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The Bridge of Dreams

AUDIO VERSION

1

When Heimdallr finds an hour to spare from his labors, he polishes a length of Bifröst flat as a plane, then bevels adjacent sides so that the resultant stretch bends and disperses the sun’s weak rays like a prism. He rarely has the leisure for such pastimes. Although Charon and its primary face each other like ancient adversaries who will never avert their gaze, their distance varies slightly—much less than any other pair in the solar system, but enough to put a continual strain on the bridge. Cracks and fissures form, which Heimdallr must hasten to repair. Like stalagmites approaching to merge, the ends of the worldbridge were built by accretion, the rough bases thickening as their tips rose (or descended) towards each other. An extent of gleaming smoothness stands out like crystal embedded in stone, stirring in Heimdallr vague memories older than himself. Then hairline cracks begin to form, and he brings his engines to bear, smothering them beneath layers of ethane and ice.

The faint and short-lived spectra that these surfaces produce are a source of deep but fleeting pleasure, for they appear only during those microseconds when the cloud of vapor has discharged from his nozzle but not yet struck and turned solid. A skein of half-glimpsed images are brought to mind, though not by memory. Heimdallr remembers what he has experienced and perceived, and these tangled recollections are stranger, reaching him along pathways he cannot look down to espy. Others’ lives, forgotten by those long dead: the sight of the Rainbow roils them like a quake disturbing graves.

A puff of plasma tickles his cheek and he looks toward the Sun, a pinpoint of light but not heat, and the ruined worlds that circle it. Plouton and Charon, now joined by the haft that he made and maintains, is traveling outward, where it shall tarry long among the vast mist of volatiles that sheathes the outermost worlds before beginning a long journey closer—but never close—to that swollen mass of radiance.

The ice-conjoined binary has completed this circuit once and more since he last heard the whisper of radio waves or the flicker of a laser pulse from any point Sunward. Triton has been silent for centuries; signals from Phaiton’s Children went out one by one like candles. The dense swirling airs of Titan remained infinitesimally warmer than what Heimdallr thought nature could account for, although this might as likely be heat diffusing from an abandoned fission pile—a coal slowly cooling in a dead hearth—as evidence of settlements still active below the surface. Were he truly human, his heart would burst at this.

Meanwhile there remains his duty. Heimdallr stands master of Bifröst, its length enough to wrap three times about the girdle of the Earth. Weekly—the time the two worlds took to swing about each other approximated that ancient measure—it must be patched and reinforced, with substances gathered from their surfaces. From a distance the bridge is invisible: an icy thread running up to the overhead world, too slender to catch much of what light can reach it. At either base it resembles a rough-hewn tower the girth of a mountain, thicker on Plouton with its greater gravity. Genuine ice mountains rise from the lifeless plains, and Heimdallr has already lain waste to five in quarrying blocks for his span. Yearly he must venture farther to gather material for repairs, and someday will have to cross the horizons of both worlds, into lands where the other world is absent from the sky. He does not know how he will feel about this; feelings are something he imperfectly understands.

He is not on the ground when the glint of light catches his eye. Plouton-Charon lies far from the ecliptic, so Heimdallr may look inward toward the other planets without being dazzled by the Sun. The spark’s wavelengths are shifted to blue, although to a degree too faint for a human eye to detect. It is coming toward him quickly.

When the light flares brighter and shifts toward red, he knows that it is not a missile. For days he had pondered how to defend Bifröst—large, brittle, immobile—against assault. A direct blow to projectiles might knock them off course, but such a strike must be massive or extremely fast—many times local escape velocity—and Heimdallr doubted his bow possessed the strength for either. Evidence that the decelerating vessel would come to rest a kilometer away does not reassure, although he shifts his stance and takes his hand from the pommel of his sword.

It is not until the thrusters cut off that he can see the gleaming spear, which is now rotating on its axis with tiny puffs of vapor. The blade turns once and now rests in the hand of a helmeted woman, who raises it above her head.

“Ho,” Heimdallr says. “You stand before Bifröst, the Rainbow Bridge, and I its builder and guardian. Be welcome if you offer no threat.”

“I am Garðrofa, message-bearer.” She seems to hang in space before him, although in fact she is circling in a plane that lies perpendicular to Bifröst. Heimdallr, his back to the bridge, can see tiny jets emerge at intervals from her boots, correcting the unstable orbit. “I bring you word.”

“What is your message, and from whom?”

“I bring the message; I do not know its content, nor its sender.” Then she says: “You are called—entreated, not summoned, yet the knowledge of duty itself summons—to the Sheltered Gardens. Please come in the flesh, as no pallid counterfeit will suffice.”

“‘The flesh’? They believe I possess the power or inclination to create an Iteration and send it loose?”

Garðrofa looked at him quizzically. “Whom do you speak of?”

“You just relayed an appeal from the Sheltered Gardens.”

“I did?”

“Who gave you this message?”

“I do not know.”

“Why then did you carry it?”

“I do not know.”

Heimdallr considered her. “Is there more?”

“No.”

Heimdallr’s nature, and the physical form he has taken, precludes the need for shelter, but the oldest parts of him understands the importance of hospitality. “My hall lies beyond. It is scant warmer than the space surrounding us, but its hewn beams offer relief from the unbroken sight of stars.”

“Thank you, but if I may decline without giving offense, I do.”

It has been a lifetime and more since Heimdallr has spoken to a being before him, and while loneliness does not lay waste to his spirit, the rupture of his solitude now seems pleasing. “To take refreshment together—whatever resources you have expended in traveling hither, I can replenish—would satisfy the obligations of both guest and host, and more agreeably than my other duties can claim. The invitation stands, and unless you depart forthwith, I shall at length repeat it.”

“I have no plans to depart,” says Garðrofa simply.

“No?” Hundreds of scanning programs and tiny probes have been examining the visitor and the space around and beyond her, and have reported one by one that she offers no threat.

“Do those who dispatched you wish to give you additional missions, or offer you some reward for your service?”

“I do not know.”

“That is surprising,” he says. “How long were you voyaging here?”

“I cannot say. During the interval of travel, I was not.”

Heimdallr ponders this. He wishes to ask, “What more can you tell me?” but guesses that the answer would be Nothing. “My hounds have sniffed your boots and found you unthreatening. Are you doubtful regarding my own good will?”

“No. I am not concerned for my safety.”

He has not had to think quickly in many years, but does so now. “Then let me show you my world. At worst you will be bored.”

At this Heimdallr launched himself out and downward, toward Plouton. Had he simply pushed away from the ice, he would have been hours drifting toward the primary. The passage of time might not have bothered either of them, but he felt it was a moment to be purposeful.

