Reality Dysfunction: Emergence

Chapter 01

   Space outside the attack cruiser Beezling tore open in five places. For a moment anyone looking into the expanding rents would have received a true glimpse into empty infinity. The pseudofabric structure of the wormholes was a photonic dead zone, a darkness so profound it seemed to be spilling out to contaminate the real universe. Then ships were suddenly streaking up out of the gaping termini, accelerating away at six gees, twisting round on interception trajectories. They were different from the spherical Garissan naval craft which they had tracked between the stars, graceful, streamlined teardrop shapes. Larger and dangerously powerful. Alive.
   Nestled snugly in the armoured and sealed command capsule at the heart of the Beezling , Captain Kyle Prager was shocked out of a simple astrogration review by a datavised proximity alert from the flight computer. His neural nanonics relayed information from the ship’s external sensor clusters directly into his brain. Out here in the great emptiness of interstellar space starlight wasn’t powerful enough to provide an optical-band return. He was relying on the infrared signature alone, arching smears of pinkness which the discrimination programs struggled to resolve. Radar pulses were fuzzed and hashed by the ships’ electronic-warfare pods.
   The combat programs stored in the memory clusters of his neural nanonics went into primary mode. He datavised a quick sequence of instructions into the flight computer, desperate for more information. Trajectories from the five newcomers were computed, appearing as scarlet vector lines curving through space to line up ominously on the Beezling and her two escort frigates. They were still accelerating, yet there was no reaction-drive exhaust plume. Kyle Prager’s heart sank. “Voidhawks,” he said. On the couch next to him, Tane Ogilie, the Beezling ’s patterning-node officer, groaned in dismay. “How did they know?”
   “Confederation Navy Intelligence is good,” Kyle Prager retorted. “They knew we’d try a direct retaliation. They must have monitored our naval traffic and followed us.” In his mind a black pressure was building. He could almost sense the antimatter-confinement chambers inside the Beezling , twinkling like devilish red stars all around him.
   Antimatter was the one anathema which was universal throughout the Confederation. No matter what planet or asteroid settlement you were brought up on, they all condemned it.
   The penalty if a Confederation Navy ship caught them was an immediate death sentence for the captain, and a one-way ticket on a drop capsule to a penal planet for everyone else on board.
   There was no choice, of course, the Beezling needed the fantastic delta-V reserve which only antimatter provided, far superior to the usual fusion drives of Adamist starships. The Omutan Defence Force ships would be equipped with antimatter drives. They have it because we have it; we have it because they have it. One of the oldest, and feeblest, arguments history had produced.
   Kyle Prager’s shoulder muscles relaxed, an involuntary submission. He’d known and accepted the risk, or at least told himself and the admirals he did.
   It would be quick and painless, and under ordinary circumstances the crew would survive. But he had orders from the Garissan Admiralty. Nobody was to be allowed access to the Alchemist which the Beezling was carrying; and certainly not the Edenists crewing the voidhawks: their bitek science was powerful enough already.
   “A distortion field has locked onto us,” Tane Ogilie reported. His voice was strained, high. “We can’t jump clear.”
   For a brief moment Kyle Prager wondered what it would be like to command a voidhawk, the effortless power and total superiority. It was almost a feeling of envy.
   Three of the intercepting ships were curving round to chase the Beezling , while the frigates, Chengho and Gombari , only rated one pursuer each.
   Mother Mary, with that formation they must know what we’re carrying.
   He formed the scuttle code in his mind, reviewing the procedure before datavising it into the flight computer. It was simple enough, shutting down the safeguards in the main drive’s antimatter-confinement chambers, engulfing nearby space with a nova-blast of light and hard radiation.
   I could wait until the voidhawks rendezvoused, take them with us. But the crews are only doing their job.
   The flimsy infrared image of the three pursuit craft suddenly increased dramatically, brightening, expanding. Eight wavering petals of energy opened outwards from each of them, the sharp, glaring tips moving swiftly away from the centre. Analysis programs cut in; flight vector projections materialized, linking all twenty-four projectiles to the Beezling with looped laserlike threads of light. The exhaust plumes were hugely radioactive. Acceleration was hitting forty gees. Antimatter propulsion.
   “Combat wasp launch,” Tane Ogilie shouted hoarsely.
   “They’re not voidhawks,” Kyle Prager said with grim fury. “They’re fucking blackhawks. Omuta’s hired blackhawks!” He datavised an evasion manoeuvre order into the flight computer, frantically activating the Beezling ’s defence procedures. He’d been almost criminally negligent in not identifying the hostiles as soon as they emerged. He checked his neural nanonics; elapsed time since their emergence was seven seconds. Was that really all? Even so, his response had been woefully sloppy in an arena where milliseconds was the most precious currency. They would pay for that, maybe with their lives.
