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In our galaxy's distant future, humans are one of three known intelligent races. Having had the ability to navigate star travel for only a few centuries, we are considered "the new kids on the block" in a long-established universe. The second intelligent race is the Ildirans, who are ruled by their Mage-Imperator; and the third race, the Klikiss, seems to have vanished and left behind a world full of artifacts and remarkable technology, which humans are now beginning to find and utilize.
One such piece of technology is a device that has the power to turn a gaseous and useless supergiant planet into a small sun, thereby creating a new solar system in which humans can live. But when the device is tried for the first time, it awakens the wrath of a previously unsuspected fourth race, the Hydrogues — and a galaxy-spanning war that threatens all life begins.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
WARNER BOOKS EDITION
Copyright © 2002 by WordFire, Inc.
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Originally published in hardcover by Warner Books
First eBook Edition: July 2002
During the creation, writing, and editing of this series, many people have offered their advice and their enthusiasm. In particular, I would like to thank Betsy Mitchell and Jaime Levine at Warner Aspect and John Jarrold at Simon & Schuster UK; Matt Bialer, Robert Gottlieb, Maya Perez, and Cheryl Capitani at the Trident Media Group; Larry Shapiro at Creative Artists Agency; Jeff Mariotte and John Nee at Wildstorm/DC Comics; and artists Stephen Youll and Igor Kordey.
At WordFire, Inc., Catherine Sidor gave her usual 150 percent effort in transcribing all my tapes of the chapters (and keeping up with me), as well as proofreading and offering general comments; Diane Jones also helped out with insightful questions, suggestions, and brainstorming. Gregory Benford helped me design the Klikiss Torch technology. Brian Herbert gave his support and help with the series from its very beginning.
Safe in orbit high above the gas giant, Margaret looked through the observation port at continent-sized hurricanes and clouds far below. She wondered how long it would take for the entire planet to catch fire, once the experiment began.
Oncier was a pastel globe of hydrogen and mixed gases five times the size of Jupiter. Moons surrounded the gas giant like a litter of pups jostling against their mother. The four of greatest interest were large bodies of ice and rock named Jack, Ben, George, and Christopher, after the first four Great Kings of the Terran Hanseatic League. If today's test proved a success, those moons could eventually be terraformed into Earthlike colonies.
If the Klikiss Torch failed, the respected career of Margaret Colicos would fizzle along with it. But she would survive. As xeno-archaeologists, she and her husband Louis were accustomed to working in blissful obscurity.
In preparation for the experiment, the technical observation platform bustled with scientists, engineers, and political observers. Though Margaret had nothing to do with the actual test, her presence was still required here. A celebrity. She had to make a good show of it. After all, she had discovered the alien device among the ruins.
Tucking gray-streaked brown hair behind her ear, she looked across the deck and saw Louis grinning like a boy. They had been married for decades and had never worked without each other. It had been years since she'd seen him in a dashing, formal suit. Margaret could tell how much he reveled in the excitement, and she smiled for his sake.
She preferred to watch people rather than interact with them. Louis once joked that his wife had become fascinated with archaeology on alien planets because there was no chance she might have to strike up a conversation with one of her subjects.
With plenty of dirt under their fingernails and groundbreaking discoveries on their résumés, Margaret and Louis Colicos had already sifted through numerous worlds abandoned by the insectlike Klikiss race, searching for clues to explain what had happened to their vanished civilization. The alien empire had left only ghost cities and occasional tall beetlelike robots that bore no helpful memories of their progenitors. In the eerie ruins on Corribus, the Colicos team had discovered and deciphered the remarkable planet-igniting technology they had called the "Klikiss Torch."
Now excitement thrummed in the filtered air of the observation platform. Invited functionaries crowded around the observation windows, talking with each other. Never before had humans attempted to create their own sun. The consequences and the commercial possibilities were far-reaching.
Chairman Basil Wenceslas noticed Margaret standing alone. When a small-statured server compy came by bearing a tray filled with expensive champagne, the powerful Chairman of the Terran Hanseatic League snagged two extruded-polymer glasses and walked over to her, proud and beaming. "Less than an hour to go."
