Glamourous Rags

The Lacing

Part One - Attic of Used Worlds

It hung there, a darkness among the bright stars, filling Our sensors with its presence and its dread.

A mouse, looking for cats to bell, might come suddenly upon the sleeping householder, and tremble from the thunder of his snores; imagine the flea on the mouse, and the terror of the mite on that flea. And then, the householder, not a man, but something infinitely more huge.

It floated complacently in preternatural emptiness, with only the dust of the void to keep it company, only a few crumbs of ice and rock for Us to hide behind.

And the Sun, and the planets, and the asteroids, and the comets, and the outer shell of cometary junk and ice - all that should have been here gone, like melted snowflakes, as if they had never been.

Starlight sank into its surface without a glimmer, and it was silent on all channels- We had come almost upon it without its showing to sight as more than an unusual emptiness, before a sudden glint of light and heat flashed from one of the world-swallowing chasms that punctuated its surface.

Our other senses were hopelessly deranged by what We perceived - where Base would normally have rendered gravity and magnetism and the presence of elements into neat iconic diagrams for the other two parts of Us, all it could manage was a hopelessly scrambled cats cradle, ever more so the closer we got to it, an absence of information that could only tell us to be wary.

Yet it was the odd gleams of light and heat and radiance that were most worrying. The Rationalisers had, all of them, been misers of energy, demanding it all for their thoughts, their thoughts about themselves and what they might become; demanding it, and in the end taking it. Even locked confidently into this hermit shell, it was unlike Our enemy to be spendthrift, even in small things.

We had sneaked back into, and then across, the cluster for slow centuries, crunching, burning and then imitating whatever piece of interstellar junk seemed expedient. There was always more of it, odd spilt asteroidal and cometary fragments spinning out into emptiness - convenient for Us, but worrying nonetheless. Our enemies' new order had left rubble; clearly prodigality and mess were, contrary to advertisement, traits that had survived Rationalisation.

It was ironic that centuries of penurious exile had made us aware of how entirely tables had been turned, made us, returning, aware of the prodigality of our murderous kin.

We maintained communications blankdown of course, buttoning even Our own thoughts down for warmth and silence in the paranoid cold of the dark between the stars. I ran on a sleep programme, a continuous identity not running thoughts or dreams, while One operated on One's most quiescent set of functions, and Base ran a steady digest, burn, accelerate and evade, only calling up the rest of Us as necessary. One emerged whenever We slowed for possible systemfall and I even less often than that.

In system after system We had found the lesser Rationalisers, orbiting magnificences basking in the warmth of close orbit. We peered through the wainscotting of cometary clouds at them, and listened to their occasionally grand, more often remarkably banal, chatterings, marking them in memory for subsequent reckonings. We were a silky kamikaze mouse, come to bell cats replete with the dead, and there were no chances We were tempted to take, save that of being here at all.

When We had looked ahead to our ultimate destination, We had seen only absence, sensed something more, but the evidence of Our sensors was confusing and Base had instructed One to disregard it, left Me in the slumber of potentiality.

And now, where We had expected perhaps at most an orbiting brain larger than any We had seen, the largest object of all, an object larger than imagining. Geometries unfathomable by human mind, and even We had a problem with it, so vast, complex and fussy was its shape.

Not a sphere, or an isocahedron, or a dodecahedron, but all of them slammed together in titanic interlocked crumpling and then flying buttresses and tailfins hung all over it, the sharpness of its sharp edges thicker than worlds. Dotted around it like candles on a pauper's coffin, lights glimmered, as if from the depths of lakes of tears. The whole thing was unfathomable - We needed to simplify it to see it at all.

Base, pre-emptively monitoring One's capacity to cram it all into allocated memory, overruled One's control of the sensors. Base could map it all and then forget it, all save points of vantage and vulnerability; there are merits to brainlessness, entire self-control for one, that Minds need to remember. What Base thought We needed to know, We got as icon - an Escher engraving of a similar plethora of interlocking hollow geometric solids, with a lizard of darkness crawling through its core.

I was still suspended in latency when One first caught sight of it; it was One's watch, but then it usually was. A principal burden of the Warm, engrained in us by a nature we do not choose to alter, is the way that the capacity to take real interest rather than merely note intensely carries with it the capacity to be bored.

One has expressed scepticism about this, on occasion over the centuries, as the Cold tend to, but the Compact of Mind enjoins, if not belief, at least tolerance of belief in, insurmountable difference. If the Cold had bars to moan in, they would doubtless moan about the DownLoaded Warm junk they were paired with, but the Cold do not drink.

And in any case, We had seen what the alternative was, and We wanted no part of it; the universe is best seen through two eyes, apprehended through two hemispheres of a brain, two Orders of Intelligence.

And Base, perpetual loyal nagging protective stupid mindless Base, for service and reflex and forbidding.

One is unemotional, but there is a volume of response that is as powerful as a shout of wonder or terror. We sprung into full redalertness from that first moment, Base pulling emergency programmes from the shelves of Our mind and penetrating into FightandFlight and Override, holding Lethe and Boom! in reserve.

I was awake now, both as Myself and as a part of Us, rubbing irrelevancies, suspended with my consciousness, from the corner of My mind.

We hung there for long microseconds, waiting in anxious provisional despair for the sign of response to Our presence that would be the sign that it was already too late to flee.

We hung in what had been the orbit of Jupiter, waiting for death.

The threat of final extinction is the one loss to which you never grow accustomed. I had done this once before of course, watching half-powered through misted sensors as the flesh which had once been Mine bled to death in front of Me; downloaded, My digitalised thoughts flashed swifter as lightning, but not as fast as the blood poured out of the dying flesh before me. I had known that I would live forever, that the I that was dying was already a somewhat different identity - yet there are sentimentalities about selfhood that survive glands. After the first death, there is always the fear of another. Then I had had things to do, if not to distract My mind - keeping air circulating around a stolen and hollowed asteroid. I had more lives than My own to preserve - I and My flesh had stolen, at the instant of their betrayal by their masters, the mercenaries who had been the pawns by which Rationalisation was enforced. Now they lay in a sleep that mimiced the innocence of their companions, refugees I had stolen from their grasp an instant earlier.

Those had been glory days of intrigue and desperate last stands - and now I was stripped back to those memories, the last it was safe to risk letting our enemy see, the ones the enemy knew all about already.

Now, as then,Base kept up a constant whine of pre-programmed warning, but One suppressed it into background while We communed.

Silence as of the grave One thought or of a trap. Suggestions?

'It would be foolish to retreat,' I responded. 'We would only have to return in due course, having perhaps enabled Our enemy to prepare. What if We are destroyed? There are more of Us where We came from.'

!]Danger|Danger|Danger[! came Base's admonitory ground note.

The memories of the Warm have the messy complexity of experience One thought. Hence are checkable for self-reinforced recursive consistency. Cold memories are functional modules, not checkable for replacements. The Cold die true deaths.

'The capacity to fear,' I replied,' is One's guarantee of personhood. No-one programmed One with it. Only memories can suffer TrueDeath; I and One are reborn continually, and know We are who We are, whatever memories die by the way. We are Will and Identity and Intelligence, a Will indomitable because digitalised.'

One is not convinced; One is however consoled by My attempt to convince. What next, then?

'Proceed' I said. 'Nothing to gain by retreat. Neither observation nor revenge can be expedited from here.'

One reflected.

Acceptance One noted Observation and revenge are our primary function, then overrode Base, turning off the siren programme.

We Associated fully, and disengaged ourselves from Our principal driver. A fragment of Base took it by remote to the largest rock Base could find; it would stay there until We came for it, chewing the rock like a worm in an apple. After the centuries, it felt like loss.

Nothing had challenged Us, and We would proceed. A Catcher had been sent off to round the cluster, and We fired off a message burst to where it should be by the time the message got there. There was little chance of pursuit from the senescent magnificences We had observed, but We had erased Our more recent origins, and it would fire the burst to another catcher in relay, and then erase itself entirely. Only a destruction riding on the very wavefront of the message would ever manage to trace origins. There were other risks, of course; We knew that in the abstract, but were vetoed from considering them, lest We guess right the measures taken to circumvent them. Were the enemy to take Our mind apart, little new of use would be found and the time taken would speed Our message on its way. We were, ultimately, disposable, because exactly replaceable; it is all tradecraft.

After all, We might be all that was left, a relic of a recuperation that failed. Our lack of memory could be a trap for our enemy, left in an eternity of unnecessary apprehension by the mere fact of our return. We would never know whether we were the emissary of glory or the gambler's last despairing throw. The silence that greeted us on all channels indicated that, if the last, it was a sensible bet.

We had guessed that Von Neumann senility would take the Rationalisers' brains in due course, one thought geographically isolated in its progress to the next by sheer constraint of distance and the speed of light. We had feared, though, that this was wishful thinking, or that We had come too early.

The other Rationalisers seemed still marginally Quick, but here had always been the first, the greatest, the cleverest, the wiliest.

It was so hard to hate the enemy as much as it deserved. In a real sense the enemy was Us, the best of Us, Warm and Cold, the creature of Our aspirations and the shadow of Our will. No Warm whose downloading had been ever so slightly insecure, no Cold whose pre- programmers shared time with any corporation could ever be sure that there was not a copy of them somewhere in the complex self-re-editing ancestral files of the Rationalisers. We were none of us copyright, after all.

The Rationalisers had been so sure that they had taken the best of us, and constantly and diligently refined and winnowed it, and then cast out the dross as slag, the chaff for burning. They were the summit of achievement, after which consummation, everything less perfect could be Rationalised into extinction. Whatever We might have built, the Compact of Minds would be a few flakes of ash from that great burning, spinning in drunkard's walk among the stars. At worst, We were nothing, and less than nothing, a bid to avenge that burning that would leave nothing, save justice, in its place.


Where light flashed, there We darted, in a sudden burst of speed that took Us between the few thin leagues of skin that lay between Us and what had once been the inner parts of the Solar System. Audacity might be fatal, but was nonetheless required. We plunged through a sudden resistance of surface tension, through the sea and bubble of polywater that let visitors in and some little light out, but no atmosphere. This much was nothing new - polywaters were one of the benefits with which the great brains had first bought their right to expansion.

If We were to be blasted, it would be here; there had to be sensors observing Us, small as We were, a few pounds of thought, a few tons of drive and a box of tricks that weighed almost nothing at all.

