From ``Furious Gulf'', by Gregory Benford.

Published by Bantam Books, New York, 1994.

Argo went on full alert. Wall screens displayed collision time estimates, defense options, maneuver possibilities. And then the missile was gone, evaporated by a defensive bolt from Argo. The Bridge crew cheered, but Killeen did not even smile. Toby found he was holding Besen's hand tightly.

Other mech ships burst into view. They approached Argo on complex paths, designed to make it hard to shoot at more than one at a time. Even though Killeen ordered the ship to maximum acceleration, they drew nearer.

Long moments ticked by. The mechs did not fire. Officers on the Bridge speculated that the mech ships did not want to waste fire power on Argo's defenses until they got overpoweringly close. But that made little sense, Toby thought, since the humans were so outnumbered.

Ships darted and swooped. They seemed eager to force Argo out of the cloud, down a long lane of cindery dust. Toby could feel Argo's straining engines as a steady trembling in the bulkhead behind him. Killeen gave orders quietly, stone-faced.

Then something quick and glowing swept past Argo, coming into view as a brilliant white line, like a vibrant, moving scratch on the wall screens. The Bridge crew gasped. It was the Cosmic Circle, as the Myriapodia called it -- and now Toby saw its true scale.

This close, the segment seemed straight. Toby called up his Isaac Aspect as the luminous line slowly drew away toward the mech ships. He had seen this hoop before, at the last world they visited, but he had never understood it. ``What is that thing?''

I would have been happy to instruct you at any time, if you had only inquired --

``Come on, spill -- and make it quick and simple.''

Very well, though you will miss much very interesting material. These were called ``cosmic strings'' by the ancients, though as you see they are really loops. My older, nested Faces do not resolve this oddity.

``What're. they for?''

They are not for anything -- they are natural. They formed early in the universe, as compact folds in space-time. Like the wrinkles that form in the ice of a frozen pond. They are only a few atoms wide, but very long. Think of them as a natural resource, born of the Big Bang.

``A few atoms wide? Come on! This one blazes away like a star.''

That is because it passes through the strong magnetic fields here, which drives electric current through the string, lighting it up.

``I don't get it,'' Toby mind-whispered to his Aspect. ``Must be hard to carry, even if it's thin. Why haul it around?''

In many ways, the most useful of all tools is the knife. This is a blade the size of a world. Imagine what you can cut with it.

Toby did not have to imagine. He had seen it core a whole planet. Now the hoop sped toward the mech ships, escorted by the spiky-shaped ships of the Myriapodia. The hoop ebbed and flowed with latent energies.

Suddenly the Myriapodia released it and the great scythe shot forward. It wriggled and looped, so fast the eye could hardly follow. Quick knots formed, raced around the rim, and dispersed in flashes of amber and blue. The mechs tried to flee, to dodge.

Too slow. The vibrating hoop passed through them, snaking and looping to catch each ship as it sped by. After its passage, the mech ships looked the same, even under high mags. But then as Toby watched a mech ship began growing, getting longer. It had been cut in half. It was trying to hold itself together, using the supple, shiny metals mechs preferred.

They could not hold. The ship split in two, scattering fragments and exhaling a plume of orange gas. Shards spun away.

Toby thought of the strangeness of nature which left thin, glowing hoops, like a signature of whatever had made the whole universe. And how life taught itself to use the signatures, to its own ends.

Then he realized that everyone around him was shouting and laughing with glee. Besen was hugging him. He ignored his Isaac Aspect, who was still trying to lecture him, and joined in the celebration.

Their joy did not last long.

Before they had even quieted down, more mech ships appeared. These kept their distance, as if afraid. But the cosmic string was gone. It had plunged into a vast shadowy dust plume and the ships of the Myriapodia had followed, to rein it in again -- Isaac said, with magnetic grapplers.

The mechs edged closer. Again Argo had to flee. Soon they were forced back, back, back -- and out of Besik Bay entirely, by the gliding, steady mechs. Again virulent radiation from the churning disk far below began to cook Argo's skin. Looking at the seethe and flare of the disk, Toby remembered that it was digesting its new meal, the doomed orange star. He could almost feel its baking heat.

Something caught his eye, a thin column of cool blue. It rose out of the very hottest center of the disk, the great white ball of blinding light. As he watched, small bright whorls raced around inside the column. He realized the whole thing was moving, pencil-straight. Fleeing the central hell.

Eerie, beautiful, a shimmering blue. Like a flowing river, cool and welcoming, he thought.

One of the galactic jets. There is another on the other side of the disk, pointing in the opposite direction. Both are ejected by the black hole.

Resplendent, graceful, its ever-changing elegance seemed violated by the Aspect's ho-hum description. Toby was about to thrust Isaac back into its digital hole, then paused. ``How come a black hole lets out anything?''

The hole spins, because it acquires the rotation of all that has ever fallen into it, in all its billions of years. Matter comes falling in from the inner edge of the disk. But the hole's strong magnetic fields seize that mass. They fling it around, faster and faster. The spin makes hot matter corkscrew up around the poles and then out. As it cools it emits the soft blue radiance.

To Toby it seemed that a hole was a hole, and things fell in, period. But he pulled his attention away from the immense spectacle on the wall screens, whose vivid colors lit the haggard faces of the Bridge officers.

Especially his father. Killeen watched the mech ships behind them, more all the time -- small, quick, drawing into a complex pattern. His eyes flitted with caged energy over the views, and a leaden pallor came over his brooding features.

They were trapped. Argo had fled the Besik cloud in the direction toward the inner edge of the disk. Killeen had turned up, to escape -- and more mechs had come speeding in to block that way.

``These small craft -- they're probably suicide mechs,'' Killeen muttered. He glanced at Toby. A fleeting smile.

``Smart ones. Same principle as that bomb back in the Chandelier.''

``Can't we get by them?'' Toby asked earnestly. His father was a genius at slipping out of tight spots.

Killeen shook his head soberly. ``Too many. Too many.''

Lieutenant Jocelyn had been working at the control panels and now she stepped back, looking at the trajectory options their computer presented. Webs of three-dimensional curves, swoops and dodges and artful evasions. Her intense eyes searched the screen, at first hopefully, and finally, slowly, coming to rest on one curve. ``A single option, Cap'n. We have to go inward. The mechs don't have that covered.''

``Of course they wouldn't,'' Killeen said. ``It's death that way.''

``There's no other path. In all this, not a single --''

Killeen nodded. ``So that's where we head.''

Jocelyn stared at Killeen in disbelief. The entire Bridge became very quiet, the only sound a faint buzz of an open commline. ``We can't. The heat --''

Killeen turned slowly, moving with a deceptive quiet. Yet the air around him seemed to steam and seethe with energy, purpose, granite resolve, as he looked each officer in the eye. With a slight, tilted smile he nodded to Besen, who shouldn't have been there -- letting the silence build, his gaze sweeping every corner of the Bridge, and finally coming to Toby.

``We must. That Besik cloud was there for some reason. A place to cool off, maybe, a way station. But not the final destination, no -- it's just a mass of drifting dark gas. The ancient writing from the Chandelier -- it spoke of someplace here, at the True Center. There's nothing out here but mechs and death. That place must be somewhere further in.''

``No!'' Jocelyn cried. ``We can't last a day at these --''

``Quiet!'' Killeen barked.

Again silence fell. The Cap'n pointed to the glimmering, ghostlike blue of the galactic jet. ``I take that as a sign. A pointer. And we will follow it.''

Toby realized he had been holding his breath. He finally gasped for air. The crew stirred restlessly, murmuring, stunned. Jocelyn asked Toby's question before he could get up the courage.

Her eyes seemed to drill through the intense air of the Bridge. ``The jet goes outward. We follow it?''

Killeen stiffened, ``The mechs will block us.''

``Where, then?''

``Into the jet. Maybe there's a way.''

Back to the Eclectic Quotation Index.

97.09.19 / Garth Huber