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"Marrow is magnificent. It combines epic sweep with living characters and a depth of vision that we see all too seldom."
"The latest novel by the author of Marrow and The Leeshore tells an epic tale of visionary futures and scientific speculation."
—Library Journal on Sister Alice
Well of Stars, The
THE GREAT SHIP
I have no voice that explains where I began, no mouth to tell why I was imagined or how I was assembled, and I no idea who deserves thanks for my simple existence, assuming that thanks are appropriate. I recall absolutely nothing about my exceptionally murky origins ... but I know well that for a long cold while I was perfectly mute and only slightly more conscious than stone, sliding through the emptiest, blackest reaches of space, my only persistent thought telling me that I was to do nothing but wait ... wait for something wondrous, or something awful ... wait for some little event or a knowing voice that would help answer those questions that I could barely ask of myself ... .
For aeons and a day, I felt remarkably, painfully tiny. Drifting through the cosmos, I imagined myself as a substantial but otherwise ordinary species of cosmic dust. Compared to the vastness, I was nothing. How could I believe otherwise? Unobserved, I passed through intricate walls woven from newborn galaxies—magnificent hot swirls of suns and glowing dust, each revolving around some little black prick of collapsed Creation—and among that splendor, I was simply a nameless speck, a twist of random grit moving at an almost feeble speed, my interior unlit and profoundly cold, my leading face battered and slowly eroded by the endless rain of lesser dusts.
Through space and through time, I drifted.
Galaxies grew scarce, and the void was deeper and ever colder ... and when I might have believed that I would never touch sunlight again ... when my fate seemed to be blackness and the endless silence ... I found myself falling toward a modest disk of stars and dust and little living worlds ... .
By chance, a young species—the human species—noticed me while I was still descending through the outskirts of their Milky Way. Brave as fools and bold asgods, they built an armada of swift little ships and raced out to meet me, and to my utter amazement, I discovered that I was enormous—bigger than worlds, massive and enduring, and in their spellbound eyes, beautiful.
Humans were the first species to walk upon my face, and with a quick and efficient thoroughness, they explored my hollow places. To prove my considerable worth, they fought a little war to retain their hold on me. According to law and practicality, I was salvage, and I was theirs. In careful stages, they began to wake me, rousing my ancient reactors, my vast engines and life-support systems, repairing the damage left by my long, long sleep. And they gave me my first true voice—in a fashion. A thousand mouths were grafted on to me. Radio dishes and powerful lasers, neutrino beacons and spinning masses of degenerate matter endowed me with the power to shout at every approaching sun and all the living worlds. "Here I am," I would announce. "See me! Study me! Know me, then come visit me!" In a multitude of languages, my new mouths claimed, "I hunger for your company, your friendship, and your infinite trust." I asked, "Are you, like so many technological species, a func-tional immortal?" Then I promised, "For a fair fee, I will carry your ageless and precious soul to a distant world. Or in half a million years, after circumnavigating the Milky Way, I will bring you home again. Can you imagine a greater, more ennobling adventure than to journey once around our galaxy? Or for a still greater payment, I can become your permanent home—a vast, ever-changing realm offering more novelty and sheer wonder than any other body in Creation." Then with a barker's teasing laugh, I would ask, "What kind of immortal would you be if you didn't wish for such a splendid, endless fate ... ?"
Like every proud child, I spoke obsessively about myself. Addressing species that I had never met, I defined my terms and described my dimensions, my depths, and my laudable talents. I was lovely igneous stone and ancient iron buttressed with hyperfiber bones, and my skin was a thick armor of high-grade hyperfiber capable of shruggingoff the impacts of interstellar gravel and full-bodied comets. I was swimming through the Milky Way at one-third the velocity of unencumbered light. My engines were as big as moons, and I was bigger than most of my patrons' home worlds: twenty Earth masses, and fifty thousand kilometers in diameter, with a hull covering nearly eight billion square kilometers. But my skin was nothing compared to my spongelike meat. Whoever built me had the foresight to give me endless arrays of wide caverns and neat tunnels, underground seas and chambers too numerous to be counted. I could conjure up any climate, replicate any odd biosphere. To travelers who appreciate robust numbers, I spat out an impressive figure. "Twenty trillion cubic kilometers." That was the combined volume of my hollow places. On a simple world such as the Earth—a world I will never see, except perhaps in passing—there are barely 200 million square kilometers of living space. Life exists in two dimensions, not three; trees and buildings reach only so high. Only the top fringe of the ocean and the little zones by the rifting plates are productive habitats. "Not with me," I said with a seamless arrogance. My new voice was designed to sound prideful, sharp, and confident. "With me, every little room is a potential paradise. I can give you the perfect illusion of any sunlight and the exact atmosphere that you find most pleasant, unless you need a hard vacuum, which I can achieve just as easily. I can manufacture soils to fit the most delicate chemistry and fluids enough to slake any thirst, and by an assortment of means, you can wander through my public areas—my shops and auditoriums, religious sites and scenic vistas—unless it is your preference to live entirely by yourself, which is your right. If solitude is your nature, I will honor your noble choice.
"I accept all species," I claimed. Which was true, to a degree. I would welcome every sentient soul, but my ageless human captains always retained the final word. My voice never entirely mentioned the possibility that travelers could come some great distance, and at no smallrisk to themselves, only to be informed that they could not afford passage, or less likely, that they were deemed too unstable or too dangerous to be allowed to live among my more docile passengers.
Always, always, I sang endless praises of my human caretakers. They were my captains, my engineers, my guiding hands and crafty fingers. They owned me, I admitted with a voice that couldn't have sounded more thrilled. Better than any other species, the humans knew my depths, understood my potentials, and were fully prepared to hold tight to me until the end of Creation.
Perhaps I believed those boastful words, but my truest feelings remained secret, even from myself.
I am rich in many things, but particularly in those things that are unknown.
Washen was one of the first children born inside me, and that earliest little portion of her considerable life was spent in a modest house overlooking one of my warm blue seas. Her loving parents were engineers, by training and by deepest conviction, meaning that not only did they know how to build every possible structure and every conceivable machine, they also possessed the clear, un-sentimental, and pragmatic outlook of true engineers: The universe-their universe-was rich with an elegant beauty, known elements and reliable forces playing against each other in ancient, proven ways. If there were questions of consequence needing to be solved-a dubious possibility, at best—then those questions didn't involve people of their particular caliber. Engineering was a finished profession. The galaxy was adorned with many wise old species that long ago had mastered Nature's basic tricks. Humans were virtual newcomers. With nothing but science and intuition to guide them, human engineers had managed to teach themselves how to build lasers and fusion reactors and bioceramic materials. Given time, they might have invented much of the rest of what was possible. But during their twenty-first century, a moon-boundobservatory glanced at a particularly rich portion of the sky, for a few perfect moments, intercepting a tight-beamed broadcast from a distant civilization that was bound for an even more distant world.
Inside that dense and highly structured burst of blue light were enough tricks and fancies to fuel a dozen intellectual revolutions. Hyperfiber was perhaps the greatest of the alien gifts. Built from deceptively ordinary materials, it was a lightweight and potentially immortal substance that could endure almost any abuse, and do so while shouldering almost any burden.
There were many reasons not to expect to find a great ship wandering on the fringes of the Milky Way. But no competent engineer was surprised to learn that my skin and bones were composed of hyperfiber. What else would a godly power employ in such an enormous construction? Perhaps my particular hyperfiber was a better grade than what people and most other species had cultured in the past, or even in the brilliant present. And yes, the scale and perfection of my spherical body demanded resources and quality controls that not even a thousand worlds working together could achieve. But nothing about me seemed genuinely impossible, much less threatening to the status quo. Yes, I was grand and highly unlikely, and marvelous, and enigmatic, but I still resided firmly in the grasp of an engineer's venerable, often-proved theories.
When Washen was a young girl, her parents helped first culture the finer grades of hyperfiber, using my hull's armor as their inspiration. They taught themselves to do the magic in sufficient quantities to patch my old craters and the occasional deep wound. Their house was littered with scraps and useless shards—failed experiments brought home from the factories—and sometimes Washen would pick up one of the bright pieces, staring at her own reflection. She was a slender girl, a pretty girl, a little tall for her age, her black hair worn long and oftentimes damp from swimming in the sea. Even though she was the offspring of deeply committed engineers, she lacked theirnarrow curiosity. One day while sitting at the breakfast table and staring at a ball of sweet new hyperfiber, she suddenly inquired, "Where did this come from?"
Her father was a handsome man, young-faced but in his second millennium of life, and even on his most poetic day, he was a literal soul. With a calm, studied voice, he explained what was obvious and essential. A nanoscale foundation was laid down in the factory. Each atom had to be doctored before it was set in its perfect space, aligned with its neighbors, then every quark allowed to find its perfect resonance. Then if a certain standard was achieved, the entire batch was turned into a quasi fluid, thick and gray and ready to fill molds or one of the ancient craters scattered across the ship's hull. The material's final grade depended on subtle, oftentimes invisible, factors. Unfair as it seemed, luck played a powerful role. But he didn't wish to bore his daughter with dense technical terms. Using a few convoluted sentences, he had answered her question, adding, "That's where this comes from," as he gestured at a mirror-faced ball barely bigger than the hand that was holding it.
Washen nodded agreeably. Her question had been answered, if not in the manner she had hoped. There was no reason to act rude or complain. No, she realized the best course was to turn in her chair, turn and smile, and ask her mother the same essential question.
"Where did we get this?"
Washen's mother had different gifts, different strengths. She was very much an engineer, but she possessed a more rarefied appreciation for theory and high mathematics. Quietly and with a seamless patience, the woman explained. "We call it hyperfiber for good straightforward reasons. The name refers to the hyperdimensions that we can't actually see. Dimensions other than up or over or back. Dimensions other than time, which isn't a true dimension anyway. You see, it takes eleven dimensions to build the universe. Or thirteen. Or twelve. The exact number depends on which Theory of All you happen to subscribeto. But in every important way, the answers are the same. Some of these invisible dimensions are enormous and others are quite tiny, and what you are holding there ... that very tiny piece of hyperfiber ... well, its fibers stretch into these other dimensions, both physically and through deep subtle forces ... ."
The full lecture continued for a long while. The woman could be pleasantly loquacious, and Washen accepted her mother's nature just as she accepted the fact that she couldn't understand what was being said. But she nodded politely. She sometimes smiled. When bored, she looked at her own skeptical reflection. Perhaps she had thought her question was very simple, and it plainly wasn't simple, and how could she make herself understood?
"When you strike a piece of hyperfiber," her mother continued, "the impact forces don't spread just through our three dimensions, no. They dissipate through all eleven of them. Or thirteen. Or twelve. Or twenty-three. There are approximately seven distinct universal theories. Your father and I like the eleven-dimension theory, but all give the same conclusion: Even when hyperfiber fractures, a quantum echo lingers in the upper-dimensional realms. What you're holding there ... it's really a much larger object than you can see. It extends out into every corner of the universe, in all of its manifestations, and even if you could grind that ball down to dust, the ball remains intact. If only as a theory, of course. As a delicious mathematical concept existing in the shadow realms—"
"No," the young girl blurted, finally interrupting.
Offended, her mother stiffly asked, "What is the matter, dear?"
"What's wrong?" the old man growled. "Darling, you're talking nonsense, that's what's the matter. The girl's barely half-grown, and what are you doing? Jabbering about quantum mechanics and ghostly physics ... !"
"I know she's young."
"Hell," he said. "Your song barely makes sense to me. And I passed the same classes you passed"
"You didn't have my grades," her mother countered.
"Who remembers that?" he snarled. "Besides you, I mean."
There was an ugly, much-practiced pause, then a gnawing discomfort. It was unseemly to argue in front of a child, even one of your own. The two old people stared at each other, making their apologies with the tiniest of winks, and into that silence came the stubborn voice of someone demanding an answer to her insistent little question.
"Where did this come from?" Washen repeated.
Then she explained, "I don't mean how we cook it up, or why it works. I just want to know where we got it in the first place."
"Oh," her parents said, with a shared voice.
"Hyperfiber was a gift," Father replied "An accidental gift from an alien civilization."
"The Sag-7 signal gave us the essential recipe," Mother added.
Washen shook her head.
"I know that much," she promised. "That's history, and I got that in school, plenty of times already."
With genuine confusion, her parents asked what she really meant.
Washen concentrated, her chocolate-colored eyes revealing a seriousness not usually found in someone so young. "I want to know: How did the Sag-7 learn to make hyperfiber?"
They found an answer. It took a long moment to use their nexuses, dredging up arcane details from data files carried all the way from Earth. According to histories composed by a wide array of species, an even older alien species—one of the first to evolve in the once-youthful Milky Way galaxy—had cultured the first bright bits of hyperfiber. And before they went extinct, many millions ofyears ago, that species had shared their secret with the now venerable Sag-7.
But even that explanation didn't seem to answer her question. Washen shook her head, her strong mouth working while her deep dark eyes stared at the bauble in her hands.
"But who taught that first species?" she asked.
Nobody could say. Maybe nobody had taught them, her parents confided. The long-vanished aliens must have found the great stuff for themselves, which really wasn't all that incredible.
"But were they first?" Washen wanted to know.
What did she mean?
"The very first," she persisted. "In the universe, I mean."
The obvious answer presented itself. Neither of the engineers, nor any of the considerable experts on board, could do more than guess at my true age. But I was at least as old as the Earth, and perhaps much older. "It could have been the ship's builders," Washen's mother offered with a shrug and a little laugh. "Maybe they were first in Creation to culture hyperfiber."
She and her husband had been married for most of a thousand years. Their feuds and little fights served as a mortar, as relentless as gravity, helping to keep them securely and forever locked together. As soon as her husband saw the flaw, he snarled, "That's ridiculous. Think of the odds! That the builders were the very first, and that they happened to send their empty ship toward our little galaxy ... and then out of the 2.2 million estimated intelligent species in the Milky Way, we just happened to be the first to come along and take possession of their prize ...!"
The complaint served no purpose except to send his wife's mind drifting down a new avenue.
While she pondered, the old man turned to his daughter. "We don't know who was first, Washen. Does that answer your question?"
For endless reasons, it did not. It could not. Yet the young girl nodded, setting the round scrap on the table, and after a moment of perfect balance, it began to roll away from everyone. Over the edge it fell, hitting the floor with the softest ping. Then with a charm that would eventually lead billions of souls, Washen lied, telling her parents, "Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am. And thank you very, very much for your help."
For more than a hundred thousand millennia, I had a great voice, and never once did I show any doubt in the words and images that I offered to the universe. My captains led flawlessly, or nearly so. The Master Captain was the image of a wise ruler—a nourishing queen, or at least a pragmatic and occasionally forgiving despot. My voice beckoned, and a multitude of species and odd souls rode little starships out to join me. My voice lured them, and the humans were enriched in myriad ways: with fresh technologies, cultural hybridizations, and trading pacts, plus fat grants that gave them worlds and asteroids to terraform and colonize, or to mine down to dust if they wished.
And then came Marrow.
Unknown to the captains, an entire world was hiding inside me. A living world, as it happened. The first examples of native life ever found inside me—forests and fungi and a multitude of pseudoinsect species—had thrived on this Mars-sized globe, undetected for many thousands of years. And deep inside Marrow lay other surprises. There was a cargo. Or perhaps, a passenger. Some willful entity, ancient and mysterious, imprisoned in my core and apparently dangerous, and according to a few voices, important beyond all measure.
I wasn't just an empty ship after all.
A few of the captains journeyed to Marrow, in secret. There they were marooned, and with the scarce resources on hand, they built an entirely new civilization. Then over the course of the next centuries they lost control of everything they had built. Their children and grandchildrenspoke of Builders and the Bleak. One was worshiped, the other loathed. But which was which? Who gave them visions and faith? What power born at the beginning of the universe was responsible, telling the self-named Waywards to climb up to the Great Ship and take back what had always been theirs ...?
There was a swift and devastating war, and my voice suddenly fell silent.
The Waywards' conquest failed—just by a little ways, it collapsed—and the worst of my newest wounds were repaired. But my proud and loud and long-reaching voice remained silent. My carefully plotted course through the galaxy had been changed. Passing near an aging sun, then its sister, a massive black hole, my trajectory was twisted, sending me plunging on a course that in just a few thousand years would carry me out of the Milky Way, back into the cold, empty reaches of space.
With my other tongues gone, I could hear my true voice again.
Warnings whispered to me.
Urges tugged, too subtle for anyone else to feel.
Fear lay in my bones. My fear, or another's? I didn't know. I didn't dare guess. Out of wisdom or simple exhaustion—is there any difference?—I decided not to make distinctions.
Anyone's fear means there could well be a reason to be scared.
I have always been, as I am now. Terrified. And I shall always be this way, I imagine.
"So where is this holy site?" Pamir asked.
The two of them had just emerged from an unmarked cap-car. Washen paused, bright black eyes fighting the glare of a sun that was not real. "Out on the rocks," she reported, gesturing at a long spine of basalt that reached into the blue sea. She was a tall and elegant woman, and lovely, and her smile was quick and full of a shackled but genuine pride. "The chairs are waiting for us."
"I see them fine, but that's not what I'm asking."
"What's your question?"
"Your original home," Pamir explained, impatience lurking in his rough, low voice. "You've only mentioned it a few thousand times. We're close enough to walk. Since we have time, maybe you could show me your childhood abode."
Why not? thought Washen.
Yet for the next moment or two, she fumbled for her bearings. Centuries had passed since her last visit, and the city had changed its appearance in her absence. Entire streets had been moved or repaved, and the buildings surrounding them were either remodeled or obliterated. Unless, of course, everything was exactly the same as her last visit, and she was simply being forgetful. After more than a thousand centuries of life, not even the brightest person, on her finest day, could remember more than a fraction of everything she had seen and everything that she had done.
The easy response to the confusion was to ask a buried nexus for an address and map. But Washen resisted the temptation, and after waiting for an inspiration that never quite arrived, she started to walk, leading her companion along a likely avenue while hoping it would lead to the correct hilltop.
The cavern surrounding them was a modest-sized bubble tucked inside a vein of black basalt, strands and girdersof buried hyperfiber holding the ceiling and distant walls securely in place. When first mapped by the survey teams, this entire volume was filled with water ice dirtied with nitrogen frost and veins of methane. Because of the cavern's relatively small dimensions—barely a thousand kilometers long and half as wide at its widest—and because it was close to the ship's bridge and Port Alpha, this was among the first habitats to be terraformed. Coaxing half a dozen nearby reactors out of their ancient sleep, the engineering corps had gradually warmed the ice to where it was an obedient, if still chilled, fluid. Then the cavern was drained. As an experiment, every drop of fluid was filtered twice and analyzed with an array of sensors, and like everywhere else on board the ship, not a single credible trace of past life was uncovered. The water was far from pure. In the ancient ice were traces of minerals and salts and a few molecules of simple organics. But missing were the telltale fragments of lipid membranes, the persistent twists of DNA or RNA, or any cell that could not be tied directly to any human being or one of her escaped bacteria.
Giant pumps and siphons were scattered throughout the ship, presumably intended for this one function. With a command, the machines began lifting the water back into the cavern, and when it was half-filled, the engineers stopped the pumping and sealed the drainage holes. Other teams began tinkering with the environmental controls, establishing a day-and-night cycle and a sequence of seasons, modeling a climate that was dubbed Mediterranean. The new ocean was salted just enough, then laced with iron. A bright blue sky was painted with holo projectors, and at night, blackness and a scattering of ancient constellations wheeled overhead. Then an array of simple microbes and planktons was released in the wind, and the rare patches of flat ground were slathered with black soils made from hydrocarbon stocks. Fish and squid were pulled from arks originally brought from Earth, ruggedoaks and olive trees grew on the black shores, and a tidy few species of birds suddenly seemed to be everywhere. The ship's first city was built on this ground, housing the engineers and other crew members who had come on the starships. Twenty-two other patches of ground and shallow water were designated for future settlements. But even after more than a thousand centuries, only half of those planned cities had so much as a few houses standing on the reserved sites. The ship's enormity had absorbed the vast bulk of development. With more caverns than passengers, why not live in your own private paradise? Besides, since this was the first little corner of the ship to be terraformed, people better suited to repairing starship engines had done the hurried work. Every other sea seemed more elegant or beautiful or odd or special. At least that was the snobbish opinion carried by most of the passengers. But not Washen. She had grown up along this rocky black shoreline. Even now, uncertain about her bearings, she found it very easy to remember sweet moments and those long, long days when she was a child in a world with very few children, busily living her life in what was the Great Ship's finest city.
The rising avenue was a wide lane, basalt pavers set in the traditional quasi-crystal pattern, red buckyfiber mortars pressed between them, and the lane was lined with stout oak trees that might be two hundred years old, or twenty thousand. To the left, the blue sea quietly rolled into the rocks and the increasingly high cliffs. On their right, houses and little businesses created the comfortable mood of a genuine neighborhood. The occasional resident saw Washen and Pamir passing, and too late, they would emerge into the dappled light. Had they really seen whom they thought they saw? Were these the two captains who had defeated the Waywards? Word spread up ahead and along the tributary lanes. Humans and other species hurried outdoors, waiting to see the spectacle of two people dressed in their mirrored uniforms, walking side by side up the most average of streets. No one couldbelieve her luck. Were they holo projections? No, apparently not. One fearless little boy approached, showing a big smile before asking, "Are you really the First Chair, madam?"
"I am," Washen replied.
"And you're the Second Chair, sir?"
"I suppose," Pamir rumbled.
