Marrowby Robert Reed
The Ship has traveled the universe for longer than any of the near-immortal crew can recall, its true purpose and origins unknown. It is larger than many planets, housing thousands of alien races and just as many secrets.
Now one of those secrets has been discovered: at the center of the Ship is . . . a planet. Marrow. But when a team of the Ship's best and/p>… See more details below
The Ship has traveled the universe for longer than any of the near-immortal crew can recall, its true purpose and origins unknown. It is larger than many planets, housing thousands of alien races and just as many secrets.
Now one of those secrets has been discovered: at the center of the Ship is . . . a planet. Marrow. But when a team of the Ship's best and brightest are sent down to investigate, will they return with the origins of the Ship--or will they bring doom to everyone on board?
Robert Reed, whose fantastic stories have been filling all the major SF magazines for the past several years, spins a captivating tale of adventure and wonder on an incredible scale in this novel based on his acclaimed novella.
- Tom Doherty Associates
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 1 MB
Read an Excerpt
Washen was a captain of consequence.
Fashionably tall, with an ageless strong body, she possessed handsome features wrapped around wise chocolate eyes. Her long obsidian hair was worn in a sensible bun, streaked with just enough white to lend authority. She conveyed a sense of easy confidence and relaxed competence, and with a little look or a gentle word, she lent her confidence to whoever deserved it. In public, she wore her mirrored captain's uniform with a regal bearing and gentle pride. Yet she had the rare gift of keeping others from feeling jealous of her station or intimidated by her presence. And even rarer was Washen's talent for embracing the instincts and customs of truly alien species, which was why, at the Master Captain's insistence, one of her duties was to greet their strangest passengers, explaining what the ship was and what it expected from its cherished guests.
Her day, like so many days, began at the bottom of Port Beta.
Washen adjusted the tilt of her cap, then gazed upward, watching as a kilometer-long taxi was lowered from the airlock. Stripped of its rockets, the bulky fuel tanks, and wide armored prow, the taxi resembled a great needle. Its hyperfiber hull glittered in the port's brilliant lights as skilled mates and their AIs controlled its descent with hair-thin cable and squid-limbs, bringing it down with the smoothness of a descending cap-car.
Which was a mistake. Through an implanted nexus, Washen called for the mates' boss. "Let it drop," she advised. "Right now."
Anice-white human face grimaced.
"But madam ...?"
"Now," she demanded. "Let it fall on its own."
A captain's word weighed more than any mate's caution. Besides, the taxi's hull could absorb much worse abuse, and both of them knew it.
With a low crackle, the squid-limbs pulled free.
For an instant, the needle seemed unaffected. Then the ship's gravitymuch more than earth-standardtook hold and yanked it down into the cone-shaped berth reserved for it. The impact was jarring, but muted by the hyperfiber floor and a heavy dose of antinoise. Washen felt the collision in her toes and knees, and she let herself smile for a moment, imagining the passengers' delicious surprise.
"I need to fill out an accident report," growled the white face.
"Naturally," she replied. "And I'll accept all the blame you can give me. Agreed?"
"Thank you ... Captain ..."
"No. Thank you."
Washen strolled toward the berth and taxi, her smile fading, replaced with a theatrical grimness appropriate to this job.
The passengers were disembarking.
Flounders, they had been dubbed.
At a glance, Flounders resembled thick woolly rugs carried on dozens of strong and very short legs. They came from a superterran world, accustomed to five times the port's gravity, and like many species from such worlds, they demanded a thicker, richer atmosphere than what they found here. Implanted compressors aided their quick, shallow breathing. Pairs of large, eerily human eyes were rooted at one end of each long body, staring up at Washen from what, for lack of a better term, was their heads.
"Welcome," Washen announced.
Her translator made a low rumbling sound.
"I despise each of you," she bellowed. Then, following the advice of exopsychologists, she bent over, making eye contact as she reminded these newcomers, "You have no status here. None. A word from me, and you are crushed in the most horrible ways."
Human politeness had no place in that alien society.
Flounderswhose real name was a series of poetic ticksequated kindness with intimacy. And intimacy was afforded only family members, by blood or by ceremony. The exopsychologists were adamant. If Washen couldn't intimidate the Flounders, they would feel uneasy, much in the same way that a human would feel uneasy if a stranger approached, referred to her by a lover's nickname, then delivered a sloppy wet kiss.
