The hatch at the top of the Lock was jammed open, revealing a circle of luxuriant greenery. It was a window to another world. The howls of a troupe of some unimaginable animals echoed down into the metal caverns of Deck One.
Morrow stood at the base of the Lock shaft, trying to suppress the urge to run, to bury himself again in the routine rhythms of his everyday life.
Squatting around the rim of the upper hatch, peering down at Morrow, were four or five of the forest folk. They were all naked, their bare, smooth skins adorned with splashes of fruit-dye color, and they seemed impossibly young. Between them they were supporting a cradle of rope, and suspended in the cradle — descending slowly, shakily as the forest folk paid out lengths of rope — was Garry Uvarov.
The head of the extraordinary ancient protruded from a mass of thick blankets. Through the blankets Morrow could make out the chunky, mechanical box-shape of the mobile chair which sustained Uvarov, so that Uvarov looked nearly inhuman as if he had been merged with his chair, a bizarre, wizened cyborg.
The girl with the spectacles — Spinner-of-Rope — came to stand beside Morrow, at the bottom of the shaft. She wore a loose necklace of orchid-petals, and little else. Her head was at a level with Morrow’s elbow, and — now that he was growing used to her — her fierce crimson face paint looked almost comical. She touched his arm; her hand was delicate, small, impossibly light. “Don’t be afraid,” she said.
He was startled. “I’m not afraid. What is there to be afraid of? Why do you think I’m afraid? If I was afraid, would I be here helping you?”
“It’s the way you look. The way you’re standing.” She shrugged her bare shoulders. “Everything. Uvarov looks like — I don’t know; some huge larva — but he’s just a human. A very old human.”
“Actually I was thinking he looks like a kind of god. A half-human, half mechanical god. With you people as his attendants.”
She wrinkled her small nose and pushed her spectacles further up her face, smudging the paint on her cheeks; glaring up at him, she looked irritated. “Really. Well, we aren’t superstitious savages. As you Undermen think we are. Don’t you?”
“No, I — ”
“We know Uvarov is no god. He’s just a man — although a very ancient, strange and special man; a man who seems to remember what this ship was actually for.
“Morrow, I live in a tree and make things out of wood, and vine. You live — ” she waved a hand vaguely ” — in some boxy house somewhere, and make things out of metal and glass. But that’s the only difference between us. My people aren’t primitives, and we aren’t ignorant. We know that we’re all living inside a huge starship. Maybe we understand that better than you do, since we can actually see the sky.”
But that’s not the point. You and I are different, he thought, exasperated. More different than you can understand.
Spinner-of-Rope was a fifteen-year-old girl — lively, inquisitive, fearless, disrespectful. It had been five centuries since Morrow had been fifteen. Even then, he would have found Spinner a handful. Morrow suspected, wistfully, that Spinner was more alien to him than Garry Uvarov.
One of the forest folk walked up to them. Through a sparse mask of face paint the man smiled up at Morrow. “Is she giving you a hard time?”
Spinner snorted resentfully.
Morrow stared down at the newcomer, trying to place him. Damn it, all these little men look the same — He remembered; this was Arrow Maker, Spinner’s father. He made an effort to smile back. “No, no. Actually I think she was trying to comfort me. She was explaining I shouldn’t be frightened of old Uvarov.”
Uvarov’s chair bumped down on the surface of Deck One. Tree people clustered around Uvarov, loosening the ropes around the chair; the ropes were pulled back up through the hatch above them, snaking up like living things. Uvarov’s sightless eye sockets opened, and he growled instructions to his attendants.
Arrow Maker was watching Morrow’s face. “And do you fear Uvarov?”
Morrow became aware that he was pulling at his fingers, his motions tense, stabbing; he tried to be still. “No. Believe me, in my world, there are many AS failure cases just as — ah, startling — as Uvarov. Though perhaps no one quite so old.”
Spinner-of-Rope approached them. “Uvarov’s ready. So unless you want to stand here talking all day, I think we should get on…”
The little party formed up on Deck One. Morrow led the way, at a slow walking pace. Uvarov in his chair followed him, the chair’s hidden motor whirring noisily. Arrow Maker and Spinner flanked the chair, guiding the sightless Uvarov with gentle, wordless touches on his shoulder.
As the forest folk walked across the Deck, their feet padded softly on the worn metal; they left behind a trail of marks, imprints of forest dirt and sweat. Arrow Maker wore a bow and quiver, slung over his shoulder, and Spinner’s blowpipe dangled at her waist, obscure and deadly. Their bare, painted flesh made splashes of extraordinary color against the drab gray-brown shades of the Decks. Their eyes, peering through bright masks of paint, were wide with alert suspicion and wariness, an effect hardly softened by Spinner’s eyeglasses.
Morrow had managed to arrange an interview with Planner Milpitas. He had decided to restrict this venture into the interior of the Decks — this first mixture of cultures in centuries of the ship’s two worlds — to just these three. He didn’t want to expose the society of the Decks to any more cultural stress than he had to.
