David Brin's HEAVEN'S REACH

Heaven's Reach sample chapters

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Part One: The Five Galaxies

     WHAT EMBLEMS grace the fine prows of our fast ships?
     How many spirals swirl on the bow of each great vessel, turning round and round, symbolizing our connections? How many are the links that form our union?

     ONE spiral represents the fallow worlds, slowly brewing, steeping, stewing -- where life starts its long, hard climb.
     Struggling out of that fecundity, new races emerge, ripe for Uplift.

     TWO is for starfaring culture, streaking madly in our starships, first as clients, then as patrons, vigorously chasing our young interests -- trading, fighting, and debating --
     Straining upward, till we hear the call of beckoning tides.

     THREE portrays the Old Ones, graceful and serene, who forsake starships to embrace a life of contemplation. Tired of manic rushing. Cloistering for self-improvement.
     They prepare to face the Great Harrower.

     FOUR depicts the High Transcendents, too majestic for us to perceive. But they exist!
     Making plans that encompass all levels of space, and all times.

      FIVE is for the galaxies -- great whirls of shining light -- our islands in a sterile cosmos, surrounded by enigmatic silence. On and on they spin, nurturing all life's many orders, linked perpetually, everlasting.

     Or so we are assured....

Harry

     Alarms sing a variety of melodies.
     Some shriek for attention, yanking you awake from deathlike repose. Others send your veins throbbing with adrenaline. Aboard any space vessel there are sirens and wails that portend collision, vacuum leaks, or a myriad other kinds of impending death.
     But the alarm tugging at Harry Harms wasn't like that. Its creepy ratchet scraped lightly along the nerves.
     "No rush," the soft buzzer seemed to murmur. "I can wait.
     "But don't even think about going back to sleep.
"
     Harry rolled over to squint blearily at the console next to his pillow. Glowing symbols beckoned meaningfully. But the parts of his brain that handled reading weren't perfectly designed. They took a while to warm up.
     "Guh..." he commented. "Wuh?"
     Drowsiness clung to his body, still exhausted after another long, solitary watch. How many duras had passed since he tumbled into the bunk, vowing to quit his commission when this tour of duty ended?
     Sleep had come swiftly, but not restfully. Dreams always filled Harry's slumber, here in E Space.
     In fact, dreaming was part of the job.

     In REM-state, Harry often revisited the steppes of Horst, where a dusty horizon had been his constant background in childhood. A forlorn world, where ponderous dark clouds loomed and flickered, yet held tightly to their moisture, sharing little with the parched ground. He usually woke from such visions with a desiccated mouth, desperate for water.
     Other dreams featured Earth -- jangling city-planet, brimming with tall humans -- its skyscrapers and lush greenery stamped in memory by one brief visit, ages ago, in another life.
     Then there were nightmares about ships -- great battlecraft and moonlike invasion arks -- glistening by starlight or cloaked in the dark glow of their terrible fields. Wraithlike frigates, looming more eerie and terrifying than real life.
     Those were the more normal dream images to come creeping in, whenever his mind had room between far stranger apparitions. For the most part, Harry's night thoughts were filled with spinning, dizzying allaphors, which billowed and muttered in the queer, half logic of E Space. Even his shielded quarters weren't impervious to tendrils of counterreality, penetrating the bulkheads, groping through his sleep. No wonder he woke disoriented, shaken by the grating alarm.
     Harry stared at the glowing letters -- each twisting like some manic, living hieroglyph, gesticulating in the ideogrammatic syntax of Galactic Language Number Seven. Concentrating, he translated the message into the Anglic of his inner thoughts.
     "Great," Harry commented in a dry voice.
     Apparently, the patrol vessel had come aground again.
     "Oh, that's just fine."
     The buzzer increased its tempo. Pushing out of bed, Harry landed barefoot on the chill deck plates, shivering.
     "And to think... they tell me I got an aptitude for this kind of work."
     In other words, you had to be at least partway crazy to be suited for his job.
     Shaking lethargy, he clambered up a ladder to the observing platform just above his quarters -- a hexagonal chamber, ten meters across, with a control panel in the center. Groping toward the alarm cutoff, Harry somehow managed not to set off any armaments, or purge the station's atmosphere into E Space, before slapping the right switch. The maddening noise abruptly ceased.
     "Ah..." he sighed, and almost fell asleep again right there, standing behind the padded command chair.
     But then... if sleep did come, he might start dreaming again.
     I never understood Hamlet till they assigned me here. Now I figure, Shakespeare must've glimpsed E Space, before writing that "to be or not to be" stuff.
     ...perchance to dream...
     Yup, ol' Willie must've known there's worse things than death.

