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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Great Sky River
By Gregory Benford
Warner AspectCopyright © 1987 Abbenford Associates
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSomething was after them.
The Family had just come straggling over a razor-backed ridge, beneath a pale jade sky. Killeen's shocks wheezed as his steady lope ate up the downgrade.
The red soil was deeply wrinkled and gullied. Crosshatching was still sharp in the tractor-tread prints that cut the parched clay. There had been so little rain the prints could well be a century old.
A black-ribbed factory complex sprawled at the base of the slope. Killeen flew over the polished ebony domes, sending navvys scuttling away from his shadow, clacking their rude dumb irritation.
Killeen hardly saw them. He was watching spiky telltales strobe-highlighted on his right retina.
There: a quick jitter of green, pretty far back.
It came and went, but always in a new place.
There, again. Far behind.
Not directly following them, either. Not a typical Marauder maneuver. Smart.
He blinked, got the alternative display. The Family was a ragged spread of blue dabs on his topo map. He was pleased to see they kept a pretty fair lopsided triangle. Cermo-the-Slow was dragging ass behind, as always.
Killeen saw himself, an amber winking dot at the apex. Point man. Target.
He grimaced. This was his first time ever as point, and here came some damn puzzle. He'd tried to beg off when Cap'n Fanny ordered him to the front. There were others better experienced-Ledroff, Jocelyn, Cermo. He'd much rather have stayed back. Fanny kept giving him extra jobs like this, and while he'd do whatever she said without protest, this had made him jittery from the start.
Fanny knew more than anybody, could see through Marauder tricks. She should be up here. But she kept pushing him.
Now this. He dropped from the air, eyes slitted.
Killeen came down on a pocked polyalum slab, the old kind that mechs had used for some long-forgotten purpose. Packing fluff blew in the warm wind, making dirty gray drifts against his cushioned crustcarbon boots. Mechmess littered the ground, so common he did not notice it.
"Got a pointer behind," Killeen sent to Fanny.
"Nossir no way," Killeen answered quickly to cover his nerves. "Think I'd sing out if was that same old Snout, been tagging us for days?"
-What is, then?-
"Dunno. Looks big, then small."
Killeen did not understand how his retinal area scan worked, had only a vague idea about radar pulses. He did know things weren't supposed to look large on one pass and small the next, though. Habit told you more than analysis.
"I dunno. Flashes okay," Killeen said reluctantly. Was Fanny joshing him? He didn't know which he liked less, something that could come up on them this way, or his gear gone flatline on him.
Fanny sighed. She was a nearly invisible speck to his right rear, wiry and quick. Killeen could hear her clicking her teeth together, trying to decide, the way she always did.
"What say?" he prodded impatiently. It was up to her. She was Cap'n of the Family and had a long lifetime rich in story and experience, the kind of gut savvy that meant more in dealing with Marauder mechs than anything else.
She had been Cap'n for all the years that Family Bishop had been on the move. She knew the crafts of flight and pursuit, of foraging and stealing; of deception and attack. And through terrible years she had held the Family together.
"Looks. Dodging fast."
Fanny clicked her teeth again. Killeen could see in his mind's eye her wise old eyes crinkling as she judged their positions. Her warm presence suffused his sensorium, bringing a sure, steady calm. She had been Cap'n so long and so well, Killeen could not conceive how the Family had done without her before, when they lived in the Citadel.
-We make the fist, then,-she said with finality.
Killeen was relieved. "Good say."
-Sound the call.-
He blinked. "Won't you?"
-You're point. Act like one.-
"But you know more about ..." Killeen hesitated. He did not like admitting to his own doubts, not with Ledroff and others probably listening in. He liked even less the prospect of leading an attack.
"Look, Ledroff has done this before. Jocelyn, too. I'll drop back and-"
"But I don't-"
-Naysay!-She was abrupt, biting.-Call!-
Killeen wet his lips and steadied himself. He sent over general comm,-Hey say look left! Fist!-
Most of the Family were over the ragged ridgeline now. That would provide some shelter from whatever was coming from behind. He watched as they came spilling down the ruddy, gorge-pocked hillsides. They were a slow tumbling fluid, their individual tinny acknowledgments coming as thin insect cries.
