Tor.com: Halo, Cryptum by Greg Bear

Greg Bear was one of my favorite authors during the 1990s. His books Queen of Angels, Slant, The Forge of God and Moving Mars are some of my all time favorites. Not to mention Eon and Eternity, the stories about The Way and The Thistledown, brought about many a re-read during particularly boring evenings.

Although my tastes in science-fiction have changed over the decades, I still check on my past faves and perchance read some snippets of current fare. Today at Tor.com there are free chapters posted for Bear’s latest book, Halo, Cryptum. From what I can determine, it’s along the same vein as his other newer story, The City at the End of Time, i.e., far future time(s) in which there are, or were many alien races (or humanity) whom either happened to be god-like or in decline.

The trouble with Bear’s later writings IMHO is that they read like fantasy, which I suppose sci-fi is in a way.

Maybe he’s just taking Clarke’s Third Law to heart.

Excerpt: Halo: Cryptum, Chapter One by Greg Bear

By greg bear

THE FORERUNNER STORY—the history of my people—has been told many times, with greater and greater idealization, until I scarcely recognize it.

Some of the ideals are factually true. The Forerunners were sophisticated above all other empires and powerful almost beyond measure. Our ecumene spanned three million fertile worlds. We had achieved the greatest heights of technology and physical knowledge, at least since the time of the Precursors, who, some say, shaped us in their image, and rewarded that image with their breath.

The tugging threads of this part of the tale—the first of three—are journey, daring, betrayal, and fate.

My fate, the fate of a foolish Forerunner, was joined one night with the fates of two humans and the long world-line of a great military leader . . . that night on which I put in motion the circumstances that triggered the final wave of the hideous Flood.

So be this tale told, so be the telling true.

ONE
————-
SOL • EDOM TO ERDE-TYRENE

THE BOAT’S CREW banked the fires, disengaged the steam engine, and raised the calliope horn from the water. The bubbling clockwork song died out with a series of clicks and sad groans; it hadn’t been working well to begin with.

Twenty kilometers away, the central peak of Djamonkin Crater rose through blue-gray haze, its tip outlined in ruddy gold by the last of the setting sun. A single brilliant moon rose bright and cold behind our boat. The crater’s inland lake rippled around the hull in ways no tide or wind had ever moved water. Under the swells and whorls, sparkling with reflected sunset and moon, pale merse twisted and bobbed like the lilies in my mother’s pond. These lilies, however, weren’t passive flowers, but sleeping krakens growing in the shallows on thick stalks. Ten meters wide, their thickened, muscular edges were rimmed with black teeth the length of my forearm.

We sailed over a garden of clannish, self-cloning monsters. They covered the entire flooded floor of the crater, skulking just below the surface and very defensive of their territory. Only boats that sang the lulling song the merse used to keep peace among themselves could cross these waters unmolested. And now it seemed our tunes were out of date.

The young human I knew as Chakas crossed the deck, clutching his palm-frond hat and shaking his head. We stood side by side and stared out over the rail, watching the merse writhe and churn. Chakas—bronze-skinned, practically hairless, and totally unlike the bestial image of humans my tutors had impressed upon me—shook his head in dismay. “They swear they’re using the newest songs,” he murmured. “We shouldn’t move until they figure it out.”

I eyed the crew on the bow, engaged in whispered argument. “You assured me they were the best,” I reminded him.

He regarded me with eyes like polished onyx and swept his hand through a thick thatch of black hair that hung in back to his neck, cut perfectly square. “My father knew their fathers.”

“You trust your father?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “Don’t you?”

“I haven’t seen my real father in three years,” I said.

“Is that sad, for you?” the young human asked.

“He sent me there.” I pointed to a bright russet point in the black sky. “To learn discipline.”

“Shh-shhaa!” The Florian—a smaller variety of human, half Chakas’s height scampered from the stern on bare feet to join us. I had never known a species to vary so widely yet maintain such an even level of intelligence. His voice was soft and sweet, and he made delicate signs with his fingers. In his excitement, he spoke too rapidly for me to

understand.

Chakas interpreted. “He says you need to take off your armor. It’s upsetting the merse.”

At first, this was not a welcome suggestion. Forerunners of all rates wear body-assist armor through much of their lives. The armor protects us both physically and medically. In emergencies, it can suspend a Forerunner until rescue, and even provide nourishment for a time. It allows mature Forerunners to connect to the Domain, from which all Forerunner knowledge can flow. Armor is one of the main reasons that Forerunners live so long. It can also act as friend and advisor.

I consulted with my ancilla, the armor’s disembodied intelligence and memory—a small bluish figure in the back of my thoughts.

“This was anticipated,” she told me. “Electrical and magnetic fields, other than those generated by the planet’s natural dynamics, drive these organisms into splashing fury. That is why the boat is powered by a primitive steam engine.”

She assured me that the armor would be of no value to humans, and that at any rate she could guard against its misuse. The rest of the crew watched with interest. I sensed this might be a sore point. The armor would power down, of course, once I removed it. For all our sakes, I would have to go naked, or nearly so. I halfway managed to convince myself this could only enhance the adventure.

The Florian set to work weaving me a pair of sandals from reeds used to plug leaks.

————-

Of all my father’s children, I was the most incorrigible. In itself this was not an ill mark or even unusual. Manipulars of promise often show early rebellion—the stamp in raw metal from which the discipline of a full rate is honed and shaped.

But I exceeded even my father’s ample patience; I refused to learn and advance along any of the proper Forerunner curves: intensive training, bestowal to my rate, mutation to my next form, and finally, espousal to a nascent triad . . . where I would climb to the zenith of maturity.

None of that attracted me. I was more far interested in adventure and the treasures of the past. Historic glory shined so much brighter in my eyes; the present seemed empty.

And so at the end of my sixth year, frustrated beyond endurance by my stubbornness, my father traded me to another family, in another part of the galaxy, far from the Orion complex where my peoples were born.

For the last three years, the system of eight planets around a minor yellow star—and in particular, the fourth, a dry, reddish desert world called Edom—became my home. Call it exile. I called it escape. I knew my destiny lay elsewhere.

When I arrived on Edom, my swap-father, following tradition, equipped my armor with one of his own ancillas to educate me to the ways of my new family. At first I thought this new ancilla would be the most obvious face of my indoctrination—just another shackle in my prison, harsh and unsympathetic. But she soon proved something else entirely, unlike any ancilla I had ever experienced.

During my long periods of tutoring and regimented exercise, she drew me out, traced my rough rebellion back to its roots—but also showed me my new world and new family in the clear light of unbiased reason.

“You are a Builder sent to live among Miners,” she told me. “Miners are rated below Builders, but they are sensible, proud and strong. Miners know the raw, inner ways of worlds. Respect them, and they will treat you well, teach you what they know, and return you to your family with all the discipline and skills a Manipular needs to advance.”

After two years of generally impeccable service, guiding my reeducation while at the same time relieving my stultifying existence with a certain dry wit, she came to discern a pattern in my questions. Her response was unexpected.

The first sign of my ancilla’s strange favor was her opening of my swap-family’s archives. Ancillas are charged with the maintenance of all records and libraries, to ease access to any information a member of the family might need, however ancient and obscure. “Miners, you know, delve deep. Treasure, as you call it, is frequently in their way. They recover, record, settle the matter with the proper authorities . . . and move on. They are not curious, but their records are sometimes very curious.”

I spent happy hours studying the old records, and learned much more about Precursor remnants, as well as the archaeology of Forerunner history.

Here it was that I picked up hints of lore discouraged or forgotten elsewhere—not always in actual evidence, but deduced from this and that odd fact. And in that next year, my ancilla measured and judged me.

One dry and dusty day, as I climbed the gentle slope of Edom’s largest volcano, imagining that in the vast caldera was hidden some great secret that would redeem me in the eyes of my family and justify my existence—my common state of pointless fugue—she broke ancilla code in a shocking manner.

She confessed that she had once, a thousand years ago, been part of the retinue of the Librarian. Of course, I knew about the greatest Lifeworker of all. I wasn’t com pletely ignorant. Lifeworkers—experts on living things and medicine—rank below both Builders and Miners, but just above Warriors. And the highest rank of Lifeworker is Lifeshaper. The Librarian was one of just three Lifeworkers ever honored with that rank.

The ancilla’s memory of her time with the Librarian had supposedly been expunged when the Librarian’s foundation traded her to my swap-family, as part of a general cultural exchange; but now, fully reawakened to her past, it seemed she was prepared to conspire with me.

She told me: “There is a world just a few hours’ journey from Edom where you might find what you seek. Nine thousand years ago, the Librarian established a research station in this system. It is still a topic of discussion among the Miners, who of course disapprove. Life is ever so much more slippery than rocks and gases.”

This station was located on the system’s third planet, known as Erde-Tyrene: a forsaken place, obscure, sequestered, and both the origin and final repository of the last of a degraded species called human.

My ancilla’s motives, it seemed, were even more deviant than my own. Every few months, a craft lifted away from Edom to carry supplies downstar to Erde-Tyrene. She did not precisely inform me of what I would find there, but through hints and clues led me to decide it was major.

With her help, I made my way through the labyrinthine hallways and tunnels to the shipping platform, smuggled myself onto the cramped craft, reset the codes to conceal my extra mass—and lifted away to Erde-Tyrene.

I was now much more than just a rebellious Manipular. I had become a hijacker, a pirate . . . And was astonished at how easy it was! Too easy, perhaps.

Still, I could not believe an ancilla would lead a Forerunner into a trap. That was contrary to their design, their programming—everything about their nature. Ancillas

serve their masters faithfully at all times.

What I could not foretell was that I was not her master, and never had been.

Halo: Cryptum, Chapter One by Greg Bear

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2 responses

  1. Thanks for the heads up on that. I love Greg Bear, but haven’t ready any of this books for quite a while. I’ll have to go on a search for some of his stuff at my local used bookstore.

    Happy New Year!

    1. Lately I’ve been reading stuff by Rudy Rucker, Charlie Stross, Iain Banks and Alistair Reynolds, but Bear is still one of my must reads when new books comes out.

      I think his style has changed over the years, but that’s to be expected, everything changes eventually.

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