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Dark Light

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Dark Light

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Author: Ken MacLeod
Publisher: Tor, 2002
Series: The Engines of Light Trilogy: Book 2

1. Cosmonaut Keep
2. Dark Light
3. Engine City

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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A Tale of Humans In a Universe of Ubiquitous Alien Life

Intelligence, it turns out, is rare - on planetary surfaces. It thrives everywhere else, from the Oort-cloud fringes of star systems to the magma furnaces beneath planetary crusts. And among the most powerful of the galaxy's intelligences, there are profound differences of opinion about how to deal with surface life-forms such as human beings.

For, untold light years from Earth, the powers that rule the universe have been, for millennia, plucking humans (and other intelligent beings) from Earth and forcibly resettling them in a number of star systems close to one another, leaving them to develop on their own. A few generations ago, a small cadre of humans from Earth's 21st century arrived in this "Second Sphere" on their own power - the first humans ever to do so. Their descendants have formed the "Cosmonaut" class that dominates Mingulay. Now, two hundred years later, Gregor Cairns and a small group of associates have rediscovered faster-than-light travel and traveled to the star system next door. They're determined to find more of the original, mysteriously long-lived cosmonauts. They want answers. And for those answers, they intend to interrogate the gods.



Urbi et Orbi

Rawliston sprawls; from space it's a grubby smudge, staining the glassy clarity of the atmosphere along fifty kilometers of coastline. Biggest city on the planet, home to a million or so human and other beings. Seven centuries old and ever renewed; two centuries on from the biggest jolt it ever got; hours away from another. It's coming like an earthquake, coming like a runaway train, coming like a lightspeed ship.

* * *

Stone froze in a cold sky. Around him, the glider's struts creaked and its cables sang. Hundreds of meters below his feet, the valley crawled. The Great Vale stretched fifty or so kilometers before him and the same distance behind him, its fields and towns, rivers and screes filling his sight. Through the imperfect glass disks of his goggles he couldn't quite see the mighty rockfalls at either end that had, thousands of years ago, isolated the valley, but he could just make out the distant gleam of the lake formed by Big River against the natural dam at the eastern end. The midmorning sun glimmered on a series of meanders in the river's fat, lazy length along the valley's broad floor. The word for world is "valley," he thought, and the word we use for ourselves is the "flying people," and the word the savages use for themselves is "people." Oh, but aren't we a sophisticated and self-conscious Stone Age civilization!

He hung in a leather harness; the handles he gripped were made from the paired humeri of an eagle; the fabric of the wing above him was of hand-woven silk doped with alcohol-thinned pine resin; the craft's singing structural members were tensed bamboo, its cables vine and its stitching gut. Flint blades and bone needles and wooden shuttles had been worn smooth in its manufacture; no metal tool had touched it. No man, either; the whole process, from harvesting the raw materials through building it to this, its test flight, was women's work. It would be bad luck for a man to touch it until it had been brought safely back from its maiden flight and formally turned over. Stone wryly reflected on the canny custom that assigned the rougher and riskier parts of glider production--finding the eagle's carcass, tapping the resin, testing the craft--to women like him. He enjoyed the excitement and the solitude of these tasks, though they would not have been so welcome without the background of days he spent in the secure and companionable society of other women, working in long, airy sheds with the needle or the loom, the glass saw or the stone knife.

He banked into an updraught and followed its upward spiral, almost to a level with the mountain range on the western side of the valley. Below him, a pair of wing-lizards skimmed the corries. Two black flecks, their wingspans almost a third that of the glider. He kept a cautious eye on the upper slopes as he drifted past them; sneaking across the skyline was the preferred approach route for savage scouts and even raiding parties, and firearms were one product of the metalworking peoples whose use none of the stoneworking peoples--including his own--dared to disdain.

