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The Well of Stars

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The Well of Stars

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Author: Robert Reed
Publisher: Orbit, 2005
Tor, 2005
Series: The Great Ship Universe: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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In The Well of Stars, Hugo award-nominated author Robert Reed has written a stunning sequel to his acclaimed novel Marrow. The Great Ship, so vast that it contains within its depths a planet that lay undiscovered for generations, has cruised through the universe for untold billions of years. After a disastrous exploration of the planet, Marrow, the Ship's captains face an increasingly restive population aboard their mammoth vessel.

And now, compounding the captains' troubles, the Ship is heading on an irreversible course straight for the Ink Well, a dark, opaque nebula. Washen and Pamir, the captains who saved Marrow from utter destruction, send Mere, whose uncanny ability to adapt to and understand other cultures makes her the only one for the job, to investigate the nebula before they plunge blindly in. While Mere is away, Pamir discovers in the Ink Well the presence of a god-like entity with powers so potentially destructive that it might destroy the ship and its millions.

Faced with an entity that might prevent the Ship from ever leaving the Ink Well, the Ship's only hope now rests in the ingenuity of the vast crew... and with Mere, who has not contacted them since she left the Ship...

With the excitement of epic science fiction adventure set against a universe full of wonders, the odyssey of the Ship and its captains will capture the hearts of science fiction readers.



I have no voice that explains where I began, no mouth to tell why I was imagined or how I was assembled, and I no idea who deserves thanks for my simple existence, assuming that thanks are appropriate. I recall absolutely nothing about my exceptionally murky origins... but I know well that for a long cold while I was perfectly mute and only slightly more conscious than stone, sliding through the emptiest, blackest reaches of space, my only persistent thought telling me that I was to do nothing but wait ... wait for something wondrous, or something awful... wait for some little event or a knowing voice that would help answer those questions that I could barely ask of myself ... .

For aeons and a day, I felt remarkably, painfully tiny. Drifting through the cosmos, I imagined myself as a substantial but otherwise ordinary species of cosmic dust. Compared to the vastness, I was nothing. How could I believe otherwise? Unobserved, I passed through intricate walls woven from newborn galaxies--magnificent hot swirls of suns and glowing dust, each revolving around some little black prick of collapsed Creation--and among that splendor, I was simply a nameless speck, a twist of random grit moving at an almost feeble speed, my interior unlit and profoundly cold, my leading face battered and slowly eroded by the endless rain of lesser dusts.

Through space and through time, I drifted.

Galaxies grew scarce, and the void was deeper and ever colder... and when I might have believed that I would never touch sunlight again... when my fate seemed to be blackness and the endless silence... I found myself falling toward a modest disk of stars and dust and little living worlds....

By chance, a young species--the human species--noticed me while I was still descending through the outskirts of their Milky Way. Brave as fools and bold asgods, they built an armada of swift little ships and raced out to meet me, and to my utter amazement, I discovered that I was enormous--bigger than worlds, massive and enduring, and in their spellbound eyes, beautiful.

Humans were the first species to walk upon my face, and with a quick and efficient thoroughness, they explored my hollow places. To prove my considerable worth, they fought a little war to retain their hold on me. According to law and practicality, I was salvage, and I was theirs. In careful stages, they began to wake me, rousing my ancient reactors, my vast engines and life-support systems, repairing the damage left by my long, long sleep. And they gave me my first true voice--in a fashion. A thousand mouths were grafted on to me. Radio dishes and powerful lasers, neutrino beacons and spinning masses of degenerate matter endowed me with the power to shout at every approaching sun and all the living worlds. "Here I am," I would announce. "See me! Study me! Know me, then come visit me!" In a multitude of languages, my new mouths claimed, "I hunger for your company, your friendship, and your infinite trust." I asked, "Are you, like so many technological species, a func-tional immortal?" Then I promised, "For a fair fee, I will carry your ageless and precious soul to a distant world. Or in half a million years, after circumnavigating the Milky Way, I will bring you home again. Can you imagine a greater, more ennobling adventure than to journey once around our galaxy? Or for a still greater payment, I can become your permanent home--a vast, ever-changing realm offering more novelty and sheer wonder than any other body in Creation." Then with a barker's teasing laugh, I would ask, "What kind of immortal would you be if you didn't wish for such a splendid, endless fate... ?"

