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Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.
It did not last: the Devil howling “Ho!
Let Einstein be!” restored the status quo.
—J. C. SQUIRE, “In continuation of Pope on Newton”
Captain Redwing let the Astro display unfold on the display wall. He set it to show the whole-sky first, then pivoted it to automatically sweep the sky for reassuring landmarks: a squashed Big Dipper, Southern Cross wrenched by the angle, a bright star in Cassiopeia—ah!
Sol, of course. Brightest, except for Sirius. All of human history summed up in a dot of light. A small spark of joy: We’ve made it. So far from there.
He paused, listening to the vast beast-whistle of deep space. For long decades, his orders and installed programs had held SunSeeker on its deceleration heading, shedding its tenth-of-lightspeed momentum. The fusion engines hummed as they collected plasma and used it to fire thrust against their velocity. SunSeeker’s huge magnetic dipole fields now braked them, making the ship abnormally bright in the microwave spectrum. Any minds around their target world, Glory, would see a glowing advertisement in their sky: Here we come.
Seeing Sol was good for the soul, somehow. But his real interest was in the other spark directly behind them: the Bowl’s sun, a cheery G star ember. A sixth of a light-year or so behind them, chugging along, standing off from the Glorian system. Precaution: so that its mass did not perturb the swarm of halo iceteroids here, nudging them into comets that could plunge into the Glorian system. When entering someone’s home, wipe your feet first.…
His eye caught off his starboard arm the glitter of sparkling molecules, clouds like luminous water. The Astro Artilect was finishing its detailed scan of the huge volume around Glory out to a quarter light-year. A soft chime told him the work was done. He beckoned Beth Marble over to his side.
Dead black space. Redwing peered doubtfully at the big screen, filled by … nothing.
“No Oort cloud at all? But the Glory star is a G3, right? It should have a swarm of iceteroids swinging along, way out here.”
Beth Marble shrugged. “Nothing like Sedna within a quarter of a light-year. Recall when we boomed past that ice rock, beyond Pluto? First one found, back centuries ago? Here, nothing even a tenth Sedna size, or even a thousandth.”
Redwing pondered. Empty? Conventional astronomy held that a cloud of interstellar shrapnel and bric-a-brac orbited stars, the mass that did not collapse to make the star or its planets. In his early career, he had piloted a ramscoop on one of the first runs into the solar Oort cloud, and done well in that vast volume. They had ridden SunSeeker out into the Oort then; tried the flaring, rumbling engines; found flaws that the previous fourteen ships had missed. Redwing had overseen running the Artilect AI systems then, found the errors in rivets and reason, made better. In the first few generations of interstellar craft, every new ship was an experiment. Each learned from the last, the engineers and scientists did their burrowing best, and a better ship emerged from the slow, grinding, liberating work. Directed evolution on the fast track.
Redwing had emerged from that. Now he was among the first generation of starship commanders. They had had to make a huge leap, from the fringes of the solar Oort cloud into interstellar distances. They were all scattered light-years apart, separated by centuries of cold sleep. Their laser tightbeam signals from Earth peppered the lunar center in what now seemed to be called the Home System. He had reviewed tales of expeditions to Tau Ceti and other famous stars, those much closer to Sol than Glory. Matters were a building around the Alpha Centauri system, still the richest lode of useful planets, with colonies now, no less.
This expedition to find the grav wave emitter was a giant jump, a factor of 100,000 beyond the mere Oort cloud expedition he had started with—like sailing around the world after a trial jaunt around a sandbar three football fields wide.
This star had a spherical outer Oort cloud of suspiciously low density—an iceteroid every astronomical unit or so—but now the inner Oort disk was … gone. Redwing dimly recalled that the astro people believed that Oort clouds held several planetary masses usually, dispersed into tiny iceteroids. Into whatever was emitting grav waves, maybe? But invisible?
“So what’s this empty field telling me?” Redwing gestured to Cliff Kammash to expand the view near them. SunSeeker was about a thousand AU out from the target star, Excelsius, and there was nothing luminous in the vast volume.
Cliff’s brow furrowed. “Not much. Running the range now.”
Redwing watched the ship’s Artilects offer up views across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Pixels jittered, shuffled, merged. Visible light was a mere one octave on a keyboard fifteen meters wide—humanity’s slice of reality. “Except—here’s the plasma wave view, and—bingo!”
A long ellipsoidal cloud bristled in shades of rude orange. “Color coded for plasma wave density,” Cliff said. “Blotchy.”
