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Authors: Vernor Vinge

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A Fire Upon the Deep (8 page)

BOOK: A Fire Upon the Deep
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"We backed down from ram speeds, found a solar system with a semi-habitable planet. We'd lost track of everybody else.... Just what we did then isn't real clear to me." He gave a dry laugh. "We must have been right at the edge, staggering around at about IQ 60. I remember fooling with the life support system. That's probably what actually killed us." For a moment he looked sad and bewildered. He shrugged. "And then I woke up in the tender clutches of Vrinimi Org, here where faster-than-light travel is possible ... and I can see the edge of Heaven itself."

Ravna didn't say anything for a moment. She looked across her beach into the surf. They'd been talking a long time. The sun was peeking under the tree petals, its light shifting across her office. Did Grondr realize what he had here? Almost anything from the Slow Zone had collector's value.
fresh from the Slowness were even more valuable. But Pham Nuwen might be unique. He had personally experienced more than had some whole civilizations, and ventured into the Deeps to boot. She understood now why he looked to the Transcend and called it "Heaven". It wasn't entirely naïveté, nor a failure in the Organization's education programs. Pham Nuwen had already been through two transforming experiences, from pretech to star-traveler, and star-traveler to Beyonder. Each was a jump almost beyond imagination. Now he saw that another step was possible, and was perfectly willing to sell himself to take it.

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

The redhead's lazy smile broadened. "Ah, but you see, I've already named my price, and I think Vrinimi can meet it."

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



Grondr called less than five minutes after Pham Nuwen's departure. Ravna knew the Org would be eavesdropping, and she'd already told Grondr her misgivings about this "selling" of a sophont. Nevertheless, she was a bit nervous to see him.

"When is he actually going to leave for the Transcend?"

Grondr rubbed at his freckles. He didn't seem angry. "Not for ten or twenty days. The Power that's negotiating for him is more interested in looking at our archives and watching what's passing through Relay. Also ... despite the human's enthusiasm for going, he's really quite cautious."


"Yes. He's insisting on a library budget, and permission to roam anywhere in the system. He's been chatting with random employees all over the Docks. He was especially insistent about talking to you." Grondr's mouth parts clicked in a smile. "Feel free to speak your mind to him. Basically, he's tasting around for hidden poison. Hearing the worst from you should make him trust us."

She was coming to understand Grondr's confidence. Damn but Pham Nuwen had a thick head. "Yes sir. He's asked me to show him around the Foreign Quarter tonight."
As you well know.

"Fine. I wish the rest of the deal were going as smoothly." Grondr turned so that only peripheral freckles were looking in her direction. He was surrounded by status displays of the Org's communication and database operations. From what she could see, things were remarkably busy. "Maybe I should not bring this up, but it's just possible you can help.... Business is very brisk." Grondr did not seem pleased to report the good news. "We have nine civilizations from the Top of the Beyond that are bidding for wide band data feeds. That we could handle. But this Power that sent a ship here...."

Ravna interrupted almost without thinking, a breach that would have horrified her a few days earlier. "Just who is it, by the way? Any chance we're entertaining the Straumli Perversion?" The thought of
taking the redhead was a chill.

"Not unless all the Powers are fooled, too. Marketing calls our current visitor 'Old One'." He smiled. "That's something of a joke, but true even so. We've known it for eleven years." No one really knew how long Transcendent beings lived, but it was a rare Power that stayed communicative for more than five or ten years. They lost interest, or grew into something different -- or really did die. There were a million explanations, thousands that were allegedly from the Powers first hand. Ravna guessed that the true explanation was the simplest one: intelligence is the handmaiden of flexibility and change. Dumb animals can change only as fast as natural evolution. Human equivalent races, once on their technological run-up, hit the limits of their zone in a matter of a few thousand years. In the Transcend, superhumanity can happen so fast that its creators are destroyed. It wasn't surprising then that the Powers themselves were evanescent.

So calling an eleven-year Power "Old One" was almost reasonable.

