Mass comes from a harsh world named Streinveldt, where the gravity is 2.5 times that of Earth and only genetically engineered people can reside. Mass is humanoid, genetically evolved to cope with greater pressures, stronger gravity, and heavier densities than those of an ancient planet he never knew, and probably never would. For Mass, Earth is millennia in the past.
Four hundred years ago, the Empire encompassed eleven thousand inhabited worlds. It was the center of a thriving trade economy. Then, almost overnight, the Empire collapsed, leaving the remaining planets virtually isolated from one another. Mass decides to search for the Empire with a diverse group of companions who have also evolved to withstand the environments of the vastly different worlds they inhabit.
To live, they must find a way to come together, as they’re faced with intense pressure, clashing perspectives, and unfamiliar circumstances . . .
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About the Author
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The man. Mass — a name and a description.
Product of a high-gravity world and a genetically engineered strain, he stands but four feet high. He weighs 318 pounds, all of it muscle and bone and bristling strength.
His body is hard, a sturdy boulder of flesh with a density uncommon to living creatures. His blood boils through veins like copper and his nerves crackle with electricity; his body pulses with vibrant life. His legs are tree stumps; his arms, thick sinews of corded wood; his torso is a sturdy trunk of iron-oak, hardened with age.
His skin is like leather, bronze touched with crimson. His hair is coarse brightness, red and brown, streaked with gold. His mouth is a wide slash, his nose is flat and broad, his cheekbones high. His eyes —
— his eyes are deep, and colored with the brooding black of the night. They gaze out from beneath shaggy eyebrows and a grim forehead; they have a veiled sense of watchfulness, impassive and silent. They tell nothing of the man within, reveal no secret sorrows, no guilty burdens. Neither do they laugh — there is no twinkling joy in these eyes. The tiny lines which crease their comers come from years of squinting into hot winds. These eyes are careful and dark — deep like bottomless pits.
A millennium of adaptive breeding and racial selection has made this man. He is a native of Streinveldt.
Streinveldt. A planet — and a curse. Perilously close to a white-hot star, it borders on the unlivable. A young planet, small and dense, its surface is pocked with volcanoes and racked by hurricanes. Its atmosphere is more than thirty per cent dust and hot volcanic ash. The sun is perceived only as a swollen red vagueness, a patch of sky slightly brighter than the rest. Moonless, the nights are black and brooding — so black they have driven men insane. Sudden death stalks the shadows and only the strong survive on Streinveldt.
Its gravity is two and a half times normal.
On Streinveldt, 2.5 gees is normal.
On Streinveldt, normal means unnatural.
— means not resembling the conditions in which man evolved, not resembling the unengineered species still known as Homo sapiens.
Homo densitus has been bred and tailored for his world. He has been made for it.
Things were given up in the process. For instance, the average life span of densitus is seventeen per cent shorter than that of sapiens; he has a greater tendency to arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure and diseases of the heart and kidneys. His back and leg muscles break down sooner under the increased strain they must bear, and his lungs are easier prey to disease than they should be — mute testimony to the daily ache of breathing Streinveldt's turgid air. Emphysema and cancer are not uncommon.
Homo densitus is prone to hearing problems and troubles with his inner ear. His bones tend to calcify at an earlier age, leading to problems of ossification and deformity — and certain rare blood diseases. Homo densitus also suffers from bursitis, fallen arches, bow legs and sinus trouble.
Despite that, he is still stronger than any other strain of human being in the known galaxy.
Streinveldtians are descended from miners. Mining is their culture, their heritage, their life. They are downward-oriented. The sky is only one more roof, a ceiling of no importance. It is roiling ash and churning sulphur, a thick, red cloak.
Streinveldt means strength. Without it, a man is nothing. With it, a man. There is cruel beauty to a Streinveldter: his massive chest; his arms and legs like trunks of a tree; his neck, thick and corded.
It is a world where strength is the only measure of a man — who could honor a person who could not even hold himself erect?
And Mass had left it.
He was the first of his family-group to leave Streinveldt in four hundred years.
He did it because —
— let's just say because of a dream, and leave it at that.
Mass was sixty years old and still didn't know what he was going to be when he grew up.
DEAD leaves crunched underfoot, swept by the wind into yellow and green piles at the base of each pylon.
Dust and wind and dead leaves. Dark ivy crept over low broken walls. A pungent and cloying scent spoke to Mass of things he had never known —
— of sunlight in a dream and a shimmering bright day. Hot summer sky and the tinkle of —
But the building was deserted now. Empty. Not maintained.
Mass was disturbed. Where were the robots? Where were the people? He had never seen a building abandoned before. He had never seen one decaying.
The building was a shell, the artifact of a vanished Empire, the only Empire artifact within ten light-years. Tall pylons stretched overhead to suggest a dome, but they broke midway in their reach. Few of the colored sky panels were still in place; those that remained were shattered and cracked. The dome was an arena, with tumbled stones and creeping jungle the only audience to its vanished splendor. And everywhere there were dead leaves.
