About the Author
Gregory Benford (born January 30, 1941) is an American science fiction author and astrophysicist who is on the faculty of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. As a science fiction author, Benford is perhaps best known for the Galactic Center Saga novels, beginning with In the Ocean of Night. He is also the author of the Nebula Award-winning classic book Timescape — a combination of hard science, bold speculation, and human drama.
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By Gregory Benford
Warner BooksCopyright © 1994 Abbenford Associates
All right reserved.
Chapter OneToby watched his father walk the hull.
Killeen was a silvery figure, his suit tuned to reflect as much radiation as possible. A mirror man. Slick light slid over him as he moved, shimmering with the phosphorescence of stars and gas. Toby could follow Killeen's smooth, slow lope as a rippling warp against the fiery background.
-Dad!-Toby called over his skinsuit comm band.
-What? Oh ... -Killeen's surprise came through the fizz of comm static.-How come you're outside?-
-Crew's wondering how come you're out here so long.-
As Cap'n of the Argo, Killeen could do whatever he liked, of course. But Toby had felt the growing uncertainty among the officers inside. Somebody had to act, to say something, so he had pulled on his skin-tight suit and come clumping out here. Lately Cap'n Killeen had kept himself isolated. He came out here to hike over the fat curves of the ship's hull, often not even leaving his suit comm line open.
Killeen said distantly,-I'm navigating. Watching.-
The big man's watery image flowed, liquid with light, as Killeen came toward Toby across Argo's blunt prow. His suit momentarily mirrored the black depths of a nearby molecular cloud, and Toby saw him as an eerie shadow-man against the distant burnt-orange wash of star-speckled gas.
-You can do that from the bridge,-Toby said.
-Get a better feel for it out here.-Killeen came close enough for Toby to make out his father's stern expression through the suit's small vision slit.
Toby knew his father's pinched-face, hedgehog mood, and decided to cut through it directly.-There's near a dozen more crew on sick report.-
Killeen's lips thinned but he said nothing. Toby hesitated, then summoned up his courage.-Dad, we're starving! Those gardens we lost, they're not gonna grow again. Face it!-
Abruptly Killeen whirled, adroitly sliding his magnetic boots in zero gravity.-I am facing it! We just don't know any more techtricks. Even the specialists, the green-thumbers, they can't get those ship gardens sprouting again. No help there. So I'm thinking, got that?-
Toby stepped back involuntarily; Killeen's flinty anger was quick and daunting. He took a breath and said hesitantly,-Shouldn't ... can't we ... do something different?-
Killeen scowled.-Like what?-
-Approach some of those?-Toby pointed tentatively.
Far ahead of Argo floated faint metallic dabs of light. Not clouds or luminous dust. Artificial.
-We don't know what they are. Could be mechwork. Probably is. Mechs have built plenty near True Center.-Killeen shrugged.
-Maybe they're human, Dad.-
-Doubtful. It's been a fearsome long time since humans lived in space.-
-That's just what history says. We won't know till we look for ourselves. We're raiders by heritage, Dad! The Family's itching to get out of the ship, stretch their legs.-
Killeen gazed thoughtfully toward the blaze of Galactic Center.-One thing you learn as Cap'n is not to stick your nose into a beehive just to smell the honey. Those things'll probably be hostile, even if they aren't mech. Ever'thing else here seems to be.-
Toby let the remark ride. It had been over a year, but still Killeen had not recovered from the death of his woman, Shibo. He kept up his duties as Cap'n but was often withdrawn, pensive, moody. That might have been acceptable for a crewman, but not for a Cap'n. The price in morale was getting too high.
Still, Toby thought, Killeen was probably right. They were cruising directly into the center of the galaxy, where vast, indifferent energies worked. Huge, glowering suns. Incandescent clouds of dust and gas. Powers far beyond anything mere humans could manage. And somewhere here, intelligences to match the mad swirl of stars.
He had studied enough history to know that humans had evolved near a star two-thirds of the way out in the galactic spiral. The galaxy was a spinning disk, like a toy-only bigger than the human mind could encompass. Out there at Old Earth, far from the cataclysms of True Center, living had been easy, quiet.
One of his instructional drills had tried to get him to visualize a box that was a light-year on a side, the distance light itself could travel in a whole year. Out there, near the legendary Earth, that box would hold maybe one single star, on average.
Here, at Galactic Center, such a box held a million stars.
Suns crowded the sky like glowing marbles. Stormy streamers of red gas shrouded them. Stars swarmed like angry bees around the central axis-the blue-white brilliance of the exact center.
