A new chapter in Hugo Award-winning author Ben Bova's hard science fiction Star Quest series unfolds in Survival.
A human team sent to scout a few hundred lightyears in front of the death wave encounters a civilization far more advanced, a civilization of machine intelligences.
These sentient, intelligent machines have existed for eons, and have survived earlier “death waves,” gamma ray bursts from the core of the galaxy. Self-sufficient and completely certain that the death wave cannot harm them, they have no interest saving other civilizations, organic or machine.
Now that the humans have discovered them, they refuse to allow them to leave their planet, reasoning that other humans will inevitably follow if they learn of their existence.
The Star Quest Trilogy
#1 Death Wave
#2 Apes and Angels
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I am become a name ...
"It's obvious!" said Vartan Gregorian, standing imperiously before the two others seated on the couch. "I'm the best damned pilot in the history of the human race!"
Planting his fists on his hips, he struck a pose that was nothing less than preening.
Half buried in the lounge's plush curved couch, Alexander Ignatiev bit back an impulse to laugh in the Armenian's face. But Nikki Deneuve, sitting next to him, gazed up at Gregorian with shining eyes.
Breaking into a broad grin, Gregorian went on, "This bucket is moving faster than any ship ever built, no? We've flown farther from Earth than anybody ever has, true?"
Nikki nodded eagerly as she responded, "Twenty percent of light speed and approaching six light-years."
"So, I'm the pilot of the fastest, highest-flying ship of all time!" Gregorian exclaimed. "That makes me the best flier in the history of the human race. QED!"
Ignatiev shook his head at the conceited oaf. But he saw that Nikki was captivated by his posturing. Then it struck him. She loves him! And Gregorian is showing off for her.
The ship's lounge was as relaxing and comfortable as human designers back on Earth could make it. It was arranged in a circular grouping of sumptuously appointed niches, each holding high, curved banquettes that could seat up to half a dozen close friends in reasonable privacy.
Ignatiev had left his quarters after suffering still another defeat at the hands of the computerized chess program and snuck down to the lounge in midafternoon, hoping to find it empty. He needed a hideaway while the housekeeping robots cleaned his suite. Their busy, buzzing thoroughness drove him to distraction; it was impossible to concentrate on chess or anything else while the machines were dusting, laundering, straightening his rooms, restocking his autokitchen and his bar, making the bed with crisply fresh linens.
So he sought refuge in the lounge, only to find Gregorian and Deneuve already there, in a niche beneath a display screen that showed the star fields outside. Once, the sight of those stars scattered across the infinite void would have stirred Ignatiev's heart. But not anymore, not since Sonya died.
Sipping at the vodka that the serving robot had poured for him the instant he had stepped into the lounge, thanks to its face-recognition program, Ignatiev couldn't help grousing, "And who says you are the pilot, Vartan? I didn't see any designation for pilot in the mission's assignment roster."
Gregorian was moderately handsome and rather tall, quite slim, with thick dark hair and laugh crinkles at the corners of his deep brown eyes. Ignatiev tended to think of people in terms of chess pieces, and he counted Gregorian as a prancing horse, all style and little substance.
"I am flight systems engineer, no?" Gregorian countered. "My assignment is to monitor the flight control program. That makes me the pilot."
Nikki, still beaming at him, said, "If you're the pilot, Vartan, then I must be the navigator."
"Astrogator," Ignatiev corrected bluntly.
The daughter of a Quebecoise mother and French Moroccan father, Nicolette Deneuve had unfortunately inherited her father's stocky physique and her mother's sharp nose. Ignatiev thought her unlovely — and yet there was a charm to her, a gamine-like wide-eyed innocence that beguiled Ignatiev's crusty old heart. She was a physicist, bright and conscientious, not an engineering monkey like the braggart Gregorian. Thus it was a tragedy that she had been selected for this star mission.
She finally turned away from Gregorian to say to Ignatiev, "It's good to see you, Professor Ignatiev. You've become something of a hermit these past few months."
He coughed and muttered, "I've been busy on my research." The truth was he couldn't bear to be among these youngsters, couldn't stand the truth that they would one day return to Earth while he would be long dead.
Alexander Alexandrovich Ignatiev, by far the oldest man among the starship's crew, thought that Nikki could have been the daughter he'd never had. Daughter? he snapped at himself silently. Granddaughter, he corrected. Great-granddaughter, even. He was a dour astrophysicist approaching his hundred and fortieth birthday, his short-cropped hair and neatly trimmed beard iron gray but his mind and body still reasonably vigorous and active thanks to rejuvenation therapies. Yet he felt cheated by the way the world worked, bitter about being exiled to this one-way flight to a distant star.
Technically, he was the senior executive of this mission, an honor that he found almost entirely empty. To him, it was like being the principal of a school for very bright, totally wayward children. Each one of them must have been president of their school's student body, he thought: accustomed to getting their own way and total strangers to discipline. Besides, the actual commander of the ship was the artificial intelligence program run by the ship's central computer.
