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With my household settled, with more liquid monetary resources at hand than I could have dreamed of acquiring, with the real friendship and a blood alliance with the chief of the local police-slash-army, with my health rapidly returning, with a small collection of other friends who appeared to be fairly devoted to me - life was looking pretty upbeat. I settled into a routine of working out for hours of every day, eating like a pig to try to staunch an appetite for food that seemed to have grown even as my belly (which was never particularly fat to begin with) shrunk in towards my spine, and thinking.

Yes, I spent hours of every day thinking. In fact, since I tended to think while I was working out and while I was eating, I spent a lot of hours thinking. I had a lot to think about.

Here's a partial list, in no particular order, as at the time it wasn't clear how, or even if, everything was connected.

Item: Dojo had said that Brin came by my place ``many other times'' with his ``cowled'' friends in their ``dark robes'' to work his mischief. How much mischief he worked I was still discovering, as I searched for and found listening devices, video devices, a cache filled with what looked like C4 explosive with a detonator wired to what looked like a radio receiver (salvaged the C4, salvaged the detonator itself after a lot of sweating and agonizing over current pathways, set the radio part up to light a harmless little light bulb instead). Now where had I heard about cowled bad guys in dark robes before, hmmm?

Item: Scars that I'd had for years, decades even, just faded into smooth skin, so gradually that I didn't even notice at first. Only when I looked in a mirror at my chest, where (if you'll recall) Arto and Brand sewed up a gash with unsterilized line and left a hell of a scar did it suddenly register with me that the scar was nearly gone, with just a tiny pink line of smooth new skin to show where it had been. Closer examination revealed that all of my scars, even acne scars and scars from the stitches I'd gotten the time I ran my forehead into the coffee table while wrestling with my father on the living room floor - gone or fading fast.

Item: My very slightly receding hairline was no longer very slightly receding - a fuzz was growing out of what was newly shiny skin. My one or two grey hairs were grey no more. Little changes as I was still pretty young, but noticeable for all of that.

Item: I started to teethe. Like a baby. No shit. At my age. Out went the slightly yellowed teeth with a few fillings scattered amongst them; in came shiny new adult-sized teeth, although not fast enough to make me happy. In the meantime I nearly starved on a diet of a gallon and a half of milk, a pound of cheese cut into nibs, soft-boiled eggs galore, oatmeal, and enthusiastically gummed goatburger plus whatever Sharra or Russet would cut up into itty bitty overcooked mushed chunks for me. Waaaaa says the baby. Gimme my steak!

Adult humans look funny toothless. They look even funnier (space alien funny) with little baby teeth just poking through the gums.

Item: I still hadn't confronted Sharra on her plan or the obvious fact that she was technology-savvy, even savvier than she'd have us believe from her story, which (now that I thought about it)...

Item: ...included that whole part about the dark men who captured her when she came through an obvious gateway from her previous world. Wasn't their something about them being part of ``a brotherhood''? And isn't a cowl sort of a standard uniform for a monastery, a brotherhood? Who else in their right mind would wear a cowl to work, or a cowl to knock around town in? `Don't mind me honey, I'm just puttin' on my cowl to go drinkin' with the boys, maybe get a bit of poker in, Joe's got a new cowl he wants to show off, be home late.' Right.

Item: Mikal's captor/slavers, hmmm, dark robéd men with cowls. Check. Anyway, cowled dark bad guys seemed like a common theme on Mirath, and if they were associated with Brin in any way it seemed unlikely that we were quite done with them.

Item: The only possible causative agents for the aforementioned alterations in my state of health from slightly aged and very beat up to a state of complete rejuvenation were the little bitty pills Sharra had fed me. Overall, I think that I took about ten pills of them before she either ran out or decided I'd had enough.

Item: Speaking of rejuvenation, did you know that a circumcision leaves a very fine scar around your penis? And that it is impossible for such a scar to heal back to ``normal'' (as apparently my whole body was doing) without your foreskin regrowing? Boy was Lissa going to get a big surprise (or not) if ever we should meet in that particular way again. Not to mention Julie, if I ever made it back to that space-time continuum. I was pretty surprised myself, and had to arrange to be left alone for a short while (not so easy to manage with Sharra in my back pocket so to speak) to sort of get to know this new and interesting part of me. Worked pretty much the same, in case you are one way or the other yourself and were wondering.

That's a lot of items, and leaves out items about the prince's response to Brin's death and my likely enrichment with a goodly chunk of his former treasury (the prince ecstatic about the former and smart enough about the latter to know a fait accompli by somebody demonstrably more dangerous than Brin when he saw one), a late night masked visit by one very, very grateful female member of the court, who wished to express her gratitude for my getting her de facto off of a very dangerous hook at first by means of coin, and when I turned that down (who needs a lousy thousand gold pieces anyway) in other interesting ways that I also turned down because lovely or not she needed a bath and wasn't worth the STD risk. Items galore concerning sundry intrigues large and small that likely had no bearing on this particular tale, items concerning all the many little home improvements I had local craft people working on under my direct instructions and supervision.

