VERTHANDI’S RING

IAN MCDONALD

B

ritish author Ian McDonald is an ambitious and daring writer with a wide range and an impressive amount of talent. His first story was published in 1982, and since then he has appeared with some frequency in Interzone, Asimov’s Science Fiction, New Worlds, Zenith, Other Edens, Amazing, and elsewhere. He was nominated for the John W Campbell Award in 1985, and in 1989 he won the Locus Best First Novel Award for his novel Desola­tion Road. He won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1992 for his novel King of Morning, Queen of Day. His other books include the novels Out on Blue Six and Hearts, Hands and Voices, Terminal Cafe, Sacrifice of Fools, Evolution’s Shore, Kirinya, a chapbook novella, Tendeleo’s Story, Ares Express, and Cyberabad, as well as two collections of his short fiction, Empire Dreams and Speaking in Tongues. His most recent novel, River of Gods, was a finalist for both the Hugo Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2005, and a novella drawn from it, “The Little Goddess,” was a finalist for the Hugo and the Nebula. Coming up is another new novel, Brasyl. Born in Manchester, England, in 1960, McDonald has spent most of his life in Northern Ireland, and now lives and works in Belfast. He has a website at http://www.lysator.liu.se/^unicorn/mcdonald/.

In the brilliant story that follows, one with enough dazzling idea content crammed densely into it to fuel many another author’s eight-hundred-page novel, he shows us that total war between competing interstellar races will be slow and bloody and vast, and, well—total. With no room left in the galaxy—or even the universe—for the losing side.

* * * *

After thirteen subjective minutes and five hundred and twenty-eight years, the Clade battleship Ever-Fragrant Perfume of Divinity returned to the dying solar system. The Oort cloud web pulled the crew off; skating around the gravity wells of hot fat gas giants and the swelling primary, the battleship skipped out of the system at thirty percent light-speed into the deep dark. Small, fast, cheap, the battleships were disposable: a football of construc­tion nanoprocessors and a pload crew of three embedded in the heart of a comet, a comet it would slowly consume over its half millennium of flight. So cheap and nasty was this ship that it was only given a name because the crew got bored five (subjective) minutes into the slow-time simulation of Sofreendi desert monasticism that was their preferred combat interface.

The Oort cloud web caught the crew, shied them to the construction yards skeined through the long, cold loops of the cometary halo, which flicked them in a stutter of light-speed to the Fat Gas Giant relay point, where the eight hundred habitats of the new Clade daughter fleet formed a pearl belly chain around the planet; then to the Cladal Heart-world her­self, basking in the coronal energies of the senile, grasping, swollen sun, and finally into fresh new selves.

“Hi guys, we’re back,” said the crew of Ever-Fragrant Perfume as they stepped from the bronze gates of the Soulhouse, down the marble staircase into the thronged Maidan of All Luminous Passion. Irony was still a tradable commodity on this innermost tier of the hundred concentric spheres of the Heart-world, even if not one woman or man or machine or beastli turned its head. Battleship crews knew better than to expect laurels and accolades when they resouled after a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand years on the frontline. Word of Ever-Fragrant Perfume’s victory had arrived almost three centuries before. A signal victory; a triumph that would be studied and taught across the Military Colleges and Academies of the Art of Defense for millennia to come. A classic Rose of Jericho strategy.

Early warning seeds sown like thistledown across half a light-millennium had felt the stroke of the Enemy across their attenuated slow senses and woke. Communication masers hastily assembled from the regoliths of cold moons beamed analyses back to the Heart-world, deep in its centuries-long task of biosphere salvation: eighty thousand habitats on the move. The Clade battle fleet launched instantly. After two hundred and twenty years, there was not a nanosecond to lose. Thirty-five ships were lost: systems mal­functions, breakdowns in the drives that kept them accelerating eternally, decades-long subtle errors of navigation that left them veering light-years wide of the target gravity well, loss of deceleration mass. Sudden total cata­strophic failure. Five hundred years later, Ever-Fragrant Perfume of Divinity alone arrived behind the third moon of the vagrant gas giant, which wan­dered between stars, a gravitational exile, and began to construct the rain of antimatter warheads and set them into orbit around the wanderer. A quick plan, but a brilliant one. A Rose of Jericho plan. As Ever-Fragrant Perfume of Divinity accelerated away from the bright new nebula, its hindward sen­sors observed eighty thousand Enemy worlds plow into the bow wave of accelerated gas at forty percent light-speed and evaporate. Twenty trillion sentients died. War in space-time is slow and vast and bloody. When the spe­cies fight, there is no mercy.

In the dying echoes of the culture fleet, the three assassins of Ever-Fragrant Perfume of Divinity caught a vector. The fleet had not been aimed on a genocidal assault on the Clade Heart-worlds clustered around the worlds of Seydatryah, slowly becoming postbiological as the sun choked and bloated on its own gas. A vector, and a whisper: Verthandi’s Ring.

But now they were back, huzzah! Harvest Moon and Scented Coolabar and Rose of Jericho, greatest tactician of her flesh generation. Except that when they turned around on the steps of the Soulhouse to bicker among themselves (as they had bickered the entire time-slowed twenty-six minutes of the transtellar flight, and the time-accelerated two hundred years of the mission at the black wanderer) about where to go and do and be and funk first:

“Where’s Rose? Where’s the Rose?” said Harvest Moon, whose rank approximated most closely to the historical role of Captain.

Only two resouls stood on the marble steps overlooking the Maidan of All Luminous Pleasure.

“Shit,” said Scented Coolabar, whose station corresponded to that of engineer. A soul-search returned no trace of their crewmate on this level. In this innermost level, the heart of the heart, a sphere of quantum nano-processors ten kilometers in diameter, such a search was far-reaching—the equivalent of every virtual mouse hole and house shrine—and instanta­neous. And blank. The two remaining crew members of Ever-Fragrant Per­fume of Divinity understood too well what that meant. “We’re going to have to do the meat-thing.”

* * * *

Newly incarnated, Harvest Moon and Scented Coolabar stood upon the Heaven Plain of Hoy. Clouds black as regret bruised the upcurved horizon. Lightning fretted along the edge of the world. Harvest Moon shivered at a fresh sensation; stringent but not unpleasant—not in that brief frisson, though her new meat told her that in excess it might become not just pain­ful, but dangerous.

“What was that?” she commented, observing the small pimples rising on her space-black skin. She wore a close-to-species-modal body: female in this incarnation; elegant, hairless, attenuated, the flesh of a minimalist aesthete.

“I think it was the wind,” said Scented Coolabar who, as ever, played against her Captain’s type and so wore the fresh flesh of a Dukkhim, one of the distinctive humanesque subspecies that had risen after a mass-extinction event on the world of Kethrem, near-lost in the strata of Clade history. She was small and broad, all ovals and slits, and possessed of a great mane of elaborately decorated hair that grew to the small of the back and down to the elbows. The crew of the Ever-Fragrant Perfume of Divinity was incarnate mere minutes, and already Harvest Moon wanted to play play play with her engineer’s wonderful mane. “Maybe you should have put some clothes on.” Now thunder spilled down the tilted bowl of the world to shake the small stone stupa of the incarnaculum. “I suppose we had better get started.” The Dukkhim had ever been a dour, pragmatic subspecies.

Harvest Moon and Scented Coolabar spent the night in a live-skin yurt blistered from the earth of Hoy. The thunder cracked, the yurt flapped and boomed in the wind, and the plain of Hoy lowed with storm-spooked grazebeastlis, but none so loud or so persistent as Harvest Moon’s moans and groans that her long black limbs were aching, burning; her body was dying dying.

“Some muscular pain is to be expected in the first hours of incarnation,” chided the yurt gently. “As muscle tone develops these pains generally pass within a few days.”

“Days!” wailed Harvest Moon. “Tload me back up right now.”

“I can secrete general analgesia,” said the tent. So until the lights came up all across the world on the sky roof ten kilometers overhead, Harvest Moon suckled sweetly on pain-numb milk from the yurt’s fleshy teat, and, in the morning, she and Scented Coolabar set out in great, low-gravity bounds across the Heaven Plain of Hoy in search of Rose of Jericho. This inner­most of the Heart-world meat levels had long been the preserve of ascetics and pilgrim souls; the ever upcurving plain symbolic, perhaps, of the soul’s quest for its innate spiritual manifestation, or maybe because of its proxim­ity to the virtual realms, above the sky roof, where the ploads constructed universe within universe, each bigger than the one that contained it. Yet this small grassy sphere was big enough to contain tens of thousands of Pelerines and stylites, coenobites and saddhus, adrift in the ocean of grass.

“I’m sure we’ve been this way before,” Scented Coolabar said. They were in the third monad of their quest. Eighty days ago, Harvest Moon had discovered beyond the pain of exercise the joy of muscles, even on this low-grav prairie, and could now be found at every unassigned moment delightedly studying her own matte black curves.

“I think that’s the idea.”

“Bloody Rose of Jericho,” Scented Coolabar grumbled. They loped, three meters at a loose-limbed step, toward a dendro-eremite, a lone small tree in the wave-swept grass, bare branches upheld like prayers. “Even on the ship she was a damn ornery creature. Typical bloody selfish.”

Because when Rose of Jericho went missing after the routine postsortie debrief, something else had gone missing with her. Verthandi’s Ring, a name, a galactic coordinate; the vector upon which the Enemy migration had been accelerating, decade upon decade. In the enforced communality of the return flight—pload personalities intersecting and merging—Cap­tain and Engineer alike had understood that their Mistress at Arms had deduced more than just a destination from the glowing ashes of the annihi­lated fleet. Soul etiquette forbade nonconsensual infringements of privacy and Rose of Jericho had used that social hiatus to conceal her speculations. Jealous monotheistic divinities were not so zealous as Clade debriefings, yet the Gentle Inquisitors of the Chamber of Ever-Renewing Waters had swept around that hidden place like sea around a reef. A vector, and a name, confirmation of the message they had received three hundred years before: Verthandi’s Ring.

Even before they saw the face framed in the vulva of living wood, Har­vest Moon and Scented Coolabar knew that their small quest was ended. When they first met on the virtual desert of Sofreendi for the Chamber of Ever-Renewing Waters’ mission briefing (as dense and soul-piercing as its debrief), a closeness, a simpatico, suggested that they might once have been the same person; ploads copied and recopied and edited with mash-ups of other personalities. Empathy endures, across parsecs and plain, battlefronts and secrets.

“Does that hurt?” Scented Coolabar said. Greenwood crept down Rose of Jericho’s brow, across her cheeks and chin, slow and certain as seasons.