Acceleration is slow, but eight thousand kilometers lie between Bifröst’s midpoint and the surface, and his boots strike ground with a satisfying crunch and a spray of methane snow. Long practice has taught him the stride that covers the most distance without leaving him afloat in a high trajectory, and he moves swiftly over the landscape, flat here (he long ago cleared it for the transportation of building material) but becoming irregular the farther one gets from Bifröst’s trunk. The time and energy required to travel distances mean nothing to him, so he built his fastness (once named Himminbjorg, though he soon realized that a structure no one would ever see or hear of does not need a name) on the ground that offered the most impressive view, which proved to be in one of Plouton’s highlands.

Heimdallr knew without turning his head that Garðrofa had matched his stride and was following him at a half dozen paces. He saw no need to offer information about the temperature, local gravity, mineral composition, and other bits of “local color” (the ancient term abruptly came to him) that she could clearly perceive for herself. Instead he told her something she could not measure. “I find this beautiful,” he says. “Can you see the beauty here?”

“Perhaps.”

It was her first ambiguous response, and he wondered at it. She did not elaborate, however, and after a moment he says: “My calculations suggest that your voyage originated in the Gardens. Does this correspond with your own memories?”

“No.”

That part of his mind that had been reviewing past, hitherto unstudied images of the sky, identifying the minute smudges of the approaching Garðrofa, and calculating possible trajectories from its shifts had brought to consciousness its conclusion. He did not need to know how he knew, any more than a seafaring ancestor would have questioned his sense of shifting balance.

“Is there trouble at the Great Work? Has the Parasol grown tattered, or its attendants injured or starved, so it will soon tear or blow away and those it has sheltered will roast?”

“I do not know.”

“Is there conflict between the peoples of the disparate spheres? All human history has been plagued by such pointless strife.”

“I cannot tell you.”

“Did those who sent you approach others before appealing to so distant a figure as me?”

“If so, they did not inform me.”

She was giving the same reply, but no longer with identical answers. This was rhetoric, a human art older than any craft operating on this world. He wonders if she is becoming more human as the sheath that brought her sloughs away.

He points toward the horizon. “That is my redoubt.”

It was not built like anything on Earth, where the gravity is twenty times greater and structures are shaped to bear loads. It contains no rock, for Plouton’s stony core lies far below its surface. It is not defensive in design, for it is not a fortress, and no above-ground structure in the solar system could withstand assault by relativistic projectiles. It is probably not beautiful, although Heimdallr pondered beauty as he constructed it.

If nothing else, it is unique.

The entrance is large and stands always open. The Great Hall is suited for feasting, as are the upstairs quarters for privacy, though he never expected guests. He leads her in and bids her to take her ease, and offers to withdraw should she prefer solitude. Garðrofa looks up at the vaulted ceiling; turns to study the tall windows looking upon the icy plain, the colonnade opposite leading to the inner courtyard; walks about the banquet table. “I do not wish for anything,” she says.

“Please sit,” he says. She does so, although she does not seem more comfortable. After a moment he asks, “Is there anything more you wish to do or tell me?”

“No,” she replies. “My mission is completed.”

“You are free to act as you please?”

She seems to consider this. “Yes, although I have no further needs. Now that . . . ” She breaks off, and he looks curiously at her. “With my duties discharged, aspects of my being are shutting down, allowing others to . . . It is curious,” she says at last. “I am now able to feel—well, it is difficult to describe.” She looks at him. “Have you been lonely here?”

“No,” he says, startled. “Although I am enjoying your company, the solitude has never troubled me.” Nor has he wondered at that, and now wonders why he didn’t. Years ago he dealt with this by devising an editor that would reduce sensitivity to cognitive activities that produced distress. Because he understood the survival value of such thoughts, he did not debar them from consciousness; they stood beyond a diaphanous scrim, available for assessment but unable to inflict pain. Now the scrim seems to be rippling in an intangible breeze, and that which lay beyond is now gliding forward to join him.

Years ago . . . he also created a program that would allow him to access uncomfortable memories but prevent them from coming unbidden to mind. He will not know how many years unless he makes an effort. That, he decides, he will do later.

“I am beginning to feel that I would be lonely,” she says.

Heimdallr begins to reply, but suddenly realizes that he is uncertain regarding his own feelings, which seem to be changing. “The person I was never felt lonely, but your presence has provoked something.” It has provoked shifts and subsidences, and he is less surprised by the onset of change than by what is changing—or rather, changing back.

He had isolated and disabled numerous vulnerable aspects of his personality, but had known enough not to eliminate them, and now they are rushing back like waters reclaiming the land. He is a proud and social man who values the respect of those he admires, a man of curiosity, ambition, and unsurprising passions. All now come rushing back, dizzying him even as he stands unmoving.

“We are alone on this world together,” he says, “and only for a short time.” The millions of nerve endings suitable for sexual response still function, even if they are not wired to his skin.

“I understand,” she answers. She sits thinking for a time—no time at all, by the scale he is used to, but long (he remembers) for human conversation—and then stands.

Their coupling would have struck their ancestors as heroic: it takes place in the extreme cold, it lasts a very long time, and it generates enough heat to melt the ice (methane) around them. Such flesh as they possess does not fatigue, nor are their nervous systems restricted to the range of sensation available to the humans of earlier epochs. Their emotional responses climb, soar, and dive like cranes traversing a mountain range. Tolerances are pushed, subroutines neglected to the point of recklessness in order to devote all resources to the act. Each climax offers the promise of richer and more complex raptures; the lovers do not cease until they decide, almost simultaneously, that their capacity for exaltation has reached its limit.

After such exertion, one can only lie side by side, unselfconsciously engaged in the archaism of actually touching. It is longer still before they rise, for there is more than much for each to consider, and each has—to a degree that must itself be pondered—become now a different person. Heimdallr goes off to begin building his craft; Garðrofa to explore the world’s continent-sized surface. They rarely speak, although each feels as though the other is standing near.

Much of the substances he needs are already incorporated into the engines that maintain Bifröst or the mechanisms that support them, and he is careful about what he harvests for his own use. There is more: energies must be summoned and gathered; a route plotted; a flight plan of fractal intricacy devised. The minders to manage these tasks and the artificers to carry them out must themselves be supervised, and Heimdallr is long at these labors before construction is finally underway and he seeks out Garðrofa, who has ranged as far as the backside of Charon.

“I have given orders for preparations for my journey,” he told her. “We may occupy the meantime as we please. You will accompany me on the same trajectory when we return?”

“I shall not return,” she replied.

“You wish to stay here?”

“I shall not stay. The functions that sustain me were not designed to outlast the voyage, and I shall soon discorporate.”