“This odd little zone is the only mass of any consequence in the entire outer system?” Beth said skeptically, mouth skewed. “And it’s not self-luminous at all in anything but plasma emissions?”
Redwing said to the Artilect system in his spaced, patient voice, “Display all detected plasma emissions—all-frequency spectrum.”
SunSeeker’s system dutifully trolled through a series of plasma views, labeled by frequency ranges, and stopped when it hit a softly ivory blob. Beth said, “Looks like a melted ice cream bar, three thousand kilometers across.”
“That’s plasma emission in the high microwaves,” Cliff said, prowling up the energy scale in jumps. “Oblong—ah, look—in the low X-ray, there are a bunch of hard spots.”
“Moving fast,” Beth said as the refreshed image showed the luminous dots jumping along in flashes. “Seventeen. Fast! They’re orbiting the brightest of them—which doesn’t seem to move much. Look, one is fast, on an ellipse. The other makes a much smaller arc. A big guy with a swarm of bees around it. As though—good grief, they’ve got to have huge masses.”
SunSeeker’s ever-present Artilect conglomerate mind added on the screen, ONE IS MUCH LARGER THAN AN EARTH MASS … APPROXIMATING ORBITAL PARAMETERS … SMALLER, 0.73 EARTH MASS … LARGEST 5.32 EARTH MASS.
RADIUS OF THESE IS FAR SMALLER THAN THE RESOLUTION OF MY SYSTEMS.
“So they’re less than a few hundred meters across,” Cliff added.
All three looked at one another. “Black holes, then,” Redwing said.
The Artilect added, SO THE OBJECT’S RADIUS IS CENTIMETERS … CANNOT SEE.
“Pretty damn dangerous neighborhood,” Beth said. “If those fast dots are black holes and the masses are right—hell, they’re less than a centimeter across? We’re looking at the plasma around them.” Beth’s mouth twisted into her patented wry slant again. “No wonder the Glorians keep it out here, a thousand AUs from their world.”
Cliff chuckled. “Recall the banner at our sendoff party? The ‘Star-Craving Mad Farewell.’ Well, we’d sure as hell be crazy to get close to that.”
Redwing couldn’t let that go by. With only three of them resurrected so far, and revival going no faster than one a day, he needed coherence in their effort. “It’s part of my orders. We’re to study the grav wave emitter, and there it is. Not that the physicists had any idea of what was going on here—plus study the biosphere of Glory, first priority.”
Cliff didn’t like conflict, so Redwing watched him flip through some images, then—“I went to a broader view and found a good clue. Look—”
A composite image of the whole Excelsius system rippled in the air.
Cliff pointed at the apex of a parabolic arc. “That’s the star’s bow shock. The Excelsius solar wind meets the interstellar plasma there.”
They all knew what this meant. SunSeeker was deliberately using the bow shock paraboloid to augment its magnetic braking. Plasma built up all along that pressure wall. The ship had been taking advantage of it for weeks as it approached the star, flying along its long curve.
“They’ve put their grav wave emitter at the highest plasma density in the outer system,” Beth said. “Why?”
“That’s for us to find out,” Redwing said.
Cliff said slowly, eyes veiled, “Those Earthside orders—you’ll follow them?”
He and Beth were married but they didn’t necessarily agree on tech issues or policy, Redwing knew. He raised his eyebrows at Beth, hoping for support, but she said, “Earth is so far away—hell, decades at lightspeed—we can’t be guided by their mandates.”
Redwing had never subscribed to the communal view of crew governance. A generation before, one starship bound for Tau Ceti had followed a shared-governance system and broken down into fighting factions, dooming the mission. Nasty, and Earthside heard no more of them.
He stood, a clear signal in a small room. “We can’t remotely understand this system without knowing about this grav wave emitter.” He used his stern gravel voice. “It’s sending messages! We can’t read ’em on board, but I’ll bet there’s a way to pick them out. Maybe in that plasma cloud. They must need it, but why? I don’t want to approach the inner worlds without understanding how some aliens built this thing. And maybe even why.”
“But we’re in the long fall to Glory,” Cliff said mildly. “The braking is fine. Any change of vector will be tricky—and that plasma plume is many astronomical units away.”
