CHAPTER 1 (Free Preview)
Felix is far. West he goes, into ever. And still further.
It's always sunny out when you see X-rays. Felix loves the light. It makes him feel less lonely and less cold, though he thinks he ought not complain about the weather -- the Local Fluff is a balmy place nestled at the confluence of two dark and unhappy voids yawned open ages ago by some fat stars sloughing off their skins. The voids are bubbles in the galactic medium, and it's cold as Hell inside them.
Where these hollows touch there's a slow rolling ripple of compression, and that's home -- for Felix, for you, for me. For everyone you know, forever. The Local Fluff, this whisp of gas and sparks and pebbles, is bigger than you can comfortably imagine.
Felix, on the other hand, must imagine it. It's his job. He's charting the wilds of the Milky Way while you and I listen to music and eat lunch. Felix is dozens of lightyears away from either of us, and he's going farther every day.
He writes home. That's how we know he's still there.
Have you seen the latest? On the map you can follow his mark, winking in measured hops against the galactic current, westward to the ends of our fluff. The stars he comes to now have no proper names, but rather catalogue labels. The planets are mere numbered footnotes, their continents only albedo scores...
Felix is the first to ply them with eyes and mind.
He walks through a rocky valley. The sun overhead is blue and tight, the sky a rosy kind of tan cut by long, smeared streamers of white cloud. The air is thick, so his footfalls sound heavy and mumbled, like hearing underwater. Motes drift on the breeze.
He pauses at a crag, a local basin in a series of eroded pathways describing patterns along the valley floor. The crag glitters: reflections from a shallow pool of murky liquid at its bottom.
The wind shifts and a puff of motes are blown into the crag. They stick to the surface of the pool, swells of surface tension glistening at the edges of each tiny particle.
A halo of matte material accumulates around each speck. It is a gradual process. Felix watches for hours, noting the fractal filigree of the leading edges of radial growth. The shadows clock around him as the day ages. Soon the entire pool is coated in a thin, dull material that has thickened into denser lobes around the landed motes. When the sun sets the formation instantly dissolves and sinks beneath the surface, leaving nothing but a fart of bubbles.
Curious, Felix squats.
It is at times like this that we can't forget that Felix really is one of us -- just as Solar as ants and dogs and apples. It suddenly doesn't matter that beneath his armour is a body of carbon nanotubes, crystal register arrays and coils of intelligent plastic: when he sits on his haunches and sticks his finger into that pool, he's every bit as much an ape as you and I.
The matte material gathers at his fingertip. Felix can feel it attempting to break down the surface of his digit. It tickles, not simply because of the chemical reactions involved but because it makes him feel like laughing when he realizes that he's being digested.
Somebody is trying to eat him, and it fills him with joy.
He sits by the pool for many days. When the rain comes the channels in the valley floor flood and become networked. The organisms in the pools commingle -- forming lobes and rings, and tendrils that entangle. Over a period of hours these collective constructs swell and ripen, then gush forth floating clots whose edges bleed a cloud of dancing specks: the offspring are bright pink when freshly fissioned. To Felix's great delight he watches them shepherded to smaller nursery pools as the floods drain, then barricaded inside by a crust of dead adults, sacrificed to become a protective organ for the young.
It's life. Sweet, precious life. Felix has stood on so many, many planets without seeing it. Even its simplest manifestation refreshes him to the core.
Though he knows his message cannot be heard, he feels the need to speak anyway, to commemorate the happy occasion. He kneels over the pink pool.
He says, "Hello. I represent Solar life. My name is Felix, and I come in peace."
His voice sounds funny in the thick atmosphere, as if he's speaking through wool. The organisms don't respond. They just sort of clot along the bottom of the pool, their fringes jostling in the gentle current of the departing rainwash.
Felix stands up. He stretches. After a moment he walks back to his camp.