Shipstar (Excerpt)

and

Science fiction masters Larry Niven and Gregory Benford continue their thrilling adventure of a human expedition to another star system with Shipstar, the sequel to Bowl of Heaven, available April 8th from Tor Books!

The expedition is jeopardized by an encounter with an astonishingly immense artifact in interstellar space: a bowl-shaped structure cupping a star, with a habitable area equivalent to many millions of Earths. And which is on a direct path heading toward the same system the human ship is to colonize.

Investigating the Bowl, or Shipstar, the human explorers are separated—one group captured by the gigantic structure’s alien inhabitants, the other pursued across its strange and dangerous landscape—while the mystery of the Shipstar’s origins and purpose propel the human voyagers toward discoveries that transform their understanding of their place in the universe.

 

 

 

ONE

 

Memor glimpsed the fleeing primates, a narrow view seen through the camera on one of the little mobile probes. Simian shapes cavorted and capered among the understory of the Mirror Zone, making their way to—what? Apparently, to the local express station of mag-rail. Very well. She had them now, then. Memor clashed her teeth in celebration, and tossed a squirming small creature into her mouth, crunching it with relish.

These somewhat comic Late Invaders were scrambling about, anxious. They seemed dreadfully confused, too. One would have expected more of ones who had arrived via a starship, with an interstellar ram of intriguing design. But as well, they had escaped in their scampering swift way. And, alas, the other gang of them had somehow evaded Memor’s attempt to kill them, when they made contact with a servant species, the Sil. So they had a certain small cleverness, true.

Enough of these irritants! She would have to concentrate and act quickly to bring them to heel. “Vector to intercept,” Memor ordered her pilot. Their ship surged with a thrumming roar. Memor sat back and gave a brief clacking flurry of fan-signals expressing relief.

Memor called up a situation graphic to see if anything had changed elsewhere. Apparently not. The Late Invader ramship was still maneuvering near the Bowl, keeping beneath the defensive weapons along the rim. From their electromagnetic emissions, clearly they monitored their two small groups of Late Invaders that were running about the Bowl. But their ship made no move to directly assist them. Good. They were wisely cautious. It would be interesting to take their ship apart, in good time, and see how the primates had engineered its adroit aspects.

Memor counted herself fortunate that the seeking probe had now found this one group, running through the interstices behind the mirror section. She watched vague orange blobs that seemed to be several simians and something more, as well: tentacular shapes, just barely glimpsed. These shapes must be some variety of underspecies, wiry and quick. Snakes?

The ship vibrated under her as Memor felt a summoning signal—Asenath called, her irritating chime sounding in Memor’s mind. She had to take the call, since the Wisdom Chief was Memor’s superior. Never a friend, regrettably. Something about Asenath kept it that way.

Asenath was life-sized on the viewing wall, giving a brilliant display of multicolored feathers set in purple urgency and florid, rainbow rage. “Memor! Have you caught the Late Invaders?”

“Almost.” Memor kept her own feather-display submissive, though with a fringe of fluttering orange jubilance. “Very nearly. I can see them now. The primate named ‘Beth’ has a group, including the one I’ve trained to talk. I’m closing on them. They have somehow mustered some allies, but I am well armed.”

Asenath made a rebuke display, slow and sardonic. “This group you let escape, yes?”

“Well, yes, they made off while I was attending to—”

“So they are the escaped, I take it. I cannot attend to every detail, but this was a plain failure, Attendant Astute Astronomer. They eluded you.”

Memor suppressed her irritation. Asenath always used full titles to intimidate and assert superiority—usually, as now, with a fanrattle. “Only for a short while, Wisdom Chief. I had also to contend with the other escaped primates, you may recall, Your Justness.”

“Give up everything else and get us that primate who can talk! We need it. Don’t fire on them. If they die, you die.”

Memor had to control her visible reaction. No feather-display, head motionless. “Wisdom Chief? What has changed?”

No answer. Asenath’s feather-display flickered with a reflexive blush of fear, just before she faded.

She was hiding something… but what? Memor would have to learn, but not now. She glanced at the detection screen, ignoring her pilot. Beth’s group had disappeared into a maze of machinery. There were heat traces in several spots, leading… toward the docks. Yes! Toward another escape.

There had been six of these Late Invaders when they escaped. Now the heat traces found only five, plus some slithering profiles of another species. Had one died or gone astray? These were a social species, on the diffuse hierarchy model, so it was unlikely they had simply abandoned one of their kind.

“Veest Blad,” she said to the pilot, “make for the docks. We’ll intercept them there. Fast.”

