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Take Back the Sky
By Greg Bear
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Marooned beneath the icy, waxy crust of Saturn’s moon, Titan, Skyrine Michael Venn and his comrades face double danger from Earth and from the Antagonists, both intent on wiping out their growing awareness of what the helpful alien Gurus are really doing in our solar system.
Haunted by their dead and by the ancient archives of our Bug ancestors, the former combatants must now team up with their enemies, forget their indoctrination and their training, and journey far beyond Pluto to the fabled Planet X, the Antagonists’ home world, a Sun-Planet in the comet-generating Kuiper belt. It’s here that Master Sergeant Venn will finally understand his destiny and the destiny of every intelligent being in the solar system-including the enigmatic Gurus.
DANCING ON CLOUDS
I hate transitions, and this is the worst.
In the control cabin of our Oscar, a gigantic centipede made to swim and fight in Titan's freezing saline sea, a dozen klicks below the scummy, icy crust—
Pinched and stabbed and wired through and through by the suits we thought were meant to protect us—
I've never been more afraid and lost and in pain. We're exhausted—no surprise, after our passage through the ice station's freeze-dried carnage. Seeds deposited from the stores of our orbiting Spook fused with the station's walls, chewed them up, and converted them into five Oscars—ours and the four others flanking us before the labyrinth of the bug archive.
Our former enemies are hiding in that maze. Our former allies are creeping up from behind to destroy us all.
Lieutenant Colonel Joe Sanchez, Captain Naveen Jacobi, Sergeant Chihiro Ishida—our Winter Soldier, half of her body replaced by metal—First Sergeant Tak Fujimori, Starshina Irina Ulyanova, and me, Master Sergeant Michael Venn, are in this Oscar. The second carries Commander Frances Borden, Corporal Dan Johnson—DJ—Sergeant Kiyuko Ishikawa, Polkovnik Litvinov (I've never learned his first name), and our mysterious Wait Staff reps, the former servants and right-hand men of the Gurus, Aram Kumar and Krishna Mushran. The rest of the Russians occupy the last three.
On my recommendation—and on threat of ice torpedoes closing in from all sides—we've stopped trying to defend ourselves and have surrendered to the birdlike creatures we've fought for years on Mars and elsewhere. We call them Antagonists, Ants or Antags for short.
Starshina Ulyanova frantically resisted that surrender and had to be subdued by Tak and Jacobi. She lies quiet now in her sling behind Jacobi. Her rank is roughly equal to DJ's, corporal, but edging over into sergeant. She's still having a rough time. Her cheeks and forehead are beaded with sweat, and she stares into the upper shadows of the cabin, lips pressed tight. Her instinct is to continue the fight, even if it means self-destruction—either resisting the Antags, who are presumably here to save us, or trying to destroy our own people. I don't really blame her. She's surrounded by leaders and soldiers who haven't had time to explain the fundamentals we're all facing. Besides, we don't speak Russian, and her English is rudimentary.
Even so, there's something odd about her, as if she's listening to voices none of the rest can hear—except me. Why do I think that's possible? That she's being subjected to an experience similar to my own, maybe to DJ's …
Maybe not so much to DJ. Maybe just to me.
No evidence for any of these hunches, really, but that by itself doesn't mean she's crazy. Hearing voices is why I was returned to Mars, then hustled out with DJ to Titan.
On Mars, inside the first Drifter, DJ and Kazak and I all got dosed with a powder produced by deep-buried fragments of ancient crystal brought to Mars billions of years before on pieces of exploded ice moon. We called the powder Ice Moon Tea, and my sensitivity to its messages was what convinced Commander Borden to rescue me from Madigan Hospital, where I was scheduled for execution. I'm one of the special ones. Glory be. So is DJ. Kazak—Sergeant Temur Nabiyev, our favorite Mongolian—was also one of the special ones, but he died on Mars before I returned.
In our heads, ancient history bumps up against the captured and stored memories of fallen comrades. Sometimes it's like dancing on a cloud—impossible, but if you don't believe, you fall.
