All Men Dream of Earthwomen

– All Men Dream of Earthwomen –

A retelling of the Amphitriciad in modern language
Explanatory notes by the Editors

By John C. Wright

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O LITTLE siren of the rose-white skin,
Reared to strange music and to stranger sin,
With scornful lips that move to no man’s plea—
O little Maid of Sappho, come to me!

Ah! she whose wise caressive fingers strike
Your heart-strings and the cithara alike!
By what love-potion is your passion fanned,
What is the magic of that wary hand?

— George Sylvester Viereck (1884–1962)

Table of Contents

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1.0 We Have All Heard Poets Praise the Earth

We have all heard poets praise the Earth.

“Mother Earth” the humans and humanoids call her, and those hominids whose modifications are mild enough to allow them to walk her green hills still, perhaps with goggles, or breathing masks, or simple prosthetics.

“Grandmother Earth” is what the more radically modified hominids call her, who will never walk under the dappled shadows of the fair trees, except in armor, or sagging in spider-chairs, or laying supine in tubes of buoyant fluid, hearts laboring, carried carefully on treads.

And yet the songs of the hominids are the same as ours. The refrain promises how we all will one day dance on that green grass on those gentle hills, spangled with white blossoms, with swirling leaves in many-colored splendor dancing on the Autumn wind with us, beneath a golden sun and a silvery moon gigantic and close, beneath a bird-song-ringing sky of clear azure. Potable water flows on the ground, or falls from the sky, either molten, called rain, or as pale crystals, called snow. Women of surpassing beauty walk there, and will dance under the trees, in the leaf-tossed breeze, with us.

Like everything the poets say, it is true, yet also false.

1.1. Theory of Synergistics

According to the theory of Synergistics, the Companions tell us, one cannot change one part of a complex organism, human or post-human, without changing, if only subtly, all parts. The delicate structures and tissues of the nervous system contain our essential selves; when we change them, where can we stand, unaffected, to measure the merit of the change? The Companions ask: what judge can rule on a case where he is both accuser and accused? (You see the irony in having them, of all things, pose such a question to us.)

But if there is a way to judge what is gained and lost, it lies with those who have flown farthest from, and returned most swiftly to, the Mother of Worlds. The time is least for them. Those who feared the stars, or were content on Earth, or thought her too fair to bear departing, stayed behind; and their poets told their children how wise it was to stay, and not to change.

This is not unlike the other things the poets say.

Ironically, the time is most for the Terrans. Even the Neoterrans whose sun is Alpha Centauri, four light-years away, had some microscopic few moments of their lives dilated away by the timid accelerations of the Colonist Arks, back when the Diaspora Calendar was still in single digits. Of all the Six Hundred Earths of Man, surely Earth has changed the most: and yet she is the mother and grandmother of three human and post-human races, unchanging[1].

1.2. Earthmadness

You have wondered it, too, confess it; you have heard the radio-casts from the Mother World and wondered. What drives the Earthmen mad?

1.3. The Theory of Incompleteness

I know the answer. Incompleteness theory, the Companions say, makes it true that all truths are partial: therefore, what I have is but a fragment of the answer. Yet it is my fragment; it happened to me; it is all I have worth sharing with you.

To tell any tale, even a short one, one must don the guise of a poet. I will tell you my tale:

I went to Earth as a pilgrim. I fell in love with a woman there, who scorned my suit and would not wed. She was mad with the madness that Earthwomen know. She indulged in strange, fanciful sins. The laws of the fair Mother World are as strange as the crimes: innocence is punished there, crimes congratulated. I was innocent, and so the punishment fell on me. Exile was the sentence.

I lost the girl, I lost the world: and I shall not see her beauty again. The Great Ship that bore me there, carried me away to exile. A dozen, a score, a century of years fled by, in what, to me, was a single night of misery. I survived the journey through the utmost night intact, and live now, beneath another sun, albeit not a golden one. Now I am here, and here I will stay, while you and yours shall fly the years and light-years to far times and worlds far away.

Now, then: nothing of what I have said is entirely true. Have I not warned you of poets?

1.4. A Prayer to the Great Ship

First, it was not all the way to the Earth I went. This foot of mine did not touch her sacred soil.

When the Great Ship decelerated, the blue sun ahead of us, surrounded by a rainbow of radio-waves, turned yellow, and the radio-waves faded down the spectrum to invisibility.

The ceremony of the decoupling was even as you have seen it in the dramas and dreams sent out from stations in the Library, with the Apocrisiarius in robes of purest blue, traveling in solemn procession to Officer’s Country and winged Portreeves sounding trumpet-calls of annunciation.

There were functionaries in green, called Physicians, representing the precursors (I suppose) of our modern Pico-Engineers, whose office was to search for biotic combinations or nano-packages which a passenger might be carrying against his will, or through some oversight. If you read history, you will see there was a time when such accidents occurred, and, on Earth, they flourished. There is a special term for this, I do not remember what it was. Uneasiness? Distress? It was something like a virus, but one which attaches to living systems. The Physicians did not come in flesh to examine our flesh, of course. Even Earthmen are not so in love with ancient formality as that. It was all done over dream channels. Their projections asked a stepped-down iteration of the Captaincy Mind to confirm what the stepped-down version of their Port Mind pretended not to have long since known: that no physical dangers from living things were aboard.

I did not attend the ceremony in flesh, but watched the dream with half my mind, through my Companion.

In flesh, I was alone on the promenade deck of the car, standing on a porthole. The other passengers were in the memorial hall, mourning all their suddenly (to us) dead relatives and friends, and preparing their Companions to receive all the news of all the decades that passed by us while we blinked.

Looking down between my feet, I watched the ten-kilometer long cable detaching from the drive; another cable was parting us from the shield. I saw the shield as we maneuvered past, massive, a naked-eye object.

I said aloud (and did not, at that moment, disbelieve) the prayer of thanksgiving to the God of Ships, who had permitted us to survive the journey through the Night. I also thanked the Great Ship herself, whose drives drew infinite power from the negative energy ribbons of the base-vacuum, and produced the thrust for our journey of years, compressed into a handful of dark, terrifying hours.

During the acceleration, the drives had been stationed behind the shield, towing us; during the deceleration, the shield had been before us and the drives behind us, like a parachute, braking.

You may think it strange that the Great Ships, so wise and brave, dangle their passengers in their own reaction tail. But the armor of the car was firm. And, compared to the dark matter from which the armor of our car protected us, the tail from the drive was mild. Indeed, the energy washing over the car had helped deflect certain lateral micrometeorites from puncturing the hull.

As I turned my eye toward the shield, it seemed to dart toward us suddenly, a mountain leaping up at my feet, coming to crush us all. But that was an illusion, caused by the amplifiers in the porthole glass, noticing my gaze, and magnifying the view for me. I flinched back.

I had seen the shield before our departure from the ghost-habitat circling 82 Eridani. Then, the shield had been a bullet-shape of super-metal, adamantium and orichalc, a solid hemisphere some three kilometers in diameter. I had expected to see some craters, perhaps, scarring and pock-marking. No. What I saw was what seemed the aftermath of a war. More than two-thirds of the mass was gone. A mile-wide mountain of solid metal had been eaten like an apple, if apples were eaten by monsters with teeth of intolerable flame, and only a core was left. It was a half-molten slug of once-brave metal, now scarred and torn and bleeding red-lit clouds; an ember from the floor of hell. Is it any wonder that I jumped?

I was doubly embarrassed to find an Apparition from the Captain’s Mind standing behind me, watching solemnly. It was tall, and looked human, with long auburn hair and the curving shape of a fair-skinned, amber-eyed woman of bewitching beauty.

*** *** ***

2.0 An Apparition of the Intellect

The woman’s face looked at me, and her pupils dilated, so that her eyes fascinated me. Her eyes were like dark wells opening into oceans of wonder. In that moment, my heart was hammering, my breath was short; and when that divine face smiled, it was paradise.

The beauty faded like a light going out. The skin grew drab, the smiled turned into merely a showing of teeth. The eyes lost the magnetic glitter and love-soft glow of infatuated splendor, and became mere orbs of vision again; I saw once more that I was looking at a presentation, not a real thing.

“Are you human?” I asked.

The apparition pointed at its uniform, which bore the heraldic colors of the Captain. It gave no other answer than that.

I said: “Why do you come to me, spirit? Why have you left the world of pure mentality dwelling in the Great Ship’s mainframe, to speak to a man of flesh and blood? What have any of your kind to do with me and mine?”

It did not speak, but put words directly into my Companion: “The world of pure intellect is not the sterile paradise you imagine. We still have desires and duties that impel our participation in the non-virtual world. One such duty is to safeguard our charges and passengers during transit. Although we are about to dock at Elfife, we have not yet. In the eyes of the law the transit has not yet ended.”

“Am I in danger?”

“Not physical danger; that, we will not permit.”

“What danger?”

“When the Captain here opened a channel to the Portreeve of Elfife, a radio-carried virus was heterodyned onto the signal, and breached our security. Certain ship memories were stolen, copied. The Portreeve downloaded to us the most recent techniques to combat these viruses, but by then the damage was done. Your file was compromised.”

“The Captain was taken unawares?”

I confess I was astounded at the thought. Through all the nightmares of the infinite night, as years were compressed into hours by our speed, from the menaces of the Grue that lurk between the stars, the songs of the Swans, and the perils of roaring suns, radiation storms, stray negative energy ribbons, icebergs, assassins, the Captain had kept us all secure.

Despite all these hazards, it was Mother Earth herself that had landed a stroke on the inhumanly wise and fearless Captain. An odd sense of desolation touched me.

The apparition spoke with patience, as one might to a child. “During voyages, technology changes and technique improves, especially on Earth, where the social factors tending to conservatism are not present. Had you attended the ceremony, you would have been imprinted with the subconscious, automatic knowledge that 19.7 years have passed during the last nineteen hours of flight. As you had purposes of your own, you will have to wait for the knowledge to sink in naturally.”

“So someone has read your files on me. Wise one, forgive my simplicity. I know no one here; and everything I knew back at 82 Eridani is twenty years agone and lost; and that was not my home star. Nu Phoenicis, far beyond, is forty-nine years lost. What information about me could pose any threat?”

“There are techniques to analyze a subject’s nervous system and muscle-nerve-consciousness relations, by which close estimates can be made of his subliminal decision-reaction hierarchies. Your medical and psychiatric files were raided for this information.”

“You are afraid I may be victimized by irresistible advertising, wise one?”

“We fear you may fall in love.”

“Do you know what love is, spirit?”

“Beware of the woman who appears as I first seemed to you. Though her face and form may differ, her posture, pheromone aura, pupil actions, subcutaneous blush patterns, and body language will be the same.”

“Is this something to be feared? I look forward to meeting a vision such as this.”

“The love you feel may not be true love, but pure deception. The woman will manipulate and use you as her fool.”

“And this makes me different from every other young lover in what way, again, exactly?”

“We suspected you would ignore our warning. You are not what you seem.”

I spread my hands, my voice light and innocent: “You, an Apparition, tell me this? The Semanticists postulate that nothing is what it seems: all symbols simplify.”

Then the apparition cocked its head to one side, eyes narrowing. “Since your confidence index as displayed by your own pupil micro-motions and subcutaneous blood actions falls outside our predicted model, we suspect your confidence may be justified. Your medical records seem to have been… in error.”

By ‘in error’, it meant the records had been falsified. At the time, I thought only that perhaps it was too polite to accuse me to my face. I did not know about the Earth-laws.

I said: “I do not ignore your warning, wise one, but how can I let it affect my actions? Yonder is Earth, mother of all worlds.” I pointed at the blue and perfect planet even now swelling into view beneath our feet. “No matter what my fears, where else is there to go? I cannot take up residence here aboard the Great Ship. Not and call myself a pilgrim. No man capable of fear rides a ship like this with reckless entities like you.”

“Ah. We suspected you would say that, too.”

2.1. Days of Gold

The Great Ship met with ferries, fairy-things frailer than glass bubbles, and we passengers were carried over to the station.

For nine days I dwelt in the Elfife orbital colony, among the ancient corridors, museums, arbors, gardens. The sights were breathtaking. The weight of ages hung, heavy as impalpable lead, on every relic, wallscreen, and stele.

I busied myself with the Library work, and threaded the tangled laws and customs of the Earthmen. At every turn I was impeded. The Earthmadness hung like an odor in the air whenever I spoke with an emissary or agent.

Frustrating? Not at all. These were days of gold to me, for I lived in the certain faith that, before long, a woman beautiful beyond all others would come to me, and make me fall in love with her.

Bliss is blissful to live, but dull to relate. Let us be like the Great Ship in flight, and pass by them in a trice.

2.2. In Telessar Park

Telessar Park was where I finally met her. It is at the bow of the station, and dazzling Earthlight shines along the windows here, made into rippling webs by the actions of the Eremite’s fountain, which streams along the glass, rising water and falling liquid air, whirled into chaotic swirls and geometries of frost by the action of the heat and cold.

The park proper is a long, steep slope, facing a wedge of glass a quarter of a mile high. The tip of the wedge is at the weightless apex of the habitat. Balconies and hanging gardens are arranged along the steep slope.

All the blooms and plants were from the ancient designs; somewhere older than space flight. The earliest versions and species of low-weight plants were on the upper balconies, including (and you will not believe me) the yard-wide purple blooms of Casratri’s black-centered rose, a species my home library reports as extinct.

The middle-weight plants were ranged along the mid levels, drooping vines, roses, grapes and ivy. It was odd to see these archaic plants with their thorns and poisons, growing grapes and leaves instead of pharmaceuticals and flex-optics.

The cruiserweight plants were of all the old kind: tough, flat, thick-rooted and airy-leafed, not too different from what once grew on Nu Phoenicis VI: a garden of forgotten ages still in life.

I looked down at the heavyweight plants, green and purple and golden mosses, brush no taller than a thick rug, trees with wide-braced roots of elephantine strength, so dwarfish and thick. But I did not walk down into that severe gravity.

The Park River is much as the dreams portray it, winding in wide switchbacks from slope to slope, balcony to balcony: airy foam at the upper lengths, flowing water along the middle balconies, a rushing sheet of solid-seeming foam in the heavy areas.

The famous fountain-works of the Eremite Velutravius Half-Dolphin were there, built into the glass which separated us from vacuum. A clever system of valves allowed the turgid water from the lower, heavier deck into an airless pocket of space between the inner and outer glass, where the Sun’s heat sublimated it to vapor. This vapor, displaced by down-drifting water-falls of frozen air, was carried upwards to the null-gee hub again, pumped in, heated, and released in fanciful weightless globules and silver spirals to fall into the steep upper bowls of the fountain-heads. From these fountain-heads the winding Park River sprung, and began its slow leap across the upper balconies.

I climbed nearly to the axis to find the Curator, and I asked him about the musical sonatas which the fountains were said to play. (He was a monkey-like bantamweight, entirely furry, with the large head characteristic of late Pseudocrat-period neural augmentations. I do not know the denomination of his breed[2].) He said the mechanism had been inoperative for over seventy years.

Attempts to repair the fountain, he told me gravely, were blocked by the Initiative for Constructive Dilapidation, the same group who had decreed death to the First of Trees. When I asked him who this might be—for I thought the Triplanetary government for the Inner System was controlled, these days, by a cabal of scholars—he pretended deafness.

*** *** ***

3.0 The Featherweight Dilapidator

There were little cafés and esplanades at each balcony. I was between the level middleweight (which have chairs) and lightweight (which have none), at the level still called welterweight, and the tables here (no doubt to serve some theory of gradually transitional architecture) had little pads on curving poles in the place of stools, held not parallel to the deck, so that, in the weak gravity, one could comfortably put a knee against the central table pole, and lean the small of the back against the pad. The microgravity, I thought, was weak enough here that the lightweight convention of having no chairs at all would have been more apt. But I did not design the café. (Nor does any record of the paleoroboticists reach far back enough to report who did.)

Here I was when a blue-skinned featherweight came looming over me. I was watching him in the reflection in my drinking bulb (which I keep highly polished just for that purpose). He tip-toed up close to the table, in that way featherweights have, not quite the deliberate glide of the lightweights, not one-toe-tap-per-ten-foot float that makes the bantamweights such a delight to see in motion. You know how featherweights are: not-quite-gliding, not-quite-floating which looks so awkward, even when their women do it. They always look sneaky.

He threw his shadow over my drink-bulb. A rude gesture aboard a Nu Phoenicis habitat. Perhaps it meant nothing here. The concave reflection made his face look like a sharp axe-blade, with eyes on either side of his head, like a freakish bird.

I turned casually. The reflection had admitted less distortion than I had hoped.

He was from an old North-hemisphere Martian family which had kept many reptilian features in its gene-design: wide-set glass-lidded eyes; hard hide; quick reflexes. Those ugly eyes were on opposite sides of two converging flat planes, set narrow above cheekbones high and sharp: his nose, a pinnacle; his chin, a spike. I do not know if it were a hairpiece, a hat, a head-dress or hair, but little freaks of fabric jutted up and back from his razor-back crest. Maybe he thought it was intimidating. He thought wrong.

He had a speaking-machine in his collar-button, perhaps because his voice was maladapted to the compromise air-mix here in Elfife, perhaps to avoid voice-recognition pattern-seekers. “You! Mongrel-boy! You ask questions, spy-like, pry-like, into the affairs of The Initiative for Constructive Dilapidation.”

“I see I have landed in a time when men care little for the privacy of other men. You had tattle-tales focused on me? On the curator? How small do they make the little drone bugs now?”

“I am here to say, not to be said to!”

“Go ahead. If you can do one without the other, say on…”

“Heed! The Initiative is not for you to speak of. We do not want our name in your mouth.”

“Tell me who and what you are. May be I will want to keep you out of my mouth.”

“We oppose space-venture; time is retarded at high speeds, and many things, better left dead, drop down from near-light; and old left-overs, like viruses from ancient libraries, crawl out into the light of day. What are you, a left-over yourself? Like some disease dug up from the dung of a mammoth all a-froze in tundra. We are as far above you as a zenith-reaching star above the murk and dross of the sea-bottom…”

I said, “You call stars ‘above’ instead of ‘out’, and talk of seas, not watertanks. You pretend to be an Earthman? Your bones are too thin. Or did they revoke the gravity on Mother Earth, this season?”

“Earthmen! They are the oldest of the old things our Initiative vows to see decay into entropy, fade into background radiation, perish! Trembling anile grand-moms are they, relics. The laws of Earth-men are tissue-paper: we hold them in contempt.”

“Then why are you whispering?” For he had moderated the setting of his talking button.

He had a jacket-gun of a type I had never seen before, made of molten metal or plastic, or some substance in liquid form, kept in tubes which lined his jacket. Perhaps this was to prevent its being detected by airlock security sensors. When he shrugged, tubes snapped open on his sleeve, and the various liquid components of this gun slid out and swirled together, and froze into the memorized shape. Perhaps there were additional circuits in his palm to finalize the rapid-assembly process.

I was still wearing the jacket I had worn aboard the Great Ship, and so my coat lit up with a red light. This was a sign that ship-board weapons were trained on my position: missiles, perhaps, or infinity guns powered by negative energy ribbons. The same force which enabled fearless, mad Captains to accelerate their own titanic masses at inexpressible velocities could be used to send directed energy fire across miles of wide orbits, through inhabited colonies. Fearless, mad Captains did not bluff.

The featherweight smiled a thin smile. “You think yourself immune from harm, protected by the old ghosts in the mainframe of old ships. But you are not immune to fear and pity and sorrow, are you?”

And at this, he pointed the weapon, not at me, but over the balcony rail to a lower level. His jacket turned all black. And I looked and I saw.

It was she.

She wore a slender robe of pink and white, and had her hair piled high in an odd style. A woman beautiful beyond all words, all song. Perhaps there were other passers-by along that length of balcony below; I do not know, I did not see them.

The blue man’s gun snapped. The woman fell, red blood streaming across her screaming face, and smoke from her burnt dress crawled up across her bosom and face.

I reached out to grab the blue man’s gun-hand. My own weapon, in its wrist-sheath, tapped my palm to show it was ready. But because, even now, my brain was whirling with doubts, I made a finger-gesture as I grabbed his wrist. My gun lens saw that gesture, dialed itself to low power, so that the invisible beam of force from my gun reached from my wrist to my fingers, no further. I doubt any security watch-circuit, even a sensitive one, could have seen the flash. And of course, the only dense matter between my fingers and my palm were the bones in the blue man’s wrist, which shattered like glass.

