House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds
This book is set millions of years in the future, in a universe where humanity has branched out in endless evolutionary permutations across the stars. The Gentian line is a branch of humanity formed from one thousand male and female clones of Abigail Gentian (called shatterlings) which only reassemble during reunions held periodically between unimaginably vast swaths of cosmic time… until one day, a myserious attack nearly wipes them all out in one fell encounter.
However, the Gentian line’s story must begin at the beginning, showing how so many started as just one strange young soul…
I was a girl then, a single individual called Abigail Gentian.
During the thirty years of my childhood, I only saw a fraction of that vast, rambling, ever-changing mansion. Even as I grew older, and gained the authority to wander where it suited me, I doubt that I ever explored more than a hundredth of it. I was intimidated by the long, forbidding corridors of mirror and glass, the corkscrewing staircases rising from dark cellars and vaults where even the adults never went, the rooms and parlours that – although the adults and housekeepers never said as much in my presence – were alleged to be haunted, or in some way not convivial to anything other than transitory occupation. The elevators and dumb waiters alarmed me when they moved without apparent instruction, obeying some inscrutable whim of the house’s governing persona. It was a mansion of ghosts and monsters, with ghouls in the shadows and demons scuttling behind the wainscotting.
I had one true friend, although I cannot now remember his name. He arrived occasionally, but only ever for short visits. I would be allowed to watch the approach and docking of his private shuttle, viewing it from the airtight vantage of a glass-windowed belvedere perched above the mansion’s highest tower. I was always pleased when Madame Kleinfelter allowed me up to the belvedere, and not just because such an occurrence signalled the arrival of my only true companion. From there I could see the entirety of the house, and much of the world on which it was built. The house curved away in all directions until it met the sharp bend of the planetoid’s jagged horizon, a thin margin of rock marking the limit of my home.
It was a strange building, although for a long time I had nothing to compare it with. There was no organised plan to it, no hint of symmetry or harmony – or if there ever had been, that underlying order had been lost beneath countless additions and alterations – work that was still ongoing. Though the planetoid had no atmosphere, and therefore no weather, the house was designed as if it belonged on a world where it rained and snowed. Every distinct part of it, every wing and tower, was surmounted by a steep-sided, blue-tiled roof. There were thousands of roofs, meeting each other at odd, unsettling angles. Chimneys and turrets, belvederes and clock towers punctuated the haphazard, dinosaur-backed roofline. Some parts of the house were only one or two storeys high; others had twenty or more levels, with the tallest parts rising like mountains from the foothills of surrounding structures. Windowed bridges spanned the gaps between towers, a silent, distant figure occasionally stealing behind their illuminated portholes. It was less a house than a city in which you could walk from one side to the other without ever stepping outside.
Later in life I would learn the reason for my home being the way it was, the reason why the building work never ceased, but as a child I simply accepted it unquestioningly. I knew the house was different from the ones I saw in books and story-cubes, but then nothing in those books or cubes resembled any significant aspect of my life. Even before I could read, I knew that we were rich, and it had been impressed on me that there were only a handful of other families whose wealth could be compared to our own.
‘You’re a very special young lady, Abigail Gentian,’ was what my mother told me on one of the many occasions when her ageless face addressed me from one of the house’s panes. ‘You’re going to do great things with your life.’
She had no idea.
It did not take me long to realise that the little boy must also be the child of a rich family. He came on his own ship, not one of the company-owned liners that occasionally conveyed lesser mortals to and from our planetoid. I would watch it arrive from deep space, slowing down on a spike of cobalt flame before stopping above the outer wings of the house, pirouetting into a landing configuration, flinging out skeletal landing legs and lowering with elegant precision onto the designated touchdown pad. Our family’s symbol was a black cinquefoil; his was a pair of intermeshing cogs, the emblem painted on the ship’s sleek, flanged hull.
As soon as the shuttle was down I would rush from the belvedere, almost tumbling down the tightly wound spiral stairs threading the tower. Whichever clone nanny was looking after me that day would take me to one of the elevators and we would travel up, down and sideways until we reached the docking wing. We usually got there just as the little boy was coming out, taking hesitant steps down the long, carpeted ramp from his ship, with two robots gliding alongside him.
The robots scared me. They were hulking things of dull, weatherworn silver, with heads, torsos and arms, but only a single huge wheel in place of legs. Their faces consisted of a single vertical line, like an arrow slit in a castle wall, at the leading edge of a fierce wedge-shaped skull. They had no eyes, no mouth. Their arms were segmented and ended in three-clawed hands, good for nothing except crunching flesh and bone. In my imagination, the robots were keeping the little boy prisoner when he was not visiting me, doing horrible things to him – so horrible that he could never quite speak of them even when we were alone. It was only when I was older that I grasped that they were his bodyguards, that deep within the dim architecture of their minds was something perilously close to love.
The robots only came to the bottom of the carpet, never rolling off it onto the wooden reception floor. The boy would hesitate, then step off, shiny black shoes clicking on the varnished blocks. His clothes were black except for white cuffs and a wide lacework collar. He wore a little backpack, and his black hair was glued back from his brow with strong-smelling lacquer. His face was pale and slightly pudgy, with round, dark eyes of indeterminate colour.
‘Your eyes are funny,’ he always told me. ‘One blue and one green. Why didn’t they fix that when you were born?’
The robots would spin around at the waist and reverse back into the shuttle, where they would wait until it was time for the boy to leave.
‘It’s hard to walk here,’ the boy always said, his footsteps unsteady. ‘Everything’s too hard.’
‘It feels normal to me,’ I said.
It was a long time before I realised that the boy came from a place in the Golden Hour where the local gravity had been fixed at half-standard, which meant he found it difficult to move around when visiting the planetoid.
‘Father says it’s dangerous,’ the boy said as we made our way to the playroom, two nannies trailing behind.
‘The thing inside your world. Or has no one told you about that yet?’
‘There’s nothing inside the world but rock. I know – I looked it up in the story-cube, after you told me there were snakes living in the caves under the house.’
‘The story-cube was lying to you. They do that when they think you need to be protected from the truth.’
‘They don’t lie.’
‘Then ask your parents about the black hole. It’s under your house right now.’
He must have known that my father was dead, and that I could only ask my mother something when her face appeared on one of the panes.
‘What’s a black hole?’
The boy thought about this for a moment. ‘It’s a kind of monster. Like a giant black spider, hanging in an invisible web. Anything that comes too close, it grabs them and stings them and then eats them alive. And there’s a very big one under your house.’
Thinking I was being clever, I said, ‘So what happened to the snakes? Did it eat them?’
‘I lied about the snakes,’ the boy said insouciantly. ‘But this is real – ask the story-cube about black holes if you don’t believe me. Your family had it put under the house to make everything heavier – if it wasn’t there, we’d be floating now.’
‘How can a spider make things heavier?’
‘I said it’s like a spider, not that it really is one.’ He gave me a pitying look. ‘It’s a sucking, hungry mouth that you can’t ever fill. That’s why it pulls everything in towards it, making us feel heavier. But it’s also why it’s dangerous.’
‘Because your father said so?’
‘It’s not just Father. The story-cube will tell you everything, if you ask it the right questions. You can’t just come at it headlong – you have to go in sideways, like a cat stalking a mouse. Then you can fool it into telling you things it isn’t meant to. A black hole swallowed up a whole planetoid once – bigger than this one. It swallowed up the planetoid and everyone living on it. They all went down the plug, like water after a bath. Glug, glug, glug.’
‘That won’t happen here.’
‘If you say so.’
‘I don’t believe you anyway. If you weren’t telling the truth about the snakes, why should I listen to you now?’
Quite suddenly, the malice vanished from his face. I felt as if my friend had only just arrived – the teasing, spiteful boy who had accompanied me until now had just been an impostor.
‘Have you got any new toys, Abigail?’
‘I’ve always got new toys.’
‘I mean, anything special.’
‘There is something,’ I said. ‘I was looking forward to showing it to you. It’s a kind of doll’s house.’
‘Doll’s houses are for girls.’
I shrugged. ‘Then I won’t show it to you.’ Echoing the words he had spoken to me earlier, I announced, ‘I said it’s a kind of doll’s house, not that it really is one. It’s called Palatial; it’s like a castle you control, with its own empire. It’s a pity; I think you would have liked it. But there are other games we can play. We can play in the mood maze, or the flying room.’
I could be manipulative as well, and I had already gained some dark insights into the boy’s mind – I knew that he would feign indifference for at least part of the afternoon, while his curiosity to see the doll’s house was burning a hole right through him. And he was right to be curious, for the doll’s house was the toy I was most eager to show off.
With the nannies in tow, I brought the little boy to the playroom. In the dark-shuttered, gloomily lit room I rolled out boxes and trunks and unpacked some of the things we had played with on his last visit. The boy shrugged off his backpack, undid the top flap and pulled out some of his own favourite toys. There were things I remembered from his last visit: a scaly-winged dragon that flew around the room, spitting pink fire before landing on his arm and coiling its tail several times around it; a soldier who would hide himself somewhere in the room when we closed our eyes – it had taken us hours to find him the last time. There were marbles, little glass balls cored with whirls of colour, which rolled on the floor and organised themselves into shapes and figures according to shouted commands, or formed shapes which we then had to guess at before they were complete. There was a puzzle board and a lovely machine ballerina who would dance on anything, even the tip of a finger.
We played with these things, and eventually the nannies brought us lemonade and biscuits on a floating trolley. Somewhere in the house a long-case clock chimed.
‘I want to see the doll’s house now,’ the boy said.
‘I thought you didn’t want to see it.’
‘I do. Really.’
So I showed him Palatial, taking him into the room-within-a-room where it was kept, and although I revealed only a fraction of its capabilities, he was fascinated by it, and I knew even then that he was jealous, and that Palatial would be the first thing he would want to see on his next visit.
It was the first time I had felt him in my power. I decided that I liked the feeling very much.