Cluster, p.1
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       Cluster, p.1

           Piers Anthony
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Cluster


  Cluster

  Book I

  In the Cluster series

  Piers Anthony

  Copyright © 1977

  ISBN: 0-380-01755-5

  CONTENTS

  Prologue

  1 Flint of Outworld

  2 Mission of Ire

  3 Keel of the Ship

  4 Lake of Dreams

  5 Ear of Wheat

  6 Eye of the Charioteer

  7 Tail of the Small Bear

  8 Letters of Blood

  9 Daughters of the Titan

  10 Blinding the Giant

  Epilogue

  Sol Sphere

  Vicinity Cluster

  Prologue

  "We have ascertained that this person is an alien creature occupying a human body," the Minister of Alien Spheres said formally. "His Kirlian field is extremely intense, on the order of eighty times human normal, and its pattern is unlike anything we have on record. We believe he is what he claims to be: an envoy from a non-Sol Sphere."

  The Ministers of the Imperial Earth Council contemplated the subject. There was little to distinguish the alien. He was male, of normal height, about thirty years old, in good health. There were no telltale emanations from his eyes, extraordinary nuances of expression, or any visible aura. He was just an ordinary man—with a bright tattoo on his right wrist.

  That tattoo was the mark of a recipient body: mindless, empty, without personality. Even without the Kirlian verification, the intelligent animation of this body was highly significant. Only a freak accident could have done it—or alien possession. For there was no known way to forge a Kirlian imprint, and Sphere Sol lacked the technology to transfer identity from one body to another.

  The Regent of Earth Planet spoke next, formally addressing the possessed body. "Sir, we accept you as such an envoy, and accord you the courtesies of that office. Welcome to Sphere Sol. Please acquaint us with your mission."

  Now there was an almost tangible tension in the hall. Such visitations had been known only half a dozen times before in all human history, and each had had cataclysmic impact. One had confirmed the existence of intelligent alien life elsewhere in the galaxy, and revealed the presence of transfer technology. Another had defined the limits of direct human colonization—120 light-years' radius from Sol—so that there would be no question of conflict with neighboring Spheres: Polaris, Nath, Canopus, Spica or giant Sador. Another, from neighbor Sphere Antares, had effected one fundamentally important exchange of technology: Sol had yielded the secret of controlled hydrogen fusion in return for Antares' secret of matter transmission. That had revolutionized the human stellar empire, making rapid communication possible—and had presumably done something similar for Antares, starved for safe local power.

  This could well be the moment of the century.

  "I am Pnotl of Sphere Knyfh," the alien said. "We are about five thousand of your light-years in toward the center of the galaxy. Our two Spheres have not before had direct contact."

  The Council Ministers nodded. They had only vague knowledge of the interior Spheres, most of whose stars of origin were not visible from Earth. But it was certain that many of them were highly advanced. In fact, Sol was a very new, very minor Sphere, a galactic backwater only now opening relations with its civilized contemporaries. Some Spheres had endured for thousands of years, and achieved radii of many hundreds of light-years, while Sol had achieved its full size only a century before.

  "We place your locale," the Regent said. "Please continue, Envoy of Knyfh."

  "I am embodied here to enlist the cooperation of Sphere Sol in a mutual crisis of galactic proportion. I ask you, at this moment, to ascertain which individuals of your sapient species are suitable for identity-pattern transfer."

  "That is not necessary," the Minister of Alien Spheres said. "We maintain continuous survey. After the difficulty the first envoy had in making contact with our government, five hundred years ago—"

  "That was not the first," Pnotl said dryly.

  "The first we recognized," the Regent said, flushing. Historical research had revealed the probability of several prior attempts at transfer contact. All had failed because earlier cultures had preferred not to believe in the possibility of intelligent alien visitation or possession. What chances had been squandered by that ignorance!