From his high vantage he could see the other aerial traffic of the valley: a few hot-air balloon-trains lofting to cross the eastern barrier on the way to Rawliston, dozens of other gliders patrolling the slopes or carrying urgent messages and light freight from one town to another. A quick upward turn of his head caught him a glimpse of a high, fast glint as one of the snake people's gravity skiffs, on some incomprehensibly urgent mission of its own, flashed across the sky like a shooting star. The skiffs were a common sight, starships rarer. Every few weeks a ship would follow the line of the Great Vale in a slow, sloping descent to Rawliston; it'd be at an altitude of two kilometers when it passed above the western end of the valley, down to a thousand meters by the time it reached the other.

Swinging out of the updraught, he set the machine on the long descending westward glide that would take him back to the launching-and-landing slope of the airfield above his native town, Long Bridge. He was following the course of Big River at a few hundred meters--an altitude quite low enough for him to smell the smoke from the kilns and see and hear children pointing and yelling at him from each village he passed over--when he heard a screaming from the sky to the north and west. Stone looked up.

Something huge and black hurtled in a second from the zenith to behind the hills, just ahead of him and to the left. Reflexively he closed his eyes, flinching in expectation of a crash and an explosion.

None came.

He sent a quick and self-consciously futile prayer of thanks to the indifferent gods and opened his eyes. What he saw made him almost shut them again. Behind the brow of the mountain range a vast, ramshackle contraption was rising like a malignant moon. Evidently the object seen falling, it moved forward, almost scraping the summit. Lurching and yawing, it careened to above the middle of the valley. Then it stopped, hanging in the air half a kilometer away, right in front of him. It turned around.

The air crackled; Stone could feel every hair on his body prickle. He was still rushing forward, on a collision course that in seconds would splatter him and the glider across the front of the thing like a fly on goggles. He swung his upper body forward and his legs up, and tipped the the bone levers to tilt the glider into a dive. Down and down, he aimed for Big River, in the slim hope that if he couldn't pull out in time he might just survive a crash into water.

The shadow of the unidentified flying object passed over him. Something, not the air and not his own efforts, slowed his descent, at the same time buffetting him as though with invisible fists. He felt, incredulously, that he was actually being lifted. Then the shadow and the strange lightness passed, and he began to plummet again, but now he was able to pull back. At fifty meters above the river he was in level flight, at a speed that a small and cautious upward flex on the controls turned into a shallow climb.

The long bridge that had given the town its name whipped beneath his feet like--so it seemed--a just-missed trip wire. He banked leftward above the rooftops of tile and thatch, slowing and spilling air as the field came into view, closer and closer, he could see the blades of grass, and then he was down with a thump that jarred every cartilage from his ankle joints to the top of his spine and running, running faster than he'd ever run before, sprinting up the slope as fast as a man running full pelt down it to take off, the glider still flying at shoulder height and no weight at all, and then he could slow and finally stop.

He stood for a moment, unbuckling the harness and lifting the wing, then stepped out from under it and let it sag to the grass behind him. His breath came in deep sighing gusts; he could not control it. His legs shook; he could control them, and he walked stiffly away from the glider toward the sheds at the top of the field. Later he would ache. For now, he just felt an immense surge of exhilaration carrying him along.

Slow Leg, the pilot for whom Stone had been testing the new craft, waited for him under the eaves of the glider shed. In his twenties, a few years older than Stone, lounging elaborately against a log pillar, Slow Leg was clad in nothing but a short pleated skirt and a pose that showed off his chest, arm, and leg muscles to advantage.

His calm cracked to a wide grin as Stone approached.

"That was magnificent," he said. "That's a well-tested wing."

Stone grinned back, in unabashed gratitude for the laconic praise.

"It is yours," he said, controlling his breath as best he could. He took off his goggles and wiped sweat from his forehead, then removed the feather helmet.

Slow Leg nodded and walked past him and picked up the glider and carried it reverently to the shed, where he lifted it into an overhead rack and returned to the post and the pose.

"Thank you."

Stone dipped his head, then, formalities over, looked up and asked the question at the forefront of his mind: "What was that thing?"

"A ship."

Stone laughed. "That was never a ship. Unless the sea people have taken to crossing space in rafts."