“Hurt? Why should it hurt?” Wind soughed in Rose of Jericho’s twigs. Harvest Moon, bored with this small world of grass, surreptitiously ran her hands down her muscled thighs.

“I don’t know, it just looks, well, uncomfortable.”

“No, it’s very very satisfying,” Rose of Jericho said. Her face was now a pinched oval of greening flesh. “Rooted. Slow.” She closed her eyes in contemplation.

“Verthandi’s Ring,” Harvest Moon said suddenly. Scented Coolabar seated herself squatly on the grass beneath the wise tree. Beastli things squirmed beneath her ass.

“What is this game?” With life spans measurable against the slow drift of stars, millennia-long games were the weft of Clade society. “What didn’t you tell them, couldn’t you tell us?”

Rose of Jericho opened her eyes. The wood now joined across the bridge of her nose, her lips struggled against the lignum.

“There was not one fleet. There are many fleets. Some set off thousands of years ago.”

“How many fleets?”

Rose of Jericho struggled to speak. Scented Coolabar leaned close.

“All of them. The Enemy. All of them.”

Then Rose of Jericho’s sparse leaves rustled and Scented Coolabar felt the ground shake beneath her. Unbalanced, Harvest Moon seized one of Rose of Jericho’s branches to steady herself. Not in ten reconfigurings had either of them felt such a thing, but the knowledge was deeply burned into every memory, every cell of their incarnated flesh. The Clade Heart-world had engaged its Mach drive and was slowly, slow as a kiss, as an Edda, manipulating the weave of space-time to accelerate away from bloated, burning Seydatryah. Those unharvested must perish with the planet as the Seydatryah’s family of worlds passed beyond the age of biology. Calls flick­ered at light-speed across the system. Strung like pearls around the gas giant, the eight hundred half-gestated daughter-habitats left their birthing orbits: half-shells, hollow environment spheres; minor Heart-worlds of a handful of tiers. A quarter of the distance to the next star, the manufactories and system defenses out in the deep blue cold of the Oort cloud warped orbits to fall into the Heart-world’s train. The Chamber of Ever-Renewing Waters, the military council, together with the Deep Blue Something, the gestalt übermind that was the Heart-world’s participatory democracy, had acted the moment it became aware of Rose of Jericho’s small secret. The Seyda­tryah system glowed with message masers as the call went out down the decades and centuries to neighboring Heart-worlds and culture clouds and even meat planets: after one hundred thousand years, we have an opportu­nity to finally defeat the Enemy. Assemble your antimatter torpedoes, your planet killers, your sun-guns and quantum foam destabilizers, and make all haste for Verthandi’s Ring.

“Yes, but what is Verthandi’s Ring?” Scented Coolabar asked tetchily. But all that remained of Rose of Jericho was a lignified smile, cast forever in bark. From the tiny vacuum in her heart, like a tongue passing over a lost, loved tooth, she knew that Rose of Jericho had fled moments before the Chamber of Ever-Renewing Waters’ interrogation system slapped her with an unbreakable subpoena and sucked her secret from her. Scented Coolabar sighed.

“Again?” Harvest Moon asked.

“Again.”

* * * *

In all the known universe, there was only the Clade. All life was part of it, it was all life. Ten million years ago, it had been confined to a single species on a single world—a world not forgotten, for nothing was forgotten by the Clade. That world, that system, had long since been transformed into a sphere of Heart-world orbiting a sun-halo of computational entities, but it still remembered when the bright blue eye of its home planet blinked once, twice, ten thousand times. Ships. Ships! Probe ships, sail ships, fast ships, slow ships, seed ships, ice ships; whole asteroid colonies, hollow-head comets, sent out on centuries-long falls toward other stars, other worlds. Then, after the Third Evolution, pload ships, tiny splinters of quantum computation flicked into the dark. In the first hundred thousand years of the Clade’s his­tory, a thousand worlds were settled. In the next hundred thousand, a hun­dred times that. And a hundred and a hundred and a hundred; colony seeded colony seeded colony, while the space dwellers, the Heart-world habitats and virtual pload intelligences, filled up the spaces in between which, heart and truth, were the vastly greater part of the universe. Relativistic ramships fast-tracked past lumbering arc fleets; robot seed ships furled their sunsails and sprayed biospheres with life-juice; terraforming squadrons hacked dead moons and hell-planets into nests for life and intelligence and civilization. And species, already broken by the Second and Third Evolutions into space-dwellers and ploads, shattered into culture dust. Subspecies, new species, evo­lutions, devolutions; the race formerly known as humanity blossomed into the many-petaled chrysanthemum of the Clade; a society on the Cosmo­logical scale; freed from the deaths of suns and worlds, immune, immortal, growing faster than it could communicate its gathered self-knowledge back to its immensely ancient and powerful Type 4 civilizations; entire globular clusters turned to hiving, howling quantum-nanoprocessors.

New species, subspecies, hybrid species. Life was profligate in the cosmos; even multicellular life. The Clade incorporated DNA from a hundred thou­sand alien biospheres and grew in richness and diversity. Intelligence alone was unique. In all its One Giant Leap, the Clade had never encountered another bright with sentience and the knowledge of its own mortality that was the key to civilization. The Clade was utterly alone. And thus intel­ligence became the watchword and darling of the Clade: intelligence, that counterentropic conjoined twin of information, must become the most powerful force in the universe, the energy to which all other physical laws must eventually kneel. Intelligence alone could defeat the heat-death of the universe, the dark wolf at the long thin end of time. Intelligence was destiny, manifest.

And then a Hujjain reconnaissance probe, no bigger than the thorn of a rose but vastly more sharp, cruising the edge of a dull little red dwarf, found a million habitats pulled in around the stellar embers. When the Palaelogos of the Byzantine Orthodoxy first encountered the armies of Islam crashing out of the south, he had imagined them just another heretical Christian sect. So had the Hujjain probe doubted; then, as it searched its memory, the entire history of the Clade folded into 11-space, came revelation. There was Another out there.

* * * *

In the six months it took the Seydatryah fleet—one Heart-world, eighty semi-operational habitats, two hundred twelve thousand ancillary craft and defensive systems—to accelerate to close enough to light-speed for time-dilation effects to become significant, Harvest Moon and Scented Coolabar searched the Tier of Anchyses. The world-elevator, which ran from the por­tals of the Virtual Realms through which nothing corporeal might pass to the very lowest, heavy-gee Tier of Pterimonde, a vast and boundless ocean, took the star-sailors forty kilometers and four tiers down to the SkyPort of Anchyses, an inverted city that hung like a chandelier, a sea urchin, a crystal geode, from the sky roof. Blimps and zeps, balloon clusters and soaring glid­ers fastened on the ornate tower bottoms to load, and fuel, and feed, and receive passengers. Ten kilometers below, beyond cirrus and nimbus, the dread forest of Kyce thrashed and twined, a venomous, vicious, hooked-and-clawed ecosystem that had evolved over the Heart-world’s million-year history around the fallen bodies of sky dwellers.

The waxing light of tier-dawn found Scented Coolabar on the observa­tion deck of the dirigible We Have Left Undone That Which We Ought to Have Done. The band of transparent skin ran the entire equator of the kilometer-long creature: in her six months as part of the creature’s higher-cognitive function, Scented Coolabar had evolved small tics and habits, one of which was watching the birth of a new day from the very forward point of the dirigible. The Morning Salutationists were rolling up their sutra mats as Scented Coolabar took her place by the window and imagined her body cloaked in sky. She had changed body for this level; a tall, slightly hirsute male with a yellow-tinged skin, but she had balked at taking the same tran­sition as Harvest Moon. Even now, she looped and tumbled out there in the pink and lilac morning, in aerobatic ecstasy with her flockmates among the indigo clouds.

Dawn light gleamed from silver wing feathers. Pain and want and, yes, jealousy clutched Scented Coolabar. Harvest Moon had been the one who bitched and carped about the muscle pain and the sunburn and the indi­gestion and the necessity to clean one’s teeth; the duties and fallibilities of incarnation. Yet she had fallen in love with corporeality; reveled in the physicality of wind in her pinions, gravity tugging at the shapely curve of her ass; while Scented Coolabar remained solid, stolid, reluctant flesh. She could no longer remember the last time they had had sex; physically or virtually. Games. And war was just another game to entities hundreds of thousands of years old, for whom death was a sleep and a forgetting, and a morn­ing like this, fresh and filled with light. She remembered the actions they had fought: the reduction of Yorrrt, the defense of Thau-Pek-Sat, where Rose of Jericho had annihilated an Enemy strike-fleet with a blizzard of micro-black holes summoned out of the universal quantum foam, explod­ing almost instantly in a holocaust of Hawking radiation. She watched Har­vest Moon’s glider-thin wings deep down in the brightening clouds, thin as dreams and want. Sex was quick; sex was easy, even sacramental, among the many peoples and sects that temporarily formed the consciousness of We Have Left Undone That Which We Ought to Have Done. She sighed and felt the breath shudder in her flat, muscled chest. Startled by a reaction as sen­sational, as physical, as any Immelman or slow loop performed by Harvest Moon, Scented Coolabar felt tears fill and roll. Memory, a frail and trick­ster faculty among the incarnate, took her back to another body, a wom­an’s body, a woman of the Teleshgathu nation; drawn in wonder and hope and young excitement up the space elevator to the Clade habitat that had warped into orbit around her world to repair and restore and reconstitute its radiation shield from the endless oceans of her world. From that woman of a parochial Waterworld had sprung three entities, closer than sisters, deeper than lovers. Small wonder they needed each other, to the point of searching through eighty billion sentients. Small wonder they could never escape each other. The light was bright now, its unvarying shadow strict and stark on the wooden deck. Harvest Moon flashed her wings and rolled away, diving with her new friends deep through layer upon layer of cloud. And Scented Coolabar felt an unfamiliar twitch, a clench between the legs, a throb of something already exposed and sensitive becoming superattuned, swinging like a diviner’s pendulum. Her balls told her, clear, straight, no arguments: she’s out there. Rose of Jericho.

* * * *

Twenty subjective minutes later, the Clade fleet was eighty light-years into its twelve hundred objective-year flight to intercept the Enemy advance toward Verthandi’s Ring, the greatest sentient migration since the big bang. Populations numbered in logarithmic notation, like outbreaks of viruses, are on the move in two hundred million habitat-ships, each fifty times the diameter of the Seydatryah Heart-world. Of course the Seydatryah cluster is outnumbered, of course it will be destroyed down to the last molecule if it engages the Enemy migration, but the Deep Blue Something understands that it may not be the biggest or the strongest, but it is the closest and will be the first. So the culture cluster claws closer toward light-speed; its magnetic shield furled around it like an aurora, like a cloak of fire, as it absorbs energies that would instantly incinerate all carbon life in its many levels and ships. And, nerve-wired into an organic ornithopter, Scented Coolabar drops free from the We Have Left Undone That Which We Ought to Have Dones launch teats into eighty kilometers of empty airspace. Scented Coolabar shrieks, then the ornithopter’s wings scrape and cup and the scream becomes oooh as the biological machine scoops across the sky.