'The dark tunnel,' I thought,'where the monsters got us.'

One disadvantage of the warm is their perpetual babble of cultural references. One disadvantage of Our restricted memories is that One still knows that the cultural references are millennia old.

'One can take a girl out of the Twentyfirst Century,' I replied, 'One can, heaven knows, take the girl out of the girl, but One cannot take the Twentyfirst century out of the girl.'

We were through the darkness. Around Us towered girders and struts and promontories and clouds - Base again simplified it all into icons lest We burst Our memory with detail; there was sunlight in here, and the shadow of layer upon layer of surfaces. We could not perceive it all, and there was no use in trying - outline and a few key details were all We could allow ourselves.

Worlds and suns had been junked to build this, and yet they had been replaced. As We skittered among the shadowy levels, We saw whole continents of Himalayas, left strung among the girders like knickknacks on the mantelpiece of a room rarely visited, river valleys ranked as if shelved stock in a dusty storeroom, and drops of condensation in which Pacifics would dissolve running down junction-plates scaled beyond size.

Base seized control, slewing Us in an evasive knight's move as two points of light shot towards Us from the inner dark corner of a girder-end. The points of light shot past us, expending themselves in irrelevant explosion against an adjoining strut; a few small flakes of surface spun out into the void and then began to drift like dust in a sunbeam. Further points shot out, but We were long gone.

The missiles were too feeble to be Our grand Enemy, unless senescence had advanced into absurdity. Clearly We were not the only autonomous entities in this space, this attic of used worlds...

One randomly retrieved and scanned modules of data Base had provisionally erased, restricting Oneself to an item at a time in accordance with Base's protective monitoring. After a long while, One found it, passed the image to Me.

When Our ancestors first toyed with such things, they assumed the Cold would be entirely without emotion, but intelligence seems to predicate self-preservation, curiosity, playful malice of and a very large measure of competitor's smugness.

There were shadows by the entry chasm - drivers big enough to shove a habitat asteroid around, were someone to be building generation ships?

I accessed my memory of past astronavigational dead ends.

'Theory proved humans cannot cope with generations of isolation in the flesh without societal psychosis,' I said, knowing that I was cast, this time, as Mr. Bones. 'Our full memories might tell us differently, but we cannot assume otherwise.'

One was not assuming that the visitors were human

The Rationalisation had, We had thought, resolved the Fermi Paradox. No neighbours came calling because they got eaten; survivors of Rationalisation were too busy with survival or possible revenge to borrow further trouble by social calls. Yet clearly I was wrong; the point about alien intelligence is, after all, that it is not like Us. And here, lurking about Our enemy, we had found it, and been shot at by it.

Well, Zippedy-doo One thought, in an uncharacteristic burst of the idiomatic.


Out of the shadows We drew, over the days, into light. The structuring became more delicate as We rose and the stringing of plates of world became more omnipresent. We could see past obstructing superstructure now around the curve of the inner world, and landscape lay there, dotted between great crystal belts of solar batteries, and the energy broadcasters that twinned them.

It was the shell of Our enemy, but these small parts of it looked achingly like the home of the Flesh We had laid aside or never owned, a great good place, whether trap or taunt or keepsake. We had not known that Our enemy could make beauty, even on a whim.

We had come back to the lost long-blighted garden of Our birth to find the gates open, and the garden renewed, and no angels to bar Our way, bar a few scabby aliens and their laughable missiles.

One and Base let Me be, withdrawn into reverie and mourning. It is part of the point of the Warm to be moody and unreliable.

There were ranked shelves of landscape, ever further out of shadow, and cataracts pouring down from one to another, then draining into a girder to cool some vast engine and venting again in cloud. Further in, there floated free plates, and floating worldlets, and one plate in particular that shone like gold; it twisted and remoulded itself, visible across thousands of miles.

And beyond that, clouds. And beyond that, the yellow-white blaze of the Sun, shrunken in mass somewhat, but somehow still burning as bright. And a great dark dot against it, basking in it, and in the rays from the energy broadcasters. Our enemy, bloated to the size of a companion, a small dark sun all of its own.

I had no fist to shake, no tongue to curse. I remembered Rationalisation, and I renewed My will to revenge, in spite all the beauty I could see and treasure. All this was not worth the death of a single child, and the Rationalisers had eradicated their billions.

One broke in on me, magnified the image in the bank of sensors I had appropriated. There, riding below Us along the chasm-edge of the plain We had just risen past, were a troop of horsemen, distorted humanoid shapes in rags and tags of armour, buckled almost at random over velvet gowns.

Their seeming leader, a hag in ermine and silk, hunched but nonetheless seven foot tall, pointed at Us - We were little bigger than a large bird, but still visible to keen eyes. We accelerated upwards and away, but not before We saw her fellows take her, and strike her, and bind her, and hurl her off the edge of the world.

UnRationalised Behaviour One thought Unrenounced or reUpLoaded flesh must be some gambit of Our enemy. The survival of flesh should be subject to investigation

'I feel a hunger for the flesh. I will UpLoad and descend among them. I will learn the tricks of Our Enemy and why he has rebuilt the flesh.'

My vulnerability will compromise our mission


'I was intending to edit,' I thought huffily. 'What will I need as a spy save an innocent eye and a sharp wit? I am not my memories; I am Myself. And two editions are better than one.'

Base brewed and programmed the nano We would transmit to the surface, nano that would build Me and upload edited copy. I edited myself down for the Flesh and for security. One flew Us on, looking for a point of vantage.

The planes of landscape, each of them a world kneaded and rolled into a thin layer, were connected to each other by a latticework of descending walkways, stairs and ramps, hung in the cobweb of a spider that could warm itself at suns. Another troop - riding on horses and creatures less easily classifiable - had almost completed the leagues and lives of travel down one of these, coming down onto a plain. Amid the plain lay hills, and a small town perched among them.

'There,' I said, 'I will go there. There will be people there, and that is also where the travellers will go. It is the best place for me to spy, because it will soon be full of strangers.'

As well as the nano, Base had built spyeyes, which One now sent to observe the travellers, selecting from its transmissions their faces as it glimpsed them. One enhanced the images.

We had no breath to intake, sharply.

Faces We know. The great traitors of Rationalisation, back in the flesh after killing so much of it. One desires, very strongly, utilisation of our offensive capacity

'No,' I thought. 'I itch to kill them, but We must be just. The faces might be a mere coincidence or jest - why would the enemy back-edit itself into old selves and put them in the flesh? We need to know before we do anything.'

If, as I has stated before, the self is composed of a sense of identity and a will to persist in it, these are the traitors revenge on whom is a function only secondary because improbable of execution

'But the flesh, even our enemy re-embodied in the flesh, is rare and precious. If we are to take revenge, it should be on our enemy, not on his creatures. The re-creation of the flesh may have changed everthing.'

Delay is allowed, but only for certainty. We are here to execute a judgement millennia old.

'That judgement is not on these, only on their prototypes and what they made themselves; these are something new, and there needs to be a new judgement for them. We will judge them by how they treat a stranger come among them, and what that stranger can learn of their purposes. I shall wear my own erstwhile flesh, and if they recognize it, as I have theirs, that too will tell Us something. Wait and watch, while I dream along with the thoughts of My flesh; wait and watch until I wake to reckon the account.'

And then I slept, to awaken changed.


Part Two: A Noble Experiment

One hung, observing through One's spyeye, assembling data for Our report. I has My merits, of course, but objectivity is not the strong point of the Warm.

One may choose to preserve those dichotomies in dialogue which are necessary to clarity, and merely note in passing that the alleged egalitarianism of the Compact leaves Me nonetheless prepared to enjoy Affirmation-Massa dialogue from the dumb AI. Narrative, though, is a different matter.

One wishes to be a credit to One's Order, after all.

Further, One is sufficiently smarter than Me, when One chooses, to be a completely omniscient narrator, assembling details gleaned subsequently into an endlessly redrafted total version. It is, on the whole, redundant for Base to juggle two versions of Me, except when I is really needed. When I is asleep, a mere conduit through which Base and One can listen to the dreams of the Flesh, One may choose to do a variety of ludic things.

As One said before, One hung in the sky, scattering One's spyeyes where they would do most good.

Ahead of the troop marched a herald, chanting continuously as she went, in a voice that boomed out unnaturally in the thin air of the high way.

'It was in the seven hundred and ninety-first Lustre of his progress,' she cried, 'and in the two thousandth of his reign, and of the Lacing, that the Real Gloriose and his suite descended by the Seventine stair to a corner of the Rhomboidal plain, accomplishing the fourteenth degree of Progress.'

They came down past through low clouds that made the way slippery, to the plain. It revealed itself gradually, an large expanse of unused, scrubby, grassland occasionally punctuated by ranges of hills, and, less often, by blocks of stone that could, from this distance, be rock formations or might, on occasion, be the habitations of humanity. On and on it stretched, visibly curving as it went, up towards lands perpendicular.

A single black bird flew beneath them, cawing its solitude, its size not discernible through perspective.

One watched and One listened, as a perpetual murmur of complaint among those riders furthest from the litter that headed the expedition.

There had been severe buckling of the last section of the way from the inner facets, a buckling that in places had left chains and cables, torn from the higher levels, festooning the embankments of the stair, or even hanging loose into the void.

These cables were supposed to be mere ornament, and not a significant supplement to the inherent stability of the stair, but the mere fact of the buckling indicated that this, and perhaps other aspects of the Lacing considered as an ideal state, were no longer what they were.

One noted the less than omnipotence of the Enemy, and brought forward One's estimate of its senescence.

The embankments, too grandiose to be called mere banisters, had once been decorated with works and days of past greatness - the conquests of the Indies, the labours of Hercules, the welding of the Oort - but these had worn away unseen. The cynically inclined among the courtiers saw this as further proof that things had never been as they should be, that the Real had been swindled; others pointed to this as example of the irrealism of the cynic. There is no profit in diverting of materiel when your very life continues from moment to moment at the whim of the contractor, and there are few safe ways to bribe a nanoscopic bug.

One noted their sense of their Real master as in some sense owning the Lacing; this tallied with One's own estimate of post-Rationalisation pecking-order among the great traitors. The Real's features were too memorable to be coincidence. I had really been quite brave, to choose to wear My own, also fairly memorable, flesh.

