Hull Zero Three – Extract
Greg Bear’s HULL ZERO THREE will be available in November, 2010. Enjoy the book trailer, along with the first three chapters, below.
Cloud modest, the planet covers herself.
Our chosen is perfect–more than we could have hoped for. Rolling beneath, she slips aside her creamy white veil to reveal the sensuous richness of blue water, brown and tan prairies, yellow desert, a wrinkled youth of gray mountains hemmed by forest so green it is almost black–and the brilliant emerald sward of spring pastures.
My flesh is partner to the long journey. Like a hovering angel, I look down upon the dazzling surface and yearn. All the springs of my youth flow toward this new Earth. A long limb of dawn in the east–how lovely! Our world turns wisely widdershins–the best of luck. There are two moons, one close in, the second much farther out and large enough for icy mountains under a thin atmosphere. We will explore that other promise once we are established here.
We–dozens of us, so many gathering in the observation blister, finally bathing in real light! There is sweet joy in voices from real lungs and tongues and lips–and such language! Ship language and Dreamtime-speak all musically mixed. So many friends and more to come. Our laughter is giddy.
We want to spread and lock limbs. We want to couple. We are eager to meet children as yet unconceived–eager to hurry them along so they can share this beauty with proud parents.
Kinetic, no longer pent up or potential… The long centuries over.
We are here!
Planters and seedships have descended before we came awake. They have analyzed and returned with the facts. Our chemistry now matches this world’s.
Fons et origo.
I don’t remember the name we’ve chosen, it’s on the tip of my tongue–not that it matters. I’m sure it is a beautiful name.
We form teams, holding hands in waving, weightless lines in the blister, calling to each other using our Dreamtime names and smiling until our cheeks sting. We make awful, funny faces, like clowns, to smooth and relax the muscles of our joy. Soon we will choose new names: land names, sea names, air names, poetically spun from the old.
My new name is on the tip of my tongue–
Hers is on the tip of my tongue. She is nearby, and I find myself strangely embarrassed to meet in person for the first time, because I have known her for all the sleepy ages. We played and learned together in the Dreamtime and resolved our earliest disputes. Making up, we realized we were incapable of being angry with each other for long. She is a master of ship’s biology–myself, training and culture. Long, lazy times of instruction and play and exploration shot through with intense training, keeping our muscles fit. There is no experience like it, except for coming awake and meeting in the flesh.
The world, the flesh.
Our lines move toward the chrome-silver gate in the translucent white bulkhead. We are moving into the staging area. Landers await us there, sleek shadows ghostly gray.
Our beautiful Ship is too large to land–twelve kilometers long, huge and lonely. Once she embraced an irregular ball of rocky ice over a hundred kilometers in diameter–the shield and yolk of our interstellar journey. She still clutches a wasted chunk of the Oort moonlet–just a few billion tons. We decelerated with fuel to spare and now orbit the prime candidate.
The years are spread out cold and quiet behind us, the long tail of our journey. We do not remember those years intimately, there were so many.
It doesn’t matter. I will look at the log when there is time, after the teams are chosen to make our first journey to the planet’s surface.
Our new names are called and we arrange ourselves in the loading bay, ceremonial outfits like so many brilliant daubs of paint, the better to see and be seen.
She is here! Comely in blue and beige and green, her look is bold, confident. Large, deep eyes and wide cheeks, brownish hair cut short–her look my way is a loving, thrilling challenge. She sits away from the others in the lander, by a spare seat–hoping that I will join her. She and I will be on the first team!
I recognize so many from the Dreamtime. Friendly, joyous–hugging, shaking hands, congratulating. Words spill. Our tongues are still clumsy but our passions are ancient. We are more than any family could be. We fought and argued and loved and learned through the long cold voyage. We chose teams, disbanded, reformed, chose again, and now the fit is perfection within diversity. Nothing can stand between us and the joy of planetfall.