"This is my ship," she told her audience.
Several hundred aliens were in shouting range, troy ears tilted high, absorbing her voice as well as the thunderous rumble of her translator.
"You have paid for my patience as well as a berth," said Washen. "Paid with new technologies, which we have already received, mastered, and improved upon."
Long whiskers stroked each other, the aliens conversing by feel.
Again, she stared into a pair of eyes. Cobalt-blue, utterly alive. "My rules are simple, little monster."
Whiskers suddenly grew still.
Her audience held its collective breath.
"My ship is the ship, "she explained. "It needs no other name. It is remarkable and enormous, but it is not infinite. Nor empty. Thousands of species share its labyrinths with you. And if you do not treat your fellow passengers with complete respect, you will be discarded. Evicted. Flung overboard, and forgotten."
The breathing resumed, quicker than ever.
Was she playing this game too well?
But instead of holding back, Washen kept pressing. "An empty chamber has been prepared for you. As you begged us to do. Sealed, and pressurized. With plenty of space, and your ugly foods in abundance. In this new home, you may do as you wish. Unless you wish to procreate, which requires permission from me. And fresh payments. Since children are passengers, their status is negotiable. And if I have reason, I will personally throw them overboard. Is that understood?"
Her translator asked the question, then with a soft, sexless voice, offered a sampling of the aliens' replies.
"Yes, Lord Captain."
"Of course, Lord."
"You scare me, Lord!"
"When does this show end, Mother? I am hungry!"
Washen strangled a laugh. Then after her own quick breaths, she admitted, "It has been forever since I last threw anyone off the ship."
Other captains did the banishing. In humane ways, naturally. Taxis or other starships would take the troublesome species home again, or more likely, to obscure worlds where they had a better than fair chance of survival.
"But make no mistake!" she roared. "I love this ship. I was born here, and I will die here, and in the long time between I will do whatever I can to protect its ancient halls and noble stone, from anything or anyone that shows it less than perfect respect. Do you understand me, you little fools?"
"Yes, Your Lord."
"But is she finished yet? My tongues are numb from hunger!"
"I am nearly finished," she told the aliens. Then even louder, she said, "But I will be watching. From this moment, I am hovering over you like Phantom Night."
That brought a respectful silence.
Phantom Night was a Flounder god, the name translated into a rugged little squawk that brought a chill even to Washen's spine.
With a practiced haughtiness, she turned and strode away.
The quintessential captain.
One of the lords of the galaxy.
And now, for this blunt moment, she was a mythical monster who would steal the souls of those who dared sleep.
Long ago, Washen reached that age where the past is too large to embrace, where even the sharpest, most efficient memory has to slough off little details and entire centuries, and where even the most cherished childhood has been stripped down, nothing left but a series of fragmentary recollections and a few diamond-hard moments that no amount of time, not even ten million years, can dilute to any degree.
Washen's first aliens were dubbed the Phoenixes.
That was when the ship was still outside the Milky Way. Washen was more a child than not, and her parentsengineers who had come on board the first starshipwere part of the large unhappy team who fashioned a habitat for the Phoenixes.
Those aliens were unwelcome. They had tried to conquer the ship, after all. It was an ineffectual invasion, but people found it difficult to forgive them anyway. Washen's father, usually charitable to a fault, openly stated that his work was a waste, and worse, it was a crime. "Give the shits a tiny catacomb, enough water and some minimal food, then forget they're there. That's my little opinion."
Washen couldn't recall her mother's precise opinion; even Washen's own early biases were lost to time. And she couldn't recall why she first visited the prison. Was she looking for her parents? Or was it later, after their work was finished, and youngsters like herself were pulled there by simple curiosity?
Whatever the reason, what she remembered today was the funeral.
Washen had never seen Death. In her short happy life, not one human had died on board the ship. Age and disease had been tamed, and the modern body could absorb even horrific injuries. If a person was cautious, and sober, she didn't need to die. Ever.