     Scratching his belly, Harry scanned the status board. No red lights burned. The station appeared functional. No major reality leaks were evident. With a sigh, he moved around to perch on the seat.
     "Monitor Mode. Report station status."
     The holo display lit up, projecting a floating blue M, sans serif. A melodious voice emanated from the slowly revolving letter.
     "Monitor mode. Station integrity is nominal. An alarm has been acknowledged by station superintendent Harry Harms at 4:48:52 internal subjective estimate time..."
     "I'm Harry Harms. Why don't you tell me something I don't know, like what the alarm's for, you shaggy excuse for a baldie's toup...ah...ah..."
     A sneeze tore through Harry's curse. He wiped his eyes with the back of a hirsute wrist.
     "The alarm denoted an interruption in our patrol circuit of E Level hyperspace," the monitor continued, unperturbed. "The station has apparently become mired in an anomaly region."
     "You mean we're grounded on a reef. I already knew that much. But what kind of..." he muttered. "Oh, never mind. I'll go see for myself."
     Harry ambled over to a set of vertical louvered blinds -- one of six banks that rimmed the hexagonal chamber -- and slipped a fingertip between two of the slats, prying them apart to make a narrow slit opening. He hesitated, then brought one eye forward to peer outside.
     The station appeared to be shaped in its standard format, at least. Not like a whale, or jellyfish, or amorphous blob, thank Ifni. Sometimes this continuum had effects on physical objects that were gruesomely bizarre, or even fatal.
     On this occasion the control chamber still perched like a glass cupola atop an oblate white spheroid, commanding a 360-degree view of a vast metaphorical realm -- a dubious, dangerous, but seldom monotonous domain.
     Jagged black mountains bobbed in the distance, like ebony icebergs, majestically traversing what resembled an endless sea of purple grass. The "sky" was a red-blue shade that could only be seen on E Level. It had holes in it.
     So far so good.
     Harry spread the slats wider to take in the foreground, and blinked in surprise at what he saw. The station rested on a glistening, slick-brown surface. Spread across this expanse, for what might be a kilometer in all directions, lay a thick scattering of giant yellow starfish!
     At least that was his first impression. Harry rushed to another bank of curtains and peeked again. More "starfish" lay on that side as well, dispersed randomly, but thickly enough to show no easy route past.
     "Damn." From experience he knew it would be useless to try flying over the things. If they represented two dimensional obstacles, they must be overcome in a two dimensional way. That was how allaphorical logic worked in this zone of E Space.
     Harry went back to the control board and touched a button. All the blinds retracted, revealing an abrupt panoramic view. Mountains and purple grass in the distance. Brown slickness closer in.
     And yes, the station was completely surrounded by starfish. Yellow starfish everywhere.
     "Pfeh." Harry shivered. Most of the jaundiced monsters had six arms, though some had five or seven. They didn't appear to be moving. That, at least, was a relief. Harry hated ambulatory allaphors.
     "Pilot mode!" He commanded.
     With a faint crackling, the floating helvetica M was replaced by a jaunty, cursive P.
     "Aye aye, o' Person-Commander. Where to now, Henry?"
     "Name's Harry," he grunted. The perky tones used by pilot mode might have been cheery and friendly in Anglic, but they came across as just plain silly in Galactic Seven. Yet the only available alternative meant substituting a voice chip programmed in whistle-clicking GalTwo. A Gubru dialect, even. He wasn't desperate enough to try that yet.
     "Prepare to ease us along a perceived-flat course trajectory of two forty degrees, ship centered," he told the program. "Dead slow."
     "Whatever you say, Boss-Sentient. Adapting interface parameters now."
     Harry went back to the window, watching the station grow four huge wheels, bearing giant balloon tires with thick treads. Soon they began to turn. A squeaky whine, like rubbing your hand on a soapy countertop, penetrated the thick crystal panes.
     As he had feared, the tires found little traction on the slick brown surface. Still, he held back from overruling the pilot's choice of countermeasures. Better see what happened first.
     Momentum built gradually. The station approached the nearest yellow starfish.
     Doubt spread in Harry's mind.
     "Maybe I should try looking this up first. They might have the image listed somewhere."
     Once upon a time, back when he was inducted as Earth's first volunteer-recruit in the Navigation Institute survey department -- full of tape-training and idealism -- he used to consult the records every time E Space threw another weird symbolism at him. After all, the Galactic Civilization of oxygen breathing races had been exploring, cataloguing and surveying this bizarre continuum for half a billion years. The amount of information contained in even his own tiny shipboard Library unit exceeded the sum of all human knowledge before Contact was made with extraterrestrials.
     An impressive store... and as it turned out, nearly useless. Maybe he wasn't very good at negotiating with the Library's reference persona. Or perhaps the problem came from being born of Earth-simian stock. Anyway, he soon took to trusting his own instincts during missions to E Space.
     Alas, that approach had one drawback. You have only yourself to blame when things blow up in your face.
     Harry noticed he was slouching. He straightened and brought his hands together to prevent scratching. But nervous energy had to express itself, so he tugged on his thumbs, instead. A Tymbrimi he knew had once remarked that many of Harry's species had that habit, perhaps a symptom of the long, hard process of Uplift.