“Where away?” Scented Coolabar shouts. The ornithopter unfolds a telescope, bending an eye; Scented Coolabar spies the balloon cluster low and breaking from a clot of cumulus. A full third of the netted balloons are dead, punctured, black and rotting. The ornithopter reads her intention and dives. A flash of sun-silver: Harvest Moon rises vertically out of the cloud, hangs in the air, impossibly elongated wings catching the morning light, then turns and tumbles to loop over Scented Coolabar’s manically beating wings.

“That her?”

“That’s her.” You are very lovely, thought Scented Coolabar. Lovely and alien. But not so alien as Rose of Jericho, incarnated as a colony of tentacled balloons tethered in a veil of organic gauze, now terminally sagging toward the claspers and bone blades of Kyce. The ornithopter matched speed; wind whipped Scented Coolabar’s long yellow hair. A lunge, a sense of the world dropping away, or at least her belly, and then the ornithopter’s claws were hooked into the mesh. The stench of rotting balloon flesh assailed Scented Coolabar’s senses. A soft pop, a rush of reeking gas, a terrifying drop closer to the fanged mouths of the forest: another balloon had failed. Harvest Moon, incarnated without feet or wheels, for her species was never intended to touch the ground, turned lazy circles in the sky.

“Same again?” Scented Coolabar asked. Rose of Jericho spoke through radio-sense into her head.

“Of course.”

Foolish of Scented Coolabar to imagine a Rose of Jericho game being ended so simply or so soon.

“The Deep Blue Something has worked it out.”

“I should hope so.” The balloon cluster was failing, sinking fast. With the unaided eye Scented Coolabar could see the lash-worms and bladed dashers racing along the sucker-studded tentacles of the forest canopy. This round of the game was almost ended. She hoped her ornithopter was smart enough to realize the imminent danger.

“And Verthandi’s Ring?” Harvest Moon asked.

“Is a remnant superstring.” A subquantal fragment of the original big-bang fireball, caught by cosmic inflation and stretched to macroscopic, then to Cosmological scale. Rarer than virtue or phoenixes, remnant superstrings haunted the galactic fringes and the vast spaces between star spirals; tens, hundreds of light-years long. In all the Clade’s memory, only one had ever been recorded within the body of the galaxy. Until now. “Tied into a loop,” Rose of Jericho added. Scented Coolabar and Harvest Moon understood at once. Only the hand of the Enemy—if the Enemy possessed such things, no communication had ever been made with them, no physical trace ever found from the wreckage of their ships or their vaporized colony clus­ters—could have attained such a thing. And that was why the Chamber of Ever-Renewing Waters had launched the Heart-world. Such a thing could only be an ultimate weapon.

But what does it do? Scented Coolabar and Harvest Moon asked at once, but the presence in their brains, one humanesque, one man-bat-glider, was gone. Game over. A new round beginning. With a shriek of alarm, the or­nithopter cast free just in time to avoid the tendrils creeping up over the canopies of the few surviving balloons. The tentacles of the forest clasped those of the balloon cluster and hauled it down. Then the blades came out.

* * * *

How do wars begin? Through affront, through bravado, through stupidity or overconfidence, through sacred purpose or greed. But when galactic cultures fight, it is out of inevitability, out of a sense of cosmic tragedy. It is through understanding of a simple evolutionary truth: there can be only one exploiter of an ecological niche, even if that niche is the size of a universe. Within milliseconds of receiving the inquisitive touch of the Hujjain probe, the Enemy realized this truth. The vaporizing of the probe was the declaration of war, and would have given the Enemy centuries of a head start had not the Hujjain craft in its final milliseconds squirted off a burst of communication to its mother array deep in the cometary system on the edge of interstellar space.

In the opening centuries of the long, slow war, the Clade’s expansion was checked and turned back. Trillions died. Planets were cindered; populations sterilized beneath a burning ultraviolet sky, their ozone layers and protective magnetic fields stripped away; habitat clusters incinerated by induced solar flares or reduced to slag by nanoprocessor plagues; Dyson spheres shattered by billions of antimatter warheads. The Clade was slow to realize what the Enemy understood from the start: that a war for the resources that intelli­gence required—energy, mass, gravity—must be a war of extermination. In the first two thousand years of the war, the Clade’s losses equaled the total biomass of its original prestarflight solar system. But its fecundity, the sheer irrepressibility of life, was the Clade’s strength. It fought back. Across centu­ries it fought; across distances so vast the light of victory or defeat would be pale, distant winks in the night sky of far future generations. In the hearts of globular clusters they fought, and the radiant capes of nebulae; through the looping fire bridges on the skins of suns and along the event horizons of black holes. Their weapons were gas giants and the energies of supernovae; they turned asteroid belts into shotguns and casually flung living planets into the eternal ice of interstellar space. Fleets ten thousand a side clashed between suns, leaving not a single survivor. It was war absolute, elemental. Across a million star systems, the Clade fought the Enemy to a standstill. And, in the last eight hundred years, began to drive them back.

Now, time dilated to the point where a decade passed in a single heart­beat, total mass close to that of a thousand stars, the Clade Heart-world Seydatryah and its attendant culture cluster plunged at a prayer beneath light-speed toward the closed cosmic string loop of Verthandi’s Ring. She flew blind; no information, no report could outrun her. Her half trillion sentients would arrive with only six months forewarning into what might be the final victory, or the Enemy’s final stand.

Through the crystal shell of the Heart-world, they watched the Clade attack fleet explode like thistledown against the glowing nebula of the Enemy migration. Months ago those battleships had died, streaking ahead of the decelerating Seydatryah civilization to engage the Enemy pickets and, by dint of daring and force of fortune, perhaps break through to attack a habitat cluster. The greater mass of the Clade, dropping down the blue shift as over the years and decades they fell in behind Seydatryah, confirmed the astonished reports of those swift, bold fighters. All the Enemy was here; a caravanserai hundreds of light-years long. Ships, worlds, had been under way for centuries before Ever-Fragrant Perfume of Divinity located and destroyed one of the pilgrim fleets. The order must have been given millennia before; shortly after the Clade turned the tide of battle in its favor. Retreat. Run away. But the Enemy had lost none of its strength and savagery as wave after wave of the cheap, fast, sly battle­ships were annihilated.

Scented Coolabar and Harvest Moon and Rose of Jericho huddled to­gether in the deep dark and crushing pressure of the ocean at the bottom of the world. They wore the form of squid; many-tentacled and big-eyed, com­municating by coded ripples of bioluminescent frills along their streamlined flanks. They did not doubt that they had watched themselves die time after time out there. It was likely that only they had died, a million deaths. The Chamber of Ever-Renewing Waters would never permit its ace battleship crew to desert into the deep, starlit depths of Pterimonde. Their ploads had doubtless been copied a million times into the swarm of fast attack ships. The erstwhile crew of the Ever-Fragrant Perfume of Divinity blinked their huge golden eyes. Over the decades and centuries, the light of the Enemy’s retreat would be visible over the entire galaxy, a new and gorgeous ribbon nebula. Now, a handful of light-months from the long march, the shine of hypervelocity particles impacting the deflection fields was a banner in the sky, a starbow across an entire quadrant. And ahead, Verthandi’s Ring, a star­less void three light-years in diameter.

“You won them enough time,” Scented Coolabar said in a flicker of blue and green. The game was over. It ended at the lowest place in the world, but it had been won years before, she realized. It had been won the moment Rose of Jericho diverted herself away from the Soulhouse into a meditation tree on the Holy Plains of Hoy.

“I believe so,” Rose of Jericho said, hovering a kiss away from the crystal wall, holding herself against the insane Coriolis storms that stirred this high-gravity domain of waters. “It will be centuries before the Clade arrives in force.”

“The Chamber of Ever-Renewing Waters could regard it as treachery,” Harvest Moon said. Rose of Jericho touched the transparency with a tentacle.

“Do I not serve them with heart and mind and life?” The soft fireworks were fewer now; one by one they faded to nothing. “And anyway, what would they charge me with? Handing the Clade the universe on a plate?”

“Or condemning the Clade to death,” said Scented Coolabar.

“Not our Clade.”

She had been brilliant, Scented Coolabar realized. To have worked it out in those few minutes of subjective flight, and known what to do to save the Clade. But she had always been the greatest strategic mind of her genera­tion. Not for the first time Scented Coolabar wondered about their lost forebear, that extraordinary female who had birthed them from her ploaded intellect.

What is Verthandi’s Ring? A closed cosmic string. And what is a closed cosmic string? A time machine. A portal to the past. But not the past of this universe. Any transit of a closed timelike loop led inevitably to a parallel universe. In that time-stream, there too was war; Clade and Enemy, locked in Darwinian combat. And in that universe, as the Enemy was driven back to gaze into annihilation, Verthandi’s Ring opened and a second Enemy, a duplicate Enemy in every way, came out of the sky. They had handed the Clade this universe; the prize for driving its parallel in the alternate time-stream to extinction.

Cold-blooded beneath millions of tons of deep cold pressure, Scented Coolabar shivered. Rose of Jericho had assessed the tactical implications and made the only possible choice: delay the Chamber of Ever-Renewing Waters and the Deep Blue Something so they could not prevent the Enemy exiting this universe. A bloodless win. An end to war. Intelligence the savior of the blind, physical universe. While in the second time-stream, Clade habitats burst like crushed eyeballs and worlds were scorched bare and the Enemy found its resources suddenly doubled.

Scented Coolabar doubted that she could ever make such a deal. But she was an Engineer, not a Mistress of Arms. Her tentacles caressed Rose of Jericho’s lobed claspers; a warm sexual thrill pulsed through her muscular body.

“Stay with us, stay with me,” Harvest Moon said. Her decision was made, the reluctant incarnation; she had fallen in love with the flesh and would remain exploring the Heart-world’s concentric tiers in thousands of fresh and exciting bodies.

“No, I have to go.” Rose of Jericho briefly brushed Harvest Moon’s sexual tentacles. “They won’t hurt me. They knew I had no choice, as they had no choice.”

