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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Tides of Light
By Gregory Benford
Warner AspectCopyright © 1989 Abbenford Associates
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Cap'n liked to walk the hull.
It was the only place where he could feel truly alone. Inside Argo there was always the rustle of movement, the rub of humanity kept two years in the narrow though admittedly pleasant confines of a starship.
And worse, when he was inside, someone could always interrupt him. The Family was getting better at leaving him alone in the early morning, he had to give them that. He had carefully built up a small legend about his foul temper just after he awoke, and it was beginning to pay off. Though children might still rush up to him and blurt out a question, lately there had always been an adult nearby to tug the offending youth away.
Killeen disliked using implied falsehoods-he was no more irritable in the morning than at any other time-but it was the only way he could think to get some privacy. So no one hailed him over ship's comm when he was out here. And of course, no ship's officer would dare pass through the lock and seek to join him.
And now there was a much better reason not to come out here. Hull-walking just made you a better target beneath the ever-watching eyes above.
Out here. Killeen had been thinking so firmly about his problems that he had, as was often the case, completely forgotten to admire the view. Or to locate their enemy escort.
His first impression, as he raised his head to let in all the sweep of light around him, was of a seething, cloud-shrouded sky. He knew this was an illusion, that this was no planetary sky at all, and that the burnished hull of the Argo was no horizon.
But the human mind persisted in the patterns learned as a child. The glowing washes of blue and pink, ivory and burnt orange, were not clouds in any normal sense. Their phosphorescence came from entire suns they had engulfed. They were not water vapor, but motley swarms of jostling atoms. They spilled forth light because they were being intolerably stimulated by the stars they blanketed.
And no sky back on Snowglade had ever crackled with the trapped energy that flashed fitfully between these clouds. Killeen watched a sprinkle of bluehot light near a large, orange blob. Its wobbly curves fattened like ribbed, bruised sausages. It coiled, clotted scintillant ridges working with snakelike torpor, and then burst into luridly tortured fragments.
Could this be the weather of the stars? Snowglade had suffered from a climate that could turn suddenly vicious, and Killeen supposed the same could be true on the unimaginably larger scale between suns. Since he didn't understand the way planets made weather, or the complex fabric of tides and currents, air and water, it was no great leap for him to suppose some similar shadowed mystery might apply to the raging lives of stars.
Anger forked through this sky. Behind them spun the crimson disk of the Eater, a great gnawing mouth. It ate suns whole and belched hot gas. In Argo's flight from Snowglade, which swam near the Eater, they had beaten out against streaming, infalling dust that fed the monster. Its great disk was like burnt sugar at the rim, reddening steadily toward the center. Closer in swirled crisp yellow, and nearer still a bluewhite ferocity lived, an enduring fireball.
Looking outward, Killeen could see on the grandest scale the structure his Aspects told him should be there. The entire galaxy lurked like a silvery ghost beyond the swarthy dustlanes. It, like the Eater, was a disk-but incomparably greater. Killeen had seen ancient pictures of the regions beyond the Center, a lake of stars. But that lake did not ripple and churn. Here tides of light swept the sky, as though some god had chosen Center as her final incandescent artwork. Their target star spun ahead, a mote among wrack and storm, and all their hopes now bore upon it.
And floating in this seethe, their enemy.
He squinted, failed to find it. Argo was nearing the verge of a jetblack cloud. The distant mech vehicle probably lay somewhere within the obliterating darkness there. Abraham's Star was struggling free of the massive shroud. Soon Argo could peer through the shredding fringes of the cloud to find her planets.
A notion tugged at Killeen but he shrugged it aside, caught up in the spectacle all around him. The heavens worked with ribbed and scaly light, like luminescent beasts drowning in inky seas.
What were the chances, he wondered, that merely showing himself out here would tempt the mech vehicle to skewer him with a bolt? No one knew-which, in the paradoxical logic of leadership, was why he had to do it.
Killeen had started this hull-walking ritual a year before, at the urging of one of his principal Aspects, a truly ancient encased personality named Ling. Revered and respected, the Aspect had been given to Killeen by the Family with high attendant ceremony in Argo's central hall. Ling was the last remaining true starship Cap'n in the Family chip inventory. The micromind had commanded a forerunner of Argo and had exciting though often unintelligible yarns to tell.
