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CHAPTER ONE

 


Visager
1221 A.F. (After the Fall) 
305 Y.O. (Year of the Oath) 

 


Commodore Maurice Farr lifted the uniform cap from his head and wiped at the sweat on his forehead with a handkerchief. He was standing on the liner docks on the north shore of Oathtaking's superb C-shaped harbor. Behind him were the broad quiet streets of Old Town, running out from Monument Square behind his back. There the bronze figures of the Founders stood, raised weapons in their hands—the cutlasses and flintlocks common three centuries ago. The Empire-Alliance war had ended an overwhelming Imperial victory. The first thing the Alliance refugees had done was swear a solemn oath of vengeance against those who'd broken their ambitions and slaughtered ever yone of their fellows who hadn't fled the mainland.


After three years in the Land of the Chosen as a naval attaché, Farr was certain of two things: their descendants still meant it, and they'd extended the future field of attack from the Empire to everyone else on the planet Visager. Perhaps to the entire universe.


West and south around the bay ran the modern city of Oathtaking, built of black basalt and gray tufa from the quarries nearby. Rail sidings, shipyards, steel mills, factories, warehouses, the endless tenement blocks that housed the Protégé laborers. A cluster of huge buildings marked the commercial center; six and even eight stories tall, their girder frames sheathed in granite carved in the severe columnar style of Chosen architecture. A pall of coal smoke lay over most of the town below the leafy suburbs on the hill slopes, giving the hot tropical air a sulfurous taste. A racket of shod hooves sounded on stone-block pavement, the squeal of iron on iron and a hiss of steam, the hoot of factory sirens. Ships thronged the docks and harbor, everything from old-fashioned windjammers in with cargoes of grain from the Empire to modern steel-hulled steamers of Land or Republic build.


Out in the middle of the harbor a circle of islands linked by causeways marked the site of an ancient caldera and the modern navy basin. Near it moved the low hulking gray shape of a battlewagon, spewing black smoke from its stacks. His mind categorized it automatically: Ezerherzog Grukin, name-ship of her class, launched last year. Twelve thousand tons displacement, four 250-mm rifles in twin turrets fore and aft, eight 175mm in four twin-tube wing turrets, eight 155mm in barbette mounts on either side, 200mm main belt, face-hardened alloy steel. Four-stacker with triple expansion engines, eighteen thousand horsepower, eighteen knots.


The biggest, baddest thing on the water, or at least it would be until the Republic launched its first of the Democrat-class in eighteen months.


Farr shook his head. Enough. You're going home. He raised his eyes.


Snow-capped volcanoes ringed the port city of Oathtaking on three sides. They reared into the hazy tropical air like perfect cones, their bases overlapping in a tangle of valleys and folds coated with rain forest like dark-green velvet. Below the forest were terraced fields; Farr remembered riding among them. Dusty gravel-surfaced lanes between rows of eucalyptus and flamboyants. A little cooler than down here on the docks; a little less humid. Certainly better smelling than the oily waters of the harbor. Pretty, in a way, the glossy green of the coffee bushes and the orange orchards. He'd gone up there a couple of times, invited up to the manors of family estates by Chosen navy types eager to get to know the Republic's naval attaché. Not bad oscos, some of them; good sailors, terrible spies, and given to asking questions that revealed much more than they intended.


Also, that meant he got a travel pass for the Oathtaking District. There were some spots where a good pair of binoculars could get you a glimpse at the base if you were quick and discreet. Nothing earthshaking, just what was in port and what was in drydock and what was building on the slipways. Confirming what Intelligence got out of its contacts among the Protégé workers in the shipyard. That was how you built up a picture of capabilities, bit by bit. He'd been here three years now, he'd done a pretty good job—gotten the specs on the steam-turbine experiments—and it was time to go home.


For more reasons than one. He dropped his eyes to the man and woman talking not far away.


* * *

What did I ever see in him? Sally Hosten thought.


Her husband—soon to be ex-husband—stood at parade rest, hands clasped behind his back. Karl Hosten was a tall man even for one of the Chosen, broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted, as trim at thirty-five as he had been twelve years ago when they married. His face was square and so deeply tanned that the turquoise-blue eyes glowed like jewels by contrast; his cropped hair was white-blond. He wore undress uniform: gray shorts and short-sleeved tunic and gunbelt.


"This parting is not of my will," he said in crisp Chosen-accented Landisch.