Redwing nodded. Decelerating a starship was risky without heating the ship so much its systems malfunctioned. SunSeeker’s support structure was made of nuclear tensile strength materials, able to take the stresses of the ramjet scoop at the ship core. But even that could not overrule thermodynamics. Heat had to go somewhere. The big magnetic fields at SunSeeker’s braking bow drove shock waves into the hydrogen ahead, ionizing it to prickly energies, then scooping it up and mixing it with fusion catalysis, burning as hot as suns—to power the vast fields serving as an invisible parachute in the star’s solar wind.
Yet he had to respond to this latest oddity, too. There must be a lesson here: All plans die upon first contact with the alien. That’s what this strange expedition, crossing light-years and centuries, could do: embrace ultimate strangeness. He had long before learned that what his imagination could not summon, reality delivered with a shrug.
The couple glanced at each other, silent, then back at Redwing.
“My orders stand,” Redwing said, closing the subject.
* * *
He was off watch but he could work from his tiny cabin, too. Details were piling up. He popped up on-screen a filtered-visual transmission from the Bowl.
Seventy-two years had passed since SunSeeker left the Bowl of Heaven. This message from Mayra Wickramsingh showed her face lined, weary, but her SunSeeker uniform was neat and still fit. He had made her the voice of the human colony on the Bowl.
“Hail, Cap’n,” she began. “Got lots to report—my written is running parallel to this stream, for later reading. Got problems headed your way.”
A visual showed the rim of the Bowl. It shone against star glitter in pearly light, metallic and studded with towers of apparatuses. The Bowl’s ecology, from molecular abundances to the dense atmosphere, puffy with pretty clouds, was run from the high vacuum outside. Robotic laborers, guided by the slow wisdom of the Ice Minds, kept the immense contraption going. Now small flaming sprites shot out from it. In fast-forward, he watched three of them arc away and belch plasma trails.
“These are ‘brigands,’ as the Folk term them. These species have secretly built fastships—torchers, looks like—to dive into the Glory system. The Bird Folk can’t police everything. The Ice Minds say their long Bowl history shows this is inevitable. When the Bowl nears something interesting—hell, once it was a neutron star!—some bored cultures want to go down, nose around.”
The slow, resigned flavor in her vibrant voice told Redwing that Mayra was regretting having to be the human leader amid the Bowl’s vastness. Redwing had policed what she told Earth of their situation on the Bowl: an expanding tiny advanced farming community on the rim, plus a primary voice with the Ice Minds. Not much else. Plenty of strangeness to explore.
Still, from that, Earthside had gotten the idea that humans were in charge. Preposterous. The varying layers of Bowl leadership outnumbered humans by billions to one. Even so, matters were more hazy than that. A slow equilibrium adjusted among the Ice Minds, their police species the Bird Folk, myriad underling species … and Mayra. Not remotely like being a captain.
“The Folk want to blow them away with their gamma guns. The Ice Minds say no, so that’s off the table. I think the Icers may be playing a double game in this.”
Uh oh…, Redwing thought. This message was a third of a year old, since the Bowl was that far away. He dimly recalled that fastships could run at best at a few ten-thousands of kilometers per second, so it would take them forever to get here. Colonizers? But then he noticed a later message from her.
A picture of the slim yellow jet that powered the Bowl onward. Taken from the Bowl rim, it showed tiny dots near the jet, luminous in their own right because long violet exhausts trailed them.
“The Folk tracked those brigand ships. They’re doing something new. After they dived off the rim, they swooped in toward the jet, ran alongside it. Now they’re following a helix around it. Looks from Doppler as if they’re sucking in jet plasma and ramscooping up to higher speeds.”
Mayra told all this in her flat, factual voice, but he could sense a trill of alarm in her vexed face.
“Neat! Gotta hand it to them, they’re getting up to a third lightspeed. I estimate they’ll be there in a month or two from when you get this, Cap’n.”
The time delay from the Bowl was shrinking, but he wanted to pepper her with questions. He sent a squirt asking about her Ice Mind suspicions. Plenty more to sort out as they arced inward toward planetary swing-bys and then Glory, at last.
* * *
A big zap …
Or so it seemed as Viviane came up from the chilly oblivion she had sought.
Suddenly she was awake, though dreamy. She could recall them covering her from head to toe in a clear fragrant gel, then squeezing her into a skintight slicksuit that made her feel less like a starship officer than like a bratwurst, having second thoughts about her choices.
Her body kept telling her that the chemicals they used to bring her out of the cold sleep intended to do her harm. In their theater of humiliations, her heart thumped, the room flickered as her sight came back, lungs puffed, she pissed herself, hot and fast, going on for, it seemed, eternity.
