"A complex, finely detailed thriller-cum-space opera"
Seeds of Earthby Michael Cobley
Merciless. Relentless. Unstoppable.
The first intelligent species to encounter mankind attacked without warning. Merciless. Relentless. Unstoppable. With little hope of halting the invasion, Earth's last roll of the dice was to dispatch three colony ships, seeds of Earth, to different parts of the galaxy. The human race would live on ... somewhere.
Merciless. Relentless. Unstoppable.
The first intelligent species to encounter mankind attacked without warning. Merciless. Relentless. Unstoppable. With little hope of halting the invasion, Earth's last roll of the dice was to dispatch three colony ships, seeds of Earth, to different parts of the galaxy. The human race would live on ... somewhere.
150 years later, the planet Darien hosts a thriving human settlement, which enjoys a peaceful relationship with an indigenous race, the scholarly Uvovo. But there are secrets buried on Darien's forest moon. Secrets that go back to an apocalyptic battle fought between ancient races at the dawn of galactic civilization. Unknown to its colonists, Darien is about to become the focus of an intergalactic power struggle where the true stakes are beyond their comprehension. And what choices will the Uvovo make when their true nature is revealed and the skies grow dark with the enemy?
"A complex, finely detailed thriller-cum-space opera"
"Proper galaxy-spanning Space Opera ... a worthy addition to the genre"
Proper galaxy-spanning Space Opera ... a worthy addition to the genre"Iain M. Banks"
A complex, finely detailed thriller-cum-space opera"SFX
Read an Excerpt
Seeds of Earth
By Michael Cobley
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Michael Cobley
All right reserved.
DARIEN INSTITUTE: HYPERION DATA RECOVERY PROJECT
Cluster Location – Subsidiary Hardmem Substrate (Deck 9 quarters)
Tranche – 298
Decryption Status – 9th pass, 26 video files recovered
File 15 – The Battle of Mars (Swarm War)
Veracity – Virtual Re-enactment
Original Time Log – 16:09:24, 23 November 2126
MARS THE CRATER PLAIN: OLYMPUS MONS 19 MARCH 2126
The Sergeant was on the carrier’s command deck, checking and rechecking the engineering console’s modifications, when voices began clamouring over his helmet comm.
‘Marine force stragglers incoming with enemy units in pursuit…’
‘… eight, nine Swarmers, maybe ten…’
The Sergeant cursed, grabbed his heavy carbine and left the command deck as quickly as his combat armour would allow. The clatter of his boots echoed down the vessel’s spinal corridor while he issued a string of terse orders. By the time he reached the wrecked and gaping doors of the rear deployment hold, the stragglers had arrived. Five wounded and unconscious, all from the Indonesia regiment, going by their helmet flashes. As the last was being carried up the ramp, the leading Swarmers came into view over the brow of a rocky ridge about 80 metres away.
A first glimpse revealed a nightmare jumble of claws, spikes and gleaming black eye-clusters. Swarm biology had many reptilian similarities yet their appearance was unavoidably insectoid. With six, eight, ten or more limbs, they could be as small as a pony or as big as a whale, depending on their specialisation. These were bull-sized skirmishers, eleven black-and-green monsters that were unlimbering tine-snouted weapons as they rushed down towards the crippled carrier.
‘Hold your fire,’ the Sergeant said, glancing at the six marines crouched behind the improvised barricade of ammo cases and deck plating. These were all that were left to him after the Colonel and the rest had left in the hovermags a few hours ago, heading for the caldera and the Swarm’s main hive. One of them hunched his shoulders a little, head tilting to aim down his carbine’s sights…
‘I said wait,’ said the Sergeant, gauging the diminishing distance. ‘Ready aft turrets… acquire targets… fire!’
Streams of heavy-calibre shells converged on the leading Swarmers, knocking them off their spidery legs. Then the Sergeant cursed when he saw them right themselves, protected by the bio-armour which had confounded Earth’s military ever since the beginning of the invasion two years ago.
‘Pulse rounds,’ the Sergeant shouted. ‘Now!’
Bright bolts began to pound the Swarmers, dense knots of energised matter designed to simultaneously heat and corrode their armour. The enemy returned fire, their weapons delivering repeating arcs of long, thin black rounds, but as the turret jockeys focused their targeting the Swarmers broke off and scattered. The Sergeant then ordered his men to open up, joining in with his own carbine, and the withering crossfire tore into the weakened, confused enemies. In less than a minute, nothing was left alive or in one piece out on the rocky slope.
The defending marines exchanged laughs and grins, and knocked gauntleted knuckles together. The Sergeant barely had time to draw breath and reload his carbine when the consoleman’s urgent voice came over the comm:
‘Sergeant! – airborne contact, three klicks and closing!’
Immediately, he swung round and made for the starboard companionway, shouldering his carbine as he climbed. ‘What’s their profile, soldier?’
‘Hard to tell – half the sensor suite is junk…’
‘Get me something and quick!’
He then ordered all four turrets to target the approaching craft and was clambering out of the carrier’s topside hatch when the consoleman came back to him.
‘IFF confirms it’s a friendly, Sergeant – it’s a vorti-wing, and the pilot is asking for you.’
‘Patch him through.’
One of his helmet’s miniscreens blinked suddenly and showed the vortiwing pilot. He was possibly German, going by the instructions on the bulkhead behind him.
‘Sergeant, I’ve not much time,’ the pilot said in accented English. ‘I’m to evacuate you and your men up to orbit…’
‘Sorry, Lieutenant, but… my commanding officer is down in that caldera, engaging in combat! Look, the brink of the caldera is less than half a klick away – you could airlift me and my men over there before returning to—’
‘Request denied. My orders are specific. Besides, every unit that made it down there has been overwhelmed and destroyed, whole regiments and brigades, Sergeant. I’m sorry…’ The pilot reached up to adjust controls. ‘ETD in less than five minutes, Sergeant. Please have your men ready.’
The miniscreen went dead. The Sergeant leaned on the topside rail and stared bitterly at the kilometre-long furrow which the carrier had gouged in the sloping flank of Olympus Mons. Then he gave the order to abandon ship.
In the shroud-like Martian sky overhead, the vorti-wing transport grew from a speck to a broad-built craft descending on four gimbal-mounted spinjets. Landing struts found purchase on the carrier’s upper hull, and amid the howling blast of the engines the walking wounded and the stretcher cases were lifted into the transport’s belly hold. The turret jockeys, the consoleman and his half-dozen marines were following suit when the German pilot’s voice spoke suddenly.
‘Large number of flying Swarmers heading our way, Sergeant. Suggest you get aboard fast.’
As the last of his men climbed up into the vortiwing, the Sergeant turned to face the caldera of Olympus Mons. Through a haze of windblown dust and the thin black fumes of battle, he saw a dense cloud of dark motes rising just a few klicks away. It took only a moment to realise how quickly they would be here, and for him to decide what to do.
‘Best you button up and get going, Lieutenant,’ he said as he leaped back into the carrier and sealed the hatch behind him. ‘I can keep them busy with our turrets, give you time to make orbit.’
‘Nein! Sergeant, I order you—’
‘Apologies, sir, but you’d never get away otherwise, so my task is clear.’
He cut the link as he rushed back along to the command deck, closing hatches as he went. True, the Colonel’s science officer had slaved all four of the turrets to the engineering console, but that wasn’t the only modification he had carried out…
The roar of the vortiwing’s spinjets grew to a shriek, landing struts loosened their grip and the transport lurched free. Moments later, the fourfold angled thrust was driving it upwards on a steep trajectory. Some of the Swarm outriders were already leading the flying host on an intercept course, until the carrier’s turrets opened fire upon them. Yet they would still have kept on after the ascending prey, had not the carrier itself now shifted like a great wounded beast and risen slowly from the long gouge it had made in the ground. Curtains of dust and grit fell from its underside, along with shattered fragments of hull plating and exterior sensors, and when the carrier turned its battered prow towards the centre of the caldera the Swarm host altered its course.
On the command deck, the Sergeant sweated and swore as he struggled to coax every last erg from protesting engines. Damage sustained during the atmospheric descent had left the carrier unable to make a safe landing on the caldera floor, hence the Colonel’s decision to continue in the hovermags. However, a safe landing was not what the Sergeant had in mind.
As the ship headed into the caldera, steadily gaining height, the groan of overloaded substructures came up through the deck. Even as he glanced at the glowing panels, red telltales started to flicker, warnings that some of the port suspensors were close to operational tolerance. But most of his attention was focused on the host of Swarmers now converging on the Earth vessel.
Suddenly the carrier was enfolded in a swirling cloud of the creatures, some of which landed on the hull, scrabbling for hold points, seeking entrance. Almost at the same time, two suspensors failed and the ship listed to port. The Sergeant boosted power to the port burners, ignoring the beeping alarms and the crashing, hammering sounds coming from somewhere amidships. The carrier straightened up as it reached the zenith of its trajectory, a huge missile that the Sergeant was aiming directly at the Swarm Hive.
Ten seconds into the dive the clangorous hammering came nearer, perhaps a hatch or two away from the command deck.
Twenty seconds into the dive, with the pitted, grey-brown spires of the Hive looming in the louvred viewport, the starboard aft burner blew. The Sergeant cut power to the port aft engine and boosted the starboard for’ard into the red.
Thirty seconds into the dive, amid the deafening cacophony of metallic hammering and the roar of the engines, the hatch to the command deck finally burst open. A grotesque creature that was half-wasp, half-alligator, struggled to squeeze through the gap. It froze for a second when it saw the structures of the Hive rushing up to meet the carrier head-on, then frantically reversed direction and was gone. The Sergeant tossed a thermite grenade after it and turned to face the view-port, arms spread wide, laughing…
VIEW OF OLYMPUS MONS FROM ORBIT
Visible within its attendant cloud of Swarmers, the brigade carrier leaves a trail of leaking gases and fluids in its wake as it plummets towards the Hive complex. The perspective suddenly zooms out, showing much of the wreckage-strewn, battle-scarred caldera as the carrier impacts. For a moment there is only an outburst of debris from the collision, then three bright explosions in quick succession obscure the outlines of the hive…
In the first phase of the Battle of Mars, a number of purpose-built heavy boosters were used to send a flotilla of asteroids against the Swarm Armada, thus drawing key vessels away from Mars orbit. The main battle, and ground offensive, cost Earth over 400,000 dead and the loss of seventy-nine major warships as well as scores of support craft. This act of sacrifice did not destroy all the Overminds of the Swarm or deter them from their purpose. Yet vast stores of bioweapons, like the missiles that devastated cities in China, Europe and America, were destroyed along with several hatching chambers, thus halting the production of fresh Swarm warriors and delaying the expected assault on Earth.
That battle brought grief and sorrow to all of Humanity, yet it also bought us a breathing space, five crucial months during which the construction of three interstellar colony ships was completed, three out of the original fifteen. The last of them, the Tenebrosa, was launched from the high-orbit Poseidon Docks just four days ago, following its sister ships, the Hyperion and the Forrestal, on a trajectory away from the enemy’s main forces. All three vessels are fitted with a revolutionary new translight drive, allowing them to cross vast distances via the strange subreality of hyperspace. First to make the translight jump was the Hyperion, then two days later the Forrestal, and the Tenebrosa will be the last. Their journeys will be determined by custodian AIs programmed to evade pursuit with random course changes, and thereafter to search for Earthlike worlds suitable for colonisation.
And so they depart, three arks bearing Humanity’s hope for survival, three seeds of Earth flying out into the vast and starry night. Now we must turn our attention and all our strength to the onslaught that will soon be upon us. In twelve days, spearhead formations of the Swarm will land on the Moon and at once attack our civilian and military outposts there. We know what to expect. The Swarm’s strategy of slaughter and obliterate has never wavered, so we know that there will be no pity, no mercy and no quarter when, at last, they enter the skies above Earth.
Yet for all that the Swarm soldiers are regimented drones, their leaders, the Overminds, must themselves be sentient and able to learn, otherwise they would not have developed space travel. So if the Overminds can learn, let us be their teachers – let us teach them what it means to attack the cradle of Humanity…
END OF FILE…
Dusk was creeping in over the sea from the east as Greg Cameron walked Chel down to the zep station. The great mass of Giant’s Shoulder loomed on the right side of the path, its shadowy darkness speckled with the tiny blue glows of ineka beetles, while a fenced-off sheer drop fell away to the left. The sky was cloudless, laying bare the starmist which swirled for ever through the upper atmosphere of Darien. Tonight it was a soft purple tinged with threads of roseate, a restful, slow-shifting ghost sky.
