Three generations since the Americans had so suddenly closed their moonbase and brought their people home. Three generations since they’d closed their country like a fortress. Letting no one in, so very few out. Tourists, scholars mostly, exiting through the big rural embassy southwest of London. Serious men and women with bombs in their heads, scattering around the world.

There would be Americans here to watch the launch tomorrow. A small gathering the government had reluctantly let in. Historians, they said. People would avoid them, like carriers of some loathsome disease.

Paris, of course, had had to be evacuated, had never really been completely restored, after the
arrested that man, put him to the question with implements of torture. Four-tenths of a kiloton, they said. Only four-tenths. Like four hundred tons of dynamite. Not much radioactivity. Fragments of police headquarters strewn far and wide, the Seine’s waters filling up the little crater, carrying bomb debris down through Normandy to the sea.

And the Tower went down. French will never forgive them for that. Not that it matters, anyway. Who are the French, these days, now that Brittany and Provence and Aquitaine have their independence? Nothing. Just the snobbish overlords of some tiny, poor Ferenghi principality. Italians with funny accents, that’s all.

We pretend. We pretend the Americans are no more. We pretend they’re... irrelevant. We pretend, but...

Down below, the prayers of
were finished, a sliver of sun brilliant on the eastern horizon, men and women hurrying off to do their jobs, for, in only seven hours,
would rise above the Sahara.

Seven hours, and I go to the Moon.

Shema Yisraël, adonai elohanu, adonai ehod

I remember, after all.


Ling Erhshan was proud of his moonship, hardly able to believe the deed was nearly done, but knew
Ming Tian
was a pathetic little beast, nonetheless.

Look at her, standing on this century-old launch pad, surrounded by the girders and struts of the service tower assembly. A bell-shaped reentry capsule, all that would come home, just four meters across its base, a little less than that high, sitting atop a landing rocket the same diameter that was little more than a restartable hypergolic upper stage, newly equipped with extendible legs, a stage basically identical to the one China had been using to deliver large comsats to geosynchronous earth orbit since the late forties of the previous century. Had been using since America abandoned the Moon.

And all of it mounted atop a
launch vehicle, a hydrogen-powered sustainer with modified plumbing so its fuel could be topped-off on orbit, white-painted core obscured by the slimmer black shapes of six solid-fuel strap-on boosters. Synthetic rubber. Purified fertilizer. Powdered aluminum. Twentieth-century technology, dating back a hundred-sixty years and more, to the days of Apollo and those first flights to the Moon.

You had to hand it to those Americans. Not every people would have had the will to go to the Moon twice, then turn around and abandon it twice. Amazing folk. Inscrutable.

And, of course, no Americans, those few who traveled abroad, were ever allowed inside China, not with their country closed up like a giant fortress, not with those few, “scholarly tourists,” wandering the world with nuclear weapons secreted in their heads.

When that woman blew up in Tokyo, back in 2104...

It’d been repaired of course, the Ginza rebuilt, but still...

Keep them out of China. Please.

Ling stood on the upper access arm for a while, looking out over afternoon desert, past the buildings nearest the launch complex, toward glimmering Lop Nor, freshly refilled as part of the latest reclamation/resettlement project. It had been a beautiful day, with the bluest of skies, the freshest of desert breezes, really a rare day for the old Taklamakan, where once the Tarim Darya had flowed down to the Sarmatian Sea, on the old, dead west coast, from whence ancient Chinese mariners had set sail for Atlantis of the Mist.

You’ve come a long way for an orphan boy, old Mr. Nothing-from-the-Mountain. A long way from orphanage to scholarship to professorship to bureaucratic power. Built your moonship, arranged to fly it yourself.

Too bad it’s come to this.

Too bad about the Arabs.

