Absolution Gap


By Alastair Reynolds

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In the third book of the legendary Revelation Space trilogy, the last remnants of humanity realize that forging an alliance with a greater and even more mysterious alien force may be their only chance for survival.

The Inhibitors were designed to eliminate any life form reaching a certain level of intelligence — and they’ve targeted Humanity. War veteran Clavain and a ragtag group of refugees have fled into hiding. Their leadership is faltering, and their situation is growing more desperate. But their little colony has just received an unexpected visitor: an avenging angel with the power to lead mankind to safety — or draw down its darkest enemy.

And as she leads them to an apparently insignificant moon light-years away, it begins to dawn on Clavain and his companions that to beat one enemy, it may be necessary to forge an alliance with something much worse . . .

Absolution Gap is a good as it gets, and should solidify Alastair Reynolds’ reputation as one of the best hard SF writers in the field.” — SF Site


Praise for Alastair Reynolds:
‘Alastair Reynolds is a name to watch. Mixing shades of Banks and Gibson with gigatons of originality’
‘Intensely compelling; darkly intelligent; hugely ambitious’
Paul McAuley
‘Reynolds’ narrative is truly breathtaking in scope and intricate in detail, making him a mastersinger of the space opera’
‘When word of mouth builds up the head of steam that Reynolds’ massive SF epic has created, attention needs to be paid. Like many of the best novels in the hard SF genre, the span here is mind-boggling, with a comprehensively realised protagonist’
Good Book Guide
‘[Alastair Reynolds] has a genius for big-concept SF’
Publisher’s Weekly
‘Dark, gothic and graphic, with tightly composed narratives full of shocks and jaw-dropping moments’
BBC Focus
‘Reynolds is currently the best exponent of this “Sense of Wonder” school’
Daily Telegraph
‘Alastair Reynolds occupies the same frenzied imaginative space as Philip K. Dick or A. E. Van Vogt’
M. John Harrison, Guardian
‘He is taking the stuff of space opera and making it into something new . . . the most exciting space opera writer working today’

Alastair Reynolds was born in Barry, South Wales, in 1966, and studied at Newcastle and St Andrews Universities. He has a Ph.D. in astronomy and worked as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency before becoming a full-time writer. His space operas, the ‘Revelation Space’ series, Revelation Space, shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke and the BSFA Awards, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award, Pushing Ice, shortlisted for the Arthur C.Clarke Award, and House of Suns, his SF thrillers, Chasm City, winner of the British Science Fiction Award, and Century Rain and collections Galactic North and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, are all Gollancz bestsellers. He lives in South Wales.

Also by Alastair Reynolds:
Chasm City
Century Rain
Pushing Ice
The Prefect
House of Suns
The Revelation Space sequence:
Revelation Space
Redemption Ark
Absolution Gap
Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days
Galactic North

First published in Great Britain in 2003 by Gollancz.
Th eBook first published n 2009 by Orion on Books.
Copyright © Alastair Reynolds 2003
The rights of Alastair Reynolds to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the copyright, designs and patents act 1988.
All characters and events in this publication are ficititious and any resemblance to real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
eISBN : 978 0 5750 8767 5
This eBook produced by Jouve France.
Orion Books
The Orion Publishing Group Ltd Orion House 5 Upp St Martin’s Lane London WC2H 9EA
An Hachette UK mp Company

For my Grandparents

‘The Universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine’
Sir James Jeans

