|Thirty thousand years in the future, descendants of humanity have
migrated deep towards the galactic core, to directly compete with
the machine based or 'mech' civilizations that dominate their
arrival. To survive, humanity is forced to transform itself, adding
biological and cybernetic enhancements, to compete with the machine.
Over 5000 years, as humanity falls further behind the mechcivs,
their culture decays from the glittering Chandelier Age where
humanity lived in great citadels between the stars, to the Arcology
era and finally the Citadel Age. By the last stages, humanity
has divided itself into great Families that live in technological
castles hiding amidst mechciv like rats in the wall.
This is the history of the future as envisioned by writer Gregory Benford (b. 1941), currently a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine, where he has been a facility member since 1971, and who produces some of the hardest of hard science fiction in his spare time. Case in point: The six novels of his GALACTIC CENTER cycle. Its first two novels (In the Ocean of Night, and Across the Sea of Suns) take place in this century; the last four (Great Sky River, Tides of Light, Furious Gulf, and Sailing Bright Eternity) take place 35,000 years in the future around and in the galactic core.
TSAT is proud to present Chapter 8 of the novel Great Sky River (with grateful acknowledgment of the permission of Gregory Benford) below for your amazement and wonder. Family Bishop and all of the other families on the planet Snowglade have had their Citadels shattered by the mechciv and now exist only as small tribes wandering the nearly incomprehensible mysteries of the mechciv that has taken over Snowglade. With them they have only their biological and cybernetic enhancements, chips that contain imprinted personalities from the distant past -- Aspects and Faces -- and a will to survive. Family Bishop has already escaped a MANTIS, and fled, only to miraculously meet another surviving Family when a mech attack strikes.
Go here for more information on Gregory Benford.
Twenty-two bodies. His subsystems counted them automatically as he carefully surveyed the far hills.
Twenty-two, all sprawled like loose bags. Suredead.
They had been hit by something firing from long range, something with remarkable aim. To do that took size, to get good triangulation.
Something big should be easy to spot. Even in the excitement, they should have seen it coming. As far as Killeen could see, there was nothing obvious, no crinkling play of sandy light.
Killeen heard/felt a thin, high, cold skreeeee. He ducked automatically. A passing fringe field. The Mantis could be behind him, could be anywhere.
Toby was down, left leg stuck straight out. The boy pushed with both hands and rolled himself partway up the side of the boulder. He grimaced and almost lost his balance.
Killeen reached for Toby's arm. "Come on!" -- and they went hobbling toward the nearest gully, crouched over.
Running, Killeen felt:
Low mutter of acousto-electro noise, like a Marauder strobe-searching.
A hard thump in the lower spine --
Toby gasped in pain, "What was... what..."
"Went over our heads. We caught the backwash."
Killeen remembered scrambled, spike-shot cues like this. They came when you were in the secondary emission lobe, where side-angling waves interfered with each other to build a small, fast-moving peak. Killeen's father had explained it to him once and all he could remember to counter it was to shut down all your senses except vision, go numb.
Killeen blotted out sound, smell, touch -- and was instantly in a silent, numb world. He stepped down his vision. Color drained from the world.
All the while he was half-carrying Toby, lunging forward awkwardly.
He fought to keep his balance. His feet sent back only dull drumbeats.
They crashed down the slope of the gully and ended in a tangled pile.
Family were crouched all along the shelf of broken stone. Killeen and Toby lay panting, watching. Killeen let his senses ease back to full.
The Families fought back defiantly. Some would jerk their arms up and fire off a humming round of electronoise without aiming. If your head wasn't exposed, there was no easy route into your sensorium. But of course they had no good idea of what the Mantis could do. And this time it had them neatly pinned, bunched together.
Killeen touched the boy's knee carefully. "Feel this?"
"Ah... ahhhh... it's okay."
"Musta clipped me, going by."
"How's this?" Flexing the leg a little.
"All ri -- ow!"
"Let it rest. Prob'ly come back in a while."