But Greg knew that his companion was anything but restful. In the light of the pathway lamps, the Uvovo stalked along with head down and bony, four-fingered hands gripping the chest straps of his harness. They were a slender, diminutive race with a bony frame, and large amber eyes set in a small face. Glancing at him, Greg smiled.
‘Chel, don’t worry – you’ll be fine.’
The Uvovo looked up and seemed to think for a moment before his finely furred features broke into a wide smile.
‘Friend-Gregori,’ came his hollow, fluty voice. ‘Whether I ride in a dirigible or make the shuttle journey to our blessed Segrana, I am always amazed to discover myself alive at the end!’
They laughed together as they continued down the side of Giant’s Shoulder. It was a cool, clammy night and Greg wished he had worn something heavier than just a work shirt.
‘And you’ve still no idea why they’re holding this zinsilu at Ibsenskog?’ Greg said. For the Uvovo, a zinsilu was part life evaluation, part meditation. ‘I mean, the Listeners do have access to the government comnet if they need to contact any of the seeders and scholars…’ Then something occurred to him. ‘Here, they’re not going to reassign ye, are they? Chel, I won’t be able to manage both the dig and the daughter-forest reports on my own! – I really need your help.’
‘Do not worry, friend-Gregori,’ said the Uvovo. ‘Listener Weynl has always let it be known that my role here is considered very important. Once this zinsilu is concluded, I am sure that I will be returning without delay.’
I hope you’re right, Greg thought. The Institute isna very forgiving when it comes to shortcomings and unachieved goals.
‘After all,’ Chel went on, ‘your Founders’ Victory celebrations are only a few days away and I want to be here to observe all your ceremonies and rituals.’
Greg gave a wry half-grin. ‘Aye… well, some of our “rituals” can get a bit boisterous…’
By now the gravel path was levelling off as they approached the zep station and overhead Greg could hear the faint peeps of umisk lizards calling to each other from their little lairs scattered across the sheer face of Giant’s Shoulder. The station was little more than a buttressed platform with a couple of buildings and a five-yard-long covered gantry jutting straight out. A government dirigible was moored there, a gently swaying 50-footer consisting of two cylindrical gasbags lashed together with taut webbing and an enclosed gondola hanging beneath. The skin of the inflatable sections was made from a tough composite fabric, but exposure to the elements and a number of patch repairs gave it a ramshackle appearance, in common with most of the workaday government zeplins. A light glowed in the cockpit of the boatlike gondola, and the rear-facing, three-bladed propeller turned lazily in the steady breeze coming in from the sea.
Fredriksen, the station manager, waved from the waiting-room door while a man in a green and grey jumpsuit emerged from the gantry to meet them.
‘Good day, good day,’ he said, regarding first Greg then the Uvovo. ‘I am Pilot Yakov. If either of you is Scholar Cheluvahar, I am ready to depart.’
‘I am Scholar Cheluvahar,’ Chel said.
‘Most excellent. I shall start the engine.’ He nodded at Greg then went back to the gantry, ducking as he entered.
‘Mind to send a message when you reach Ibsenskog,’ Greg told Chel. ‘And don’t worry about the flight – it’ll be over before you know it…’
‘Ah, friend-Gregori – I am of the Warrior Uvovo. Such tests are breath and life itself!’
Then with a smile he turned and hurried after the pilot. A pure electric whine came from the gondola’s aft section, rising in pitch as the prop spun faster. Greg heard the solid knock of wooden gears as the station manager cranked in the gantry then triggered the mooring cable releases. Suddenly free upon the air, the dirigible swayed as it began drifting away, picking up speed and banking away from the sheer face of Giant’s Shoulder. The trip down to Port Gagarin was only a half-hour hop, after which Chel would catch a commercial lifter bound for the Eastern Towns and the daughter-forest Ibsenskog. Greg could not see his friend at any of the gondola’s opaque portholes but he waved anyway for about a minute, then just stood watching the zeplin’s descent into the deepening dusk. Feeling a chill in the air, he fastened some of his shirt buttons while continuing to enjoy the peace. The zep station was nearly 50 feet below the main dig site but it was still some 300 feet above sea level. Giant’s Shoulder itself was an imposing spur jutting eastwards from a towering massif known as the Kentigern Mountains, a raw wilderness largely avoided by trappers and hunters, although the Uvovo claimed to have explored a good deal of it.
As the zeplin’s running lamps receded, Greg took in the panorama before him, the coastal plain stretching several miles east to the darkening expanse of the Korzybski Sea and the lights of towns scattered all around its long western shore. Far off to the south was the bright glitterglow of Hammergard, sitting astride a land bridge separating Loch Morwen from the sea; beyond the city, hidden by the misty murk of evening, was a ragged coastline of sealochs and fjords where the Eastern Towns nestled. South of them were hills and a high valley cloaked by the daughter-forest Ibsenskog. Before his standpoint were the jewelled clusters of Port Gagarin, slightly to the south, High Lochiel a few miles northwest, and Landfall, where the cannibalised hulk of the old colonyship, the Hyperion, lay in the sad tranquillity of Membrance Vale. Then further north were New Kelso, Engerhold, Laika, and the logging and farmer settlements scattering north and west, while off past the northeast horizon was Trond.
His mood darkened. Trond was the city he had left just two short months ago, fleeing the trap of his disastrous cohabitance with Inga, a mistake whose wounds were still raw. But before his thoughts could begin circling the pain of it, he stood straighter and breathed in the cold air, determined not to dwell on bitterness and regret. Instead, he turned his gaze southwards to see the moonrise.
A curve of blue-green was gradually emerging from behind the jagged peaks of the Hrothgar Range which lined the horizon: Nivyesta, Darien’s lush arboreal moon, brimming with life and mystery, and home to the Uvovo, wardens of the girdling forest they called Segrana. Once, millennia ago, the greater part of their arboreal civilisation had inhabited Darien, which they called Umara, but some indeterminate catastrophe had wiped out the planetary population, leaving those on the moon alive but stranded.
On a clear night like this, the starmist in Darien’s upper atmosphere wreathed Nivyesta in a gauzy halo of mingling colours like some fabulous eye staring down on the little niche that humans had made for themselves on this alien world. It was a sight that never failed to raise his spirits. But the night was growing chilly now, so he buttoned his shirt to the neck and began retracing his steps. He was halfway up the path when his comm chimed. Digging it out of his shirt pocket he saw that it was his elder brother and decided to answer.
‘Hi, Ian – how’re ye doing?’ he said, walking on.
‘Not so bad. Just back from manoeuvres and looking forward to FV Day, chance to get a wee bit of R&R. Yourself?’
Greg smiled. Ian was a part-time soldier with the Darien Volunteer Corps and was never happier than when he was marching across miles of sodden bog or scaling basalt cliffs in the Hrothgars, apart from when he was home with his wife and daughter.
‘I’m settling in pretty well,’ he said. ‘Getting to grips with all the details of the job, making sure that the various teams file their reports on something like a regular schedule, that sort of thing.’
‘But are you happy staying at the temple site, Greg? – because you know that we’ve plenty of room here and I know that you loved living in Hammergard, before the whole Inga episode…’
‘Honest, Ian, I’m fine right here. I love my work, the surroundings are peaceful and the view is fantastic! I appreciate the offer, big brother, but I’m where I want to be.’
‘S’okay, laddie, just making sure. Have you heard from Ned since you got back, by the way?’
‘Just a brief letter, which is okay. He’s a busy doctor these days…’
Ned, the third and youngest brother, was very poor at keeping in touch, much to Ian’s annoyance, which often prompted Greg to defend him.
‘Aye, right, busy. So – when are we likely to see ye next? Can ye not come down for the celebrations?’
‘Sorry, Ian, I’m needed here, but I do have a meeting scheduled at the Uminsky Institute in a fortnight – shall we get together then?’
‘That sounds great. Let me know nearer the time and I’ll make arrangements.’
They both said farewell and hung up. Greg strolled leisurely on, smiling expectantly, keeping the comm in his hand. As he walked he thought about the dig site up on Giant’s Shoulder, the many hours he’d spent painstakingly uncovering this carven stela or that section of intricately tiled floor, not to mention the countless days devoted to cataloguing, dating, sample analysis and correlation matching. Sometimes – well, a lot of the time – it was a frustrating process, as there was nothing to guide them in comprehending the meaning of the site’s layout and function. Even the Uvovo scholars were at a loss, explaining that the working of stone was a skill lost at the time of the War of the Long Night, one of the darker episodes in Uvovo folklore.
Ten minutes later he was near the top of the path when his comm chimed again, and without looking at the display he brought it up and said:
‘Gregory, son, are you well?’
‘Mum, I’m fine, feeling okay and happy too, really…
’ ‘Yes, now that you’re out of her clutches! But are you not lonely up there amongst those cold stones and only the little Uvovo to talk to?’
Greg held back the urge to sigh. In a way, she was right – it was a secluded existence, living pretty much on his own in one of the site cabins. There was a three-man team of researchers from the university working on the site’s carvings, but they were all Russian and mostly kept to themselves, as did the Uvovo teams who came in from the outlying stations now and then. Some of the Uvovo scholars he knew by name but only Chel had become a friend.
‘A bit of solitude is just what I need right now, Mum. Beside, there’s always people coming and going up here.’
‘Mm-hmm. There were always people coming and going here at the house when your father was a councilman, but most of them I did not care for, as you might recall.’
‘Oh, I remember, all right.’
Greg also remembered which ones stayed loyal when his father fell ill with the tumour that eventually killed him.
‘As a matter of fact, I was discussing both you and your father with your Uncle Theodor, who came by this afternoon.’
Greg raised his eyebrows. Theodor Karlsson was his mother’s oldest brother and had earned himself a certain notoriety and the nickname ‘Black Theo’ for his role in the abortive Winter Coup twenty years ago. As a punishment he had been kept under house arrest on New Kelso for twelve years, during which he fished, studied military history and wrote, although on his release the Hammergard government informed him that he was forbidden to publish anything, fact or fiction, on pain of bail suspension. For the last eight years he had tried his hand at a variety of jobs, while keeping in occasional contact with his sister, and Greg vaguely recalled that he had somehow got involved with the Hyperion Data Project…
‘So what’s Uncle Theo been saying?’
‘Well, he has heard some news that will amaze you – I can still scarcely believe it myself. It is going to change everyone’s life.’
‘Don’t tell me that he wants to overthrow the government again.’
‘Please, Gregori, that is not even slightly funny…’
‘Sorry, Mum, sorry. Please, what did he say?’
From where he stood at the head of the path he had a clear view of the dig, the square central building looking bleached and grey in the glare of the nightlamps. As Greg listened his expression went from puzzled to astonished, and he let out an elated laugh as he looked up at the stars. Then he got his mother to tell him again.
‘Mum, you’ve got to be kidding me!…’
Theodor Karlsson had a spring in his step as he walked up a private footpath towards the presidential villa. Tall, thick bushes concealed it from inquisitive eyes, and waist-high lantern posts shed pools of subdued radiance all along its length. His long, heavy coat was three-quarters fastened and his custom-soled shoes made little noise on the tiled path. The villa grounds were dark and still in the cool of the evening but Karlsson could almost smell the weave of seamless security which enclosed the place. There was a visible perimeter of patrols and cameras down at the main wall and gate, and a pair of guards at the side-door up ahead, but Theo knew that the best security was seldom seen. The question that loomed large in his mind, however, was who was it all meant to keep out?
The guards, both wearing dark imager eye-pieces, were muttering into collar mikes as he approached.
‘Good evening, Major,’ said one. ‘If you could look into the scanner with your right eye.’
He stepped up to the plain wooden door, followed instructions, and moments later he heard several muffled thuds. The door swung open. Inside he was met by a composed, middle-aged woman who took his coat then led him along a narrow, windowless corridor, past a number of bland, pastoral paintings, then up a poorly lit curve of steps to a landing with two doors. Without pause she continued through the left one and Karlsson found himself in a warm, carpeted study.
‘Please make yourself comfortable, Major Karlsson. The president will see you shortly.’
‘Thank you…’ Theo began to say, but she was already leaving the room, closing the door behind her. He surveyed his surroundings, a medium-sized room with well-stocked bookshelves, a log fire burning in the hearth, and an ornate adjustable lamp hanging over a large desk. A ceiling-high rack of shelves partially concealed a second door in one corner and a hand-eye security lock.
