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This retrospective collection features such classic tales of science fiction as "Inconstant Moon" and "The Hole Man," previously uncollected works including the novellas "Brenda" and "The Kiteman," and essays, anecdotes, and observations
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Larry Niven is the multiple Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of the Ringworld series, along with many other science fiction masterpieces. His Beowulf's Children, co-authored with Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes was a New York Times bestseller. He lives in Chatsworth, California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
God was knocking, and he wanted in bad.
BORDERED IN BLACK
"Bordered in Black" is a nightmare vision.
If a vision were enough, it would have been sold at once. I wrote it as a vignette. Ed Ferman's comment (months before my first story sale) was that it looked like an outline for a story. So I set it aside, and tackled it again a few years later. The version that appeared in F&SF was much changed.
If I wrote it today it would be changed again. A story needs more than the original idea...but the nightmare still shows through.
* * *
Only one figure stood in the airlock, though it was a cargo lock, easily big enough to hold both men. Lean and sandy haired, the tiny figure was obviously Carver Rappaport. A bushy beard now covered half its face. It waited patiently while the ramp was run up, and then it started down.
Turnbull, waiting at the bottom, suppressed growing uneasiness. Something was wrong. He'd known it the moment he heard that the Overcee was landing. The ship must have been in the solar system for hours. Why hadn't she called in?
And where was Wall Kameon?
Returning spacers usually sprinted down the ramp, eager to touch honest concrete again. Rappaport came down with slow, methodical speed. Seen close, his beard was ragged, unkempt. He reached bottom, and Turnbull saw that the square features were set like cement.
Rappaport brushed past him and kept walking.
Turnbull ran after him and fell into step, looking and feeling foolish. Rappaport was a good head taller, and where he was walking, Turnbull was almost running. He shouted above the background noise of the spaceport, "Rappaport, where's Kameon?"
Like Turnbull, Rappaport had to raise his voice. "Dead."
"Dead? Was it the ship? Rappaport, did the ship kill him?"
"Then what? Is his body aboard?"
"Turnbull, I don't want to talk about it. No, his body isn't aboard. His--" Rappaport ground the heels of his hands into his eyes, like a man with a blinding headache. "His grave," he said, emphasizing the word, "has a nice black border around it. Let's leave it at that."
But they couldn't, of course.
Two security officers caught up with them near the edge of the field. "Stop him," said Turnbull, and they each took an arm. Rappaport stopped walking and turned.
"Have you forgotten that I'm carrying a destruct capsule?"
"What about it?" For the moment Turnbull really didn't understand what he meant.
"Any more interference and I'll use it. Understand this, Turnbull. I don't care any more. Project Overcee is over. I don't know where I go from here. The best thing we can do is blow up that ship and stay in our own solar system."
"Man, have you gone crazy? What happened out there? You--meet aliens?"
"No comment.--No, I'll answer that one. We didn't meet aliens. Now tell your comedian friends to let go."
Turnbull let himself realize that the man wasn't bluffing. Rappaport was prepared to commit suicide. Turnbull, the instinctive politician, weighed chances and gambled.
"If you haven't decided to talk in twenty-four hours we'll let you go. I promise that. We'll keep you here 'til then, by force if necessary. Just to give you an opportunity to change your mind."
Rappaport thought it over. The security men still held his arms, but cautiously now, standing as far back as they could, in case his personal bomb went off.
"Seems fair," he said at last, "if you're honest. Sure, I'll wait twenty-four hours."
"Good." Turnbull turned to lead the way back to his office. Instead, he merely stared.
The Overcee was red hot at the nose, glaring white at the tail. Mechs and techs were running in all directions. As Turn-bull watched, the solar system's first faster-than-light spacecraft slumped and ran in a spreading, glowing pool.
* * *
...It had started a century ago, when the first ramrobot left the solar system. The interstellar ramscoop robots could make most of their journey at near lightspeed, using a conical electromagnetic field two hundred miles across to scoop hydrogen fuel from interstellar space. But no man had ever ridden a ramrobot. None ever would. The ramscoop magnetic field did horrible things to chordate organisms.
Each ramrobot had been programed to report back only if it found a habitable world near the star to which it had been assigned. Twenty-six had been sent out. Three had reported back--so far.
...It had started twelve years ago, when a well-known mathematician worked out a theoretical hyperspace over Einsteinian fourspace. He did it in his spare time. He considered the hyperspace a toy, an example of pure mathematics. And when has pure mathematics been anything but good clean fun?