"How bad's it?"
Toby's eyes rolled up. His face paled. Killeen gripped him in blind fear. "Toby!"
Inside the boy a struggle snarled through embedded metal and augmented brain and parts for which Killeen had no name. His fists clenched in impotent despair. His face twisted hopelessly. "Toby!"
"Ahhhh..." A long sigh. Toby's legs jerked.
It was always this way, complex surges running faster than human thoughts could follow. They were spectators to their own feverquick interior zones. To buried ancient crafts.
The boy's lips moved numbly. They reddened. The inner battle ebbed.
Toby gasped, coughed. To Killeen's astonishment he sat up, gloves digging into gray sand. A whisper: "We got it... yet?"
"No, look, lie back --"
Toby's green eyes levelled, cleared. "Lemme..."
"Now you just --"
"Lemme shoot!" Toby demanded, voice strengthening.
"Keep down. Dunno where it is yet."
"I heard somethin' that way." Toby pointed shakily at a distant rockslide. From this low in the gully they could see only the uppermost jugged rubble of it.
"What'd it sound like?"
"When people started fallin'," Toby said wanly, "I heard metal tearin' apart. Real loud. My leg wouldn't move and I fell down and I heard that sound again, comin' from over there."
Killeen sensed as a shifting haze the random cries of the two Families, bleeding humanity blending together. The wounded grunted. Some sobbed. A woman called Alex Alex Alex Alex in a brittle, thin panic.
A few shouted for orders, plaintively seeking their Cap'n. Ledroff needlessly called for return fire but no one seemed to have a fix on what had happened, where to look.
They were all strewn through gullies in the plain, unable to maneuver. With almost no shelter, the Families would have to crawl out. But the Mantis could keep the high ground and follow them.
Killeen drew a long filament from his shoulder pack and hooked it into a steel eyelet at the tag end of his shirt cuff. It was a sensepipe his father had given him and its mico surface was scarred and yellowed. He snugged it into the eyejack in his temple.
Toby asked weakly, "Watcha..."
Killeen closed his eyes and the sensepipe took over. He saw/heard quick snatches of his surroundings. Then he angled his arm up and poked it over the pebbled rim. He searched the far horizon, working the point of view down. He regularly twitched his hand, to mix up the data inflow. That would help find mirages.
"Catching anything?" a deep woman's voice asked behind him.
"No. Leave me be,"
"Can find, I hit."
"Can find, I'll hit."
He didn't open his eyes. The distant ruined hillsides jumped and melted and flashed through the hotpoint, overloaded spectrum of his search pattern. He inched up the slope to get a lower angle and started searching the bottom fan of the rockslide.
A whisper of something metallic went by him, trailing away into a nervous rattling. A ranging shot, maybe. He kept riffling through his righteyed filters and was about to give up when he saw something move.
It was gone in an instant but he brought it back. A gangly body. Tripod legs. An intricate pattern was nestled into the rocks, its antennae swerving in jerks.
Killeen unjacked and rolled down the slope, warm sand trickling at this neck and into his suit. "Okay, let's see --"
Beside Toby, hands cradling the boy's calf muscle, knelt the woman. She wore faded gray tightweave. It clung to an exoskeleton which clasped her like a many-fingered fist. He had seen such before, but never so finely made. The exskell ribs wrapped around her long thin body and shooting down her legs in a cross-laced spiral. At her throat the black rib-fingers tapered into a flexible strands that coiled in at the back of her neck. They twitched slightly as she looked up at him, her muscles pulled and bunched by them. The bluegray eyes were level and assessing.
"-- see what you've got," he finished, in the heartbeat's pause taking in her worn backpack stuffed with lumpy gear, her bony black exskell, her coiled and pin-tucked ebony hair.
"That you see now." As she said it she sent two signals: A rawboned hand came up to pluck from the scuffed backpack a slender pressed-plastic rod. And she gave him a wolfish grin, all sharpedge and strungwire.
"I..." he gestured vaguely over his shoulder, "found it. What's that?"
