This week’s excerpt is from Christopher L. Bennett’s Arachne’s Exile, the sequel to Arachne’s Crime.
Stephen Jacobs-Wong had spent most of the journey from Shilirrlal on autopilot, putting up the front of leadership and charisma that came effortlessly, but not really letting anything outside his ship and crew engage him even as the wonders of the galaxy passed them by. His thoughts were still preoccupied by the series of tragedies for which he blamed himself—and by the schism between himself and Cecilia LoCarno, Arachne’s captain and his dearest friend, over their responsibility for making amends. With the onset of the migration, Stephen and Sita had finally begun to reconnect and heal each other’s grief at the loss of their baby, easing the burdens on his spirit. Yet that effort had required keeping his focus inward.
But in time, the sky became too beautiful to ignore. The caravan had entered the Upper Scorpius subgroup of the Scorpius-Centaurus OB Association, a lively star-formation region dominated by bright young stars like Antares and Sigma Scorpii and vast clouds of nebular matter surrounding them. The nebulae were barely visible to the unassisted eye at close range, but those stars were far brighter than they’d ever appeared from Earth, and with a little adjustment of their adaptive optics and a little enhancement from Arachne’s viewports, the Arachnen could see the beauty of the yellow-orange and magenta hazes surrounding them, a mix of reflection and emission nebulae. Stephen soon found himself gazing out raptly with the rest of the crew.
Yet once they reached the Antares system—a journey of over 550 light years from Shilirrlal, made in only eight days—the fleet’s port of call made the sky around them look positively dull. The habitat, orbiting the blue-dwarf companion star Antares B at some fifteen AUs, was a sphere nearly fifty kilometers in diameter, a garish starburst of incredibly tall fairy-tale castles, impossibly slender spires, and massive, clear-roofed aerodromes, all crafted from gleaming crystals, metals, and metamaterials and festooned with vivid, multicolored lights. It was like a cross between Escher’s Tetrahedral Planetoid, the skyline of old Shanghai before the floods, and a sea urchin dressed up for Mardi Gras. The interplay of illumination from the piercing blue star nearby, the bloated red-orange Antares A nearly six hundred AUs away, and the dense planetary nebula surrounding them both made the habitat gleam with particular resplendence, and its architecture strove to match the grandeur of its surroundings. Twelve enormous towers jutted from its equator, supporting a scintillating docking ring over a hundred kilometers above the surface and tapering dozens of kilometers further into elegant launch spines, slender threads that gleamed in the multidirectional light. It was a gorgeous vista, albeit a bit garish to Stephen’s eyes. But Sita wept at the sight, and they were the first tears he’d been happy to see her shed.
“It’s a Star Palace,” Arachne’s voice announced over the cockpit speakers. The humans reacted to the name with recognition.
Mediator Broadwing blinked his lower two eyes in surprise. “You know of them?”
“Human astronomers have imaged several megastructures of this design around various giant and supergiant stars,” the shipmind answered. “A few are internally lit, but most are detectable only by reflected starlight and are believed abandoned. As yet, we have been unable to make contact with the species that constructed them.”
“In fact, you have,” Broadwing fluted in his elegant calliope voice, produced in resonating cavities within his three iridescent headcrests. “One spreads his wings before you even now.” The lean-bodied, silver-hued pterosaurian matched his actions to the words, clicking his three beak mandibles together as he did so.
“The Zenith built the Star Palaces?” Sita asked.
“Yes.” Broadwing refolded his wing dactyls and membranes back along his forearms, leaving his shorter dactyls to function as fingers. As always, he moved with a grace that made the zigzag shape of his legs, and the way his wing-arms went up from his shoulders before bending back down, look totally right even to human eyes. His crests sang again, the translation appearing as subtitles in Stephen’s retinal HUD. “As Seekers of the Zenith, my people were naturally drawn to space. When we reached the stars, we built aeries around the brightest and most impressive ones so that all would know of our majesty.”
“That explains a lot,” Stephen said. For decades, human astronomers, engineers, and xenobiologists had debated how and why the structures were built in this configuration. Given the Zenith’s acrophilic nature, it went against their grain to build Chirrn-style habitats where the sky was inward. No doubt, he realized, the Star Palaces used programmable quark matter to generate artificial gravity. If PQM could take on the properties of the exotic matter necessary to make warp cages and wormholes possible, then surely it could also, say, generate gravitons with a greatly increased coupling constant, allowing a relatively small mass to exert the pull of a planet-sized one. The Zenith most likely lived only on the surface of the Star Palace, competing with one another for increased status and the privilege to live higher up in one of its many ornate spires.
“Hold on,” Haim Silbermann said. “Isn’t Antares A due to go supernova sometime in the next few million—I mean, the next yanarrenn or so?”
“Enough time to relocate,” Broadwing told the gray-bearded engineer. “For now, this is the most glorious star in the region, so naturally the Zenith must claim this height.”
“With your technology, couldn’t you prevent the supernova? Lift away enough of the star’s hydrogen to reduce the pressure on the core and prolong its life?”
“Why would we want to do that?” R’nilinnath wondered. “Supernovae create heavy elements. They promote evolution on planets. If we stopped supernovae, we’d prevent new species from evolving. Few enough worlds spawn sophonts as it is.” Nilly shook her mane, a Chirrn smile. “Now do you see why smart civilizations don’t live on planets? It’s hard to move a planet out of danger.”
Stephen recalled Sita’s musings about the Fermi Paradox, the mystery of why evidence of alien activity had been so hard for humanity to detect. What the old Kardashev theories of galactic-scale engineering had overlooked, it seemed, was that the civilizations that survived to the interstellar age were the ones that learned to live in harmony with their environments rather than forcibly reshaping them. Nilly’s words drove home that the galaxy had its own ecology of star and planet formation, one that galactic society took care not to disrupt, so that its footprint was nearly invisible except at a fine scale.
Christopher L. Bennett is a lifelong resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, with a B.S. in Physics and a B.A. in History from the University of Cincinnati. A fan of science and science fiction since age five, he has spent the past two decades selling original short fiction to magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact (home of his “Hub” series of comedy adventures), BuzzyMag, and Galaxy’s Edge. Since 2003, he has been one of Pocket Books’ most prolific and popular authors of Star Trek tie-in fiction, including the epic Next Generation prequel The Buried Age, the Enterprise — Rise of the Federation series, and the Original Series prequel The Captain’s Oath. He has also written two Marvel Comics novels, X-Men: Watchers on the Walls and Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder. His original novel Only Superhuman, perhaps the first hard science fiction superhero novel, was voted Library Journal‘s SF/Fantasy Debut of the Month for October 2012. He has three collections reprinting his original short fiction, Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman from eSpec Books (containing an original Only Superhuman prequel novelette) and Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy and Crimes of the Hub from Mystique Press.