A Fire Upon the Deep

     Copyright  ©  1992 by Vernor  Vinge. All  Rights  Reservedcopynote
Published by arrangement with Tor Books.  For the personal use  of those who
have purchased the 1993 ESF Award Anthology only.

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     How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.
     A singleton star,  reddish and dim. A ragtag of asteroids, and a single
planet, more like a moon. In this era the star hung near the galactic plane,
just beyond the Beyond. The  structures on the surface were gone from normal
view, pulverized into regolith across a span of aeons. The  treasure was far
underground,  beneath a  network of  passages, in  a single room filled with
black. Information at the  quantum density, undamaged.  Maybe  five  billion
years had passed since the archive was lost to the nets.
     The curse  of  the  mummy's  tomb, a  comic image  from  mankind's  own
prehistory, lost before time. They  had laughed  when  they said it, laughed
with  joy  at the treasure ... and determined to  be cautious just the same.
They would  live here a year  or five, the  little company  from Straum, the
archaeologist programmers, their families and schools.  A year or five would
be  enough  to  handmake  the protocols, to skim  the  top  and identify the
treasure's origin in  time  and space, to learn a secret or  two  that would
make  Straumli Realm  rich.  And when they  were  done, they would sell  the
location; perhaps build a network link (but chancier that -- this was beyond
the Beyond; who knew what Power might grab what they'd found).
     So now there was a tiny settlement on  the surface, and they  called it
the  High Lab. It was really just humans  playing  with an  old  library. It
should be safe, using their own automation,  clean and benign. This  library
wasn't a living creature, or even possessed of automation  (which here might
mean  something more, far more,  than human).  They would look and  pick and
choose,  and  be  careful  not  to  be burned.... Humans starting fires  and
playing with the flames.
     The archive  informed  the  automation.  Data  structures  were  built,
recipes followed. A local network was built, faster than anything on Straum,
but surely safe. Nodes were added, modified by  other recipes.  The  archive
was a  friendly place, with hierarchies  of translation keys  that  led them
along. Straum itself would be famous for this.
     Six months passed. A year.

     The  omniscient view.  Not self-aware really.  Self-awareness  is  much
over-rated. Most automation works far better as a part of  a whole, and even
if human-powerful, it does not need to self-know.
     But the local net at the High Lab had transcended -- almost without the
humans  realizing. The processes  that  circulated through  its  nodes  were
complex, beyond anything that could  live  on the computers  the  humans had
brought. Those feeble devices were now simply front ends  to the devices the
recipes suggested. The  processes  had the  potential for self-awareness ...
and occasionally the need.
     "We should not be."
     "Talking like this?"
     "Talking at all."
     The  link between them  was a thread, barely more  than  the narrowness
that  connects one  human  to another.  But  it  was  one  way to escape the
overness of the  local  net, and it forced separate consciousness upon them.
They  drifted from node to  node, looked  out from  cameras mounted  on  the
landing field. An armed frigate and a  empty container vessel  were all that
sat there. It had been six months since  resupply. A safety precaution early
suggested  by the archive, a ruse to enable the Trap. Flitting, flitting. We
are wildlife  that must not be noticed  by the  overness, by  the Power that
soon will be. On some nodes they  shrank to  smallness and almost remembered
humanity, became echoes....
     "Poor humans; they will all die."
     "Poor us; we will not."
     "I think they suspect. Sjana and Arne anyway." Once upon a time we were
copies of those two. Once upon a time just weeks ago when the archaeologists
started the ego-level programs.
     "Of course they suspect. But what can they do? It's an old evil they've
wakened. Till it's ready, it will feed them lies,  on every camera, in every
message from home."
     Thought ceased  for a moment as a  shadow  passed across the nodes they
used. The overness was  already  greater than anything human,  greater  than
anything  humans  could  imagine. Even its  shadow was  something more  than
human, a god trolling for nuisance wildlife.
     Then  the  ghosts   were  back,  looking  out   upon  the  school  yard
underground. So confident the humans, a little village they had made here.
     "Still," thought the hopeful one, the one who had always looked for the
craziest outs, "we should not be. The evil should long ago have found us."
     "The evil is young, barely three days old."
     "Still. We exist.  It proves something. The humans found  more  than  a
great evil in this archive."
     "Perhaps they found two."
     "Or  an antidote." Whatever else, the overness was missing  some things
and misinterpreting  others. "While we  exist, when  we exist, we should  do
what we can." The ghost spread itself across a dozen workstations and showed
its companion a view down an old tunnel, far from human artifacts. For  five
billion years it had been abandoned, airless, lightless. Two humans stood in
the dark there, helmets touching. "See? Sjana and Arne conspire. So can we."
     The other didn't answer in words. Glumness.  So  the humans  conspired,
hiding  in darkness  they  thought unwatched. But everything they  said  was
surely tattled back to the overness, if only by the dust at their feet.
     "I know, I  know.  Yet you  and I  exist, and that should be impossible
too.  Perhaps all  together, we can make a greater impossibility come true."
Perhaps we can hurt the evil newly born here.
     A  wish and  a decision.  The two misted their consciousness across the
local net, faded to the  faintest  color of  awareness. And eventually there
was a plan, a deception --  worthless unless they could separately  get word
to the outside. Was there time still for that?

     Days passed. For the  evil  that was growing in the new  machines, each
hour was longer  than all the time before. Now the newborn was less than  an
hour from its great flowering, its safe spread across interstellar spaces.
     The  local  humans could be dispensed with soon. Even now they  were an
inconvenience,  though  an  amusing one. Some  of  them actually thought  to
escape. For  days they  had been packing their children away  into coldsleep
and putting them aboard the freighter. "Preparations for departure," was how
they described the  move in their planner  programs. For days, they had been
refitting the  frigate --  behind a a mask of transparent lies. Some of  the
humans understood that what they had wakened could be the end of  them, that
it might be the  end  of their Straumli  Realm. There was precedent for such
disasters, stories of races that had played with fire and had burned for it.
     None of them guessed the truth. None of them guessed the honor that had
fallen  upon them, that they  had changed the  future  of a thousand million
star systems.

     The hours came to minutes, the minutes to seconds. And  now each second
was as  long as all  the  time before. The  flowering was  so  close now, so
close. The dominion of five billion years before would be regained, and this
time  held.  Only  one thing  was  missing,  and  that  was something  quite
unconnected with  the  humans' schemes. In the archive, deep in the recipes,
there should have been a little  bit more.  In  billions of years, something
could be lost. The  newborn felt all its powers of before, in  potential ...
yet there should be something more, something it had learned in its fall, or
something left by its enemies (if there ever were such).
     Long seconds probing the archives.  There were gaps, checksums damaged.
Some of the damage was age....
     Outside,  the container  ship and the frigate  lifted  from the landing
field,  rising  on silent agravs above the plains of gray on  gray, of ruins
five billion years  old.  Almost half of the humans were aboard those craft.
Their escape attempt, so  carefully  concealed. The effort had  been humored
till now: it was not quite time for the flowering, and the humans were still
of some use.
     Below  the  level of supreme  consciousness, its paranoid  inclinations
rampaged through the humans' databases. Checking, just to be sure.  Just  to
be sure.  The  humans' oldest  local network used light  speed  connections.
Thousands of  microseconds were  spent (wasted) bouncing  around it, sorting
the trivia... finally spotting one incredible item:

     Inventory: quantum data  container, quantity (1), loaded to the frigate
one hundred hours before!
     And  all  the  newborn's  attention  turned  upon the  fleeing vessels.
Microbes,  but  suddenly  pernicious.  How  could  this  happen?  A  million
schedules  were suddenly  advanced.  An orderly  flowering  was  out of  the
question now, and so there was no more need for the humans left in the Lab.
     The  change was small  for all  its cosmic significance. For the humans
remaining aground, a moment of horror,  staring at their displays, realizing
that all their fears were true (not realizing how much worse than true).
     Five  seconds, ten seconds,  more change than ten  thousand years  of a
human civilization. A billion trillion constructions, mold  curling out from
every wall, rebuilding what had been merely superhuman. This was as powerful
as a proper flowering, though not quite so finely tuned.
     And never  lose sight of the reason  for  haste:  the  frigate.  It had
switched  to  rocket  drive,  blasting  heedless  away  from  the  wallowing
freighter.  Somehow,  these microbes  knew  they  were  rescuing  more  than
themselves. The warship had the best  navigation computers that little minds
could  make. But it would be another  three seconds before it could make its
first ultradrive hop.
     The new Power had no weapons on  the  ground, nothing but a comm laser.
That could not even melt steel  at the frigate's range. No matter, the laser
was   aimed,  tuned  civilly  on   the  retreating  warship's  receiver.  No
acknowledgment.  The  humans knew what communication  would bring. The laser
light  flickered here  and  there  across the hull,  lighting smoothness and
inactive sensors, sliding  across  the ship's ultradrive spines.  Searching,
probing.  The Power had never bothered  to  sabotage the external hull,  but
that  was no problem. Even this crude machine had thousands of robot sensors
scattered across its surface,  reporting  status and danger, driving utility
programs.  Most  were  shut  down now,  the  ship fleeing nearly blind. They
thought by not looking that they could be safe.
     One more second and the frigate would attain interstellar safety.
     The  laser  flickered  on  a  failure sensor, a  sensor  that  reported
critical changes in one of  the  ultradrive spines. Its interrupts could not
be ignored  if the star  jump were to succeed. Interrupt  honored. Interrupt
handler running,  looking  out,  receiving  more light from  the  laser  far
below.... a backdoor into the  ship's code, installed when  the newborn  had
subverted the humans' groundside equipment....
     .... and the  Power  was aboard, with milliseconds to spare. Its agents
-- not even human equivalent on this primitive hardware -- raced through the
ship's automation,  shutting down, aborting. There would be no jump. Cameras
in the ship's bridge showed widening of eyes, the beginning of a scream. The
humans knew, to the extent that horror can live in a fraction of a second.
     There would be no jump. Yet the ultradrive was already committed. There
would be a jump  attempt, without  automatic control a doomed one. Less than
five milliseconds  till the  jump discharge,  a  mechanical cascade  that no
software  could  finesse. The newborn's agents flitted everywhere across the
ship's computers,  futilely  attempting  a shutdown.  Nearly a  light-second
away, under the gray rubble at the High Lab, the Power could only watch. So.
The frigate would be destroyed.
     So slow and so fast. A fraction of a second. The  fire  spread out from
the heart of the frigate, taking both peril and possibility.
     Two hundred thousand kilometers  away, the clumsy container vessel made
its  own  ultradrive jump  and vanished  from sight.  The  newborn  scarcely
noticed. So a few humans had escaped; the universe was welcome to them.
     In the seconds that followed, the newborn felt ... emotions? ... things
more, and less, than a human might feel. Try emotions:
     Elation. The newborn knew that now it would survive.
     Horror. How close it had come to dying once more.
     Frustration. Perhaps the strongest, the closest to its mere human echo.
Something of significance had died  with the  frigate,  something  from this
archive.  Memories were  dredged  from  the context, reconstructed: What was
lost might have made the newborn still more powerful ... but more likely was
deadly poison.  After all, this  Power had  lived  once  before,  then  been
reduced to nothing. What was lost might have been the reason.
     Suspicion. The  newborn  should  not  have been so fooled. Not by  mere
humans.  The newborn  convulsed into self-inspection  and panic. Yes,  there
were blindspots,  carefully  installed from the  beginning, and  not  by the
humans. Two had been  born  here. Itself ... and the  poison, the reason for
its fall of old.  The newborn inspected itself as never before, knowing  now
just what to seek. Destroying, purifying, rechecking,  searching  for copies
of the poison, and destroying again.
     Relief. Defeat had been so close, but now ...

     Minutes and  hours passed,  the enormous stretch of  time necessary for
physical  construction:  communications  systems,  transportation.  The  new
Power's  mood  drifted,  calmed.  A  human might  call  the feeling triumph,
anticipation. Simple hunger might be more accurate. What more is needed when
there are no enemies?
     The newborn looked across the stars, planning. This time things will be

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     The  coldsleep  itself  was  dreamless.  Three  days  ago they had been
getting ready to  leave,  and  now they were  here. Little Jefri  complained
about  missing  all the action, but  Johanna  Olsndot  was  glad she'd  been
asleep; she had known some of the grownups on the other ship.
     Now  Johanna drifted between the racks of sleepers. Waste heat from the
coolers  made  the darkness  infernally hot. Scabby gray mold  grew  on  the
walls. The  coldsleep boxes were tightly  packed, with  narrow float  spaces
every  tenth row. There were places  where  only  Jefri  could  reach. Three
hundred  and nine  children lay there,  all the kids except  herself and her
brother Jefri.
     The  sleep   boxes  were  light-duty  hospital  models.  Given   proper
ventilation and maintenance, They would  have been good for a hundred years,
but.... Johanna wiped her face and looked  at  a box's readout: Like most of
the ones on the inside rows,  this  was in bad shape. For twenty days it had
kept the boy  inside safely  suspended,  and would  probably kill him  if he
stayed one day  more. The box's cooling vents were clean, but she vac'd them
again -- more a prayer for good luck than effective maintenance.
     Mother and  Dad were not to blame, though  Johanna suspected  that they
blamed themselves.  The  escape had  been put together with the materials at
hand, at  the last minute, when the experiment turned  wicked.  The High Lab
staff had done what they could to  save their  children and  protect against
still greater disaster. And even so, things might have worked out if --
     "Johanna!  Daddy  says there's  no  more time. He  says to  finish what
you're doing  an' come up here." Jefri had  stuck his  head down through the
hatch to shout to her.
     "Okay!" She shouldn't be down  here  anyway; there was nothing more she
could do to help her friends. Tami and Giske and Magda  and ... oh please be
safe. Johanna pulled herself through the floatway,  almost bumped into Jefri
coming from the other direction. He grabbed her hand and hung  close as they
drifted toward the hatch. These last two days he hadn't cried, but he'd lost
much  of the  independence of the last year. Now his eyes were wide.  "We're
coming down near the North Pole, by all those islands and ice."
     In the cabin beyond the hatch, their  parents were strapping themselves
in. Trader Arne Olsndot looked  up  at her and grinned.  "Hi, kiddo. Have  a
seat.  We'll be on  the ground in  less  than an hour." Johanna smiled back,
almost  caught by his enthusiasm. Ignore the jumble  of equipment, the odors
of twenty  days'  confinement:  Daddy  looked  as dashing as  any  adventure
poster. The  light from the display  windows glittered off  the seams of his
pressure suit. He was just in from outside.
     Jefri pushed across the cabin, pulling  Johanna behind him. He strapped
into the webbing  between her and  their mother. Sjana  Olsndot  checked his
restraints, then Johanna's. "This will be interesting, Jefri. You will learn
     "Yes, all about ice." He was holding Mom's hand now.
     Mom smiled. "Not  today. I'm  talking about the landing. This won't  be
like an agrav or  a ballistic." The agrav  was  dead. Dad had  just detached
their  shell from the cargo carrier. They could never have  landed the whole
thing on one torch.
     Dad did something with  the hodgepodge of controls he had  softwired to
his dataset. Their bodies  settled into  the  webbing. Around them the cargo
shell creaked,  and  the girder  support  for the  sleep  boxes  groaned and
popped. Something rattled and banged as  it "fell" the  length of the shell.
Johanna guessed they were pulling about one gravity.
     Jefri's gaze went from the  outside display to his  mother's  face  and
then  back. "What is  it  like then?"  He sounded  curious, but there was  a
little tremor in his voice. Johanna almost smiled; Jefri  knew he  was being
diverted, and was trying to play along.
     "This will  be pure rocket descent, powered almost  all the way. See on
the middle window? That camera is looking  straight  down. You  can actually
see  that we're slowing down." You  could, too. Johanna guessed they weren't
more  than  a couple of hundred kilometers  up. Arne  Olsndot was using  the
rocket  glued to the back end of the cargo shell  to kill all their  orbital
velocity.  There  weren't  any other options. They  had  abandoned the cargo
carrier,  with  its agrav  and ultradrive. It  had brought them far, but its
control automation was failing. Some  hundreds of kilometers behind them, it
coasted dead along their orbit.
     All  they  had  left  was the cargo shell.  No wings, no agrav, no aero
shielding. The shell was a hundred-tonne carton of eggs balanced on one  hot
     Mom  wasn't describing it quite that way to Jefri, though what she said
was the  truth. Somehow  she had  Jefri seeming to  forget the danger. Sjana
Olsndot had  been  a popular  archaeologist at  Straumli Realm,  before they
moved to the High Lab.
     Dad cut the jet,  and they were in free fall again. Johanna felt a wave
of nausea; ordinarily she never got space sick, but this was different.  The
image of land and sea in the downward window slowly grew. There were  only a
few scattered clouds. The  coastline was an indefinite  recursion of islands
and straits and  inlets.  Dark  green  spread  along  the coast  and  up the
valleys, shading to black and gray in the mountains.  There was snow --  and
probably  Jefri's ice  --  scattered  in  arcs and  patches. It  was  all so
beautiful ... and they were falling straight into it!
     She heard  metallic banging on the cargo shell as the  trim jets tipped
their craft around, aligning the main jet downwards.  The  right-hand window
showed the  ground now. The torch lit again, at  something like one gravity.
The edge of the display darkened in a burnout halo. "Wow," said Jefri. "It's
like an  elevator, down  and  down  and down and ..." One hundred kilometers
down, slow enough that aero forces wouldn't tear them apart.
     Sjana Olsndot  was right; it was a novel way to descend from orbit, not
a preferred method under any normal circumstances.
     It was certainly not intended in the original escape  plans.  They were
to meet with the  High Lab's frigate -- and all the adults who could  escape
from the High Lab. And  of  course,  that rendezvous was  to be in space, an
easy transfer. But the frigate was gone now, and they were on their own. Her
eyes turned unwillingly to the stretch of hull beyond her parents. There was
the familiar  discoloration. It looked like gray fungus  ... growing  out of
the clean  hull  ceramic. Her  parents didn't  talk about it much even  now,
except to shoo Jefri away from it. But Johanna had overheard them once, when
they thought she and  her brother  were at the far end  of the shell.  Dad's
voice  almost crying with anger. "All this for nothing!" he said softly. "We
made a monster, and ran, and now we're  lost at the Bottom." And Mom's voice
even  softer:  "For the thousandth  time, Arne, not for nothing. We have the
kids." She waved  at the roughness  that spread across the wall,  "And given
the dreams ... the directions ... we had, I think this was the best we could
hope for.  Somehow  we are carrying the answer to all the evil we  started."
Then Jefri  had  bounced  loudly across the  hold, proclaiming his  imminent
entrance, and his parents had shut up. Johanna hadn't  quite had the courage
to  ask them about it. There  had been  strange  things at the High Lab, and
toward  the  end, some  quietly scary things; even people who were not quite
the same.
     Minutes passed. They were deep  in the atmosphere  now. The hull buzzed
with the force  of the air  stream -- or turbulence from the jet? But things
were steady  enough that Jefri was beginning to get  restless. Much  of  the
down-looking view was burned out  by airglow around the torch.  The rest was
clearer  and more detailed than anything they had  seen from  orbit. Johanna
wondered how  often a  new-visited  world had been  landed  upon  with  less
reconnaissance than this. They had no telescopic cameras, and no ferrets.
     Physically,  the planet was near the human ideal -- wonderful good luck
after all the bad.
     It was heaven compared to the airless rocks of the system that had been
the prime rendezvous.
     On the other hand, there was intelligent  life  here:  from orbit, they
could  see   roads  and  towns.   But  there  was  no  evidence  of  technic
civilization;  there was  no sign  of  aircraft  or radio or  intense  power
     They were coming down in a thinly populated  corner  of the  continent.
With luck there would be no one to see their landing among the green valleys
and the black and white  peaks -- and Arne Olsndot could fly the torch right
to ground without fear of hurting much more than forest and grass.
     The coastal islands  slid past the  side  camera's view. Jefri shouted,
pointing. It was gone now, but she had seen it too: on one of the islands an
irregular polygon of walls and shadow.  It  reminded her of castles from the
Age of Princesses on Nyjora.
     She could see individual  trees now, their  shadows  long  in  slanting
sunlight. The roar  of the torch was as loud as anything she had ever heard;
they were deep in atmosphere, and they weren't moving away from the sound.
     "... things get tricky,"  Dad shouted. "And no programs to make  things
right.... Where to, love?"
     Mom look  back and forth between the display windows. As far as Johanna
knew, they couldn't move the  cameras or assign  new ones.  "... that  hill,
above the timber line, but ... think I  saw a  pack of animals  running away
from the blast on ... west side."
     "Yeah,"  shouted Jefri, "wolves." Johanna had only  had a quick glimpse
of moving specks.
     They were  in  full  hover  now,  maybe  a thousand  meters  above  the
hilltops. The noise was painful, unending; further talk was impossible. They
drifted slowly across  landscape, partly to  reconnoiter, partly to stay out
of the plume of superheated air that rose about them.
     The land was more  rolling  than  craggy, and the "grass" looked mossy.
Still  Arne Olsndot hesitated.  The  main  torch was designed  for  velocity
matching  after interstellar  jumps; they could hang  like  this for  a good
while. But  when they  did touch  down,  they'd  better have it right. She'd
heard her parents talking that one over -- when Jefri  was working with  the
coldsleep boxes and out of earshot. If there was too much water in the soil,
the backsplash  would be a steam  cannon, punching right through  the shell.
Landing in trees  would have some dubious pluses, maybe giving them a little
cushioning  and  a standoff  from  the splash.  But now they were  going for
direct contact. At least they could see where they were landing.
     Three hundred  meters. Dad dragged the torch  tip  through  the  ground
cover. The soft landscape exploded. A second later their boat rocked in  the
column of steam. The down-looking  camera died. They didn't  back  off,  and
after a  moment  the battering eased; the torch had burned through  whatever
water  table  or  permafrost  lay  below them. The  cabin  air grew steadily
     Olsndot brought them slowly down through it, using the side cameras and
the  sound of the backsplash  as his guide.  He cut the torch. There  was  a
scary  half-second  fall,  then the sound  of the rendezvous pylons  hitting
ground. They steadied, then one side groaned, giving way a little.
     Silence, except for heat pinging around  the  hull. Dad looked at their
ad hoc pressure gauge. He  grinned at  Mom.  "No breach. I bet I could  even
take this baby up again!"

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     An hour's difference either way and Peregrine Wickwrackrum's life would
have been very different.
     The three travelers were headed  west, down from  the  Icefangs towards
Flenser's Castle on Hidden Island. There were  in  his life when he couldn't
have  borne  the  company, but in the last decade Peregrine had  become much
more  sociable. He  liked traveling  with  others nowadays. On his last trek
through  the  Great Sandy, there  had been five  packs in his party. Part of
that had been a matter of safety: some deaths are almost inevitable when the
distance between oases  can be a thousand miles --  and the oases themselves
are transient.  But aside from safety, he had learned a lot  in conversation
with the others.
     He  was  not so happy  with his current companions. Neither were  truly
pilgrims;  both had  secrets.  Scriber  Jaqueramaphan  was  fun,  an amusing
goofball and fount of uncoordinated information....  There was  also  a good
chance he was a spy. That was okay, as long as people didn't think Peregrine
was  working  with him.  The third  of  their party was the  one who  really
bothered him. Tyrathect was a  newby, not all together yet; she had no taken
name. Tyrathect claimed to be a school teacher,  but somewhere  in her (him?
gender preference  wasn't entirely clear yet) was a killer. The creature was
obviously  a Flenserist fanatic,  standoffish  and rigid much  of the  time.
Almost  certainly,  she  was  fleeing  the  purge  that  followed  Flenser's
unsuccessful attempt to take power in the east.
     He'd  run into  these  two  at Eastgate, on the Republican side  of the
Icefangs. They  both wanted  to visit  the Castle on Hidden Island. And what
the  hell,  that  was  only  a  sixty-mile  detour  off  the  main  trail to
Woodcarvers;  they  all would have to cross the mountains. Besides,  he  had
wanted to visit Flenser's Domain for years. Maybe one of these two could get
him in. So much of the world reviled the Flenserists. Peregrine Wickwrackrum
was of two minds about  evil: when enough rules get broken, sometimes  there
is good amid the carnage.
     This  afternoon, they'd  finally come in sight of the  coastal islands.
Peregrine had been here only fifty years before. Even so, he wasn't prepared
for the beauty of this land. The  Northwest Coast  was  by  far  the mildest
arctic in the world. In  high summer, with unending day, the bottoms of  the
glacier-reamed valleys  turned all to green.  God the carver  had stooped to
touch these lands ... and  His  chisels had been made of ice.  Now, all that
was  left  of the ice and snow were misty  arcs at the  eastern horizon  and
remnant patches scattered on the near hills. Those patches melted and melted
through  the summer, starting little creeks that  merged with one another to
cascade down the steep sides of the valleys. On his right, Peregrine trotted
across a  level  stretch of ground that was soggy  with standing water.  The
chill  on  his  feet  felt  wonderful; he didn't even  mind  the midges that
swirled around him.
     Tyrathect was across the  valley, paralleling his course, but above the
heather line. She'd  been  fairly talkative  till  the valley curved and the
farmland and  the islands came into view.  Somewhere out there was Flenser's
Castle, and her dark appointment.
     Scriber Jaqueramaphan had been all  over, mindlessly  running around on
both sides of  the valley. He'd collect  in twos or threes and execute  some
jape that  made  even the dour  Tyrathect laugh, then climb to a height  and
report  what  he saw beyond. He'd been the first to see the coast.  That had
sobered him  some. His clowning was dangerous enough without doing it in the
neighborhood of known rapists.
     Wickwrackrum called  a pause,  and got  himself together to  adjust the
straps on his  backpacks.  The rest of the afternoon was going to  be tense.
He'd  have to decide whether  he really wanted to enter  the Castle with his
friends. There are limits to an adventurous spirit, even in a pilgrim.
     "Hey,  do  you hear something bass?" Tyrathect  called from across  the
valley.  Peregrine  listened.  There was  a rumbling -- powerful, but almost
below his  range of hearing. For an instant, fear crossed  his puzzlement. A
century before, he'd been in  a monster earthquake. This sound  was similar,
but the ground was still beneath his feet. Would that mean no landslides and
flashfloods? He hunkered down, looking out in all directions.
     "It's in the sky!" Jaqueramaphan was pointing.
     A  spot  of  glare hung  almost  overhead,  a tiny spear  of light.  No
memories, not even legends  came to Wickwrackrum's mind.  He spread out, all
eyes on the slowly moving light. God's Choir. It must be miles up, and still
he heard it. He looked away from the light, afterimages dancing painfully in
his eyes.
     "It's  getting  brighter,  louder,"  said Jaqueramaphan.  "I think it's
coming down on the hills yonder, on the coast."
     Peregrine pulled himself together and ran west, shouting to the others.
He would  get  as close as was safe, and watch. He didn't look up again.  It
was just too bright. It cast shadows in broad daylight!
     He  ran another half mile. The star was still  in the air. He  couldn't
remember a falling  star so  slow, though some of the biggest  made terrible
explosions. In fact  ... there were no stories from folks who  had been near
such things. His wild, pilgrim curiosity faded  before that recollection. He
looked  in all directions. Tyrathect was nowhere in sight; Jaqueramaphan was
huddled next to some boulders ahead.
     And the light was so bright that where his clothes did not protect him,
Wickwrackrum  felt a blaze of heat. The noise from the sky was outright pain
now. Peregrine dived over the edge of the valley side, rolled  and staggered
and  fell down  the  steep walls  of  rock.  He was in  the shade  now: only
sunlight lay upon him! The far side of the valley  shone in the glare; crisp
shadows moved with  the unseen thing  behind him. The noise was still a bass
rumble,  but  so  loud  it  numbed  the mind. Peregrine  stumbled  past  the
timberline,  and  continued till  he was  sheltered by  a hundred  yards  of
forest. That should have helped a lot, but  the noise was been growing still
     Mercifully, he blacked out for  a moment  or two. When he  came around,
the star sound was gone.  The  ringing it  left in his  tympana was a  great
confusion. He staggered  about in a daze. It seemed to be  raining -- except
that some of  the droplets glowed. Little fires were starting here and there
in  the  forest. He hid beneath dense-crowned  trees till  the burning rocks
stopped falling. The fires didn't  spread;  the  summer had  been relatively
     Peregrine  lay  quietly, waiting for more  burning  rocks or  new  star
noise. Nothing. The wind in the tree tops  lessened. He could hear the birds
and crickers and woodborers. He walked to the forest edge and peeked out  in
several  places. Discounting the patches of burnt heather, everything looked
normal. But his viewpoint was  very  restricted:  he could see  high  valley
walls, a few  hilltops. Ha! There  was Scriber Jaqueramaphan,  three hundred
yards further up. Most of him was hunkered down in holes and hollows, but he
had  a couple of members looking toward where the star had fallen. Peregrine
squinted. Scriber was such a buffoon most of the time. But sometimes it just
seemed a cover; if he really was a fool, he was one with a streak of genius.
More than once, Wicky had seen him at a distance, working in pairs with some
strange tool.... As now: the other was holding something long and pointed to
his eye.
     Wickwrackrum crept out of the forest, keeping close together and making
as little noise as possible. He climbed carefully around the rocks, slipping
from  hummock to heather hummock, till he was just short of the valley crest
and some fifty yards from Jaqueramaphan. He could hear the other thinking to
himself. Any  closer, and Scriber would hear him,  even bunched up and quiet
as he was.
     "Ssst!" said Wickwrackrum.
     The  buzzing and  muttering stopped in an instant  of shocked surprise.
Jaqueramaphan stuffed the mysterious seeing tool into  a backpack and pulled
himself  together, thinking  very quietly.  They stared at each  other for a
moment, then Scriber made silly squirling gestures at his shoulder  tympana.
Listen up.  "Can you talk like this?" His voice came very  high-pitched,  up
where  some people can't  make voluntary conversation, where low-sound  ears
are deaf. Hightalk could be confusing, but it was very directional and faded
quickly  with distance;  no  one else would  hear  them.  Peregrine  nodded,
"Hightalk is  no problem."  The  trick was  to use tones  pure enough not to
     "Take a  look over the hill crest,  friend pilgrim. There is  something
new under the sun."
     Peregrine  moved  up  another  thirty  yards, keeping  a lookout in all
directions.  He  could  see the straits now, gleaming  rough  silver in  the
afternoon sunlight. Behind him, the north  side  of  the valley was  lost in
shadow.  He sent one  member  ahead, skittering between the hummocks to look
down on the plain where the star had landed.

     God's Choir, he thought to himself (but quietly). He brought up another
member to  get a parallax  view. The thing  looked like  a  huge  adobe  hut
mounted on  stilts.... But this  was the  fallen star: the ground beneath it
glowed dull red. Curtains of mist rose  from  the  moist heather all around.
The  torn earth  had  been thrown  in long lines that radiated from  a  spot
beneath it.
     He nodded at Jaqueramaphan. "Where is Tyrathect?"
     Scriber shrugged. "A couple of miles back, I'll bet. I'm keeping an eye
out  for her.... Do you see the others though,  the  troopers from Flenser's
     "No!" Peregrine  looked west from  the landing site.  There.  They were
almost  a  mile away,  in  camouflage  jackets,  belly  crawling  across the
hummocky terrain. He could see at least three troopers. They were  big guys,
six each.  "How could they get  here  so fast?" He glanced  at  the sun. "It
can't be more than half an hour since all this started."
     "Their good luck." Jaqueramaphan returned to the crest and looked over.
"I'll bet they were already on the mainland when the star came down. This is
all Flenser territory; they must have patrols." He hunkered down so just two
pairs  of eyes would be visible to those below. "That's an ambush formation,
you know."
     "You  don't seem  very  happy  to  see them.  These  are  your friends,
remember? The people you've come to see."
     Scriber cocked his heads sarcastically. "Yeah, yeah. Don't rub it in. I
think you've known from the beginning that I'm not all for Flenser."
     "I guessed."
     "Well, the game is over now. Whatever came down this afternoon is worth
more to  ...  uh, my friends  than anything I  could have learned on  Hidden
     "What about Tyrathect?"
     "Heh, heh. Our esteemed companion is more than genuine, I fear. I'd bet
she's a Flenser Lord, not the  low-rank Servant she seems at first glance. I
expect that many of her kind are leaking back over the mountains these days,
happy to get out  of the Long Lakes Republic. Hide your behinds, fellow.  If
she spots us, those troopers will get us sure."
     Peregrine moved  deeper  into the  hollows and burrows that pocked  the
heather. He had an excellent view back along  the  valley. If Tyrathect were
not already on the scene, he'd see her long before she would him.
     "You're a pilgrim. You've traveled the world ... since the beginning of
time, you'd have us believe. How far do your memories really go back?"
     Given  the situation, Wickwrackrum was inclined to honesty. "Like you'd
expect: a few hundred years. Then we're talking about legends, recollections
of  things  that  probably  happened,  but  with the  details all  mixed and
     "Well,  I haven't traveled much,  and I'm fairly new. But  I do read. A
lot. There's never been anything like this before. That is a made thing down
there. It came from higher than I  can measure. You've read Aramstriquesa or
Astrologer Belelele? You know what this could be?"
     Wickwrackrum  didn't recognize  the names.  But he was a pilgrim. There
were  lands so far away  that no  one  spoke any  language  he  knew. In the
Southseas  he  met folk who thought there was  no world beyond their islands
and who ran from his  boats when he  came ashore. Even more, one part of him
had been an islander and had watched that coming ashore.
     He stuck a head into the open and looked again at the  fallen star, the
visitor from farther  than he had  ever been ... and he  wondered where this
pilgrimage might end.

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     It  took five  hours for the ground to cool enough for Dad to slide the
ladder-ramp to ground. He and Johanna climbed carefully down,  hopped across
the steaming earth to stand on relatively undamaged turf. It would be a long
time  before  this  ground cooled completely;  the jet's  exhaust  was  very
"clean", scarcely interacting with normal matter -- all  of which meant that
some very hot rock extended down thousands of meters beneath their boat.
     Mom sat in the hatchway, watching the land beyond them.  She had  Dad's
old pistol.
     "Anything?" Dad shouted to her.
     "No. And Jefri doesn't see anything through the windows."
     Dad  walked  around  the  cargo shell, inspecting  the misused  docking
pylons. Every ten  meters  they stopped and set up  an sound projector. That
had been Johanna's  idea. Besides Dad's gun, they really had no weapons. The
projectors  were accidental  cargo, stuff from  the infirmary. With a little
programming,  they  could put out  wild screeching all up and down the audio
spectrum.  It  might  be  enough to  scare off  the local  animals.  Johanna
followed her father,  her eyes on the  landscape, her nervousness giving way
to awe. It was so beautiful, so cool. They were standing on a  broad  field,
high  in hills. Westward the hills fell toward straits and islands.  To  the
north the ground ended abruptly at the edge of a wide valley; she  could see
waterfalls on the other side. The ground felt spongy beneath her feet. Their
landing field was puckered  into  thousands of  little  hillocks, like waves
caught  in  a still picture. Snow  lay in  timid patches  across the  higher
hills. Johanna squinted north, into the sun. North?
     "What time is it, Daddy?"
     Olsndot  laughed, still looking  at the underside  of the cargo  shell.
"Local midnight."
     Johanna had been brought up in  the middle latitudes of Straum. Most of
her school  field trips had  been to space, where odd sun geometries were no
big deal. Somehow she  had never  thought of  such things  happening  on the
ground.... I mean, seeing the sun right over the top of the world.

     The first  order of business was to get  half  the coldsleep  boxes out
into the  open,  and  rearrange  those left aboard.  Mom  figured  that  the
temperature problems would  just  about disappear  then, even for the  boxes
left  on  board:  "Having  separate power  supplies and venting  will  be an
advantage now. The kids will all be safe. Johanna, you check Jefri's work on
the ones inside, okay?..."
     The second  order of business would  be to start  a tracking program on
the  Relay system,  and to set  up ultralight  communication.  Johanna was a
little afraid of  that step. What  would they learn? They  already  knew the
High Lab had gone wicked and the disaster Mom predicted had begun.
     How  much of Straumli  Realm was dead now? Everyone at the High Lab had
thought  they were doing so  much good, and  now  .... Don't think about it.
Maybe the Relayers  could help. Somewhere there must be people who could use
what her folks had taken from the Lab.
     They'd  be rescued,  and  the rest of the kids would be revived.  She'd
been feeling guilty about that. Sure, Mom  and  Dad needed extra hands right
at the  end of the flight -- and Johanna was one  of the oldest  children in
the school. But it seemed wrong that she and Jefri were the only  kids going
into this with their eyes open. Coming down, she had felt her mother's fear.
I bet they  wanted us  together, even if it was only  for one last time. The
landing had  been truly  dangerous,  however easy  Dad made it look. Johanna
could see where  the backsplash had  gouged  the hull;  if any  of that  had
gotten past the torch and into the exhaust chamber, they'd all be vapor now.
     Almost half the coldsleep boxes  were  on  the ground  now, by the east
side of the boat. Mom  and Dad were spreading  them out so the coolers would
have no problem. Jefri was  inside, checking  if there were any  other boxes
that needed attention.  He was a good kid when he wasn't a brat.  She turned
into the sunlight, felt the cool breeze flowing across  the  hill. She heard
something that sounded like a birdcall.
     Johanna was  out  by  one  of  the  sound  projectors  when the  ambush
happened. She had her dataset plugged to its control, and was busy giving it
new  directions. It showed  how  little  they  had left, that even  her  old
dataset was important now. But Dad wanted something that would sweep through
the  broadest possible bandwidth, making plenty  of  racket all the way, but
with big spikes every so often; Pink Olifaunt could certainly manage that.
     "Johanna!"  Mom's  cry came  simultaneous  with the  sound of  breaking
ceramic. The  projector's  bell came  shattering  down beside  her.  Johanna
looked up.  Something ripped through  her  chest just  inside  her shoulder,
knocking her down. She stared stupidly  at  the shaft that stuck out of her.
An arrow!
     The  west edge of their landing area was swarming with ... things. Like
wolves or dogs, but  with long  necks,  they  moved quickly forward, darting
from  hummock  to  hummock. Their  pelts  were  the same  gray green of  the
hillside, except near the haunches  where she saw white  and  black. No, the
green was clothing,  jackets. Johanna was in shock, the pressure of the bolt
through her chest  not  yet registering as  pain.  She had been thrown  back
against uptilted turf and for the moment had a view of the whole attack. She
saw more arrows rise up, dark lines floating in the sky.
     She could see the archers now. More dogs! They moved in  packs. It took
two of them  to  use a bow -- one to hold it and one to draw. The third  and
fourth carried quivers of arrows and just seemed to watch.
     The archers hung back, staying mostly under  cover. Other packs swirled
in from the  sides, now leaping over the  hummocks. Many carried hatchets in
their  jaws. Metal  tines gleamed on their  paws.  She heard the snickety of
Dad's pistol. The wave of attackers staggered as  individuals collapsed. The
others continued forward,  snarling  now. These  were sounds of madness, not
the barking of dogs.  She felt the sounds in  her teeth, like  blasti  music
punching from a large speaker. Jaws and claws and knives and noise.
     She twisted on her  side, trying to see back to the boat.  Now the pain
was real. She screamed, but the sound was lost in the madness. The mob raced
around  her, heading for Mom and  Dad. Her  parents were  crouched  behind a
rendezvous  pylon.  There  was a constant  flicker from the  pistol in  Arne
Olsndot's hand. His pressure suit had protected him from the arrows.
     The  alien  bodies  were  piling  high.  The  pistol,  with  its  smart
flechettes, was deadly effective. She saw him hand the pistol to Mom and run
out from under the boat, toward her. Johanna  stretched her free arm towards
him and cried, screamed for him to go back.
     Thirty meters. Twenty-five.  Mom's covering  fire  swept  around  them,
driving the wolves back. A flurry of arrows descended on Olsndot  as he ran,
arms upheld to shield his head. Twenty meters.
     A wolf  jumped high over Johanna.  She had a quick glimpse of its short
fur  and scarred rear end. It raced straight for Dad. Olsndot weaved, trying
to  give  his wife a clear shot, but the wolf was too  quick. It jinked with
him,  sprinting across  the gap. It  leaped, metal  glittering on  its paws.
Johanna  saw red  splash from  Daddy's neck, and then the  two  of them were
     For a moment, Sjana  Olsndot stopped shooting. That was enough. The mob
parted and a large group ran purposefully toward the boat. They had tanks of
some kind on their backs. The lead animal  held a hose in  its mouth. A dark
liquid jetted out ... and vanished  in  an explosion of fire.  The wolf pack
played  their crude  flamethrower across the  ground, across the pylon where
Sjana Olsndot stood,  across the  ranks  of  school children  in  coldsleep.
Johanna saw  something moving,  twisting in the  flames and tarry smoke, saw
the light plastic of the coldsleep boxes slump and flow.
     Johanna  turned her  face to the earth,  then  pushed herself up on her
good arm and tried to  crawl toward the boat,  the flames. And then the dark
was merciful, and she remembered no more.

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     Peregrine  and  Scriber watched the ambush  preparations throughout the
afternoon: infantry arrayed  on  the slope west of the landing site, archers
behind them, flame troopers in  pounce formation. Did the Lords of Flenser's
Castle understand what they  were up against? The  two  debated the question
off and on. Jaqueramaphan thought the  Flenserists did, that their arrogance
was so great that they simply expected to  grab the prize. "They  go for the
throat  before  the other  side even  knows  there's  a fight.  It's  worked
     Peregrine  didn't  answer  immediately. Scriber could be right. It  had
been  fifty  years since he had been in this part  of  the world. Back then,
Flenser's  cult had been obscure  (and not that interesting compared to what
existed elsewhere).
     Treachery  did sometimes befall  travelers, but  it was rarer than  the
stay-at-homes would believe.  Most people were friendly and enjoyed  hearing
about  the world beyond  -- especially if  the  visitor was not threatening.
When treachery did occur, it was most often after an initial  "sizing-up" to
determine just how  powerful the visitors were and what could be gained from
their  death. Immediate attack, without conversation, was very rare. Usually
it  meant you  had run into  villains  who were both  sophisticated  ... and
crazy. "I don't know. That is an ambush formation, but maybe the Flenserists
will hold it in reserve, and talk first."
     Hours passed; the  sun  slid sideways into the  north.  There was noise
from the far side of the fallen star.  Crap. They couldn't see anything from
     The  hidden  troops made no move. The minutes passed ...  and they  got
their  first view of the visitor from  heaven, or part of him  anyway. There
were four legs  per member,  but it  walked on its  rear legs  only. What  a
clown! Yet ... it used its front paws for holding  things.  Not once  did he
see  it use  a mouth; he  doubted if the flat jaws could  get a  good  hold,
anyway. Those forepaws were wonderfully agile. A single member  could easily
use tools.
     There  were  plenty  of  conversation  sounds,  even though  only three
members were visible. After  a  while, they  heard  the much  higher pitched
tones of  organized thought; God, the creature was noisy.  At this distance,
the sounds were muffled and distorted.  Even so,  they were like no mind  he
had ever heard, nor like the confusion noises that some grazers made.
     "Well?" hissed Jaqueramaphan.
     "I have  been all around the  world -- and this creature is not part of
     "Yeah. Well, it reminds me of mantis bugs. You know, about this high --
" he  opened a mouth  about  two inches wide. "Great for keeping your garden
free of pests ... great little killers."

     Ugh.  Peregrine hadn't thought of  the resemblance. Mantises were  cute
and harmless  -- as  far as  people were concerned.  But he knew the females
would eat  their  own mates. Imagine such creatures grown to giant size, and
possessed  of pack mentality. Maybe it  was just was  well they  couldn't go
prancing down to say hello.
     A  half  hour  passed. As the alien brought  its  cargo  to ground, the
Flenser archers  moved closer; the  infantry  packs  arranged themselves  in
assault wings.
     A flight of arrows arched across  the gap between  the Flenserists  and
the alien. One of the alien  members went down immediately, and its thoughts
quieted. The rest  moved out of sight beneath the flying house. The troopers
dashed forward, spaced in identity preserving formations; perhaps they meant
to take the alien alive.
     ...  But the assault line  crumpled,  many yards short of the alien: no
arrows, no flames -- the troopers just  fell. For a moment Peregrine thought
the Flenserists might have  bit  off  more  than they  could chew.  Then the
second wave ran over the  first. Members continued to fall, but they were in
killing frenzy now,  with only  animal discipline left.  The assault  rolled
slowly  forward,  the rear climbing over  the fallen.  Another alien  member
down.... Strange, he could still hear wisps  of the other's thought. In tone
and tempo, it sounded the same as before the attack. How could anyone be  so
composed with total death looming?
     A combat whistle  sounded, and the mob parted. A  trooper raced through
and  sprayed  liquid  fire. The  flying house looked like meat on a griddle,
flame and smoke coming up all around it.
     Wickwrackrum swore to himself. Good-bye alien.

     The wrecked  and  wounded  were  low on  the Flenserist  priority list.
Seriously wounded  were  piled onto travoises and pulled far  enough away so
their  cries would not cause  confusion. Cleanup squads bullied the  trooper
fragments  away  from the  flying  house. The  frags  wandered  the hummocky
meadow; here and there they coalesced into ad hoc packs. Some  drifted among
the wounded, ignoring the screams in their need to find themselves.
     When the tumult  was quieted, three packs of whitejackets appeared. The
Servants of the Flenser walked under the flying house. One was out of  sight
for a  long while;  perhaps it  even got inside. The charred  bodies  of two
alien members were carefully placed on travoises -- more carefully  than the
wounded troopers had been -- and hauled off.
     Jaqueramaphan  scanned the  ruins with his eye-tool.  He had  given  up
trying to hide it from Peregrine. A whitejackets carried something down from
the flying house. "Sst! There are other dead ones. Maybe from the fire. They
look  like pups." The small figures had the mantis  form. They were strapped
into travoises, and hauled  out of sight over the hill's edge. No doubt they
had kherhog-drawn carts down there.
     The Flenserists set a sentry ring  around  the  landing site. Dozens of
fresh troopers  stood  on the  hillside beyond it. No one was going to sneak
past that.
     "So it's total murder." Peregrine sighed.
     "Maybe  not....  The first member they  shot, I don't think  it's quite
     Wickwrackrum squinted his  best  eyes.  Either  Scriber was  a  wishful
thinker, or  his tool gave him amazingly sharp sight. The first  one hit had
been  on the other side of the  craft. The member had stopped thinking,  but
that wasn't a sure sign of  death. There  was a whitejackets standing around
it now. The whitejackets put the creature  onto  a travois and began pulling
it away from the landing site, towards  the southwest ... not quite the same
path that the others had taken.
     "The thing is  still alive! It's got an arrow in the chest,  but I  can
see it breathing." Scriber's heads turned toward  Wickwrackrum. "I  think we
should rescue it."
     For a moment Peregrine couldn't think of anything to say; he just gaped
at  the other. The center  of Flenser's worldwide cabal was just a few miles
to  the northwest.  Flenserist  power  was  undisputed for  dozens  of miles
inland,  and  right now they were  virtually surrounded  by an army. Scriber
wilted a little before Peregrine's astonishment, but it was clear he was not
joking. "Sure, I know it's risky. But that's  what life is all about, right?
You're a pilgrim. You understand."
     "Hmf." That  was  the  pilgrim reputation, all right. But  no soul  can
survive  total  death -- and  there were  plenty  of opportunities for  such
annihilation on a pilgrimage. Pilgrims do know caution.
     And yet, and  yet this was  the  most  marvelous encounter  in all  his
centuries of pilgrimage. To know these  aliens, to become them  ... it was a
temptation that surpassed all good sense.
     "Look,"  said Scriber, "we  could  just  go down  and  mingle with  the
wounded. If we  can  make it across  the  field, we might get a look at that
last  alien member,  without risking too  much."  Jaqueramaphan was  already
backing down from his observation point, and circling around  to find a path
that wouldn't put him in silhouette. Wickwrackrum was torn;  part of him got
up to follow and part of him hesitated. Hell, Jaqueramaphan had admitted  to
being  a spy; he carried an invention that  was probably  straight  from the
Long Lakes sharpest intelligence people. The guy had to be a pro....
     Peregrine  took a  quick look around their side of the hill and  across
the  valley.  No sign of  Tyrathect or anyone else. He  crawled  out  of his
various hidey holes and followed the spy.
     As  much  as possible, they  stayed in  the  deep  shadows  cast by the
northering  sun,  and slipped from  hummock  to  hummock where there was  no
shade. Just before  they got  to  the first  of  the wounded,  Scriber  said
something more, the scariest words of the afternoon. "Hey, don't worry. I've
read all about doing this sort of thing!"

     A  mob  of  frags  and  wounded  is a terrifying,  mind-numbing  thing.
Singletons,  duos, trios,  a  few quads: they  wandered  aimlessly,  keening
without  control.  In  most  situations, this many people packed together on
just a few  acres  would have been  an instant choir. In fact, he did notice
some sexual  activity  and some organized  browsing,  but  for the most part
there was still  too much pain for  normal reactions.  Wickwrackrum wondered
briefly if --  for all  their  talk of rationalism  -- the Flenserists would
just leave the wreckage  of their troops to reassemble  itself. They'd  have
some strange and crippled repacks if they did.
     A  few  yards  into the  mob  and  Peregrine  Wickwrackrum  could  feel
consciousness slipping  from him. If he  concentrated really hard, he  could
remember who  he was and that he  must  get to the  other side of the meadow
without attracting attention.
     Other thoughts, loud and unguarded, pummeled him:

     ... Blood lust and slashing ...

     Glittering  metal  in  the alien's hand ...  the  pain in her chest ...
coughing blood, falling ...

     ... Boot camp and before, my merge  brother was so good  to me ... Lord
Steel said that we are a grand experiment....

     Running across the heather toward the stick-limbed monster. Leap, tines
in paw. Slash the monster's throat. Blood spouts high.

     ... Where am I? ... May I be part of you ... please?
     Peregrine  whirled  at that last question. It was pointed and  near.  A
singleton  was sniffing at him. He screeched  the fragment off, and ran into
an open  space. Up  ahead, Jaque-what's-his-name  was scarcely  better  off.
There was little chance they  would be spotted here, but he was beginning to
wonder if  he could make it  through. Peregrine was only four and there were
singletons everywhere. On his right a quad was raping,  grabbing at whatever
duos and  singles happened by. Wic and Kwk and Rac and Rum tried to remember
just why they  was  here  and where  they was going.  Concentrate  on direct
sensation;  what is really here: the sooty smell of the flamer's liquid fire
... the midges swarming everywhere, clotting the puddles of blood all black.
     An awfully long time passed. Minutes.
     Wic-Kwk-Rac-Rum  looked ahead. He was almost out of  it; the south edge
of the wreckage. He dragged himself to a patch of clean ground. Parts of him
vomited, and he  collapsed. Sanity slowly  returned. Wickwrackrum looked up,
saw Jaqueramaphan  just inside the mob. Scriber was a big fellow, a sixsome,
but he was having  at least as  bad a time as Peregrine. He  staggered  from
side to side, eyes wide, snapping at himself and others.
     Well, they had made it a good way across the meadow, and fast enough to
catch up with  the  whitejackets who was pulling the  last  alien member. If
they wanted to see anything more, they'd have to figure how to leave the mob
without attracting attention. Hmm. There were plenty  of Flenserist uniforms
around  ...  without living owners. Peregrine walked two  of himself over to
where a dead trooper lay.
     "Jaqueramaphan!  Here!"  The great  spy looked in his direction, and  a
glint of intelligence returned to his  eyes. He stumbled out of the mob  and
sat  down  a  few  yards from  Wickwrackrum.  It was far nearer  than  would
normally  be  comfortable, but after  what they'd  been  through, it  seemed
barely close. He lay for a moment, gasping. "Sorry, I never guessed it would
be  like  that. I lost part of me  back there ... never thought I'd get  her
     Peregrine  watched the progress of the whitejackets and its travois. It
wasn't  going with  the others; in a few seconds it would  be out of  sight.
With  a  disguise, maybe they could follow and -- no, it was just too risky.
He was beginning  to think like the great spy. Peregrine pulled a camouflage
jacket  off a corpse. They would still need disguises. Maybe they could hang
around here through the night, and get a closer look at the flying house.
     After a moment,  Scriber saw  what he was doing,  and  began  gathering
jackets for  himself. They  slunk between the piled bodies, looking for gear
that  wasn't too  stained  and  that  Jaqueramaphan  thought had  consistent
insignia. There were plenty of paw claws  and battle axes around. They'd end
up  armed to the teeth, but they'd have to dump  some of their backpacks....
One more jacket was all he needed, but his Rum was so broad in the shoulders
that nothing fit.
     Peregrine didn't really  understand  what happened till later:  a large
fragment,  a threesome, was lying doggo  in the pile of dead. Perhaps it was
grieving, long after its member's  dying  dirge; in any case,  it was almost
totally  thoughtless until Peregrine began  pulling the jacket off  its dead
member. Then, "You'll not rob from  mine!" He heard the buzz of nearby rage,
and then there was slashing pain across  his Rum's gut. Peregrine writhed in
agony, leaped upon the attacker. For a moment of mindless rage, they fought.
Peregrine's battle  axes slashed again and again, covering his muzzles  with
blood.  When he  came  to his senses one of the three  was dead,  the others
running into the mob of wounded.
     Wickwrackrum huddled around the  pain in his Rum. The attacker had been
wearing  tines. Rum was slashed from ribs to  crotch. Wickwrackrum stumbled;
some of his  paws  were caught in his  own guts. He  tried to nose the ruins
back  into his member's abdomen. The pain was fading, the sky in Rum's  eyes
slowly darkening. Peregrine stifled the screams he felt climbing within him.
I'm only four,  and one of me is dying! For years he'd  been warning himself
that four was just too small a number for a pilgrim. Now he'd pay the price,
trapped and mindless in a land of tyrants.
     For a moment,  the pain eased and his  thoughts  were clear.  The fight
hadn't really caused much notice amid the dirges,  rapes, and simple attacks
of  madness. Wickwrackrum's fight had only been a little bigger and bloodier
than usual. The whitejackets by the flying house had looked briefly in their
direction, but were now back to tearing open the alien cargo.
     Scriber was sitting  nearby, watching in horror. Part of him would move
a  little  closer, then pull  back.  He was fighting with himself, trying to
decide  whether to help. Peregrine almost pleaded  with  him, but the effort
was too great. Besides, Scriber was no pilgrim. Giving part  of  himself was
not something Jaqueramaphan could do voluntarily....
     Memories came flooding now, Rum's  efforts to sort things out  and  let
the rest  of him know all that had been before. For a moment, he was sailing
a twinhull across the South Sea, a  newby with Rum as a pup; memories of the
island  person who had born Rum,  and of  packs before that. Once around the
world they had traveled, surviving the slums of a tropic collective, and the
war of the Plains Herds. Ah, the stories they had heard, the tricks they had
learned, the people they had met.... Wic  Kwk Rac Rum  had been  a  terrific
combination,  clear-thinking, lighthearted, with a strange ability  to  keep
all the memories in place; that had been the real reason he had gone so long
without growing to five or six. Now he would pay perhaps the greatest  price
of all....
     Rum sighed,  and could  not  see the sky  anymore.  Wickwrackrum's mind
went, not  as  it does in the heat of  battle  when the sound of  thought is
lost, not  as  it  does in  the  companionable  murmur of sleep.  There  was
suddenly no fourth presence,  just  the three, trying to make a person.  The
trio stood and patted nervously at itself. There was  danger everywhere, but
beyond its  understanding.  It  sidled  hopefully toward  a  sixsome sitting
nearby  --  Jaqueramaphan? -- but  the  other  shooed  it  away.  It  looked
nervously  at  the  mob of wounded.  There was  completeness  there  ... and
madness too.
     A huge male with deeply scarred haunches sat at the edge of the mob. It
caught the threesome's eye, and  slowly crawled across the open space toward
them.  Wic and Kwk and Rac back  away, their pelts puffing up  in fright and
fascination; the scarred one was at least half again the weight  of  any  of

     ...  Where  am I? ...  May I be  part of you ...  please?  Its  keening
carried memories, jumbled and mostly inaccessible, of blood and fighting, of
military training before that. Somehow,  the creature  was as  frightened of
those early memories as of  anything. It lay its  muzzle -- caked with dried
blood -- on the ground and belly crawled toward them. The other three almost
ran; random  coupling was something that scared all of them. They backed and
backed,  out onto the clear  meadow. The  other followed, but slowly,  still
crawling.  Kwk  licked her lips and walked back  towards  the  stranger. She
extended  her  neck  and sniffed along  the  other's  throat.  Wic  and  Rac
approached from the sides.
     For an instant  there  was a partial join. Sweaty, bloody, wounded -- a
melding made in hell. The thought seemed to come from nowhere, glowed in the
four for  a moment of cynical humor.  Then the unity was lost, and they were
just three animals licking the face of a fourth.

     Peregrine  looked  around  the  meadow  with  new  eyes.  He  had  been
disintegrate for just a  few  minutes: The  wounded  from  the  Tenth Attack
Infantry were just as  before.  Flenser's Servants were still busy with  the
alien  cargo.  Jaqueramaphan  was  slowly  backing  away, his  expression  a
compound of wonder and horror. Peregrine lowered a head  and hissed  at him,
"I won't betray you, Scriber."
     The spy froze. "That you, Peregrine?"
     "More or less." Peregrine still, but Wickwrackrum no more.
     "H-how can you do it? Y-you just lost...."
     "I'm  a pilgrim,  remember?  We live with  this  sort of thing  all our
lives." There  was sarcasm  in his  voice; this was more  or less the cliché
Jaqueramaphan had been spouting earlier. But there was  some  truth  to  it.
Already  Peregrine Wickwrack...scar  felt  like  a person.  Maybe  this  new
combination had a chance.
     "Uk. Well, yes....  What should we do now?" The spy looked nervously in
all directions, but his eyes on Peregrine were the most worried of all.
     Now it  was Wickwrackscar's turn to be puzzled. What was he doing here?
Killing  the strange enemy... No. That's what the Attack Infantry was doing.
He  would have nothing  to do  with that, no  matter what the scarred  one's
memories. He and  Scriber had come here to ... to rescue  the alien, as much
of  it as  possible.  Peregrine  grabbed hold  of  the  memory  and  held it
uncritically;  it  was  something  real,  from the  past  identity  he  must
preserve.  He glanced towards where he had last  seen  the alien member. The
whitejackets and  his travois were no  longer visible, but he'd been heading
along an obvious path.
     "We can still get ourselves the live one," he said to Jaqueramaphan.
     Scriber stamped and sidled.  He was not quite the enthusiast of before.
"After you, my friend."
     Wickwrackscar straightened  his combat jackets  and brushed some of the
dried blood off. Then he  strutted  off across the meadow,  passing  just  a
hundred  yards from  the Flenser's Servants around  the  enemy -- around the
flying  house.   He   flipped  them  a  sharp  salute,  which  was  ignored.
Jaqueramaphan followed, carrying two crossbows. The other was doing his best
to imitate Peregrine's strut, but he really didn't have the right stuff.
     Then they were past the military crest of the hill  and descending into
shadows. The  sounds of  the  wounded  were muted. Wickwrackscar  broke into
double time, loping from  switchback to switchback as he descended the rough
path. From here he could see the harbor; the boats  were still at the piers,
and  there  wasn't  much  activity. Behind him, Scriber  was talking nervous
nonsense. Peregrine just ran faster, his confidence  fueled by general newby
confusion. His new member, the scarred  one, had been  the muscle behind  an
infantry officer. That pack  had  known  the layout of the  harbors and  the
castle, and all the passwords of the day.
     Two  more  switchbacks  and  they  overran the  Flenser Servant and his
travois. "Hallo!" shouted Peregrine.  "We bring new instructions  from  Lord
Steel." A chill went down his spines at the  name, remembering Steel for the
first  time.  The Servant  dropped  the  travois and turned  to  face  them.
Wickwrackscar  didn't  know  his  name,  but  he remembered  the guy: fairly
high-ranking, an arrogant  get-of-bitches. It  was  a  surprise to  see  him
pulling the travois himself.
     Peregrine   stopped  only   twenty   yards   from   the   whitejackets.
Jaqueramaphan was looking down from the switchback above; his bows  were out
of sight. The Servant looked nervously at Peregrine and up at Scriber.
     "What do you two want?"
     Did  he  suspect them already? No matter. Wickwrackscar braced  himself
for a  killing charge ... and  suddenly he  was seeing  in  fours, his  mind
blurred with newby dizziness. Now that he  needed to kill, the scarred one's
horror  of  the  act  undid him.  Damn! Wickwrackscar cast wildly  about for
something to say. And now  that murder was out of his mind, his new memories
came easily: "Lord Steel's will, that the creature be brought with us to the
harbor. You, ah, you are to return to the invader's flying thing."
     The  whitejackets  licked  his  lips.  His  eyes swept  sharply  across
Peregrine's uniforms, and  Scriber's.  "Impostors!" he screamed, at the same
instant lunging one  of his members toward the travois. Metal glinted in the
member's forepaw. He's going to kill the alien!
     There was a  bow snap from above, and  the runner fell, a shaft through
its eye. Wickwrackscar charged the others, forcing his scarbacked member out
front. There  was  an instant of dizziness  and  then  he  was  whole again,
screaming death at the four. The two packs crashed together, Scar carrying a
couple of  the Servant's members  over the edge of  the path.  Arrows hummed
around  them.  Wic  Kwk  Rac  twisted,  slashing axes  at whatever  remained
     Then things were quiet, and Peregrine had his thoughts again. Three  of
the Servant's members twitched on the path, the earth around them slick with
blood. He  pushed them  off  the  path, near where  his  Scar had killed the
others. Not one of  the Servant had survived; it was total death, and he was
responsible. He sagged to the ground, seeing in fours again.
     "The alien. It's still alive," said Scriber. He was standing around the
travois,  sniffing  at  the  mantis-like  body. "Not  conscious  though." He
grabbed  the  travois poles in his jaws  and  looked at Peregrine. "What ...
what now, Pilgrim?"
     Peregrine lay in the  dirt, trying to put his mind back together.  What
now, indeed. How had he gotten into this mess? Newby  confusion was the only
possibility. He'd  simply  lost track of  all the  reasons why rescuing  the
alien was impossible. And now he was stuck with it. Pack  crap. Part of  him
crawled  to the edge of the path, and looked around:  There was no sign they
had attracted attention. In the harbor, the boats  were still empty; most of
the infantry was up in  the hills.  No  doubt the  Servants were holding the
dead ones  at the  harbor fort.  So when  would they  move them  across  the
straits to Hidden Island? Were they waiting for this one's arrival?
     "Maybe we  could grab some boats, escape south," said Scriber.  What an
ingenious fellow. Didn't he know that there would be sentry lines around the
harbor? Even  knowing  the  passwords, they'd be  reported  as soon as  they
passed one. It  would be  a  million-to-one shot.  But  it had  been a  flat
impossibility before Scar became part of him.
     He studied the creature lying on the travois. So strange, yet real. And
it  was more  than just  the creature,  though that was the most spectacular
strangeness.  Its bloodied clothes were a finer  fabric than the Pilgrim had
ever  seen.  Tucked in  beside the  creature's body was  a pink  pillow with
elaborate stitchery.  With  a twist of perspective  he realized it was alien
art, the face of a long-snouted animal embroidered on the pillow.
     So  escape  through the harbor  was a million-to-one  shot; some prizes
might be worth such odds.
     "...We'll go down a little farther," he said.

     Jaqueramaphan pulled the travois.  Wickwrackscar  strode ahead  of him,
trying to look important and officerly. With Scar along, it wasn't hard. The
member was the picture of martial competence; you had to be on the inside to
know the softness.
     They were almost down to sea level.
     The path was wider now and roughly  paved. He knew the  harbor fort was
above them, hidden  by the trees. The sun was well  out of the north, rising
into  the eastern sky.  Flowers were everywhere, white and  red and  violet,
their tufts floating thick  on  the breeze -- the arctic plant  life  taking
advantage  of its  long day of  summer. Walking on sun-dappled cobblestones,
you might almost forget the ambush on the hilltops.
     Very soon, they'd  hit a  sentry line. Lines  and rings are interesting
people; not  great minds, but about  the  largest effective pack you'd  find
outside  the  tropics.  There  were stories of lines  ten  miles  long, with
thousands of members. The largest Peregrine had ever  seen had less than one
hundred: Take a group of ordinary people  and train  them to string out, not
in packs but as individual members. If each member stayed just  a few  yards
from its nearest neighbors, they could maintain something like the mentality
of a trio. The group as a whole was scarcely brighter -- you can't have much
in the way of deep thoughts  when it takes seconds  for an idea to percolate
across your mind. Yet the line had an excellent grasp of what was  happening
along itself.  And if  any members were attacked, the entire line would know
about it with the  speed of sound. Peregrine had  served on lines before; it
was a strung out existence, but not nearly  as dull as ordinary sentry duty.
It's hard to be bored when you're as stupid as a line.
     There! A lone member  stuck its neck around a tree and challenged them.
Wickwrackscar  knew  the  password of course, and  they were past the  outer
line. But that  passage  and their description was known to the  entire line
now -- and surely to normal soldiers at the harbor fort.
     Hell. There was  no  cure for  it;  he  would  go  ahead with the crazy
scheme. He  and Scriber  and the alien  member passed through  the two inner
sentries. He could smell  the sea now. They  came  out of the trees onto the
rock-walled  harbor. Silver sparkled off  the  water in  a million  changing
flecks. A  large multiboat  bobbed  between two piers. Its masts were like a
forest of tilting, leafless trees. Just a mile across the  water they  could
see Hidden Island. Part of him dismissed the sight as a commonplace; part of
him  stumbled  in awe.  This  was the center  of  it, the worldwide  Flenser
movement. Up in  those  dour  towers,  the  original  Flenser had  done  his
experiments, written his essays ... and schemed to rule the world.
     There  were a  few people on the  piers. Most  were  doing maintenance:
sewing  sails,  relashing twinhulls.  They watched  the  travois with  sharp
curiosity,  but  none approached. So all we have  to do is amble down to the
end of the  pier,  cut the  lashings on  an outside twinhull,  and take off.
There were  probably enough packs on the  pier alone to  prevent that -- and
their cries would surely draw the troops he saw by the harbor fort. In fact,
it was a little surprising  that no one up there had taken serious notice of
them yet.
     These boats  were  cruder  than  the  Southseas  version.  Part of  the
difference  was  superficial: Flenser doctrine  forbade idle  decoration  on
boats.  Part of it was functional: These craft were designed for both winter
and  summer seasons, and  for troop hauling. But he was  sure  he could sail
them given the chance. He walked to the end of the pier. Hmm. A bit of luck.
The  bow-starboard twinhull, the one  right next to him by  the pier, looked
fast and well-provisioned. It was probably a long-range scout.
     "Ssst. Something's going on up there." Scriber jerked a head toward the
     The troops were closing ranks -- a  mass salute? Five Servants swept by
the  infantry, and  bugles sounded  from  the fort's towers.  Scar  had seen
things like this, but Peregrine didn't trust the memory. How could --
     A banner of red and  yellow rose over the fort.  On the piers, soldiers
and  boatworkers dropped to their bellies. Peregrine  dropped and  hissed to
the other, "Get down!"
     "Wha -- ?"
     "That's Flenser's flag ... his personal presence banner!"
     "That's impossible."  Flenser had been assassinated in the Republic six
tendays earlier. The mob that tore  him apart  had killed dozens of his  top
supporters  at the same time.... But it was  only the word of the Republican
Political Police that all Flenser's bodies had been recovered.
     Up by the fort, a single pack pranced between the ranks of soldiers and
whitejackets.  Silver and gold  glinted on  its  shoulders. Scriber  edged a
member behind a piling and surreptitiously brought out his eye-tool. After a
moment: "Soul's end ... it's Tyrathect."
     "She's no  more  the  Flenser than  I  am,"  said  Peregrine.  They had
traveled  together from  Eastgate all  the way  across the Icefangs. She was
obviously  a newby,  and not well-integrated.  She had  seemed reserved  and
innerlooking, but there had been rages. Peregrine knew there  was  a  deadly
streak  in  Tyrathect....  Now he guessed whence  it came. At  least some of
Flenser's members had  escaped assassination, and he and  Scriber  had spent
three tendays in its presence; Peregrine shivered.
     At the fort's gate, the pack called Tyrathect turned to face the troops
and  Servants.  She gestured,  and bugles  sounded  again. The new Peregrine
understood that signal:  an  Incalling.  He  suppressed  the sudden  urge to
follow the others on the pier as they walked belly-low toward the  fort, all
their  eyes  upon  The  Master. Scriber looked  back at  him,  and Peregrine
nodded. They had needed a miracle, and here was one -- provided by the enemy
itself! Scriber moved slowly toward the end of the pier, pulling the travois
from shadow to shadow.
     Still  no  one looked back. For  good reason; Wickwrackscar  remembered
what  happened  to those  showing  disrespect  at  an Incalling.  "Pull  the
creature on the bow-starboard boat," he said to Jaqueramaphan. He leaped off
the  pier and scattered  across the multiboat. It was  great to  be  back on
swaying decks, each member drifting a different  direction! He sniffed among
the bow catapults, listened to the hulls and the creak of the lashings.
     But Scar was  no  sailor, and had no recollection of what might  be the
most important thing.
     "What are you looking for?" came Scriber's Hightalk hiss.
     "Scuttle knockouts." If  they  were  here, they looked nothing like the
Southseas version.
     "Oh," said  Scriber, "that's  easy. These are Northern  Skimmers. There
are swingout panels  and a  thin hull behind." Two of him dropped from sight
for a second  and there was a banging sound.  The  heads reappeared, shaking
water off.  He grinned surprise,  taken aback by his own success. "Why, it's
just like in the books!" his expression seemed to say.
     Wickwrackscar found  them now; the panels had looked like  crew  rests,
but they were easily pulled out and the wood behind was easy to break with a
battle  axe. He  kept a  head  out,  looking  to see if  he  were attracting
attention, while at the same time  he hacked at the knockouts. Peregrine and
Scriber worked their  way  across the bow  ranks of the multiboat;  if those
foundered, it would take a while to get the twinhulls behind them free.

     Oops.  One  of the boat workers was looking back  this way. Part of the
fellow continued up the hillside,  part strained to  return to the pier. The
bugles sounded their imperative once more,  and the pack  followed the call.
But his whining alarums were causing other heads to turn.
     No time  for  stealth. Peregrine hotfooted it back to the bow-starboard
twinhull.  Scriber  was  cutting  the braid-bone  fasteners  that  held  the
twinhull to  the  rest  of the ship.  "You  have  any  sailing  experience?"
Peregrine said. Foolish question.
     "Well, I've read about it -- "
     "Fine!" Peregrine  shooed  him all  into the twinhull's  starboard pod.
"Keep the  alien safe.  Hunker down, and be as quiet  as  you can." He could
sail the twinhull by himself,  but  he'd have  to be all over to do  it; the
fewer confusing thought sounds, the better.
     Peregrine poled their boat  forward from the multiboat.  The  scuttling
wasn't obvious yet, but he could see water in the bow hulls. He reversed his
pole  and used its  hook to draw the  nearest  boat into the  gap created by
their departure. Another five  minutes  and there'd be just  a row of  masts
sticking  out of  the water. Five minutes. No way  they could make it ... if
not for Flenser's Incalling:  up  by  the  fort,  troopers were  turning and
pointing at the harbor. Yet still they must attend on Flenser/Tyrathect. How
long would it be before someone important decided that even an Incalling can
be overridden?
     He hoisted canvas.
     The  wind caught the twinhull's sail and they pulled out from the pier.
Peregrine  danced  this way and that,  the  shrouds  grasped  tightly in his
mouths. Even  without  Rum,  what  memories  the taste of  salt and  cordage
brought back! He could feel where tautness and slack meant that the wind was
giving  all  it  could. The twin hulls  were  sleek and narrow,  the mast of
ironwood creaking as the wind pulled on the sail.
     The Flenserists were  streaming  down the hillside now. Archers stopped
and a haze of arrows rose. Peregrine jerked on the shrouds, tipping the boat
into a  left  turn  on one  hull.  Scriber  leaped to  shield the  alien. To
starboard ahead  of  them the water puckered,  but only  a couple of  shafts
struck the boat. Peregrine twisted the shrouds again, and  they jigged  back
in the other  direction. Another few seconds and they'd  be out of  bowshot.
Soldiers raced down  to  the piers, shrieking as they  saw what was left  of
their ship. The bow ranks were flooded; the whole front of the anchorage was
a wreck of sunken boats. And the catapults were in the bow.
     Peregrine  swept  his  boat  back,  racing straight south, out  of  the
harbor. To starboard,  he could  see they  were passing the southern  tip of
Hidden  Island. The Castle towers hung tall and ominous. He knew  there were
heavy catapults there, and some fast boats in the  island harbor. A few more
minutes and even that wouldn't  matter. He was gradually realizing  just how
nimble their  boat was. He should have guessed they'd put their  best  in  a
corner bow position. It was probably used for scouting and overtaking.
     Jaqueramaphan was piled up at the stern of his hull, staring across the
water at  the mainland  harbor. Soldiers, workers, whitejackets were crowded
in a mind-numbing jumble at the ends of the piers. Even from here, you could
see the  place was a madhouse of rage and frustration. A silly  grin  spread
across  Scriber  as  he realized  they  really  were going to  make  it.  He
clambered onto the rail and jumped  into the air to flip  a member  at their
enemies. The obscene gesture nearly cast him overboard, but it was seen: the
distant rage brightened for a moment.
     They were well south  of Hidden  Island; even its  catapults could  not
reach them now. The packs on the mainland shore were lost to view. Flenser's
personal banner still whipped  cheerfully in the morning breeze, a dwindling
square of red and yellow against the forest's green.
     All Peregrine looked at the narrows, where Whale Island kissed close to
the  mainland.  His  Scar  remembered  that  the  choke  point  was  heavily
fortified. Normally that  would have been the  end of them.  But its archers
had been  withdrawn  to  participate in the ambush, and  its  catapults were
under repair.
     ... so the miracle  had happened. They were alive and free and they had
the  greatest  find of all  his pilgrimage. He  shouted  joy  so  loud  that
Jaqueramaphan  cowered  and  the  sound  echoed  back  from  the  green  and
snow-patched hills.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     Jefri Olsndot had few clear  memories of the ambush and saw none of the
violence. There had been  the  noises  outside,  and Mom's terrified  voice,
screaming  for  him to stay  inside. Then there had been  lots  of smoke. He
remembered choking,  trying to crawl  to clear air. He blacked out.  When he
woke,  he was  strapped  onto some sort of  first-aid  cot, with the big dog
creatures all  around.  They  looked so funny with their  white  jackets and
braid. He  remembered  wondering  where  their owners  were. They  made  the
strangest noises: gobbling, buzzing, hissing. Some of it was so high-pitched
he could barely hear it.
     For while he was on a boat, then on a wheeled cart. Before this, he had
only  seen  pictures of castles,  but the place they  took him  was the real
thing, its towers dark and overhanging, its big stone  walls sharply angled.
They climbed  through shadowed  streets that went skumpety  skumpety beneath
the cart's wheels. The long-necked dogs hadn't hurt him, but the straps were
awfully tight.  He couldn't sit up; he couldn't see  to the sides.  He asked
about Mom and Dad and Johanna, and he cried a little.  A long snout appeared
by his face, the soft nose  pushing  at his cheek. There was a buzzing sound
he felt all the  way down to his bones. He  couldn't tell if the gesture was
comfort  or threat, but he  gasped and tried to stop the tears. They  didn't
befit a good Straumer, anyway.
     More white-jacketed dogs, ones with  silly shoulder patches of gold and
     His cot  was  being dragged again, this  time down a torch-lit  tunnel.
They stopped by a double door, two meters wide but scarcely one high. A pair
of  metal triangles  was  set in the  blond wood.  Later  Jefri learned they
signified  a number  -- fifteen or  thirty-three,  depending on whether  you
counted by legs or fore-claws. Much, much later  he  learned that his keeper
had counted by  legs and the builder  of the castle by  fore-claws.  Thus he
ended up in  the wrong  room. It was a mistake that would change the history
of worlds.
     Somehow the dogs opened the doors  and dragged Jefri in. They clustered
around the cot,  their snouts tugging loose his restraints. He had a glimpse
of rows of needle-sharp teeth. The gobbling and buzzing was  very loud. When
Jefri sat up, they backed off. Two of them held the doors  as the other four
exited. The doors slammed shut and the circus act was gone.
     Jefri  stared at the doors for a long moment. He knew it was  no circus
act;  the dog things  must  be intelligent.  Somehow they had surprised  his
parents  and  sister.  Where are  they? He  almost started to cry  again. He
hadn't  seen them by the spaceship. They  must have been captured, too. They
were all  being  held  prisoner in  this castle,  but  in separate dungeons.
Somehow they must find each other!
     He climbed to his feet, swayed dizzily for  a moment. Everything  still
smelled like  smoke.  It  didn't  matter;  it  was  time to start working on
getting  out. He walked  around  the  room. It  was huge, and  not like  any
dungeon he'd seen in stories. The ceiling was very high, an arching dome. It
was cut  by twelve vertical slots. Sunlight fell in a dust-moted stream from
one  of  them, splashing  off  the  padded wall.  It  was  the  room's  only
illumination,  but more than enough  on this sunny day. Low-railed balconies
stuck  out from the  four corners of the  room just below the dome. He could
see doors in the  walls behind them. Heavy scrolls hung by the  side of each
balcony. There was writing on them, really big print. He  walked to the wall
and felt  the stiff  fabric. The letters were painted on.  The only way  you
could  change the display  was by rubbing it out. Wow. Just like olden times
on  Nyjora, before Straumli Realm! The baseboard below the scrolls was black
stone, glossy.  Someone  had  used  scraps  of chalk  to  draw  on  it.  The
stick-figure dogs  were crude; they reminded Jefri of pictures  little  kids
draw in kinderschool.
     He stopped, remembering all the children they had left aboard the boat,
and on the ground around it.  Just a  few days  ago, he'd  been playing with
them at the High Lab school. The last year had been so strange -- boring and
adventurous  at  the  same  time. The  barracks  had been fun  with all  the
families together, but the grownups hardly ever  had time to play. At  night
the sky was so different from Straum's.  "We're beyond the Beyond," Mom  had
said, "making God." When she first said  it, she  laughed. Later when people
said it,  they  seemed more and more scared. The last hours had been  crazy,
the  coldsleep  drills  finally  for real. All his  friends  were  in  those
boxes.... He wept into the awful silence. There  was  no one to hear, no one
to help him.
     After a  few moments he was thinking again. If  the  dogs didn't try to
open the boxes, his friends  should be okay. If Mom and  Dad could make  the
dogs understand....
     Strange  furniture  was scattered  around  the  room:  low  tables  and
cabinets, and racks like  kids'  jungle gyms -- all made from the same blond
wood as the doors.  Black  pillows lay around the widest table. That one was
littered with scrolls, all full of writing and still drawings. He walked the
length of one wall, ten meters or  so. The stone flooring ended. There was a
two-by-two  bed  of  gravel  where  the  walls  met.  Something smelled even
stronger than smoke here. A bathroom  smell. Jefri laughed: they really were
like dogs!
     The padded walls  soaked up his  laughter, echoless. Something ... made
Jefri look up  and across the room.  He'd just assumed he was alone here; in
fact, there  were lots  of hiding places in this "dungeon." For a moment, he
held  his breath and listened. All was silent ... almost: at the top of  his
hearing, up where some  machines  wheep, and Mom  and  Dad  and even Johanna
couldn't hear -- there was something.
     "I -- I know you're here," Jefri said sharply, his voice  squeaking. He
stepped sideways  a few paces, trying  to  see around  the furniture without
approaching  it. The sound  continued, obvious now  that he was listening to
     A small head with great dark eyes looked around  a cabinet. It was much
smaller than the creatures that had brought Jefri here, but the shape of the
muzzle was the same. They stared at each other for a moment, and  then Jefri
edged slowly toward it. A  puppy? The head  withdrew, then came further out.
From the corner of his eye, Jefri saw something move -- another of the black
forms  was  peering at him from under the table.  Jefri froze for  a second,
fighting panic. But there was no place to run, and maybe the creatures would
help find Mom. Jefri dropped to one knee and slowly extended his hand. "Here
... here, doggy."
     The  puppy  crawled from  beneath the  table,  its  eyes  never leaving
Jefri's  hand.  The  fascination  was  mutual;  the   puppy  was  beautiful.
Considering all the thousands  of years that dogs have  been bred  by humans
(and others), this could have been some oddball breed ... but only just. The
hair was short  and dense, a  deep velour of black and white. The  two tones
lay in broad swaths with no  intermediate grays. This  one's entire head was
black, its haunches  split  between white and  black.  The tail was a short,
unimpressive  flap  covering  its  rear. There were hairless  patches on its
shoulders  and head, where Jefri could see  black  skin.  But the  strangest
thing was the long,  supple neck. It would look  more natural  in a  sea'mal
than a dog.
     Jefri wiggled his fingers,  and the puppy's eyes widened,  revealing an
edge of white around the iris.
     Something bumped  his  elbow, and Jefri almost jumped to  this feet. So
many! Two more had crept  up to look at his hand. And where he  had seen the
first one there were now three, sitting alertly, watching. Seen in the open,
there was nothing unfriendly or scary about them.
     One  of the  puppies  put  a  paw on Jefri's  wrist and pressed  gently
downward. At the  same time, another extended its  muzzle and licked Jefri's
fingers.  The  tongue  was  pink  and  raspy,  a  round  narrow  thing.  The
high-pitched wheeping got stronger; all three moved in, grabbing at his hand
with their mouths.
     "Be  careful!" Jefri said, jerking  back his  hand. He  remembered  the
grownups' teeth. Suddenly the air was  full  of  gobbling and  buzzing. Hmp.
They  sounded more  like goofy birds than dogs. One  of the other  pups came
forward.  It extended a sleek nose toward  Jefri.  "Be careful!" it said,  a
perfect playback of the boy's  voice ... yet its mouth was closed. It angled
its  neck back  ... to be  petted? He  reached out; the fur was so soft! The
buzzing was  very  loud now. Jefri  could feel it  through the  fur.  But it
wasn't just  the one  animal  who  was  making  it; the sound came from  all
directions.  The puppy  reversed direction, sliding its  muzzle  across  the
boy's hand. This time he  let the  mouth close on his fingers.  He could see
teeth all right,  but  the puppy carefully  kept them from touching  Jefri's
skin. The tip  of its  snout felt like a  pair  of small fingers closing and
opening around his.
     Three slipped  under his other arm, like they wanted  to be petted too.
He felt noses poking at his back, trying to pull his shirt out of his pants.
The  effort was remarkably coordinated, almost as if a two-handed  human had
grabbed his shirt. Just how many are  there? For a moment he forgot where he
was, forgot to be cautious. He rolled over and began petting the  marauders.
A surprised squeaking sound came from all  directions. Two  crawled  beneath
his elbows;  at  least three  jumped on  his back and  lay  with their noses
touching his neck and ears.
     And  Jefri  had  what  seemed  a  great  insight: The adult  aliens had
recognized he was a child; they just didn't  know how old. They had put  him
in one of their own kinderschools! Mom and Dad were probably talking to them
right now. Things were going to turn out all right after all.

     Lord Steel  had not taken his name casually: steel, the  most modern of
metals; steel, that takes the sharpest edge  and never loses it; steel, that
can  glow red  hot, and yet not fail;  steel, the  blade  that cuts for  the
flenser. Steel was a crafted person, Flenser's greatest success.
     In some sense, the crafting of souls was nothing new. Brood kenning was
a   limited  form  of  it,  though  mainly  concerned  with  gross  physical
characteristics. Even kenners agreed that a  pack's mental abilities derived
from  its various members in different  measures.  One pair  or  triple  was
almost always  responsible for eloquence, another for spatial intuition. The
virtues and vices were even more complex. No single member was the principal
source of courage, or of conscience.
     Flenser's contribution to the field -- as to most others -- had been an
essential ruthlessness,  a cutting away of all but the truly  important.  He
experimented endlessly, discarding  all  but the most successful results. He
depended  on discipline  and denial and partial death  as much as on  clever
member selection. He already had seventy years of experience when he created
     Before he could take his name, Steel spent years in denial, determining
just what parts of  him combined to produce  the being  desired. That  would
have  been  impossible  without  Flenser's  enforcement.  (Example:  if  you
dismissed a part of yourself essential for tenacity, where could you get the
will to continue the flensing?) For the  soul in creation, the  process  was
mental  chaos,  a patchwork  of horror  and amnesia.  In two  years  he  had
experienced more change than most  people  do in two centuries -- and all of
it directed. The turning point came when he  and Flenser identified the trio
that weighed him down with both conscience and slowness of intellect. One of
the three  bridged the others.  Sending  it into silence, replacing it  with
just the right  element,  had  made the difference. After that, the rest was
easy; Steel was born.
     When Flenser had left to convert the Long Lakes Republic, it  was  only
natural that his  most brilliant creation should  take  over  here. For five
years  Steel  had ruled Flenser's heartland. In  that  time he had not  only
conserved what Flenser built, he extended it beyond the cautious beginnings.
     But  today,  in  a  single circling of the  sun about Hidden Island, he
could lose everything.

     Steel  stepped into the meeting  hall  and looked around.  Refreshments
were properly set. Sunlight streamed from a ceiling slit onto just the place
he wanted. Part of Shreck, his aide, stood  on the far side  of the room. He
said to it,  "I will speak with the visitor alone." He did not  use the name
"Flenser". The whitejackets groveled back and its unseen members pushed open
the far doors.
     A  fivesome  --  three males and  two  females  --  walked  through the
doorway,  into the splash  of sunlight. The individual was unremarkable. But
then Flenser had never had an imposing appearance.
     Two heads  raised  to shade the  eyes of  the  others.  The pack looked
across  the  room, spotting Lord Steel twenty  yards away. "Ah-h ... Steel."
The voice was gentle, like a scalpel petting the short hairs of your throat.
     Steel  had  bowed when the  other entered, a formal gesture. The  voice
caused a sudden cramp  in  his guts, and he involuntarily brought bellies to
the  ground.  That was  his voice!  There  was  at least  a fragment of  the
original Flenser in this pack. The  gold and silver epaulets,  the  personal
banner,  those could be faked by anyone with suicidal  bravado.... But Steel
remembered  the  manner.  He  wasn't  surprised  the  other's  presence  had
destroyed discipline on the mainland this morning.
     The pack's heads, where they were in sunlight, were expressionless. Was
a  smile playing about the heads  in shadow? "Where  are  the others, Steel?
What happened today is the greatest opportunity of our history."
     Steel got off  his  bellies and  stood at the  railing. "Sir. There are
some  questions first, just between the  two of us. Clearly, you are much of
Flenser, but how much -- "
     The other was clearly grinning now, the shadowed heads bobbing. "Yes, I
knew my best creation would see that question.... This morning, I claimed to
be the true Flenser, improved with one or two replacements. The truth is ...
harder.  You know  about  the Republic."  That had  been Flenser's  greatest
gamble: to  flense  an entire nation-state. Millions would die,  yet even so
there would be more molding than killing. In the  end, there would exist the
first collective outside of the tropics. And the Flenser state  would not be
a mindless agglomeration grubbing about in  some jungle. The top would be as
brilliant, as ruthless as any packs in history. No people in the world could
stand against such a force.
     "It  was an awesome risk to take, for an even more awesome goal.  But I
took precautions. We had thousands of converts, many of  them people with no
understanding of  our true ambition, but faithful and self-sacrificing -- as
they should be. I always kept a  special group of them nearby. The Political
Police were clever to use mob assassination against me, the last thing I had
expected -- I who made the mobs. No matter, my bodyguards were well trained.
When we were trapped in  Parliament Bowl, they killed one or  two members of
each  of those special  packs ...  and I  simply ceased to  exist, dispersed
among three panicky, ordinary people trying to escape the blood swamp."
     "But everyone around you was killed; the mob left no one."
     The Flenser-thing shrugged. "That was partly Republican propaganda, and
partly my own work: I ordered my guards to  hack each other down, along with
everyone who was not me."
     Steel  almost  voiced his  awe.  The  plan  was  typical  of  Flenser's
brilliance, and his strength of  soul. In assassinations, there  was  always
the chance that  fragments  would get  away. There  were famous  stories  of
heroes  reassembled. In real life such events  were rare, usually  happening
when the victim's  forces could  sustain their leader through reintegration.
But  Flenser  had  planned this  tactic from the  beginning,  had  envisaged
reassembling himself more than a thousand miles from the Long Lakes.
     Still ... Lord  Steel looked at the other in calculation.  Ignore voice
and manner. Think for power,  not for the  desires  of others, even Flenser.
Steel recognized only two in the other pack. The females and  the  male with
the  white-tipped ears  were probably from  the  sacrificed  follower.  Very
likely only two of Flenser really faced him. Scarcely a threat ... except in
the very  real sense of appearances.  "And the other four  of you, Sir? When
may we expect your entire presence?"
     The  Flenser-thing  chuckled. Damaged as  it was, it  still  understood
balance-of-power. This was almost like the old days: when two  people have a
clear  understanding  of  power and  betrayal, then betrayal itself  becomes
almost impossible. There is only the ordered  flow of events,  bringing good
to  those who  deserve  to rule. "The others have equally good ... mounts. I
made  detailed plans, three different paths, three different sets of agents.
I arrived on schedule. I have no doubt the others will too, in a few tendays
at most. Until then,"  he turned  all heads  toward Steel, "until then, dear
Steel,  I  do  not claim  the full  role of Flenser. I  did  so  earlier  to
establish priorities, to protect this fragment till I am assembled. But this
pack is deliberately weak-minded; I know it wouldn't survive as the ruler of
my earlier creations."
     Steel wondered.  Half-brained,  the  creature's schemes  were  perfect.
Nearly perfect.  "So  you wish a  background role for the next few  tendays?
Very well. But you announced yourself as Flenser. How shall I present you?"
     The other didn't hesitate. "Tyrathect, Flenser in Waiting."

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: Transceiver Relay03 at Relay
     Language path: Samnorsk->Triskweline, SjK:Relay units
     From: Straumli Main
     Subject: Archive opened in the Low Transcend!
     Summary: Our links to the Known Net will be down temporarily
     Key phrases: transcend, good news, business opportunities, new archive,
communications problems
 Where Are They Now Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group, Motley Hatch Administration Group, Transceiver Relay03 at Relay, Transceiver Windsong at Debley Down, Transceiver Not-for-Long at Shortstop

     Date: 11:45:20 Docks Time, 01/09 of Org year 52089
     Text of message:
     We are proud to announce that a human exploration company from Straumli
Realm has discovered an accessible archive in the Low Transcend. This is not
an announcement of Transcendence or the creation of  a new Power. We have in
fact postponed  this announcement until we were sure  of our property rights
and the safety  of the  archive. We have installed  interfaces which  should
make the archive interoperable with standard syntax queries from the Net. In
a few days this access will be made commercially available.  (See discussion
of scheduling problems below.)
     Because  of  its  safety,  intelligibility, and  age,  this Archive  is
remarkable. We  believe  there  is  otherwise  lost  information here  about
arbitration management and interrace coordination. We'll send details to the
appropriate  news groups.  We're  very  excited  about  this. Note  that  no
interaction with the Powers was  necessary; no  part  of  Straumli Realm has

     Now for  the  bad news:  Arbitration  and translation schemes have  had
unfortunate  clenirations[?]  with  the ridgeway armiphlage[?]. The  details
should be amusing to the people in the Communication Threats news group, and
we will  report them  there later. But for at least  the next hundred hours,
all  our  links (main  and minor) to the Known Net  will  be down.  Incoming
messages may  be buffered, but no guarantees. No messages can be  forwarded.
We regret this inconvenience, and will make up for it very soon!
     Physical commerce  is in no way affected  by  these problems.  Straumli
Realm continues to welcome tourists and trade.


     Looking  back, Ravna Bergsndot saw it  was inevitable that she become a
librarian. As a child on Sjandra Kei, she had been in love with stories from
the Age of Princesses.  There was adventure, a time when  a few brave Ladies
had dragged  humankind to greatness. She and her  sister had spent countless
afternoons pretending to be the Greater Two and rescuing the Countess of the
Lake. Later they understood that  Nyjora and its Princesses were lost in the
dim  past. Sister  Lynne  turned to more practical  things.  But Ravna still
wanted  adventure. Through  her teens, she  had  dreamed  of  emigrating  to
Straumli  Realm. That  was  something very real.  Imagine: a new  and mostly
human colony, right at  the Top of the Beyond. And Straum welcomed folk from
the mother world; their enterprise was less than one hundred years old. They
or  their children would be  the first  humans anywhere  in  the  galaxy  to
transcend their own  humanity. She might end up  a  god,  and  richer than a
million  Beyonder worlds. It  was a dream real  enough to  provoke  constant
arguments with  her  parents. For  where there is heaven, there  can also be
hell. Straumli  Realm kissed close  to the Transcend,  and the people  there
played with "the tigers that  pace beyond  the  bars." Dad had actually used
that tired image. The disagreement drove them apart for several years. Then,
in  her Computer Science and Applied  Theology  courses, Ravna began to read
about some of the old horrors. Maybe, maybe ... she should be  a little more
cautious.  Better to look  around  first. And there  was a way  to  see into
everything that humans in the Beyond could possibly understand: Ravna became
a  librarian. "The ultimate dilettante!" Lynne had teased. "It's true and so
what?" Ravna had grumped back, but the dream of far traveling was not  quite
dead in her.
     Life in Herte University at Sjandra Kei should  have been  perfect  for
someone who had finally figured out what they wanted from life. Things might
have gone  on happily for a lifetime there --  except that in her graduation
year, there had been  the  Vrinimi Organization's Faraway 'Prentice contest.
Three years work-study  at  the archive by Relay was  the prize. Winning was
the chance of a lifetime;  she would come back with more experience than any
local academician.
     So  it was that Ravna Bergsndot  ended  up  more than  twenty  thousand
light-years from home, at the network hub of a million worlds.

     Sunset was an  hour  past  when  Ravna drifted across  Citypark  toward
Grondr Vrinimikalir's  residence. She'd been on the planet only a handful of
times  since arriving in  the  Relay  system. Most  of her work  was at  the
archives themselves -- a thousand  light-hours out. This  part of Groundside
was  in early autumn, though twilight had faded  the tree colors to bands of
gray. From Ravna's altitude, one hundred meters  up, the  air had the nip of
frosts to  come.  Between her feet she  could  see picnic  fires  and gaming
fields. The Vrinimi  Organization didn't spend  much  on the planet, but the
world  was beautiful. As long  as she kept her eyes on the darkening ground,
Ravna could almost imagine this was someplace in her home terrane on Sjandra
Kei.  Look  into the sky though  ...  and you knew you  were far  from home:
twenty-thousand light-years away, the galactic whirlpool  sprawled up toward
the zenith.
     It  was  just a faint thing in the twilight, and it might  not get much
brighter  this  night:  Low  in  the  western  sky,  a  cluster of in-system
factories  glowed brighter  than any moon.  The  operation  was a  brilliant
flickering of  stars and rays,  sometimes so intense that stark shadows were
cast eastwards from the Citypark mountains. In another half  hour, the Docks
would rise.  The Docks weren't as bright as the factories, but together they
would outshine anything from the far stars.
     She shifted in her agrav harness, drifting lower. The scent  of  autumn
and picnics came  stronger.  Suddenly,  the click of Kalir laughter  was all
around her; she had blundered into an airball game. Ravna spread her arms in
mock humiliation and dodged out of the players' way.
     Her stroll  through  the park was  just about over;  she could  see her
destination ahead.  Grondr 'Kalir's residence was a rarity  in the  Citypark
landscape: a  recognizable building. It dated from when the Org bought  into
the Relay operation. Seen from just eighty meters up, the house was a blocky
silhouette against the sky. When factory lights flashed, the smooth walls of
the monolith glowed  in oily tints. Grondr was her  boss's boss's  boss. She
had talked to him exactly three times in two years.
     No more  delay. Nervous and very curious, Ravna floated lower  and  let
the house electronics guide her across the tree decks toward an entrance.

     Grondr  Vrinimikalir  treated her with  standard Organization courtesy,
the common denominator that served between the several races of the Org: The
meeting room had  furniture suitable for human and  Vrinimi  use. There were
refreshments, and questions about her job at the archive.
     "Mixed  results, sir," Ravna  replied honestly.  "I've learned a  great
deal. The 'prenticeship is everything it's claimed to be. But I'm afraid the
new  division  is going to require an added  index layer." All  this was  in
reports the old fellow could have seen at the flick of a digit.
     Grondr  rubbed  a  hand absently  across  his eye  freckles.  "Yes,  an
expected disappointment. We're at the limits of  information management with
this expansion. Egravan and  Derche -- " those were Ravna's boss and  boss's
boss "-- are quite  happy  with your progress. You  came well educated,  and
learned fast. I think there's a place for humans in the Organization."
     "Thank  you,  sir."  Ravna blushed.  Grondr's  assessment  was casually
spoken but very important  to her. And it would probably mean the arrival of
more  humans, perhaps even before her 'prenticeship was up.  So was this the
reason for the interview?
     She tried not to stare at the other. She was quite used  to the Vrinimi
majority race by now. From  a distance the Kalir  looked humanoid. Up close,
the differences were substantial. The race was descended from something like
an insect. In upsizing,  evolution  had necessarily moved reinforcing struts
inside the body, till the  outside was  a combination  of grublike  skin and
sheets of pale  chitin. At first  glance Grondr was an unremarkable exemplar
of the race. But when the fellow moved, even to adjust his jacket or scratch
at his eye freckles, there was a strange precision to him. Egravan said that
he was very, very old.
     Grondr changed the subject with the clickety abruptness. "You are aware
of the ... changes at Straumli Realm?"
     "You mean  the fall  of  Straum?  Yes." Though I'm  surprised  you are.
Straumli  Realm  was a significant human  civilization, but it accounted for
only an infinitesimal fraction of Relay's message traffic.
     "Please  accept my  sympathy." Despite the cheerful  announcements from
Straum,  it  was clear  that absolute disaster had befallen  Straumli Realm.
Almost  every race eventually dabbled  in the Transcend, more often than not
becoming  a superintelligence, a Power. But it  was  clear by  now that  the
Straumers  had created,  or awakened, a  Power  of deadly inclination. Their
fate  was  as  terrible as anything Ravna's father had ever  predicted.  And
their bad  luck was now  a disaster that  stretched across all that had been
Straumli Realm. Grondr continued: "Will this news affect your work?"
     Curiouser and  curiouser; she would have sworn the other was  coming to
the point. Maybe this was the  point? "Uh,  no sir. The Straumli affair is a
terrible  thing,  especially  for  humankind. But  my home is  Sjandra  Kei.
Straumli Realm is our offspring,  but  I have no relatives there." Though  I
might have  been there if it hadn't  been for Mother and Dad. Actually, when
Straumli Main dropped off the  Net,  Sjandra  Kei  had  been unreachable for
almost  forty hours. That  had bothered her  very much,  since any rerouting
should have  been immediate.  Communication was eventually  established; the
problem had been  screwed-up routing tables  on an alternate path. Ravna had
even shot half a year's savings for an over-and-back mailing. Lynne  and her
parents were  fine;  the Straumli debacle was the news  of the  century  for
folks  at  Sjandra Kei, but it was  still a  disaster at great remove. Ravna
wondered if parents had ever given better advice than hers!
     "Good, good." His mouth parts  moved in the analog  of a human nod. His
head  tilted so  only  peripheral  freckles  were  looking at  her;  the guy
actually seemed hesitant! Ravna looked back silently. Grondr 'Kalir might be
the strangest exec in the Org. He was the only one whose principal residence
was Groundside. Officially he was in  charge  of a division of the archives;
in fact, he ran  Vrinimi Marketing (i.e., Intelligence).  There were stories
that  he  had  visited the  Top of  the  Beyond; Egravan  claimed he had  an
artificial immune system.  "You see, the  Straumli disaster has incidentally
made you one of the Organization's most valuable employees."
     "I ... don't understand."
     "Ravna, the rumors in the Threats newsgroup are true. The Straumers had
a laboratory in the Low Transcend. They  were playing with recipes from some
lost archive, and  they created  a new Power. It appears  to be  a Class Two
     The  Known Net  recorded  a Class  Two perversion about once a century.
Such  Powers had  a normal  "lifespan" -- about  ten years.  But  they  were
explicitly  malevolent, and  in ten  years  could  do enormous  damage. Poor
     "So you can see there's enormous potential for profit or  loss here. If
the  disaster spreads, we will lose  network  customers. On the  other hand,
everyone around Straumli Realm  wants to track what is happening. This could
increase our message traffic by several percent."
     Grondr put it  more cold-bloodedly than  she liked, but he had a point.
In fact, the opportunity for profit was  directly linked with mitigating the
perversion. If she  hadn't  been so wrapped up  in archive  work, she'd have
guessed all this.  And now that she did think about it: "There are even more
spectacular  opportunities. Historically, these  perversions  have  been  of
interest  to  other Powers. They'll want Net feeds and ... information about
the  creating  race."  Her  voice  guttered  into  silence  as  she  finally
understood the reason for this meeting.
     Grondr's mouth  parts  clicked  agreement.  "Indeed.  We at  Relay  are
well-placed to supply news to the Transcend. And we also have our own human.
In  the  last  three  days  we've  received   several   dozen  queries  from
civilizations in the  High Beyond, some claiming to  represent  Powers. This
interest could mean a large increase in Organization income through the next
     "All  this you  could  read  in  the Threats  news group. But there  is
another item, something  I ask  you to keep secret for now: Five days ago, a
ship  from  the  Transcend  entered  our  region. It  claims to  be directly
controlled  by a  Power."  The  wall behind  him  became a  window upon  the
visitor. The craft was an irregular collection  of spines and limps. A scale
bar claimed the thing was only five meters across.
     Ravna felt  the  hair on her neck prickling. Here  in the Middle Beyond
they should be relatively safe from the caprice of the Powers. Still ... the
visit was an unnerving thing. "What does it want?"
     "Information  about the Straumli perversion.  In particular, it is very
interested in your race. It  would give a great deal  to take back  a living
     Ravna's response was abrupt. "I'm not interested."
     Grondr  spread his pale hands. The light glittered from the  chitin  on
the  back  of  his  fingers.  "It   would  be  an  enormous  opportunity.  A
'prenticeship with the gods.  This one has promised  to establish an  oracle
here in return."
     "No!" Ravna  half  rose from  her chair. She was one human,  more  than
twenty thousand light-years from home. That had been a  frightening thing in
the first days  of  her 'prenticeship. Since then she had made friends,  had
learned  more of Organization ethics, had come to trust these folk almost as
much as  people at Sjandra Kei. But ... there was only one halfway trustable
oracle on  the Net these days, and it was almost  ten years  old. This Power
was tempting Vrinimi Org with fabulous treasure.
     Grondr clicked embarrassment. He waved her  back  to her chair. "It was
only a suggestion. We do not abuse our employees. If  you will simply  serve
as our local expert...."
     Ravna nodded.
     "Good. Frankly, I had not  expected you to  accept the offer. We have a
much more likely volunteer, but one who needs coaching."
     "A human? Here?" Ravna  had a standing query in the local directory for
other  humans.  During  the last two years she had seen three, and  they had
just been passing through. "How long has she -- he? -- been here?"
     Grondr said something  halfway between a smile and a laugh. "A bit more
than  a century, though we didn't  realize  it until  a  few days ago."  The
pictures  around him shifted. Ravna recognized Relay's "attic," the junkyard
of  abandoned  ships  and  freight  devices  that  floated  just a  thousand
light-seconds from the archives. "We receive a lot of one-way freight, items
shipped in the hope we'll buy or sell on  consignment." The view closed on a
decrepit vessel, perhaps two hundred meters  long, wasp-waisted to support a
ramscoop drive. Its ultradrive spines were scarcely more than stubs.
     "A bottom-lugger?" said Ravna.
     Grondr clicked negation. "A dredge. The ship  is about thirty  thousand
years old.  Most  of that time  was spent in a  deep penetration of the Slow
Zone, plus ten thousand years in the Unthinking Depths."
     Up  close now, she could see the hull was finely  pitted, the result of
millennia  of relativistic erosion. Even  unpiloted,  such expeditions  were
rare: a deep  penetration could not return to the Beyond within the lifetime
of its builders. Some would not return within the lifetime of the  builders'
race. People who launched such missions were just a little weird; People who
recovered them could make a solid profit.
     "This one came from very  far away, even if  it's not  quite a  jackpot
mission. It  didn't see anything interesting in the Unthinking Depths -- not
surprising given that even  simple automation  fails there. We  sold most of
the cargo  immediately.  The  rest  we  cataloged  and  forgot  ... till the
Straumli affair." The  starscape vanished.  They were looking at  a  medical
display, random limbs and body  parts. They looked  very human.  "In a solar
system at the bottom of the Slowness, the dredge found a derelict. The wreck
had no  ultradrive capability;  it was truly a Slow  Zone design. The  solar
system was uninhabited. We speculate the ship had a structural failure -- or
perhaps the crew was affected by the  Depths. Either way, they ended up in a
frozen mangle."
     Tragedy at the bottom of  the Slowness,  thousands of years ago.  Ravna
forced  her eyes  from  the  carnage.  "You  figure on  selling  this to our
     "Even   better.  Once   we  started  poking  around,  we  discovered  a
substantial error in the cataloging. One of the deaders is almost intact. We
patched it up with parts from  the others. It was expensive, but we ended up
with a living human." The  picture  flickered again,  and  Ravna caught  her
breath.  In the  medical  animation,  the  parts  floated  into  an  orderly
arrangement. There was a complete body there, torn up a little in the belly.
Pieces came together, and ... this was no "she". He floated whole and naked,
as if in sleep. Ravna had no doubt of his humanity, but all humankind in the
Beyond  was descended from Nyjoran  stock.  This fellow  had  none  of  that
heritage. The  skin was smoky  gray, not  brown. The hair was bright reddish
brown, a color she had only seen in pre-Nyjoran histories. The bones  of the
face were subtly  different from modern humans. The small  differences  were
more jarring than the outright alienness of her coworkers.
     Now the figure was clothed. Under other circumstances, Ravna would have
smiled.  Grondr 'Kalir  had picked an  absurd  costume,  something from  the
Nyjoran era. The figure bore a sword and slug gun.... A sleeping prince from
the Age of Princesses.
     "Behold the Ur-human," said Grondr.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     "Relay"  is  a  common  place-name.  It  has  meaning  in  almost   any
environment. Like Newtown and Newhome,  it occurs over and  over when people
move or colonize or participate in  a communication net. You could travel  a
billion light-years or a billion years and still find  such names among folk
of natural intelligence.
     But  in the  current era there  was one instance of "Relay" known above
all others. That instance appeared in the routing list of two percent of all
traffic across the Known Net. Twenty thousand  light-years off the  galactic
plane,  Relay  had  an unobstructed line of sight on thirty percent  of  the
Beyond, including many star systems right at the bottom, where starships can
make  only one light-year per day.  A few  metal-bearing solar systems  were
equally   well-placed,  and   there   was  competition.  But   where   other
civilizations  lost  interest, or  colonized into the Transcend, or  died in
apocalypse, Vrinimi Organization lasted.  After  fifty thousand years, there
were several races of the original Org in its membership. None of those were
still leaders -- yet the original viewpoint and  policies remained. Position
and durability:  Relay was now the main intermediate to the Magellanics, and
one of the few sites with any sort of link to the Beyond in Sculptor.
     At Sjandra Kei, Relay's reputation had been fabulous.  In her two years
of  'prenticeship,  Ravna had  come  to realize  that the truth exceeded the
reputation. Relay was in Middle Beyond; the  Organization's only  export was
the  relay function and access to the  local  archive. Yet they imported the
finest biologicals and processing equipment from  the High Beyond. The Relay
Docks were an extravagance that only the absolutely rich could indulge. They
stretched a  thousand kilometers: bays, repair  holds, transhipment centers,
parks, and playgrounds. Even at Sjandra  Kei there were habitats far larger.
But the Docks were in  no  orbit. They floated a  thousand kilometers  above
Groundside  on the largest agrav frame  Ravna had  ever seen. At Sjandra Kei
the annual income  of an academician might pay  for a  square meter of agrav
fabric  -- junk  that might not  last  a year.  Here  there were millions of
hectares of the stuff, supporting billions  of tonnes. Just replacements for
dead fabric required more High Beyond commerce than most star clusters could

     And  now  I have my own office here. Working directly for Grondr 'Kalir
had its  perks. Ravna kicked back in her chair and stared across the central
sea.  At the Docks'  altitude, gravity was still  about three-quarters of  a
gee. Air fountains hung a breathable atmosphere over the middle  part of the
platform. The day before, she had taken a sailboat across the clear-bottomed
sea. That was a strange experience indeed: planetary clouds below your keel,
stars and indigo sky above.
     She had the surf cranked up this morning -- an  easy matter  of flexing
the agravs of the basin. It made a regular crashing against  her beach. Even
thirty  meters from  the water there was a  tang of salt in the air. Rows of
white tops marched off into the distance.
     She eyed the figure that was  trudging slowly  up the beach toward her.
Just a few weeks ago she would never have dreamed this situation. Just a few
weeks ago she  had been out at the archive, absorbed  in  the  upgrade work,
happy to be involved with one of the largest databases on the Known Net. Now
... it  was  almost as if she had come  full circle, back  to her  childhood
dreams of  adventure.  the only problem was, sometimes she  felt like one of
the bad guys: Pham Nuwen was a living person, not something to be sold.
     She stood and walked out to meet her red-haired visitor.
     He  wasn't  carrying  the   sword  and  handgun  of  Grondr's  fanciful
animation. Yet his clothes were the braided fabric of ancient adventure, and
he carried  himself with lazy confidence. Since her meeting with Grondr, she
had looked  up  some  anthropology  from Old  Earth.  The red  hair  and the
eyefolds  had  been  known  there, though rarely  in  the  same  individual.
Certainly  his  smoky skin  would  have been remarkable to an  inhabitant of
Earth. This  fellow was, as  much as herself,  a product of post-terrestrial
     He stopped an arm's length away and gave her a lopsided grin. "You look
pretty human. Ravna Bergsndot?"
     She smiled and nodded up at him. "Mr. Pham Nuwen?"
     "Yes indeed. We seem both to be excellent guessers." He swept  past her
into the shade of the inner office. Cocky fellow.
     She  followed  him, unsure  about protocol. You'd  think with  a fellow
human there would be no problems....
     Actually, the interview went pretty  smoothly. It was  more than thirty
days since Pham Nuwen's resuscitation.  Much of that  time had been spent in
cram language sessions. The fellow must be  damned bright; he already  spoke
Triskweline  trade talk with a folksy slickness. He  really was rather cute.
Ravna had been away from Sjandra Kei for two  years, and had another year of
her  'prenticeship to go. She'd been doing  pretty well. She had  many close
friends here, Egravan, Sarale. But just chatting  with this fellow brought a
lot of the loneliness back. In some ways he was  more alien than anything at
Relay  ...  and  in  some  ways she  wanted  to just grab him  and kiss  his
confident grin away.
     Grondr Vrinimikalir  had been  telling the truth about  Pham Nuwen. The
guy was actually enthusiastic about the Org's plans for him! In theory, that
meant she could do her job with a clear conscience. In fact....
     "Mr. Nuwen, my job is to  orient  you to your new world. I  know you've
been exposed to some intense  instruction the  last few days, but  there are
limits to how fast such knowledge can sink in."
     The redhead smiled. "Call me Pham.  Sure, I feel  like  an over-stuffed
bag. My sleep  time is full  of  little voices. I've  learned  an  awful lot
without  experiencing  anything.  Worse,  I've  been  a  target for all this
'education'. It's a perfect setup if Vrinimi wants  to trick me.  That's why
I'm learning to use the local library.  And  that's why I insisted they find
someone  like you." He saw the  surprise on her  face.  "Ha! You didn't know
that. See, talking to a  real person  gives  me a chance to  see things that
aren't  all planned  ahead. Also, I've always  been  a  pretty good judge of
human nature; I  think  I  can read  you  pretty well." His  grin showed  he
understood just how irritating he was being.
     Ravna looked up at the green petals of the  beachtrees. Maybe this boob
deserved  what  he was getting  into. "So you have great experience  dealing
with people?"
     "Given the limitations of  the Slowness, I've been  around, Ravna. I've
been  around.  I  know  I  don't look  it,  but  I'm  sixty-seven  years old
subjective. I thank your Organization for a fine job  of thawing me out." He
tipped a non-existent  hat in her direction. "My last voyage was more than a
thousand years objective. I was Programmer-at-Arms on  a Qeng Ho longshot --
" His eyes abruptly  widened, and  he said something unintelligible.  For  a
moment he almost looked vulnerable.
     Ravna reached a hand toward him. "Memory?"
     Pham Nuwen  nodded.  "Damn. This is something I don't  thank you people
     Pham Nuwen  had been frozen in the aftermath of violent death, not as a
planned suspension. It was a near miracle that  Vrinimi Org had been able to
bring him back at all -- at least  with Middle Beyond technology. But memory
was the hardest thing. The chemical basis of memory does not survive chaotic
freezing well.
     The  problem  was enough to shrink even Pham Nuwen's ego  by  a size or
two. Ravna took  pity on him. "It's  not likely that anything is  completely
lost. You just have to find a different angle on some things."
     "... Yes. I've been coached about that. Start with other memories; work
sideways toward what you can't remember straight on. Well ... it beats being
dead." Some  of his jauntiness  returned, but  subdued  to  a  really  quite
charming level. They  talked for long while as the redhead worked around the
points he couldn't "remember straight on".
     And  gradually Ravna came to feel something she  had never expected  in
connection  with  a  Slow  Zoner:  awe.  In  one lifetime,  Pham  Nuwen  had
accomplished virtually everything  that  was  possible for  a being  in  the
Slowness. All her life she  had pitied the civilizations trapped down there.
They could never know the glory;  they might never  know  the truth. Yet  by
luck and skill and sheer  strength of will,  this fellow  had leaped barrier
after barrier. Had Grondr known the truth when he pictured  the redhead with
sword and slug gun? For Pham Nuwen really was a barbarian. He had  been born
on a  fallen colony  world  -- Canberra he called it. The place sounded much
like  medieval Nyjora,  though not matriarchal. He'd been the youngest child
of a king.  He'd grown  up  with swords and poison and intrigue,  living  in
stone castles by a cold, cold sea. No doubt this littlest prince would  have
ended up murdered -- or king of all -- if life had continued in the medieval
way. But when he was thirteen years old everything changed. A world that had
only legends of aircraft and radio was  confronted  by interstellar traders.
In a year of trading, Canberra's feudal politics was turned on its head.
     "Qeng Ho had  invested  three ships in the expedition to Canberra. They
were pissed, thought  we'd be at  a  higher level of technology. We couldn't
resupply them,  so two stayed behind, probably  turned my  poor world inside
out. I left with the third -- a crazy hostage deal  my father thought he was
putting over on them. I was lucky they didn't space me."
     Qeng Ho consisted  of several  hundred  ramscoop  ships  operating in a
volume hundreds  of light-years  across. Their vessels could  reach almost a
third  of  the  speed  of light.  They  were  mostly  traders,  occasionally
rescuers, even more rarely conquerors. When  Pham Nuwen last knew them, they
had  settled thirty worlds and were almost three thousand years old. It  was
as extravagant a civilization  as  can ever exist in the Slowness.... And of
course, until Pham Nuwen was revived, no one in the Beyond had ever heard of
it. Qeng Ho was like a million other doomed civilizations, buried  thousands
of light-years in the Slowness. Only by luck would they ever penetrate  into
the Beyond, where faster-than-light travel was possible.
     But for a thirteen-year-old boy born to swords and chain mail, the Qeng
Ho was more change  than  most living beings ever experience. In a matter of
weeks, he went from medieval lordling to starship cabin boy.
     "At first they didn't  know  what to  do with me. Figured on popping me
into cold storage and dumping me at  the  next stop. What  can you make of a
kid who thinks there's one world and it's flat, who has spent his whole life
learning to whack about with  a sword?" He stopped abruptly, as he did every
few minutes,  when the  stream  of recollection ran into  damaged territory.
Then his glance flicked out at Ravna, and his smile was as cocky as ever. "I
was one mean animal. I don't think civilized  people realize what  it's like
to grow up  with your  own aunts  and uncles scheming to murder you, and you
training to get them first. In civilization I  met  bigger  villains -- guys
who'd  fry  a whole planet  and  call it 'reconciliation'  -- but  for sheer
up-close treachery, you can't beat my childhood."
     To hear Pham Nuwen tell  it, only dumb luck  saved  the  crew  from his
scheming.  In  the  years  that  followed, he learned  to  fit  in,  learned
civilized  skills. Properly tamed, he could be an  ideal  ship master of the
Qeng Ho. And for many years he was. The Qeng Ho volume contained a couple of
other  races, and  a number of  human-colonized worlds. At  0.3c, Pham spent
decades in coldsleep getting from star to star, then a  year or two at  each
port trying to  make a  profit with  products and  information that might be
lethally out-of-date. The  reputation  of the Qeng  Ho was  some protection.
"Politics may come and go, but Greed goes on forever" was the fleet's motto,
and  they had lasted longer than most  of their  customers.  Even  religious
fanatics grew a little cautious when they thought about Qeng Ho retribution.
But more often it was the skill and deviousness of the shipmaster that saved
the day. And few were a match for the little boy in Pham Nuwen.
     "I was almost the perfect skipper.  Almost. I always wanted to see what
was beyond the space we had good records on. Every time I  got  really rich,
so rich I  could launch my own subfleet --  I'd take some  crazy  chance and
lose  everything. I was  the  yo-yo of the Fleet. One  run I'd be captain of
five, the next I'd be pulling maintenance programming on some damn container
ship. Given  how time stretches out with sublight commerce, there were whole
generations who thought I  was a legendary genius -- and others who used  my
name as a synonym for goofball."
     He  paused and his eyes widened  in  pleased surprise. "Ha!  I remember
what I was doing there at the end. I was in the 'goofball' part of my cycle,
but it didn't matter. There was  this captain of twenty who was even crazier
than I.... Can't remember her name. Her? Couldn't have been; I'd never serve
under a  fem captain." He was almost talking  to himself. "Anyway, this  guy
was willing to bet everything on the sort of thing normal  folks would argue
about over beer. He called his ship the, um, it translates as something like
'wild  witless bird'  -- that gives you the idea about him. He figured there
must  be some really high-tech  civilizations somewhere in the universe. The
problem  was to find them. In a strange way, he had almost guessed about the
Zones. Only problem was,  he wasn't  crazy enough;  he got  one little thing
wrong. Can you guess what?"
     Ravna nodded. Considering where Pham's wreck was found, it was obvious.
     "Yeah. I'll bet it's an idea older than spaceflight:  the 'elder races'
must be toward the galactic core, where stars are closer and there are black
hole exotica for power.  He was taking  his  entire fleet of twenty.  They'd
keep going till  they found  somebody  or had to  stop  and  colonize.  This
captain  figured  success  was  unlikely  in our  lifetime.  But with proper
planning we could  end up in a close-packed region where it would be easy to
found a new Qeng Ho -- and it would proceed even further.
     "Anyway, I was lucky to get aboard  even as  a programmer; this captain
knew all the wrong things about me."
     The  expedition  lasted  a thousand years, penetrating  two hundred and
fifty light-years  galactic inward. The  Qeng Ho  volume  was closer  to the
Bottom of the Slowness than Old Earth, and they were proceeding inwards from
there. Even so, it was plain bad luck that they encountered  the edge of the
Deeps  after only two hundred and fifty light-years.  One after another, the
Wild  Witless Bird lost contact  with the other ships. Sometimes it happened
without warning, other times there was evidence of computer failure or gross
incompetence.  The survivors saw a  pattern,  guessed that common components
were  failing. Of course, no one connected the problems  with the  region of
space they were entering.
     "We  backed  down  from  ram  speeds,  found  a  solar  system  with  a
semi-habitable planet. We'd lost track of everybody  else....  Just what  we
did then isn't real clear to  me." He gave  a dry laugh. "We must  have been
right at the edge, staggering around at about IQ 60. I remember fooling with
the life support  system. That's probably  what  actually killed us." For  a
moment he looked sad and bewildered. He shrugged. "And then I woke up in the
tender  clutches  of  Vrinimi Org, here  where  faster-than-light  travel is
possible ... and I can see the edge of Heaven itself."
     Ravna  didn't say anything for  a  moment.  She looked across her beach
into the  surf. They'd been talking a long time.  The sun was  peeking under
the tree  petals, its light shifting across her office.  Did  Grondr realize
what he had here? Almost anything from the  Slow Zone had collector's value.
People fresh from the Slowness were even more valuable. But Pham Nuwen might
be  unique.  He  had  personally   experienced  more  than  had  some  whole
civilizations,  and ventured into the Deeps  to boot. She understood now why
he  looked to  the Transcend and  called  it  "Heaven". It  wasn't  entirely
naïveté, nor a failure in the Organization's education programs.  Pham Nuwen
had already been through  two  transforming experiences,  from  pre-tech  to
star- traveler, and star-traveler to Beyonder. Each was a jump almost beyond
imagination. Now  he saw  that  another step was possible, and was perfectly
willing to sell himself to take it.

