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Chapter Two

From his ice palace on a high peak, Fortin watched North in the guise of a trader offer a device to King Venkatna in the Open Lands. Fortin hated his father, North, almost as much as Fortin hated himself; but then, Fortin hated all things.

The view through the faceted discontinuity around which Fortin had built his palace was flawed, like that through windows frosted and glittering with reflected light. Nonetheless, the images were real, not electronic constructs. If Fortin wished, he could step through the field and enter the plane of the Matrix which he viewed.

There were eight worlds in the Matrix, and the Matrix was a world. Those who could walk between the planes unaided, shaping the event waves, were gods; but there were discontinuities where planes rubbed close to one another and beings unaided could step between them.

Fortin was a god, but the existence of this natural discontinuity was the reason he had chosen the site for his palace. The multiple images—eight simultaneous impingements, unique within the universe of the Matrix—permitted him to watch and move without leaving a ripple among folk whose lives appeared to have purpose and happiness. . . .

In the audience hall in the Open Lands, North spoke to a king as a plump underling suffered on a bench between them. Fortin couldn't tell the purpose of his father's activities; and even North's son by an android female thought twice before interfering with North's plans.

Several of Fortin's servants watched their master furtively. They were afraid to be seen looking directly at him, but terrified to be late in obeying if Fortin suddenly turned and snapped out an order. Fortin was not usually a bad master . . . but occasionally he was a very bad master indeed.

Fortin stepped slowly around the discontinuity to the next facet, which looked onto a geodesic dome built in a swamp. Mist rose from black water, draping the serpentine trees into the semblance of monsters.

In the far distance was a range of sharp-edged hills. The rocks bore scarcely enough vegetation to mark their ruddy surfaces, much less break the force of the rains which cascaded across them and glutted the lowlands.

The woman in the dwelling's doorway was too perfectly beautiful to be human. Plane Three had been settled by survivors of a fleet crewed by androids, sent by the Consensus to investigate when Northworld vanished from the universe around it. Some of the androids were misshapen creatures whose body plans departed far from the human norm, but that was by no means universal: the same batch could give forth monsters and visages as fine and delicate as that of the woman in the dome.

Her complexion was white as chalk; as white as Fortin's own skin, the genetic gift of his android mother.

Fortin moved to the next facet. He stared with a fascination just short of sexual release. Stretching from an interminable horizon was a plain, broken by a single hill and peopled by stumpy columns like stalagmites of ice. There was no evident source of light, but the stark terrain was blotched by shadows nevertheless.

If Fortin looked with particular care, it seemed to him that the columns bore the faces of humans in the icy agony of Hell, and the hill looming above them had a face as well.

After a long pause, Fortin walked on.

Plane Five had been settled by a Consensus fleet also, one of three sent to determine how Northworld had disappeared. Gone with the planet were a colony, an exploration unit, and the team of troubleshooters headed by Captain North, who had named the world after himself when he cleared it for colonization. . . .

Trembling with memory and expectation, Fortin stepped to the fifth facet. The sun in its final days hung—huge, red and immobile—over a landscape of rock and desolation. There was intelligent life of a sort here, the crystalline machines which had crewed the last of the Consensus fleets. None of those glittering forms were at present visible through the discontinuity.

The only remaining life native to the plane was the patch of lichen on the face of a corniche above a shingle beach. For long ages, the lichen had been dying. Its minute roots had exhausted the nutriments they could reach in the rock, and the utter airless cold prevented the lichen from expanding outward to gain further sustenance.

To the extent that a creature so crude had feeling, the lichen was in pain. A smile touched Fortin's lips again; then his thought and his expression changed together.

The fourth time the Lords of the Consensus tried to investigate Northworld, they sent not a fleet but a man. His name was Nils Hansen. Hansen now had the powers of a god, but Fortin knew he would kill even a fellow god; though he knew the fabric of the Matrix would tear and all that was Northworld would collapse into a singularity, a black hole in spacetime.

Hansen, if he chose, would kill Fortin with the same cold certainty as Samson brought the temple down on himself and his tormentors.

Fortin's smile was a tight rictus. He walked on.

