Eternity’s Mind

Available September 13th from Tor Books, Eternity’s Mind is the climactic final book in Kevin J. Anderson’s Saga of Shadows Trilogy, which began with The Dark Between the Stars.

Two decades after the devastating Elemental War, which nearly destroyed the cosmos, the new Confederation restored peace and profitable commerce among the peoples and worlds of the Spiral Arm. But peace was not to last. The malevolent Klikiss robots soon found an ally in the ancient and near-omnipotent Shana Rei, destructive creatures who are the personification of darkness and chaos, awakened after millennia of slumber to destroy all sentient life in the universe.

The Confederation and the Ildiran Empire fought in every way possible, but the Spiral Arm itself seemed doomed. All across the transportal network, space is tearing apart, the links between the gateways are breaking down, the fabric of space unraveling. The worldtrees are dying, entire planets are englobed in impenetrable black barriers erected by the Shana Rei, and the murderous taint has infiltrated the Ildiran race as well as Mage-Imperator Jora’h himself.

Desperate for stardrive fuel to power the military and all space travel, the industrialist Lee Iswander has been extracting ekti—the blood of the cosmos—from mysterious giant nodules found floating in empty space, draining these “bloaters” dry by the thousands. But in doing so, is he weakening the only ally that all of civilization may have against the Shana Rei?

 

 

Chapter 1
MAGE-IMPERATOR JORA’H

The sky was full of fire.

Crackling balls of flame hovered above the crystalline towers of the Prism Palace. The faeros—elemental entities that lived within stars—had arrived in all their chaotic destructive glory, summoned by the agony of a madman who believed the fiery creatures would protect the Empire against the Shana Rei.

Mage-Imperator Jora’h stood among his awestruck people in the plaza, looking up at the entities that blazed brighter than the seven suns. He wished he had been able to stop Rusa’h from making such a deadly summons. Jora’h could feel the throbbing terror that emanated from his people … terror that he himself felt, but he quashed it so the reverberations would not tremble out through the thism. Every Ildiran could feel what their Mage-Imperator felt, and now more than ever Jora’h had to feel strong, brave, confident.

It seemed impossible.

Jora’h had led the Empire through many disasters, including the previous invasion when the faeros had destroyed cities, incinerated countless people. And Rusa’h had just called them back, blithely assuming the Mage-Imperator could control and guide them against the creatures of darkness.

The fireballs clustered high in the Ildiran sky, but even here down in the Foray Plaza Jora’h could feel the blistering heat. Many people had fled into buildings, while others gathered outside to share their strength with Jora’h, a strength that he sorely needed.

Beside him, his consort Nira shuddered but controlled herself. She grasped his hand. “We have to do something before they attack.”

Their daughter Osira’h, who had once controlled the faeros at the end of the Elemental War, said, “Rusa’h’s death-agony summons has made them listen—for the first time.” She shook her head, still staring upward. “Rod’h and I tried to ask for their help, but the faeros fled. We cannot control them. They are terrified of the Shana Rei.”

Her friend Prince Reynald of Theroc also stood close, along with the Kellums, a Roamer family rescued from the planet Kuivahr. The refugees had come here to be safe from the Shana Rei, but now they might all be wiped out by a different enemy.

The faeros pulsed in the sky, flames crackling around their incandescent cores. Waiting. Jora’h stared at the fireballs until his eyes ached. He knew that mad Rusa’h had called them here for him. “They are waiting for me. I have to go.”

“But I am the one who can communicate with them,” Osira’h interrupted. “Let me do it.”

Alarmed, Prince Reynald grabbed her arm. “It’s too dangerous.”

She shook her head, and her face was drawn. “It is all too dangerous! But we have to survive.”

“How will the Empire survive, unless I can make this work?” Jora’h said, exuding a confident determination he did not feel. “The faeros are waiting for me, the Mage-Imperator. I will go.”

His heir, Prime Designate Daro’h, stood in the crowd. The faeros had burned during their previous conquest of Ildira, and his voice reflected his tension. “They will burn you, Father, steal your soulfire—the Ildiran soulfire. That is what they want. They are hungry!”

“No,” Osira’h said, sounding uncertain. “They are … terrified.”

“As we all are.” Jora’h embraced his beloved Nira. “As destructive as the faeros may be, the Shana Rei are worse. They mean to wipe out all life.” He paused. “If there is any chance the faeros will help us, I must be the one to face them. Rusa’h may not have been wrong.”