Yes, and following my advice is bringing a reward.
Thinking about Ling had brought the Aspect's firm, Cap'nly voice sounding in Killeen' s mind. He let a skeptical frown cross his face and Ling picked it up.
You make this hull-walk serve the added purpose of displaying your personal calm and unconcern in the face of the enemy.
Killeen said nothing; his sour doubt would faintly trickle down to Ling, like runoff from a rainstorm. He kept up his pace, making sure his boots got a firm magnetic clamp on the hull before he freed the following leg. Even if he kicked himself free of the hull, there was a good chance that his low trajectory would carry him into a strut or an antenna downhull from him. That would save the embarrassment which he had often suffered when he had started this ritual. Five times he had been forced to haul himself back to the ship using a thrown, magnet-tipped line. He was sure crew had seen it, too, and had gotten a good laugh.
Now he made it a point not to have his line even within easy reach on his belt. He kept it in a leg pocket. Anyone watching him from the big agro pods downhull would see their Cap'n loping confidently over the broad curves of the Argo, with no visible safety line. A reputation for dashing confidence in his own abilities might come in handy in the difficult times to come.
Killeen turned so that he was facing the pale yellow disk of Abraham's Star. They had known for months that this was the destination of their years-long voyage-a star similar to Snowglade's. Shibo had told him that planets orbited here as well.
Killeen had no idea as yet what kind of planets these might be, or whether they held any shelter for his Family. But Argo's automatic program had brought them here, following knowledge far older than their forefathers. Perhaps the ship knew well.
In any case, the Family's long rest was nearing an end. A time of trials was coming. And Killeen had to be sure his people were ready.
He found himself loping harder, barely skimming the hull. His thoughts impelled him forward, oblivious to his loud panting inside the cramped helmet. The rank musk of his own sweat curled up into his nostrils, but he kept going. The exercise was good, yes, but it also kept his mind away from the invisible threat above. More important, the hard pace cleared his mind for thinking before he began his official day.
Discipline was his principal concern. With Ling's help he had drilled and taught, trying to fathom the ancient puzzles of the Argo and help his officers become skilled spacers.
This was his ambiguous role: Cap'n of a crew that was also Family, a circumstance which had not arisen in the memory of anyone living. He had only the dry advice of his Aspects, or the lesser Faces, to guide him-ancient voices from eras marked by far greater discipline and power. Now humanity was a ragged remnant, scurrying for its life among the corners of a vast machine civilization that spanned the entire Galactic Center. They were rats in the walls.
Running a starship was a vastly different task from maneuvering across the bare, blasted plains of distant Snowglade. The patterns the Families had set down for centuries were nominally based on crewing a ship, but these years under way had shown how large the gap was. In a tight engagement, when the crew had to react with instant fortitude and precision, Killeen had no idea how they would perform.
Nor did he know what they would have to do. The dim worlds that circled Abraham's Star might promise infinite danger or easy paradise. They had been set on this course by a machine intelligence of unknown motives, the Mantis. Perhaps the dispersed, anthology intelligence of the Mantis had sent them to one of the few humanly habitable planets in the Galactic Center. Or perhaps they were bound for a site which fitted the higher purposes of the mech civilization itself.
Killeen bit his lip in fretted concentration as he loped around the Argo's stern and rounded back toward midships. His breath came sharply and, as always, he longed to be able to wipe his brow.
He had gambled the Family's destiny on the hope that ahead lay a world better than weary, vanquished Snowglade. Soon now the dice would fall and he would know.
He puffed heavily as he angled around the bulbous lifezones-huge bubbles extruded from the sleek lines of the Argo, like the immense, bruised bodies of parasites. Inside, their opalescent walls ran with dewdrops, shimmering moist jewels hanging a bare finger's width away from hard vacuum. Green fronds pressed here and there against the stretched walls-a sight which at first had terrified Killeen, until he understood that somehow the rubbery yet glassy stuff could take the pokes and presses of living matter without splitting. Despite the riot of plant growth inside, there was no threat of a puncture. Argo had attained a balance between life's incessant demands and the equally powerful commandments of machines-a truce humanity had never managed on Snowglade.