But Phoenixes embraced a different set of beliefs. They evolved on a small hot world. Gills augmented a trio of large, black-blooded lungs; their metabolisms were quick and fierce. Where most winged aliens were gliders or soarers, passive and efficient, the Phoenixes were the ecological equivalent of human-sized peregrines. Skilled hunters and determined warriors, they possessed a broad heritage older than any human culture. Yet despite a wealth of advanced technologies, they didn't approve of the immortalities that most species simply took for granted.
Inside a human mouth, their name was an unsingable string of notes.
"Phoenix" was pulled from some ancient Earth myth. Or was it a Martian myth? Either way, the name was only partly appropriate. They weren't birds, after all, and they didn't live for five hundred years. Thirty standards was too long for most of them, physical infirmities and senility leaving their elderly incapable of flight, or song, or the smallest dignity.
Upon death, the body and a ceremonial nest were burned. But instead of a sweet resurrection, the cold white ashes were carried high by family and friends, then released, winds and wingbeats spreading the soft remains to the ends of their enormous and lovely prison cell.
Their home wasn't built out of simple charity. The Master, taking her usual long aim, decided that if the ship was to attract alien passengers, her crew needed to know how to tweak and twist the ship's environmental controls, turning raw cavities into abodes where any sort of biology would feel at home. That's why she ordered her top engineers to make the attempt. And aeons later, when she came to understand the Master, Washen easily imagined the woman's impatience with someone like her fathera talented employee who dared grumble about his job, unable to appreciate the long-term benefits of this apparently misplaced beneficence.
The Phoenix habitat was once someone's magnetic bottle.
It could have been an antimatter containment tank, though at its best this remark was an authoritative, utterly wild guess.
Five kilometers in diameter and better than twenty kilometers deep, the prison was a column of dense warm air punctuated by thick clouds and masses of floating vegetation. Biological stocks from the Phoenix starship had been cultured, then adapted. Since the original tank lacked lights, ship-style sky lamps were built from scratch, their light tuned to the proper frequencies. Since there wasn't room for jet streams or typhoons, the air was assaulted with an array of hidden vents and other engineering tricks. And to hide the tall cylindrical walls, an illusion of endless clouds covered every surface---an illusion good enough to seem real to humans, but not to the Phoenixes who flew too close.
The prison was meant to hold the defeated and the evil, but both sorts of prisoners quickly grew old and passed away.
It was one of the old warriors whose funeral Washen saw. It seemed unlikely today, but she could remember standing on a platform built against that great round wall, herself and a thousand other humans with their hands locked on the railing, watching winged shapes rising toward them, then higher, flying with a wondrous precision and singing loudly enough to be heard over the constant whistle of wind.
When the ashes were dropped, the bereaved were too distant to be seen.
Intentionally, no doubt.
The young Washen contemplated the funeral. That next day, or perhaps next year, she proposed, "We can let the rest of them go free, since the bad ones have died."
Her father felt otherwise.
"If you haven't noticed, Phoenixes aren't human." He warned his softhearted daughter, "The creatures have a saying. `You inherit your direction before your wings.' Which means, dearest, that the children and grandchildren are just as determined to slaughter us as their ancestors ever were."
"If not more determined," said Mother, with an unexpectedly dark tone.
"These creatures hold a grudge," Father continued. "Believe me, they can make their hatreds fester and grow."
"Unlike humans," said their sharp-witted daughter.
Her irony went unmentioned, and perhaps unrecognized.
If there was more to that argument, it went unremembered. The modern brain is dense and extraordinarily durablea composite of bioceramics and superconducting proteins and ancient fats and quantum microtubules. But like any reasonable brain, it has to simplify whatever it learns. It straightens. It streamlines. Instinct and habit are its allies, and even the wisest soul employs the art of extrapolation.
When she concentrated, Washen could recall dozens of fights with her parents. Childhood issues of freedom and responsibility never seemed to change, and she remembered enough of their politics and personalities to picture little spats and giant, ugly explosionsthe sorts of emotional maelstroms that would make good engineers sit in the dark, quietly asking themselves how they had become such awful, ineffectual parents.
To Washen and her closest friends, the Phoenixes became a cause, a rallying point, and an extraordinarily useful thorn.