Scented Coolabar turned in the water. Her fins rippled, propelling her upward through the pitch-black water. Rose of Jericho fell in behind her. In a few strong strokes, the lights of Harvest Moon’s farewell faded, even the red warmth of her love, and all that remained was the centuries-deep shine of the starbow beyond the wall of the world.

* * * *


HATCH

ROBERT REED

R

obert Reed sold his first story in 1986, and quickly established himself as a frequent contributor to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov’s Science Fiction, as well as selling many stories to Science Fiction Age, Universe, New Destinies, Tomorrow, Synergy, Starlight, and elsewhere. Reed may be one of the most prolific of today’s young writers, particularly at short fiction lengths, seriously rivaled for that position only by authors such as Stephen Baxter and Brian Stableford. And—also like Baxter and Stable­ford—he manages to keep up a very high standard of quality while being prolific, something that is not at all easy to do. Reed stories such as “Sister Alice,” “Brother Perfect,” “Decency,” “Savior,” “The Remoras,” “Chrysalis,” “Whiptail,” “The Utility Man,” “Marrow,” “Birth Day,” “Blind,” “The Toad of Heaven,” “Stride,” “The Shape of Every thing,” “Guest of Honor,” “Wag­ing Good,” and “Killing the Morrow,” among at least a half-dozen others equally as strong, count as some of the best short work produced by anyone in the eighties and nineties; many of his best stories were assembled in his first collection, The Dragons of Springplace. Nor is he nonprolific as a novel­ist, having turned out eight novels since the end of the eighties, including The Lee Shore, The Hormone Jungle, Black Milk, The Remarkables, Down the Bright Way, Beyond the Veil of Stars, An Exaltation of Larks, Beneath the Gated Sky, Marrow, and Sister Alice. His most recent books are a chapbook novella, Mere, a new collection, The Cuckoo’s Boys, and a new novel, The Well of Stars. Coming up is a new novella chapbook, Flavors of My Genius. Reed lives with his family in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The “Sister Alice” stories, in which advanced humans with the powers and abilities of gods played out intricate political intrigues and struggles across a time span of millions of years, eventually collected in the mosaic novel Sister Alice, were Reed’s first great contribution to the New Space Opera. In 1994, he launched a long series of stories, still continuing today, about the Great Ship: a Jupiter-sized starship found abandoned in deep space by exploring humans and retrofitted into a kind of immense interstel­lar cruise ship, off on a grand tour of the galaxy (circumnavigating it, in fact, a voyage that will take eons), with dozens of human and alien customers of different races aboard. In the powerful story that follows, which takes place after a disastrous attempt to hijack the Great Ship has reduced it nearly to ruins, he shows us what happens to some human survivors of the battle who are stranded outside of the Ship, locked out of the interior for generations, forced to create their own society on the hull—a place that, as it turns out, is equipped with quite a few wonders—and dangers—of its own.

* * * *

1

Yes, the galaxy possessed an ethereal beauty, particularly when magnified inside the polished bowl of a perfect mirror. Every raider conceded as much. And yes, the rocket nozzle on which they lived was a spectacular feature, vast and ancient, its bowllike depths filled with darkness and several flavors of ice laid over a plain of impenetrable hyperfiber. Even the refugee city was lovely in its modest fashion, simple homes and little businesses clinging to the inside surface of the sleeping nozzle. But true raiders un­derstood that the most intriguing, soul-soaring view was found when you stood where Peregrine was standing now: perched some five thousand kilo­meters above the hull, staring down at the Polypond—a magnificent, ever-changing alien body that stretched past the neighboring nozzles, reaching the far horizon and beyond, submerging both faces of a magnificent starship that itself was larger than worlds.

The Polypond had arrived thousands of years ago, descending as a violent rain of comet-sized bodies, scalding vapor, and sentient, hate-filled mud. The alien had wanted to destroy the Great Ship, and perhaps even today it dreamed of nothing less. But most of the city’s inhabitants believed the war was over now, and in one fashion or another, the Ship had won. Some were sure the alien had surrendered unconditionally. Others believed that the Polypond’s single mind had collapsed, leaving a multitude of factions end­lessly fighting with one another. Both tales explained quite a lot, including the monster’s indifference to a few million refugees living just beyond its boundaries. But the most compelling idea—the notion that always capti­vated Peregrine—was that human beings had not only won the war, but killed their foe too. Its central mind was destroyed, all self-control had been vanquished, and what the young man saw from his diamond blister was noth­ing more, or less, than a great corpse in the throes of ferocious, creative rot.

Whatever the truth, the Polypond was a spectacle, and no raider under­stood it better than Peregrine did.

Frigid wisps of atomic oxygen and nitrogen marked the aliens upper reaches, with dust and buckyballs and aerogel trash wandering free. That high atmosphere reached halfway to the hull, and it ended with a sequence of transparent skins—monomolecular sheets, mostly, plus a few energetic demon-doors laid out flat. Retaining gas and heat was their apparent pur­pose, and when those skins were pierced, what lay below could feel the prick, and on occasion, react instantly.

Beneath the skins was a thick wet atmosphere, not just warm but hot—a fierce blazing wealth of changeable gases and smart dusts, floating clouds and rooted clouds, plus features that refused description by any language. And drenching that realm was a wealth of light. The glare wasn’t constant or evenly distributed. What passed for day came as splashes and winding rivers, and the color of the light as well as its intensity and duration would vary. After spending most of his brief life watching the purples and crimsons, emeralds and golds, plus a wealth of blues that stretched from the brilliant to the soothing, Peregrine had realized that each color and its intricate shape held meaning.

“A common belief,” Hawking had told him. “But your translator AIs cannot find any message, or even the taste of genuine language.”

“Except I wasn’t thinking language,” Peregrine countered. “Not at all.”

His friend wanted more of an answer, signaling his desires with silence and circular gestures from his most delicate arms.

“I meant plain simple beauty,” the young man continued. “I’m talking about art, about visual poetry. I’m thinking about a magnificent show per­formed for a very special audience.”

“You might be the only soul holding that opinion,” Hawking counseled.

“And I feel honored because of it,” Peregrine had laughed.

The Polypond’s atmosphere was full of motion and energy, and it was ex­ceptionally loud. Camouflaged microphones set near the base of the rocket nozzle sent home the constant roar of wind sounds and mouth sounds, thunder from living clouds and the musical whine of great wings. But even richer than the air was the watery terrain beneath: tens of kilometers deep, the Polypond’s body was built from melted comets mixed with rock and metal stolen from vanished worlds. This was an ocean in the same sense that a human body was mere salt water. Yes, it was liquid, but jammed full of structure and purpose. Alien tissues supplied muscles and spines and ribs, and there were regions serving roles not unlike those of human hearts and livers and lungs. Long, sophisticated membranes were dotted with giant fusion reactors. And drifting on the surface were island-sized organs that spat out free-living entities—winged entities that would gather in huge flocks and sometimes rise en masse, millions and even billions of them soar­ing higher than any cloud.

Hatches, those events were called.

What Peregrine knew—what every person in his trade understood—was that each hatch was a unique event, and the great majority were worthless. Sending a fleet of raiders that returned with only a few thousand tons of winged muscle and odd enzymes… well, that was a waste of their limited power, and always a potential waste of lives. What mattered were those rare hatches that rose high enough to be reached cheaply, and even then it didn’t pay to send raiders if there wasn’t some respectable chance of acquiring hyperfiber or rare elements, or best of all, machines that could be harvested and tamed, then set to work in whatever role the city demanded.

Judging a hatch’s value was three parts diagnosis, two parts art, and, inevi­tably, ten parts good fortune. Telescopes tied into dim-witted machines did nothing but happily stuff data into shapes that brighter AIs could analyze. Whatever was promising or peculiar was sent to the raider leaders. The average day brought ten or fifteen events worthy of closer examination, and because of his service record, Peregrine was given first glance at those candidates. But even with ripe pickings, he often did nothing. Other raiders flying their own ships would dive into the high atmosphere every few days. But sometimes weeks passed without Peregrine once being tempted to sit in the pilot’s padded chair.

“I want to grow old in this job,” he confessed whenever his bravery was questioned. “Most souls can’t do what I do. Most of you are too brave, and bravery is suicide. Fearlessness is a handicap. Chasing every million-wing flight of catabolites or sky-spinners is the quickest way to go bankrupt, if you’re lucky. Or worse, die.”

“That is a reasonable philosophy,” his friend mentioned, speaking through the voice box sewn into a convenient neural center.

“I’m sorry,” Peregrine replied. “I wasn’t talking to you. I was chatting with a woman friend.”

The alien lifted one of his intricate limbs, signaling puzzlement. “And where is this woman?”

“Inside my skull.” Peregrine gave his temple a few hard taps. “I met her last night. I thought she was pretty, and she was pleasant enough. But she said some critical words about raiders wasting too many resources, and I thought she was accusing me of being a coward.”

“You listed your sensible reasons, of course.”

“Not all of them,” he admitted.

“Why not?”

“I told you,” said Peregrine. “I thought she was pretty. And if I acted like an unapologetic coward, I wouldn’t get invited to her bedroom.”

Hawking absorbed this tidbit about human spawning. Or he simply ig­nored it. Who could know what that creature was thinking beneath his thick carapace? Low-built and long, Hawking held a passing resemblance to an earthly trilobite. A trio of crystalline eyes pulled in light from all direc­tions, delicate optical tissues teasing the meaning out of every photon. His armored body was carried on dozens of jointed legs. But where trilobites had three sections to their insectlike bodies, this alien had five. And where trilobites were dim-witted creatures haunting the floors of ancient seas, Hawking’s ancestors had evolved grasping limbs and large, intricate minds while scurrying across the lush surface of a low-gravity world.

Hawking was not a social animal. And this was a blessing, since he was the only one of his kind in the city. Peregrine had studied the available files about his species, but the local data sinks were intended to help military op­erations, not educate any would-be xenologists. And likewise, after spending decades in close association with the creature, and despite liking as well as admiring him, Peregrine found there were moments when old Mr. Hawk­ing was nothing but peculiar, standoffish, and quite impossible to read.

But Peregrine had a taste for challenges.

“Anyway,” he said, cutting into the silence. “I lied to that woman. I told her that I wasn’t flying because I knew something big was coming. I had a feeling, and until that ripe moment, I was resting both my body and my ship.”

“And she believed you?”

“Perhaps.”

After a brief silence, Hawking said, “She sounds like a foolish young creature.”

“And that’s where you’re wrong.” Peregrine laughed and shrugged. “Just as I hoped, I climbed into her bed. And during one of our slow moments, she admitted who she was.”

“And she is?”

“An engineer during the War. She was working in the repair yards while my mother was serving as a pilot. So like you, my new girlfriend is one of the original founders.”

