Wed
Sep 19 2012 5:00pm

Bowl of Heaven (Excerpt)

We've got the prologue to the first novel co-written by Larry Niven and Gregory Benford. Check out Bowl of Heaven:

In this first collaboration by science fiction masters Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Gregory Benford (Timescape), the limits of wonder are redrawn once again as a human expedition to another star system is jeopardized by an encounter with an astonishingly immense artifact in interstellar space: a bowl-shaped structure half-englobing a star, with a habitable area equivalent to many millions of Earths…and it’s on a direct path heading for the same system as the human ship.

A landing party is sent to investigate the Bowl, but when the explorers are separated—one group captured by the gigantic structure’s alien inhabitants, the other pursued across its strange and dangerous landscape—the mystery of the Bowl’s origins and purpose propel the human voyagers toward discoveries that will transform their understanding of their place in the universe.

PROLOGUE

 

Here about the beach I wander’d, nourishing a youth sublime With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time

—TENNYSON, “Locksley Hall”

 

The Last Party

Cliff turned from the people he was saying good-bye to and looked out at the world he would never see again.

The party roared on behind him. Laughter, shouts, hammering hard music. The laughter was a touch ragged, the music too loud, a forced edge to it all, and an electric zest fueled a murmur of anticipating talk. They had said good-bye already to relatives on Earth. Now, SunSeeker’s crew and passengers had to say farewell forever to the starship construction teams, the training echelons, the embodied political and economic forces that were about to launch them out into a vastness beyond experience.

The view was razor sharp, but it was of course a screen, adjusted to subtract the station’s centrifugal gyre. So Earth held steady and he could see the tiny silver motes of flung packages headed toward the SunSeeker complex. They trailed back toward the flingers on Luna, and another line of specks pointed toward the fatter dots of manufacturing complexes in higher orbits. A dingy new asteroid was gliding in on its decade-long journey. Already, silvery bee swarms of robo-factories accompanied it, hollowing out its stony core for a smelter colony. Glass-skinned biofactories waited for the work crews that would pounce on the asteroid prey, their liquid riches hiding behind fogged domes for sunlight to awaken them.

It struck him how much like artworks machines seemed in space. Here they suffered no constraints of gravity, and so looked like contorted abstracts of Euclidean geometries, cubes and ellipsoids and blunt cylinders that made mobiles without wires, moving with glacial grace against the faint jewels of brimming starlight.

Within the geostationary orbit, he could not see distinct satellites, even after he hit the magnification command and the screen narrowed in. Here, the busy swarm held luxury hotels for ancients now well over two centuries old. Religious colonies were more common but rather Spartan, and ships flitted like dappled radiance everywhere in the incessant sprawl of commerce. The solid Earth swam in a countless froth of tending machines.

He leaned sideways and caught the sheen of the Fresnel lens at the L1 point, a gauzy circle seen nearly on edge from here. It hung between Earth and the sun, deflecting sunlight from the still rather overheated planet. Adjusting patches twinkled in slow splendor.

“Y’know, it’ll all be fixed up fine by the time we even wake up.” Beth’s soft words came from behind him.

Cliff turned and his eyes brightened. “But we’ll be this same age.”

She blinked and grinned and kissed him back. “Hard not to love an optimist.”

“If I didn’t think we’ll wake up, I wouldn’t go.”

She wore a sheath dress that definitely wouldn’t be going to Glory. It clung to her lithe body, wrapped close around her neck, and anchored at amber bracelets on her wrists. Her right showed bare skin colored like chardonnay as the dress polarized, giving him quick glances of flesh. The silky dress had variable opacity and hue she could tune with the bracelets, he guessed. He hoped this show was for him. People nearby were making a great show of not noticing. Just as most ignored the profusion of plunging necklines, built-in push-up bras, spangles, feathers, slits, and peekaboos. Plus codpieces on some of the guys, muscle shirts, the hawk hats that made a man look like a predator.

“A lot of overt signaling tonight, isn’t there?” Beth said dryly.

Not his style. “Bravado, smells like.” So he simply took her in his arms and kissed her. That was the usual best move, he had learned early on, especially if he could not think of something witty. Her green eyes blinked. Everyone continued not noticing. He wouldn’t see most of them ever again, after all.