Toby said quietly,-We could come alongside one of 'em, just for a look.-
Killeen shook his head.-Solve one problem, maybe, but make another. A worse one.-
-We're starving, Dad. We have to do something.-
Killeen turned and strode angrily away along the worn and pitted hull. His magnetos snapped down to the metal with a hard clank that Toby felt through his own boots. He trotted after his father. Walking here took a strangely gaited stride, coasting between steps, letting his boot clamp just long enough to get more momentum. Then he jerked the boot free, pushing forward, and was off on another glide. Toby was good at it but he couldn't keep pace with his father.
Argo had brought them here at near-light speeds, gulping down plasma with her magnetic scoops. There was fuel aplenty, thicker and thicker as they neared the center. Still, random chunks of rock had pocked and blistered her shiny hull. Now they were coasting slower, and Killeen used the chance to hull-walk with some safety. Argo had joined the gyre of matter here, which swung about True Center at one-thousandth light speed.
Killeen reached a smooth ridge in the Argo's complex bulges and stopped, as if on the brow of a real mountain, back on the planet of their birth. Their ship was a last grand construction of their ancestors, a vessel as big as a hill. Beyond him loomed a vast dark cloud, like a smudge of ink against the flaming stars.
Killeen turned and looked back at his son. As Toby approached he saw Killeen's expression shift to a plaintive longing.
-If only there were planets here ... -
-Can't be, I heard,-Toby said flatly, hoping to jar their talk back to realities.
-Why?-Killeen asked sharply.
-Look at these stars! They're flying past each other so close, they strip planets clean free of their parent sun.-
-Well, that sets planets drifting free, sure. So?-Killeen said stubbornly.
-Sure, free. And frozen. Too far from any sun. No plant life. No food.-
Killeen peered wistfully outward.-So in all this magnificence, there's no place for life?-
-Yeasay. Prob'ly none for us, either.-Toby ventured this opinion mostly to snap his father out of his illusions. Maybe even get him to rethink this foolhardy venture to True Center.
Killeen gave him a sober, almost plaintive look.-We have to go on.-
-Why? The radiation levels are so high, Argo can barely hold it off. Just coming outside here, you're risking heavy exposure.-
-It's our duty, I tell you.-
-Dad, your first duty is to Argo, to your crew.-
-There's something near the Galactic Center. We have to find out what.-
Toby snorted in frustration. Killeen's eyes narrowed at this, but Toby told himself he was speaking for a majority of the crew. That was his duty, too. He said bitterly,-Moldy old records hint-hint!-at something. That's all. For that we're supposed to ... -
He broke off as Killeen abruptly turned his back. The Cap'n of the Argo kept his shoulders square despite a sudden sag of his head. Toby saw that his father was fighting with himself, wrestling with dark demons his son would never fully know.
Toby could only glimpse them through the clotted phrases of their conversations, through half-made gestures, through the veiled language of shrugs and scowls and sudden, blunt looks that revealed momentary, naked emotion. The Cap'n was never able to unburden himself, not even to his son. Not even, perhaps, to Shibo ... when she had lived.
Things were weighing on Killeen. Shibo's loss. Killeen's oblique relation now with his own son. The approaching whirlpool of True Center. All these churned within his father's mind, Toby knew. An unhealthy soup.
Killeen gazed out at the blue-black mass that loomed like an absolute wall beside the Argo. It was a snarled, inky cloud of dust and simple molecules, their ship's instruments said. But Killeen always distrusted the crisp certainties of Argo's Bridge diagnostics. Years before he had formed the habit of surveying from the hull itself, free of the reassuring, softening, artificial clasp of the ship. Or at least that was what he said. Toby suspected that he just liked to get clear of Argo's confines. Like father, like son.
Gloomy clouds like this dotted the pressing radiance of the Galactic Center, black punctuation marks in a riot of stellar fire. Killeen had chosen Argo's course to take advantage of this cloud as a shield against lethal radiation levels. As Argo slipped slowly by veiled, murky filaments, Toby watched his father's face tighten, wrinkle with a grimace-and suddenly open in astonishment.
Toby thumbed a control on his neck collar. The helmet computer telescoped his vision and shifted to infrared. His field of view rushed into the recesses of the cloud.
Something snaked at the edge of the mottled mist.
-Go to high mags,-Killeen said tersely, his surprise gone, all business.
Toby sent his vision zooming to max magnification. RANGE: 23 KM, his visor told him.
The snaky thing wriggled-slowly, slowly. Its gleaming jade skin reflected the starglow. Sluggishly it spread gossamer-thin sheets along its body.
-It's alive!-Toby called.
The green serpent was using sails. Natural sails, grown out of its body on fibrous spars. They caught amber starlight. In zero gravity, Toby knew, even the faint pressure of light was enough to give a measurable push. With nothing to slow it down, the twisty creature would pick up speed.
