Melilah Awad and Palmer Eogan delve deeper into Geodesica’s ancient alien labyrinth than anyone has ever dared, hoping to unravel its secrets before the hunter-killers from Earth bring them down. Former Exarch of Bedlam, Isaac Forge Deangelis, finds his grip on sanity slipping as his very reason for existing is ripped from him. While a rebel Exarch and Palmer Horsfall, grieving for her lost sister, form an alliance that might tear humanity’s interstellar empire apart….
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By Sean Williams, Shane Dix
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Sean Williams and Shane Dix
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Bedlam: 2439 CE
Bedlam burned. Palmer Horsfall warily approached the system the Exarchate called Lut-Deangelis, keeping a close eye on telemetry for any sign of nanotech attack as she came. The trade lanes had been seeded with dust, as they had been around Sublime, dramatically reducing deform ratings and forcing her to ply an alternate route through the heliopause. Thus far, that dust had been inert, devoid of any payloads more sophisticated than pure inertia, but it paid to be careful. She knew precisely what sort of risk she was taking.
From a distance the system looked little different to normal. Only closer did its absorption spectrum begin to show signs of Catastrophe. The vast, gleaming atmosphere of nanotech surrounding the star was extraordinarily diffuse—barely one particle per cubic meter—but it fed on the energy of the sun itself and bred voraciously. Horsfall knew that very little within its aegis would have been spared. Asteroids, moons, whole planets had been consumed in the fire of its genesis, along with Palmer Cells, automated stations, and outposts. A world of people had died here—as had died in Sublime, along with her sister.
She remembered that day with perfect clarity. Eleven years earlier and seventeen and a half light-years away, it still burned in her mind. She had tried so long to quench it—along with the guilt and the anger and the regret. Now she knew better. She would fan those flames and set fire to all humanity. She wouldn't rest until Sol burned with her, and the smoke obscured the stars.
"Should we hail him?" she asked the monkey on her back.
Wait. The reply came as a whisper in her ears, as subtle and insidious as it had been the first time she heard it. It's likely he's already seen us.
"We're coming in quiet." The Cell Horsfall commanded had been modified to very specific requirements in order to minimize its emissions. They had coasted in deep cold for several hours past the system's bow shock, only booting up telemetry when they were confident of having slipped through the outer defenses.
Nevertheless. We want him to see us, remember?
She remembered. This was the part of the plan that bothered Horsfall the most. Everything hinged on how Deangelis would react. Would he swat them out of the sky as one would a mosquito, or would he hesitate long enough to listen? There was no way to guess. A man who had just watched his system die was inherently unpredictable.
Not a man, she reminded herself. An Exarch. There was a big difference.
The face of Bedlam's gas giant, Ah Kong, presented an unlikely swirl of colors as the Dreieichen navigated its many moons. She felt something akin to relief to be back in a gravity well after so long in the Dark. If she kept her eyes averted from the glowing sphere of the Catastrophe, Horsfall could almost pretend she was in an ordinary system, one untouched by the horrors she had seen, on an ordinary mission for Arc Circuit clients. The Dreieichen was designed to be crewless as well as quiet. Part of her longed for a new voice to talk to apart from the one in her head. In the station named after her sister, there had been communications from other systems, companions to talk to, even the occasional lover. For almost two years now, ever since word had come of the Mizar Occlusion, she had been utterly isolated. She hadn't even known what had happened in Bedlam until she had arrived on its fringes. The ghastly golden glow was faint but familiar.
Strength, the voice in her ears had offered her at their first glimpse. You're not alone in this. We will find peace together, either way.
The thought hadn't helped much. Horsfall knew that there was only one sort of peace she could hope for— and she wasn't religious; she didn't believe that her sister awaited her in some blissful afterlife. Death was just an end, not a solution, to the problem.
"Come on, Deangelis," she muttered as the Dreieichen assumed its parking orbit. "Put us out of our misery. I dare you."
As though the former Exarch of Bedlam had heard her, something broke cover from behind one of the icy moons and streaked toward her Cell.
No warning. No request for ID, even. Deangelis was touchier than Horsfall had expected. She triggered an automatic sequence prepared weeks in advance. The Dreieichen' s individual components shrank to balls barely half a meter across and scattered in all directions. The breathing space around her collapsed, and she felt her body rearrange itself to accommodate the sudden constriction. Giddiness accompanied the abrupt shift in proprioception; she fought the urge to gag. Her other senses stayed on the approaching weapon—burning white and fierce like a high-tech sparkler. She held her breath.
The weapon split into nine different parts, one for each of the components. It clearly meant business.