She dutifully accepted the glass and indulged him by taking a drink. Since the reprocessed air of the observation platform affected the senses of smell and taste, a cheaper champagne would probably have tasted as good. "I'll be glad when it's over, Mr. Chairman. I prefer to spend my time on empty worlds, listening for the whispers of a long-dead civilization. Here, there are too many people for me."
Across the deck she saw a green priest sitting silent and alone. The emerald-skinned man was there to provide instantaneous telepathic communication in case of emergency. Outside the observation platform hung a ceremonial fleet of alien warliners, seven spectacular ships from the Solar Navy of the Ildirans, the benevolent humanoid race that had helped mankind spread across the stars. The beautifully decorated Ildiran ships had taken up positions where they could observe the spectacular test.
"I understand perfectly," the Chairman said. "I try to stay out of the limelight myself." Wenceslas was a distinguished man, one of those people who grew more attractive and sophisticated with each passing year, as if he learned how to be suave rather than forgot how to be physically fit. He sipped his champagne, but so slightly that it barely seemed to wet his lips. "Waiting is always so hard, isn't it? You are not accustomed to working with such a rigid time clock."
She answered him with a polite laugh. "Archaeology is not meant to be rushed—unlike business." Margaret just wished she could get back to work.
The Chairman touched his champagne glass against Margaret's like a kiss of crystal. "You and your husband are an investment that has certainly paid off for the Hanseatic League." The xeno-archaeologists had long been sponsored by the Hansa, but the star-igniting technology she and Louis had discovered would be worth more than all the archaeology budgets combined.
Working in the cool emptiness of Corribus, sifting through the ideographs painted on the walls of Klikiss ruins, Margaret had been able to match up the precise coordinates of neutron stars and pulsars scattered around the Spiral Arm, comparing them with maps developed by the Hansa.
This single correlation caused an avalanche of subsequent breakthroughs: By comparing the coordinates of neutron stars from the Klikiss drawings with known stellar drift, she had been able to back-calculate how old the maps were. Thus, she determined that the Klikiss race had disappeared five thousand years ago. Using the coordinates and diagrams as a key, as well as all the other information compiled on numerous digs, Louis, with his engineering bent, had deciphered Klikiss mathematical notations, thereby allowing him to figure out the basic functioning of the Torch.
The Chairman's gray eyes became harder, all business now. "I promise you this, Margaret: If the Klikiss Torch does function as expected, choose any site you wish, any planet you've wanted to explore, and I will personally see that you have all the funding you require."
Margaret clinked her glass against his in a return toast. "I'll take advantage of that offer, Mr. Chairman. In fact, Louis and I have a likely site already picked out."
The previously untouched ghost world of Rheindic Co, full of mysteries, pristine territory, uncataloged ruins … But first they had to do their duty dance here and endure the public accolades after they ignited the gas world below.
Margaret went to stand beside Louis. She slipped her arm through his as he struck up a conversation with the patient green priest who waited beside his potted worldtree sapling. She could hardly wait for the experiment to be finished. To her, an empty ancient city was far more exciting than setting a whole planet ablaze.
Quiet and unassuming, Basil Wenceslas moved through social circles. He smiled when he was supposed to, bantered when expected, and filed the details in his mind. To an outsider, he never showed more than a fraction of his deepest thoughts and intricate plans. The Terran Hanseatic League depended on it.
A well-preserved older man whose age was difficult to determine even with close study, he had access to vigorous antiaging treatments and availed himself of cellular chelation techniques that kept him limber and healthy. Dapper and distinguished, he wore impeccable suits that cost more than some families earned in a year, but Basil was not a vain man. Though everyone on the observation platform knew he was in charge, he maintained a low profile.
When an overeager mahogany-skinned media charmer asked him for an interview about the Klikiss Torch, he diverted the woman and her recording crew to the chief scientist of the project, then melted into the small crowd. Watching. Observing. Thinking.
He looked out at the great ball of ochre clouds that made Oncier look like a poorly stirred confection. This system had no habitable planets, and Oncier's gas mix was not particularly appropriate for harvesting ekti, the exotic allotrope of hydrogen used in Ildiran stardrives. This out-of-the-way gas giant was an excellent test subject for the unproven Klikiss Torch.
