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The Final Fiblet

Peter Watts

Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
Revelation 3:20
A sun grown huge. A shadow on its face. A fleck, then a freckle: a dot, a di
sk, a hole. Smaller than a sunspot darker, more symmetrical and then larger. It
grew like a perfect tumor, a black planetary disk where no planet could be, swel
ling across the photosphere like a ravenous singularity. A sun that covered half
the void: a void that covered half the sun. Some critical, razor-thin instant p
assed and foreground and background had switched places, the sun no longer a dis
k but a brilliant golden iris receding around a great dilating pupil. Now it was
less than that, a fiery hoop around a perfect starless hole; now a circular thr
ead, writhing, incandescent, impossibly fine.
Gone.
A million stars winked back into the firmament, cold dimensionless pinpricks
strewn in bands and random handfuls across half the sky. But the other half rem
ained without form and void and now the tumor that had swallowed the sun was gna
wing outward at the stars as well. Brks looked away from that great maw and saw a
black finger lancing through the starfield directly to port: a dark spire, two
thousand kilometers long, buried deep in the shade. Brks downshifted his personal
spectrum a few Angstroms and it glowed red as an ember, an infrared blackbody r
ising from the exact center of the disk ahead. Heat radiator. A hairsbreadth fro
m the center of the solar system, it never saw the sun.
He tugged nervously at the webbing holding him to the mirrorball. Sengupta w
as strapped into her usual couch on his left, Leona to his right, Moore to hers.
The old warrior had barely said a word to him since Brks had broached the subjec
t of his son. Some lines were invisible until crossed, apparently.
Or maybe they were perfectly visible, to anyone who wasnt an insensitive dolt
. Empiricists always kept their minds open to alternative hypotheses.
He sought refuge in the view outside, dark to naked eyes but alive on tactic
al. Icons, momentum vectors, parabolic trajectories. A thin hoop of pale emerald
shrank across the forward view, drawing tight around the Crowns nose: the rim of
her reflective parasol erased from ConSensus in deference to an uninterrupted v
iew redundant now, spooling tight into stowage. The habs had already been folded
back and tied down for docking. Beyond the overlays the Crown fell silently pas
t massive structures visible only in their absence: shadows against the sky, the
starless silhouettes of gantries and droplet-conveyers, endless invisible anten
nae belied by the intermittent winking of pilot lights strung along their length
s.
The Crown bucked. Thrusters flared like the sparks of arc-welders in the dar
kness ahead. Down returned, dead forward. Brks fell gently from the couch into th
e elastic embrace of his harness, hung there while the Crowns incandescent brakes
gave dim form to the face of a distant cliff: girders, the cold dead cones of d
ormant thrusters, great stratified slabs of depleted uranium. Then the sparks di
ed, and down with them. All that distant topography vanished again. The Crown of
Thorns continued to fall, gently as thistledown.
Looks normal so far, Moore remarked to no one in particular.
Wasnt there supposed to be some kind of standing guard? Brks wondered. Thered bee
n an announcement, anyway, in the weeks after Firefall. While we have seen no ev
idence of ill will on the part of blah blah blah prudent to be cautious yammer y
ammer cannot afford to leave such a vital source of energy undefended in the cur
rent climate of uncertainty yammer blah.
Moore said nothing. After a moment Leona took up the slack: The place is almo
st impossible to see in the glare unless you know where to look. And theres nothi
ng like a bunch of big obvious heatprints going back and forth for telling the o
ther guys where to look.
More sparks, tweaking the night in split-second bursts. Wireframes crawled a
ll over tactical now, highlighting structures the naked eye could barely discern
even as shadows. Constellations ignited on the cliff ahead, lights triggered by
the presence of approaching mass, dim and elegant as the photophores of deep-se
a fish. Candles in the window to guide travelers home. They rippled and flowed a
nd converged on some monstrous gray lamprey uncoiling from the landscape beneath
. Its great round mouth pulsed and puckered and closed off the port bow.
One final burst of counterthrust. The lamprey flinched, recoiled a meter or
two, resumed its approach. The Crown was barely moving now. Other serpentine thi
ngs, slender as reeds and flat as eelgrass, rose from the landscape to draw the
broken ship down to a berth of struts and scaffolding. The lamprey closed on the
port flank and attached itself to the docking hatch.
We are down to fumes felching Bicams better know what theyre doing because eve
n our chemical just ran dry, Sengupta reported. You want this ship to go anywhere
now you gotta get out and push.
Not a problem, Moore said. Were sitting on the biggest charger in the solar syst
em.
The whole ship shuddered as a dozen great restraining straps cinched tight.
Leona looked at Brks and tried to smile.
Welcome to Icarus.