"It did look like something lashed together from a bedstead and barrels," Slow Leg admitted, "but I don't think the sea people made it."

He had the look of someone waiting to tell a joke.

"The sea people don't make their ships," Stone said, teasing him with precision.

"All right," Slow Leg said. "It was not made by the snake people for the sea people, like every other ship we have seen."

Stone stepped behind the straw-mat screen where he'd left his clothes and began unpicking the fastenings of his down-quilted jacket and trousers. Most pilots flew in nothing but a breechclout, but modesty and frailty were allowed for in test flying. Only men had to be tough enough to bare their skin to the high-altitude winds.

"So how do you know that, Slow Leg? Did the gods make it, and tell you in a dream?"

"I saw it own vision!"

Slow Leg guffawed at his own joke; Stone laughed politely. He untied his long fair hair and shook it out, ducked into his knee-length blue silk tunic and stepped into the matching trousers, strapped on the sloping compressed-bark wedges of his sandals, and emerged from behind the screen. When he met Slow Leg's eyes again he noticed, as he had so often in the past, the subtle, swift shuttering--something as quick and involuntary as the nictitating membrane flicking across the eyes of one of the snake people--that signaled the sudden shift in the basis of their conversation. Slow Leg's literal stance shifted: He stopped leaning against the log and took a step back, and hooked his thumbs in his belt.

"Vision," he said, tapping beside his eye. "There was a name written on the side of the ship, and I read it."

Phenomenal visual acuity was normal among pilots; literacy was not. Slow Leg had some justification for the lazy self-satisfaction in his tone.

Stone let his eyes widen. "What was it?" His voice had taken, quite without artifice, a slightly higher pitch and lighter note.

Slow Leg sucked in his lips and gave a small shrug. "There were several words, or names," he said, "some of which had been painted over, but there were two words that were quite clear, in the Christian language and lettering..."

He paused again, playing a smile.

Stone spread his hands. "Please."

"Bright Star."

Stone mentally translated from the Christian.

"Bright Star?" He felt the pitch of his voice rise out of control, to an undignified squeak.

"That was what it said." Slow Leg shrugged. "Whether it was indeed that ship, I don't know."

He turned and gazed down the valley, as if he could still see it. "But it looked as one would expect that ship to look, and as for its piloting..." He chuckled.

"If that was flown by one of the sea people, they are in a bad way indeed. No, I think that was flown by a--you know the Christian word, a human."

"Or by one of the snake people?" Stone suggested. "A very experienced skiff pilot?"

Slow Leg passed a hand over his eyes. "Or a very inexperienced one!"

Stone smiled slyly. "It takes a very experienced pilot to dive down to ground level and then pull out..."

Slow Leg shook his head in self-reproof, slapped Stone's shoulder, then let his arm drop awkwardly.

"Of course, of course," he said. "I forget myself. I must pour you a drink, Stone."

They walked along the front of the glider shed, mostly empty at this time of day, Slow Leg padding barefoot on the grass, with the almost imperceptible drag on the left foot that had inflicted his name, Stone stepping carefully in the short-paced gait imposed by the built-up heels of his sandals. Against the far end of the shed was an unattended table with a skin flask of beer propped in a wicker frame and a few pottery cups. Slow Leg ignored the beer, ducked under the table, and fished out a glass bottle of corn-mash spirit.

"Ah," said Stone. A smuggler.

Slow Leg smiled and winked as he filled two cups with the rough liquor, then hid the bottle again. He leaned an elbow on the table and raised his cup, then noticed Stone wasn't leaning on the grubby, sticky table.

He waved for a pause and hurried to drag up a stool.

"Thank you," said Stone, taking the seat.

Slow Leg resumed the toast. "High flights!"

"Safe landings," Stone said, heartfelt. The reaction was already getting to him, his body belatedly assimilating the reality of his narrow escape and beginning to tremble. He gulped, steadying himself, blinked as his eyes stung.


"Good stuff," said Slow Leg. He licked it off his lips, looked away, took another sip. He seemed to remember something.

