The Borderland of Sol

The Borderland of Sol

"The Borderland of Sol" is an English language science fiction novelette written in 1975 by Larry Niven. It is the fifth in the Known Space series of stories about crashlander Beowulf Shaeffer.

The story was originally published in "Analog", January 1975, printed in the collection "Tales of Known Space", Niven, Del Ray, reissued 1985 (ISBN 0-345-33469-8), and reprinted in "Crashlander", Larry Niven, New York: Ballantine, 1994, pp. 160-207 (ISBN 0-345-38168-8). The story won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 1976 and was nominated for the Locus Poll Award for Best Novelette in 1976.

It includes some solid science as well as 'space opera'. It is one of the earliest works of fiction to feature a black hole.

Segments of the novel "Fleet of Worlds" serve as a prequel to the story.

Plot summary

Beowulf Shaeffer, attempting to return to Earth after two years away from his love, Sharrol Janss, instead finds himself stranded on Jinx. Ship disappearances around Sol system made the captain of Shaeffer’s ship change his course for Jinx. After three months of wandering around the habitable bands and the East End vacuum region, even Shaeffer the born tourist finds that tourism has palled.

Unexpectedly Shaeffer finds Carlos Wu in the Institute of Knowledge staring at the Kdatlyno touch sculptor Lloobee’s Heroes, the touch sculpture he created to describe his kidnapping at the hands of Larchmont Bellamy and his crew of bored, adventure-seeking flatlanders. Carlos is equally surprised to see him, expecting Shaeffer to have returned to Earth and Sharrol by now, and wanting to absent himself from Earth due to his embarrassment at fathering Sharrol's two children, Tanya and Louis. Shaeffer, however, is nothing but grateful for Carlos's help – he and Sharrol had both wanted children but Earth’s Fertility Board denied him, an albino, a parenthood license. Sharrol, having the Flatland Phobia, could not leave Earth, so they had asked Carlos, an old friend and a registered genius with an unlimited parenthood license, for help.

When Carlos tells Bey that he has been offered a ride to Sol system by Sigmund Ausfaller of the Bureau of Alien Affairs, Shaeffer is concerned. They meet Ausfaller at the Camelot Bar in downtown Sirius Mater; Carlos to ask Ausfaller if Bey can accompany them to Earth and Shaeffer to convince Ausfaller not to take Carlos on the dangerous journey with him. Ausfaller points out that of the eight ships that disappeared, only two were incoming, the other six were outgoing; also, his ship "Hobo Kelly" is deceptively designed, seeming to be a cargo and passenger ship but in reality a warship capable of 30 g’s of acceleration, guided missiles, an X-ray laser and smaller laser cannons. Ausfaller’s stake in this is that alien passengers were aboard some of the vessels that disappeared; it is his bureau’s function to maintain good relations between Earth and alien races in known space.

When Shaeffer asks if Ausfaller is sure he wants him on his ship, he tells Bey that he wants the chance to pick his brain about his knowledge of Pierson's Puppeteers and other alien races. Shaeffer has interacted with puppeteers twice, the first time being when Ausfaller planted a bomb on his ship, the "Skydiver", to prevent Shaeffer from stealing it. After he returned from neutron star BVS-1 Shaeffer blackmailed the puppeteers; with what, Ausfaller still doesn’t know. Shaeffer was also involved in the Core exploration mission that resulted in all puppeteers disappearing from known space. But Ausfaller is most impressed by Shaeffer’s handling of the Lloobee kidnapping, which returned the Kdatlyno unharmed and left him free to expose the kidnappers in his own way, restoring Kdatlyno honor; otherwise the Kdatlyno would have been annoyed. Shaeffer notices that Carlos is impressed; it takes a lot to impress Carlos Wu. Carlos tries to convince Shaeffer to come along. Shaeffer is still skeptical but that night he finds a tape in his room from Sharrol with pictures of the children, the home she’s found them in the Twin Peaks arcology, and much more. Shaeffer calls Ausfaller to tell him he’s going.

The journey to Earth from Jinx is uneventful. Shaeffer, Wu and Ausfaller discuss subjects such as music and art, Shaeffer told Carlos why Lloobee made busts of him and Emil Horne and of the only time a puppeteer had paid out the indemnity on a General Products hull, when it had been damaged by antimatter in the Fast Protosun system when he traveled there with Elephant. But they keep wondering what might have happened to the ships around Sol. Shaeffer decided it was either Kzinti, puppeteers, and humans. Carlos was unconvinced about puppeteers unless they could make ships disappear from a distance. The kzinti have probably learned their lesson about preying on humans. And that left humans, if it was pirates.

