The Ship has traveled the universe for longer than any of the near-immortal crew can recall, its true purpose and origins unknown. It is larger than many planets, housing thousands of alien races and just as many secrets.
Now one of those secrets has been discovered: at the center of the Ship is . . . a planet. Marrow. But when a team of the Ship's best and brightest are sent down to investigate, will they return with the origins of the Ship--or will they bring doom to everyone on board?
Robert Reed, whose fantastic stories have been filling all the major SF magazines for the past several years, spins a captivating tale of adventure and wonder on an incredible scale in this novel based on his acclaimed novella.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||475 KB|
About the Author
Robert Reed is the author of the New York Times notable book Beyond the Veil of Stars and more than a half-dozen other SF novels. The first Grand Prize Winner of the Writers of the Future contest, he's written a number of stories that have been finalists for Hugo and Nebula Awards. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.
Robert Reed has been nominated for the Hugo Award twice for novellas, and was the first Grand Prize Winner of the Writers of the Future. He's had dozens of short fictions published in the major SF magazines, and more than ten novels published. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Read an Excerpt
Washen was a captain of consequence.
Fashionably tall, with an ageless strong body, she possessed handsome features wrapped around wise chocolate eyes. Her long obsidian hair was worn in a sensible bun, streaked with just enough white to lend authority. She conveyed a sense of easy confidence and relaxed competence, and with a little look or a gentle word, she lent her confidence to whoever deserved it. In public, she wore her mirrored captain's uniform with a regal bearing and gentle pride. Yet she had the rare gift of keeping others from feeling jealous of her station or intimidated by her presence. And even rarer was Washen's talent for embracing the instincts and customs of truly alien species, which was why, at the Master Captain's insistence, one of her duties was to greet their strangest passengers, explaining what the ship was and what it expected from its cherished guests.
Her day, like so many days, began at the bottom of Port Beta.
Washen adjusted the tilt of her cap, then gazed upward, watching as a kilometer-long taxi was lowered from the airlock. Stripped of its rockets, the bulky fuel tanks, and wide armored prow, the taxi resembled a great needle. Its hyperfiber hull glittered in the port's brilliant lights as skilled mates and their AIs controlled its descent with hair-thin cable and squid-limbs, bringing it down with the smoothness of a descending cap-car.
Which was a mistake. Through an implanted nexus, Washen called for the mates' boss. "Let it drop," she advised. "Right now."
An ice-white human face grimaced.
"But madam ...?"
"Now," she demanded. "Let it fall on its own."
A captain's word weighed more than any mate's caution. Besides, the taxi's hull could absorb much worse abuse, and both of them knew it.
With a low crackle, the squid-limbs pulled free.
For an instant, the needle seemed unaffected. Then the ship's gravity — much more than earth-standard — took hold and yanked it down into the cone-shaped berth reserved for it. The impact was jarring, but muted by the hyperfiber floor and a heavy dose of anti-noise. Washen felt the collision in her toes and knees, and she let herself smile for a moment, imagining the passengers' delicious surprise.
"I need to fill out an accident report," growled the white face.
"Naturally," she replied. "And I'll accept all the blame you can give me. Agreed?"
"Thank you ... Captain ..."
"No. Thank you."
Washen strolled toward the berth and taxi, her smile fading, replaced with a theatrical grimness appropriate to this job.
The passengers were disembarking.
Flounders, they had been dubbed.
At a glance, Flounders resembled thick woolly rugs carried on dozens of strong and very short legs. They came from a superterran world, accustomed to five times the port's gravity, and like many species from such worlds, they demanded a thicker, richer atmosphere than what they found here. Implanted compressors aided their quick, shallow breathing. Pairs of large, eerily human eyes were rooted at one end of each long body, staring up at Washen from what, for lack of a better term, was their heads.
"Welcome," Washen announced.
Her translator made a low rumbling sound.
"I despise each of you," she bellowed. Then, following the advice of exopsychologists, she bent over, making eye contact as she reminded these newcomers, "You have no status here. None. A word from me, and you are crushed in the most horrible ways."
Human politeness had no place in that alien society.
Flounders — whose real name was a series of poetic ticks — equated kindness with intimacy. And intimacy was afforded only family members, by blood or by ceremony. The exopsychologists were adamant. If Washen couldn't intimidate the Flounders, they would feel uneasy, much in the same way that a human would feel uneasy if a stranger approached, referred to her by a lover's nickname, then delivered a sloppy wet kiss.
"This is my ship," she told her audience.
Several hundred aliens were in shouting range, tiny ears tilted high, absorbing her voice as well as the thunderous rumble of her translator.