Surprise, like a dropped match briefly illuminating an abyss, may fail to sound the depths that engulfs it. “How is this so?” he asks.

“I do not know.”

“You are alarmed, afraid? Resigned?”

“No.”

“How might this be forestalled?”

“By no means available. I am a message to be discarded once read.”

Heimdallr is used to solving problems, but he can see nothing here. “This is unacceptable. Why should I live and not you?”

“You shall not always live. And for accepting this voyage you shall live less long, though differently.”

His response to this, and hers in turn, are clear to both of them and go unspoken. They rush into each other’s arms, perhaps knowing where this will lead. There is no point in anything else; all other actions open to them close like convergent series.

They will couple till she perishes, a fusion reaction to light up the surrounding night. Neither knows whether these exertions will delay or hasten the failure of some critical system, nor what such collapse will be like. The space they have entered defines their shared future; tumbling, they do not wonder when they will strike its far wall.

When it comes, there is time for an instant of awareness, a hand raised perhaps in farewell. Then solitude, more sudden than seems possible; his soul rings with the shock of it.

It is as things were before, save that it is not.

He returns to his labors, which now involves hurling boulder-sized chunks of special ice into the sky, along paths that shall intersect his own eventual route. With the dispatch of the first projectile his timetable is fixed, immutable as the movement of the heavens. He lets fly with three more, at precisely calculated intervals and trajectories, and prepares for a departure time that is similarly established. The calculations involved in ascertaining the mass and composition of the payloads as well as their exact trajectories are delegated to engines of inhuman strangeness, leaving his own mind to muse upon what it will. He wonders whether the loneliness he now feels will someday settle back into the familiar solitude, which held its own stoic satisfactions.

It is not something he broods upon, but eventually he begins to realize—as a shadow that moves too slowly to see will eventually lengthen to reach you—that he is not, at least not in the sense that he has understood his self to be, entirely alone.

Heimdallr always knew that the emissary from the sunlit realms would have had recourse were he to refuse her invitation. Whether she knew it or not, Garðrofa possessed means designed either to compel his cooperation or take that which her masters valued in him. What manner of invasive procedure she had to breach the citadel of his self and suborn his will Heimdallr never asked, and does not wonder now. But now he wonders whether she managed to plant a piton before falling away.

“Garðrofa?” he calls. “Are you there?”

The answer is not Yes, but neither is it silence. For a long time Heimdallr stands listening, and only slowly begins to realize that the presence he perceives does not lie beyond the frontiers of his self, a dim figure that will not come forward, but stands closer, too close to be clearly discerned. Too close, though he thinks for a long time before he accepts this, to be distinct: she is not with him but in him.

It is in thinking this through that the transformation truly takes hold. The process is too strange to surprise; Heimgarð rises and turns about only to survey its aftermath, which comprehends hrs own self. Hse reflects without wonder or resentment, for many things are clearer now.

The time approaches, ratcheting down to zero in the tiny exact steps of an ancient clockwork, and Heimgarð stands ready on the dayside of Plouton. The spacecraft that will take hrm to the inner System is attached to hrs back and thighs, like the folded wings of Daidolos. How long did hse—did Heimdallr—abide on this world? A moment’s thought would tell hrm, though consciousness could not function with centuries of such data casually to hand.

With a final step, the moment is here. Heimgarð looks up at the tiny Sun, swings back hrs arms and flexes hrs legs, and in one smooth motion launches hrmself into space.

2

The Sun is a campfire, casting long shadows into a night that soon swallows them whole. Warriors, explorers, soldiers on campaign have sat by its flickering light, as Neolithic tribes had once done, all of them aware of how quickly its illumination fades with distance. A few steps into the dimness beyond and its protecting powers fade, for predators prowl its perimeter.

No predators lurk in the Solar System, a boundless vacuum sprinkled, more sparsely than humans can grasp, with finely distributed rubble. There are no trees or hills to block the light, so the fire can be seen, a pinpoint of illumination, from miles distant. Others, too far ever to reach, fill the sky, creating an illusion of plenitude that humans can never shake.

Hse accelerates steadily and will ultimately reach a velocity few human vehicles have attained, though the voyage will still last for years. Do the nations of the Sheltered Gardens still reckon time by the Earth’s rotational period? Hse could search hrs memories, where missives from the Gardens are stored, but they are all too old to be conclusive. Better perhaps to seek the answer by musing upon human nature. There will be time enough, and hse needs the practice.

For all its aching emptiness, the distance Heimgarð must traverse yields a measurable risk of collision with some grain of matter. Such an impact would be catastrophic, and the craft that is largely Heimgarð has been built to offer what protection it can, including lookout instrumentation gazing ahead and around for anything larger than a dust particle. Should hse detect one in hrs path, Heimgarð would have microseconds in which to aim and fire a high-energy beam to knock it away. If that proves impossible, hse could take evasive action—avoiding impact perhaps by millimeters—or decelerate hard, enough that the tiny bullet would complete its transit across hrs path.

The processing power required to maintain such vigilance at all times occupies a significant fraction of hrs attention, so hrs thoughts develop slowly. There is plenty of time, however, and Heimgarð continues to muse even during those hours when much of hrs brain is asleep.

The Sheltered Gardens lie before hrm; or rather, the point that the Gardens will someday reach; they will circle the Sun many times before their path and hsr intersect. Sometimes Heimgarð imagines that the site of hrs destination is still the white-clouded planet of ancient times, Tài bái xīng or Hesperos, and that it shall progress through its history, accommodating itself to Aris and joining in an intricate dance, by the time hse reaches it. It is a strange thought, but there is time for that. Some of hrs thoughts, twining and looping through long, uninterrupted chains of association, are too strange for hrm to articulate, were anyone present to hear them.

Heimgarð’s trajectory lies far from the ecliptic, but part of hrs mind announces, in the midst of a complex meditation, that if one drew a line from hrs position perpendicular to the ecliptic and tracked where it falls on the disk, hse has just crossed the orbit of Neptune. The planet itself is nowhere near this point, but hse finds hrmself reflecting on Triton: large, volcanically active, and closer to its primary than Selene is—was—to Earth. Once Heimdallr dreamed of building a Bifröst extending from the surface of Triton to point a long finger almost into Neptune’s atmosphere. The project was absurd: such a structure would have to be constructed of strong and flexible alloys, jointed like a dragon’s vertebrae, and hrs stolid heart recoiled at the unnaturalness of any like venture. Still, hse wonders if the Tritonides had ever considered it: they loved advanced engineering, and the great blue world that hung unmoving in their sky never ceased to fascinate and entice them.

