Six million years ago, at the very dawn of the starfaring era, Abigail Gentian fractured herself into a thousand male and female clones: the shatterlings. Sent out into the galaxy, these shatterlings have stood aloof as they document the rise and fall of countless human empires. They meet every 200,000 years to exchange news and memories of their travels with their siblings.
Not only are Campion and Purslane late for their thirty-second reunion but they have also brought along an amnesiac golden robot for a guest. But the wayward shatterlings get more than the scolding they expect: they face the discovery that someone has a very serious grudge against the Gentian line, and there is a very real possibility of traitors in their midst. The surviving shatterlings have to dodge exotic weapons while they regroup to try to solve the mystery of who is persecuting them and why-before their ancient line is wiped out of existence forever.
Release date: April 21, 2020
Print pages: 512
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House of Suns
“To the future security of your civilisation and solar system, Mister Nebuly.”
“To your civilisation,” Purslane said, from the other side of the table.
“Thank you,” said Mister Nebuly.
We were sitting by the beach, enjoying wine on a warm evening. Night on the Centaurs’ world was not the same as on most planets. Since the world orbited a star heavy in ultraviolet radiation, Scapers had thrown a protective bubble around the atmosphere—a transparent shield that the Centaurs tolerated, as opposed to the armoured shell that would have been necessary if the House of Moths had moved their solar system. By day the bubble served only to screen out the rays and take the edge off that scalding blue brilliance. By night, it amplified the faintest star or gas cloud until the hues were intense enough to trigger the colour receptors in the human eye. The Milky Way was a luminous, many-boned spine arcing from horizon to horizon. A nearby supernova remnant was a smear of ruby red, dulling to sable at its curdled edges. The pulsar at its heart was a ticking lighthouse. An open cluster of blue stars, no more than a few hundred lights away, spangled like a clutch of electric gems. The dwarf stars within a few lights of this system were warm ambers and golds, promising life and sanctuary and the ten-billion-year stability of a slow fusion cycle. Even the Absence was visible: that thumb-sized smudge of starless, galaxyless darkness in the direction where Andromeda used to lie.
The sky was beautiful, as luscious as a drug-induced vision, but I did not care to be reminded of the Absence. It brought to mind my promise to Doctor Meninx, the promise I had so far failed to keep and which now hung by the slimmest of threads.
My only hope was that the Centaurs would come through.
“And you’re absolutely certain the stardam won’t give us any cause for concern in the future, shatterling Campion?” asked the four-legged being standing at our table.
“You can rest easy, Mister Nebuly. Your civilisation is safe again.”
“Not that it was ever in grave danger,” Purslane said, swirling the wine in her glass. “Let’s be clear about that.”
I smiled. “A leaking stardam’s not something you can ignore, but the fault is repaired. We installed it; we’ll fix it if it goes wrong. That’s how we do things in Gentian Line.”
“You can understand why we’re concerned. When the other survival options were presented to us, it was emphasised that repairing the stardam involved the minimum of risk.”
“And it did,” I said.
One and a half million years ago, a supermassive star within eleven lights of the Centaurs’ world had grown unstable. Rebirthers had attempted to siphon matter from the star’s core using wormhole taps, but the fierce densities and temperatures had thwarted the throat-stabilising devices that held the wormholes open. Scaper intervention could not protect the Centaurs’ biosphere. That left only two other options, apart from evacuation of the system. Mellicta Line, the House of Moths, were experts in the movement of stars. They offered to relocate either the star or the system, promising to accomplish either task for free provided they received exclusive trading rights with the Centaurs for the next two million years. Neither option was without risk. The point of moving a star was to eject it out of the galactic disc before it had a chance to explode, but the very act of movement had occasionally led to premature detonation. And while the Centaurs’ system could be moved, their planet would need to be encapsulated against interstellar radiation and debris for the duration of the voyage. This was deemed unacceptable by the Centaurs, who had a horror of claustrophobia.
At this point Gentian Line, the House of Flowers, had made the Centaurs’ acquaintance. Seeking prestige within the Commonality, we offered them the option of remaining where they were and being protected from the ailing star. A stardam would be erected around the supergiant. When the star blew up, its energies would be contained within the dam, trapped for ever inside a screen of perfect mirrors.