They moved away from the open Lock, with its last glimpse of the forest, and entered the metal-walled environment typical of the Decks. Spinner’s gait, at first confident, became more hesitant; she seemed to lose some of her brashness, and turned pale under her face paint.
Morrow felt a certain relish. “What’s the matter with you? Nervous?”
She looked at him defiantly, swallowing hard. “Shouldn’t I be? Aren’t you?”
Arrow Maker began, “Spinner — ”
“But it’s not that.” She wrinkled up her round face, making her glasses slip on her nose. “It’s the stench. It’s everywhere. Oppressive, stale… Can’t you smell it?”
Morrow raised his face, vaguely alarmed. Even old Uvarov, blind, trapped in his chair, turned his face, dragging air through his ruin of a nose.
Morrow said, “I don’t understand…”
“Spinner.” Arrow Maker’s voice was patient. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong. That’s just — people. People, and metal, and machinery. It’s a different world down here; we’ll have to learn to accept it.”
Spinner looked briefly horrified. “Well, it’s disgusting. They should do something about it.”
Morrow felt exasperated and amused. “Do something? Like what?”
“Like plant a few trees.” Defiantly, she lifted the orchid garland around her neck and pressed it against her face, ostentatiously breathing in the petals’ scent.
Arrow Maker walked beside Morrow. “She does not mean to give offense,” he said seriously.
Morrow sighed. “Don’t worry about that. But… I’m an old man, Arrow Maker. Older than you can understand, perhaps.” He glanced sideways at the little man from the forest. Arrow Maker looked competent, practical — and his four-feet tall body, his bare feet and his painted face were utterly out of place in the sterile surroundings of Deck One. “I’m a bit more restless than most people down here. And I’ve had enough trouble over that. But, even so, I’m old. I can’t help but fear change — unpredictability — more than anything else. You people represent an enormous irruption into the Decks — almost an invasion. My life will never be the same. And that’s uncomfortable.”
Arrow Maker slowed. “Will you help us?” he asked levelly. “You said — ”
“Yes, I’ll help you. I won’t lose my nerve, Arrow Maker; I’ll keep my word. I’ve been aware for a long time that the way things are run, down here, isn’t logical. Maybe, by helping you — by helping Uvarov — I’ll be able to make sense of a little more of it. Or maybe not.” At least, he thought, now I understand what all those ratchets and loops of metal I’ve been making for so many decades are actually for. He grinned and ran a hand over his shaven head. “But I don’t quite know what’s going to come out of this. You’re so different.”
Arrow Maker smiled. “Then being fearful — cautious, at least — is the only rational response.”
“Unless you’re fifteen years old.”
“I heard that.” Spinner rejoined them; she punched Morrow, lightly, in the ribs; her small, hard fist sank into layers of body-fat, and he tried not to react to the sudden, small pain.
They descended a ramp, and passed down from Deck One and onto Deck Two, the first of the inhabited levels.
Morrow tried to see his world through the fresh eyes of the forest people. The drab, stained surfaces of the bulkheads above and below, the distant, slightly mist-shrouded, hull walls, all provided a frame around the world — regular, ordered, enclosed. Immense banners of green copper-stain disfigured one hull wall. Stair-ramps threaded between the Decks like hundred-yard-long traceries of spider-webs, and the elevator shafts were vertical pillars which pierced the levels, apparently supporting the metal sky. The rigid circular-geometry layout of Deck Two was easy to discern. Buildings — homes, factories, the Planners’ Temples — clustered obediently in the Deck’s neat sectors and segments.
Morrow felt embarrassed, obscurely depressed. His world was unimaginative, constricting — like the interior of some huge machine, he thought. And a battered, failing, aging machine at that.
They set off down a chord-way which ran directly to Milpitas’ Temple.
A woman came near them. Morrow knew her — she was called Perpetuation; she ran a shop in a poor part of Sector 4. She walked steadily along the way toward them, eyes downcast. She looked tired, Morrow thought; it must be her shift end.
Then she looked up, and saw the forest folk. Perpetuation slowed to a halt in the middle of the chord-way, her mouth hanging slack. Morrow saw beads of sweat break out over her scalp.
In his peripheral vision, Morrow saw Spinner-of-Rope reach for her blowpipe.
He raised a hand and tried to smile. “Perpetuation. Don’t be alarmed. We’re on our way to the Temple, to…”
He let his voice trail off. He could see Perpetuation wasn’t hearing him. In fact, she seemed to be having difficulty in believing the evidence of her own eyes; she kept looking past Morrow’s party, along the chord-way toward her home.
It was as if the forest party didn’t exist — couldn’t exist — for her.
She looked absurd. But she reminded Morrow, disturbingly, of his own first reaction to Spinner-of-Rope.
Perpetuation scurried off the path, ran around them, and continued on her way without looking back. Spinner seemed to relax. She slung her blowpipe over her shoulder once more.
