The Arthur C. Clarke award-winning author of Children of Time brings us an extraordinary space opera about humanity on the brink of extinction, and how one man's discovery will save or destroy us all. The war is over. Its heroes forgotten. Until one chance discovery . . . Idris has neither aged nor slept since they remade him in the war. And one of humanity's heroes now scrapes by on a freelance salvage vessel, to avoid the attention of greater powers. After earth was destroyed, mankind created a fighting elite to save their species, enhanced humans such as Idris. In the silence of space they could communicate, mind-to-mind, with the enemy. Then their alien aggressors, the Architects, simply disappeared—and Idris and his kind became obsolete. Now, fifty years later, Idris and his crew have discovered something strange abandoned in space. It's clearly the work of the Architects—but are they returning? And if so, why? Hunted by gangsters, cults and governments, Idris and his crew race across the galaxy hunting for answers. For they now possess something of incalculable value, that many would kill to obtain.
Release date: August 3, 2021
Print pages: 592
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Shards of Earth
“What you are about to see is an object lesson,” she told them. “I am aware that Myrmidon Executor Solace has seen this already, but for the rest of you, this is where you came from. We all came from Earth originally, and don’t let anyone tell you any different.”
It had been a long time. Over a decade of Solace’s personal history, in and out of suspension; forty years of objective time, whatever that meant. Nothing had changed. Earth would always be the same now.
Earth was like a flower, forever turned towards the sun. An alien flower whose exemplar might grow in some fecund jungle on a distant world. A thing of creepers and reaching shoots, something more than vegetable, less than animal.
Earth’s mantle and crust had been peeled back, like petals whose tips formed spiralling tendrils a thousand kilometres long. The planet’s core had gouted forth into yearning, reaching shapes, formed into rings and whorls, arches, curved arms… A hundred separate processes shaped from the living core of the planet as it writhed and twisted, then was left to cool. A flower twenty thousand kilometres across, splayed forever in full bloom; a memorial to ten billion people who hadn’t made it to the ships in time.
That had been all Solace had been able to think about, the first time she saw the lost home of her species. She remembered there had been parties, speeches and celebrations that the war was finally over, that they’d, what, won? Perhaps it was survival rather than victory, but sometimes just surviving was your definition of a win. And she’d gone to another big room then, the place where the real diplomats would be talking it out soon enough. She’d stood with a handful of other veterans, looked down on Earth and thought about how many lives had been snuffed out.
It was beautiful, in a horrible way. You couldn’t look at that intricately crafted floriform sculpture and not appreciate just how magnificent, how perfect it was. Not mindless chaos unleashed upon the planet. In the sculpture’s exacting workmanship, its eye-leading symmetries, there was a plan. Even to human eyes, the glorious, lethal artwork that Earth had become was intentional and organized, all the way down to the atomic level. That was why the things that had come to Earth—and to so many other planets—were not known as Destroyers or Unmakers. The traumatized survivors of humanity had named them Architects. This was what they did—they rebuilt. Nobody knew why, but very plainly there was a reason, because they were exacting and careful in their work. They had stringent criteria. Most particularly, the worlds they made into their art or machines or messages had all been inhabited. As though the final artistic flourish involved something on the surface looking into the stars and knowing its own doom.
Coming back to the present, Solace saw the wide eyes, the taut faces of her squad. These young myrmidons had never faced their history before. She went among them, gently reminding them they were all soldiers together. Or had been, while there was a war. Now it was time to practise diplomacy on Lune Station.
They had come to the ruins of their ancestral home in the Grand Carrier Wu Zhao. Not a dedicated warship, but big enough for the Parthenon to remind every other human-descendant who had the big guns. The sight of the Wu Zhao approaching Lune Station like a vast segmented silverfish would chill more than a few spines.
Solace and her squad of half a dozen sisters wore light engagement armour—probably sufficient to take the station, if someone decided to declare war while they were aboard. Even light armour noticeably bulked out their short, compact frames. It made them look as though they’d evolved for higher gravities and crushing atmospheres.
