Check out Transcendental, a space adventure by James Gunn, available August 27th from Tor Books!
Riley, a veteran of interstellar war, is one of many beings from many different worlds aboard a ship on a pilgrimage that spans the galaxy. However, he is not journeying to achieve transcendence, a vague mystical concept that has drawn everyone else on the ship to this journey into the unknown at the far edge of the galaxy. His mission is to find and kill the prophet who is reputed to help others transcend. While their ship speeds through space, the voyage is marred by violence and betrayal, making it clear that some of the ship’s passengers are not the spiritual seekers they claim to be.
Like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a number of those on the starship share their unique stories. But as tensions rise, Riley realizes that the ship is less like the Canterbury Tales and more like a harrowing, deadly ship of fools. When he becomes friendly with a mysterious passenger named Asha, he thinks she’s someone he can trust. However, like so many others on the ship, Asha is more than she appears. Uncovering her secrets could be the key to Riley’s personal quest, or make him question everything he thought he knew about Transcendentalism and his mission to stop it.
The voice in Riley’s head said, “You almost got us killed.”
Riley looked around the waiting room. Terminal was the jumping-off place for anyone wanting to go farther out. There wasn’t much farther out, but he and an odd-assortment of passengers were heading there in search of something he was pretty sure didn’t exist.
The debris from the barbarian Minal attack had been cleaned up, but the reason for the attack was unclear. Maybe it was the weather here on the equator, first freezing cold, then wet and hot.
“April is the cruelest month,” his pedia said, “breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”
His pedia said things like that, and other things he found more comprehensible and less benign. “What is ‘April’?”
“A thousand years ago people on Earth used that word to designate a time of renewal when plants started to grow again after their winter death,” his pedia said. “When humanity ventured out among the stars, they brought words along that had little meaning there. Except war. That means the same everywhere.”
“I was born on Mars.”
“Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,” his pedia said.
Riley ignored it, as he often did when it gave him nonsense from its immense mass of stored information. Maybe it was talking about the pilgrimage he and the others were soon to embark upon if the authorities here ever let them board the climber.
A few hours ago the barbarians who lived in the wild mountains attacked Terminal City and battled their way almost to the spaceport. They killed hundreds of civilized Minals and a few outworlders as well, including a couple of humans. Riley himself had dispatched half a dozen of the barbarians when they approached the barricaded port, shooting them in their vulnerable underbellies as they reared up to launch their spears and arrows, and killing the last one with his knife when it fought within reach.
Riley had questioned Minal officials, but their answers were the equivalent of a human shrug: none of the Minal knew what the raiders wanted, or they were reluctant to speculate, or the Minals and the outworlders had reached a communication impasse. To add to his woes, after the attack was over and a semblance of order restored, the Minal officials had been unable to explain why passengers in the spaceport had been forced to wait as much as forty-eight hours for their transfer to the ship orbiting above, or when they might be able to depart.
The attackers took no booty and no slaves as they withdrew, only their wounded. Maybe they wished to delay the pilgrimage or to kill the pilgrims. Maybe the officials and the barbarians were working together. The announcement of the pilgrimage had aroused almost as much opposition as the rumors of transcendentalism itself.
Riley looked around. The waiting room was small—no more than twenty meters square—and cluttered with refugees from dozens of alien worlds. They had been living here in the waiting room and some of them had slept here, and their trash had piled up under the seats, the pedestals that passed for seats if you were built differently, and the supports used by some species. The odors of strange spices and fetid emissions were a miasma on the air currents; the way it smelled depended upon your origins and your organs. The far wall was transparent except for a cloudy portion in the lower lefthand corner where a barbarian arrow had nicked it and a couple of bullet holes had not been repaired. Through the holes seeped the decay of the Terminal tropical jungle. Beyond was the spaceport out in the bay with its standard space elevator like an almost-invisible black beanpole ascending into the clouds above; a climber waited at its base. Beyond that lay the Terminal jungle, green and orange and blue masses of vegetation ending at the mountains that entirely surrounded this basin except on the ocean side. Behind the mountains the reddish Terminal sun was setting in a gulf between the clouds. Afterward would come the Terminal night, far blacker out here in this remote region of the spiral arm than that on Mars.