"Bird," she said curtly.
Toby was watching her peacefully with a wobbly smile, as if her touch had calmed him. Killeen guessed the boy was starting to feel the afterrush, as sensation flooded back into the leg and the muscles went slack.
She stuck the rod into a shiny cylinder which lay at her feet. Killeen recognized these parts as scavenged Marauder parts, fitted ingeniously into a weapon different from any he had ever seen. As she hoisted it up at the sky the exskell flexed and purred and corrected a momentary imbalance in her legs.
"Sure you don't want..."
The eyes glinted proudly. "I can."
She duckwalked partway up the tawny sandstone slope. Stiffly she sprawled forward, the exskell grinding against stones as it stretched. The black-sheened ribs kept her real ribs from jagging into the stubby rocks. She cradled the rod forward, the end of it heavy with the copper-jacketed cylinder. Her right hand popped a molded handgrip from the stock of the rod. Cradling the rig, she sighted along it. She had two eyejacks. Both snugged into the mounts on the upper dowel of the stock.
Killeen wordlessly sent her his own short-time stored image of the Mantis. In the frame was a notation RANGE 2.3275 ZONE KM but he did now know what that meant.
She nodded slightly, her eyes closed. She fired.
The copper bird seemed to spin off its rod and glide away. It accelerated with a rush and before Killeen could stand up her heard a muffled crump.
A low tone vanished from his sensorium. He realized that the whole time since the attack he had been in the scan-fan of the Mantis, feeling the persistent probing.
The woman got slowly, achingly, to her feet.
"Damnfine weapon you got there."
Her dark, heavy-lidded eyes blinked languidly. "Killed."
With a releasing sigh he said, "Yeasea, yeafold."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Mantis was a jumble at the foot of the rockslide. Parts had sheared off from heavy steel lug nuts and crashed among tumbled boulders.
Killeen said slowly, "Could be the same's hit us a few days back."
The woman raised a thin, jetblack eyebrow. "Is?"
"Mantis. But we drilled the mainmind with a thumper!"
"I saw it."
She whirred and clicked as she walked, her exskell giving her a strange stiff grace. Her face angled down to a pointed chin which was covered by a red rash. To Killeen she seemed like a lattice, even her bones simple calcium rods in an onworking machine. Yet something tugged at him when the cool bluegray eyes studied his face.
"This piece here" -- he poked at a rivet ribbed steel ellipsoid -- "I thought was the mainmind."
She swing her head swiftly, yet in short jerks as though taking pictures of each piece of the shattered Mantis.
Borers spun at the base of the Mantis' central, glass-jacketed ellipsoid. The thing was trying to burrow into a sandy spot it had found. Killeen pressed his scrambler against the access lobe of the ellipsoid and fired. The thing shuddered and stopped.
"Hiding now," she said, and with surprising speed loped back toward the distant gully where the Families still crouched. Killeen followed, not understanding. He felt seeping gray fatigue as he crossed the bleached plain.
Toby hadn't moved but was testing his leg, thumping it against the ground to bring back feeling. "Heysay! Got it?"
Killeen nodded. "Must be 'nother of those --"
"Watch!" the woman called.
Killeen peered back at the sprawled carcass of the Mantis. Over the far brow of the hillside came four navvys. They picked their way down, stopping often for long moments. All of them had crosshatched side panels, much like the one Killeen had seen back at the 'plex.
The first navvy to reach the base encountered a piece of the Mantis and hoisted it aboard, fitting it securely atop the carryrack.
"Assemble," the woman said.
She said nothing. They watched silently. Killeen helped Toby up onto the brow of the gully and a few others joined them. There were dozens of Mantis parts and the navvys carefully dealt with each one.
Killeen studied the navvys with eyes slitted against the combined glare of Denix and the Eater. Too late now he understood that the Mantis had taken advantage of the two-star glare. Even augmented as they were, a heritage handed down from centuries before, humans could not see as well as mechs in either dark or searing bright. Against the Mantis' illusions they were blind.