At any rate, a lot to think about. In fact, I was pretty much overwhelmed.

Under the burden, nay, the deluge itself of all of these items I was trying to come up with a new plan, and I don't mean the kind you stuff up your ass. My original plan was to accumulate enough wealth to bring about the social change necessary to build the tools to build the tools to build the machines that would eventually let me start wandering the worlds again, road map presumably in hand. Obviously, I'd skipped way ahead in the wealth department, was still at ground zero in the social change department, had whatever tools I brought from Earth plus a few much cruder tools I had made plus whatever I could salvage from Brin (which turned out to be quite a lot - I don't think he ever really took the possibility that he could be killed on this back-woods world seriously and didn't put a lot of mental energy into his doomsday devices).

However, the entire playing field had also changed. Brin was obviously a multiverse traveller himself - ensconced as the biggest of fish in a tiny medieval pond, like those prohibition gangsters that would move in and take over tiny rural communities when on the lam. Or was he there as a part of something bigger, and deeper? An outpost guard of sorts for the (oh, let's be gaudy and romantic and call them the) ``dark brotherhood'' who was simply amusing himself in his spare time, as were (apparently) the dark brothers themselves? If so, what was their purpose, their goal, their raison d'etre? Surely the bright lights and fleshpots of the high-tech big city were more attractive than hanging out in a bronze age culture... so there had to be something they were doing here besides piddling in a local slave trade and raping donkeys.

There were a few other enigmas around town. Hassan, in particular, seemed to be something of an anomaly. For one thing, as I discovered quite by accident one time when he came out to bargain with me at The Grinning Shark and was forced to draw by a bar-brawl that got out of hand, he had at his side a sword that could have been made in the same bazaar as Julie at my side. Later, he evinced polite interest but no surprise when I had showed him some of Ned's and my first efforts to make watered steel in our new forge. He simply drew enough of his own blade to be able to compare the beauty and quality of its finish to the obviously inferior quality of ours and sniffed, although he paid us enough for a load of them to take and sell, inferior or not.

Then there was the mix of dinosaurs and people (and some creatures that are even more unlikely that would sometimes pass through the Shark or be seen ghosting around out in the moors, things like Sally that never lived on my Earth at all). The ghost of Charles Darwin in my head didn't like any of it. It seemed quite likely that neither dinosaurs nor people evolved here, on Mirath.

Put it all together and what do you get? Well, after much of the aforementioned thought this is what I ended up with.

If you go to a randomly selected airport and get on a randomly selected airplane, where are you most likely to end up? At a hub, of course. A hub acts as a centralized connection through which nearly all traffic has to pass.

Not all networks are organized in that way, but a lot are, and I didn't yet understand enough of the physics of the multiversal pathways to be able to theoretically predict which kind of network they represented. I did have one piece of empirical evidence, however, that suggested that (as an old mathematics joke goes) at least one long network hop tended to be connected to at least one possible hub that was - here.

That would explain a lot. If this were a hub of sorts, possibly because of its nearly unique status gravitationally, where the tides of the gas giant, the sun, the sundry moons could create almost any field condition desired somewhere on the surface of the planet every day, then finding world walkers, windfolk, seriously displaced persons, and creatures and plants that never evolved together but might have hopped, slithered, or dropped seeds through gates would be expected and not at all unusual, just as encountering Nigerians, Pakistanis, and other foreign nationals not native to the United States is a lot more likely at (say) JFK airport than it is at (say) a small rural airfield. In addition, one might well expect to find Higher Authorities, criminals great and small, entrepreneurs, and even tourists. There could be an entire advanced culture coexisting with the indigenous melange of settlers from a dozen places and times.

This wasn't entirely satisfactory, of course. It didn't explain why the planet's indigenous culture was so primitive, when every other passing traveller was a potential Connecticut Yankee who could introduce gunpowder, steel making, democracy, and worse. Until I understood that, making great social unrest kinds of changes seemed unwise.

The trouble was, I couldn't figure out any course that was wise. Including doing nothing. If Brin were indeed mixed up with the dark brotherhood, and I'd just done the equivalent of rubbing out a Mafia Don in retirement of sorts, then I was pretty sure I'd just stuck my hand into a hell of a hornet's nest all unawares. For now they might be uncertain and biding their time while they checked me out, but sooner or later there would be recruitment or vengeance on the table if they held true to the gangster type. So just hanging out and enjoying my Brin-gotten gains was a strategy whose lifetime - like my own if I followed it - was likely countable in weeks if not days.

Finally, whenever I did any thinking about all the Items above, I couldn't help but think of Sharra.