  "We felt we could not afford to risk any further such embarrassment," the Minister of Alien Spheres continued. "So we maintain a number of potential transfer host bodies—such as the one you now occupy—and we have every Kirlian field on record." He paused. "Unfortunately the technique of transfer itself has eluded us. We cannot transfer the mind of an individual of our species into another body." He made a small gesture of apology, as though this were a minor matter. "We just don't have the know-how."

  Pnotl turned on him a polite yet uncanny glance. "We grant it you," the alien said.

  It was as though a stun-bomb had detonated in their midst. There was now no pretense of unconcern. "The secret of the galaxy!" the Minister of Alien Spheres exclaimed.

  The Regent held up one hand. "We cannot conceal our interest," he said. "But such information is extremely valuable. We must know what you require in return, before we make any commitment."

  "What price?" the Minister of Technology rasped, almost drooling in his eagerness and apprehension.

  That sobered the others. All eyes returned to the envoy. Surely the secret of the galaxy would exact the ransom of the millennium.

  "No price," Pnotl said evenly. "We wish you to have this capability."

  Now there was open suspicion. "Why?" the Regent asked.

  "Our entire galaxy is in imminent danger. Unless we unify the Spheres and utilize our maximum capabilities, all of us may be destroyed. We have no other way to form a galactic coalition."

  "Forgive us for our cynicism," the Regent said grimly. "We have a fable about Greeks bearing gifts. This means that we do not trust seemingly unmotivated largesse. And we are not likely to react to nebulous, undocumented threats."

  "And why us?" the Minister of Alien Spheres demanded. "Sphere Sador has a radius of almost five hundred light-years—a volume of controlled space a hundred and twenty-five times as great as ours. They are the obvious candidate for your coalition."

  "Such cynicism is a survival trait," Pnotl replied. "We are pleased to find it in you." But something in his tone suggested that he was not delighted. "I shall satisfy you on three scores: the practical, the technological, and the intellectual.

  "First, why not Sador, or Mintaka, or any of the other larger Spheres of this galactic segment? Because though well established, these Spheres are decadent. Their controlling species no longer possess the initiative to tackle a problem of galactic scope. And your other neighbors have not had the foresight to arrange for transfer hosts, as you have. We have therefore contacted the most capable Sphere in this region, Sol."

  The Council Ministers nodded, pleased at the unsubtle flattery.

  "Technologically, I shall simply confer with your scientists immediately following this meeting, and will convey to them the details of the transfer mechanism. After all"—Pnotl paused to smile gravely—"if you do not achieve this capability in short order, I shall lose my own identity. I shall be the first transfer you make, since I cannot otherwise return to my Sphere."

  "Fair enough," the Regent said, relieved that they would not have to undertake the enormous expense of mattermitting the envoy home. "If you trust the process enough to be the first subject, it would certainly seem to be authentic. But we can promise nothing until we know what the requirements are for membership in the galactic coalition." He was still suspicious, and let the alien know it.

  "To understand the need for cooperation, you must understand the nature of transfer itself," Pnotl said. "Trans
fer is a modification of matter transmission, but such an unlikely aspect that only one species in a thousand discovers it independently." The Minister of Technology nodded, remembering how devious the method of matter transmission had proved to be. A whole new system of logic had had to be mastered before the necessary computations could be made. But that logic had avoided the paradox of relativistic limitations, and allowed a particular type of signal to transmit across light-years without lapse of time. If identity transfer were worse than this, they would not master it soon, even with a full blueprint. The finest minds of the Empire had been trying for decades.

  "Transfer operates at a thousand times the distance, at a thousandth the cost in energy," Pnotl continued. "This is because so much less actually has to be transmitted. Only the Kirlian ambiance moves; the body is left behind. It is my Kirlian force alone that animates this body—and it will quickly fade if I do not return to my own body, which is quite alien in comparison. Thus transfer is by no means a substitute for matter transmission, or even for physical travel through space. It is merely our most economical means of communication over galactic distances. And though it is a million times as efficient as matter transmission, it can still be costly in energy."

  The Minister of Technology nodded. That was the great liability of mattermission: its cost. A million dollars' worth of energy had to be expended to transmit a hundred pounds one light-year, approximately. In fact, that had become the practical definition of the modern dollar. The expense cubed as the distance squared, so that it cost a billion dollars to transmit that same mass ten light-years and a trillion dollars to move it a hundred light-years. Consequently very little freight was shipped that way; most mattermissions consisted of microscopic coded message capsules. It was still an essential means of maintaining Imperial communications.

  Transfer, at a millionth the effective cost, would still have to be used sparingly, if it were not to deplete the Imperial exchequer. But it would lay open the entire galaxy to human contact, and the benefits could be enormous. For if there was one thing more valuable than energy, it was knowledge.

  "The threat is linked to this," Pnotl said. "The civilization of another galaxy proposes to solve its own energy problem by draining off the fundamental energies of the Milky Way Galaxy. I speak of the atomic interactions themselves, and the force of gravity. I think you will appreciate what would happen to us all if these forces were weakened."

  "Disaster!" the Minister of Technology said immediately. "Our whole framework would disintegrate."

  "But how—?" the Regent inquired, always practical.

  "Apparently they have rediscovered some of the science of the Ancients," Pnotl said. "They are using the bodies of local galactic species to build and operate enormous power-transfer stations."

  "Transfer of energy?" the Minister of Technology asked, amazed. "I didn't know that was possible."

  "We did not know either," Pnotl admitted. "It seems there are ramifications of transfer technique we have yet to master. It may be that some forms of energy possess Kirlian fields. As I pointed out, the threat is fundamentally connected to transfer."

  "We must make a special search for more Ancient artifacts!" the Minister of Technology exclaimed.

  "In short," Pnotl concluded, "we are about to be ravaged by Galaxy Andromeda. If we do not act immediately, we all shall perish."

  "Exactly what sort of assistance do you expect from us?" the Regent inquired, shaken despite his cynicism.

  "Merely to use your power of transfer to contact your neighbors and bring them into the coalition. You will freely relay the transfer technology to them. They will then patrol their own regions, destroying any Andromedan stations and agents discovered. Galactic vigilance is the price we all must pay for survival."

  "We have to do the dirty work you balk at," the Regent said. "That is your real price."

  Pnotl nodded. "Unkindly put, but accurate enough. We must concentrate our own major effort in our own region of space. If you can reach ten or twenty Spheres within a radius of two thousand light-years of Sol, it will suffice. Our own sweep will complement yours tangentially, for Sphere Knyfh is covering a radius of three thousand light-years. All over the galaxy the other major Spheres are performing similarly." The alien made a bow of dismissal. "If you will now convey me to your technicians, I shall begin working with them immediately. It may take some time to clarify the specifics and construct the apparatus, and my time is limited."

  The alien smiled, and several Ministers smiled with him. He was speaking the literal truth; he had at most eighty days before his identity became submerged within the ambiance of the human host. It would have to be a terrific effort, on his part and theirs.

  "But we haven't even agreed!" the Regent protested.

  Pnotl's glance hinted that he thought the Council to be a bunch of unlettered idiots, but his tone was controlled. "Since your survival, like ours, depends on the early unification of our galaxy, so that we may muster our entire resources to combat this menace, I believe your agreement is assured. But I shall give you the information regardless—just as you will have to give it to other Spheres, however negative they may prove to be."

  The Regent gestured, and the Minister of Technology conducted the alien out of the audience chamber.

  "We seem to have been committed," the Regent remarked sourly. "But if he really delivers transfer...."

  The Minister of Population produced a printout. "Assuming that we have a use for it, I have here the list of our top prospects for transfer. As you know, the strength of the Kirlian field is the overriding factor—"

  "We know!" the Regent interrupted. "Summon the top five prospects. I want them here within twenty-four hours."

  "That will be awkward. Our leading name is on the Fringe."

  The Regent bashed one fist into the opposite hand. "I don't care if it's as far as Outworld! Fetch it here!"

  The Minister permitted himself a fleeting smile. "It is on Outworld. Star Etamin, one hundred and eight light-years distant. Our farthest viable colony."

  "The Stone Age planet!" the Minister of Culture exclaimed. "Disaster!"

  "We'll have to use the second choice, that's all," the Minister of Alien Spheres said. "Where's that one?"

  "Sirius." Again a small smile.

  "That's close—and civilized! Saves us ninety-nine light-years' postage. Much better."

  The Minister of Population shook his head. "It's a woman."

  There was a general, discreet groan. The cultural prejudices of the Ministers were emerging in the absence of the alien envoy. "Worse yet!" the Minister of Culture said.

  "Stop this bickering!" the Regent cried. "Bring them both—and the next three. I'll decide when the time comes."

  "But the expense!" the Minister of Finance cried, appalled.

  The others ignored him; expense was irrelevant when the Regent gave an order. If he overreached himself, he would have to answer to the Emperor, whereupon there just might be a new Regent. This particular Regent was unusually competent, and therefore it was likely that his tenure in the office would be brief.

  "What's the top name?" the Minister of Alien Spheres asked. The arrival of the envoy from Sphere Knyfh had enhanced his prestige of the hour considerably, and he spoke with a new timbre of authority.

  "Flint. Flint of Outworld. Age two-thirds—"

  "What?" the Minister of Culture squawked.

  "Sorry. Their year is thirty years long; I forgot to interpolate. Age about twenty-one. Male. Single. Heterosexually inclined. Intelligence about one point five."

  "About?" the Minister of Culture demanded. "Can't you measure it accurately?" His tone reeked of contempt.

  "No. He's a primitive—like some here. Can't even read. Runs about naked. Has green skin. But he's smart—very smart."

  "Lovely!" the Minister of Culture said sarcastically. "A smart naked ignoramus!"

  The Minister of Population shook his head. "This savage has a Kirlian intensity of just over two hu
ndred—the highest we have ever measured."

  "Two hundred!" the Minister of Culture gasped. "Two hundred times human normal?"

  "That's right," the Minister of Population said smugly. "The next prospect, apart from the liability of being female, is only ninety-eight on the Kirlian scale. The barbarian is something special."

  "We're stuck with the Jolly Green Giant," the Minister of Culture muttered.

  "Disaster," the Minister of Population agreed.

  "On the contrary," the Regent said briskly. The alien envoy had evidently viewed these men with a certain condescension; the alien had been a sharp judge of character! "Ideal. This innocent will hardly realize what he is getting into. What better choice for our first experimental transfer of a human being to an alien Sphere? We can have no notion of the risks this entails! If the advanced entities of the Inner Galaxy won't even try the Spheres of our region...."

  The Ministers exchanged glances. A smile passed among them.

  1

  Flint of Outworld

  The old man and the young man lay in the cool of predawn, looking up at the stars. The old man wore a ragged tunic; under it his skin was an off-shade of white. The young man was naked, and was a delicate green all over. He was large and muscular, even for Outworld.

  "Can you see Arcturus, boy?" the old man asked.

  "Yes, Shaman," Flint said with good-natured respect. He was no longer a boy, but he made allowances for the old man's failing vision. If there was one thing the wise Shaman had taught him—and indeed there were many things—it was not to take offense irresponsibly. "Shining as always, about third magnitude."

  "And Vega?"

  "Yes, fourth magnitude." Each distinction of magnitude meant a star was about two and a half times as bright—or dim. It seemed to help the Shaman to be reminded that Vega was dimmer than Arcturus, so Flint always repeated the information. On cloudy nights these magnitudes changed, if the stars were visible at all. He could have called them out from memory, but the Shaman had also taught him never to lie unnecessarily.

 

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