SF masters Gregory Benford and Larry Niven spin a tale of alien encounters and strange technologies on an epic scale
In Bowl of Heaven, the first collaboration by science fiction authors Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Gregory Benford (Timescape), the limits of wonder are redrawn once again as a human expedition to another star system is jeopardized by an encounter with an astonishingly immense artifact in interstellar space: a bowl-shaped structure half-englobing a star, with a habitable area equivalent to many millions of Earths…and it's on a direct path heading for the same system as the human ship.
A landing party is sent to investigate the Bowl, but when the explorers are separatedone group captured by the gigantic structure's alien inhabitants, the other pursued across its strange and dangerous landscapethe mystery of the Bowl's origins and purpose propel the human voyagers toward discoveries that will transform their understanding of their place in the universe.
About the Author
GREGORY BENFORD is professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, and lives in Irvine. Benford is a winner of the United Nations Medal for Literature, and the Nebula Award for his classic novel Timescape.
LARRY NIVEN is the multiple Hugo and Nebula Award–winning author of the Ringworld series, along with many other science fiction masterpieces. His Beowulf's Children, coauthored with Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes, was a New York Times bestseller. He lives in Chatsworth, California.
Read an Excerpt
Bowl of Heaven
By Gregory Benford, Larry Niven
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2012 Gregory Benford
All rights reserved.
He recalled those words, his nervous mantra recited as the soft sleep came closing its grip with chilly fingers—
— and so he knew he was alive. Awake again. Up from the chill-sleep of many decades.
He was cold. His memory was blurred, but it told him he was on an odyssey no biologist had ever ventured on before, a grand epic. He was going to the stars, yes, and they had given him the stinky sulfur gas, yes, the first creeping chill ... and that was ... it.
But beyond that flash of memory, all he could think of was the incredible, muscle-shaking chill that spread like a sharp ache through him. He was too numb to shiver. Somewhere a loud rumble rolled up through his body, not heard but felt. The cold ... He thought hard and with effort opened his sticky eyes.
Trouble. His gummy eyelids slammed closed against a crisp actinic glare. He must be in the revival clinic. Slowly he pried them open, still numb with cold. He focused with effort, looking for the joyous faces of his fellow colonists.
Not there. Nor was Beth.
Instead, the worried frowns of Mayra and Abduss Wickramsingh made him groggily anxious as they worked over him. Their faces swam away, came back, drifting above like clouds as the cold began to recede. He was tired. His bones ached with it. After decades of sleep ...
Hands massaged his rubbery legs. Lungs wheezed. His heart labored, thumping in his ears. His throat rasped with a sour wind. He was finally starting to shiver. Sluggish sleep fell away like a mummy's moldy shroud.
Think. The Wickramsinghs were paired by ability, he recalled in a gray fog, self-sufficient and solely responsible for the three years of their watch. Mayra piloted, and Abduss was the engineer. They were fairly far down the queue, maybe twenty-seven watches. ... How far along were they? It hurt to figure.
They turned him on his side to work on his stiff muscles. The massaging sent lancing pain, and he let out a muffled scream. They ignored that. At least he could see better. Against the hard ceramic glare, he could see that no others of SunSeeker's 436 passengers in cold sleep were being revived. A capsule was running its program, though, so someone was coming out behind him. The bay was empty. Carboceramic tiles were clean, looking like new.
As a scientist, he was not slated to come out until the infrastructure staff was up and running at Scorpii 3, the balmy world that everybody called Glory, that no eye had ever seen.
So they were maybe eighty years into the voyage. Not enough to be near Glory. Something was wrong.
Mayra's lips moved, glistening in the hard light, but he heard nothing. They worked on his neural connections and — pop! — he could hear. The dull rumble hammered at him. Interstellar surf.
"Okay? Okay?" Mayra said anxiously, mouth tight, her eyes intent. "What's your name?"
He coughed, hacked. Once his throat was clear of milky fluid, his first words were, "Cliff ... Kammash. But ... Why me? I'm bio. Is Beth still cold?"
They didn't answer at once, but each looked at the other.
"Don't talk," Mayra said softly, a smile flickering.
Definitely trouble. He had known the Wickramsinghs slightly in training, remembered them as reserved and disciplined, just what a cryo passenger would wish in a caretaker watch team.
And they were good. They got his creaky body up off the slab, kind hands helping, his muscles screaming. Then into a gown, detaching the IVs. Up, creaking onto his feet. He swayed, the room reeled, he sat down. Try again. Better ... a step. First in eighty years, feet like bricks. They helped him shuffle to a table. He sat. Minutes crawled by as he felt air swoosh in and out of his lungs. He studied this phenomenon carefully, as though it were a miracle. As perhaps it was.
Food appeared. Coffee: caffeine, yes, lovely caffeine. Nobody spoke. Next course, soup. It tasted like nectar, the essence of life. Then they told him, as he eagerly slurped down a big bowl of fragrant veggie mix grown aboard. Halfway through his third bowl, he became vaguely aware that they were talking about an astrophysical observation that required his interpretation.
"What? Mayra, Astro is you," he shot back. "Every pilot has to be."