"If that ship really was the Bright Star," he said slowly, "then many things will change. Others will have recognized it too. It will be the talk of the valley within hours."

"You're right there," Stone said. His mind was still racing through the implications. They unfolded as though before his eyes, with the slow-motion inevitability of a glider crash. The Bright Star's arrival, over two centuries ago at a world that he vaguely thought of as five years' journey away, was so fundamental to the sky people's whole existence that it was part of their religion. A late part, of course, but already seamlessly incorporated in legends that went back through countless generations to the Cold Lands, to what the Christians called Earth. The gods had brought that ship to the New Worlds, with its message of deliverance. Without it, the sky people's religion would in all likelihood no longer exist, and the sky people themselves would be miserable wretches.

If it had now arrived at Croatan, it could only be a portent.

"You realize," Stone went on, "that what happened today will be remembered in the stories of our people?"

"Of course," said Slow Leg. "It will be called something like, let me see, 'The Story of How Stone Fell from the Sky.'"

Stone laughed. "That sounds about right. Or 'How Slow Leg Almost Lost His Wing.'"

"That's how the women will tell it, yes," Slow Leg said wryly. "Oh, well, I suppose we will know the truth about the ship soon enough, and the consequences will be what they will be."

Stone nodded agreement with this profound but entirely uninformative remark. Slow Leg made a small chopping motion with his hand, to indicate that as far as he was concerned they'd said all there was to say on the subject. Stone waited politely for the man to introduce the next.

But Slow Leg hesitated, drank a little more, stared moodily into the distance for a minute before turning and saying abruptly: "You really are a very good pilot. That was truly amazing."

Stone looked down, as though modestly, thinking here we go again. He raised a hand and let it flap down from the wrist.

"I was lucky," he said. "The ship's spirit, its field"--he used the Christian word--"pulled me out of the dive."

"Even so. It took great skill and presence of mind. You are as good as a man."

There it was, the usual clumsy, well-meant but unwanted compliment. At least it was done. He smiled and, again as usual, fluttered his eyelashes. Slow Leg put down his cup and gave Stone a hard, steady look.

"I would be happy to have you flying with me."

"What is this?" Stone said. "A marriage proposal?"

That would have flustered him less than the kind of partnership that Slow Leg was, ever so deniably, suggesting: to join him in his smuggling.

Slow Leg laughed and threw a pulled punch in the direction of Stone's shoulder.

"One wife is enough! More than enough, to tell you the truth. No, seriously, Stone. Let me ask you, then: Would you be interested in flying with me?"

"That is not possible."

"Yes, it is. If we are careful."

Stone sipped the liquor and held up the cup. "I take it you already do some very careful flying."

Slow Leg nodded. "There are things we have that the councils of the Christians disapprove of, and they have things--such as this--that our elders frown upon. There is profit in the trade, if you are careful. But not enough profit--almost all our traders will stuff a few such items into each trip. I have been thinking. There must be some Christian things that the women want and that the elders and the councils forbid. Simple and light things, easily carried." He shrugged. "I would not know what they are. But you might."

"I can think of plenty," Stone said. "Steel needles, small sharp blades, scissors, eyeglasses..."

There were already a few such treasures in some of the women's hands, discreetly used and jealously hoarded; he knew of them only from glimpses and grumbles. The thought of joining in Slow Leg's scheme expanded as warmly in his mind as the drink did in his belly. To fly regularly, and to see the city, and to be the prestigious source of such valuable tools...

"Yes," he said. "I would like to do that."

"Very good," said Slow Leg. As though emboldened by this agreement, he leaned forward and continued, intently: "You're a natural flyer. With practice, you could be a great one. Instead you let your ability run to waste as a woman and fritter your days in weaving and stitching and gossip. Why don't you turn your back on all that petty stuff and become a man while you still can?"

Stone was unsure as to what would be an appropriate response. He compressed his lips, took a deep breath, smoothed the lap of his tunic. Reactions to his status ranged from good-natured joshing to fascinated admiration, with most of that range occupied by a matter- of-fact acceptance. An active attempt to persuade him out of it was unheard of: Neither tradition nor what he could recall of the books of anthropology afforded a precedent.