“For the love of Life,” Morrow snapped at the girl, suddenly impatient, “you were in no danger from that poor woman. She was terrified. Couldn’t you see that?”
Spinner returned his stare, wide-eyed.
Uvarov turned up his blind face; Arrow Maker explained briefly what had happened. Uvarov barked laughter. “You are wrong, Morrow. Of course Spinner was in danger here. We all are.”
Arrow Maker, plodding beside Morrow, frowned. “I don’t understand. This place is strange, but I’ve seen no danger.”
Morrow said, “I agree. You’re under no threat here…”
Uvarov laughed. “You think not? Maker, try to remember this lesson. It might keep you alive a little longer. The most precious thing to a human being is a mind-set: more precious than one’s own life, even. Human history has taught us that lesson time and again, with its endless parade of wars — human sacrifices en masse — thousands of deaths over the most trivial of differences of religious interpretation.
“We do not fit into the mind-set of the people within these Decks. That poor woman walked around us, convincing herself we are not real! By our presence here — by our very existence, in fact — we are disturbing the mind-set of the people here… in particular, of those ancients who control this society.
“They may not even realize it themselves, but they will seek to destroy us. The lives of three or four strangers is a cheap price to pay for the preservation of a mind-set, believe me.”
“No,” Morrow said. “I can’t accept that. I don’t always agree with the Planners. But they aren’t killers.”
“You think not?” Uvarov laughed again. “The survivalists — your ‘Planners’ are psychotic. Of course. As I am. And you. We are a fundamentally flawed species. Most of humanity, for most of its history, has been driven by a series of mass psychotic delusions. The labels changed, but the nature of the delusions barely varied…”
Uvarov sighed. “We built this marvelous ship — we created Superet. We dreamed of saving the species itself. We launched, toward the stars and the future…
“But, unfortunately, we had to take the contents of our heads with us.”
Morrow recalled Perpetuation’s expression, as she had systematically shut out the existence of the forest folk. Maybe, he thought grimly, this was going to be even harder than he’d anticipated.
Lieserl remembered the first time she’d lost contact with the outside human worlds altogether. It had hurt her more than she’d expected.
She’d tested her systems; the telemetry link was still functioning, but input from the far end had simply ceased — quite abruptly, without warning.
Confused, baffled, resentful, she had withdrawn into herself for a while. If the humans who had engineered her, and dumped her into this alien place, had now decided to abandon her — well, so would she them…
Then, when she calmed down a little, she tried to figure out why the link had been broken.
From the clues provided by Michael Poole’s quixotic wormhole flight into the future, Superet had put together a sketchy chronology of man’s future history. Lieserl mapped her internal clocks against the Superet chronology.
When she first lost contact, already millennia had passed since her downloading into the Sun.
Earth was occupied, she’d found.
Humans had diffused out beyond the Solar System in their bulky, ponderous slower-than-light GUTships. It had been a time of optimism, of hope, of expansion into an unlimited future.
Then the first extra-Solar intelligence had been encountered, somewhere among the stars: the Squeem, a race of group-mind entities with a wide network of trading colonies.
Impossibly rapidly, the Squeem had overwhelmed human military capabilities and occupied Earth. The systematic exploitation of Solar resources — for the benefit of an alien power — was begun.
Sometimes, Lieserl speculated about why the dire warnings of Superet — based on Poole’s data — had failed to avert the very catastrophes, like the Squeem occupation, that Superet had predicted. Maybe there was an inevitability to history — maybe it simply wasn’t possible to avert the tide of events, no matter how disastrous.
But Lieserl couldn’t accept such a fatalistic view.
Probably the simple truth was that — by the time enough centuries had passed for the predictions of Superet to come true — those predictions simply weren’t accepted any more. The people who had actually encountered the Squeem must have been pioneers — traders, builders of new worlds. To them. Earth and its environs had been a remote legend. If they’d ever even heard of Superet, it would have been dismissed as a remote fringe group clinging fanatically to shards of dire prediction from the past, with no greater significance than astrologers or soothsayers.
But, Lieserl realized, Superet’s predictions had actually been right.
After the Squeem interregnum, contact with her had suddenly been restored.
She remembered how words and images had suddenly come pouring once more through the revived telemetry links. At first she had been terrified by this sudden irruption into her cetacean drifting through the Sun’s heart.
Her new capcom — ragged, undernourished, but endlessly enthusiastic — told her that the yoke of the Squeem had been cast off. Humans were free again, able to exploit themselves and their own resources as they saw fit. Not only that, Lieserl learned, the Squeem occupation had left humans with a legacy of high technology — a hyperdrive, a faster-than-light means of traveling between the stars.
Hyperdrive technology hadn’t originated with the Squeem, it was learned rapidly. They had acquired it from some other species, by fair means or foul; just as humanity had now “inherited” it.
The true progenitors, of much of the technology in the Galaxy, were known… at least from afar.
