Sister Aliceby Robert Reed
"An epic tale of visionary futures and scientific speculation." --Library Journal
Millions of years from now, humanity will be on the brink of self-destruction. The world's great leaders have created an elite group who, by their superior wisdom and abilities, keep the peace, maintain progress, and otherwise safeguard humanity's future. Genetically enhanced,/p>
"An epic tale of visionary futures and scientific speculation." --Library Journal
Millions of years from now, humanity will be on the brink of self-destruction. The world's great leaders have created an elite group who, by their superior wisdom and abilities, keep the peace, maintain progress, and otherwise safeguard humanity's future. Genetically enhanced, they are the carriers of Earth's greatest talents, a force unlike any in the history of mankind.
For ten million years, the Families dominated the galaxy. But then Alice, a brilliant scientist of the Chamberlain family, took part in an attempt to create a new galaxy. Her experiment unleashed vast forces that the family could not control, causing a catastrophe that killed untold billions of people on many worlds.
Before she was punished for her role in the debacle, Alice visited Ord, a younger Chamberlain. Only he, of all the people in the galaxy, knows what Alice tells him. Her words launch him upon a quest that will take him across the vast reaches of space. He must discover his own true nature, and somehow restore the family honor. Sister Alice is his epic story.
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By Robert Reed, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2003 Robert Reed
All rights reserved.
"I found myself daydreaming, remembering my childhood as a wonderful time clothed in simple fun and sweet easy victories ... I was reveling in how perfectly carefree my first taste of life had been ... and that was the moment when my instincts first warned me, whispering in my countless ears that our work had gone seriously, tragically wrong ..."
— Alice's testimony
Xo told their squad this was a lousy place to build and their fort was sick with flaws, and the Blues were sure to crush them, and, of course, every disaster would be Ravleen's fault. He said it with his best whiny voice, making it impossible to ignore his grousing. She had no choice but to come over, interrupting their drills to tell Xo to quit. But he wouldn't quit. He laughed in her face, and said, "You're no general." Ord heard him plainly. Everyone heard him. Ravleen had no choice but to knock him off his feet and give him a good sharp kick. Xo was a Gold, and she was their Sanchex, the Gold's eternal general. She had every right to punish him, aiming for his belly and ribs. But Xo refused to cooperate. He started cursing, bright poisonous words hanging in the air. "You're not Sanchex," he grunted. "You're just a Sanchex face stuffed full of shit, and I'm not scared of you." Ravleen moved to his face, breaking his nose and cheekbones, the skin splitting and blood spattering on the new snow. Everyone watched. Ord stood nearby, watching their snow melt into the blood, each diluting the other. He saw Xo's face become a gooey mess, and he heard the boy's voice finally fall away into a sloppy wet laugh.
Tule stepped up, saying, "If you hurt him too much, he won't be able to hurt anyone else."
Ravleen paused, panting from her hard work. Tule was right. Their general dropped her foot and pushed her long black hair out of her eyes, grinning now, making sure everyone could see her confidence. Then she knelt, making a ball out of the bloody snow, asking, "Who wants to help this shit home?"
Tule was closest, but she despised Xo. She didn't approve of disobedience; it was her endless duty to keep their clan working smoothly, bowing to every one of Ravleen's demands.
On the other hand, Ord was passingly sympathetic. Xo wasn't his best friend, but he was a reliable companion. Besides, for the time being they belonged to the same squad. A soldier had a duty to his squad, and that's why Ord stepped up, saying, "I'll take him."
"Then come straight back," Ravleen added.
He gave a nod, and asked Xo, "Can you stand?"
The bloody face said, "Maybe." A gloved hand reached for him, and Ord thought of the battered ribs as he lifted. But the tortured groans were too much; Xo had a fondness for theater. "Thanks," he muttered, then he reached into his mouth, pulling out a slick white incisor and tossing it at the half-built fort. With a soft ping, the tooth struck one of the robots and vanished.