A ragged little political movement was born. Its bravest followers, including Washen, publically protested the prison. Their efforts culminated in a march to the Master's station. Hundreds chanted about freedom and decency. They held holosigns showing wingless Phoenixes bound up in black iron chains. It was a brave, remarkable event, and it ended in a small victory: little delegations were free to visit the prison, observe conditions firsthand, and speak to the pitiable aliens under the careful gaze of the captains.
That's where Washen met her first alien.
Phoenix males were always beautiful, but he was exceptionally so. What passed for feathers were a brilliant gold fringed with the darkest black, and an elegant, efficient face seemed to be all eyes and beak. The eyes were a lush coppery green, bright as polished gemstones. The beak was a vivid jade color, hard and obviously sharp. It was open when he sang, and it remained open afterward, always gulping down the liters of air that he required just to perch in one place and live.
The apparatus on his chest translated his elaborate song.
"Hello," he said to Washen. Then he called her "human egg-bearer."
Several young humans were in the delegation, but Washen was their leader. Following Phoenix protocol, she fielded every question and spoke for the others, following a shopping list of subjects agreed upon weeks ago.
"We want to help you," Washen promised.
Her translator sang those words in a half-moment, if that.
"We want you free to move and live wherever you wish on board the ship," she told them. "And until that can happen, we want to make your life here as comfortable as possible."
The Phoenix sang his reply.
"Fuck comfort," said his box.
A deep unease passed through the human delegation.
"What is your name, human egg-bearer?"
There was no translation, which meant that it was an impossible sound. So the young Phoenix gulped a breath and sang a note that came out as "Snowfeather."
She liked the name, and said so. Then she thought to inquire, "What's your name?"
"Supreme-example-of-manhood," he replied.
Washen laughed, but only for a moment. Then quietly, carefully, she said, "Manly. May I call you Manly?"
"Yes, Snowfeather. You may." Then the feathers around the jade beak lifteda Phoenix smile, she recalledand he reached out with one of his long arms, reaching past Washen's shoulder, a strong little hand gently, ever so gently, caressing the leading edge of her own great wing.
Everyone in the delegation wore strap-ons.
Their wings were powered by thumb-sized reactors and guided both by the wearer's muscles, and more importantly, by elaborate sensors and embedded reflexes. For the next ten days, humantime, they were to live among the Phoenixes as observers and as delegates. Since no portion of the facility lay out of surveillance range, there wasn't any overt danger. Regardless how thick the intervening clouds or how loud the thunder, the children couldn't do anything that wasn't observed, and recorded, every one of their well-intended words spoken to a larger, infinitely suspicious audience.
Perhaps that's why Snowfeather took Manly as her lover.
It was a provocative and defiant and absolutely public act, and she could only hope that news of it slinked its way to her parents.
Or set aside the cynicism. Maybe it was something like love, or at least lust. Maybe it was stirred by the alien himself, and the gorgeous dreamy-strange scenery, and the sheer sensual joy that came with those powerful wings and the feel of wind slipping across your naked flesh.
Or deny love, leaving curiosity as the root cause.
Or put aside curiosity, and call it a deeply political act brought on by courage, or idealism, or the simplest, most wicked forms of naivety.
Whatever the reason, she seduced Manly.
On the summit of an airborne jungle, with her long back pressed against the warm and slick skin of a vegetable bladder, Snowfeather invited the alien's affections. Demanded them, even. He was quick to finish and quick to begin again, and he was tireless, his powerful, furnacelike body held over her with an impossible grace. Yet their geometries didn't mesh. In the end, she was the one who begged, "Enough. Stop. Let me rest, all right ...?"
Her body was damaged, and not just a little bit damaged.
Curious but plainly untroubled, her lover watched the blood flow from between her exhausted legs, crimson at first but turning black in the hyperoxygenated air. Then her blood clotted, and the ripped flesh began to heal. Without scars and with minimal pain, what would have been a mortal wound in an earlier age had simply vanished. Had never been.
Manly grinned in the Phoenix way, saying nothing.
Snowfeather wanted words. "How old are you?" she blurted. And when there wasn't an answer, she asked it again. Louder this time. "How old?"
He answered, using the Phoenix calendar.
Manly was a little more than twenty standards old. Which was middle-aged. Late middle-aged, in fact.
She grimaced, then told her lover, "I can help you."
He sang a reply, and his translator asked, "In what fashion, help?"