Monitor Superior Tact had her head tilted back, angled slightly to the left—a polite shorthand indicating she was conducting a conversation over her implant. She at least had dressed for diplomacy, wearing a long grey gown of sheer, shimmering material. There was a ring of leaden discs at her neck and a circlet of similar material at her brow, guaranteed to be packed with electronic countermeasures and some kind of emergency armament. Similarly, just because Tact was a thin, stately old woman didn’t mean she wasn’t fully up for hand-to-hand combat.
“And we have clearance for docking,” she announced to them all. “Executor Solace, prêt à combattre?”
“Pret, Mother.” Ready for combat, ready for anything. An exchange that had so infused Partheni culture that it now covered any confirmation between superior and inferior. Child Solace had responded to her teachers the same way every morning, long before anyone put a gun in her hand.
The Wu Zhao’s gravitic fields carried their shuttle smoothly out of the carrier’s docking bay and towards the station, where Lune’s own field generator would pick them up. “It’s been a while,” Tact said philosophically. “Last time I was on Lune Station, it was for our secession.”
“That was on Berlenhof, wasn’t it?” Solace said before she could stop herself; correcting superiors wasn’t a good habit.
“The diplomatic song and dance was, later. But we formally cut ties with the Council of Human Interests right here, before an audience of about a dozen of their grandees. No surprise to anybody by then, but you could cut the fear in that room with a knife, daughter.” Seeing her soldiers’ expressions, Tact added, “Yes. On both sides. Everyone thought it might mean war. And neither the Partheni nor Hugh wanted more war—especially human against human.”
“We should empty the refugia,” one of the escort put in bluntly. “Saving your authority, Mother.”
Tact’s lips pressed thinly together. “Ah yes, the refugia.” Meaning a dumping ground for excess genetic variability. Meaning all of non-Parthenon humanity. “Nobody is to use that term while on-station, or start calling them ‘refugeniks’ or anything of the sort. Because you can be absolutely sure that Hugh knows exactly how insulting it’s intended to be. Est-ce compris?”
When the Architect had begun its cataclysmic work, Earth’s moon had been flung off into space. Nobody had even tracked where it had gone, what with all attention on humanity’s desperate attempts to evacuate. One more piece of the past lost beyond recall.
Lune Station was named in memory of that lost satellite. As they moved closer, Solace could see the hollow bowl of its central hub, its exterior transparent so all occupants could see what the Earth had become. Around the outside of the bowl spread great fans of solar collectors, communications equipment and the arms of the station’s brachator drive.
Tact interrupted her thoughts as the Wu took them in for their final approach. “Daughter,” she said, “I trust you are fully aware of what your current role entails. You’re not just a squad-sister now, est-ce compris?”
“Compris,” Solace confirmed, as their craft drifted to a stop. In her heart of hearts, she would always be a squad-sister. But she’d been around for long enough to know that putting an accelerated projectile into someone wasn’t always the best way to defend the interests of the Parthenon. And unlike her younger sisters, who’d never seen the war, she’d mixed with Hivers, regular humans and aliens. They’d all been in it together against the Architects. That was why it had been hard to wake up now to find everyone so estranged.
The lurch as the Lune Station docking control took hold of them was entirely avoidable. Some Colonial controller waving his genitals in their direction as far as Solace was concerned. She felt the shift and sag as Lune’s induced gravity engaged, the same Earth-standard 1G she recognized from the Wu.
“Remember,” Tact informed them all, “put on a good show. Efficiency, discipline, restraint, est-ce compris? We are the pride of the galaxy, the shield of humanity, the armoured fist, the banner unfurled.” Her voice was abruptly hard, ringing from the metal walls like a hammer. “We start no fights here, but make them believe that we will damn well finish them.”
“Compris, Mother,” the escort chorused, standing and forming up.
The Council of Human Interests—“Hugh”—hadn’t sent out a similarly pugnacious party to meet them. There were a handful of clerks in knee-length belted smocks, what passed for well-to-do white-collar garb here. The man at their centre was wearing much the same—save that the extravagant cloth of his over-robe fell all the way to his shiny shoes. To Solace it looked absurdly impractical, but that was the point, she supposed. Here was a man who didn’t need to throw his own punches.
He kissed Tact on either cheek, the way the Partheni did. She clasped his hand—elbow to elbow—in the “Colony handshake.” All deeply symbolic of the divided fragments of humanity clinging together, or some such nonsense.