Chief scientist Gerald Serizawa talked smoothly and passionately about the upcoming test, and the media crew pressed forward. Beside him, technicians manned banks of equipment. Basil scanned the control panels, assessing the readings for himself. Everything was on schedule.
Dr. Serizawa was completely hairless, though whether because of a cosmetic choice, a genetic predisposition, or an exotic disease, Basil did not know. Lean and energetic, Serizawa spoke with his hands as much as his voice, gesturing broadly. Every few minutes, like clockwork, he grew self-conscious and clasped his hands to keep them motionless in front of him.
"Gas giants, such as Jupiter in our own home solar system, are on the edge of a gravitational slope that could send them into stellar collapse. Any planetary body between thirteen and a hundred times Jupiter's mass will burn deuterium at its core and begin to shine."
Serizawa jabbed an insistent finger at the media charmer who had approached Basil earlier. "With this rediscovered technology, we can push a gas giant such as Oncier over the mass limit so that its core will ignite nuclear fires and turn this big ball of fuel into a brand-new sun—"
The woman broke in. "Please tell our audience where the increase in mass comes from."
Serizawa smiled, delighted to explain further. Basil crooked his mouth in a faint expression of amusement. He thanked his luck that the bald doctor was such an enthusiastic spokesman.
"You see, the Klikiss Torch anchors two ends of a worm-hole, a tunnel ten kilometers wide." It was clear his listeners knew little about wormhole mechanics and the difficulty of creating such a huge space-time gap. "We open one terminus near a superdense neutron star, then target the other end at the core of Oncier. In the blink of an eye, the neutron star is transported into the planetary heart. With so much added mass, the gas giant will collapse, ignite, and begin to shine. This light and heat, you see, will make the largest moons habitable."
One of the media recorders pointed an imager at the white glints orbiting the pastel gas planet as Serizawa continued. "Alas, the new sun will burn for only a hundred thousand years, but that's still plenty of time for us to make the four moons into productive Hansa colonies. Practically an eternity, as far as we're concerned."
Basil nodded unobtrusively to himself. Typical short-term thinking, but useful. Now that Earth was part of a much larger galactic network, though, true visionaries would have to operate on a completely different time scale. Human history was only one small part of the canvas.
"Therefore, the Klikiss Torch opens up many new opportunities for the Hansa to create habitats that meet the needs of our growing human population."
Basil wondered how many swallowed that explanation. It was part of the answer, of course, but he also noted the huge, gaudy Ildiran warliners standing watch, reminding him of the real reasons for this extravagant demonstration.
The Klikiss Torch must be tested not because there was a desperate need for extra living space—there were many more acceptable colony worlds than humans could ever settle. No, this was a move of political hubris. The Hansa needed to prove that humans could actually do this thing, a grand and extravagant gesture.
One hundred and eighty-three years ago, the Ildiran Empire had rescued the first Terran generation ships from their aimless journeys through space. The Ildirans had offered humans their fast stardrive and adopted Earth into the sprawling galactic community. Humans viewed the Ildiran Empire as a benevolent ally, but Basil had been watching the aliens for some time.
The ancient civilization was stagnant, full of ritual and history but very few fresh ideas. Humans had been the ones to innovate the Ildiran stardrive technology. Eager colonists and entrepreneurs—even the space gypsy riffraff of the Roamer clans—had rapidly filled the old Ildiran social and commercial niches, so that humans gained a substantial foothold in just a few generations.
The Hansa was growing by leaps and bounds, while their stodgy alien benefactors were fading. Basil was confident humans would soon subsume the ailing Empire. After the Klikiss Torch demonstration, the Ildirans would remain impressed by Terran abilities—and deterred from any temptation to test human mettle. Thus far, the alien empire had shown no sign of aggression, but Basil didn't entirely believe the altruistic motives of the cozy Ildiran neighbors. It was best to maintain a prominent reminder of human technological abilities, and better still to be subtle about it.
While the test countdown proceeded toward zero, Basil went to get another glass of champagne.
3ADAR KORI' NH
From the command nucleus of his prime warliner, Adar Kori'nh, supreme admiral of the Ildiran Solar Navy, contemplated the humans' folly.