"We believe that Old One is a variant on the Type 73 pattern. Such are rarely malicious -- and we know from whom it Transcended. Just now it's causing us major discomfort, though. For twenty days it has been monopolizing an enormous and increasing percentage of Relay bandwidth. Since its ship arrived, it's been all over the archive and our local nets. We've asked Old One to send noncritical data by starship, but it refuses. This afternoon was the worst yet. Almost five percent of Relay's capacity was bound up in its service. And the creature is sending almost as much downlink as it is receiving uplink."

weird, but, "It's still paying for the business, isn't it? If Old One can pay top price, why do you care?"

"Ravna, we hope our Organization will be around for many years after the Old One is gone. There is nothing it could offer us that would be good through all that time." Ravna nodded. Actually, there were certain "magic" automations that might work down here, but their long-term effectiveness would be dubious. This was a commercial situation, not some exercise in an Applied Theology course. "Old One can easily top any bid from the Middle Beyond. But if we give it all the services it demands, we'll be effectively nonfunctional to the rest of our customers -- and they are the people we must depend on in the future."

His image was replaced by an archive access report. Ravna was very familiar with the format, and Grondr's complaint really hit home. The Known Net was a vast thing, a hierarchical anarchy that linked hundreds of millions of worlds. Yet even the main trunks had bandwidths like something out of Earth's dawn age; a wrist dataset could do better on a local net. That's why bulk access to the Archive was mostly local -- to media freighters visiting the Relay system. But now ... during the last hundred hours, remote access to the Archive, both by volume and by count, had been higher than local! And ninety percent of those accesses were from a single account -- Old One's.

Grondr's voice continued from behind the graphics. "We've got one backbone transceiver dedicated to this Power right now.... Frankly, we can't tolerate this for more than a few days; the ultimate expense is just too great."

Grondr's face was back on the display. "Anyway, I think you can see that the deal for the barbarian is really the least of our problems. The last twenty days have brought more income than the last two years -- far more than we can verify and absorb. We're endangered by our own success." He made an ironic smile-frown.



They talked a few minutes about Pham Nuwen, and then Grondr rang off. Afterwards, Ravna took a walk along her beach. The sun was well down toward the aft horizon, and the sand was just pleasantly warm against her feet; the Docks went round the planet once every twenty hours, circling the pole at about forty degrees north latitude. She walked close to the surf, where the sand was flat and wet. The mist off the sea was moist against her skin. The blue sky just above the white-tops shaded quickly to indigo and black. Specks of silver moved up there, agrav floaters bringing starships into the Docks. The whole thing was so fabulously, unnecessarily expensive. Ravna was by turns grossed out and bedazzled. Yet after two years at Relay, she was beginning to see the point. Vrinimi Org wanted the Beyond to know that it had the resources to handle
communication and archive demands might be made on it. And they wanted the Beyond to suspect that there were hidden gifts from the Transcend here, things that might make it more than a little dangerous to invaders.

She stared into the spray, feeling it bead on her lashes. So Grondr had the big problem right now: how do you tell a Power to take a walk? All Ravna Bergsndot had to worry about was one overconfident twit who seemed hell-bent on destroying himself. She turned and paralleled the water. Every third wave it surged over her ankles.

She sighed. Pham Nuwen was beyond doubt a twit ... but what an awesome one. Intellectually, she had always known that there was no difference in the possible intelligence of Beyonders and the primitives of the Slowness. Most automation worked better in the Beyond; ultralight communication was possible. But you had to go to the Transcend to build truly superhuman minds. So it shouldn't be surprising that Pham Nuwen was capable.
capable. He had picked up Triskweline with incredible ease. She had little doubt that he was the master skipper he claimed. And to be a trader in the Slowness, to risk centuries between the stars for a destination that might have fallen from civilization or become deadly hostile to outsiders ... that took courage that was hard to imagine. She could understand how he might think going to the Transcend was just another challenge. He'd had less than twenty days to absorb a whole new universe. That simply wasn't enough time to understand that the rules change when the players are more than human.

Well, he still had a few days of grace. She would change his mind. And after talking to Grondr just now, she wouldn't feel especially guilty about doing it.



.Delete this paragraph to shift page flush




The Foreign Quarter was actually about a third of the Docks. It abutted the no-atmosphere periphery -- where ships actually docked -- and extended inwards to a section of the central sea. Vrinimi Org had convinced a significant number of races that this was a wonder of the Middle Beyond. In addition to freight traffic there were tourists -- some of the wealthiest beings in the Beyond.