     The forward tires reached the first starfish. There was no way around the things. No choice but to try climbing over them.
     Harry held his breath as contact was made. But touching drew no reaction. The obstacle just lay there, six long, flat strips of brown-flecked yellow, splayed from a nubby central hump. The first set of tires skidded, and the station rode up the yellow strip, pushed by the back wheels.
     The station canted slightly. Harry rumbled anxiously in his chest, trying to tease loose a tickling thread of recognition. Maybe "starfish" wasn't the best analogy for these things. They looked familiar though.
     The angle increased. A troubled whine came from the spinning rear wheels until they, too, reached the yellow.
     In a shock of recognition, Harry shouted -- "No! Reverse! They're ban --"
     It was already too late. The back tires whined as slippery yellow strips flew out from under the platform, sending it flipping in a sudden release of traction. Harry tumbled, struck the ceiling, then rolled across the far wall, shouting as the scout platform rolled, skidded, and rolled again... until it dropped with a final, bone-jarring thud. Fetching up against a bulkhead, Harry clutched a wall rail with his toes until the jouncing finally stopped.
     "Oh... my head...," he moaned, picking himself up.
     At least things had settled right side up. He shuffled back to the console in a crouch, and read the main display. The station had suffered little damage, thank Ifni. But Harry must have put off housecleaning chores too long, for dust balls now coated his fur from head to toe. He slapped them off, raising clouds and triggering violent sneezes.
     The shutters had closed automatically the instant things went crazy, protecting his eyes against potentially dangerous allaphors.
     He commanded gruffly, "Open blinds!" Perhaps the violent action had triggered a local phase change, causing all the nasty obstacles to vanish. It had happened before.
     No such luck, he realized as the louvers slid into pillars between the wide viewing panes. Outside, the general scenery had not altered noticeably. The same reddish blue, swiss cheese sky rolled over a mauve pampas, with black mountains bobbing biliously in the distance. And a slick mesa still had his scoutship mired, hemmed on all sides by yellow, multi-armed shapes.
     "Banana peels," he muttered. "Goddam banana peels."
     One reason why these stations were manned by only one Observer... allaphors tended to get even weirder with more than one mind perceiving them at the same time. The "objects" he saw were images his own mind pasted over a reality that no living brain could readily fathom. A reality that mutated and transformed under influence by his thoughts and perceptions.
     All that was fine, in theory. He ought to be used to it by now. But what bothered Harry in particular about the banana allaphor was that it seemed gratuitously personal. Like others of his kind, Harry hated being trapped by stereotypes.
     He sighed, scratching his side. "Are all systems stable?"
     "Everything is stable, Taskmaster-Commander Harold," the Pilot replied. "We are stuck for the moment, but we appear to be safe."
     He considered the vast open expanse beyond the plateau. Actually, visibility was excellent from here. The holes in the sky, especially, were all clear and unobstructed. A thought occurred to him.
     "Say, do we really have to move on right away? We can observe all the assigned transit routes from this very spot, until our cruise clock runs out, no?"
     "That appears to be correct. For the moment, no illicit traffic can get by our watch area undetected."
     "Hmmph. Well then..." He yawned. "I guess I'll just go back to bed! I have a feelin' I'm gonna need my wits to get outta this one."
     "Very well. Good night, Employer-Observer Harms. Pleasant Dreams."
     "Fat chance o' that," he muttered in Anglic as he left the observation deck. "And close the friggin' blinds! Do I have to think of everything around here? Don't answer that! Just... never mind."
     Even closed, the louvers would not prevent all leakage. Flickering archetypes slipped between the slats, as if eager to latch into his mind during REM state, tapping his dreams like little parasites.
     It could not be helped. When Harry got his first promotion to E Space, the local head of patrollers for the Navigation Institute told him that susceptibility to allaphoric images was a vital part of the job. Waving a slender, multi-jointed arm, that Galactic official confessed his surprise, in Nahalli-accented GalSix, at Harry's qualifications.
     "Skeptical we were, when first told that your race might have traits useful to us.
     "Repudiating our doubts, this you have since achieved, Observer Harms.
     "To full status, we now advance you. First of your kind to be so-honored."
     Harry sighed as he threw himself under the covers again, tempted by the sweet stupidity of self-pity.
     Some honor! He snorted dubiously.
     Still, he couldn't honestly complain. He had been warned. And this wasn't Horst. At least he had escaped the dry, monotonous wastes.
     Anyway, only the mad lived for long under illusions that the cosmos was meant for their convenience.
     There were a multitude of conflicting stories about whoever designed this crazy universe, so many billions of years ago. But even before he ever considered dedicating his life to Institute work -- or heard of E Space -- Harry had reached one conclusion about metatheology.
     For all His power and glory, the Creator must not have been a very sensible person.
     At least, not as sensible as a neo-chimpanzee.

