“Outstanding...Amid a space opera resurgence, Bear’s novel sets the bar high.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A space salvager and her partner make the discovery of a lifetime that just might change the universe in this wild, big-ideas space opera from Hugo Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear.
Halmey Dz and her partner Connla Kurucz are salvage operators, living just on the inside of the law...usually. Theirs is the perilous and marginal existence—with barely enough chance of striking it fantastically big—just once—to keep them coming back for more. They pilot their tiny ship into the scars left by unsuccessful White Transitions, searching for the relics of lost human and alien vessels. But when they make a shocking discovery about an alien species that has been long thought dead, it may be the thing that could tip the perilous peace mankind has found into full-out war.
Energetic and electrifying, Ancestral Night is a dazzling space opera, sure to delight fans of Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, and Peter F. Hamilton—“Bear's ability to create breathtaking variations on ancient themes and make them new and brilliant is, perhaps, unparalleled in the genre” (Library Journal, starred review).
About the Author
Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published fifteen novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the science fiction and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Visit her on Twitter @Matociquala.
Read an Excerpt
THE BOAT DIDN’T HAVE A name.
He wasn’t deemed significant enough to need a name by the authorities and registries that govern such things. He had a registration number—657-2929-04, Human/Terra—and he had a class, salvage tug, but he didn’t have a name.
We called him Singer. If Singer had an opinion on the issue, he’d never registered it—but he never complained. Singer was the shipmind as well as the ship—or at least, he inhabited the ship’s virtual spaces the same way we inhabited the physical ones—but my partner Connla and I didn’t own him. You can’t own a sentience in civilized space.
Singer was a sliver of a thing suspended electromagnetically at the center of a quicksilver loop as thin in cross section as an old-fashioned wedding band, but a hundred and fifty meters across the diameter and ten meters from edge to edge. In any meaningful gravity, the ring would have crumpled and sagged like a curl of wax arched over the candleflame. But here in space, reinforced with electromagnetic supports, it spanned the horizon of the viewport in a clean arc.
I held on to a rail with one afthand, lazily comfortable as I watched the light sliding in Doppler-watered bands across the silver surface of the white coils. The concentrated colors of the ring moved across a background that looked like a dilute version of the same pattern, as the action of the white drive changed what would have been a gorgeous starfield into twisting blue and red light that glided like the colors on heated titanium.
Those ripples of light were messages written in physics and perception. The information they offered would have seemed cryptic to most people. They would have seemed cryptic to me, twenty ans ago when I was but a wee slip of a person freshly skinned out and free of the clade I grew up in, Nyumba Yangu Haina Mlango. But I had a lot of practice reading their frequency and patterns now. Singer was . . . well, slowing wasn’t exactly the right word, but it would do. We were, to coin a phrase, getting there.
Singer couldn’t navigate in white space. He could only follow the course planned and programmed beforehand, coasting like a surfer on a wave of space contracting before him and stretching out behind. He—we—were not even, technically speaking, moving, let alone moving particularly fast. The universe was just rearranging itself around us, invisible to those outside the bubble of the white field.
Soon we would fold ourselves out of white space and into the normal universe. We were looking for a scar in space-time, the tiny ripple of radiation left by the passage of a ship whose course hadn’t been tracked by any authority, and so when it had been lost, its loss had gone unnoticed for—well, nobody could actually say how long. We were going there on purpose, and we planned to stay a while. Because somewhere down that Alcubierre-White rabbit hole in space-time there was—or at least had been—a ship. A lost ship.
A misplaced one, anyway. We’d taken on obligation for an information broker who provided us with scans and imaging they’d obtained from the captain who had noticed the anomaly. They’d also provided the anomaly’s coordinates.
The coordinates we’d bid on were off the beaten path, perpendicular by a good distance from the inhabited and regularly traveled space lanes of the Milky Way. But we’d been out this far before, and space was vast. Ships still got lost now and then, but they were usually better tracked these diar, and in the centuries since the white drive had turned space from an empty, intractable void permeated by loneliness and existential dread into a teeming, boisterous, and mostly peaceful community of species . . . much of the older salvage in the plane of the Milky Way had been picked clean.