The lost human colonies on the nearby stars were contacted and revitalized, and a new, explosive wave of expansion began, powered by the hyperdrive. Humans spread like an infection across the Galaxy, vigorous, optimistic once more.
Lieserl, drifting through her fantasy of Sun-clouds, watched all this from afar, bemused. Contact with her was maintained only fitfully; Lieserl with her wormhole technology was a relic — a bizarre artifact from the past, drifting slowly to some forgotten goal inside the Sun.
In the first few years after the overthrow of the Squeem, humans had prospered flourished, expanded. But Lieserl grew increasingly depressed as she fast forwarded through human history. The Universe beyond the Solar System seemed to be a place full of petty, uncreative races endlessly competing for Xeelee scraps. But maybe, she thought sourly, that made it a good arena for mankind.
Then — devastatingly — a war was fought, and lost, with another alien power: the Qax.
Earth was occupied again.
There were more birds joining the flock than leaving it, she realized slowly.
The birds joining the cloud came in from random directions. But there was a pattern to the paths of the departing birds: there was a steady flow of the outgoing birds in one direction, in the Sun’s equatorial plane, to some unknown destination.
The point was, more birds were arriving than departing. The cloud at the heart of the Sun was being grown. The birds were expanding the cloud deliberately.
She felt as if she were being dragged along a deductive chain, reluctantly, to a place she didn’t want to go. She found, absurdly, that she liked the birds; she didn’t want to think ill of them.
But she had to consider the possibility.
Was it really true? What if the birds knew what they were doing, to the Sun? Oh, the precise form of their intelligence — their awareness — didn’t matter. They might even be some form of group consciousness, like the Squeem. The key question was their intent.
Could the wildest speculations of Superet be, after all, correct? Did the birds represent some form of malevolent intelligence which intended to extinguish the Sun?
Were they smothering the Sun’s fusion fire by design?
And if so, why?
Brooding, she sank deeper into the flock, watching, correlating.
They reached the Superet Planners’ Temple in Sector 3.
The little party slowed. Arrow Maker and Spinner seemed to have coped well with the sights and sounds of their journey so far, but the glowing, tetrahedral mass of the Temple, looming above them, seemed to have awed them at last. Morrow found it hard to control his own nervousness. After all it was only a few shifts since his own last, painful, personal interview with Milpitas; and now, standing here, he wondered at his own temerity at coming back like this.
Garry Uvarov stirred in his cocoon of stained blanket, his sightless face questing. When he spoke his cheeks, paper-thin, rustled. “What’s going on? Why have we stopped?”
“We’ve arrived,” Morrow said. “This is the Planners’ Temple. And — ”
Uvarov snorted, cavernously. “Temple. Of course they’d call it that, Arrow Maker,” he snapped. “Tell me what you see.”
Arrow Maker, hesitantly, described the tetrahedral pyramid, its glowing-blue edges, the sheets of glimmering brown-gold stretched across the faces.
Uvarov’s head quivered; he seemed to be trying to nod. “An Interface mockup. These damned survivalists; always so full of themselves. Temple.” He twisted his head; Morrow, fascinated, could see the vertebrae of his neck, individually articulating. “Well? What are we waiting for?”
Morrow, his anxiety and nervousness tightening in his chest, moved forward toward the Temple.
“Milpitas? Milpitas?” Uvarov’s gaunt face showed some interest. “I knew a Milpitas: Serena Harvey Gallium Harvey Milpitas…”
“My grandmother,” Planner Milpitas said. He sat back in his chair and steepled his long fingers, a familiar gesture that Morrow watched, fascinated. “One of the original crew. She died a long time ago — ”
Uvarov’s chair rolled, restlessly, back and forth across Milpitas’ soft carpet; Arrow Maker, Morrow and Spinner were forced to crowd to the back of Milpitas’ small office to avoid Uvarov. “I know all that, damn it. I didn’t ask for her life history. I said I knew her. Glib tongue, she had, like all Martians.”
Milpitas, behind his desk, regarded Uvarov. Morrow conceded with a certain respect that the Planner’s composure, his certainty, hadn’t been ruffled at all by the irruption into his ordered world of these painted savages, this gaunt ancient from the days of the launch itself.
The Planner asked, “Why have you come here?”
“Because you wouldn’t come out to meet me,” Uvarov growled. “You arrogant bastard. I should have — ”
“But why,” Milpitas pressed with patient distaste, “did you wish to meet me at all?” Now he let his cold eyes flicker over the silent forest folk. “Why not stay in your jungle, climbing trees with your friends here?”
Morrow heard Spinner-of-Rope growl under her breath.
Uvarov’s nostrils flared, the papery skin stretching. “I won’t be spoken to like that by the likes of you. Who’s in charge here?”
“I am,” Milpitas said calmly. “Now answer my question.”
Garry Uvarov raised his face; in the subdued, sourceless light of Milpitas’ office his eye sockets looked infinitely deep. “You people were always the same.”
Milpitas looked amused. “What people, exactly?”
“You survivalists. Your blessed grandmother and the rest of the crew she fell in with, who thought they were the only ones, the sacred guardians of Superet’s mission. Always trying to control everybody else, to fit us all into your damn hierarchies.”
“If you’ve come all this way to debate social structures, then let’s do so,” Milpitas said easily. “There are reasons for devising hierarchical societies — purposes for devising bureaucracies. Did you ever think of that, old man?” He waved a languid hand. “We’re confined here — obviously — within a finite environment. We have limited resources. We’ve no means of obtaining more resources. So we need control. We must plan. We need consistency of behavior: a regulated society designed to maximize efficiency until the greater goal is reached. And a bureaucracy is the best way of — ”
“Power!” Uvarov’s voice was a sudden rant.
His head jerked forward on its stem of neck. “You’ve built walls around the world, walls around people. Consistency of behavior my arse. We’re talking about power, Milpitas. That’s all. The power to flatten and control — to impose illiteracy — even to remove the right to reproduce. You’re damned inhuman; you people always were. And — ”
Milpitas laughed; he seemed completely unperturbed. “How long have you been isolated up there in the trees, Dr. Uvarov? How many centuries? And have you cherished this bitterness all that time?”
“You’re obsessed with control. You survivalists… With your perverted vision of the Superet goal, your exclusive access to the truth.”
Milpitas’ laughter faded, and a cold light came into his eyes. “I know your history, Dr. Uvarov. It’s familiar enough. Your rejection of AS treatment, your bizarre experiment to breed longevity into your people — your victims, I should say… And you talk to me of obsession. Of control. You dare talk to me of these things…”
In his brief time with the forest folk, Morrow had learned of Uvarov’s eugenic ambitions.
Uvarov had rejected AS treatment — and any artificial means — as the way to immortality. To improve the stock, it was necessary to change the species, he argued.
Humans were governed by their genes. They — and every other living thing — were machines, designed by the genes to ensure their own — the genes’ — survival. Genes gave their hosts life — and killed them.
Genes which killed their hosts tended to be removed from the gene pool. Thus, a gene which killed young bodies would have no way of being passed on to offspring. But a gene which killed old bodies after they’d reproduced could survive.
So, perversely, lethal genes in older bodies could propagate.
Uvarov had come to understand that senile decay was simply the outcome of late acting lethal genes, which could never be selected out of the gene pool by breeding among the young.
After two centuries of flight, Garry Uvarov had determined to improve the stock of humanity the starship was carrying to the future. AS treatment used nanobotic techniques to eliminate aging effects directly, at the biochemical level, but did not challenge the genes directly.
Even before AS treatment had started to fail him, Uvarov had declared war on the lethal genes which were killing him.
He and his followers had occupied the forest Deck, effectively sealing it off. He sent his people into the forest and told them that they would have a simple life: take nourishment from the forest, make simple tools. AS treatment was abandoned, and within a few years the forest floor and canopy were alive with the voices of children.
Then, Uvarov banned any reproduction before the age of forty.
Uvarov had enforced his rule with iron discipline; stalking through the forest, or ascending, grim-faced, into the canopy, Uvarov and a team of close followers had performed several quick, neat abortions.
After some generations of this, he pushed the conception limit up to forty-five. Then fifty.
The population in the forest dipped, but slowly started to recover. And, gradually, the lethal genes were eliminated from the gene pool.
Over time, some contact — a kind of implicit trade — opened up between the inhabitants of the lower levels and the jungle folk. But there was no incursion from below, no will to break open Deck Zero. And so, with iron determination, Uvarov enforced his huge experiment, century after century.
Arrow Maker and Spinner-of-Rope — face-painted, young-old pygmies — were the extraordinary result.
Milpitas listened, apparently bemused, as Uvarov ranted. “When I started this work the average lifespan, without AS, was about a hundred. Now we have individuals over two hundred and fifty years old…” Spittle looped across his toothless mouth. “A thousand AS years isn’t enough. Ten thousand wouldn’t suffice. I’m talking about changing the nature of the species, man…”
Milpitas laughed at him. “Was there ever a more obsessive control of any unfortunate population than that? To deny the benefits of AS to so many generations — ” The Planner shook his bare, scarred head. “To waste so much human potential, so many ‘mute, inglorious Miltons’…”
“I’m transforming the species itself,” Uvarov hissed. “And it’s working, damn you. Arrow Maker, here — ” he cast about vaguely ” — is eighty years old. Eighty. Look at him. By successively breeding out the lethal genes, I’ve — ”
“If your program was so laudable, then why did you feel it necessary to barricade yourself into the forest Deck?”
Morrow, helpless, felt as if he had wandered into an old, worn-out argument. He remembered his last interview with Milpitas, in which Milpitas had — calmly and consistently — denied the reality of the society above Deck One: a society whose independent existence had been obvious long before Arrow Maker and the others came firing darts down through the opened hatches of the Locks. And now even when confronted with Uvarov and these painted primitives — Milpitas seemed unable to break away from his own restricted world-view.
