Prologue: Journey Year 753
I stood on the lip of the southern borehole, clutching a service line, and, for the first time in my life, stared beyond the mass of Thistledown at the stars. They spread through deep space as many and sharp as a cloud of crystal snow blown against black onyx. The uncharted constellations spun with a stately haste, betraying the asteroid's rotation around its long axis.
The worksuit performed its tasks silently, and for a time I seemed a point of crystal myself, at the center of the crystal empyrean, at peace. I looked for patterns in the stars, but before I could find any, my companion interrupted me.
"Olmy." She pulled herself carefully along the line and floated beside me.
"Just a moment," I said.
"We're done here. Parties await us, Olmy. Celebrations and diversions... but you're a bonded man, aren't you?"
I shook my head, annoyed. "Hard to believe that something as huge as Thistledown can shrink to nothing," I said.
Her expression, surveying the stars, was half worry, half distaste. Kerria Ap Kane had been my partner in Way Defense since basic, a good friend if not exactly a soulmate. I had so few soulmates. Not even my bond...
"Give me a minute, Kerria."
"I want to get back." She shrugged. "All right. A minute. But why look outward?"
Kerria would never have understood. To her, the asteroid starship was all and everything, a world of infinite social opportunities: work, friends, even dying for Way Defense if it came to that. The stars were outside, "far south," and meant nothing; only the confined infinity of the Way aroused wonder in her soul.
"It's pretty," she said flatly. "Do you think we'll ever get to Van Brugh?"
Van Brugh's star, still a hundred light-years distant, had been the original goal of Thistledown. For most of the ship's population of Naderites -- my family included -- it was the point of all our existences, a holy destination, and had been for seven hundred years' journey time.
"Can we see it from here, do you think?"
"No," I said. "It's visible from midline this year."
"Too bad," Kerria said. She clucked her tongue restlessly.
The ten-kilometer-wide crater at Thistledown's southern pole had once deflected and directed the pulses of the Beckmann drive motors. The motors had not been fired in four centuries. I took one last look beyond the lip of the borehole, my eyes tracking outward along the honeycombed curve of the dimple at the center of the crater. Huge black many-limbed robots sat in the dimple around the lip of the borehole, having arranged themselves for our inspection hours earlier.
"All right," I said to the massed robots. "Go home." I aimed the command transponder and the machines backed away, hooks and claws grabbing the spinning slope, returning to their duties on the asteroid's surface.
We turned and pulled ourselves along the line down the bore hole, toward the tuberider, an oblate grayness resting lightly against the dark rock and metal wall. Beyond the tuberider lay the massive prime dock, a cylinder within the borehole designed to counterrotate and allow easier access to cargo vehicles. Tens of kilometers north glowed a small bright dot, the opening to the first chamber. We climbed into the tuberider, pressurized the cramped cabin, and collapsed our worksuits.
Kerria beamed a signal at the borehole mouth. Two massive shutters swung from the walls and came together like black-lipped jaws, sealing this end of Thistledown and blanking the stars.
"All clean and clear," she said. "Agreed?"
"All clear and clean," I said.
"Do the generals actually think the Jarts will get outside the Way and swing up our backside?" Kerria asked cheerfully.
"They surprised us once," I said. "They might do it again."
Kerria gave me a dubious grin. "Shall I drop you off at the sixth chamber?" she asked, lifting the vehicle away from the wall.
"I need to do some things in Thistledown City first."
"Ever the mystery man," Kerria said.
She had no idea.
We sped north down the tunnel. The kilometers to the end of the borehole passed rapidly. The entrance to the first chamber yawned wide, and we flew into brilliant tubelight.
Fifty kilometers in diameter and thirty deep, the first chamber seemed to my recent interstellar perspective to be little more than the inside of a big, squat drum. Its true size was emphasized by the slowness with which our tuberider crossed to the borehole in the chamber's northern cap.