Like every proud child, I spoke obsessively about myself. Addressing species that I had never met, I defined my terms and described my dimensions, my depths, and my laudable talents. I was lovely igneous stone and ancient iron buttressed with hyperfiber bones, and my skin was a thick armor of high-grade hyperfiber capable of shruggingoff the impacts of interstellar gravel and full-bodied comets. I was swimming through the Milky Way at one-third the velocity of unencumbered light. My engines were as big as moons, and I was bigger than most of my patrons' home worlds: twenty Earth masses, and fifty thousand kilometers in diameter, with a hull covering nearly eight billion square kilometers. But my skin was nothing compared to my spongelike meat. Whoever built me had the foresight to give me endless arrays of wide caverns and neat tunnels, underground seas and chambers too numerous to be counted. I could conjure up any climate, replicate any odd biosphere. To travelers who appreciate robust numbers, I spat out an impressive figure. "Twenty trillion cubic kilometers." That was the combined volume of my hollow places. On a simple world such as the Earth--a world I will never see, except perhaps in passing--there are barely 200 million square kilometers of living space. Life exists in two dimensions, not three; trees and buildings reach only so high. Only the top fringe of the ocean and the little zones by the rifting plates are productive habitats. "Not with me," I said with a seamless arrogance. My new voice was designed to sound prideful, sharp, and confident. "With me, every little room is a potential paradise. I can give you the perfect illusion of any sunlight and the exact atmosphere that you find most pleasant, unless you need a hard vacuum, which I can achieve just as easily. I can manufacture soils to fit the most delicate chemistry and fluids enough to slake any thirst, and by an assortment of means, you can wander through my public areas--my shops and auditoriums, religious sites and scenic vistas--unless it is your preference to live entirely by yourself, which is your right. If solitude is your nature, I will honor your noble choice.

"I accept all species," I claimed. Which was true, to a degree. I would welcome every sentient soul, but my ageless human captains always retained the final word. My voice never entirely mentioned the possibility that travelers could come some great distance, and at no smallrisk to themselves, only to be informed that they could not afford passage, or less likely, that they were deemed too unstable or too dangerous to be allowed to live among my more docile passengers.

Always, always, I sang endless praises of my human caretakers. They were my captains, my engineers, my guiding hands and crafty fingers. They owned me, I admitted with a voice that couldn't have sounded more thrilled. Better than any other species, the humans knew my depths, understood my potentials, and were fully prepared to hold tight to me until the end of Creation.

Perhaps I believed those boastful words, but my truest feelings remained secret, even from myself.

I am rich in many things, but particularly in those things that are unknown.

Washen was one of the first children born inside me, and that earliest little portion of her considerable life was spent in a modest house overlooking one of my warm blue seas. Her loving parents were engineers, by training and by deepest conviction, meaning that not only did they know how to build every possible structure and every conceivable machine, they also possessed the clear, un-sentimental, and pragmatic outlook of true engineers: The universe-their universe-was rich with an elegant beauty, known elements and reliable forces playing against each other in ancient, proven ways. If there were questions of consequence needing to be solved-a dubious possibility, at best--then those questions didn't involve people of their particular caliber. Engineering was a finished profession. The galaxy was adorned with many wise old species that long ago had mastered Nature's basic tricks. Humans were virtual newcomers. With nothing but science and intuition to guide them, human engineers had managed to teach themselves how to build lasers and fusion reactors and bioceramic materials. Given time, they might have invented much of the rest of what was possible. But during their twenty-first century, a moon-boundobservatory glanced at a particularly rich portion of the sky, for a few perfect moments, intercepting a tight-beamed broadcast from a distant civilization that was bound for an even more distant world.

Inside that dense and highly structured burst of blue light were enough tricks and fancies to fuel a dozen intellectual revolutions. Hyperfiber was perhaps the greatest of the alien gifts. Built from deceptively ordinary materials, it was a lightweight and potentially immortal substance that could endure almost any abuse, and do so while shouldering almost any burden.

There were many reasons not to expect to find a great ship wandering on the fringes of the Milky Way. But no competent engineer was surprised to learn that my skin and bones were composed of hyperfiber. What else would a godly power employ in such an enormous construction? Perhaps my particular hyperfiber was a better grade than what people and most other species had cultured in the past, or even in the brilliant present. And yes, the scale and perfection of my spherical body demanded resources and quality controls that not even a thousand worlds working together could achieve. But nothing about me seemed genuinely impossible, much less threatening to the status quo. Yes, I was grand and highly unlikely, and marvelous, and enigmatic, but I still resided firmly in the grasp of an engineer's venerable, often-proved theories.

When Washen was a young girl, her parents helped first culture the finer grades of hyperfiber, using my hull's armor as their inspiration. They taught themselves to do the magic in sufficient quantities to patch my old craters and the occasional deep wound. Their house was littered with scraps and useless shards--failed experiments brought home from the factories--and sometimes Washen would pick up one...

Copyright © 2005 by Robert Reed


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