Suddenly, about ten minutes from breakout, the ship lurches savagely. They find themselves in normal space. Shaeffer activates the hidden panel and "Hobo Kelly" is revealed as a Number 2 General Products hull, heavily armed and equipped with instruments, primed for action. Ausfaller is enraged that their cover is exposed, but he begins using ship instruments to study the surroundings. They find three ships, tugs, which are neither pursuing or fleeing them. Turning toward Sol, they continue on their way home. Checking the hyperdrive, Shaeffer finds that it's — missing. Not broken, not shattered, but completely gone from the motor cavity. It gives Carlos the giggles, annoying Shaeffer. The cables and mounts for the motor are sheared so cleanly they look like mirrors. Carlos uses the ship’s hyperwave to get information from Elephant’s computer setup in New York with a special access code Elephant doesn’t give to many people. He requested (1) information on the Tunguska meteorite; (2) a reprise of the three cosmological models of the origin of the universe, the Big Bang, the cyclic, and the Steady State theories; (3) data on collapsars, or black holes ; (4) the names and contact information for the best-known students of gravitational phenomena in Sol system. Shaeffer has no idea what he’s after, and Carlos wasn’t telling.

Ausfaller has also contacted Ceres Station to get the registry of the tugs they spotted. He studies deep-radar images of the tugs, seeing nothing unusual, but he is sure his career is over now that he has failed to discover why ships have been disappearing. Shaeffer tells him that Carlos knows something about what happened; the trouble will be getting it out of him. When Carlos appears, hours later after sleeping, he tells them he has an idea what happened to the ships, and what’s causing the effect. To Ausfaller’s urgent questions he says that the ships and their passengers are gone without even bodies to bury. They are fighting a gravitational effect, but he won’t say what he thinks is producing it.

When information on the tugs finally arrives, it turns out they were purchased by the Sixth Congregational Church of Rodney, a deliberate thumb of the nose to anyone trying to inquire after them. Carlos tells Shaeffer Belters often do that as a way of saying it’s nobody’s business who bought the tugs. Information for Carlos arrives shortly thereafter. On of the students of gravitational theory listed is Dr. Julian Forward, a researcher Carlos knows and has wanted to meet. Carlos wants to call him, but both Ausfaller and Shaeffer are being cautious. Forward might be responsible for the ship disappearances. However, Ausfaller gives the go-ahead if his name is kept out of the conversation. Carlos and Forward talk, as it turns out he is anxious to talk to Carlos as well. They discuss the disappearing hyperdrive motor. Forward invites them to Forward Station to wait for a ferry to Earth. They agree even though Forward Station is right where the ship-eater ought to be, which amuses Carlos even more.

Ausfaller agrees that Carlos and Bey can go to Forward Station; if Forward is the ship eater, he may be setting a trap, but he doesn’t know what they know. And Ausfaller can prepare them for any hostile actions on Forward’s part. He makes them suits with special buttons on the front of their tunics: the top and bottom buttons had a length of Sinclair monofilament between them able to cut through almost any normal substance; the second button is Power Pill, a commercial stimulant; the third button was a sonic grenade capable of killing at a ten-foot range and stunning at thirty. Their suits were of three-layer material, the middle layer an almost perfect mirror that would reflect even X-rays. Ausfaller also gave them earplugs that would allow normal hearing but would stop loud sounds such as an explosion or sonic stunners. They were now prepared to meet Forward, with Ausfaller staying on board Hobo Kelly in case he proved hostile.

They meet with Forward and see his prize possession, the Grabber: a huge arm-and-bucket contraption that Forward tells them is for manipulating large, dense masses. The electromagnetic assembly in the cradle lets him modulate the ultradense masses to produce polarized gravitational waves. When Bey asks what the point is, Forward tells him they can be used for establishing communications with alien races who may not have hyperwave.