Bright ripples across the darkness narrowed, sharpened, resolved into bands, then blurs, then points of light. We fell into normal space and began to close the gap on our EMP engines. Through Singer’s senso, I got a feel for the scar.
It was a big one, and it looked fresh, which meant that the odds of the unlucky vessel that had caused it still being in there were pretty good. That would be nice, because our last two claims had come up empty, and the larder was a little bare. We hadn’t even gotten any wreck-driving tourist contracts recently, which were risky—especially the ones involving close approach to an event horizon—but secretly a lot of fun.
Connla liked them even more than I did.
“I wish I knew what the ship that found this thing was doing way the hell out here. There’s literally nothing for light-ans in any direction.” Connla, speaking to me through senso. He was up in the control cabin. It was supposed to be my rest shift. Sometimes, despite all the rightminding I can tolerate, I still have nightmares.
I answered, “If I had a nasty, suspicious mind . . .”
“Yeah,” Connla said. “Pirates. Me too.”
“You know they don’t like being called pirates,” Singer joked.
“Freeloaders.” Connla came from a world called Spartacus, notorious for its atavistic culture. One reason it was that way was because it sat so close to Freeport strongholds. Border brushfires and the constant threat of raids and one’s shipping being picked off contributed to a martial culture. And I wasn’t supposed to know this, but Connla had survived a pirate raid on an asteroid settlement when he was a child.
I frowned at the scar. Singer’s senses were designed for space, and his readouts told me that the scar was fresh. If there was a ship in there, and it was intact, and we could bring it home—depending on what it was—this whole trip would be worthwhile. We had an obligation to the Synarche that needed to be met, one way or another. We were spending resources to be here; resources the Synarche would want recouped and, ideally, built upon. The prize ship and its cargo were where that replacement value would come from.
“It’ll be a smuggler,” Connla said dourly.
A bad outcome for our obligation if it was. Contraband was illegal goods or stolen art. Everything else a civilized galactic Synarche required was so easy to make, or ship, that there was no percentage in dodging around customs. If they were smuggling art, there might be forgiven obligations for recovering lost cultural treasures.
There also might not.
A pirate would be even more useless to us, beyond any value there might be in the hull. Some find the Galactic Synarche suffocating. And I have a healthy sympathy for the whole avoiding-suffocation thing. But there’s asserting a reasonable individuality in the face of social norms, and then there’s piracy and murder as an economic model.
A hull could bring us some recovery credit. If it were in decent shape. Which pirate ships rarely were. But it wouldn’t get us much else, because any cargo would likely be resources that, while valuable to those of us living in space within the Synarche, weren’t valuable enough to go ferreting around in space-time pockets after.
“Maybe it’ll be a Wake-Seeker,” I sent, cheerfully. Those who followed the Path of the Unfinished Work were always grateful for news of the fate of missing brethren. Even if, as they say, the authentic experience is an illusion.
We were both really hoping that we might find a passenger vessel, commercial or private, that had wandered off course and gotten lost with no one the wiser as to its location. Those often offered finder’s credit in the form of resource allocation validations to the salvager who retrieved them, both from the shipping line, the owners of registry of any cargo, and the families or clades of any passengers. And if there was unregistered cargo, that could be value along with the hull.
Best of all were the packet vessels, which were full of information. And the ancient prizes from early exploration—by any race—that were treasure troves of archaeological data. That would be worth a few RAVs above the cost of the mission.
I didn’t even bother to consider the possibility that the hulk could be an ancient ship from a time long before that remembered by humans, or even any of the older syster species. I’d heard about Koregoi ships with salvageable tech. I’d never encountered one. Or even encountered anyone who admitted they had. But wouldn’t it be nice . . . ?
Well, that wouldn’t be behind a fresh scar, anyway. So honestly I was just black-sky diadreaming, indulging myself in fantasies of untold wealth. Or of at least buying Singer out of copyright so he would own his own code.