Uvarov was noisy, of alien appearance, visibly half-insane, and locked inside a partial, incomplete — yet utterly inflexible — mind-set. Milpitas, by contrast, was calm, his manner and speech ordered, controlled. And yet, Morrow reflected uneasily, Milpitas was, in his way, just as rigid in his thinking, just as willing to reject the evidence of his senses.
We’re a frozen society, Morrow thought gloomily. Intellectually dead. Maybe Uvarov is right about mind-sets. Perhaps we’re all insane, after this long flight. And yet — and yet, if Uvarov is correct about the end of the flight then perhaps we can’t afford to remain this way much longer.
With a sense of desperation, he turned to Milpitas. “You must listen to him. The situation’s changed, Planner. The ship — ”
Milpitas ignored him. He looked weary. “I’m growing bored with this. I will ask my question once more. And then you will leave. All of you.
“Uvarov, why have you come here?”
Uvarov wheeled his chair forward; Morrow heard a dull thud as the chair frame collided softly with Milpitas’ desk. “Survivalist,” he said, “the journey is over.”
Milpitas frowned. “What journey?”
“The flight of the Great Northern. Our odyssey through rime, and space, to the end of history.” His ruined face twisted. “I hate to admit it, but our factionalism serves no more purpose. Now, we have to work together — to reach the wormhole Interface, and — ”
“Why,” Milpitas asked steadily, “do you believe the journey is over?”
“Because I’ve seen the stars.”
“Impossible,” Milpitas snapped. “Your eyes are gone. You’re insane, Uvarov.”
“My people — ” Uvarov’s voice dried to a croak. Spinner-of-Rope stepped forward, took a wooden bowl of water from a rack within the body of the chair, and allowed a little of the fluid to trickle into Uvarov’s cavern of a mouth.
“My people are my eyes,” Uvarov said, gasping. “Arrow Maker climbed the tallest tree and studied the stars. I know, Milpitas. And I understand.”
Milpitas’ eyes narrowed. “You understand nothing.” He glanced, briefly and dismissively, at Arrow Maker, who returned his look with cool calculation. “I’ve no idea what this — person — saw, when he climbed his tree. But I know you’re wrong, Uvarov. We’ve nothing to discuss.”
“But the stars — don’t you see, Milpitas? There was no starbow. The relativistic phase of the flight must be over…”
Milpitas smiled thinly. “Even now, through the fog that has swamped your intellect, you’ll probably concede that one great strength of the bureaucracies you despise so much is record-keeping.
“Uvarov, we keep good records. And we know that you’re wrong. After all this time there’s some uncertainty, but we know that the thousand-year flight has at least half a century to run.”
Something stirred in Morrow’s heart at that. Somehow, he suspected, he’d never quite believed Uvarov’s pronouncement — but the authority of a Planner was something else. Just fifty years…
“You’re a damn fool,” Uvarov railed; his chair jerked back and forth, displaying his agitation.
Milpitas said coolly, “No doubt. But we’ll cope with journey’s end when it comes. Now I want you out of my office, old man. I have more than enough work to do without — ”
Morrow couldn’t help but come forward. “Planner. Is that all you have to say? The first contact between the Decks for hundreds of years — ”
“And the last, if I’ve anything to do with it.” Milpitas raised his face to Morrow; his remodelled flesh was like a sculpture, Morrow thought abstractedly, a thing of cold, hard planes and edges. “Get them out of here, Morrow. Take them back to their jungle world.”
“Was I wrong to bring them here?”
“Get them out.” Tension showed in Milpitas’ voice, and the prominence of the muscles in his neck. “Get them out.”
She wondered how she must appear to these photino creatures.
They would find it as difficult to perceive baryonic matter as she, a baryonic creature, found it to see them. Perhaps the birds saw a pale tetrahedron, the faint dark-matter shadow of the exotic matter Interface framework which formed the basis of her being. Perhaps they caught some dim sense of the wormhole itself, the throat of space and time through which she pumped away the heat which would otherwise destroy her.
The old theories had predicted dark-matter particles colliding with the swarming protons of the Solar core, absorbing a little of their energy and so transporting heat out from the fusing heart. This was how, it was thought, dark matter cooled the Sun.
She saw now that these notions had been right in essence, but too crude. The birds absorbed Solar heat energy. They fed on interactions with protons in the plasma. Incorporating energy from photino-proton interactions within their structures, the birds grew, and spiraled out from the hotter, denser heart of the Sun, taking the heat energy with them.
The ancient theorists had envisaged a particle-based physical process to extract core heat, and so suppress the fusion processes there. The truth was, the birds fed on the Sun’s heat.
And, by feeding — like unwise parasites — they would eventually kill their host.
Unwise — unless, of course, that had been the intention all along.