They walked slowly, crossing the long pasture before climbing into the dark winter woods. Xo stopped at the first tree, leaning against it and carefully spitting out a glob of dark blood. Ord worked to be patient. The tree's rough bark formed words, and he spent the moment reading about the Chamberlain role in some long-ago treaty. Then he stared back down at the pasture, watching the robots strip it of snow, building their fort according to Ravleen's exacting designs. A simple titanium pole, topped with a limp golden flag, stood in the future courtyard. Tiny figures wearing clean white snowsuits were drilling again — six squads honing themselves for snowfare. It looked like an easy pasture to defend. On three sides, it fell away, cliffs and nearly vertical woods protecting the fort. The only easy approach was from here, from above. Ravleen was assuming that the Blues would do what was easy, which was why the nearest wall had the thickest foundation. "Keep your strong to their strong," was an old Sanchex motto. But what if Xo was right? What if their general was leaving the other walls too weak?
"I can't walk very fast," Xo warned. His swollen face was inhuman, ruined flesh and bits of bone floating in a masticated stew. But the bleeding had stopped, scabs forming, and the smallest cuts beginning to heal. Speaking with a faint lisp, Xo admitted, "I sound funny now."
"You should have left your tooth in," Ord countered. Gums preferred to repair teeth, not replace them. "Or you might have kept your mouth shut in the first place."
Xo gave a little laugh.
Something moved in the distance. Ord squinted, seeing an airship carrying sightseers. The distant sun glittered against the ship's body, and he imagined curious eyes watching only him.
"Let's go," he urged. "I'm tired of standing."
They walked on a narrow trail, their pace more leisurely than slow. Snow began to fall, and the woods were already knee deep in old snow. They weren't far from the lowlands, and sometimes, particularly on clear days, city sounds would rise up from that hot flat country, forcing their way through the acoustic fence. But not today. The snow helped enforce the silence. To step and not hear his own footfall made Ord a little anxious. He was alert, as if ready for an ambush. The war wouldn't start until the day after tomorrow, but he was anticipating it. He was ready. Unless the fight had made him anxious, which meant that he was distracted and sloppy.
"Know why I did it?" asked Xo.
Ord said nothing.
"Know why I pissed her off?"
The battered face grinned, Xo proud of the gap in his teeth. "I don't have to play this war now."
"Ravleen's not that angry," Ord countered. "She isn't even half-enough pissed to ban you."
"But I'm hurt. Look!"
"So?" Ord refused to act impressed. Glancing over a shoulder, he observed, "You're walking and talking. Not talking fast and your words are dumb, but still, you're not that hurt."
But Xo's Family — the great Nuyens — were ridiculously cautious. A sister might see his suffering and order him to remain home for a few days. It wouldn't be the first time, particularly if Xo moaned like he did now, telling Ord, "I don't want to play snowfare."
Wincing, Xo pretended to ache. But by now a cocktail of anesthesias was working, and both of them knew it.
"If you can stand, you can fight," Ord reminded him. "When you became Gold, you took a pledge to serve —"
"Wait." The boy waded into the deepest snow, heading for an outcropping of cultured granite. He found a block of bright pink stone and carried it back, dropping it at Ord's feet. "Do me a favor?"
"But not too hard. Just nick me here." He touched his stubby black hair. "I'll pay you back sometime. That's a promise."
Ord lifted the stone without conviction.
"Make it ugly," the boy prompted.
Ord shook his head, saying, "First you've got to tell me why you don't want to fight. Is it Ravleen?"
"I don't care about Ravleen."
"Tell me the truth, or I won't help you."
With his white gloves, the boy touched his scabbed and unnaturally rounded face. "Because it's stupid."
"This game. This whole snowfare silliness."
Calling it a "game" was taboo. Snowfare was a serious exercise that taught you to give orders and obey orders and think well for yourself when there was nobody there but you.
"We're too old to play," his friend persisted. "I know I am."
This wasn't about Ravleen, which left Ord with no easy, clear rebuke. He asked, "What will you do instead?" He assumed there was some other diversion waiting for Xo. Perhaps a trip somewhere. Not off the estates, of course. That wasn't permitted, not at their age. But maybe one of Xo's siblings wanted to take him on a hunt, or somehow else share time with him.
But the boy said, "Nothing. I'm just going to sit at home and study." He paused for a moment. "Put the pointed end here, okay? Drop it next to this ear. And I promise, I'll tell my sisters that Ravleen did it."
Ord watched the boy lie on the hard white trail, his face cocked a little bit to his right. He was waiting calmly for his skull to be shattered. The stone couldn't hurt him too badly. Eons ago, humans gave up their soft brains for better ones built of tough, nearly immortal substances. The worst Ord could manage would be to scramble some of the neural connections, making Xo forgetful and clumsy for the next few days. The body might even die, but nothing more. Nothing less than a nuclear fire could kill them. Which was the same for almost every human being today.