The belly of the beast, he thought. Or maybe the lion’s den.
It always felt like this whenever he had these meetings with Sundstrom, no matter where they took place. Which was why he had got into the habit of visiting his sister, Solvjeg, shortly beforehand, just to quietly let her know where he would be for the next few hours, with a veiled hint as to whom he was meeting. Today, though, she was full of eagerness to know if the rumours were true, that there had been a signal from Earth.
Theo grinned, recalling the moment. The message had apparently been received that morning, yet he had heard it sixth-hand from an old friend in the Corps by mid-afternoon, so it was no surprise that Solvjeg picked it up from the old girls’ network. Now it was evening and the rumours were all over the colony. Even Kirkland, the leader of the opposition, had issued a statement, but so far there had been no official confirmation from either the council or the president’s office.
A ship from Earth! he thought. So now we know that the human race survived the Swarm War, but did we beat them or did other survivors flee from Earth? And what happened to the other two colonyships, the Forrestal and the Tenebrosa?
His mind was a ferment of questions, the outcome of a year and a half of unpaid work at the Hyperion Data Project. It had been his own soldiering experience that had led to helping one of the supervisors with the transcription of a military treatise in Swedish. It turned out to be a Swedish translation of On War by the Prussian Von Clausewitz, a book that Theo had only ever read references to. Engrossed in the steady work of extracting it from the Hyperion’s reams of raw text, and having to guess where the paragraphs began, he had become fascinated with the Hyperion and her sister ships, including the ones that were never launched…
The door behind the shelves in the corner opened and the president entered, his wheelchair pushed by a young man in a brown and grey onepiece.
‘Evening, Theodor,’ Sundstrom said, dismissing the attendant then dextrously propelling himself across the room to stop behind his desk.
‘Good evening, Holger,’ Theo said. ‘Interesting study you have, some nice books too.’ He indicated a glass-fronted cabinet. ‘Is that the Serov edition of Nineteen Eighty-four over there?’
‘Yes, it is,’ said Sundstrom. ‘Collins’s Moonstone is rarer, of course, but Orwell is much more of a politician’s writer.’
Theo chuckled. Vasili Serov had been a systems tech on board the colonyship Hyperion and had played a decisive role in the deadly struggle against the ship’s Command AI. In the Hardship Years that followed, Serov had cobbled together a crude manual printing press and painstakingly typeset those few novels sitting in datapods that had not been linked to the shipboard comnet. The huge memorybanks of the Hyperion, buried under layers of encryption by the ship AI, were to remain inaccessible for decades, so Serov’s work had proved invaluable to the surviving colonists.
For a moment both men were thoughtfully silent, then Sundstrom spoke:
‘I assume you’ve heard.’
‘About two hours before I got your invitation,’ Theo said, watching him. ‘So it’s true – Earth has sent a ship to find us, which means that the Swarm were defeated and all our troubles are over, yes?’
Sundstrom gave a thin smile.
‘If only matters were that straightforward. Theo, the Swarm War lasted two and a half years before the Hegemony helped chase the last of the Swarm away, and that was a century and a half ago, which is a long time in the history of a culture or a society. Just think about all the strife and upheavals that our little enclave has been through – the Hyperion AI war, First Families against the New Generation, the Consolidators versus the Expansionists, the New Town Secession – and multiply that to a planetary level.’ He shook his head. ‘I’m afraid that our lives are about to become quite a bit more complicated, not to say uncomfortable.’
Frowning, Theo sat back, going over in his mind the dozen or so meetings he’d had with Sundstrom in the last two years.
‘You speak as if you know something I’ve not heard about…’ He leaned forward. ‘When you first asked me to join your little cabal, you said that we were preparing for the worst, like the possibility of occupation by an unfriendly species. Now it seems that there’s an Earth ship due in… how long?’
‘Less than a day, fine,’ Theo said. ‘Yet your demeanour is not that of, shall we say, delighted anticipation.’ Then he laughed and snapped his fingers. ‘Or has it been this contact with Earth that we’ve been preparing for all along?’
Sundstrom leaned back in his wheelchair, gnarled hands loosely clasping the handrests. ‘Your intuition has always been sharp, Theodor,’ he said. ‘If you had been the leader of the Winter Coup rather than Viktor Ingram…’
‘If I’d had that sharp an intuition back then, I would have shot the bastard, not trusted him,’ Theo said testily. ‘But you’re dodging the question, Holger.’
‘I’m waiting for the others to join us first – ah, I think they’re here now.’ He reached forward and fingered an angled display set in the desktop.
The others, Theo thought. Sundstrom had occasionally hinted at the existence of other cabal members, but in two years Theo had met only one of them, a broad-shouldered, muscular Scot who was introduced as Boris. He was not among the three who now entered the study, two of whom – a man and a woman – he had never seen before. The third he recognised immediately as Vitaly Pyatkov, assistant director at the Office of Guidance, an intelligence organisation founded in the wake of the Winter Coup. Theo was amused by the look of aghast surprise that flashed across the man’s features on seeing who was in the president’s company, and also by the bland expression that slammed into place an instant later.
‘Thank you all for coming here this evening,’ said Sundstrom. ‘You have all agreed to be part of my little advisory inner circle, but I intend to keep identities to a minimum for now.’ He then introduced the man as Donny, and the woman as Tanya. Once everyone had settled, he began.
‘First, as I’m sure you’ve all realised, the rumours are true. One of our comm satellites picked up a message claiming to be from the Earthsphere ship Heracles, offering friendly greetings and informing us that they will be entering Darien orbit at about ten tomorrow morning. Simurg 2, our satellite orbiting Nivyesta, is tracking an object on an intercept course with Darien; further communications have confirmed that the object is their source.’
‘Further communications, sir?’ said the woman Tanya. ‘Has there been dialogue? Do we have any clues about what to expect?’
‘There is a special ambassador on board, going by the name of Robert Horst, but thus far we have exchanged little more than diplomatic pleasantries.’ Sundstrom’s face grew serious. ‘However, there are certain truths that I must make you all aware of from the outset.’
He raised a wire remote and clicked it. The screen at his back blinked on, showing a blue world from orbit, with a small green moon in attendance – Darien and Nivyesta. The perspective swung round gradually, bringing the sun, New Sol, into view, causing a lens flare before it slid out of the frame, leaving planet and moon against a hazy backdrop through which a few bright stars shone, diamond points suspended in misty veils.
‘The tract of stellar dust and debris that surrounds us,’ he went on, ‘is rather larger than some observers had reckoned, nearly a thousand lightyears across at its widest, and our star system is located in one of the denser swirls. This tract is known as the Huvuun Deepzone and is one of several scattered around this part of the galaxy. It also happens to be the focus of a bitter border dispute between two regional civilisations, the Imisil and the Broltura.’
On the screen, Darien and its solar system dwindled into the mottled murk of interstellar dust clouds while strangely contoured walls emerged, stretching across lightyears, the three-dimensional boundaries between the deepzone and adjacent territories.
‘The Brolturan Compact is closely allied to a huge interstellar empire called the Sendruka Hegemony, who also happen to be allies of Earthsphere. Unfortunately, the Solar System is nearly 15,000 lightyears away, which puts us well outside Earth’s region of influence. The Imisil Mergence were once at war with the Hegemony, which adds a certain tension to the situation.’
Sundstrom paused, and there was an astonished silence. The others glanced at the screen and each other as the revelations sank in, and Theo’s mind spun with the implications.
Complicated and uncomfortable? he thought. That’s an understatement.
Pyatkov the intelligence officer spoke:
‘Sir, respectfully – I know that your exchanges with the ambassador have not contained such information, so I must ask where it comes from.’
‘I’m sorry, Vitaly, but I cannot reveal that at the moment.’
‘Then how long have you known all this?’ Theo said.
‘Nearly two and a half years,’ the president said. ‘You will all find out the nature of this source in time, but they do not wish others to know straight away in fear of an inevitable political backlash.’
It’s got to be the Enhanced, Theo thought. They’re involved in all the tech-heavy projects, and I’ll bet that old Holger has a couple tucked away, translating signals trawled from the Great Beyond.
‘So who should we fear the most?’
Sundstrom smiled ruefully. ‘Realpolitik being what it is, I feel that none of them are to be entirely trusted, but Earth’s alliance with the Sendruka Hegemony is disturbing…’
As they listened, Sundstrom launched into an amazing disclosure, sketching the outlines of a topography of interstellar power, rivalry and conflict they had never dreamed existed. The Sendruka Hegemony was an authoritarian, militaristic empire which dominated this part of the galaxy: it employed a range of unprincipled tactics in order to get its way while laying claim to the most altruistic of motives and holding itself up as the example to which other civilisations should aspire. Unfortunately, close bonds of gratitude and trade existed between Earthsphere and the Hegemony, since the latter had been instrumental in defeating the Swarm invasion fleet which had nearly overwhelmed Earth and a dozen other civilisations 150 years ago. That was when the Hyperion and two other colonyships had departed the home solar system, after the beginning of the invasion but before the Hegemony’s intervention.
As Sundstrom spoke, Theo glanced at the others. The woman Tanya was utterly engrossed, her gaze fixed on the president, while Pyatkov seemed more reserved, frowning slightly as he took it all in. The other man, Donny, seemed to be listening but had a relaxed alertness about him that Theo recognised.
Definitely special forces, he thought. Plus an intelligence officer, a networker – maybe she’s in government admin or communications – and a disgraced ex-major. There have to be others besides us.
‘So we’re a human colony world very far from home,’ Pyatkov said. ‘We’ve appeared in the middle of contested territory, and Earth’s allies are powerful and unsavoury. What of these Brolturans? Are they preferable to these others, the Imisil?’
‘The Brolturans constitute a fanatical offshoot of mainstream Sendruka civilisation,’ Sundstrom said. ‘Their culture is centred on the precepts of a faith called Voloasti which elevates them to the status of God’s paladins. The Imisil Mergence on the other hand—’ He shrugged. ‘They are a confederation of mainly nonhumanoid races, non-expansionist, yet they’re contesting ownership of this area we’re in, the Huvuun Deepzone, purely to maintain some kind of buffer between themselves and the Brolturans.’
At this Donny smiled and sat straighter. ‘So what do they look like, these Sendruka?’
‘A lot like us,’ Sundstrom said. ‘They are very human-like, except that they average about ten feet in height.’
Theo got a sudden flash of insight, imagining these tall humanoid aliens fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with humans to save Earth from the insectoid Swarm. Yeah, that would generate a good deal of useful gratitude. Tanya and Pyatkov were openly surprised at this piece of information, but Donny just smiled and nodded.
‘They sound formidable,’ Theo said. ‘Anything else?’
The president gave one of his twinkly-eyed, mischievous smiles. ‘Quite a lot else, actually, but there is one particular nugget which I think you’ll all find interesting.’ He looked at them. ‘Since the Swarm War, and especially since Earth allied itself with the Hegemony, the development of artificial intelligence and awareness has moved ahead in leaps and bounds. AIs have spread to every level and sector of Earth culture, permeating the social fabric to the point where many people carry personalised ones around with them, sometimes as implants, and calling them “companions”, never AIs. In the Hegemony, such entities are even more widespread, with the majority conferred autonomous rights by law. Several of the oldest and most complex even hold senior posts in government.’
There was a shocked pause, and a shared look of alarm as the meaning of his words dawned. One hundred and forty-eight years ago, soon after the detection of the world that was to become their new home, the crew and colonists of the Hyperion had fought a savage and desperate war against the ship’s Command AI. From the point when the ship had dropped out of hyperspace, the onboard systems had begun to exhibit malfunctions which grew steadily more hazardous as the landing approached. By the time they made landfall they were actively struggling against the ship, whose AI had ceased to obey instructions. It took control of machinery, bots and various repair drones with which to sabotage the crew’s efforts to get supplies out of locked storerooms or to directly attack them. Eventually it had begun waking other colonists from cryosleep, implanting them with neural devices to force them to carry out its instructions: 11 of the original crew of 46, plus 29 out of the cryosleep contingent of 1,200, had been killed by the time the survivors shut off power to the AI core. As to why it had turned against them, the weary victors could only speculate that the unknown stresses of hyperspace had corrupted its data or its cognitive substrate, turning it against them. The horrors of that struggle had echoed down the decades, becoming a potent symbol and a widely accepted justification for banning any research into AI, and commemorated in the annual Founders’ Victory celebrations.