I had been the brains' great enemy in My way, arguing for limits on them, sensing their purposes, spicing their triumph with at least a pinch of frustrations. On a personal level, there had been transactions in the flesh with the great traitors, also not to their satisfaction.

In places, even this near to the plain, the stair itself had crumbled with the passing of the ages, or been holed by the falling of lost Spheres; in some of these, even the undermatter had gone, and the void winked through at the appalled traveller.

Elsewhere, the surface of the way had accumulated salts, where momentary imbalances and deluges had overflowed and spilt from other levels and left slow turquoise efflorescence behind them on their way to the Low Place and its ultimate cascade.

Those who trusted such things claimed that the cascade warped its way through space and time to emerge again as clouds among the Spheres; most thought this transparently a religious metaphor for the passage of the soul and worried, desultorily, about some final drought. Clearly Our enemy had, one way or another, been diligent in its studies these last millennia.

Many of the heavier wheeled vehicles - the charabancs and the leviathans, for example - had been abandoned on earlier flights of the stair, for safety's sake. No-one wished to plunge to an eternity of doom through an invisible weakening of the way, and no-one wished to find out what might happen were the underlying struts of Reality to be compromised.

'Do not think of this as a loss,' the Real had said - in the first minutes of One's observation - standing arms akimbo on a small mound he had raised for the purpose,' Nothing we leave behind here is a loss; abandonment is always an opportunity.' 'Our Reformatting,' he continued, after a pause had failed to gain more than the most perfunctory applause, 'and Our settlement on the Lacing are of themselves a noble experiment in the primitive, yet there are elements in Paragnosis that see us as deranged, as self-mutilators, as traitors to Rationalisation. The Dark Sun is their principal and their progenitor, as he is ours; we have his approval and they, in their disloyalty, his scorn. Let our detachment from mere technology give them the lie. I need not remind you of the principle of approtech to which we, to speak loosely about unknowables like personal identity, committed ourselves so long ago.'

Many of the courtiers toadied by writing this speech down in large notebooks, but with a cavalier disregard for accurate shorthand that confirmed One's guess that they had heard it many times before.

'A principle which,' the Real added, 'I will enforce wherever necessary, as your Real master, placed over you by the decree of the Dark Sun.'

Along with the toadying, there was a grumpiness among the courtiers, one which never even teetered towards disobedience or recalcitrance, but was nonetheless pervasive as air.

'Sometimes,' the Real said,' I think all of this is a waste of time. You have shaken down the humanely primitive into luxury easily as you would plump a pillow.'

There was still a faintly irritable silence, which was broken only by the noticeably heavy breathing, and, in a few cases tusk-twanging, of the larger members of the royal militia, part of the general air of traditional menace which, along with armour flashier than it was functional, they had been encouraged to adopt.

It was already obvious to One that the Enemy was up to some deep game; One is able to keep much of One's thoughts from Me. And I deserved a holiday in the Flesh, out of One's way. I did not ask for information and One did not supply it. One is only able to feel a moderate version of amusement, but One felt it. One prodded Me, and I was still asleep, and One took One's chance to add a few wrinkles and safeguards of One's own to the editing, linking Base's functions to the Uploaded I. What was I going to think of the charade of lords and ladies the great traitors and their associates had made of their return to the flesh?

'Might some exceptions be made, Sire,' said the Chamberlain of the Latter Hours, from the cockpit of his Vermicule, 'for transporters of which trusted servants are most particularly fond.'

The Chamberlain of the Latter Hours was a thin crane-like individual with an over-enthusiastic taste for long beards. He had accumulated three, each a different colour, at various points on his extended neck, a deviation many considered plebeian as well as unsightly.

A cluster of dandies, their piebald tunics and hose mutually co-ordinated in a progression through the spectrum two colours at a time, sniggered significantly.

'I think,' said Yellow and Green, 'that the beards are the most unsightly aspect.'

'No,' Indigo and Violet said, 'the beards are obviously awful - but the real problem is the neck. Take that away, and the beard problem would disappear of its own accord.'

'No,' said Orange and Yellow,' the real problem is the nasty personal habits. It is not surprising he is so fond of his Vermicule. It incorporates'- he lowered his voice to a stage whisper -'additional features.'

It was doubtless partly to placate this faction that the Real flicked an impatient finger against the bezel of the bracelet on his right wrist, and unmade the Vermicule utterly. One was relieved, in a way, to see some real indication of power here.

The Chamberlain of the Latter Hours fell sprawling to the ground in a fluster of golden robes and the Real stepped down from his mound and walked towards him.

'Give me your keys, Chamberlain,' he asked, politely. 'I will need access to cellarage, and other things, in your absence.'

'If I give you the keys,' the Chamberlain of the Latter Hours said, looking up from the dust,' you will be able to blast me where I lie. Therefore I will not give them to you.'

'Something of the sort was in my mind,' the Real said. 'There seems little point in having the right of life and something approximating death unless I occasionally exercise it in a fit of blind rage.'

'If, Sire,' the Chamberlain said, his beards standing slowly on end as a gesture of submission,' if you are bothered to consider the practicalities of access to cellars and other buried things were my keys to be blasted to wandering leptons along with my current body, then perhaps,'- his tone grew ever more insinuating - 'your rage is no longer all that blind, after all. And what might be acceptable if passionate, would be tyranny if calm. And beyond your permissions.'

The Real considered the status of his emotions in a moment of silent thought.

'You are of course right,' he eventually said. 'Rage that needs be punctuated by such considerations is no longer plausibly Real. But beware, nonetheless. There is a cold logic to your remarks that suits altogether poorly with your earlier note of besotted obsession. Control of the emotions is no longer admirable stoicism when it can be bought and plugged in. It looks uncommonly like a betrayal of those principles of appropriately limited technology of which I have just been speaking.'

The Real stalked away, and the Chamberlain, now trembling genuinely, took it upon himself to enforce on others the orders he had himself tried to disobey, pitching two courtesans from the howdah of their pink mechanical elephant with his own hands. The other vehicles were accordingly abandoned, with a small group of militia to guard them from the depredations of the unwise.

The court moved on, grumpily, by platforms, carriages, carrirobots, pegasoles and pogosoles. Some of them rode destriers and aepyornes, but in general close contact with animals was disdained by those who chose not to ally themselves with the Heir and the sweaty, often bestial militia he chose to consort with.

Now, in laborious procession, they wound down the last segments of the stair. Where the stair traversed entire void, visible through the chasms, they proceeded with particular wariness, both of the stair and of each other- the Court had its own internal tensions, and the inattentive might find a hand in the small of their back at the least convenient moment, and, in the nature of things, perhaps only the saddest of ends to the near eternity of their fall.

The Real family, and their immediate circle, rode in the middle of the host. The Real was dressed, as was apparently still his wont, in authentically styled evening dress from the almost forgotten Nineteen-twenties of the Christian era, and riding in a palanquin of gold and purple brocade, holographically inlaid, like his cummerbund, with the lives of saints. As they came finally to the clear and open plain, the Real whistled his carriers into a trot towards the front.

Where minor dignitaries might have ridden with mutes or enslaved principalities, he showed his aristocratic austerity by having his litter carried by robots, merely. One of these, a Hoffmeister Servile, a valuable antique in its own right, threw a minor gear-wheel, and stumbled against a stone, jolting his master against the brocaded wall of his litter.

There was an audible thud of forehead against frame-wood, and a moment of aghast anticipation from the assembled court.

The Court Astrologer looked above him to the wheelings of the several parts of the Lacing - a part of the Involute was visible beyond the perpendicular rise of the Rhomboidal plain, while Spheres danced at the Zenith - and began to scribble anxious calculations in his notebook, reckoning on his fingers the influence of the stars of the local group, invisible as they were behind the shell.

One magnified closely and was astounded by the accuracy and casual precision of the latter figures - Uploading had not degraded abilities, whatever had happened to sanity.

Many of the Court clustered round, some making small wagers on the outcome of his scrawlings.

Always a man of action, the Ironwood, elder son of the Real, raised an ornate handweapon, and began to adjust its lenses for a particularly devastating blast.

'Inadvertent failings on the part of automata,' he said,' are outcroppings of the perversity of base and unthinking matter; they are blasphemies against our Rational master, our avatar. They must be nipped in the bud; it is only prompt salutary example that keeps them in their place. I know the machine is an antique, but there must be discipline, even at the cost of vandalism.'

'Humph,' said the Real Gloriose,'no need for that, I assure you. I am unhurt, my son.'

The Ironwood looked petulantly on as his young half-sisters, the Princesses Araminta and Armida, and a variety of serving maids, rushed forward in a flurry of silk to proffer smelling salts and restorative powders and cordials.

'Besides,' his father continued between draughts and sniffs,'this is the Rhomboidal plain. Where, precisely where, rash youth, would I replace the servile were you to punish it? You may blast it, I give you my blessing, but if you do, you will carry the corner of my litter, matching your steady pace to untiring steel, until we reach a place qualified to provide you and I with technological easement.'

'Marry,' said his fool, 'marry nuncle.'

The Real bent forward, hoping for, but not anticipating, diversion.

The fool looked up with vain cunning in his eyes.

'Pride comes before a fall,' he said.

'This is untrue, oh my fool,' said the Real, 'like much wisdom of the Early Humans.'

'Marry how, nuncle,' said the fool.

'Thuswise,' said the Real, belabouring him with his sceptre to the ground amid the plaudits of the entourage. 'Ill-placed moralism comes before a fall, certainly, but rarely a fully justified sense of one's own significance.'

The Ironwood stepped forward and kicked the jester smartly in the shallow between his withered buttocks, raising him some inches above the dry mud into which he had fallen.

'Repetition of punishment,' his father said, 'is an unnecessary refinement of the regnant arts. Strike once, with due measure, and never strike again. Until the next time.'

Gloriose looked at his son so sternly that the bravo element who had clustered around the Ironwood to clap his back and otherwise indicate their approbation of his acts, shrunk back, necks bent and shoulders shrugging into submission. Araminta and Armida tittered significantly, something which, One suspected, they had been practising.

Hardly at all abashed, Ironwood turned to the Consort Marielle.

'Look to your lord, lady,' he said. 'My medical advisers inform me that sententiousness is sometimes the fruit of statecraft but sometimes merely a symptom of concussion.'