This thought got underlined when a banner rolled across the room’s suspension ceiling. It was from the assembly teams who for years had worked with the crew, outfitting and running SunSeeker.

HOPE YOU ENJOYED GIVING US THE BUSINESS AS MUCH AS WE ENJOYED TAKING YOU FOR A RIDE

Terry and Fred came by on their way to the bar, laughing at the banner. “Funny,” Terry said. “We’re going on to Glory, and tomorrow they’ll be back at work on the next ramscoop. But they’re celebrating harder than we are.”

“Yeah,” Fred said. “Odd. They’re as glad to see us leave as we are to go.”

Terry said, “We’re all scarce types. All the psychers say so. Why wouldn’t anyone grab a chance at a whole new, fresh world?”

“Instead of staying here to fix the one we screwed up?” Cliff asked. An old issue for them all, but it still clung to him.

Beth shrugged. “We finesse climate, or climate finesses us.”

“It’s good practice,” Terry said. “The previous generations terraformed Earth first. Now it’s our turn with a whole new planet.”

A tray crawled past; you couldn’t use float trays in lowspin gravity. The tray was piled with exotic dishes and surrounded by diners who would not be eating this well for centuries to come. Fred joined them, then Terry, edging into the crowd with minimal courtesy.

“My, my,” Beth said warmly. “Ummm . . . maybe we should leave now?”

Cliff looked out over the crowd. Some Earth bureaucrat had on a leash a dog that closely resembled a breakfast pastry with hair. The dog was lapping up someone else’s vomit. Three others were laughing at the sight. Apparently most of the party was having a better time than he was.

No matter. This was surely the last time he would see most of them—the crews who had built SunSeeker, the endless bureaucrats who at least pretended to add to the effort, the psychers and endless engineers and trial-run crews who would never see another sun. . . . He grimaced and relished the passing moment. All moments were passing, of course. Some, more so. “My heart is full but my glass is empty.”

She gave him a rueful nod. “We won’t get booze on SunSeeker.”

“In flight? Cap’n Redwing would frown.”

“He seems more the ‘throw ’em into leg irons’ type.”

Her laughing-eyed remark told them both that they needed celebration. It helped ward off the doubts, fears, and . . . an emotion he had no name for. So be it.

They stood with arms around each other’s waist and watched Earth’s wheeling, silent majesty. Into the rim of their view swam SunSeeker, looking much like a lean and hungry shark.

Yes, a shark waiting to swim in the ocean of night. The large mouth was the magnetic funnel, waiting to be turned on, furl outward, and begin the slow acceleration out of the solar system. That scoop would yawn and first dive close to the sun, swallowing great gouts of the solar wind as start-up fuel. Behind the head complex curved the hoop of the control deck, its ruby glow alive with workers. Cliff watched tiny figures in their worker pods putting finishing touches on the long, rotating cylinder of the habitat and cryostorage sandwiched between the supplies storage vaults. Then came the wrinkled, cottonball-white, cybersmart radiators that sheathed the drive system. Its cylindrically spaced vents gave in to the fat fusion chambers, big ribbed barrels that fed the final thruster nozzles. Wrapped around these in a saddle truss were the big yellow fuel pods that would feed the beast as it accelerated into the deep dark, then fall away. From there on, it would glide through the centuries inside a magnetic sheath, safe from the proton sleet ahead. SunSeeker was a shark for eating away at light-years.

They had all ridden her out into the Oort cloud, tried the engines, found the flaws that the previous fourteen ships had tested. Ran the AI systems, found the errors in rivets and reason, made better. In the first few generations of interstellar craft, every new ship was an experiment. Each learned from the last, the engineers and scientists did their work, and a better ship emerged. Directed evolution on the fast track.

Now they were ready for the true deeps. Deep space meant deep time, all fleeting and, soon enough, all gone.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” a man’s voice said from behind them.

It was Karl, the lanky head flight engineer. He had an arm around Mei Ling and seemed a bit bleary and red faced. From a snog-fog burst, Cliff guessed. Mei Ling just seemed extraordinarily joyful, eyes glistening.

