Christopher Paolini first achieved literary fame with Eragon, a YA fantasy he began writing when he was just a teen. Now in his 30s, he’s since branched out into adult lit, including 2020's best-selling To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. His latest book—Fractal Noise, a standalone sci-fi tale that’s part of his Fractalverse series—arrives next year, and io9 has a sneak peek today.
It’s described by publisher Tor as “a fantastic entry point into the Fractalverse, but will also delight existing fans” as well as “a tense thriller about first contact.” Here’s a brief summary of the story, followed by a look at the full cover and an excerpt!
July 25th, 2234: The crew of the Adamura discovers the Anomaly.
On the seemingly uninhabited planet Talos VII:a circular pit, 50 kilometers wide.
Its curve not of nature, but design.
Now, a small team must land and journey on foot across the surface to learn who built the hole and why.
But they all carry the burdens of lives carved out on disparate colonies in the cruel cold of space.
For some the mission is the dream of the lifetime, for others a risk not worth taking, and for one it is a desperate attempt to find meaning in an uncaring universe.
Each step they take toward the mysterious abyss is more punishing than the last.
And the ghosts of their past follow.
Here’s the full cover—the artist is Ufuk Kaya—followed by the excerpt.
A soft beep woke Alex.
He started and looked around, confused. The lab was as dark as before. Nothing had changed.
He scraped a crust of dried spittle from the corner of his mouth and checked his overlays: 0214. He should have been in bed hours ago. A message alert blinked in the corner of his overlays. He tapped it.
<Hey, come see me. You’re not going to believe this. – Jonah>
Alex frowned. What was Jonah doing still up? The cartographer wasn’t a night owl. No one on the survey team was, aside from Alex. And why ask to talk? The others didn’t usually bother to interact with him, which was fine as far as Alex was concerned. Talking took too much energy.
For a long minute, he debated whether it was worth getting up. He didn’t want to, but even in his exhausted state, he was tired of being alone, and a latent curiosity pricked him.
At last he pushed himself out of the tiny chair wedged in front of the desk. The muscles in his back protested as he stood, and his left knee throbbed; the old skiing injury being its usual asshole self. For all the miracles of modern medicine, there were still some things that couldn’t be fixed. The doctors claimed nothing was wrong with the joint. It just . . . hurt. Like so much in life.
Alex took his mug of chell—now cold but still smelling of the spiced flavor—and made his way out of the dim, red-lit lab.
The main corridor was empty. His steps echoed off the gray metal, hollow and lonely, as if he were the only one left on the Adamura.
He didn’t bother buzzing when he reached the survey station; he just hit the button next to the door, and it slid open with a loud clank.
Jonah looked over from his display. The light from the holo painted his gaunt face a sickly yellow. Faint wrinkles radiated from his eyes, like the deltas of dried-out rivers. They reminded Alex of the rivers of Eidolon. He wished they didn’t.
“So you are up,” said Jonah. His voice had a tense rasp. “Computer said you were.”
“What about you?”
“Been busy. Couldn’t sleep; doesn’t matter. Come look. Got a whopper this time.” His eyes gleamed with feverish intensity.
Alex sipped the chell as he went to stand by Jonah’s shoulder. The tea stung his lips and mouth and left behind a warm glow.
Suspended in the display was an image of a flat, brown plain. Somewhere on the northern hemisphere of Talos VII, the second planet in the system, he guessed. A small dark spot lay like a drop of ink in the center of the otherwise empty landscape.
“That?” Alex asked. He pointed at the spot.
“That,” Jonah confirmed. He reached into the image and spread his hands, enlarging until the spot filled the display.
A spike of adrenaline started to cut the haze in Alex’s mind. “Shit.”
The spot wasn’t a spot. It was a hole. A perfectly circular hole.
The burning in Alex’s eyes worsened as he stared. “Are you sure it’s real? Could it be a shadow of some kind . . . a trick of the light?”
Jonah grasped the edges of the hologram and turned it, showing the landscape from all sides. The black area was definitely a hole. “I spotted it right after dinner, but I had to wait to get pictures from a different angle to be a hundred percent.”
“Could it be a sinkhole?”
Jonah snorted. “That big?”
“What’s the scale?”
“Fifty kilometers from here to here.” Jonah indicated points on opposite sides of the hole.
“You said that already.”
For once, his tone didn’t irritate Alex. A hole. A circular hole. On an uninhabited planet located almost forty light-years from the nearest colony. At least, they thought it was uninhabited. All signs had indicated Talos VII was a dead, dry planet. Unless the life was buried. Or so different as to be unrecognizable.
His armpits grew damp.
“What did Sharah say?”
“Haven’t told her yet. Ship minds need their sleep too, you know.”
“Don’t regs state—”
“I’ll report it in the morning. No point in jumping the gun until I’ve got more data.” Jonah glanced between him and the display. “Couldn’t keep it to myself, though. Had to tell someone, and you’re our resident xenobiologist. So whaddya think?”
“I . . . I don’t know.”
If the hole was an artificial structure, it would be the first concrete proof of intelligent, self-aware aliens. Oh, there had been rumors and hints, even going back before the Hutterite Expansion, but never anything substantial. Never anything obvious.
Alex swallowed as he stared into the center of the abyss. It was too large. Too perfectly symmetrical. Even with all the advances of the past few hundred years, he didn’t think humans could make a hole like that. They just didn’t have enough spare time or energy. And for what? Perfection implied seriousness of purpose, and there were only a few purposes that seemed likely: to pursue scientific research, to help fend off some existential threat, to fulfill a religious need, or to serve as a piece of art. The last two options were the most frightening. Any species that could afford to expend that amount of resources on what amounted to a nonessential project would be able to destroy every human settlement with ease, Earth included.
Perfection, then, was a warning to heed.
Vertigo unbalanced him as Jonah tilted the image. Alex clutched the edge of the display to steady himself and reassure himself he was still standing in the Adamura.
The hole terrified him. And yet he couldn’t stop looking at it. “Why didn’t we notice it sooner?”
“Too far away, and Yesha and I didn’t have the time. We’ve been swamped mapping all the moons around Samson.”
“Are you sure it’s not a sinkhole?”
“Impossible. The curve of the edge varies by less than half a meter. Won’t know the exact amount until we’re closer and we can get a better scan, but it’s not natural, I can tell you that much.”
“How deep is it?”
“Again, can’t tell. Not yet. Deep. Might be kilometers.”
The sweat under Alex’s arms increased. “Kilometers.”
“Yeah . . . If this is what it looks like—”
“Whatever the hell that is.”
Jonah persisted. “If this is what it looks like, we’re talking about one of the most important discoveries in history. Right up there with FTL. Hell, even if it is just a big hole, we’ll still get mentioned in every journal from here to Earth.”
“What? Don’t think so?”
“No, it’s just . . . If that was built, then where the fuck are the ones who built it?”
Excerpt from Christopher Paolini’s Fractal Noise reprinted with permission from Tor Publishing Group.
Fractal Noise by Christopher Paolini will be released May 16, 2023; you can pre-order a copy here.
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