It’s so quiet I swear I can hear my synapses firing.… But, no—now, here came a background rumble.
Then she was being urged by some woman named Beth who looked like an aged version of the field biologist she had known Earthside, a century or two ago. This Beth Marble had a lined, tanned look and eyes that had seen more years than were possible. Those crinkled eyes did not portend well. Beth was sunburned, so—what? They had been at Glory for a long time? But Redwing promised she would wake early!
Viviane made herself relax, especially since her ancient muscles were knotting from anxiety already. She should be grateful! She had not truly been confident about finding herself in this bright place, in so solvent a peace: awakening still, again, and well. Wow. Made it.
As an even more ancient folksy song had it, she should damn well try to keep on the sunny side of life. She lifted her arm. There was a mirror above her, reflecting heat down. Also, unfortunately, her image. Stay positive, gal, even with your skin like old tapioca pudding. Plus a face like a wall of baked brick.
Now there came echoing talk. Beth’s speech sounded like someone trying to plunger out a toilet, all heard down an echoing marble spiral staircase. Slowly Viviane got the gist: the Bowl, SunSeeker now at Glory, complications galore. She recalled Redwing saying in one of his promotion speeches, where they gleaned through the candidate crew: Per audacia ad astra. “By daring, to the stars.”
Time passed like sitting in a traffic jam. She dozed as the bed made mechanical love to her muscles and some feeds encouraged her sluggish organs. About all this, she learned not to ask questions; the Artilects would answer in gruesome detail.
Beth reappeared as the bed massaged her. How did she feel? She croaked back, “Been smacked across the face with a dead mackerel,” she said, letting a bit of her southern self come through. Glad it was there. Still.
Beth got it. Grinned. “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. Coming back from near dead is.”
Beth left her to warm in the bed’s loving ripples. Viviane wandered through her tattered labyrinth of memory. She learned that there is no obvious hierarchy of incidents: anything remembered matters. Her life came at her in superposed photos, scraps.
The Resurrection Artilect was essential in all this. “What’s up?” she whispered to it with pseudo-bright abandon, on her interior feed. Remembrance of Things Past, its whisper countered, and then, In Search of Lost Time.
“Um. So you’ve been reading old human lit.”
Shipmemory is a house packed with books. My mind is furnished with their contents.
“Amazed. You’re an advanced Artilect.”
We are updated from Earthside laserfeed. I work better now.
“Yeah, lots. I went into cold sleep when you were mostly subroutines.”
So I recall. I’ve been awake so that you may sleep. I had to do something to occupy me. Or rather, us.
All shipside Artilects coevolve.
“So you keep getting…”
Smarter. Wisdom, it is harder.
* * *
A day, two. She had done her homework and spent many hours with the data feeds the Artilects led her through. The Excelsius system was an ordinary set of planets, neatly spaced, the usual Sol-like group of terrestrial class, five. Then came two ice giants and fragments beyond. Very few obvious smaller worlds, which meant something about their evolution, probably. Along with the missing Oort mass.
They would vector in and do flybys of an outer ice giant planet, dynamically well positioned for a momentum deflection to align with Glory’s orbital plane. The Glory planet image was still too blurred by their refracting bow shock, so no sharp pictures yet. Starships were never stable platforms for telescopes.
Viviane had always wanted wonders, and now here they were, close at hand. Since she was a girl, she had seen nature’s momentary marvels from the corner of her eyes, at times—in squalls, in whitecaps raging in winter, in a tranquility immersed in the sulking night, in a sky’s lyric embroidery, beneath flowing bubbly water, or in simple chiming dreams. Now, here it was in full. But not natural.
As a small child, she used to sneak into her parents’ room in the middle of the night and peel open their eyelids in the hopes that she could see what they were dreaming.
She felt that way now; only it was her dreams and memories arriving like messages from somebody else. Even her mind came back to her changed. “Like a book dropped in the ocean and washed up on shore, all there, but slightly warped,” a daring shot she used on Beth with a wrecked grin. They talked about Viviane’s long-dead mother, whom she recalled as hard to bear, pretentious for a poor woman and full of outdated airs. A burst of stinging tears came out with the words, for Viviane had just viewed a video, just one, from that wonderful mother, grinning bravely into a camera. So small, she was. Now, dust.
* * *
Redwing sent a squirt: an appointment time, in his cabin.