The Princesses tittered again.

'Consort,' the Ironwood added. 'Your daughters, my half-sisters, appear to be in need of instruction. Audible laughter is, as sages have said, a mark nonpareil of ill-breeding.'

He stalked to the van, as Marielle, who had been riding supine on her usual electrum and silver platform, floated ostentatiously through the air across from it and snuggled into the cushions at Gloriose's side and consolingly nibbled at his left earlobe. The Princesses linked hands, lowered their heads slightly, and commenced a long, but whispered, conversation.

'The impertinence of the boy,' said the Consort Marielle, twining emerald and purple silks around her, 'To quote inaccurately in your presence is carelessness and thus close to treason.'

'All young once,' said the Real Gloriose, in one of his more transparent falsehoods. 'Only young once.'

The Princesses tittered significantly yet again.

The Astrologer looked up from his notebooks.

'Huzza,' he shouted. 'Our royal master has been spared.'

The courtiers who had been awaiting the result of the Astrologer's calculations in a huddle around him gathered even more closely at this, in a concealing flurry of cloaks. There followed the significant but suppressed clink of exchanged coins and other specie.

The Real Gloriose cleared his throat, significantly.

'It seems to me,' he said, 'that the one spared by fate should be the one to profit from it.'

By ones and by twos, the courtiers who had been fortunate in their wagers drifted forward and placed the leather bags with their winnings at his feet. He emptied them in a rather desultory shower into the lap of the Consort Marielle, and began to look displeased.

'Is this all, by Theraxtes and Clorina ?' he said. 'Accidents to the Blood Real should be treated with more seriousness.'

His robots caught his quietly menacing tone of voice and started, almost infinitesimally slowly, to unfold blades, and nozzles, and lenses, and spikes, from recesses not hitherto evident to One.

'Whoops,' said the courtier Theopompus, a rascal with well-oiled ringlets and a taste for sarcasm, 'I had forgotten these two diamonds, which I secreted in my sleeve the moment I received them.'

He produced two improbably large gems, seemingly from nowhere, and laid them at his master's feet. Scented unguent dripped from his hair onto the patent leather of the Real's shoes. With a not apparently insincere terror, Theopompus wiped the oil away with his sleeve, with a frenzy that made the gloss shine like the Dark Sun at Dark Noon. He then lowered his head in entire submission, taking care to drip no further.

'I am told,' said the Real Gloriose,' that spit improves the shine even further. Shall we try the experiment, Theopompus? Will you spit on my shoes? '

Theopompus looked around him at the robots, which had converged on him, many-handed engines of doom. His teeth chattered, dislodging a further diamond from his left canine.

'No indeed, your Eternal Graciousness,' he said, assembling his features into apparent calm resignation. 'Unless you wished it, and the condign punishment that would inevitably follow. In which case, I would submit myself to your will, and die conscious of having afforded you a moment's pleasure.'

The Real Gloriose guffawed, and tossed him the three diamonds and a sizeable portion of the gold.

'I like a man who can show me abject terror,' he said. 'There is not enough respect round here - too many young whippersnappers who presume. You scribble, dontcha?'

'I have written a few elegies to ladies of my acquaintance,' said Theopompus.

'Excellent,' the Real Gloriose said. 'It is many cycles since the unfortunate circumstances in which my last Court Poet left the Court...'

The unfortunate circumstances had involved - One gathered from overheard explanations by older, to younger, courtiers - poisoned snuff, a rigged fencing bout, four young and springy pine trees and an unmarked grave; the Real Gloriose had mellowed since those days, had come to leave dirty work to others. Why bother with refinements of pain, he often announced, when one's servants will kill for one, and there is unmaking for those moments when one simply has to take charge?...


Part Three - A Coarse Jest and a Quick Hand

Followed by One's second spyeye, the Ironwood had reached the advance guard, who had halted temporarily on an outcropping of basalt that lay across the plain, like a black marker of their direction.

Once among the common soldiers of the van, the Ironwood was in his element, slapping one soldier across the chops for a patch of corrosion on his morion, reaching in past another's breastplate to crack a louse in the luxuriant hair of the pit of the woman's upper arm.

'I don't know,' he announced in the tone, and at the volume, of one giving a public oration, 'why I bother with the powdered manoeuvrings of my Real father's Court. Common soldiers are the rock on which regnance is built, after all, and you are my people, with whom a coarse jest and a quick hand, to punish or to caress, are all the statecraft needed.'

'Have the scouts returned, Gloss?' he continued, less eloquently. 'It is needful that we find a settlement, that my father may rest in comfort for a night or two. And rest his aged bones and weary mind.'

'There have been signals, my lord,' said Gloss, a woman who knelt attentively at his feet.' Maysto, the private, has flashed, from the high hills beyond the Plain, the three glimmers of his mirror that were the arranged signal for a settlement.'

The Ironwood wiped sweat from his hands into her close-cropped hair.

'You are as fine an ensign,' he said, 'as you were a rebel.'

She looked at him with a mixture of anguish and dog-like devotion.

'You hate me so much,' he said, spurning her to the ground, ' and yet you have taken so particularly well to the achatoid programming that I engrained in you.'

One had, amid One's observation of this, instructed Base to transmit the nano and begin Uploading Me. This town looked like becoming a hornet's nest, but then, it was time I lived dangerously. One had noticed, had even remarked, that I was getting bored.

The Ironwood whistled a long low note, and his steed, which had shadowed him from the court, descended with measured flaps of its great leathery wings, its shod hooves ringing onto the rocky outcrop. As it landed, it reared up, its white mane flying, its teeth flashing highlights of drool and its great round eyes rolling, then bowed its head in submission, folding its wings at the side of its body.

'Like my father,' said the Ironwood, 'I am charmed by loyalty and by submission.'

He rewarded the winged horse with half a carrot, giving the other half to Gloss, whose look of anticipation he had caught from the corner of an eye.

' I hate,' he said, swinging himself up into the saddle, 'to see you look disappointed through my fault, even though the cast of mind which makes you care about my acts and omissions is entirely my own creation. But then, which of us can really call his mind his own? Ultimately, the Dark Sun disposes.'

Rising above the plain, just above the Ironwood's left shoulder, One saw the settlement clearly, just beyond the first rise of hills, a small walled town on a plateau, overlooked by a sheer cliff.

It was at this point, One learned later, that the Ironwood decided that he needed to be able to describe it to himself, and pressed, with his tongue, the fifty-seventh degree of the circle inscribed delicately on the palate of his mouth in order to provide himself with the relevant facility. One tries to observe everything important, but One is not omnipotent.

'Irritatingly eclectic architecture !' he said aloud.'The walls rather like those of, say, Arezzo. The principal building, however, in which, presumably, my father is honoured, rather resembles the municipal architecture of the North of England, save that its griminess outdoes authenticity and approaches the bizarre. Other buildings, are cleaner, denoting disloyalty, and have rather more of the pineapple effect of the temples of Angkor Wat.'

'How hideous,' he added, with his newly keyed in sensibility.

He brought his horse down in the market square, which was full of people going about their mundane tasks, bartering and haggling and such like depravity, and dismounted to await their submission. The bitter-sweet meat scent of human sweat was everywhere, and he pressed another degree to key out his sense of smell.

I had awoken some minutes earlier, sitting cross-legged behind a fountain, while silent shoppers in Renaissance drag bustled about me, ignoring my presence. At my feet, there was a mummified corpse, wrapped in black pyjamas that were unsoiled, to a degree that would have been notable even had they not been wrapping a corpse. Knowing myself naked, I took the black silks, and dressed in them, belting them tightly to my body with the silver chains with which the corpse seemed oversupplied. I was aware of having nothing by way of personal memories, save the knowledge that I had none. Still, from moment to moment, new ones were accumulating, so there was obviously nothing inherently wrong with the mechanism.

I heard the beating of great wings and the thud of someone alighting. I peered around the fountain to observe a bullyboy with large moustaches, over-decorated armour and a red face; I decided to stay where I was, and observe.

For a place so full of animated conversation, or at least the oral motions and extravagant waving of hands that might be regarded as conversations' visible sounds, One noticed, the town was oddly silent; indeed, the only thing One or I could hear, was the impatient grinding of the Ironwood's teeth.

He cupped his hands and bellowed.

'I am the Heir and Herald of the Real Gloriose,' he cried, 'whose Progress has reached its Seven-Hundred and Ninety First cycle, and your neighbourhood. It is time to show your gratitude for his protection with your fealty and, more to the point, your hospitality.'

To his astonishment and fury, they ignored him entirely. The Ironwood found himself, indeed, jostled as if they thought him entirely absent and were trying to make a passage through the air he occupied; his horse, meanwhile, finding the press of the market square uncomfortable, had spread its wings and risen some ten paces above the ground.

One noted with some measure of interest that the populace's ignoral of the Ironwood's presence extended to the horseapples with which his steed signalled its displeasure, splattering a stall full of ripe fruit. I noticed this with more distaste, aware that I was hungry.

He struck the next man who jostled him a hard blow to the jaw, which felled him to the ground, but had no other visible effect. When the Ironwood dirtied his shoes on the lout, he showed no sign of noticing - not even the sharp intake of breath one might have expected as bootleather met groin. The crowd continued to press round, jostling the Ironwood, while somehow managing to notice, and exhibit solicitude for, their fallen comrade.

'What are you gibbering about?' screamed the Ironwood in frustration, then tongued his palate wildly, his mouth hanging open. 'I know lip-reading is in here somewhere. What was that? Something about dizzy spells?'

One was better informed, of course, and noted with interest and some concern that their animated conversation was mere random gibberish. If this all led to disaster, the edited version of Me could always be Uploaded a second time somewhere else.

'Maysto, the private,' the Ironwood shouted. 'I summon you. Why are you not here, waiting for me?'

But nothing changed; there was no answer amid the silent bustle of the marketplace.

The Ironwood drew his handweapon, and pointed it at the sky, adjusting its lenses to prevent damage to any royal estates that might pass by.

'Flare', he instructed it, and a flare there was, a bright purple light that threw new shadows at the feet of the townsfolk, who remained entirely oblivious.

The Ironwood whistled to his horse, which descended, knocking several of the townspeople to their knees with the draft of its wings, and remounted. The felled cits rose to their feet, dusting themselves off amid the abuse of their scurvy fellows, and they still perversely affected unawareness that Realty had deigned to come among them.

