11/18/2011

An Excerpt from The Thousand Emperors

As mentioned before, I've got an indirect sequel to Final Days coming out in the later summer of 2012, set a few centuries after the events in that first book. People have asked me if it's going to be a trilogy or a series, so it's worth mentioning here that it's just these two books I have in mind, so far. I could technically write more books set in the same universe,  but I'd prefer not to, since any stories I might come up with, I feel, would not necessarily be as compelling; I'd rather write two good books and leave it at that, than produce a trilogy in which the final work was something of an afterthought. On the other hand, there is going to be a fourth Shoal Sequence book, River of Light, which I've just started, but only because I came up with what I considered to be a compelling story for it.

Anyway, on to the main course. Here's a short chapter, lifted from the forthcoming The Thousand Emperors, as a taster:


Chapter 3, The Thousand Emperors.

His name was Jacob Moreland, and he was a spy.

His mission had begun seventy-four years before, when he had been placed into a one-man craft launched from a Sandoz platform in orbit around Novaya Zvezda. Along with an armada of identical craft, each carrying a lone passenger, the ship carrying Jacob had accelerated rapidly out of the system, reaching eighty per cent of light-speed within half a year. The star around which Novaya Zvezda itself orbited soon became just one more exquisitely jewel-like point of light amongst countless others.

Jacob slept unawares, his body buffered by impact-gels and cooled by onboard cryogenics.

For a very long time, Jacob Moreland was, by any objective measure, dead. The instantiation lattice within his skull had encoded much of the fleeting data that made up his conscious mind, while more specialised structures did their best to repair the unavoidable damage done to his delicate human tissues by prolonged deep-space flight.

Attrition soon took its toll, as some of the craft accompanying Jacob on his long journey were destroyed by micrometeorite impacts. It had proven necessary to provide each ship with relatively low-grade shielding, since this increased their chances of evading detection by the Coalition’s deep-space monitors. That a certain number of craft were likely to be lost had been taken into account during the mission’s planning stages. It was an unfortunate, but ultimately necessary, sacrifice.

A few other of the ships suffered fatal systems failures, victims of high-energy particle impacts that interfered with their delicate circuitry. The rest continued on their long flight across the light-years, their onboard computers communicating with each other via encrypted channels, aware within their limited intelligence that, as time progressed, their numbers were steadily dwindling, although not yet below mission-critical levels.

At the apex of their journey, the armada was moving at just a shade over ninety-seven percent of light-speed. Time-dilation slowed the pace at which the attritions of age and radiation damage wore away at their passengers. The onboard medical systems did their best but, inevitably, there were further casualties: those ships bearing the irretrievably dead automatically shut themselves down and fell behind the rest, to drift between the stars forever.

The years passed, and the ships flew on. They did not begin to decelerate until the last decade of their voyage, finally braking into the 36 Ophiuchi system, deep within Coalition territory.

Automated defences patrolling the outer worlds of 36 Ophiuchi detected a number of the approaching ships, analysing their trajectories and responding by moving hunter-killer mechants into intercept patterns. The craft came under fire from kinetic weapons that sent chunks of asteroid slag curving in towards them along gravity-assist paths.

Attrition once more took its toll as the majority of incoming craft were destroyed, and the survival rate of the spy-ships finally teetered towards mission-critical levels. The computers on board the ships risked data-bursts between each other, readjusting their shared flight plans according to decades-old algorithms: if only a few of them managed to reach their destinations, the project set in motion so very long ago might yet have a chance of succeeding.

The survivors lost themselves amidst the rubble of a dead world, long ago drawn into a belt of debris a billion kilometres beyond 36 Ophiuchi’s habitable zone. Only half a dozen of the spy-ships now remained.

Each took it in turn to accelerate towards the inner system, matching courses with cometary bodies and asteroids in order to disguise themselves, drifting sometimes for months before finally manoeuvring into new trajectories that would carry them all the way to Darwin, the system’s sole inhabited world.

It wasn’t long before Jacob’s turn came.

For the first time in several decades, he began to dream, his core body temperature slowly rising as complex cryoprotectant solutions were leached from his bloodstream. His heart began to beat, falteringly at first and then with added strength. Nutrients entered his body via a complex of hollow fibres inserted into his spine, while invisibly tiny microchines worked hard at repairing the inevitable cellular and neural damage sustained during the voyage. Some minimal damage had also been sustained by his instantiation lattice.

Jacob Moreland would live, but some of his memories were gone forever. This much, too, had been anticipated.