The two captains had recently become Submasters. The precise reasons for their promotions were complex and a little sordid and inevitably quite sad. But to a boy's mind, the story was obvious. The Waywards were evil and dangerous souls who had risen up from that secret world, Marrow. Washen and Pamir had done heroic deeds, beating back their enemies, and their new epaulets had been earned by their bravery and undiluted loyalty to the Great Ship. The Master Captain herself, with nothing in her heart but gratitude, had bestowed these high offices on their proven, glorious shoulders, and now everyone should sleep easy through the night.
"You're here for the meeting," the boy told them.
He was walking beside Washen. They made an unusual pair—the small boy with short straight hair and a stocky build, and the tall, willowy woman with the pretty face and the basalt black hair worn in a tight bun. Washen nodded and glanced down at her companion, and with a false nonchalance, she asked, "Do you live nearby?"
"Up there," he replied, waving at the hill rising before them.
"Hunting for a local guide?" Pamir teased.
Washen conspicuously ignored him.
With pride, the boy announced, "This is the oldest city on the Great Ship. That's why we call it Alpha City. Or the First City. Or just Alpha."
"I know," Washen purred.
"The Master Captain always holds her most important meetings out there, on those big rocks out there."
"So I understand."
"Have you ever been to one of those meetings?"
Washen shook her head. "I don't believe so. But there's always the chance that I don't remember."
"So why walk up this way?"
"That's a wonderful question," Washen allowed.
"Because we're lost," Pamir offered, remaining a step behind the First Chair and her new best friend.
Other pedestrians laughed with a nervous glee, but the boy seemed to disapprove of their mood. He frowned for a moment, then he decided to warn Washen, "There's nothing important up here. Nothing at all."
"Is that what you think?"
Was this some kind of trap? The boy concentrated before repeating his warning. "It's an old neighborhood. The houses can't be torn down, unless they happen to fall down. And they can't fall down, because everybody is supposed to keep them strong."
"Because this is an historic district," Washen explained. She winked at the boy. "The first people to board the ship built those houses. That makes them important. And one or two captains were born up there, as I understand it."
The boy seemed genuinely surprised. "Which captains?"
"Just some little ones," Washen said.
"I'm going to be a captain," her new friend announced. Then he glanced up at Washen with a sudden wariness, and finding something agreeable in her expression, he looked back at the Second Chair. "I'm going to be a captain soon. Very soon."
Pamir was a tall, imposing man. Unhandsome and typically surly, he had little interest in charm or false smiles. His heavy rough-hewn face was perfectly capable of frowning at any crew member or passenger, at any time and for the smallest good reason. But this was a child, and perhaps Pamir's new uniform and rank helped him to behave. Whatever the reason, he decided to avoid the bald truth. "Maybe you will be a captain," he replied simply. "I wish you all the luck."
Then through a private, heavily shielded nexus, he said to Washen, "If there's still a ship to rule, that is."
EVEN IN THE midst of a seemingly ordinary walk, the Submasters were busy watching over the routine and the remarkable. Buried nexuses made it possible, and their rank made escape from their duties almost impossible. The ship's giant engines were being repaired and refurbished in a crash program. Security teams still were hunting for the last of the Waywards. Passengers and the crew had to be encouraged and kept informed, and that required a multitude of media campaigns, each tailored for a given species and the quirky local cultures. And always, rumors had to be exposed and killed in very public ways. If any hazard terrified Washen most, it was the capacity for a simple story to ripple through the public consciousness, mutating and swelling in importance as it spread out from whatever misunderstanding or half-truth had given it birth. Right now, as she strolled calmly into the ancient neighborhood, she was dealing with a persistent bit of nonsense: The captains and their families were preparing to abandon the Great Ship. It was a rumor that began the very minute the Waywards were defeated, and despite every attempt to prove it wrong, the lie continued to find life.
Today, the abandonment story was being told by an obscure species using a language of elaborate scent markers and fluorescent urines. As soon as the trouble was noticed, a team of AIs and xenobiologists began working on a countercampaign and the means of delivering it. Washen was alerted, and while walking on the narrowing road, she examined and canceled half a dozen plans. "Too much;" was her general assessment. "A light touch," she demanded. "Get a captain to pee the truth in public," she suggested; and then she looked up, surprised and more than a little pleased to find a familiar scene greeting her.
A grove of ageless oaks and walnuts covered a piece ofland just large enough to appear endless from the edges. The heavy interlocking limbs and thick green leaves produced a shade so compelling that only a few Lipanian murkshrubs managed to survive on the stony black ground. The single break in the canopy was above and alongside one low-built house. Obviously conceived by engineers, the structure was solid and balanced and slightly drab, fashioned from carved basalt and cultured diamond. Martian trusses and Roman arches lent strength and an accidental elegance, and the false sunshine poured over it, granting it a false brilliance. The front door stood shut—a thick white door made of smart plastics and brass nourishes—and for a little while, it seemed as if no one was at home. Washen gave a greeting, but she couldn't hear the door calling to the inhabitants, and it certainly didn't speak to her. Perhaps the house was abandoned, she thought. If it were empty, she would buy it. She had time enough to make that decision and briefly imagine living here again, then to suffer the first tugs of regret. She didn't belong in this place. The girl who had lived here once was gone, and it was a foolish thing to wish for.
The boy was still hovering nearby. She turned to him, asking, "Whose home is this?"
"It's somebody's," he blurted with authority.
Then a face appeared behind one of the diamond windows, and Washen felt a giddy, almost intoxicating sense of relief.
"See?" the boy added.
But the face vanished with a strange swiftness, and the door remained closed and silent. With his patience spent, Pamir stepped up and used a heavy fist, pounding until a set of locks turned liquid and flowed into the jamb. The door opened grudgingly. The peering face belonged to a little human woman. She now appeared in the gap, and with a whispery little voice said, "Yes, sir. Yes, madam. What is wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Washen insisted. "I used to live here, that's all."
The boy gave a low laugh and ran off to tell what he had just learned.
"And if it's no trouble," the Submaster continued, "I'd love the opportunity for a quick tour, please."
A hard pain struck the woman. Several hundred of her neighbors and presumed friends were standing back in the shadows, watching everything. She stared out at them, a grimace slipping loose for a moment. Then she buried her rage, and with a soggy voice muttered, "I can't stop you from looking."
Her discomfort was contagious. Washen flinched, and said, "I know this is an imposition, ma'am. And if you tell us, 'Go away,' we most certainly will."
That promise startled the woman. She took a deep breath, and her face turned, whispering a few words to someone unseen. And then because she couldn't believe Washen—because no little passenger could stand in the way of a Submaster—she dropped her head in resignation and slowly backed away from the door, allowing the two great captains to step inside.
By law, the structure's interior had to maintain certain historic standards. And for her trouble, the resident was granted some fat financial benefits. Washen naturally assumed that the standards weren't being maintained. That would almost explain the woman's brittleness. But if there were discrepancies, they were subtle ones. Without tapping the old data banks, Washen couldn't find anything worse than a few little rooms that had been remodeled to make several kinds of alien guests feel comfortable.
The house covered only a hectare of ground, and the walking tour took a matter of minutes. She and Pamir strolled through entertainment rooms and social rooms and an old-fashioned library, complete with glass books and paper books sealed behind sheer diamond screens.An indoor pond triggered memories. "I learned to swim in there," Washen mentioned. Then she showed Pamir each of the three rooms that she had claimed for herself, at various stages of her childhood, the last one as far from her parents' room as possible. Finally, they entered the big ancient kitchen where a person, if she was so moved, could cook without the aid of robots or smart-meals. Stoves big enough to feed a brigade stood against one long wall, ignored but ready. Pots and tubs made of steel and hyperfiber hung from copper pipes lashed to the high ceiling. And in the middle of the room, sitting before a simple wooden table, was a stranger. He was a smallish man taking a last deep sip of a thick hot narcotic drink. When the Submasters entered the room, he moaned. When they looked at him, he threw his glass down and sobbed, then dropped his face, nose mashed against the yellow wood. The half-covered mouth offered a squeak before muttering, "Forgive me."
The woman stood in a different doorway. In the yard, squinting through the windows, were maybe half a hundred curious neighbors.
"I'm very sorry," the little man whispered.
Softly but furiously, he asked, "After what you've done? Why shouldn't we just kick you to pieces?"
The man trembled, saying nothing.
Washen settled into a facing chair. Her expression was distracted, but she heard enough to say, "Tell us," as she cupped her hands before her. Holding nothing, she stared at her hands, and said, "The entire story. Tell us."
The man made his confession in what seemed like a single breath. He was a lifelong technician who had worked in the Alpha port, and when the Waywards came, he had abandoned his post. He went into hiding. He bought a new face and body, then the war came and went, and he decided to change his face twice more, building a new identity that should have been perfect. But it obviously hadn't been. He was staying here with his sister,which must have been his mistake. But it wasn't the security troops that had found him, no. Who could imagine it? The First Chair and Second Chair had both come here, which meant that for some incredible reason he must be regarded as an enormous criminal.
Pamir smiled, loving the whole string of coincidences that had conspired to produce this very unexpected moment.
But Washen barely noticed. Her cupped hands pulled apart, dropping the nothingness that they had held, and she watched the nothingness roll off the tabletop, her head tipped to one side, as if listening for an echo nearly as old as herself.
"Stand," Pamir commanded.
The technician jumped to his feet and almost fell over.
"Sober up," the Second Chair advised. "And then return to your post. Today. If you can do those two things—sobriety and work—and if you can remember how to do your work, I'll speak to the Master Captain about clemency. Is that understood?"
"You would do that for me?"
"I'm not doing this for you. This is for the ship's own good." With his nexuses and his personal authority, Pamir had both identified this woman and tracked down her missing brother, and he was already wiping the record clean. Technicians were precious, particularly today. The man hadn't joined the Waywards, which was a fat plus. And besides, it would make this moment considerably less funny if he had the criminal thrown into the brig.
"Thank you," said the grateful technician. "Sir. Madam."
With the scrape of wood against tiles, Washen pushed back her chair and stood again. If she had heard a word in the last couple minutes, she didn't mention it. Instead, she adjusted the tilt of her mirrored hat, and with a distant little smile, she asked, "How long have you lived here?"
The woman swallowed, then confessed, "For the last seventeen centuries. Madam."
After a moment's consideration, she said, "That's ten times longer than I lived here." Then Washen smiled, and winked. "This is your house now. Do what you want with it. Remodel it. Tear it down and build another. Whatever you wish to do, you may."
"But if you find anything interesting ... anything that seems old and odd ... please, send it to me, please?"
Humans began as perishable apes, but aeons ago they infused their bodies with synthetic genes and bioceramic minds, creating souls more durable than the exposed face of any simple rock. This basaltic hill was a prime example. Since the first day of her rule, the Master Captain and her highest officers had met on this ground, and during that tenure the shoreline had eroded noticeably, the original black boulders gnawed down to mere stones that quietly rolled off into the patient surf. What began as a proud high hill seemed rather less impressive today, and much the same might be said of the Master Captain. To the eye, she looked as everyone would expect—massive and queenly and cold-faced—but her enemies had grievously injured her during the Wayward War. Her body was only recently reborn, golden flesh and tough bone reconstituted beneath her comatose head. Newly minted nexuses had been implanted, her body swelling in response, linking her mind to the widest possible array of systems and sensors. In narrow terms of schematics, she was the same as she had always been. Yet despite her very narrow survival—indeed, because she was fortunate to be alive at all—she had been changed. Transformed, even. The Master sat on the traditional black chair, high-backed and thickly varnished, carved from a single piece of polishedkallan teak; but except for a veneer of authority and moral certitude, this was an entirely different person. Reconstituted from the brink of nothingness, she had been reinvented in a thousand ways. And even more important, virtually every one of her Submasters was new to the office, and oftentimes new to the ranks of the captains. Most were human, yes. But not all, and who would have imagined such a thing? A pair of fierce harum-scarums sat on convenient boulders. Dressed in a water suit, a gillbaby stood at mock attention, while a little fef and a Janusian hermaphrodite amiably traded stories of the war. Three decorated members of the AI corps were scattered among the organics, each buried inside a rubbery face and humanoid body. Aliens and machines now wore the mirrored uniforms of captains, each displaying the epaulets of the highest offices—an honor won when they helped defeat the Waywards. But stranger even than their appearance was their mood: In every past meeting, the Master had set the tone and defined the heart of every discussion. Her orders were usually cast beforehand, and sitting on this hilltop was meant to be a tidy dance of ego and pride and enduring traditions. Yet on this bright warm illusion of a day, the reborn Master appeared just a little bit unsure of herself. While her officers talked among themselves, often in nonhuman languages, her vast hands clung to one another, and her new face turned almost transparent, blank eyes gazing off into the distance while a voice that could just be heard above the quiet surf asked nobody in particular—with a distinctly nervous honesty asked nobody in particular—"Where are my first two Chairs?"
"Approaching," one of the new Submasters offered. "Washen took a wrong turn, it seems."
The officer was a Remora named Conrad. Barely human, in other words. The Remoras lived on the ship's hull, their bodies permanently encased in lifesuits woven from hyperfiber. Surrounded by vacuum and raw radiations, they were subjected to endless mutations and odd cancers, but not only did the Remoras accept the damage,they used it. Each mutation was an act of Creation, full of potentials and possibilities. To the good Remora, the body was a ripe and holy vessel meant to be reshaped without end—a perfect canvas on which endless brushstrokes of gaudy paints could be applied at will.
Conrad's single eye looked human, but it rode a muscular stalk, allowing it to pivot as he winked at his associates, joking, "It's not a good sign, having your First Chair lose her way."
The Master stared at him while saying nothing.
"Perhaps," one of the AIs sang out. "Begin without them?"
The golden woman shook her massive head, and from a position of utter weakness, she had to say, "No, we'll wait. We have to wait."
Everything was different now.
THE TWO MISSING officers walked a narrow trail, working their way toward the black point of rocks. Pamir's grin betrayed a rare good humor. He nodded at the security troops standing watch, and with a sly grin, he asked, "What would you guess? If we walked into every house in this city, how many deserters would we trip over?"
Washen remained silent, concentrating on other matters.
"Ten or twelve no-goods," Pamir offered. Then with a genuine laugh, he added, "It's always been easy, vanishing."
"Should we make it more difficult?" she inquired.
Pamir had considerable experience with desertion. A great portion of his life aboard the ship had been spent hiding, in one fashion or another. Only a general amnesty had coaxed him out of his self-imposed exile. Given the chance, he would be the first to admit that his rise to the Second Chair's post was astronomically more unlikely than finding a little criminal making himself drunk inside Washen's childhood kitchen.
"Perhaps disappearing should be more difficult," he offered. Then with a breezy laugh, he added, "If only to cull out the amateurs."
They were still smiling when they reached the crest of the hill. The Master remained sitting while the other high officers stood. Washen offered a smile and a curt nod, saying, "Madam. All. My apologies. Shall we begin?"
The Master bristled silently.
In truth, this had always been Washen's intention. By arriving late, just this once, she would show her colleagues the new order. The Master couldn't complain about her tardiness. Washen and Pamir had saved both her life and her command, and she ruled today only because they had decided to allow her golden round face—that very familiar face—to continue to speak for the Great Ship.
"Welcome," said that face.
Humans nodded, and everyone repeated the word, "Welcome."
Washen, then Pamir occupied the final two chairs, flanking the Master Captain.
"We'll begin with reports," the golden face continued. "Conrad? Please."
The epaulets of the Remora's new rank had been fastened to his hyperfiber shoulders. The single stalked eye stared out through the diamond faceplate, glancing at each of his equally anointed colleagues. Then with a wide, elastic mouth, he described the state of the ship's hull. "It's shit," he assured them. "We took a huge pounding after the lasers and shields went down. We've got some awful craters to patch, and the shields and lasers are barely at half strength. And because our telescopes and other sensors were pounded to dust, we're flying close to blind now. It'll take years to rebuild our eyes, and decades more to patch the craters properly. Except for the monster crater, which could eat up a full century of hard work."
At the height of the war, after the shields and lasers had abruptly failed, a fat comet had collided with theship, and at one-third lightspeed, ice and tar and frigid stone had turned into a bubble of white-hot plasma, those wild energies absorbed by the hull until the hyperfiber had no choice but to melt, forming a temporary lake that splashed outward in a kilometer-high wave.
"We've got a genuine mess," Conrad declared. "The comet struck on top of an old scar. Our biggest scar, as it happens. Where some moon-sized something hit, maybe five billion years ago. Although you know how tough it is to measure anything about hyperfiber. Its age, or when it was damaged. Anyway, my ancestors patched that old crater as fast as humanly possible, with the best grades of hyperfiber available ... and because of our lousy luck, this new blast seems to have made the old damage worse ..."
"Are we risking a breach?" the Master inquired.
"If a Kuiper-class body hit at a greater velocity, at the very worst angle, yes. There's a small but ugly possibility of a hole punched clear through the hull."
But it was a minuscule risk. Through his nexuses, Conrad fed his full report to the others, and for a few moments, he allowed them to ponder his rough estimates and his hand-drawn, surprisingly lovely maps. The new crater was a tiny ring compared to its ancient predecessor, but it overlapped the central blast zone, fractures reaching deep inside the hull, compounding a host of subtle weaknesses made in some ancient, faraway place.
"Of course work could be done faster," Conrad promised. "But Remoras don't have the hands anymore." The war had decimated their ranks, and if anyone had managed to forget, he reminded them now. "It's going to take thousands of years and a lot of babies before we match our old demographics. And maybe a million years before we forget these last few days."
The Master remained silent, angered by his tone but forbidden to say so.
Washen turned to another of the new Submasters."Aasleen," she said. "Perhaps you have something to offer here."
Aasleen had been placed in charge of the entire engineer corps. She was one of the captains who had gone to Marrow, and unlike some, she had remained loyal to the ship. Rising to her feet, she showed the humans a warm smile, gave the harum-scarums a well-received glare, and spoke for a little while about the sorry state of certain engines and the various reactors that supplied power to billions of passengers and crew. Then with a genuine affection, she reminded them, "We are, however, sitting inside a marvel, an ingenious mix of design and craftsmanship. Whoever the Builders were, they created a machine that seems meant to be repaired, refurbished, and when necessary, remodeled. I can have every reactor in full service inside eight months and the engines within eighteen. Then my engineers can start helping the Remoras."
As a rule, Remoras accepted no aid from outsiders. The hull was their realm and their responsibility, and their only home, which was why it was a surprise to hear Conrad mutter, "Any good hand would be a blessing."
Just how badly damaged was the hull?
Silently, with a renewed paranoia, the other Submasters began reexamining the report. And lifting her tail, the little fef happily said, "My species will help. Many hands at the ready!"
The single eye closed, and opened.
"Of course," said the Remora. "And thank you."
Days ago, Washen had met alone with her chief engineer, Conrad, and the fef. This little moment was the outcome of reason and blunt commands delivered during that earlier meeting. The hull was weakened slightly and would remain vulnerable for decades, regardless what was decided today. But the hull was not the point. Washen wanted to build cooperation among these diverse souls and establish what would serve as her personal authority,and she had to achieve both goals while honoring the best of their hoary traditions.
The mood improved, at least a little bit.
With an appreciative nod, Washen invited the Master to speak again.
"Security," said the reborn woman. "I'd like to hear its report now."
One of the harum-scarums held that critical station. His name was Osmium—a massive and utterly imposing biped sitting comfortably on a rough lump of gray-black stone. Speaking loudly through his breathing mouth, he described the ongoing hunt for the last of their enemies and the reestablishment of a trusted security corps, pausing long enough for his eating mouth to consume an odd blond nut pulled from a leather sack set on a long-toed foot. Then with a low, gravelly voice, he announced, "I want the ban on new passengers to hold. And I want the authority to do what is necessary to give that ban a gizzard."
Nothing bothered the Master more than having this particular species sitting in her inner circle. Harum-scarums were a difficult species, prone to violence and simple childish grudges. True, they were instrumental in saving the ship. But they were too fierce, too easily angered, and if anything, too much like the worst elements of human beings. She preferred nearly every other species before them. She could even embrace the idea of AIs joining the ranks of captains. But when her new security chief asked for more authority, the Master felt a keen appreciation. A genuine bond. She and the alien both understood what was important: that for as long as there had been a universe, nothing mattered as much as power.
"But there won't be any new passengers," the other harum-scarum remarked, sharply disagreeing with her colleague. "We are off course. Our ship has suffered civil insurrections and considerable damage, and in a few thousand years, we might leave the galaxy entirely. Unlesshe was an idiot, why would any simple traveler put his precious flesh at risk with us now?"
"Agreed," the Master said.
Washen remained silent.
The Master nearly looked at her First Chair. Then with a visible tightening of her shoulders, she added, "Yet in the same vein, I think we should loosen our restrictions on emigrants. If a passenger wishes to leave us, and if we can come to an agreeable financial resolution, then perhaps a critical exception or two might be allowed."
Pamir leaned forward.
"Madam," he said, that single word dripping with an unusual respect. Then in the next breath, he explained, "Yesterday, I took a census of both passengers and crew—by an assortment of means, I counted everyone. We have more than a hundred billion souls on board. Depending on your definition of sentience, there might be many more than a hundred billion." The heavy face nodded, eyes squinting. "I counted minds with my census, and I tried to ascertain the general moods of those minds—"
"Measured how?" the Master inquired.
"Sloppily," he admitted. "I commissioned three different polls by three different species. I charted consumer interest in various escape entertainments and psychoactive drugs, plus the foot traffic in mating parlors. But most important, I asked for opinions. I prepared a holo of myself, and in the course of an hour, I interviewed nearly a million residents. And each of these studies came to the same ugly conclusion. We've got a lot of scared and angry souls, and most of our hundred billion would leap off the ship tomorrow. Or today. Although they would have preferred to have left years ago ... before anybody ever heard about Marrow or the damned Waywards ..."
There was a brief, tense pause.