If Gregorian is a chessboard knight, Ignatiev mused to himself, then what is Nikki? Not the queen; she's too young, too uncertain of herself for that. Her assignment to monitor the navigation program was something of a joke: the ship followed a ballistic trajectory, like an arrow shot from Earth. Nothing for a navigator to do except check the ship's position each day.
Maybe she's a bishop, Ignatiev mused, now that a woman can be made a bishop: quiet, self-effacing, possessing hidden depths. And reliable, trustworthy, always staying to the color of the square she started on. She'll cling to Gregorian, unless he hurts her terribly. That possibility made Ignatiev's blood simmer.
And me? he asked himself. A pawn, nothing more. But then he thought, Maybe I'm a rook, stuck off in a corner of the board, barely noticed by anybody.
"Professor Ignatiev is correct," said Gregorian, trying to regain control of the conversation. "The proper term is astrogator."
"Whatever," said Nikki, her eyes returning to Gregorian's handsome young face.
Young was a relative term. Gregorian was approaching sixty, although he still had the vigor, the attitudes and demeanor of an obstreperous teenager. Ignatiev thought it would be appropriate if the Armenian's face were blotched with acne. Youth is wasted on the young, Ignatiev thought. Thanks to life-elongation therapies, average life expectancy among the starship crew was well above two hundred. It had to be.
The scoopship was named Sagan, after some minor twentieth-century astronomer. It was heading for Gliese 581, a red dwarf star slightly more than twenty light-years from Earth. For Ignatiev, it was a one-way journey. Even with all the life-extension therapies, he was sure that he would never survive the eighty-year round trip. Gregorian would, of course, and so would Nikki.
Ignatiev brooded over the unfairness of it. By the time the ship returned to Earth, the two of them would be grandparents and Ignatiev would be long dead.
Unfair, he thought as he pushed himself up from the plush banquette and left the lounge without a word to either one of them. The universe is unfair. I don't deserve this: to die alone, unloved, unrecognized, my life's work forgotten, all my hopes crushed to dust.
As he reached the lounge's hatch, he turned his head to see what the two of them were up to. Chatting, smiling, holding hands, all the subverbal signals that lovers send to each other. They had eyes only for each other, and paid absolutely no attention to him.
Just like the rest of the goddamned world, Ignatiev thought.
He had labored all his life in the groves of academe, and what had it gotten him? A membership in the International Academy of Sciences, along with seventeen thousand other anonymous workers. A pension that barely covered his living expenses. Three marriages: two wrecked by divorce and the third — the only one that really mattered — destroyed by that inevitable thief, death.
He hardly remembered how enthusiastic he had been as a young postdoc, all those years ago, his astrophysics degree in hand, burning with ambition. He was going to unlock the secrets of the universe! The pulsars, those enigmatic cinders, the remains of ancient supernova explosions: Ignatiev was going to discover what made them tick.
But the universe was far subtler than he had thought. Soon enough he learned that a career in science can be a study in anonymous drudgery. The pulsars kept their secrets, no matter how assiduously Ignatiev nibbled around the edges of their mystery.
And now the honor of being the senior executive on the human race's first interstellar mission. Some honor, Ignatiev thought sourly. They needed someone competent but expendable. Send old Ignatiev, let him go out in a fizzle of glory.
Shaking his head as he trudged along the thickly carpeted passageway to his quarters, Ignatiev muttered to himself, "If only there were something I could accomplish, something I could discover, something to put some meaning to my life."
He had lived long enough to realize that his life would be no more remembered than the life of a worker ant. He wanted more than that. He wanted to be remembered. He wanted his name to be revered. He wanted students in the far future to know that he had existed, that he had made a glowing contribution to humankind's store of knowledge and understanding. He wanted Nikki Deneuve to gaze at him with adoring eyes.
"It will never be," Ignatiev told himself as he slid open the door to his quarters. With a wry shrug, he reminded himself of a line from some old English poet: "Ah, that a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
Alexander Ignatiev did not believe in heaven. But he thought he knew what hell was like.
* * *
As he entered his quarters he saw that at least the cleaning robots had finished and left; the sitting room looked almost tidy. And he was alone.
The expedition to Gliese 581 had left Earth with tremendous fanfare. The first human mission to another star! Gliese 581 was a very ordinary star in most respects: a dim red dwarf, barely one-third of the Sun's mass. The galaxy is studded with such stars. But Gliese 581 was unusual in one supremely interesting way: it possessed an entourage of half a dozen planets. Most of them were gas giants, bloated conglomerates of hydrogen and helium. But a couple of them were rocky worlds, somewhat like Earth. And one of those — Gliese 581c — orbited at just the right "Goldilocks" distance from its parent star to be able to have liquid water on its surface.
Liquid water meant life. In the solar system, wherever liquid water existed, life existed. In the permafrost beneath the frozen rust-red surface of Mars, in the ice- covered seas of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, in massive Jupiter's planet-girdling ocean: wherever liquid water had been found, life was found with it.
