Grandmaster A. E. van Vogt was one of the giants of the Golden Age of classic SF, the 1940s. Of his masterpieces, The World of Null-A is perhaps most influential. It was the first major trade SF hardcover ever, in 1949, and has been in print ever since. The careers of Philip K. Dick, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Charles Harness, and Philip Jose Farmer were created or influenced by The World of Null-A. It is required reading for anyone who wishes to know the canon of SF classics.
And so John C. Wright was inspired to write a sequel to the two novels of Null-A (the second was The Players of Null-A). To do this, he trained himself to write in the pulp style and manner of van Vogt. So return again to the Null-A future, in which the superhuman amnesiac with a double brain, Gilbert Gosseyn, must pit his wits once more against the remorseless galactic dictator Enro the Red and the mysterious shadow-being known as The Follower, while he is hurled headlong through unimaginable distances in space and in time and through alternate eternities to fend off the death, and complete the rebirth, of the Universe itself!
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John C. Wright lives in Centreville, Virginia.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A torment of fire raced along Gilbert Gosseyn’s nerves as he stood on the promenade deck of the great space liner Spirit of Liberty.
The next moment: darkness.
A moment before, the calm voice of the captain echoed from the annunciators, warning passengers that the distorter-shift from orbit to the ship’s berth on the planet below was about to take place. Through the cool armored plastic of the transparent hull, the planet Nirene hung like a black pearl in space, her ice caps a dazzling azure crown in the light of her blue-giant sun.
Then next moment . . .
Gosseyn’s body jerked in agony, but before he could draw breath, the darkness and the scalding pain were gone. He landed on his feet in a crouch. There was carpet, not metal deck, underfoot.
He blinked. His eyes adjusted to indoor gloom. He was in a small, well-kept apartment. Behind him was a kitchenette, outfitted with the latest in electronic appliances; before him to the left, a retractable door was slid half-open to reveal a greenhouse filled with orchids. Steamy, hot air came from that door. What little light there was came from that doorway. Before him to the right was a closed door. Directly before him were a desk and chair made of lightweight plastic-steel. The chair had toppled. Here was a corpse.
The corpse was distorted, blackened, as if the once-human body had been twisted by unthinkably powerful forces. Here and there a white bone fragment peered through the dark, dry mass. The bones were subtly curved, but not fractured, warped out of alignment.
The mental picture formed was one of subatomic wrongness.
The man had been of a wiry build, lean but not tall. Few other details survived. The face of the corpse was an indistinguishable blackened mass. The head was burned free of hair. The right hand was a fleshless black claw; the left hand had been burned down to a stump. Concentric stains of decayed matter surrounded the left stump, as if the murder-energy, whatever it had been, had lingered at that spot after the man’s death. Tiny glimmers of gold formed teardrops at the center of the halo of stains: Gosseyn assumed it was the remnant of a wedding ring.
Gilbert Gosseyn gently probed the corpse with a pulse of energy from his double brain. There was no return signal: He could not “memorize” or mentally “photograph” the cellular and atomic structure of the corpse.
The man’s clothing, strangely, was not burnt or marred. He was dressed in the somber, loose-fitting garments favored by citizens of the central worlds of the Galactic League.
This raised the question of what planet Gosseyn was now on. How many light-years had he been carried by distorter? The gravity seemed the same as it had been aboard ship, which had been adjusted to match that of the planet Nirene.
The sensation of momentary darkness was familiar to him. Distorter matrices were able to form an electro-nuclear similarity between the atomic composition of one area of space-time and another, in such a fashion that the interval between the two points became mathematically insignificant. During that moment of distortion, objects, energy, people, even giant space vessels, could be moved across the gap between the two points as if there were no gap. The lesser always moved toward the greater.
Gosseyn knew the phenomenon better than anyone else. Except for Gosseyn Three, his “twin brother” (that cell-duplicated version of himself created in the same fashion he had been), no other living person was known to have the extra neural matter, a secondary brain, tuned to the energy flows of the continuum in such a fashion as to allow him to act as a living, biological distorter machine.
Someone had acted during the moment of distorter uncertainty. While the ship moved to her home-station receivers to which she was attuned, something had attuned Gosseyn . . . here.
Alert, he stepped into the orchid greenhouse. The room was hot and wet but unlit. A shawl hung on a peg near the door, emitting cool air. Gosseyn assumed the thermostat on the shawl was turned down to compensate for the close warmth of the room. Something tickled his memory. Where had he seen this before?
The light came from a second door beyond, half-open. Gosseyn was through it in a moment. It was a bedroom.