"We need a different viewpoint," Mayra said, her dark eyes wary. "We do not want to bias your views by explaining more now."
"We are reviving the captain, too," Abduss said.
He blinked, startled. "Redwing?"
"It's that important." Abduss was unreadable. "He will awaken in another day, his capsule says."
Cliff felt a chill that was not thermal. Stores of food, water, oxygen couldn't be recycled forever. That was the point in riding semi-frozen: They would reach Glory with enough stores to survive until they could replace what was lost.
"Four of us. Waking too many people would run us short," he said. "What's up?"
Again, the Wickramsinghs looked at each other and did not answer.
* * *
As soon as he could walk steadily, they showed him the viewing screens, and for a long moment he could not speak.
The spectacle was striking, both for what was familiar and what was not. SunSeeker was forty light-years from Earth, and yet he could identify many of the constellations he had known as a child in Brazil. Their familiar faces swam among a bright swarm of lesser lights, twisted here and there. On the scale of the galaxy, light-years did not count for much.
He immediately looked for their destination. A star not much different from Sol, Glory's primary should be a white point dead ahead. It was there, reassuringly bright, though still five light-years away. Perhaps its brilliance was enhanced by SunSeeker's velocity? No, that was a small effect. More probably, brightened by his own longing to see, to breathe, to touch an Earthlike world, named Glory out of pure hope before any human eye had seen it. Pixels and spectra didn't do the job.
Other stars brimmed in the rosy night lit by SunSeeker's bow shock. The ramscoop's plowing through the interstellar gas and ionized hydrogen was an unending rainbow light show, filmy incandescent streamers curving around them as they plunged into the infinite night. Beyond that prow wash lay the spectrally shifted universe. Some of the glimmering stars were intriguing, constellations rearranged — but nothing compared to the nearby red sun.
"That's the problem?" Cliff asked.
Abduss nodded. "It is a problem, but there is another, larger. We have been wrestling with this more difficult issue, but that can wait for the captain."
Can't these people ever say anything straight? He made himself say deliberately, "Okay, tell me what's the big deal about this star?"
"We are overtaking it. When we came on watch, the star was not visible. There was a mild recombination source nearby, rather odd." Switching to another channel, Abduss pointed out a diffuse ivory plume behind the dark patch.
Cliff frowned. "How long is it?"
Abduss said, "About three astronomical units. This is a signature of hydrogen recombining, after it has been ionized. This linear feature seems to be a jet, cooling off and then turning back into atoms. That's the emission I made this map from, you see?"
"Um." Cliff wrinkled his nose, trying to think like an Astro type. "A jet from a star. It didn't jump out at you?"
Abduss tightened his mouth but otherwise did not move. "At first we did not even see the star."
Uh-oh ..., Cliff thought. Best to shut up, yes.
"We had much to measure. The jet did not attract much attention, as it seemed unimportant. Yet now we can see it to be related to the star — which suddenly appeared."
Cliff nodded, smiled, tried to defuse the man's irritation. "Perfectly understandable. Our problems are inside the ship, not outside. So ... the star popped into view because it came around the rim of this ... thing."
Mayra murmured, "We became alarmed."
"Nobody noticed the star before? Earlier watches?"
Abduss blinked slowly. "We could not see it."
Cliff shrugged. In moderate close-up, the dwarf showed as a disk: it must be close. It was perched at the lip of a much larger arc of light. An ordinary star, little and reddish. He raised an eyebrow at Mayra.
"The spectral class is F9," Mayra added helpfully. "Most likely the plasma plume means that this star must have been recently active. Early stars often display this." Under magnification, the expelled matter looked to Cliff like a thin nebula, dim and old.
"But we don't know it's a young star," he said.
"No, stars of this class have very long lifetimes."
Cliff had never been much concerned with the fate of failed stars as they erupted and faltered. Spectacular, sure, easy to sell to contract monitors — but biology demands a stable abode. Still, he immediately guessed that this veil was a remnant of an earlier era in the star's life, when it was blowing off shells of hot gas. A good guess, anyway — but of course, not his field. These details of stellar evolution had never interested him very much, since they had little to do with his specialty, the evolution of higher life-forms on worlds similar to Earth. A largely abstract pursuit until the Alpha Centauri discoveries of a simple but strange ecology there. That was what drew him to Glory; Beth was an accidental benefit.
So he shrugged. "Gas from a small star. Why wake me up?"
"You are the highest-ranked Scientific," Abduss said.
Marya added, "And your specialty may be quite relevant."
That remark just perplexed him. He felt hungry and tired and disappointed. And miffed, yes, with a raspy sore throat. He sucked in a deep breath. "I'm supposed to assess Glory's biology, not be awakened to answer questions from the watch crew!"
They blinked, startled. He wondered if he was betraying more than the typical awakened-sleeper irritation they all had been warned about. Chill-sleep was reasonably safe, but coming out of it was not. Every crew member under its enforced hibernation cycle ran a 2 percent risk of subtle neurological damage from a revival, an irreducible price of seeking the stars. By waking him, they had forced him to double that risk. He'd be going back into the chill when he'd done what they wanted. He had rather blithely accepted the risk of several revivals when he became a senior science officer, he recalled, when it was entirely theoretical.
