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Authors: Vernor Vinge

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Hard Science Fiction

A Fire Upon the Deep (38 page)

BOOK: A Fire Upon the Deep
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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,
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.
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 member.

Now the
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
has to test the
. There's this little problem with speed.
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
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
." 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
can do. Let me try it, dear Steel."



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
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
," 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
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
," 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.
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
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
buzzing noise that seemed to come from all directions.

"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 difficult.

"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.

" 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
this radio thing?

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
thoughts faded into the

"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
" She ran through the cowering workers, ran toward the south and the west walls. She was
, 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 safety.

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
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
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
. 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 grander.

He turned to Shreck's troopers. "Very well, I'm ready to return to Lord Steel."


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BOOK: A Fire Upon the Deep
9.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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