Clouds decked the chamber floor, twenty-five kilometers below. The atmosphere in the chamber rose to a height of twenty kilometers, a sea of fluid lining the drum. I saw a small storm gathering on the floor overhead. No storm could touch us at the axis, riding as we were in almost perfect vacuum.
The first chamber was kept nearly deserted as a precaution against any breach of the comparatively thin walls of the asteroid at the southern end.
We traveled down the middle of the tube light, a translucent pipe of glowing plasma five kilometers wide and thirty long, generated at the chamber's northern and southern caps. We could see rapid pulses of light from our position along the axis, but on the chamber's floor, the tube presented a steady, yellow-white glow, day and night. So it was in all of the first six chambers.
The seventh chamber, of course, was different
The borehole seemed a pinprick in the gray, gently curved wall of asteroid rock ahead of us. "Shall I go manual and thread us in?" Kerria asked, grinning at me.
I smiled back but gave no answer. She was good enough to do it. She had piloted flawships and numerous other craft up and down the Way with expert ease.
"I'd rather relax," she said, peeved by my silence. "You would refuse to be impressed." She folded her arms back behind her head. "Besides, it's been a long day. I might miss."
"You never miss," I said.
"Damn right I don't." Inspections were mandated by Hexamon law twice yearly. Way Defense had upped that to four times yearly, with special emphasis on sixth chamber security, inspection of reserve batteries in the ship's cold outer walls, and maintenance of the southern borehole and external monitors. This time, Kerria and I had drawn inspection duty for the far south. We then had liberty for thirty days, and Kerria thought herself lucky: The Way's twenty-fifth anniversary celebration was just beginning.
But I had an unpleasant task ahead: betrayal, separation, putting an end to connections I no longer believed in but was not willing to mock.
The cap loomed, filling our forward view, and the second borehole suddenly swallowed us. Kilometers away, the opening to the second chamber city, Alexandria, made another brilliant dot against the tunnel's unlighted blackness.
"Elevator, or shall I swoop down and drop you off somewhere?"
"Elevator," I said.
"My," Kerria said with a cluck. "Glum?"
"You sound like a chicken," I said.
"You've never seen a live chicken. How can you be glum with so much liberty ahead?"
We passed into the second chamber, the same size as the first, but filled with Thistledown's oldest city. Alexandria covered two-thirds of the second chamber floor, thirty-one-hundred square kilometers of glorious white and gold and bronze and green towers arrayed in spirals and stepped ranks, walls of blunt-faced black and gold cubes, ornately inscribed spheres rising from massive cradles themselves rich with colors and populations. Between the city and the southern cap stretched a blue-green "river," a kilometer wide and several meters deep, flowing beneath the graceful suspension bridges spaced at the floor's four quarters. In Thistledown's original designs, the parks along the capside bank did not exist; in their place had risen a "slosh" barrier one hundred meters higher than the opposite shore to mitigate the effects of the ship's acceleration. But in the early days of Thistledown's construction, that problem had been solved by the inertial damping machinery in the sixth chamber. The same machinery, centuries later, had allowed Konrad Korzenowski to contemplate creating the Way. The chamber floor was flat, not banked; the park and the river formed bands of green and blue around the chamber's southern end.
Parks and forests covered the open spaces between neighborhoods. In plots scattered around the city, robots labored to finish structures destined to absorb the slowly growing population. Thistledown was ever young.
After seven centuries, the asteroid's inhabitants numbered seventy-five million. She had begun her voyage with five million.
Kerria clucked again and shook her head. We passed over Alexandria and into the third borehole. Near the northern opening, she slowed the vehicle and sidled up against a raised entrance. A transfer passage reached across to the door of the tuberider and I disembarked. I waved to Kerria and stepped into the green and silver elevator. The air smelled of moisture and people, the clean but unmistakably human perfume of the city where I had lived two years of my youth.
"See you in a few days?" Kerria said, looking after me with some concern.
I leaned my head to one side and said good-bye to her.
On the way down, I told my uniform to become civilian, standard day dress style one, mildly formal. I wanted to avoid attracting attention as a member of Way Defense, not all that common in the Naderite community.