Then one of the AIs spoke, reminding everyone, "But we lack the starships." Behind the rubbery face lay a tinyconsciousness—a quantum-computing mind smaller than the tip of a finger—and with that day's face, it gave precise figures about the starships on hand and their limited capacities. Machine souls were the tiniest passengers, but even if they were packed like so much mindless sand, not even their ranks would be able safely to escape.
"Thank you," the Master interrupted. "We don't have enough lifeboats. We're aware of that hard fact, and thank you."
Had it said something wrong? No, it couldn't find any factual errors. And none of the other Submasters were offering new information either. The AI threw back its false shoulders, and with a little too much humanity, it began to pout.
"Some of us have already escaped," Pamir continued. "After the war and our dive past the old star ... when it looked as if the ship was going to collide with the black hole ... there was a small exodus. By my count, we're missing two streakships and thirteen slow taxis—maybe fifty thousand passengers in all—plus another eleven or twelve or thirteen hundred souls riding inside emergency blisters." Blisters were sacks of hyperfiber launched from the open hull. Possessing only alarm beacons and minimal recycke systems, they relied on their initial trajectory and the benevolence of others. "The blister cowards are screwed," Pamir reported. "We're crossing an empty stretch of space, in terms of friendly ports. If they could have fled before we changed course, they might have been all right. In another hundred years or so, we would have entered a thickly settled region. But most of those poor bastards left with some variation on our present trajectory. The wrong trajectory." Streakships could twist their vectors, and with patience, even a slow taxi could eventually make it to someplace important. "But there aren't fifty suns in the likely sweep path," he continued. "M-class dwarfs, mostly. We know of six worlds with technological life. Four terraformed, two native-born. Maybe some have the resources to reach out and grab afew blisters. Maybe. But the prospect of applying a major fraction of their economy to save a motley collection of refugees ... well, I know about luck and a little something about kindness, and there isn't enough of either to save more than none of those crazy shits ..."
Pamir fell silent, leaning forward in his chair. The sturdy wood creaked as the back legs lifted off the bare rock. Then with a quiet but massive urgency, he told his audience, "We need every last one of the remaining starships. Seventeen thousand-plus sitting in berths inside our ports, as my good colleague has reminded us. And as soon as it's practical, we should build more ships. Faster, bigger, and better ships, if that's possible. And we should never allow anyone to leave, for any sum—unless we can guarantee that the vessel eventually returns to us. Bearing critical cargo, if possible." He shook his homely face, reminding them, "We've managed an ugly eighty-degree turn around the red giant and black hole, and now we're charging into districts we do not know. That we never bothered to care about. In not too many centuries—if we cannot or will not return to our old course—we'll cross into intergalactic space. Few suns, the occasional world, and next to no civilizations out there to help us." His eyes narrowed, and with a shaman's keen intensity, he said, "Don't ask me why. I don't know why. But I've got this feeling, this sense—"
"That we need every starship," the Master offered.
"In part," Pamir replied. "But I was thinking more about the passengers. Some of them, or all of them ... we're going to be glad that we've got so many of them, before this mess is over ..."
EACH SUBMASTER WAS free to speak his mind, and most did, and votes were cast while the three supreme officers made the final choices. By the time the subject was exhausted, the day was done. The illusory sun was touching the sea's far shores, and the night birds were flying, and two critical decisions had been locked into the ship'scodes: a nearly total ban on emigration, plus the conscription of every private vessel capable of long-distance travel. To entities accustomed to great spans of changeless time, this had been a very busy day. Gazing out at the sun with both of her/his faces, the Janusian asked, "What follows now? After these next few suns, what waits?"
There was the obvious answer. Submasters and captains and even many of the passengers understood what lay across the ship's path. But the Janusian was asking larger, more complex questions. "What follows?" was an opening to predict the future. "What waits?" was a plea for someone, anyone, to define those things that were inevitable.
Washen triggered one of her nexuses, and a chart appeared before them. The Great Ship was a carefully defined point falling through a mist of little suns. The suns and their various worlds had been mapped, while the sunless worlds between and the occasional primordial black hole wore navigational labels. The starry mist was relatively brief, barely seventy light-years thick, and beyond those suns stood the smooth, vast, and perfectly black face of a nebula. The nebula was a conglomerate of cold gases and lazy dust, ice particles and perhaps a few half-born suns. Before the Waywards, the occasional brief survey had peered inside that deep frigid blackness, finding traces of odd heat and soft radio voices—the hallmarks of high technologies busily at work.
Washen avoided the obvious. If the ship fired its working engines tonight and for the next two hundred years, their course wouldn't change any important distance. They would pass by every sun at too great a distance for a useful flyby, the nebula would eventually engulf them all the same, and then with their fuel nearly exhausted, they would have no choice but to plunge through the black dusts and opaque gases. The wiser course would be greedily to hold on to their hydrogen oceans while repairing their shields and lasers, and always make plans, then make more plans, and finally scrap all of those wise contingencies,inviting new ideas to push aside the obvious and useless.
Washen said none of that.
For a long moment, she made no sound. Rising to her feet—an imposing woman who had always had more grace than strength; the consummate captain wearing a mirrored uniform seemingly designed for her before anyone else—she looked out across the open water, thinking back to a childhood spent on this little shore. Some feeble half memory nipped at her. For the second time today, she was thinking about her parents. The three of them sitting together, talking. About what? She still couldn't recall the subject, and probably never would. Let it go, she kept telling herself. Then with her face and stance and wise silence, she looked at each of her companions, a genuine fondness preceding the smile that came before she said, "Whatever happens."
Then just as suddenly, she paused.
Even the aliens and the swift-minded machines felt curious, waiting patiently for the next word or little gesture.
"Whatever happens," she repeated. Then with a nod, she said, "It will be an endless surprise, I think. And hopefully, a sweet surprise."
A warm reassurance rippled through her audience.
Everyone who was sitting began to rise.
Except for the Master Captain. She remained planted upon her chair, her golden face taking a quick measure of her new Submasters. A figurehead now, she still managed a massive dignity, and with a whisper of her old self, she cleared her throat, demanding the full attention of others.
"A proposal," she said. "May I?"
Washen immediately turned toward her. "Yes, madam."
The Master climbed out of her black chair, her feet apart to hold her body steady. "Each of us should imagine ten distinct futures," she suggested, her bulk dwarfing even the harum-scarums. "Ten possible and awful futures, well-defined and thoroughly simulated. Then as anexercise, we will trade our futures, and before the next Master's banquet, each of us needs to save our ship ten times."
With an appreciative nod, Washen said, "Yes, madam."
"As an exercise," the ancient woman repeated. "That's all I intend here."
Then with a charm that hadn't been seen in aeons, the Master admitted, "I know what I am now. Full well, I understand my new role here. And while I don't enjoy it, I most definitely deserve it." The ageless face grinned, sadness mixed with an almost childlike resignation. "But please, if you will, Washen? Would you allow me the tiny honor of declaring this meeting complete ... please ...? "
In his dreams, he was always the walker. He would find himself strolling past odd shops and entertainment emporiums, cafes and apartments, the avenue decorated with alien skies and the occasional exotic tree or sessile animal planted in solitary steel pots, or sometimes many of them planted in elaborate groves designed to seem just a little wild and pleasantly mysterious. At the border of every district was an alien statue carved from marble or light, and with a human voice it would say, "Careful, sir. You are about to enter a different atmosphere." In life, the demon doors produced a slight and mostly ignorable tingle. But in his dreams the doors were heavy cold curtains clinging like a statically charged cloth to his restless body. He had to push his way through the invisible barrier, and suddenly the air was thick and oven-hot, or it was mountaintop thin and cold enough to blister his lungs. Yet he wouldn't stop, and somewhere in the next few hundred steps his dream body would adapt to the newenvironment. Then came more shops to visit and new aliens to watch—by the hundreds and by the thousands, the endless avenue jammed with their vast and tiny and always odd and wondrous bodies—and in the midst of that chaos, he would spy friends sitting around a little table, eating exotic fare while chatting amiably. In every dream, he approached the table and smiled. He could feel his face grinning while his heart beat harder. He would hear his own voice above the mayhem, saying to these dear lost friends, "Hello."
A moment would pass, then another. Finally, one of the friends would look up—usually a human friend, oftentimes a former lover—and what might or might not be a smile would precede the mouthing of his name.
During his long tenure aboard the ship, the man had possessed half a hundred identities. Or more to the point, those identities had possessed him. There was no guessing which name would be used now. People who never knew him by one name would use it regardless, and to his great distress, he realized that everyone at the table could peer inside his soul, cutting loose every secret. He felt transparent. He was simple and obvious and quite helpless. O'Layle was his final name, but none of his dream-friends ever used that appellation. Even his most recent lover would refer to him as someone officially dead and lost, then with a warm hand, she might touch him on the back of his suddenly cool hand, the smile falling into an easy scorn as a slow loveless voice asked, "Don't you feel foolish now?"
Very foolish, yes.
"We survived," she would proclaim. "It looked bad for a little while, but we managed to avoid obliteration. We clipped the fringes of that dying sun, but that's all. A touch. Little more than a kiss, really. And then we missed the black hole entirely, and now everyone is safe and happy again."
Good for you, he would say.
"What about you?" His final lover was little older thana child, and she was pretty in a thousand ways, and as happens with youngsters, she had been intrigued by his life of petty crime and low-grade corruption. "Are you still alive?"
I am very much alive, O'Layle would claim.
"Not to me." Then with a casual scorn, she would laugh. Her hand would retreat, and her beautiful eyes—bright cold white eyes set in a dark brown face—would turn away from him. To other friends and ex-lovers, she would say, "This man is very much dead."
"The fool," another would spit.
"Idiot coward," a third might add with conviction.
Then everybody sitting around the table stopped hearing O'Layle. He would sit among them, speaking to them, explaining his good smart reasons for everything. And then he would scream at them, fiercely defending what he had done. The Waywards had appeared suddenly, and just as quickly, they were defeated and gone. But the Great Ship had been pushed toward catastrophe, with everybody sure to be killed when the monster trapped at Marrow's core was set free.
Every rational soul had panicked. O'Layle reminded his companions that each of them had imagined the worst, and in those next minutes and hours, the worst had seemed inevitable. Everybody here had done their frantic best to escape, but with the fighting and damage, and the general martial law, the rest of them had failed. O'Layle was the lucky exception. Though it wasn't exactly luck that bought him passage to the open hull, nor did good fortune give him that little escape blister and enough momentum to carry him off into the deep and cold and relatively safe depths of space.
With a sadness that was mostly genuine, he would tell his ex-lover, "I couldn't take you with me."
She would pretend not to hear him.
"How could I take you? The blister's tiny, and your mass would have doomed both of us."
In his dreams, his arguments sounded logical and noble,and he was always surprised when the sweet young face glanced in his direction, those white eyes growing hot as a matching voice spat, "Fucking coward." Then she would stand abruptly, and everybody at the little table would rise. Each might glance at O'Layle, using expressions laced with scorn and hatred and sometimes a pained pity. Then they would leave him sitting alone, and he would hear his own sorry voice explaining why he was the most reasonable and practical creature in the galaxy.
"Just to do what I did ... it took every resource I had! The contacts. The ridiculous bribes. I had to slip past the security patrols, get myself up to the launch site. Most were broke before they even got on top of the hull. And even then, there were more of us than there were blisters, and the crew in charge of the whole operation just laughed at us, saying, 'Guess what? There's going to be a surcharge.' Which I'd halfway expected, and I was ready. Faster than others, I could transfer the last of my money into ghost accounts, and what did I get for a lifetime's savings? A tiny, tiny blister. A hyperfiber ball barely two meters in radius. With an iron collar around its waist, and me strapped inside it, and I was plopped down on one of the only magrails to survive the war. We were on the backside of the ship. Did I mention that? On the ship's stern, with the red sun already behind us, the black hole still over the horizon. They set my blister on the little rail, and I draped an old crush-web over my body, and they started to accelerate me. A huge, bone-snapping acceleration. 'We'll send you toward a nice living world,' the voice in my head promised. Then I died. I became a comatose pulp lying beneath the crush-web, and unknown to me, there was a power surge. A hiccup. I found out later. I wasn't even a thousand kilometers into the launch cycle, and there was a sudden disruption ... and you well know, you can't do anything wrong at the beginning of an engineless voyage, or your chances of getting to your destination fall away to nothing ...
"I would have aborted, if I'd known. But by then I was a wet smear and a blind brain held together by the web.
"Then after another seven thousand kilometers, I roared out into the shadow of the ship, and my blister was released from the rail, my iron collar fell off, and my body slowly, slowly began putting itself back together. I've never been so dead before. It took days just to remake my bones, my organs and skin. When I was conscious again, the first thing I did was look out through my little diamond windows. The black hole had fallen behind, and I was free. I watched the ship. I watched you. Honestly, I hoped you would survive. Why wouldn't I want the best for all of you? My thousands of good friends, and of course I was thrilled when you changed course just enough ... for days and days, I watched you fighting ... a gray ball getting smaller and duller ... slower than me by a long ways and with a slightly different trajectory ... and then I couldn't see you anymore, except inside my head ..."
The dream always ended there. O'Layle would stop explaining himself, and as he glanced up and down the avenue, he discovered that he was alone. Not only had his friends vanished, but the multitudes of strangers had evaporated, too, and the air had turned stale and dark, and there were no more shops or little forests to enjoy. The ship was as empty as the moment it was discovered, a palpable loneliness hanging over the vastness, making it almost easy for the man to open his eyes, looking at the tiny but comforting space that was his world.
O'LAYLE'S WORLD WAS a blister of moderate-grade hyperfiber punctuated with little diamond eyes—a nearly perfect sphere enclosing layers of recycling equipment and automated beacons, finger reactors and streamlined libraries, plus a minimal navigational system and a single holo projector. Damp air lay at the hollow center, and a naked human body was the only substantial inhabitant. O'Layle's minimal diet had triggered an assortment of lifeboat genes, reducing his metabolism to the bare minimum. One little meal every other day was ample, and hecleared his bowels less than once each week. Sleep filled sixteen hours out of his typical day, and his waking time was spent reading projected books and speaking quietly to himself, or he did nothing but contemplate his circumstances and the elaborate path that had brought him to this place. Then on those rare moments when he could coax himself into a halfway buoyant mood, O'Layle would use the diamond eyes, peering out into the increasingly black universe.
More than anything, O'Layle was amazed how quickly he had adapted to his new and extremely tiny life. Before this, he was a comfortable if not quite wealthy human, and if every day had seemed like every other, at least the mornings brought the possibility of doing one or two or a thousand entirely new things. The ship was a wonderland of diversions and raw surprise. Sitting in any public avenue, he could watch inhabitants from a fat fraction of the galaxy as they strolled past. Or rolled past. Or glided overhead on long, powerful wings. And if he wished, he could spend the day exploring the Great Ship. There were endless caverns laced with rivers and deep cold lakes, and dozens of genuine oceans, and because there were so many passengers busily making homes for themselves, the caverns and big rooms were changing every few centuries. Every wandering would feel new and strange, and memorable, and why hadn't he done more of that when he had the chance?
Because there was always time, he had believed. Tomorrow was an endless parade, and he was comfortable where he sat, and so why go to so much sweaty trouble today?
It was a mistaken assumption, yes.
A long life thoroughly wasted.
But still, O'Layle couldn't remain angry or forlorn. Against so many odds, the ship had survived, and he was alive, too. Both of them had won, at least temporarily. And wasn't there a small but genuine chance of being saved? Perhaps he might even one day return to the shipand rejoin his circle of friends and lovers—provided that enough time had passed for them to forgive his abandonment, or at least forget their own rage. Then he would have a spectacular story to share. How many souls had ever traveled between the stars alone, inside a tiny cocoon of hyperfiber, with no companion but their own tiny soul?
The chance of that future—survival followed by redemption—was fantastically small. On the brink of impossible, frankly. His tiny lifeboat had no engines, thus there was no way to adjust its course. Its launch had been hurried and flawed, and the navigational equipment was consistent in its expert pessimism. O'Layle would miss his target sun by almost a tenth of a light-year, which was a considerable distance. Someone would have to be listening for his beacon, and that same someone would need to launch their own ship at a fantastic velocity. His lifeboat lacked engines, but it had the momentum of the Great Ship plus the punch that had been delivered by the electromagnetic rail. He was streaking through the heavens at nearly half lightspeed, which would be a challenge for the best star-travelers to match. Even if he had remained on course, few could have caught him, and fewer still would have bothered. His passage through any solar system would take less than a long morning, unless it ended with his fiery impact against someone's suddenly boiling sea.
O'Layle originally wished for an impact course. That would make him a threat, which would force the natives to deal with his presence, in one fashion or another. But eventually he settled on a less aggressive and possibly more compelling scheme: In his first twenty months on board the blister, he had reworked the beacon's endless message. What began as a general plea for help delivered in a thousand popular languages was now an elaborate set of promises and lies, implications and subtle miscues.
"I am a very important person," he told the stars.
In honest terms, he described the ship that he hadabandoned—its majesty and great age and the powerful display of technologies aboard—and then with a rugged assurance, he painted himself as being one of the very best experts about the Great Ship. "I have explored it in full," he lied. "And I was a member of the crew for the last long while. I am a qualified engineer possessing a robust working knowledge of the ship's enormous engines and its reactors and the various means by which the highest-grade hyperfiber can be produced in planetary quantities."
His fable gained a backbone through the use of little details—the harvest of a long life spent sharing tables with wiser, more informed souls. In particular, he borrowed from a human named Perri—an expert explorer who was said to know the ship better than even the captains knew it, and who had walked or floated or flown through as much as one or two percent of the ship's considerable volume.
"It is a wonder, my ship," he proclaimed.
"I want to show it to you," he told the silent stars. "Come help me, and I will give you everything that I know about this ancient wonder."
Would that be enough bait?
For another few months, he thought so. But then the doubts began to gnaw, and after some considerable reflection, he decided to build on those rather pedestrian lies. During his last few hours on board the ship—in the midst of the panic and the desperate fight to save it—a wild rumor had found its way to O'Layle. By then, everybody knew about the secret world buried at the center of the ship, but inside Marrow were more secrets. Greater mysteries, claimed the fresh rumors. In fact, according to a onetime lover who had recently spoken with Perri, there was the distinct and momentous possibility that the Great Ship had been built to entomb something from the very beginnings of the universe. Something tiny, but powerful. Something with a soul and intentions and the capacity to reach out of its abode, influencing the thoughts of the lesser souls within its ethereal grasp.
O'Layle borrowed parts of that very odd rumor.
But he decided to downplay the entity's malicious nature. His unseen audience needed to feel curiosity, not fear.
For more years, the beacon's central message was about the ancient and powerful soul riding aboard the ship—the ship he knew so well. And that was why O'Layle could entertain a genuine optimism about his prospects. Alien or human, every sentient organism was inflicted by a measure of greed. His long, comfortable life had been spent using that innate quality, slaking his own considerable thirsts. Perhaps the creatures living on the first world wouldn't respond, but there would be plenty of opportunities in the future. He would spend another few thousand years inside the galaxy or on its fringes ... there was no way to know how many worlds would hear his pleas and promises ... and surely someone would launch an armada to save the little man who could deliver the Great Ship to them ... !
How likely this was, O'Layle couldn't guess.
But the plan gave him hope, and hope became a habit, and the habit brought a kind of rugged happiness that made it possible for him to open the diamond eyes on an irregular basis, inviting the glories of the universe to trickle down inside his very tiny world.
In darkness, O'Layle saw nothing but stars and the blackness between. Relativistic velocities made the retreating suns turn redder than normal, and there was some distortion. But in most ways, he saw nothing too strange and nothing in any great hurry to change. Before him were few visible suns, blued by their approaching velocity, and beyond lay the deep black mass of dust and gas that blocked an increasingly huge portion of the sky. Pass through the nebula, and there were some thick bands of stars. His navigational charts promised as much. If he could just pierce the cloud of dust and gas without suffering a significant collision, then everything seemed possible.
"I am important," he told the universe. "And I know about things far more important than me."
The beacon's tiny voice sang and sang.
And then came the day when O'Layle awoke from his usual dreams, and after a tidy little meal of cold, heavily sugared fats, and after a sip of distilled water and squirt of urine into the appropriate orifice, he told the diamond eyes to open.
"Show me the universe," he whispered.
But instead of the stars and the nebula, he saw something else entirely, and for a very long while he just drifted in the middle of his tiny world, startled and puzzled, laughing in that nervous, almost joyous, way people use when they feel as if they should be scared, but really, they can't quite tell why.
Washen was failing, spinning wildly downward into a perfect blackness, silent and boundless. This was a dream, and an old dream at that, and after a few moments of acceleration, she tried to yank herself awake. But even then, she felt her body plunging into the coal black depths. Long legs kicked while arms lashed out, reflexively clutching for handholds. Then the sheets took hold of her, reassuring with their firm embrace and instant warmth, and possessed by that narrow clarity that comes after sleep, Washen realized that she was lying in her own bed, safe as safe could be, and that she was far from being alone.
But if Pamir noticed her unseemly little episode, he had the good manners or the sturdy indifference to pretend sleep. He lay in his customary pose—naked on top of the sheets, on his back, hands tucked firmly behind his head. Something in that simple posture betrayed an innatedefiance, or perhaps a brute indifference. Any sort of enemy might lurk in this darkness, but he proclaimed with his body that he truly did not care.
Quietly, Washen gasped.
Wishing for any distraction, she triggered a service nexus, and her apartment delivered to her bedside a chilled glass of water and another of pawpaw juice.