‘I shall be making my widecast address to the colony in a couple of hours, after making a statement in the Assembly,’ the president said. ‘There will be no mention of anything that I’ve related here, of course, except for whatever generalities came in the ambassador’s messages. But I wanted to tell you this in person now, since even our most secure communications may cease to be so in days to come.’
‘Is it possible that the Earth ambassador will have one of these AIs with him?’ asked Pyatkov.
‘It might be wise to assume that he has,’ Sundstrom said. ‘Which may lead to umbrage on his part come FV Day, but we’ll paper over that crack when we come to it.’ He spread his hands. ‘That is all for the time being, my friends. Continue with your preparations, maintain your colleagues lists, and expect new codewords by tomorrow night.’
As Theo rose with the others, Sundstrom beckoned him back. ‘Theodor, if you could wait behind a moment.’
Once the rest had made their farewells and left, Pyatkov looking grim as he did so, the president manoeuvred his wheelchair out from behind the desk and over to a stolidly designed drinks cabinet. He poured himself a small glass of something dark red without offering one to Theo, knocked it back and gave a throaty sigh of satisfaction.
‘I’m very glad that you agreed to join my little conspiracy, Theodor,’ he said. ‘Even though you still associate with various rogues and misfits, those Diehards of yours.’
‘Ah, merely a group of friends from my army days, family friends…’ He shrugged, smiling. ‘Like-minded folk.’
Sundstrom’s smile was knowing. ‘In any case, I still value your experience and military insight, even your dissenter’s viewpoint. But there’s something else you bring to our clandestine scheming, something that could prove crucial.’
Theo laughed. ‘Somehow I don’t think you’re referring to my charm and boyish good looks.’
Sundstrom gave him a sidelong look.
‘I believe that you and your old friends from the Corps call it “the assets”.’
Still standing, Theo almost froze but made himself relax. ‘The assets?’
‘A substantial quantity of arms and ammunition went missing after the Winter Coup, along with explosives, tech gear, and some vehicles. Now, assuming that this materiel has been stored at various locations in the vicinity of the colony townships, it’s entirely possible that such hideaways may have come to the attention of some intel-gathering arm of government. In which case that data could be sitting in files that will shortly become, as I’ve already indicated, somewhat less than secure. Of course, if these stores turned out to be empty then such files could be closed and erased without delay.’ He smiled. ‘I don’t know why you held on to it – perhaps you harboured long-term ambitions, or maybe you kept it so that it wouldn’t fall into other hands. Either way, I’m glad that you did.’
Theo smiled blandly. ‘Holger, I am at a loss to know how to reply to all that,’ he said. ‘But I shall give it careful consideration.’
‘That’s all I ask.’
‘There is one small favour you might do for me,’ he said.
Theo smiled. ‘From your communications with the Earth ship, were you told anything about the Forrestal and the Tenebrosa?’
‘That was one of my first questions,’ Sundstrom said. ‘But it seems that they have not been found – the distinction of first contact is ours.’
‘After which we will come under the microscope, no doubt.’
‘Why is that?’
‘To find out how our experiment in cultural admixture turned out,’ Theo said. ‘The original colonial project back on Earth computer-modelled a wide variety of national–cultural combinations, with the aim of finding those most likely to be able to survive conditions on alien worlds. And to build a worthwhile society.’
Sundstrom gave a rueful grin. ‘Scandinavians, Russians and Scots – what were they thinking?’
A moment later the female assistant entered with Theo’s overcoat. He donned it, shook the president’s hand and moments later found himself outside the villa again. It was darker and colder now and he felt a distinct nip in the air as he left the villa grounds by a tree-shrouded pair of gates designed to look like the entrance of an adjacent property. The spinnercab he had ordered earlier was waiting at the side of the road, and took him downhill towards the city. Hammergard was spread along a narrow isthmus which separated Loch Morwen from the Korzybski Sea and the ocean beyond, both bodies of water glimmering with reflections of the night sky’s starmist hues. But Theo was dwelling on Sundstrom’s closing remarks about the Diehards, not to mention the assets, which was something of an unsettling surprise. And yet the president had decided to tell Theo that the assets were vulnerable, a revelation that could have only a limited number of implications, all of which spelled trouble.
He had the driver let him out on the Loch Morwen shore road in the city’s Northvale district. With the hum of the spinnercab fading as it returned to the city centre, Theo took out his comm as he headed up the sideroad that led home. It was an older, larger model, its sang-wood case scored and darkened from use, but the exterior belied its customised, upgraded components. A few thumbpresses later the blue oval screen read ‘Welcome To The Crypt’, and when he raised it to his ear he heard jaunty bagpipe music for a moment or two before someone answered.
‘Aye, whit is it now?’
Theo cleared his throat. ‘Rory, it’s me.’
Silence for a moment. ‘Ach, sorry about that, Major – I just had Stef on the line from Tangenberg bitching about the trainin’ rota because he wants tae watch the Earth ambassador arriving on the vee and I thought that wiz him again—’
‘That’s okay, never mind,’ Theo said. Rory McGrain was his deputy, quartermaster and researcher all rolled into one. ‘Listen, we’ll need to roust out some loaders and crews tonight.’
‘Won’t be easy, chief. What’s it for?’
‘Sundstrom knows about the assets.’
‘Or more accurately, he knows that government intel knows about them, so we have to move them all tonight.’
‘Hell’s fire, chief – are we gonna have to shoot our way out?’
Theo slowed as he reached the leaf-wreathed stairway leading up to his hab.
‘That’s the funny part, Rory – I don’t think there’ll be anyone watching the caches, never mind getting ready to jump us. Listen, I’m at my house right now. Have Ivanov or Janssen pick me up in fifteen. And one more thing – see what you can find out about a special forces guy called Donny.’ He gave a brief description from memory.
‘That must have been some meeting ye had up at the palace,’ Rory said. ‘Am I right in thinking that this ambassador’s meet ’n’ greet isna all it seems?’
‘Rory, you don’t know the half of it.’
And as he hurried up the wooden steps, he thought – And I don’t think I do either.
It was a contract survey ship called Segmenter that found the planet Darien while studying the perilous gulfs of the Huvuun Deepzone.
Through tangled swirls and curtains of interstellar dust and debris, Segmenter had painstakingly (and clandestinely) plotted and scanned and measured for several long weeks before stumbling over an uncharted star system, complete with four planets, one of which was habitable. Since this part of the Huvuun was currently claimed by two antagonistic civilisations, the Brolturans and the Imisil, there then followed a tense hour or more during which the system was scanned for any other ships, beacons, probes or sensor nets. Once it was clear that there were no such hazards in the area, Segmenter moved in closer while its crew set to work.
Data soon began arriving: a variant-three habitable world, with a cluster of medium-tech-level settlements and also a large habitable moon. The planet’s sentients were confirmed as Human, and their rudimentary information network revealed a population of approximately 2.75 million. The moon was inhabited by an indigenous biped sentient species called the Uvovo, who coexisted with an extensive forest ecology…
A full report was compiled by one of Segmenter’s scanners, then passed up to the captain. He saw at once that the Human element made it too important for his remit and had the report encrypted and dispatched via Tier 2 hyperspace comnet to the headquarters of the Suneye Combine, the huge interstellar corporation which had contracted Segmenter’s services. From there it flashed to the Office of External Measures on Iseri, the supreme homeworld of the Sendruka Hegemony. Six hours after leaving Segmenter, the report’s contents were being discussed by the highest Hegemony figures and their AIs, and policy formulation was well under way.
But the Segmenter’s captain was not above trying to sell the same goods twice and had quickly found a customer at the rogue port of Blacknest. Pleased with his new acquisition, the datadealer deposited a tidy sum in a secure account, then streamed the data directly to a number of patrons with standing orders for information on new planets.
One patron was a Kiskashin line-pirate on Yndyeri Duvo, a 2nd-echelon world in the Erdindeso Autarky. His reputation for selling anything to anyone had gained him a string of customers for whom the word ‘eccentric’ was merely a starting point. And amongst the most taciturn was one he had named Lord Mysterious. Lord Mysterious had appeared nearly twenty years ago with a solid tap of Piraseri credit and a terse description of his information requirements tagged with a secure, localnet address on Duvo’s sister world, Yndyeri Tetro. The Kiskashin was a phlegmatic merchant, and as long as a customer’s credit held up he had no interest in finding out much more about them. So as soon as the Darien report blinked into his portable dataspace (while he was haggling with a tekmarker over the cost of band-depth for the coming hexad) he recognised this as the kind of thing Lord Mysterious had specified in his gatherer profile. But rather than sending it on immediately, he abstracted it and pondered the contents: a long-lost Human colony discovered in the middle of the Huvuun Deepzone with the Imisil in one corner, the Brolturans in the other, and the Hegemony looming over it all – hmm, a risky place to be, without a doubt, and fascinating. The Kiskashin did not know any Humans, but if any contacted him with a lucrative proposal in mind he would certainly be open-minded about it.
And just in case some of his other clients might be interested in this little morsel, he slotted the report into one of the slower outgoing queues. That would give him time to examine it later and assess its resale potential. After all, business is business.
Every time he stepped aboard a Human vehicle, Chel found himself having to learn forbearance anew. They were hard, hollow things, completely lacking in the vitality of organic life yet endowed with cunning engines that drove them along their way. When the government zeplin set down at Port Gagarin, Chel breathed more easily as he hurried down the gantry to the hard ground of the sunken landing bay. It was difficult to trust to a thing that neither breathed nor had a beating heart, a thing that had no lifesong.
Yet we must have been very different in the long-distant past, he thought, gazing back up at the dirigible. Once, the Uvovo worked with cold, dead stone and built places like the temple on Waonwir. What kind of people were we then?
The short nightflight from Waonwir, which the Humans called Giant’s Shoulder, to Port Gagarin was only the first stage of his journey. He was met at the landing bay exit by a breathless, harried-looking young Human female who introduced herself as Oxana as she quickly guided him along enclosed walkways to one of the big loading bays. There they boarded a large, ponderous freighter named Skidhbladnir, its appearance so battered and grimy as to make the government zeplin seem pristine by comparison.
Once inside, Oxana apologised for the rush, blaming incompetent couriers, and gave him his tickets for the rest of the journey.
‘It should not take more than six or seven hours, and there are five stops along the way before you reach Invergault, where you will be met by someone from Ibsenskog. When you are ready to return, simply send us a message from the monitor office in the town.’
‘I shall remember, Oxana,’ Chel said. ‘My thanks.’
‘Think nothing of it, Scholar,’ she said. ‘Safe journey.’
After she was gone, Chel sought out the padded shelf that was his accommodation while the thuds and shouts of loading continued down in the main hold. A short while later the hold door was finally raised and the cargo zeplin lurched as its moorings were uncoupled. Engines droned and the shelf vibrated faintly beneath him, then a swaying sensation told him that they were aloft and under way.
However, Oxana’s six or seven hours turned into nearly nine. As the freighter flew through the night and on into the morning, Chel managed to doze for a span, once he had grown accustomed to the dead hollowness of the Human craft. He almost grew used to the rattle of the hawser drums, the cries of the hefter crews, and the sounds of cargo being shifted. But by the time the Skidhbladnir arrived at Invergault it was an undeniable relief to clamber down to the zeplin station’s small platform, with the cargo dirigible hanging overhead, creaking on taut cables.
Invergault was a small town sitting upslope from a pebbly cove near the end of a steep-sided sea loch. Like most of the Eastern Towns, it was a meeting point and marketplace for hunters, fishers and trappers. As he descended from the platform, he noticed that almost all roofs now carried windspinners, as well as large affteg roots affixed to their chimneys and flues, absorbing the ash and fumes from hearth and cooking fires, channelling heat into other uses rather than letting it escape. Chel knew from his teachers that, before the Humans sent their craft up to the home of Segrana, the colonists had been enthusiastic over-exploiters of natural resources and had scarcely practised any kind of wardenship. After the Accord of Friendship, the Uvovo were able to help the Humans to give up certain wasteful, destructive habits by showing them how to cultivate and use the many kinds of sifter root. This opened the way to the establishment of the seven daughter-forests, from which a change in cultural attitudes slowly percolated through the Humans’ society. Wardenship of the natural world gradually became part of their custom and tradition.