“Monitor Superior Tact,” he greeted her with a bland smile, speaking Parsef smoothly enough. “I was expecting some battlefield officer, bloody to the elbows.”
“Commissioner Poulos. And I trust you’ve had the chance to table the additional motion I sent.”
Solace caught the momentary evasion in his eyes before the man turned from Tact to look over her escort.
“It’s been too long since I saw the infamous Partheni myrmidons,” he declared, though Solace reckoned he could happily have gone to his grave without ever seeing them again. He made a show of examining their company badges, stopping at hers because she alone displayed the winged blade and the serpent, rather than the Wu Zhao’s sunburst icon. Myrmidon Executor Solace, Heaven’s Sword Sorority, Basilisk Division. That she was a long way from her assigned ship obviously didn’t escape him.
“You’ve brought an apprentice, Tact?” he asked mildly, while Solace squirmed within her armour at his scrutiny. “The sword is for the ship, and the snake, that’s artillery division… Angels of Infinite Fortitude, they used to call you?” Old nicknames from when the Partheni were humanity’s shield against the Architects, not the enemy.
“No, menheer,” and then, because she couldn’t keep it in, “Angels of Punching You in the Face, menheer,” watching at least an eighth of the poetry in him wither.
“Ah,” he said. “Well. I suppose we’d better…” And they set off, leaving both entourages to jostle for primacy, a contest that the armoured Partheni won. Solace sensed Tact’s eyes on her, and felt she wasn’t living up to the role of apprentice diplomat as well as she might.
“We have a full slate of trade agreements to rubber-stamp,” the Commissioner was saying. “As for your other motion…”
“Yes, as for the other?” Mother Tact enquired. Because she hadn’t come all this way just to talk about shipping tariffs.
“It’s been tabled,” was all the man would say.
The Partheni escort received hard looks on the way to their temporary quarters. Many Lune staff clearly saw them as a threat, but Parthenon armour was proof against hard looks. It wasn’t proof against boredom, though, while they waited for Tact to wade through trade permits and shipping concessions with a roomful of Hugh diplomats in impractical clothes, forging towards the one issue that was actually important right now.
Tact’s message to Solace, when it finally arrived, came in as a series of brief encoded packets designed to avoid Colonial surveillance.
Their Liaison Board has no interest in sharing Intermediary Program data, Tact confirmed to her. Their Ints remain “weapons technology,” not to be shared with foreign powers.
But Intermediaries aren’t designed to be weapons against us… and the Architects are gone anyway, Solace shot back.
While our technology exceeds theirs, they’ll do us no favours. The Ints are the one thing they have that we don’t. And those they’re turning out these days are under government control. There’s no way we could get hold of one for study without starting a war. This might just be the Parthenon’s next step, Solace knew. The problem was that not only were the Intermediaries the best weapon against any return incursion of the Architects: as navigators they gave their ships the freedom of the galaxy. A warship with an Int pilot could turn up anywhere, strike and vanish, uncatchable. And the Parthenon had the best warships, but the Colonies had all the Ints.
What are my orders, Mother? Solace pictured breaking into Hugh data stores, kidnapping officials and punching information out of them. All for the good of the Parthenon, which was the prime good of the universe, but still… I do not want to be the name children learn when they’re taught how the next war started.
I’m sending you coordinates in-station. Go there. Someone wants to meet you. Bon chance. Tact was being uncharacteristically cryptic.
This someone. They want to meet me in particular? Solace was puzzled as she was neither spy nor diplomat. Not yet anyway. After waking her, they’d rushed her through basic training. But up to this point, her whole adult life had been spent working behind some sort of gun, whether on a personal or starship scale.
That is correct. Maximum diplomacy, est-ce compris? Meaning no weapons or armour.
Compris, Mother. And she was shrugging into a belted tunic in the Colonial style, the sleeves to mid-bicep and the hem down past her hips. All in Partheni blue-grey with her company badges left of her heart. She reckoned turning up in nothing but her under-armour body sleeve would be more provocation than the staid Colonials could take.
