Science Fiction

Gradient

By

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Synopsis

Would you leave behind everything you know to start a new world? Would you destroy that world to save everything you believe in?

Born on the moon of Verygone, on the distant edge of the galaxy, Oren Siris is a loner and a dreamer, yearning for a life beyond his humble home. When an interstellar ship arrives, it will take him on a journey across the stars to the shores of an undiscovered planet. Oren and his team strive to build peace with the indigenous peoples of this beautiful new world, but some unseen force works against their every effort, driving them to the very brink of war.

Gradient is an epic space folktale set against the backdrop of a galaxy with advanced human beings who have populated thousands of planets. If you like authors like Ursula K. le Guin and Frank Herbert and films like Star Trek and the Matrix, and if you like compelling characters, rich storytelling, and big ideas about the nature of human existence, then you’ll love this epic debut novel from Anders Cahill.

Arrival

One of the few genuine pleasures of interstellar life is connecting to the field. I stepped down into the bath, and the warm, viscous nutrients enveloped me as I rested my head back into the cradle. My body relaxed. The tiny fibers reached up and found the microscopic nodes on my neck. An instant later, the serum was running through my bloodstream, lighting up my neurons. I could feel the whole ship inside of me.

We had been traveling almost a full galactic month since reaching the edge of the Hadeth system, and we were getting close to the planet Eaiph. As we carved through the vacuum, the prow of our ship funneled in matter, repurposing the atoms, supplying the molecular sustenance for the baths that nourished our bodies and bones.

Along the way, the ship had accumulated dozens of tiny fissures and burns, coarse particles of dust and stray debris scouring the hull. I probed out with my mind, exploring the ship’s surface, worrying over every scrape and ding like using my tongue to test a cut on the roof of my mouth.

When I had the full extent of the damage, my thoughts reached out to the shipheart. A moment later, a cluster of drones seeped up the rigging of the solar sails, dissolving in blobs as they found the cracks and ruptures, soaking in, restoring the damaged nanofibers.

The repair complete, I continued on, working my awareness into the interior of the ship. I found Neka and Xander sitting in their waking bodies, playing chronostones in the canteen. Xander’s silvery cloak hung open at the neck, his hood resting against his back, but Neka’s cloak, colored a lush amethyst to match her tastes, was dialed for warmth. The nanofibers hugged tight to her body, her thick, brown curls hidden beneath her own hood. She’d grown up in the equatorial climes of Alyai on Forsara, and she was always a touch chilly, even when the rest of us were comfortable.  

I inhabited a small corridor drone, and drifted up past the curve of her shoulder, pausing near her face. The whites of her eyes were shining bright against her smooth, ebony skin, and her attention was locked on the board. She swatted at my drone when she noticed it, so I drifted out of her periphery and watched from the vantage point just over her shoulder, scanning the patterns between them. She was leading, three stones for every one of Xander’s.

I saw what he was missing, and I couldn’t resist the temptation for mischief. I floated a portable monitor into his line of sight, the two-ring sigil of the Fellowship glowing on the screen. I replaced the sigil with a solution-set, and his eyes lingered on the series of moves until realization dawned on his face. Then he leaned forward and turned over the corresponding stones. A dozen of Neka’s fell, cascading like a waterfall. Smiling, she cursed and pushed the monitor away. It tumbled through the air and caromed off the wall before it found its way back to the monitor dock. Xander’s rust orange hair was pulled up into a neat bun, and it bobbed on his head as he tilted back with laughter. 

In the field, pleasure is contagious. Adjet, connected nearby, saw my little trick, and I could feel her approval seeping between our halos. Soon, we were both humming with joy. Out this deep in space, so far from home, our link to the central field is severed, so we find solace in the thoughts and feelings of each other, a band of seven isolated Architects, sharing in our own private world.