“Interesting,” his friend responded.

“Fusillade is her name,” he mentioned. “And she seems to know you.”

“Yet I do not know her.”

Then Peregrine added, “And by the way, she very clearly remembers your arrival here.”

Fourteen moon-sized rocket nozzles stood upon the Great Ship’s aft, and during the fighting, the center nozzle served as the gathering place for tired pilots and engineers and such. Once the fighting ended, representatives of twenty different species found themselves trapped in this most unpromising location, utterly isolated, with few working machines, minimal data sinks, and no raw materials. Facing them was the daunting task of building some kind of workable society. Hawking was a rarity—the rich passenger who had visited the hull before the comets began to fall, and who managed to outlive both his guides and fellow tourists. Alone, this solitary creature had scaled one of the outlying nozzles, and then his luck lasted long enough to find passage with a harum-scarum unit—the final group of refugees to make it to this poor but safe place.

“She feels sorry for you, Hawking.”

“Why would she?”

“Because you’re a species with a population of one.”

The alien was unimpressed with that assessment. He cut the air with two limbs, his natural mouth rippling before leaking a disapproving click.

“I know better than that,” Peregrine continued. “I told her that you’re a loner, that it’s difficult for you to share breathing space with me, and you know me and approve of me far more than you know and approve of anyone else.”

The creature had no reply.

‘“Why call him Hawking?’ she asked me. ‘Nobody else does.’”

“Few others speak to me,” his friend said.

“I explained that too,” said Peregrine. “And I told her that your species are so peculiar, you never see reason for any permanent names. When two of you cross trails, each invents a new name for himself or herself. A private name that lasts only as long as that single perishable relationship.”

The limbs gave the air an agreeable sweep.

“You picked Hawking, and I don’t know why,” Peregrine continued. “Except it’s a solid sound humans can utter. Unlike your own species’ name, of course.”

Quietly, with his natural mouth, Hawking made a sharp clicking sound followed by what sounded like “!Eech.”

“!Eech,” the human tried to repeat.

As always, there was something intensely humorous about his clumsy attempt. Nothing changed in the creature’s domelike eyes or the rigid face, but suddenly all of the long legs wiggled together, signaling laughter, the ripples moving happily beneath his hard low unreadable body.

* * * *

2

“And I remember your mother,” the old woman had mentioned last night.

Like that of every citizen, Fusillade’s apartment was tiny and cold; power had always been a scarce commodity in the city. But her furnishings were better than most, made from fancy plastics and cultured flesh, and even a glass tub filled with spare water. Winking at her young lover, she added, “No, I doubt if your mother ever actually knew me. By name, I mean. But I was part of the team that kept those early raider ships flying. Without twenty ad-lib repairs from me, that woman wouldn’t be half the hero she is today.”

Peregrine’s mother was as famous as anyone in the city, and that despite being dead for dozens of centuries. She had defended these giant rockets during the Polypond War. But the alien eventually destroyed each of the Great Ship’s engines, choking and plugging every vent, trying to keep rein­forcements from reaching the hull. And at the same time, the captains below had blocked every doorway, desperate to keep the Polypond from infiltrat­ing the interior. Brutal fights were waged near the main ports, but none had lasted long. A barrage of tiny black holes was fired through the Ship’s heart, but none delivered a killing blow. Then the final assault came, and despite long odds, a starship that was more ancient than any visible sun survived.

Afterward, over the course of several months and then several years, the Polypond grew quieter, and by every credible measure, less menacing.

Something was different. The alien was different, and maybe the Great Ship too. But those few thousand survivors could never be sure what had changed. With the clarity of the doomed, they had come here and built a refugee camp. Peregrine’s mother was a natural leader. Like her son, she was a small person, dark as space, blessed with long limbs and a gymnast’s perfect balance. And she was more than just an early raider. No, what made the woman special was that she was first to realize that nobody was coming to rescue them. The giant engines remained dead and blocked. High-grade hyperfiber had plugged even the most obscure route through the armored hull. And even worse, the Great Ship was now undergoing some mysterious but undeniable acceleration. Without one working rocket, the world-sized machine was gaining velocity, hurrying its way along a course that would soon take it out of the Milky Way.

Peregrine’s mother helped invent the raider’s trade. In makeshift vehicles, she dove into the Polypond’s atmosphere, stealing volatiles and rare earths, plus the occasional machine-encrusted body. Those treasures allowed them to build shelters and synthesize food. Every few days, she bravely led an expedition into the monster’s body, stealing what was useful and accepting every danger.

Time and Fate ensured her death.

She left no body, save for a few useful pieces that made up her meager estate. Her funeral was held ages ago, yet even today, whenever an important anniversary arrived, those rites and her name were repeated by thousands of thankful souls.

By contrast, Peregrine’s father was neither heroic nor well regarded. But he was a prosperous fellow, and he was shrewd, and when one of the great woman’s eggs came on the market, he spent a fortune to obtain it and a second fortune to build the first artificial womb in the city’s history.

“I remember your mother,” the old woman told Peregrine, plainly proud of any casual association. Then with an important tone, she added, “That good woman would have been pleased with her young son. I’m sure.”

Peregrine was almost three hundred years old, which made him young— particularly in the eyes of a much older lady who seemed to be happily feeding a fantasy. He offered nods and a polite smile, saying, “Well, thank you.”

“And I know your father fairly well,” she continued.

“I never see the man,” Peregrine replied with a sneer, warning her off the topic.

“I know,” she said.

Then after a pause, she asked, “Did you mean it? Do you really feel that an especially large hatch is coming?”

“No,” he replied, finally admitting the truth.

Then before his honesty evaporated, he added, “There are no trends, and I don’t have intuitions. And I never, ever see into the future.”

Something in those words made the old woman laugh. Then quietly, with a sudden tenderness, she said, “Darling. Everybody sees some little part of the future. Only the dead can’t. And if you think about it, you’ll realize… nothing more important separates big-eyed us from poor cold blind them.”

* * * *

3

There was nothing to add after Peregrine’s laughable attempt to say “!Eech.” Hawking fell into a deep silence, indistinguishable from countless others; and Peregrine responded with his own purposeful quiet. He was sitting at one end of the hangar, working with the latest data about hatches and gen­eral Polypond activity. His friend stood near the raider ship. Which was less animated, that sleeping machine or the alien? Hours and even days might pass, and the creature wouldn’t move one antenna. Yet Hawking claimed to never feel lonely or bored. “A respectable mind always has fascinating tasks waiting in its neurons,” he would say. Which was why his very odd species lacked the words to describe painful solitude or empty time.

The day’s hatches were distant and scarce.

Peregrine finally gave up the hunt. He sat at the end of the diamond blis­ter, feeling the cold of deep space and studying the ever-changing scenery below. Clouds were gathering between their home nozzle and the next, the thinnest and lightest clouds shoved high above the others. This happened on occasion, and it meant nothing. But the result was a splotch of deep blackness, larger than a healthy continent and unpromising to the bare human eye.

Just to be sure, Peregrine played with infrared frequencies and flashes of laser light to make delicate measurements. Something inside that blackness was different, he noticed. Straight before him, something was beginning to happen. That’s why he wasn’t particularly surprised when the clouds began to split, bleeding a strange golden light that was brighter than anything else in view.

Through his own telescope, he saw the vanguards of the rising hatch.

Moments later, on a shielded line, an AI expert contacted him. With a navigational code and the simple words “This interests,” the machine changed the complexion of Peregrine’s day and his week.

Having a worthy topic, he admitted to Hawking, “I thought I was lying to that woman. About having intuitions, I mean. But look at this hatch! Look at the diversity. And that’s without being able to see much of it yet.” His heart was pounding, his voice dry and quick. “I don’t know if anybody has seen, ever… a hatch as big and diverse as this one…”

Hawking did not move, but the hemispherical eyes absorbed the data in a few moments. Then the complicated mouth of tendrils and rasping teeth made a series of little motions—motions that Peregrine had never seen before, and chose to ignore for the moment.

“I’m leaving,” the human announced.

Every raider with a working ship would be embarking now.

“It’s going to be a rich day,” he continued, throwing himself into the first layer of his flight suit.

Finally, Hawking spoke.

“You are my friend,” said the alien, nothing about his voice out of the ordinary. “And from all that is possible, I wish you the best.”

* * * *

4

Simplicity was the hallmark of a raider’s ship. The hull was made from dia­mond scales bolstered with nanowhiskers, all laid across a flexible skeleton of salvaged hyperfiber. Resting in its berth, Peregrine’s ship held a long, elegant shape reminiscent of the harpoons that populated ancient novels about fishermen and lost seas. But that narrow body swelled when liquid hydrogen was pushed into the fuel tanks. One inefficient fusion reactor fed a lone engine that was sloppy but powerful. The launch felt like the end­less slap of a monster’s paw, brutal enough to smash bone and pulverize the sternest living flesh. But like every citizen, Peregrine was functionally immortal, blessed with repair mechanisms that could take the stew inside a flight suit and remake the man who had been sitting there.

His body died, and time leaped across a string of uneventful minutes.

Opening new eyes, Peregrine found himself coasting, climbing away from the Great Ship. Six AIs of various temperaments and skills made up his crew. In his absence, they had continued studying the available data. One served as his pilot, and even when Peregrine reclaimed the helm, the machine waited at a nanosecond’s distance, ready to correct any glaring mistakes.

Inside any large hatch, the multitude of bodies came in different shapes, different species. The AI most familiar with mercantile matters pointed at the center of the hatch. “These gull-wands match those we saw fifteen years ago. Their wings had some good-grade hyperfiber, and nearly ten percent of the collected hearts were salvageable.”

Gull-wands had tiny fusion reactors in their chests. One reactor was powerful enough to light and heat a modest home.

“How much could we make?” Peregrine asked.

An estimate was generated, followed by an impressed silence from every sentient entity.

But then Peregrine noticed a closer feature. “Over here… is that some kind of cloud?”

“No,” was the best guess.

The mass was black along its surfaces, swirling in its interior, and through cracks that were tiny at any distance, glimmers of a fantastically bright blue-white light emerged.

“Anything like it in the records?”

There was an optical similarity to clouds of tiny, extremely swift bodies observed only eight times in the past.

“In my past?”

“Not in your life, no,” one voice replied. “During the city’s life, I mean.”

“Okay. What were those bodies made of?”

That was unknown, since none had ever been captured.

“So pretend we’re seeing them,” he began. “Estimate the numbers in that single gathering.”

“The flock is enormous,” another AI reported. “In the range of ten or eleven billion—”

“That’s what we want!” Peregrine exclaimed.