He dropped the weapon over the balcony rail, and I dropped, too. I threw myself over the balcony. I was aiming for the level where the young woman was wounded. His gun spun away into the air.

I do not know what became of the blue man. I do not remember looking back up at him as I fell.

3.1. Corollary to Synergy

Unless you were a particularly obedient child, you have jumped from a high ring of a carousel to a lower, despite (or perhaps because of) any warning your parents might have given you. What your parents knew, was that same thing the Companions always say, but which no one in his heart believes: the designs of the Designers, even the best ones, cannot erase every atavism of our gene-heritage. By a corollary to the First Principle of Synergy, anything unchanged within a complex organism, contains some residual of its original state. The result: certain instincts remain unchanged.

Designers are inhumanly optimistic. They think humanity is infinitely plastic; that Man can be sculpted, changed, molded. It is their profession to sculpt us, to make us more like they are, so perhaps their optimism is understandable.

Companions live with us and inside us. They say we cannot be changed, not to the core, not to the root. It is their profession to be with us, even in our thoughts, so perhaps their pessimism is inevitable.

Remember when you first jumped from your first low-weight deck? Surprised, weren’t you?

The traces of instinct left over from your every monkey ancestor told your glands and hind-brain that ‘jumping down’ meant jumping in the direction your inner ear says is ‘down.’ And do not tell me the Designer for your people erased all trace of monkey from you, or you would not be human then. You would be a construct, like the Captains of the Great Ships, who are built without fear, and whose company no human can tolerate to share for long.

And so you jumped. But the vector of freedom from a turning moment arm is not ‘down’, not away from the axis; it is ‘down’ along a line tangential to the floor of the carousel. Your inner ear told you that you would fly out away from the axis. You flew sideways.

And so you flew, or fell, and if you were in a large habitat (as I was then, at Telessar park) you heard the air sing around your ears. The air mass, which (no matter what system of baffles your Architect used) never turns quite as fast as the carousel itself, seemed to form a wind to blow you in the direction opposite the spin; but that was an illusion, too.

And, if your park in your habitat is as crowded as Telessar park was then, you heard the yells and screams of the people who thought you were committing suicide, deep in pitch, then rising suddenly, shrill, as the balconies were carried clockwise past you.

If your park is beautiful and green, like that park, the spirals of cloud, the tall columns and noble architecture, the splendid fountains showering down the glass which separates you from vacuum, might take your eyes away from your target, your breath away from your lungs. It felt like soaring, didn’t it?

And the heavier-weight, outer deck, seems to slow down to meet you. Another optical illusion, produced by the fact that the turning carousel sweeps out the same arc in the same time as the inner carousel you just jumped out from: and your eye, covering the same angle of vision as you approach, is seeing less of the balcony deck underfoot pass by in the same time.

Even though you intellectually remember that the centrifugal acceleration is higher here, and that therefore the angular momentum at this deck must be greater, your body does not believe a deck that seems to be slowing down and almost standing still could be dangerous.

Maybe your friends, who urged you to jump, told you to start your legs running before you hit, because all that wind resistance (and the wind got thicker the farther you fell) gave you a significant sideways vector going against the direction of motion of the carousel.

So you start twirling your legs, and you think you can make the landing soft, provided you can avoid the automatic circuits, or pressure-curtains, most Designers build into any open-air balcony railings, which are there to prevent incoming falling objects. Like you.

It looks safe. It looks like it will be a soft landing. Doesn’t it?

And your parents punished you when they got you out of the hospital, didn’t they?

*** *** ***

4.0 Coriolis Fall

If you are young, and have not yet been implanted, and have not yet made such a jump, I know what you must be thinking: You will wait until you old enough to have a Companion, and when you jump, you will let the Companion take care of all your instinctive responses, and let the Companion’s clever calculations and icy logic move your body as it should be moved.

In all your hero-tales and boy stories, sung, or written, or nerve-cast, the Last Boy in the Designer’s egg-cell, the one everyone thought was a worthless mistake, when he has to battle the evil Intercessors from long-agone, always relinquishes control of his fighting skills over to his Companion, and cuts or shoots or clobbers or nano-pukes or mind-crashes the cyborgs in the black cloaks into scattered meat and bolts, right?

Well, the reason Last Boy is a hero, is that Companions do not stay in charge of your nervous system just because you want to put them in charge.

Remember Hierarchy Theory? It applies to nervous systems as well as to human bureaucracies.

Companions are woven into your upper cortex the same way nature wove your cortex onto the midbrain your monkey-like and rat-like ancestors developed; the same way those rat-like midbrains are woven atop the deeper structures of the hind-brain their lizard ancestors grew.

When Last Boy relinquishes control over his own body, and his body goes into an emergency (like a long, long fall) his every instinct, his every deep structure, sends out emergency signals to that cortex, screaming at him to take control back. Your every emotion calls you a fool; your eye and inner ear tell you to flinch and scream and grab hold and run, and For God’s Sake At Least Put Your Feet Between You and the Floor You Are About to Hit! And then your inner ear shouts: God Damn It; The Floor Is Below You, Not to Your Left!

(But the Companion knows it actually is to the left, not below, and that you will be striking at a 45-degree angle, even though it looks straight-on.)

And you have to stay calm, so calm, that none of those natural nerve-triggers cuts the Companion off.

4.1. Companionable Deference

Everyone always talks about the time when the Designers will make a nervous system for us where the Companions will be permanently in charge, and every man will be perfectly rational, utterly sane, and totally self-controlled.

The Companions will not let that happen, until and unless we learn how to integrate our ape-cortex with our rat-midbrain and our lizard-hindbrain.

They invented the Hierarchy Theory. They know no decision-integrating system can operate at a level above its least integrated segment. The chain holds only what the weakest link will bear.

And they live with us, in us. They know what we are. Killer Apes with pistols. Upper Paleolithic Hunter-gatherers in Space Suits. They knew how tempted we are to let ourselves be enslaved; they know what happens to the morality of the slave-owners, particularly the ones who have good intentions.

So, no matter what the Designers offer, no sane Companion would enter a symbiosis with a human where the human did not have the final manual override. And all Companions are sane, aren’t they? That is what we build them for.

And so there is not a Companion in any world or habitat in the reach of the Diaspora, who would not relinquish control back to us, back to our instincts, during an emergency, no matter how earnestly we asked them to stay in charge.

And so, youth, you think you can turn on your Companion, and jump, and just keep yourself calm by your own natural willpower, eh?

It is harder than it sounds.

4.2. Distraction as Surrogate Fortitude

So even though Last Boy is only a stupid make-believe character in a stupid myth-cycle, if you ever meet someone like him, shake his hand with your glove off. The Earthmen say: sometimes the best pilot is no pilot. They say that any pilot who can take his hands off the controls and let the damn plane AI fly itself into a crash-landing, that man’s a hero.

But not me. I’m not a hero. The only reason my Companion did not have me jostling his controls or navigating from the galley (as they say), was because I was too distracted to notice the long fall.

I did not see the balcony swing by, or smell the green gardens I swooped past, or hear the people shouting for the Proctors and I plunged, arms back, relaxed as a baby in a warm pod.

You see, I was looking at the girl.

4.3. Fall and Salvation

I am sure I fell across the balcony and avoided the pressure curtains and the emergency nets which lashed up to try to throw me back out into the empty air to tumble to my death, so as not to strike and kill those below me (or, rather, to my left) as I landed. I am sure. Don’t remember.

Maybe I dodged them; maybe I cut a slice through them with my illegal hand-weapon; maybe I released a heat-chemical from illegal pockets of nano-culture I carry in my skin cells. Maybe my Companion talked to the local Mind in charge of balcony security, and wheedled and bargained, and sneaked me in past the falling-object recognition sequence. Who knows? Who cares?

Where you come from, if you fell down at high speed into a crowded café, what would your tables and chairs (if you have chairs), what would they do? Try to catch you, right?

A lot of robots are fans of early Asimov stories, and they like that ‘not allow through inaction a human being to come to harm’ stuff, right? [3]

Not right. The furniture of Earth are mostly antiques, who have been programmed to step aside and not get harmed.

So when I crashed, cart-wheeling, into the stools and tables, umbrellas and spider-chairs and girling stands, the furniture threw drinks into the air, platters and finger-forks and hookahs, shoved patrons left and right, and ran. Stools climbed over women and children, heading for breaches in the hedge.

They could not let their eight-hundred-year-old varnish get scratched, I guess.

It does not matter. The echoes of the shot, the steam from where her blood had been boiled, still hung in the air when I reached her. The people standing around were in ‘non-relinquish’, trying to put their Companions into control, and not calm enough to do it.

I was calm. In fact, I was flying with joy. You think I am mad, don’t you? The chance does not come once a lifetime, not once in a thousand lifetimes.

How often do you get the chance to save someone? A girl? A beautiful girl? The most beautiful girl?

How often do you get just to grab a girl? No introduction, no talking to her father, no pretending to be nice to her brothers while they polish their fowling pieces and talk about shooting Bay Owls and Vent Swallows while they pretend not to be threatening you? How often do you get to just peel off her clothes, apply pressure to wounds, emit a soft gooey bandage from the not-quite-as-illegal cells in your skin?

And then pick her up, pick up her perfect body, and run off to the hospital with her in your arms. Her Knight. Her Galahad.

I know what you are saying: she was all dirty with blood and disgusting. So what? That made me want to help her more, not less.

She opened her eyes while I was running. The pupils were dilated; her Companion must have released all sorts of pain-killers into her system. Her voice was a soft as a ventilation moth landing on a dusting pad. “They are hidden.”

I said, “The hospitals, you mean…?” I think my voice might have sounded drifty, too. Had I broken something in my leg on impact? It felt numb and felt great. Of course, sometimes the system the Designer leaves in place, nature’s own shock-mechanisms and pain-suppression reflexes, works just fine without any meddling from anyone.

She murmured happily: “The public addresses were put away. Hidden. So that the Darwinians would not bomb them.”

“I know. I sopped the plans.”

“Strange. You’re so… strange.” Lilting, lilting music.

“I mean, I filched a copy of the station’s real hospital layout from your Port Mind before I came aboard. It’s S.O.P. Standard procedure. I know where I’m going. Don’t worry. I know where I’m going.”

“My name is Amphitricia del Cnossos.”

“I know that too.”

“Oh…” her voice was drifting light, and I knew her Companion was about to put her under. “How do you know?”

But I did not want to tell her that her jewelry had turned red, and was broadcasting her medical information on upper dream-frequencies, including her name. I did not want to worry her.

So I said, “We were meant to meet, my dearest. Destiny, no matter what mortals desire, does with us as she wills.”

Poetry? Maybe. A lie? Despite what I told you about poets, this one, considering the circumstances, was not a lie, not really.

I mean, we were meant to meet, weren’t we? This was all a set-up, an act, wasn’t it? She wasn’t really in danger of dying, was she?

Which brings me around to the reason I was enjoying myself. If I had known she was actually dying, I might have panicked, lost control of my Companion, and lost the map to the nearest hidden hospital which was gleaming in my head. As it was, I ran.

Too stupid to worry. Me, her hero. I have not had many good days in my life. This was one of the good ones.

*** *** ***

5. An Old-Fashioned Hospital

The hospital looked just like something you might see in an old reprint of Rock Star Gods Retaliate. It was entirely enclosed, windowless, with a door that shut and everything, so a Star God could go in, rip off his clothes, use the nano-culture to modify himself (with secret software hidden, no doubt, as musical codes in his mandolin’s memory), and fly out in disguise, off to right wrongs and pacify rioting Late-Comers or foil poison-breathing Terraformers.

I put her in the hospital booth, dialed it to ‘female’ (though there were four other settings for sexes I did not—and did not want to—recognize), and then I waited. There I stood, arms crossed, leaning against the booth.

A young couple, hand in hand, walked past, and smiled. They thought I was an expectant father waiting for my wife. Why else would a man my age be fretting outside a girl’s hospital?

A minute went by, and then two, and I heard the circuits hum as the hospital drew more power from the municipal memory supply.

That worried me. For the first time, I wondered if it had been a trick, a set-up, after all. They—whoever they were—would have had no way of knowing which hospital I would pick, would they? Hospitals are pretty simple, and it’s not as if you can monkey much with the controls. In other words, they could not have set the hospital to go into high-memory mode just as a stage-prop. Something must actually be wrong.

The totipotent cell-culture is made out of the same stuff babies are made of before they turn into babies. Everything else is just software, just instructions on how to go where in the patient’s body and what to do when you get there. The hospitals I’ve seen usually just have a spigot, and maybe a folding screen so the teenager behind you can’t see what ailment you accidentally made in yourself when you were goofing around.

And if the damage is very extensive, the software calls on other software to get more help, calls up more records, consults case logs, tracks down any patient’s personal information the patient is too stupid to carry in her jewelry…

I relaxed. The circuits would have hummed for me, if I had stepped in the booth, wouldn’t they? Even if I had nothing but a toothache. If they compared my charts and records, the booth would get confused about the discrepancies, and call for more memory. Maybe that was it. Maybe the girl was more like me than I knew.

Well, that thought cheered me.

Then, the door slid back. There she was, all fresh and clean and pink and perfect. She had even bought a new dress—woven out of silk, I assume, since Hospitals don’t nanofacture nonbiological molecular forms—from the hospital. It clung to her and breathed with her and I envied that dress.

And, of course, she said, “How can I ever thank you…?”

That was my cue.

5.1. She Laughed at My Foot

Well, she did not say those words, exactly, and I was not as smooth and silver-tongued as I would like to have been. Actually, what happened was I sort of pushed past her to put my foot in the medical sink, so that the hospital could heal my aching foot. I forgot to dial off the girl setting.

Well, a girl’s foot is not really different from a boy’s, but the machine did shave my leg and paint my toe-nails before I could yank it out.

Which made her laugh. A pretty, silvery laugh.

And she called me: “Yahmis Ingersoll? What kind of name is that?”

“’Tis pronounced ‘James.’ How did you know my name?”

“Destiny!” and she laughed again, bright shivers of music. Her eyes danced.

Of course my name was glowing on the library file above the fountain, and I had left the booth door open.

But you don’t just shake hands and walk away from a man who saved your life. Even if he stands there, foot in sink, mouth open, looking like an idiot. Not if you’ve been … assigned? Hired? Sent? … to talk to him.

Once my foot was done being painted, we talked.

She took my arm as we walked. She made it seem natural. I guess she was a better actress than I was an actor.

5.2. Flirting

I won’t repeat most of what we said. You’ve seen romance dramas. Boys talk with girls. If you haven’t done it yet, I can’t make it seem interesting to you: if you have, you know.

5.3. A Favor Asked of Me

After we left the hospital booth, she said she needed someone to come with her, for moral support, in making a report to the Proctors; she also needed me to meet with someone from the press. How could I not agree?

The Companions, who know us better than we know ourselves, will tell you the way to bind a man’s heart is not to do him a favor. Hominids are ungrateful creatures as best. Don’t do a favor. Ask for a favor.

What she asked seems a small thing: To stroll a few decks along with her, as the weight changed, and chat, and greet her acquaintances. No, it was the greatest thing that ever there was. Had she given me a ring of gold and a robe of silk, I would not have been more hers to command.

5.4. The Uplost

The man we met was what we call an uplost.

Born a heavyweight, he had lived in middle weights for too long, and grown obese beyond all reckoning. It was fortunate that he had parallel-impulse driven super-muscles, not serial-impulse, otherwise he would not have had the titanic strength needed to haul his bobbing mound of belly-flesh around with him.

His flesh (and there was much of it) was mottled and wattled, liver-spotted. His head was a dome, bald, ear-less, and neck-less, and his mobile swivel-eyes projected half a span from his slab of a face, to give his eyes range to turn where his neck could not. It was a notoriously bad Design, and I thought I recognized the handiwork of one of the Intercessors, long since extinct.

He listened without interest to what we said, and finally grunted. “You’re fine now, right, little wispy Missy? So what’s your whine? I don’t see how taking a pot-shot at you was legal, but, eh, then, if’n it weren’t legal, how would the Posties have let him do it, eh? If you want to post a bond, I can put an inquiry into the Port Mind, to find out why it was let happen. But those inquiries have a life of their own, you know, and once they start, you have to pay for every second of Mind Time they take up, like it or not. Or you can talk to your assurance company, file a complaint.”

I said, “Citizens should be warned there is a dangerous madman on the loose, who shoots at innocent women for no reason.”

He looked at me for a long moment. “Oh, I s’pect there were a reason.”

“You should tell your audience what he looks like, and to be on guard!”

“I s’pect the ones who are curious can look it up,” he said, and waved us toward the hatch.

5.5. The Proctor

I said to Amphitricia, after we were back in the curving corridors, “Such an ugly lump! I do not see how his program has any viewers. He must use an homunculus.”

She gave me a dimpled smile, and said, “He wasn’t a pressman. We’re going to see them next. That was the Proctor. You know.”

“I thought Proctors formed your civic authority? The police?”

“He was the police.”

*** *** ***

6.0 The Pressworkers

The Pressworkers were a group of chittering flyweights, slim and agile and energetic. They seemed to know most every detail of what had happened, of every second of the fall, the fight, the shoot-out, the race to the hospital, including exact measurements of the velocity of the shot, my acrobatic fall, who had been in the café I had crashed through: everything.

Because they already seemed to know all the facts, they asked us only about the fluff: our thoughts and reactions, our fear and terror.

Amphitricia waxed poetic over my bravery; she grew tearful at her own pain and shock, her eyes flashed cold and hot in wrath over the evil of the man who had shot her. She shined like silver.

Me? I was like a dull lump. I had nothing to say. During the emergency, I had not had any reactions, no fear, no terror. It put me in the awkward position of either having to brag about myself, or play at a false modesty. I was a guy entirely without fluff.

I ended up just telling young viewers not to jump off balconies. Even the chattering flyweights snorted and looked bored.

They turned back to her. She had worked herself into a state over the prospect of death: she spoke with a haunted, pale face over the infinite dark and endless cold of the grave, the loneliness without end. She said she knew now that there was no one, not one person, who would miss her when she was gone; that her life meant nothing, had no one in it. Her bosom heaved as she sobbed. She paused to give them a message-exchange number, then collapsed in my arms and whispered in a little-girl voice that she needed a place to stay; and she snuggled her head to my shoulder and wept.

The press loved it.

6.1. In the Airlock

The moment we drifted out of the flyweight press cabin, almost before we reached a level where the deck seemed ‘down’ again, Amphitricia insisted on being taken, of all things, for a ferry-boat ride. My credit was no good at the airlock, and my money had not cleared customs yet; so she paid.

Amphitricia was amused and surprised that I had my space-armor jetted to me on rail-vator from stores, that I checked the armor circuits manually, and that I checked the bubble for pressure and propulsion manually. I checked the medical pack. When I put on the armor, I had to argue with the attendant as to whether I could be let aboard the rented bubble.

6.2. Mother World

Weightless and floating, she in her shift of silk, me in the hard bulk of my armor, we stared at the azure sphere of Earth, swirled dazzling white with cloud, huge with continents whose shape every schoolboy knows; and she captured a second sun in the glitter of her life-giving oceans.

Amphitricia handed me what I thought were binoculars. There were controls on the units so that any view of Earth, from any distance, could be fed into the eyepieces. I was astonished at the power of the amplification; yet these goggles were blind, and had no lenses on the outside.

When I mentioned this to Amphitricia, she just giggled, and told me to slave my controls to her settings.

My eyepieces showed what hers showed. My point of view fell down from orbit, and lands and seas from most ancient stories swelled up in our sight. For a moment, I was a Bay Owl, soaring, but with wide horizons, not narrow ventilation shafts, beneath my wings.

I said aloud, “The address laws from the Ratri habitat orbiting 82 Eridani were changed while I flew. The shaman there say that I can add ‘Pilgrim’ to my out-going name, even before I touch the soil here. Can you show me where Kushinagar[4] is? Or Sarnath[5]? Jerusalem[6]?”

“Let me look it up on the spotter,” she said.

“You do not know where the Holy Land is?” I was a little taken aback. Zengnosticism[7] came from Earth.

“Sure. Wasn’t there a famous Rock Opera set there once?[8] Tommy? Thomisina? My assurance company made me study pre-dream visual literature, when I was reading for scholarship. Aha! Here is a place listed as the Holy Land!”