I was still on edge, and now it was too close to contact for me to bump my chems and get any restful sleep. Growing up clade—and a flirtation with chemical dependency after I broke free—had left me wary of the easy out, anyway, so I rarely thought of fixing the problem at the transmitter level when it was possible for me to ride it out.
When I remembered, or Singer nagged me into it, I always wondered why I hadn’t bumped earlier. Why I’d been so resistant in the first place. And except for a few permanent mental health adjustments, I always insisted on a limited adjustment that would wear off in half a dia or so.
Well, if people made sense, we’d be like Singer.
I turned away from the port. There would be a distraction of some sort in the command cabin, and I could caffeinate. Or bump, and tune for wakefulness since I’d missed the shuttle on rest.
I slid down the tunnel to the bridge headfirst, pushing off rungs in the tube with my fore- and afthands, avoiding bruising the lettuce and radishes growing along Singer’s living walls. The ship’s calico cats, Mephistopheles and Bushyasta, were floating in the tube, napping in a cuddle. Bushyasta, like the professional sleeper she was, had one set of claws hooked into the terry cloth of a grab loop. Mephistopheles was floating beside her, a red-and-white leg draped for an anchor over Bushyasta’s belly, her black-splashed head cuddled on a mottled flank. Well, at least somebody was getting some rest around here.
I glided the last meter or so—it wasn’t far: Singer really was a tiny bubble of a thing for frail warm meat to take to space in—and found myself gazing at the back of Connla’s head.
He’d anchored himself to a rail with his afthands, and his forehands were buried elbow-deep in the stuff of his console. His ponytail waved lazily behind him as he turned his head. I caught a glimpse of stubborn profile outlined against starfield and suppressed a smile.
He started to say something, coughed, and corrected himself. “Wouldn’t sleep?”
I could have argued—couldn’t—but I knew my unwillingness to tune my chem was opaque to Connla on an emotional level even when he professed to understand it intellectually. I thought he’d actually maybe mellow and mature a bit if he didn’t bump and tune so much to keep his responses calmed down to Spartacus’s stoic ideals. On the other hand, I’d have to put up with him finally experiencing adolescence, and that whole thing was such a mess I’d turned mine off when it happened. Well, okay, a little bit after it happened. Some people have to learn the hard way, and apparently I am one of them.
It was his brain and his chem and his business, so I just said, “We should have pulled a permit.”
“And let every other tug in the galaxy know where we were headed?”
“And have a chance of a rescue operation if we screw it up.” I settled near my console, floating with one afthand resting lightly against a rail, and watched out the forward windows as ripples of light gathered and spread.
Connla laughed. “You put on such a rebel act, but I keep hearing your crèche talking out of your mouth again and again. Anybody raised outside of a clade knows that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. Besides, a permit isn’t strictly legally necessary all the way out here. We’re not in anybody’s jurisdiction.”
He was transparent when he was baiting me. His own upbringing had left a few antisocial marks on him, but try to get him to admit that. If he hadn’t been such a good guy from the DNA on up, he would have been insufferable. And quite possibly socially dangerous.
“Forgiveness is not the same thing as retroactive consent, Connla. And the research shows that people are much more altruistic when they’re allowed to offer, instead of when something is demanded of them. There will be more red tape on the other end, this way.” He didn’t answer, so I said, “How much longer?”
“Ninety-seven seconds to the decel.”
My console felt cool and ready when I touched its carbonglas surface with my fingertips, just enough to stabilize, balance, and get a spherical perspective. I didn’t bury my hands in my console the way Connla had, but I wasn’t flying the bus.
Well, okay, Singer was flying the bus. But Connla was directing, and he needed to be plugged in to Singer’s full senso.