She stands alone at the jetty’s end, watching the sky. In the moonlight, the planked boarding of the jetty is a shimmering silver-blue ribbon reaching back to shore. The sea is ink-black, lapping calmly against the jetty’s supports. Across the bay, out towards the western horizon, there are patches of luminosity: smudges of twinkling pastel-green, as if a fleet of galleons has gone down with all lights ablaze.
She is clothed, if that is the word, in a white cloud of mechanical butterflies. She urges them to draw closer, their wings meshing tight. They form themselves into a kind of armour. It is not that she is cold - the evening breeze is warm and freighted with the faint, exotic tang of distant islands - but that she feels vulnerable, sensing the scrutiny of something vaster and older than she. Had she arrived a month earlier, when there were still tens of thousands of people on this planet, she doubted that the sea would have paid her this much attention. But the islands are all abandoned now, save for a handful of stubborn laggards, or newly arrived latecomers like herself. She is something new here - or, rather, something that has been away for a great while - and her chemical signal is awakening the sea. The smudges of light across the bay have appeared since her descent. It is not coincidence.
After all this time, the sea still remembers her.
‘We should go now,’ her protector calls, his voice reaching her from the black wedge of land where he waits, leaning impatiently on his stick. ‘It isn’t safe, now that they’ve stopped shepherding the ring.’
The ring, yes: she sees it now, bisecting the sky like an exaggerated, heavy-handed rendition of the Milky Way. It spangles and glimmers: countless flinty chips of rubble catching the light from the closer sun. When she arrived, the planetary authorities were still maintaining it: every few minutes or so, she would see the pink glint of a steering rocket as one of the drones boosted the orbit of a piece of debris, keeping it from grazing the planet’s atmosphere and falling into the sea. She understood that the locals made wishes on the glints. They were no more superstitious than any of the other planet dwellers she had met, but they understood the utter fragility of their world - that without the glints there was no future. It would have cost the authorities nothing to continue shepherding the ring: the self-repairing drones had been performing the same mindless task for four hundred years, ever since the resettlement. Turning them off had been a purely symbolic gesture, designed to encourage the evacuation.
Through the veil of the ring, she sees the other, more distant moon: the one that wasn’t shattered. Almost no one here had any idea what happened. She did. She had seen it with her own eyes, albeit from a distance.
‘If we stay . . .’ her protector says.
She turns back, towards the land. ‘I just need a little time. Then we can go.’
‘I’m worried about someone stealing the ship. I’m worried about the Nestbuilders.’
She nods, understanding his fears, but still determined to do the thing that has brought her here.
‘The ship will be fine. And the Nestbuilders aren’t anything to worry about.’
‘They seem to be taking a particular interest in us.’
She brushes an errant mechanical butterfly from her brow. ‘They always have. They’re just nosy, that’s all.’
‘One hour,’ he says. ‘Then I’m leaving you here.’
‘You wouldn’t.’
‘Only one way to find out, isn’t there?’
She smiles, knowing he won’t desert her. But he’s right to be nervous: all the way in they had been pushing against the grain of evacuation. It was like swimming upstream, buffeted by the outward flow of countless ships. By the time they reached orbit, the transit stalks had already been blockaded: the authorities weren’t allowing anyone to ride them down to the surface. It had taken bribery and guile to secure passage on a descending car. They’d had the compartment to themselves, but the whole thing - so her companion had said - had smelt of fear and panic; human chemical signals etched into the very fabric of the furniture. She was glad she didn’t have his acuity with smells. She is frightened enough as it is: more than she wants him to know. She had been even more frightened when the Nestbuilders followed her into the system. Their elaborate spiral-hulled ship - fluted and chambered, vaguely translucent - is one of the last vessels in orbit. Do they want something of her, or have they just come to spectate?
She looks out to sea again. It might be her imagination, but the glowing smudges appear to have increased in number and size; less like a fleet of galleons below the water now than an entire sunken metropolis. And the smudges seem to be creeping towards the seaward end of the jetty. The ocean can taste her: tiny organisms scurry between the air and the sea. They seep through skin, into blood, into brain.
She wonders how much the sea knows. It must have sensed the evacuation: felt the departure of so many human minds. It must have missed the coming and going of swimmers, and the neural information they carried. It might even have sensed the end of the shepherding operation: two or three small chunks of former moon have already splashed down, although nowhere near these islands. But how much does it really know about what is going to happen? she wonders.
She issues a command to the butterflies. A regiment detaches from her sleeve, assembling before her face. They interlace wings, forming a ragged-edged screen the size of a handkerchief, with only the wings on the edge continuing to flutter. Now the sheet changes colour, becoming perfectly transparent save for a violet border. She cranes her head, looking high into the evening sky, through the debris ring. With a trick of computation the butterflies erase the ring and the moon. The sky darkens by degrees, the blackness becoming blacker, the stars brighter. She directs her attention to one particular star, picking it out after a moment’s concentration.
There is nothing remarkable about this star. It is simply the nearest one to this binary system, a handful of light-years away. But this star has now become a marker, the leading wave of something that cannot be stopped. She was there when they evacuated that system, thirty years ago.
The butterflies perform another trick of computation. The view zooms in, concentrating on that one star. The star becomes brighter, until it begins to show colour. Not white now, not even blue-white, but the unmistakable tint of green.
It isn’t right.