Sara

     There is a word-glyph.
     It names a locale where three states of matter coincide -- two that are fluid, swirling past a third that is adamant as coral.
     A kind of froth can form in such a place. Dangerous, deceptive foam, beaten to a head by fate-filled tides.
     No one enters such a turmoil voluntarily.
     But sometimes a force called
desperation drives prudent sailors to set course for ripping shoals.

* * * * *

     A slender shape plummets through the outer fringes of a mammoth star. Caterpillar-ribbed, with rows of talon-like protrusions that bite into spacetime, the vessel claws its way urgently against a bitter gale.
     Diffuse flames lick the scarred hull of ancient cerametal, adding new layers to a strange soot coating. Tendrils of plasma fire seek entry, thwarted (so far) by wavering fields.
     In time, though, the heat will find its way through.
     Midway along the vessel's girth, a narrow wheel turns, like a wedding band that twists around a nervous finger. Rows of windows pass by as the slim ring rotates. Unlit from within, most of the dim panes only reflect stellar fire.
     Then, rolling into view, a single rectangle shines with artificial color.
     A pane for viewing in two directions. A universe without, and within.

     Contemplating the maelstrom, Sara mused aloud.
     "My criminal ancestors took their sneakship through this same inferno on their way to Jijo... covering their tracks under the breath of Great Izmunuti."
     Pondering the forces at work just a handbreadth away, she brushed her fingertips against a crystal surface that kept actinic heat from crossing the narrow gap. One part of her -- book-weaned and tutored in mathematics -- could grasp the physics of a star whose radius was bigger than her homeworld's yearly orbit. A red giant, in its turgid final stage, boiling a stew of nuclear-cooked atoms toward black space.
     Abstract knowledge was fine. But Sara's spine also trembled with a superstitious shiver, spawned by her upbringing as a savage sooner on a barbarian world. The earthship Streaker might be hapless prey -- desperately fleeing a titanic hunter many times its size -- but this dolphin-crewed vessel still struck Sara as godlike and awesome, carrying more mass than all the wooden dwellings of the Slope. In her wildest dreams, dwelling in a treehouse next to a groaning water mill, she had never imagined that destiny might take her on such a ride, swooping through the fringes of a hellish star.
     Especially Izmunuti, whose very name was fearsome. To the Six Races, huddling in secret terror on Jijo, it stood for the downward path. A door that swung just one way, toward exile.
     For two thousand years, emigrants had slinked past the giant star to find shelter on Jijo. First the wheeled g'Kek race, frantically evading genocide. Then came traekis -- gentle stacks of waxy rings who were fleeing their own tyrannical cousins -- followed by qheuens, hoons, urs and humans, all settling in a narrow realm between the Rimmer Mountains and a surf-stained shore. Each wave of new arrivals abandoned their starships, computers, and other high-tech implements, sending every god-machine down to the sea, tumbling into Jijo's deep midden of forgetfulness. Breaking with their past, all six clans of former sky lords settled down to rustic lives, renouncing the sky forever.
     Until the Civilization of the Five Galaxies finally stumbled on the commonwealth of outcasts.
     The day had to come, sooner or later; the Sacred Scrolls had said so. No band of trespassers could stay hidden perpetually. Not in a cosmos that had been catalogued for over a billion years, where planets such as Jijo were routinely declared fallow, set aside for rest and restoration. Still, the sages of the Commons of Jijo had hoped for more time.
     Time for the exile races to prepare. To purify themselves. To seek redemption. To forget the galactic terrors that made them outcasts in the first place.
     The Scrolls foresaw that august magistrates from the Galactic Migration Institute would alight to judge the descendants of trespassers. But instead, the starcraft that pierced Jijo's veil this fateful year carried several types of outlaws. First gene raiders, then murderous opportunists, and finally a band of Earthling refugees even more ill-fated than Sara's hapless ancestors.
     I used to dream of riding a starship, she thought, pondering the plasma storm outside. But no fantasy was ever like this -- leaving behind my world, my teachers, my father and brothers -- fleeing with dolphins through a fiery night, chased by a battleship full of angry Jophur.
     Fishlike cousins of humans, pursued through space by egotistical cousins of traeki.
     The coincidence beggared Sara's imagination.

