Transcendentalby James Gunn
Riley, a veteran of interstellar war, is one of many beings from many different worlds aboard a ship on a pilgrimage that spans the galaxy. However, he is not journeying to achieve transcendence, a vague mystical concept that has drawn everyone else on the ship to this journey into the unknown at the far edge of the galaxy. His mission is to find and kill the
Riley, a veteran of interstellar war, is one of many beings from many different worlds aboard a ship on a pilgrimage that spans the galaxy. However, he is not journeying to achieve transcendence, a vague mystical concept that has drawn everyone else on the ship to this journey into the unknown at the far edge of the galaxy. His mission is to find and kill the prophet who is reputed to help others transcend. While their ship speeds through space, the voyage is marred by violence and betrayal, making it clear that some of the ship's passengers are not the spiritual seekers they claim to be.
Like the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a number of those on the starship share their unique stories. But as tensions rise, Riley realizes that the ship is less like the Canterbury Tales and more like a harrowing, deadly ship of fools. When he becomes friendly with a mysterious passenger named Asha, he thinks she's someone he can trust. However, like so many others on the ship, Asha is more than she appears. Uncovering her secrets could be the key to Riley's personal quest, or make him question everything he thought he knew about Transcendentalism and his mission to stop it.
James Gunn's Transcendental is a space adventure filled with excitement and intrigue that explores the nature of what unifies all beings.
A Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2013
“Jim Gunn doesn't publish a new novel very often, but when he does it's a whopper. Transcendental is his best yet, and in it he demonstrates his possession of one of the most finely developed skills at world-building (and at aliens-creating to populate those worlds) in science fiction today. Read it!” Frederik Pohl, bestselling author of Gateway
“James Gunn, after a long, stellar career in science fiction, is a master of the narrative art--as he shows in this Chaucerian pilgrimage through the galactic future.” Robert Silverberg, bestselling author of Lord Valentine's Castle
- Tom Doherty Associates
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Second Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
By James Gunn, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 James Gunn
All rights reserved.
The voice in Riley's head said, "You almost got us killed."
Riley looked around the waiting room. Terminal was the jumping-off place for anyone wanting to go farther out. There wasn't much farther out, but he and an odd-assortment of passengers were heading there in search of something he was pretty sure didn't exist.
The debris from the barbarian Minal attack had been cleaned up, but the reason for the attack was unclear. Maybe it was the weather here on the equator, first freezing cold, then wet and hot.
"April is the cruelest month," his pedia said, "breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain."
His pedia said things like that, and other things he found more comprehensible and less benign. "What is 'April'?"
"A thousand years ago people on Earth used that word to designate a time of renewal when plants started to grow again after their winter death," his pedia said. "When humanity ventured out among the stars, they brought words along that had little meaning there. Except war. That means the same everywhere."
"I was born on Mars."
"Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages," his pedia said.
Riley ignored it, as he often did when it gave him nonsense from its immense mass of stored information. Maybe it was talking about the pilgrimage he and the others were soon to embark upon if the authorities here ever let them board the climber.
A few hours ago the barbarians who lived in the wild mountains attacked Terminal City and battled their way almost to the spaceport. They killed hundreds of civilized Minals and a few outworlders as well, including a couple of humans. Riley himself had dispatched half a dozen of the barbarians when they approached the barricaded port, shooting them in their vulnerable underbellies as they reared up to launch their spears and arrows, and killing the last one with his knife when it fought within reach.
Riley had questioned Minal officials, but their answers were the equivalent of a human shrug: none of the Minal knew what the raiders wanted, or they were reluctant to speculate, or the Minals and the outworlders had reached a communication impasse. To add to his woes, after the attack was over and a semblance of order restored, the Minal officials had been unable to explain why passengers in the spaceport had been forced to wait as much as forty-eight hours for their transfer to the ship orbiting above, or when they might be able to depart.