"No, it's mine," Sally agreed, in English.


She'd spoken Landisch for a long time, her voice had been a little rusty when she went to the Santander embassy to see about getting her Republican citizenship back. She'd met Maurice there. And she didn't intend to speak Karl's language again, if she could help it.


"Will you not reconsider?" he said.


Twelve years together had made it easy for her to read the emotions behind a Chosen mask-face. The sorrow she sensed put a bubble of anger at the back of her mouth, hard and bitter.


"Will you give John back his children?" she said.


A brief glance aside showed that her son John wasn't nearby anymore. Where . . . twenty feet or so, bending over a cargo net with another boy of about the same twelve years. Jeffrey Farr, Maurice's son.


Karl Hosten stiffened and ran a hand over his stubbled scalp. "The law is the law; genetic defects must be—"


"A clubfoot is not a genetic defect!" Sally said with quiet deadliness. "It's a result of carriage during pregnancy"—a spear of guilt stabbed her—"which can be, was, corrected surgically. And you didn't even tell me you were having him sterilized in the delivery room. I didn't find out until he was eleven years old!"


"Would you have been happier if you knew? Would he?"


"How happy would he be when he found out he couldn't be Chosen?"


Karl swallowed and looked very slightly away. He is my son too, he didn't say. Aloud: "There are many fine careers open to Probationers-Emeritus. Johan is an intelligent boy. The University—"


"As a Washout," Sally said, using the cruel slang term for those who failed the exacting Trial of Life at eighteen after being born to or selected for the training system. It was far better than Protégé status, anything was, but in the Land of the Chosen . . .


"We've had this conversation too many times," she said.


Karl sighed. "Correct. Let us get this over with."


She looked around. "John!"


* * *

John Hosten felt prickly, as if his own skin were too tight and belonged to somebody else. Everyone had been too quiet in the steamcar, after they picked him up at the school. He'd already said good-bye to his friends—he didn't have many—and packed. Vulf, his dog, was already on board the ship.


I don't want to listen to them fight, he thought, and began drifting away from his mother and father.


That put him near another boy about his own age. John's eyes slid back to him, curiosity driving his misery away a little. The stranger was skinny and tall, red-haired and freckled. His hair was oddly cut, short at the sides and floppy on top, combed—a foreigner's style, different from both the Chosen crop and the bowl-cut of a Proti. He wore a thin fabric pullover printed in bizarre colorful patterns, baggy shorts, laced shoes with rubber soles, and a ridiculous looking billed cap.


"Hi," he said, holding out a hand. Then: "Ah, guddag."


"I speak English," John said, shaking with the brief hard clamp of the Land. English and Imperial were compulsory subjects at school, and he'd practiced with his mother.


The other boy flexed his fingers. "Better'n I speak Landisch," he said, grinning. "I'm Jeffrey Farr. That's my dad over there."


He nodded towards a tall slender man in a white uniform who was standing a careful twenty meters from the Hosten party. John recognized the uniform from familiarization lectures and slides: Republic of Santander Navy, officer's lightweight summer garrison version. It must be Captain Farr, the officer Mom had been seeing at the consulate about the citizenship stuff.


I wish she'd tell me the truth. I'm not a little kid or an idiot, he thought. That wasn't the only reason she was talking to Maurice Farr so much. "John Hosten, Probationer-hereditary," he replied aloud.


A Probationer-hereditary was born to the Chosen and automatically entitled to the training and the Test of Life; only a few children of Protégés were adopted into the course. Then he flushed. He wasn't going to be a Probationer long, and he could never have passed the Test, not the genetic portions. Not with his foot. He couldn't be anything but a Washout, second-class citizen.


"You don't have to worry about all that crap any more," Jeffrey said cheerfully, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the liner Pride of Bosson. "We're all going back to civilization."


The flag that fluttered from her signal mast had a blue triangle in the left field with fifteen white stars, and two broad stripes of red and white to the right. The Republic of Santander's banner.


John opened his mouth in automatic reflex to defend the Land, then closed it again. He was going to Santander himself. To live.


"Ya, we're going," he said. They both looked over towards their parents. "Your mother?"


"She died when I was a baby," Jeffrey said.