The elevator took nine minutes to reach the chamber floor. I stepped out and walked down the short corridor into the chamber proper.
I crossed the Shahrazad bridge, listening to the whisper of the slender Fa River and the wind-blown rustle of thousands of long red ribbons blowing from the wires in the gentle breeze from the southern cap. Some neighborhood had chosen this decoration for the bridge, this month; in another month it might be crawling with tiny glowing robots.
Thistledown City had been built in the first two centuries after the starship's departure. With its chamber-spanning catenary cables, reaching from cap to cap and hung with slender white buildings, it seemed to dwarf Alexandria. It was obviously a Geshel showplace -- and yet, in the worst conflicts between Geshels and Naderites on the starship, after the opening of the Way, many conservative and radical Naderites had been forced to move from their homes in Alexandria to new quarters in Thistledown City. There were still strong Naderite neighborhoods near the southern cap. New construction was under way here as well, with arches being erected parallel to the caps, the greatest planned to be ten kilometers long.
A short walk took me to the tall cylindrical building where I had spent my early childhood. Through round hallways filled with sourceless illumination, my shadow forming and dissolving in random arcs around me, I returned to our old apartment
My parents were away in Alexandria, to escape the celebrations -- I had known that before coming here. I entered the apartment and sealed the door, then turned to the memory plaques in the living center.
For twenty-four years, I had kept one important secret, known to me and perhaps one other -- the man or woman or being who had placed the old friend in this particular building, not anticipating that an inquisitive child might come upon him, almost by accident. I had come here to check up on a friend who had died before I was born, in his perfect hiding place, and make certain he was still hidden and undisturbed.
I -- and no more than that one other, I was convinced -- knew the last resting place of the great Konrad Korzenowski -- the tomb not of his body but of what remained of his personality after his assassination by radical Naderites.
I connected with the building's memory, used a mouse agent to bypass personal sentries, as I had decades ago and at least once a year since, and dropped into the encrypted memory store.
Hello, I said.
The presence stirred. Even without a body, it seemed to smile. It was no longer human, half its character having been destroyed, but it could still interact and share warm memories. What remained of the great Korzenowski was vulnerably friendly. All of its caution removed, all of its self-protections destroyed, it could only be one thing -- a giving and occasionally brilliant friend, ideal for a lonely young child unsure of himself. I kept this secret for one reason: damaged personalities could not be repaired, by Naderite law. If what remained of Korzenowski were to be discovered, it would be erased completely.
Hello, Olmy, it answered. How is the Way?
An hour later, I cabbed across the city to the mixed Geshel and Naderite "progressive" neighborhoods, favored by students and Way Defense members. There, in my small apartment, I linked with city memory, sent my planned locations for the next few days to the corps commanders, and removed my mutable uniform for purely civilian garb appropriate to the celebration: sky-blue pants, Earth-brown vest, pale green jacket, and light boots.
I returned to the train station.
As I joined the throng waiting on the platform, I looked for familiar faces and found none. Four years in service guarding against the Jarts on the extreme frontiers of the Way, four billion kilometers north of Thistledown, had given my Geshel acquaintances from university time to change not just partners and philosophies, but body patterns as well. If any of my student friends were in the crowd, I probably would not recognize them. I did not expect to find many Way Defenders here.
Except for raccoon stripes of pale blue around my eyes, I was still physically the same as I had been four years before. Arrogant, full of my own thoughts, headstrong and sometimes insensitive, judged brilliant by many of my peers and moody by many more -- attractive to women in that strange way women are attracted to those who might hurt them -- the only child of the most mannered and gracious of parents, praised frequently and punished seldom, I had reached my thirtieth year convinced of my courage from a minimum of testing, yet even more convinced there would be greater tests in store. I had abandoned the faith of my father and, in truth, had never understood the faith of my mother.
Thistledown, immense as it was, did not seem capable of containing my ambition. I did not think I was young, and certainly did not feel inexperienced. After all, I had served four years in Way Defense. I had participated in what seemed at the time to be important actions against the Jarts...