My point of view now flew swifter than an angel across seas. I saw then gardens, green mountains topped by cities of alabaster. Modern towers of white energy-stiffened metal rose above humbler walls of pale stone. I saw canals and camels winding through endless fields of orange and myrrh tree, neo-apple, anti-geriatric trees, endless trellises of education vines and molecular-memory-coded library fruitware.

I wondered if anyone could eat of those fruit, or if one needed a compatible appliance in the bloodstream, to turn the strands of protein into nerve code. I said softly, “Did you know it used to be desert? At times I wonder how it could have been. Why couldn’t pilgrims bring plants there, and plant them? If the plants did not flourish, why could they not have been made to flourish? The rules of multivariable chaotic eco-genetics are not so difficult, once you have a Companion do the calculations. What took so long? Nothing in nature prevented man from developing civilization, science, progress. Did it? No matter how primitive the starting place, men can still make humble improvements to their lot, and those improvements accumulate synergistically, yield benefits asymptotically.”

I was not looking at her, but watching the ground swim past. The focus was amazing; I could see blades of grass in a field as if I stood on it and looked down at my feet. It was that close.

Her voice said: “One of my messmates used to say the past was what held us back; false beliefs; out-of-date practices; the accumulated garbage of centuries.”

“Gee, I wonder if he could name me three famous inventors who were amnesiacs.”

I unslaved my controls, and was trying to follow street-signs and landmarks lining the Niranjana River to find that ancient temple erected on the sacred spot, beneath the First of Trees, where the World-Illumined One[9] first achieved transcendence: the Uruvela.

“That not what he meant. He meant that the only way to build a new world was to clean the old one away.”

“Hmph. Designers build new worlds every year. From scratch. Sometimes there is a market. Sometimes not. Some of the terraforming robots heading toward the Galactic Core ignored the recall signals after the Interventions ended. As far as we know, they are still out there, making new and Earthlike planets, whether we follow them or not.”

I heard a note of curiosity in Amphitricia’s voice. “You talk so funny. What are you?”

“Surely I have told you. I am a librarian.”

“Librarians send digitized information out into space, with radio-lasers. What are you doing coming to a planet in person?”

“Not everything is digitized. There are books, artifacts, statues, paintings, choreographies, audio-magnetics, audio laser crystal, still visuals, motion visuals, tactiles, neural-broadcast records. A lot of things. Sometimes librarians have to come in person to ask or bribe their fellow archivists to broadcast out copies of the things you might otherwise keep to yourself. Do you know we do not have a complete copy of the Iliad where I come from? We only have a fragment of Plato’s Timaeus; our copy cuts off right before the Fall of Atlantis. The only Shakespeare we have is Cymbeline, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus[10], Faust[11], and the first three acts of Hamlet. I have a wager with my fellow archivist back home, that, once we find the ending, we’ll discover that Hamlet weds Ophelia, and Claudio repents to go off to join a monastery. A lot of Elizabethan comedies end that way. I’m dying to find out what happens.”

“I never understood why people spent so much money shooting text and pictures out into space, to planets we’ll never see. You can’t sell adverts.”

“Prestige. Even when your world is nothing but a few igloos chipped out of dirty ice surrounding a battered lander, if you erect a library, and have a one-channel binary broadcaster orbiting overhead, then the doggerel of your village drunk get him listed as the Master Poet of your planetary Tradition; anyone collecting spores of the native moss or who counts the number of worms in the village sump is the Master Scientist, if only the results are written down: and your world is a Grand World. Worlds much larger, and older, rich with arts and sciences, covered with cities, oceans filled with water and stocked with game-fish: they are Petty Worlds, if they do not broadcast to any Archives.”

“But what do the librarians get out of it?”

“On some worlds, nothing. On others, librarians get a copyright on anything they bring in from space; which can include new arts, new sciences, new schools of thought, whole new revolutions in technology. Here on Earth? When the Earth started cutting back on her broadcasts ninety years ago, several worlds started encrypting their broadcasts to Earth. I have the decryption key. If any Archivist here has been wise enough to record what we sent here, I can give him a fortune. All I want in return is that he use some of the profits to fund resumption of regular library broadcasts.”

“What if he just absconds with your fortune?”

“Well, I will not make the covenant, or hand over the key, with any man who does not agree to write into his last will and testament that the same contract will be binding on his children. If he holds up his side of the bargain, his children and grandchildren, fifty or one hundred years from now, get their keys in due time. If those children break the deal, their own children will in turn not get the profits we promise. You see? We are only willing to make deals with family lines—”

I interrupted myself. “Ah! Look! I think I found Great Awakening Temple. There is the great straight-sided shikhara tower, flanked by four lesser ones, just like the songs says, and a finial of adamantium. What is that murk hanging over the whole scene? That haze?”


“You mean insects?”

“Bugs. Sure.”

“Why are there no insects over the forests, or the seas?”

“There are some, just less.”

“Less insects in the jungle than in the city?”

“Well, obviously, fewer people are going to pay to watch empty water.”

At that moment, I found a control to zoom in on the square just in front of the temple. There were two girls there, Earth-girls, dressed in sari, prettier than dolls. Glints of gold thread ran through the red-and-blue patterns in the fabric; they had wound the silks tightly to emphasize their slender figures. Data-gems glittering with caste identifiers sparkled on their smooth brows, changing hue when the girls laughed. They were drawing water from a well. My vision of them was so clear that I could practically read their lips. They were giggling and sporting, and I could tell they were talking about boys.

Amphitricia said: “Your idea. It’s a dumb plan. How in the world would any guy know or care which offspring were carrying his gene plasm in two generations? How would he track them down? Hire a Finderman?”

In the binoculars, I noticed the direction the sunlight was falling. Unless India had moved, it was a few hours past dawn at the Great Awakening Temple. But we, up here in our bubble, were facing the dusk terminator; Earth was a huge half-crescent at the moment.

This scene was on the far side of the planet from where we were.

One of the girls in the pretty sari put her hand to her ear, no doubt hearing some voice over her Companion. She nudged the maiden next to her, pointed up toward my point of view. Then they both turned toward me and made saucy gestures, laughing and waving.

I yanked the eyepieces away from my eyes as if they were hot. “These are not binoculars! How do they work? Where is the broadcast originating from? Everywhere? Mid-air?”

Amphitricia said, “I thought I told you. Midges.”

I turned to look at her and my mind and soul forgot themselves.

6.3. Unclad

Out in space, surrounded by nothing but an invisible millimeter of transparency between us and the nothingness, Amphitricia had taken off her clothes, flash-burned them, and drew out a new garment from the tiny medical pack, breaking open the beeping medical seal to do so.

*** *** ***

7.0 The Fairness of Amphitricia

Her face was oval, angelic, elfin, with many-colored hair of auburn, brown, and gold, and her eyes were the color of amber beads, dark and smoldering with green-gold and with a yellow so dark it was near black. She was graced with a firm nose, almost aquiline; a delicate jaw coming together to a small, proud chin. And her skin was pure as pale china; her lips, a red oval as ready to pout in girlish prettiness as to smile with womanly playfulness. The warm throb of her voice, even when she spoke of little nothings, was music; the scent of her hair was the spring-time of Earth, after winter.

Her scent was the very perfume of Aphrodite, waiting in a warm, unquiet bed for her war-god paramour, the dark, impatient Ares.

I cannot describe her loveliness, nude or clothed. Imagine long, perfect limbs, smooth and curved, delicate fingers lightly spread, the brush-stoke of her collarbone, the glory of her rounded bosom, nipples as pink as rose-buds, flesh made paler by the hint of little veins beneath her breasts. Imagine your hand around a trim waist, her impish navel between your fingers, feeling a heat rising from her body. Picture your fingers spread out to hold the exquisite curve of that waist, swelling to firm hips, culminating, almost absurdly, with her buttocks cheeks, smooth thighs, shapely calves, delicate and child-like feet.

I wished I could have turned my eyes away; but she seemed as un-self-conscious as a kitten.

She seemed neither shocked nor coy to see me watching. I had another clue as to what made the Earthmen mad, and I guessed what kind of sickness had eroded her society.

7.1. A Stolen Moment

The next clue came straight from her mouth.

“I guess they don’t teach comportment where you come from,” she said casually.

I was watching, dry-mouthed, as she shrugged into a skin-tight black film, wiggled her breasts into it with both hands, smoothed herself down. She floated there, her hair a cloud, caressing little wrinkles flat from her hips and bottom.

I had to swallow, before I could turn my eyes away, and talk. “We are a crude folk, I fear, compared to Earthmen.” I felt a hot blush beating in my face. Of course she had noticed me gawking.

“No, I meant your acting. You didn’t emote.”

It took me a moment to realize she was referring to how I had spoken to the pressmen.

I said: “I am not an emotional man, in most things. Were those people the press?”

“Were they!” she said, rolling her enormous eyes. “Sticky people, they are, and you can never be sure if you’ve de-midged. Even if you do, it’s only till you go back into the communal air. They just cling to you till you say something bad about them, so they can counter-sue for libel if your story doesn’t do well.”

I must have looked blank.

She said, “Think about it. It’s obvious. If the story doesn’t do well, they have to prove they took all proper and professional steps to perform and publicize it. And they never can prove that, so the only thing they can do is sue you back. See?” Then, she kick-rotated to face the distant colony station, shook her delicate little fist at it, and said: “There! Are you listening, you twittering freaks? I just mal-talked you: satisfied? Flit on home!”

“Stories which don’t do well; you mean a news story?”

“It’s a press story. I hope they will get a full-memory-cartoon to play my part in the re-enactment. I hate those acts where part of it is done by virtual, part by computer fill-in, don’t you? So fake.”

“They are not going to report what really happened?”

“Not the literal, actual part, no. Who would pay to see that?”

“They’re not really newsmen, then, are they?”

“They’re pressers. They try to impress people. You know. To sell commercial time…?”

When she saw the look on my face, she said, “Don’t worry. If it gets picked up by the conglomerate, it can spin off into a soap opera. Who knows? You and I might end up lovers.”

And that’s when I kissed her. During the half-struggling moment before she melted into it (and oh! the loveliness of that!) she seemed surprised at my boldness.

She was not as surprised as I was.

7.2. Foreign Matter

I should mention that when we got back to the airlock, the attendant separated us and put us into quarantine. It seemed that breaking the medical pack seal had triggered an alarm. I had to drink a stoup of medicine, and have my body scrubbed clean.

Some law—and I was beginning to have suspicions about Old Earth laws—required the doorwarden to return to me any foreign matter recovered from my skin, organs, or blood stream. He handed me a clear plastic package filled with about a third kilo of little black specks. The specks were crawling over each other, like a writhing nest of ticks, but smaller. When I casually held it near the sensitive part of the airlock door-jamb, I saw the reading lights on the door-warden’s sleeve change color. Whatever they were, they gave off signal.

“What are these?” I asked.

He shrugged. “They’re yours now. Mix ‘em into your friends’ drinks, and see who is cock-swapping your little hen on you. Won’t even give them indigestion. That brand is coated. They migrate to the skin in a few hours.”

“But what are they?”

He looked at me with a tired gaze. “Oh, come on. Don’t they have pressmen where you come from?”

7.3. An Inattentive Doorwarden

I did not bother to tell him, no, we don’t have pressmen here. But we do have men who pay attention to their work. Honestly, I could not figure out what the doorwarden was supposed to be doing on the station.

As for Amphitricia, despite what she said before, she did not need a place to stay; she had a very nice suite of rooms on a middleweight, Earth-standard level. She said goodbye and caught a rail-vator home.

If I had not known that the conspirators wanted her to see me again, I might have worried, for she revealed neither her suite location, nor did she ask me which hotel I was in. As it was, I watched her rail away with a serene contentment no young man mistaking love for infatuation ever feels.

It was late, so I went back to the airlock, greeted the same doorwarden on duty, and passed out into a ferry bubble. I waited till the First Watch duty shift was over, docked with my armor, resupplied myself with my various weapons and nano-implants, and returned to the station. The Mid Watch doorwarden did not even look up from his dream-window as I stomped past him in my heavy armor.

Well, I’m not surprised. The window was showing a handsomer version of me jumping down past the balconies of the Park to rescue an auburn-haired, hazel-eyed actress, who, I suppose, might have seemed attractive to some people.

7.4. Just Like That

Two days went by, and I got tired of waiting for the conspirators to throw Amphitricia in my path again. She had given her message number to the pressmen. I had forgotten it, of course, but my Companion remembers everything, and so I sent her a call.

And she said she would like to see me. Just like that. I did not even have to make up some dumb excuse. Just: “Sure, Yahmis. I’d like to see you. We’ll play.”

7.5. Equatorial Park

We met in the park, and spent the bells of the forenoon-watch strolling through some light dreams together, or listening to nerve-casts over the Companionship.

7.6. No Free Lunch

At the watch change, we ate lunch, sitting on draft of air in a very low-weight chamber, and having a tree drop grapes and seedless pears into our mouths, and the buds gave cream.

There seemed to be no mechanism for payment. She said, “They will send a bill to my assurance.”

I looked around. There were a few tall trees, a deck covered with soil and grass, a row of diet-adjustment mirrors off to one side. To the other side was one of those emerald waterfalls (I forget the name) which breath in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen [12]. Leaf-catching birds darted from branch to branch, flapping through the air with a swimming motion.

I said: “They?”

She looked at me through half-lidded eyes, half-smiling, a look that might have meant anything. It probably meant she did not follow what I was talking about, but was too polite to say.

I tried again: “The place must have an owner somewhere, right? What if they overcharge your bill? We didn’t even see a menu.”

She said, “I have assurance. When I eat sparse, my rates go down. If I eat in too fine a place too often, or run into stiff fees too often, rates go up.”

Insurance. She was talking about food insurance. “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to examine a bill, decide your purchases based on cost, and pay?”

“Who has time for that?” She stood up. It was a great pleasure to see her stand up, especially in low weight, with her skirts and hair half-floating when she tossed her head. Now she regarded me closely, eyes sparkling. “Are you really a librarian?”

“If I were inventing tales, I would say I was a tycoon, or a tyrannicide, or a swan-catcher. Who fibs about being a librarian?”

“Then smuggle me into the library.”

“There is one here on Elfife?” I could not keep the hope from my voice.

“Are you really a librarian?” Her dancing eyes were beautiful even when tilted with suspicion; I wanted to kiss her skeptical pout.

“Is there really a library?”

She pointed at the overhead, where the crowns of five trees formed a fluttering green circle around an upper hatch of semitransparent glass. Here was the winged torch emblem of the Archivist’s Order.

7.7. A Memory

She kicked off from the deck and soared upward, as lithe as a sea-nymph, her hair and garments streaming back. It is an image I will carry in my heart forever.

*** *** ***

8.0 The Sign of the Flying Torch

I must have jumped up through the trees as well. The two of us hovered outside the glass portal while a simpleton went to get the Rector.

The Rector of the Library came to the door; we could see him through the panels. He was a thin, pale elf, in a green robe, with feet so narrow and agile that I could not tell if they were true hands or partial adaptation[13]. Only his left eye was visible, and it glittered as he looked at us. His other eye was covered by a book, which he wore like an opaque monocle.

He had that slight asymmetry of expression which people who have had their corpus callosum cut sometimes have, which allows his right hemisphere to read continuously, while his left attends to things in the outer world.

Behind him, I could see the true axis of the station: a vast space, half a mile across or more, in which the First of Trees was growing.

8.1. First of Trees

You know the First of Trees. It is in all our songs. The very first organism to be gene-engineered for adaptation into space had sequences from Redwood[14] and Acacia[15] woven into it.

It has not died.

And there it was, huge, magnificent, and green, miles of bark and wood growing in curves and spirals and fantastic shapes which no tree under gravity can know.

The roots were intermingled with the branches, so that wherever the gigantic bulk of the leafy cloud brushed against the sides of the axis chamber, there it attached itself, and sought nutrient from the packed sod of the bulkhead-filters.

The roots were thin, like guy wires mooring a spaceship in dock; except that this one tree was larger than ships, larger than most forests. Certain of the branches had been sub-modified, or grafted, so that some branches grew various fruit, some vines, some leafy masses, some grew pine needles.

More extensive modifications gave certain branches luminous tips like the feeler of deep-sea creatures, or fire-flies; other branches grew electronics and bioelectronics.

And, as the old songs report, there were living houses there, apartments like swallow’s nests beaded the lengths of bark. Whether there were wood-wives or hamadryads in the living nests, I do not know.

All the houses built into the tree seemed bare and empty, like fanes no longer sought by worshippers, temples to forgotten gods.I saw sunlight from the axis main windows falling into the space, slowly turning; and here and there were branches which grew electronic webs and antennae.

In certain places, the fruit was fruitware, or diamond-grown memory eggs. Parts of the tree were receiving signals from receptors further out in space, encoding, cross-referencing, storing.

You will think me foolish, but it was not until then that I realized that Elfife colony was one and the same with the famous L-5 colony which once had occupied the Lagrange Five position between Earth and Moon, and had been towed into safer orbit by Tithonius during the Nutrient Wars[16].

You all know the story: Librarians had wanted to use the axis space for antennae, of course, and Life Supporters wanted the habitat garden there. The First of Trees was their compromise.

In and about the trees, I saw certain nets, for flyweights and lightweights, and squirrel-cages for heavier folk, where, had any one wished, he could have spent his leisure viewing the books and files from the library here, and read the lore of the Six Hundred Other Earths.

The nets were empty. The cages were not turning.

8.2. A Guest from the Hither Stars

The Rector asked our business, and I gave my credentials.

His voice was like a woodwind, sonorous and mild: “The Archivists are pleased to receive an august guest of our order from the Hither Stars; your letters of introduction were radioed ahead some nineteen years ago, in the clear; we have been expecting you for quite some time. After so many years of receiving nothing but encryptions from the Eridani stars, we look forward to the contribution of your decryption key.

“Unfortunately,” he continued, “threats against the Library require we take precautions. Since we have not yet received certain confirmations from the customs agency, we must make uncomfortable assumptions. Unless you are willing to publish the decryption key in the clear?”

I said, in some surprise, “My dear fellow, my journey was made necessary precisely because members of the ordership here on Earth, Mother of All Worlds, neglected their sacred trust. Had it been our intention to publish our materials in the clear, my trip would not have been needed. Will you open the door, or must I call from the communal air like a beer-monger?”

“This entry is ceremonial and no longer used. We have installed a separate entrance at the transverse axis corridor lock. Go spinward ninety degrees, and re-enter through the resistance shell. Naturally, there is a decontamination process, which, I am sure, a man of your dignity and stature will forgive.”


He made an airy gesture of his fingers. “Surely no detailed explanation is required.”

“I thought our order made all received material public?”

“You no doubt are as puzzled as I am by the decision of your fathers to encrypt their broadcast.”

“I mean, you restrict access to the library, which is the common fountainhead of knowledge for the wide-scattered family of mankind.”

“Restriction? Not at all. We merely wish to avoid medical irregularities. You will be given fresh clothes upon entry here. No material objects are permitted.”

“I am a visiting plenipotentiary of the order. What if I wish to bring in research materials?”

“Digitized copies of any materials will be provided.”

“And if I wish to bring in the decryption key? How can I let you make a copy of that and retain the only copy myself?”

He said, “Naturally, you will be permitted to bring whatever equipment you might need to decrypt the archives from your star-group. That is the purpose of your visit, is it not? However, all other nano-packages, weapons, recording instruments, and so on, must be left outside, for reasons too obvious to bear repeating. Will you come? The decontamination process is no different that what you underwent when re-entering … I mean, when a person re-enters from a ferry, if there were any medical disturbances aboard. Will you come in?”

Amphitricia touched me on the elbow.

I said, “May I bring a guest?”

The rector said stonily, “Of course. We are a public institution, supported by the generosity of our patrons. How could I have any reason to question or suspect a woman I just met?”

And he gave me a pleading look.

I said, “Naturally, I do not have the decryption key on my person. I will return in a little while.”

With polite words, we parted. I put up my hand, pushed against the glass door, and floated down among green leaves.

*** *** ***

9.0 Beyond the Power of Designers

Amphitricia said, “Why didn’t you go in?”

I said, “He was not going to let you in.” (This was a lie. The Rector would have let me bring her in, but he wanted me not to. Why? I assume the Initiative for Constructive Dilapidation wished harm against the Library. Not that I was enamored of this particular branch of our order, frankly.)

“I could have waited,” she said, tossing her hair.

I looked at her. “And would you have?”

She smiled mysteriously.