As well, no sleeper could be immediately returned to the vaults after revival. The medical risks were too great. So he was stuck for at least a month in the narrow rumbling quarters of the starship, eating the pallid food generated from ponics tanks. There was no way to avoid the perpetual growl of the fusion ramscoop. Filters could not erase the ever-shifting tones of turbulence as the ship surged through clumps of denser gas, riding waves of ionization — a moving electrical discharge, lighting up its neighborhood.
He had not been slated for revival on the passage at all, so his sensitivity to noise had not been an issue. And indeed, the shifting, grating clangor already irked him a bit. There was no way to damp it, so he would have to use noise-suppressing headphones. Certainly he would not have made the cut for active, awake crew.
The Wickramsinghs glanced at each other yet again, as if to say, Humor him — he's a senior officer. Both inhaled deeply. Abduss said, "Please tolerate our unveiling this anomaly so that you may experience it as we did."
"Um, yes." He still felt irked, but ordered himself to behave as an officer should.
Mayra said, "Notice that the luminous gas, as you put it, is very straight."
Cliff zoomed the image — and blinked. He had expected a ragged cloud of expelled debris, the star's outer layers blown off. The plume seemed to point at the star ahead. "Pretty, at least. Why so sharp?"
Abduss said carefully, "We wondered, too. None of the astronomical analysis systems had an explanation. But it did alert us to the infrared spectrum."
"Of this plume? Why —?"
Mayra switched to the middle infrared bands, and his mouth fell open. An orange circle stretched across the sky. The plume was an arrow stuck in the exact center of some target.
"The plasma apparently comes from the center of that massive infrared region. It is mostly of hydrogen, and its ions eventually find electrons and they unite," Abduss said, as if he were talking to a student. "That is the hydrogen line we see, the plume cooling off."
Mayra added, "But it did lead our attention to the huge region of soft infrared emission."
"Hey, I'm a biologist —"
"We awoke you because the infrared signature is clear. The circle we see is solid, not a gas."
His irritation vanished. Even a biologist knew enough to be startled by the implication. All he could manage to say was, "That's impossible."
Mayra said mildly, "When I first saw it, I, too, assumed it to be gas. The spectral lines prove otherwise."
He studied it, trying to allow for perspective. "A disk? ... It's huge."
"Indeed," Mayra said.
"But it can't be a planet. It would be bigger than any star."
Abduss nodded. "We are approaching from behind it, and at present speed will come directly alongside within weeks. The ... thing ... is about three hundred AU away from us." He smiled quickly, as if embarrassed. "Allowing for that, look closer."
"This is why we awakened you," Mayra said.
He blinked. "It's ... artificial?"
"Apparently," Mayra said.
"What? How —?"
"We have just come into view of this object, by coming alongside. It drew our attention because its star suddenly appeared — presto! We could not see it before because the ... the cap, whatever it is ... blocked the starlight as we overtook it."
Abduss added helpfully, "Infrared study shows that it is not a disk. It's rounded. We witness it from behind, with the plasma plume coming through a hole at the exact rear center. The cap radiates at the temperature of lukewarm water."
"A ... sphere?" He saw it then, the image snapping into perspective. He was looking at a ball with a hole in its bottom. Through that hole, the star glowed. His imagination scrambled after an old idea. "Maybe it's a, what was the name —?"
"A Dyson sphere," Mayra provided. "We thought so at first, too."
"So this is a shell?"
She nodded. "A hemisphere, perhaps — a sphere halfway under construction. Perhaps. Only — the old texts reveal quite clearly that Dyson did not dream of a rigid sphere at all. Rather, he imagined a spherical zone filled with orbiting habitats, enough of them to capture all of the radiant energy of a star."
Abduss thumbed up a reference to these ideas on a side screen. Good — they had done the homework before awakening him. But if not a Dyson sphere, what —?
Mayra said, "We have watched and run the Doppler programs carefully. The hemispherical cap is spinning about the same axis formed by the plume."
Abduss said helpfully, "Only by rotating such a shell could one support it against the star's gravity."
"Like this ship." He nodded, trying to guess Abduss's point. "Centrifugal gravity. But a complete, rigid sphere ... spinning ... that would be impossible, right? Gravity would pull it in at the poles."
They both nodded. Abduss said, "Still, the configuration is not stable."
They both looked at him, so he went on, thinking aloud. "The shell should fall into the star — it's not orbiting. There's some sort of force balance at play here. Odd construction, indeed. Just spinning isn't enough, either — the stresses would vary with curvature. You'd need internal supports."
Mayra said, "Quite right, I believe. My first degree was in astrophysics and I have some ideas about this object, but —" She bowed her head and shrugged.
As matters developed, there was a great deal behind Mayra's modesty. In the next day, eating five meals to build himself up, he learned as much about the Wickramsinghs' subtleties as he did of the strange object they had discovered. They were deferential toward him, unveiling their ideas slowly, allowing him to come to his own conclusions. This helped greatly as the magnitude of implication grew.
Excerpted from Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford, Larry Niven. Copyright © 2012 Gregory Benford. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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