By Kevin J. Anderson
Time Warner Copyright © 2002 Wordfire, Inc.
All right reserved. ISBN: 0446610577
Chapter One Pulling out a section from HIDDEN EMPIRE is like taking a grain of sand from a beach. With all the storylines, alien races, and colorful planets, it's difficult to pin down one piece that is representative.
This chapter features a group of human "space gypsies" who call themselves Roamers. They are fiercely independent and not particularly well liked by the rest of "civilized" humanity, but they have found a very lucrative niche for themselves by taking over the dirty industry of skymining - or extracting hydrogen from the clouds of gas giant planets and converting it into stardrive fuel.
Ross Tamblyn is the oldest brother in his clan, and he has broken from the family water business in order to finance and run a giant cloud-harvesting facility. Everything is at stake for him in this risky venture, and he needs to prove himself to his father (who has disowned him) and his fiancee, the beautiful Cesca Peroni.
Skimming the night-side clouds of the gas giant Golgen, Ross Tamblyn found the Blue Sky Mine too quiet for sleep. He paced the decks, eyes open, keeping a paternal watch on all systems. His life was invested here, his reputation and the inheritance he'd scraped together before his father had disowned him.
Before going out into the biting open wind, Ross dressed in warm garments, wrapping a clan scarf around his neck, shrugging a many-pocketed jacket over his shoulders. He pulled the hood over his ragged-cut dark hair, adjusted the insulated gloves, and stepped out for a breath of fresh air a thousand miles above the unseen surface of the gas giant.
Ross cycled through the wind door onto his private observation deck. He loved to steal time to stare out at the milky ocean of thunderheads and cirrus veils, feeling the raw wind on his face.
Most of the white doves had settled into their roosts for the night. They cooed, sounding like bubbles under water. A few of the pet birds spread their wings and flew out in long gentle courses, riding the high breezes. Instinct drove them to search for insects, but on sterile Golgen the doves would find no food other than what Ross Tamblyn put out for them.
The chill night bore a taint of sulfurous fumes, rising chemicals and gases belched from internal weather patterns. Ross gripped the railing with his gloves, felt the breeze stir his hair and flap his hood. The atmosphere yawned beneath him through uncharted cloud layers. With increasing depth, the air grew thicker and hotter until it terminated at the planet's super-high-density metallic core, where nothing could survive.
As he peered into the silvery cloud deck, Ross noticed deep lightning storms that hid under layers of multicolored mist. The disturbance was far beneath the tentacle-strung weather probes that dangled from the skymine's belly. He could hear no thunder in the vastness of Golgen's sky, only a gentle cooing of doves.
As he watched, though, the lightning storms appeared to climb higher, a turbulence approaching the habitable atmospheric levels. The white birds stirred in their roosts, as if they could sense something ominous.? It was an uneasy night.
But Ross would not have chosen to be anywhere else. The Blue Sky Mine was his home and his dream.
At the age of twenty-seven, shortly after he'd invested in this wild venture, Ross had been brash and bold - and why not, since he was already attempting to do an impossible thing?? With a smile, he recalled the day he had approached Cesca Peroni, a woman he'd long admired but did not know very well. He met her in an empty tunnel in the clustered asteroids of Rendezvous. Willing to take a gamble and ready to accept failure, Ross had walked right up to her and asked her to marry him.
Cesca had raised her eyebrows and assessed the broad-shouldered young man, the outcast son of a powerful clan determined to make his own success. When she'd smiled at Ross, his heart had melted and he knew he'd made the correct choice.
Cesca was taken with him, though hesitant. After being trained by Speaker Jhy Okiah, the young woman was politically savvy enough to know that Ross could be "trouble." She had touched a fingertip to her full lower lip. "I admit your Blue Sky Mine is a viable commercial opportunity. But if you don't succeed and I'm already betrothed to you, then I'll have thrown away my chance to make a good marriage alliance." He couldn't tell if she was teasing him.
"I realize you might be wary of me, Cesca," he had said. "I've already been ostracized by my father, but I swear I'll make my own way.? I know I can pay off the Golgen facility. My dream is to become independent and strong, and I know exactly how to accomplish it."
She shrugged. "And what would my family say? The Peronis are a powerful clan in their own right.? Since I'm his only daughter, my father expects great things from me."
Ross had clasped his hands in front of him. "And well he should. But you are clearly being groomed to become the next Speaker. Surely that's enough for even his pride?"
He was glad they had a chance to talk frankly, but he couldn't decide if she was playing with him, or genuinely considering her options. Though the two felt warm toward each other, their decision would be based on a reasonable analysis of consequences, rather than frivolous romantic giddiness. A true Roamer match.
"I can offer you this, Ross Tamblyn," Cesca finally said, crossing her slender arms over her chest and trying to hold a cool mask over what seemed to be an amused smile. "I will agree to wed you if you're able to pay off the Blue Sky Mine and make a profit."
