The Disconnected

A Parody

by Andy Oram, 1999

Table of Contents

A Near Escape

Another Who Wished To Escape

Coming Home

Forward-Looking Enterprises

A Bad Start to a Relationship

The Path That One Must Choose


Greater Crisis

The Hidden Path Upward

The Breathing Space

We Will Meet Again In the Future

About Ursula Le Guin

A Near Escape

The whirring of the security bot warned Iglene that her account had been revoked. She bolted from her cot and stared into the darkness, listening to the wings of the bot slice through the air outside while a spangle of lasers shot through the casement windows. Not daring to light a lamp, maintaining an alert thoughtlessness so as not to attract the bot, she mentally inventoried the skimpy contents of her basement apartment: the aluminum lamp, the old oven left by her brother, the chipped cooking pot, the table, chair, and bed, not much else. No electrical device that could attract attention. While the bot whizzed around the corner of her apartment block and passed on, Iglene smiled at the Pudkrevi’s short-sighted faith in their equipment.

She could not hide for long, though. Since the roving bot failed to pick her up, the police would arrive a few syncs later. She must call Resst. Not only was she supposed to be at Resst’s apartment later that morning, but Resst might have connections to help Iglene restore her account. Wrapping herself in a shawl, she hurried across the ancient Plaza of the Deceived, in the dim light that came from the other side of the world, to the crude videophone that was slapped into a concrete base at the corner.

As she expected, her funds had disappeared along with her account, but she had brought with her the money her brother had radioed back from the planet Rolkin. Holding the small black wafer to the videophone, she thought of her brother’s fully qualified name, konstant-panis-resident-dq-gwc-pudkrev. She winced as she transmitted the final “pudkrev,” the name of the oppressor that would accompany him no matter where he went in the universe. In the hands of the Pudkrevi, the act of naming was not a gift but a theft.

Although Iglene needed to provide Resst with her own identity, it was unthinkable to enter it into the phone because the police would come right to her. Luckily, she and Resst had anticipated a problem such as this and had agreed on a trick that Iglene would play when she had to make emergency contact.

As the device read her money wafer, Iglene pressed the status button, placing the connection into an inconsistent state while the device transmitted a status message to Resst’s home and back. A small indicator then flashed on the old phone, indicating that a routine query had been returned from Resst. At that moment she called out Resst’s name. The device picked up her voice and stored it in the auxiliary data field of the query. When Resst got both the results of the query and Iglene’s connection request, her device would detect generic data in the auxiliary data field. The device was configured by Resst to validate the data against a stored excerpt of Iglene’s voice and then to accept the call.

As Iglene had hoped, a groggy voice emerged from the videophone (along with an old prefabricated image, which suggested that Resst was still in bed), saying, “Are you all right, Iglene?”

“My account has been revoked,” she said simply. “I am now open to arrest and deportation.”

She heard the woman at the other side take a sharp breath. “What a horrible situation! Who did this to you?”

“Nobody. Cancellations are arbitrary system errors; they do not spring from human intercession. If you wish to keep me in your employ, you must help me, because I could be found by a bot at any moment.” Had Resst seen Iglene’s face, it would have reflected her grim determination to survive, but no plea for help.

“Oh, Iglene,” cried Resst. “I would certainly never leave you in this condition.”

“I need someone with the authority to create accounts,” continued Iglene without wasting a moment on sentiment. “Since you recently participated in forums on Physically Bounded Resources and Aggregate Human Formations, you might know somebody living nearby with a contract that involves working with accounts.”1

“Let me check the forums a moment—yes, there’s lenz-falkho-m5-gwc. She works in immigrant housing.” This was guaranteed to offend Iglene, but Resst didn’t care. Like all Pudkrevi, she always spoke whatever was on her mind. “Give me a moment to contact her. I’ll set up a callback. So if she’s awake, and willing to bend the rules for us, you’ll receive a message to come here.”

“Sometimes one must simply trust one’s luck,” said Iglene. “I will proceed to your apartment, and if you can persuade lenz-falkho to come, I will meet her there.”

And that was how Lenz first heard of Iglene. It began with the anxious signal from Resst in early daylight, interrupting her as she was contemplating the oddly satisfying patterns made by diffusion flow queues. Resst explained that a Dalshamen friend needed a temporary account form right away, and since Lenz had these forms for immigrants, could she bring one over? Lenz rustled up a fibersheet. Iglene, whose family had lived on Pudkrev for generations, was no better off than an immigrant newly landing at Spring Station without an electronic signature.

Meanwhile, Iglene picked her way through stony streets, breathing the musty but invigorating air of the centuries. Clacking across the stones of Uncovered Way, she entered the Street of the Source of Security. To her right the Boulevard of the Garesh Trees beckoned, seemingly sedate and secluded but actually loaded with surveillance devices, so she continued straight instead and crossed through the cellar of an apartment house whose proprietor she knew, to come to the Way of the Ever-Watchful.

She turned at every corner, not because she was trying to evade notice but because there were simply no streets that went for longer than one or two blocks through the old quarter without thrusting off in a new direction. Passing around fountains, among people, from turn to turn among the stone buildings; the tour was like a dance to Iglene, an apotheosis to the glorious history of Dalshamen culture laid down in these paths centuries ago.

Though it was early and the ancient, close-set buildings still hid the rising sun, the streets around Iglene’s apartment were crowded. The smells of spices mingled with those of animals bearing packs and the mold on the decaying walls. Children bustled past her on the way to school. Handsome young men with proud chests rose from their prostrated positions as they finished their morning prayers, while their older and more pragmatic neighbors loaded carts with ornate linens and common utensils along the Road of Infinite Compassion. Women teased the sellers about the quality or origin of the goods, preparatory to the serious haggling to take place later. A dozen kirabili, forming an undulating arrow in the air above the dull bricks, flew straight along invisible lines of force that emanated from the Spire, at the magnetic north pole of the world where the city had been founded eons ago.

The pulsating tone of a thousand conversations rose and echoed off the weather-beaten stones of the buildings on each side of Mushe street. Iglene greeted many inhabitants with a smile or a hand upon an arm or shoulder, as she had grown up in the quarter and knew almost everyone. She also knew where every surveillance device in the quarter was located, and diverted her path through the streets to avoid most of them. Whenever she passed one, her face changed and she no longer looked like Iglene. Her mouth took on a queer drooling aspect and her cheek was pulled to one side; Dalshameni who passed recognized her deception and laughed in conspiracy or shook their heads in silent sympathy.

She made her way down the Hollow through jangling carts and past the Way of the Ones to Whom the Unbounded Spoke to the ancient arch that marked the end of the Dalshamen quarter on the East Wall Road, and as she emerged from this milestone the atmosphere changed. Light shone upon her suddenly from dozens of signposts and displays. Faces became darker in complexion and blanker in expression. Glazed over and strained, they jabbered words constantly, but no one spoke to anyone in proximity; instead they addressed long, monotonous diatribes to the air beside them or small devices before their chins, and it was impossible to tell whether the party they were speaking to was another person or an automated agent.

Iglene moved confidently now among the gleaming pillars that lined the wider thoroughfares. Iglene’s forebears had possessed property on some of these streets: great-grandparents had owned whole city blocks. But it was all in Pudkrev hands now.

Lenz came to Resst’s apartment after Iglene. Something about the place impressed her. The effect was subtle: many Pudkrevi would not have noticed it at all. But Lenz was struck by the beautiful reproduction on the wall of the planet Pudkrev among its Dalshamen neighbors, as viewed from a point outside their solar system. Her senses then alerted her further to ambiances she normally wouldn’t notice. The lighting effects that softly illuminated each wall and each piece of furniture in modulated tones were no accident; it must have taken decasyncs of experimentation to achieve such a pleasant impression. A background hum canceled out the frequencies of street noise. The beauty of it all puzzled her because most Pudkrevi didn’t care what their apartments looked or felt like; outside the world of information they were largely indifferent.

With characteristic bluntness she said, “Who designed this apartment?”

Resst held her hand out proudly to the small, pale Dalshamen in the corner. “It was Iglene, isn’t she magnificent?” Iglene gave a small nod and the suggestion of a smile that went totally unnoticed.

“You can see why I appreciate her so much,” continued Resst with warmth. “No one before her could get the heat and cooking to cycle properly; since she accepted the contract I haven’t had a problem during the past fifteen kilosyncs.”

Lenz then asked Iglene, “How did you learn to handle the apartment controls so well?”

“That I just picked up for this contract,” she explained, arms folded. “But I was educated. I participated in a global resource forum on information diffusion.”

“You could get a much better contract,” blurted out Lenz.

“I would have to leave Pudkrev to do that, and then I would never return to the Golden Walled City, where my mother lives,” said Iglene without emotion. “The authorities would never grant me an account in the city once I left.”

“You can do something to help her now, can’t you, Lenz?” Resst twisted the end of her sleeve nervously.

“I have the registration in my pack,” Lenz said reassuringly to Iglene.

The voice of a child, barely old enough to create a personality, piped up from the other side of the room. “I’m ready!” it sang out. “I’ve called up the part of the Standards that ascribe radio frequency allocation.”

“I have to help Sod with her religious studies,” Resst told her guests and turned away without further thought.

Lenz continued on her own. “I’ve never heard of the system getting someone in this kind of trouble, Iglene. How did this happen?”

To her surprise, Iglene laughed. Everything this mysterious person did came as a surprise. “Many Pudkrevi are not aware of the problems Dalshameni have with accounts. The standard records of a Pudkrev account contain many fields that don’t map well, shall we say, to the realities of Dalshamen life. Every once in a while, the servers choke on the information and an account is invalidated.”

“Can’t the security agency fix the problem?”

“Oh, why should they bother? It becomes merely another convenient way to harass Dalshameni.”

“What would happen if they caught you before your account was fixed?”

“They could shoot me,” answered Iglene calmly, “or exile me.” The word exile struck strangely on Lenz’s ear, because it was the Pudkrevi who had been exiles before their return to their planet. “But most likely I would spend a few days in jail clearing up an account; every Dalshamen has.”

The conclusion of the business that brought them together led to the awkward moment that came in every gathering, particularly when Pudkrevi and Dalshameni were in the same room, for the Pudkrevi had no social ritual for ending a face-to-face meeting. “I must leave and get some work done,” said Lenz.

“Ah, yes!” cried out Resst, clapping her hands. “The stravka-east facility is opening. How will you provide bandwidth to those 250 immigrants, Lenz?”

Lenz was infuriated, although she tried to keep her affect meter steady. Naturally, Resst was unconscious of the impact that bandwidth politics had on Pudkrev-Dalshamen relations. But there was no way to divert the topic without making the insult to Iglene even greater. Lenz tried to determine Iglene’s reaction, but of course Iglene had no affect meter. Something would have to be said, as the situation was impossibly awkward.

“We think we can find one hundred nanosyncs of spectrum frequencies in the 375-to-400 microsync range,” Lenz answered as casually as possible, “or we’ll run a fiber from the West end of town. Well, to the focal point.” And she left, feeling—not for the last time—as if she had had some unpropitious information wormed out of her.

Iglene was scarcely more relaxed than Lenz on the way home; thoughtfully but determinedly she navigated the streets to her neighborhood’s social center. In this crumbling back room of an abandoned spinning shop, a number of Dalshameni of varying professions, ages, and viewpoints sat on ratty furniture or right on the faded rugs, talking politics rapidly and passionately. Iglene spoke little at first, but gazed round about to see who attended today.

Here was Soard, a scruffy, narrow-eyed man whose attractive complexion and buoyant energy had been worn down by years of detention. His proud gestures still enlivened their discussions, though suggestions for action often elicited only cynicism from him. She felt rage at the waste of his promising life.

Ankarren, whose troubles showed in her knitted brow even more keenly than her actual age, sat resignedly, sadly, incapable of thinking life better. She had once strutted the Dalshamen quarter proudly in stylish clothes, a middle-aged merchant who lived comfortably from the trade in weaving implements. But Pudkrev pressures on the Dalshamen economy had dried up her clientele and taken everything away from her, so that now she simply reclused herself in the corner of the miserable room she shared with two other old and empty-handed crones, living off aid from the Resistance. Ankarren was one of the participants who dragged back debate, whereas Soard was always pushing forward too fast, too emotionally, often in the wrong direction.

And Moovdin sat in deep thought, talking to no one. Iglene was never sure what his goal was in coming to meetings of the Racial Freedom Society. Handsome, dynamic, and well-dressed, a manufacturer who was phenomenally successful even by the standards of the jealous Pudkrevi in whose neighborhood he had bought a house, Moovdin seemed always unsatisfied and anxious for political change. It could not be status-seeking on his part, for he would have sold out and taken a position with the Dalshamen Autonomous Government. No, he was sincere, but his thoughts ran along lines Iglene couldn’t trace.

The room was full now, and the smoke from pipes wove around them while the sounds of crunching snacks and conversation mingled. Iglene felt a power there, as of muscles flexing. But so ill-disciplined were the participants that when the muscles did spring into action they were pitted against themselves.

Someone raised his hand to start the meeting. Iglene, a natural leader, stood up right away.

“I happened to learn of an important development today,” she began. “A space ship with 250 Pudkrev immigrants is arriving soon and they are being awarded full bandwidth connections just outside the Golden Walled City.”

An outcry arose from the group; everyone knew that bandwidth was nearly exhausted in the region.

“I need not tell you how significant a negative impact this will have on the Dalshamen communities,” continued Iglene in her businesslike tone. “As part of the agreement establishing the Dalshamen Autonomous Government, our neighborhoods are supposed to be strung with the next shipment of fiber. Furthermore, the frequency range being considered for the new Pudkrevi will interfere with wireless service to our valley communities east of the city.”

She halted as a thin, whining noise filled the room. It quavered so much that Iglene thought at first that Ankarren had burst into song, but she then recognized that it was a blood-curdling wail of despair. In the center of the circle Ankarren stood with arms flung out, her skin as rutted as the ancient golden stones of the quarter, and wept in pain.

“How did you hear about this, Iglene?” whispered another Dalshamen.

“I happened to be present when someone from the immigration forum was talking about it.”

The room erupted now in anger.

“Our children still have no access to the archive servers,” cried Liv. “At this rate they will never qualify for anything better than day labor.”

“Can you imagine how hard it is to get investment?” asked Moovdin. “I am trying to expand and offer twenty more contracts to your quarter, but I cannot tell the resource bidding forum when I’ll be able to connect my new staff.”

“That bandwidth is key to the emergency services the Dalshamen Autonomous Government promised us; a matter of life and death,” pointed out Lovov, a doctor from the East.

But Iglene would not allow the participants to expend their energy complaining; she turned the conversation to solutions. “We must put this allocation on the public index right away, because it will be too late to change it by the time the Caucus reveals the plan. Then we can remind our allies among the Pudkrevi that our community has been promised these connections for many years by the Caucus. You think them united, but their hearts are divided. Our needs must come before those of Pudkrevi from another planet, who already arrive with considerable privileges. ”

“There is no Pudkrev bandwidth or Dalshamen bandwidth,” intoned a listener pedantically. “There is but one spectrum, through which the Unbounded reveals itself to all peoples.”

Iglene was even less tolerant of pointless philosophizing than she was of whining.

“Let me remind you that this group has a secular charter,” she said. “I move that each of us contact our friends among Pudkrev dissidents and get them to promise their help in this matter.”

“How about that immigrant forum contractor?” asked a young man on the rug. “Did she seem at all sympathetic?”

“I can’t guess,” answered Iglene; the thought led her to consider. “Actually,” she mused, “Lenz did seem to care—but she’s not political, just a humanist.”

“It would be immensely helpful if she could furnish us with information or even agree to act as an advocate,” chimed in another member. “Do you think she’d be open to it, Iglene? Or will she be too timid?”

“That’s an interesting proposition,” affirmed Iglene. “I will try to get to know her better.”

Another Who Wished To Escape

She stood on a small ridge facing the empty hull of a crisply new concrete building, chilled by the evening wind that whipped her shimmering garments. The structure sat squatly, molded to the rise by pure calculation devoid of aesthetics. Its rough gray exterior fell quickly into gloom as the sun set behind the hills to the west of the Golden Walled City. Her face was ravished by the last, glowing sun’s rays as she fixed her eyes on the yawning windows. With a sudden thrust, just as the last tip of the sun went down, she threw her arm up to point at a first-floor window of the stunted structure. The rays reflected off the luminous fabric of her sleeve and shot into the window as if transmitted by a laser.