Ararat, p Eridani A System, 2675
Scorpio kept an eye on Vasko as the young man swam to shore. All the way in he had thought about drowning, what it would feel like to slide down through unlit fathoms. They said that if you had to die, if you had no choice in the matter, then drowning was not the worst way to go. He wondered how anyone could be sure of this, and whether it applied to pigs.
He was still thinking about it when the boat came to a sliding halt, the electric outboard racing until he killed it.
Scorpio poked a stick overboard, judging the water to be no more than half a metre deep. He had hoped to locate one of the channels that allowed a closer approach to the island, but this would have to do. Even if he had not agreed a place of rendezvous with Vasko, there was no time to push back out to sea and curl around hunting for something he had enough trouble finding when the sea was clear and the sky completely empty of clouds.
Scorpio moved to the bow and took hold of the plastic-sheathed rope Vasko had been using as a pillow. He wrapped one end tightly around his wrist and then vaulted over the side of the boat in a single fluid movement. He splashed into the shallows, the bottle-green water lapping just above his knees. He could barely feel the cold through the thick leather of his boots and leggings. The boat was drifting slowly now that he had disembarked, but with a flick of his wrist he took up the slack in the line and brought the bow around by several degrees. He started walking, leaning hard to haul the boat. The rocks beneath his feet were treacherous, but for once his bow-legged gait served him well. He did not break his rhythm until the water was only halfway up his boots and he again felt the boat scrape bottom. He hauled it a dozen strides further ashore, but that was as far as he was prepared to risk dragging it.
He saw that Vasko had reached the shallows. The young man abandoned swimming and stood up in the water.
Scorpio got back into the boat, flakes and scabs of corroded metal breaking away in his grip as he tugged the hull closer by the gunwale. The boat was past its hundred and twentieth hour of immersion, this likely to be its final voyage. He reached over the side and dropped the small anchor. He could have done so earlier, but anchors were just as prone to erosion as hulls. It paid not to place too much trust in them.
Another glance at Vasko. He was picking his way carefully towards the boat, his arms outstretched for balance.
Scorpio gathered his companion’s clothes and stuffed them into his pack, which already contained rations, fresh water and medical supplies. He heaved the pack on to his back and began the short trudge to dry land, taking care to check on Vasko occasionally. Scorpio knew he had been hard on Vasko, but once the anger had started rising in him there had been no holding it in check. He found this development disturbing. It was twenty-three years since Scorpio had raised his hand in anger against a human, except in the pursuit of duty. But he recognised that there was also a violence in words. Once, he would have laughed it off, but lately he had been trying to live a different kind of life. He thought he had put certain things behind him.
It was, of course, the prospect of meeting Clavain that had brought all that fury to the surface. Too much apprehension, too many emotional threads reaching back into the blood-drenched mire of the past. Clavain knew what Scorpio had been. Clavain knew exactly what he was capable of doing.
He stopped and waited for the young man to catch up with him.
‘Sir . . .’ Vasko was out of breath and shivering.
‘How was it?’
‘You were right, sir. It was a bit colder than it looked.’
Scorpio shrugged the pack from his back. ‘I thought it would be, but you did all right. I’ve got your things with me. You’ll be dry and warm in no time. Not sorry you came?’
‘No, sir. Wanted a bit of adventure, didn’t I?’
Scorpio passed him his things. ‘You’ll be after a bit less of it when you’re my age.’
It was a still day, as was often the case when the cloud cover on Ararat was low. The nearer sun - the one that Ararat orbited - was a washed-out smudge hanging low in the western sky. Its distant binary counterpart was a hard white jewel above the opposite horizon, pinned between a crack in the clouds. P Eridani A and B, except no one ever called them anything other than Bright Sun and Faint Sun.
In the silver-grey daylight the water was leached of its usual colour, reduced to a drab grey-green soup. It looked thick when it sloshed around Scorpio’s boots, but despite the opacity of the water the actual density of suspended micro-organisms was low by Ararat standards. Vasko had still taken a small risk by swimming, but he had been right to do so, for it had allowed them to sail the boat much closer to the shore. Scorpio was no expert on the matter, but he knew that most meaningful encounters between humans and Jugglers took place in areas of the ocean that were so saturated with organisms that they were more like floating rafts of organic matter. The concentration here was low enough that there was little risk of the Jugglers eating the boat while they were away, or creating a local tide system to wash it out to sea.
They covered the remaining ground to dry land, reaching the gently sloping plain of rock that had been visible from sea as a line of darkness. Here and there shallow pools interrupted the ground, mirroring the overcast sky in silver-grey. They made their way between them, heading for a pimple of white in the middle distance.
‘You still haven’t told me what all this is about,’ Vasko said.
‘You’ll find out soon enough. Aren’t you sufficiently excited about meeting the old man?’
‘Scared, more likely.’
‘He does that to people, but don’t let it get to you. He doesn’t get off on reverence.’
After ten minutes of further walking, Scorpio had recovered the strength he had expended hauling in the boat. In that time the pimple had become a dome perched on the ground, and finally revealed itself to be an inflatable tent. It was guyed to cleats pinned into the rock, the white fabric around its base stained various shades of briny green. It had been patched and repaired several times. Gathered around the tent, leaning against it at odd angles, were pieces of conch material recovered from the sea like driftwood. The way they had been poised was unmistakably artful.
‘What you said earlier, sir,’ Vasko said, ‘about Clavain not going around the world after all?’
‘If he came here instead, why couldn’t they just tell us that?’
‘Because of why he came here,’ Scorpio replied.