I can't shake the strangely lovely image of Captain Coyle settling into her peculiar death. On Mars, when she tried to blow up the first Drifter, under orders from the Gurus on Earth, she and her teammates turned into shiny black glass. We thought those who turned glass were dead. But some came back to haunt us. Absorbing and co-opting enemies is one way the ancient archives preserve themselves. That's what the Drifter's crystals contained—a gateway to records kept billions of years ago by our earliest progenitors—inhabitants of the outer ice moons of the ancient solar system.
Giant, intelligent bugs.
Coyle first came to visit me after I returned to Earth and was locked up at Madigan. In those early hours, her presence was confused, less an actual voice and more like word balloons in a comic—empty word balloons. But soon enough they filled in, and what was left of Coyle did her brusque best to take me step by step through the courtesies and techniques of the bug archives. She introduced me to the semiautomated steward who parcels out that memory, if you're qualified, if you know how to ask the right sort of questions.
The bugs are long gone, but their voices still echo. At Madigan, and on the way back to Mars, I relived bits and pieces of bug history, watched those ancient ancestors of both humans and Antags burrow up through the icy shells of their moons and discover the stars. Life had first evolved on those moons, long before Earth turned green, in deep oceans warmed by residual radiation and the constant tug of tidal energy from their gas-giant planets. I learned that this wasn't the first time creatures like the Gurus had entered our solar system and provoked wars. I learned that the bugs had fought one another long, long ago—class against class, changing the shape and disposition of the outer solar system.
Dropping big chunks of moon down to Mars, including the Drifters.
Helping seed life on Earth.
Then Coyle warned me that she was about to really die. Her final act was to introduce me to the Antag female who's now my direct liaison, who's waiting across the midnight ocean to save us from our own forces.
Coyle's voice went silent and all that was left of her, the absorbed data of her life and her body, spread out before my inner eye like a beautiful crystal tapestry. The captain was no longer capable of talking, acting, or learning, but she was still full of instruction.
How like Coyle.
YOU CAN GO IN NOW, BUT PLEASE DON'T
My grandfather was a colonel in the Rangers. My grandmother was a fine Army wife and very smart. One of the things she taught me is that God can do anything except change a man's mind. "That's why there are wars," she said, and knew the subject well. In two wars she had lost a husband, two sons, and a daughter, leaving her with just my mother, who was thirty when her sister died. "Men are so goddamned stubborn they will insult, curse, and shout until they can't back down, and then decide it's time to send our children out to die. The fellows who order up wars almost never go themselves, they're too old. But they're still cowards. If you're a leader and you screw up a war, or maybe if you just start a war, you should blow your brains out right in front of all the Gold Star mothers, sitting on bleachers in their Sunday best—and that's what I say, but don't quote me, okay? This kind of talk upsets your mother."
Until I was eight and my mother and father divorced, we lived on or around military bases. I bounced through five or six concrete blockhouse schools and hated every minute of it. My mother believed in the goodness of the human race. As if in spite, the human race tried with all its might to prove her wrong. After her divorce, she jonesed for handsome, crazy men and usually ended up with cashiered ex-Army or bank robbers. I thought I had to protect her. Or at least I remember thinking that; maybe it just turned out that way. None of that stopped me from enlisting to become a Skyrine, but now it haunts me.
FISH MARKET DREAMS
In the front slings of our Oscar, Joe and Jacobi try to maintain communication.
"Minnows are quiet," Jacobi says. "Maybe they're being jammed."
All the rest of us can do for now is listen to the sounds gathered by the far-flung sensors, clear and sharp and mysterious in the deep cold, and wait for the Antags to make up their minds. We're mostly silent, lying slack in our harnesses like aging beef.
Our minnows, silvery drones the size of fingers, act like cat whiskers. They flow smoothly back and forth between us and the Antags, tracking their ships behind the great, dark ridges of the old Titanian archives.
The hovering flocks of Antag ice torpedoes haven't moved in. We still have hope, I guess. But we've surrendered. What does it matter?
When we abandoned the station, other ships were entering Titan's orbit—human-crewed ships. One of them was the big Box, newer and far more heavily armed than the Spook that brought us here. On our way out to Saturn, leaving Mars's orbit, the Spook managed to count a little coup against Box, trimming some of its sectional field lines before it was fully prepared—but that won't happen again.