A wide arc of stars swung below and behind Singer like the frozen skirts of a flamenco dancer: the Milky Way, seen from . . . not exactly outside, but far to one edge, and an angle. Scuttling fingers tap-danced up my spine at the sight of home, so far away. Which was ridiculous, because it wasn’t home to me—Singer was. And we were in no more danger here than anywhere else in space. Maybe even a little less than if we were camped in some cluttered, long-inhabited system full of meteors, traffic that couldn’t follow a flight plan, and poorly mapped space junk.
It’s a territorial mammal thing, is all. There’s a sense of being long and far away from places you know your way around and have resources in that gets right up into the anxiety centers and made me feel lost and out of place.
We were off our turf, and my amygdala knew it.
Connla was cool and collected. I felt his calm through our link like a lapping sea. He didn’t look over at me to roll his eyes, a demonstration of self-control better than I’d have been able to manage. He’d didn’t have to tell me that he thought my resistance to tuning my mood was childish and irresponsible.
But he hadn’t grown up in a clade. He hadn’t escaped a clade. And the hypervigilance was my friend. His friend, too, if he’d ever admit it. Sure, it was uncomfortable. But that was a small price to pay for being ready. Getting caught by a disaster is bad enough. Getting caught by a disaster you didn’t expect adds that layer of humiliation and stunned goggle-eyed frozenness to the proceedings, and that doesn’t benefit you in the long run.
All of those memories were stored in my fox, and I would have shared the ayatana with him if he’d given me half an excuse. But he had never gotten past his childhood programming that feelings were sticky and somehow slightly revolting. So it was an element of our friendship that remained unexplored.
And thus my uneasy feeling could have just been my old friend Uneasy Feeling, dropping by to see how things were shaking. It could have been that territorial fear of not knowing where I was, and where to find food, shelter, water, and my tribe. But it never hurt to be on your guard.
Yep. Sleeping with one eye open, that’s me. People only think it’s ridiculous if they’ve never been caught napping by an enemy. And the truth of the universe is that anybody can turn out to be an enemy.
“Let’s keep the bubble up for now in case we have to move in a hurry,” I said.
Connla didn’t argue. He cleared his throat and said, “Singer, are you awake?”
“More awake than you are,” the ship replied. Most ships are she, for bigoted gender-essentialist historical reasons, and most of the rest see no reason to bother being gendered at all and call themselves they, but Singer liked a male identity.
He hadn’t always been a tugboat, I gathered. He had a bantering manner, which was just code, but when it came right down to it I was just code too, running on some kludged-together hardware.
He added, “What can I do for you?”
Singer was smart as hell, a born problem-solver if you told him what problem to solve for and gave him some parameters that he could extrapolate. But artificial personalities were intentionally limited in their self-direction and agency, for reasons that will be obvious to a cursory inquiry.
Those programmed shackles might be just as well, given the number of horror dramas about rogue personalities out there for one’s . . . enjoyment. And yet. I had a little too much personal experience with what it was like to be a happy worker, in agreement, without too much will to argue for myself or enough agency to set out in my own direction, to feel entirely comfortable with the solution. That was the real reason I came out here to the rim, where life was a constant struggle to validate resource expenditure. I needed my independence of thought, and so I scrapped for my dinner like some twentieth-century barbarian instead of enjoying the comfortable largesse of a Core world where I wouldn’t have to justify my resource footprint.
“Range to objective?” I kept all that out of my voice. That worry about feeling trapped was bugging me a lot todia, but I put the reasons for that as far out of mind as I could. I could have tuned that out, too, but I didn’t want to reach for that crutch too often. Anyway, dissociation is a great coping skill. It can keep you going and functional basically forever. The problems hit when it starts to break down, which is essentially as soon as you start to question your own detachment. Getting in touch with your emotions and experiences is overrated, if you ask me.
And before you tell me that it’s hypocritical of me to be concerned that Connla represses his emotions and then dissociate mine, it’s totally different when I do it. Totally, completely different. I’m doing it on purpose, and not as part of my childhood programming.
“A little less than an AU. I’m decelerating.”
I hung on to my bar and console grips as Connla began slowing us. He wouldn’t brake hard enough that I’d need my acceleration couch. But it was still a mite uncomfortable.