Carlos and Forward begin a cat-and-mouse game over the disappearance of the hyperdrive motor. When Forward asks why Carlos thinks it happened, Carlos promptly answers pirates. They discuss what might have caused it – a black holes, a powerful gravity generator, and branch off into how the universe might have begun. It was all making Shaeffer uneasy. Forward wasn’t reacting the way Carlos was expecting him to, and there were the mining tugs and what Ausfaller might do if they showed up in his vicinity. Finally Carlos mentions the test mass that Forward had been using with the Grabber, a ten-billion metric ton mass of neutronium enclosed in a stasis field. It might have been able to generate the necessary gravity gradient. Forward agrees, but only near the surface and it wasn’t very big at all. He then asks if Carlos ever heard of quantum black holes. When Carlos says yes, Forward says, “Wrong answer” and takes them captive, knocking Carlos unconscious in the process.

Forward and his assistant Harry "Angel" Moskowitz, tie them to the central pillar of the Grabber, then Forward orders the pilots of the mining tugs to destroy Hobo Kelly. Carlos is awake and Forward tells them that he’d found the quantum black hole just before the Institute of Knowledge cut off his funding. He had been looking for the Tunguska meteorite, which he believed to be a quantum black hole. He brought it back to the Station and fed the neutronium sphere into it, then played the exhaust of an old ion drive reaction motor over it for a month until it had a tremendous charge (in effect, converting the quantum black hole into a Reissner-Nordström black hole) and could be dragged by the mining tugs.

They see the exhausts of the mining tugs, and suddenly Forward asks if someone else is in Carlos’ ship. Carlos doesn’t say but the ship positions itself between the tugs and the dome they are in, preventing the tugs from firing without damaging the dome. Only a human pilot would think of that. Shaeffer knows that Ausfaller can’t know about the quantum black hole; to him it will seem as if the tugs are approaching, unarmed. He waits to see if Ausfaller will fire on unarmed ships. He does, destroying two of them before the third one flees. Meanwhile, with his arms tied to the pillar but his feet still free, and them in microgravity, Shaeffer begins removing his ship slippers.

Forward takes over the controls from Angel. The black hole is now loose, moving towards them. If Forward can catch it in the Grabber… if not, it will destroy the Station dome. Ausfaller has moved away, correctly fearing some type of trap. Forward moves the Grabber and manages to catch the black hole. For the moment jubilant, Forward and Angel turn their attention to Hobo Kelly and the unknown pilot who is now returning, presumably to rescue Carlos and Shaeffer.

With his ship slippers off, Shaeffer reaches up with his toes (flatlanders are less than limber) and pulls the top and bottom buttons off his tunic top, releasing the monofilament thread. Moving his legs back down, he pushes the thread through the pillar they are tied to, and pulls it back, then kicks to dislodge it. It turns out Forward had tied them to the main superconducting cable for the Grabber, which was probably a mistake. Lightning flared around his feet and the Grabber stopped moving. Without power to maintain the black hole in the Grabber it is one again free and it destroys part of the Grabber and the Station’s dome. Angel, not held back by a seat belt, is pulled into it and disappears. The hole and Forward Station continue to fall toward their centers of mass. Carlos and Bey, still tied to the central pillar, are kept from falling into the hole, but Forward adjusts some dials on his console then moves away from it and falls into the hole. The hole settles into the floor of the dome as fusion light above them announces Ausfaller’s arrival in Hobo Kelly.

With the dome breached the air is deadly thin but not entirely gone. Ausfaller arrives and transports them back to the Hobo Kelly. He intends to return and search the dome but Carlos says to run. When they’re far enough away Carlos has him stop and turn back to view the asteroid. The black hole is eating away at the asteroid, chewing out channels of its mass as it moves back and forth within the volume of the rock. When Ausfaller wonders what’s going on Shaeffer tells him that Forward had a hole in his pocket. Carlos comments that he probably turned up the air pressure so someone (Carlos and Shaeffer) would be alive to remember him. They watch as the quantum black hole collapses the asteroid and it disappears in a searing blast of light.


* According to the afterward Niven wrote for this story in the collection "Playgrounds of the Mind", the character Julian Forward is named in honor of science fiction author Robert Forward.
* Niven originally pitched this story as an episode of "" in 1973, but it was rejected by D. C. Fontana. They bought his story "The Soft Weapon" instead which was produced as "The Slaver Weapon".

ee also

*"Neutron Star", the first story in the Beowulf Shaeffer series
*"At the Core", the second story in the series
*"Flatlander", the third story in the series
*"Grendel", the fourth story in the series
*"Procrustes", the sixth story in the series
*"Ghost", the framing story in the collection "Crashlander
*"Fly-By-Night", the seventh story in the series, written after "Crashlander

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