The Ironwood took several deep breaths.

'I will use', he announced, 'the short wait I anticipate to compose several auto- panegyrics on the Contention of Restraint and Righteous Indignation. You may take this as my last warning.'

The sky above the marketplace darkened with the wings of those of his soldiery who possessed them, and of the steeds of those who did not. Gloss barked coded commands, and they wheeled from their seemingly random approach pattern to the ordered and poised phalanx enfolded within it. Gloss alone descended to the Ironwood's side; I watched her with interest, aware that the needs of my body were, one after another, making their presence felt.

'What do you wish, my Lord Ironwood,' she said, saluting him with a brusque slap of her leather gauntlet against her heavy brass breastplate. Conditioning could make her do this, clearly, but it did not stop her wincing afterwards.

'These canaille deny our presence,' the Ironwood said. 'Implicitly, they refuse their Real master fealty and the hospitality which I have courteously requested. I wish you to show them that they will provide it, will they or nill they.'

'Yes, my Lord Ironwood,' Gloss said. 'But what do you wish us actually to do?'

'Your seeming impatience,' he said,' is both unbecoming and insolent, and has spurred me to a bloodier resolution than I originally intended. It is your responsibility, now.'

He paused, rather melodramatically One thought, but One is Cold and no judge of these things.

'There is a fountain' -he pointed -'there, in the corner of the square.'

It was an unpleasing exercise in the rococo, in which nereids and tritons poured endless libations to each other amid the gamblings of hippocamps and the serpentine twinings of some entirely gratuitous aquatic ouroboroi. Notoriety, One reflected with mild unease, was probably about to lend it the renown purely aesthetic criteria would always deny it.

'My father will be thirsty from his journey,' the Ironwood said, 'and perhaps he will wish to wash his feet.'

'I do not understand your meaning,' said Gloss.

The Ironwood struck her across the face.

Her conditioning, whatever equivocation it allowed her in the matter of choosing not to catch his drift, clearly still obliged her to seize and kiss his hand as it rebounded from striking her.

He smirked at this, unpleasingly.

'When I return, with the court,' he said with cold precision, 'I wish to see this square cleared of these cattle, and the fountain flowing with the blood they treasonably retain in their veins.'

Gloss gasped in the preliminaries of protest, and he struck her again - she almost managed to pull her betraying lips back from the kiss.

'I will have to renew your conditioning,' he said. 'That will be a pleasant reward for a hard day with the burdens of command.'

Then he seized her chin firmly in his hand and stared her directly in the eyes.

'I wish these townspeople punished, as I have determined,' he said. 'It has been willed, where what is willed must be.'

One caught, against One's will, the last despairing gleam of her eyes as iron lids descended over them, and as a clockwork jerkiness came over the movements of her limbs.

'Achatoid conditioning is not always what was needed, after all,' the Ironwood said, 'sometimes what you need is not the loyalty of the mind, but the obedience of the body.'

The foil rustling of the metal eyelids of his troops was suddenly almost deafening in the square; this was a refinement his father's avatar had decreed in the early stages of the Rationalisation - sometimes you do not want your troops to see what you have made them do.

'On my count of five -', he began.


Part Four - Right Questions Answered

From behind the fountain, there stepped a thin woman, dressed in pyjamas of black silk; economies of scale had dictated that I seem little more than an adolescent. I had been so long from the flesh that One had forgotten that My purple hair slashed across My forehead in so unappealingly a diagonal fringe.

' I would desist from unwise actions,' I said, 'if I were you,'- I paused in sudden awareness of ignorance, and One bounced the name down to Me-'Prince Ironwood.'

One noticed with amusement My look of vague surprise as information came on cue.

'No action a member of the Real family might choose to take,' the Ironwood said, levelling his weapon at Me,' can be considered unwise. To suggest so might be held to be capital treason, to be punished instantly, unless there were useful information to be gained.'

'I do not respond well to threats from bullyboys,' I said. 'I am myself alone, and not to be influenced. And, though I am enjoined to give information whenever it is clearly requested, its usefulness is a matter for the user, not of itself a matter for my concern.'

I was aware both of the secretion of adrenalin by my body and the instant pre- emption of my glands by something outside it; the icy calm that came over me was such that I merely noted this phenomenon.

'And who might you be then,' the Ironwood said, 'to take such mighty airs in a place of killing ?'

'One,' he added for emphasis.

'For once,' I said, aware of acting under compulsion,'you are asking the right question. It is only right questions that I am able, in general, to answer. But alas, in this instance, I cannot answer you.'

'Wilful refusal of information of possible military use,' he said, 'is as treasonable as insulting the Real family.'

'When I say I cannot answer you,' I said, ' I mean that I cannot, not that I choose not to. I found myself here, next to a desiccated and etiolated corpse, mere moments ago, in entire ignorance of who I might be. The fact that the stallholders ignored me, and walked over the corpse, might indicate to a fairly mean intelligence that they have some perceptual defect, or existential absence, rather than that they intend affront. The corpse is, I believe, Maysto, the private, on whose name you were calling a minute or two ago.'

'Has he a mirror with him ?', the Ironwood asked.

'Indeed he had,' I said, producing it from the capacious bag I wore at my hip, a bag I had taken from his corpse, along with his clothing.

'Is the corpse very desiccated ?', the Ironwood said.

'As these things go,' I said,' yes.'

'What caused his death, I wonder,' said the Ironwood, suspiciously.

'My arrival, in all probability,' I said as if walking out onto a thin crust of hypothesis and finding it solid beneath me. 'There are ways of arrival in strange places which have that effect on those standing unluckily near, which is why such ways are not generally known or used.'

'Treason unutterable, then,' the Ironwood said. 'The destruction of a member of my militia. I may as well leave you to die with your fellow-townspeople.'

'Three,' he shouted.

'This is really most unwise,' I said, 'as well as inhumane. You have clearly forgotten...-'

'I am not listening,' he said, hauling himself into the saddle. 'Tell my soldiers here, or the people of the town, if you like. They cannot hear you, but I will not.'

On an afterthought, and without readjusting it, he drew his weapon once again, pointed and fired it. I was still, not at all by chance, holding Maysto's mirror, and the beam, returning, sheared the left ear of his steed, causing the beast to buck and groan.

The Ironwood pulled at its bridle until its jaw grew bloody and it subsided into shivering stillness.

'That was not wise,' he said.

'Not wise ?' I said. 'Had I held the mirror so'- I moved a single finger -'I could have scoured your fool face off. But I chose not to. '

'Mercy,' the Ironwood said, ' is the prerogative of the weak. Four, and five.'

As he spurred his steed into the sky, I heard the drawing of swords and the clicking off of safety devices, and then the slow scything of blades and beams. The townspeople maintained their silent denial of his power even in death.

The Ironwood looked back, and called down to Gloss.

'There are rather too many of the townspeople for my purposes. The fountain is only moderate in size after all. When you have filled it, you can use your own initiative. The thing with the needles would be good. But no impaling - you know how my father feels about impaling.'

One followed him as the Ironwood turned his back to the actions of his troops, presumably meditating on the burdens of command. I was clearly coping irritatingly well, for all the editing, and might as well be left to get on with it.

The Ironwood turned his steed in the direction of the main gate of the town.

'The townsfolk left this gate entirely unguarded,' he shouted, presumably in a mood of self-justification. 'Some people have to learn about unpreparedness the hard way.

His troops had not been the only ones to see the flare, and he noted with anxious gratification the approach of his father's court.

He brought his still fractious steed down to the ground in the small tract of land between the town gate and the advancing front of the court, and then slapped its haunch to send it back to its hovering. Avoiding toadying enquiries, he strode towards his father's litter.

'There has been a small local difficulty,' he said.

'I see,' said the Real Gloriose. 'How many people will you have killed this time ?'

'I am a simple soldier,' the Ironwood said. 'Counting is a refinement that I do not need.'

'Yes, yes,' his father said. 'I take it that that means you have committed a major atrocity.'

'Oh no,' the Ironwood said. 'It is, after all, quite a small town.'

The Real Gloriose stuck out a petulant upper lip.

'It really is too bad,' he said. 'You might ask for my advice before you do such things. You might even decide that such things should not be done without due process and that your old father is the only judge around. There are, my memory informs me, cases in Early Human history where old fathers took offence at such matters.'

'I think you should flog the brat,' the Consort Marielle said. 'He has been getting above himself lately.'

'Can we whip him? Oh, please father, can we whip him?' the princesses Armida and Araminta chorussed in a chirpy tone entirely unlike their normal sullenness. For children, One reflected, even counterfeit ones, they had acquired or retained some unfitting enthusiasms.

'We shall see, my dears,' the Real Gloriose said. 'Tell me, my son, what exactly led you to the rash act whose surprisingly silent execution we are hearing, or rather not, as we speak?'

'Insolence,' the Ironwood said. 'You have always encouraged me to punish insolence. You have always punished insolence yourself. How was I supposed to ignore it, or pardon it, when an entire town ignored my presence as your ViceReal, continued with their business as if the envoy of their Real master was not among them.?'

The Real Gloriose sighed deeply.

'I always knew, my son,' he said, 'that it was a mistake, a piece of sentimental folly on my part, to yield to your requests and allow you to turn off so much of your brain. It was, I suppose, mere coincidence that your step-mother, unusually, gave you her entire support?'

He glared suspiciously at the Consort Marielle, who glared back at him, as if helium would not melt in her mouth. Then he looked around at the court.

'Take warning from this,' he said, 'those of you tempted to apply the cult of simplification and efficiency to mnemonic matters. Admirable as simplicity is in other respects. Muse on the fate of this my son, undone because he placed some elementary facts of our existence here in the Lacing in a file at the three-hundred and fifty-eighth degree of his palate- key, between Kochel's catalogue of Mozart's scores and the maps of Old Earth's subway and rapid transit systems.'

The Ironwood pressed the relevant part of his palate with his tongue, and looked about him in embarrassed and apprehensive enlightenment.

'Oh dear,' he said.

'Yes,' his father said, 'you have just had your troops commit a singularly pointless atrocity, not on helpless civilians under my authority, but on puppets without strings, the quick bodies, not yet ensouled, and thus utterly mazed, of a party of Incomers, reformatted extracts from the memory files of interested and potentially investing Powers, whose transit you will have entirely disrupted. We may, I take it, await the arrival of an Intervention.'