I bloody hate gravity.
We would have left white space at something considerably less than relativistic speeds—though still moving impossibly fast, by human standards. But the thing about space is that it’s still awfully big, even if one can travel very fast, and there isn’t a lot of friction in it to steady the system, so things respond violently to a gentle nudge or a slight shift in momentum.
No unaugmented human mind could perform the calculations necessary to control complicated multi-body problems. Dead reckoning worked better (the back of the mind is much better at figuring out complicated physics problems than the front, which is how the ball hits your hand when you stick it out in front of you), but somebody—something—like Singer was better still.
“Any other boats in the area?” I asked.
Connla said, “No,” at the same moment Singer said, “Not in regular space.”
And the ones in white space would be invisible and immaterial. If there were any. Until such time as they fell on our heads.
We spent a long time in decel. Now that I’d talked myself into tuning, I used this time more wisely: I webbed myself down and took a nap. I’m not sure what Connla did.
I awoke when Singer cheerfully said, “Coming up on our scab in space-time.” He had a light tenor voice, musical and animated, and he liked wordplay and coincidences and was endlessly fascinated by—well, anything. Human social dynamics. Lasers. Tea. Porcelain.
I breathed. There were no gs making me miserable, so I unwebbed and rose up from the couch.
We were alone out here. Nobody was going to come along and snatch our prize todia.
“Whoa,” Connla said. “What in nine gravity wells and an event horizon is that thing?”
Well, that was what I got for feeling cheerful.
It’s hard to get a sense of scale out here. You can hold out your hand and cover the entire bulk of a gas giant with a pinkie nail if it’s at enough distance—and there aren’t many referents to let you know if whatever you’re observing is near or far away.
So when my perceptions told me that something vast was drifting toward us, I was ready at first for it to be the size of my fist. Maybe a tangerine, quick-frozen by space and bobbing alongside the window, maybe hauled along inside our bubble from the inevitable ring of small litter that swarms around any space station.
But it wasn’t a tangerine. Whatever it was, was dark, so it faded into the background of the starscape. It was oily-seeming and iridescent, and it reflected the light of the Milky Way off a dark green surface. The tapered, irregular outline tumbled slowly, a long, majestic arc of curve like three-fourths of the rim of a gigantic, broken wheel. Space station, my mind provided. Catastrophically decompressed.
The part of my brain that recognizes patterns and assigns things to categories was leaning on its shovel catching a few zeds once again. The tumbling arc brought the weird object between us and the long arm of the Milky Way, and I recognized the silhouette, even convulsed into that strange arc, an instant before Singer identified it.
“It’s an Ativahika,” he said. “It appears to be dead.”
“They can die?” I asked, stunned, just as Connla burst out, “What the hell is it doing all the way out here?”
“I hope nothing killed it.” Anything that could take on an Ativahika—well, Singer was an unarmed tug, and fuel-efficient, but not what you would call a fast or maneuverable flyer. He was good at going in straight lines really cheaply while hauling enormous masses at a safe but respectable clip, though—which was why his white coils were so much bigger than he was. None better, if that was what you needed, and usually in our case it was.
I wondered if the Ativahikas would take it amiss if we salvaged one of their own, for purposes of returning the body to them. Or if they might be grateful. Of all the older syster races—assuming they were a syster race—they were in the running for the most inscrutable. I mean, they didn’t talk, at least as far as I knew. But they were generally accepted as sapient. Maybe it was just that they had never needed to communicate anything to something as tiny and fragile as a terrestrial-type species, when they had all of space to call their home.
* * *
I realized I’d drifted to the window when my nose brushed it. It didn’t get me appreciably closer to the corpse of the Ativahika, and it didn’t cut down on the glare; the viewport covers have a nonreflective coating that makes them, to all intents, invisible. But it’s instinct; people will steer their craft into objects that have attracted their attention.
I caught the rail with my afthands to keep from bumping my nose again. Rubbing my nose gently, I stroked the port with my other hand to enlarge the view.