On the pebbly slope near the zep station, Chel was met by a young female Uvovo dressed in plain green garments and wearing a Benevolent amulet. She looked anxious surrounded by the taller, bulkier Humans, but her face brightened when she spotted Chel. She introduced herself as Giseru and led him up to a lohig pen where an elderly Human stocksman tethered out a riding pair and lashed on the saddles with almost careless expertise. Moments later, Chel and his guide were heading out of town and along a broad, rutted track that led into a bushy gully and the wooded hills beyond.
Chel had to suppress the urge to laugh as he gripped the reining rod and followed Giseru through the trees. Lohig were six-legged creatures whose segmented bodies were protected by bony plates, and whose large dark eyes were veiled by flickering inner eyelids. Beneath the canopies of Segrana, they usually grew no larger than hand-size, but such marked divergence was found in several strains of plants and animals common to Umara and its forest moon. Chel had spoken with a few Human ecologists and heard them speak excitedly of this or that theory which tried to account for these differences. While they acknowledged that once the Uvovo had inhabited both planet and moon, they failed to understand that Segrana too had once held sway on both worlds and that the loss of that blessed presence was the root cause. The Humans spoke of ‘die-back’ and ‘extinction events’, but Uvovo legends told of a vast and terrible conflict, the War of the Long Night, a struggle between the Ghost Gods and the Dreamless which led to the burning of the world that Humans now called Darien. Human record-keepers and teachers knew of the Uvovo’s legends but did not understand them, just as they came to visit the high homes of Segrana but did not hear her song.
He smiled ruefully, knowing that was not strictly true. There were a few whose perceptions ran a little deeper, like Lyssa Devlin or Pavel Ivanov, who might one day glimpse the outlines of the greatness of Segrana. Yet there was one Human, a female scientist called Catriona Macreadie, whose qualities of intellect might one day allow her to comprehend it.
The lohig he was riding ambled along with a steady, padding gait even as the track grew uneven and steep. The sun was high enough to be midday in a mainly cloudless sky, sending bright spears down through the layers of foliage. Insects buzzed and spun in the warm forest air, feathered hizio trilled in the high branches, and ubakil hooted mournfully to each other off in the distance. He smiled to hear these mingled sounds, the patchwork melody of the forest’s denizens, while off at its edge he detected a calm, persevering voice, faint but unmistakable, the voice of Ibsenskog, Segrana’s daughter-forest.
His guide, Giseru, said little as they wound their way through bushy undergrowth, ascending a trail that ran alongside a small stream. The trickling sounds of water over stones were a restful whisper merging with the susurrus of the wooded hills but the voice of the daughter-forest was strengthening with each passing moment. After a while Chel heard a hissing, splashing sound and before long the trail came out on a grassy bank near the foot of a waterfall. Narrow but smoothly made steps led up the sheer rock face, which the lohig managed without difficulty. Insects wove patterns in the warm air, and at the top a bushy slope led into a tree-shaded gully that tapered to a fissure full of the sound of rushing waters. But logs and shaped pieces of stone had been put in place as a rudimentary but solid walkway. It was dark in the fissure, its rough walls bearded with moss, beaded and glistening in a mist of water droplets descending from above. Then a notch appeared on the right and up they climbed, roughly hewn steps curving round to emerge on a grassy knoll with a large boulder at their backs. To one side, the ground dropped away to the rocky gully, the waterfall and the wooded hills, while on the other it dipped gently into a small, flowery dell beyond which lay Ibsenskog.
Segrana’s daughter-forest stretched almost the entire length of a high mountain valley. Fifty years after the re-seeding, Ibsenskog and the others had become the lushest, most flourishing places on Umara yet were still only comparable to the sparser regions of Segrana, tracts where the medleys of living things were less numerous. Chel paused for a moment or two, letting the lifesong of the daughter-forest sink into him, feeding ears, taste and smell with its sweet richness, even as he knew it to be only an echo of Segrana’s enfolding, never-ending song of celebration. Eyes closed for a moment, he smiled.
‘Listener Faldri awaits us, Scholar,’ came Giseru’s voice.
In surprise he opened his eyes and saw the tall, cowled form of a Listener standing at the edge of the forest, near the path that led into its green embrace.
I knew that the Benevolent Uvovo were the wardens of Ibsenskog, he thought. But I did not know that Faldri would be here.
Giseru was already steering her lohig down into the dell, so Chel urged his mount into motion, his eagerness to enter the forest now tempered by reluctance.
The Listener was leaning on a long stave of red markwood and seemed not to acknowledge their arrival, even as they dismounted and tied the lohigs to a notched pole. Only when Giseru led Chel over to bow to his right side did the Listener respond – by turning away and striding unhurriedly towards the forest shade.
‘Underscholars will attend to the creatures,’ he said. ‘Come.’
Giseru looked faintly embarrassed but Chel just smiled patiently and followed.
Faldri is testing me, he thought. Whether he intends to or not.
Curtains of fine-tendrilled gumaus hung from branches to either side, supporting a variety of other dependent plants and blooms from which fragrance drifted. As they walked, packs of small red-furred igissa scampered and leaped from tree to tree, making masses of foliage sway and rustle. Squeaks and drones, whistles and clatters, the exuberant sounds of Ibsenskog’s wildlings over which the lifesong of the forest itself flowed, spilling through his thoughts. He was about to ask Giseru about the local water pattern but Faldri dismissed her, then wordlessly beckoned Chel to continue to follow. He thought that Faldri intended to avoid conversing with him entirely until, a short while later as they climbed a curve of bark steps, he spoke.
‘You have made significant progress since attaining your scholarhood,’ he said. ‘Despite choosing to serve in the Warrior Uvovo.’
The Listener had pulled back a little and now the two walked side by side. Faldri had been Chel’s teacher and their relationship had not been an amiable one.
‘I chose to serve Segrana and the Great Purpose, Listener,’ Chel said. ‘I merely judged the Warrior clade to be more amenable to my temperament than the Benevolents.’
He was trying to sound conciliatory by downplaying his preference for the Warrior Uvovo. But instead his comments seemed to provoke anger.
‘Judged?’ the Listener said, slowing to look directly at him for the first time. Chel was taken aback by the changes wrought in his old teacher by the Listener husking: the lengthened features, the sunken eyes, the paring away of excess. ‘Judgement is for Listeners, not Scholars!’
Then he was moving ahead, striding up to the top of the rise. ‘Hurry – no dawdling! It will soon be time for the zinsilu.’
With his longer legs, Faldri was over the crest ahead of Chel, who had to break into a run to catch up. On the other side the path led down into a great dark mass of leafy undergrowth, bushes and small trees intertwined with climbing plants and borrower-weeds. Faldri ducked into a dark opening and Chel followed. A lumpy path wound down through mossy trees and came out at last in a clearing dominated by three big vaskin trees standing around a still pool. Listener Faldri was kneeling between two of the trees, eyes closed, wide, thin-lipped mouth murmuring, long-fingered hands held out, palms up. From some high opening in the canopy light filtered down and as he drew near Chel could see a fine mist of droplets falling between the three smooth, straight trunks.
Chel felt a growing quiver of uncertainty. This was utterly unlike his previous zinsilu, which had been fascinating discussions between himself and senior scholars on the direction of his learning, held in comfortable surroundings. This place reminded him of the few times he had taken the vudron vigil, except that the presence here was stern and brooding rather than tranquil and contemplative.
The fur on his scalp and neck prickled as he advanced. Faldri remained as he was, hands extended, lips muttering, his features just visible beneath the cowl. Chel halted at the edge of the pool, which he saw was not entirely still, its surface trembling very slightly now and then. Looking up he could see the falling mist and a shifting silvery radiance from above. Chel stood in silence for several moments before deciding to speak, but Faldri, eyes still closed, forestalled him with a fluid gesture. Wait.
Long moments passed. Chel inhaled and exhaled in a slow rhythm, calming himself, smelling and tasting the odours of wet wood and green leaves. Then Faldri ceased murmuring and drew an audible deep breath.
‘The gate is now open, Great Elder. Your servants await.’
The Listener’s voice seemed to resonate in Chel’s ears. His senses hummed to the lifesong of the daughter-forest which gathered in strength, climbing up his body like a slow fountain of energy, rising through his limbs, his veins, his spine. And suddenly he knew that he was in the presence of sacred Segrana… and another. There, in the radiant mist above the pool, was a hulking, stooped form draped in long folds, an indistinct image.
Chel stared in awe and panic. Faldri had called out to the ‘Great Elder’, and Chel suddenly realised that he was looking at one of the legendary Pathmasters.
But the histories say that the last of them died after the War of the Long Night, he thought. How could one still be alive after thousands of years?
‘There is no death,’ came a sighing voice. ‘Only a change in how the universe dreams about us…’
In reflex, Chel bowed his head, his thoughts in a whirl. The long-lived Pathmasters were the third huskings of the Uvovo, which only the wisest, most enlightened of Listeners could achieve. But the War of the Long Night had decimated the Uvovo and destroyed much of the ancient strength of Segrana, without which the third huskings could not be carried out. The surviving Uvovo had been confined to the forest moon, their history fraying and fading into legend after the Pathmasters were gone, their knowledge shrivelling into litany, their customs into ritual, until the Humans came.
‘Dreams persist,’ the Pathmaster sighed. ‘The stronger the dreamer, the more resilient the dream. Some dream outward dreams, seeking unity with the eternal; others dream inwardly, dreams of hunger and conquest, of pain and the escape from pain. Some do not dream at all. Cheluvahar, do you dream?’
‘Great Elder, I…’ Panic seized him, mind suddenly blank. ‘I have dreamed lately but the details escape me for now.’
‘I know, I see them.’ The voice faded to a whisper as the floating image of the Pathmaster tilted its hooded head to look upward, revealing a face far removed from Uvovo appearance, a cluster of bony ridges and two dark pits that might be eyes. Then the voice came back, stronger and sharper. ‘A ship is coming to these worlds, a ship from the Humans’ home stars. It bears a great evil, the eyes of a new breed of Dreamless who hunger for power and dominion as their abominable like did in the past.’
The Dreamless. The word sat in Chel’s mind like a piece of ice, melting dread into his thoughts while his heart thudded in his chest.
‘Great Elder,’ he said. ‘Will the War of the Long Night return?’
‘No. This peril is more similar to the cause that led to the original Great Purpose, which is far more than that which you have been taught. Just as the Segrana you know is not the Segrana that once was. Nor do these Dreamless possess the shattering might of their long-vanished kin, yet it will be more than enough to turn the night sky into a vista of desolation. They secretly rule a vast empire and are as relentless as they are cruel and cunning.’
The peace of the tree-guarded pool and the rich lifesong that enlivened Chel’s senses seemed in stark contrast to all that the Pathmaster was saying. Yet his thoughts circled back to why he was here, why he was being told these things…
‘This is your zinsilu, Scholar,’ said the Pathmaster, as if Chel’s inner thoughts were clear as written words. ‘A zinsilu such as has not been seen for a thousand generations. Scholar Cheluvahar – are you ready to serve the Great Purpose with all that is body and all that is mind? Are you ready to place your trust in a convoking of the Listeners and to obey their edicts?’
Chel felt swept up by the gravity of the Pathmaster’s demand, but he breathed in deep, steadying himself.
‘I am, Great Elder.’
‘Good – I am pleased not to be disappointed. When we are done here, you will return to your work at Waonwir, which the Humans call Giant’s Shoulder – do not concern yourself with events subsequent to the arrival of the Human ship. In two or three days you will be asked to leave for the daughter-forest to the north, where a secret husking chamber is being prepared…’
Suddenly he stopped, hooded head swinging towards Faldri. ‘Ah, so you are shocked, Listener, outraged at our plan.’
Faldri stared up at the misty form. ‘Only anxious for all our fates, Great Elder. This Scholar shows talent and promise, yet he is young and lacking in the experience required of a Listener…’
‘This is not about husking forth more Listeners, Faldri,’ the Pathmaster said. ‘We are planning the creation of a new clade, the Artificer Uvovo. Once the Warriors and the Benevolents had artisans aplenty among their ranks, before the War of the Long Night took them all. The arrival of the Humans has led to a regeneration of such skills amongst the younger scholars, skills that will prove crucial in the times ahead. Those who might be considered Artificer Uvovo already exist, scattered around the Human towns and working in the daughter-forests and… other places. When Cheluvahar husks forth, it will be as a Listener of the Artificer Uvovo, nor will he be alone, since other scholars are undergoing similar examinations today.’