Skeptical whispers buzzed in his ears.

But the human pointed out, “Everyone else is going to be harvesting gull-wands. Hearts and hyperfiber are going to be cheap for the next hun­dred years. But if we find something new and special… even gathering up just a few of them…we could pocket several fortunes, and maybe even upgrade our ship…”

His crew had to like the sound of that.

“But reaching the target,” warned the pilot, “will entail burning a large portion of our reserves—”

“So do it now,” Peregrine ordered, releasing the helm.

And for the second time in a very brief while, his fine young body was crushed into an anonymous jelly.

* * * *

5

There was no perfect consensus about what the Polypond was—undiminished foe, mad psyche divided against itself, or the spectacular carcass of a once great foe. And in the same fashion, there were competing ideas about the place and purpose of the hatches. Since the rising bodies had mouths and often fed, maybe they were one means of pruning old tissues and re­viving what remained. Or they were infected with some new, improved genetics that had to be spread through the greater body. Perhaps they had a punishing function, retraining regions that their Polypond master judged too independent. Unless of course hatches were exactly what they appeared to be: biological storms. One or many species were enjoying a season of plenty, and working together, those countless bodies would rise into the highest atmosphere, spreading their precious seeds and spores as far as physi­cally possible.

“Perhaps every answer is a little true,” Hawking liked to caution. “Just as every answer is a little bit of a lie too.”

Flying above the hatch, Peregrine thought of his odd friend. But only briefly, and then he consciously shoved him out of his exceptionally busy mind.

“Projections,” he demanded.

His ship was still plunging, its hull pulled into a teardrop configuration, the skin superheated and his sensors half-blinded by the plasmatic envelope. But his crew devised a simple picture showing him vectors and projections of a future that looked ready to end in the most miserable way.

“Our target is accelerating,” his pilot announced. “I wish to abort before we collide with it.”

The black mass, smooth-faced and distinctly iridescent, was punching its way through a scattering of high clouds. Some of those clouds were alive— vividly colored bodies as light as aerogel and easily shredded. Other clouds were water-stained gray and red with salts and iron, dead cells, and other detritus pushed skyward by the mayhem. Their target was tiny compared to the entire hatch. But it was already the tallest feature, and nothing like it had ever been seen before. Raiders bound for distant hunting grounds were noticing it. Even from two hundred kilometers overhead, the energies and wild violence were obvious. And even from inside a cocoon of superheated gases, human eyes could appreciate the beauty of so many frantic bodies doing whatever it was they were doing.

“I want to abort,” the pilot repeated.

Peregrine agreed. “But find the best way to hold us here, in its path. Can we do that?”

Instantly, the machine said, “Yes. But braking and circling will exhaust our reserves, and there won’t be enough fuel for both cargo and the journey home.”

Peregrine had guessed as much. “Let’s compromise,” he said. “Brake and assume a gliding shape. Where does that leave us?”

“Still dancing with the break-even point,” the pilot warned.

“So make some calls.” Peregrine named a few smart competitors ap­proaching from more distant berths. “Pay them to wait above us. And share their spare fuel, when the time comes.”

The teardrop flipped over, the engine throwing out a spectacular fire. Every raider knew: ships larger and more powerful than theirs could trigger retribution. An innate reflex or a Polypond strategy? Nobody knew. But Peregrine’s ship was as close to the maximum size as was allowed, and if his plume exceeded the usual limits, even for a moment, a giant laser would pop to the surface on the unreachable sea below, evaporating his ship and then his body, and finally, his very worried skull.

But this burn went unnoticed. Then the ship rested, pieces of its hull pull­ing away, forming dragonfly wings configured to work with the thickening winds. Each time they passed through one of the monomolecular skins, Peregrine felt a shudder. The vibrations worsened by the minute, growing violent and relentless, and after a point, numbing and nearly unnoticed.

Countless black bodies continued to rise.

At home, inside the refugees’ city, lived the data sinks that had survived from prewar times. Even the best of them were incomplete. But inside the biological sections, Peregrine had found digitals of fish swimming in schools—a hypnotic set of images where tiny, almost mindless creatures managed to stay in formation, displaying grace and a singleness of purpose that never failed to astonish him.

This was the same, only infinitely more spectacular.

Those black bodies didn’t ride on meat and fins, but on tiny rockets and stubby metal wings. Perfect coordination had built a flawless hemisphere better than five hundred kilometers wide. Peregrine’s best AI spotter singled out random bodies, carefully watching as they climbed to the outside edge of the school and then worked their way upward, reaching the cloud’s apex before doing a curious roll, each shucking off its little wings before firing a larger rocket, then diving back out of sight through gaps too tiny to see from above.

“Identify one of them,” Peregrine suggested, “and see when it emerges again.”

The spotter had already tried that, and failed. The bodies were too simi­lar, and there were too many of them. But there was an easier, more elegant route. With the help of distant telescopes, the AI took a thorough census of the cloud, and then it let itself feel the gentle but precise tug made by that combined gravity. Then it precisely measured the size of the entire swarm, and with genuine astonishment, it admitted, “They are growing fewer, I think.”

“Fewer?”

“Every minute, a million bodies vanish.”

“Meaning what?” he asked. “The cloud is shrinking?”

“It grows, but its citizens are scarcer. And this has been happening from the outset, I would guess.”

The pilot was managing their long fall while the ship’s architect con­stantly adapted the shape and stiffness of wings, and the shape and color of the fuselage. To the best of its ability, the raider ship was trying to vanish inside the Polypond’s enormous sky.

“Will any little guys be left when they reach us?” Peregrine asked.

Yes. Billions still.

“But what happens to the others? Where do they go?”

Data gave clues. Neutrinos and the character of escaping light implied a fierce heat, X-rays and even gamma rays seeping free. There was no way to be certain, but the black bodies could be simple machines—lead-doped hyperfiber shells wrapped around nuclear charges, for instance. If those bombs were detonating, then the interior of that cloud was hell: a spherical volume perhaps one hundred kilometers in diameter with an average temperature hotter than the guts of most suns.

What would anyone want with so much heat?

“The cloud is a weapon,” Peregrine muttered, feeling horrible and sure. His first instinct was to glance at the rocket nozzle behind them, imagin­ing the very worst: a bubble of superheated plasmas was being woven here, ready to be flung up and out into space, like a child’s ball aimed for a target several thousand kilometers wide. Drop that creation into the nozzle, and, after a soundless flash, the city would cease to be.

But how would the Polypond launch the bubble?

The AIs were scrambling for answers. It was the ship’s architect that imag­ined the next nightmare. What if the bubble wasn’t going to be thrown, but instead it was dropped? If it was flung onto the Great Ship’s hull… on the backside of the Ship, where the hyperfiber was thinnest… could it punch a hole into the hallways and habitats below?

Probably not, the majority decided.

But Peregrine and the architect wouldn’t give up their nightmares. Since the war had ended, no one had seen energies approaching what was being seen today. But what if the Polypond had been waiting patiently since the war’s end, silently gathering resources for this one spectacular attack… ?

Both solutions were possible and awful, and both were wrong.

The black cloud was still fifty kilometers below, and simulations were furiously working, and that was when a third, even stranger answer appeared with a withering flash of blue-white light.

In a blink, the top of that shimmering black mass parted.

Evaporated.

And from inside that carefully sculpted furnace sprang a shape at once familiar and wrong—a sphere of badly stressed, heavily eroded hyperfiber that was just a few kilometers across but rising fast on a withering plume of exhaust.

Making its frantic bid to escape: a starship.

“Reconfigure us now!” Peregrine shouted. “Whatever it takes get us out of the way…!”

* * * *

6

On occasion, Peregrine and his inhuman friend discussed the Great Ship and what might or might not be found within its unreachable interior. One despairing possibility was that the Polypond hadn’t destroyed the ancient vessel, but it had managed to annihilate both crew and passengers, leaving no one besides a few souls clinging to life outside. On the opposite end of the spectrum sat the most hopeful answer: life aboard the Ship was exactly as it had always been, peaceful and orderly, and the captains were still in charge, and the Polypond had been defeated, or at least fought to a meaningful armistice. And if that was true, then for a host of perfectly fine reasons, nobody at present was bothering to poke their heads out of the living ocean.

“But that doesn’t explain this new acceleration,” Peregrine would point out. “The engineers and captains… everybody everywhere… they assumed that these big rockets were the only engines. But plainly, they weren’t. Obvi­ously, they weren’t even the most powerful thrusters available.”

“It is quite the puzzle,” Hawking conceded.

The acceleration was not huge, but to make anything as massive as the Great Ship move faster… well, that was an impressive trick. “The captains found something new during the war,” Peregrine suggested.

“A talent hidden until now,” his friend added. “That notion has a delight­ful sourness about it, yes.”

Sour was sweet to the leech.

Peregrine would narrow his gaze, imagining captains standing in a crowded, desperate bridge. “They wanted to outmaneuver the Polypond. That’s why they kicked the new motors awake, and now they can’t stop them.”

“A compelling possibility. I agree.”

But Peregrine didn’t believe his own words. “That still won’t explain why the captains don’t come out to get us. Even if they don’t suspect anybody’s here, they should send up teams to scout the situation… and even better, to send messages home to the Milky Way…”

Long limbs acquired the questioning position. “Where would you expect them to appear?” Hawking asked.

“Inside one of the nozzles. I would.”

Silence.

Peregrine offered his reasons as he thought of them. “Because the Polypond can’t reach inside the nozzles. Because the captains could pretty easily work their way through the barricades and hyperfiber plugs. And be­cause from the nozzle floor, they’d have an unobstructed view of the galaxy, and they would be able to measure our position and velocity—”

“The barricades are significant,” the alien cautioned.

“To us, they are. We don’t have the energy or tools to cut through the best grades of hyperfiber.” Shaking his head, he said, “From what I’ve heard, when my mother’s ship was damaged, she spent her free time trying to find some route to the interior. She explored at least a thousand of the old accessways leading down from here.” Every tunnel, no matter how obscure, was blocked with hyperfiber too deep and stubborn to cut through. “But if there were captains below us, and if only a fraction of the old reactors were working… they could still punch out in a matter of years… maybe weeks…”

Silence.

“So there are no captains,” Peregrine would decide. Every time.

“Which means what?”

“Somebody else is in charge of the Great Ship.” That answer seemed obvious, and it was inevitable, and it made a good mind usefully worried. Yet that answer was a most frustrating creation, since it opened doors into an infinite range of possibilities, imaginable and otherwise.

“Who is in charge?” Hawking would ask, on occasion.