"Medically. I can have your DNA replaced with better genetics. Your lipid membranes supplanted with more durable kinds. And so on." She surprised herself more than him, telling him, "The techniques are complicated, but proven. I have friends whose doctor-parents would adore the chance to reconfigure your flesh."
The squawk meant, "No."
She recognized that defiant sound before the translator said, "No," with a cold, abrasive tone.
Then he roared, "Never," as those lovely golden feathers stood on end, making his face and great body appear even larger. "I do not believe in your magic."
"It's not magic," she countered, "and most species use it."
"Most species are weak," was his instant reply.
She knew she should let the topic drop. But with a mixture of compassion and pity, plus a heavy dose of hopeful defiance, she warned her lover, "Changes aren't coming soon. Unless you can extend your life, you'll never be anywhere but here, inside your little prison."
"You'll never fly on another world, much less your home world."
There was a musical whine, feathers swirling in a Phoenix shrug.
"One home is enough for a true soul," the translator reported. "Even if that home is a tiny cage."
Manly told her, "Only the weak and the soulless need to live for aeons."
Snowfeather didn't bristle, or complain. Her voice was steady and grave, remarking, "By that logic, I'm weak."
"And soulless," he agreed. "And doomed."
"You could try to save me, couldn't you?"
The alien face was puzzled, if anything. The beak came close, the girl smelling the windlike breath, and for the first time, for a terrible instant, Washen was disgusted by that rich, meat-fed stink.
"Am I not worth saving?" she pressed.
The green eyes closed, supplying the answer.
She shook her head, human-fashion. Then she sat up and swirled her wings, her thick, aching voice asking, "Don't you love me?"
A majestic song roared out of him.
The box fixed on his muscled chest efficiently reduced all that majesty and passion to simple words.
"The Great Nothingness conspired to make me," he informed her. "He intended me to live for a day. As He intends for each of us. I am a selfish, loud, arrogant, manly man, yes. But if I stay alive for two days, I am stealing another's life. Someone meant to be born but left without room. If I live for three days, I steal two lives. And if I lived as long as you wish ... for a million days ... how many nations would remain unborn ...?"
There was more to the speech, but she heard none of it.
She wasn't Snowfeather anymore; she was a young human again. Finding herself standing, she interrupted the translator's blather with a raucous laugh. Then scorn took hold, making her cry out, telling the Supreme-example-of-manhood, "You know what you are? You're a stupid, self-absorbed turkey!"
His box hesitated, fighting for a translation.
Before it could speak, and without a backward glance, Washen leaped off the bladder, spreading the mechanical wings and plunging fast, her chest perilously close to the forest's blue-black face before a rising wind claimed her, helping carry her to the observation deck.
On her feet again, Washen unstrapped the almost-new wings and shoved them over the railing. Then she quietly returned home. That day, or sometime during those next few months, she approached her parents, asking what they would think of her if she applied to the captains' academy.
"That would be wonderful," her father purred.
"Whatever you want," said her mother, her feelings coming with a relieved smile.
No one mentioned the Phoenixes. What her parents knew, Washen never learned. But after her acceptance to the academy, and under the influence of a few celebratory drinks, Father gave her a squidlike hug, and with wisdom and a drunk's easy conviction, he told her, "There are different ways to fly, darling.
"And I think ... I know ... you're choosing the very best kind ...!"
Washen had always lived in the same apartment nestled deep inside one of the popular captains' districts. But that wasn't to say that her home hadn't changed during this great march of a life. Furniture. Artwork. Cultivated plants, and domesticated animals. With several hectares of climate-controlled, earth-gravity terrain to play with, and the resources of the ship at her full disposal, the danger was that she would make too many changes, inspiration ruling, never allowing herself enough time to appreciate each of her accomplishments.
While returning home from Port Beta, Washen composed her daily report, then studied the next passengers scheduled to board the ship: a race of machines, superchilled and tiny, eager to build a new nation inside a volume smaller than most drawers.
Whenever she grew bored, Washen found herself dreaming up new ways to redecorate the rooms and gardens inside her home.
She would do the work soon, she told herself.
In a year, or ten.