‘I was not aware of this plan, Great Elder,’ the Listener said, bowing his head. ‘But I am confused as to the uses of such a new clade.’
A good question, Chel thought. Are we expected to use Human weapons in battle?
‘There are a number of constructions on Umara, built in the time of our earliest forebears, built to merge with the powers of the ancient, greater Segrana and protect these worlds. It will be the task of the Artificer Uvovo to study them and bring them back to life in preparation for whatever we may face.’
‘Are the Humans to be made aware of this approaching enemy, Great Elder?’ said Faldri. ‘Are we to cooperate with them?’
‘There have been exchanges with their leadership,’ the Pathmaster said. ‘They already know about the Dreamless and are making their own arrangements. Cooperation may become inevitable, should events turn unfortunate.’
‘Forgive me, Great Elder,’ Chel said, ‘but what is it that draws the Dreamless here? What do they want?’
The Pathmaster sighed. ‘For long ages we guarded it, serving the Great Purpose, thinking that finally all knowledge and memory of it had passed irretrievably beyond the veil of the past. But some dreams persist longer than the lives of the stars and lurk and wait in hidden places for their time to come round again.’ Dark eyeless hollows regarded him. ‘The edifice atop that prow of rock, Waonwir, is not some old Uvovo temple of devotion as the Humans have surmised. Beneath its walls and foundations lies a gateway to the framework of the universe, a source of power once used to defeat the first enemy, the cause of the Great Purpose, a terrible adversary now long vanquished. If the Dreamless were to gain control of it, all thought in this galaxy and beyond would become enslaved to their will and life would have no song.’
He paused a moment. ‘Now you know what you are meant to know. Go – return to Giant’s Shoulder and wait for the command to travel northward.’
As the Pathmaster fell silent, his image blurred and dissolved into the pale, falling mist. With his vanishing, the light in the clearing dwindled suddenly, like a door closing, leaving Chel feeling adrift and burdened with portents.
War is coming, he thought, and I am to become a Listener even though I have been a Scholar for only four hem-seasons…
‘I am not ready,’ he muttered.
‘On that I can only agree,’ said Faldri, brushing off his long garments as he got to his feet. ‘But higher counsel has determined the course of your doings – now we must wait to see if the meeting of fate and dream aids or hinders you.’ He took his stave from where it leaned against one of the vaskin trees, and started up the slope. ‘Come, Artificer, let me see you safely back to your lohig.’
On the moon Nivyesta, beneath the lush, living canopy of the forest Segrana, it was forever dusk. Through humid green shadows a trictra swung, long hooked limbs finding purchase on branches, heavy vines and creeping webs, descending into the well of gloom. Catriona Macreadie clung to its dumbbell-shaped torso, strapped firmly into a woven harness and uncomfortably warm in a grey concealing robe, feeling slight waves of vertigo as the creature dipped and swooped in the moon’s lower gravity. In front, Pgal the herder sat easily in the notch behind the trictra’s head, directing it with prods to either of its frontal joints or with single-syllable cries. Periodically, Pgal glanced back with his doleful eyes in a wordless query but Catriona, despite her discomfort, would shake her head and point onward and downward. The hunt was on and she was not for turning back.
Clouds of insects parted and swirled in their wake while innumerable creatures noticed the disturbance of their passing, mammalian kizpi, their large eyes staring from leafy niches, or umisk lizards startled and darting away. It was an exhilarating display of Segrana’s biodiversity, which Catriona had charted and studied for nearly two years, filling scores of datacubes with profiles, reports and commentaries, as well as hundreds of images. She had seen how hexaformity was a trait common to different species, and how some subspecies exhibited tripartite or even quadripartite life cycles, changing their physical attributes as they aged, while others did not. She understood how the vast, continent-spanning biomass of Segrana shielded its multifarious denizens from the moon Nivyesta’s weather patterns, regulating the many microclimates found beneath its canopy, while the lower gravity aided the growth of wider, taller trees and other plants.
She also knew that the map was not the territory and that Segrana hid many secrets. Satellite surveys confirmed that while Segrana’s topmost extremities grew to nearly a mile above sea level, some of the unseen valleys fell to almost two miles below, which implied that the forest’s roots went even deeper, an ancient and ubiquitous grasp. Almost half an hour after receiving the trip signal it was down there that Catriona was headed, seeking proof for a wild theory.
To either side massive trunks sloped up towards the light, some spiralling around each other for strength and support, others criss-crossing to form junctions where Uvovo villages nestled, glowing clusters of lamps and conical roofs, indistinct figures walking or climbing from dwelling to dwelling amid the entwining dimness. One such township lay directly below, but Catriona had given Pgal clear instructions earlier and he was swift to guide their trictra off to one side, behind a dense screen of cultivated symbiotic flora. She tugged on the cowl of her baggy robe, keeping her human features concealed from any chance Uvovo observer. Yet they were still taking risks, since only Listeners went about the under-forest swathed in this manner.
Moments later the village was behind them as they plunged on into the depths. From beneath her robe she took a small direction-finder orb then tapped Pgal’s shoulder.
‘Leftward a little,’ she said.
The Uvovo herder just nodded and guided the spidery trictra down one of several long, thick vines. Like the mooring hawsers of some immense ship they curved away into the gloom, bearded with lichenous webs. Others snaked up the gnarled, mossy sides of trunks and branches like veins, leaching away moisture and nutrients which in turn served to feed a further array of parasitic plantlife. As the trictra clambered down one of these great living towers, Catriona looked from side to side, smiling as she spotted a familiar beetle or reptiloid, reflexively matching them against the entries in her codex memory. Whenever she caught sight of something apparently new she stored it away in her reminder file for later reference.
All the memory advantages of Enhanced genes, she thought, without the self-programming skills which would have earned me a well-paid, high-level research post. How tiresome would that have been…
Catriona was a failed Enhanced. Her germ plasm came from the Hyperion’s cryostocks and had been genetically re-engineered to increase memory capacity and allow conscious, detailed control of information. The refined higher functions allowed an Enhanced to use their own cortex as a programmable computer, to run macros and test their own and others’ theories; the best of them could illuminate solutions with their own flashes of insight. But Catriona had been part of the third and final generation, brought to term by surrogate mothers at a time when anomalies still emerged at unpredictable stages of development. She had begun to lose the ability to self-initiate neural pathways at fifteen years old, after which the pathway net she had already created in her head began to desync. By the time she was seventeen, her peers were strides ahead and she saw herself as being no better than an ordinary kid with an excellent memory.
And that just wasn’t good enough for the martinets who ran Zhilinsky House, she thought bitterly.
Yet this, combined with her obsessive interest in the ecologies of Darien and Nivyesta, gave her something to hold on to after leaving the Enhanced programme. It led her along a career path that proved fruitful and satisfying, as well as aggravating when it came to putting in equipment requisitions.
Still, occasionally she yearned for that long-gone fledgling talent, especially when trying to get her head around the astonishing complexity of the forest Segrana and the Uvovo’s place in it. There was an underlying story or relationship to it all which she had only caught glimpses of so far. Of course, deducing the Uvovo connection to the temple on Giant’s Shoulder had opened entire new areas of possible inquiry, but it had also made the speculation wilder and more tantalising. If she had been a full Enhanced, rather than a cripple, she would have seen through to the truth by now, she was sure of it.
The descent to the deep valley floor took another half-hour, including pauses to rest the trictra. All the chirping, whirring sounds of the underforest, where most of the species lived, faded to a high, distant murmur. Down here the light was filtered and grainy, and the air was still, warm and very humid. The Uvovo call it Segrana, she thought, the living forest. I can almost believe it – this forest moon is itself an anomaly and its all-encompassing ecology constitutes a strange, beautiful world. Sometimes, it’s almost as if I can hear it singing, feel it watching…
Following the glowing pointer in her direction-finder, they at last came to the base of one of the forest Segrana’s oldest and biggest trees, a titan measuring almost 200 feet across. Massive knotted roots showed through the layer of decomposing foliage that blanketed the forest floor. Quiet streamlets trickled among some of the roots, pouring down towards a still deeper part of the valley. A family of dumpy six-legged baro grubbed for roots a short distance away, while ophidian pasks hunting bugs in the mat of decaying leaves made rustling sounds.
But Catriona’s attention was fixed on a point about 20 feet up the side of the giant tree. She pointed across at it and the herder Pgal nodded, urging the trictra across the surrounding root tangle and up the tree’s rough, dripping flank. Catriona could feel her heart beating as she spotted the cam’s stalk lens protruding from the surrounding snarl of fibrous lichen, rootless and creepers, and once their mount was close enough she reached into the wet foliage and retrieved the device. She grinned as she studied it, blew away waterdrops and leaf fragments, then looked over her shoulder at what it had been observing.
Several yards away, six tall triangular stones stood in a circle on a flattened mound oddly free of saplings and bushes. Her first visit here had been brief and tense as her guide, an outcast Uvovo scholar called Amilo, had been terrified of being discovered by the Listeners. He had been equally edgy on their second visit two days ago when she had secreted the cam on the tree, setting it to record anything over a certain size moving in or near the stone circle. When she called Amilo yesterday, though, he refused to help a third time but did put her in touch with Pgal, a young cladeless trictra herder who was unconcerned about anything as fanciful as Pathmasters.
She weighed the little cam in her hand for a moment, then pushed the lens stalk into its socket before tucking it away in a shoulder pouch. Yes, with any luck she might have something to prove that the Uvovo did indeed have a third stage in their life cycle after Scholars and Listeners, namely the Pathmasters, who were supposedly no more than folk tales. She turned to tell Pgal to head back to the canopy but paused when she saw him looking up, eyes wide. She followed his unblinking gaze to see a larger trictra hanging several yards overhead, clinging to the tree with a large garment-swathed figure perched on its back, one hand holding a herding stave.
‘Ah, Mistress-Doctor Catriona,’ said the newcomer. ‘A pleasant surprise to meet you here in Segrana’s field of birth and decay.’ As he spoke he tugged aside his cowl to reveal the ageing, bony features of a male Uvovo she knew very well.
‘Greetings, Listener Weynl,’ she said. ‘Seen any Pathmasters today?’
The Uvovo Listener’s smile made his elongated face seem skull-like, but his demeanour was full of patient good humour.
‘None yesterday, Mistress-Doctor, and none today. For they are only a ssu-ne-ne, a kind of myth or…’ He frowned. ‘There is another word in your Noranglic tongue – ah, yes, fable, an instructional tale, nothing more.’
‘As I’ve heard before,’ she said. ‘Not least from yourself, and yet I have come across other tales that give different accounts.’
‘Some of the handfolk of the Benevolent Uvovo have a more literal understanding of the ssu-ne-ne. They are often led astray by such things as that ruined stone ring, which was a very old but very ordinary meeting place and hub of a marketplace…’
As they conversed, the Listener urged his trictra down to ground level. Catriona prompted Pgal to follow suit, and found that there were another three trictra-mounted Uvovo waiting below, all displaying on their beaded tunics the circular symbols of the Warrior Uvovo.
‘… and so such imaginings should be considered with care. We of the Warrior Uvovo retain a more realist approach to these matters.’ Then he indicated the others with his herding stave. ‘Ah, these are my waykin – we were returning from a vudron contemplation when we chanced upon you here.’
Catriona nodded, not believing him for a moment. ‘So you feel that I am wasting my time chasing this… arassu?’
It was the Uvovo word for ‘sad ghost’, and as she said it astonishment flashed across the features of two of Weynl’s companions. The Listener, however, only smiled.
‘Just so,’ he said. ‘Now, since our destination is Starroof Upper-Way, we would be honoured to escort you back, Mistress-Doctor, if you wish.’
Part of her wanted to rebel and refuse, but common sense reminded her of the minicam in her shoulder pouch, so she graciously consented to the Listener’s offer.
The journey back up the green canyons of Segrana seemed to take for ever. The weight and shape of the minicam teased her constantly as Pgal’s trictra laboured from branch to vine-cluster to crossed-trunk. Listener Weynl stopped for a rest at a junction village that just happened to be the one that Catriona and Pgal had bypassed on the way down. As the Listener talked jovially with his way-kin she wondered if this was an example of Uvovo humour.
At last the light grew brighter as they neared the canopy, and when gantries, ladders and platform dwellings became frequent she knew that they were near the town of Starroof. Insects glittered in the shafts of sunlight that angled down through the foliage and wafts of cool, fresh air brought the fragrance of day-blooms.