They made their way around the inflatable structure until they reached the pressure door. Next to it was the small humming box that supplied power to the tent, maintaining the pressure differential and providing heat and other amenities for its occupant.
Scopio examined one of the conch pieces, fingering the sharp edge where it had been cut from some larger whole. ‘Looks like he’s been doing some beachcombing.’
Vasko pointed to the already open outer door. ‘All the same, doesn’t look as if there’s anyone home at the moment.’
Scorpio opened the inner door. Inside he found a bunk bed and a neatly folded pile of bedclothes. A small collapsible desk, a stove and food synthesiser. A flagon of purified water and a box of rations. An air pump that was still running and some small conch pieces on the table.
‘There’s no telling how long it’s been since he was last here,’ Vasko said.
Scorpio shook his head. ‘He hasn’t been away for very long, probably not more than an hour or two.’
Vasko looked around, searching for whatever piece of evidence Scorpio had already spotted. He wasn’t going to find it: pigs had long ago learned that the acute sense of smell they had inherited from their ancestors was not something shared by baseline humans. They had also learned - painfully - that humans did not care to be reminded of this.
They stepped outside again, sealing the inner door as they had found it.
‘What now?’ Vasko asked.
Scorpio snapped a spare communications bracelet from one wrist and handed it to Vasko. It had already been assigned a secure frequency, so there was no danger of anyone on the other islands listening in. ‘You know how to use one of these things?’
‘I’ll manage. Anything in particular you want me to do with it?’
‘Yes. You’re going to wait here until I get back. I expect to have Clavain with me when I return. But in the event he finds you first, you’re to tell him who you are and who sent you. Then you call me and ask Clavain if he’d like to talk to me. Got that?’
‘And if you don’t come back?’
‘You’d better call Blood.’
Vasko fingered the bracelet. ‘You sound a bit worried about his state of mind, sir. Do you think he might be dangerous?’
‘I hope so,’ Scorpio said, ‘because if he isn’t, he’s not a lot of use to us.’ He patted the young man on the shoulder. ‘Now wait here while I circle the island. It won’t take me more than an hour, and my guess is I’ll find him somewhere near the sea.’
Scorpio made his way across the flat rocky fringes of the island, spreading his stubby arms for balance, not caring in the slightest how awkward or comical he appeared.
He slowed, thinking that in the distance he could see a figure shifting in and out of the darkening haze of late-afternoon sea mist. He squinted, trying to compensate for eyes that no longer worked as well as they had in Chasm City, when he had been younger. On one level he hoped that the mirage would turn out to be Clavain. On another he hoped that it would turn out to be a figment of his imagination, some conjunction of rock, light and shade tricking the eye.
As little as he cared to admit it, he was anxious. It was six months since he had last seen Clavain. Not that long a time, really, most certainly not when measured against the span of the man’s life. Yet Scorpio could not rid himself of the sense that he was about to encounter an acquaintance he had not met in decades, someone who might have been warped beyond all recognition by life and experience. He wondered how he would respond if it turned out that Clavain had indeed lost his mind. Would he even recognise it if that was true? Scorpio had spent enough time around baseline humans to feel confident about reading their intentions, moods and general states of sanity. It was said that human and pig minds were not so very different. But with Clavain, Scorpio always made a mental note to ignore his expectations. Clavain was not like other humans. History had shaped him, leaving behind something unique and quite possibly monstrous.
Scorpio was fifty. He had known Clavain for half his life, ever since he had been captured by Clavain’s former faction in the Yellowstone system. Shortly after that, Clavain had defected from the Conjoiners, and after some mutual misgivings he and Scorpio had ended up fighting together. They had gathered a loose band of soldiers and assorted hangers-on from the vicinity of Yellowstone and had stolen a ship to make the journey to Resurgam’s system. Along the way they had been hectored and harried by Clavain’s former Conjoiner comrades. From Resurgam space - riding another ship entirely - they had arrived here, on the blue-green waterlogged marble of Ararat. Little fighting had been required since Resurgam, but the two had continued to work together in the establishment of the temporary colony.
They had schemed and plotted whole communities into existence. Often they had argued, but only ever over matters of the gravest importance. When one or the other leant towards too harsh or too soft a policy, the other was there to balance matters. It was in those years that Scorpio had found the strength of character to stop hating human beings every waking moment of his life. If nothing else, he owed that to Clavain.
But nothing was ever that simple, was it?
The problem was that Clavain had been born five hundred years ago and had lived through many of those years. What if the Clavain that Scorpio knew - the Clavain that most of the colonists knew, for that matter - was only a passing phase, like a deceitful glimpse of sunshine on an otherwise stormy day? In the early days of their acquaintance, Scorpio had kept at least half an eye on him, alert for any reversion to his indiscriminate butcher tendencies. He had seen nothing to arouse his suspicions, and more than enough to reassure him that Clavain was not the ghoul that history said he was.
But in the last two years, his certainties had crumbled. It was not that Clavain had become more cruel, argumentative or violent than before, but something in him had changed. It was as if the quality of light on a landscape had shifted from one moment to another. The fact that Scorpio knew that others harboured similar doubts about his own stability was of scant comfort. He knew his own state of mind and hoped he would never hurt another human the way he had done in the past. But he could only speculate about what was going on inside his friend’s head. What he could be certain about was that the Clavain he knew, the Clavain alongside whom he had fought, had withdrawn to some intensely private personal space. Even before he had retreated to this island, Scorpio had reached the point where he could hardly read the man at all.
But he did not blame Clavain for that. No one would.