-Look.-Killeen whispered.-There's something more in that cloud.-
The gently wriggling beast had no head, only a long black slit at one end. Toby thought this must be a mouth, because the push from its broad, shiny sails was taking it forward with the slit end ahead. And it was sailing in pursuit of a blue ball.
Silently they watched it draw nearer, nearer-and the slit-mouth widened. Something orange shot out and stuck to the blue ball. Drew it in. The slit-mouth yawned. With two gulps the ball disappeared.
-Predators.-Killeen said.-And prey.-
Toby said wonderingly,-Pred ...? How can anything live in a cloud? In free space?-
A grin split Killeen's star-tanned face.-In free space? Nothing's free, son. Molecular clouds have organic molecules, right? So the astro types say.-
-Those names, yeasay.-Toby recalled the voice of his teacher Aspect, Isaac, who gave him complicated lessons.-Oxygen. Carbon. Nitrogen.-
Killeen gestured expansively.-Add all this starlight, cook for a few billion years. Presto!-
Toby blinked.-Life's hiding all through this cloud?-
-I'll bet the hunting is good at the edge of the cloud. Some things prob'ly live deeper in, where they can hide. Every now and then they'll come out. To bask in the starlight. Get warm.-
Toby nodded, convinced.-That snaky thing, it knows that. Comes around, looking for supper.-
-The sail-snake eats the blue balls. But what's the blue ball eat?-
-Something smaller. Something we can't see from here.-
-Right.-Killen squinted.-There's got to be some critter that lives off the starlight and drifting molecules alone.-
Toby said wonderingly,-Plants? Space plants. I'll bet we can eat some of them.-
Killeen pounded his son on the back.-Be a wonder if we couldn't. We know these clouds have the same basic chemistry that nature generates everywhere. Argo's science programs told us that, 'member? So we'll be able to digest some of whatever's hiding in there, for sure.-
Toby blinked, watching the jade snake unfurl its sails further. Was it green for the same reason plants were, to sop up sunlight in all colors except green? It began an achingly slow turn, showing curved black stripes. Had it seen their ship? Maybe they should run it down, see what it tasted like. His stomach rumbled at the idea.
But the creature had a majesty about it, too. A beauty in its glistening hide, its graceful movement. Like an immense swimmer in a black pool. Maybe they'd leave it be.
-We'd never have seen them from the bridge. Those instruments would've filtered out what they didn't think was important.-Killeen was all business again, his wonderment suppressed. That was part of the price of being Cap'n.
Toby gaped, still fascinated by the sail-snake. He knew what his father said was right. Nobody could have guessed what they'd see out here. But Killeen had come out, again and again. Hammering away at a Cap'n's problems, thinking, worrying, pacing the hull, looking without knowing what he was looking for. And some of the crew had thought he was crazy.
Toby listened as Killeen called the Bridge and ordered Argo toward the shadowy cloud. Understanding came slowly amid the crew. He could hear on comm as the ship stirred with excited voices, with hope, with joy.
-Dad?-he finally asked.
Killeen was giving a flurry of orders. Crew had to prepare to hunt, to forage, to pursue strange game in inky vacuum depths. To do things they had never tried before. Had never even imagined. Killeen paused and said curtly,-Yeasay?-
-We can hole up inside the cloud for a while. Rest up. Get our bearings.-
Killeen shook his head furiously.-Naysay. Resupply, that's all. There's True Center. Look at it! We're so close now.-
Toby peered ahead, through dusty clumps already wreathing the hull of Argo as the great ship headed into the recesses of the giant cloud. At max mag he could make out the exact center of the galaxy. White-hot. Beautiful. Dangerous.
And his father, he now saw, could never be deflected from that goal. Not by starvation. Not by deadly risks. Not by the weight of past sorrow.
They would fly straight into the gnawing center of all this gaudy, swirling chaos. On an impossible voyage. Looking for something, with no clear idea of what it might be.
Killeen grinned broadly.-C'mon, son, this is what we were born to do. We'll go onward. Inward. There's all our Family's past here, somewhere. We'll find out what happened, who we are.-
-Crew doesn't like that kind of talk, Dad.-
He frowned.-How come?-
-This is a scary place.-
-So? They haven't seen the glory of it, haven't really thought it through. When the time comes, they'll follow me.-
-We're running for our lives, Dad.-
-So?-Killeen grinned, a jaunty human gesture amid the wash of galactic light.-We always have been.-
Excerpted from Furious Gulf by Gregory Benford Copyright © 1994 by Abbenford Associates. Excerpted by permission.
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