Good news awaited me first thing this morning – an email saying that the audio version of Half Sick of Shadows has been approved and is now being distributed to Audible, Amazon and iTunes (link available soon).
The free sample is here:
and is also available in the usual way at the abovementioned sites.
Once again, vocal credits are due to Menna Bonsels – for a real treat, listen to the way she steadily alters The Lady’s voice as the penultimate chapter Metamorph unfolds.
For those who would like the Audible version but do not have an account, one of the perks of setting up a free one-month trial is that you get your first title completely free (and then one credit per month after that). If you’re also an Amazon Prime member, you get three free months and three free titles! Why not take out the free trial and use it to listen to Half Sick of Shadows! Great for you, and also great for author and narrator both!
Another space blog post today, complete with some thoughts about life out there, and an extract from my work-in-progress The Liminal Zone.
First, though, the elusive Planet 9. For some time now, astronomers and space scientists have been speculating that an additional planet, of considerable size, lies out beyond Pluto. The evidence is indirect, in that such a planet has not been observed via telescope. Hence the matter is currently unresolved. But a recent paper argues that its presence would solve several unexplained issues, while its absence would create several more.
So what are the problems? Essentially, they come down to the logic of orbital dynamics, which says that you can’t just put a bunch of planets in random orbits around a star and expect them to be stable. Even though the gravitational attraction between two planets is small, it nevertheless exerts a steady regularising influence on the two paths around the sun. So the orbits of our sister planets show all kinds of patterns of ratios which at first sight seem remarkable (they’re still remarkable when you take gravity into account, but in a different way). And the more patterns that you see, the more you can infer about things you can’t see.
This, for example, is how the outer planets beyond Saturn were deduced before they were observed. The planets from Saturn inwards have been known since prehistory. But when careful observations with a telescope could be made, small but noticeable perturbations in their tracks were found. These pointed to the existence of unknown planets further out. The same principle explains why the orbits of Neptune and Pluto are synchronised – two of Pluto’s orbits match 3 of Neptunes. So, although Pluto dips inside Neptune’s orbit for a couple of decades every 248 years (one Pluto year), they are never at risk of colliding. These synchronisations happen all over the place – for example within the moon systems of Jupiter and Saturn, within the asteroid belt, or forming the delicate internal patterns of Saturn’s rings.
Now, Pluto is the first major body in the Kuiper Belt, a disc of space outside Neptune which we now know contains a decent number of small asteroids and similar objects. So it starts around 30AU from the Sun (AU = Astronomical Units, the distance between Earth and Sun). But it then Belt stops, quite abruptly, around 50AU. Why should this be? Why not feather off gradually?
Additionally, as we have built up a catalogue of these asteroids, a picture is emerging in which a surprising number have orbits around the sun which are aligned with each other. The simplest way to explain this is to suppose that some sizeable, but as yet unknown, object is synchronising them.
So, why has it not yet been found? Well, first of all, as Douglas Adams said, space is “vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big” (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 8). So although the potential planet is several times larger than the Earth, it is on average 20 times further from the sun than Neptune is – 600AU – with an orbit that is quite noticeably elliptical rather than circular. That means that there is a lot of space to search in, and also that it is dark and cold out there. There is not a lot for optical or infrared telescopes to detect. But each new discovery helps narrow the search window down, and some lucky group of astronomers may well announce a discovery soon.
Or, of course, not. It may be that the apparent alignment we see will be eroded by more observations. Which would be a bit of a shame, in that it is always nice to have unknown things to discover. It would also leave several other problems unresolved. Other things being equal, I’d like Planet 9 to be found!
So, what might it be like to live there? For one thing, cold and dark. Our sun is still the nearest and brightest star by a huge margin. But at 20 times further away than Pluto, it gets just 1/400 of the solar radiation of any kind. Or if you like, 0.0003% of what we enjoy on Earth. You’d want to know you had reliable sources of heat and light, if you went there. And it will take a long time to get there. It is not a place for a quick jaunt. For reference, Voyager 1 is a little over 100AU from Earth and has spent about 40 years getting there.