As he slogged around the long, curved walls of the lifezones, here and there a filmy face peered out at him. A crewwoman paused in her harvesting of fruit and waved. Killeen gave her a clipped, reserved salute. She hung upside down, since the life bubbles did not share Argo's spin.
To her his reflecting suit would look like a mirror-man taking impossibly long, slowmotion strides, wearing leggings of hullmetal, with a shirt that was a mad swirl of wrinkled clouds and stars. His suit came from Argo's ancient stores and had astonishing ability to resist both the heat and cold of space. He had seen a midshipman carelessly back into a gas torch in one, and feel not a flicker of the blazing heat through its silvery skin.
His Ling Aspect commented:
A reflecting suit is also good camouflage against our mech companion.
This sort of remark meant that the Aspect was feeling its cabin fever again. Killeen decided to go along with its attempt to strike up a conversation; that might help him tickle forth the slippery idea that kept floating nearly into consciousness. "The other day you said it wasn't interested in me anyway."
I still believe so. It came upon us as though it would attack, yet over a week has passed as it patiently holds its distance in a parallel path.
"Looks like it's armed."
True, but it holds its fire. That is why I advised you to hull-walk as usual. The crew would have noticed any reluctance.
Killeen grumbled, "Extra risk is dumb."
Not in this case. I know the moods of crew, particularly in danger. Heed me! A commander must imbue his crew with hope in the mortal circumstances of war. So the eternal questions voice themselves again: "Where is our leader? Is he to be seen? What does he say to us? Does he share our dangers?" When you brave the hull your crew watches with respect.
Killeen grimaced at Ling's stentorian tones. He reminded himself that Ling had led far larger ships than Argo. And crew were peering out the frosted walls of the lifezones to watch their Cap'n.
Still, the magisterial manner of Ling rankled. He had lost several minor Faces when Ling's chip was added, because there wasn't enough room in the slots aligned along his upper spine. Ling was embedded in an old, outsized pentagonal chip, and had proved to be both a literal and figurative pain in the neck.
He gazed once more at the streaming radiance that forked fitfully in the roiling sky. There-he saw it. The distant speck held still against a far-passing luminescence. He watched the mote for a long moment and then shook his fist at it in frustration.
Good. Crew like a Captain who expresses what they all feel.
"It's what I feel, dammit!"
"It's what I feel, dammit!"
Of course. That is why such gestures work so well.
"You calc'late everything?"
No-but you wished to learn Captaincy. This is the way to do so.
Irritated, Killeen pushed Ling back into his mind's recesses. Other Aspects and Faces clamored for release, for a freshening moment in his mind's frontal lobes. Though they caught a thin sliver of what Killeen sensed, the starved interior presences hungered for more. He had no time for that now. The slippery idea still eluded him and, he realized, had provoked some of the irritation he had taken out on Ling.
If crew were already harvesting, then Killeen knew he had been running a bit too long. He deliberately did not use the time display in his suit, since the thing was ageold and its symbols were a confusing scramble of too much data, unreadable to his untutored mind. Instead he checked his inboard system. The timer stuttered out a useless flood of information and then told him he had been running nearly an hour. He did not know very precisely how long an hour was, but as a rule of thumb it was enough.
He wrenched the airlock stays free, prepared to enter, looked up for one last glimpse of the vista-and the idea popped forth, unbidden.
In a heartbeat he turned the notion over and over, inspecting every nuance of it, and knew it was right.
He studied the sky, saw the course Argo would follow in the gradually lifting gloom of the cloud-shadow. If they had to, there was enough in the sky to navigate by eye.
He cycled through the axial lock, passed quickly through the tight zero-g vapor shower, and was back inside the spun-up corridors within a few minutes.
Lieutenant Cermo was waiting for him at the midships gridpoint. He saluted and said nothing about Killeen's lateness, though his irrepressible grin told Killeen that the point had not slipped by. Killeen did not return the smile and said quietly, "Sound quarters."
Excerpted from Tides of Light by Gregory Benford Copyright © 1989 by Abbenford Associates. Excerpted by permission.
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