Lieserl had learned about the Qax.
The Qax had originated as clusters of turbulent cells in the seas of a young planet. Because there were so few of them the Qax weren’t naturally warlike — individual life was far too precious to them. They were natural traders; the Qax worked with each other like independent corporations, in perfect competition.
They had occupied Earth simply because it was so easy — because they could.
The only law governing the squabbling junior races of the Galaxy was, Lieserl realized, the iron rule of economics. The Qax enslaved mankind simply because it was an economically valid proposition.
They had to learn the techniques of oppression from humans themselves. Fortunately for the Qax, human history wasn’t short of object lessons.
The wormhole station maintaining contact with Lieserl was abandoned, once again, during the Qax occupation.
Finally the Qax were overthrown. The details hadn’t been clear to Lieserl; it was something to do with a man named Jim Bolder, and an unlikely flight in a stolen Xeelee derelict craft, to the site of the Xeelee’s greatest project: the Ring…
This was the first time Lieserl had heard of the Ring.
After the overthrow, once more humans returned to the Sun, and restored contact with the aging, increasingly incongruous artifact that contained Lieserl.
This time, Lieserl was shocked by the humans who greeted her.
The Qax, during the occupation, had withdrawn Anti-Senescence technology. Death, illness, had returned to the worlds of mankind. It hadn’t taken long for toil and disease to erase most of the old immortals — some of whom had still remembered the days before the Squeem, even — and, within a few generations, humans had forgotten much of their past.
The discontinuity in human culture after the Qax was immeasurably greater than that arising from the Squeem occupation. The new people who emerged from the Qax era — and who now peered out of sketchy images at Lieserl in her cocoon of Solar plasma — seemed alien to her, with their shaven heads and gaunt, fanatical expressions.
Expansion had begun again, but this time fueled by a hard-edged determination. Never again would humanity be made to serve some alien power. Lieserl in her whale-dream, watching centuries flicker by in fragments of image and speech, saw humans erupt out of their systems once more. A new period began — a period called the Assimilation.
During the Assimilation, humans — aggressively and deliberately — absorbed the resources and technologies of other species.
Human culture evolved rapidly in this period. The link with Lieserl was maintained, but with increasingly long interruptions. The motivation of these remote humans seemed to be a brand of hostile curiosity; she saw only calculation in the faces presented to her. She was seen, she suspected, only as another resource to be exploited for the continuing, endless expansion of mankind.
Soon — astonishingly quickly — humans became the dominant of the junior races. Humanity’s growth in power and influence grew exponentially.
At last, only the Xeelee themselves were more potent than mankind… And the legend of the Xeelee’s achievements — the construction material, the manipulation of space and time, the Ring itself — grew into a deep-rooted mythology.
Then, for the last time, her wormhole telemetry link was shut down.
Drifting through her endless, unchanging ocean of plasma, she felt a distant twinge of regret — a feeling that soon dispersed into the peaceful, numb silence around her.
Humans had become alien to her. She was better off without them.
The birds must have some lifecycle, she thought; a circle of birth and life and death, much like every baryonic creature. Individual photino birds moved past her too rapidly to follow; but still, she studied them carefully, and was rewarded with glimpses — she thought — of growth.
Eventually she saw a bird reproduce.
She could see there was something unusual about this bird, even as it approached. The bird was fat, swollen with proton heat-energy. It seemed somehow more solid — more real, to Lieserl’s baryonic senses — than its neighbors.
The bird shuddered — once, twice — its lenticular rim quivering. She almost felt some empathy with the creature; it seemed in agony.
Abruptly — startling Lieserl — the bird shot away from its orbital path. It hovered for a moment — then it hurtled down into the heat-rich core of the Sun once more. Lieserl’s processors told her that the bird seemed a little less massive than before.
And it had left something behind.
Lieserl enhanced her senses as far as they would go. The mother-bird had left behind a copy of herself — a ghostly copy, rendered in clumps of higher density in the plasma proton-electron mix. It was a three-dimensional image of the mother, in baryonic matter. Within fractions of a second the clumps had started to disperse — but not before more photinos had clustered around the complex pattern of baryonic matter, rapidly plating over its internal structure.
The whole process took less than a second. At the end of it, a new photino bird, sleek and small, moved away from the site of its birth; the last traces of the higher-density baryonic material left behind by the mother bird drifted away.
Lieserl ran the image sequence over and over. As a method of reproduction, it was a long way from any Earth-bound form — even cloning. It was more like making a straight copy — an imprint from a three-dimensional mold, mediated by baryonic matter.
The newborn must be an almost exact copy of its parent — more exact than any clone, even. Presumably it carried a copy of its parent’s memories — even, perhaps, of its awareness…
And, presumably, a copy too of the generation before that — and before that, and…
Lieserl smiled. Each photino child must carry within it the soul of all of its grandmothers, a deep tree of awareness reaching right back to the dawn of the species.