No world was visible to Heimgarð as hse coasted silently through the darkness. Hrs propellant was gone, and hse cruised in a great ellipse that would, should hse fail to refuel and resume powered flight, veer close to the Sun, incinerating hrm and subjecting the molten mass that remained to incredible deceleration as it swung about and headed out again in a millennia-long orbit. A tiny part of hrs attention tracks the path of the first ice boulder as hse slowly overtakes it, the largest object in millions of kilometers.

The final hours before the encounter focus all of Heimgarð’s available thoughts, which hse recognizes as a good thing. The slowly spinning mass lies ahead, visible only by reflected starlight, which is to say, invisible to normal human eyes. Hse uses lidar to study its shifting albedo, its steady increase in diameter as it moves slowly into hrs path. Hse might have carved handholds into its surface, or shaped it to look like an artifact (a spaceborne projectile, or perhaps a sculpture), but did not think of it at the time. That it occurred to hrm now suggests that hrs thinking has changed: hse is not the being he was.

At the instant of encounter hse seizes it, and while its midsection is too great for hrm to get hrs arms fully around, the spikes in hrs fingers dig powerfully in, anchoring hrs grip. Hrs trajectory shifts, to a degree minutely different from that predicted, and jets fire briefly to correct. Already hse is beginning to consume the boulder’s substance, and within minutes a tiny tongue of plasma flares brilliantly and acceleration resumes. That part of hrs mind that courses through material most resembling protoplasm feels the surge, and hse feels a thrill first known to the horsemen of the Eurasian steppes.

There is a deep pleasure in powered flight, in steady acceleration that surpasses that of coasting through space. Heimgarð more than doubles hrs velocity over the next few hundred hours, then finds hrmself missing the sustained roar once the fuel is expended. Hse is a bullet, a flung stone, a falling star, free to resume powered flight once hse overtakes and consumes the next tumbling floe.

Heimgarð moves, swiftly by the scale of humans and their works, slowly by that of what milestones can be found. When hse “passes the orbit” of Ouranos, one part of hrs mind informs the rest, which is deep in a reverie no ancestor could follow. There will be no need ever to communicate its nature, no occasion ever to recollect it in tranquility, which hse guesses does not lie ahead. Hse is whelmed in solitude and stillness: no wind to ruffle hrs hair, no blast to chill or spray to soak. Molecules—nothing larger—occasionally ping against hrs visor.

Hse listens for radio waves, and eventually assembles an enormous dish, kilometers across yet thinner than a cell wall, that floats beside hrm like the shadow of a moon, but hears nothing save bursts of emissions from the Sun. Perhaps as hse angles closer to the ecliptic hse will be able to pick up transmissions, though none ever reached hrm on the worldbridge. The possibility that the only remaining radio communications are those from the Gardens to Hermaon, too close to the Sun to distinguish from its incessant roar, fills hrm with something like sadness.

Heimgarð does not possess the soul of either poet or metaphysician, but hse never loses hrs train of thought, however long or complex it grows. When the view does not change and maintenance protocols are unvarying, there is little else to do but think, and the “train”—linear only in its earliest stages—is soon ramifying through all dimensions, a steadily branching tree. Hse can image this edifice in its entirety while pondering every bud, and hrs unwavering attention allows hrm to prune irrelevancies and shore up weaknesses with the patience of an ancient gardener, one who barely notices that her potted topiary has grown into a maze. Whether the final edifice is profound, or even communicable, is of no consequence to hrm, for spreading word of hrs thoughts is not in Heimgarð’s nature. Left to hrmself, hse builds.

Inside the orbit of Phaiton hse intercepts the final iceball and begins to decelerate. The distance between the great planet and the Gardens is smaller than what hse has already crossed, yet the span cries out in its vacancy, for Ceres, Aris and the very Earth once filled it and now are elsewhere or otherwise. Slowing, the blast from hrs rockets now flare before hrm, strong enough to vaporize any grit that might cross hrs trajectory. Hse looks down past hrs boots to see hrs path obscured by the spray, and so can observe hrs flight only by holding a reflector, like Perseus’s shield, at arm’s length.

Ceres, the tiniest world, was purposefully deflected, a servitor dispatched in the name of duty, and Aris now nestles in the Gardens, but the crumpled thing where humanity was born is but a phantasma, for all that its mass is undiminished. To contemplate this is to feel pain in a place you never knew, and Heimgarð, still new to emotion, is stunned into something like grief.

Hse is now entering the realm of light, where comets would begin to blaze and the solar wind strengthens steadily. Earlier hse could adjust hrs trajectory with a few bursts of vaporized ice, but now hse is expending fuel profligately, decelerating long and hard even as the Sun seeks to pull hrm in. Hse will not meet the Garden head on, but the delta-v required to match orbits still consumes much of hrs substance. The voyager will reach hrs destination stripped to essentials, ribs showing like a wolf’s come spring.

Selene makes a full circuit about the Sun as hse approaches, allowing Heimgarð to observe its bright bead swelling just before it disappears behind the solar corona. Sometime later it reappears on the Sun’s opposite side, to swing out, bright again, and then narrow to a sliver as it circles back toward hrm. This grants Heimgarð unobstructed sight lines to every point on the lunar surface, but no radio signal reaches hrm. The flare of hrs rockets would be visible to any imaging device scanning the sky, and hrs rapid movement across the heavens would allow any processor with access to a database to identify hrs point of origin, but the vanished Earth’s moon is as silent as Phaiton’s. Hrs summoners in the Gardens must be observing hrm through optical instruments—hse would detect the touch of any lidar signal—but even they are mute. Hse watches the bright spots of the Garden, a constellation of worlds, as they swell into fullness and then vanish behind the Sun. When the Parasol appears on schedule, a dull glowing circle of partially reflected energy, Heimgarð is significantly closer, angling not toward where it is but where it shall be. A season later and the Parasol shows itself on edge, the Garden worlds glowing as dim semicircles in its shadow.

Now voices fill hrs ears. Words of welcome, instruction, requests for data. Garðrofa would perhaps recognize them, but Garðrofa is no longer here. Heimgarð has hrs own flight plans to follow. At the proper instant hse jettisons hrs craft, which falls away into an elliptical orbit that will someday decay into incandescence. Hse is falling free, moving toward an artificial structure that has swung round to face hrm.

Ahead, the gates open. Sentries, watchful against nearing projectiles, are alerted to hrs authorized entry and turn aside their weapons. Alone, unarmed, the onetime sentinel of Bifröst slows to a trudge with the last of hrs propellant and enters the redoubt of Men.

3

Welcome is traditional for even the strangest arrivals, and wayfarers are expected to rest upon journey’s end. Although Heimgarð is not accustomed to resting, hse recognizes the need for convalescence: hrs tissues bruised from weeks of braking and riddled from fusillades of ionized particles. Hse lies upon a bed in minimal gravity, undisturbed (though the bed was doubtless monitoring hrs well-being) while hse heals.