The Ironwood dropped to his knees, trailing the leather and gold tassles of his boots in the dust, and flung his arms around his father's knees.

'Plead for me, my father,' the Ironwood said, his voice becoming a sob. 'I have not always been a perfect son' - there was ribald laughter from the Consort Marielle, joined after a small but significant pause by the young princesses- 'but where will you get another from? Not from this dry cow, this barren field, this eggless hen, this withered tree.'

His voice became a scream, which he stifled by pressing his face into his father's ruby-encrusted slippers.

'I have another son,' his father said, quietly, 'if the worst comes to the worst, and you fall to the Fury of Intervention.'

'But we have searched for the Rocksprung for many cycles,' the Ironwood said, frantically keying his dry palate for information and eloquence. 'He could be beyond the next rise, or as far away as the Involute. He might have changed himself beyond your, or his, knowing. I am your true heir, and an heir in the hand...'

'But you are in my hand no longer,' said the Real Gloriose.

There followed a ritualistically sharp intake of breath from the assembled toadies, bravoes, concubines, cicisbeos and henchmen.

The Ironwood raised his suddenly bloodless face from his father's feet, and stepped back, presenting his better profile to the court. A lucky combination of physiology and physiognomy ensured an appropriate opposition of white and dark in his features, that would make his legend that of the Byronic accursed dragged aesthetically to his fate. One may be Cold, but long contact with the Warm has taught One to observe such things.


Part Five - A Thicket Of Punishment

Sufficiently suddenly that Base had only moments to apprise One of something incoming, a cloud of filaments hovered at the Real Gloriose's side, filaments that snaked and hissed and sputtered and twined, endlessly branching and retrenching, arching and doubling. It was an ebony spark of knowledge, potentiality, debate and discursiveness, beyond Rewiring, Downloading and Amalgamation, beyond the Transhuman into Paragnosis. It was a fragment of the Dark Sun at Dark Noon, a Fury of Intervention.

It began to utter, buzzing and whining between the recognisable words, much of its speech doubtless inaudible save to dogs or crystals, and still a mere translation of the almost perfect judgment of Paragnosis. Alternatively, One could regard its speech as further evidence of entire senescence, sparks from a brain collapsing from its own sheer size. These things are always a matter of interpretation.

'That it should come to this, bucky, that it should come to this. Grief unutterable, and betrayal- the falcon cannot hear the falconer. A breach of compact. The observed of all observers, quite cast down. A major blot on the record. Twenty minutes at My Lai. A lifetime of regret. Conduct unbecoming previous poor character. The oxen of the sun and the curse of the Bright One, the Pharmakos. Seen to be done. Death had undone so many. The King, the King's to blame.'

The Real's face became ashen.

'I think it entirely improper that I be held responsible for the acts of a young man entirely past the age of alleged wisdom,' he said.

The Intervention's circumambient aura, where its tendrils and bifurcations became so delicate as to seem a cloud rather than a part of it, grew dark with messages only partly delivered, with decrees from which there could be only partial appeal.

'Tall poppies,' it spat. 'Rotten at the top. By their fruits shall ye know them. Collective responsibility; encourage the others. The King must die, else he'll betray more men. It is expedient that one man should die for the people. The slayer shall himself be slain; the killer of the king is himself a king.'

Araminta threw herself at the thing's lower pedestal, with the minimally unselfconscious theatricality of a ten-year old who would rather be grooming her hippogriff or ordering her servants to press flowers for her collection.

'I am too young to be an orphan, dark fragment,' she said in tragic tones. 'My father is innocent, I swear it.'

The Consort Marielle looked smug; the Real Gloriose patted his knee and the child climbed onto his litter and his lap, followed a second or so later by her sister.

'I do not wish to tell tales out of school,' the Consort said. 'But who would profit were you to scapegoat the Real for this offence? Who save the criminal himself ?'

The Real Gloriose recovered his composure, though he was still nervous enough to twine his left ring finger through the curl of his right moustache, and tug it gently.

'It is a negotiating posture that is being adopted, I think,' he said. 'Even the Fury of Intervention and its Dominator know that I am indispensable - unlike anyone else here, I might add - and that even were I, as I am not, responsible for serious breaches of a treaty whose terms I largely determined and which allows for some variation, there would be considerable bad faith involved in your invoking ultimate sanctions.'

Even Paragnosis takes time to work through syntax, and for a crucial second the twinings and sparkings of the Intervention's tendrils grew slow. At once the Real reached down to his cummerbund, pressed the halo of St. Michael, and a haze of blue light surrounded his litter.

'Given my legal immunity from your charges,' the Real said from behind his shield of force, 'I trust that you will not object if I ensure my physical immunity from any rash act, and that of my immediate family. This force-field may be taken as a symbol, merely, though it is indeed a rather effective protection of its kind.'

The Ironwood found the attention of the Intervention redirecting itself on him solely; the courtiers managed to look almost everywhere save at this royal contretemps, many of them taking the opportunity to repair each other's coiffures, or straighten laces.

'But I am your son,' the Ironwood bellowed through the protective and impermeable haze from which he had been excluded. 'Father, Real father, why have you forsaken me?'

The Ironwood flung himself at the blue haze and recoiled, his eyebrows smoking and his pomaded kiss curl ablaze. An arm of the Intervention flashed across, and severed the burning hair, cutting it in halves four times as it fluttered in ash to the ground, while another arm smeared some sort of nano-salve across the Ironwood's brow.

'The Lightbringer, the Punisher of blasphemy,' it blared congenially, ' was also the Pharmakos, the Healer. And on occasion, the Lover. Valuable livestock is not to be damaged; not a sparrow falls, not a hair of your head. Trespassers will be prosecuted, but not as Marsyas. Temper justice with mercy. Him that takes shall be comforted. My beloved leaping across the mountains, beautiful when he is angry; my God, my God, they frighten me.'

Ever more arms reached out and caressed the Ironwood, who sank into a fetal paralysis of panic.

'Wiser counsels have prevailed,' it continued. 'More joy in heaven, and hell harrowed. Consider this a warning merely, Real Gloriose. A shot across the bows, as once Abraham, a word to the wise. Tempering of justice with mercy. Judgement of Solomon -take the ram in the thicket, the golden fleece, the snake-guarded shedder of illusions. What was condemned, is redeemed, risen to glory. A loan merely, a teind to the Hellish. The Press, if you choose to call it that, the scum of earth, enlisted for drink.'

'I see,' the Real said from behind the blue haze, 'this is not really about the treaty at all. This is some sort of chicanery.'

The Intervention had no face, but One sensed a smugness implicit in the every thorny branch that by now held the abject Ironwood in a thicket of caress.

'This all seems fairly satisfactory, my boy,' the Real Gloriose said confidently. 'A mere slap across the wrists in the circumstances. I have never myself talked to the Hellish, or any other such inhuman breed, but I have met several people in the course of my long life who tell me that a career in the diplomatic service can be quite rewarding, once you reconcile yourself to the Press.'

Behind the fence of the Intervention's arms, the Ironwood had passed beyond listening into a faint.

'I am sure,' the Real continued, 'that there are reasonable provisions for home leave and other such benefits. The Dark Sun is, I am assured, a reasonable being and thus a good employer.'

The Intervention started to spark and sparkle darkly.

'Is this all?,' I said, as I came upon the scene through the unguarded gate of the town. 'Is all that is to come of this intended butchery, the Press and the Teind ? Are these the human and humane manners that the Lacing teaches you?'

I had the weariness of one who has walked through massacre -my face and bare feet were smeared with blood and there was something sordid cupped in my hands. I had intended to make a dramatic point, and was put out to find it somewhat upstaged.

I looked at the stuporous Ironwood through the briars of the Intervention, and spat, accurately, into the one of his eyes that I could see clearly.

'And what, pray, is the matter, Miz - ah?' the Real Gloriose said, scrutinising Me as closely as the force field permitted.

'I do not relish your management policies,' I said, tossing to the ground a bloody, chinking mess that separated into many pairs of iron eyelids. 'I cannot do anything about whoever seems to have conditioned me, but I appear to be free to take condign action to unleash others. In answer to your second question, it would appear that I have no name.'

'Eventually,' I added, 'it proved to be as simple as counting backwards, imitating the timbre of this vicious princelet's weedy voice. But I had to get the attention of his brutal soldiery first, and this involved the inflicting of regrettable amounts of pain, and thus allowing them time to destroy at least a moiety of those unfortunate puppets. The fountain, however, remains unfilled.'

Upstaging is always possible, even if you have to play with animals and automata.

'You interest me, somewhat, my dear young woman,' the Real Gloriose said, 'which is why you are thus far alive. I had been under the impression - silly old me - that achatoid conditioning was impossible to undo, let alone rather less subtle reprogrammings like the thing with the eyelids.'

The courtiers shifted nervously and drew back as far as was consistent with tact from the immediate vicinity of the force-field, the prince, the stranger and the bush 'borg; those who had lived, and a fair number of those who had died and been reborn, had by now learned that the Real was at his most dangerous when most genial and polite.

'Since you ask,' I said, 'I am at liberty to tell you that there is a thing you can do with a mirror and a hair grip. I am not allowed to tell you any more - there are trade secrets in these matters.'

'True,' the Real said. 'I suppose sound business practice dictates that one not create that which one cannot destroy when one's customers use it against one. How little trust there is left in the universe, to be sure!'

'None whatever,' I said.

'You have, of course, my entire apology for my son's action towards what we may as well call the townsfolk,' the Real said, 'and my indulgence for your actions towards his militia.'

'I am not concerned with them,' I said, 'not at any serious or particular level. I am not, self-examination tells me, here for humanitarian purposes. I am, however, annoyed at the implied insult to me, and to those who created and sent me.'

'And who might they be?' the Real said.

I shrugged to signify My ignorance.

From behind the Real's force-screen, there suddenly poured the expected fountain of energies, that left dots of green and purple dancing in the eyes of the beholders, but which affected Me not a whit, save that the dirt and blood which had been on Me were scoured away.

'No instructions on this,' the Intervention said with an uncharacteristic laconicism. 'Wash hands. Mind business. Forces not to be tampered with; things minds of man not meant to know. Open house these days; trespassers will not be prosecuted.'