In his Solar Navy uniform, Tal Gale’nh looked grim, recalling his own recent military battles against the creatures of darkness. His unnaturally pale skin flushed under the blazing heat. “The Shana Rei want to erase the Galaxy—perhaps the universe itself.”

Jora’h stepped away from his loved ones. “If I do not succeed…” He let his words hang for a long moment; then he turned to Daro’h. “Then you will become Mage-Imperator sooner than you expected. Lead the Empire well.”

As he strode toward the Palace, he could feel threads of hope from the crowd woven together into a lifeline through the thism. Everyone watched him, believed in him … and Jora’h had to believe in himself. He would face the fiery elementals, knowing they shared an even more fearsome enemy.

Entering the Prism Palace, he climbed staircases that brought him to the highest pinnacle. He stepped out onto the wide rooftop that had once held a botanical garden including small worldtrees that Nira herself had planted. The light and heat from the faeros were blinding.

The air crackled, and he sensed the elementals’ hot and blazing presence reaching out to him. The air smelled of smoke and death—but not from the elementals. This was where Rusa’h had set the greenhouse on fire and immolated himself amid the burning trees so that his agony issued a summons that even the faeros could not ignore.

As the Mage-Imperator stepped through the crumbling ashes of the greenhouse and past Rusa’h’s blackened bones, he called out. “I need your help! We all do. The Shana Rei will destroy us, and they will destroy you—unless we fight.”

In ancient history, Mage-Imperator Xiba’h had also allied with the faeros and saved the Empire from the Shana Rei. This time, though, the creatures of darkness were attacking more than just planets. Their black nebulae oozed through space; their hexagonal ships struck the Solar Navy and tore apart colonies, and they were infiltrating the thism network itself. Jora’h had felt the darkness inside him, and he had seen possessed Ildiran mobs wreaking bloody havoc. He could not predict or control the shadows, but as the center of the entire thism network, Jora’h knew that their taint had reached into him as well.

The swirling faeros dropped closer, their pulsing flames like a wall pressing him down, trying to intimidate him. When he called upon the thism, he saw the shadows there. Despite the blazing light of the faeros fire and the seven suns in the Ildiran sky, the Mage-Imperator felt cold inside.

 


Chapter 2
CELLI

Like a great polished jewel, the Roamer terrarium dome drifted against the background of ionized gases. The Fireheart nebula was a canvas of color, its gases illuminated by the clump of hot supergiant stars at its core.

Inside the greenhouse, the green priests Celli and Solimar monitored the crops that provided fresh produce for the Roamer workers at Fireheart Station. The two green priests also tended the pair of huge, groaning worldtrees trapped under the dome. Touching one of the nearby branches, Celli stared through the crystal panes, and shielded her eyes from the nebula glare. This place was so different from her home in the worldforest.…

Roamer industrial operations were scattered across the nebula like pebbles in a cosmic stream. Giant scoops harvested rare isotopes and exotic molecules that had been cooked by the central blue supergiant stars. Energy farms captured the solar flux in vast thin films that would be packaged into power blocks.

Fingers brushed Celli’s face, and she turned to see Solimar standing close, looking intently at her. He was handsome and well muscled, his head completely hairless like hers, his skin the rich green of the healthiest plants. The two were connected by their thoughts and their love, and their shared concerns. The enormous worldtrees pressed against the curved terrarium ceiling, hunched and stunted, and still growing from the flood of energy that poured in. But the trees had no place to go.

Solimar did not need telink to know Celli’s heart. “I can feel them, too. My joints and back ache—and it is their pain, not ours. They want to burst free.”

The worldtrees were part of the verdani mind, a vast interconnected organism that spread across the Spiral Arm. As Celli stroked the gold-scaled bark of a suffering, cramped tree, she felt that these two were more than just insignificant trees like millions of others. “Sometimes I find it hard to breathe. I feel trapped and claustrophobic—for them. The trees know we can’t save them.”

When she connected her mind through telink, all other green priests knew her thoughts and concerns. For their sake Celli tried to hide her despondency about the doomed trees, but it did no good. Despite their best efforts, they could think of no way to save them. By now, it was too late. So much else was happening in the Spiral Arm that few people were concerned about two trees.

Celli placed her fingers on a transparent pane, looking out at the expansive nebula, and Solimar placed his hand over hers. “Do you see any change where the Big Ring was?”