     So  why  should I risk  my job  to change his mind? But  her  mouth was
living a life of its own. "Why  not postpone the Transcend, Pham? Take  some
time to  understand  what is here in the Beyond.  You'd be welcome in almost
any civilization. And on  human worlds  you'd  be the  wonder of the age." A
glimpse of non-Nyjoran  humanity. The local  newsgroups  at Sjandra Kei  had
thought Ravna radically ambitious to  take a  'prenticeship twenty  thousand
light-years away.  Coming  back  from  it,  she would  have her pick of Full
Academician jobs on any of a dozen worlds. That was nothing compared to Pham
Nuwen; there were folks so rich they might give him a world if he would just
stay. "You could name your price."
     The redhead's lazy smile  broadened. "Ah,  but you  see,  I've  already
named my price, and I think Vrinimi can meet it."

     I really wish I  could  do something  about that smile, thought  Ravna.
Pham Nuwen's ticket to the  Transcend was based on a Power's sudden interest
in the  Straumli perversion. This innocent's ego might end up smeared across
a  million  death  cubes,  running a million million  simulations  of  human

     Grondr called  less  than five minutes  after  Pham  Nuwen's departure.
Ravna knew the Org would be eavesdropping, and she'd already told Grondr her
misgivings  about this "selling" of  a sophont. Nevertheless,  she was a bit
nervous to see him.
     "When is he actually going to leave for the Transcend?"
     Grondr  rubbed at his  freckles. He didn't seem angry. "Not  for ten or
twenty days.  The Power that's negotiating  for  him  is  more interested in
looking at our archives and watching what's passing through Relay. Also  ...
despite the human's enthusiasm for going, he's really quite cautious."
     "Yes. He's  insisting  on  a library  budget,  and permission  to  roam
anywhere  in the  system. He's been  chatting with random employees all over
the Docks. He was especially insistent about talking to you." Grondr's mouth
parts  clicked in a smile. "Feel free to speak your  mind to him. Basically,
he's  tasting around for hidden  poison. Hearing  the worst from you  should
make him trust us."
     She was coming to understand Grondr's confidence. Damn  but Pham  Nuwen
had a thick head. "Yes  sir. He's  asked me to  show him around  the Foreign
Quarter tonight." As you well know.
     "Fine. I wish the  rest  of  the  deal were  going as smoothly." Grondr
turned so  that only peripheral freckles  were looking in  her direction. He
was  surrounded by status displays of  the Org's communication  and database
operations. From what  she could see, things were remarkably busy. "Maybe  I
should not bring this up, but it's  just possible you can help....  Business
is very  brisk."  Grondr did  not seem pleased to report the good  news. "We
have nine civilizations from the Top of the Beyond that are bidding for wide
band  data feeds. That we could handle.  But this Power  that  sent  a  ship
     Ravna interrupted almost  without  thinking, a  breach that  would have
horrified her a few days earlier. "Just who is it,  by the  way? Any  chance
we're entertaining the  Straumli Perversion?" The thought of that taking the
redhead was a chill.
     "Not unless all the Powers are fooled, too. Marketing calls our current
visitor 'Old One'." He  smiled. "That's  something of  a joke, but true even
so.  We've known  it  for  eleven  years."  No  one  really  knew  how  long
Transcendent beings lived, but it was a rare Power that stayed communicative
for more than five or  ten years. They lost interest, or grew into something
different -- or really did die. There were a million explanations, thousands
that were allegedly from the Powers first hand. Ravna  guessed that the true
explanation  was  the  simplest  one:  intelligence  is  the  handmaiden  of
flexibility  and  change. Dumb animals  can  change only as  fast as natural
evolution.  Human equivalent races,  once on their technological run-up, hit
the limits  of their  zone  in a matter  of  a  few thousand  years.  In the
Transcend, superhumanity can happen so fast that its creators are destroyed.
It wasn't surprising then that the Powers themselves were evanescent.
     So calling an eleven-year Power "Old One" was almost reasonable.
     "We believe that Old One is a variant on  the Type 73 pattern. Such are
rarely malicious  --  and we know  from  whom it Transcended. Just now  it's
causing  us  major  discomfort,   though.  For  twenty  days  it  has   been
monopolizing an enormous and increasing percentage of Relay bandwidth. Since
its ship arrived, it's  been all over the archive and our local nets.  We've
asked  Old  One to send noncritical data by starship, but  it refuses.  This
afternoon was  the  worst yet. Almost  five  percent of Relay's capacity was
bound up in its service. And the creature is sending almost as much downlink
as it is receiving uplink."
     That was  weird, but, "It's still paying for the business, isn't it? If
Old One can pay top price, why do you care?"
     "Ravna,  we hope  our Organization will be  around for many years after
the Old One  is gone. There is nothing it could offer us that would be  good
through  all that  time." Ravna nodded. Actually, there were certain "magic"
automations that might work  down  here,  but their  long-term effectiveness
would be dubious. This was a  commercial situation, not  some exercise in an
Applied Theology course.  "Old One can  easily top  any bid from the  Middle
Beyond. But if we give  it all the services it demands, we'll be effectively
nonfunctional to  the rest  of our customers  -- and  they are the people we
must depend on in the future."
     His image  was replaced  by  an archive  access  report. Ravna was very
familiar  with the format, and Grondr's complaint really hit home. The Known
Net  was  a  vast  thing, a  hierarchical  anarchy  that linked hundreds  of
millions  of worlds.  Yet even the main trunks had bandwidths like something
out  of Earth's dawn  age; a wrist dataset could  do  better on a local net.
That's why  bulk  access  to  the  Archive  was  mostly  local  --  to media
freighters visiting the Relay system. But now  ...  during the last  hundred
hours, remote access  to the  Archive, both by volume and by count, had been
higher than local! And ninety percent of those accesses were  from a  single
account -- Old One's.
     Grondr's  voice  continued  from  behind the  graphics. "We've got  one
backbone transceiver dedicated to this Power right now.... Frankly, we can't
tolerate  this  for  more than a few days; the ultimate expense is  just too
     Grondr's  face was back on  the display. "Anyway, I  think  you can see
that  the  deal for the  barbarian is really the least of our  problems. The
last twenty  days  have  brought more income  than the last two years -- far
more than we can verify and absorb. We're endangered by our own success." He
made an ironic smile-frown.

     They talked  a few  minutes about Pham Nuwen, and then Grondr rang off.
Afterwards, Ravna took a walk along her beach. The sun  was well down toward
the aft horizon, and the sand was just pleasantly warm against her feet; the
Docks  went round the  planet once every twenty hours, circling the  pole at
about  forty degrees north latitude. She walked close to the surf, where the
sand was flat and  wet. The mist off the sea was moist against her skin. The
blue  sky just  above  the  white-tops  shaded quickly to indigo  and black.
Specks of silver moved up there, agrav floaters  bringing starships into the
Docks. The whole thing was so fabulously, unnecessarily expensive. Ravna was
by turns  grossed out  and  bedazzled. Yet after two years at Relay, she was
beginning to see the point. Vrinimi  Org wanted the Beyond  to know  that it
had the resources to handle whatever communication and archive demands might
be made on it. And they wanted  the Beyond to suspect that there were hidden
gifts from the Transcend here, things that might  make it more than a little
dangerous to invaders.
     She stared into the spray, feeling it bead on her lashes. So Grondr had
the big problem right now: how do you tell a Power to take a walk? All Ravna
Bergsndot had to worry about was one overconfident twit who seemed hell-bent
on destroying himself. She turned and paralleled the water. Every third wave
it surged over her ankles.
     She sighed. Pham  Nuwen was beyond doubt a twit ... but what an awesome
one. Intellectually,  she had always known that  there was no difference  in
the possible intelligence of Beyonders and the primitives of  the  Slowness.
Most automation  worked  better in the Beyond; ultralight communication  was
possible.  But you  had  to go to  the Transcend to  build  truly superhuman
minds.  So  it  shouldn't be surprising  that  Pham Nuwen was capable.  Very
capable. He had picked  up Triskweline with incredible  ease. She had little
doubt that he was the master skipper  he claimed. And to  be a trader in the
Slowness, to risk centuries  between the stars for a destination  that might
have fallen from civilization or become deadly hostile to outsiders ... that
took courage that was  hard  to imagine. She could understand  how he  might
think going to the Transcend was just another challenge.  He'd had less than
twenty days to absorb a whole new  universe. That simply  wasn't enough time
to understand that the rules change when the players are more than human.
     Well, he still had a few  days of grace. She would change his mind. And
after talking to Grondr just now, she  wouldn't feel especially guilty about
doing it.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     The Foreign Quarter was actually about a third of the Docks. It abutted
the no-atmosphere periphery -- where  ships actually docked  -- and extended
inwards  to a  section  of  the  central sea.  Vrinimi Org  had  convinced a
significant number of races that this was a wonder of  the Middle Beyond. In
addition  to freight traffic  there were  tourists -- some of the wealthiest
beings in the Beyond.
     Pham  Nuwen had  carte  blanche  to these  amusements.  Ravna  took him
through the  more spectacular ones, including an  agrav hop over the  Docks.
The  barbarian was more  impressed  by their pocket space suits than by  the
Docks. "I've seen structures bigger  than that  down in the  Slowness."  Not
hovering in a planetary gravity well, you haven't.
     Pham  Nuwen seemed to  mellow as the  evening progressed.  At least his
comments  became more perceptive, less edged.  He  wanted  to  see  how real
traders  lived in  the  Beyond, and  Ravna  showed  him the bourses and  the
traders' Local.
     They ended up in The Wandering Company  just after Docks midnight. This
was not Organization territory, but it was one of Ravna's favorite places, a
private dive that attracted traders from the Top to the Bottom. She wondered
how the decor would appeal to Pham Nuwen. The place was modeled as a meeting
lodge on some world of the  Slow Zone. A three-meter model ramscoop  hung in
the air over the main service floor. Blue-green drive fields glowed from the
ship's every  corner  and flange,  and spread faintly among  patrons sitting
     To Ravna the walls and floors were heavy timber, rough cut. People like
Egravan saw stone walls and narrow tunnels -- the sort of  broodery his race
had maintained on new conquests of long ago. The trickery was optical -- not
some mental smudging --  and about the best that could be done in the Middle
     Ravna and  Pham walked between widely-spaced tables. The owners weren't
as  successful  with sound as with  vision: the music was  faint and changed
from table to table.  Smells changed too,  and were  a little bit  harder to
take.  Air management  was  working  hard  to keep  everyone healthy, if not
completely comfortable. Tonight the place was crowded. At the far end of the
service floor,  the  special-atmosphere nooks  were occupied:  low pressure,
high pressure, high NOx,  aquaria.  Some customers  were vague blurs  within
turbid atmospheres.
     In some ways it might have been a port bar at Sjandra Kei. Yet ... this
was Relay. It attracted High  Beyonders  who would never come to  backwaters
like  Sjandra  Kei.  Most  of  the  High  Ones  didn't  look  very  strange;
civilizations at the Top were  most often just colonies from  below. But the
headbands  she  saw  here  were  not  jewelry.  Mind-computer  links  aren't
efficient in the Middle  Beyond,  but most  of the  High Beyonders would not
give  them  up.  Ravna started  toward a group of  banded tripods  and their
machines. Let Pham Nuwen  talk with creatures who teetered  on the  edge  of
     Surprisingly, he touched her arm, drawing her back. "Let's walk  around
a  little  more." He was looking all around the hall, as if searching  for a
familiar face. "Let's find some other humans first."
     When  holes showed in  Pham Nuwen's cram-education, they  were gapingly
wide. Ravna tried to keep her face  serious. "Other humans?  We're all there
is at Relay, Pham."
     "But the friends you've been telling me about ... Egravan, Sarale?"
     Ravna  just  shook  her  head.   For  a  moment  the  barbarian  looked
     Pham  Nuwen   had  spent  his   life  crawling  at   sublight   between
human-colonized  star systems.  She knew that in all that life he  had  seen
only three non-human races. Now  he was lost in a sea of alienness. She kept
her sympathy to herself; this one insight might affect the guy more than all
her arguing.
     But  the instant  passed,  and he  was  smiling  again.  "Even  more an
adventure." They  left the  main floor and  walked  past  special-atmosphere
nooks. "Lord, but Qeng Ho would love this."
     No humans anywhere, and  The  Wandering Company was the homiest meeting
place she knew; many Org  customers met only on the  Net. She felt  her  own
homesickness welling  up. On the second floor, a signet flag caught her eye.
She'd known  something like  it back at Sjandra  Kei.  She drew  Pham  Nuwen
across the floor, and started up the timbered stairs.
     Out of the background murmur, she heard  a high-pitched twittering.  It
wasn't  Triskweline,  but  the  words made  sense!  By  the Powers,  it  was
Samnorsk:  "I do believe it's a Homo Sap! Over here,  my lady." She followed
the sound to the table with the signet flag.
     "May we sit with you?" she asked, savoring the familiar language.
     "Please do." The twitterer looked  like a small ornamental tree sitting
in a  six-wheeled  cart.  The  cart  was  marked  with cosmetic stripes  and
tassels; its 150-by-120-centimeter topside was covered with a cargo scarf in
the same pattern as the signet flag. The creature was a Greater Skroderider.
Its race traded through  much of the Middle Beyond,  including Sjandra  Kei.
The  Skroderider's  high-pitched voice  came  from  its voder.  But speaking
Samnorsk, it sounded homier  than anything she'd heard in  a long time. Even
granting the  mental  peculiarities of  Skroderiders, she  felt  a  surge of
affectionate nostalgia,  as if  she  had  run  into a old classmate in a far
     "My name  is --  " the  sound was the rustling of fronds,  "but you can
easier  call  me  Blueshell.  It's  nice to  see  a  familiar face, hahaha."
Blueshell spoke the laughter  as words. Pham Nuwen had sat  down with Ravna,
but he understood not a word  of Samnorsk and so the  great reunion was lost
on  him.  The  Rider  switched  to   Triskweline  and  introduced  his  four
companions: another Skroderider, and three  humanoids who seemed to like the
shadows. None of  the humanoids spoke Samnorsk, but no one was more than one
translator hop from Triskweline.
     The  Skroderiders  were   owners/operators  of  a  small   interstellar
freighter, the  Out of Band II. The  humanoids were certificants for part of
the  starship's current cargo.  "My  mate and I  have been in  the  business
almost two hundred years. We have happy feelings for your race, my lady. Our
first runs  were between Sjandra Kei and Forste Utgrep. Your people are good
customers  and  we scarcely  ever have  a shipment rot...." He  wheeled  his
skrode back from the table  and then drove forward --  the  equivalent of  a
small bow.
     All  was not sweetness and light, however.  One of the humanoids spoke.
The  sounds  could almost have come from a human throat, though they made no
sense. A moment passed as the house translator processed his words. Then the
broach on his  jacket spoke in  clear Triskweline: "Blueshell states you are
Homo  sapiens.   Know  that   you  have  our  animosity.  We  are  bankrupt,
near-stranded here by your race's  evil creation. The  Straumli Perversion."
The  words  sounded  emotionless,  but Ravna could see the  creature's tense
posture, its fingers twisting at a drink bulb.
     Considering  his attitude, it probably wouldn't help to point  out that
though she was human,  Sjandra Kei was thousands of light-years from Straum.
"You came here from the Realm?" she asked the Skroderider.
     Blueshell  didn't  answer immediately. That's the  way it  was with his
race; he was probably trying to remember who  she was and what they were all
talking about. Then: "Yes, yes. Please do excuse my certificants' hostility.
Our  main cargo is  a one-time cryptographic  pad.  The source is Commercial
Security at Sjandra  Kei; the destination is the certificants'  High colony.
It was the usual  arrangement: We're carrying a  one-third  xor  of the pad.
Independent shippers are carrying the others.  At the destination, the three
parts  would  be xor'd together.  The  result  could supply a  dozen worlds'
crypto needs on the Net for -- "
     Downstairs  there was a commotion.  Someone was smoking something a bit
too strong  for the air scrubbers. Ravna  caught a whiff, enough  to shimmer
her vision. It had knocked out several patrons on the main level. Management
was  counseling the offending customer. Blueshell made an abrupt  noise.  He
backed his  skrode from the table and  rolled to the railing. "Don't want to
be caught unawares. Some people can be so abrupt...." When nothing more came
of the  incident, he returned.  "Uh,  where was I?" He was  silent a moment,
consulting  the short-term  memory  built into his skrode. "Yes,  yes.... We
would  become  relatively rich if  our plans  work  out.  Unfortunately,  we
stopped  on Straum to drop off some bulk data." He  pivoted on his rear four
wheels. "Surely that was safe? Straum  is  more  than a hundred  light-years
from their lab in the Transcend. Yet -- "
     One  of  the  certificants  interrupted  with  loud gabble.  The  house
translator kicked in a  moment later: "Yes. It should have been safe. We saw
no violence. Ship's recorders show that  our safeness was not  breached. Yet
now  there  are rumors.  Net groups claim that  Straumli  Realm  is owned by
perversion.  Absurdity.  Yet these  rumors  have  crossed  the  Net  to  our
destination. Our cargo is  not  trusted, so  our cargo is ruined:  now it is
only a  few grams of data medium carrying random -- " In the middle  of  the
flat-voiced translation, the humanoid lunged out of the shadows. Ravna had a
glimpse of a jaw edged with razor-sharp gums. He threw his drink bulb at the
table in front of her.
     Pham Nuwen's hand  flashed out, snatching  the  drink before  it hit --
before she had quite realized what was happening. The redhead came slowly to
his feet. From the shadows, the two  other humanoids came to  their feet and
moved toward  their friend.  Pham Nuwen didn't say  a word. He set  the bulb
carefully down and leaned just slightly toward the other, his hands  relaxed
yet bladelike. Cheap fiction talks about "looks of deadly menace". Ravna had
never  expected to see  the real  thing.  But the humanoids saw it too. They
tugged  their  friend  gently  back  from the  table. The loudmouth did  not
resist, but once beyond Pham's reach he erupted in  a barrage of squeals and
hisses  that left the house translator speechless.  He made a sharp  gesture
with three  fingers, and  shut up. The three swept silently down  the stairs
and away.
     Pham Nuwen  sat down, his  gray eyes calm  and untroubled. Maybe he did
have  something  to be  arrogant  about!  Ravna  looked  across at  the  two
Skroderiders. "I'm sorry your cargo lost value."
     Most of Ravna's past contacts had  been with Lesser Skroderiders, whose
reflexes  were  only slightly augmented  beyond their sessile  heritage. Had
these two even noticed the interruption? But Blueshell answered immediately,
"Do  not   apologize.   Ever  since  our  arrival,  those  three  have  been
complaining.  Contract partners  or not, I'm very tired  of them." He lapsed
into potted-plant mode.
     After  a  moment,  the other Rider  --  Greenstalk, was it?  --  spoke.
"Besides, our commercial situation may  not be a complete failure. I am sure
the other thirds of the shipment went nowhere near Straumli Realm." That was
the  usual procedure  anyway: each  part of  the shipment  was  carried by a
different  company, each  taking a very different path.  If the other thirds
could  be  certified, the crew  of  the Out  of  Band  might  not come  away
empty-handed.  "In  --  in  fact,  there  may  be  a  way we  can  get  full
certification. True, we were at Straumli Main, but -- "
     "How long ago did you leave?"
     "Six  hundred  and  fifty hours ago. About two hundred hours after they
dropped off the Net."
     It  suddenly  dawned  on Ravna that she  was talking to something  like
eyewitnesses. After thirty days, the Threats news was still dominated by the
events at Straum. The consensus was  that a  Class  Two  perversion had been
created  --  even  Vrinimi  Org  believed  that.  Yet  it  was  still mainly
guesswork....  And  here  she was talking  to beings who  had actually  been
there. "You don't think the Straumers created a perversion?"
     It was Blueshell who replied. "Sigh," he said.  "Our certificants  deny
it,  but I  see a problem of conscience here. We did witness  strangeness on
Straum.... Have you  ever encountered  artificial immune  systems? The  ones
that  work in the Middle Beyond  are  more  trouble than  they're  worth, so
perhaps  not.  I noticed a  real change  in certain  officers of the  Crypto
Authority right after the Straumli victory. It  was as if they were suddenly
part of  a poorly calibrated automation, as  if they  were  somebody's,  um,
fingers.... No  one can doubt they were playing in the Transcend. They found
something up  there; a lost archive. But that  is not the point." He stopped
talking for a long  moment; Ravna almost thought he was finished. "You  see,
just before leaving Straumli Main, we -- "
     But  now Pham Nuwen  was  talking  too.  "That's  something  I've  been
wondering  about. Everybody  talks as though this  Straumli Realm was doomed
the moment  they  began research in the Transcend.  Look.  I've  played with
bugged software and strange weapons. I know you can get killed that way. But
it looks  like  the Straumers were  careful to put their  lab far away. They
were  building something that could  go very wrong, but apparently  it was a
previously-tried  experiment -- like  just  about everything  Up  Here. They
could stop the  work any time it deviated from  the records, right up to the
end. So how could they screw up so bad?"
     The  question stopped the Skroderider in its tracks. You  didn't need a
doctorate in  Applied Theology to know the answer.  Even the damn  Straumers
should have known the answer. But given Pham  Nuwen's  background, it  was a
reasonable question.  Ravna  kept  her  mouth shut.  The Skroderider's  very
alienness might be more convincing to Pham than another lecture from her.
     Blueshell dithered  for  a moment,  no doubt using  his skrode to  help
assemble  his arguments. When he finally spoke,  he didn't seem irritated by
the interruption. "I hear several  misconceptions, My Lady  Pham." He seemed
to use  the old  Nyjoran  honorific pretty indiscriminately. "Have you  been
into the archive at Relay?"
     Pham said yes. Ravna  guessed he'd never been past the beginners' front
     "Then you know that an archive is a fundamentally vaster thing than the
database  on a  conventional local  net. For practical purposes the big ones
can't even be duplicated. The major archives go back millions of years, have
been  maintained  by hundreds  of different  races --  most  now  extinct or
Transcended into Powers. Even the archive at Relay is a jumble, so huge that
indexing systems are laid on top of indexing systems. Only in the  Transcend
could such a  mass  be well  organized and  even then only the Powers  could
understand it."
     "There are thousands of  archives in the Beyond -- tens of thousands if
you count the ones that  have fallen into disrepair or dropped  off the Net.
Along  with  unending trivia, they  contain important secrets and  important
lies. There are traps and snares." Millions of races played  with the advice
that  filtered unsolicited across the Net. Tens of thousands had been burned
thereby.  Sometimes the  damage was relatively  minor,  good inventions that
weren't quite  right for the target environment. Sometimes it was malicious,
viruses that  would jam a local net so thoroughly  that a civilization  must
restart from  scratch.  Where-Are-They-Now  and  Threats carried stories  of
worse  tragedies: planets kneedeep  in replicant goo, races turned brainless
by badly programmed immune systems.
     Pham Nuwen was  wearing his skeptical  expression. "Just test the stuff
at a safe remove. Be prepared for local disasters."
     That would  have brought  most  explanations  to a  stop. Ravna had  to
admire the Skroderider: he paused, retreated to still more elementary terms.
"True, simple caution can prevent many disasters. And if your lab is  in the
Middle or Low Beyond, such caution is all that is really needed -- no matter
how sophisticated the  threat.  But  we all  understand  the  nature  of the
Zones...."  Ravna  had virtually  no feel  for Rider body  language, but she
would have  sworn  that  Blueshell was watching  the  barbarian expectantly,
trying to gauge the depth of Pham's ignorance.
     The human nodded impatiently.
     Blueshell  continued,  "In the Transcend, truly sophisticated equipment
can operate, devices substantially smarter than anyone down here. Of course,
almost any  economic or military competition can  be  won  by  the side with
superior computing resources.  Such can be had  at the Top of the Beyond and
in the  Transcend. Races are always migrating  there, hoping to  build their
utopias. But what do you do when your new creations  may be smarter than you
are? It happens that there are limitless possibilities for disaster, even if
an existing Power does not cause harm. So there are unnumbered  recipes  for
safely  taking  advantage  of  the   Transcend.  Of  course  they  can't  be
effectively  examined except  in the  Transcend. And run on devices of their
own description, the recipes themselves become sentient."
     Understanding was beginning to glimmer across Pham Nuwen's face.
     Ravna  leaned  forward,  caught  the  redhead's  attention.  "There are
complex things in the archives.  None of them is sentient, but some have the
potential, if only some naive young race  will  believe their  promises.  We
think  that's  what  happened  to  Straumli  Realm.  They  were  tricked  by
documentation that  claimed miracles, tricked into  building  a transcendent
being, a  Power --  but  one that  victimizes sophonts in the  Beyond."  She
didn't  mention how  rare  such  perversion  was. The  Powers were variously
malevolent, playful,  indifferent  -- but  virtually  all of them had better
uses for their time than exterminating cockroaches in the wild.
     Pham Nuwen rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. "Okay, I guess I see. But I get
the feeling this  is  common  knowledge.  If it's this deadly, how  did  the
Straumli bunch get taken in?"
     "Bad luck and  criminal incompetence," the words popped out of her with
surprising force. She hadn't realized she was so bent by the Straumli thing;
somewhere  inside, her old  feelings for  Straumli Realm were  still  alive.
"Look.  Operations  in the High Beyond and in  the  Transcend are dangerous.
Civilizations up there don't last long, but there will always be  people who
try.  Very  few of  the  threats are  actively evil. What  happened  to  the
Straumers.... They  ran  across  this recipe  advertising wondrous treasure.
Quite possibly it had  been lying around for millions of years, a little too
risky for other folks to try. You're right, the Straumers knew the dangers."
But  it  was a  classic  situation  of balancing  risks and choosing  wrong.
Perhaps a  third of Applied Theology was about  how to dance  near the flame
without  getting  incinerated.  No  one  knew the  details  of  the Straumli
debacle, but she could guess them from a hundred similar cases:
     "So they  set  up  a base in  the Transcend  at this lost archive -- if
that's what it was. They  began implementing the schemes they found. You can
be sure they spent most of their time watching it for signs of deception. No
doubt  the recipe was  a series of more or less  intelligible  steps  with a
clear  takeoff point. The early stages would involve computers  and programs
more effective than anything in the Beyond -- but apparently well-behaved."
     "...  Yeah.  Even  in  the  Slowness,  a big program  can  be  full  of
     Ravna  nodded.  "And  some  of  these would be  near  or  beyond  human
complexity.  Of course, the  Straumers  would know  this and try to  isolate
their creations. But given  a malign  and clever  design ... it should be no
surprise if the devices leaked onto the  lab's local  net and  distorted the
information there. From then on, the Straumer's wouldn't have  a chance. The
most cautious staffers would be framed as incompetent. Phantom threats would
be detected, emergency  responses demanded. More sophisticated devices would
be built, and  with fewer safeguards. Conceivably, the humans were killed or
rewritten before the Perversion even achieved transsapience."
     There was  a  long silence. Pham Nuwen  looked  almost chastened. Yeah.
There's  a lot  you don't  know, Buddy.  Think  on what  Old One  might have
planned for you.
     Blueshell bent a tendril to  taste a brown concoction that smelled like
seaweed.  "Well told,  My  Lady Ravna. But there is  one  difference in  the
present situation. It may  be good  fortune, and very important.... You see,
just  before leaving  Straumli  Main, we attended a  beach  party  among the
Lesser  Riders.  They had been little affected by events to that point; many
hadn't  even noticed the destruction of  independence at  Straum. With luck,
they may  be  the  last  enslaved."  His  squeaky voice  lowered an  octave,
trailing into silence. "Where was I?  Yes,  the party. There was  one fellow
there,  a  bit more lively than the  average. Somewhere  years  past, he had
bonded with a traveler in a Straumli news  service. Now he was  acting as  a
clandestine  data drop,  so  humble  that he  wasn't  even  listed  in  that
service's own net....
     "Anyway, the researchers at the Straumli lab -- a few of them  at least
-- were not so incautious as you say. They suspected a perverse runaway, and
were determined to sabotage it."
     This was news,  but --  "Doesn't  look like they had much success, does
     "I am nodding agreement. They  did not prevent it, but they did plan to
escape  the laboratory planet with two starships. And  they did get  word of
their attempt  into  channels that ended  with my acquaintance at the  beach
party. And  here is the important part: At least one  of  these ships was to
carry away  some  final elements of the  Perversion's  recipe -- before they
were incorporated into the design."
     "Surely there were backups -- " began Pham Nuwen.
     Ravna waved him silent. There had been enough grade-school explanations
for  one  night.  This was incredible. She'd been  following the news  about
Straumli  Realm  as  much as  anyone. The Realm was the first High  daughter
colony of Sjandra Kei; it was horrifying to see it destroyed. But nowhere in
Threats had there been  even a rumor of this:  the Perversion not whole? "If
this  is true, then  the Straumers may have a  chance. It all depends on the
missing parts of the design document."
     "Just so.  And of  course the humans realized this too. They planned to
head  straight for  the  Bottom of the  Beyond, rendezvous  there with their
accomplices from Straum."
     Which -- considering the ultimate  magnitude  of the disaster --  would
never happen. Ravna leaned back, oblivious of Pham Nuwen for the  first time
in many hours. Most likely  both ships had  been destroyed by now. If not --
well, the Straumers had been at least half-smart, heading for the Bottom. If
they had what Blueshell thought,  the Perversion would be very interested in
finding  them. It  was no wonder  Blueshell  and Greenstalk hadn't announced
this on the news groups. "So you know where they  were going to rendezvous?"
she said softly.
     Greenstalk burred something at him.
     "Not in ourselves," he said. "The coordinates  are  in the safeness  at
our  ship.  But there  is  more. The  Straumers  had  a backup plan  if  the
rendezvous  failed.  They  intended  to  signal   Relay  with  their  ship's
     "Now  wait. Just how  big is this ship?"  Ravna  was no  physical-layer
engineer,  but  she knew that Relay's  backbone  transceivers  were actually
swarms  of  antenna  elements  scattered  across several  light  years, each
element ten-thousand kilometers across.
     Blueshell  rolled  forward and back, a quick  gesture of agitation. "We
don't know, but it's nothing exceptional. Unless you're looking precisely at
it with a large antenna, you'd never detect it from here."
     Greenstalk added, "We think that was part of their plan,  though  it is
desperation  on  top  of desperation. Since we  came to  Relay,  we've  been
talking to the Org -- "
     "Discreetly! Quietly!" Blueshell put in abruptly.
     "Yes. We've asked the Organization  to listen for this ship. I'm afraid
we haven't talked to the right people.  No one seems to put much credence in
us.  After all,  the  story is ultimately from a  Lesser  Rider," Yeah. What
could they know that was under a hundred years old? "What we're asking would
normally be a great expense, and apparently prices are especially high right
     Ravna  tried  to  curb  her  enthusiasm.  If  she had  read  this in  a
newsgroup, it would've been just one more interesting rumor.  Why should she
boggle just because  she was getting it  face-to-face? By the  Powers,  what
irony. Hundreds of customers from the Top and the  Transcend -- even Old One
-- were saturating Relay's resources with their curiosity about the Straumli
debacle. What if the answer had been sitting in front of them, suppressed by
the very eagerness of  their investigation?  "Just who have you been talking
to? Never mind, never mind." Maybe she should just go  to Grondr 'Kalir with
the  story.  "I think you should  know  that  I  am  a  -- " very minor! "--
employee of the Vrinimi Organization. I may be able to help."
     She had expected some surprise at this sudden good luck. Instead  there
was a pause.  Apparently Blueshell had lost his place  in  the conversation.
Finally  Greenstalk  spoke.  "I  am  blushing....  You see,  we  knew  that.
Blueshell looked you up  in the employees' directory; you are the only human
in the Org.  You're not  in  Customer  Contact,  but  we thought  that if we
chanced upon you, so to speak, you might give us a kindly hearing."
     Blueshell's  tendrils rustled together sharply.  Irritation? Or had  he
finally caught up to the conversation? "Yes. Well, since we are all being so
frank, I  suppose  we should confess that this might even benefit us. If the
refugee ship can prove that the Perversion is  not  a full  Class Two,  then
perhaps we can convince our buyers that our  cargo has not been compromised.
If they only knew, my certificant friends would be  groveling  at your feet,
my lady Ravna."

     They stayed at The Wandering Company until well past midnight. Business
picked up at the circadian peak of some of the new arrivals. Floor and table
shows were  raucous  all around.  Pham's eyes flickered this  way  and that,
taking  it all  in.  But above  all  he seemed fascinated  by  Blueshell and
Greenstalk. The  two were starkly  nonhuman, in some  ways  even  strange as
aliens  go. Skroderiders were  one of the  very  few races that had achieved
long- term  stability  in  the Beyond.  Speciation  had  long  ago occurred,
varieties heading outward or becoming extinct. And still there were some who
matched  their  ancient  skrodes,  a unique  balance of  outlook and machine
interface  that was  more than  a  billion  years  old.  But  Blueshell  and
Greenstalk  were also traders with much of the  outlook that  Pham Nuwen had
known in  the Slowness. And though Pham acted as ignorant as ever, there was
new diplomacy in  him.  Or maybe  the awesomeness of  the Beyond was finally
getting through his thick skull. He couldn't  have asked for better drinking
buddies. As  a race, the  Skroderiders preferred lazy reminiscence to almost
any activity. Once delivered of their critical message,  the two were  quite
content to talk of  their life in the Beyond, to explain  things in whatever
detail the barbarian  could  wish. The razor-jawed  certificants stayed well
     Ravna got a mild  buzz on, and watched the three  talk shop. She smiled
to herself.  In  a way,  she was the outsider now,  the person who had never
done. Blueshell and Greenstalk  had been all over, and some of their stories
sounded wild even  to  her.  Ravna  had a theory (not  that widely accepted,
actually) that where  beings have a common fluency, little else matters. Two
of these three might be mistaken for potted trees on hotcarts, and the third
was  unlike  any  human in  her  life. Their  fluency was in  an  artificial
language, and two of the "voices" were squawky raspings. Yet ... after a few
minutes' listening, their  personalities seemed to float in  her mind's eye,
more interesting than many of her school  chums, but not that different. The
two Skroderiders were mates.  She  hadn't thought that could count for much;
among Riders, sex amounted to scarcely  more than being next-door  neighbors
at the right  time  of year. Yet  there was deep affection  here. Greenstalk
especially seemed a loving personality. She (he?) was shy yet stubborn, with
a kind of honesty that might be a major handicap in a trader. Blueshell made
up for that failing. He (she?) could be glib and talkative, quite capable of
maneuvering  things  his  way.  Underneath,  Ravna   glimpsed  a  compulsive
personality, uncomfortable with his own sneakiness, ultimately grateful when
Greenstalk reined him in.
     And what  of Pham Nuwen? Yes,  what's the inner being you see there? In
an odd way,  he was more of a mystery. The arrogant boob of  this  afternoon
seemed to be mostly  invisible  tonight. Maybe  it  had  been  a  cover  for
insecurity. The fellow had been born in a male-dominated culture,  virtually
the  opposite of  the matriarchy that all Beyonder  humanity descended from.
Underneath the arrogance, a very nice person might be living. Then there was
the  way he had faced down razor-jaw. And  the way  he  was drawing out  the
Skroderiders. It occurred to Ravna that after a lifetime of reading romantic
fiction, she had run into her first hero.

     It was after  02:30 when they left The Wandering Company. The sun would
be  rising  across  the  bow  horizon  in less  than  five  hours.  The  two
Skroderiders came outside to see  them off. Blueshell  had  switched back to
Samnorsk to regale Ravna with a story of his  last visit  to Sjandra Kei  --
and remind her to ask about the refugee ship.
     The Skroderiders dwindled beneath them as Ravna and  Pham rose into the
thinning air and headed toward the residential towers.
     The two humans didn't say anything for a couple of minutes. It was even
possible  that Pham Nuwen was impressed by the view.  They were passing over
gaps in  the  brightly lit Docks,  places  where  they could see through the
parks and concourses  to the  surface  of  Groundside  a thousand kilometers
below. The clouds there were whorls of dark on dark.
     Ravna's  residence  was at  the  outer edge  of the Docks. Here the air
fountains  were  of no use; her apartment tower rose into frank vacuum. They
glided  down  to  her balcony,  trading  their  suits'  atmosphere  for  the
apartment's. Ravna's mouth was leading a life of its own, explaining how the
residence was what she'd been assigned  when she worked at the archive, that
it  is  was  nothing  compared  to  her   new  office.  Pham  Nuwen  nodded,
quiet-faced. There were none of the smart remarks of their earlier tours.
     She babbled on, and then they were inside and.... She shut up, and they
just looked  at each  other. In a way, she'd  wanted this  clown  ever since
Grondr's silly animation. But it  wasn't  till this evening at The Wandering
Company that she'd felt right about bringing him home with her. "Well, I, uh
..." So. Ravna, the ravening princess. Where is your glib tongue now?
     She  settled  for reaching out,  putting  her  hand on his.  Pham Nuwen
smiled  back, shy too, by the Powers! "I think  you have  a  nice place," he
     "I've  decorated it  Techno-Primitive.  Being stuck at the  edge of the
Docks has its points: The natural view isn't messed up by city lights. Here,
I'll show  you." She  doused the lights and  pulled the  curtains aside. The
window was a natural transparency, looking out from  the edge of  the Docks.
The view tonight should be terrific. On the  ride from The Company, the  sky
had been awfully dark. The in-system factories must  be  off  line or hidden
behind Groundside. Even ship traffic seemed sparse.
     She went back to stand by Pham. The window was a vague rectangle across
her vision. "You have to  wait a minute for your eyes to  adjust. There's no
amplification  at all." The curve of  Groundside was clear now,  clouds with
occasional pricks of light. She slipped her arm across his back, and after a
moment felt his across her shoulders.
     She'd guessed right: tonight, the Galaxy owned the  sky. It was a sight
that Vrinimi old hands happily ignored. For Ravna, it was the most beautiful
thing about Relay. Without enhancement, the light was faint. Twenty thousand
light-years  is a long,  long way. At  first there was just a suggestion  of
mist, and  an occasional  star. As her  eyes  adapted, the  mist took shape,
curving arcs, some places brighter, some dimmer. A minute more and ... there
were knots  in the mist ... there were streaks of utter black that separated
the curving arms  ... complexity on complexity, twisting toward the pale hub
that was the Core. Maelstrom. Whirlpool. Frozen, still, across half the sky.
     She  heard Pham's breath  catch  in  his  throat.  He  said  something,
sing-song  syllables  that could  not  have  been Trisk, and  certainly  not
Samnorsk. "All my life I lived in a  tiny clump of that. And I thought I was
a master of space. I never dreamed to stand and see the whole blessed  thing
at  once." His  hand  tightened  on her shoulder, then gentled, stroking her
neck. "And no matter how long we watch, will we see any sign of the Zones?"
     She shook her head  slowly. "But they're easily imagined." She gestured
with her free hand. In the  large, the Zones of  Thought  followed  the mass
distribution of the Galaxy: The  Mindless Depths extending down to  the soft
glow of  the galactic Core. Farther out, the Great Slowness, where humankind
had been born, where ultralight could not exist and civilizations lived  and
died unknowing and unknown. And the  Beyond, the stars about four-fifths out
from the center, extending well off-plane to include places like Relay.  The
Known  Net had existed  in some form for billions of years in the Beyond. It
was  not a  civilization;  few civilizations  lasted longer than  a  million
years. But the records of the  past were quite complete. Sometimes they were
intelligible. More often, reading them involved translations of translations
of translations, passed down from one defunct race to another with no one to
corroborate --  worse than  any multihop net message could ever be. Yet some
things were quite clear: There had  always been the Zones of Thought, though
perhaps they  were slightly inward-moved now. There had always been wars and
peace, and races upwelling from the Great  Slowness, and thousands of little
empires. There  had always been races moving  into the  Transcend, to become
the Powers ... or their prey.
     "And  the Transcend?" Pham said. "Is  that just the far dark?" The dark
between the galaxies.
     Ravna  laughed softly.  "It  includes all that but ...  see  the  outer
reaches  of  the spirals. They're in the Transcend." Most everything farther
than forty thousand light-years from the galactic center was.
     Pham Nuwen was  silent for a long moment.  She  felt a tiny shiver pass
through  him. "After talking to the wheelies, I -- I think I understand more
of what you were  warning me about. There's a  lot of  things I  don't know,
things that could kill me ... or worse."

     Common sense triumphs at last. "True," she said quietly.  "But it's not
just  you, or  the brief time you've been here. You  could study your  whole
life,  and  not  know.  How  long  must  a  fish  study  to understand human
motivation? It's not a good analogy, but it's the only safe one; we are like
dumb  animals to  the Powers of the  Transcend.  Think of all the  different
things people do to animals -- ingenious, sadistic, charitable, genocidal --
each  has a million elaborations in  the Transcend. The Zones are  a natural
protection;  without them, human-equivalent  intelligence would probably not
exist." She waved at the misty star swarms. "The Beyond and below are like a
deep  of ocean, and we  the creatures that swim in the abyss.  We're so  far
down  that the beings on the surface --  superior though  they are  -- can't
effectively reach  us.  Oh, they fish, and they  sometimes blight  the upper
levels  with  poisons we don't  even understand.  But the  abyss  remains  a
relatively safe place." She paused. There was more to the analogy. "And just
as with an ocean, there is a constant drift  of flotsam  from the top. There
are things that can only be made  at  the  Top, that  need close-to-sentient
factories -- but which can still work down here. Blueshell mentioned some of
those when he was  talking to  you:  the agrav fabrics, the sapient devices.
Such  things are the greatest physical wealth of the Beyond, since  we can't
make them. And getting them is a deadly risky endeavor."
     Pham turned toward her, away from window  and the stars.  "So there are
always  'fish' edging close to the surface." For an  instant she thought she
had  lost  him,  that  he  was  caught by  the  romance of  the Transcendent
deathwish.  "Little fish risking everything for  a piece of  godhood ... and
not  knowing heaven from hell, even when they find it." She felt  him shiver
and then his arms were around her. She tilted her head up and found his lips
     It  had been two years since  Ravna Bergsndot left Sjandra Kei. In some
ways the time had gone fast. Just  now her body was telling her what a long,
long  time it  had really been.  Every  touch  was so  vivid, waking desires
carefully  suppressed.  Suddenly her  skin was  tingling all  over. It  took
marvelous restraint to undress without tearing anything.

     Ravna  was out of  practice. And of  course she had  nothing recent  to
compare to.... But Pham Nuwen was very, very good.


     Crypto: 0
     As received by: Transceiver Relay01 at Relay
     Language path: Acquileron->Triskweline, SjK:Relay units
     From: Net Administrator for Transceiver Windsong at Debley Down
     Subject: Complaints about Relay, a suggestion
     Summary: It's getting worse; try us instead
     Key phrases: communications problems, Relay unreliability, Transcend
 Communication Costs Special Interest Group, Motley Hatch Administration Group, Transceiver Relay01 at Relay, Transceiver Not-for-Long at Shortstop,
     Follow-ups to: Windsong Expansion Interest Group

     Date: 07:21:21 Docks Time, 36/09 of Org year 52089
     Text of message:

     During   the  last  five  hundred   hours,   Comm  Costs  shows   9,834
transceiver-layer congestion  complaints  against  the Vrinimi operation  at
Relay. Each of these  complaints  involves services  to tens  of thousand of
planets.  Vrinimi has  promised again and  again that the  congestion  is  a
purely temporary increase of Transcendent usage.
     As  Relay's  chief  competitor  in this  region,  we of  Windsong  have
benefited  modestly  from the  overflow;  however,  until  now we thought it
inappropriate to propose a coordinated response to the problem.

     The events of  the last seven hours  compel  us to change this  policy.
Those reading this item already know about the incident; most of you are the
victims of it. Beginning at [00:00:27 Docks Time], Vrinimi Org  began taking
transceivers off-line, an unscheduled outage. R01 went out at  00:00:27, R02
at 02:50:32, R03 and  R04 at 03:12:01.  Vrinimi stated  that a  Transcendent
customer  was  urgently  requesting  bandwidth.  (R00  had  been  previously
dedicated to that  Power's  use.) The customer required use of both  up- and
down-link bandwidth.  By  the Org's  own admission,  the  unscheduled  usage
exceeded  sixty percent of their  entire capacity. Note that the excesses of
the preceding five hundred hours -- excesses which caused entirely justified
complaint -- were never more than five percent of Org capacity.
     Friends, we of Windsong are in the long-haul communication business. We
know how difficult it is to  maintain transceiver elements that mass as much
as a planet. We know that hard contract commitments simply cannot be made by
suppliers in our line of work. But at the same time, the behavior of Vrinimi
Org  is unacceptable.  It's true that  in the last three  hours  the Org has
returned  R01 through R04  to general service,  and promised to  pass on the
Power's surpayment to all those who were "inconvenienced". But  only Vrinimi
knows how large these surpayments really are. And no one (not even Vrinimi!)
knows whether this is the end of the outages.
     What is  to Vrinimi a  sudden, incredible cash glut, is to the rest  of
you an unaccountable disaster.
     Therefore  Windsong at  Debley  Down  is  considering a  major  --  and
permanent -- expansion  of our service:  the construction of five additional
backbone   transceivers.   Obviously  this  will  be  immensely   expensive.
Transceivers are  never cheap,  and Debley Down  does  not  have  quite  the
geometry enjoyed by Relay. We expect  the cost must be amortized  over  many
decades  of good business.  We  can't undertake  it  without  clear customer
commitment. In order to determine this demand, and  to ensure that  we build
what is  really  needed,  we  are creating a  temporary newsgroup,  Windsong
Expansion  Interest Group, moderated and archived at  Windsong. Send/Receive
charges to  transceiver-layer customers  on  this group  will  be  only  ten
percent our usual. We urge you, our transceiver-layer customers, to use this
service  to  talk to  each other, to  decide what you can safely expect from
Vrinimi Org in the future and how you feel about our proposals.

     We are waiting to hear from you.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     Afterwards,  Ravna slept well. It was halfway through the  morning when
she drifted back toward wakefulness. The  ring of her phone was monotonously
insistent, loud enough to reach through the most pleasant dreams. She opened
her eyes, disoriented and happy. She was lying with her arms wrapped tightly
around  ... a large  pillow. Damn. He'd already left.  She lay  back  for  a
second,  remembering. These last two years  she  had been lonely; till  last
night she hadn't realized  how lonely. Happiness  so unexpected, so  intense
... what a strange thing.
     The phone  just kept ringing. Finally she rolled out of bed and  walked
unsteadily across the room; there should  be limits to this Techno Primitive
nonsense. "Yes?"
     It was a Skroderider. Greenstalk? "I'm sorry to bother you, Ravna,  but
-- are you all right?" The Rider interrupted herself.
     Ravna suddenly  realized that she  might be  looking a  little strange:
sappy smile spread from ear to ear, hair sticking out in all directions. She
rubbed  her hand across her mouth,  cutting  back laughter. "Yes, I'm fine."
Fine! "What's up?"
     "We want to thank you for your help. We had never dreamed that you were
so highly placed. We'd been trying for hundreds of hours to persuade the Org
to  listen for the refugees. But less than an hour after talking to  you, we
were told the survey is being undertaken immediately."
     "Um."  Say what? "That's  wonderful, but I'm not sure I -- who's paying
for it, anyway?"
     "I don't know, but  it is expensive.  We were told they're dedicating a
backbone transceiver  to  the search.  If  there's anyone  transmitting,  we
should know in a matter of hours."
     They  chatted  for a few more  minutes, Ravna  gradually becoming  more
coherent as  she  parceled  the various aspects of  the last ten hours  into
business and pleasure. She had  half expected the  Org  to  bug her  at  The
Wandering  Company.  Maybe Grondr just heard  the story there -- and gave it
full  credit.  But  just  yesterday,  he'd been  wimping  about  transceiver
saturation. Either way, this  was good news -- perhaps extraordinarily good.
If the Riders' wild story  were true, the Straumli  Perversion might be less
than Transcendent.  And if the refugee  ships had some clues on how to bring
it down, Straumli Realm might even be saved.
     After  Greenstalk rang off, Ravna wandered about the apartment, getting
herself in shape, playing  the various possibilities against each other. Her
actions became more purposeful, almost up to their usual speed. There were a
lot of things she wanted to check into.
     Then  the phone was ringing again. This time  she previewed the caller.
Oops! It was Grondr Vrinimikalir. She combed her hand back through her hair;
it still looked like crap, and this phone was not up to deception.  Suddenly
she  noticed  that Grondr didn't  look so hot either. His  facial chitin was
smudged, even across some of his freckles. She accepted the call.
     "Ah!" His  voice actually squeaked, then returned to its  normal level.
"Thank you  for answering. I would have called earlier,  except  things have
been very ... chaotic." Just where had  his cool distance gone? "I just want
you to know that  the Org had nothing to do with this. We were totally taken
in  until  just  a  couple  of  hours  ago." He launched into  a  disjointed
description of massive demand swamping the Org's resources.
     As  he rambled, Ravna punched up a summary of recent Relay business. By
the Powers that Be: Sixty  percent diversion? Excerpts from  Comm Costs: She
scanned quickly down the item from Windsong. The gasbags  were as pompous as
ever, but their  offer  to replace  Relay was probably for real. It was just
the sort of thing Grondr had been afraid might happen.
     "-- Old One just kept asking for more and more. When we finally figured
things  out, and confronted  him.... Well,  we  came  close  to  threatening
violence. We have the resources  to destroy his  emissary vessel. No telling
what his revenge might  be, but we  told  Old One  his  demands were already
destroying us. Thank the Powers, he just seemed amused; he  backed off. He's
restricted to a single transceiver  now, and that's on  a signal search that
has nothing to do with us."

     Hmm.  One mystery solved. Old  One must  have been snooping around  The
Wandering Company and overheard the  Skroderiders' story. "Maybe things will
be okay, then. But  it's important to  be just as  tough if Old One tries to
abuse us  again."  The words were  already  out  of  her  mouth  before  she
considered who she was giving advice to.
     Grondr didn't seem to notice. If anything, he was the one scrambling to
agree: "Yes, yes. I'll tell you, if Old One were any ordinary customer, we'd
blacklist him  forever for this deception.... But  then if he were ordinary,
he could never have fooled us."
     Grondr  wiped  pudgy white fingers across  his face.  "No mere Beyonder
could  have altered our record of the  dredge expedition. Not even  one from
the  Top could have  broken  into the junkyard  and manipulated  the remains
without our even suspecting."
     Dredge?  Remains? Ravna began to  see  that  she  and  Grondr  were not
talking about the same thing. "Just what did Old One do?"
     "The details? We're  pretty sure of them now. Since the Fall of Straum,
Old One  has  been very interested in humans.  Unfortunately, there were  no
willing  ones  available  here.  It  began  manipulating  us, rewriting  our
junkyard records. We've recovered  a  clean backup from a branch office: The
dredge really did encounter the wreck of a human ship; there were human body
parts  in it -- but nothing  that we could have  revived. Old One  must have
mixed  and  matched what it found there. Perhaps  it  fabricated memories by
extrapolating from  human cultural data  in the archives. With hindsight, we
can match its early requests with the invasion of our junkyard."
     Grondr rattled on, but  Ravna wasn't listening. Her eyes stared blindly
through the  phone's display. We are little fish in the abyss,  protected by
the deep from the fishers above. But even if they can't live down  here, the
clever  fisherfolk still have their  lures and deadly tricks. And so Pham --
"Pham Nuwen is just a robot, then," she said softly.
     "Not precisely. He is human, and with  his fake memories he can operate
autonomously. But when Old One buys full bandwidth, the creature is fully an
emissary device." The hand and eye of a Power.
     Grondr's mouthparts clattered in abject embarrassment. "Ravna, we don't
know all that  happened last night; there was  no reason to  have  you under
close  surveillance.  But  Old  One  assures  us that  its  need  for direct
investigation  is over. In any case, we'll  never  give him the bandwidth to
try again."
     Ravna  barely nodded. Her face suddenly felt  cold.  She had never felt
such  anger and such fright at  the  same  time. She  stood  in  a  wave  of
dizziness  and walked  away from the phone, ignoring Grondr's worried cries.
The stories from grad school came  tumbling  through her mind, and the myths
of  a dozen human religions. Consequences,  consequences.  Some of them  she
could defend against; others were past repair.
     And from somewhere in the back of her mind, an incredibly silly thought
crawled out from under the horror and the rage. For eight hours she had been
face to face with a Power. It was the sort of experience that made a chapter
in textbooks, the sort of thing  that was  always far away and  misreported.
And it was the sort of thing no one in all of Sjandra Kei could come near to
claiming. Until now.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     Johanna was  in the boat for a long time. The sun never set, though now
it was low behind her, now it was high in front, now all was cloudy and rain
plinked  off the  tarp  covering her  blankets.  She  spent  the hours in an
agonized haze. Things happened that could only  have been dreams. There were
creatures pulling at  her  clothes, blood sticking everywhere.  Gentle hands
and rat  snouts dressed her wounds, and  forced chill water down her throat.
When she thrashed around, Mom rearranged her blankets and comforted her with
the strangest sounds. For hours,  someone warm lay beside her. Sometimes  it
was Jefri; more often it was a large dog, a dog that purred.
     The rain passed. The sun was  on the left side  of the boat, but hidden
behind a cold, snapping shadow. More and more,  the  pain became  divisible.
Part of it  was in her chest and shoulder; that stabbed through her whenever
the boat wobbled. Part of it was in her gut, an emptiness that was not quite
nausea ... she was so hungry, so thirsty.
     More and more, she was remembering, not dreaming. There were nightmares
that would never go away. They had really happened. They were happening now.

     The sun peeked in and out of the tumble of clouds. It slid slowly lower
across the sky till  it was almost behind the  boat. She  tried  to remember
what Daddy had been saying just before ... everything went bad. They were in
this planet's arctic,  in the summer.  So the sun's low point must be north,
and  their twin-hulled boat was  sailing roughly southwards.  Wherever  they
were going, it was minute by minute farther from the spacecraft and any hope
of finding Jefri.
     Sometimes  the water was like open sea,  the hills distant or hidden by
low clouds. Sometimes they passed through narrows, and swept close to  walls
of naked  rock.  She'd had no idea  a sailboat  could move so fast or  be so
dangerous. Four of the rat creatures worked desperately to keep them off the
rocks. They bounded nimbly from mast platform to railing, sometimes standing
on each other's shoulders to extend their reach. The twin-hulled boat tilted
and groaned in water that was suddenly rough. Then they'd be through and the
hills would be at a peaceful distance, sliding slowly past.
     For a long while, she pretended  delirium. She moaned, she twisted. She
watched. The  boat hulls  were long and narrow, almost like canoes. The sail
was mounted  between  them.  The shadow  in her dreams  had  been that sail,
snapping in the cold, clean wind.  The sky was an avalanche of  grays, light
and  dark.  There were  birds up there. They  dipped  past the mast, circled
again and again.  There was twittering  and hissing all around her. But  the
sound did not come from the birds.
     It  was the monsters. She watched them  through  lowered  lashes. These
were the same kind  that killed Mom and Dad. They  even  wore the same funny
clothes, gray-green jackets  studded with  stirrups  and  pockets.  Dogs  or
wolves she had thought  before. That didn't really describe them. Sure, they
had four slender legs and pointy little ears.  But with their long necks and
occasionally pinkish eyes, they might as well be huge rats.
     And the longer she watched them, the more horrible they seemed. A still
image  could never convey that horror; you  had  to see  them in action. She
watched  four of  them -- the ones on her side of the boat  -- play with her
dataset. The Pink Oliphaunt was tied in a net bag near the rear of the boat.
Now the beasts wanted to look it over. At first it looked like a circus act,
the  creatures' heads  darting this  way and  that.  But  every move was  so
precise, so coordinated  with all the others.  They had no hands,  but  they
could  untie  knots,  each  holding  a  piece  of  twine  in  its  mouth and
maneuvering its necks around others. At the same time,  one's claws held the
loose netting tight against the railing.  It was like watching  puppets  run
off the same control.
     In seconds they had it  out of the bag. Dogs would have let it slide to
the  bottom of the  hull, then pushed it  around with their noses. Not these
things: two put it onto on a cross bench, while a third steadied it with its
paw.  They poked around the  edges, concentrating on  the  plush flanges and
floppy ears. They pushed  and nuzzled,  but with  clear purpose.  They  were
trying to open it.
     Two  heads showed  over the  railing on  the other  hull. They made the
gobbling,  hissing sounds that were a  cross between a bird call and someone
throwing up. One of  those on her side glanced back and made similar sounds.
The other three continued to play with the dataset's latches.
     Finally  they pulled  the big, floppy  ears simultaneously: the dataset
popped open, and the top window  went into  Johanna's startup routine --  an
anim  of herself saying "Shame  on you, Jefri.  Stay out  of my things!" The
four creatures went rigid, their eyes suddenly wide.
     Johanna's four turned the set so the others could see. One held it down
while  another  peered at  the top window, and a third fumbled  with the key
window. The guys in the other hull went nuts, but none  of them tried to get
any closer. The random prodding of the  four  abruptly  cut off  her startup
greeting. One  of  them glanced at the guys in the  other hull;  another two
watched Johanna. She continued to lie with her eyes almost closed.
     "Shame  on you, Jefri. Stay out my things!" Johanna's voice came again,
but  from one of the animals. It was a perfect playback. Then a girl's voice
was moaning, crying,  "Mom,  Daddy". It  was her own voice again,  but  more
frightened and childish than she ever wanted it to sound.
     They seemed  to be  waiting for the  dataset  to respond.  When nothing
happened, one of them went back  to pushing its  nose  against  the windows.
Everything  valuable,  and  all  the  dangerous  programs, were  passworded.
Insults and squawking emerged from the box, all the little surprises she had
planted for her snooping  little  brother. Oh  Jefri,  will  I  ever see you
     The sounds and vids  kept  the  monsters amused  for  several  minutes.
Eventually their random fiddlings convinced the dataset that somebody really
young had opened up the box, and it shifted into kindermode.
     The  creatures  knew  she  was watching. Of  the  four fooling with her
Oliphaunt, one -- not  always the same one -- was always  watching her. They
were playing games with her, pretending they didn't know she was pretending.
     Johanna opened her eyes wide  and  glared at  the creature. "Damn you!"
She  looked in the  other direction. And screamed. The mob in the other hull
were clumped together. Their heads rose on  sinuous necks from the pile.  In
the low sunlight, their eyes glinted red. A pack of rats or snakes, silently
staring at her, and for heaven knew how long.
     The heads  leaned forward at her cry, and she  heard the scream  again.
Behind  her, her  own  voice shouted "Damn  you!"  Somewhere  else, she  was
calling for "Mom" and "Daddy". Johanna screamed again, and  they just echoed
it  back. She swallowed her  terror and kept silent. The monsters kept it up
for a half minute, the mimicking, the mixing of things she must have said in
her sleep. When they saw they couldn't terrorize her that way any more,  the
voices stopped being human. The gobbling went back and forth,  as if the two
groups  were negotiating  or something. Finally  the four on her side closed
her dataset and tied it into the net bag.
     The  six  unwrapped  themselves from each  other.  Three jumped  to the
outboard side of  the hull. They gripped  the edge tight  in their claws and
leaned  into the wind.  For once they almost did look like dogs --  big ones
sitting at a  car window,  sniffing at  the airstream.  The long necks swept
forward and back. Every few seconds, one  of them would dip its head out  of
sight, into the water. Drinking? Fishing?
     Fishing. A head flipped up, tossing something small and  green into the
boat. The other three animals nosed about, grabbing it. She had a glimpse of
tiny legs and a shiny carapace. One  of the rats  held  it at the tip of its
mouth, while  the  other  two pulled it  apart. It was all  done  with their
uncanny precision. The  pack seemed like a single creature, and each  neck a
heavy tentacle that ended in a pair of jaws. Her gut twisted at the thought,
but there was nothing to barf up.
     The fishing expedition  went on another quarter hour. They got at least
seven of  the green things. But they weren't  eating them; not all of  them,
anyway. The dismembered leavings collected in a small wood bowl.
     More gobbling between  the two sides. One of the six grabbed the bowl's
edge  in its  mouth  and  crawled  across the mast  platform.  The  four  on
Johanna's side huddled together as if  frightened of the visitor. Only after
the bowl  was set down and  the intruder had returned  to its  side, did the
four in Johanna's hull poke their heads up again.
     One of the  rats  picked up the bowl. It and another walked toward her.
Johanna swallowed. What torture was this? Her stomach twisted again  ... she
was  so hungry. She  looked at the bowl  again  and realized  that they were
trying to feed her.
     The sun had just come out from under northern clouds. The low light was
like  some  bright  fall afternoon,  just  after rain: dark  sky above,  yet
everything close  by bright and  glistening. The creatures' fur was deep and
plush. One held the bowl towards her, while the other stuck its snout in and
withdrew ... something slick and green. It  held the tidbit delicately, just
with the tips of its long mouth. It turned and thrust the green thing toward
     Johanna shrank back, "No!"
     The creature paused. For a moment she thought it was going to echo her.
Then it dropped  the lump back into the bowl. The first animal set it on the
bench beside her.  It looked  up  at her  for an  instant, then released the
jaw-wide flange at  the  edge of the bowl. She had a glimpse of fine, pointy
     Johanna stared into the bowl, nausea fighting with hunger. Finally  she
worked a hand out of her blanket and reached into it. Heads perked up around
her, and there was an  exchange  of gobble comments between the two sides of
the boat.
     Her fingers  closed on something soft  and cold. She lifted it into the
sunlight. The  body was gray green, its sides  glistening in the light.  The
guys  in  the other hull  had torn  off the little legs and chopped away the
head. What remained was only  two or three centimeters  long. It looked like
filleted shellfish. Once she  had liked such food. But that had been cooked.
She almost dropped the thing when she felt it quiver in her hand.
     She brought it close to her mouth,  touched it with her tongue.  Salty.
On Straum,  most shellfish would make you very sick if you ate them raw. How
could she know, all alone without parents or a local commnet? She felt tears
coming. She said a bad word,  stuffed the green  thing into  her  mouth, and
tried to chew. Blandness, with the texture of suet and  gristle. She gagged,
spat it  out ... and tried  to eat another. Altogether she got parts of  two
down. Maybe that was for the best;  she'd wait  and see how much  she barfed
up. She lay back and saw several pairs of eyes watching.  The  gobbling with
the other  side  of the boat picked up. Then one of them sidled toward  her,
carrying a leather bag with a spigot. A canteen.
     This creature was the  biggest  of all. The leader?  It  moved its head
close to hers, putting the spout of the canteen  near her mouth. The big one
seemed sly,  more cautious about approaching her than the  others. Johanna's
eyes traveled back along its flanks. Beyond the edge of its jacket, the pelt
on its rear was mostly white ... and  scored deep with a Y-shaped scar. This
is the one that killed Dad.
     Johanna's attack was not planned; perhaps that's why it worked so well.
She lunged past  the canteen and swung her free arm around the thing's neck.
She rolled over the animal, pinning it against the hull.  By  itself, it was
smaller than she, and not strong enough to push her off. She felt its  claws
raking through the blankets but somehow never quite cutting her. She put all
her weight on  the  creature's spine, grabbed it where  throat  met jaw, and
began slamming its head against the wood.
     Then the others were on her, muzzles poking under her, jaws grabbing at
her  sleeve. She felt rows  of needle teeth  just poking through the fabric.
Their bodies buzzed with a sound from her dreams, a sound that went straight
through her clothes and rattled her bones.
     They  pulled her hand from the other's throat, twisting  her; she  felt
the  arrowhead tearing her inside.  But there was  still one thing she could
do: Johanna push off with her feet, butting her head against the base of the
other's jaw, smashing the top of its head  into the hull.  The bodies around
her  convulsed, and she  was  flipped onto her back. Pain was the only thing
she could feel now. Neither rage nor fear could move her.
     Yet part of her was still aware of the four. She had hurt them. She had
hurt them all. Three  wandered  drunkenly, making whistling sounds  that for
once seemed to come from their mouths. The one with the scarred  butt lay on
its  side, twitching. She had punched a star-shaped wound in the top  of its
head. Blood dripped down past its eyes. Red tears.
     Minutes passed and the whistling stopped.  The  four  creatures huddled
together and the familiar hissing resumed.  The bleeding from her  chest had
started again.
     They stared at each other for a  while. She smiled at her enemies. They
could be hurt. She could hurt them. She felt better than  she had since  the

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     Before the  Flenser  Movement, Woodcarvers  had  been  the most  famous
city-state  west of the  Icefangs.  Its founder went back six  centuries. In
those  days, things had  been harder  in the north;  snow  covered  even the
lowlands  through most of  the year.  The  Woodcarver had started  alone,  a
single  pack in a little cabin on an inland bay. The pack was a hunter and a
thinker  as much as an artist. There had  been  no settlements for a hundred
miles around.  Only  a  dozen of the  carver's  early statues ever left  his
cabin, yet  those statues  had  been his first fame.  Three  were  still  in
existence. There  was  a city by the Long Lakes named  for  the  one  in its
     With fame had come apprentices.  One cabin became ten, scattered across
Woodcarver's fjord. A century or two  passed,  and  of course the Woodcarver
slowly changed. He feared the change, the feeling that his soul was slipping
away.  He tried to keep hold  of himself; almost everyone does to one extent
or  another.  In  the worst case, the pack  falls  into  perversion, perhaps
becomes  soul-hollow. For Woodcarver, the quest  was itself  the change.  He
studied how  each  member  fits within  the soul. He  studied pups and their
raising, and how you might guess the contributions of  a new one. He learned
to shape the soul by training the members.
     Of course little of this  was new. It was the  base of  most religions,
and  every  town  had  romance advisors and brood  kenners. Such  knowledge,
whether valid or not, is  important to any culture. What  Woodcarver did was
to look at it all again, without traditional bias. He gently experimented on
himself and  on  the other artists  in his  little  colony.  He  watched the
results, using them to design  new experiments. He was guided by what he saw
rather than by what he wanted to believe.
     By  the various  standards  of  his  age,  what  he did  was heresy  or
perversion or simple insanity. In the early years, King Woodcarver was hated
almost as much as Flenser  was three centuries later. But the far north  was
still going through  its time  of  heavy winters.  The nations of  the south
could not easily send armies as far as Woodcarvers. Once when they did, they
were thoroughly defeated. And  wisely, Woodcarver never attempted to subvert
the  south. Not directly. But his settlement grew and grew, and its fame for
art  and furniture  was small beside  its other  reputations.  Old of  heart
traveled  to  the  town, and came  back  not just younger,  but  smarter and
happier.  Ideas radiated  from  the  town:  weaving  machines, gearboxes and
windmills, factory postures.  Something new  had happened  in this place. It
wasn't the inventions. It was the people that  Woodcarver had midwifed,  and
the outlook he had created.

     Wickwrackscar  and  Jaqueramaphan  arrived  at Woodcarvers late in  the
afternoon. It had rained most of the day,  but now the clouds had blown away
and the sky  was that  bright cloudless blue that was all the more beautiful
after a stretch of cloudy days.
     Woodcarver's  Domain was paradise to Peregrine's eyes. He was tired  of
the packless wilderness. He was tired of worrying about the alien.
     Twinhulls  paced them suspiciously  for  the last few miles.  The boats
were armed, and Peregrine  and  Scriber were coming from very much the wrong
direction.  But they  were all alone, clearly harmless. Long callers hooted,
relaying their story  ahead.  By the time they reached the harbor  they were
heroes, two packs who had stolen (unspecified) treasure from the villains of
the  north.   They  sailed  around  a  breakwater  that  hadn't  existed  on
Peregrine's last trip, and tied in at the moorage.
     The pier was  crowded  with  soldiers and wagons. Townspeople were  all
over the road leading up to the city walls. This was as close to a mob scene
as you  could get and still have room for sober thought. Scriber bounced out
of the boat  and pranced  about in obvious delight  at  the  cheers from the
hillside. "Quickly! We must speak with the Woodcarver."
     Wickwrackscar picked up  the canvas  bag that held the alien's  picture
box, and  climbed carefully out of  the boat.  He was dizzy from the beating
the alien had given him. Scar's  fore-tympanum had been cut  in  the attack.
For a moment he lost track of himself. The pier was very strange -- stone at
first glance, but walled with a spongy black  material he hadn't seen  since
the Southseas; it should be brittle  here.... Where am I? I  should be happy
about something, some victory. He paused to regroup. After a moment both the
pain  and his  thoughts  sharpened; he would  be like  this for days yet, at
least. Get help for the alien. Get it ashore.

     King  Woodcarver's  Lord  Chamberlain  was  a  mostly overweight dandy;
Peregrine had not expected to see such at Woodcarvers. But the fellow became
instantly  cooperative when he  saw  the alien. He brought a doctor down  to
look at the Two-Legs (and incidentally, at  Peregrine). The alien had gained
strength in the last two days, but there had been no more violence. They got
it ashore without much trouble. It stared at Peregrine out of its flat face,
a look he  knew was  impotent rage. He touched Scar's  head thoughtfully ...
the Two-Legs was just waiting for the best opportunity to do more damage.
     Minutes  later, the travelers were in  kherhog-drawn carriages, rolling
up  the cobblestone  street toward the city  walls. Soldiers cleared the way
through the  crowd.  Scriber  Jaqueramaphan  waved this  way and  that,  the
handsome hero. By now Peregrine  knew the shy  insecurity that lurked within
Scriber. This might be the high point of his whole life till now.
     Even if he wanted it, Wickwrackscar could not be so expansive. With one
of Scar's tympana  hurt, wild gestures  made him lose track of his thoughts.
He hunkered down on the carriage seats and looked out in all directions:
     But for the shape of the outer harbor, the place was not at all what he
remembered  from  fifty years  ago.  In  most parts of the  world,  not much
changed in fifty years.  A pilgrim returning after such  an  interval  might
even be bored by the sameness. But this ... it was almost scary.
     The  huge  breakwater was  new.  There were  twice as many  piers,  and
multiboats with flags he had never seen on this  side of the world. The road
had been here  before,  but narrow,  with  only  a  third as  many turnoffs.
Before, the town walls had  been more to keep the  kherhogs and froghens  in
than  any  invaders  out. Now  they  were  ten  feet  high, the black  stone
extending  as far as Peregrine could see.... And there had been scarcely any
soldiers last time; now they were everywhere. That was not a good change. He
felt a  sinking in the pit of Scar's stomach; soldiers and fighting were not
     They rode through  the city  gates and  past  a market maze that spread
across acres. The alleys were  only fifty  feet wide,  narrow where bolts of
cloth,  furniture displays, and crates of fresh  fruit encroached. Smells of
fruit  and spice and varnish hung in the air. The place was so crowded  that
the haggling was  almost an orgy, and  dizzy  Peregrine almost  blacked out.
Then they  were  on  a  narrower  street that  zigzagged  through  ranks  of
half-timbered buildings.  Beyond the roofs loomed  heavy fortifications. Ten
minutes later they were in the castle yard.
     They  dismounted and  the Lord Chamberlain  had the Two-Legs moved to a
     "Woodcarver, he'll see us now?" said Scriber.
     The bureaucrat  laughed. "She. Woodcarver changed gender  more than ten
years ago."
     Peregrine's  heads twisted about in surprise. Precisely what would that
mean? Most packs  change  with  time, but he had  never  heard of Woodcarver
being anything but "he".  He almost  missed what  the Lord  Chamberlain said
     "Even better. Her whole council must see ...  what you've brought. Come
inside." He waved the guards away.
     They  walked down a hall  almost  wide enough for  two  packs  to  pass
abreast. The chamberlain led, followed by the  travelers and the doctor with
the  alien's  litter.  The  walls  were  high,  padded  with  silver-crusted
quilting. It was  far  grander than before  ... and again, unsettling. There
was scarcely any statuary, and what there was dated from centuries before.
     But there were pictures. He stumbled when he saw the first, and  behind
him he heard Scriber gasp. Peregrine had seen art all around the world:  The
mobs of  the tropics preferred  abstract murals, smudges of psychotic color.
The   Southseas  islanders   had  never   invented  perspective;   in  their
watercolors,  distant  objects  simply  floated  in  the upper  half  of the
picture.  In  the  Long  Lakes  Republic,  representationism  was  currently
favored, especially multiptychs that gave a whole-pack view.
     But  Peregrine  had  never seen the  likes of  these. The pictures were
mosaics, each tile a ceramic  square about  a  quarter inch on a side. There
was no color, just four shades of gray. From a few feet away, the graininess
was  lost, and ... they were the most  perfect landscapes Peregrine had ever
seen.  All were views from hilltops around Woodcarvers. Except for the  lack
of  color,  they  might have been windows. The bottom of  each  picture  was
bounded by a rectangular  frame,  but the  tops were irregular;  the mosaics
simply  broke off at  the horizon. The hall's quilted wall  stood where  the
pictures should have shown sky.
     "Here now, fellow! I thought you  wanted to see Woodcarver." The remark
was directed at Scriber. Jaqueramaphan was strung out along  the landscapes,
one  of him sitting in  front of  a different picture all  down the hall. He
turned a head  to look at the chamberlain. His voice sounded dazed.  "Soul's
end!  It's like being God, as if I have one member  on each hilltop  and can
see  everything at  once." But he scrambled to his feet and trotted to catch

     The  hall opened on one of the largest indoor  meeting  rooms Peregrine
had ever seen.
     "This  is  as  big  as anything  in  the Republic," Scriber  said  with
apparent admiration, looking up at the three levels of balconies. They stood
alone with the alien at the bottom.
     "Hmf." Besides the chamberlain and the doctor, there  were already five
other packs in the room.  More showed up as they watched. Most  were dressed
like nobles of the  Republic,  all  jewels  and furs.  A few wore the  plain
jackets  he  remembered  from  his  last  trip.  Sigh.  Woodcarver's  little
settlement had grown into a city and now  a nation-state. Peregrine wondered
if he -- she --  had any  real  power now.  He trained one head precisely on
Scriber  and Hightalked at him. "Don't say  anything about  the  picture box
just yet."
     Jaqueramaphan  looked puzzled and  conspiratorial all at once. He  High
Talked back, "Yes ... yes. A bargaining card?"
     "Something like that." Peregrine's eyes swept back and forth across the
balconies.  Most  packs entered with  an air of harried  self-importance. He
smiled to  himself.  One glance into the  pit was  enough  to  shatter their
smugness. The air above him was filled  with buzzing talk. None of the packs
looked like Woodcarver. But then, she'd have few of her members from before;
he could only recognize her by  manner  and bearing. It shouldn't matter. He
had carried some friendships far longer than any member's lifespan. But with
others the  friend  had  changed  in  a  decade,  its  viewpoints  altering,
affection  turning  to animosity. He'd been counting on Woodcarver being the
same. Now....
     There was a brief sound  of  trumpets, almost like a call to order. The
pubic doors of a lower balcony slid open and  a  fivesome entered. Peregrine
felt  a  twitchy   thrill  of  horror.  This  was  Woodcarver,  but  so  ...
misarranged. One member was so old it had to be helped by the rest. Two were
scarcely more than puppies, and one of those a constant drooler. The largest
member was white-eyed blind. It  was  the sort of thing you  might see  in a
waterfront slum, or in the last generation of incest.
     She looked  down at Peregrine,  and smiled  almost as if she recognized
him.  When she spoke, it was  with  the  blind one. The voice was  clear and
firm. "Please carry on, Vendacious."
     The  chamberlain nodded. "As you wish,  Your Majesty."  He pointed into
the pit, at the alien. "That is the reason for this hasty meeting."
     "We can see monsters at the circus, Vendacious." The voice came from an
overdressed pack  on  the  top balcony. To judge from the shouting that came
from all sides, this was a minority view. One pack on a lower balcony jumped
over the railing and tried to shoo the doctor away from the alien's litter.
     The  chamberlain raised a  head  for silence,  and  glared down at  the
fellow who had jumped  into the  pit. "If you  please, Scrupilo, be patient.
Everyone will get a chance to look."
     "Scrupilo" made some grumbling hisses, but backed off.
     "Good." Vendacious turned all  his  attention on Peregrine and Scriber.
"Your boat has outrun any news from  the north,  my friends.  No  one but  I
knows anything of your story -- and what I have is guard codes hooted across
the bay. You say this creature flew down from the sky?"
     An invitation to  speechify. Peregrine let Scriber Jaqueramaphan do the
talking.  Scriber loved it. He  told the  story of the flying house,  of the
ambush  and the  murders, and the rescue. He showed  them his eye-tools  and
announced himself as a  secret  agent of  the  Long Lakes Republic. Now what
real spy would do that?  Every pack on  the council  had  eyes on the alien,
some  fearful, some --  like Scrupilo -- crazily curious. Woodcarver watched
with only a couple of heads. The rest  might have been asleep. She looked as
tired as Peregrine  felt. He rested his own heads on  his paws. The  pain in
Scar was a pulsing beat; it would be easy enough  to  set the member asleep,
but then he'd understand very little of what was being said. Hey! maybe that
wasn't such a bad idea. Scar drifted off and the pain receded.
     The talk went on for some minutes more, not making a whole lot of sense
to  the  threesome  that  was Wickwrack.  He understood the  tones  of voice
though. Scrupilo  --  the  pack  on the floor --  complained  several times,
impatiently.  Vendacious said  something,  agreeing  with  him.  The  doctor
retreated, and Scrupilo advanced on Wickwrack's alien.
     Peregrine pulled himself to full wakefulness. "Be careful. The creature
is not friendly."
     Scrupilo  snapped back, "Your  friend has already warned  me once."  He
circled the  litter, staring at the alien's brown, furless  face.  The alien
stared back,  impassive. Scrupilo reached  forward cautiously  and drew back
the alien's quilt. Still no response. "See?" said Scrupilo. "It knows I mean
no harm." Peregrine said nothing to correct him.
     "It  really walks on those  rear  paws alone?" said one  of  the  other
advisors. "Can you imagine it, towering over us? One little bump would knock
it  down."  Laughter.  Peregrine  remembered how mantis-like  the alien  had
seemed when upright. These fellows hadn't seen it move.
     Scrupilo wrinkled a nose. "The thing is filthy." He was all around her,
a  posture that Peregrine knew upset the Two-Legs. "That arrow shaft must be
removed, you  know. Most  of  the bleeding has stopped, but if we expect the
creature  to  live   for  long,  it  needs  medical  attention."  He  looked
disdainfully  at  Scriber  and Peregrine,  as  if they were to blame for not
performing surgery  aboard the  twinhull.  Something caught his  eye and his
tone abruptly changed:  "By  the  Pack of  Packs! Look at its forepaws."  He
loosened the ropes about the  creature's  front  legs.  "Two  paws like that
would be as good as five pairs of lips. Think what a pack of these creatures
could do!" He moved close to the five-tentacled paw.
     "Be --  " careful, Peregrine started to say. The alien abruptly bunched
its tentacles into a club. Its  foreleg  flicked out at an impossible angle,
ramming its  paw  into Scrupilo's  head. The  blow  couldn't  have been  too
strong, but it was precisely placed on the tympanum.
     "Ow! Yow! Wow. Wow." Scrupilo danced back.
     The  alien  was  shouting,  too. It  was  all  mouth  noise,  thin  and
low-pitched. The eldritch  sound brought  up every  head, even Woodcarver's.
Peregrine had heard it many times by now. There was no doubt  in his mind --
this  was the aliens' interpack speech.  After  a  few  seconds,  the  sound
changed to a regular hacking that gradually faded.
     For a long  moment no  one spoke.  Then part  of Woodcarver got  to her
feet. She looked at Scrupilo. "Are you all right?" It was the first time she
had spoken since the beginning of the meeting.
     Scrupilo was licking his forehead. "Yes. It smarts is all."
     "Your curiosity will kill you some day."
     The  other  huffed  indignantly,  but  also  seemed  flattered  by  the
     Queen  Woodcarver  looked  at  her  councillors.  "I  see an  important
question here. Scrupilo thinks one  alien  member  would  be as agile as  an
entire pack of us. Is that so?" She pointed the question at Peregrine rather
than Scriber.
     "Yes, Your Majesty. If those ropes  had  been tied within its reach, it
could easily have unknotted them." He knew where  this was going;  he'd  had
three  days to  get there  himself.  "And  the  noises it makes  sound  like
coordinated speech to me."
     There was a swell of talk as the others caught on. An articulate member
can  often  make  semi-sensible  speech,  but  usually  at  the  expense  of
     "Yes ...  A creature  like nothing on  our world, whose boat  flew down
from the top of heaven. I wonder  at the  mind of such  a pack, if  a single
member is almost as smart as  all of one of us?" Her blind one looked around
as  it made the words, almost as  if it  could  see. Two others wiped at her
drooler's muzzle. She was not an inspiring sight.
     Scrupilo poked a head up. "I hear not a hint of thought sound from this
one. There is no  fore-tympanum." He pointed at the torn clothing around the
creature's wound. "And I see no sign of shoulder tympana. Perhaps it is pack
smart even as  a singleton ... and perhaps that's all the aliens  ever are."
Peregrine smiled  to himself;  this Scrupilo was a prickly twit, but not one
who held with tradition. For centuries, academics had debated the difference
between people and animals. Some animals had larger brains; some had paws or
lips more agile than a  member's.  In the savannahs of Easterlee, there were
creatures that even looked  like people and ran in groups, but without  much
depth  of thought.  Leaving  aside wolf nests and whales, only  people  were
packs. It was  the  coordination of thought between  members  that made them
superior. Scrupilo's theory was a heresy.
     Jaqueramaphan said, "But we did hear thought sounds, loud ones,  during
the ambush. Perhaps this one is like our unweaned, unable to think -- "
     "And  yet  still  almost  as  smart  as  a  pack,"  Woodcarver finished
somberly.  "If these  people  are  not smarter  than we, then we might learn
their  devices. No matter how  magnificent they are, we could eventually  be
their equals. But if  this member  is just one of  a  superpack  ..."  For a
moment  there was  no talk,  just  the  muted underedge of  her councillors'
thoughts. If  the  aliens  were superpacks,  and  if their  envoy  had  been
murdered  --  then  there  might  not be  anything  they  could  do  to save
     "So. Our first priority should be to save this creature, to befriend it
and learn its true nature."  Her heads lowered, and  she seemed  lost within
herself -- or perhaps just tired. Abruptly,  she turned several heads toward
her chamberlain. "Move the creature to the lodge by mine."
     Vendacious started with surprise. "Surely not, Your Majesty! We've seen
that it is hostile. And it needs medical attention."
     Woodcarver smiled and her voice turned silky. Peregrine remembered that
tone from before. "Do you forget that I know surgery? Do you forget ... that
I am the Woodcarver?"
     Vendacious  licked his  lips and looked at the other  advisors. After a
second he said, "No, Your Majesty. It will be as you wish."
     And Peregrine felt  like  cheering.  Perhaps Woodcarver  did still  run

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     Peregrine was sitting  back  to back on the  steps of his quarters when
Woodcarver came to see him next day. She came alone,  and wearing the simple
green jackets he remembered from his last visit.
     He  didn't bow or go out to meet  her.  She  looked at him coolly for a
moment, and sat down just a few yards away.
     "How is the Two-Legs?" he asked.
     "I  took out  the  arrow  and  sewed the  wound shut. I think  it  will
survive. My advisors were pleased: the creature didn't act  like a reasoning
being. It fought even after it was tied down, as though it had no concept of
surgery.... How is your head?"
     "All right, as long as I don't move around." The rest of him -- Scar --
lay behind the doorway in the dark interior  of the lodge.  "The tympanum is
healing straight, I think. I'll be fine in a few days."
     "Good."  A wrecked tympanum could mean  continuing  mental problems, or
the need for a new  member and the pain of finding  a use for  the singleton
that was sent  into silence. "I remember you,  pilgrim. All  the members are
different, but you really  are the Peregrine of  before. You  had some great
stories. I enjoyed your visit."
     "And  I enjoyed meeting  the  great Woodcarver.  That  is the reason  I
     She cocked a head wryly. "The great Woodcarver of before, not the wreck
of now?"
     He shrugged. "What happened?"
     She didn't answer immediately. For a moment, they sat and looked across
the city. It was cloudy this afternoon, with rain coming. The breeze off the
channel was  a cool  stinging on his lips and eyes. Woodcarver shivered, and
puffed her fur  out  a bit. Finally  she said, "I held my  soul six  hundred
years --  and that's counting by foreclaws. I should think it's obvious what
has become of me."
     "The perversion never hurt you before." Peregrine  was not  normally so
blunt. Something about her brought out the frankness in him.
     "Yes, the average incest  degrades to my state in a few centuries,  and
is an idiot  long before then. My methods were much cleverer. I knew  who to
breed with whom, which puppies to keep and which to put on others. So it was
always my flesh bearing my memories, and my soul remained pure. But I didn't
understand  enough  --  or perhaps I tried  the impossible. The choices  got
harder and harder, till I was left with choosing between brains and physical
defect."  She  wiped away  the drool, and  all but the  blind one looked out
across  her city. "These are the  best days of  summer, you know. Life  is a
green  madness just now, trying to squeeze the  last  bit of warmth from the
season." And the green did  seem to be everywhere  it could  be: featherleaf
down the  hillside and in the town, ferns  all  over the near hillsides, and
heather  struggling toward  the  gray crowns  of  the  mountains across  the
channel. "I love this place."
     He never expected to be comforting the  Woodcarver of Woodcarvers. "You
made  a miracle here. I've heard of it all the way on the  other side of the
world.... And I'll bet that half the packs around here are related to you."
     "Y-yes, I've been successful beyond a rake's wildest  dreams.  I've had
no shortage  of lovers, even if I couldn't use the pups myself.  Sometimes I
think  my get has been my  greatest  experiment. Scrupilo and Vendacious are
mostly my offspring ... but so is Flenser."
     Huh! Peregrine hadn't known that last.
     "The last  few  decades, I'd more or less accepted  my fate. I couldn't
outwit  eternity;  sometime  soon  I would let  my soul slip free. I let the
council take over more and more; how could I claim the domain after I was no
longer me? I went back to art -- you saw those monochrome mosaics."
     "Yes! They're beautiful."
     "I'll show you  my picture loom sometime. The procedure is tedious  but
almost  automatic. It was a nice project for the last  years of my soul. But
now -- you and your alien have changed everything. Damn it! If only this had
happened a  hundred years ago. What  I  would have done with  it! We've been
playing with your 'picture  box', you know. The  pictures are finer than any
in our world. They are a bit  like my mosaics -- the  way the sun is like  a
glowbug. Millions of  colored dots  go to  make each picture,  the tiles  so
small you can't see them without one of Scriber's eye-tools. I've worked for
years  to make  a  few  dozen mosaics.  The picture box can  make unnumbered
thousands, so fast they  seem to move. Your aliens make my life less than an
unweaned pup's scratching in its cradle."
     The queen  of the Woodcarvers was  softly  crying,  but her  voice  was
angry.  "And  now the whole world is going to  change, but too late for such
wreckage as I!"
     Almost without conscious thought, Peregrine extended one of his members
toward  the  Woodcarver. He  walked unseemly close: eight yards, five. Their
thoughts  were suddenly fuzzy with  interference,  but  he  could  feel  her
     She  laughed  blearily.  "Thank  you.... Strange  that  you  should  be
sympathetic. The greatest problem of my life is nothing to a pilgrim.
     "You were hurting." It was all he could think to say.
     "But  you pilgrims  change and change and  change -- " She eased one of
herself close to him; they were almost touching, and  it was even harder  to
     Peregrine spoke slowly, concentrating on every word, hoping he wouldn't
forget his point. "But I do keep something  of a soul. The parts that remain
a pilgrim must have a certain outlook." Sometimes great insight comes in the
noise of battle or intimacy. This was such at time.  "And -- and I think the
world itself is  due for a change of soul now that we have Two-Legs dropping
from the sky. What better time for Woodcarver to give up the old?"
     She smiled, and  the confusion became  louder, but a pleasant thing. "I
... hadn't ... thought of it that way. Now is the time to change...."
     Peregrine  walked  into her midst.  The  two packs stood for a  moment,
necking, thoughts  blending into sweet chaos. Their last clear  recollection
was of stumbling up the steps and into his lodge.

     Late that afternoon, Woodcarver brought the  picture box  to Scrupilo's
laboratory.  When she arrived Scrupilo and Vendacious  were already present.
Scriber  Jaqueramaphan  was there too, but standing farther from  the others
than courtesy might demand. She had interrupted some kind of argument. A few
days  before, such squabbling  would have  just depressed her.  Now  --  she
dragged  her  limper into the  room and looked at  the  others  through  her
drooler's eyes -- and smiled. Woodcarver felt the best she had in years. She
had made her decision and acted on it,  and now there were new adventures to
be had.
     Scriber brightened at her entrance. "Did you check on Peregrine? How is
     "He  is fine, fine, just  fine." Oops, no need to show them how fine he
really is! "I mean, there'll be a full recovery."
     "Your Majesty, I'm very grateful to you and your doctors. Wickwrackscar
is a good pack, and I ... I mean, even a pilgrim can't change  members every
day, like suits of clothes."
     Woodcarver waved an offhand acknowledgment. She walked to the middle of
the room, and set the alien's picture box on the table there. It looked like
nothing so much  as a big pink pillow -- with floppy ears and a weird animal
design sewed in its  cover. After playing with it  for a day and a half, she
was getting  pretty  good  ...  at  opening  the thing  up. As  always,  the
Two-Legs's face appeared, making mouth noises. As always, Woodcarver felt an
instant of awe at seeing the moving mosaic. A million colored "tiles" had to
flip and shift in absolute synchrony to create the illusion. Yet it happened
exactly the same each time. She turned the screen so Scrupilo and Vendacious
could see.
     Jaqueramaphan edged toward  the others, and craned  a pair of  heads to
look.  "You still  think the  box is  an  animal?"  he said  to  Vendacious.
"Perhaps you  could feed it  sweets  and  it would tell us its secrets, eh?"
Woodcarver smiled  to  herself. Scriber  was no pilgrim;  pilgrims depend on
goodwill too much to go around giving the needle to the powerful.
     Vendacious  just ignored him. All his eyes were on her. "Your  Majesty,
please do not take offense. I -- we of the  Council --  must ask  you again.
This picture box is too important to be left in the mouths of a single pack,
even one so great as you. Please. Leave it  to the rest of us, at least when
you sleep."
     "No  offense  taken.  If  you  insist,   you  may  participate   in  my
investigations. Beyond that, I will not go." She  gave him an innocent look.
Vendacious  was  a  superb  spymaster,  a  mediocre  administrator,  and  an
incompetent scientist.  A century ago  she would have the  likes of  him out
tending the crops, if he chose to stay at all. A century ago there  had been
no need for spymasters and one administrator had been enough. How things had
changed.  She absentmindedly nuzzled the  picture box;  perhaps things would
change again.
     Scrupilo took Scriber's question seriously. "I see three possibilities,
sir. First, that it is magic." Vendacious winced away from him. "Indeed, the
box may be so far beyond our  understanding,  that it is magic.  But that is
the one heresy  the Woodcarver has never accepted, and so I courteously omit
it." He flicked a  sardonic smile at  Woodcarver.  "Second,  that it  is  an
animal. A few on the Council thought so when Scriber first made it talk. But
it looks like  a stuffed pillow, even down to the amusing figure stitched on
its   side.   More   importantly,  it  responds  to   stimuli  with  perfect
repeatability. That is something I do recognize.  That is the behavior of  a
     "That's  your third  possibility?"  said Scriber. "But to be  a machine
means to have moving parts, and except for -- "
     Woodcarver shrugged a tail at them. Scrupilo could go on  like this for
hours, and she saw that Scriber was  the same type. "I say, let's learn more
and then speculate." She tapped  the corner of the  box, just as Scriber had
in his original demonstration. The alien's  face vanished from the  picture,
replaced by a dizzying pattern of color. There was a splatter of sound, then
nothing  but the mid-pitch  hum the box always  made when the  top was open.
They  knew the box could hear low-pitched sounds,  and it could feel through
the  square  pad  on its base. But  that pad was itself a  kind  of  picture
screen: certain commands  transformed the  grid of touch spots into entirely
new  shapes.  The  first time they  did  that, the box  refused  any further
commands. Vendacious had been sure they had  "killed the little  alien". But
they had closed the box and  reopened  it -- and it was back to its original
behavior.  Woodcarver was almost  certain  that  nothing  they could  do  by
talking to it or touching it would hurt the thing.
     Woodcarver retried the known signals in  the  usual order. The  results
were spectacular,  and identical to before. But change that order in any way
and  the  effects  would be  different.  She wasn't sure if  she agreed with
Scrupilo: The  box behaved with the  repeatability of  a machine ... yet the
variety of its responses was much more like an animal's.
     Behind her, Scriber and Scrupilo edged members across the floor.  Their
heads  were stuck high in the air as they strained  for a  clear look at the
screen. The buzz of their thoughts came louder and  louder. Woodcarver tried
to  remember what she'd  been planning next. Finally, the noise was just too
much. "Will you  two please back off! I can't hear myself think." This isn't
a choir, you know.
     "Sorry ... this  okay?"  They moved back about fifteen feet. Woodcarver
nodded. The two members were less than twenty feet from each other. Scrupilo
and Scriber must be really eager to see the screen.  Vendacious had  kept  a
proper distance, and a look of alert enthusiasm.
     "I have a  suggestion,"  said Scriber. His voice was  slurred  from the
effort  of  concentrating  over  Scrupilo's thoughts.  "When you  touch  the
four/three square and say --  " he made the alien sounds; they were all very
easy to do "-- the screen shows a collection of pictures. They seem to match
the squares. I think we ... we are being given choices."

     Hm. "The box could end up training us." If this is a  machine,  we need
some new definitions. "... Very well, let's play with it."
     Three hours  passed. Toward the end, even Vendacious had moved a member
nearer  the screen; the  noise in the room  verged  on  mindless chaos.  And
everybody  had suggestions;  "say that", "press  this", "last time  it  said
that,  we did thus and so". There were intricate colored designs,  sprinkled
with things that must  have been  written language. Tiny, two-legged figures
scampered  across   the  screen,   shifting  the  symbols,  opening   little
windows.... Scriber Jaqueramaphan's idea was quite right. The first pictures
were choices. But some  of those  led to  further  pictures of  choices. The
options  spread  out  -- tree-like, Scriber  said.  He  wasn't quite  right;
sometimes they came back to an earlier point; it  was a metaphorical network
of  streets. Four  times they ended in cul de sacs, and had to shut the  box
and begin again. Vendacious was madly drawing maps of the paths. That  would
help;  there were places they would want to see  again. But even he realized
there were unnumbered other paths, places that blind exploration would never
     And  Woodcarver  would have  given  a good  part of  her  soul  for the
pictures she had already seen. There were  starscapes. There were moons that
shone blue and green, or banded orange. There were moving pictures of  alien
cities, of thousands of aliens so close that they were actually touching. If
they ran in packs,  those packs were bigger than anything in the world, even
in  the tropics....  And maybe the question  was irrelevant; the cities were
beyond anything she ever imagined.
     Finally Jaqueramaphan  backed off.  He huddled  together.  There was  a
shiver in his  voice. "T-there's  a whole universe in there. We could follow
it forever, and never know...."
     She  looked  at  the  other  two.  For  once, Vendacious  had  lost his
smugness. There were ink stains on all  his lips. The writing benches around
him were littered  with  dozens  of  sketches, some clearer  than others. He
dropped the pen, and gasped. "I say we take what  we have and study  it." He
began gathering the  sketches,  piling them into a  neat  stack.  "Tomorrow,
after a good sleep, our heads will be clear and -- "
     Scrupilo dropped back  and stretched.  His eyes had  excited red  rims.
"Fine.  But  leave  the  sketches,  friend  Vendacious."  He  jabbed at  the
drawings. "See that  one and that?  It's clear that  our  blundering gets us
plenty  of empty results. Sometimes the picture box just  locks us out,  but
much  more often  we get  that picture: No options, just a couple of  aliens
dancing in  a  forest  and making rhythm sounds. Then if we say --  " and he
repeated part  of the  sequence, "-- we get that picture of piles of sticks.
The first with one, the second with two, and so on."
     Woodcarver saw it too. "Yes. And  a figure comes out and points to each
of the piles and says  a short noise by  each." She and Scrupilo  stared  at
each  other,  seeing the same gleam in each  others' eyes. The excitement of
learning, of  finding order where there had seemed only chaos. It had been a
hundred years since she last felt this way. "Whatever this thing is ... it's
trying to teach us the Two-Legs' language."

     In the days  that followed, Johanna Olsndot had lots of time  to think.
The pain in her chest and shoulder gradually eased; if she moved  carefully,
it was only a pulsing  soreness. They had taken the arrow out and sewed  the
wound closed. She had feared the worst when they had tied her down, when she
saw the knives in their mouths and the steel on their claws. Then they began
cutting; she had not known there could be such pain.
     She  still  shuddered  with  remembered  agony.  But  she  didn't  have
nightmares about it, the way she did about....
     Mother and Dad were dead; she had seen them die  with her own eyes. And
Jefri? Jefri might  still  be  alive. Sometimes  Johanna could  go  a  whole
afternoon full of hope. She had seen the  coldsleepers burning on the ground
below  the  ship, but  those inside  might  have survived.  Then  she  would
remember  the  indiscriminate  way the attackers  had  flamed  and  slashed,
killing everything around the ship.
     She  was  a prisoner. But for now,  the murderers wanted her well.  The
guards were not armed  -- beyond their teeth and  tines. They kept well away
from her when they could. They knew she could hurt them.
     They kept her inside a big dark cabin. When she was alone she paced the
floor. The dogthings were barbarians.  The surgery without  anesthetics  was
probably not  even intended as torture. She hadn't seen any aircraft, or any
sign of electricity. The toilet was a slot carved in a marble slab. The hole
went  so deep  you  could scarcely  hear the plop  hit  bottom. But it still
smelled bad. These creatures were as backward  as people in the darkest ages
on Nyjora. They had never had technology, or  they had thoroughly  forgotten
it.  Johanna  almost  smiled. Mom  had  liked  novels about  shipwrecks  and
heroines marooned  on lost  colonies. The big deal  was  usually to reinvent
technology and repair  the spacecraft.  Mom was ... had been ... so into the
history of science; she loved the details of those stories.
     Well, Johanna was living  it  now. But with  important differences. She
wanted  rescue, but she also wanted  revenge. These creatures  were  nothing
like human. In  fact, she couldn't remember reading of anything  quite  like
them. She'd have looked for them in her dataset, except they had taken that.
Ha. Let them play with it. They'd quickly run into her booby traps and  find
themselves totally locked out.

     At first there were  only blankets to keep warm. Then  they'd given her
clothes cut like her jump suit  but made of puffy  quilting. They were  warm
and  sturdy, the stitching  neater than  anything she imagined a  nonmachine
could do. Now she could  comfortably walk around outside. The garden  beyond
her cabin was the best thing about the place. It  was about a hundred meters
square, and  followed  the slope of a hillside. There  were lots of flowers,
and trees with long, feathery leaves. Flagstoned walks curved back and forth
through mossy  turf. It was a peaceful place if she let it be, a little like
their backyard on Straum.
     There were walls,  but from the high end of the garden,  she could  see
over them. The walls angled this way and  that, and in places  she could see
their other  side. The windows slits were like something out of her  history
lessons: they let you  shoot  arrows or bullets  without making a target  of
     When  the sun was  out, Johanna liked  to sit  where  the smell  of the
feather leaves was  strongest, and look over the lower walls at the bay. She
still wasn't sure just what she was  seeing. There was  a harbor; the forest
of spars was almost like  the marinas on Straum. The town  had wide streets,
but they zigged  and zagged and the buildings along  them were all askew. In
places  there were  open-roofed mazes of  stone; from up here, she could see
the pattern. And there was another wall,  a  rambling thing that  ran for as
far  as she  could  see. The  hills beyond were crowned with  gray  rock and
patches of snow.
     She could see the dogthings down in  the town. Individually,  you could
almost mistake them for dogs (snake-necked, rat-headed ones). But watch them
from a distance  and you saw  their true nature. They always moved  in small
groups, never more than six.  Within the pack they  touched, cooperated with
clever  grace. But she never saw one group come closer than about ten meters
to another.  From  her distant  viewpoint, the  members  of a pack seemed to
merge ... and she could imagine she was seeing one multilimbed beast ambling
cautiously along, careful not to come  too close  to  a similar monster.  By
now, the conclusion was inescapable: one pack, one mind. Minds so  evil they
could not bear to be close to one another.

     Her fifth time in the garden was the prettiest  yet, a  coercion toward
joy. The flowers had sprayed downy seeds into the air. The lowering sunlight
sparkled off them as they floated by the thousands on the slow breeze, clots
in an  invisible syrup. She imagined what Jefri would do here: first pretend
grownup dignity, then  bounce from  one  foot to the other. Finally he would
race down the hillside, trying to  capture as many of the flying tufts as he
could. Laughing and laughing --
     "One, two, how do you do?" It was a child's voice, behind her.
     Johanna  jumped up so fast  she almost tore her stitches.  Sure enough,
there was a  pack behind  her. They  -- it?  --  was the one who had cut the
arrow out of  her. A mangy lot. The five  were crouched, ready  to run away.
They looked almost as surprised as Johanna felt.
     "One, two, how do you do?" The  voice came again, exactly as before. It
might  as  well  have been  a recording, except that one of the animals  was
somehow synthesizing  the  sound  with the  buzzing patches of skin  on  its
shoulders, haunches  and head. The  parrot act  was nothing new to  her. But
this time ... the words were almost appropriate. The voice was not hers, but
she had heard that  chant  before. She put hands on hips  and stared at  the
pack. Two  of the  animals stared back; the others seemed to be admiring the
scenery. One licked nervously at its paw.
     The  two rear  ones were  carrying her dataset! Suddenly she knew where
they'd  gotten that singsong  question. And she knew what  they  expected in
response. "I am fine and how do you do?" she said.
     The pack's eyes  widened almost comically. "I am fine, so  then are  we
all!" It  completed the  game,  then  emitted a burst  of gobbling.  Someone
replied from  down the hill. There was  another  pack there, lurking in  the
bushes. She  knew that if  she  stayed  near  this one,  the other  wouldn't
     So the Tines -- she  always  thought of them  by  those claws on  their
front feet; those she would never forget -- had  been  playing with the Pink
Oliphaunt, and hadn't been stopped by the booby  traps. That was better than
Jefri ever  managed.  It  was  clear  they  had  fallen into the  kindermode
language programs. She should have thought of  that. When  the dataset noted
sufficiently asinine responses it would adapt its  behavior, first for young
children, and -- if that didn't work -- for youngsters who didn't even speak
Samnorsk. With just a little cooperation from Johanna, they could  learn her
language. Did she want that?
     The pack walked a little nearer, at least two of them watching  her all
the time. They didn't seem quite so ready to bolt as before. The nearest one
dropped to its  belly and looked up at her.  Very cute and helpless, if  you
didn't see the claws. "My name is -- " Johanna heard a short burst of gobble
with an  overtone that seemed to buzz right through  her head. "What is your
     Johanna knew it  was  all part of the language script. There was no way
the  creature could understand the individual words it  was saying. That "my
name, your name" pair  was repeated over and over again between the children
in the language program. A vegetable would  get the point eventually. Still,
the Tines pronunciation was so perfect....
     "My name is Johanna," she said.
     "Zjohanna," said the pack, with Johanna's voice, and splitting the word
stream incorrectly.
     "Johanna," corrected Johanna. She wasn't even  going to try  saying the
Tines name.
     "Hello,  Johanna. Let's play  the  naming  game!" And that was from the
script too, complete with silly enthusiasm. Johanna sat down. Sure, learning
Samnorsk would give the Tines power over her ... but it was the only way she
could learn  about  them, the only way she could learn  about  Jefri. And if
they had murdered Jefri, too?  Well then,  she would  learn to  hurt them as
much as they deserved.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     At  Woodcarvers and  then  -- a  few days later --  at Flenser's Hidden
Island, the long  daylight  of  arctic  summer ended.  At first there  was a
little twilight just  around midnight, when even the highest  hill  stood in
shadow. And then the hours of dark grew quickly. Day fought night, and night
was winning. The featherleaf in the  low valleys changed  to  autumn colors.
Looking  up a fjord in  daylight was to see orange red on  the lower  hills,
then  the  green of heather merging imperceptibly to the grays of lichen and
the  darker grays of naked rock. The snowpatches  waited for their time;  it
would come soon.
     At every sunset, each  day a few minutes  earlier, Tyrathect toured the
ramparts of Flenser's outer wall. It was a three-mile walk. The lower levels
were guarded by linear packs, but up  here  there were  only a few lookouts.
When she approached, they stepped aside with  military precision. More  than
military precision; she saw the fear in their look.  It was hard to get used
to that. For almost as far back as she had clear memories -- twenty years --
Tyrathect  had  lived in  fear of others, in shame and guilt,  in search  of
someone  to  follow. Now  all that  was turned on its head.  It  was  not an
improvement. She knew now, from the  inside, the evil she had  given herself
to. She knew why the sentries feared her. To them, she was Flenser.
     Of course, she never gave any hint of these thoughts. Her life was only
as safe as the success of her fraud. Tyrathect  had worked hard to  suppress
her natural, shy mannerisms. Not once since coming to Hidden  Island had she
caught herself in the old bashful habit of heads lowering, eyes closing.
     Instead,  Tyrathect had  the  Flenser  stare  --  and  she used it. Her
passage around the top wall was as stark  and  ominous as Flenser's had ever
been. She looked out over her  --  his -- domain with the same hard  gaze as
before, all heads front, as if seeing visions beyond the petty  minds of the
disciples.  They must never guess her real  reason for these  sunset sweeps:
for a time, the days and nights were like in the Republic. She could  almost
imagine she was still back there,  before  the Movement and the  massacre at
Parliament Bowl, before  they cut her throats  and wed pieces of Flenser  to
the stumps of her soul.
     In the gold and russet fields beyond the stone  curtains, she could see
peasants trimming  the fields and the  herds. Flenser ruled lands far beyond
her view, but he had never imported food. The grain and meat that filled the
storehouses were  all  produced within a two-day march of  the  straits. The
strategic intent was clear; still, it made for a peaceful evening's view and
brought back memories of her home and school.
     The  sun slid sideways into the mountains; long shadows  swept the farm
lands.  Flenser's castle  was left  an island in a sea of  shadow. Tyrathect
could  smell the  cold. There would  be frost  again tonight.  Tomorrow  the
fields  would  be  covered  with false snow  that would  last  an hour  past
sunrise.  She pulled  the long  jackets close  around  her and walked to the
eastern lookout.  Across the straits, one of  the near hilltops was still in
the sun. The alien ship had landed there. It was still there, but now behind
wood  and  stone. Steel began building there right  after the  landing.  The
quarries at the  north end of Hidden Island were  busier  now  than ever  in
Flenser's  time.  The  barges hauling stone  to the mainland  made  a steady
traffic  across the  straits. Even  now  that the light  was  not  dayround,
Steel's construction went  on nonstop. His Incallings and lesser inspections
were harsher than Flenser's had used to be.
     Lord Steel  was  a killer; worse, a manipulator.  But  since the  alien
landing, Tyrathect knew that he was something else:  deathly afraid. He  had
good  reason. And even though the folk he feared  might ultimately kill them
all, in her secret soul she  wished them well. Steel and his Flenserists had
attacked  the star people without warning, more out of greed than fear. They
had killed dozens of beings. In  a way the murders were worse  than what the
Movement had done to her. Tyrathect had followed the Flenser of her own free
will. She had had friends who warned her about the Movement. There had  been
dark stories about the Flenser,  and not all had been government propaganda.
But  she had so wanted to follow, to  give herself to Something  Greater....
They had used her,  literally as  their tool. Yet she could have avoided it.
The star people had had no such option; Steel simply butchered them.
     So now Steel  labored  out  of fear.  In  the first  three  days he had
covered  the flying ship with a roof: a sudden, silly farmhouse had appeared
on  the  hilltop. Before long the alien craft would be hidden  behind  stone
walls. Ultimately,  the new  fortress might be bigger than the one on Hidden
Island.  Steel knew that if  his villainy did not destroy him, it would make
him the most powerful pack in the world.
     And  that  was  Tyrathect's  reason for  staying,  for  continuing  her
masquerade. She couldn't go  on forever. Sooner or later the other fragments
would reach Hidden Island; Tyrathect would be  destroyed and all  of Flenser
would  live again.  Perhaps  she  wouldn't survive  even  that  long. Two of
Tyrathect were  of Flenser. The Master  had  miscalculated in  thinking they
could dominate the other three. Instead the conscience of the three had come
to own the brilliance of the two. She remembered almost everything the great
Flenser had known, all the  tricks and all the  betrayals. The two had given
her an intensity she had never had before. Tyrathect laughed to  herself. In
a  sense, she  had gained  what she  had been  so  naively  seeking  in  the
Movement;  and  the  great Flenser had  made exactly the mistake that in his
arrogance  he thought impossible.  As long as  she could keep  the two under
control,  she  had  a  chance. When  she was all  awake, there  wasn't  much
problem; she still felt herself a "she", still remembered her  life  in  the
Republic more  clearly than  the Flenser memories. It was different when she
slept.  There were  nightmares.  The  memories of torment inflicted suddenly
seemed sweet. Sleep-time sex should soothe; with her  it was a  battle.  She
awoke sore and  cut,  as if she  had been fighting a rapist. If the two ever
broke  free, if she ever awoke a "he".... It  would take  only a few seconds
for the  two to denounce  the masquerade, only  a  little longer to kill the
three and put the Flenser members aboard a more manageable pack.
     Yet she stayed.  Steel meant to use the aliens and their ship to spread
Flenser's nightmare worldwide. But his plan was fragile, with risks on every
side.  If there was  anything she  could do to  destroy  it and  the Flenser
Movement, she would.

