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Author: Linda Nagata
Publisher: Tor, 2003

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Acclaimed hard-SF author Linda Nagata introduces a new world: a human colony whose people have forgotten their past, on a tremendous structure that forms a great ring around the sun... where the sky is bisected by an arch of light and the mysterious "silver" rises from the ground each night to completely transform the landscape-and erase from existence anything it touches.

Young Jubilee is devastated when her brother Jolly is caught and taken by the silver. But when a forbidding stranger with the incredible power to control the silver comes seeking Jolly-and claiming that Jolly knows him-Jubilee first distrusts the man, then fears him and flees. For she has learned an impossible secret: Jolly may still be alive... and may somehow become the catalyst for the annihilation of everything she knows if she does not find him first.

Jubilee's flight will lead her to discoveries she could never have imagined, from the secret history of her civilization and her people's origins to the true nature of the silver, to the awesome forgotten memories within her. And with these she will forever alter her world's future... unless the dark stranger, relentless in his pursuit, achieves his goal of destroying it. One way or another, Jubilee's final confrontation will change everything....


Chapter 1

When I was ten I had a blanket that was smooth and dark, with no light of its own until I moved and then its folds would glitter with thousands of tiny stars in all the colors of the stars in the night sky. But the pale arch that appears at the zenith on clear nights and that we call the Bow of Heaven never would appear on my blanketand for that I was glad. For if there was no Heaven, I reasoned, then the dead would always be reborn in this world and not the next, no matter how wise they became in life.

This was always a great concern for me, for my mother was the wisest person I knew and I feared for her. More than once I schemed to make her look foolish, just to be sure she would not get into Heaven when her time came. When my antics grew too much she would turn to my father. With a dark frown and her strong arms crossed over her chest she would say, "We have been so very fortunate to have such a wild and reckless daughter as Jubilee. Obviously, she was sent to teach us wisdom." My father would laugh, but I would pout, knowing I had lost another round, and that I must try harder next time.

I seldom suffered a guilty conscience. I knew it was my role to be wildeven my mother agreed to thatbut on the night my story begins I was troubled by the thought that perhaps this time I had gone too far.

I lived then in the temple founded by my mother, Temple Huacho, a remote outpost in the Kavasphir Hills, a wild land of open woods and rolling heights, infamous for the frequency of its silver floods.

As often as three nights in ten the silver would come, rising from the ground, looking like a luminous fog as it filled all the vales, to make an island of our hilltop home. I would watch its deadly advance from my bedroom window, and many times I saw it lap at the top of the perimeter wall that enclosed the temple grounds.

That wall was my mother's first line of defense against the rise of silver and she maintained it well. Only twice had I seen a silver flood reach past it, and both times the chemical defenses of the temple kobolds that lived within the wall stripped the silver of its menace before it could do us harm. True silver is heavy and will always sink to fill the low ground. But the remnant silver that made it past the wall spired like luminous smoke, tangling harmlessly in the limbs of the orchard trees.

Because silver was so common in that region no one dared to live near us. Only a temple, with its protective kobolds, could offer shelter from the nocturnal floods, and Temple Huacho was the only one that had been established anywhere in Kavasphir. So the mineral wealth the silver brought was ours to exploit, while the temple well was famous for producing new and mysterious strains of the beetle-like metabolic machines called kobolds. My mother harvested the kobolds while my father prospected, and eight or nine times a year small convoys of truckers would visit us to collect what we had to trade.

On that evening, two trucks had arrived from distant Xahiclan and the drivers had with them a boy named Tico who was also a lesson in wisdom for his parents. Naturally I loved him on sight, and so did my brother Jolly who was a year older than me but not nearly so useful to our parents. We abandoned our younger siblings (who we were supposed to watch) to play wild games in the orchard. After dinnera magnificent feast that my parents had prepared and that we did not appreciate except for the sweets at the endwe disappeared again, this time on a special quest.

In the old enclaves like Xahiclan the temples all had long histories. Thousands of players depended on their protective powers, and so they had become sacred places. Children were not allowed to play on the grounds, and only the temple keepers were permitted inside the buildings. None of this solemnity was attached to Temple Huacho. Our outpost was not thirty years old; it was home to no one but our own family; and it was the only playground my brothers and sisters and I had ever known.

Jolly and I were oldest, so we could go where we wanted within the confines of the temple wall, though perhaps not to the well room, not without supervision. But Tico wanted to see the well of the kobolds. He told us he had never seen a kobold well before. Jolly and I were so astonished to hear this that it took only a moment for us to reason that the rule about not visiting the well room was an old one, and that if we were to ask, our mother and father would surely say we were old enough now to go there on our ownbut of course we couldn't ask: they were busy with the truckers and would not want to be bothered, while it was up to us to keep Tico entertained.

So we crept quietly through the halls, accompanied by Jolly's little dog, Mokia sharp-faced hound with large upright ears, a short back, lush red fur, and a long tail. Moki had been Jolly's pet for as long as I could remember. He stood only knee-high, but he followed my brother everywhere. Now he trotted beside us, his nails clicking against the tiled floor.

Temple Huacho was a house of stone, made from the abundant minerals of Kavasphir. The floor tiles were a cream-colored marble laced with gold; the walls were of lettered stone, in a shade of green like malachite with the letters compressed into barely readable veins of black print; the ceilings were made of translucent slices of a lighter green stone bearing the image of fossilized forests. Lights shone behind the ceiling panels, giving the effect of walking through a woodland on a cloudy day. Tico was much impressed by this decor. On the way to the well room he kept whispering about how wealthy we must be until I decided that perhaps I didn't like him quite as much as I had thought.

The entrance to the well room was framed by the trunks of two trees fossilized in white jade. Jolly held on to Moki while I leaned past the nearest trunk, taking a quick, cautious look around the room, confirming that it was empty. Then I motioned Tico and Jolly forward.

The well room was a round chamber, its walls lined with cabinets holding hundreds of tiny, airtight drawers where mature kobolds were stored. On the right-hand side, in front of these cabinets, was the broad jade table that served as my mother's workbench. Her microscopes and analytical equipment were shapeless lumps beneath a white dust cover. On the left side of the room another workbench supported stacks of transparent boxestest chambers for uncataloged koboldsbut they were empty.

At the center of the room was the temple well. A thigh-high mound of fine soil surrounded its throat. Over the years I had watched this mound grow until now it spilled onto the tiles around it, where its soil was scuffed and crushed to a fine brown powder by passing feet.

Tico did not wait for further invitation. He strode past me to the mound's edge, where he looked over the embankment of dirt, and down, into the dark, jagged hole that was the throat of the well.

A kobold well is made wherever a plume of nutrients chances to rise from the steaming core of the world, a bounty that awakens the kobold motes, tiny as dust, that lie dormant everywhere in the soil.

I felt proud when I saw the awe on Tico's face. The well was the heart of Temple Huacho. It was the reason my mother had settled there. It was the source of our security, and our wealth. So I was surprised when Tico's expression changed. Awe became confusion. And then confusion gave way to a wicked scowl. "Is that it?" he asked. "A dirty hole in the ground?"

I frowned down at the fine, loose soil, wanting desperately to impress him. "There are kobolds," I said, and I pointed at the well's throat where two newly emerged kobolds were using their weak limbs to claw free of the hard-packed ground. These were large metallophores-metal eatersas big as my father's thumb and beetlelike in appearance, their color as dull as the soil that nourished them.

Kobolds were a kind of mechanic, a machine creature, and like any machine they were created by the labor of other machines: the kobold motes, to be specific. That was the essential division among the animate creatures of the world: mechanics were made, so that they began existence in finished form, while organic life had to strive for existence through the complexities of birth and growth and change.

Mechanics were living tools. The metallophores that I pointed out to Tico could be configured to make many kinds of simple metal parts. As a spider eats and secretes a web, so kobolds could take in raw material, metabolize it so that it took on a new form, and secrete it. But where spiders secreted only webs, kobolds could produce things as diverse as medicine or machine parts, depending on the strain. The common metallophores of our well did their work inside a metabolic foam, which they would excrete in layer upon layer for many days depending on the size of the artifact they had been programmed to make. When the project was complete the foam would be washed away, revealing the fan blade, or bracket, or truck body that the configuration had called for.

All players were dependent upon mechanics, but we were especially dependent on the kobolds. We could not have survived without them, so it was easy to believe the legends that said they had been made for us.

But Tico showed no sign of being impressed by the large metallophores, so I hurried to look for other kobolds, and soon I spotted some that were tiny, the size of a grain of wheat or even smaller, moving through the mound's soft soil. "See those?" I asked Tico. "There. Where the soil quivers? Those are probably the kind that make platinum circuits. My mother's been trying to improve that strain."

He shrugged. "Who cares about kobolds? I've seen thousands. I thought you were going to show me a well like the ones in Xahiclan. They're a hundred feet across, with crystal walls crawling with...

Copyright © 2003 by Linda Nagata


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