     Anglic words broke through her musing, in a voice that Sara always found vexingly sardonic.
     "I have finished calculating the hyperspatial tensor, oh Sage.
     "It appears you were right in your earlier estimate. The mysterious beam that emanated from Jijo a while ago did more than cause disruptions in this giant star. It also triggered a state-change in a fossil dimension-nexus that lay dormant just half a mictaar away."
     Sara mentally translated into terms she was used to, from the archaic texts that had schooled her.
     Half a mictaar. In flat space, that would come to roughly a twentieth of a light-year.
     Very close, indeed.
     "So, the beam re-activated an old transfer point." She nodded. "I knew it."
     "Your foresight would be more impressive if I understood your methods. Humans are noted for making lucky guesses."
     Sara turned away from the fiery spectacle outside. The office they had given her seemed like a palace, roomier than the reception hall in a qheuen rookery, with lavish fixtures she had only seen described in books two centuries out of date. This suite once belonged to a man named Ignacio Metz, an expert in the genetic-uplifting of dolphins -- killed during one of Streaker's previous dire encounters -- a true scientist, not a primitive with academic pretensions, like Sara.
     And yet, here she was -- fearful, intimidated... and yet proud in a strange way, to be the first Jijoan in centuries who returned to space.
     From the desk-console, a twisted blue blob drifted closer -- a languid, undulating shape she found as insolent as the voice it emitted.
     "Your so-called wolfling mathematics hardly seem up to the task of predicting such profound effects on the continuum. Why not just admit that you had a hunch?"
     Sara bit her lip. She would not give the Niss Machine the satisfaction of a hot response.
     "Show me the tensor," she ordered tersely. "And a chart... a graphic... that includes all three gravity wells."
     The billowing holographic creature managed to imply sarcasm with an obedient bow.
     "As you wish."
     A cubic display, two meters on a side, lit up before Sara, far more vivid than the flat, unmoving diagrams-on-paper she had grown up with.
     A glowing mass roiled in the center, representing Izmunuti, a fireball radiating the color of wrath. Tendrils of its engorged corona waved like Medusan hair, reaching beyond the limits of any normal solar system. But those lacy filaments were fast being drowned under a new disturbance. During the last few miduras, something had stirred the star to an abnormal fit of rage. Abrupt cyclonic storms began throwing up gouts of dense plasma, tornado-like funnels, rushing far into space.
     And we're going to pass through some of the worst of it, she thought.
     How strange that all this violent upheaval might have originated in a boulder of psi-active stone, back home on primitive Jijo. Yet she felt sure it all was triggered somehow by the Holy Egg.
     Already half-immersed in this commotion, a green pinpoint was depicted plunging toward Izmunuti at frantic speed, aimed at a glancing near-passage, its hyperbolic orbit marked by a line that bent sharply around the giant star. In one direction, that slim trace led all the way back to Jijo, where Streaker's escape attempt had begun two exhausting days earlier, breaking for liberty amid a crowd of ancient derelicts -- ocean-bottom junk piles reactivated for one last, glorious, screaming run through space.
     One by one, those decoys had failed, or dropped out, or were snared by the enemy's clever capture-boxes, until only Streaker remained, plummeting for the brief shelter of stormy Izmunuti.
     As for the forward direction... Instrument readings sent by the bridge crew helped the Niss Machine calculate their likely heading. Apparently, Gillian Baskin had ordered a course change, taking advantage of a gravitational slingshot around the star to fling Streaker toward galactic north and east.
     Sara swallowed hard. The destination had originally been her idea. But as time passed, she grew less certain.
     "The new t-Point doesn't look very stable," she commented, following the ship's planned trajectory to the top left corner of the holo unit, where a tight mesh of curling lines funneled through an empty-looking zone of interstellar space.
     Reacting to her close regard, the display monitor enhanced that section. Rows of symbols glowed, showing details of the local hyperspatial matrix.
     She had predicted this wonder -- the re-awakening of something old. Something marvelous. For a brief while, it had seemed like just the miracle they needed. A gift from the Holy Egg. An escape route from a terrible trap.
     But on examining the analytical profiles, Sara concluded that the cosmos was not being all that helpful, after all.
     "There are connection tubes opening up to other spacetime locales. But they seem rather... scanty."
     "Well, what can you expect from a nexus that is only a few hours old? One that was only recently yanked from slumber by a force neither of us can grasp?"
     After a pause, the Niss unit continued. "Most of the transfer threads leading away from this nexus are still on the order of a Planck width. Some promising routes do seem to be coalescing, and may be safely traversable by starship in a matter of weeks. Of course, that will be of little use to us."
     Sara nodded. The pursuing Jophur battleship would hardly give Streaker that much time. Already the mighty Polkjhy had abandoned its string of captured decoys in order to focus all its attention on the real Streaker, keeping the Earthship bathed in long-range scanning rays.
     "Then what does Gillian Baskin hope to accomplish by heading toward a useless..."
     She blinked, as realization lurched within her rib cage.
     "Oh. I see."
     Sara stepped back, and the display resumed its normal scale. Two meters away, at the opposite corner, neat curves showed the spatial patterns of another transfer point. The familiar, reliably predictable one that every sneakship had used to reach Izmunuti during the last two millennia. The only quick way in or out of this entire region of Galaxy Four.
     But not always. Once, when Jijo had been a center of commerce and civilization under the mighty Buyur, traffic used to flux through two hyperdimensional nexi. One of them shut down when Jijo went fallow, half a million years ago, coincidentally soon after the Buyur departed.
     Sara and her mentor, Sage Purofsky, had nursed a suspicion. That shutdown was no accident.
     "Then we concur," said the Niss Machine. "Gillian Baskin clearly intends to lead the Jophur into a suicidal trap."