Could there be indigenous life out there? Well, life as we know it depends on liquid water, and the surface of Planet 9 is way too cold for that. But possibly, there could be subsurface heat turning ice into water at some depth? Or perhaps, there might be a moon which would be subject to gravitational flexing, just as happens to the inner moons of Jupiter and Saturn. This could – maybe – provide enough heat to give us water. We’ll have to wait and see.
I haven’t yet written anything going that far out from the sun. In the universe of Far from the Spaceports, an Earth-Mars trip takes a couple of weeks. An Earth-Pluto trip takes a few months. An Earth-Planet 9 trip would take anywhere from seven or eight months up to just over a year, depending on whereabouts in its orbit it happens to be. Not a journey you’d make lightly.
The Liminal Zone takes place on Charon, the main moon of Pluto. The New Horizons probe returned some fascinatingly detailed pictures to us of these two, transforming them from hazy blobs to detailed worlds. New Horizons is currently en route to an object further out in the Kuiper Belt, 2014 MU69, popularly known as Ultima Thule, and is due to arrive early next year. Finding a second destination more-or-less on the flight path after Pluto was a remarkable thing in itself, as objects are so exceedingly thinly spread out there. Anyway, The Liminal Zone is not a financial fraud book like Far from the Spaceports or Timing – it’s more of a voyage of discovery, both personally for the main character, Nina, and more generally for the society she is part of. So here is a short extract – Nina is talking to Percy, one of the Charon residents, about events surrounding an emergency several years ago…
Something about his expression made Nina stop. “But you didn’t actually see anything?” He drew back a little. “Seeing’s not everything. Haven’t you ever just known something for sure?” His eyes held hers, suddenly very intense, and she felt a little internal quaver run through her body. She had hoped it wouldn’t show, but then she saw the trace of a smile cross his eyes. “I’ve got Welsh blood, you know. It helps me comprehend things which maybe can’t be seen with the naked eye. And what about you, Nina? Where do you come from?” She went blank. “I grew up in Lacus Gaudii. On the Moon.” He shook his head. “Not that recent. Go back a few generations. Where did your family live? Before they came up to settle in that lunar lake of yours.” The noise of the kettle was maddening. She withdrew inside herself, trying to escape the pressure. “I… I don’t know. I suppose I could find out. It’s never mattered.” He looked away, letting the moment pass. “Ah, but it just might make a difference here.” She took a long breath and tried again. “But did you actually see anything?”
I’ll be posting more on progress into The Liminal Zone as it comes along…
Today’s blog is primarily about the latest addition to book readings generated using Amazon’s Polly text-to-speech software, but before getting to that it’s worth saying goodbye to the Cassini space probe. This was launched nearly twenty years ago, has been orbiting Saturn and its moons since 2004, and is now almost out of fuel. By the end of the week, following a deliberate course change to avoid polluting any of the moons, Cassini will impact Saturn and break up in the atmosphere there.
So, Half Sick of Shadows and Polly. Readers of this blog, or the Before the Second Sleep blog (first post and second post) will know that I have been using Amazon’s Polly technology to generate book readings. The previous set were for the science fiction book Timing, Far from the Spaceports 2. Today it is the turn of Half Sick of Shadows.
Without further ado, and before getting to some technical stuff, here is the result. It’s a short extract from late on in the book, and I selected it specifically because there are several speakers.
OK. Polly is a variation of the text-to-speech capability seen in Amazon Alexa, but with a couple of differences. First, it is geared purely to voice output, rather than the mix of input and output needed for Alexa to work.
Secondly, Polly allows a range of gender, voice and language, not just the fixed voice of Alexa. The original intention was to provide multi-language support in various computer or mobile apps, but it suits me very well for representing narrative and dialogue. For this particular reading I have used four different voices.
If you want to set up your own experiment, you can go to this link and start to play. You’ll need to set up some login credentials to get there, but you can extend your regular Amazon ones to do this. This demo page allows you to select which voice you want and enter any desired text. You can even download the result if you want.
