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HOLLOW WORLDS (Hollow Moon #5) by Steph Bennion


COMING SOMETIME IN 2024! The final novel in the Hollow Moon series!

Ravana O'Brien, Detective Ostara Lee and young Artorius are marooned a very long way from home. Priest Taranis is reaping his twisted destiny with a new apprentice at his side. The watchers Athene and Ares are bringing their great game to a close. Dyson trees, biological skyships, space dreadnoughts, alien greys: the five systems are not big enough to contain the plot...

Read an (unedited draft) excerpt from Chapter One now!

Ravana O'Brien and crew are lost aboard a broken-hearted spaceship...

"No servermoon or navigation beacons detected," confirmed the ship. "We drift in solitude, a mirror of the void in my heart. Cosmic radiation scan confirms seventeen sources matching the natural phenomenon known as pulsars. Triangulating our location now."

"This vessel is weird," Felix said solemnly.

"It’s stupid," declared Artorius. "Spaceships don’t have hearts."

"Love is universal," Ostara told him. "Someone might even love you one day."

Incompetent mercenaries Namtar and Inari are being idiotic as always...

"Is he alright?" asked Bellona, hesitantly stepping past the groaning Inari.

"No, he is an imbecile," snapped Namtar. "I live in hope that dropping him on his head might knock a modicum of sense into him but his thick skull resists reform."

"I ain’t thick," muttered Inari, climbing to his feet. "Just big boned."

Ravana's and Ostara's friends haven't given up the search...

"We must find them!" urged Endymion. "Can we follow through the portal?"

"We should go to Fort Smith and look at the very least," Quirinus insisted.

"Back among giant spiders?" Cethlenn shivered. "Must we?"

"The Federation’s probably shot them all by now," Endymion said wryly.

And much, much more!

CHAPTER TITLES: Prologue: The wanderer returns / Flight of the phoenix / Missing presumed dead / Temple of Athene / Voyage of the tree ship / Needle in a haystack of black / Goddard City / Let them eat cake / Allies and assassins / Relative dimensions in space / Homeward bound / The moons of Shennong / Trial of a watcher / Paw-prints of the gods / Above the moon of Lingbao / The battle for Yuanshi / The secret of the other hollow moon / Falling to the end of the worlds / Epilogue: In the lap of the gods... revisited.


by Steph Bennion

The final novel in the Hollow Moon series! The first draft is complete (168,000 words) but has yet to be edited...

Ravana O'Brien, Detective Ostara Lee and young Artorius are marooned a very long way from home. Priest Taranis is reaping his twisted destiny. The watchers Athene and Ares are bringing their great game to a close...

CHAPTER ONE (excerpt)
Flight of the phoenix

RAVANA O’BRIEN TIGHTENED THE LAST ROPE. Beyond the huge green pods strapped to the roof of the space freighter, her friend Ostara was securing a second bundle of netting at the stern of the Platypus. Rising to her feet, Ravana went to the roof docking hatch and climbed down into the ship’s flight deck. A metallic groan rose from below and she froze, feeling the floor lurch. The front half of the spacecraft remained balanced precariously over the void. It was a miracle the Platypus had survived to be saved.

They had barely two hours of sunlight left before the cavern fell dark. The solar panels they had rigged outside were barely managing to recharge the ship’s fuel cells and they could not afford to run work lamps through another night. Moving carefully, Ravana ducked into the crawl tunnel at the rear of the cabin, slipped past the hatch to the stationary passenger carousel and descended the ladder into the cargo bay.

A squat grey-skinned humanoid in bright robes stood on the lowered ramp outside the airlock, gazing up at the purple and white freighter and Ravana’s handiwork on the roof. Exiting onto the ramp, she followed the grey’s stare. Dozens of voluminous pods, spherical green plant sacs harvested in a stupidly perilous spacewalk outside the cave, lay beneath a spread of cargo netting tied to mounting points once used to fit external boosters to the hull. The pods themselves clung to the fuselage with splayed tendrils lined with suckers, eerily reminiscent of the growths which long ago burst from the ship’s artificial intelligence unit and leeched through the hull. The mysterious sacs pulsed with a dim green luminescence, heavy with the silent promise of restrained power.

