Cosmonaut Keep

Cosmonaut Keep

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by Ken MacLeod
     
 

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Matt Cairns is a 21st-century outlaw Programmer who takes on the shady jobs no one else will touch. Against his better judgment, he accepts an assignment to crack the Marshall Titov, a top-secret orbital station operated by the European Space Agency. But what Matt will discover there will propel him on an extraordinary and quite unexpected journey.

Gregor

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Overview

Matt Cairns is a 21st-century outlaw Programmer who takes on the shady jobs no one else will touch. Against his better judgment, he accepts an assignment to crack the Marshall Titov, a top-secret orbital station operated by the European Space Agency. But what Matt will discover there will propel him on an extraordinary and quite unexpected journey.

Gregor Cairns is an exobiology student and descendant of one of Terra Nova's first families. Hopelessly infatuated with a lovely young trader's daughter, he is unaware that his research partner, Elizabeth, has fallen in love with him. Together, Gregor and Elizabeth confront the great work his family began three centuries earlier-to rediscover the secret of interstellar travel.

Ranging from a gritty near-future Earth to a distant alien world, Cosmonaut Keep is contemporary science fiction at its highest level, a visionary epic filled with daring individuals seeking a place for themselves in a vast, complex, and enigmatic universe.

Cosmonaut Keep is a 2002 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Scottish author MacLeod (Cassini Division) crafts an intricate tale, with two thematically linked plots that focus, in different ways, on human travel between the stars and the aliens who help them. Circa 2040 computer guru Matt Cairns flees from Scotland to the United States, then to a space station; he possesses crucial information supplied by aliens that may provide the means for humans to travel the stars. His adventures happen at a critical moment in history: soon after aliens contact a space station, the political situation on Earth rapidly destabilizes. Two hundred years later, biologist Gregor Cairns, a descendant of the cosmonauts who colonized the planet Mingulay, realizes that navigating the stars may be within the grasp of humans, and he sets out to find some of the long-lived crew of the Bright Star, the original starship to reach the planet. Gregor's investigation of the aliens who pilot interplanetary craft the friendly but uncommunicative saurs and the huge kraken eventually leads to a surprising link between past and present. MacLeod handles the strands of the plot deftly, weaving one beautifully realized world with the other and highlighting the parallels between the two. Rarely does a book demand so much of the reader and then deliver. Densely written with a remarkable depth of cultural texture, though occasionally confusing in its politics (which includes socialists, "Webblies" and libertarian capitalists), MacLeod's story is spoiled only by the false notes of two parallel love interests. (May 30) FYI: McLeod's The Cassini Division was a finalist for both the Nebula and the Arthur C. Clarke awards. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Science fiction's freshest new writer" —Salon

"Plenty of eye-kicks and some wonderful set pieces, from the arrival of a gigantic starship to the herding of dinosaurs by flying saucers . . . . Cosmonaut Keep is a portal to a deeply imagined future history that parlays X-Files paranoia about Area 51 and alien Greys into a vast interstellar community watched over by microcosmic gods." -Paul McAuley, Interzone

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429977159
Publisher:
Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date:
04/01/2010
Series:
Engines of Light , #1
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
300
Sales rank:
343,910
File size:
0 MB

Read an Excerpt

Cosmonaut Keep

Engines of Light Book One


By Ken MacLeod

Orbit Book

Copyright © 2000 Ken MacLeod
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-7715-9



CHAPTER 1

SHIP COMING IN


A god stood in the sky high above the sunset horizon, his long white hair streaming in the solar wind. Later, when the sky's colour had shifted from green to black, the white glow would reach almost to the zenith, its light outshining the Foamy Wake, the broad band of the Galaxy. At least, it would if the squall-clouds scudding in off the land to the east had cleared by then. Gregor Cairns turned his back on the C. M. Yonge's own foamy wake, and looked past the masts and sheets at the sky ahead. The clouds were blacker and closer than they'd been the last time he'd looked, a few minutes earlier. Two of the lugger's five-man crew were already swinging the big sail around, preparing to tack into the freshening wind.

Much as he'd have liked to help, he knew from experience that he'd only get in the way. He turned his attention back to the tanks and nets in which the day's haul snapped, slapped, or writhed. Trilobites and ostracoderms, mostly, with a silvery smattering of teleostean fish, a slimy slither of sea-slugs, and crusty clusters of shelled molluscs and calcichordates. To Gregor this kind of assemblage was beginning to look incongruous and anachronistic; he grinned at the thought, reflecting that he now knew more about the marine life of Earth's oceans than he did of the planet whose first human settlers had long ago named Mingulay.