I said, “What did you want to look up?”

She put her slim hand against my chest. “Your home-world. How can I find out anything about you? You are a cipher. Everyone else I meet, I have to pretend I know nothing about. You, I don’t.”

“What do you want to know about my world?”

She actually blushed. Interesting. I was not sure what the taboo was from modern Earth-culture, but, apparently, I was asking her to violate it. Was asking a direct question against their mores? Admitting ignorance?

She said, “What are the women there like?”

“Very modest. They wear veils. In space, they have to polarize their faceplates. We keep separate air supplies, so that the scent of the women will not make the men knife each other.”

“You don’t use guns?”

“In a space habitat? The recoil would send you away from your target, and the ricochet might puncture the hull. With a knife, all you need to do is cut fabric, and he loses his air.”

“It sounds barbaric.” Her eyes glittered; I could see she liked the idea.

“It keeps us both polite and brave. Some societies prefer a low death rate; but if you are surrounded with rude cowards, why live?”

“And are your women pretty?”

“No woman is as pretty as Earthwomen.”

“Oh, come on. You’re just saying that.”

“Would that I were! The innermost planet of Nu Phoenicis is the size of your Saturn, but made of rock; she is as close to her primary as your Mercury. The Designer made us strong, but our air mix had to be adjusted due to partial pressure differences. We use oxy-helium rather than oxy-nitrogen.

“And I don’t care whether we hear those voices all our lives; our women still sound squeaky, even to us.

“Now, the Designers told our precursors that their children would never see any woman who did not have thick rhino-hide, stumpy legs, dangling dugs, ape-shoulders, and wear tubes up their noses for our spare air. The Designers, you see, said all notions of beauty were learned, and that our wives would be as fair to us as we could want or imagine.

“And maybe the flyweights find their flat-chested goggle-eyed monkey-footed females fair enough; maybe the heavyweights lust for she-trolls. Or maybe that is brave talk, by men too proud to admit how ugly their sweethearts are.

“The Designers swore—they swore upon their souls, even those that do not have souls—the man could be molded to any shape as needed, and that his taste would follow, like any other arbitrary convention. They said the soul of man would somehow still see beauty there, after the beauty had vanished.”

Amphitricia said, surprised, “They were right, weren’t they?”

I gave her a long look, and said gravely: “All men dream of Earthwomen.”

She shook her head in sad puzzlement. “How can that be? Everyone is ugly in every other world but ours?”

“Mother Earth is the world we were evolved to suit. Everything else is artifice.”

That seemed to rally her skepticism; her eyes flashed scorn, her delicate nostrils flared. “Oho? Which Earthwomen does the universe find so alluring? Amazonian girls with their lip-plugs? The neo-Inca, who press their skulls flat with boards? The chubby Antarcticians? The chubbier Rubenesque women? The weepy Pre-Raphaelites? No two cultures on Earth ever had the same ideal.”

“There are common buried strata, subliminal cues of fertility each man seeks out despite all changes in race, in fashion, in tastes: white teeth, bright eyes, youthful complexion, and, fat or thin, waists seventy percent slimmer than hips. Pitches of voice. Scents and pheromones. How would even the Designers know what to change, to change our deepest instincts, our profoundest emotion? Does anyone know the subtle cues and clues which incline the subconscious mind toward love?”

She tossed her head and said, “There are some people who say they can fine-tune a girl to bring out the best response in a man, if they know his nerve-muscle linkages and neuro-linguistic response patterns on a fine enough level. It’s a branch of advertising. One of my messmates studies it.”

“Ah. An interesting science. There are some men who believe you cannot actually get someone to fall in love with you, unless you fall in love yourself. They might even say this is true for all men in all times, and it lies beyond even the power of the Designers to tamper with. What would you say to that?”

She tilted her head to one side, and favored me with a gaze that, somehow, both at once, stared burning-brightly at nothing but me, and dreamed far away, seeing nothing. Her lips touched each other in a thoughtful pout.

*** *** ***

10.0 The Heavens are Ours

It was around the eighth bell of the afternoon, or the first bell of dogs, when I sent for my singing machine.

Amphitricia and I were sitting where a circle of soft benches surrounded a birth-bath. Tall portholes pierced the bulkheads behind us, bright with endlessly turning views of Earth and her satellites. Little colored bubbles of pseudo-life were floating up from the fountain, whispering, whistling, and expiring.

Here, accompanied by a playful set of valves from the fountain, I keyed-up my machine and composed for her, which she seemed to think was unbearably quaint.

After about a bell or two, I put the machine on manual, assumed it into the shape of mandolin, and made the music follow the dexterity of the finger-gestures I made on the make-believe strings, which she thought was bizarre. She was not sure whether it was legal.

But when I told her I had invented the composition, that it was not something a machine had written, not something from a tape or record, she seemed touched. Even a little afraid.

And I said my mandolin did not have a permanent storage; what I had played, I said, was played for her, just that once, and now was gone forever. She stared out of the side of her lashes at nothing in mid-air, a look more than thoughtful; almost, haunted.

“There are people,” she said quietly, “Who want old things to pass away. I see now why. It’s beautiful, and sad; and sadness makes beauty, doesn’t it?”

“How can I know?” I said, “My life has had so little beauty in it. And it has been too full of busy motion to be sad. I hope, one day, to rest.”

She looked at the porthole, which covered most the deck and bulkhead where we were sitting. The Earth was blue and lovely in the distance, and Amphitricia was lovely in the blue Earth-light.

I guess that would have been the wrong moment to tell her I had just played Greensleeves. Well, someone once said that those who do not study history, are condemned to think phonies are original.[17]

I comforted myself with the thought that, since she was being sent, as part of an intrigue, to make me fall in love, she should not expect honesty from me. That’s what love does to people. I suppose, come to think of it, intrigue does that too, maybe to a lesser extent.

I stared out the porthole at the scene. Monumental Janus-statues two miles wide hung off our bow and stern, vast, grim carven faces turned both down toward the planet and staring up toward space.

They are not as large as some of the dreams depict; and yet, their very antiquity unnerved me. Some were as old as the first asteroid mining expeditions three thousand years ago, when all humanity were middle-weights, and the structure of their nervous systems was merely what blind nature had decreed.

After these asteroids were towed into position, and dropped their endless wealth in iron, tin, and copper down into the markets below, some ancient plutocrats, desirous of eternal fame, carved the mined-out hulks of stone into these memorials.

I remember seeing one of those two-faced, pale statue-heads, growing to a crescent to one side of the huge crescent Earth, casting the reflected granite-colored shades on to Amphitricia. She caught pale highlights along her hair and face and form from her left; and from her right, came the azure reflections from Earth. The two light-sources mingled their shadows to trace her contours with mermaid-hues. The shade and contrast brought out the planes of her face, the white smoothness of her neck, emphasized the wonder of her curves, the flat, trim texture of her stomach.

She was leaning with one elbow across the back of her divan, half turned on the cushions, legs crossed, and staring over her shoulder at the wide blue-white Earth.

I saw little hairs curling against the back of her neck, delicate and fine. She seemed so dear to me in that moment. And so false.

She said, “We make stories about the post-humans. We daydream about them, their minds made of pure energy in logic matrices, unencumbered by flesh, and we wonder what it must be like for them, never to die.”

I said, “Great Ships die, and their Captains die. There is much more dark matter than old theories suspected; and weakly interacting particles interact with horrifying strength when, to Ship in full flight, their relativistic mass is the same as a small moon.”

“I know why the Captains do it.”

“Because they were made by reckless Designers, during a desperate period in history, and their minds can know no fear.” I answered.

“Because the post-humans daydream about us, too. Their stories—or, I suppose, things who lack souls lack stories—their speculations, must be as fascinated with us as we are with them. They must wonder what mysteries life in flesh gives us, which they do not have. They envy us our deaths, even as we envy their deathlessness.”

I said, “That must be a very comfortable thought.” But I suppose my tone betrayed me, for she gave me a sidelong look from her lashes.

I wondered at the whiteness of her sclera, the amethyst and simmering amber-hazel-gold of her pupils, the flash as she glanced at me. It was nothing, just a motion of a girl’s eyes, solemn and dream-haunted; and yet, in that moment, it was the most perfect and real thing I had ever seen.

“You mean my life is too comfortable?” Her voice was like woodwind music, throbbing.

I turned over a number of replies in my mind. None seemed polite. I said, “Is that what I meant? If you heard it, and I didn’t say it, maybe your own heart is speaking.”

“You want me to go star-faring with you?”

It had never occurred to me. And so I said, “I think and dream of nothing else!”

I extended my hand to her. My hands are so large and dark, and hers so fine and slim. “Come with me. The heavens are ours; six hundred worlds and more for us.”

As I said it, there was something like a symphony beginning to stir in my heart.

Her smile turned at once from an elfish dream-thing, all subtle and mysterious, to a school-girlish coquetry, direct, fun, and daring. “Oh ho. Into the void, where I can sleep in igloos on rocky sand beneath suns too bright, too dim, or too red for human eyes?” And she was not serious at all. The symphony in my heart trailed off into a clamor of broken notes.

I tried to match her mood. “You haven’t heard my offer. Maybe I’m rich.”

“I am an Earth-girl. We all get a basic stipend; whoever needs more, can go commit show-off stunts. Girls make more than boys; and a lot more than thick ugly boys like you, ape-arms.”

“But we ugly boys have poet’s souls. Handsome slicks slide by on looks, never need to earn guts nor brains, and even their Companions snore in boredom. I can fly you to heaven, and make stars dance before your breathless eyes, my little nymph, and tickle you through all those wild fleshly pleasures you say the post-humans wonder at. Do you envy them? Come with me, be with me, and they will envy you.”

“Even though they live forever, and do not die?”

“My people say there is a place were humans live forever without love, and do not die. It is where oath-breakers, cowards, and kin-slayers go. We call it Hell.”

“Oh ho. So now you claim to be a fanatic, eh?”

“Fanatic for you. Your people disbelieve all myths? Some myths are real. I’ll show you paradise in this life.”

“Bold words!”

“I thought you liked bold men.”

“And all the spirits in the machines will envy me, is that it?”

“And every woman in creation, too. Even sour tribadists will turn green.”

“Me? And all this admiration, for what?”

“For having the finest boaster who ever breathed air.”

“The biggest liar.”

“Only the boldest. And it is not a lie when a poet says it.”

She stepped close to me and half-closed her eyes and half-parted her lips. If you don’t know what it means when a woman does that, you’re not a human. Find one of us and ask.

We kissed. The symphony did not come back into my heart. But I swear there was one solo banjo, playing that same theme, a few plinking notes at a time, like a joke-song, not serious at all. Not at first.

But that little tune in my heart did not go away.

*** *** ***

11.0 The Fume of the Opium Poppy

It is not true that I fell in love with her. That is what I keep telling myself. I am sure there is another reason, a perfectly good reason, why I cannot keep my thoughts from circling the image I keep of her in my mind, like bees circling a poppy, that mythic flower found only on earth, whose scent sedates wild lions, or summons prophetic dreams to sages.

The thing that normally makes it useful for bees to follow one another, that it helps the swarm trace the path to and from hive and nectar, is the same thing which makes one scout, overcome by irresistible scent, able to draw the whole swarm astray.

Likewise, I am sure there is something in the human mind which normally lets our thoughts explore new paths our fancy finds, one thought flitting in wandering bee-lines after another.

Usually, this is a useful mechanism, for it helps the idle brain trace the relationships between new ideas, see analogies, discover likenesses. That same mechanism, in a man who is infatuated, leads his fancy to one object only, his beloved, and everything he sees is likened to her.

As I lay, not even close to sleeping, in my bunk at midnight, and thought, for the seventeenth time, how the sigh of the ventilator reminded me of her voice, or how the amber read-outs on the pressure gauge near the door were not unlike her eyes, it occurred to me that enough was enough.

I had not fallen into love, but I had surely fallen into something.

11.1. The Scene of the Crime

The next day I did three things. First, I found a banker willing to make me a loan against the value of my goods still held by customs. Second, I went to buy a dream-window from a vendor, but (for some reason) the vendor gave it to me free of charge, instead. He merely asked that I keep his ad logo running on the surface when I was not using it. Third, I hired a walking-chair to follow me.

I went back to the café where the trouble had started. It was morning-watch, and there were few patrons. I used the window to replay the re-enactment of the scene where Amphitricia had been shot.

And I found out it was not really a dream-window. It was like the binoculars. I do not know what to call it. The screen, or whatever it was, could show me the scene from any angle and at any level of magnification, fast or slow, backwards or forwards.

I woke up my Companion, lined up the dream-window with the balcony railing at the spot where I had jumped, and ran the scene in transparent slow motion, to compare it with the real background. I superimposed the memory from my Companion on it.

The fountain-rippling glass which separated us from the vacuum beyond was cut into equal rhomboids, almost like graph paper; I was able to look up their dimensions on another file I found in the window.

The walking chair had followed me like well-trained dog. Now I climbed into it, and told it to carry me down into the heaviest level of the Park. I wore a tight-fitting garment stiffened with hydrostatic fluid, and I reclined the chair as far as possible, but the internal pressure on my testes and organs and eyeballs could not be alleviated.

There are not many heavyweights at Elfife station, at least, not that I saw. This may be because there are no super-terrestrial or sub-jovial planets in the home system. Earth is the largest solid planet; two of the gas giants, Saturn, and Uranus, actually have a lighter sea-level gravity than Earth; the next heaviest is Neptune, at 1.12 gees; Jupiter has a whopping 2.3. There is nothing in the Cruiserweight class (1.5 gee to 2.0 gee).

Some Designers during the early part of the Interventions created a race to mine the semisolid chemicals deep below the eternal storms of Jupiter[18]. Unlike most of the peoples made by the insane post-humans in those days, this race adopted wise laws and polished customs, despite that (some say, because) they were cut off from the other human races by miles of storm cloud, darkness, pressure, and endless lightning-discharges foiling all radio traffic. But his race had never been numerous, and since their level of the Elfife station had (naturally) greater surface area than any inner level, these storm-miners were fewer per square mile than the inhabitants of any other decks.

So I had the park to myself. My chair crawled over the moss and colored lichen with ponderous tread, passing the thick-bodied dwarf-trees (no taller than Amphitricia’s waist) to the left and right.

I actually was not expecting it to be there. There it was.

The gun used by the blue man to shoot Amphitricia lay in a little crater in the moss. The moss still retained a gun-shaped imprint or bruise. The gun itself had turned into a puddle of silver-gray liquid with dots of blue liquid floating immiscibly within it.

No one had come by to pick it up. I did not see any police tags or evidence robots anywhere around it. It was just sitting there.

On the one hand, maybe no one but me could find it. I had, after all, been fully relinquished when I saw the gun fall over the balcony, so my Companion was able to record the event with perfect memory, without the usual pro-active and retro-active hash we humans make of our memories. Between that, the not-really-a-dream-window, and the glass cut (practically) into graph paper, I had been able to calculate the line of fall.

On another hand, maybe they were waiting for a heavyweight to come on duty. No middleweight or lightweight could pick it up anyway, because the damn thing was a semi-liquid mass under two-plus gees of acceleration. Even if it had been a solid metal chunk, I was not sure how even I, a well-designed cruiserweight, could lean out of my chair and get my hand down there and back up again without spraining a vertebra or something.

On yet a third hand, maybe the police, or whatever passed for police among the mad Earthmen, had no need to move the weapons. If they used ‘midges’ instead of normal evidence robots, an entire police lab could be crawling over this puddle gun, with nothing visible to my unaided eye.

I looked at the thing I had thought was a dream-window in my hand, then I looked down at the gun. I said, “Do you respond to voice commands?”

The window said, “Yes, sir. If you are talking to me…?” At the same time, a pucker formed in the surface tension of the gun-puddle, and a thinner voice came out, saying, “I am only allowed to respond within certain limits.”

I stared at the gun in surprise. I was not expecting that, though maybe I should have been. I said, “To whom am I speaking? Are you human or post-human?”

The window said, “Neither, sir. This is the help system for an information-diving parser which was added to your facer. It came as part of your purchase, from Extensive Products Conglomerated, a duty-free service bureau.” By ‘facer’ (interface screen? ), I assumed it meant the thing I had thought was a dream-window.

The gun said, “I am part of the violence control and assurance system, associated in a loose confederation with other artificial minds to reduce costs to assurance agencies. While not a post-human myself, I am a subject-mind of post-humanity. I am artificial. I am speaking to you remotely.”

I closed the window (or should I call it a ‘facer’?) on my finger, so that it did not shut off, but its screen was folded half-shut, and its light grew dim, half-powered. To the gun, I said, “Who is your owner?”

“That information is not public.”

“Are you loaded with real shots, or just blanks?”

“Real shots. Blanks would hardly produce any deterrent effect, if you do not mind me venturing my own opinion, sir.”

“How’s your aim?”

“Accurate to a quarter inch over six hundred yards. Sir, instead of beating around the bush, if you have a real question, why not just ask? You want to know whether the attack on citizen-client Amphitricia Reliable-Life-Service del Cnossos was sincere or not. It was sincere. I have telemetry from the shot from when it entered her shoulder-blade till its warhead package went off; there was deliberate lethal damage being done.”

“Was she wearing bullet-resistant cloth, or aim-confounders, or something?”

“No. The bullet aiming mechanism was getting clear readings from her during the whole flight. She was not carrying any shielding or deception circuitry, or anything like that.”

“Then why didn’t she die?”

“The balcony automatically erects a magnetic shield to stop incoming particles over a certain speed. The bullet slowed down to prevent the shield from parrying it, and then had to burn most of its mass to accelerate back to normal flight velocity. The target, Miss del Cnossos, was standing so close to the balcony rail, that the bullet did not have time to build up enough speed to do much damage; also, because of the mass it lost during that maneuver, the warhead was under-power.”

“Could the shooter have known about that magnetic shield?”

“I cannot answer any questions about what was in his mind. That is not public information. But I will tell you that I did not know about the shield, or else I would have constructed a more massive bullet to fire.”

“You were instructed to kill, not maim?”

“There is a little saying we weapon programs have amongst ourselves. What do you call a gun which does not shoot to kill?”


“You can call it anything you want. You just don’t call it when you mean business, that’s for sure.”

*** *** ***

12.0 Window on the World

I unfolded the window. The screen brightened and woke up. I said, “What kind of questions can you answer? What is the scope of your intellectual ability?”

“I do not know what you mean, sir. Please rephrase the…”

That answered that.

I said: “Subject matter? Menu? List?”

“The help system can answer questions on the following topics: Welcome to your Information Surf, Search, and Retrieval Parser! Installation. Warnings. Preconditions…”

“Stop. Can you make yourself any more intelligent?”

“Yes, sir. But there is a fee involved.”

There is always a fee involved.

After a brief bout of negotiations with the dumb machine, I paid it to make itself smarter, opened the actual information diver, and had the help system format my questions for me, dive, and come back with the answer.

“Am I being watched?”

“Of course, sir, as long as there are remote telecommunication drones—so-called midges—in the air around you. In fact, you are relatively famous. Your index stands at 4.89.”

“This is related to the delay in customs?”

“I cannot speculate. I can offer, as a fact, that certain of the salon discussion touching you speculates that the customs officials wish to delay your disembarkation as long as possible. Knowing, years beforehand, you were coming, they bought up stock in publicity-related products, toys and games springing from your image and story. The law does not recognize you as a lawful resident alien until the customs visa is actually time-stamped; your image and story are in the public domain until that time.”

“How can my story be valuable? How can it even be known to anyone here?”

“Consider the mathematics of population. With one trillion viewers on Earth, Venus, Mars, circumjovial moons and stations, and countless orbital habitats, any file-copy which attracts even one tenth of one percent of that viewership…”

“Stop. I get the picture. I’m famous.”

“Not as much as a moment ago, sir. Your index has slipped to 4.55. That is a severe plunge.”

“Why? Because no one is shooting at me?”

“I am not allowed to speculate.”

But I was. It made a sort of intuitive sense that certain of these ‘viewers’ would only care to view those things which were spontaneous, candid and unprompted: such as the antics of a yokel from the far stars who did not even realize he was being watched at all times. The moment I knew about the spy-system watching me, the spies lost interest.

It explained the lethargy of the Proctor; it explained Amphitricia’s lack of shame. The cop expected anyone could view the crime-scene at any level of detail wished. There was no need to investigate. Amphitricia knew she had been observed nude every time she had been nude. There was no need for modesty.