He had laughed.? "Easily done ... though it might take a few years. Are you willing to wait? Give me four years."
"I'm in no hurry.? Four years, then. I think I can manage to remain unmarried in the meantime."
And so, for the past three years, Ross had tended his Blue Sky Mine, never leaving, never giving up hope, never interested in reconciling with his old father. He had worked diligently in the Golgen clouds, where the harvesting grounds were a particularly rich source of stardrive fuel.
Now, at the age of thirty, he was clearly on the road to paying off the enormous industrial structure.? It was a matter of pride for him, and it would prove himself in front of his father. This year, he would finally meet his goal; their marriage date had already been set....
Now, with a gust of cool wind, the huge skymine shuddered in the air. The white doves fluttered from their roosts, and four more took wing.? Ross looked over the deck rail and watched the angry knot of flashing fireballs, deep lightning storms like a boiling electrical sea. Coming closer.
The intercom startled Ross as the captain on watch located him. "Big disturbance below, Chief. Something large, unlike anything we've seen before." The watch captain had spent his entire life on Roamer skymines; Ross thought the man had seen every possible atmospheric phenomenon by now.
He raised his voice as the biting wind grew louder, whistling around his hood. "Do you think we should move the skymine?"
The captain responded immediately. "The disturbance is moving too fast, Ross. We couldn't maneuver around it, even if we tried."
Then the thick cloud decks split open like a blister, and Ross strained his eyes to see, to believe.? An awesome crystal shape emerged from the silent depths, a shimmering diamond globe that rose higher ... growing larger.
"Shizz! Do you see -" The speaker crackled with static, as if the local intercom transmission had been disrupted.
Ross stared and finally, with even greater amazement, realized what he was seeing. A ship.
The alien vessel was a huge sphere studded with triangular protrusions, like intersecting pyramids half-caught within a glass bubble. Blue lightning crackled from the points of the pyramids, connecting them with an electrical spiderweb, arcs jumping from tip to tip. A weapon of some kind, a bizarre structure from the deepest strata of the gas world. He couldn't imagine what sort of mind might have built it - or what it wanted.
Ross staggered backward, releasing his hold on the support rail. "Take us up!" he shouted, but he didn't know if the watch captain could hear him. "Give me another kilometer of altitude - hell, make it ten!"
Still the alien ship kept coming, silent and ominous. By comparison, the skymine looked like a gnat in the air.
Ross had a sudden vision of a sea monster on old Earth rising to devour a sailing ship. His mind couldn't even grasp the curvature of the diamond hull that reflected the clawlike lightning. "By the Guiding Star!" He had heard old Roamer tales about mysterious sightings on gas planets, a crazy survivor of the long-ago disaster on Daym - but no one had ever dreamed that such deep-core dwellers might actually exist.
All the doves scattered now, winging away from the skymine. The crystalline sphere heaved itself into the open air, growing larger and larger.
"What are you? What do you want?" His words could never be picked up through the storm and wind, nor would they be comprehended by whatever might exist within that strange vessel. He shouted as loud as he could, "We mean you no harm!"
As the enormous construction loomed over the skymine, it sent low-frequency pulses through the air, like basso words in a voice that might have been spoken by a whale in the depths of an Earth ocean. The vibrations blasted Ross, pounding his skin and making his skull shudder.
The watch captain had already sounded alarms throughout the facility, rousing all the workers from their sleep shifts. But the skymine had no weapons, no defenses.
The serpentine energy bolts reached a brilliant intensity, sparking from point to point on the sharp protrusions, then leaped outward. Ross shouted, covering his eyes.
Electrical lances tore open the skymine complex, slicing apart the ekti reactors, chopping through the storage tanks, detonating the exhaust nozzles. Another explosion shook the decks.
The Blue Sky Mine lurched, tilted ... then began to plummet.
Exposed on the deck, Ross could barely hang on. The white doves, shrieking, flew farther away into the sky, though with the skymine gone, they would never find another place to land. The doves would fly without food or rest until they died from sheer exhaustion.
A second blast from the spike-studded alien globe split the Blue Sky Mine down its structural spine.? The components broke apart, and flaming wreckage tumbled like meteors into the bottomless sky.
Ross could hear the screams of his crew. He felt his heart ready to explode with helplessness. He could not even answer the words the exotic alien had spoken.? The lurch of another explosion hurled him from the observation platform out into the open air with the rest of the debris.
High above, the destructive alien ship observed what it had done and sent no further words of condemnation.
Ross plummeted, arms outstretched, his clothes flapping around him. He stared in horrified disbelief at the complete ruin of everything he valued ... before the thickening clouds swallowed him up.
He still had more than a thousand miles to fall.
Excerpted from Hidden Empire by Kevin J. Anderson Copyright © 2002 by Wordfire, Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.