First, he stepped to the window, turned it on. The window was bolted to what seemed a wooden wall, but Gosseyn’s secondary brain could detect the residual magnetism of the armor beneath the wood veneer, nine inches thick or more. The window was a fixed-direction model, able to bring in images from beyond the armored wall but not to peer into neighboring apartments.
The view showed a giant blue-white sun glaring down on a metropolis of superskyscrapers. Despite their height, the buildings were squat, cylinders as wide as they were tall; many were crowned with rooftop gardens of vivid blue plant life. One building, a stepped pyramid half a mile high, had acres of garden and park at every balcony.
But the scene had a grim aspect to it. Each building was surrounded by a slight haze like a heat shimmer: electromagnetic force shields heavy enough to dissipate the heat and radiation of orbital bombardments, nor did modern windows need to pierce the massive armor of their surfaces to bring in light. Air traffic was conspicuously absent, as were energy-bridges leading from roof to roof. Flying cars, or pedestrians strolling atop a solid streamer of force, made vulnerable targets.
Gosseyn amplified the window image. As a precaution, he selected a spot on a nearby rooftop and memorized it. Specialized ganglia in his extra brain felt the “tug” of awareness of that little portion of space less than a mile away. He set the trigger in his mind to jump him to that spot if doubt or pain struck him.
Then he focused the window on the posters and signs of the few street-level shops he saw. Some writing was in the script of Gorgzidi, which Gosseyn could not read but which he recognized. The automatic methods of learning spoken languages at a subverbal level did not have a means of teaching writing systems. Writing on the older buildings was Nireni, which he had learned in preparation for his voyage. He had also studied maps; he recognized place names.
This was the city New Nirene of the planet Nirene, the second city of that name. Before the throne had been removed to Planet Gorgzid, this world had been the capital of the Greatest Empire. The first city called Nirene, once a metropolis of some thirty million souls, was now a burnt, radioactive wasteland.
The military aspect of the architecture of New Nirene was merely one more legacy of the decades of iron rule by Enro the Red. The great dictator was gone, but the events the tyrant set in motion continued in their remorseless way under the vast inertia of social habit and thought. The years of conditioning by police and military propagandists left a visible stamp on the scene below, and, Gosseyn reminded himself, an invisible stamp in the minds of Enro’s subjects. To call the world a League protectorate was an abstraction, an incomplete statement. On a fundamental level, by habit and custom and all the neurotic behaviors of the untrained minds of Enro’s subjects, this was still a world of the Imperium.
There was a high dome in the distance, possibly the very starport where the ship he’d traveled on was now berthed. The dome seemed solid: Distorter technology did not require the ship launching or landing stations to be open to the sky. But there were antennas atop the peak that suggested X-ray radar-photography arrays able to examine ships in orbit for weapons before bringing them to the surface, in the heart of the city.
So Gosseyn had been carried a few miles, at most.
Why? And by whom? Gosseyn turned from the window.
The sense of familiarity was stronger now. There were two separate beds, with a nightstand between them. Next to one of the beds was an electric shoe rack, with several pairs of women’s shoes, kept clean by the silent, invisible vibrations of the rack. Beyond, a beige suit of feminine cut was visible through a gap in the closet door. On the vanity, next to a small jewelry box, was a slender platinum cigarette case of the automatic kind. Everything on that side of the room bespoke taste, wealth, and elegance.
Next to the other bed was a bookshelf, neatly organized. The spines were lettered in English. Books of psychology, neurolinguistic philosophy, atomic theory, forensics, and other scientific works. The books were of the type that recorded spoken thoughts and notes by the reader, and were locked at his fingerprint. Atop the bookcase were several small scientific instruments, folded into black leather cases. Gosseyn picked up two of them: The first was a unit for detecting atomic vibrations at a fine level; the second was a camera whose special lens arrangement could reconstruct photons absorbed into ordinary substances, glass or wood, and show recent events.
Gosseyn stepped to the closet, opened it. The man’s portion of the closet had four suits of clothing of similar cut: One of them was an Earthman’s dress suit, jacket and tie. A transparent plastic case built into the side of the closet held a heavy electric pistol with a snub-nose, several-megawatt aperture, dialed down to a nonlethal shock setting. A line of atomic batteries was fitted into a clip. Gosseyn recognized the make and model: It was Venus-made, designed with a built-in lie-detector circuit to prevent misuse.
He moved quickly over to the farther bed and picked up the pillow. There was a faint scent of perfume, a long strand of brown hair. Beneath the pillow was a recharging holster for a slenderer type of pistol: a lady’s model. The pistol itself was gone. The manufacturer’s brand was marked on the holster. Gosseyn recognized the model. There had been a general store, run by a man named Nordegg, not five miles from Gosseyn’s little house in Cress Village, Florida, that stocked sporting goods, including firearms. The slender and powerful handguns sat in a display case beneath the hunting rifles, with a small depth-illusion sign:
For the Prudent Student! GOING TO THE CITY OF THE MACHINE DURING THE LAWLESS MONTH? Buy Lady Colt Lectrocutioner 1.6 Megavolt Because not every man is sane.
His wife had bought one just before her death, back when they were both young students, preparing to visit the Games Machine.
Rather (Gosseyn mentally corrected himself), he remembered such a sporting goods store. He remembered his wife’s lingering death from disease. He remembered his lonely continued studies, and his trip by stratospheric liner to the City of the Machine.
Most memories are abstractions of real events. The photon strikes the eye, and the brain records the images, or, rather, its filtered impressions of the images. But Gosseyn’s memories, in this area, were false: imprints on his gray matter, having no bearing on reality. He had been shipped in a medical crate to the City of the Machine, fully grown, an artificial being with no past save for recorded fictions in his brain, and set to walk from the stratospheric liner station to the hotel. Within an hour, a routine sweep by the hotel lie detector had discovered his imposture.
The emotional connotations, the love, the pain, the regret, the hopes: All these emotions were false-to-facts. The image in his mind of the courtship, the marriage, the honeymoon, their sunlit days together: a delirium placed in his mind by Gosseyn’s creator, Lavoisseur.
The image of a wife had been taken from a real woman: the Empress of the Greatest Empire. The moment a lie detector had verified those images in his mind, Gosseyn had been brought to the attention of the Imperial agents secretly on Earth.
It was all false. Gosseyn’s training allowed him to dismiss the whole complex hallucination with the sobriety of a man waking from a dream. Lavoisseur had not been particularly cruel to him, since he could rely on Gosseyn not to form any neurotic attachment to any memories shown to be untrue.
But . . . and now the thought occurred to him for the first time . . . how had Lavoisseur gotten the detailed information, the picture, the echoes of her voice, which were written into Gosseyn’s memories?
Because the details were correct. This was Patricia’s room. He recognized her things. Which meant . . . Gosseyn returned to the first room and photographed the corpse with the special camera. With the lights in the room dim, the camera was able to project the image it found holographically into the room around him.
The camera image showed only a solid, hard-edged silhouette. Here was a man, standing before his desk, his back to it. From his posture and gesture, he seemed to be talking calmly with someone. That was the overall impression in Gosseyn’s mind: The unknown man was serenely calm, even as he spoke with his murderer.
The other figure in the room was also a silhouette, but this was a shadow-being, a cloud of filmy darkness, tenuous at the edges. Details of the room could be glimpsed even through the thickest part of the shadow-body. Nothing else, not even whether it was man or woman, could be seen.
The first man shook his head: a curt refusal. The second being, the shadow-creature, raised a wraithlike arm and pointed toward him. The gesture was ominous.
Behind the man, behind the desk, the wall receded and opened into mist, which parted. The impression was one of immense distances entering the enclosed space of the apartment. Where the wall had once been now could be seen a huge red giant sun glancing down on a sea of black oil, crisscrossed by large and violent whitecaps. Jagged islands with peaks like razors towered into the black sky, and the red and rocky ground was cratered as if with millions of years of meteorite impacts. Despite the ground-dazzle, stars were visible here and there overhead. The heights of the waves and also of the island peaks suggested a low-gravity world; the dark sky suggested a very thin atmosphere. A second sun, this one a mere pinpoint of intolerable brightness, was transiting across the huge, cool, dull face of the red giant. The red giant’s photosphere was curled into sunspots as the tiny white star passed.
The man turned slowly to regard the gigantic world that had appeared behind him. The shadow-being drifted to the left, putting the man directly between him and the image. A flickering darkness passed from the shadow to the image, striking the man. The man staggered, throwing his hands over his head in sudden pain. His outline lost its sharpness and began to dissolve. He fell.
The shadow-being bent over the fallen figure, whose silhouette jerked and writhed.
The camera clicked, and the image was gone. Next Gosseyn turned the atomic analysis unit on the corpse.
Every cell in the victim’s body had been disorganized, complex molecules broken. The carbon atoms in the man’s flesh had lost their atomic bonds with their neighbors but had not formed ions nor formed other chemical bonds: The black soot was due to a layer of this atomically disorganized carbon. It was a behavior not seen in normal space: only when the atom’s location in time-space was profoundly disturbed, so that its relation to its environment fell below the crucial twenty decimal points that maintained the coherency of matter, could this effect occur. The man’s flesh and bone had been melted atom by atom: a sadistically painful death.
No wonder the images from the embedded-photo...
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