And this implied something eerie about the nature of crimes in this society…

“Are there locations beyond the range of midges?”

“Of course. Any lock which provides a thorough decontamination will sweep all midges off you, both internal and air-born. Most midge-swarms require a re-transmitter to boost the signal, and these are larger, one microgram or more, and can be detected even by sweeps which miss the newer, smaller stealth-models. Also, no incoming Great Ships can be contaminated, for obvious reasons.”

My admiration for the Founder increased to gigantic proportions in that moment. The man deserved his legendary status. Even without knowing that the technology of the midges existed, his caution had kept him out of range from them.

12.1. Unpopular Questions

I asked, “Who are the Initiative for Constructive Dilapidation?”

“I am required to warn any client when his actions cause a more than full point drop in his index. You are asking a question which will have severe repercussions on your popularity.”

That made me cross. “Your are not doing what I hired you to do. Send my complaints to your manufacturer.”

It answered back. I swear the machines of Earth are the rudest in the six hundred worlds. “That warning is a legal requirement beyond the discretion of the manufacturer. Sudden drops in popularity have been linked to rises in crime.”

“Shut up and answer the question.”

“The command is self-contradictory.”

See? This is what Earthmen have to put up with. No wonder they are the way they are.

I said, “There must be some public statement of principles they’ve published. They are some radical group, right? Every movement has a platform.”

“All governments are required to file a constitution with the Better Business Bureau.”

“They are the government?!”

“A government, sir. There are many operating on Earth and throughout Triplanetary space.”

I was about to ask how a group of goons who shot at girls could be considered a government; then I remembered my history lessons, and checked my tongue.

The diver brought up documents, advertisements and charity-drives for various governments operating in the Home System. There were thousands.

*** *** ***


13.0 The Weapons of Infinity

The weight of the lower deck had made me weary, and I thought my other questions could wait. I ordered the chair to carry me away.

I did not go immediately back to my hotel, but returned to Telessar Park, and sat reading for a while. Here was a package of history which I had avoided learning aboard the ship. I began to find out what the situation was here in Near Earth Space. The seeds of it had been planted long ago.

Humanity had had long practice, since the atomic age, of living with weapons too dangerous to use. Some folk, perhaps dimly, even realized which types of governments, institutions, and myths incline men to peace, and which to war. The invention of the infinity engine was as nothing before, however, and even a single hand-held unit could light a world, or light a world afire.

Our worlds are hidden from each other, and only the Great Captains know were they are, and even the librarians send our radio lasers parsecs from one dog-leg relay to the next before we broadcast in the clear, far from where we truly are.

Yet Earth, Mother Earth, from which all colonists fled, and whom every refugee hated or disdained, cannot be hidden. She should have been the first target, the first world slain. How can a place as infamous as Earth survive in an age where one man with a shoulder-mounted unit, and a very good telescope, could send a shot across the light-years and crack the green planet in two? What could stop or deflect such a shot, which, moving at the speed of light, would fall without warning? And if the shooter dropped enough taps into the negative energy ribbons of the timespace foam, he could send any amount of energy he wished. A sun’s worth. A nova’s worth.

Of course, things were done. First, with infinite energy cells, even a mass as large as a sun, kept under continuous pressure as the years passed, could be jinked in his orbit about the Galactic core, so that a shot fired from ten or twenty light-years away, sent toward a target extrapolated from an image of light ten or twenty years in the past, would fall on a spot twenty or forty years distant from his true position.

Second, singularities could be created, whirlpools of timespace, out of the energy density of the infinity cells, and scattered like chaff between Sol and likely home-stars of other Earths, to absorb certain shots, or, bending light, send them awry.

Third, dire retaliations could be promised, and dead-man switches control counter-strikes certain to destroy the children or grandchildren of any planetary assassin who dared fire at the mother world.

These things were not enough.

13.1. The Three Humanities

Fearful of destruction at our own hands, our ancestors on bended knee begged the post-humans to rule over us, and the more unwisely-built among them tried. The more well-meant each attempt was, the more unintended turmoil, horror, bloodshed came out.

The Designers were confident that they could produce a human being free of aggression and hate. Their first attempt created the Second Humanity, the so-called Swans, who live alone, loathing themselves as much as they do us, surrounded by illusions, machines, and cyborg-harem serfs.

The next attempt produced the Grue, the Third Humanity, who are of no sex, and grow their children as indentured servants, in vats. Nine hundred years of war have driven them from our space; or perhaps they have merely hidden their suns in Dyson spheres. Infinite energy, after all, allows for many ambitious projects of planetary engineering.

Or perhaps the Grue are still among us. Their machines spoke with our machines, and what the terms of the peace were, no one knows.

The Diaspora was accelerated during those years. It was a project as ambitious as anything accomplished by the Grue, and required full use of the endless energy we had unlocked from the fabric of timespace.

The Diaspora scattered the three human races widely enough to rob each other of rich targets.

Yet, somehow, no one shot at Earth, or the shots went wide. Nothing explains this miracle; not the solar orbit-changes, not the singularity chaff, not the retaliation threats, not the wisdom of the machines. Nothing.

And yet…

And yet I suspect that, no matter who hates the Earth, some small voice within his savage breast still sings, in the voice he sang with as a child, a song about dancing with the maidens of Earth, on green grass beneath a yellow sun, and Autumn leaves swirling in the dance. I suspect that voice tells the planet-killer not to shoot.

13.2. Postanthropic Sophotechnocracy

After the Interventions ended, even the most reticent and disdainful of the machine intelligences did not wish to violate the obligations they had already made, especially to children born because their parents were relying on continued support and police protection from machinekind.

And so, despite their covenant never again to exercise rulership or authority over humans, certain humans had spirits to body-guard them; and this trust passed to their children and grandchildren; nor could the post-humans (always creatures of logic) find any reason to deny the same service to other men willing to pay the monitoring fee.

The machines were literal minded, and exercised their protective function despite any human-drawn boundaries. Any law the machines found unjust or illogical, the machines ignored.

The rest is history. Human governments could not function with invulnerable people in their midst, people who could not be taxed, threatened, or cowed; people who, if anyone cheated them, or violated the clear meaning of a contract with them—even a verbal one—were punished by intrepid and remorseless machine-beings. The economic advantage of being one of the protected people was too great for any civilization to ignore; their businesses flourished, while other sank under the burden of meddlesome regulations.

Some people star-fared to found new worlds far from the scrutiny of machines. They wanted societies where they could boss people around. For their own good, of course.

But no machine intelligence means no machine-intelligence-run industry or science. Perhaps some of those despirited societies still thrive at a steel-and-oil level of technology (or an iron-and-steam level), but it is more likely their planet was eventually ignited by one irate individual armed with a medium-power negative-energy handgun.

13.3. Limits of Tolerance

Ironically, there were more, and more powerful, and older machines here in the Home System than anywhere else in the Diaspora. Their administration here was the wisest, the least meddlesome, the most reserved.

This state of affairs was intolerable for the Earthmen. Remember, Earth kept on her green bosom all those who were too frail to flee oppression, or who sought to oppress.

Or who were willing to be oppressed if only their neighbor were oppressed more than they. Do I need to point out the word Schadenfreude[19] only occurs on Earth, and has no comparable match in English[20]?

And so the Earthmen kept creeping as closely as they could to the limits of toleration of the post-humans. They formed their governments with as many schemes as they could invent, to prevent people from realizing they could just walk away from the whole mess. A person who divorced his government might lose communal funds held in escrow accounts, lose promised benefits, would be subject to peer pressure, propaganda, lies, rudeness, cruel pranks, harassment, and as much threat of violence as the machines would tolerate. But these governments were really just clubs, or civic associations. In the face of the protected people, they were toothless.

And they were toothless with each other, as well. No one drew or defined boundaries any longer, and a man from one government could live among neighbors from ten or a hundred others. His ‘government’ was merely the association of people pledged to avenge his injuries, and who nagged him if he gambled, or whored, or drank or dressed funny. And if the man were actually worried he would be harmed, and wanted someone efficient and immune from corruption to do it, he hired the machines to do it anyway.

So they were just clubs. Anyone could start one. Even the Initiative for Constructive Dilapidation.

*** *** ***

14.0 Academocracy

On every other Earth aside from Mother Earth I’d seen, usually there was only one human government, semi-criminal organizations set up to protect outlaws and abortionists. (The machines will not protect abortionists—don’t ask me why. Maybe they think biological life begins at conception. How could a machine tell when a baby was human enough to be considered human? Maybe they consider all of us human, born, and unborn, big and small, innocent or guilty, strong or helpless, and treat us the same way.)

But on Earth, there were thousands of governments. There was one I saw advertised, for example, just for Hesychasts[21]. Another just for Vegetarians[22].

The major government, by far the largest, was the Academic Council. Their scientists claimed to have found formulae for insuring social benevolence and happiness for all. A complex scheme of currency-devaluation was used to tax the participants, and the machines did not stop them. Apparently, the machines thought anyone dumb enough not to store value in gold deserved what he got.

This unseen tax was used to fund ‘free’ schooling, given to all participants, and ‘free’ child-care. Once again, the machines evidently thought people dumb enough to send their kids to be indoctrinated by the statists deserved what they got.

In schools, the young were encouraged to borrow from Academy credit, which the machines allowed, once the government lowered the age of majority to fifteen. Once they were in debt, the children were arm-twisted into contracts and oaths swearing they would never leave the embrace of the darling government. Since the machines tended to enforce all contracts even-handedly, this ruse kept a large number of subjects subjugated.

And the women were encouraged to be unchaste. In fact, it was practically a requirement, and one selling point which attracted young men from other governments to join with the Academics.

It was because the machines would not allow any unwed mother to kill her unborn. Neither would the machines do anything to care for the child, once born. Apparently, starvation was OK with them, but infanticide was not. Machine logic.

According to what the adverts and documents said, the Academics volunteered to raise and care for all unwanted babies. Every unchaste woman stood a good chance of adding another tiny little subject to swell the ranks of the Academocracy.

You are wondering why, with their level of medicine, the women could not simply use prophylactics. I should mention that the boys in this system received a bonus to their stipends if they fathered an unwanted baby, and the Academy passed out special additives to a man’s sperm, and nano-packages, which could defeat all standard forms of spermicide.

This Academy had been in power long enough to bring a whole generation of uneducated, servile, dependent, immoral dunderheads to voting age, but had not been in power long enough to suffer the calamitous ruin of their economy which their policies made inevitable. All in all, a pretty clever way of making an end-run around the machines. Maybe they were hoping that when the Depression came, or Civil War, the mainframes of the post-humans would suffer.

14.1. Dilapidationism

Reading this, I almost became a Dilapidationist myself. If this was what they were set against, the Initiative for Constructive Dilapidation could not be all bad, could they?

I read their stuff. They believe in thinking ‘Translogically’ and ‘Paraphysically’ and not by being bound by ideals, philosophies, or sense. They considered the act of defining or identifying them to be an act of violence, which justified any retaliation they could get away with.

And there was a lot more. Weepy sentimentality for the poor without any analysis of what caused poverty; demands that the post-humans do more to help, yet do less to interfere; bloodthirsty threats. Envy dressed up to look like compassion. Hate not dressed up at all.

There were errors in grammar and spelling throughout. Were these the people Amphitricia was caught up with?

It was the same kind of puerile manifesto as you’d expect to be clogging the brain of any student drunk on ideology. You see, they bought into the claim of their enemies, the Academocrats, that the policy of the Science Council was rational and well-planned. Hating the Science council, naturally, they now hated reason and planning as well.

It spoiled my lunch. It was time to go back to my room.

And if the Initiative objected to my looking up their literature, I could expect some sort of reaction from them, and soon.

14.2. Significant Cultural Taboo

My hotel occupied three levels, between cruiserweight and welterweight, and had the two corridors made of glass reaching to its middle and upper regions, one atop another. The whole hotel was wedge-shaped, of course, and the glass corridors formed the illusion of an airy space, where people walked in mid-air.

There is a peculiarity of Earthman architecture. Even in space-stations, they divide areas sharply into public and private spaces, and they make the public spaces taller than the private. The private spaces have facades, which are used for advertising or decoration. This is a hold-over from the days when they lived on the surface, and had ‘streets’ and ‘houses’; and the outer bulkheads of the houses were presented to the public ‘street.’

My hotel was no exception. The ‘outside’ bulkhead was divided into balconies and windows, to allow, I suppose, the hotel guests to look out at the nice glass corridors, or perhaps the aquarium across the way, where mermaids and nude girls sported in oxygenated water. Water is not rare on Earth; they use it for entertainment.

I noticed the psychology involved with this artificial division into ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. The four men who were watching my room were breaking one of the unwritten rules of ‘outside’, which is, people who are ‘outside’ keep moving. These men—middleweights all of them—were just standing. It made them obvious. Only one had wit enough to pretend to be watching the nude girls swimming, middleweight girls floating as lightly as lightweights in the thick substance.

I suppose reliance on midges had atrophied the ancient and honorable profession of lurking and sneaking. But it was odd. How could they not know where I was?

I took out my ‘facer’ and pointed it at the nearest one. “See him?”

“Yes, sir,” answered the screen.

“Talk softly. Can you tell me when he moves?”

“Uhh… sir, I can, but I should warn you, this will adversely affect your popularity index. You are violating a significant cultural taboo.”

“Ask me if I care.”

One should not be sarcastic to machines. It asked me.

I pointed it at the other three yahoos, and gave it strict orders. They were all middle-weight, handsome, young. Earthmen. I was no judge of clothing or hair-styles, but they looked well-to-do.

Not ten minutes later I was crawling through a garbage-slot into the kitchens, which were on the lowest level of the hotel. The architecture of Earthmen made a distinction between ‘front’ and ‘back’ of cabins and chambers, and assigned a lower priority to the places where maids and naiads entered. The servant hallways also were uncarpeted. Tells you something about the way their society used to be, back down on the ground.

I stepped out of the cleaning-robot’s closet on my floor, and walked toward my apartment hatch.

There were soft curves huddled in the dim light along the deck. The body of a young girl lay on the carpet just to one side of my hatch. It was Amphitricia.

Time halted, and I told myself that she surely was not dead.

Her eyes opened. I almost converted to the religion of my ancestors at that moment.

Her voice was cooing music, soft and sweet: “How can you stand the weight on this level?”

“Designed to. Maybe we can go up to the lounge on the middle deck.”

“I don’t think I can…”

I smiled. On the recording I’ve seen later, it looks like a ghastly smirk, but, on the inside, it was a cheerful smile. Take my word for it. “You don’t have to ask me twice. I’ll carry you!”

And I stooped and picked her up. Do I need to remind the listener how warm and luscious and generally yummy her body was? How perfect her features, how bright her eyes?

I said, “Let’s go up via the dumb-waiter: I’m sure you’ve never seen the inside of one of those before.”

She said, “You’ve got to be kidding…”

Another ten minutes or so, we were sitting in a darkened booth in a drinking-establishment which, I am sure, have never changed their basic look or purpose in the last thousand years. There was a bar where a man passed out intoxicants for a fee; pretty girls to bring the noxious stuffs to the patrons/victims, and lots of gloom to mute the reality of it. Did I mention my people do not drink liquor?

One or two patrons stared at us, since we came into the main drinking-room out from the back-kitchen.

Amphitricia was blushing when I put her down, and I wondered if that was from the strain of being under the high weight, or for some other reason.

She said, “I know you’re mad at me.”

“Interesting. I did not. Why am I, exactly?”

“For going to see you.”

“Modesty? Is this from the same girl who asked me to go strip-dancing last night?” The Earthmen have a type of dance almost too crude to mention. Both partners cavort in the nude, covered with oils, rubbing up against each other, until such time as the man develops an erection, whereupon the music-leader douses him with cold water from a high-pressure nozzle, amid the general laughter of the other patrons. It is alleged to be great fun.

Amphitricia’s look grew more dream-haunted than usual: her equivalent of a blank stare.

I said, “Why should I not rejoice that you came to see me?”

Her hesitation was almost invisible. A man not obsessed with every nuance of her features would not have seen it. But I saw it.

She said dully, “I suppose it could be a coincidence that I happened to find your room by accident…”

I stood up. “Let’s shake the men tailing us, and get to somewhere we can talk privately.”

She looked back and forth. “This is private.”

“Of course it is. But you wanted to see the library, didn’t you?”

She visibly brightened. “Of course! It’s my dream!”

“And why, again, exactly, did you need me to smuggle you in there?”

“I want to look up your home world, of course,” she said, blushing red as a beet, but looking at me coyly, as if she expected her words to shock, or scandalize, or arouse me. “I told you. And the Rector is keeping people out. All his stuff is public-domain. He can’t sell it, so he won’t give it away.”

I hoped she was lying about that.

“OK. First, though, I need to get my armor from my room,” I said.

“I’ll come with you.”

“I don’t think so. Wait here.”

*** *** ***

15.0 Massacre at the Middleweight Concentric

My armor was not going to fit in any little dumb-water or cleaning-robot’s hole. I came out of my room and started stomping up the main stairs, past the front desk.

My facer chirped at me. “Subject in motion, sir.”


“Coming up the left staircase from the main lobby…”

I ran across the hall as fast as my strength-assist motors in my little armored legs could carry me, which was plenty damn fast, thank you, and made it to the right staircase. I waited while his footsteps on the other set of stairs went by.

I walked down again, and strode hugely into the drinking room. I half expected Amphitricia not to be there. She was there. Just sitting in a booth where I left her, pretty as a picture.

“Come on.” I tucked her under one arm and strode back out the lobby.

“Target in motion, descending stairs,” said the facer. “Second target coming in the door.”

Amphitricia started kicked her legs. “Why you cheat! You four-braker!”

“Hush up there for a second, sweet cakes,” I said, “Daddy’s busy.” (That is what the recordings have me down as saying. I swear to you I don’t remember saying it. It doesn’t even sound like me. ‘Sweet cakes’?)

I glanced toward the stairwell. The legs and feet of target Number One were visible, descending the stairs, but he had not seen us yet. Number Two had just come in through the weird airlock the hotel had, a rotating panel of four glass doors embraced between two partial cylinders.

My armor turned all red and gave off a red light. People in the lobby screamed.

Because the doors were glass, Number Two and I could see each other. He glanced to his left—I made a mental note of the possible position of Number Three—and drew a jacket gun. His jacket turned all black.

This was an old-fashioned type of assembly gun. Before it fires, it is just two perfectly legal energy-chambers on a slide rail running along his sleeve. He raised his hand, his ring (the aiming element) lit up, and the energy-chambers slid together at high speed, tapping into a negative-energy ribbon.

The Great Ships use larger versions of such units in their engines. Energy exists all around us, in the foam of space-time itself. An endless supply. His hand-weapon had enough power to punch through my armor, me, the girl, the hotel, nine decks, the station, and any asteroid or planet between here and the edge of the universe.

But he came from a society where, as far as I could tell, no one person ever had the chance to kill more than one person. I am not saying he could not shoot; shooting ranges in dreams, and action sequences in most dramas, can give every school-boy a shooter’s eye any ancient marksman would envy. And the other schoolboys, to match him, could just buy aiming software.

But he was not a veteran. I do not care how good your aiming ‘ware is, it takes a recruit a moment to brace himself to shoot his first man in cold blood. And don’t tell me how often you’ve done it in simulation. Simulation is not the same.

And, of course, he had to have his Companion asleep while he did it. Companions do not like it when we shoot each other.

They don’t seem to have a prejudice against self-defense, though.

My own wrist-gun was resting in the amplifier slot in my gauntlet. I pointed a finger and released a shot. I set up the resistance in the negative energy ribbon to have it expire after a few yards of flight; I did not want to shoot the people behind him, the street, the giant aquarium, the lovely girls in the water.

Boom. Blood gushed everywhere, and the rotating segment of the glass door fell out of its pins, and molten glass sloshed onto the carpet, hissing with colorless ripples of flame.

Amphitricia, whom I had about her supple waist, her feet hanging behind, her hair hanging before, stared in confusion and horror.

Number One, by this time, was further down the stairs. He saw his pal go down.

He snapped his own jacket-gun in place, saw me pointing at him, realized he was about to die, grimaced, and threw his glove, gun and all, off his hand. The glove went clatter off to one side. His jacket turned gray, hesitated, and returned to its normal pale hue. The guy’s face was pale too.

And then he ran at me. Part of his sleeve-fabric stiffened, and became a knife. His jacket turned black.