A few powerful species were obvious candidates. But each of them would have sent teams to the surface. They might be different species, but they would be drawn by the same reasons and needs that humans would feel.

“Perhaps the culprit is someone else,” Hawking would propose. “An or­ganism you haven’t thought to consider.”

Anything was possible, yes.

Peregrine threw his ape arms into a posture that mimicked his friend’s, underscoring the importance of his next words. “Nobody here is looking for a route down,” he said. “I think it’s been what? A thousand years since anyone has even tried.”

The three hemispherical eyes were bright and still.

Peregrine continued. “Once I get enough savings in the bank, I’ll take up my mother’s other work. Just to see what I can see.”

“That could be a reasonable plan,” Hawking would say.

Then most of the time, their conversation ended. Peregrine often made that promise to himself, but he never had the resources or the simple will to invest in the luxury of a many-year search. Besides, he was the finest raider in the city, and raiders were essential. If he gave up his present work, the level of poverty everywhere would rise. Citizens would have to forgo having children and new homes. At least that was his excuse to wait for an­other decade or two, biding time before setting out on what surely would be a useless adventure.

Hawking never questioned Peregrine’s lack of action. But then again, that creature was ancient and eerily patient, and who knew how many promises he had made to himself during the last eons, all bound up inside his powerful mind, waiting to be fulfilled?

One day, Peregrine surprised himself; he imagined a fresh candidate and a compelling logic that would explain the mystery.

“It’s the Great Ship,” he offered.

The !eech was silent, but there was a different quality to his posture, and even the crystalline eyes looked brighter.

“The Ship itself has come to life,” the young man proposed.

“And why would that be?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it finally had enough of human beings at the helm, this damned Polypond trying to kill it, and all the rest of these unpleasant creatures running around inside it. So one day, it just woke up and said, ‘Screw you. From here on, I’m in charge!’”

“Interesting,” his friend offered.

“And what if… ?” Peregrine continued. Swallowing and then smiling, he asked, “What if we aren’t just following some random line? Instead of heading out into nothingness, the Ship is actually steering us toward a genu­ine destination?” Then he laughed in a tight, nervous fashion. “What if our voyage has only just begun, Hawking?”

There was a momentary silence.

Then his friend replied, “Every voyage has just begun. If you consider those words in the proper way…”

* * * *

7

Buried in those old data sinks were schematics for a host of impossible machines—devices too intricate or demanding to be built by refugees and their children. Included were wondrous starships like those that once brought passengers to the Great Ship. Peregrine had always dreamed of seeing vessels like those, and judging by the spectrums, that’s what the ap­parition was: an armored starship equipped with a streakship drive, efficient and relentless, yet operating at some minuscule fraction of full throttle. With just that whisper of thrust, the gap between him and it closed in an instant. Peregrine’s ship was a tiny, toyish rocket that barely had time enough to fold its wings and kick itself out of the way. The rising starship missed Per­egrine by less than ten kilometers. The silvered ball of hyperfiber stood on a plume of hard radiations, the exhaust narrow at the nozzle but widening as it drove downward, scorching heat causing it to explode outward into an atmosphere that was cooked to a broth of softer plasmas, a stark blue-white fire betraying only the coldest of the unfolding energies.

“Run!” he ordered.

His pilot had already made that panicked assessment. Using the last shreds of its wings, the raider ship tilted its nose and leaped toward space, not following the starship so much as simply trying to keep ahead of the awful fire. The black mass beneath them continued to churn and spin. And the living ocean below everything could see the starship too, a thousand defensive systems triggered, the burning air suddenly full of laser bursts and particle beams and a host of slow ballistic weapons that could never catch their target. Whatever the reason for fighting, hatred or simple instinct, the Polypond employed every trick in its bid to kill its opponent. And that’s when Peregrine’s tiny ship was kissed by one of the lasers, a portion of his hull and two entire wings turned to carbon ash and a telltale glow.

“Reconfigure!” he screamed.

The AIs began shuffling the surviving pieces, pulling their ship back into a rough shape that might remain whole for another few moments.

But the main fuel tank was pierced, leaking and unpatchable.

“We can’t make it home,” was the uniform verdict.

Peregrine had already come to that grim conclusion.

“Hunt for help,” he said. “Who’s close—?”

“No one is,” he heard.

The surviving portions of the black mass were still churning, a few bil­lion fusion bombs riding little rockets. It was a useless gesture, Peregrine believed. But then he noticed how the cloud was changing as it moved, acquiring a distinct pancake-shaped base above which a tiny fraction of the bombs were gathering, pulling themselves into a dense, carefully stacked bundle.

In a shared instant, the pancake below ignited itself.

The resulting flash dwarfed every bolt of laser light, and even the stardrive faded from view. A hypersonic slap struck the last of those bombs, destroy­ing most but throwing the rest of them skyward at a good fraction of light-speed. Then as the bombs passed into the last reaches of the atmosphere, they gave themselves one last shove, rockets carrying them close enough that the starship was forced to react, shifting its plume slightly, evaporating every last one of its pursuers.

But the pancake burst had launched more than just bombs. A fat por­tion of the atmosphere was being shoved upward, and soon it would stand higher than Peregrine had ever seen. More out of instinct than calculation, he said, “Try wings again, and ride this updraft.”

It wouldn’t lift them much, no. But the soaring maneuver would keep them at a safer altitude for a little while longer.

“Now are there any raiders who can reach us?”

Several, maybe.

“Offer them anything,” Peregrine told his mercantile AI. “Thanks. Money. My family name. Whatever works.”

Moments later, a deal was secured.

The airborne wreckage of his ship continued to jump and lurch through the blazing atmosphere. Life support was close to failing, and once it did, his body would cook and temporarily die. Peregrine invested his last conscious moments looking up at the streakship, watching as it broke into true space, that relentless engine throwing back a jet of plasma that grew even thinner and hotter as it began to finally throttle up.

“Yell at the ship,” he ordered.

That brought confused silence.

“Assume there’s a tribe of humans onboard,” he instructed his AIs. “Curse at them and blame them for all our miseries. Say whatever you have to, but get them to talk back to us…”

“And then what?” asked his pilot.

“Remember everything they say,” he muttered as his lips burned. “And everything they don’t say too—”

* * * *

8

“You were once an engineer,” he had whispered to Fusillade. “But not anymore, I have to believe.”

“And why not?”

The arbitrary moment on the clock called “morning” was approaching. The two humans were sleepy and physically spent. But Peregrine found the energy to explain, “I know every engineer. By face. By name. By skills. After all, I am a raider.”

“You are.”

“None of you founders are helping us fly. Your children and grandchil­dren, sure. But never you.”

Silence.

“It’s funny,” he allowed. “I don’t keep track of you. I mean humans and harum-scarums, the fef and all the others… those lucky ones who founded our city. I doubt if I could attach ten faces to the right names, since most of you seem happy to keep close to each other…”

The only response was a smile, thin and wary.

Peregrine grew tired of this dance. “So what do you do with your time?” he finally asked.

The smile brightened. “I study.”

“The subject?”

“Many matters.” The woman was taller than Peregrine, and stronger. She pushed on his chest—pushed harder than necessary—and he felt his heart beating against the flat of her palm. Then very quietly, Fusillade asked, “What do you know about your half brother?”

Peregrine offered a crisp, inadequate biography of a man who lived and died long ago.

“And your two sisters?”

There were three siblings in all. Two were raiders who eventually didn’t return from their missions, while that final sister had followed their mother’s other pursuit, hunting for a route back into the Great Ship. But a crude plasma drill exploded during testing, obliterating most of her mind along with her bones and meat.

With a shrug, Peregrine confessed, “I don’t think about them very often. Different fathers, and we never knew each other… and all that…”

His lover winked and said, “You know, he was their friend too.”

“Who was?”

“You know who.” The smile had been replaced by a genuinely cold expression, eyes weighing everything they saw—not unlike the leech eyes. “He wore different names, yes. But he was a companion to your sisters and your brother too. They weren’t as good friends as you are to him, but he was always close. And when your mother had no living children, he would strike up relationships with whoever seemed to be the best raider.”

“I’ve heard that story before,” Peregrine muttered. Then with a pride that took him a little by surprise, he added, “Yeah, everyone says that I’ve got some odd tie with Hawking, or whatever he wants to call himself…”

“And what about your mother?”

“What about her?”

“She and the alien knew each other. Not at first, no. At least, nobody in my circle remembers any relationship. But your mother invited your dear companion along when she went below, hunting for an open road to the Great Ship. I’m sure you can imagine why. That leech could slip his way into some amazingly tiny crevices, if he had to…”

Peregrine was perfectly awake now.

Quietly, firmly, the ageless lover said, “I wouldn’t want you to mention this to your good friend. What I’m sharing, I mean. Let’s keep it between ourselves.”

Again and again, the young man realized that he knew little about any­thing. Looking at the woman’s stiff, unreadable face, he asked again, “What exactly do you do with your time?”

Her eyes narrowed.

“You’re still an engineer, aren’t you?”

“Do you think so?”

“The founders, and particularly the oldest of you… each of you have celebrated tens of thousands of birthdays. Minds like yours have habits, and habits don’t easily change.” Now he sat up and pushed against her chest. The woman had a peculiar asymmetry—a giant black nipple tipped the small hard right breast, while its large and very soft neighbor wore a tiny silver cap. Between the breasts lay a heart beating faster than he expected. “So tell me: what kind of engineering do you do?”

“Mostly, I buy useless items in the markets.”

“Which items?”

“Pieces of neural networks. You know, the little brains of those big corpses that you bring home… from gull-wands and clowners and the rest of the free-ranging bodies…”

Those brains were always tiny, simple of design, and often mangled or burned. Generations of raiders had collected the trinkets, and not even the largest few had shown any hint of sentience.

“Maybe as individual fragments, they’re simple.” She pulled Peregrine’s other hand over her chest, and smiled. “But if you splice them together, very carefully… if you spend a few thousand years doing little else… you’ll cobble together something that captures a portion of one genuine soul. Maybe it’s the Polypond’s mind, maybe something else. Whatever it is, you’ll find memories and images and ideas… and on occasion, you might even hear some timely, important news…”

“Such as?”

She refused to say.

“And what does this have to do with Hawking?”

“Maybe nothing,” she replied with an agreeable tone. “But now that you mention it: what should we say about that very good friend of yours?”

* * * *

9

In the end what was saved was too small and far too mutilated to reconstitute itself. Peregrine was a lump of caramelized tissue surrounding a fractured skull that held a bioceramic brain cut through by EM surges and furious rains of charged particles. The damage was so severe that every memory and tendency and each of his precious personal biases had to migrate into special shelters, and life had ceased completely for a timeless span covering almost eighteen days. Death held sway—longer than he had ever known, Nothingness ruled—and then after a series of quick tickling sensations and flashes of meaningless light, the raider found himself recovered enough that his soul migrated out of its hiding places and his newest eyes opened, gazing at a face that was not entirely unexpected.