Pham Nuwen had carte blanche to these amusements. Ravna took him through the more spectacular ones, including an agrav hop over the Docks. The barbarian was more impressed by their pocket space suits than by the Docks. "I've seen structures bigger than that down in the Slowness."
Not hovering in a planetary gravity well, you haven't.

Pham Nuwen seemed to mellow as the evening progressed. At least his comments became more perceptive, less edged. He wanted to see how real traders lived in the Beyond, and Ravna showed him the bourses and the traders' Local.

They ended up in The Wandering Company just after Docks midnight. This was not Organization territory, but it was one of Ravna's favorite places, a private dive that attracted traders from the Top to the Bottom. She wondered how the decor would appeal to Pham Nuwen. The place was modeled as a meeting lodge on some world of the Slow Zone. A three-meter model ramscoop hung in the air over the main service floor. Blue-green drive fields glowed from the ship's every corner and flange, and spread faintly among patrons sitting below.

To Ravna the walls and floors were heavy timber, rough cut. People like Egravan saw stone walls and narrow tunnels -- the sort of broodery his race had maintained on new conquests of long ago. The trickery was optical -- not some mental smudging -- and about the best that could be done in the Middle Beyond.

Ravna and Pham walked between widely-spaced tables. The owners weren't as successful with sound as with vision: the music was faint and changed from table to table. Smells changed too, and were a little bit harder to take. Air management was working hard to keep everyone healthy, if not completely comfortable. Tonight the place was crowded. At the far end of the service floor, the special-atmosphere nooks were occupied: low pressure, high pressure, high NOx, aquaria. Some customers were vague blurs within turbid atmospheres.

In some ways it might have been a port bar at Sjandra Kei. Yet ... this was
. It attracted High Beyonders who would never come to backwaters like Sjandra Kei. Most of the High Ones didn't look very strange; civilizations at the Top were most often just colonies from below. But the headbands she saw here were not jewelry. Mind-computer links aren't efficient in the Middle Beyond, but most of the High Beyonders would not give them up. Ravna started toward a group of banded tripods and their machines. Let Pham Nuwen talk with creatures who teetered on the edge of transsapience.

Surprisingly, he touched her arm, drawing her back. "Let's walk around a little more." He was looking all around the hall, as if searching for a familiar face. "Let's find some other humans first."

When holes showed in Pham Nuwen's cram-education, they were gapingly wide. Ravna tried to keep her face serious. "Other humans? We're all there is at Relay, Pham."

"But the friends you've been telling me about ... Egravan, Sarale?"

Ravna just shook her head. For a moment the barbarian looked vulnerable.

Pham Nuwen had spent his life crawling at sublight between human-colonized star systems. She knew that in all that life he had seen only three nonhuman races. Now he was lost in a sea of alienness. She kept her sympathy to herself; this one insight might affect the guy more than all her arguing.

But the instant passed, and he was smiling again. "Even more an adventure." They left the main floor and walked past special-atmosphere nooks. "Lord, but Qeng Ho would love this."

No humans anywhere, and The Wandering Company was the homiest meeting place she knew; many Org customers met only on the Net. She felt her own homesickness welling up. On the second floor, a signet flag caught her eye. She'd known something like it back at Sjandra Kei. She drew Pham Nuwen across the floor, and started up the timbered stairs.

Out of the background murmur, she heard a high-pitched twittering. It wasn't Triskweline, but the words made sense! By the Powers, it was
: "I do believe it's a Homo Sap! Over here, my lady." She followed the sound to the table with the signet flag.

"May we sit with you?" she asked, savoring the familiar language.

"Please do." The twitterer looked like a small ornamental tree sitting in a six-wheeled cart. The cart was marked with cosmetic stripes and tassels; its 150-by-120-centimeter topside was covered with a cargo scarf in the same pattern as the signet flag. The creature was a Greater Skroderider. Its race traded through much of the Middle Beyond, including Sjandra Kei. The Skroderider's high-pitched voice came from its voder. But speaking Samnorsk, it sounded homier than anything she'd heard in a long time. Even granting the mental peculiarities of Skroderiders, she felt a surge of affectionate nostalgia, as if she had run into a old classmate in a far city.