A smooth jolt of perfectly designed machinery–
Severing connections with Ship. The lander is less than a hundred meters long, a tiny thing, really, yet sleek and fresh.
Time is moving so fast.
I unhitch and push off my harness to be closer to her. She scolds but she wraps her arms around me and the web accommodates, the net stretches. We laugh to see so many others have done the same.
Viewing Ship from outside, along her great length, we marvel at her condition, weathered yet intact. Noble, protecting–
Ship, combined from an early formation of three hulls, now resembles two ancient stupas joined at their bases. Designed to protect against the hard wind between the stars, streamers of plasma convection once flowed and glowed ahead of and around the hulls like foggy gold rivers, ferrying interstellar dust–icy, glassy, metallic–aft, where it was processed into fuel or forged to replace Ship’s ablated outer layers.
Now, the last of the plasma feebly glows around the pinched middle, a vestigial beacon. The view distracts us only for a moment. We are lost in simple wonder. One out of a hundred ships, we were told, would survive. And yet we have made the longest journey in the history of humanity, we are alive, and
A jerk and awful sound, like water rushing, or blood spurting. Everything’s dark and muddled. A little redness creeps into my vision. I’m surrounded by thick liquid. My legs and arms thrash out against a smoothness.
Have we crashed? Did we break up in space before we landed? I’m already losing bits and pieces of what all that means. My memory is becoming like a puzzle picked up and shaken apart.
Puzzle. Jigsaw puzzle.
My entire body hurts. This is not the way it should be–not the way anything I know should be. But then, I can feel what little I do know slipping away–including my name and why I’m here.
Alone in a shrinking tightness, like being squeezed out of a tube, legs still trapped, fingers ripping through the rubbery membrane, opening holes through which
I’m kicking my way out of a smothering sac. My chest aches and burns. The air hurts. Then the noise hits again and pounds my head, my ears, metal on metal. Doors closing. Walls moving, scraping, squealing.
My lungs seize. Hands and arms grow stiff. Naked flesh sticks to the deck. Skin comes away. I’m freezing.
A little one pulls on my exposed arm. She’s thin and wiry and strong. She tears at the sac until all of my upper body is cold. She makes sounds. I think I understand but my head isn’t locked in yet.
There was something wonderful before this.
What was it?
“Don’t just lie there–get up.”
The little one’s still tugging and pushing, dancing on the frozen deck. I try to move but I’m uncoordinated. I’m losing skin all over. I try to fight. Maybe she’s the reason I’m in so much trouble.
“Hurry! The air’s going to freeze!”
All I can do is grunt and cry out. I hate this skinny creature. Who is she? What is she to me? She’s pulled me out of the Dreamtime and it’s no good.
I turn to look at where I came from. Bodies are pushing out of a gray wall. They’re enclosed in reddish sacs. They’re trying to move, trying to punch and tear their way out, but the bags crystallize and shatter. The room is long and low. Carts wait on the floor. Bodies flop down on the carts and squirm but they’re moving slowly, slower still.
They’re all going to freeze.
I lash out, pushing her away. She encourages me. “That’s it,” she says. “Breathe deep. Fight. Hurry. The heat’s going fast.”
Standing makes my head spin. “Help… them!” I cry out. “Go bother them!”
“They’re already dead,” she says. “You came out first.”
So that’s why I’m special. This time, when she takes my arm, I don’t resist–I’m in too much pain and I don’t want to freeze. She drags me through a tall oval door into a long hall, curving up far away where there’s brightness, to my left. The brightness is moving on, going away.
Receding. Strange word, that one.
The little one leaves me behind, running, dancing. Her feet never linger on the cold surface. Either I make it or I don’t. It hurts too much to stay. I stumble after her. My legs are getting a little stronger, but the cold sucks my strength away as fast as it returns. It’s going to be a close thing.