Riley turned his attention back to the waiting room and its occupants, trying to identify who was a pilgrim and who was here on some other business. Playing this kind of game forced him to pay attention to details. No matter what the people who had implanted his pedia thought, he was no superhero. He was a survivor, and he had survived so far by paying attention. Most creatures didn’t. Most creatures died sooner than they should.
That heavy-planet alien standing on a tripod of its two trunk-like legs and its thick tail: it had been a stalwart in the fight against the barbarians, hurling them aside with ease and sustaining cuts that seemed to heal as they were being sustained. It was not paying attention now, with two of its eyes closed and its short proboscis swaying. Riley didn’t think it was a pilgrim: heavy-planet aliens already thought they were perfect. It was probably a trader or an envoy, or maybe even a vacationer enjoying the exhilaration of low-gravity worlds.
A tank with treads, like a motorized coffin, stood in front of the window—a poor location for a creature whose fragile life-support system needed this kind of protection. The tank was decorated with engraved designs that Riley would have liked to examine more closely, but alien sensitivities were unpredictable. He had no desire to cause interspecies conflict, but the tank, for that’s what it most closely resembled, piqued his curiosity, if for no reason other than its unusual exterior. The tank had no windows, no obvious means of observing the outside world, as if the outside world was irrelevant or the occupant, if there was an occupant at all. It was impossible to discern anything at all about the interior of the tank. For all he knew, the tank itself might itself be the alien creature; or, if there was an alien within, it might already be dead or near-dead and being sustained by some high medical art.
On the other side of the window stood a tall, spindly creature, its head, like a yellow flower in the heat of the day, nodding forward on a stem-like neck. Several extensions protruded from its body, like stems; fluids could be observed coursing through them and up the torso that was scarcely larger than the extensions. Riley would have thought it no good at all in a fight, but during the barbarian attack, he had noticed it slicing the armored neck of a barbarian with one swing of an arm.
A couple of small, wiry humans sat together. One was dark-haired, the other, blond. Riley couldn’t be sure what gender they were. Maybe they weren’t sure, either. Riley judged them to be members of the space crew. They moved a bit sluggishly on-planet, but they had acquitted themselves well against the barbarians, acting decisively, efficiently, and cooperatively.
The next person he saw was a small alien who reminded Riley of pictures he had seen of weasels—a pinched muzzle of a face, if it was a face, and small, shifty eyes, if they were eyes. It had fought like a weasel, darting in and out to deliver fatal blows with a knife. It might be, he thought, another space crew member, or maybe a pilgrim. He inspected and catalogued others before he came to the woman. She sat on a pack of belongings to his left and to the right of the weasel-like alien. There were thirty-seven in the waiting room, not counting the Terminal officials—a couple other human males; a barrel-like Sirian with small, hooded eyes and a round hole for a mouth; an Alpha Centauran with a feathery topknot, a fiercelooking beak, and vestigial wings; and several whose home world he could not identify. He had saved the woman until last. She sat like a cat, relaxed but lithe, as if she could spring into action at a touch. She had dark hair and blue eyes, a combination that was striking even if she wasn’t beautiful—her features were regular and her eyes were large, but they moved restlessly; moreover her mouth was too firm and her chin too set. But somehow she seemed just right for what she was and Riley thought he would like to know her, and maybe he would. She was a pilgrim, he thought, and she had accounted for as many barbarians as he had.
He was still pondering her status, when the heavy-world alien woke up, or perhaps had not been asleep after all. It clomped across the floor to the platform that served the quadruped Minals for a desk and said something that Riley’s pedia translated as “My name is Tordor, and we will leave now!”
Tordor would be someone to watch.
Within minutes the announcement came over the P.A. system in Galactic Standard that the climber would depart in half an hour. It was more like an hour.