Imagine the historical tension, the world-wide wonder, if people
we were here, knew that we too were about to fly. But they didn’t know. No one knew. And no one
know until tomorrow. The UAR program had been conducted quite openly, with regular reports in the global news media, just the way those similar Americans of long ago had conducted Apollo, taking their triumphs, making their mistakes, before the eyes of the world.

Strange to think of the Arabs and Americans, supposedly so different, behaving in such similar ways. Different? No. The old Americans, the Americans of the last millennium, were accounted the second most religious folk of the world, second only to the prayer-mumbling millions of Hindu India. Why should we be surprised that they failed to see the crystalline logic of

Americans and Arabs alike, driven not by cool, considered, rational  self-interest, but by the torrid heat of their impossible dreams and wanton fantasies. How much difference is there, really, between Sindbad the Sailor and Dirty Harry? Go ahead, then, make my day.

And, meanwhile, we, we supposedly free, supposedly dispassionate, mighty, capitalist Chinese, people of what the world chooses to call Green China... all in secret. Hidden. Why? Because we might fail? Or because we feared the Arabs might hurry then, might beat us to the goal?

Yet it’s come to this, here and now, as we rush against the clock’s blinking cursor, hurry to launch on the same day after all.

Down at the distal end of the access arm, technicians were working on the capsule, beginning the task of buttoning
Ming Tian
up for her voyage, voyage now only hours away. They stopped to shake his hand, Chen Li and his crew slapping him on the back. Laughing. Wish I could go with you, Professor.

I wish you could too, old friend.

Chen Li had been his chief technician since the project’s inception, in secret, fifteen long years ago. If it hadn’t been for the Arabs, he’d be boarding her now, to fly by my side. He and four others, the originally planned crew of six.

Ling sighed and stooped, climbing through the open hatch into the capsule’s interior. Light green paint, polished metal struts, matte black control panel with red-LED readouts and color-LCD monitors. Colonel Chang Wushi reclining in the pilot’s chair. Da Chai, an agent of the government’s nameless security agency, next to him as flight engineer. My place. Chen Li’s place.

Still, the two, with their backups, had trained alongside the real crew for three years now. Ever since the government decided it couldn’t let a crew of peaceful academics race UAR to the Moon.

Because who knew what the Americans had left behind at their old base? They’d come out of there in an awful hurry, they had. Gone home in a rush, flight after flight ferrying passengers and cargo home. Then nothing. Then America closing its doors, letting no one in, only “tourists” out. Tourists with bombs in their heads. Ling Erhshan had been to the American embassy outside London just once. It was, in some ways, the twenty-second century’s biggest tourist attraction. Come see America’s face on the world.

Every now and again you’d see a strange plane take off or land. And you’d have to wonder just how,
, these ancestorless Americans could build a silent, wingless aircraft that could take off and land vertically, could transition to horizontal flight like
, could accelerate at ten gees, rising steeply into the stratosphere, turning away west, leaving behind some thin rumble of an impossibly quiet sonic boom.

There were stories, all right, about what was inside Fortress America. Tourists’ tales, told to people more curious than wise, stories leaked from the security agencies of the UAR and China, who still flew spy satellites overhead.

America the Consumer Paradise. America of the magic toys.

But the toys seldom escaped. Aircraft that approached her shores found themselves unaccountably turning away. Ships that came within a hundred kilometers simply stopped. You could go to Mexico and stand by the Rio Grande, could go stand in the Canadian woods, and marvel at those walls of solid air. Could marvel at fairy castles visible in the distance, like something, yes, very much like something out of some American fantasy movie of the 1930s.

Could go stand on Vancouver Island and watch the magic planes go back and forth between the mainland and Hawaii, or on up to Alaska. Seventy years. Now this.

Ming Tian
no longer had room for a crew of six, because the government had decided that, in place of three men, in place of her principal scientific instruments, she would carry a collimated particle beam weapon and storage battery of some advanced design, the same sort of weapon Chinese warships carried to knock down incoming missiles.

BOOK: The Transmigration of Souls
2.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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