At the rear of the ship, near the deep gouge the Platypus had carved in the cave floor, a pair of monstrous eight-legged shapes waited patiently in the shadows. More squat humanoids stood nearby, accompanied by two of their taller auburn-headed companions who looked almost human but never said a word. The greys she could accept; the giant spiders were something else. The weavers were beasts of burden, harnessed by the aliens to haul the pods to the crash site, tamed but otherwise no different to the monsters that had erupted like an invading army on human-populated worlds. As for the giant strange fruit, they had taken nearly a month to harvest and install on the ship. The smaller, elongated plant sacs inside the cargo bay were apparently biological fuel pods, boosting the Platypus’ own hydrogen fuel cells. Those on the roof remained a mystery. Ravana had no choice but to trust their alien saviours. Nothing about their situation made sense.

“Hey, Gaffer,” called Ravana. She noted with annoyance her flight suit had gained a fresh tear and looked more grubby than ever. “I think we’re done. Though I still don’t see how these magic fruits of yours can lift the ship. Ready to demonstrate?”

“Traawk,” the grey squawked solemnly, voicing its thoughts in a restrained white-noise shriek. Translated images danced inside Ravana’s head. “Traawk traawk.”

“Of course I’m going to wait until Ostara is off the roof!” she retorted. “Do I look reckless? I didn’t crash the ship on purpose, you know.”

The figure looked towards her. Ravana stared into her own reflection within its dark, almond-shaped eyes. She had grown up with stories of the legendary greys of Epsilon Eridani, the humanoid aliens with inverted triangular heads, odd scaly skin and six-fingered hands who haunted the forests of her home moon of Yuanshi. She had been just six Terran years old when she stumbled upon a wounded grey, wrapped in blood-soaked rags and trembling in fear, hiding in a vine-shrouded hollow near the wreckage of a spacecraft. Now she was here, lost in far bigger cave at the edge of the alien’s own strange world, relying on a grey they called Gaffer, a clutch of other alien beings and two tame weavers to salvage her own crashed ship. Within Gaffer’s gaze, the reflection of her dark-haired half-Indian, half-Australian features looked too haggard for someone a few months short of her eighteenth birthday. The grey skin of her old scars taunted her. She was the alien here.

Ahead of the grounded Platypus, the cave opened into space. Millions of kilometres away, a blazing orange star shone upon her new strange world. Outside, gigantic crooked limbs reached into the void, the boughs of a living structure adorned with huge ovals of green wrapped in mist. Incredibly, it was a tree in space, a living organism hundreds of kilometres wide. The cavern was an opening in one mighty bough, hundreds of metres wide with rippling walls of thick, interwoven green and brown vines that felt warm to the touch. Near the mouth of the cave, sweet-smelling flowers of white, yellow and pink added a splash of colour, nurtured by colourful yet bizarre multi-winged insects drifting lazily amidst the blooms. A gentle breeze wafted from the seemingly endless tunnel stretching back into the dark heart of the strange alien world. Photosynthesis brought breathable air and there was gravity around half that of Earth’s, allowing them to breath and move normally outside the ship. Ravana was convinced the living structure had been engineered, a creation of advanced alien science able to manipulate biology the way humans shaped steel.

At the stern of the Platypus, Ostara slipped down a knotted rope and dropped to the ground, raising another horrible groan from the grounded ship. A slim Chinese woman in her mid-twenties, she was Ravana’s oldest and dearest friend. Ostara’s habitual chirpiness had been severely knocked following the crash but over the last few days a twinkle had returned to her eyes. Trailing her was another grey, who in turn was being shadowed by the mistrustful Smiler, a cyberclone sabre-toothed tiger with steel tusk-like canines, dented body panels and an AI personality with the arrogance of a sports coach. The fearsome robot had become part of their entourage during their previous adventure on Avalon.