"You have paid for my patience as well as a berth," said Washen. "Paid with new technologies, which we have already received, mastered, and improved upon."
Long whiskers stroked each other, the aliens conversing by feel.
Again, she stared into a pair of eyes. Cobalt-blue, utterly alive. "My rules are simple, little monster."
Whiskers suddenly grew still.
Her audience held its collective breath.
"My ship is the ship," she explained. "It needs no other name. It is remarkable and enormous, but it is not infinite. Nor empty. Thousands of species share its labyrinths with you. And if you do not treat your fellow passengers with complete respect, you will be discarded. Evicted. Flung overboard, and forgotten."
The breathing resumed, quicker than ever.
Was she playing this game too well?
But instead of holding back, Washen kept pressing. "An empty chamber has been prepared for you. As you begged us to do. Sealed, and pressurized. With plenty of space, and your ugly foods in abundance. In this new home, you may do as you wish. Unless you wish to procreate, which requires permission from me. And fresh payments. Since children are passengers, their status is negotiable. And if I have reason, I will personally throw them overboard. Is that understood?"
Her translator asked the question, then with a soft, sexless voice, offered a sampling of the aliens' replies.
"Yes, Lord Captain."
"Of course, Lord."
"You scare me, Lord!"
"When does this show end, Mother? I am hungry!"
Washen strangled a laugh. Then after her own quick breaths, she admitted, "It has been forever since I last threw anyone off the ship."
Other captains did the banishing. In humane ways, naturally. Taxis or other starships would take the troublesome species home again, or more likely, to obscure worlds where they had a better than fair chance of survival.
"But make no mistake!" she roared. "I love this ship. I was born here, and I will die here, and in the long time between I will do whatever I can to protect its ancient halls and noble stone, from anything or anyone that shows it less than perfect respect. Do you understand me, you little fools?"
"Yes, Your Lord."
"But is she finished yet? My tongues are numb from hunger!"
"I am nearly finished," she told the aliens. Then even louder, she said, "But I will be watching. From this moment, I am hovering over you like Phantom Night."
That brought a respectful silence.
Phantom Night was a Flounder god, the name translated into a rugged little squawk that brought a chill even to Washen's spine.
With a practiced haughtiness, she turned and strode away.
The quintessential captain.
One of the lords of the galaxy.
And now, for this blunt moment, she was a mythical monster who would steal the souls of those who dared sleep.
* * *
Long ago, Washen reached that age where the past is too large to embrace, where even the sharpest, most efficient memory has to slough off little details and entire centuries, and where even the most cherished childhood has been stripped down, nothing left but a series of fragmentary recollections and a few diamond-hard moments that no amount of time, not even ten million years, can dilute to any degree.
Washen's first aliens were dubbed the Phoenixes.
That was when the ship was still outside the Milky Way. Washen was more a child than not, and her parents — engineers who had come on board the first starship — were part of the large unhappy team who fashioned a habitat for the Phoenixes.
Those aliens were unwelcome. They had tried to conquer the ship, after all. It was an ineffectual invasion, but people found it difficult to forgive them anyway. Washen's father, usually charitable to a fault, openly stated that his work was a waste, and worse, it was a crime. "Give the shits a tiny catacomb, enough water and some minimal food, then forget they're there. That's my little opinion."
Washen couldn't recall her mother's precise opinion; even Washen's own early biases were lost to time. And she couldn't recall why she first visited the prison. Was she looking for her parents? Or was it later, after their work was finished, and youngsters like herself were pulled there by simple curiosity?
Whatever the reason, what she remembered today was the funeral.
Washen had never seen Death. In her short happy life, not one human had died on board the ship. Age and disease had been tamed, and the modern body could absorb even horrific injuries. If a person was cautious, and sober, she didn't need to die. Ever.
But Phoenixes embraced a different set of beliefs. They evolved on a small hot world. Gills augmented a trio of large, black-blooded lungs; their metabolisms were quick and fierce. Where most winged aliens were gliders or soarers, passive and efficient, the Phoenixes were the ecological equivalent of human-sized peregrines. Skilled hunters and determined warriors, they possessed a broad heritage older than any human culture. Yet despite a wealth of advanced technologies, they didn't approve of the immortalities that most species simply took for granted.
Inside a human mouth, their name was an unsingable string of notes.
"Phoenix" was pulled from some ancient Earth myth. Or was it a Martian myth? Either way, the name was only partly appropriate. They weren't birds, after all, and they didn't live for five hundred years. Thirty standards was too long for most of them, physical infirmities and senility leaving their elderly incapable of flight, or song, or the smallest dignity.
