|Series:||The Engines of Light Trilogy: Book 3|
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WHO OWNS THE STARS?
For ten thousand years Nova Babylonia has been the greatest city of the Second Sphere, an interstellar civilization of human and other beings who have been secretly removed, throughout history, from Earth.
Now humans from the far reaches of the Sphere have come, to offer immortality-and to urge them to build defenses against the alien invasion they know is coming.
As humans and aliens compete and conspire, the wheels of history will lathe all the players into shapes new and surprising. The alien invasion will reach New Babylon at last-led by the most alien figure of all.
The Advancement of Learning
The jump is instantaneous. To a photon, the whole history of the universe may be like this: over in a flash, before it's had time to blink. To a human, it's disorienting. One moment, you're an hour out from the last planet you visited—then, without transition, you're an hour away from the next.
Volkov spent the first of these hours preparing for his arrival, conscious that he would have no time to do so in the second.
* * *
My name is Grigory Andreievich Volkov. I am two hundred and forty years old, I was born about a hundred thousand years ago, and as many light-years away: Kharkov, Russian Federation, Earth, in the year 2018. As a young conscript, I fought in the Ural Caspian Oil War. I was with the first troops to enter Marseilles and to bathe their sore feet in the waters of the Mediterranean. In 2040,1 became a cosmonaut of the European Union, and three years later made the first human landing on the surface of Venus. In 2046 I volunteered for work on the space station Marshal Titov, which in 2049 was renamed the Bright Star. It became the first human-controlled starship. In it I traveled to the Second Sphere. For the past two centuries I have lived on Mingulay and Croatan.
This is my first visit to Nova Terra. I hope to bring you...
* * *
What? The secret of immortality?
Yes. The secret of immortality. That would do.
Strictly speaking, what he hoped to bring was the secret of longevity. But he had formed an impression of the way science was conducted on Nova Terra: secular priestcraft, enlightened obscurantism; alchemy, philosophy, scholia. A trickle of inquiry after immortality had exhausted hedge-magic, expanded herbalism, lengthened little but grey beards and the index of the Pharmacopia, and remained respectable. Volkov expected to be introduced to the Academy as a prodigy. Before the shaving-mirror, he polished his speech and rehearsed his Trade Latin.
The suds and stubble swirled away. He slapped a stinging cologne on his cheeks, gave himself an encouraging smile, and stepped out of the cramped washroom. The ship's human quarters were sparse and provisional. In an emergency, or at the owners' convenience, they could be flooded. In normal operation, it was usual to travel in one or other of the skiffs, which at this moment were racked on the vast curving sides of the forward chamber like giant silver platters. The air smelled of paint and seawater; open channels and pools divided the floor, and on the walls enormous transparent pipes contained columns of water that rose or fell, functioning as lifts for the ship's crew. Few humans, and fewer saurs, were about in the chamber. Volkov strolled along a walkway. At its end, a low rail enclosed the pool of the navigator. Eyes the size of beach balls reflected racing bands of color from the navigator's chromatophores and the surrounding instrumentation. Wavelets from the rippling mantle perturbed the water. Lashing tentacles broke the surface as they played over the controls.
Volkov was halfway up the ladder to the skiff in which he had spent most, and intended to spend the rest, of the brief journey, when the lightspeed jump took place. The sensation was so swift and subtle that it did not endanger his step or grasp. He was aware that it had happened, that was all. In a moment of idle curiosity—for he'd never been within sight of a ship's controller at such a moment—he glanced sideways and down, to the watery cockpit twenty-odd meters below.
The navigator floated in the middle of the pool. His body had turned an almost translucent white. Volkov was perturbed, but could think of nothing better to do than scramble faster up the ladder to the skiff.
The door opened and he stepped inside, rejoining his hosts. Esias de Tenebre stood staring at the display panel, as though he could read the racing glyphs that to Volkov meant nothing. Feet well apart, hands in his trouser pockets, his stout and muscular frame bulked further by his heavy sweater, his shock of hair spilling from under his seaman's cap. Though in the rough-duty clothes that merchants, traditionally wore on board ship, he had all the stocky and cocky dignity of Holbein's Henry—one who did not kill his wives, all three of whom stood beside him. Lydia, the daughter of Esias and Faustina, lounged on the circular seat around the central engine fairing behind her parents, returning Volkov's appeasing look with sullen lack of interest. Black hair you could swim in, brown eyes you could drown in, golden skin you could bask in. Her oversized sweater and baggy canvas trousers only added to her charm. The other occupant of the vehicle was its pilot, Voronar, who sat leaning forward past Esias.
