Authors: Gregory Benford
“ENGROSSING…typical Benford virtues…a gritty, three-dimensional future, a believable hero, and a real flair for the alien… Benford evokes the mystique of the hunt and the link with the prey—an element of American literary tradition rare in SF.”
“A confident grasp of the workings and consequences of biotechnics, a gift for action scenes, and an ability to conceive of a creature as awesome and wondrous as his Aleph. A WORTHY SUCCESSOR TO
AND A MUST FOR THE SF COLLECTION.”
“GLOWS WITH A RARE IMMEDIACY AND REALISM, WITH SPARKLING DESCRIPTIONS, VIVID DANGERS, AND A CONVINCING ALIEN-FRONTIER CAST AND AMBIANCE.”
“Not since Ahab thrust his lance at the lightning and swore the white whale’s doom have I read anything much like it… BENFORD HAS JUST BEEN GETTING BETTER AND BETTER.”
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
appeared in the February and April 1983 issues of
Amazing Science Fiction Stories.
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HEY WENT OUT
from Sidon Settlement in a straggling band, clanking and crunching over the hard-packed, worn-down purple plain. The ice near Sidon had been melted and frozen and remelted again and again by orbit shuttle landings and by the heater exhausts of passing crawlers, so that now it was speckled and mottled with rainbow splashes and big blotches of contaminants. Out over this crusty trampled ice they went, carrying the boy Manuel. Inside their wheezing and huffing machines they sang and shoved each other and early got into the smeerlop and whiskey, as they always did.
The boy was thirteen. He watched it all with wide eyes. For five years now he had waited and listened to the talk of the ice ridges and ammonia rivers of the melting land, quick and treacherous under the feet. Hunkered down around a heater, evening after evening, he had listened, not knowing how much to believe but wanting to trust it all for fear of forgetting anything he might need later, for he knew even then that everything you learned came to use if you waited. What he knew most deeply was the bigness of the wilderness they now crawled into, bigger than any of the puny human Settlements, vast and powerful and with a reason and logic to itself. Ganymede—the biggest moon in the solar system, with nearly as much land and ice as old worn Earth, but fresh and unmarked by man until the last two centuries. Manuel heard the talk and thought of the big trackless wastes and knew the talk was empty, no matter whom it came from—from the new Earthers who’d swarmed in a few years back, eager to hack and chip away at the vast ice mountains in search of metals and seams of rare elements; from the biotechnicians who brought the metaformed animals, sure the beasts would find here a new place to yip and labor and take the burden from the humans; from the older settlers (like Petrovich), who had heaved up the big hydroponics domes and now hummed away inside them, growing the food and weaving the organics, and were fatuous enough to believe they had any more hold on the huge cold wilderness than the ones brand new off the shuttle; from the olders, men and women who’d sent out the first fusion-busters to put the land to rake and fire; from the survivors older still, of whom Manuel knew only Old Matt Bohles, with his gravel voice and slow, stooped walk, who talked little but whose eyes were liquid and rheumy with tales; from all the waves of humans who had washed over the face of Ganymede and then seeped away, most of them, leaving behind only those who had the strength to endure and the humility to learn the skills and to fight the awful and unforgiving cold.
In the first hours the wise-ass veneer rubbed away from him. He watched the smeerlop going down and even tried a drab, grinning, but it was not to his liking yet and he thought with some relief that that was about right anyway. In the thick, close air of the cabin the stench and sweat of the men seemed to tighten around him, and he contented himself with watching out the big ports, where the augmented and servo’d animals rumpused about on the pocked plain. A dime-sized sun struck colors from their carapaces, steels gleaming blue-green, the ceramics a clammy yellow. They frolicked at being out of Sidon Settlement again, beyond the domes where they bent their backs at agro work, their reward being the blunt pleasures of food and sex and cartoon stories and senses in the off-hours. But none of that gave the zest of romping free in the thin air outside, scampering around the lumbering crawler treads, whistling and chattering and sending their clipped cries to each other in the stinging cold. They had been in their multiplex servo’d pods so long that Manuel could hardly remember what their basic bodies were. Short Stuff was a chimp, maybe, and The Barren a kind of thoroughbred dog as near as he could make out. The others were pigs or dolphins or something else. Often the animals themselves did not know. With their truncated bodies and regrown cerebella and cerebra ballooned into a nearly human 40 IQ, they were confused, yet far smarter than before, eager to use their abilities. They had been Skinnered into mild, subservient behavior. They gladly did jobs a robot couldn’t or a man wouldn’t, and were taintless in their ardor for the work.