But he had just seen one event without precedent; he wondered if Slow Leg's boldness was somehow incited by the feeling that had gripped them both of great changes to come. So instead of taking offense, or laughing it away, he took it seriously and calmly.

"There is some truth in what you say, Slow Leg," he replied. "I love flying, and I wish I could do more. But I also love the women's work and the women's company, which is not as petty as you imagine. But besides all that, the fact remains that I chose it for a reason, which you well know. I may be good at flying, but I couldn't be good at fighting."

He spread his hands.

Slow Leg had listened with an expression of growing frustration and now burst into eager, urgent speech.

"I could train you!" he said. "Fighting is just a skill. To tell you the truth, a woman could do it, if she practiced enough and didn't mind the pain--and I've seen birth, pain I couldn't imagine. Women have their own pain, so don't tell me they couldn't endure some blows and cuts. Don't tell me you couldn't. We could practice, somewhere quiet, until you were ready for the challenge."

Stone winced inwardly at the mention of the challenge but kept his expression carefully bright.

"Ah, that's just the trouble, you see," he said. "Nature, the spirits, the gods--call the power what you will--has given mothers the strength to give birth, and fighters the strength to fight, and to me and my like neither. I accept that, and I'm happy to be as I am."

Slow Leg still fixed him with a stern gaze.

"I knew you when you ran and fought and hunted with the other boys," he said. "You had the makings of a man, and you still do. You're no coward." He frowned for a moment. "If it's that you"--he made a quick vulgar gesture with his fingers--"to tell you the truth, some of the men, the hunters and warriors, they too...with each other, and nobody thinks any the less of them."

"I know that," Stone said with a sigh of exasperation. "That's not the difficulty."

"So what is?"

"It's as I said."

Stone wished he could have said more, but what he felt was so chaotic, and threatened so much to make him weep, and so difficult to put in words either in Speech or in Christian, that he left it at that.

"All right," said Slow Leg. "I am sorry I raised the matter."

"It is forgotten," said Stone. "But I will fly with you, as we agreed."

They finished their drinks. As Stone left, Slow Leg called after him, "See you soon!"

Stone glanced back over his shoulder and gave him a sly smile and a friendly wave. The path from the glider shed to the road was paved with flat, irregular stones, leavings from the paving of the road, and therefore equally ancient. He walked down its left-hand side, on the outside of the pair of ruts left by centuries of identically spaced cartwheels. The roofs of Long Bridge's streets of stone houses and long wooden industrial sheds looked like broad steps in a jumbled collection of giant stairways descending the hillside to the river.

That was itself a detail of the pattern of much larger steps, the terracing of the fields, which earthworking in turn was laid over the succession of the raised beaches that appeared at various points along the sides of the valley. The airfield had been formed in the slope between two of them; after the next downward slope, the field was on a level with the roofs of the uppermost street, and on that field's trampled grass the town's boys and young men practiced their sports and the arts of war. As he walked past he was recognized by some of his former companions, one of whom shouted a suggestion after him. Stone waggled his hips defiantly.

"I wouldn't have you fuck me," he shouted, looking back, "if you were the last man in the world!"

* * *

Matt Cairns peers at the city through a window frosted with micrometeoroid impacts, troubled by the sense of height induced by looking at it from space but not from orbit, and by the feeling that none of this has happened yet. Some clock or calendar at the back of his mind is still tidal locked to Earth's distant turning; for him the present will always be 2049 plus however many years he lives, and most of that time up until now has been lived in the future, piled on top of an already dizzying stack of light-years.

So here he is, uncounted thousands of years and light-years away from now and home, standing in the drive's local gravity on a ship built for free fall and looking at a city that hangs improbably in front of his face and grows larger by the second. He turns away.