A living Ativahika looks more like an elongated seahorse than a whale. They’re bilaterally symmetrical, with a frilled head and a tapered neck, trailed by their ridged body and fronded tail. The whole is covered with their seaweed-like appendages, though I have no idea whether that evolved for some mysterious reason in space, or it’s a holdover from wherever they arose. Evolution doesn’t bother to pitch stuff out until it has a reason, and sometimes not even then. The deep, glossy green color is a chlorophyll analogue—a pigment that converts light and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar. It’s a symbiote. The Ativahika itself metabolizes oxygen and produces carbon dioxide. Each creature is its own ecosystem in miniature.
Unbelievably, among all the weird and wonderful systers—the methane breathers, the ones that use ammonia as a solvent instead of H2O—they have a biology that is not particularly dissimilar to our own. Unbelievably, because they look like the most alien creature imaginable.
Their bodies are up to ten kilometers in length, and arranged with almost boring normalcy around a central nervous system with a brain and a spinal cord and even a spine. Their bones, rather than being made of calcites, are silicates that they extract by chewing up asteroids, space rocks, and—with particular gusto—the debris that forms planetary rings, which is also where they get their water. They’re in the H2O solvent club along with us. Their blood is even red; the stuff they use to carry oxygen is a close-enough hemoglobin analogue that you could probably make black pudding out of it. If you were some sort of cannibalistic barbarian willing to eat the flesh of sentients, I mean.
Their most spectacular trait, and the one whose absence had slowed my recognition of this particular piece of once-living space debris, is the spread of their fins or wings or filaments. There’s a good deal of argument over what to call the appendages, which spring from the Ativahika’s ridged body like a forest of kelp from a stone. The fins are varying shades of green, depending on their age—from apple-bright to mossy stone. They have variegated edges, and they float and trail around the Ativahika’s body inertially in the weightless, frictionless, air-currentless environment of space. They undulate with the Ativahika’s movement, and serve to increase its surface area for photosynthesis. They also may serve some sensory purpose: nobody knows—nobody human, anyway, none of the humans of my acquaintance have ever seemed to know, and I’ve never had the opportunity to ask a syster.
This particular specimen was unrecognizable in part because it was arched into that back-bending inside-out broken wheel position. And partially because the long taper of its body was, well, not utterly smooth, because I could see wounds and stubs along its length, but shorn. Shorn of tendrils, wings, or fins. And shorn as well of the long, symmetrical appendages they used as manipulators.
I couldn’t imagine that a dead Ativahika would ever be considered a good sign. I wish I could say that, staring at that terrible thing, I had a premonition. But if I had had a premonition of what it really portended, I would have thrown my veto and turned that ship around right that very second and gone to find Judiciary. No matter what it cost us. No matter how long it took.
All the evidence would likely have been gone by the time we got back. And that bothers me a little, and it would have bothered the me in the alternate timestream where I made more cautious choices. Given what I eventually learned, I guess it wouldn’t have been the end of it anyway. There would have been another avenue to get to us. And in any case, time is a river that only flows one way.
It feels . . . odd to be telling this story. It’s just me recording in senso, journaling. I’ve kept ayatana logs, like any crew member does. But it’s never been something I thought anybody else might hear, except maybe a review board, and now . . . now I don’t know who I’m talking to.
But my log might turn out to be important: a historical document or evidence in a hearing or even an inquest and trial. So now I’m thinking about, well, who am I talking to? Because I’m not just talking to myself anymore.
I’m talking to a court panel, maybe. A judge and a couple of AIs and some people from various syster species who’ve come up in the service lottery this an. Or maybe I’m talking to the crew of another salvage tug, because I’m dead and what you have left is this voice record, not even an ayatana. Or maybe I’m talking to a historian, some archinformist who’s unearthed this from a forgotten storage crystal.
Or maybe you’re a pirate.
In which case I hope you choke on what I have to say.
* * *
“What could cause that?” Connla asked.