Beth said, casting a sideways glance, “Yes—and we’re counting on you to keep her happy.”

“Oh yes, I will,” Karl said, not getting the double entendre. “She’s a great ship.”

Mei Ling got it, arched an eyebrow, and nodded. “Saying good-bye to the world, are we? How do you think they’ll think of us by the time we arrive?”

Beth said, “I’d like to be remembered as the world’s oldest woman.”

They all laughed. Mei Ling asked Cliff, “Hard to say farewell to it all, isn’t it? You’ve been over here at the view most of the evening.”

She had always been quick to read people, he recalled. She would understand that he needed merriment now. That they all did. “Um, yeah. I guess I’m a man of the world; my trouble is I’m trying to find which world.”

They all nodded soberly. Then with a quick, darting grin, Karl showed off his newest trick. In the low centrifugal grav, he poured a dark red wine by letting it fall from the bottle, then cutting off the right amount with a dinner knife before it hit the glass. Three quick slices, Mei Ling rushed some glasses into place, and done. “Impressive!” Beth said. They drank.

“Got some news,” Karl said. “Those grav waves near Glory? No signal in them. Just noise.”

“How does that help us?” Beth asked. Cliff could tell from her expression that Karl was not her sort, but Karl would never know.

“It means there’s not some supercivilization on Glory, for one thing.”

“We already knew there are no electromagnetic signals,” Mei Ling said.

“Well, sure,” Karl said. “But maybe really advanced societies don’t bother with primitive—”

“Hey, this is a party!” Beth said brightly. Karl took the hint. He shrugged and led Mei Ling away. She had some trouble walking.

“Cruel, you are,” Cliff said.

“Hey, we won’t see him for centuries.”

“But it will seem like next week.”

“So they say. What do you think about the grav waves?”

Just then a Section head broke in, using a microphone to get above the party noise, which was still rising. “We just got a launch congratulations from Alpha Centauri, folks! They wish you good speed.”

Some hand clapping, then the party buzz came back even stronger. “Nice gesture,” Beth said. “They had to send that over four years ago.”

Tananareve Bailey spoke behind him. “It probably came in a year back and they’ve been saving it.” Cliff hadn’t noticed her approach. She was more covered up than most of the women, but gorgeous, an explosion of browns and orange against black face and arms. She stood with Howard Blaire, once a zookeeper and something of a bodybuilding enthusiast.

Beth nodded. “Once we’re in flight, the delay times will mean we’re talking to different generations. Spooky. But you were saying about the grav waves—?”

Howard twisted his mouth, trying to recall. “Look, SunSeeker was nearly built before LIGO 22 picked up those waves. It took all the time we were out on our field trials to verify the detection. More time to see if there was anything in it—and apparently there isn’t. No signal, just some noisy spectrum. No, we’re going to Glory because a biosphere is there. One of the Astros told me these grav waves probably come from just accidental superposition. A good chance there’s some pair of orbiting black holes far across the galaxy, but the Glory system is in the way—”

“That’s what I think, too,” a familiar voice said. They turned to find a red-faced Fred, back again, obviously a bit the worse for wear. “Can’t get good resolution on the source area, and Glory’s over in one corner of a degree-wide patch in the sky. The grav waves could be from anywhere in there, even in another galaxy.”

Beth looked at Cliff and gave him her covert rolled-eye look, saying, “I’m a bio type, myself.”

Fred was a trifle intense, or “focused” as the psychers put it. Some found him hard to take, but he had solved a major technical problem in systems tech, which cut him some slack with Cliff. All crew had to have overlapping abilities, but for some like Fred, breadth was their main qualification. Of course, Fred was oblivious to all these nuances. He gestured at the screen. “Hard not to look at it—beauty and importance combined. The Mona Lisa of planets.”

Beth murmured approval and he went on, talking faster. “Even now, I mean—hundreds of bio worlds with atmospheric signatures, but no better’s been seen anywhere.”

Irma Michaelson passed by without her husband in tow, her head turning quickly at Fred’s remark. “You mean the new Forward probe data?”

“Uh, no—”

“Forward Number Five just checked in,” Irma said. “Still pretty far out, can’t get surface maps or anything. Plenty of clouds, got a smidge view of an ocean. Shows the atmospheric thermo pretty well, I hear. We got the tightbeam relay just in time! We might need to do some atmosphere work to make it comfy.”