The Centaurs were naturally sceptical. But Gentian Line could point to some experience in this matter. If it had any specialisation within the Commonality, it was in stardams. We had been making them for dozens of circuits—millions of years.
At the time of the Centaur negotiations, no Gentian stardam had ever collapsed.
We could only take so much credit for this, of course. We made the dams, but all we really did was put together the ready-made components left behind by the Priors. They had done all the hard work. They forged ringworlds in their millions, large and small, then threw them like hoops around stars. Then they abandoned them and became extinct.
A billion or so years later, we began to collect them. We scour space for the occluding signatures of orphaned, starless ringworlds. We fix pushers to their dark sides and launch them across the galaxy at miserable, snail-like fractions of light. It must be done with care, lest the structures shatter into a trillion twinkling fragments. Ringworlds are immensely strong, but they are not indestructible. What they are is shiny. In fact, there is nothing shinier in the known universe. That mirrored inner surface reflects everything, including neutrinos that would happily sail through fifty light-years of solid lead.
To dam a star, to enclose it completely, would require the construction of a Dyson shell. Humans can shroud a star with a swarm of bodies, a Dyson cloud, but we cannot forge a sphere. Instead we approximate one by surrounding a star with thousands of ringworlds, all of similar size but with no two having exactly the same diameter. We make a discus and then start tilting, until each ringworld is encircling the star at a unique angle. The light of the star rams through the narrowing gaps as the ringworlds tighten into their final orientation. Shutters close on a fierce, deadly lantern.
Then suddenly there is no star, just a dark sphere. Inside that shell, the energies of the dying star are held in reflected fury, allowed to bounce back and forth between those flawless reflecting surfaces until, photon by photon, they gradually leak out into space at a harmless intensity.
It takes an unthinkably long time. Should the stardam collapse before most of that pent-up energy has been allowed to dissipate, the results would be more disastrous than the explosion the dam was designed to contain.
I had exaggerated when I said that we had saved the local civilisation, but that was not to say there had not been a problem with the stardam. One of its pushers—the engines that keep the ringworlds in check—had begun to fail. An eye-shaped gap had opened in the dam, allowing furious light to burn through.
I had been sent to repair it. A new pusher had followed Dalliance from the last reunion, tailing my ship like a loyal puppy. In my hold was the string of linked brass spheres called a single-use opener, a device keyed to that specific stardam which permitted limited adjustment of its nested mechanisms. Before visiting the Centaurs I had deployed the opener—it had shattered into glittery dust after emitting its graviton pulse—and installed the new pusher. Over the course of several days the eye had closed, the dam sealing over again.
Our work here was done. Purslane thought the decent, honourable thing would have been to leave without contacting the Centaurs, without soliciting their gratitude.
She was right, beyond any measure of doubt.
“You were right to pick the stardam,” Purslane said, doubtless aware that she was talking to the distant descendant of one of the creatures the Line had first done business with. “But you’re also right to express disappointment that the fault arose in the first place. You expected better of us.”
Mister Nebuly scuffed a hoof against the ground. “No great harm came of it.”
“Regardless, you have the Line’s apology, and our assurance that nothing like this will ever be permitted to happen again.” Purslane was making no secret of her being a Gentian shatterling as well. Though the Line frowned on the practice of consorting during circuits, our hosts had a well-earned reputation for discretion. “In the meantime,” she continued, “if there’s anything else Gentian Line can do for your civilisation, I’ll be glad to raise the matter at the next reunion. You’ve been gracious hosts—beyond anything we deserve. The arrangements you’ve made for our guest, Doctor Meninx—”
“Speak of the devil,” I said, lifting a pair of antique binoculars from the table.
“Is that him now?” asked Mister Nebuly.
“One and the same.”
“He’s travelling in a most curious contraption. What are those circular things along the side, turning round?”
“Wheels,” said Purslane.
“It’s his bathing machine,” I said.
The bathing machine was a rust-streaked black rhomboid mounted on four sets of independent undercarriage. It had emerged from the hold of my ship, descended the loading ramp and made its ponderous, plodding, smoke-belching way from the landing area, through the low, shuttered buildings of the sleepy seaside town, to the cracked concrete of the ancient revetments above the beach. Negotiating a steep slipway, it had crossed the sands and entered the water, continuing until the machine was submerged up to the depth of its wheels. At the front, a single door folded up onto the roof of the machine and allowed seawater to slosh inside.