There was a crash behind them. The boys turned, both relieved at the distraction. One of the steam cranes on the Bosson's deck had slipped a gear while unloading a final cargo net on the dock. The Protégé foreman of the docker gang went white under his tan—he'd be held responsible—and turned to yell insults and complaints up at the liner's deck, shaking his fist. Then he turned and whipped his lead-weighted truncheon across the side of one docker's head. There was a sound like a melon dropping on pavement; the docker's face seemed to distort like a rubber mask. He fell to the cracked uneven pavement with a limp finality, as if someone had cut all his tendons.


"Shit," Jeffrey whispered.


The foreman made an angry gesture with his baton, and two of the dockers took their injured fellow by the arms and dragged him off towards a warehouse. His head was rolled back, eyes disappeared in the whites, bubbles of blood whistling out of his nose. The foreman turned back to the ship and called up to the seamen on the railing, calling for an officer. They looked back at him for a moment, then one silently turned away and walked towards the nearest hatch . . . slowly.


The gang instantly squatted on their heels when the foreman's attention went elsewhere. A few lit up stubs of cigarette; John could smell the musky scent of hemp mingled with the tobacco. A few smirked at the foreman's back, but most were expressionless in a different way from Chosen, their faces blank and doughy under sweat and stubble. They were wearing cotton overalls with broad arrows on them, labor-camp inmates' clothing.


"Hey, that crate's busted," Jeffrey said.


John looked. One wood-and-iron box about three meters on a side had sprung along its top. The stencils on the side read Museum of History and Naturel Copernik. He felt a stir of curiosity. Copernik was capital of the Land, and the Museum was more than a storehouse; it was the primary research center of the most advanced nation on Visager. He'd had daydreams of working there himself, of finally figuring out some of the mysterious artifacts of the Ancestors, the star-spanning colonizers from Earth. The Federation had fallen over a thousand years ago—it was 1221 A.F. right now—and nobody could understand the enigmatic constructs of ceramic and unknown metals. Not even now, despite the way technology had been advancing in the past hundred years. They were as incomprehensible as a steam engine or a dirigible would be to one of the arctic savages.


"What's inside?" he said eagerly.


"C'mon, let's take a look."


The laborers ignored them; John was in a Probationer's school uniform, and Jeffrey was an obvious foreigner—an upper-class boy could go where he pleased, and the Fourth Bureau would be lethally interested if they heard of Protégés talking to an auzlander. Even in the camps, there was always someplace worse. The foreman was still trading cusswords with the liner's petty officer.


John grabbed at the heavy Abaca hemp of the net and climbed; it was easy, compared to the obstacle courses at school. Jeffrey followed in an awkward scramble, all elbows and knees.


"It's just a rock," he said in disappointment, peering through the sprung panels.


"No, it's a meteorite," John said.


The lumpy rock was about a meter across, suspended in an elastic cradle in the center of the crate. It hadn't taken any damage when the net dropped—unlike a keg of brandy, which they could smell leaking—but then, from the slagged and pitted appearance, it had survived an incandescent journey through the atmosphere. John was surprised that it was being sent to the museum; meteorites were common. You saw dozens in the sky, any night. There must be something unusual about this one, maybe its chemical composition. He reached through and touched it.


"Sort of cold," he said. Not quite icy, but not natural, either. "Feel it."


Jeffrey stretched a long thin arm through the crack. "Yeah, like—"


The universe vanished.


* * *

Sally looked over her shoulder. Where was John? Then she saw him, scrambling over the cargo net with another boy. With Maurice's son. She opened her mouth to call them back, then closed it. It's important that they get along. Maurice hadn't made a formal proposal yet, but . . . She turned back.


Karl had his witnesses to either side: his legal children, Heinrich and Gerta, adopted in the fashion of the Chosen. Heinrich was the son of a friend who'd died in an expedition to the Far West Islands; they were dangerous, and the seas between, with their abundant and vicious native life, even more so. The other had been born to Protégé laborers on the Hosten estates and christened Gitana. Karl had sponsored her; she was a bright active youngster and her parents were John's nurse and attendant valet/bodyguard respectively.


Maria and Angelo stood at a respectful distance; their daughter ignored them. Ex-daughter; no Chosen were as strict as those Chosen from Protégé ranks. She was Gerta Hosten now, not Gitana Pesalozi.


A Chosen attorney exchanged papers with the plump little Santander consul, then turned to Sarah.


"Sarah Hosten, née Kingman, do you hereby irrevocably renounce connubial ties with Karl Hosten, Chosen of the Land?"