Upon death, the body and a ceremonial nest were burned. But instead of a sweet resurrection, the cold white ashes were carried high by family and friends, then released, winds and wingbeats spreading the soft remains to the ends of their enormous and lovely prison cell.
Their home wasn't built out of simple charity. The Master, taking her usual long aim, decided that if the ship was to attract alien passengers, her crew needed to know how to tweak and twist the ship's environmental controls, turning raw cavities into abodes where any sort of biology would feel at home. That's why she ordered her top engineers to make the attempt. And aeons later, when she came to understand the Master, Washen easily imagined the woman's impatience with someone like her father — a talented employee who dared grumble about his job, unable to appreciate the long-term benefits of this apparently misplaced beneficence.
The Phoenix habitat was once someone's magnetic bottle.
It could have been an antimatter containment tank, though at its best this remark was an authoritative, utterly wild guess.
Five kilometers in diameter and better than twenty kilometers deep, the prison was a column of dense warm air punctuated by thick clouds and masses of floating vegetation. Biological stocks from the Phoenix starship had been cultured, then adapted. Since the original tank lacked lights, ship-style sky lamps were built from scratch, their light tuned to the proper frequencies. Since there wasn't room for jet streams or typhoons, the air was assaulted with an array of hidden vents and other engineering tricks. And to hide the tall cylindrical walls, an illusion of endless clouds covered every surface — an illusion good enough to seem real to humans, but not to the Phoenixes who flew too close.
The prison was meant to hold the defeated and the evil, but both sorts of prisoners quickly grew old and passed away.
It was one of the old warriors whose funeral Washen saw. It seemed unlikely today, but she could remember standing on a platform built against that great round wall, herself and a thousand other humans with their hands locked on the railing, watching winged shapes rising toward them, then higher, flying with a wondrous precision and singing loudly enough to be heard over the constant whistle of wind.
When the ashes were dropped, the bereaved were too distant to be seen.
Intentionally, no doubt.
The young Washen contemplated the funeral. That next day, or perhaps next year, she proposed, "We can let the rest of them go free, since the bad ones have died."
Her father felt otherwise.
"If you haven't noticed, Phoenixes aren't human." He warned his softhearted daughter, "The creatures have a saying. 'You inherit your direction before your wings.' Which means, dearest, that the children and grandchildren are just as determined to slaughter us as their ancestors ever were."
"If not more determined," said Mother, with an unexpectedly dark tone.
"These creatures hold a grudge," Father continued. "Believe me, they can make their hatreds fester and grow."
"Unlike humans," said their sharp-witted daughter.
Her irony went unmentioned, and perhaps unrecognized.
If there was more to that argument, it went unremembered. The modern brain is dense and extraordinarily durable — a composite of bioceramics and superconducting proteins and ancient fats and quantum microtubules. But like any reasonable brain, it has to simplify whatever it learns. It straightens. It streamlines. Instinct and habit are its allies, and even the wisest soul employs the art of extrapolation.
When she concentrated, Washen could recall dozens of fights with her parents. Childhood issues of freedom and responsibility never seemed to change, and she remembered enough of their politics and personalities to picture little spats and giant, ugly explosions — the sorts of emotional maelstroms that would make good engineers sit in the dark, quietly asking themselves how they had become such awful, ineffectual parents.
To Washen and her closest friends, the Phoenixes became a cause, a rallying point, and an extraordinarily useful thorn.
A ragged little political movement was born. Its bravest followers, including Washen, publically protested the prison. Their efforts culminated in a march to the Master's station. Hundreds chanted about freedom and decency. They held holosigns showing wingless Phoenixes bound up in black iron chains. It was a brave, remarkable event, and it ended in a small victory: little delegations were free to visit the prison, observe conditions firsthand, and speak to the pitiable aliens under the careful gaze of the captains.
That's where Washen met her first alien.
Phoenix males were always beautiful, but he was exceptionally so. What passed for feathers were a brilliant gold fringed with the darkest black, and an elegant, efficient face seemed to be all eyes and beak. The eyes were a lush coppery green, bright as polished gemstones. The beak was a vivid jade color, hard and obviously sharp. It was open when he sang, and it remained open afterward, always gulping down the liters of air that he required just to perch in one place and live.
The apparatus on his chest translated his elaborate song.
"Hello," he said to Washen. Then he called her "human egg-bearer."
Several young humans were in the delegation, but Washen was their leader. Following Phoenix protocol, she fielded every question and spoke for the others, following a shopping list of subjects agreed upon weeks ago.