The bedroom was a substantial chamber, the floor tiled with slowly changing views teased out of the Mandelbrot fractal, the surrounding black brick wall rising toward a high domelike ceiling. Dimly illuminated, the ceiling displayed a present-time view delivered from the ship's armored prow. Blue-shifted light and the relentless shimmer of the shields had been carefully scrubbed away. What remained was a ring of stars that lay at the bottom of the ceiling—the eye able to peer hundreds of light-years through the heart of the Milky Way. But directly above were far fewer suns, most of them rather small and all of them close by, and beyond those points of light was a different species of blackness, deeper and much stronger, possessing a palpable mass and a distinct chill that any experienced starfarer would recognize at a glance.
Washen did more than glance at the nebula.
Carefully, she sat up. She allowed her sheets to wick away her perspiration, and her pillows built a little chair against which she could sit and sip at her cold water, then the juice.
Enormous telescopes had once stood near the ship's prow—great fields of eyes probing the space to come. But when the Remoras fought the Waywards, they needed a trap. They had lured their enemies out onto the ship's leading face, then destroyed the lasers and shields, bringing down a rain of dust and comets that obliterated an entire army, plus every mirror and each of the hundred-kilometer dishes. The entire system had to be built again from nothing, including support facilities and key upgrades. This was eighteen years after the war's end, andonly now were enough eyes and ears ready to give the First Chair an honest view of what was to come.
Through her nexuses, Washen changed the sky.
The nebula was black for two basic reasons. Enough gas and cold dust were spread out before them to build almost a thousand suns. And even more important, barely a handful of dwarf suns were scattered across a roughly spherical volume some twelve light-years in diameter. Without illumination from within, the cloud was blacker and even colder than it might normally be. If the nebula followed the typical history of such structures, it was on the brink of collapsing into dozens and perhaps hundreds of high-density regions, forming nurseries where stars and brown dwarfs coalesced over the next million little years, followed by an array of new worlds that happily danced with one another and battered each other, violence and mayhem carving new solar systems out of the rawest beginnings.
Centuries ago, when the ship was still firmly on course and untroubled, cursory studies had been made. An officious name was given to the nebula—numbers and letters defining its position, apparent size, and year of discovery. Charts of mass distributions and temperature gradients, plus models projecting a range of likely futures, were accumulated and routinely stored in ship libraries. But the nebula was neither an obstacle nor a likely ground for recruiting new passengers. The occasional hint of life and high technologies might have intrigued some experts, but not the captains. On at least five occasions, the Master had diminished the priority of the work, arguing with conviction and not a small amount of good sense, "We're approaching a rendezvous with a black hole. That's where our focus belongs. Not in some little storm cloud sitting on someone else's horizon."
Even now, Washen couldn't fault the Master's decision. How could a rational mind act on the very remote possibility that this place had importance? Black holes were dangerous for many compelling reasons, particularlythose massive black holes living beside aging suns. How could any decent mind dedicated to the service of the Great Ship imagine things going horribly wrong, and going wrong in the precise pattern necessary to put this ship where it was today, on a collision course with a star nursery?
"Infrared," Washen ordered, specifying frequencies and the resolution.
What looked like a normal dark nebula remained normal by most measures. The bulk of its enormous mass was really quite thin and very cold, composed of molecular hydrogen and helium gas, with tiny flecks of hydrocarbons and silicates and the occasional odd buckyball or two. On average, the cloud was a superior vacuum, and if not harmless, at least endurable. But inside it were pinpricks of heat. The largest heat sources were as big as worlds, and the smallest to date seemed no larger than a major comet. From the radiant signature, it was obvious that the bodies wore elaborate insulation—clinging to precious heat, or perhaps supplying some measure of camouflage. Scattered between the warm bodies were much smaller, much brighter heat sources, each betraying the presence of a fusion engine. Those ships were neither particularly large nor powerful. But if those warm bodies were settlements—little worlds unto themselves—then the unremarkable ships were exactly what one would expect from local trade and slow, patient migrations.
Against the vastness of the Milky Way, the nebula was a fleck of blackness. But when you summed up the volume of warm living space that might exist inside a volume some twelve light-years on a side ... well, the numbers were quite simply staggering ...
"Microwave," she ordered, picking her frequencies moment by moment.
When water molecules radiated energy, they had a specific signature, and inside every normal nebula was an abundance of water. But not in this case, it seemed. Barely a third of the expected moisture was visible, andits distribution was highly unusual. When the Submasters examined the recent maps, Aasleen saw the obvious. "Like rivers in space," she observed. "Look. Ice particles are being collected and shepherded into specific regions. Here, and here, and this knot over here." The woman had giggled out loud, like a child. "Dopplers give us velocities. Look! The rivers are flowing toward the interior, but not toward the same exact points."
"How is this done?" the Master had inquired.
"Carefully," Aasleen reported, admiration mixed with the humor in her voice. "Whoever's doing this, they're not being aggressive or energy-intensive. Otherwise, we'd see more heat and other big telltales."
Washen had imagined trillions of comets, each the size of a closed fist. "Microchines," she suggested. "Landing on each little world, and then building a tiny mass-launcher—"
"Probably not," Aasleen interrupted. "There'd be too much dust flying, and pumping energy into each ball of ice would make a second mess."
"What then?" the Master pressed.
But the chief engineer needed another few moments to make a string of enormous, exacting calculations. Then with her imagination and a long life rich with experience, she devised a simple answer.
"Microchines, yes," she said with a genuine appreciation. "But what they do ... they sit on the surface and generate an electrical charge. Give your pebble or dust mote a robust negative charge, say. Then whoever oversees this business ... this construction project ... well, they use static charges to push and pull their little bricks wherever they want them. Which is here and here, and these places over there. Do you see? Estimate the volume of these presumed worlds, and compare that figure to the water that seems to be missing from the nebula. They're not equal, but they're close to equal. And if you assume that they've been gathering up all the dust and asteroids and whatever else is available—"
"How long?" Pamir had asked. "The project to date ... from what you can tell ... how much time has it taken?"
"At this morning's rate?" Aasleen used a fingertip, drawing figures on the dark brown palm of her hand. "Ten or fifteen or maybe twenty million years."
But nebulas didn't persist that long. Either they collapsed into new stars, or nearby supernovae blew them apart.
"Maybe our neighbors worked faster in the past," Aasleen conceded. Then she nodded, adding, "What we're seeing ... it could be the tail of a long building project. With these tools and tricks, and the kinds of populations that we can envision ..." A look of delighted awe came into her face, eyes shining while a low voice said, "My goodness. You know, now that I think about it, this might not be a natural nebula."
That earned a sturdy silence from the others.
Finally, Washen asked, "What do you mean? Their engineers have stabilized it somehow? Staving off its collapse, maybe?"
"Maybe," Aasleen replied.
Then with a nervous laugh, she added, "Or maybe I mean something considerably bigger than that."
"NEUTRINOS," WASHEN TOLD her nexus.
Her ceiling erupted into a fierce white glare. What had been a dark cloud was suddenly a kind of ghostly fire—a great if extremely diffuse rain of subatomic particles emerging at the speed of light, particles born inside the fusion furnaces keeping millions of sunless worlds as warm as bathwater.
"Dim it," she ordered.
But Pamir had felt the light, and with a low grunt, he rolled onto his side, facing her now, one broad arm tossed over his tightly closed eyes.
In the false light of the neutrinos, Washen looked at her lover. He was a huge man blessed with a naturally powerful build, and even in sleep, he carried himselfwith a tangible indifference to things that most people would consider important. Rank meant little to him. Making him assume the post as Second Chair had proved difficult, and if Pamir enjoyed his newfound authority, he was careful not to show it. A modern person could affect his appearance in nearly infinite ways, and this man wore his own peculiar homeliness without self-doubt or special importance. Yet in every circumstance, he believed in work and serving the ship, and there wasn't one captain in the ranks who would risk as much as Pamir to care for the passengers, defending them as well as the enormous crew.
With a wet gasp, the man began to dream. Under his lids, the eyes jumped back and forth, and with a shameless ease, his penis began to stiffen, the vivid dark blood pooling inside a structure older than the species. That thought drew Washen into thinking about people in general: Why was it that with all the tools and tricks at their disposal, people still looked like people? Artificial genetics and bioceramic materials were discovered ages ago, yet in most cases, people had applied these extraordinary technologies to enhance their traditional bodies. They made themselves immortal, and also, immortally human. And it wasn't just human beings. Harum-scarums were a considerably older species, scattered across thousands of light-years and a wide array of worlds, yet they cherished their ancient appearance and most of their instincts. The majority of the passengers were the same. Reach a certain point in development, and the sentient species ceased to change. When you could look and act in any fashion, you tended to gravitate toward familiar bodies and old manners, leading lives that you willingly let carry you for the next million years.
Washen reached for the ancient penis. But her hand stopped short, and with a whisper, she said, "Radio. Laser light. Any artificial signal."
The ceiling took on a new appearance.
As expected, the nebula was riddled with modulatednoise. Tightly focused beams and weak lasers jumped from little world to little world. What they could see from the Great Ship was the occasional trace of leakage—millions of brief examples collected over the last several years. And what they had learned from this vast puddle of data was nothing. Or nearly nothing. What lived inside the nebula used deeply encrypted tools for every kind of chatter, and that secrecy, taken alone, might be a clue. A harbinger.
The nebula had its official designation. But every species seemed to have its own name for that dark and cold and rather mysterious smear. Some passengers used any of twenty common labels: The Cloud. The Deep Dark. The Dust. And on a few occasions, The Face of God. But a name employed by the Master Captain, almost in passing, had been accepted by the captains, and as the years passed, it was gaining favor elsewhere.
"When I was a very young girl," the Master said at her most recent banquet, "there was an artifact in the possession of one of my relatives." Standing before a silent and increasingly alien audience, she had recounted an age very close to the beginnings of human civilization. "My grandfather had this antique sitting on his desk. It was a very simple container. Heavy glass upon which sat a silver lid. A fancy object, perhaps, but not ornate. A couple centuries old already, which made it seem deliciously ancient to me. Inside that little basin was an intense and thick black ink derived from the excretions of a certain sea creature. A beautiful animal with a close resemblance to several of our honored passengers." The woman had grinned at some portion of that memory, or perhaps just to show her audience that she could feel sentimental about her long-ago childhood. "What humans would do, back in ancient times ... they would grip a metal-and-wood tool in one hand, dipping it into the ink, and with that they would compose some of the oldest, finest works in our literature ...
"That artifact was called an inkwell," she continued."A little bath of potential from which great and hopeful things were born ..."
AGAIN PAMIR ROLLED onto his back, his dream ending.
For a while, with a haphazard discipline, Washen attempted to fall back to sleep. The inkwell and its neighboring suns lay overhead again, looking much as a motionless human eye would see them, and she soon reached that point where thousands of years of habit and every inborn reflex were coaxing her back into a light, dream-stirred sleep. But it didn't last. She was awake again, suddenly and utterly, her mind tripping over another one of her endless obsessions.
Silently, she sat up in bed.
Without an audible sound, she told her nexuses what she wanted. Immersion eyes were all-spectrum cameras tied into AI overseers that could never blink. Nearly twenty thousand kilometers beneath her apartment was a single immersion eye. Between it and her was a sealed, secured channel. No one but Washen could connect with it on a whim, and perhaps no one else could care half as much. In an instant, she and her bed as well as her blissfully ignorant partner were stuck to a surface of high-grade hyperfiber, and above her was an entire world held suspended from the chamber walls by an ethereal array of mighty buttresses.
The war had left it badly mauled, but alive. Eighteen years later, the planet's atmosphere was still choked with dust and ash, and the vacuum above was gradually growing dark, some kind of night approaching within the next couple centuries. Directly beneath the tiny eye, where the once great Hazz City had stood, an ocean of molten iron and nickel still bubbled and spat at the sky. But there was solid ground elsewhere, and liquid water. The immersion eye could see the telltale signs of photosynthesis and oxygen metabolisms. Waywards had survived, in some battered fashion, alongwith the native life-forms, enduring and strange in their own right. More than Washen could let on, she missed that odd world. She had lived there for better than forty-six centuries. Those people were her own desperate grandchildren, and she was their absent grandmother who had set her allegiance to the surrounding ship, leaving them to weather these horrors by themselves.
Washen was still crying when Pamir woke.
The whisper from a nexus told him it was morning. The urging of ancient biorhythms made him ready for his day. His grunt was soft and disgusted. Looking up, he said, "If you want, I could cut out your heart. Would that make you feel better?"
"You might as well."
"The Waywards picked that war with us," he reminded her. Then with a glowering expression, he added, "Besides, this is where you belong. For the moment, you can't help anyone as much as you can help us."
"You're nice to say that."
"I'm never nice," he countered, laughing.
"You're a mean old shit," she said.
"Except you aren't," she remarked. Then with her own warning glower, she said, "We each have our weakness. Marrow is mine. And yours is you."
"I'm not as tough as I pretend. Is that it?"
With a thought, she severed the com-line. Now there was nothing above them but a dome of polished green olivine stained over the last thousand centuries, the dampness of Washen's breath doing most of the damage.
With an easy fondness, she took hold of Pamir's morning erection.
"When a species gains total control over its body and its mortality," she began, "it typically improves its sexual organs. But it never, ever edits them out. Hearts, on occasion. Limbs, sometimes. But never has a man been born—"
"Who willingly surrenders his prick," Pamir said, finishing the old truism:
"Ever wonder why?"
"Never," he replied with a perfect honesty. "Not once, ever. Never. And no."
Excerpts from tight-beam broadcast received 119.55 post-Wwar—Origin K-class sun 8.2 light-years from the Inkwell—Apparent source Streakship Calamus, Acting Captain Lorkin (Former rank: Tech-agent, Class-C)—Security status of transmission: For the perusal of .Master, Submasters only; zero exceptions.
AN OPEN LETTER:
Until this evening, we honestly did not know your fate, Good Master. None of us could imagine anything but the worst for you and our good colleagues, what with the Wayward invasion and subsequent conquest of the ship, and the suicidal fight between Waywards and Remoras ... a battle that threatened every vessel berthed at Port Denali, I should add ... and then our subsequent maneuvers around the dying and dead suns, placing considerable resources and valuable property in mortal danger ... Naturally my crew and I had no choice but to save whatever lives and property we could. Thankfully, we were able to pluck nearly one hundred passengers from the mayhem, along with myself and 311 handpicked crew members ... at a time when the reconquest of the ship seemed quite impossible, I should add ... and naturally, afterward, we were thrilled to see the Great Ship survive both its close approach with the red giant and its dance with the black hole ... but until this evening, while conversing with our new friends, the Pak'kin, we never imagined that your forces, Good Master, had actuallywon the war, regaining full control over the helm and all the facilities within our wondrous home ...
Congratulations to you from all on board the Calamus ... !
Captain Lorkin posed for the cameras, accompanied by his officers and current hosts. It was a nighttime image, the rare stars hovering above the distant horizon, only the Inkwell filling the heart of the sky. The humans wore new uniforms grown for this single occasion, the tailoring reminiscent of various military cultures, with tall boots and wide belts on which hung overly ornate sidearms. Lorkin's chest was decorated with colored ribbons and important jewels, implying many selfless actions and examples of intense bravery. He smiled, after a fashion. But his officers seemed less determined about their pleasure. The image captured one of them—a young-faced woman—closely watching the Pak'kin squatting beside her. It was a rock-colored creature, roughly cone-shaped with many legs and thick, short, jointed arms, plus dozens of orifices scattered haphazardly across its body. The officer's expression might be described as disgusted, perhaps even appalled. A single detail in one holo—one image among thousands squirted home to the Great Ship—yet much was implied. The woman did not like her hosts. She was suspicious and perhaps even scared. Indeed, none of the humans could easily hide their constant discomfort, both with the environment and the Pak'kin. To cope with the world's extremely high gravity, they employed an assortment of mechanical braces worn beneath their uniforms. To cope with the dense atmosphere, they had met the aliens on a very high mountaintop. In an apparent bid of friendship, gifts had been exchanged. The humans brought examples of hyperfiber—random scraps of battered ship armor, mostly. The local Pak'kin, knowing next to nothing about their guests, gave a pheromone-lacedoil that was promised to give its wearers access to their particular hive.
Olfactory files attached to this image proved what the expert eye would suspect: The Pak'kin possessed a horrible, choking odor. Also, orbital images and cursory sensor data proved that no portion of the world was habitable by humans. The atmosphere was thick and hot and extraordinarily dry. Cataclysms during the world's formative years had either denied it water or removed the seas it had managed to collect. Old oceans and a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere could have been peeled away by a collision with another world. That would explain the world's substantial mass and how it had avoided runaway greenhouse events: The nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere lacked the heat-retention capacities. Life formed in one of several tiny seas, or perhaps inside a persistent hot spring. With water scarce, the local biosphere evolved as mechanical systems wrapped around tiny aqueous vacuoles where key reactions occurred.
The Pak'kin were hive-born pseudomachines. With poor eyes and spectacular noses, they lived at the bottom of an enormous gravity well. They possessed certain critical technologies, including radios and fusion reactors; but without the urge or muscular capacity to launch large vessels, their presence in space was limited to a few tiny probes.
Return to the tired, scared people. Walking inside the holo, approaching them to the limits of resolution, any observant soul could see the cumulative erosions caused by travel and endless fear. Acting Captain Lorkin was a prime example. He smiled, and for as long as that image exists, he will continue to part his lips and show his teeth to the circling cameras. But he had lost weight since abandoning his post and the Great Ship. Worse still, his flesh and the deep centers of his eyes showed the telltale signs of inadequate nourishment. A significant event had recently stolen away his right leg. It had regenerated, butnot with the usual thoroughness. Even wearing high-gravity braces, Lorkin tilted conspicuously to one side.
Between the scraps of battered hyperfiber and the physical state of the crew, an obvious conclusion presented itself: The Calamus had suffered some kind of near-crippling damage. One or several bolides had struck it, and with inadequate supplies on board and a crew composed of low ensigns and techs untrained for this kind of voyage, the ship may well have been crippled. What's more, the shuttle waiting in the background—the squat, muscular vessel that had brought them to the surface—had been designed for this single flight. Equipment harvested from every onboard shuttle had been lumped together, huge stocks of fuel had been burned, and Lorkin had risked everything to stand on this barren mountaintop, meeting with this new and rather peculiar species.
AN OPEN LETTER (continued):
As I have said, I learned tonight that you survived the terrible war, Master ... I cannot be more pleased, and thankful ...
Our hosts also mentioned broadcasts coming from the Great Ship. Most of the transmissions predate the war, but the last several appear to be narrow-beamed signals meant only for their eyes. (More properly, for their noses. Their language is quite intricate, and because of a lack of expertise on our little ship, plus our limited translators, comprehension has been difficult for both species.) As a friendly gesture, they showed us your most recent broadcast, and we have confirmed their basic conclusions. The Great Ship will pass within a light-year of their world before plunging on into the heart of a dark nebula. You desire information. In exchange for knowledge, you wish to learn everything possible about the nebula's inhabitants. Which is perfectly reasonable, Master. And let me assure you, speaking for my crew and our passengers, each of us wishes to help in every way possible.
But first, let me say this much.
I am responsible for my many mistakes. Everyone aboard the Calamus has made errors of judgment, and all of us are infinitely sorry for our failures. But when you consider the circumstances of our leaving and the simple fact that we have several dozen passengers of quality who are desperate to return to their apartments and old lives ... well, I cannot drop to my knees and cower, Master. I am forced to beg across many light-years, admitting to you that I am weak and sorry; but in all circumstances, Good Master, I have strived to do what is best. A different officer might hold back his knowledge about the nebula. The Inkwell, as you call it. But using what I have learned as a bargaining chip ... well, that would be wrong, and I won't fall for the temptation.
Simply stated, we need help to come home again. Our streakship is empty of fuel and seriously damaged, and the mood on board is less than comfortable. I trust you, Master. Send a mission to retrieve us. And to show my own good intentions and my genuine faith in your kindness, I will tell you all that I have learned about the dark nebula and its citizens.
SHIP'S LOG (excerpts, presumably edited):
A beautiful disappointment, our first potential refuge has been. An M-class sun with three massive jupiters and an assortment of moons, it looked inviting in our best charts. With ample volatiles and a native intelligence broadcasting strong, highly modulated radio signals, we assumed we could find fuel and technical aid. But we didn't make contact with the local species until we were on the fringes of the solar system. They live on the cold watery moon of the largest jupiter. Their technologies are few and development is slow, hamstrung by a lack of metals and stone. Rather like cetaceans, but larger and with far slower metabolisms, they produce the radio signals with their own vast bodies, choruses of them working together. Not having a xenobiologist on board, our interpretations are littlebetter than informed guesses, but it seems there is a religious component to their radio voices. They hear the long radio broadcasts coming from the three local gas giants and their sun—the natural noise generated by magnetic fields and solar nares—and they assume that these celestial bodies are gods, and the gods are speaking to them ... and if enough little voices can speak in tandem, then the gods will listen to them ...
But if the planets and sun are deities, then the black nebula is the Mother Ocean that blesses the universe with her bounty. ("It's the best explanation we could decide upon"—Lorkin added later, with a scribbling hand.) In some long-ago past, the Mother Ocean visited their world with Her body. Their descriptions sound like a starship. The aliens aboard were as large as the natives, or larger. Or perhaps they were secondary ships departing from the main body. Either way, they were finned and perhaps warm-blooded ... they knew how to speak to the natives ... but in most cases, they chose to say nothing ...
The visitors seem to have planted the idea that the nebula is an ocean and a god, and that She washes the universe with her bounty. Until then, the locals had assumed that the blackness was just a hole in their otherwise god-rich sky ...
We could have visited the cold cetaceans, but our streakship is meant for fast transit and fully equipped ports of call. An icy moon would have supplied us with limitless fuel, but our machine shops are minimal and our shuttles small. I have decided to pass through the system, using the sun to help slingshot us on a new, more promising trajectory ... a second system closer to the nebula, where the cetaceans claim to have heard voices rather like their own ...