The climber was primitive, no more than a huge metal box with grippers, as befitted a frontier planet. On more advanced planets, climbers offered private rooms, food, and windows to view the planet below or the starry sky above, and sometimes canned entertainment on viewers of various sorts. Here pedestals and seats lined the walls, with a single window on each side; otherwise the walls were bare. A cubicle at one end provided privacy for creatures that required it for elimination or ingestion, and a large open area in the middle left space for creatures that rested lying down. Dispensers at the end farthest from the privy offered several kinds of fluids but no solid food. Instructions told travelers to bring their own nourishment, and to provide their own protection against thieves and predators.
The climber was a cattle car and the passengers were cattle. The trip to geosynchronous orbit would take seven days; it had started an hour ago with a subtle jar and a grinding noise from the grippers. If the waiting room had been odorous, the climber was worse. It smelled already. More than half of the creatures from the waiting room were crowded in, including the heavy-planet alien. It stood in front of Riley.
A series of grunts came from it that Riley’s pedia translated as “I am Tordor. That is not my real name, which is not suitable for your voicing system. I am designated after my planet of origin, in the galactic custom.”
“Tordor,” Riley said. “Good work back there.” Tordor could take that as either a compliment on his fighting during the barbarian attack or his ultimatum to the officials.
Grunts: “You, too.” The barbarian attack, then; the ultimatum was SOP. “Protective association is wise.”
“I agree. But how do we trust each other?”
Grunts: “We enlist others. You pick one. I pick another. Two each. One from each always on guard.”
“Good,” Riley said. He approached the woman. “My name is Riley. This is Tordor. We’re forming a protective association for the trip up, and you’re invited to join.”
“I’ll take care of myself,” she said. Her voice was low but confident.
“And a good job you’ll do, too,” Riley said cheerfully. He led Tordor to the two space crew types, who introduced themselves as Jan and Jon, although it wasn’t clear which was which. They accepted.
Tordor picked the flower-headed alien. It produced a swishing sound by swinging its stem-like extensions. His pedia identified the swishing sounds as language but could not interpret. “It is from Aldebaran,” Tordor grunted. “Self-identified as flower child four one zero seven. It accepts.” Tordor went on to the coffin-shaped vessel, which had trundled onto the climber under its own power, and stood silently near one end. “This creature does not identify itself,” Tordor grunted, “and spurns our offer of association.”
Tordor completed his part of the group with the bird-headed Alpha Centauran. Neither Tordor nor Riley proposed approaching the weasel, but Riley suggested keeping an eye on it, and perhaps on the Sirian as well.
At the end of thirteen hours they had climbed more than sixteen hundred kilometers. In the last hour, standing at the window, he had watched the sky turn black and the stars appear—paltry as they were. He saw Terminal become a partial sphere and felt gravity slowly drop to what felt like about 50 percent. The loss of weight improved his energy levels and his spirits, which always were depressed by the thought of trusting his life to a meter-wide film or the centimeters-thick window through which he gazed. He looked around and saw that even the pachyderm-like Tordor moved with something approaching grace.
They conversed briefly about organization and the deficiencies of bureaucracies.
“Hierarchies are far more efficient,” Tordor said.
“Democracies encourage progress,” Riley said.
“Progress is bad,” Tordor said.
“The galactic powers agree,” Riley replied.
“No more wars,” Tordor said.
“We can agree on that,” Riley said. The wars had nearly destroyed the galaxy before the various sapient species had decided to make a peace that allowed no one to gain an advantage on pain of everyone else ganging up on them. Tordor, from a heavy planet with a hierarchical organization based not on birth but on seniority, believed in stasis, in keeping everything, people, culture, politics, the way they had always been, maybe because Tordor’s culture thought it would survive the centuries and others would fall.
Tordor was a pilgrim; Riley had been wrong about that. But Tordor didn’t say why.