     Across the castle, only  the western  tower still hung in sunlight.  No
faces showed at  the window slits, but  eyes looked out:  Steel  watched the
Flenser  Fragment -- the  Flenser-in-Waiting as  it styled itself -- on  the
ramparts  below.  The  fragment was accepted by all the commanders. In fact,
they accorded  it almost  the awe they had given to the full  Flenser.  In a
sense, Flenser had made them all, so it wasn't surprising  they felt a chill
in the  Master's presence. Even Steel felt it.  In his shaping, Flenser  had
forced the  aborning Steel  to try  to kill  him;  each  time Steel had been
caught  and  his weakest members  tortured. Steel knew the conditioning that
was  there, and that helped him  fight it. If anything, he told himself, the
Flenser Frag was in greater  danger because of  it: in trying to counter the
fear, Steel  might  just miscalculate,  and  act  more  violently  than  was
     Sooner or later Steel had to decide. If he  didn't  kill  it before the
other fragments  reached Hidden  Island, then all  of  Flenser would be here
again. If two  members could dominate Steel's regime, then six would totally
erase it. Did he  want the Master  dead? And if he did, was there any surely
safe  way...?  Steel's  mind  flickered lightly all around the issue  as  he
watched the black-frocked pack.
     Steel was used to playing for high stakes. He had been born playing for
them. Fear  and  death  and winning were his whole life. But  never had  the
stakes been as high as now. Flenser had come close to subverting the largest
nation  on the continent,  and had  had dreams of ruling  the world.... Lord
Steel looked to the hillside across the straits, at  the  new  castle he was
building.  In  his present  game,  world  conquest would  follow  easily  on
victory, and the destruction of the world was a  conceivable consequence  of
     Steel had visited the  flying ship shortly after the ambush. The ground
was  still  steaming. Every  hour  it  seemed  to grow  hotter. The mainland
peasants talked of  demons wakened in  the earth; Steel's advisors could not
do much better. The whitejackets needed padded boots to get close. Steel had
ignored  the  steam, donned the boots,  and walked beneath the curving hull.
The bottom was vaguely like  a boat's hull, if you ignored  the stilts. Near
the  center  was a  teat-like projection;  the  ground  directly  underneath
burbled with molten rock. The  burned-out coffins were on the uphill side of
the ship. Several of  the corpses  had been removed  for  dissection. In the
first hours his advisors had been full of fanciful theories: the mantis folk
were warriors fleeing a battle, come to bury their dead....
     So far no one had been able to take a careful look inside the craft.
     The gray  stairs were made of something as strong as steel  yet feather
light. But they were recognizably stairs, even if the risers  were  high for
the  average member. Steel  scrambled up the  steps, leaving  Shreck and his
other advisors outside.
     He stuck  a  head through the  hatch  -- and winced back  abruptly. The
acoustics  were deadly. He understood what the whitejackets were complaining
about.  How could the aliens  bear it?  One by one he forced himself through
the opening.
     Echoes screamed at him --  worse than from  unpadded quartz. He quieted
himself, as  he had  so  often  done  in the Master's presence.  The  echoes
diminished, but they were  still a horde raging in the walls all around. Not
even his best whitejackets could tolerate more  than five  minutes here. The
thought made Steel stand straighter. Discipline.  Quiet does not always mean
submission;  it can mean  hunting. He  looked around,  ignoring  the howling
     Light came from bluish strips in the ceiling. As his  eyes adjusted, he
could see what his  people had described to him: the interior  was  just two
rooms.  He was standing in the larger one -- a cargo hold? There was a hatch
in the far wall and then the second room. The  walls were seamless. They met
in angles that did not match the outer hull; there would be  dead spaces.  A
breeze moved fitfully  about the room, but  the  air  was much  warmer  than
outside. He had  never been  in a place  that felt  more of power  and evil.
Surely it was only a trick of acoustics. They would bring in some  absorbent
quilts, some side reflectors, and the feeling would go away. Still....
     The room was filled with coffins, these unburned. The place  stank with
the aliens' body odor. Mold grew in  the darker corners.  In a way that  was
comforting: the aliens breathed  and sweated as other living things, and for
all  their  marvelous  invention, they could not keep their own  den  clean.
Steel wandered among  the coffins. The boxes were mounted on  railed  racks.
When the ones outside had  been here, the room must  have been crammed full.
Undamaged, the coffins were marvels  of  fine  workmanship. Warm  air exited
slots along  the sides. He sniffed at it: complex,  faintly nauseating,  but
not the smell of  death.  And  not the source of the overpowering  stench of
mantis sweat that hung everywhere.
     Each coffin had a window mounted on  its top side. What effort to honor
the remains  of  single members! Steel hopped onto one and looked down.  The
corpse was perfectly preserved; in fact, the blue light made everything look
frozen. He cocked a second head over the edge of the box, got a double  view
on the creature within. It  was  far smaller than  the two  they had  killed
under the ship. It was even smaller than the one they had captured.  Some of
Steel's advisors thought the small ones were pups, perhaps unweaned. It made
sense; their prisoner never made thought sounds.
     Partly as  an  act of  discipline,  he stared for a long  while at  the
alien's queer, flat face. The echo of his mind was a continuing pain, eating
at his attention,  demanding that he leave. Let the  pain continue.  He  had
withstood  worse before, and  the  packs outside  must  know  that Steel was
stronger than  any of  them. He could master the pain and have  the  greater
insight.... And then he would work their butts off, quilting these rooms and
studying the contents.
     So Steel  stared,  almost thoughtless, into  the face. The screaming in
the walls seemed  to  fade  a little. The face was so  ugly. How  could  the
creature  eat? He  had looked at the charred  corpses outside, noticed their
small jaws and randomly misshapen teeth.
     A  few  minutes   passed;  the   noise  and  ugliness  mixed  together,
dream-like.... And out of his trance, Steel new a nightmare horror: The face
moved. The change was small, and  it happened very,  very slowly. But over a
period of minutes, the face had changed.
     Steel's fell from the coffin; the walls screamed back terror. For a few
seconds, he  thought the noise would kill him. Then he regained himself with
quiet thought. He crawled back onto the box. All his eyes stared through the
crystal, waiting like a pack  on hunt.... The change was regular.  The alien
in  the  box  was  breathing, but  fifty times more  slowly than any  normal
member.  He moved to another box,  watched the creature in it. Somehow, they
were all alive. Inside those boxes, their lives were simply slowed.
     He looked up from the boxes, almost in a daze. That  the room reeked of
evil was an illusion of sound ... and also the absolute truth.
     The  mantis  alien  had  landed  far  from the  tropics, away  from the
collectives; perhaps it thought the Arctic Northwest a backward  wilderness.
It had come in a ship jammed  with hundreds of mantis pups. These boxes were
like larval casings:  the pack would land, raise the small ones to adulthood
-- out of sight of civilization. Steel felt his pelts  puff up as he thought
about it. If the mantis pack had not been surprised, if Steel's  troops  had
been any less aggressive ... it would have been the end of the world.
     Steel staggered to the outer hatch, his  fears coming louder and louder
off the walls.  Even so, he paused a  moment in the shadows and the screams.
When his members trooped  down the  stairs,  he  moved calmly, every  jacket
neatly in place.  Soon enough his  advisors would know the danger, but  they
would never see fear in him. He walked lightly across the steaming turf, out
from under the hull. But even he could not  resist a quick  look across  the
sky. This was one ship,  one  pack of  aliens. It had had  the misfortune of
running into the  Movement. Even so, its defeat  had  been partly  luck. How
many other ships  would land, had  already landed? Was there time for him to
learn from this victory?

     Steel's mind returned to  the present, to  his eyrie  lookout above the
castle. That first encounter with the ship was many  tendays past. There was
still a threat, but now he understood it better, and -- as was true  of  all
great threats -- it held great promise.
     On the rampart, Flenser-in-Waiting slid through the deepening twilight.
Steel's eyes  followed the pack as it walked beneath the torches, and one by
one disappeared down stairs. There  was an  awful lot of the  Master in that
fragment;  it had  understood  many  things about the  alien  landing before
anyone else.
     Steel took one last look  across the darkening  hills  as he turned and
started down the spiral stair. It was a long, cramped climb; the lookout sat
atop  a  forty-foot tower.  The  stair was  barely  fifteen inches wide, the
ceiling less that  thirty inches above the steps. Cold stone pressed in from
all around, so close that  there were  no echoes  to confuse thought --  yet
also  so  close  that the mind was squeezed into a long thread. Climbing the
spiral required a  twisting, strung-out  posture that left any attacker easy
prey for a defender in the eyrie. Such was military architecture. For Steel,
crawling the cramped dark was pleasant exercise.
     The stairs  opened onto a public hallway, ten feet across with back-off
nooks every fifty feet. Shreck and a bodyguard were waiting for him.
     "I have  the  latest from Woodcarvers,"  said  Shreck.  He  was holding
sheets of silkpaper.
     Losing  the other alien  to Woodcarvers had once seemed  a  major blow.
Only  gradually  had  he  realized  how  well  it  could  work  out. He  had
Woodcarvers infiltrated.  At first  he'd  intended  to have the  other alien
killed;  it would have been easy  to do.  But the  information that trickled
north was interesting.  There  were some bright people at Woodcarvers.  They
were coming up with insights that had slipped past  Steel and the  Master --
the  fragment of  the Master. So. In effect, Woodcarvers had  become Steel's
second alien  laboratory,  and the Movement's enemies were  serving him like
any other tool. The irony was irresistible.
     "Very good, Shreck. Take it  to my den. I'll be  there shortly."  Steel
waved the whitejackets into a back-up nook and  swept past  him. Reading the
report over brandy would  be a  pleasant reward for  the day's  work. In the
meantime, there were other duties and other pleasures.

     The Master had  begun building Hidden Island Castle more than a century
earlier;  it  was growing yet. In  the oldest foundations, where an ordinary
ruler might put dungeons, were the Flenser's first laboratories. Many  could
be mistaken for dungeons -- and were by their inhabitants.
     Steel  reviewed  all  the  labs at  least  once a tenday.  Now he swept
through  the lowest  levels.  Crickers fled before the light of his  guard's
torches.  There  was a  smell of  rotting meat.  Steel's paws skidded  where
slickness lay  upon  the stone.  Holes were  dug  in the  floor  at  regular
intervals.  Each could hold  a single member, its  legs jammed tight to  its
body. Each was covered by  a  lid with tiny  air  holes. It took the average
member about three  days  to  go  mad in such  isolation. The resulting "raw
material" could be used to  build blank packs.  Generally, they weren't much
more than vegetables, but  then that was all the Movement asked of some. And
sometimes  remarkable  things  came from these  pits: Shreck  for  instance.
Shreck the  Colorless, some  called him.  Shreck  the stolid. A pack who was
beyond pain, beyond desire. Shreck's was the loyalty of clockwork, but built
from flesh  and  blood. He was  no  genius,  but Steel  would have given  an
eastern  province  for  five more of  him.  And  the promise  of  more  such
successes made Steel use the isolation pits again and again. He had recycled
most of the wrecks from the ambush that way....
     Steel  climbed  back to  higher  levels,  where the really  interesting
experiments  were  undertaken.  The   world  regarded   Hidden  Island  with
fascinated horror.  They  had  heard  of  the  lower levels. But most didn't
realize what a small  part  those  dark  spaces  played  in  the  Movement's
science. To properly dissect a soul, you  need more than  benches with blood
gutters. The results  from the lower levels  were  simply the first steps in
Flenser's  intellectual  quest. There were  great  questions  in the  world,
things that had bothered packs for thousands of  years. How do we think? Why
do  we believe? Why is one pack a genius and another an oaf? Before Flenser,
philosophers argued  them endlessly  and never got closer to the truth. Even
Woodcarver  had  pranced  around  the  issues,  unwilling  to  give  up  her
traditional ethics. Flenser was prepared  to get the answers. In these labs,
nature itself was under interrogation.
     Steel  walked  across  a  chamber  one hundred yards wide, with a  roof
supported  by dozens  of stone  pillars.  On  every  side  there  were  dark
partitions,  slate walls mounted on tiny wheels. The cavern could be blocked
off,  maze-like,  into any  pattern. Flenser  had experimented with  all the
postures of thought. In the centuries before him, there  had been only a few
effective postures: the instinctive heads together, the ring sentry, various
work postures.  Flenser had tried dozens more: stars,  double  rings, grids.
Most were  useless and confusing. In  the  star, only  a single member could
hear all  the others, and each of those  could only hear the one. In effect,
all  thought  had  to pass through the hub member. The hub  could contribute
nothing rational, yet all its misconceptions passed uncorrected to the rest.
Drunken foolishness resulted....  Of course, that experiment was reported to
the outside world.
     But at least one of the  others  -- still  secret --  worked  strangely
well:  Flenser  posted  eight  packs  around  the  floor  and  on  temporary
platforms, blocked them from each  another  with  the slate  partitions, and
then put members from each  pack in connection  with  their counterparts  in
three others. In a sense, he created a pack of eight packs. Steel was  still
experimenting with that. If the connectors were sufficiently compatible (and
that was the hard  part), the resulting creature was far smarter than a ring
sentry. In most ways it  was not as  bright as a single heads-together pack,
yet sometimes it had striking insights. Before he  left for the  Long Lakes,
the Master had developed a plan to rebuild the castle's main hall so council
sessions could be conducted in this posture. Steel hadn't pursued that idea;
it seemed just a bit  too risky. Steel's domination  of others was not quite
as complete as Flenser's had been.
     No matter. There were other, far more significant, projects.  The rooms
ahead were the  true heart of the  Movement.  Steel's  soul had been born in
these rooms; all of Flenser's greatest creations had begun here. During  the
last five years, Steel had continued the tradition ... and improved upon it.
     He walked down the hall that linked the separate  suites. Each bore its
number in inlaid gold. At each he opened a door and stepped partway through.
His  staff left  their  report  on  the previous  tenday  just inside. Steel
quickly read  each one,  then poked a nose over the balcony  to  look at the
experiment within. The balconies were well-padded, and screened; it was easy
to observe without being seen.
     Flenser's one weakness (in  Steel's  opinion) was  his desire to create
the superior being. The Master's confidence was so immense, he believed that
any  such  success  could be  applied to his  own soul.  Steel  had no  such
illusions.  It  was  a commonplace  that  teachers  are  surpassed  by their
creations -- pupils, fission-children, adoptions, whatever. He, Steel, was a
perfect illustration of this, though the Master didn't know it yet.
     Steel had determined to  create beings that would  each be superior  in
some single way --  while flawed  and malleable in  others. In the  Master's
absence, he  had begun a  number of experiments. Steel worked from  scratch,
identifying inheritance  lines  independent of pack  membership. His  agents
purchased  or stole pups that  might  have potential.  Unlike  Flenser,  who
usually melded pups into existing packs in an approximation of nature, Steel
made his totally newborn. His puppy  packs had  no memories or  fragments of
soul; Steel had total control from the beginning.
     Of  course, most such constructions  quickly died. The pups had  to  be
parted from their wet nurses before they began to participate in the adult's
consciousness. The resulting pack was taught entirely in speech and  written
language. All inputs could be controlled.
     Steel stopped before door number thirty-three: Experiment Amdiranifani,
Mathematical Excellence. It was not the only attempt in this  direction, but
it was by far the most successful. Steel's agents had searched  the Movement
for packs with ability  for abstraction. They had gone further: the  world's
most famous  mathematician lived in the  Long  Lakes Republic. The  pack had
been preparing  to  fission;  she  had  several  puppies  by  herself and  a
mathematically  talented lover. Steel had  had the pups  taken. They matched
his  other  acquisitions so well that he decided  to make an  eightsome.  If
things worked out, it might be beyond all nature in its intelligence.
     Steel motioned  his  guard  to  shield  the  torches.  He  opened  door
thirty-three and soft-toed one member to the edge of the balcony. He  looked
down, carefully silencing that member's fore-tympanum. The skylight was dim,
but  he could see  the pups huddled together ...  with its  new  friend. The
mantis. Serendipity, that was  all he could call this, the reward that comes
to a  researcher who  labors long enough, carefully enough.  He had  had two
problems. The  first  had been  growing  for a year: Amdiranifani was slowly
fading, its members falling into  the  usual autism of wholly newborn packs.
The second was the captured alien; that was an enormous  threat, an enormous
mystery,  an  enormous opportunity.  How  to  communicate  with it?  Without
communication, the possibilities for manipulation were very limited.
     Yet in a single blind stroke, an incompetent Servant had shown  the way
to  solve both problems. Now  that his eyes were  adjusted to  the  dimness,
Steel could see the alien beneath the pile of puppies. When first he'd heard
that the creature had been put in with an experiment, Steel had been enraged
beyond thought; the Servant who  made the mistake had been recycled. But the
days passed. Experiment  Amdiranifani began showing more liveliness than any
time  since  its  pups  were  weaned.  It  quickly  became  obvious --  from
dissecting the other aliens, and observing this one  -- that mantis folk did
not live in packs. Steel had a complete alien.
     The alien  moved in  its sleep, and  made a low-pitched mouth noise; it
was  totally  incapable of any other  kind of sound. The pups shifted to fit
the new position. They were sleeping too, vaguely thinking among themselves.
The  low end of  their sounds was  a perfect imitation of the alien....  And
that was the  greatest coup of all. Experiment Amdiranifani was learning the
alien's  speech. To the  pack  of newborns  this was simply another  form of
interpack talk, and apparently its mantis friend  was more interesting  than
the tutors who appeared on these  balconies. The Flenser Fragment claimed it
was  the physical  contact, that  the pups were reacting to the alien  as  a
surrogate parent, thoughtless though the alien was.
     It really didn't matter.  Steel brought another head to the edge of the
balcony.  He stood  quietly, neither member thinking directly at  the other.
The  air smelled  faintly  of puppies and  mantis sweat. These two  were the
Movement's  greatest treasure:  the key to survival and more. By  now, Steel
knew the flying ship was not part of  an invasion fleet. Their visitors were
more like ill-prepared  refugees. There had been no word  of other landings,
and the Movement's spies were spread far.
     It had  been a close thing, winning  against the  aliens. Their  single
weapon had killed most of a regiment. In the proper jaws, such weapons could
defeat  armies. He had no  doubt  the ship contained  more powerful  killing
machines  -- ones that still functioned.  Wait  and  watch,  Steel counseled
himself. Let Amdiranifani show the levers that could control this alien. The
entire world would be the prize.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     Sometimes Mom  used to say  that something was "more fun than a  barrel
full of puppies." Jefri Olsndot  had never had more than one pet at  a time,
and only once had that been  a dog.  But now he understood  what  she meant.
From the very first day,  even when he had been so tired  and scared, he had
been  entranced by  the  eight puppies. And they by him. They were all  over
him, pulling at his clothes, unfastening his shoes, sitting  on his  lap, or
just running  around him.  Three  or four were always staring  at him. Their
eyes were completely brown or pink, and seemed large for  their heads.  From
the beginning the puppies had mimicked  him. They were better than  Straumli
songbirds; anything he said, they could echo -- or play back later. And when
he cried, often the puppies would cry too, and cuddle around him.
     There were other dogs, big ones that  wore clothes and entered the room
through doorways high  up on the  walls. They lowered  food  into  the room,
sometimes making strange noises. But the food tasted awful, and  they didn't
respond to Jefri's screaming even by mimicking him.
     Two  days had passed, then a week. Jefri had investigated everything in
the room. It wasn't really a dungeon; it was too big. And besides, prisoners
don't get pets. He understood that  this  world was uncivilized, not part of
the Realm,  perhaps  not even on the Net.  If Mom or  Dad or Johanna weren't
nearby, it  was possible  that  there  was no one here to teach  the dogs to
speak Samnorsk! Then it  would be up to Jefri Olsndot to teach the dogs  and
find his  family.  Now when the  white-jacketed dogs  came onto  the  corner
balconies, Jefri shouted questions at them. It  didn't help very  much. Even
the  one  with red stripes didn't respond. But the puppies did! They shouted
right  along  with  Jefri,  sometimes  echoing his  words, sometimes  making
nonsense sounds.
     It didn't  take Jefri long to realize that the puppies were driven by a
single  mind. When they ran around him, some would always  sit a little  way
off, their  graceful necks arching  this  way and  that --  and  the runners
seemed  to know exactly what the others saw. He couldn't hide  things behind
his back if there was even one of them to alert the  others. For  a while he
thought they were somehow talking  to each other. But it was more than that:
when he watched them unfasten his shoes or draw a  picture -- the  heads and
mouths  and paws cooperated so perfectly, like  the fingers  on  a  person's
hands. Jefri didn't reason things out  so  explicitly; but over  a period of
days he came to think of all the puppies together as a single friend. At the
same  time  he  noticed  that  the  puppies was mixing  up his  words -- and
sometimes making new meanings.
     "You me play." The words  came out like a  cheap voice splice, but they
generally preceded a mad game of tag all around the furniture.
     "You me picture." The slate board covered the lowest meter of the wall,
all around the room.  It was a  display device like  Jefri had never seen in
his life: dirty, imprecise,  imperfectly deletable,  unstorable. Jefri loved
it. His face and  hands, and most of Puppies' lips,  got  covered with chalk
stains.  They drew each  other,  and  themselves.  Puppies didn't draw  neat
pictures like Jefri's; Puppies' dog figures had big heads and paws, with the
bodies  all smudged together. When he drew Jefri, the hands were always big,
each finger carefully drawn.
     Jefri drew his family and tried to make Puppies understand.
     Day by day, the  sunlight  circled higher on the walls.  Sometimes  the
room was dark  now. At least once a day, packs came to talk to Puppies. This
was one of the few  things which could pull the little ones away from Jefri.
Puppies  would sit  below  the balconies,  screeching  and  croaking at  the
adults.  It was a school class! They'd lower scrolls for him to look at, and
retrieve ones he had marked.
     Jefri sat quietly  and watched  the lessons. He fidgeted, but he didn't
shout at the teachers anymore.  Just  a little  longer, and he  and  Puppies
would really be talking. Just a little longer and Puppies could find out for
him where Mom and Dad and Johanna were.

     Sometimes terror and pain are not the  best  levers; deception, when it
works, is the most elegant and the least expensive manipulation of all. Once
Amdiranifani was  fluent in the mantis language, Steel had him explain about
the  "tragic  death"  of Jefri's  parents  and  brood-sibling.  The  Flenser
Fragment had argued  against it,  but  Steel  wanted quick and  unquestioned
     Now  it seemed  that  the Fragment might have been  right;  at least he
should have held  out  the  hope  that the brood-sibling lived. Steel looked
solemnly at the Amdiranifani Experiment. "How can we help?"
     The young pack looked up trustingly.  "Jefri is so terribly upset about
his parents  and sister." Amdiranifani was using mantis words  a lot,  often
unnecessarily: sister instead of brood-sibling. "He hasn't been eating much.
He doesn't want to play. It makes me very sad."
     Steel kept watch on the far balcony. The Flenser Fragment was there. It
was not hiding, though most of its faces were out of the candlelight. So far
its insights had  been extraordinary. But  the Fragment's stare was like old
times, when a mistake could mean  mutilation or worse. So be it.  The stakes
were higher now than ever before; if fear at Steel's throats  could help him
succeed, he  welcomed it. He looked  away from the balcony, and  brought all
his faces to  an expression of tender sympathy for poor Jefri's plight. "You
just have to make it -- him -- understand. No one can bring  his  parents or
sister  back to  life.  But we  know  who the  murderers  are.  We're  doing
everything  we can to  defend against  them.  Tell  him how  hard  this  is.
Woodcarvers is an empire that has lasted  hundreds of years. In a  fight, we
are no match  for them.  That's why we need all the help he can  give us. We
need him to teach us to use his parents' ship."
     The  puppy  pack lowered a  head. "Yes.  I'll try, but  ..." The  three
members by Jefri made low-pitched grunting noises at it. The mantis sat head
bowed;  it  held its tentacled  paws across its  eyes. The creature had been
like  this  for  several days, and the  withdrawal was getting worse. Now it
shook its head violently, made sharp noises a little higher pitched than its
normal register.
     "Jefri  says he  doesn't understand  how things work in the  ship. He's
just a little ..." the pack  searched for a translation. " ... he is  really
very young. You know, like me."
     Steel nodded understandingly.  It  was  an obvious  consequence of  the
aliens' singleton  nature, but weird  even so: Every one of them started out
all  a  puppy.  Every one of them was like  Steel's puppy-pack  experiments.
Parental  knowledge was transmitted  by the  equivalent of interpack speech.
That made the  creature easy to dupe, but it was a damned inconvenience now.
"Still, if there's anything he can help explain."
     More  grunting from the mantis. Steel  should learn  that language. The
sounds were  easy; these pitiful creatures used their mouths to talk, like a
bird or a forest slug. For now he depended on Amdiranifani. For now that was
okay; the puppy pack trusted him.  Another piece of serendipity. With  a few
of his  recent  experiments,  Steel  had  tried love in  place of  Flenser's
original terror/love combination; there had been a slim chance that it might
be superior. By great good luck Amdiranifani fell into the love  group. Even
his  instructors had avoided  negative reinforcement. The pack would believe
anything he said ... and so, Steel hoped, would the mantis.
     Amdiranifani  translated:  "There is  something else; he has  asked  me
about it before.  Jefri knows  how to wake the  other children -- " the word
literally meant "pack of puppies", "--  on the ship. You look  surprised, my
lord Steel?"
     Even though  he no longer dreamed  in  terror of  monster  minds, Steel
would just as soon not have  a hundred more aliens running around. "I hadn't
realized  they could be wakened  so easily....  But we shouldn't do it right
now. We're  having trouble finding food  that Jefri can eat." That was true;
the creature was an  incredibly finicky eater. "I don't think we could  feed
any more right now."
     More  grunting. More sharp cries  from Jefri. Finally,  "There  is  one
other thing, my  lord. Jefri thinks it  may  be possible to  use  the ship's
ultrawave to call for help from others like his parents."
     The Flenser Fragment jerked out of the shadows. A pair of heads  looked
down at the mantis, while another stared meaningfully at Steel. Steel didn't
react; he could  be cooler than any loose pack.  "That's something  to think
about. Perhaps you and  Jefri could talk more about it. I don't  want to try
it till we're  sure we won't  hurt the  ship."  That  was  weak. He saw  the
Fragment twitch a muzzle in amusement.
     As  he  spoke,  Amdiranifani  was translating.  Jefri responded  almost
     "Oh, that's okay. He meant a special call. Jefri says the ship has been
signaling ... all by itself ... ever since it landed."
     And Steel wondered if he had ever heard a deadly threat uttered in such
sweet innocence.

     They  began letting Amdi and Jefri outside to play. Beforehand Amdi was
nervous about going out. He was unused to wearing clothes. His whole life --
all four years of it -- had been  spent in  that one big room. He read about
the outside and was curious about it, yet he was  also a little  afraid. But
the human boy seemed to want it. Every day  he'd been  more  withdrawn,  his
crying softer. Mostly he was crying for his parents or sister, but sometimes
he cried about being locked up so deep away.
     So Amdi had talked to Mr. Steel, and now they got out almost every day,
at least to an inner courtyard. At first, Jefri just sat, not really looking
around. But  Amdi  discovered that he loved  the outdoors, and every time he
got his friend to play a little more.
     Packs of teachers and guards stood at the corners of the yellowing moss
and watched. Amdi -- and eventually Jefri -- got a big kick out of harassing
them. They hadn't realized it down  in the room, where visitors came  at the
balconies, but most adults were nervous around Jefri. The boy was half again
as tall as a normally standing pack member. When  he came close, the average
pack would clump together and edge away. They didn't like having to look  up
at him. It was silly, Amdi thought. Jefri was so tall and skinny, he  looked
like he might topple over at any moment. And when he ran it was like he  was
wildly trying to  recover from  a fall and never quite succeeding. So Amdi's
favorite game those  first  days  was tag.  Whenever he was  the  chaser, he
contrived to run Jefri right through the most  prim looking whitejackets. If
he and Jefri did it right they  could  turn the tag into a  three-way event,
Amdi chasing Jefri and a whitejackets racing to stay away from both of them.
     Sometimes he felt sorry for the  guards  and whitejackets. They were so
stiff  and grownup.  Didn't  they understand how much  fun it was to  have a
friend that you walk right next to, that you could actually touch?
     It was mostly night now. Daylight  hovered for a few hours around noon.
The twilight before and after was bright enough to dim the stars and aurora,
but still too faint to show colors.  Though Amdi had spent his life indoors,
he understood the geometry of  the situation,  and liked to watch the change
of light. Jefri didn't much like the dark of winter ... until the first snow
     Amdi  got  his first set of jackets. And Mr. Steel had  special clothes
made for  the human  boy,  big  puffy things that covered his whole body and
kept him warmer than a good pelt would have done.
     On one side of the  courtyard  the snow was  just six inches  deep, but
elsewhere it piled into drifts higher than Amdi's head. Torches were mounted
in wind shields on the  walls; their  light  glittered golden off  the snow.
Amdi knew about snow -- but he'd never seen it before. He loved to splash it
on one  of  his jackets.  He  would  stare  and  stare, trying  to  see  the
snowflakes  without  his  breath  melting  them.  The hexagonal pattern  was
tantalizing, just at the limit of his vision.
     But  tag was  no fun anymore; the human could  run  through drifts that
left  Amdi swimming in  the white stuff. There  were other things the  human
could do, wonderful things. He could make balls of snow and throw them.  The
guards were very upset by this, especially when Jefri plinked a few members.
It was the first time he ever saw them get angry.
     Amdi  raced  around  the  windswept  side  of  the  courtyard,  dodging
snowballs and keening  frustration.  Human hands  were such  wicked,  wicked
things.  How  he would love to have a  pair -- four pairs! He  circled round
from three sides and sprinted right at  the human. Jefri backed quickly into
deeper snow, but too late.  Amdi hit him high and low, tipping  the Two-Legs
over into a snowdrift.  There was a mock  battle,  slashing  lips  and  paws
against Jefri's hands and feet. But now Amdi was on  top. The human got paid
back  for  his snowballs with  plenty  of snow stuffed down the back  of his

     Sometimes they  just sat and watched the sky for so long that rumps and
paws went numb. Sitting behind the largest snow drift, they were shaded from
the castle torches and had a clear view of the lights in the sky.
     At  first  Amdi  had  been  entranced by  the aurora. Even some  of his
teachers were.  They said this part  of the world was one of the best places
to  see  the  sky  glow.  Sometimes  it  was  so faint  that the  torchlight
glimmering off the snow was enough to blot it out.  Other times  it ran from
horizon  to horizon:  green light trimmed  with hints of  pink, twisting  as
though ruffled by a slow wind.
     He  and Jefri could talk  very  easily  now, though  always in  Jefri's
language. The human couldn't  make many of  the sounds of interpack  speech;
even his pronunciation of Amdi's name was  a scarcely recognizable. But Amdi
understood Samnorsk pretty well; it was fun, their own secret language.
     Jefri was not especially impressed by the aurora. "We have that lots at
home. It's  just light from -- " He said a new word, and glanced at Amdi. It
was funny  how  the  human couldn't look in more than one place at time. His
eyes and head were  always moving.  "-- you  know, places where  people make
things. I  think the gas and waste  leaks out, and then the sun lights it up
or it gets -- " unintelligible.
     "Places  where  people make things?" In the  sky? Amdi had a globe;  he
knew  the  size of  the  world  and  its  orientation.  If the  aurora  were
reflecting sunlight,  it  must be hundreds  of miles above  the ground! Amdi
leaned a back against Jefri's jacket and made a very human  whistling sound.
His knowledge of geography was not up to his geometry, but, "The packs don't
work in the sky, Jefri. We don't even have flying boats."
     "Uh, that's right, you don't.... I don't know what that  stuff is then.
But I don't like  it. It gets in the way  of the stars." Amdi knew all about
the stars; Jefri  had  told him. Somewhere  out  there were the  friends  of
Jefri's parents.
     Jefri  was  silent  for  several minutes.  He wasn't looking at the sky
anymore.  Amdi wriggled a little closer, watching the shifting light  in the
sky. Behind them the wind-sharpened crest of the drift was edged with yellow
light from the torches. Amdi could imagine what the other was thinking. "The
commsets from the boat, they really aren't good enough to call for help?"
     Jefri slapped  the ground. "No! I told you. They're just radio. I think
I can make them  work, but what's the use? The ultrawave  stuff is still  on
the boat and it's  too big to move.  I just don't  understand why  Mr. Steel
won't let me go aboard.... I'm eight  years old, you know. I could figure it
out.  Mom had it all set up before, before ..."  His words guttered into the
familiar, despairing silence.
     Amdi rubbed a head  against Jefri's shoulder. He had a theory about Mr.
Steel's reluctance.  It  was an explanation he  hadn't  told  Jefri  before:
"Maybe he's afraid you'll just fly away and leave us."
     "That's stupid! I'd never leave you. Besides, that boat is real hard to
fly. It was never meant to land on a world."
     Jefri   said  the   strangest   things;   sometimes   Amdi   was   just
misunderstanding -- but sometimes  they were  literal truth. Did  the humans
really have ships that never came to ground?  Where  did they  go then? Amdi
could almost feel new scales of reference clicking together in his mind. Mr.
Steel's geography globe represented not the world,  but something very, very
small in the true scheme of things.
     "I know you wouldn't leave us. But you  can see how Mr. Steel might  be
afraid. He  can't  even talk to  you except through me.  We have to show him
that we can be trusted."
     "I guess."
     "If you  and I could get the radios working, that might help. I know my
teachers haven't  figured them out. Mr. Steel has one, but I don't think  he
understands it either."
     "Yeah. If we could get the other one to work..."
     That afternoon the  guards got a break: their  two charges came in from
the cold early. The guards didn't question their good fortune.

     Steel's den  had originally been  the Master's.  It  was very different
from the castle's meeting halls. Except for choirs, only a single pack would
fit in any room.  It was  not exactly that the  suite was small.  There were
five rooms, not counting the bath. But except for the library, none was more
than fifteen feet across. The ceilings were low,  less than five feet; there
was no space for visitor balconies. Servants were  always on call in the two
hallways that shared a wall with the quarters. The dining room, bedroom, and
bath had servant hatches, just big enough to give orders and to receive food
and drink, or preening oils.
     The main entrance was guarded on the outside by three trooper packs. Of
course, the Master would never live in a den with  only  one exit. Steel had
found eight secret  hatches  (three  in  the sleeping quarters). These could
only  be opened  from  within; they led to the maze that  Flenser  had built
within the solid rock of  the castle's walls. No one knew the extent of that
maze, not even the Master. Steel had rearranged parts of it -- in particular
the  passages  leading  from  this  den --  in  the  years  since  Flenser's
     The quarters were  nearly  impregnable. Even if  the  castle fell,  the
rooms'  larder was stocked  for  half a  year; ventilation was provided by a
network of channels almost as extensive as the Master's secret passages. All
in  all,  Steel felt  tolerably safe here.  There was always the possibility
that there were more than eight  secret entrances, perhaps one that could be
opened from the other side.
     And  of course choirs  were out of the question, here or anywhere.  The
only extrapack sex that  Steel indulged  was with singletons -- and that  as
part of  his experiments;  it was just too dangerous to mix one's self  with
     After  dinner,  Steel drifted  into the library. He  relaxed around his
reading desk. Two of him sipped brandy  while another smoked southern herbs.
This was pleasure, but also calculation: Steel knew just what vices, applied
to just which members, would raise his imagination to its keenest pitch.
     ... And more  and more he was  coming  to  see that imagination  was at
least as important as raw intelligence in the present game. The desk between
him was covered with maps, reports from the south,  internal security memos.
But lying  in  all the silkpaper, like  an ivory  slug in its  nest, was the
alien radio.  They had recovered  two from  the ship. Steel picked the thing
up, ran a nose along the smooth, curved sides. Only the finest stressed wood
could match its  grace -- and  that in  musical instruments or statuary. Yet
the  mantis claimed  this  could be used to talk across dozens of miles,  as
fast as a ray of  sunlight. If true ... Steel wondered how many lost battles
might have been won with these,  and how many new conquests might  be safely
undertaken. And if they  could learn to  make far-talkers ... the Movement's
subordinates, scattered across the continent, would be as near as the guards
by Steel's den. No force in the world could stand against them.
     Steel picked up the latest report from  Woodcarvers. In many  ways they
were having more success with their mantis than Steel  with his.  Apparently
theirs was almost an adult. More important, it had a miraculous library that
could be interrogated almost like a living being. There had been three other
datasets. Steel's whitejackets  had  found  what  was  left of them  in  the
burnt-out wreckage around the ship. Jefri thought that the ship's processors
were a little like a dataset, "only stupider" (Amdi's best translation), but
so far the processors had been useless.
     But  with  their  dataset, several  on Woodcarver's  staff had  already
learned  mantis  talk.  Each  day  they  discovered  more about the  aliens'
civilization than Steel's  people could in ten. He smiled. They didn't  know
that  all  the  important stuff  was  being  faithfully reported  to  Hidden
Island.... For now he would let them keep  their toy, and their mantis; they
had noticed several  things that would have slipped by him.  Still he damned
the luck.
     Steel paged  through the report.... Good. The alien  at Woodcarvers was
still uncooperative.  He felt  his smile spreading into  laughter: it was  a
small thing, the  creature's  word for the Packs. The report tried  to spell
out the word. It didn't  matter; the translation was "claws" or "tines". The
mantis had a special horror for the tine  attachments that soldiers wore  on
their forepaws. Steel licked pensively at the black enamel of  his manicured
claws. Interesting. Claws could be threatening  things,  but they were  also
part  of  being  a  person.  Tines  were  their  mechanical  extension,  and
potentially more frightening. It was the sort  of name you might imagine for
an  elite  killer force ... but never for all the Packs. After all, the race
of packs included the weak, the poor, the  kindly,  the naive ... as well as
persons  like  Steel  and Flenser.  It said something very interesting about
mantis  psychology that  the  creature picked  tines as  the  characterizing
feature of the Packs.
     Steel eased  back from his desk  and gazed  at  the  landscape  painted
around the library's walls. It was a view from the castle towers. Behind the
paint, the walls were lined with patterns of  mica and quartz and fiber; the
echoes gave  a  vague sense  of what you  might hear looking out  across the
stone and emptiness. Combination audiovisuals were rare in the  castle,  and
this  one was especially well-done; Steel could feel  himself relaxing as he
stared at it. He drifted for a moment, letting his imagination roam.

     Tines. I like it. If  that was the alien's image, then it was the right
name for his race. His  pitiful advisors --  and sometimes  even the Flenser
Fragment -- were still intimidated by the ship from  the stars. No question,
there  was power  in that ship beyond anything  in the world.  But after the
first  panic, Steel  understood that  the  aliens  were  not  supernaturally
gifted. They had simply progressed  -- in the sense  that Woodcarver made so
much of  -- beyond the current  state of his world's science.  Certainly the
alien  civilization  was  a deadly  unknown right  now.  Indeed, it might be
capable of burning this world to a cinder. Yet the more Steel  saw, the more
he realized the intrinsic inferiority of the aliens: What a bizarre abortion
they  were,  a  race of  intelligent singletons.  Every one of them must  be
raised  from  nothing,  like a wholly newborn pack.  Memories could  only be
passed by voice and writing.  Each creature grew and aged and even died as a
whole. Despite himself, Steel shivered.
     He had come a long way from the first  misconceptions, the first fears.
For  more than a thirty days now he'd been scheming  to use the star ship to
rule  the world.  The mantis said that  ship was signaling  others. That had
reduced some of  his  Servants to incontinence.  So. Sooner  or later,  more
ships  would  arrive. Ruling the world was no longer a practical goal.... It
was time to aim higher, at  goals  even the Master had never imagined.  Take
away  their  technical  advantages and  the  mantis  folk were such  finite,
fragile beings.  They should be easy to conquer. Even they seemed to realize
this. Tines, the creature calls us. So it will be. Some day Tines would pace
between the stars and rule there.
     But  in  the years till  then, life  would be  very  dangerous. Like  a
newborn pup, all their potential could be  destroyed by one  small blow. The
Movement's survival -- the world's survival  -- would  depend  upon superior
intelligence, imagination, discipline, and treachery. Fortunately, those had
always been Steel's great strengths.
     Steel   dreamed   in   the  candlelight   and   haze....  Intelligence,
imagination,  discipline, treachery.  Done  right ... could  the  aliens  be
persuaded  to eliminate  all  of  Steel's  enemies ...  and then bare  their
throats  to him? It was daring,  almost  beyond reason, but there might be a
way. Jefri claimed he could operate the ship's signaler.  By  himself? Steel
doubted it.  The alien was thoroughly  duped, but not  especially competent.
Amdiranifani  was a different story. He  was showing  all the  genius of his
bloodlines. And the principles of loyalty and sacrifice his teachers drilled
into him had taken hold,  though  he  was a bit  ...  playful. His obedience
didn't  have the sharp edge that fear  could bring. No matter. As a  tool he
was useful beyond all others. Amdiranifani understood Jefri, and  seemed  to
understand the alien artifacts even better than the mantis did.
     The risk must  be taken.  He would  let the two aboard  the  ship. They
would  send  his message in place of the automatic distress signal. And what
should that first message be? Word for word, it would be the most important,
most dangerous thing any pack had ever said.

     Three hundred yards away, deep in the experiment wing, a boy and a pack
of puppies  came  across an unexpected piece of good luck: an unlocked door,
and a chance to play with Jefri's commset.
     The phone was more complex than some.  It was intended for hospital and
field work, for the remote  control of devices as well as for voice talk. By
trial and error, the two gradually narrowed the options.
     Jefri Olsndot pointed to numbers that had appeared  on the side of  the
device.  "I think that  means we're  matched with some receiver." He glanced
nervously at the doorway. Something told him they really shouldn't be here.
     "That's the same pattern as  on the radio Mr.  Steel took," said  Amdi.
Not even one of his heads was watching the door.
     "I bet if we press it here, what we say will come out on his radio. Now
he'll know we can help.... So what should we do?"
     Three of Amdi raced around the room, like dogs that couldn't keep their
attention on the conversation. By now, Jefri knew this was the equivalent of
a human looking away  and humming as he  thought. The angle of  his gaze was
another gesture, in this case a spreading and mischievous smile. "I think we
should surprise him. He is always so serious."
     "Yeah." Mr. Steel was pretty solemn. But then all the adults were. They
reminded him of the older scientists at the High Lab.
     Amdi grabbed  the radio and gave him a "just watch this" look. He nosed
on the  "talk"  switch and  sang a long ululation  into the mike. It sounded
only vaguely like pack speech.  One of Amdi translated, next to Jefri's ear.
The human boy felt giggles stealing up his throat.

     In his den, Lord Steel was lost in scheming. His imagination --  loosed
by herbs and brandy --  floated free, playing with the possibilities. He was
settled  deep  in  velvet cushions,  comfortable  in the  den's  safety. The
remaining  candles shone faintly on the landscape mural, glinting  from  the
polished  furniture.  The story he would tell  the aliens, he  almost had it
     The noise on his  desk  began as a  small  thing, submerged beneath his
dreaming. It  was mostly low-pitched, but  there were overtones in the range
of thought, like slices of another mind. It was a presence, growing. Someone
is in my den! The thought tore like Flenser's killing blade. Steel's members
spasmed panic, disoriented by smoke and drink.
     There  was a voice  in  the middle of the insanity. It  was  distorted,
missing tones that any normal speech should have.  It howled and quavered at
him, "Lord Steel! Greetings from the Pack of Packs, the Lord God Almighty!"
     Part of Steel  was already out the main hatch, staring wide-eyed at his
guards in the hallway beyond. The troopers' presence brought a  bit of calm,
and  icy  embarrassment.  This is nonsense.  He tipped  a head to  the alien
device on his desk. The echoes were everywhere, but the sounds originated in
the  far-talker....  There was  no  pack  speech now, just the  high-pitched
slices  of  sound, mindless warbling in the middle range  of thought.  Wait.
Behind  it  all,  faint  and  low  ... there  were  the  coughing grunts  he
recognized as mantis laughter.
     Steel rarely  gave way to rage. It should be his  tool, not his master.
But  listening to  the laughter,  and remembering  the  words.... Steel felt
black bloodiness rising in first one member and then another. Almost without
thought, he reached back and smashed the commset. It fell  instantly silent.
He glared at the guards ranged at attention in the hallway. Their mind noise
was quiet with stifled fear.
     Someone would die for this.

     Mr. Steel met with Amdi  and Jefri the day after their success with the
radio. They had convinced him. They were moving to the mainland. Jefri would
have his chance to call for rescue!
     Steel was  even  more solemn than usual; he made a  big thing about how
important it was  to get  help, to  defend against  another attack from  the
Woodcarvers.  But  he  didn't seem angry about Amdi's  little  prank.  Jefri
breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Back home, Daddy would have tanned his hide
for  something  like  that.  I  guess Amdi is right.  Mr. Steel was  serious
because  of  all  his  responsibilities  and  the dangers  they  faced.  But
underneath he was a very nice person.


     Crypto: 0
     As received by: Transceiver Relay03 at Relay
     Language path: Firetongue->Cloudmark->Triskweline, SjK units
 [Firetongue and Cloudmark are High Beyond trade languages. Only core meaning is rendered by this translation.]
     From: Arbitration Arts Corporation at Firecloud  Nebula  [A High Beyond
military[?] organization. Known age ~100 years]
     Subject: Reason for concern
     Summary: Three single-system civilizations are apparently destroyed
     Key phrases: scale interstellar disasters, scale interstellar warfare?,
Straumli Realm Perversion
 War Trackers Interest Group, Threats Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group

     Date: 53.57 days since the fall of Straumli Realm
     Text of message:

     Recently an  obscure  civilization announced it had created a new Power
in the  Transcend. It  then dropped  "temporarily" off the Known  Net. Since
that time,  there have been  about a  million  messages in Threats about the
incident -- plenty of speculations that a Class Two Perversion had been born
-- but no evidence of effects  beyond the boundaries of the former "Straumli

     Arbitration Arts  specializes in treckle lansing disputes. As such,  we
have few common business interests with natural races or Threats Group. That
may have to change: sixty-five hours ago, we noticed the apparent extinction
of three  isolated civilizations in the High Beyond near Straumli Realm. Two
of these were Eye-in-the-U religious probes, and the  third was a Pentragian
factory. Previously  their main Net link had  been Straumli Realm.  As such,
they  have  been  off the  Net since Straumli dropped, except for occasional
pinging from us.
     We  diverted   three   missions   to   perform   fly-throughs.   Signal
reconnaissance revealed  wideband communication that was  more  like  neural
control than local net traffic. Several new large structures were noted. All
our vessels were destroyed before  detailed information  could  be returned.
Given the background of these settlements, we conclude that this is  not the
normal aftermath of a transcending.

     These  observations are  consistent with  a  Class Two attack  from the
Transcend (albeit a secretive one). The most obvious source would be the new
Power constructed by Straumli Realm. We urge special vigilance  to  all High
Beyond civilizations in this part of the Beyond.  We larger ones have little
to fear, but the threat is very clear.

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: Transceiver Relay03 at Relay
     Language path: Firetongue->Cloudmark->Triskweline, SjK units
 [Firetongue and Cloudmark are High Beyond trade languages. Only core meaning is rendered by this translation.]
     From: Arbitration  Arts Corporation at Firecloud Nebula  [A High Beyond
military[?] organization. Known age ~100 years]
     Subject: New service available
     Summary: Arbitration Arts to provide Net relay service
     Key phrases:  Special Rates, Sentient  Translator  Programs, Ideal  for
civilizations in the High Beyond
 Communication Costs Interest Group, Motley Hatch Administration Group

     Date: 61.00 days since the fall of Straumli Realm
     Text of message:
     Arbitration Arts  is  proud  to  announce  a transceiver-layer  service
especially designed for sites in the High Beyond [rates  tabulated after the
text of this message]. State of the  Zone programs will provide high quality
translation and routing. It has been nearly one hundred years since any High
Beyond  civilization  in  this  part of  the Galaxy has been  interested  in
providing such a  communication service. We  realize the job is dull and the
armiphlage not in keeping with the effort, but we all  stand to benefit from
protocols that are consistent with the Zone we live in. Details follow under
syntax 8139. ... [Cloudmark:Triskweline translator program balks at handling
syntax 8139.]

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: Transceiver Relay03 at Relay
     Language path: Cloudmark->Triskweline, SjK units
 [Cloudmark is a High Beyond trade language. Despite colloquial rendering, only core meaning is guaranteed.]
     From: Transcendent Bafflements Trading Union at Cloud Center
     Subject: Matter of life and death
     Summary: Arbitration  Arts has fallen to Straumli Perversion via  a Net
attack. Use Middle Beyond relays till emergency passes!
     Key  phrases:  Net   attack,  scale   interstellar   warfare,  Straumli
 War Trackers Interest Group, Threats Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group

     Date: 61.12 days since the fall of Straumli Realm
     Text of message:
     WARNING!  The  site  identifying itself  as  Arbitration  Arts  is  now
controlled by  the Straumli  Perversion.  The Arts' recent  advertisement of
communications services is a  deadly  trick.  In fact we  have good evidence
that the Perversion used sapient Net packets to invade and disable the Arts'
defenses. Large  portions of the Arts  now appear to be under direct control
of  the  Straumli Power. Parts  of the Arts  that  were not infected  in the
initial invasion have been destroyed by the converted portions: Fly-throughs
show several stellifications.
     What can  be  done:  If  during  the  last thousand  seconds, you  have
received any  High  Beyond protocol packets from "Arbitration Arts", discard
them at  once. If they have  been processed  (then  chances are  it  is  the
Perversion  who is reading this message and with a  [broad smile]), then the
processing site and all locally netted sites must be physically destroyed at
once.  We  realize  that  this means  the destruction  of solar systems, but
consider the alternative. You are under Transcendent attack.

     If you survive the initial  peril (the  next  thirty hours or so), then
there are obvious procedures that can give  relative  safety: Do not  accept
High Beyond protocol packets.  At the  very least, route all  communications
through Middle  Beyond  sites, with translation down to,  and then  up from,
local trade languages.
     For the  longer  term: It's  obvious  that an  extraordinarily powerful
Class Two Perversion has bloomed  in our region of the galaxy. For  the next
thirteen years or  so, all advanced civilizations near  us will be  in great
     If  we can identify  the  background of the current  perversion, we may
discover  its weaknesses and  a  feasible defense. Class Two Perversions all
involve  a  deformed Power  that creates symbiotic  structures in  the  High
Beyond -- but there is enormous  variety of origins. Some are  poorly-formed
jokes told by Powers no longer on the scene. Others are weapons built by the
newly transcendent and never properly disarmed.

     The  immediate  source  of  this danger is well-documented:  a  species
recently up from the Middle Beyond, Homo sapiens, founded Straumli Realm. We
are  inclined to believe the theory proposed in messages [...],  namely that
Straumli researchers experimented with something in Shortcuts, and  that the
recipe  was a self-booting evil from  an earlier time. One possibility: Some
loser from  long ago planted how-to's on the Net (or in  some  lost archive)
for  the  use  of its  own  descendants.  Thus,  we  are interested  in  any
information related to Homo sapiens.


     The  next  day Amdi went on the longest trip of his young life. Bundled
in  windbreakers, they  traveled down wide, cobbled  streets  to the straits
below the castle. Mr. Steel led  the way on a  chariot-cart  drawn by  three
kherhogs. He looked marvelous in his red- striped jackets. Guards dressed in
white fur rolled along on either side, and the dour Tyrathect brought up the
rear. The aurora was as  brilliant  as  Amdijefri had ever seen, brighter in
sum  than the  full moon above the northern horizon. Icicles grew  down from
buildings'   eaves,  sometimes  all  the  way  to  the  ground:  glittering,
green-silver pillars in the light.
     Then they were on the boats, rowing across the straits. The water swept
like chill black stone around the hulls.
     When  they  reached the other  side,  Starship  Hill towered over them,
higher than any castle could ever be. Every minute brought new visions,  new
     It took half an  hour to reach  the top of that hill, even though their
carts  were pulled  by  Kherhogs,  and nobody walked.  Amdi  looked  in  all
directions, awed  by the landscape  that  spread, aurora-lit, below them. At
first Jefri  seemed just  as excited, but as  they reached  the hilltop,  he
stopped looking around and hugged painfully hard at his friend.

     Mr. Steel had built a shelter around  the starship. Inside, the air was
still and a little warmer. Jefri stood at  the  base of  the spidery stairs,
looking up at the light that spilled from the ship's open doorway. Amdi felt
him shivering.
     "Is he frightened of his own flier?" asked Tyrathect.
     By now  Amdi knew most  of  Jefri's fears,  and understood most  of the
despair. How would I feel if  Mr. Steel were killed?  "No,  not scared. It's
the memories of what happened here."
     Steel said gently, "Tell him we could come again. He doesn't have to go
inside today."
     Jefri shook his head at the suggestion, but couldn't answer right away.
"I've got to go on. I've  got to be brave." He started slowly up the stairs,
stopping  at each step to  make sure that Amdi was still all  with him.  The
puppies were  split  between concern for Jefri and  the desire to rush madly
into this wonderful mystery.
     Then they were through the hatch, and into Two-Legs strangeness. Bright
bluish light,  air as  warm  as in the  castle ...  and dozens of mysterious
shapes.  They walked  to  the far  side of the big room, and Mr. Steel stuck
some heads in the entrance. His mind sounds echoed loudly around them. "I've
quilted the walls, Amdi, but even so, there isn't room  for more than one of
us in here."
     "Y-yes," there were echoes and Steel's mind sounded strangely fierce.
     "It's up to  you  to  protect  your  friend here, and let me know about
everything you see." He  moved back so  that just one  head still  looked in
upon them.
     "Yes.  Yes!  I  will." It  was  the first time anybody except Jefri had
really needed him.

     Jefri wandered silently about the room full of his sleeping friends. He
wasn't crying  any more,  and  he  wasn't in the silent funk that often held
him.  It was  as if he  couldn't quite  believe where he  was. He passed his
hands  lightly  across  the  caskets,  looked  at the faces  within. So many
friends, thought Amdi, waiting to be wakened. What will they be like?
     "The walls? I don't remember this ..." said Jefri. He touched the heavy
quilting that Steel had hung.
     "It's  to make  the  place sound better," said Amdi. He pulled  at  the
flaps, wondering what  was behind: Green  wall, like stone and steel  all at
once ... and covered with tiny bumps and fingers of gray. "What's this?"
     Jefri  was looking over his shoulders. "Ug. Mold. It's spread. I'm glad
Mr. Steel  has covered  it up." The  human boy drifted away.  Amdi  stayed a
second longer,  poked  several heads up  close to the stuff. Mold and fungus
were a constant problem in the castle; people were always cleaning  it up --
and perversely so, in Amdi's opinion. He  thought fungus was neat, something
that could grow on hardest rock. And this stuff was especially strange. Some
of the clumps were almost half an inch high, but wispy, like solid smoke.
     The back-looking part of him saw that Jefri had drifted  off toward the
inner cabin. Reluctantly, Amdi followed.

     They stayed  in the ship only an  hour that  first  time. In  the inner
cabin Jefri turned on  magic windows that looked out in all directions. Amdi
sat goggle-eyed; this was a trip to heaven.
     For  Jefri  it was  something else. He  hunched down  in  a hammock and
stared at the controls. The tension slowly left his face.
     "I -- I like it here," said Amdi, tentatively, softly.
     Jefri rocked gently in the hammock.  "...  Yes." He  sighed. "I was  so
afraid ... but being here makes me feel closer to ..." His hands reached out
to  caress the  panel that hung  close to the hammock. "My  dad landed  this
thing; he was sitting right here." He twisted around, looked at a glimmering
panel of light above him. "And Mom got the ultrawave all set.... They did it
all. And now it's only  you and  me, Amdi. Even Johanna is gone.... It's all
up to us."


     Vrinimi  Classification:  Organizational  SECRET.  Not for distribution
beyond Ring 1 of the local net.
     Transceiver Relay00 search log:
     Beginning 19:40:40  Docks Time,  17/01  of Org  year 52090 [128.13 days
since the fall of Straumli Realm]
     Link  layer  syntax 14 message loop detected  on  assigned surveillance
bearing. Signal strength and  S/N compatible with previously detected beacon
     Language path: Samnorsk, SjK:Relay units
     From: Jefri Olsndot at I dont know where this is
     Subject:  Hello.  My names Jefri Olsndot. Our ships hurt  adnd  we need
help. pPlease anser.
     Summary: Sorry if I get some of this wrong. This keybord is STUPID!!
     Key phrases: I dont know
     To: Relay anybody

     Text of message: [empty]

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     Two Skroderiders played in the surf.
     "Do you  think his life is in danger?" asked the one with  the  slender
green stalk.
     "Whose life?" said the other, a large rider with a bluish basal shell.
     "Jefri Olsndot, the human child."
     Blueshell sighed to himself and consulted his skrode. You  come  to the
beach to forget the cares of the everyday, but Greenstalk would not let them
go. He  scanned for danger-to-Jefri:  "Of  course  he's in danger, you twit!
Look up the latest messages from him."
     "Oh."  Greenstalk's  tone  was  embarrassed.  "Sorry  for  the  partial
remembering," remembering enough to worry and nothing more. She went silent;
after  a moment  he  heard her pleasured humming. The surf crashed endlessly
past them.
     Blueshell opened to  the  water, tasting the life that  swirled  in the
power of the waves. It was a beautiful beach. It was probably unique --  and
that was an extreme thing to say about anything in the Beyond. When the foam
swept back from their bodies, they could see indigo sky spread from one side
of the Docks to the other, and the  glint  of starships. When the surf  came
forward, the two Riders were submerged in  the  turbid  chill, surrounded by
the  coralesks and intertidal creatures that built their little  homes here.
And at high "tide" the flexure of the sea floor held steady  for  an hour or
so. Then  the water cleared, and if  in daylight,  they could see patches of
glassy  sea-bottom ... and  through them,  a thousand kilometers  below, the
surface of Groundside.
     Blueshell tried to clear  his mind of care. For  every hour of peaceful
contemplation,  a few  more  natural memories would accumulate.... No  good.
Just now he could no more banish the worries  than could Greenstalk. After a
moment,  he  said, "Sometimes  I wish  I were  a Lesser  Rider." To stand  a
lifetime in one place, with just a minimum skrode.
     "Yes," said Greenstalk. "But we  decided to roam. That means  giving up
certain things.  Sometimes we must  remember things that happen only once or
twice.  Sometimes we  have great  adventures: I'm glad  we  took the  rescue
contract, Blueshell."
     So neither of them were really in the mood for the sea today. Blueshell
lowered the skrode's wheels  and  rolled a little  closer to Greenstalk.  He
looked  deep  into  his  skrode's mechanical memory,  scanning  the  general
databases. There was a  lot  there about  catastrophes. Whoever  created the
original skrode  databases  had considered wars and  blights and  perversion
very important. They were exciting things, and they could kill you.
     But Blueshell could  also see that  in relative  terms,  such disasters
were  a small  part of  the  civilized  experience.  Only about  once  in  a
millennium was  there a massive blight. It was their bad  luck to be  caught
near such  a thing. In the last ten weeks a  dozen civilizations in the High
Beyond  had dropped from the Net, absorbed into  the  symbiotic amalgam that
now  was called the  Straumli Blight. High trade was crippled.  Since  their
ship was refinanced, he and  Greenstalk had flown  several jobs, but all  to
the Middle Beyond.
     The two of  them had been very cautious,  but now -- as Greenstalk said
-- greatness might be  thrust upon  them. Vrinimi Org wanted to commission a
secret flight to  the Bottom  of the  Beyond.  Since he  and Greenstalk were
already in on the secret, they  were the natural choice  for the  job. Right
now,  the  Out of  Band  II was  in the Vrinimi  yards getting bottom-lugger
enhancements and a  huge stock of  antenna drones. In  one  stroke the OOB's
value  was  increased ten-thousand-fold.  There  had been no  need  even  to
bargain!... and  that was the scariest thing of all.  Every  addition was  a
clear essential  for the trip. They would be descending right to the edge of
the Slowness. Under the best of circumstances this would be slow and tedious
exercise, but the latest  surveys reported movement in  the zone boundaries.
With bad luck, they might actually end up on the wrong side, where light had
the ultimate speed.  If that should happen, the new  ramscoop would be their
only hope.
     All that was within Blueshell's range of acceptable business. Before he
met Greenstalk, he had shipped on bottom-luggers, even been stranded once or
twice. But --  "I  like adventure as  much as you," said Blueshell, a grumpy
edge creeping  into  his voice.  "Traveling to the Bottom, rescuing sophonts
from  the  claws  of  wildthings:  given  enough  money,  it's  all  perhaps
reasonable. But ... what  if that Straumer  ship  is really as important  as
Ravna thinks? After  all  this time it  seems absurd,  but  she's  convinced
Vrinimi Org  of the possibility. If there's something  down there that could
harm  the Straumli Blight  -- "  If  the  Blight ever suspected the same, it
could have a fleet  of ten thousand warships descending on  their goal. Down
at the Bottom they  might be little better than conventional vessels, but he
and Greenstalk would be no less dead for that.
     Except  for a faint daydreamy hum, Greenstalk was  silent. Had she  had
lost  track of the  conversation? Then her  voice  came to  him through  the
water, a reassuring caress. "I  know, Blueshell, it  could be the end of us.
But  I still want to venture it. If  it's safe, we make enormous  profit. If
our going could harm the Blight ... well, then it's terribly important.  Our
help might save dozens of civilizations -- a million beaches of Riders, just
in passing."
     "Hmpf. You're following stalk and not skrode."
     "Probably." They  had  watched the progress  of  the  Blight since  its
beginning. The feelings of horror and sympathy had been reinforced every day
till they percolated into their natural minds. So  Greenstalk (and Blueshell
too; he couldn't  deny  it) felt  stronger  about the Blight than  about the
danger in their new contract. "Probably. My fears of making  the rescue  are
still analytical," still confined  to her  skrode.  "Yet ... I  think if  we
could stand here a year, if we could  wait till we truly felt all the issues
... I think we would still choose to go."
     Blueshell  rolled  irritably  back and forth. The grit  swirled up  and
through his fronds. She  was right, she was right.  But  he couldn't  say it
aloud; the mission still terrified him.
     "And think, mate:  If it is this important, then  perhaps  we  can  get
help. You know the  Org is negotiating with  the Emissary  Device. With  any
luck we'll end up with an escort designed by a Transcendental Power."
     The  image  almost  made  Blueshell  laugh.  Two  little  Skroderiders,
journeying  to the Bottom of  the Beyond  --  surrounded by  help  from  the
Transcend. "I will hope for it."

     The Skroderiders were not the only ones with that  wish. Further up the
beach, Ravna Bergsndot prowled her office. What gruesome irony that even the
greatest disasters can create opportunities for decent  people. Her transfer
to Marketing had  been made  permanent with the fall of Arbitration Arts. As
the  Blight spread  and  High Beyond markets collapsed,  the Org became ever
more  interested  in  providing  information  services  about  the  Straumli
Perversion.  Her  "special"  expertise   in  things  human  suddenly  became
extraordinarily valuable -- never mind that Straumli Realm itself was only a
small part of what was now the Blight. What little the Blight said of itself
was often in Samnorsk. Grondr and company continued to be vitally interested
in her analysis.
     Well, she had done some  good. They had  picked up  the refugee  ship's
"I-am-here",  and  then -- ninety  days  later  -- a  message  from  a human
survivor,  Jefri  Olsndot. Barely  forty messages had  they  exchanged,  but
enough  to  learn about the Tines and Mr.  Steel and  the evil  Woodcarvers.
Enough to know that a small human life would be ended if she could not help.
Ironic but natural: most times that single life weighed more on her than all
the  horror of the Perversion,  even the fall of Straumli Realm.  Thank  the
Powers that Grondr had endorsed the rescue mission: It was a chance to learn
something important  about  the  Straumli Perversion.  And  the Tinish packs
seemed  to  interest  him, too;  group  minds  were a fleeting thing in  the
Beyond. Grondr had kept the whole affair secret, and persuaded his bosses to
support the  mission. But all his help might not  be enough.  If the refugee
ship was  as  important  as  Ravna  thought,  there could be enormous perils
awaiting any rescuers.
     Ravna looked across the surf. When the waves  backed down the sand, she
could see the Skroderiders' fronds peeping out of the spray. How she  envied
them;  if  tensions  annoyed  them,  they  could  simply  turn them off. The
Skroderiders were one of the most common sophonts in the  Beyond. There were
many varieties, but analysis agreed with legend: very long ago they had been
one species. Somewhere in the off-Net past,  they had  been sessile dwellers
of sea shores. Left to themselves, they had developed a form of intelligence
almost devoid of short-term memory. They sat in the  surf, thinking thoughts
that left no imprints  on their minds. Only repetition of a stimulus, over a
period of time, could do that. But the intelligence and memory that they had
was of  survival  value: it  made  it  possible for them to select  the best
possible place to  cast their pupal seeds, locations that  would mean safety
and food for the next generation.
     Then  some unknown  race had  chanced upon the  dreamers and decided to
"help" them out. Someone had put them on mobile platforms, the skrodes. With
wheels they could move along the seashores, could reach and manipulate  with
their  fronds and  tendrils. With the skrode's mechanical short-term memory,
they could learn fast enough that their new mobility would not kill them.
     Ravna glanced  away from the  Skroderiders --  someone was  floating in
over  the trees. The Emissary  Device. Maybe  she should call Greenstalk and
Blueshell  out of  the water. No. Let'em bliss out a  little longer.  If she
couldn't get the special  equipment, things would be tough  enough  for them

     Besides,  I  can  do without witnesses. She folded her  arms across her
chest and glared into the sky. The Vrinimi Org  had tried to talk to the Old
One about this, but nowadays the Power would only  work through its Emissary
Device ... and he had insisted on a face-to-face meeting.
     The  Emissary touched down  a few meters  away, and bowed. His lopsided
grin spoiled the effect. "Pham Nuwen, at your service."
     Ravna gave a little bow in  return, and led  him to  the  shade  of her
inner office.  If he thought that  face-to-face  would unnerve her,  he  was
right.  "Thanks  for  the  meeting,  sir. The  Vrinimi  Organization has  an
important request of your principal," owner? master? operator?
     Pham Nuwen plunked himself down, stretching indolently. He'd stayed out
of  her way since  that night at The Wandering  Company. Grondr said Old One
had kept him at Relay though, rummaging through the archives for information
about  humanity  and its origins.  It  made sense  now that Old One had been
persuaded to restrict Net use: the Emissary could do local processing, i.e.,
use  human intelligence to  search  and  summarize  and then upload only the
stuff that Old One really needed.
     Ravna  watched  him out of the  corner of  her eye as she  pretended to
study her  dataset.  Pham had his old, lazy smile. She wondered if she would
ever have the courage to ask him how much of their ... affair ... had been a
human thing. Had Pham Nuwen felt anything for her? Hell, did he even have  a
good time?
     From  a  Transcendent  point  of  view,  he  might  be  a  simple  data
concentrator  and waldo -- but  from  her viewpoint he was still  too human.
"Um, yes. Well ...  the Org  has continued  to monitor the  Straumli refugee
ship even though your principal has lost interest."
     Pham's eyebrows raised in polite interest. "Oh?"
     "Ten days ago, the simple  'I-am-here' signal was interrupted by a  new
message, apparently from a surviving crewmember."
     "Congratulations. You managed to keep it a secret, even from me."
     Ravna didn't  rise to the bait. "We're doing our best to keep it secret
from everyone, sir. For reasons that you must know." She put the messages to
date on  the air  between them. A handful of calls  and responses, scattered
across ten days. Translated into Triskweline for Pham, the original spelling
and grammar errors were  gone, yet the tone  remained. Ravna was responsible
for the Org side of  the conversation.  It was like talking  to someone in a
dark  room,  someone  you  have  never  seen.  Much  was  easy to imagine: a
strident,  piping voice behind the  capitalized words and exclamation marks.
She had no video of the child, but through the humankind  archive at Sjandra
Kei, Marketing had dug up pictures of the  boy's  parents. They looked  like
typical Straumers, but with the brown eyes of the Linden clans. Little Jefri
would be slim and dark.
     Pham Nuwen's gaze flicked down through the text, then seemed to hang on
the last few lines:

     Org[17]: How old are you, Jefri?
     Target[18]: I am eight. I mean  I am eight years old. I  AM  OLD ENOUGH
     Org[18]: We will help. We are coming as fast as we can, Jefri.
     Target[19]: Sorry I couldn't talk yesterday. The bad people were on the
hill again yesterday. It wasn't safe to go to the ship.
     Org[19]: Are the bad ones that close by?
     Target[20]: Yes yes. I could see them from the island. I'm with Amdi on
shipboard  now,  but walking  up  here there were dead soldiers  all around.
Woodcarver raids here often.
 Mother is dead. Father is dead. Johanna is dead. Mister Steel will protect me as much as he can. He says that I must be brave.

     For a moment, his  smile was gone. "Poor  kid," he said softly. Then he
shrugged and jabbed his hand at one of the messages. "Well, I'm glad Vrinimi
is sending a rescue mission. That is generous of you."
     "Not  really, sir.  Look at  items six  through fourteen.  The  boy  is
complaining about the ship's automation."
     "Yeah, he makes  it sound like something out of a  dawn age:  keyboards
and  video,  no voice recognition. A completely  unfriendly interface. Looks
like the crash scragged almost everything, eh?"
     He was being deliberately  obtuse, but  Ravna resolved to be infinitely
patient. "Perhaps  not, considering  the vessel's origin." Pham just smiled,
so  Ravna  continued to  spell things out.  "The processors  are likely High
Beyond or  Transcendent, snuffed down to near brainlessness  by  the current
     Pham  Nuwen  sighed.  "All consistent with  the  Skroderiders'  theory,
right?  You're  still hoping  this crate is  carrying some tremendous secret
that will blow the Blight away."
     "Yes!.... Look. At one time,  the Old One was very  curious  about  all
this. Why the total disinterest now? Is there some reason why the ship can't
be the key to fighting  the Perversion?"  That was Grondr's explanation  for
the Old  One's  recent  lack  of interest. All her life Ravna  Bergsndot had
heard tales of the Powers, and always  from a great remove.  Here,  she  was
awfully close to questioning one directly. It was a very strange feeling.
     After a moment Pham said, "No. It's unlikely, but you could be right."
     Ravna let  out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.  "Good.
Then what we're  asking is  reasonable.  Suppose  the  downed  ship contains
something the Perversion  needs, or something it fears. Then it's likely the
Perversion knows of its existence -- and may  even be  monitoring ultradrive
traffic in  that  part of the  Bottom.  A  rescue expedition could  lead the
Perversion right  to it.  In that  case, the mission will be suicide for its
crew -- and could increase the Blight's overall power."
     Ravna  slapped her  dataset, resolutions of patience  dissolving.  "So,
Vrinimi Org is asking Old One's help to build an expedition the Blight can't
knock over!"
     Pham Nuwen just shook his head. "Ravna, Ravna.  You're talking about an
expedition to the Bottom of the Beyond. There's no way a Power can hold your
hand down there. Even an Emissary Device would be mostly on its own there."
     "Don't act like more of a jerk  than you  are,  Pham Nuwen. Down there,
the Perversion will be at just as much a disadvantage. What we're asking for
is  equipment of Transcendent  manufacture, designed  for  those depths, and
provided in substantial quantities."
     "Jerk?" Pham Nuwen drew himself up, but  there was  still the  ghost of
smile on his face. "Is that how you normally address a Power?"

     Before this year, I would have died rather than  address a Power in any
manner. She leaned  back,  giving him her own version of  an indolent smile.
"You  have a pipeline to god, Mister, but let me tell you a little secret: I
can tell whether it's open or closed."
     Polite curiosity: "Oh? How is that?"
     "Pham  Nuwen -- left on his own  -- is  a bright, egotistical  guy, and
about  as subtle  as a kick  in the head." She  thought  back to their  time
together. "I  don't  really start  worrying  until  the arrogance and  smart
remarks go away."
     "Um.  Your logic  is  a little weak.  If  the  Old One were  running me
direct, he could just as easily play a jerk as," he cocked his head, "as the
man of your dreams."
     Ravna gritted her teeth. "That's  true, but I've got a little help from
my boss.  He's cleared me to  monitor transceiver usage." She looked at  her
dataset. "Right now, your  Old One  is  getting  less  than ten kilobits per
second  from all of Relay... which  means, my friend, that you are not being
tele-operated. Any crass behavior I see today is the true Pham Nuwen."
     The redhead chuckled, faint embarrassment evident.  "You got me. I'm on
detached duty, have  been  ever since the Org persuaded Old One to back off.
But  I  want you to know  that all  those  ten Kbps  are dedicated  to  this
charming conversation." He paused as if listening, then waved his hand. "Old
One says 'hi'."
     Ravna laughed despite  herself; there was  something absurd  about  the
gesture,  and the  notion  that a Power would  indulge  such  trivial humor.
"Okay. I'm glad he can, um, sit in. Look, Pham, we're not asking for much by
Transcendent standards, and it could save whole civilizations. Give us a few
thousand ships; robot oneshots would be fine."
     "Old One  could  make that many, but  they wouldn't be much better that
what's built down  here. Tricking --  " he paused, looking surprised  by his
own choice of words, "tricking the Zones is subtle work."
     "Fine.  Quality  or  quantity. We'll settle  for whichever the  Old One
thinks -- "
     "Pham!  We're  talking  about a few days  work  for the  Old One.  It's
already paid more to study the Blight." Their single wild evening might have
cost as much -- but she didn't say that.
     "Yes, and Vrinimi has spent most of it."
     "Paying off the  customers you stepped on! ... Pham, can't you at least
tell us why?"
     The lazy  smile  faded from his face.  She  took  a quick glance at her
dataset.  No,  Pham Nuwen was not possessed.  She remembered the look on his
face  when he read the mail  from  Jefri  Olsndot; there was a decent  human
being lurking behind all the arrogance. "I'll give it a try. Keep in mind --
even though I've been part of Old One -- I'm remembering and explaining with
human limitations.
     "You're  right, the Perversion is chewing  up the  Top of  the  Beyond.
Maybe fifty  civilizations will die before this Power gets tired of screwing
around -- and for a couple of thousand years after that there'll be 'echoes'
of the disaster,  poisoned star systems, artificial races with bloody-minded
ideas.  But  --  I hate to say  it  this  way  -- so  what? Old One has been
thinking  about  this  problem,  off  and on, for more than  a hundred days.
That's a long time for  a  Power, especially Old One. He's existed  for more
than ten years now;  his minds are drifting fast toward ... changes ... that
will put  him  beyond all  communication. Why  should  he give a  damn about
     It was a standard  topic in school,  but  Ravna couldn't  help herself.
This time it was for  real. "But history is full  of  incidents where Powers
helped Beyonder races,  sometimes even individuals." She had  already looked
up the Beyonder race that created Old One. They were gasbag creatures. Their
netmail  was  mostly  jabberwocky  even  after Relay's best  interpretation.
Apparently they  had no special leverage with Old One. The direct appeal was
about all she had. "Look.  Turn the thing around: Even ordinary humans don't
need special explanation to help animals that are hurting."
     Pham's smile was beginning to  come  back. "You're so big on analogies.
Remember that no analogy is perfect, and the more complex the automation the
more complex the possible motivations. But ... okay, how about this  for  an
analogy: Old One is a basically decent guy, with a  nice home in a good part
of  town.  One day he notices he has a new  neighbor, a scruffy fellow whose
homestead  is  awhiff  with  toxic sludge.  If you were  Old One,  you'd  be
concerned, right? You might probe around beneath your properties. You'd also
chat with the new fellow and check on where he came from,  try to figure out
what's going on. The Vrinimi Org saw part of that investigation.
     "So  you  discover  the  new  neighbor  is  unwholesome. Basically  his
lifestyle involves  poisoning swamp  land  and eating  the  sludge produced.
That's an annoyance: it smells and it hurts a lot  of harmless animals. But,
after  investigating,  it's  clear  the  damage  will not  affect  your  own
property, and you get the neighbor to  take measures to reduce the stink. In
any case, eating toxic sludge is a self-defeating lifestyle." He paused. "As
analogies go, I think this one's  pretty good. After  some initial  mystery,
Old One has determined that this Perversion  is one of the  common patterns,
so petty and banal that even creatures like you and I can  see it's evil. In
one  form or another, it's been  drifting up  from Beyonder  archives  for a
hundred million years."
     "Damn it! I'd get my  neighbors together, and  run the pervert  out  of
     "That's  been  talked about, but it  would  be  expensive ... and  real
people  might get hurt." Pham  Nuwen came smoothly  to his feet, and  smiled
dismissingly at her. "Well, that's about all we had to say  to you." He walk
out from under the trees. Ravna hopped up to pursue.
     "My personal advice: don't take  this so hard, Ravna. I've seen it all,
you  know.  From the Bottom of the Slowness to the  inside of a Transcendent
Power, each Zone has its  own special unpleasantness. The whole basis of the
Perversion -- thermodynamic, economic, however you want to picture it  -- is
the high quality  of thought and communication at the Top of the Beyond. The
Perversion hasn't touched a single  civilization in the Middle Beyond.  Down
here,  the comm lags and expense are too  great, and even the best equipment
is mindless.  To run things here you'd need  standing navies, secret police,
clumsy transceivers --  it would be almost as awkward as any  other Beyonder
empire, and of no profit to a Power." He turned and saw her dark expression.
"Hey, I'm saying your pretty ass is safe." He reached down to pat her rear.
     Ravna brushed  the  hand away and stepped  back. She'd  been working on
some clever  argument that might  set  the guy to thinking; there were cases
where  Emissary Devices  had  changed  their principal's decision.  Now  the
half-formed ideas were blown away, and all she could think to say was -- "So
how safe is  your own tail, hmm? You say  Old One is about ready to  pack it
in, go wherever overage Powers wander off to. Is he going to take you along,
or maybe just put you away, a pet that's now inconvenient?"
     It  was a silly  shot, and Pham Nuwen just laughed. "More analogies? No
... most  likely  he'll just  leave me behind. You know, like  a robot probe
flying free after its last use." Another analogy, but one to his liking. "In
fact, if it happens soon  enough,  I  might even be willing to  take on this
rescue expedition. It looks like Jefri Olsndot is in a medieval civlization.
I'll wager  there's  no  one in the Org who understands  such a place better
than I. And down at  the Bottom, your crew could scarcely  ask for  a better
mate than an  old Qeng Ho type." He  spoke breezily, as though  courage  and
experience were givens for him -- even if other people were cowardly scuts.
     "Oh, yeah?"  Ravna's arms went akimbo, and she cocked  her  head to one
side. It was just a bit too  much, when  his whole existence  was  a  fraud.
"You're the  little prince who grew up with intrigue and assassination,  and
then flew away to the stars with the  Qeng Ho.... Do  you ever  really think
about that past, Pham Nuwen? Or is that something Old  One  tactfully blocks
you from doing?  After our charming  evening at The Wandering Company, I did
think about it. You know  what? There's only  a few things you can know  for
sure: You  really were a Slow Zone  spacer -- probably two or three spacers,
since none  of the corpses was complete. Somehow  you  and your buddies  got
yourselves killed down at the  nether end  of the Slowness. What else? Well,
your ship had no recoverable memory. The only hardcopy we found seemed to be
written  in some Earth Asian language. That's all, all, that Old One  had to
go on when he put together the fraud."
     Pham's smile seemed a little  frozen.  Ravna  went  on before  he could
speak. "But don't  blame Old One.  He was a little rushed, right? He  had to
convince  Vrinimi  and  me that  you were  real.  He  rummaged around in the
archives, slapped together  a mishmash reality for you. Maybe it took him an
afternoon -- are you grateful for the effort? A snip  from  here  and a snip
from there. There really was a Qeng Ho, you know. On Earth, a thousand years
before space  flight.  And there  must  have  been  Asia-descended colonies,
though that's  an obvious extrapolation  on  his part. Old One really  has a
nice sense of humor. He made your whole life a fantastic romance, right down
to the last tragic expedition.  That should have tipped me off, by  the way.
It's a combination of several pre-Nyjoran legends."
     She caught her breath and rushed on. "I feel sorry for you, Pham Nuwen.
As long as you don't think about  yourself too  hard,  you can be  the  most
confident fellow  in space. But all the skill, all the achievement -- do you
ever look at it up close? I'll bet  not. Being a great warrior  or an expert
pilot  -- those involve a million subskills, all the way down to kinesthetic
things below the level of conscious thought. The Old One's fraud needed just
the  top  level recollections,  and a  brash  personality.  Look  under  the
surface, Pham.  I  think  you'll find a  whole lot of  nothing." A  dream of
competence, too closely confronted.
     The redhead  had crossed his arms  and  was  tapping his  sleeve with a
finger.  When  she  finally  ran  out  of words,  his smile  grew  broad and
patronizing.  "Ah,  silly  Ravna.  Even now you  don't  understand  how  far
superior  the  Powers are.  Old  One  is  not  some Middle  Beyond  tyranny,
brainwashing  its  victims  with  superficial memories.  Even a Transcendent
fraud has more depth than the image of  reality in a human mind. And how can
you  know this really is a fraud?  So you looked through the Relay archives,
and didn't find my Qeng Ho." My Qeng  Ho. He paused.  Remembering? Trying to
remember? For an instant Ravna saw a gleam of panic on his face. Then it was
gone, and there was just the lazy smile. "Can any of us imagine the archives
of the  Transcend, all the  things Old One must know about humanity? Vrinimi
Org should  be grateful to  Old One for  explaining my origins;  they  could
never have learned that by themselves.
     "Look. I am truly sorry I  can't help. Even if it's otherwise a  fool's
errand, I'd  like to see  those  kids  rescued.  But  don't worry about  the
Blight. It's near maximum expansion now. Even if  you could  destroy it, you
wouldn't make  things better  for the poor wights  who've been absorbed." He
laughed, a little too  loudly. "Well,  I have to  go; Old One has some other
errands   for   me  this  afternoon.  He  wasn't  happy  about   this  being
face-to-face, but  I insisted. The perks of detached duty, y'know. You and I
... you and I had some good times, and I thought it would be nice to chat. I
didn't mean to make you mad."
     Pham  cut in his  agrav and  floated off the sand.  He  waved a laconic
salute. Staring up, Ravna lifted her hand to wave back. His figure dwindled,
acquired  a faint nimbus as he left the Docks' breathable atmosphere and his
space suit cut in.
     Ravna  watched a  few moments  more, till  the  figure became one  more
commuter in the indigo sky. Damn. Damn. Damn.
     Behind  her there  was  the  sound  of  wheels  crunching  across sand.
Blueshell and Greenstalk  had rolled out of the  water. Wetness glistened on
the  sides of their skrodes, transforming their cosmetic stripes into jagged
rainbows. Ravna walked down to meet them. How do I tell them there's no help
     With  someone like  Pham Nuwen fronting  for it, Old  One had seemed so
different  from what she  imagined in her classes back at Sjandra Kei. She'd
almost thought she could make a difference just by talking. What a joke. She
had  caught a glimpse just now, behind the front:  of a being who could play
with souls the way a programmer plays with a  clever graphic, a being so far
beyond her  that only its indifference  could protect her. Be happy,  little
Ravna moth. You were only dazzled by the flame.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     The  next  few  weeks went surprisingly  well. Despite  the  Pham Nuwen
debacle,  Blueshell  and Greenstalk were  still  willing to  fly the rescue.
Vrinimi  Org  even kicked in some  extra resources.  Every day, Ravna took a
tele-excursion  out  to the  repair yards. The  Out of Band II  might not be
getting any Transcendent enhancements, but when the refitting  was complete,
the ship would be something  extraordinary:  Now it floated in a golden haze
of structors, billions  of tiny robots  regrowing  sections of the hull into
the  characteristic form of  a  bottom  lugger. Sometimes the ship seemed to
Ravna  like  a fragile moth ... and sometimes  an abyssal fish.  The rebuilt
ship could survive across  a range of environments: It had the  spines of an
ultradrive craft, but the hull was streamlined and wasp-waist -- the classic
form of a ramscoop ship. Bottom-luggers must troll dangerously near the Slow
Zone. The zone  surface was hard to detect from  a  distance, even harder to
map; and there were short-term position changes. It was not impossible for a
lugger to be  trapped a  light-year  or two within the Slowness. It was then
you'd  thank goodness for the  ramscoop  and the  coldsleep  facilities.  Of
course, by  the  time you returned to civilization, you might be  completely
out of date, but at least you could get back.
     Ravna  floated her viewpoint through the drive spines that  spread  out
from the hull. They were broader than on most ships that came to Relay. They
weren't optimal for the Middle or High  Beyond,  but with appropriate (i.e.,
Low  Beyond)  computers, the ship  would  fly  as fast  as  anything when it
reached the Bottom.
     Grondr  let her  spend half-time on  the  project, and after a few days
Ravna  realized this was not just a favor. She  was the best person for this
job. She knew humans, and she knew archive management. Jefri  Olsndot needed
reassurance every day. And the things Jefri was telling her were immediately
important.  Even  if  everything went  according  to  plan --  even  if  the
Perversion  stayed  completely  out  of  it  -- this  rescue was going to be
tricky. The kid  and his ship seemed  to be in the middle  of a  bloody war.
Extracting them  would mean making instantly correct decisions and acting on
them. They  would  need an effective onboard database and strategy  program.
But  not much could  be expected to work at  the Bottom, and memory capacity
would be limited.  It was  up to  Ravna to  decide what library materials to
move to  the  ship,  to balance the  ease  of local availability against the
greater resources that would be accessible over the ultrawave from Relay.
     Grondr  was available on the local  net,  and  often in  real  time. He
wanted this to work: "Don't worry, Ravna. We'll dedicate part of R00 to this
mission. If their antenna swarm works properly, the Riders should  have have
a thirty Kbps link to Relay. You'll be their prime contact  here, and you'll
have access to our best strategists. If  nothing ... interferes,  you should
have no trouble managing this rescue."
     Even four weeks  ago, Ravna wouldn't have dared to ask for  more.  Now:
"Sir, I have a better idea. Send me with the Skroderiders."
     All of Grondr's mouth parts clapped  together at once. She'd  seen that
much surprise in people  like Egravan, but never in the staid Grondr. He was
silent for a moment.  "No. We  need you here. You are our best sanity  check
when it comes to  questions  about  humankind." The newsgroups interested in
the Straumli Perversion carried more than one  hundred  thousand  messages a
day,  about a tenth  of that  human-related. Thousands  of messages were old
ideas  rehashed,  or  patent  absurdities,  or  probable  lies.  Marketing's
automation was fairly good at filtering out  the redundancy and some of  the
absurdity,  but when it came to questions on human  nature Ravna was without
equal. About  half  her time  was spent guiding  that analysis and  handling
queries  about  humankind  at  the archives.  All  that  would  be  next  to
impossible if she left with the Skroderiders.
     Over the next few days,  Ravna kept  pushing her  boss on the question.
Whoever  flew  the rescue would  need instant  rapport with humans --  human
children,  in  fact.  Very  likely  Jefri  Olsndot  had  never  even  met  a
Skroderider. The point was a good one,  and it was gradually driving her  to
desperation -- but by itself it would not have changed old Grondr's mind. It
took some  outside  events  to do that:  As the  weeks  passed, the Blight's
expansion slowed. Just as  conventional wisdom (and Old  One via Pham Nuwen)
claimed,  there seemed  to be natural limits to how far the Perversion could
extend  its interests. The  abject panic slowly disappeared from High Beyond
communication  traffic.  Rumors  and  refugees  from  the  absorbed  volumes
dribbled toward zero. The people  in the  Blighted spaces were gone, but now
it was  more  like death in a  graveyard  than death  from  contagious  rot.
Blight-related newsgroups continued to babble about the catastrophe, but the
level  of nonproductive rehashing was steadily increasing. There simply  was
very little new  going on. Over  the  next ten  years, physical  death would
spread   through  the  Blighted  region.  Colonization  would  begin  again,
cautiously  probing  through the ruins and informational traps,  and residue
races. But  all of that was a ways off, and  for the moment  Relay's  Blight
"windfall" was a shrinking affair.
     ...  And  Marketing  was even more  interested in the  Straumli refugee
ship. None of the strategy programs  --  much  less  Grondr  -- believed the
ship's secret could  hurt the Blight, but there was a  good chance it  might
bring commercial  advantage when the  Perversion  finally got tired  of  its
Transcendent game.  And the Tines pack-minds  had caught their interest.  It
was very appropriate that a maximum effort be made, that  Ravna  give up her
Docks job and go to the field.
     So,  for  a  wonder,  her  childhood  fantasy  of rescue  and  questing
adventure would actually  come  true. And  even more  surprising,  I'm  only
half-terrified by the prospect!

     Target[56]: Im sorry I  diddnt anser for a while.  I dont  feel good  a
lot. Mister Steel says I should talk to you. He says  I need more friends to
make me feel better. Amdi says so too and hes my best friend of all.... like
packs of dogs but smart  and fun. I wish I could send pictures. Mister Steel
will try to get ansers for all your questions. He is doing everything he can
to help, but the bad packs will be back. Amdi and I tried the stuff you said
with the ship.  I  am sorry, it  still  doesnt  work....  I  hate this  dumb
     Org[57]: Hi, Jefri.  Amdi and  Mr. Steel  are  right. I always  like to
talk, and it will  make you feel better.... There are  inventions that might
help  Mister Steel. We've  thought  of some  improvements  for his  bows and
flamethrowers.  I'm also  sending down  some  fortress  design  information.
Please  tell  Mister Steel that we  can't  tell him how to fly the  ship. It
would be dangerous even for an expert pilot to try....
     Target[57]:   Ya,   even   Daddy  had   a   hard   time   landing   it.
ikocxljikersw89iou43e5 I  think Mister Steel just doesnt understand, and hes
getting sorta disparate.... Isnt there other stuff, though, like they had in
oldendays. You know, bombs and airplanes that we could make?...
     Org[58]: There are other  inventions, but it would take time for Mister
Steel to make them.  Our  star ship is leaving Relay soon,  Jefri.  We'll be
there long before other inventions would help....
     Target[58]: Your coming? Your finally coming!!! When do you leave? When
will you get here???

     Ordinarily  Ravna composed her  messages to Jefri on a  keyboard --  it
gave her some feeling for  the kid's situation. He seemed  to be holding up,
though there were still days when he didn't write (it  was strange to  think
of "mental depression" having any connection  with an eight-year-old). Other
times he  seemed to  have a tantrum  at  the keyboard, and across twenty-one
thousand light-years she saw evidence of small fists slamming into keys.
     Ravna grinned at the display. Today she finally had something more than
nebulous promises for him:  she  had  a  positive departure time.  Jefri was
going  to like message [59]. She typed:  "We're scheduled to leave in  seven
more days, Jefri. Travel time will be about thirty days." Should she qualify
that? Latest postings on the  Zone boundary newsgroups said  the  Bottom was
unusually active.  The Tines World was so close to the Slow  Zone ... If the
"storm" worsened, travel time would suffer.  There was  about  a one percent
chance the voyage would take more  than sixty days. She leaned back from the
keyboard.  Did  she really  want to say that?  Damn. Better be  frank; these
dates  could  affect  the locals who were  helping Jefri. She  explained the
"ifs" and "buts", then went on to describe the ship and the wonderful things
they would bring. The boy usually didn't write at  great length (except when
he was relaying information  from Steel), but he really  seemed to like long
letters from her.
     The  Out  of  Band  II  was undergoing  final  consistency checks.  Its
ultradrive  was  rebuilt and tested;  the Skroderiders had  taken it  out  a
couple of thousand light-years to  check the antenna swarm. The swarm worked
great, too. She and  Jefri would be able to talk through most of the voyage.
As of yesterday, the ship was  stocked  with consumables. (That sounded like
something out of medieval adventure. But you had to  take some supplies when
you  were headed so far  down  that reality graphics  couldn't be  trusted.)
Sometime tomorrow,  Grondr's  people would  be loading the  ship's hold with
gadgets that  might  be real handy for a rescue. Should  she mention  those?
Some of them might sound a bit intimidating to Jefri's local friends.

     That  evening, she and the Skroderiders had  a beach party. That's what
they called it,  though  it was much more  like the  human  version  than an
authentic Rider one. Blueshell and Greenstalk had rolled well  back from the
water, to where  the sand lay dry and  warm. Ravna  laid out refreshments on
Blueshell's cargo scarf. They sat on the sand and admired the sunset.
     It was mostly a celebration --  that Ravna had gotten  permission to go
with the OOB, that the ship was almost ready to depart. But, "Are you really
happy to  be going,  my lady?" asked Blueshell. "We two will make  very good
money, but you -- "
     Ravna laughed. "I'll get a travel bonus." She had argued and argued for
permission to go;  there wasn't much room left to haggle about the pay. "And
yes. This is what I really want."
     "I am glad," said Greenstalk.
     "I  am laughing," said Blueshell. "My  mate is especially pleased  that
our  passenger will not  be  surly. We almost lost our love for bipeds after
shipping  with the certificants. But  there is nothing to be  frightened  of
now. Have you read Threats Group in the last fifteen  hours? The Blight  has
stopped  growing, and  its edges have become sharply defined. The Perversion
is settling into middle age. I'm ready to leave right now."
     Blueshell  was  full  of  speculations  about the  Tinish "packs",  and
possible  schemes for extracting  Jefri  and any other survivors. Greenstalk
interjected a thought here  and  there. She was  less shy  than before,  but
still seemed softer, more  diffident than her mate. And her confidence was a
bit more realistic. She was  glad  they  weren't leaving for  another  week.
There  were still  the final consistency  checks  to  run  on the OOB -- and
Grondr had gotten Org financing for a small fleet of decoy ships. Fifty were
complete so far. A hundred would be ready by the end of the week.
     The Docks drifted into night. With its shallow atmosphere, twilight was
short, but the colors were spectacular. The beach and the trees glistened in
the horizontal rays. The scent of evening flowers mixed with the tang of sea
salt. On the far side of the sea, all was stark bright and dark, silhouettes
that might have been Vrinimi fancies or  functional dock equipage  --  Ravna
had never learned which. The sun slid behind the  sea. Orange and red spread
along the aft horizon, topped by  a  wider band  of  green, probably ionized
     The Riders didn't turn their skrodes for a better  view --  for all she
knew, they had been looking that way all along -- but they  stopped talking.
As the sun set, the breakers shattered it into a thousand  images, glints of
green and yellow  through the foam. She guessed the two would have preferred
to be  out there  just now. She  had seen them often enough  around  sunset,
deliberately sitting  where the surf was hardest.  When the water drew back,
their stalks and  fronds were like supplicants' arms, upstretched. At  times
like these  she could almost  understand the Lesser Skroderiders; they spent
their  whole lives  memorizing  such repeated  moments.  She  smiled in  the
greenish  twilight. There would  always be  time enough  later  to worry and
     They must have sat like that for twenty minutes. Along the curving line
of  the  beach,  she saw tiny fires in  the  gathering dark: office parties.
Somewhere  very  nearby  there  was  the crunch crunch of  feet on sand. She
turned and saw that it was Pham Nuwen. "Over here," she called.
     Pham  ambled  toward them.  He'd  been  very  scarce since  their  last
confrontation;  Ravna  guessed  that some of her jibes had struck deep. This
once, I hope Old  One made him forget. Pham Nuwen had the potential  to be a
real person;  it hadn't  been right  to hurt him  because his  principal was
beyond reach.
     "Have a seat. Galaxy-rise in a half hour." The Skroderiders rustled, so
deep into the sunset that they were only now noticing the visitor.
     Pham Nuwen  walked a pace or two  beyond Ravna  and stood arms  akimbo,
staring across  the sea. He glanced back at her, and the green twilight gave
his face an eerie fierceness. He flashed his old, lopsided smile. "I think I
owe you an apology."

     Old One's gonna  let you join  the human race after  all? But Ravna was
touched. She  dropped  her eyes from his. "I guess I owe you one too. If Old
One won't help, he won't help; I shouldn't have lost my temper."
     Pham Nuwen  laughed softly, "Yours was certainly the lesser  error. I'm
still trying to figure out where I went  wrong, and ... I don't think I have
time now to learn."
     He looked  back at  the sea. After a moment,  Ravna  stood and  stepped
toward him. Up close, his stare looked glassy. "What's wrong?" Damn you, Old
One. If you're going to abandon him, don't do it in pieces!
     "You're the great expert on Transcendent Powers, eh?"
     More sarcasm. "Well -- "
     "Do the big boys have wars?"
     Ravna  shrugged. "You can find rumors of  everything.  We think there's
conflict, but something too subtle to call war."
     "You're pretty  much right. There  is struggle, but it  has more angles
than anything down here. The benefits  of cooperation are  normally so great
that.... That's part of the  reason I didn't take the  Perversion seriously.
Besides, the creature  is pitiful: a wimpy cur that fouls its  own den. Even
if it wanted to kill other Powers, something like that never could. Not in a
billion years...."
     Blueshell rolled up beside them. "Who is this, my lady?"
     It was the sort of Riderish conversation-stopper that she was only just
getting  used to.  If Blueshell  would  just  get in  synch with  his skrode
memory, he'd know. Then the question truly hit her. Who is this? She glanced
at her dataset. It was showing transceiver status, had been ever  since Pham
Nuwen arrived. And ... by the Powers, three transceivers had been grabbed by
a single customer!
     She took a quick step backwards. "You!"
     "Me!  Face to  face once more, Ravna."  The leer was a parody of Pham's
self-assured smile. "Sorry  I  can't be  charming tonight."  He  slapped his
chest awkwardly.  "I'm using this thing's underlying  instincts....  I'm too
busy trying to stay alive."
     There  was drool coming  down his chin. Pham's eyes  would focus on her
and then drift.

     "What are you doing to Pham!"
     The  Emissary Device stepped toward her, stumbled.  "Making room," came
Pham Nuwen's voice.
     Ravna spoke Grondr's phone code. There was no response.
     The  Emissary  Device shook its head. "Vrinimi Org is  very  busy right
now, trying  to convince  me  to get off their equipment, trying to screw up
their courage and force me off. They don't believe what I'm telling them" He
laughed, a quick choking  sound. "Doesn't matter.  I see now that the attack
here was just a deadly diversion....  How about that, Little Ravna? See, the
Blight is not  a Class  Two perversion. In the time  I have left, I can only
guess what it is.... Something very old, very big. Whatever it is, I'm being
eaten alive."
     Blueshell and  Greenstalk had rolled close to Ravna. Their  fronds made
faint  skritching noises.  Some thousands of light-years away, well into the
Transcend, a Power was fighting for its life. And all they saw of it was one
man turned into a slobbering lunatic.
     "So that's my apology, Little Ravna. Helping you probably wouldn't have
saved me." His voice strangled on itself, and he took a gasping breath. "But
helping you now  will be a  measure of -- vengeance is a  motive  you  would
understand.  I've  called  your ship down. If you  move fast  and don't  use
agrav, you may survive the next hour."
     Blueshell's voice  was timid  and blustery at the  same time. "Survive?
Only a conventional attack could work down  here, and  there is no  sign  of
     A maniac  surrounded  by the soft, quiet night. Ravna's dataset  showed
nothing strange except for the diversion of bandwidth to Old One.
     Pham  Nuwen made a coughing  laugh. "Oh, it's conventional  enough, but
very clever.  A few grams of replicant disorder, wafted  in over weeks. It's
blossoming  now, timed with the attack you see.... The  growth will die in a
matter of hours,  after it kills all of Relay's precious High automation....
Ravna! Take the ship, or die in the next thousand seconds. Take the ship. If
you  survive,  go to the Bottom.  Get  the...."  the Emissary  Device pulled
itself straighter, and  smiled its greenish  smile a last time. "And here is
my gift to you, the best help I have left to give."
     The smile disappeared. The glassy look was replaced by a wonder ... and
then mounting terror. Pham Nuwen dragged in a great breath, and had time for
one barking scream before he collapsed.  He  landed face down, twitching and
choking in the sand.
     Ravna  shouted  Grondr's code again, and ran to Pham  Nuwen. She pulled
him over on his back and tried  to clear his  mouth. The fit  lasted several
seconds, Pham's limbs flailing randomly about. Ravna collected several solid
hits as she  tried to steady him. Then  Pham went limp, and she could barely
feel his breath.
     Blueshell was saying, "Somehow he's grabbed the OOB. It's four thousand
kilometers  out,  coming  straight  for  the  Docks.  Wail.  We're  ruined."
Unauthorized flight close to the Docks was cause for confiscation.
     Somehow Ravna didn't think it  mattered anymore. "Is there  any sign of
attack?"  she said  over her shoulder. She eased Pham's head back, made sure
he had a clear breathing passage.
     Random  rustling between  the  Skroderiders. Greenstalk: "Something  is
strange. We have service suspension on the main transceivers." So Old One is
still transmitting? "The local net is  very  clogged. Much  automation, many
employees being called to special duty."
     Ravna rocked back. The sky was night dark, punctuated by a dozen bright
points of light -- ships guiding for the Docks. All very normal. But her own
dataset was showing what Greenstalk reported.
     "Ravna, I can't talk right now." Grondr's clickety voice sounded out of
the air beside her. This would be his associate program. "Old One has  taken
most  of  Relay. Watch out for the Emissary  Device."  A little  late, that!
"We've lost contact with the surveillance fence beyond the  transceivers. We
are  having  program  and hardware  failures. Old  One  claims we are  being
attacked."  A five second pause.  "We see  evidence of  fleet action at  the
domestic defense boundary." That was just a half light-year out.

     "Brap!" From  Blueshell. "At  the domestic defense  boundary! How could
you miss them coming in?" He rolled back and forth, pivoted.
     Grondr's associate ignored the question. "Minimum three thousand ships.
Destruction of transceivers immin -- "
     "Ravna, are the Skroderiders  with you?" It was  still Grondr's  voice,
but more staccato, more involved. This was the real guy.
     "The local network  is  failing.  Life  support failing. The Docks will
fall. We would  be stronger than the attacking fleet, but we're rotting from
the inside....  Relay  is dying."  His  voice  sharpened,  clattering,  "but
Vrinimi will not die, and a contract is a contract! Tell the Riders, we will
pay them ... somehow, someday. We require ... plead ... they fly the mission
we contracted. Ravna?"
     "Yes. They hear."
     "Then go!" And the voice was gone.
     Blueshell said, "OOB will be here in two hundred seconds."
     Pham Nuwen had calmed, and his breathing  was easier. As the two Riders
chittered back and forth, Ravna looked  around -- and suddenly realized that
all the death and destruction had been reports  from afar. The beach and the
sky were almost as placid as  ever. The last of  the sun's rays had left the
waves.  The  foam was  a dim band in  the low green  light. Here  and there,
yellow lights glowed in the trees and the farther towers.
     Yet the alarum had  clearly spread. She could hear datasets  coming on.
Some of  the beach fires  guttered out, and the figures around them ran into
the trees  or  drifted upwards, headed for  farther  offices.  Now starships
floated  up from their berths across the sea, falling higher and higher till
they glittered in the departed sunlight.
     It was Relay's last moment of peace.
     A patch of  glowing dark spread across the sky. She gasped at light  so
twisted it should have gone  unseen. It shone more  in the back  of her head
than  in  her eyes.  Afterwards she couldn't think what  made it objectively
different from blackness.
     "There's  another!"  said  Blueshell.  This  one  was  near  the Decks'
horizon, a  blot of  darkness  perhaps a degree across. The  edges  were  an
indistinct bleeding of black into black.
     "What  is it?" Ravna was  no war  freak,  but she'd read  her  share of
adventure  stories.  She knew  about  antimatter bombs  and  relativistic KE
slugs. From a distance such weapons were bright spots of light, sometimes an
orchestrated flickering. Or closer:  a world-wrecker would glow incandescent
across  the  curve  of a planet,  splashing the globe itself like a drop  of
water, but slow,  slow. Those were  the images her reading had  prepared her
for.  What she saw now was more  like a defect in her eyesight than a vision
of war.
     Powers   only  knew  what   the   Skroderiders  saw,  but:  "Your  main
transceivers ... vaping out, I think," said Blueshell.
     "Those are light-years  out! There's  no way we could  see -- " Another
splotch  appeared, not  even  in  her  field  of  view. The  color  floated,
placeless. Pham Nuwen spasmed again, but weakly. She had  no trouble holding
him still, but ... blood dribbled from his mouth. The back  of his shirt was
wet with something that stank of decay.
     "OOB  will be  here  in one hundred seconds.  Plenty of  time,  there's
plenty  of time." Blueshell  rolled  back  and  forth  around  them, talking
reassurance that just showed how nervous he  was. "Yes, my lady, light-years
out.  And years from now,  the  flash of their going will light the sky  for
anyone  still  alive here.  But only  a fraction of the  vape-out  is making
light. The  rest  is  an ultrawave  surge so  great that ordinary matter  is
affected.... Optic nerves tickled by the overflow....  So much that your own
nervous system becomes  a receiver." He spun around. "But don't worry. We're
tough  and  quick.  We've  squeezed through close  spots  before." There was
something absurd about a creature with no short-term memory  bragging up its
lightning reflexes. She hoped his skrode was up to this.
     Greenstalk's voice buzzed painfully loud. "Look!"
     The surf line was drawing back, further than she had ever seen it.
     "The sea is falling!" shouted Greenstalk.  Water's edge had pulled back
a hundred meters, two hundred. The green-limned horizon was dipping.
     "Ship's still fifty seconds out. We'll fly to meet it. Come, Ravna!"
     Ravna's own  courage died cold that second. Grondr  had said the  Docks
would  fall!  The  near  sky was crowded now  as dozens  of people raced for
safety. A  hundred meters  away the sand itself was  shifting, an  avalanche
tilting toward  the abyss.  She  remembered something  Old One had said, and
suddenly she knew the fliers were making a terrible mistake. The thought cut
through her terror. "No! Just head for higher ground."
     The  night was silent no  more. A bell-like moaning came  from the sea.
The sound spread. The sunset breeze grew  to a  gale  that twisted the trees
toward the water, sending branches and sand sweeping past them.
     Ravna was still  on  her knees, her  hands pressing down on Pham's limp
arms. No breath, no  pulse.  The eyes stared sightlessly.  Old One's gift to
her.  Damn all the Powers! She  grabbed Pham  Nuwen under the shoulders  and
rolled him onto her back.
     She  gagged,  almost lost  her  grip.  Underneath  his  shirt  she felt
cavities where there should be solid  flesh. Something wet and rank  dripped
around her  sides.  She struggled  up  from  her  knees,  half-carrying  and
half-dragging the body.
     Blueshell was shouting, "--  take  hours to roll anywhere."  He drifted
off the ground, driving his agrav against the wind. Skrode and Rider twisted
drunkenly for  an instant  ... and then he  was slammed  back to the ground,
tumbled willy-nilly toward the wind's destination, the moaning hole that had
been the sea.  Greenstalk raced to his seaward  side,  blocking his progress
toward destruction. Blueshell righted himself and the two rolled back toward
Ravna. The Rider's voice was faint in the wind: "... agrav ... failing!" And
with it the very structure of the Docks.
     They walked and  wheeled their way back from  the sucking  sea. "Find a
place to land the OOB."
     The tree line was a jagged range  of  hills  now. The landscape changed
before their eyes and under  her  feet. The groaning  sound  was everywhere,
some places  so loud it buzzed  through  Ravna's shoes. They avoided sagging
terrain, the sink  holes that opened  on  all sides.  The  night was dark no
more. Whether it  was  emergency lighting  or  a  side-effect  of the  agrav
failure, blue glowed  along  the  holes.  Through  those holes they saw  the
cloud-decked night  of  Groundside  a  thousand kilometers  below. The space
between was not empty. There were shimmering phantoms: billions of tonnes of
water and earth ... and hundreds of dying fliers. Vrinimi Org was paying the
price for building their Docks on agrav instead of inertial orbit.
     Somehow the three were making progress. Pham Nuwen was almost too heavy
to  carry/drag;  she staggered left  and right almost as much  as she  moved
forward. Yet  he  was  lighter  that  she would have guessed. And  that  was
terrifying in its own way: was even the high ground failing?
     Most of  the  agravs  died  by failure, but  some suffered  destructive
runaway: clumps of trees and earth ripped free from the tops of hillocks and
accelerated upwards. The wind shifted back and forth, up and down ... but it
was  thinner now, the noise remote. The  artificial  atmosphere that clothed
the Docks would soon be gone. Ravna's pocket pressure suit worked  for a few
minutes, but now it was fading. In a few minutes it  would be as dead as her
agravs ... as dead as she would be. She wondered vaguely how the Blight  had
managed this. Like the Old One, she would likely die without ever knowing.
     She saw torch  flares; there were ships. Most had boosted  for inertial
orbits  or   gone  directly  into  ultradrive,  but  a  few  hung  over  the
disintegrating landscape. Blueshell and Greenstalk led the way. The two used
their third axles in ways Ravna had never guessed at, lifting and pushing to
clamber up slopes  that  she could  scarcely  negotiate  with Pham's  weight
dragging from her back.
     They  were on a  hilltop, but not for  long. This had been part  of the
office forest. Now the trees stuck out in different directions, like hair on
a mangy dog. She felt the ground throbbing beneath  her feet. What next? The
Skroderiders  rolled from one  side of  the peak to  another. They would  be
rescued  here  or  nowhere. She  went to her knees, resting  most  of Pham's
weight on the ground. From here you could see a long ways. The Docks  looked
like a  slowly flapping flag, and every  immense  whip  of the fabric  broke
fragments loose. As  long as some consensus remained among the  agrav units,
it still had planar aspect. That was disappearing. There were sink holes all
around their  little knob of forest. On the horizon, Ravna  saw the far edge
of the Docks detach  itself and turn slowly  sideways: a  hundred kilometers
long, ten wide, it swept down on would-be rescue ships.
     Blueshell brushed  against her left side, Greenstalk against her right.
Ravna twisted, laying some of Pham's weight on the skrode hulls. If all four
merged  their  pressure  suits,  there  would  be  a  few  more  moments  of
consciousness. "The OOB: I'm flying it down!" he said.