Yet now, caught up in crowds celebrating the silver anniversary of Thistledown's wedding with the Way, I seemed an anonymous bubble in a flowing stream, smaller than I had felt among the stars. What I was about to do dismayed me.
Music and pictures flowed over the largely Geshel crowd, narrative voices telling the details we all knew, Naderites and Geshels alike, by heart. Twenty-five years before, Korzenowski and his assistants had completed, connected, and opened the Way. From my childhood, the Way had beckoned, the only place -- if place it could be called -- likely to provide the tests I craved.
"In the history of humankind, has there ever been anything more audacious? Issuing from Thistledown's seventh chamber, the inside (there is no 'outside') of an endless immaterial pipe fifty kilometers in diameter, smooth barren surface the color of newly-cast bronze, the Way is a universe turned inside-out, threaded by an axial singularity called the flaw...
"And at regular intervals along the surface of the Way, potential openings to other places and times, histories and realities strung like beads..."
My parents -- and most of my friends during my early youth -- were devoted Naderites, of that semi-orthodox persuasion known as Voyagers. They believed it was simple destiny for humankind to have carved seven chambers out of the asteroid Juno, attached Beckmann drive motors, and converted the huge planetesimal into a starship, christened Thistledown. They believed -- as did all but the extreme Naderites -- that it was right and just to transport millions across the vast between the stars to settle fresh new worlds. Our family had lived for centuries in Alexandria, in the second and third chambers; we had all been born on Thistledown. We knew no other existence.
They simply did not believe in the creation of the Way. That, virtually all Naderites agreed, had been an abomination of the Korzenowski and the overly ambitious Geshels.
By releasing the bond between myself and the woman chosen for me in my youth at Ripen, I would finally end my life as a Naderite.
The trains arrived with a flourish as sheets of red and white arced over the train station. The crowd roared like a monstrous but happy animal, and pushed me across the platform to the doors spread wide to receive us. I was lost in a sea of faces smiling, grimacing, laughing, or just intent on keeping upright in the jostle.
We packed into the trains so closely we could scarcely move. A young woman jammed against me; she glanced up at me, face flushed, smiling happily but a little scared. She wore Geshel fashion, but by the cut of her hair I saw she was from a Naderite family: rebelling, cutting loose, joining the Geshel crowds on this least holy of celebrations -- perhaps not caring in the least what the celebration was about.
"What's your name?" she asked, nibbling her lower lip, as if expecting some rebuff.
"Olmy," I said.
"You're lovely... with the mask. Did you do it yourself?"
I smiled down at her. She was perhaps five years younger than I, years past Ripen, an adult by any measure, Naderite or Geshel, but out of her place. She rubbed against me in the jostle, half deliberate. I felt little attraction to her, but some concern.
"You're going to see the Way? Visit Axis City?" I asked, bending to whisper in her ear.
"Yes!" she answered, eyes dancing. "And you?"
"Eventually. Family meeting you there?"
She flushed crimson. "No," she said.
"Bond meeting you there?"
"I'd think again," I said. "Geshels can get pretty wild when they party. The Way makes them drunk."
She drew back, blinking. "It's my hair, isn't it?" she said, lips flicking down suddenly. She fought to get away from me, pushing through the thick pack, glancing over her shoulder resentfully.
For the young -- and at thirty, in a culture where one could live to be centuries, I could not think of myself as anything but very young -- to be a Geshel was infinitely more exciting than being a Naderite. We all lived within a miracle of technology, and it seemed the soul of Thistledown had grown tired of confinement. The Geshels, who embraced the most extreme technologies and changes, offered the glamour of infinite adventure down the Way, contrasted with the weary certainty of centuries more in space, traveling with Thistledown in search of unknown planets around a single distant star.
Truly, we had outstripped the goals of our ancestors. To many of us, it seemed irrational to cling to an outmoded philosophy.
Yet something tugged at me, a lost sense of comfort and certainty...