The brightness on her sleeve faded; the sun was now totally gone. The window remained inert, dark, unrevealing, and tears filled Lenz’s eyes. A project coordinator had misled her again. There was no transmitting equipment in her housing project. Had any router been installed, the ray from her sleeve would have reflected from it and shown a faint light in return. But no such reward emerged; the building was lugubrious, dead, void in its dumb sterility.

It was obvious why the coordinator was wrong. She thought the building was enabled because the department status report indicated that service was turned on from outside. But the building was unusable because wiring and equipment was incomplete. Lenz had seen this happen again and again, but the forum never learned from its mistakes and the staff continued to rely on the status reports for all their information.

Within six kilosyncs the immigrants would be moving in, all wanting to speak to their relatives, apply for contracts, log into their temporary benefits programs. Their anger at finding a building that was unconnected to the Diffuser would be insufferable. Lenz broadcast the information about the problem immediately, of course, but she could only hope that the team would belatedly give authorization to the construction work.

In her anger and confusion she spoke a name: “Onlyon.” But the call did not go through. She could guess why he wanted a buffer, because on many evenings he withdrew for meditation. Impulsively she started down the ridge to his apartment.

Poised on the western hills of the city, she could see the dying twilight contribute to the warm golden tone of the ancient spire that loomed above the Golden Walled City, and further down the perfectly circular wall that surrounded the old quarters of the town and lent it its name. The mellow beauty of the stones was suppressed somewhat by the filtered-down light from giant mirrors mounted on satellites to catch the sun beyond the horizon. The aurora was also out tonight, further driving away darkness from the inhabitants of the city.

Eight gates broke through the circular wall. Beyond its far edge lay the plains where newer homes stood. They consisted of concrete buildings essentially like the one she left behind her now; but these were buzzing bright with electronic activity. Eventually the city lights dissolved far away in fields, trees, and hills. Even though people spread freely across the planet—location becoming irrelevant with the Diffuser reaching into every apartment—some areas were left in their natural state to preserve the planet’s beauty.

A bounded resource station gleamed an offer of food to her, but she ignored its appeal to her hunger. A few strangers headed by. To where did they wander? She imagined them all on the fringe like herself, on their way to private trysts, illicit transactions, or just a place of momentary solitude. Transmissions came spontaneously to her from various contract forums, since she had been wont to join them while out on walks over the past few kilosyncs. But tonight she shut off the forums; she had learned that the seduction of being able to complain to everybody all the time removed any impetus to act. The forums just frightened her as they showed her how alone she was.

When she passed the ancient stones, momentarily entering a throughway where the lamps were blocked, the Grand Spire loomed darkly before her. She could hear the sighing noise, eternally familiar but always poignant and awesome, that the beautiful old tower made as their planet turned toward Hohm, which was approaching but still lay just above the dark horizon. The soul of their planet breathed through the Spire’s pores, the force of their planet was planted under it in the magnetic north pole. Several soldiers patrolled the area of the Spire, but the only ones showing any diligence were Dalshameni, since the planet’s most splendid monument to the Unbounded was theirs.

Even though she came unannounced, Onlyon would let her in. He had been her mentor for as far back into her childhood as she could remember, and in any case Onlyon was not someone to turn people away. She trudged up the stairs.

“Ah, Lenz, how nice to have you drop by,” said Onlyon, exuding serenity. “It’s a shame you did not arrive a decasync earlier; we could have meditated together.”

“But that was not my purpose for coming, Onlyon,” said Lenz.

“Ah, so you have a purpose!” laughed Onlyon. “This visit is not a spontaneous act of generosity; I see we have business to transact.”

Without further pleasantries, Lenz proceeded to dump her problems on him. She hated her contract; the formalities were stifling and the colleagues both irresponsible and abusive. Again and again, coordinators piled responsibilities casually on her, not even bothering to tell her of them, then mocking and dismissing her complaints. With each project the charade started up anew, no one learning anything from the crises of the previous project, no one taking responsibility. Information always flowed upward, but never came down to the people doing the work.

“I recognize quite well the problems you mention, Lenz,” said Onlyon, “Believe me, I’ve been dealing with them throughout the entire Pudkrev administration for hundreds of kilosyncs!”

“I’ve lost my zeal for doing good, Onlyon.” Lenz frowned till her dark, arched eyebrows formed a straight line. “My long tenure with the I/O Caucus has left me jaded.”

“But the contract scheduler has not recommended a different position to you?”


“Then I think you should make a move on your own,” said Onlyon after careful consideration. Lenz showed surprise, so he continued, “We tend to think that the scheduler can make all our decisions for us; that skills and interpersonal styles are all that define us. I see that in your case there is something deeper at work. You cannot rely on the scheduler any longer.”

“I wouldn’t know what else to look for!”

“Well, you need not leave the immigrant forum to find something to rejuvenate you; many people contract with multiple forums at once,” suggested Onlyon. “I sense there is still an ember of social conscience remaining to be kindled in you. Your conflict reminds me of a passage from the Tutorial that I was just perusing before you turned up on my threshold. Do you remember, in the Header, where Mushe takes the trouble to generate new security keys for the visiting strangers? I performed a search and discovered a passage in one of the Reply Comments, ‘And if you nurture the stranger you will have security.’ Note that the word ‘security’ appears in each passage, along with the word ‘stranger.’ What do you think is the significance of this apparent coincidence?”

“Now come, Onlyon,” smiled Lenz. “I haven’t played that game since adolescence.”

“But it is a game that the Unbounded plays,” replied Onlyon. “If we are enjoined to study ‘day and night,’ it obviously couldn’t mean that we abandon our work and responsibilities to perform meditation. It means, rather, that we are to apply the precepts of our sacred writings to our mundane affairs at every moment. I believe that the passage I cited prove that immigrants are the foundation of our continued existence on Pudkrev. Your contract, Lenz, is ‘nurturing the stranger,’ and for all its frustrations it is holy work.”

“The Tutorial may be enough to persuade you, but it has ceased to hold any keys for me.”

“Nor for most modern Pudkrevi,” sighed Onlyon. “Why don’t they see that our whole culture, the whole binding force for the many communities on our Planet, is our religion? Its lessons underlie everything in our culture across the megasyncs of time; even those toys we call information systems and are so eager to export.”

“I don’t think all those planets buying our information products are interested in our religious teachings,” said Lenz. “It’s our Diffuser that impresses them.”

“I doubt it! Every non-trivial system must contain an inconsistency; in every Diffuser there must be a Hole. Only the Unbounded can be perfect. But insights from our sacred texts turn up in philosophy and literature all around the universe; not least among our enemies.”

Suddenly a thought popped into Lenz’s mind, prompted by her introduction to Iglene earlier in the day. “What about the Dalshameni, Onlyon?” she said brightly. “Though they have been here for a hundred megasyncs, they too are ‘strangers’ in our society.”

For the first time that evening a note of discomfort crossed Onlyon’s affect meter. “Please do not talk of the Dalshameni in this context,” he said with hesitating disapproval. “They are a degenerate race, not worthy of consideration in a spiritual discussion.”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s true!” protested Lenz, thinking once more of the dignified and cultivated Iglene.

“They possess all the other habitable planets in our solar system,” exclaimed Onlyon with uncharacteristic heat. “They can go anywhere, yet they wish to destroy us all or drive us off our planet. Three wars have they fought against us since we returned to reclaim it!”

When she left Onlyon that evening, she thought neither of her employment woes nor of her mentor’s religious insights, but only of the mysterious Dalshamen.

Coming Home

The bright yellow petals of the molafasha flowers looked incongruous amid the crumbling plaster and crooked furnishings of the apartment, the petals’ brilliant color shining out as the only relief from falling darkness and drab poverty. Iglene had brought the flowers to decorate Resst’s living room that day and had saved a few for herself.

Taking a deep breath, she buried her nose in their fragrance and was a young girl running with hands joyously outstretched through a seemingly endless field of the glorious blossoms. She giggled and rushed onward, trying to touch every flower with her delicate, unblemished palms.

“Come, Iglene,” her grandfather regaled her cheerfully. “I will make you a necklace out of puftula stems.” And she returned to grant him a big hug.

Iglene loved to leave the depressing streets of the old city and come to her grandfather’s farm. He knew every plant in the field or forest, and showed her how each could be put to use. He could track any animal. He knew how to catch flafits and roast them to a delicious, chewy texture. She and Grandfather made all manner of crafts and decorated her tiny body with them; he considered her beautiful even though the rest of the world judged her as plain. They worked together too, of course—hard work. She helped him whenever he planted the bobara shrubs whose fibers he sold in the towns, and carried fertilizer for him. She fed and petted the soft-nosed teesa, whose milk was considered a delicacy. Out of the leather of the teesa grandfather made the sheaths that had become fashionable covers for electronic devices. The two of them would work half the day and then rest for lunch in the forest. There in the pockmarked light and rustling branches he would tell her tales of her people.

Her favorite story concerned a prince who wished to learn the ways of the world from a wise man whose fame extended throughout the country. “Very well, you can travel with me,” said the wise man, “but you must not criticize what I do. I will give you three chances; if you defy me three times we must part forever.”

Their journey was hard. The prince was a strong youth trained in sports, and kept up well. But one day, after they had caught a number of fish for their meal, and were passing under the evening light by a small pond, the wise man on seeming impulse threw the fish in.

“Why did you do that!” exclaimed the prince. “That was all we had for supper.”

“We can gather lotita seeds for supper,” retorted the wise man. “I warned you not to cross me, but you have two more chances.”

The prince tried to stay silent after that, but they came one day upon a wedding where sumptuously dressed courtiers danced to the tunes of master musicians and celebrated with massive jugs of fine wine. The wise man rushed into the crowd of well-wishers and jumped like a madman on the table that held the magnificent spread of wedding presents. He smashed everything he could and retreated before he could be caught, the prince in his surprise barely able to follow.

“How could you ruin that couple’s happiness in such a manner!” asked the prince.

“I see that you have challenged me again, but I leave you one more chance,” was all the wise man would say.

At another point in their journey, the wise man stopped at a town by the bank of a fast-running river, and directed the prince to help him build a dam at a low-lying point where only thin reeds kept the water back. For three days they toiled from sunrise to darkness, and when they were done the wise man led the prince away.

“We could have asked the town for payment after finishing that dam,” said the prince.

“That is your third challenge to me,” answered the wise man. “Now we must say good-bye, but to aid you in your future search for the truth I will tell you why I did each of the three things that perplexed you so.

“The pond we passed was near a town that depended on its fish for food. But the population of the town had been growing and they were in danger of depleting the pond. The fish I threw in replenished the stock and ensured that the town would have food for many a year.

“The wedding we saw was a rich man’s sham. The groom wanted to marry only for money, and if the marriage had been consummated he would soon start to mistreat his wife and make both their lives a misery. By destroying the presents I removed his reason for marrying her, and saved her from pain and despair.

“The dam we built was not needed to protect the town from the river; I had my own reasons for building it. In a few years, that spot would have held a new road connecting the town to the metropolis to the South. No good would come across that road, though—just cheap imports that would ruin the local economy. Not long after the completion of the road, it would carry most of the population away. Because we built that dam, people will stop proposing the road and the town will remain hale.

“Learn, prince, that you may gather knowledge for days on end without gain. Information from the material world is not enough to help you make wise judgments. Until you can see the hearts of men and the hidden currents of history, you will know nothing.”

Iglene loved that story and listened to it over and over during the years.

Grandfather was a religious man, of course, more so than her parents or their siblings. It brought tears to his eyes merely to come to a clearing in the forest and see a spire rise in the distance like a taller cousin of the trees that stretched heavenward. Grandfather would take her to a local spire near that time of day when the planet Hohm passed overhead. The beautiful tower rose from stonework as delicate as lace, entwining like vines in upward spirals. As Hohm approached, the whistling vibrations emitted by the intricately fluted interior of the spire thickened, overtones shifting in strength to create a full chorus of sound. The constant joining and leaving of notes led to an anarchic effect of infinite variety. Drawn by the crescendoing harmonies of the spire, the congregants gathered under it shortly before Hohm was to arrive. They added their own voices to the spire’s praises. Many arrived with drums upon which they beat fast and subtle strokes, dividing the eternal time into multiple segments that converged to intensify the intricate pulse of the notes from the spire. The hollow cone issued deep tones like the sighs of a huge beast, sending shivers through the gathered audience. Even the kirabili joined in, their nervous system stimulated by pitches too high for human ears. Then the moment came when Hohm was directly overhead, invisible in a lit sky but able to make radio contact. At that instant the many riotous sounds merged and the spire blasted out glory along with the affirmations of the crowd.

“Hohm is our holy land,” wept Grandfather. “Someday I will go there.” And he finally did. When he was almost eighty, he made the long-sought visit to Hohm’s holy sites, walked its valleys and climbed sacred mountains, visited the temple built by Mushe, listened to sermons in the Valley of Kalano with hundreds of thousands of others.

In these times when Dalshameni could still be affluent in their lands, her grandfather prospered. He planted the new kesothro fiber that had been genetically altered to respond in its very cells to tiny pulses of electrical information. He explained to Iglene that it had been invented by the Pudkrevi.2

And something new was also invented within her. In Iglene’s early years, she was sheltered from contact with the Pudkrevi. She knew, of course, that there existed another people on their planet, people who wore oddly glowing clothes and spoke a strange tongue. Her grandfather once had an argument in that language with one of these people while she looked on. Grandfather was angry; he cursed and hurled stones at the man’s departing car. The Pudkrevi aroused a new sensation of the Stranger in Iglene that day, a sensation she feared. More Pudkrevi were to enter her life briefly over the years, and each one added a stone to the wall slowly building up before her, a wall she didn’t know existed, but one that turned the easy curve of her jaw into a tight, constrained line.

Eventually her visits had to stop; Grandfather came to the city to live with them. He looked haggard all the time and no longer spoke much—rather like the sad woman Ankarren whom Iglene now saw at meetings of the Racial Freedom Society.

It was not till long after Grandfather’s death that she found out how he had lost his farm. The story was a tiresome and predictable one, a combination of a greedy Pudkrev schemer and a rigid bureaucracy that was determined not to lift a finger to protect Dalshamen rights. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Grandfather lost his identity because an automated server could not read a field on his land deed.

When she was ten, Iglene was taken by her aunt and uncle and seated before a strange glowing instrument. They were well-educated, and determined that she would be too. “You have brains, Iglene, and fine concentration skills,” they said. “Of all of us, you must be sure not to become lost in this hell-hole of an existence.”

They taught her to search for information throughout the universe. They taught her Pudkrev and several other languages, because little existed on the Diffuser at that time in Dalshamen—in fact, she herself was to make crucial contributions to the Dalshamen knowledge base when she joined the forums later.

Her relatives all watched with satisfaction as she mastered the information and skills available on the Diffuser. “Just do not let her lose her faith,” said her mother. “One will know whatever the Unbounded wants one to know.”

But Iglene was completely entranced by the new dimension where she could be anything she wanted and choose any goals she fancied. Life there was a game in which the other people were simply agents in achieving one’s aims. Physically, she moved into a room that looked upon nothing in a street that was nowhere, and went online like all the Pudkrevi she knew. Leaving home was not for her the trauma it was for most Dalshameni. She had already tried out two personalities and was about to debut a third: a beautiful but cold-hearted ingenue with disrespect for the conventions of her times. When she was not studying diffusion theory, she was talking to new acquaintances across the planet and the universe—in many languages, but hardly ever in Dalshamen unless a political movement was afoot—and her parents complained that she seemed to be asleep, her life absorbed by the phantoms on the devices she used. Indeed, she craved becoming a wisp of vapor floating across the ether, laughing at the sexual come-ons, thriving on the debates over culture, forming and breaking friendships with the fluidity of online sessions.

At the age of eighteen Iglene was ready to apply to forums with limited enrollment. And her hard work paid off when she was accepted as one of the youngest students into a global resource forum on information diffusion.