By the time Riley felt it wise to get some sleep he had gotten acquainted with Jon and Jan. Jon was the dark-haired one, Jan, the light-haired. They were space crew hired to serve on the starship Geoffrey. Riley didn’t like the name of the starship; he never liked ships with people names, even if they were human names.
Previously the brothers? Sisters? He couldn’t tell . . . had worked on a freighter, but some months earlier they had jumped ship. He had been right about them, anyway, although he had never heard of anyone jumping ship in space; it didn’t seem possible unless they had been given planet leave, and who would give or accept leave on a planet as barren of attractions as Terminal?
Neither Jon nor Jan volunteered any information about gender, and Riley didn’t ask. Before they arranged sleep times, the members of Riley and Tordor’s protection association agreed on a rotation for keeping watch. Riley took the first one and woke Jan for the second. Before he went to sleep, with his head upon his single bag of belongings and his hand upon the gun tucked under it, he told Jan to keep his—or her; he still wasn’t sure which—back against the wall and to watch everybody, Tordor included.
He awoke suddenly with his hand around the wrist of the weaselfaced alien.
The weasel made a gesture that could have been a shrug of apology and retreated to a corner. Riley looked at his hand. It was still holding the weasel’s arm. The end of the arm—it was not quite a hand— had a knife in it. The other end wasn’t bleeding, as if the blood vessels had immediately shut down. Riley looked behind him. Jan was slumped on the bench, asleep or unconscious. The flowerheaded alien stood on hairy, rootlike feet a couple of meters away, its head drooping.
Riley dropped the arm with the knife still clutched in what passed for a hand and got to his feet. Jan was still breathing. Riley felt his pulse and smelled his breath. Jan had been administered a subtle soporific, Riley’s pedia told him; it would degrade into harmlessness in an hour.
He shook Jon awake and pointed to Jan. “He’ll be okay,” Riley told Jon. “No thanks to you,” he told the flower child. It did not acknowledge his words. Maybe it too had been sedated, but Riley’s pedia provided no insights into alien physiologies.
By this time Tordor had opened his eyes. The large alien took in the scene with a quick swivel of its head. “So,” he grunted. “It begins.”
Riley picked up the arm and carried it across the floor to the corner where the weasel-faced alien crouched. “I think this is yours,” he said.
The weasel accepted the arm and laid it at its own feet. It said something that sounded like modulated whistling. Riley’s pedia didn’t interpret, but Tordor grunted, “It says it saw your guards asleep. It feared someone would do you harm.”
“Tell it I regret detaching its arm,” Riley said.
“No matter, it says,” Tordor reported. “Arms easy, life hard.”
Riley laughed. He was beginning to feel a sneaky admiration for the weasel’s bravado.
When he got back to his sleeping place, the dark-haired woman was sitting nearby. “It could have killed you,” she said.
“You saw it?”
“I don’t need much sleep. I see a lot of things.”
“And you didn’t think it was worth warning me?”
“It was none of my business. If it killed you, it would be because you weren’t tough enough to survive. And if you’re going to be a pilgrim, you’ll need to be tough. Only a few of us will survive.”
What makes her so sure about that? He kept his question to himself.
“Who said I was going to be a pilgrim?” So she was a pilgrim, as he had thought, and if he could keep her talking, he might get a better idea of where she fit in with this pilgrimage crowd.
“You’re here,” she said. “It didn’t intend to kill you.”
“How do you know?”
“It had the opportunity before you awoke.”
“That’s what it said. It said it was protecting me.”
“It was the only creature that approached you.”
“Thanks,” Riley said. He didn’t want her to think he needed help in figuring out what the weasel wanted. Neither did he tell her that his pedia had awakened him as the weasel approached and that he had pretended sleep until the last moment.
But he didn’t know what the weasel wanted. He thought about it as he and Jon tried to revive Jan. Whoever had put Jan to sleep also may have had something similar for the flower child, but that implied a level of preparation that challenged belief. Of course the flower child could be part of the conspiracy, and could have administered the knockout chemical to Jan and only pretended to be asleep.