Killeen did not consider for a moment that the voices he heard were carried on radio waves, for he had lived all his life in a sensory bath provided by the linking of acoustic and electromagnetic signals. The distinction between them would have demanded more science than he had ever mastered, ever would master. Instead he heard the gathering peppery voices as scattershot ringings, carrying long and remote across the hot still silence of dusty late afternoon. Though each Family member glided in beautiful long arcs, the Family itself seemed to Killeen to hang suspended in the middle distance, so gradual was its progress, like thick dark down-swarming molasses. Gravid and slow they came, this worn and perhaps only remaining remnant of humanity: eagering, homing, tribing.
Killeen caught fragments of talk from Ledroff.
-Why'd Cap'n put him ... Damfino why he's up there ...-
"Cut the chatter!" Killeen called.
-Couldn't find his ass w'both hands ...-
"I said quiet!" he whispered fiercely.
Killeen had heard Ledroff's muttered jibes through the comm before. Until now he had ignored them. No need to provoke a faceoff with the big, self-assured man. But this time Killeen couldn't let it pass. Not when it endangered them.
-Seems me he's jumpin' at spooks,-Ledroff got in, then fell silent.
Killeen wished Cap'n Fanny had come on full comm line and cut off Ledroff. A mere disapproving click of her tongue would have shut him up.
The Family skimmed low, using savvy earned through hard years. Wheeling left, they seeped down among the knobby, domed buildings of the manufacturing complex.
Factory mechs wrenched to a stop as the Family skipped light and fast through their workyards. Then the blocky, awkward-looking machines hunkered down, withdrawing their extensors into marred aluminum shells. Such mechs had no other defense mechanisms, so the Family gave the slope-nosed, turtlelike forms no notice.
Still, the humans had to be fast. They knew if they stayed here long these slow-thinking drudges would send out a call. Lancers would come. Or worse.
Killeen pondered for a moment the possibility that the thing trailing them was a lone Lancer, summoned by a minor pillage the Family had made a few days before. He checked the faint, flickering tracers behind.
No, nothing like a Lancer. Something smaller, certainly. It gave off hardly any image at all. Still ...
"Yea!" he called. Tapping his right temple twice with a forefinger, he sent his scan topo map to the entire Family. "We're bunching up!"
With muttered irritation they spread out, dissolving their moving beeswarm triangle. They formed the traditional concentric rings, ragged because the Family numbered a mere 278 now. And some of them were achingly slow-gimpy, or old, or wounded from past scrapes and fights and blunders.
Fanny saw the problem and called,-Show the wind our heels!-
The old saying worked. They began to run faster now, a keen unspoken fear at their backs.
He sent the latest topo to Fanny. It showed a muddle of bluewhite tracers behind them.
Fanny sent,-Where's it?-
Killeen admitted, "Dunno. Looks to be some kinda screen."
"Don't think so. But ..."
-Situation like this, your topo's no good for figurin' size. Go by speed. No 'facturing mech moves quick as a Marauder.-
"This one's slow, then fast."
-Must be a Marauder.-
"Think we should stand 'n' wait for it?"
He felt her assessing regard like a cool wedge in his sensorium.
-What you think?-
"Well ... it might just be reconning us."
She was giving nothing away. "So'd be best if we keep on, make like we don't see it."
-Long's we can keep track of it, sure.-
Killeen wondered what Fanny meant by that, but he didn't want to ask, not with Ledroff listening. He said guardedly, "It keeps jumpin' round."
-Might be some new mechtech.-
So? he thought. How do we respond? He kept his voice flat and assured, though, as he said, "I figure we don't give away that we see it. If it's just checkin' its 'quipment, it'll go away."
-And come back when we're sleepin',-she said flatly.
"So? Our watch'll pick it up. But if we take a shot at it now, when we can't see it so good, maybe it gets away. Next time it comes back with better mechtech. So then we don't pick it up and it skrags us."
Fanny didn't answer for a long moment and Killeen wondered if he had made a fool of himself. She had coached him in the crafts and he always felt inadequate compared with her sure, almost casual grasp of Family lore. She could be a stern Cap'n, a shrewd tactician, firm and fast. And when they had fought or fled, and again gathered around nightfires to tell their tales, she could be warm and grandmotherly. Killeen would do anything to avoid disappointing her. But he had to know what to do, and she was giving him no easy answers.
-Yeasay. That's best, long as this's a reg'lar Marauder.-
Killeen felt a burst of pride at her approval. But a note of concern in her voice made him ask, "What if it's not?"
-Then we run. Hard.-
They were out of the foothills now. The Family sprinted across eroded flatlands.