   An acceleration warning blared through the Beezling —audio, optical, and datavise. His crew would be strapped in, but Mother Mary alone knew what the civilians they carried were doing.
   The ship’s acceleration built smoothly, and he felt the nanonic membrane supplements in his body hardening, supporting his internal organs against the gee force, preventing them from being pushed through his spine, ensuring an undiminished blood supply to his brain, forestalling blackout. Beezling shuddered violently as its own volley of combat wasps launched. Acceleration reached eight gees, and carried on building.
   In the Beezling ’s forward crew module, Dr Alkad Mzu had been reviewing the ship’s status as it flew towards their next jump coordinate at one and a half gees. Neural nanonics processed the raw data to provide a composite of the starship’s external sensor images, along with flight vector projections. The picture unfurled behind her retinas, scintillating ghost shadows until she closed her eyelids. Chengho and Gombari showed as intense streaks of blue-white light, the glare from their drive exhausts overwhelming the background starfield.
   It was a tight formation. Chengho was two thousand kilometres away, Gombari just over three thousand. Alkad knew it took superb astrogation for ships to emerge within five thousand kilometres of each other after a jump of ten light-years. Garissa had spent a lot of money on equipping its navy with the best hardware available.
   Money which could have been better spent at the university, or on supporting the national medical service. Garissa wasn’t a particularly rich world. And as to where the Department of Defence had acquired such large amounts of antimatter, Alkad had studiously avoided asking.
   “It will be about thirty minutes before the next jump,” Peter Adul said.
   Alkad cancelled the datavise. The sensor visualization of the ships faded from her perception, replaced by the spartan grey-green composite of the cabin walls. Peter was standing in the open oval hatch, wearing a dark turquoise ship-suit, padded on all the joints to protect him from bruising knocks in free fall. He smiled invitingly at her. She could see the worry behind the bright, lively eyes.
   Peter was thirty-five, a metre eighty tall, with skin actually darker than her own deep ebony. He worked in the university mathematics department, and they had been engaged for eighteen months. Never the outgoing boisterous type, but quietly supportive. One person who genuinely didn’t seem to mind the fact that she was brighter than him—and they were rare enough. Even the prospect of her being for ever damned as the Alchemist’s creator left him unperturbed. He had actually accompanied her to the ultra-secure navy asteroid base to help with the device’s mathematics.
   “I thought we could spend them together,” he said.
   She grinned back up at him and slipped out of the restraint net as he sat on the edge of her acceleration cushioning beside her. “Thanks. Navy types don’t mind being cooped up by themselves during realignment. But it certainly gets to me.” Various hums and buzzes from the ship’s environmental systems invaded the cabin, crew-members talking softly at their stations, vague words echoing along the cramped companionways. Beezling had been assembled specifically to deploy the Alchemist device, its design concentrating on durability and performance; crew comforts had come a long way down the navy’s priority list.
   Alkad swung her legs over the side of the cushioning ledge, feet pulled down to the decking by the strong gravity, and leaned against him, thankful for the warmth of the contact, his just being there.
   His arm went round her shoulders. “What is it about the prospect of incipient mortality which gets the hormones flowing?”
   She smiled and pressed harder into his side. “What is it in the male make-up that simply being awake gets your hormones going?”
   “That’s a no?”
   “That’s a no,” she said firmly. “There’s no door, and we’d do ourselves an injury in this gravity. Besides, there will be plenty of time once we get back.”
   “Yes.” If we do. But he didn’t say that out loud.
   That was when the acceleration warning sounded. Even then it took them a second to react, breaking through the initial moment of shock.
   “Get back on the cushioning,” Peter yelled as the gee force leapt upwards. Alkad attempted to swing her legs back up on the ledge. They were made of uranium, impossibly heavy. Muscles and tendons grated horribly as she strained against the weight.
   Come on. It’s easy. It’s only your legs. Dear Mother, how many times have you lifted your legs? Come on!
   Neural-nanonic nerve-impulse overrides bullied her thigh muscles. She got one leg back on the cushioning. By that time the acceleration had reached seven gees. She was stuck with her left leg on the floor, foot slipping along the decking as the enormous weight of her thigh pushed down, forcing her knee joint open.
   The two opposing swarms of combat wasps engaged; attacking and defending drones splitting open, each releasing a barrage of submunitions. Space seethed with directed energy beams. Electronic warfare pulses popped and burned up and down the electromagnetic spectrum, trying to deflect, goad, confuse, harass. A second later it was the turn of the missiles. Solid kinetic bullets bloomed like antique shotgun blasts. All it took was the slightest graze, at those closing velocities both projectile and target alike detonated into billowing plumes of plasma. Fusion explosions followed, intense flares of blue-white starfire flinging off violet coronae. Antimatter added its vehemence to the fray, producing even larger explosions amid the ionic maelstrom.