I wonder what Mushran and Kumar are thinking. They arranged for all this, and for years benefited from their connections with the Gurus. I suppose knowing is better than ignorance, but we're still screwed. As wars go, this one is a complete fraud. But then, aren't most? Killers of the brave, the loyal, the committed—killers of our best.
Somehow, I don't believe that describes me. I'm not one of the best. Joe, maybe, or Tak or Kazak. Not being one of the best may mean I'll live. But that's bullshit. Wars don't discriminate. Wars are blind and violent and nasty, lacking all morality. If they last long enough, they'll do their best to destroy all hopes and dreams.
Wars try to kill everybody.
But until now, they've never actually succeeded.
What's become very obvious is that the cavalry descending behind us in Titan's cold sea, other machines carrying other humans, is no longer our friend. It may not know it, but it's chasing us down in order to cut off human access to bug history—the archives on Titan and maybe elsewhere in our system. Our joint sponsors, the Gurus, do not want any of us, human or Antag, to learn about our bug origins or the ancient wars the Gurus encouraged. If we're killed here on Titan, and if Titan is finally destroyed, this cancer won't spread.
Our duty now is to survive, even if we have to join up with our enemies.
Something's changing overhead. We hear the echoing, drawn-out groans of deep pack ice, like an idiot playing a pipe organ in an empty cathedral. This profoundly scary and stupid noise is punctuated by the softly ratcheting clicks of Antag machines keeping station out in the darkness. Why don't they just suck us up? They're hiding in the cells and cubicles of the ancient archive—what I'm starting to call Bug Karnak because for some reason it reminds me of ancient temples in Egypt. Bug Karnak, after billions of years, is still transmitting bug history to those who react to Ice Moon Tea. I could tune in if I want, but it's much clearer if I coordinate with my liaison, and she seems to be distracted. Maybe she's waiting for her fellows to make up their minds about our usefulness—thumbs up or thumbs down. Do they have thumbs? Maybe the Antags think we're decoys. Maybe this sort of thing has happened to them before—recently. Deception and betrayal. They're being extra cautious.
I wonder if she has a hard time hearing me, too. Yeah, we're related, but that's hardly a guarantee of compatibility. To add to the suspense, our replacement pressure suits continue to work us over, slicing through flesh and bone with wires and blades to integrate and control—presumably to make us quicker and more responsive.
What was left of the ice station is probably gone. After our seeds were done shitting out Oscars, and while we were leaving, more seeds must have dropped from Box and finished the job. Seeds save a lot of weight when transporting weapons upsun to places where raw materials are abundant—places like Titan, covered in methane, ethane, and silenes, and spotted with deposits of naturally generated waxes and oils and plastics. But even with an abundance of raw materials, when time is short, efficiency rules. The station was preprocessed. The seeds from Box likely dug in like hungry mastiffs. I wonder what happened to the corpses. Maybe they're now part of brand-new weapons. How is it possible to stay human in all this? Facing these examples of a fucking hellish ingenuity?
"Antag movement up front," Jacobi says.
There's Russian chatter from the third and fourth vessels—unhappy, strident. Litvinov opens up to his troops in the dissident transports. "We do not act!" he shouts in Russian, then in English. "We are here. We have no more decisions to make. If we return, our people will kill us."
I watch Jacobi's crescent-lit face, just visible around the rim of her helm, then expand my gaze over to Joe, slung beside her. Our suits creak in the slings. Six of us. How many Russians were crammed into the last two Oscars? Not full complements. Not six, maybe only three, not enough to form true teams, share the stress, subdue panic. Since we didn't fight together and didn't have long to socialize, they never made much of an impression, except for Litvinov, of course, and those who died out on the Red … and Ulyanova, softly singing to herself opposite.
Long moments pass. On the second Oscar, Borden reports scattered soft targets—organic. "Looks like a shoal of big fish," she says. "Native?"