Her device at home was so old and weak that she could not register online; she must needs travel to the campus. She left the registrar’s office clutching a fibersheet loaded with the account data and ran straight into a clump of Pudkrevi who recognized her from online participation.

One of the women in the group nudged another and chuckled, “I told you a person of her background couldn’t confine her presence to remote interaction.” At that, a bizarre contrariness arose in Iglene’s breast; she had not felt such defiance before because she had not had much contact with Pudkrevi, and perhaps because the new honor of being accepted into the forum buoyed her pride.

“I assure you I have no desire to spend time here,” she answered the woman, echoing her insolence tone for tone. “But I will meet some of you in this forum, if you have the good fortune to have been accepted.” And here she waved in front of them the fibersheet bearing the name of a famous mentor.

“Dalshamen bitch!” one of them yelled with a contorted expression, and they threw themselves bodily upon her. Shocked, unprepared, helpless, she could think only of clasping her precious fibersheet more closely in her fists. Luckily it was intact when passersby pulled the group away. But as a parting insult, the woman who had first accosted Iglene threw her a comment she never forgot:

“If you think that wretched scrap is going to turn you into a Pudkrev, you’re even a greater fool than your fellows!”

The years gradually faded the shame with which she remembered that insult, and then the anger. She began to see the statement as the best advice she had ever received.

Her performance in the diffusion forum that autumn was dismal. She spent her energies examining everyone else’s designs and forcing herself to top them, for she knew she could run circles around them. Consequently her concentration was too scattered for her to pull her best work from herself; her will led to the opposite of its intentions. At the end she did moderately well, but she knew she could not succeed in the field of information diffusion in a Pudkrev culture.

Meanwhile, too much of her time was spent online away from those who shared her roots, speaking Pudkrev and dealing in abstractions. So she must return to her people and teach them. As she carried her belongings to the dim, crooked-cornered basement apartment in the Dalshamen quarter, despite the hopeless squalor, her eyes filled with tears of joy—the vibrancy of the neighborhood uplifted her. But what a pathetic population they were! A collection of weavers and teesa-herders, torn from the soil to manufacture the Pudkrevi’s communication devices and build their gleaming new apartment buildings. Even those who had spent generations in the city had seen nothing of the world outside, and when they tried to organize politically their approaches were impressionistic, fractious, impulsive. Yet she realized she could not liberate herself without in some way becoming their liberator. The less she had, the more absolute became her need to be. It was her life she wanted, the whole of it: not a reward. Her thoughts and acts stayed chained to that rock of identity, of single unmoved unreasoning will, the will to remain herself.

She would no longer go to the spire, for her rivetingly rational mind could not accept the validity of religion. Indeed, she saw it as an excuse for following the old rotten political leaders and for the oppression of women. She turned instead to radical politics.

Nor would she join the Dalshamen Resistance; she knew they posed no way forward against overwhelming Pudkrev firepower. Instead she joined pressure groups and adopted the cause of greater bandwidth for Dalshameni. She needed little to live on, for she had only the modest needs of herself and her mother to support. She responded to a contract request from Resst, who was kind and just and paid her a decent income. The Pudkrevi never looked at her, and it suited her just fine never to enter the focus of their prism.

Forward-Looking Enterprises

Lenz sometimes wondered whether she was really seeking new work; she posted to none of the contract channels, so no one looking for an employee would come across her. She continued designing and coordinating the installation of systems in immigrant housing without taking any pleasure from it, jealous of the satisfaction she used to feel from the beauties of plotting interconnections. Instead, she now felt the unconsolable loneliness of one who has the world at her fingertips but does not know what to grasp.

Her decision to leave her contract was cemented when Diffuser access failed in one of their older facilities. Lenz traced the diffusion map, identifying four areas of trouble or potential congestion. Two could be corrected by the tracing agent on its own, one required her to guide it verbally, and one was forwarded to the Throughput Support Team for resolution. Its chief troubleshooter waxed pessimistic.

“We’ve exhausted all our options until we get help from West routers,” he said. “And they’ll wait kilosyncs before doing anything about it.”

“Give me the data,” said Lenz on impulse, emboldened by a strange urge for battle. “I’d like to deal with West routers.”

“You can’t expect to get anywhere with them,” uttered the troubleshooter. “You’ll become all worked up for no benefit; I deal with them every kilosync and I know.”

Nevertheless she persuaded him to copy the data for her and called up the service. An image of a young man with a smirk appeared before her.

“Well, what can we do for immigrants today?” he opened with a politeness that served to highlight his arrogance rather than conceal it.

“It’s access at draksla-gwc,” said Lenz briskly. “We’ve traced the problem to your external servers; they’re responding to our requests with truncated-data errors.”

The young man, whose name was Juspar, maintained his all-too-gracious smile. “Have you checked your internal connections?” he asked. “A loopback could easily give the appearance of external errors.”

She knew this was irrelevant; it was meant to send her off to waste more decasyncs in futile local troubleshooting. “Take a look at the statistics,” she said, highlighting some on the connection between them. “You see, your servers are acknowledging receipt, but claiming corrupted verification marks.”

He scrolled with a bored expression through her data. “Dalshamen work,” he sneered. “Those routers have got to be replaced on your side. They’re as old as the archeological site outside my office.” Another gambit, which she was well prepared for.

“The routers belong to an earlier generation, but your department is committed to supporting all routers conforming to version 16.0052 and later.”

Juspar clearly wanted her to go away, but she held a lock on the connection and could not be turned off without her acknowledgement. When he tried to banter with her in his “No young pretty girl can outsmart me” attitude, she said firmly, “The law of the Standards clearly requires you to provide uninterrupted access to immigration facilities; you have to reestablish connection to us before the nocturnal work shift.”

At her invocation of the law, Juspar exploded. He banged on his instrument, sending cascades of regulations scrolling in front of her. The air filled with jumbles of text. “Show me that law!” he yelled. “You go through those 85 gigabytes and show me exactly where it says I have to touch your decrepit old rusting metal clunkers.”

“My coordinator will be contacting the head office in twenty syncs if service is not restored,” she snapped, and slammed off the connection. This threat had limited strength in a system where everybody changed contracts continually and responsibility rarely followed them, but it seemed to put closure on a frustrating conversation. If the laws are not to serve humanity, what use are they? thought Lenz. She felt exhilarated, brought back alive, happier than she had ever been in the contract. Perverse, perhaps, was her joy, but she had managed to make somebody else as angry as she.

She knew she could not go on for long in this frame of mind, fired with a zeal that had no goal. She thought again of Iglene, the Dalshamen who was such a master of a Pudkrev art and who would not be mastered by it. She did not dare approach Iglene, but reached out instead to Resst. It seemed like a stroke of fate when Resst said, “We were thinking about you, Lenz. Do you know Shovit of Forward-Looking Enterprises?”

“Why, the whole world knows Shovit”, answered Lenz. “He’s gotten over his rough youth, hasn’t he?”

“His company is making money hand over fist. And he needs an administrative assistant, one who knows her way around the authorities. Iglene has taken a contract doing diffusion research with him, and has suggested he contact you.”

“How strange—I never told her I wanted to change contracts!”

“And he would like to meet you at my apartment.”

“At the apartment?” cried Lenz. “It would take fifteen syncs for me to get over there. He can advertise a port for me and I can connect in one sync.”

“Shovit still has funny ways. He said that a face-to-face meeting offers information that is irreproducible online,” said Resst with a touch of exasperation.

As Lenz pondered the odd requirement, she recalled with a rush of pleasure her last visit to Resst’s apartment, and the strong effect that the recalcitrant Iglene had on her. Indeed, she thought, there was something compelling about a meeting with a person unmediated by technology.

Since Shovit had been discussed during the conversation, a quick profile of him was automatically sent on the same connection. It essentially confirmed what she already knew. His genius showed up young. As a child, seemingly unsatisfied with any devices within reach, he methodically took them apart and reassembled them in ever more complex ways. Many of the innovations he developed in his tinkering found their way into products across many worlds. He was left an orphan by war, and the placement officers declared that his unique qualities would make him hard to match to compatible caretakers. He profited from staying with many over the years, while never becoming strongly attached to any particular one. Though they agreed not to publish his brain profile, rumors leaked out of incredibly strong pathways in the regions of pattern recognition and connection-making.

Never taking to routine studies, Shovit explored knowledge in his own way. He developed queer opinions, backing them up with voluminous research over the Diffuser. As an adolescent he engaged everyone around him in debates religious, technical, and political. Usually he dismantled every argument as easily as he used to dismember electronic devices. He developed few close friends, though one chatmate named Bidup clung to him like a disciple. Neither Shovit’s technical mastery nor his political unorthodoxy, however, prevented the authorities from conscripting him like any other youth and sending him to fight on the planet Yoowi when hit-and-run battles by rebel Dalshameni were becoming too effective to ignore.

The war on Yoowi was a turning point that made many Pudkrev weary of the endless conflict with the Dalshameni. Militarily, the invasion was spectacularly successful. The Pudkrevi subdued the planet and nearly destroyed the opposition forces. But they left it economically devastated and consumed by a civil war that continued for years, smashing hopes of any economic recovery. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Dalshamen fighters continued to make their deadly incursions onto Pudkrev. Far from enjoying the fruits of victory, Pudkrevi came to realize that it would become routine to see images of dead soldiers, wounded neighbors, and bereaved mothers on their displays.

Shovit returned embittered from Yoowi. Being the right age for theoretical studies, he transferred his account to the leading forum on diffusion. But they soon expelled him. The authorities simply announced that he had engaged in “continual violations of the forum’s acceptable use policy.” But everyone who knew him understood what had happened: he had started an online discussion between Pudkrevi and Dalshameni. At that time, anyone who spoke with Dalshamen political activists was considered a traitor. As the undisputed victor in several wars, the Pudkrevi could not imagine they would one day invite the Dalshameni they labeled terrorists to form a government on Pudkrev.

Freed from the stultifying strictures of the army and the educational system, Shovit finally blossomed. Together with his schoolboy buddy Bidup he formed an advanced technology company at just the moment when Pudkrev industry was taking off. And his ideas sold well; he had the flair for where to set to work.

His first product was highly successful translation software. Then he began a project to provide medical diagnoses and prescriptions through automated agents, but sold it with the contemptuous comment, “The problem on Pudkrev is not a lack of doctors. The problem is delivering medical services to the Dalshamen areas.” The moment the sale was posted on the resource bidding forum, the value of his company dropped fifteen percent, but he and Bidup were both oblivious. His new project was the development of more efficient diffusion protocols. That was where the chronology ended when Lenz finished her check and went to the meeting.

Resst’s apartment displayed a typically Pudkrev scene: three people shared the room without interacting. Resst was planning her annual vacation, checking sites that she would spend her time visiting online. Sod munched on some trendy junk food while checking in on study projects in another corner of the room. But the silliest picture was presented by Shovit.

In the middle of the room Lenz recognized the image of an unusually tall man with long hair and striking eyes. But he was real, she remembered with a shock. He looked exactly like his image.

At the moment he was playing a game with an invisible opponent, slashing and grasping at the air as if wrestling with a demon that only he could see. What a boy he still is, Lenz thought.

“Shovit,” spoke Resst, “your guest is here.” He dropped his hands and gave his attention to Lenz.

“If you had not invited me to meet you in the flesh, I would never know what your pastimes are,” remarked Lenz brightly. “Is space-ultima your newest breakthrough?”

He took the jibe in stride. “I ought not have chosen that way to pass the time. All the games are shoot-em-up exercises, and I don’t find war amusing.”

Perhaps I misjudged him, Lenz thought. “Tell me about Forward-Looking Enterprises.”

As Shovit answered his affect meter began to flow with his excitement.

“Our current preoccupation is with bandwidth,” he declared. “Just a kilosync ago I gave the Caucus a new wave-splitting technique to divide routing decisions among a cascading array of processors, since the volume of decisions being made at each routing point was overloading some nodes. The expansion of commercial use of the Diffuser, along with people pouring in from other planets and the spread of Dalshamen access—which I hope to accelerate—are placing an intense burden on capacity. Your august colleagues at the immigration forum must come up against the limits all the time.”

“My august colleagues wouldn’t even know what their resources and requirements are, although they are expert at hoarding one and dismissing the other.”

“We need somebody who knows how to deal with official forums,” he said. “Someone with just the right mix of competence and disgust—you seem to fit the bill.” She laughed in response. His meter shaded a bit. “I’ll have trouble with Bidup. He is the more doctrinaire of us. He and I agreed early on to try to equalize the number of Pudkrev and Dalshamen employees. So far we’ve hired only one Dalshamen, so we’d be way out of balance if we hired you—but you know our other employee, it’s iglene-panis-resident-dq-gwc.”

“Yes, I’ve been thinking about her quite a bit.”

This confession surprised Shovit. “What have you been thinking about?”

“Well,” stumbled Lenz, “her tribulations, the steadfast way she responds…I just have never seen anyone like that before.”

“That describes her precisely!” affirmed Shovit. “And she has said that she wants to know you better too. That should be sufficient to appease Bidup; let’s set up a formal interview as soon as possible.”

A quarter-kilosync later, Lenz took the physport to the end of the line and walked to the edge of town, almost where forests started, so that Shovit could show her around his lab.3 It encompassed a couple modest rooms on the ground floor of a nondescript building. Lenz loved the air of exploration, the smell of the materials they worked with, the crowding of people in a single room. Bidup was there, but Iglene was not. Bidup turned out to be less contentious than his online personality. Despite a tendency toward moralism, he was kind, and the image he liked most to diffuse was that of a nervous, well-meaning philosopher. But he was also incisive and thorough. While Shovit would have been happy chatting with her and hiring her because it felt right, Bidup demanded details of how she negotiated the byways of power in her current contract. He also showed her some of the equipment and made sure she possessed a reasonable grasp of the technical matters that underlay their work.

After she terminated her contract with the immigration forum, Shovit celebrated by taking her to a cafe. They spoke of his life in the army, about mentors they had known, about plans for expanding Forward-Looking Enterprises. He clearly enjoyed the food, even though it was a simple tourrine of fibrous vegetables prepared in a microwave oven.

“Are you an immediatist?” joshed Lenz.

“If so, I wouldn’t have had much company over the past several megasyncs; I believe they’ve all died out. And it’s a little hard to be an immediatist if you don’t accept the Unbounded, isn’t it? Whose presence should be immediate if not the Unbounded?”

“I just mean that you value direct perception over an abstract representation,” explained Lenz, jostled into being a little more serious.

“Naturally! Nothing can replace the unmediated experience. Listen to these musicians, for instance,” exclaimed Shovit, with a wave of his hand toward the stage where several people stood, eyes closed and hands clenched, their bodies swaying as they impelled the baffling rhythms and plaintive, wailing melodies that issued from the large speakers on either side. “It’s much more exciting to hear them improvise right in front of you than to tune in over the Diffuser, even though of course there are filters and amplifiers between their brain waves and the sound waves that we actually hear.”

Lenz listened; the musicians really were quite impressive. Shovit turned to the dancers writhing about the center of the room.

“Do you know what I like best about this cafe?” he asked suddenly. Lenz, admiring him silently, shook her head and he explained with fervor, “It is one of the few public places where people mingle—and particularly where Pudkrevi and Dalshameni can be found together.” Then abruptly he was on his feet, pulling Lenz with him among the dancers. His lithe body swayed gracefully among the crowd. Together they thrust out their arms and legs, joining consciousness with the others who gyrated around the room, all to the poom-poom-te-poom of the speakers and the sinuous melody.

When finally they collapsed in their chairs, Lenz felt strongly the pulse of human feeling in Shovit. He was one of the few people she ever met whom she could call complete. Boy-man though he seemed at times, his mind, his body, his breath were united in pursuit of an essential love of humankind.

A Bad Start to a Relationship

Finally came the day when Lenz got a chance to see Iglene. Strangely, the Dalshamen seemed disappointed that Lenz had severed her ties with the immigration forum. “I hoped you would contract both with us and with the forum,” she argued. “Don’t you like partaking of the massive power of the Caucus?” Lenz could not understand how Iglene thought she had any control over Caucus work, or even a decent degree of insight into it.

