a science fiction novel
by Tom Cool

Scott shrugged the pack higher up his aching back, then cinched the belt tighter. He stood in the middle of a switch-back of a path that ascended the western face of the Santa Lucia mountains. In only one hour of hiking, he had climbed a kilometer in altitude. From here, he could see beyond the tree-covered foothills out onto the glimmering wrinkled surface of the Pacific Ocean. The ocean looked strangely vast, because from such a great height, his horizon extended one hundred miles.

Scott turned and continued to climb. The sun was near the horizon. He wanted to crest the mountain and descend into the high valley to make his camp before the light failed.

Grunting, gasping, he strode up the path, each footfall higher than the last. His heart pounded so hard that he could feel the shock of each pulse as it hit the base of his brain. He felt dizzy. An older man would have slowed down, but Scott continued, confident that his body would never betray him.

I can't fail, he thought. I won't fail. I refuse to fail.

Joe Bender and Scott McMichaels had attempted to execute the Meta program, but it had failed and had continued to fail. Sometimes it refused to execute at all. Sometimes it executed, but produced gibberish. After two solid weeks of failures, Dellazo's comments had grown increasingly sarcastic.

This Saturday afternoon, after another failure, Scott had felt trapped. He stormed out of Taradyne. He drove to the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, registered with the rangers, parked his car at the trail head and began to climb. Now Scott arrived at the summit as the sun stood a few diameters above the rim of the ocean. Before him, the path plunged down into the high valley. Scott glanced over his shoulder at the glory of the Pacific sunset. He began to descend.

Here, he hiked in shadows. Soon he realized that he would never reach the tree line before nightfall. When the path flattened out under an protruding rock, Scott stopped. The ground was rocky, the ledge was only a few meters wide, but here he had shelter from the winds. Gratefully, he unshouldered his burden. Under the protruding rock, he unrolled his ground mat and spread his sleeping bag. He laid down on the sleeping bag and watched the light on the distant peaks turn from pink, to red, to purple.

So this is what they meant by purple mountain's majesty, he thought. I had no idea that the mountains actually turned purple.

For a while, his thoughts meandered, but then they began to contemplate the design of Meta. The unaccustomed grandeur and beauty of the wilderness stimulated his thinking. He saw new possibilities and fresh perspectives. He made mental notes for the perfection of Meta.

He wondered whether Meta would ever succeed. He wondered why he couldn't content himself like other people with just living life day by day. He knew he was obsessed, but in a world full of time-servers and pleasure-seekers, he had always been proud of his obsession. Yet, how much of life was he missing? If he failed, wouldn't he be a pathetic fool?

It's all nonsense, he thought. I do what I can. Anything less is unworthy. It's given to me to attempt this thing. My life is that attempt. If I succeed, everyone will know my dignity. If I fail, only I will know it. But I will know it.

A sea breeze began to clear the sky. Slowly, the brightest stars pierced the thinning haze. As the night air cleared, from the mountaintop, far from the city lights, Scott could see dozens, then hundreds, then thousands and hundred of thousands of stars. Scott was able to witness the broad, shining path of the Milky Way arcing from east to west. He lay in his warm sleeping bag and contemplated his native galaxy, viewed edge-on from a vantage point in one spiral arm.

One hundred billion stars . . . just one galaxy. And there's one hundred billion galaxies. Ten to the eighteen suns. Big number.

Even if the evolution of intelligent life is a weird stroke of luck, a cosmic fluke, with such a big number of stars, it would still happen, again and again, but spread apart, in a sparse statistical distribution. Say, one there, near that bright star. Another, way over there, near that oscillating star. Each home world, a far-off, distant place. Each civilization, isolated by wastelands of stars and gases and lifeless planets and great, great distances full of nothing, nothing, just cold and black nothing, just emptiness, just vacuum. So lonely. Each civilization, maturing probably for hundreds of thousands of years, before they're able to reach out, telecommunicate, understand, then much later meet. Yes. Happy day. When we finally meet our closest, incredibly distant neighbor, will we show them Meta? Will Meta or some descendant of Meta be among the treasures that we offer to share? A machine that emulates thought. Massively parallel, able to think ahead, think deep. In an information age, the equivalent of the nuclear bomb. Synthesize and advance knowledge. Create new medicines. New foodstuffs. Redesign DNA, eliminate diseases. Strategic advice on our hardest problems. A new world . . .

Scott thrilled with the idea that he could contribute so powerfully to the history of mankind.

Life . . . almost infinitely precious, he thought, his mind moving more slowly as he began to cross the threshold into sleep. I've got to do what I can, to help . . . to help . . .

He fell asleep, convinced of the nobility of his struggle. He awoke in the middle of the night to find the heavens thrilling with a meteor storm. Brilliant points of light streaked across the starfield. He realized that he had been dreaming about the design of Meta. A new way to connect the modules suddenly seemed obvious. He dug out a small flashlight and scribbled notes. After several hours of intense scribbling, he was surprised by the sunrise. He stood, mentally exhausted, dizzy now in the thin air, as he watched the slanting rays of sunlight slowly seek out the valley floors, where the deepness of night still lingered.

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