Horsfall's mind raced like quicksilver as she launched a second wave of defensive measures. The magnetic field of Ah Kong snapped and whipped as thousands of tiny flares detonated at once, sowing electromagnetic confusion around the Cell. Through the mess of noise, she could barely make out the nine lances of the weapon continuing to diverge, targeting the Cell's components with unchecked ease.
She knew then that anything she had prepared would be easily countered by the Exarch. They were as good as dead.
"If you've got an ace up your sleeve," she told the ghost riding her mind, "now would be the time to produce it."
She felt the Cell twitch around her as it took a single, brief phrase and broadcast it in all directions at once, in every available medium.
Isaac, don't, said the voice.
That was all. The brevity of the statement startled Horsfall, who had expected something a little more persuasive. There was time for more. They had at least a hundred microseconds before the first of the weapon fragments would hit. How could two words possibly deter Deangelis from fulfilling his deadly duty? It would take much more than that to stop her, surely.
Yet it worked. With a flash bright enough to drown out the Catastrophe, the weapon fragments simultaneously detonated. The Cell rocked in the vacuum, but was unharmed.
"Jane?" came a voice out of the Dark, its tone disbelieving, accusatory, but with a hopeful edge that made it sound almost pathetic.
The voice in Palmer Horsfall's head didn't reply.
Horsfall waited in the swirling electromagnetic storm left in the wake of the weapon and her decoys. The Cell remained cautiously dispersed, adding to the gas giant's already large collection of tiny moons.
On one of those moons, a navigation beacon began to blink.
That's our cue, said the voice in Horsfall's ear. Take us in.
Horsfall swallowed her misgivings and brought the Dreieichen in to dock.
* * *
Bedlam burned. Its former Exarch stood in the fire and was not consumed. Yearn though he might for dissolution, the nanoagents that had destroyed his habitat and its citizens—and now drifted like lethal snowflakes on the solar wind within two astronomical units of the system's primary—had as much effect on him as dust. He felt like the Old Testament's burning bush. The voice of God spoke through him, but he was spared.
It was all relative, he supposed. He had been brought back from the dead in order to help his creator maintain the lie that ROTH booby traps in Geodesica had been responsible for the Catastrophe. Why Races Other Than Human would have done such a thing, exactly, awaited adequate explanation, but the lie was likely to stick better than the awful truth. Within days of the destruction of Bedlam, the Archon had sent a new tangler to the system from Jamgotchian-McGrath. When it had arrived, six months later, it received a wave of data transmitted from Earth and built Isaac Deangelis new bodies, an observation station, and a raft of new sensors with which to study the Mizar Occlusion—all under cover of the pervasive haze of the deadly nanotech.
I belong here, Deangelis told himself. No one else should be here but me.
But he would rather be anywhere else in the universe than standing watch over the ruins of his home, colluding with the one who had destroyed it ...
Now someone else had come. Not a survey vessel or a scientific scout. Plenty of those had grazed the system in the previous months, testing the nanotech hellfire and comparing it to that which had consumed Sublime eleven years earlier. He didn't turn those away, even though it meant enduring their closest scrutiny. The Catastrophe would burn them if they came too close, and there was no evidence of foul play elsewhere in the system. They came, saw, and left when they realized there was nothing they could do. Bedlam was finished. He was finished.
It had been scant comfort to him that he wasn't the only one in his position. Jane Elderton, Exarch of Sublime, had been left behind as watchdog, too, jealously guarding her own entrance to the hyperspatial network the Archon called Geodesica. Since returning to Bedlam, he had been unwilling to talk to her, just as he had not spoken to any of the other Exarchs. Some of them had helped him during the crisis; some had actively betrayed him; Jane Elderton had stood as an example of their worst nightmare—homeless, hopeless, and utterly isolated.
And now she was in Bedlam, somehow, riding a Palmer Cell that slipped through his sensors like an eel in muddy water.
He didn't need to ask what she wanted. He knew exactly what to do in response.
The Cell slipped in to dock on a tiny scrap of rock; the former inhabitants of Bedlam hadn't bothered to name. It was a dark, heavily cratered place, completely overshadowed by its garish primary world but not so close as to be warmed by tidal flexure. Probes had found little more than ice and primordial rubble overlaid by a thick layer of organics, and the search for life and harvestable compounds had soon turned elsewhere.
Deangelis had christened the rock "Rudra," after an Indian god of storms. The installation he built there had never before been activated, not in all the long months he had waited for just such a moment. Deep in its heart, well hidden from the searchers and the curious, a pair of eyes opened for the first time.
Isaac Forge Deangelis, former Exarch of Bedlam and guardian of Geodesica, shifted his attention elsewhere.
* * *
Rudra-Deangelis's first steps took him gracefully across the chamber in which he had woken to a door set in the far wall. The air smelled of ancient stone and contained little oxygen. The latter was fine; he didn't need to breathe. What concerned him more was the shaft on the other side of the door. Something was coming down it from the surface of the moon, to him.