“This won’t work,” declared Ostara, as she approached. “Flying fruit!? How on Frigg are those pods supposed to lift the Platypus off the ledge?”

“Because they’re magic alien fruits,” said Ravana, trying to keep her own doubts from her voice. “Did you see how the greys make them hover with just a touch? Biological quantum trickery, maybe. They reckon they’ll somehow help support the weight. Besides, we’ll be using the ship’s manoeuvring thrusters too. The low gravity should help.”

“Traawk traawk,” agreed the grey. “Traawk traawk.”

“See? Gaffer agrees,” said Ravana. “Have you seen Artorius?”

“He’s with his alien buddies up on the ledge,” replied Ostara, irritably batting away a large winged insect. “Probably telling them how he next plans to drop us all in trouble. It’s creepy the way you and he know what the greys are saying. Smiler and I feel a bit left out.”

“I reject the notion,” interjected the robot. The cyberclone’s cheery yet condescending male tones were irritating at the best of times. “I have no desire to process emotion. Nor have I been programmed to attempt communication with those creatures.”

Ravana grinned. She raised her gaze to the cavern wall, where a broad natural shelf overlooked the ship. A young blond boy in dirty overalls sat with a group of greys. She and nine-year-old Artorius had brain implants, devices which allowed users to operate and communicate with external data systems using thought alone. Whilst held prisoner of the grey-worshipping Dhusarian Church, Artorius had been coerced into helping develop a translator for the aliens’ white-noise shrieks, an implant application which projected images into a user’s mind’s eye. The greys, on the other hand, appeared to have no problems understanding English. Ravana turned to Gaffer, the friendly grey who had arrived to help them after they dared to emerge from the downed ship and breath the alien air.

“No time like the present,” she said hesitantly. “Ready to step aboard?”

“Traawk,” shrieked the grey. “Traawk.”

“Ostara, you’d better make yourself scarce,” said Ravana, glancing to her friend. “Smiler, you too. You know, just in case the ship explodes or topples off the edge.”

Ostara grimaced. “Good luck.”

Ravana managed a wry grin. With Gaffer beside her, she strode up the ramp back into the ship, feigning a confidence that did not match a head full of doubts.

* * *

Ravana dropped into the pilot’s chair and ran her fingers across the controls. In her mind, she mentally prodded the purple icon of a duck-billed Platypus, her link to the ship’s AI. Hums and clicks filled the flight deck as systems came to life. The floor quivered beneath her seat, reminding her of the ship’s predicament. More repairs were needed before they had any chance of departing but little could be done until the Platypus was safe.

“Ship?” she called. “How are pre-launch checks going?”

“Captain Ravana, the main reactor has exhausted fuel reserves,” reported the AI in smooth female tones. “Flight systems are running on auxiliary power only. Extra-dimensional and main plasma drives are not available. There is a hole in my heart where my beloved offered his soul which alas cannot be healed. The ship remains unstable and urgent remedial action is required. Recommendation is for crew to evacuate and…”

“Yes, I know that bit,” interrupted Ravana. “We’re going to try and lift the ship. Prepare for a zero-gravity vertical ascent, manoeuvring thrusters only.”

“Traawk,” screeched the grey. “Traawk traawk?”

“The Platypus fell in love with another ship called the Woomerberg,” Ravana said wryly. “We had quite an emotional time on Avalon. Ship, are you ready?”

“Captain Ravana, sensors do not detect a microgravity environment.”

“Just do it!” she snapped. “Gaffer here has a plan.”

The grey reached for the co-pilot’s console and began tapping the controls in a six-fingered blur. Startled, Ravana stopped what she was doing.

“Hey, Gaffer! What are you doing to my ship?”