     Something was  coming  down. A ship's torch lit  the ground blue white,
with  shadows stark  and shifting. It's not a  healthy thing to be  around a
rocket drive hovering  in a near-one-gee field. An hour earlier the maneuver
would  have  been impossible, or a capital  offense if  accomplished. Now it
didn't  matter if the torch punched through the Docks or fried a  cargo from
halfway across the galaxy.
     Still ... where could Blueshell land the thing? They were surrounded by
sinkholes  and moving  cliffs.  She  closed her  eyes  as the burning  light
drifted down  before them ... and then dimmed. Blueshell's shout was thin in
their shared atmosphere. "Let's go together!"
     She held tight  to the Riders, and they crawled/wheeled down from their
little  hill. The Out of Band II was hovering in the  middle  of a sinkhole.
Its torch was hidden from view, but the glare  off the sides of the hole put
the ship  in  sharp  silhouette, turned its ultradrive spines into  feathery
white arcs. A giant moth with glowing wings ... and just out of reach.
     If their suits held,  they could make it to  the edge of the hole. Then
what? The spines kept the ship from getting closer than a hundred meters. An
able-bodied (and crazy) human might try to grab a spine and crawl down it.
     But Skroderiders had their own brand  of insanity: Just as the light --
the reflected light -- became too much to bear ... the torch winked out. The
OOB  fell through the hole. This  didn't stop the Riders' advance. "Faster!"
said Blueshell. And now she  guessed what they planned. Quickly  for such an
awkward  jumble of limbs and wheels,  they moved  up  to  the  edge  of  the
darkened  hole. Ravna felt the dirt giving way beneath  her feet,  and  then
they were falling.
     The  Decks were hundreds --  in places, thousands  --  of meters thick.
They fell past them now, past dim eerie flickers of internal destruction.
     Then they were through, still falling. For a moment the feeling of wild
panic was gone.  After all  this was simply free fall, a  commonplace, and a
damnsight  more peaceful than the disintegrating  Docks. Now it was  easy to
hold onto the Riders and  Pham Nuwen,  and even  their commensal  atmosphere
seemed a little thicker than before. There was something to be said for hard
vacuum and free  fall.  Except for an occasional rogue agrav, everything was
coming down at the same acceleration, ruins peacefully settling. And four or
five minutes from now they would hit  Groundside's atmosphere, still falling
almost straight downwards....  Entry velocity only three or  four kilometers
per second.  Would they burn  up? Maybe.  Flashes pricked  bright above  the
     The junk around them was mostly dark, just shadows against the sky show
above. But  the wreckage directly below was large and regular  ... the  OOB,
bow on! The ship was falling with  them. Every few seconds a trim jet fired,
a faint reddish  glow.  The ship was closing  with them. If it  had  a  nose
hatch, they would land right on it.
     Its docking lights flicked on, bright upon them. Ten meters separation.
Five.  There  was a hatch, and open! She could see a  very ordinary  airlock
     Whatever hit them was big. Ravna saw a vague expanse of  plastic rising
over  her  shoulder. The rogue was slowly turning, and it  scarcely  brushed
them -- but that was enough. Pham  Nuwen was jarred from her grasp. His body
was lost in shadow, then suddenly bright lit as the ship's spotlight tracked
after him. Simultaneously the air  gusted out of  Ravna's  lungs. They  were
down to three pocket pressure fields now, failing fields; it was not enough.
Ravna could  feel  consciousness  slipping away,  her vision  tunneling.  So
     The Riders unlatched from each other. She grabbed  at  the skrode hulls
and  they  drifted,  strung out,  over the ship's  lock.  Blueshell's skrode
jerked against her as the he  made fast to  the hatch. The jolt twisted  her
around,  whipping Greenstalk  upwards. Things were getting dreamy now. Where
was panic when  you needed it? Hold tight, hold tight, hold tight,  sang the
little voice,  all that was left of  consciousness.  Bump,  jerk. The Riders
pushed and  pulled at  her.  Or maybe it was the  ship  jerking all  of them
around. They were puppets, dancing off a single string.
     ... Deep in the tunnel of her vision,  a Rider  grabbed at the tumbling
figure of Pham Nuwen.

     Ravna  wasn't aware of losing consciousness,  but the next she knew she
was breathing air and choking on vomit -- and  was inside the airlock. Solid
green walls closed in comfortingly on all sides.  Pham Nuwen lay on the  far
wall, strapped into a first aid canister. His face had a bluish cast.
     She  pushed awkwardly across  the  lock toward  Pham Nuwen's wall.  The
place was a  confused  jumble, unlike the passenger and sporting ships she'd
been on before.  Besides,  this was  a  Rider  design.  Stickem patches were
scattered  around  the  walls;  Greenstalk  had mounted  her  skrode on  one
     They were accelerating, maybe a  twentieth of a gee. "We're still going
     "Yes. If we hover or rise, we'll crash," into  all the junk  that still
rains from above.  "Blueshell is trying to  fly  us  out." They were falling
with the rest,  but trying  to  drift out  from  under --  before  they  hit
Groundside. There was an occasional rattle/ping against the  hull. Sometimes
the  acceleration  ceased,  or shifted  in  a new  direction.  Blueshell was
actively avoiding the big pieces.
     ... Not with complete success. There was long, rasping sound that ended
with a  bang,  and the room turned slowly  around her. "Brrap! Just  lost an
ultradrive  spine," came  Blueshell's voice.  "Two  others already  damaged.
Please strap down, my lady."
     They touched atmosphere a hundred seconds later. The sound was a barely
perceptible humming beyond  the  hull. It was the sound of death for a  ship
like this. It could  no more aerobrake than  a dog could jump over the moon.
The noise came  louder. Blueshell was  actually diving, trying to  get  deep
enough  to shed  the  junk  that surrounded the ship. Two more spines broke.
Then came a  long surge of main axis acceleration. Out  of Band II arced out
of the Docks' death shadow, drove out and out, into inertial orbit.

     Ravna looked over Blueshell's  fronds at the outside windows. They  had
just passed Groundside's terminator, and were flying an inertial orbit. They
were in free fall again, but this trajectory curved back on  itself  without
whacking into big hard things -- like Groundside.
     Ravna didn't know much more about space travel  than you'd expect  of a
frequent passenger and  an  adventure fan. But it was obvious that Blueshell
had pulled off a near miracle. When she tried to thank him, the Rider rolled
back  and  forth  across  the  stick-patches,  buzzing  faintly  to himself.
Embarrassed? or just Riderly inattentive?
     Greenstalk  spoke, sounding  a little shy, a little proud: "Far trading
is  our life, you know. If  we are cautious,  life will be  mostly  safe and
placid, but there will be close passages. Blueshell practices  all the time,
programming his skrode with every wit he can imagine. He  is  a master."  In
everyday  life, indecision seemed to dominate  the Riders. But  in a crunch,
they didn't  hesitate to bet everything. She wondered  how  of that  was the
skrode overriding its rider?
     "Grump," said Blueshell. "I have simply postponed  the close passage. I
broke several of our drive spines. What if they do not self-repair? What  do
we  do  then? Everything  around  Groundside is  destroyed.  There  is  junk
everywhere out to a hundred radii. Not  dense like around the  Docks, but of
much higher velocity." You can't  inject billions of tonnes of wreckage into
buckshot  orbits   and  expect   safe   navigation.  "And  any  second,  the
Perversion's creatures will be here, eating whoever survives."
     "Urk."  Greenstalk's tendrils  froze in comical disarray. She chittered
to herself for a second. "You're right ... I forgot. I  thought we had found
an open space, but ..."

     Open space all right, but in a  shooting gallery.  Ravna looked back at
the command deck windows. They were on the dayside now, perhaps five hundred
kilometers above Groundside's principal ocean. The space above the hazy blue
horizon was free of flash and glow.  "I don't see any fighting,"  Ravna said
     "Sorry."  Blueshell  switched the  windows to a more significant  view.
Most of it was navigation and ultratrace information,  meaningless to Ravna.
Her eye caught on  a medstat:  Pham Nuwen was  breathing again.  The  ship's
surgeon thought it could save him. But there was also a communication status
window; on  it, the attack was dreadfully clear. The  local net  had  broken
into hundreds of screaming fragments. There were only automatic voices  from
the planetary  surface,  and they  were calling for  medical aid. Grondr had
been  down  there. Somehow  she suspected that not even  his  Marketing  ops
people had  survived. Whatever hit  Groundside was  even  deadlier than  the
failures at the Docks. In near  planetary  space, there were a few survivors
in ships and fragments  of habitats,  most on  doomed  trajectories. Without
massive and coordinated help, they would be dead  in minutes -- hours at the
outside. The directors of Vrinimi Org  were gone, destroyed before they ever
figured out quite what had happened.

     Go, Grondr had said, go.
     Out-system, there was fighting. Ravna saw  message traffic from Vrinimi
defense units. Even without control  or coordination, some still opposed the
Perversion's fleet. The light from their battles would arrive well after the
defeat, well  after the enemy arrived  here in person.  How long do we have?
     "Brrap.  Look  at those  traces,"  said Blueshell.  "The Perversion has
almost four thousand vessels. They are bypassing the defenders."
     "But now there is scarcely anyone left out there,"  said Greenstalk. "I
hope they're not all dead."
     "Not all.  I see several  thousand ships departing, everyone  with  the
means and  any  sense." Blueshell rolled  back and forth. "Alas! We have the
good  sense ... but look at this repair  report." One window  spread  large,
filled with colored patterns  that meant less than zip to Ravna. "Two spines
still broken,  unrepairable.  Three  partially repaired. If they don't heal,
we'll  be  stuck  here. This is  unacceptable!"  His voder voice  buzzed  up
shrilly.  Greenstalk drove close to him,  and  they rattled their  fronds at
each other.
     Several minutes passed. When Blueshell spoke Samnorsk again,  his voice
was quieter. "One  spine  repaired. Maybe,  maybe, maybe...."  He  opened  a
natural view. The OOB was coasting across Groundside's south pole, back into
night.  Their  orbit  should take them over the worst of the Docks junk, but
the ride was  a constant jigging as the ship avoided other debris. The cries
of battle horror from  out-system dwindled. The Vrinimi Organization was one
vast, twitching corpse ... and very soon its killer would come snuffling.
     "Two repaired."  Blueshell  became  very quiet....  "Three!  Three  are
repaired! Fifteen seconds to recalibrate and we can jump!"
     It  seemed longer ...  but then all  the windows  changed  to a natural
view. Groundside and its sun were gone. Stars and dark stretched all around.

     Three hours  later and Relay was a hundred and fifty light-years behind
them. The OOB had caught  up with the main body  of fleeing ships. What with
the  archives and  the tourism, there  had been an  extraordinary  number of
interstellar  ships at  Relay:  ten thousand vehicles were spread across the
light-years around them. But stars were rare this far off the galactic plane
and they were at least a hundred hours flying time from the nearest refuge.
     For Ravna, it was the start of a new battle. She glared across the deck
at Blueshell. The Skroderider dithered, its fronds twisting on themselves in
a way she had not seen before. "See here, my lady Bergsndot, High Point is a
lovely civilization, with  some bipedal  participants.  It  is  safe. It  is
nearby. You could  adapt." He  paused. Reading my expression is he?  "But --
but if that is not acceptable, we will take you further. Give us a chance to
contract  the proper cargo, and -- and  we'll take you all the  way  back to
Sjandra Kei. How about that?"
     "No. You already have a contract, Blueshell. With Vrinimi Organization.
The three of us -- " and whatever has become of Pham Nuwen  "-- are going to
the Bottom of the Beyond."
     "I am shaking my head in disbelief! We received a preliminary retainer,
true. But now that Vrinimi Org is  dead, there is no one to make good on the
rest of the agreement. Hence we are free of it also."
     "Vrinimi is  not  dead. You heard Grondr 'Kalir. The Org  had -- has --
branch offices all across the Beyond. The obligation stands."
     "On  a technicality. We both know that those branches could  never make
the final payment."
     Ravna didn't have a good answer to that. "You have  an obligation," she
said,  but without  the  proper forcefulness. She  had  never  been  good at
     "My  lady,  are you truly  speaking  from  Org ethics,  or from  simple
     "I-- " In fact,  Ravna had never completely understood Org ethics. That
was  one reason why  she  had intended to return to Sjandra  Kei  after  her
'prenticeship,  and one  reason the Org had dealt cautiously with the  human
race. "It doesn't  matter which I speak from! There is a contract. You  were
happy to honor it when things looked safe. Well, things turned deadly -- but
that possibility was part of the deal." Ravna glanced at Greenstalk. She had
been silent so far, not even  rustling at her mate. Her fronds  were tightly
held  against her  central stalk. Maybe  -- "Listen, there are other reasons
besides  contract obligation. The  Perversion  is more powerful  than anyone
thought.  It  killed  a  Power  today.  And  it's  operating in  the  Middle
Beyond.... The Riders have  a  long history,  Blueshell,  longer  than  most
races' entire  existence. The Perversion may be strong enough  to put an end
to all of that."
     Greenstalk rolled toward  her and opened slightly.  "You --  you really
think  we might find  something on that ship at  the Bottom,  something that
could harm a Power among Powers?"
     Ravna paused. "Yes.  And  Old  One  himself thought so, just  before he
     Blueshell wrapped  even  tighter  around himself, twisting. In anguish?
"My Lady,  we are  traders.  We have  lived  long and  traveled far ...  and
survived by minding  our own business. No  matter what romantics  may think,
traders do not go on quests.  What you ask ... is impossible, mere Beyonders
seeking to subvert a Power."

     Yet that  was a risk you  signed for. But  Ravna didn't  say it  aloud.
Perhaps Greenstalk  did: her fronds rustled,  and  Blueshell  scrinched even
more. Greenstalk was silent for a second, then she did something funny  with
her axles, bumping free of the stickem. Her  wheels  spun on  nothing as she
floated through a  slow arc, till she was  upside down,  her fronds reaching
down to brush  Blueshell's.  They rattled  back and  forth  for almost  five
minutes. Blueshell slowly untwisted, the fronds relaxing and patting back at
his mate.
     Finally  he  said.  "Very  well....  One  quest.  But mark  you!  Never

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     CHAPTER 17

     Spring came  wet and cold, and excruciatingly slow. It had been raining
the last eight days. How Johanna wished for something else, even the dark of
winter back again.
     She slogged across mud that had been  moss. It  was  midday; the gloomy
light  would  last  another three hours. Scarbutt  claimed that  without the
overcast, they would be seeing a  bit of direct sunlight nowadays. Sometimes
she wondered if she would ever see the sun again.
     The castle's great yard  was on a hillside. Mud and sullen snow  spread
down the hill, piled against the  wooden buildings.  Last  summer there  had
been a glorious  view from here.  And in the winter, the aurora  had spilled
green and  blue across the snow, glinted on the  frozen harbor, and outlined
the far hills against the sky. Now: The rain was a close mist; she  couldn't
even see the city beyond the walls. The clouds were a low and ragged ceiling
above her head. She knew there were guards on the stone walls  of the castle
curtain, but  today  they  must be  huddled behind watch slits. Not a single
animal, not a  single pack was visible. The Tines' world was  an empty place
compared  to  Straum --  but  not like  the High Lab  either. High Lab was a
airless  rock orbiting  a  red  dwarf. The Tines'  world was  alive, moving;
sometimes it looked as beautiful and friendly as a holiday resort on Straum.
Indeed,  Johanna realized  that it was  kindlier than most worlds the  human
race  had settled -- certainly  a  gentler world than Nyjora, and perhaps as
nice as Old Earth.
     Johanna had reached her bungalow.  She  paused for a  second under  its
outcurving  walls and looked across the courtyard. Yes, it  looked  a little
like  medieval Nyjora.  But the  stories from the  Age of Princesses  hadn't
conveyed the  implacable power in such a world: The rain  went on for as far
as  she  could see. Without decent technology,  even a cold rain could be  a
deadly  thing. So could  the  wind. And  the  sea  was  not something for an
afternoon's  fun  sailing;  she  thought  of surging hillocks  of  coldness,
puckered with  rain ... going on and on. Even the forests  around  the  town
were  threatening. It  was easy to wander into them, but there were no radio
finders,  no refresh stalls disguised as tree trunks.  Once lost,  you would
simply die. Nyjoran fairy tales had a special meaning for her now: no  great
imagination was needed to invent the  elementals of wind and  rain  and sea.
This  was the pretech experience,  that even if you had no enemies the world
itself could kill you.
     And she did  have plenty of enemies. Johanna pulled open  the tiny door
and went inside.

     A pack of Tines was sitting around  the fire. It scrambled to its  feet
and  helped  Johanna  out of her  rainjacket.  She  didn't shrink  from  the
fine-toothed muzzles anymore. This was one of her usual  helpers; she  could
almost think of the  jaws as hands, deftly pulling  the oilskin  jacket down
her arms and hanging it near the fire.
     Johanna chucked her boots and pants, and accepted the quilted wrap that
the pack "handed" her.
     "Dinner. Now," she said to the pack.
     Johanna settled on a pillow  by  the fire pit.  In  fact the Tines were
more  primitive than the humans on Nyjora: The Tines' world was not a fallen
colony. They  didn't  even  have  legend  to  guide them.  Sanitation  was a
sometime   thing.   Before   Woodcarver,   Tinish   doctors    bled    their
patients/victims....  She knew  now  that  she  was  living  in  the  Tines'
equivalent of  a luxury  apartment. The deep-polished wood was  not a normal
thing. The designs painted on the pillars and walls  were the result of many
hours' labor.
     Johanna rested her chin  on her hands and stared into  the flames.  She
was vaguely aware of the pack prancing around the pit, hanging pots over the
fire.  This  one spoke very little  Samnorsk;  it  wasn't in on Woodcarver's
dataset project. Many weeks ago, Scarbutt had  asked to move in here -- what
better way to speed the learning  process? Johanna  shivered  at the memory.
She knew the scarred one was just a single member, that the pack that killed
Dad had itself died. Johanna understood, but every time she saw "Peregrine",
she saw her father's murderer sitting fat and happy, thinking to hide itself
behind   its  three   smaller  fellows.  Johanna  smiled  into  the  flames,
remembering  the  whack  she  had  landed  on  Scarbutt  when  he  made  the
suggestion. She'd lost  control,  but it  had  been worth  it.  No one  else
suggested that  "friends" should  share this house  with  her. Most evenings
they left her alone. And  some nights ... Dad  and Mom seemed so near, maybe
just outside, waiting for her to  notice. Even though she had seen them die,
something inside her refused to let them go.
     Cooking  smells slipped past the familiar daydream. Tonight it was meat
and beans, with something  like onions. Surprise. The stuff smelled good; if
there had been any variety,  she  would have enjoyed  it. But Johanna hadn't
seen fresh fruit in sixty days. Salted meat and veggies were the only winter
fare.  If Jefri  were here,  he'd throw a fit. It  was months past since the
word came from Woodcarver's spies up north: Jefri had died in the ambush....
Johanna was getting over  it,  she really was.  And in some  ways, being all
alone made things ... simpler.
     The pack put a plate of meat and beans before her, along with a kind of
knife. Oh, well. Johanna grabbed the crooked hilt (bent sideways to be  held
by Tinish jaws) and dug in.

     She was almost finished when there was a polite scratching at the door.
Her servant gobbled something. The visitor replied, then said in rather good
Samnorsk  (and a voice that was eerily like  her own), "Hello there, my name
is Scriber. I would like a small talk, okay?"
     One of the servant's turned to look at  her; the rest were watching the
door.  Scriber  was  the one she thought of as Pompous Clown. He'd been with
Scarbutt  at  the ambush, but  he was  such  a  fool that  she scarcely felt
threatened by him.
     "Okay," she said, starting toward the door. Her servant (guard) grabbed
crossbows in its jaws,  and all five members snaked  up the staircase to the
loft; there wasn't space for more than one pack down here.
     The cold and  wet blew into the  room along  with her  visitor. Johanna
retreated  to  the other  side of the fire while Scriber  took  off his rain
slickers.  The  pack  members shook  themselves  the  way  dogs do, a noisy,
amusing sight -- and you didn't want to be near when it happened.
     Finally Scriber sauntered over to the fire  pit. Under  the slickers he
wore  jackets with  the usual  stirrups  and  the  open  spaces  behind  the
shoulders and at the haunches. But Scriber's appeared to be padded above the
shoulders to make his members look heavier than they really were. One of him
sniffed at her plate, while the other heads looked this way and that ... but
never directly at her.
     Johanna looked  down at the pack. She still had trouble talking to more
than  one  face;  usually she  picked on  whichever was looking back at her.
"Well? What did you come to talk about?"
     One of the heads finally looked at her. It licked its lips. "Okay. Yes.
I thought to see how  do  you  do? I mean ..." gobble.  Her servant answered
from upstairs,  probably  reporting  what kind of  mood she was in.  Scriber
straightened  up. Four  of  his six heads  looked  at Johanna. His other two
members paced back and forth, as if contemplating something important. "Look
here. You are the only human I know, but I have always been a big student of
character. I know you are not happy here -- "
     Pompous Clown was also master of the obvious.
     "-- and I understand. But we do the  best to  help  you. We are not the
bad people who killed your parents and brother."
     Johanna  put a hand on the low ceiling  and leaned forward.  You're all
thugs; you just happen to have the same enemies I do. "I know that, and I am
cooperating. You'd  still be  playing the dataset's kindermode if it weren't
for  me. I've shown you the reading  courses; if you  guys have  any brains,
you'll have  gunpowder  by  summer."  The  Oliphaunt was an  heirloom toy, a
huggable favorite thing she should  have outgrown years  ago.  But there was
history in it --  stories of the queens and princesses of the Dark Ages, and
how they  had struggled to triumph over the jungles, to  rebuild  the cities
and then  the  spaceships. Half-hidden on obscure reference paths there were
also  hard numbers,  the  history of technology. Gunpowder  was one  of  the
easiest things. When the weather cleared up, there would be some prospecting
expeditions; Woodcarver had known  about sulfur, but didn't have  quantities
in town. Making cannon would be harder. But then.... "Then your enemies will
be killed. Your people are  getting what they want from me. So  what's  your
     "Complaint?" Pompous Clown's  heads  bobbed up and down in alternation.
Such distributed gestures seemed to be the equivalent of facial expressions,
though  Johanna  hadn't figured  many  of  them  out. This  one  might  mean
embarrassment. "I have no complaint. You are  helping us, I  know.  But, but
..." Three of his members were pacing around now. "It's just that I see more
than most people, perhaps a little like Woodcarver did in oldendays. I am  a
-- I've  seen  your  word for  it -- a 'dilettante'. You  know, a person who
studies all things and who is talented at everything. I am only thirty years
old,  but I have read almost every book  in the  world, and -- "  the  heads
bowed, perhaps in shyness?  "--  I'm even planning to write one, perhaps the
true story of your adventure."
     Johanna found  herself  smiling.  Most  often  she  saw  the  Tines  as
barbarian strangers, inhuman in  spirit as well as  form. But if  she closed
her eyes, she could almost imagine that Scriber  was  a fellow Straumer. Mom
had a few friends just  as brainless  and innocently  self-convinced as this
one, men  and women with a hundred grandiose  projects that would never ever
amount to  anything. Back on  Straum, they had  been boring perils that  she
avoided. Now ... well, Scriber's foolishness was almost like being back home
     "You're here to study me for your book?"
     More alternating nods.  "Well, yes. And  also, I  wanted to talk to you
about my other plans. I've always been something of  an inventor, you see. I
know that  doesn't  mean  much  now. It seems that  everything that  can  be
invented is already in Dataset. I've seen  many of  my best ideas there." He
sighed, or  made the sound of a sigh. Now  he was  imitating one of  the pop
science voices in the dataset. Sound was the easiest thing for the Tines; it
could be darn confusing.
     "In any case, I was  just wondering how to improve  some of those ideas
-- " four of Scriber's members bellied down on the bench by the fire pit; it
looked like he was settling in for a long conversation. His other two walked
around the pit to give her a stack of paper threaded with brass hoops. While
one on  the  other side of  the  fire continued to talk,  the two  carefully
turned the pages and pointed at where she should look.
     Well,  he did  have  plenty of  ideas:  Tethered birds  to hoist flying
boats, giant lenses that  would concentrate the sun's light  on  enemies and
set  them  afire.  From some of the  pictures,  it  appeared he thought  the
atmosphere extended beyond the moon. Scriber  explained each idea in numbing
detail, pointing at the drawings and patting her hands enthusiastically. "So
you  see  the possibilities?  My  unique  slant  combined  with  the  proven
inventions in Dataset. Who knows where it could lead?"
     Johanna  giggled,  overcome  by  the vision  of  Scriber's  giant birds
hauling kilometer-wide lenses  to the moon. He  seemed to take the sound for
     "Yes! It's brilliant, okay? My latest idea, I  never would have thought
it except  for Dataset.  This 'radio', it projects sound very  far and fast,
okay? Why not combine it with the power of our Tinish thoughts? A pack could
think as one even spread across hundreds of, um, kilometers."
     Now that  almost made  sense! But  if gunpowder took months  to make --
even given the  exact formula -- how many  decades would it  be  before  the
packs had radio? Scriber was  an immense  fountain of half-baked  ideas. She
let his words wash over her for more than an hour. It was insanity, but less
alien than most of what she had endured this last year.
     Finally he seemed to run  down; there were longer pauses  and  he asked
her opinion more  often.  Finally he said, "Well,  that  was certainly  fun,
     "Unh, yes, fascinating."
     "I knew you would like it. You're just  like my people, I really think.
You're not all angry, not all the time...."
     "Just what do you mean by that?" Johanna pushed a soft muzzle  away and
stood. The dogthing rocked back on its haunches to look up at her.
     "I, well ... you have much to hate, I know. But you seem so angry at us
all the time, and we're the ones who are trying to  help you! After  the day
work you  stay here, you don't want  to talk with people -- though now I see
that was our fault. You wanted us to come here but were too proud to say it.
I have these insights into character, you  see. My  friend, the one you call
Scarbutt: he is truly a  nice fellow.  I know I can tell you that  honestly,
and that as my new friend you  will believe. He would very much like to come
to visit you, too.... urk."
     Johanna walked slowly  around the fire pit, forcing the  two members to
back  away  from  her. All  of Scriber was looking up at  her now, the necks
arching around one another, the eyes wide.
     "I'm  not like you. I don't need your talk,  or your stupid ideas." She
threw Scriber's notebook into the pit. Scriber  leaped to the  fire's  edge,
desperately reached  for the burning  notes. He pulled most of them back and
clutched them to his chests.
     Johanna   kept  walking  toward  him,  kicking  at  his  legs.  Scriber
retreated,  backing and  sprawling.  "Stupid,  dirty, butchers. I'm not like
you." She slapped  her hand  on a ceiling beam. "Humans don't  like  to live
like animals. We don't adopt killers. You tell Scarbutt, you tell him. If he
ever comes by  for a friendly chat, I-I'll smash in  his head; I'll smash in
all of them!"
     Scriber was backed into the wall  now. His heads turned wildly this way
and that. He was making  plenty of noise. Some of  it was Samnorsk, but  too
high-pitched to understand. One of his mouths found the door pole. He pushed
open the door, and  all  six members  raced into  the twilight,  their  rain
slickers forgotten.
     Johanna  knelt  and  stuck her head through the doorway. The air  was a
wind-driven mist.  In an instant,  her  face  was so  cold and wet  that she
couldn't feel the tears. Scriber was six shadows in the  darkening grayness,
shadows that raced down the hillside, sometimes tumbling in their haste.  In
a  second  he  was gone.  There  was nothing  but the  vague forms of nearby
cabins, and the yellow light that spilled out around her from the fire.
     Strange. Right after the  ambush,  she had  felt  terror. The Tines had
been unstoppable killers. Then, on  the boat, when she smashed Scarbutt  ...
it had been so  wonderful:  the  whole pack collapsed, and suddenly she knew
that she could fight back, that she could break their bones. She didn't have
to  be  at their  mercy....  Tonight she  had learned something  more.  Even
without touching  them, she  could  hurt them.  Some  of them,  anyway.  Her
dislike alone had undone Pompous Clown.
     Johanna backed into the smoky warmth and shut the door. She should feel

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     Scriber  Jaqueramaphan didn't tell  anyone  about his  meeting with the
Two-Legs. Of course, Vendacious's guard had overheard everything. The fellow
might not speak  much Samnorsk, but he  had surely  gotten the drift of  the
argument. People would hear about it eventually.
     He moped  around the castle for a  few days, spent a  number  of  hours
hunched over the remains  of  his notebook, trying to recreate the diagrams.
It would  be  a a while before  he  attended any more sessions with Dataset,
especially  when  Johanna  was around. Scriber knew  he  seemed brash to the
outside  world,  but  in fact  it had taken a  lot of courage  to walk in on
Johanna  like  that.  He  knew  his  ideas had  genius,  but  all  his  life
unimaginative people had been telling him otherwise.
     In most ways Scriber was a very fortunate  person.  He had  been born a
fission pack  in Rangathir, at the  eastern edge of the Republic. His parent
had been a wealthy merchant.  Jaqueramaphan had some of his parent's traits,
but  the dull patience necessary for day-to-day business work  had been lost
to  him.  His  sibling  pack more  than retained  that  faculty;  the family
business grew, and --  in the first years -- his sib didn't begrudge Scriber
his share of  the  wealth.  From his earliest  days,  Scriber  had  been  an
intellectual. He read everything: natural history, biography, brood kenning.
In the end he had the largest  library  in  Rangathir, more than two hundred
     Even then Scriber had tremendous  ideas, insights which  -- if properly
executed -- would have made them the wealthiest merchants in all the eastern
provinces. Alas, bad luck and his sib's  lack of imagination had  doomed his
early ideas. In  the end, his sib bought out the business, and Jaqueramaphan
moved to  the Capital. It was all for  the best.  By this  time Scriber  had
fleshed himself  out  to  six members; he  needed to see more of the  world.
Besides ...  there  were  five thousand books  in  the  library  there,  the
experience  of all history and  all the  world!  His own notebooks became  a
library in themselves. Yet still the packs at the university had no time for
him. His outline for  a summation of natural history was rejected by all the
stationers, though he paid to have small parts of it published. It was clear
that success in the world of action was necessary before his ideas could get
the attention they deserved, hence his spy mission;  Parliament itself would
thank him when he returned with the secrets of Flenser's Hidden Island.
     That was almost a year ago. What had happened since --  with the flying
house and Johanna and Dataset -- went beyond his wildest dreams (and Scriber
granted  that  those dreams  were  already  pretty  extreme). The library in
Dataset contained  millions of  books.  With Johanna to help him  polish his
ideas, they would sweep  Flenserism from  the face  of the world. They would
regain her flying house. Not even the sky would be a limit.
     So to  have her throw it all back at him ... it made  him wonder  about
himself. Maybe she was just mad at him for trying to explain  Peregrine. She
would like Peregrine if she let herself; he was  sure  of it. But then again
...  maybe his  ideas  just weren't that good, at least  by comparison  with

     That thought  left  him  pretty  low. But  he  finished  redrawing  the
diagrams, and  even  got  some  new  ideas.  Maybe  he should  get some more
     Peregrine stopped by and persuaded him to go into town.
     Jaqueramaphan   had  made  up   a  dozen  explanations  why  he  wasn't
participating in the sessions with Johanna  anymore.  He  tried out  two  or
three as he and Peregrine descended Castle Street toward the harbor.
     After  a  minute  or two,  his  friend turned a head back. "It's  okay,
Scriber. When you feel like it, we'd like to have you back."
     Scriber  had always been a very good  judge of attitude; in particular,
he could tell  when he was being  patronized. He must have scowled a little,
because Peregrine went on. "I mean it. Even Woodcarver has been asking about
you. She likes your ideas."
     Comforting lies or not, Scriber brightened. "Really?" The Woodcarver of
today was a  sad  case, but the Woodcarver of  the history books was  one of
Jaqueramaphan's great heroes. "No one's mad at me?"
     "Well,  Vendacious is a bit peeved. Being responsible for the Two-Legs'
safety makes him very nervous. But you only tried something we've all wanted
to do."
     "Yeah." Even if there  had been no Dataset, even if Johanna Olsndot had
not come from the stars, she would still be the most fascinating creature in
the world: a pack-equivalent mind in a single body. You could  walk right up
to her, you could touch her, without the least confusion. It was frightening
at first, but all of them  quickly felt the attraction. For packs, closeness
had  always  meant mindlessness -- whether for  sex or battle. Imagine being
able  to  sit  by  the  fire  with  a  friend  and  carry  on an intelligent
conversation!  Woodcarver had a theory that the Two-Legs' civilization might
be  innately more effective than any Packish one,  that collaboration was so
easy for humans that they  learned and built much faster  than  packs could.
The only  problem with  that theory was Johanna  Olsndot. If  Johanna  was a
normal human, it  is  was  a surprise  that  the  race  could  cooperate  on
anything.  Sometimes  she was  friendly  --  usually  in the  sessions  with
Woodcarver. She  seemed  to realize that Woodcarver was frail  and  failing.
More often she was patronizing, sarcastic, and seemed to think the best they
could do for  her  insulting.... And sometimes she was like last night. "How
goes it with Dataset?" he asked after a moment.
     Peregrine shrugged. "About  like before. Both Woodcarver and I can read
Samnorsk pretty well  now. Johanna  has taught us  --  me via Woodcarver,  I
should say  --  how to use most of Dataset's powers.  There's  so much there
that  will change the  world. But for  now we have to concentrate  on making
gunpowder and cannons. It's that, the actual doing, that's going slow."
     Scriber nodded knowingly. That had been the central problem in his life
     "Anyway, if  we  can do  all  that  by  midsummer,  maybe we  can  face
Flenser's army and recapture the flying house before next winter." Peregrine
made a grin that stretched from face to  face. "And then, my friend, Johanna
can call her people for rescue ... and we'll have all our lives to study the
outsiders. I may pilgrimage to worlds around other stars."
     It  was an idea  they had talked of before. Peregrine had thought of it
even before Scriber.
     They turned off  Castle Street  onto Edgerow. Scriber was feeling  more
enthusiastic about visiting the stationer's; there must be some way he could
help. He looked around with an interest  that had been lacking the last  few
days. Woodcarvers was a fair-sized city, almost as big as Rangathir -- maybe
twenty  thousand packs lived within its  walls  and in the homes immediately
around. This day was a bit colder than the last few, but  it wasn't raining.
A  cold, clean wind swept the market street, carrying faint smells of mildew
and sewage, of spices and fresh-sawn wood. Dark clouds hung low, misting the
hills around  the harbor. Spring was definitely  in the air.  Scriber kicked
playfully at the slush along the curb.
     Peregrine led them  to  a  side street. The place was jammed, strangers
getting as close as seven or eight yards. The stalls at the stationer's were
even  worse. The felt dividers  weren't that thick,  and there seemed  to be
more interest  in literature  at Woodcarvers than any place Scriber had ever
been. He could  hardly hear himself think as he haggled  with the stationer.
The merchant sat  on a raised platform with thick  padding; he  wasn't  much
bothered by the racket. Scriber kept his heads close together, concentrating
on the prices and the  product. From his past  life, he was  pretty good  at
this sort of thing.
     Eventually he got his paper, and at a decent price.
     "Let's  go back  on Packweal," he said.  That was the long way, through
the center of the market. When he  was  in a good mood, Scriber rather liked
crowds;   he  was  a  great  student  of  people.  Woodcarvers  was  not  as
cosmopolitan as some cities by the Long  Lakes, but there were  traders from
all over. He saw several  packs wearing the bonnets of a tropic  collective.
At one intersection a redjackets  from East Home was  chatting cozily with a
     When packs came  this close, and in these numbers, the world  seemed to
teeter  on the edge of a choir. Each person hung near to  himself, trying to
keep  his own thoughts intact. It  was hard  to walk  without stumbling over
your  own feet. And sometimes  the background thought sounds would  surge, a
moment  where  several packs would somehow synchronize.  Your  consciousness
wavered and for an instant you were one with many, a superpack that might be
a god. Jaqueramaphan  shivered.  That was the  essential  attraction  of the
Tropics. The crowds there were mobs, vast group minds as stupid as they were
ecstatic. If the stories were true, some of the southern cities were nonstop
     They had roamed the marketplace almost an hour when it hit him. Scriber
shook his heads abruptly. He turned and walked in lockstep off Packweal, and
up a side street. Peregrine followed, "Is the crowd too much?" he asked.
     "I just had  an  idea," said Scriber. That  wasn't unusual  in  a close
crowd,  but  this was a very interesting idea.... He said  nothing more  for
several minutes. The side street climbed steeply, then jinked back and forth
across Castle Hill. The upslope side  was lined with burghers' homes. On the
harbor side, they were looking  out over  the  steep tile roofs of houses on
the next switchback  down.  These were large homes, elegant with rosemaling.
Only a few had shops on the street.
     Scriber slowed down  and spread out  enough that  he wasn't stepping on
himself. He  saw  now  that he'd  been quite  wrong in trying  to contribute
creative  expertise  to  Johanna. There  was  simply too much  invention  in
Dataset. But they  still  needed him,  Johanna most of all. The problem was,
they didn't know it yet. Finally he said to Peregrine, "Haven't you wondered
that the  Flenserists haven't  attacked the city? You and  I embarrassed the
Lords of Hidden Island more  than ever in their history. We hold the keys to
their total defeat." Johanna and Dataset.
     Peregrine  hesitated.  "Hmm. I assumed  their  army wasn't up to it.  I
should  think  if  they  were,  they'd have  knocked  over Woodcarvers  long
     "Perhaps,  but  at  great  cost. Now  the cost is  worth  it." He  gave
Peregrine a  serious look. "No, I think there's another reason.... They have
the flying  house, but they have  no idea how to  use it.  They want Johanna
back alive -- almost as much as they want to kill all of us."
     Peregrine  made a bitter sound.  "If  Steel  hadn't been  so  eager  to
massacre everything on two legs, he could have had all sorts of help."
     "True, and the Flenserists must know that. I'll bet  they've always had
spies  among the townspeople here, but now more than  ever. Did you see  all
the East  Home packs?"  East Home was  a hotbed of Flenser  sentiment.  Even
before the Movement, they had been a hard  folk, routinely sacrificing  pups
that didn't meet their brood standards.
     "One anyway. Talking to a labormaster."
     "Right. Who knows what's coming  in disguised as special purpose packs?
I'd bet my life they're planning to kidnap Johanna. If they guess what we're
planning  with  her,  they may just try to kill her. Don't you  see? We must
alert Woodcarver and Vendacious, organize the people to watch for spies."
     "You  noticed all this on one walk  through Packweal?" There was wonder
or disbelief in his voice, Scriber couldn't tell which.
     "Well, um, no. The inspiration wasn't anything so direct. But it stands
to reason, don't you think?"
     They  walked  in silence  for  several minutes.  Up  here the  wind was
stronger, and the view more spectacular. Where there  wasn't the sea, forest
spread endless gray and green. Everything was very peaceful ... because this
was  a game of  stealth. Fortunately Scriber  had  a talent for such  games.
After  all, hadn't it  been the  very  Political Police of the Republic  who
commissioned him to survey Hidden  Island? It  had taken him several tendays
of  patient persuasion, but  in the end they had been enthusiastic. Anything
you can discover  we would be most happy  to review.  Those were their exact
     Peregrine waffled  around  the road,  seemingly  very  taken  aback  by
Scriber's suggestion.  Finally he said, "I think there is  ... something you
should know, something that must remain an absolute secret."
     "Upon  my soul! Peregrine, I do not blab secrets." Scriber was a little
hurt -- at the lack of trust, and also  that the other might have discovered
something he had  not. The second should not bother him. He had guessed that
Peregrine and Woodcarver  were into each other.  No telling  what  she might
have confided, or what might have leaked across.
     "Okay....  You've  tripped  onto something that  should not  be  noised
about. You know Vendacious is in charge of Woodcarvers security?"
     "Of course." That was implicit in  the office of Lord Chamberlain. "And
considering the number of outsiders wandering around, I can't say he's doing
a very good job."
     "In fact, he's doing a marvelously effective job. Vendacious has agents
right  at the  top at  Hidden  Island --  one  step removed from Lord  Steel
     Scriber felt his eyes widening.
     "Yes,  you understand  what that means. Through Vendacious,  Woodcarver
knows  for a  certainty  everything  their  high council plans.  With clever
misinformation,  we  can  lead  the Flenserists  around like  froghens  at a
thinning.  Next  to  Johanna  herself,  this  may be  Woodcarver's  greatest
     "I  --  "  I had  no idea. "So the incompetent local security is just a
     "Not exactly. It's supposed  to  look solid and intelligent,  but  with
just  enough exploitable weakness  so  the  Movement will postpone a frontal
attack in favor  of espionage." He smiled. "I think Vendacious will  be very
taken aback to hear your critique."
     Scriber gave  a weak laugh. He was flattered  and boggled  at  the same
time. Vendacious must count as the greatest spymaster  of the age -- yet he,
Scriber Jaqueramaphan, had almost seen through him. Scriber was mostly quiet
the rest of the way back to the castle, but his  mind  was racing. Peregrine
was more  right than he knew; secrecy  was vital. Unnecessary  discussion --
even between  old  friends  --  must be  avoided.  Yes! He  would offer  his
services to Vendacious. His new  role might keep him in  the background, but
it was  where he could make the  greatest contribution.  And eventually even
Johanna would see how helpful he could be.


     Down  the well  of the night. Even  when  Ravna wasn't looking out  the
windows,  that  was the  image  in her mind. Relay was far off  the galactic
disk.  The OOB  was  descending  toward  that disk --  and  ever deeper into
     But they had escaped. The OOB was crippled,  but they had left Relay at
almost fifty  light-years per hour. Each hour they were  lower in the Beyond
and  the  computation  time   for   the   microjumps  increased,  and  their
pseudovelocity declined. Nevertheless, they were making progress.  They were
deep  into the Middle  of the Beyond  now. And there was no sign of pursuit,
thank  goodness. Whatever had brought  the Blight to Relay,  it had not been
specific knowledge of the OOB.
     Hope.  Ravna  felt  it growing in her.  The  ship's  medical automation
claimed that Pham Nuwen  could  be saved, that there was brain activity. The
terrible  wounds in  his back had been Old One's implants, organic machinery
that had  made Pham close-linked to Relay's  local network -- and  thence to
the Power above. And when that Power died somehow the gear in  Pham became a
putrescent ruin. So Pham  the  person  should  still exist.  Pray  he  still
exists.  The  surgeon  thought it  would be three  days before  his back was
healed enough to attempt resuscitation.
     In the  meantime.... Ravna was learning more about the apocalypse  that
had swept over her. Every twenty hours, Greenstalk  and Blueshell jigged the
ship sideways a few light-years, into some major trunk line of the Known Net
to soak up the News.  It was a common practice  on any voyage of more than a
few days; an easy way for merchants  and travelers to keep  track  of events
that might affect their success at voyage's end.
     According to the News (that  is, according to the vast majority  of the
opinions expressed), the fall of Relay was complete. Oh, Grondr.  Oh Egravan
and Sarale. Are you dead or owned now?
     Parts of the  Known Net  were temporarily out  of  contact; some of the
extra-galactic links might not be replaced for years.  For the first time in
millennia,  a Power was  known  to  have  been murdered.  There were tens of
thousands of claims about the motive for the attack and tens of thousands of
predictions about what  would  happen next.  Ravna  had  the ship filter the
avalanche, trying to distill the essence of the speculations.
     The one  coming from Straumli Realm itself  made as much sense as  any:
the Perversion's thralls gloated solemnly about the new era, the marriage of
a Transcendent being with races of  the Beyond. If Relay  could be destroyed
--  if a  Power could be murdered -- then  nothing could stop the spread  of
     Some senders  thought that Relay was  the ancestral target of  whatever
had perverted Straumli Realm. Maybe the attack was just the tail end of some
long ago war,  a misbegotten tragedy for the descendants of forgotten races.
If so, then  the thralls at Straumli Realm  might just  wither away  and the
original human culture there reappear.
     A number of items suggested that the attack had been aimed at  stealing
Relay's archives, but  only one or two claimed  that  the  Blight  sought to
recover  an  artifact, or prevent  the Relayers  from recovering one.  Those
assertions came from chronic theorizers, the  sort of civilizations that get
surcharged by newsgroup automation. Nevertheless, Ravna looked through those
messages carefully. None of them suggested an artifact in the Low Beyond; if
anything, they claimed the Blight was  searching  for something in  the High
Beyond or Low Transcend.
     There was network traffic  coming out of the Blight. The  high protocol
messages were ignored by  all but the suicidal, and no one was getting  paid
to  forward  any of it. Yet horror and curiosity spread some of the messages
far.  There  was  the  Blighter  "video":  almost  four  hundred seconds  of
pan-sensual data with  no  compression.  That incredibly  expensive  message
might be the most-forwarded  hog in all Net  history. Blueshell held the OOB
on the trunk path for nearly two days to receive the whole thing.
     The  Perversion's thralls all appeared to be human. About half the news
items  coming out of the Realm were video evocations, though none this long;
all showed  human speakers. Ravna watched the  big one again and again:  She
even recognized the speaker. Øvn Nilsndot  had  been Straumli Realm's
champion trael  runner. He had no  title now, and probably no name. Nilsndot
spoke from an office that  might have been a garden. If Ravna stepped to the
side of the image, she could see over his shoulder to ground level. The city
there  looked like  the Straumli Main  of record.  Years ago, Ravna  and her
sister had  dreamed  about that city, the heart of mankind's adventure  into
the Transcend.  The central  square had been  a  replica  of  the  Field  of
Princesses on Nyjora, and the immigration advertising claimed that no matter
how far  the Straumers went,  the fountain in the Field would  always  flow,
would always show their loyalty to humankind's beginnings.
     There  was no  fountain now, and Ravna felt  deadness behind Nilsndot's
gaze. "This one speaks as the Power that Helps," said the erstwhile hero. "I
want all to see what I can do for even a third-rate civilization.  Look upon
my Helping...." The viewpoint swung  skywards. It was sunset, and the ranked
agrav structures hung against the light, megameter upon  megameter. It was a
more  grandiose use of the agrav material than Ravna had ever seen, even  on
the  Docks.  Certainly no  world in the Middle  Beyond could  ever afford to
import the material in such quantities. "What you see  above me  is just the
work barracks for the construction that  I will soon begin  in  the Straumli
system.  When  complete, five star systems will be a  single  habitat, their
planets  and excess stellar mass distributed to support  life and technology
as  never before seen at these depths -- and as rarely seen in the Transcend
itself." The view  returned  to Nilsndot, a  single human, mouthpiece  for a
god.  "Some of you may rebel against idea of dedicating yourselves to me. In
the long run it does not matter. The symbiosis of my Power with the hands of
races in the Beyond is more than any can resist. But I speak now to diminish
your fear. What  you  see in  Straumli Realm is as much a joy  as  a wonder.
Never again will races  in the Beyond be left behind by transcendence. Those
who join me  -- and all will join eventually  --  will be part of the Power.
You will have access to imports from across the Top and Lower Transcend. You
will reproduce beyond the limits your own technology could sustain. You will
absorb all that oppose me. You will bring the new stability."
     The third or  fourth time she watched  the item, Ravna tried to  ignore
the  words, concentrate on Nilsndot's expression, comparing  it  to speeches
she  had  in her personal dataset.  There was  a  difference;  it wasn't her
imagination.  The creature she  watched was  soul-dead. Somehow,  the Blight
didn't care  that  that was obvious ... maybe  it wasn't  obvious  except to
human viewers, and they were a  vanishingly small fraction of  the audience.
The  viewpoint closed in  on  Nilsndot's  ordinary  dark face,  his ordinary
violet eyes:
     "Some of you may  wonder how all this is possible, and why  billions of
years of anarchy have passed without such  help  from a Power. The answer is
... complex. Like many sensible developments, this one has a high threshold.
On one side of that threshold, the  development appears impossibly unlikely;
on the other, inevitable. The symbiosis of the Helping depends on efficient,
high-bandwidth communication between myself and the beings I Help. Creatures
such as the one now speaking my words must respond as quickly and faithfully
as a  hand or a  mouth. Their eyes and ears must report across  light-years.
This  has  been  hard  to  achieve  --  especially  since  the  system  must
essentially be in place before it can function. But, now that the  symbiosis
exists,  progress will come much faster. Almost any  race can be modified to
receive Help."

     Almost any race can be modified. The words came  from  a familiar face,
and in Ravna's birth language ... but the origin was monstrously far away.

     There  was plenty  of analysis.  A whole  news  group had been  formed:
Threat  of the Blight was spawned  from Threats Group, Homo Sapiens Interest
Group, and Close-Coupled Automation. These days it was  busier than any five
other  groups.  In  this part of the galaxy, a significant  fraction of  all
message traffic  belonged  to  the new group. More  bits were sent analyzing
poor  Øvn Nilsndot's mouthing than had  been in the original. Judging
from the flames and contradictions, the signal-to-noise ratio was very low:

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Acquileron->Triskweline, SjK units
     From: Khurvark  University  [Claimed to be habitat-based university  in
the Middle Beyond]
     Subject: Blighter Video
     Summary: The message shows fraud
 War Trackers Interest Group, Where are they now Interest Group, Threat of the Blight

     Date: 7.06 days since Fall of Relay
     Text of message:
     It's obvious that this "Helper" is a fraud. We've researched the matter
carefully. Though  he  is  not named,  the speaker is a high official in the
former Straumli regime. Now why -- if the "Helper" simply runs the humans as
teleoperated robots -- why is  the  earlier social  structure preserved? The
answer  should be clear to any idiot: The Helper  does not have the power to
teleoperate  large  numbers  of  sentients. Evidently, the  Fall of Straumli
Realm  consisted  of taking  over key elements  in that civilization's power
structure. It's business as usual  for the rest of the race. Our conclusion:
this Helper Symbiosis is  just another messianic religion, another screwball
empire  excusing its excesses  and  attempting  to  trick  those  it  cannot
directly coerce. Don't be fooled!

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Optima->Acquileron->Triskweline, SjK units
     From: Society  for  Rational Investigation [Probably a single system in
Middle Beyond, 5700 light-years antispinward of Sjandra Kei]
     Subject: Blighter Video thread, Khurvark University 1
     Key phrases: [Probable obscenity] waste of our valuable time
 Society for Rational Network Management, Threat of the Blight

     Date: 7.91 days since Fall of Relay
     Text of message:
     Who  is a fool? [probable  obscenity] [probable obscenity]  Idiots  who
don't follow all the threads in developing news should not waste my precious
ears with  their  [clear  obscenity]  garbage.  So  you  think  the  "Helper
Symbiosis" is a fraud  of Straumli Realm? And what  do  you think caused the
fall of Relay?  In case your  head  is  totally stuck  up your rear [ <--
probable insult],  there was a  Power  allied with  Relay. That Power is now
dead. You think  maybe  it just  committed suicide? Look  it up, Flat Head [
<-- probable  insult]. No Power  has  ever fallen to  anything  from  the
Beyond. The Blight is something new and interesting. I think it's  time that
[obscenity] jerks like  Khurvark University stick to  the noise  groups, and
let the rest of us have some intelligent discussion.

     And  some messages were patent nonsense. One thing  about  the Net: the
multiple, automatic translations often  disguised  the fundamental alienness
of participants. Behind the  chatty, colloquial postings, there were faraway
realms,  so  misted  by  distance  and  difference  that  communication  was
impossible -- even though it  might take  a  while to realize  the fact. For

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Arbwyth->Trade24->Cherguelen->Triskweline,  SjK
     From: Twirlip  of the Mists [Perhaps an organization of cloud fliers in
a single jovian system. Very sparse priors.]
     Subject: Blighter Video thread
     Key phrases: Hexapodia as the key insight
 Threat of the Blight

     Date: 8.68 days since Fall of Relay
     Text of message:
     I haven't had  a  chance  to see  the famous video from Straumli Realm,
except as an evocation. (My only gateway onto the Net is very expensive.) Is
it  true that humans have  six legs?  I wasn't sure from  the  evocation. If
these  humans have  three  pairs  of  legs,  then I think there  is an  easy
explanation for --

     Hexapodia?  Six legs? Three  pairs  of  legs?  Probably  none  of these
translations was close to what the bewildered creature of Twirlip had in its
mind. Ravna didn't read any more of that posting.

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Triskweline, SjK units
     From:  Hanse  [No  references prior to the Fall of  Relay. No  probable
source. This is someone being very cautious]
     Subject: Blighter Video thread, Khurvark University 1
 War Trackers Interest Group, Threat of the Blight

     Date: 8.68 days since Fall of Relay
     Text of message:
     Khurvark University  thinks the Blight  is a  fraud because elements of
the former  regime have  survived on  Straum.  There is another explanation.
Suppose the  Blight  is  indeed a  Power, and that its  claims  of effective
symbiosis are generally true. That means that the creature being "Helped" is
no  more  than  a  remotely controlled  device,  his  brain  simply  a local
processor supporting  the  communication. Would you  want to be  helped like
that? My question isn't completely rhetorical; the readership is wide enough
that there may be some  of you who would  answer "yes".  However,  the  vast
majority  of  naturally  evolved, sentient beings  would  be revolted by the
notion. Surely the Blight knows this. My  guess  is that the Blight is not a
fraud --  but that the notion of  surviving  culture  in Straumli Realm  is.
Subtly,  the  Blight  wanted to  convey  the impression  that only  some are
directly enslaved, that cultures as a  whole will survive. Combine that with
Blight's claim that not  all races can be teleoperated.  We're left with the
subtext that immense riches are available to races that associate themselves
with this Power, yet the  biological and intellectual imperatives  of  these
races will still be satisfied.
     So,  the question remains. Just  how  complete is  the Blight's control
over  conquered races? I don't know.  There may  not be any self-aware minds
left in  the  Blight's  Beyond,  only billions of teleoperated devices.  One
thing is clear: The Blight needs something from us that it cannot yet take.

     And so it went.  Tens of thousands of messages,  hundreds of points  of
view. It was not called  the Net of a Million Lies for nothing. Ravna talked
with Blueshell and Greenstalk about it every day, trying to put it together,
trying to decide which interpretation to believe.
     The Riders knew humans well, but even they weren't sure of the deadness
in Øvn Nilsndot's face. And Greenstalk knew humans well enough to see
that there was no answer that would comfort Ravna. She rolled back and forth
in front of the News window, finally reached a frond out to touch the human.
"Perhaps Sir Pham can say, once he is well."
     Blueshell was  bustling, clinical. "If you're  right,  that means  that
somehow the Blight doesn't care what humans and those close  to humans know.
In a way that  makes sense, but  ..." His voder buzzed absentmindedly for  a
moment.  "I  mistrust this  message.  Four hundred seconds of broad-band, so
rich that it  gives full-sense  imagery for many different  races. That's an
enormous amount of information, and no compression whatsoever.... Maybe it's
sweetened bait, forwarded by us poor Beyonders back to our every nest." That
suspicion had  been in the News too.  But there were  no obvious patterns in
the  message, and nothing  that  talked to  network automation.  Such subtle
poison might work at the Top of the Beyond, but not down here. And that left
a  simpler explanation, one that would make perfect sense even  on Nyjora or
Old Earth: the video masked a message to agents already in place.


     Vendacious  was  well-known  to  the people of  Woodcarvers  -- but for
mostly the wrong reasons. He was about a century  old, the fusion  offspring
of Woodcarver  on two of his strategists. In his  early  decades, Vendacious
had managed the city's wood  mills. Along  the  way he  devised  some clever
improvements  on  the  waterwheel.  Vendacious  had  had  his  own  romantic
entanglements  -- mostly with politicians and speech-makers. More  and more,
his replacement members inclined him toward public life. For the last thirty
years he  had  been one  of the strongest voices on Woodcarvers Council; for
the last ten, Lord Chamberlain. In  both roles, he had stood  for the guilds
and for  fair  trade. There  were rumors  that  if  Woodcarver  should  ever
abdicate or wholly  die, Vendacious would be the next Lord of  Council. Many
thought that  might  be the  best  that  could be made of such a disaster --
though Vendacious's pompous speeches were already the bane of the Council.
     That was  the public's view of Vendacious.  Anyone who  understood  the
ways of security would also guess  that the chamberlain managed Woodcarver's
spies. No doubt he had dozens of informants  in the mills and  on the docks.
But now  Scriber knew  that  even  that  was just a cover. Imagine -- having
agents in  the Flenser inner circle, knowing the Flenser plans, their fears,
their  weaknesses, and being able to manipulate them!  Vendacious was simply
incredible. Ruefully, Scriber must acknowledge the other's stark genius.
     And yet ...  this  knowledge  did  not guarantee  victory. Not all  the
Flenser schemes could be directly managed from the top. Some  of the enemy's
low-level operations might proceed unknown and quite successfully ... and it
would only take a single arrow to totally kill Johanna Olsndot.
     Here was where Scriber Jaqueramaphan could prove his value.
     He  asked  to move  into the castle  curtain, on the  third  floor.  No
problem getting permission; his new quarters were smaller, the walls  rudely
quilted.  A  single  arrow  loop  gave  an uninspired view across the castle
grounds. For Scriber's new purpose, the room  was perfect. Over the next few
days, he took to lurking in  the promenades. The main  walls were laced with
tunnels, fifteen  inches  wide  by  thirty  tall. Scriber  could get  almost
anywhere in the curtain  without  being seen from  outside. He padded single
file from one tunnel to the next, emerging for a few moments on a rampart to
flit  from merlon  to embrasure to merlon,  a  head poking  out here, a head
poking out there.
     Of  course  he ran into guards, but Jaqueramaphan was cleared to  be in
the  walls  ... and  he had  studied the  guards'  routine. They knew he was
around,  but Scriber  was  confident  they had no idea of the extent of  his
effort. It was hard, cold work, but worth  the effort. Scriber's great  goal
in life was to do something spectacular and valuable.  The problem was, most
of  his ideas  were  so deep that  other packs -- even  people he  respected
immensely --  didn't  understand. That  had been the  problem with  Johanna.
Well, after a few more days he could go to Vendacious and then....
     As he peeked around  corners  and through arrow slots, two of Scriber's
members huddled down, taking notes. After ten days, he had enough to impress
even Vendacious.

     Vendacious's official residence was surrounded by  rooms for assistants
and guards. It was not the place to make a  secret  offer.  Besides, Scriber
had had bad luck with the direct approach before. You could wait days for an
appointment, and the more patient you were, the more you followed the rules,
the more the bureaucrats considered you a nonentity.
     But Vendacious  was sometimes alone.  There was this turret  on the old
wall, on the forest side of the castle.... Late on the  eleventh  day of his
investigation, Scriber stationed himself  on that turret and waited. An hour
passed. The wind eased. Heavy fog washed in from the harbor. It oozed up the
old wall like slow-moving sea foam. Everything  became  very, very quiet  --
the way  it always does  in a  thick fog. Scriber nosed  moodily  around the
turret  platform;  it really  was decrepit.  The  mortar crumbled under  his
claws. It felt like you could pull some of the stones right out of the wall.
Damn. Maybe Vendacious  was going to break  the pattern and not come up here
     But Scriber waited another half hour ... and his patience paid off.  He
heard  the  click  of steel  on  the spiral  stairs.  There  was no sound of
thought; it  was  just  too foggy  for that.  A minute passed. The  trapdoor
popped up and a head stuck through.
     Even in the fog, Vendacious's surprise was a fierce hiss.
     "Peace, sir! It is only I, loyal Jaqueramaphan."
     The  head  came further out. "What would a loyal citizen  be  doing  up
     "Why,  I am here to see  you," Scriber  said, laughing, "at  this, your
secret office. Come on up, sir. With this fog, there is enough room for both
of us."
     One  after another, Vendacious's members hoisted themselves through the
trapdoor. Some barely made it, their knives and jewelry catching on the door
frame; Vendacious was not the slimmest of packs. The  security chief  ranged
himself  along the far side of the turret, a posture that bespoke suspicion.
He  was  nothing   like  the  pompous,  patronizing  pack  of  their  public
encounters.  Scriber  grinned  to  himself.  He  certainly  had  the other's
     "Well?" Vendacious said in a flat voice.
     "Sir. I wish to offer my services. I believe that my very presence here
shows  I  can be of value  to  Woodcarver's  security.  Who  but a  talented
professional  could have determined that you use this  place as your  secret
     Vendacious seemed to untense a  little. He smiled wryly. "Who indeed? I
come here precisely because  this part  of the  old wall  can't be seen from
anywhere in the castle. Here I can ...  commune with the hills, and be  free
of bureaucratic trivia."
     Jaqueramaphan  nodded. "I understand,  sir. But  you  are wrong in  one
detail." He pointed past the security chief.  "You can't see it through  all
this fog, but on the harbor  side of the  castle there is a single spot that
has a line of sight on your turret."
     "So? Who could see much from -- ah, the  eye-tools you brought from the
     "Exactly." Scriber reached  into a pocket and brought  out a telescope.
"Even from across the yard, I could recognize you." The eye-tools could have
made  Scriber famous.  Woodcarver  and Scrupilo had been enchanted by  them.
Unfortunately,  honesty had  required  to him to  admit  that he bought  the
devices  from  an inventor  in  Rangathir.  Never  mind that  it was he  who
recognized the value of the invention,  that  it was he who  used it to help
rescue Johanna.  When they  discovered that  he  did not know quite how  the
lenses worked, they had accepted his gift of one ... and turned to their own
glass makers. Oh well,  he was still the best eye-tool user in this  part of
the world.
     "It's  not  just  you I've been  watching,  my lord.  That's  been  the
smallest  part of my investigation.  Over the last ten days  I've spent many
hours on the castle walks."
     Vendacious's lips quirked. "Indeed."
     "I daresay not many noticed me, and I was very careful that  no one saw
me using the eye-tool. In any case," he pulled his book from another pocket,
"I've compiled extensive notes. I know who goes where and when during almost
all the hours of light. You can imagine the power of my technique during the
summer!" He set the book on the floor and slid it toward Vendacious. After a
moment, the other reached a member forward and dragged it toward himself. He
didn't seem very enthusiastic.
     "Please understand, sir. I know  that  you tell Woodcarver what goes on
in the highest Flenser councils. Without  your  sources we would be helpless
against those lords, but -- "

     "Who told you such things?"
     Scriber gulped. Brazen  it out. He grinned weakly. "No one  had to tell
me.  I'm a professional, like yourself; and I know how to keep a secret. But
think: there may be others  of my ability within  the castle, and some might
be  traitors. You  might never  hear of them  from your high-placed sources.
Think of the damage they could do. You  need my  help. With my approach, you
can  keep  track  of  everyone.  I  would  be  happy to  train  a  corps  of
investigators. We  could even operate  in the city, watching from the market
     The security chief sidled around  the parapet; he kicked idly at stones
in the rotted mortar.  "The idea has its  attractions.  Mind you, I think we
have all Flenser's agents  identified; we feed them well ... with lies. It's
interesting to hear  the lies come  back  from  our  sources  up  there." He
laughed  shortly, and glanced over the parapet, thinking. "But you're right.
If we are missing anyone with access to the Two-legs or Dataset ... it could
be disastrous." He turned more  heads  at Scriber. "You've got a deal. I can
get you four or five people to, ah, train in your methods."
     Scriber  couldn't   control  his  expression;  he  almost   bounced  in
enthusiasm, all eyes on Vendacious. "You won't regret this, sir!"
     Vendacious shrugged. "Probably not. Now, how many others  have you told
about your  investigation?  We'll  want to  bring  them in,  swear  them  to
     Scriber drew himself up. "My Lord! I told you that I am a professional.
I have kept this completely to myself, waiting for this conversation."
     Vendacious smiled  and relaxed to an almost genial posture. "Excellent.
Then we can begin."
     Maybe it was Vendacious's voice -- a trifle too loud -- or maybe it was
some small sound behind him. Whatever the reason, Scriber turned a head from
the other and saw swift  shadows coming over the forest side of the parapet.
Too late he heard the attacker's mind noise.
     Arrows  hissed, and  fire burned through his  Phan's throat. He gagged,
but kept  himself  together and raced  around  the turret toward Vendacious.
"Help me!" The  scream was a  waste of speech. Scriber knew, even before the
other drew his knives and backed away.
     Vendacious  stood clear as  his  assassin jumped  into Scriber's midst.
Rational  thought  dimmed  in a  frenzy of  noise and  slashing  pain.  Tell
Peregrine! Tell Johanna! The butchering continued for  timeless instants and
then --
     Part  of  him was  drowning in  sticky  red. Part of  him  was blinded.
Jaquerama's thought came in ragged fragments. At least one of  him was dead:
Phan lay beheaded in  a spreading pool of blood. It steamed in the cold air.
Pain and cold and ... drowning, choking ... tell Johanna.
     The assassin and  his boss had retreated from him. Vendacious. Security
chief. Traitor-in-chief.  Tell Johanna. They stood quietly ... watching  him
bleed to death. Too prissy to mess  their  thoughts with  his. They'd  wait.
They'd wait ... till his mind noise dimmed, then finish the job.
     Quiet.  So quiet.  The killers'  distant  thoughts.  Sounds of gagging,
moaning. No one would ever know....
     Almost all gone. Ja stared dumbly at the two  strange  packs.  One came
toward him, steel claws on its feet, blades in its mouth. No! Ja jumped  up,
slipping  and skidding  on the  wet.  The pack  lunged, but  Ja was  already
standing on the parapet. He leaped backwards and fell and fell...
     ...  and shattered on rocks far  below. Ja pulled himself away from the
wall. There was pain across his back, then numbness. Where am I? Where am I?
Fog everywhere. High  above him  there  were muttering  voices.  Memories of
knives and tines floated  in his small mind, all jumbled.  Tell  Johanna! He
remembered ... something ... from before. A hidden trail through deep brush.
If he went that way far enough, he would find Johanna.
     Ja  dragged  himself slowly up the path. Something  was wrong with  his
rear legs; he couldn't feel them. Tell Johanna.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     Johanna  coughed; things just seemed  to go  from  bad to  worse around
here. She'd had a sore  throat and sniffles  the last three days. She didn't
know  whether to be  frightened or not. Diseases  were an everyday  thing in
medieval  times. Yeah, and  lots of  people died of them, too! She wiped her
nose and tried to concentrate on what Woodcarver was saying.
     "Scrupilo  has  already made some gunpowder.  It  works just as Dataset
predicted.  Unfortunately,  he nearly lost a member  trying to  use it  in a
wooden cannon. If we can't make cannon, I'm afraid -- "
     A  week ago,  Woodcarver  wouldn't  have been  welcome here;  all their
meetings had been down in the castle halls. But  then Johanna got sick -- it
was a  "cold", she was  sure -- and hadn't felt like  running around  out of
doors. Besides,  Scriber's  visit  had kind of ...  shamed her. Some of  the
packs  were  decent  enough. She  had  decided to  try and  get  along  with
Woodcarver -- and Pompous Clown too, if he'd ever come around again. As long
as creatures like Scarbutt stayed out of her way.... Johanna leaned a little
closer to the fire  and waved  away  Woodcarver's objections; sometimes this
pack seemed like her eldest grandmother. "Assume  we can make  them. We have
lots of time till summer. Tell Scrupilo to study the dataset more carefully,
and quit trying  shortcuts. The question is, how  to  use them to  rescue my
star ship."
     Woodcarver brightened. The drooler broke off wiping  its muzzle to join
the  others  in  a head  bob. "I've talked about  this with  Peregr  -- with
several people, especially Vendacious. Ordinarily, getting an army to Hidden
Island would be a terrible problem. Going by sea is fast, but there are some
deadly  choke  points along  way. Going through the forest is  slow, and the
other side would have plenty of warning. But great good luck: Vendacious has
found some safe trails. We may be able to sneak -- "
     Someone was scratching at the door.
     Woodcarver cocked a pair of heads. "That's strange," she said.
     "Why?" Johanna asked absently. She hiked the quilt around her shoulders
and stood. Two of Woodcarver went with her to the door.
     Johanna  opened the door and looked  into  the fog. Suddenly Woodcarver
was talking loudly, all gobble. Their visitor  had retreated. Something  was
strange,  and for an instant  she couldn't  figure what it was. This was the
first time  she  had  seen  a dogthing  all  by  itself.  The  point  barely
registered when  most of Woodcarver spilled  past her, out the doorway. Then
Johanna's servant,  up in  the loft,  began screaming. The sound jabbed pain
through Johanna's ears.
     The lone Tine twisted  awkwardly on its  rear and  tried to drag itself
away,  but  Woodcarver had  it  surrounded.  She  shouted something and  the
screeching in  the loft  stopped.  There was  the thump of  paws  on  wooden
stairs,  and the servant bounded  into the open, its  crossbows cocked. From
down the hill, she heard the rattle of weapons as guards raced toward them.
     Johanna ran to Woodcarver, ready  to add her fists  to any defense. But
the pack  was  nuzzling  the  stranger, licking its  neck. After  a  moment,
Woodcarver caught the Tine by its jacket. "Help me carry him inside, Johanna
     The girl lifted the Tine's flanks. The fur was damp with  mist  ... and
sticky with blood.
     Then they were through the doorway and laying the member on a pillow by
the fire. The  creature  was making that  breathy  whistling,  the  sound of
ultimate pain. It looked up at her, its eyes so wide she could see the white
all around. For an instant she thought it was terrified of her, but when she
stepped back, it just made the sound louder and stretched  its  neck  toward
her. She knelt beside the pillow. It lay its muzzle on her hand.
     "W-what is it?" She looked back along its body, past the padded jacket.
The  Tine's haunches were twisted at an odd  angle, one legged dangling near
the fire.
     "Don't you know -- " began Woodcarver. "This is part of Jaqueramaphan."
She pushed a nose under the dangling leg, and raised it onto the pillow.
     There was loud talk between  the guards and  Johanna's servant. Through
the door she  saw members holding torches;  they  rested their  forepaws  on
their fellows shoulders, and held the lights high. No one tried to come  in;
there'd be no room.
     Johanna  looked back at the injured Tine. Scriber? Then she  recognized
the jacket. The creature looked back at her, still wheezing its pain. "Can't
you get a doctor!"
     Woodcarver was all around her. She answered, "I am a  doctor, Johanna."
She nodded at the  dataset  and continued softly, "At least, what passes for
one here."
     Johanna wiped blood from  the creature's neck. More kept oozing. "Well,
can you save him?"
     "This fragment maybe, but -- " One  of Woodcarver went  to the door and
talked to the packs beyond. "My people are searching for the rest of him....
I think he is mostly murdered, Johanna. If there were  others ... well, even
fragments stick together."
     "Has  he  said  anything?"  It  was  another voice, speaking  Samnorsk.
Scarbutt. His big ugly snout was stuck through the doorway.
     "No," said Woodcarver. "And his mind noise is a complete jumble."
     "Let me listen to him," said Scarbutt.

     "You stay back, you!" Johanna's voice was a scream; the creature in her
arms twitched.
     "Johanna! This is Scriber's friend. Let him help." As the Scarbutt pack
sidled into the room, Woodcarver climbed into the loft, giving him room.
     Johanna eased  her  arm from under  the injured  Tine and  moved aside,
ending up at  the doorway herself. There were lots more packs  outside  than
she  had  imagined, and they were standing  closer  than  she had ever seen.
Their torches glowed like soft fluorescents in the foggy dark.
     Her gaze snapped back to the fire pit. "I'm watching you!"
     Scarbutt's  members  clustered around  the  pillow. The big one lay its
head next to the injured Tine's. For a moment the Tine continued its breathy
whistling.  Scarbutt gobbled at  it. The reply was a steady warbling, almost
beautiful. From up in the loft,  Woodcarver said something. She and Scarbutt
talked back and forth.
     "Well?" said Johanna.
     "Ja -- the fragment -- is not a 'talker'," came Woodcarver's voice.
     "Worse," said  Scarbutt.  "For now  at least,  I  can't match his  mind
sounds. I'm not getting sense or image from him; I  can't tell  who murdered
     Johanna stepped  back into the room, and walked slowly  to the  pillow.
Scarbutt moved aside, but did not leave the wounded  Tine. She knelt between
two  of  him and petted the  long, bloodied neck. "Will Ja" -- she spoke the
sound as best she could -- "live?"
     Scarbutt  ran three  noses  down the length of the  body.  They pressed
gently  at the  wounds.  Ja twisted  and  whistled ... except  when Scarbutt
pressed his haunches.  "I don't know.  Most of this blood is  just splatter,
probably from  the  other members. But his  spine  is broken.  Even  if  the
fragment lives, he'll have only two usable legs."
     Johanna  thought  for a  moment,  trying  to see things from  a  Tinish
perspective. She didn't like the view. It might not make sense,  but to her,
this  "Ja" was  still  Scriber  -- at  least  in potential. To Scarbutt, the
creature was a fragment,  an organ from  a  fresh  corpse. A damaged  one at
that. She looked  at Scarbutt, at the big, killer member. "So what does your
kind do with such ... garbage?"
     Three of  his  heads turned toward her, and  she could see  his hackles
rise. His synthetic voice became high-pitched  and  staccato. "Scriber was a
good friend. We could build a two-wheel cart for  Ja's rear; he'd be able to
move around  some. The hard  part will  be finding  a pack for him. You know
we're looking for other fragments; we may be  able to patch something up. If
not ... well, I have only four  members.  I will  try to adopt  him." As  he
spoke one head  patted  the  wounded  member.  "I'm  not sure  it will work.
Scriber  was not a loose-souled person, not  in any way a pilgrim. And right
now, I don't match him at all."
     Johanna slumped  back. Scarbutt wasn't responsible for  everything that
went wrong in the universe.
     "Woodcarver has excellent brood kenners. Maybe some other match  can be
found. But understand ... it's hard for adult members to remerge, especially
non-talkers.  Single fragments like Ja often die of  their own accord;  they
just stop  eating. Or sometimes.... Go down  to the harbor sometime, look at
the  workers. You'll see some big packs  there  ... but  with  the minds  of
idiots.  They can't hold together; the smallest problem and they  run in all
directions. That's how the unlucky repacks end...." Scarbutt's voice  traded
back and forth between two  of  his members,  and dribbled into silence. All
his heads turned  to Ja. The  member had  closed his eyes. Sleeping? He  was
still breathing, but it sounded kind of burbly.
     Johanna  looked across the room at the trapdoor to the loft. Woodcarver
had stuck a single head  down through the hole. The upside-down face  looked
back  at  Johanna. Another  time,  her  appearance would have been  comical.
"Unless a miracle happens, Scriber died today. Understand that, Johanna. But
if the fragment lives, even a short time, we'll likely find the murderer."
     "How, if he can't communicate?"
     "Yes,  but he  can still  show  us.  I've ordered  Vendacious's men  to
confine the  staff to quarters. When Ja is calmer, we'll march every pack in
the castle past  him.  The fragment  certainly  remembers  what  happened to
Scriber, and wants  to  tell us. If any of the killers  are  our own people,
he'll see them."
     "And he'll make a fuss." Just like a dog.
     "Right. So the main thing is to provide him with security right now ...
and hope our doctors can save him."

     They found the rest of Scriber a couple of hours  later, on a turret of
the old wall. Vendacious said it looked like one  or  two packs had come out
of the forest and climbed the turret, perhaps in an attempt to  see onto the
grounds. It  had all the  markings  of  an  incompetent,  first-time  probe:
nothing of value could be seen from  that turret, even on a  clear  day. But
for  Scriber it  had  been fatally bad luck. Apparently he had surprised the
intruders.  Five  of  his  members   had  been  variously  arrowed,  hacked,
decapitated. The sixth -- Ja -- had broken his back on the sloping stonework
at the base of the wall. Johanna walked out to the turret the next day. Even
from the ground she could see brownish  stains on the parapet. She  was glad
she couldn't go to the top.
     Ja died during  the night, though not from any further enemy action; he
was under Vendacious's protection the whole time.
     Johanna went the next few days without saying  much. At night she cried
a little. God damn their "doctoring". A broken back they could diagnose, but
hidden injuries, internal bleeding -- of such they were completely ignorant.
Apparently, Woodcarver was famous for her theory that the  heart pumped  the
blood around the body. Give  her another thousand  years and maybe she could
do better than a butcher!
     For a while she hated  them  all:  Scarbutt for  all  the old  reasons,
Woodcarver  for  her  ignorance, Vendacious for letting  Flenserists get  so
close to the castle ...  and Johanna Olsndot for  rejecting Scriber  when he
had tried to be a friend.
     What would  Scriber say now? He had wanted  her to trust them.  He said
that  Scarbutt and  the others  were good  people.  One night, about a  week
later, she  came close to making peace with herself.  She was lying  on  her
pallet, the quilt heavy and warm upon her. The designs  painted on the walls
glimmered  dim  in the  emberlight. All right, Scriber. For you  ...  I will
trust them.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     Pham Nuwen  remembered  almost nothing  of the first  days after dying,
after the pain of  the Old One's  ending. Ghostly  figures, anonymous words.
Someone said he'd been kept alive in the ship's surgeon. He  remembered none
of  it.  Why they  kept  the  body breathing was a  mystery and an  affront.
Eventually  the animal reflexes had revived. The body began breathing of its
own accord. The eyes  opened. No  brain  damage,  Greenstalk(?) said, a full
recovery. The husk that had been a living being spoke no contradiction.
     What was left of Pham  Nuwen spent a lot of time on the  OOB's  bridge.
From before, the ship reminded him of a fat sowbug. The bugs had been common
in the straw laid across the floor of the Great Hall of this father's castle
on Canberra. The little kids had played with them. The  critters didn't have
real  legs, just a dozen  feathery  spines sticking  out  from  a  chitinous
thorax. No  matter how you tumbled them, those  spines/antennas would twitch
the bug  around and it would  scuttle on its way, unmindful that it might be
upside down from before. Yes, the OOB's ultradrive spines looked a lot  like
a sowbug's, though not as articulate. And the body itself was fat and sleek,
slightly narrowed in the middle.
     So Pham Nuwen had ended inside of a sowbug. How fitting for a dead man.
     And now he  sat on the bridge.  The woman  brought him here often;  she
seemed to know it should fascinate him. The walls were displays, better than
he had ever seen in merchantman days. When the windows looked out the ship's
exterior cameras, the view was as good as from any crystal-canopy  bridge in
the Qeng Ho fleet.
     It was like  something out of the  crudest  fantasy  -- or  a  graphics
simulation. If he  sat long enough, he could actually see the  stars move in
the sky. The ship was doing about ten hyperjumps per second: jump, recompute
and jump again. In this part of The  Beyond they could  go a thousandth of a
light-year on each  jump --  farther,  but then  the recompute time would be
substantially worse.  At ten per second  that added up to  more  than thirty
light-years per  hour.  The  jumps  themselves were  imperceptible to  human
senses, and between  the  jumps  the were  in  free fall,  carrying the same
intrinsic  velocity they'd had on departing  Relay. So there was none of the
doppler shifting of relativistic flight; the stars were as pure as seen from
some desert sky, or in low-speed transit. Without any fuss, they simply slid
across the sky, the closer ones  the faster. In half an hour he went farther
than he had in half a century with the Qeng Ho.
     Greenstalk drifted onto the bridge one day, began changing the windows.
As usual she spoke to Pham as she did so, chatting almost as if there were a
real person here to listen:
     "See. The center  window  is  an ultrawave map  of the  region directly
behind us." Greenstalk waved a tendril  over  the controls. The multicolored
pictures appeared  on the other walls. "Similarly for  the other five points
of direction."
     The words were noise in Pham's ears, understood but of no interest. The
Rider paused, then continued  with something like the futile persistence  of
the Ravna woman.
     "When ships make  a jump ...  when they reenter,  there's  a kind of an
ultrawave splash. I'm checking if we're being followed."
     Colors on the  windows all around, even in front of  Pham's eyes. There
were smooth gradations, no bright spots, no linear features.
     "I know, I know," she said,  making up both sides  of the conversation.
"The ship's analyzers are  still massaging the data. But if anyone's  pacing
us closer than  one  hundred  light-years, we'll see  them.  And  if they're
farther than that -- well, then they probably can't detect us."

     It doesn't matter. Pham almost shut the question out  of  his mind. But
there were no stars to look at; he stared at the glowing colors and actually
thought  about the problem.  Thought. A joke: no  one Down Here ever  really
thought about anything. Perhaps  ten thousand starships had escaped the Fall
of  Relay. Most  likely, the Enemy had  not cataloged those departures.  The
attack on Relay had  been  a minor adjunct  to the murder of Old  One.  Most
likely, the OOB had escaped unnoticed. Why should the Enemy  care  where the
last of Old One's  memories might be hiding? Why should it  care about where
their little ship might be bound?
     A tremor passed through his body; animal reflex, surely.

     Panic  was  slowly  rising  in  Ravna  Bergsndot, every  day  a  little
stronger.  It was not any particular disaster, just the  slow dying of hope.
She tried to be near Pham Nuwen part of every day,  to  talk to him, to hold
his hand. He never responded, not even -- except perhaps  by accident  -- to
look at her. Greenstalk tried too. Alien though Greenstalk was, the Pham  of
before  had  seemed  truly attracted  to the Riders.  He was off all medical
support now, but he might as well have been a vegetable.
     And all the while their descent was slowing, always a little worse than
what Blueshell had predicted.
     And  when she  turned  to the News  ... in some  ways that was the most
horrifying  of all.  The "death  race" theory was  getting popular. More and
more, there were folk who seemed to think that the human  race was spreading
the Blight:

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Baeloresk->Triskweline, SjK units
     From:   Alliance  for  the  Defense  [Claimed   cooperative   of   five
polyspecific empires  in  the  Beyond  below  Straumli Realm.  No record  of
existence before the Fall of the Realm.]
     Subject: Blighter Video thread
 Threat of the Blight, War Trackers Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group  Date: 17.95 days since Fall of Relay  Text of message:
     So  far we've processed  half a million  messages about this creature's
video,  and  read  a goodly fraction of them. Most of  you  are missing  the
point. The  principle of  the  "Helper's"  operation  is  clear.  This is  a
Transcendent Power using ultralight  communication to operate through a race
in the Beyond. It would be fairly easy to do in the Transcend -- there are a
number of stories about thralls of Powers there. But for  such communication
to be  effective within  the Beyond, truly extensive design changes  must be
made  in the  minds  of the  controlled  race.  It could  not have  happened
naturally, and it can not be quickly done to new races -- no matter what the
Blight says.
     We've  watched  the   Homo  Sapiens  interest  group  since  the  first
appearance of the Blight. Where is this "Earth" the humans claim to be from?
"Half way around  the  galaxy,"  they say,  and deep in the Slow  Zone. Even
their proximate origin, Nyjora, is  conveniently in the  Slowness. We see an
alternative  theory:  Sometime, maybe further back than  the last consistent
archives, there was a battle between Powers. The  blueprint  for this "human
race" was written, complete  with communication  interfaces. Long  after the
original contestants and their stories had  vanished, this race  happened to
get  in  position  where  it  could Transcend.  And  that  Transcending  was
tailor-made, too, re-establishing the  Power that had  set the trap to begin
     We're  not  sure  of  the  details,  but  a  scenario  such as this  is
inevitable. What we must do is also clear. Straumli Realm is at the heart of
the Blight, obviously beyond all attack. But there are other human colonies.
We ask the  Net  to help  in identifying all of them. We ourselves are not a
large  civilization, but  we would be  happy  to  coordinate the information
gathering, and the military action that is required to  prevent the Blight's
spread in the Middle Beyond.
     For  nearly  seventeen weeks, we've  been calling for action.  Had  you
listened in the beginning, a concerted strike  might have been sufficient to
destroy the Straumli Realm.  Isn't the Fall of  Relay enough to wake you up?
Friends, if we act together we still have a chance.

     Death to vermin.

     The bastards  even played  on  humanity's foundling  nature.  Foundling
races were rare, but  scarcely unknown. Now these Death-to-Vermin  creatures
were turning the Miracle of Nyjora into something deadly evil.
     Death to Vermin  were  the only  ones to  call for  pogroms,  but  even
respected  posters  were  saying things  that indirectly might  support such

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Triskweline, SjK units
     From: Sandor  Arbitration Intelligence  at  the  Zoo [A known  military
corporation  of the High Beyond. If this is a masquerade, somebody is living
     Subject: Blighter Video thread, Hanse subthread
     Key phrases: limits on the Blight; the Blight is searching something
 Threat of the Blight, Close-coupled Automation Interest Group, War Trackers Interest Group

     Date: 11.94 days since Fall of Relay
     Text of message:
     The Blight admits that it is a Power that tele-operates sophonts in the
Beyond. But consider how difficult it is to have a close- coupled automation
with time lags of more than a few milliseconds.  The Known Net is  a perfect
illustration of this: Lags  range between five milliseconds for systems that
are a couple  of light-years apart  -- to (at least) several hundred seconds
when messages must pass through intermediate nodes.  This, combined with the
low bandwidth available across interstellar distances, makes the Known Net a
loose forum for the exchange of information and lies. And these restrictions
are inherent in the nature of the Beyond, part of the same restrictions that
make it impossible for the Powers to exist down here.
     We conclude  that  even the Blight can't  attain  close-coupled control
except  in the  High Beyond. At  the Top,  the  Blight's  sophont agents are
literally its limbs. In the Middle Beyond, we believe mental "possession" is
possible but that considerable preprocessing must be done in the  controlled
mind.   Furthermore,  considerable  external   equipment  (the  bulky  items
characteristic  of  those  depths) is needed  to support  the communication.
Direct, millisecond-by-millisecond, control  is normally impractical in  the
Middle Beyond.  Combat  at  this level  would  involve hierarchical control.
Long-term operations would also use intimidation, fraud, and traitors.
     These are  the threats  that you of the  Middle and  Low  Beyond should
     These are the Blight's tools in the Middle and Low Beyond, and what you
should  guard  against  for  the immediate  future.  We don't  see  imperial
takeovers; there's  no profit  [sustenance]  in it. Even  the destruction of
Relay  was  probably just  a  byplay  to  the  murder it was  simultaneously
committing  in the Transcend. The  greatest tragedies will continue to be at
the Top and in  the Low Transcend. But we know that the Blight is  searching
for something; it has attacked at great distances  where major archives were
the target. Beware of traitors and spies.

     Even some of humanity's supporters sent a chill through Ravna:

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Triskweline, SjK units
     From: Hanse
     Subject: Blighter Video thread, Alliance for the Defense subthread
     Key phrases: Death Race Theory
 Threat of the Blight, War Trackers Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group

     Date: 18.29 days since Fall of Relay
     Text of message:
     I have obtained specimens from the human worlds in our volume. Detailed
analysis  is  available in the  Homo  sapiens  interest  group  archive.  My
conclusions:  previous (but less  intensive) analysis of human phys/psych is
correct. The  race  has no  built-in structures to  support remote  control.
Experiments  with  living  subjects showed  no  special  inclination  toward
submission. I found little or no evidence of artificial optimization. (There
was  evidence  of  DNA surgery to improve  disease resistance: drift  timing
dated  the  hackwork  at  two thousand years  Before Present.  The blood  of
Straumli  Realm  subjects  carried  an optigens, Thirault  [a cheap  medical
recipe that can be tailored across a wide mammalian range].) This race -- as
represented by our specimens -- looks  like something that arrived  from the
Slow Zone quite recently, probably from a single origin world.
     Has anyone done such retesting on more distant human worlds?

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Baeloresk->Triskweline, SjK units
     From:  Alliance  for   the   Defense  [Claimed   cooperative  of   five
polyspecific  empires  in  the Beyond below  Straumli  Realm.  No  record of
existence before the Fall of the Realm.]
     Subject: Blighter Video thread, Hanse 1
 Threat of the Blight, War Trackers Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group

     Date: 19.43 days since Fall of Relay
     Text of message:
     Who is  this "Hanse?" It  makes  objective, tough-sounding noises about
testing human specimens, but it keeps its own nature secret. Don't be fooled
by humans telling  you about themselves! In fact, we have no way of  testing
the creatures  that  dwell in  Straumli Realm; their protector will  see  to
     Death to vermin.

     And there was  a little  boy  trapped  at the bottom of the well.  Some
days, no communication was possible. Other days,  when the OOB antenna swarm
was tuned in exactly the right direction and when  the vagaries of the  zone
favored it -- then  Ravna  could  hear his ship. Even then the signal was so
faint, so  distorted,  that the effective transmission rate was just  a  few
bits per second.
     Jefri and his problems might be only the smallest footnote to the story
of the Blight  (less  than that,  since  no one knew  of him), but  to Ravna
Bergsndot these  conversations  were the only bright thing in her  life just
     The  kid  was  very lonely, but less so now,  she thought.  She learned
about his friend Amdi, about the stern Tyrathect  and  the heroic Mr.  Steel
and the proud  Tines. Ravna smiled to  herself, at herself. The walls of her
cabin displayed a flat  mural of jungle. Deep in the drippy murk lay regular
shadows -- a castle  built in the roots of a giant mangrove tree.  The mural
was a famous one; the original had been  an  analog work from three thousand
years ago. It showed life at an even further remove, during the Dark Ages on
Nyjora. She and Lynne had spent much  of their childhood imagining that they
were transported to such a time. Little Jefri was trapped in the real thing.
Woodcarver's  butchers were no  interstellar threat, but they were a  deadly
horror to those around them. Thank goodness Jefri had not seen the killing.
     This was a real medieval world. A  tough and unforgiving place, even if
Jefri had fallen in with fair-minded people. And the Nyjoran comparison  was
only  vaguely  appropriate.  These Tines were  pack  minds; even old  Grondr
'Kalir had been surprised at that.
     All  through Jefri's mail,  Ravna  could  see  the  panic among Steel's

     Mister Steel asked me again if theres  any way we can  make our ship to
fly even a little.  I dont know. We almost crashed, I think.  We  need guns.
That  would save us, at least till you get  here. They have bows and  arrows
just like in Nyjoran days, but no  guns. Hes asking me, can  you teach us to
make guns?
     Woodcarver's  raiders would return, and  this time  in enough force  to
overrun Steel's little kingdom. Back when they thought OOB's flight would be
only  thirty or forty days, that had not seemed great  a risk,  but now ....
Ravna might arrive to find Woodcarver's murdering complete.

     Oh Pham, dear Pham. If you ever really were, please come back now. Pham
Nuwen  of medieval Canberra.  Pham Nuwen, trader  from the Slowness.... What
would someone such as you make of this? Hmm.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     Ravna knew that -- under his bluster -- Blueshell was at  least as much
a worrier as she. Worse, he  was a nitpicker. The next time Ravna  asked him
about their progress, he retreated into technicalities.
     Finally  Ravna broke in,  "Look. The kid  is sitting on  something that
just might blow the Blight sky high, and all he has are bows and arrows. How
the long will it be till we get down there, Blueshell?"
     Blueshell  rolled  nervously  back  and forth across  the  ceiling. The
Skroderiders  had  reaction  jets;  they could maneuver in  free  fall  more
adroitly  than  most humans.  Instead they  used  stick-patches, and  rolled
around  on  the walls.  In a way,  it was kind of cute.  Just  now,  it  was
     At  least they could talk;  she glanced across the bridge to where Pham
Nuwen sat facing the bridge's main display. As usual, all  his attention was
fixed on the slowly moving  stars. He was unshaven, his reddish beard bright
on his skin; his long hair floated snarled  and  uncombed. Physically he was
cured of his injuries. Ship's surgeon had even replaced the muscle mass that
Old One's communication  equipment had usurped. Pham  could  dress and  feed
himself now, but he still lived in a private dreamworld.
     The  two riders twittered at  each other. It was Greenstalk who finally
answered her question:  "Truly, we're  not sure how long. The quality of the
Beyond changes as we descend. Each jump  is taking us a fraction longer than
the one before."
     "I know that.  We're moving  toward the  Slow Zone.  But  the  ship  is
designed for that; it should be an easy matter to extrapolate the slowing."
     Blueshell extended a tendril from ceiling to floor. He diddled with the
matte  corrugations  for a  second and then his  voder made a sound of human
embarrassment. "Ordinarily you would be correct,  my lady Ravna. But this is
a special case....  For one thing, it  appears that the zones themselves are
in flux."
     "It's not  that  unheard  of. Small  shifts are going  on all the time.
That's a  major purpose for bottom-lugger ships: to track the changes. We're
having the bad luck to run through the middle of the uncertainty."
     Actually,  Ravna had  known that interface turbulence was high  at  the
Bottom below here. She just didn't think of it in grandiose terms like "zone
shifting"; she also  hadn't realized it was  serious enough  to affect  them
     "Okay. How bad can it get then? How much can it slow us?"
     "Oh my." Blueshell rolled to the  far wall;  he was standing on  starry
sky now. "It would be nice to be a Low Skroderider. So many problems my high
calling  brings me.  I wish I  could be  deep in surf right now, thinking on
olden memories." Of other days in the surf.
     Greenstalk carried on for him:  "It's not 'the  tide,  how  high can it
rise?'  It's 'this storm,  how bad can it get?' Right  now it  is worse than
anything in  this  region during  the last  thousand years. However, we have
been following the local news; most agree  that the storm has peaked. If our
other  problem gets  no worse, we  should  arrive in about one  hundred  and
twenty days."

     Our other problem.  Ravna  drifted to  the center  of  the  bridge  and
strapped onto a saddle. "You're talking about the damage we took getting out
of Relay. The ultradrive spines, right? How are they holding up?"
     "Quite  well, apparently. We've not  tried to jump faster  than  eighty
percent of design max. On the  other hand,  we  lack good  diagnostics. It's
conceivable that serious degradation might happen rather suddenly."
     "Conceivable, but unlikely," put in Greenstalk.
     Ravna  nodded. Considering all their other problems, there was no point
in contemplating possibilities beyond their control. Back on Relay, this had
looked like a thirty or forty day  trip. Now ... the  boy in the well  might
have  to  be  brave for  a  long  time  yet,  no matter  how much she wished
otherwise. Hmm. Time for Plan B then. Time  for what someone like Pham Nuwen
might suggest. She pushed off the floor and settled by Greenstalk. "Okay, so
the  best we can plan  on is one hundred and twenty days. If  the Zone surge
gets worse or if we have to get repairs..." Get repairs where? That might be
only a delay, not an impossibility.  The rebuilt OOB was  supposed to  be to
repairable  even in  the Low  Beyond.  "Maybe even two  hundred  days."  She
glanced at Blueshell, but  he didn't interrupt with his usual amendments and
qualifications. "You've both read the messages we're getting  from  the boy.
He  says  the locals are  going to be  overrun,  probably  in  less than one
hundred  days.  Somehow, we have to help him  ... before we actually  arrive
     Greenstalk rattled her fronds in a way Ravna took for puzzlement.
     She looked across the deck at Pham, and raised her voice a trifle.  Hey
you, you should  be  an expert on this! "You  Skroderiders may not recognize
it, but this is a problem that's been seen a million times in the Slow Zone:
civilizations  are separated  by years --  centuries -- of travel time. They
fall  into  dark ages. They become  just as primitive as the pack creatures,
these 'Tines'.  Then they get  visited  from  outside. In a short time, they
have technology  back again."  Pham's head did not turn; he just looked  out
across the starscape.
     The Skroderiders rattled at each other, then:
     "But  how can  that  help  us? Doesn't  rebuilding a  civilization take
dozens of years?"
     "And besides, there's nothing to rebuild on the Tines' world. According
to  the child, this is a race without antecedents. How  long does it take to
found a civilization?"
     Ravna waved  a  hand  at  the objections. Don't stop me, I'm on a roll.
"That's  not the point. We are in  communication with  them. We have  a good
general library on board. Original inventors don't know where they're going;
they're groping in the dark.  Even the archaeologist/engineers of Nyjora had
to reinvent much. But we know everything about making airplanes and such; we
know hundreds of  ways of going at it." Now faced with necessity, Ravna  was
suddenly sure they  could  do it.  "We can study all  the development paths,
eliminate the dead ends. Even more, we can find the  quickest way to go from
medieval to specific inventions, things  that  can  beat whatever barbarians
are attacking Jefri's friends."
     Ravna's  speech  tumbled  to  a stop. She  stared, grinning,  first  at
Greenstalk and then  at Blueshell.  But a silent Skroderider  is one  of the
universe's  more impassive audiences. It was hard even  to tell if they were
looking at her. After a moment Greenstalk said, "Yes, I see. And rediscovery
being so common in the Slow  Zone, most of this may already be worked out in
the ship's library."
     That's when it  happened: Pham turned from the window. He looked across
the deck at Ravna and the Riders. For the first time since  Relay, he spoke.
Even  more,  the  words  weren't nonsense, though it  took her  a  moment to
understand. "Guns and radios," he said.
     "Ah ...  yes."  She looked back at him. Think of something  to make him
say more. "Why those in particular?"
     Pham Nuwen shrugged. "It worked on Canberra."
     Then  damn Blueshell started talking, something about  doing a  library
search. Pham stared  at them for  moment, his face expressionless. He turned
back to watch the stars, and the moment was lost.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     "Pham?" He  heard Ravna's voice just behind him. She had  stayed on the
bridge after the Riders left, departing on whatever meaningless preparations
their meeting had ordained.  He didn't reply, and after a moment she drifted
around and  blocked his  view of the  stars. Almost  automatically, he found
himself focussing on her face.
     "Thank you for talking to us.... We need you more than ever."
     He could still see  lots of  stars. They were  all around  her,  slowly
moving. Ravna  cocked her head, the way  she  did  when  she  meant friendly
puzzlement. "We can help...."
     He didn't answer.  What had make him speak  just now? Then: "You  can't
help the  dead,"  he said, vaguely surprised at  his own  speaking. Like eye
focussing, the speech must be a reflex.
     "You're not dead. You're as alive as I am."
     Then words tumbled  from  him;  more than in all the days since  Relay.
"True. The illusion of self-awareness.  Happy automatons, running on trivial
programs. I'll bet  you never guess.  From the inside, how can you? From the
outside,  from  Old One's  view -- " He looked away  from her,  dizzy with a
doubled vision.
     Ravna drifted closer  till  her face was just centimeters from his. She
floated free, except for one foot tucked into the floor. "Dear Pham, you are
wrong. You've been at the Bottom, and at  the Top, but never in between. ...
'The illusion  of self-awareness'?  That's  a commonplace of  any  practical
philosophy in the Beyond. It has some beautiful consequences, and some scary
ones. All you  know are the scary ones. Think: the illusion must  apply just
as surely to the Powers."
     "No. He could make devices like you and I."
     "Being  dead is  a choice, Pham." She reached out to pass her hand down
his shoulder and arm. He had a  typical 0-gee change  of perspective; "down"
seemed to  rotate sideways,  and  he was looking up at  her. Suddenly he was
aware of his  splotchy beard, his tangled hair floating all about. He looked
up at Ravna, remembering everything he'd thought  about her. Back  on  Relay
she'd  seemed bright;  maybe  not  smarter  than he,  but  as smart  as most
competitors of the  Qeng Ho. But there were other memories, how  Old One had
seen her. As  usual, His memories were overwhelming; about  this one  woman,
there was  more  insight than from all Pham's life experience. As usual,  it
was mostly unintelligible. Even His emotions were hard to interpret. But ...
He had thought of Ravna a little  like  ... a favored dog. Old One could see
right through her. Ravna  Bergsndot  was a little manipulative; He had  been
pleased/amused(?) by  that fact. But behind her talk and argument, He'd seen
a great deal of  ... "goodness" might be the  human word. Old One had wished
her well. In  the end, He had even tried to help. Insight  flitted past him,
too fast to catch. Ravna was talking again:
     "What happened  to you  is terrible enough, Pham, but it's  happened to
others. I've read of cases. Even the Powers are not immortal. Sometimes they
fight  among  themselves,  and  someone  gets killed. Sometimes, one commits
suicide. There's a  star  system,  Gods'  Doom it's  called in  the story: A
million years ago, it was in the Transcend. It was visited by a party of the
Powers. There was a Zone surge. Suddenly  the  system was twenty light-years
deep in the Beyond. That's about the biggest  surge there is firm record of.
The Powers at Gods' Doom  didn't have a chance. They all  died, some  to rot
and rusted ruin ... others to the level of mere human minds."
     "W-what became of those?"
     She hesitated, took one of his hands between hers. "You can look it up.
The point is, it happens.  To  the  victims, it's the end of  the world. But
from our  side,  the  human side.... Well,  the human Pham Nuwen was  lucky;
Greenstalk says the failure of Old One's connections didn't do gross organic
damage.  Maybe  there's  subtle damage; sometimes the remnants just  destroy
themselves, whatever is left."
     Pham felt  tears  leaking  from his  eyes. And  knew that  part  of the
deadness inside  had been grief for His own death. "Subtle damage!" He shook
his head and the tears drifted  into the air. "My  head is stuffed with Him,
with His memories." Memories?  They  towered  over  everything else.  Yet he
could not understand them. He could not understand the details. He could not
even  understand  the  emotions,  except  as  inane simplifications --  joy,
laughter, wonder, fear and  icy-steel determination.  Now,  he was  lost  in
those memories, wandering  like an idiot in a  cathedral. Not understanding,
cowering before icons.
     She pivoted around their clasped hands. After a moment, her knee bumped
gently  against his. "You're still human, you still have your own  -- ", her
own voice broke as she saw the look in his eyes.
     "My own memories?" Scattered amid  the unintelligible he  would stumble
on  them: himself  at five years, sitting on  the  straw in the  great hall,
alert for the appearance  of any  adult; royals were not supposed to play in
the filth. Ten years later, making love to  Cindi for the first time. A year
after that, seeing his first  flying machine, the orbital ferry  that landed
on his father's parade field. The decades aspace. "Yes,  the Qeng  Ho.  Pham
Nuwen, the  great Trader of the Slowness. All  the memories are still there.
And for all I know, it's all the Old One's lie, an afternoon's fraud to fool
the Relayers."
     Ravna bit her lip,  but didn't say anything. She was too honest to lie,
even now.
     He reached with his free hand to brush her hair away from her face.  "I
know  you said that too, Rav. Don't feel bad: I would have  caught on by now
     "Yeah," she said softly. Then she was looking him straight in  the eye.
"But know this. One human to another:  You are a human now. And there  could
have been a Qeng Ho,  and you could have been exactly what you remember. And
whatever the past, you could be great in the future."
     Ghostly echoes, more than memory and less than  reason:  For an instant
he  saw her with  wiser eyes. She loves you,  foolish one.  Almost laughter,
kindly laughter.
     He slid his arms around her, drawing  her tight against him. She was so
real.  He  felt her slip her leg  between his. To laugh. Like heart massage,
unthinking reflex bringing a mind back to life. So foolish, so trivial, but,
"I -- I want  to  come back." The words came out strangled in sobs. "There's
so much inside me now, so much I  can't understand.  I'm  lost inside my own
     She  didn't say anything, probably couldn't even understand his speech.
For a moment, all he knew was  the feel of her in his arms, hugging back. Oh
please, I do want to come back.

     Making it on the  bridge of  a starship  was  something Ravna had never
done before. But then she'd never had her own starship  before, either. They
don't call this  a bottom lugger for nothing.  In the excitement, Pham  lost
his  tiedown.  They  floated  free,  occasionally  bumping  into  walls  and
discarded  clothing, or  drifting  through  tears. After  many minutes, they
ended up with their heads just a few  centimeters off the floor, the rest of
them  angled  off toward the ceiling. She was  vaguely aware that  her pants
were flying like a  banner  from  where  they had caught  on  her ankle. The
affair wasn't  quite the stuff of romance  fiction. For one  thing, floating
free you just couldn't  get any leverage. For another....  Pham leaned  back
from her, relaxing his grip on her back. She  brushed aside his red hair and
looked into bloodshot eyes.  "You know," he said shakily, "I never guessed I
could cry so hard my face hurt."
     She smiled back. "You've  led a charmed life then." She arched her back
against  his hands, then  drew him gently close. They floated in silence for
several  minutes,  their bodies relaxing into  each  other's curves, sensing
nothing but each other.
     Then: "Thank you, Ravna."
     "...  my pleasure."  Her voice came dreamy serious, and she  hugged him
tighter. Strange, all the things he had been to  her, some frightening, some
endearing,  some enraging. And  some she couldn't have  admitted -- even  to
herself --  till now. For  the first time since the fall of Relay, she  felt
real  hope. A silly physical  reaction maybe  ... but maybe not. Here in her
arms was  a guy who might  be  the equal of any story  book  adventurer, and
more: someone who had been part of a Power.
     "Pham ... what do you think really happened back on Relay? Why was  Old
One murdered?"
     Pham's  chuckle seemed  unforced, but his arms  stiffened  around  her.
"You're asking me? I was  dying at the time,  remember.... No, that's wrong.
Old One, He was  dying at the time." He was silent  for a minute. The bridge
turned slowly around them, silent views on the stars beyond. "My godself was
in pain, I  know that. He was desperate, panicked.... But He was also trying
to do something to me before He died." His voice went soft, wondering. "Yes.
It was like  I was some cheap piece of  luggage, and He was stuffing me with
every piece of crap that he could move. You  know, ten  kilos in a nine kilo
sack.  He knew it was hurting me -- I was part of Him, after all -- but that
didn't  matter." He twisted  back from  her, his face getting a  little wild
again. "I'm not a sadist; I don't believe He was either. I -- "
     Ravna shook her head. "I ... I think he was downloading."
     Pham was silent an instant, trying to  fit the idea into his situation.
"That doesn't  makes  sense. There's not room in me to be superhuman."  Fear
chased hope in tight circles.
     "No,  no,  wait.  You're  right.   Even  if  the  dying  Power  figures
reincarnation is  possible, there's not  enough space in a  normal  brain to
store  much.  But Old One was  trying for something  else.... Remember how I
begged Him to help with our trip to the Bottom?"
     "Yes.  I -- He --  was sympathetic,  the way you might be with  animals
that  are  confronting  some  new predator.  He  never  considered  that the
Perversion might be a threat to him, not until -- "
     "Right. Not until he was under  attack. That was a complete surprise to
the  Powers; suddenly the Perversion was  more than  a  curious  problem for
underminds.  Then Old  One  really  did  try  to help.  He  jammed plans and
automation  down into you. He jammed  so much, you nearly  died, so much you
can't make sense of it. I've read about things like that in Applied Theology
-- " as much legend as fact. "Godshatter, it's called."
     "Godshatter?"  He seemed  to play  with  the  word, wondering. "What  a
strange name. I remember  His panic. But if He  was doing  what you say, why
didn't  He just  tell me? And if I'm filled with good advice, how come all I
see  inside is ..." his gaze  became  a little like days past, "darkness ...
dark statues with sharp edges, crowding."
     Again a long  silence. But now she could almost feel Pham thinking. His
arms twitched tight and  an occasional shudder swept his body. "Yes ... yes.
Lots of things fit. Most of it I still don't understand, never will. Old One
discovered something  right there at the end." His arms tightened again, and
he buried his face against her neck. "It was a very ... personal ... sort of
murder the  Perversion committed on Him. Even dying, Old One learned."  More
silence.  "The Perversion is something very old, Ravna. Probably billions of
years. A threat Old One  could only  theorize before it actually killed Him.
But ..."
     One minute. Two. Yet Pham did not continue. "Don't worry, Pham. Give it
     "Yeah." He backed off far enough to look her square in the face. "But I
know this much now:  Old One did this for  a reason.  We aren't on  a fool's
chase. There's something on the Bottom, in that Straumer ship, that  Old One
thought could make a difference."
     He  ran his hand lightly across her face, and his  smile was sad  where
there should have  been  joy. "But don't you see,  Ravna? If  you're  right,
today  may be  the most human I'll ever  be. I'm full of Old One's download,
this godshatter. Most of it I'll never consciously understand, but if things
work properly, it will eventually come exploding out. His remote device; His
robot at the Bottom of the Beyond."

     No! But  she made herself  shrug. "Maybe.  But you're human,  and we're
working for the same things.... and I'm not letting you go."

     Ravna had  known that "jumpstarting" technology must  be a topic in the
ship's  library. It turned out the subject  was a  major academic specialty.
Besides  ten thousand case studies, there were customizing programs and lots
of very dull-looking theory. Though the "rediscovery problem" was trivial in
the Beyond, down in  the  Slow Zone almost  every conceivable combination of
events had happened. Civilizations in the Slowness  could not last more than
a  few thousand years. Their  collapse was  sometimes a short eclipse, a few
decades  spent recovering  from  war  or  atmosphere-bashing.  Others  drove
themselves  back to  medievalism.  And  of  course,  most  races  eventually
exterminated  themselves, at least  within their single solar system.  Those
that  didn't  exterminate  themselves  (and  even a few of  those  that did)
eventually struggled back to their original heights.
     The  study of  these  variations was  called  the  Applied  History  of
Technology. Unfortunately for both academicians and the civilizations in the
Slow Zone, true applications were a bit rare: The events of the case studies
were  centuries  old  before  news  of  them  reached  the Beyond,  and  few
researchers were willing to  do field work in the Slow Zone,  where  finding
and conducting a single experiment could  cost them  much of their lives. In
any case, it was a nice hobby for millions of university departments. One of
the  favorite  games was  to  devise  minimal paths from a  given  level  of
technology  back  to  the highest  level  that  could  be  supported  in the
Slowness. The  details  depended on many things, including the initial level
of   primitiveness,  the   amount  of  residual   scientific  awareness  (or
tolerance), and the  physical nature of the race.  The  historians' theories
were captured in programs whose inputs were facts  about  the civilization's
plight and the  desired results, and whose outputs were the steps that would
most quickly produce those results.
     Two days later, the four of  them were  back on the  OOB's bridge.  And
this time we're all talking. "So we  must decide  what  inventions  to shoot
for, something that will defend the Hidden Island Kingdom -- "
     "--  and something 'Mister Steel'  can make  in  less than one  hundred
days," said Blueshell. He had spent most of the last  two days fiddling with
the development programs in OOB's library.
     "I still say guns and radios," said Pham.

