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The Steel


Thom Poplanich floated through infinity. The monobloc exploded outward, and he felt the twisting of space-time in its birth-squall. . . .

I think I understand that now, he thought.

excellent, Center said. we will return to socio-historical analysis: subject, fall of the federation of man. 

He had been down here in the sanctum of Sector Command and Control Unit AZ12-b14-c000 Mk. XIV for years, now. His body was in stasis, his mind connected with the ancient battle computer on levels far broader than the speechlike linkage of communication. It was no longer necessary for him to see events sequentially. . . .

Images drifted through his consciousness. Earth. The True Earth of the Canonical Handbooks, not this world of Bellevue. Yet it was not the perfect home of half-angels that the priests talked of, but a world of men. Nations rose and warred with each other, empires grew and fell. Men learned as the cycles swung upward, then forgot, and fur-clad savages dwelt in the ruins of cities, burning their books for winter's warmth. At last one cycle swung further skyward than any before. On a small island northwest of the main continent, engines were built. Ones he recognized at first, clanking steam-engines driving factories to spin cloth, dragging loads across iron rails, powering ships. The machines grew greater, stranger. They took to the air and cities burned beneath them. They spread from one land to the next, springing at last into space.

Earth floated before him, blue and white like the images of Bellevue that Center showed him—blue and white like all worlds that could nourish the seed of Earth. One final war scarred the globe beneath him with flames, pinpoints of fire that consumed whole cities at a blow. Soundless globes of magenta and orange bloomed in airless space.

the last jihad, Center's voice said. observe. 

A vast construct drifted into view, skeletal and immense beside the tubular ships and dot-tiny suited humans.

the tanaki spatial displacement net. the first model. Energies flowed across it, twisting into dimensions describable only in mathematics that he had not yet mastered. The ships vanished, to reappear far away . . . here, in Bellevue's system. The Colonists, first men to set foot on this world. They landed and raised the green flag of Islam.

even more than the jihad, the net made the federation of man essential, Center said. the empire that rose this time expanded until it covered all the Earth, and leaped outward to nearby stars. a century later, its representatives landed on distant Bellevue, much to the displeasure of the descendants of the refugees, and the net was its downfall. expansion proceeded faster than integration. Long strings of formulae followed. once the tipping point was reached, entropic decay accelerated exponentially. 

The higher they rise, the harder they fall, Thom thought.

true. There was a slight overtone of surprise in Center's dispassionate machine-voice.

More images. War flickering between the stars, mutiny, secession. Bellevue's Net flaring into plasma. The remnants of Federation units turning feral when they were cut off here, bringing civilization down in a welter of thermonuclear fire. Swift decay into barbarism for most areas, a pathetic remnant of ancient knowledge preserved in the Civil Government and the Colony, degenerating into superstition. Now a thousand years and more had passed, and a tentative rebirth stirred.

cycles within cycles, Center said. the overall trend is still toward maximum entropy, unless my intervention can alter the parameters. fifteen thousand years will pass until the ascendant phase of the next overall historical period. 

An image eerily familiar, for he had seen it with his own eyes as well as through Center's senses. Two young men out exploring the ancient catacombs beneath the Governor's palace in East Residence. Unlikely friends: Thom Poplanich, grandson of the last Poplanich Governor. A slight young man in a patrician's hunting outfit of tweed. Raj Whitehall, tall, with a swordsman's shoulders and wrists. Guard to the reigning Barholm Clerett, and like him from distant Descott County, source of the Civil Government's finest soldiers. Once again he saw them discover the bones outside the centrum, the bones of those Center had considered and rejected as its agents in the world.

Raj will do it, Thom thought. If any man can reunite the world, he can. 

if any man can, Center agreed. the probability of success is less than 45% ±3, even with my assistance. 

He's already beaten back the Colony. The battle of Sandoral had been the greatest victory the Civil Government had won in generations. Destroyed the Squadron. The Squadron and its Admirals had held the Southern Territories for more than a century, the most recent of the Military Governments to come down out of the barbarous Base Area. And he's beating the Brigade. The 591st Provisional Brigade were the strongest of the barbarians, and they held Old Residence, the original seat of the Civil Government at the western end of the Midworld Sea.

to date, Center acknowledged, he has taken the crown peninsula and lion city. the more difficult battles remain. 

Men follow Raj, Thom said quietly. Not only that, he makes them do things beyond themselves. He paused. What really worries me is Barholm Clerett. He doesn't deserve a man like Raj serving him! And that nephew he's sent along on this campaign is worse. 

cabot clerett is more able than his uncle, and less a prisoner of his obsessions, Center noted.

That's what worries me. 


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