She shook her head. “It’s still just a giant hole in the universe.”

“Because of the accident, more scientists will come to study that rift. One of them might have an idea of how to help the trees.”

Celli looked at the black gash across the nebula field. “They’ll come only if it remains stable. The rift might tear open wider, and the void could swallow Fireheart Station, along with the terrarium dome and our trees. I wonder what’s on the other side.”

Kotto Okiah’s Big Ring research project, which had taken years to build and cost an immense fortune, had failed catastrophically during its first test. From inside their dome, Celli and Solimar had watched the giant torus collapse, tearing a hole in the fabric of space itself. No one quite understood what had happened, or what sort of threat the gap might pose. The idea sent a chill through Celli’s heart.

In response, the twisted worldtrees shuddered with dread. She could feel pain coiled inside the enormous trunks, and the trees could not escape, could not growy anymore inside their crystalline cell.…

She said, more to reassure Solimar than herself, “I’m sure someone will figure out how to rescue our trees.”

Kotto’s two young lab assistants, Shareen Fitzkellum and Howard Rohandas, arrived at the greenhouse in a small shuttle from the admin station. Once presented with the problem of rescuing the trapped worldtress, Kotto had delegated these two to find a possible solution.

Celli and Solimar went to greet the two teenagers and immediately saw that they did not bring any miraculous solutions. Celli drew a deep breath, smelled the rich dampness of the bottled-up worldforest. Shareen and Howard were young, but Kotto insisted they were brilliant. Celli continued to hope. “Have you made any progress?”

“We’ve tested the materials of the dome, the underlying structure,” Shareen said.

“And the trees themselves.” Howard presented a pad filled with unfathomable calculations. Celli could have dipped into the verdani mind and combed through the engineering expertise compiled over many years, but instead, she said, “What did you find?”

“We thought there might be a way to tow the whole greenhouse to a nearby terrestrial world, using Ildiran stardrives. That way the trees could take root, grow as large as they like,” Shareen said, then looked away and lowered her voice. “But this structure was never designed for stresses like that.”

“Also the bow shock of dust at the edge of the nebula would offer too much turbulence.” Howard looked pained at not having a better answer for them, but he pointed to the calculations as if to give himself strength.

Shareen straightened, crossed her arms over her chest. “The greenhouse wouldn’t survive being moved out of the Fireheart nebula, so your trees are stuck here. Sorry. The option of taking them to a planet is off the table.”

Celli looked up at the stirring fronds. Soon—very soon—the dome would no longer hold them. The trees would either break and die, or they would burst through the crystalline prison walls … and die.

“Thank you for trying,” Solimar said as the two left, dejected and guilty.

“We’ll keep thinking,” Shareen called. “We might still come up with something.”

“We will,” Howard said.

“We know you will,” Solimar answered.

“I won’t leave our trees,” Celli said after the two were gone. She felt a stinging burn in her eyes and a gap in her heart that seemed as empty as that black gateway in space.

As green priests, their duty was to tend the trees and preserve them. She and Solimar had given up so much when they’d left Theroc to come here, because the Roamers needed green priests for communication. And now Celli’s duty might be to die here with the trees.

“We will find a way to save them.” Solimar released one hand from the golden-barked trunk to caress her arm. “And us.”

“We have to,” Celli answered, determined.

In the middle of the blazing nebula, the black dimensional gateway throbbed with shadows.

 


Chapter 3
ARITA

The worldforest had never seemed so threatening. Arita and Collin felt trapped as they confronted a manifestation of darkness that they had never imagined.

Collin challenged the ebony figure in front of them. “You are no longer a green priest, Kennebar.”

The leader of the isolationist green priests faced the two of them in the empty dwelling high up in the branches of a dying worldtree. Kennebar’s skin was flawless obsidian instead of a vibrant emerald, like Collin’s. Kennebar was a humanoid figure entirely infused with night, his eyes as dark as the void between the stars. Even his mouth was just a hollow opening.

“I am more than a green priest, now,” Kennebar said, “for I have seen into the void. The thoughts of the Shana Rei are like a shout, and the thoughts of the verdani are a mere whisper by comparison.”

Collin stood his ground before the dark voidpriest. “You betrayed the worldforest. Look at the damage you caused—it’s all around you!”