The ship's control room, the subject of several iterations of retrofitting and hacking, is about two meters high by three deep and ten across. At the other end of its long, low window stand a young man and a young woman, as intent as Matt had been on the planet's looming surface. Gregor Cairns resembles Matt in his sweptback black hair, narrow nose, and thin mouth--and the set of his shoulders, which is that of a man ready for trouble. Elizabeth Harkness, her left hand straying like a persistent-minded small animal on Gregor's back, stands a little taller and noticeably bigger in build; her black hair tumbles thick to a sharp, impatient-looking cutoff at the level of her chin. The ship's pilot, perched on a high stool between Matt and the couple, is himself intent on the surface of what looks like a tilted lab bench, to which various pieces of apparatus are strapped, lashed, or wired. His arms are elbow-deep in the cluttered array.

Matt gets the uneasy impression that the pilot is deliberately ignoring the proximity of the globe filling the window.

"Is this the right way to come in?" he asks. He can hear faint overspill of the planet's radio traffic from a speaker, vaguely wonders why such transmissions had never shown up on the Solar System's most sensitive radio telescopes in their most meticulous SETI sweeps, and remembers, again, that this hasn't happened yet...quite possibly in 2049 the lightspeed ships carrying the very first human specimens from Earth's deepest antiquity had still not reached their destination.

"No," the pilot replies, not looking up from the jury-rigged controls. "It decidedly is not. We must swing around and approach by the normal flight path. Please, everyone, hold on to something while I adjust--"

The direction of the field sways sickeningly for a moment, then stabilizes. The apparent size of the planet stops increasing.

"Okay," says the pilot, standing up and turning around and dusting his palms. "We are now in a stable position. It may take some time to plot the approach."

"You mean you don't know?"

Matt stares at the pilot, caught by another mental glitch: Just as the present sometimes seems to be the future, so he can't help seeing the pilot as an alien. Salasso isn't an alien--saurs and humans have a common terrestrial ancestor, an undistinguished vertebrate somewhere back of the Triassic--but he has an eerie, almost comical resemblance to the image of the alien that was iconic in Matt's ancient youth. Long familiarity with the saurs hasn't entirely erased that early imprinting. It can still make the hairs on his nape and forearms prickle. Not even the image of the truly alien, the garden of the gods that still glows in his mind after two centuries, can displace the sinister semblance: the hairless head with huge eyes and tiny mouth above a scrawny body, the long arms and long four-digited hands are species markers of the classic mythical alien, the Gray.

Matt has long harbored a dour suspicion that this is far from a coincidence. The saurs' disk-shaped gravity skiffs lend some weight to the notion.

And the fear and anger, still there like trace elements of a poisonous heavy metal, or an isotope with a long half-life, not yet nearly spent...he's ashamed of it, he fights it and tries to hide it, from others if not from himself.

"We know in principle," Salasso says stiffly. "From here on in it's partly skill, which...I am learning, and partly calculation--ah, Gregor?'

The young man moves away from the window and the woman, and joins Salasso in a huddle over a monitor and keyboard on the table. After a minute of watching them scribble, mutter cryptically, check readings, and punch data, Matt reckons this is not going to be quick. He walks past them and stands by Elizabeth. She doesn't look away from the view.

"It's wonderful," she says. "I can hardly believe I'm seeing this. Croatan, wow!"

Her finger traces in the air the outline of the eastern coast of Croatan's western continent, New Virginia, on which Rawliston stands out like a blemish on a cheek. West and north and south of its smoke haze spreads a patchwork--from this height, more a stitchery--of green and gold and black; beyond that, a deeper green of forests and then the gray slopes and white tops of a mountain range that roughly parallel the coastline at a distance of between one and two hundred kilometers. Clouds are piled up along the range, like surf. East of the town, the ocean shines blue.

"It is beautiful," Matt agrees.

She turns, her black hair swinging, her black brows lifting.

"Did you ever see Earth--like this?"

Matt sighs. "Yeah, for a few seconds, just as I was leaving it. In real life, that is. Lots of times on screen, of course. Live pictures, VR, wallpaper..."

She wouldn't have known quite what he meant, but she looks at him sympathetically.