"Are you going to help me?" the boy whined.
Ord watched the hopeful face, judging distance and mass, deciding what would make the ugliest, most spectacular wound. But he kept thinking back to Xo's comment about being too old, knowing he was right. Some trusted spark for the game had slipped away unnoticed, and that bothered the boy.
"Will you hurry up?"
He let the stone slip free of his grip, and the earth pulled it down with a smooth perfection, missing Xo's head by nothing.
"No, I shouldn't," Ord said. "I won't, forget it."
"Be that way!" The boy lifted the stone himself, groaning as he took aim, trying to summon the courage to finish the job. He was invulnerable, but so were his ancient instincts. This was not easy. His arms shook, then collapsed. The attempt looked like a half accident — a slick wet thud — and his head was left dented on one side. But not badly enough, they discovered. Xo could stand by himself, a little dizzy, but still on his feet. He touched his wounds one after another, telling himself, "At least I'll get tomorrow to myself." He wasn't looking at Ord, and he was talking to himself. "This is good enough," he claimed with a soft wet voice that instantly got lost in the muting whisper of falling snow.CHAPTER 2
"In the universe, there is just the one ultimate law: Life always devises some ultimate means to put an end to life."
— Alice's testimony
There were exactly one thousand Families.
Nothing about their existence had come easily. Not their laws, not their restrictions, and not even their numbers. Ten million years ago, with the Great Wars still raging, an alliance of desperate leaders met on a frigid, barely named world. Everyone who traveled there, enemies and friends alike, agreed about one vital issue: Without substantial, immediate change, the human species would soon be extinct. Populations were collapsing in every district; entire worlds were being reduced to dust and crumbled bones. Moreover, if the wars continued to spread, every other flavor of life in the galaxy would be battered, and many species would cease to be.
It was that atmosphere of terror and unalloyed despair that brought out the unsuspected genius in mere people. Suddenly the unthinkable was obvious, the impossible appeared easy, and the coldest, most bloodless bureaucrat found himself speaking in verse and dreaming in brilliant color. A war-weary prime minister sketched out the roughest imaginable plan for the future. With a quavering voice, she described the Families, giving them that inadequate name because she didn't have time or inclination to think of any better title. The Families would begin with a few carefully selected individuals, she explained. Each of those few would be given every imaginable power. A kind of godhood would be set on their shoulders, and because they had to be good ethical people, they would have no choice but to fill the role of worthy gods, helping normal citizens and old prime ministers steer a worthy course through the coming eons.
But how many people deserved such an honor? And how would they be chosen? And how many of these Families would be required to serve this pitiful humanity?
The prime ministers and presidents and even the scruffiest little despot had brought powerful quantum computers with them. Each asked his or her machine for its opinion, and after careful deliberation based on nearly infinite factors, plus a hard stare into the imaginable future, the machines blessed the outrageous plan. But they couldn't agree on any single perfect number of Families. There were too many variables, they confessed. The future was vast and unknowable and imperfect and probably malicious. It was left to the human minds to arrive at a target goal, and after a heartbeat's pause, some little voice in back cried out, "How about a flat thousand? It's a simple, memorable number, and it gives us a lot of them, but not so many that they'll be getting underfoot ... you know, so they won't seem cheap ...?"
Ord WAS A Chamberlain.
Probably no Family was known by more or wielded more power. Near the center of the sprawling estate, perched on a broad scenic peak, stood a great round building, tall and massive, built from the cultured granite with a shell of tailored white corals living on its exterior. It was the Chamberlains' ancestral home. The interior, both above ground and below, was a maze of rooms and curling hallways, simple laboratories and assorted social arenas. There were enough apartments for fifteen hundred brothers and sisters, should so many ever wish to come home at once. And there were other fabulous buildings scattered about the property — elegant cottages and ancient hunting lodges and baby mansions built from the rarest or most modern of materials. The entire Chamberlain family could reunite on this one patch of holy ground, if there would ever be the need.
