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Authors: Vernor Vinge

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BOOK: A Fire Upon the Deep
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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 different.

 

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PART I
CHAPTER 1

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 something."

"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 torch.

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 sources.

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 hotter.

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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-=*=-

CHAPTER 2

 

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 louder
....

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 wet.

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 confuse.

"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 Castle?"

"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 Island."

"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.

"Peregrine?"

"Yes?"

"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 muddled."

"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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-=*=-

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