From ``Heaven's Reach'', by David Brin.

Published by Bantam Books, New York, 1998.


The thought came unbeckoned, while shimmering luminance poured in through a nearby window playing across her face.

Angels are bright . . . though not always good.

The sight before her reminded Gillian how many beautiful and terrifying sights she had witnessed during recent months and years. And how many deep assumptions she'd been forced to revise.

For instance, she recalled that time, deep within a twisty transfer point, when the Earthling crew had confronted the Great Harrower as it sifted among countless starcraft, choosing a fraction to aim toward transcendence. That huge glowing specter had reminded Gillian of some mighty seraph, culling the virtuous from the wicked on Judgment Day. No one was more surprised than she when the blinding ball of energy seemed to identify Streaker amid a crowd of passing vessels, plucking the Earthship and setting it aside for some purpose the Harrower never bothered to explain.

Perhaps now we'll find out, she thought. Indeed, there appeared to be a definite family resemblance between that earlier ``angel'' and the giant needle-gateway now holding Streaker in thrall, spinning out radiant tendrils that snaked amorously around several dozen selected spacecraft. The behavior reminded Gillian unpleasantly of a spider, busy wrapping living morsels, preserving them for later.

All the other ensnared ships parked nearby were vast arks filled with merged hydro- and oxy-life-forms -- true transcendence candidates -- yanked from the maelstrom surrounding the white dwarf. Streaker was minuscule by comparison -- a tiny caterpillar next to beach balls. Yet, she now wore her own blanket of shiny, billowing strands.

``The material is unknown,'' commented Hannes Suessi. ``I cannot even get a decent reading with my instruments.''

The Niss Machine hazarded a guess.

``Someone may have had this in mind for us all along. Even back at the Fractal World. The coating we received there could be meant to serve as a buffer -- or perhaps glue -- between our fragile metal hull and this new substance . . . whatever it is.''

Gillian shook her head.

``Perhaps it's another kind of protective armor.''

Silence stretched for several seconds as they all turned to look at the rearward-facing view screen. Everyone clearly shared the same dour thought.

Something was about to happen soon. Something that called for ``protection'' on a scale formerly unimaginable.

At least the earlier orgy of destruction appeared to be over, down below where millions of space vessels once cruised in prim columns and well-ordered rows, like polite pilgrims seeking redemption at a shrine. That procession had been smashed, crushed, pureed. Now, only an occasional flash told of some surviving ``candidate'' finally succumbing to forces that had already pulverized millions of others, leaving a turbid stew of gas, dust, and ions.

A roiling funnel now surrounded the ancient stellar remnant, shrouding its small, white disk beneath black streamers and turbulent haze.

According to Zub'daki, that whirling cloud had special dynamical properties. It would not orbit for long, or even spiral inward gradually, over the course of weeks or years.

``The debris storm has almost no net angular momentum,'', the dolphin astronomer announced. ``As collisional mixing continues, all the varied tangential velocities will cancel out. When that happens, the whole mass will collapse inward, nearly all at once!''

Asked when this infall might occur, the dolphin scientist had predicted.

``Sssoon. And when it does, we'll be at ground zero for the greatest show in all the cosmossss.''

Staring at that murky tornado -- comprising the pulverized hopes of countless races and individual beings -- Gillian's crew mates knew the show would begin shortly. Akeakemai whistled a dubious sigh, getting back to Gillian's original question.

``Protective armor . . . againsssst what's coming?''

The dolphin switched languages to express his doubts in Trinary.

* When the great gods,
* In their puissance,
* Start believing,
* Their own slogans--

* Or their wisdom,
* Omniscient,
* Or their power,
* Invincible--

* That's when nature,
* Wise and patient,
* Teaches dieties,
* A lesson--

* That's when nature,
* Keen and knowing,
* Shows each god its
* Limitations--

* Great Dreamers must
* Ride Tsunami!
* For Transcendents?
* Supernova! *

Gillian nodded appreciatively. It was very good dolphin imagery.

``Credeiki would be proud,'' she said.

Akeakami slashed with his tail flukes, reticent to accept praise.

* Irony makes for easy poetry. *
Sara Koolhan commented, ``Forgive my ignorance of stellar physics, but I've been studying, so let me see if I get this right.

``When that big, whirling cloud of dross and corpses finally collapses, it's going to dump a tenth of a solar mass onto the hot, dense surface of that white dwarf. A dwarf that's already near its Chandrasekhar limit. Much of the new material will compress to incredible density and undergo superfast nuclear fusion, triggering--''

``What Earthlings used to call a `type one' supernova,'' the Niss Machine cut in, unable to resist an inbuilt yen to interrupt.

``Normally, this happens when a large amount of matter is tugged off a giant star, falling rapidly onto a neighboring white dwarf. In this case, however, the sudden catalyzing agent will be the flesh of once living beings! Their body substance will help light a pyre that should briefly outshine this entire galaxy, and be visible to the boundaries of the universe.''

Gillian thought she detected hints of hysteria in the voice of the Tymbrimi-built machine. Though originally programmed to seek surprise and novelty, the Niss might well have passed the limit of what it could stand.

``I agree, there doesn't seem much chance of surviving such an event, no matter how fancy a coating we are given. And yet, the coincidence seems too perfect to ignore.''

``Coincidence?'' Suessi asked.

``The cancellation of angular momentum is too perfect. The Transcendents must have meant this to happen. They slaughtered the remaining candidates for a purpose -- in order to trigger the coming explosion.''

``So, yes? Then the big question is -- why aren't we down there now, mixing our atoms with all those other poor bugs, beasties, and blighters?''

Gillian shrugged.

``I just don't know, Hannes. Obviously, we have a role to play. But what role? Who can say?''

Zub'daki didn't expect mass collapse to occur for twenty hours, at least. Possibly several days.

``The infall may be disssrupted by outward radiation pressure, as the star heats up,'' the dolphin explained. ``It could make the whole process of ignition messsssy. Unless they have a solution to that problem, as well.''

He didn't have to explain who ``they'' were. The shimmering needle-gateway throbbed nearby, as long as Earth's moon, spinning webs of mysterious, translucent material near several dozen captive ships.

Assured that the crisis would not come for a while yet, Gillian headed to her quarters for some rest. . . .

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02.12.05 / Garth Huber