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Authors: Robert Reed

The Greatship

BOOK: The Greatship
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The Greatship
Robert Reed

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2013 by Robert Reed

This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission.

For information, address Writers House LLC at 21 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10010.

Cover photo credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI.

 

ebook ISBN: 978-0-7867-5367-3

Print ISBN: 978-0-7867-5366-6

 

Distributed by Argo Navis Author Services

1
Introduction

An Author’s Dire Warning:

 

These twelve original stories have been reworked, sometimes lightly massaged and occasionally mutilated with a hyperfiber knife.  I have set them in some kind of chronological order, with overlaps and long gaps, and I won’t explain my logic.  The bridging materials are new; they may or may not offer insights into grand schemes.  Again, I’m not the tour guide here, and readers must make their own conjectures.  Even the existence of an overarching story—some grand heroic epic involving the Greatship and its various passengers, adventures and the fate of the universe—should be subject to a measure of doubt.

On another note, many fine editors have played critical roles in seeing this universe come into existence.  Thanks to all of them.

Finally, I look at this volume as an organic beast, full of growth and change.  The Greatship is spacious.  I get ideas on occasion.  No worthy voyage can ever come to an end.

The Greatship
Prologue

The universe is steeped in voices.

One hydrogen atom, that humble unmemorable citizen, spends it existence singing.  A nuclear scream holds its glorious proton together, gluons and quarks roaring about one another, enjoying what seems to be eternal balance.  The electron, its opposite and its natural mate, roams the vastness, wayward photons and quantum migrations causing an electromagnetic wailing.  Listen close and you hear the roaring voices of countless hydrogen atoms, each one screeching across realms and cold vaults and the spinning clouds infested with maelstroms that are hydrogen and little else.

The first and purest stars began as hydrogen and some spice of helium.  But as the voyage continued those stars have died and the newborn multitudes have swallowed the heavy ash.  Their bellies and their skins are dirty with oxygen and carbon, argon and iron.  And each star, no matter its age or composition, has its own titanic chorus of howling voices.  Gravity is a voice.  Each star grabs at the rest of the universe.  Each uses its mass to beg for companionship, a questing tug of matter dragging at matter, and the voice never stops, forever trying to slow what refuses to stop, trying to gather up the scattered pieces of an event that long ago ceased to have any visible margin, any meaningful brink or lip.

Yet no voice, no matter its strength or subtlety, or even its consummate wisdom, can reach farther than a very little ways.

Hydrogen talks and stars talk, and the stars assemble themselves into pinwheels and fogs that often if not always link together into walls that stretch long on scaffoldings built from the dark shy particles that whisper, only whisper, hiding in the plainest ways.

The universe is one grand shout, and all of these voices belong to it.

Listen carefully and hear the Creation.

* * *

Time passes and distance is covered, though never much distance compared to what must exist and never, ever with a clear purpose in mind.  Hydrogen and dust pass as a steady mist.  Some pieces of the mist can join the one who has drifted such a little ways and seen so much.  Stars and their corpses pass by, tugging selfishly.  Each body is as greedy as its mass.  Every mass wants to grab what travels.  What travels is fleeing everything that will end its existence, and survival is the only task, and why can’t it remember why this is so extraordinarily important?

Time passes and the voices change, rising up from cold clods of rock and iron and liquids.  Liquid bodies swim and stand on their own.  They practice new ways of speaking and scream in complicated new ways, reveling in codes and riddles.  What seemed like a magnificent but simple nightmare, a Creation sowed along a few clear rules, gains a new level of difficulty, conundrums rising up to threaten what travels, or they are trying to save it.

How does it know?

Voices call, the old ones and the new, and a great wall of stars and whispering black matter must be crossed without disaster.  Fear must be endured, and fear is unnecessary.  A few small suns come near, and one crushed piece of reality manages to shove the traveler onto a slightly different path.  But that is done and finished and the wall drops behind and then comes a very long emptiness, not silent but at least pleasantly quiet, and nothing comes near, and nothing happens for such a long while, and it is possible to hope that nothing of substance will occur before the galaxies and every voice fall out of sight, and nothing will remain but what matters.

But always, always comes an obstruction.

Out of pure cold, the next galaxy emerges.

So much time has passed since the last starry reef.  The voices have multiplied and grown even more complicated.  Life thrives inside sacks of water and methane and clean husks of silicon and carbon.  This is such a dangerous age.  The tiny swirl of starlight carries hundreds of billions of stars and trillions of worlds, and there are too many voices to count, and each moment only increases the tally and the confusion, the terrible endless and most reasonable fear telling this wanderer to be as cautious and as fortunate as possible.

It is seen.

One voice must be first, but it seems as if a million distinct voices are suddenly singing about this odd little traveler that is only now entering the fringes of their obscure realm.

One voice calls their home:  Milky Way.

The same voice refers to the traveler by many labels, including the descriptive, deeply flawed:  Greatship.

Out from those stars and little worlds, starships rise.

Something called Human claims the Greatship as its own.

But something else—tinier by quite a lot and faster than anything else—is what falls first to the surface of what is not understood.  The visitor drops alone onto the traveler, and the visitor survives its arrival, and what has always been the same is finished, and what follows is what will always follow, right until the End of the Ends.

Alone
1

The hull was gray and smooth, gray and empty, and in every direction it fell away gradually, vanishing where the cold black of the sky pretended to touch what was real.  What was real was the Great Ship.  Nothing else enjoyed substance or true value.  Nothing else in Creation could be felt, much less understood.  The Ship was a sphere of perfect hyperfiber, world-sized and enduring, while the sky was only boundless vacuum punctuated with lost stars and the occasional swirls of distant galaxies.  Radio whispers could be heard, too distorted and far too faint to resolve, and neutrino rains fell from above and rose from below, and there were ripples of gravity and furious nuclei generated by distant catastrophes—inconsequential powers washing across the unyielding, eternal hull.

The sky could not be trusted.  The stars wished only to tell lies.  And worse, the majesties above would distract the senses and mind from what genuinely mattered.  To the walker, there was no purpose but to slowly, carefully move across the Ship’s hull, and if something of interest were discovered, a cautious investigation would commence.  But only harmless mysteries were approached and studied in detail.  Instinct guided the walker, and for as long as it could remember, that instinct spoke through fear.  Fierce, unnamed hazards were lurking.  The enemies could not be seen or defined, but they were close, waiting for weakness, ready to punish sloth or inattentiveness.  This was why curiosity was a pleasure best taken in small doses.  Fascination was what came when vision narrowed too far.  This was the walker scrupulously avoided anything that moved or spoke, or any device that glowed with unusual heat, and even the tiniest examples of organic life were to be avoided, without fail.

Solitude was its natural way.

Alone, the ancient fear would diminish to a bearable ache, and something like happiness was possible.

Walking, walking.  That was the meaning of existence.  Select one worthy line, perhaps using one of the scarce stars as a navigational tool, and then follow that line until some fresh thing was discovered.  Whether the object was studied or circumvented, this was where the walker would pick a new bearing, aiming at the horizon again, maintaining that geometric purity with its boundless resolve.

There was no need to eat, no requirement for drink or sleep.  Its life force was a minor, unsolvable mystery.  Existence was patient, every moment feeling long and busy.  But if nothing of note occurred, nothing needed to be recalled.  After a century of uninterrupted routine, the walker compressed that blissful sameness into a single impression that was squeezed flush against every other vacuous memory—the recollections of a soul that felt ageless but was not, still very close to empty and innocent in so many ways.

Eyes shrank and new eyes grew, changing talents as needed.  With that powerful, piercing vision, the walker watched ahead and beside and behind.  Nothing was missed.  Sometimes it would stop, compelled to drop several eyes and stare into a random portion of the hull.  From the grayness, microscopic details emerged:  Fresh radiation tracks still unhealed; faint scars gradually erased by quantum bonds fighting to repair themselves.  Each observation revealed quite a lot about hyperfiber and the lessons never changed.  The hull was a wonder that was fashioned from an extremely strong and lasting material—a silvery-gray substance refined during some lost age by powerful species, perhaps, or perhaps by a league of vanished gods.  Genius must have imagined and built the Ship, and presumably the same intellect had sent the prize racing through the vacuum.  A good, glorious purpose must be at work here; but except for the relentless perfection of the Great Ship, nothing remained of intentions or goals, or even an obvious destination.

When the walker kneeled, the hull’s beauty was revealed.

And then it would stand again and resume its slow travels, feeling blessed to move freely upon this magnificent face.

2

There was no purpose but to wander the perfection forever, without interruption:  That assumption was made early and embraced as a faith.  But the oddities and little mysteries grew more common.  Every century saw more crushed steel boxes and empty diamond buckets than the century before, and then came lumps of mangled aerogel, and later, the occasional shard of some lesser kind of hyperfiber.  Then it found dead machines and pieces of machinery and tools too massive or far too ordinary to be carried any farther once they had failed.  These objects were considerably younger than the Ship.  Who abandoned them was a looming mystery, but one that would not be solved.  The walker had no intention of approaching these others.  And in those rare moments when they approached it—always by mistake, always unaware of its presence—the walker would flatten against the hull and make itself vanish.

Invisibility was a critical talent.  But invisibility meant that it had to abandon most of its senses.  Even striding across its smooth back, these interlopers were reduced to a vibration with each footfall and a weak tangle of magnetic and electrical fields.

Days later and safe again, the walker would cautiously rise up and cautiously move on.

Another millennium passed without serious incident.  It was easy to believe that the Great Ship would never change, and nothing would ever be truly new; and holding that belief close, the walker followed one perfect line.  No buckets or diamond chisels were waiting to change its direction.  As it strode on, the stars and sky-whispers warned that it was finally passing into unknown territory.  But this happened on occasion.  Perfection meant sameness, and the walker couldn’t imagine anything new.  Except then what seemed to be a flat-topped mountain began to rise over the coming horizon.  Making note of the sharp gray line hovering just above the hull, it was a little curious.  More years of steady marching caused the grayness to lift higher, just slightly.  Perhaps a mountain of trash had been set there.  Maybe a single enormous bucket had been upended.  Various explanations offered themselves; none satisfied.  But the event was so surprising, titanic and unwelcome, and the novelty was so great, that the walker stopped as soon as it was sure that something was indeed there, and without risking another step, it waited for three years and a little longer, adapting its eyes constantly, absorbing a view that stubbornly refused to change.

By then, curiosity defeated every imprecise fear, and the walker steered straight toward what made no sense.

At a pace that required little energy, it pressed ahead in half-meter strides.  Decades passed before it finally accepted what was obvious:  That while the Ship was undoubtedly perfect, it was by no measure perfectly smooth and eternally round.  Rising from the hull was not one gigantic tower, but several.  The nearest tower was blackish-gray and too vast to measure from a single perspective.  A small light occasionally appeared on the summit, or tiny flecks of light danced beside its enormous bulk, and there were abrupt spikes in dense, narrow radio noise that tasted like a language.  Explanations occurred to the walker.  From where the possibilities came, it could not say.  Maybe they arose from the same instincts responsible for its fears.  But like never before, it was intrigued.

Moving again, slowly and tirelessly pushing closer, it noticed how one of the more distant towers had begun to tip, looking ready to collapse on its side.  And shortly after that remarkable change in posture, the tower let loose a deep rumble, followed by a scorching, sky-piercing fire.

But of course:  These were the Ship’s engines.  No other explanation was necessary, and the walker absorbed its new knowledge in an instant, fresh beliefs gathering happily around the Ship’s continued perfection.  Fusion boosted by antimatter threw a column of radiant blue-white plasmas into the blackness, scorching the vacuum.  This was a vision worth admiration.  Here was power beyond anything that it had ever conceived of.  But soon the engine fell back to sleep, and after careful reflection, the walker chose another random direction, and another, selecting them until it was steering away from the gigantic rocket nozzles.

If objects this vast had missed its scrutiny, what else was hiding beyond the horizon?

Walk, walk, walk.

But its pace slowed even more.  Flying vessels and busy machines were suddenly common near the engines, and some kind of animal was building warm cities of bubbled glass.  An invasion was underway.  There were regions of intense activity and considerable radio noise, and each hazard had to be avoided, and when the situation demanded, treacherous regions had to be crossed without revealing the presence of one lone walker.

Ages passed before the engines vanished beyond the horizon.

A bright red star became the new beacon, and the walker followed its rich light until the ancient sun sickened and went nova, flinging portions of its flawed skin out into the cooling, dying vacuum.

Younger stars appeared, climbing from the horizon as the walker pressed forward.  A second sky had always been hiding behind the hyperfiber body.  Then the play of gravity and a hard twisting announced that the Ship had grudgingly left the line followed for untold billions of years.  After that, the sky changed rapidly, radically.  The vacuum was not nearly so empty or quite as chilled, and even a patient entity with nothing to do but count points of light could not estimate how many stars were drifting into its spellbound gaze.

A galaxy was approaching.  One great dish of three hundred billion suns and trillions of worlds was about to intersect with a vessel that had wandered across the universe, and every previous nudge and the great reaches of nothingness had led to this place and one perfect rich moment.

And here stood the walker, on the brink of something quite new.

There was a line here that perhaps no one else could have noticed, at least not with just eyes and the sketchy knowledge available.  But the walker could see where the hull that it knew surrendered to another.  The perfect hyperfiber was suddenly replaced with a rougher, more weathered version of faultless self.  Even in the emptiest reaches of the universe wandered ice and dust and other nameless detritus.  Those tiny worlds would crash down on the Ship’s hull, always at a substantial fraction of light-speed, and not even the finest hyperfiber could shrug aside that kind of withering power.  Stepping onto the Ship’s leading face, the walker observed gouges and debris fields and then the little craters that were eventually obscured by still larger craters—holes reaching deep into the hard resilient body.  Most of the wounds were ancient, although hyperfiber hid its age well.  All but the largest craters were unimportant to the Ship’s structure; the cumulative damage barely diminished its abiding strength.  But some wounds showed signs of repair and reconditioning.  The walker discovered one wide lake of liquid hyperfiber.  A patch had filled a crater, and the patch was still curing when it arrived.  Kneeling down on the smooth shoreline, it peered into the still-reflective surface.  For the first time in memory, here was another waiting to be seen.  But the walker felt no interest in its own appearance.  What mattered was the inescapable fact that someone—some agent or benevolent hand—was striving to repair what billions of years of abuse had achieved.  A constructive force was at work on the Ship.  A healing force, seemingly.  Enthralled, the walker looked at the young lake and the reflected Milky Way, measuring the patch’s dimensions.  Then it examined the half-cured skin, first with fresh eyes and then with a few respectful touches.  A fine grade of hyperfiber was being used, almost equal to the original hull, which implied that the invisible caretakers were striving to do what was good, and even better, striving to make certain that their goodness would endure.

The endless wandering continued.

Ultimately the galaxy was overhead, majestic yet still inconsequential.  The suns and invisible worlds were warm dust flung across the emptiness while the Ship remained dense and rich beyond all measure.  Walk, and walk.  And walk.  And then it found itself at the edge of another crater—the largest scar yet—and for the first time ever the walker followed a curving line, its path defined by the crater’s frozen lip.

Bodies and machines were working deep within the ancient gouge.  It watched from unseen perches, studying methods and guessing reasons for what it could not understand.  The vacuum crackled with radio noise.  The sense of the words began to emerge, and because language might prove useful, the walker deciphered meanings and consequences and which voices were most important.  Hundreds of animals worked inside the crater—human animals dressed inside human-shaped machines.  Accompanying them were tens of thousands of pure machines, while standing on the lip was a complex of prefabricated shops and habitats and fusion reactors and more humans and more robots dedicated to no purpose but repairing one minuscule portion of the Ship’s forward face.

As the walker kneeled, unseen, a bit of cosmic grit arrived with a brilliant flash of light, digging a tiny crater not fifty little steps away.

The danger was evident, but so were the marvels.  Two narrow black tracks had been laid across the unbroken hull, obeying the flawless elegance of parallel lines.  The tracks were superconductive rails that allowed heavy tanks to be dragged to this place, each tank swollen with uncured, still liquid hyperfiber.  From a fresh hiding place, the walker watched a long chain of tanks arrive and drained before being set on a parallel track and sent away.  The work was obviously difficult, demanding precision woven with some luck.  Ever fickle, liquid hyperfiber was eager to form lasting bonds but susceptible to flaws and catastrophic embellishments.  Deep down inside the crater, a brigade of artisans struggle to repair the damage—a tiny pock on the vast bow of the Ship—and their deed, epic as well as tiny, served as ringing testament to the astonishing gifts employed by those who first built the Great Ship.

All but one of the empty tanks was sent home.  The exception was damaged in a collision and then pushed aside, abandoned.  Curious about that long silver tank, the walker approached and then paused, crept closer and paused again, waiting days to feel certain that no traps were waiting, no eyes watching.  Then it slipped near enough to touch the crumbled body.  An innate talent for mechanical affairs was awakened.  Using thought and imaginary tools, it rebuilt the empty vessel.  Presumably those repairs were waiting for a more convenient time.  Unless the humans meant to abandon this equipment, which was not an unthinkable prospect, judging by the trash already scattered about this increasingly crowded landscape.

One end of the tank was cracked open, the interior exposed.  Slow, nearly invisible steps allowed the walker to slip inside.  The cylinder was slightly less than a kilometer in length.  Ignoring every danger, the walker passed through the ugly fissure, and once inside, it balanced on a surface designed to feel slick to every possible material.  Yet it managed to hold its place, retaining its pose, peering into the darkness until it was sure that it was alone, which was when it let light seep out of its own body, filling the long volume with a soft cobalt-blue glow.

Everywhere it looked, it saw itself looking back.

The round wall was covered with distorted images of what might be a machine, or perhaps was something else.  Whatever it was, the walker had no choice but to stare at itself.  The tank was a trap, but instead of a secret door slamming shut, the mechanism worked by forcing an entity to gaze upon its own shape and its nature, perhaps for the first time.

What it beheld was not unlovely.

But how did it know beauty?  What aesthetic standard was employed?  And why carry such a skill among its instincts and keen talents?

Minutes passed before the walker could free itself.  But even after climbing back onto the open hull, under the stars, it remained trapped.  A slow crawl gave it some distance, but after it stood it did nothing.  It remained immobile, exposed, staring back at the empty, ruined tank while feeling sick with grief.  Where did this obligation come from?  Why care so much about a soulless object that would never function again?  That piece of ruin bothered it so much that even later, even after finally walking far enough to hide both the tank and the crater beyond the horizon…its mind insisted on returning to an object that others had casually and unnecessarily cast aside.

 

BOOK: The Greatship
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