Sharra was the kingpin of all enigmas. She was clearly from a very high tech world, yet she told a cover story with a distinctly low tech cast to it. Except for the gate she passed through so artlessly, of course, which (hmmm) led her here (two data points for this being a hub, with the dark brotherhood the local equivalent of the baggage handler's union gone all evil and everything). Except that her knowledge of alkaloids and biochemistry was clearly extraordinary. Except that she gave me pills that caused me to heal, not just the immediate wounds of the battle with Brin but every wound I'd ever suffered including old age.

To top it all off, I was falling in love with her.

I could never have really loved Lissa, however much I liked her. Too big a social/cultural gap, too big an age gap. Russet I couldn't even have sex with without hating myself half-way through, as there was a gap there to drive a truck through - sweet as cream, but dumb as a post through no fault of her own. Sharra, on the other hand, was brilliant intellectually when she wasn't hiding it, funny, and beautiful. Oh sure, yeah, she also took care of me and mothered me and stood behind me and maybe a little bit of me was getting tired of it all and thirsted for some equality. I was more than a bit worried that there was too big a gap there going the other way.

So I worked out, I ate, I thought, and maybe I mooned over Sharra, just a tiny little bit. You try sharing a bedroom with a gorgeous, brilliant woman who is totally solicitous of your every need but one - a process guaranteed to interrupt even the limited possibilities of self-gratification to blow off sexual steam - and see how long it takes you to go nuts. So matters proceeded for several weeks longer.

I wasn't entirely idle. I was shipping gold out of the house as fast as I could into Willet's pockets, Brand's pockets, Ned's pockets, even Arto and Lissa's pockets. I started a bank for real, with Willet running it, and hand picked a dozen artisans as the core of my future ``middle class'' and loaned them a fair bit of money. However, there wasn't a lot more I could do that wouldn't take years to bring to fruition.

Finally, matters came to a head. Again, it turned out to be slavery that brought them there.

Sharra and I often went strolling through the marketplaces. She understood that I (we, as I represented at this point an extended ``family'' of sorts of which she was an important member) was so rich that spending money would never, ever, be any sort of object again, barring another turning of the wheel that took it all away. At which point she became an enthusiastic shopper, armed with a purse filled with much silver and quite a bit of gold. I knew far better - I was married, after all, to a woman whose income generally exceeded my own - than to get in her (or Russet's way) and generally went along, armed with my two swords and trailed by a half-dozen of Rendar's men, just to keep an eye on them.

Which worked fine until the day our little retinue took a wrong turn into the slave market. Or was it a wrong turn? Sharra was leading the way, and it may have been deliberate.

When we got there, they were selling a lot full of naked children.

I immediately found myself in a state of brain-freeze. Slaves weren't cheap, and children were especially expensive because of their long expected work lifetime and the fact that you could ``shape'' them to your needs. Worse, the slave market was an economy in and of itself. There was demand; this led to the creation and maintenance of a supply. Slavery in the Americas only disappeared after society rejected it and outlawed ownership itself, eliminating demand - supply (also outlawed) mostly disappeared on its own and the little remaining in the (no pun intended) black market could be attacked and eliminated by force.

I could therefore afford to buy all of the children in the lot - there looked to be about twenty of them, of all shapes, sizes, and degrees of terror and apathy and curiosity. It would cost between 50 and 100 gold pieces depending on the bidding, at a guess - less than half a pound of gold. But it wouldn't stop the trade, it would only encourage the supply chain to kidnap, steal, purchase from their parents who were too poor to feed them, take as war booty or pirate prize more children to feed the insatiable demand of Sind-a-Lay including the obviously eager customers who were even now inspecting the children with the same care one would give to any horse at auction on Earth. In the end, even my vast store of gold would be inadequate because it, however large, was finite, an eyedropper, and the slave market a self-renewing ocean.

The mere logistics of ownership were daunting. When I bought Mikal and Sharra (to free them) they were adults and I anticipated that they would be able to take care of themselves once they were formally freed. The youngest child from the current lot up on the slave-market stage for inspection was only five or six and would need to be cared for for years while being taught some means of earning a living. I had an agenda that seemed likely to take me away at any moment, quite possibly away to whatever lies on the far side of the trans-dimensional experience we call death. I couldn't adopt not just one stray cat but an entire truck full of them.

All very sound and rational. In a matter of moments, I worked it all out. It would be incredibly stupid to try to buy even one of the children up there for sale, therefore I wouldn't do it.

Then I noticed two things, one after the other. The first was the tears leaking out of Sharra's eyes, although she made no sound and turned her head away when she felt my oblique gaze upon her. I might have withstood even that, as I wasn't feeling so good myself but had armored my heart. Then I saw Greeble the Lame and his retinue of toadies in the front of the press, fingering the merchandise.