The cap-car delivered her to her private door. Stepping out of the car, she decided that things had gone well today. A thousand centuries of steady practice had made her an expert in alien psychologies and the theatre that went into handling them, and like any good captain, Washen allowed herself to feel pride, knowing that what she did she did better than almost anyone else on board.
If there was anyone better, of course.
She wasn't consciously thinking about her long-dead lover, or the Phoenixes, or that fateful day that helped make her into a captain. But everything that she was now had been born then. The young Washen had no genuine feel for any alien species, much less for Manly. She never suspected what the Phoenixes were planning. Events had come as a complete surprise, and a revelation, and it was only luck and Washen's popularity that kept her from being tainted by the whole ugly business.
Several youngsters besides Washen had taken lovers. Or the Phoenixes had allowed themselves to be taken. Either way, emotional bonds were built on top of political hopes, and slowly, over the course of the next years, the humans helped their lovers in ways that were at first questionable, then illegal, and finally, treasonous.
Along a thousand conduits, forbidden machines entered the prison.
Under the watchful gaze of AI paranoids and suspicious captains, weapons were designed and built, then stored inside the floating bladdersinvisible because the captains' sensors were sabotaged by the sympathizers.
When it came, the rebellion gave no warning. Five captains were murdered, along with nine hundred-plus mates and engineers and young humans, including many of Washen's one-time friends. Their bodies and bioceramic brains were obliterated by laser light, not a memory left to save. The Great Nothingness had reclaimed a few of its weakest childrenan accomplishment that must have made Manly intensely proudand for a moment in time, the ship itself seemed to be in peril.
Then the Master Captain took charge of the fight, and within minutes, the rebellion was finished. The war was won. Unrepentent prisoners were forced back into their chamber, and its ancient machinery was awakened for the first time in at least five billion years. The temperature inside the great cylinder dropped. Frost turned to hard ice, and numbed by the cold, the Phoenixes descended to the prison floor, huddling together for heat, cursing the Master with their beautiful songs, then with their next labored breath, their flesh turned into a rigid glassy solid, undead, and with an accidental vengeance, they were left glancingly immortal.
Millennia later, as the Great Ship passed near Phoenix space, those frozen warriors were loaded into a taxi like cargo, then delivered home.
Washen herself had overseen the transfer of the bodies. It wasn't an assignment that she had requested, but the Master, who surely possessed a record of the young woman's indiscretions, thought it would be a telling moment.
Maybe it had been.
The memory came like a rebellion. Stepping through her apartment door, she suddenly remembered that long-ago chore, and in particular, the look of a certain male Phoenix caught in mid-breath, his gills pulled wide and the blackness of the blood still apparent after thousands of years of dreamless sleep. Still lovely, Manly was. All of them were lovely. And just once, for an instant, Washen had touched the frozen feathers and the defiant beak with the sensitive glove of her lifesuit.
Washen tried to remember what she was thinking as she touched her lost love. There had to be some leftover sadness and an older person's acceptance of things that would never change, and there had to be a captain's genuine relief that she had survived the assault. The ship was a machine and a mystery, and it was filled with living souls who looked on her to keep them safe ... And at that instant, stepping into the familiar back hallway of her apartment, her thoughts were interrupted by the apartment's voice.
"Message," she heard.
The entranceway was footworn silk-marble, its wails currently wearing tapestries woven by a communal intelligence of antlike organisms. Before Washen could take a second step, she heard, "A priority message. Coded. And urgent."
She blinked, her attentions shifting.
"Black level," she heard. "Alpha protocols."
This was a drill. Those protocols were intended only for the worst disasters and the gravest secrets. Washen nodded, engaging one of her internal nexus links. Then after several minutes of proving that she was herself, the message was decoded and delivered.
She read it in full, twice. Then she sent away for the essential confirmation, knowing this was an exercise, and the Master's office would thank her for her timely and efficient response. But the unthinkable occurred. After the briefest pause, the word "Proceed" was delivered to her.
She said it aloud, then whispered the rest of those incredible words.
"Proceed with your mission, with utmost caution, beginning immediately."
It took a lot to astonish an old woman. Yet here was one old woman who felt astonished to the point of numbness, and perhaps a little afraid, not to mention incandescently happy to have this abrupt, utterly unexpected challenge.
What People are saying about this
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >