Authors: Gregory Benford
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copyright © 2004 by Abbenford Associates
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First eBook Edition: February 2005
He lifted his right hand—
—and it wouldn’t budge. It lay palm-up on smooth, cool timestone. The flesh near his knuckles felt cold, stiff. He pulled
harder. A little give, not much. “Quath, I’m stuck. It’s
He yanked harder. The right hand came free with an awful ripping sound—and a flash of white-hot pain.
and you become part of the event.>
“What ‘event’? That stuff tried to
“You mean everything here can sop us up, like sponges?”
ACCLAIM FOR GREGORY BENFORD’S CLASSIC NOVELS OF THE GALACTIC CENTER
TIDES OF LIGHT
“Benford’s most adventurous, most philosophical, and most scientifically creative novel.”
“Mr. Benford is a rarity: a scientist who writes with verve and insight not only about black holes and cosmic strings but
about human desires and fears.”
—New York Times Book Review
SAILING BRIGHT ETERNITY
“As at the end of any great symphony, one can only stand and applaud.”
—Asimov’s Science Fiction
“A worthy conclusion to what now should be acknowledged as the most important and involving hard SF series yet written.”
ALSO BY GREGORY BENFORD
The Martian Race
The Stars in Shroud
(with William Rostler)
Heart of the Comet
(with David Brin)
A Darker Geometry
(with Mark O. Martin)
Beyond the Fall of Night
(with Arthur C. Clarke)
The Galactic Center Series
In the Ocean of Night
Across the Sea of Suns
Great Sky River
Tides of Light
Sailing Bright Eternity
Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia
For Joan, forever
oby watched his father walk the hull.
Killeen was a silvery figure, his suit tuned to reflect as much radiation as possible. A mirror man. Slick light slid over
him as he moved, shimmering with the phosphorescence of stars and gas. Toby could follow Killeen’s smooth, slow lope as a
rippling warp against the fiery background.
—Dad!—Toby called over his skinsuit comm band.
—What? Oh . . . —Killeen’s surprise came through the fizz of comm static.—How come you’re outside?—
—Crew’s wondering how come you’re out here so long.—
As Cap’n of the
, Killeen could do whatever he liked, of course. But Toby had felt the growing uncertainty among the officers inside. Somebody
had to act, to say something, so he had pulled on his skin-tight suit and come clumping out here. Lately Cap’n Killeen had
kept himself isolated. He came out here to hike over the fat curves of the ship’s hull, often not even leaving his suit comm
Killeen said distantly,—I’m navigating. Watching.—
The big man’s watery image flowed, liquid with light, as Killeen came toward Toby across
’s blunt prow. His suit momentarily mirrored the black depths of a nearby molecular cloud, and Toby saw him as an eerie shadow-man
against the distant burnt-orange wash of star-speckled gas.
—You can do that from the bridge,—Toby said.
—Get a better feel for it out here.—Killeen came close enough for Toby to make out his father’s stern expression through the
suit’s small vision slit.
Toby knew his father’s pinched-face, hedgehog mood, and decided to cut through it directly.—There’s near a dozen more crew
on sick report.—
Killeen’s lips thinned but he said nothing. Toby hesitated, then summoned up his courage.—Dad, we’re starving! Those gardens
we lost, they’re not gonna grow again. Face it!—
Abruptly Killeen whirled, adroitly sliding his magnetic boots in zero gravity.—I
facing it! We just don’t know any more techtricks. Even the specialists, the green-thumbers, they can’t get those ship gardens
sprouting again. No help there. So I’m
, got that?—
Toby stepped back involuntarily; Killeen’s flinty anger was quick and daunting. He took a breath and said hesitantly,—Shouldn’t
. . . can’t we . . . do something different?—
Killeen scowled.—Like what?—
—Approach some of those?—Toby pointed tentatively.
Far ahead of
floated faint metallic dabs of light. Not clouds or luminous dust. Artificial.
—We don’t know what they are. Could be mechwork. Probably is. Mechs have built plenty near True Center.—Killeen shrugged.
—Maybe they’re human, Dad.—
—Doubtful. It’s been a fearsome long time since humans lived in space.—
—That’s just what history says. We won’t know till we look for ourselves. We’re raiders by heritage, Dad! The Family’s itching
to get out of the ship, stretch their legs.—
Killeen gazed thoughtfully toward the blaze of Galactic Center.—One thing you learn as Cap’n is not to stick your nose into
a beehive just to smell the honey. Those things’ll probably be hostile, even if they aren’t mech. Ever’thing else here seems
Toby let the remark ride. It had been over a year, but still Killeen had not recovered from the death of his woman, Shibo.
He kept up his duties as Cap’n but was often withdrawn, pensive, moody. That might have been acceptable for a crewman, but
not for a Cap’n. The price in morale was getting too high.
Still, Toby thought, Killeen was probably right. They were cruising directly into the center of the galaxy, where vast, indifferent
energies worked. Huge, glowering suns. Incandescent clouds of dust and gas. Powers far beyond anything mere humans could manage.
And somewhere here, intelligences to match the mad swirl of stars.
He had studied enough history to know that humans had evolved near a star two-thirds of the way out in the galactic spiral.
The galaxy was a spinning disk, like a toy—only bigger than the human mind could encompass. Out there at Old Earth, far from
the cataclysms of True Center, living had been easy, quiet.
One of his instructional drills had tried to get him to visualize a box that was a light-year on a side, the distance light
itself could travel in a whole year. Out there, near the legendary Earth, that box would hold maybe one single star, on average.
Here, at Galactic Center, such a box held a million stars.
Suns crowded the sky like glowing marbles. Stormy streamers of red gas shrouded them. Stars swarmed like angry bees around
the central axis—the blue-white brilliance of the exact center.
Toby said quietly,—We could come alongside one of ’em, just for a look.—
Killeen shook his head.—Solve one problem, maybe, but make another. A worse one.—
, Dad. We have to
Killeen turned and strode angrily away along the worn and pitted hull. His magnetos snapped down to the metal with a hard
clank that Toby felt through his own boots. He trotted after his father. Walking here took a strangely gaited stride, coasting
between steps, letting his boot clamp just long enough to get more momentum. Then he jerked the boot free, pushing forward,
and was off on another glide. Toby was good at it but he couldn’t keep pace with his father.
had brought them here at near-light speeds, gulping down plasma with her magnetic scoops. There was fuel aplenty, thicker
and thicker as they neared the center. Still, random chunks of rock had pocked and blistered her shiny hull. Now they were
coasting slower, and Killeen used the chance to hull-walk with some safety.
had joined the gyre of matter here, which swung about True Center at one-thousandth light speed.
Killeen reached a smooth ridge in the
’s complex bulges and stopped, as if on the brow of a real mountain, back on the planet of their birth. Their ship was a last
grand construction of their ancestors, a vessel as big as a hill. Beyond him loomed a vast dark cloud, like a smudge of ink
against the flaming stars.
Killeen turned and looked back at his son. As Toby approached he saw Killeen’s expression shift to a plaintive longing.
—If only there were planets here . . . —
—Can’t be, I heard,—Toby said flatly, hoping to jar their talk back to realities.
—Why?—Killeen asked sharply.
—Look at these stars! They’re flying past each other so close, they strip planets clean free of their parent sun.—
—Well, that sets planets drifting free, sure. So?—Killeen said stubbornly.
—Sure, free. And frozen. Too far from any sun. No plant life. No food.—
Killeen peered wistfully outward.—So in all this magnificence, there’s no place for life?—
—Yeasay. Prob’ly none for us, either.—Toby ventured this opinion mostly to snap his father out of his illusions. Maybe even
get him to rethink this foolhardy venture to True Center.
Killeen gave him a sober, almost plaintive look.—We have to go on.—
—Why? The radiation levels are so high,
can barely hold it off. Just coming outside here, you’re risking heavy exposure.—
—It’s our duty, I tell you.—
—Dad, your first duty is to
, to your crew.—
—There’s something near the Galactic Center. We have to find out what.—
Toby snorted in frustration. Killeen’s eyes narrowed at this, but Toby told himself he was speaking for a majority of the
crew. That was his duty, too. He said bitterly,—Moldy old records hint—
—at something. That’s
. For that we’re supposed to . . . —