  • "Comparisons to Dune abound...At a time when large-scale SF is flourishing, Absolution Gap is a good as it gets, and should solidify Alastair Reynolds' reputation as one of the best hard SF writers in the field."—SF Site on Absolution Gap
  • "A book of great fascination, rich description, and memorable action."—Locus on Absolution Gap
  • "Reynolds writes a lean and muscular prose where the intense action scenes are leavened with the kind of bright, shining, mind-boggling science talk that characterizes the best of post-modern space opera."—Science Fiction Weekly on Absolution Gap
  • "Alastair Reynolds continues his rise to the top of SF...Revelation, Redemption, Absolution...Reynolds provides them all."—The Guardian (UK) on Absolution Gap
  • "Fulfills all the staggering promise of [Reynolds'] earlier books, and then some...a landmark in hard SF space opera."—Publishers Weekly on Absolution Gap

On Sale
Jun 2, 2020
Page Count
592 pages

Alastair Reynolds

About the Author

Alastair Reynolds was born in Barry, South Wales, in 1966. He studied at Newcastle and St. Andrews Universities and has a Ph.D. in astronomy. He stopped working as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency to become a full-time writer. Revelation Space and Pushing Ice were shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award; Revelation Space, Absolution Gap, Diamond Dogs, and CenturyRain were shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award, and Chasm City won the British Science Fiction Award.

Learn more about this author