     Sara looked elsewhere in the big display, seeking the enemy. She found it several stellar radii behind Izmunuti, a yellow glow representing the hunter -- a Jophur dreadnought whose crew coveted the Earthship and its secrets. Having abandoned the distraction of all the old dross ship decoys, the Polkjhy had been racing toward the regular t-Point, confident of cutting off Streaker's sole escape route.
     Only now, the sudden re-opening of another gateway must have flummoxed the giant sap-rings who commanded the great warship. The yellow trace turned sharply, as the Polkjhy frantically shed momentum, aiming to chase Streaker past Izmunuti's flames toward the new door in spacetime.
     A door that's not ready for use, Sara thought. Surely the Jophur must also have instruments capable of reading probability flows. They must realize how dangerous it would be to plunge into a newborn transfer point.
     Yet, could the Polkjhy commanders afford to dismiss it? Streaker was small, maneuverable, and had dolphin pilots, reputed to be among the best in all five galaxies.
     And the Earthlings were desperate.
     The Jophur have to assume we know something about this transfer point that they do not. From their point of view, it seems as if we called it into existence with a wave of our hands -- or fins. If we plunge inside, it must be because we know a tube or thread we can latch onto and follow to safety.
     They're obliged to give chase, or risk losing Streaker forever.
     Sara nodded.
     "Gillian and the dolphins... they're sacrificing themselves, for Jijo."
     The tightly meshed Niss hologram appeared to shrug in agreement.
     "It does seem the best choice out of a wretched set of options.
     "Suppose we turn and fight? The only likely outcomes are capture or death, with your Jijoan civilization lost in the bargain. After extracting
Streaker's secrets, the Jophur will report to their home clan, then take their time organizing a systematic program for Jijo, first annihilating every g'Kek, then turning the planet into their own private breeding colony, developing new types of humans, traekis and hoons to suit their perverted needs.
     "By forcing the
Polkjhy to follow us into the new transfer point, Dr. Baskin makes it likely that no report will ever reach the Five Galaxies about your Six Races. Your fellow exiles may continue wallowing in sublime, planet-bound squalor for a while longer, chasing vague notions of redemption down the muddy generations."
     How very much like the Niss it was, turning a noble gesture into an excuse for insult. Sara shook her head. Gillian's plan was both grand and poignant.
     It also meant Sara's own hours were numbered.
     "What a waste," the Niss sighed. "This vessel and crew appear to have made the discovery of the age, and now it may be lost."
     Things had been so hectic since the rushed departure from Jijo that Sara was still unclear about the cause of all this ferment -- what the Streaker crew had done to provoke such ire and pursuit by some of the great powers of the known universe.
     "It began when Captain Creideiki took this ship poking through a seemingly unlikely place, looking for relics or anomalies that had been missed by the Great Library," the artificial intelligence explained. "It was a shallow globular cluster, lacking planets or singularities. Creideiki never told his reasons for choosing such a spot. But his hunch paid off when Streaker came upon a great fleet of derelict ships, drifting in splendid silence through open space. Samples and holos taken of this mystery armada seemed to hint at possible answers to our civilization's most ancient mystery.
     "Of course our findings should have been shared openly by the institutes of the Civilization of Five Galaxies, in the name of all oxygen-breathing life. Immense credit would have come to your frail, impoverished Earthclan, as well as my Tymbrimi makers. But every other race and alliance might have shared as well, gaining new insight into the origins of our billion-year old culture.
     "Alas, several mighty coalitions interpreted
Streaker's initial beamcast as fulfillment of dire prophecy. They felt the news presaged a fateful time of commotion and upheaval, in which a decisive advantage would go to anyone monopolizing our discovery. Instead of celebratory welcome, Streaker returned from the Shallow Cluster to find battle fleets lying in wait, eager to secure our secrets before we reached neutral ground. Several times, we were cornered, and escaped only because hordes of fanatics fought savagely among themselves over the right of capture.
     Alas, that compensation seems lacking in our present situation."