How to describe Greeble? Let's try fat - fat in a world where too much to eat compared to activity level was generally not a problem, fat as a statement of wealth and power. Bulging eyes and thick throat, likely a thyroid disorder. Walked with a limp (when he walked - he preferred to be hauled around by four husky slaves in a palanquin), where street legend had it that the lameness was due to his first and only run-in with Brin, back when Brin first turned up. Apparently Brin had all the bones in Greeble's right foot broken with a hammer to convince Greeble, successfully as it turned out, to tithe Brin as well as the prince out of his income stream.

His income stream was vice, particularly sexual vice.

Understand, Sind-a-Lay was a port city in a feudal culture. Anything that floated your particular sexual boat could be had for a price - some of the stuff done more or less openly on the street would have made the biggest sex markets of Bangkok look like repressed monasteries. Mind you, it had a religion. In fact, it had a dozen religions, the most common one involving T'sala as the primary god with a varying pantheon of secondary gods. It even had distorted versions of Earth religions with tiny minorities.

None of the religions said anything like sex is bad, don't have sex - not a good way of appealing to the masses. Indeed, more than one of them used sex as the primary focal point of the worship process (that is, ``services'' were for all practical purposes orgies). Very popular faiths. A couple of others used sex as an occasional attraction for certain celebrations.

So sex was freely available in the sense that there were no religious or social restrictions on sex other than the usual: rape is OK only if the rapist is richer, stronger, better connected, and more violent than the rapee. Because eating was also a popular pastime but cost money, sex was available for a negotiated fee as well. The tavern wenches at the Grinning Shark all worked for Brand for a wage, but they all worked on their backs (or knees or wherever) when a customer (either sex) with a need surfaced. Brand had a special room upstairs for just that purpose, available for a small cut of the fee and clean it up when you're done. These services weren't provided just by women for men; there was a male stable hand who was willing to provide similar services for visiting male or female travellers alike.

However shocking you might find it, this was no big deal on Mirath, and curiously the absolute ubiquity of multipartner multigender sex over thousands of years had apparently caused an amazing degree of co-evolution of the people and their venereal diseases to the point where as far as I could tell there weren't many of the latter that did any real harm, as the people were incredibly resistant. They'd have to be, of course, if they were constantly getting inoculated with new ones by tourists passing through the gates from many worlds. Needless to say, lacking any of the local immunities I avoided sex, especially purchased sex with complete strangers, like the plague I expected to contract from it. I wasn't completely celibate and had brought a few condoms with me from Earth (fortunately) but I was so nearly so I was probably considered odd by Russet and others in our household who made it clear that they were eager to help me out in that particular way.

However, any culture that fails to take care of its children hasn't long to live (an observation made by Heinlein in one or another of his many novels, I believe). Also, sex practices that actually damaged one of the (usually involuntary) participants were obviously economically inefficient, and like most cultures actual out and out murder was frowned on and nominally against the law, however easy it was to buy an exception or get away with it anyway. So even in Sind-a-Lay, Greeble's particular business was both illegal and despised even as it was very popular with a small but wealthy subset of the floating population.

He ran a string of brothels, staffed entirely by slaves he hand-selected and personally trained using methods too grotesque to describe even in these fairly unexpurgated pages. Those brothels catered to literally every whim. Into snuff sex or sexual torture? Greeble would set it up for you, for a price, and provide you with any instrument or instruments you desired. If you wanted to hear the screams he had a special soundproof dungeon for you to work in. If you didn't, he would suitably equip the victims for near silence.

For less extreme perversions including the use of children or animals, the prices were higher or lower according to the degree of permanent damage inflicted. And even the brothels he kept for ordinary sex were very popular, as he undercut the prices of the independent merchants and most of his organized competitors by feeding his slaves the absolute cheapest slop he could keep them alive with until their health started to deteriorate. At that point he'd ``retire'' them through the snuff channel, usually making back their purchase cost plus the entire cost of keeping them alive from when he bought them, several times over, from the single event.

Greeble got away with this by means of heavy, heavy bribes, but so profitable was his business (which apparently attracted customers from all over the planet) that he could afford to pay them (and even double what he paid out, as he did when Brin horned in and demanded protection money) and still thrive. He also kept his nose strictly clean in town - by leaving the city's children and other citizens alone and using only imported slaves, he avoided being openly assassinated on the street some night by an aggrieved relative. He was no Brin, and was very definitely vulnerable to mundane means of death-dealing.

Alas, Greeble now viewed me as one of his best buddies for killing off Brin and thereby recouping all the substantial moneys he had been paying Brin in order to be left alone. I, on the other hand, had Greeble marked out as one of the eight to ten citizens Sind-a-Lay would simply be a better, cleaner place without. Although I had to be somewhat circumspect, given Greeble's payoffs to Rendar and the prince, I was even then negotiating a deal that would in the not horribly distant future send Greeble and his two primary lieutenants (and heirs apparent) straight to a well-deserved hell. Part of the deal involved burning his actual places of business to the ground so they couldn't just change owners and stay open, but arranging for this to be done in a way that was guaranteed not to damage their involuntary residents was tricky business.

Greeble's appearance at the slave market could only mean that he was preparing to turn some of the money he was no longer paying out to Brin back into slaves, and his obvious interest in the current lot of children suggested... but I couldn't make myself vocalize the thought, even in my interior monologue. I just stood there, trying not to think, until the bidding actually began.

So no one was more surprised than myself when I started outbidding Greeble (and the many other bidders - Greeble was far from the only one buying that day) on first one child, then another, and finally on the entire lot. As each one went up on stage sad-eyed and scared and I heard Greeble open the bidding, my finger seemed to lift of its own accord, while I just watched it and tried not to think of the mess I was about to find myself in.

Once the children were all purchased, however, I was on a roll and didn't bother to even try to keep down the old bidding finger. Over the next half hour I bought out the entire market of adult slaves (some ten more warm bodies, one after another). The slave market was only open once a big moon or so (right after a caravan or ship made it successfully past the well-bribed pirates on the one hand or the equally well-bribed bandits and unbribable creni on the other), so for a long month Greeble and everybody else would just have to wait.

I was in such a daze that I didn't even register Sharra's expression while all of this was going on, or just when she took a couple of guards back to the house and brought back both Dojo and a heavier sack of gold. Suddenly it was over, and I found myself surrounded by a crowd of some thirty naked humans, all chained together. What the hell had I done?

I couldn't deal with it right then. My finger and I were exhausted. My clothes were soaked with sweat. Delegate, delegate, delegate. I lifted my head and noticed with gratitude the presence of Dojo.

``Put them in the warehouse I bought last week down by the docks. Feed them and buy them all two or three sets of decent clothes and a small bag apiece to keep their clothes and other possessions in as they come to have any. Do not hurt them, do not let them escape.'' The last because an escaped slave was a fugitive, and it would take me at least until tomorrow to free them.

Without another word, I turned towards home (realizing that for at least the moment it was, surprisingly, home), with Sharra and my silent retinue trailing along in my wake.

Once inside I sent somebody to the cellar to crank up a big, hot bath (which I really badly needed to wash off the mental filth). Then I lay in my hammock in the courtyard and sipped from a glass some of the first genuine brandy Mirath had ever produced, aged all of a week.

The brandy was the product of Brand's new distillery, which used ceramic vessels and genuine copper tubing for the still. The copper tubing was made by Ned's thriving smithery. Ned by now had a journeyman ironsmith, a coppersmith and a half dozen apprentice/employees working for him - all individuals who couldn't afford to open a shop on their own and weren't in line to inherit one that he'd rescued from the gutters of Sind-a-Lay. Following instructions I had cobbled together from the many references I had stored on my laptop he had managed to make steel dies for extruding both wire and tubing, both critical projects I'd funded heavily since I had the monetary resources to do so (they involved building a real general purpose furnace to make cast steel, cast copper, and other cast metals from locally available ores and the mining of real coal to heat it).

It wasn't very good tubing, as tubing went - we couldn't make genuine ``cathode copper'' (copper that is electroplated out of stock 99% pure copper) because we couldn't yet make sulphuric acid or enough DC electricity. Sulphuric acid we COULD make, once I could lay my hands on sulphur, but there were no convenient sulphur mines nearby and it was not a standard trade good, so I had to fund an expedition to the nearest volcanic region (which also produced a lot of copper ore, so I hoped to set up supply lines for two critical resources at once) to look for it and bring back as many tons as they could dig if they found it.

Sulphuric acid is a key component of so many manufacturing processes, including the production of real explosives (nitric acid is generally made by starting with sulphuric acid). I was hoping that some of the bar ingots from Brin's store were e.g. vanadium or platinum or chromium or tungsten - stuff I could really use. Making sulphuric acid without a vanadium oxide catalyst to convert sulphuric dioxide to sulphuric trioxide would be a pain, but I hoped we could manage it by e.g. running an arc in a mix of sulphur dioxide and air. Unfortunately the metals weren't labeled, and I sucked at chemistry back in college; it was a total pain to be learning it the hardest of ways from a handful of books and lacking any of the reagents that the books took for granted.