He took a full second to think things through. Imprinted memories reminded him of building the station, of placing a nascent part of himself deep inside it, then sealing it up like an Egyptian tomb, waiting not for the afterlife but for something much more substantial. That he had no further memories, and that he found himself inside the station with no sense of his higher self at all, suggested that hewas that nascent self, brought into being to deal with an eventuality the rest of him had to avoid. His higher self was in regular contact with the Archon. Who knew what his creator could or could not read in the workings of his mind?
One of him would attempt what the whole could not. Small and alone he might feel, but he would be sufficient. He had to be. Bedlam wouldn't burn for nothing.
The door slid open, and a woman he didn't know stepped through it. She was compact and solid, with features that revealed nothing of her age. Her scalp and face were utterly hairless; her skin was so white it seemed translucent. Eyes the blue of Earth from space took him in with a single glance.
"You're Deangelis?" Her voice was gravelly and direct. "You look younger than I thought you would."
He didn't grace that with a reply. His appearance—that of a blond, somewhat sexless youth—was designed to avoid the traditional stereotypes of masculine power. Being taken seriously was something he earned, not expected.
"Where have you come from?" he asked. "Why are you here?"
"My name is Palmer Horsfall," the woman said. She jittered slightly in the low gee, as though unused to even that small amount of gravity. "I've come from Sublime."
Her identity fell into place, then. The observation station around the first system to fall was named after Deva Horsfall, a vacuum physicist from Alcor who had died in the conflagration. The woman before him was, presumably, her sister, the Palmer who had delivered her to her death.
She wasn't the person Deangelis had expected to see.
"Why?" he repeated.
"We want the same thing," she said. Horsfall took him in with a sidelong cast, as though wary to look him full in the face. She stayed studiously close to the open elevator shaft. "Revenge."
"The Archon and Sol."
"For what reason?"
"Do I really have to spell it out?"
He nodded. Better that she voiced it first than him, in case this was some elaborate trap.
For destroying Sublime and Bedlam, said a voice that didn't come from Horsfall's lips. For taking in cold blood the lives of those we loved. For killing our homes.
His surprise was mitigated in part by relief. He knew that voice. The mind of Jane Elderton inhabited the body of the Palmer before him, grinding it like a pilot of a single ship.
Some of the tension left him then. She wouldn't lie to him about this. She had come to help him fight.
"You are both welcome here," he said. "What shelter I have to offer you is yours."
"Good," said Horsfall, looking only marginally eased by his offer. "If the Archon finds us here, we're dead."
"As am I." He nodded, instructing the previously inert walls to extrude two chairs for his guests and him. The door to the elevator shaft slid soundlessly closed. "By having this conversation, we are automatically committed to the cause."
No matter where it leads us? asked the fragment of Jane Elderton.
Rudra-Deangelis nodded. "You're not here to discuss the whys and what-ifs. Let's concentrate solely on how and leave those who follow us to do the rest."
"I'm pleased we don't have to convince you," said Horsfall, seating herself economically on the chair nearest her. "I'll admit that I was less sure than Exarch Elderton."
"Jane understands," he said, "just as I now understand her a little better."
Horsfall's bright blue eyes stared at him, and he wondered if he detected his old friend peering through them. They had known each other on Earth after their creation by the Archon, in his first incarnation. They had trained with other Exarchs such as Lazarus Hails, Frederica Cazneaux, and Lan Cochrane for the Expansion that would reclaim humanity's First Wave colonies. They had been flung like seeds into the Arc Circuit, where they had taken root and prospered— before being cut down in their prime for no better reason than fear of a weed.
Horsfall didn't flinch from his gaze. Whether the steel he saw in them belonged to her or to Elderton, he was glad to see it.
They would fight the Archon and destroy it, or die trying. There was no possible alternative. That was precisely what he had been created for. He would not shirk from destiny.
"So where do we start?" asked Horsfall. "This might be a killer of an understatement, but it's a big job."
"Melilah Awad took the first step by broadcasting a message outlining the truth after Bedlam fell."
Deangelis nodded, appreciating for the first time just how long his visitors had been traveling, and remembering what the Archon had said about that message upon his resurrection on Earth: We have modeled the propagation of the truth as one would a disease. We will do what we can to spread counter- and misinformation, just as we did with White- Elderton. But some will remain dubious. This doubt, Isaac, must not be allowed to spread.
"We'll continue the work she started, exposing Geodesica for what it is and opening it up to the rest of the Exarchate."
Excerpted from Geodesica Descent by Sean Williams, Shane Dix. Copyright © 2005 Sean Williams and Shane Dix. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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