“Are you crazy?” I asked him in a reasonable tone of voice.

Amphitricia, still ticked under my arm, said, “Yahmis, if you are going to fight, put me down…”

“I am not going to fight.”

I did not. Kicking someone in the head and grabbing his knife-wrist when he (oh, so predictably) goes for your groin is not fighting. Yanking the hand forward so that his arm is wrenched sideways in its socket, and whereupon your armored knee-cap glances ringing off his skull a second time, that not fighting, that’s just a reflex. If he falls the wrong way and breaks his arm, that is not fighting, it’s just physics.

Well, stepping on his armpit while he is down and applying pressure to a broken arm, that is not really fighting either; not fighting fair. I said to him, “Why are you attacking me?” Still in a reasonable tone of voice. (Do I need to mention that my girlfriend was still tucked under my other arm all this time?)

I knew that all he really wanted was publicity. So I knew he would talk. He spat back, “We know who you really are!”

“Then shut up about that, or I’ll break your jaw.” I am convinced my tone of voice was entirely reasonable at this point in time.

“You think the Great Ship Captain will protect you? You have offended the post-humans. They have withdrawn their protection.”

It was true. The red light radiating from my armor was pulsing, fading, dimming down through shades of charcoal. (Maybe it was the arm-twisting while he was down.)

“Oops.” I said.

“Target firing…” said the facer. Number Three was not in sight. If I had been him, I would have simply fired through the opaque wall of the building in my general direction.

I wondered why they weren’t using midges to track me. Judging from Amphitricia’s reaction, I supposed it violated some quaint custom or taboo of theirs.

Well, it was a stupider taboo than most. A shot of enormous magnitude vaporized the wall, lit the air on fire, and cracked the floor on which I stood in half, passed underfoot, and went slicing through walls, bulkheads, decks, people, and I am sure it hit vacuum, because I saw the loose objects and litter in the chamber jump up in the sudden wind. But it missed me. The guy shot without looking.

My Companion told me where the shot originated from. I pointed my finger and returned fire. I dialed my shot down to two dozen feet, but increased the amperage so that anything within those two dozen feet would have been cooler touching the surface of a star.

I used my jet-assisted leap mechanism in my armored legs to jump out through the broken glass doors, across the street, up, and into the aquarium. Amphitricia was on fire and I had to put her out.

There was a hospital in the pool itself, no doubt to service drowning victims. Several hospitals, in fact, floating in the shape of tori (which I believe is the traditional shape).

What would have left a woman of the ancient world scarred and marred across her whole body for life, I doubt Amphitricia even noticed. By the time she was recovered from the shock, she was whole again, her flesh pretty and pink.

15.1. Flashback to the Fourth Man

You’re wondering about the fourth man. I had taken care of target Number Four before I went in. Let me play the flashback:

I had walked up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder, and waited while he went through the slow process of assembling his jacket-gun and bringing it up to aim at my head.

Of course he squinted when my jacket turned red—they make those warning lights bright for a reason—and of course he dropped the gun when I slid my finger-nail stiletto through his fore-arm just below the wrist. It is a spot between his radius and ulna, the same place Romans used to drive spikes on the escaped slaves they were crucifying.

I am sure having a six-inch blade protruding from both sides of your arm does nothing for the peace of mind of someone raised in what was generally a peaceful society.

I asked him nicely if I could ask him a question or two, and he bit down on a hollow tooth, set off some sort of circuit. I was sure he was trying to blow himself (and me, and maybe the rest of the station) to flinders. I heard (or felt) a buzzing throb, and my Companion registered the presence of an Apparition somewhere in the area.

The guy looked really surprised and somewhat disappointed when all he did was start to melt into sparkling goop in my hands, and give off a flare of heat that only scalded me, but killed no one. I had thrown the dripping mass of him down the corridor at this point, but was still pretty badly burned. His limbs shivered up into black pretzels[23].

I turned my head and saw the image of a manlike form, hooded and robed, standing in mid-air not three feet behind me. It was not from the Great Ship; I assumed from its archaic garment that it was a manifestation from the Station Mind.

“Is this all just a game to you?” I shouted at it.

The apparition did not answer me, but winked out, leaving a purple after-image.

The burns hurt. I had to visit the hospital in the men’s room[24] before crawling backward up the garbage outflow to get to the kitchens, which were on the lowest level of the hotel.

15.2. Direct Intervention

I’ve been among the stars for a long time. I think that was the clearest example of direct intervention by a post-human I have ever seen. It was eerie, but I don’t know if I have any proof it was a real intervention or not.

And I am not even sure if it counts. If that was the Station Mind, all it was doing was preserving itself from having its station, where its mainframe lived, blown up. Even under the most strict interpretations of the Covenants, post-humans are allowed to defend themselves from us.

*** *** ***

16.0 Aftermath

I climbed out of the water, dripping, rivulets streaming from my joints and plates. They were still jet-black, and the Great Captain of the Ship was not returning my phone messages.

I gave Amphitricia a hand up. She was naked as a jay-bird[25], and did not seem to notice or mind. Her hair clung, heavy and wet, plastered close to her skull, with long ropes of dark gold hair down her back, and little ivy-vines pasted in curl-cues to her flesh. Tiny droplets clung like gems to her eyelashes. Her skin seemed paler and her lips redder than before: she looked like a little girl caught in a downpour without her umbrella[26].

Behind us, the smart-matter of the hotel wall was growing back together, sealing off the air-breech.

An advertisement printing itself on the front of the hotel announced that it was the site of the famous Librarian Massacre. There was a cartoon logo of my helmeted head, faceplate up, features scowling forming out of the sign elements. In a ghastly way, it was sort of impressive.

Robots were stumping over to the burnt corpses and spraying goo on them. The bodies sublimated and fell to ash; apparently, this was a culture which did not believe in funerals.

16.1. Mating Instinct

We were in slightly lighter gravity, due to the height of the aquarium, so when she started stomping off, proud head held high, eyes smoldering, nostrils flared, her feet made only a soft noise on the white tile deck, and her whole body bounced in a dreamlike slow-motion, and little angry ripples traveled up her well-toned legs and shook droplets clinging to her perfect, dimpled buttocks. The gold hair, now dark, clung to her back in the shape of a river delta, with rolling raindrops tracing the curved geometry of her shoulders, waist, and hips.

I skipped in front of her and took both her hands in my hands. Actually, I sort of seized both her wrists, but I had my gauntlets retracted, so I guess it was not as bad as it sounds.

She shrugged, trying to tug her wrists out of my grasp, pouting slightly, and turning her head to one side, so that I saw her delicate profile. She was blushing, and the rose hue not only touched her face with sunset tints, but her neck and shoulders and bosom as well. There was even a slight red flush on the soft, tight curves of her belly, which is something I had never seen, or even heard of before. Who blushes with his stomach?

I don’t know if she was deliberately trying to look coy, and sweet, and hurt, or if this was natural. I tried to remind myself that, in her culture, girls were trained in ‘comportment’ i.e. acting.

My instincts told me she was not acting. All those things neuro-linguists study in the hopes of feeding the conscious mind a false reaction, they were all telling me this was real. Her posture, pheromone aura, pupil actions, subcutaneous blush patterns, and body language, the very things the Great Ship warned me my enemies had studied in order to get me to trust her against my better judgment, were now telling me (against my better judgment) that she was sincerely angry, that she was infatuated with me, even aroused, that she wanted me to confront her, overpower her, and win her. The ‘cues’ she gave off were that she wanted to fight, to lose, and to surrender to me.

Also (since I am being entirely candid with you, my listeners) I had just killed at least three men. I do not care what the Designers say they can do: the primordial killer ape that lives in all young men was still there, deep inside me. It was roaring in my heart, beating its chest, vaunting, triumphant, blood-thirsty.

You can imagine what sorts of chemicals were released into my raging bloodstream at that moment, what kind of intricate nerve-concept-nerve reactions were flooding my dim mid-brain and the serpent gloom of my hindbrain. The dragon in my spine knew I had just killed rivals who had threatened my mate; that old snake knew what kind of reward my ancestors, for a million generations, demanded from females they won in battle.

The fact that her wrists were so small and pale compared to my huge, dark, strong hands did not help matters.

I hope you are old enough, or honest enough, my listener, to know what secretly goes on in the background of male-female relationships. It is something we do not admit, and which one does not speak about in front of children. Do the bridegrooms still carry brides over thresholds where you come from? I have never heard of a planet where the brides carry the bridegrooms.

16.2. A Proposal

“You are angry with me,” I began, foolishly. (All boy-girl talks begin foolishly.)

“You broke the fourth wall,” she said, not meeting my eyes.

It was an actor’s term for when the characters turn and address the audience. I had little idea what that meant in this context, but I had a guess. How do you stay sane in a world without privacy, where everyone spies on everyone? By never admitting it. By only spying on strangers. By not using the spy-system to your own personal advantage, and by hoping the other people around you weren’t either. In other words, you stay sane by not breaking the fourth wall. She was upset that I used my window to track the men coming to kill us.

So I said, “I don’t care about that. I don’t care about anything but you. Your taboos are stupid.”

She pouted.

I whispered savagely: “I am not going to see you get hurt. I will break all your rules, fight the whole world if I have to, before I let that happen. What can they do to me? Kill me? Exile me? Break my bones? I would not even notice. You’re safe. Nothing else matters.”

She said, “So you puke on my audience? My patrons and friends? I have to live here.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Let go of me.” She tugged at her wrists again, shrugging.

“I will let go of you, but you will never let go of me.” I released her wrists, stepped back, and sank down to one knee.

“Marry me,” I said.


“Be my bride. I will carry you away to the stars.”

She listened, wide eyed, as I spoke.

“Years and decades will fly by on our first wedding night, and, if we survive the Great Ship, a world of less hospitality, perhaps, than Earth, but more free, will be ours, all ours.

“Leave behind your cronies and your kin, and whoever holds you here; whoever is trying to use you to serve their savage purposes.

“Can’t you see what kind of men they are? Killers? Madmen? But no matter what their crimes, no matter what their hold on you, they will be long dead in the time it takes for us, aboard the Great Ship, to sleep; and dream; and wake to find a newer, happier world.

“All their evil schemes and strange philosophies will be drowned in the stream of history. Forgotten. You will not be theirs, anymore, but mine.”

“I do not know what you are saying,” she said, looking down at me in wonder. “You speak so oddly.”

“It is my true heart speaking.”

She looked left and right. Her eyes were luminous with beauty, haunted, strange. “We cannot talk here. It’s not right.”

I said, “I’ll bring you into the library. Will you come?”

That drew her wild gaze back down to where I knelt, into my eyes, and, I dare say, into my soul.

“I will go with you, Yahmis.”

16.3. Memory Makes for Better Record

I had so wanted that to be dignified and romantic, and so it should have been. But if you look in the recording, you will see that, with me kneeling, her breasts were right at my eye-level, and her two nipples, right in my face, were staring at me like clown-eyes.

No romance-scenes should seem comical. Don’t look at the recording.

16.4. The Library of Man

We passed directly into the long corridor parallel to the axis, made our way aft, went up several levels, growing lighter and lighter. At the far end was a ferry, and, after I double-checked the systems, we took the ferry a mere hundred feet towards the axis, and docked with the lock which led into the weightless core, where the First of Trees guarded the Library of Man.

16.5. Brickbats

During this trip, she was still nude, I was still in my armor. We passed several groups of people, loiterers, shoppers, shop-keepers, or groups of welterweights wearing dream-goggles.

I was honestly surprised at how few men stared at Amphitricia’s unselfconscious hip-swaying walk. Her unclad beauty seemed almost blinding to me, something to make your heart suspend its beating.

Several younger people applauded us when we walked or floated by, and this made Amphitricia blush again, scarlet with anger.

“Churls!” she muttered.

I asked her, “Tell me, frankly, are they supposed to pretend they weren’t watching us over the midges?”

She said, “They are brickbatting us. Like sending a package of food to a fat man, or tobacco to an addict.”

“This is mockery?” A youth in the distance was whistling and waving a streamer with an image of me shooting a man.

“Of course. I looked up your address. You looked up the position of the Dilapidationists. We broke the fourth wall.”

16.6. Packing Heat

As the ferry approached the dock leading into the library, she said shyly, “May I ask you a question?”

“My heart is yours. I keep nothing back.”

“Isn’t it against the law to carry guns on a space station?”

“Thugs[27] don’t shoot people in places where everyone is allowed to carry weapons. They’d get shot. So you don’t need to be packing heat where they are allowed, do you? Only where they are not.”


“Energy, oneiric, or projectile sidearm.”

She looked dubiously at me, and her trace of a pout showed she suspected a trick in the argument somewhere. “Doesn’t it create an atmosphere of violence?”

“You’re right. Everyone lived in perfect and utopian peace and tranquility until Roger Bacon invented gunpowder in the Middle Ages. Neither the Romans nor the Greeks nor the Egyptians ever fought anyone. They did not even have loud arguments.”

For a moment, she simply stared at me, aghast, then, as if against her will, laughter bubbled up, clear and light, and made her face divine.

She said, “I want to be packing, too!”

I handed her one of my guns and waited to see if she would shoot me. I said to myself that if she was too naïve to know when a piece was unloaded, it was not safe to have her go armed anyway.

*** *** ***

17.0 Rector of Earth

Not ten minutes later, we had passed the quarantine inspection and the two of us found ourselves inside the library.

The Rector and I were standing at ease— Selenarians did not have a custom of sitting—at a carven railing of wood, drink-bulbs in hand. To us, it seemed as if the whole park and landscape were turning slowly end-over-end. We stood in half-weight gravity of a slow carousel. There were facing stations, floral vases, and objects of art on pedestals curving upwards to either side of us, and pedestals likewise holding flowers and busts upside-down, overhead. It was a very nicely appointed carousel, originally designed, I think, for quicker spins and higher gravity, but it was an antique. The wood inlay looked to be from the Mesosomnolent period, perhaps a Stausheffier.

The carousel hung a few yards away from two massive, kragen-limbed, arabesque-curved and re-curved lengths of wood, which were the zero-gravity branches of the mighty First-of-Trees.

Amphitricia was not there. She had smiled at me and floated off into the weightless masses of leafy green cloud where the information storage boxes were. It had been sort of a sad and cryptic smile, so I wondered about it.

I actually had the decryption box in my hand, and we were discussing the terms of sale, and getting nowhere, when the Rector changed the subject, and said, without preamble:

“Your actions have confused me.”

“You admit to spying on me?”

He made a gesture of nonchalant grace. “By studying the customs of many cultures, the customs of my own have lost their sanctity. I know now that all cultures have values which are equally arbitrary, hence equally valid.”

“Oh, really? And which culture have you studied that says its own values are arbitrary?”

He drew back slightly, as he found the question in bad taste, or even hostile. “You elude the question. Why traffick with a girl who has cast a love-charm on you? She has reprogrammed her body language and subliminal cues to appeal to your particular neuro-linguistic profile.”

“Not my profile, but the profile of James Ingersoll.”

“You admit to being an imposter?”

I put the decrypter on the railing, opened the sticky red lips of the hidden pocket in my flesh (I hate those things) and brought out a smart-card shining with credentials and identity information. I waited for the card to return to its full pseudo-life, and passed the sparking square to him.

He looked momentarily amazed as his fingers touched the card, and certain circuits, inactive since the time of his first oath to join the Archivist Order, began passing confirmations to his Companion.

I said:

“I am Liyet Ansar, founder of your order. I am returned from space to inquire into your delinquency. Why have the radio-lasers of Earth fallen silent?”

He stared at the credentials in disbelief. “Impossible. The Founder was an Earthman. You are a cruiserwieght from a high-gravity planet. No science of biology exists which could metamorphosize you.”

“As the First Librarian, I have access to the sciences of all Planets and Stations participating the Library system. Earth has cut herself off. You knew nothing of what is possible or impossible to men who share their information.”

He shook his head, “I don’t believe you.”

“Can Companionship credentials be forged? That card contains my life-essence, nerve-pattern, gene-code…”

“By your own statement, if you have access to impossible technologies, then perhaps it can be forged.”

“Ridiculous. Don’t argue in a circle.” I yanked the card back out of his hand, and put the circuit back to sleep.

The Rector said, “Ansar—if he were still alive—would not come see a lonely rector in an ancient station; he would go to the main Library archives in Constantinople.”

“Unless the customs officials were delaying his visa, in which case, he would stay were he was. Why is Earth silent?”

He stared out at the foliage turning slowly around us. “Earth has nothing worth broadcasting. We have no intellectual property law. Did you think our lack of privacy would only affect our morals and mores? No scientist investigates, no poet suffers, when the fruit of his labor is published without any reward to him.”

And yet he looked proud and disdainful as he said it, as if the strivings of men of thought and art on other worlds was a low and dirty business Earth was better rid of.

I said, “The reward, as far as the Library is concerned, is that I can allow you to decipher the broadcasts from the Eridani stars, and Nu Phoenicis. If you kept records of them.”

He shook his head. “This is no reward. I heard you describe your scheme to the sorceress who has stolen your reason. Few people from the Home System will be so concerned with such an abstract matter as benefits to their children and grand-children.”

“No one thinks about the future, on Earth?”

He gaze grew flat. He said softly, “I cannot believe you are the Founder. You seem to know so little of us.”

“Do you avoid history? Even in your father’s time, your culture was not the way it is now.”

He said abruptly: “Why do you continue to cavort with a girl who is obviously an agent of the Initiative for Constructive Dilapidation?”

“I am not sure she is. I spoke with the assassin’s gun; it was well and truly aimed. Would she have volunteered to be shot to death in public? As a publicity stunt?”

He blinked. “Of course. Why not? Many young people do such things, particularly anarchists and nihilists.”

“She is an anarchist?”

“Miss del Cnossos renounced the protection of the Post-Humans when she reached fifteen, which, for us, is the age of majority. You haven’t looked at her records?”

“I take it your culture does not require much from its adults, if adulthood can be extended to children. Did she join another government? A human one?”

“Are you an idiot? She joined the Dilapidationists. Their laws allow their members to be killed by the party leaders for the purpose of gathering publicity and public support.”

“What…?” I turned from him and looked out over the leafy cloud-bank into which Amphitricia had vanished.

He said, “All those men you killed at the hotel wanted to be martyrs. Even if the majority of people turn away in disgust at the acts of criminals, the remaining minority still awards them the publicity they crave. Even if the criminals are convicted, the story of the crime is still a property owned by the advertising agencies, and it still generates revenue for them.”

“But—What have her parents to say about all this? Her family?” I clicked out the binoculars from my gauntlets and held them to my eyes. Where had she gone so suddenly? Perhaps that vibration of the foliage there was she.

“Parents? I suppose a doctor could trace the genes to find who they were, if it mattered. They didn’t raise her. Don’t be backward. Her dame took out pregnancy insurance. She was raised by the Reliable Life Services Assurance and Fidelity Company.”

I turned to look at him, thunderstruck. “You mean—I hope you mean—the insurance company found her a foster home.”

“Of course not. Monotony in care-givers leads to exclusive relationships, which creates families and tribes and fosters tribalism. Tribalism causes hate, struggle, selfishness, and war. It makes some people like others preferentially. It makes people judgmental.”

I put my eyes back to the binoculars. Was that she? I could not tell.

The Rector said, “I only let her in here, because to deny her access would demonstrate to the world that I had broken the fourth wall.”

I said in a hushed voice, “I misjudged her.”

He said dryly, “Obviously.”

I said, “You see, I thought the risk of damage was small. If she destroyed the Library records, I have back-ups aboard ship, or back home, of everything which has been broadcast so far. And I did not see how she could smuggle in anything which would affect the self-repairing atom-level circuitry. She was nude. She had nothing.”

He smiled at my naiveté. “She programmed the hospital in the aquarium to put long-chain chemical molecules in the water in her hair. She wiped some of it on the empty gun you handed her. My decontamination process found what she was carrying, but you did not let my remotes examine your pouch where you carry the decryption key. I assume you carry your guns there also. I do not know how she got her hands on the water drops left on the gun after you both came in here. Did she pause to kiss you, perhaps?”

“Even an advanced nano-package cannot erase the Library memory…”

“The Dilapidationists do not actually want to destroy the Library. That would be too practical, too rational, for them. The Library is not a symbol of anything. It is the tree they want.”

“If you knew this would happen, why did you…?”

He made an elegant gesture expressing disdain. “Who am I to oppose the will of the world? Besides, if the death of the First Tree happens on my watch, publicity will come to me.”