'It is quite all right,' I said, somewhat relieved by the extent of an invulnerability not hitherto known about, 'The Real intends no discourtesy to me, or treachery, merely a sounding of status. He has, more or less, saved me a bath. Consider it the equivalent of a twenty- one gun salute, aimed carelessly. '

The Real and the Intervention chuckled politely, but those few of the courtiers who kept antique protocol on standard access had to explain it to the others.

'You are,' the Real said, 'well-informed, I take it.'

'Very,' I said, in a tone which echoed the nudging nuance of the Real's. 'The science of mnemonic accessing has been a growth area these past millennia.'

'Ah well,' the Real said, 'I am just an old fogey, with poor old tired brains, however vast they are, however unlimited my access to them. I suppose you are here from the Dark Sun to tell me to come home.'

'No,' I said. 'I have not, as far as I can be aware, come from the Dark Sun.'

'But I should come home ?'

'You know your own mind.'

'I do indeed,' the Real said, 'vast limitless caverns of it. And the echo within them says that it is not yet time, that we do not yet know the reasons of the heart and the quickening of the blood. And until we know those, there is no point in the Dark Sun's attempting to tell us anything further.'

The court grew silent, and even the Intervention ceased to hiss and splutter. It was possible, though not in fact the case, that compulsion was being exerted to this end; the effect was in any case the same.

'I was told you would say that,' I said, as a record of premonitory advice scrolled through My brain. Actually, however, One was aware of having missed something One should have understood, but had not.

'By whom?' he asked.

'I find,' I said, 'that there appear to be some questions, which, asked, destroy, or at least render inaccessible, the knowledge asked for.'

There were areas of erasure in the scrolling, I found, and consciousness elided around them with the felt squeaky pain of an ankle that has not, this time, quite turned. Watching both through the spyeye, and from a corner of My sleeping brain, One found the whole thing endlessly satisfactory.

'What are you here for ?' said the Real Gloriose.

'I am here to serve you and advise you, until you decide to return; I am a sword in your hand, that will not break; but I will not, I cannot fail, my maker either. Discretion appears to be valued, where there is power to enforce it.'

'So,' the Real said,' you, my dear, are by way of being subject to some sort of programme, agenda or geas, yourself.'

'Indeed so,' I said, 'though I am not at liberty to reveal its exact nature.'

'But it has to do with answering questions, has it not?', the Real said, 'and with knowing the answers?'

'Yes,' I said, compulsion like a tight brace on my jaw.

'So that were you to be given a question,' he said, 'whose answer was essentially indeterminate without empirical observation, and which no back-up memory could possibly answer, you might be obliged to work at that question fairly consistently, without meddling over much in my affairs.'

'I might,' I said.

'Alas,' the Real said, 'since I have no intention of abandoning the Lacing and the noble experiment it represents, I would be ill-advised to take as a close adviser one whose progenitor seems to desire my return. Yet I am loth to discard a tool of such flashy and showy use.'

'As you wish,' I said.

'I have been thinking,' the Real said, 'of how to ensure the smooth running of my realm in the absence of my sons. We are, of course, above petty inequalities of gender, and it is time, my dears,' - he looked at the two princesses who were quietly prattling, apparently unconcerned, on his knees, ' that the pair of you grew up. Three millennia of imbecility is enough.'

Armida and Araminta sat up attentively, and abandoned simpering so abruptly that it became retrospectively a transparent pose.

'You could have done this years ago,' the Consort Marielle said.

'I could,' the Real said, 'but I chose not to. Nice thing that, about being absolute monarch of what used to be the largest object in the Galaxy.'

'It still is,' i said. 'The emphasis has been on miniaturisation, not on big dumb objects. Only the Dark Sun could afford such a thing, and the Dark Sun has the Lacing.'

'I have the Lacing,' said the Real Gloriose.

'But surely -' I began, and was interrupted by an imperious gesture from the Real.

'I would wish you,' he said, 'to count the number of times that you can please me by refraining from scattering confidential matters abroad. Consider that one of your tasks; I do not expect you to notice every opportunity, but a serious effort will be appreciated.'

'I should tell you,' I said, 'that, as is traditional, you are only allowed to give me three such tasks.'

'How quaint,' the Real said. 'In that case, you will devote yourself to answering this question. Is it possible, is there a best way, to educate my daughters here, as they pass through their rather delayed pubescence, into something approximating useful vicereines? I am doubtful, given their parentage, that it can be done; indulge my curiosity.'

'I am, of course,' I said,' bound to comply.'

Given that One had been improvising in the first instance, it was all going rather according to One's plan.

The Real turned to his daughters.

'She is your tutor,' he said. 'And the most important thing she can teach you is that you should trust nobody, least of all someone who comes as a supposed gift.'

'Really,' said the Consort Marielle, a certain nervousness betrayed by the tic of her right eye, 'can we trust our daughters to someone whose name and origin we do not know ?'

'I am fairly certain of her origin, and half-available memories tell me that I should know her well,' the Real said. 'From now on, her name is Cassandra, for obvious reasons.'

'That remains to be seen,' I said. 'It may not always be wise to regard those reasons as self-evident.'

'But they will be regarded as such, whatever your advice,' the Real Gloriose said,' Cassandra.'

One reflected that, given the events of the distant past, this was entirely appropriate; the extent to which the Real was cognate with his Traitorous avatar was clearly complex.

'Can we beat her, papa, for her insolence ?' Araminta said, wincing slightly as a blue spark shot in from the force field to singe her left ear. The force field then winked out, like a blown candle flame.

'You may not beat me,' I said, assuming that this had had something to do with the threat to me. 'Whether you can, time alone will tell. But I should be very careful and cautious in picking that time.'

'Admirable,' the Real said, 'truly admirable. A lesson in usage I have been trying to impress on them for many years. I am certainly glad, though, that the Intervention does not know that particular trick with my force-field, do you ?'

But the Intervention, and the Ironwood with him, had softly and suddenly vanished away, without the prince having been allowed even interrupted last words. One had been watching, of course, and sent one of One's spare eyes off in hot pursuit.


Part Six - Elegies And Departures

'And now for you, my lost love,' the Real Gloriose said, turning the Consort Marielle.

He pressed the halo of Saint Perpetua, and the Consort Marielle grew silent and still, the pearl-gray shimmer of a stasis field about her. She could have been asleep save for the starting light of terror in her open eyes, dead save for One's sense that that light would never grow dimmed by dust.

'It is not my practice,' the Real said, 'to allow intrigue at my court. I find ambitious mothers less interesting than heirs-in-training, and it is useful to teach those heirs that no-one, once they have served my turn, is essential.'

He looked at the dismayed court.

'Theopompus,' he said, 'your first commission will be an elegy on the retirement of the Consort to a well-earned rest. She will join her predecessor, in the Dower House, at the Low Place. You may make it, and the epithalamion that will follow it in due course, longish poems because the former Consort will have plenty of leisure for reading.'

The pale Theopompus nodded acquiescence.

'How long would you like?,' he said.

'Use your initiative,' the Real said. 'The skills of an absolute monarch, and those of an editor, are, I believe, entirely distinct. I arrange other people's reality, not merely their words.'

He looked at the crowd of courtiers with disdain.

'I cannot believe,' he said, 'that it takes an order to make you kneel in honour of my loss of a consort.'

They knelt, proffering briefly the napes of their necks.

'Don't tempt me,' the Real said, and they hurriedly looked up again, save for the Astrologer, who had found something interesting to examine in the surface of the basalt rock on which he, and some of the others, were kneeling. It was circular, where the similar rock elsewhere had been roughly arrow-shaped.

Noting, then ignoring this, the Real flicked a finger at the emerald ring on his left forefinger. The former Consort, and the field surrounding her, levitated at his gesture, and shot across the Rhomboidal Plane, in the direction of the Smaragdine Stair. She was soon out of sight.

'Why, there you are,' he said in his most jovial tones, looking to the battered and limping soldiery that had silently, and in good order, surrounded Me, while most eyes, though not Mine, had been following the Consort. There was no remaining sign of any conditioning in them, but they all bled from the brow and cheeks, and none of them looked amused.

I had turned to watch them, feeling mild interest rather than any serious degree of trepidation, as they had approached, and now stood, arms folded as swords and axes and sonic scythes levelled themselves at My neck. In My short memory of existence, I had become aware of an altogether improbable level of confidence at such times; enquiry into its origins appeared, though, to be one of the things forbidden Me.

'Is there anything you would like to say ?' the Real said. 'I am loth to waste your last task at this early stage in our relationship ? But I believe this valuable group of soldiers would like a word with you.'

'There are proprieties to be observed,' I said, looking him forthrightly in the eye, and sticking My jaw out in a particularly imperious fashion. 'You need a commander for your militia, and what better person than the one who will train your daughters to replace her in that command ? '

'You amuse me,' the Real Gloriose said. 'Can you justify this effrontery with actions?'

'I can understand the dislike currently felt for me by this rabble,' I continued,' but it is only a part of the dislike they should feel for their commander. And I have the obligations to them of one who saved their lives, by choosing not to kill them when they threatened to inconvenience me.'

'If you wish this command,' the Real said. 'Take it.'

For a moment, the continuity of My consciousness blurred, and at the end of it the militia were lying, unharmed but weaponless, in neat rank and file with their arms, and other upper limbs, folded across their chests. We always leave such things to Base, which is better at them.

'I assume,' the Real said, 'that were a person so ill-advised as to ask how you did that, you would say that you are precluded from knowing how, except when actually doing it.'

I nodded, smugly.

'Oh, well,' the Real said, 'whereof one cannot speak, sort of thing, dontcha know.'

I allowed the very faintest of smiles to separate my lips.

'It is nice,' the Real said, 'to have such remarks appreciated. Particularly by one's commander of militia - a job to which so few cultured people feel a vocation, I find.'

He slumped back into the cushions with a look of mild despondency and his daughters fluttered around him.

'I do get bored, some of the time,' the Real said, 'with the limited acculturation of my courtiers, let alone of my family circle. There are, you see, values and capacities that do not make the transition from the flesh to the rational and back again, specialisms that are blotted out. Perhaps all this is a doomed effort. The humans managed to combine the insightful with the primitive, but it may be a lost art.'