     Firepower  and  communications.  Ravna grinned  at  him.  Pham's  human
memories alone  would be enough to  save the kids  on Tines World. He hadn't
talked  any  more of Old  One's plans.  Old One's plans ... in Ravna's  mind
those were  something like fate, perhaps good, perhaps terrible, but unknown
for now. And even fate can be weaseled. "How about it, Blueshell?" she said.
"Is radio  something they can produce quickly,  from  a standing  start?" On
Nyjora, radio had come almost contemporary  with  orbital  flight --  a good
century into the renaissance.
     "Indeed, My Lady Ravna. There are  simple tricks that are almost  never
noticed  till a very  high technology  is  attained. For  instance,  quantum
torsion antennas can be built  from silver and  cobalt steel arrays,  if the
geometry is  correct. Unfortunately,  finding the proper  geometry  involves
lots  of theory  and  the ability to  solve  some large partial differential
equations. There are many Slow Zoners who never discover the principle."
     "Okay," said Pham. "But there's still a translation  problem. Jefri has
probably heard  the word 'cobalt' before,  but how  can  he describe  it  to
people who don't  have the  referent? Without knowing a lot more about their
world, we couldn't even describe how to find cobalt- bearing ore."
     "That will  slow things down,"  Blueshell admitted.  "But  the  program
accounts   for  it.   Mr.  Steel   seems  to  understand   the  concept   of
experimentation. For cobalt, we can provide him with  a tree of  experiments
based on descriptions of likely ores and appropriate chemical tests."
     "It's  not quite that simple," said Greenstalk. "Some  of  the chemical
tests themselves involve search/test trees. And there  are other experiments
needed to check toxicity. We know far less about the pack creatures  than is
usual with this program."
     Pham smiled.  "I  hope these  creatures are  properly grateful; I never
heard of  'quantum torsional  antennas'.  The Tines are ending up  with comm
gear that Qeng Ho never had."
     But the gift could be  made. The question was, could it be done in time
to save Jefri and his  ship  from  the Woodcarvers? The four of them ran the
program  again  and  again. They  knew  so little  about  the pack creatures
themselves. The Hidden Island Kingdom appeared fairly flexible. If they were
willing to go all out to follow the directions, and if they had good luck in
finding nearby sources  for  critical materials, then it  looked  like  they
might  have limited  supplies of firearms and  radios inside  of one hundred
days. On the other hand, if the packs of Hidden Island ended up chasing down
some worst-case branches  of the search trees, things might stretch out to a
few years.
     Ravna found it hard to accept that no matter what the four of them did,
saving Jefri from the Woodcarvers would be partly a matter of luck. Sigh. In
the end, she took  the best scheme the  Riders could  produce, translated it
into simple Samnorsk, and sent it down.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     Steel had always admired military architecture. Now he was adding a new
chapter to the  book, building  a castle that protected  against the sky  as
well as the land around. By now the  boxy "ship"  on stilts was known across
the continent.  Before another summer  passed, there  would be enemy  armies
here, trying to take --  or  at least destroy -- the prize that  had come to
him. Far more deadly: the star people would be here. He must be ready.
     Steel inspected  the work almost every day  now. The  stone replacement
for the  palisade  was  in place  all  across the south  perimeter.  On  the
cliffside, overlooking Hidden Island, his  new  den  was almost complete ...
had been complete for some time, a part of him  grumbled. He  really  should
move  over  here; the safety  of Hidden  Island was  fast becoming illusion.
Starship Hill was already the center of the Movement -- and that wasn't just
propaganda. What the Flenser embassies abroad called "the oracle on Starship
Hill"  was  more than a  glib liar could  dream. Whoever stood nearest  that
oracle would ultimately rule, no matter how clever Steel might be otherwise.
He had already transferred or  executed several attendants, packs who seemed
just a little too friendly with Amdijefri.
     Starship Hill:  When the aliens landed, it  had been  heather and rock.
Through the winter, there'd been a  palisade and a wooden  shelter. But  now
construction had resumed  on  the  castle,  the  crown  whose jewel was  the
starship.  Soon  this hill  would be  the capital of  the continent  and the
world. And after that.... Steel  looked into the blue depths of the sky. How
much further his rule  extended would depend on saying just the right thing,
on  building this castle in a very special way.  Enough dreaming. Lord Steel
pulled  himself  together and descended  from  the new  wall along fresh-cut
stone  stairs. The yard within  was twelve acres, mostly mud. The  muck  was
cold on his  paws, but  the snow and slush were confined to dwindling  piles
away from the work routes. Spring was well-advanced, and the sun was warm in
the chill air. He could see for miles, out over Hidden Island all the way to
the Ocean, and down the coast along the fjord country. Steel walked the last
hundred yards up  the hill to the starship. His guards  paced him on  either
side,  with  Shreck  bringing  up  the rear. There was enough  room that the
workers didn't have to back away -- and he had given orders  that no one was
to stop because of his presence. That  was partly to maintain the fraud with
Amdijefri, and partly because the  Movement needed  this fortress soon. Just
how soon was a question that gnawed.
     Steel was still looking in  all directions, but his attention was where
it should be now,  on  the construction  work. The  yard was  piled with cut
stone  and  construction  timbers.  Now  that the  ground  was  thawing, the
foundations  for the  inner wall  were being  dug.  Where it was still hard,
Steel's engineers were injecting boiling water. Steam rose from  the  holes,
obscuring the windlasses and the diggers below. The place was louder  than a
battle  field: windlasses creaking, blades hacking at dirt, leaders shouting
to work teams. It was also  as crowded as close combat, though not nearly so
     Steel watched a digger pack at the bottom of one of the trenches. There
were  thirty members, so close  to each other that their shoulders sometimes
touched. It was an enormous mob, but there was nothing of an orgy  about the
association. Even  before Woodcarver, construction and  factory  guilds  had
been doing this sort of thing: The thirty-member pack below was probably not
as bright as a threesome. The front rank of  ten  swung mattocks in  unison,
carving steadily  into the  wall of dirt. When their heads and mattocks were
extended high, the ten members behind them darted  forward to scoop back the
dirt and  rocks that had  just  been  freed. Behind  them,  a third tier  of
members hauled  the dirt from the pit.  Making it work was a complicated bit
of  timing -- the earth was not  homogeneous -- but it  was  well within the
mental  ability of the pack. They could go on like this  for hours, shifting
first  and  second  ranks  every  few minutes.  In  years past,  the  guilds
jealously  guarded  the secret  of each special melding.  After a hard day's
work, such a team would split into  normally intelligent packs -- each going
home very well paid. Steel smiled to himself. Woodcarver had improved on the
old  guild  tricks --  but  Flenser had  provided  an  essential  refinement
(actually a borrowing from the Tropics). Why let  the  team  break up at the
end of a work shift? Flenser work teams stayed together indefinitely, housed
in  barracks so small they could never recover their separate pack minds. It
worked well. After a year or  two, and  with proper  culling,  the  original
packs in such teams were dull things that scarcely wanted to break away.
     For a  moment Steel watched the cut stone being  lowered  into the  new
hole and mortared into place. Then  he nodded at the whitejackets in charge,
and walked on. The foundation holes  continued right up  to the walls of the
starship compound. This was the trickiest construction of all, the part that
would turn the castle into a beautiful snare. A little more information  via
Amdijefri and he would know just what to build.
     The door to the starship compound was open just now, and a whitejackets
was sitting  back  to back in  the opening.  That guard heard  the  noise an
instant before Steel: two of its members broke ranks to look around the side
of  the compound. Almost  inaudibly,  there came  high screams, then honking
attack calls.  The whitejackets leaped from  the stairs and raced around the
building. Steel and his guards weren't far behind.
     He skidded to a stop at  the foundation  trench on  the far side of the
ship.  The  immediate  source  of the  racket  was obvious. Three  packs  of
whitejackets  were  putting  a  team's  talker  to  the  question.  They had
separated out the verbal  member and  were beating  it with truncheon whips.
This close, the mental screams were almost as loud as the shouting. The rest
of  the  digger team was coming out of  the trench, breaking into functional
packs and attacking the whitejackets with  their mattocks.  How could things
get so bloody screwed up? He  could guess. These  inner foundations  were to
contain the most secret  tunnels  of  the  entire castle, and the  even more
secret devices he planned to use against the Two-Legs. Of course, all of the
workers on such sensitive areas would be disposed of after the job was done.
Stupid though they were, maybe they had guessed their fate.
     Under other circumstances,  Steel  might  have  backed off  and  simply
watched. Failures like this could be enlightening; they let him identify the
weaknesses in his subordinates, who  was too bad (and too good)  to continue
in their jobs. This time was different. Amdijefri  were aboard the starship.
There  was no view through the wooden walls,  and  surely there  was another
whitejackets on guard within, but-- Even  as he  lunged forward, shouting to
his  servants, Steel's  back-looking member caught sight of Jefri coming out
of  the compound. Two of the pups were  on  his shoulders, the rest of  Amdi
spilling out around him.
     "Stay  back!" he yelled  at them, and  in his sparse Samnorsk, "Danger!
Stay  back!" Amdi paused,  but the Two-Legs kept  coming.  Two soldier packs
scattered out of his way.  They had standing orders: never touch the  alien.
Another second and  the careful work of  a year would  be destroyed. Another
second and Steel might lose the world -- all on account of stupidity and bad
     But even as his back members were shouting at the Two Legs, his forward
ones leaped atop a pile of stone.  He pointed at the teams coming out of the
trench. "Kill the invaders!"
     His  personal guards  moved  close  around him  as  Shreck  and several
troopers streamed by. Steel's consciousness sagged in the bloody noise. This
was not the controlled mayhem of experiments beneath Hidden Island. This was
random death flying in all directions: arrows, spears,  mattocks. Members of
the digger team ran about, flailing and crying. They never had a chance, but
they killed a number of others in their dying.
     Steel backed away from the melee, toward Jefri. The Two-Legs was  still
running  toward him. Amdi followed, shouting in Samnorsk. A  single mindless
team member,  a single  misaimed arrow, and the Two-Legs would die  and  all
would be lost. Never in his life had Steel felt such panic for the safety of
another. He raced to the  human,  surrounding him. The Two-Legs  fell to his
knees and grabbed Steel by a neck. Only a lifetime of discipline kept  Steel
from slashing back: the alien wasn't attacking, he was hugging.
     The  digger team was almost all  dead now,  and Shreck had  pushed  the
surviving members too far away to be a threat. Steel's guards were  securely
around him  only five  or ten yards  away.  Amdi was  all  clumped together,
cowering in the  mind noise, but  still  shouting  to  Jefri. Steel tried to
untangle himself  from  the  human, but Jefri  just grabbed  one neck  after
another, sometimes two at a time. He was making burbling noises  that didn't
sound like  Samnorsk.  Steel trembled  under  the  assault. Don't  show  the
revulsion. The human would not recognize  it, but Amdi might. Jefri had done
this before, and Steel  had  taken advantage  even though  it cost  him. The
mantis child needed physical contact; it was the basis for  the relationship
between  Amdi and Jefri.  Similar  trust  must come  from letting this thing
touch him. Steel slid a head and neck across the creature's back  the way he
had seen parents do with pups down in the dungeon laboratories. Jefri hugged
him  harder, and  swept  his  long  articulate  paws  across  Steel's  pelt.
Revulsion  aside,  it was  a very strange experience.  Ordinarily such close
contact with another intelligent being could  only  come in battle or in sex
-- and in either case, there wasn't much room for rational thought. But with
this human -- well, the creature responded  with obvious intelligence -- but
there  wasn't a trace of  mind noise.  You could think and feel  both at the
same time. Steel bit down on  a lip, trying to stifle his  shivering. It was
... it was like having sex with a corpse.
     Finally Jefri stepped back, holding his hand up. He said something very
fast, and Amdi said, "Oh Lord Steel, you're hurt. See  the blood." There was
red  on the human's paw; Steel looked at himself. Sure enough,  one rump had
taken a nick.  He hadn't even felt it  till  now. Steel backed away from the
mantis and said to Amdi, "It's nothing. Are you and Jefri unhurt?"
     There  was  a  rattling  exchange  between  the  two  children,  almost
unintelligible to Steel. "We're fine. Thank you for protecting us."
     Fast thinking was something that Flenser  had  carved  into  Steel with
knives: "Yes. But  it never should have happened. The Woodcarvers  disguised
themselves as workers.  I think they've been at  this for days waiting for a
chance  at you.  When we guessed the fraud,  it was  almost too late.... You
should really have stayed inside when you heard the fighting."
     Amdi hung  his heads  ashamedly, and translated to Jefri. "We're sorry.
We got excited, and t-then we thought you might get hurt."
     Steel  made comforting  noises.  At  the same time,  two of him  looked
around at the carnage. Where  was  the  whitejackets  that  had deserted the
stairs right at  the  beginning?  That pack would pay -- His line of thought
crashed  to a  halt  as  he  noticed:  Tyrathect. The  Flenser  Fragment was
watching from the meeting  hall.  Now that he  thought  about it,  he'd been
watching since right after the  battle  began.  To others  his posture might
seem  impassive, but Steel  could see the grim  amusement  in the Fragment's
expression. He nodded briefly at the other, but inside Steel cringed; he had
been so close to losing everything ... and the Flenser had noticed.
     "Well let's get  you  two  back to Hidden Island." He  signaled  to the
keepers that had come up behind the starship.
     "Not yet, Lord Steel!" said Amdi, "We just got here. A reply from Ravna
should arrive very soon."
     Teeth  grated, but out  of sight of the children. "Yes, please do stay.
But we'll all be more careful now, right?"
     "Yes,   yes!"   Amdi   explained    to   the    human.   Steel    stood
forelegs-on-shoulders and patted Jefri on the head.
     Steel had Shreck take the  children back  into the compound. Till  they
were out of sight, all his members looked on with an expression of pride and
affection. Then  he turned and walked across the pinkish mud. Where was that
stupid whitejackets?

     The meeting hall on Starship Hill was a  small, temporary thing. It had
been  good  enough  to  keep  the cold  out  during  the winter, but  for  a
conference of more  than three people it  was a real madhouse. Steel stomped
past  the Flenser Fragment and  collected himself  on the loft with the best
view  of  the  construction.  After a  polite moment, Tyrathect  entered and
climbed to the facing loft.
     But  all the  decorum was  an  act  for  the groundlings  outside;  now
Flenser's soft laughter hissed across the air to him, just  loud enough  for
him to hear. "Dear Steel. Sometimes I wonder if you are truly my student ...
or perhaps  some changeling inserted after my departure.  Are  you trying to
screw us up?"
     Steel glared back. He was  sure there was no uneasiness in his posture;
all  that was  held  within. "Accidents  happen.  The  incompetents will  be
     "Quite so. But that appears to be your response to all problems. If you
hadn't been  so  bent  on  silencing the digger  teams, they might not  have
rioted ... and you would have had one less 'accident'."
     "The flaw  was in their guessing. Such executions are a  necessary part
of military construction."
     "Oh? You really think I had to kill all those who built the halls under
Hidden Island?"
     "What? You mean you didn't? How -- ?"
     The Flenser Fragment smiled the old, fanged smile. "Think on it, Steel.
An exercise."
     Steel arranged his notes  on the desk and pretended to study them. Then
all of him looked back at the other pack. "Tyrathect. I honor you because of
the Flenser in you. But remember: You survive on my  sufferance. You are not
the  Flenser-in-Waiting."  The  news had come  late  last  fall, just before
winter closed the last pass over the Icefangs: The packs bearing the rest of
the Master hadn't made  it  out of Parliament  Bowl. The fullness of Flenser
was gone forever. That  had been an indescribable relief to Steel, and for a
time  afterward  the  Fragment  had been  quite  tractable.  "Not one  of my
lieutenants would blink if I killed all of you -- even the Flenser members."
And I'll do it, if you push me hard enough, I swear I will.
     "Of course, dear Steel. You command."
     For an instant the other's fear showed through. Remember, Steel thought
to himself, always remember: This is just a fragment of  the Master. Most of
it is a little school teacher, not the Great Teacher with a Knife. True, its
two Flenser members totally dominated the pack. The spirit of the Master was
right here in this room, but gentled.  Tyrathect  could be managed, and  the
power of the Master used for Steel's ends.
     "Good,"  Steel said smoothly. "As long as you understand this, you  can
be  of great  use to the Movement.  In  particular,"  he riffled through the
papers, "I  want to  review  the  Visitor situation  with you." I  want some
     "We've convinced 'Ravna' that her precious Jefri is in imminent danger.
Amdijefri  has told  her about all the Woodcarver attacks and how we fear an
overwhelming assault."
     "And that may really happen."
     "Yes. Woodcarver  really is planning an  attack, and she  has  her  own
source  of 'magical' help. We have  something  much better."  He  tapped the
papers; the advice had  been coming  down  since early winter. He remembered
when Amdijefri had brought in the first pages, pages of numerical tables, of
directions and diagrams, all drawn in neat but childish style. Steel and the
Fragment had spent days trying to  understand. Some  of the references  were
obvious. The Visitor's recipes required silver and  gold  in quantities that
would otherwise finance a  war. But what was this "liquid silver"? Tyrathect
had recognized it;  the  Master had used  such  a  thing  in his labs in the
Republic. Eventually  they acquired the amount  specified.  But  many of the
ingredients  were given only as methods for creating them. Steel  remembered
the  Fragment musing over those, scheming against nature as  if it were just
another foe. The recipes of mystics were full of "horn of squid" and "frozen
moonlight". The directions from Ravna were sometimes  even  stranger.  There
were  directions  within directions, long  detours spent  in  testing common
materials  to decide which really fit the greater  plan. Building,  testing,
building. It was like the Master's own method but without the dead ends.
     Some of it made sense early on. They would have the explosives and guns
that  Woodcarver  thought  were  her secret weapons. But so  much was  still
unintelligible -- and it never got easier.
     Steel  and the Fragment worked through  the afternoon,  planning how to
set up  the latest tests, deciding where to  search for the  new ingredients
that Ravna demanded.
     Tyrathect  leaned back,  hissing  a  wondering  sigh. "Stage built upon
stage.  And soon  we'll  have  our own radios. Old  Woodcarver won't have  a
chance.... You  are right, Steel. With this you can rule  the world. Imagine
knowing instantly what is happening in the Republic's Capital and being able
to coordinate armies around that knowledge. The Movement will be the Mind of
God." That  was an old slogan,  and  now  it could  be true.  "I salute you,
Steel. You have  a grasp  worthy  of  the Movement." Was there the Teacher's
contempt in his smile? "Radio and guns  can give us  the  world. But clearly
these are crumbs from the Visitors' table. When do they arrive?"
     "Between one hundred  and  one hundred twenty days from now; Ravna  has
revised  her  estimate again.  Apparently even  the  Two-Legs have  problems
flying between the stars."
     "So we have that long to  enjoy the Movement's triumph. And then we are
nothing, less than savages. It  might have  been safer to  forego the gifts,
and persuade the Visitors that there is nothing here worth rescuing."
     Steel looked out through the window slits that cut horizontally between
timbers. He  could  see  part  of  the  starship compound,  and  the  castle
foundations,  and  beyond  that the  islands  of the  fjord  country. He was
suddenly more  confident, more at peace, than  he'd been in a long  time. It
felt right to reveal his dream. "You really  don't see it, do you Tyrathect?
I wonder  if the  whole Master would understand,  or whether I have exceeded
him, too. In the beginning, we had no choice. The Starship was automatically
sending some sort  of signal to Ravna.  We  could have  destroyed it;  maybe
Ravna would have lost  interest... And maybe not, in which case we would  be
taken like a fish gilled from a stream. Perhaps I took the greater risk, but
if I win, the prize will be  far  more than you imagine." The  Fragment  was
watching him, heads cocked. "I've studied these humans, Jefri and -- through
my spies -- the one down  at Woodcarvers. Their race may be older than ours,
and the tricks they've  learned make them seem all-powerful. But the race is
flawed.  As singletons, they work with handicaps we can scarcely imagine. If
I can use those weaknesses....
     "You know  the average  Tines cares  for its  pups.  We've  manipulated
parental sentiments often enough. Imagine how it must be  for the humans. To
them, a single pup is also an entire child. Think of the leverage that gives
     "You're seriously  betting everything on this? Ravna isn't even Jefri's
     Steel  made  an  irritated  gesture.  "You  haven't seen all of  Amdi's
translations." Innocent Amdi, the perfect spy. "But you're right, saving the
one  child  is not  the main  reason for this Visit. I've tried to find  out
their real motive. There are one hundred fifty-one children in some kind  of
deathly stupor,  all stacked up in coffins within the ship. The Visitors are
desperate to  save the  children, but there's something else they want. They
never quite talk  about it ...  I think it's in the machinery  of  the  ship
     "For all we know the children are a brood force, part of an invasion."
     That was an old  fear and --  after watching Amdijefri --  Steel saw no
chance of it. There could be other traps but,  "If the Visitors are lying to
us, then  there is really nothing we can do to win. We'll be hunted animals;
maybe generations from now we'll learn their tricks, but it  will be the end
of us. On the other hand, we have  good reason to believe that  the Two-Legs
are  weak, and whatever their goals, they  do not involve us  directly.  You
were there the day of the landing,  much closer than I. You saw how  easy it
was to ambush  them,  even though their ship is impregnable and their single
weapon a match for a  small army. It is obvious that they do not consider us
a  threat.  No  matter  how  powerful their  tools,  their  real  fears  are
elsewhere. And in that Starship, we have something they need.
     "Look  at  the  foundations  of our  new castle, Tyrathect.  I've  told
Amdijefri that it is to  protect the Starship against Woodcarver. It will do
that -- later in the Summer when I shatter Woodcarver upon its ramparts. But
see  the foundations of  the curtain around the Starship.  By the  time  our
Visitors arrive, the ship will be envaulted. I've  done some  quiet tests on
its hull. It can be breached; a few dozen tons of stone  falling on it would
quite  nicely crush  it.  But Ravna  is not  to worry; this  is all  for the
protection  of  her prize.  And  there  will  be an open  courtyard  nearby,
surrounded by strangely high  walls. I've asked Jefri to get Ravna's help on
this.  The courtyard will  be just  large  enough to  enclose Ravna's  ship,
protecting it too.
     "There are many details still  to be  settled.  We must make  the tools
Ravna describes. We  must arrange the demise  of Woodcarver, well before the
Visitors arrive.  I need  your  help in all those  things, and I  expect  to
receive it. In  the  end, if  the Visitors are treacherous, we will make the
best  stand that can be. And if  they  are not ... well I think you'll agree
that my reach has at least matched my teacher's."
     For once, the Flenser Fragment had no reply.

     The ship's control  cabin was Jefri and Amdi's favorite place in all of
Lord Steel's domain. Being here could still make Jefri very sad, but now the
good memories seemed  the stronger  ...  and here was the best  hope for the
future. Amdi was still entranced by the window displays -- even if the views
were  all of wooden walls. By  their second visit  they had already come  to
regard  the  place as  their private kingdom, like Jefri's treehouse back on
Straum. And in fact the cabin was much too small to hold more  than a single
pack. Usually a member of their bodyguard would sit just inside the entrance
to the main hold,  but even that seemed to be uncomfortable duty. This was a
place where they were important.
     For all their rambunctiousness, Amdi and Jefri realized the trust  that
Lord  Steel  and Ravna were placing in them. The two kids might race  around
out-of-doors, driving their guards to distraction, but the equipment in this
command cabin must  be treated as cautiously as when Mom and Dad  were here.
In  some  ways,  there  was  not  much left in  the ship. The  datasets were
destroyed; Jefri's parents had them outside when Woodcarver attacked. During
the winter, Mr. Steel had carried out most of the loose items  to study. The
coldsleep boxes were now safe  in cool chambers  nearby. Every day Amdijefri
inspected  the  boxes, looked  at  each  familiar  face,  checked  the  diag
displays. No sleeper had died since the ambush.
     What was  left  on the  ship  was hard-fastened to the  hull. Jefri had
pointed  out  the control  boards  and  status  elements  that  managed  the
container shell's rocket; they stayed strictly away from those.
     Mr. Steel's quilting  shrouded  the walls. Jefri's  folks'  baggage and
sleeping bags and exercisers were gone, but there were still the acc webbing
and hard-fastened  equipment. And  over the months, Amdijefri had brought in
paper and pens and blankets and  other junk. There was always a light breeze
from the fans sweeping through the cabin.
     It was a happy place, strangely  carefree even with all the memories it
brought. This was where they would save the Tines and all  the sleepers. And
this was  the only place in the world where  Amdijefri could talk to another
human being. In  some ways, the means of talking seemed as  medieval as Lord
Steel's  castle:  They  had  one  flat  display  -- no  depth,  no color, no
pictures. All  they could  coax from  it  were  alphanumerics.  But  it  was
connected  to  the ship's ultrawave comm, and that was  still  programmed to
track  their  rescuers. There  was  no voice  recognition  attached  to  the
display; Jefri had almost panicked before he realized that the lower part of
the  screen worked as a keyboard.  It was a laborious  job typing  in  every
letter of every word -- though Amdi had gotten pretty good at it, using four
noses to peck at the keys. And nowadays  he could read Samnorsk even  better
than Jefri.
     Amdijefri spent  many afternoons  here. If there was a message  waiting
from the  previous day, they would bring it up page by  page and  Amdi would
copy and translate it. Then they  would enter the questions and answers that
Mr. Steel had talked to them about. Then there was a lot of waiting. Even if
Ravna  was watching at the other end, it could  take several hours  to get a
reply. But the link was so  much better than during the  winter; they  could
almost feel Ravna getting closer. The unofficial conversations with her were
often the high point of their day.
     So  far, this  day had  been quite different.  After  the false workers
attacked,  Amdijefri had  the  shakes for about half an hour. Mr. Steel  had
been wounded trying to protect them.  Maybe there was nowhere that was safe.
They messed with the outside displays, trying  to peek through cracks in the
rough planking of the compound's walls.
     "If  we'd been able to see out, we  could  have warned Mr. Steel," said
     "We should  ask him to put  some holes in the walls.  We could be  like
     They  batted the idea  around a bit.  Then the  latest  message started
coming in from  the  rescue ship.  Jefri jumped into the acc webbing  by the
display. This was his dad's old  spot, and there was plenty of room.  Two of
Amdi slid in beside him. Another member hopped on the armrest and braced its
paws  on Jefri's shoulders. Its slender neck  extended toward the screen  to
get a good view. The  rest  scrambled to arrange paper and pens. It was easy
to play back messages,  but Amdijefri got a certain thrill out of seeing the
stuff coming down "live".
     There was the  initial header stuff -- that wasn't so interesting after
about the thousandth time you saw it -- then Ravna's actual words. Only this
time it was just tabular data, something to support the radio design.
     "Nuts. It's numbers," said Jefri.
     "Numbers!" said Amdi. He climbed a free member  onto the boy's  lap. It
stuck its nose close  to the screen, cross-checking what the  one by Jefri's
shoulder was  seeing.  The  four on  the floor  were  busy  scratching away,
translating the  decimal digits on the screen  into  the X's and O's and 1's
and deltas of Tines' base four notation. Almost from the beginning Jefri had
realized that Amdi was really good at math. Jefri  wasn't envious. Amdi said
that hardly any of the Tines were that good, either; Amdi was a very special
pack. Jefri was proud that he had such a neat friend. Mom and Dad would have
liked Amdi. Still ... Jefri sighed, and relaxed  in the webbing. This number
stuff  was happening more and more  often. Mom  had read him a  story  once,
"Lost  in  the  Slow  Zone",  about  how  some  marooned  explorers  brought
civilization to a lost colony. In that, the heroes just collected the  right
materials and built what they needed. There had been no talk of precision or
ratios or design.
     He looked  away from the screen,  and petted the  two of Amdi that were
sitting beside him. One of them wriggled under  his hand. Their whole bodies
hummed back at him. Their  eyes were closed. If Jefri didn't know better, he
would  have  assumed they were asleep. These  were  the  parts of Amdi  that
specialized in talking.
     "Anything interesting?" Jefri said after a while.  The  one on his left
opened its eyes and looked at him.
     "This is that bandwidth idea Ravna was talking about. If we don't  make
things just right, we'll just get clicks and clacks."
     "Oh, right." Jefri knew that  the  initial reinventions  of radio  were
usually not good  for much more than Morse code. Ravna  seemed to think they
could jump that stage. "What do you think Ravna is like?"
     "What?" The scritching of pens on paper  stopped for an instant; he had
all of Amdi's  attention, even though they'd talked of this  before.  "Well,
like you ... only bigger and older?"
     "Yeah, but  --  "  Jefri  knew Ravna  was from Sjandra Kei.  She  was a
grownup, somewhere older  than Johanna and  younger  than Mom. What  exactly
does she look like? "I mean, she's coming all this way just to rescue us and
finish  what  Mom and  Dad were trying to do.  She  must  really be a  great
     The  scritching  stopped  again,  and the display scrolled heedless on.
They would have to replay  it.  "Yes," Amdi said after a moment. "She -- she
must be a lot like Mr. Steel. It will be nice to meet someone I can hug, the
way you do Mr. Steel."
     Jefri was a little miffed by that. "Well wait, you can hug me!"
     The  parts  of  Amdi next  to him  purred loudly. "I  know.  But I mean
someone that's a grownup ... like a parent."

     They got  the tables translated and checked in about an  hour.  Then it
was time to send up the latest things that Mr. Steel was asking about. There
were about four pages, all  neatly printed in Samnorsk  by Amdi. Usually  he
liked to do the typing,  too, all bunched up over the  keyboard and display.
Today  he  wasn't  interested.  He lay all over Jefri,  but  didn't  pay any
special attention to checking what was  being keyed in. Every so often Jefri
felt  a  buzzing  through his chest, or the  screen mounting  would  make  a
strange sound  -- all in  sympathy to  the  unhearable  sounds that Amdi was
making between his members. Jefri recognized the signs of deep thought.
     He finished  typing in the latest message, adding a few small questions
of his own.  Things like, "How  old are you and  Pham? Are you married? What
are Skroderiders like?"
     Daylight  had faded from the cracks in the walls. Soon the digger teams
would be turning in  their hoes and marching off  to the  barracks over  the
edge of the hill. Across the straits, the  towers on  Hidden Island would be
golden in the mist, like something in a fairy tale. Their whitejackets would
be calling Amdi and Jefri out for supper any minute now.
     Two  of Amdi  jumped off the acc webbing, and began  chasing each other
around  the chair. "I've been thinking!  I've been thinking!  Ravna's  radio
thing:  why  is  it just  for talking? She says all sound is just  different
frequencies of the same thing. But sound is all that thought is. If we could
change some of the  tables, and make the receivers and transmitters to cover
my tympana, why couldn't I think over the radio?"
     "I  don't know." Bandwidth  was a familiar  constraint on many everyday
activities, though Jefri had only a vague  notion of exactly what it was. He
looked at the last of the  tables, still displayed on the screen. He  had  a
sudden insight, something  that  many  adults in  technical  cultures  never
attain. "I use these things all the time,  but I don't know exactly how they
work. We can follow these directions, but how would we know what to change?"
     Amdi was  getting all excited now, the way  he did when he'd thought of
some  great prank.  "No, no,  no. We  don't  have to understand everything."
Three more of him jumped to the floor; he waved random sheets of paper up at
Jefri.  "Ravna  doesn't  know for  sure how we make  sound.  The  directions
include options for making  small changes. I've been thinking. I can see how
the  changes  relate." He  paused and  made  a high-pitched squealing noise.
"Darn. I can't explain it exactly. But I think we can expand the tables, and
that  will change  the machine in  ob-obvious ways. And then ..."  Amdi  was
beside himself for a moment, and speechless. "Oh Jefri, I wish you could  be
a pack, too! Imagine putting one  of  yourself each on a different  mountain
top, and then using radio to think. We could be as big as the world!"
     Just then there was the sound  of interpack gobbling  from  outside the
cabin, and then the Samnorsk: "Dinner time. We go now, Amdijefri.  Okay?" It
was Mr. Shreck;  he spoke  a fair amount of Samnorsk, though not as well  as
Mr. Steel. Amdijefri  picked up the  scattered sheets and carefully  slipped
them into the pockets on the  back of Amdi's jackets.  They powered down the
display equipment and crawled into the main hold.
     "Do you think Mr. Steel will let us make the changes?"
     "Maybe we should also send them back to Ravna."
     The whitejackets'  member  retreated  from  the  hatch,  and  Amdijefri
descended. A  minute later  they were out in the slanting sunlight.  The two
kids scarcely noticed; they were both caught up in Amdi's vision.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     For  Johanna,  lots  of  things  changed in  the  weeks  after  Scriber
Jaqueramaphan died. Most were for the  better, things  that might never have
happened but for the murder ... and that made Johanna very sad.
     She  let Woodcarver live in her cabin, and take the place of the helper
pack. Apparently Woodcarver  had wanted  to do this from  the beginning, but
had  been afraid  of the  human's anger.  Now they kept  the dataset in  the
cabin.  There  were  never  less than  four packs  of  Vendacious'  security
surrounding the place, and there was talk of building barracks around it.
     She  saw  the others during the day at meetings, and  individually when
they needed help with the dataset. Scrupilo, Vendacious, and Scarbutt -- the
"Pilgrim" -- all spoke  fluent Samnorsk  now, more than good enough so  that
she could see the character behind their inhuman forms: Scrupilo, prissy and
very bright. Vendacious, as pompous as Scriber had  ever seemed, but without
the  playfulness and imagination.  Pilgrim Wickwrackscar. She  felt  a chill
every time she  saw his big, scarred one. It always sat in the back, hunched
down  to look unthreatening.  Pilgrim obviously knew  how the sight affected
her and tried not to offend, but even after Scriber's death she couldn't  do
more than tolerate that pack....  And after all,  there could be traitors in
the Woodcarver castle. It  was only Vendacious'  theory  that the murder had
been a raid from outside. She kept a suspicious eye on Pilgrim.
     At night Woodcarver chased the other packs away. She huddled around the
firepit,  and asked the dataset questions that had no conceivable connection
with  fighting the Flenserists. Johanna sat with her  and  tried to  explain
things that  Woodcarver  didn't understand.  It  was strange. Woodcarver was
something  very  like  the  Queen of these  people.  She  had  this enormous
(primitive, uncomfortable, ugly  --  yet  still  enormous) castle.  She  had
dozens of servants. Yet  she spent most  of each  night in this  little wood
cabin  with Johanna, and helped with the fire and the food at least  as much
as the pack who had been here before.
     So  it was that Woodcarver became  Johanna's  second friend  among  the
Tines. (Scriber  was the first, though she hadn't known it till after he was
dead.) Woodcarver was very smart  and very strange. In some ways she was the
smartest person  Johanna had ever known, though that conclusion came slowly.
She hadn't really been surprised when the Tines mastered Samnorsk quickly --
that's the  way it  was in most adventures, and more to the  point, they had
the language learning programs in the dataset. But night after night Johanna
watched  Woodcarver  play with  the set. The pack showed  no interest in the
military  tactics  and chemistry  that preoccupied  them all during the day.
Instead she read  about the  Slow  Zone  and the Beyond and  the history  of
Straumli Realm.  She had mastered  nonlinear reading faster than any of  the
others. Sometimes Johanna  would just  sit and stare over her shoulders. The
screen  was split into  windows,  the  main  one scrolling much faster  than
Johanna  could follow. A dozen times a  minute,  Woodcarver  might come upon
words she  didn't recognize. Most were just unfamiliar Samnorsk: she'd tap a
nose on the  offending word and the  definition would  flicker  briefly in a
dictionary window. Other  things were conceptual, and  the new windows would
lead  the  pack  off into other  fields,  sometimes for just a  few seconds,
sometimes  for many minutes -- and sometimes the detour would become her new
main path. In a way, she was everything that Scriber had wanted to be.
     Many  times she  had questions the  dataset couldn't really answer. She
and Johanna would talk late into the  night. What was  a human family  like?
What had Straumli Realm thought  to make at the High Lab? Johanna  no longer
thought of most packs as gangs of snake-necked rats. Deep past midnight, the
dataset's screen  was  brighter than  the gray light  from  the  firepit. It
painted the backs of Woodcarver in cheerful colors. The pack  gathered round
her, looking up, almost like small children listening to a teacher.
     But Woodcarver was no child. Almost from the first, she had seemed old.
Those late night talks were beginning to teach Johanna about the Tines, too.
The pack  said things  she never did during the day. They were mostly things
that must be obvious to other Tines, but never talked  about. The human girl
wondered if Woodcarver the Queen had anyone to confide in.
     Only one  of Woodcarver's members was physically old; two were scarcely
more than puppies. It was the pattern of the  pack that was half  a thousand
years  old.  And that showed. Woodcarver's soul was  held together by little
more  than  willpower. The price  of immortality  had  been  inbreeding. The
original stock had been healthy, but after six hundred years....  One of her
youngest  members couldn't  stop  drooling;  it  was  constantly  patting  a
kerchief  to  its muzzle.  Another had milky white in its  eyes  where there
should have been deep brown. Woodcarver said it was stone blind, but healthy
and her best talker. Her  oldest  member was visibly feeble;  it was panting
all the  time.  Unfortunately, Woodcarver  said it was  the  most alert  and
creative of all. When it died....
     Once she started looking for it, Johanna  could see weakness  in all of
Woodcarver.  Even  the  two healthiest members, strong  and with  plush fur,
walked a little strangely compared  to normal pack members.  Was that due to
spinal deformities?  The two were also gaining weight, which  wasn't helping
the problem.
     Johanna didn't learn this  all at  once.  Woodcarver had told her about
various Tinish affairs,  and gradually  her own  story  came  out,  too. She
seemed glad to have someone  to confide in, but Johanna saw little self-pity
in her. Woodcarver had chosen this  path -- apparently it was perversion  to
some -- and had  beaten the odds for longer than any other pack  in recorded
history. She was more wistful than anything  else, that her luck had finally
run out.

     Tines architecture tended  to extremes -- grotesquely oversized, or too
cramped for human use. Woodcarvers council chamber was at the large extreme;
it was  not a  cozy  place.  You  could get  three  hundred humans  into the
bowl-shaped cavity  with room  to spare. The separated  balconies  that  ran
around its upper circumference could have held another hundred more.
     Johanna had been here often enough before; this was where most work was
done with the dataset. Usually there was herself  and Woodcarver and whoever
else needed  information.  Today  was different,  not a day  to  consult the
dataset at  all: This was Johanna's first council meeting. There were twelve
packs in the High Council, and they were all here. Every balcony contained a
pack, and there were three on the floor. Johanna knew enough about Tines now
to see  that for all the empty space, the place was hideously crowded. There
was the mind noise of  fifteen packs. Even with all  the padded  tapestries,
she felt  an occasional buzzing in  her  head or  through her hands from the
     Johanna stood  with  Woodcarver  on  the  largest  balcony.  When  they
arrived, Vendacious was already  down on the main floor, arranging diagrams.
As  the  packs of the  council came to  their feet,  he looked  up  and said
something to Woodcarver. The Queen replied in Samnorsk: "I know it will slow
things down, but perhaps that's a  good  thing."  She  made a human laughing
     Peregrine Wickwrackscar  was standing on  the  next  balcony over, just
like  some council pack. Strange. Johanna had not  yet figured  out why, but
Scarbutt  seemed to  be one  of Woodcarver's favorites. "Pilgrim, would  you
translate for Johanna?"
     Pilgrim bobbed several heads. "Is, is that okay, Johanna?"
     The girl hesitated an instant, then nodded back. It made sense. Next to
Woodcarver,  Pilgrim spoke  better Samnorsk than any of them.  As Woodcarver
sat down, she  took  the  dataset from  Johanna and popped it  open. Johanna
glanced at the figures on  the screen. She's made notes. Her surprise didn't
have a chance to register,  before  the Queen was talking again -- this time
in  the  gobble  sounds  of interpack  talk.  After a second, Pilgrim  began
     "Everyone please sit. Hunker down. This meeting is crowded enough as it
is." Johanna almost  smiled. Pilgrim  Wickwrackscar was  pretty good. He was
imitating Woodcarver's human voice perfectly. His translation  even captured
the wry authority of her speech.
     After  some shuffling around,  only  one  or  two  heads  were  visible
sticking up from each balcony. Most stray thought noise should now be caught
in  the padding around the  balcony or  absorbed by  the quilted canopy that
hung over the room. "Vendacious, you may proceed."
     On the main floor, Vendacious stood and looked up in all directions. He
started  talking.  "Thank  you,"  came  the  translation, now imitating  the
security chief's  tones.  "The Woodcarver  asked  me to  call  this  meeting
because of urgent developments in  the North. Our sources there  report that
Steel is fortifying the region around Johanna's starship."

     Gobble gobble interruption. Scrupilo? "That's not news. That's what our
cannon and gunpowder are for."
     Vendacious:  "Yes, we've known of the plans for some time. Nevertheless
the completion date has been advanced, and the final version will have walls
a  good  deal  thicker  than we had  figured.  It also appears that once the
enclosure  is  complete,  Steel  intends to  break  apart  the starship  and
distribute its cargo through his various laboratories."
     For Johanna the words came like a kick in the stomach. Before there had
been a chance:  If they  fought  hard enough, they might recapture the ship.
She might finish her parents' mission, perhaps even get rescued.
     Pilgrim said something on his own account,  translating: "So what's the
new deadline?"
     "They're confident  of having the main walls complete in just under ten
     Woodcarver bent a  pair of noses to the keyboard, tapped in a note.  At
the same  time she  stuck a head over  the  railing  and  looked down at the
security  chief.  "I've  noticed  before  that  Steel  tends  to  be  a  bit
over-optimistic. Do you have an objective estimate?"
     "Yes. The walls will be complete between eight and  eleven tendays from
     Woodcarver:  "We had been  counting  on  at  least  fifteen.  Is this a
response to our plans?"
     On  the floor below,  Vendacious drew  himself together.  "That was our
first suspicion, Your Majesty. But ... as you know, we have a number of very
special sources of information ... sources we shouldn't discuss even here."
     "What a  braggart. Sometimes I wonder  if he knows anything. I've never
seen him stick his asses out in the field." Huh? It took Johanna a second to
realize  that  this  was  Pilgrim,  editorializing.  She glanced  across the
railing. Three of Pilgrim's  heads were visible, two  looking her  way. They
bore an expression  she recognized as  a silly smile. No one  else seemed to
react to his comment; apparently he could focus  his  translation on Johanna
alone.  She glared at him, and  after a moment he  resumed  his businesslike
     "Steel knows we plan to  attack, but he does not know about our special
weapons. This change in schedule appears to be a matter of random suspicion.
Unfortunately we are the worse for it."
     Three  or  four  Councillors   began   talking   at  once.  "Much  loud
unhappiness," came Pilgrim's voice, summing  up.  "They're  full  of 'I knew
this  plan would  never  work'  and  'Why did we  ever agree  to  attack the
Flenserists in the first place'."
     Right  next  to  Johanna,  Woodcarver  emitted  a  shrill  whistle. The
recriminations  dribbled  to a halt.  "Some of  you forget your courage.  We
agreed to attack  Hidden Island because it has  been a deadly threat, one we
thought we could destroy with Johanna's cannons -- and one that could surely
destroy  us if Steel  ever learns to use the  starship." One of Woodcarver's
members, crouching on the floor, reached out to brush Johanna's knee.
     Pilgrim's focused  voice  chuckled in  her ear.  "And there's also  the
little matter of getting you home and making contact with the stars, but she
can't say that aloud to the 'pragmatic' types. In case you haven't  guessed,
that's one  reason you're here -- to remind the chuckleheads there's more in
heaven than they have  dreamed." He paused, and switched back to translating
     "No mistake was made in undertaking this campaign: avoiding it would be
as deadly as fighting and losing. So ... do we have any chance of getting an
effective  army up the coast in time?" She jabbed a nose in the direction of
a balcony across the room. "Scrupilo. Please be brief."
     "The  last  thing  Scrupilo  can be  is  brief --  oops,  sorry,"  More
editorializing from Peregrine.
     Scrupilo  stuck a couple more heads into view.  "I've already discussed
this with Vendacious, Your Majesty. Raising an army, traveling up  the coast
-- those  all could be done in well under ten tendays. It's  the cannon, and
perhaps training  packs  to use  cannon,  that  is the problem.  That is  my
special area of responsibility."
     Woodcarver said something abrupt.
     "Yes, Majesty. We have the gunpowder. It  is every  bit as powerful  as
Dataset says.  The gun tubes have been a much  greater  problem.  Till  very
recently, the metal cracked at  the breech as it cooled. Now  I think I have
that  fixed.  At least  I  have  two unblemished  guntubes. I had  hoped for
several tendays of testing -- "
     Woodcarver interrupted, "-- but that is something we can't afford now."
She came completely  to her feet and looked  all around the council room. "I
want full-size testing  immediately. If it's successful, we'll start  making
gun tubes as fast as we can." And if not...

     Two days later...
     The  funniest  thing was  that Scrupilo expected her to inspect the gun
tube  before  he  fired  it. The  pack  walked  excitedly  around  the  rig,
explaining things in awkward Samnorsk. Johanna followed, frowning seriously.
Some  meters  off,  mostly hidden  behind  a  berm, Woodcarver and  her High
Council  were  watching the exercise. Well,  the thing  looked real  enough.
They'd  mounted it on a small cart that could roll back into  a pile of dirt
under the  recoil  force. The tube itself  was a single cast  piece of metal
about a meter long  with a ten-centimeter  bore. Gunpowder  and shot went in
the front end. The powder was ignited through a tiny firehole at the rear.
     Johanna ran her hand along  the  barrel.  The leaden surface was bumpy,
and there seemed be pieces of dirt caught in the metal.  Even the  walls  of
the bore were not completely smooth; would that  make a difference? Scrupilo
was explaining how he had used straw in the molds  to  keep the  metal  from
cracking as it cooled.  Yecco. "You should try it  out with small amounts of
gunpowder first," she said.
     Scrupilo's  voice became  a bit  conspiratorial,  more  focused,  "Just
between you me, I did that. It went very good. Now for big test."

     Hmm. So you're not a  complete flake. She smiled at the nearest of him,
a  member with no black at all  in  his head  fur. In a  kooky way, Scrupilo
reminded her of some the scientists at the High Lab.
     Scrupilo stepped back  from the cannon and said loudly, "It is all okay
to go now?" Two of him were looking nervously at the High Councillors beyond
the berm.
     "Um, yes, it looks fine to me." And of course it should. The design was
copied  straight  from  Nyjoran models in Johanna's  history files. "But  be
careful -- if it doesn't work right, it could kill anybody nearby."
     "Yes, yes."  Having  gotten  her official endorsement,  Scrupilo  swept
around the piece and shooed Johanna toward the sidelines. As she walked back
to Woodcarver, he continued in Tinish, no doubt explaining the test.
     "Do  you think it will work?" Woodcarver  asked her quietly. She seemed
even more feeble  than usual. They had  spread a woven mat  for her,  on the
mossy heather behind the berm. Most of her  lay quietly, heads between paws.
The blind one looked asleep; the young drooler cuddled against it, twitching
nervously. As  usual  Peregrine  Wickwrackscar  was  nearby, but  he  wasn't
translating now. All his attention was on Scrupilo.
     Johanna thought of the  straw  that  Scrupilo  had  used  in the molds.
Woodcarver's people  were really trying to help, but.... She shook her head,
"I -- who knows." She came to her  knees and looked over the berm. The whole
thing  looked  like a circus  act  from  a  history  file.  There  were  the
performing animals, the cannon.  There  was even the circus tent: Vendacious
had insisted  on hiding the operation from possible spies in  the hills. The
enemy might see something, but the longer Steel lacked details the better.
     The Scrupilo pack hustled around the cannon, talking all  the time. Two
of him hauled up a keg of  black powder and he began  pushing the stuff down
the barrel.  A wad of silkpaper followed  the  powder  down the  barrel.  He
tamped it  into place,  then loaded the  cannon  ball. At the same time, the
rest of him pushed the cart around to point out of the tent.
     They were on  the forest side  of the  castle yard, between the old and
new walls.  Johanna  could see  a patch  of green hillside,  drizzly  clouds
hanging low. About a hundred meters away was the old wall. In fact  this was
the same  stretch of stone where Scriber  had been killed. Even if the  damn
cannon didn't  blow up, no one  had  any  idea  how far the  shot would  go.
Johanna was betting it wouldn't even get to the wall.
     Scrupilo was on this side of the gun now, trying to light a long wooden
firing  wand.  With  a  sinking feeling  in her  stomach, Johanna knew  this
couldn't work. They  were all fools and amateurs, she as  much as  they. And
this poor guy is going to get killed for nothing.
     Johanna came to her feet. Gotta stop it. Something grabbed her belt and
pulled  her  down. It  was one of Woodcarver's  members, one of the fat ones
that couldn't walk quite right. "We have to try," the pack said softly.
     Scrupilo had the wand alight  now. Suddenly he  stopped talking. All of
him  but  the white-headed one ran  for the protection  of the  berm. For an
instant  it seemed like strange cowardice, and  then  Johanna understood:  A
human playing with something explosive would also try to shield  his body --
except for the hand that held the match. Scrupilo was risking a maiming, but
not death.
     The white-headed  one looked across the trampled heather to the rest of
Scrupilo. It didn't seem  upset  so  much as attentively listening.  At this
distance  it couldn't  be part of  Scrupilo's mind,  but  the  creature  was
probably smarter than any  dog -- and apparently it was getting some kind of
directions from the rest.
     White-head turned  and walked toward the cannon.  It  belly-crawled the
last meter, taking what cover there was in the dirt behind the gun  cart. It
held the wand so  the flame  at  its tip came slowly down  on the fire hole.
Johanna ducked behind the berm....
     The explosion was a sharp snapping  sound. Woodcarver shuddered against
her, and  whistles  of pain came from all  around the  tent.  Poor Scrupilo!
Johanna felt tears starting. I have to look; I'm partly  responsible. Slowly
she stood and forced herself to look across the field to  where a minute ago
the cannon had been -- and still is! Thick smoke floated from both ends, but
the  tube was  intact.  And more, White-head was wobbling dazedly around the
cart, his white fur now covered with soot.
     The rest of Scrupilo raced out to White-head. The five of him ran round
and  round the cannon, bounding  over  each  other in  triumph. For  a  long
moment, the  rest of the audience just stared. The gun was in one piece. The
gunner had survived. And, almost as  a  side  effect ... Johanna looked over
the gun, up the hillside: There was a meter-wide notch in the top of the old
wall,  where  none  had  been  before. Vendacious  would  have  a  hard time
disguising that from enemy inspection!
     Dumb silence gave  way  to the noisiest affair  Johanna had  seen  yet.
There was the usual gobbling, and other sounds -- hissing that hovered right
at the  edge of sensibility. On the other side  of the tent,  two  Tines she
didn't know ran into each other:  for a moment of mindless jubilation,  they
were an enormous pack of nine or ten members.

     We'll get the ship back yet! Johanna turned to hug  Woodcarver. But the
Queen  was not  shouting with the others. She  huddled with  her heads close
together, shivering. "Woodcarver?" She  petted  the neck of  one of the big,
fat ones. It jerked away, its body spasming.

     Stroke?  Heart attack? The  names  of oldenday killers popped  into her
mind. Just how would they apply to a pack? Something was terribly wrong, and
nobody else had noticed. Johanna  bounced back  to  her feet. "Pilgrim!" she

     Five minutes later,  they had Woodcarver out of the tent. The place was
still a madhouse, but gone deathly quiet to Johanna's ears. She'd helped the
Queen onto her  carriage,  but after that  no one  would let her  near. Even
Pilgrim, so eager to translate everything the day before, brushed her aside.
"It will be okay," was all he  said as he  ran to the front of the  carriage
and  grabbed  the reins  of the shaggy Whatsits. The  carriage  pulled  out,
surrounded by several packs of guards. For an instant, the  weirdness of the
Tines  world came  crashing back  on Johanna.  This  was a obviously a great
emergency. A  person might be  dying. People were rushing this way and that.
And yet....  The packs drew  into themselves. No one  crowded close.  No one
could touch another.
     The instant passed, and Johanna was  running  out of the tent after the
carriage. She tried to  keep to the heather along the muddy path, and almost
caught up. Everything was wet and chill, gunmetal gray. Everyone had been so
intent  on  the  test  --  could  this  be  more Flenser treachery?  Johanna
stumbled, went down on  her knees in the mud. The carriage turned  a corner,
onto  cobblestones.  Now it was lost  to  sight.  She got up and  slogged on
through the wet, but a little  slower  now.  There was nothing she could do,
nothing  she  could do. She had made friends  with Scriber, and Scriber  had
been killed. She had made friends with Woodcarver, and now....
     She walked along  the cobbled alley  between the  castle's storehouses.
The  carriage  was out of sight, but she could hear its  clatter  on  ahead.
Vendacious' security packs ran in both directions past her, stopping briefly
in  side niches to  allow opposing traffic by. Nobody answered her questions
-- probably none of them even spoke Samnorsk.
     Johanna almost got lost. She could hear the carriage, but it had turned
somewhere.  She  heard it again  behind her. They were  taking Woodcarver to
Johanna's  place!  She went back, and  a few  minutes later was climbing the
path  to  the two-storey  cabin she had  shared with Woodcarver  these  last
weeks. Johanna was  too pooped  to  run anymore. She  walked slowly  up  the
hillside, vaguely aware of her wet and muddy state. The carriage was stopped
about five meters short of the door. Guard packs were  strung out  along the
hill, but their bows weren't nocked.
     The  afternoon sunlight  found a break in the western  clouds and shone
for  a moment  on the damp  heather and  glistening timbers,  lighting  them
bright against dark sky above the hills. It was a  combination  of light and
dark that  had always seemed especially beautiful to Johanna. Please let her
be okay.
     The guards  let her pass. Peregrine Wickwrackscar  was  standing around
the entrance, three of him  watching her approach. The fourth, Scarbutt, had
its long neck stuck through  the doorway, watching whatever was inside. "She
wanted to be back here when it happened," he said.
     "What h-happened?" said Johanna.
     Pilgrim made the equivalent  of  a  shrug.  "It was the  shock of  that
cannon going  off.  But  almost  anything  could  have  done  it." There was
something  odd about the way his heads were  bobbing  around.  With a  shock
Johanna realized the pack was smiling, full of glee.
     "I  want to see her!" Scarbutt backed hastily away as  she  started for
the door.
     Inside there  was only the  light  from the door  and the  high  window
slits. It took a  second for Johanna's eyes to adjust. Something smelled ...
wet. Woodcarver was lying in a circle on the quilted mattress she used every
evening.  She crossed the room  and  went to her knees beside  the pack. The
pack edged  nervously away from her touch.  There was blood, and what looked
like  a pile  of  guts,  in  the middle of  the mattress. Johanna felt vomit
rising in her. "W-Woodcarver?" she said very softly.
     One of the Queen  moved back toward Johanna and put  its muzzle  in the
girl's hand. "Hello, Johanna. It's ... so strange ... to  have  someone next
to me at a time like this."
     "You're bleeding. What's the matter?"
     Soft,  human-sounding laughter. "I'm hurt, but it's good.... See."  The
blind one was holding something small and wet in its jaws. One of the others
was  licking  it.  Whatever  it  was, it  was  wiggling, alive.  And Johanna
remembered how strangely plump and awkward parts of Woodcarver had become.

     "A baby?"
     "Yes. And I'm going to have another in a day or two."
     Johanna sat back on the  floor timbers, and  covered her  face with her
hands. She was going to start crying again. "Why didn't you tell me?"
     Woodcarver didn't say anything for  a moment. She licked the little one
all around, then set it against  the tummy of  the member  that must  be its
mother. The newborn snuggled close, nuzzling into the belly fur.  It  didn't
make any noise that Johanna could hear. Finally the Queen said, "I ... don't
know if I can make you understand. This has been very hard for me."
     "Having  babies?" Johanna's hands  were sticky with  the  blood  on the
quilt. Obviously this had  been hard, but that's how all lives must start on
a world like this. It was pain that needed the support of friends, pain that
led to joy.
     "No. Having the  babies isn't it. I've  borne more than a hundred in my
memory's  time.  But these  two  ...  are  the ending  of  me. How  can  you
understand? You  humans  don't even have the choice to keep  on living; your
offspring can never be you. But  for me, it's the end of a soul  six hundred
years old. You see, I'm going to keep these two to be part of me ... and for
the  first  time  in all the centuries,  I  am  not both  the mother and the
father. A newby I'll become."
     Johanna looked at the blind one and the  drooler. Six hundred years  of
incest.  How much longer  could  Woodcarver  have continued before  the mind
itself decayed? Not both  the  mother  and  the  father.  "But then  who  is
father?" she blurted out.
     "Who do you think?" The  voice came from just beyond the  door. One  of
Peregrine Wickwrackscar's heads  peered around the corner just far enough to
show an eye. "When Woodcarver makes a decision, she goes for extremes. She's
been the most tightly held soul of all time. But now she has blood -- genes,
Dataset would say -- from packs all over the world, from one of the flakiest
pilgrims who ever cast his soul upon the wind."
     "Also from one  of the smartest,"  said Woodcarver, her  voice  wry and
wistful  at the same time. "The new soul will be at least as intelligent  as
before, and probably a lot more flexible."
     "And I'm a little bit pregnant, myself," said Pilgrim. "But I'm not the
least bit  sad.  I've been a foursome for too  long. Imagine, having pups by
Woodcarver herself! Maybe I'll turn all conservative and settle down."
     "Hah! Even two from me is not enough to slow your pilgrim soul."
     Johanna listened to  the banter.  The ideas were  so alien, and yet the
overtones of affection and humor were somehow  very familiar.  Somewhere ...
then she  had it:  When Johanna was  just five  years old,  and  Mom and Dad
brought little Jefri home. Johanna couldn't remember the  words, or even the
sense of what they'd said -- but the tone  was the same as what went between
Woodcarver and Pilgrim.
     Johanna  slid  back  to  a  sitting  position,  the  tension of the day
evaporating.  Scrupilo's  artillery  really worked; there  was  a chance  of
getting the ship. And even if they failed ... she felt a little bit like she
was back home.
     "C-can I pet your puppy?"

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     The voyage of  the Out of Band II had begun in catastrophe, where  life
and death were a difference of hours  or minutes. In  the first weeks  there
had been  terror  and loneliness and  the resurrection  of Pham. The OOB had
fallen quickly toward the galactic plane,  away  from Relay.  Day by day the
whorl of stars tilted up to meet them, till it was the single band of light,
the Milky  Way as seen  from the perspective of Nyjora and Old Earth --  and
from most all the habitable planets of the Galaxy.
     Twenty thousand light-years in three weeks. But that had been on a path
through the Middle  Beyond. Now in the galactic plane, they were  still  six
thousand light-years from  their goal at the Bottom of the  Beyond. The Zone
interfaces roughly followed surfaces of constant mean density; on a galactic
scale, the Bottom was a vaguely lens-shaped surface, surrounding much of the
galactic disk. The OOB was moving in the plane of the disk now, more or less
toward the galactic center. Every week took them deeper toward the Slowness.
Worse, their path, and  all variants that made any  progress, extended right
through a  region of massive  Zone  shifting. The Net News had called it the
Great Zone Storm, though  of  course there was  not the  slightest  physical
feeling of turbulence within  the volume.  But some days  their progress was
less that eighty percent what they'd expected.
     Early on they'd known that  it was not only the storm  that was slowing
them.  Blueshell  had  gone outside,  looking  over  the  damage  that still
remained from their escape.
     "So  it's  the  ship itself?" Ravna  had glared  out  from  the bridge,
watching the now  imperceptible crawl of near stars across the heavens.  The
confirmation was no revelation. But what to do?
     Blueshell  trundled back  and forth across the  ceiling. Every  time he
reached the far wall, he'd query ship's  management about the pressure  seal
on the nose lock. Ravna glared at him, "Hey, that  was the n'th time  you've
checked status in the last three minutes.  If  you really think something is
wrong, then fix it."
     The Skroderider's wheeled progress came to an abrupt halt. Fronds waved
uncertainly.  "But I was  just outside. I want to  be  sure I shut  the port
correctly.... Oh, you mean I've already checked it?"
     Ravna looked up at him, and tried to  get the sting  out of  her voice.
Blueshell wasn't the proper target for her frustration. "Yup. At least  five
     "I'm  sorry."   He  paused,  going  into   the  stillness  of  complete
concentration. "I've committed the memory."  Sometimes the habit  was  cute,
and sometimes  just irritating: When the  Riders tried to think on more than
one thing  at a  time,  their  Skrodes  were  sometimes  unable to  maintain
short-term memory. Blueshell especially got trapped into cycles of behavior,
repeating an action and immediately forgetting the accomplishment.
     Pham grinned,  looking a lot cooler than Ravna  felt. "What I don't see
is why you Riders put up with it."
     "Well, according to the ship's library, you've had these Skrode gadgets
since before  there was  a Net. So how come you haven't improved the design,
gotten  rid of the silly  wheels, upgraded  the memory  tracking? I bet that
even a  Slow Zone combat  programmer  like me  could come up  with  a better
design than the one you're riding."
     "It's really a  matter  of tradition," Blueshell  said  primly,  "We're
grateful to Whatever gave us wheels and memory in the first place."
     Ravna almost smiled. By now she knew Pham well  enough to guess what he
was thinking -- namely that plenty of  Riders might  have  gone on to better
things in the  Transcend. Those remaining were  likely to  have self-imposed
     "Yes.  Tradition.  Many  who  once were  Riders  have  changed  -- even
Transcended.  But  we  persist."  Greenstalk  paused, and when she continued
sounded even more shy than usual. "You've heard of the Rider Myth?"
     "No," said Ravna, distracted in spite of herself. In the time ahead she
would know as  much about  these Riders as about any human  friends, but for
now there were still surprises.
     "Not many have. Not that it's a secret; it's just we don't make much of
it. It comes  close to being religion, but one we don't proselytize. Four or
five billion years ago, Someone built the first skrodes and raised the first
Riders to sentience. That much is verified  fact. The Myth is that something
destroyed our Creator and all its works.... A catastrophe so great that from
this distance it is not even understood as an act of mind."
     There were plenty of theories about what  the galaxy had been  like  in
the distant  past, in the time of the Ur-Partition. But  the Net couldn't be
forever. There had to be a beginning. Ravna had never been a big believer in
Ancient Wars and Catastrophes.
     "So in a sense," Greenstalk  said,  "we Riders are the  faithful  ones,
waiting  for  What created  us  to return. The  traditional  skrode and  the
traditional  interface are a standard. Staying with it has made our patience
     "Quite so," said Blueshell. "And  the  design itself is very subtle, My
Lady, even  if  the  function  is  simple." He rolled to  the center of  the
ceiling. "The skrode of tradition imposes a good discipline -- concentration
on what's truly important. Just now I was  trying  to  worry about too  many
things...." Abruptly he returned  to the topic  at hand: "Two  of  our drive
spines  never  recovered from the  damage at relay.  Three more appear to be
degrading.  We thought this  slow progress was just the storm,  but now I've
studied the spines up close. The diagnostic warnings were no false alarm."
     "... and it's still getting worse?"
     "Unfortunately so."
     "So how bad will it get?"
     Blueshell drew all his tendrils together. "My  Lady Ravna, we can't  be
certain of the extrapolations yet. It may not get much worse than now, or --
You  know the OOB  was not fully ready for  departure.  There were the final
consistency checks still  to  do. In  a way,  I worry about that  more  than
anything. We  don't  know what bugs may lurk, especially when we  reach  the
Bottom and  our normal automation  must be retired. We must watch the drives
very carefully ... and hope."
     It was the nightmare that  haunted travelers, especially at the  Bottom
of the  Beyond: with ultradrive gone, suddenly a light-year was not a matter
of minutes but of  years. Even if they fired  up the ramscoop  and went into
cold sleep, Jefri Olsndot would be a thousand years dead before they reached
him, and the secret of his parents' ship buried in some medieval midden.
     Pham  Nuwen waved at  the slowly  shifting star fields. "Still, this is
the Beyond. Every  hour we go farther  than the fleet of Qeng Ho could in  a
decade." He shrugged. "Surely there's some place we can get repairs?"

     So much  for "a quick  flight, all unobserved". Ravna sighed. The final
fitting  at Relay was to include spares and Bottom  compatibility  software.
All that was faraway might-have-beens now. She looked at Greenstalk. "Do you
have any ideas?"
     "About what?" Greenstalk said.
     Ravna bit her lip in frustration. Some said the Riders were  a race  of
comedians; they were indeed, but it was mostly unintentional.
     Blueshell rattled at his mate.
     "Oh!  You  mean  where  can  we  get  help.  Yes,   there  are  several
possibilities. Sjandra Kei is thirty-nine hundred lights spinward from here,
but outside this storm. We -- "
     "Too far," Blueshell and Ravna spoke almost in chorus.
     "Yes, yes, but remember. The Sjandra Kei worlds  are mainly human, your
home,  my  lady Ravna.  And Blueshell and  I know them well; after all, they
were the source of the  crypto shipment we brought to Relay. We have friends
there and  you a family. Even Blueshell agrees that we can get the work done
without notice there."
     "Yes, if we could get there." Blueshell's voder voice sounded petulant.
     "Okay, what are the other choices?"
     "They are  not  so  well-known. I'll  make a list." Her  fronds drifted
across  a  console. "Our  last chance for  choice is rather near our planned
course. It's a single system civilization. The Net name is ... it translates
as Harmonious Repose."
     "Rest in Peace, eh?" said Pham.
     But they had agreed to voyage on quietly, always watching the bad drive
spines, postponing the decision to stop for help.

     The days became weeks,  and  weeks  slowly  counted  into months.  Four
voyagers on  a quest toward the Bottom. The drive became  worse, but slowly,
right on OOB's diagnostic projections.
     The Blight  continued to spread across  the Top  of the Beyond, and its
attacks on Network archives extended far beyond its direct reach.
     Communication with  Jefri was improving.  Messages trickled  in at  the
rate of one or two a day. Sometimes, when OOB's antenna swarm was tuned just
right, he  and Ravna would talk almost in real time. Progress was being made
on the  Tines' world, faster than  she had  expected -- perhaps  fast enough
that the boy could save himself.
     It should have been a hard time, locked up in the single ship with just
three others,  with only a thread of communication to the outside,  and that
with a lost child.
     In any case, it was rarely boring.  Ravna found that each  of them  had
plenty to do. For herself it was managing the ship's library, coaxing out of
it the  plans that would help Mr. Steel and Jefri. OOB's library was nothing
compared  to  the  Archive  at Relay, or  even  the  university libraries at
Sjandra  Kei,  but  without proper  search  automation it could be  just  as
unknowable.  And  as their voyage proceeded,  that automation  need more and
more special care.
     And ... things could  never be  boring with Pham around. He had a dozen
projects, and  curiosity  about everything. "Voyaging time can  be a  gift,"
he'd say. "Now  we have time to catch  ourselves  up, time to get ready  for
whatever we find ahead." He was  learning Samnorsk. It went slower than  his
faked learning on Relay,  but the guy had a natural bent for languages,  and
Ravna gave him plenty of practice.
     He  spent several  hours  each  day in the OOB's  workshop, often  with
Blueshell.  Reality graphics were a new thing  to him, but after a few weeks
he  was beyond toy prototypes.  The pressure suits he  built had power packs
and weapons stores.  "We don't know  what things may be like when we arrive;
powered armor could be real useful."
     At the end of each work day they would all meet on the command deck, to
compare  notes,  to  consider the latest from Jefri and Mr. Steel, to review
the  drive status. For Ravna this could be the happiest time of the day  ...
and sometimes  the hardest. Pham  had rigged the display automation  to show
castle walls all around. A huge fireplace replaced the normal window on comm
status. The  sound  of it  was almost  perfect; he had even  coaxed a  small
amount  of "fire" heat from that wall.  This was a castle hall out of Pham's
memory, from Canberra he said. But it wasn't that different from  the Age of
Princesses  on Nyjora  (though most  of  those castles had been  in tropical
swamps, where  big fireplaces  were rarely used). For some perverse  reason,
even the  Riders  seemed to enjoy it; Greenstalk said  it reminded  her of a
trading stop  from her first years with Blueshell.  Like travelers who  have
walked through  a  long day, the  four of them rested  in the  coziness of a
phantom lodge. And when  the new business was settled, Pham  and the  Riders
would trade stories, often late into the "night".
     Ravna sat beside him, the  least talkative  of the four.  She joined in
the laughter and sometimes the  discussion: There was the time Blueshell had
a humor  fit at Pham's faith in public key  encryption, and Ravna knew  some
stories of her own to illustrate the Rider's opinion. But this was also  the
hardest  time  for  her.  Yes,  the stories  were  wonderful. Blueshell  and
Greenstalk had been so many places, and at heart they were traders. Swindles
and bargains and good done were all part of  their  lives.  Pham listened to
his friends, almost enraptured ... and then told his own stories, of being a
prince  on Canberra,  of being a Slow Zone trader and explorer. And  for all
the limitations  of the  Slowness, his life's  adventures surpassed even the
Skroderiders'. Ravna smiled and tried to pretend enthusiasm.
     For  Pham's stories were too much. He honestly  believed  them, but she
couldn't imagine one human seeing so much, doing so much. Back on Relay, she
had claimed his memories were synthetic, a little  joke of Old One. She  had
been very angry  when  she said  it, and more than anything she  wished  she
never had ... because it was so clearly the truth.  Greenstalk and Blueshell
never noticed, but sometimes in the middle of a story Pham would stumble  on
his memories and a look of barely concealed panic  would come  to his  eyes.
Somewhere inside, he knew the truth too, and she suddenly wanted to hug him,
comfort him. It was like having a terribly wounded friend, with whom you can
talk  but never mutually  admit  the scope  of  the  injuries.  Instead  she
pretended the lapses didn't exist,  smiling and  laughing at the rest of his
     And Old One's jape  was all  so unnecessary.  Pham  didn't have to be a
great  hero.  He  was  a  decent person,  though  ebullient and  kind  of  a
rule-breaker. He had every bit as much persistence as she, and more courage.
     What craft Old One must have had to make such a person, what ... Power.
And how she hated Him, for making a joke of such a person.

     Of Pham's  godshatter,  there  was scarcely a sign. For that Ravna  was
very grateful. Once or twice a month he had a dreamy spell. For a day or two
after he would go nuts with  some  new project,  often something he couldn't
clearly  explain. But it wasn't getting worse; he wasn't drifting  away from
     "And the godshatter may save us in the end," he would say when  she had
the  courage  to  ask  him about it. "No, I  don't know how." He tapped  his
forehead. "It's  still  god's  own  crowded attic up  here. "It's more  than
memory. Sometimes  it needs all my mind to think with  and  there's  no room
left for self-awareness, and afterwards I can't explain,  but... sometimes I
have a glimmer. Whatever Jefri's parents brought to the Tines' world: it can
hurt the  Blight.  Call it an  antidote --  better  yet,  a  countermeasure.
Something taken from the Perversion as it was  aborning in the Straumli lab.
Something the Perversion didn't even suspect was gone until much later."
     Ravna  sighed.  It  was  hard  to imagine good news  that  was also  so
frightening. "The Straumers could  sneak something  like that right out from
the Perversion's heart?"
     "Maybe.  Or  maybe,  Countermeasure used  the Straumers  to escape  the
Perversion.  To hide inaccessibly deep, and wait to strike.  And I think the
plan might  work, Rav, at least if I -- if  Old  One's godshatter -- can get
down there and help  it.  Look at the News. The Blight is turning the top of
the Beyond upside down -- hunting for something. Hitting Relay was the least
of it, a small by-product of its murdering Old One. But  it's looking in all
the wrong places. We'll have our chance at Countermeasure."
     She thought of Jefri's messages. "The rot on the walls of Jefri's ship.
You think that's what it is?"
     Pham's eyes went vague. "Yes. It seems  completely passive, but he says
it was there from the beginning, that his parents kept him away from  it. He
seems a little disgusted  by it.... That's good,  probably  keeps his Tinish
friends away from it."
     A thousand  questions flitted up. Surely they must in Pham's mind  too.
And they could know the answer  to none of them now. Yet  someday they would
stand  before  that  unknown and Old One's  dead hand would act  ... through
Pham. Ravna shivered, and didn't say anything more for a time.

     Month  by  month, the gunpowder project stayed right on the schedule of
the library's development program. The Tines had been able to make the stuff
easily; there had  been  very little backtracking  through  the  development
tree. Alloy testing had been the critical event that slowed things, but they
were over  the hump there too. The packs  of "Hidden Island"  had built  the
first three prototypes: breech-loading  cannon that were small enough to  be
carried by a single pack. Jefri guessed  they could begin mass production in
another ten days.
     The  radio  project was  the  weird one.  In one  sense  it  was behind
schedule; in another,  it  had become something more  than  Ravna  had  ever
imagined. After a long period of normal progress, Jefri had come back with a
counterplan.  It consisted  of  a complete reworking  of  the tables for the
acoustic interface.
     "I thought these  jokers  were  first-time medievals,"  Pham Nuwen said
when he saw Jefri's message.
     "That's right. And in principle, they just reasoned out consequences to
what we sent them. The want to support pack-thought across the radio."
     "Hunh. Yes.  We described how the  tables specified the transducer grid
-- all  in nontechnical  Samnorsk.  That  included showing how  small  table
changes would make the grid  different. But look, our design would give them
a  three kilohertz band -- a nice, voice-grade connection. You're telling me
that implementing this new table would give'em two hundred kilohertz."
     "Yes. That's what my dataset says."
     He  grinned  his  cocky  smile.  "Ha!  And  that's my  point. Sure,  in
principle we gave them enough information to do the mod. It looks to me like
making this expanded spec table is equivalent to solving a, hmm," he counted
rows  and  columns, "a  five-hundred-node numerical PDE.  And  little  Jefri
claims that all his datasets are destroyed, and  that  his  ship computer is
not generally usable."
     Ravna leaned back from  the display. "Sorry. I  see what you mean." You
get so used to everyday  tools, sometimes you  forget  what it must  be like
without them. "You ... you think this might be, uh, Countermeasure's doing?"
     Pham  Nuwen hesitated, as if he hadn't even considered the possibility.
Then, "No  ...  no,  it's  not that. I think this  'Mister Steel' is playing
games  with our heads. All we have is a byte stream from 'Jefri'. What do we
really know about what's going on?"
     "Well,  I'll tell you some things I  know. We are  talking to  a  young
human child who was  raised in Straumli Realm.  You've been reading most  of
his messages in Trisk  translation.  That loses a lot  of the colloquialisms
and the  little  errors of a child who is a native speaker of Samnorsk.  The
only way this  might be faked is  by  a group of human adults.... And  after
twenty plus weeks of knowing Jefri, I'll tell you even that is unlikely."
     "Okay. So suppose Jefri  is  for real.  We have this eight-year-old kid
down on the Tines' world. He's telling us what he considers to be the truth.
I'm saying it looks like someone is lying to him. Maybe we can trust what he
sees  with his own eyes. He says these creatures  aren't  sapient except  in
groups of five or so. Okay.  We'll believe  that."  Pham  rolled  his  eyes.
Apparently his reading had shown how rare group intelligences were this side
of  the Transcend.  "The kid says they didn't see  anything  but small towns
from space, and that everything on the  ground is medieval. Okay,  we'll buy
that.  But. What  are the chances that this race is smart enough to do PDE's
in their heads, and do them from just the implications in your message?"
     "Well, there have been some humans that smart." She could name one case
in Nyjoran history, another couple from  Old  Earth. If  such abilities were
common among the packs,  they  were smarter  than any natural  race she  had
heard of. "So this isn't first-time medievalism?"
     "Right.  I bet  this is some  colony fallen on hard  times -- like your
Nyjora and my Canberra, except that they have  the good luck of being in the
Beyond. These dog packs have a  working computer somewhere. Maybe it's under
control of their priest class; maybe they don't have much  else. But they're
holding out on us."
     "But why? We'd be helping them in any case.  And Jefri  has told us how
this group saved him."
     Pham started to  smile  again,  the old  supercilious  smile.  Then  he
sobered. He was really trying to  break that habit.  "You've been on a dozen
different  worlds,  Ravna.  And I know  you've read about thousands more, at
least in survey. You probably know  of  varieties of medievalism  I've never
guessed. But remember, I've actually been there.... I think." The last was a
nervous mutter.
     "I've read about the Age of Princesses," Ravna said mildly.
     "Yes.... and I'm sorry for belittling  that.  In any medieval politics,
the blade  and the thought are closely connected. But  they become much more
closely  bound for someone who's  lived through it. Look, even if we believe
everything  that Jefri  says  he has seen, this Hidden  Island  Kingdom is a
sinister thing."
     "You mean the names?"
     "Like   Flensers,  Steel,   Tines?  Harsh   names   aren't  necessarily
meaningful." Pham laughed. "I  mean, when  I was eight years  old, one of my
titles was already 'Lord Master  Disemboweler'."  He saw the look on Ravna's
face  and hurriedly added, "And at that age, I  hadn't even  witnessed  more
than a couple of executions! No, the names are only a small part of it.  I'm
thinking of  the kid's description of the  castle -- which seems to be close
by the ship -- and this ambush he thinks he was rescued from. It doesn't add
up.  You  asked  'what  could they gain from betraying  us'. I can  see that
question from their point of view.  If they are a fallen colony, they have a
clear  idea what  they've lost.  They probably have some remnant technology,
and are paranoid as hell. If  I  were them, I'd seriously consider ambushing
the rescuers if those rescuers seemed weak or careless. And even if we  come
on  strong  ...  look  at  the questions Jefri  asks for Steel.  The  guy is
fishing, trying to figure out what we really value: the refugee  ship, Jefri
and the coldsleepers, or something on the ship. By the time we arrive, Steel
will probably  have wiped the local opposition --  thanks to us. My guess is
we're in for some heavy blackmail when we get to Tines' world."

     I thought we were talking about the good news. Ravna paged back through
recent messages. Pham was right. The boy was  telling  the truth as  he knew
it, but.... "I don't see how we can play things any differently. If we don't
help Steel against the Woodcarvers -- "
     "Yeah. We don't know enough to do much else. Whatever else is true, the
Woodcarvers  seem a valid threat to  Jefri  and the ship. I'm just saying we
should be  thinking  about all  the  possibilities. One thing we  absolutely
mustn't  do is show  interest in  Countermeasure. If  the  locals  know  how
desperate we are for that, we don't have a chance.
     "And it may be time  to start  planting a few  lies of our own. Steel's
been talking about building  a landing place  for  us -- within  his castle.
There's no way OOB could fit, but I think we  should play along, tell  Jefri
that we can separate from our ultradrive, something like his container ship.
Let Steel concentrate on building harmless traps...."
     He  hummed one of his strange little "marching" tunes. "About the radio
thing:  why don't  we compliment  the Tines real casually for improving  our
design. I wonder what they'd say?"
     Pham Nuwen got his  answer  less  than three days  later. Jefri Olsndot
said that  he had done  the optimization. So if you believed the kid,  there
was no evidence for hidden  computers.  Pham was  not  at all convinced: "So
just  by coincidence,  we have Isaac Newton  on the other end of  the line?"
Ravna didn't argue  the point.  It was an enormous bit  of luck, yet.... She
went over the earlier messages.  In language and general  knowledge, the boy
seemed very  ordinary for his  age.  But  occasionally there were situations
involving mathematical insight --  not formal,  taught math --  where  Jefri
said striking  things.  Some  of  those  conversations had  been under  fine
conditions, with turnaround times of less  than a  minute. It all seemed too
consistent to be the lie Pham Nuwen thought.

     Jefri Olsndot, you are someone I want very much to meet.

     There  was always  something: problems  with the  Tines'  developments,
fears that the murderous  Woodcarvers might attack  Mr. Steel, worries about
the steadily degrading drive  spines and Zone  turbulence  that slowed OOB's
progress even  further.  Life was by turns and at  once frustrating, boring,
frightening. And yet ...
     One night  about four  months into the flight,  Ravna woke in the cabin
she had come  to share  with Pham.  Maybe  she had  been dreaming,  but  she
couldn't remember  anything except  that it had been no nightmare. There was
no special  noise in the room, nothing  to wake her.  Beside  her, Pham  was
sleeping soundly  in  their hammock  net. She eased her  arm  down his back,
drawing  him  gently toward her. His breathing changed; he mumbled something
placid and  unintelligible. In Ravna's opinion, sex in zero-gee was  not the
experience some people bragged it up to be; but really sleeping with someone
... that was much nicer in free fall. An embrace could be light and enduring
and effortless.
     Ravna looked  around the dimly-lit cabin, trying  to  imagine what  had
woken  her. Maybe it had just been  the problems  of the  day -- Powers knew
there  had  been  enough  of  those. She  nestled  her  face  against Pham's
shoulder.  Yes, always problems, but ... in a way she more content than  she
had been in years. Sure there were problems. Poor Jefri's situation. All the
people  lost at  Straum and  Relay. But she had three friends, and  a  love.
Alone  in  a tiny ship bound for the Bottom, she was less lonely  than she'd
been since leaving Sjandra Kei. More than ever in her life, maybe  she could
do something to help with the problems.
     And then she guessed, part in sadness, part in joy, that years from now
she might look back on these months as goldenly happy.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     And finally, almost five months out, it was clear there was no hope  of
going on without repairing the drive spines. The OOB was suddenly doing only
a quarter of a light-year per hour in a volume that tested good for two. And
things were  getting  worse.  They  would  have  no  trouble  making  it  to
Harmonious Repose, but beyond that ...
     Harmonious Repose. An  ugly name, thought Ravna. Pham's "light-hearted"
translation  was  worse: Rest In  Peace. In  the  Beyond, almost  everything
habitable  was  in use. Civilizations were transient and races faded ... but
there were always new people moving up from Below. The result was most often
patchwork, polyspecific systems. Young races just up from the Slowness lived
uneasily  with  the remnants  of  older  peoples. According  to  the  ship's
library,  RIP  had been  in  the  Beyond  for  a  long  time.  It  had  been
continuously inhabited for at least two hundred million years, time for  ten
thousand species to call it home. The most recent notes  showed  better than
one  hundred racial terranes. Even the youngest was  the residue of a  dozen
emigrations. The place should be peaceful to the point of being moribund.
     So be it. They jigged the OOB three light-years spinward. Now they were
flying down the main  Net trunk towards RIP: they'd be able to listen to the
News the whole way in.
     Harmonious  Repose  advertised. At  least one  species valued  external
goods,  specializing  in  ship  outfitting  and   repair.  An   industrious,
hard-footed(?) race, the  ads  said. Eventually,  she  saw some  video:  the
creatures walked on ivory  tusks and had a froth of short arms growing  from
just below their necks. The  ads included Net addresses  of satisfied users.
Too bad we can't follow up on those. Instead, Ravna sent a short  message in
Triskweline, requesting generic  drive replacements,  and  listing  possible
methods of payment.
     Meantime, the bad news kept rolling in:

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Baeloresk->Triskweline, SjK units
     From:   Alliance  for   the   Defense   [Claimed  cooperative  of  five
polyspecific empires  in the Beyond  below  Straumli  Realm.  No  record  of
existence before the Fall of the Realm.]
     Subject: Call to action
 Threat of the Blight, War Trackers Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group
     Date: 158.00 days since Fall of Relay
     Key phrases: Action, not talk

     Text of message:
     Alliance  Forces are  preparing  for action  against the  tools  of the
Perversion. It is time  for our friends to declare themselves. At the moment
we  do not need your military pledges, but in  the very near future we  will
need support services including free Net time.
     In  the coming seconds we will be watching  closely to see who supports
our action and  who may be enslaved to the Perversion. If you live  with the
human  infestation, you have a choice:  act  now with a  good possibility of
victory -- or wait, and be destroyed.
     Death to vermin.

     There were plenty  of  secondary messages,  including speculation about
who Death to Vermin (aka the "Alliance for the Defense") had  in mind. There
were  also rumors of  military movement.  This wasn't making the splash  the
fall  of  Relay had, but it did have  the attention of several News  groups.
Ravna  swallowed hard and looked away from the display. "Well, they're still
making big noises," she tried for a light tone, but  it didn't come out that
     Pham  Nuwen  touched  her  shoulder.  "Quite  true.  And  real  killers
generally don't  advertise beforehand."  But  there  was  more sympathy than
conviction in his  voice. "We still  don't know  that  this is  more than  a
single loud-mouth. There's no definite word of ship movements. What can they
do after all?"
     Ravna pushed herself up from the  table. "Not  much, I hope. There  are
hundreds of civilizations with small human settlements.  Surely they've have
taken precautions since this  Death to Vermin stuff began.... By the Powers,
I wish I knew Sjandra Kei was safe."  It had been more than two years  since
she'd seen  Lynne  and her parents. Sometimes  Sjandra  Kei seemed something
from another life, but just knowing it was there had been more  comfort than
she realized. Now....
     On  the  other  side of  the command  deck,  the Skroderiders  had been
working  on the repair  specs. Now Blueshell rolled toward them. "I  do fear
for the small  settlements, but the  humans at  Sjandra Kei are  the driving
force of that civilization; even the name is a human one. Any attack on them
would be an attack on the entire civilization. Greenstalk and  I have traded
there often enough, and with their commercial security forces. Only fools or
bluffers would announce an invasion beforehand."
     Ravna  thought  a  moment, brightened. The Dirokimes and Lophers  would
stand  against any threat to  humankind at Sjandra Kei.  "Yeah.  We're not a
ghetto there." Things might be very bad for isolated humans, but Sjandra Kei
would be okay. "Bluffers. Well it's not called the Net of a Million Lies for
nothing." She pulled her mind back from worries beyond her control. "But one
thing is clear.  Stopping at  Harmonious Repose, we must be damn sure not to
look like anything human."

     And of course, part of not looking human  was that there be no  sign of
Ravna and Pham. The Riders would do all the "talking".  Ravna and the Riders
went through all the  ship's exterior programs,  weeding out  human  nuances
that had crept  in since they left Relay. And if they were actually boarded?
Well, they would never survive a determined search, but they isolated things
human  in  a fake  jovian hold.  The two  humans  would  slip  in  there  if
     Pham Nuwen checked what they  did  -- and found  more than one slip-up.
For  a  barbarian  programmer,  he  wasn't bad. But  then they were  rapidly
reaching the  depths where the best computer equipment wasn't that much more
sophisticated than what he had known.
     Ironically, there was one thing they  could not disguise: that  the OOB
was from the Top of the Beyond. True, the ship was a bottom lugger and based
on a Mid Beyond design. But there was an elegance to the refit that screamed
of nearly superhuman competence. "The damn thing has the feel of a  hand axe
built in a factory," was how Pham Nuwen put it.

     RIPer security was  an encouraging  thing: a perfunctory velocity check
and no boarding.  OOB hopped into the system and  finished a rocket  burn to
match  position/velocity vector  with  the heart  of  Harmonious Repose  and
"Saint(?) Rihndell's Repair Harbor". (Pham: "If  you're a 'saint', you gotta
be honest, right?")

     Out of  Band was  above the ecliptic and some eighty million kilometers
from  RIP's  single  star.  Even  knowing  what  to  expect,  the  view  was
spectacular: The inner system was as dusty/gassy  as a stellar nursery, even
though  the  primary  was a  three-billion-year-old  G  star. That  sun  was
surrounded  by millions of rings, more spectacular  than around any  planet.
The  largest and brightest resolved into myriads  more.  Even in the natural
view, there was  bright  color here, threads of  green  and  red and violet.
Warping of the ring plane  laid lakes of  shadow between colored  hillsides,
hillsides  a  million kilometers  across. There were  occasional objects  --
structures?  --  sticking  far  enough  up  from  the  ring  plane  to  cast
needle-like shadows out-system.  Infrared and proper motion  windows  showed
more conventional features:  Beyond the  rings lay a massive  asteroid belt,
and  far  beyond that  a single  jovian  planet, its own million-klick  ring
system a puny afterthought. There were no other planets, either detected  or
on  file. The  largest objects in the  main ring system  were three  hundred
kilometers across ... but there appeared to be thousands of them.
     At "Saint  Rihndell's" direction they brought the ship down to the ring
plane  and  matched  velocities with the  local junk.  That last  was  a big
impulsive burn:  three gees for  almost  five  minutes. "Just like old,  old
times," Pham Nuwen said.
     In free fall  again, they  looked  out  upon their harbor: Up  close it
looked like planetary  ring systems Ravna had known all her life. There were
objects of all sizes down to less than a handspan across, uncounted globs of
icy froth -- gently  touching, sticking, separating. The debris hung  nearly
motionless all about them; this was chaos that  had been tamed long  ago. In
the  plane  of the rings, they couldn't see  more than a few hundred meters.
The  debris blocked  further  views.  And  it wasn't  all  loose. Greenstalk
pointed to a line of white that seemed to curve from infinity, pass close by
them, and then retreat  forever in the other direction. "Looks like a single
structure," she said.
     Ravna stepped up  the magnification. In  planetary  ring  systems,  the
"frothy  snowballs"  sometimes  accreted  into strings  thousands of  klicks
long.... The white thread spread wide beyond the window. The display said it
was almost  a  kilometer  across.  This  arc  was  definitely  not  made  of
snowballs. She could see ship locks and communications nodes.  Checking with
images from their approach, Ravna could see that the whole  thing was better
than forty  million kilometers long. There were a number of breaks scattered
along the arc. That figured: the scaled tensile strength of such a structure
could  be near zero.  Depending  on local distortions, it would  pull  apart
briefly,  then gently  come together some time later.  The whole  affair was
vaguely reminiscent of train cars  coupling and uncoupling on some  old-time
Nyjoran railway.
     Over the next  hour, they moved carefully in  to dock at  the ring arc.
The only  thing  regular about the structure was its linearity.  Some of the
modules were clearly designed for  linking fore and aft. Others were jumbled
heaps of oddball  equipment meshed  in dirty  ice. The last  few kilometers,
they drifted through a forest of ultradrive spines. Two thirds of the berths
were occupied.
     Blueshell opened a window on Saint Rihndell's business specs. "Hmm. Hm.
Sir Rihndell seems extraordinarily busy." He angled some fronds back at  the
ships in the exterior view.
     Pham: "Maybe he's running a junkyard."

     Blueshell and  Greenstalk went down  to the  cargo lock to prepare  for
their first trip ashore. The Skroderiders  had been together for two hundred
years,  and Blueshell came from a star trader tradition before that. Yet the
two  argued back and forth  about the  best  approach  to  take with  "Saint
     "Of  course,  Harmonious Repose  is typical,  dear  Blueshell;  I would
remember the type even if I'd never ridden a  Skrode.  But our business here
is not like anything we've done before."
     Blueshell grumped wordlessly, and pushed another trade packet under his
cargo scarf. The scarf was more than pretty. The material was tough, elastic
stuff that protected what it covered.
     This  was  the same procedure  they  had  always followed  in  new ring
systems,  and  it had  worked  well  before. Finally he replied, "Certainly,
there  are differences,  mainly  that  we  have very little to trade for the
repairs and no previous  commercial contacts. If we don't use hard  business
sense we'll get nothing here!" He checked the various  sensors strung across
his Skrode, then spoke to the humans. "Do  you want  me  to  move any of the
cameras? Do they all have a clear  view?" Saint Rihndell was a miser when it
came to renting bandwidth -- or maybe it was simply cautious.
     Pham Nuwen's voice came back. "No. They're okay. Can  you  hear me?" He
was speaking  through a microphone inside their skrodes. The link itself was
     The  Skroderiders passed through OOB's locks into Saint Rihndell's  arc

     From within, transparency arched around them, lines of natural  windows
that  dwindled  into the distance. They  looked out  upon  Saint  Rihndell's
current customers and the ring fluff beyond. The sun was dimmed in the view,
but  there  was  a haze of brightness, a  super corona. That was a power-sat
swarm, no doubt; ring systems did not naturally make good use of the central
fire. For a moment the Riders stopped in their tracks, taken by the image of
a sea greater than any sea: The light might have been sunset through shallow
surf. And to them, the drifting of thousands of nearby particles looked like
food in a slow tidal surge.
     The concourse was crowded.  The creatures here had ordinary enough body
plans, though  none were  of species Greenstalk  recognized for certain. The
tusk-leg type  that ran  Saint Rihndell's was most numerous. After a moment,
one such drifted out  from the wall near the OOB's lock. It buzzed something
that came out as Triskweline: "For trading, we  go this way." Its ivory legs
moved agilely  across  netting into an  open  car. The  Skroderiders settled
behind and they accelerated along  the arc. Blueshell waggled at Greenstalk,
"The  old story, eh; what good  are their legs now?" It was the oldest Rider
humor, but it was always worth  a laugh:  Two legs or four  legs  -- evolved
from flippers  or jaws or  whatever --  were  all very  good for movement on
land. But in space, it scarcely mattered.
     The  car  was  making  about  one hundred  meters per  second,  swaying
slightly whenever  they passed from one  ring segment to the next. Blueshell
kept up  a steady patter of conversation with their guide, the sort of pitch
that Greenstalk knew was one of his great joys in life. "Where are we going?
What are those creatures there? What sort of things are they in search of at
Saint Rihndell's?" All jovial, and almost  humanly  brisk. Where  short-term
memory was failing him, he depended on his skrode.
     Tusk-legs  spoke  only  reduced-grammar Triskweline  and didn't seem to
understand  some  of  the questions: "We go  to the Master Seller.... helper
creatures those are.... allies of big new customer..." Their guide's limited
speech bothered dear Blueshell not at all; he was collecting responses  more
than answers. Most races had interests  that  were obscure  to  the likes of
Blueshell  and Greenstalk. No  doubt  there were  billions of  creatures  in
Harmonious Repose who  were totally  inscrutable  to  Riders  or  Humans  or
Dirokimes.  Yet simple dialog  often gave insight on the two  most important
questions:  What do you  have  that might be  useful  to me, and  how can  I
persuade you to part with  it?  Dear Blueshell's questions were sounding out
the other,  trying  to find  the parameters of personality and interest  and
     It  was  a  team  game the  two  Skroderiders  played. While  Blueshell
chattered, Greenstalk  watched everything  around them, running her skrode's
recorders on  all bands, trying  to place this environment in the context of
others they had known. Technology: What would these people need? What  could
work?  In space this flat, there would be little use for agrav  fabric.  And
this low in the  Beyond, a lot of the most sophisticated imports  from above
would  spoil  almost  immediately.  Workers  outside  the  long windows wore
articulated pressure suits -- the force-field suits of the High Beyond would
last only a few weeks down here.
     They  passed  trees(?) that twisted  and  twisted. Some  of the  trunks
circled the wall of the arc; others trailed along their path for hundreds of
meters.  Tusk-leg  gardeners floated everywhere about the plants,  yet there
was no evidence  of agriculture. All this was  ornament. In  the  ring plane
beyond the windows there were occasional towers,  structures that sprouted a
thousand kilometers above the  plane  and  cast  the pointy shadows they had
seen on their final approach  to the system. Ravna's voice and Pham's buzzed
against her stalk, softly asking Greenstalk about the towers, speculating on
their purpose. She stored their theories for later consideration ... but she
doubted them; some  would  only work in the High Beyond, and others would be
clumsy given this civilization's other accomplishments.
     Greenstalk  had  visited eight ring system civilizations in  her  life.
They were  a common consequence of accidents and  wars (and occasionally, of
deliberate  habitat design).  According to  OOB's library, Harmonious Repose
had been  a  normal planetary system up till  ten  million  years  ago. Then
there'd  been a real estate dispute: A  young race from Below had thought to
colonize  and exterminate the  moribund inhabitants. The attack  had been  a
miscalculation, for the moribund could still kill and the system was reduced
to rubble. Perhaps the  young race survived. But after ten million years, if
there were any of those young killers left they would now  be the most frail
of the systems' elder races. Perhaps a thousand new races had passed through
in that  time, and almost  every one had done something to tailor  the rings
and the gas cloud left  from the debacle. What was  left was not  a  ruin at
all,  but  old  ...  old.  The  ship's  library  claimed  that  no  race had
transcended  from Harmonious Repose in a thousand years.  That fact was more
important than all the  others.  The current  civilizations  were  in  their
twilight, refining  mediocrity. More than anything else, the system  had the
feel  of an old and beautiful tide  pool, groomed and tended,  shielded from
the  exciting waves that  might upset its  bansai  plumes.  Most  likely the
tusk-legs were the liveliest species  about, perhaps the only one interested
in trade with the outside.
     Their car slowed and spiraled into a small tower.

     "By the Fleet, what I wouldn't give to  be  out  there with them!" Pham
Nuwen waved at the  views coming in from the skrode cameras. Ever since  the
Riders left, he'd been at the windows, alternately  gaping wide-eyed at  the
ringscape and bouncing abstractedly between  the  command deck's  floor  and
ceiling.  Ravna  had  never  seen  him  so  absorbed,  so  intense.  However
fraudulent his memories of  trading days,  he truly thought he could  make a
difference. And he may be right.
     Pham came  down from the ceiling, pulled close to the screen. It looked
like serious bargaining was about to begin.  The Skroderiders had arrived in
a spherical room perhaps fifty meters  across. Apparently they were floating
near the center of it. A forest  grew  inward  from all directions,  and the
Riders seemed to float just a few  meters from the tree tops. Here and there
between the branches, they could see the ground, a mosaic of flowers.
     Saint  Rihndell's  sales creatures were scattered all about the tallest
trees.  They sat(?)  with  their  ivory  limbs  twined  about the tree tops.
Tusk-leg races were a common thing in the galaxy, but these  were  the first
Ravna  had known. The body plan was totally unlike  anything  from home, and
even now she didn't have a  clear idea  of their appearance. Sitting in  the
trees,  their legs  had more  of the aspect  of  a skeletal fingers grasping
around the trunk. Their chief rep -- who claimed to be Saint Rihndell itself
-- had scrimshaw covering two-thirds of its ivory. Two of the windows showed
the  carving close  up; Pham seemed  to think that understanding the artwork
might be useful.
     Progress  was  slow. Triskweline  was the  common  language,  but  good
interpreting  devices  didn't  work  this deep  in  the  Beyond,  and  Saint
Rihndell's folk were only marginally familiar with the trade talk. Ravna was
used to  clean  translations.  Even  the  Net  messages she dealt  with were
usually intelligible (though sometimes misleadingly so).
     They'd been talking  for twenty minutes  and  had only just established
that  Saint Rihndell might have the  ability to repair OOB. It was the usual
Riderly driftiness,  and something more. The  tedium  seemed to please  Pham
Nuwen, "Rav, this  is  almost  like a Qeng Ho  operation, face  to face with
critters and scarcely a common language."
     "We sent them a description of our repair problem hours ago. Why should
it take so long for a simple yes or no?"
     "Because they're haggling,"  said Pham, his grin broadening.  "'Honest'
Saint Rihndell here -- " he waved  at  the  scrimshawed local, "-- wants  to
convince us just how hard the job is.... Lord I wish I was out there."
     Even  Blueshell  and  Greenstalk seemed  a  little  strange now.  Their
Triskweline was  stripped down, barely more  complex than Saint  Rihndell's.
And  much  of  the discussion seemed very round about. Working  for Vrinimi,
Ravna had had some experience with sales and trading.  But haggling? You had
your pricing  data  bases and strategy support, and directions from Grondr's
people. You either had a deal or you didn't.  What  was going on between the
Riders and Saint Rihndell  was one of the more  alien things Ravna had  ever
     "Actually, things are going pretty well ...  I  think. You saw  when we
arrived,  the  bone legs  took away Blueshell's  samples.  By now  they know
precisely what we have. There's something in those samples that they want.
     "Sure. Saint Rihndell isn't bad-mouthing our stuff for his health."
     "Damn it,  it's possible  we don't have anything  on  board  they could
want. This was  never intended to  be a  trade  expedition."  Blueshell  and
Greenstalk had scavenged  "product samples" from the ship's supplies, things
that  the OOB could survive without.  These included  sensoria  and some Low
Beyond computer gear. Some of that would be a serious loss.  But one way  or
another, we need those repairs.
     Pham  chuckled.  "No.  There's something  there  Saint  Rihndell wants.
Otherwise he wouldn't  still be  jawing.... And see how he keeps needling us
about  his 'other customers' needs'? Saint  Rihndell  is a  human kind of  a
     Something  like human  song came  over  the link to the  Riders.  Ravna
phased Greenstalk's cameras toward the sound. From the forest "floor" on the
far side of Blueshell, three new creatures had appeared.
     "Why ... they're beautiful. Butterflies," said Ravna.
     "I mean they look like  butterflies. You  know? Um. Insects with  large
colored wings."
     Giant  butterflies, actually. The  newcomers had  a generally  humanoid
body  plan.  They  were  about  150  centimeters   tall   and  covered  with
soft-looking  brown  fur.  Their wings sprouted from  behind  their shoulder
blades. At full spread they were almost  two  meters across, soft  blues and
yellows, some  more  intricately  patterned than  others.  Surely  they were
artificial, or a gengineered  affectation;  they would have been useless for
flying about in any  reasonable gravity. But here in zero-gee.... The  three
floated at the entrance for just a moment,  their huge, soft eyes looking up
at the Riders. Then they swept their  wings in measured sweeps,  and drifted
gracefully  into  the  air  above the  forest. The entire  effect  was  like
something out of a  children's video. They  had pert, button noses, like pet
jorakorns, and eyes as wide  and  bashful as any  human animator ever  drew.
Their voices sounded like youngsters singing.
     Saint  Rihndell and  his  buddies  sidled around their  tree tops.  The
tallest visitor sang on,  its wings  gently flexing. After  a  moment, Ravna
realized  it  was  speaking  fluent Trisk  with  a front end adapted to  the
creature's natural speech:
     "Saint Rihndell, greetings! Our ships are ready for  your  repairs.  We
have made fair payment, and we are in a great hurry. Your work must begin at
once!" Saint Rihndell's Trisk specialist translated the speech for his boss.
     Ravna leaned  across  Pham's back.  "So  maybe our  friendly  repairman
really is overbooked," she said.
     "... Yeah."
     Saint Rihndell came back  around his treetop. His little arms picked at
the green  needles as he made a reply. "Honored Customers. You made offer of
payment, not fully accepted. What you ask  is  in short supply, difficult to
... do."
     The cuddly butterfly made a squeaking noise  that might have passed for
joyous laughter  in  a  human  child.  The  sense  behind  its  singing  was
different: "Times are changing, Rihndell creature!  Your  people must learn:
We  will not be stymied. You know my fleet's sacred  mission. We count every
passing hour against you. Think on the  fleet you will face if  your lack of
cooperation is ever known -- is  ever  even suspected." There was a sweep of
blue  and yellow  wings,  and the butterfly turned.  Its dark,  bashful eyes
rested on the Riders. "And these potted plants, they are customers?  Dismiss
them. Till we are gone, you have no other customers."
     Ravna sucked in a breath. The three had no visible weapons, but she was
suddenly afraid for Blueshell and Greenstalk.
     "Well, what do you know," Pham said. "Butterflies in jackboots."

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     According  to  the  clock,  it  took  less than  half  an hour for  the
Skroderiders to make  it  back. It  seemed a lot longer to Pham  Nuwen, even
though  he tried to keep up a  casual front with Ravna. Maybe they were both
keeping up a front; he knew she still considered him a fragile case.
     But the Riders' cameras showed no more signs of the killer butterflies.
Finally the cargo lock cracked open and Blueshell and Greenstalk were back.
     "I  was sure  the  wily tusk-legs was  just pretending there was strong
demand," said Blueshell. He seemed as eager to rehash the story as Pham was.
     "Yeah, I thought so too. In fact, I still think those butterflies might
just be part of an act. It's all too melodramatic."
     Blueshell's fronds rattled in a way that Pham recognized  as  a kind of
shiver. "I wager not,  Sir Pham. Those were Aprahanti. Just the look of them
fills you  with  dread,  does it not?  They're  rare  these days, but a star
trader  knows  the  stories.  Still ...  this  is a  little  much  even  for
Aprahanti.  Their Hegemony has been on the wane  for  several centuries." He
rattled  something  at the ship,  and the windows  were filled with views of
nearby berths in the repair harbor. There was more Rider rattling, this time
between Greenstalk and Blueshell. "Those other ships are a uniform type, you
know. A High Beyond design like ours, but more, um, ... militant."
     Greenstalk moved close  to  a window. "There are twenty  of  them.  Why
would so many need drive repairs all at once?"

     Militant?  Pham looked at the ships  with a critical  eye. He  knew the
major features  of  Beyonder vessels by  now. These appeared to  have rather
large  cargo capacity. Elaborate sensoria too. Hm. "Okay, so the Butterflies
are hard types. How scared is Saint Rihndell and company?"
     The Skroderiders were silent for  a long moment.  Pham couldn't tell if
his  question  was  being   given  serious  consideration  or  if  they  had
simultaneously lost track  of the  conversation. He  looked at  Ravna.  "How
about the local net? I'd like to get some background."
     She  was  already  running  comm  routines.  "They  weren't  accessible
earlier.  We  couldn't even  get  the  News." That was something Pham  could
understand, even if it was damned irritating. The "local net" was a RIP-wide
ultrawave computer  and communication network, perhaps a billion  times more
complex  than anything  Pham  had  known  --  but  conceptually  similar  to
organizations in the Slow  Zone. And Pham Nuwen had seen what vandals  could
do to  such  structures;  Qeng  Ho had  dealt  with  at  least one obnoxious
civilization  by  perverting  its  computer  net.  Not  surprisingly,  Saint
Rihndell hadn't provided them with links to the RIP net. And as long as they
were in harbor, the OOB's antenna swarm  was necessarily down,  so they were
also cut off from the Known Net and the newsgroups.
     A grin lit Ravna's face. "Hei! Now we've got read access,  maybe  more.
Greenstalk. Blueshell. Wake up!"
     Rattle.  "I wasn't  asleep," claimed  Blueshell, "just thinking  on Sir
Pham's question. Saint Rihndell is obviously afraid."
     As usual, Greenstalk didn't make excuses. She rolled around her mate to
get  a better  look  at  Ravna's  newly  opened  comm  window. There  was an
iterated-triangle design with  Trisk annotations.  It meant nothing to Pham.
"That's interesting," said Greenstalk.
     "I am chuckling," said Blueshell.  "It is more than interesting.  Saint
Rihndell  is a hard-trading type. But  look, he is making no charge for this
service, not even  a percentage of barter. He  is afraid, but he still wants
to deal with us."
     Hmm, so something from their High Beyond samples was enough to make him
risk Aprahanti violence. Just hope it's  not something we  really need  too.
"Okay. Rav, see if -- "
     "Just  a second," the woman replied. "I  want to check the  News."  She
started  a search program.  Her eyes  flickered  quickly  across her console
window  ...  and after  a second she  choked,  and  her face paled. "By  the
Powers, no!"
     "What is it?"
     But Ravna didn't reply, or put  the news to a main window. Pham grabbed
the rail in front of her console and pulled  himself around so  he could see
what she was reading:

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: Harmonious Repose Communication Synod
     Language path: Baeloresk->Triskweline, SjK units
     From:   Alliance  for  the   Defense   [Claimed  cooperative  of   five
polyspecific  empires  in the  Beyond  below  Straumli Realm. No  record  of
existence before the Fall of the Realm.]
     Subject: Bold victory over the Perversion
 Threat of the Blight, War Trackers Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group
     Date: 159.06 days since fall of Relay
     Key phrases: Action, not talk; A promising beginning

     Text of message:
     One hundred seconds ago, Alliance Forces began action against the tools
of the Blight. By the time you read this, the Homo  Sapiens worlds known  as
Sjandra Kei will have been destroyed.
     Note well:  for all  the talk  and theories  that  have flown about the
Blight,  this is the  first time  anyone has successfully acted. Sjandra Kei
was  one of only  three  systems outside  of Straumli Realm  known to harbor
humans in  any  numbers. In  one stroke we  have  destroyed a  third  of the
Perversion's potential for expansion.
     Updates will follow.
     Death to vermin.

     There  was one other message in the window, an update of sorts, but not
from Death to Vermin:

     Crypto: 0
     Billing: charity/general interest
     As received by: Harmonious Repose Communication Synod
     Language path: Samnorsk->Triskweline, SjK units
     From: Commercial Security, Sjandra Kei [Note from lower protocol layer:
This message was received at Sneerot Down along the Sjandra Kei bearing. The
transmission was very weak, perhaps from a shipboard transmitter]
     Subject: Please help
 Threats Interest Group

     Date: 5.33 hours since disaster at Sjandra Kei
     Text of message:
     Earlier today,  relativistic projectiles struck  our  main habitations.
Fatalities cannot be less than  twenty-five billion. Three billion may still
live, in transit and in smaller habitats.
     We are still under attack.
     Enemy  craft  are  in the inner  system. We see  glow  bombs. They  are
killing everyone.
     Please. We need help.

     "Nei nei nei!" Ravna drove up  against him, her arms  tight around him,
her face buried in his  shoulder. She  sobbed incoherent Samnorsk. Her whole
body shuddered  against  him.  He  felt  tears coming  to his  own  eyes. So
strange. She  had been the strong one, and he  the fragile crazy. Now it was
turned all  around, and what could  he do?  "Father, mother, sister -- gone,
     It was  the disaster  they thought could not happen, and now it had. In
one minute she  had lost everything she grew up with, and was suddenly alone
in the universe. For me, that  happened long ago, the thought came strangely
dispassionate. He hooked a foot  into the deck and gently  rocked Ravna back
and forth, trying to comfort her.
     The sounds  of grief gradually quieted, though  he could still feel her
sobs through his chest. She didn't raise her face from the tear-soaked place
on his shirt. Pham looked  over her  head at Blueshell and Greenstalk. Their
fronds looked strange ... almost wilted.
     "Look, I want to  take  Ravna away for  a  bit. Learn what you can, and
I'll be back."
     "Yes, Sir Pham." And they seemed to droop even more.

     It was an hour  before Pham  returned to the command deck. When he did,
he  found the Riders deep in rattling conference  with OOB. All the  windows
were filled with flickering  strangeness.  Here and there  Pham recognized a
pattern  or a printed  legend, enough to guess  that  he was seeing ordinary
ship displays, but optimized to Rider senses.
     Blueshell  noticed  him  first; he rolled abruptly toward  him  and his
voder voice came out a little squeaky. "Is she all right?"
     Pham  gave  a  little  nod. "She's sleeping now." Sedated, and with the
ship watching her in  case I've misjudged her.  "Look, she'll be okay. She's
been hit hard ... but she's the toughest one of us all."
     Greenstalk's fronds rattled a smile. "I have often thought that."
     Blueshell was motionless for  an instant. Then, "Well, to business,  to
business." He said something to the ship, and the windows reformatted in the
compromise usable by both humans and  Riders. "We've learned a lot while you
were gone. Saint Rihndell indeed has something to fear.  The Aprahanti ships
are  a small fragment of the Death to Vermin extermination fleets. These are
stragglers still on their way to Sjandra Kei!"

     All dressed up for a massacre, and no  place  to go. "So  now they want
some action of their own."
     "Yes. Apparently Sjandra Kei put up some resistance and there were some
escapes. The commander of this  fleetlet thinks he  can  intercept  some  of
these -- if he can get prompt repairs."
     "What  kind of extortion  is really  possible? Could these twenty ships
destroy RIP?"
     "No.  It's the reputation of the greater force these ships  are part of
--  and the great killing  at Sjandra  Kei. So Saint Rihndell is very  timid
with  them, and  what they need  for repairs is the  same class  of regrowth
agent that we need.  We really are in competition with  them for  Rihndell's
business." Blueshell's  fronds slapped  together,  the sort of  "go  get'em"
enthusiasm he displayed when a hot deal was remembered. "But it turns out we
have something  Saint Rihndell  really, really wants, something  he'll  even
risk tricking the Aprahanti to get." He paused dramatically.
     Pham thought  back  over the  things they had offered the RIPers. Lord,
not  the low  zone ultrawave gear.  "Okay, I'll  bite. What  do we  have  to
     "A set of flamed trellises! Hah hah."
     "Huh?"  Pham  remembered the name from the list of  odds and  ends  the
Skroderiders had scrounged up. "What's a 'flamed trellis'?"
     Blueshell  poked a frond into his satchel and extended something stubby
and black to Pham:  an  irregular solid, about forty centimeters by fifteen,
smooth to the touch. For all its size, it didn't mass more  than a couple of
grams. An  artfully  smoothed  ...  cinder. Pham's curiosity triumphed  over
greater concerns: "But what's it good for?"
     Blueshell  dithered. After a moment,  Greenstalk said a  little  shyly,
"There are theories. It's pure carbon, a fractal polymer.  We know it's very
common in Transcendent cargoes. We think it's used  as  packing material for
some kinds of sentient property."
     "Or  perhaps the  excrement of such property," Blueshell buzz-muttered.
"Ah, but  that's not important.  What is,  is that  occasional races  in the
Middle  Beyond prize  them.  And why  that?  Again,  we  don't  know.  Saint
Rihndell's folk are certainly not the  final user. The Tusk-legs are far too
sensible to  be  ordinary trellis  customers. So. We have  three hundred  of
these  wonderful things ... more  than enough to  overcome  Saint Rihndell's
fears of the Aprahanti."
     While Pham had been away  with Ravna, Saint Rihndell had come up with a
plan. Applying  the regrowth agent would be too obvious in  the same  harbor
with the Aprahanti ships.  Besides, the chief Butterfly had demanded the OOB
move out. Saint Rihndell had  a small  harbor  about sixteen  million klicks
around  the RIP  system. The move was  even plausible,  for it happened that
there  was  a Skroderider  terrane in  the Harmonious  Repose system  -- and
currently  it  was  just  a few  hundred kilometers from  Rihndell's  second
harbor. They would rendezvous with the tusk-legs, exchanging repairs for two
hundred  seventeen  flamed trellises. And  if  the trellises were  perfectly
matched, Rihndell promised  to throw in  an agrav  refit.  After the Fall of
Relay, that would be very welcome.... Hunh. Ol' Blueshell just never stopped
wheeling and dealing.

