Authors: Vernor Vinge
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Hard Science Fiction
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 downlink 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.
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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."
"That's wonderful, but I'm not sure I -- who's paying for it, anyway?"
"I don't know, but it
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
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,
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.
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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 twinhulled 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 twinhulled 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
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 again?
The sounds and vids kept the monsters amused for several minutes. Eventually their random fiddlings convinced the dataset that somebody
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
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 her.
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 teeth.
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
. 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.
could hurt them. She felt better than she had since the landing.
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