"My name is --" the sound was the rustling of fronds, "but you can easier call me Blueshell. It's nice to see a familiar face, hahaha." Blueshell spoke the laughter as words. Pham Nuwen had sat down with Ravna, but he understood not a word of Samnorsk and so the great reunion was lost on him. The Rider switched to Triskweline and introduced his four companions: another Skroderider, and three humanoids who seemed to like the shadows. None of the humanoids spoke Samnorsk, but no one was more than one translator hop from Triskweline.

The Skroderiders were owners/operators of a small interstellar freighter, the
Out of Band II
. The humanoids were certificants for part of the starship's current cargo. "My mate and I have been in the business almost two hundred years. We have happy feelings for your race, my lady. Our first runs were between Sjandra Kei and Forste Utgrep. Your people are good customers and we scarcely ever have a shipment rot...." He wheeled his skrode back from the table and then drove forward -- the equivalent of a small bow.

All was not sweetness and light, however. One of the humanoids spoke. The sounds could almost have come from a human throat, though they made no sense. A moment passed as the house translator processed his words. Then the broach on his jacket spoke in clear Triskweline: "Blueshell states you are Homo sapiens. Know that you have our animosity. We are bankrupt, near-stranded here by your race's evil creation. The Straumli Perversion." The words sounded emotionless, but Ravna could see the creature's tense posture, its fingers twisting at a drink bulb.

Considering his attitude, it probably wouldn't help to point out that though she was human, Sjandra Kei was thousands of light-years from Straum. "You came here from the Realm?" she asked the Skroderider.

Blueshell didn't answer immediately. That's the way it was with his race; he was probably trying to remember who she was and what they were all talking about. Then: "Yes, yes. Please do excuse my certificants' hostility. Our main cargo is a one-time cryptographic pad. The source is Commercial Security at Sjandra Kei; the destination is the certificants' High colony. It was the usual arrangement: We're carrying a one-third xor of the pad. Independent shippers are carrying the others. At the destination, the three parts would be xor'd together. The result could supply a dozen worlds' crypto needs on the Net for --"

Downstairs there was a commotion. Someone was smoking something a bit too strong for the air scrubbers. Ravna caught a whiff, enough to shimmer her vision. It had knocked out several patrons on the main level. Management was counseling the offending customer. Blueshell made an abrupt noise. He backed his skrode from the table and rolled to the railing. "Don't want to be caught unawares. Some people can be so
...." When nothing more came of the incident, he returned. "Uh, where was I?" He was silent a moment, consulting the short-term memory built into his skrode. "Yes, yes.... We would become relatively rich if our plans work out. Unfortunately, we stopped on Straum to drop off some bulk data." He pivoted on his rear four wheels. "Surely that was safe? Straum is more than a hundred light-years from their lab in the Transcend. Yet --"

One of the certificants interrupted with loud gabble. The house translator kicked in a moment later: "Yes. It should have been safe. We saw no violence. Ship's recorders show that our safeness was not breached. Yet now there are rumors. Net groups claim that Straumli Realm is owned by perversion. Absurdity. Yet these rumors have crossed the Net to our destination. Our cargo is not trusted, so our cargo is ruined: now it is only a few grams of data medium carrying random --" In the middle of the flat-voiced translation, the humanoid lunged out of the shadows. Ravna had a glimpse of a jaw edged with razor-sharp gums. He threw his drink bulb at the table in front of her.

Pham Nuwen's hand flashed out, snatching the drink before it hit -- before she had quite realized what was happening. The redhead came slowly to his feet. From the shadows, the two other humanoids came to their feet and moved toward their friend. Pham Nuwen didn't say a word. He set the bulb carefully down and leaned just slightly toward the other, his hands relaxed yet bladelike. Cheap fiction talks about "looks of deadly menace". Ravna had never expected to see the real thing. But the humanoids saw it too. They tugged their friend gently back from the table. The loudmouth did not resist, but once beyond Pham's reach he erupted in a barrage of squeals and hisses that left the house translator speechless. He made a sharp gesture with three fingers, and shut up. The three swept silently down the stairs and away.