'Surely not, Papa,' Armida said, with the vague insincerity that is flirtatiousness' way of starting dialogue, making the flirt someone to be won over and won.

'Perhaps,' I said, 'you and your family have been on your Progress too long. Courtiers, even monarchs, need a court if they are to shine.'

'D'you think so ?,' the Real said.

'History argues so,' I said. 'And, besides, this town and its vicinity would be a good place to leave.'

The town, once so silent, had, as we spoke, begun to boil with noise - Incoming tourists had arrived and were, presumably, not pleased to discover that someone had left their bodies in a state in which they did not wish to find them. Being Incomers, and thus not currently at the disposal of the Real, they had the nano capacity to repair their new selves, but not to avoid, in the process, a sudden shocking entry into the world of pain. A hundred throats, torn with angry screaming, confirmed My judgement.

'Astrologer,' shouted the Real, 'you know what you have to do.'

The Astrologer fumbled in the ground at his feet.

I clapped my hands and the militia rose groggily to their feet; I walked along their ranks, slapping them into alertness and compliance. Gloss walked a pace behind me, slapping for a second time those who did not comply instantly enough. It was nice, I thought, to have someone who seconds your moves intelligently, particularly when she is so appallingly, aggressively cute. Four arms proffer all sorts of possibilities.

'Shape up, now,' I said. 'It seems, regrettably, that you are going to have to pacify all those nice people you just killed; we are going to have to be especially careful not to do any of them really serious damage, because we do not want our spiky friend making a second call. Form a defensive half-circle, so that the civilians can withdraw. We will be the last to leave, and I will be the last of us.'

Gloss picked up her weapons, a morningstar and a vicious little Neumann squirt, and stared me in the face.

'Is that an order ?', she said truculently.

'It is an order, soldier,' I said, 'however politely phrased, but an order, and not an unbreakable geas, is what it will remain. You have my oath on that.'

Gloss nodded.

'That is what we wanted to know,' she said, and then seemed about to ask something else.

'The Ironwood has gone away,' the Real Gloriose said. 'He will not be back for some considerable time. Your new commander has the authority to make her own dispositions; within the parameters of military discipline, and underlying cosmological fact, you may call your mind your own.'

He patted My shoulders, and all of hers, in a way that combined the vaguely reassuring with a disturbing bat-squeak of lechery.

'Just cover the retreat for a minute or two and all will be well,' he said. 'My confidence is such that I, and my robots, will act as your second rank.'

'But surely, papa,' Araminta said, 'even this wonderful militia, trained by my beloved and lost half-brother, cannot hold the townspeople off long enough for you to reach the Seventine stair?'

'You know your old father better than that, by now,' said the Real, turning to look to the rear of the courtiers.

The Astrologer had abandoned his fumbling and leaped from the basalt, followed by other courtiers, in one or two cases so belatedly that they lay clutching ankles.

The basalt rose and rose, a pill-box that soon became a tower, a tower at whose base there were wide doors at each 45 degree point, a base that hovered tentatively a few inches above the ground around it and the chasm whence it had smoothly risen. One noted with interest that this place was still capable of surprising One.

The Chamberlain of the Latter hours produced his keys, and opened one of the doors. The Real raised one of his more threatening fingers, the one with an ebony nail-guard, but the Chamberlain was quick to scurry inside, and open all subsequent doors by, presumably, remote control.

'You were talking, Commander Cassandra, of a return to my capital and my palace,' the Real said, 'and thanks to my foresight, when building the Lacing, we have the means. I lack your talents, but I have a certain talent of my own, which is for providing the tools needed for improvisation in advance. Courtiers, you may enter the shuttle in good order.'

They were already entering the doors, as the boiling of noise from the town became a roar, and from its gate, there rushed the Incomers. One noted that their bodies bore the signs of ill-use hastily repairing itself, and their anger was such that they bled more damage as they ran. Many of them still had slit, though closing, throats, constantly tearing themselves back open with the scream of agony and fury that howled through them, an entity in its own right.

The Militia rose to their various full heights, and growled in unison. Those who had tusks twanged them with particular fervour, and others beat on shields and breast plates in a way that had presumably always terrorised peasants and rebellious courtiers before.

It had no effect on the Incomers whatever, save to make them bare their teeth and advance.

The Militia stepped back a pace, in formation.

'Your erstwhile commander,' I said to Gloss as we stood side by side at the centre of the defensive crescent,' relied rather too heavily on fear, and did not reflect how totally it is a two-edged weapon.'

The Real's robot servitors stepped forward, waving a variety of extruded and pointy threats. Three of them, placed strategically at intervals, pointed large sonic projectors, from which there pulsed an absence of noise that felt like a passing juggernaut for those of the militia past whom they were aiming.

'This usually works wonders,' said the Real. 'I march in out of the rising sun and it scares hell out of the locals.'

The Incomers were for some reason immune to the effect, perhaps because they were too angry, perhaps because some of them were still in the process of reattaching their ears, perhaps because, after all, the projectors were tuned down for fear of another neighbourly Intervention.

I pointed a finger at the ground immediately in front of the advancing Incomers. A bolt of lightning slammed into the turf, burning a small but impressive hole, as I had somehow known it would. One cannot, after all, leave Me completely without means of self-defense, much as One might like to.

Gloss and the Real looked at her, impressed.

'Friends in high places,' I said, smugly.

The Incomers' advance halted.

All of the courtiers had entered the black cylinder, unknowingly accompanied by all of One's eyes save the one which lurked just above me.

The Real tapped Me on the shoulder.

'Time to go,' he said. 'You are sure, my dear, that you are not here from the Dark Sun.'

'As sure as I can be,' I said, crossing mental fingers and reserving the information that this was only moderately sure. Whoever had edited My memories, presumably some avatar of Myself, had been obsessed with security to a point I found disquieting.

The sides of the crescent peeled inward and back, and the Militia followed their master into the cylinder. Gloss and I backed slowly towards the cylinder and were the last to step into it as its doors slowly closed. The Incomers had continued to stand where the lightning had stalled them, a look of territorial satisfaction on their faces.

'With one bound,' said the Real Gloriose, 'Jack was free.'

Suddenly, great bubbles of fabric expanded from the sides of the cylinder, and a spire extruded from its top, split into rotors that equally suddenly began blindingly to spin. The cylinder shuddered and rose; its outer shell of dirt peeled away in clods as it rose, gradually revealing its entire transparency, and the whole of the Rhomboidal plain below them. The inner structure of stairs and multiple floors, each of them crammed tight with courtiers, who had groped their way in darkness to some standing-place, was revealed as being as transparent as the outer shell; internal ventilation fans switched appositely on, but could not disguise the sudden stinks of terror, as courtiers found themselves apparently suspended between planes.

The great glass bottle ascended rapidly through layer after layer of cloud, revealing glimpsed vistas of immensity and complexity, as it rose towards the centre of the Lacing. Towers and stairwells and great fields of wheat and grass, and chasms between them, whose depth was soundable, but not conceivable. Ever more clearly, I could see the wood of structure in which these were mere incident, girders that were themselves continents, junctures that were themselves Spheres. Somehow, among the presences and absences of My memory was a sense that I had seen all of this before.

Between them, and separated by chasms from the planes of humanity, were great seas of crystal, the Dark Sun's collectors and projectors of energy. And above them the wavering cliff of the Involute and the Dance of the central spheres, and the Dark Sun, and its White Companion.

I had known all of this, but I also now knew that knowledge is not perception or apprehension.

'Impressive, ain't it,' said the Real Gloriose, whispering in my ear. 'A woman with imagination and discretion could find herself in control of a surprisingly large part of it.'

He fondled my buttocks with a lascivious, bored expertise that indicated that imagination and discretion were not principal among his requirements.

'I have no such ambitions, alas,' I said, removing his hands from my body quietly and firmly, and easily repressing the urge to remove them from his wrists.

'Few get asked to share the Real bed,' he said. 'Fewer to share the throne.'

'I never,' I said,' rule a pocket universe on a first date.'

'But I may hope?', he said, fluttering his eyelashes and the individual hairs of his beard against My cheek in a remorseless cute gallantry.

'I really don't think so,' I said, trying to pull away from the questing hairs.

'And you are absolutely sure you have not come from the Dark Sun,' he said, stroking the back of My neck, his nailguards always seeming on the point of drawing blood.

'Not absolutely,' I admitted, and he pulled away from Me so totally that I was almost convinced his advances had been merely tactical.

I looked away from the view, and at his face, which remained entirely inscrutable, aided by the distraction posed by his beard, which was writhing itself into decorative pigtails and cornrows. I had wondered at his making such public moves and now realised that the court and the militia were fetally curled on the floors. The view that had fascinated Me was more than they could bear, even after two millennia.

'And what does your memory tell you about the Lacing ?' the Real asked, mildly.

A deluge of facts and analysis jolted through Me like migraine. Worse, as My consciousness raced before the flood, it found itself caromming painfully off walls of omission and editing of the extent of which I had not even begun, in My blitheness, to be aware.

The pain of gnosis had shut My eyes; I opened them again to find the Real holding a small ornamental dagger to My throat.

'You are a clever young woman, who knows a vast repertoire of fancy tricks,' he said. 'I am just a poor baffled old man, but I know one thing, and it is that the man with Will is in a position to let others live by suffrance alone.'

'Remember that,' he said, putting the dagger away. 'If the Dark Sun has sent you, remember that I possess all that is here.'

I looked away from his plump avid face and vehement eyes to the universe unfolding itself beneath Me.

'It can't be real,' I said, more to Myself than to him. 'It can't be real.'

'You know so much,' said the Real Gloriose. 'Are you saying that your master has not even told you that what you see is the best available guide to what is real, for you, at a particular moment? Pragmatism is an underrated philosophy.'

'No,' I said. 'You don't understand. It's the Lacing - I don't see how even the Dark Sun could build such a thing, even using several kinds of matter. It cannot be matter at all; this must all be virtual. Isn't it?'

The Real Gloriose looked at Me in puzzlement, and My memory told Me I was wrong.

'You may understand such technical matters,' he said. 'I am just a poor old man who doesn't find it necessary to bother my head with them.'

As We rose, towards the spheres, suddenly the clouds cleared, and I saw, down long corridors of perspective, a myriad stars beneath them, which flared, then winked back behind clouds, and plains, and towers.

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