When Jan stirred, stretching and yawning and apparently feeling no aftereffects of the drug except guilt, he/she/it had no memory of anyone approaching or any sting of injection or an odor other than the universal stink. “I’m sorry,” it said.
“They were ready for us,” Riley replied.
“Whoever they are.”
“It won’t happen again,” Jan said, and Jon nodded in agreement. “We’ll be ready for them.”
“Get some sleep,” Riley said.
“It’s still my watch,” Jan said.
“I don’t feel sleepy,” Riley said.
When he sat down on the bench Jan had vacated, Tordor was rocking back on its tail a meter or so away, but its eyes were open, looking at Riley.
“What did you mean,” Riley asked, “ ‘So it begins.’ ”
“Long journey,” Tordor grunted. “Many perils. Many die. Many wish pilgrimage to fail.”
“Many forces,” Riley said. “Many motives.” His pedia processed the words as a series of Tordor-like grunts, which led Riley to respond in the same sort of clipped syntax as Tordor. The pedia needed time to translate languages with which it was unfamiliar.
Tordor waved his proboscis in a gesture that swept the room.
“Right,” Riley said. “Who are pilgrims? Who are anti-pilgrims?” Maybe, he thought, there are no legitimate pilgrims at all. Maybe they were all attempting to sabotage the pilgrimage. That would be an irony even the transcendental gods could enjoy.
They conversed for another hour, partly keeping awake, partly feeling each other out. As best they could in their limited common vocabulary, they discussed the reasons why this new religion might create universal fear.
“Surely,” Riley said, “every creature, every species, wants to be more than it is.”
“Not so,” said Tordor, “since only a few could transcend—if transcend possible at all—and leave other species behind.”
“We have a myth,” Riley said, “of the hero who ventures into a region of supernatural wonder, encounters fabulous forces, wins a decisive victory, and comes back with the power to bestow boons.”
Tordor replied, “We have story like that but ours is leader blessed by the gods who pass their god-gifts to leader’s tribe.”
Riley studied the elephantine alien. “And yet you venture forth.”
“My elder commands,” Tordor grunted.
They fell silent, and soon Tordor had rocked back upon its tail and closed its eyes. Riley looked around. The flower child was standing straighter now. Perhaps it was conscious again, if it ever had been unconscious. Jan and Jon were asleep at his feet. The weasel-like alien was huddled in the far corner, his abandoned arm at his feet, apparently unmissed, but the knife the arm had held was gone. The coffin-shaped alien had moved a meter or so during all the activity. Riley had not seen it in motion. The woman sat on a bench a few meters away, her legs drawn up against her body with her arms folded across them and her eyes looking at Riley. When their gazes met she didn’t look away.
And Riley knew that in his bag was an innocent object he had not placed there. The weasel had put it there before the attack, and the attack, if that was what it was, had been a diversion.
Riley awakened to a sense of danger. He had fallen asleep sitting up, in a chair, his bag under his feet. He hadn’t intended it, but three days of alert readiness, except for that brief hour or so before the weasel approached, had caught up with him. Or maybe he had succumbed to the same strange soporific that had affected Jan. Now his pedia had awakened him again. Jon and Jan were asleep nearby. The flower child’s head was drooping once more, and the Alpha Centauran was crouched beside the frame, his top feathers alert. Tordor was still asleep, rocked back on its tail. The woman sat in the same position, her knees drawn up. She still looked in his direction.
Something was wrong.
The woman felt it, too. Her arms clasped her legs tighter. Her eyes were wider, and her expression seemed to ask, “What woke you? What is about to happen?” Or maybe she had a pedia of her own.
Nothing had changed. No, the alien coffin had moved again. Now it was against the far wall. But that alone was not alarming.
Then he understood. The speed of their travel had increased. Not enough to change Riley’s feeling of gravity but enough for his pedia to detect, as well as the small increase in the noise of the ancient motor powering their ascent with the aid of the focused laser beam from beneath.
