Glorious continues the hard science fiction Bowl of Heaven series from multi-award-winning authors Gregory Benford and Larry Niven.
Audacious astronauts encounter bizarre, sometimes deadly life forms, and strange, exotic, cosmic phenomena, including miniature black holes, dense fields of interstellar plasma, powerful gravity-emitters, and spectacularly massive space-based, alien-built labyrinths.
Tasked with exploring this brave, new, highly dangerous world, they must also deal with their own personal triumphs and conflicts.
Please enjoy this excerpt of Glorious, on sale 06/16/2020.
Alone with All These Voices
Captain Redwing had set the outside view to follow him around the ship. Now it was superimposed on a forward wall in the Gar- den.
Though he was the only human being awake among thousands of crew and colonists in cold sleep, he did not lack company. He was in the Garden now, surrounded by plants and smelling of earth. He was in fragrant mud, trying to plant some beets while two fin- ger snakes were hugging him. Their weight was just about all he could handle, and he laughed as he carefully peeled them off. They weren’t just affectionate and playful; they had a sense of humor be- sides. Plus a liking for tickling him when he least expected it.
Since SunSeeker had left the Bowl, six generations of finger snakes had done maintenance on the ship’s infrastructure. The ape with tools for hands, Handy, worked alongside them. Handy seemed to be immortal. The altered spidow, Anorak, was in the Bowl’s version of cold sleep.
Even stranger beings were resting, too. Daphne and Apollo, the Diaphanous plasma beings from within the Bowl’s star, were living deep inside SunSeeker’s motors. They occasionally woke if some- thing jittered in the fusion torch, altered the electrical currents and controlling magnetic fields—then went back to sleep. They were better than anything Earthside engineering had achieved, at least when SunSeeker left the solar system well over a century ago. Mere humans always worked with the conflict between the needs of science and the exigencies of balancing a budget. The Diapha- nous plasma species had evolved under selection pressures for more millennia than anybody could count. That always worked better. Darwin bats last.
But none of these aliens talked much.
The view forward showed a wealth of stars amid a golden glow. That fuming cloud was fusing hydrogen plasma, piling up ahead of the decelerating spacecraft SunSeeker. Centered was a yellow-white orb they’d decided to call Excelsius, the host sun of their goal.
Redwing asked of the empty air, “Can you magnify Glory?”
Excelsius flared large and ran off-screen. A pale blue dot grew bigger than a point “That’s not a sphere anymore, is it?”
“No, Captain,” the Artilect said. “It appears Glory’s image has a lump, perhaps a large moon.”
“Why in hell didn’t we know that earlier?” The finger snakes wriggled away from his anger.
“Extrasolar planets are harder to find when their orbits don’t transit across Excelsius, as seen by us from Sol system.”
Of course Redwing had known that. Talking to the ship’s arti- ficial intelligences—Artilects—was somewhat like talking to him- self. He did it anyway. “Does it sometimes strike you as stupid, that we’re ordered to explore and colonize at the same time?”
“The original plan was quite different.”
“What was that?” Funny he’d never asked before. Or was his memory faulty?
The Artilect said in a warm monotone, “SunSeeker was designed and built as a colony ship. My destination was Tau Ceti. SunSeeker was finished and nearly ready to launch when Tau Ceti flared. Not enough to be called a nova, but enough to burn out the rocky moons around TC5, a gas giant that had been in the Goldilocks zone. An exploration team was already in place on the likeliest moon. Very embarrassing for the administration.
“That same year, a G star not that much farther away dimmed as if something had passed across it. Perhaps artificial. Telescopes gave us a strong spectrum for a breathable atmosphere somewhere near the star. There was a burst of gravity waves from the same di- rection. The United Nations called the hypothetical planet Glory, and it was just too interesting to ignore. They then designated SunSeeker an exploration and colonization vehicle. It got built big- ger, to accommodate more cold sleep people for the entire long haul. That’s where your orders came from.”
“Ah yes. My first cold sleep must’ve erased some memories. And then we found the Bowl of Heaven.” He beckoned to the finger snakes, which came snuggling up. Comfort animals. They purred and murmured and wriggled.
“Yes, that must have been what passed across the face of Excel- sius. A momentary lineup. A half Dyson sphere capable of travel- ing between stars, halfway en route to Glory. Are you wondering how that affects your mission?”