The attackers took no booty and no slaves as they withdrew, only their wounded. Maybe they wished to delay the pilgrimage or to kill the pilgrims. Maybe the officials and the barbarians were working together. The announcement of the pilgrimage had aroused almost as much opposition as the rumors of transcendentalism itself.
Riley looked around. The waiting room was small — no more than twenty meters square — and cluttered with refugees from dozens of alien worlds. They had been living here in the waiting room and some of them had slept here, and their trash had piled up under the seats, the pedestals that passed for seats if you were built differently, and the supports used by some species. The odors of strange spices and fetid emissions were a miasma on the air currents; the way it smelled depended upon your origins and your organs. The far wall was transparent except for a cloudy portion in the lower left-hand corner where a barbarian arrow had nicked it and a couple of bullet holes had not been repaired. Through the holes seeped the decay of the Terminal tropical jungle. Beyond was the spaceport out in the bay with its standard space elevator like an almost-invisible black beanpole ascending into the clouds above; a climber waited at its base. Beyond that lay the Terminal jungle, green and orange and blue masses of vegetation ending at the mountains that entirely surrounded this basin except on the ocean side. Behind the mountains the reddish Terminal sun was setting in a gulf between the clouds. Afterward would come the Terminal night, far blacker out here in this remote region of the spiral arm than that on Mars.
Riley turned his attention back to the waiting room and its occupants, trying to identify who was a pilgrim and who was here on some other business. Playing this kind of game forced him to pay attention to details. No matter what the people who had implanted his pedia thought, he was no superhero. He was a survivor, and he had survived so far by paying attention. Most creatures didn't. Most creatures died sooner than they should.
That heavy-planet alien standing on a tripod of its two trunk-like legs and its thick tail: it had been a stalwart in the fight against the barbarians, hurling them aside with ease and sustaining cuts that seemed to heal as they were being sustained. It was not paying attention now, with two of its eyes closed and its short proboscis swaying. Riley didn't think it was a pilgrim: heavy-planet aliens already thought they were perfect. It was probably a trader or an envoy, or maybe even a vacationer enjoying the exhilaration of low- gravity worlds.
A tank with treads, like a motorized coffin, stood in front of the window — a poor location for a creature whose fragile life-support system needed this kind of protection. The tank was decorated with engraved designs that Riley would have liked to examine more closely, but alien sensitivities were unpredictable. He had no desire to cause interspecies conflict, but the tank, for that's what it most closely resembled, piqued his curiosity, if for no reason other than its unusual exterior. The tank had no windows, no obvious means of observing the outside world, as if the outside world was irrelevant or the occupant, if there was an occupant at all. It was impossible to discern anything at all about the interior of the tank. For all he knew, the tank itself might itself be the alien creature; or, if there was an alien within, it might already be dead or near-dead and being sustained by some high medical art.
On the other side of the window stood a tall, spindly creature, its head, like a yellow flower in the heat of the day, nodding forward on a stem-like neck. Several extensions protruded from its body, like stems; fluids could be observed coursing through them and up the torso that was scarcely larger than the extensions. Riley would have thought it no good at all in a fight, but during the barbarian attack, he had noticed it slicing the armored neck of a barbarian with one swing of an arm.
A couple of small, wiry humans sat together. One was dark-haired, the other, blond. Riley couldn't be sure what gender they were. Maybe they weren't sure, either. Riley judged them to be members of the space crew. They moved a bit sluggishly on-planet, but they had acquitted themselves well against the barbarians, acting decisively, efficiently, and cooperatively.