The welcome hse receives is more ambivalent. When after forty hours—this is a world of human time, which hse resumes measuring in those terms—Heimgarð stands, a door appears before hrm and hse passes through, to a space where others soon come to greet him. Perhaps they were not expecting hrm, but rather their envoy bearing Heimdallr in tow, or someone more like themselves.

“Our thanks for taking such trouble to come,” says one, evidently female. She speaks the language that Garðrofa had—the one Heimdallr spoke a century and more ago, which (hse now realizes) may well be now spoken nowhere. Courtesy and research: neither incompatible with coercion, which Heimgarð can find no reason to resent. Hse nods gravely.

“There is much that you must tell me,” hse answers. Right now the Garden-dwellers are seeking rather than offering information: hse can sense their attempts to access hrs memories, which hse is able to deflect, perhaps because their technology was used to create Garðrofa, whose being now suffuses hrs substance. What they seek to know, they will have to ask.

“Let us show you.” The section of floor they stood on descended into darkness. Heimgarð feels the pull of gravity increase and realizes that, of course, hse had lain in a gravity field—no bed functions otherwise. Hse seeks to shake off the fogginess of mind that is evidently afflicting hrm.

“It will be a few seconds,” another says. There is a faint shudder underfoot, and suddenly the blackness is spangled by stars. They are outside the habitat, moving through space, a clear bubble encasing them—does the Parasol block radiation so effectively?—and the great globe of Hesperos, dimmer than it appeared in the morning sky of Earth, hangs before their heads, three quarters full. Once more in free fall, Heimgarð orients hrmself to view it more easily. Is there a pinpoint of light showing on its night side? Hse isn’t sure.

“We are bound for Aris, where the gravity is more like your world’s,” says a third. Plouton’s gravity is but a fraction even of Hermaon’s, and of course it was Heimdallr who was accustomed to Plouton’s gravity. Hrs hosts see before them someone who is not Heimdallr nor Garðrofa, who has neither youth nor age, and balk at this troubling fact. Heimgarð, who calls no world hrs own, simply nods.

Aris is visible beyond Hesperos, a deeper shade of the red it has shown humanity since its earliest members gazed into the night sky. The closeness of the two recognizable disks is deeply unnatural: it is something done by man, a feat on a scale greater than that of Bifröst or even the Parasol. Though Heimgarð has always been able to visualize the binary accurately, hse is profoundly affected by the sight.

Aris and Hesperos circle each other in a calculated dance, at a distance that leaves each looming large in the other’s sky. Once there was talk of the worlds being aligned so that the greater would exert on the lesser an influence comparable to what Selene had once wrought upon Earth. Perhaps the engineers of this project—the greatest humankind has ever achieved, or now ever will—expected to seed the larger world with the Earth’s legacy of tide-sensitive creatures and plant life, most even then banished into digital limbo. There is certainly no talk of that now.

The Sheltered Gardens are, like the rest of the solar system, mostly empty space, but the cone within the Parasol’s umbra is several million times denser than the rest. A moment’s observation shows numerous apparent stars moving against the background of the heavens: spacecraft, habitats, and the glint of enormous engines that once displaced a planet, now parked in permanent orbits like abandoned ordnance in the aftermath of a vast war.

“We have cleared the orbital zone of debris,” one of them says. “No dangerous shards fly through.” A walled garden, Heimgarð thinks: any loose stones prised from where nature had cast them and diverted for use elsewhere. But no one planned to spend their life in a garden.

Hse does not say this, nor anything else. The voyage takes several hours, which hse employs to recalibrate hrs sense of time: everything is now taking place quickly.

Aris is brighter than hse remembers seeing it—the Parasol admits as much sunlight as the Earth and Selene receive—but the planet shows no sign of what atmosphere it has gained. Hse can see the long thread of gases swirling along the Potamegos, too faint for normal human vision, but the red surface remains cloudless. Data are available at hrs mind’s fingertips, numbers attesting to the enormous difficulties of pulling away the top of Hesperos’s atmosphere and tunneling it across space, the decades it will take, even if the harvest rate can be steadily increased as its planners intended. Somewhere in these numbers, or in others, lies the reason that hse has been brought here.

Aerobraking is impossible over a planet with no significant atmosphere, so the craft decelerates using another world’s: the compressed gases of Hesperos are fired like rocket exhaust toward the surface of Aris. As the craft slows, its passengers stand upon its forward bulkhead, the planet now invisible below them. Most of them are significantly smaller than unmodified humans, and Heimgarð has also reduced hrs dimensions, shedding much of the mass hse used to cross the solar system. A guest, hse has doffed hat, cloak, and boots, and stands unaccommodated before them: the thing itself, whatever that may be.

They look at each other quizzically; Heimgarð possesses no skills in reading others’ expressions, but knows that they cannot read hsr. They pass through an opening in the Koleos—the world-sheathing membrane, billowing gently in what winds can reach it, is invisible even as they slip through—and are soon within a few kilometers of Aris’s surface, although the sky is getting no brighter. A small world: the horizon appears only seconds before touchdown.

The landscape is stony plain, its shades of red and ocher spotted with sheets of verdant fuzz. Heimgarð knew of the Gardeners’ plans to pull water and minerals from the soil with tailored viridiplantae, hardy organisms that will eventually change the ecosphere into something in which they cannot survive.

“Pankor is just beyond that low ridge,” says one of them, pointing. “We will enter it from here.” And the craft drops into the ground, through a shaft that opens after they have descended thirty-four meters (Heimgarð’s sensors immediately told hrm this) onto a high-ceilinged tunnel, the first interior space Heimgarð has entered that does not feel cramped. The scent of vegetation wafts toward them—Heimgarð freezes at it touches hrs nostrils—and the others begin walking toward it, on ground that rings solid beneath their steps.

Heimgarð follows as they move toward sunlight at the corridors’ end. An enormous vista opens upon the city of Pankor, built upon the terraced walls of a narrow tract of Valles Marineris and covered by a clear dome. By now Heimgarð can smell fir needles, though the source of this memory lies beyond reach. Birds, wings flapping with unnatural languor, fly slowly past.

Across a distance of 3.2 kilometers, boughs sway on breezes dense as those that once swept Earth.

None of the guides announce the city’s population, plans for expansion, or the details of its physical plant, for they know that Heimgarð can access these data on the open skein. Instead they wait politely. Hse can offer praise, but allows hrs nature to find expression. “What is the problem you face?”