The K-class sun has no worlds, only a loose assemblage of asteroids and comets left over from an impoverished dust cloud. Settlers from a machine species haveclaimed every rock larger than a human fist, attaching beacons and at least one species of booby-trap. In culture and language, they seem to be related to the 449-tables, but since they won't meet with us, much less allow close examinations, we can only make sloppy guesses about their origins ...
They claim to know nothing about the nebula. They say it does not interest them, that they possess all of the room and resources they need right here, for now and the next ten billion years ... which is a fair estimate, considering that to date they have retroformed only half a thousand scattered bolides ...
But my first officer has voiced doubts about their attitude.
We passed through the system last night, borrowing momentum from the sun to acquire a new course. Neither my first officer nor I could sleep. "Remember when we were approaching?" she asked. "When they first noticed us, I mean. We made a burn and gave our little 'Hello ...'"
"What about it?" I asked.
"Remember? What did their first transmission show us?"
An elaborate, highly detailed picture was sent to us. (I'm including the image, of course. Perhaps you can make more out of this, Master.) From what I can tell, the picture shows us that the local residents possess no starships. They were tiny machines, and scarce, and by a thousand measures, utterly harmless. They had no intention of launching toward the nebula. Again and again, they referred to us as being "great thinking silicon"—apparently a common 449-Able reference to intelligent machinery—and they seemed to mention an old treaty, a sworn agreement, or maybe a desperate promise ...
"I don't think it was a treaty," my first officer told me. "Treaties are drawn up between near equals. To me, they sounded as if they were little guys begging the nebula to let them survive."
"That doesn't make sense," I argued. "We weren't coming from the direction of the nebula."
"Yeah, but we seem to be heading toward it," she reminded me. "At two-thirds the speed of light, which might be an alarming sight to somebody who spends a lot of their time being scared ..."
Today, we caught a stray broadcast from a G-class sun twenty light-years removed from us ... from the far side of the nebula, apparently ...
A highly intelligent species—a sessile species from a world with a dense wet atmosphere—was trying to communicate with someone inside the dust cloud. For thirty seconds, we were traveling inside their much-weakened com-laser. We captured just a portion of their message. (Broadcast included.) They seem to be giving thanks for some small charity or favor ... and when they are not saying, "Thank you," they are begging for a response ...
In one image, they show themselves rooted beside a second species. The nebula inhabitants, perhaps? Both species appear sessile, as it happens ... like giant hydras, with very much the same body design ... But their neighbors—the ones who are now refusing to answer their pleas—seem at least ten times larger than them ...
Approaching the new world, the Pak'kin seemed to assume that we were a starship returning to the nebula. One nest after another sent us greetings, wishing us a successful voyage home. Even from fringes of their solar system, we could see that their world was enormous and very dry. Again, we found another weak candidate for a port of call. But on the outskirts of the system, a stony little comet smashed our armor, its shards gutting us in a hundred places, and after making rough repairs, I have just told my first officer, "We've got to stop here."
We have no choice.
Our main antennae will have to be rebuilt from scraps and scavenged pieces of our shuttle com-systems. Wewill be in a blackout state until finally moving into a high orbit around the Pak'kin world. My first officer suggests that we pretend to be from the nebula. "In this neighborhood," she points out, "everybody seems to respect whoever lives inside that black cloud." She says, "We should fake it, and we might win favors. You never know until you try."
But I have made a different choice.
"We come from the Great Ship," I have told her, and everyone, "we don't have any reason to lie. In fact, I think we can use our home ship to our advantage. An artifact bigger than most worlds, and older than any sun ... How can a cloud of cold black soot appear any more impressive than us ...? "
AS THE CALAMUS transmissions were being replayed, the Submasters were scattered around the ship, in secure immersion tanks, each sitting inside the same holo image showing the landing party and the Pak'kin. It made for a very crowded mountaintop.
"Now look this way," Pamir instructed, using a blue laser to guide everyone's eyes. "Past Lorkin and his crew. Past their ugly-ass little shuttle. You see? Out where the cameras weren't really pointing ... do you see that ...? "
Washen thought she could see it, yes. Where light and shadow had been captured by the peripheral edges of the lenses, she could see bodies. They were even lower-built than the Pak'kins sent as the delegation, perhaps they were more powerful, and there were too many of them to count. And each cone-shaped body seemed to carry some type of weaponry.
"No, I'm talking about something else," warned Pamir.
The holo was received just three days ago, and he had done the initial analysis. Until moments ago, nobody else knew what he had found.
"But who are these others?" the Master inquired, her image sitting with the invisible cameras, her puzzledvoice twisting the conversation back to the obvious. "Are they soldiers from the local hive? Or another hive?"
"One or the other, madam," Pamir replied.
Washen walked through the image of Lorkin and then his first officer and lover. Alone, she strolled to the edge of the holo, observing what seemed to be the low, gravity-smashed peak of a second mountain standing on the very brink of sight. Strong limbs or machinery had eaten into the peak's bare stone. An image had been created, and at first glance, it was a Pak'kin. A nest queen, apparently. But the proportions were a little wrong, and she understood biomechanics well enough to appreciate that this enormous figure portrayed a creature that was not at all Pak'kin. But whatever the species, myth or alien, it had so impressed the natives that they had spent centuries and fortunes to reproduce its vastness and majesty.
"Has there been another transmission?" asked Osmium.
Washen glanced at the head of security.
Pamir shook his head, a grim smile dissolving with a heavy shrug. "They promised a second transmission in thirty hours," he said to the harum-scarum. "But that deadline came and went thirty hours ago." Then he walked through the Pak'kin dignitaries, telling everyone, "We did manage to catch two little squawks of modulated noise before the scheduled broadcast. Then our largest mirror field spotted what might have been the detonation of a nuclear charge above the Pak'kin home world."
"These are dead faces," Aasleen remarked, looking straight into Lorkin's famished eyes.
"Obviously," the Master declared.
Then with a survivor's instincts, she added, "They should have lied about their origins. Given themselves a stronger position to bargain from. If someone thinks you're a god, you'd better let them believe it." She broke into a wild laugh, knowing that grim lesson from her own spectacular life. "Lorkin's first officer had the only goodset of instincts," she argued. "It's a shame we can't bring her back. A little prison stay as an example, then give her a small commission—"
"But what lives inside the Inkwell?" half a dozen Submasters asked, their faces gazing up at the vast Inkwell.
Just the Calamus signal had mentioned four candidate species: a giant cetacean, and a thinking machine, and a giant hydra, and perhaps some sort of Pak'kin queen. And that was in addition to transmissions filtering in from other far-flung worlds. Dozens more species had been described as originating from somewhere inside the Inkwell. Each description was suspiciously similar to the species offering the testimony; but in every case, the nebula's inhabitants had been physically larger, and always made a lasting impression on their neighbors.
Washen wasn't certain they yet had any clue about what was waiting ahead of them. She walked back through the holo to join her colleagues, but unlike the rest of them, she stared down at her feet.
"We're running out of time," she muttered.
Eyes focused on the barren alien rock, she reminded everyone, "We've got less than a hundred years to get ready ... and we still don't have any clear idea what we're getting ready for ..."
She was tiny and boyish and by most measures quite plain. Her hair was long and spiderweb-thin, her skin an impoverished yellow left thin and smooth by life. Eyes the color of roiled water were much too large for the narrow, sharp-boned face, while her mouth was a thin, inexpressive line almost lost beneath the simple long nose. Yet those big eyes had a watchful quality and an obvious intelligence, the slight body possessed a surprising strength, and on those rare occasions when she spoke, shehad a musical and memorable if somewhat sad little voice.
"Hello," she quietly sang out.
Half a dozen harum-scarums were sitting together, enjoying a communal meal in a small open-air cafe that catered to predators. Six mouths chewed while the other six quietly gossiped. The remnants of the shared meal lay in the middle of their table, assorted bones and hooves and a long black skull still lashed together with fat pearly ligaments. Five of the diners glanced at the newcomer. Even sitting, they were considerably taller than the little human—grayish bipeds with thick hides and spikes jutting from their elbows—and with a smooth, malicious ease, the nearest alien remarked, "A monkey girl for dessert. What a fine treat!"
Four of her companions laughed at the insult.
"Here, monkey girl," she continued, shoving a long hand between the human's sticklike legs. "Let me help you onto our table."
Any other human would have screamed and galloped off. Or wept. Or shown some other equally offensive reaction. But this human simply went limp, as if she anticipated the hand and hard words, and with an amused glint in her doelike eyes, she clung to the long forearm, a whispery little voice begging, "Please help me, please?"
What could the harum-scarum do?
Match the creature's bluster with your own bluster, naturally.
The woman threw the little human into the middle of the table. Passersby stopped and stared at the odd scene, alarm mixed with curiosity. But when the tiny human refused to flinch or beg, the harum-scarum had no choice but to stand tall and tear off one of the legs of the creature's simple brown trousers. The bare flesh beneath barely covered the sticklike bones. Even for a human, the creature was scrawny, sickly-looking, and unappetizing. Suppressing her revulsion, the harum-scarum began toinsert a knobby foot into her eating mouth, followed by the ankle and shin and the big pale lump of a knee.
Even as the pressure of teeth and the muscular throat gripped tight, the human smiled at her assailant.
And it wasn't a human smile, either.
The human mouth was a dirty orifice, air and food sloppily mixed into a gruesome shared mush. Yet somehow that thin and exceedingly alien opening had acquired the scornful, belittling expression of a harum-scarum. Even as her bare leg was being squeezed hard, a thousand teeth dimpling the helpless skin, there was a real and unnerving sense that this alien—this stupid ape—almost welcomed the miseries to come.
With a deep retching sound, the harum-scarum threw up her dessert.
But the game wasn't finished. The human continued to lie beside the stripped carcass, and with a mocking delight, she offered her bare leg to each of the diners. With her own throat, without the aid of any translator, she said, "Please," in their native tongue. Somehow she managed to make the appropriate deep grunt, mocking one after another with a brazenness that appalled most of her audience.
"I am nothing," she told them, in nearly perfect harum-scarum.
"I am a baby," she whined. "A newcomer to space and the stars. Human, I am. Undeserving of my fortune. And you—you are ten million years older than I—and I am barely worthy to serve as your meat's own meat."
Throughout the whole performance, the sixth harum-scarum remained silent. When the bare leg was offered to him, he said nothing, staring at the little alien with a face scrubbed free of emotion. His companions assumed that he was furious, but unlike the rest of them, he couldn't afford to show his rage. He was considerably older than they, and he was a hero from the recent war, and for reasons political and proper, he had been welcomed into theranks of the ship's captains, then swiftly promoted to become one of the very few Submasters.
"Osmium;" the human said, reading the name riding on the bright uniform. Then with a laugh, she mocked him."Have you ever wished to? Eat a little human whole, maybe? I would be honored to feel my bones shatter in your brave throat, my flesh boiled away by your brave acids, my remnants shit out of your glorious ass ... I would feel like such a fortunate little girl ... !"
At last, the Submaster reacted.
With a wet cough, the offered foot was thrown out of his eating mouth. Then the other mouth broke into a deep, deeply amused laugh, and displaying a casual respect that took his companions by surprise, Osmium said, "Hello, friend," in the human language.
MERE WAS INVITED to sit with them. Without explanation, Osmium gave her an equal status, their table reconfiguring itself, the hexagon growing a matching seventh side. Then with barely two glances at the tiny soul beside him, he turned to the woman across the table, saying, "What you were telling us? Continue with your confession, please ..."
"I am not a coward," the woman replied. "I am brave enough to be honest, and honesty only sounds cowardly."
"You wish to leave the ship," Osmium pressed.
"How else can I say it?" She glanced at the human, disgust mixed with a grudging respect. Harum-scarums had been flying between the stars before this creature jumped down from the trees. Yet humans were first to find the Great Ship. Humans claimed the artifact first and managed to hold it, and according to the chaotic but mostly honored legal codes of their galaxy—The Fire of Fires, they called the galaxy—the Great Ship would remain with the humans until the end of time.
"I was born on this vessel," she reminded Osmium.
Except for the Submaster, all of the harum-scarums were born somewhere nearby.
"I grew up inside these avenues and rooms and caverns," she continued.
"And you love the Great Ship," Osmium offered.
"How can anyone not love her birthplace?"
The little human seemed to flinch. But she said nothing, those wide dark eyes endlessly absorbing her surroundings.
"I love this ship, and I treasure my life, and I have always believed that I would live my next trillion breaths here."
"Of course," Osmium growled.
"But this," the woman rumbled. "This new direction of ours. This accidental, supremely pointless trajectory. How can I hold my enthusiasm for an endless voyage into the deepest, emptiest realms of Creation?"
Osmium said nothing.
Mere sat beside him, her chair tall enough to lift her eyes up to the level of their thick, heavily armored necks. She seemed to understand every word, and she noticed gestures and swift expressions that other species wouldn't perceive, and in the midst of everything, she watched the carcass on the platter begin to move slowly, ligaments yanking at the black skeleton as the creature—a little river-bear—remembered that it was still alive.
Humans ate cultured meat or occasionally killed specially bred animals, pretending to be carnivores. But harum-scarums had more respect for life. Millions of years ago, they had infused their domesticated animals with the same life-prolonging technologies they used on themselves, and as they traveled through space, they took their treasured animals with them, eating them down to a minimal last morsel before reconjuring them inside special vats.
For an instant, Mere seemed disgusted by the sight of those flopping, bloodied bones. But her voice was calmwhen she pointed out, "There is a ban on emigration. And this man here is authorized to forcefully stop anyone who tests that ban."
"Every soul makes its choices," the woman countered.
Mere nodded, human fashion.
With a simple contempt, she said, "Kill yourself. Then you'll be set free."
Suicide was an unthinkable abomination, but the woman refused to take offense. Quietly, she pointed out, "My opinion is not only mine. But where I wield enough strength to accept disagreeable fates, there are lesser creatures on board who grow desperate. The farther they fall toward the Inkwell, the closer they are to panic."
The cafe was in a bright avenue of white granite, wide but not so wide that the walls were lost with the distance. Above them, the gently arched ceiling was built from raw hyperfiber decorated with globes and gelatinous ribs filled with ultrathermic bacteria. The glow of the microbes supplied the steady blue-white light. Even when the avenue was less than crowded, it was a loud place. Today, thousands of creatures were strolling or rolling or sometimes drifting overhead on broad wings. Every form of mouth and speaking anus made a steady white chatter, and to an experienced ear, there was a persistent discord to the mayhem. Thousands of years of seamlessly pleasant travel had come to an end. During the last quick century, the wealthiest souls from a multitude of worlds found themselves unsure about the most secure of commodities—the future. If souls weren't afraid, something would be wrong. Yet what they were feeling wasn't just the tiny reasonable worries brought on by an unexpected change to the ship's course. It was also the Wayward War. It was also the sudden discovery of an entire world hidden in the midst of what was supposed a fully explored ship. And it was the rumors of an ancient cargo, and an evil force or forces called the Bleak ... and there was the pernicious fear that the Waywards would recover someday and attack once again. "What worth is there in acaptain's assurances?" the voices asked. Plainly, the humans didn't know their vessel half as well as they had promised, and to souls who had thousands and millions of years left to live, this had become a daunting and endlessly sobering situation.
"I fought for the captains," said the harum-scarum woman. With an honest, well-deserved boast, she said, "I was brave. I did important things. And I murdered a few of the Waywards, too."
The human said nothing.
"All five of us helped in the fight, Osmium. We deserve the chance to construct our own ship—with our own moneys and time and tools. Why shouldn't we be allowed to travel where we wish? Or if it is our choice, in the end, remain on board?"
"Where would you go?" Mere asked.
"Anywhere," the woman replied.
The tiny woman shook her head, human fashion. "We've left your colonies behind. And mine, too. The orbital mechanics are pretty gruesome. A little starship with very few passengers won't be able to turn around. And even if the ship could make the maneuver, then it very likely dies during the long voyage. Impacts and recyke failures are just two miserable possibilities. Which leaves you searching for an alien world and the hope of finding sanctuary there." She paused, then said, "How about the Pak'kin?"
Everyone knew the story of the Calamus. The Submasters had let the truth slip free, most certainly as a warning to anyone who thought of making any wild leaps to freedom.
"What about the Inkwell?" the harum-scarum countered. "I have heard plenty of rumors, each one claiming there is life inside that cloud. Life and little worlds full of light and heat, and water, and perhaps other treasures, too."
"You cannot," Mere remarked. With what looked like genuine sorrow, she said, "Even if you could find thealiens, you don't have the skills. The sense. The magic necessary to make those very strange organisms think of you as their friend. And even if you did have that rare magic, how happy would you be to live aeons among such strange souls ...? "
Then she gestured, sticklike arms reaching out, as if trying to embrace the multitude around them.
The harum-scarum had no worthwhile response. She sat motionless, her mind fixed on a series of equally disgusting images. Life among the humans was barely tolerable, and these baby apes were not nearly as awful as most of these other intelligent species. Perhaps for the first time, the woman appreciated just what kind of doom would hang upon her if she actually abandoned the ship, now or in any conceivable future.
Mere rose abruptly.
To Osmium she said a few quiet words, using the human tongue. Then with an expression of utter contrition, she reminded the others, "It is not any kind of weakness, of course. This need that you feel ... this love of your own kind ... a species-hunger telling you to sacrifice everything to keep close to your own little flavor of life ..."
THE PECULIAR LITTLE human gave a two-stomp salute and left. Their table quickly absorbed its extra side, and after a few dismissive insults, everyone sat quietly, watching the carcass flinch and writhe.
Osmium conspicuously said nothing.
Finally one of the other men remarked, "I have never met a monkey woman quite like that one."
Again, Osmium was silent.
The woman who had bluffed and lost now looked at the Submaster, and with a transparent frustration, she said, "All right, I will beg. Tell us about that little creature, if you would."
For a long while, the old harum-scarum gazed across the avenue. Eventually he spotted a massive black sphererolling in the distance. Inside that insulated contraption, safely entombed, was a creature rarely seen by passengers or crew. Jellyjells, humans had dubbed them. Organic crystals formed frail bones and a slow but relentless mind, and overlying both was a gelatinous body composed of complex fats dissolved in liquid methane. On the ship, the jellyjells lived in their own little sea, frigid and sluggish. They were ancient and rich, and on the fringes of half a thousand solar systems, they were rather common. But their customs and nature seemed extraordinarily strange to hot-blooded creatures like the harum-scarums. Watching the black sphere tumble out of sight, Osmium asked, "Why did the captains allow them on board?"
"The aliens paid enough," the woman replied testily. "In empty worlds, in technologies. In those things cherished by monkeys."
The Submaster made a rude sound with his eating mouth.
Another woman used a nexus, and with a sudden expertise, she attacked his question. "Their home world was old and stable, and very simple," she explained. "Organic rain fed a few species of plankton that fed the jellyjells. There were no other multicellular species in their universe. Until they moved into space, they never interacted with other species, much less anything intelligent. They barely imagined creatures such as us were possible, much less important."
"They have some difficulties in their past," Osmium allowed. "Feuds. Long wars. And ugly extinctions for certain rivals."
His little audience glanced down the avenue.
With a gesture both fond and self-conscious, Osmium touched his uniform. "You don't appreciate this. Until you stand inside one of these mirrored suits, you are powerless to understand: Every day, the captains must decide what is best for the ship. Every moment, small and mammoth choices are made. What passengers do we allowaboard? And which species are turned away? Who is too dangerous or too demanding, or too disruptive, or simply too hard to judge fairly?" His broad armored hand floated above its own reflection, fingers and thumbs slowly closing into a jagged fist. "A species offers us a fortune to come on board, but will that be enough? As a captain, I must consider that difficult question. And always, my first loyalty is to the Great Ship."
The others stirred uneasily. Did their old friend mean what he said? Incredible as it seemed, they couldn't smell duplicity or any other politics at work.
"A strange and potentially dangerous species approaches me. I am offered worlds and technologies and everything else that I deem valuable. But will I place my ship and passengers in jeopardy by accepting these newcomers?"
Quietly, he asked, "To whom do I turn?"
Then with a flash of humor, he said, "Mere," and opened his fist, the big hand dropping into his lap.
"You don't realize this," he assured. "But that creature who was just sitting here ... she is genuinely famous among the ranks of the captains." Osmium looked at each of their doubting faces. "Famous, and highly respected, too."
"What does the little monster do?" asked the woman.
"With jellyjells ... with a wide assortment of species, cold and hot ... she goes to live among them for a long while ..."
"Ah," said another woman. "An emissary."
"Hardly," Osmium countered. "Diplomats travel in full view. As emissaries, they meet with officials and queens, tyrants and presidents. What they see is what they are shown, and if they are very talented, they see a little more. But telling the captains, 'We can absorb this new species' ... well, that's not their responsibility or their burden, or at least it shouldn't be ..."
"She's a scientist," a young man speculated. "Some kind of cultural exobiologist, I would think."
"Again, hardly." His eating mouth spat another foul sound, and at the same moment, he explained, "Thousands of years ago, riding inside a shielded and very swift little ship, Mere visited the jellyjells' home world. To breed, they lay eggs on shallow ridges under the methane. In secret, she studied their breeding and the eggs, then the creatures that hatched from the eggs. When the babies were old enough, and important enough, she created a duplicate of one of them, inserting her own shielded and heavily insulated mind into the new body, and like the rest of her litter mates, she slowly swam out into the great cold sea."
Disgust and fascination held sway over his little audience.