“Traawk traawk?”

“Okay, my father’s ship,” she conceded. “The question still stands!”

“Manoeuvring thrusters primed,” said the AI, sounding miffed. “On your head be it.”

“Traawk,” shrieked the grey. “Traawk traawk traawk!”

Ravana watched as Gaffer placed both hands on an exposed strip of hull, either side of where Artorius had stuck the alien orb stolen from Fort Smith. The glistening apple-sized navigation device, a gift from a grey called Nana to Ravana seemingly a lifetime ago, still glowed but only dimly and the dark pin-pricks within had not moved. The grey’s eyes slowly closed as if in concentration. Ravana heard a metallic groan, then a series of loud creaks from the netting attached to the hull. The nose of the Platypus began to rise.

“What the hell…?” she murmured.

More groans reverberated through the ship. Ravana stared through the flight-deck windows in amazement. Something was pulling the freighter level as they balanced on the edge of the abyss. A flex of her mental link with the ship brought up an exterior view on a console holovid, looking rearwards along the hull from the bow. The green pods, straining upwards beneath the netting, pulsated with a vivid green glow. The whole ship was lifting, rising slowly from the cave floor. For the first time in weeks, the Platypus was airborne.

“How are you doing that?” gasped Ravana. The flight systems showed none of the freighter’s thrusters were firing. “It’s impossible!”

“Traawk traawk,” murmured the grey, eyes still tightly closed.

“Those green pods?” she asked, disbelievingly. “They produce thrust? But how?”

“Traawk!” hissed the grey. “Traawk!”

Ravana nodded and hurriedly reached for the controls. A short pulse from the forward thrusters sent the Platypus gliding smoothly backwards, deeper into the cave. She breathed a sigh of relief as the edge of the cavern mouth slipped into view beyond the windscreen, revealing the deep gouge where the freighter had ground to a halt. The Platypus continued to drift back, away from those outside watching and the beastly spiders she could not believe were tame. A blast from thrusters at the rear brought them to a hovering halt.

“Ship?” she called. “Are we clear to deploy the landing gear?”

“We are being held stationary at an altitude of eight point five metres,” the ship replied with a note of bewilderment. “I am unable to detect why we are not falling.”

“Traawk,” grunted Gaffer, with eyes still closed. Beads of sweat were gathering on the grey’s brow. “Traawk traawk traawk.”

Pictures flickered in her mind’s eye; a hollow plant sac filled with vibrating filaments rightly too small to see. It was a concept Ravana dimly recognised from engineering studies, known to human science but to her knowledge never developed for real. The harvested pods were biological vacuum chambers, laced with vibrating nanoscopic hairs able to create short-lived particles from the raw quantum soup, firing within to generate momentum. The Platypus was being lifted by organic engines, drawing power from the cells in the cargo bay but needing no propellent. The fruit pods grew outside the strange tree in space. The alien beings who created this world had given it a means to fly.

“Grey power,” murmured Ravana. “This place gets freakier by the day.”

She pressed the switch to lower the freighter’s undercarriage. A buzzer sounded and a light flashed, warning that the front starboard wheel assembly had stuck. She heard a metallic groan, a sudden bang and the warnings fell silent.

“Undercarriage deployed,” reported the AI.

“Gaffer, bring us down,” said Ravana. “You’ve done a grand job.”

“Traawk,” squawked the grey, sounding relieved.

The Platypus began to descend. With a barrage of more familiar groans from the landing gear, the ship settled to the ground. Gaffer let go of the hull and sank back in the co-pilot’s seat, looking drained. On the camera display, the glow of the pods was fading.

“Well, we may be lost and far from home, but at least we’ve stopped the ship toppling into the abyss,” declared Ravana, relieved. “Gaffer, fancy a cup of tea?”