Beth asked, “What kind?”

“They say we may need more CO2. Glory’s a tad light on greenhouse gases,” Fred said so fast, he could barely get the words out. “Surface temperatures are more like Canada. The tropics there are like our mid-temperate zones.”

Now that we’ve terraformed Earth back to nearly twencen levels, Cliff thought, here comes another whole world. . . .

He shook this off and listened to Fred, who was hurtling on bright-eyed with, “Once we learn how to suck carbon out of air really well, we can make a climate that will be better than what we were born into. Maybe better than humans ever had it.”

By this time, he was lecturing to a smaller audience. He gave them a crooked smile, as if to acknowledge this, and walked off into the crowd, which was getting predictably more noisy.

“A lot of anxious energy humming through here,” Beth said.

“An emotional bath,” Cliff said dreamily, and nodded at Earth. “The big issue down there is our ever-smarter machines demanding back wages. What’s retirement look like for a multicapillary DNA sequencer?”

Beth laughed, her eyes dancing. “I got a must-answer from SSC, asking what actor would best portray me in the series about us.”

“At least we won’t have to see it.”

She thumped the screen. “I keep thinking I’ll probably never see white curtains billowing into warm sunlit rooms on a lazy summer afternoon. We haven’t left yet, and already I’m nostalgic.”

“For me, it’ll be surfing.”

“Glory has oceans. A moon, pretty small. Maybe they have waves, too.”

“I didn’t bring my board.”

He saw the Arctic Ocean ice was at least visible, a heartening symptom of a planet slowly backing down from the Hot Age. The big chunk of Antarctica that fell off a century back and caused all the flooding was slowly regrowing, too. The Pacific islands were still gone, though, and might never appear again, worn down by wave action. No surfing there, ever again.

He noticed a phalanx of officers in blue uniforms and gold braid, standing smartly in ranks. Most were from the Oort crew and would not go out on SunSeeker, so were here for formality. The leaner Glory-bound crew stood behind the tall, craggy figure blinking into the spotlight but still quite sure he belonged there.

“Captain Redwing is about to speak,” a deck lieutenant’s voice boomed out over the speakers. They stood at sharp attention beneath the other banner proclaiming,

STAR-CRAVING MAD FAREWELL

Redwing was in full dress uniform with medals blazing, beaming at everyone, face ruddy. Cliff recalled he had divorced the wife who was to go with him, but he had not heard the inside story. Redwing kept his posture at full attention except for head dips to junior officers. He maintained a kindly smile, as if he were pleased the other officers were sharing their nice little thoughts. Still, he was an imposing man in uniform.

“A great exit line,” Cliff whispered, trying to edge inconspicuously toward the door. He cast a long look at Earth on the screen.

“Last night for separate quarters, too,” Beth said. “Would you like to stay over?”

“Wow, yes, ma’am.”

“I believe it’s customary.”

“Customary where?”

“Wherever it’s Saturday night.”

They threaded their way through the crowd, but the feeling still plucked at him. The noise and strumming music, the drinks and snog-fogs and quick darting kisses, faces lined and hopeful and sad, all passing by—but still, somehow, as if he wanted to freeze them in amber.

In an eerie way, this was like a . . . ghost story. All these support people, likable and irritating and officious and sexy and, soon enough—all dead. Left behind. When he and the other crew awoke in orbit around Glory, more than half of these would be centuries gone. Even with the standard life span of 160 years now, gone to gray dry dust.

It had never struck him this way. Not knowing it, but feeling it. All this greatness, the human prospect—all that would be far behind them when they next awoke.

Cliff smiled a thin pale smile and thought, This is the last time I’ll see Earth. He looked at the swimming majesty of it, sighed with a sense of foreboding, and followed Beth.

 

Bowl of Heaven © Larry Niven and Gregory Benford 2012

1 comment
Skip Lumley
2. Skip Lumley
High on concept but I experienced it as substantially unrealized. The ending was abrupt, unexpected and unsatisfying. I would have appreciated a cover 'warning' that this was the first volume of a multi-volume work.

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