You could almost hear Singer shaking the head he didn’t have. “Connla, I do not know. Its trajectory is interesting, however. It seems to be on an elongated orbit around the space-time scar that we came here to investigate.”
“White scars aren’t supposed to have gravity,” Connla said.
“No,” Singer agreed. “They aren’t.”
“How’s the bubble?” I asked.
From somewhere behind me, the scuff of Connla turning. He was no more than a glimpse of shiny black ponytail in the reflective casement at the window’s edge. “Holding.”
“Do you want to investigate?”
Singer did. I admit, I was curious myself. But it seemed like an unnecessary risk, and chasing the corpse down on EM would take time.
And we were here with a job to do.
I pushed back from the window, went to my post, and dipped fingertips into my interface. The unspace around the salvage tug flooded my nervous system with colors, tastes, smells. It tipped and whirled, my sense of balance engaging as well. The white bubble—our own private little artificially generated reality—kept the universal constants in order so our neurons kept firing and our lungs kept lung-ing, and that was a good thing. Once we found the scar and went into it, we wouldn’t be able to see or sense a damned thing beyond it. A border where the laws of physics changed plays hob with the electromagnetic spectrum.
So we crept toward the wormhole scar.
The scar wasn’t exactly visible. It was gravitational, like a slit in the universe with a bit less mass than the areas around it. Galaxies are surrounded—permeated—by a halo of dark gravity. Teflon-coated reality, as it were: stuff we can’t interact with, can’t see, can’t sense . . . except it has mass. Maybe. In any case, it generates gravity. Or curvatures in space-time. Or . . . it amounts to what it amounts to.
So we were swinging our mass detectors around, scanning for a ripple, of sorts, in the heaviness of space. A spot that would appear as if someone had teased a magnet along a pile of iron filings and drawn them all to one side or the other, so they heaped in two ridges and the center became a valley. There was dark gravity here, in the space between the stars, as well as around us, intertwined with the stuff of the Milky Way. The stuff was like spun sugar stretched between sticky fingers, if the galaxy were a snacking toddler.
Although in that analogy the toddler would be mired in an entire gymnasium full of spun sugar, so maybe it’s not the best theoretical model. Especially if you’re the person who has to give that kid a bath.
So there was our gravitational anomaly, which is to say our anomaly in the distribution of mass. A wormhole scar, so-called—the mark left by a particular kind of failed Alcubierre-White transition. If you do one of those right, the dark gravity is supposed to go right back where it started. I mean, given that we still don’t have a really good idea of how gravity works, or where it comes from, and we still haven’t managed to figure out how to generate it despite the fact that it’s been the best part of a millennian since Isaac Newton discovered apples—
Anyway, if your bubble collapses completely, you stop bending space-time around yourself to cheat Newton and Einstein and—if you’re lucky—you pop back out into regular space a few hundred light-ans from anything useful and hope you can repair your drive before you starve or run out of oxy. If you’re unlucky, you come out at an angle to reality where your ship and your biology don’t conform to the local laws of physics, and . . .
. . . oh well.
At least, theoretically. Nobody’s ever come back from an accident like that to comment.
But if your bubble kind of stalls, halfway into the otherworld as it were, neither fish nor fowl, space-time half-bent and half . . . well, normally bendy, because it’s not like there’s such a thing as flat space-time . . .
Then you become my job.
Our job, I mean—mine, and Connla’s, and Singer’s.
It doesn’t happen often—not so often that any given trip through interstellar space is likely to end with the passengers stuck halfway out of space-time. But most ships don’t catch fire, either. Still, enough do that ships have fire suppressant foam, and in a big galaxy with a lot of traffic, there are always a few accidents. Enough to keep a few dozen salvage operators like us in business, anyway.
I waved us forward, and we slid through the hole in the universe as if we were parting the petals on a not-yet-open bud.