     That was an understatement. The Jophur could pursue Streaker at leisure, without threat of interference. As far as the rest of civilization was concerned, this whole region was empty and off limits.
     "Was poor Emerson wounded in one of those earlier space battles?"
     Sara felt concern for her friend, the silent star voyager, whose cryptic injuries she had treated in her treehouse, before taking him on an epic journey across Jijo, to be reunited with his crewmates.
     "No. Engineer d'Anite was captured by members of the Retired Caste, at a place we call the Fractal World. That event --"
     The blue blob halted its twisting gyration,. Hesitating a few seconds, it trembled before resuming.
     "The detection officer reports something new! A phenomenon heretofore masked by the flames of Izmunuti."
     The display rippled. Abruptly, swarms of orange pinpoints sparkled amid the filaments and stormy prominences of Izmunuti's roiling atmosphere.
     Sara leaned forward. "What are they?"
     "Condensed objects.
     "Artificial, self-propelled spatial motiles.
     "In other words, starships."

     Sara's jaw opened and closed twice before she could manage speech.
     "Ifni, there must be hundreds! How could we have overlooked them before?"
     The Niss answered defensively.
     "Oh great Sage, one normally does not send probing beams through a red giant's flaming corona in search of spacecraft. Our attention was turned elsewhere. Besides, these vessels only began using gravitic engines moments ago, applying gravi-temporal force to escape the new solar storms."
     Sara stared in amazement. Hope whirled madly.
     "These ships, could they help us?"
     Again, the Niss paused, consulting remote instruments.
     "It seems doubtful, oh Sage. They will scarcely care about our struggles. These beings belong to another order on the pyramid of life, completely apart from yours... though one might call them distant cousins of mine."
     Sara shook her head, at first confused. Then she cried out.
     "Machines!"
     Even Jijo's fallen castaways could recite the Eight Orders of Sapience, with oxygen based life being only one of the most flamboyant. Among the other orders, Jijo's sacred scrolls spoke darkly of synthetic beings, coldly cryptic, who designed and built each other in the farthest depths of space, needing no ground to stand on, or wind to breathe.
     "Indeed. Their presence here surely involves matters beyond our concern. Most likely, the mechanoids will avoid contact with us out of prudent caution."
     The voice paused.
     "Fresh data is coming in. It seems that the flotilla is having a hard time with those new tempests. Some mechaniforms may be more needy of rescue than we are."
     Sara pointed at one of the orange dots.
     "Show me!"
     Using data from long range scans, the display unit swooped giddily inward. Swirling stellar filaments seemed to heave around Sara as her point of view plunged toward the chosen speck -- one of the mechanoid vessels -- which began taking form against a backdrop of irate gas.
     Stretching the limits of magnification, the blurry enhancement showed a glimmering trapezoidal shape, almost mirrorlike, that glancingly reflected solar fire. The mechanoid's outline grew slimmer as it turned to flee a plume of hot ions, fast rising toward it from Izmunuti's whipped convection zones. The display software compensated for perspective as columns of numbers estimated the vessel's actual measurements -- a square whose edges were hundreds of kilometers in length, with a third dimension that was vanishingly small.
     Space seemed to ripple just beneath the mechaniform vessel. Though still inexperienced, Sara recognized the characteristic warping effects of a gravi-temporal field. A modest one, according to the display. Perhaps sufficient for interplanetary speeds, but not to escape the devastation climbing toward it. She could only watch with helpless sympathy as the mechanoid struggled in vain.