No one confirms. No one can answer one way or the other. We close our plates to access displays and pay attention to the forces directly in front. I don't see the soft targets or anything that answers to what she means by organic—squishy and alive—but more machines rise into view, twelve of them, longer and thicker than Oscars, escorted by scouts like nothing we've seen before—robot falcons flexing ten-meter serrated wings, slung with bolt weapons and pods filled with cutting tools. Butcher-birds, I think.
"Oscar's about to be cracked like a lobster," DJ says from Litvinov's ship.
"Shut the fuck up!" Ishida says, half shell herself.
The fourth vessel's debate has turned to what sounds like fighting. The fifth joins in. The Russians are falling apart. Litvinov's not with them. His influence isn't nearly enough.
It's painful to listen to.
Ulyanova, under her breath, still sings. But then she opens her eyes and looks right at me.
Something inside me smiles back. Goddamn.
Joe taps his helm and looks around his sling at me, eyes flicking, examining. Can he tell? I work to recover.
Ulyanova's turned away again.
"I'm not sure our fellow warriors are going along," Joe says. I do not want to fall into another instauration, another Guru moment—not here and not now. But how could the starshina be connected with all that?
As we watch the serrated falcons maneuver in the deep ice-pudding, banking fore and aft to block any escape, the best scenario I can imagine is that the Antags are being really, really cautious. No surprise given our history and the strangeness of this new relationship. They're doing everything they can to discourage us from responding defensively or mounting our own assault. With twelve big Antag ships against our five, how can we put on any sort of offense? By acting like we've surrendered, perhaps—catching them with their guard down. Who knows what happened on Titan before the stand-down and reboot? Traps and stratagems aplenty, no doubt.
"What the fuck are they waiting for?" Jacobi cries out. My concern exactly. We're not resisting. How will they carry us out of here, take care of us? Wasn't that the deal? How long can any of us afford to stick around?
What do they think about the fresh human ships dropping from the surface, no doubt to wreak total destruction?
I finally detect a jumble of thoughts from my Antag opposite. Their ships in orbit are under attack. Just like on Mars, all of us are being targeted. Those who support the Gurus want to find and obliterate us—fellow humans included. On Mars, we saw ample evidence that the Antags were similarly divided.
Again the voice of bug steward. It usually pops up when decision points are reached. However, I'm not sure I can formulate any relevant questions, and bug memory isn't about current situations or possible outcomes. Or is it? There's a kind of urgency in the voice. Maybe it knows something, or has been tapping deep into my thoughts and has enough of its own smarts to guess.
About what? I pick something out of my own jumble of questions. If we lose Titan—
"Are there other archives like this one?" I ask, and feel DJ's approval.
Unknown. Accessing what you know, it is probable that massive force will soon be deployed to destroy this entire moon.
"Do we already know enough to survive on our own?"
"Where are the archives you know about?"
Nothing is certain. Some could remain out on cold moons in the dusty reaches, or on larger worlds far from the sun, completed by our engineers before our own wars nearly destroyed us.
Aha, I think. "The Antag female gave us a glimpse of something she called 'Sun-Planet.' Is that what you're talking about?"
Possibly. It may have been the last world where our kind lived before we passed into extinction. Many hundreds of millions of solar cycles have gone by, but that world may have preserved its own archives. Still, the connections are broken or at best incomplete. There could be much that is new and different. And it is possible the ones you call Gurus have found and destroyed them already.
A long answer. We have no idea what's being planned for us. No way to survive if we stay where we are. We'll soon be overwhelmed, or caught in one amazing shit-storm of high-tech combat.
And to add to the tension, my liaison may be what she says she is, a sympathetic presence arguing for our survival, but she's still grieving for her dead. She still hates our guts, as do her fellow warriors. Most of us feel the same about Antags. They don't trust any of us and we won't trust them even if they give us a chance, even if the tea and bug memory say we should.
In a communication colored by apprehension, she informs me that the process is moving slowly. Not every Antag in her force believes human captives can be of use. She's in a minority, and there's a bitter argument under way. She's defending the present plan—defending our survival. If the opposing faction on those waiting ships wins the debate, we could all be gathered up and rescued only to be dumped naked into the frozen sea—or worse, tortured and summarily executed.
