For a while, anyway. I handed Echopraxia in to my editor this week. It is out of my hands now; even were I seized by sudden insecurity and tried to race down to New York to snatch it physically from her hands, I wouldn’t get past the border.
Now I must do other things (including catching up on a huge e-mail backlog). But this is a pretty good place to leave it, if I do say so myself:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”
A sun grown huge. A shadow on its face. A fleck, then a freckle: a dot, a disk, a hole. Smaller than a sunspot — darker, more symmetrical — and then larger. It grew like a perfect tumor, a black planetary disk where no planet could be, swelling across the photosphere like a ravenous singularity. A sun that covered half the void: a void that covered half the sun. Some critical, razor-thin instant passed and foreground and background had switched places, the sun no longer a disk but a brilliant golden iris receding around a great dilating pupil. Now it was less than that, a fiery hoop around a perfect starless hole; now a circular thread, writhing, incandescent, impossibly fine.
A million stars winked back into the firmament, cold dimensionless pinpricks strewn in bands and random handfuls across half the sky. But the other half remained without form and void — and now the tumor that had swallowed the sun was gnawing outward at the stars as well. Brüks looked away from that great maw and saw a black finger lancing through the starfield directly to port: a dark spire, two thousand kilometers long, buried deep in the shade. Brüks downshifted his personal spectrum a few Angstroms and it glowed red as an ember, an infrared blackbody rising from the exact center of the disk ahead. Heat radiator. A hairsbreadth from the center of the solar system, it never saw the sun.
He tugged nervously at the webbing holding him to the mirrorball. Sengupta was strapped into her usual couch on his left, Leona to his right, Moore to hers. The old warrior had barely said a word to him since Brüks had broached the subject of his son. Some lines were invisible until crossed, apparently.
Or maybe they were perfectly visible, to anyone who wasn’t an insensitive dolt. Empiricists always kept their minds open to alternative hypotheses.
He sought refuge in the view outside, dark to naked eyes but alive on tactical. Icons, momentum vectors, parabolic trajectories. A thin hoop of pale emerald shrank across the forward view, drawing tight around the Crown‘s nose: the rim of her reflective parasol — erased from ConSensus in deference to an uninterrupted view — redundant now, spooling tight into stowage. The habs had already been folded back and tied down for docking. Beyond the overlays the Crown fell silently past massive structures visible only in their absence: shadows against the sky, the starless silhouettes of gantries and droplet-conveyers, endless invisible antennae belied by the intermittent winking of pilot lights strung along their lengths.
The Crown bucked. Thrusters flared like the sparks of arc-welders in the darkness ahead. Down returned, dead forward. Brüks fell gently from the couch into the elastic embrace of his harness, hung there while the Crown‘s incandescent brakes gave dim form to the face of a distant cliff: girders, the cold dead cones of dormant thrusters, great stratified slabs of depleted uranium. Then the sparks died, and down with them. All that distant topography vanished again. The Crown of Thorns continued to fall, gently as thistledown.
“Looks normal so far,” Moore remarked to no one in particular.
“Wasn’t there supposed to be some kind of standing guard?” Brüks wondered. There’d been an announcement, anyway, in the weeks after Firefall. While we have seen no evidence of ill will on the part of blah blah blah prudent to be cautious yammer yammer cannot afford to leave such a vital source of energy undefended in the current climate of uncertainty yammer blah.
Moore said nothing. After a moment Leona took up the slack: “The place is almost impossible to see in the glare unless you know where to look. And there’s nothing like a bunch of big obvious heatprints going back and forth for telling the other guys where to look.”
More sparks, tweaking the night in split-second bursts. Wireframes crawled all over tactical now, highlighting structures the naked eye could barely discern even as shadows. Constellations ignited on the cliff ahead, lights triggered by the presence of approaching mass, dim and elegant as the photophores of deep-sea fish. Candles in the window to guide travelers home. They rippled and flowed and converged on some monstrous gray lamprey uncoiling from the landscape beneath. Its great round mouth pulsed and puckered and closed off the port bow.
One final burst of counterthrust. The lamprey flinched, recoiled a meter or two, resumed its approach. The Crown was barely moving now. Other serpentine things, slender as reeds and flat as eelgrass, rose from the landscape to draw the broken ship down to a berth of struts and scaffolding. The lamprey closed on the port flank and attached itself to the docking hatch.
“We are down to fumes felching Bicams better know what they’re doing because even our chemical just ran dry,” Sengupta reported. “You want this ship to go anywhere now you gotta get out and push.”
“Not a problem,” Moore said. “We’re sitting on the biggest charger in the solar system.”
The whole ship shuddered as a dozen great restraining straps cinched tight. Leona looked at Brüks and tried to smile.
“Welcome to Icarus.”