It gets worse. I see black stripes and thousands of tiny lights wrapped around the long curved hall. The lights are going out. Walls fall in place behind me. They make the horrible clanging sound I heard at first. They’re called “bulkheads” or maybe “hatches.” I blink and look up and down and see notches, indentations. That’s where the bulkheads will rise or fall and close me off, trap me.
Where I am is bad. All wrong. The only place to go is in the light ahead, receding, getting smaller, soon to vanish unless I run faster and keep up with the little one, a faraway, tiny figure, all thrashing legs and arms.
I start to really run. My legs catch on, my arms pump in rhythm. The air is warming a little. I can breathe without pain, then breathe deep, as instructed. Swirls of fog drape off the walls and split as I pass through them. Other oval doors fly by. All are dark and cold, like little rat holes.
Rats. Whatever they are.
No time for questions.
“Come on!” the little one shouts over her shoulder.
No need for encouragement. I’ve almost caught up with her. My legs are longer. I’m taller. I can run faster if I put my mind to it. But then I realize she’s deliberately lagging, and with a burst she’s way ahead, pink in the full blaze of light. She turns and waves her hand, beckoning.
“Hurry! I’ve got clothes!”
A bulkhead slides down and I jump forward just before it slams shut. It would have smashed me or cut me in half. The long curved hall doesn’t care. That violates everything I think I know, everything I think I remember. The next notch is a few steps ahead. The floor rumbles and shivers. I pass the notch. The bulkhead puffs cold air on my back as it slams down. I’m gaining on them.
The little one jumps for joy.
“Almost there!” she shouts.
What a way to wake up from the long nap, but I’m almost in the light. The warmth is delicious, the air is sweet. Maybe there’s hope.
I look back. Another bulkhead drops. So far, my life–away from the Dreamtime–is filled with simple shapes and volumes. Striped halls, hatches, oval and circular openings, gray and dark brown except for the lights. Then there’s the little one, like me, legs and arms and running and shouting.
I look ahead. The little one holds one arm up, head turned sideways, mouth open in surprise, staring at something I can’t see.
She suddenly flinches and covers her face with her arm.
Something new and terrible enters the picture. I see it in the square of light, where the little one is, where I want to be. A thick furry blackness fills that square, blocks it with a huge, unfurled rug of a hand that swoops behind the little one and wraps her and lifts her. She screams a short scream, and then throws something as far as she can–something small. It lands in the hall, bounces, slides to a stop.
Something moves in the blackness and three gleaming beads focus on me–looking at me. Then it’s gone. She’s gone. The light opens up. Warmth pulses down the hall like a temptation, a lure. I stop and stand, shivering, under a spatter of condensation from the roof.
A wall flies up between me and the horror waiting in the light. I don’t mind. I slump and lean against the wall, a bulkhead five or six paces behind me and now one in front, nine or ten paces. The little one is gone. The light is gone.
I guess it all started badly, so I close my eyes and hope maybe it will stop. It’s quiet. The walls aren’t freezing but they are still cold. I think if I lie flat, they’ll suck out what’s left of my heat. That’s what I need. A reset. Time to start over. I’ll be painlessly absorbed and wait for a better start, more like what the Dreamtime promised. I hardly remember any of what came before the sac, the tugging, the cold. It’s gone but leaves a beautiful, troubling impression.
Things could have been so much better. What went wrong? I lie back and stare up at the dripping brownness. The coolness is pleasant after the exertion.
Who was the little one? I think past tense because I’m sure whatever it was that got her ate her or recycled her or something like that. Obvious and inevitable. First lesson learned: Don’t go where it’s comfortable. Something bad will be waiting.
I don’t remember any swear words yet, so under my breath I just repeat formless murmurs. Like grunting, only they would be words if I could remember. There was no swearing in the Dreamtime. How wrong was that? What could they possibly…
“I want it to stop,” I croak. “Stop it NOW.” I begin to rant. I’m special, I have needs, I have a job to do–once I get my act together. I’m going to be important. I get so angry I start to feel weak. My voice goes up a couple of notches and I hit myself. Blubbering, incoherent. Strangely, I can feel myself smile as I shout out my frustration. I know how ridiculous I look, a grown man, having his first tantrum.