Her destination was in the station’s underside, the part turned away from the sun where the work was done. Here were docking bays, machine rooms, the cramped quarters of the staff. She ended up on a gantry overlooking a dry-dock where a lander was being outfitted. The domed, six-footed ship was mostly complete, with waldo-wearing engineers and the scarecrow shape of a Hive frame moving the final pieces into place. They’d be taking it down to Earth’s tortured surface, maintaining a token presence so that some politician somewhere could claim the homeworld wasn’t completely abandoned.
“Myrmidon Executor Solace,” said a voice close by on the gantry, and she started out of her reverie, cursing herself. The newcomer had arrived without warning. He—it—was just there.
Seeing it, recognizing it, she stood very still and waited to see what it would do. They called it Ash, and “the Harbinger.” It had come to Earth on a trading ship, immediately before the war and told everyone that a colossal alien entity was about to reshape the planet. The Castigar crew that had brought it were as ignorant of its meaning as the humans of Earth.
What would happen later would be as much a harsh revelation to the Castigar as to humans. Ash told people that the end was nigh, and although almost nobody believed it, that “almost” gave just enough leeway so that, when the Architect did arrive and begin its terrible magnum opus, some vessels were ready. They took on passengers and headed out for Earth’s colonies. The Harbinger’s warning saved millions, even if billions more were lost.
After that, Ash had turned up here and there across the breadth of the human Polyaspora—respected, revered, feared. And now it was standing next to her on a gantry at Lune Station.
Ash wore a human-type robe, draped oddly across its peculiar physiology. There was a writhing nest of pseudopod feet at its base and two tree-like branches at its apex. One of these supported Ash’s head, or at least its sense organs: a handful of reddish orbs that guttered dimly with their own light. Beneath them, set into Ash’s leathery grey-black skin, were a series of vertical slits—function unknown. Ash was the only one of its kind anyone had ever met and nobody had been given the opportunity to study its physiology. The other branch was contorted into one sleeve of the robe, a rubbery knot of tendrils projecting from the opening in a creditable mockery of a hand. The other sleeve was empty, pinned across the robe’s chest. All in all, not a very good impersonation of a human being, and that head was a good half-metre taller than most humans. Yet it was just humanoid enough that one could stand there and talk to it and pretend there was something similar to you talking back.
Some worshipped it, God’s messenger who had saved so many. Others called it a devil, part of the Architects’ schemes. Not that anybody knew what those were.
“You again,” said Solace, because it wasn’t her first encounter with this damned alien. Last time had been at Berlenhof, just before the battle. Popping up like the spectre of death.
“Me,” it said, “again.” Ash’s rich, deep voice came from its body, nothing to do with its pseudo-head. It had always conversed in whatever language it chose, and now it spoke perfect Colvul, the stitched-together tongue of the Colonies.
“At least speak something civilized,” she grumbled in Parsef—a blend of three Earth languages, with added French for formalities.
“You’ll need your Colvul where you’re going,” Ash said conversationally. She’d heard the damn thing give rousing speeches, pronouncements, mystic warnings. It had even stolen the punchline of someone’s joke.
“Where’s that, exactly?”
“The Parthenon seeks Intermediaries.” Ash pronounced the words carefully.
“And you care about that why?”
“You know why,” it rumbled, cocking its false head at an unnatural angle. “The Partheni navy is humanity’s pre-eminent military force. Lacking Intermediary navigators impacts your ability to travel between stars. Their lack also strips you of a key weapon against the enemy.”
“And if the Architects are never coming back? It’s been forty years, right?”
“They are always coming back,” Ash said.
For a moment Solace felt a chill, presumably as intended. What does it know? Then she thought of a smaller, sadder truth. Ash claimed it was the last of its kind, sole survivor of a species destroyed by the Architects long ago. For Ash, the Architects were always coming. That was why it had devoted its life to warning others.
“There aren’t many Intermediaries,” it observed. “Fewer than you’d think. Most human brains can’t take the conditioning. The old ones don’t last and the new ones are fragile. The transformation is hard for them.”
Solace stared at it, meeting those glowing pits with a shock of contact, just like eyes.
“You recall Idris Telemmier?”
Solace blinked. “Dead, surely.” He must be ancient. He was always so frail.
“Alive. Alive and free. Not bound to Hugh or its Liaison Board. Free to make his own choices regarding his allies. If you can win his trust. Again.”