But it was the simple cylindrical house that embodied the Chamberlain legacy and legend. Humans throughout the galaxy would see the image of it, and they would think about Ord's family — how they helped the Sanchexes win the Great Wars, and afterward, the Chamberlains and Nuyens were instrumental in building the institutions and customs and laws and muscular organizations that had brought about the Ten-Million-Year Peace. Success brought wealth, and wealth gave new opportunities. The Chamberlains turned their vast energies on the stars. They explored the farthest reaches of the Milky Way, and farther, finding the bones of lost species and making first contact with hundreds of important alien species. And afterward, for these last long eons, it had been the Chamberlains who had mastered the rapid terraforming of empty worlds. Age and disease had been conquered, and death rates were vanishingly small, leaving an endless demand for new homes, and novel homes, and lovely places for which aliens and humans both would pay substantial fees, particularly for inspired work done on schedule.
Ord knew enough of his Family history to fill volumes, and he knew nothing. What he had mastered was a speck compared to the true history. He knew the Great Wars were fought with savagery, billions murdered, and the Earth itself left battered. But the Peace had endured for a hundred thousand centuries, and throughout, the Families had given it backbone and the occasional guiding touch. Ord himself was a whisper of a child, not even fifty years old. His powers as a Chamberlain lay in the remote future. Imaging himself in a million years, he saw a semigod who was busily building green worlds at the Core, or perhaps flying off to some far galaxy, exploring its wilderness while making new allies. But the actual changes between today and tomorrow were mysterious to him. His mind and energies would swell, but how would that feel to him? His senses would multiply, and time itself would slow to where seconds became months. But what would such an existence be like? He had asked the brothers and sisters who lived with him. He had worn them down with his inquiries. Yet not one could ever offer a clear, compelling, or even halfway believable answer.
"You're too young to understand," they would profess, their voices distant and bored. Even a little shrill. "Just wait and see," they would recommend. "Patience. Try patience. You'll learn when you're ready, and that isn't now."
But Ord sensed the truth. Like him, his siblings had no idea what the future held. Like all reasonable questions, his were completely unoriginal. And the Chamberlains that he saw day by day — siblings younger than a single millennium — felt as if they were trapped inside the same proverbial spacecraft, adrift and lost and a little bit scared.CHAPTER 3
"When I lived here, when I was every kind of child, the mountains were new. The estates were new. Our mansions were modest but comfortable homes meant for modest and deserving gods, and the Families were utterly victorious ... while the galaxy at our feet seemed vast and nearly empty, full of endless and intoxicating potentials ..."
— Alice's testimony
The fort WAS finished by midafternoon that next day, exactly on schedule, and after it passed the standard inspection for volume and materials, the clan celebrated, walking up to the tube station together, arms linked and everyone singing ancient Gold songs in a well-practiced chorus.
Excerpted from Sister Alice by Robert Reed, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2003 Robert Reed. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Robert Reed is the author of Marrow and ten other high-concept science fiction novels. A multiple finalist for the Hugo Award, he has had many stories published in major SF magazines, and reprinted in "year's best" anthologies. He has recently finished The Well of Stars, the sequel to MarrowHe lives with his family in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Robert Reed has been nominated for the Hugo Award twice for novellas, and was the first Grand Prize Winner of the Writers of the Future. He's had dozens of short fictions published in the major SF magazines, and more than ten novels published. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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While earthlings have voyaged to the stars, nations remain on the brink of war on the home planet. Desperate for peace, the world¿s leaders conclude that a super group must be formed if humanity is to survive. An elite thousand is chosen to make up the selected Families, earth¿s greatest gene pool that continuously will improve generation after generation. The all but immortal members of the Families have ensured a Ten Million Year Peace. However, brilliant terraformer scientist Alice, the twelfth generation of the Chamberlain Family, now hides in her ancestral home. Distraught, bordering on suicidal, the millennium old Alice eventually informs her young relative Ord that she and her peers tried to build a new galaxy that has begun exploding killing billions. The Nuyens see this misfortune as a chance to gain supreme power by getting the Chamberlains and their allies outlawed for the genocide caused by Alice. Only Ord, secretly endowed with Alice's powers, is the hope the universe has to halt and hopefully reverse the destruction of the galaxy. Fans of epic science fiction adventures will fully appreciate SISTER ALICE. The story line is action packed yet makes sure that the key characters are genuine and the laws of physics especially pertaining to the Families and Alice¿s experiment are consistent and feel scientifically based. The plot also provides cautionary themes that absolute power and unchecked science will turn arrogant and corrupt. If you have to choose one futuristic outer space adventure, Robert Reed¿s latest thriller should be on the short list as one of the year¿s best. Harriet Klausner