“Time,” one replies. “We cannot take centuries to move humanity into the new worlds. A civilization of refugees, huddling in scattered habitats, will weaken and fail over generations. The Potamegos can never be more than a trickle; the wind that blows from Hesperos to Aris must swell to a gale, that this endeavor may show results within our people’s lifetime.”

“So what do you seek?”

“We need to build Yggdrasil.”

There is a silence while Heimgarð locates and assesses the data on this. “A daunting project,” hse says after a moment. “It would require a lot of mass.”

“Yes.”

Hse does not add that it would be difficult to operate, for the tendency of their remarks is clear. “Bifröst is nothing like what you propose. I can offer you neither knowledge nor skills.”

“Do not be too certain. You managed such a structure for a long period of time, and that is a perspective we require.”

Heimgarð ponders the dynamics that would act upon this world-spanning tree, its roots extracting gases from one as its branches disperse them over the other. There is a superficial resemblance to hrs creation, but this structure is hollow: not a bridge, but a sluice.

Heimgarð was never an engineer, but the sentinel of Bifröst was first its builder, and hse imagines the superheated gases being drawn up into the roots and then cooling rapidly as they expand. The long trunk would fill with moving vapor, whose density would decrease sharply across its length even as new gases pushed inward. Roots and branches would writhe like a living thing.

The master of such a venture would wield enormous responsibility, like the project manager for the Pyramids or the admiral of a starship fleet. Among those who understood the trials of command, such an overseer’s name would live forever.

Hse says, “I don’t believe you.”


They take hrm to the Sky Dragon, which sails upon the seas of Hesperos’s cloud cover like an enormous curled leaf. From there an airship lofts them to Estia, at this altitude a mere spire, light enough in its nanotube structure to bend in the terrible winds. Docking is interesting; the craft is relatively unwieldy and the buffeting provokes in hrm an involuntary tensing unfelt for centuries. In the event of catastrophic failure they would fall fifty kilometers to the ground. Although Heimgarð possessed the means to slow hrs descent, hse would not be able to survive the surface conditions, as hse easily had on Plouton. The thought is a novel one, and some part of hrm stirs uneasily.

The maneuver proceeds without incident, and they debark unmindful of the roaring about them. The platform takes them down swiftly, converting their kinetic potential into electricity as it brakes. The column widens from flue to hearth as they descend, for the growing pressure more than compensates for the weaker winds. At its bottom, enormous blocks of hewn stone have been laid: quarried from the foundations of the earth, they are stacked kilometers high, the cornerstones upon which nanotubes of exotic composition, interwoven like chain mail against the crushing world-dragon, rise through seething murk of slowly diminishing pressure toward the habitable skies.

It is an expressway to hell, but Heimgarð feels a faint relief in setting boots upon it. Perhaps hrs hosts realized that hse would be more comfortable with a structure that is anchored to the ground.

“The realm of the clouds is ours, but we must claim the surface. Volcanism and the ravaging atmosphere assail the land from below and above, yet it is our nature as humans to tread ground and look into the sky. Our thick-walled city is but a warren, its parks enlarged caverns lit by artifice. You, who know what it is to stand beneath the stars, can comprehend our need to make a home.”

Heimgarð looks down the kilometers of shaft, which exhales air warmed by the city below them. Lights may be shining at the bottom, although hrs eyesight is not presently enhanced to see more than an ordinary person’s.

The city is as they described it, and hse feels as uncomfortable in its teeming as they anticipated. As many people lived here as inhabited all the rest of Hesperos, each of them (it was worth recalling) used to such conditions. Why was this worse than living in an orbital habitat? Heimgarð could not say.

When they tell hrm what they want, hse knows they are not telling hrm everything. What they say is alarming enough.

“We want you to treat with them. They will heed you, as they do not us.”

Heimgarð protests that hse knows nothing of them, has no experience dealing with such beings. Hse also declares that the Gardeners will have to be more open with hrm about the nature of this mission. They nod and tell hrm more, though it is not the information hse needs.

“Is this why you brought me here?” Hse does not mean it resentfully, for those feelings seem distant from the person hse is.

And they show hrm images of Eridu, as vivid as though hse were gazing upon it in the cloud-cropped future of their dreams. The city stands ringed by a wall eight kilometers high, above which the now-skimmed cauldron of Hesperos’s atmosphere drifts over a dome that admits great slanting beams of sunlight. Twelve hundred square kilometers of flat and gently rolling land, Eridu bristled with structures—residential ziggurats, buildings shaped like warped planes, lifted wings, cylinders and prisms, all interlaced with tubes and ribbons of transport routes—and winding swathes of parkland, rumpled green or flat blue.

“We can tell you, for any given second, how many people are alive in the Gardens. But we cannot tell you what proportion of humanity this constitutes. Do the thermal signatures from Selene bespeak surviving settlements or merely the half-functioning life systems, still emitting heat long after those it once warmed are gone? Are there survivors sheltered within the moons circling Phaiton? Or are we behind the Parasol the sole redoubt of humanity? To reflect upon this is to understand why we must return to environments that maintain themselves. Planetary surfaces are not immune to disaster but they are safer than habitats and warrens beneath frozen moons.”

Heimgarð’s memories of breathing the air of a sun-warmed planet are too distant to be brought into focus, but hse nods. They take this for general assent, and after further thanks hse is given a spacecraft, again one that wraps around hrs back and chest, and bade farewell. When the propitious moment arrives, hse is launched—on boosters that drop away like husks once they have attained the proper velocity—and sails out from behind the Parasol and into brilliant sunlight. Carefully timed thrusts produce immediate deceleration and hse drops toward the Sun, into a transfer orbit that will take hrm around and into an encounter with Hermaon, the iron planet, and its underworld.

4

In distance and time, it is Heimgarð’s shortest journey, but the weeks of travel are disconcerting in a way hse has never felt before. There is no radio transmission demanding an explanation for hrs approach, for it is clear what Heimgarð intends. No decisions confront hrm: three landing platforms lie flush upon the surface of Hermaon, equally spaced along the equator, and the calculus of ballistics makes clear which one hse shall use.

In some realms, choice is superfluous. Beyond the limits of logic and mathematics, however, certainty dissolves: what steps hse must afterward take seem not just unsure but unfathomable.

Certainly the kobolds offer nothing: even a challenge would give hrm some information, but they are silent. Heimgarð takes the trouble to brake no harder than an unmodified human could bear; it is hrs message to them, which is received without comment. Hrs boots touch down upon the flat surface and gravity reaches once more through hrs soles. Carefully hse unstraps hrs spacecraft and sets it beside hrm. The nightside landscape, visible only by the infrared emissions of its cooling surface, allows hrm the pleasure of a familiarly close horizon.