"You miss it."

He scratches his chin with a thumbnail. As usual after spending time in space, he feels he needs a shave. He doesn't: This journey has been that short. "Yeah, I miss it. I've had some time to get over it."

As though reminded that she herself has more pressing reasons for homesickness, Elizabeth looks quickly down, then back at the new world below. After some minutes the view begins to slide to the right, as the ship moves west. In a moment they're looking straight down at the mountains.

"Please take your seats," says Salasso. "We're about to attempt a controlled vertical descent."

"I bloody wish," says Matt, heading for the seats, "that we'd brought that skiff. I'd rather risk a Roswell crash than a fucking Tunguska Event."

The others know better than to ask him what he means by that. They don't have a skiff. They'd hired one, back on Mingulay, to use as a shuttle while they renovated the Bright Star, but it had been too expensive to take with them and anyway would have been missing the point, which is to set up a human-controlled spacefaring capability. They've left most of the fabs and labs behind, in the same old orbit, along with most of the ship. What they have now are modules of the life support and living quarters, some modules with carefully selected scientific equipment from the labs, a vast corpus of knowledge downloaded to an assortment of still-functioning computers, a cargo hold stuffed with Mingulayan manufactures, and the lightspeed drive.

A drive that, throttled back to some infinitesimal fraction of its capacity, can be used for gravity work--insystem space and air travel. Your standard strange light in the sky.

Matt straps in alongside the others, in cannibalized, bolted-down seats that were originally designed for minor jolts and unscheduled burns in free-fall maneuvering. The belt looks as though some small animal has taken bites out of it, leaving crescents of acidic spittle to fringe the bites with interesting burn marks--just a couple hundred years of slow-motion, vaccuum-resistant bacterial rot, but leaving the belt something he wouldn't have wanted to rely on in a car.

Salasso eases what looks worryingly like a rheostat a millimeter or two forward, and the zoom effect begins again. A brightening glow and rising screech indicate that they've hit stratosphere. There is no shudder; the field surrounds the ship like an elongated bubble, which is just as well because otherwise they'd be shaken apart like an oil drum raft in rapids. The mountain range expands rapidly from a rendered contour map to a papiermché model to the real thing, a planetary surface about to come through the window. Matt glances sideways at Elizabeth and Gregor. They stare straight ahead, rapt but untroubled. Their only experience of air travel is in airships and gravity skiffs. Matt's is a little wider, and his grip on the armrests is hurting his hands.

He opens his eyes as the howl of the air stops. The view ahead is filled with tough tussocky grass and boulders gray and yellow with lichen. The ship's gravity and that of the ground a few meters below are perfectly perpendicular to each other. He looks away queasily. Salasso rotates his big black eyes and eases back the control. The ground pulls away again--Matt can see rabbits scattering--and sky suddenly swings down and fills the screen. Most of the screen. The lower quarter shows a rugged ridge. They lurch upward then forward--Matt's toes curl, waiting for the scrape--and then they're hovering above a big, wide valley between that ridge and the next. Salasso pokes a long finger into something, and the ship swivels, looking straight down the valley. Matt glimpses a great river meandering along its floor, green and black fields in a landscape dotted with white towns.

And straight ahead, coming at them like a fly at a windshield, a black shape like a gigantic bird or medium-sized pterosaur. Salasso takes the ship a few tens of meters up as the object plunges into a dive. As it flashes past below, Matt can see it's a wing, without a tail and with some kind of struts and lots of colorful decoration.

"What the fuck was that?" he yells.

"Hang glider," says Salasso imperturbably. "No doubt its pilot is asking the same question."

