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Prologue

The fifteen-thousand-ton asteroid had been named, in the deepness of time when men still did such things, AE-513-49. In the latter twenty-first century, when every chunk of ice and rock that was of any conceivable danger to the earth had been mapped and tracked, it had been concluded that AE-513-49, which looked a bit like an elephant's foot and was composed of nickel-iron, had a probability of impact with the earth low enough that the heat death of the universe was a more likely problem.


AE-513-49 had been considered for mining until it was determined that, as a Helios asteroid, one close in to the sun, bringing out the materials would be more costly than those on the relative "downslope" towards the outer system. Then asteroid mining, after a very brief heyday, went away as the human race started to dwindle and, with it, the need for metals from beyond the atmosphere.


Thus AE-513-49 had been permitted to continue on its lonely orbit, circling the sun like a very small planet, hanging out at the very edge of the "life belt" between the earth and Mercury.


Until a curious thing happened.


A couple of years before, small gravitic nudges were applied to it. They first sent it inward towards the sun where it would, of course, have impacted without any noticeable trace. But then it encountered the gravity well of the small planet Mercury and "slingshotted" around it, headed back "outward" in the system.


More small nudges, some of them infinitesimally faint, adjusted its trajectory until it was precisely aligned with a point in space through which the earth would pass. Then, for almost a year, nothing.


As it approached the earth, however, more nudges were applied. A few adjusted the course so that it would assuredly hit the earth and, what's more, on a particular circular zone of the earth. Other nudges sped it up or slowed it down so that it would hit a particular point on that circle. Then, as it approached the atmosphere, the nudges became more distinct. It was now targeted on that one small point.


As it entered the atmosphere, thin and high, it began to fluoresce, coruscating waves of fire leaping off of it as the lighter materials it had picked up on its two-billion-year journey through the solar system burned off leaving the solid nickel-iron core revealed. This, too, began to burn as it hurtled closer and closer to the face of the earth, the metal subliming off in waves of fire.


Thus it was a melted ball of nickel-iron, hurtling downward at far more than orbital velocities, trailing an immense line of fire behind it, that slammed to a stop in midair thirty-five meters from an unassuming home that was sitting, against all reason, in a pool of lava.


In keeping with the laws of physics the nickel-iron, which was half ionized by heat, exploded outward in titanic fury. But this, too, stopped in midair and the enormous detonation, which would have destroyed much of the local area, was captured by some invisible force and quickly dissipated.


The nickel-iron that had once been AE-513-49 spread itself across an invisible hemispherical barrier, practically covering the house and shutting off all light to its interior for a moment, then slid away, bubbling as if from the application of some tremendous energy, to join the rest of the lava.


Inside the hemispherical protection field, the asteroid impact was noted as only a simple thump. At the thump, Sheida Ghorbani opened up a view-screen, as she did at least once a day, and looked at the lake of boiling lava that surrounded her home. The whole valley around her home was a mass of red and black liquid rock, fuming and spitting plumes of yellowish sulfur-laden steam. As always she called to mind the lofty Douglas firs, winding paths and crystalline mountain stream that had once been. Back in the days before the Fall.


The human race had brought itself so far. Rising through the mists of history. Surviving wars and famines. Until they had finally come to a technological point where so much was available, war, and even government, had been all but forgotten. The AI entity called Mother, which had started as a security protocol for the nearly mythical "internet" had morphed over the years until it was She who was the final arbiter of need. Mother, with her Argus eye and processors ranging from extradimensional quantum field systems to the honeycomb of bees, knew all and could see all. Beyond who was naughty and who was nice, it was She who saw the sparrow fall.


But the dangers of such an entity were known long before it was possible to create one. And Mother's creator, knowing the danger that She represented, She who was the first true AI, had established human controls upon her. Thirteen "Key-holders," each with a physical pass item, who could "tweak" Her protocols and, in extreme cases, open up her kernel and reprogram Her. The latter, however, required complete unanimity.


The Keys had first been held by major corporate heads and by governments in the early days of Her youth. But over the years some of them had fallen into a shadowy underworld. As Her power grew, more and more capabilities and decisions were loaded upon Her shoulders until in the last millennia She had become the defacto world government. She was controlled, primarily, by the overt "Council" of thirteen Key-holders. They were the human link in the chain and mostly ensured that Her protocols were tweaked and maintained while She did the grunt work of managing distribution of goods and services. The last human-controlled world government had dissolved nearly two hundred years ago from sheer lack of utility.


The reason for the lack of utility was simple; with no want there was limited conflict and crime. Replication, teleportation, nannites and genetic engineering had created a world where any human could live as they desired. A house on a mountaintop was easily created and the mountaintop could be anywhere in the world, since with teleportation going elsewhere was a matter of wishing. Body modification had taken wide forms, with humans Changing themselves into mer, unicorns, dolphins and a host of other shapes. All conflict, and crime, comes down to a breach of written or unwritten contracts. It was Mother that ensured that contracts, by and large, were not breached. In the rare case in which they were, the individual involved was hunted down by an efficient, if small, police force and "adjusted," in extreme cases by a memory wipe and replacement to create a nice, docile, well-adjusted human.


But there had been problems with unlimited wealth and ease. Over the years both human birthrates and scientific progress had fallen by the wayside. World population had peaked at twelve billion in the latter twenty-first century and then had started a long, slow, decline until the population, pre-Fall, had been a mere billion or so individuals, mostly residing in widely scattered homes and small hamlets. With limitless recreational activities, and birth, thank God, removed from the bodies of women and moved to uterine replicators, raising children was at the very bottom of most people's wish lists. And strong protocols, enforced by Mother and voted upon in earlier times when massive social mistakes had occurred, prevented any group from willy-nilly producing children. Each human being created in a uterine replicator had to be from the base genetics of two humans and one or both had to take responsibility for rearing the child "properly." Failure to do so resulted in the loss of birth privileges to both individuals.