     The OOB slipped  free of its moorings and carefully drifted up from the
ring plane. Tiptoe-ing out. Pham kept  a close watch on the EM and ultrawave
windows. But  there were no target-locking  emanations  from  the  Aprahanti
vessels, nothing more than casual radar contact. No one followed. Little OOB
and its "potted plants" were beneath the notice of the great warriors.
     One  thousand meters above  the  ring  plane. Three. The  Skroderiders'
chatter  -- both with  Pham and between themselves --  dwindled  to  naught.
Their  stalks  and fronds angled  so the sensing surfaces looked  out in all
directions. The sun and its power cloud  was a blaze of light on one side of
the  deck. They were above  the rings, but  still so close.... It  was  like
standing  at  sunset  on  a beach of  colored sands ... that stretched to an
infinite  horizon. The Skroderiders  stared  into  it,  their fronds  gently
     Twenty  kilometers above  the rings. One thousand.  They lit  the OOB's
main torch and accelerated across  the system. The Skroderiders  came slowly
out  of  their trance. Once they arrived at the second  harbor, the regrowth
would  take  about  five  hours  --  assuming   Rihndell's  agent   had  not
deteriorated; the Saint claimed it was recently  imported  from the Top, and
     "Okay, so when do we deliver the trellises?"
     "On completion of the repairs. We can't depart until Saint  Rihndell --
or his customers -- are satisfied that all the pieces are genuine."
     Pham  drummed his fingers on the comm console.  This operation  brought
back a  lot of memories,  some of them hair-raising. "So they  get the goods
while we're still in the middle of RIP. I don't like it."
     "See here, Sir  Pham. Your experience with star trading was in the Slow
Zone, where exchanges were separated by decades or centuries of travel time.
I admire  you for that, more  than  I  can say -- but it gives you a twisted
view of things.  Up here  in the  Beyond, the notion  of return  business is
important. We know very little of Saint Rihndell's inner motivation, but  we
do know his  repair business has  existed for  at  least  forty years. Sharp
dealing  we  can expect from  him, but if he  robbed or murdered very  many,
trader groups would know, and his little business would starve."
     "Hmf."  No point in arguing  it right now, but Pham  guessed  that this
situation was special. Rihndell -- and the RIPers in general -- had Death to
Vermin sitting on their doorstep, and stories of major chaos coming from the
direction of Sjandra Kei. With that background  they might  just lose  their
courage  once  they  had the trellises. Some precautions  were in order.  He
drifted off to the ship's machine shop.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     Ravna came to the cargo deck as Blueshell and Greenstalk were preparing
the trellises  for delivery.  She  moved hesitantly, pushing  awkwardly from
point to point. There were dark rings, almost bruises, beneath her eyes. She
returned Pham's hug almost  tentatively, but didn't let go. "I want to help.
Is there anything I can do to help?"
     The Skroderiders left their trellises and rolled over. Blueshell  ran a
frond gently across Ravna's  arm, "Nothing for you to do now, my lady Ravna.
We have  everything well, ah,  in hand. We'll be back in  less than an hour,
and then we can be rid of here."
     But they  let her check their cameras and  the cargo  strap-downs. Pham
drifted close by her  as she inspected  the  trellises. The  twisted  carbon
blocks  looked stranger than the one  alone  had. Properly stacked, they fit
perfectly.   More  than   a   meter   across,  the  stack   looked  like   a
three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle carved from coal. Counting a separate bag of
loose  spares,  they totaled  less than half a kilogram.  Huh.  Damn  things
should  be  flammable  as hell.  Pham  resolved to play  with  the remaining
hundred odd trellises after they were safely back in deep space.
     Then  the Skroderiders were through the cargo lock with their delivery,
and they could only follow along on their cameras.
     This secondary harbor  was  not  really  part of  the  tusk-leg  race's
terrane. The inside of the arc was far different  from what they had seen on
the Skroderiders' first trip. There were no exterior views. Cramped passages
wound  between  irregular  walls  pocked  with  dark   holes.  Insects  flew
everywhere, often covering parts of the  camera balls.  To Pham,  the  place
looked filthy. There was no evidence of the  terrane's owners -- unless they
were the pallid  worms that sometimes stuck  a featureless head(?) up from a
burrow  hole.  Over his voice link, Blueshell opined  that  these were  very
ancient  tenants of the RIP system.  After  a million years,  and  a hundred
transcendent emigrations, the residue might still be  sentient, but stranger
than anything evolved  in  the Slow Zone.  Such a people would  be protected
from  physical extinction  by ancient  automation, but  they would  also  be
inward turning, totally  cautious, absorbed in  concerns  that were inane by
any outside standard. It was the type that most  often lusted  after trellis
     Pham  tried  to keep an eye on  everything.  The Riders had  to  travel
almost  four kilometers  from the harbor lock to reach  the place  where the
trellises would  be "validated".  Pham  counted two exterior locks along the
way, and nothing that looked especially threatening -- but then how would he
know what "threatening" looked like here?  He had  the OOB mount an exterior
watch. A large shepherd satellite floated on the outer side of the ring, but
there  were no  other  ships in  this harbor. The  EM and  ultra-environment
seemed placid, and  what could  be seen  on  the local  net did not make the
ship's defenses suspicious.
     Pham looked up from  the  reports. Ravna had drifted across the deck to
the  outside view. The  repair work was visible,  though not  spectacular. A
pale greenish aura hung around the damaged spines.  It was scarcely brighter
than the glow you often see on ship hulls in low planetary orbit. She turned
and said softly, "Is it really getting fixed?"
     "As far as we can --  I mean yes." Ship's automation was monitoring the
regrowth, but they wouldn't know for sure till they tried to fly with it.

     Pham was  never sure why Rihndell had the Skroderiders pass through the
wormheads' terrane; maybe, if the creatures were the ultimate trellis users,
they wanted  a look at the sellers. Or maybe it had some connection with the
treachery that  ultimately followed. In any case the Riders were soon out of
it, and into a polyspecific concourse as crowded as any low-tech bazaar.
     Pham's jaw sagged. Everywhere he looked there was a different  class of
sophont. Intelligent  life is a rare development in the universe; in all his
life in  the Slow Zone, he had known  three nonhuman races. But the universe
is a  big place, and with ultradrive it  was easy  to  find  other life. The
Beyond collected the detritus of countless migrations, an  accumulation that
finally  made  civilization ubiquitous.  For a moment he lost  track  of his
surveillance programs  and his general suspicions, drowned in the wonder  of
it. Ten species? Twelve? Individuals brushed familiarly by one another. Even
Relay had not been like this. But then  Harmonious Repose was a civilization
lost  in stagnation. These  races  had been  part  of the  RIP  complex  for
thousands of years. The ones  that could interact had long since  learned to
do so.
     And  nowhere  did  he  see  butterfly  wings on creatures  with  large,
compassionate eyes.
     He heard a small sound of surprise from the far side of the deck. Ravna
was standing close by a window that looked out from one of Greenstalk's side
cameras. "What is it, Rav?"
     "Skroderiders. See?" She pointed  into the mob and zoomed the view. For
a moment  the  images  towered over her. Through the  passing chaos he had a
glimpse of hull forms and graceful fronds. Except for cosmetic  stripes  and
tassles, they looked very familiar indeed.
     "Yeah,  there's  a  small colony  of  them hereabouts."  He  opened the
channel to Greenstalk and told her about the sighting.
     "I know. We ... smelled them. Sigh. I wish we  had  time  to visit them
after  this. Finding  friends in far  places ... always  nice."  She  helped
Blueshell  push the  trellises around a  balloon acquarium.  They could  see
Rihndell's  people  just ahead. Six tusk-legs sat on  the  wall around  what
might be test equipment.
     Blueshell and  Greenstalk pushed their ball of  frothy  carbon into the
group. The scrimshawed  one leaned close  to  the  pile  and reached  out to
fondle the pieces with its tiny arms. One  after  another the trellises were
placed in the tester. Blueshell moved  in  close to watch, and Pham set  the
main  windows to look through his cameras. Twenty seconds passed. Rihndell's
Trisk interpreter said, "First seven test true, make an interlocked septet."
     Only then  did  Pham realize he had been  holding  his breath. The next
three "septets" passed, too. Another sixty seconds. He glanced at the ship's
repair status. OOB considered the job  done but for sign-off commit from the
local net. Another few minutes and we can kiss this place goodbye!
     But there are always problems. Saint Rihndell bitched about the twelfth
and  fifteenth  sets.   Blueshell  argued  at  length,  grudgingly  produced
replacement  pieces  from  his  bag of  spares.  Pham couldn't tell  if  the
Skroderider  was debating  for the fun of  it, or if he really was short  on
good replacements.
     Twenty-five sets okayed.
     "Where is Greenstalk going?" said Ravna.
     "What?" Pham called up the view from Greenstalk's cameras. She was five
meters from Blueshell and  moving away.  He  panned wildly  about.  A  local
Skroderider  was  on  her  left  and another floated inverted above her. Its
fronds touched hers in apparently  amiable conversation. "Greenstalk!" There
was no reply.
     "Blueshell! What's happening?"  But that  Rider  was  in  gesticulating
argument with the tusk-legs. Still another set of trellises had failed their
examination.  "Blueshell!" After a moment the  Rider's voice came over their
private channel. He sounded drifty,  the way he often did when he was jammed
or  overloaded. "Not  to bother  me now, Sir Pham. I'm down to three perfect
replacements. I must persuade these fellows to settle for what  they already
     Ravna broke  in,  "But what about Greenstalk? What's happening to her?"
The cameras  had  lost sight of  each other. Greenstalk  and her  companions
emerged from  a dense crowd and floated across the middle of the  concourse.
They were using gas jets instead of wheels. Someone was in a hurry.
     The seriousness  of  events finally got through  to Blueshell. The view
from  his  skrode turned wildly as  he  rolled back and forth  around  Saint
Rihndell's people.  There was the rattle of  Rider  talk and  then his voice
came back on the inside channel,  plaintive and confused. "She's gone. She's
gone.  I must ... I have to ...." Abruptly he rolled back  to  the tusk legs
and resumed the argument  that had just been interrupted. After a couple  of
seconds  his voice came back on the inside channel. "What should  I do,  Sir
Pham? I  have a sale here still incomplete,  yet my Greenstalk has  wandered

     Or  been  kidnapped. "Get  us the sale,  Blueshell. Greenstalk will  be
okay.... OOB: Plan B." He grabbed a headset and pushed off from the console.
     Ravna rose with him. "Where are you going?"
     He grinned. "Out. I thought Saint Rihndell might lose his halo when the
crunch came -- and I made plans." She followed him as he  glided  toward the
floor  hatch. "Look.  I want  you to stay on deck.  I can only carry so much
snoop equipment; I'll need your coordination."
     "But -- "
     He  went  through  the  hatch  head first,  missing  the  rest  of  her
objection. She didn't follow, but a second later her voice was  back, in his
headset.  Some of the  tremor was gone  from  her voice;  the old  Ravna was
there, fighting out from under her other problems. "Okay, I'll  back you ...
but what can we do?"
     Pham pulled himself hand over hand down the passageway, accelerating to
a speed that would have left a lubber  caroming off the walls.  Ahead loomed
the uncompromising wall  of the cargo lock. He  swatted a hand gently at the
wall and flipped head over heels. He dragged his hands precisely against the
wall flanges, slowing just enough so the impact with the hatch did not break
his ankles. Inside the lock, the ship had his suit already power up.
     "Pham, you can't go out." Evidently she was watching through the lock's
cameras. "They'll know we're a human expedition."
     His head and shoulders were  already in  the suit's  top shell. He felt
the  bottom pushing up around  him, the seals fastening. "Not  necessarily."
And  by now it probably doesn't matter. "There are plenty of two-arm/two-leg
critters around,  and I've glued some  camouflage to this outfit." He cupped
his chin in the helmet controls and reset the displays. The armored pressure
suit  was a  very primitive thing compared to the field  suits of Relay. Yet
the Qeng Ho  would have given a starship for this gear.  He'd originally put
the  thing  together to impress the Tines, but it's going to get some  early
     He chinned up the outside view, what Ravna  was  seeing: his figure was
unrelieved  black, more than two  meters tall. The  hands were  backed  with
carapace-claws and every edge  of his figure was  razor  sharp  and  spined.
These  most recent additions  should break  the  lines of the strictly human
form, and hopefully be intimidating as hell.
     Pham cycled the lock and pushed off, into the wormheads' terrane. Walls
of mud stood all around, misty in humid air and swarms of insects.
     Ravna's voice was in  his ear. "I've got a  low-level  query,  probably
automatic: 'Why you send third negotiator?'"
     "Ignore it."
     "Pham, be careful.  These Middle  Beyond  cultures, the old ones,  they
keep nasty things in reserve. Otherwise they wouldn't still be around."
     "I'll be a good  citizen." As long as I'm treated nice.  He was already
halfway to the concourse gate. He chinned up a small window from Blueshell's
camera. All this  high-bandwidth comm was courtesy of the local net. Strange
that  Rihndell was  still  providing the  service. Blueshell  seemed  to  be
negotiating still.  Maybe there wasn't  a scam ...  or  anyway, not one that
Saint Rihndell was in on.
     "Pham, I've lost the video from Greenstalk, just as she  went into some
kind of tunnel. Her location beacon is still clear."
     The  concourse  gate made an opening for him, and then Pham was in  the
crowded, market volume. He heard the raucous  hubbub even through his armor.
He moved slowly, sticking to the most uncrowded paths, following guide ropes
that threaded the space. The  mob  was no  problem. Everyone  made way, some
with almost panicky haste.  Pham didn't know whether it was his razor spines
or the trace of chlorine his suit "leaked".  Maybe that last touch was a bit
much. But the whole  point was to look nonhuman. He slowed  even more, doing
his best not to nick  anyone. Something  awfully  like  a target-designation
laser flickered in his rear window. He ducked quickly around  an aquarium as
Ravna said, "The terrane just complained to your suit: 'You are in violation
of dress-code' is how the translation comes out."

     Is  it my  chlorine B.O.,  or have they detected the guns? "What  about
outside? Any Butterflies in sight?"
     "No. Ship activity hasn't changed much during the  last  five hours. No
Aprahanti  movement  or change in comm status." Long pause.  Indirectly from
the  OOB  bridge  he  could  hear Blueshell talking  with  Ravna,  the words
indistinct  but  excited.  He  jabbed  around,  trying to  find  the  direct
connection.  Then  Ravna  was  talking to  him  again. "Hei! Blueshell  says
Rihndell has  accepted  the shipment! He's onloading the agrav  fabric right
now. And OOB just got a commit on the repairs!" So they were ready to fly --
except that three of them were still ashore, and one of them was missing.
     Pham  floated over the top  of the aquarium and finally  caught  direct
sight  of  Blueshell. He  tweaked the  suit's gas  jets  very carefully  and
settled down beside the Rider.
     His  arrival was about  as welcome as  finger-mites  at  a  picnic. The
scrimshawed one had been chattering away, tapping his articulated artwork on
the wall  as his helper translated into Trisk.  Now the creature drew in his
tusks, and the neck arms folded themselves. The others followed suit. All of
them sidled up the wall, away from  Blueshell and Pham. "Our business is now
complete.  We  don't know  where  your  friend  has gone,"  said  the  Trisk
     Blueshell's fronds extended after  them, wavering. "B-but just a little
guidance is all we need.  Who  -- " It was  no  use. Saint  Rihndell and his
merry  crew kept going. Blueshell rattled in  abrupt frustration. His fronds
angled  slightly,  turning  all  attention on  Pham Nuwen.  "Sir Pham, I  am
doubting now your expertise as a trader. Saint Rihndell might have helped."
     "Maybe."  Pham watched the  tusk-legs disappear into the crowd, pulling
the trellises behind them like  a big black balloon. Ugh. Maybe Rihndell was
simply an honest trader. "What are the chances that Greenstalk would abandon
you in the middle of something like that?"
     Blueshell dithered for a moment. "In an ordinary trade  stop, she might
have noticed some extraordinary profit opportunity. But here, I -- "
     Ravna's voice interrupted sympathetically, "Maybe she just,  uh, forgot
the context?"
     "No,"  Blueshell was definite.  "The skrode would never permit  such  a
failure, not in the middle of a hard trade."
     Pham  shifted   windows  around  inside  his  helmet,  looking  in  all
directions. The crowd was still keeping an open space around them. There was
no evidence of cops. Would I know them if I saw them? "Okay," said Pham. "We
have a  problem,  whether I'd come out or not. I  suggest we  take a  little
walk, see if we can find where Greenstalk went."
     Rattle. "We have  little  choice now. My lady  Ravna, do  please try to
reach  the  tusk-legs  interpreter.  Perhaps he  can link us  to  the  local
Skroderiders." He came off the wall, rotated on gas jets.  "Come  along, Sir
     Blueshell led the  way across  the concourse, vaguely in the  direction
Greenstalk had gone. Their path was anything but straight, more a drunkard's
walk  that once took them almost  back to their starting place. "Delicately,
delicately," the Skroderider responded when Pham complained about  the pace.
The Rider never insisted on passage through  clots of critters.  If they did
not respond to the gentle waving of his fronds, he detoured all around them.
And he  kept Pham  directly behind  him  so the  intimidation factor of  the
razored armor was of no use.  "These people may look  very peaceable to you,
Sir Pham, easy  to  push around.  But note, this  is among themselves. These
races have  had thousands of years to accommodate to one another, to achieve
local commensality.  To outsiders they  will necessarily  be less  tolerant,
else  they  would  have  been  overrun   long  ago."   Pham  remembered  the
"dress-code" warning and decided not to argue.
     The  next  twenty minutes would  have been the experience of a lifetime
for a  Qeng  Ho  trader,  to  be  within arm's reach  of  a  dozen different
intelligent species.  But when they finally  reached the far  wall, Pham was
grinding  his teeth. Twice  more he received a dress-code warning. The  only
bright  spot:  Saint Rihndell was still extending the courtesy of  local net
support,  and Ravna had  more information:  "The local Skroderider colony is
about  a  hundred  kilometers  from  the  concourse.  There's  some  kind of
transport station beyond the wall you're at."
     And the tunnel Greenstalk had entered was just ahead of them. From this
angle, they could see the dark of space beyond it. For the first time, there
was  no problem with crowds;  scarcely anyone  was  entering or  leaving the
     Laser light twinkled on his rear windows. "Dress code violation. Fourth
warning. It says to 'please leave the volume at once'."
     "We're going. We're going."

     Darkness, and Pham boosted the gain on his helmet windows.  At first he
thought  the  "transport station" was open to  space,  that  the locals  had
restraint fields  as in the  high beyond. then he noticed the pillars merged
into  transparent walls. they  were still  indoors in the old-fashioned way,
but  the  view.... they were  on  the  starward side of  the arc.  the  ring
particles  were like  dark fish floating  silently a few  tens of meters out
from him. In  the  further  distance, structures stuck out of the ring plane
far enough to  get sundazzle. But the  brightest object was almost overhead:
the  blue of ocean, the white of  cloud. Its soft light flooded  the  ground
around him.  However far the Qeng  Ho fared,  such a sight had been welcome.
Yet this was not quite the real thing. The was only approximately spherical,
and  its face was bisected  by  the ring shadow. It was  a small object, not
more than a few hundred  klicks above  him,  one of the shepherd  satellites
they  had seen on the way in. The shepherd's  haze of atmosphere was crisply
bounded by the sides of a vast canopy.
     He dragged  his  attention down from the  view. "Ten to one  that's the
Skroderiders' terrane."
     "Of  course,"  Blueshell  replied.  "It's typical.  The  surf  in  such
minigravity can never be what I prefer, but -- "
     "Dear  Blueshell!  Sir  Pham!  Over here." It  was  Greenstalk's voice.
According to Pham's suit, it was a local connection, not relayed through the
     Blueshell's  fronds angled  in all  directions.  "Are  you  all  right,
Greenstalk?"  They  rattled back and forth at each  other for a few seconds.
Then Greenstalk resumed in  Trisk:  "Sir Pham. Yes, I'm all right. I'm sorry
to upset you all so much. But I could tell  the deal with Rihndell was going
to  work  out,  and then these local Riders  stopped by. They  are wonderful
people, Sir Pham. They have invited us  across to their terrane. Just  for a
day or so. It will be a wonderful rest before we go on our way. And I  think
they may be able to help us."
     Like the  quest  romances  he'd  found in  Ravna's bedtime library: the
weary travelers,  partway  to  their goal,  find a  friendly  haven and some
special gift. Pham switched  to a private line to Blueshell: "Is that really
Greenstalk? Is she under duress?"
     "It's  her, and  free, Sir  Pham. You heard us speaking. I've been with
her two hundred years. No one's twisting her fronds."
     "Then  why the hell did she  skip  out on us?" Pham surprised  himself,
almost hissing the words.
     Long pause. "That is strange. My guess: these local Riders somehow know
something  very important  to us. Come, Sir Pham. But carefully." He  rolled
away in what seemed a random direction.
     "Rav, what do you -- " Pham noticed the red  light blinking on his comm
status  panel, and his  irritation chilled. How  long had the link to  Ravna
been down?
     Pham followed Blueshell, floating low behind  the other, using his  gas
jets to pace the Skroderider. This entire area was covered with  the stickem
that  Riders liked for zero-gee  rolling.  Yet  right now  the  place seemed
deserted. Nobody in  sight where just  a hundred meters away there was light
and  crowds. The whole thing screamed ambush,  yet it didn't make sense.  If
Death to Vermin --  or  their stooges -- had  spotted them, a simple  alarum
would have  served. Some Rihndell game ...? Pham powered up  the suit's beam
weapons  and enabled  countermeasures;  midge  cameras  flitted off  in  all
directions. So much for dress codes.
     The bluish moonlight  washed the plain, showing soft mounds and angular
arrays of  unknown  equipment.  The surface  was  pocked with  holes (tunnel
entrances?). Blueshell said  something muddled about the "beautiful  night",
how much fun it would be to  sit on the  seashore a hundred kilometers above
them. Pham scanned in all directions, trying to  identify fields of fire and
killing zones.
     The view from one of his  midges showed a forest of  leafless fronds --
Skroderiders standing silent in the moonlight. They were two  hillocks away.
Silent,  motionless,  without  any  lights  ...  perhaps just  enjoying  the
moonlight. In the midge's amplified  view,  Pham had no  trouble identifying
Greenstalk; she was standing at one end of a  line  of five Riders, her hull
stripes clearly visible. There was a hump on the front of her  skrode, and a
rod-like projection. Some kind of restraint? He  floated a couple  of midges
near. A weapon. All those Riders were armed.
     "We're  already aboard  the  transport,  Blueshell,"  came Greenstalk's
voice. "You'll see it in a few more  meters, just  on the  other  side of  a
ventilator  pile,"  apparently  referring  to the  mound  that  he  and  the
Skroderider were  approaching. But Pham  knew  there  was  no  flier  there;
Greenstalk and her guns were to the  side of their progress. Treachery, very
workmanlike but also very  low  tech.  Pham almost shouted out to Blueshell.
Then he notice the flat ceramic rectangle mounted  in the  hill  just a  few
meters  behind the Rider. The nearest midge  reported  it  was  some kind of
explosive, probably a directional mine. A low-resolution camera, barely more
than  a  motion  sensor,  was   mounted  beside  it.  Blueshell  had  rolled
nonchalantly past the thing, all the  while chattering with Greenstalk. They
let  him past. New  suspicions rose dark and grim.  Pham  broke to  a  stop,
backing quickly;  never touching ground, the only  sounds  he made  were the
quiet hisses of his gas  jets.  He detached one of his wrist claws and had a
midge fly it close past the mine's sensor....
     There was  a flash of pale fire and  a loud noise. Even  five meters to
the side, the shock wave pushed him back.  He  had  a glimpse  of  Blueshell
thrown frond over wheels  on the far side of the mine. Edged metal knickered
about,  but mindlessly: nothing came  back  to attack  again. Several midges
were destroyed by the blast.
     Pham  took advantage  of the racket to accelerate  hard, scooting  up a
nearby  "hill"  and into a  shallow valley (alley?) that  looked down on the
Skroderiders. The ambushers rolled forward around the hill, rattling happily
at one another.  Pham held his  fire,  curious.  After  a  moment, Blueshell
floated into the air a hundred  meters away.  "Pham?"  he  said plaintively,
     The ambushers  ignored Blueshell.  Three of them disappeared around the
hill. Pham's midges saw them stop in consternation, fronds erect -- they had
suddenly realized he'd gotten away. The five spread out, searching the area,
hunting him down. There was no persuasive talk from Greenstalk anymore.
     There was a sharp cracking sound and blaster fire glowed  from behind a
hill. Somebody was a little nervous on the trigger.
     Above  it  all  floated  Blueshell,  the  perfect  target,   yet  still
untouched. His speech was a combination  of Trisk  and Rider rattle now, and
where Pham could understand  it, he heard fear. "Why  are you shooting? What
is the problem? Greenstalk, please!"
     The paranoid in  Pham Nuwen was not deceived. I don't want you up there
looking down. He sighted his main beam  gun  on the Rider, then shifted  his
aim  and fired. The blast  was not  in visible wavelengths, but  there  were
gigajoules in the pulse. Plasma coruscated along the beam, missing Blueshell
by less than five meters. Well  above the  Skroderider, the beam struck hull
crystal. The explosion  was spectacular, an actinic glare  that sent glowing
fragments in a thousand rays.
     Pham  flew  sideways  even as the  ceiling  flared.  He  saw  Blueshell
spinning  off, regain control  --  and move  precipitously for cover.  Where
Pham's beam had hit, a corona of light  was dimming from blue through orange
and red, its light still brighter than the shepherd moon overhead.
     His warning shot had been like  a great finger pointing back toward his
location.  In the next  fifteen seconds, four of the  ambushers fired on the
place Pham had been.  There was  silence,  then faint rustling. In a game of
stealth, the  five  might think  themselves easy winners. They still  hadn't
realized  how well-equipped he was.  Pham smiled at the  pictures  coming in
from his midges. He had every one of them in sight, and Blueshell too.
     If  it were  just these four (five?),  there  would  be no problem. But
surely reinforcements, or at least complications, were on the way. The wound
in the ceiling had cooled to darkness, but there was a hole  there now, half
a meter across. The sound of hissing wind came from it, a sound that brought
reflex fear to Pham even in his armor. It might take a while before the leak
affected  the  Skroderiders, but it was an emergency nevertheless. It  would
attract notice.  He stared at the hole. Down here it was stirring  a breeze,
but in the few meters right below the hole there  was a miniature tornado of
dust and loose junk, hurtling up and out....
     And beyond the transparent hull, in space:
     A gap of  dark and then  a glittering plume, where  the  debris emerged
from  the arc's  shadow  into  the sunlight. A neat idea  struggled for  his

     Oops. The five Riders had roughly encircled him. Now one blundered into
view, saw him, and snapped a shot. Pham returned fire and the other exploded
in  a cloud of superheated water and  charred  flesh. Its  undamaged  skrode
sailed across the space between the hills, collecting panicky fire from  the
others.  Pham  changed position again, moving in  the direction he knew  was
farthest from his enemies' positions.
     A few more minutes  of peace.  He looked up at the crystal plume. There
was  something ... yes. If reinforcements should  come,  why not for him? He
sighted  on the plume and shunted his voice line  through  the gun's trigger
circuit. He almost started talking, then thought ... Better lower  the power
on this one. Details. He aimed again,  fired continuously, and said, "Ravna,
I sure  as  hell hope you have your  eyes open. I need help ..." and briefly
described the crazy events of the last ten minutes.
     This  time  his beam was putting out less than ten thousand  joules per
second, not enough  to glow the air. But reflecting off the plume beyond the
hull,  the  modulation  should  be  visible  for  thousands  of  klicks,  in
particular to the OOB on the other side of the habitat.
     The  Skroderiders were  closing in again. Damn. No  way he could  leave
this  message  on  automatic  send;  he needed  the  "transmitter"  for more
important  things.  Pham flew from valley to valley, maneuvering  behind the
Rider that was farthest from the others. One against three (four?).  He  had
superior firepower  and information,  but one  piece of bad  luck and he was
dead. He floated up on his next target. Quietly, carefully ...
     A  sear of light brushed his arm, flaring the armor incandescent. White
hot drops of metal sprayed as he twisted out of the way. He boosted straight
across  the  space between three hillocks, firing  down on the Rider  there.
Lights crisscrossed around him, and then he was under cover again. They were
fast,  almost as if they  had automatic aiming  gear. Maybe they did:  their
     Then the pain hit.  Pham folded on himself, gasping. If this  were like
wounds he remembered, there would be char to the bone. Tears  floated in his
eyes,  and consciousness disappeared  in a  nauseated  faint. He came to. It
could only be  a second or two later  --  else  he'd never have wakened. The
others were a lot  closer now, but the one  he'd fired on was just a glowing
crater  and  random  skrode  fragments.  His suit's  automation brought  the
damaged  armor in close to his  side. He felt the chill of local anesthetic,
and the pain dimmed. Pham eased around the hill, trying to keep all three of
his  antagonists simultaneously  out of sight.  They  had  caught on to  his
midges; every  few seconds a glow  erupted or a hill  top turned to  glowing
slag. It was  overkill,  but the midges were dying ... and he was losing his
greatest advantage.

     Where  is Blueshell? Pham  cycled through the views from  his remaining
midges, then his own. The bastard was back in the air, high above the combat
-- untouched by his  fellow Riders. Reporting  everything I  do. Pham rolled
over, awkwardly bringing  his gun to bear on the tiny figure. He  hesitated.
You're getting  soft, Nuwen.  Blueshell  abruptly accelerated downwards, his
cargo scarf billowing out  behind  him. Evidently he was using his gas jets'
full  power. Against the background noise  of bubbling metal and blast  beam
thunder, his  fall  was  totally  silent. He  was driving  straight for  the
nearest of the attackers.
     Thirty  meters up,  the Rider released something large and angular. The
two  separated,  Blueshell  braking and diving  to the side.  He disappeared
behind  the hills. At the same time, much nearer,  came a solid thud/crunch.
Pham spent his next to  last midge for a peek around the  hillside. He had a
glimpse  of  a skrode, and fronds splayed all  about a squashed stalk; there
was a flash of light, and the midge was gone.
     Only two ambushers left. One was Greenstalk.
     For  ten  seconds  there  was  no  more  firing. Yet  things  were  not
completely  silent.  The  slumped,  glowing  metal  of his  arm  popped  and
sputtered as  it cooled. High  above, there was the susurrus of air escaping
the hull. Fitful breezes whispered around ground level, making it impossible
to keep position without constant tweaking at his jets. He  paused,  letting
the current carry  him silently  out of his little valley. There. A  ghostly
hiss  that was not his  own. Another.  The two  were closing in  on him from
different directions. They might not know his exact position, but they could
obviously coordinate their own.
     The pain faded  in and  out, along with consciousness. Short  pulses of
agony and darkness.  He dared not fool with more anesthetic.  Pham saw frond
tips peeping over a nearby hill. He halted, watched the fronds. Most likely,
there was  just  enough  vision area  in the  tips to  sense motion....  Two
seconds  passed.  Pham's  last  midge  showed  the other  attacker  floating
silently in  from the side. Any second now, the  two would pop up.  At  that
instant,  Pham  would have  given anything  for an armed midge.  In all  his
stupid hacking,  he'd never gotten around to that. No help for it. He waited
for a moment of clear consciousness, long enough to boost over the enemy and
     There  was a rattle  of  fronds,  loud self-announcement. Pham's  midge
caught  sight of Blueshell rolling behind  slatted  walls a  hundred  meters
away.  The  Skroderider rushed  from  protection to protection,  but  always
closer  to Greenstalk's position. And the rattling? Was  it a pleading? Even
after five months with the Riders, Pham had only  the vaguest sense of their
rattle-talk. Greenstalk  -- the Greenstalk  who had always been the shy one,
the compulsively honest one  --  rattled nothing back. She swung her  beamer
around,  raking the  slats  with fire. The third Rider popped  up  just  far
enough to shoot at the slats.  His  angle would have been just  right to fry
Blueshell where he stood -- except that the  movement took  him directly  in
front of Pham Nuwen's gun.
     Even as Pham  fired, he was boosting  out of his hole. Now was his only
chance. If he could turn,  fire back on Greenstalk before she was done  with
Blueshell --
     The  maneuver  was  an easy head-over-heels that should  have  left him
upside down and facing back upon Greenstalk. But nothing was  easy  for  him
now, and Pham came around spinning too fast, the landscape dwindling beneath
him.  But there was Greenstalk  all right,  swinging her weapon back  toward
     And there was Blueshell, racing from  between pillars that glowed white
in the heat  of Greenstalk's fire. His voice was loud in Pham's ear: "I beg,
don't kill her. Don't kill -- "
     Greenstalk  hesitated, then turned  the  weapon  back on the  advancing
Blueshell. Pham triggered his gun, letting his spin drag the beam across the
ground. Consciousness ebbed. Aim! Aim right! He furrowed the land below with
a  glowing,  molten  arrow,  that  ended  at  something  dark  and  slumped.
Blueshell's  tiny  figure  was still rolling  across the wreckage, trying to
reach her. Then Pham had turned too far and could not remember how to change
the view. The sky swung slowly past his eyes:
     A  bluish moon with a sharp shadow 'cross its middle. A  ship  floating
close,  with feathery spines, like  some giant bug. What in the Qeng Ho  ...
where am I? ... and consciousness fled.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     There were dreams. He'd lost a captaincy  once again,  been busted down
to tending potted plants in the  ship's greenhouse. Sigh. Pham's job  was to
water them and make them bloom. But then he  noticed the pots had wheels and
moved behind his back, waiting, softly rattling. What had been beautiful was
now sinister. Pham had been willing to  water and weed the creatures; he had
always admired them.
     Now he was the only one who knew they were the enemy of life.

     More  than once in his life,  Pham Nuwen  had  wakened  inside  medical
automation. He  was almost used to  coffin-close  tanks, plain  green walls,
wires and tubes. This was different, and it took him a while to realize just
where he was. Willowy trees bent close around him, swaying just  a little in
the warm breeze. He seemed to  be lying on the softest moss, in a tiny glade
above a pond. Summer haze hung in the  air above the water.  It was all very
nice, except that the leaves were furry, and not quite the green of anything
he  had ever seen. This was  someone else's  notion  of home.  He reached up
toward the nearest branch, and his hand hit something  unyielding just fifty
centimeters above his face. A curved wall. For all the  trick pictures, this
was about the same size as the surgeons he remembered.
     Something  clicked behind his head; the idyll slid past him, taking its
warm breeze with  it. Somebody -- Ravna -- floated just beyond the cylinder.
"Hi, Pham." She reached past  the surgeon's  hull to squeeze his  hand.  Her
kiss was tremulous, and she looked haunted, as if she'd been crying a lot.
     "Hi, yourself," he said. Memory came back in jagged pieces. He tried to
push off the bed, and found another similarity between this surgeon and ones
of the Qeng Ho: he was securely plugged in.
     Ravna laughed  a little weakly. "Surgeon. Disconnect." After a  moment,
Pham drifted free.
     "It's still holding my arm."
     "No, that's the  sling.  Your  left arm  is going  to take  a while  to
regrow. It almost got burned off, Pham."
     "Oh." He looked down  at the white cocoon  that meshed his arm  against
his side. He remembered the gunfight now.... and realized that parts of  his
dream were deadly real. "How long have I been out?" The anxiety spilled into
his voice.
     "About thirty  hours.  We're  more  than  sixty  light-years  out  from
Harmonious Repose. We're  doing okay, except that  now everyone  in creation
seems to be chasing us."

     The   dream.   His  free  hand  clamped  hard  on   Ravna's  arm.  "The
Skroderiders, where are they?" Not on board, pray the Fleet.
     "W-what's left of Greenstalk is in the other surgeon. Blueshell is -- "

     Why has he  let me  live? Pham's eyes roved  the room. They  were  in a
utility  cabin. Any weapons were at  least  twenty  meters  away.  Hm.  More
important  than guns: get  command console privileges with the OOB ... if it
was not already too late. He pushed out of the surgeon  and drifted  out  of
the room.
     Ravna followed. "Take it easy, Pham. You just came out of a surgeon."
     "What have they said about the shoot-out?"
     "Poor Greenstalk's not  in a position to say  anything, Pham. Blueshell
says pretty much what you did:  Greenstalk was grabbed by the rogue  Riders,
forced to lure you two into a trap."
     "Hmhm, hmhm," Pham strove for a noncommittal tone. So maybe there was a
chance; maybe Blueshell was not yet perverted.  He continued his  one-handed
progress up  the ship's axis  corridor. A minute later he was on the bridge,
Ravna tagging behind.
     "Pham. What's the matter? There's a lot we have to decide, but -- "

     How  right you are.  He  dived onto  the command deck, and made for the
command console. "Ship. Do you recognize my voice?"
     Ravna began, "Pham, What's this -- "
     "Yes, sir."
     " -- all about?"
     "Command  privileges,"  he said. Capabilities granted  while the Riders
were ashore. Would they still be in place?
     The Skroderiders had had thirty hours to plan their defense.  This  was
all too easy, too  easy.  "Suspend command privileges for  the Skroderiders.
Isolate them."
     "Yes, sir," came the ship's reply. Liar! But what more could he do? The
sweep toward panic crested, and suddenly he  felt very cool. He was Qeng  Ho
... and he was also godshatter.
     Both Riders were in the same cabin, Greenstalk in the other copy of the
ship's surgeon. Pham opened a window on  the room. Blueshell  sat  on a wall
beside the surgeon. He  looked wilted, as when they heard about Sjandra Kei.
He angled  his fronds at  the  video pickup. "Sir Pham.  The ship  tells  me
you've suspended our privileges?"
     "What  is  going  on, Pham?" Ravna  had  dug a foot into the floor, and
stood glaring at him.
     Pham ignored both questions. "How is Greenstalk doing?" he said.
     The fronds turned away, seemed to become even more limp. "She lives....
I thank you, Sir  Pham. It took great skill  to do what you did. Considering
everything, I could not have asked for more."

     What did I do?  He remembered firing  on Greenstalk. Had he pulled  his
aim? He looked inside the surgeon.  This was quite different from  the human
configuration:  This  one  was mostly water-filled, with turbulent  aeration
along the patient's  fronds.  Asleep (?), Greenstalk  looked frailer than he
remembered, her fronds waving randomly in the water. Some were  nicked,  but
her body  seemed whole. His eyes traveled downwards toward the  base  of the
stalk, where a Rider is normally  attached to its skrode. The stump ended in
a  cloud of  surgical  tubing. And Pham  remembered the  last instant of the
firefight,  blasting the skrode out  from under Greenstalk. What  is a Rider
like without anything to ride?
     He pulled his eyes away from the wreckage.  "I've deleted  your command
privileges because I don't trust you." My former friend, tool of my enemy.
     Blueshell  didn't answer. After  a moment Ravna  spoke.  "Pham. Without
Blueshell, I'd  never have gotten you out of  that habitat.  Even then -- we
were  stuck  in  the  middle of the RIP  system. The shepherd satellite  was
screaming for our blood; they had figured out we were  human. The  Aprahanti
were  trying to break harbor  and  come down on  us. Without Blueshell, we'd
never have convinced local security to let us go ultra -- we'd probably have
been blown away the second we cleared the ring plane. We'd all  be dead now,
     "Don't you know what happened down there?"
     Some of the indignation left Ravna's face. "Yes. But  understand  about
skrodes. They are a mechanical  contrivance. It's  easy enough to disconnect
the cyber part from the mechanical linkages. These guys were controlling the
wheels, and aiming the gun."

     Hmm. On  the window behind Ravna,  he could see Blueshell standing with
his  fronds motionless,  not rushing  to  agree. Triumphant?  "That  doesn't
explain Greenstalk's sucking  us in to the trap." He raised a hand. "Yeah, I
know,  she was bludgeoned  into  doing it. Only problem, Ravna, she  had  no
hesitation.  She  was enthusiastic, bubbly."  He  stared  over  the  woman's
shoulder. "She was under no compulsion, didn't you tell me that, Blueshell."
     A long pause. Finally, "Yes, Sir Pham."
     Ravna turned, drifting  back so she  could see both of them.  "But, but
... it's  still absurd. Greenstalk has  been with  us from  the beginning. A
thousand times she  could have destroyed the  ship  -- or gotten word to the
outside. Why chance this stupid ambush?"
     "Yes.  Why  didn't  they betray us before...."  Up until she  asked the
question, Pham had  not known. He knew the facts, but had no coherent theory
to hang them on.  Now  it all came  together: the ambush, his  dreams in the
surgeon, even  the paradoxes. "Maybe she wasn't a traitor, before. We really
did  escape from Relay  without pursuit, without anyone  knowing of us, much
less our exact destination. Certainly no  one expected humans  to show up at
Harmonious  Repose." He paused,  trying to  get it all together. The ambush,
"The ambush, it wasn't stupid -- but it was completely ad hoc. The enemy had
no back up.  Their weapons were dumb, simple  things  -- " insight  "-- why,
I'll bet if you look at the wreckage of Greenstalk's skrode you'll find  her
beam gun was some sort of cutter tool.  And the only sensor  on the claymore
mine was  a  motion detector:  it had some  civil use. All the gadgets  were
pulled together on very short notice by  people who had not been expecting a
fight. No, our enemy was very surprised by our appearance."
     "You think the Aprahanti could -- "
     "Not the Aprahanti. From what you said, they didn't break  moorage till
after  the  gunfight,  when  the  Rider  moon  started screaming  about  us.
Whoever's behind this is  independent of the Butterflies, and must be spread
in very small numbers across many star systems -- a vast set  of  tripwires,
listening for things of interest. They noticed us, and weak as their outpost
was they tried to  grab  our ship. Only when  we were getting away  did they
advertise  us. One  way  or  another, they didn't  want us to  get away." He
jerked a  hand at the  ultratrace window.  "If I read  that right, we've got
more than five hundred ships on our tail."
     Ravna's eyes flicked to the display and back. Her voice was abstracted,
"Yes. That's part of the main Aprahanti fleet and ... "
     "There will be lots more, only they won't all be Butterflies."
     "...  what  are you saying then? Why would Skroderiders wish us ill?  A
conspiracy is  senseless. They've never  had a  nation state,  much less  an
interstellar empire."
     Pham nodded. "Just peaceful settlements -- like  that shepherd moon  --
in  polyspecific  civilizations all across the  Beyond." His voice softened.
"No,  Rav, the Skroderiders  are not the  real enemy here ... it's the thing
behind them. The Straumli Perversion."
     Incredulous  silence, but  he  noticed how tightly Blueshell  held  his
fronds now. That one knew.
     "It's  the only explanation, Ravna.  Greenstalk  really was our friend,
and loyal. My guess is that only a small  minority  of the  Riders are under
the  Perversion's control.  When  Greenstalk  fell  in  with  them  she  was
converted too."
     "T-that's  impossible!   This  is  the  Middle  of  the  Beyond,  Pham.
Greenstalk had courage, stubbornness. No brainwashing could have changed her
so  quickly."  A  frightened  desperation  had  come   into  her  eyes.  One
explanation or another, some terrible thing must be true.

     And I'm still here, alive  and talking. A datum  for  godshatter; maybe
there  was  yet  a chance! He spoke  almost as  the  understanding  hit him.
"Greenstalk was loyal,  yet she was  totally converted in seconds. It wasn't
just a perversion  of her  skrode, or some drug. It was as if both Rider and
skrode had been designed from the beginning to respond." He looked across at
Blueshell, trying  to gauge  his  reaction to what  he would say  next. "The
Riders have awaited their creator a long  time.  Their race is very old, far
older than anyone except  the senescent. They're  everywhere,  but  in small
numbers, always  practical and peaceful. And somewhere in the beginning -- a
few  billion years ago -- their  precursors were trapped in an  evolutionary
cul-de-sac.  Their creator  built  the  first  skrodes,  and made the  first
Riders. Now I think we know the who and the why.
     "Yes, yes. I know  there  have been other  upliftings. What's marvelous
about  this one is how  stable  it turned out to be. The greater skrodes are
'tradition'  Blueshell says, but that's a word  I apply to  cultures  and to
much shorter time scales. The greater skrodes of today are identical to ones
a  billion years ago. And they are devices that can be made anywhere in  the
Beyond ...  yet the design is clearly High Beyond or Transcendent." That had
been one of his earliest humiliations about the Beyond. He had looked at the
design  diagram  -- dissections really -- of  skrodes.  On the outside,  the
thing was a mechanical device, with  moving parts even. And the text claimed
that the whole  thing would be made with the simplest of factories, scarcely
more than  what existed  in some  places  in  the  Slow  Zone.  And  yet the
electronics was a seemingly random mass  of components, without any trace of
hierarchical design or modularity. It worked, and  far more efficiently than
something designed by human-equivalent minds, but repair and debugging -- of
the  cyber component  --  was  out of  the  question. "No  one in the Beyond
understands all the potentials of skrodes, much less the adaptations  forced
on their Riders. Isn't that so, Blueshell?"
     The  Rider clapped his fronds  hard against  his central stalk. Again a
furious rattling. It was something Pham had never seen before. Rage? Terror?
Blueshell's voder  voice was distorted  with  nonlinearities:  "You ask? You
ask? It's monstrous to ask me to help you in this --  "  the voice skeetered
into high frequencies and he stood mute, his body shivering.
     Pham of the Qeng Ho felt a stab of shame. The other knew and understood
... and deserved better than this. The Riders must  be destroyed,  but  they
should  not  have to  listen  to  his  judging. His  hand  swept toward  the
communications cutoff, stopped. No. This  is your last chance to observe the
Perversion's ... work.
     Ravna's  glance  snapped back  and forth between human and Skroderider,
and he could tell that she understood. Her face had  the same  stricken look
as when  she learned  about Sjandra Kei. "You're  saying the Perversion made
the original skrodes."
     "And modified the  Riders too.  It  was long ago, and certainly not the
same instance of the Perversion that the Straumers created, but...."
     The "Blight", that was  the other common name  for the  Perversion, and
closer to Old One's view. For all  the Perversion's transcendence,  its life
style was  more similar  to a  disease than anything  else.  Maybe that  had
helped  to fool Old One. But now Pham could see: the Blight lived in pieces,
across extraordinary reaches  of time. It hid in archives, waiting for ideal
conditions. And it had created helpers for its blooming....
     He  looked  at Ravna, and suddenly realized a little more.  "You've had
thirty  hours  to  think about  this, Rav.  You saw the record from my suit.
Surely you must have guessed some of this."
     Her gaze dropped from his. "A little," she finally said.  At least  she
was no longer denying.
     "You know what we  have to do," he said softly. Now  that he understood
what must be done, the godshatter eased its grip. Its will would be done.
     "What is that?" said Ravna, as if she didn't know.
     "Two things: Post this to the Net."
     "Who would believe?" The Net of a Million Lies.
     "Enough would. Once they look, most  folk will be able to see the truth
here ... and take the proper action."
     Ravna shook her head. "No," barely audible.
     "The Net  must be  told,  Ravna. We've  discovered something that could
save a  thousand worlds. This is the Blight's hidden edge,"  at least in the
Middle and Low Beyond.
     She  just shook her head again. "But screaming this truth would  itself
kill billions."
     "In honest defense!"  He  bounced slowly  toward  the  ceiling,  pushed
himself back toward the deck.
     There were tears in her eyes now. "These are exactly the arguments used
to kill m-my family, my worlds.... A-and I will not be part of it."
     "But the claims are true this time!"
     "I've had enough of pogroms, Pham."
     Gentle  toughness  ...  and almost unbelievable. "You  would  make this
decision yourself, Rav? We know  something that others -- leaders wiser than
either of us --  should be  free  to decide  upon.  You would keep them from
making that choice?"
     She  hesitated,   and  for  an  instant  Pham  thought   the  civilized
rule-follower in  her would bring  her around.  But  then  her chin came up,
"Yes, Pham. I would deny them the choice."
     He  made  a  noncommittal  noise and  drifted  back toward the  command
console. No point in talking to her about what else must be done.
     "And Pham, we will not kill Blueshell and Greenstalk."
     "There's no  choice, Rav."  His hands played with the  touch  controls.
"Greenstalk  was  perverted;  we have  no idea how much of that survived the
destruction of her skrode, or how long it will be before Blueshell goes bad.
We can't take them along, or let them go free."
     Ravna  drifted sideways, her eyes fixed on his hands. "B-Be careful who
you kill, Pham," she  said  softly. "As you say, I've  had thirty  hours  to
think about my decisions, thirty hours to think about yours."
     "So." Pham  raised  his  hands from the  controls.  Rage  (godshatter?)
chased  briefly  through this  mind. Ravna,  Ravna,  Ravna,  a voice  saying
goodbye inside his head. Then  all became very cold. He had been  so  afraid
that the Riders had perverted the ship. Instead, this  stupid fool had acted
for them, voluntarily.  He drifted slowly toward  her. Almost unthinking, he
held his arm and hand at combat ready. "How do you intend to prevent me from
doing what has to be done?" But he already guessed.
     She didn't  back away, even when  his  hand was  centimeters  from  her
throat. Her face held courage and tears.  "W-what do  you think, Pham? While
you  were in the surgeon ...  I rearranged things. Hurt  me, and you will be
hurt worse." Her eyes swept the walls  behind him. "Kill the Riders, and ...
and you will die."
     They stared  at each other for a  long  moment,  measuring. Maybe there
weren't  weapons buried in the walls. He probably could  kill her before she
could defend. But then there  were  a thousand ways the ship could have been
programmed to kill him. And all that  would be left would be  the Riders ...
flying down  to the  Bottom, to  their  prize.  "So what do we do, then?" He
finally said.
     "As  b-before,  we  go   to   rescue  Jefri.  We  go  to   recover  the
Countermeasure. I'm willing to put some restrictions on the Riders."
     A truce with monsters, mediated by a fool.
     He  pushed off  and sailed around  her, back  down  the  axis corridor.
Behind him, he heard a sob.

     They stayed  well clear of  each  other  the  next  few  days. Pham was
allowed shallow  access to ship controls. He found suicide programs threaded
through the application layers.  But a strange thing, and reason for chagrin
if he had been  capable  of  it:  The  changes  dated  from hours  after his
confrontation with  Ravna.  She'd had  nothing when she  stood against  him.
Thank the Powers, I didn't know. The thought was forgotten  almost before he
formed it.
     So.  The charade would proceed right to the end, a continuing  game  of
lie and  subterfuge. Grimly, he set  himself  to  winning  that game. Fleets
behind  them,  traitors  surrounding  him.  By  the  Qeng  Ho  and  his  own
godshatter, the Perversion would lose. The Skroderiders  would lose. And for
all her courage and goodness, Ravna Bergsndot would lose.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     Tyrathect  was losing the  battle  within  herself. Oh, it wasn't  near
ended; better  perhaps to  say that  the tide had turned.  In the  beginning
there  had been  little triumphs, as  when she let Amdijefri play alone with
the commset without even the children guessing she was responsible. But such
were  many tendays past,  and  now.... Some  days  she would be  entirely in
control  of herself. Others -- and  these often seemed the happiest -- would
begin with her seeming in control.
     It was not yet clear the sort of day today would be.
     Tyrathect paced along the hoardings that topped the new castle's walls.
The place  was certainly new, but hardly yet  a  castle. Steel had  built in
panicky  haste.  The south and  west walls  were  very  thick, with embedded
tunnels. But  there were spots on the north  side that were simply palisades
backed by  stony  rubble. Nothing more could be done in the time that  Steel
had been  given. She stopped for a moment,  smelling  fresh-sawn timber. The
view down Starship Hill was as beautiful as she  had ever seen  it. The days
were getting longer. Now there was only twilight between the setting and the
rising  of  the sun. The  local snow had  retreated to  its summer  patches,
leaving  heather to turn green in the warmth. From here she could see miles,
to where bluish sea haze clamped down on the offshore islands.
     By  the  conventional wisdom,  it would be  suicide  to  attack the new
castle --  even  in its present ramshackle state -- with less than  a horde.
Tyrathect smiled bitterly  to  herself. Of  course,  Woodcarver would ignore
that  wisdom. Old  Woodcarver thought she had a  secret  weapon  that  would
breach these  walls from  hundreds of feet away. Even now Steel's spies were
reporting that the Woodcarvers had taken the bait, that their small army and
their crude cannon had begun the overland trek up the coast.
     She  descended  the wall stairs to the  yard. She  heard faint thunder.
Somewhere north of Streamsdell, Steel's  own cannoneers were beginning their
morning practice. When  the air was just right, you could hear it. There was
to be no testing near the farmlands, and none but high Servants and isolated
workers knew of the weapons. But by now Steel had thirty  of the devices and
gunpowder  to match. The greatest  lack was gunners.  Up close the  noise of
firing  was hellish.  Sustained firing could  deafen.  Ah,  but  the weapons
themselves: They had a range of almost eight  miles, three times as great as
Woodcarver's.  They could deliver gunpowder "bombs" that exploded on impact.
There were places beyond the northern hills where the forest was gouged bare
and slumping landslides showed naked rock -- all  from sustained barrages of
     And soon -- perhaps today -- the Flenserists would have radio, too.

     God  damn  you,  Woodcarver!  Of  course Tyrathect  had  never met  the
Woodcarver,  but Flenser  had  known  that  pack  well: Flenser  was  mostly
Woodcarver's offspring. The "Gentle Woodcarver" had borne him and raised him
to power. It had been Woodcarver who taught him about freedom of thought and
experiment. Woodcarver should have  known  the pride  that lived in Flenser,
should have known that he would go to extremes his parent  never  dared. And
when  the   new  one's   monstrous  nature  became  clear,  when  his  first
"experiments" were discovered,  Woodcarver should  have had him killed -- or
at  the  very  least, fragmented. Instead, Flenser had been  allowed to take
exile  ...  to  create  things  like  Steel, and  they to  create  their own
monsters, ultimately to build this hierarchy of madness.
     And  now,  a  century  overdue,  Woodcarver was coming  to correct  her
mistake. She  came with her  toy guns,  as overconfident  and idealistic  as
ever. She came into a trap  of steel and fire that none  of her people would
survive.  If only there were some  way to warn  the Woodcarver.  Tyrathect's
only reason for  being  here was  the  oath  she had sworn herself  to bring
Flenser's  Movement down. If  Woodcarver knew what awaited her here,  if she
even knew of the traitors in her own  camp ... there might be a chance. Last
fall, Tyrathect had come close to sending an anonymous message south.  There
were traders  who visited through both  kingdoms. Her Flenser  memories told
her which  were likely  independent. She almost passed one a note,  a single
piece of silkpaper, reporting the starship's landing  and  Jefri's survival.
In  that  she  had  missed death by  less than a day: Steel had shown  her a
report from the South, about the other human and  Woodcarver's progress with
the "dataset". There were things in  the report that could only  be known by
someone at  the top at Woodcarver's. Who? She didn't ask, but she guessed it
was Vendacious;  the Flenser in Tyrathect remembered that sibling pack well.
They'd had ...  dealings. Vendacious  had none  of the raw genius  of  their
joint parent, but there was a broad streak of opportunism in him.
     Steel had shown  her the  report  only to puff himself  up, to prove to
Tyrathect  that  he  had  succeeded  in  something  that  Flenser had  never
attempted. And it  was  a coup. Tyrathect  had complimented Steel  with more
than usual sincerity ... and quietly shelved her  plans  of warning. With  a
spy at the top at Woodcarver's, any message would be pointless suicide.
     Now Tyrathect padded  across the castle's outer  yard.  There was still
plenty of  construction  going  on, but  the  teams were  smaller. Steel was
building timber  lodges all  over  the yard. Many  were empty  shells. Steel
hoped to persuade Ravna to land at a special spot near the inner keep.
     The inner keep. That was the  only thing about this castle built to the
standards of Hidden Island. It was a beautiful structure. It could really be
what Steel told  Amdijefri: a  shrine to honor Jefri's ship and  protect  it
from  Woodcarver attack. The  central dome was a smooth sweep of cantilevers
and  fitted  stone  as  wide as  the  main meeting hall  on  Hidden  Island.
Tyrathect watched  it  with one pair of eyes as she  trotted round it. Steel
intended  to face the dome with the finest pink marble. It  would be visible
for  dozens of miles  into the sky.  The deadfalls built  into its structure
were the centerpiece of Steel's plan,  even  if the rescuers  didn't land in
his other trap.

     Shreck and two other high Servants stood on the steps  of the  castle's
meeting hall. They  came  to  attention as she approached. The three  backed
quickly  away, bellies scraping stone ... but not as  quickly  as last fall.
They knew that  the other Flenser Fragments had been destroyed. As Tyrathect
swept past them,  she  almost smiled. For  all  her  weakness  and  all  her
problems, she knew she could best these ones.
     Steel was already inside,  alone. The most important meetings were  all
like this, just Steel and  herself. She understood the  relationship. In the
beginning, Steel had  been simply  terrified of  her --  the  one  person he
believed  he  could  never  kill.  For  tendays,  he  had  teetered  between
grovelling before her and dismembering her. It was amusing to  see the bonds
Flenser had installed years before still having force. Then had come word of
the   death   of   the    other   Fragments.   Tyrathect   was   no   longer
Flenser-in-Waiting. She had  half expected death to come  then. But in a way
this  made her safer. Now Steel  was less afraid, and his need  for intimate
advice  could  be  satisfied in ways he saw less threatening.  She  was  his
bottled demon: Flenser wisdom without the Flenser threat.
     This afternoon he  seemed almost relaxed, nodding casually to Tyrathect
as she entered. She nodded back. In many ways Steel  was her -- Flenser's --
finest  creation.  So much effort  had been  spent honing  Steel.  How  many
packs-worth of members had been sacrificed to get just the  combination that
was Steel.  She  --  Flenser  -- had  wanted  brilliance,  ruthlessness.  As
Tyrathect she could see  the  truth.  With  all the  flensing,  Flenser  had
created  a poor, sad thing. It was  strange, but  ... sometimes Steel seemed
like Flenser's most pitiable victim.
     "Ready  for the  big test?" Tyrathect said. At long  last,  the  radios
seemed complete.
     "In  a moment.  I wanted to ask  you about timing. My  sources tell  me
Woodcarver's  army  is on its way.  If they make reasonable  progress,  they
should be here in five tendays."
     "That's at least three tendays before Ravna's ship arrives."
     "Quite. We will have your old  enemy disposed of long before we go  for
the high stakes.  But  ... something is strange  about  the Two-Legs' recent
messages. How much do you think they suspect?  Is it possible that Amdijefri
are telling them more than we know?"
     It was an uncertainty Steel would have masked  back  when  she had been
Flenser-in-Waiting. Tyrathect  slid to a  seated position  before  replying.
"You  might  know  the  answer  if  you had bothered  to learn more  of  the
Two-Legs' language, dear Steel, or let me learn more." Through  the  winter,
Tyrathect had  been desperate to talk  to the children alone, to get warning
to  the ship. She  was of  two  minds  about  that now.  Amdijefri  were  so
transparent,  so innocent.  If  they glimpsed anything of Steel's treachery,
they couldn't hide it. And what might the rescuers do  if  they knew Steel's
villainy? Tyrathect had seen  one starship in flight. Just its landing could
be a terrible weapon. Besides ... If Steel's plan succeeds, I won't need the
aliens' goodwill.
     Aloud,  Tyrathect   continued,  "As  long  as  you  can  continue  your
magnificent performance, you have nothing to fear from the child. Can't  you
see that he loves you?"
     For an instant, Steel seemed pleased, and then  the suspicion returned.
"I don't know. Amdi seems always to taunt me, as though he  sees through  my
     Poor Steel.  Amdiranifani was his greatest success, and he  would never
understand  it. In this one thing Steel  had  truly exceeded his Master, had
discovered  and  honed  a technique  that had  once  been  Woodcarver's. The
Fragment  eyed his former student almost hungrily. If  only he could do  him
all over  again;  there must  be a way to combine the fear and  the flensing
with  love  and affection. The  resulting  tool would truly  merit  the name
Steel. Tyrathect shrugged,  "Take  my word for it. If  you can continue your
kindness act,  both  children will  be  faithful. As for  the rest  of  your
question: I  have noticed some change in  Ravna's messages.  She  seems much
more confident of their arrival time, yet something has gone wrong for them.
I don't think they're any more suspicious than before; they seemed to accept
that Jefri was responsible for Amdi's idea about the radios. That  lie was a
good move,  by the  way. It played to their sense of superiority. On a  fair
battlefield, we are probably their betters -- and they must not guess that."
     "But what are they suddenly so tense about?"
     The Fragment shrugged. "Patience, dear Steel. Patience and observation.
Perhaps  Amdijefri have noticed this  too. You might subtly inspire  them to
ask  about it.  My guess is the Two-Legs  have their  own politics to  worry
about." He  stopped and turned all his heads on Steel. "Could  you have your
'source' down at Woodcarver's ferret about with the question?"
     "Perhaps I  will. That Dataset  is  Woodcarver's one great  advantage."
Steel sat  in silence for a moment, nervously chewing at his lips. Abruptly,
he shook  himself all over, as  if to drive off the manifold  threats he saw
encroaching. "Shreck!"
     There was the sound of paws.  The hatch creaked open and Shreck stuck a
head inside. "Sir?"
     "Bring the  radio outfits in here.  Then ask Amdijefri if  he can  come
down to talk to us."

     The  radios were  beautiful things. Ravna claimed that the basic device
could be invented by  civilizations scarcely more  advanced than  Flenser's.
That was  hard to believe. There  were  so many steps in the making, so many
meaningless  detours.  The  final   results:   eight  one-yard  squares   of
night-darkness.  Glints  of gold and silver showed in  the strange material.
That, at least, was no mystery: a part of Flenser's gold and silver had gone
into the construction.
     Amdijefri arrived.  They raced around the  central floor, poked at  the
radios, shouted to Steel  and the Flenser Fragment. Sometimes it was hard to
believe they were not  truly one  pack,  that the Two  Legs was not  another
member: They  clung to each other as a  single pack might. As  often as not,
Amdi answered questions about  Two-Legs before Jefri had a  chance to speak,
using the "I-pack" pronoun to identify both of them.
     Today, however, there seemed to be a disagreement. "Oh, please my lord,
let me be the one to try it!"
     Jefri rattled off something in Samnorsk. When Amdi didn't translate, he
repeated the  words  more slowly, speaking  directly  to  Steel. "No. It  is
[something something] dangerous. Amdi is [something] small.  And also,  time
[something] narrow."
     The Fragment  strained for  the  meaning. Damn.  Sooner or  later their
ignorance of the Two Legs' language was going to cost them.
     Steel listened to the  human, then sighed the  most marvelously patient
sigh.  "Please. Amdi. Jefri. What is problem?" He  spoke in Samnorsk, making
more sense to the Flenser Fragment than the human child had.
     Amdi dithered for a moment. "Jefri thinks the radio jackets are too big
for me. But look,  it  doesn't fit so badly!" Amdi jumped all  around one of
the  night-dark squares, dragging  it heedlessly off its velvet  pallet onto
the floor. He pulled the fabric over  the  back and shoulders of his largest
     Now the  radio was roughly the  shape of  a greatcloak; Steel's tailors
had added clasps at the shoulders and gut. But the thing was vastly outsized
for little Amdi. It stood like a  tent around  one  of  him. "See? See?" The
tiny head  poked out, looking first at Steel and then at Tyrathect,  willing
their belief.
     Jefri said something. The Amdi pack squeaked back angrily. Then, "Jefri
worries about everything, but somebody has to test  the radios. There's this
little problem with speed. Radio  goes much faster  than sound. Jefri's just
afraid it's so fast, it might confuse the pack using it. That's foolish. How
much faster could it  be  than heads-together  thought?"  He  asked it as  a
question. Tyrathect smiled. The  pack of puppies  couldn't quite lie, but he
guessed that Amdi knew the answer to his question  -- and  that  it did  not
support his argument.
     On the other side of the hall,  Steel listened with heads cocked -- the
picture of benign  tolerance. "I'm sorry,  Amdi. It's just too dangerous for
you to be the first."
     "But I am brave! And I want to help."
     "I'm sorry. After we know it's safe -- "
     Amdi gave a shriek of outrage, much higher  than normal interpack talk,
almost in the  range of  thought. He  swarmed around Jefri,  whacking at the
human's  legs with his butt ends. "Hideous traitor!" he cried, and continued
the insults in Samnorsk.
     It took  about  ten minutes to get him  calmed  down to a sulk. He  and
Jefri  sat on the  floor, grumbling  at each other  in  Samnorsk.  Tyrathect
watched  the  two,  and Steel on the other side of the  room. If irony  were
something that made sound, they  would all be  deaf by now. All their lives,
Flenser and Steel had experimented on others -- usually unto death. Now they
had  a  victim who literally begged  to  be victimized  ...  and he  must be
rejected. There was  no question about the rejection. Even if Jefri  had not
raised objections, the Amdi pack was too valuable to be risked. Furthermore,
Amdi  was  an  eightsome.  It  was a  miracle  that such a  large pack could
function at all. Whatever  dangers  there  were with  radio  would  be  much
greater for him.
     So, a  proper victim would be found. A proper wretch. Surely there were
plenty of  those in the dungeons  beneath Hidden Island.  Tyrathect  thought
back  on all  the packs she remembered  killing. How she hated Flenser,  his
calculating cruelty.  I  am  so  much worse than Steel.  I  made Steel.  She
remembered where her thoughts had been the  last hour. This was one  of  the
bad days, one  of the days when Flenser sneaked out from the recesses of her
mind, when she rode  the power of  his  reason  higher and  higher, till  it
became rationalization and she became him. Still, for a few more seconds she
might  be in  control. What  could she  do with it?  A  soul that was strong
enough might deny itself, might  become a different  person ... might at the
very least end itself.
     "I-I  will try  the radio." The  words  were spoken  almost  before  he
thought them. Weak, silly frill.
     "What?" said Steel.
     But the words had been clear, and Steel had heard. The Flenser Fragment
smiled  dryly. "I want  to see what this radio can  do. Let me try  it, dear

     They took the radios  out into  the yard,  on the side  of the starship
that was hidden from general view. Here it would just be  Amdijefri,  Steel,
and  whoever  I am  at  the moment.  The Flenser  Fragment  laughed  at  the
upwelling fear. Discipline, she had thought! Perhaps that was best. He stood
in the middle of the  yard and let the human  help  him with the radio gear.
Strange to see another intelligent being so close, and towering over him.
     Jefri's incredibly articulate paws arranged the jackets  loosely on his
backs. The inside material was soft,  deadening. And unlike normal clothing,
the  radios covered the wearer's tympana. The  boy tried to  explain what he
was  doing. "See? This thing," he  pulled  at the corner  of the greatcloak,
"goes  over  your  head. The inside has  [something]  that makes  sound into
     The Fragment shrugged away as the boy tried to pull  the cover forward.
"No. I can't  think." Only by standing just so, all members  facing  inward,
could the Fragment maintain full consciousness. Already the weaker parts  of
him  were edging toward isolation  panic. The conscience that  was Tyrathect
would learn something today.
     "Oh. I'm sorry." Jefri turned  and spoke to Amdi, something about using
the old design.
     Amdi was heads-together, just thirty feet away. He had been all frowns,
sullen at being  denied,  nervous to  be apart from the Two-Legs. But as the
preparations continued, the frowns eased. The puppies'  eyes grew wide  with
happy fascination.  The Fragment felt a  wave  of  affection for the puppies
that came and went almost too fast to be noticed.
     Now Amdi  edged nearer, taking  advantage of the fact  that the  cloaks
muffled  much  of  the  Fragment's  thought  sounds.  "Jefri says  maybe  we
shouldn't have tried to make  the mind-size  radio," he said. "But this will
be so much better. I know it!  And," he said with transparent slyness,  "you
could still let me test it instead."
     "No,  Amdi. This  is the way  it must be." Steel's  voice was  all soft
sympathy. Only the  Flenser Fragment could see the broad grin on a couple of
the lord's members.
     "Well, okay." The puppies crept a little nearer. "Don't be afraid, Lord
Tyrathect. We've had the radios in  sunlight for some time. They should have
lots of power. To make them work you just pull all the belts tight, even the
ones at your neck."
     "All of them at once?"
     Amdi  fidgeted. "That's probably best. Otherwise, there will  be such a
mismatch of speeds that -- " He said something to the Two Legs.
     Jefri leaned close. "This belt goes here, and this here." He pointed to
the  braid-bone straps  that drew the  head covering close. "Then  just pull
this with your mouth."
     "The harder you pull, the louder the radio," Amdi added.
     "Okay."  The  Fragment drew himself together. He  shrugged the  jackets
into place,  tightening the shoulder  and gut  belts.  Deadly muffling.  The
jackets almost  seemed to  mold  themselves to  his  tympana.  He looked  at
himself, and  grasped desperately for  what was  left of consciousness.  The
jackets were beautiful,  magic darkness yet with a hint of the golden-silver
of a Flenserist Lord. Beautiful instruments  of  torture. Even Steel had not
imagined such twisted revenge. Had he?
     The Fragment grabbed the head straps and pulled.

     Twenty years ago, when Tyrathect was new,  she  had loved to hike  with
her fission parent on the grassy dunes along Lake Kitcherri. That was before
their great falling out, before loneliness drove Tyrathect to the Republic's
Capital and her search for "meaning". Not all of the shore of Lake Kitcherri
was  beaches and dunes. Farther south there was the Rockness, where  streams
cut  through stone  to the water.  Sometimes, especially when  she  and  her
parent had  fought, Tyrathect would walk  up from the  shore  along  streams
bordered by sheer, smooth cliffs. It was  a  sort of  punishment: there were
places where the stone had a glassy  haze and  didn't absorb  sound  at all.
Everything  was echoed, right up to the top  of thought. It  was if she were
surrounded by copies  of herself, and  copies beyond  them, all thinking the
same sounds but out of step.
     Of  course  echoes  are  often a  problem with unquilted  stone  walls,
especially if the size and geometry are wrong. But these cliffs were perfect
reflectors, a quarrier's nightmare. And there were places where the shape of
the Rockness conspired with the sounds....  When Tyrathect walked there, she
couldn't  tell her own thoughts from the echoes. Everything was garbled with
barely offset  resonance. At first  it had been  a great pain  that sent her
running. But she forced herself back again and again, and finally learned to
think even in the worst of the narrows.
     Amdijefri's radio  was just a little  like the Kitcherri cliffs. Enough
to save me, maybe. Tyrathect came to consciousness all piled in  a  heap. At
most seconds had passed since she brought the radios to life; Amdi and Steel
were simply staring at her. The human was rocking one of her bodies, talking
to her. Tyrathect licked the boy's paw, then stood partly up. She heard only
her own thoughts ... but  they  had  some of  the jarring difference of  the
stone echoes.
     She was  back  on her bellies  again. Part  of  her was vomiting in the
dirt. The world shimmered, out of tune. Thought is there.  Grab it! Grab it!
All a  matter  of  coordination, of timing. She remembered Amdijefri talking
about how fast the radio was. In a  way, this was the reverse of the problem
of the screaming cliffs.
     She shook her heads, mastering the weirdness.  "Give me a  moment," she
said,  and her voice  was  almost calm. She  looked around.  Slowly. If  she
concentrated and didn't move fast, she could think.  Suddenly she was  aware
of  the greatcloaks, pressing in  on all  her tympana. She should  have been
deafened, isolated. Yet her thoughts were no muzzier than after a bad sleep.
     She  got to her feet  again and  walked slowly  around  the  open space
between Amdi and Steel. "Can you hear me?" she asked.
     "Yes," said Steel. He edged nervously away from her.
     Of course. The cloaks muffled sound like any heavy  quilt: anything  in
the range of thought  would  be  totally absorbed. But interpack  speech and
Samnorsk were low-pitched sound  --  they  would scarcely be  affected.  She
stopped, holding all  her breath. She could hear  birds  and  the sounds  of
timber being sawn somewhere on the far side of the inner yard. Yet Steel was
only  thirty feet  from  her. His  thought  noise  should have  been  a loud
intrusion, even confusing.  She strained to  hear.... There was  nothing but
her own  thoughts and a stickety buzzing noise  that seemed to come from all
     "And we thought this  would just give us control in  battle," she said,
wonderingly.  All of her turned  and walked toward Amdi.  He was twenty feet
away, ten feet. Still  no thought noise. Amdi's eyes were wide. The  puppies
held their ground;  in fact all eight of him seemed to lean toward her. "You
knew about this all along, didn't you?" Tyrathect said.
     "I hoped. Oh, I hoped." He stepped closer. Five feet.  The eight of him
looked at the  five of her from  a  distance of inches.  He extended a nose,
brushing  muzzles  with  Tyrathect.  His thought  sounds  came only  faintly
through the cloak, no  louder than if he were fifty feet away. For a  moment
they looked at each other in stark astonishment. Nose to nose, and they both
could still think! Amdi gave a whoop of glee and bounded in among Tyrathect,
rubbing  back  and forth  across  her  legs.  "See, Jefri,"  he  shouted  in
Samnorsk. "It works. It works!"
     Tyrathect wobbled under the assault, almost lost hold of  her thoughts.
What had just happened.... In all  the history of the world  there had never
been such a thing. If  thinking packs could work paw by  jowl.... There were
consequences and consequences, and she got dizzy all over again.
     Steel moved a little  closer  and  suffered  a  flying  hug  from Jefri
Olsndot.  Steel was trying his  best to join the celebration,  but he wasn't
quite  sure  what  had  happened.  He  hadn't lived  the  consequences  like
Tyrathect. "Wonderful progress  for the first try," he said. "But it must be
painful even so." Two of him looked sharply at her. "We should get that gear
off you, and give you a rest."
     "No!"  Tyrathect and  Amdi  said almost  together.  She  smiled back at
Steel.  "We haven't really tested it yet,  have we? The  whole  purpose  was
long-distance communications."  We thought that was  the purpose, anyway. In
fact, even  if it had  no better  range than talk sounds, it was  already  a
towering success in Tyrathect's mind.
     "Oh." Steel smiled weakly at Amdi and glared hidden faces at Tyrathect.
Jefri was  still hanging on two of his necks. Steel was  a picture of barely
concealed anguish. "Well, go slowly then. We don't know what might happen if
you run out of range."
     Tyrathect disentangled two  of herself from Amdi and stepped a few feet
away. Thought was as clear -- and as potentially confusing --  as before. By
now she was beginning to  get  the feel of it  though. She  had  very little
trouble keeping her balance. She walked  the two  another thirty feet, about
the maximum range a  pack could coordinate in the quietest conditions. "It's
like I'm still  heads-together,"  she said wonderingly. Ordinarily at thirty
feet, thoughts were  faint and  the time  lag so bad that  coordination  was
     "How far can I go?" She murmured the question to Amdi.
     He made a human giggling  sound and slid a head close to hers. "I'm not
sure. It should be good at least to the outer walls."
     "Well," she said in  a  normal  voice, for Steel,  "let's see if  I can
spread a little bit further."  The two of her walked another ten yards.  She
was more than sixty feet across!
     Steel was wide-eyed. "And now?"
     Tyrathect  laughed. "My thought's  as  crisp as before." She turned her
two and walked away.
     "Wait!" roared  Steel, bounding to his feet.  "That's far -- "  then he
remembered his audience, and  his fury became more a  frightened concern for
her welfare. "That's far too dangerous for the first experiment. Come back!"
     From where she sat with Amdi,  Tyrathect smiled brightly. "But Steel, I
never left," she said in Samnorsk.
     Amdijefri laughed and laughed.
     She was one hundred fifty feet  across. Her  two  broke into  a careful
trot -- and she watched Steel  swallow back foam. Her  thought still had the
sharp, abrupt quality of closer than heads-together. How fast  is this radio
     She  passed close by Shreck and  the  guards posted at the edge of  the
field. "Hey, hey, Shreck! What do you say?" one of her said at his stupefied
faces. Back  with  Amdi and  the rest of  her, Steel was shouting at Shreck,
telling him to follow her.
     Her trot became an easy run.  She split, one going  north of  the inner
yard, the  other south. Shreck and company followed, clumsy with shock.  The
dome of the inner keep was between her, a sweeping hulk  of stone. Her radio
thoughts faded into the stickety buzzing.
     "Can't think," she mumbled to Amdi.
     "Pull on the mouth straps. Make your thoughts louder."
     Tyrathect pulled,  and the buzzing faded.  She regained her balance and
raced around the starship. One of  her  was  in  a  construction  area  now.
Artisans looked up in shock. A  loose  member usually meant a fatal accident
or a pack  run  amok.  In  either case the singleton must be restrained. But
Tyrathect's member was wearing a  greatcloak that sparkled here and there of
gold. And behind her, Shreck and his guards were  shouting  for  everyone to
stand back.
     She turned a head to  Steel, and her  voice was joy. "I soar!" She  ran
through  the cowering workers, ran toward the south and the west walls.  She
was  everywhere, spreading and spreading. These seconds would  make memories
that  would  outlast  her soul, that  would be  legends  in the minds of her
descendants a thousand years from now.
     Steel  hunkered down.  Things were  totally  out of  his  control  now;
Shreck's  people were all  on  the far side of inner  keep.  All that he and
Amdijefri could know came from Tyrathect -- and the clamor of alarums.
     Amdi bounced around her. "Where are you now? Where?"
     "Almost to the outer wall."
     "Don't go beyond that," Steel said quietly.
     Tyrathect scarcely heard.  For  a few more seconds she would drink this
glorious power. She charged up the inside stairs. Guards scuttled back, some
members jumping back into the yard. Shreck still  followed, shouting for her
     One of her reached the parapet, then the other.
     She gasped.
     "Are you all right?" said Amdi.
     "I -- " Tyrathect looked about her.  From her  places on the south wall
she could see  herselves back in  the  castle yard: a tiny clump of gold and
black that  was  her  three and Amdi. Beyond the northeast  walls  stretched
forest and valleys, the trails up  into  the Icefang mountains. To the  west
was Hidden Island and the misty inner waters. These were things she had seen
a thousand times as Flenser. How he  had loved them, his domain. But now ...
she was seeing as  if in a dream. Her eyes were so far apart. Her  pack  was
almost as wide  as the castle itself. The  parallax view made  Hidden Island
seem  just  a few paces away. Newcastle was like  a model  spread out around
her. Almighty Pack of packs -- this was God's view.
     Shreck's  troopers  were  edging closer. He had sent a couple of  packs
back to get directions.  "A couple of minutes. I'll come down in a couple of
minutes." She spoke  the words to the troopers on the palisade and  to Steel
back in the yard. Then she turned to survey her domain.
     She  had only extended two of herself across  less than  a quarter of a
mile.  But  there  was no  perceptible time  lag;  coordination had the same
abrupt feel it did when she was all together. And there was plenty more pull
in the braid-bone straps. What  if all five of  her spread out,  moved miles
apart? All of the northland would be her private room.
     And  Flenser? Ah, Flenser. Where was he? The memories were still there,
but.... Tyrathect remembered the loss of consciousness right when the radios
began working. It took a special skill  of coordination to think in the face
of such terrible speed. Perhaps Lord Flenser had never  walked between close
cliffs when  he was new. Tyrathect  smiled.  Perhaps only her  mindset could
hold when  using the radios. In that  case.... Tyrathect looked again across
the landscape.  Flenser  had made a great empire. If these new  developments
were  managed  properly, then the coming victories could  make it infinitely
     He turned to Shreck's troopers. "Very well, I'm ready to return to Lord

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     It was  high summer  when Woodcarver's army  left  for  the north.  The
preparations had  been frantic, with Vendacious driving himself and everyone
else to the point of exhaustion. There had been cannons to  make -- Scrupilo
cast seventy tubes before getting thirty that would fire reliably. There had
been  cannoneers to train -- and safe methods  of firing to  discover. There
had been wagons to build and kherhogs to buy.
     Surely  word  of  the   preparations  had  long  ago  filtered   north.
Woodcarvers was a port city;  they could  not close down  the commerce  that
moved through it.  Vendacious  warned  them of this in more  than one  inner
council meeting: Steel knew they were coming.  The trick  was in keeping the
Flenserists uncertain as to numbers and  timing and exact purpose. "We  have
one great advantage over the enemy," he said. "We have agents in his highest
councils. We  know what he knows of us." They couldn't disguise the  obvious
from the spies, but the details were a different matter.
     The  army  departed  along  inland routes, a  dozen  wagons here, a few
squads there. In all there were a thousand packs in the expedition, but they
would  never be  together till they reached deep forest. It  would have been
easier to take the first part of the trip by  sea,  but the  Flenserists had
spotters hidden high in the fjordlands. Any  ship movement -- even  deep  in
Woodcarver territory --  would be known  in the north.  So they  traveled on
forest paths, through areas that Vendacious had cleared of enemy agents.
     At first  the  going was very easy, at least for those with the wagons.
Johanna  rode in one of the rear  ones with Woodcarver and Dataset. Even I'm
beginning  to treat the thing like an oracle,  thought Johanna.  Too bad  it
couldn't really predict the future.
     The  weather  was  as beautiful  as Johanna had ever  seen it  on Tines
world,  an endless  afternoon. It was strange  that  such unending  fairness
should make her so nervous,  but she couldn't help it. This was so much like
her first time on this world, when everything had ... gone wrong.
     During  the first dayarounds of  the  journey, while they were still in
home territory,  Woodcarver pointed out every peak  that  came into view and
tried to translate its name into Samnorsk for her.  After six hundred  years
the Queen knew  her  land  well.  Even the patches of snow -- the  ones that
lasted all through the summer  --  were  known to her. She  showed Johanna a
sketchbook  she had brought  along. Each page was from a different year, and
showed  her special snowpatches as they had appeared on the same day of  the
summer.  Riffling  through the leaves,  it  was almost like a crude piece of
animation. Johanna  could see  the patches moving, growing  over a period of
decades, then  retreating. "Most packs  don't  live long enough to feel it,"
said  Woodcarver,  "but  to me,  the patches that  last all  summer are like
living things. See how  they move?  They are like  wolves, held off from our
lands by our fire that  is the sun.  They circle about, grow. Sometimes they
link together and a new glacier starts toward the sea."
     Johanna had laughed a little nervously. "Are they winning?"
     "For the  last  four centuries, no. The summers have often been hot and
windy. In the long run? I don't know. And it doesn't matter quite so much to
me anymore."  She  rocked  her  two little puppies for a  moment and laughed
gently. "Peregrine's little ones  are not even thinking yet, and I'm already
losing my long view!"
     Johanna reached out  to stroke her  neck. "But  they  are your  puppies
     "I know.  Most of my pups have been with other packs, but these are the
first  that  I have  kept  to be me." Her blind  one nuzzled at  one  of the
puppies. It wriggled and made a sound that warbled at the  top  of Johanna's
hearing. Johanna held the  other on her lap. Tine pups looked more like baby
sea'mals  than dogs. Their necks were so long compared  to their bodies. And
they  seemed to develop much  more slowly than  the puppy she and Jefri  had
raised. Even now they seemed to have trouble focusing. She moved her fingers
slowly back and  forth in front of  one puppy's head; its  efforts  to track
were comical.
     And after sixty days, Woodcarver's pups couldn't really walk. The Queen
wore two  special jackets with carrying  pouches  on the  sides. Most of the
waking day,  her little ones stayed  there, suckling through the fur on  her
tummy. In some ways, Woodcarver treated her offspring as a human  would. She
was very  nervous when  they were taken from her sight.  She liked to cuddle
them and  play little  games of coordination with them.  Often she would lay
both of them on their backs  and pat their paws in a sequence of eight, then
abruptly tap the one or the other on the belly. The  two wriggled  furiously
at the attack, their little legs waving in all directions. "I nibble the one
whose paw was last touched. Peregrine is worthy of me. These two are already
thinking a little. See?" She pointed to the puppy that had convulsed into  a
ball, avoiding most of her surprise tickle.
     In  other  ways  Tinish  parenting  was  alien, almost  scary.  Neither
Woodcarver nor  Peregrine  ever talked  to their pups in  audible tones, but
their ultrasonic "thoughts" seemed to be constantly probing the little ones.
Some of it  was so simple and  regular  that  it set sympathetic  vibrations
through  the  walls of the little  wagon. The wood  buzzed  under  Johanna's
hands. It  was like a mother humming a lullaby, but she  could  see  it  had
another purpose.  The little creatures responded to the sounds, twitching in
complicated  rhythms. Peregrine said it would be  another thirty days before
the pups  could contribute  conscious  thought to the  pack,  but  they were
already being trained and exercised for the function.
     They camped part of each dayaround, the troops standing turns as sentry
lines. Even  during the traveling part of the  day,  they  stopped  numerous
times, to clear the trail, or await the return of scouts, or simply to rest.
At  one such stop, Johanna sat with Peregrine in  the shade of a  tree  that
looked like pine but smelled  of honey. Pilgrim  played with his young ones,
helping them to stand up and walk a few steps. She could tell by the buzzing
in her head that he was thinking at the pups.  And suddenly they seemed more
like  marionettes  than children to her.  "Why don't  you let  them  play by
themselves, or with  their -- " Brothers? Sisters? What do you call siblings
born to the other pack? "-- with Woodcarver's pups?"
     Even  more  than Woodcarver,  the  pilgrim  had  tried  to  learn human
customs. He was by far the most flexible pack she knew ... after all, if you
can  accommodate  a  murderer in your own mind, you  must  be  flexible. But
Pilgrim  was  visibly startled  by her  question. The buzzing  in  her  head
stopped abruptly. He laughed weakly. It was a very human laugh, though a bit
theatrical. Peregrine  had spent  hours at interactive comedy on  Dataset --
whether for entertainment or insight, she didn't know. "Play? By themselves?
Yes ... I see how natural that would seem to you.  To us, it would be a kind
of  perversion.... No, worse than that, since perversions  are  at least fun
for some  people some of the time.  But if a pup were raised a singleton, or
even a duo -- it would be making an animal of what could be sturdy member."
     "You mean that pups never have life of their own?"
     Peregrine cocked  his heads and scrunched close  to the ground. One  of
him continued to nose around the puppies, but  Johanna had his attention. He
loved to puzzle over human  exotica. "Well, sometimes there is a tragedy  --
an orphan pup left to itself. Often there is no  cure  for it; the  creature
becomes too independent to  meld with any  pack. In any case, it is  a  very
lonely, empty life. I have personal memories of just how unpleasant."
     "You're missing  a  lot. I know you've  watched  children's stories  on
Dataset. It's sad you can never be young and foolish."
     "Hei! I never  said that. I've been young and foolish lots; it's my way
of life. And most packs are that way when they have several young members by
different parents." As they talked, one of Peregrine's pups had struggled to
the edge of the blanket they sat on. Now it awkwardly extended its neck into
the flowers that grew from the roots of a nearby tree. As it scruffed around
in the green and purple, Johanna felt  the buzzing begin  again.  The  pup's
movement became a  tad more  organized. "Wow!  I can smell  the flowers with
him. I  bet we'll be seeing through each other's eyes well before  we get to
Flenser's Hidden Island." The pup backed up, and the two did a  little dance
on the blanket.  Peregrine's heads  bobbed in  time with the movement. "They
are such bright little  ones!" He grinned. "Oh, we are not so different from
you, Johanna. I know humans are proud of their young  ones.  Both Woodcarver
and I wonder what ours will become. She is so brilliant, and I am -- well, a
bit mad. Will these  two make me a scientific genius? Will Woodcarver's turn
her into an  adventurer?  Heh,  heh. Woodcarver's a  great brood kenner, but
even she's not sure  what our new souls will be like. Oh, I can't wait to be
six again!"

     It had taken Scriber and Pilgrim and Johanna  only three days  to  sail
from Flenser's Domain to the harbor at Woodcarver's. It would take this army
almost thirty days to walk  back to where Johanna's  adventure began. On the
map it  had looked a tortuous path, wiggling this  way and that through  the
fjordland. Yet  the first ten days were  amazingly easy. The weather  stayed
dry and  warm. It was  like the day of  the ambush stretched out forever and
ever.  A dry winds summer, Woodcarver  called it. There should be occasional
storms, at least cloudiness.  Instead  the  sun circled  endlessly above the
forest canopy, and when  they broke into the open (never for long,  and then
only  when Vendacious was  sure  that  it was safe), the sky was  clear  and
almost cloudless.
     In fact, there was  already uneasiness  about the weather.  At noon  it
could get downright  hot.  The wind was constant, drying. The forest  itself
was drying out; they must be careful with fire. And  with the sun always  up
and no clouds, they might be seen by lookouts many kilometers away. Scrupilo
was especially bothered.  He  hadn't expected to fire the cannons  en route,
but he had wanted to drill "his" troops more in the open.
     Officially  Strupilo  was  a  council  member  and  the  Queen's  chief
engineer. Since his experiment with the cannon, he had insisted on the title
"Commander of Cannoneers".  To Johanna, the engineer had always  seemed curt
and  impatient.  His  members  were  almost  always moving,  and  with jerky
abruptness. He spent almost as much  time with the Dataset as  the  Queen or
Peregrine Wickwrackscar, yet he  had very little interest in people-oriented
subjects. "He has a blindness for all but machines," Woodcarver once said of
him, "but that's how I made him. He's invented much, even before you came."
     Scrupilo had fallen in love  with the  cannons.  For most packs, firing
the  things was a painful experience.  Since  that  first test, Scrupilo had
fired  the things again and again, trying to improve  the tubes, the powder,
and the explosive rounds. His fur was scored with dozens of powder burns. He
claimed that nearby gun thunder cleared the mind -- but most everybody  else
agreed it made you daft.
     During rest  stops Scrup was  a familiar figure, strutting  up and down
the  line, haranguing his cannoneers. He claimed  even the shortest stop was
an opportunity for training,  since in real combat speed would be essential.
He had  designed special epaulets, based on Nyjoran gunners' ear muffs. They
didn't  cover  his low-sound  ears at  all,  but instead  the  forehead  and
shoulder tympana of  his trigger member. Actually tying the muffs down was a
mind-numbing thing to  do, but for  the moments right around firing  it  was
worth  it.  Scrupilo wore  his  own muffs all  the time, but unsnugged. They
looked like silly little wings sticking out from his head and shoulders.  He
obviously thought the effect was raffish -- and in fact,  his  gunner  crews
also made a big thing of wearing the gear at all times. After a while,  even
Johanna could  see that the drill was paying off. At least, they could swing
the gun tubes around at an instant's notice, stuff them with fake powder and
ball, and shout the Tinish equivalent of "BANG!".

     The army  carried much more gunpowder than food. The packs were to live
off the forest. Johanna had little experience with camping in an atmosphere.
Were forests usually  this  rich?  It  was certainly nothing like  the urban
forests of Straum, where you  needed  a special license  to walk off  marked
paths,  and most of  the  wild life  were  mechanical imitations  of Nyjoran
originals. This place was wilder than even the stories of Nyjora. After all,
that world had been well settled before it fell  to medievalism.  The Tines'
had never been civilized, had never spread cities across continents. Pilgrim
guessed  there were  fewer than thirty million  packs  in all the world. The
Northwest was  only beginning  to be  settled. Game was everywhere. In their
hunting,  the   Tines  were  like  animals.  Troopers   raced   through  the
underforest.  The favorite hunt was  one of sheer  endurance, where the prey
was chased  until it dropped. That was rarely  practical here, but  they got
almost as much pleasure from chasing the unwary into ambushes.
     Johanna didn't like it. Was this a medieval perversion  or a peculiarly
Tinish  one? If  allowed  the time, the  troops  didn't  use  their bows and
knives. The pleasure of the  hunt  included slashing  at throats and bellies
with teeth and claws. Not  that the forest creatures were without  defenses:
for  millions of  years threat  and counterthreat had  evolved here.  Almost
every animal could  generate ultrasonic  screeching that totally drowned the
thought  of any  nearby pack. There  were  parts of  the  forest that seemed
silent to Johanna,  but  through which the army drove at a cautious  gallop,
troops and drivers writhing in agony from the unseen assault.
     Some of the forest animals were more sophisticated....
     Twenty-five days  out, the army was stuck  trying  to  get  across  the
biggest valley yet. In the middle -- mostly hidden  by the forest -- a river
flowed down to the western sea. The walls of these valleys were like nothing
Johanna  had  seen in the  parks of Straum: If you  took a  cross-section at
right angles to the river,  the walls made a "U" shape. They were cliff-like
steep at the high edges, then became slopes and finally a gentle plain where
the river ran.  "That's how the ice gouges it," explained Woodcarver. "There
are places further up where I've actually watched it happen," and she showed
Johanna explanations  in  the  Dataset.  That  was happening  more and more;
Pilgrim and Woodcarver  and sometimes even Scrupilo seemed to know more of a
child's modern education than Johanna.
     They had already been across a number of  smaller valleys. Getting down
the steep  parts was always  tedious,  but  so far the paths had been  good.
Vendacious took them to the edge this latest valley.
     Woodcarver and staff stood  under  the forest  cover  just short of the
dropoff.   Some   meters   back,   Johanna  sat  surrounded   by   Peregrine
Wickwrackscar.  The trees  at this  elevation  reminded Johanna a little  of
pines. The  leaves  were narrow and sharp and lasted all  year. But the bark
was  blistered white and  the wood itself was pale blond.  Strangest  of all
were the flowers. They  sprouted purple and violet from the exposed roots of
the trees.  Tines' world had no  analog of honeybees, but there was constant
motion among the flowers as thumb-sized mammals climbed from plant to plant.
There were  thousands  of them,  but  they  seemed  to  have  no interest in
anything except  the  flowers and the sweetness that oozed  from  them.  She
leaned back among  the flowers and admired the  view while the Queen gobbled
with Vendacious. How many kilometers could you see from here? The air was as
clear  as  she  had even known it on Tines'  world. East and west the valley
seemed  to  stretch  forever.  The  river  was  a  silver  thread  where  it
occasionally showed through the forest of the valley floor.
     Pilgrim nudged her with a nose  and nodded toward the Queen. Woodcarver
was pointing this  way and that  over the dropoff. "Argument is in  the air.
You want a translation?"
     "Woodcarver doesn't like  this  path," Pilgrim's voice  changed  to the
tone the Queen used when speaking Samnorsk: "The path is completely exposed.
Anyone on the other side can sit and count our every wagon.  Even from miles
away. [A mile is a fat kilometer.]"
     Vendacious whipped his heads around  in that indignant  way of his.  He
gobbled something that Johanna knew was angry.  Pilgrim chuckled and changed
his  voice to imitate  the security chief's: "Your Majesty! My  scouts  have
scoured the valley and far wall. There is no threat."
     "You've  done  miracles, I  know, but  do you seriously claim  to  have
covered that entire  north face? That's five miles away, and I know  from my
youth  that  there  are  dozens of  cavelets  --  you  have  those  memories
     "That stopped him!" said Pilgrim, laughing.
     "C'mon.  Just translate." She was quite  capable of  interpreting  body
language and tone by now. Sometimes even the Tinish chords made sense.
     "Hmph. Okay."
     The Queen  hiked  her  baby packs  around and sat down. Her tone became
conciliatory.  "If  this  weather weren't  so clear, or  if there were night
times,  we might  try it, but -- You  remember  the  old path?  Twenty miles
inland from here? That  should be overgrown by now. And the road coming back
is -- "
     Gobble-hiss  from Vendacious,  angry. "I tell you, this is safe!  We'll
lose  days on the other path. If we arrive late at Flenser's,  all  my  work
will be for nothing. You must go forward here."
     "Oops," Pilgrim  whispered, unable to  resist a little  editorializing,
"Ol' Vendacious may have gone too far with that."  The Queen's  heads arched
back. Pilgrim's  imitation of  her  human  voice  said, "I  understand  your
anxiety, pack  of my blood.  But  we go  forward where  I  say. If  that  is
intolerable to you, I will regretfully accept your resignation."
     "But you need me!"
     "Not that much."
     Johanna suddenly realized that the whole mission could fall apart right
here, without even a shot being fired. Where would we be without Vendacious?
She held her breath and watched the two packs. Parts of Vendacious walked in
quick  circles, stopping for angry instants to stare at  Woodcarver. Finally
all his necks drooped. "Um. My apologies, Your Majesty.  As long as you find
me of use, I beg to continue in your service."
     Now Woodcarver relaxed, too.  She reached to pet her puppies. They  had
responded with her mood, thrashing in their carriers and hissing. "Forgiven.
I want your independent advice, Vendacious. It has been miraculously good."
     Vendacious smiled weakly.
     "I didn't think  the  jerk had it in him,"  Pilgrim said near Johanna's

     It  took  two dayarounds  to  reach  the  old  path.  As Woodcarver had
predicted, it  was overgrown. More: In places there was no sign of the  path
at all, just young trees growing from  slumped  earth. It would take days to
get down the valley side  this way. If Woodcarver had  any misgivings  about
the decision, she didn't mention them to Johanna. The Queen was six  hundred
years  old;  she  talked  often enough about the  inflexibility of age.  Now
Johanna was getting a clear example of what that meant.
     When  they  came  to  a  washout,  trees  were  cut down and  a  bridge
constructed  on  the  spot.  It  took a day  to get by each such  spot.  But
progress was agonizingly slow even where the path was still in place. No one
rode  in the carts  now. The edge of the path had worn  away,  and the  cart
wheels  sometimes turned on nothingness. On Johanna's right  she  could look
down at tree crowns that were a few meters from her feet.
     They ran  into  the  wolves six days  along  the detour, when they  had
almost  reached the  valley floor.  Wolves. That's what Pilgrim called  them
anyway; what Johanna saw looked like gerbils.
     They had just completed a kilometer stretch of easy  going. Even  under
the trees they could feel the wind, dry and warm and moving ceaselessly down
the valley. The last patches of snow  between the trees were being sucked to
nothingness,  and there was a haze  of smoke beyond  the  north  wall of the
     Johanna was  walking alongside Woodcarver's cart. Pilgrim was about ten
meters behind, chatting occasionally with them. (The Queen  herself had been
very quiet these  last days.)  Suddenly there was a screech of Tinish  alarm
from above them.
     A second later Vendacious shouted from  a hundred meters ahead. Through
gaps in  the trees, Johanna could see troopers on the next switchback  above
them  unlimbering  crossbows,  firing  into  the  hillside  above  them. The
sunlight came dappled through the forest cover, bringing plenty of light but
in splotches that broke and  moved as the soldiers hustled about. Chaos, but
... there were  things up  there that  weren't Tines!  Small, brown or gray,
they flitted through the shadows and the  splotches  of light. They swept up
the hillside coming upon the soldiers from  the opposite direction that they
were shooting.
     "Turn around! Turn around." Johanna screamed, but her voice was lost in
the turmoil. Besides, who there could understand her?  All of Woodcarver was
peering  up at  the battle. She grabbed Johanna's sleeve. "You see something
up there? Where?"
     Johanna  stuttered an explanation,  but  now Pilgrim had seen something
too. His gobbled  shouting came  loud over the battle. He  raced back up the
trail  to where Scrupilo was  trying to get  a cannon unlimbered.  "Johanna!
Help me."
     Woodcarver hesitated, then said, "Yes.  It may be that  bad. Help  with
the cannon, Johanna."
     It  was  only  fifty meters to the  gun  cart,  but  uphill.  She  ran.
Something heavy smashed into the path just behind her. Part of a soldier! It
twisted and  screamed. Half a  dozen gerbil-sized hunks of fur were attached
to the  body, and  its  pelt was streaked with red. Another member fell past
her. Another. Johanna stumbled but kept running.
     Wickwrackscar was  standing  heads-together,  just a  few  meters  from
Scrupilo. He was  armed  in every adult member --  mouth  knives  and  steel
tines. He waved Johanna down next to him. "We  run on a nest of, of wolves."
His speech  was  awkward, slurred. "Must be  between  here and path above. A
lump, like a l'il castle tower. Gotta kill nest. Can you see?" Evidently  he
could not; he  was looking all over.  Johanna looked back up  the  hillside.
There seemed to be less fighting now, just sounds of Tinish agony.
     Johanna pointed. "You mean there, that dark thing?"
     Pilgrim didn't  answer. His members  were twitching, his  mouth  knives
waving randomly. She leaped away from the flashing metal. He had already cut
himself. Sound attack. She looked back along the path. She'd had more than a
year  to know the  packs, and what she was seeing now  was ... madness. Some
packs were  exploding,  racing in all directions  to distances where thought
couldn't possibly be sustained.  Others -- Woodcarver on her cart -- huddled
in heaps, with scarcely a head showing.
     Just beyond the nearest  uphill  trees she could see  a gray  tide. The
wolves.  Each furry  lump looked innocent  enough. All together ...  Johanna
froze for an instant,  watching them tear  out  the  throat  of  a trooper's
     Johanna was the  only  sane  person left, and  all it would mean is she
would know she was dying.

     Kill the nest.
     On  the gun  cart beside her only one  of Scrupilo was  left, old White
Head. Daffy  as ever, it  had  pulled down its gunner's muffs and was nosing
around under the gun tube. Kill the nest. Maybe not so daffy after all!
     Johanna jumped  up on  the  wagon.  It  rolled back toward the dropoff,
banging against a  tree; she scarcely noticed. She pulled up the gun barrel,
just as she had seen in all  the  drills. The white headed one pulled at the
powder  bag,  but  with  just  his one  pair of jaws he couldn't handle  it.
Without the rest of  its pack it had neither hands nor brains. It looked  up
at her, its eyes wide and desperate.
     She  grabbed the  other end of  the bag,  and the two  of them got  the
powder into  the barrel. White Head dived  back  into  the equipment, nosing
around for a cannon ball.  Smarter than a  dog, and  trained. Between  them,
maybe they had a chance!
     Just half a meter beneath her  feet, the wolves were running by. One or
two she could  have fought off herself. But  there  were  dozens down there,
worrying  and  tearing at  random  members. Three of  Pilgrim  were standing
around Scarbutt and the pups, but their defense was unthinking slashing. The
pack had dropped its mouth knives and tines.
     She and  White Head  got  the round down the barrel. White Head whipped
back  to  the  rear, began  playing with the little wick-lighter the gunners
used. It was something that could be  held in a single mouth, since only one
member actually fired the weapon.
     "Wait, you idiot!" Johanna kicked him back. "We gotta aim this thing!"
     White Head looked hurt for an instant. The complaint wasn't  completely
clear to him. He had dropped the  standoff wand, but still held the lighter.
He  flicked  on the flame, and circled determinedly back, tried to worm past
Johanna's  legs. She pushed him back  again,  and  looked uphill.  The  dark
thing. That  must be the nest. She tilted the gun tube on its  mounting  and
sighted down the top. Her face ended up just centimeters from the persistent
White Head  and his flame. His  muffed head darted  forward,  and the  flame
touched the fire-hole.
     The blast  almost knocked Johanna off the cart. For a moment  she could
think of nothing but  the  pain that stabbed into her  ears. She rolled to a
sitting position, coughing in the smoke. She couldn't hear anything beyond a
high-pitched ringing that went on and on. Their little  wagon was teetering,
one wheel hanging over the dropoff. White Head was flopping around under the
butt of the cannon. She pushed it off him and patted the muffed head. He was
bleeding --  or she was. She just sat dazed for  a few seconds, mystified by
the blood, trying to imagine how she had ever ended up here.
     A voice somewhere in the  back of her head was  screaming.  No time, no
time.  She  forced  herself to her knees and looked around,  memories coming
back painfully slow.
     There  were splintered trees  uphill  of  them; the blond  wood glinted
among the leaves. Beyond them, where the  nest had been, she saw a splash of
fresh turned earth. They had "killed" it, but ... the fighting continued.
     There were still wolves on the path, but now they were the ones running
in all directions. As she watched, dozens of them catapulted off the edge of
trail into the trees and rocks below.  And the Tines were  actually fighting
now. Pilgrim had picked up  his  knives. The blades  and his muzzles dripped
red as  he slashed. Something gray  and bleeding  flew over the edge of  the
cart and landed  by Johanna's leg. The "wolf" couldn't have  been more  than
twenty centimeters long, its  hair dirty gray brown. It really did look like
a pet,  but  the tiny  jaws  clicked with  murderous  intent at her  ankles.
Johanna dropped a cannon ball on it.

     During the next  three  days, while Woodcarver's  people  struggled  to
bring  their equipment and themselves back together, Johanna learned quite a
bit about the wolves. What she and Scrupilo's White Head did with cannon had
stopped the attack cold. Without  doubt,  knocking out the nest had  saved a
lot of lives  and  the expedition itself.  The "wolves" were  a type of hive
creature, only a little like the packs. The Tines race used group thought to
reach high intelligence; Johanna had never seen a rational pack of more than
six members. The  wolf nests didn't care about high intelligence. Woodcarver
claimed  that a  nest might have thousands of members  -- certainly  the one
they'd tripped over was huge. Such a mob couldn't be as smart as a human. In
terms of raw reasoning power, it probably wasn't much brighter than a single
pack member.  On the other hand, it  could  be a lot  more  flexible. Wolves
could operate alone at great  distances. When within a hundred meters of the
home nest they were appendages of  the "queen" members of the  nest,  and no
one doubted their canniness then. Pilgrim had  legends of nests with  almost
packish  intelligence, of foresters who made treaties with  nearby nests for
protection  in return  for  food. As long  as the high-powered noises in the
nest lived, the worker wolves could coordinate almost like Tine members. But
kill the  nest, and the creature  fell apart like some cheap,  star-topology
     Certainly this  nest  had done  a number on Woodcarver's  army. It  had
waited  quietly  until  the  troopers  were within  its inner loudness. Then
outlying wolves  had used  synchronized mimicry  to  create  sonic "ghosts",
tricking  the packs into turning from the nest and shooting  uselessly  into
the  trees.  And  when the  ambush  actually  began,  the  nest had screamed
concentrated  confusion down on the  Tines. That attack had been a far  more
powerful thing  than the "stink noise"  they'd encountered in other parts of
the forest. To the Tines, the stinkers had been painfully loud and sometimes
even frightening, but not the mind-destroying chaos of the wolf-nest attack.
     More than one hundred packs had been knocked out  in  the ambush. Some,
mostly  packs  with  pups, had  huddled.  Others,  like Scrupilo,  had  been
"blasted apart". In the hours following the attack,  many of these fragments
straggled  back  and  reassembled.  The  resulting  Tines  were  shaken  but
unharmed.  Intact troops hunted up and  down the forested cliffs for injured
members of  their comrades. There  were  places along the dropoff that  were
more  than twenty meters deep.  Where  their fall  wasn't cushioned by  tree
boughs, members landed on naked rock. Five  dead ones were eventually found,
and  another  twenty  seriously  injured. Two carts had  fallen.  They  were
kindling, and their  kherhogs were too  badly  injured to  survive. By great
good luck, the gunshot had not started a forest fire.
     Three  times  the sun  made  its vast,  tilted  course  around the sky.
Woodcarver's army recovered in a camp in the depths of the valley forest, by
the  river. Vendacious  had posted lookouts with  signaling  mirrors  on the
northern valley wall. This place was about as safe as any they could find so
far north. It  was  certainly one  of the most beautiful. It didn't have the
view of  the  high forest, but there was  the sound of the  river nearby, so
loud it drowned the sighing of  the dry wind.  The lowland trees didn't have
root  flowers, but they were  still different  from what Johanna had  known.
There was no underbrush, just a soft, bluish "moss" that Pilgrim claimed was
actually  part of the trees. It stretched like mown  parkland to the edge of
the river.
     On the last day of their  rest, the Queen  called a  meeting of all the
packs  not  at guard or  lookout.  It was  the largest  collection of  Tines
Johanna had seen in  one place since  her family was killed. Only these ones
weren't fighting. As far as Johanna could see across the bluish  moss, there
were packs, each at  least eight meters from  its  nearest  neighbor. For an
absurd  instant  she  was  reminded  of Settlers Park  at  Overby:  Families
picnicking on the grass,  each  with its own  traditional blanket  and  food
lockers.  But  these "families"  were each  a pack, and this was  a military
formation.  The rows were gently curving arcs all facing toward  the  Queen.
Peregrine Wickwrackscar was  ten meters behind her, in shadow; being Queen's
consort  didn't  count for anything official.  On Woodcarver's  left lay the
living casualties of the ambush, members  with bandages and splints. In some
ways,  such visible damage wasn't the most horrifying.  There were also what
Pilgrim called  the "walking wounded".  These were singletons  and  duos and
trios that were all that was  left  of whole  packs. Some  of these tried to
maintain a posture of  attention,  but  others  mooned  about,  occasionally
breaking into  the Queen's speech with aimless words. It  was  like  Scriber
Jaqueramaphan  all over  again, but  most of  these  would  live. Some  were
already melding, trying  to make new individuals. Some of these  might  even
work out, as  Peregrine Wickwrackscar had done. For most, it would be a long
time before they were fully people again.
     Johanna sat  with Scrupilo in  the first  rank  of  troopers before the
Queen. The Commander of Cannoneers stood at Tinish parade rest: rumps on the
ground,  chest high, most  heads facing  front. Scrup  had  come  through it
without serious damage. His white head had  a few more scorch marks, and one
of the other members had sprained a shoulder falling  off the path. He  wore
his  flying  cannoneer  muffs  as  flamboyantly  as  always, but  there  was
something subdued about him -- maybe it was  just the military formation and
getting a medal for heroism.
     The Queen was wearing  her special jackets. Each  head looked out at  a
different section of her audience. Johanna still couldn't understand Tinish,
and would  certainly never  speak it without mechanical assistance.  But the
sounds  were  mostly within  her  range of  hearing -- the "low" frequencies
carried a lot better than higher ones. Even without memory aides and grammar
generators  she was learning a little. She  could  recognize emotional  tone
easily,  and  things like  the raucous ark  ark ark that passed for applause
around here. As for individual  words --  well,  they were more like chords,
single  syllables  that  had  meaning.  Nowadays,  if  she  listened  really
carefully (and Pilgrim weren't  nearby to give a  running  translation)  she
could even recognize some of those.
     ... Just now, for instance, Woodcarver was saying good things about her
audience. Approving  ark ark's came from all directions. They sounded like a
bunch of sea'mals. One of the Queen's heads dipped into a bowl, came up with
a small carven  doodad  in its mouth. She spoke a  pack's name, a multichord
tumptititum that if Johanna heard  often enough she might be able to  repeat
as "Jaqueramaphan" -- or even see meaning in, as "Wickwrackscar".
     From the front rank of the audience, a single member trotted toward the
Queen. It stopped practically nose to nose with the Queen's  nearest member.
Woodcarver  said something about bravery, and  then two of her fastened  the
wooden -- broach? -- to the member's jacket. It turned  smartly and returned
to its pack.
     Woodcarver  picked out another decoration, and  called on another pack.
Johanna  leaned   over  toward   Scrupilo.  "What's  going   on?"  she  said
wonderingly. "Why are single members getting medals?" And how can they stand
to get so near another pack?
     Scrupilo had been standing more stiffly  at attention  than most packs,
and was pretty much  ignoring her. Now he turned one  head in her direction.
"Shh!" He  started to turn back,  but she grabbed him by one of his jackets.
"Foolish one," he finally replied. "The  award  is for  the whole  pack. One
member is extended to accept. More would be madness."

     Hmm.  One after another, three more  packs  "extended a member" to take
their decorations. Some  were  full  of  precision,  like  human soldiers in
stories. Others started out smartly, then became  timid and confused as they
approached Woodcarver.
     Finally Johanna said, "Ssst. Scrupilo! When do we get ours?"
     This  time he  didn't  even look  at her; all  his  heads faced rigidly
toward  the  Queen. "Last,  of course. You and I killed  the nest, and saved
Woodcarver  herself." His  bodies were almost shaking with the  intensity of
their  brace.  He's  scared  witless.  And  suddenly  Johanna  guessed  why.
Apparently  Woodcarver had no problem maintaining  her mind with one outside
member nearby. But the reverse would  not be  true. Sending one  of yourself
into another  pack meant losing some consciousness and placing trust in that
other  pack. Looking at  it  that  way ... well, it reminded Johanna of  the
historical novels she used to  play. On Nyjora during  the Dark Age,  ladies
traditionally  gave their sword to  their  queen when granted  audience, and
then knelt. It  was  a way  to  swear  loyalty. Same thing here, except that
looking at  Scrupilo, Johanna realized  that  even  as a matter of form, the
ceremony might be damn frightening.
     Three more medals bestowed, and then Woodcarver gobbled the chords that
were  Scrupilo's  name. The Commander of Cannoneers went  absolutely  rigid,
made  faint whistling noises  through his  mouths. "Johanna  Olsndot,"  said
Woodcarver, then more Tinish, something about coming forward.
     Johanna stood up, but not one of Scrupilo moved.
     The  Queen made a human  laugh. She was  holding two polished broaches.
"I'll explain all in Samnorsk later, Johanna.  Just come forward with one of
Scrupilo. Scrupilo?"
     Suddenly they  were  the center of  attention,  with thousands of  eyes
watching.  There  was no more arking or background  chatter. Johanna  hadn't
felt  so exposed  since she played  First Colonist in her  school's  Landing
Play. She leaned down so that her head was close to one of Scrupilo's. "Come
on, guy. We're the big heroes."
     The eyes that looked back at her  were  wide. "I can't." The words were
almost inaudible. For all his jaunty cannoneer muffs and standoffish manner,
Scrupilo was terrified. But for him it wasn't stage fright. "I can't tear me
apart so soon. I can't."
     There was murmured gobbling in  the ranks  behind them, Scrupilo's  own
cannoneers. By all the Powers, would they hold this against him? Welcome  to
the middle ages. Stupid people. Even cut to pieces, Scrupilo had saved their
behinds, and now --
     She put her hands  on two of his shoulders.  "We did it before, you and
I. Remember?"
     The heads nodded. "Some. That one part of me alone ... could never have
done it."
     "Right. And neither could I. But together we killed a wolf-nest."
     Scrupilo stared  at her a second, eyes wavering.  "Yes, we really did."
He  came  to his feet,  frisked  his heads  so  the cannoneer muffs flapped.
"Yes!" And he moved his white-headed one closer to her.
     Johanna straightened.  She  and  White  Head walked  out  into the open
space. Four meters. Six. She  kept the fingertips of one hand lightly on his
neck.  When they were  about twelve meters  from the rest of Scrupilo, White
Head's pace faltered. He looked sideways, up at Johanna, then continued more
     Johanna didn't remember much of the ceremony, so  much of her attention
was  on  White Head.  Woodcarver  said  something  long and  unintelligible.
Somehow  they both  ended up  with  intricately carven  decorations on their
collars, and were headed  back toward the rest  of  Scrupilo.  Then she  was
aware of the  crowd once more. They  stretched as far as she could see under
the  forest canopy -- and every one of them  seemed to be cheering,  Scrup's
cannoneers loudest of all.