Though the outcome of this preposterous test would have a significant bearing on future relations between the Ildiran Empire and the Terran Hanseatic League, the Adar had brought only a septa, a group of seven warliners. The Mage-Imperator had instructed him not to display too much interest in the event. No Ildiran should be too impressed by any action from these upstarts.
Even so, Kori'nh had refitted his battleships as a matter of pride, painting sigils on their hulls and adding dazzling illumination strips as primary markings. His warliners looked like ornate deep-sea creatures preparing for an outrageous mating display. The Solar Navy understood pageantry and military spectacles far better than the humans did.
The Hansa Chairman had invited Kori'nh to come aboard the observation platform where he could watch the artificial ignition of the gas giant. Instead, the Adar had chosen to remain here, aloof, inside the command nucleus. For now. Once the actual test began, he would arrive with politically acceptable tardiness.
Kori'nh was a lean-faced half-breed between noble and soldier kith, like all important officers in the Solar Navy. His face was smooth, with humanlike features, because the higher kiths resembled the single breed of human. Despite their physical similarities, though, Ildirans were fundamentally different from Terrans, especially in their hearts and minds.
Kori'nh's skin had a grayish tone; his head was smooth except for the lush topknot folded back across his crown, a symbol of his rank. The Adar's single-piece uniform was a long tunic made from layered gray-and-blue scales, belted about his waist.
To emphasize the low importance of this mission, he had refused to pin on his numerous military decorations, but the humans would never notice the subtlety when he met them face-to-face. He watched the bustling scientific activities with a mixture of condescending amusement and concern.
Though the Ildirans had assisted the fledgling race many times in the past two centuries, they still considered humans to be impatient and ill-behaved. Cultural children, adoptive wards. Perhaps their race needed a godlike, all-powerful leader such as the Mage-Imperator. The golden age of the Ildiran Empire had already lasted for millennia. Humans could learn much from the elder race if they bothered to pay attention, rather than insisting on making their own mistakes.
Kori'nh could not comprehend why the brash and overly ambitious race was so eager to create more worlds to terraform and settle. Why go to all the trouble of creating a new sun out of a gas planet? Why make a few rugged moons habitable when there were so many acceptable worlds that were, by any civilized standard, nowhere near crowded enough? Humans seemed intent on spreading everywhere.
The Adar sighed as he stared out the front viewing screen of his lead warliner. Disposable planets and disposable suns… how very Terran.
But he would not have missed this event for all the commendations the Mage-Imperator had left to give. In ancient times the Solar Navy had fought against the terrible and mysterious Shana Rei, and the military force had been required to fight against other deluded Ildirans in a heart-rending civil war two thousand years ago, but since that time, the fleet had been mainly for show, used for occasional rescue or civil missions.
With no enemies and no interplanetary strife in the Ildiran Empire, Kori'nh had spent his career in the Solar Navy managing ornate ceremony-driven groupings. He had little experience in the area of battle or tactics, except to read about them in the Saga. But it wasn't the same.
The Mage-Imperator had dispatched him to Oncier as the Empire's official representative, and he had obeyed his god and leader's commands. Through his faint telepathic link with all of his subjects, the Mage-Imperator would watch through Kori'nh's eyes.
No matter what he thought of it, though, this bold human attempt would make an interesting addition to the Ildiran historical epic, The Saga of Seven Suns. This day, and probably even Kori'nh's name, would become part of both history and legend. No Ildiran could aspire to more than that.
4OLD KING FREDERICK
Surrounded by the opulence of the Whisper Palace on Earth, Old King Frederick played his part. Basil Wenceslas had given him orders, and the great monarch of the Hansa knew his place. Frederick did exactly as he was told.
Around him, court functionaries kept busy writing documents, recording decrees, distributing royal orders and benevolences. The Whisper Palace must be seen as a constant flurry of important matters, conducted in a professional and orderly fashion.
Wearing heavy formal robes and a lightweight crown adorned with holographic prisms, Frederick awaited word from Oncier in the Throne Hall. He was bathed and perfumed, the many rings on his fingers polished to a dazzle. His skin had been massaged with lotions and oils. His hair was perfect; not a single strand could be seen out of place.