 

two

Tananareve Bailey looked back, face lined, sweat dripping from her nose. Nobody behind her now. She was the last, almost keeping up. Her injuries had healed moderately well and she no longer limped, but gnawing fatigue had set in. She was slowing. Her breath rasped and her throat burned and she was nearly out of water.

It had been a wearing, sweaty trip through the maze she thought of as “backstage.” The labyrinth that formed the back of the Bowl’s mirror shell was intricate and plainly never intended for anybody but workers to move through. No comforts such as passageways. Poor lighting. Twisty lanes a human could barely crawl through. This layer underpinning the Bowl was the bigger part of the whole vast structure, nearly an astronomical unit across—but only a few meters thick. It was all machinery, stanchions, and cables. Control of the mirrors on the surface above demanded layers of intricate wiring and mechanical buffers. Plus, the route twisted in three dimensions.

Tananareve was sweating and her arms ached. She couldn’t match the jumping style of her companions in 18 percent gravity without a painful clicking in her hip and ribs. Her pace was a gliding run, sometimes bounding off an obstructing wall, sometimes taking it on her butt—all assisted by her hands. It demanded a kind of slithering grace she lacked.

Beth, Lau Pin, Mayra, and Fred were ahead of her. She paused, clinging to a buttress shaft. She needed rest, time, but there was none of that here. For a moment she let the whole world slide away and just relaxed, as well as she could. These moments came seldom but she longed for them. She sighed and… let go.…

Earth came to her then… the quiet leafy air of her childhood, in evergreen forests where she hiked with her mother and father, her careless laughter sinking into the vastness of the lofty trees. Her heart was still back there in the rich loam of deep forests, fragrant and solemn in the cathedral redwoods and spruce. Even in recalling it all, she knew it had vanished on the tides of time. Her parents were dead for centuries now, surely, despite the longevity treatments. But the memories swarmed up into her as she relaxed for just a long, lingering moment.

Her moment of peace drained away. She had to get back to running.

In the dim light, she could barely make out the finger snakes flickering ahead of the long-striding humans. They had an amazingly quick wriggle. Probably they’d been adapted through evolution to do repairs in the Bowl’s understory. Beth had gotten fragments of their history out of the snakes, but the translation was shaky. They’d been here on the Bowl so long, their own origins were legends about a strange, mythical place where a round white sun could set to reveal black night.

“Beth,” Tananareve sent over short-range comm, “I’m kinda… I… need a rest.”

“We all do,” came the crisp reply. Beth turned up ahead and looked back at her, too far away to read an expression. “Next break is five minutes.”

“Here I come.” She clamped down her jaw and took a ragged breath.

Their target was an automated cargo drone. The snakes had told of these, and now the bulkheads and struts they passed were pitched forward, suggested they were getting close. Up ahead, as she labored on, she could see it emerge, one in a line of identical flat-bellied cylinders. Tananareve could see the outline of a great oyster-colored curved hatch in its side, and—was that? Yes!—stars beyond a window wall. She felt elation slice through her fatigue. But now the hip injury had slowed her to a limping walk.

Without the finger snakes, this plan would have been impossible.

She limped up to the rest of them, her mouth already puckering at the imagined taste of water. The three snakes were decorated in camouflage colors, browns and mottled blacks, the patterns almost the same, but Tananareve had learned to tell them apart. They massed a bit more than any of the humans, and looked like snakes whose tails had split into four arms, each tipped with a claw. Meaty things, muscular, slick-skinned. They wore long cloth tubes as backpacks, anchored on their ridged hides.

Beth’s team had first seen finger snakes while escaping from the garden of their imprisonment. Tananareve surprised a nest of them and they fled down into deep jungle, carrying some cargo in a sling. The snakes were a passing oddity, apparently intelligent to a degree. Her photos of them were intriguing.

Now it was clear the finger snakes must have tracked and observed their party ever since. When Fred led the humans to an alien computer facility, they were not in evidence. Fred had found a way to make the computer teach them the Bird Folk language. Among his many talents, Fred was a language speed-learner. He got the quasilinear logic and syntax down in less than a day. Once he had built a vocabulary, his learning rate increased. A few more days and he was fluent. The whole team carried sleep-learning, so they used a slip-transfer from Fred’s. By then he had been somehow practicing by himself, so it was best that he got to talk to the snakes first.

They just showed up, no diplomacy or signposting. Typical snake character—do, don’t retreat into symbols or talk. When the finger snakes crawled through the door, somehow defeating Lau Pin’s lock, Fred said hello and no more. He wasn’t exactly talkative either—except, as he often rejoined, when he actually had something important to say.

So after his hello, and a spurt of Snake in reply, Tananareve was able to yell at them. “Give you honor! We are lost!”