"They are a physically slow species," he reminded them. "It took her contrived body several centuries to mature. Yet because she knew how to act and how to speak, Mere avoided detection and serious suspicion." With a mocking laugh, he asked, "How many of you would live just one day in those circumstances? Bathed in liquid methane. Your bodies so much slime reaching out to harvest the thin crop of plankton. A minute of that life, and which one of us wouldn't go mad?"
No one spoke.
"Mere lived among the jellyjells," he continued, "and when the time came, she slipped back to her hidden ship. She returned to the Great Ship. The Master Captain's original First Chair, the old bitch Miocene, didn't want any part of these aliens. The expert arguments about the jellyjells described them as treacherous xenophobes with a capacity for murdering entire species. But despite every smart warning and all the rational fears, Mere managed to convince the Master Captain that these cold creatures had learned and matured, becoming flexible enough and confident enough to dress up in a cold little pond and go for a roll down a public avenue."
The faces began to look at one another, plainly impressed.
But Osmium wasn't satisfied. With a steady, level voice, he listed several dozen species, famous and obscure,that Mere had lived among and who were aboard today because her respected voice had said, "Trust them."
If this was true, the variety of monsters that she had lived with was astonishing. Spectacular, and numbing.
Then the Submaster offered a shorter list of species. When the angry woman admitted that she didn't know those names, he replied, "Of course. Mere lived with them, too. Lived as them, on occasion. And she found good compelling reasons to refuse them passage."
"A talented little creature," one of the men conceded.
"But why her?" another man asked. "Among the multitude of humans, how did she gain this rare talent?"
"That," Osmium replied, "is quite a story."
"Stop," the angry woman interrupted. "Before you tell the story—"
"If I tell it," he warned.
"First, I want to know something else. Now."
The Submaster waited with a keen anticipation.
"You've been a captain for barely twelve decades," she pointed out. "You're still learning your own little job, and I doubt if you know much about the history of your new profession. Which makes me wonder why you are the expert. Where did you learn about a creature that the rest of us didn't hear about until today?"
With both of his mouths, Osmium smiled.
Then with a deep and honest pleasure, he explained, "Before you were born ... before any of you were prophecies written on your parents' seed ... I spent a few happy centuries as the husband of that strange little human being ..."
As a boy, Locke had always been quiet and thoughtful. The only child produced by two of the most ambitious captains, he had inherited something about their appearance and a blend of their keen intelligence but nothing oftheir innate desire to lead others. On a diet of Marrow nuts and grilled insects, he had grown into a moderate-sized young man, healthy in every measurable way, but distinctly and forever different. He was strong and smoothly graceful. He had his father's eyes, busy and bright and always intense. He had much of his mother's face and seamless confidence. But he had absolutely no interest in controlling any group or manipulating any cause, no matter how worthwhile. After much consideration, his mother had decided that it wasn't an absence of ability; genetic shuffling hadn't stolen away any inborn talent, and he didn't lack for an education in the art of inspiring other souls. No, it was simply that Locke easily saw great and noble causes that to others, including his parents, were abstract and perhaps a little questionable—ethereal realms where dream and theory danced together along chains of infinite and infinitely perplexing equations.
As a young man, Locke fell in love with the Waywards' beliefs. One of their major tenets was that in the remote past, when the universe was tiny and young, there were the Builders who created the Great Ship, and the Bleak who had tried to steal it. Then both died away, for a time. The universe was left as a sterile realm, expanding outward, with the ship wandering through the deepest, coldest reaches of space. Then the Bleak were reincarnated, and they found the ship and took it for themselves. Humans were the Bleak, claimed the Waywards. Unless of course you happened to be one of the humans conceived on Marrow, which made you into the Builders reborn, and how could it not be your duty and sole purpose to reclaim the Great Ship, taking it for yourself and your magnificent ancestors?
As a loyal follower of a lofty cause, Locke lived as a Wayward. But there came a horrible moment when impossible choices had to be made: His mother was in mortal danger, and the only possible way to save her was to kill her assailant. With much grief but absolutely no hesitation,Locke murdered his own father. Then he marked his mother's burial site with her own silver watch. And afterward, he managed to look as if he was still the loyal Wayward. But Locke was a guilt-ridden son, and whenever he stared at his faith, he saw its flaws and cruel failures. Then he found a second chance to help his surviving parent, and not only did he do everything possible to help her, he also turned his back on the Waywards.
Of course Washen was his mother.
In the days following the war, there was lazy talk about allowing Locke to join the ranks of the captains. Washen said it, as did Aasleen and a few of the other survivors of that mission to Marrow. But as Pamir pointedly warned, the young man still looked like a Wayward, and he spoke like one, and he had served their peculiar cause for centuries without complaint. Besides, how would it help the ship if the First Chair began grooming her once-traitorous baby for some lofty, undeserved position?
"Do you think he isn't qualified?" Washen asked, her voice tight and a little prickly. "If he isn't, say so."
"I thought I just did." Pamir laughed.
But it was Locke himself who put an end to the possibility. With a shrug and a gentle tone, he said, "Mother." Then the busy dreamy eyes looked off into the distance, and he confessed to her, and to himself, "I don't have the barest skills to be any kind of captain. And even worse, I don't have a flicker of the fire that I would need."
Washen was injured, and in ways she hadn't imagined, she was impressed by his honesty and relieved to be free of her own motherly ambitions. Quietly, she asked Locke, "What do you have a fire for?"
Shrugging amiably, he said, "I'm usually clever, and in narrow ways, I can be very smart. Plus I see things from odd angles. And since I just abandoned the only belief system that meant anything to me for my entire life, my mind is temporarily free and empty."
How would such a loss feel? Washen could only imagine that kind of devastation of purpose and place.
But Locke felt blessed instead.
"I am empty," he repeated. "Rudderless, and lost. My soul is desperate to find something new to believe in. Something worthy, this time. Everywhere I look, I can almost see things that are great and true."
With a casual ease, he said, "Here's a notion, Mother." Then with the most unremarkable words, he calmly asked if the Builders had constructed just this ship. Or maybe they had fashioned the universe, and the Great Ship was just another little mystery nestled inside an endless series of concentric hulls.
The purpose and meanings of the ship was a subject of relentless debate. A team of AIs had been built and educated to think about nothing else, and after nearly a thousand centuries of hard thought, they had come up with nothing substantial. But Locke's little notion interested them quite a lot. The Waywards and their myths also held a certain fascination. A final decision was obvious enough that the machines and both humans came to the same inevitable conclusion. "Join them," Washen urged her son. "Learn what you need about physics, cosmology, the high mathematics. Help them when you can. Or work on your own, if you'd rather."
"That's what I'm doing now," Locke reported, with a narrow, somewhat wary smile. "Learning and working on my own, mostly."
"Since when?" Washen sputtered.
"Since that day when we looked down on Marrow."
One last time, just before the entranceway was sealed with fresh hyperfiber, they had traveled to the ship's core.
"I didn't know this," Washen confessed. "Why didn't I know?"
"You've been terribly busy, Mother."
"You're usually distracted," he observed.
"And very tired," she added. "But really, we have to make a point of talking to each other. From now on!"
BUT THE FIRST CHAIR had always been a busy post, even in easy times. The War was finished, but there were immense repairs begging to be made. Like never before, there were civil concerns and economic barricades. A multitude of passengers had to be calmed and educated, and when necessary, kept distracted. A battered and suspicious crew had to be retrained and reenergized, and an entirely reconfigured army of captains had to be watched over, learning their stations and the subtleties that no school could prepare them to see, much less master. And always, there was the tireless need to make ready for the Inkwell, which would be followed by the next leg of the voyage. As a barrier, a cold nebula offered an endless array of hazards. Dust and the intermittent comet would test the ship's shields and lasers. Even the most benign course would swamp their defenses, and the hull would again be battered until it was pocked and unlovely and a little bit weakened. That was why Washen decided to keep the repair missions at work, even when every system had been made fully operational again. On her authority, new lasers and enhanced shields were being constructed and deployed, and great fields of mirrors were scanning deeper into the Inkwell every moment. But even if they could conquer the crude monsters of nature—mindless ice and stone and the occasional sunless world—there were the simple and inescapable questions about who or what lived inside that cold black mass and what, if anything, they might want from the ship.
Washen was consumed by her work. With an army of nexuses to help, she manipulated grand plans and careful long-term schemes, always striving to make them play well with one another. To protect her sanity, she slept, but only in bites and little breaths, and only when Pamir or Aasleen fell into the breech. Seeing her son was a rare business, and for a long time she assumed that the long gaps were the fault of her office or some lack of discipline in her own self. But what else could she do? A relaxeddinner with Locke meant that she would have to plan the next major burn in a different hour, which meant delaying two meetings with the fef and the Remoras, and that meant that she would have to postpone her speech of comfort and well-wishing to one of the resident species until a less appropriate time, or she would simply have to go without sleep again, draining herself even more than she had anticipated. Speaking with Locke was too hard. Sometimes she didn't see him for several years at a time. Yes, they traded messages and holos, usually once every week. But no technology had ever matched the intimacy and power of a relaxed supper. And when that meal arrived, often after a long absence, the entire evening could be spent just fighting to pick up the threads from their last dinner.
If they met in her quarters, the meal was simple but elegant—a gift from one of the local communities, perhaps. Human-prepared or otherwise, but always familiar to Washen. But if they met in Locke's quarters, they ate grilled hammerwings and sweet lava nuts and other Marrow treasures. Her son had cultured those species from samples brought up by the would-be conquerors. In a private cavern several kilometers long and almost as wide, he had built a tiny but authentic model of Marrow, complete with molten iron spills and a sky gradually growing dark. His diet and the sky kept him looking like a Wayward, with the smoky gray skin and a slightly famished cast to the eyes. But at least in his mother's presence, he dressed like a law-abiding passenger, in simple trousers and a light shirt. And when possible, Washen left her uniform elsewhere, matching his casual tastes—a touch of detail from the relentless and deft administrator.
Too often, she spoke about her work and its biggest problems.
When Locke stared off into the distance, watching a fat hammerwing flying against the illusionary sky, she would stop herself. In midsentence, if necessary. Then with a sorrowful honesty, she would say, "Sorry."
At first, Locke would nod, and say, "No, it's all right."
Then Washen would insist, "I want to hear about your work. What are you doing now?"
But after a few decades of graceless niceties, her son decided simply to leap past her weak apology as well as the rest of the traditional noise. Washen would be recounting what she believed to be an interesting story, perhaps about an obscure species and how she had handled them in a dangerous moment ... and in midsentence, Locke would blurt out, "My work is going well."
It was his signal, and after a few more decades, Washen stopped feeling insulted or embarrassed.
"I'm still learning about the science and mathematics," her son would explain. He had enjoyed a thorough education as a boy on Marrow, but those were harsh times, and on Marrow, children and their society had no clear picture of the greater universe. "I've still got a long way to go," his confession went. "And that's just until I can match what the AIs know by pure instinct. Doing any significant work ... well, that might never happen. Who can say?"
"But you're learning," she would remind him.
Locke would nod and smile amiably, pleased to have his discipline recognized. Then he might tell his mother a long, convoluted story about some odd feature in one of the six essential Theories of All. In common usage, there was just the single Theory. Robust and remarkably simple, it seemed to explain everything of substance about the universe, from its tiny birth to its endless inflation, from the relatively quiet present and into the gathering darkness, with its bitter cold and the eventual, inevitable death. Only certain rarefied specialists bothered with the incongruities and wilder details: What was the basic nature of the superuniverse? Was time real or an illusion? Were the parallel existences genuine, or were they just mathematical conveniences? And was there anyplace inside this conundrum for something that might be labeled "the soul"?
Out of simple convenience, those detailed and often contrary theories had been lumped into six equal categories, or species, or little hills.
As the daughter of engineers, and then as the trained captain of a starship, Washen had been promised that each of those theories was as valid as any other, and just as trivial. There was no available means to test them against one another, at least not inside this universe. But their lofty and deeply clever mathematics always pointed to the same conclusion. Washen was traveling through an existence that was inevitable—a tail of reality riding on the end of every great equation. The only factor that mattered to a captain was which of her passengers believed in which of the six theories. Each had its attractions and inducements, as well as its disagreeable points. Most species embraced whatever vision of All would make them sleep easiest or live best or accept their own hard existences with the least complaint. What they believed was a window on their nature, and sometimes when Locke spoke about one of the theories, she would mention, in passing, "The Galloon don't believe in time, either," or with a tisk-tisking tone, she would warn Locke, "The harum-scarums despise the idea of parallel realities. There's only one existence, and of course they have to be at the middle of it."
Locke would nod patiently, perhaps showing a little grin. He didn't particularly care about the aesthetics of any species, including his own. What he was striving for was to sit on a high point and look at the terrain without prejudice, seeing everything that there was to see.
During one of the little lunches, more than ten decades after the Wayward War, he launched into a description of a new mathematics. At first, Washen listened intently and felt certain that she understood the heart of it. But at some point during the monologue, she realized that she hadn't any clue about what the sounds striking her ears could possibly mean. As always, Locke had given her files to examine—lessons and illustrations producedfrom his own notes and elaborate papers—and she linked herself to the day's files, burrowing deep, then coming up again like a drowning woman bursting out of a cold bottomless sea.
"What are you talking about?" she blurted.
But her son had ceased talking, probably several minutes ago.
"I don't understand any of this," she confessed. Complained. And then with a self-deprecating laugh, she said, "Throw me a line, darling. Would you?"
"A line?" The image didn't make immediate sense to him.
Finally, a dim old memory tickled her mind. Washen said, "Wait," before her son could offer an explanation. "I remember now."
"My mother, and a few teachers ... they would sometimes mention ... what was it ...? " She closed her dark eyes, concentrating. "A seventh Theory of All. Very obscure, and trivial ... nobody ever actually believes in it ..."
Locke's response was a gentle shrug and a nod.
"I don't know anything about the seventh Theory," she said again, begging for any help.
But Locke could only shrug, admitting, "I don't know much more than you." Then after a long pause, he added, "It is a disgusting set of equations. Really, even the AIs—my teachers, my colleagues—they despise that seventh solution to everything. It's that ugly, that sad. If it wasn't fascinating, I doubt if they'd ever look at it twice."
THREE DECADES LATER, in the midst of another lunch, Washen again asked, "How are the lessons going?"
He smiled broadly, which was a little odd.
Then with a shrug of his shoulders, he mentioned, "I'm actually accomplishing a little work now. Nothing important. But at least I'm building a framework for everything that I'll accomplish in the next million years."
He meant it. When he spoke of such an enormous period of time, he did it with a pure and withering expertise. Better than almost anyone, Locke understood that frightening span of time. And with a devotion that only fanatics and madmen could embrace, he accepted his doom with a deep, pure, and utterly happy smile.
Finally, Washen asked, "What work are you doing?"
"Something small," he said.
"I made a list," he reported. And of all things, he produced the huge wing of a copperfly—the first parchment used by the captains when they were marooned long ago on Marrow. "A little list."
"Good," she offered.
He unfolded the wing along its natural seams, bending it so that only his eyes could see words written by his own hand.
"What sort of list?" she inquired.
"Just some obvious questions," he replied.
"Obvious questions," he repeated. He had his father's energetic eyes, but his silences reminded Washen of her own mother. Every few years, Washen again realized that Locke and his grandmother were rather similar creatures. Except that the old woman had been swallowed up by the exacting, impatient business of engineering—a rigid realm of perfect knowledge drawn across a thoroughly defined existence.
"What is obvious?" she pressed.
He said, "I'm sure you've asked these questions yourself. Probably thousands of times, I would think."
He considered the request, but then the hands began to refold the tough ruddy wing. "Not now."
"A glimpse, maybe?"
He shook his head, stowing the wing out of sight.
"Really," she pressed, "I would love to see what you've asked."
But her son was woven from sterner stuff. With a gentle shake of the head, he repeated, "You've asked these questions yourself. And if you haven't ... well, Mother, then seeing them now isn't going to help much, is it ...? "
"At last count," said Pamir. And then he said nothing else, glancing toward Washen and the Master Captain before gazing out at the rest of his audience, his expression shifting from a veneer of professional focus into what seemed to be a rugged little smile. His big soul wore a matching voice, and after that pause was finished, he remarked, "But there is no last count. Or any first count, as it happens. Our data are so imprecise and subjective, our basis for opinions so badly defined, that if you wanted to fix a number to what we know, you're misleading yourself. Or you're some species of fool."
That declaration brought a sturdy silence, forcing others to peer into elaborate files that they had already digested, sometimes for more than a decade.
Washen knew exactly what Pamir planned to say, yet she felt the same surprise that she saw in the other faces. Years of expert research were being discounted, at least for this moment. It was a shock, and it made an old soul nervous, and to hide an anxious grin, she firmly clenched her jaw.
But the Master Captain nodded appreciatively. Sitting between her First and Second Chairs, she said, "Exactly," and an instant later, with a polish resulting from ages of determined practice, she steered the meeting back onto its expected rail. "But perhaps, Submaster Pamir. Perhaps you might give us a brief and tidy summary of these imprecise, subjective, and very foolish numbers."
"Of course, madam. Of course."
The room was not large, the furnishings were minimal, and until less than an hour ago, this space had been just an anonymous bubble tucked inside the bottom reaches of the ship's hull. Random protocols had chosen the room from a hundred thousand candidates. The audience had been ordered to come to the ship's bridge, and except for the top three captains, each had his journey interrupted by a single security officer wearing civilian garb. The officers brought them here, and until the meeting was finished and its participants had dispersed, the same officers were to remain inside an adjacent room, every last one of their nexuses disabled for the duration.
Secrecy was a reasonable precaution. But more to the point, secrecy was terribly easy to accomplish, which was why the Master had insisted on taking these effortless precautions.
"Besides," she had argued, "my experience is that if you dress someone up in the pomp and circumstance of deep secrets, he will have no choice but to consider himself as essential to some critical undertaking. Which isn't a bad thing. Making the soul feel as if it matters ... well, that almost always helps you ..."
Washen remembered the conversation, then Pamir's voice brought her back to the present.
With a firm but impressed voice, Pamir explained, "At last count, we have 306 separate accounts of life inside the Inkwell. Yes, that's two more accounts than you have in your files. Which is part of the reason we're here today. A good fat part, yes."
Faces stared him, a little anxious as they waited.
"About the other 304 accounts. Records. Legends, and what have you." He shrugged. "The commonality is the variation. We've always noticed that. How every species living near the Inkwell has a murky but distinctly individual vision of what lives inside the nebula. Plus this tendency, this odd reflex ... of picturing their neighbor as being simply a larger, grander version of themselves."
The room was furnished with chairs grown for this occasionand a long table adorned with uneaten and entirely ignored foods. Beside the longest wall was a simple squidskin pane into which Pamir poured a variety of images. There were towering machines and beetly giants and ruby-colored lizards and apish creatures plainly evolved for zero-gee conditions, plus a wide assortment of starships from the Inkwell, and little shuttles, and probes too small to carry more than a lone human heart. To date, the Great Ship had collected accounts from a volume fifty light-years to a side. And even more impressive, the oldest accounts had been supplied not by witnesses or their descendants, but through the stolid work of paleoscientists—researchers digging into buried homes and bunkers on worlds formerly inhabited by technological species. On three occasions, they uncovered files or stone-etched records, copies of which had been sent to the Great Ship in good faith; and according to the scientists who discovered the relics, each was at least as old as the human species.
"The pattern holds," Pamir assured. "Whatever lives inside the nebula, it shows itself to others as being rather like themselves."
Examples continued to parade across the squidskin.
"And this holds for the 305th example, too." Pamir triggered a deeply encrypted file, and the screen went blank except for a lone sun, ruddy and extremely small. "This M-class dwarf is a little less than two light-years from the outer margin of the dust. But unlike most of the local suns, it's cutting rapidly through the galactic plane."
Their perspective leaped closer. These images had been built year by year, a great rain of photons gathered and condensed by the giant mirrors, then refined by an army of single-minded AIs and gifted navigators. Not only had they drawn out every conceivable detail, they had also reached back along the star's course, pinpointing where the wandering mass had emerged from the black dust, and before that, where it had probably first burrowed into the Inkwell's body.
"It was a glancing collision," Pamir observed. "We still can see the dust roiling about. Where the sun reemerged into open space, for instance. Here."
From the audience, a male voice said, "Sir?"
Pamir was staring at the various images, the rough face concentrating with the same intensity shown by every other face. It was as if he had never seen these files. It was as if he was interested and completely at a loss for any opinion, and there was a brief pause where it seemed as if he hadn't heard the voice calling to him. But he had heard it. And without looking away from the squidskin, he calmly said, "Perri. What is it?"
Sitting in the front row of chairs was a boyish-faced man of no particular age. Perri was something of a minor celebrity. It was said, with good reason, that he knew the ship better than anyone but those who built it. He certainly knew its passageways and habitats better than any other living passenger, and probably more than anyone in the captains' ranks, too. He was smart and effortlessly charming. Among his detractors, who were many, there were those who claimed that Perri was nothing but a cheap thrill-seeker and a slippery manipulator. But when the Waywards appeared, he and his wife joined the rebellion. While his detractors hid or joined the enemy ranks, the self-taught expert on every function of the ship had proved instrumental in its salvation.
"That little sun has only the one planet," Perri remarked.
Pamir answered with a crisp, half-distracted nod.
"But of course, that could be tied to its velocity. I'm assuming some kind of near collision in its past. Maybe an ejection from a multistar system."
Again, the Submaster nodded.
"Which would have stripped away any other planets, I suppose. But what I'm seeing here, at first glance ..."
His voice trailed away.
"By all means," Washen prodded.
The young face grinned, pleased to have the First Chairwatching him. Then he gripped the hand of his wife—a beautiful, ancient woman named Quee Lee—and with a half laugh, he mentioned, "That's an oddly ordinary orbit for a single world. If there were other worlds in the past, I mean. And if they were stripped free of this little sun during some old mayhem."