‘Our courses must part here, Mistress-Doctor Catriona,’ Listener Weynl said. ‘My vudron lies further above, in the Highsonglade. Please remember that if you wish to seek knowledge at the roots of Segrana, you should ask for guidance from myself or any Listener.’
‘My apologies, Listener,’ she said. ‘I never intended to give offence.’
‘It is more your safety that is of concern,’ Weynl said. ‘Some of the darker corners below harbour predators that could devour a Human in a bite or two.’
‘I understand your concerns, Listener,’ she said. ‘I assure you that I will take them very seriously.’
The elderly Uvovo regarded her for a moment, his amiable smile never wavering, then he nodded.
‘Seek with care, Doctor,’ he said before tapping his trictra’s side carapace with his herding stave.
Even as the Listener and his companions continued up the braided cable-ladders, Catriona told Pgal to hurry. The herder guided the trictra up hanging nets and across leafy curtains, reaching the hammock platform nearest to the cluster of adapted native dwellings that constituted the enclave of Human scientists. Unstrapping herself from the saddle restraints, she climbed out onto the springy matting, stripped off the bulky robe and turned to Pgal. But he spoke first:
‘I not carry you again.’
Astonished, she stared. ‘Why, Pgal? Has someone threatened you?’
It was the herder’s turn to be surprised. ‘No! – I go to Highsong vudron. Rejoin Warrior clade.’ He smiled. ‘Very happy.’
Catriona nodded, understanding. Vudrons were large, spherical chambers fashioned from huge, empty seed husks which grew only at the highest places of Segrana. Bonded to a branch or trunk near a Uvovo town or village, they served as a Listener shrine, a refuge for private meditation, as well as the centrepiece of public ceremonies. An outcast like Pgal could become a full member of either Uvovo clade by taking a vigil in a vudron, but only if invited by a Listener. Like Weynl.
‘I am happy for you, Pgal,’ she said. ‘Thank you for all your help, and go in peace.’
The herder smiled, bowed his head, then steered his trictra down from the platform and along the meshed vines.
And thank you, Weynl, she thought, watching him leave. You really don’t want me going near the forest floor, do you? Well, let’s see what my wee camera spotted, shall we?
She glanced around her to make sure she was alone, then took out the cam, fitted a viewing ocle to the output, pressed Play and held it up to her eye.
And saw… only flickering confusion. The timer readout was the same as when she got the trip signal, but the recording was a blurred, stuttering mess. She ran it again and again, trying to find more than just hints of a dark form that might have been a creature, or shaky stick-like things that might have been limbs…
She lowered the cam and sagged against one of the platform’s heavy, woven hawsers. She suddenly felt weary, as if the recording had knocked the vitality out of her. It had been such a waste, scrounging the cam from Lyssa Devlin’s team over at Skygarden, skulking down there to plant it then retrieving it, all a waste of time and effort. It might be possible to process and filter the image data, but only the Institute office at Viridian Station would have that kind of equipment and anyway, how could she explain how she obtained such a recording without admitting to multiple violations of the Respect Accords?
Disconsolate, she put the minicam away in her pouch, slung the baggy robe over one shoulder and climbed the branch stairway that led to the Human enclave. Halfway up, the stairs trembled a little underfoot as someone came hurrying across a flimsy-looking gantry from another platform. It was Tomas Villon, one of her team’s tech assistants. His features were flushed and excited as he raised a hand in greeting and called out.
‘Doctor Macreadie,’ he said. ‘Have you heard the news?’
‘No – what news?’
He grinned. ‘The president announced it in his wide-cast this morning, and the channel heads have been talking about nothing else…’
‘Sorry, Tomas, but I’ve been working hard, and I’ve been away all morning. What’s happened?’
Clearly delighted at being able to let her in on the story, he cleared his throat. ‘Well, as I said, the president came on the vee this morning to tell us that the Hammergard government has been in contact with a ship from Earth!’
First she gasped in disbelief, then started talking, almost tripping over her own words.
‘But that’s… incredible! You’re sure, Tomas, absolutely sure?’
‘It’s the honest truth, Catriona, I swear! The ship is called the Heracles and it’s entering orbit around Darien right this moment. Look, there’s a vee-panel up in the mess hut which is where the rest’ll be, watching the live relay from Port Gagarin.’
A web-tethered flock of membrane insectoids drifted past on a warm updraught as they hastened up to the enclave buildings. Catriona grinned while trying to think through the giddy thrill she was feeling.
‘It’s unbelievable,’ she said. ‘I never thought I’d live to see this – I wonder what they’ll be like? You remember that play by Fergus Brandon?’
‘The Lifeline?’ He chuckled. ‘I doubt that any would-be colonists will be queueing to come out here. Said as much to Greg Cameron earlier.’
‘Greg?’ she said, trying to sound vaguely disinterested. ‘What were you calling him about?’
‘Neh, he called us to gossip about the announcement. We gabbed on about it and the Brandon play came up. Yah, he’s just as excited about it as everyone.’
Of course, Catriona thought. Those two were good friends at college, so it’s no surprise that he would call. She felt a small shiver go through her. I wonder how he’s been since he came back… but why should I wonder? He’s just another man who’s got better things to do than…
She had only met him a few times, ever since she’d suggested the link between the proportions of the temple on Giant’s Shoulder and the physique of the Uvovo, and she had hoped that their professional friendship might become something deeper. And then he gave up everything and moved away up north to Trond to get married, settle down and have kids, apparently – only to return several months later, alone. Hopes which had collapsed rose again, but tempered this time with a dash of realism and caution.
And now she was resolved not to let Greg Cameron or her failed minicam experiment dilute her excitement at Tomas’s news.
‘Right, Tomas,’ she said with a determined laugh as they came up to the mess hut. ‘Let’s see if we can get a good seat!’
On board the Earthsphere cruiser Heracles, in the largest of its three staterooms, Ambassador Robert Horst was indulging in the archaic practice of packing luggage.
‘I don’t know why you don’t ask the room to do it for you,’ said Harry, his AI companion.
‘But the room doesn’t know what I need to take with me.’
‘The room has access to your sartorial profile, as well as Darien’s styles and customs, such as they are. So where’s the problem?’
‘The room can’t know what I need,’ Robert said, smiling as he placed a semi-formal tunic into his partitioned valise. ‘Because I don’t know myself. Or rather, when I see it I’ll know that I need it.’
Harry smiled and shook his head. In Robert’s field of vision, Harry seemed to be standing over by the state-room’s centrepiece, a sleek porcelain and perspex column with a holobase in each of its five faces. He resembled a young man dressed in an immaculate but outmoded black suit, his round features displaying a perpetual amusement and a hint of cynicism. Robert had chosen to model his companion upon the main character from an American black-and-white flat-movie from the mid-twentieth century, whose storyline dealt with postwar intrigue and betrayal. Orson Welles’s portrayal of the mercurial Harry Lime had captivated the young Robert Horst, and after deciding on his companion’s form he had also resolved that he would appear in monochrome. After all, he was the only one who would see it.
‘I’m not sure that the personal touch will be helpful,’ Harry said. ‘After 150 years of isolation and resource scarcity, social fashions are bound to be a little rustic.’
‘My God, Harry, you’re a snob.’
‘Not at all. I just feel sure that these poor, Earth-hungry colonists will want an ambassador from the auld country to look the part.’
Robert wagged a finger. ‘What, play the lofty aristo come to dispense wisdom to the local yokels? Sorry, no – that’s the Sendruka approach, not mine.’
‘Shame on you, Robert, for denigrating the high ideals of our allies in the cause of peace and justice,’ Harry said, adopting a stance of mock grandeur followed by a sly grin. ‘Besides, your honoured Sendruka colleague Kuros and his Ezgara goons are just along the corridor. Who knows how many spymotes are drifting around the ship by now, listening to our every word?’
‘Not with the new antisurveillance systems the Earthsphere Navy brought in after the Freya incident,’ Robert said, selecting from a small open section of the storage wall a pair of Russian leather gloves, a couple of plaid kerchiefs and a carved wooden ring. ‘I’m more concerned about why they’re here at all.’
The Heracles had been en route to the Huvuun Deepzone when new orders came through to divert to Chasulon, the capital world of Broltur, and take on board the honoured High Monitor Utavess Kuros and his unspecified personal guard. Which turned out to be eight Ezgara commandos, four-armed biped soldiers with a fearsome reputation, who wore all-enclosing, steel-blue body-armour and never revealed their faces. But Kuros and his guards were to be accorded every courtesy, since they were there at the personal request of Earthsphere President Erica Castiglione, apparently in a dual capacity: as Alliance advisers, and as observers on behalf of the Brolturan government.
Personal request! he thought. I bet it was more like a demand and Erica was on the receiving end of it.
‘I don’t imagine that there’s much to be anxious about,’ Harry said, resting his foot on the edge of a low table. ‘The Hegemony thinks that it has to keep tabs on every political event otherwise things might fall apart, the centre cannot hold and so on. Whereas things would probably proceed quite normally if Hegemony attention was elsewhere.’
‘Harry, for you that’s practically heresy.’
‘I know. I blame it on prolonged exposure to the life and works of Robert Horst! Anyway, it’ll be politics on a rather lesser scale for you in the weeks ahead.’
‘True, but it could turn out to be quite productive. One of the files sent from President Sundstrom’s office gave an interesting summary of their resource management and extraction policies…’
‘Ah, you mean these sifter roots that they got from the Uvovo?’ Harry chuckled. ‘Ingenious way of getting hold of pure elements, for a pre-nanofac society. Properly adapted, they could be put to use in other contexts, like hardvac prospecting for example. Or even licensed out to cultures that prohibit nano applications.’
Robert shrugged. ‘That sounds possible. I’m more interested in the relations between our people and the Uvovo, not to mention the colony’s inner politics.’
‘Well, for a small colony they’ve had a somewhat chequered history. Problems with a shipboard AI that went rogue, then a very tough first fifty years, expansion problems, lack of resources, then contact with these Uvovo sentients and an abortive civil war which exacerbated some already prickly divisions. But it’s this AI taboo that could pose difficulties. You should read some of their novels and plays – artificial intelligences come across like the rampaging death machines of the Commodity Age. I find it positively insulting. What’s more, every year they celebrate the trashing of that poor, dumb AI. Founders’ Victory Day, they call it.’
‘I agree, it’s a problem, but I’m going to wait until I’ve experienced Darien culture first-hand before considering solutions.’ Robert parted another tall section of the wall and touch-opened the units within. ‘It’s a matter of how to establish the notion of everyday, commonplace, benevolent AIs…’
As he reached in, almost absentmindedly, and pulled out one of the shallow drawers, he stopped and stared in dread at the palm-sized object it contained.
‘Ah, so that’s where the room put it,’ Harry murmured. ‘I can have it stored somewhere else if you like.’
‘No, no, it’s all right,’ Robert said. ‘I can’t keep on avoiding it…’
It was an intersim, a flat octagonal pad, mainly pale blue in colour with ochre trim around the readout and fingertip controls on one of the sides. The projection plate on top was like dark, smoky glass within which clusters of faceted emitters were just visible. It had a certain solidity to it, like the weight of compacted technology, or the weight of memory.
It was now almost a year since his daughter Rosa had died while on board the Pax Terra, a refitted, unarmed scoutship owned by the protest group Life and Peace. The Pax Terra had been taking part in an attempted blockade of a wayport on the Metraj border from which Earthsphere and Sendruka Hegemony warships were leaving for the Yamanon Domain. The official version was that the protest boat was a suspected bombship pursuing a collision course with a Hegemony cruiser whose commander had no option but to open fire. Initially Earthsphere government had made mild objections, but soon dropped the matter.
Robert and his wife Giselle were distraught, and the Diplomatic Service was thankfully swift to offer him compassionate leave. But Robert was unable to stay at home in Bonn and mourn – he had to know the truth about Rosa’s death.
Sitting at the end of a blue settle, he held the interactive sim in his hands and recalled the months spent tracking down witnesses to the blockade incident and speaking with her friends and colleagues at Life and Peace. What he learned utterly contradicted the official version of events, while confirming much of what he knew about his daughter, about her intellect and wit, and about her compassion and her willingness to put herself on the line for what she believed in. Millions had died when the Earthsphere–Hegemony coalition invaded the Yamanon Domain and bombarded the Dol-Das regime’s key worlds. Rosa had called those deaths an atrocity, a judgement he could no longer disagree with.