Five snakes formed a hoop, which turned out to be a sign of “fruitful endeavor commencing.” Tananareve made a hand-gesture she had somehow gotten from the slip-transfer. This provoked another symbol, plus talk. Formal snake protocol moved from gestures and signs into the denser thicket of language. Luckily, the highest form of Snakespeech was a modified Bird Folk structure that stressed lean and of sinew as virtues, so their knotted phrases did convey meaning in transparent, staccato rhythms.

The finger snakes were rebels or something like it, as nearly as Tananareve could untangle from the cross-associations that slithered through Snakespeech. Curious, also. Humans were obviously new to their world, and therefore they began tracking the human band in an orderly, quiet way shaped by tradition. The snakes worked for others, but retained a fierce independence. Knowledge was their strong suit—plus the ability to use tools of adroit shape and use. They went everywhere in the Bowl, they said, on engineering jobs. Especially they maintained the meters-thick layers between the lifezone and the hard hull. In a sense, they maintained the boundary that separated the uncountable living billions from the killing vacuum that waited a short distance away.

The snakes wanted to know everything they could not discover by their intricate tracking and watching. They knew the basic primate architecture, for their tapering “arms” used a cantilevered frame that bore a warped resemblance to the human shoulder. This, plus a million more matters, flew through their darting conversations. Snakes thought oddly. Culture, biology, singing, and food all seemed bound up in a big ball of context hard to unravel. But when something important struck them, they acted while humans were still talking.

When it was clear that humans would die if they stayed at low gravity for too long, the finger snakes led them here: to a garage for magnetically driven space vehicles. Snake teams did the repairs here.

 

One of the finger snakes—Thisther, she thought—clicked open a recessed panel in the drone, so the ceramic cowling eased down. Thisther set to work, curling head to tail so his eyes could watch his nail-tipped fingers work. The wiry body flexed like cable. Phoshtha turned away from him, on guard.

Tananareve was still guessing at genders, but there were behavior cues. The male always seemed to have a tool in hand, and the females were wary in new surroundings. Thisther was male; Phoshtha and Shtirk were female.

Phoshtha’s head dipped and curled as she turned around, seeking danger. Shtirk wasn’t visible; she must be on guard. Tananareve sensed no obvious threats, barring, perhaps, a whistling just at the edge of her hearing.

Phoshtha wriggled to meet her. “Thisther knows computersspeak,” she said. “King of computers = persons. Will write thrust program for us quick, person-comp-adept, she is. Are you sick?”

“Was injured,” Tananareve said. “Not sick. Am healing.” Both spoke in Bird talk, its trills and rolled vowels chiming like a song.

“Is well we know.”

The curved side of the cargo drone slid up with a high metallic whine. Green verdant wealth. The drone was filled, jammed with vegetation—live plants standing forth in trays, rich hanging streamers. Lights in the curved ceiling glared like suns. Thisther continued to work, and suddenly trays were sliding out and falling. Half the trays had piled up on the deck when it stopped.

“Keep some plants. Air for us while we travel,” Phoshtha said. She wriggled away.

Lau Pin jog-hopped in the light grav, springing over to help Tananareve. “You okay? Shall I carry you?”

“I’m fine. What’s that whistling?” It was loud and now had a low rumble to it.

“We need to get aboard,” Lau Pin said, glancing around at the snake teams at work. “Quick.” He tried pulling her along by her belt, desisted when he saw her pain.

Tananareve walked over to a copper-hued wall, leaning against its warmth. The finger snakes chattered in their jittering bursts and oozed across the platforms with wriggling grace. She studied them amid the noise, and… let herself go.

She was back in the leafy wealth she had grown up in and, yes, knew she would never see again. She allowed her head to tilt back and felt her spine kink and lapse as it straightened and eased. Amid metal and ceramics, she thought of green. This odd construction they were moving through, a weird place bigger than planets, had its own version of green paradise… and was the only reason she had survived in it. The vast, strange canopies with their chittering airborne creatures; the stretching grasslands and zigzag trees; animals so odd, they threw her back into her basic biology—they were all natural in some way, yet… not. Someone had designed their setting, if not their species.

Those sprawling lands of the Bowl had been tolerable. These mechanical labyrinths below the Bowl’s lifesphere were… not. She had seen quite enough, thank you, of the motorized majesty that made such a vast, rotating artifact. Rest, that was her need now. She had to descend into blissful sleep, consign to her unconscious the labors of processing so much strangeness.

She let go slowly, head lapsing back. Easing was not easy, but she let herself descend into it, for just a moment before she would get up again and stride off, full of purpose and letting no soft moments play through her… Just for a while…

“Looks like the male is finished playing with the controls,” Lau Pin called.

Dimly she sensed the snakes moving by her. Thisther wriggled into the hold… then Phoshtha and Shtirk.