To look about for sensors would only show foolishness; of course hse is being watched. What do they expect from their uninvited visitor, whose identity they have doubtless inferred? Perhaps the traveler who crossed the planetary spheres, gaze fixed and hair streaming, shall now stride puissant to the door and rap upon it. There is no door, although a featureless structure rises three meters above the platform at its eastern edge. Hse turns to face it and its near side slides open, disclosing darkness within. Six steps—hse savors the act of walking again upon a small cold world—take hrm to the threshold and into the space. The floor drops swiftly away, and hse descends.

Heimgarð counts the meters as hse plummets—the accelerometer nestled in some equivalent of hrs inner ear allows this almost without effort—and notes the slowly rising temperature. The interior of Hermaon is molten, the silicates of its crust slow to conduct heat: the temperature is still well below the freezing point of carbon dioxide, but if the capsule falls far enough, it will open upon tremendous heat. Heimgarð is calculating how long hrs systems can keep hrs organic tissues from cooking when it begins slowing to a stop. With a hiss—there is air beyond—the panel slides open, upon a space radiating neither heat nor light.

Hse steps forward into the darkness. Hrs boots ring on the floor beneath hrm, and hrs mind builds a picture from the returning echoes. The chamber is low-ceilinged, large, and filled with kobolds. They stand facing hrm, unmoving.

Most of their bodies are insulated by thick skin or clothing, but their eyes emit heat enough to glow infraredly in the gloom. How many are there? Although Heimgarð’s greater height affords a vantage, their serried ranks soon disappear behind the small planet’s curvature.

Tell us what you want,” they say.

There is air enough in the chamber for Heimgarð to speak aloud. “The government of the Sheltered Gardens seeks your assistance in a project of great importance to them. They have authorized me to negotiate with you for this.”

Untrue.” The voices now come not in unison but as a ragged chorus, rebounding off the low ceiling like scattered particles. “They want our gold.”

It is a moment before Heimgarð is able to comprehend this. “This project will indeed require large amounts of various heavy metals, but the combined masses of Hesperos and Aris are more than—”

The Gardeners want our gold, which we will not surrender. So they have thrown you to us in propitiation.”

“Why would those of the Sheltered Gardens seek the resources of Hermaon? Both worlds—”

They wish to hoard their own.”

They know not how to mine it at such pressures.”

They dropped you down the shaft to spy on us. They care not if you never return.

With a shock hse realizes that this is true. Hse had been outfitted with the means to send a continuous data stream back to the Gardens, plus—hse now guessed—mobile devices to record such data and maneuver to dispatch it should transmission be blocked. Had the kobolds detected and disabled these?

This will require thinking, which Heimgarð is not now free to do. Hse ventures farther into the chamber, stepping between kobolds who turn their heads to regard hrm but do not otherwise move.

“How do you suppose those of the Gardens propose to dispossess you of yours? How am I, unfamiliar with your world and even theirs, to accomplish this for them?”

Guile.”

Trickery.”

A stratagem, not yet apparent.”

Humans are deceitful, in thrall to the sexual strategies that drove their animal ancestors and drive them just as blindly. They jostle and kick for social supremacy and mating opportunities, fitfully aware of how this appears yet unable to transcend it. They injure their societies in the interest of those few with whom they share genes, and will injure them in pursuit of opportunities to breed further. They are suspicious, irrational, and destructive, eventually to all but most immediately to those unlike themselves.

“They know we do not trust them, so they sent you.”

“But I am human,” Heimgarð points out.

And the space about him erupts in reverberating gales of eerie laughter.


Heimgarð ranges through their realm, which they do not forbid. There are passageways too small for hrm to enter, their endpoints unknown. Kobolds bustle past, sometimes carrying implements. One turns to regard hrm as it passes, gaze fixed upon hrm as its head rotates through 180 degrees. A many-toned muttering, language (if that’s what it is) unfamiliar, rises as hse moves through crowds of greater density.

If they have a leader, it is not coming forward. Kobolds once were people, Heimgarð was told, but that may not be the case for those now before hrm. Hse is not certain whether they are behaving like humans, for hse cannot tell what most of them are doing. Heimgarð sees one that it looking steadily at hrm, which hse takes as permission to address. “What is it you seek?” hse asks.

We seek to protect what is ours.”

“You must aspire to be more than just watchdogs. What do you want?” But the kobold merely repeats itself, and Heimgarð moves on.

“What do you want?” he asks another.

We want to be left alone.”

“Have you not been left to your solitude? Only I have come, and you chose to admit me.” But to this there is no reply.

One expresses itself clearly: “We don’t have to say what we want.”

After that hse wanders without hindering nor suffering hindrance from the strange creatures hastening past hrm. Possibly they are extending their domain, although hse can detect neither the vibrations nor airborne dust that would suggest excavation anywhere nearby. How far does this netherworld reach? How numerous its denizens?

Sometimes hse moves through great open plazas, sometimes down long colonnades or passageways narrow as tunnels. Hse ventures far enough that the curvature beneath hrm becomes measurable, and numbers collect in an unremarked register of hrs mind. Heimgarð is certain there is information they are not giving hrm, and studies the low ceilings and curving floors, the pressure and temperature of the air currents that brush past, the behavior of the kobolds hse speaks to or glimpses from afar. When the surmise materializes, it halts hrm with the abruptness of a hand against hrs chest. For a long moment hse simply stands motionless, running the figures repeatedly through hrs mind and wondering at the absurd implication.

“All right,” hse announces. Hse does not address hrs words in any direction, for hse knows that all are listening. “Take me to the realm below. There is no point trying to hide it.”


Perhaps they have been prepared for this moment. Certainly they do not feign incomprehension. Heimgarð is conducted to an elevator shaft, one that leads down rather than up. Hse enters the capsule and it drops through the floor, accelerating at a rate that hse studies closely. The capsule is transparent and is enveloped in darkness, but hse knows—and a beam from hrs helmet confirms—that hse is descending not down a tunnel but rather through a vast emptiness.

There are faint sources of light, and massive structures—girders and struts—discernible to hrs instruments across hundreds of kilometers. By now hse knows what hse will find, so hse does not strain to look straight down. Within minutes hse has data enough to guess when deceleration will begin, and at what point hse will touch bottom.

The door slides silently open and hse steps out onto level ground. The air is cool, but significantly thicker than in the chambers above. The ground is smooth but slightly yielding, and after a few steps hse feels it crunch like sand beneath hrs soles.

The gravitational pull is 1.00.

The lights overhead are dim as stars, but illuminated globes atop poles, like streetlamps from the early Industrial Era, dot the landscape, casting long intersecting shadows. Kobolds are everywhere, most of them much smaller than what hse has earlier seen. They enter and exit ornate structures that line thoroughfares, walking alone or in groups. A wheeled vehicle passes hrm.