But she felt honored when Iglene invited her to speak before the Racial Freedom Society. On the appointed evening they rode the physport through the city toward the Dalshamen quarter. At one stop the last Pudkrev disembarked, leaving only Lenz among a host of Dalshameni. They gazed strangely at her, with her fine-lit garment standing out against her dark skin, nestled for safety close to Iglene.

“Will the meeting accept me?” she asked. Iglene looked at her face and saw raw anxiety there.

“They will be delighted to have you,” Iglene responded with firmness. “I do not want to suggest all will be smooth sailing. Soard and a few others may raise militant proposals to see whether they can push you away. But just remember that politics is inhabited by kooks. Some kooks are simply more useful than others. If you understand that, you can be one of the successful kooks. No gift is greater than patience.”

Iglene led Lenz through the teaming streets of the Dalshamen quarter. The chatter of old friends and young children and bartering tradesmen filled the air. Lenz was disconcerted, however, by the lack of cues. Unlike a Pudkrev street, no directional signs gleamed her way forward. To her the scene felt barren.

She pointed to a bot that hovered twelve light-lengths behind them as they moved.4 “Isn’t that a bit of overkill?” she asked bitterly. “The authorities already have sensors everywhere we’re walking.”

“Perhaps it’s intended to make you feel safe,” retorted Iglene with her caustic irony. “They’ll be right on the scene in case those primitive, violent Dalshameni try to hurt you.”

At the Racial Freedom Society Lenz discovered a community of rare sensitivity. It was so unusual to sit in a circle where people would look at each other. She found among them great dignity and concern for their joint cause, along with self-centered posturing and an unassimilated rage that made it hard to act rationally. But above all, she was taken by their caring for one another.

The participants asked her what criteria were used to assign fibers or frequencies; how to navigate the tortuous pathways through the network of regulations for obtaining them; what sorts of comments were made when Dalshamen needs came up in conversation.

“I have never felt comfortable with most Pudkrevi,” explained Lenz, “because they are so racist, even when it comes to other Pudkrevi. I told a girl recently I was connecting immigrant housing. She said, ‘Those Moketi Pudkrevi—when you hand them an entry pad they ask where they can plug it in.’ I was supposed to laugh. How can these people be expected to treat Dalshameni decently when they have so much disdain for the people they call their own?”

This led to a heated discussion about Pudkrev racism, for which Moovdin had the most disturbing analysis.

“The Pudkrevi don’t like each other very much, as you see,” he said. “They may share a common ancestry, but what good is that when they’ve been scattered across the corners of the known universe for thousands of years? They say that they form communities over the forums on the Diffuser; whether or not that is true I cannot judge. But they do not know each other; they possess only the idea of unity as Pudkrevi. And that is why they hate Dalshameni so much: because they have no definition of themselves. They are defined only by a name and by an enemy.”

“But the Resistance has done a good job of providing that enemy!” The danger exhilarated Lenz; her mind raced, and she spoke her mind.

A murmur broke out. “We are not the Resistance,” said Moovdin gravely. “We are a peaceful group, not linked either to the Resistance or to Obsleet and his groveling Dalshamen Autonomous Government.”

Iglene said, “The Resistance is destructive, it is hurtful. But they are all that poor Dalshameni can turn to. Why don’t the Pudkrevi open more health clinics and soup kitchens and day care centers? That would deprive the Resistance of their chief source of support from the population. Instead, it is the Resistance that feed the needy, the orphan, and the prisoner. My mother, for instance, depends on the Resistance. She gets her health care from them, and her guidance through the maze of Pudkrev regulations.”

Soard picked up the challenge. “What makes your authorities triumphant except the powerless among you?” he asked Lenz. “Doesn’t it bother you that new Pudkrev immigrants walk into fully diffused apartments while we have been waiting in the Dalshamen quarter for basic wiring for fifty years?”

Lenz was not perturbed. She explained the iron-clad laws of economics regarding the difficulty of upgrading of old equipment in ancient stone buildings and the relationship of education to the cost-effectiveness of investment.

“Excuse me, Lenz,” said Soard, “We have many times heard these arguments, with which your innumerable training sessions at the immigration forum have filled you, and they are simply bullshit. Only by the most cynical twisting of bounded resource statistics can the Caucus claim that it costs less to string wires across hilly, forested land to new Pudkrev dwellings than to upgrade densely populated buildings right in the center of a metropolis. Furthermore, it is pure racism to invoke educational background as a reason to leave aside Dalshameni, because the Dalshameni of this planet have a high rate of education.”

Lenz was impressed. Alone, she must listen, as well as speak. After the meeting she came to Iglene’s apartment, a kind of intimacy that felt strange to her but which she knew to be Dalshamen custom. It occurred to Lenz that while her contract in immigration made her comfortable talking to dignitaries from a dozen planets, she had never been in the home of a single Dalshamen on her own world. Everything in the apartment seemed to have a crack or a chip, while the walls were mottled by years of water damage. There were no religious objects, but Iglene seemed to treat all the items from her past with reverence. Under the circle of a single dim lamp they drank their daroot broth, which Lenz realized tasted much better from a stove than from the heating devices she had always used. The darkness of Iglene’s apartment cocooned the two women and relieved Lenz from the drabness. She was used to light, had lived all her life in the light. Even on the rudest Pudkrev farm, beams transmitted from poles constantly monitored the fields and the barns crackled with devices.

Doing without those things in the apartment, she found herself concentrating on Iglene’s face, where she could derive continuously new perceptions. Iglene’s boyish, white visage was not beautiful. It was striking not for any pleasing quality but for a reticence, a fortitude that suggests the concealment of something. Her eyes seemed home to piercing insights, but they were carefully shut away. Something hard came over her eyes, so that Lenz did not know whether to approach closer or shrink back.

“Surprised to see I live in such a wreck, eh?” Iglene remarked. “This is how most Dalshameni of the Golden Walled City live—except for the prosperous ones like Moovdin.”

“Have you considered another physical location?”

“I have the money now to do so, but my mother has lived in the Dalshamen quarter her whole life. I wish neither to rip her away from the only community she knows, nor to live too far from her. Anyway, a little that suffices is better than a great deal that distracts me.” Lenz was afraid of her. There was a strength in her that was not drawn from love or trust or community, did not rise from any source that should give strength, any source Lenz recognized. She feared that strength, and craved it.

The physport that took her homeward picked up several Pudkrev passengers as it traversed the more affluent parts of the city. A few entered the unresponsive state that showed they had brought up popular dramas to pass the time, while the rest chattered with remote friends. But no one spoke to anyone else in the physport car itself.

Suddenly disturbing their isolated preoccupations, the center of the car was brightened by the verification hologram of a major Pudkrev news service, a symbol of a prism that focused the whole electromagnetic spectrum. All eyes turned to the three-dimensional image.

“Alert!” spoke a mechanized but agitated voice. “An imminent act of terrorism at the Zaika immigrant complex has just been reported by the time reverse system. An explosion is to occur in half a sync. Inhabitants are evacuating as we speak.”

Accompanying the voice was an image of a tall concrete structure already beginning to catch fire. Lenz knew it well; one of her first assignments at the immigration forum had been to install equipment there. The building encompassed many floors, and she knew it would take far more than half a sync to remove all the people. As the passengers in the physport watched, hysterical Pudkrevi poured from the burning hulk, some with flames on their clothes or hair, rolling on the ground, shrieking uncontrollably, pushing each other, groping for loved ones. Children bawled and covered their eyes or ears. Sparks crackled and spit from the building’s sides; its windows shook.

The mechanical voice fell silent, for the scene was too horrible for words. Then with a skull-filling crash jagged blood-flow screams flume of smoke, the whole structure split from top to bottom, emitting a flash so great that even brightness compression could not suppress the fiery glow that blinded the eyes of the passengers. In a single flame six stories high, the building collapsed, rescue workers rushed to the groaning bodies lying beneath the rubble, and the hologram abruptly shut off.

Silence ensued, not a single passenger monitor issuing a peep. They all stared at each other with hollow eyes as if they had never looked at another human face before. Several emerged from a block they had put up against sensory perception during the last stages of the broadcast. Lenz was thinking about how the authorities had constructed the building that had just been destroyed. She could tell exactly what had gone wrong: the capacity monitors had been set too high, and they failed to shut down when someone sent a surge of electricity into the gateway node. But why were they set wrong? It must have been an inside operation—and she knew that mostly Dalshamen construction workers had been used at the site. The perpetrator would be traced; eventually he would be brought to justice, while a wave of reprisals against Dalshameni would ensue. The murderer who set that complex trap would be happy to go to jail, even to his death, for the cause of Dalshamen freedom. Yet what glory was there in burning innocent children?

The mechanical reporter had started up again, droning on about security measures being taken and manhunts to be launched. Fire! The image of the dancing, shooting, merciless orange sheets of flame made Lenz shudder.

The passengers were all talking to their monitors again, yelling at unseen recipients about the events of the evening. She got off the physport with a sick feeling in her stomach.

The Path That One Must Choose

Lenz stayed home as long as she could, but when it was necessary to return to the office a kilosync later she felt tension. She had seen the statement of the Racial Freedom Society on the fire storm and it had not condemned the terrorists. When she came in the office she could tell that Iglene’s eyes were on her, an unsettling sensation she had never felt before. Iglene approached her.

“I know what you want, Lenz—you want Racial Freedom to take a stand against the Resistance, and you feel like a dupe because you came to us with words of peace.”

“Your group is not responsible for the attack,” said Lenz.

“That is not enough, though,” answered Iglene. For the first time, Lenz noticed her draw a breath of discomfort. She continued hesitatingly, “You are consumed by the pain of the Pudkrevi who died or had burns. But remember what we said that night you came to our quarter: Dalshameni feel too much pain of their own. Until we have true power—the power to direct economic resources, the power to make laws, the power lead our lives—we must grasp at the futile power of overloading circuits. Our Dalshamen leaders dominated the solar system for over a thousand years. We were used to bowing only before them, and they were used to bowing before none. Resentment comes readily to us now, and cooperation is a hard message to bring. Oh, you and I need to understand each other!”

But Lenz did not understand. Iglene pressed her, “You will come back to our quarter, won’t you? Someday you must come—we need to talk a lot.”

“I promise you I will,” said Lenz.

Again that evening Iglene contacted her. “Shovit and I are planning a reconciliation meeting between the Racial Freedom and its Pudkrev friends. We are going to discuss the circuit overload.”

Iglene’s face was exceedingly hard to read. She would approach Lenz with caring and a desire to understand. But when her eyes met Lenz’s, the disapproval would appear on Iglene’s face. And Lenz feared how much could be read on her own face by the intelligent Dalshamen.

“Yes, Iglene, I will come to your meeting. But it still bothers me that there has been no Dalshamen condemnation of the fire storm.”

“We will talk about it at the meeting…”

“How can Pudkrevi manage our grief if we feel no compassion from Dalshameni?”

Something passed between them; something fast Lenz could not name. “What is that to me!” shouted Iglene, her lips suddenly twisted, painfully, pleadingly extended. “Don’t you see I don’t give a fuck about the dead? You are always pining about your persecutions; what does that say about ours? Don’t you see there’s terror every day in our neighborhood? The war victim struggling with missing limbs, the destitute widow crouching in an empty room, the children cowering from the kicks of the Pudkrev soldiers! I see it every day, and when I see the Pudkrevi die I turn my face away.”

“Iglene, I need a buffer,” stammered Lenz, and severed the connection. She agonized about it all night. Finally she resolved to tell the incident to Shovit, the only person who might understand.

“You are one of the few Pudkrevi with whom Iglene could be open enough to tell her feelings,” he said soothingly. “ But you are also a member of the dominant race, with all its privileges—including the privilege of accepting your status while protesting it.”

“She calls us her friends, but she hates Pudkrevi.”

“Racism in other people is a repulsive thing to see,” remarked Shovit. “Let me tell you a little to put our friend’s anger in perspective.”

He brought a diagram of the planet’s major routers in the air before her. “Aside from trivial observations—that the large access points are near major Pudkrev settlements—it takes a keen insight to tell that even the points near Dalshameni are less useful than their size makes them appear, because they are optimized for surveillance. A full thirty percent of Diffuser capacity goes toward social control, not end-user communication.

“The Diffuser is not what it appears to be, when one has had the opportunity to study its secrets. It suffers from many weaknesses that security personnel would rather not have the public know about, even though a widespread discussion of the critical capabilities in our information structure is critical for the health of a democratic society. Just as an example, it is remarkable how few Pudkrevi know about the distortions in transmission technology caused by the military necessity to allow packet sizes to increase and window sizes to decrease logarithmically in a matter of millisyncs, to allow the sudden deployment of force in an emergency.”

“At the immigration forum,” put in Lenz, “we were told that resource allocation involves some overhead.”

“Where the Caucus fails to provide adequate resources, of course it has to add overhead to ration them. In short,” finished Shovit, “the Caucus’s diffusion design has skewed the whole Pudkrev infrastructure toward defense and security, and therefore is both inefficient and resistant to the goals of reformers to equalize access by all classes and races. The system has enormous wisdom for doing evil, but almost no knowledge as to how to do good.”

That evening the Pudkrevi and Dalshameni alternated, sitting in a circle. Iglene sat stiffly on the floor with Shovit next to her; Lenz propped herself with a pillow on the opposite wall between a Dalshamen student and an old laborer. She no longer had to act as a guest deferring to her hosts, but as someone fighting for a new way forward. She was tense, but no more than all the others at the meeting. They spoke fitfully and loudly with much interrupting. Several Pudkrevi who had arrived from other planets spoke of what it was like to be chased by mobs, to see their families slaughtered, and why when they arrived at Pudkrev they vowed they would always keep the nation strong. And during the first decades they needed to be strong often; at any day another attack from the Dalshameni might come.

A Dalshamen asked, “Pudkrevi have been victims in many times and places around the universe. But why do you continue to hold on to your self-image as victims now that you are in charge here? Real power, and real freedom, would lie in trust, not force.”

“There is a timeless quality to the sufferings Pudkrevi have undergone that all peoples everywhere can identify with,” said Lenz. “The Pudkrevi’s failing has been to claim ownership of the sufferings too much. We have held on to our persecutions and our martyrs so strongly that these events, which should be warnings to all mankind, become identified with us as a people. We didn’t say enough, ‘This is a tragedy for humanity’; instead we said, ‘This is our tragedy as Pudkrevi.’ Ironically, our history of persecution cannot make the Dalshameni sympathize with us; it makes them only resent us and hate us more.”

“But that does not explain how you can persecute us the way you were persecuted.”

Lenz was thrilled to realize that she could attach to each person’s speech his expression, the angle of his shoulders, the position of his hand, a thousand gesticulatory clues that almost let her predict what he would say. She could tell when Iglene approved of a speaker, or—much more often—when she gazed on with disdain. It seemed so easy to determine emotions much more complex and tangled than anything that was ever transmitted on an affect meter. So entranced was she with this new insight into people that she entered a strange state of mind where the words of the participants no longer made an impact; instead she took note of their tones of voice, the movements of their heads as they stressed certain syllables; the shapes of their moving limbs. The whole scene became a kind of dance between two sides, forwards, backwards, first toward me and then toward you, an exchange of feelings more than an argument. And something was wrong with the dance; the two groups were not together; they did not keep the same rhythm or respect the same center.

Suddenly she woke to note that Iglene was doing something unusual. The boyish figure stood in radiance at the edge of the circle, an insistence embodied in her erect posture that made everyone turn to her in silence. When she spoke, her simple words were like a recitation of awesome rhetorical power.

“The Dalshamen philosophy teaches that the conversion of our enemies is the smaller of two struggles; the greater struggle is to change what hold us back inside. All I have been hearing tonight is externalizing problems: Pudkrev this, Dalshamen that! To oppose something is to maintain it. We have built walls all around ourselves, and we can’t see them, because they’re part of our thinking.” Lenz watched Iglene’s face with fascination because now the mask was down. “I myself have this flaw. It is an old fault of mine, I struggle against it every day.” And then Lenz saw it! A flash that Iglene’s eyes made towards her. The gesture was so tiny and so quick that no one else could have noticed it—few devices would even pick it up. And yet in that unmeasurably short glance Lenz could see a wish for understanding, a plea for forgiveness, a promise of friendship.