But the real magic starts when you select the SSML tab, and enter more complex examples. SSML is an industry standard way of describing speech, and covers a whole wealth of variations. You can add what are effectively stage directions with it – pauses of different lengths, directions about parts of speech, emphasis, and (if necessary) a phonetic letter by letter description. You can speed up or slow down the reading, and raise or lower the pitch. Finally, and even more usefully for my purposes, you can select the spoken language as well as the language of the speaker. So you can have an Italian speaker pronouncing an English sentence, or vice versa. Since all my books are written in English, that means I can considerably extend the range of speakers. Some combinations don’t work very well, so you have to test what you have specified, but that’s fair enough.
If you’re comfortable with the coding effort required, you can call the Polly libraries with all the necessary settings and generate a whole lot of text all at once, rather than piecemeal. Back when I put together the Timing extracts, I wrote a program which was configurable enough that now I just have to specify the text concerned, plus the selection of voices and other sundry details. It still takes a little while to select the right passage and get everything organised, but it’s a lot easier than starting from scratch every time. Before too much longer, there’ll be dialogue extracts from Far from the Spaceports as well!
Just a short post today to highlight a YouTube video based around one of the Polly conversations from Timing that I have been talking about recently. This one is of Mitnash, Slate, Parvati and Chandrika talking on board Parvati’s spaceship, The Parakeet, en route to Phobos. The subject of conversation is the recent wreck of Selif’s ship on Tean, one of the smaller asteroids in the Scilly isles group…
The link is: https://youtu.be/Uv5L0yMKaT0
While we’re in YouTube, here is the link to the conversation with Alexa about Timing… https://youtu.be/zLHZSOF_9xo
It’s slow work, but gradually all these various conversations and readings will get added to YouTube and other video sharing sites.
Sometime in the next couple of weeks they’ll be uploaded to YouTube, but for now they are just audio links included below and on the appropriate blog page. You’ll find more about this below. In passing, there’s a small prize available for the first person who correctly spots what’s wrong with the voice selection for Chandrika! Also, and unrelated to that, you’ll hear that not all of the voices are equally successful. I shall continue to tweak them, so hopefully the quality will steadily improve.
But before that, NASA just released two YouTube videos to celebrate the two year anniversary of when the New Horizons probe was at nearest approach to Pluto and Charon. They have turned the collection of images and other telemetry into flyby simulations of the dwarf planet and its moon, as though you were manoeuvring over them. Both the colours and the vertical heights of surface features have been exaggerated so you can get a better sense of what you are seeing, but that aside, it’s as close as most of us will get to personally experiencing these places.
OK, back to Polly. As well as specifying which of several different voices you want, you can give Polly some metadata about the sentence to help generate correct pronunciation. Last week I talked about getting proper nouns correct, like Mitnash. But in English you also get lots of words which are spelled the same but pronounced differently – homonyms. The one which I ran into was “minute”, which can either be a unit of time (min-nit) or something very small (my-newt). Another problem case I found was “produce” – was I expecting the noun form (prod-yuce) or the verb (pro-deuce)?
In all such cases, Polly tries to guess from context which you mean, but sometimes guesses wrong. Happily you can simply add some metadata to say which you want. Sometimes this is simply a matter of adding in a tag saying “I want the noun”. Other times you can say which of several alternate senses of the word you want, and simply check the underlying list until you find the right one. And if all else fails, there’s always the option of spelling it out phonetically…
I thought for today that I would put together several snippets from Half Sick of Shadows, together with a good draft of the planned cover. Both picture and writing may change a little over the next couple of months, but they’re pretty close now to final version. All being well, I am hoping to release the book around or just after Easter this year.
From that point on the lady sang each day, whether the people were in view or not. It made her self-conscious at first, and she felt riddled with doubt about the quality of her voice. But then she reasoned that since neither could hear the other, it could hardly matter. The main thing was to join herself in spirit with them. One day in the future, when she finally met them and learned how they spoke, she would concern herself with matching their tone.
