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Authors: Vernor Vinge

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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 Steel.

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."

 

 

 

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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

Distribution:
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 transcended.

 

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.

-=*=-

CHAPTER 6

 

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 perversion."

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 Straum.

"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 decade.

"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 human...."

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 visitor?"

"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.

 

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