* * *


Two hundred twenty-three years ago, we had used the curvature of Dromedar, the newest and closest starhub, to pull our ship Reacher out of the wrinkles and back into four-dimensional space. After three hyperspace jumps - from Forsara to Tasches to Molroun to Dromedar - we had run out of infrastructure. We had been forced to make the final leg of the trip at near-light speed, crossing the void that separated Dromedar from the Hadeth system, with its shining, yellow star.

We had named the star Soth Ra in homage to one of the oldest living Architects, Elder Pausha Ra. She was nearing her twelve-hundredth name day, and she had long since given up on these far-reaching explorations of space. I have never met her, but she is a legend in the Fellowship. She was home, on Forsara, part of the Inner Coven, and she seemed to pay little mind to galaxy pomp and politics, but we hoped that, if she ever heard it, the honor of having this star named for her would touch her somewhere deep beyond measured sight. We would not have been here if not for her and the early spacefarers.

If you’ve never traveled on an explorer craft like Reacher, it’s hard to describe a journey like our two-century stretch from Dromedar to the Hadeth system. From an observational standpoint, there’s not much to tell. We had each spent more than two-thirds of our passage preserved in coldsleep, rotating through so that only one of us was awake at any given time. That lone person kept company with the shipheart while the others slept, their nerves and neurons stimulated to ensure that their minds and bodies did not atrophy; a perpetual dreamtime that seemed both to last forever and to elapse in a moment. 

Those waking years were interminable, artificial days and nights blurring together, no real milestones to mark the passage. It would make any person yearn for coldsleep. But though the sleep preserves you, and even heals cellular damage, it also changes you somehow. The person you were when you laid down into the nutrient bath, the temperature dropping slowly and inexorably until your biological functions settled into stasis, is not quite the person who rises again, decades later. 

But finally, a month ago, we had arrived at the very edge of the stellar system, dropping out of near-light just outside the belt of asteroids that marked the limit of Soth Ra’s perceptible gravitational influence, and the whole crew was drawn out of coldsleep. We were all awake again, and the object of our efforts was closing in.  

We had seen no asteroids anywhere on longsight, and we navigated across the invisible border line without difficulty. At that point, the star was a small, white disc, no bigger than my fingernail on the holo projector. When Adjet saw it, she had cooed like a parent with a tiny babe, calling it a 'cute little nugget.' 

Xander, our resident astronomist and stellar expert, had crossed his arms and furrowed his pale, freckled brow. “Soth Ra is a star, Adjet,” he had said with seriousness. “And based on all of our readings, a rare, life-giving one at that. It may be smaller than average, but it is most certainly not a nugget.” His adaptive irises were colorless in the gentle interior light of our ship.

Adjet had pretended to pout, her dark, grey lips glistening. She was remarkably beautiful, with the cloud-white skin, silver hair, and matching silver eyes native to the people of Glas. I’d met few people who could resist her charms. But Xander was unflappable. He gave her a stony look.

Xander’s twin brother Xayes had rolled his eyes. “Relax, Xan. It’s a star, not a sensitive child. We won’t hurt its feelings.”

“Ah ha!” Xander parried. “You haven’t read the theories on stellar consciousness, have you? You know-”

“Well then,” Adjet said, staving off the impending debate that marked so many of the twins’ conversations, “if the star is conscious, I’m sure she’ll be flattered to know how cute she is.” 

Xander turned to her, his mouth hanging open. She wore her most mischievous smile. After a moment, he broke into a huge grin. 

Neka laughed, and Cordar closed his thin lips into a smile, shaking his head, the wide braid of his jet black hair swooshing across his shoulders.

“Right, then,” Adjet said with a satisfied nod. She turned, pointed at Siddart, and said in an imperious voice, “Unfurl the sails. The winds are rising.”

Sid gave her a playful punch on the arm as he leaned back in his chair. He rested his head, and his eyes rolled back as he interfaced with the ship. As soon as he was under, Adjet stuck out her tongue at him. A moment later, a monitor floated past her head, a message flashing on screen: 

Sid said. 

We all laughed, and Adjet laughed the hardest.

But we had all gone quiet as the massive solar sails whirled out from the ship, five huge canopies of gossamer paneling designed to channel the energy of that distant star, powering us forward in our approach, riding waves of light.


* * *


Now, it was just a few more weeks until we reached the planet Eaiph, and the ship was buzzing with activity. I left Neka and Xander to their game of chronostones, and continued my inward journey through the Reacher to see what the others were up to during this final approach. 

Xayes, our virtualist, and Siddart, our farseer, were also in their waking bodies, working up a detailed model of the Hadeth solar system. Xayes was hunched over a workstation, his mangy copper hair hanging like a tattered blanket past his shoulders as he scanned through reams of coded data. Sid was trotting across the room, his legs whirring as they propelled him. A genetic anomaly had made his birth-legs frail and useless, but he moved graceful as a dancer on the bionetic limbs. 

He stopped in front of a holographic image, narrowing his wide brown eyes as he fiddled with the resolution and scale. He zoomed in on a large planet, one of the others in the solar system. The data was still coming in, so the overall image resolution was low, but there seemed to be a dark spot on the surface of the planet. It gave me the impression of a giant eye, or a dark knot of wood. 

I projected my question using the holo, spelling out the message directly in front of his view of the planet. 

“Oh, is that you, pausha?” Sid said out loud, calling me by my formal title. The brown skin of his bald head gleamed bronze in the light of the hologram as he nodded in affirmation. “If the data’s right, this,” he pointed at the dark spot, “is a swirling hurricane of gas in the upper atmosphere.” 

“The data’s right,” Xayes said, not looking up from his monitor. For twins who resembled each other in so many ways, the differences between Xayes and Xander bordered on comical. Xander was fastidious and highly sensitive. Xayes was unkempt and cared little other people’s opinions. But they both shared an intense passion for their work.

“I’d love to get a closer look,” Sid said, “but our trajectory’s too far outside the planet’s orbit, and Reach insists that the solar sails can’t provide us enough energy for the plane change. He’s right of course. We don’t have the fuel to spare. But that doesn’t make it any less tempting.”

I asked, the words floating in front of him.

“Oh yes. It won’t be much bigger than a thumbnail, but the colors are wonderful.” He made a few quick gestures with his hands, and the hologram resolved into a smaller, full color image. The planet was braided with cataracts of gas that refracted the light of the star in desert shades of sepia, fire, and honey. I zoomed in as much as I could. Two points of light shone like small stars on either side of the planet.

“Those are moons,” Sid said, pointing at the small stars. “All things told, I suspect it has dozens of smaller bodies locked in its orbit.” 

“That planet is twice the size of Cordelar,” Xayes said, still not looking up.

I took over his monitor with a thought, making his data disappear.

“Hey!” he called out, his head darting up, his pale, colorless eyes opening wide.

I said, flashing the message up on his screen.

Sid laughed, and Xayes smiled ruefully. “I didn’t mean it as an insult to your home, pausha,” he said. “Merely a statement of fact. That planet is no titan, but Cordelar is smaller by comparison.”

I let my face appear on every monitor in the room and gave him a theatrically menacing grimace.

He laughed out loud. “We’re the only ones who keep each other in check, pausha. You’d be doomed with either of us alone.”

I gave him a big grin, then my face disappeared, and his data came back up on his screen. “Get back to work,” I said in a mock stentorian tone, using the speakers in the room to fill the space with my amplified voice. “I want a tally of every single asteroid and planetoid orbiting every planet in the solar system within the hour.”

“Oh yeah, sure, we’ll get right on that.” Xayes muttered.

“What did you say?” I said, trying and failing to hide the amusement in my amplified voice.

He lifted his right arm, palm towards his face, and smacked his left hand against the front of his right forearm. Cordar had taught him that gesture. I don’t know the exact translation in the universal tongue, but it wasn’t polite.

“Excellent,” I said, pretending to take it as a sign of compliance. “I’ll leave you to it then.”


* * *


Cordar, our resident biologician, was in the arboretum. His long, glossy black hair was braided tight behind his head, hanging down to the gap between his shoulder blades, contrasting against the woodsy brown of his cloak as he leaned over an open vivarium, inspecting a sickly orchid. All but one of its blossoms had withered and fallen to the soil, and some of its floating roots had begun to shrink and curl backwards.

He held out both hands, hovering them close to the plant. His fingertips started to glow, and I could see the faint silhouette of his bones and veins through his eggshell cream skin. The roots of the epiphyte thickened, unfurling, reaching out towards the light coming from his hands. He pulled his palms slowly apart from each other, coaxing the roots further and further out. 

Once they were looking strong and healthy, Cordar took his hands away. Then he leaned his face closer and inhaled through his nose. His modified olfactory receptors were no doubt picking up on subtle data about the plant’s inner state. He sniffed one more time, then stood up with a satisfied smile on his face. He waved his hand over the sensor, and the cover on the vivarium sealed shut with a quiet hiss.

I was about to complement him on bringing the plant back to life when Neka walked in. Cordar turned when he heard her enter, and his face lit up with a huge smile. He made a quick gesture with his hands that I could not follow. Neka replied, almost as quick. She had been practicing her handspeak. 

The same bionetic mods that let Cordar interact with biomatter on the cellular level also enhanced all of his senses. It even gave him the ability to hear. But he was an Auralon by birth, and like almost everyone on that small planet, he had been born deaf. Handspeak was his native dialect. 

During our preparations for this mission, Neka and Cordar had formed an intimate bond, and it had only grown stronger in the months since we’d all been drawn from the timeless dreaming of coldsleep and started working together again. Neka was a meditician, and she and Cordar shared similar enhancements. They could, for instance, sense the energy state of a living organism by placing their hands close enough. And their enhanced abilities were complemented by their shared reverence for the mystery and complexity of life. 

Neka also had a gift for languages, and she had taken to handspeak with speed and confidence. Cordar was the quietest among us, and he often used handspeak to express feelings and ideas that he otherwise struggled to articulate. When Neka learned to speak it with him, their connection grew even deeper.

These similarities made the apparent contrasts between them that much more interesting and pleasurable. Cordar, tall and lanky, his braided, shoulder-length hair pulling his fair skin tight around his forehead and temples, making his sharp face even more severe, underlining his introverted disposition. Neka, a head shorter, with ebony skin, thick brown curls trimmed tight, dark, expressive eyes, and a graceful kindness that put everyone who met her right at ease. 

Cordar reached his long arms around her and pulled her close, kissing his lips to her forehead. She turned her cheek, resting her head against his chest. I took that as my cue to give them some privacy, and slipped back into the field currents of the ship.


* * *


“Oren,” Adjet said, her voice in my mind. “Are you still lurking out there?”

“Of course, Adjet. As the ship’s pausha, my duty, first and foremost, is to lurk.”

She chuckled. “Come up to psychomed,” she said. “I’ve got something fun to show you.”

An instant later, I was there.

Adjet’s body lay prone on a medical bed, her long hair spilling over the top edge like a current of mercury. She wore a white, form-fitting baselayer a shade darker than her alabaster skin. The top covered most of her torso, but it was sleeveless, bands of fabric running up over her collarbone and bending in a gentle ‘U’ below her neck, leaving her arms, shoulders, and her upper chest exposed.

“Are you experimenting on yourself again?” I asked. Adjet specialized in genetics, and our ship carried a panoply of information and samples. With Adjet’s guidance and Cordar’s unique expertise, we were equipped to run a wide range of adaptive experiments that would help us better understand how non-native life might survive and thrive on Eaiph, our destination planet.

“Watch,” she said. A surgical lantern hovered in the air above her body. With a thought, she made it flash over her right arm. A moment, later, her crystal white skin turned plum purple, like ink dyeing a linen sheet.

“Eledar's breath! What are you doing? Are you sure its safe?”

She laughed. “What is skin color?” she asked. “A series of generational adaptations based on ancestral exposure to ultraviolet light. Lighter skin means less exposure. On Glas, where my people come from, the black hole Rorok gives us many forms of radiation to contend with, but UV is virtually non-existent. Unfortunately, that means that on a world like Eaiph, sunlight that might give you, at worst, a nasty sunburn, is seriously harmful to me. Maybe even fatal.”

She flashed the lantern again. It must have been on the same spectrum as the light from her home world, because her skin reverted to its translucent paleness.

“Remarkable. Like a khamail lizard,” I said.

“Precisely. It’s actually based on the early work of Graxes Ben Or.” 

“Ben Or? Is he a relative of the twins?”

“Their grandfather. He developed adaptive refractors that block ultraviolet radiation. They can be layered into organic matter. Very practical stuff. Xander and Xayes both have the tech in their eyes.” 

“Because they have no natural pigmentation in their irises?”

She nodded. “Without it, they would either have to wear bulky protective lenses or they could never leave the cold light of Tuk. Their colorless eyes could not handle our twin suns on Forsara, or even the light of Eaiph’s humble star.”

“So why don’t you just use the same tech?”

“Well, I actually already have a version in my eyes, but where’s the fun in the same old tricks? With some splices and edits to Graxes original concept, I have figured out how to alter skin on a cellular level to adaptively responds across the whole spectrum of light radiation.” 

“Amazing. Have you showed either of the twins what you are working on here?”

“Not yet. I still have some work to do to refine the process, but eventually, I’ll be able to control it at will, shifting my skin through a variety of hues. That’s something neither of them can do. At least, not until I show them how.” 

I could sense that she was pleased with herself, and I knew that if we were in our waking bodies, she would flash me her mischievous smile.

“Show off,” I said. “People back on Forsara would probably pay thousands of credits for this kind of adaptability.”

“They would,” she said. “But it would mainly be an aesthetic choice. Some expression of fashion, or, perhaps, a commentary on racial history. Down there, on that planet, it will be essential to my survival. Maybe to all of ours.”

“You never cease to surprise me, Adjet.”

“It is one of life’s greatest delights to keep you on your toes, Oren.”


* * *


A voice filled up my field awareness, and the immersive image of Adjet’s body lying prone on the medical table receded from view.

“Orenpausha,” it said to me, echoing in my mind, “we are nearing the outer edge of the optimal orbit. The planet is on longsight, approaching as predicted.”

Reacher. Our faithful companion. Our shipheart. 

A ship’s heart represents the crowning achievements of our interstellar dreams. It is always beating. It gives the ship life, pulsing every microsecond, feeding every component with essential information, pulling back measurements, converting atomic matter into necessary materials and nutrients, making adjustments and refinements.

Without the heart, our ship would be unwieldy. Even seven minds, chosen for our special evolutions, modifications, and training, would buckle under the complexity. If we somehow managed to work in perfect unison and hold all of the pieces together, sooner or later, we would simply burn out from the attentional demands. Reacher amplifies our power, deepens our connection to the ship, and automates much of the workings so we can focus on the essentials. 

“Show it to me, Reach,” I said to the shipheart. I was bursting with excitement at his news.

A view of towering columns of energy, blooming from the nearby yellow star, filled my awareness. Then the view zoomed to the left of the star, and there it was: a pale, blue dot, hurtling towards us. 

My whole being smiled. We had reached Eaiph, one of the most fertile worlds ever discovered, a glassy blue cauldron of life, waiting for those to live it. In three more galactic weeks, the little waterstone would arrive to meet us on its passage around Soth Ra. 

The first half of our long journey was behind us.

About the author

Anders Cahill was born in Concord, Massachusetts. He grew up on a heady diet of fantasy and science fiction novels, liberally spiced with comic books. He has a master's degree from Harvard University, and he lives in Boston with his family. Gradient is his first full-length work of fiction. view profile

Published on December 31, 2019

Published by

150000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Science Fiction

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