Pamir grinned slightly. "Too far out, you mean?"
"And too circular," Perri added. "I'd expect something more elliptical. A scarred orbit, I'd want to see."
Again, the circumspect nod.
"And what about moons? It looks like some kind of gas giant. What is it? A jovian mass?"
"Nearly," said Pamir.
"Wouldn't it have retained at least its closer moons? But I don't see anything like that. Or rings. Just the one pretty sun and her faraway husband."
Quee Lee laughed softly, squeezing at the hand.
"There's other ways to accelerate an entire sun," Perri continued. "This could be ancient momentum stolen from its nursery. Seven or eight billion years ago, judging by the metal loads and the core profiles."
"Eight-point-two billion years old," Washen offered.
"Or it's from outside our galaxy. From one of those dwarf galaxies that splashed into the Milky Way, and over the last few billion years have shattered and fallen back into us again." He shrugged, and after a moment said, "Huh."
Quee Lee tugged on his arm. "What is it?"
"There's still another place where this planet looks wrong."
The observation wasn't his alone. Several other voices had already started to whisper about some of the more recent, more thorough observations.
"Too much helium," he declared. "By a long ways, I'd say."
Estimates were muttered; guesses were generated. The audience had enough experts present to come up with allkinds of explanations, a few of which might actually kiss what was true.
"An old gas giant should have pulled most of its helium into its core," he continued. "And those temperature profiles ... well, they look awfully high. Which means something could have stirred up its interior, maybe. Brought the old helium rising to the surface again. Although that's a pretty cumbersome way to get this effect."
The Master had taken a mild interest in Perri. With a rumble, she said, "Name another, more elegant method."
"Nobody lifted the helium," he replied. "Instead, I'm guessing that they just stole away a fair fraction of the resident hydrogen." When he looked at the Master's golden face, Perri almost giggled. "But you know that already, madam. Sure you do. You just want to see what we can accomplish, stumbling over this little puzzle for ourselves."
Again, voices made guesses. Most of them approached the best, most recent estimates. The jovian mass had originally been half again larger, but some compelling force or bullying hand had peeled away the outermost layers of the atmosphere.
Quee Lee finally asked the obvious question:
"What is this 305th message? Does someone live on this gas giant? Or somewhere nearby?"
"As far as we can observe," said Pamir, "the system is utterly sterile."
Then after a deep breath, he added, "What we have found is something else entirely. Something we've been carrying with us for thousands of years now. An old transmission buried inside a million bottled transmissions—in an historical archive given to us to help pay for a few hundred passengers. The transmission was a distant radio squawk originating on a superterran world. The species had just developed high technologies. The transmission was typical of these sorts of things: a picture of themselves and their home, the sun and neighboring planets,and their relative position in the galaxy." The dusty data emerged beside the most recent images of the dead jupiter. "Nobody noticed. Until a few years ago, nobody even thought to look for this kind of clue. And you'll see why nobody imagined drawing a link between this sun and that old whisper. There were six planets, including the living one. And the gas giant had a big family of moons. And even the sun itself was more massive than what we see today. Which implies that the same force that carried off the missing hydrogen also dismantled every other world. Every asteroid, and the entire cometary belt. And whatever that force was, it even managed to take a big spade to the red sun, digging out enough gas and plasma to make another world or two."
The room was silent, and respectful.
"A few hundred years before their sun entered the Inkwell, the vanished species broadcast their first message. They aimed at a likely sun, which was uninhabited, but the signal continued on for another few hundred light-years, and it was noticed at least once, and recorded, and we captains were shrewd enough or lucky enough to accept that kind of useless knowledge as a partial payment for some of our new passengers."
Perri asked, "What do the aliens say about the Inkwell?"
"Nothing," Pamir replied.
Then with a cold face and a wisp of anger, he added, "No, I may be misleading you. When I say that we have a 305th message, I mean that we don't have anything. Just silence. Just five worlds missing, plus a sentient species that's gone extinct, with no trace of any of these precious things after they passed through that damned cloud."
PAMIR SAT ON his chair, one long leg thrown over the other.
After a moment, Washen rose, and with a relaxed smile, she said, "I'm sure you know enough to guess our general plan. Each of you has at least one skill that makesyou valuable. Many of you have served the ship as ambassadors or xenobiologists. Others have different talents, and hopefully, new perspectives." She nodded in Perri's direction before adding, "There is a mission first planned long ago. From a much larger pool of potential candidates, we've chosen you. Just in the last few days, as it happens. Your participation is asked for but not demanded. But I will tell you: If you decide to stay on-board the ship, you must move to secure quarters until this mission is finished or until we've lost all interest in this undertaking."
Several dozen faces nodded in weak agreement.
The squidscreen brightened with a flash. Suddenly everyone was staring at the interior of a sealed and heavily guarded berth inside Port Alpha. Filling the berth was a set of enormous engines, fusion rockets spiked with antimatter and the power yields increased by every possible trick of hyperfiber containment and quantum manipulations. The engines were attached to cavernous fuel tanks ready to hold millions of tons of metallic hydrogen, and above the giant tanks was what passed for the streakship's prow—a blunt but elegant arch of high-grade hyperfiber, designed to be reconfigured at will, then braced in twenty different ways to protect the ship from every impact. If there were living quarters, they were invisible, tucked between the fat tanks in a slot that looked too tiny to give anyone more than the barest legroom.
Washen summarized the ship's history. She listed five past missions and every one of its important successes, and because there has never been a crew without a feel for luck or its absence, she failed to mention the little tragedies that had kept two other missions from being total successes.
"Over the last nine decades," she continued, "this particular streakship has been refitted and repaired. What isn't new is nearly new, or better than new. There probably aren't three vessels of this mass that can move any faster. Not in this galaxy, at least. At better than two-thirdsthe speed of light, you will be able to beat us to the Inkwell by more than ten years. Critical years, I should add."
After a moment, Washen said, "Questions."
Hands rose high.
One woman asked, "Who's our captain?"
"I am." Pamir gave a half nod. "I've got experience in small starships, and I can represent the ship with full authority."
It was momentous news. The idea that the Second Chair would leave on any mission underscored its importance. Unless this was a demotion, of course. Pamir was a stubborn soul, and in the universe of gossip, he was always butting heads with the Master Captain.
Washen pointed at a fresh hand. "Yes, Quee Lee?"
The woman smiled politely, then with an honest distaste, she mentioned, "We seem to be a rather narrow group."
Judging by the nods, the question swirled in every head.
She was a beautiful woman, Asian in the old ways, born on the ancient Earth in times that no one else could remember. Quee Lee lifted her gaze as if finding something of interest in the ceiling, and she said to nobody in particular, "All of us are human."
Washen and Pamir conspicuously said nothing.
The Master rose to her feet in a slow, powerful motion that ended with a deep sigh and a shake of the head. Snowy white hair framed the rounded face. The face acquired a less honest disgust, as if some deep voice were reminding her that these were new times, and she needed to bow to the newborn conventions.
"It was our decision," she reported. "For good solid reasons, the three of us decided to send only a single species."
While the Master rose, Washen had sat back downagain. Now she looked at the others, saying with the crisp voice of an order, "Ask it."
"We told you," she continued. "Three hundred and six messages, to date. Which means that there's still one communication that we haven't quite managed to tell you about."
Again, she said, "Ask it."
"Okay," Perri said. "Where did this last message come from?"
It was the Master Captain's right and honor to announce, "The message came directly from the Inkwell. Of course."
Then she added, "What we have received is a brief greeting, plus a chart giving us the safest course to one of the nearest warm worlds—"
"Who are they?" Perri interrupted.
The breach in etiquette went unmentioned. Quietly, the Master warned, "We don't know anything that is certain. Not about what lives inside the ink, we don't. But the face that it showed us, and the body ... well, she looked rather like a human person ... as odd or ordinary as that sounds ..."
Whoever the Builders had been and whatever their high purpose, they possessed a considerable fondness for rivers. The ship's rock-and-hyperfiber crust was laced with intricate long caverns and winding tunnels perfectly suited for the simple purpose of letting methane or ammonia, silicones or liquid water flow free across their floors, pooling now and again to create the lakes and littleseas, then pouring over some brink or lip before continuing on their poetic journey. The first explorers found abundant stores of ready ice, muscular reactors to supply heat, and banks of environmental controls to salt and sweeten the molten treasures. Pumps and attached conduits waited at the bottom of every deep hole, having no obvious purpose but to lift those rivers high again. On occasion, two or more caverns joined together, entirely different chemistries mixing, life-forms from opposite ends of the galaxy suddenly sharing the same narrow channel. One great room welcomed a dozen major rivers, plus at least thirty lesser streams. It was a round room beneath a high-domed ceiling of mirrored hyperfiber, the nearly flat floor made of gravel and river mud and great expanses of tired water. At eighty kilometers in diameter, the room was vast enough to feel worldly, particularly at its center. The dying rivers gradually spread out and merged, becoming a single flow bearing down on a simple hyperfiber throat—a seemingly bottomless pit set at the precise center of the room, one fat kilometer wide and leading into a maze of pumps and busy filters. Engineers had constructed a series of platforms around the hole, and billions of passengers and crew had taken the time to stand on one of those vantage points, watching an ocean's worth of water plunge into a blackness, screaming as it fell, the thunder loud enough to kill a human's ears, leaving him or her deaf for as long as an hour after each little visit.
Washen went away happy and deaf. Her only company on the platform had been a school of gillbabies who barely noticed the spectacle below. Far more remarkable was the sight of the First Chair, and one after another, in ways less than subtle, they had conspired to make sonar images of themselves standing beside her famous sound-wake.
Washen left her admirers, a little cap-car swiftly carrying her upstream. Low patches of soggy ground and tangled marshland emerged from the slowing, shallowingwaters. Individual rivers defined themselves, each of the large flows shackled by banks of dried mud and determined tufts of vegetation. Every wood had its color, its distinct and illuminating shape. Life from dozens of worlds lived together in this great room. Every day, one or two rivers would flood, spilling out into their neighbors' channels. Dry places would be swept bare, new seeds germinating from the raw mud. A novel current would cut a hundred new holes, then fill the old holes with suffocating silts, while odd fish and things not at all like fish would colonize the fresh deep water. In the entire galaxy, there was probably no little place with so many species pushed so close together. Every day, the local ecology shifted ten times, and little species went extinct, and new species were brought down on rivers that could be ten thousand kilometers long, and in the quiet backwaters, by means natural and otherwise, new and entirely novel species would slip into existence.
Upon one of the taller, more stable banks, where a spine of bluish trees stood above an earthly green tangle of corn, someone had constructed a tiny cabin. Even though she knew its approximate location, Washen could not see the cabin on her first pass. She smiled without smiling—a tight, uncomfortable grin betraying a long-building unease—then she turned, coming back again and setting down on the most distant available slip of brown goo and Timothy grass.
Washen sat inside her cap-car, one hand holding the other. When her ears began to heal—when she could hear the squawks and opera songs of birds—she climbed out, stretched for a moment, and began to walk. After a little while, she could hear her boots making the mud squish and the soft rumbling of the falls, twenty kilometers from this nameless place and dampened by antinoise baffles, yet still, astonishingly loud. Then she heard the closer waters moving over flat banks of warm muck. A great long reef of titanium shells lay on her right, and to the left, in a different kind of water, a whale-sized fish lay in the chocolate shallows, basking in the illusory sun.
The cabin was tiny and artfully placed. Washen didn't notice it until she saw the woman sitting in the open door. A tiny and apparently frail creature, by all signs, she seemed to be sleeping. Her chair was some kind of puffer fish, inflated before death and probably not too uncomfortable to sit on, and her clothes were simple and rugged, dyed the same silvery blue of the sky to help her hide from the fish that she hunted for food.
As close to silent as possible, Washen crept forward.
Like a portrait painted in some impoverished age, the sleeping woman sat motionless. Washen thought of a peasant girl, half-starved and possibly dying of some ancient blight. With every step, the creature looked less human. She was so small and emaciated, and her skin had a thinness that Washen had never seen in another person. Stare hard at her face, and the skull seemed to emerge. And it was only the thinnest sketch of a skull, tiny teeth, and big eye sockets—human always, but in a thousand subtle ways, wrong.
Again, Washen took a step.
The woman did not stir. She didn't even seem to inhale, which meant that she had been holding her breath, waiting to speak. The thin, wide, and wise mouth parted slightly, and the words leaked out before the eyelids finally rose.
"Is it time?" she asked. "Already?"
"Yes, Mere," said Washen, her own voice sounding a little bit sorry in ears rebuilt just moments ago.
WHEN THE SHIP was barely two hundred centuries into its voyage—when Washen was a midlevel captain finally beginning to show her promise—the original First Chair came to her with an assignment.
"I am honored," Washen declared.
"That's foolish to say, and a little funny," Miocene replied. "You don't know what I will ask you to do."
But in her entire life, Washen had spoken to this great woman only at the Master's banquet, and then only in themost glancing fashion. She felt honored, and she refused to backtrack from her declaration. "If I can help the ship, in any way, madam. In any little fashion."
"Perhaps you should help me," Miocene rumbled. A tall, narrow-faced soul famous for her personal drive and her unmatched talents as the Master's best hand, she said, "I have a problem. Not a large problem, but rather difficult. I require a captain who can give an honest impression, and afterward, my request will remain with the three of us."
"The three of us?"
"Or just you and me." The woman laughed without real humor, adding, "Everything depends on your decision. Unless I don't particularly like what you decide."
The less-than-large problem involved a peculiar starship. It was tiny and powerful—one of the original streakships, according to its designation—but it was also poorly maintained and heavily damaged. Someone with minimal talents had repaired it and refueled its powerful engines. The ship's AI had also suffered crippling abuse, leaving it stupid and almost entirely ignorant about its own past. According to the fragmentary logs, the little ship was meant to ferry a group of wealthy colonists to the Great Ship. Indeed, there were more than twenty names with empty apartments still waiting for their arrival, paid for by a transfer of wealth from a very distant human world. But the names and the people attached had never reached their destination. According to the AI, a chunk of cometary material had breached the hyperfiber armor, exploding into a bubble of superheated plasmas and radiation, shrapnel scattering backward at better than half the speed of light.
Everyone on board the ship was instantly killed.
But as it happened, one of the women was a little bit pregnant—an embryo sleeping in suspended animation inside her patient uterus. It was a common tradition among colonists: arrive at your new home with a child ready to be born. The intended mother died, but whilesearching for survivors, the brutalized AI discovered a single entity still alive, barely, entombed inside a mangled, now-headless corpse.
Using its last autodoc, the AI managed to coax the corpse back into a mindless life, saving the embryo. With most of its intellect stripped away and no clear instructions, the machine decided to do its best to help its only companion. A few months later, the girl was born inside a tiny volume of warm, barely breathable air, and she grew up on a diet of recycled meats and bone meal, nothing to drink but tainted water and sometimes her own diluted urine. The AI couldn't directly communicate with her. It was too mangled and far too busy keeping the derelict ship functioning. Save for the slowly changing stars visible through the diamond ports, there was nothing to see. The girl grew up in an abysmally impoverished environment, suffering constantly, nothing to touch but the close cold walls and her own miserable self. So she did what was natural: In many ways, and for every good reason, the poor creature fell into a deep and simple insanity.
The comet's impact had pushed the starship off course. Moving faster than the Great Ship, it slipped past unnoticed, its arrow-straight trajectory carrying it deeper into the galaxy, past countless suns before it moved back out to a place rather near the ship's future course.
According to this very unlikely account, the AI pilot found a pair of close-orbit suns and the living world that revolved around both; and after some lovely or very lucky navigation, it managed to burn the last of its fuel, bleeding off most of its momentum, then jettisoning its lone passenger, sending her down onto the world's largest continent.
With an immortal's constitution, the woman survived both the impact and several temporary deaths. Then for the next few thousand years, she lived among the resident aliens—small humanoids called the Tila. In the early years, she was worshiped as a god. The Tila taught her their language and culture, and she played an occasionalrole in their development. During her long life, she watched as her foster species built their civilization, gradually learning about the universe and their world and the two suns that kissed one another in their bright beautiful sky.
"So how did you acquire your name?" Washen asked, during the first interview. She said the name twice: first as the Tila supposedly had, then as a human might. "Mere," she said. "It means small. Tiny, and unremarkable."
"I am," the tiny woman said of herself. "Small. Tiny. And not all that remarkable."
Tutors had taught this little creature the human tongue. But Mere spoke the alien language with much more skill and an unconscious ease, and she moved her limbs in ways no human ever did. She could have been raised by another species. There were a few examples on record, although nothing as lengthy or as unplanned as Mere's supposed life.
"You say you were a god to them," Washen pointed out. "Why would anyone name their god Mere?"
"Because I wasn't much of a deity, they learned. Soon enough."
A considerable sadness showed in her face and body, but the expressions weren't quite like what a normal human would display. Starvation at birth and an alien diet of odd amino acids and the wrong minerals could conceivably produce a body like hers. But Miocene's fear, and now Washen's fear, was that this was not a genuine human, but instead another kind of creature wearing some elaborate camouflage. Washen's assignment was to discern what was true, or at least to give her best guess. This little whiff of a body and the soul inside ... were they really as simple and strange as they pretended to be?
Perhaps Mere understood the importance of the interview. Or maybe she wanted to lend her false story another set of telling details. Either way, she promised the young captain, "The Tila think quite differently from the way you think."
"And I think rather differently from the way you or they think. I don't have a Tilan brain. I don't have its skills. But judging by everything that the other giant woman said to me—"
"I think that you ... meaning your species ... I think humans entertain some odd little notions about the universe."
"Little?" Washen laughed softly. "What do you mean?"
"Everything that is possible," said Mere in a flat, certain voice, "is inevitable. Everything that can happen has no choice but to occur."
"Is that what the Tilan believe?"
"It's what they know, and it's my firm, sure belief." The big eyes gazed off into the far corners of the room. A prison cell, really, but infinitely more comfortable than the tiny habitat that somebody had added to her battered old starship. "The Tilan mind is very sensitive to the quantum effects of the universe. Every motion they make, every little thing that they see, is shrouded in a cloud of possibility. Life moves in all directions at once. Life always persists, in at least one thread of reality. And the universe—the real universe—encompasses too many realities to count."
"But I know that," Washen remarked, almost casually. Then with a quiet calculated laugh, she added, "We have several theories of the universe. Two or three of them believe in the many-worlds scenario."
Mere laughed at her—Tilan fashion. Then with a tone dismissive in both languages, she said, "You have the mathematics. But do you believe the great equations?"
"Believe in them how?"
"Do you apply them to all aspects of your life?"
"No," Washen had to say.
"Does any human that you know ... or any other organism,for that matter ... do any of them believe in this infinite realm ...? "
"On occasion. Yes."
"That's worse than never," was the little woman's verdict. Then after a long, thoughtful silence, she said, "We had two suns. Close enough that they touched one another, like lovers."
It happened on occasion. Twin stars were born close together, spinning fast around their common center of gravity.
"Our suns were too close," she whispered.
Washen waited, saying nothing.
"I watched it," Mere remarked. "With thousands of years to fill, I could study the suns' intricate motions. I could measure the changes coming. There was a great drought on my world, and then after that, a long period of endless rains. The twin suns were dancing too close, their atmospheres touching, and their momentum was changing."
"A chaotic situation," Washen allowed. "There are harmonic circumstances, and gravity waves. Sometimes the suns can hang apart for long times, then quite suddenly, in the course of a few centuries—"
"My world was dying."
For the first time, Washen moved liked a Tilan might. Miocene had built a small vocabulary of meaningful gestures, and now she used one of them in a bid to show understanding and compassion.
The motion pleased the strange little woman. She sighed, smiled like a Tilan, then like a human, and with a quiet little voice, she reported, "My people attempted to save themselves. There were plans to build colonies on the outer worlds, and there were larger plans to pull our world into a wider orbit. But then they heard the signals from this ship. They saw your invitations to join the voyage around the galaxy. You were already past us, but they'd found my old starship moving like a cometaround our suns, and after generating a series of entirely random events—allowing the many-worlds to decide everyone's inevitable fate—they decided to forgo all of their great projects."
Washen watched the big sorry eyes.
"They refitted the starship. But instead of using it to help save themselves, they put me on board and pointed me toward you. Because I was the same species as you. Because they were thankful for the little help that I had given them. Because in this one thin river of an existence, they wanted me to reach my intended destination. At long last."
"You came willingly?" Washen asked.
"No." Mere made the confession with anger and a wrenching grief. "No, I am not that good at being Tilan. I wish I had been. But no."
Washen nodded, and waited.
After a little while, Mere said, "I fought them. I fought as hard as I could. But they shattered both of my legs and both of my arms, and while I was helpless ... while my body was healing itself, and my ship was preparing to leave ... they said to me, 'Don't be selfish, Mere. It isn't your right. It isn't even possible. Even if we wish, we can't destroy any little portion of our destiny."
THE INTERIOR OF the cabin was a single room, comfortably snug and minimally furnished. Mere served her guest a small meal of cold fish and an unnamed tea that left both of their mouths stained a vivid sour purple. Conversation came and went. When they spoke, they usually concerned themselves with trivial matters: the weather on the delta; the whereabouts of an odd species; the burdens in being the new First Chair. And then after a longer pause, Washen looked at her hostess with a mixture of sorrow and compassion, promising her, "If you would rather, stay home. I can ask someone else to do this. If you want, recommend somebody. You know the candidates better than I do."
Mere rose and walked over to the only window, looking out across the flat tired water. Then touching the window frame, she caused the river to vanish. Even sitting, Washen was tall enough to see another river pushing through an entirely different time, and the barest glimpse told her enough.