“Good to let them come,” Manuel said to his father, Colonel López.
“Ay. Watch they don’t get seized up in the treads. Or trip one of the walkers.”
Up the crumpled ridge they went, rising with a wrenching sway above the big plain so that, looking back, they could make out the sprawl and glimmer of Sidon Settlement like a jeweled handkerchief thrown down by a passing giant. The talk began again. It was, as usual, about policing the jackrabs and rockeaters and the ammonia-soaked scooters and the crawlies that processed methane, for that was the ostensible purpose of this annual expedition. But soon the talk drifted, as though drawn by the same current that ran through all of them, to the best game of all, the best subject for listening and the best for thinking as the blue-white wastes tilted by outside. He had heard it before, the voices at first quiet and filled with weight and with a deliberate easing up on the subject as the Settlement fell behind, recollection floating up in them like bubbles breaking on the surface of a deep pond. Even though still a boy, he had heard the tales in squatters’ shacks hardly able to hold their pressure; and in agro domes; in work sheds rank with metal shavings and sour spit; in living rooms where the women who had been on the hunt in the past would talk too, but not the same way; and in growing tanks where men chopped at the ever-expanding mass of inert turkey meat as big as a walker and steaming with fat-glazed ooze—had heard the frightful stories and seen the occasional well-thumbed fax photos and known that what came down to him was from an age long before anything he could know. He sensed that something was waiting for him when he would at last be allowed to come out from the small and insignificant encrustations that man had spattered over the mute face of Ganymede, come out to take part in the pruning of the small creatures and find in the vast wastes the thing that waited, that was a part of what Ganymede held for humans. Because he was born here, he had inherited more than the Earthers who had come late. He had left to him, without ever seeing it, the big luminous artifact with the jagged beam-cut slash and the V-shaped runners that in the millions of square kilometers of Ganymede had earned a name that held respect and some terror, for it was not like the other ruined and timeworn pieces of alien handiwork that were strewn through the whole Jovian satellite system. They called it Aleph. Some Jew had given it that, a blank name that was the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet: a neutral vowel that bespoke the opaque nature of the blocky, gravid thing, the bulk that humans had tried to write upon with their cutters and tractors and on which they had left no mark. A neutral name, and yet it was the source of a long legend of domes cracked open and rifled, of walkers and crawlers and even whole outposts caught up and crushed and trampled as it moved forward on its own oblivious missions, or else homes and sheds ripped apart as the thing rose up out of the ice where it dwelt, walls split by the heaving of the land as it broke free of ice and poked its angular face—eyeless, with only saw-toothed openings to mark what men chose in their ignorance to call a face and so to take away some fragment of its strangeness—breaking freshly again into the dim sunlight, seeking, always seeking materials men also needed and had compacted into their homes and factories, and thus were forced to futilely defend against the legend that came for the metals and rare rock, the Aleph making no distinction between what men held and what the bare plains offered, so that it took where it found and thus engendered the continuing legend of alarms ignored and traps brushed aside and servo’d armaments smashed and animals mangled and men and women injured and laser and even electron-beam bolts delivered at point-blank range as though into nothing, the alien absorbing all and giving nothing, shrugging off the puny attempts of men to deliver death to it, and without pause it kept going—down a corridor of ruin and destruction starting back before Manuel’s birth and even before Old Matt, the massive thing lumbered, not swift but with a ruthless determination, like a machine and yet like a man too; moving onward eternally on some course humans could not guess, it ran forever in the boy’s dreams, a vast immemorial alabaster shape.