Fanny asked as she panted,-See it yet?-
-Should've climbed the ridge by now. Don't like this.-
"Think maybe a trap?" Killeen cast about for possibilities as he searched his topo display. Again he wished Jocelyn or even goddamn Ledroff had this job. If an attack came he wanted to be near his son. He scanned ahead and found Toby in the middle of the moving Family formation.
Fanny dropped back, scanning the ridgeline.
Killeen searched again for the elusive pursuer. The topo danced in his eye, speeding ribbons of light.
More cloudy tracers.
To the right came a dim speckling of pale blue.
Killeen realized too late that it would have been better to hold the ridgeline. They were exposed and had lost the enemy. He grunted in frustration and sped forward.
They were partway down the broad valley when he looked right and saw first the overlay winking green and then the far rocky scarp. It was fresh rock, cleaved by some mining mech, its amber faces gouged and grooved.
But the clear bare cut hadn't been there moments before. Killeen was sure of that.
"Bear on my arrow!" he shouted to the whole Family. He cut toward a low hill. "Fanny, you'd-"
Killeen heard a sharp crackling.
He saw Fanny fall. She gave a cry of surprise. Then her voice sharpened, riding an outrushing gasp of startled pain.
He turned and fired at the distant carved hills, where stood half-finished blocks of rhomboid stone.
Back came an answering echo of snapping, crisp circuit death.
A hit. Probably not enough to drop the thing dead, but it would buy some seconds.
He shouted, "Max it!"
With Fanny down, he'd have to get the Family away, fast. Killeen blinked, saw the blue dots of the Family swerve toward broken terrain that provided some shelter. Good. But where was-?
"Toby! Hug down in that stream bed, see?"
A klick away, his son hesitated.
"To your right!"
-and for a moment that seemed balanced forever beside a harrowing abyss, Killeen was sure his son's gear was blown or overloaded, making it impossible to hear the warning. Or that the boy was confused by the scramble of electronoise. Or weary from the run. And so would remain standing while on the dry rutted plain no other simple unmoving target would leap into the fisheye lens of the unseen Marauder mech. His son's frozen indecision would recommend itself as a target.
Hanging there on the instant, Killeen remembered a time when he had been on a scavenging expedition with his father, a mere short foray for needed chip-parts, so easy his mother consented to her son's going along. And there a Marauder had chanced upon them as they looted an isolated ramshackle field station where navvymechs labored in mute dumb servitude. Killeen had been on a small side trip to snag servos from a dusty storage shed, and in the attack the Marauder (a Rattler, old but fully armed) had seen him and run him down. Three men and a woman had blown the Rattler to spare parts, catching it two steps away from Killeen's frantically fleeing form. He had been scared so badly he shat his suit. But what he remembered now was not the embarrassment as the shitsmell got out, and not the taunts of his friends. Instead, he recalled in a spirit-sucking instant his own father's look: eyes burned into the sockets, deadwhite. Eyes that had drilled into him with their desperation. And Killeen knew his own face now locked into the rictus of foresighted horror as his own son stood, unmoving, for one solid thudding heartbeat of immutable lost time-
The distant figure scrambled down an embankment, into the fossil snaketwist of an ancient waterway.
Killeen could not breathe. He realized he had gone rigid himself, a perfect target.
"Hunch 'n' go, boy," he called as he swerved and dodged away.
And felt something go by-tssssip!-in the still air.
He saw quick darting orange sparks in his right eye. That meant something was poking, trying to find a way into him. But fast, faster than he'd ever known.
A prickly coldsweat redness skittered through him with a grating whine.
Killeen dropped to the ground. "Fanny! How you?"
-I ... auhhhh ... can't ...-
"This thing-what is it?"
-I ... haven't seen ... years ...-
"What'll we do?"
Ledroff tried to cut in on the narrow-cone comm-line. Killeen swore and blanked him out.
-Don't ... believe ... what you ... see ...-
She coughed. Her line went silent.
Fanny knew more than anybody in the Family about the rare, deadly mechs. She'd fought them a long time, back before Killeen was born. But Killeen could tell from her sluggish voice that this thing had clipped her solid, blown some nerves maybe.
No help from the fine, wise old woman, then.
Killeen looked back at the warped, worked shapes of stone on the far hillside. There were contorted planes, surfaces carved for purposes incomprehensible to humans. He thought of them not at all, had long ago learned to look past that which no man could riddle out. Instead he searched for the freshness of the cleavecuts, the telltale signs of autochisel.
Which weren't there.
The scraped stone surfaces thinned.
Excerpted from Great Sky River by Gregory Benford Copyright © 1987 by Abbenford Associates. Excerpted by permission.
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