Tananareve came out of her blissful retreat slowly. Voices echoed odd and hollow around her. Lead infected her legs; they would not move without great strain. She made herself get unsteadily up onto two uncertain feet. Clouds in her mind dispelled slowly—something about green wealth, forests of quiet majesty, her parents…

She made her chin snap up, eyes fluttering, back on duty… and slowly turned to survey the area. Where’s Beth?

Clouds still grasped at her. Breathe deeply, keep it up.

Tananareve strode off to check around some angular buttress supports. No human about.

The snakes had crawled into the ship, fitting somehow into open spaces. Lau Pin jogged to join them. He glanced back at her, waved a hand, turned, went away.…

Still there were clouds. She listened intently as she tried to put one small foot in front of the other. Remarkably difficult, it was.

Rumbling, sharp whistling, chatter. Tananareve walked a bit unsteadily back toward the ship. Her vision was blurred, sweat trickling into her eyes and stinging.

The great curved door closed in Tananareve’s face.

“Hey,” Tananareve said. She stopped, blinked. Clouds swept away on a sudden adrenaline shock—

“Wait!”

The drone slid out of line and away, slow at first, then faster and faster.

“Dammit!” she shouted. “Damn—” She couldn’t hear herself over a whistling roar. Hot air blasted her back.

 

“Wait!” Beth Marble shouted. She could feel the acceleration building. The finger snakes were wrapped around support pillars, and her crew were grabbing for tie-downs. She found handholds and footholds while thrust pulled massively at her.

She wailed, “Tananareve!”

“She was sick,” Phoshtha said, recessed eyes glittering. “Thrust would have killed her. She would have slowed us.”

“What? You let—” Beth stopped. It was done; handle the debriefing later, in calmer moments. The snakes were useful but strange.

They were accelerating quickly and she found a wedge-shaped seat. Not ideal for humans, but manageable. There was little noise from the magnetics, but the entire length of the drone popped and ponged as stresses adjusted.

Lau Pin said, “I have SunSeeker online.”

“Send Redwing our course. Talk to him.” Beth couldn’t move; she was barely hanging on to a tie-down bar. “Use our best previous coordinates.”

“Okay. I’m having it compute from the present force vectors.” Lau Pin turned up the volume so others could hear. “Lau Pin here.”

“Jampudvipa here, bridge petty officer. Captain Redwing’s got some kind of cold, and Ayaan Ali is bridge pilot. What’s your situation?”

“We’re on our way. It went pretty much as we’d planned. Hardly anything around on the way but finger snakes. We’ve got three with us. Uh… We lost Tananareve Bailey.”

“Drown it,” the officer said. “All right. But you’re en route? Hello, I see your course… yeah. Wow. You’re right up against the back of the mirror shell.”

“Jampudvipa, this drone is driven by magnets in the back of the Bowl. Most of their ships and trains operate that way, we think. It must save reaction fuel. We don’t have much choice.”

Some microwave noise blurred the signal, then, “Call me Jam. And you don’t have pressure suits?”

“No, and there’s no air lock. No way to mate the ships.”

A pause. “Well, Ayaan says she can get SunSeeker to the rendezvous in ten hours. After that… what? Stet. Stet. Lau Pin, we can maybe fit you into the bay that held Eros before we lost it. If not… mmm.”

Lau Pin said, “The finger snakes don’t keep time our way. I think it’s longer for us. I’ll make regular checks and send them.”

“We’ll be there. And you all need medical assistance? Four months in low gravity, out in the field—yeah. We’ll have Captain Redwing out of the infirmary by then, but it only holds two. Pick your sickest.”

“Would have been Tananareve.”

 

The drone was gone. The system’s magnetic safety grapplers released with a hiss. Tananareve stood in the sudden silence, stunned.

A high hiss sounded from a nearby track. She turned to find a snake to stop the drone, call it somehow—and saw no snakes at all. All three had boarded the drone. Now the shrill hiss was worse. She stepped back from the rising noise, and an alien ship came rushing toward the platform from a descending tube. It was not magnetic; it moved on jets.

Tananareve looked around, wondering where to run. The ship had a narrow transparent face and through it she could see the pilot, a spindly brown-skinned creature in a uniform. It looked not much bigger than she was and the tubular ship it guided was enormous, flaring out behind the pilot’s cabin. The ship eased in alongside the main platform, jetting cottony steam. Tananareve wondered what she should do: hide, flee, try to talk to—?

Then, behind huge windows in the ship’s flank, she saw a tremendous feathered shape peering out at her, and recognized it. Quick flashing eyes, the great head swiveling to take in all around it, with a twisted cant to its heavy neck. She gasped. Memor.

 


Shipstar © Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, 2014

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