Iglene did not talk directly to Lenz that evening, but on her way home she met Moovdin crossing the Plaza of Those Who Wait. He displayed an odd expression not quite a smile, not quite a nervous grimace. He drew Iglene next to one of the few trees that offered a bit of shelter from the breezes.

“An acquaintance of mine came up with some interesting information I’d like to give you,” Moovdin said casually. And he opened his hand to show a glimpse of a fibersheet.

What madness is this—thought Iglene, controlling herself so she wouldn’t draw suspicion by glancing around—Moovdin carrying a fibersheet that almost certainly contains contraband, flaunting it in one of the most highly trafficked thoroughfares in the Dalshamen quarter! “You always puzzle me, Moovdin,” she said aloud. “I never imagined you planning system disruptions from your elegant abode smack in the middle of your charming Pudkrev neighborhood.”

“Does one’s identity ever drop away, Iglene? Can external success restore pride, the pride ripped from us by the intruder Pudkrev and sundered again each day by the stares of my neighbors? Please, please take the sheet,” urged Moovdin. “You’re the only one who can possibly gain anything from the data. No one knows the sorcerer but another sorcerer that is like him or superior.”

“Don’t you know me well enough by now,” said Iglene, “to realize I have no truck with plots and mayhem? It is my goal to win us the infrastructure, not to destroy it.”

With a sudden stiff gesture Moovdin deposited his folded fibersheet in Iglene’s unwilling hand. “Do what you will,” he said and walked off.

Iglene could think of no reaction but to come away holding the incriminating sheet. With her thoughts she wiped it clean to delete its contents. How did Moovdin find her? Was he a sting for the Pudkrevi? Her heart shook within her, but the hypothesis did not make sense, because the incident had passed without her arrest.

She walked for a long time, taking a roundabout way home with her eyes and ears constantly alert to the presence of Pudkrev soldiers. She paused for moment before a surprisingly modern structure that stood in the middle of the tumbled-down apartment houses. She peeked into its cavernous interior. Here was meant to be dozens of switching facilities, terabits per sync each, bandwidth enough to bring contracts and education to the entire quarter. But the facility had been held up through trivial disagreements between the Dalshamen authorities and the Pudkrevi, disagreements that the Pudkrevi were in no hurry to resolve. It remained half-finished, and a stench told her that a bunch of youths had partied and lost control of themselves there the previous evening.

She hoped to drop the sheet unobtrusively into some gutter or crevice, but none seemed to present itself. Her concentration resting completely on the danger of the soldiers and the hope of finding a dumping place, she lost sense of where she was and forgot herself as she perambulated the Dalshamen quarter. She seemed to enter a trance, impinged upon by the clinking of cooking utensils and the cries of street vendors, and eventually woke to find herself on the Way of the One Who Brings Vengeance, right near her door. She was actually surprised to find the fibersheet in her hand; somehow she had forgotten the very existence of the strange object that had driven her to such lengths.

But later that evening she realized that, while she had deleted the statistics mentally, she had not cleared the sheet’s cache. The security forces could still find the data on her; it remained a danger. But feeling somewhat safer in her own apartment, she grew curious. She opened the sheet and retrieved the cached contents.

The first glance at the statistics astonished her. Never had she seen such massive collections of traffic. The intruder must have hacked into a central server. Since no node occupied a central position for more than one or two syncs, the amount of data captured was a rare find. The lack of a verification mark confirmed that the data was indeed contraband. Her curiosity drew her past her scruples and she looked more closely.

There were huge quantities of successful transmissions, she saw, but also strange losses. Millions of packets came in and simply disappeared. Could these be the effect, she thought, of the oft-rumored Hole?

Delving more closely still, she saw correlations among different modules. Whenever some evinced increased traffic, others did shortly afterward. New statistics were printed at every synchronization unit, which was the elapsed time between the exchange of status and control messages among systems on the Diffuser.

Investigating the fibersheet with its primitive search and place-marking tools was grueling; she remembered with an old envy the students who could bring up images throughout a whole room with cross-links to any location. But as she looked at the patterns and noticed flows at various times, she fancied that she could begin to guess at the types of work performed by the modules with all their inscrutable names.

Here was a module that looked like a sink—but packets disappeared only at particular times, and then out flooded a series of status packets. It must be a result of the Hole! The module was overwhelmed in some way and unable to understand the incoming packets. And yet it was not simply throwing them away. No, it was trying to process them somehow, and in its confused processing lay the foundations for further problems that cascaded from one server to the next.

Some patterns that she saw in the error-generating packets produced predictable changes in the parameters of the error modules. This was interesting, because it meant that errors determined not only which modules were invoked but the behavior of those modules. And this meant that manipulation of the inputs could reveal properties of the modules, a powerful capability.

She stared at the fibersheet a long, long time. Finally she flushed the cache, then for added safety, took the sheet outside to the stoolhouse to subject it to a more thorough kind of flushing. But as she lay agitatedly in her narrow bed, the visions of statistics came popping back in her mind—she had essentially memorized them. And as she fell asleep they continued to scroll, melting into her dreams.

She stood quietly in a forest. The branches interlocked above her, almost shutting out the sun, leaving just a few rays. She craned her neck to see the sky, and noticed that small furry creatures were rustling back and forth along the branches. From one tree to another they raced, chattering in a tongue she could not understood, tails tucked around their legs.

For some reason she wanted to be in the branches with the creatures. She strained her arms and leapt vainly to reach them. They tittered above her, mocking her, and shuttled back and forth.

Furiously, she walked to the trunk and wrenched off a branch, disrupting the scurrying animals above. Now I’ve stopped them! she thought.

And they certainly seemed stymied. No longer could they reach from one tree to another, as the connecting branch lay in her hand. They leapt and chattered while her eyes squinted in the brilliant sunlight that poured through the gap. Finally she glanced down at the branch she broke off, which improbably enough was sprouting yellow molafasha blossoms. The scent remained in her memory as she awoke in the fetid darkness.


Activity at Forward-Looking Enterprises was languid. Since Shovit still had to take a regular rotation as part of the security forces, the scheduler noted the lull and assigned him a slot a kilosync hence. Although Bidup could handle orders from customers, little development could go on while their chief technical officer prepared for absence. And they all seemed less interested in business than in the new political tensions.

Bidup released a bulletin saying, “No one can fail to notice the substantial increase, over recent kilosyncs, of propaganda broadcast by the right wing nationalists and Fully Connected. Normally, delays are automatically introduced into transmissions from particular sites that increase their use of the medium, to preserve a fair and balanced use of bandwidth for all. But statistical measurements carried out by Forward-Looking Enterprises since the explosion at Zaika show that the amount of bandwidth for nationalist/mystical transmissions has increased along with their volume. In other words, the Caucus has altered its transmission policies to favor the propaganda of fanatic and right-wing groups. One can ask whether some genetic algorithm has fostered the bias, or whether particular people have made conscious decisions to moderate up the forces that threaten to tear society apart. In any case, the Caucus must act to preserve its claim to be secular and non-partisan.”

At the end of the workday Lenz was left making calls and Shovit hung around till she was done. She felt a churning excitement at being alone with him, especially in this room that represented so much of his achievements and even more of his dreams.

“I have something I want to give you,” he said, half-turned away from her. She had not expected this.

He opened a drawer and removed a small flat box sporting a few simple presspads. “I created this device a couple dozen kilosyncs ago. I have made several copies and given them to friends—very special friends. But I have not registered it as a service with the Caucus. I do not plan for it to see widespread acceptance—it is too ungainly for everyday use anyway, it is really something rather trivial…”

He was wandering, but she could think of nothing to say, so she waited.

Shovit sat down ponderously, head bowed, his hands pressing on his temples. She regarded his taut brow, his stubbornly thrust chin, and especially the eyes that she had not looked at closely before but that gazed straight out with unattenuated clarity. He continued his speech. “The box is designed to use pockets of unassigned frequencies to exchange signals with other devices of the same type. To be brief, it represents an alternative to the Diffuser.”

Lenz widened her eyes in surprise. Everything on Pudkrev was interconnected, a single grid of mind-boggling size and complexity. The only separate diffuser she had heard of was a rumored secret military system that connected weapons of unimaginable power. These weapons were said to be directed at Dalshamen planets throughout the solar system, and to many people were the unspoken reason that the Dalshameni had not launched any wars for a couple megasyncs.

“But why don’t you want to be connected to the planetary Diffuser?” she asked.

He sat perfectly quietly and spoke quietly, but there was an inner tension, a strain, visible in his eyes and in the lines around his mouth. “It is because of certain events that I expect to occur soon.” He sighed. “I think it is important to explain the process of sending messages backward in time.”

“I know that the security forces can do it,” said Lenz. “That’s how they predicted the overload at Zaika. But the message can travel back only a fraction of a sync, and only extremely expensive servers have the power to do it, so the capability stays in the hands of the Caucus.”

“And that is probably for the best, given the rapacious and competitive society we live in. Could you imagine the chaos that would ensue if every citizen on every street corner could look far into the future? Yet I have long felt that in the proper hands the capability would be beneficial.”

“I’ve been taught that signals can’t travel backward far; they lose too much power.”

“The result of basic principles of information diffusion. In classical diffusion, electronic signals are attenuated relative to the square of the distance they travel. That allows fairly cheap communication across a single planet, and even reasonable performance in traveling across interstellar space, as the visibility of stars in the rural night sky demonstrates. But travel backward through time introduces another dimension, so attenuation is now relative to the cube of the distance instead of the square. That is why even the most powerful transmitters the Caucus can build reach back only a small distance in time.”

“So you can’t solve the problem without creating yet more powerful transmitters, right?”

Shovit looked away for a moment. His affect meter stayed steady, but registered a bit of boldness as he said, “It has been solved.”

Shovit was not a modest person, but here he was clearly holding himself back. Lenz could tell that in his spare time he had broken the most insurmountable barrier facing mankind—and had decided for the sake of protecting society to keep the discovery to himself. She looked keenly at his face, a practice she had been learning from her contact with Dalshameni; she saw there a piercing joy of understanding undercut by the sadness that comes when one recognizes the consequences of knowledge. It was a face beautiful in its burdens.

“What the physicists forgot,” he said, “is that signals under the right conditions produce echoes. A signal normally travels forward through time; its weaker echo therefore travels backward. Despite the loss of power in this echo, I have discovered it to be remarkably robust for carrying a moderately sized chunk of information back several kilosyncs.”

The room turned about Lenz, she felt that she could hardly breathe for excitement. “You know what’s going to happen several kilosyncs in the future!”

“That’s the weight I bear. You cannot imagine a heavier one. All the inhabitants of all the worlds chase down twisted paths, intertwining with each other on their way to an unseen destiny. I stand on a mountain and view all paths—tell me, is this to commune with the Unbounded, who encompasses the 26 dimensions and to whom past, present, and future are all the same? All paths can be seen, yet each human chooses his own path! I wonder if all physics and religion are aspects of one knowledge.”

He paused, then shook his head and picked up the box. “This device is a simple transmitter; it has no predictive qualities. I have distributed several of these to people in the movement for justice and racial reconciliation, in preparation for a day when we need to communicate with each other. The devices have to be distributed thickly across the planet, because they rely on a crude hopping capability to transmit messages. I would like you to have one.” With that he deposited the tiny box on Lenz’s lap, and would say no more.

She walked home alone. Her heart pounded, but she barely thought of the little box in her pack. She was in awe of Shovit. Never had she imagined a person who so integrated facility, wisdom, and compassion. Shovit appeared to her now as a shining figure, a central node that received all messages from everywhere without the delay introduced by synchronization units. The power of his brain, and no less his will and his vision, overwhelmed her. And yet he was gentle, and playful, and quick in his response to human suffering. She felt she would follow him anywhere, that whatever hand he needed, she would be there to offer hers. His strongly molded face appeared to her beautiful. His limbs seemed the summit of human strength. She could not stop thinking of his face, the bend of his back, the deep eyes.

She was therefore already in a distracted state when she returned home and found two uniformed security personnel waiting for her. Squat, somber men of middle age with a mien of those who consider the world a place of danger, they flashed their credentials imposingly across her monitor and asked to come inside with an affect that indicated she would incur difficulties if she did not agree.

“You know that a planet-wide investigation is being conducted currently about the Zaika attack,” said one, a smooth-faced man with a receding chin. Lenz assumed they were debriefing her because of her work on the wiring of the building. So she was flustered when they said, “And you know that a member of your office, whom you visited that very night, is a Dalshamen activist.”

“I’m sure she had nothing to do with it!” she exclaimed.

“We appreciate that you feel friendly toward her, but it is our job to check out all suspects,” said the other officer, with a gentle but businesslike demeanor.

“How did you meet iglene-panis-resident-dq-gwc?” asked the first man. Lenz thought as quickly as she could; she felt intense pressure from their gaze. In Resst’s apartment, Iglene had filled out the account form manually. Thus, nothing could be on record to show that Lenz had brought the form to Resst’s or to trace where it was signed. At that moment she saw that the man set his monitor to detect duplicitous eye movements—but she had made up her mind and was not vulnerable to detection.

“It was on the first day I came to work at Forward-Looking Enterprises,” she said.

The interview continued long, long after she wished it would end. She could not later remember everything she said. Over and over she protested, “Iglene is out in the open, she works for racial harmony, she is not a terrorist,” and the gentle officer acknowledged her. But still they kept on. They knew about the Racial Freedom Society. She tried to say as little about it as possible, but their questions drew out more and more. She had not eaten anything since lunch; she begged them to let her have a bit of bread and they assented. When they left late that evening she was exhausted.

Several kilosyncs passed; because Shovit had mentioned he had to leave on a business trip, she had not interacted for a while with anyone in the firm. But one day an insistent beep from Shovit interrupted her work. “I have bad news,” he said shakily. “Iglene has been detained by the security forces.”

A great fear seized Lenz. Had something she said to the police led to this?

“I will be spending every sync at the police station, so long as they allow me there,” continued Shovit, distraught. “My concern is justified by my being Iglene’s employer, although of course our relationship goes far beyond that. What I need for you to do is continue handling routine messages concerning business, and to organize our justice group to protest—particularly the Pudkrevi, who have more clout with the authorities and are not in danger of arrest.”

When Lenz disconnected, she fell into a morass of self-incrimination. The more she tried to remember what she had said the night of the interrogation, the sicker she felt. She had managed to lie to protect her Pudkrev friend Resst, but not any of the Dalshameni. Oh, she was a coward, a traitor—worse, a racist at heart. She was unworthy of Iglene, a blot upon the movement she was trying to promote, a wretched nothing presumptuously attempting to be a person of integrity. She could not work. She went home and could not eat or rest.

From morning to night she exchanged plans with protesters around the globe. She stood for two days outside the bunker where Iglene was held, withstanding chilling rain from dawn to dusk with her companions. Knowing that Iglene could not see her from the windowless complex, she gave up and stayed home, sending useless messages to check Iglene’s status every few syncs. Lenz also thought of doing a check on the legal status of Resst, but stopped because it would draw suspicion. Finally she disconnected all communication devices, buried her face in the sheets of her bed, and sobbed as if she were the loneliest person in the world. When she slept, she dreamt of Iglene speaking but could not make out the words.

Finally Iglene was released.

The experience Lenz had had with the security forces wiped away any resentment she felt over Zaika. It was replaced with a cold, hard premonition that Iglene would no longer accept her. She sat alone in her room miserably wondering what Iglene felt. Could Shovit intercede? Finally Lenz abruptly arose and headed for the physport.

Iglene was cooking a humble meal in her room. “Come in, come in, we must talk,” she said boisterously. Lenz still could not read her face, or understand her voice, enough to tell whether she was welcoming or threatening.

“What did they do to you?” she asked.

“The usual,” scoffed Iglene. Her old reserve seemed to be back. “They slapped me a bit, and queried me for many syncs. I sat in my cell for a while with my hands pulled behind my back and a vomit-soaked sack over my head. This has all happened to me before. I know they have informers at the Racial Freedom meetings, so they have nothing new to learn from me. In fact,” and here she laughed, a rare and relieving sound, “I learned more from them than they did from me. Because of what they neglected to ask, I know that I have succeeded in keeping certain things secret.”