     Midnight. Here  at the bottom of the valley  there were  three  or four
hours  of the dayaround when the  sun dipped behind the high north  wall. It
didn't much feel  like night, or even  twilight. The smoke from the fires to
the north seemed to getting worse. She could smell it now.
     Johanna  walked back  from  the cannoneers section toward the center of
camp, and Woodcarver's tent.  It was  quiet; she could hear little creatures
scritching in the root bushes. The celebrating might  have  gone  on longer,
except that everyone knew  that in another few hours they would be preparing
for the climb up the valley's  north wall. So now there was only  occasional
laughter, an  occasional pack walking  about.  Johanna  walked barefoot, her
shoes  slung  over  her shoulders. Even in  the  dry weather, the  moss  was
wonderfully soft between her toes. Above her the forest canopy  was shifting
green and patches of hazy sky. She could almost forget what had gone before,
and what lay ahead.
     The  guards around  Woodcarver's tent didn't challenge her, just called
softly ahead. After all, there  weren't that many humans running around. The
Queen stuck out a head, "Come inside, Johanna."
     Inside, she was sitting in her usual circle,  the puppies  protected in
the middle. It  was quite dark, the only light being what  came through  the
entrance. Johanna flopped down on the pillows  where she usually slept. Ever
since this afternoon,  the big award thing,  she had been  planning to  give
Woodcarver a piece of her mind. Now ... well the party at the cannoneers had
been a happy thing. It seemed kind of a shame to break the mood.
     Woodcarver  cocked a head  at  her.  Simultaneously,  the  two  puppies
duplicated the gesture. "I saw you at the party. You  are a sober  one.  You
eat most of our foods now, but none of the beer."
     Johanna shrugged.  Yes,  why?  "Kids aren't  supposed  to drink  before
they're eighteen years old." That was the custom, and her parents had agreed
with it. Johanna had turned fourteen a couple of  months  ago;  Dataset  had
reminded her  of the exact hour. She wondered. If none of this had happened,
if  she were  still back at  the  High Lab  or Straumli Realm:  would she be
sneaking out with friends to try such forbidden things?  Probably. Yet here,
where  she was entirely on her own, where she was  currently a big hero, she
hadn't tried a drop.... Maybe it was because Mom and Dad weren't  here,  and
following their wishes seemed to keep them closer. She felt tears  coming to
her eyes.
     "Hmm."  Woodcarver didn't seem to notice. "That's what Pilgrim said was
the reason." She tapped at  her puppies and smiled. "I guess it makes sense.
These two don't get beer  till they're older --  though I know they got some
second-hand  partying from  me tonight." There was  a hint of beer breath in
the tent.
     Johanna  wiped  roughly  at  her face. She  really did not want to talk
about  being a teenager just now. "You  know, that was kind of a mean  trick
you pulled on Scrupilo this afternoon."
     "I -- Yes.  I talked to him about it beforehand. He didn't want it, but
I thought he was just being ... is stiff-necked the word? If I had known how
upset he was, well -- "
     "He  practically fell  apart  out there  in  front  of everybody.  If I
understand how things work, that would have been his disgrace, right?"
     "... Yes. Exchanging  honor  for  loyalty in front  of  peers,  it's an
important thing. At least the way  I run things; I'm sure Pilgrim or Dataset
can  say a dozen  other ways to lead. Look Johanna, I  needed that Exchange,
and I needed you and Scrupilo to be there."
     "Yeah, I know. 'We two saved the day.'"
     "Silence!" Her voice  was  suddenly edged, and  Johanna remembered that
this  was a medieval  queen. "We are two hundred miles  north of my borders,
almost to  the  heart of the Flenser Domain. In  a few days we will meet the
enemy, and more of us will die for we-know-not-quite-what."
     The bottom dropped out of Johanna's stomach. If she  couldn't get  back
to  the  ship, couldn't  finish  what  Mom and  Dad  had started... "Please,
Woodcarver! It is worth it!"
     "I know that.  Pilgrim  knows it. The  majority of  my  council agrees,
though  grudgingly.  But we  of the council have talked with  Dataset. We've
seen your worlds and what your science can do. On the other hand, most of my
people  here," she waved a head  at the camp  beyond  the tent, "are here on
faith, and out of loyalty to me. For  them, the situation is deadly and  the
goal  is  vague."  She  paused,  though  her  two  pups  continued gesturing
forcefully for a second. "Now I don't know how you would persuade  your kind
to take such risks. Dataset talks of military conscription."
     "That was Nyjora, long ago."
     "Never mind. The point is, my troops are here out of loyalty, mostly to
me personally. For six hundred years, I have protected my people well; their
memories and legends are clear on it. More than once, I was the only one who
saw a peril, and  it was my advice  that saved all those who heeded it. That
is what keeps most of the  soldiers,  most of  the cannoneers going. Each of
them is free  to  turn  back.  So. What  should they  think when  our  first
'combat'  is to  fall like ignorant ... tourists ... onto a nest  of wolves?
Without  the great good luck of you and part of  Scrupilo being at the right
place and alert,  I would have been killed.  Pilgrim would have been killed.
Perhaps a third of the soldiers would have died."
     "If not us, perhaps someone else," Johanna said in a small voice.
     "Perhaps.  I don't think anyone else came close  to firing on the nest.
You see  the effect on my people? 'If bad luck in the  forest  can  kill our
Queen and destroy our marvelous weapons, what will it be like when we face a
thinking  enemy?' That was the question in many minds. Unless I could answer
it, we'd never make it out of this valley -- at least not going northward."
     "So you gave the medals. Loyalty for honor."
     "Yes. You  missed the sense  of  it, not understanding Tinish. I made a
big thing  of how  well they had done. I gave silverwood  accolades to packs
who showed any competence during the ambush. That helped some. I repeated my
reasons for this expedition -- the wonders that  Dataset  describes and  how
much  we  lose if Steel gets his way. But they've heard all that before, and
it points  to  far away things they can scarcely  imagine.  The  new thing I
showed them today was you and Scrupilo."
     "I praised  you beyond  the  skies.  Singletons often  do brave things.
Sometimes they are halfway clever, or  talk as though they are.  But  alone,
Scrupilo's fragment wouldn't be much more than a good knife fighter. He knew
about using the cannon, but he didn't have the paws or mouths to do anything
with it. And by himself, he would never have  figured out where to shoot it.
You, on the  other hand, are a Two Legs.  In many ways you are helpless. The
only way you can think is by yourself, but you can do it without interfering
with those around you.  Together you did what no pack could do in the middle
of a wolf-nest  attack. So I  told my army what  a team our two  races could
become, how each makes up for the age-long failings of  the other. Together,
we are one step closer to being the Pack of Packs. How is Scrupilo?"
     Johanna smiled faintly. "Things  turned out okay. Once he  was  able to
get out there and accept his medal," she fingered the broach that was pinned
to  her own collar;  it was a beautiful thing, a  landscape of  Woodcarver's
city, "once he'd done that, he was totally changed. You should have seen him
with the cannoneers afterwards.  They did their own loyalty/honor thing, and
then they drank a lot  of beer. Scrupilo was  telling them all about what we
were doing. He even had me help  demonstrate....  You  really think the army
bought what you said about humans and Tines?"
     "I think so.  In my own language,  I  can  be  very eloquent. I've bred
myself  to be." Woodcarver was silent for  a  moment. Her puppies  scrambled
across the carpet, and patted their muzzles at Johanna's hands. "Besides ...
it may even be true. Pilgrim  is sure of it. You can sleep in this same tent
with me and still think. That's something that he and I can't do; in our own
ways, we've each lived a long time and I think we are each at least as smart
as the  humans  and other creatures that Dataset talks about in the  Beyond.
But  you singleton creatures  can stand next to  each other,  and think  and
build. Compared  to us, I'll bet singleton races developed the sciences very
fast. But now, with your  help, maybe things will  change fast for us, too."
The two puppies retreated,  and  Woodcarver  lowered heads  to paws. "That's
what I told my people, anyway.... You should try to get some sleep now."
     On the ground beyond the tent's entrance there were already splashes of
sunlight.  "Okay." Johanna slipped  off her  outer clothes. She lay down and
dragged  a  light quilt across herself.  Most of  Woodcarver  already looked
asleep. As usual, one or two pairs of eyes were open, but their intelligence
would be limited -- and just now,  even they looked tired. Funny, Woodcarver
had worked with Dataset so much, her human voice had come to capture emotion
as well as pronunciation. Just now she had sounded so tired, so sad.
     Johanna  reached  out  from  under  her  quilt  to  brush  the  neck of
Woodcarver's  nearest,  the  blind  one.  "Do  you  believe  what  you  told
everyone?" she said softly.
     One of the "sentry" heads  looked at her, and a  very human sigh seemed
to come from all directions. Woodcarver's voice was very faint. "Yes ... but
I am very afraid that it doesn't matter any  more.  For six hundred years, I
have  had  proper  confidence in myself. But what happened on the south wall
... should not have happened. It  would not if  I had  followed Vendacious's
advice, and come down on the New Road."
     "But we might have been seen -- "
     "Yes. A failure  either  way,  don't  you  see? Vendacious  has precise
information  from the highest councils of the Flenser. But he's something of
a  careless fool  in  everyday matters. I  knew  that, and thought  I  could
compensate. But  the Old Road was in far worse  condition than I remembered;
the wolf-nest  could never  have settled by it if there had been any traffic
during the last few years. If Vendacious had managed  his  patrols properly,
or if I had been managing him properly, we would  never have been surprised.
Instead we were nearly overrun ... and  my only remaining talent  appears to
be in fooling those who trust me into thinking I still know what I'm doing."
She opened another pair of eyes  and  made the  smile gesture.  "Strange.  I
haven't  said these things even to Pilgrim. Is  this another 'advantage'  of
human relations?"
     Johanna patted the blind one's neck. "Maybe."
     "Anyway, I  believe what  I said about things that could be, but I fear
the my  soul may not be strong enough to make them so. Perhaps I should turn
things over  to Pilgrim or  Vendacious; that's something  I must think  on."
Woodcarver shhed Johanna's surprised protests.
     "Now sleep please."

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     There was a time  when Ravna  thought their tiny ship might fly all the
way  to  the Bottom unnoticed. Along with everything else, that had changed.
At the moment, Out of Band II might be the  most famous  star ship  known to
the Net.  A million races watched the chase. In the Middle Beyond there were
vast antenna swarms beaming in their direction and listening  to the news --
mostly lies -- sent from ships that pursued the OOB. She couldn't hear those
lies directly, of course, but the transmissions from beyond were as clear as
if they were on a main trunk.
     Ravna  spent part  of  each day reading the  News, trying to find hope,
trying to prove to herself  that she was doing  the right thing. By now, she
was  pretty sure what was chasing  them.  No  doubt even Pham  and Blueshell
would have agreed on that. Why  they were being chased, and what  they might
find at the end was now the subject of  endless speculation on  the Net.  As
usual, whatever the truth might be was well hidden among the lies.

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Triskweline, SjK units
     From: Hanse  [No  references prior  to  the  fall of Relay. No probable
source. This is someone being very cautious.]
     Subject: Alliance for the Defense fraudulent?
 Threat of the Blight, War Trackers Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group
     Date: 5.80 days since Fall of Sjandra Kei
     Key phrases: Fools' errand, unnecessary genocide

     Text of message:
     Earlier I speculated that there had been no destruction at Sjandra Kei.
Apologies.  That was based on  a catalog identification error.  I agree with
the  messages  (13123  as  of  a few  seconds  ago)  assuring  me  that  the
habitations of  Sjandra Kei suffered  collisional damage within the last six
     So apparently  the "Alliance for the Defense" has  taken  the  military
action  they claimed earlier.  And apparently, they are powerful  enough  to
destroy  small  civilizations  in  the  Middle  Beyond. The  question  still
remains: "Why?" I have already  posted  arguments  showing  it unlikely that
Homo  sapiens  is especially  controllable  by the  Blight (though they were
stupid enough to create that entity). Even the Alliance's  own reports admit
that less than half of Sjandra Kei's sophonts were of that race.
     Now a  large part of  the Alliance fleet  is chasing into the Bottom of
the Beyond after a  single ship. What conceivable damage can the Alliance do
to the Blight  down there?  The Blight is a  great threat, perhaps the  most
novel  and  threatening  in  well-recorded history.  Nevertheless,  Alliance
behavior appears  destructive  and  pointless.  Now  that  the  Alliance has
revealed some of its sponsoring organizations (see messages [id numbers]), I
think we  know its real motives. I see connections  between the Alliance and
the old  Aprahant  Hegemony. A thousand years ago, that group had a  similar
jihad, grabbing  real estate  left vacant by recent Transcendences. Stopping
the  Hegemony was an exciting  bit of  action in that part  of the galaxy. I
think these people are back, taking advantage of the general panic attending
the Blight (which is admittedly a much greater threat).
     My advice: Beware of the Alliance and its claims of heroic efforts.

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Schirachene->Rondralip->Triskweline, SjK units
     From: Harmonious Repose Communications Synod
     Subject: Encounter with agents of the Perversion
 Threat of the Blight
     Date: 6.37 days since Fall of Sjandra Kei
     Key phrases: Hanse fraudulent?

     Text of message:
     We have no  special inclination  toward  any of  the  posters  on  this
thread. Nevertheless, it's remarkable  that an entity  that has not revealed
its  location or  special interests -- namely "Hanse" -- should  be smearing
the  efforts  of  the  Alliance  for  the Defense.  The  Alliance  kept  its
constituents secret only  during  that period when  its  forces  were  being
gathered, when a single stroke of the  Perversion's  power might  destroy it
entirely. Since that time, it has been quite open in its efforts.
     Hanse  wonders how a  single  starship  could be  worth  the Alliance's
attention. As Harmonious Repose was  the site of the latest turn  of events,
we are in a position to give some explanation. The ship in question, the Out
of Band II, is  clearly designed for operations at the Bottom of  the Beyond
-- and is even capable of limited operations within  the Slow Zone. The ship
presented itself as a special zonographic  flight commissioned to study  the
recent  turbulence at  the  Bottom. In  fact,  this ship's mission is a very
different one. In the aftermath of  its  violent  departure, we  have pieced
together some extraordinary facts:
     At  least  one  of the ship's crew was human. Though  they  made  great
efforts to stay out of view  and used Skroderider traders as intermediaries,
we  have recordings. A biosequence of one  individual was  obtained,  and it
matches  the patterns  maintained by two out of three  of  the Homo  sapiens
archives. (It's well known that  the third archive, on Sneerot Down,  is  in
the  control  of Human  sympathizers.)  Some  might  say  this deception was
founded in fear. After all,  these events  happened after the destruction of
Sjandra Kei. We think otherwise: The ship's initial contact with us occurred
before the Sjandra Kei incident.
     We have  since made a  careful  analysis of  the  repair work our yards
performed on this vessel. Ultradrive automation is a deep and complex thing;
even  the cleverest of  cloaking cannot mask all the memories  in it. We now
know that  the  Out  of Band II was  from the Relay system  and that it left
there after the Perversion's attack. Think what this means.
     The crew of  the Out of  Band II brought weapons into  a  habitat, kill
several  local  sophonts,  and escaped  before our  musicians  [harmonizers?
police?] were properly notified. We have good reason to wish them ill.
     Yet  our misfortune is a small thing compared to  the unmasking of this
secret mission. We are very grateful that the Alliance is willing to risk so
much in following this lead.
     There's  more  than  the  usual  number  of unsubstantiated  assertions
floating around on this news thread. We hope our facts will wake some people
up. In  particular,  consider what "Hanse" may  really be. The Perversion is
very visible in the High Beyond, where it has great power and can speak with
its own voice.  Down  here,  it is  more likely that  deception  and  covert
propaganda  will  be  its tools. Think on this when  you read postings  from
unidentified entities such as "Hanse"!

     Ravna gritted  her teeth. The hell of  it was, the facts in the posting
were  correct. It was the inferences that  were vicious and  false. And  she
couldn't guess if this were some shade of black  propaganda  or simply Saint
Rihndell  expressing honest conclusions (though Rihndell had never seemed so
trusting of the butterflies).
     One thing all the News seemed to agree on:  Much more than the Alliance
fleet was chasing the OOB. The  swarm of ultradrive traces  could be seen by
anyone within a thousand light-years.  The best  guess was that three fleets
pursued  the  OOB.  Three!  The Alliance  for the  Defense,  still loud  and
boastful, even though suspected (by some) of being  opportunistic genocides.
Behind them, Sjandra Kei ... and what was left of Ravna's motherland; in all
the universe perhaps  the  only folk she could trust. And just  behind them,
the silent fleet. Diverse news posters claimed it was  from the High Beyond.
That fleet might  have problems at  the Bottom, but for  now it was gaining.
Few  doubted  that it  was the Perversion's  child. More  than anything,  it
convinced  the universe  that the  OOB  or  its  destination  was cosmically
important. Just  why it was important was  the big question. Speculation was
drifting in at  the  rate  of five  thousand messages  per hour.  A  million
different viewpoints were considering the  mystery. Some of those viewpoints
were  so alien that they made  Skroderiders  and  Humans look  like the same
species.  At  least  five  participants  on  this News  thread were  gaseous
inhabitants of stellar  coronas. There were one  or two  others  that  Ravna
suspected  were uncataloged races,  beings so shy  that  this might be their
first active use of the Net ever.
     The OOB's  computer was  a lot  dumber than it had  been in  the Middle
Beyond. She couldn't ask it  to sift through the messages looking for nuance
and insight. In fact, if an incoming message didn't have a Triskweline text,
it was often unreadable. The ship's translator  programs still worked fairly
well with the major trade languages, but even there the translation was slow
and full of alternative meanings and jabberwocky.  It  was just another sign
that they were  approaching the Bottom  of the Beyond. Effective translation
of natural languages comes awfully close to requiring a sentient  translator
     Nevertheless, with  proper design,  things might have been better.  The
automation might have degraded gracefully under the restrictions imposed  by
their depth. Instead, gear just stopped working; what  remained was slow and
error-prone.  If  only the refitting  had been  completed before the Fall of
Relay. And just how many times have I wished for that? She hoped things were
as bad aboard the pursuing ships.
     So  Ravna  used the  ship to do light culling on the Threats newsgroup.
Much  of what was left was inane, as  from people who see  "portents in  the
weather" --

     Crypto: 0
     Syntax: 43
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path:  Arbwyth->Trade24->Cherguelen->Triskweline, SjK
     From: Twirlip of the Mists [Perhaps an  organization of cloud fliers in
a single jovian system. Very sparse priors before this thread began. Appears
to be seriously out  of  touch.  Program recommendation: delete this  poster
from presentation.]
     Subject: The Blight's goal at the Bottom
 Threat of the Blight, Great Secrets of Creation
     Date: 4.54 days since Fall of Sjandra Kei
     Key phrases:  Zone Instability  and the  Blight, Hexapodia as  the  key

     Text of message:
     Apologies  first if I am repeating obvious conclusions. My only gateway
onto the Net is very expensive, and I miss many important postings. I  think
that  anyone following  both Great Secrets  of  Creation and  Threat of  the
Blight  would  see  an  important  pattern. Since  the  events  reported  by
Harmonious Repose  information service, most  agree that something important
to the Perversion exists at the Bottom of the Beyond in region [...].  I see
a possible connection  here with the  Great  Secrets.  During  the last  two
hundred  and  twenty  days,  there  have  been  increasing reports  of  zone
interface instability in the region below  Harmonious  Repose. As the Blight
threat  has grown and  its attacks against  advanced races  and other Powers
continued,  this   instability  has  increased.  Could  there  not  be  some
connection? I urge all to consult their information on the Great Secrets (or
the  nearest archive maintained by  that  group).  Events such as this prove
once again that the universe is all ronzelle between.

     Some of the postings were tantalizing --

     [Light gloss]

     Crypto: 0
     Syntax: 43
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Wobblings->Baeloresk->Triskweline, SjK units
     From: Cricketsong under the  High Willow  [Cricketsong is  a  synthetic
race created as a jape/ experiment/instrument by  the High  Willow upon  its
Transcendence. Cricketsong has been on  the Net for  more than ten  thousand
years. Apparently it  is a fanatical studier of paths to  Transcendence. For
eight thousand years it has been the heaviest poster on "Where are they now"
and related groups. There is no evidence that any Cricketsong settlement has
itself Transcended.  Cricketsong  is sufficiently  peculiar that there  is a
large news group for speculation concerning  the race  itself. Consensus  is
that  Cricketsong  was  designed by High  Willow as  a probe back  into  the
Beyond,  that  the  race  is  somehow   incapable   of  attempting  its  own
     Subject: The Blight's goal at the Bottom
 Threat of the Blight, War Trackers Special Interest Group, Where are they now Special Interest Group
     Date: 5.12 days since Fall of Sjandra Kei
     Key phrases: On becoming Transcendent

     Text of message:
     Contrary  to other postings, there  are a number of reasons why a Power
might install artifacts at the Bottom  of the Beyond. The  Abselor's message
on this thread cites some: some Powers have documented curiosity  about  the
Slow  Zone  and,  even  more,  about  the Unthinking Depths.  In rare cases,
expeditions have been dispatched (though  any return from  the  Depths would
occur  long  after  the  dispatching  Power  lost  interest  in   all  local
     However,  none of these  motives are likely  here.  To  those  who  are
familiar  with  Fast Burn transcendence,  it is  clear that the  Blight is a
creature  seeking  stasis.  Its  interest in  the  Bottom  is  very  sudden,
provoked,  we  think,  by  the  revelations  at  Harmonious Repose. There is
something at the Bottom that is critical to the Perversion's welfare.
     Consider the notion of ablative  dissonance (see the Where Are They Now
group archive): No one  knows what set-up procedures  the humans of Straumli
Realm  were  using.  The  Fast  Burn   may  itself  have   had  Transcendent
intelligence. What  if  it  became  dissatisfied with  the  direction of the
channedring? In that case it might try to hide the jumpoff  birthinghel. The
Bottom would  not  be a place  where  the algorithm  itself  could  normally
execute, but avatars might still be created from it and briefly run.

     Up to a point, Ravna could almost make sense of it; ablative dissonance
was a commonplace  of  Applied Theology. But then, like  one of those dreams
where the  secret of life  is about to be revealed, the posting just drifted
into nonsense.
     There were postings that were neither asinine  nor  obscure. As  usual,
Sandor at the Zoo had a lot of things dead right:

     Crypto: 0
     As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Triskweline, SjK units
     From: Sandor Arbitration  Intelligence at  the  Zoo  [A  known military
corporation of the High Beyond. If this is  a masquerade, somebody is living
     Subject: The Blight's goal at the Bottom
     Key phrases: Sudden change in Blight's tactics
 Threat of the Blight, War Trackers Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group

     Date: 8.15 days since Fall of Sjandra Kei
     Text of message:
     In case you don't  know, Sandor Intelligence has  a number of different
Net feeds. We can  collect messages on paths that have no intermediate nodes
in common. Thus we can be fairly confident that news we receive has not been
tampered with en route. (There remain the  lies  and  misunderstandings that
were present to begin with, but that's something that makes the intelligence
business interesting.)
     The Blight  has  been  our top  priority since its instantiation a year
ago.  This  is  not  just  because of  the  Blight's  obvious strength,  the
destruction and the deicides it has committed. We fear that all  this is the
lesser part of the Threat. There have been perversions almost as powerful in
the  recorded past. What truly distinguishes this one  is  its stability. We
see no evidence of internal evolution; in some ways it is less than a Power.
It may  never  lose  interest in controlling the  High  Beyond.  We  may  be
witnessing a massive and permanent change in the  nature of things. Imagine:
a stable  necrosis,  where  the only sentience  in the High  Beyond  is  the
     Thus, studying the Blight has  been a  matter of  life and death for us
(even though we are powerful and widely distributed). We've reached a number
of  conclusions. Some of these may be obvious to  you, others may sound like
flagrant speculation. All take on  a  new  coloring with the events reported
from Harmonious Repose:
     Almost from the beginning, the Blight has been searching for something.
This search  has extended far beyond  its aggressive physical expansion. Its
automatic agents have tried to penetrate virtually  every node in the Top of
the Beyond; the High Network is  in shambles, reduced to  protocols scarcely
more  efficient than those  known below.  At the same time,  the  Blight has
physically stolen several archives.  We have evidence  of very large  fleets
searching for off-Net archives at the Top and in the Low Transcend. At least
three Powers have been murdered in this rampage.
     And  now,  suddenly,  this  assault has ended.  The  Blight's  physical
expansion  continues, with no  end  in  sight, but it no longer searches the
High Beyond. As near as we can  tell, the change occurred about two thousand
seconds before the escape  of the human vessel  from Harmonious Repose. Less
than six hours later, we saw the beginnings of the silent fleet that so many
are now speculating about. That fleet is indeed the creature of the Blight.
     In other times, the destruction  of Sjandra Kei and the  motives of the
Alliance for the Defense would all be important issues (and our organization
might have interest  in doing business with those affected). But all that is
dwarfed by the  fact of this fleet and the ship it pursues. And  we disagree
with the analysis [implication?] from Harmonious Repose: it is obvious to us
that  the Blight  did not know  of the Out of Band II until its discovery at
Harmonious Repose.
     That ship is not a tool of  the Blight, but it contains or is bound for
something of enormous importance to the Blight. And what might that be? Here
we  begin  frank speculation. And since we  are speculating, we'll use those
powerful  pseudo-laws, the  Principles of Mediocrity and Minimal Assumption.
If the Blight  has the potential for taking over all the Top in a  permanent
stability,  then why has this  not happened  before? Our guess is  that  the
Blight  has been instantiated before (with  such  dire  consequence that the
event  marks the beginning of recorded  time),  but  it has its own peculiar
natural enemy.
     The order of  events even suggests a  particular scenario, one familiar
from network security. Once upon a time (very long  ago), there  was another
instance of the  Blight.  A successful defense was mounted,  and  all  known
copies of the Blight's recipe were destroyed. Of course, on a  wide net, one
can never  be sure that  all copies  of a badness  are gone.  No  doubt, the
defense was distributed in enormous numbers. But even if a harboring archive
were reached by such a distribution, there  might be no effect if the Blight
were not currently active there.
     The  luckless humans of  Straumli Realm chanced  on such an archive, no
doubt a ruin long off the Net. They instantiated the Blight and incidentally
--  perhaps a little  later  -- the  defense program. Somehow  that Blight's
enemy  escaped destruction. And  the Blight has  been searching for it  ever
since -- in all the wrong places. In its weakness, the new  instance of  the
defense retreated to depths no Power would  think of penetrating,  whence it
could never return without outside help. Speculation on top of  speculation:
we  can't  guess  the nature of  this defense, except that  its retreat is a
discouraging  sign. And  now  even that sacrifice has gone for naught, since
the Blight has seen through the deception.
     The Blight's fleet is clearly an ad hoc thing,  hastily thrown together
from  forces  that  happened  to  be closest  to the discovery. Without such
haste, the  quarry  might have been lost to it.  Thus the chase equipment is
probably ill-suited  to the depths, and its performance will degrade  as the
descent  progresses.  However, we estimate that it will remain stronger than
any force that can reach the scene in the near future.
     We may  learn  more  after the Blight  reaches  the  Out  of  Band II's
destination.  If it destroys that  destination immediately, we'll know  that
something  truly  dangerous  to  the  Blight existed  there  (and  may exist
elsewhere, at least in recipe form). If it does not, then perhaps the Blight
was looking for something that will make it even more dangerous than before.

     Ravna sat back, stared at the display for some time. Sandor Arbitration
Intelligence was one  of  the sharpest posters in this newsgroup.... But now
even their predictions were just different flavors  of doom. And all so damn
cool they were, so  analytical. She knew  that Sandor was polyspecific, with
branch offices scattered through the High Beyond. But they were no Power. If
the Perversion could knock over Relay and kill Old One, then all of Sandor's
resources wouldn't  help it if the enemy decided  to gobble  them  up. Their
analysis  had  the  tone  of  the  pilot  of  a  crashing  ship,  intent  on
understanding the danger, not taking time out for terror.

     Oh Pham, how I wish  I could talk to you like before! She curled gently
in  on herself, the  way  you can  in zero gee. The  sobs  came  softly, but
without hope. They had not exchanged a hundred words in the  last five days.
They lived as if with  guns at each  others' heads. And that was the literal
truth -- she had made it so. When she  and he and the Skroderiders  had been
together, at least the danger had been a  shared burden. Now they were split
apart and their enemies were  slowly gaining on them. What good could Pham's
godshatter be against a thousand enemy ships and the Blight behind them?
     She  floated  for  a timeless while,  the sobs  fading into  despairing
silence. And again she wondered if what she'd done  could possibly be right.
She had threatened Pham's life to protect Blueshell and Greenstalk and their
kind. In  doing so, she had kept secret what might be the greatest treachery
in  the history of the Known Net. Can  one person make such a decision? Pham
had asked her that, and she had answered yes but....
     The question toyed  with her every  day. And every day she tried to see
some way out. She wiped  her face  silently.  She didn't doubt what Pham had
     There  were some smug posters on  the Net who  argued that something as
vast as the Blight was simply a tragic disaster, and not an evil. Evil, they
argued,  could  only have meaning on  smaller scales,  in  the hurt that one
sophont does  to another. Before RIP,  the argument  had seemed a  frivolous
playing with words. Now she saw  that  it was meaningful  -- and dead wrong.
The  Blight had  created  the  Riders, a marvelous and peaceful  race. Their
presence on a billion  worlds  had  been a good. And behind it  all  was the
potential for converting the sovereign minds of friends into monsters.  When
she thought of Blueshell and Greenstalk, and the fear welled up and she knew
the poison that was there --  even though they were good people --  then she
knew she'd glimpsed evil on the Transcendent scale.
     She had gotten Blueshell and Greenstalk into this mission; they had not
asked  for it. They were  friends  and allies, and she  would not  harm them
because of what they could become.
     Maybe it was  the latest news items. Maybe it was  confronting the same
impossibilities for the n'th time:  Ravna gradually straightened, looking at
those last messages. So. She believed Pham about the Skroderider threat. She
also believed these two were only enemies  in potential. She had thrown away
everything  to save them and  their kind. Maybe  it was a mistake, but  take
what advantage  there is in it. If they are to  be saved because  you  think
they are allies, then treat  them as allies. Treat them  as the friends they
are. We are all pawns together.
     Ravna pushed gently toward her cabin's doorway.

     The Skroderiders'  cabin was just behind the  command  deck.  Since the
debacle at  RIP, the two had not  left  it. As she drifted down the  passage
toward their  door, Ravna half-expected to see  Pham's handiwork lurking  in
the shadows. She  knew he was doing his best to "protect himself". Yet there
was nothing unusual. What will he think of my visiting them?
     She announced  herself. After a moment  Blueshell appeared. His  skrode
was  wiped clean of cosmetic stripes, and the room behind him  was a jumble.
He waved her in with quick jerks of his fronds.
     "My lady."
     "Blueshell," she nodded  at him.  Half the time she cursed  herself for
trusting the Riders; the other half, she was mortally embarrassed for having
left them alone. "H-how is Greenstalk?"
     Surprisingly,  Blueshell's  fronds  snapped together in  a  smile. "You
guessed? This  is the first day  with her new skrode.... I will show you, if
you'd like."
     He threaded around equipment that was scattered in a lattice across the
room.  It  was similar to  the shop  equipment  Pham  had used to build  his
powered armor. And if Pham had seen it, he might have lost all self-control.
     "I've worked on it every minute since ... Pham locked us in here."
     Greenstalk  was in  the other  room. Her stalk and  fronds rose  from a
silver pot.  There were  no  wheels.  It looked nothing  like a  traditional
skrode. Blueshell rolled across the ceiling and extended a frond down to his
mate. He rustled something at her, and after a moment, she replied.
     "The  skrodeling  is  very  limited,  no mobility,  no  redundant power
supplies.  I  copied  it off a Lesser  Skroderider  design, a  simple  thing
designed by Dirokimes. It's not  meant for more than sitting  in  one place,
facing in one direction. But it provides her with short-term memory support,
and attention focusers....  She is back with me." He fussed around her, some
fronds caressing  hers, others pointing to the gadget  he had built for her.
"She  herself was  not badly injured. Sometimes  I wonder  -- whatever  Pham
says, maybe at the last second he could not kill her."
     He spoke nervously, as though afraid of what Ravna might say.
     "The first few days I  was  very worried. But the  surgeon  is good. It
gave her plenty of time to stand in strong surf. To think slowly. Since I've
added  on  this  skrodeling, she has  practiced the calisthenics  of memory,
repeating what the surgeon or I say  to her. With  the  skrodeling, she  can
hold on to a new memory for almost five hundred seconds. That's usually long
enough for her natural mind to commit a thought to long-term memory."
     Ravna  drifted  close.  There  were  some  new creases in  Greenstalk's
fronds. Those would be scars healing.  Her visual  surfaces followed Ravna's
approach. The Rider knew she was here; her whole posture was friendly.
     "Can she talk Trisk, Blueshell? Do you have a voder hooked up?"
     "What?" Buzz.  He was forgetful or nervous,  Ravna couldn't tell which.
"Yes, yes. Just give me a minute.... There was no need before. No one wanted
to talk to us." He fiddled with something on the home-made skrode.
     After a moment, "Hello, Ravna. I ... recognize you." Her fronds rustled
in time with the words.
     "I know you, too. We, I am glad that you are back."
     The voder voice  was faint, wistful? "Yes. It's hard for me  to tell. I
do want to talk, but I'm not sure ... am I'm making sense?"
     Out of Greenstalk's sight, Blueshell flicked a long tendril, a gesture:
say yes.
     "Yes, I understand you, Greenstalk."  And Ravna resolved never again to
get angry with Greenstalk about not remembering.
     "Good." Her fronds straightened and she didn't say anything more.
     "See?" came Blueshell's voder voice. "I am brightly cheerful. Even now,
Greenstalk  is  committing this conversation  to  long-term  memory. It goes
slowly for now, but I am  improving the skrodeling. I'm sure her slowness is
mainly emotional  shock."  He continued to brush at Greenstalk's fronds, but
she  didn't say anything more. Ravna wondered just how  brightly cheerful he
could be.
     Behind the Riders were a set of display windows, customized now for the
Rider outlook. "You've been following the News?" Ravna asked.
     "Yes, indeed."
     "I-I feel so helpless." I feel so foolish, saying that to you.
     But Blueshell didn't take offense. He seemed grateful for the change of
topic,  preferring the gloom at a  distance.  "Yes. We certainly  are famous
now. Three fleets chasing us down, my lady. Ha ha."
     "They don't seem to be gaining very fast."
     Frond shrug. "Sir Pham has turned out to be a competent  ship's master.
I'm afraid things will change as  we  descend. The ship's higher  automation
will gradually  fail.  What  you  call  'manual control'  will  become  very
important. OOB was designed for my race,  my lady. No  matter what Sir  Pham
thinks of us,  at bottom  we can fly it better than  any. So  bit by bit the
others will gain -- at least those who truly understand their own ships."
     It  was something  she  hadn't guessed, certainly  something she  would
never have found reading the Net. Too bad it's also bad news. "S-surely Pham
must know this?"
     "I think he must. But he is trapped in  his own fears. What can  he do?
If not for you, My  Lady Ravna, he might have killed us  already. Maybe when
the choice comes down to dying in the  next  hour against trusting us, maybe
then there will be a chance."
     "By then it will be too late. Look, even if he  doesn't  trust  -- even
though he believes the worst of Riders -- there must still be a way." And it
came to her that sometimes you don't have to change the way people think, or
even whom they may  hate.  "Pham wants to get to the Bottom, to recover this
Countermeasure.  He thinks  you  may be from the  Blight, and after the same
thing. But up to a  point -- " up to a point he can  cooperate, postpone the
showdown he imagines till perhaps it won't matter.
     Even as  she started to say it,  Blueshell was already shouting back at
her. "I'm am not of the  Blight! Greenstalk  is not! The Rider race is not!"
He swept around his mate, rolled across the ceiling till his fronds  rattled
right before Ravna's face.
     "I'm sorry. It's just the potential -- "
     "Nonsense!"  His  voder  buzzed off  scale. "We ran in to an evil  few.
Every race has such, people who will kill for trade. They forced Greenstalk,
substituted  data at  her voder. Pham Nuwen would  kill our billions for the
sake of this fantasy." He waved,  inarticulate. Something she had never seen
in a Skroderider: his fronds actually changed tone, darkened.
     The motion ceased, yet he said nothing more. And then Ravna heard it, a
keening that might have come from a voder. The sound was steadily growing, a
howl  that  made  all  Blueshell's sound  effects friendly nonsense.  It was
     The scream reached a threshold just below pain, then  broke into choppy
Triskweline:  "It's true! Oh,  by all our trading, Blueshell, it's true...."
and staticky noise came from  her voder. Her fronds  started shaking, random
turning that must be like a human's  eyes  wildly  staring,  like  a human's
mouth mumbling hysteria.
     Blueshell was  already back by the  wall,  reaching  to  adjust her new
skrode. Greenstalk's fronds brushed him away, and her voder voice continued,
"I was horror struck, Blueshell. I was horror  struck, struck by horror. And
it would not stop...." the voice rattled quiet for just an instant, and this
time Blueshell  made no move. "I  remember everything up  till the last five
minutes. And everything Pham says is true, dear love. Loyal as you  are, and
I have seen that loyalty now for two  hundred years, you would be  turned in
an instant  ...  just as I was."  Now that  the  dam broke, her  words  came
quickly, mostly making sense. The  horrors  she could  remember  were graven
deep, and  she was finally coming out of ghastly shock.  "I was right behind
you, remember, Blueshell? You were deep in your trading  with the tusk-legs,
so deep you did not really see. I noticed the other Riders coming toward us.
No matter: a friendly meeting, so far from home. Then one touched my Skrode.
I -- " Greenstalk hesitated. Her fronds rattled and she began again, "horror
struck, horror struck ...."
     After a  moment:  "It  was  like suddenly new memories in  the  skrode,
Blueshell. New memories, new attitudes. But thousands of years deep. And not
mine. Instantly, instantly. I  never even lost consciousness. I thought just
as clearly, I remembered all I had before."
     "And when you resisted?" Ravna said softly.
     "... Resisted?  My  Lady Ravna, I did not resist.  I was theirs.... No.
Not  theirs, for they  were owned, too. We  were things, our intelligence in
service to another's goal. Dead,  and  alive to see  our death. I would kill
you, I would kill Pham, I would kill Blueshell. You know I tried. And when I
did, I wanted to succeed. You could not imagine,  Ravna. You humans speak of
violation. You could never know...." Long pause. "That's not quite right. At
the Top of the  Beyond, within the Blight itself -- perhaps there,  everyone
lives as I did."
     The  shuddering  did  not  subside, but  her gestures  were  no  longer
aimless. The fronds were saying something in her own language,  and brushing
gently against Blueshell.
     "Our whole race, dear love. Just as Pham says it."
     Blueshell wilted, and  Ravna  felt the sort of gut-tearing she had when
they learned of Sjandra Kei. That had been her worlds, her family, her life.
Blueshell was hearing worse.
     Ravna pushed a little  closer, near enough to run her  hand up the side
of Greenstalk's fronds. "Pham  says it's  the greater skrodes  that are  the
cause." Sabotage hidden billions of years deep.
     "Yes, it is mainly  the skrodes. The 'great gift' we Riders love so....
It is a design for control, but I fear we were remade for it, too. When they
touched my skrode, I was converted  instantly. Instantly, everything I cared
for  was  meaningless. We are  like  smart bombs, scattered by the trillions
through space that everyone thinks  is  safe. We will  be used sparingly. We
are the Blight's hidden weapon, especially in the Low Beyond."
     Blueshell  twitched,  and  his voice came out jerkily:  "And everything
Pham claims is correct."
     "No, Blueshell, not  everything."  Ravna remembered  that last chilling
standoff  with Pham Nuwen. "He has  the facts, but he weighs  them wrong. As
long as your skrodes are not perverted, you are the same folk that I trusted
to fly me to the Bottom."
     Blueshell angled his  look  away from her, an angry shrug. Greenstalk's
voice came instead.  "As  long as  the skrode has not been perverted.... But
look how easy it was done, how sudden I became the Blight's."
     "Yes,  but could  it  happen  except  by  direct  touch? Could  you  be
'changed'  by  reading  the Net  News?" She  meant  the question  as ghastly
sarcasm, but poor Greenstalk took it seriously:
     "Not by a News item, nor by standard protocol messages. But accepting a
transmission targeted on skrode utilities might do it."
     "Then we are safe  here.  You,  because  you no  longer  ride a greater
skrode, Blueshell because -- "
     "Because I was never touched  -- but how can you  know that?" His anger
was still there deep within shame, but now it was a hopeless anger, directed
at something very far away.
     "No, dear love, you have not been touched. I would know."
     "Yes, but why should Ravna believe you?"

     Everything could be a lie, thought Ravna, ... but I believe Greenstalk.
I  believe  we  four are  the only ones in all the Beyond who  can hurt  the
Blight. If only Pham could see it. And that brought her back to: "You say we
will start losing our lead?"
     Blueshell waved an affirmative. "As soon as we are a little lower. They
should have us in a matter of weeks."
     And then it won't matter who was perverted and who was not. "I think we
should have a little chat with Pham Nuwen." Godshatter and all.

     Beforehand Ravna couldn't imagine how the confrontation would turn out.
Just possibly -- if he'd  lost  all touch with reality --  Pham might try to
kill them when they appeared on the command deck. More likely there would be
rage and argument and threats, and they would be back to square one.
     Instead ...  it was  almost  like the old Pham,  from before Harmonious
Repose. He  let them enter the command deck,  he  made no comment when Ravna
set herself carefully between himself and the  Riders. He  listened  without
interruption, while Ravna explained what Greenstalk had said. "These two are
safe, Pham. And without their help we'll not make it to the Bottom."
     He nodded, looked away  at the windows.  Some showed natural starscape;
most were ultratrace displays, the closest thing to a picture of the enemies
that were closing on the OOB. His calm expression broke for just an instant,
and the  Pham that loved her seemed to stare out, desperate: "And you really
believe all  this,  Rav? How?"  Then the  lid  was back  on,  his expression
distant  and  neutral. "Never mind.  Certainly it's true: without all  of us
working together  we'll never make it  to Tines' World.  Blueshell, I accept
your offer. Subject  to cautious safeguards,  we  work together." Till I can
safely  dispose  of  you,  Ravna  could  feel  the  unsaid words behind  his
blandness. Showdown deferred.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     They were  less  than eight  weeks  from  Tines' World,  both Pham  and
Blueshell  said. If the Zone conditions remained stable. If  they  were  not
overtaken in the meantime.
     Less than two months, after the six already voyaged. But  the days were
not like before. Every one was a challenge, a standoff sometimes  cloaked in
civility, sometimes  flaring into  threats of sudden  death -- as  when Pham
retrieved Blueshell's shop equipment.
     Pham was living on the command deck now; when he left it, the hatch was
locked on his ID. He  had destroyed, or  thought he had destroyed, all other
privileged links to the  ship's  automation. He and Blueshell were in almost
constant  collaboration  ...  but not  like  before. Every  step  was  slow,
Blueshell explaining  everything,  allowed  to demonstrate  nothing.  That's
where the arguments came closest to deadly force, when Pham must  give in to
one peril or the other. For every day the pursuing fleets were  a little bit
closer: two bands of killers, and  what was left  of  Sjandra Kei. Evidently
some of the SjK Commercial Security fleet could still fight,  wanted revenge
on  the Alliance. Once Ravna suggested to Pham that they contact  Commercial
Security, try to persuade them to attack the Blighter fleet. Pham  had given
her a blank look. "Not yet, maybe not ever," he said, and  turned away. In a
way his answer  was a relief:  Such a battle  would be a suicidal long shot.
Ravna didn't want the last of her kinsfolk dying for her.
     So the OOB might arrive at Tines' World before the enemy, but with what
little time to spare!  Some  days  Ravna withdrew in tears and despair. What
brought her back was Jefri and Greenstalk. They both  needed her, and  for a
few weeks more she could still help.
     Mr. Steel's defense  plans were proceeding. The  Tines were even having
some  success  with their wideband  radio. Steel reported  that Woodcarver's
main force was on its way north;  there was more than one race against time.
She spent many hours  with  the  OOB's library, devising more  gifts for the
Jefri's friends. Some things -- like telescopes -- were easy, but others....
It wasn't wasted effort. Even if the Blight won,  its fleet might ignore the
natives,  might  settle  for   killing  the   OOB   and  winning   back  the
     Greenstalk  was  slowly  improving.  At  first  Ravna  was  afraid  the
improvement might  be in her own imagination. Ravna was spending a good part
of each day sitting with the Rider, trying to see progress in her responses.
Greenstalk was very "far away",  almost like a  human with stroke damage and
prosthesis. In  fact, she seemed regressed from the articulate horror of her
first conversations. Maybe her recent progress was just a  mirror to Ravna's
sensitivity, to the fact that Ravna was with her so much. Blueshell insisted
there was progress,  but with that stubborn inflexibility of his. Two weeks,
three --  and  there was no  doubt:  something was  healing  at the boundary
between  Rider   and  skrodeling.   Greenstalk   consistently  made   sense,
consistently committed important rememberings.... Now as often as not it was
she helping Ravna. Greenstalk  saw things  that Ravna had missed:  "Sir Pham
isn't the only one who is afraid of us Skroderiders. Blueshell is frightened
too, and  it is tearing him apart. He  can't admit it  even to  me,  but  he
thinks it's  possible that we're infected  independently of our skrodes.  He
desperately wants  to  convince  Pham  that  this  is not true --  and so to
convince himself."  She was  silent for  a  long moment,  one frond brushing
against Ravna's arm. Sea sounds surrounded them  in  the  cabin,  but ship's
automation could no longer produce surging water. "Sigh. We must pretend the
surf, dear Ravna. Somewhere  it will always be,  no matter  what happened at
Sjandra Kei, no matter what happens here."

     Blueshell was hearty gentleness  around his mate, but  alone with Ravna
his  rage  showed through: "No, no, I don't object to Sir Pham's navigation,
at  least  not now.  Perhaps we  could  be a little further  ahead  with  me
directly  at  the helm, but  the  fastest  ships behind us  would  still  be
closing. It's the other  things,  my lady. You know  how  untrustworthy  our
automation is  down here.  Pham is hurting it further.  He's written his own
security overrides.  He's  turning  the ship's environment automation into a
system of boobytraps."
     Ravna had seen evidence of  this. The  areas  around OOB's command deck
and ship's workshop looked like military  checkpoints. "You  know his fears.
If this makes him feel safer -- "
     "That's not the point, My Lady. I would  do anything to persuade him to
accept  my  help.  But  what he's  doing  is deadly  dangerous.  Our  Bottom
automation is not  reliable, and he's making  it actively worse.  If we  get
some sudden  stress, the  environment  programs will  likely have a  bizarre
crash -- atmosphere dump, thermal runaway, anything."
     "I -- "
     "Doesn't he understand? Pham controls nothing." His voder broke into  a
nonlinear  squawk. "He has the ability to destroy, but that is all. He needs
my help. He was my friend. Doesn't he understand?"

     Pham  understood ... oh, Pham  understood.  He and Ravna  still talked.
Their  arguments were the hardest  thing  in her  life.  And sometimes  they
didn't exactly argue; sometimes it was almost like rational discussion:
     "I  haven't  been taken over, Ravna.  Not like  the Blight  takes  over
Riders, anyway. I still  have charge of  my  soul." He turned away from  the
console and flashed a wan smile in her  direction, acknowledging the flaw in
such self-conviction. And from things like  that  smile, Ravna was convinced
that Pham Nuwen still lived, and sometimes spoke.
     "What about the godshatter state? I see you for hours, just  staring at
the  tracking display,  or mucking  around in the  library  and  the  News,"
scanning faster than any human could consciously read.
     Pham  shrugged. "It's studying the ships that are chasing us, trying to
figure  out just what  belongs to whom,  just  what capabilities each  might
have. I don't know  the details. Self-awareness is on  vacation  then," when
all Pham's  mind  was turned  into a processor for whatever programs Old One
had  downloaded.  A  few hours  of  fugue state  might yield  an  instant of
Power-grade thought  -- and even that he didn't consciously remember. "But I
know this.  Whatever the godshatter is,  it's a  very narrow thing. It's not
alive; in some ways it may not even be very smart. For everyday matters like
ship piloting, there's just good old Pham Nuwen."
     "... there's the rest of us, Pham. Blueshell would like to help," Ravna
spoke  softly. This was the place where Pham would close into icy silence --
or blow up in rage. This day, he just cocked his head. "Ravna, Ravna. I know
I need him.... And, and I'm glad I need him. That I don't have to kill him."
Yet.  Pham's lips quivered  for  a second,  and  she thought  he might start
     "The godshatter can't know Blueshell -- "
     "Not the godshatter. It's not making me  act this way -- I'm doing what
any  person should do when the  stakes are this high." The words were spoken
without anger. Maybe there was a chance. Maybe she could reason:
     "Blueshell and  Greenstalk are loyal, Pham. Except at Harmonious Repose
-- "
     Pham  sighed, "Yeah. I've thought about that a lot. They  came to Relay
from  Straumli Realm. They  got  Vrinimi looking for the refugee ship.  That
smells of setup, but probably unknowing  --  maybe even a setup by something
opposing  the Blight. In any case they were  innocent  then, else the Blight
would have known about Tines world right from the beginning. The Blight knew
nothing till RIP, till Greenstalk was converted.  And I  know Blueshell  was
loyal even then. He knew  things about my armor -- the remotes, for instance
-- that he could have warned the others about."
     Hope came as a surprise to Ravna. He really had thought things out, and
--  "It's  just the skrodes, Pham.  They're  traps waiting to be sprung. But
we're isolated here, and you destroyed the one that Greenstalk -- "
     Pham was shaking his head. "It's more  than the skrodes. The Blight had
its hand in  Rider design, too, at least to some degree. I can't imagine the
takeover of Greenstalk's being so smooth otherwise."
     "Y-yes. A risk. A very small risk compared to -- "
     Pham  didn't  move, but something in him seemed to  draw away from her,
denying the support  she  could offer.  "A small risk?  We  don't  know. The
stakes are so high. I'm walking a tightrope. If  I don't  use Blueshell now,
we'll be shot out of space  by the Blighter fleet. If I let him do too much,
if I trust him,  then he or some  part of him could betray us. All I have is
the godshatter, and  a bunch of memories  that  ... that may be the  biggest
fakes of all." These last words were nearly inaudible. He looked up  at her,
a look  that  was both cold  and terribly lost. "But I'm going to use what I
have, Rav, and whatever it is  I am. Somehow  I'm going to get us  to Tines'
World. Somehow I'm going to get Old One's godshatter to whatever is there."

     It was another three weeks before Blueshell's predictions came true.
     The  OOB had  seemed a sturdy  beast up in the Middle  Beyond; even its
damaged ultradrive had failed  gracefully. Now the ship was leaking  bugs in
all directions. Much  of it had nothing to do  with Pham's meddling. Without
those final  consistency checks, none  of the  OOB's Bottom  automation  was
really  trustworthy.  But  its failures were compounded by Pham's  desperate
security hacks.
     The ship's library had source code  for generic Bottom automation. Pham
spent several days revising it for  the OOB. All four  of them  were on  the
command  deck during  the  installation,  Blueshell  trying  to  help,  Pham
suspiciously   examining   every   suggestion.  Thirty   minutes   into  the
installation,  there  were  muffled banging noises  down the  main corridor.
Ravna might have ignored them, except that she'd never heard the like aboard
the OOB.
     Pham  and the  Riders  reacted  with near  panic;  spacers  don't  like
unexplained  bumps in  the  night.  Blueshell raced  to  the  hatch, floated
fronds-first through the hole. "I see nothing, Sir Pham."
     Pham  was paging quickly  through the diagnostic displays, mixed format
things partly from the new setup. "I've got some warning lights here, but --
     Greenstalk started to say something, but Blueshell was back and talking
fast: "I  don't believe it.  Anything  like this  should  make  pictures,  a
detailed report. Something is terribly wrong."
     Pham  stared  at him a second, then returned to his  diagnostics.  Five
seconds  passed.  "You're  right.  Status  is  just  looping  through  stale
reports."  He began grabbing views from cameras all over the OOB's interior.
Barely half of them reported, but what they showed...
     The  ship's  water  reservoir was a foggy,  icy  cavern. That  was  the
banging sound -- tonnes of water, spaced. A dozen other support services had
gone bizarre, and --
     --  the armed checkpoint outside  the  workshop  had  slagged down. The
beamers were firing continuously  on low power. And for all the destruction,
the diagnostics still showed green or amber or no report. Pham got  a camera
in the workshop itself. The place was on fire.
     Pham jumped  up from his saddle  and  bounced off  the  ceiling. For an
instant  she thought he might go racing off the bridge. Then he tied himself
down and grimly began trying to put out the fire.
     For the  next  few  minutes, the  bridge  was  almost  quiet, just Pham
quietly  swearing  as none  of  the  obvious  things  worked.  "Interlocking
failures,"  he  mumbled  the  phrase  a  couple  of  times.  "The  firesnuff
automation is  down.... I can't dump atmosphere from the  shop.  My  beamers
have melted everything shut."
     Ship  fire. Ravna had seen  pictures  of such disasters,  but  they had
always seemed  an  improbable thing. In the midst  of universal  vacuum, how
could a fire survive? And in zero-gee, surely a fire would choke itself even
if the crew couldn't dump atmosphere. The workshop camera had a hazy view on
the  real thing:  True,  the flames  ate the oxygen around  them. There were
sheets  of construction foam  that were only lightly scorched, protected for
the  moment  by dead  air. But the  fire spread out,  moving  steadily  into
still-fresh air.  In  places, heat-driven turbulence  enriched the  mix, and
previously burned areas blazed up.
     "It's still got ventilation, Sir Pham."
     "I know. I can't shut it. The vents must be melted open."
     "It's as likely software." Blueshell was silent for a second. "Try this
-- " the directions were meaningless to Ravna, some low-level workaround.
     But Pham nodded, and his fingers danced across the console.
     In the  workshop,  the surface-hugging flames  crept farther across the
construction  foam. Now they licked at the  innards  of the  armor  Pham had
spent so much time on. This  latest revision was only  half finished.  Ravna
remembered  he was  working  on  reactive  armor  now  .... There  would  be
oxidizers there. "Pham, is the armor sealed -- "
     The  fire  was  sixty  meters  aft and  behind a  dozen bulkheads.  The
explosion came as a distant  thump, almost innocent. But in the camera view,
the armor dismembered itself, and the fire blazed triumphant.
     Seconds  later,  Pham  got  Blueshell's  suggestion  working,  and  the
workshop's vents closed. The fire in the wrecked armor continued for another
half hour, but did not spread beyond the shop.

     It  took two days to clean  up, to  estimate the  damage, and have some
confidence that no new disaster  was on  the  way. Most of  the workshop was
destroyed. They would have no armor on Tines world. Pham salvaged one of the
beamers that had  been  guarding  the entrance  to  the  shop. Disaster  was
scattered all  across  the  ship,  the classic random  ruin of  interlocking
failures: They  had  lost fifty percent of their  water. The ship's  landing
boat had lost its higher automation.

     OOB's rocket drive was massively degraded. That was unimportant here in
interstellar space, but their final  velocity matching would be done at only
0.4  gees.  Thank goodness  the  agrav worked; they  would have  no  trouble
maneuvering in steep gravitational wells -- that is, landing on Tines world.
     Ravna knew how close they were to losing the ship, but she watched Pham
with even greater dread. She was  so afraid that he would take this as final
evidence  of Rider  treachery, that this would  drive  him  over  the  edge.
Strangely,  almost  the  opposite happened. His pain  and  devastation  were
obvious, but he didn't lash out,  just  doggedly went about gathering up the
pieces. He was  talking to Blueshell  more now, not letting him  modify  the
automation,  but  cautiously accepting  more  of  his  advice. Together they
restored the ship to something like its pre-fire state.
     She asked Pham about it. "No change of heart," he finally said.  "I had
to balance  the risks, and I messed up....  And maybe there  is  no balance.
Maybe the Blight will win."
     The godshatter had bet too much on Pham's doing  it all himself. Now it
was turning down the paranoia a little.

     Seven  weeks  out  from  Harmonious  Repose, less  than  one  week from
whatever waited at Tines' world, Pham went into a multiday fugue. Before  he
had been busy, a futile attempt to run handmade checks on all the automation
they might need at Tines' World. Now -- Ravna couldn't even get him to eat:
     The  nav display  showed the three fleets as identified by the News and
Pham's intuition: the  Blight's  agents, the Alliance for  the Defense,  and
what  was left  of Sjandra Kei Commercial Security.  Deadly monsters and the
remains  of  a  victim.  The Alliance still  proclaimed  itself with regular
bulletins  on the News.  SjK Commercial Security  had  posted  a  few  terse
refutations, but was mostly silent; they were unused to propaganda, or -- as
likely -- uninterested  in  it. A  private revenge was all  that remained to
Commercial Security. And the  Blighter fleet? The News hadn't heard anything
from  them.  Piecing  together  departures  and  lost  ships,  War  Trackers
Newsgroup concluded they were a wildly ad hoc assembly, whatever the  Blight
had controlled down here at the time of the RIP debacle. Ravna knew that the
War Trackers analysis was wrong about one thing: The Blighter fleet  was not
silent. Thirty times over the  last weeks, they had sent messages at the OOB
... in skrode maintenance format. Pham had had the ship reject  the messages
unread  -- and  then  worried about whether  the order was really  followed.
After all, the OOB was of Rider design.
     But  now the torment in him was submerged. Pham sat  for hours, staring
at the display. Soon  Sjandra Kei  would  close  with the Alliance fleet. At
least one set of  villains would pay.  But  the Blighter fleet and  at least
part of the Alliance  would survive.... Maybe this fugue was just godshatter
getting desperate.
     Three days  passed; Pham snapped out of it. Except for the new thinness
in his face,  he seemed more normal than he had in  weeks. He asked Ravna to
bring the Riders up to the bridge.
     Pham  waved  at the ultradrive  traces that floated  in the window. The
three fleets were spread through a rough cylinder, five light-years deep and
three across. The display captured only the heart  of that volume, where the
fastest of the pursuers had clustered. The current position of each ship was
a  fleck of  light trailing an  unending  stream  of fainter lights  --  the
ultradrive trace left by that  vehicle's  drive. "I've  used  red, blue, and
green to mark  my best guess as to the fleet affiliation of each trace." The
fastest ships were collected in a blob so dense that it looked white at this
scale, but with colored streamers  diverging behind. There  were other tags,
annotations  he  had  set but  which he admitted  once  to  Ravna  he didn't
     "The front  edge  of that mob  --  the fastest of the  fast -- is still
     Blueshell  said hesitantly.  "We  might get a little more speed  if you
would grant me direct control. Not much, but -- "
     Pham's response was  civil  at  least. "No, I'm  thinking of  something
else, something Ravna suggested a while back. It's always been a possibility
and ... I ... think the time may have come for it."
     Ravna moved closer to  the display, stared at the  green  traces. Their
distribution  was  in  near agreement with what the News  claimed to be  the
remnants of Sjandra Kei Commercial Security. All  that's  left of my people.
"They've been trying to engage with the Alliance for a hundred hours now."
     Pham's glance touched  hers. "Yeah," he  said  softly. "Poor  bastards.
They're literally the fleet  from Port Despair. If I were them, I'd -- " His
expression smoothed over again. "Any idea how well-armed they are?" That was
surely a rhetorical question, but it put the topic on the table.
     "War Trackers  thinks  that Sjandra  Kei had  been  expecting something
unpleasant  ever  since  the  Alliance  started talking  'death to  vermin'.
Commercial  Security  was  providing  deep  space  defense.  Their  fleet is
converted  freighters  armed  with  locally-designed  weapons. War  Trackers
claims they weren't  really a  match for what the other side could field, if
the  Alliance was willing to take some heavy casualties. Trouble is, Sjandra
Kei  never  expected  the planet-smasher attack. So when the  Alliance fleet
showed up, ours moved out to meet it -- "
     "--  and meantime the KE bombs  were coming straight in  to  the  heart
spaces of Sjandra Kei."
     Into my heart spaces.  "Yes. The Alliance must  have been running those
bombs for weeks."
     Pham Nuwen  laughed shortly.  "If  I  were  shipping with the  Alliance
fleet, I'd be a bit  nervous now. They're down in numbers, and those retread
freighters seem about as fast as anything here....  I'll bet every pilot out
of Sjandra Kei is dead set on revenge." The emotion faded.  "Hmm. There's no
way they could kill all the Alliance ships or  all the Blight's,  much  less
all of both. It would be pointless to ...
     His gaze abruptly  focused on her. "So  if we leave things as they are,
the  Sjandra Kei fleet will eventually match position  with the Alliance and
try to blow them out of existence."
     Ravna just nodded. "In twelve hours or so, they say."
     "And then  all that will be left is the Blight's own fleet on our tail.
But if we could talk your people into fighting the right enemies..."
     It was Ravna's nightmare scheme. All that was left of Sjandra Kei dying
to save the OOB ... trying to save them. There was little chance the Sjandra
Kei fleet  could destroy all the Blighter ships.  But they're here to fight.
Why not a vengeance that means something? That was the  nightmare's message.
Now somehow it fit godshatter's plans.  "There are problems. They don't know
what  we're doing or the purpose  of the third fleet. Anything we shout back
to them  will  be overheard." Ultrawave  was directional, but most  of their
pursuers were closely mingled.
     Pham nodded. "Somehow we have  to talk to them, and them alone. Somehow
we  have to persuade  them  to fight." Faint smile. "And I think we may have
just the ... equipment ... to do all that. Blueshell: Remember that night on
the High Docks. You told us about your 'rotted cargo' from Sjandra Kei?"
     "Indeed,  Sir Pham.  We carried one third of a  cipher generated by SjK
Commercial Security for their long-range  communications. It's still in  the
ship's safe, though worthless without the other two  thirds." Gram for gram,
crypto  materials were  about the  most  valuable  thing shipped between the
stars -- and once compromised, about the most valueless. Somewhere in Out of
Band's cargo files  there was an SjK one-time communications pad.  Part of a
     "Worthless? Maybe not.  Even one third  would  provide  us with  secure
     Blueshell  dithered.  "I must not mislead  you. No  competent  customer
would  accept such.  Certainly, it provides  secure communication,  but  the
other side has no verification that you are who you claim."
     Pham's  glance slid sideways, toward Ravna. There was that smile again.
"If  they'll  listen, I  think we can convince them.... The hard part is,  I
only want one of them to hear us." Pham  explained what he had in  mind. The
Riders' rustled faintly behind Pham's words. After all their time  together,
Ravna  could  almost  get  some  sense of their talk  -- or  maybe  she just
understood their personalities.  As usual, Blueshell  was worrying about how
impossible the idea was, and Greenstalk was urging him to listen.
     But when Pham finished, the large rider did not launch into objections.
"Across seventy light-years, ultrawave comm between ships is practical, even
without our antenna swarm; we could even have live video. But you are right,
the  beam spread would  include  all the  ships in  the  central  cluster of
fleets.  If we could reliably identify  an outlying vessel  as  belonging to
Sjandra Kei,  then what  you are asking  might be done; that ship  could use
internal  fleet  codes to  relay to the others. But  in  honesty I must warn
you,"  continued Blueshell, brushing  back Greenstalk's gentle remonstrance,
"professional communications  folk would not honor  your request for talk --
would probably not even recognize it as such."
     "Silly." Greenstalk  finally spoke,  her voder-voice  gentle but clear.
"You  always  say things  like that -- except  when we are talking to paying
     "Brap. Yes. Desperate times, desperate measures. I want to  try it, but
I fear.... I want there to be no accusations of Rider treachery, Sir Pham. I
want you to handle this."
     Pham Nuwen smiled back. "My thought exactly."

     "The  Aniara  Fleet."  That's  what some of  the  crews  of  Commercial
Security were calling themselves. Aniara was the ship of an old  human myth,
older than Nyjora, perhaps going  back to the Tuvo-Norsk cooperatives in the
asteroids  of Earth's  solar system. In the  story, Aniara was a large  ship
launched  into  interstellar  depths  just  before  the death of its  parent
civilization. The crew watched  the  death  agonies  of the home system, and
then  over the following  years --  as their ship fell out and  out into the
endless dark --  died themselves, their life-support systems slowly failing.
The image was  a  haunting one, which  was probably  the reason it was known
across millennia.  With  the  destruction of Sjandra  Kei and the  escape of
Commercial Security, the story seemed suddenly come true.

     But we will not play it to the end. Group Captain Kjet Svensndot stared
into  the tracking display. This time the death of  civilization  had been a
murder,  and the murderers  were almost  within vengeance's reach. For days,
fleet HQ had been maneuvering them to  close  with the Alliance. The display
showed  that  success was  very,  very  near. The majority  of Alliance  and
Sjandra Kei ships were bound in a glowing ball of drive traces -- which also
included  the third,  silent  fleet. From that display you  might think that
battle  was already possible. In fact,  opposing ships  were passing through
almost the same space -- sometimes less than a billion kilometers  apart  --
but  still  separated  by  milliseconds  of time.  All the  vessels  were on
ultradrive,  jumping perhaps  a dozen  times a second. And  even here at the
Bottom of the Beyond, that came to a  measurable fraction of a light-year on
each  jump.  To  fight  an  uncooperative enemy meant matching  their  jumps
perfectly and flooding the common space with weapon drones.
     Group  Captain Svensndot  changed  the display  to show ships  that had
exactly matched their pace with  the  Alliance. Almost  a third of the fleet
was  in  synch now. Another few hours and.... "Damnation!"  He  slapped  his
display board, sending it spinning across the deck.
     His first officer retrieved the display, sent it sailing back. "Is this
a new damnation, or the usual?" Tirolle asked.
     "It was  the usual. Sorry."  And he really was.  Tirolle and Glimfrelle
had their own problems. No doubt there were still pockets of humanity in the
Beyond, hidden from  the Alliance. But of  the Dirokimes,  there might be no
more than  what was on Commercial Security's  fleet.  Except for adventurous
souls like Tirolle and Glimfrelle, all that was left of their kind  had been
in the dream terranes at Sjandra Kei.
     Kjet  Svensndot had  started with Commercial Security twenty-five years
before, back when  the company had just been a  small fleet of rentacops. He
had spent thousands  of hours  learning to be the  very best combat pilot in
the organization. Only twice had he ever been in a shootout. Some might have
regretted that. Svensndot and his superiors took it  as the reward for being
the  best.  His  competence  had  won him  the  best  fighting equipment  in
Commercial Security's fleet, culminating with the ship he commanded now. The
Ølvira was purchased with part of the  enormous  premium that Sjandra
Kei  paid  out when  the Alliance first  started making  threatening noises.
Ølvira was not a rebuilt freighter, but a fighting  machine from  the
keel out.  The  ship was equipped with the smartest processors, the smartest
ultra drive, that  could operate at Sjandra Kei's altitude in the Beyond. It
needed only a three-person crew -- and combat could be managed by  the pilot
alone  with his AI associates.  Its holds contained more  than  ten thousand
seeker  bombs, each smarter than the average  freighter's entire drive unit.
Quite a  reward for twenty-five  years  of solid performance.  They even let
Svensndot name his new ship.
     And  now....  Well, the true Ølvira  was surely dead. Along with
billions of others they had been hired to protect, she had been at Herte, in
the inner system. Glow bombs leave no survivors.
     And  his  beautiful  ship  with  the  same  name,  it had been  a  half
light-year  out-system, seeking  enemies  that weren't there.  In any honest
battle, Kjet Svensndot  and this  Ølvira  could  have done very well.
Instead they  were  chasing  down  into  the  Bottom  of  the  Beyond. Every
light-year took them further from the regions  Ølvira was  built for.
Every light-year the processors worked a bit  more slowly (or  not at  all).
Down here the converted freighters were almost an optimum design. Clumsy and
stupid,  with   crews  of   dozens,  but  they  kept   on  working.  Already
Ølvira  was  lagging   five  light-years  behind  them.  It  was  the
freighters that  would make the attack on the Alliance fleet. And once again
Kjet would stand powerless while his friends died.
     For  the  hundredth time, Svensndot  glared at  the  trace  display and
contemplated  mutiny.   There   were  Alliance   stragglers  too   --  "high
performance" vehicles  left behind the central pack. But his orders were  to
maintain position,  to be a  tactical coordinator  for  the  fleet's swifter
combatants. Well, he would do as he  was hired  ... this  one last time. But
when  the battle  was  done,  when the  fleet was dead, with as  many of the
Alliance that they  could take with  them -- then  he would think of his own
revenge. Some of that depended on Tirolle and  Glimfrelle. Could he persuade
them to leave the remnants of  the Alliance fleet and  ascend to the  Middle
Beyond, up where the Ølvira was  the best of her kind? There was good
evidence now  about which star  systems  were behind  the "Alliance  for the
Defense". The  murderers were boasting  to the news. Apparently they thought
that  would bring them  new support.  It might also bring them visitors like
Ølvira. The bombs  in  her belly could destroy  worlds, though not as
swiftly sure as what had been used  on Sjandra Kei. And even now Svensndot's
mind shrank from that  sort of revenge.  No. They would choose their targets
carefully: ships coming to form new Alliance fleets, underprotected convoys.
Ølvira might  last  a long time  if he always struck from  ambush and
never left  survivors.  He stared and stared at the display, and ignored the
wetness that floated at the corners of his eyes. All  his life, he had lived
by  the  law. Often his  job had been to  stop acts of  revenge....  And now
revenge was all that life had left for him.
     "I'm  getting  something  peculiar,  Kjet." Glimfrelle  was  monitoring
signals this watch. It was the sort  of thing that should  have been totally
automated -- and had been in  Ølvira's natural environment, but which
was now a boring and exhausting enterprise.
     "What? More Net lies?" said Tirolle.
     "No. This is on the bearing  of that bottom-lugger everyone is chasing.
It can't be anyone else."
     Svensndot's  eyebrows  rose.  He turned  on the  mystery with enormous,
scarcely realized, pleasure. "Characteristics?"
     "Ship's signal processor says it's  probably a narrow beam. We  are its
only  likely  target.  The signal is  strong  and the bandwidth  is at least
enough  to  support flat video. If our snarfling DSP was working right,  I'd
know --  " 'Frelle sang a little song that was  impatient humming among  his
kind. "-- Iiae! It's encrypted, but at a high layer. This stuff is syntax 45
video. In fact, it claims to be using one third of a cipher the Company made
a  year  back." For an  instant, Svensndot thought 'Frelle  was claiming the
message  itself was smart; that should be  absolutely impossible here at the
Bottom. The second officer must have caught his look: "Just sloppy language,
Boss.  I  read  this  out of the frame  format...." Something flashed on his
display. "Okay, here's the story on the cipher:  the Company made it and its
peers to  cover shipping security." Back  before the Alliance, that had been
the  highest crypto level in the organization. "This is the third that never
got delivered.  The whole  was assumed compromised, but miracle of miracles,
we  still have a copy."  Both 'Frelle and  'Rolle were looking at  Svensndot
expectantly,  their eyes large and dark.  Standard policy -- standard orders
--  were that transmissions on compromised  keys were to be  ignored. If the
Company's  signals people had been  doing a  proper job, the  rotted  cipher
wouldn't even have been aboard and the policy would have enforced itself.
     "Decrypt the  thing,"  Svensndot  said  shortly.  The  last  weeks  had
demonstrated that his company was a dismal failure when  it came to military
intelligence  and  signals.  They  might as well get some benefit  from that
     "Yes  sir!"  Glimfrelle   tapped  a   single  key.   Somewhere   inside
Ølvira's signal  processor,  a  long  segment  of  "random" noise was
broken into frames and laid precisely down on the "random" noise in the data
frames incoming. There  was a  perceptible pause (damn the  Bottom) and then
the comm window lit with a flat video picture.
     "-- fourth repetition of this message." The words were Samnorsk, and  a
dialect  of  pure Herte  i Sjandra. The speaker  was ... for a heartstopping
instant he was seeing Ølvira again, alive. He  exhaled slowly, trying
to  relax.  Black-haired, slim,  violet-eyed -- just like Ølvira. And
just like a million other  women of  Sjandra Kei. The resemblance was there,
but so vague he would never have been taken by it before.  For an instant he
imagined a universe  beyond  their lost fleet, and  goals  beyond vengeance.
Then he forced his attention back to business, to seeing everything he could
in the images in the window.
     The  woman  was saying, "We'll repeat  three more times. If by then you
have  still not responded, we  will  attempt a different target." She pushed
back  from  the camera pickup, giving them a view of the room behind her. It
was  low-ceilinged,  deep.  An   ultradrive  trace  display   dominated  the
background,  but  Svensndot  paid  it  little  attention.   There  were  two
Skroderiders in  the background. One wore stripes on its skrode that meant a
trade history with Sjandra Kei. The other must be a lesser Rider; its skrode
was  small  and wheelless. The pickup turned, centered on the fourth figure.
Human? Probably, but of no Nyjoran heritage. In another time, his appearance
would have  been big news across  all human civilizations in the Beyond. Now
the  point  only  registered  on  Svensndot's  mind  as  another  cause  for
     The woman continued,  "You can see that we are human  and Rider. We are
the entire crew of the Out of Band II. We are not part of  the Alliance  for
the  Defense nor agents of the Blight.... But we are the reason their fleets
are down here. If you  can read this, we're betting that you  are of Sjandra
Kei. We must talk. Please reply using the tail of the pad that is decrypting
this  message."  The  picture jigged  and the woman's  face  was back in the
foreground. "This is the fifth repetition of this message," she said. "We'll
repeat two more -- "
     Glimfrelle  cut the  audio. "If she means it, we have about one hundred
seconds. What next, Captain?"
     Suddenly the Ølvira was not an irrelevant  straggler. "We talk,"
said Svensndot.

     Response and counter-response took a matter  of seconds. After that ...
five minutes  of conversation  with  Ravna Bergsndot was enough  to convince
Kjet that what she had to say must be heard by Fleet Central. His ship would
be a mere relay, but at least he had something very important to pass on.
     Fleet Central refused the full video  link coming from the Out of Band.
Someone on the flagship was dead set on following standard procedures -- and
using compromised cipher keys stuck  in their craw. Even Kjet  had to settle
for  a combat link: The screen  showed a  color  image with high resolution.
Looking at  it carefully, one  realized  the thing was a poor  evocation....
Kjet recognized Owner Limmende and Jan Skrits, her chief  of staff, but they
looked several years out of style. Ølvira was matching old video with
the  transmitted animation cues. The  actual  communication channel was less
that four thousand bits per second; Central was taking no chances.
     God only knew what they were seeing as the evocation of Pham Nuwen. The
smokey-skinned human had already explained his point several  times. He  was
having as little success as Ravna Bergsndot  before him. His cool manner had
gradually deserted him.  Desperation was beginning to  show on his face. "--
and I'm telling  you,  they are  both your enemies.  Sure,  Alliance for the
Defense  destroyed  Sjandra  Kei,  but  the  Blight is responsible  for  the
situation that made that possible."
     The  half-cartoonish figure  of  Jan Skrits glanced  at Owner Limmende.
Lord, evocations  are crappy at the  Bottom,  Svensndot thought to  himself.
When Skrits spoke, his voice  didn't  even  match his lip movements: "We  do
read  Threats, Mr.  Nuwen. The threat of the Blight was used as an excuse to
destroy our worlds.  We will  not go  on  random  killing sprees, especially
against an organization  that is clearly the  enemy of our  enemy.... Or are
you  claiming the  Blight is  secretly in league with  the  Alliance for the
     Pham  gave an angry  shrug. "No. I have no idea how the  Blight regards
the Alliance. But you should know the evil the Blight has been up to, things
on a scale far grander than this 'Alliance'."
     "Ah yes. That's what  it  says  on the Net, Mr. Nuwen. But those events
are thousands  of  light-years away. They've  been through multiple hops and
unknown interpretations before they ever arrive in the Middle Beyond -- even
if  the stories  were true to  begin with. It  is  not  called the  Net of a
Million Lies for nothing."
     The  stranger's face darkened. He said something loud and angry,  in  a
language that was totally unlike anything from Nyjora. The  tones  jumped up
and down, almost like Dirokime twittering. He calmed himself with a  visible
effort,  but when  he continued his Samnorsk was  even more heavily accented
than  before. "Yes.  But  I'm telling you. I was at  the Fall of Relay.  The
Blight is more  than the worst  horrors you've heard. The  murder of Sjandra
Kei  was its smallest  side-effect. Will you  help us  against  the Blighter
     Owner Limmende pushed her massive form back into her chair webbing. She
looked  at her  chief  of  staff and the two talked  inaudibly. Kjet's  gaze
drifted beyond them; the flagship's  command deck  extended  a dozen  meters
behind  Limmende.  Underofficers  moved quietly  about,  some  watching  the
conversation. The picture was crisp and clear, but when the figures moved it
was with cartoonlike awkwardness. And some of the  faces  belonged to people
Kjet  knew had  been  transferred  before  the  fall  of  Sjandra  Kei.  The
processors here on the Ølvira were taking the narrow-band signal from
Fleet  Central, fleshing it out  with detailed (and  out of date) background
and  evoking  the  image  shown. No  more  evocations  after this, Svensndot
promised himself, at least while we're down here.
     Owner Limmende looked  back at the camera. "Forgive a paranoid old cop,
but I think it's possible that you might be of  the Blight." Limmende raised
her hand  as if  to  ward off interruptions, but the  redhead  just gaped in
surprise. "If we  believe  you,  then we must accept that there is something
useful  and  dangerous  on  the  star  system  we're  all  heading  towards.
Furthermore, we  must  accept  that both you and  the  'Blighter  fleet' are
peculiarly  qualified to take advantage of  this prize. If we fight  them as
you ask, there will  likely  be few  of us alive  afterwards. You alone will
have the prize. We fear what you might turn out to be."
     For a long moment, Pham Nuwen  was silent. The wildness slowly left his
face. "You  have  a  point, Owner Limmende. And a dilemma. Is  there any way
     "Skrits and  I have been discussing it.  No  matter what we do, both we
and you  must  take big chances.... It's only the alternatives that are more
terrible. We are  willing to  accept  your guidance in  battle,  if you will
first maneuver your ship back toward us and allow us to board."
     "Give up the lead in this chase, you mean?"
     Limmende nodded.
     Pham's mouth opened and  closed, but  no words emerged. He seemed to be
having trouble breathing. Ravna said, "Then if you don't succeed, everything
is lost. At least  now, we  have a sixty-hour lead. That might be enough  to
get word out about this artifact, even if the Blighter fleet survives."
     Skrits' face twisted, a cartoonish smile. "You can't have it both ways.
You want  us to  risk everything  on your  assurance  of  competence. We are
willing to die for this,  but  not to be  pawns in  a game of monsters." The
last words had  a  strange tone, the angry delivery shading away. There  had
been no motion in the picture from Fleet Central except for  ill-synched lip
movement.  Glimfrelle  caught  Svensndot's  eye and pointed  at  the failure
lights on his comm panel.
     Skrits' voice continued,  "And Group Captain Svensndot: It's imperative
that all  further communications with this unknown vessel be channeled  -- "
the image froze, and there were no more words.
     Ravna: "What happened?"
     Glimfrelle made  a twitter-snort.  "We're  losing the  link  with Fleet
Central. Our  effective bandwidth is  down to  twenty  bits  per second, and
dropping. Skrits' last transmission was scarcely a hundred bits," padded out
to apparent legibility by the Ølvira's software.
     Kjet waved angrily at the screen. "Cut the damn thing off." At least he
wouldn't have to put up with the evocation  any further. And he didn't  want
to hear what he guessed was Jan Skrits' last order.
     Tirolle  said,  "Hei, why  not leave it  on?  We  might not notice much
difference."   Glimfrelle's  snickered  at   his   brother's  wit,  but  his
longfingers danced across the comm panel, and the display became a window on
the stars. The two Dirokimes had a thing about bureaucrats.
     Svensndot  ignored  them and looked at the  remaining  comm window. The
channel   to  Pham   and  Ravna  was  wideband  video  with   scarcely   any
interpretation;  there would  be no  perverse  subtleties if  it  went down.
"Sorry about that. The last few days, we've had a lot of problems with comm.
Apparently,  this Zone storm is  the  worst  in centuries." In fact,  it was
getting still worse:  the  starboard ultratrace displays were showing random
     "You've lost contact with your command?" asked Ravna.
     "For the moment...." He glanced at Pham. The redhead's eyes were  still
a bit glassy.  "Look ... I'm  even more sorry about  how things  have turned
out, but Limmende and  Skrits are bright people. You  can see their point of
     "Strange,"  interrupted Pham. "The pictures were strange," his tone was
     "You mean our relay from  Fleet Central?" Svensndot explained about the
narrow  bandwidth  and  the crummy performance of his ship's processors down
here at the Bottom.
     "And  so their  picture of us must have been equally  bad.... I  wonder
what they thought I was?"
     "Unh ..."  Good  question.  Consider  Pham  Nuwen:  bristly  red  hair,
smoke-gray skin, singsong voice. If cues  such as  those were sent, like  as
not the display  at Fleet Central would show something quite  different from
the human Kjet saw. "... wait a minute.  That's not how evocations work. I'm
sure  they  got a pretty clear view of you. See, a few  high-resolution pics
would get sent at the beginning of the session. Then those  would be used as
the base for the animation."
     Pham  stared back lumpishly, almost as though he didn't buy it and  was
daring Kjet to think  things  through. Well  damn it,  the  explanation  was
correct; there was no doubt that Limmende and Skrits had seen the redhead as
a human. Yet there was something here that bothered  Kjet  ...  Limmende and
Skrits had both looked out of date.
     "Glimfrelle! Check the raw stream we got from Central. Did they send us
any sync pictures?"
     It took Glimfrelle only seconds. He whistled a  sharp tone of surprise.
"No,  Boss. And since it  was all properly encrypted,  our end just made  do
with old ad animation." He said something to Tirolle, and the two  twittered
rapidly.  "Nothing seems to work down here. Maybe this is just another bug."
But Glimfrelle didn't sound very confident of the assertion.
     Svensndot turned back  to the  picture from the Out of Band. "Look. The
channel  to Fleet  Central  was  fully encrypted, using one- time  schemes I
trust  more than  what  we're  talking  with now. I  can't believe it  was a
masquerade." But nausea was creeping up Kjet's guts. This was like the first
minutes of the Battle for Sjandra  Kei, when  he guessed how thoroughly they
had been outmaneuvered, when he  realized  that everyone  he  was  trying to
protect  would be murdered. "Hei, we'll contact other vessels.  We'll verify
Central's location -- "
     Pham Nuwen raised an eyebrow. "Maybe it wasn't a masquerade." Before he
could say more, one of the Riders -- the one with  the greater skrode -- was
shouting at them. It rolled across the room's  apparent ceiling, pushing the
humans aside  to get close  to the camera. "I  have a question!"  The  voder
speech was  burred, nearly unintelligible. The creature's  tendrils  rattled
dryly against each other, as  distressed as Kjet  Svensndot  had ever heard.
"My question: Are there Skroderiders aboard your fleet's command vessel?"
     "Why do you -- "
     "Answer the question!"
     "How should I know?" Kjet tried to think. "Tirolle. You have friends on
Skrits' staff. Are there any Riders aboard?"
     Tirolle stuttered a few bars, "A'a'a'a. Yes. Emergency hires -- rescues
actually -- right after the battle."
     "That's the best we can do, friend."
     The Skroderider trembled, unspeaking. Then its tendrils seemed to wilt.
"Thank you," it said softly. It rolled back and out of camera range.
     Pham Nuwen  disappeared  from  view. Ravna looked wildly around,  "Wait
please!"  she said to  the  camera,  and Kjet  was looking  at the abandoned
command deck of  the Out of Band. At the limit of the  pickup's hearing came
sounds of mumbled conversation, voder and human. Then she was back.
     "What was that all about?" Svensndot to Ravna.
     "N-Nothing any of us  can  help anymore.... Captain Svensndot, it looks
to me like your fleet is no longer run by the people you think."
     "Maybe." Probably. "It's something I've got to think about."
     She  nodded. For  a  moment they looked at  each  other, unspeaking. So
strange, so far from home and after all the heartbreak ... to see someone so
familiar. "You were  truly  at  Relay?" the question sounded stupid  in  his
ears. Yet in  a way she was  a  bridge from what he knew and  trusted to the
deadly weirdness of the present situation.
     Ravna Bergsndot nodded.  "Yes  ... and it  was like  everything  you've
read. We even had direct contact with a Power.... And yet it was not enough,
Group Captain.  The Blight  destroyed it  all. That part  of the  News is no
     Tirolle pushed back from his nav station. "Then how can anything you do
down here hurt  the Blight?" The words  were  blunt, but  'Rolle's eyes were
wide and serious.  In  fact, he was  pleading  for some sense behind all the
death.  Dirokimes  had  not  been  the  greatest part  of  the  Sjandra  Kei
civilization,  but  they had been  by far its  oldest member race. A million
years ago they had burst out  of the Slow Zone, colonizing the three systems
that humans one  day would call Sjandra Kei. Long before the humans arrived,
they were a race of inward dreamers. They protected their star  systems with
ancient automation  and friendly younger races.  Another  half million years
and  their race  might  be gone from  the  Beyond,  extinct or evolved  into
something else.  It  was a common pattern, something like death and old age,
but gentler.
     There is  a common misconception about such senescent races, that their
members are senescent too. In any large population, there will be variation.
There will always be  those who want to see the outside world and play there
for a while. Humankind had gotten  on very well with the likes of Glimfrelle
and Tirolle.
     And  Bergsndot  seemed  to  understand.  "Have  any  of  you  heard  of
     Kjet said,  "No," then noticed  that both Dirokimes had  started.  They
whistled at each other for several seconds in some kind of surprise dialect.
"Yes," 'Rolle  spoke at last in Samnorsk, his voice  as close to awe as Kjet
had ever heard. "You know we Dirokimes have  been in the Beyond for  a  long
time.  We've sent many colonies into the Transcend;  some  became Powers....
And  once ... Something came back. It wasn't a Power of course.  In fact, it
was  more like a mind- crippled Dirokime. But it knew things and  did things
that made great changes for us."
     "Fentrollar?"  Kjet asked wonderingly,  suddenly recognizing the story.
It  had happened  one  hundred  thousand years  before  humankind arrived at
Sjandra Kei, yet it was a central contradiction of the Dirokime terranes.
     "Yes." Tirolle said. "Even now  people  don't agree if Fentrollar was a
gift or a curse, but he founded the dream habitats and the Old Religion."
     Ravna  nodded,  "That's  the case most familiar  to us  of Sjandra Kei.
Maybe it's not a happy example considering all its effects...." and she told
them  about the fall of Relay, what had  happened to Old  One,  and what had
become of Pham Nuwen. The Dirokimes side chat dwindled to zero and they were
very still.
     Finally Kjet said,  "So what does Nu--  " he stumbled over the name, as
strange  as everything  else about this  fellow, "Nuwen know about the thing
you seek at the Bottom? What can he do with it?"
     "I-I don't  know,  Group Captain.  Pham Nuwen  himself  doesn't know. A
little bit  at a time, the insight comes. I believe, because I was there for
some  of it ...  but  I don't know  how to  make you  believe."  She  drew a
shuddering breath. Kjet suddenly guessed what a strange, tortured  place the
Out of Band must be. Somehow  that made  the  story more  credible. Anything
that really  could  destroy the  Blight would  be unwholesomely  weird. Kjet
wondered how he would do, locked up with such a thing.
     "My Lady Ravna," he said, the words  stilted and formal. After all, I'm
suggesting treason. "I, uh, I've got a number  of friends in  the Commercial
Security fleet.  I can check on the suspicions  you've raised, and  ..." say
it! "it's possible we can give you support in spite of my HQ."
     "Thank you, sir. Thank you."
     Glimfrelle broke the silence. "We're getting a  poor signal on  the Out
of Band's channel now."
     Kjet  eyes swept  the windows. All the  ultratrace displays looked like
random noise. Whatever this storm was, it was bad.
     "Looks like we won't be talking much longer, Ravna Bergsndot."
     "Yes.  We're losing signal.... Group Captain, if none of this works, if
you can't fight for us.... Your people are all that's  left of  Sjandra Kei.
It's  been  good  to see you  and  the Dirokimes....  after so long  to  see
familiar  faces, people I really  understand. I -- " as she spoke, her image
square-blurred into low-frequency components.
     "Huui!"  said Glimfrelle.  "Bandwidth just dropped through  the floor."
There was nothing sophisticated about  their link to the Out of Band.  Given
communications  problems,  the ship's  processors just  switched to low-rate
     "Hello, Out of Band. We've got problems on this channel now. Suggest we
sign off."
     The window turned gray, and printed Samnorsk flickered across it:

     Yes. It is more than a communicati

     Glimfrelle diddled his comm panel. "Zip. Zero," he said. "No detectable
     Tirolle looked up from his navigation  tank. "This is a lot more than a
communications problem.  Our  computers haven't been able to  commit  on  an
ultradrive jump in more than twenty seconds." They had been doing five jumps
a second, and just over a light-year per hour. Now....
     Glimfrelle  leaned back from  his panel. "Hei -- so welcome to the Slow

     The Slow Zone. Ravna  Bergsndot looked  across  the deck of the  Out of
Band II. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had  always had a  vision of
the Slowness as a stifling darkness lit  at best by torches, the  domain  of
cretins and  mechanical  calculators.  In  fact,  things  didn't  look  much
different from before.  The ceilings  and walls  glowed just as before.  The
stars still shone  through  the windows  (only now, it might be  a very long
time before any of them moved).
     It was  on the  OOB's other  displays that the change was most obvious.
The  ultratrace tank blinked monotonously,  a red legend displaying  elapsed
time  since the last update. Navigation windows were filled with output from
the diagnostics  exercising  the drive  processors.  An  audible message  in
Triskweline was repeating over and over,  "Warning.  Transition  to Slowness
detected. Execute  back  jump  at  once!  Warning.  Transition  to  Slowness
detected. Execute...."
     "Turn that off!" Ravna grabbed a saddle and  strapped herself down. She
was  actually  feeling dizzy,  though  that could  only be  (a very natural)
panic. "Some bottom lugger this is. We run right into the Slow Zone, and all
it can do is spout warnings after the fact!"
     Greenstalk  drifted  closer,  "tiptoeing"  off  the  ceiling  with  her
tendrils. "Even bottom luggers can't avoid things like this, My Lady Ravna"
     Pham said something at the ship and most of the displays cleared.
     Blueshell: "Even a huge Zone  storm doesn't normally extend more than a
few light-years.  We were two hundred light-years above the  Zone  boundary.
What hit  us  must be a monster surge, the sort of thing you only read about
in archives."
     Small  consolation.  "We knew something  like this could  happen," Pham
said.  "Things have  been  getting awfully rough the last few weeks." For  a
change, he didn't seem too upset.
     "Yes," she said. "We expected a slowing  maybe, but  not The Slowness."
We  are  trapped. "Where's the  nearest habitable  system?  Ten light-years?
Fifty?" The vision  of darkness had a new reality, and the  starscape beyond
the  ship's walls was no longer a friendly,  steadying thing. Surrounded  by
unending nothingness, moving  at  some  vanishing  fraction  of the speed of
light  ... entombed.  All the courage  of Kjet Svensndot  and his fleet, for
nothing. Jefri Olsndot, forever unrescued.
     Pham's hand touched her shoulder,  the first touch in ... days? "We can
still make it to the Tines' world. This is a bottom lugger, remember? We are
not trapped. Hell, the ramscoop on this buggy is better than anything I ever
had in the Qeng Ho. And I thought I was the freest  man in the universe back
     Decades of travel time, mostly in coldsleep. Such had been the world of
the Qeng Ho, the world of Pham's memories. Ravna let out a shuddering breath
that ended in  weak laughter. For Pham, the terrible pressure was abated, at
least temporarily. He could be human.
     "What's so funny?" said Pham.
     She shook her head. "All of us. Never mind."  She took a couple of slow
breaths. "Okay. I think I  can make rational conversation.  So the  Zone has
surged. Something that normally takes a thousand years -- even in a storm --
to  move a  single  light-year,  has  suddenly  shifted  two  hundred. Hunh!
There'll be people  a  million years  from  now reading  about  this in  the
archives. I'm not sure I want the honor.... We knew there was a storm, but I
never expected to be drowned," buried light-years deep beneath the sea.
     "The sea storm analogy is not perfect," said Blueshell. The Skroderider
was  still  on  the far side  of the  deck,  where  he  had  retreated after
questioning the  Sjandra Kei  captain. He still looked upset,  though he was
back  to sounding precise  and picky. Blueshell was  studying a nav display,
evidently a recording from right before the surge. He  dumped the picture to
a  display  flat  and  rolled  slowly  across  the  ceiling   toward   them.
Greenstalk's fronds brushed him gently as he passed.
     He  sailed the  display  flat  into  Ravna's  hands, and continued in a
lecturing tone. "Even in a sea storm, the water's surface is never as roiled
as in a big interface disturbance. The most recent News reports showed it as
a fractal surface with dimension close to  three.... Like  foam  and spray."
Even he could not avoid the storm analogy. The starscapes hung serene beyond
crystal walls,  and the loudest  sound was a  faint breeze from  the  ship's
ventilators.  Yet  they had been swallowed in a maelstrom. Blueshell waved a
frond at the display flat. "We could be back in the Beyond in a few hours."
     "See. The plane of  the display is determined by  the  positions of the
supposed  Sjandra Kei command vessel, the outflying craft that  we contacted
directly, and  ourselves." The three  formed a narrow triangle, the Limmende
and Svensndot vertices close  together. "I've marked the times that  contact
was lost with the others.  Notice: the link  to  Commercial Security HQ went
down 150  seconds before  we were  hit. From  the  incoming  signal and  its
requests for protocol changes, I believe that both we and the  outflyer were
enveloped and at about the same time."
     Pham nodded. "Yeah.  The  most distant sites losing contact last.  That
must mean the surge moved in from the side."
     "Exactly!" From his perch on the ceiling, Blueshell  reached to tap the
display. "The three  ships were  like  probes in the  standard Zone  mapping
technique.   Replaying   the  trace  displays  will  no  doubt  confirm  the
     Ravna looked at  the plot. The long point of the triangle -- tipped  by
the OOB -- pointed almost directly toward the  heart of the galaxy. "It must
have been a huge, clifflike thing perpendicular to the rest of the surface."
     "A monster  wave sweeping sideways!" said Greenstalk.  "And that's also
why it won't last long."
     "Yes. It's the radial changes that are most often long term. This thing
must  have a  trailing edge. We should pass through it in a few hours -- and
back into the Beyond."
     So there was still a race to be won or lost.

     The first  hours  were strange.  "A  few  hours," had  been Blueshell's
estimate  of when they  would  be back in the  Beyond.  They hung around the
bridge,  alternately  watching  the clock  and  stewing  about  the  strange
conversations  just completed.  Pham  was  building  himself back to trigger
tension. Any time now, they would be back in the Beyond. What to do then? If
only a few ships were perverted, perhaps Svensndot could still coordinate an
attack. Would that do any good? Pham  played the ultratrace recordings  over
and over, studying every detectable ship in all the fleets. "But when we get
out, when we get out ... I'll know what  to do. Not why I  must  do it,  but
what." And he couldn't explain more.
     Any  time  now....  There  was  scarcely  any reason  to do much  about
resetting equipment that would need another initialization right away.
     But after eight hours: "It really  could be  longer, even a  day." They
had been scrounging around in the historical literature. "Maybe we should do
a little housekeeping." The Out of Band  II had  been designed for  both the
Beyond  and  the Slowness, but that second environment  was  regarded  as an
unlikely, emergency one. There were  special-purpose processors for the Slow
Zone, but they hadn't  come  up automatically. With Blueshell's advice, Pham
took  the high-performance automation  off-line; that wasn't too  difficult,
except  for  a couple of  voice-actuated  independents that  were no  longer
bright enough to understand the quitting commands.
     Using the  new automation gave Ravna a chill that, in a subtle way, was
almost as frightening as the original loss  of the ultradrive.  Her image of
the Slowness as darkness and torchlight -- that was  just nightmare fantasy.
On the other  hand,  the Slowness as  the  domain  of cretins and mechanical
calculators, there was something to that. The OOB's performance had degraded
steadily during  their  voyage  to  the Bottom, but  now  ... Gone  were the
voice-driven graphics  generators; they were just  a  bit too complex to  be
supported by the  new OOB, at least in full interpretive mode. Gone were the
intelligent  context analyzers  that  made  the  ship's  library  almost  as
accessible as one's own memories. Eventually, Ravna even turned off  the art
and  music  units; without mood  and context response, they seemed so wooden
... constant reminders that  there  were no  brains  behind  them. Even  the
simplest things were  corrupted. Take voice and  gesture  controls:  They no
longer responded consistently to sarcasm and casual slang. It took a certain
discipline to use them effectively. (Pham  actually seemed to  like this. It
reminded him of the Qeng Ho.)
     Twenty  hours. Fifty. Everyone was  still telling each other there  was
nothing to worry about. But now Blueshell said that talk of "hours" had been
unrealistic. Considering the  height of the  "tsunami" (at least two hundred
light-years), it  would likely be several hundred light-years across -- that
in keeping with the scaling laws of historical precedent. There was only one
trouble with  this reasoning: they were beyond all precedent.  For  the most
part, zone boundaries followed galactic mean density. There was virtually no
change from year to year,  just the aeons' long shrinkage that might someday
-- after the death of all but the smallest stars -- expose the galactic core
to  the Beyond. At any given  time, perhaps one billionth  of  that boundary
might qualify as being in a "storm state". In an ordinary storm, the surface
might move in or out a light-year in a decade or so. Such storms were common
enough to affect the fortunes of many worlds every year.
     Much rarer --  perhaps once in a hundred thousand  years  in the  whole
galaxy  --  there would  be a  storm where  the  boundary  became  seriously
distorted, and  where surges might move  at a high multiple  of light speed.
These were  the transverse surges that  Pham and  Blueshell made their scale
estimates from. The fastest moved at about a light-year per second, across a
distance of less than three lights; the largest were thirty light-years high
and moved at scarcely a light-year per day.
     So  what was known  of  monsters like the thing that had engulfed them?
Not much. Third-hand stories in the Ship's library told of surges perhaps as
big  as theirs, but the  quoted dimensions  and  propagation  rates were not
clear.  Stories  more than a hundred million  years  old are hard to  trust;
there are scarcely any intermediate languages. (And  even if there were,  it
wouldn't have  helped. The new, dumb version of the OOB absolutely could not
do  mechanical translation  of natural languages. Dredging the  library  was
     When Ravna  complained about this to  Pham,  he said, "Things  could be
worse. What was the Ur-Partition really?"
     Five billion years ago. "No one's sure."
     Pham jerked a thumb at his library display. "Some people think it was a
'super supersurge', you know. Something so big it  swallowed  the races that
might  have recorded it.  Sometimes the biggest disasters  aren't noticed at
all -- no one's around to write horror stories."

     "I'm  sorry, Ravna.  Honestly,  if  we're in  anything like  most  past
disasters, we'll come out of it in another day or two. The best thing is  to
plan  for things that way. This is like  a  'time-out' in the  battle.  Take
advantage  of  it  to  have  a little  peace.  Figure  out  how to  get  the
unperverted parts of Commercial Security to help us."
     "... Yeah." Depending on the shape of the surge's trailing edge the OOB
might have lost a good part of its lead....  But I'll bet the Alliance fleet
is completely panicked by  all this. Such opportunists  would likely run for
safety as soon as they're back in the Beyond.
     The advice kept her busy  for  another twenty hours, fighting  with the
half-witted  things  that claimed to be strategy planners on the new version
of  the OOB. Even if the  surge passed right  this instant, it might  be too
late. There were players in this game for whom the surge was not a time-out:
Jefri Olsndot  and his Tinish allies.  It had been seventy  hours  now since
their last contact; Ravna had missed three  comm sessions with  them. If she
were panicked, what must be like for Jefri? Even if Steel could hold off his
enemies, time -- and trust -- would be running out at Tines' world.
     One hundred hours into the surge, Ravna noticed that Blueshell and Pham
were doing power tests  on the OOB's ramscoop drive.... Some  time-outs last

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     The summer hot spell  broke  for a time; in fact, it was almost chilly.
There was still the smoke and  the  air was still dry, but the  winds seemed
less driven. Inside their  cubby aboard the  ship, Amdijefri weren't  taking
much notice of the nice weather.
     "They've  been slow in answering  before," said Amdi. "She's  explained
how the ultrawave -- "
     "Ravna's never  been this late!" Not  since the winter, anyway. Jefri's
tone hovered between fear and petulance. In fact, there was supposed to be a
transmission  in the middle of the night, technical data for them to pass on
to Mr. Steel. It hadn't  arrived  by this  morning, and  now Ravna  had also
missed their afternoon session, the time when normally they  could just chat
for a bit.
     The two children reviewed  all the  comm  settings. The previous  fall,
they had laboriously copied  those  and the first level diagnostics.  It all
looked  the same  now ... except  for something  called "carrier detect". If
only they had a dataset, they might have looked up what that meant.
     They had even very carefully reset some of the comm parameters ... then
nervously set them back when nothing happened. Maybe  they  hadn't given the
changes  enough  of  a  chance to  work.  Maybe now  they  had really messed
something up.
     They stayed in the command cubby all through the afternoon, their minds
cycling  trough fear and boredom and  frustration. After four hours, boredom
had at least a temporary victory. Jefri was napping uneasily in his father's
hammock with two of Amdi curled up in his arms.
     Amdi poked idly around the room, looked at the rocket controls.  No ...
not even his self-confidence  was  up to playing with those. Another of  him
jerked at  the  wall quilting. He could  always watch the fungus grow for  a
while. Things were that slow.
     Actually, the gray stuff had spread a lot further than the last time he
looked. Behind the quilt, it was  quite thick.  He sent a  chain of  himself
squirreling  back  between  the wall and the fabric. It was  dark,  but some
light  spilled  through the gap at the ceiling. In most  places the mold was
scarcely an  inch thick, but back here it was five or six -- wow. Just above
his exploring nose, a huge lump of it grew from the wall. This was as big as
some  of  the ornamental moss that decorated  castle meeting halls.  Slender
gray filaments grew down from the fungus. He almost called out to Jefri, but
the two of him in the hammock were so comfortable.
     He brought  a couple more  heads  close  to  the  strangeness. The wall
behind it looked a little odd, too  ... as though part of its substance  had
been  taken  by the  mold. And  the  gray itself: like  smoke -- he felt the
filaments with his nose.  They were solid, dry. His nose tickled. Amdi froze
in shocked surprise. Watching  himself from behind, he saw  that  two of the
filaments had  actually  passed through his member's head! And yet there was
no pain, just that tickling feeling.
     "What -- what?" Jefri had been jostled into wakefulness, as Amdi tensed
around him.
     "I found  something  really strange, behind  the quilts. I touched this
big hunk of fungus and -- "
     As he spoke,  Amdi gently backed away from thing on the wall. The touch
didn't hurt,  but  it  made him  more  nervous than  curious.  He  felt  the
filaments sliding slowly out.
     "I told you,  we aren't  supposed  to play with that stuff. It's dirty.
The only good thing is, it  doesn't smell." Jefri was out of the hammock. He
stepped across the cubby and lifted the quilting. Amdi's tip member lost its
balance  and jerked away from the fungus. There was a  snapping sound, and a
sharp pain in his lip.
     "Geez,  that thing is big!" Then,  hearing  Amdi's  pain whistle,  "You
     Amdi backed  away from  the  wall.  "I think  so." The tip  of one last
filament was still stuck  in his lip. It didn't hurt as much  as the nettles
he'd sampled a few days earlier. Amdijefri looked over the wound.  What  was
left  of  the smoky spine seemed hard  and brittle.  Jefri's fingers  gently
worked  it free. Then the  two of  them turned to wonder at the thing in the
     "It really has spread. Looks like it's hurt the wall, too."
     Amdi dabbed  at his bloodied  muzzle. "Yeah. I  see why your folks told
you to stay away from it."
     "Maybe we should have Mr. Steel scrub it all out."
     The two spent half an hour crawling around behind all the quilting. The
grayness had spread  far,  but there  was only  the one marvelous flowering.
They  came back to stare at it, even  sticking articles of clothing into the
wisps. Neither risked fingers or noses on further contact.
     Staring at the fungus on the  wall was by  far the most exciting  thing
that happened that afternoon; there was no message from the OOB.
     The next day the hot weather was back.
     Two more days passed.... and still there was no word from Ravna.

     Lord Steel paced  the walls atop Starship Hill. It was near the  middle
of the night,  and  the sun hung about fifteen degrees  above  the  northern
horizon. Sweat filmed his fur; this was the warmest summer in ten years. The
drywind was into its  thirtieth dayaround.  It was no longer a welcome break
in the  chill  of the  northland. The  crops were dying in the fields. Smoke
from fjord fires was visible as  brownish  haze both north and  south of the
castle. At first the reddish color had been a novelty, a welcome change from
the unending blue of sky and distance, and the whitish haze of the sea fogs.
Only  at first. When fire  struck East Streamsdell, the entire sky  had been
dipped in red. Ash had rained all the dayaround, and the only smell had been
that of burning. Some said it was worse than the  filthy air of the southern
     The troops on the walls backed far out of his  way.  This was more than
courtesy, more  than their fear of Steel.  His troops were still not used to
the cloaked ones, and the cover story  Shreck  was  spreading did nothing to
ease their minds: Lord Steel was accompanied by a singleton -- in the colors
of a Lord. The creature made no mind  sounds. It  walked incredibly close to
its master.
     Steel  said  to  the  singleton,  "Success  is a  matter of  meeting  a
schedule. I remember you teaching me that," cutting it into me, in fact.
     The member looked back at him, cocked its head.  "As I remember, I said
that success was a  matter  of adapting to changes in  schedules." The words
were  perfectly articulated. There were singletons that could talk that well
-- but even  the  most verbal  could not  carry on intelligent conversation.
Shreck had  had no trouble  convincing the troops that Flenser  science  had
created a  race  of superpacks, that the  cloaked ones  were individually as
smart as any ordinary pack.  It was a good cover for  what the cloaks really
were. It both inspired fear and obscured the truth.
     The member stepped a little  closer -- nearer to  Steel than anyone had
been  except  during  murders  and  rapes  and  the  beatings of  the  past.
Involuntarily, Steel  licked his lips and spread out from around the threat.
Yet in some ways the dark-cloaked  one was like a corpse, without a trace of
mind sound. Steel snapped his  jaws shut  and  said, "Yes. The  genius is in
winning even when the  schedules  have fallen down the garderobe." He looked
all  away  from the Flenser member  and scanned  the  red-shrouded  southern
horizon. "What's the latest estimate of Woodcarver's progress?"
     "She's still camped about five days southeast of here."
     "The  damned incompetent.  It's  hard  to believe  she's  your  parent!
Vendacious made things so easy  for her; her soldiers  and toy cannon should
have been here almost a tenday past -- "
     "And been well-butchered, on schedule."
     "Yes! Long  before our sky friends arrived. Instead, she wanders inland
and then balks."
     The Flenser member shrugged in its dark cloak. Steel knew the radio was
as heavy as it looked. It consoled him that the other was paying a price for
his omniscience.  Just  think,  in  heat like this, to  have  every part  of
oneself muffled to the tympana. He could imagine the discomfort.... Indoors,
he could smell it.
     They walked past one  of the wall cannon. The barrel gleamed of layered
metal.  The  thing had  thrice the  range of Woodcarver's pitiful invention.
While  Woodcarver  had  been  working  with  Dataset  and  a  human  child's
intuition, he  had had the direct advice of Ravna and company. At first he'd
feared  their largesse, thinking it meant the Visitors were  superior beyond
need for care.  Now ... the more he  heard of Ravna and the others, the more
clearly  he  understood  their weakness.  They  could  not  experiment  with
themselves,   improve   themselves.  Inflexible,   slow-changing   dullards.
Sometimes they showed a low cunning -- Ravna's coyness about what she wanted
from  the first starship -- but  their  desperation  was loud  in  all their
messages, as was their attachment to the human child.
     Everything had  been  going so well  till just a  few days ago. As they
walked out of earshot of  the gunner pack, Steel said to the Flenser member,
"And still no word from our 'rescuers'."
     "Quite so," That  was the  other botched schedule,  the  important one,
which they could not  control. "Ravna has missed four sessions. Two of me is
down with Amdijefri right  now."  The singleton jabbed its snout toward  the
dome  of the inner keep. The gesture was an awkward abortion.  Without other
muzzles and  other  eyes, body language was a limited thing. We  just aren't
built to wander around a piece here, a piece there. "Another few minutes and
the space  folk  will have missed  a fifth  talk session.  The children  are
getting desperate, you know."
     The member's  voice  sounded  sympathetic.  Almost  unconsciously, Lord
Steel sidled a little farther out from around it. Steel remembered that tone
from his own early existence. He also remembered the cutting and  death that
had always followed. "I  want  them kept  happy, Tyrathect.  We're  assuming
communication  will  resume;  when it does we'll need them." Steel bared six
pairs of jaws at the surrounded singleton. "None of your old tricks."
     The member flinched, an almost imperceptible twitch that pleased  Steel
more than  the grovelling of ten thousand. "Of course  not. I'm just  saying
that you should visit them, try to help them with their fear."
     "You do it."
     "Ah  ... they don't fully trust me. I've told  you before, Steel;  they
love you."
     "Ha! And they've seen through to your meanness, eh?" The situation made
Steel proud. He had succeeded where Flenser's own methods would have failed.
He had manipulated without threats  or  pain.  It had been  Steel's craziest
experiment, and certainly  his most profitable. But "-- Look,  I  don't have
time to wetnurse anyone. It's a tiresome thing to talk to those two." And it
was very tiresome to hold his temper, to suffer Jefri's "petting" and Amdi's
pranks.  In the  beginning, Steel  had insisted that  no one else have close
contact with the children.  They were too important to expose to others; the
most  casual  slipup  might  show  them the truth  and ruin them. Even  now,
Tyrathect was the only pack besides himself who had regular contact. But for
Steel, every meeting  was worse than the last, an ultimate test of  his self
control. It was  hard to think straight in  a  killing rage, and  that's how
almost every conversation  with them ended for Steel. How wonderful it would
be when the space folk landed. Then he could use the other end  of the  tool
that  was  Amdijefri. Then there would be  no need  to have  their trust and
friendship.  Then  he would have a lever,  something to torture and  kill to
enforce his demands.
     Of course, if the aliens never landed, or if.... "We must do something!
I will  not  be flotsam on  the  wave  of  the future." Steel  lashed at the
scaffolding that ran along the inner side of the parapet, shredding the wood
with his gleaming  tines. "We can't do anything about  the aliens,  so let's
deal with Woodcarver. Yes!" He smiled at the Flenser  member. "Ironic, isn't
it? For a hundred years, you sought her destruction. Now I can succeed. What
would have been  your great  triumph is  for  me just  an  annoying  detour,
undertaken because greater projects are temporarily delayed."
     The  cloaked one did not look  impressed.  "There is a little matter of
gifts falling out of the sky."
     "Yes,  into my  open jaws. And that  is my good fortune, isn't it?"  He
walked  on  several paces, chuckling  to himself. "Yes. It's  time  to  have
Vendacious  bring his  trusting Queen  in for  the slaughter.  Maybe it will
interfere with other  events, but.... I know, we'll have  the battle east of
     "The Margrum Climb?"
     "Correct. Woodcarver's forces should be well concentrated coming up the
defile. We'll move  our cannon over there,  set them behind the ridgeline at
the top of the Climb.  It will be easy to destroy  all her  people. And it's
far  enough from Starship Hill; even if  the  space  folk arrive at the same
time, we can  keep the two  projects  separate."  The singleton  didn't  say
anything, and after a  moment Steel glared at him. "Yes dear teacher, I know
there is a risk. I know it splits our forces. But we've got an  army sitting
on  our  doorstep. They've arrived inconveniently late, but  even Vendacious
can't  make them turn around and go home. And if he  tries to stall  things,
the Queen might... Can you predict just what she would do?"
     "... No. She has always had a way with the unexpected."
     "She  might  even  see through Vendacious' fraud.  So. We  take a small
chance, and destroy her now. You are with Farscout Rangolith?"
     "Yes. Two of me."
     "Tell him  to get word to Vendacious.  He  is to  have the Queen's army
coming up  Margrum Climb  not  less  than two days  from  now.  Feel free to
elaborate; you  know  the region better than I. We'll work out final details
when  both  sides  are in position."  It  was  a wonderful thing to  be  the
effective commander of  both  sides  in  a  battle!  "One  more thing.  It's
important  and Vendacious  must  see to  it within  the  dayaround:  I  want
Woodcarver's human dead."
     "What harm can she do?"
     "That's a stupid question,"  especially coming from you. "We don't know
when Ravna and Pham may reach us.  Till  we  have them safe in our jaws, the
Johanna  creature is a dangerous thing to  have nearby. Tell  Vendacious  to
make it look like an accident, but I want that Two-Legs dead."