Back into white space again.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ahoy there me mateys! I have really been enjoying my foray into Elizabeth Bear’s works and this was no exception. This story follows Haimey Dz who is a member of a three person salvage crew. A routine salvage trip turns to disaster when the ship they attempt to retrieve is a crime scene. And Haimey also catches an unknown alien virus. What results is a foray into ancient alien technology, dealing with space pirates, and exploring Haimey’s own past. While I enjoyed this book, it was a very odd read to me. Part of this stems from the fact that there is a lot of physics in this book about the folding of space time and travel. As I continue to state, physics and I are not friends. There was also a small section about music theory that went over me noggin. But most of me personal problems stem from the world-building and plot pacing. Elizabeth Bear’s fantasy series are dense in descriptions and ideas that make the fantasy worlds feel real. The plots are meandering and slow-paced. The action sequences are spaced out and a lot of the information feels like filler that is super fun but could be removed. I loved it in her fantasy books. This space book had all of those writing hallmarks but the sequences failed to capture me fancy in quite the same way. I had to put down the book at several points because I was slightly bored with the descriptions of the tech or philosophical platitudes. In fact, I really would categorize this book more as a character study. The sections regarding Haimey and how she deals with the “sexy pirate” or the uses of her internal brain computer or her memories to be the highlights of this book for me. I also enjoyed what existed of the interplay being Haimey and her crew. The psychological effects of Haimey’s entire journey is really what kept me reading and what interested me the most. This book will not suit every reader. While the plot is character driven, this is a book of ideas at its core. There are philosophical conundrums like how to run a society, the responsibilities of individual, the uses of technology, the applications and rights of artificial intelligence, genetic modifications, the fundamental nature of personalities, etc. I stuck with this book because I know that the endings of Bear’s books usually pan out and make the journey worth it. This was no exception. Plus there is a giant praying mantis space detective. Apparently this is the first in a duology. Though in Bear’s interview with Barnes & Noble she states that “It’s not exactly accurate to call it a duology, however. It’s two related books, which will have some continuing characters, but each one should stand on its own as an arc and a story . . . The second book, which is titled Machine, is about a woman is a space trauma rescue specialist for an enormous multi-species medical center.” Sign me up!
An early moment in Elizabeth Bear’s expansive new space opera Ancestral Night has narrator Haimey Dz offer a meta-commentary on the ancient, 19th century novels she reads during the long hours spent drifting through space: “They’re great for space travel because they were designed for people with time on their hands. Middlemarch. Gorgeous, but it just goes on and on.” Ancestral Night is a busy and boisterous novel, complex and beautifully composed, but also has a tendency to labor its points. Haimey and her team of salvagers spend their time searching for derelict ships and abandoned tech in “white space”, ripples in space-time that enable faster than light travel. On their latest job, a nano-parasite created by a mysterious, long vanished race called the Koregoi infects Haimey, guiding her mind to an advanced Korogoi ship hidden inside a black hole. They aren’t the only salvagers who know about the ship, and Haimey finds herself on a collision course with some very dangerous revolutionaries willing to use the ship to settle their score with the far-reaching galactic society known as the Synarche. Recalling the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, Bear depicts a space-faring civilization made up of a multitude of alien cultures and intelligences that uses advanced technology to care for its citizens needs. Differences compound the deeper Bear takes us into her world: unlike the Culture with its artificial Minds, the Synarche chooses its civil servants by draft lottery, doing away with the corruptible governing elites that less enlightened societies create. Bear also takes technological augmentation to a new level. Haimey, like most of the Synarche’s citizens, has implants that allow her to interface with technology as easily as most of us breathe. These implants also allow her to turn emotions on and off and even alter her personality and psychological makeup at will. The cultish creche that raised her used them to brainwash her and make her complicit in their crimes, and later the Synarche uses them to remove her memories of those crimes. Bear highlights the philosophical conundrums inherent in these technological and social innovations and the complicated notions of consent that attend them. Ancestral Night is saturated with moral and political ambition. Rich with conflict and action, though often slowed down by explication and discourse, the story sometimes loses its momentum. I look forward to the second volume in this planned duology with the hope that it moves at a more studious pace.