Just a heads-up, she assures me. She's working hard to convince the others they're wrong, arguing on the basis of Antag honor and loyalty to the ancient ones, whose inheritance runs through all our veins.
Christ, what have I gotten us into? What if it's all a sham? How could we expect any better?
In the round cabin, Starshina Ulyanova is shouting in Russian, trying to get Litvinov to order us to fight, to do something!
From many klicks behind our vessels and the Antag ships comes a deep, visceral thump. Heavy overpressure passes, making the Oscar squeal at its joints. Then the pressure fades, leaving us all with headaches—caught with our helms open. We close and seal and immerse in the display.
"There they go!" Joe says. The fourth and fifth transports, with their Russian crews, have had enough. They're trying to turn and head back to what they seem to hope is salvation—the human forces descending behind us.
The Antag falcons have passed over and beneath us and stand between the fleeing vessels and the deep night of Titan's inner sea. The transports try to respond with weapons—
But Joe has locked firepower to our own centipede. The others can't fight unless we do.
Suddenly, the wayward vessels are wrapped in a brilliant balls of glowing vapor, followed by another slam and more overpressure. Our hull is struck by whirling bits of debris, like a hard, hard rain.
"Who the hell did that?" Litvinov shouts. "Sanchez! Unlock weapons!"
"It wasn't Antags," Joe says. He sounds sick, as if none of this is worth it, life has passed way beyond what can be borne. I have to agree. We're down by two. How many seconds before we all sizzle?
"We're seeing long-range bolts from one of Box's machines," Borden says, and Ishida confirms. "They're getting closer."
Friendly fire, as the shitheads say.
No time left, I tell my Antag female.
From beyond the walls of the stony labyrinth, bolts pass around us, almost brushing the centipede, into the shadows behind—Antags returning fire. Something far back there lights up, refracting through a cloud of slushy ice like fiery diamonds and throwing a weird sunrise glow across the solid gray ceiling.
The wide-winged falcons swarm our remaining Oscars, pods thrusting forward and fanning out tools. Here it comes.
"Antags moving in to recover," Borden says, her voice strangely calm. Is this what we're all hoping for? Is this our only chance?
A cutting blade spins into our cabin space, narrowly missing Ishida. Our helms suck down hard at the loss of cabin pressure. My fellow Skyrines cry out like kittens at the roaring flood of subzero liquid. But our suits keep us alive.
Once the cutting is done, with banshee screams, torches provoke scarlet bouquets of superheated steam that bleb around inside the cabin until the cold sucks them back. From superchill to steam heat and back again in seconds—and still, our suits maintain.
In my display, I see more and bigger bolts rise from behind the walls of Bug Karnak, penetrate electrical gradients, make the entire frigid sea around us fluoresce brilliant green—followed by more sunrises behind. Strangely, I feel justified. Wanted. The Antags are defending us. But they're also killing humans. My guts twist.
From the first rank of falcons, steely gray clamps fan out and jam in through the wedge made by the cutting blades and torches. The Oscar's head is pried opened by main force. Spiked tentacles shoot from the nearest falcon and insert into the ruined carapace, where they cut through our straps and shuck us like peas from a pod. We're jerked up and over, bouncing from the edges, dragged through darkness punctuated by more blinding, blue-white flares to an even bigger machine rising over the walls like a monstrous catfish, its head dozens of meters wide. A dark mouth swallows us whole.
Three minutes of tumbling, blind darkness. The seawater around us swirls and drains. We're in the catfish's belly.
A little light flicks on below, then left and right, and the tentacles suck down around our limbs, grab us up again, then drop us through an oval door into a narrow tank filled with cold, silty liquid. Soon we're joined by other plunging, squirming shapes—the crews from the other Oscars. Most of the outside lights switch off. It's too dark in the tank to recognize one another, but I'm pretty sure one of the suited shapes is DJ. Another might be Jacobi, another, Tak. Then Borden. I hope I'm right that they're both here. Another, slightly smaller, could be Kumar or maybe Mushran. I try to count but we keep getting swirled around. Rude.
Where's Joe? Where's Ishida, Ishikawa, Litvinov, Ulyanova? Then the tank's sloshing subsides and we drift to a gritty, murky bottom, settling in stunned piles like sardines waiting to be canned.