‘We taught her to love,’ he once said in a message to his wife during his travels, ‘and she did what she did out of love.’
He was on Xasome in the Kingdom of Metraj, trying to glean corroborating data from public archive reports, when he received a package via the local Earthsphere consulate. It was from Earth, from his wife, and accompanying it was a short note that read: ‘Dearest, I have found a way to bring the light back into our lives, and now you have one too. With love and joy – Giselle.’
Thinking it to be some compendium of images and other recordings from the family archive, Robert had placed the intersim on a desk and switched it on. The device had emitted three flashes, mapping the room, and a moment later, abruptly, Rosa was standing there, dressed in one of her favourite outdoor rigs, smiling at him.
‘Hi, Daddy!’ she had said.
So brightly she spoke, so vibrant with that delighted alertness of hers, that he almost said, ‘Rosa! – you’re alive…’
But the words had choked in his throat as reason took hold, and he had stared at the simulation of his daughter in a wordless horror.
‘Daddy, how are you?’
Unable to speak or look away, still he had reached out deliberately, with all of his will, and switched the device off. Looking at it now, resting on his palm, he knew what had driven Giselle to have such a thing made. He had understood and let the anger fade, knowing that part of the anger had been directed at his own despairing need for Rosa not to be dead.
And yet… and yet he could not bring himself to destroy the sim, or at least have its memory wiped, not then and not now.
Then, reaching a decision, he slipped the intersim into his jacket pocket, stood and resumed packing.
‘Are you sure that’s wise?’ said Harry.
Robert smiled as he tucked away the last items of clothing. ‘You think I may be putting my negotiating temperament and thus this assignment at risk?’
Harry assumed a look of mock surprise.
‘What a hurtful interpretation of my genuine concern. I merely suggest that leaving the damned thing here would help your peace of mind.’ He paused, face becoming more serious. ‘Robert, I think that you’re hurting yourself by taking it with you.’
Robert sighed. ‘I appreciate the concern, Harry, truly. But you worry too much. Unlike Giselle, I have come to terms with Rosa’s death and I know that this simulation is not her but a made thing. Not a living, breathing person that I can touch.’
Harry gave him a considering look for a moment. ‘Tell me – is that how you see me, as a made thing?’
‘Well, yes. Made by experience and thought and accident, and by friendship!’ Robert smiled. ‘Whereas Giselle’s device is a frozen vision, an exhibit that cannot learn or change. Satisfied?’
‘Yes – my crippled self-esteem has been suitably bandaged.’ Harry gestured towards the two fastened valises. ‘Are you finished, because the people of Darien and their representatives await you, not to mention all those watching back home, in the Glow and elsewhere.’
Robert gave a groan. The Glow was the Solar System’s virtual reality, where celebrity and excess reigned supreme. ‘So the Office of Defence finally gave in to the media combines, did they?’
‘Which means that we shall shortly be going live on Starstream,’ Harry said with a wild grin. ‘Since they were the only ones who would meet the OOD’s asking price.’
‘Starstream,’ Robert said, activating the suspensors on his luggage. ‘I can scarcely express my joy. Let’s go.’
West of Hammergard, across the two-mile width of Loch Morwen, a cluster of low buildings and two narrow towers sat on a headland overlooking the waters. Fenced off and patrolled, this was the main operational base for the Ranger division of the Darien Volunteer Corps. At that moment, almost six hours after the president’s address to the colony, 185 of the division’s 200 combat personnel were crammed into the base’s small rec room, craning necks for a look at the sole v-screen.
‘C’mon, get yer head down in front there!’
‘Gonna no dae that?’
‘Shoutin’ in my ear, ye howler!’
Donny Barbour grinned, listening to this and many other exchanges from the bench he had snagged at the front early on. At the moment, though, there was not much to see, just a pair of aycasters from Vizione, the main Darien channel, discussing background info that had already been well chewed over by the tabs and various radio pundits all day. Behind the sharp-dressed duo – Maggie and Lev – was a view of Port Gagarin’s longest landing strip, seen from the main terminal. But when the shuttlecraft landed, Vizione would hand over to an Earthsphere media channel called Starstream, who had sent a coverage team on board the Heracles.
Now Maggie and Lev were offering their own tepid speculation on what the future would hold for Darien, based on the near-content-free summary documents released by the president’s office that morning. Donny almost laughed out loud, recalling what he’d heard from Sundstrom’s own lips the night before.
If only you knew the truth.
The two aycasters halted their feeble guesswork, announcing the approach of the shuttle before making the verbal handover to Starstream and their solo commentator, Lee Shan.
LEE SHAN: This is Lee Shan welcoming all our viewers and immersers across Earthsphere and beyond on this momentous day in the history of Humankind. I am speaking to you from the shut-tlecraft Achilles as it descends through banks of cloud towards Darien Colony’s largest landing zone, Port Gagarin, named, of course, after the Soviet-era astro-pioneer.
Video (low functionality) The shuttlecraft Achilles appears in the western sky, a distant speck that grows into a slender dart as it swoops down over the northern coast. Its flightpath then curves out over the sea before making the approach to Port Gagarin. The vessel’s powered descent seems too swift and steep until it slows dramatically, braking on columns of force that ripple the air beneath its fuselage. Engines drone and moments later the Achilles settles down gently on its landing gear.
LEE SHAN: The Achilles is one of two fast picket boats that the cruiser Heracles possesses, both of which can be deployed for combat as well as peaceful purposes, as well as the ship’s pinnace, the Hermes. The Heracles, of course, was recently on duty in the Yamanon Domain as part of Earthsphere’s military commitment to the Hegemony-led Freedom Alliance, taking part in the overthrow of the brutal Dol-Das regime, and liberating scores of worlds. We at Starstream salute the bravery of all Earthsphere and Hegemony forces still engaged in pacification operations in the Yamanon.
In the kitchen of a farmhouse built into the side of a hill southwest of Hammergard, Theo Karlsson stared at the portable vee with a mixture of amusement and unease while Rory and the rest of the loader team guffawed.
‘We salute the whit?’
‘Ah, the brave troops, Rory, for whom we must be joyously united in support!’ said Alexei Firmanov.
‘Da, and not forgetting the songs,’ said his brother, Nikolai. ‘Heroic songs that we all sing while waving flags, lots of flags.’
Rory squinted at the two grinning Russians. He was a short wiry Scot with unkempt sandy hair and a pair of ice-blue eyes that were full of misgivings.
‘You’re yanking ma chain, the pair of ye.’
‘They’re not, Rory,’ Theo said. ‘All this saluting the troops, waving the flag and singing songs – it is common to authoritarian cultures, like Soviet-era Russia back on Earth.’
‘Ah, right, ancient history, aye.’ Rory sniffed. ‘So is that how Earth is, the now, Major? I thought they’ve got elections and all that…’
‘There were elections during the Soviet era, too,’ said Alexei. ‘But there were no alternatives to the Party’s candidate and all the media were tightly controlled.’ He glanced at Theo. ‘Is it like that on Earth, Major?’
‘I’m not entirely sure,’ he said. ‘But going by radio reports, the political mainstream across most of Earthsphere seems to be pro-Hegemony.’
Nikolai nodded vigorously. ‘Is right – have they not elected a woman as interim president, and she’s supposed to want to pursue more independent courses?’
Rory laughed. ‘Aye, and then we pop up in the Hegemony’s back yard, like helpless wee puppies! I bet they’re using us tae make sure she toes the line!’
Theo grinned. Rory, my boy, he thought, you’re definitely one of the sharper tools in the box.
Just then, Janssen and Ivanov entered by the kitchen’s rear door, the former dumping a bag of tools noisily on the tiled floor, the latter handing Theo a large cluster of keys.
‘That’s the last of the false walls up,’ Ivanov said, loosening his heavy work jacket. ‘We restacked the crates and old Tove helped us dirty up his barn floor again.’
Theo laughed. ‘Once he quarters his baro in there for a night or two it’ll be more than filthy enough.’ He looked at Janssen. ‘Any news from the others?’
‘Maclean and Bessonov finished up in the last half-hour,’ Janssen said, tugging off his brown woollen hat and scratching his scalp through wild black hair. ‘But Hansen’s team was held up by a cracked loader axle. They’re going to be another hour at least.’
Nikolai shook his head. ‘What’s that old saying? –“No plan survives contact with the enemy”…’
‘Right, here we go!’ said Rory loudly. ‘That’s him now, look…’
LEE SHAN: And now Ambassador Horst descends the gantry to meet the vice-president, John Balfour. They shake hands, then Vice-President Balfour introduces him to the president of Darien Colony, Holger Sundstrom, who is confined to a wheelchair due to a spinal injury considered untreatable by the colony’s medical establishment until now.
Video (low functionality) The ambassador is a tall, grey-haired man with a straight-backed posture and lean but kind face. He smiles as he comes face to face with the president, who is accompanied by a flock of officials and guards, and the smile widens as he leans down slightly to shake the man’s hand. After an exchange of pleasantries, the assembled party of dignitaries and their attendants head along a covered walkway towards the main terminal. Behind them, a handful of reporters hurries down from the shuttle, muttering into lip-bead mikes or fiddling with head-mounted cams.
LEE SHAN: Viewers and Glow immersers with holigital systems shall soon be receiving a higher-quality service now that myself and my, ah, assistant Tyberio have disembarked from the ambassador’s shuttle. Other viewers, including the newest additions to the Starstream family right here on Darien, will be pleased to see a sharper, more vibrant picture.
‘So are you watching this?’
‘Well, we were, Tomas,’ Greg said loudly into his comm above the babble of the score or more Uvovo crammed into the dig site’s meeting hut. ‘But the picture just cut out – all we’re getting now is interference.’
‘Ah, no luck,’ said Tomas, his voice sounding thin and whistly. ‘We got perfect reception up here, but then our signal is coming directly from Monitorsat.’
‘Aye – why doesna that surprise me?’ Greg said, accepting a beaker of something pungent from the Russian researchers then toasting each other.
Excerpted from Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley Copyright © 2012 by Michael Cobley. Excerpted by permission.
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.
Meet the Author
Michael Cobley was born in Leicester, England and has lived in Glasgow, Scotland for most of his life. He has studied engineering, been a DJ and has an abiding interest in democratic politics.
His previous books include the Shadowkings dark fantasy trilogy and Iron Mosaic, a short story collection. Seeds of Earth, The Orphaned Worlds, and The Ascendant Stars, books one, two and three of the Humanity's Fire sequence, were his first full-length forays into space opera.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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The author takes an original approach to humanity's future, but occasionally falls into techni- babble. I felt I needed a thesaurus to follow parts. The storytelling is at its best when the action begins and the pace of the plot picks up. I found much merit to the writing: indeed, I finished the series. The series held my interest despite the depth and challenges of its vocabulary. The author would be well advised to slow down and better explain some of the science. Suspension of skepticism and leaps of faith are best taken in small doses
Original plot utilization of AI and a richly layered galactic history provides context for the well developed characters' intrigues to flourish while in an impressively erudite and intoxicatingly visual style. It's one of the best sci-fi series I've read in recent years, and will be near the top of my recommendation list for this genre. Read the whole series.
the book starts of slow but picks up speed quickly waiting to read next in series
Wow! Very well written well paced and complex!
Although the plot seemed to be interesting, there were far to many subplots and characters to follow. I found it hard to get through most of the extraneous dialogue between the actual action that flowed along the main plot line
I have finished all three books in this series and i am screaming for more! Good stuff!
Characters ill defined, story line all over the place, worst read in long time
Just pay for the series, or at least the second book. The first one is interesting, with a good premise, interesting characters, satisfying complexity, and has done a good job of holding my interest. Unfortunately it did not draw to any sort of reasonable conclusion. It is a cliffhanger in the classic sense: tune in next book to find out what happens. Plan the purchase now.
You get immerced into ... well more than just a world or even a galaxy. Politics, deceit, worlds, cultures, religion, and all nicely comming together. Even with the multitude of characters and story lines, you somehow never end up lost.
Imaginative worlds, people, and machines make for a great story. Wonderful sci-fi at its best.
If you like sci fi then this book will do it for you. The dtory has so many interesting plot suprises that it keeps you deeply submerged and wanting to read more. The whole trilogy is well layed out and keeps you interested. The books are also well written.
A real hard read. Not a page turner for me.
Too many subplots and techi-words. Should have been several books instead of just one. Some of the subplots were well written and others seemed lost. Did one author really write the entire book??
can't just read the one must read all in the series