But all unknown to her, her voice slipped out from behind her walls, and spilled like a faint echo of the river’s song across the eyot and over to the further shore. Passers-by listened to the leaping sounds, and whispered to each other of places where another world came close.
“It is a goddess of the running waters,” said some, “a queen in exile,” said others, and a few just sighed, aching in their heart for the loss of a place they had never known.
She did not hear that, but she saw how people came out from the village to look at her walls, or kneel with arms outstretched and faces turned up to the sky. A cairn of pebbles started to grow where the bank came closest, and when it was waist-high they left gifts there, little offerings out of their meagre possessions.
Second extract – further on
Unquenchable hunger seized her again. She tried not to eat, but it was stronger than gravity, irresistible as wind, and she could not deny it. Great helpless tears rolled down her face even as she tore at great strips of leaf and swallowed brimming bowls of sap.
Heavy, and feeling full to bursting, she wallowed on her couch, desperate for nightfall to come. Would she have even one more day before the unstoppable urge to sleep overwhelmed her?
They came that evening, and held up the infant again so she could see it. She sang again for them, and her song was full of both the beauty and the sorrow of the passing world. She watched the glow of wonder on their faces as they heard her. She knew what they could not, that this would be the last time she would see them, and she sang to bless them as the shortening day eased into night.
Long after they had gone, she lay looking at the riverbank where they had stood. The world was made up of shadows now. When her brother and sister next came, when they held up the infant for her to see, she would no longer be there. She would be lost in her own world of slumber and transformation, and the quick years of the world would roll unseen around her.
How long would they continue to come, she wondered, once the sound of her singing was gone? Would they think that she was lost to them, lost somewhere in the shadows? She watched herself stuffing food into her body, slithering awkwardly, heavily, into her chamber, and she felt that her heart was breaking.
Third extract – towards the end
The lady saw, and passed softly among the raucous din to stand near him.
“You know it too, don’t you? You know that you should be with her. Not this king, for all the food that fills his larder.”
He shivered and looked around. The man beside him asked a question, but he shook his head, puzzled, took a pinch of salt and tossed it over his shoulder. The lady withdrew, and his anxiety retreated again
The king gestured to the minstrel and sat again. The room hushed in anticipation.
His singing was beautiful, she realised. The assistant kept the rhythm steady and flowing on the longer strings, as the master sang out the tale, plucking out higher riffs and ornaments here and there. She watched with admiration as his lay unfolded, not knowing the words but appreciating the patterns. And her own voice lifted up and joined him, even though her body lay on the couch within her chamber.
The lady moved among the guests, less than a shadow among them, step by step up to the musicians. She stood in front of them, basking in the melody. The singer’s words never faltered, but his gaze followed her as she came up to him. She had no idea what he saw of her – perhaps some extra brightness against the firelight, or a flicker of movement like a hidden bird within a thicket – but something in him knew that she was there.
The people heard his song, though not hers, and they were wild with delight as he finished, stilling the strings with the flat of his hand. The king took a ring from his own hands to give to the minstrel, but he shook his head. Instead, he stood and bowed very low before the lady. The room was silent now, waiting to see what happened. She wanted to lift him up: this adulation was altogether too much. But she knew that the desire was fruitless, and that she could not touch him.
The king spoke, a note of puzzlement in his voice, and the minstrel stood upright again. His answer was quiet, respectful, and he gestured to where the lady stood. The king, eyes narrowed, glanced here and there, but could not see her. She looked beyond him to the queen, and her face was alive with interest. She was aware, and so was the king’s right-hand man, who had moved across behind the queen to protect her.
There was a growing noise in the room, a buzz of speculation, and suddenly the focused attention became too much. The lady fled the room in haste, pulled herself from the couch and its loom, and pattered to and fro in the courtyard, slowly being soothed by the sights and scents of her garden.
Finally, she curled up on a bench in the pale sunshine. She could only face a few people at a time, she realised.