Networked autonomous security devices parked in libration zones, balanced between the blue-green world they guarded and the star it orbited, detected the majority of the surviving spy-ships and swiftly destroyed them. Only Jacob’s ship escaped, by wrapping itself within a hastily improvised informational cocoon that made it appear to be little more than an unmanned reconnaissance vehicle on a registered mission. It had been lucky, matching the trajectory of a cluster of supply drones, returning from the A-M refineries orbiting just inside 36 Ophiuchi’s solar corona.

Jacob Moreland drew breath and gasped, his lungs still filled to capacity with breathable nutrient gels that tasted vaguely of mint and antiseptic. A moment later, he remembered his name.

#

He became more fully conscious during the final stages of atmospheric re-entry. Fresh data, generated by the instantiation lattices riddling his cerebral cortex and nearly indistinguishable from his own, entirely natural thoughts, flowered in his mind.

Plasma cannons designed to destroy random garbage falling from the orbital wheel that encircled Darwin burned his craft as it dropped towards the upper layers of that world’s atmosphere. It responded by releasing a burst of chaff that fooled the cannons into thinking their target had been destroyed. The ship then dipped lower into the atmosphere, burning off its ablative surface before dropping towards the cloud level.

Jacob’s pulse began to quicken as he remembered not only who, but what, he was. Upon his request, sensors embedded in the craft’s skin relayed to him images of the night-time landscape towards which he was falling. He saw deep valleys, and ancient mountains rising above shallow seas and wide, glistening salt-flats. He saw cities like brilliant kaleidoscopes of light, dense conurbations that reached silver fingers far above the planet’s atmosphere, linking into the world-wheel dotted with countless antimatter forges and industrial complexes.

This, then, was Darwin, a world that had become the economic and cultural heart of the Coalition following the Abandonment.

His craft bucked as it passed through the turbulent layers of air at the edge of a high-pressure zone, then dropped towards a ragged and apparently unpopulated coastline, minuscule thrusters slowing the ship’s rate of descent in the last moments before it finally touched down. In the last moments before he landed, Jacob caught sight of green and violet-leaved flora growing amidst spongy-looking trees that bowed under the weight of their broad, finger-like branches.

#

He staggered out of the blackened shell of his craft in time to see the first fingers of dawn colouring the night sky. He coughed and retched, his lungs and throat still carrying traces of suspension fluids from his long voyage. Cold air whipped against his naked skin. Feeling weak and helpless, he sagged to his knees, pushing both hands deep into gritty soil as a deep and ravenous hunger gripped him.

His instantiation lattice fed data to his conscious mind as he kneeled. He learned that he was the only survivor out of the nearly forty men and women who had been launched from the Tian Di so many years before. He found, despite the deprivations of his voyage, that he could still remember most of their faces and names, having come to know nearly all of them over the course of the year they had spent training for this mission. They had all known how high the risks were. Even so, he was appalled to find he was the only one left.

And if he failed, the mission failed with him.

He staggered back over to the craft and quickly retrieved a one-piece combat suit, pulling it on before he could freeze to death in the chilly air. He next retrieved a case, then stepped quickly away from the craft as his lattice flashed him an alert.

He watched from a safe distance as the ship that had carried him so far immolated itself, its hull collapsing into sections that burned with a pungent smell. Flames flickered inside the craft’s interior, reaching up past bone-like spurs that would crumble away to nothing within just a few days. In time, the only evidence that there had ever been a craft here that was capable of travelling between the stars would be unusually high trace amounts of rare minerals in the soil, along with a marginally higher than normal level of background radioactivity. But one would have to look very, very carefully indeed.

Jacob stood watching for over an hour as the ship continued to crumble into gently steaming ashes that filled the night air with a scent like burning grass. Something about it filled him with a curious sense of loss, which was strange, given that he had been placed in suspension prior to being loaded aboard the craft. Nevertheless, on some deep level, a part of him recognized that this had been his home for long decades, and so it felt strange to finally leave it behind.

From this point on, there was only one way left for him to return home to the Tian Di - and doing so would constitute a major part of his mission.

When he felt ready, Jacob reached into a pocket of his combat suit, retrieving a device small enough to nestle almost invisibly in the palm of his hand: a pin-sized transceiver. He activated it, and even though there was no reason to think it might malfunction, he nonetheless felt a palpable sense of relief when it proved fully operational.

His journey across the light-years had all been just a prelude to this, the moment when his mission truly began. His first step would be to make contact with Tian Di agents who had been in place on Darwin since before he had even set out. Once their own transceivers notified them of his arrival, they would find him and aid him in fulfilling his mission.

It might have taken him decades to reach this world, but the return journey would take, quite literally, no time at all.
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