Though he had originally been chosen for his looks, charisma, and public-speaking abilities, Frederick knew the foundation of his monarchy better than the most attentive student of civics. Because any real-time political hold over such a vast galactic territory would be tenuous at best, the Hansa depended on a visible figurehead to speak decrees and issue laws. The populace needed a concrete person in whom to invest their loyalty, since no one would fight to the death or swear blood oaths for a vague corporate ideal. Long ago, a royal court and a well-groomed King had been manufactured to give the commercial government a face and a heart.
As with his five predecessors, King Frederick existed to be seen and revered. His court was filled with gorgeous clothing, polished stone, rich fabrics, tapestries, artworks, jewels, and sculptures. He awarded medals, threw celebrations, and kept the people happy with a benevolent sharing of the Hansa's wealth. Frederick had everything he could ever need or want… except independence and freedom.
Basil had once told him, "Humans have a tendency to abdicate their decision-making to charismatic figures. That way they force others to take responsibility, and they can blame their problems upward in a hierarchy." He had pointed to the King, who was so weighed down with finery that he could barely walk. "If you follow that to its logical conclusion, any society will end up with a monarchy, given enough time and choice."
After forty-six years on the throne, Frederick could barely remember his younger life or his original name. He had seen significant changes in the Hanseatic League during his reign, but little of it had been his own doing. Now he felt the burden of his years.
The King could hear the rush of fountains, the hum of dirigibles, the roar of the ever-swelling crowds in the royal plaza below waiting for him to address them from his favorite speaking balcony. The Archfather of Unison was already leading them in familiar scripted prayers, but even as the crowds followed along, eager citizens pressed forward, hoping for a glimpse of their splendid monarch. Frederick wanted to remain inside as long as possible.
After its construction in the early days of Terran expansion, the gigantic ceremonial residence had rendered visitors speechless with awe—hence, its name: the Whisper Palace. Always-lit cupolas and domes were made of glass panels crisscrossed with gilded titanium support braces. The site had been chosen in the sunny, perfect weather of the North American west coast, in what had once been southern California. The Palace was larger than any other building on Earth, vast enough to swallow ten cities the size of Versailles. Later, after the Hansa had encountered the jaw-dropping architecture in the Ildiran Empire, the Whisper Palace had been expanded further, just to keep up.
At the moment, though, the beauty around him could not keep Frederick's mind occupied as he impatiently waited to hear from Basil at distant Oncier. "Momentous events do not happen in an instant," he said, as if convincing himself. "Today we mean to set the course of history."
A court chamberlain rang an Ildiran crystal-alloy gong. Instantly, in response to the sound, the King donned an eager but paternal smile, a practiced kindly expression that exuded warm confidence.
With the fading musical vibrations, he strode down the royal promenade toward his expansive speaking balcony. Out of habit, the King looked at an ultraclear crystalline mirror mounted in an alcove. He caught his expression, the not-quite-hidden weariness in his eyes, a few new wrinkles that only he could see. How much longer would Basil let him play this role, before he passed beyond "paternal" and into "doddering"? Maybe the Hansa would let him retire soon.
The great solar doors spread open, and the King paused to take a deep breath, squaring his shoulders.
Ambassador Otema, the ancient green priest from the forested planet of Theroc, stood beside her shoulder-high worldtree sapling in its ornate planter. Through the sentient worldforest network, Otema could establish an instant communication link with the far-off technical observation platform.
He gave one brisk clap of his hands. "It is time. We must transmit a message that I, King Frederick, grant my permission for this wondrous test to begin. Tell them to proceed with my blessing."
Otema gave a formal bow. The stern ambassador had so many status tattoos on her face and her skin was such a weathered green that she looked like a gnarled piece of vegetation herself. She and Basil Wenceslas had butted heads many times, but King Frederick had kept out of the disputes.
Otema wrapped her callused fingers around the scaly bark of the worldtree and closed her eyes so that she could send her thoughts via telink through the trees to her counterpart at Oncier.
- On Sale
- Jul 24, 2002
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Grand Central Publishing