His wry smile was caught by his two colleagues, one of whom smiled back. Elizabeth Harkness was a big-boned, strong-featured young woman, about his own age and with a centimetre or two of advantage in height. Under a big leather hat her rough-cut black hair was blown forward over her ruddy cheeks. Like Gregor, she wore a heavy sweater, oilskins, rubber boots and gauntlets. She squatted a couple of metres away on the laden after-deck, probing tangles of holdfast with a rusty old knife, expertly slinging the separated molluscs, calcichordates and floatwrack into their appropriate tanks.

'Come on,' she said, 'back to work.'

'Aye,' said Gregor, stooping to cautiously heave a tenkilogram trilobite, scrabbling and nipping, into a water-filled wooden trough. 'The faster we get this lot sorted, the more time for drinks back at the port.'

'Yeah, so don't stick with the easy stuff.' She flung some surplus mussels to the seabats that screamed and wheeled around the boat.

'Huh.' Gregor grunted and left the relatively rugged trilobites to fend for themselves in the netting and creels while he pitched in to deal with the small shelly fauna. The vessel rolled, slopping salt water from the troughs and tanks, and then freshwater from the sky hissed on to the deck as they met the squall. He and Elizabeth worked on through it, yelling and laughing as their sorting became less and less discriminatory in their haste.

'As long as they don't eat each other ...'

The third student on the boat squatted opposite the two humans, knees on a level with his broad cheekbones, oblivious to the rain pelting his hairless head, and to the rivulets that trickled down his neck then over the seamless collar of his dull grey insulation-suit. The nictitating membranes of his large black eyes, and an occasional snort from his small nostrils or spit from his thin-lipped, inchwide mouth were the only indications that the downpour affected him at all. His hands each had three long fingers and one long thumb; each digit came equipped with a claw that made a knife, for this task, at least, quite unnecessary.

Gregor eyed him covertly, admiring the machine-like ease with which the long fingers sorted through the heaps; tangles ahead of them, neatly separated columns behind; the butchering strength and surgical skill and clinical gentleness of thumb and claw and palm. Then, answering some accurate intuition, the saur rocked back on his heels, washed his hands in the last of the rain, and stood up with his part of the task complete.

Elizabeth and Gregor looked at each other across a diminished area of decking on which nothing but stains and shreds of wrack remained. Elizabeth blinked wet lashes.

'Done,' she said, standing up and shaking rain off her hat.

'Great.' Gregor heaved himself upright and did likewise, joining the other two at the stern rail. They leaned on it, gazing out at the reddening sky in which the god glowed brighter. The highest clouds in the sky – far higher than the squall-clouds – shone with a peculiar mother-of-pearl rainbow effect, a rare phenomenon that had even the sailors murmuring in amazed appreciation. Behind them the big sail came rattling down, and the engine coughed into life as the steersman took them in towards the harbour. The cliffs of a hundred-metre-high headland, crowned with a craggy castle, the Keep of Aird, rose on the port side; lower green hills and fields spread out to starboard. Ahead the lights were coming on in Kyohvic, the main port of the straggling seaboard republic known as the Heresiarchy of Tain.

'Good work, Salasso,' Gregor said. The saur turned and nodded gravely, his nostrils and lips minutely twitching in his species' equivalent of a smile. Then the great black eyes – their sides easily visible in profile – returned to scanning the sea.

Salasso's long arm and long forefinger pointed.

'Teuthys,' he hissed.

'Where?' Elizabeth cried, delighted. Gregor shaded his eyes and stared along the white wake and across the dark waves, so much of it there was, until he saw a darker silhouette rise, humping out of the water about a mile away. For a moment, so it remained, an islet in the deep.

'Could be just a whale —' he murmured.

'Teuthys,' the saur insisted.

The hump sank back and then a vast shape shot out of the surface, rising in an apparently impossible arc on a brief white jet; a glimpse of splayed tentacles behind the black wedge of the thing, then a huge splash as it planed back into the water. It did it again, and this time it wasn't black – in its airborne second it glowed and flashed with flickering colour. And it wasn't alone – another kraken had joined it. They leaped together, again and then again, twisting and sporting. With a final synchronised leap that lasted two seconds, and a multicoloured flare that lit the water like fireworks, the display ended.