"What's going on?"
The saur's elliptical eyes spared Volkov a glance, then returned to the display.
"Nothing out of the ordinary," said Voronar. His large head, which lent his slender reptilian body an almost infantile proportion, tipped forward, then nodded. "We are an hour away from Nova Terra."
"Could you possibly show us the view?" said Esias.
"Your pardon," said Voronar.
He palmed the controls, and the entire surrounding wall of the skiff became pseudotransparent, patching data from the ship's external sensors and automatically adjusting brightness and contrast: Nova Sol's glare was turned down, the crescent of Nova Terra muted to a cool blue, its night side enhanced. Scattered clusters of crowded lights pricked the dark like pleiads.
"That's a lot of cities," Volkov said.
Compared with anywhere else he'd seen in the Second Sphere, if not with the Earth he remembered, it was.
"There's only one that matters," said Esias. He did not need to point it out.
Nova Babylonia was the jewel of the Second Sphere. Its millennia-old culture, and its younger but still ancient republican institutions, made it peacefully hegemonic on Nova Terra, and beyond. The temperate zones of Nova Terra's continents were placid parks, where even wildernesses were carefully planned landscape features. All classes of its people were content. Academicians and artists assimilated the latest ideas and styles that trickled in over the millennia from Earth; patricians and politicians debated cordially and congratulated themselves on their fortune in knowing, and avoiding, the home world's terrible mistakes. Merchants traded the rare goods of many worlds. Artisans and laborers enjoyed the advantages of a division of labor far wider than any the human species could have sustained on its own. Emigration was free, but the proportion of emigrants insignificant. The hominidae cheerfully tended and harvested the sources of raw materials, and the saurs and krakens exchanged their advanced products and services for those of human industry and craft. As an older and wiser species, the saurs were consulted to settle disputes, and as a more powerful species, they intervened to prevent any from getting out of hand.
The lights of Nova Babylonia shone just short of the terminator, and somewhat to the north of the halfway point between the pole and the equator. Genea, the continent on whose eastern shore the city stood, sprawled diagonally across the present night side of the planet and southward into the day and the southern hemisphere. Its ragged coastline counterpointed that of the other major continent, Sauria, a couple of thousand kilometers west: the two looked as though they had been pulled apart and displaced, one northward, the other south. Much of the southern and western part of Sauria was wrapped out of sight around the other side of the planet, at this moment; in the visible part, even at this distance, the rectangular regularity of some of its green patches distinguished manufacturing plant from jungle and plain.
"Do any humans live in Sauria?" Volkov asked.
Esias shrugged. "A few thousand, maybe, at any one time. Short-term contract employees, traders, people involved in travel infrastructure and big-game hunting. Likewise with saurs in Genea—lots of individuals, no real communities, except around the hospitals and health services."
Hospitals and health services, yes, Volkov thought, that could be a problem.
"What about the other hominidae?"
"Ah, that's a more usual distribution, except that they have entire cities of their own." Esias pointed; it wasn't much help. "Gigants here, pithkies there. Forests and mines, even some farming. More of a surprise than the cities, that; it's only developed in the last few centuries. They've always been herding, of course."
As the ship's approach zoomed the view, the city and its surroundings expanded and sharpened. The immediate vicinity and hinterland of the city was a long, triangular promontory, about a thousand kilometers from northwest to southeast and five hundred across at its widest extent. It looked like a smaller and narrower India: an island that had rammed the continent at an angle. Very likely it was—the ice of a spectacular and recent mountain range glittered white across the join. The west coast of this mini subcontinent was separated from the mainland of Genea by a semicircular sea, three hundred kilometers across at its widest, its shore curving to almost meet the end of the promontory just south of the metropolis. From the mountains sprang a dozen or so rivers whose confluence channeled about halfway down to one major river, which flowed into the sea near the tapered tip. The central, and oldest, part of Nova Babylonia was on an island about ten kilometers long that looked wedged in that river's mouth.
The city drifted off center in the view, then swung out of sight entirely as the ship leveled up for its run into the atmosphere. Why the great starships approached on what resembled a long, shallow glide path....
Copyright © 2002 by Ken MacLeod
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