"We want to help you," Washen promised.
Her translator sang those words in a half-moment, if that.
"We want you free to move and live wherever you wish on board the ship," she told them. "And until that can happen, we want to make your life here as comfortable as possible."
The Phoenix sang his reply.
"Fuck comfort," said his box.
A deep unease passed through the human delegation.
"What is your name, human egg-bearer?"
There was no translation, which meant that it was an impossible sound. So the young Phoenix gulped a breath and sang a note that came out as "Snowfeather."
She liked the name, and said so. Then she thought to inquire, "What's your name?" "Supreme-example-of-manhood," he replied.
Washen laughed, but only for a moment. Then quietly, carefully, she said, "Manly. May I call you Manly?"
"Yes, Snowfeather. You may." Then the feathers around the jade beak lifted — a Phoenix smile, she recalled — and he reached out with one of his long arms, reaching past Washen's shoulder, a strong little hand gently, ever so gently, caressing the leading edge of her own great wing.
* * *
Everyone in the delegation wore strap-ons.
Their wings were powered by thumb-sized reactors and guided both by the wearer's muscles, and more importantly, by elaborate sensors and embedded reflexes. For the next ten days, humantime, they were to live among the Phoenixes as observers and as delegates. Since no portion of the facility lay out of surveillance range, there wasn't any overt danger. Regardless how thick the intervening clouds or how loud the thunder, the children couldn't do anything that wasn't observed, and recorded, every one of their well-intended words spoken to a larger, infinitely suspicious audience.
Perhaps that's why Snowfeather took Manly as her lover.
It was a provocative and defiant and absolutely public act, and she could only hope that news of it slinked its way to her parents.
Or set aside the cynicism. Maybe it was something like love, or at least lust. Maybe it was stirred by the alien himself, and the gorgeous dreamy-strange scenery, and the sheer sensual joy that came with those powerful wings and the feel of wind slipping across your naked flesh.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Marrow"
Copyright © 2000 Robert Reed.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1: The Ship,
Part 2: Marrow,
Part 3: The Master's Chair,
Part 4: The Bleak,
Part 5: The Builders,
Books by Robert Reed,
About the Author,
What People are Saying About This
Marrow is magnificent. It combines epic sweep with living characters and a depth of vision that we see all too seldom.
Marrow is relentless, taking on vast reaches of space and time with a giant ship like none you've ever seen. A bold work by a visionary writer.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story line attracted me to this book: a huge ship big enough to hold within it planets and many civilizations, commanded by immortal terran-descendent in a journey to cross the Milky Way Galaxy. I developed a love-hate relationship with this book. Love sprang from the appreciation of the richness of the characters, like Washen, and the incredible imagination contained in the creation of the central Marrow planet and... I hated it too for the a-climactic ending, possibly due to a future planned sequel. What emotions with this book! It was worth the paperback money spent on its purchase simply because it made me feel so Mediterranean. When I hungered for a development and wished for more, none came. And then some of the characters keep on dying to come back to life over and over. The resurrections made the story lose a little of its wholesomeness. I was not very pleased with the editor¿s work in this book. In page 102 I found the following: ¿That would a difficult, rewarding challenge.¿; and on page 105: ¿The steam could dispersed abruptly, giving way to the sky `s blue light, the chamber wall hanging far¿¿ and again on page 163: ¿A NEW CATAGORY ¿¿ Did I miss something or was the editor asleep at the wheel?
Marrow is a book full of surprises - I think of myself as a hoary and cynical sci-fi reader, whom nothing can surprise anymore, and so I'm delighted when a book proves me wrong. Marrow is the story of a giant mystery inside an equally giant ship, discovered empty by humans billions of years ago, left in the galaxy by persons and for reasons unknown. Just as you start to get a sense of what shipboard life might be like, you're plunged into something quite different. Reed writes an excellent page-turner, with characters that are rather unsympathetic - too cold or too soft - the kind of issue that normally would prevent me from liking a book very much. But here, the plot was so gripping, I ended up feeling the book was a great read. My only other criticism would be one for which I don't have a solution - in order to accomplish certain plot points, the events take place over vast expanses of time. Centuries can be spanned in a few sentences, which could feel artificial - but either he did that, or changed other things to happen in an impossibly quick time, which would also feel artificial. I think many readers of science fiction will enjoy this one, and anyone who loves a good mystery and a lot of ambition.
One of my absolute favorites! I have reread this book.It's just hard, high science fiction. I'll think about it more and attempt to describe it better later. Near-perfect!
A mystery wrapped in a mytery.