“The worldforest is insignificant.” Kennebar’s voice was cold and hollow. “There is so much more.…”

Arita stood firm beside Collin, who raised his voice in defiance. “You are nothing!”

She had gone with her friend to investigate the sudden disappearance of the isolationist priests, as well as the gulf of silence that had appeared in the telink network. With the sprawling worldforest and the connected verdani mind, there should have been no place to hide, yet Kennebar’s followers had vanished.

Although Arita was not a green priest, Collin had told her about the alarming gaps. Entire sections of the forests were dying off—he and Arita had seen them with their own eyes—yet the other green priests seemed oblivious to the disaster. Overconfident in their connection with the verdani mind, they couldn’t conceive that such a tremendous secret might be able to slide past them.

“We should have brought reinforcements with us,” Arita said to Collin in a low voice.

They stood side by side, in the upper boughs of the large worldtree, where the isolationists had lived and slept high off the ground. Collin’s former companions were gone now. Had they been captured and contaminated by the shadows that infiltrated the worldforest mind—just as Kennebar had been?

“The void is nothing,” Kennebar said in a ponderous voice, “and the emptiness is everything. The Shana Rei wish to bring back entropy, chaos … nothing and everything. And the voidpriests will assist them by unraveling the worldforest mind.”

More tainted green priests emerged from the interwoven fronds or climbed down from higher branches: the rest of Kennebar’s followers. The priests were also as black as oil, moving with the silence of shadows.

Arita felt a fresh jolt of alarm. She and Collin had no way to fight the ravenous darkness, and she was sure Kennebar would not let them go.

“Collin will join us, as will all other green priests.” Kennebar turned his frightening ebony face toward Arita. “But this one has been found wanting. She must be discarded.”

A shudder passed through her, partly from her own fear … but partly from surprise. Deep inside her mind, she heard a distant voice, yearning, intense and mysterious … something that was not of the trees at all. A call? It was not connected to the telink communication network, and she had to find what it was, hoping it might be some unexpected ally.

“I don’t need to be reminded that the trees rejected me,” she said in a voice that shook with anger. But what had Kennebar meant about discarding her?

When they were younger, she and Collin had both tried to become green priests. The trees had tested them, accepted and converted her friend—but not Arita. Nevertheless, the trees had altered her mind somehow, before sending her away. Arita had always regretted her failure to become part of the green-priest community. Did these traitorous voidpriests mean to kill her now?

“You will not touch Arita,” Collin said.

Kennebar said, “When you are a voidpriest, we will let you kill her.”

Fourteen black silhouettes of once-faithful green priests pressed closer, moving as if they had all the time in the world. They prevented Arita and Collin from fleeing.

In her head, Arita heard that distant whispering again, but it passed along no discernible thoughts beyond alarm and foreboding. She knew it was not the voice of the trees, but a different entity entirely.

She heard the fronds rustling, saw movement above. The black voidpriests glanced up as a swarm of figures appeared—diminutive humanoid creatures with smooth gray skin and large eyes. They moved so quickly and nimbly that they reminded Arita of spiders. The Onthos.

“Help us,” she cried out. “Stop them!”

The refugee aliens had once tended another distant worldforest that was destroyed long ago by the Shana Rei. The last hundred Onthos survivors, the only remnants of their race, had come to Theroc seeking sanctuary. Because the green priests and the verdani vouched for the aliens, King Peter and Queen Estarra had granted them sanctuary, letting them make a new home here in the uninhabited continent of the Wild.

Arita counted at least a dozen aliens emerging to join the ominous voidpriests. They squatted on the fronds above; they swung down from the branches; they came close while Kennebar and his companions stood like shadow people, imprisoning Arita and Collin.

“Help us,” Collin said to the Onthos.

Arita’s hope upon seeing the Gardners changed as the aliens merely stared at them, as if they were insects. She had always thought of the Gardeners as friendly and cooperative, unquestioned allies, because they too had been victims of the Shana Rei. Ohro, their leader, had said that he sensed something in Arita, a connection with that strange voice in her mind, but he had offered no explanation.

Now, the aliens just regarded Arita and Collin as if they were lacking somehow.

Then, as if content with what they’d seen, the Onthos skittered away, climbing along the worldtree branches and disappearing high above, leaving Collin and Arita painfully alone.

The voidpriests closed in.

Excerpted from Eternity’s Mind © Kevin J. Anderson, 2016

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