   The nebula which blazed between the Beezling and her attackers was roughly lenticular, and over three hundred kilometres broad, choked with dense cyclonic concentrations, spewing tremendous cataracts of fire from its edges. No sensor in existence could penetrate such chaos.
   Beezling lurched round violently, drive deflector coils working at maximum pitch, taking advantage of the momentary blind spot to change course. A second volley of combat wasps shot out of their bays around the attack cruiser’s lower hull, just in time to meet a new salvo fired from the blackhawks.
   Peter had barely managed to roll off the acceleration couch where he was sitting, landing hard on the floor of Alkad’s cabin, when the terrible acceleration began. He watched helplessly as Alkad’s left leg slowly gave way under the crushing gee force; her whimpering filling him with futile guilt. The composite deck was trying to ram its way up through his back. His neck was agony. Half of the stars he could see were pain spots, the rest were a datavised nonsense. The flight computer had reduced the external combat arena to neat ordered graphics which buffeted against priority metabolic warnings. He couldn’t even focus his thoughts on them. There were more important things to worry about, like how the hell was he going to force his chest up so he could breathe again?
   Suddenly the gravity field shifted. He left the decking behind, and slammed into the cabin wall. His teeth were punched clean through his lip; he heard his nose break with an ugly crunch. Hot blood squirted into his mouth, frightening him. No wound could possibly heal in this environment. He would very probably bleed to death if this went on much longer.
   Then gravity righted again, squeezing him back against the decking. He screamed in shock and pain. The datavised visualization from the flight computer had collapsed into an eerily calm moire pattern of red, green, and blue lines. Darkness was encroaching around the edges.
   The second clash of combat wasps took place over a wider front. Sensors and processors on both sides were overloaded and confused by the vivid nebula and its wild energy efflux. New explosions were splattered against the background of destruction. Some of the attacking combat wasps pierced the defensive cordon. A third volley of defenders left the Beezling .
   Six thousand kilometres away, another nuclear-fuelled nebula burst into existence as the Chengho fought off its solitary hunter’s swarm of combat wasps. The Gombari wasn’t so fortunate. Its antimatter-confinement chambers were shattered by the incoming weapons. Beezling ’s sensor filters engaged instantly as an ephemeral star ignited. Kyle Prager lost his datavised visualization across half of the universe. He never saw the blackhawk which attacked the frigate wrenching open a wormhole interstice and vanish within, fleeing the lethal sleet of radiation its attack had liberated.
   The combat wasp closing on Beezling at forty-six gees analysed the formation of the robot defenders approaching it. Missiles and ECM pods raced away, fighting a fluid battle of evasion and deception for over a tenth of a second. Then the attacker was through, a single defender left between it and the starship, moving to intercept, but slowly, the defender had only just left its launch cradle, accelerating at barely twenty gees.
   Situation displays flipped into Kyle Prager’s mind. The blackhawks’ positions, their trajectories. Combat wasp performance. Likely reserves. He reviewed them, mind augmented by the tactics program, and made his decision, committing half of his remaining combat wasps to offensive duties.
   Beezling rang like a bell as they launched.
   At a hundred and fifty kilometres from its prey, the incoming combat wasp’s guidance processors computed it wouldn’t quite reach the starship before it was intercepted. It ran through the available options, making its choice.
   At a hundred and twenty kilometres away it loaded a deactivation sequence into the hardware of the seven antimatter-confine chambers it was carrying.
   At ninety-five kilometres away the magnetic field of the first confinement chamber snapped off. Forty-six gravities took over. The frozen pellet of antimatter was smashed into the rear wall. Long before contact was actually made the magnetic field of the second confinement chamber was switched off. All seven shut down over a period of a hundred picoseconds, producing a specifically shaped blast wave.
   At eighty-eight kilometres away, the antimatter pellets had annihilated an equal mass of matter, resulting in a titanic energy release. The spear of plasma which formed was a thousand times hotter than the core of a star, hurtling towards the Beezling at relativistic velocities.
   Sensor clusters and thermo-dump panels vaporized immediately as the stream of disassociated ions slammed into the Beezling . Molecular-binding force generators laboured to maintain the silicon hull’s integrity, a struggle they were always destined to lose against such ferocity. Breakthrough occurred in a dozen different places at once. Plasma surged in, playing over the complex, delicate systems like a blowtorch over snow crystals.
   The luckless Beezling suffered a further blow from fate. One of the plasma streams hit a deuterium tank, searing its way through the foam insulation and titanium shell. The cryogenic liquid reverted to its natural gaseous state under immense pressure, ripping the tank open, and blasting fragments in every direction. An eight-metre section of the hull buckled upwards, and a volcanic geyser of deuterium haemorrhaged out towards the stars past shredded fingers of silicon.
   Combat wasp explosions were still flooding surrounding space with torrents of light and elementary particles. But the Beezling was an inert hulk at the centre of a dissipating halo, her hull fissured, reaction drive off, spinning like a broken bird.
   The three attacking blackhawk captains observed the last volley of Beezling ’s combat wasps lock on to their own ships and race vengefully across the gulf. Thousands of kilometres away, their colleague scored a debilitating strike on the Chengho. And the Beezling ’s combat wasps had halved the separation distance.
   Energy patterning cells applied a terrible stress against the fabric of space, and the blackhawks slipped into the gaping wormholes which opened, contracting the interstices behind them. The Beezling ’s combat wasps lost track of their targets; on-board processors began to scan round and round in an increasingly futile attempt to re-acquire the missing signatures as the drones rushed further and further away from the disabled warship.
   The return of consciousness wasn’t quite as welcome as it should have been, even though it meant that Dr Alkad Mzu was still alive. Her left leg was a source of nauseous pain. She could remember hearing the bones snapping as her knee hinged fully open. Then came the twists of a shifting gravity field, far more effective than any torturer. Her neural nanonics had damped down the worst of the pain, but the Beezling ’s final convulsion had brought a blessed oblivion.
   How in Mother Mary’s name did we survive that?
   She thought she had been prepared for the inherent risk of the mission failing, for death to claim her. Her work at the university back on Garissa made her all too aware of the energy levels required to push a starship through a ZTT jump, and what would happen should an instability occur in the patterning nodes. It never seemed to bother the navy crew, or rather they were better at hiding it. She knew also that there was a small chance they would be intercepted by Omutan naval craft once the Beezling emerged above their target star. But even that wouldn’t be so bad, the end should a combat wasp break through Beezling ’s defensive shield would probably be instantaneous. She even acknowledged that the Alchemist might malfunction. But this . . . Hunted down out here, unprepared physically or mentally, and then to survive, however tenuously. How could the good Mother Mary be so callous? Unless perhaps even She feared the Alchemist?
   Residual graphics seemed to swirl obstinately among the ailing thoughts of her consciousness. Vector lines intersected their original jump coordinate thirty-seven thousand kilometres ahead. Omuta was a small, unremarkable star directly in front of the coordinate. Two more jumps, and they would have been in the system’s Oort cloud, the sparse halo of ice-dust clouds and slumbering comets which marked the boundary of interstellar space. They were approaching from galactic north, well outside the plane of the ecliptic, trying to avoid detection.
   She had helped plan the mission profile, offering her comments to a room full of senior navy staff who were visibly nervous in her presence. It was a syndrome which had affected more and more people in the secret military station as her work progressed.
   Alkad had given the Confederation something new to fear, something which surpassed even the destructive power of antimatter. A star slayer. And that prospect was as humbling as it was terrifying. She had resigned herself that after the war billions of planet dwellers would look up at the naked stars, waiting for the twinkling light which had been Omuta to vanish from the night sky. Then they would remember her name, and curse her to hell.
   All because I was too stupid to learn from past mistakes. Just like all the other dreaming fools throughout history, wrapped up with seductive, clean equations, their simplistic, isolated elegance, giving no thought to the messy, bloody, physical application that was their ultimate reality. As if we didn’t have enough weapons already. But that’s human nature, we’ve always got to go one better, to increase the terror another notch. And for what?
   Three hundred and eighty-seven Dorados: large asteroids with a nearly pure metal content. They were orbiting a red-dwarf sun twenty light-years away from Garissa, twenty-nine light-years from Omuta. Scoutships from both inhabited systems had stumbled across them virtually simultaneously. Who had actually been first would never now be known. Both governments had claimed them: the wealth contained in the lonely metal chunks would be a heady boost for the planet whose companies could mine and refine such plentiful ore.
   At first it had been a squabble, a collection of incidents. Prospecting and survey ships dispatched to the Dorados had been attacked by “pirates.” And, as always, the conflict had escalated. It ceased to be the ships, and started to become their home asteroid ports. Then nearby industrial stations had proved tempting targets. The Confederation Assembly’s attempt to mediate had come to nothing.
   Both sides had called in their registered naval reserves, and started to hire the independent traders, with their fast, well-equipped ships capable of deploying combat wasps. Finally, last month, Omuta had used an antimatter bomb against an industrial asteroid settlement in the Garissa system. Fifty-six thousand people had been killed when the biosphere chamber ruptured, spewing them out into space. Those who survived, another eighteen thousand with their mashed fluid-clogged lungs, decompressed capillaries, and dissevered skin, had strained the planet’s medical facilities close to breaking point. Over seven hundred had been sent to the university’s medical school, which had beds for three hundred. Alkad had witnessed the chaos and pain first hand, heard the gurgling screams that never ended.
   So now it was retaliation time. Because, as everybody knew, the next stage would be planetary bombardment. And Alkad Mzu had been surprised to find her nationalistic jingoism supplanting the academic aloofness which had ruled her life to date. Her world was being threatened.
   The only credible defence was to hit Omuta first, and hit it hard. Her precious hypothetical equations had been grasped at by the navy, which rushed to turn them into functional hardware.
   “I wish I could stop you from feeling so much guilt,” Peter had said. That was the day they had left the planet, the two of them waiting in the officers’ mess of a navy spaceport while their shuttle was prepared.
   “Wouldn’t you feel guilty?” she asked irritably. She didn’t want to talk, but she didn’t want to be silent either.
   “Yes. But not as much as you. You’re taking the blame for the entire conflict. You shouldn’t do that. Both of us, all of us, everyone on the planet, we’re all being propelled by fate.”
   “How many despots and warlords have said that down the centuries, I wonder?” she retorted.
   His face managed to be sad and sympathetic at the same time.
   Alkad relented, and took his hand. “But thank you for coming with me, anyway. I don’t think I could stand the navy people by myself.”
   “It will be all right, you know,” he said softly. “The government isn’t going to release any details, least of all the name of the inventor.”
   “I’ll be able to walk straight back into the job, you mean?” she asked. There was too much bitterness in her voice. “As if nothing had happened?” She knew it wouldn’t happen that way. Intelligence agencies from half the governments in the Confederation would find out who she was, if they hadn’t already. Her fate wouldn’t be decided by any cabinet minister on politically insignificant Garissa.
   “Maybe not nothing,” he said. “But the university will still be there. The students. That’s what you and I live for, isn’t it? The real reason we’re here, protecting all that.”
   “Yes,” she said, as if uttering the word made it fact. She looked out of the window. They were close to the equator here, Garissa’s sun bleaching the sky to a featureless white glare. “It’s October back there now. The campus will be knee deep in featherseeds. I always used to think that stuff was a bloody great nuisance. Whoever had the idea of founding an African-ethnic colony on a world that’s three-quarters temperate zones?”
   “Now that’s a tired old myth, that we have to be limited to tropical hellholes. It’s our society which counts. In any case, I like the winters. And you’d bitch if it was as hot as this place the whole year round.”
   “You’re right.” She gave a brittle laugh.
   He sighed, studying her face. “It’s their star we’re aiming for, Alkad, not Omuta itself. They’ll have a chance. A good chance.”
   “There are seventy-five million people on that planet. There will be no light, no warmth.”
   “The Confederation will help. Hell, when the Great Dispersal was at its peak, Earth was deporting over ten million people a week.”
   “Those old colony-transport ships have gone now.”
   “Earth’s Govcentral is still kicking out a good million a week even now; and there are thousands of military transports. It can be done.”
   She nodded mutely, knowing it was all hopeless. The Confederation couldn’t even get two minor governments to agree to a peace formula when we both wanted it. What chance has the Assembly got trying to coordinate grudgingly donated resources from eight hundred and sixty disparate inhabited star systems?
   The sunlight pouring through the mess window deepened to a sickly red and started to fade. Alkad wondered woozily if the Alchemist was already at work on it. But then the stimulant programs steadied her thoughts, and she realized she was in free fall, her cabin illuminated by a weak pink-tinged emergency light. People were floating around her. Beezling ’s crew, murmuring in quiet worried tones. Something warm and damp brushed against her cheek, sticking. She brought her hand up instinctively. A swarm of dark motes swam across her field of view, glistening in the light. Blood!
   “Peter?” She thought she was shouting his name, but her voice seemed very faint. “Peter!”
   “Easy, easy.” That was a crew-member. Menzul? He was holding her arms, preventing her from bouncing around the confined space.
   She caught sight of Peter. Two more crew were hovering over him. His entire face was encased by a medical nanonic package which looked like a sheet of thick green polythene.
   “Oh, merciful Mary!”
   “He’s OK,” Menzul said quickly. “He’ll be all right. The nanonic package can cope.”
   “What happened?”
   “A squadron of blackhawks caught us. An antimatter blast breached the hull. Screwed us pretty good.”
   “What about the Alchemist?”
   Menzul shrugged loosely. “In one piece. Not that it matters much now.”
   “Why?” Even as she asked she didn’t want to know.
   “The hull breach wrecked thirty per cent of our jump nodes. We’re a navy ship, we can jump with ten per cent knocked out. But thirty . . . Looks like we’re stuck out here; seven light-years from the nearest inhabited star system.”
   At that moment they were precisely thirty-six and a half light-years from their G3 home star, Garissa. If they had trained the Beezling ’s remaining optical sensors on the faint diamond of light far behind, and if those sensors possessed sufficient resolution, then in thirty-six years, six months, and two days they would have seen a brief surge in the apparent magnitude as Omuta’s mercenary ships dropped fifteen antimatter planet-buster bombs on their home world. Each one had a megatonnage blast equivalent to the asteroid impact which wiped out the dinosaurs on Earth. Garissa’s atmosphere was ruined beyond redemption. Superstorms arose which would rage for millennia to come. By themselves, they weren’t fatal. On Earth, the shielded arcologies had sheltered people from their heat-wrecked climate for five and a half centuries. But unlike an asteroid impact, where the energy release was purely thermal, the planet-busters each emitted the same amount of radiation as a small solar flare. Within eight hours, the rampaging storms had spread the nuclear fallout right across the planet, rendering it completely uninhabitable. Total sterilization took a further two months.

Chapter 02

   The Ly-cilph home planet was located in a galaxy far removed from the one which would ultimately host the human Confederation. Strictly speaking it wasn’t a planet at all, but a moon, one of twenty-nine orbiting a gas supergiant, a formidable orb two hundred thousand kilometres in diameter, itself a failed brown-dwarf star. After its accretion had finished it lacked enough mass for fusion ignition; but none the less its inexorable gravitational contraction generated a massive thermal output. What was ostensibly its nightside fluoresced near the bottom end of the visible spectrum, producing a weary emberlike glow which fluctuated in continental-sized patterns as the dense turbulent clouds raged in never ending cyclones. Across the dayside, where lemon-shaded rays from the K4 primary sun fell, the storm bands shone a lambent salmon-pink.
   There were five major moons, with the Ly-cilph planet the fourth out from the cloud tops, and the only one with an atmosphere. The remaining twenty-four satellites were all barren rocks: captured asteroids, junk left over from the solar system’s formation, all of them less than seven hundred kilometres in diameter. They ranged from a baked rock ball skimming one thousand kilometres above the clouds, from which the metal ores had boiled away like a comet’s volatiles, up to a glaciated planetoid in a retrograde orbit five and a half million kilometres out.
   Local space was hazardous in the extreme. A vast magnetosphere confined and channelled the supergiant’s prodigious outpouring of charged particles, producing a lethal radiation belt. Radio emission was a ceaseless white-noise howl. The three large moons orbiting below the Ly-cilph homeworld were all inside the radiation belt, and completely sterile. The innermost of the three was chained to the ionosphere with a colossal flux tube, along which titanic energies sizzled. It also trailed a plasma torus around its orbital path, the densest ring of particles inside the magnetosphere’s comprehensive embrace. Instant death to living tissue.
   The tidal-locked Ly-cilph world coasted along seventy thousand kilometres above the tenuous outer fringes of the magnetosphere, beyond the reach of the worst radiation. Occasional palpitations within the flux lines would bombard the upper atmosphere with protons and electrons, sending squalls of solar-bright borealis lights slithering and twisting silently across the rusty sky.
   Atmospheric composition was an oxygen-nitrogen mix, with various sulphurous compounds, and an inordinately high water-vapour level. Mist, fog, and stacked cloud layers were the norm. Proximity to the infrared glow of the supergiant gave it a perpetual tropical climate, with the warm, wet air of the nearside constantly on the move, rushing around to the farside where it cooled, radiating its thermal load away into space, and then returning via storms which traversed the poles. Weather was a drab constant, always blowing, always raining, the strength of the gusts and downpours dictated by the orbital location. Night fell in one place, at one time. On the farside, when supergiant and planet were in an inferior conjunction, and the hellish red cloudscape eclipsed the nearside’s brief glimpse of the sun.
   It was a cycle which was broken only once every nine years, when a new force was applied to the timeless equation. A four-moon conjunction, which brought chaos and devastation to the surface with storms of biblical ferocity.
   The warmth and the light had incubated life on this world, as they had on countless billions throughout the universe. There had been no seas, no oceans when the first migratory interstellar germ fell onto the pristine planet, rooting its way into the mucky stain of chemicals infecting the bubbling muddy waters. Tidal forces had left a smooth surface, breaking down mountains, grinding away at the steppes left over from the time of formation. Lakes, rivers, and flood plains covered the land, steaming and being rained on. There was no free oxygen back then, it was all combined with carbon. A solid stratum of white cloud ensured the infrared radiation found it hard to escape, even in the centre of the farside. Temperatures were intolerably high.
   The first life, as always, was algae, a tough slime which spread through the water, seeping down rivers and streams to contaminate the lakes, hurried through the air by the tireless convection currents. It altered and adapted over geological eras, slowly learning to utilize the two contrasting light sources as an additional energy supply. Success, when it came, was swift, mere millennia. Oxygen poured forth. Carbon was digested. The temperature fell. The rain quickened, thinning the clouds, clearing the sky. Evolution began once more.
   For millions of years, the planet’s governing nine-year cycle was of no importance. Storms and hurricanes were an irrelevance to single-cell amoebas floating sluggishly through the lakes and rivers, nor did they matter to the primitive lichens which were creeping over the rocks. But the cells adrift in the water gradually began to form cooperative colonies, and specialization occurred. Jelly-like worms appeared in the lakes, brainless, instinct-driven and metabolically inefficient, little more than mobile lichen. But it was a start. Birth and death began to replace fission as the premier method of reproduction. Mutations crept in, sometimes producing improvements, more often resulting in inviability. Failed strains were rapidly culled by merciless nature. Divergence appeared, the dawn of a million species; DNA strands lengthened, a chemical record of progress and blind alleys. Crawling creatures emerged onto the lakesides, only to be scalded by the harsh chemicals making up the atmosphere. Yet they persisted.
   Life was a steady progression, following a pattern which was as standard as circumstances would allow. There were no such things as ice ages to alter the direction which this world’s creatures were taking, no instabilities causing profound climate changes. Only the nine-yearly storms, appearing without fail, which became the dominant influence. The new animals’ breeding cycles were structured around it, plant growth was restricted by it.
   The planet matured into a jungle world, a landscape of swamps and lush verdancy, where giant ferns covered the surface from pole to pole, and were themselves webbed and choked with tenacious creepers reaching for the clear sky. Floating weeds turned the smaller lakes into vast marshlands. Elaborate ruff flowers vied for the attention of insects and birds, seed pods with skirts of hardened petals flew like kites through the air. Wood was non-existent, of course, wood required decades of uninterrupted growth to form.
   Two wildly different flora genealogies sprang up, with the terminator as an unbreachable dividing line, and battleground. Farside plants adapted to the sun’s yellow light: they were capable of tolerating the long nights accompanying conjunction, the cooler temperatures. Nearside was the province of red light, falling without end: its black-leafed plants were taller, stronger, more vigorous, yet they were unable to conquer farside. Night killed them, yellow light alone was insufficient to drive their demanding photosynthesis, and the scattered refraction of red light by the thick atmosphere never carried far enough, haunting the land for a couple of hundred kilometres beyond the terminator.
   The animals were more adaptive, ranging freely across farside and nearside. Dinosaur-analogues never appeared, they were too big, requiring too much time to grow. Apart from bird-analogues, lizard creatures with membranous wings, most animals were smallish, reflecting their aquatic heritage. All were cold-blooded, at home in the muddy streams and weed-clogged pools. They retained that ancestral trait out of pure necessity. For that was where their eggs were laid, buried deep and safe in the mud of the lakebeds, hidden away from the worst ravages of the storm. That was how all life survived while the winds scoured the world, as seeds and eggs and spores, ready to surge forth when stability returned in a few short weeks.
   On such an inimical world life can evolve in one of two ways. There are the defeated, littered on countless planets across the cosmos, weak, anaemic creatures huddled in their dead-end sanctuaries, a little protective niche in the local ecology, never rising above a rudimentary level, their very lack of sophistication providing them with the means of continuation. Or there are the triumphant, the creatures which refuse to be beaten, which fight tooth and nail and claw and tentacle against their adversity; those for which circumstances act as an evolutionary spur. The dividing line is thin; it might even be that a devastating storm every eight years could bring genetic ruination. But nine years . . . nine proved enough time to ensure survival, allowing the denizens to rise to the challenge rather than sink back into their ubiquitous mires.
   The Ly-cilph claimed such a victory. A mere eight hundred million years after life had begun on their world they had reached their pinnacle of evolution. They became transcendent entities.
   Their nine-year cycle starts in a fish form, hatching from the black egg-clusters concealed below the mud. Billions of free-floating slugs emerge, two centimetres long, and are eaten by faster, meaner predators as they gorge themselves on the abundant sludge of decayed vegetation putrefying in the water. They grow and change over three years, losing their tails, developing a snail-like skirt. They cling to the bottom of their lakes, an ovoid body ninety centimetres high, with ten tentacles rising up from the crown. The tentacles are smooth, sixty centimetres long, devoid of suckers, but with a sharp curved horn on the tip; and they’re fast, exploding like a nest of enraged pythons to snatch their ignorant prey swimming overhead.
   When their full size has been reached they slide up out of the water to range through the planetwide jungle. Gills adapt to breathe the harsh musky air, tentacle muscles strengthen to support the drooping limbs away from the water’s cosy buoyancy. And they eat, rummaging through the matted undergrowth with insistent horns to find the black, wizened nutlike nodes that have been lying there neglected since the storm. The nodes are made up of cells saturated with chemical memory tracers, memories containing information, the knowledge accumulated by the Ly-cilph race throughout time. They bring understanding, an instant leap to sentience, and trigger the telepathic centre of their brains. Now they have risen above a simple animal level of existence they have much to converse about.
   The knowledge is mainly of a philosophical nature, although mathematics is highly developed; what they know is what they have observed and speculated upon, and added to with each generation. Farside night acts as a magnet as they gather to observe the stars. Eyes and minds linked by telepathy, acting as a gigantic multi-segment telescope. There is no technology, no economy. Their culture is not orientated towards the mechanical or materialistic; their knowledge is their wealth. The data-processing capacity of their linked minds far exceeds that of any electronic computer system, and their perception is not limited to the meagre electromagnetic wavelengths of the optical bands.
   Once awoken, they learn. It is their purpose. They have so little time in their corporeal form, and the universe they find themselves in, the splendour of the gas supergiant and its multifarious satellites, is large. Nature has ordained them as gatherers of knowledge. If life has a purpose, they speculate, then it must be a journey to complete understanding. In that respect intellect and nature have come to a smooth concordance.
   In the ninth year after their hatching, the four large innermost moons line up once more. The distortion they cause in the supergiant’s magnetosphere acts like an extension to the flux tube. The agitated particles of the ionosphere which use it as a conduit up to the first moon’s plasma torus now find themselves rising higher, up to the second moon, then the third, higher still, fountaining out of the magnetosphere altogether. The Ly-cilph world swings round into their path.
   It is not a tight directed beam; up at the mushrooming crown the protons and electrons and neutrons have none of the energy they possessed when the roiling flux lines flung them past the first moon. But as always it is the sheer scale of events within the gas supergiant’s domain which proves so overwhelming.
   The Ly-cilph world takes ten hours to traverse through the invisible cloud of ions loitering outside the flux lines. In that time, the energy which floods into the atmosphere is more than sufficient to destroy the equilibrium of the slowly circulating convection currents.
   The deluge arrives at the end of the planet’s one and only mating season. The Ly-cilph and their non-sentient cousins have produced their eggs and secreted them into the lakebeds. Plants have flowered and scattered their seeds across the landscape. Now there is only the prospect of death.
   When the first titanic bursts of azure lightning break overhead, the Ly-cilph stop their analysing and deliberations, and begin to impart all they know into the empty cells of the nodes which have grown out of their skin like warts around the base of their tentacles.
   The winds howl, voicing the planet’s torment. Gusts are strong enough to break the metre-thick stems of the fern trees. Once one goes it starts a domino effect in the jungle. Destruction spreads out in vast ripples, looking like bomb blasts from above. Clouds are torn apart by the violence, reduced to cotton tufts spinning frantically in the grip of small, ferocious whirlwinds. Micro-typhoons plunge back and forth, accelerating the obliteration of the jungle.
   All the while the Ly-cilph remain steadfast, their adhesive skirts anchoring them to the ground as the air around them fills with broken fronds and shredded leaves. The nodes, now saturated with their precious heritage, drop off like ripe fruit. They will lie hidden amongst the grass and roots for another three years.
   Nearside is ablaze with potent lightstorms. High above the tattered clouds, the aurora borealis forms a veil across the sky, a garish mother-of-pearl haze riddled with thousands of long, lurid scintillations, like giant shooting stars. Beyond that, the conjunction is joined, three moons sliding into alignment, bathed in an eerie trillion-amp phosphorescence. An epicentre to one of the gas supergiant’s planet-swallowing cyclones.
   The particle jet has reached its zenith. The flux tube’s rain of energy penetrates the tormented lower atmosphere. It is embraced by the Ly-cilph. Their minds consume the power, using it to metamorphose once again. The nodes brought them sentience, the supergiant’s surplus energy brings them transcendence. They leave the chrysalis of the flesh behind, shooting up the stream of particles at lightspeed, spacefree and eternal.