Night Shade Books

San Francisco

Other books by Greg Egan:

An Unusual Angle


Permutation City




Schild’s Ladder



Orthogonal: Book One: The Clockwork Rocket

Orthogonal: Book Two: The Eternal Flame © 2012 by Greg Egan

This edition of Orthogonal: Book Two: The Eternal Flame © 2012 by Night Shade Books

Jacket art and design by Cody Tilson

Interior layout and design by Amy Popovich

All rights reserved

First Edition

ISBN: 978-1-59780-293-2

Night Shade Books




“Carlo! I need your help!”

Carlo opened his rear eyes to see his friend Silvano halfway down the ladder that led into the workshop. From the tone of his words this was not a casual request.

“What is it?” Carlo turned away from the microscope. A bright afterimage of the fragment of wheat petal he’d been examining hovered for a moment against the soft red light from the walls.

Silvano halted his descent. “I need you to kill two of my children,” he said. “I can’t do it myself. I’m not that strong.”

Carlo struggled to make sense of these words. He had seen his friend’s co just a few days before, and she’d been as emaciated as any woman on the Peerless.

“How could there be four?” he asked, not wanting to believe that there were any, that Silvana had given birth at all. As far as he knew she’d still been studying, and if the event had been planned they’d never mentioned it to him. Maybe this request was some kind of sick prank. He’d drag himself all the way to their apartment and there Silvana would be, whole as ever.

“I don’t know,” Silvano replied. He offered no why-would-you-doubt-me bluster, no theories about the reason for the calamity—none of the adornments it would be tempting to add to bolster a fabrication. Carlo scrutinized his face as well as he could in the moss-light, and lost hope of any kind of deception.

He extinguished the microscope’s lamp, then pulled himself away from the bench and moved quickly around the workshop, two hands on the guide ropes as he gathered the drugs and equipment he’d need. He knew exactly what doses would euthanize a vole or a shrew by body mass, and it didn’t take much calculating to extrapolate from that. He wasn’t committed to any course of action, but if he ended up doing what Silvano had asked of him any delay would only make it harder.

Carlo grabbed a small box to hold the paraphernalia and moved toward the ladder, packing as he went. Silvano ascended quickly ahead of him. It was only when they were traveling side by side down the corridor, their ropes emitting the same forlorn twang, that Carlo dared to start searching for a way out.

“Are you sure no one’s offering an entitlement?” he asked. It was a desperately slim chance, but they could detour to the relay station and check.

“I spent the last three stints looking,” Silvano replied. “No one’s selling at any price.”

A small group of people had entered the corridor behind them; their voices echoed off the gently curved walls. Carlo increased his pace, then asked quietly, “So you were planning to have children?”

“No! I just wanted to find a way for Silvana to stop starving herself.”

“Oh.” Everyone craved the same kind of ease, but to put too much hope in such a slender prospect was asking for disappointment.

“Her studies were becoming harder and harder,” Silvano continued. “She couldn’t concentrate at all. I thought it would be worth it, just to let her stop worrying and eat normally. An extra entitlement wouldn’t have committed us to anything, and I could have re-sold it if we’d ended up not needing it.”

“So why didn’t you wait?” Carlo demanded angrily. “How many people did you expect to die in three stints?”

Silvano began humming and shivering. “She couldn’t take the hunger any more. She kept saying, ‘Let’s do it now, and at least my daughter will have a few years before it’s her turn to suffer.’”

Carlo didn’t reply. It was hard enough watching someone you loved tormented by the need to convince her body that it was living in a time of famine, but to learn now that all of this self-deprivation had been to no avail was cruel beyond belief.

They reached the ladder leading inward to the apartments. Carlo forced himself to continue. A generation ago, anyone in his place would have offered to forego a twelfth of their own entitlement to help out their friend, and

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