I have had major broadband problems this week as BT have struggled to get their equipment working properly. So today is just a short post, mainly to say that Far from the Spaceports is on Kindle countdown offer for the next few days.
Meanwhile, I am preparing the sequel Timing for release later this year, probably in the early autumn, and here is a short extract to be going on with.
Rydal opened her door just as we turned into the little access corridor down to her door. Slate had signalled Capstone, presumably. Like a lot of the entrances I had already passed since the dock, the approach was decorated with murals. She had chosen a butterfly theme, and I touched the delicate blue wings of one as I passed.
My greeting was awkward, and whatever words I chose didn’t sound at all fluent, but she didn’t appear to notice. It finally occurred to me that her anxiety about the coming crisis was back in the ascendant, and she didn’t have much emotional space left to be attuned to my problems. She hugged me in a sisterly way, and turned back inside.
“You’re a bit earlier than I thought, Mitnash. Come in for a few minutes while I finish getting ready.”
We went in. She had suspended gauze in loops and strands from the ceiling to soften the bluntness of the original drilling. For some reason it gave the sense of being in woodland. She gestured towards the back wall.
“You go and talk to my pets for a while. I won’t be long.”
The idea of pets intrigued me. I thought of the parakeets that flocked around the St Mary’s market area, and wondered if she had a couple of those somewhere.
There was a clear panel, floor to ceiling, separating the living room from a separate, much narrower chamber. At first all I could see was vegetation, lots of leafy stems with exotic flowers. It was all too small and cluttered for parakeets, and I was perplexed.
Then something moved. I had thought it was a flower, but it had wings, and with an abrupt internal shift I realised that it was a butterfly. Now that I knew what to look for, I could see more in there, a couple of dozen, of several different varieties. Most were resting, others were eating some sort of syrup. All at once, with no signal that I could see, two of them took flight, wings alight with colour as they danced around the chamber for a while before settling again.
“So how do you like my little friends?”
Rydal had come back while I had been fascinated by the pair. I kept watching, hoping to see another one in flight.
“I have never seen anything like it. They are quite extraordinary.”
I caught my breath as another pair took to the wing and circled each other for a while.
“It must be difficult keeping the environment just right for them.”
I didn’t know much about butterflies, but I had heard that ones this large needed a lot of heat and moisture. She moved close to the glass, watching the pair flit about. I looked at her reflected face, peaceful in contemplation of flight.
“Not very different to us humans, when you compare it to what’s outside of here.”
She gestured towards the ceiling. The first time I had been on the Scilly Isles, I had been disturbed by the thought of airlessness so close. It had seemed different to the experience on board a ship, in some visceral way I could not explain. That had changed, and I was now unphased by the thinness of the skin which kept me safe here. Instead, I was captivated by her words, and was imagining us as human butterflies, straying out of our inner system home, moving away from the sun which had overseen our birth.
She turned suddenly, to catch me looking at her, and the spell was broken. Her anxiety and my shame resurfaced.
Here’s the next in the Basic Elements series – this time looking at food. Life needs food – human life just as much as any other kind of life. And for a great deal of humanity’s existence, finding an adequate supply of food has dominated communal needs. Douglas Adams, with his usual flair for insight, wrote of the three phases of every major Galactic civilisation, characterised by the questions “how can we eat?“, “why do we eat?“, and finally, “where shall we have lunch?“. Many readers will probably think of themselves in the third phase, but it’s worth remembering that a huge number of people on Earth are still struggling at phase one.
After the glaciers of the last ice age retreated, about 12,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer groups followed the milder weather back north, resettling tracts of land which had been their distant ancestors’ homes long before. They followed not just the warmth, but also the herds and flocks as they migrated, and the seasonal yield of trees and bushes. Small migrant groups could eat off the land tolerably well, so long as they were willing to keep on the move, and retained a good pragmatic understanding of seasonal changes. They were self-sufficient.