The next person he saw was a small alien who reminded Riley of pictures he had seen of weasels — a pinched muzzle of a face, if it was a face, and small, shifty eyes, if they were eyes. It had fought like a weasel, darting in and out to deliver fatal blows with a knife. It might be, he thought, another space crew member, or maybe a pilgrim. He inspected and catalogued others before he came to the woman. She sat on a pack of belongings to his left and to the right of the weasel-like alien. There were thirty-seven in the waiting room, not counting the Terminal officials — a couple other human males; a barrel-like Sirian with small, hooded eyes and a round hole for a mouth; an Alpha Centauran with a feathery topknot, a fierce-looking beak, and vestigial wings; and several whose home world he could not identify. He had saved the woman until last. She sat like a cat, relaxed but lithe, as if she could spring into action at a touch. She had dark hair and blue eyes, a combination that was striking even if she wasn't beautiful — her features were regular and her eyes were large, but they moved restlessly; moreover her mouth was too firm and her chin too set. But somehow she seemed just right for what she was and Riley thought he would like to know her, and maybe he would. She was a pilgrim, he thought, and she had accounted for as many barbarians as he had.
He was still pondering her status, when the heavy-world alien woke up, or perhaps had not been asleep after all. It clomped across the floor to the platform that served the quadruped Minals for a desk and said something that Riley's pedia translated as "My name is Tordor, and we will leave now!"
Tordor would be someone to watch.
Within minutes the announcement came over the P.A. system in Galactic Standard that the climber would depart in half an hour. It was more like an hour.
* * *
The climber was primitive, no more than a huge metal box with grippers, as befitted a frontier planet. On more advanced planets, climbers offered private rooms, food, and windows to view the planet below or the starry sky above, and sometimes canned entertainment on viewers of various sorts. Here pedestals and seats lined the walls, with a single window on each side; otherwise the walls were bare. A cubicle at one end provided privacy for creatures that required it for elimination or ingestion, and a large open area in the middle left space for creatures that rested lying down. Dispensers at the end farthest from the privy offered several kinds of fluids but no solid food. Instructions told travelers to bring their own nourishment, and to provide their own protection against thieves and predators.
The climber was a cattle car and the passengers were cattle. The trip to geosynchronous orbit would take seven days; it had started an hour ago with a subtle jar and a grinding noise from the grippers. If the waiting room had been odorous, the climber was worse. It smelled already. More than half of the creatures from the waiting room were crowded in, including the heavy-planet alien. It stood in front of Riley.
A series of grunts came from it that Riley's pedia translated as "I am Tordor. That is not my real name, which is not suitable for your voicing system. I am designated after my planet of origin, in the galactic custom."
"Tordor," Riley said. "Good work back there." Tordor could take that as either a compliment on his fighting during the barbarian attack or his ultimatum to the officials.
Grunts: "You, too." The barbarian attack, then; the ultimatum was SOP. "Protective association is wise."
"I agree. But how do we trust each other?"
Grunts: "We enlist others. You pick one. I pick another. Two each. One from each always on guard."
"Good," Riley said. He approached the woman. "My name is Riley. This is Tordor. We're forming a protective association for the trip up, and you're invited to join."
"I'll take care of myself," she said. Her voice was low but confident.
"And a good job you'll do, too," Riley said cheerfully. He led Tordor to the two space crew types, who introduced themselves as Jan and Jon, although it wasn't clear which was which. They accepted.
Tordor picked the flower-headed alien. It produced a swishing sound by swinging its stem-like extensions. His pedia identified the swishing sounds as language but could not interpret. "It is from Aldebaran," Tordor grunted. "Self-identified as flower child four one zero seven. It accepts." Tordor went on to the coffin-shaped vessel, which had trundled onto the climber under its own power, and stood silently near one end. "This creature does not identify itself," Tordor grunted, "and spurns our offer of association."
Tordor completed his part of the group with the bird-headed Alpha Centauran. Neither Tordor nor Riley proposed approaching the weasel, but Riley suggested keeping an eye on it, and perhaps on the Sirian as well.
At the end of thirteen hours they had climbed more than sixteen hundred kilometers. In the last hour, standing at the window, he had watched the sky turn black and the stars appear — paltry as they were. He saw Terminal become a partial sphere and felt gravity slowly drop to what felt like about 50 percent. The loss of weight improved his energy levels and his spirits, which always were depressed by the thought of trusting his life to a meter-wide film or the centimeters-thick window through which he gazed. He looked around and saw that even the pachyderm-like Tordor moved with something approaching grace.