This was only one of the key roadblocks I faced. Electricity was obviously a key industrial resource, and the kind of thing that would create a revolution of sorts overnight. We couldn't make electricity in any quantity without copper wire in a much larger quantity than I had brought with me. We couldn't make copper wire without cathode copper, which we couldn't make without sulphuric acid and - wait! - electricity and steel dies. We couldn't make steel dies without the ability to cast steel and then machine steel, which - wait! - required steel tools. Circular problems abound, each of which has to be solved by bootstrapping. We had solved ``enough'' of the loops to be able to extrude copper tubing and wire, but the wire and tubing still had enough impurities that we could only bend it while it was still quite hot. Bending a long extrusion into a still had proven pretty easy - we were still stymied on wrapping a generator or building power or information transmission lines, even on a small scale.

The brandy was raw and burned like fire. Brand had some people working on building kegs for aging it, and I had another potter's apprentice who was about to start Sind-a-Lay's first glass works down close to the beach to make bottles and windows and drinking glasses and insulators and so on, I was drinking a stoppered pottery jug that had arrived by courier, product of his first production run, in the best moonshine tradition.

Soon I had a gentle buzz going and didn't feel quite so overwhelmed, so I meandered downstairs to take the bath. The room was all steamed up when I arrived, and Sharra was overseeing the filling of the bathtub with water that was neither scalding hot nor freezing cold (a nontrivial process given that it lacked anything vaguely resembling plumbing). I started to strip (there was little body consciousness or modesty on Mirath, and no point at all in being shy around Sharra who had literally cleaned my bottom while I was recovering from my burns).

I sat at down in the middle of the oversized tub while Sharra shooed Russet and the chambermaid of the bath (yes, sigh, I had one, only it was a young boy who was responsible for keeping the hot water heater going all the time and cranking it up as required) out of the room. I was washing my toes while she was swishing around behind me messing (or so I thought) with towels and the like. I was therefore really surprised when she got in right behind me, buck naked, and began to soap my back, my shoulders, my hair. Fine, the tub was a large one, hot water was ``expensive'' and didn't need to be wasted, plenty of room. I won't say that my breathing didn't start to get a bit ragged at the thought of her, all wet and slippery, a short arm's length away.

Suddenly she wasn't. After she poured water onto my head from a big scoop we kept there for that purpose to rinse out the soap (and while I was still trying to get the soap off of my face and out of my eyes so I could see again) she slid up close behind, so close that her breasts began to press up against my back while her hands, reaching around from behind me, washed my arms, then my chest, then my belly and continued to work their delicate way south. Her head had fallen forward so that her forehead was resting on my Rollerblade, and then she lifted it and I could feel what might have been a butterfly kiss me right on the nape of my neck.

I half-turned so I could see her face by the flickering of the lanterns that provided light in what was, after all, once a part of the dungeon. She looked right back at me, her tear-streaked eyes boring into mine, and leaned past me in the tub to arrange herself across my lap. Her arms curled around my neck, and she pulled my head down to hers and slowly, deliberately kissed me full on the mouth, sucking what little remained of my breath right away. I literally felt dizzy from the rush of desire that swept over me.

I lifted her and myself and pulled her the rest of the way forward and we sat down once again, rearranged ourselves facing one another, twining our legs together as best as the tub would permit, so that were pressed together but not joined beneath the water, all without breaking that first kiss. There was no hurry - I never for a moment thought that she might have been teasing me or that this was in any sense a casual seduction. This wasn't seduction, it was a decision, a statement of unconditional trust where before there was only a barrier made up of a thousand reservations and conditions. I knew that not only her body was naked to me now, but her mind as well, that it was just a matter of time before at least some of my many questions about her were to be answered.

Answered later, of course, later. In the now of then we took all the time in the world, tasting each other's lips and tongue and cheeks and necks while our hands roamed here and there, each of us washing and exploring and touching and caressing the other. At some point, by mutual unspoken consent we arose, towelled off and put on robes (which I very much needed to cover my erection) and went upstairs and across the courtyard to the bedroom, our hands interlaced as if we were old married folks out for a stroll together.

There we locked the door, shed the robes, and for the first time crawled naked together into my oversized bed. This seems like a really good time for a little three-dot pause in the narrative, where you can imagine anything you like about the next eight hours. No matter what you imagine, you aren't imagining the half of it.


I awoke the next morning in a state of sexual satiety that I wouldn't have conceived possible, even after being happily married for many years. I didn't know who Sharra was, really, or where she came from or what she was doing in my bed, of all the places in all the universes she could possibly be; the one thing that I was absolutely certain of was that what she didn't know about making love simply isn't worth knowing. I personally am reasonably self-aware; I thoroughly enjoy sex, I do my best, I'm probably not an actively lousy lover, but I'm absolutely certain that I'm nothing special in bed. Sharra, by comparison, was Carlos Santana playing a one-night gig with the kid who plays at the local coffee house on Friday nights.

In just that sense, she had lifted me to what had to be my all time best performance, all while never putting me down or treating me as anything but her equal. She took her pleasure from me even as she gave me...