That’s what it is, of course. This body hasn’t learned self-control. I don’t know how to get mad without hurting myself.
That absolutely scares me and I stop, my sobbing drops back into hiccups. I don’t want to think that way. I’m a grown man. I have memories–I know I do.
I just can’t find them.
Slowly, my anger rebuilds, but I don’t shout, I don’t hit myself, I hold it in–by main force of will. I don’t blame myself for anything I’ve done, but I see no reason to act like a fool.
Still, it should never have started this way.
They should all welcome me, celebrate me.
Hell, I’m new.
Hell. Fantastic! My first swear word. I wonder what it means. Maybe it’s the name of this bad place. But it’s a mild word, an empty glass word, not nearly shocking enough to convey the awfulness. And yet now the awfulness has been replaced by simple misery. Half of that misery comes out of foiled expectations.
More words, longer richer words, implying a process–a surrounding world with its own expectations. The words are like doors that open. They hold their own promise. Soon, I’m shouting big new words into the brownness, the not-quite darkness. Some of them mean nothing. Others provide strength and relief.
There’s a pain in my middle. It’s called hunger. If it gets worse, the misery will turn into agony. I’d better do something other than just shout words. I can see that. No luxury to sit shouting and bemoaning my fate.
More words rise up and I shout them, shout around them. Monster. Fate. Death and duty.
But worst of all, hunger. Better to be frozen with the others in their sacs, way back behind the bulkheads.
The little one threw something. It’s still there, probably. I’m not dying. I had hoped my end would be quick, but obviously I’ve come too far just to turn to ice on the floor. I roll and crawl forward. Walking and running got me nowhere good.
But that sentiment is fading. I learn that hungry people wish for only one thing, and it isn’t death.
Death. Fate. Which word is the name of this new world?
And the solution is food. The little one became food because something else big and dark was hungry. My hand closes over the thing she tossed–a little square thing. I can feel it but not see it clearly. I wonder what it is. I think it’s made of light metal or maybe plastic. More memories return with these words: my world is made of things and the things have properties. Funny how it all fills in unevenly.
The square thing flops in my hand and I realize it has a hinge, opens on one side. It’s a book. I can feel pages, thin and tough. If there was enough light, I think I might be able to look at them, read them–if they’re not blank.
If I can still read.
My fingers feel out scratches on the flat part, a cover. There are seven scratches–I count carefully, since there’s nothing else to do and I’m not going to die, and there’s no hope of finding something to make the hunger go away.
The walls are getting warmer. That temporarily takes my mind off my hunger. I’m sealed in this section of hall like a piece of meat in a can. Meat. Can. If it keeps getting warmer, maybe I’ll be cooked.
Nobody eats meat out of a can any more. Nobody eats meat. Except maybe the dark armored furry thing.
My stomach gurgles. I’d smell pretty good, cooked. I think over the words for the various parts of my body, internal and external. I apparently know a lot of useless things, but maybe not how to avoid being eaten. I know what I am, how big I am, I know how to move, I know useless things and simple things, but I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know where to find food, I don’t know what’s inside the book or why it has seven shallow scratches on one side.
I’m dozing in and out. I can see myself–imagine myself–talking to young humans, young versions of me. They mostly pay attention, as if they don’t know what I know, and I’m saying things that are useful to them. I imagine turning my head and see that some of the young humans–many, actually–are female.
The little one–she was a young female human.
A girl. That’s what you call a young human female. A child.
You’re a teacher, dummy. Teachers talk to children.
“Are there still children?” I ask. Plural of child.
It’s time for sleep. Maybe I’ll be eaten. Maybe I’ll fall asleep in front of the children and they will laugh at me for being silly.
The little girl with the curly hair will be in the front row, laughing the hardest.