The sea was the midnight blue of ink, awash with shimmering micro-organisms. The waves foamed pink and cerise when they dashed against the chrome-white sands. I levelled the binoculars at the seaward end of the bathing machine, hoping for a clear glimpse of Doctor Meninx as he emerged into the sea. Disappointed, all I saw was a barnacled form slipping away from the machine, vanishing beneath the surface before I could make out more than the rudimentary details. The door closed and the bathing machine crept back out of the water.
“Might I ask how you came by such an unusual specimen, shatterling? It’s been a very long time since we saw the likes of Doctor Meninx—several hundred thousand years, at the very least.”
“I can’t take any credit for him. He was foisted on me.”
“You make it sound like a punishment.”
“It was. The rest of my Line felt it would give me ample opportunity to demonstrate that I could shoulder responsibility, and put up with a difficult guest.”
Purslane said, “It was Campion’s bad luck, Mister Nebuly. Gromwell—another shatterling—showed up at our last reunion with Doctor Meninx as a guest. By then, Gromwell was looking for any excuse to fob him off onto someone else. That was around the time that Campion threaded a strand that happened to include a visit to the Vigilance.”
“You know all about the Vigilance,” I said.
Mister Nebuly looked to the sky, in the approximate direction of the Absence. He wore a tight-fitting pinstripe suit that reached down to the point where his human torso merged seamlessly with the groomed chestnut of his horse body. “This and that, shatterling. Which is not to say we’ve ever had direct contact with them.”
Purslane sipped her wine. “The thing is, it turned out that Doctor Meninx’s ultimate goal was to reach the Vigilance. Apart from being a staunch Disavower, he fancies himself a scholar of remote history.”
“Which is how Campion came to be burdened with the doctor’s presence,” Mister Nebuly said.
“In addition to monitoring the stardam, I was told to ferry Doctor Meninx to the Vigilance and use my contacts there to secure him privileged scholar status—unrestricted access to the deep archives, that kind of thing. They don’t much like Disavowers, and they definitely don’t like aquatics, but it was assumed I’d be able to talk them around.”
Mister Nebuly flexed his torso to look out to sea again, a thoughtful expression appearing on his face. “One can only conclude that you were not entirely successful in that venture, shatterling?”
“No, everything’s still on track,” I said. “Since this was the doctor’s last chance for a swim before the Vigilance, he jumped at it. I second Purslane’s thanks for making the necessary arrangements, by the way.”
The Centaur waved a dismissive hand at the twinkling barrier on the horizon, beyond which Purslane’s hovering ship—much too large for the landing area—rose like a tarnished silver moon. “It was nothing. There are no large predators in this ocean, but for your guest’s peace of mind it was a simple matter to establish the impasse across the bay. I just hope we adjusted the salinity to his tastes.”
The conversation lulled. Mister Nebuly had not come up to our table to pass the time of day. He was here to tell me what value he placed on the items I had offered for sale. Much depended on his offer, though I was doing my utmost not to let him know it.
“It was good of you to open your trove for examination,” Mister Nebuly said.
I nodded encouragingly, while Purslane maintained a tense, diplomatic smile. “I hope you found something of interest in it.”
“I found much of interest in it. You have travelled far, traded intelligence with other starfarers and amassed a great deal of knowledge, much of it of considerable rarity. It was a privilege to sift through your data.”
“And did you find anything in there that you might like to purchase?”
Mister Nebuly shifted on his iron-shod hooves. “I did find several things, shatterling, but I must confess that much of what you have to offer is not of direct value to me, despite its rarity. If you had arrived twenty kilo-years ago, things might have been different. But it is only eleven since we were visited by a shatterling of Gentian Line, and only two since a Marcellin was in our airspace.”
“Those Marcellins get everywhere,” Purslane said, through tight lips.
“The items that did interest you…”
“I have a breakdown here,” the Centaur said, reaching into a pocket of his business suit to remove a handkerchief-sized square of material. He flicked it open and it enlarged to the width of our tabletop. He let it hang in the air, where it hovered against the breeze. It was a series of tabulated columns, in the written variant of Tongue.