Lenz was silent for a moment. She could not blurt out what was on her mind, even though she wished she could say everything that bothered her, beg for forgiveness, cry like a small child. “I have been feeling worried for a long time, waiting for your release,” she said weakly.

“And I can tell why you are worried,” announced Iglene with a hearty slap to her shoulder. “Don’t feel bad any longer! You did nothing to hurt me. The interrogators played back to me everything you said; there was nothing incriminating, nothing at all revealing.”

“But why were they so hard on me!” cried Lenz, unable to hold back tears.

“Don’t you see what they’re doing?” persisted Iglene with her arms around Lenz. “It is pure intimidation, simple fear. For you and me both. Enough harassment and they hope we will stop what we’re doing. And drive us apart too! But they won’t—they won’t!”

Now Lenz was on her knees, racked with sobs, feeling the rough stone floor beneath her, Iglene’s strong arms around her. They knelt breast to breast and she wept freely. “I have looked to you…since we met…you have come to be everything that I want to be…you and Shovit…oh, you must know it, I love Shovit, I pine for him, I cannot imagine being away from him…”

Lenz abruptly stopped at a choking noise from Iglene. She was holding her hand over her face to hide her feelings, but Lenz could see an effusion of joy and of pain in the hunch of her shoulders. Lenz pulled away awkwardly. Dry tears, evaporated down to crystals of salt, stinging her eyes and tightening her throat to an endless ache. But Iglene came back. “Life can be hard,” she said. “Sometimes you must stay away from someone you love.” Lenz gazed at her through heavy eyelids; she could not imagine what Iglene was talking about.

Iglene rested an arm on the rutted table next to them. “I have an important secret, Lenz, but I feel I cannot withhold the truth from you now. Shovit and I are married.”

Lenz merely gasped. Iglene continued, “I was not sure I could love Shovit. He made himself my benefactor by offering me employment—was I giving myself to him simply out of gratitude? And what would be mother’s family say? I was not at all sure we could be happy, as much as we loved each other.

“I could not believe Shovit could love me, because I had forgotten love. Without feeling love myself—thinking that what I felt for my people was love, which I later recognized to be the need to master them—I could not understand that love can cross racial boundaries, cultural differences, gulfs of perception. When I understood Shovit’s love was for real”—and each mention of this theme struck at Lenz like a knife blade—“it changed me utterly. Reason is powerless in the expression of love. I think it has started to change me back to what I once was—but so many years of misdirection lie in the way!” She look with awe at Lenz. “So many wounds have yet to be cleansed!

“But the grand meeting of Pudkrevi and Dalshameni gave me hope. I realized that he and I could stand against the culture we were in. We went two days later to the planet Yoowi and married there. It was strange, being able to walk the streets of the cosmopolitan capital in its beauty, arm in arm, something we would not dare do on Pudkrev.”

Lenz hated Iglene. She could not help it. Her hatred, blind and irrational, mixed jealousy and racial disgust and anger at not being told earlier. How could Shovit love a Dalshamen? Oh, it was madness, madness, she must control herself, she must not feel this way! Yet she did.

Finally she found her voice. “How did you meet? And how did he woo you? There is a block to prevent romantic relations between Pudkrevi and Dalshameni!” She was tired of the teary quaver in her voice, the knot in her throat, the sense of shame.

“I met Shovit when I joined his discussion group on Dalshamen equality, the one that got him knocked off the education forums. We came to know each other through highly emotional discussions on this group. One day Shovit sent me a private message containing the following verse:

“Though I walk on firm ground
and you upon the shifting sea,
a single jewel from that sea
is worth more than a kingdom.

“In that apparent nonsense I recognized an ancient tale of love oft told by my people, where the king of the land bears his heir by the damsel of the sea. But the Pudkrevi censors didn’t recognize it, so it passed through the block. Without context, without depth, their intelligence was worth nothing to them. Shovit and I met in secret places for many kilosyncs, and he hired me into his business so we would have an excuse to spend time together.”

Lenz held to her sullen anger. But she was beaten, she had to withdraw. Shovit and Iglene shared a bond deeper than she yet could go. They had chosen the most difficult path, one requiring lifeline deprivation and sacrifice.

“I must go,” she told Iglene in a broken voice. “I need a buffer.” She rose to leave, but Iglene threw on a cloak and took her arm.

“I have to guide you at this time of day, because Dalshamen fanatics are beginning to roam the streets.” As Iglene spoke, Lenz could hear the sound of drumming from afar. Iglene took them on a circuitous route toward the East gate, away from the sound of the drums and then toward them again. Down a narrow passageway between craggy stone apartment buildings, Lenz caught a glimpse of banners and heard the shouts of an orator. “Their signs say things like Death to Pudkrevi, and The Unbounded Wants All Unbelievers Expelled,” Iglene told her.

“So this is how anti-Caucus sentiment comes out!” said Lenz with disappointment. But she noticed that Iglene had a worried, thoughtful look.

“I’m not so sure,” Iglene responded slowly, “that the demonstrations are really a challenge to the Caucus.” Lenz stared at her in confusion. Iglene went on, “Bidup discovered that bandwidth for Dalshamen militants has increased, just like bandwidth for Pudkrev fanatics. There is something happening that we don’t understand…something that poses a dangerous change in our society.”

When they said “To the focal point” and parted, Lenz felt even more out of place in the world.

Greater Crisis

The shouting in the street dragged her away from her drifting, consciousless state. What was this hubbub? Nobody ever gathered outside. Shovit was on military duty, Forward-Looking Enterprises was virtually suspended, and she had not felt she could talk to Iglene or Bidup. So she had been isolated in her room, mechanically keeping the databases up to date, not letting her mind work, shutting out news channels. It was to her a time outside time, beside the flow, unreal, enduring, enchanted.

Now as sirens rose from the vicinity of the Great Spire, Lenz felt a wave of fear. She scanned external channels. All entertainment had stopped, every transmission carried news.

“Rioters descending…troops called out…” She could not be patient, she could not listen to any broadcast all the way through. Numbed, she scanned the frequencies aimlessly and heard bits and pieces of horrors in the making. So distraught was she that she had to use her shaking hand to call up news channels. Every political tendency was broadcasting, and every voice was announcing a different story. The Resistance was calling for the blood of the treacherous Pudkrevi, the right-wing Pudkrevi were calling on the security forces to expel all Dalshameni from the planet. Voices of rage, voices of appeasement, calls for reconciliation, calls for race war. She still didn’t understand what was happening.

Rebuffed in her appeal to the Diffuser, she finally got to her feet and looked out the window. People were marching with weapons and singing the patriotic songs they had all learned as children. She realized that the acts of men and women were shaped by their prejudices more than by reality, even when information was freely available. Where, in this depthless sea of unanchored facts and wild rumor, could she find what was really happening?

Onlyon would know.

As she had so many times in the past, Lenz called the one person she could trust to be at the center. Onlyon did not want to talk, he was consumed with quelling the crisis, but he agreed to give her a quick outline of events.

“Text studies by the Fully Connected have finally borne fruit, alas,” he said. While Onlyon and most other religious Pudkrevi were content with searching and indexing the Tutorial and the Standards, more mystical elements treated them as ciphers and had started many generations ago to run algorithms that they hoped would make the texts yield their secrets. “One of these groups believes it has found the key to a mystery—and it requires them to build a transmitter right on the magnetic north pole of the planet.”

“The site of the Great Spire!” gasped Lenz.

“Yes, various fringe groups said it was time to pull down the Great Spire, that the Golden Walled City must be purified. And they converged on the Spire with flash weapons.”

“Couldn’t the Caucus find out about the plot in advance?”

“So long as we have a general idea of the subject, we can usually launch a side-channel attack,” explained Onlyon. “But these fanatic sects know each other so intimately, and in fact dwell so fully in a shared insanity, that communications seeming entirely innocuous to outsiders have meanings only the initiates can read. So we had no inkling of their attack until they started to amass with weapons and explosives. It is bad luck that their code-breaking efforts succeeded before ours.”

Lenz couldn’t help shouting. “If they succeed they’ll touch off a war with the whole solar system against us!” Her mouth was dry.

“I suppose our security forces could disperse a mob of radical Pudkrevi,” continued Onlyon. “But the Dalshameni themselves could not hold back. An attack on the Great Spire is just the event that would rally even the least religious. Hundreds of thousands are coming to join the fight. The Pudkrevi are lining up on the West of the Spire and the minorities on the East near their quarter. Our security is strained past its limits; we have placed a huge block around the Spire and the two mobs. But their weapons are strong, and they’re attacking the block with everything they’ve got. So far they’re fairly ineffective because they don’t know the best angle at which to aim the guns, but they’re starting to learn what works and their numbers are growing at every sync.”

“What will happen if the block gives way?”

“Total calamity,” uttered Onlyon grimly. “We expect we can hold out for a couple more decasyncs, but sometime after nightfall we’ll be overwhelmed. And now I must go to work; I have not the foggiest idea how to stem this crisis. But Lenz—pray for the health of the government, because without it people would swallow each other alive.” He disconnected.

She placed her hands on the wall, the first firm thing she could find, and felt her tumult turn her around and around. Heaving noises from her chest let her know she was hyperventilating dangerously. She could not see straight, she covered her eyes and pressed against the wall as she spun.

Get a hold of yourself, she thought desperately. If you keep up this fainting, the affect meter will notify the Health Monitors and they’ll send a sedation signal to reduce you to the point where you’ll be no good to anybody.

It was important that she now had all the information. Information was power—she remembered a trivial and unschooled observation invented eons ago on another planet. And now information was hers, she knew more than anyone on Pudkrev, more even then Onlyon, because she knew that there was hope in Shovit’s transmission devices and his network of peace activists. She had to reach Shovit!

But Shovit had not anticipated everything. He had gone on security duty and was incommunicado to the world. She tried his ID and found it blocked. Of course, only the security services knew his secret trigger—whom else might he tell? One wasn’t supposed to give the trigger to anyone outside the security forces, even to one’s own family. But Iglene! Iglene would know! Because when two people are secretly in love they cannot rely on the authorities to convey news between them. To reach Shovit, Lenz must reach Iglene.

Now she was focused, she was restored. She felt more connected to herself than ever before. For the first time since early childhood, she sensed the headiness of freedom, the calmness of power. She had a mission: to find Iglene and convey all the information they both had to Shovit. She could not get Shovit’s device to contact Iglene, but with determination and a complete absence of fear she headed for the physport. Everyone was listening to reports, twenty going at once. But the news was unchanged. Repeated images filled the car of an angry crowd at the Spire, growing by the moment, thousands pressing against the force barrier.

At the border of the Dalshamen neighborhood the physport halted; a block had been placed on the quarter. Her monitor announced, “Violence risk: no inhabitants allowed to leave, visitors advised to stay away.”

Lenz knew her rights. The authorities could prevent Dalshameni from leaving a neighborhood, but Pudkrevi were always allowed to enter. Despite her urgency, Lenz stopped at a bounded resource station. She had to have a cover story for entering the Dalshamen quarter. So wildly she started running her fingers over images of antibiotics, bandages, diapers, pain-killers—whatever she could grab went into her sack. Because the provision was filled with panicky customers hoarding whatever they could find, none of the staff eyed her strangely as she loaded up motley medical supplies.

Now, hoisting the bag before he, she approached the soldiers blocking the road into the Dalshamen quarter. “Humanitarian aid,” she shouted in a voice that she tried hard to keep steady. “Let me through.”

“You’re insane to want to go in there,” answered a soldier, a young male Moketo with light skin, almost as light as a Dalshamen. “They’ll rip you limb from limb.”

“But I have people to visit, there are people suffering in there—and you have no right to hold me back.”

“Humanitarian!” spat another. “Pudkrevi die, and all you soft-hearted agitators think about is the Dalshameni! Did you ever consider that by giving them supplies you make them stronger, and then they attack us, and then we have to kill them? What kind of humanitarian aid is that? Are they any better off?”

Lenz pushed past them; she could gain nothing by further argument. They let her go in. Her radio was still jammed, so she strode the way she now knew well. A few people tossed stones at her prominent figure in Pudkrev clothing, but most of them were busy getting to safety—or perhaps to find some more rewarding target—and gave her no more than a surprised glance.

Iglene’s door was dark and empty. Lenz looked up and down the effaced surfaces of old stone buildings. A few straggling folk occupied the street. She ran up to a clump. “Do you know Iglene? I must find her. It’s for the good of the Dalshameni!” They were frightened, they shook their heads as if they did not comprehend. But by now Lenz had learned to read faces well enough to tell that they understood her.

“Please, I think I can save us all! But I must find Iglene. Where is she?”

An old woman glanced around the group. “We don’t know where Iglene is…”

“She went to her mother’s, didn’t she? She needed to make sure her mother was safe. Please, take me to the apartment where Iglene’s mother lives.”

“We don’t know where that is…”

Lenz unwrapped her monitor from around her neck. “Here! Take this to Iglene!” The Dalshameni stared at the rare object. They had never handled a monitor before. “Just take it to her, for the sake of both our peoples! It has a record of what I did today and will tell her everything she needs to know.”

Trembling, an old man with sad wrinkles reached his hand out slowly. She handed him the monitor and he put his legs into as fast a gait as he could muster, heading further into the Dalshamen quarter.

For a long time she sat in Iglene’s tiny room. She paced back and forth and tried to make out as much of the Dalshamen language as she could among the voices outside. Suddenly, harsh Pudkrev utterances were raised above the rest. She peeked out of her streaked and mottled window and saw the old man and woman talking to two of the soldiers who had stopped her in the road before. The face of the Moketo was contorted as he called the inhabitants liars. Then as she watched he swung the butt of his rifle precipitously in a circle and smashed it into the side of the old man’s face. The man fell to the ground as Lenz rushed outside.

“Don’t you dare!” she cried. “These are peaceful, innocent people! Stop it right now.”

“You’re the person we’re looking for,” exclaimed the other soldier, the non-Moketo. “We were sent in to escort you to safety.”

“Then let’s get going, and stop provoking the inhabitants,” said Lenz with dignity.

The old woman was kneeling besides the man, holding a dirty rag to his face. As the Pudkrevi left, she stared with accusing eyes at Lenz. The small group turned a corner and their victims disappeared from view, but the soldiers were still grumbling; they were trying to disguise their fear.

“You activists should worry about other Pudkrevi who are suffering,” complained the Moketo. “Do you know what’s happened to people like my father? With all these new high-tech tools being invented, he’s lost the contract he held for eight megasyncs, all his life! They don’t need him anymore, the tools do everything. So now my parents live on pugleb gruel and vegetables from their garden, and anything I can manage to save up from my pay. But do you high-flying activists care?”

Lenz had to admit that he was right. She had never looked at things as the poor Pudkrevi had. There are different ways of knowing; each has its own qualities, penalties, rewards. But she was angry with the Moketo, he had been violent for no reason, and he dragged her down into guilt with him. She could only hope the old man would recover. But at the same time, she felt some triumph. She had noticed, as the old man talked to the soldiers, that he wasn’t carrying her monitor. Iglene had received it; Lenz’s mission was accomplished.

The Hidden Path Upward

When Iglene read the events of the day from Lenz’s monitor she had the same initial reaction of paralysis that Lenz had felt. All Iglene had heard up to then was rumors; she could never have imagined the severity of the crisis. She sensed, just as Lenz had, that Shovit could help them, but how would she reach Shovit? The block on her quarter was not merely a physical one; it stopped all communications in and out. When she directed Lenz’s monitor toward the Diffuser, all she found was white noise. The same went for the radio device Shovit had given her.

She went outside and gazed up at the tallest spire in the quarter. Puny by comparison to the magnificent Great Spire, it still reached well over sixty light-lengths in the air. And if the security forces needed power to protect the Great Spire, they probably wouldn’t have enough to totally cut off the air space around her quarter. Probably their block extended only thirty or forty light-lengths off the ground.

The night had fallen as she reached the spire. It was almost deserted inside. The caretaker greeted her. “What have you come for, Iglene? Is your mother all right? Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I would just like a quiet place to compose myself, Moanon,” said Iglene. “If you could go outside for a few syncs I’ll rest here.” He complied, and she immediately raced across the rough, hand-cut stones to the base of the spire. She had never looked closely inside before, but she knew the spire’s stone walls were supported by a metal grid, and was gratified to see that it was crossed by horizontal bars at short intervals in a kind of fractal pattern. The caretaker returned to grab her.