And all mediated by baryonic matter, she thought wonderingly. The birds depended on the relative transparency of dark and baryonic matter to take their detailed, three-dimensional copies of themselves.
But this meant, she realized, that the photino birds could only breed in places where they could find high densities of baryonic matter. They could only breed in the hearts of stars.
She replayed the birth images, over and over.
There was something graceful, immensely appealing, about the photino birds, and she found herself warming to them. Spiritually she felt much closer to the birds, now, than to the hard-eyed humans of the Assimilation, beyond the Solar ocean.
She hoped her theory — that the birds were deliberately destroying the Sun — was wrong.
The return journey seemed much longer. Morrow felt angry, disappointed, weary. “I can’t understand how Milpitas reacted.” He shook his head. “It’s as if he didn’t even see you people…”
“Oh, I understand.” Uvarov twisted his head. “I understand. We are all too old, you see. In a way Milpitas was right about me; after all I share some of these flaws myself.” Uvarov’s voice, while still distorted by age, was calmer, more rational than at any point during the interview with Milpitas, Morrow thought.
Uvarov went on, “But at least I can recognize my limitations — the tunnel-vision of my age and condition. And, by recognizing it, deal with it.”
Spinner-of-Rope had been leading the way up the hundred-yard ramp to Deck One. Now, as she neared the top, she slowed. Her hand dropped, seemingly automatically, to her blowpipe and the little sack of feathered darts at her waist.
“What is it?” Morrow asked drily. “More problems with human body odor?”
She turned, her eyes huge behind her spectacles. “Not that. But something… Something’s wrong.”
Arrow Maker raised his face. “I can smell it, too.”
“Describe,” Uvarov snapped.
“Sharp. Smoky. A little like fire, but more intense…”
Uvarov grunted. He sounded somehow satisfied. “Cordite, probably.”
Arrow Maker looked blank. “What?”
They reached the top of the ramp. Hastily, with both forest people bearing their weapons in their hands, they made for the Lock down which Uvarov had been carried.
As they approached the Lock, they slowed, almost as if synchronized. The three of them — Arrow Maker, Morrow and Spinner — stood and stared at the Lock.
Uvarov twisted his face to left and right. “Tell me what’s wrong. It’s the Lock, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Morrow stepped forward cautiously. “Yes, it’s the Lock.” The cylinder of metal had been burst open, somewhere near its center; bits of its fabric, twisted, scorched, none larger than his hand, lay scattered across the Deck surface. There was a stink of smoke and fire — presumably Uvarov’s cordite.
Arrow Maker stood clutching his bow, open-mouthed, impotent. Spinner ran off toward the next Lock, her bare feet padding against the metal floor.
Uvarov nodded. “Simple and effective. We should have expected this.”
Morrow bent to pick up a piece of hull metal; but the twisted, scorched fragment was still hot, and he withdrew his fingers hastily.
Spinner came running back. She looked breathless, wide-eyed and very young; she stood close to her father and clutched his arm. “The next Lock’s been blown out as well. I think they all have. The Locks are impassable. We can’t get home.”
Uvarov whispered, “We should check. But I am sure she is right.”
Morrow slammed his fist into his palm. “Why? I just don’t understand. Why this destruction — this waste?”
“I told you why,” Uvarov said evenly. “The existence of the upper level was an unacceptable challenge to the mindset of Milpitas and the rest of your damn Planners. I doubt if they will have done any damage to the forest Deck itself. Sealing it off — sealing it away from themselves, apparently forever — should do the trick just as well.”
“But that’s insane,” Morrow protested.
Uvarov hissed, “No one ever said it wasn’t. We’re human beings. What do you expect?”
Arrow Maker paced about the floor. Morrow became aware, nervously, of the muscles in the back of the little man which flexed, angrily; Maker’s face paint flared. “Whether it was intended or not, we’re trapped here. We’re in real danger. Now, what in Lethe are we going to do?”
Morrow’s fear seemed to have been burned out of him by his anger at the foolishness, the wastefulness of the destruction of the Locks. “I’ll help you. I’ll not abandon you. I’ll take you to my home — I live alone; you can hide there. Later, perhaps we can find some way to open up a Lock again, and — ”
Arrow Maker looked grateful; but before he could speak Uvarov wheeled forward.
“No. We won’t be going back to the forest.”
Arrow Maker said, “But, Uvarov — ”
“Nothing’s changed.” Uvarov turned his blind face from side to side. “Don’t you see that? Arrow Maker, you saw the stars yourself. The ship’s journey is over. And we have to go on.”
Spinner clutched at her father’s arm. “Go on? Where?”
“Regardless of the reaction of these damn fool survivalists, we will continue. Down through these Decks, and onwards… On to the Interface itself.”
Arrow Maker, Spinner and Morrow exchanged stricken glances.
Uvarov tilted back his head, exposing his bony throat. “We’ve traveled across five million years, Arrow Maker,” he whispered. “Five million years… Now it’s time to go home.”