...It had started ten years ago, when Ergstrom's brother Carl demonstrated the experimental reality of Ergstrom's toy universe. Within a month the UN had financed Project Overcee, put Winston Turnbull in charge, and set up a school for faster-than-light astronauts. The vast number of applicants was winnowed to ten "hypernauts." Two were Belters; all were experienced spacers. The training began in earnest. It lasted eight years, while Project Overcee built the ship.
...It had started a year and a month ago, when two men climbed into the almost luxurious lifesystem of the Overcee, ran the ship out to Neptune's orbit under escort, and vanished.
One was back.
Now his face was no stonier than Turnbull's. Turnbull had just watched his work of the last ten years melt and run like quicksilver. He was mad clean through; but his mind worked furiously. Part of him, the smaller part, was wondering how he would explain the loss of ten billion dollars worth of ship. The rest was reviewing everything it could remember about Carver Geoffrey Rappaport and William (Wall) Kameon.
Turnbull entered his office and went straight to the book-shelf, sure that Rappaport was following. He pulled out a leather-bound volume, did something to the binding and poured two paper cups full of amber fluid. The fluid was bourbon, and it was more than ice cold.
Rappaport had seen this bookcase before, yet he wore a faintly puzzled frown as he took a cup. He said, "I didn't think I'd ever anticipate anything again."
Rappaport didn't answer. His first swallow was a gulp.
"Did you destroy your ship?"
"Yes. I set the controls so it would only melt. I didn't want anyone hurt."
"Commendable. And the overcee motor? You left it in orbit?"
"I hard-landed it on the Moon. It's gone."
"That's great. Just great. Carver, that ship cost ten billion dollars to build. We can duplicate it for four, I think, because we won't be making any false starts, but you--"
"Hell you wouldn't." Rappaport swirled the bourbon in his cup, looking down into the miniature whirlpool. He was twenty to thirty pounds lighter than he had been a year ago. "You build another Overcee and you'll be making one enormous false start. We were wrong, Turnbull. It's not our universe. There's nothing out there for us."
"It is our universe." Turnbull let the quiet certainty show in his politician's voice. He needed to start an argument--he needed to get this man to talking. But the certainty was real, and always had been. It was humanity's universe, ready for the taking.
Over the rim of his cup Rappaport looked at him in exasperated pity. "Turnbull, can't you take my word for it? It's not our universe, and it's not worth having anyway. What's out there is--" He clamped his mouth shut and turned away in the visitor's chair.
Turnbull waited ten seconds to point up the silence. Then he asked, "Did you kill Kameon?"
"Kill Wall? You're out of your mind!"
"Could you have saved him?"
Rappaport froze in the act of turning around. "No," he said. And again, "No. I tried to get him moving, but he wouldn't-- Stop it! Stop needling me. I can walk out anytime, and you couldn't stop me."
"It's too late. You've aroused my curiosity. What about Kameon's black-bordered grave?"
"Rappaport, you seem to think that the UN will just take your word and dismantle Project Overcee. There's not a prayer of that. Probability zero. In the last century we've spent tens of billions of dollars on the ramrobots and the Overcee, and now we can rebuild her for four. The only way to stop that is to tell the UN exactly why they shouldn't."
Rappaport didn't answer, and Turnbull didn't speak again. He watched Rappaport's cigarette burning unheeded in the ashtray, leaving a strip of charred wet paper. It was uncharacteristic of the former Carver Rappaport to forget burning cigarettes, or to wear an untrimmed beard and sloppily cut hair. That man had been always clean shaven; that man had lined up his shoes at night, every night, even when staggering drunk.
Could he have killed Kameon for being sloppy?--and then turned messy himself as he lost his self-respect? Stranger things had happened in the days when it took eight months to reach Mars.--No, Rappaport had not done murder; Turnbull would have bet high on that. And Kameon would have won any fair fight. Newspapermen had nicknamed him The Wall when he was playing guard for the Berlin Nazis.
"You're right. Where do I start?"
Turnbull was jerked out of his abstraction. "Start at the beginning. When you went into hyperspace."
"We had no trouble there. Except with the windows. You shouldn't have put windows on the Overcee."
"Why not? What did you see?"
"You ever try to find your blind spot? You put two dots on a piece of paper, maybe an inch apart, and you close one eye, focus on one dot and slowly bring the paper up to your face. At some point the other dot disappears. Looking at the window in overcee is like your blind spot expanding to a two-foot square with rounded corners."
"I assume you covered them up."
"Sure. Would you believe it, we had trouble finding those windows? When you wanted them they were invisible. We got them covered with blankets. Then every so often we'd catch each other looking under the blankets. It bothered Wall worse than me. We could have made the trip in five months instead of six, but we had to keep coming out for a look around."
"Just to be sure the universe was still there."
"But you did reach Sirius."
"Yes. We reached Sirius..."
* * *
Ramrobot #6 had reported from Sirius B, half a century ago. The Sirius stars are an unlikely place to look for habitable worlds, since both stars are blue-white giants. Still, the ram-robots had been programed to test for excessive ultraviolet. Sirius B was worth a look.
The ship came out where Sirius was two bright stars. It turned its sharp nose toward the dimmer star and remained motionless for twenty minutes, a silver torpedo shape in a great, ungainly cradle studded with heavy electromagnetic motors. Then it was gone again.
Now Sirius B was a searing ball of light. The ship began to swing about, like a hound sniffing the breeze, but slowly, ponderously.
"We found four planets," said Rappaport. "Maybe there were more, but we didn't look. Number Four was the one we wanted. It was a cloudy ball about twice the size of Mars, with no moon. We waited until we'd found it before we started celebrating."
"Hah! Cigars and drunk pills. And Wall shaved off his grubby beard. My God, we were glad to be out in space again! Near the end it seemed like those blind spots were growing around the edges of the blankets. We smoked our cigars and sucked our drunk pills and yakked about the broads we'd known. Not that we hadn't done that before. Then we slept it off and went back to work ... "
* * *
The cloud cover was nearly unbroken. Rappaport moved the telescope a bit at a time, trying to find a break. He found several, but none big enough to show him anything. "I'll try infrared," he said.
"Just get us down," Wall said irritably. He was always irritable lately. "I want to get to work."
"And I want to be sure we've got a place to land."
Carv's job was the ship. He was pilot, astrogator, repairman, and everything but the cook. Wall was the cook. Wall was also the geologist, astrophysicist, biologist, and chemist--the expert on habitable planets, in theory. Each man had been trained nine years for his job, and each had some training as backup man for the other; and in each case the training had been based largely on guesswork.
The picture on the scope screen changed from a featureless disk to a patterned ball as Carv switched to infrared. "Now which is water?" he wondered.
"The water's brighter on the night side and darker on the day side. See?" Wall was looking over his shoulder. "Looks like about forty percent land. Carv, those clouds might cut out enough of the ultraviolet to let people live in what gets through."
"Who'd want to? You couldn't see the stars." Carv turned a knob to raise the magnification.
"Hold it right there, Carv. Look at that. There's a white line around the edge of that continent."
"No. It's warmer than what's around it. And it's just as bright on the night side as on the day."
"I'll get us a closer look."
* * *
The Overcee was in orbit, three hundred miles up. By now the continent with the "hot" border was almost entirely in shadow. Of the three supercontinents, only one showed a white shoreline under infrared.
Wall hung at the window, looking down. To Rappaport he looked like a great ape. "Can we do a reentry glide?"
"In this ship? The Overcee would come apart like a cheap meteor: We'll have to brake to a full stop above the atmosphere. Want to strap down?"
Kameon did, and Carv watched him do it before he went ahead and dropped the overcee motor. I'll be glad to be out of here, he thought. It's getting so Wall and I hate the sight of each other. The casual, uncaring way Kameon fastened his straps jarred his teeth. He knew that Kameon thought he was finicky to the point of psychasthenia.
The fusion drive started and built up to one gee. Carv swung the ship around. Only the night side showed below, with the faint blue light of Sirius A shining softly off the cloud cover. Then the edge of dawn came up in torn blue-white cloud. Carv saw an enormous rift in the cloud bank and turned ship to shift their path over it.
Mountains and valleys, and a wide river...Patches of wispy cloud shot by, obscuring the view, but they could see down. Suddenly there was a black line, a twisting ribbon of India ink, and beyond that the ocean.
Only for a moment the ocean showed, and then the rift jogged east and was gone. But the ocean was an emerald green.
Wall's voice was soft with awe. "Carv, there's life in that water."
"No. It could be copper salts or something. Carv, we've got to get down there!"
"Oh, wait your turn. Did you notice that your hot border is black in visible light?"
"Yah. But I can't explain it. Would it be worth our while to turn back after you get the ship slowed?"
Carv fingered his neatly trimmed Vandyke. "It'd be night over the whole continent before we got back there. Let's spend a few hours looking at that green ocean."
The Overcee went down on her tail, slowly, like a cautious crab. Layer after layer of cloud swallowed he...
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Book Description Tor Books, 1990. Hardcover. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0312850891
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