'Oh, gods above,' Elizabeth breathed. The saur's mouth was a little black O, and his body trembled. Gregor stared at where the krakens had played, awed but wondering. That they were playing he was certain, without knowing why. There were theories that such gratuitous expenditures of energy by krakens were some kind of mating display, or even ritual, but like most biologists Gregor regarded such hypotheses as beneath consideration.

'Architeuthys extraterrestris sapiens,' he said slowly. 'Masters of the galaxy. Having fun.'

The saur's black tongue flickered, then his lips became once more a thin line.

'We do not know,' he said, his words perhaps weightier, to Gregor, than he intended. But the man chose to treat them lightly, leaning out and sharing an aching, helpless grin with the woman.

'We don't know,' he agreed, 'but one day we'll find out.' He jerked his face upwards at the flare of white spreading up the sky. 'Even the gods play, I'm sure of that. Why else would they leave their ... endless peace between the stars, and plunge between our worlds and swing around the sun?'

Salasso's neck seemed to contract a little; he averted his eyes from the sky, shivering again. Elizabeth laughed, not noticing or perhaps not reading the saur's subtle body language. 'Gods above, you can talk, man!' she said. 'You think we'll ever know?'

'Aye, I do,' said Gregor. 'That's our play.'

'Speak for yourself, Cairns, I know what mine is after a long hard day, and I'm' – she glanced over her shoulder – 'about ten minutes from starting it with a long hard drink!'

Gregor shrugged and smiled, and they all relaxed, gazing at the sea and chatting. Then, as the first houses of the harbour town slipped by, one of the crewmen startled them with a loud, ringing cry:

'Ship coming in!'

Everybody on the boat looked up at the sky.


James Cairns stood, huddled in a fur cloak, on the castle's ancient battlement and gazed at the ship as it slid across the sky from the east, a glowing Zeppelin at least seven hundred metres long. Down the dark miles of the long valley, lighting the flanks of the hill, and over the clustered houses of the town it came, its course steady and constant as a monorail bus. As it passed almost directly overhead at a thousand metres, Cairns was briefly amused to see that among the patterns picked out in lights on its sides were the squiggly signature-scribble of Coca-Cola, the double-arched golden 'M', the brave chequered banner of Microsoft; the Stars and Stripes and the thirteen stars – twelve small yellow stars and a central red one on a blue field – of the European Union.

He presumed the display was supposed to provide some kind of reassurance. What it gave him – and, he did not doubt, scores of other observers – was a pang of pride and longing so acute that the shining shape blurred for a second. The old man blinked and sniffed, staring after the craft as its path sloped implacably seaward. When it was a kilometre or so out to sea, and a hundred metres above the water, a succession of silver lens-shaped objects scooted away from its sides, spinning clear and then heading back the way the ship had come. They came sailing in towards the port as the long ship's hull kissed the waves and settled, its flashing lights turning the black water to a rainbow kaleidoscope. Other lights, underwater and much smaller but hardly less bright, joined it in a colourful flurry.

Cairns turned his attention from the ship to its gravity skiffs; some swung down to land on the docks below, most skittered overhead and floated down, rocking like falling leaves, to the grassy ridge of the long hill that sloped down from the landward face of the castle. James strolled to the other side of the roof to watch. Somewhere beneath his feet, a relief generator hummed. Floodlights flared, lighting up the approach and glinting off the steely sides of the skiffs.

Almost banally after such a bravura arrival, the dozen or so skiffs had extended and come to rest on spindly telescoped legs; in their undersides hatches opened and stairladders emerged, down which saurs and humans trooped as casually as passengers off an airship. Each gave forth two or three saurs, twice or thrice that number of humans; about a hundred in all walked slowly up the slope and on to the smoother grass of the castle lawns, tramping across it to be greeted by, and to mingle with, the castle's occupants. The grey-suited saurs looked more spruce than the humans, most of whom were in sea-boots and oilskins, dripping wet. The humans towards the rear were hauling little wheeled carts behind them, laden with luggage.

He felt a warm arm slide through the side-slit of his cloak and clasp his waist.

'Aren't you going down?' Margaret asked.

Cairns turned and looked down at his wife's eyes, which shone within a crinkle of crow's-feet as she smiled, and laid his right arm, suddenly heavy, across her shoulders.

'In a minute,' he said. He sighed. 'You know, even after all this time, that's still the sight that leaves me most dizzy.'

Margaret chuckled darkly. 'Yeah, I know. It gets me that way too.'