The forest was deep and limey-green. It surrounded and enfolded the building, it caressed and absorbed. The forest had all the time in eternity and it held the building lovingly. It was a many- faceted texture with a dark and hungry lining. Its odor was sweet and true and penetrating.
Mass moved through the structure with a wary step. The afternoon blue was fading, the air was cooling, and he did not entirely trust this echoing empty dome.
The sun, a bright yellow glare, dipped behind the tall palms; they were slender fingers reaching up from the rest of the forest. The light slanted yellow and dusty through the trees, through the ancient pylons. Motes swam in the golden radiance.
Somewhere a bird shrilled and Mass whirled at the sound. There were no birds on Streinveldt, nor any creatures that sang with the sheer joy of living. On Streinveldt, noise meant death. Either a creature was killing — or being killed. The only things that flew were the vampire kites and the airfish; both were evil creatures. The kites were leathery gliders that hung on the wind and the airfish were tenuous bladders that swam in it, howling mournfully. Neither was a bird in the sense of self-controlled flight.
Birds were a novelty to Mass and he was startled by them. Unsure of their intentions, he had spent long nervous moments watching out for them. This was an alien world, and dangerous precisely because it was alien. Everything was an unknown quantity. Even these fluttering shrillnesses were suspect. Whenever he heard their cawing cries, he automatically glanced at the sky. Curiosity mingled with dread. How much danger —?
The shadows moved.
He slapped at his weapon, a cold firm thing in his hand. He looked about him.
But it was only a light-globe, a baby one, coming out for the night. It drifted toward him from behind a fallen wall, throwing off a pale blue radiance. The shadows spread outward from its glow. Mass relaxed and reholstered his weapon. There were light-globes on Streinveldt. Light-beasts, rather: they crawled and clung instead of floating.
He chuckled and clucked at the light-globe, and held out his shovel of a hand. The creature started at the sudden motion, jerking in its flight. It was the size of two fists held together, a milky blue sphere. As it grew, its color would mature to a dusky yellow.
Mass continued to cluck at it. Reassured, the light-thing floated over to him and perched gingerly on his arm. It clutched with gentle claws and surveyed this red man carefully. Its three tiny eyes were actually heat sensors; the creature was thermotropic and would approach animals and human beings to bask in their warmth. In return, it gave off gentle light. Harmless pets, and useful.
"Did you bring a family with you?" Mass rumbled at it. "The sun is disappearing, little one, behind the edge of the world. You think you alone can hold back the dark?"
The creature only looked at him. It sighed, a gentle sound, a whispering susurrus of air, and resettled itself on its perch, its two tiny claws shifting carefully on Mass's forearm. Slowly it began to puff itself up again and its light glowed stronger.
Mass scratched the creature gently at the base of its eyes, then held it aloft to light his way through the shadowed ruins. He moved carefully through the open debris toward a low cluster of rooms, occasionally stopping to examine artifacts and markings. The short days here made him uneasy. Dusk was a gray-blue sky and black palms outlining the horizon.
Abruptly the light-globe left his arm and sailed up into the air. As it rose, it cast its aura across the tumbled stones and dead leaves. The marble tiles reflected back the glow. Mass watched as it danced across the breeze toward a clear pool of water.
He smiled, a great creasing of his granite features. It was only thirsty; water was one of the substances out of which the little creature manufactured the hydrogen which kept it afloat. Mass imagined the light-globe's hollow tongue dipping into the water and generating a tiny electric current The molecules of H2O would separate into their respective gases; the oxygen would float free, the hydrogen would be funnelled up into the light-globe's bladder. At least, he thought it worked that way. He could be mistaken.
The creature's departure made Mass conscious of the dusk. For the first time he realized how dark the day was getting and how fast. He peeled a glowplate off his toolbelt and thumbed it to life. Its glare was bright, almost harsh. He tuned it down.
The glowplate had been synthesized on Streinveldt, where all things were harsh and heavy. Here, on this world, things were delicate and muted. It didn't seem right to hit them with such heavy light. He thumbed the glow down to the same intensity as the light- globe's and crunched onward through the leaves.
The rooms at the far side of the dome were pale blue, almost ghostly; the few strands of ivy across the stones made a dark contrast. There were fallen panels blocking the door. Mass had to shove several of them aside to clear it.
Inside he found what he was looking for.
An Oracle, model HA-90.
A desk, a screen, a gray scanning plate. Ahead, the wall was blank so that images might be projected on it from the machine.
Mass stepped around a tumbled column and approached the desk. It was covered with dust; he ran his fingers across it distastefully. This had been an Empire station once.
He swept the room with his light. There was no other furniture, it had all been removed ages ago. Probably the only reason the Oracle was still here was that it was part of the building. Whoever or whatever had stripped this place had still left the main reason for its existence. Perhaps, he thought wryly, they hadn't realized what it was. Or, then again, perhaps they had realized what it was and hadn't cared.