As a teenager, she had tested as neurotic as a wet cat. Not a bad thing, really. By then, the psychers knew that high neurotics were also visionary, quick and darting, anticipating potentials and threats. But now the old itchy anxiety arose. Redwing? In hours?
Gotta look good. She menued up a cottony, clingy dress, set the fabric color to a gray that matched the gloomy walls, then stepped back and checked the effect in the mirror. No.
She fed the material back into the printer and specified an eggshell blue. Demure, sort of. Better. She tuned the silky fraction up and printed out again. Maybe some earrings? Pendant?
No. Stop me before I accessorize again.
Now a stroll through the humming ship. As a girl, she loved machines more than anyone she’d read about: gas stoves, trains, typewriters, sewing machines, pipes, pianos, church bells. It was back then one of her chief pleasures—finding out how things work, how to fix them. Or not: her child’s heart broke when her father declared “past fixin’” of an old tractor she had first ridden when she was eight. Now she strode through a four-hundred-meter-long massive contraption that in its turn strode the stars.
Down the ringing claustro-corridors she strode on slightly high, not teetering heels. CAPTAIN, the door said, so she knocked on it. With a whisk it swung open to reveal a weathered smile.
“Ahhh…” Redwing stepped back and ushered her in with a waved hand. He was in uniform, rumpled. He rubbed his head in a way she had seen before. Each cold sleep cost hair, for some reason nobody yet knew. He was suntanned, wrinkled, his skin smoothed in a way that suggested wear.
“Been so long…” His baritone resonated deeply, and without a pause he kicked the cabin door closed and swept her into his beefy arms.
So there was no need for making goo-goo eyes. They tussled and hustled and soon enough they were at it on his narrow bunk. She was busy recalling fast and sure their colorful weave of carnal revelation and intoxicating risk, before Earthside launch. Back then they had been riding on a surf of craven guilt. She had agreed to be a childbearer when they got to Glory, even went through saving up some frozen eggs, but it was Redwing’s politicking that got her aboard. All that, eclipsed now by devouring need, in hot, crispy, pan-fried moments. Ah.
He even had champagne for afterward. He toasted her: “Love you?”
“Really? It’s been ages.”
“I brought you out of cold sleep as soon as possible.”
“As promised, indeed. But not at this Bowl thing.”
“We had to get field crew down and I didn’t want to risk you. The Bowl is following us, love. You’ll get your second chance.”
She blinked. “You meant that, about love.”
“We did quite well centuries back without that four-letter word.”
“I’ve had time to think. Years. Stood five watches watching the galaxy go by.”
“Let’s not rush it, yes? You may say that sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.”
To his credit he just laughed. Then nodded. Time to change the subject, yes. “I saw in the Earthside feed they made a movie about you.”
“Hadn’t noticed. Who played me?”
“Nobody I knew of—hell, it was a century after we left!”
“Maybe they ran out of material. No more photogenic wars left?”
“Your movie opened, closed, the theaters fumigated, all trace forgotten in a month or so.”
Another laugh and some champagne, then some pleasant nuzzling. Redwing exhaled lustily. “My, uh, gear hasn’t been, uh, used … for … gad … centuries. I’m like a statue you returned from the cold to revive.”
Redwing relaxed utterly; the right time, then. Viviane said, “I don’t want to harsh our mellow, as we ancients used to say, but you told me I’d come back out just as we went down to the surface. I was looking forward to half rations, sleeping on the ground, roasting days, sweat, freezing nights, and making the acquaintance of such vermin as might appear.”
His face furrowed. “Finding the grav wave detector changes our already vague plans. I dispatched some of the Diaphanous to study the region around it, report back. We’re edging into the solar system, doing a delta-v around a Neptune-sized planet now for recon. Sending Glory the whole agreed-upon spectrum of electromagnetic pings, math intro stuff, the works.”
“And?” She felt his body stiffen at the question.
“Nothing. Some scattered emissions from the system, but it blends into a buzz, not a reply.”
Redwing sat up and waved a hand to alter the display wall: a long angular view of their target, Glory, shimmering in yellow sunlight. Their bow shock rippled the image, so they could not resolve the globe well, but there were indeed biosignatures. He swayed forward, shaggy head bowed, in a melancholy puzzlement at the amassed spectacle of these strange arcing worlds. “So I’m keeping on a bearing for the system. When we’re there, braking all the way, we’ll do a swing-by.”
“Can’t think what else to do. Silence has a thousand explanations.”
Copyright © 2020 by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
Interior art copyright © 2020 by Don Davis and Brenda Cox Giguere