Then farming came along, spreading across Europe from south east to north west. Farming communities have to stay put, not just season to season but also year to year. Fixed territory, and its ongoing fertility, become crucial. Our remote ancestors must have seen a clear advantage in this way of life, partly no doubt because it could support much greater populations, but it also brought risk. A bad year can signal disaster – and it is no longer possible just to follow the herds elsewhere. Your communal wealth can no longer easily be moved, and a good parcel of land somewhere nearby has probably already been settled. Either you stay put, and try to wait out the famine, or you go to war.
But another corollary of settled communities is that they typically have a surplus of some things – and a surplus can be traded for whatever you lack. So you hedge, accepting that you cannot grow or produce some goods, and relying on your neighbours who can. You grow less dependent on your immediate fields to give everything you need, but more dependent on the resources of a wider area.
The historical fiction I write is set in a place and time where the dependence on other places has not become too firmly fixed. Kephrath and her sister towns certainly make use of trade links, but for bulk supplies are largely self-sufficient. Four towns together, and their hinterland, can manage.
The process of increasing specialisation of any one place, and increasing dependence on an ever larger area, has continued largely uninterrupted ever since. In both World War 1 and 2, arguably the biggest threat to the United Kingdom was the U-boat blockade cutting the nation off from resource supplies. There were great efforts to boost the domestic food supply, but a modern nation at war needs a whole array of raw materials which come from many sources – coal, oil, iron ore, rubber, exotic trace minerals, and so on. Without convoys bringing these in, the most abundant supply of food would still have lost the war.
Looking into the future, different authors have predicted different outcomes. In his Foundation series, Asimov reckoned that the trend of reliance on ever bigger areas would continue unchecked. Trantor, the capital planet of his Galactic Empire, grew no food at all, and depended on the agricultural wealth of multiple nearby star systems – an Achilles heel which was to prove fatal. Star Trek, on the other hand, assumes a technological solution in which energy can be converted into food from information templates in a replicator. The only thing you now need is an energy source – such a world is effectively reverting all the way back to hunter-gatherers foraging for supplies as they travel.
The solar system of Far from the Spaceports is more like Asimov’s model, though of course vastly smaller in scale. There are no food replicators or protein resequencers. None of the settlement domes has hinterlands of lush fields able to grow local crops. The best that can be done out in the Scilly Isles of the asteroid belt is hydroponic farming – small scale and energy hungry. Otherwise there’s imported goods, whether carried in fresh or (more compactly) freeze-dried. Or – perhaps amusingly but, I think, credibly – there are very small scale livestock solutions.
“Now, Mister Mitnash, were you wanting the chicken or the fish tonight?”
I hesitated, not being very sure. She laughed.
“No point spending too long deciding. It’s all guinea-pig anyway. I just prepare them a mite differently and you’d never know they’re the same animal. And it’s what you’ve been having everywhere else on Scilly.”
“To be sure. Tell me now, where did you eat when you arrived on St Mary’s?”
“And what did you have? His Venusian azure duck wrap?”
I nodded, and she carried on, “So did you honestly think he pays to ship real duck all the way out from Earth? Just to cook it and put it in a wrap? No, Mister Mitnash, all his menu is actually guinea-pig, but he’s very good at disguising it. For just me here, I only need one male and half a dozen females. Taji has three males and thirty females. Or something like that. So now, would you like the chicken or the fish?”
I thought about it and wondered if it would make much difference.
The actual release date is set at Monday November 23rd. The paperback copy will be along at about the same time depending on the vagaries of the process. And here also for your pleasure is the cover, created for me as usual by Ian Grainger. With real asteroidal textures from Vesta and elsewhere blended in to the image.
Quick wits and loyalty confront high-tech crime in space
Welcome to the Scilly Isles, a handful of asteroids bunched together in space, well beyond the orbit of Mars. This remote and isolated habitat is home to a diverse group of human settlers, and a whole flock of parakeets. But earth-based financial regulator ECRB suspects that it’s also home to serious large scale fraud, and the reputation of the islands comes under threat.