In a forest of giant conifers, six Lomeri prepared to make a slaving raid into the Open Lands. The Lomeri were lizard-featured bipeds with jaws full of cruel teeth, but the weapons and personal force-screens with which they were armed were smoothly efficient in design and execution.

The lizardmen rode ceratosaurs, bipedal carnivores with blunt nose horns and spiky brows that suggested horns as well. The beasts would eat during the raid, snatching a fifty-kilo gobbet from the flanks of a human's draft animal or bolting whole a screaming child, whichever came first to hand. Half the potential slaves would probably be killed by the lizardmen's mounts; a form of inefficiency which bothered the Lomeri as little as it did Fortin.

Dimly visible, as though a mirrored mirror, the Lomeri's target shimmered across a separate discontinuity. Despite the dark blurring of the image, Fortin recognized the thatched hall and houses of Peace Rock, perched on a low plateau.

Commissioner Hansen had a long association with Peace Rock. The disaster would distress him. Fortin smiled as he moved on.

Saburo, a member of the exploration unit that first discovered the planet, had built his palace on a basalt spire that pointed like a black finger from the surface of the sea. Surf crashed on all sides, kicking froth upward to be torn by the winds into smoky streamers.

On the roof of the palace, three gas-cratered lumps of volcanic rock rested on a sand table. The surface awaited the contemplation of the palace's master, but he was not present now.

The eighth face of the discontinuity was an image of Fortin's own central hall. He wondered what would happen if he reached through the frost-webbed surface and throttled the figure who sneered back at him with perfect android features. . . .

Moving with decision, Fortin walked back to the window onto Plane Five. In the distance rose Keep Starnes, the massive city/building of one of the lords descended from the humans of the first fleet the Consensus had sent to investigate Northworld's disappearance.

Outside, primitive mammals prowled a landscape of palms and cypresses, but few of the keep's teeming inhabitants had either the need or desire to leave the armored fastness. For all the ages since the settlement, the populace of Keep Starnes labored to equip armored squadrons which skirmished, pointlessly and interminably, with the forces of its neighbors. The soldiers ruled the keep, and the count ruled the soldiers.

In one particular only did Keep Starnes differ from similar keeps on Plane Five: the core of the installation was APEX, the Fleet Battle Director which had controlled all the Consensus ships. In the past, that had not mattered. Now there was a mind in Keep Starnes willing and able to use the capabilities of APEX against other keeps.

War in the neighborhood of Keep Starnes had ceased to be a gentleman's sport fought without direct involvement by the civilian establishment which supported the armies. As the walls and forcefields of other keeps crumbled, the territory under the sway of Count Starnes' self-sufficient city-state expanded proportionately.

Fortin smiled coldly as he unfurled his cloak. Its gossamer fabric bent radiation, so that a would-be observer looked around the wearer but thought he saw through a patch of empty air.

When Fortin donned the garment, he vanished from the sight of his servants. They trembled, even more fearful now than they had been before.

Within the cloak's protection, Fortin put on a pair of goggles. A hair-fine filament extended from either lens. The filaments extended through the cloak and served as the god's periscopes to the outer world.

In the center of Fortin's back and chest, supported by cross-belts, were active jammers. They could explode in dazzling radiance across the whole electro-optical spectrum. If Fortin activated the paired units, no scanner could operate in the signal flooding from them.

The half-android's most important tool of defense was not a piece of equipment: it was his ability to flee through the Matrix at need, leaving Plane Five and whatever was arrayed there against him. There would be no need for that, though. Fortin had visited Keep Starnes frequently. He liked to watch in person as the count's armies ground through the defenses of keep after keep.

Starnes enslaved specialists among the population before turning the remainder out into the wild. Invariably the refugees starved, because they were unable to recognize any food except that which had been grown in hydroponic tanks before being formed into flavored bricks.

If anyone could have seen him beneath his cloak, Fortin would have looked like an angel with a beatific smile. He vanished into the Matrix, unseen and unseeable—

And Karring, Chief Engineer of Keep Starnes, watched a telltale on APEX's console begin to blink.

"Sir!" called Karring to his master. "He's slipped in again!"

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