Half a dozen robotic probes confirmed that liquid water actually did exist on the surface of Gliese 581c, but they found no evidence for life. Not an amoeba, not even a bacterium. But that didn't deter the scientific hierarchy. Robots are terribly limited, they proclaimed. We must send human scientists to Gliese 581c to search for life there, scientists of all types, men and women who will sacrifice half their lives to the search for life beyond the solar system.
Ignatiev was picked to sacrifice the last half of his life. He knew he would never see Earth again, and he told himself that he didn't care. There was nothing on Earth that interested him anymore, not since Sonya's death. But he wanted to find something, to make an impact, to keep his name alive after he was gone.
Most of the two hundred scientists, engineers, and technicians aboard Sagan were sleeping away the decades of the flight in cryonic suspension. They would be revived once the scoopship arrived at Gliese 581's vicinity. Only a dozen were awake during the flight, assigned to monitor the ship's systems, ready to make corrections or repairs if necessary.
The ship was highly automated, of course. The human crew was a backup, a concession to human vanity unwilling to hand the operation of the ship completely to electronic and mechanical devices. Human egos feared fully autonomous machines. Thus a dozen human lives were sacrificed to spend four decades waiting for the machines to fail.
They hadn't failed so far. From the fusion powerplant deep in the ship's core to the tenuous magnetic scoop stretching a thousand kilometers in front of the ship, all the systems worked perfectly well. When a minor malfunction arose, the ship's machines repaired themselves, under the watchful direction of the master AI program. Even the AI system's computer program ran flawlessly, to Ignatiev's utter frustration. It beat him at chess with depressing regularity.
In addition to the meaningless title of senior executive, Alexander Ignatiev had a specific technical task aboard the starship. His assignment was to monitor the electromagnetic funnel that scooped in hydrogen from the thin interstellar medium to feed the ship's nuclear fusion engine. Every day he faithfully checked the gauges and display screens in the ship's command center, reminding himself each time that the practice of physics always comes down to reading a goddamned dial.
The funnel operated flawlessly. A huge gossamer web of hair-thin superconducting wires, it created an invisible magnetic field that spread out before the starship like a thousand-kilometer-wide scoop, gathering in the hydrogen atoms floating between the stars and ionizing them as they were sucked into the ship's innards, like a huge baleen whale scooping up the tiny creatures of the sea that it fed upon.
Deep in the starship's bowels the fusion generator forced the hydrogen ions to fuse together into helium ions, in the process giving up energy to run the ship. Like the Sun and the stars themselves, the starship lived on hydrogen fusion.
Ignatiev slid the door of his quarters shut. The suite of rooms allotted to him was small, but far more luxurious than any home he had lived in back on Earth. The psychotechnicians among the mission's planners, worried about the crew's morale during the decades-long flight, had insisted on every creature comfort they could think of: everything from body-temperature waterbeds that adjusted to one's weight and size to digitally controlled décor that could change its color scheme at the call of one's voice; from an automated kitchen that could prepare a world-spanning variety of cuisines to virtual reality entertainment systems.
Ignatiev ignored all the splendor; or rather, he took it for granted. Creature comforts were fine, but he had spent the first months of the mission converting his beautifully wrought sitting room into an astrophysics laboratory. The sleek Scandinavian desk of teak inlaid with meteoric silver now held a conglomeration of computers and sensor readouts. The fake fireplace was hidden behind a junk pile of discarded spectrometers, magnetometers, and other gadgetry that Ignatiev had used and abandoned. He could see a faint ring of dust on the floor around the mess; he had given the cleaning robots strict orders not to touch it.
Above the obstructed fireplace was a framed digital screen programmed to show high-definition images of the world's great artworks — when it wasn't being used as a three-dimensional entertainment screen. Ignatiev had connected it to the ship's main optical telescope, so that it showed the stars spangled against the blackness of space. Usually the telescope was pointed forward, with the tiny red dot of Gliese 581 centered in its field of view. Now and then, at the command of the ship's AI system, it looked back toward the diminishing yellow speck of the Sun.
Being an astrophysicist, Ignatiev had started the flight by spending most of his waking hours examining this interstellar Siberia in which he was exiled. It was an excuse to stay away from the chattering young monkeys of the crew. He had studied the planet-sized chunks of ice and rock in the Oort cloud that surrounded the outermost reaches of the solar system. Once the ship was past that region, he turned his interest back to the enigmatic, frustrating pulsars. Each one throbbed at a precise frequency, more accurate than an atomic clock. Why? What determined their frequency? Why did some supernova explosions produce pulsars while others didn't?
Ignatiev batted his head against those questions in vain. More and more, as the months of the mission stretched into years, he spent his days playing chess against the AI system. And losing consistently.
He looked up from the chessboard he had set up on his desktop screen, turned in his chair, and directed his gaze across the room to the display screen above the fireplace. The lovely, smiling face of the artificial intelligence system's avatar filled the screen.
Excerpted from "Survival"
Copyright © 2017 Ben Bova.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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