* * *

The Platypus had entered the strange cavern not from space, but from within. Though hard to comprehend, the space tree was an extra-dimensional construct: a living network of tunnels linked to portals on faraway worlds, engineered on a truly colossal scale by beings that were to humanity like people were to frogs. All Ravana knew for sure was the Platypus had dropped through an alien portal on the moon of Avalon in the Alpha Centauri system, been swept to a strange alien construct in the outer Solar System beyond Neptune, then in a botched attempt to escape had ended up here. She was still not sure where here was.

Three days had passed since bringing the Platypus back from the edge. Ravana was pleased with the progress made in fixing the damage sustained in the crash. Ostara had helped where she could but had no engineering knowledge whatsoever. Smiler proved surprisingly adaptable, boasting paws with opposable thumbs which could manipulate tools as well as any human, not to mention a wide range of diagnostic software that the cyberclone’s previous owner had loaded into memory. Ravana just wished there was some way of switching off the robot's propensity for disparaging remarks.

Artorius, the fourth member of their crew, had put in no effort at all. Instead he spent his days exploring the cave, obsessed with the alien greys. They had appeared in their dozens when the Platypus first arrived, along with the taller auburn-headed humanoids and others who looked neither one nor the other. They departed soon after, then Gaffer and three other greys arrived, riding astride two of the enormous freaky spiders which still gave Ravana nightmares. To her delight, the aliens had come to help.

The greys had a camp somewhere in the darkness behind them. The crew of the Platypus had until now slept out on the moss-covered cave floor, inside a crude tent Ostara had fashioned from cargo crates and canvas. The flying insects did not bite, but being buzzed by what looked like a silvery blue dragonfly the size of a rat was not conducive to a good night’s rest. Now the Platypus was safe, Ostara and Smiler had dismantled their camp and reloaded their supplies aboard the freighter. Ravana was not the only one heartily sick of zero-gravity ration packs. She was looking forward to a good hot meal from the ship’s food molecularisor and being able to sleep aboard without fear of toppling to their doom.

The distant sun had slipped from view, leaving the black velvet night to the tiny twin purple discs of its mysterious companies amidst a sprinkle of stars. Ravana had spent the day inside dusty maintenance hatches, tracing faults and repairing a power conduit which had shorted against a chassis beam and blown the main fuses. Ostara, having prepared a feast from the food molecularisor, was preparing a picnic at the bottom of the cargo bay ramp. Smiler sauntered back from the solar panel array, newly recharged. The smell of freshly cooked food soon brought Artorius trotting back to the Platypus.

“Hello stranger,” Ravana said coolly. “Any chance of helping with repairs?”

“My hand hurts,” the boy replied sulkily, snatching the plate of synthesised chicken offered by Ostara. A sadistic nurse once broke his finger, which he used as an excuse to avoid work. “Not my fault we crashed! We should have gone to the greys in the asteroid.”

“The Robert Goddard?” remarked Ravana. The asteroid he spoke of was an Earth colony ship, missing for more than a century, which turned out to be lost inside the extra-dimensional maze that ensnared their own ship. “That’s where Taranis went! His people locked you up on Falsafah and came for you in Fort Smith. That’s not very friendly.”

“My friends are the greys,” he grumbled. “I hate you!”

“Artorius!” snapped Ostara. She scowled as a green winged insect the size of her fist buzzed past her ear, making her jump. “Don’t talk to Ravana like that!”

“I hate you all,” Artorius said irritably. “Except Smiler. Robot tigers are cool.”

“You are a rude little boy,” remarked the cyberclone. “The compliment is noted.”

“It’s been a trying time for us all,” said Ravana, sighing. “Artorius, we’re having a chat shortly to discuss what to do next. One of your alien friends is coming,” she added, when her words failed to elicit a response. “Please don’t go wandering off.”

Artorius stuck out his tongue, grabbed a bowl of reconstituted potato chips and stomped down the cargo bay ramp. Ravana watched him skulk away across the cavern to Gaffer and the other greys. One of the aliens had climbed onto a weaver’s back and was riding away into the depths of the cave. Ostara offered Ravana a consolatory hug.