Something exploded! The climber was beyond the atmosphere, and no noise reached them, but Riley felt the impact on his feet and his buttocks. His bag rose in the air and thumped back to the floor as the climber began to gyrate and its passengers were tossed from side to side like bags of grain.
Riley reached out to grab Jon and Jan and tugged them to the bench. “Hang on!” he said. He turned to help the woman, but she had her legs under the bench and her hands gripping the edge as she dodged flying bodies.
The space-elevator ribbon had parted—or had been parted. But the climber wasn’t falling. It was being pulled upward like a weight on the end of a long string. The release of the ribbon’s tension had imparted a wild swing to the climber, and the counter-balancing weight on the other end was plunging them toward outer space.
At least they were not falling. That was hopeless doom. But being flung into space in their barren box was only doom delayed.
The flower child stood in its frame, alert and swaying. The Alpha Centauran grasped the frame for support. The weasel flew past toward the other end, followed by its arm, but it swung itself around like an acrobat so that its legs could absorb the impact. The alien coffin seemed to have anchored itself against the far wall.
Riley dodged Tordor as the other hurtled past, and into the wall beside him. The heavy-planet alien was too big and too dense to try to stop. But Tordor braced itself on its legs and tail, facing the wall.
The violent motion began to slow as the pull from above dampened their gyrations.
“Something wants to stop this pilgrimage,” Tordor grunted.
“Something seems to have succeeded,” Riley replied.
“Who’d want us dead?” Jon asked.
“Yeah,” Jan said.
“Maybe it’s one of us,” Riley said. “The alien in the box over there, the woman, Tordor here, me . . .”
“The ribbon was cut below,” Tordor grunted.
“Who is to say?” Riley responded. He did not tell Tordor about the change in the rate of the climber’s ascent before the explosion. If that had not happened, the ribbon would have parted ahead of them instead of beneath. Someone knew enough about the climber’s motor and how to change its speed, and about the explosive charge and when and where it would be set off.
“What’s going to happen to us now?” Jan asked.
“Yeah,” Jon said.
From his feeling of weight, Riley judged that their speed was increasing. “We’re going to fly into space with enough velocity to leave this system. Of course that will take a millennium or so, and by then we all will be dead. In fact, even if we brought a lot of provisions, our food won’t last for more than seven days, and air and water not much more than that.”
“Gee,” Jon said. “I never knew one of these strings to fail.”
“Yeah,” Jan said.
“It didn’t fail,” Riley said. “It was blown apart.”
“Golly,” Jan said.
“Yeah,” Jon said.
“We’re going to go on a pilgrimage, all right,” Riley said, “but it wasn’t the one we intended.” He looked at the woman. He knew she had heard the conversation, but she didn’t say anything. She had straightened out her legs, though. Her feet were on the floor and her hands held the edge of the bench.
Riley continued to look around the room, to take stock of the effects of the explosion. Two aliens had been killed in the gyrations of the climber, a third had broken a leg, and a fourth had lost a tentacle. The half-dozen informal self-protection groups combined efforts to treat injuries and ration supplies and protect individuals from predation. Clothing and other materials were shared with those who suffered from the increasing cold.
Through all the mutual aid, Riley kept thinking it was all useless, like maintaining law and order when the wave front of a supernova was scheduled to arrive in a few days.
Seventy-one hours of desperate fatigue and soreness later Riley felt a thump and the increased weight of deceleration. Creatures fought for a place at the windows, but only blackness, without stars, could be seen. An hour later, he heard more thumps, followed by the sound of the release of the airlock door beyond the privacy room. The fetid air inside the climber was invaded by the only slightly less fetid air of a spaceship.
“Boys,” Riley said to Jon and Jan, “we’ve been saved.”
They emerged, one by one, into the airlock of a ship. A party of space crew greeted them with food and drink and blankets, and received Jon and Jan with particular warmth.
Riley recognized one of them. He wore the insignia of a spaceship captain.
“Hello, Ham,” he said.
“Up to your old tricks, Riley?” the captain said.
“Thanks to you,” Riley said.
Transcendental © James Gunn 2013