Somehow the damnable alien injected something salacious into its phrasing. Solace felt herself colouring. And yes, after Berlenhof, the two of them had been together—for a while. Many of her sisters had experimented. And he’d been so vulnerable and alone. To someone brought up within a culture of self-sufficiency and unity, this had exerted a strange fascination.
I wonder if he remembers me. Because if Ash could be believed, this was what her superiors needed. An Int who could be bought or talked into coming over to the Partheni. A way of combating the Architects should they return. Or a way of cancelling out the Colonies’ one advantage…
Her implant offered up data as it spoke, somehow routed to avoid Lune Station’s own channels. A ship’s name, a location—out on the fringes of human space, where the rule of law ran thin.
“Thank you.” She wanted to ask questions, but didn’t want to hear the answers. A creature like Ash… maybe it would pronounce her own death, the death of her ship, her fleet, everything. It had been the voice in the night foretelling the fall of Earth. There was no kind of doom that might not follow in its shuffling footsteps.
On the way back to the docking bay, she reported to Tact, who showed no surprise. By the time she rejoined her squad, Tact had already made arrangements. Solace was leaving her own kind to take on yet another new role. She was to play spy amongst the refugia—the human stock her people had left behind. And all I ever wanted was to be a soldier.
In the year “51 After” as Colonial reckoning went, in the thick of the war, an Architect had exited unspace above the colony world of Amraji.
The colonists had begun to evacuate immediately, having seen what happened to Earth fifty-one years before. By this point, practically every human community across the galaxy was living with flight plans under its collective pillow, a bag packed and everyone ready to go.
On the ground, everyone who’d been able to had boarded every ship there was. Then those ships got the hell off the planet as quickly as possible, fleeing even as the Architect’s bulk eclipsed half the sky. Some arrived at the nearest colonies, half their passengers traumatized, deranged, even catatonic, because there hadn’t been enough suspension beds to put everyone under before entering unspace. Some arrived with parts of their hull twisted into elaborate streamers and filigree, because they’d come too close to the Architect at work. Some never arrived. Every evacuation had its tally of lost vessels. Hurry, panic, untrained navigators, badly repaired gravitic drives, there were so many reasons why.
The Gamin had been a mid-sized freighter, fitted out to ship live bodies for the evacuation. Not well enough, as it turned out. It had left Amraji with a crew of four and over seven hundred passengers, headed for the colony of Roshu. It never arrived.
A year ago—over seventy years since the Gamin was lost—a Cartography Corps expedition discovered the vessel. Some error in its course had taken it off the known Throughways of unspace, and it had come out into the real so far from home its weak distress beacon had gone unheard for decades. The Cartography expedition that discovered it reported the find, then continued to reach out into unmapped unspace, seeking new Throughways that less adventurous ships might be able to use to reach unknown stars. An antiquated freighter wasn’t much use in itself, but it was an important historical artefact. Eventually the Colonial Heritage Foundation commissioned one of the few independent salvagers with the means to navigate out to where the Gamin could be found. And while the benevolent mission was talked about on all the fashionable mediotypes, the Foundation somehow never got around to mentioning that the name of the salvage craft was the Vulture God, because that might be seen as bad taste.
You had to screw your eyes up really hard to make the Vulture God look like any kind of bird. Perhaps a very fat bird with enormous claws and stubby little wings. The central bulk of its barrel body contained its oversized gravitic drive, which could displace enough mass into unspace to bring back the Gamin. Projecting out at cross-angles were the blunt little “wings” of its brachator drive that would give it purchase on real space and let it manoeuvre. The actual mass drives for fine manoeuvring were almost inconsequential, a handful of vents about the bloat of its hull. Slung notionally “underneath”—a direction determined by onboard gravity—was the great clenched tangle of its docking arms. The Vulture could latch on to just about anything and haul it around, and now it had reached the Gamin it was ready for action.
Idris was already awake, as always, though having stared unspace in the eye for the last day he was feeling washed-out and tired. Ready to nap for about a hundred years, not that it was going to happen.
He alone had been awake in the deep void, guiding the Vulture God across unspace. He’d covered vast empty light years in moments to emerge, a ridiculous distance from anywhere, near where the Gamin had somehow ended up. There was the promised distress beacon, sounding loud and clear. There was the lost freighter, tumbling slowly through space, the beacon its only live system. There had been some suggestion that people might still be in suspension, aboard, but Idris knew cobbled-together ships like the Gamin and they didn’t lend themselves to miracles.