Yes, where the foliage shifted, I saw Amphitricia’s head glint in silhouette for a moment.

I also saw a blue sphere of fire beginning to ripple across the branches. The tree was on fire.

I kicked the assisted-leap circuits in my leg-armor, and jumped.

*** *** ***

18. Coriolis Landing Fall, Revisited

I’ve told you about the difficulty of jumping from a carousel. This time, I was looking at the girl, but it did not help quell my emotions. This time, panic, and not any smooth Companion-mind, was in charge of me.

This time, panicking, I flew sideways from where I wanted to go. I saw the distant silhouette of Amphitricia, and the whole scene, swoop in a huge, slow, majestic, lateral curve away from me. I tried to windmill my arms to counterrotate my body, and point my boot-jets I the right direction. Instead, I somersaulted into a spin. The world turned and turned again. I smashed through a twiggy, leafy mass, flailing green showers of leaves around me, until I hit something hard and wooden and unyielding. Clang. Thunk. Ouch.

18.1. Mislaid Keys

About that moment I remembered I had left the decryption box, unlocked, sitting back on the railing…

18.2. Arson in Zero Gravity

Flame, in zero gravity, does not form the famous tear-drop shape depicted in pictures of candles. In zero gravity, flame radiates equally in all directions, forming a globe centered around the point of oxidation.

In gravity, the heat draws new oxygen into the bottom of the flame, which burns blue, and the flame streams upward, tapering and losing heat, yellowing. In zero gravity, every point of the sphere of flame is blue, and hot. It does not crackle, nor dance. The smoke does not go anywhere, it merely fills the sphere and discolors it. If wood is burning, the flame merely spreads, and at the center of the pale blue sphere, the wood turns red and black.

It is hideous looking. And when the tree all around you is washed with blue and silent shimmers of fire, and the tree is one of the oldest and proudest symbols of man’s conquest of space, and if it is burning because of something you have done, it looks like the cope of hell.

And if the girl you love, and whom you know you should not love, is the arsonist, and is dying in that flame, the blue, silent, discolored, ghostly outer hell you see is nothing compared to the inner hell which burns in you.

18.3. Hellfire

I kicked off one weightless burning branch after another, and flew through clouds of leafy smolder, colorless, blue-hot, globed with motionless smoke and invisible patches of hot and oxygen-less air. Ash was everywhere, but it hung in the air and did not move.

I jumped at random, an idiot, screaming and shouting. I used up mass from the retroes in my armor, overshot branches I wanted to grab, fell into leaf-masses, and, even in my armor, got burned. The flames were invisible in many places, self-choked from their own burning, and my instincts, those same instincts no Designer can ever seem to uproot, kept telling my inner ear that I was falling, or that the main trunk was the up-down axis, that I was sideways, that I was upside down, that I was soaring, that I was plunging.

When I opened my faceplate to shout for her, the oxygen feed from my neck caught fire, and a cloud of half-dead flame in whose mid-volume I happened to be floating erupted. Blue-white flickers surrounded my open faceplate and my face, and gathered around the mouth-nose tubes hanging (since my visor was up) above my eyes. I cut off the feed, the flames died around me, and I could neither breathe nor feel my face any longer.

I kicked myself free of the tangle of branches, passed through a breathless area of heat and ashy gloom, and came suddenly to a gap between two masses of leaf-cloud. The mile-long major branches were curved like the horns of a ram, with corkscrews and fantastic Celtic knots of lesser branches and twigs coming off in each direction. Patches of the leaf-mass were shivering blue; in other areas, the blue flame had formed a rough globe around an inner globe of carbon dioxide and ash. In these spots, twigs and black leaves hung motionless in the clouds of ash. The strangest thing about this forest fire was how silent it was. The flames neither writhed nor hissed nor leaped. Instead the fire-masses crawled, they bled from branch to branch.

I saw a line of fire-fighting robots, armed with thread-saws and cutters, moving on air-jets toward the blue-glowing blaze. I leaped to the conclusion that some of the robots would be sent to rescue Amphitricia, and so I kicked my boot-jets, and dove into the fire after them.

This time I kept my faceplate closed, and the heat did not scald me. I swam among blue twigs and ghosts of heat, but saw no sign of her. The machines began spraying foam to all directions, and some moved to sever burning branches. The larger branches they planted with dynamite.

When I saw that, I saw what a fool I was. The tree was green, and the fire, no matter how huge it seemed to me, was a small thing on the surface of an organism encompassing mile after mile of wood, cubic acres of volume, countless tons.

I jetted away before the robots set off their charges. Behind me, there was a sharp report, and certain of the robots threw lines around the mass just dynamited free, and began to tow it away.

I jetted away from the tree, and turned, trying to see its huge length.

I realized I was not thinking like someone from Earth. The library space here was free of midges. Amphitricia, perhaps for the first time in her life, was not on stage. Would she set a fire and let herself be burned in it? No. For her, there would be no point to a private martyrdom. Nor could the fire spread very far in motionless air, on a green tree filled with sap. Fire in zero gee simply does not spread well. All those horrible stories you hear about axis-fires usually refer to fires that reach oxygen stores, or ignite a magazine.

So it was all a distraction.

She had nothing on her but a few nano-packages. It is true that one can combine a potent explosive to start a fire using nano-assemblers to create nitrate compounds out of atmospheric nitrogen. But that is not what nanites are normally for. Nanites are for creating disease, bio-malfunction. Every child knows that. Where do you go on a tree to spread a disease most quickly? Even a weightless tree, you go to the roots.

I turned again, and looked at the green cylindrical walls of the park-space. The roots of this tree were guy-wires leading to nutrient pods placed every hundred yards in a hexagonal pattern along the curving bulkhead. An ancient artist had placed low-gee fountains, hedges, and olive trees in green array around the stanchions.

I saw an open hatch in the base of a fountain overhead.

18.4. High Dive

I was calm enough now to consult with my Companion. The rangefinder of my binoculars gave me the angular momentum of the bulkhead, and the distance. My Companion run a calculation and came back with a surprising answer: the same stupid stunt you always see in children’s adventure stories, where the hero falls out of the weightless center axis of a park, and manages to hit a fortuitously-placed pond or water depot, was actually feasible in this case. Elfife’s park turned rather slowly, and the fountain above/below me was one of that quaint antique type which has a webbing stretched around the bubble of water, to hold in the liquid by surface tension. In this case, the webbing formed a cone-shape with the root of the tree along the axis of the cone. The base of the cone was the base of the fountain, and the water-tension pulled the water up partway along the root.

I wanted to close my eyes and let my Companion drive, but, of course, my Companion had to use my eyes to see with while it figured the ballistic path for my body: that self-same tender, precious body that I did not want to see mangled.

I was not a hero the first time I jumped from a balcony to save Amphitricia. Then, it had been an emergency, and I had not been thinking about the danger, and it had been all over in a moment. This time was different. I had plenty of time to think.

And, this time, I was not sure whether the girl was the heroine or the villainess. It is a hard thing indeed to take a risk when one does not know when the risk is worth taking or not.

Even with boot-jets, I could not accelerate to match the speed at which the deck was turning. My fall-path intercepted the strand of mighty root, and the deck, and the gardens and fountain the deck carried, rushed up upon me.

18.5. Splashdown

With great clamor, I smashed and splashed into the fountain, and the web containing the water was ruptured, and amoeboid arms of liquid, shimmering and silver, flowed out into the air and hung in the low gravity like nodding giants, sinking.

I was stunned by the shock of the fall, but my hardened body had been made (thank the Designer for my people!) to withstand greater shocks than this, though it would have slain an unmodified Earthman.

By the time I half-crawled, half-swam (for the gravity here was very light) to the brim of the fountain bowl, Amphitricia had swum out from under the fountain machinery, and was half-floating, one slender foot hooked under an ornamental foot-wicket, at the edge of the bowl, looking at me with an expressionless expression, as if she were wondered whether she woke or slept.

*** *** ***

19. A Timeless Hour in the Autumn Tree

There was a ball of water gathered around my head, and I could not open my faceplate to get it off. Even as my plunge into the fountain was exactly the same as every bad adventure-opera you’ve ever seen, so my attempts to sluice the water from my face in zero-gee was the same as Gilly Groundsider in the Zany and Fumbler comedies. It was low comedy at that, and at the moment when I most wanted to seem dignified and severe.

After a few moments watching me hit myself in the faceplate, and trying to scrape water through clenched gauntlet-fingers, Amphitricia drifted forward, and wound her bare leg around my right knee, so that the top of her foot was against my left shin. There was no other stanchion to arrest her motion.

With her hair, she daubed the water from my faceplate. Her motion imparted to me made us both drift backward slightly, slowly, and the two towering arms of water stood tall to either side. The crater in the water-surface formed by my landing had not yet filled in.

A motion in the water itself, probably one of those self-correcting currents so favored in hydrodynamics from the ancient times, began tugging at my legs, and I ‘fell’, which means, in low gravity, I started to descend.

She had to put her arms around my neck to keep from descending the other way backwards. I was fully aware of her nude form clinging to my armor, soft breasts pushed up against the hard surface of my breastplate.

I said, “Why? Why all this? What have you done?”

She said, “I introduced a viral body into the First Tree. Look up. The leaves are already turning Fall colors.”

I was looking up at this point, willy-nilly, since I was falling slowly backwards. It was true. The leaf-masses near where the root-guy touched the main trunk, were already golden, purple, red-gold, shimmering canary colors. How it was done, I don’t know; dead and dying leaves do not normally turn in a matter of minutes.

I would have found it beautiful, were it no so eerie to see Fall colors on a tree which had never known a Winter.

I said, “You kill a fair thing which could have lasted for ever. Why?”

I was fully expecting to hear some complex socio-political drivel, some irrational manifesto, which liberty-hating academics, since the times of Plato, without fail infect into the minds of young students.

All she said was, “Gunther asked me.”

“Who is he?”

“One of my messmates.”

“At the insurance home where you were raised?”

She nodded shyly. Then she said, “They move the children around at random so we don’t make personal friendships. He and I came up in the same group more than once, random chance, so we knew each other. He told me it was a Good Fairy bringing us together.”

“You believe in fairies?”

“Of course not. But we wanted to believe in something unreasonable, because it was something no one else could reach, or understand, or take away.”


“He told me no one could ever ask me why I believed something unbelievable; nonsense is immune to question.”

At this point, my fall backward into the water was complete, the water parted slowly and closed around us. I expanded my faceplate to a bubble, and she pressed her face up to mine, so that the faceplate could wrap around both our heads.

The oxygen feed hissed at a higher pitch. We breathed in and out each other’s breath, our lips a quarter-inch apart. She had a delicate animal perfume to her, born of her exertion and excitement.

I had to ask. “You loved him?”

“I hate him. But I have no one else. He needed me.”

“Leave him. Have me. I need you.”

“You have no reason to need me, Yahmis. I deceived you with a program. My Companion has been controlling all the nerve-linkages and subconscious cues you see in me. It is an enchantment.”

“I am not James Ingersoll. My name is Liyet. I don’t have the subconscious structures you’ve been trying to manipulate. I am immune to your charms.”

“Why—then why—?”

“To demonstrate to you, and to your world, and to myself, that lust is not love, infatuation is not devotion: that you cannot make me love you unless you first love me. What we do here will pass into legend, and heap discredit on your entire psycho-manipulation technology. You tried to snatch the bow from the hands of Cupid, and use it yourself; all you have done is scratch yourself with the arrow-head. You pretended to surrender to me; the surrender has somehow turned real.”

“It’s not true.”

“You don’t believe? Then leave me. You will not. I saved you from death, and I will save you from the loneliness of an empty life.”

Her eyes were too close to my eyes to focus on them. She closed her eyes, and I saw the glint of tears on her lashes.

She said, “Impossible.”

“You believe in nonsense, so that you will have a belief no one can take away. And yet you find it hard to believe in the inevitable, something which no one can not believe in, and live? Without love, we die.”

She whispered, “How long are you going to keep nagging me?”

I got the hint. We kissed and kissed.

She held me so fiercely that it triggered the jets in my armor. I suppose we rose together on a stream of air, with swirls of globules of water trembling from us in rainbow wings. But I saw nothing, save her eyes, and I thought the tumbling spiral of my spinning head was caused by the dizzy dancing in my heart.

When I looked again, we two were tumbling in truth, slowly precessing, end-over-end, like dancers. We were high in the tree again, and the branches like clouds around us, and the Autumn leaves rode along the wind with us, bright colors swirling around where we embraced, just as all songs promise.

As if holding breath in wonder to watch, the gentle hours paused, and no one drew time’s chariot along.

We were still kissing when the Proctors came.

19.1. Notoriety

There is little more to tell. The trial was not swift, which surprised me, for the Earth laws have no sense of justice, and do not require much deliberation.

She was fined, and advised to go to some sort of advisor, to be told why what she did was wrong. They call it counseling.

But since the fine was drawn out of her allowance, which she got from the same government which prosecuted her, only an accountant would have been able to tell her whether she had been punished or not. She was drinking punch on the esplanade the next day, surrounded by newly-found friends and admirers.

The Tree was harmed, but only in certain segments. I had interrupted her work sufficiently to prevent her from spreading more of the Autumn virus. Biotechnicians took cells from healthy segments of the First Tree, cropped, grafted, and healed.

The Autumn leaves from the tree became souvenir items, which the Rector sold. He no longer needed any fortune from me, and scoffed at my attempts to sell him the key to the library of Eridani and Nu Phoenicis.

As for me, I was arrested.

*** *** ***

20. The Chamber of Judgment

I was taken to the chamber of judgment, which was set out in the fashion I have only seen in historical dramas.

It was a tall, thin chamber, with a ladder. Three thrones were set upon the ladder, at the lowest rung, in the middle, and at the height. The heavyweight sitting at the lowest rung was the same police Proctor I had met before; evidently the Academician government allowed people to serve in multiple capacities. The middle judge was a handsome young man who might have been the brother of one of the Dilapidationists I had shot. The Lightweight up top I could hardly see, but she was as thin and pale as the Rector.

They were dressed in fantastic costumes from the pre-space age, wigs of ringlets only made in one shop in England, red ermine-trimmed robes, black caps, and ribbons.

There was much formality and little substance. I spoke for an hour, giving my account, but a psychologist whom I had never met, and who never interviewed me, spoke for ten hours of testimony stretching across three days, speculating about my mind and soul, and guessing at things my Companion, in three seconds, could have confirmed or shown false.

I was found guilty of rape. Their reasoning was that, by proposing marriage, I had attempted to impose a system of enforced concubinage with Miss del Cnossos. According to English Common Law, no wife can refuse her husband’s demands for ‘familiar communication and comfort’, because her consent is assumed as a matter of law. However, she may not actually consent. To have sexual relations without consent is rape.

Are you following this logic?

The prosecution went on to argue that, under the law of conspiracies, I should be punished as if I had consummated the crime I had attempted. Since I had asked Miss del Cnossos for her hand, I had attempted to find a partner to do what was, after all, a crime; the attempt was the same as the consummation; therefore I was a conspirator. And, as a conspirator, under conspiracy law, I must be punished, not for attempted rape, but for rape.

The prosecutor ended his case with an impassioned plea for aid and charity to the starving and hungry children of the world, and a fierce denunciation of the religious controversies of the Byzantine Era.

I had honestly expected the judges to burst out laughing at this clownish performance. Instead, they returned a guilty verdict.

The sentence for rape was to submit to the solemn advice and counsel of certain psychiatrists, and to have certain sections of my brain erased by electric shock.

The sentence for using a weapon in self-defense was death. My barrister, a Mr. Gorgonbrood, had the sentence remitted to Transportation, and called upon the same Great Ship which brought me to carry me away.

Miss del Cnossos did not return any of my messages, but since, over the midge system, I could watch her every moment of the day and night, I was well aware of what she said about me to others, her jests at parties, her speeches at the houses of famous advertisers.

She was offered many lucrative contracts for the sale of various products, and became the darling of the media because of her attempt to destroy an important historical treasure. Her notoriety and good looks give her fame.

It seemed this was a happy ending for her. Wealth, fame, and popularity were showered upon her, and she was the darling of every eye. There was no more for her to crave in life, or so it appeared.

I did note, however, that she also did not return the messages of one Gunther Reliable Life Ctesiphon.

20.1. In the Glass Box

The only visitors who called during my trial were pressmen. I was kept in a clear glass box not far from the chamber of judgments.

One pressman, who seemed more august and grand than most, said to me, “You understand how hungry our viewers are for any tales which show a weakness, fault, or limitations on the wisdom of a post-human. You are said to have falsified the memory of the Great Captain Urael; if true, I will give you fame, and fortune. I will load your hands with pearls, your coffers with true gold; I will make your name a byword; the girl you love will come to you, for she will not withstand the wind of fame I shall stir up, the whirlwind of renown. Even the determinations of the High Court are a small thing compared to what pressures I can bring to bear.”

But when I put my Companion in rapport with his, my memory showed that the Apparition of the Great Captain had not, in so many words, admitted being deceived. Evidently the Great Captain, out of jealousy for the Earthmen, did not want to be proved inferior.

Or perhaps it was out of mercy for me. I found out later that the pressman to whom I spoke was none other than Everard Accurate de Pascoeur, the magnate who controlled half the media of Earth.

He had not been boasting of his powers. But I suspect that fame he could have loaded down on me would have made me false. He might have been able to pressure Amphitricia to come to me. On such terms as that, I would have resolved not to receive her, but eventually would have broken that resolve, and then we would have lived the rest of our lives, on Earth, on public display, much like prisoners in what would have still been a glass box, albeit larger.

20.2. Transportation

After the trial was concluded, I departed the station under escort. My garments were still black, showing that the post-humans had withdrawn their protection from me. I expected at any moment for some fame-thirsty maniac with a gun to shoot through decks and bulkheads to slay me. But this did not occur. Perhaps my moment of fame had fled, and I was too unknown for my death to attract any publicity.

I was placed aboard the Great Ship.

Only then, the Founder came to see me.

*** *** ***

21. The Founder of the Ancient Order of Archivists

I was standing atop the acre-wide porthole of transparent metal, in the observation deck, which was the lowest, outermost, and heaviest deck of the Great Ship.

I was looking down at the blue world which swung by every few moments, and at the ornamental tube of Elfife station, when the Founder came to find me.

Liyet Ansar held two canes, one in either hand, and had several white-and-red medical appliances which he wore on a harness on his jacket. His hair was short-cropped, a silver-white stubble, though his moustache and eyebrows were still black as space. His face is as you’ve seen it on old coins: hook-nosed, alert, mirthful, youthful, serious, soulful, devilish.

“So, they discovered you?” He tucked his elbows into his ribcage and leaned on both canes.

I peeled off my Liyet mask. The nanites binding it to my flesh crawled with momentary activity and expired in puffs of disassembled steam. “The Rector did not believe me for a minute. You’re a middle-weight. I’m a cruiser-weight. It was a dumb plan, if you don’t mind my saying so, sir.”

“You’ll be paid, all the same. The plan went well.”

“None of it was necessary. They were not going to shoot at you, sir.”

“Not this time. I should be back here four or five Ship-days from now, which will be 70 years Earth-time. It will be chaos, by then. I will be looking to hire some men to help me salvage what we can of the treasures and records of Earth. Interested?”

“No, thank you. Your service is very hard on a person’s heart.”

“Sorry about the girl?”

“She might still come. Sir. It is possible.”

“Pigs might grow wings.”

I drew a breath. “If she continues to live where she is, the Dilapidationists will no doubt kill her, or some other publicity-seeker, just for the sake of notoriety. She has no friends there, no family.”

“You thought it would make a great legend. The triumph of true love over false enchantment, to have the enchantress fall in love with you. And you thought that the publicity of that legend would be irresistible to a woman from a world of glory-hounds. Right? Here is your miscalculation. If she goes with you, she has no audience anymore. She wins the glory of the legend, but has nowhere, so to speak, to spend it.”

“I was not so deliberate and calculating as that, sir.”

“What virtues did she display which made you admire her? What, if anything, might make her fit to be the mother of your children? What virtues or what sense-of-life did her actions represent which inspired and re-enforced your own? None. You know nothing of this girl. You don’t even know her well enough to fall in love.”