The train passed through the asteroid rock beneath Thistledown City, more news of the celebration projected over the faces of the passengers. Stylized songs and histories flowed over and around us:
"For twenty-five years, the Way has beckoned to pioneers, an infinite frontier, filled with inexhaustible mystery -- and danger. Though created by the citizens of Thistledown, even before it was opened, the Way was parasitized by intelligences both violent and ingenious, the Jarts. With the Jart influence now pushed back beyond the first two billion kilometers of the Way, gates have been opened at a steady pace, and new worlds discovered--"
I pressed through the crowd and left the train in the fourth chamber. The open-air platform held only a few sightseers, mostly Naderites, fleeing to the countryside of forests and waterways and deserts and mountains to escape the celebration. But even here the sky that filled the cylindrical chamber flashed with bright colors. The yellow-white tubelight that spanned the chamber's axis had been transformed into a pulsing work of art.
"They're overstepping it," grumbled an older Naderite man on the platform, dignified in his gray and blue robes. His wife nodded agreement. Twenty kilometers above us, the tubelight sparkled and glittered green and red. Snakelike lines of intense white writhed within the glow.
Forests rose on all sides of the station and resort buildings. From the floor, the chamber's immensity revealed itself with deceptive gradualness. For five kilometers on each side, as one stared along a parallel to the flat gray walls of asteroid rock and metal capping the cylinder, the landscape appeared flat, as it might have seemed on Earth. But the cylinder's curve lofted the land into a bridge that met high overhead, fifty kilometers away, lakes and forest and mountains suspended in a haze of atmosphere, transected by the unusual gaiety of the tubelight.
In the early days, the chambers had been called "squirrel cages"; though immense, they were roughly of the same proportions. The entire ship spun around its long axis, centrifugal force pressing things to the chamber floors with an acceleration of six-tenths' Earth's gravity.
My heart felt dull as lead. The station platform was just a few kilometers from the Vishnu Forest, where my bond would be waiting for me.
I walked, glad for the delay and the exercise.
Uleysa Ram Donnell stood alone by the outside rail beneath the pavilion where we had once jointly celebrated our Ripen. We had been ten then. She leaned against the wooden railing, backed by the giant trunks of redwood trees as old as Thistledown, a small black figure on the deserted dance floor. The high white dome shielded her from the rainbow flows of the tubelight. I walked up the steps slowly, and she watched with arms folded, face going quickly from pleasure at seeing me to concern. We had spent enough time together to prepare for being man and wife; we knew each other well enough to sense moods.
We embraced under the high white pine dome. "You've been neglectful," she said. "I've missed you." Uleysa was as tall as I and after we kissed, she regarded me at a level, large black eyes steady and a little narrowed by lids drawn with unspoken suspicion. Her face was lovely, clearly marked by intelligence and concern, nose gently arced, chin rounded and slightly withdrawn.
Our bond was special to our parents. They hoped for a strong Naderite union leading into city and perhaps even shipwide politics; her parents had spoken of our becoming Hexamon representatives, joint administers, part of the resurgence in Naderite leadership...
"You've changed," Uleysa said. "Your postings--" For a moment I saw something like little-girl panic in her eyes.
I said what I had to say, not proudly and not too quickly. My numbness grew into a kind of shock.
"Where will you go?" she asked. "What will you do?"
"Another life," I said.
"Do I bore you so much?"
"You have never bored me," I said with some anger. "The flaws are mine."
"Yes," she said, eyes slitted, teeth clenched. "I think they must be... all yours."
I wanted to kiss her, to thank her for the time we had had, the growing up, but I should have done that before I spoke. She pushed me away, held out her hands, and shook her head quickly.
I walked from beneath that dome feeling at once miserable and free.
Back on still another crowded train to the sixth chamber, I simply felt empty.
Uleysa had not cried. I had not expected her to. She was strong and proud and would have no difficulty finding another bond. But we both knew one thing: I had betrayed her, and the plans of our families.
Copyright © 1995 by Greg Bear