The Centaurs had been known to Gentian Line for more than eight circuits. They were the thirteenth form of human to live in this system, having emerged from the post-civilisational ruins of the last culture. They owned this system and the handful of scaped worlds inside it, but had never ventured further than their cometary halo. Their main world was a panthalassic, a superoceanic planet smothered in water, with a thick, blue atmosphere containing photo-disassociated oxygen. Scapers had thinned out that atmosphere and made it less corrosive, dropped floating landmasses onto the world-enveloping sea and scattered a multitude of hardy pelagic organisms into that sterile ocean. The planet’s gravity had never been adjusted, which was why the Centaurs had attained their present, sure-footed form. They had a dim recollection of where they had come from, which was more than could be said for all postemergents. According to the statistical forecast of the Universal Actuary, they stood an excellent chance of persisting for at least another one or two million years, provided their ambitions remained modest. In the long run, the best strategy for cultural longevity was either to sit tight in a single system, or become like the Lines, entirely unshackled from planetary life. Expansionism worked for a while, but was ultimately futile. Not that that stopped new emergents from trying, even when they had six million years of sobering history to mull over.
We called it turnover: the endless, grinding procession of empires. The Centaurs had done well not to climb onto that wheel.
“As you can see,” Mister Nebuly said, “our offers are not unreasonable.”
“No, your terms are very generous,” I said. “I was just hoping you’d bid for some of the larger items in the trove.”
“I wish that were possible. Unfortunately there would be little sense in bidding for data we already possess.”
“Are you absolutely certain we can’t find some middle ground?”
“We are inclined to generosity, shatterling, but there have to be limits. We feel that these terms are fair. It’s a shame that your trove does not contain more of value to us, but that does not preclude you from visiting us again, when you have something new to offer.” The Centaur paused, three of his hooves in full contact with the ground, the rear left touching only by its tip. “Would you like a moment alone, to discuss our offer?”
“If you wouldn’t mind.”
“I shall return shortly. Would you like some more wine?”
“We’re fine,” I said, raising a hand.
Mister Nebuly turned and trotted away along the curving road that lay on this side of the revetments. In the distance stood two other Centaurs, dressed in red uniforms and carrying the pennanted staffs of some civic guild.
Mister Nebuly joined his compatriots and watched us patiently.
“We’re doomed,” I said, not really caring if my words were intercepted.
Purslane finished off her wine. “Could be worse. He’s prepared to offer you something.”
“Not enough to make a difference.” Parked in orbit around the Centaurs’ world was an assortment of second-hand ships, most of which were up for sale. If Nebuly had liked enough of the data in my trove, he could have made me an offer sufficient to buy one of those vehicles. With a faster ship, I could have kept my promise to Doctor Meninx and made it back to the reunion only slightly later than anticipated. “I suppose I could hold out, see if he changes his mind.”
“He’d have to change it a lot. He could double his offer and it wouldn’t buy you a quarter of one of those ships. The best thing we can do now is take Mister Nebuly’s money. You can’t replace Dalliance, but you can still upgrade some of her systems.”
“It won’t make her faster.”
“I’d settle for safer, if I were you. If you turn him down, we might as well never have come here. We could have gone straight to the Vigilance and got fish-face off our backs.”
It was as if Doctor Meninx had heard Purslane, for as she spoke the bathing machine bellowed its engine and began to labour back into the sea, clouds of filthy smoke emerging from slats in its rear. I watched as the door swung up and water sluiced in. I half-considered raising the binoculars again, but my curiosity had dissipated. The barnacled form crested the waves momentarily and vanished back into the bathing machine. The door clammed down and the machine began to crawl back onto dry land.
“There’s another possibility,” I said quietly.
Purslane looked at me with practised scepticism. “There always is, where you’re concerned.”
“Before we landed I had a look at the nearby systems, just in case Mister Nebuly wasn’t as forthcoming as I’d hoped. Less than a hundred lights from here, and more or less on our way home, is a place called Nelumbium. According to the trove—”
“‘According to the trove.’ Where have I heard that before?”
“Hear me out. There’s supposed to be an entity, a posthuman, called Ateshga. He’s supposed to have ships, a lot more than Nebuly, and he’s unlikely to charge as steeply.”