“It’s all his fault,” she declared. “We wouldn’t have been in Alpha Centauri at all if he hadn’t needed rescuing again. And it was him who used that alien gizmo to suck us into the portal. We should have left Commander Kedesh to do her damn mission alone.”

“They probably think we’re dead,” Ravana said mournfully, thinking of her father and Endymion, the boy who had wormed his way into her affections. Her hand went to the slim data rod hanging from a silver chain around her neck, his gift to her. “We left them behind on Avalon surrounded by weavers. I hope they got away okay.”

“We’ll see them again, don’t worry,” said Ostara. “And you need to eat something.”

“Give me five minutes. I need to ask the ship something first.”

Ignoring Ostara’s mystified stare, Ravana returned to the cargo bay and made her way through the crawl tunnel to the flight deck. The ship’s AI had lost its database connection in the crash, which today she had finally managed to repair. To her annoyance and relief, it was just a plug which had jolted loose, having not been properly secured by the apprentices who serviced the ship in Alpha Centauri.

Ravana ran her hands affectionately along the curving console before the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seat. Aside from restarting the fusion reactor at the heart of the extra-dimensional drive, repairs were complete. The reactor had exhausted its fuel of helium-three, leaving them with no way of making interstellar jumps. Unfortunately, the ED drive also served to link the ship’s transceiver to the five-systems servermoon network, which meant that even if within range they had no way of calling home. Furthermore, the reactor powered the interplanetary plasma drive and recharged the fuel cells, though the ship’s hull was able to absorb sunlight like the solar panels. Nevertheless, Gaffer’s demonstration of what alien technology could do had raised Ravana’s spirits. She was not ready to give up just yet.

“Ship?” she called, taking her seat. “Your database should be online. Please confirm.”

“Captain Ravana, my memory is restored,” confirmed the AI. “The void grows where my darling was torn away. I yearn for the day we are reunited. How may I assist today?”

“Now you’ve got your navigation charts back, I need you to work out where we are,” said Ravana. “Check for radio signals, local broadcasts, anything. Maybe even that beacon we launched after we dropped through the portal from Avalon. If there’s nothing, scan for pulsars and triangulate our position. Ostara said you did that when we were stuck on that freaky giant chessboard. Can you do that?”

“A pleasure to be of service,” purred the AI. “Running wide-spectrum scans now.”

“Much appreciated.” Ravana rose from her seat, then paused. “Ship?”

“Yes, Captain Ravana?”

“Can you feel those, err… things on the roof?” she asked. “The alien tree fruits?”

“As you are aware, the biological core of my AI unit merged with my hull,” replied the ship. “I have detected the presence of the artefacts you refer to. The non-human you call Gaffer used my biological matrix to activate the behaviour witnessed. I have a full recording of sensor readings should you require further analysis.”

“Could you replicate it?” she asked hesitantly. “Control the pods yourself?”

“I can synthesise the same signals, yes. It would require some experimentation.”

“Good to know. Let me know when you have our location.”

Beyond the flight-deck windows, Ostara was anxiously swatting away a huge flying insect keen to investigate their picnic. Deep in thought, Ravana returned to the cargo bay. She did not need the AI’s findings to know they were a long way from home. At this point in the late twenty-third century, humans had colonised worlds in Alpha Centauri, Barnard’s Star, Epsilon Eridani, Tau Ceti and across their home Solar System. Nowhere in the five systems had a sun with two brown dwarf companions like those shining upon the cave.

* * *

[End of excerpt from the novel HOLLOW WORLDS.]

I've finally finished the first draft! To date (February), I have seventeen chapters (168,000 words) and a LOT of editing ahead. I hope to be ready to publish in the second half of 2024...


Book 1
Book 2
Book 3
Book 4
Book 5
Main Sequence
Intro Anthology