“What are you trying to do!” he cried. “You can’t climb up the sacred spire.”

“Trust me, Moanon, don’t you know I would do nothing to desecrate that which is the focus of Dalshamen life? Times of crisis require that we trust each other.” Nodding in awe, the caretaker withdrew.

Quickly she pulled herself up on the first rung, the monitor over her shoulder. It looked like a long way to the top, but she had no time for doubt. Show me hope without fear, she thought, or fear without hope, for the two are inseparable. Hand over hand she pulled herself into the hollow stone tunnel extending dizzyingly upward. The inside was pitch dark, only the faint light from the outside sky playing about within. The light reflected here and there off the metal grid and created weird hatch-lines that crisscrossed her hands as one over the other they preceded her face up the wall. She was becoming numb, in her hands and in her brain, but she felt the same heightened sense of reality that she had experienced the day she wandered through the Dalshamen quarter, Moovdin’s fibersheet in hand.

As Iglene climbed, a shudder passed through her and she thought of the stone floor far below. The prospect of death in her people’s most sacred place scared her more than the jails of her enemies ever had. She dared not look down, and the fractured light arrayed above her dazed her whenever she looked up. Hope is a slighter, tougher thing even than trust, she thought. And always she climbed, on and on. It was getting cooler. Suddenly she felt the end of the metal grid, and an open space, and realized she was tucked into the very crown of the spire.

Gingerly she moved her tiny radio to the front. Which direction lay Prak, where Shovit was stationed in the plains of the East? Using the monitor’s built-in compass she oriented herself toward him. A prayer came to her lips as she sent out a signal.

A new light before her! A movement! It was he. But the image was hardly distinguishable; had she not known his body through and through she could not have identified him. “Can you hear and see me, Shovit?” she called out. “Send a simple frequency across so we can sync up.” And suddenly he was there, clear and sharp. She heard a high flutey sound, a single tone that absurdly reminded her of the pipes that shepherds played when she had visited the countryside as a girl.

Shovit stopped playing his flute and smiled at her. “These little things are what we use to focus our communications devices in the security forces—the sound is almost a pure fundamental without overtones.”

“You chose quite an advanced protocol for your little radio invention, my love.”

Shovit was not defensive. “Brilliant minds need a rest every once in a while. I subclassed the handshake component from one in an old army training manual.”

They talked quickly, and she filled him in on all the things that she knew but he did not. Then they made a plan, and he told her a password that could be used to call the head of diffusion server administration in the Golden Walled City. “We have been working closely on the bandwidth project,” explained Shovit, “and this is the key that will get past his filters to him.”

“My love for you will stand forever, Shovit!” cried Iglene, and they disconnected.

When she reached the ground and breathed easily again, she saw the streets awash with people. They carried torches and shouted and sang. Insistent drums beat out as if finding each other and coming together in rhythm. Upget, a ten year old boy whom she often talked on her street, caught her arm and said enthusiastically, “The block is down! The traitors found they needed all their power to hold back the crowds at the Great Spire, and now we are free to leave. I am going to the Great Spire to fight the sacred battle.” Freedom, freedom! rang in his excited talk, in every word.

Iglene was shocked to hear such words from one so young. “Don’t even think about it, Upget!” she cried. “You will get yourself killed.”

“So what if I am killed? I will be gathered into the Unbounded!” laughed the boy. “When a person’s faith is great, his trial will be great as well.”

Iglene was heartbroken. Upget had always been a cheerful lad, the very image of vitality, playing ball on the cobblestones and dancing at every festival. Where had he developed this morbidity? Where this anger, where this hate? Under that smile, a death wish had been cultivated all these years. She felt desolation for her people.

“No, no, I’ll tell you what you can do to be useful,” she told him. “Accompany me to the edge of town where my company’s laboratory is located. Then go back to your mother’s apartment and make sure your family is well. Do you hear me?”

And after they came to the laboratory she dismissed him, saying “Can you find your way back through these streets in the dark?”

“In the Dalshamen quarter, yes,” he said, confused by her question. “But there is plenty of light here.”

“Go quickly,” she urged him, “return to your family.”

Inside the lab, Lenz was sitting alone when an image appeared before her: an innocent-looking young Pudkrev woman, eyes averted, with a typically distracted expression, even a bit dull-witted. “Hi, Lenz! How do I look?” she asked in a silvery pure Pudkrev accent.

“Not quite realistic,” answered Lenz. “You need to work on making her more human.”

“Damn,” answered the image, changing to Iglene. “That would take days. We don’t have the time.” And as the image faded, the real Iglene strode into the room. She locked the outer door, then took Lenz into the lab and locked the inner door too.

“Shovit and I have talked,” she said. “I will tell you what to do.”

Her authority was contagious. As Lenz held back, Iglene’s eyes flashed. “Courage, Lenz! I cannot do this without you.”

Handing Lenz’s monitor back to her, Iglene instructed her, “Enter the key I present to you into your monitor. I will stand back here near the window, where I cannot be seen. I will send words that will appear at the bottom of your monitor, and I want you to speak exactly what is written. Exactly! All right?”

Bewildered, Lenz nodded. A loud knock could be heard from the street as she started to type.

“Open up! Security forces! We know that whore, iglene-panis-resident-dq, is in there! Come out and lead us to your traitor husband, iglene-panis!”

Lenz looked helplessly at Iglene. “It will take them a couple syncs to cut through the two locked doors,” Iglene said with her old infuriating calm, “and that will give us time to do what we need to do.” Lenz stood numbly. “Type the key!” reminded Iglene.

Lenz entered the key, and a watery-eyed, tight-mouthed face appeared before her. “What does Shovit want?” it said. “I’ve got my hands full trying to save us from interplanetary war.”

“I am Shovit’s administrative assistant,” Lenz read pliantly from the bottom of her monitor, where Iglene was causing the letters to appear. Lenz was not used to reading; the Pudkrevi did little reading outside religious texts because most other transmissions were video. “I have a diffusion fix from Shovit to help maintain your block.” She felt like she had no idea what she was doing or where it would lead, but she tried to put as natural a tone into her voice as possible as she read Iglene’s words. The manager at the other end, Kenyet, was fortunately oblivious to cues that something was amiss, a Pudkrev blindness reinforced by his state of distraction over the crisis.

“I notice Shovit is in a bit of trouble,” he remarked, neither showing nor pretending any emotion. “Away from his security unit without leave, isn’t he?”

Iglene thought a response, which Lenz read. “Do you expect those bureaucrats to understand when he’s working on a unique and masterful solution to our crisis?”

The manager snorted. “It had better be good! And fast too. We’re approaching the limits of our power.”

A clang came from outside as the security forces broke through the outer door. The whirring of the guns showed that they were starting on the inner door. Lenz glanced at Iglene, but Iglene quickly shook her head. In that instantaneous expression Lenz could read danger, determination, and confidence. With a wave of her hand Iglene directed Lenz’s attention back to the words on the monitor.

“The strength of the block is much less than the raw power available to you, due to packets lost in the Hole,” read Lenz, feeling more and more bizarre. She could hardly understand what she was saying.

“So?” jousted the manager.

Lenz hesitated and almost refused to read the words that followed. “I can fix the Hole.” It was completely, utterly crazy. What was Iglene thinking?

Despite himself, Kenyet flashed a tiny unbelieving smile as he shook his head. “Don’t waste my time. Every non-trivial system has an inconsistency. The Hole is predicated on basic tenets of information science.”

“What choice do you have?” read Lenz. “I offer a fix. You can either give me temporary privileges to apply it, or watch the block come down and the entire world order with it.”

The manager looked scared. “I guess you’re right. I’ll let you in, but just for a moment.” He blinked for an instant. “You’re in.”

Suddenly Iglene was standing beside Lenz, having moved noiselessly over to face the monitor, and now with a single gesture she lifted her radio device to point at it. The moment her light-skinned Dalshamen face appeared, Kenyet’s eyes widened in shock. His own bronze face turned white as if reflecting hers, and he glanced down to the device that would shut off access. And as Iglene sent her signal from her radio into the monitor, the last view they had of the manager’s face before the monitor went black was a look that mixed cold understanding, shame, rage, and terror.

Lenz looked around, but nothing could be seen. The room was utterly dark. Curses started to come from the other side of the door as the security officers tried to fire their guns and could not. It felt as if the earth stood still.

The eerie emptiness was exploded by a shattering crash. Coming in the darkness it sounded louder than any noise Lenz had ever heard. At the same moment she felt a blast of air, and a hand grasped hers; it was Iglene. Iglene pulled her outside—apparently she had deliberately broken the window. Lenz felt cool night air on her face; her arms and legs tingled in a new sensation as she stood in the impenetrable dark.

No lamps shown on the street, no lights shot out of the windows. All was dark and empty. But Lenz’s ears were filled with the cries of people in buildings all around them, people who had never been without light their entire lives, people who had never been far from an operational signaling device.

“What did you do!” she finally shouted at Iglene.

“I exploited the Hole,” came back the answer.

“Is everything turned off across the whole planet?”

“It will be, after a couple of syncs,” said Iglene proudly. “I knocked out all the servers in the Golden Walled City at the first instant. The crash will propagate to the next set of servers on the next sync, and outward to the next set after that, and so on.”

“Where are we going now?”

“Away from the city—there’s nothing for us to do here till morning.”

Led now by Iglene, Lenz stumbled across the pavement, one hand on the side of a building to guide her. Her feet kept striking loose stones and obstructions, and the wails of the populace filled her ears, but she managed to keep hold of Iglene’s hand and run on. They passed the last building and ran free across the pavement. Then the pavement ended and now they were in an open field, the gnarled earth beneath them. Still Iglene led her on, out of the familiar, out of the known, out of the city, into the emptiness, into the wild.

The Breathing Space

Darkness screamed from every direction.

The mob of Pudkrevi, who a moment before had been chanting about unity, dissolved into a soup of panicked individuals. Lit at one moment by thousands of glowing weapons and the satellite-mirrored luminescence in the sky, they were left blind the next moment as everything went dead with an ugly electronic snapping noise. They groped in the darkness without light, and Bidup tried to preserve his island of sanity in an ocean of madness. He could not tell whether the bodies buffeting him, the limbs randomly striking his face, were Pudkrev or Dalshamen. The failure of the Diffuser had eradicated all differences. He instinctively threw his arms across his face, head down, hoping just to stay on his feet so as not to be trampled.

Hoping he was now turning around in a half-circle, he prayed that he was moving away from the Spire toward the thin edge of the crowd. He paced deliberately, one step, then another. The shouting and jostling of thousands of people continued to flow across him and through him. The power of the masses was never so evident as now, when all constraints had been removed.

He stayed in a hunched-up state for what seemed years. But he did feel the crowd ease. He got accustomed to darkness, and to the great chaos that existed without transmissions or light, all noise with no signal. He had been somewhat prepared, to be sure. Shovit had not told him the Diffuser would go down, but had warned him of a major upheaval at the Spire.

He found a large, over-hanging slab left at a construction site and rested under it in the darkness, able to take deep breaths and return to a state where he could think clearly. For the first time since the cataclysm, he managed to reach his transmitter. “Shovit!” he cried into it. “I have escaped the crowd at the Great Spire. What shall I do?”

“Just keep your transmitter open as a signal carrier,” responded the voice of Shovit, which gave Bidup new assurance and calm. “I have been talking to people on the daylight side of Pudkrev and they are entering neighborhoods to organize the distribution of food and medicine. Communication is restricted to each immediate neighborhood, which is rarely integated, so our first task is to prevent race riots.”

“Where are you?”

“Thirty thousand light-lengths east of the Golden Walled City, close enough to reach you by mid-day tomorrow. I hacked into a vehicle and rode it till the blackout hit. I will get back to you when daylight comes.”


“What, Bidup?”

“We’re starting from scratch, aren’t we? New patterns on a blank slate.”

Shovit sighed. “I think so, Bidup. There is no resource bidding forum, no security force, no Caucus, no one who holds a position of control over anyone else. We have passed along with our enemies into a land we do not know. Until the Caucus can bring the Diffuser back up, we have ten or fifteen days during which to get Pudkrevi and Dalshameni cooperating on a whole new social basis.”

Bidup waited under the rock in pitch darkness, holding tightly the device that represented his only connection to a world he had known. Suddenly he called on Shovit again. “Shovit, you need better communication with your forces.”

“The devices are the best we’ve got, Bidup!”

“I don’t mean technically. I mean you’ve got to tell us what you’re planning, what is happening in each city. You didn’t even tell me that you knew the breakdown of the Diffuser was imminent!”

A few kilosyncs later Bidup called on Shovit again. “Shovit, when you reach the Golden Walled City we should plot out where our supporters are and how much territory each can cover. Some towns and neighborhoods will be too sparsely covered; our forces will have to spread out to have a maximum impact.”

“That’s a smart idea, Bidup,” said Shovit. “Planning will be harder without information diffusion, though. Dalshameni have some sense of neighborhood spirit already. But who will gather our people from where they are scattered?”

“Planning must be decentralized,” said Bidup. “We can break into tens, hundreds, thousands.”

A short time later, it was Shovit that contacted Bidup.

“Bidup, you’re the most accomplished organizer among us. I’m turning the coordination of our effort over to you.” For Bidup, nothing could have done more to brighten the night.

While Bidup waited under his sheltering stone for dawn, Shovit walked the long road with the inspiring companionship of the stars. When he arrived at a small suburb of the Great Walled City at the break of day, he was greeted by a heartening sight: a collection of Pudkrevi. They were talking face to face, a sight that thrilled him. “Where do you live?”—“Why, I’m right next door”—“Help me lift this rock.” They were attacking the door of the bounded resource station, a job requiring the whole community. Children clamored up to pry open the top, while adults pushed below. In this brazen act of looting Shovit saw the salvation of the world. He introduced himself and told them of a person in a nearby village they could contact in case of outside threat.

Each town discovered self-organization in its own way. In the absence of central authority, naturally, gangs arose, but so did cooperative associations. Neighbor met neighbor; apartment houses worked together. The young took care of the old.

Within the day of the breakdown, enterprising individuals among both the Pudkrevi and the Dalshameni had put together radio devices. Their power tended to be low, though, and their range was just the distance that one could conveniently walk. Thus, they reinforced rather than undermined reliance on the local community. No one had equipment of the sophistication and reliability of Shovit’s devices with their global range. Bidup coordinated all of Shovit’s forces around the planet, in Pudkrev and Dalshamen neighborhoods alike. He directed each radio owner to gather a group of trusted neighbors and form a defense force.

The payoff could be seen early the first morning in Spring Station. Runners warned a member of the defense force in a Pudkrev neighborhood that a collection of Dalshamen punks were on their way. They gathered around a Pudkrev woman trying to bring supplies to her apartment building. “Drop the bags and we’ll go easy on you,” they jeered. But a whistle came from a window above them, and they quickly found themselves outnumbered by volunteers of both races.

“Let the woman go!” cried the defense force leader. “If you need food, we’ll organize and bring it to you.”

The punks looked around at the variously shaded faces. “So you’ve turned informer now, huh?” one sneered at a Dalshamen volunteer. “You like working for the Pudkrevi?”

“We’re working together to keep jerks like you from messing up the place,” replied the target of the insult.

“And if you fight us now,” added the defense force leader bluntly, “I can call up a couple dozen volunteers from around town and bash your heads in.”

The head of the gang looked around, recalculating. “You guys have got your act together,” he acknowledged. “Why don’t you join with me, we can really kick ass around here.”

“Beat it! We do not assign authority to one who asks for it.”

Similar scenes were repeated in cities around the world. The radios, along with the complete cooperation between members of two races, gave Bidup’s forces an unmatched advantage.

After hours of tramping over ruts and sod, pushing through the gnarled branches of the frip trees, plotting their way by the stars, Iglene and Lenz were exhausted. They had no radio, for Iglene’s was totally useless after she had used it to hack into the Diffuser, while Lenz had not had any chance to retrieve hers before their flight. Iglene took them to a shelter created by a knoll. “We can sleep here till dawn; then we can descend through the forest following the magnetic lines marked by rows of trees to reach the east road and meet Shovit. We will enter the Golden Walled City again and try to pull together our forces.”