"I do."


"Karl Hosten, do you acknowledge this renunciation?"


"I do."


"Do you also acknowledge Sarah Hosten as bearing full parental rights to John Hosten, issue of this union?"


"Excepting that John Hosten may continue to claim my name if he wishes, I do." Karl swallowed, but his face might have been carved from the basalt of the volcanoes.


"Heinrich Hosten, Gerta Hosten, Probationers-adoptee of the line of Hosten, do you witness?"


"We do."


"All parties will now sign, fingerprint and list their geburtsnumero on this document."


Sally complied, although unlike anyone born in the Land of the Chosen she didn't have a birth-number tattooed on her right shoulderblade and memorized like her name. The ink from the fingerprinting stained her handkerchief as she wiped her hands.


The consul stepped forward. "Sarah Jennings Kingman, as representative of the Republic of Santander, I hereby officially certify that your lapsed citizenship in the Republic is fully restored with all rights and duties appertaining thereunto; and that your son John Hosten as issue of your body is accordingly entitled to Santander citizenship also. . . . Where is the boy?"


* * *

The universe vanished. John found himself in a . . . place. It seemed to be the inside of a perfectly reflective sphere, like being inside a bubble made of mirror glass. He tried to scream.


Nothing happened. That was when he realized that he had no throat, and no mouth. No body.


No body no body nobodynobody—


The hysteria damped down suddenly, as if he'd been slipped a tranquilizer. Then he became conscious of weight, breath, himself. For a moment he wanted to weep with relief.


"Excuse me," a voice said behind him.


He turned, and the mirrored sphere had vanished. Instead he saw a room. The furnishings were familiar, and wrong. A fireplace, rugs, deep armchairs, books, table, decanters, but none of them quite as he remembered. A man was standing by a table, in uniform, but none he knew: baggy maroon pants, a blue swallowtail jacket, a belt with a saber; a pistol was thrown on the table beside the glasses. He was dark, darker than a tan could be, with short very black hair and gray eyes. A tall man, standing like a soldier.


"Where . . . what . . ." John began.


"Attention!" the man said.


"Sir!" John barked, bracing. Six years of Probationer schooling had made that a reflex.


"At ease, son," the dark man said, and smiled. "Just helping you get a grip on yourself. First, don't worry. This is real"—he gestured around at the room—"but it isn't physical. You're still touching the meteorite in the crate. Virtually no time is passing in the . . . the outside world. When we've finished talking, you'll be back on the dock and none the worse for wear."


"Am I crazy?" John blurted.


"No. You've just had something very strange happen." The smile grew wry. "Pretty much the same thing happened to me, lad. A long time ago, when I wasn't all that much older than you are now. Sit."


John sank gingerly into one of the chairs. It was comfortable, old leather that sighed under his weight. He sat with his feet on the floor and his hands on the arms of the chair.


"My name's Raj Whitehall, by the way. And this"—he waved a hand at the room—"is Center. A computer."


Despite the terror that boiled somewhere at the back of his mind, John shaped a silent whistle. "A computer? Like the Ancestors had, the Federation? I've read a lot about them, sir."


Raj Whitehall chuckled. "Well, that's a good start. My people thought they were angels. Yes, Center's a holdover from the First Federation. Military computer, Command and Control type. Don't ask me any of the details. Where I was brought up, experts understood steam engines, a little. Look there."


John turned his head to look at the mirrored surface. Instead, he was staring out into a landscape. It wasn't a picture; there was depth and texture to it. Subtly different from anything he'd ever seen, the moons in the faded blue sky were the wrong size and number, the sunlight was a different shade. It cast black shadows across eroded gullies in cream-white silt. Out of the badlands came a column of men in uniforms like Raj's. They were riding, but not on horses. On dogs, giant dogs five feet high at the shoulder. They looked a lot like Vulf, except their legs were thicker in proportion. John whistled again, this time aloud.


The column of men went by, and a clumsy-looking field gun pulled by six more of the giant dogs. Then Raj Whitehall pulled up his . . . well, his giant hound. A woman rode beside him, not in uniform. Her face was dusty and streaked with sweat, and beautiful. Slanted green eyes glowed out of it.


The vision faded, back to the absolutely perfect mirror. John looked back to Raj. "Where was that?" he said. Then, slowly: "When was that?"