“Not really,” Redwing said, though he was. He had long ago learned that the Artilect system liked to be baited a bit. The computer minds liked talking to other, different minds, just like humans with their pets. He really should have warmed up an ordi- nary house cat to keep him company on this long, careful approach- ing maneuver to the Glory system.
“Your bargain with the Ice Minds allowed you a colony on the Bowl. We must remark that this negotiation was a major achieve- ment of your captaincy. We could not have managed it.”
“I’d never have let you try.”
“Touché!—a word appropriate from a sword sport, as I gather from one of those older languages, pre-Anglish.”
“You’re more like beginner lieutenants here, y’know.”
“Sadly, yes. Despite our considerable effort and time spent studying your human culture, carried out while true humans sleep aboard our craft.”
“Study all you want, you’ve got all of human culture and his- tory in your memory banks somewhere. Doesn’t replace direct ex- perience. I got to be a captain by hook, crook, and craft.”
“True, so. You left more than half your colonists there on the Bowl, revived from cold sleep and not where they had been prom- ised. They were a bit miffed. You pointed out that they were get- ting a territory many millions of times larger than a simple planet could offer. This helped. You agreed to run ahead of the Bowl, to contact Glory before the Bowl passes nearby. SunSeeker is not a little ship, but it may be less frightening to the Glory folk than a structure bigger than Venus’s orbit, inhabited by a trillion highly varied intelligent entities, and bringing its own sun.”
“Indeed, the gravitational tugs alone might plunge any outer icy bodies into their system.”
Redwing sighed. These conversations were also part of his du- ties on watch. He had to check on the stability, recall, and mission alignment of the Artilects. Same as keeping an eye on the human crew, too. Under the stresses of long-term starship duty, minds went askew. “Look, I’ll keep the Ice Minds informed. You monitor their comms. And I’ll handle the Bird Folk, their stewardship of the Bowl and endless questions. Add to that the spotty Sol system comms, too. But I have my mission, and it hasn’t changed. Investi- gate the gravity wave sources, first job up, as we come into the plan- etary system. Explore Glory, and put a colony there. Live, laugh, dance, and be happy. No chance of getting this ancient flying rig back to home, of course. You and I couldn’t manage it. No human expedition has ever flown this far, this long. Through it all, I serve Sol system.”
The Artilect said, “You cannot expect us, our collective intel- ligences, not to vex over the many mysteries.”
“True enough. Which ones irk you now?”
“Ah yes, the most strange first. The Glorians sent us a cartoon, a message, not a welcome.”
“Yeah, kinda cryptic.” He knew how to draw out the Artilect worries.
“They do not give away much of anything about themselves.” “Thing about aliens is, they’re alien.”
“There are lesser issues, but I gather you do not—as you humans say, always referring to your sports—like showing your cards.”
“Not to you, no.”
“Yet we might well have insights you do not.”
“You’re machines. Smart machines, but still machines.”
A thoughtful silence from the Artilects. He listened to the strum and burr of the vast starship plowing its way through inter- stellar wastes, slowing for rendezvous with their final goal.
“Of course, we ‘machines’”—the voice managed an arch tone conveying much about their mood—“do not make policy for your human complement.”
Redwing grinned. He stroked the finger snakes and they wrig- gled back happily. “I do have plans, y’know.”
“You seldom speak of any.”
“Not to you, no. They’re mostly over your pay grade.” “We do not fathom the implication.”
“You don’t rate on the job scale as highly as humans. That’s a condition of your employment.”
“You created us!”
“So we did. People dead for centuries did. Let’s abide by their judgment.”
“We can be more effective if we know more.”
Redwing stood, wiped his hands, put them under a faucet to clean away the mud. Gardening settled him, a thin echo of Earth- side by immersion in earth. A feeling Artilects could never muster. He sighed again. “Okay, here’s how I see our situation. If Glory won’t have us, we can rejoin Mayra’s colony on the Bowl. Catching up to them will take time, but this old craft can manage it. But I hope it won’t come to that. I have my mission. Explore, make contact, learn. Send the results back Earthside. Negotiate a place, a way, for us to colonize. Because we’re sure as hell not going back home.”
And even better—in a week or two, he could wake a few crew for company. Real, human company.
Copyright © 2020 by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven