Part One: Rendezvous

2171 AD

Prologue

 

ANA CLOSED her eyes, visualizing the seed ship’s current trajectory. They’d rendezvous with 42 Isis in five days, their last stop in the solar system that had birthed mankind. Five years past, it had nearly been the location of its destruction.

The asteroid contained a high percentage of olivine, a mineral high in useful elements like oxygen, iron, magnesium, and silicon—a veritable feast.

Around Ana, the clean white laboratory that was her personal vee space domain was in perfect order, every surface spotless. A swipe of her virtual hand brought up an image of Forever, the long cylindrical generation ship hanging in the dark void of space between Mars and Jupiter.

The world sails had been pulled in, and Ana was in the process of nudging Forever into alignment with the asteroid, firing off excess bits of waste material to bring her into the proper trajectory. If all went well, Forever would end up with enough mass to finish build-out, along with a shield to help absorb space radiation on the journey to their new home.

Thank God.

Ana shook her head. That was clearly one of Jackson’s thoughts. She even picked up some of Lex’s thoughts at times. The original world mind veered off into philosophical territory to a degree that often surprised Ana—how an AI had become a philosopher poet.

The three Immortals, as they had jokingly taken to calling one another, were bleeding into each other more and more. It worried her.

This new second life was a gift beyond measure, certainly nothing she had ever expected. A chance to go with her creation across the stark divide, between the stars. But if the ultimate price was her own individuality, was it worth it?

She made a minor adjustment in the world trajectory, then shut off that part of her awareness. If she were needed, the system would let her know.

She slipped off through the conduits of the world mind to find Jackson.

The three Immortals had created a number of virtual worlds in vee space to pass the time when their skills weren’t needed. While it was possible to create AI personalities to populate each of their various worlds, these constructs took a lot of processing power, and the Immortals had quickly grown tired of that game.

The worlds they built now were usually empty except for the three of them.

She found Jackson in Frontier Station, sitting all alone in the gardens. The blue-green ball of Earth, as it once had been, stretched out below him.

“You’re bleeding into me again.” Ana took a seat on the bench next to him.

He glanced up, his face drawn, his nose red and puffy. He concentrated, and the tears and puffiness went away. “Was I? Sorry. I was just thinking of Glory.”

Even in vee space, we emulate our old human selves.

His wife, Gloria, had just passed away a few days before, after a protracted battle with cancer that the new world’s facilities weren’t set up to treat. So much had been lost in the flight from Earth.

They had agonized over whether to bring Glory into the world mind.

Jackson had requested it, but Ana and Lex, the other two Immortals, had both been against it. Their little team worked well enough together, and adding additional human minds was likely to muddy the waters. Besides, the mind only had so much capacity. It couldn’t hold everyone within its confines. It hadn’t been created for that purpose.

Ana sighed. She wasn’t blind to the human cost of that decision. “She liked it here.” She squeezed his shoulder. Jackson’s vee space was beautiful, though it broke her heart to see Earth once again as it had looked before the Collapse.

Jackson nodded. “This is where we first met.”

He must have been just as annoyed at her bleed-through thoughts. She was being insensitive again, considering all he was dealing with.

Being effectively immortal was turning out to be harder than she’d ever imagined. She put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him. “I am so sorry about Glory.”

He regarded her in surprise. “Thank you. That means a lot.”

“Ours is a lonely path. We must make sure they get where they are going. Nothing else matters.”

He nodded. “I know. But it’s hard. Good Lord, guide me.”

Although she didn’t believe in a higher power, she squeezed his arm gently. “I hope he does.”

 

 

 

Chapter One:

A Foul Wind

 

EDDY TREMAYNE rode his horse, Cassiopeia, along the edge of the pastures that were the last official human habitations before the Anatov Mountains. Several ranchers along the Verge—the zone between the ranches and the foothills—had reported losses of sheep and cattle in the last few weeks.

As the elected sheriff of First District, which ran from Micavery and the South Pole to the mountains, it was Eddy’s responsibility to find out what was going on.

He had his crossbow strapped to his back and his long knife in a leather sheath at his waist. He’d been carrying them for long enough now—three years?—that they had started to feel natural, but the first time he’d worn the crossbow, he’d felt like a poor man’s Robin Hood.

He doubted he’d need them out here, but sheriffs were supposed to be armed.

He’d checked with Lex in the world mind via the South Pole terminal, but she’d reported nothing amiss. In the last few years, she had begun to deploy biodrones to keep an eye on the far-flung parts of the world, but they provided less than optimal coverage. One flyover of this part of the Verge had shown a peaceful flock of thirty sheep. The next showed eight.

The rancher, a former neurosurgeon from New Zealand named Gia Rand, waited for him on the top of a grassy hill. The grass and trees shone with bioluminescent light, and the afternoon sky lit the surrounding countryside with a golden glow. The spindle—the aggregation of energy and glowing pollen that stretched from pole to pole—sparkled in the middle of the sky.

The rancher pulled on her gray braid, staring angrily at something in the valley below. “Took you long enough to get here.”

“Sorry. The train was out of service again.” Technology was slowly failing them, and they had yet to come up with good replacements.

She snorted. “One helluva spaceship we have here.”

He grinned. “Preaching to the choir.” Forever didn’t have the manufacturing base yet to support anything close to the technology its inhabitants had grown used to on Earth. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, if you asked him. With technology came new and better ways to kill. He’d seen it often enough in the NAU Marines. “What did you find?”

“Look.” Her voice was almost a growl.

Eddy looked down where she was pointing. “Oh shit.” Her missing sheep were no longer missing. They had been slaughtered.

He urged Cassiopeia down the hillside to the rocky clearing. A small stream trickled down out of the mountains there. He counted ten carcasses, as near as he could tell from the skulls left behind. Someone had sheared a couple of them and given up. It looked like they had skinned and cut the rest up for meat, the skin and bones and extra bits discarded.

Gia rode down the hillside behind him.

“Didn’t you report twelve sheep missing?”

She nodded. “Bastards took the two lambs. Probably for breeding.”

“That actually might help us.”

“How’s that?”

He dismounted to take a closer look at the crime scene. “They’ll have to pasture them somewhere. May make it easier to track them down.”

“Maybe so.” She dismounted and joined him. “This was brutal work. Look here.” She picked up a bone. “Whatever cut this was sharp but uneven. It left scratch marks across the bone.”

“So not a metal knife.”

“I don’t think so. Maybe a stone knife?”

He laughed harshly. “Are we back to caveman days, then?” It wasn’t an unreasonable question.

She was silent for a moment, staring at the mountains. “Do you think they live up there?”

“Who?” He followed her gaze. Their highest peaks were wreathed in wisps of cloud.

“The Ghosts.”

The Ghosts had been a persistent myth on Forever since their abrupt departure from Earth. Some of the refugees had vanished right after the Collapse, and every now and then something would end up missing. Clothes off a line, food stocks, and the like.

People talked. The rumors had taken on a life of their own, and now whenever something went missing, people whispered, “It’s the Ghosts.”

Eddy didn’t believe in ghosts. He personally knew at least one refugee who had disappeared, his shipmate Davian. He guessed there must be others, though the record keeping from that time had been slipshod at best. He shrugged and looked at the sky. “Who knows?” It was likely to rain in the next day or so. Whoever had done this had left a trail, trampled into the grass. If he didn’t follow it now, it might be gone by the time he got back here with more resources.

Gia knelt by one of the ewes, staring at the remnants of the slaughter. “Could you get me some more breeding stock? This… incident put a big dent in my herd.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” He took one last look around the site. It had to have taken an hour or two to commit this crime, and yet the thieves had apparently done it in broad daylight. Why weren’t they afraid of being caught? “I’m going to follow the trail, see where it leads.”

Gia nodded. “Thanks. We’re taking the rest of the herd back to the barn until you get this all figured out.”

“Sounds prudent. I’ll let you know.”

Slipping on his hat, he climbed back up on Cassie and followed the trail across the stream toward the Anatov Mountains.

 

 

ANDY STEPPED back to look at her handiwork.

The wooden trellis climbed about forty feet, interlacing with three others high above, each “arm” as thick around as her leg. She’d been working on this monument for weeks, crafting each part by hand, her mind reaching deep into Forever to touch the world mind and its latent routines. Each of the trellises was shaped as one of the six continents back on Old Earth, a memorial to where they had come from. Though she had never been there, she had seen it often enough, and one of her friends at the South Pole station had printed out a map for her to work with.

The Darlith Town Council had commissioned her to do the work, transforming a sparse square into a work of art and a gathering place for the town. She had two more pieces of the sculpture to grow, but she was about done for the day. The work took a lot out of her.

Once it was done, she’d apply a sealant and polisher to help preserve it against Forever’s limited elements.

Around her, the city bustled. The All Faiths Church had just let out, and congregants were on their way home or out to lunch in one of the cafes that dotted the riverside.

“It’s beautiful,” one of the women said, stopping to stare up at it.

Others frowned and hurried on. Not everyone wanted to be reminded of what they had lost.

There was a pile of waste she’d trimmed from the sculpture and would have to haul over to one of the town dissolution pits when she was done, where it would be dissolved and repurposed. Nothing went to waste in a closed ecosystem like Forever.

Andy wiped her brow with the back of her hand and took a sip of water from her canteen. It was standard-issue, made from metal extruded by the world mind and stamped into shape. Forever’s production had taken on a decidedly utilitarian cast since the Collapse, as the colonists had suddenly had to do without any supplies from Earth. The world was not ready to be self-sufficient, and yet here they were. Andy saw it as her duty to bring a little beauty into a world that was basically operating at a subsistence level.

Call from Colin, the world mind whispered in her head.

“I’ll take it.” She tapped her temple to accept the call and wondered what Lex, Ana, and Jackson thought of her little art project. “Hey, kiddo.” Colin’s jovial voice through the loop connection made her smile.

“Hey. Where are you?”

“We’re coming down to Darlith today to sell some produce at the market. I heard you were in town.”

Her father, Aaron, asking Colin to check up on her. Andy grinned. “Yeah, working on the art thing.” It had been a hard sell with the Darlith town council, until she’d offered to do it in exchange for room and board. “It’s coming along nicely. Here, take a look.” She sent him a capture of her own vision.

“Oooh, that’s beautiful. Pretty good for a girl who never made it down to Earth.”

“Thanks. I have a good map. When are you arriving?”

“In the morning. Want to meet us there? Stall 72.”

“Of course. Tomorrow’s perfect. Gives me a chance to clean up. I’m a mess now. This is sweaty work.”

He laughed. “Can’t be nearly as difficult as building latrines for a tent city.”

“Maybe not, but this takes a lot more concentration.” She wanted it to be right so future generations would be able to look at it and remember the world their ancestors had come from.

“Is Delia with you?”

“No, she stayed back at Micavery.” It was weird sleeping alone, but she’d be home soon enough. “The fabrication center keeps her busy.”

“It’s amazing what they’re doing over there. Have they cracked a new loop yet?”

Andy shook her head. “No, that’s fiendishly difficult with the materials and tech level we have right now. Most of their time is spent on new plant and animal hybrids and on medicines to combat the viral and bacterial bugs the refugees brought up with them.”

She could hear his mental sigh. “Yeah, I’d hoped we were free of the common cold forever.”

She laughed. “’Fraid not. See you tomorrow?”

“Sounds good, kiddo. I’ll bring you some berries from the estate.” There was a double click in her head as he signed off.

She grinned. McAvery-Trip red berries were the sweetest in Forever.

Andy checked the time. She had just enough to get back to the house where she was staying before the ceremony began.

She missed her grandmother. Glory had been a beautiful woman, inside and out, even in her final year. Andy had been with her that last night, holding one hand while her father held on tightly to his mother’s other one.

Today they would honor her memory.

 

 

DAVIAN WATCHED as Gunner sealed up the rock wall behind his little raiding party, “growing” the rock via tiny capillaries that the human eye could barely see. The man was a marvel, able to manipulate the world in ways that would have made him a god, if he weren’t so badly damaged. As to his real name, Davian hadn’t a clue, but Gunner had been his dog when he was a kid, and the name seemed oddly appropriate.

“Good boy.” Davian tousled the man’s hair.

Gunner smiled weakly.

Davian fished in his pocket for one of the fungus “candies” they’d started growing back at camp, with Gunner’s help. The man took it eagerly and put it in his mouth, chewing on it contentedly.

Gunner rarely spoke. Who knew what kinds of thoughts, simple or otherwise, went on beneath that bland exterior?

It had taken a stroke of luck for Davian to figure out that the refugee had such a connection to Forever. He’d caught Gunner playing around with his power, using it to make little twisted men out of extensions of the roots that grew far under the world’s surface. Like that Andy girl and her father. He’d known then that the man was something special.

The others of the hunting party stood in silence, awaiting the orders of the Preacher.

Davian grinned. Being called the Preacher suited him. He wasn’t quite ready to claim godhead status. Not yet. “Come on. I want to make camp within the hour.” He’d taken his men on a raid to sharpen their skills and to get some red meat. It was good to feed killers on red meat. It made them stronger.

The wool was a secondary benefit, as was the fear and uncertainty his little raid would sow in the above-grounders. They had no idea how to run a long-term, functioning society. They didn’t have the skills to keep control of the human impulse for centuries at a time until the ship reached its destination.

“Come on, Gunner.” Over time and hundreds of brief conversations with the man, he’d worked out that Gunner had been sent up there as a weapon by the Sino-African Syndicate to bring down the project by destroying Transfer Station.

It still made Davian whistle whenever he thought about it. He’d been one of the few human witnesses to the catastrophic destruction.

Gunner had inserted the virus into the station-mind, the one that had killed it and then blown the station’s core. That Gunner had done it, mentally handicapped as he was… he was a powerful weapon.

Gunner had been picked up on the streets of Spokane by the Sino-African intelligence and pressed into service as the war was heating up.

Davian knew firsthand some of the methods that the Chafs would have used. He still woke up some nights screaming, thinking he was in the hotbox.

No matter now. The Chafs were gone to blood and dust, and they’d unwittingly left him the key to taking over this new world.

Now he just had to figure out the best way to use it.

 

 

AARON STARED out the window of his office at the gently waving, glowing branches of the Mallowood trees.

Today was the day. His mother was gone, and they would celebrate that fact with some kind of ceremony that Keera had whipped up. It rubbed him wrong, somehow, to think about celebrating Glory’s death.

His office was a far cry from the white, pristine office he’d had on Transfer Station. Here almost everything was made of native wood and other local materials, lending the office a warm, almost golden radiance.

Of course, it was aided by the glow from the plants and the sky outside. At this distance, the spindle—a stream of windswept pollen that provided a diffuse glow over the whole world, augmenting the plant light—was almost uniform. It obscured the view of about a third of the world above his head.

It had taken him the better part of six months on the ground to get used to that strange and wonderful vista—the sight of the world curving up around him like a great multicolored patchwork wall, cresting like a wave far above his head. Now he rarely noticed it, though some deep animal part of his brain still grumbled about it from time to time.

Once he’d relied on his AI for data. Now, his reports were mostly on paper. Sure, the colony still had technology—the world mind itself was a supreme achievement of Earth’s high-tech society—but they no longer had the infrastructure to build so many things they had come to rely upon on Earth and at Transfer Station.

His train to Darlith, for instance, that would likely never go any farther.

The Collapse of the Earth had come on too quickly for neat planning and careful stocking of equipment and supplies. It was left to the survivors to figure out a way to make it all work.

Some reports did come in over the network. Most people still had loops in their temples, though those that malfunctioned couldn’t be replaced. He took this information down on paper, by hand, using graphite pencils made at the fabrication center. At least they could manage that much.

There were more reports of Ghost activity all along the Verge. From the sheep slaughter that Eddy was out investigating to petty larceny—clothing stolen off the line, crops raided, etc.—things were getting tense. There’d even been a fire along the foothills of the Anatovs, which the world mind had quickly put out with some well-timed rainfall.

The Anatovs. Aaron shook his head. That had been a hard name to get used to. He could still see Ana’s face when he closed his eyes. She had let herself be subsumed into the world mind as he held her in his arms, deep in the bowels of the world.

She was still alive, in a sense, and his mother, Glory, was dead.

He spoke to Ana from time to time about matters important to the colony, such as the upcoming asteroid rendezvous, and she was still the same cantankerous genius she’d always been.

He turned his attention back to the reports on his desk. There was something going on out there, and it bugged the hell out of him that he didn’t know what it was. A rising tide of strangeness.

There had been personnel disappearances, too, over the last six years, in addition to the surprising undercounts at the refugee camp after the Collapse. Aaron was sure it all added up to nothing good. He needed more data.

Aaron sighed. He was putting it off. He knew it, but he had to get going.

“Hey, Dad.” Andy’s voice came through his loop. “You ready?”

“Yeah. I suppose so.” He’d spent the last month fighting with the world mind—with his own father even—begging for them to take Glory in. She didn’t have to die, not forever. His father was proof of that.

But Jackson had been steadfastly against it. “It’s not fair,” his father had said. “We can’t save Glory because we can’t save them all. And she would never have it.”

They’d kept the knowledge of Jackson’s existence in the world mind from his wife. From just about everyone, actually. Few people knew about any of the Immortals. Now Aaron wondered if that hadn’t been a mistake. In the end, he and Andy had been there for her as she departed this mortal plane, although Jackson had stolen the last few moments from him.

Jayson, Aaron’s younger brother, had been the first of his nuclear family they’d lost—God rest his soul—in the War on Earth. Now it was just him and his immortal father.

Andy pinged him. “Can I ride along?”

“Of course.” He felt her slip in alongside him in his mind as he opened his senses to her so she could see what he saw and hear what he heard.

Feel what he felt.

It wasn’t true telepathy, but it was as close as he’d ever experienced, a product of Jackson Hammond’s gift to his children and grandchildren.

He put the papers away in a folder in his desk and left the room, glancing out the window once more at the serene scene outside. Jayson would have liked it here.

Andy agreed.

He closed the door softly behind him, and they went out to find Glory’s friends.