Lenz was so tired she wanted to lie right down and fall unconscious, but she had something to say to her partner. “Iglene, you have been backsliding. You used me tonight. I thought you would stop trying to make people your instruments.”

She could not see Iglene’s face but could sense discomfort coming from her.

“I yielded to an old personality trait,” said Iglene. “I felt that it was up to me to drive change.”

“You sure did it this time!” said Lenz, and laughed to relieve her mixed emotions.

“But it was not I who was in control,” said Iglene. “In the wilderness I have had time to think about that. I realize now that there is a reason Moovdin got his hands on a sensitive fibersheet with the secrets of the Diffuser, and a reason that he was drawn to give it to me one day. I realize that in my trance, where I tried to rid myself of the sheet and failed, I was being called. In our tradition one is called to the Unbounded. No one can answer that call perfectly at all times, but it is there in everything we do. My own call was to save our peoples from the cataclysm that would have sprung from a war at the Great Spire. To do so, I was forced to rip up the rotting fabric of society. And now that I have done that, it is my call to help weave it together again with a stronger backing.”

“What is this you’re saying? That the Unbounded calls different people in different ways?”

“The Unbounded could have made us all one people, but instead gives each of us a separate path and thus tests each of us by what it has given us,” responded Iglene. “There may be something here for us to learn, but I am too tired to figure anything out now.”

“Me too,” returned Lenz with feeling. “Talk of the Unbounded has always bored me.”

Iglene falling silent, Lenz listened to what the long-stemmed plants swinging in the wind told her. Their scent attracted insects and small flying creatures whose rustlings she felt she could interpret. The smells were incredibly pungent and the chirping of the kirabili wonderfully melodious. She wondered if she had ever been really alive before. In the silence she felt the animate trees grow closer. Each seemed to have an individual personality that wished to speak to her. She started to take deep breaths and open her soul; she felt connected to everything.

Iglene lay quiet beside her. But the odd sounds of the night continued to beckon Lenz. She sat up; Iglene remained asleep. The breezes seemed to whisper to her, and she came to them, and stood on the hillock beneath which the frip trees spread in their spirals and the winged creatures of the night circled, black upon black, finding their food among the branches. She heard the breeze louder now, and heard what it was telling her even though she could not express it in any human language.

She ran back to Iglene and shook her, then grasped the arm of the startled woman and drew her to the top of the hill. Breathing long and generously, she began slowly to turn with her arms out to the grand forest, wondering why the wind itself seemed to turn with the lines of magnetism deep in the rock below—was the wind merely flowing along the rows of frip trees that grew along isodynamic lines, or did the air itself know the earth and the power coursing within it? She turned faster, now the stars themselves were whirling in the chasm filled with energy, and the cries of animals and billowing air enveloped her. The earth, the trees, the stars, the wings, they created a vast pattern of energy of which she was the synapse, a range stretching beyond any living creature’s ability to listen and more subtle than any vision. It was too much, the whole world as a jagged dance of particles; she wanted some focus, a prism to capture it all! And then it came to her that she was the prism. She was a kirabila bird, a frip tree, an iron mountain. The energy that had existed from the start of the universe coursed through her, entering through the crown of her head, suffusing her lungs and womb and coming out her fingers and toes. In the vision, all that vast web was one momentary glitter of light on one wave on the ocean of the universe of power, one fleck of dust on one grass-seed in unending fields of grass.

Consciousness returned to both of them at dawn; they shook their heads, stretched their sore limbs, stumbled down the hill to a stream where they took long drafts. When stinging locusts attacked, Iglene tore some thread-leaves from the haivta bush and wrapped them about both their heads. The locusts left them alone. Iglene then bent the delicate wood of the garesh to make a trap and caught a flafit. Stroking a piece of flint against a stone, she created a spark that grew to a full fire over which they roasted the beast. Lenz was entranced to see fire being put to a positive use. In Pudkrev minds it was always associated with uncontrolled disaster; the notion of a benign flame was a novelty. The meat and the cracked lotita seeds they ate with it were bitter, but the taste was profound and she felt satisfied.

“Do you suppose the people in the cities are learning what we’re learning?” asked Lenz.

“I can only hope,” said Iglene. “I’m sure an interruption in service is shaking things up a bit.”

“Do you understand what happened to us last night?”

“No, but our tradition says that when someone no longer sees the sky, earth, or trees as things in themselves but only as expressions of the Unbounded, then does he truly know the Unbounded.”

They walked south through the trees that rustled in the soothing breezes. When they reached a road they halted, and soon Shovit appeared, walking briskly toward the city. He and Iglene came together, holding on to each other fiercely.

“What has happened in the city?” asked Lenz with worry. “Did everybody go bonkers?”

“Not at all,” replied Shovit. “Did you go bonkers?”

Lenz had to admit that she had not.

“People tend to think the habits of a couple generations will completely alter our personalities,” Shovit explained. “In reality, ancestral ways are much stronger than adaptations to short-lived technologies. What I wish to see is whether we can return to the foundations laid by our ancestors and build upon them a more just society.”

The Golden Walled City boasted one of the largest concentrations on the planet of the defense forces expertly organized by Bidup. Shovit left the day-to-day work, as he had promised, in Bidup’s hands. And whenever Bidup pressed Shovit, saying, “You are the great man among us, you must lead the people,” he would shake his head.

“I do not believe in great men,” he said, “and should one arise, he must only carry out what is already latent in the people. To separate what is true and strong from what is fear and reaction—that is the role of those who are great. And I have done all I can for the people.”

It was thus Bidup who led daily worldwide conferences, where defense force supporters gathered by radio to discuss the Caucus’s progress in bringing up the Diffuser. At one such conference he announced a significant achievement: “In a few more days, we’ll have the whole planet organized.”

“The Caucus couldn’t have maintained order without us,” boasted another supporter. “Now they’ll have to listen to our demands for racial justice.”

“I doubt it,” said another. “Once the Diffuser is back in place it will be business as usual.”

“Let’s ask a different question,” said Bidup. “Not whether the authorities should listen to us, but whether we should bother listening to the authorities.”

“You mean…”

“I mean that when the power comes up, we should be the authorities,” proposed Bidup firmly.

Voices were raised across the frequencies in excitement and consternation. “Listen! Listen!” shouted Bidup into his radio. “This is not simple speculation. By now the Caucus is almost irrelevant; the people have organized themselves. We are the most successful grassroots movement the solar system has ever seen. Membership in our organization is entirely voluntary; everybody is here because they believe in us. We have the people. In fact, we are the people. What are the current authorities? Cowering bureaucrats sitting on top of interplanetary weapons.”

“So you’re saying that our organization should take over the administration of the Diffuser, and that way run the planet?” asked Lenz.

“No,” spoke up Shovit. “The Diffuser will never be as important as before. It will be a tool, not a crutch. People have learned to trust each other as people. We will form a new society that combines the social interdependency of the Dalshameni with the sophisticated technology of the Pudkrevi.”

Bidup continued in an excited tone. “We have a destiny to fulfill, but cannot do it alone. We must extend the revolution to the rest of the solar system. If we can only capture the imaginations of the people!”

And later that day, he developed the slogan “Bringers of Plenty” along with the strategy that turned it into a mass movement. The promise of abundance for all brought thousands upon thousands into the streets.

Locations for demonstrations were hard to choose. The only central meeting places for Dalshameni were existing political organizations whom Bidup rejected, and spires that were inappropriate because of their religious significance. As for the Pudkrevi, they had no symbolic or functional geographical places at all: no parliament, no ministries, only diffusion servers that could change roles with as small a stimulus as the non-receipt of a status message.

Bidup chose bounded resource stations, which remained functioning in a rudimentary way through volunteers with hand calculators and radios. In addition, a few production facilities were turning out necessities like medicines and shoes, though for the most part they stood silently waiting for the Diffuser to start up. By calling rallies at production and distribution facilities, Bidup underlined the people’s yearning for unbounded material resources. Radio communication with the other planets had not been re-established, but there was talk of requisitioning spaceships when the Diffuser came up so that revolutionaries could bring the message directly to new comrades across space.

We Will Meet Again In the Future

When Shovit and Lenz came to their planning center one day, Bidup nudged Iglene. “Tell them about the visitor who dropped by.”

“Oh yes!” picked up Iglene. “We got a surprise visit from Obsleet in the afternoon.”

“Obsleet!” exclaimed Lenz. “He came himself?”

“What was his game?” asked Shovit, instantly on guard.

“He was overtly supportive, and encouraged us to take active steps toward revolution,” said Iglene. “He even offered secret inside information from his Dalshamen Autonomous Government.”

“Did you tell him that he had been given enough years already to kiss the asses of the Caucus?” suggested Shovit, “And that now it is a time for true revolutionaries?”

“Not quite so directly,” laughed Iglene, “But we asked him to leave. I am sure he would be pleased no end to goad us into some premature uprising, and come out looking like a big help to the Pudkrev government by putting us down. The falsest of lies is to claim to have had a dream one has not had.”

“We still do not know whether the revolution will succeed,” pointed out Lenz.

“But we could know!” cried Bidup.


Bidup pointed to Shovit. “Shovit can communicate through time.” Shovit remained stolid, barely blinking as they talked around him.

“What about it, Shovit?” challenged Lenz. “Why don’t we know right now what will happen? When the revolution is over, aren’t you going to send a message back to us?”

Shovit said stiffly, “I will not.”

“And why not?”

Iglene jumped in. “How can you ask Shovit now what he will do after the revolution, Lenz? He won’t know till that moment. Obviously he is not sending us news of the future, but he can’t tell why.”

“Yes, I can,” responded Shovit. “When I say I will not send news back, it is a decision I made long ago. No matter how good or bad the outcome, I cannot tell people in the past what will become of their actions.”

Lenz pouted. “Why are you teasing us, Shovit?”

“You haven’t kept the news to yourself, you bastard, now have you?” growled Bidup.

Shovit answered, “Let me put the answer as a question. What would you do if I told you the revolution would succeed?”

Bidup could not answer right away, but thought a moment. “We would not try as hard as we need to, because we would not feel any urgency.”

Shovit went on, “And conversely, what if I said we would not achieve everything we wanted?”

Bidup replied, “It would become a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

“Exactly!” finished Shovit. “Whatever the result, it is better that we do not know.”

He arose as they stood around, perplexed.

Lenz said, “I cannot grasp the dilemma, Shovit. Our entire society is based on the assumption that the more knowledge we have, the better we can predict the results of our actions, and the better results we will achieve.”

Shovit said, “I am talking not about planning, but about moral impulse.”

“But do you say that it is better not to know?”

“I’m saying that it does not matter how chance responds to your actions—you must do what you feel is right. This is the game we play with the Unbounded: we stay ignorant of the future so that our choices reflect only our true selves.” They all fell silent. Shovit smiled without much humor. “Welcome to free will.”

As the day for restoration of the Diffuser approached, fear took hold and sprouted within Bidup. His forces were mobilized, their doctrines had been spread. But the Diffuser would restore to life the flash weapons of the Caucus. Then force entered in; might making right; power, and its tool, violence, and its most devoted ally, the averted eye.

The day arrived. Shovit called him on the radio to say, “Can you come to our at our central planning place right away? We are meeting to witness the restoration of the Diffuser and put forward our united appeal to the masses.”

Bidup knew the meeting place was Iglene’s room in the Dalshamen quarter.

“But the Caucus will have weapons, Shovit. What if we are attacked? What if you are captured?”

“Wisdom is better than weapons, Bidup. We can’t outgun them. We depend on the respect of the population.”

Bidup felt that this time Shovit had grown sentimental. He signed off saying, “I will be there by the time transmission starts,” but silently he decided to put into force a plan he had thought up many days before. On the night of the black-out, the three cursing soldiers who had come to arrest Iglene had left their useless guns on the floor of the lab, and there Bidup had found them the next day. Immediately he had hidden them; now was the moment to draw them out again. He raced to the lab and searched it quickly. The presence of the enemy seemed to be everywhere, but he saw nothing strange as he approached the bench in the corner of the lab. No steps stirred behind him as he pulled the large toolbox from under the bench; no rustling could be heard as he unhinged the box and extracted three powerful guns. He did not see or hear the intruders until the rawhide strap was thrown about his neck.

The image of Bidup’s stiffened body was the first transmission by the restored Diffuser. A few members of the defense force, including Shovit, Iglene, and Lenz, sat in shocked grief as the transmission’s voice-over regretted the unfortunate outcome of the encounter, but then went on to promise that the movement that Bidup had headed would be brought into the discussion. “The Caucus proposes a new order on Pudkrev!” announced the mechanized agent. “An investment increase of twenty percent in the provision of Diffuser access to Dalshamen communities, and a joint Pudkrev-Dalshamen dialog to which Bidup’s supporters are welcome.”

“A lousy sop,” snarled one of the defense forces. “Let’s call a strike and flick off those arrogant strutters.”

But the announcer was too quick for them. “To determine public interest in our proposal, we are deploying a new bidding system. Right now, every member of the planet can vote on whether or not they accept our new order.”

“That’s completely rotten!” shouted Lenz. “We haven’t had a chance to debate the proposal.”

And even as she finished speaking, the results of the plebiscite were announced on the Diffuser: 63% in support, 25% against, and 12% abstaining.

“This is a desecration of Bidup’s legacy,” said Iglene. “We will move ahead with a strike and ignore the plebiscite.”

Shovit sat bowed with his hands pressed upon his temples. “It is too late,” he said.

“Do you think that 63% are lost to us forever? Do you think they won’t follow us if we call for revolution? Why don’t you trust united action now by Pudkrevi and Dalshameni?”

“Because they are not us, are they? And we cannot be them, can we?” Shovit laughed. “Isn’t it perfect? After generations of dragging in refugees from all over the universe and saying, ‘Become a race now,’ the Pudkrevi authorities have succeeded! They have forged their people.” He walked out.

The others started arguing loudly. Except for Iglene, they could not understand what Shovit had said. Downcast, drained, she interpreted for them. “He means that habits of racism are too ingrained in both sides. The people were not ready for united action; we could not rip them away from decades of conditioning in just a few days. The Caucus is not an imposition upon the citizens; it is their own state of social development.”

“If only Bidup were here!” sobbed Lenz. “Oh Bidup, we have lost your vision, and now we have lost everything that pulled us together and made us one.”

“Well, we will still pursue the old dream,” uttered Iglene wearily, “but never again will I feel that we can make progress without bounds.”

And there was not much to say or do after that; the terms of debate had been set by the authorities. The wicked even in their mercy are cruel. But Lenz walked the streets of the Golden Walled City and felt there was a change. People were not as they were.

“What is different?” she asked Shovit and Iglene a couple days later.

“I believe there is more hope, after we dwelt for a while in dark places.” Shovit replied. “So long as the Pudkrev-Dalshamen forum goes somewhere…”

“Will people use the Diffuser differently?”

“People have to treat each other differently. But if they manage to do so, the Diffuser will be affected too. The original design goal behind the Diffuser was efficiency. Of course, the most efficient way to use resources is to cut down the number of people whom these resources have to support. The result is not only poverty, but a psychological expulsion from society. What we need is a new Diffuser built on a new goal—to bring as much as it can to each person.”

“I will try to do that,” said Lenz simply. “I am working in housing services once again, but as the planet-wide director. Since we have achieved a firmer peace, there are more people interested in coming here—and now we serve Dalshamen immigrants as well as Pudkrevi. I am dragging the housing forums toward a commitment to equality and the timely provision of services to all. What will you do?”

“We will go to the planet Yoowi,” answered Iglene, her arm in Shovit’s.

“Yes,” he added. “I am returning to the place upon which I visited so much devastation. The rest of the solar system has farther to come than we do. Does it seem utopian to go?”

“Not as utopian as bringing down all communication in order to promote community,” answered Lenz. She looked up at the sky where the aurora was starting to spread out its fingers. “Or building a prism at the north pole, for that matter. To the focal point, then,” she said.

“To the focal point,” answered Iglene.

Disclaimer: The people and events in this story are completely fictional and are not meant to represent any real-life counterparts.

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