Raj nodded, leaning his hips back against the table and crossing his arms. "That was Bellevue, the planet where I was born. About a hundred and fifty years ago."


"You're . . . a ghost?"


"A ghost in a machine. A recording that thinks its a man. It's a convincing illusion, even to me."


John sat silently for what felt like a minute. "Why are you talking to me?"


"Good lad," Raj said. John felt an obscure jolt of pride at the praise. Raj went on. "Now, listen carefully. You know how the Federation collapsed?"


John nodded. Visager had preserved the records; he'd seen them in school. Expansion from Earth, then rivalries and civil war. Civil war that continued until the Tanaki Nets were destroyed and interstellar travel cut off, and then on Visager itself until civilization was thoroughly smashed. After that a long process of rebirth, slow and painful.


"That happened all over the human-settled galaxy. On Bellevue, the collapse was even worse than here. Center was left in the rubble underneath the planetary governor's mansion. Center waited a long, long time for the time to be right. More than a thousand years; then it found me. Bellevue's problem was internal division. We were set to slag ourselves down again, this time right back to stone hatchets, all the more surely because we were doing it with rifles and not nukes. I was a soldier, an officer. With Center's help—and some very brave men—I reunited the planet. Bellevue's the capital of the Second Federation, now."


"You want me to unite Visager?" John felt his mouth drop open. "Me?" His voice broke embarrassingly, the way it had taken to doing lately, and he flushed.


Raj shook his head. "Not exactly. More to prevent it being unified, at least by the wrong people." He leaned forward slightly. "Tell me honestly, John. What do you think of the Chosen?"


John opened his mouth, then closed it. Memories flickered through his mind; ending with the blank, caved-in faces of the dockers as the unconscious man was carried away.


"Honestly, sir—not much. Mom doesn't, either. I tried talking to Dad about it once, but . . ." He shrugged and looked away.


Raj nodded. "Center can foresee things. Not the future always, but what will probably happen, and how probable it is. Don't ask me to explain it—I've had three lifetimes, and I still can't understand it. But I know it works."


maintenance of your personality matrix is incompatible with the modifications necessary to comprehend stochastic analysis.  


John started and put his hands to his ears. The voice had come from everywhere and nowhere. It felt heavy, somehow, as if the words held a greater freight of meaning than any he'd ever heard. The sound of them in his head had been entirely flat and even, but there were undertones that resonated like a guitar's strings after the player's fingers left them. The voice felt . . . sad.


"Center means that if I was changed that much, I wouldn't be me," Raj said.


john hosten, the ancient, impersonal voice said, in the absence of exterior intervention, there is a 51% probability ±6%, that the chosen will establish complete dominance of visager within 34 years. observe. 


John looked toward the mirrored wall.


An endless line of men in tattered green uniforms marched past a machine-gun nest manned by Land troops, Protégé infantry, and a Chosen officer. Two plainclothes police agents stood by, in long leather coats and wide-brimmed hats, heavy pistols in their hands. Every now and then they would flick their hands, and the soldiers would drag a man out of the line of prisoners, force him down to his knees. The Fourth Bureau men would step up and put the muzzles of their guns to the back of the kneeling man's head . . .


conquest of the empire, Center said. observe: 


A montage followed: cities burning, with their names and locations somehow in his mind. Ships crowded with slave laborers arriving in Oathtaking and Pillars and Dorst. A group of Chosen engineers talking over papers and plans, while a line of laborers that stretched beyond sight worked on a railway embankment.


consolidation. further expansion.  


A burning warship sank, in an ocean littered with oily guttering flames, wreckage, bodies, and men who still tried to move. Hundreds of them were sucked backwards and down as the ship upended and sank like a lead pencil dropped into a pool, its huge bronze propellers still whirling as it took the final plunge. Through the smoke came a line of battlewagons, with the black-and-gold banner of the Chosen at their masts. Their main batteries were scorched and blistered with heavy firing, but silent; their secondary guns and quick-firers stabbed out into the waters.


destruction of santander.  


Even without Centers information, he recognized the next scene. It was Republic Hall in Santander City. The great red-granite dome was shattered; a man in the black frock coat and tall hat of Republican formality stood before a Chosen general and handed over the Constitution of the Republic in its glass-cased box. The general threw it down and ground the heel of his boot into it while the troops behind him cheered.


consequences.  