* * *

Through the angled inward slope of the lower part of the window Matt can now make out more of what they're passing over. The valley stretches for at least fifty fast-diminishing kilometers before them. Its breadth varies from two to five kilometers, densely inhabited; fields and cultivated woodlands extend from the fertile floor to the terraced lower slopes, with contours that he guesses are raised beaches; watermills where the current flows fast in the loop of meanders; a circuit board tracery of irrigation and drainage ditches, with the white blocks of low buildings its capicitors and switches. Thin, wavering columns of rising smoke. Beasts in the fields that flock like cattle but seem far too big. Boats and barges and--

"Watch out!" Matt yells. Salasso shoots him a pained look and lifts the ship yet farther, above the path of a drifting...blimp, Matt thinks at first, then realizes it's half a dozen linked balloons from which a single long gondola hangs swaying.

"Shit," says Gregor, jumping from his seat and peering forward through the glass. "There're dozens of them, balloons and gliders. We're in somebody's airspace."

"I'm more concerned about being hit from behind," says Salasso. "If we stray into the regular starship approach path."

"Not very likely," says Elizabeth.

At the eastern end of the valley, the river broadens into a lake behind a natural-looking rockfall dam, over whose rim it cascades. After that the valley floor drops sharply, and far on the horizon they see the blue gleam of the sea and the yellow-gray haze of Rawliston. They cross above rough country which, as the mountains dribble to densely forested foothills, opens out to a wide floodplain, farmed and fertile, across which the river fattens and snakes. Swift as a descending airliner, silent as a balloon, they drift forward until the city fills their sight.

"Like L.A." Matt says.


"City on Earth, ages ago." He waves a hand. "Forget it."

He's too busy staring at Rawliston to talk about it. Elizabeth too falls silent; like Gregor, she's never seen a city of this size--a human city, anyway--from above. The primate brain is hardwired to respond to complexity with fascination, as Matt knows too well. The asteroid habitat of the aliens still haunts dreams from which he wakes bereft. A city from the air is but a crude outline of that and still the most complex object of human devising you can grasp in a single gaze.

First the suburbs: shanties with allotments, on the outermost fringe where they merge with the poorer farmland close to the city; then the shacks are replaced by more substantial dwellings, and all the roads, not just the main throughfares, are visibly paved, gleaming black rather than dusty brown. Water tanks on stilts like marching Martians, instead of rain butts and culverts; decorative floral gardens and lawns, instead of tiny, frantic fields. The traffic too has changed--out on the fringe it was human or animal, interspersed with great laboring machines farting smoke, and small overladen contraptions buzzing among them, and lots of bicycles; closer in, the vehicles shine, the large trucks and haulage vehicles gleaming with vivid colors and polished metal piping, the small ones carapaced in enamel, their shapes like oval, painted fingernails. Bridges, large and small, unite the two sides of the broadening river that divides the city.

The average height of buildings rises, as does their mass. Built of stone rather than concrete, brick or wood or corrugated iron, just before the seafront they rise like a stone wave, this crest breaking to a lower, less salubrious splash of industrial and commercial buildings, docks and quays on either side of the river mouth and around the curve of the bay.

Beyond that the harbor, crowded with ships; and beyond these ships, out in the roads, two kilometers out to sea, the starship berth is flagged by buoys. Three starships lie there, floating more in air than in water.

"The de Tenebre ship," Salasso remarks, bringing them in alongside one of them. Matt has always felt that identifying a starship by the merchant family who travel in it makes about as much sense as naming an oceangoing vessel after some lineage among its complement of rats. The starships--or motherships, as he sometimes can't help calling them, in another mental glitch--are, well, as he thinks now, big mothers: hundreds of meters long, bigger than any other machine he's seen apart from oil tankers and heavy-lift boosters. Close up, the de Tenebre starship looks even bigger, reducing their own fifty-meter-long lash-up of modules and walk tubes to a raft bobbing alongside.

As the drive powers down to the minimum required to keep them afloat, or aloft--they can see the waves break against the invisible screen of the field--a babble of radio voices breaks through, along with a lot of hissing and howling as Salasso, slightly rattled, twiddles the dial. He finds the channel he seeks.

"...yourselves please," says a voice with a twangy accent. "Ship in the roads, identify yourselves please."

Matt leans forward as Salasso hesitates.

"Tell him," he says, "that the Cairns ship has come in."

Copyright © 2002 by Ken MacLeod


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