“The streakship,” he blurted with his new mouth. “Where?”

A limb touched his mouth and both cheeks, and then another limb touched his chest, feeling his heart. The limbs were soft, strong, and human— a woman’s two hands—and then he heard her voice saying, “Gone,” with finality. “Gone now. Gone.”

“It got away safely?”

She said, “Yes,” with a nod, then with her eyes, and finally with a whisper. And she leaned closer, adding, “The streakship has escaped, yes. Eighteen days, and it’s still accelerating. Faster than you would ever guess, it is racing toward the Milky Way.”

Peregrine tried to move, and failed. His legs and arms were only half-grown, wearing wraps filled with blood and amino acids. But he could breathe deeply, enjoying that sensation quite a lot. “What about my crew?”

“Degraded, but alive.” The woman’s face was pleased and a little as­tonished, telling him, “At the end, when you were rescued… when that other raider plucked you out of the mayhem… the AIs were flying what was really just a toy glider, barely as big as me, and with maybe a tenth my mass…”

Peregrine tried to absorb his good fortune. How could you even calcu­late the long odds that he had crossed?

The ancient woman sat back, biding her time.

“Did the streakship ever talk?” he asked.

“Yes.” She nodded and smiled wistfully, and then with a matter-of-fact shrug, she added, “As soon as the streakship got above us, it hit us with a narrow-beam broadcast. Yes.”

“What did it say?”

“Life survives inside the Great Ship,” she reported. “But our old leaders, the wise and powerful captains… they’re gone now. All of them. Either dead or in hiding somewhere.”

“Who is in charge?”

“Nobody.”

“What does that mean?”

“From what the streakship told us, passengers are fending for themselves.” The woman paused, studying his new face. Then she quietly mentioned, “However, there is one exceptionally obscure species that’s come into some prominence. In fact, at the end of the Polypond War, they took control of the Great Ship’s helm.” She offered a flickering wink, and then added, “And, oh… now that I mentioned that… guess who else has gone away… ?

“Somebody you know…

“Even before your body arrived home, he picked up his shell, and by the looks of it, scuttled away…”

* * * *

10

Peregrine was perfectly healthy and profoundly poor. The raider who saved him had acquired most of his assets, while his debts to the hospital remained substantial, possibly eternal. He had no ship, and his crew was repaired and working with others. Several investors came forward, offering to pay for a new ship in return for a fat percentage of all future gains. But the only fair offer was a brief contract from his father, and for a variety of reasons, per­sonal and otherwise, the young man decided to send it back unsigned and follow an entirely new course.

If you live cheaply and patiently, it takes astonishingly little money to keep you breathing and content.

For most of a century, Peregrine stalked the deep tunnels and access ports that laced the Ship’s central nozzle. Armed with maps left behind by his mother and sister, he hunted for routes they might have missed. He man­aged to find two or three every year, but each one was inevitably plugged with the high-grade hyperfiber. It was easy to see why no one kept up this kind of search for long. Yet Peregrine refused to quit, if only because the idea of failure gave his mouth such an awful taste.

New lovers drifted in and out of his life.

He occasionally saw the old lady engineer, meeting her for a meal and con­versation. They hadn’t slept together in decades, but they remained friendly enough. Besides, she had a sharp mind and important connections, and sometimes, when she was in the mood, she gave him special knowledge.

“You knew a big hatch was coming,” Peregrine accused her. “That’s why you seduced me when you did. Somehow, you and your founder friends pieced together clues that the rest of us don’t ever get to see.”

“Yet that hatch, big as it was, was just a secondary phenomenon,” she ex­plained. “Like blood from a fresh cut. I won’t tell exactly how we knew, but we did. And what was more important was that someone or something had emerged from one of the old ports. We had reason to believe that an armored vessel was pushing through the Polypond ocean, heading our way… pre­sumably to get into a useful position before jumping free of the Ship.”

“And you suspected Hawking?”

“For thousands of years, I did. We did.” Fusillade nodded, and then said, “This isn’t official. But in the final seconds of the War, a few messages ar­rived from the interior. They were heavily coded military broadcasts, which is why they aren’t common knowledge. They describe the creatures that were taking over the battered Ship. The leech, the broadcasts called them. And not wanting to alert the spy in our midst, we decided to keep those secrets to ourselves.”

“But he’s gone,” Peregrine countered. “Why not make a public announcement?”

“Because we don’t want to panic our children, of course.”

“Am I panicking?” he asked.

“In slow motion, you are. Yes.” The ancient engineer sat back in her chair, tapping at the heart nestled between her unequal breasts. “Spending your life searching for a way into the Ship, when we are as certain as we can be that there is no way inside…yes, I think that’s genuinely panicked behavior.

“Hawking disappeared to someplace,” he replied. “That means there’s at least one route off this nozzle.”

“If he went back into the Great Ship, perhaps. But for all we know, he’s walking today on a living cloud off on some distant piece of the Polypond’s body.”

Peregrine had wasted decades walking empty hallways and dangling from soft glass ropes. He could have wasted a thousand centuries before find­ing the relevant clue. But he was a lucky individual, and he had the good fortune of becoming lost at the proper moment. After two wrong turns, he found himself standing beside a tiny chute exactly like ten thousand other chutes. Except, that is, for the marks left behind by a delicate limb that had been dipped in paint. No, in blood. A blackish alien blood with a distinc­tive flavor, and the writing was a familiar script, showing the simple word “HAWKING,” followed by a simple yet elegant arrow pointing straight down.

* * * *

11

The chute ended with a vast airless room built for no discernible purpose. Its walls were half a kilometer tall, and the floor was a circular plain covering perhaps ten square kilometers of featureless hyperfiber—stuff as old as the Ship, far better than any grade that could be chiseled through today. The only obvious doorway led out into the dormant rocket nozzle. Peregrine set up a torch in the room’s center, and then he kneeled, searching that expanse with a powerful night scope. He should have missed the second doorway. If anyone else had ever visited this nameless place, they surely would have ignored what looked like a crevice, horizontal and brief. But someone was standing in front of the opening-—a distinctive alien wearing a gossamer lifesuit, his long jointed legs locked into a comfortable position, the body motionless now and perhaps for a very long while.

Peregrine walked a few steps, then broke into a hard run.

On their private channel, Hawking said, “You look fit, my friend. And rather troubled too, I see.”

“What are you doing here?” Peregrine blurted.

“Waiting for you,” was the reply.

“Why?”

“Because you are my friend.”

“I don’t particularly believe that,” said Peregrine. “From what I’ve heard, the leech are my enemies…”

“I have injured you how many times?”

“Never,” he thought, saying nothing.

“My friend,” said Hawking. “What precise treacheries am I guilty of?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

Silence.

Peregrine had invested years wondering what he would say, should this moment arrive. “Why live with us?” he asked. “Were you some kind of spy? Were you sent here to watch over us?”

There was a pause, then a cryptic comment. “You know, I saw you enter­ing this place. I saw that quite easily.”

“I’ve been climbing toward you for several hours,” Peregrine complained. “Of course you saw me…”

Then he hesitated, rolling the alien’s confession around in his head.

With relentless patience, Hawking waited.

Peregrine slowed his gait, asking, “How long have you been watching my approach?”

“Since your birth,” the leech confessed.

Peregrine stopped now.

After a few minutes of reflection, he said, “Those eyes of yours… they see into the future… ?”

Silence.

“Do they see everything that’s going to happen?”

“Do your eyes absorb everything there is to see?”

Peregrine shook his head. “A limited sight, is that it?”

One of the distant legs lifted high, signaling agreement.

“What else can you see, Hawking?”

“That I have never hurt you,” the alien repeated.

“My half sister… the one who died in the plasma blast… did you arrange that accident?”

“No.”

“But did you see the accident approaching?”

Silence.

“And why did you come up on the hull, Hawking? The only reason I can think of is to spy on us.”

“An obvious answer. And your imagination is richer than that, my friend.”

Hard as it was to believe, the apparent compliment forced Peregrine to smile. “Okay,” he muttered. “You wanted to spy on our future. We’re an in­dependent society, free of the leech, and maybe you’re scared of us.”

“That is an interesting assessment, but mistaken.”

“I don’t understand then.”

“In time, you will,” the leech promised.

Then every one of its limbs was moving, carrying the creature backward into the narrow, almost invisible crevice. Peregrine began to run again, in a full sprint; but he was still half a kilometer from his goal when a warm gooey stew of fresh hyperfiber flowed into view, filling the crevice and pushing across the slick floor, glowing in the infrared as it swiftly cured.

* * * *

12

The final doorway had been opened just enough for a small human wearing a minimal lifesuit to slip through, and, walking alone, he then stepped onto a frigid, utterly flat plain. During the War, portions of the Polypond had splashed into the giant nozzle, dying here or at least freezing into a useless hibernation. Peregrine strode out to where he found a modest telescope as well as a set of telltale marks. His friend once stood here, those powerful eyes of his linked to the light-hungry mirror. By measuring the marks in the ice, and with conservative estimates of the heat lost by Hawking’s lifesuit, Peregrine guessed that the creature had stood here for many years, pulling up his many feet when they had melted to uncomfortable depth, then danc­ing over to a fresh place before reclaiming his watchful pose.

Peregrine lay on his back now, slowly melting into the dead ice, and he fixed the same telescope to his eyes and purposefully stared at the sky.

The little city was barely visible—a sprinkling of tiny lights and heat sig­natures threatening to vanish against the vast bulk of the timeless and utterly useless nozzle. Millions of souls were up there, breeding and spreading out farther in a profoundly impoverished realm. Yet despite all of their successes, they seemed to have no impact on a scene that dwarfed all men and their eternal urges.

What wasn’t the nozzle was the galaxy.

Here was what the leech had been watching. Hawking had lived for thousands of years in a place that offered him comfort and the occasional companionship. But once the streakship had left, carrying its important news to the universe beyond, the creature’s work had begun: sitting on this bitter wasteland, those great eyes had been fixed on three hundred billion suns. Peregrine studied the maelstrom of stars and worlds, dust and busy minds; and perhaps for the first time in his life, he appreciated that this was something greater than any silly Polypond. Here lay an ocean beyond any other, and someday, in one fashion or another, a great hatch would rise from it—furious bodies riding upon a trillion, trillion wings, reaching for this prize that has been lost.

This Great Ship.

* * * *