He made some scratch calculations for an approach and burned some fuel in the mass drives for cheap and dirty momentum. Then he had the brachator drives reaching out to that liminal layer where unspace and real space met, that quantum foam of transient gravity nodes which their “grabby drives” could latch on to. The Vulture God sheared sideways through space as its inertia was shifted through thirty degrees, scudding closer towards the distant winking signal that was the Gamin. Idris tutted at his own inelegant piloting and made a few adjustments, spinning the vessel on its axis, stabilizing its drift, grabbing at another handful of the universe to pull them along a slightly different angle of approach.
After that, he had the ship’s mind reconstitute itself enough to make him a cup of much-needed kaffe. Then he set about waking the others.
The Vulture God boasted a crew of seven, five of whom were human. They made for an odd mix by the standards of ships that stuck to the regular Throughways—the readily navigable pathways within unspace that dictated where most vessels could and could not travel. There were no standards for deep void ships, though. There just weren’t enough of them. Most species didn’t even have a means of navigating off the beaten track and, even where such means existed, they were hard to engineer and needed delicate treatment. Idris certainly felt like he needed treating delicately.
He hadn’t ever been meant for this. He’d only ever been intended as a living weapon. Long past his use-by date now, Idris was still lurching on like a lot of Colonial civilization—most certainly like the Vulture God. He’d been on board for four years now, so it was hard not to be sentimental about the ship. It had always come through for them and never quite broken down beyond repair. And if there was one thing the war had taught Colonial humanity to become very, very good at, it was patch repairs on failing starships.
Unspace had made him sweat unpleasantly, so by the time the rest of the crew were stirring he’d blasted his body clean in the dry shower and printed out fresh clothes. This was one of the delights of long-range spaceflight on a shoestring budget. They were basically the same clothes he’d taken off, chewed up and reconstituted as nominally “clean.” White undershirt, black short-sleeved tunic, grey breeches and sandals made up his outfit. When he cinched his toolbelt about his waist, he felt almost ready to deal with the universe at large.
His quarters were down near the drone bay, which doubled as engineering control. He could hear Barney complaining loudly within about the list of systems that had developed faults since they set out. Olli would be prepping the Vulture’s claws, ready to clasp to the Gamin, and Medvig would be… doing whatever the hell Medvig did when they didn’t have anything constructive to contribute. Idris sloped forwards towards the command compartment, where Rollo was going over the initial scans.
Rollo Rostand was a stocky, square-faced man, brown-bronzed by decades of low-level radiation exposure, his hair and moustache wispy and dark grey. He had a rare weight-retaining physiology and the Vulture had been doing well enough to keep his paunch over his belt. He supplemented the standard printed crew clothes with a military-surplus jacket he claimed had been his father’s, the war hero. The details of these heroics tended to change with the telling, but everyone of that generation had done something. Idris, the actual veteran, was more than happy with Rollo’s embellishments because it meant nobody would ask about his truths.
“Well hola now, my children,” the man was saying as Idris ducked into the compartment. “How’s it looking across the board?”
“Everything’s broken to shit,” came Barney’s sour voice through their comms. “I am sending you a shopping list for when we’re back on Roshu.”
“Are you also sending Largesse to pay for it?” And, interpreting the pregnant silence as a negative, “In which case I recommend you make do and mend like a good son of Earth. Olli?”
“One of the drones is a lost cause,” the remote specialist’s slightly distorted tones came in. She’d slept the unspace flight in her control pod, Idris knew, which was not best operating procedure.
“And mend, I know, I know. Only it’s more making do than mending right now.”
Rollo beamed around at Idris as though this was the best news he could have expected. “We’ve just matched tumble with our prey, my children. I’m flagging up our access point. Should bring us into the Gamin’s crew spaces. Maybe.”
“Maybe?” Idris asked.
“When they refitted that bucket for passengers nobody filed their new plans with the proper authorities, see right? So we do the best we can.” Rollo settled back in his chair and put his bare feet up on the console. “Since you’re here, my son, you do the honours,” he invited, and Idris dropped into the pilot’s seat. Th
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