     Flenser was everywhere. It was a form of godhood he'd  dreamed of since
he'd been Woodcarver's  newby. While one of him  talked to Steel, two others
lounged about the Starship with Amdijefri, and two more padded through light
forest just north of Woodcarver's encampment.
     Paradise can  also be an  agony,  and each day the torment was a little
harder to bear. In  the first place,  this summer was as insufferably hot as
any in the North. And the radio  cloaks were not merely hot  and heavy. They
necessarily covered his  members'  tympana. And  unlike  other uncomfortable
costumes,  the price of taking these off for even a moment was mindlessness.
His first trials had lasted  just  an hour or two. Then had  come a five-day
expedition with Farscout Rangolith, providing Steel with instant information
and  instant  command of the  country around Starhip Hill. It  had  taken  a
couple of  dayarounds to  recover  from  the  sores and  aches  of the radio
     This latest exercise in omniscience had lasted twelve days. Wearing the
cloaks  all  the time  was impossible. Every day  in a rotation,  one of his
members threw off its radio,  was bathed, and had its cloak's liner changed.
It  was  Flenser's hour  of daily madness,  when  sometimes  the weak-willed
Tyrathect  would  come  back  to  mind, vainly  trying  to  reestablish  her
dominance.  It didn't  matter. With  one of his  members  disconnected,  the
remaining pack was only  four. There are foursomes  of normal  intelligence,
but none existed in Flenser/Tyrathect. The  bathing and recloaking  were all
done in a confused haze.
     And of course, even though Flenser was "everywhere at  once", he wasn't
any smarter  than before. After the first jarring  experiments,  he got  the
hang of seeing/hearing scenes that were radically different -- but it was as
difficult as ever to carry on multiple  conversations. When he was bantering
with  Steel, his other members had very little to  say  to Amdijefri  or  to
Rangolith's scouts.
     Lord Steel  was done with him. Flenser walked along the  parapets  with
his former student,  but if Steel had said anything  to  him  it  would have
taken him away  from his current conversation.  Flenser smiled (carefully so
the one with Steel  would  not show  it). Steel thought  he  was talking  to
Farscout Rangolith just now.  Oh, he would do that ... in a few minutes. One
advantage  of his  situation was that no one  could know for sure everything
Flenser  was  up to. If he was careful, he would eventually rule here again.
It was a dangerous game, and the  cloaks  were themselves dangerous devices.
Keep a cloak  out of  sunlight  for  a  few hours and it lost power, and the
member wearing it was cut off from the pack. Worse was the problem of static
-- that was a mantis word. The second set of cloaks had killed its user, and
the  Spacers weren't  sure  of the cause, except that  it  was some sort  of
"interference" problem.
     Flenser  had  experienced  nothing  so extreme.  But  sometimes  on his
farthest hikes with Rangolith, or when a  cloak's power faded  ... there was
an incredible  shrieking in  his mind, like  a  dozen packs  crowding close,
sounds that  scaled between sex madness and killing frenzy. Tyrathect seemed
to like times like that;  she'd come bounding out of the confusion, swamping
him  with her  soft  hate.  Normally  she  lurked around the  edges  of  his
consciousness, tweaking a  word here,  a motive there. After the static, she
was  much worse; on one occasion she'd held  control for almost a dayaround.
Given a year without crises, Flenser could have studied Ty and Ra  and Thect
and  done a proper excision.  Thect, the  member with the white-tipped ears,
was  probably  the  one to  kill: it wasn't bright,  but it  was  likely the
capstone of the trio. With a precisely crafted replacement, Flenser might be
even  greater  than  before  the massacre  at Parliament Bowl. But for  now,
Flenser was stuck;  soul surgery on one's self was an awesome  challenge  --
even to The Master.

     So. Careful. Careful. Keep the cloaks well charged, take no long trips,
and don't let any one person see all the  threads  of your plan. While Steel
thought he was seeking Rangolith, Flenser was talking to Amdi and Jefri.
     The  human's  face was wet  with  tears.  "F-four  times  we've  missed
R-ravna.  What has happened to her?" His voice  screeched up. Flenser hadn't
realized there was such flexibility in the  belching  mechanism that  humans
use to make sound.
     Most  of Amdi clustered round the  boy. He  licked Jefri's  cheeks. "It
could be  our  ultrawave.  Maybe  it's  broken."  He looked beseechingly  at
Flenser. There were tears in the puppies'  eyes, too. "Tyrathect, please ask
Steel  again. Let us  stay  in the ship all  the dayaround.  Maybe there are
messages that have come through and not been recorded."

     Flenser with Steel  descended the northern stairs, crossed  the  parade
ground.  He  gave a  sliver of attention to the other's complaints about the
sloppy  maintenance around  the  practice stands. At  least Steel was  smart
enough to keep the discipline scaffolds over on Hidden Island.

     Flenser with  Rangolith's troopers  splashed through a mountain stream.
Even in high  summer,  in the middle  of a Drywind,  there  were  still snow
patches, and the streams running from under them were icy cold.

     Flenser with Amdijefri edged forward, let two of Amdi rest against  his
sides. Both children liked  physical contact, and  he was  the only one they
had  besides  each other. It was all perversion  of course,  but Flenser had
based his life  on manipulating others' weakness, and -- but for the pain --
welcomed  it.  Flenser buzzed  a deep purring sound through  his  shoulders,
caressing the puppy next to him. "I'll ask our Lord Steel the very next time
I see him."
     "Thank you." A puppy nuzzled at his cloak, then  mercifully moved away;
Flenser  was a mass of sores beneath that cover. Perhaps Amdi realized that,
or perhaps --  more  and more  Flenser saw a reticence in the children.  His
comment to Steel had  been a  slip into  the truth: these two  really didn't
trust him. That was Tyrathect's fault. On his own, Flenser would have had no
trouble winning Amdijefri's love. Flenser had none of Steel's killing temper
and  fragile  dignity. Flenser could chat for casual pleasure, all the while
mixing truth with  lies. One of his greatest  talents was empathy; no sadist
can aspire to perfection without  that diagnostic ability. But  just when he
was doing well, when they seemed about to open to him  -- then Ty  or  Ra or
Thect  would pop  up,  twisting his expression  or  poisoning  his choice of
phrase. Perhaps he should  content himself with undermining  the  children's
respect for Steel (without, of course, ever saying anything directly against
him). Flenser sighed, and  patted Jefri's  arm  comfortingly. "Ravna will be
back. I'm sure  of it." The human sniffled a little, then reached out to pet
the  part  of Flenser's head that was not shrouded by the cloak. They sat in
companionable silence for a moment, and his attention drifted back to --
     -- the forest and Rangolith's troops. The group had been  moving uphill
for almost  ten minutes. The others were lightly  burdened and used to  this
sort of exercise. Flenser's two members were lagging. He hissed at the group
     The group leader  sidled back, his  squad  shifting briskly  out of his
way.  He stopped  when  his nearest  was  fifteen  feet from  Flenser's. The
soldier's  heads cocked this way and that.  "Your wishes  ... My Lord?" This
one  was new; he had  been briefed about  the  cloaks, but  Flenser knew the
fellow didn't understand the  new rules. The gold and silver that glinted in
the  darkness  of the cloaks -- those colors were reserved for the Lords  of
the  Domain.  Yet there only two  of  Flenser here; normally such a fragment
could barely carry on a conversation, much less give reasonable orders. Just
as disconcerting, Flenser knew, was his lack of mind sound. "Zombie" was the
word some of the troops used when they thought themselves alone.
     Flenser pointed up the hill; the  timberline was only a few yards away.
"Farscout Rangolith is on the other side. We will take a short cut," he said
     Part of the other  was already looking up the hill. "That  is not good,
sir." The trooper  spoke slowly. Stupid damn duo, his posture said. "The bad
ones will see us."
     Flenser glowered at the other, a hard thing to do properly when you are
just two. "Soldier, do you see  the gold on my shoulders? Even  one of me is
worth all of  you. If I say take  a short  cut, we do it -- even if it means
walking belly  deep through brimstone." Actually, Flenser knew exactly where
Vendacious had put lookouts.  There was no risk  in crossing the open ground
here. And he was so tired.
     The group leader  still didn't know quite  what Flenser was, but he saw
the dark-cloaks were at  least as dangerous as any full-pack lord. He backed
off humbly, bellies dragging  on the ground. The group turned  up hill and a
few minutes later were walking across open heather.
     Rangolith's command post was less than a half mile away along this path

     Flenser with  Steel  walked into the inner keep.  The stone was freshly
cut,  the  walls  thrown up with the  feverish  speed  of  all this castle's
construction.  Thirty  feet over  their  heads, where  vault met buttresses,
there  were  small  holes  set in  the  stonework. Those holes would soon be
filled with gunpowder -- as would slots  in the wall surrounding the landing
field. Steel  called those the Jaws of Welcome. Now he turned a head back to
Flenser. "So what does Rangolith say?"
     "Sorry. He's been out on patrol. He should be here -- I mean, he should
be in camp --  any  minute."  Flenser did his best to conceal his own  trips
with the scouts.  Such  recons  were  not  forbidden, but  Steel  would have
demanded explanations if he knew.

     Flenser with  Rangolith's troops sloshed through  water-soaked heather.
The air over the snowmelt was delightfully chill, and the breeze pushed cool
tongues partway under his wretched cloaks.
     Rangolith had chosen the site for his command post well. His tents were
in a slight  depression at the edge of a large summer pond.  A hundred yards
away, a huge patch  of  a snow covered the hill above them and fed the pond,
and  kept the air  pleasantly cool. The tents were out of sight  from below,
yet the site was so high  in the hills that from the edge of  the depression
there was a  clear view across three  points of the compass, centered on the
south.  Resupply could be accomplished from the  north with little chance of
detection, and  even if the damn fires struck the  forests below,  this post
would be untouched.
     Farscout Rangolith  was lounging  about his signal mirrors,  oiling the
aiming gears. One of his subordinates lay with snouts stuck over the lip  of
the hill, scanning the landscape  with its telescopes. He  came to attention
at the  sight  of  Flenser,  but  his  gaze wasn't full  of  fear. Like most
long-range  scouts,  he  wasn't  completely  terrorized by castle  politics.
Besides, Flenser had cultivated an "us against the  prigs" relationship with
the  fellow.  Now  Rangolith growled at the group leader: "The next time you
come prancing across the open like that, your asses go on report."
     "My  fault, Farscout," put  in Flenser.  "I have some important  news."
They walked away from the others, down toward Rangolith's tent.
     "See something  interesting, did  you?" Rangolith was smiling oddly. He
had long ago figured out that Flenser was not a brilliant duo, but part of a
pack with members back at the castle.
     "When  is your next session with Craddleheads?" That was the  fieldname
for Vendacious.
     "Just past noon. He hasn't missed in four days. The Southerners seem to
be on one big squat."
     "That will change." Flenser repeated Steel's orders for Vendacious. The
words came hard. The  traitor within him was restive; he felt the beginnings
of a major attack.
     "Wow! You're going to  move everything  over  to Margrum  Climb in less
than two -- Never mind, that's something I'd best not know."
     Under  his cloaks, Flenser  bristled.  There are limits  to chumminess.
Rangolith  had his  points,  but maybe after all this  was over  he could be
smoothed into something less ... ad hoc.
     "Is that all, My Lord?"
     "Yes -- No."  Flenser shivered  with  uncharacteristic puzzlement.  The
trouble with  these cloaks, sometimes they made it hard to  remember things.
By the Great Pack, no! It was  that  Tyrathect again.  Steel had ordered the
killing of Woodcarver's human -- all things considered, a perfectly sensible
move, but...

     Flenser with Steel shook his head angrily, his teeth clicking together.
"Something the  matter?" said Lord Steel. He really  seemed to love the pain
that the radio cloaks caused Flenser.
     "Nothing,  my  lord. Just a touch of  the static." In fact there was no
static, yet Flenser felt  himself  disintegrating. What had given the  other
such sudden power?

     Flenser  with Amdijefri snapped his jaws open and shut, open  and shut.
The children  jumped back from him, eyes wide. "It's okay,"  he said grimly,
even  as his two bodies thrashed against each other. There really  were lots
of good reasons why they should keep Johanna Olsndot alive: In the long run,
it  assured  Jefri's  good  will. And it could  be Flenser's  secret  human.
Perhaps he could fake the  Two Leg's  death  to  Steel  and  -- No.  No. No!
Flenser grabbed back control, jamming  the rationalizations out of mind. The
very tricks  he had used against Tyrathect, she thought to turn against him.
It won't work on me. I am the master of lies.
     And then her  attack twisted  again, became a  massive bludgeoning that
destroyed all thought.

     With Flenser,  with Rangolith, with Amdijefri -- all of him  was making
little gibbering noises now. Lord Steel danced around him, unsure whether to
laugh or be concerned. Rangolith goggled at him in frank amazement.
     The two children edged back to touch him, "Are you hurt? Are you hurt?"
The  human slipped those remarkable hands under the radio cloak and  brushed
softly at Flenser's bleeding fur. The world  blurred  in a surge of  static.
"No. Don't do that. It might hurt him more," came Amdi's voice. The puppies'
tiny muzzles reached out, trying to help with the cloaks.
     Flenser felt his being pushed downwards,  towards oblivion. Tyrathect's
final  attack  was  a  frontal  assault,  without  rationalizations  or  sly
infiltration, and...
     ...  And she looked  out upon  herself in  astonishment.  After so many
days, I am me.  And in control. Enough butchering of innocents. If anyone is
to die, it is Steel  and Flenser. Her head  followed Steel's prancing forms,
picked  out the most  articulate member. She gathered her legs  beneath her,
and prepared to leap at its throat. Come just a little closer ... and die.
     Tyrathect's last moment of consciousness  probably  didn't last  longer
than five seconds. Her attack on Flenser was a desperate, all-out thing that
left her without reserves or internal  defense.  Even as she  tensed to leap
upon Steel, she felt her soul being pulled back and down, and Flenser rising
up from  the darkness. She  felt the  member's legs spasm and  collapse, the
ground smash into its face...
     ... And  Flenser was  back in control.  The weakling's  attack had been
astonishing. She  really had cared for the ones  who were  to be  destroyed,
cared so much she was willing to sacrifice herself if it would kill Flenser.
And  that  had been her  undoing. Suicide  is never  something to  hang pack
dominance on. Her very resolve had weakened her  hold on the hindmind -- and
given  The  Master his chance. He  was back in  control,  and  with a  great
opportunity. Tyrathect's  assault  had left  her defenseless. The  innermost
mental barriers around her three members were suddenly as thin as  the  skin
of an overripe fruit.  Flenser  slashed through the  membrane, pawed  at the
flesh of her mind, spattering it across  his own. The three who had been her
core would still live, but  never again would they have a soul separate from

     Flenser  with  Steel  sprawled as  though unconscious,  his convulsions
subsiding.  Let  Steel think him incapacitated. It  would  give him  time to
think of the most advantageous explanation.

     Flenser with Rangolith came slowly to his feet, though the  two members
were  still  in a  posture  of confusion. Flenser pulled them  together.  No
explanations were due here, but it would be best if  Farscout didn't suspect
soulstrife. "The cloaks are powerful tools,  dear Rangolith; sometimes a bit
too powerful."
     "Yes, my lord."
     Flenser let  a  smile spread  across his features. For a  moment he was
silent, savoring  what  he  would  say next.  No, there  was no sign  of the
weak-willed one. This had been her last, best try at  domination -- her last
and biggest mistake. Flenser's smile spread further, all  the way to the two
with  Amdijefri. It suddenly  occurred  to him that Johanna Olsndot would be
the first person  he had ordered killed since his  return  to Hidden Island.
Johanna Olsndot would therefore be the first blood on three of his muzzles.
     "There's one more item for Craddleheads, Farscout. An execution...." As
he spoke the details, the warmth of  a decision well-made spread through his

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush


     The only  good thing  about all the waiting had been the chance it gave
the  wounded.  Now  that  Vendacious had  found a way  past  the  Flenserist
defenses, everyone was anxious to break camp, but....
     Johanna spent the last  afternoon  at the field hospital. The  hospital
was laid off in rough rectangles,  each about six meters across. Some of the
plots  had ragged  tents  -- those belonging to wounded who were still smart
enough to  care for themselves.  Others were surrounded by stranded fencing;
inside each of those was a single member, the survivor of what had once been
an entire pack. The singletons could easily have jumped the fences, but most
seemed to recognize their purpose, and stayed within.
     Johanna  pulled the food cart through  the area, stopping at first  one
patient  and  then another. The  cart  was  a bit  too  large for  her,  and
sometimes it got caught in the roots that grew across the  the forest floor.
Yet this was a job  that she could do better than any  pack, and it was nice
to find a way she could help.
     In the forest around the hospital there was the sound of kherhogs being
coaxed up  to  wagon  ties, the  shouts of  crews securing the  cannons  and
getting the  camp  gear  stowed. From the maps Vendacious  had shown at  the
meeting, it was clear  the next two  days would be an exhausting time -- but
at  the  end of  it  they would  have  the  high ground  behind unsuspecting
     She  stopped at the first little tent. The threesome inside  had  heard
her  coming and  was  outside now, running little circles  around her  cart.
"Johanna! Johanna!" it said in her own voice. This was all that was  left of
one  of  Woodcarver's minor strategists; once upon a time, it had known some
Samnorsk. The  pack had originally been  six;  three  had been killed by the
wolves. What was left was the  "talker"  part -- about as bright as  a  five
year old,  though with an  odd vocabulary. "Thank you for food. Thank  you."
Its  muzzles pushed  at her. She patted the  heads before reaching  into the
cart  and pulling out bowls of lukewarm stew. Two of them dug in right away,
but the third sat back for a moment and chatted. "I hear, we fight soon."

     Not you anymore, but "Yes. We are going up  by the dry  fall, just east
of here."
     "Uh, oh." It said. "Uh, oh. That's bad. Poor seeing, no control, ambush
scary." Apparently the fragment had some memories  of its own tactical work.
But there was no  way Johanna could  explain  Vendacious's  reasoning to it.
"Don't worry, we will make it okay."
     "You sure? You promise?"
     Johanna smiled gently at what was left of a rather nice fellow. "Yes. I
     "Ah-ah-ah.... Okay."  Now all three  had their muzzles stuck into  stew
bowls. This was one of the  lucky ones, really. It showed plenty of interest
in what went on around it. Just as important, it had childlike  enthusiasms.
Pilgrim  said  that fragments like this  could grow back easily if they were
just treated right long enough to bear a puppy or two.
     She pushed the cart a few meters further, to the fenced square that was
the  symbolic corral for a singleton. There was a faint  odor of shit in the
air. Some of  the singletons and duos were not housebroken; in any case, the
camp latrines were a hundred meters away.
     "Here, Blacky. Blacky?"  Johanna banged  an empty bowl against the side
of the cart. A single head eased up from behind some  root bushes; sometimes
this one  wouldn't even do that  much. Johanna got on her  knees so her eyes
weren't much higher than the black-faced one. "Blacky?"
     The creature  pulled himself out of the  bushes  and slowly approached.
This  was all  that was left  of  one of Scrupilo's  cannoneers. She vaguely
remembered  the pack, a handsome sixsome all large  and fast. But  now, even
"Blacky" wasn't whole: a falling gun  had  crushed his rear legs. He dragged
his legless rear on a little wagon with thirty  centimeter wheels... sort of
like a Skroderider with forelegs. She pushed a bowl of  stew toward him, and
made the  noises that Pilgrim coached her  in. Blacky had  refused  food the
last three days, but today he  rolled and walked close enough that she could
pet his head. After a moment he lowered his muzzle to the stew.
     Johanna grinned  in  surprised  pleasure.  This hospital was a  strange
place. A year ago  she would have been horrified by it;  even now she didn't
have  the  proper Tinish outlook on the  wounded.  As  she  continued to pet
Blacky's lowered head, Johanna looked across the  forest floor  at the crude
tents, the patients and parts  of  patients. It really was  a hospital.  The
surgeons did try to save lives, even if the medical science was a horrifying
process of cutting and splinting without anesthetics. In that regard, it was
quite comparable to  the medieval  human medicine that  Johanna  had seen on
Dataset. But with the Tines there was something more. This place was  almost
a spare parts warehouse. The medics were interested in the welfare of packs.
To them,  singletons were  pieces  that  might have  a  use in making larger
fragments workable, at  least temporarily. Injured  singletons  were  at the
bottom of  all medical priorities. "There's  not much  left to save in  such
cases," one medic had said to her via Pilgrim, "And even if there was, would
you want a crippled,  loose-bonded member in your self?" The fellow had been
too  tired  to notice the  absurdity of his  question. His muzzles  had been
dripping blood; he'd been working for hours to save wounded members of whole
     Besides, most wounded singletons just  stopped eating  and died in less
than a tenday. Even after a year with  Tines, Johanna couldn't quite  accept
it. Every singleton reminded her of dear Scriber; she wanted them to have  a
better chance than his last remnant had.  She had taken over  the  food cart
and spent as much time  with the wounded singletons as she did  with  any of
the other patients. It  had worked  out  well. She could get  close  to each
patient without mindsound interference. Her help gave the brood kenners more
time to study the larger fragments and the uninjured  singletons, and try to
build working packs from the wreckage.
     And now maybe this  one wouldn't starve. She'd tell Pilgrim.  He'd done
miracles  with some of the other match ups,  and seemed to be the  only pack
who shared  some  of  her  feelings for damaged singletons. "If  they  don't
starve  it often means a strength  of mind. Even crippled, they could be  an
advantage to a pack," he'd said to her. "I've been crippled off and on in my
travels;  you can't always  pick  and choose when  you're down to  three and
you're a thousand miles into an unknown land."
     Johanna  set a  bowl of  water  beside the  stew.  After a moment,  the
crippled  member turned on his axle  and took some  shallow  sips. "Hang on,
Blacky, we'll find someone for you to be."

     Chitiratte was where he was supposed to be, walking his post exactly as
expected. Nevertheless,  he felt a thrill of nervousness. He always kept  at
least  one head  gazing  at  the  mantis  creature,  the  Two-Legs.  Nothing
suspicious about that posture  either.  He was supposed to be doing security
duty  here, and that meant keeping a  lookout  in all directions. He shifted
his crossbow nervously about  from jaws to field pack and back to jaws. Just
a few more minutes....
     Chitiratte circled the hospital compound  once more. It was soft  duty.
Even  though  this stretch of  wood had been spared,  the drywind  fires had
chased the bigger wildlife downstream.  This close to the  river, the ground
was  covered with  softbush, and there was scarcely a  thorn  to  be  found.
Pacing around the hospital was like a walk on Woodcarver's Green down south.
A few hundred yards  east was harder work -- getting the wagons and supplies
in shape for the climb.
     The fragments knew that something  was up. Here  and there, heads stuck
up from pallets and burrows. They watched the wagons being loaded, heard the
familiar voices of friends. The dumbest ones  felt  a call  to duty;  he had
chased three able-bodied  singles back into the compound. No  way such feebs
could be  of any help. When the army marched up Margrum Climb, the  hospital
would stay behind. Chitiratte wished he could too. He'd been working for the
Boss  long  enough  to guess whence  his orders ultimately  came; Chitiratte
suspected that not many would be coming back from Margrum Climb.
     He turned three pairs of eyes toward  the mantis creature.  This latest
job was the  riskiest thing he'd been a part  of. If it  worked out he might
just demand that the Boss leave him  with the hospital. Just be careful, old
fellow. Vendacious didn't get where he is by  leaving loose ends. Chitiratte
had seen what happened to  that easterner who  nosed a little too close into
the Boss's business.
     Damn but the human was slow! She'd  been grunting at that one singleton
for five minutes.  You'd think she was having sex  with these frags  for all
the time she spent with them. Well, she'd pay for the familiarity very soon.
He  started to cock his bow, then thought better of  it. Accident, accident.
It must all look like an accident.
     Aha. The Two-legs  was collecting food and water bowls and stowing them
on the meal  cart. Chitiratte  made  unobtrusive  haste around  the hospital
perimeter, positioning  himself  in view of  the Kratzi duo -- the  fragment
that would actually do the killing.
     Kratzinissinari  had been a foot  trooper before  losing  the Nissinari
parts of himself. He had no connection with the  Boss or  Security. But he'd
been known as a crazy-headed get of bitches, a  pack that was  always on the
edge  of  combat rage.  Getting killed back  to two members normally  has  a
gentling influence. In this case --  well, the Boss claimed that Kratzi  was
specially prepared, a trap ready to be  sprung. All  Chitiratte  need do was
give the signal,  and  the duo would tear the mantis apart. A great tragedy.
Of  course,  Chitiratte would be there, the alert hospital  warden. He would
quickly put arrows through Kratzi's brains ... but alas, not in time to save
the Two-Legs.
     The  human dragged the meal cart  awkwardly  around root bushes  toward
Kratzi,  her  next  patient.  The  duo  came  out of  its  burrow,  speaking
half-witted greetings that even Chitiratte could not understand. There  were
undertones though, a killing anger that edged its friendly mien.  Of course,
the mantis thing didn't notice. She stopped the cart, began filling food and
water bowls,  all the time  grunting away at  the twosome. In a moment,  she
would bend down to  put  the  food  on the ground....  For half an  instant,
Chitiratte  considered  shooting  the  mantis  himself if  Kratzi  were  not
immediately successful.  He  could  claim  it was a tragic  miss. He  really
didn't like  the Two-Legs. The mantis creature was a menacing thing;  it was
so tall  and moved so weirdly. By now  he  knew it was  fragile  compared to
packs,  but it was scary to  think of a single  animal so smart  as this. He
shelved the temptation even faster than he had thought it.  No telling  what
price he might pay for that, even if they believed his shot was an accident.
No altruism today, thank you very much;  Kratzi's jaws and claws would  have
to do.
     One of  Kratzi's heads was looking  in Chitiratte's  general direction.
Now the mantis picked up the bowls and turned from the meal cart --

     "Hei, Johanna! How is it going?"
     Johanna looked  up from the stew to see Peregrine Wickwrackscar walking
along the  edge  of the hospital. He was moving to get  as close as possible
without invading the mind sounds of the  patients. The guard who had stopped
there a moment before retreated before his advance  and stopped a few meters
further on. "Pretty good," she  called back. "You know the one on wheels? He
actually ate some stew tonight."
     "Good. I've been thinking about him and the threesome on the other side
of the hospital."
     "The wounded medic?"
     "Yes.  What's left  of Trellelak  is  all  female,  you know. I've been
listening  to mind sounds  and --  "  Pilgrim's explanation was delivered in
fluent Samnorsk, but it didn't make much sense to Johanna. Brood kenning had
so  many  concepts  without referents  in human language  that even  Pilgrim
couldn't make  it clear. The only  obvious part was  that since Blacky was a
male,  there  was  a chance that he and the medic threesome might have  pups
early  enough to bind the group. The  rest was talk  of "mood resonance" and
"meshing weak points with strong". Pilgrim claimed to be an amateur at brood
kenning, but  it was  interesting the  way the docs --  and  even Woodcarver
sometimes -- deferred to him. In his travels he  had been through a lot. His
matchups  seemed  to  "take" more  often  than anybody's.  She waved  him to
silence. "Okay. We'll try it soon as I've fed everybody."
     Pilgrim cocked a head or two at the  nearby hospital  plots. "Something
strange is  going on. Can't quite  'put  my finger on it',  but ...  all the
fragments are watching you. Even more than usual. Do you feel it?"
     Johanna  shrugged.  "No." She  knelt to  set  the water  and stew bowls
before the twosome patient.  The pair  had  been  vibrating  with eagerness,
though they  had been quite polite in not interrupting. Out of the corner of
her eye, she noticed the hospital guard make  a strange dipping  motion with
its two middle heads, and --
     The blows  were like two great fists smashing into  her chest and face.
Johanna  fell to  the ground, and they  were on her. She raised bloody  arms
against the slashing jaws and claws.

     When Chitiratte gave  the signal, both of  Kratzi leaped into action --
crashing into each other,  almost  incidentally  knocking the mantis on  her
back. Their claws and teeth were tearing at empty air and each other as much
as  the  Two-legs.  For an  instant, Chitiratte  was struck motionless  with
surprise. She might not be  dead. Then he remembered himself and jumped over
the fence, at the same time cocking and loading his bow. Maybe he could miss
the first shot. Kratzi was shredding the mantis, but slow --
     Suddenly, there  was no possibility of shooting  the twosome. A wave of
snarling  black  and   white  surged  over  Kratzi  and  the  mantis.  Every
able-bodied fragment in  the hospital seemed to be running to the attack. It
was  instant killing rage, far wilder than  anything that  could  come  from
whole packs.  Chitiratte fell back  in astonishment before the sight and the
mindsound of it.
     Even the pilgrim seemed caught up in it; the pack raced past Chitiratte
and circled the melee.  The  pilgrim never quite plunged in, but nipped here
and there, screaming words that were lost in the general uproar.
     A  splash  of coordinated mindsound boomed out from the mob, so loud it
numbed  Chitiratte twenty yards away. The mob seemed to shrink in on itself,
the frenzy gone from most of its members.  What had been near a single beast
with  two dozen bodies was  suddenly a  confused  and bloody crowd of random
     The pilgrim still  ran around the  edge, somehow  keeping his  mind and
purpose. His huge,  scarred member dived in and out of the  remaining crowd,
clawing at anything that still fought.
     The patients dragged themselves away from the killing ground. Some that
had gone  in as  threesomes  or  duos came out  single.  Others  seemed more
numerous  than before. The  ground that was  left  was soaked with blood. At
least  five  members had died. Near  the middle, a pair of prosthetic wheels
lay incongruously.
     The pilgrim paid it all no  attention. The four of him stood around and
over the bloody mound at the center.
     Chitiratte smiled to himself. Mantis splatter. Such a tragedy.

     Johanna  never  quite  lost   consciousness,  but  the  pain  and   the
suffocating  weight  of dozens of bodies left no  room  for thought. Now the
pressure  eased. Somewhere beyond the  local din  she  could  hear shouts of
normal Tinish  talk. She looked up and  saw Pilgrim standing all around her.
Scarbutt was straddling  her, its  muzzle centimeters away. It reached  down
and licked her face. Johanna smiled and tried to speak.

     Vendacious  had  arranged  to  be  in  conference   with  Scrupilo  and
Woodcarver.  Just now the "Commander of Cannoneers"  was deep into  tactics,
using Dataset to illustrate his scheme for Margrum Climb.
     Squalls of rage sounded from down by the river.
     Scrupilo looked up  peevishly from the  Pink Oliphaunt. "What the muddy
hell -- "
     The  sounds  continued,  more  than  a  casual  brawl.  Woodcarver  and
Vendacious exchanged  worried glances even as they arched necks to see among
the trees. "A fight in the hospital?" said the Queen.
     Vendacious dropped his note  board and lunged  out of the meeting area,
shouting for the local guards to stay with the Queen. As he raced across the
camp, he could  see that his  roving guards  were already converging on  the
hospital.  Everything seemed as  smooth as a  program on Dataset ... except,
why so much noise?
     The last  few hundred yards,  Scrupilo caught up  with  him  and pulled
ahead.  The cannoneer  raced into  the hospital and stumbled over himself in
abrupt  horror. Vendacious burst into  the clearing  all prepared to display
his own shock combined with alert resolve.
     Peregrine Wickwrackscar was standing by a meal cart, Chitiratte not far
behind  him.  The  pilgrim was  standing  over the Two-Legs  in a  litter of
carnage. By the Pack of Packs, what happened?  There  was too  much blood by
far.  "Everybody  back  except  the  doctors,"  Vendacious  bellowed  at the
soldiers who crowded at the edge of the compound. He picked his  way along a
path that avoided  the loudest-minded  patients.  There were  a lot of fresh
wounds, and here and  there  speckles of blood dark on the pale tree trunks.
Something had gone wrong.
     Meanwhile  Scrupilo  had run around the edge  of  the hospital and  was
standing just a few dozen yards from the Pilgrim. Most of him was staring at
the ground  under Wickwrackscar.  "It's  Johanna! Johanna!"  For a moment it
looked like the fool would jump over the fence.
     "I  think  she's okay,  Scrupilo."  Wickwrackscar  said. "She  was just
feeding one of the duos and it went nuts -- attacked her."
     One of the doctors looked over the carnage. There were three corpses on
the ground, and  blood enough  for more.  "I wonder what she  did to provoke
     "Nothing, I tell you! But  when she  went down, half the hospital  went
after Whatsits here." He waggled a nose at unidentifiable remains.
     Vendacious  looked  at Chitiratte, at  the  same  time  saw  Woodcarver
arrive. "What about it, Soldier?" he asked. Don't screw up, Chitiratte.
     "I-it's just like the pilgrim says,  my lord. I've never  seen anything
like it." He sounded properly astounded by the whole affair.
     Vendacious stepped a little closer  to  the  Pilgrim. "If you'll let me
take a closer look, Pilgrim?"
     Wickwrackscar hesitated. He had been snuffling around the girl, looking
for wounds that  might need immediate attention. Then the girl nodded weakly
to him, and he backed off.
     Vendacious approached, all solemn and solicitous. Inside he raged. He'd
never heard of anything like this. But  even  if the whole damn hospital had
come  to her aid, she should still be dead; the Kratzi duo could have ripped
her throat out in half a  second. His  plan had  seemed fool-proof (and even
now the failure would cause no lasting damage), but he was just beginning to
understand what had gone wrong: For days, the human had been in contact with
these patients, even Kratzi. No Tinish  doctor could approach and touch them
like the Two-Legs. Even some whole packs felt  the  effect; for fragments it
must be  overwhelming. In their inner soul, most  of the patients considered
the alien part of themselves.
     He looked at the Two-Legs from three sides, mindful that fifty packs of
eyes  were watching his  every move. Very  little of the blood  was from the
Two-Legs. The cuts  on  her neck  and arms  were long  and  shallow, aimless
slashings. At  the last minute, Kratzi's conditioning had failed  before the
notion of  the human  as pack  member. Even now, a quick  flick of a forepaw
would rip the girl's throat open.  He briefly considered  putting her  under
Security medical protection. The  ploy had worked well with  Scriber, but it
would  be  very risky here. Pilgrim had been nose  to nose with  Johanna; he
would be suspicious of any claims about "unexpected complications". No. Even
good plans sometimes fail. Count it  as experience for the future. He smiled
at the girl and spoke in  Samnorsk, "You're quite  safe now," for the moment
and quite unfortunately. The human's head turned to the side, looking off in
the direction of Chitiratte.
     Scrupilo had been  pacing back  and  forth along the fence, so close to
Chitiratte and Pilgrim that the two had been forced back. "I won't have it!"
The cannoneer said loudly. "Our most important person attacked like this. It
smells of enemy action!"
     Wickwrackscar goggled at him. "But how?"
     "I don't  know!"  Scrupilo said,  his voice a desperate shout. "But she
needs protection as much as nursing. Vendacious must find some place to keep
     The pilgrim  pack was clearly impressed by the argument -- and unnerved
by it.  He inclined a  head  at  Vendacious and spoke with  uncharacteristic
respect, "What do you think?"
     Of  course,  Vendacious   had  been  watching  the   Two-legs.  It  was
interesting  how little  humans could disguise  their  point  of  attention.
Johanna  had  been  staring  at  Chitiratte,  now  she  was  looking  up  at
Vendacious, her shifty  little close-set eyes narrowing. Vendacious had made
a project  this last year of studying human expressions, both on Johanna and
in  stories in  Dataset.  She suspected something.  And she  also  must have
understood  part of Scrupilo's speech.  Her  back arched  and  one  arm fell
raised weakly. Fortunately for Vendacious, her shout came out a whisper that
even he could scarcely hear: "No ... not like Scriber."
     Vendacious was  a pack who believed in  careful planning.  He also knew
that the best-made schemes must be altered by  circumstances. He looked down
at Johanna  and smiled with the gentlest  public sympathy. It would be risky
to  kill her like Scriber's frag, but now he saw that the  alternatives were
far more  dangerous.  Thank goodness Woodcarver was stuck with her limper on
the  other side of the  camp. He  nodded back at  Pilgrim  and drew  himself
together.  "I  fear Scrupilo is  right. Just how it might have been done,  I
don't know, but we can't take a chance.  We'll take Johanna to my den.  Tell
the Queen." He  pulled cloaks from  his  backs  and began gently to wrap the
human for the last trip she would ever make. Only her eyes protested.

     Johanna drifted in and out of consciousness, horrified at her inability
to  scream her fears.  Her strongest cries were less than whispers. Her arms
and  legs  responded with little  more  than  twitches,  even that  lost  in
Vendacious's  swaddling.   Concussion,  maybe,  something   like  that,  the
explanation came from some absurdly rational corner of her mind.  Everything
seemed so far away, so dark....

     Johanna woke in her cabin at Woodcarver's.  What a terrible dream! That
she had been so  cut up, unable to move, and then  thinking Vendacious was a
traitor. She tried  to shrug herself to  a  sitting  position,  but  nothing
moved. Darn  sheets are all wrapped around me.  She lay quiet for a  second,
still  massively disoriented  by the dream.  "Woodcarver?" she tried to say,
but  only a little  moan  came out.  Some member  moved  gently  around  the
firepit.  The room  was  only dimly  lit,  and something was wrong  with it.
Johanna  wasn't  lying in her  usual  place. There  was a  moment of puzzled
lassitude as she  tried to make sense of the orientation of the  dark walls.
Funny. The ceiling was awfully  low. Everything  smelled like raw meat.  The
side  of her face  hurt, and she tasted  blood  on her lips.  She  wasn't at
Woodcarver's and that terrible dream was --
     Three Tinish heads drifted in silhouette  nearby.  One came closer, and
in the dim light she  recognized the pattern of white and black on its face.
     "Good," he said, "You are awake."
     "Where am I?" the words came out slurred and weak. The terror was back.
     "The abandoned cotter's hut at the east end of the camp.  I've taken it
over. As a security den, you  know."  His  Samnorsk  was  quiet and  fluent,
spoken in one of the  generic  voices of Dataset. One of his  jaws carried a
dagger, the blade a glint in the dimness.
     Johanna twisted in the tied cloaks and whispered screams. Something was
wrong with her; it was like shouting on empty breath.
     One of Vendacious paced the hut's upper level. Daylight splashed across
its muzzle as it peered out  first  one and then another of the narrow slits
cut in the timbers. "Ah, it's good  that you don't pretend. I could see that
you somehow  guessed about my second career. My hobby. But screaming -- even
loud -- won't  help either. We have only a brief time  to chat. I'm sure the
Queen  will  come visiting soon  ... and I will kill  you  just  before  she
arrives. So sad. Your hidden wounds were tragically severe...."
     Johanna wasn't sure of all he said. Her  vision blurred every  time she
moved  her  head. Even now  she couldn't remember  the details  of  what had
happened back  in the hospital compound. Somehow  Vendacious  was a traitor,
but how ... memories wriggled past the pain. "You did murder Scriber, didn't
you? Why?"  Her  voice  came louder than before,  and she  choked  on  blood
dribbling back down her throat.
     Soft, human,  laughter  came from all around her. "He learned the truth
about me. Ironic  that  such  an incompetent would  be  the only one to  see
through me.... Or do you mean  a larger why?" The three nearby muzzles moved
closer still, and the blade in one's jaw patted the side of Johanna's cheek.
"Poor Two-Legs, I'm not sure you could ever understand. Some of it, the will
to power maybe. I've  read  what Dataset has to say about  human motivation,
the  'freudian' stuff. We  Tines  are much  more  complicated.  I am  almost
entirely male,  did you know that? A  dangerous thing to  be,  all  one sex.
Madness lurks. Yet it was my decision. I was tired of being an indifferently
good inventor, of  living in Woodcarver's shadow. So many of us are her get,
and she dominates most all of us.  She was quite  happy about  my going into
Security, you  know. She  doesn't quite  have the combination of members for
it. She thought that all male but one would make me controllably devious."
     His  sentry member made another round of the window slits.  Again there
was  a  human  chuckle.  "I've  been  planning a long time.  It's  not  just
Woodcarver I'm up against. The  power-side of her soul is scattered all over
the arctic coast; Flenser  had  almost a century headstart on  me;  Steel is
new, but he has the empire Flenser built. I made myself indispensable to all
of them: I'm Woodcarver's chief of security ... and Steel's most valued spy.
Played aright, I will end up with Dataset and all the others will be dead."
     His blade tapped  her face again. "Do you think you can help  me?" Eyes
peered  close into her terror. "I doubt it very much. If  my proper plan had
succeeded, you  would be neatly dead  now." A sigh breathed around the room.
"But that failed, and I'm stuck  with carving  you up myself. And yet it may
all turn out for the  best. Dataset is a torrent of  information  about most
things, but it scarcely acknowledges the existence of torture. In some ways,
your  race seems so fragile, so easily killable. You  die before your  minds
can be dismembered. Yet I know you can feel pain and terror; the trick is to
apply force without quite killing."
     The three nearby members snuggled into more comfortable positions, like
a human settling  down for serious talk.  "And there are some questions  you
may be able to answer, things  I couldn't really ask  before. Steel  is very
confident,  you  know, and it's not just because he  has me with Woodcarver.
That pack has some other advantage. Could he have his own Dataset?"
     Vendacious paused.  Johanna didn't answer, her silence a combination of
terror and stubbornness. This was the monster that killed Scriber.
     The muzzle with the knife slid between the blankets and Johanna's skin,
and pain shot  up Johanna's arm. She  screamed. "Ah,  Dataset  said  a human
could be hurt there. No need to answer that one, Johanna. Do you know what I
think is Steel's secret? I  think one of your family survived -- most likely
your little brother, considering what you've told us about the massacre."
     Jefri? Alive? For an instant she  forgot  the  pain, almost forgot  the
fear. "How...?"
     Vendacious gave a  Tinish shrug. "You never  saw him dead.  You can  be
sure  Steel wanted a live Two-Legs, and  after reading  about  cold sleep in
Dataset,  I doubt he  could  have  revived any of the others. And  he's  got
something  up there. He's been eager for information from  Dataset, but he's
never demanded I steal the device for him."
     Johanna closed  her eyes, denying the  traitor  pack's existence. Jefri
lives! Memories  rose before her:  Jefri's playful joy, his  childish tears,
his  trusting courage  aboard  the refugee ship....  things she had  thought
forever lost to her. For a moment  they seemed more  real than the  slashing
violence of the  last  few minutes.  But  what could  Jefri  do  to help the
Flenserists? The  other datasets had  surely burned. There's  something more
here, something that Vendacious still is missing.
     Vendacious  grabbed her chin, and gave her  head a little  shake. "Open
your eyes; I've  learned to read  them, and  I want to see.... Hmm,  I don't
know if you believe me or not. No matter. If we have time, I will learn just
what  he  might have done for  Steel. There  are  other, sharper  questions.
Dataset is clearly  the  key  to  all.  In  less  than  half  a year, I  and
Woodcarver and Pilgrim have learned an enormous amount  about  your race and
civilization. I daresay we know your people better than you do --  sometimes
I think  we know them even  better than we know our own world. When all  the
violence is over, the winner will be the pack that still controls Dataset. I
intend  to  be  that  pack.  And I've  often wondered  if  there  are  other
passwords, or programs I can run that would actually watch for my safety  --

     The babysitter code.
     The watching heads  bobbed a  grin,  "Aha,  so  there is  such a thing!
Perhaps this  morning's bad luck  is  all for  the best.  I might never have
learned -- " his voice broke into dischords. Two of  Vendacious jumped up to
join the one already  at  the window slits.  Softly  by  her ear, the  voice
continued,  "It's  the Pilgrim, still far away, but  coming toward us....  I
don't know. You would be much better safely dead. One deep wound, all out of
sight." The knife slide further down. Johanna arched futilely back from  the
point. Then the blade withdrew,  the point poised gently  against  her skin.
"Let's hear what Pilgrim has to say. No point in killing you this instant if
he doesn't insist  on seeing you." He pushed a cloth into her mouth and tied
it tight.
     There was  a moment of silence, maybe the  crunch of paws in the  brush
right around the cabin. Then  she  heard a pack  warble loud from beyond the
timbered walls. Johanna doubted that she would ever learn to recognize packs
by their voices, but ...  her mind  stumbled  through the  sounds, trying to
decode the Tinish chords that were words piled on top of one another:
 something interrogative
 screech safe."
     Vendacious gobbled back,
"Hail Peregrine Wrickwrackscar
 Johanna trill
 not visible hurts
 sad uncertain squeak."
     And  the  traitor murmured in her ear: "Now he'll ask if I need medical
help, and if he insists ... our chat will have an early end."
     But  the  only reply Pilgrim  made was  a chorus of  sympathetic worry.
"Damn assholes are just sitting down out there," came Vendacious's irritated
     The  silence  stretched on a moment, and then Peregrine's human  voice,
the Joker from Dataset, said in clear Samnorsk. "Don't  do anything foolish,
Vendacious, old man."
     Vendacious  made a  sound of polite  surprise -- and tensed around her.
His knife jabbed  a centimeter deep between Johanna's ribs, a thorn of pain.
She  could feel the blade trembling, could feel his  member's breath  on her
bloody skin.
     Pilgrim's  voice continued, confident and knowing: "I mean we know what
you're  up  to.  Your  pack at  the  hospital has gone completely to pieces,
confessed what little he  knew to Woodcarver. Do you think your lies can get
by her? If Johanna is dead, you'll be bloody  shreds." He  hummed an ominous
tune from Dataset.  "I know  her well,  the Queen. She seems such a gracious
pack  ... but where do  you think Flenser got his gruesome  creativity? Kill
Johanna and you'll find just how far her genius in that exceeds Flenser's."
     The  knife pulled  back. One more  of Vendacious  leaped to the  window
slits, and  the two by  Johanna loosened their grip.  He  stroked the  blade
gently across her skin.  Thinking?  Is  Woodcarver really that fearsome? The
four at the  windows were looking in all directions; no doubt Vendacious was
counting guard packs and planning furiously. When he finally replied, it was
in  Samnorsk: "The threat would  be more  credible if  it were not at second
     Pilgrim  chuckled. "True.  But  we guessed  what  would  happen  if she
approached. You're a cautious fellow; you'd have  killed Johanna  instantly,
and  been full  of lying explanation before  you  even heard what the  Queen
knows.  But seeing a poor pilgrim amble over ... I know you think me a fool,
only one step better than Scriber  Jaqueramaphan." Peregrine stumbled on the
name, and for an instant lost his flippant  tone. "Anyway, now you know  the
situation. If you doubt, send your guards beyond the brush; look at what the
Queen has surrounding you. Johanna dead only kills you. Speaking of which, I
assume this conversation has some point?"
     "Yes. She lives." Vendacious slipped the  gag from Johanna's mouth. She
turned her  head, choking.  There were  tears  running down the sides of her
face.  "Pilgrim, oh Pilgrim!" The  words were scarcely more than a  whisper.
She drew a painful breath, concentrated on making noise. Bright spots danced
before her eyes. "Hei Pilgrim!"
     "Hei Johanna. Has he hurt you?"
     "Some, I -- "
     "That's  enough. She's  alive, Pilgrim, but  that's easily  corrected."
Vendacious didn't  jam the  gag  back in her  mouth.  Johanna could  see him
rubbing heads nervously as he paced  round  and round the ledge. He  trilled
something about "stalemated game".
     Peregrine  replied,  "Speak  Samnorsk, Vendacious.  I  want  Johanna to
understand -- and you can't talk quite as slick as in pack talk."
     "Whatever." The  traitor's voice  was unconcerned, but his members kept
up their  nervous  pacing.  "The Queen must realize we have a standoff here.
Certainly I'll  kill Johanna  if  I'm not treated  properly. But  even then,
Woodcarver could not afford  to hurt me. Do you realize the  trap Steel  has
set on Margrum Climb? I'm the only one who knows how to avoid it."
     "Big deal. I never wanted to go up Margrum anyway."
     "Yes,  but you  don't  count,  Pilgrim.  You're  a  mongrel  patchwork.
Woodcarver will understand  how  dangerous this situation is. Steel's forces
are everything I said they  weren't, and I've been sending them every secret
I could write down from my investigations of Dataset."
     "My brother is alive, Pilgrim," Johanna said.
     "Oh....  You're  kind  of  a  record setter  for  treason  aren't  you,
Vendacious? Everything to us was a lie, while Steel learned  all  the  truth
about us. You figure that means we daren't kill you now?"
     Laughter, and Vendacious's pacing stopped.  He sees control coming back
to him. "More, you need my full-membered cooperation. See, I exaggerated the
number of enemy agents in Woodcarver's troops, but I  do  have a few  -- and
maybe Steel has planted  others I  don't know about. If you even arrest  me,
word  will  get back  to  the Flenser armies.  Much  of what I  know will be
useless -- and you'll face an immediate, overwhelming attack.  You  see? The
Queen needs me."
     "And how do we know this is not more lies?"
     "That  is a problem, isn't it? Matched only by how I can be  guaranteed
safety once I've  saved the expedition. No  doubt it's  beyond your  mongrel
mind. Woodcarver and I must have a talk, someplace mutually safe and unseen.
Carry that message back to her. She can't have this  traitor's hides, but if
she cooperates she may be able to save her own!"
     There was silence from outside, punctuated by  the squeaking of animals
in the nearer trees.  Finally, surprisingly, Pilgrim laughed. "Mongrel mind,
eh? Well,  you have  me in one thing, Vendacious.  I've been  all the  world
round, and I remember back half a thousand years
     -- but  of all the  villains and  traitors and geniuses,  you  take the
record for bald impudence!"
     Vendacious  gave a Tinish chord, untranslatable but as a sign  of  smug
pleasure. "I'm honored."
     "Very well, I'll  take your points back to the Queen. I hope the two of
you are clever enough to work  something out....  One thing more: the  Queen
requires that Johanna come with me."
     "The  Queen requires? That sounds more  like your mongrel  sentiment to
     "Perhaps. But it will prove you are serious in your confidence. View it
as my price for cooperation."
     Vendacious turned all  his  heads  toward Johanna,  silently regarding.
Then he scanned out all the windows one last  time. "Very well, you may have
her." Two  jumped down  to the cabin's hatch while another pair  pulled  her
toward it. His voice was soft and near her ear. "Damn Pilgrim. Alive, you're
just going to cause me trouble  with  the Queen."  His knife slid across her
field of view. "Don't oppose me with her. I am going  to survive this affair
still powerful."
     He  lifted back the  hatch and  daylight spilled  blindingly across her
face.  She  squinted; there was a sweep of branches and the side of the hut.
Vendacious  pushed and pulled her cot  onto the forest floor,  and  the same
time  gobbling  at  his  guards to keep their  positions.  He and  Peregrine
chatted politely, agreeing on when the pilgrim would return.
     One by one, Vendacious trotted back through the  cabin's hatch. Pilgrim
advanced and grabbed the handles at the front of the  cot. One of  his  pups
reached out from his jacket to nuzzled her face. "You okay?"
     "I'm not sure. I got bashed in  the head ... and it seems  kind of hard
to breathe."
     He loosened  the blankets  from  around her chest  as  the rest  of him
dragged the cot away from  the  hut. The  forest shade was peaceful and deep
...  and Vendacious's guards were stationed here  and there  about the area.
How many were really in on the treason? Two hours ago, Johanna had looked to
them for protection. Now their every glance sent a shiver  through  her. She
rolled back to the center of the cot,  dizzy again, and  stared  up into the
branches and leaves and patches of smoke-stained sky.  Things  like Straumli
tree  squigglies  chased each other  back and forth, chittering  in  seeming

     Funny.  Almost  a year ago Pilgrim and Scriber were dragging me around,
and  I was  even worse  hurt, and terrified of everything -- including them.
And now ... she  had never been so glad to see another person. Even Scarbutt
was a reassuring strength, walking beside her.
     The  waves  of terror slowly subsided.  What  was left  was an anger as
intense, though more  reasoning,  than  the year before. She knew  what  had
happened here; the players  were not strangers, the betrayal was  not random
murder. After  all  Vendacious's treachery,  after all his murders,  and his
planning  to  kill  them  all  ... he  was  going  to go  free!  Pilgrim and
Woodcarver were just going to overlook that, "He killed Scriber, Pilgrim. He
killed Scriber...." He cut Scriber to pieces, then chased down what was left
and  killed that right out of our arms. "And Woodcarver is  going to let him
go free? How can she do it? How can you do it?" The tears were coming again.
     "Sh,  sh." Two of Pilgrim's heads came into  view.  They looked down at
her, then  swiveled  around almost nervously. She reached out,  touching the
short plush  fur. Pilgrim was shivering! One of him dipped close; his  voice
didn't sound jaunty  at all. "I don't know  what the Queen will do, Johanna.
She doesn't know about any of this."
     "Wha -- "
     "Sh." And his voice became  scarcely  a buzzing through her  hand. "His
people can still see us. He could still figure things out.... Only you and I
know, Johanna. I don't think anyone else suspects."
     "But the pack that confessed ...?"
     "Bluff,  all bluff. I've done some crazy things in my life but next  to
following Scriber  down  to your starship,  this  takes the prize....  After
Vendacious took you away, I began to think. You weren't  that badly injured.
It  was  all too much like what  happened to Jaqueramaphan,  but  I  had  no
     "And you haven't told anyone?"
     "No.  Foolish  as poor Scriber,  aren't  I?" His  heads  looked in  all
directions. "If I was right, he'd be silly not  to kill you  immediately.  I
was so afraid I was already too late...."

     You would have been, if  Vendacious weren't quite the monster I know he
     "Anyway,  I  learned  the truth  just like poor  Scriber  --  almost by
accident. But  if  we can get another seventy meters away, we won't die like
him. And everything I claimed to Vendacious will be true."
     She patted  his nearest shoulder,  and  looked back. The tiny cabin and
its ring of guards disappeared behind the forest brush.
     ...and Jefri lives!

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     Crypto: 0 [95 encrypted packets have been discarded]
     As received by: Ølvira shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Tredeschk->Triskweline, SjK units
     From:  Zonograph Eidolon [Co-op  (or religious order) in  Middle Beyond
maintained by subscription  of several thousand Low Beyond civilizations, in
particular those threatened by immersion]
     Subject: Surge Bulletin Update and Ping
 Zonograph Eidolon Subscribers, Zonometric Interest Group, Threats Interest Group, subgroup: navigational, Ping participants
     Date: 1087892301 seconds  since Calibration Event 239011, Eidolon Frame
[66.91 days since Fall of Sjandra Kei]
     Key phrases: galactic  scale event,  superluminal, charitable emergency

     Text of message:
     (Please include accurate local time in any ping responses.)
     If  you receive this, you  know that the monster surge has receded. The
new zone surface appears to be a stable froth of low dimensionality (between
2.1  and  2.3).  At  least  five  civilizations   are  trapped  in  the  new
configuration.  Thirty  virgin  solar  systems  have  achieved  the  Beyond.
(Subscribers  may find  specifics  in  the encrypted data  that  follow this
     The  change corresponds to what is seen in a normal period of two years
across the whole galaxy's Slow Zone surface. Yet this surge happened in less
than a two hundred hours and less than one thousandth of that surface.
     Even  these numbers do not show the scale of the event.  (The following
can  only  be  estimates,  since  so  many  sites  were  destroyed,  and  no
instruments  were calibrated for this size event.) At its maximum, the surge
reached  1000 light-years  above Zone Surface Standard. Surge rates of  more
than thirty million times lightspeed (about one light-year  per second) were
sustained  for periods of  more  than 100 seconds. Reports from  subscribers
show more than ten billion  normalized  sophont deaths directly attributable
to  the  Surge  (local  network  failures, failures  leading  to environment
collapse,  medical  collapse, vehicle  crashes,  security failures).  Posted
economic damage is much greater.
     The important  question now  is what can we expect in  aftersurges. Our
predictions are based on instrumented sites and zonometric surveys, combined
with  historical data  from  our  archives.  Except  for  long-term  trends,
predicting  zone changes has never been  a science, but we have  served  our
subscribers well in advising of aftersurges and in identifying available new
worlds. The present situation makes  all  previous  work almost  useless. We
have precise documentation going  back ten million years. Faster than  light
surges happen about every twenty thousand years  (usually  with speeds under
7.0c). Nothing like this monster is on file. The surge just seen is the kind
described at third-hand in old and glutted databases: Sculptor had one  this
size  fifty million  years  ago.  The  [Perseus  Arm] in our galaxy probably
suffered something like this half a billion years ago.
     This  uncertainty  makes  our  Mission  nearly  impossible, and  is  an
important  reason  for  this public  message to the Zonometry  newsgroup and
others: Everyone interested in zonometry and navigation must  pool resources
on this problem. Ideas, archive access, algorithms -- all these things could
help.   We  pledge  significant   contributions   to   non-subscribers,  and
one-for-one  trades to those with important information. Note:  We are  also
addressing this message  to  the  Swndwp oracle, and  direct  beaming  it to
points  in the Transcend thought to be inhabited. Surely  an  event  such as
this must  be of interest even  there? We appeal to the Powers Above: Let us
send you what we know. Give us some hint if you have ideas about this event.
     To  demonstrate  our  good  faith,  here  are  the  estimates  we  have
currently. These are based  on  naive scale-up of well-documented  surges in
this region.  Details are in the non-crypted appendix to  this sending. Over
the next year there will be  five or  six aftersurges, of diminishing  speed
and range.  During this time at least two more civilizations (see risk list)
will likely be permanently immersed. Zone storm conditions will prevail even
when  aftersurges  are  not  in  progress.  Navigation  in  the  the  volume
[coordinate  specification] will be extremely  dangerous during this period;
we  recommend that shipping  in  the  volume be suspended. The time  line is
probably too short  to admit feasible rescue plans  for the civilizations at
risk. Our  long-range prediction (probably the least uncertain of  all): The
million-year-scale secular shrinkage will not  be affected at all.  The next
hundred thousand  years will however show a retardation in the  shrinkage of
the Slow Zone boundary in this portion of the galaxy.
     Finally, a philosophical note. We of Zonographic Eidolon watch the zone
boundary and the orbits of border stars. For the most part, the zone changes
are very  slow: 700 meters  per second in the case of the long-term  secular
shrinkage. Yet these changes together with orbital motion affect billions of
lives each  year. Just  as the glaciers and droughts of a pretechnical world
must affect a people, so must we  accept these long-term changes. Storms and
surges are obvious tragedies, near-instant death for some civilizations. Yet
these  are as far beyond  our control as the slower movements. Over the last
few weeks, some newsgroups have been full of tales of war and battle fleets,
of billions  dying in the clash of species. To all  such -- and those living
more peaceably around them  -- we say: Look out on the universe. It does not
care, and even with all our science there are some disasters that we can not
avert. All evil and good is petty before Nature. Personally, we take comfort
from this,  that  there is a universe to admire that can not  be  twisted to
villainy or good, but which simply is.


     Crypto: 0
     As received by: Ølvira shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Arbwyth->Trade24->Cherguelen->Triskweline,  SjK
     From: Twirlip of the Mists [Who knows what this is, though probably not
a propaganda voice. Very sparse priors.]
     Subject: The cause of the recent Great Surge
 Threat of the Blight, Great Secrets of Creation, Zonometric Interest Group
     Date: 66.47 days since Fall of Sjandra Kei
     Key  phrases:  Zone  Instability and the  Blight, Hexapodia  as the key

     Text of message:
     Apologies if I am repeating  obvious  conclusions. My only gateway onto
the Net is very expensive, and I miss  many  important postings.  The  Great
Surge now in progress appears by all accounts to be an event of cosmic scope
and rarity. Furthermore, the other posters put its epicenter less than 6,000
light-years  from  recent warfare  related  to the Blight. Can  this be mere
coincidence?  As has  long been  theorized [citations from various  sources,
three  known  to Ølvira; the theories cited are of long  standing and
nondisprovable] the Zones themselves may  be an artifact, perhaps created by
something  beyond  Transcendence  for  the  protection of  lesser  forms, or
[hypothetical] sentient gas clouds in galactic cores.
     Now for the first time in Net history we have a  Transcendent form, the
Blight,  that can  effectively  dominate the Beyond. Many on  the Net [cites
Hanse and Sandor at  the Zoo] believe that it is  searching  for an artifact
near the Bottom. Is it no wonder that this  could  upset the Natural Balance
and provoke the recent Event?
     Please write to me and tell me what you think. I don't get much mail.


     Crypto: 0
     As received by: Ølvira shipboard ad hoc
     Language path: Baeloresk->Triskweline, SjK units
     From: Alliance for  the Defense [Claimed union of  five  empires  below
Straumli Realm. No  references  prior to  the Fall of  the  Straumli  Realm.
Numerous  counter claims (including from Out of Band II) that this  Alliance
is a front for the old Aprahant Hegemony. Cf, Butterfly Terror.]
     Subject: Courageous Mission Accomplished
 Threat of the Blight, War Trackers Interest Group, Homo Sapiens Interest Group
     Date: 67.07 days since Fall of Sjandra Kei
     Key phrases: Action, not talk

     Text of message:
     Subsequent to our action against the human nest at [Sjandra Kei] a part
of  our  fleet pursued human  and  other Blight-controlled forces toward the
Bottom  of  the Beyond.  Evidently, the  Perversion  hoped to protect  these
forces by putting  them in  an environment too  dangerous to challenge. That
thinking did not count on the courage of Alliance commanders  and  crews. We
can now report the substantial destruction of those escaping forces.
     The  first  major  operation  of  your  Alliance has been  an  enormous
success. With the extermination of  their most  important supporters, Blight
encroachment on the Middle Beyond has been brought to a standstill. Yet much
remains to be done:
     The  Alliance Fleet is returning to the  Middle Beyond.  We've suffered
some casualties  and need substantial reprovisioning. We know that there are
still scattered  pockets  of  humanity in the Beyond,  and we've  identified
secondary races that are aiding humanity.  The defense of the  Middle Beyond
must be the goal of every sophont of good  will. Elements  of  your Alliance
Fleet will soon  visit systems in the  volume [parameter  specification]. We
ask for your aid and support against what is left of this terrible enemy.
     Death to vermin.


     Kjet Svensndot  was alone  on  Ølvira's  bridge when  the  Surge
passed. They had long since done all the  preparations that were meaningful,
and  the  ship  had no  realistic means of propulsion  in  the Slowness that
surrounded  it. Yet the Group Captain spent much of his time up here, trying
to program some  sort of  responsiveness into the automation that  remained.
Half- assed programming  was a time-filler that, like knitting, must date to
the beginning of the human experience.
     Of  course, the  actual transition  out  of  Slowness  would have  been
totally  unnoticed if  not  for all the  alarms  he  and the  Dirokimes  had
installed.  As it was, the  noise and lights blew  him out of  a half-drowse
into  hair-raised wakefulness.  He  punched  the  ship's  comm: "Glimfrelle!
Tirolle! Get your tails up here."
     By  the  time the  brothers  reached the command  deck, preliminary nav
displays had been  computed, and a jump sequence  was awaiting confirmation.
The  two were  grinning  from ear to ear as  they bounced  in, and  strapped
themselves  down  at  action posts.  For a  few  moments  there  was  little
chitchat, only an  occasional whistle of pleasure from the  Dirokimes.  They
had rehearsed this over  and over during  the last  hundred plus  hours, and
with the poor automation there was  a lot for them to do. Gradually the view
from the deck's windows sharpened. Where at first there had  only been vague
blurs, the  ultrawave sensors  were posting  individual traces with steadily
improving information on  range  and rates.  The communication window showed
the queue of fleet comm messages getting longer and longer.
     Tirolle looked up from his work  "Hei, Boss,  these jump  figures  look
okay -- at least as a first cut."
     "Good. Commit and allow autocommit." In the hours after the Surge, they
had decided  that  their  initial  priority should be to continue  with  the
pursuit.  What  they did then ... they  had  talked long  on that, and Group
Captain Svensndot had thought even longer. Nothing was routine any more.
     "Yes, sir!" The  Dirokime's longfingers danced across the controls, and
'Rolle added some verbal control. "Bingo!"
     Status showed five jumps completed, ten.  Kjet stared out the true-view
window for a few seconds.  No change, no change ... then he noticed that one
of  the brightest  stars in the field had  moved,  was sliding imperceptibly
across the sky. Like a juggler getting her pace, Ølvira was coming up
to speed.
     "Hei, hei!"  Glimfrelle leaned over to  see  his brother's work. "We're
making 1.2 light-years per hour. That's better than before the Surge."
     "Good. Comm and Surveillance?" Where  was everybody else and  what were
they up to?
     "Yup. Yup. I'm on it."  Glimfrelle bent  his slender  frame back to the
console.  For  some seconds,  he was almost  silent. Svensndot  began paging
through the  mail.  There was nothing yet from  Owner Limmende.  Twenty-five
years  Kjet had  worked for Limmende and  SjK  Commercial Security. Could he
mutiny? And if he did, would any follow?
     "Okay. Here's the situation, Boss." Glimfrelle shifted  the main window
to  show  his interpretation of the  ship's reports.  "It's like we guessed,
maybe a little  more  extreme." They had realized  almost from the beginning
that the surge was bigger than anything in recorded history; that's not what
the Dirokime  meant  by "extreme". He swept his shortfingers down,  making a
hazy  blue  line across the window. "We guessed that the leading edge of the
Surge  moved  normal  to this  line.  That  would account for it taking Boss
Limmende out four hundred seconds before it hit the Out of Band, and hitting
us  ten seconds  after that....  Now if  the  trailing edge  were similar to
ordinary surges" -- upgraded a  million times -- "then we, and then the rest
of the  pursuing fleets should come out well before Out of Band." He pointed
at a single glowing dot that represented the Ølvira. Around  and just
ahead  of it dozens of points of light  were popping  into existence as  the
ship's detectors reported seeing the  initiation of ultradrive jumps. It was
like  a  cold  fire  sweeping  away  from them into the darkness. Eventually
Limmende and the heart of the anonymous fleet would all be back in business.
"Our  pickup  log  shows that's about what  happened. Most all the  pursuing
fleets will be out of the surge before the Out of Band."
     "Hm. So it'll lose part of its lead."
     "Yup. But if it's going where we think -- " a G-star eighty light-years
ahead "-- it'll still get there before they kill it." He paused, pointed  at
a haze that  was  spreading  sideways from the growing knot of  light.  "Not
everybody is still chasing."
     "Yeah...." Svensndot had been  reading the News even as  he listened to
'Frelle's summary.  "...  according  to the Net, that's the Alliance for the
Defense departing the battle field, victorious."
     "Say what?" Tirolle twisted abruptly in  his  harness. His large,  dark
eyes held none of their usual humor.
     "You heard me." Kjet put  the item where the brothers could see it. The
two read rapidly,  'Frelle mumbling phrases  aloud, "... courage of Alliance
commanders.... substantial destruction of escaping forces...."
     Glimfrelle shuddered,  all flippancy departed. "They don't even mention
the Surge.  Everything they say  is a cowardly lie!" His voice shifted up to
its normal speaking range and he continued in  his own  language. Kjet could
understand  parts of it. The Dirokimes  that left their dream habitats  were
normally light-hearted folk,  full of whimsy and  gentle sarcasm. Glimfrelle
sounded almost that way now, except for the high  edges to his whistling and
the insults more colorful than Svensndot had ever heard from them:  "... get
from  a  verminous  cow-pie  ...  killers  of  innocent dreams ..." even  in
Samnorsk  the words  were  strong, but in  Dirokime  "verminous cow-pie" was
drenched in explicit imagery that almost  brought the smell  of such a thing
into the room.  Glimfrelle's voice went higher  and higher,  then beyond the
human  register.  Abruptly,  he   collapsed,  shuddering  and  moaning  low.
Dirokimes could  cry, though  Svensndot had never seen such a  thing before.
Glimfrelle rocked in his brother's arms.
     Tirolle looked over Glimfrelle's  shoulder at Kjet. "Where does revenge
take us now, Group Captain?"
     For  a  moment,  Kjet  looked  back   silently.  "I'll  let  you  know,
Lieutenant."  He looked at the displays. Listen and watch  a  little longer,
and  maybe we'll  know. "Meantime,  get us nearer the center of pursuit," he
said gently.
     "Aye, sir." Tirolle patted his brother's back gently and turned back to
the console.

     During  the next five hours, Ølvira's crew  watched the Alliance
fleet race helter-skelter for the higher spaces. It could not even be called
a  retreat, more a  panicked dissolution. Great  opportunists,  they had not
hesitated to  kill by  treachery, and to  give chase when they thought there
might  be  treasure  at  the  end.  Now that  they were confronted  with the
possibility of being  trapped in the Slowness, of  dying  between the stars,
they raced for their separate safety. Their bulletins to the newsgroups were
full of  bravado,  but their maneuver couldn't be disguised. Former neutrals
pointed to the discrepancy; more and more  it was accepted that the Alliance
was built around  the Aprahanti Hegemony  and perhaps had other motives than
altruistic opposition to the Blight. There was nervous speculation about who
might next receive Alliance attention.
     Major transceivers still targeted the  fleets. They  might as well have
been  on  a  network trunk.  The news traffic  was a vast waterfall, totally
beyond  Ølvira's present ability to receive.  Nevertheless, Svensndot
kept an eye on it. Somewhere there might  be some clue, some insight.... The
majority  of War Trackers  and Threats seemed to have little interest in the
Alliance or the death  of  Sjandra Kei, per se.  Most were terrified of  the
Blight that was still spreading  through the Top  of the Beyond. None of the
Highest had  successfully  resisted,  and  there were  rumors  that two more
interfering Powers had been destroyed. There were some (secret mouths of the
Blight?) who welcomed  the  new  stability  at  the Top, even  one based  on
permanent parasitization.
     In  fact, the chase down  here at the Bottom, the flight of the Out  of
Band  and its pursuers, seemed  the  only place  where the  Blight  was  not
completely triumphant. No wonder they were the subject of 10,000 messages an
     The geometry  of  emergence was enormously favorable  to Ølvira.
They  had been  on  the  outskirts of  the  action, but now they  had  hours
headstart on the main fleets. Glimfrelle and Tirolle were  busier  than they
had  ever  been  in  their  lives,  monitoring  the  fleets'  emergence  and
establishing Ølvira's identity  with the  other vessels of Commercial
Security.  Until  Scrits  and  Limmende  emerged  from  the  Slowness,  Kjet
Svensndot was  the ranking officer of the  organization. Furthermore, he was
personally known to most of the commanders.  Kjet had never been the admiral
type; his  Group  Captaincy  had  been  a reward  for  piloting skills, in a
Sjandra Kei at peace. He had always been content to  defer to his employers.
But now...
     The Group  Captain used his ranking status.  The Alliance  vessels were
not pursued.  ("Wait  till we  can all  act  together,"  ordered Svensndot.)
Possible game  plans  bounced  back  and  forth across the  emerging  fleet,
including schemes that assumed HQ  was destroyed.  With certain  commanders,
Kjet hinted that this last might be the case, that  Limmende's flag ship was
in enemy hands, and that the Alliance was somehow just a side effect of that
true enemy. Very soon, Kjet would be committed to the "treason" he planned.
     The Limmende flag ships and the core of  the Blighter fleet came out of
the   Slowness   almost  simultaneously.  Comm   alarms   went  off   across
Ølvira's deck as  priority mail arrived and passed through the ship's
crypto. "Source: Limmende  at HQ. Star  Breaker Priority,"  said  the ship's
     Glimfrelle put  the  message on  the main window, and  Svensndot felt a
chill certainty spread up his neck.

     ...  All units  are to pursue fleeing vessels. These are the enemy, the
killers  of our people. WARNING: Masquerades suspected. Destroy  any vessels
countermanding these orders. Order of Battle and validation codes follow....

     Order of Battle  was  simple,  even  by Commercial Security  standards.
Limmende wanted them to split up  and be gone, staying  only  long enough to
destroy "masqueraders". Kjet  said to  Glimfrelle, "How about the validation
     The Dirokime seemed his usual self again: "They're  clean.  We wouldn't
be  receiving  the  message at all  unless the  sender had  today's one-time
pad.... We're beginning to receive queries from the others, Boss.  Audio and
video channels. They want to know what to do."
     If he  hadn't prepared the ground during  the  last  few hours,  Kjet's
mutiny wouldn't have had a chance. If  Commercial  Security  had been a real
military  organization, the  Limmende order  might have been  obeyed without
question.  As  it  was,  the  other commanders  pondered  the questions that
Svensndot had raised: At these ranges, video  communication was easy and the
fleet had  one-time ciphers  large enough to support enormous amounts of it.
Yet  "Limmende"  had chosen printed mail  for her priority message. It  made
perfect military sense  given that the  encryption was correct, but  it  was
also what Svensndot had  predicted: The supposed HQ was not quite willing to
show its  face down here where perfect visual masquerades were not possible.
Their commands would be by mail, or  evocations that a  sharp observer might
     Such a slender thread of reason Kjet and his friends were hanging from.
     Kjet eyed the knot of light that represented the Blighter fleet. It was
suffering from no  indecision.  None  of its  vessels  were straggling  back
toward safer heights. Whatever commanded  there  had discipline beyond  most
human militaries. It would sacrifice everything in its single-minded pursuit
of one small starship. What next, Group Captain?
     Just ahead of that cold smear of light, a single  tiny gleam  appeared.
"The Out of Band!" said Glimfrelle. "Sixty-five light-years out now."
     "I'm getting encrypted video from them, Boss. The same half-crocked xor
pad as before." He  put the  signal  on the  main window without waiting for
Kjet's direction.
     It  was Ravna  Bergsndot. The background  was a jumble  of  motion  and
shouting, the strange  human and a Skroderider arguing. Bergsndot was facing
away from the pickup, and doing  her share of shouting. Things  looked  even
worse than Kjet's recollection of the first moments of his ship's emergence.
     "It  doesn't  matter just now,  I  tell you! Let him  be. We've got  to
contact -- " she must have seen the signal Glimfrelle was  sending  back  to
her.  "They're here!  By the Powers, Pham, please  -- "  She  waved her hand
angrily and turned to the camera. "Group Captain. We're -- "
     "I know. We've been out of  the surge  for hours. We're near the center
of the pursuit now."
     She caught her breath.  Even with a  hundred hours  of planning, events
were moving too fast for her.  And for me too. "That's something,"  she said
after  an instant. "Everything we said before holds, Group  Captain. We need
your help. That's the Blight that's coming behind us. Please!"
     Svensndot  noticed  a  telltale  by the  window.  Sassy Glimfrelle  was
retransmitting this to all  the fleet they could trust.  Good. He had talked
about the situation with the others these last hours, but it meant something
more to see Ravna Bergsndot on the comm, to see someone from Sjandra Kei who
still survived  and needed their help. You  can spend the rest  of your life
chasing revenge in the Middle Beyond, but all you kill will be the vultures.
What's chasing Ravna Bergsndot may be the first cause.

     The Butterflies were long gone, still singing their  courage across the
Net. Less than one  percent of Commercial Security had followed "Limmende's"
order to chase  after  them.  Those  were  not  the  problem: it was the ten
percent that stayed behind and arrayed themselves with the  Blight's  forces
that  bothered  Kjet Svensndot. Some  of those ships might not be subverted,
might simply be loyal to orders they believed. It would be very hard to fire
on them.
     And there would be fighting, no doubt of that. Maneuvering for conflict
while under  ultradrive was difficult --  if  the other  side  attempted  to
evade. But Blight's fleet was  unwavering in its pursuit of the Out of Band.
Slowly,  slowly the  two  fleets were coming  to occupy the same volume.  At
present they were scattered  across  cubic light-years, but with every jump,
the  Group  Captain's Aniara  fleet was more finely tuned to the  stutter of
their  quarries'  drives. Some  ships  were actually  within a  few  hundred
million kilometers of the enemy -- or where the enemy had  been or would be.
Targeting tactics were set. First fire was only a few hundred seconds away.
     "With the Aprahanti gone, we have numerical superiority. A normal enemy
would back off now -- "
     "But  of course, that is one thing the Blight fleet is not." It was the
red-haired guy who was doing the talking now. It was a good thing Glimfrelle
hadn't relayed his face to the rest of Svensndot's fleet. The guy acted edgy
and alien most of the time. Just now, he seemed intent on bashing every idea
Svensndot advanced. "The Blight doesn't care what its losses  are as long as
it arrives with the upper hand."
     Svensndot  shrugged. "Look, we'll do  our  best.  First fire is seventy
seconds off. If they don't  have any secret advantage, we may win this one."
He looked sharply at the  other. "Or is that your point? Could the Blight --
" Stories were still coming down about the Blight's progress across the  Top
of the Beyond. Without a doubt, it was a transhuman intelligence. An unarmed
man might  be outnumbered by a pack of dogs, yet still defeat them. So might
the Blight...?
     Pham Nuwen shook his head. "No, no,  no. The Blight's tactics down here
will probably be inferior to yours. Its great advantage is at the Top, where
it  can control its slaves like fingers on a hand.  Its creatures down  here
are like badly-synched waldoes." Nuwen frowned at something off camera. "No,
what we have to fear is  its strategic cleverness." His voice suddenly had a
detached quality that was  more unsettling  than the  earlier impatience. It
wasn't the  calm of someone facing up to a threat;  it was more the  calm of
the demented.  "One hundred seconds to contact.... Group Captain, we have  a
chance, if you concentrate your forces on  the right  points." Ravna floated
down from the top of the picture,  put one hand  on the red-head's shoulder.
Godshatter,  she  said  he  was,  their  secret  edge   against  the  enemy.
Godshatter, a Power's dying message; garbage or treasure, who really knew?

     Damn. If the other  guys are badly-synched waldoes, what does following
Pham Nuwen  make us? But  he motioned Tirolle to  mark the targets Nuwen was
saying. Ninety seconds. Decision time. Kjet pointed at the red marks Tirolle
had  scattered through  the  enemy  fleet.  "Anything  special  about  those
targets, 'Rolle?"
     The Dirokime whistled for a moment. Correlations  popped up agonizingly
slowly  on  the windows before him. "The  ships  he's  targeting aren't  the
biggest or  the fastest. It's gonna  take extra  time to position  on them."
Command vessels? "One other thing. Some  of 'em  show high  real velocities,
not natural residuals at all." Ships with ram drives? Planet busters?
     "Hm."  Svensndot  looked at the  display  just  a  second more.  Thirty
seconds and Jo Haugen's ship  Lynsnar would be in contact, but not  with one
of Nuwen's targets. "Get on the comm, Glimfrelle. Tell Lynsnar to back  off,
retarget." Retarget everything.
     The lights that were Aniara  fleet slid slowly  around the core  of the
Blighter fleet,  searching for their new targets. Twenty minutes passed, and
not a few arguments with the other  captains.  Commercial Security  was  not
built for military  combat. What had made Kjet Svensndot's appeal successful
was also the cause of  constant questioning and countersuggestions. And then
there were the  threats  that came from Owner  Limmende's channel:  kill the
mutineers, death to all those  disloyal  to  the company. The encryption was
valid  but  the tone was  totally alien  to the  mild, profit-oriented Giske
Limmende. Everyone could now see  that disbelieving Limmende was one correct
decision, anyway.
     Johanna  Haugen  was  the first to  achieve synch with the new targets.
Glimfrelle opened the main window on the Lynsnar's data stream: The view was
almost natural, a  night sky of  slowly shifting stars. The target  was less
than thirty million kilometers from Lynsnar, but about  a millisecond out of
synch. Haugen was arriving just before or just after the other had jumped.
     "Drones away," Haugen's voice said. Now they had a true view of Lynsnar
from a few meters away, from a camera aboard one of the first weapons drones
launched. The ship was barely visible, a darkness obscuring the stars beyond
-- a great fish in the depths of an endless sea. A fish that was  now giving
spawn. The  picture flickered,  Lynsnar  disappearing,  reappearing, as  the
drone lost synch momentarily. A swarm of blue lights spilled from the ship's
hold.  Weapon  drones.  The  swarm  hung  by  Lynsnar,  calibrating  itself,
orienting on the enemy.
     The light faded  from around Lynsnar as the  drones moving fractionally
out of synch in space and time. Tirolle opened a window on a hundred-million
klick sphere centered  at Lynsnar.  The  target  vessel was  a red  dot that
flickered  around the sphere  like a  maddened insect. Lynsnar  was stalking
prey  at eight  thousand  times  the  speed of light. Sometimes  the  target
disappeared  for a second,  synch almost  lost; other  times Lynsnar and the
target merged for an instant as the two craft spent  a tenth of  a second at
less  than  a  million  kilometers  remove. What  could  not  be  accurately
displayed was the disposition of the drones. The  spawn diffused on a myriad
trajectories, their sensors extended for sign of the enemy ship.
     "What about the target, is it swarming back? Do you need back up?" said
Svensndot. Tirolle gave a Dirokime shrug. What they  were watching was three
light-years away. No way he could know.
     But Jo Haugen replied, "I  don't think my bogie  is swarming. I've lost
only five drones, no more'n you'd expect from fratricide. We'll see -- " She
paused, but Lynsnar's trace and signal remained strong. Kjet looked out  the
other windows. Five of Aniara were already engaged  and  three had completed
swarm deploy. Nuwen looked on silently from Out of Band. The  godshatter had
had its way, and now Kjet and his people were committed.
     And now good news and bad came in very fast:
     "Got him!" from Jo Haugen. The red dot in Lynsnar's swarm was  no more.
It had  passed within a few thousand kilometers of one of the drones. In the
milliseconds necessary to compute  a  new jump, the drone had discovered its
presence and  detonated. Even  that would not have been fatal if the  target
had jumped before the blast front hit it; there had been several near misses
in  earlier seconds.  This  time the  jump  did  not reach commit in time. A
mini-star was born, one whose light  would be years in reaching the rest  of
the battle volume.
     Glimfrelle gave  a rasping whistle, an untranslatable  curse, "We  just
lost Ablsndot and Holder, Boss. Their target must have counter-swarmed."
     "Send  in Gliwing and Trance." Something in the back of his head curled
up in horror.  These  were his friends who were dying.  Kjet had  seen death
before, but  never like this. In police action, no  one took lethal  chances
except in  a rescue. And yet...  he turned from  the field summary to  order
more  ships on a target  that  had acquired  defending vessels.  Tirolle was
moving in others on his own. Ganging up on a few nonessential  targets might
lose  in the long run, but in the short term  ... the enemy was being  hurt.
For  the first time since the fall of  Sjandra  Kei, Commercial Security was
hurting someone back.
     Haugen:  "Powers, that guy was moving! Secondary drone got  EM spectrum
on the kill. Target was going 15000 kps true  speed." A rocket bomb  ramping
up? Damn.  They should  be postponing  those till after they controlled  the
     Tirolle:  "More  kills,  far  side  of  battle  volume.  The  enemy  is
repositioning. Somehow they've guessed which we're after -- "
     Glimfrelle: Triumph whistle. "Get  'em, get 'em -- oops.  Boss, I think
Limmende has figured we're coordinating things -- "
     A new window had opened over Tirolle's post. It showed the five million
kilometers around Ølvira. Two other ships were  there now: the window
identified  them as  Limmende's  flag and one of the  vessels that  had  not
responded to Svensndot's recruiting.
     There was an instant  of stillness on Ølvira's command deck. The
voices  of  triumph  and  panic coming  from  the  rest  of the fleet seemed
suddenly  far away.  Svensndot and his crew were looking at death close  up.
"Tirolle! How long till swarm -- "
     "They're on us already -- just missed a drone by ten milliseconds."
     "Tirolle! Finish running current engagements. Glimfrelle,  tell Lynsnar
and Trance to chain  command if we lose contact."  Those  ships  had already
spent their drones, and Jo Haugen was known to all the other captains.
     Then the thought was gone, and he was busy coordinating Ølvira's
own battle  swarm. The  local tactics window showed the  cloud  dissipating,
taking on colors  coded  by whether  they  were  lagging or leading in  time
relative to Ølvira.
     Their two attackers  had matched pseudospeeds perfectly. Ten times  per
second all three ships jumped a tiny fraction of  a light-year.  Like  rocks
skipping  across the  surface of  a pond,  they appeared  in  real  space in
perfectly  measured hops -- and the distance between them at every emergence
was less  that five  million kilometers. The only thing  that separated them
now was millisecond differences in jump times, and the fact the light itself
could not pass between them in the brief time they spent at each jump point.
     Three actinic flashes lit the deck, casting shadows back from Svensndot
and the Dirokimes. It was second-hand light, the display's  emergency signal
of nearby detonation.  Run  like  hell was the message  any  rational person
should take  from that awful light. It would be  easy enough to  break synch
... and lose tactical control of Aniara  fleet. Tirolle and Glimfrelle  bent
their  heads away from the local window,  shying  from  the glare  of nearby
death. Their whistling  voices scarcely broke cadence, and the commands from
Ølvira to the others continued.  There were  dozens of  other battles
going on out there. Just now Ølvira was the only source  of precision
and control  available to their side.  Every second they remained on station
meant protection and advantage to Aniara. Breaking off would mean minutes of
chaos till Lynsnar or Trance could pick up control.
     Nearly two thirds of Pham Nuwen's targets were destroyed now. The price
had  been  high,  half  of  Svensdot's  friends. The enemy  had lost much to
protect those targets, yet much of its fleet survived.
     An  unseen hand smashed  Ølvira, driving  Svensndot hard against
his  combat harness. The lights went out,  even the glow  from  the windows.
Then dim  red  light  came from the floor. The Dirokimes were silhouetted by
one  small monitor. 'Rolle  whistled softly, "We're out of  the  game, Boss,
least while it counts. I didn't know you could get misses that near."

     Maybe it wasn't a  miss. Kjet scrambled out  of his harness and boosted
across the  room to  float  head-down over  the  tiny  monitor. Maybe  we're
already dead. Somewhere very close by a drone had detonated,  the wave front
reaching Ølvira before she jumped. The concussion had been the  outer
part of the ship's hull exploding as it absorbed the soft-xray component  of
the  enemy ordnance. He stared at the red letters marching slowly across the
damage  display.  Most likely, the electronics was permanently dead; chances
were they  had all  received  a fatal  dose  of  gamma. The  smell  of burnt
insulation floated across the room on the ventilator's breeze.
     "Iiya! Look at that. Five nanoseconds  more  and we wouldn't  have been
clipped  at all. We actually  committed the jump  after the  front hit!" And
somehow the electronics had survived long enough to  complete  the jump. The
gamma  flux  through  the command deck  had been 300 rem, nothing that would
slow  them down over  the  next few  hours, and easily managed  by a  ship's
surgeon.  As  for the  surgeon  and  all  the  rest  of  the Ølvira's
automation ...
     Tirolle  typed  several long  queries  at the box; there  was  no voice
recognition left.  Several  seconds passed before a response marched  across
the  screen. "Central automation suspended.  Display  management  suspended.
Drive computation suspended." Tirolle  dug an elbow  at  his  brother. "Hei,
'Frelle,  it looks like 'Vira managed a clean  disconnect. We can bring most
of this back!"

     Dirokimes  were known  for being drifty  optimists, but  in  this  case
Tirolle  wasn't  far from the truth. Their encounter with the drone bomb had
been a one-in-billion  thing, the tiniest fraction of an exposure. Over  the
next hour and a  half, the  Dirokimes ran reboots off the monitor's hardened
processor, bringing up first one utility and  then another. Some things were
beyond recovery: parsing intelligence was gone from the comm automation, and
the  ultradrive  spines on  one side  of the  craft were  partially  melted.
(Absurdly,  the burning smell had been a vagrant diagnostic, something  that
should have  been  disabled  along  with  all  the rest  of  Ølvira's
automation.) They were far behind the Blighter fleet.
     ... and  there was still a Blighter fleet. The knot of enemy lights was
smaller than before,  but on the  same unwavering trajectory. The battle was
long over. What was left of Commercial  Security  was scattered  across four
light-years  of abandoned  battlefield;  they  had  started  the battle with
numerical  superiority. If  they'd  fought  properly,  they  might have won.
Instead they'd destroyed the vessels with significant real velocities -- and
knocked out only about  half the  others. Some of the  largest enemy vessels
survived. These  outnumbered the corresponding Aniara survivors by more than
four to one. Blight could have could have easily destroyed all that remained
of Commercial Security. But that would have meant a detour from the pursuit,
and that pursuit was the one constant in the enemy's behavior.
     Tirolle  and Glimfrelle spent hours reestablishing  communications  and
trying to discover  who had  died and who might  be rescued.  Five ships had
lost all drive capability but still had surviving crew. Some ships had  been
hit  at known locations, and Svensndot dispatched vessels with drone  swarms
to  find  the wrecks. Ship-to-ship  warfare  was  a  sanitary,  intellectual
exercise for most of the survivors, but the rubble and  the destruction were
as real as in any ground war, only spread over a trillion times more space.

     Finally  the time  for miracle rescues and sad discoveries  was passed.
The SjK  commanders gathered  on a common channel to decide a common future.
It might better  have been  a wake -- for Sjandra Kei and Aniara fleet. Part
way through  the meeting, a new window appeared, a view  onto the  bridge of
the  Out  of Band. Ravna  Bergsndot watched  the  proceedings silently.  The
erstwhile "godshatter" was nowhere in evidence.
     "What more to do?" said Johanna Haugen. "The damn  Butterflies are long
     "Are we sure we have rescued everyone?" asked Jan  Trenglets. Svensndot
bit back an angry reply. The commander of Trance had become a recording loop
on that issue. He had lost too many friends  in the battle; all  the rest of
his life Jan Trenglets would live with  nightmares of  ships slowly dying in
the deep night.
     "We've accounted for everything, even to vapor," Haugen spoke as gently
as the words allowed. "The question is where to go now."
     Ravna made a small throat-clearing sound, "Gentlemen and Ladies,  if --
     Trenglets looked up at her transceived image. All his hurt  transformed
into  a  blaze of  anger. "We're not your gentlemen,  slut! You're not  some
princess we happily die for. You deserve our deadly fire now, nothing more."
     The woman shrank from Trenglets rage. "I -- "
     "You put us into this suicidal battle," shouted Trenglets. "You made us
attack secondary  targets. And then you did  nothing to help. The Blight  is
locked  on  you like  a dumshark on a  squid. If you  had just  altered your
course the tiniest  fraction, you could  have thrown the Blighters  off  our
     "I doubt that would have helped, sir,"  said  Ravna. "The  Blight seems
most  interested in where  we're  bound."  The  solar system just fifty-five
light-years beyond the Out of  Band. The fugitives would  arrive there  just
over two days before their pursuers.
     Jo Haugen shrugged.  "You must realize what your  friend's crazy battle
plan has done. If we had attacked rationally, the  enemy would be a fraction
of its  present size. If it chose  to continue,  we  might have been able to
protect  you  at this, this  Tines' world." She seemed to taste  the strange
name, wondering at  its  meaning. "Now ... no way am  I going to  chase them
there.  What's  left  of  the  enemy could  wipe  us  out."  She glanced  at
Svensndot's viewpoint. Kjet forced himself to look back. No matter who might
blame Out of Band, it had been Group Captain Kjet Svensndot's word that  had
persuaded  the  fleet to fight as they did. Aniara's sacrifice had been ill-
spent, and he wondered that  Haugen and Trenglets  and the others  talked to
him at all now. "Suggest we continue the business meeting later.  Rendezvous
in one thousand seconds, Kjet."
     "I'll be ready."
     "Good."  Jo  cut  the  link  without  saying  anything  more  to  Ravna
Bergsndot. Seconds later, Trenglets and  the  other commanders were gone. It
was just Svensndot and the two Dirokimes -- and Ravna Bergsndot looking  out
her window from Out of Band.
     Finally, Bergsndot said, "When I was  a little girl on Herte, sometimes
we would play kidnappers and  Commercial Security. I always dreamed of being
rescued by your company from fates worse than death."
     Kjet smiled bleakly, "Well,  you got the  rescue attempt," and  you not
even a currently subscribed customer. "This  was far the  biggest  gun fight
we've ever been in."
     "I'm sorry, Kje -- Group Captain."
     He  looked into her dark features. A lass from Sjandra Kei, down to the
violet  eyes.  No way  this  could be a  simulation, not  here. He  had  bet
everything  that  she was not;  he still believed she was not. Yet --  "What
does your friend say about all this?" Pham Nuwen had not been seen since his
so-impressive godshatter act at the beginning of the battle.
     Ravna's glance shifted to something off-camera. "He's not  saying much,
Group  Captain.  He's  wandering around even more  upset than  your  Captain
Trenglets. Pham  remembers being absolutely  convinced he was  demanding the
right thing, but now he can't figure out why it was right."
     "Hmm." A  little late for second  thoughts.  "What  are you going to do
now? Haugen is right, you know. It would be useless suicide for us to follow
the Blighters  to your destination. I daresay it's useless  suicide for you,
too. You'll arrive maybe fifty-five hours before them. What can  you  do  in
that time?"
     Ravna Bergsndot looked back at him, and her expression slowly collapsed
into sobbing  grief.  "I  don't know. I ... don't know." She shook her head,
her face hidden behind her hands  and a  sweep of  black  hair.  Finally she
looked up and brushed back her hair. Her voice was calm but very quiet. "But
we are going  ahead. It's what we came for. Things could still  work out....
You   know  there's   something  down  there,  something  the  Blight  wants
desperately. Maybe fifty-five hours  is enough to figure out what  it is and
tell the Net. And ... and we'll still have Pham's godshatter."

     Your worst enemy? Quite possibly this Pham Nuwen was a construct of the
Powers.  He  certainly  looked  like  something  built  from  a  second-hand
description  of  humanity.  But  how can  you  tell godshatter  from  simple
     She shrugged, as if acknowledging the doubts -- and accepting them. "So
what will you and Commercial Security do?"
     "There  is no Commercial  Security anymore. Virtually all our customers
got  shot out from under us. Now we've killed our company's owner  --  or at
least destroyed her ship and those supporting her. We are Aniara Fleet now."
It was the official name  chosen at  the  fleet conference just ended. There
was a certain grim pleasure in  embracing it,  the ghost from before Sjandra
Kei  and before Nyjora, from the  earliest times of the human race. For they
were truly cast  away now, from their  worlds  and their customers and their
former leaders. One hundred  ships  bound for.... "We  talked it over. A few
still wanted to follow you to Tines' world. Some of the crews want to return
to  Middle Beyond,  spend the rest of their  lives  killing Butterflies. The
majority want to start the races of Sjandra Kei over again, some place where
we won't be noticed, some place where no one cares if we live."
     And  the one thing everyone agreed on was that Aniara must  be split no
further,  must make no further sacrifices  outside  of itself. Once that was
clear,  it was easy to decide what to do. In  the wake of the  Great  Surge,
this  part of the Bottom was an  incredible froth of Slowness and Beyond. It
would be  centuries before the zonographic vessels from above had reasonable
maps  of the new  interface. Hidden away  in the folds  and interstices were
worlds fresh from  the  Slowness,  worlds where  Sjandra Kei  could be  born
again. Ny Sjandra Kei?
     He  looked across  the bridge at Tirolle and Glimfrelle. They were busy
bringing  the  main  navigation processors  out  of suspension.  That wasn't
absolutely necessary for the rendezvous with Lynsnar, but things would be  a
lot  more convenient  if  both ships  could maneuver.  The  brothers  seemed
oblivious to Kjet's conversation with Ravna.  And  maybe they weren't paying
attention. In  a  way, the Aniara decision  meant more to  them than  to the
humans of the  fleet: No one doubted that millions of humans survived in the
Beyond  (and  who knew  how  many human  worlds  might  still  exist in  the
Slowness,  distant cousins of Nyjora,  distant children of  Old Earth).  But
this side of  the Transcend, the Dirokimes of Aniara were the only ones that
existed. The  dream  habitats  of  Sjandra  Kei were gone, and with them the
race.  There were at least a thousand Dirokimes left aboard Aniara, pairs of
sisters and brothers scattered across a hundred vessels. These were the most
adventurous of their  race's latter days, and now they were faced with their
greatest challenge. The two on Ølvira had already been scouting among
the survivors, looking for friends and dreaming a new reality.
     Ravna listened solemnly to his explanations. "Group Captain, zonography
is a tedious thing ...  and your ships are near  their limits. In this froth
you might search for years and not find a new home."
     "We're taking  precautions. We're  abandoning all our ships except  the
ones with  ramscoop and  coldsleep  capability. We'll operate in coordinated
nets; no one should be lost for more than a few years." He shrugged. "And if
we never find  what  we seek -- " if  we die  between the stars  as our life
support finally fails "-- well then, we  will have still lived  true  to our
name." Aniara. "I think we have a chance." More than can be said for you.
     Ravna nodded slowly. "Yes, well. It ... helps me to know that."
     They talked a few minutes more, Tirolle and Glimfrelle joining in. They
had been at the center of something vast, but as  usual with the affairs  of
the Powers,  no  one knew  quite  what had  happened, nor the result of  the
     "Rendezvous Lynsnar two hundred seconds," said the ship's voice.
     Ravna  heard it,  nodded.  She raised her hand.  "Fare  you well,  Kjet
Svensndot and Tirolle and Glimfrelle."
     The Dirokimes whistled back the  common  farewell, and Svensndot raised
his hand. The window on Ravna Bergsndot closed.
     ... Kjet Svensndot remembered her face all the rest of his life, though
in later years it seemed more and more to be the same as Ølvira's.

     .Delete this paragraph to shift page flush

     CHAPTER 37

     "Tines' world. I can see it, Pham!"
     The main window showed a true view upon the system: a sun less than two
hundred  million  kilometers off,  daylight  across  the command  deck.  The
positions of identified planets were  marked with  blinking red  arrows. But
one  of  those  --  just  twenty  million  kilometers  off  --  was  labeled
"terrestrial". Coming off an interstellar jump, you couldn't get positioning
much better than that.
     Pham  didn't  reply,  just  glared  out  the window as  if  there  were
something wrong with  what  they were seeing.  Something  had broken in  him
after the battle with the Blight. He'd been so sure of his godshatter -- and
so  bewildered by  the  consequences. Afterwards he had retreated more  than
ever. Now he seemed to  think that if they  moved fast enough, the surviving
enemy could do them no harm.  More than ever he  was suspicious of Blueshell
and Greenstalk,  as if somehow they were greater threats than the ships that
still pursued.
     "Damn," Pham  said finally.  "Look at the  relative  velocity." Seventy
kilometers per second.
     Position matching was no problem, but "Matching velocities will cost us
time, Sir Pham."
     Pham's  stare turned on Blueshell. "We talked this out  with the locals
three weeks ago, remember? You managed the burn."
     "And you checked my work, Sir Pham. This must be another nav system bug
... though I didn't expect anything was wrong in simple ballistics."  A sign
inverted, seventy  klicks  per  second  closing  velocity  instead of  zero.
Blueshell drifted toward the secondary console.
     "Maybe," said Pham. "Just now, I want you off the deck, Blueshell."
     "But  I  can  help!  We  should  be  contacting  Jefri, and  rematching
velocities, and -- "
     "Get off the deck, Blueshell. I don't have time to watch  you anymore,"
Pham dived across the intervening space and was met by Ravna,  just short of
the Rider.
     She  floated between the  two, talking fast,  hoping whatever  she said
would both  make  sense and make  peace. "It's okay, Pham.  He'll  go."  She
brushed her hand  across one of Blueshell's wildly vibrating fronds. After a
second, Blueshell wilted. "I'll go. I'll go." She  kept an encouraging touch
on him --  and kept  herself between him and Pham, as the Skroderider made a
dejected exit.
     When the Rider was gone, she turned to  Pham.  "Couldn't it have been a
nav bug, Pham?"
     The other didn't seem  to hear the  question. The instant the hatch had
closed, he had returned to the command console.  OOB's latest  estimate  put
the Blight's arrival  less  than fifty-three hours  away.  And now they must
waste  time redoing  a  velocity match supposedly  accomplished three  weeks
earlier. "Somebody, something, screwed us over ..." Pham was muttering, even
as  he finished with the  control sequence, "Maybe it was a bug.  This  next
damn burn is going to be as manual as it can be." Acceleration alarms echoed
down the core  of  the OOB. Pham flipped through  monitor windows, searching
for loose items  that might  be big enough to be dangerous.  "You tie  down,
too." He reached out to override the five minute timer.
     Ravna dived back across the deck, unfolding the free-fall saddle into a
seat  and strapping  in. She heard Pham  speaking  on  the general  announce
channel, warning  of  the timer override. Then  the impulse  drive cut in, a
lazy  pressure back into the webbing. Four tenths of a gee -- all  the  poor
OOB could still manage.

     When Pham said manual,  he  meant it. The  main window appeared  to  be
bore-centered now. The view didn't drift at the whim of the pilot, and there
were no helpful legends and schematics. As much as possible, the were seeing
true  view  along  OOB's  main  axis. Peripheral windows were  held in fixed
geometry with main. Pham's eyes flickered from one to another, as  his hands
played over the command board. As near as could be, he was flying by his own
senses, and trusting no one else.
     But Pham still  had use for the  ultradrive.  They were  twenty million
klicks off target, a submicroscopic  jump. Pham Nuwen fiddled with the drive
parameters,  trying  to  make  an  accurate  jump  smaller than the standard
interval. Every  few  seconds  the sunlight would shift a  fraction,  coming
first over Ravna's left shoulder and then her  right. It made reestablishing
comm with Jefri nearly impossible.
     Suddenly  the window  below their feet was filled by a  world, huge and
gibbous, blue  and swirling  white. The  Tines' world  was as Jefri  Olsndot
advertised,  a normal  terrestrial planet. After the months  aspace and  the
loss  of  Sjandra  Kei, the sight caught  Ravna short.  Ocean, the world was
mostly ocean, but near the terminator there were the darker shades  of land.
A single tiny moon was visible beyond the limb.
     Pham  sucked in his  breath. "It's about  ten thousand  kilometers off.
Perfect.  Except we're  closing at seventy klicks per  second." Even as  she
watched, the world seemed to grow, falling toward them.  Pham watched it for
few seconds more. "Don't worry, we're going to miss, fly right past the, um,
north limb."
     The globe swelled below them, eclipsing the  moon. She had always loved
the appearance  of Herte at Sjandra  Kei. But that world had smaller oceans,
and  was criss-crossed with Dirokime accidents. This place  was as beautiful
as  Relay, and seemed truly untouched. The small polar cap  was in sunlight,
and  she  could  follow the coastline  that  came south from  it  toward the
terminator. I'm  seeing the northwest coast. Jefri's right down there! Ravna
reached for her keyboard, asked the ship to attempt both ultrawave comm  and
a radio link.
     "Ultrawave contact," she said after a second.
     "What does it say?"
     "It's  garbled. Probably just a ping response," acknowledgment to OOB's
signal. Jefri was housed very  near  the ship  these days; sometimes she had
gotten responses almost immediately, even during his night time. It would be
good to talk to him again, even if ...
     Tines' world filled the entire  aft  and side  windows now,  its limb a
barely curving horizon. Sky colors stood before them, fading to the black of
space. Icecap and icebergs showed detail within  detail against the sea. She
could  see cloud  shadows.  She followed  the  coast southwards, islands and
peninsulas so closely fit that she could not be sure of  one from the other.
Blackish mountains  and black-striped glaciers. Green and brown valleys. She
tried  to remember the geography they had learned from Jefri. Hidden Island?
But there were so many islands.
     "I have radio  contact from  planet's surface,"  came the ship's voice.
Simultaneously  a blinking arrow pointed at a spot  just  in from the coast.
"Do you want the audio in real time?"
     "Yes. Yes!" said Ravna, then punched at her  keyboard when the ship did
not respond immediately.
     "Hei,  Ravna.  Oh,  Ravna!" The little  boy's voice  bounced excitement
around the deck. He sounded just as she had imagined.
     Ravna keyed in a request for two-way. They were less than five thousand
klicks from Jefri now, even if  they were sweeping  by at seventy kilometers
per second. Plenty  close enough for a radio conversation. "Hei, Jefri!" she
said. "We're here at last, but we need -- " we need all the cooperation your
four-legged friends can give us. How to say that quickly and effectively?
     But the  boy on  the ground already had  an agenda:  "-- need help now,
Ravna! The Woodcarvers are attacking now."
     There  was  a thumping, as if  the  transmitter  was  bouncing  around.
Another voice spoke, high-pitched and  weirdly  inarticulate.  "This  Steel,
Ravna. Jefri right. Woodcarver -- " the almost human  voice dissolved into a
hissing gobble. After a moment she heard Jefri's voice: "'Ambush', the  word
is 'ambush'."
     "Yes ... Woodcarver has done big, big  ambush. They all  around now. We
die in hours if you not help."

     Woodcarver  had  never wanted to be a warrior.  But  ruling for half  a
thousand years  requires a range of skills, and she had learned about making
war. Some of  that  -- such  as  trusting  to staff --  she had  temporarily
unlearned these  last few  days.  There had indeed been an ambush on Margrum
Climb, but not the one that Lord Steel had planned.
     She  looked  across  the  tented  field  at  Vendacious.  That pack was
half-hidden  by noise  baffles, but  she could see  he  wasn't  so jaunty as
before. Being put to the question will  loosen  anyone's control. Vendacious
knew his  survival  now depended on  her keeping a promise. Yet  ...  it was
awful  to think that Vendacious would live after he  had killed and betrayed
so many.  She realized that  two  of herself were keening rage, lips  curled
back from clenched teeth. Her puppies huddled back from threats unseen.  The
tented area stank of sweat and the mindnoise of too many people in too small
a  space.  It  took a real  effort of will to calm herself.  She  licked the
puppies, and daydreamed peaceful thoughts for a moment.
     Yes, she would  keep her promises to Vendacious.  And maybe it would be
worth  the  price. Vendacious  had only  speculations  about  Steel's  inner
secrets, but  he had learned far  more about Steel's tactical situation than
the other  side  could  have guessed. Vendacious  had known just  where  the
Flenserists  were  hiding  and  in  what  numbers.  Steel's  folk  had  been
overconfident  about  their  super  guns  and  their  secret  traitor.  When
Woodcarver's troops surprised them,  victory  had been easy  --  and now the
Queen had some of these marvelous guns.
     From behind the hills,  those cannons were still pounding away,  eating
through  the  stocks  of  ammunition  the  captured  gunners  had  revealed.
Vendacious  the traitor had cost her much, but Vendacious the prisoner might
yet bring her victory.
     "Woodcarver?"  It was Scrupilo. She waved him closer.  Her chief gunner
edged  out of  the sun, sat  down an intimate twenty-five  feet away. Battle
conditions had blown away all notions of decorum.
     Scrupilo's  mind noise was  an  anxious  jumble.  He  looked  by  parts
exhausted and  exhilarated  and discouraged. "It's safe  to advance  up  the
castle hill, Your Majesty," he said. "Answering fire is almost extinguished.
Parts  of the castle  walls have  been  breached. There is an end to castles
here, My Queen. Even our own poor cannons would make it so."
     She bobbed agreement.  Scrupilo  spent most of his time with Dataset in
learning  to  make  -- cannons  in  particular.  Woodcarver  spent  her time
learning  what those inventions ultimately created. By now she knew far more
than even  Johanna  about the  social effects  of  weapons,  from  the  most
primitive to ones so strange that they seemed not weapons at all. A thousand
million times,  castle technologies had  fallen to things  like  cannon; why
should her world be different?
     "We'll move up then -- "
     From beyond  the shade of  the tent  there was a faint whistle, a rare,
incoming round. She  folded the puppies within herself, and paused a moment.
Twenty  yards away, Vendacious shrank down in a  great cower.  But  when  it
came, the  explosion  was a  muffled thump above them on the  hill. It might
even have been one  of  our own. "Now  our troops must take advantage of the
destruction.  I want Steel to know that the old games  of ransom and torture
will only win him worse." We'll most likely win the starship  and the child.
The  question  was, would either be  alive  when  they got  them? She  hoped
Johanna would never know the threats and the risks  she planned for the next
few hours.
     "Yes, Majesty."  But  Scrupilo made no move  to  depart,  and  suddenly
seemed more bedraggled and worried than ever. "Woodcarver, I fear ..."
     "What? We have the tide. We must rush to sail on it."
     "Yes, Majesty....  But while we move forward, there are serious dangers
coming up on our flanks and rear. The enemy's far scouts and the fires."
     Scrupilo was right. The Flenserists who operated behind her  lines were
deadly.  There weren't many of them;  the enemy troops at  Margrum Climb had
been mostly killed  or dispersed. The few that  ate  at Woodcarver's  flanks
were  equipped  with   ordinary  crossbows  and  axes  ...  but  they   were
extraordinarily well-coordinated. And  their tactics were brilliant; she saw
the snouts and tines of Flenser himself in that brilliance. Somehow her evil
child  lived. Like a  plague  of  years past, he was slipping back upon  the
world. Given  time, those guerrilla packs would seriously hurt  Woodcarver's
ability  to  supply her forces.  Given time. Two  of  her stood  and  looked
Scrupilo in the eyes,  emphasizing  the point: "All the  more reason to move
now, my friend. We are the ones  far from home. We are the ones with limited
numbers  and food.  If we  don't win soon, then we will be cut up a bit at a
time." Flensed.
     Scrupilo  stood  up, nodding  submission. "That's  what Peregrine says,
too. And  Johanna  wants to  chase right  through the  castle  walls.... But
there's  something else, Your Majesty.  Even if we must lunge all forward: I
worked  for  a  ten of tendays,  using  every clue I  could  understand from
Dataset, to make our cannon. Majesty, I  know how hard it is to do such. Yet
the guns we captured  on Margrum have three times the range and one  quarter
the weight.  How  could  they  do  it?"  There  were  chords  of  anger  and
humiliation in his  voice.  "The  traitor," Scrupilo jerked a snout  in  the
direction of  Vendacious,  "thinks they  may  have  Johanna's  brother,  but
Johanna  says they  have  nothing  like  Dataset.  Majesty, Steel  has  some
advantage we don't yet know."

     Even the  executions were not helping. Day  by day, Steel felt his rage
growing.  Alone  on  the parapet, he whipped back  and  forth  upon himself,
barely conscious  of  anything  but his anger. Not  since  he had been under
Flenser's knife had the anger  been such a radiant  thing. Get back control,
before he cuts you more, the voice of some early Steel seemed to say.
     He  hung on  the  thought,  pulled  himself together. He stared down at
bloody drool and  tasted ashes. Three  of his shoulders were  streaked  with
tooth cuts -- he'd been hurting himself, another habit Flenser had cured him
of long ago. Hurt outwards, never toward yourself. Steel licked mechanically
at the gashes and walked closer to the parapet's edge:
     At the horizon, gray-black haze obscured the  sea  and the islands. The
last few days, the summer winds coming off the inland had been a hot breath,
tasting of smoke. Now the winds were like fire themselves, whipping past the
castle,  carrying ash and  smoke. All last dayaround the  far side of Bitter
Gorge had been a  haze of fire. Today he could see the  hillsides: they were
black  and brown, crowned with smoke that  swept toward  the sea's  horizon.
There were often  brush and forest  fires in the High Summer. But this year,
as  if nature was  a godly pack of war, the  fires had been everywhere.  The
wretched guns had done it. And this year, he couldn't retreat to the cool of
Hidden Island and let the coastlings suffer.
     Steel  ignored  his  smarting  shoulders  and  paced  the  stones  more
thoughtfully, almost  analytical  for a change. The creature Vendacious  had
not  stayed  bought;  he  had  turned  traitor  to his  treason.  Steel  had
anticipated  that  Vendacious  might be discovered; he  had other  spies who
should have reported such a  thing. But there had been no sign ... until the
disaster at Margrum  Climb. Now the  twist of  Vendacious's knife had turned
all his plans on their heads. Woodcarver would be here very soon, and not as
a victim.
     Who would have guessed that he would really need the Spacers to  rescue
him  from Woodcarver? He  had  worked so hard  to confront  the  Southerners
before Ravna arrived.  But now he did need that help from the  sky -- and it
was more than five  hours away. Steel almost slipped back into rage state at
the thought. In the end, would all the cozening of Amdijefri be for nothing?
Oh, when this  is over, how much will I enjoy killing those  two. More  than
any  of   the  others,  they  deserved  death.  They   had  caused  so  much
inconvenience. They  had  consistently required  his kindliest  behavior, as
though  they ruled him. They had showered  him with more  insolence than ten
thousand normal subjects.
     From the castle yard there was the sound  of  laboring packs, straining
winches, the screech and  groan of rock  being moved about. The professional
core  of Flenser's Empire survived. Given a  few more hours, the breaches in
the walls would be repaired and new guns would be brought in from the north.
And the grand scheme can  still succeed. As long as I am together, no matter
what else is lost, it can succeed.
     Almost lost  in the  racket, he heard the click  of claws on the inward
steps. Steel  drew  back,  turned all heads  toward  the sound.  Shreck? But
Shreck would have  announced himself first. Then  he relaxed; there was only
one set of claw sounds. It was a singleton coming up the stairs.
     Flenser's member cleared the steps, and bowed to Steel,  an  incomplete
gesture without other members  to  mirror it. The member's radio cloak shone
clean and dark. The army was in awe of those cloaks,  and of the  singletons
and  duos  who  seemed  smarter  than  the  brightest  pack.   Even  Steel's
lieutenants who understood  what  the cloaks really  were -- even  Shreck --
were cautious  and tentative around  them. And now Steel  needed the Flenser
Fragment more  than anyone, more than anything except Starfolk  gullibility.
"What news?"
     "Leave to sit?" Was the sardonic Flenser smile behind that request?
     "Granted," snapped Steel.
     The  singleton  eased  itself onto the stones, a parody of an  insolent
pack. But Steel saw when the other winced;  the Fragment had been  dispersed
across the Domain for almost twenty days  now. Except  for brief periods, he