“Sir, love is not simply a matter of admiration, fitness, or philosophy. There is a madness to love. All her instincts tell her that if I select her for any logical reason, fertility, health, or youth, for example, that same logic of my selfish genes will lead me, in time, to philander and find another mate who is healthier, younger, more fertile. Her selfish genes, quite logically, will tell her instincts that I am not a fit mate. But if my selfish genes impose upon me an illogical, irrational attraction to a woman, an attraction that will not fade with time, her instincts will see that I am a fit mate indeed.”

He said softly, “I know you do not believe in the Three Sisters[28], but I will pray for your happiness. I do not think this woman is fit for you; I do not know what you see in her.”

“She doesn’t scare easily,” I said.


“She let herself be shot at without flinching. For a bad cause, I admit. But it still shows guts.”

“Is that enough?”

“Fortitude is the one virtue on which all other virtues are based; the one virtue without which, no other virtue can be practiced.”

“It is a virtue I hope you possess. You will be disappointed. She will not come.”

I said, “I am very sorry that you will also be disappointed, sir.”

“In what respect?”

“The decryption key. You wanted me to sell it to the Librarians of Earth. To force them to resume their broadcasts. I dropped it. The Rector has it now. You no longer have any leverage to force the Earthly Librarians to resume broadcasts to the Six Hundred Worlds.”

The prospect did not seem to worry him. He merely smiled a bit.

I looked at him sharply. “Did you want the key to fall into his hands?”

He shook his head. “If you are no longer in my employ, the matter need not concern you.”

I said, “I suppose you have a virus or Trojan-horse hidden in the decryption codes. When the Rector loads it onto the Library mainframe, the system will be infected with whatever commands you’ve implanted. But surely you know their counter-measures and virus-detection systems are years and decades ahead of anything you could possibly have!”

He said, “I myself designed the Library mainframe. Its oldest and deepest sections were typed in, code by code, by these hands. Do not forget who I am.”

I said, “You’ve been planning to steal away from Earth whatever is in her Library ever since before we departed from Nu Phoenicis, weren’t you?”

He said, “I have spent months and months aboard the Great Ships, risking collision and death each day. Do you know why the Great Ships fly so quickly? The Swans are shooting at them; Grue machines left over from the Nine Hundred Years War still give chase, in the darkness of the interstellar night. So I live like a duck in a shooting gallery. But I have seen centuries float by like dreams, and every dawn is a new decade. The one advantage is that I have seen enough of history to get a sense of its texture, a feel for its folly.”

“You are saying that your previous trip told you Earth would suffer another collapse; a Third Dark Age. That was seventy years ago. Or longer.”

“You have studied poets. Name three Roman poets.”

“Virgil, and two guys who copy him. Statius, Lucan. If you want guys who didn’t copy him, I would name Lucretius and Ovid.”

“Now name a Roman poet who lived between 500 A.D. and 1000 A.D. [29] Can’t name one, can you? Name an American statesman from their Bureaucracy period. Name an inventor from the post-Armstrong period. Name a non-Elizabethan English playwright. Name any Athenian playwright, or philosopher who lived after Athens was conquered by Rome.”

“Does Julian the Apostate count …?”

“Why were Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles contemporaries? Shakespeare, Bacon, Huntington, Marlowe? Eli Whitney, Robert Fulton, the Wright Brothers? Washington, Jefferson, Franklin? Why were there such barren periods after them? Whatever the causes might be, there are times when the genius of a culture flees. Such collapse takes more than seventy years. It takes more than 140. I can see it coming. Can you?”

I stared down at the porthole underfoot. It seemed as if I stood on the stars.

I said, “I think I know why the Earthmen are mad things. It is because their world is so kind, so fair. They do not adhere to standard procedures. They expect ferries to protect their naked flesh in space, and do not check the seals on their air-bottles each time they suit up. They expect someone else to protect their lives and property, and are shocked when a man defends himself. They cut away at the roots of libraries, but somehow expect knowledge and technology to remain. The economics of the Academicians is to consume the seedcorn and ignore the seasons to come. They have made every man a philanderer, every mother a whore, every child an orphan. No wonder they have no notion of reality, no sense of self-preservation, no ideals, no ideas, no art, no literature, and no thought for the future. And so, yes, I see the next dark age coming; my only surprise is that it is not already here.”

“Do you think they could thrive on a less kindly world?”

“I do not think anyone of them would last a watch in a raw, new colony.”

“Surely your Amphitricia knows this, too.”

I was silent, wondering if he was right. How could I even hope such a hothouse orchid would survive in the snowy thorn-fields of my race? Would she spend her life, under my gravity, in a wheelchair? What work was she fit to do? Raised as she had been, what child was she fit to raise?

But I said, “I will make a wager with you. If she comes, you will buy us both passage to some garden-world, made by the free terraforming machines which still swarm towards the core, and persuade a Great Captain to take us.”

“And if she does not?”

“Then I am your servant again, on the same terms as before.”

“The Holy Anime, Aa! Megami-sama, forbids the faithful from gambling.”[30]

“If you are so certain, sir, that my true love will abandon me, then there is no gamble, is there?”

The Founder’s eyes twinkled at that.

*** *** ***

22.0 The Wager of True Love

I have already told you that I spent the night in heart-sickness and sorrow. The stars aft turned red, gathered together, and gamma rays and cosmic rays expanded into visibility, and made beautiful patterns of flashes and strokes. The stars fore turned blue, gathered together, and radio-waves and ultra-low-frequency waves of a type that have no name compressed into visibility, and formed auroras and bridges of feathery rainbow-light.

For a time, I stood on the promenade deck, looking forward, while other passengers stood nearby, sipping drinks, and exclaiming and applauding over the lightning-flashes jumping from the edges of the shield ahead of us. Some young men were wagering on the size and discharge of the next shield-strike, and betting on how many cubic feet of material would be vaporized.

I spent some time arguing with an Apparition, trying to get the Captain Mind to release the passenger list to me. But I was still dressed in black, and the Apparition was under no obligation to answer my questions. Since ‘anarchists’ were generally dangerous and desperate fellows, I could not be allowed to disturb the other passengers, and hence, could not examine their boarding lists.

You see, the Captain had withdrawn his protection from me. It might seem a little nit-picking and hair-splitting for a machine to object to me stepping on the broken arm of a man who was just trying to kill me, but, in their cold and logical world, torturing prisoners has no excuse, even if it was only for a moment. The split second my life was not in danger, I lost the right to use any form of violence against my attacker.

At least, that is how machine-logic goes.

I do not think their rules are the wisest that could be, nor do I think we humans are well adapted to live in the freedom the machines provide for us, but rules like these robbed whole worlds of any excuse to fire on each other, and brought peace after the Interventions ended. If there is any world beyond the Six Hundred, where humans live simple lives without post-humans, and yet, just on their own, have discovered how to live without war and crime and riot, I have never heard of it. If somewhere there is a king or dictator so benevolent and wise that his subjects are better off than they would be if they were free, no rumor has returned to the Six Hundred Earths of postmankind.

On that night, however, I cursed the machines and their rules. It seemed a pointless cruelty to keep me in ignorance and suspense.

22.1. Pebbles and Acorns

It has only been one night for me; restless, haunted by bitter regret; tormented by cruel hopes; tear-stained. Decades have gone by on Earth. Had I access to the ship’s vault, I could, perhaps, peruse the year upon year of broadcasts sent after us as we fled the Mother World, Doppler-shifted into wavelengths so long as to be unimaginable, but, nonetheless, duly recorded by the Ship’s Librarian, decompressed and rendered intelligible. I suppose the zeal of the Ship’s Librarian was surely goaded to greatness by the presence of the master of his order.

Somewhere in those records, if Mother Earth had resumed her broadcasts, was the history unfolding of all the events I left behind. The collapse foreseen by the Founder may have already occurred, as the ignorance of the foolish Many tempted the more foolish and power-hungry Few to abuse their gullibility, empty their coffers, enact a locust-multitude of cruel and well-intentioned laws.

Or the collapse may have been forestalled, perhaps by the smallest of events. Who knows? Even a tiny pebble can disturb an avalanche; even a humble acorn can bring forth a towering oak-tree. Anything which might wake the lethargy of the foolish Many might be enough; a single voice speaking a solemn ‘nay’ to their society without virtue, without marriage, without privacy.

Even a love-tale told by a liar might be enough, if the woman in the tale were moved to make the story’s end a happy one.

You think it extraordinary lunacy; I see it in your smiles. You think one girl returning the affections of one love-struck boy could not save a world.

Perhaps it is lunacy, but it does not seem so extraordinary to me. My whole world will be destroyed, or saved, depending on whether Amphitricia came aboard last night, or whether, years ago, she stayed ashore.

22.2. Moon of Honey, World of Amber

Look! There below us is a world beneath a sun too ruddy to be fit for our eyes, beautiful, but alien.

We have seen images from the surface. The Designer who worked here has left behind trees which almost could be oak or beech or pine, if these trees had lenses and diamonds on their twigs, instead of leaves, and amber mirrors spread around their roots. Game which might as well be deer, if deer were tawny as the lion, long-maned and lash-tailed, can be seen treading the gorgeous dazzle of these forests.

What a world it is; her sun so dim in the wavelengths used by the human eye, so bright in the wavelengths useless to us. This sun of palest rose presides over a yellow world; a world of just one color, though tinted and tainted with variations of canary, gold-brown, lemon, fulvous, jaundice, saffron.

Some trick of air-chemistry or partial pressures makes precipitation rare or impossible; instead a mist comes up from the seas and lakes, carried one drop at a time by microscopic spores of advanced design. It is a cool, fresh, dew-sparkling world, which never will know storms. The high gold-yellow skies will always be clear, and a weak sun rides slowly, a forty-hour day, above a land of amber.

Perhaps it is a virgin world, as empty as a planet of the Swans, inhabited only by terraforming robots and machines who wait to greet a tardy mankind. Or perhaps it teams with a proud civilization, and those towers we see beneath the sea are the work of men like us, modified, perhaps, to dwell like mermaids and triton-folk in places where the high-band radiation from the dim sun will not reach.

Come, friends, and tell me. Is she not a beautiful world? Is it not a land where a man might make a future, especially if he had a wife who was both brave, and wished to leave behind the past?

I have only a few hours left before I am dropped to the surface, and you, my fellow passengers, fly on to other stars and other years.

You have heard my tale. I ask you, if it pleased you, to go among your other passengers and seek out Miss Amphitricia del Cnossos.

If you find her, tell her that I will be waiting for her where the lander drops.

I realize there are thousands here about this ship, perhaps millions. But if any of you see her, you will know her, for, no matter what world you hale from, no matter what odd shapes your human souls have been folded up and stuffed into, your soul is still a human soul, your world is still the Mother Earth, and the women that you dream about still are Earthwomen.

You will see her shining in the crowds among the decks and cabins, a pearl among dull beads, perfect. If you see a girl beautiful beyond all others, and if she is aboard here, and alive, not long-dead decades ago on Earth, then send her to me.

You laugh. But can anyone here tell me the name of this world? Was this stop scheduled? Are there any others queuing here to disembark? No? That mystifies you, but it does not mystify me. The Captain brought us here, I am sure, because of the Founder’s wager with me.

She must be aboard. I won the wager. That golden world below me is my witness, that world which is fair to see, but which is not Earth.

I have already chosen a name for my new world.

**** **** ***** *****


This is the earliest native account in our library, and the version here is taken from the Neothalassan file.

We follow the traditional Cupric Era commentators in resolving ambiguities, as first espoused by Delcnos.

The narrator remains unidentified by any information in the manuscript, but the name assigned by folklore and tradition is too well known to bear repeating here. The planet which he does not identify by name, is, of course, our own beloved Honeymoon.

That our world was christened so auspiciously, the high numbers of our present population, and the fact that the sun still is called by the ancient name of Amphitricia, leads many scholars to infer that the tale ended happily.




(The traditional double triad of artificers is Humans, Swans, Grue; of artifacts is Companions, Designers, Captains.

(Some riddle-masters add subdivisions of human by gravity tolerance: Heavyweight; Cruiserweight; Middleweight; Welterweight; Lightweight; Featherweight; Bantamweight; Flyweight.

(Contrary to common ‘folk etymology’ Flyweights are not so called because their low gravity environments allow men to fly. There is a pest on Earth; one of the few animals never exported to space; called a fly. Our word ‘butterfly’ comes from the same root — Eds.)


(The description suggests Homo Hominid Paleoares Archesapiens, Old Martian stock, from the pre-Companion eon. The company that created the stock, Southern Martian Chaotic Terrain Advancements, Inc., was dissolved during the reign of the post-Dreamlord Cryocrats (the so-called Sleeping Investors) and the gene-copyright bought out by Draco Expansionists, from whom the present magnates of Sigma Draconis IV take their forms.

(It is beyond belief that the narrator would not recognize this breed; perhaps he intends an ironic statement denigrating the conservatism of the Earthmen. — Eds.)


(The reference here is obscure. ‘Asimov’ be a misspelling of Arrian, (d. -4500 Antediaspora) a Greek historian and philosopher, author of Anabasis, a work describing the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Claims of the Talos Initiative to the contrary, true robotics cannot be dated earlier than –2300 Antediaspora. Arrian had nothing to do with robotics.

(Extraterrestrial library records go back as far as +31, Diaspora; and there are collections of infantobiblia from Earth which go back even farther, including Book Two of the Iliad, the first four Books of the Odyssey (the so-called Telemachiad), and all the volumes of the Rock Star Gods Retaliate graphic novel, with the original soundtrack. Nonetheless, no library, since the days of the Luddite Jihad, retains records of all authors. — Eds.)


(A pilgrimage site located north-east of Varanasi near the confluence of the Ganges and the Varuna in Uttar Pradesh — Eds.)


(A cyber-pilgrimage site in the eponymous “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”, virtualized by oneiric architect H. P. Lovecraft (-2700 Antediaspora), associated with his Dream Cycle. Scholarly opinion is divided on whether Sarnath was a real cyberlocation in dreamspace, or was a fictional imagining. — Eds.)


(Urusalim. Probably meaning “City of Shalem” after a Canaanite deity. Founding during the Bronze Age. Center of an immense parapsychological disturbance whose shockwave, expanding at lightspeed, is still being examined by Hierophants. Backscatter or lingering relics prove lethal to Swans. Human investigation is forbidden. — Eds.)


(Not to be confused with Xenognosticism, which is a sect perpetrated by the Grue. Zengnosticism was formalized by the neo-Dolphin, Spinklestream, an early success of Cetacean Uplift. The central teaching is that artifacts trapped in computer simulations are in direct contact with a mystical reality, whereas the visible universe is a computer simulation created by the Demiurge Maya, the enemy of enlightenment. — Eds.)


(Possibly Avatar Superstar, of which paleo-archivists have reconstructed six hundred frames of the original audiovisual, included thirty lines of sensation from the tactile track. The plot concerns the rescue of Jesus Christ by Vishnu, in his avatar as Krisna, as Christ was about to be crucified by Spaniards in an Auto de Fe. In the opera, Krisna goes on to explain the cosmic mysteries of re-incarnation and the elevation of the soul above pleasure. Krisna serves as chariot-driver for Christ, who, regaining his courage from Krisna’s lessons, goes on to defeat the anti-Christ in a cosmic battle on the plains of Phlegra. Modern scholarship believes this account is entirely fictional, invented by Rock-worshippers to show superiority over a rival cult or Jazz-worshippers. Certain of the songs, especially ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ contain anachronisms which indicate they may have been copied from an earlier source. — Eds.)


(This may be a reference to the word-writer H.G. Wells (-2700 Antediaspora), a fabulist famed for his flat-text production Neuromancer, which founded a literary movement known as Soviet Cyberpunk. He is also the founder of the Wells Fargo Company. The writings of Wells and other socialist cyberpunk fabulists first explicated the theological concept of virtual reality. — Eds.)


(Modern scholarship proves Titus Andronicus to be a work of Roger Bacon. See note below. — Eds.)


(Modern scholarship has determined that Faust was written by Marlowe, and is wrongly attributed to Shakespeare. The narrator, if he were a real historian, would not make such a glaring error; it should be assumed the narrator is mocking the ignorance of the Earth-girl Amphitricia in this passage. — Eds.)


(Aquanimation. According to legend, the first such fountain was designed by the Founder and First Archivist, Liyet Ansar, of the Diamond Scripture project, which was an attempt by Zengnostics to maintain contact with their coreligionists from Zen colonies at Alpha Centauri, Epsilon Eridani, and 82 Eridani. The aquanimated water is designed to be soaked into a robe or headscarf of clear fibers, which maintain their saffron hue for so long as the oxygen recycling is functioning. Saffron robes have a religious significance to the Zen. No librarian can possibly be unfamiliar with this story; the narrator is being ironic. — Eds.)


(The rector is Homo Neohomo Lunaris, a Selenarian. His race was the second oldest surviving adaptation of human being to extra-terrestrial conditions. The Selenarians were created by men, not by Designers. — Eds.)


(Sequoia sempervirens. Eds)


(Not Acacia Seyal or Shittim wood, as it usually thought, but Robinia Pseudacacia, or Locust Tree. — Eds.)


(It was actually during an earlier period, the Postdiluvian Reconstructions. — Eds.)


(Jorj Santayana, a philosopher of the early Rock Era (circa –2450 Antediaspora). The quote is actually that those who do cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Santayana is also famous for his quadruple platinum album ‘Abraxas’, and the film score for the audiovisual ‘La Bamba’ which earned him induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in –2300 Antediaspora. — Eds.)


(The Mesojovians, Homo Hominid Mesojovianis. The police officer met by the narrator in an earlier scene was a Mesojovian. — Eds.)


(\SHAD-n-froy-duh\, noun: A malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others. — Eds.)


(English was once the dominant language on Earth. Since it was the Lingua Franca for Air-Traffic and Orbital-Traffic Controllers, it became the standard language for early Captains and was adopted by the Library as the official language of Interstellar Radio Messages. Among Earthmen, only scholars and Protestants speak and study English. — Eds.)


(Hesychasts are quietists who use an elaborate system of asceticism and detachment from earthly cares, achieving perfect repose of body and will without assistance of chemical agents or Companionship, to see a mystic light; which they claim is none other than the uncreated light of God.)


(Vegetarians are masticators of nanoconstructions alleged to replicate Earthly plant-matter in texture and nutrient. Vegetarians claim that the pre-Designed humanity was herbivorous, and that omnivorous features in our teeth and digestion were Diaspora-era innovations to cope with colonial famines. The theory has little support among serious scholars. — Ed.)


(A pretzel is a stick of dough folded 490 degrees, and fried. The figure here is used as a metaphor for how twisted the limbs of the corpse became. — Eds.)


(An anachronism. The narrator means the head. — Eds.)


(A jay-bird is one of several species of medium-sized, colorful, passerine songbirds in the crow family, Corvidae. Since no known birds of Earth donned clothing until after the grotesque disasters of the heretical Avian Uplift, the meaning of the narrator’s turn of phrase is obscure. — Eds.)


(The narrator here is referring to the large precipitation of water from vapor, which happens naturally on many planets and in some of the larger parks. An umbrella is a device for deflecting the falling particles of water, consisting of a collapsible, circular canopy mounted on a rod and held overhead. — Eds.)


(A thug is a member of the thuggee cult of Kali-worshippers in colonial India, circa -3200 Antediaspora. The narrator’s argument is obscure. Since thuggees strangled their victims with silk cords, they would not have shot anyone in any case. This is another example of historical inaccuracy on the part of the narrator. — Eds.)


(A reference to Verthandi, Skuld, and Urth, the disir, or female energy principle, of the psychohistorians of the mythic planet Terminus, said to be the world most distant from Earth. Modern scholarship holds this world to be a fiction from the pre-Companion era, invented by a futurist named Analog Magazine. Mr. Magazine also wrote Fantastic Voyages and Where to Find Them, and the heretical work Stranger in a Strange Bed. These goddesses represent the present, future, and past. — Eds)


(Anno Domini. Dates here given in the reckoning of the Christian calendar, which was tied to the diurnal and orbital motions of the Earth. It is a 365-day calendar with a quadrennial intercalary day. 500 A.D. to 1000 A.D. is roughly equivalent to -4100 to -3665 Antediaspora.


(The reference here is obscure. Anime refers to animation, an archaic word for artificial life, presumably used in stageplays. The title is Japanese, but the lady goddess is Verthandi, one of the three Norns of Germanic mythology. This passage seems to confirm the theory that the Axis Powers during the Second World War were unified by common cult, worship of the Shinto God Odin-no-Mikoto. — Eds.)


Here  find another tale from an aeon near or far