No matter. In either case, it was here and he could use it. Mass unslung his pack, let it slide to the floor. From his chest pouch he pulled a canteen-sponge. He sucked at its flesh. The light-globe was not the only one who was thirsty.
He seated himself at the desk, blew carefully at the dust. Great clouds of it whirled up. Coughing, he turned away. He untied the cloth he wore as a headband and used it to wipe at the remaining layers of dust. It wasn't a very neat job, but at least he could see the screen and the keyboard.
He adjusted the chair forward then, changed its unfamiliar and uncomfortable proportions to his own, shorter body.
At the right side of the desk was a plastic tray. On the tray was a shape — flat, black, narrow; it was an Oracle tab. Its dimensions were precise, one by four by nine.
He picked it up. Its code indicated it was a single-message and situation-summary unit. Cool to the touch, it was a solid piece of stasis, a frozen bite of information, needing only a reader to withdraw its secrets. Mass wiped more of the dust away from the scanning plate on the desk top. It wasn't enough. He wet it with water from his canteen, wiped again.
Now — did this Oracle still work? He touched the small end of the slab to the panel.
It lit up almost immediately.
On the screen appeared words. Strange, convoluted letters. Unfamiliar ones. The written form of Interlingua.
Mass fumbled in his pouch, pulled out a stasis bite of his own similar to the one standing on the desk. He slapped it flat on the scanner. This one was a translating code; immediately, the letters on the screen were replaced by Streinveldtian cuneiforms. These he could read.
EMPIRE ORIENTATION TAB FILE — JEYRU 47585 DATED MATERIAL Uncoded; valid through Septer 35,988 H.C UNDATED MATERIAL Coded; Y-Class authorizations and above. Maintain for future reference.
He frowned thoughtfully. It was almost too good to be true, an actual Empire tab dated more than thirteen years after the last Streinveldtian contact As far as Streinveldt knew, the Empire had ceased to exist in 975 H. C., more than four hundred years ago.
He turned the slab onto its longer edge and quickly skimmed through the index. He touched the screen at certain points and it flashed to reveal the scope of information held within the stasis bite. Part of it was overlaid by a red block that said:
THIS MATERIAL IS CODED TO ALL READERS EXCEPT THOSE WITH Y-CLASS IDENTITY TABS OR ABOVE.
A frown creased his broad features, deeper this time. Without an identity tab, the Oracle could tell him nothing of the coded material — neither its content nor its title.
As far as the machine was concerned, Mass was not to be shown that material until he laid a Y-Class tab (or above) on the scanning plate. Even if the Oracle could display the coded data to Mass, he wouldn't be able to read it; it would be in holographic series. Just as a translating tab was necessary to convert Interlingua into Streinveldtian, so was the Y-Class tab needed to convert holographics into Interlingua. The Y-Class tab was more than just an identity piece, it was a needed slab of information.
The orientation tab sat annoyingly on the scanning plate. For all the good it would do him, it might as well not have any coded information at all. He couldn't tap it. Quite probably, the last Y- Class tab had disappeared with the Empire four hundred years ago.
"Krie!" he said. It was a Streinveldtian curse.
He turned his attention back to what he could read, the uncoded material. It was four hundred years old, but it was a place to start.
The index told Mass little. He found the words familiar, but confusing in their use. Some of the meanings seemed to be ninety degrees off and there were references to things that the reader was assumed to be already familiar with.
Mass allowed himself a sigh of annoyance, then laid the slab flat on the panel. He tapped at the screen and it began to flash summaries.
THE races of man had spread across the spiral aim and toward the great whorl of the central galaxy.
By the year 970 H. C (Calendar of the Holy Church), date of the last known Empire Census, there were more than 11,000 inhabited planets in the Empire, plus a known 1,700 more on the frontier — and estimates of at least 3,000 more beyond that whose existence was known but not confirmed. How many human beings there were simply could not be estimated.
Vast fleets of starcruisers whispered through the darkness, the fastest of them journeying a hundred light-years every three hundred days.
— but the Empire spanned a thousand light-years. More.
No matter how great the speeds of the starcruisers were, the distances of the galaxy were greater. At the fastest speed known to man it still took more than ten years to cross from one end of known space to the other. And the distance was growing. For every day that passed, 240 light-days were added to the scope of man's known frontiers.
Man was pushing outward in all directions at once, an ever- continuing explosion. For every ship travelling toward the galactic west, there was another headed for the galactic east; and the rate of man's outward growth was twice as fast as anyone could travel.
At the farthest edges of the Empire was the frontier. Beyond that lay unexplored space. Every man that fled into that wilderness dragged the frontier with him. The frontier followed willingly, and after a while, when that particular piece of itself matured, it became a part of the Empire, and the state of mind known as frontier had mowed on. Thus, the Empire grew.
Even so, there were places where the Empire was only a dim legend. The further it reached, the more tenuous was its control. There were vast undeveloped areas within its sphere, areas that had simply been overlooked in man's headlong rush outward. Communications followed the trade routes, and there were backwaters in that flow of information.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Space Skimmer"
Copyright © 2014 David Gerrold.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
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