Cairns knew that if he dwelt on the strangeness of the sight, the feeling of unreality could make him physically nauseous: La Nausée, Sartre's old existential insecurity – Cairns wondered, not for the first time, how the philosopher would have coped with a situation as metaphysically disturbing as this.

L'enfer, c'est les autres.

He turned around resolutely, taking Margaret along with him, and together they set off down from the castle's heights to meet the bourgeois with a smile. Under his left elbow he held the furled and folded flag, the star-circled banner which he'd lowered, as was his custom, at sunset. Behind him the steel rope clanged on the mast, bare against the windy night.

They descended the spiral stair, down steps a metre and a half wide and about thirty centimetres high, each of whose treads had been worn down over millennia into a terrifyingly deep normal distribution curve, as though the stone itself were sagging. The iron handrail around the central well was only centuries old, and at the right height for human hands; the electric lighting, though dim, was tuned for human eyes.

James and Margaret kept close to the wall as they descended. Margaret went first, clattering and chatting merrily; James followed, half listening, the rest of his attention devoted to the many fossils embedded in the stones of the wall's interior cladding, some of which generations of curious or reverent fingertips of successive species of the castle's occupants had polished to a mahogany sheen. He trailed his own fingers across the fragmentary remains of fish and dragons and sea-monsters and other organisms in a bizarrely Noachic, diluvial conglomerate whose ordering had little to do with their evolutionary succession; as always when he climbed up or down these steps, the line he'd used on his children and grandchildren came to mind: this castle had been built by giants, mined by dwarfs, stormed by goblins, and left to ghosts long before people on Earth had laid so much as one stone upon another.

Sounds and smells echoing or wafting from below intensified as the old couple descended. The arrival of the merchant ship might or might not have been expected, but the Keep's staff planned routinely for such a contingency. For this first evening nothing much was expected but hot water, hot food and lots of drinking and some kind of bed to stagger off to afterwards: merchants just off a ship were usually in no condition for formal negotiations or celebrations. The saurs would require even less.

The exits from the spiral stair went past, their numbers as fixed in James's mind as the numerals on a lift's display. He and Margaret stepped out on the ground floor – the stair still had many levels to go, down into the rock – and made their way around several zigzag turns of narrow defensive corridor. Antique space-suits stood in artfully placed ambuscade niches.

The corridor opened to the castle's main hall, a cavernous space hung with retro-fitted electric lights, its fifteen-metre-high walls covered with carpets and tapestries, oil paintings of members of the Cosmonaut Families, heads and hides of dinosaurs, and decoratively arranged displays of the light artillery with which these gigantic quarry had been sportingly slain.

The wide doors stood open; the hall's blazing fire and more practical electric radiators did little to repel the chill inward swirl of evening air. The merchants, their saur companions and their servants were already mingled with the welcoming crowd that had gathered from all quarters of the castle. Mingled, but easily distinguishable: for this evening at least, the castle's occupants – Cosmonauts and stewards and seneschals and servants – outdid the merchants in the style and spectacle of their attire. In days to come, the most senior of the Cosmonauts and the richest merchants in Kyohvic would be easily outshone by their visitors' youngest child or lowliest page; their present plebeian appearance, though partly dictated by the necessities of interstellar travel, was for all its apparent casualness part of a protocol – setting themselves conspicuously below their hosts – whose invariance James Cairns had observed many times before.

Right now the new arrivals had discarded their protective clothing in a careless heap in the doorway's broad vestibule, and were padding around in woollen socks and likewise warm gear, shaking or kissing hands with all and sundry, smiling and laughing and slapping shoulders. Children scampered and scooted, chased by their own servants, tactfully redirected from the big room's many exits by swiftly posted stewards. Through it all the saurs drifted, their domed heads bobbing in the throng like stray balloons.

Hal Driver, the Security Man, was in the centre of the pressing crowd, already deep in hearty converse with a mature, burly man who had 'merchant prince' written all over him, albeit he was dressed like a trawlerman. Red hair sprang in a great shock from his head; freckles spattered his broad-cheeked, flat-nosed face; his rich voice boomed above the babble, his asides to Driver now and again dropping to a confidential murmur.

Margaret nudged James with a confidential murmur of her own.

'Didn't take them long to figure out who's in charge here.'


'Aren't you going up to the Keep?' Elizabeth asked.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod. Copyright © 2000 Ken MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of Orbit Book.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Kim Stanley Robinson
Ken MacLeod's novels are fast, funny, and sophisticated. There can never be enough books like these.

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