A dim glow filters through the tank's walls—translucent, frosted. Sudden quiet. Very little sloshing. My sense of integral motion might be telling me we're rising, retreating, but I can't be sure. Nobody's making a sound.
Why are we here, being treated like this? Haven't we been told to become partners, to solve a larger riddle? How did we end up so thoroughly screwed, and what did Joe do to get us here? Joe has gotten me into and out of more scrapes than I can number. But our first encounter, I was the one causing real trouble—or reacting the only way I could. Now we're both here, and I'm not sure what Joe means to me, to us, anymore.
Has he sold us out? Is he even alive?
Thinking you've fit all the pieces into a puzzle, then having it picked up, shaken, and dumped—being forced to start all over again—they can't teach you how to react to that in boot camp or OCS or the war colleges. That's a challenge you have to learn from experience. And mostly at this level of confusion and weirdness, you don't learn. You just die.
Bumping and bobbing along the bottom of the tank, listening to my suit creak and click, listening to the distant twang of wires working through my flesh—a never-ending process—I try to keep it together, try to remind myself that the Antags may be connected to the wisdom of bug memory but still have every reason to hate us.
Judging from the contortions and soft moans, the suits are still causing everyone pain. If you don't move they hurt less. But still, they keep us warm.
There's ten or twelve left. Way down from our contingent on Spook. Were some dumped? Did the Antags select us out like breeders on a puppy farm?
After a time, everything in the shadows becomes part of a sharp, awful relaxation. I can still think, mostly, but want to slide into old, safe memories, then dreams. Dreams of better days and nights. Of places where there are days and nights. I don't think or feel that I'm about to die, but how can I be sure? When you die, you become a child again. I've seen it, felt it through the return of Captain Coyle. She introduced me to a little girl's bedroom and her comic books. But I don't feel like a child just yet, though young memories, memories acquired when I was younger, even bad memories, are more and more desirable, if only to block out the pain. I can't just give up. Not after all the shit I've put others through.
- "Stuffed with adrenaline-pumping action and mystifying ambiguity, Bear's series launch is a tempest of rousing SF adventure with a dash of Peckinpah."—Publishers Weekly on War Dogs
- "Military sci-fi, action and adventure, and a whole lot of thought-provoking complexity."—San Diego Union-Tribune on War Dogs
- "Packed with adventure and incident...and conveyed with gritty realism."—Kirkus on War Dogs
- "Greg Bear's voice is a resonant, clear chord of quality binding some of the best SF of the 20th Century to the short list of science-savvy, sophisticated, top-notch speculative fiction of the 21st. More than a grace note, Hull Zero Three is a compelling allegro in the growing symphony of Greg Bear's finest work."—Dan Simmons
- "Hull Zero Three is a grand adventure of scientific discovery in the tradition of "Orphans of the Sky" and "Rendezvous with Rama" -- by turns chilling and touching, it poses challenging questions about what it means to be human."—Charles Stross
- "Hull Zero Three is a lean, mean, supercharged sense-of-wonder engine."—Alastair Reynolds on Hull Zero Three
- "Not for those who prefer their space opera simple-minded, this beautifully written tale where nothing is as it seems will please readers with a well-developed sense of wonder."—Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review) on Hull Zero Three
- "Greg Bear is one contemporary master of the old ways, and in Hull Zero Three he gives the generation starship theme - crystallized beautifully by Robert Heinlein in 1941's "Universe" - a vigorous makeover...."—BN.com
- "The heart of the mystery is worthy of Bear in its bravura extrapolations into far-future science and moral ambiguity...a testament of faith both in human beings and in something beyond them, divine or indistinguishable from it, and it seems directed as much toward the world of today, with all its sinful affections and deceits, as it is toward the far future."—Locus on Hull Zero Three
- "I loved Hull Zero Three - this book reminds me of why I fell in love with science fiction in the first place. Searing questions of humanity, a good old fashioned riddle of a plot, and excellent conceptualization make Hull Zero Three more than worth the effort."—thebooksmugglers.com
- On Sale
- May 9, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages