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Acclaimed author Fred Saberhagen continues his widely popular and influential Berserker Series, a chronicle of a war between humanity and the terrifying race of sentient machines bent on death and destruction.
Pilot Harry Silver's name is known throughout the galaxy--and that notoriety does not always work in his favor. While he has defeated his share of Berserkers, he has also stolen a powerful weapon from the Space Force, making him a fugitive from the life he once knew. Looking for an adventure, and not one to turn down a lot of cash, Harry agrees to bring a passenger aboard his ship, Lily, a woman who is on a quest to retrieve her husband.
It won't be easy, as Lily's husband has joined a secretive religious cult on Maracanda, an almost-planet lodged between a shifting black hole and a neutron star. While the landscape of Maracanda is treacherous, so too, may be the people around Harry Silver.
As the search for Lily's husband deepens, Harry finds himself investigating a larger mystery and looking for missing persons, almost ending up one himself. And as always, there is the threat of death from above, in the path of a machine whose only intent is to kill . . .
--From the paper edition cover blurb.
Here are the praises for the Berserker Series taken from the cover of Berserker's Star.
"Saberhagen has given science fiction one of its most powerful images of future war in his Berserker Series. -- Publishers Weekly
"The Berserkers, in their single-minded pursuit of their pre-programmed course of destruction, attain a kind of perverse stature that makes them worthy stand-ins for the dark side of human nature." -- The New York Times
"The Berserker stories are war stories, but war stories in the tradition of The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front." -- The Baltimore Evening Sun
"These homicidal robots manage to make Aliens look like wimps." -- Science Fiction Age
If the Templar colonel hadn't warned Harry Silver not to transport anyone from Hong's World to Maracanda--hadn't told Mr. Silver he'd better not even think of moving his ship in that direction--Harry might have managed to ignore the young woman and her heartbreaking story. And if Harry had ignored her, he certainly would not have listened to the two men who also claimed a pressing need to get to the same place.
And if the Space Force captain, bustling along worriedly half an hour after the Templar, hadn't made a point of looking Harry up to repeat the colonel's warning almost word for word, Harry might still have turned down his three potential passengers. But as matters actually stood, with two separate and eminently respectable authorities practically commanding him to stay away from a certain world, he found the temptation to go there all but irresistible.
That was even before he took into account the chance to make a good amount of money on what amounted to a private charter.
"I will pay you very well, Mr. Silver, to carry me to Maracanda," the young woman was saying now. Her voice was small and intense, a good match for her body. So far she had told Harry very little about herself, beyond the fact that her name was Lily Gunnlod, and she was trying to catch up with her husband, who was named Alan, and who seemed to have abandoned her and flown away to get himself into some kind of trouble in a distant solar system.
Lily was actually claiming that her dear Alan had been kidnapped, carried away by religious fanatics, but Harry had his doubts about that.
Meanwhile the two men, who had introduced themselves as Mr. Redpath and Mr. Dietrich, claimed to have vital business on Maracanda, and an urgent need to get there quickly. The four people were gathered outdoors on a pleasant evening, while around them the evacuation of Hong's World moved steadily along, a more orderly process than Harry would have expected it to be. Getting a million or so people, the whole population of a sparsely settled planet, onto ships and into space was a sizable job--though of course if the population had been a billion or more, it would have been a whole lot worse.
All four people in Harry's little group had recently been traveling, and all were wearing slightly different versions of a practical garment, the more-or-less standard coverall that a lot of people liked to wear on long space flights.
"It is a matter of life and death to me, Mr. Silver. I tell you my husband has practically been kidnapped." Over the past several hours Lily Gunnlod had repeated virtually the same words, so many times that Harry had lost track. She hadn't really filled in any details yet, but then he hadn't asked for any.
This time she was leaning a little closer, directing her dark and burning gaze right into Harry's eyes, as if in an attempt to hypnotize. He had been stared at before, but not very often as fiercely as this. Somehow he had the impression that all the fine muscles in Lily's little body must be thrumming like taut wires. The world she wanted to go to was one that Harry didn't know, had never heard of as far as he could remember. A place called Maracanda, where she was convinced she was going to find her husband.
Gradually she was filling in a few more details. It didn't sound like the people she accused of kidnapping her dear Alan had actually tied him up and carried him off. No, the implication seemed to be that her once-faithful husband had been seduced by some strange religious doctrine, his mind warped by the fantastic stories and promises of dangerous cultists. To Harry it sounded like a good bet that one of the dangerous cultists would turn out to be a woman, though so far Lily hadn't suggested anything along that line.
The home that Lily and her husband had once shared was in a solar system a long way from Hong's World, on whose surface she and Harry were standing now. Even farther than Maracanda, and in the opposite direction.
She seemed genuinely young, partly because of her fierce demeanor, and if she hadn't kept going on about how much she wanted to find her deranged husband, Harry might have allowed himself to find her distractingly attractive.
Harry, a man of indeterminate age, average height and wiry build, was standing up straight with his arms folded. He wore lightweight flight boots and his own slightly modified version of the simple coverall. The look of his hands and hairy forearms suggested superior physical strength. His nose had once been pushed slightly sideways, and never perfectly repaired. His eyes were dark, hair moderately short and darkish.
With thousands of occupied planets in the portion of the Galaxy now settled by Earth-descended humans, some of the planets known to different people by different names, it wasn't strange that someone could name a world that Harry had never heard of. Or--maybe he had heard of it, and just couldn't recall the details. But he had a hazy impression that there was something truly extraordinary about the place.
He asked the woman now: "Just where the hell is Maracanda?"
Meanwhile the eager businessmen had been waiting their turn to plead. Now it was one of them, Redpath, who answered. "It is in the Aleph Sector." Evidently Mr. Redpath's own need to get to Maracanda was so urgent that it had caused him to develop a nervous tic, which kept his eyebrows moving erratically. In general he had a lean and hungry look.
Dietrich, the other businessman, was a solidly built fellow now standing behind Lily on her left. From time to time Dietrich nodded his head, as if to assure Harry that the arguments his colleague and Lily were putting up were valid. Mr. Dietrich did not seem nervous at all; what his hard stare seemed to indicate was meanness, though he had hardly opened his mouth since Harry met him. Redpath and Dietrich were wearing modest backpacks strapped over their coveralls, and a similar pack rested at the lady's feet.
The four of them were standing on the edge of a broad esplanade leading to the local spaceport, under a pleasant, starlit evening sky in which traces of sunset still lingered. They had formed a compact group because of the pressure of traffic, foot and vehicular, moving steadily round them. Now and then the group shuffled a little this way or that, its members doing what they could to keep out of the busy flow in two directions of people and slow moving machines. So far the whole process of evacuation was not nearly as noisy as it might have been.
Harry wanted to make sure that his prospective passengers understood the situation. "I hope you people realize that you don't need to hire me, or anyone, just to get away safely. The Space Force and Templars have both sworn they'll get everybody off world in time. In a case like this, I'd be inclined to believe 'em."
"I understand the position," said Lily Gunnlod. She spoke the common language with an accent that Harry could not quite place. "Both the Templars and the Space Force have strongly urged us to take passage aboard one of the rescue vessels they have so gallantly provided. But the problem is that both organizations insist on carrying us in the wrong direction, farther from Maracanda."
"That is our case also," said Mr. Redpath, lean and nervous.
Harry still addressed himself to Lily. "That's because they think it's dangerous to go where you want to go. They're probably right. You know, I've been warned, twice in the last couple of standard hours, not to take you people there."
The three received that news with no surprise at all. The woman surprised Harry, though, when she said: "But I have seen you, Mr. Silver, in a vision. And I know that you are going to help me find my Alan."
"Yeah?" That made him pause for a moment. "Visions don't gain you any points with me, lady. Mystic prophecies have a strong tendency to be wrong."
The woman only looked at him, while the twilight wind of Hong's World blew at her curly hair, under the slowly darkening, perpetually moonless sky. She was being patient, but she seemed to have the attitude that all of Harry's objections were irrelevant.
He was almost sure, now, that he was going to try to please little Lily by doing what she wanted. And of course if he was going to Maracanda, he might as well bring the two men too. But experience cautioned that he should first try for more information.
He said to Lily: "I don't want to charge you lots of money for a wild goose chase. Tell me more about this missing husband, and what makes you so damned sure that he's on Maracanda now."
"I know my dear Alan must be there, because I know who his kidnappers are, and what they intended when they lured him away." Lily's voice was strong and sure, but with those words, emotion came surging up behind her eyes. It did not seem to be the kind of feeling that brought forth tears. Desperate action would be more likely.
"Why do you doubt the woman?" asked Redpath, sounding nervous.
Harry looked at him. "I thought you didn't know her, or her husband?".
The lean man blinked. "That is correct. As I have told you, my partner and I encountered the lady for the first time here, only a few hours ago. But I am convinced that she tells the truth."
On the other side of Lily, Dietrich nodded.
"If it's really kidnapping, it sounds like a police matter," Harry observed.
Lily was shaking her head. "You don't know what the police are like on my home world."
Harry had to admit that that was true.
She added: "Besides, even if they were fully competent, they can't help me here and now."
Also true, Harry supposed. Still looking his potential passengers over, he said: "You understand why the Templars and the Space Force are warning me not to take my ship in the direction the three of you want me to go? You do know something about berserkers?" It was hardly possible to be a human in the Galaxy and not know that, but Harry wanted to make the point.
"I know enough," the woman answered quickly. Her attitude kept insisting let's get on with it. The two men nodded.
Harry wasn't finished. "Then you understand it's quite possible that the bad machines have somehow caught wind of the fact that this whole system where we are now is being evacuated. So a berserker force might be deploying this way." The robotic killers could have high expectations of catching a large swarm of human craft, many with little or no armament, only second- or third-rate defensive shields, in disorderly flight.
The deadly danger posed by a nova sun, the threat that now sent all the humans of Hong's World flying for their lives, would mean nothing but opportunity to berserker machines. They had been created as an ultimate weapon, by a race about whom little else was known. A race now called the Builders, who had been engaged in a desperate war, at a time when humanity on Earth still lived in caves and fought with clubs.
Programmed to destroy everything that lived, berserkers were the ultimate agents and engines of death. Ages ago these superb weapons had turned on their living creators and reduced the Builders to little more than interstellar dust. But still the weapons themselves raged on and on across the Galaxy, endlessly repairing and reproducing themselves, improving their own design and refining their killing capabilities.
No death machine had ever been deterred by the prospect of its own annihilation. The only value a berserker's calculations assigned to its own existence lay in its killing power. The only real loss it perceived in its own destruction was the subtraction of that measure of power from the total available to the cause of death.
* * *
While the four people stood conversing, the businesslike evacuation kept going on around them So far, the sounds and sights and smells of fear and chaotic confusion were present only in potential. Thanks to the Space Force and the Templars, the two separate organizations for once co-operating smoothly, there were nerves and there was grumbling, but no screaming panic.
"In this case, Mr. Silver," said Redpath, "we cannot allow even berserkers to stop us."
And Dietrich finally opened his mouth to challenge Harry: "Do they terrify you, Mr. Silver?"
Harry squinted at the fellow. "They have, in the past. They probably will again. But not when the chance of meeting 'em's no greater than it seems to be in this situation. I can accept a reasonable amount of danger--for a reasonable price."
It was the first time he had raised the question of payment. The woman promptly named a figure. Redpath and Dietrich exchanged glances, and the lean man said: "We will match that sum."
Harry raised his eyebrows. "You're all willing to pay that much, I guess you're really serious about it."
"I am serious indeed." Lily prodded: "You have been recommended to us, Mr. Silver. We hear you are a very good pilot."
"And willing to take chances."
Harry nodded. "That's sometimes true as well."
Redpath put in: "We have even heard that you are wanted by the Space Force, in a certain other sector of the Galaxy, for stealing a c-plus cannon." The lean man smiled at Harry when that got a reaction. "Oh, not that we object! If the story is true, it shows a degree of -- well, of enterprise--on your part that we in our present situation find very attractive."
The Space Force captain a little while ago, when warning Harry against accepting this job, hadn't brought up the matter of the cannon, doubtless only because she hadn't yet been told about it. But it was no idle rumor. In another sector of the Galaxy, not enormously far away by fast starship, certain Space Force officers were much interested in finding Harry Silver, were trying very seriously to charge him with that spectacular theft.
Now all three of Harry's prospective clients were eyeing him fiercely, with varying degrees of what seemed a near impossible mixture of fear, respect, hope, disapproval, and secret admiration. There might have been a hint of blackmail in Redpath's remark: Do what we ask, or we turn you in to the local authorities. If so, the blackmailer had miscalculated: --whatever authorities might currently remain on Hong's World had all they could handle just trying to get everyone evacuated, and were not about to start any kind of legal proceedings in a courtroom that would soon be vaporized.
Mr. Dietrich seemed to have been the most impressed by the story. "A c-plus cannon," he marveled quietly, shaking his head. He sounded shocked, not so much by the idea of a crime as by the spectacular magnitude of Harry's daring.
Harry stared grimly back at the solidly built man. "It's a long story, based on a misunderstanding. Explanations never catch up with rumors, but maybe I should give one anyway. Actually it was the Space Force who installed the cannon on my ship--there was some berserker trouble at the time. When that was over, of course, they wanted the damned thing back--well, there were reasons why I couldn't find a good convenient time and place to hand it over."
Evidently none of the three before him cared much about his explanation, not even enough to listen to it carefully.
"You've simply got to take us," the young woman was saying to Harry now, while on either side of her her escort stood nodding their heads earnestly in agreement.
Meanwhile, all around them the good citizens of Hong's World, nervous and busy, some with tear-streaked faces but not yet frantic, were still coming and going, on foot and in a variety of slow moving vehicles. Some were carrying things, bags and boxes, odd household items, a strange assortment of objects that they hoped to save if there turned out to be room on the evacuation ships. Now Harry thought the people might be stepping up the pace a bit. Many of those who passed kept taking quick glances up at the twilight sky.
Hong's World had never possessed any noticeable moons, and where Harry was standing the local sun had sunk below the horizon half an hour ago. But the sky contained an impressive array of stars.
There was one very bright star in particular, a white dwarf informally known to the inhabitants of Hong's World as Twinkler, and actually a distant binary partner of Hong's Sun. The people who were getting on as fast as they could with their evacuation kept casting nervous glances up at Twinkler's cheerful little image. Not that there could be anything remarkable to see in that bright dancing spark--not for several hours yet.
But everyone knew that peaceful presence was a horrible illusion. Something extraordinary indeed was on its way from Twinkler toward Hong's World, a vast change sweeping on to engulf this pleasant planet, to end the life of anyone who might still be on it at the time.
Twinkler had recently undergone a sudden and surprising metamorphosis. The consequences of that change were approaching Hong's World now, the wavefront of a stellar explosion, a deadly eruption of of radiation and particles, moving as rapidly as light, more inevitable than sunrise. What was coming would put an end to all sunrises and sunsets when it arrived. But hours would pass before the Twinkler's soft and mellow image swelled rapidly into a glaring blast of light and other radiation, a blinding, destroying, angel of death. Thanks to the Templars and the Space Force, there was every reason to hope that when it did, there would be no living eyes remaining on this world to register the impact.
There had better not be. Humans could fight berserkers, could sometimes even win against them. But no one could fight a nearby sun gone supernova.
The little star just winked at Harry slightly as he glanced up at it. He knew the twinkle was innocent, simply a common effect of planetary atmosphere, but still Harry's nerves gave a little nervous twitch each time it happened. Twinkler seemed such a cheerful, bright companion, pure and simple, ready to offer a reliable beacon through this planet's perpetually moonless nights. Fully deserving of the place it had held in local children's stories, through the generations since this world was colonized.
* * *
Meanwhile, an intermittent stream of ships kept dribbling up into the sky, from this spaceport and others scattered around the planet. The warning had come in time, because it had been carried by a robotic courier traveling much faster than the blast. If all went smoothly, the great withdrawal would be accomplished in good time.
* * *
Fortunately a robotic observatory had been in orbit around Twinkler, and signs of the explosion had been detected early, in the form of a veritable avalanche of precursor neutrinos. Particles with virtually no mass, traveling as fast as light, had been picked up within minutes by automatic sensors, while the blast front of the explosion itself was still fulminating within the outer layers of a star suddenly gone berserk; neutrinos passed through that barrier, as they did through almost everything else, as if it were not there at all. The warning, rushed on by superluminal robot courier, had reached Hong's World in time to allow for evacuation.
Fortunately, as it had turned out, the population of the single habitable planet in Hong's system had never been much higher than one million people. And within a matter of days more than a thousand ships, summoned by swift couriers from other relatively nearby systems, had been mobilized for the job of getting them away. Between the Space Force and the Templars, there was every reason to believe that the job of evacuation was going to be successfully accomplished.
All of which was a notable relief to Harry Silver. He shuddered inwardly at the thought of having to pack his Witch of Endor with refugees, like fish in a freezer. He would like to get off the planet, before some authorities changed their collective mind, and decided they had better pack his ship with people after all.
One reason was that packing his ship to maximum capacity with people would have meant dumping his expensive cargo of freight right here on the ramp, just abandoning it to be stolen or destroyed, accepting dead economic loss. As matters stood, he could still nurse hopes of being able to sell the specialized machinery on some other world.
* * *
Harry was beginning to wonder whether the authorities might have overshot the mark a bit in their effort to prevent panic. The likelihood of everyone being safely evacuated was so well established that it even left some people room for argument as to whether the whole thing was necessary.
One of these, a fellow actually carrying a placard, had now stopped to confront the little group of four--probably because everyone else in sight was obviously too busy to listen to him.
At the moment the fibers in the smart material of his sign were showing stark black letters on a white background, reading: WE ALL BELONG TO HONG. Even as Harry watched, the message changed, translating itself into another language. Maybe, Harry thought, the protester believed this lovely planet harbored similar feelings of loyalty toward him.
In keeping with some ancient tradition having to do with prophecies and prophets, the placard-carrying man had wrapped himself in a white cloth sheet that was seemingly his only garment, except for a pair of sandals that had a hand-made look. The prophet's voice was melodious, loud, and commanding. Maybe, thought Harry, what had decided the fellow to take up this line of work was just the opportunity to show off his voice and bearing. The volume of his voice was boosted, and the tones rendered rich and full, by an invisible amplifier, that Harry thought must be buried somewhere in his beard.
His physical presence was not as commanding as he evidently thought it was. But whatever impression he might have made on people in ordinary times, at the moment few were paying him any attention.
* * *
The main burden of the prophet's argument seemed to be that there were, after all, deep shelters, dug out early in the settlement process, in anticipation of a berserker attack that had never materialized.
"They are deep indeed, a thousand kilometers down in living rock. We should be down there now, letting Mother Hong shield and protect her children."
Glad to see that he had at least the attention of Harry and his group, the protester now pointed with a full extension of his arm, a winning, dramatic gesture. "The stars look all right to me. Twinkler looks the same as ever."
Lily and the two men flanking her were still awaiting Harry's answer, but he kept being distracted by the show going on behind them. Now there had appeared another, contrarian demonstrator who stopped to complain about the way the evacuation was being handled. This fellow had chosen white for his prophetic garment also, in the form of a long coat formally buttoned.
The burden of the message urged by Prophet Number Two was that everything would be all right, if only the problem could be managed in accordance with the precepts and techniques of science. In fact he had calculated that everyone on the side of the world away from Twinkler could survive.
"I have developed overwhelming proof, on my computer. Also, if the Great Light was really coming, it would be here now."
Glad of an audience, if only a small one and annoyed, Prophet Two pressed on. And if, he was saying, for safety's sake, it really might be better to get everyone off this planet--then the matter should be approached scientifically. And if some group really insisted on staying, well, it would improve the gene pool of the race to let them have their way.
Harry wondered if uniformed caretakers were going to show up at the last moment, and drag the white-clad pair away to some hospital ship for their own good. But that was quite unlikely. All of this world's caretakers were on their way out, along with everybody else.
One and Two now seemed to have reached some measure of agreement. One chimed in: "Well, I mean it might be possible to leave some kind of sensors, to measure and record how great an effect the explosion actually does have when it reaches this planet. Then when it's all over, and people come back, we can see just how much of a danger it actually represented."
Harry put on a thoughtful expression and looked around. "You know, that never occurred to me. And you know what else? I'd say there's been a sharp drop in the price of local real estate. There must be some terrific bargains, waiting to be snapped up."
Prophet Two seemed ready to take him seriously. "I wouldn't be surprised," he answered. "You know--I wouldn't be surprised if someone has been doing just that. This whole panic could have been started for that very purpose."
Two drew a deep breath, having built what seemed an excellent foundation from which to launch a speech. After all, everything, everything in the human universe, came down to a matter of money. The whole business of evacuation was a hoax, a scheme, set in motion by certain corporations interested in real estate.
Protester One chimed in, disputing details. Now the argument between them was degenerating into a haggling over costs. And taxes, especially taxes. There was no understanding a government that forced rich people to pay them. This had something to do with the fact that the evacuation was all a government plot, hatched by socialists who intended to seize the people's property.
Meanwhile, Harry had some business to conclude. Loudly he broke in: "But that's a lovely idea, about recording the explosion." He might almost have been sincere. His voice dropped to an undertone, as if he were speaking to himself: "I wonder I didn't think of it--there are days when I have ideas like that." More loudly: "Where will you mount your recording devices, and sensors?"
Prophet Number Two was ready to carry the argument forward--maybe it was worthwhile having your world destroyed if that gave you grounds for such a delicious protest. He looked about him at the solid paving of the esplanade, the sprawling hectares of the spaceport, almost empty, on one side. "Would it matter that much where you put them? Some of them on the surface, of course. How about right here? And bury the others deep."
Harry appeared to find that an impressive insight. "Hey, you're right, it wouldn't matter. Could put 'em right here, or over there. Or even bring all the sensors down in your deep shelter with you."
"No, you couldn't--"
"How deep is this wonderful shelter? Maybe twenty thousand kilometers?"
Protester Two looked at him almost pityingly; he thought Harry had his numbers all scrambled, just didn't understand. "Sir, the planet is only twelve thousand kilometers in diameter. The deep shelters, the ones that are available right now, and have room to save us all, are a full thousand kilometers underground."
"And no berserker is going to dig that deep--you hope. But one thousand klicks is too shallow to do us any good today, and twelve thousand would be no better. Because a few hours from now, when Twinkler's blast front hits this world, it'll turn every centimeter of that to flying atoms."
Harry took a step closer, as if the argument had now turned personal. "You clodpate, we're talking about a Type Three supernova, less than a full light-month from where we're standing. Maybe you should put your sensors on the surface of Hong's Sun. It'll be the only thing in this system that survives, and it'll be seriously roughed up."
At least one of Harry's potential customers was applauding. Lily's cute little face had lit up with something like enthusiasm. Meanwhile the two businessmen just stood there looking sour, waiting for this babble to be over.
Protesters One and Two, united at last, were regarding the four of them as if they were all entirely crazy.