And the Mantis had caught them when they were least guarded, most open and humanly vulnerable. Killeen clenched his jaw regularly, as though chewing on the fact.
He did not want to walk back onto the plain behind them, to see who had fallen. He had seen too much of it in the last few days. The sensorium carried skittering wails of despair, of horrible surprise.
There would be time for that. He watched as two navvys met and mutually put their loads on a bare rock platform. It would make as good a workbench as they seemed to require. One navvy sprouted a set of finepointed tools and began to take apart a chunky, half-ruined segment of the Mantis.
"They're fixin' it," Toby said wonderingly.
"Seen before?" the woman asked.
"Naysay, nothing like," Killeen answered. "But the mainmind --"
"Not one mind."
Toby put in, "Easier bring it live again, too."
"That, yeasay." The woman pursed her lips, as if tasting a possibility she didn't like.
"Looks like they've found a way to disperse the mind into different parts of the Mantis."
"One stupid, many smart?" she asked distantly.
Killeen saw what she meant. If intelligence could be made up of many dispersed pieces, each of low level, but each contributing a vital fraction of what was needed for a much smarter mech... "Maybe. Then the navvys come in, fix it up. Maybe replace one of the small minds if it's dead."
"Then waking again. Thinking. Hunting." Her ebony hair was arabesqued in coils that had a blue sheen. It made a woven pattern almost like looking at tightweave with a close-eye.
"A new kind Marauder?" Killeen asked.
The woman arched her bushy eyebrows and said nothing.
"We can't kill it?" Toby asked, hobbling around to test his leg.
"Not unless you skrag the whole works," Killeen said, starting to figure in his head. He estimated without numbers, just judging by the feel of his memory. Answers popped into his head and he didn't stop to wonder whether they came from Arthur or some other techAspect he carried. He simply said, with assurance, "We barely got enough ammo. Maybe could pound each piece of that Mantis. Be real close though."
Toby said, "I'll help!"
The woman frowned. "Too much."
Killeen agreed. "We skrag it, we'll use up most our armament."
Killeen looked questioningly at her and saw she meant not immediate threat but rather the challenge that Marauders like this represented. A new mech idea.
Toby scrambled away, looking for weapons, his leg working like a stiff rod but well enough to carry him. The woman said nothing, just watched the navvys slowly dragging parts together. Her breathing was so shallow it did not flex the exskell. Time-softened gray tightweave clung to her body. She was thin but her supple curves stood out against the unavoidable rigidities of her armor-web exskell, making her seem a feminine prisoner in a black cage. He wondered how she powered it. Then he noticed the back of her shirt zipped down; she must have opened it while she loped back from the Mantis. Photovoltaic eyes turned as she moved, following the ultraviolet mana of the Eater.
All to drive a shell which brought her muscle power up to the level of others. In her, the genetic pruning for greater strength had failed. Her metabolism converted food less efficiently into power. She needed this ribbed husk to keep up with the rest of her Family. Their rules were harsh. A member who fell behind died.
He asked, "Think we should skrag it?"
"I'll get Ledroff, some others. Those navvys're funny-actin', too. We'd better plan on taking them out from a distance. No simple disconnect."
"What? I figure hours before they've got all the parts --"
"No. We mourn first."
He nodded. It had been better to stand here and think about the Mantis than to go and find the friends hurt or dead or even suredead. But now he had to.
"This isn't your Family?"
"I meet them. My Family gone."
Her eyes regarded him flatly, giving nothing away. She had not come from his Citadel, for there had been no Knights there. So the other Citadels had been destroyed, too.
Killeen had come to feel that his loss was as great as anyone's, but this woman before him had lost her entire lineage and faced as well the insurrection of her own weak body. He had myriad questions to ask her, but the wan and pensive gaze she turned on him erased all thoughts in the enormity of its unstated implications.
"Let's go. The Families'll need help."
He helped her surmount the gully and cross the bleak landscape strewn with the newfallen dead.