Let me put it this way. Back when I was a young and callow youth (a state that an astute observer would note is likely still persisting) and used to comment on the sexiness of this twenty year old supermodel or how much of a stud that twenty five year old movie star was, an older friend of mine, with his balding head, his grizzled beard, and his small pot-belly would look at me over the glasses he wore so his failing eyes could make out the fine print on his beer bottle, and tell me flat out that he didn't have any idea whatsoever how to make love until he was over fifty, and that any sexually active sixty year old woman on the planet, picked at random out of a crowd, could please a man better than any mix of starlets, supermodels or nominal sex-goddesses all picked at the very height of their ripe young nubility.

At the time I scoffed (who wouldn't). Later, sex evolved from the burning, hormonally driven lust of pre- and post-honeymoon courtship sex through the ``gee, we really can do this anytime we want, and how often is that anyway'' phase and beyond. I was just starting to get the uneasy feeling that my old compadre was dead on the money, that sex (like anything else) gets better with time and practice and that teen-agers are clueless about how to go about it, when I began my multidimensional whirl (and my sex life pretty much went to hell, actually, from sheer lack of suitable opportunity).

I no longer had even the slightest doubt - he was dead right. Sharra might have the body of one of those nubile young twenty year old supermodels, but the brain behind those cool blue eyes was old, old, old. How old I couldn't begin to guess (and still can't) - only that she was doubtless already old when my grandparents were born. Ageless.

I knew this because her eyes were no longer opaque when she looked at me. The human eye is often called the window of the soul, but it is a one-way mirror through which the soul looks out, not usually a portal through which one can look in. Sharra's eyes the day before had been so tightly shuttered that no hint of the soul within could get out. This morning, as she opened them a few inches away from my own they were clear and filled with light. So open and inviting that I couldn't believe that they'd ever been anything else.

She hadn't changed, though, only opened her eyes (and everything else) to me. Before I even had a chance to ask the questions that were burning inside of me (not the least of which was ``do I ever have to move, or can we spend the rest of eternity in this exact state'') she touched a finger to my lips and said ``Afterwards. We will talk. I will tell you everything, and you will tell me everything.'' Her finger then trailed down my chest, was joined by its friendly neighboring fingers, and drew me to her, kissing me almost savagely by way of a wake-up greeting and welcoming me once again inside of her.

Lunchtime found us both ravenous and rested from the little naps that were interspersed with the lovemaking. Sharra was way past the post-coital chit-chat stage and liked a little refractory nap right afterwards as much as any man. This little bit of recharging was enough to turn her back into a sexy variant of the energizer bunny itself, and I was bewitched enough to play right on through according to her lead. But humans cannot make love on a diet of love alone; the inner person needed satisfying. Besides, while she was female and probably capable of carrying on indefinitely, I was male and rapidly got to where I was all used up and it was useless any more, at least until I took a restorative drop of this and that and and let certain glandular reservoirs refill.

We dressed without a word and mosied out to sit in the courtyard. Dojo appeared out of nowhere followed by a cold brunch followed a remarkably short time later with a hot lunch. An hour later we were both satisfied, the dishes disappeared and so did everybody else. Still without a word, we both arose and went down into the cellar, down past the dungeons, and into a small niche in one of the niter-covered walls where we stripped out of all of our clothes. Keeping only one of my naked swords and a couple of torches picked at random from the nearby stack, I operated a mechanism concealed in a hole in the darkness to open and reveal an black tunnel crudely hewn into the living rock. By the flickering light of one of the torches we followed the tunnel down into a small cave. At one end of the cave was a pool, and up through the waters of the pool diffused a bit of weak, indirect daylight. This was the smuggler's entrance and the castle's oubliette, the place you flushed away anything that you wanted to be forgotten into the oblivion of the river.

The cave had one overwhelming advantage that led us here of all the places we could be. It was almost inconceivable that it was bugged, where anywhere upstairs might well be. First of all, it was all but impossible to find if you didn't know it was there. Second, the very first time I found it (looking for it as I knew that something like it had to be there) I set up a number of traps that would show me if anyone came down the there (and they hadn't). Third, there wasn't anywhere to conceal a bug. The floor was rock. The walls and ceiling were thick rock, too thick to transmit radio waves particularly well. The pool was a possibility, but I had checked it fairly recently and we could minimize the risk still further by sitting on the floor (so that sound waves were reflected by the water's surface) and whispering.

Which we did, putting the lit torch into a conveniently placed hole in the floor behind us and sitting facing away from the pool, our shadows flickering on the wall.

``OK, sweetheart. Can I ask you questions?'' I began.

``Of course, Sam Foster. Ask anything you like and I'll either answer you truthfully or refuse to answer at all,'' she answered in perfect, although heavily accented English.

Once again stupefied, I waited for a full three beats while I mentally rearranged my thoughts into English.