     The first shock wave ripped the filmy object in half... then into shreds that raveled quickly, becoming a swarm of bright, dissolving streamers.
     "This is not the only victim. Observe, as fate catches up with other stragglers."
     The display returned to its former scale. As Sara watched, several additional orange glitters were overwhelmed by waves of accelerating dense plasma. Others continued climbing, fighting to escape the maelstrom.
     "Whoever they are, I hope they get away." Sara murmured.
     How strange it seemed that machine-vessels would be less sturdy than Streaker, whose protective fields could stand full immersion for several miduras in the red star's chromosphere, storm or no storm.
     If they can't take on a plasma surge, they'd be useless against Jophur weapons.
     Disappointment tasted bitter after briefly-raised hope. Clearly, no rescue would come from that direction.
     Sara perceived a pattern to her trials and adventures during the last year -- swept away from her dusty study to encounter aliens, fight battles, ride fabled horses, submerge into the sea, and then join a wild flight aboard a starship. The universe seemed bent on revealing wonders at the edge of her grasp or imagining -- giant stars, transfer points, talking computers, universal libraries... and now glimpses of a different life order. A mysterious phylum, totally apart from the vast, encompassing Civilization of Five Galaxies.
     Such marvels lay far beyond her old life as a savage intellectual on a rustic world.
     And yet, a glimpse was clearly all the cosmos planned giving her.
     Go ahead and look, it seemed to say. But you can't touch.
     For you, time has almost run out.

     Saddened, Sara watched orange pinpoints flee desperately before tornados of stellar heat. More laggards were swept up by the rising storm, their frail light quenched like drowned embers.
     Gillian and the dolphins seem sure we can stand a brief passage through that hell. But the vanishing sparks made Sara's confidence waver. After all, weren't machines supposed to be stronger than mere flesh?
     She was about to ask the Niss about it when, before her eyes, the holo display abruptly changed once more. Izmunuti flickered, and when the image reformed, something new had come into view. Below the retreating orange glimmers, there now appeared three sparkling forms, rising with complacent grace, shining a distinct shade of imperial purple as they emerged from the flames to cross near Streaker's path.
     "What now?" She asked. "More mechanoids?"
     "No," the Niss answered in a tone that seemed almost awed. "These appear to be something else entirely. I believe they are..." The computer's hologram deformed into jagged shapes, like nervous icicles. "I believe they are Zang."
     Sara's skin crawled. That name was fraught with fear and legend. On Jijo, it was never spoken above a whisper. "But... how... what could they be doing...?"
     Before she finished her question, the Niss spoke again.
     "Excuse me for interrupting, Sara. Our acting captain, Dr. Gillian Baskin, has called an urgent meeting of the Ship's Council to consider these developments. You are invited to attend.
     "Do you wish me to make excuses on your behalf?"

     Sara was already hurrying toward the exit.
     "Don't you dare!" She cried over one shoulder as the door folded aside to let her pass.
     The hallway beyond curved up and away in both directions, like a segment of tortured spacetime, rising toward vertical in the distance. The sight always gave Sara qualms. Nevertheless, this time she ran.

Continue reading Heaven's Reach.