Ages ago, Miocene had approached a young captain. "I want to know what you think about this strange little creature," she had explained. "Learn whatever you can. Believe or dismiss what you want of her stories. Then come to me and give me your final report."
"I believe her," was Washen's verdict.
Miocene seemed to nod agreeably. But then she asked, "What do you believe?"
"Mere is human. She was born in horrific conditions. The first few thousand years of life were intellectually and emotionally impoverished, then she suddenly found herself surrounded by aliens. Which is why she doesn't seem entirely human. She isn't. The Tila did their best, I suppose ... but her half-starved brain didn't finish a normal, healthy development—"
"I never bothered," Miocene remarked. "Did you look for the Tila?"
"What did you find?"
Washen hesitated for a moment. "Back along her ship's course," she admitted, "there is a solar system. But there is only one sun. Two smaller suns coalesced sometime in the last few decades, and what remains is very hot and blue. And what would have been the Tilan home world is now a superheated Venus-class world."
"And did you show her this news?"
Miocene squinted at a point just above Washen's head. "What was her response?"
"Misery," said Washen. "Despair. But also, a kind of resignation."
"Because her homeland died in just this one little existence," the Submaster offered. "She's human, but she's Tilan, too. Wouldn't you say so?"
In the present, Washen muttered a few words under her breath.
Mere turned, and with a smile that took both of them by surprise, she asked, "What are you thinking about, madam?"
"The past," Washen allowed. "I'm talking to a dead woman."
Mere seemed to understand. She nodded and took one last long look at the vanished river. Then she touched the frame again, causing the window to rapidly jump from one alien world to another.
"Why wouldn't I accept this assignment?" she inquired, her tone more amused than offended. "And how could I ask anyone else to take my place? This is my river to navigate to the best of my ability. My destiny to live through and die inside."
Washen didn't reply.
For a moment, she was standing with Miocene again. Again, she was explaining, "The woman is exactly who she seems to be. Human or Tila, I believe her. And she isn't any kind of threat to the ship, either."
Miocene had laughed with a harsh, amused tone.
"Of course she's no threat," the woman cackled. "We can watch her. We can let her sit in prison forever or kick her back into space. My dear. You misunderstood your assignment."
Appalled, Washen asked, "What was my assignment?"
"To assess her abilities," Miocene reported, subtly changing the original wording. "She isn't human, or Tilan either. Have you noticed? Maybe it's the starved brain, or maybe it's her very peculiar upbringing. But she seems remarkably plastic when it comes to behaviors, and thoughts."
Miocene had already digested Washen's final report, or she had come to the same conclusions.
"What I want to know is this," the original First Chair had said. "Can we find some way for that odd little creature to help our wonderful ship?"
IN THE PRESENT, Washen stood beside Mere, laying a warm hand on the bony little shoulder.
"I've infiltrated dozens of worlds," the tiny creature muttered. "Have you ever been disappointed in my work?"
"Never," Washen admitted. Then with the next breath, she mentioned, "But this isn't a simple world, and we know almost nothing going in."
Mere shrugged and giggled.
"Every day, we die," she reminded Washen. Then she reached up, patting the hand that was set on her shoulder. "And every day, against incredible odds, we find a thousand ways to live."
A dozen lasers threw their malevolent best at the target. Born to defend the ship against collisions, their purpose was to shatter and melt, pulverize and dissolve objects as large as small moons. More than adequate for this tiny assignment, they focused their rage on a single body that was moving overhead in a long lazy orbit. What they hit was a mass of Ganymede ice—a highly compressed form of solid water waiting inside an elegantly shaped cone of woven diamond. The first fierce blasts compressed, then superheated the exposed surface. By carefully changing the sequences and frequencies of the coherent light, the lasers created an endless explosion of plasma and white-hot steam, plus a bone-busting acceleration as the thrust increased and the target's mass fell away. The streakship rode on the tip of the diamond cone. The assisted launch saved fuel and coddled the high-output engines. Withoutquestion, it made for a spectacular show, which was not a small matter with the crew and passengers watching. According to popular opinion, this was the most important emissary mission in the last hundred thousand years. Representatives of the Great Ship were bound for the Inkwell and its mysterious inhabitants. So important was this adventure that the Master's own Second Chair was in command. Speaking from his seat on the little ship's bridge, almost smothered beneath a silky crush-web, Pamir grunted the word, "Done," as the last of the water exploded into space. Then a second onslaught of light arrived—new frequencies battering and boiling the diamond cone, delivering another potent push—and afterward, he said, "Done," again, that sketch of cultured jewelry evaporating in his wake, a cooling mist of ionized carbon lending its mass to the cause.
For a little while, the streakship coasted ahead at a fat fraction of lightspeed. Pamir and his AIs made triple sure that they had cleared the debris field. Sometimes in the chaotic mayhem of high-velocity impacts, shards of the diamond or ice could be kicked out ahead. Disasters were unlikely, but why invite any chance? Once the appropriate checks had been made, Pamir told both his small crew and vast audience, "Light the torch." And an instant later, with a clean and fiercely hot and nearly invisible blast, the swift ship started to gain velocity again, yanking itself up toward better than two-thirds lightspeed.
The Inkwell lay ahead. A black splash against the far-off stars had become a great ocean, bottomless and vast. More than three light-years of nearly empty space lay between them and the margins of the nebula. But even at their incredible velocity, the emissaries wouldn't reach their final destination until the Great Ship was approaching the first waves of dust and cold gas. They were plunging toward a target that was barely visible, trusting their own thin armor and defenses as well as the decency of unknown souls.
Whenever the Master spoke in public, she remindedher audience, "Nebulas are not clouds. They aren't as dense as the thinnest air, even. In fact, according to the course that we've mapped for ourselves, the Inkwell isn't going to be a tenth as difficult as diving through someone's Oort cloud."
Once Pamir was gone, the Master gave a good smart speech. She had written it herself, without input from Washen or her acting Second Chair. Every public channel was hers, and her performance was both perfect and minimal. Aasleen was the acting Second Chair. Sitting on the bridge with Washen, the chief engineer grinned with pleasure and astonishment. "I couldn't do this," she admitted. "This kind of purposeful sweet noise. I couldn't make it. Not so that humans would believe me, I couldn't."
"You're too literal," Washen offered. "Too tied to your numbers."
The woman appreciated what sounded like a compliment. "Oort clouds are easy," she stated. "A light-month thick at the very worst. But we're going to be pushing through this ink for the next thirty-plus years. Without pause. Without any chance to rest and make thorough repairs."
Washen looked at her friend and colleague. They had lived together on Marrow, where Aasleen's talents helped the captains survive and then prosper. Worry had its good reasons. When Aasleen saw bad things looming, Washen knew better than to shake her head, or remind her good friend about all those good smart ways in which the ship was stronger now.
Their shields had been enhanced, and the hull was almost entirely repaired, and there were nearly twice as many lasers as before, all deeply embedded in bunkers and sprinkled across the face of that deep, dirty-mirror armor. They were also making endless adjustments to their course. Occasionally one of their vast engines would fire, for a heartbeat or for a day, nudging the ship just enough to avoid some near collision still five or tenyears in the future. Every moment, the sprawling fields of mirrors and radio dishes were peering deeper into the cold dust, constantly refining maps whose accuracy and deep reach would have been impossible only a hundred years ago. And they were getting what seemed to be help—advice and encouragement from the souls living within that great darkness.
"Remember this," said the Master, in conclusion. Then the bright face smiled with an expression radiating confidence and a seamless faith. "For more than a thousand centuries, this ship and crew have traveled our galaxy. We have met thousands of species, many of which live with us now. The combined experience and technological prowess of this ensemble belongs to us. This is why we offer berths for those who could give us knowledge: We want to learn. All of our species wish to excel. And when remarkable circumstances come to face us, we bring insights and tricks that no single species can match."
Beside the projected Master, live-time images of the streakship were constantly displayed—a scorching point of light almost lost against the blackness. What was infinitely larger and more impressive was the cloud stretching out behind it. Water and carbon formed a neatly defined jet that would retain its basic shape for several years. Trailing after the streakship, the jet would eventually collide with the Inkwell, spreading and cooling further, adding a breath or two to its phenomenal and very thin mass.
"Of course this isn't just an engineering problem," Aasleen admitted, her voice quiet and a little hopeful. "The polyponds are another conundrum entirely. Unless they happen to be the solution for everything, of course."
That's what the Inkwell inhabitants called themselves.
Washen nodded agreeably. On a secure channel, using an entire mirror field to serve as her own eyes, she peered into the warm jet of exhaust. Nothing was visible. Even knowing there was something to see didn't help her eyesfind it. She stared and stared, and after a while, she mentioned to Aasleen, "You did a marvelous job with the camouflage. Regardless what you think."
Her friend laughed quietly, appreciatively.
"We have every reason to be proud," the Master told her ship.
And billions of faces, in homes and long avenues, nodded happily or showed some equivalent expression of faith, or hope, or at the very least, simple wishful thinking.
THE FEF WERE small creatures—at least among organic species—and until the Wayward War, they were rarely listed among the first ranks of passengers. Their narrow bodies sported three pairs of limbs. The first and third pairs served as legs and stubby arms, while the longer middle pair, tipped with deft hands, reached upward. Between those middle arms was an eye pod affording views in all directions. Their omnivorous mouths were in front, while various ears were tucked into the gaps between the bony plates that had once protected their long, exposed backs. They began as one of several intelligent and technologically adept species on their home world—a light-gravity body some twenty thousand light-years behind them. As the Great Ship approached, every species on that world had seen the stunning images and heard the purposeful boasts roaring across the electromagnetic spectrum. But for reasons of culture and politics, and status and finance, only the fef showed serious interest in joining the grand voyage.
To pay for their passage, they borrowed starship plans broadcast by the Great Ship and improved upon them, building a fleet of fat round hyperfiber vessels inside which were tanks filled with liquid hydrogen as well as a single small-mass black hole, heavily charged and suspended inside an elaborate cage. The captains had no compelling need for the hydrogen, since those frigid lakes couldn't fuel the Great Ship's engines for more thana few breaths. And while tiny black holes had their uses—in research and communication, mostly—there were already plenty of the dangerous little monsters waiting in inventory. But there were only a few of the fef on board each vessel, and they were pleasant enough, and by evidence of their work, they were gifted tinkerers. Gleefully, they accepted spartan quarters in a deep, lower-gravity district, easily blending into the multitude of odd species. And that was twenty thousand light-years ago, which meant sixty thousand years in the past. In the ages since, those few thousand immigrants had slowly and patiently prospered, making their livelihoods by repairing nonvital systems that the ship's engineers couldn't bother with. And in certain cases—if there was a burning hurry, or if certain permission forms hadn't been tiled—fefs would do their usual excellent work in the briefest possible time. In the dark, preferably, since they were a nocturnal species. And for a considerable fee. But they never discussed their clients, and they continued to live quietly among the multitude of aliens, shoving their profits into the acquisition of new quarters where their children began raising their own families—a few colonists becoming a nation numbering more than half a billion souls.
"Your greatness," the leading fef declared, standing at the entranceway to the repair camp. Built with diamond and furnished sparingly, the facility was a chain of transparent bubbles set on the open hull, the lighting reduced to a comfortable gloom. High-grav braces helped him stand as he proclaimed, "It is an honor to have you with us, your splendor."
"Thank you," Washen replied, offering a tidy little bow.
"Thank you for coming," the leader muttered, speaking through his translator. "May we quench a thirst? Stuff a stomach? Or perhaps, we could sing to you—"
"Nothing. Thank you."
"If you need—"
"I will demand."
"And we will serve you, your majesty."
Twenty months had passed since the launching of the streakship. The Inkwell covered most of the sky now—a featureless ebony face betraying nothing to human eyes. What was bright and spectacular was the occasional flash of light when a laser struck some mountain-sized hazard, followed by the colorful aurora as the shields collected the ionized debris, pulling the ionized wreckage across the sky and down to where elaborate, heavily armored facilities collected the material, sorting it by its elemental composition, and then sending the treasures to storage or selling them to some critical industry.
The leading fef bent in the middle, two pairs of feet moving together, lifting his eye pod closer to the First Chair's face. "I hope that I have not stolen you away from any vital work, your marvel."
Washen shrugged. "For the moment, no."
"But they refuse to leave the work site," the alien persisted. "I know they have permission to be there. But we have goals, and timetables, and if these deep cavities are not patched soon—"
"These are minor problems," she interrupted.
Nothing was minor to a fef. With a suddenly tense voice, he replied, "Madam. I know they have your permission to tour the deep cavities. That is why I contacted you before anyone. My team and I have done no work for the last thirty-two days. Perhaps these cavities mean something, but if that is the case, we must be found other assignments. Work is the heart of existence, madam. As long as they are down there—"
"You have no heart. I understand:"
The fef lowered his eye pod, and after some considerable thought, he decided to say nothing more.
"Perhaps I should speak with them," Washen offered.
"If you could, please. Madam. All of us would be most appreciative."
She looked across the facility. Hundreds of fef were showing their thanks by rocking side to side, and among them were their robots—thousands of insectlike bodies that made, what was for them, a kowtowing motion.
"Where is your access tunnel?" the Submaster inquired.
"This way," the leader said. "I will take you down myself."
Quietly, Washen said, "Thank you. But no."
Directly overhead, a substantial piece of ice exploded, obliterated by a nanosecond pulse of UV light.
"Stay here," she ordered. "This work is all mine."
THE COMET THAT struck during the war was relatively large and massive—thirty kilometers across and dense as new snow wrapped around chunks of rock and gravel. It had little velocity of its own, but the ship's velocity had provided a fantastic amount of kinetic energy. Any normal world built of rock and warm iron would have been gutted, but the hull was made from more stubborn stuff. Heat and momentum were channeled into the hidden dimensions and speculative realms. The damage was more extensive than it should have been, but only because this was very close to where an even larger impact had occurred billions of years ago. A moon-sized object had smacked into the ship, creating a deep blast cone as well as a necklace of tiny, relatively trivial cavities. The first Remoras had patched the surface with the best available grades of hyperfiber. The fef were supposed to finish the repair begun one hundred thousand years ago, leaving the hull as sturdy as it might have been ten minutes after its unimaginable creation.
Built for fefs, the cap-car felt tiny to Washen, and its air was thick with carbon dioxide and water vapor. Every breath was warm enough to remind her of every sauna that she had ever endured. And the car was swift, plunging to its destination, time passing too quickly to allow an overworked captain to steal more than a moment or two of sleep.
With a hiss, the hatch dissolved.
The air beyond was thinner and very dry. What might have been a narrow fissure had been enlarged, several meters of wounded hyperfiber removed to build a passageway as well as stripping away everything that was even a little weak. What remained was a long half-lit tunnel, gray walls looking like mirrors where they had already been prepared for the final repair. In time, the atmosphere would be yanked away and millions of liters of fresh, high-grade hyperfiber would pour into the emptiness. What was new would effortlessly merge with the rest of the hull, and once cured, only the most persistent expert armed with delicate sensors would notice the seams left behind.
That was one of the miracles of hyperfiber—its endless capacity to accept every tiny graft and every giant patch.
Washen walked patiently if not quite slowly. After a long lazy turn to the left, the passageway twisted to the right again, and with that turn she began to hear the quiet, smooth, and occasionally human sound of voices.
Short of the chamber, she paused.
"But if you consider," said a voice. What followed was one of the dense AI languages, rapid and efficient and invented for no other purpose than to plumb the high realms of mathematics.
"Consider this," a second voice responded.
The next dose of machine talk was louder and even quicker. A nexus translated for Washen, and three other nexuses did their best to explain what she was hearing. But one after another, her devices reached the limits of their ability. They apologized, or they simply fell silent, too embarrassed to speak.
A third voice said, "Thank you."
And then a fourth voice, very familiar, said, "Why won't you come the rest of the way, Mother? Don't worry, you aren't interrupting."
The First Chair stepped into the chamber.
What was tiny on every official map was surprisingly large to the eye. The chamber was a hundred meters across, and someone other than the fef had positioned the bright lights and changed the air to approximate earthly tastes. Wearing rubber bodies and archaic clothes, the AIs sat on convenient rises and knolls, ignoring the sharp, mirror-bright edges. Locke was the only figure sitting on a flat surface, legs crossed and the remains of a dried hammerwing in his lap. With a charming little smile, he asked, "Are they growing impatient?"
"A little," his mother allowed. "They have their hyperfiber ready to pour. In case you want to be entombed here for all time."
Some of the more literal-minded AIs did the lightspeed equivalent of a flinch. Then everyone was laughing, and with an easy amiability, one of the rubber bodies jumped to its feet.
"We shall leave," the AI announced.
"But first," said Washen. And when everyone was staring at her, she asked, "Why here? What does this place tell you?"
"It was my idea," Locke confessed.
She wasn't surprised.
"A different realm to jog our creativity," reported the standing AI. The face was female and wrinkled, like the sages in ancient times. But the voice was young like a child's. "We have questions to consider, puzzles to solve."
"New questions?" Washen inquired.
"From a new vantage point," the machine replied, "every question is new and intriguing."
Locke was climbing to his feet. A tiny Wayward pouch lay beside him, and as he reached for the leather straps, his mother saw something familiar.
"May I?" she asked.
He pretended not to understand. And then he considered refusing her request, or at least asking her if he possessed that freedom. But no, he decided to hand over thetightly folded copperwing. And like every son sensitive to a mother's opinion, he mentioned again, "These are simple, obvious questions."
"Things to consider."
"Quiet," Washen advised.
When she held the copperwing in her hands, her hands shook. Washen noticed the shaking with amusement, and she found herself taking a couple deep breaths before unfolding what had already become old and threadbare.
By hand, Locke had written his questions, starting at one edge of the rounded wing and working down.
"Does the Great Ship have a destination?" he had written. "And if so, did human beings screw things up when they took it for themselves?"
Washen's face went rigid, showing the tiniest nod.
"Is the ship supposed to be going somewhere specific?" Locke asked aloud, with a quiet little voice.
"What could be its destination?" she read aloud. "And does it involve the prisoner at the center of Marrow?"
She read, "Or is the ship making a flight of escape instead? And if so, have humans screwed that up?"
She looked at her son.
Locke said nothing, a wary grin trying to hide.
She read more questions. There were dozens of them, and as promised, nothing was authentically new here. How many times had she rolled these same matters around in her head? But in the course of a busy year, Washen didn't invest more than the occasional dreamy moment considering these impregnable, unmanageable mysteries.
"What if the Great Ship began its voyage on course?" Locke had written on a later date. The letters were clearer, the ink showing a hint of shine that was peculiar to the juice of a berryblack. "And what if its trajectory had been distorted by the moon-sized bolide?"
She looked up again.
"Good question," was her verdict. "Is that why you're down here? For inspiration?"
Locke flashed a smile.
"There's more," he mentioned. "Flip the wing over."
With respect for the long-dead appendage, she turned the wing with careful hands.
"If the Great Ship was off course," she read aloud, "could we humans and the Wayward War be part of some grand plan? And what if this grand plan has managed to put the ship back on the right road again?"
She nodded, and breathed.
Then she read the final lines, twice:
"And what if the Great Ship has spent the last billions of years fleeing someone or something?
"What if that something has been pursuing it all this time?
"And if there is a pursuer out there—if, if, if—then how much harm have we humans done, forcing the Ship to change its trajectory, forcing it to follow a lazy, looping course through the milky waters of our galaxy?"
Copyright © 2004, 2005 by Robert Reed
Posted December 9, 2008
After the near disaster at Marrow (see MARROW), The Great Ship continues its journey into space. Inside the millions perhaps even billions of near immortals go about there tedious everyday life regardless of the vessel¿s path. How else can one live when riding a space ship that contains whole planets inside on a trek that seems forever. The recent calamity has agitated the populace. --- The Master Captain is worried not just about the morale of the millions on board; that is a normal concern for her as boredom and post trauma reaction can prove mutinously dangerous. Of immediate concern however are the Polyponds and a seemingly Black Hole that is in their way. She assigns Submaster Captains Washen and Pamir to deal with the Polyponds, gigantic water beings that are attacking the Great Ship. The hero of the Marrow incident Mere investigates the Black Hole. Pamir learns a God-like essence, the Ink Well, perhaps devil might be more descriptive, threatens to ¿imprison¿ everyone on board the Great Ship for eternity inside the black hole. --- The sequel to the exciting MARROW, THE WELL OF STARS is an action-packed science fiction thriller that never slows down as the crew battle three enemies, the Ink Well, the Polyponds, and internal ennui. The story line is fast-paced, but with the Star Trek like crisis to confront, the key cast members seem unemotionally detached to the predicaments. Especially strange is that the population is allegedly edgy and tired of perhaps living forever yet an eternity within the Ink Well has to exacerbate all that is eating at everyone, but no one seems agitated. Still Robert Reed will have readers pondering living for eternity.--- Harriet Klausner
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 14, 2007
Well makes for an interesting follow on to the excellent Marrow. The science, particularly biology and engeneering, are way off the wall but the story moves along at a fair clip. The only problem is the ending which is really abrupt and leaves too many questions. Also you find yourself rooting for the Polypond to succeed, and it's a total let down.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 29, 2006
Robert Reed has populated an ancient spaceship the size of a planet with an amazing cast of characters from all reaches of the universe. After finding a smaller planet within the spaceship ('Marrow') and fighting a war with its inhabitants, the races of the eternal ship are uneasy. Following those events, in 'The Well of Stars', the ship finds a vast, powerful enemy in its path. With the ship in peril, the crew will have to achieve the impossible in order to survive. The themes explored here are varied, including the standard social and moral conscience-related issues: multi-cultural mores, right-to-survive, implacable enemy vs. just society, etc. Reed's imagination is first class, delivering sci-fi action on a cosmic scale, while posing some good philosophical questions along the way.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.