They conversed briefly about organization and the deficiencies of bureaucracies.
"Hierarchies are far more efficient," Tordor said.
"Democracies encourage progress," Riley said.
"Progress is bad," Tordor said.
"The galactic powers agree," Riley replied.
"No more wars," Tordor said.
"We can agree on that," Riley said. The wars had nearly destroyed the galaxy before the various sapient species had decided to make a peace that allowed no one to gain an advantage on pain of everyone else ganging up on them. Tordor, from a heavy planet with a hierarchical organization based not on birth but on seniority, believed in stasis, in keeping everything, people, culture, politics, the way they had always been, maybe because Tordor's culture thought it would survive the centuries and others would fall.
Tordor was a pilgrim; Riley had been wrong about that. But Tordor didn't say why.
By the time Riley felt it wise to get some sleep he had gotten acquainted with Jon and Jan. Jon was the dark-haired one, Jan, the light-haired. They were space crew hired to serve on the starship Geoffrey. Riley didn't like the name of the starship; he never liked ships with people names, even if they were human names.
Previously the brothers? Sisters? He couldn't tell ... had worked on a freighter, but some months earlier they had jumped ship. He had been right about them, anyway, although he had never heard of anyone jumping ship in space; it didn't seem possible unless they had been given planet leave, and who would give or accept leave on a planet as barren of attractions as Terminal?
Neither Jon nor Jan volunteered any information about gender, and Riley didn't ask. Before they arranged sleep times, the members of Riley and Tordor's protection association agreed on a rotation for keeping watch. Riley took the first one and woke Jan for the second. Before he went to sleep, with his head upon his single bag of belongings and his hand upon the gun tucked under it, he told Jan to keep his — or her; he still wasn't sure which — back against the wall and to watch everybody, Tordor included.
He awoke suddenly with his hand around the wrist of the weasel-faced alien.
* * *
The weasel made a gesture that could have been a shrug of apology and retreated to a corner. Riley looked at his hand. It was still holding the weasel's arm. The end of the arm — it was not quite a hand — had a knife in it. The other end wasn't bleeding, as if the blood vessels had immediately shut down. Riley looked behind him. Jan was slumped on the bench, asleep or unconscious. The flower-headed alien stood on hairy, rootlike feet a couple of meters away, its head drooping.
Riley dropped the arm with the knife still clutched in what passed for a hand and got to his feet. Jan was still breathing. Riley felt his pulse and smelled his breath. Jan had been administered a subtle soporific, Riley's pedia told him; it would degrade into harmlessness in an hour.
He shook Jon awake and pointed to Jan. "He'll be okay," Riley told Jon. "No thanks to you," he told the flower child. It did not acknowledge his words. Maybe it too had been sedated, but Riley's pedia provided no insights into alien physiologies.
By this time Tordor had opened his eyes. The large alien took in the scene with a quick swivel of its head. "So," he grunted. "It begins."
Riley picked up the arm and carried it across the floor to the corner where the weasel-faced alien crouched. "I think this is yours," he said.
The weasel accepted the arm and laid it at its own feet. It said something that sounded like modulated whistling. Riley's pedia didn't interpret, but Tordor grunted, "It says it saw your guards asleep. It feared someone would do you harm."
"Tell it I regret detaching its arm," Riley said.
"No matter, it says," Tordor reported. "Arms easy, life hard."
Riley laughed. He was beginning to feel a sneaky admiration for the weasel's bravado.
Excerpted from Transcendental by James Gunn, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2013 James Gunn. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
JAMES GUNN is the Hugo Award-winning science fiction author of The Joy Makers, The Immortals, and The Listeners, and the coauthor, with Jack Williamson, of the classic epic SF novel Star Bridge. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
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Somewhat interesting story but far from the best scifi out there.