In the year before the Fall, less than ten percent of the population had produced children. Using straight-line projections, in an estimated five hundred to a thousand years, the last human would have closed the door on an extinct species.


Scientific progress had gone the same way. While there continued to be individuals who liked to "tinker" with the borders of science, the last major breakthrough, teleportation, had occurred nearly five hundred years ago.


Looking at both of these trends, the most senior council member, Paul Bowman, decided that Something Must Be Done. He had decided that humans needed to learn to work again. That humans needed to learn to be "strong" again. That implementing a work ethic, by limiting power to only those who "produced" for the community, would bring back the science, and art and literature and birthrates, which had languished over the past millennia.


Over the years he had gathered members of the Council who, for their own reasons, looked to him for leadership. And in the end, when the rest of the Council refused his demands, they had struck, attacking the others at a Council meeting with insects that carried a deadly binary neurotoxin.


Sheida was one of the Council who opposed him, arguably the leader of the opposition. And she, a student of history as most of them were not, had feared that his fanaticism would lead to violence. She had consulted with a friend who was even more steeped in the history of violence and had prepared as well as she could. Very little that was dangerous could be brought into the Council chamber. The toxic wasps had only worked because individually they were not poisonous; it was only with the sting from two different types that the neurotoxin activated.


She had been stung, twice, by one type. Others of her faction had died.


But at the same time, they had struck back, killing members of Paul's faction. The late Javlatanugs Cantor, a werebear, had killed one, falling himself in the battle. Ungphakorn, a Changed quetzacoatl, had killed another, and seized that one's key.


However, in the end, Sheida and her surviving cohorts had retreated. And the war had begun. And the Fall started.


The Council now waged war amongst itself with the energy that had once powered the society. The lava outside her home was the side effect of the massive energy beam being directed upon the shields of her fastness by Paul's side, which had taken the name "New Destiny." Just as other energy beams attacked the power stations under the control of her faction, which had taken the name "The Freedom Coalition." The Coalition had attacked in turn and now virtually all of the energy that had supported human society had been used in attacks and defense by the Council.


This had left the rest of the world in a truly apocalyptic state. Food had been teleported or replicated for centuries. Homes were often in places impossible to live without ongoing power. Failure of personal energy shields had doomed humans from the bottom of the ocean to the photosphere of the sun. Failure of food delivery, or being left on a mountaintop, or far out at sea, had doomed others more slowly.


Thus had begun the Fall, and the Dying Time that followed it, when more than ten percent of the population of the world, some one hundred million human beings in their various forms, had died. Some, mercifully, before they knew what was happening. Others to falls or drowning or slow deaths from starvation and exposure.


And the lives of those left after the Dying Time were anything but easy. The world had descended to a preindustrial environment with farmers scratching a toe-hold in the land, and armies fighting a thousand small battles with bandit gangs to hold the line and maintain some semblance of civilization.


The most important single group who saved the remnant population of earth was made up of small groups of "reenactors," people who had wrapped their lives around earlier times. There were small communities where people lived the lives of their forefathers, using hand tools and domestic animals to replicate the lives of the ancients.


Many of these people had been living their hobby for decades, or even centuries, and knew techniques that no single person from any period in history would know. They had used every trick, every technique, to save the lives of the refugees, an old word that had been forgotten prior to the Fall, who arrived at their doorstep.


In the area that had fallen to Sheida's purview, the areas of the former North American Union, the reenactor societies had gathered the refugees, taught them how to survive, and in extraordinary cases even thrive, and slowly rebuilt society and government. Not so slowly, even. In no more than a year there was a core government, a constitution and a burgeoning ground and naval force.


The latter two were vital because in Ropasa Paul had been doing the same thing. But he was taking a different tack, establishing himself as dictator and using the power in the bodies of people to Change them into a form "more suitable for the current conditions." His Changed legions, growing in size every time they took another section of Ropasa, had quickly overrun the entire area and established an iron-fisted rule. And then he had begun his plan to invade the Norau heartland of his enemy.


Sheida often wondered if she had been right to oppose Paul. On the face his plan was not nearly as horrible as what had actually occurred. And he was getting most of what he wanted from the war, anyway. Populations were booming since the release of energy and most protocols had caused women to become fertile again. People were certainly learning how to work.


But all she had to do was look at what had happened in Ropasa. Over the centuries the strictures against using Mother as a universal eye, a universal tool of coercion, had grown strong. Mother knowing your innermost secrets was one thing; a person could handle that if they were sure no human was watching. But everyone had secrets they didn't want the world to know. Everyone had the occasional minor moral slip. Under the protocols pre-Fall, Mother could not be used for criminal surveillance, period. For the small, volunteer and chronically overworked police to track a criminal, to prevent a crime, to read a person's mind, meant using other methods, other systems, rather than the All-Seeing Mother.


If Paul had taken full control of the system, Mother would change from a distant, uncaring, deity to one that was poking into everyone's lives constantly. The way that Paul was going, She would be used for the most extremes of coercion. To Change a person, now, required direct, personal, intervention. If Paul had control of Mother, he could turn the whole human race into a series of separate, specialized, insects.


It was a just war, she thought, turning off the view-screen and going back to the myriad duties of the chairwoman for the Freedom Coalition, and the newly crowned "queen" of the United Free States. It has just cause, it has a chance of winning and the group against which it is fighting is clearly and unmitigatedly evil, for all that the evil, on Paul's part at least, stemmed from "good" intentions. 


Now, if they could only win it.


 


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Framed