Pham Nuwen sat down, his gray eyes calm and untroubled. Maybe he
have something to be arrogant about! Ravna looked across at the two Skroderiders. "I'm sorry your cargo lost value."

Most of Ravna's past contacts had been with Lesser Skroderiders, whose reflexes were only slightly augmented beyond their sessile heritage. Had these two even noticed the interruption? But Blueshell answered immediately, "Do not apologize. Ever since our arrival, those three have been complaining. Contract partners or not, I'm very tired of them." He lapsed into potted-plant mode.

After a moment, the other Rider -- Greenstalk, was it? -- spoke. "Besides, our commercial situation may not be a complete failure. I am sure the other thirds of the shipment went nowhere near Straumli Realm." That was the usual procedure anyway: each part of the shipment was carried by a different company, each taking a very different path. If the other thirds could be certified, the crew of the
Out of Band
might not come away empty-handed. "In -- in fact, there may be a way we can get full certification. True, we were at Straumli Main, but --"

"How long ago did you leave?"

"Six hundred and fifty hours ago. About two hundred hours after they dropped off the Net."

It suddenly dawned on Ravna that she was talking to something like eyewitnesses. After thirty days, the Threats news was still dominated by the events at Straum. The consensus was that a Class Two perversion had been created -- even Vrinimi Org believed that. Yet it was still mainly guesswork.... And here she was talking to beings who had actually been there. "You don't think the Straumers created a perversion?"

It was Blueshell who replied. "Sigh," he said. "Our certificants deny it, but I see a problem of conscience here. We
witness strangeness on Straum.... Have you ever encountered artificial immune systems? The ones that work in the Middle Beyond are more trouble than they're worth, so perhaps not. I noticed a real change in certain officers of the Crypto Authority right after the Straumli victory. It was as if they were suddenly part of a poorly calibrated automation, as if they were somebody's, um, fingers.... No one can doubt they were playing in the Transcend. They found something up there; a lost archive. But that is not the point." He stopped talking for a long moment; Ravna almost thought he was finished. "You see, just before leaving Straumli Main, we --"

But now Pham Nuwen was talking too. "That's something I've been wondering about. Everybody talks as though this Straumli Realm was doomed the moment they began research in the Transcend. Look. I've played with bugged software and strange weapons. I know you can get killed that way. But it looks like the Straumers were careful to put their lab far away. They were building something that could go very wrong, but apparently it was a previously-tried experiment -- like just about everything Up Here. They could stop the work any time it deviated from the records, right up to the end. So how could they screw up so bad?"

The question stopped the Skroderider in its tracks. You didn't need a doctorate in Applied Theology to know the answer.
Even the damn Straumers should have known the answer.
But given Pham Nuwen's background, it was a reasonable question. Ravna kept her mouth shut. The Skroderider's very alienness might be more convincing to Pham than another lecture from her.

Blueshell dithered for a moment, no doubt using his skrode to help assemble his arguments. When he finally spoke, he didn't seem irritated by the interruption. "I hear several misconceptions, My Lady Pham." He seemed to use the old Nyjoran honorific pretty indiscriminately. "Have you been into the archive at Relay?"

Pham said yes. Ravna guessed he'd never been past the beginners' front end.

"Then you know that an archive is a fundamentally vaster thing than the database on a conventional local net. For practical purposes the big ones can't even be duplicated. The major archives go back millions of years, have been maintained by hundreds of different races -- most now extinct or Transcended into Powers. Even the archive at Relay is a jumble, so huge that indexing systems are laid on top of indexing systems. Only in the Transcend could such a mass be well organized and even then only the Powers could understand it."


"There are thousands of archives in the Beyond -- tens of thousands if you count the ones that have fallen into disrepair or dropped off the Net. Along with unending trivia, they contain important secrets and important lies. There are traps and snares." Millions of races played with the advice that filtered unsolicited across the Net. Tens of thousands had been burned thereby. Sometimes the damage was relatively minor, good inventions that weren't quite right for the target environment. Sometimes it was malicious, viruses that would jam a local net so thoroughly that a civilization must restart from scratch. Where-Are-They-Now and Threats carried stories of worse tragedies: planets kneedeep in replicant goo, races turned brainless by badly programmed immune systems.

BOOK: A Fire Upon the Deep
4.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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