A shabby tenement street in a Chosen city. Figures clustered about the steps, talking, falling silent as a strange-looking steamcar bristling with weapons hummed by.


"But those are Chosen," John exclaimed.


Raj spoke: "What do carnivores do when they've finished off the game?"


metaphorical but correct, Center's passionless non-voice said. once consolidation is complete, the chosen lines would fall out with each other. the planet cannot support so large a ruling class in conditions of intense competition, not indefinitely; and the social system resulting from conquest and slavery cannot be rationally adjusted to maximize productivity. internal reorganization would lead to the creation of a noble caste and the exclusion of most chosen lines. 


Armies clashed, armed with strange, powerful weapons. Machines swarmed through the air, ran in sleek low-slung deadliness over the earth. Men died, Protégé soldiers, civilians.


the new nobility would fight among themselves, first with protégé armies. rivalry would build.  


A long sleek shape dropped on a pillar of white fire into a desert landscape. Landing legs extended, and a hatchway opened.


technological progress would continue to an interplanetary-transport level, then fossilize. none of the contending factions on visager could afford to divert sufficient resources to reestablish stardrive.  


A huge city, buildings reaching for the sun. It took a moment for John to recognize it as Oathtaking, and then only by the shape of the circular harbor and the volcanoes that ringed it. Suddenly one of the giant towers vanished in an eye-searing flash.


one party among the nobility attempts to use the fallen chosen lines against the other. instead they rise against the nobility planet-wide, attempting to restore the old system. the protégés revolt. maximum entropy results.  


Rings of violet fire expanded over the sites of cities, rising until the fireballs spread out against the top of the atmosphere.


probability 87%, ±6%, Center added.


John sat, shaken. I'm just a kid, he thought. Not even good enough to make the Test of Life, a gimp. What'm I supposed to do about all this? 


"Why can't you do something?" he asked. "You came from the stars, you've got another Federation—land a starship and tell people what to do!"


"We can't," Raj said. "First, we don't have the resources. There are only four worlds in the Federation, so far. There are thousands needing attention. And even if we could, that would just set us up for another cycle of empire, decline and war like the First Federation. The new worlds have to climb out on their own with minimal interference, and do so in the right way."


correct, Center said. a true federation may achieve stability in an dynamic and mobile sense. a hegemony imposed from without could not. 


"You want me to . . . somehow to stop the Chosen from taking things over," John said.


He felt a flush of excitement. It was a little like what he'd felt last week, when the housemaid looked back over her shoulder at him as she plumped the pillows and smiled, and he knew he could right there and then if he wanted to. But it was stronger, deeper. He could affect the destiny of a whole planet. Save the whole world. He, John Hosten with a pimple on his nose and a foot that still ached when he used it too hard, despite all the surgeons could do.


specifically, you will act to strengthen the republic of santander, Center said. with my advice and that of raj Whitehall, you will rise quickly and be in a position to influence policy. such intervention will drastically increase the probability of the republic emerging as the dominant factor in the cycle of wars which will begin in the next two decades. 


"The Republic will conquer . . . unite the world?"


no. that probability is less than 12%, ±3. observe:  


Troops in the brown uniforms and round hats of the Republic marched out of a city: Arena, in the Sierra. Crowds lined the streets, hooting and whistling. Sometimes they threw things.


santander lacks the organizational infrastructure to forcefully integrate foreign territories.  


"No staying power," Raj amplified. "They can get into wars, and if you push them to the wall they can mobilize like hell, but when it's less vital than that, they don't like paying the butcher's bill or the money either. They'll get into wars occasionally, and piss away men and equipment and then decide it's no fun and go home."


correct. santander will exercise a general hegemony, increasingly cultural and economic rather than military. this will inaugurate a period of intense competition within a framework of minimal government. such episodes are unstable but tend to rapid technological innovation.  


"The Republic will go into space because it gives you as much glory as war and it's less frustrating," Raj explained.


observe:  


A cylinder taller than a building lifted into the air in a blue-white discharge. The next view was strange: a white-streaked blue disk floating in utter blackness, ringed by unwinking stars. It wasn't until John saw the outline of a continent that he realized he was seeing Visager from space.


From space! he thought. A construct of girders floated across the vision. Men in spacesuits flitted around it and incomprehensible machines with arms like crabs.


a tanaki displacement net, Center said. in this scenario, visager would enter the second federation without prior political unification. an unusual development. 


The visions ceased, leaving only a mirrored wall at the end of a strange study.


Raj handed him a glass and sat in the chair facing him. John took a cautious sip of the sweet wine.


"Lad, you can leave here with no memories of what you've seen and heard," he said calmly. "Or you can leave here as Center's agent—as I was Center's agent—to help get this planet out of the dead-end it's trapped in and set its people free."


"I'll do it," John blurted, then flushed again.


The words seemed to have come directly from his mouth without passing through his brain.


Raj shook his head. "This isn't a game, John. You could die. You quite probably will die."


The mirrored wall dissolved into its impossibly real pictures. This time they were much more personal. John—an older John—lay beside a hedgerow. His face was slack, eyes unblinking in the thin gray mist of rain. One hand lay on his stomach, a blue bulge of intestine showing around the fingers.


John sat stripped to the waist in a metal chair, waist and limbs and neck held by padded clamps; another device of levers and screws held his mouth open. A single bulb shone down from the ceiling. A Fourth Bureau specialist dressed in a shiny bib apron stepped up to him with a curved tool in his hands.


"Shame, Hosten, shame," he said. "You have neglected your teeth. Still, I think this nerve is still sensitive."


The curved shape of stainless steel probed and then thrust. The body in the chair convulsed and screamed a fine mist of blood into the cellar's dark air.


Another John stood in the dock of a courtroom. The Republic's flag stood on the wall behind the panel of judges. They whispered together, and then one of them raised his head:


"John Hosten, this court finds you guilty as charged of treason and espionage. You will be taken from this place to the National Prison, and there hung by the neck until dead. May God have mercy on your soul."


The visions died. John touched his tongue to his lips. "I'm not afraid to die," he whispered. Then aloud: "I'm not afraid, and I know my duty. I'll do what you ask, no matter how long it takes, no matter what the risks."


"Good lad," Raj said quietly, and gripped his shoulder. "You and your brother will both do your best."


* * *

Jeffrey Farr looked at the mirrored sphere. "Seems like I'm going to be in action a lot," he said.


He tried to sound calm, but the quaver was in his voice again. Those scenes of himself dying—gut-shot, burned, drowned, the Chosen executioners with whips made of steel-hook chains—they were more real than anything he'd ever seen. He could feel it. . . .


"If you say yes," Raj said. "I'm not going to lie to you, son. Soldiering isn't a safe profession; and if you refuse, the final war between the Land and your country may not be for a generation or more, possibly two."


"Yeah, and the horse might learn to sing," Jeffrey said. He was a little surprised at Raj's chuckle. "And if I had kids, they'd be around when it happened,, anyway. I'll do it. Somebody's got to. A Farr does what has to be done."


Unconsciously, his voice took on another tone with the last words; Raj nodded approvingly and handed him the balloon snifter.


"Good lad."


"There's just one thing," Jeffrey said. He looked up; the . . . computer . . . wasn't there—wasn't anywhere, specifically, while he was in its mind—but that helped.


"Just one thing. If, ah, Center can predict things, and manipulate them the way you're saying, couldn't you change the Chosen? You showed me what would happen if the Chosen took over by themselves, didn't you? Left to themselves, on their own."


correct. Raj nodded.


"So, you could help them, and sort of twist things around so that they built a star-transport system? It'd be easy enough, with you showing all the technical stuff they had to do every step of the way, not like reinventing it, not really. And you could get whoever you picked to the top in Chosen politics, couldn't you? Make 'em next thing to a living god."


Raj leaned back in his chair. "Smart lad," he said admiringly. "But then, you've got a different perspective on it than your brother—your brother to be, I mean."


probability of medium-term success with such a course of action is 62%, ±10, Center said. unusually high degree of uncertainty due to stochastic factors. we cannot be certain of coming into contact with a suitable chosen representative. this course of action is contraindicated by other factors, however. 


Raj nodded, his hard dark face bleak. "It might be possible to get Visager back into interstellar space with the Chosen running things," he said. "But you couldn't change them into something we'd want in interstellar space—not without redesigning their society from the ground up, and that would be impossibly difficult."


impressionistic but correct. observe:  


The blank hemisphere cleared. Once again Jeffrey saw the blue-white shape of a planet from space, but this time it was not Visager. A shimmering appeared, and spots blinked into existence in the darkness above the planet, tiny until the perspective snapped closer. That showed huge metal shapes—spaceships, he supposed—with the sunburst of the Land on their flanks. Doors opened in their sides, and smaller shapes fell towards the cloud-streaked blue world, shapes with wings and a sleek shark-shape to them. The viewpoint followed them down in a dizzying plunge, through atmosphere and cherry heat, down to the ground. They landed amid flames and rubble, burning vegetation, and shattered buildings. Ramps slid down, and gun-tubs in the assault transports fired bolts that cut paths of thunderous vacuum through the air to clear the perimeter of the landing zone. War machines slid down the ramps on cushions of air, their massive armor bristling with weapons and sensors.


A head appeared in the turret of one of the war machines as it slid to earth and nosed up, dirt howling from around its skirts. The man's helmet visor was flipped up, and his grin was like something out of the deep oceans.


"Let's do it, people," he said. "Let's go."


probability of successful redesign of chosen culture is 12%, ±6, Center said.


"We could put them on top; we could even get them out to the stars," Raj said. "But they'd still attack anything that moved—it's their basic imperative."


"Yeah, I can see that," Jeffrey said, linking and cracking his fingers—then looking down suddenly, conscious that his real hands weren't moving at all, somewhere he couldn't see. Raj nodded wryly. And for him, it's like this all the time. It felt real, but . . . 


"Yeah," he went on. "They've got to be stopped, here and now."


"You and your brother will do it," Raj said. "With our help."


* * *

—and the meteorite was smooth under his fingers.


John Hosten half fell to the dock. Raj? he thought. Center? Was this some sort of crazy dream? Maybe he was realty back in his bunk at school, waiting for reveille.


The dockers were looking at him, dull curiosity, or simply noting that he was something moving. Jeffrey Farr three-quarters fell down the net after him, his face stunned and slack. John caught him automatically, pushing the limp form against the cargo net so that he could cling and support himself. "You too?"


do not show distress, the machine-voice said in his mind.


Pull yourselves together, lads, Raj continued. The voice was equally silent, but it had the modulation of human speech, without the sense of cold bottomless depth that Center's carried.


"John! Jeffrey!"


There was anger in the adults voices. Jeffrey's face was pale enough that the freckles stood out like birthmarks, but he smiled his gap-toothed grin.


"Hey, we're in some shit now, man." "Lets go."


* * *

"Say good-bye to your father," Sally Hosten said.


John stepped forward. "Sir."


Karl gave a tiny forward jerk of his head. "Min sohn."


He extended his hand; John stared at it in surprise for an instant. That was the greeting among equals. Then he bowed and took it. The impersonal power clamped briefly on his. A servant came forward at Karl's signal.


"Here," Karl said. He handed John a cloth-wrapped bundle. Within was a gunbelt and revolver. "This was my father's. You should have it. This and my name are all that Fate allows me to leave you."


Thh . . . thank you, sir," John said.


His eyes prickled, but he fought the feeling down. Why now? Even by Chosen standards, Karl had never been a demonstrative man.


"You are a boy of good character," Karl said. "If I have ever been less than a father to you, the fault is mine. Your mother and I have parted but for reasons each thinks honorable. Obey your mother; work hard, be disciplined, be brave."


"Yes sir," John said.


Karl hesitated for an instant, began to turn away. Then he swallowed and continued: "You will always be welcome among the Chosen, boy, while I live."


He saluted, fist outstretched. John answered it for the first time—for the last time, he realized, as his father strode away with the same stiff-backed carriage.


"Good-bye, sib," Gerta Hosten said. She drew him into a brief hug, leaving him speechless at the display of emotion. "Watch your back among the Santies."


Heinrich clasped hands and thumped him on the shoulder. "The Land's loss but maybe your gain," he said. "Come visit sometime, sprout, when you're rich and famous."


John watched them leave and took a deep breath. "Good-bye, Maria," he said to the Protégé nursemaid.


She folded him to her broad bosom. "Good-bye, little master. Call Maria if you ever need her," she said in her slurred lower-class Landisch.


Her husband bowed and touched John's hand to his forehead. He was a bear-broad man with grizzled black hair. "I, too, young master. Now, go. Your mother waits for you."


John did an about-face and began walking towards the gangplank, his face rigid. His mother's hand took his; he squeezed it for a moment, then freed himself.


No more tears, he thought. That's for kids. I have to be a man, now. 


 


 


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