Enter Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate, sent out from Earth to investigate. Their ECRB colleagues are several weeks away at their ship’s best speed, and even message signals take an hour for the round trip. Slate and Mitnash are on their own, until they can work out who on Scilly to trust. How will they cope when the threat gets personal?
A few days ago I finished a complete draft of Far from the Spaceports which I was happy with. It’s not quite a final version, and there’ll be another couple of edit sweeps, but it’s nearly there.
So to celebrate that, here’s a longish extract from near the start, as Mitnash discovers something of why he is being sent out from Earth to investigate some fraud. The scene takes place on Earth, at Mitnash’s place of work in Finsbury Circus, London. The actual release date is a few weeks away yet, as I run through final edits and the process of getting kindle, epub and physical copies ready.
Elias swirled an ident onto the wall screen. It dissolved away the ECRB logo to show instead a top-down view of the asteroid belt, unevenly coloured. There was a deep red area to the left, fading quickly through orange to yellow and green. There were a couple of other red patches, but nothing so striking as the first one. I looked at it for a few seconds. It seemed perfectly graduated at first glance, but as you studied it, little irregularities appeared here and there, anomalies in the superficial smoothness.
Little white blobs appeared roughly where you might expect them. Ceres was well away from the centre of the red area, about a radian anticlockwise. Mars was almost opposite Ceres, as well as a long way in-system. Jupiter and a whole shoal of moons were almost directly out into the cold from that red epicentre.
The Jovian data was almost all green, and bore no resemblance to the glaring red directly inwards. I blinked. Elias laughed.
“Funnily enough, we did think of comparing that ourselves. But full marks for thinking of it.”
“Why the difference?”
“There’s actually no reason they would be the same. The Jovians get a separate feed from any of the belt settlements, or Mars for that matter. Reutberg sends out EOD London rates and benchmarks to all the outstations at the same time, plus all of the calc methodologies to derive the rest. Of course the arrival time varies per station in exactly the way you’d expect, but there shouldn’t be time for anyone to take advantage.”
“This is just arbitrage?”
It sounded a disappointing end to what had started out as an interesting problem. Arbitrage was an old business – it went back at least as far as when our ancestors were trading goats for grain or shiny beads. If you were a shiny bead trader with a quick pair of feet and an appetite for moderate risk, you could juggle the trade in goats and grain to your advantage and – with a good dollop of luck – go home a richer man. But it was hard to do in a massively connected world, and friction in the margins meant that those who tried it today regularly lost the game.
There were no short cut alleyways that the modern shiny beadsman could take to get ahead of his more ponderous fellows. Reutberg sent all the information out in synchronised fractalised packages, all at the same time, and everything went at light speed. The fastest systems available kept all of the triangulated rates aligned. Unless somebody had quietly invented a wormhole, or figured out how to curve space to order, there was no way to get ahead of the system. And if someone had come up with such a thing, I was quite sure they would be using it for more than a bit of petty market fixing in the asteroid belt.
I leaned forward, touched the white blob closest to the red centre.
“I suppose I’m going there? Is that Pallas?”
“No, not even close. Pallas is round again from Ceres, in the bottom right of the plot. Those are called the Scilly Isles. There are a good number of people scattered on those rocks. It should be easy enough for you to blend in. Somewhere on those islands you should find the root of the problem. Or at any rate some good leads.”
“Who am I this time?”
“Bored coder, wannabe miner with what you think is a foolproof way to find precious metals. Rare earths in particular. Learn all you need to about commodities for the rest of today, from extraction to dealing. And it would do no harm to refresh on benchmarks too.”
He looked again at the timepiece.
“Time’s up. You have an orientation session on rare earths from one of our economists in twenty minutes on level five. Then another one with an ex-miner who will tell you all about detectors and display analytics. Then another one with me straight after that, when we’ll go over the details in the secure pod on level three. You leave tomorrow morning.”
Look out for Far From the Spaceports in just a few weeks now…
And here for fun is an ESA picture of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as seen by the Rosetta probe…