“Why didn’t we go there first?”
“The trove entry isn’t as up to date as I’d like, so there’s an element of uncertainty.”
“An element. I’ve heard that before as well.”
“Also, it would have taken us even further from the Vigilance—if we’d gone straight to Nelumbium, there’d have been no possibility of dropping off Doctor Meninx.”
“If the trove isn’t up to date, what’s to say Ateshga’s there at all?”
“I ran the Actuary—the prognosis looked good.”
Purslane leaned back in her wickerwork seat, measuring me with those mismatched Gentian eyes. “So what you’re proposing is, you limp to the Vigilance, deliver the doctor, then continue to Ateshga.”
“Actually… no. What I’m proposing is, I skip the Vigilance completely.”
The hard notch of a frown ate into her brow. “Leave him here?”
“The choice’ll be his. If he wants, I’ll take him all the way back to the reunion world.”
“He won’t like it.”
“He doesn’t like anything—haven’t you noticed?”
A thin figure was stalking across the sand from the direction of the bathing machine. As the walker neared, climbing the crumbling steps up to the road, it revealed itself to be a paper cut-out of a harlequin, inked in watery diamonds. The two-dimensional figure—which resisted the breeze just as effectively as Mister Nebuly’s hanging sheet—was a humanoid avatar of Doctor Meninx. At the same time as the avatar approached, Nebuly left the red-suited centaurs and started trotting back in our direction. He arrived first, the avatar still a good hundred metres away.
“Might I assume that you’ve reached a decision, honoured shatterling?” he asked.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to turn you down,” I said. “I’m not saying your terms aren’t generous, but I have to be realistic. I think I can get a better deal for my trove somewhere else.”
“If you are thinking of Ateshga, I’d caution against it. He has a very bad reputation.”
I scratched sand from my eyes. “Ateshga—who’s he?”
“Merely a warning, shatterling—it’s up to you whether you heed it.” He brushed his hands against the breast of his pinstripe suit. “Well, I am sorry we could not close a deal, but it won’t stop us parting as friends. We are very happy that you visited our world, and I trust your stay here has been rewarding.”
“It has,” Purslane said. “You’ve been excellent hosts, Mister Nebuly; I’ll be sure to put in a good word for you with the rest of the Line.”
“That is very kind of you.” He turned around to greet the approaching avatar, bowing slightly from the point where his human torso joined his horse body. “You finished your swim very quickly, Doctor: I trust all was satisfactory?”
“No,” the avatar said in his high-pitched, piping voice. “The swim was very far from satisfactory, which is why I aborted it at the earliest opportunity. There were things in the water—dark, moving things that my sonar could not easily resolve—and the temperature and salinity were not at all to my tastes.” The paper face bent in my direction. “I was given to understand that you had communicated my needs to the relevant authorities, Campion.”
I shifted on my seat. I had told the Centaurs what the doctor needed, and I had no doubt that they had done their best to meet his requirements. Nothing was ever good enough for Doctor Meninx, though; no effort ever sufficient.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I must have mixed up the figures. All my fault, I’m afraid.”
“I shall lay the blame where I choose to lay it,” the avatar said. “And I was so looking forward to my swim. But what’s done is done; shortly I shall take my leave of this dreary world and continue my odyssey to the Vigilance. Perhaps they will know the fit way to treat a guest.”
“I’m sure Mister Nebuly did his best,” I said.
“Yes, he probably did,” the avatar said, as if our host was not present.
The moment, the one I had been dreading since Mister Nebuly had delivered his verdict on my trove, was now upon me. I could postpone it no longer, though at that instant there was nothing I would rather have done than walk into the sea and swim all the way to that twinkling horizon, where, depending on the effectiveness of its setting, the impasse would have dissuaded, rebuffed, stunned, wounded or simply annihilated me.
“Doctor Meninx,” I said, after drawing a deep, invigorating breath, “there’s something we need to discuss.”
It would be a mistake to say that Campion was lazy, laziness being a trait that Abigail went out of her way to scrub from our personalities. But Campion was certainly a masterful prevaricator. He did not just put things off until tomorrow; he put them off for tens of kilo-years, until his delays and evasions consumed significant chunks of an entire circuit. His motto might have been Why do today what you can still do in a quarter of a million years?
He had got away with it for thirty-one circuits, too. But now this business with Doctor Meninx was going to make up for that glorious streak of good luck. Campion joked about censure and excommunication, as if to immunise himself from those outcomes. But the Line’s tolerance of his antics had been wearing perilously thin for several circuits, which is why he had been saddled with Doctor Meninx in the first place. He should have discharged that obligation as urgently as possible, instead of dilly-dallying from star to star with the doctor still aboard.
It was a short hop from the Centaurs’ system to Nelumbium—barely ninety years of flight by planetary time—but it was still necessary to enter some form of abeyance. Campion preferred stasis; I—much to his incomprehension—preferred to be frozen and thawed. As soon as the cryophagus released me, I called up the information from Silver Wings’ sensors, and apart from a whisper of residual energies—which might mean only that a ship had passed through this system in recent centuries—there was no evidence at all of human habitation.
No Ateshga, no ships.
Once I had digested Silver Wings’ analysis, I whisked over to Dalliance, then up-ship to the bridge, where Campion and Doctor Meninx were already waiting for me. Campion was seated, reclining back in one of the couches, while the avatar stood close to him. They were both facing the enormous, illuminated wall of the displayer. Although I could not make out their words, the acoustics of the bridge were such that I could tell they were lost in quiet, slightly strained conversation, a petulant or defensive note rising every now and then.
I did not need to be told what they were talking about.
Most of the displayer was filled with a plan-view of the Milky Way, based on the trove’s knowledge of real conditions. The spirals were traced with wispy filaments of white and yellow, ochre and tan and dulling, fire-brick orange, with the individual stars too countless to separate, discernible only by their groupings into associations, streams and clusters. The only stars one saw as distinct entities were the very brightest: end-phase supergiants burning their way to supernova, or Tauri-phase youngsters, glaring out of that barred spiral in hot blues and venomous reds.
The main disc, excluding the outer band of the Monoceros Ring, was ninety thousand lights across. Settled worlds spread from the core to the outermost extremities of the spiral arms, but the highest density of human habitation was in the thick band of the Comfort Zone, the region where planets required the least adaptation to make them liveable. Provided it stayed within the Zone, a ship could circumnavigate the galaxy in two hundred kilo-years and still have time to stop off at a hundred systems en route. That was a circuit, the two-hundred-kilo-year interval between Gentian reunions.
The last reunion world had been a planet on the coreward extremity of the Norma Spiral Arm. Since then we had travelled clockwise, looping out to cross the Local Spur, passing within a thousand lights of the Old Place, then diving back through the Sagittarius, Scutum-Crux and Perseus Arms, before returning to the other side of the Scutum-Crux Arm. A wavery red line traced our progress. The Centaurs’ panthalassic had been in Scutum-Crux, and the distance we had travelled since then was barely a scratch against the scale of the spiral, not even enough to take us out of the arm. Marked in dashed red was the distance we still had to travel to make it to the reunion; it was less than a thousand lights in the direction of the Sagittarius Arm.
In circuit terms, we were nearly home. Yet as far as our punctuality was concerned, it may as well have been ten thousand lights, or ninety thousand.
We were going to be late, very late, and that was very much not the done thing.
“Ah, here comes the lovely Purslane,” said Doctor Meninx, his voice rising to a note of shrill indignation. “She will lend a sympathetic ear to my complaints even if you choose not to, Campion. Is that not so, Purslane?”
“I don’t know, Doctor Meninx. What exactly are you complaining about?”
“Need I explain?” the avatar said, raising a limp origami arm in the direction of the displayer. “Once again Campion has let me down! Not only did he fail to deliver me to the Vigilance, not only did he attempt to fob me off on those stinking, ill-mannered horse-people with their revolting bodily habits, not only did he stand by as I nearly drowned in their horrid, flotsam-infested bay, but now he has the temerity to tell me that I will not even return to the reunion in time to be entrusted to someone else’s better care!”
“I didn’t say that,” Campion replied, sounding like a man drained of argument. “All I said was that we might be just a tiny bit late.”
“And this reunion of yours—they will delay starting it until you have arrived?” The avatar’s tone was needling. “Is that what you are telling me?”
“I can’t make any guarantees. If Ateshga’s here, and if he agrees to
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