The horizon is close, so Heimgarð does not have to venture far before features appear over it: a great coliseum, a range of hills, a large lake or perhaps a small sea. Hse approaches its shore and continues forward, wondering, until hse stands in its shallows: liquid water. Ships ply its surface, some under sail, and vibrations tell hrm of submarine vessels moving beneath, negotiating an environment populated (dissolved organics tell hrm) by marine life swimming or floating within its almost lightless depths.

Were hse to circle the shore and continue walking, hse would eventually circumnavigate this ornament, perfectly positioned around the center of its hollowed planet. It is a world of small compass, but a world.

There are other elevators, paired shafts that ferry a constant stream of kobolds up and down. None of them look at Heimgarð, although they clearly perceive hrm. Hrs own shaft stands ready upon hrs return; perhaps it was assembled expressly for hrm.

Hse rides it back up and looks out upon the Kobolds who await him as the door slides open. To address those present is, hse understands, to address them all.

Hse says, “I won’t ask what you have done; I can see that much. Nor will I ask why you did it. Instead I will ask once more: What is it you want?”

We want a world. We want to feel the ground beneath our feet. The weightlessness of space is not for people, and the sensation of being flung against a rotating surface is not true gravity.”

“And so you have constructed that . . . eggshell sphere around a kernel of degenerate matter? A black hole? Contracting upon itself like an infinite arch, at exactly the distance you wished?”

As you infer. It gave us a World, though small, on—or in—a planet too scant to provide it otherwise.”

“And the technology to wreak such upheavals: Has this anything to do with what befell the Earth?”

No. Yet the Gardeners would never believe that: In their too-human fearfulness and imprudence they would draw an irresistible conclusion. Knowledge of our works they could not handle, so cannot ever learn.”

“Yet you admitted me into your midst, and now I know.”

“Yes.”

Silence follows this. Neither Heimgarð nor the kobolds cross their arms, square their stance: they consider themselves human, but are not so bound to their primate biology as to ape such bellicose posturing.

Heimgarð betrays nothing, but in fact harbors little to betray. I did not ask for this, hse wants to say. I do not wish to wield this club, yet now it rests in my hand.

“You must,” hse says, “have thought of this. So what would you have me do?”

And after more silence, they tell hrm.

5

The voyage out is not a return; nothing ever is.

Plouton-Charon lies more than a hundred degrees off Heimgarð’s course; each second takes hrm farther from it. The Gardens are also swinging behind the Sun; hse will attend no ceremonies celebrating hrs success. The kobolds would in any case likely forbid it: their concern for the safety of their secret would preclude giving the Gardeners any chance to lay hold of hrm.

Heimgarð will not see the effects of the deal hse hammered out, and in hrs fatigue—a surprisingly organic response—hse does not much care. The hammer, hse dully reflects, feels the impact as much as the substance it works.

The kobolds will keep their “gold”: none of Hermaion’s remaining metals will be sent to the Gardeners, who will never know why. Within weeks, however, kobolds by the hundreds will depart for Hesperos—not for any of the tall cities, but to the raging planet itself—and begin quarrying its own resources. Iron, copper, and more run in veins through its crust, waiting to be mined by anything willing to labor in darkness and gravity. Perhaps they will even enjoy it.

In return they have exacted their own price: the broker’s eternal exile. Heimgarð is to leave the inner system, never to return. But as recompense—and perhaps to speed hrm on hrs way—hse has been rebuilt, by techs whose skills even the Gardeners likely cannot match: outfitted with greater fuel capacity, energy storage, stress tolerance, resistance to temperature extremes. And given a destination.

Blue Neptune, smaller and denser than tilted Ouranos, was once inhabited by humans. The Tritonides are gone, the moon’s surface too cold for anything to be operating beneath its surface, and the few structures orbiting the planet can be confirmed, even from this distance, as lifeless hulks. Yet the kobolds wonder: they have calculated the distance from the planetary core at which the gravity is identical to Earth’s, and pondered the stratum’s dynamics: the great heat below, the great cold above, the tremendous winds and pressure. They believe it possible that humans, the remnants of the Triton settlement, may live down there.

Certainly they do not imagine that a spherical shell such as their own, but immensely larger, could have been constructed with the resources of a faltering colony. But a ribbon circling Neptune’s equator, perhaps only a kilometer wide, would be three orders of magnitude simpler. “Think of it as a bridge,” they told him. “Suspended over an icy hell, a bridge attached not to abutments but arching round to join itself, floating freely in the depths.” Such a construct would be wildly unstable, but if it were joined by two more rings, all at right angle to each other . . . the kobolds’ models said it could be possible.

Heimgarð imagined such a folly—a frail gyroscope forever steadying itself under incredible stresses—and doubted greatly that it ever existed. But the underground creatures had their price, and Heimgarð was a part of it. The frenetic makeshifts of the Gardens—the forges of Hesperos; the coming construction of Yggdrasil—were not destined for hrm.

Although the kobolds insist that a society surviving deep within Neptune’s atmosphere would possess sufficient insulation to prevent measurable heat from reaching the surface, the planet is as cold as it has always been. Their touching hopes are sign enough of their essential humanity; hrs bleak certainty suggests something different.

Hse rises from Hermaion on tongues of flame, accelerating steadily. Gravity, or its simulacrum, presses up against hrs soles. Does the sensation afford comfort to the human creature?

The voyage out will last significantly longer, for the climb out of the Sun’s deep gravity well reduces velocity. And there will be less to occupy hrs thoughts: no radio signals to listen for, no curiosity at a summons.

Will hse be lonely? It is a strange thought. If hrs two precursor minds could separate and occupy opposite sides of hrs helmet, perhaps they would soon tire of each other. Perhaps it was the fact that hse clearly is not quite human that allowed hrm to mediate between two mistrustful populations.

And perhaps solitude will someday grow burdensome. Hse will certainly have time to find out.

Heimgarð accelerates away from the grasping Sun, hrs straight course bent by its presence. Eventually the engines will cut off and the illusion of gravity vanish. Hrs trajectory will become an orbit—one of cometary magnitude, a centuries-long ellipse, were it not someday to intersect a world.

Like a rising spark, the sentinel departs the circle of light, into a wider darkness.

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This story is 10723 words long.

ISSUE 115, April 2016

galactic empires
 

locus-magazine
 

Best Science Fiction of the Year

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gregory Feeley

Gregory Feeley writes science fiction and about science fiction. His first novel, The Oxygen Barons, was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. His stories have been finalists for the Nebula Award and published in various Year's Best anthologies, and his essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Book World, and USA Today. His historical novel Arabian Wine is now available as an ebook from Weightless Books. His most recent novel is Kentauros.


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