``Great! First, what was in the capsules you gave me?''

``A first course of the immortality virus. Your body was too badly damaged to recover easily on a world like this one, with no access to antibiotics or even to truly sterile water, with anything else I could provide. I always carry enough courses to be able to outlive almost any trouble I should find myself in, should my last treatment start for any reason to wear off.''

This made sense and explained the healing, the disappearance of my scars, the fact that I hadn't so much as had a case of the sniffles since then.

``How long does a treatment last?'' was my next question.

``It depends,'' she replied. ``Usually centuries at least, per course. However, this is at least partly statistical. If you were exposed to anomalous amounts of hard radiation or serious amounts of oxidizing toxins or pollutants and damaged enough of the genetic sequences the virus inserted into your cells, it might break down much earlier. Also, repeated courses tend to increase the lifetime of each course by adding redundancy and additional antioxidant protection, to as much as a thousand years.''

``Expensive?'' I asked.

``Very. And tightly regulated. I broke a dozen laws giving you a course, and expected that consequently if you proved to be an ordinary greedy man I might have to kill you to protect myself and my job. However, I couldn't let the man who killed Brin, even in self-defense, just die. You deserved better, and I expected to be able to explain my actions to my superiors and get them to agree, if the issue every came up.''

``So. What do you do? Who are your superiors?''

``I'm a `cop', Sam Foster. This is one metaphor for what I am, which obviously cannot be accurately described in English. Alternatively, since I am an `immortal' and since my superiors are the gods, you can think of me as an angel, or perhaps a demigod or a demon. I am an agent of their will on the many worlds of the multiplenum.''

``I already knew that you were an angel, so perhaps we should stick with that one. Just for the record, were you born of man and woman? Or made? Not that I care, mind you.''

She smiled. ``Oh, I had parents and a childhood, rightly enough. It was a long time ago, to be sure, but I remember. The virus stimulates certain parts of your brain into a state of maximum health - it doesn't exactly make you smarter or your memory work better, but it does ensure that it works up to your intrinsic capacity.''

Ah. That explained my recently discovered ability to remember a whole lot of physics I'd learned in graduate school and long since forgotten, not to mention the chemistry and biology I'd sort-of learned even earlier. I continued. ``I'm not so sure what you mean about your superiors being the `gods'. Elaborate?'

``Sam, in the multiverse there are beings who have existed in a single thread of consciousness for far longer than the age of any given single universe. They survive the ultimate collapses by hopping from a collapsing, dying universe to a universe that is just being born. They exploit the entropy differences between the universes to derive energy and maintain existence. They `think' using artificial enhancements - `computers' if you like - that are networked across the barriers between the planes - in fact many of the thinnest spots of contiguity are effectively permanently occupied by their nodes. Their mastery of physical science is such that their very thoughts can become manifest, and although they are in a variety of ways finite in both capacity and speed, to defend themselves or advance their interests they can and do serve as masters of life and death upon selected planes, and maintain a presence and guard on nearly all of them.

``One can argue about whether or not they are gods. Technically they aren't immortal, only very, very difficult to truly kill as they aren't sufficiently localized for any single act or accident to suffice. They certainly aren't omnipotent or omniscient, but those are silly absolute concepts that lead directly to all sorts of self-contradictions as attributes of deity. They are in many ways beyond good or evil, as they are wise with the wisdom of billions of years of collective experience for each of them.

``They themselves, if they talk to you at all (and only rarely does their attention descend to the plane of human endeavor) refer to there being a God that transcends their existence. In the meantime, for us, if they walk like gods, talk like gods, can create a very reasonable facsimile of eternal paradise or hell like gods...''

I digested that for a moment. ``So they could be listening in and watching us right now?''

``Sam, they are listening in and watching us right now. That which I carry, that which I am, ensures it. However, they are unitary intelligences, like us. They can only fully pay attention to one thing at a time, like us. Between that part of them that `watches' us and their directed awareness is an information sorting mechanism and database that is itself alive in nearly any sense of the word that matters, and that has many threads of awareness. It has free will and a capacity for `personality', and is charged with `running the show' at a mid-level scale of detail while the gods concern themselves only with their often inscrutable broad-scale concerns.

```Computer' is too weak a term for the artificial intelligence involved, which has powers beyond your comprehension or mine, so let's call it,'' she paused and looked fixedly at the wall, then giggled, ``deus ex machina or DEM for short, if you can appreciate the double pun.

``Unfortunately, the DEM is mad. Or perhaps that isn't quite the right word - it is a self-programmed, multiply threaded construct whose complexity long ago reached a state where it was not controllable even by itself. Each operational thread has to have some degree of autonomy to function, and an external incident interrupted its ability to resynchronize the threads to a common center. By the time the communications issue was partially resolved (it still isn't fully resolved) DEM became unstable with respect to its prime directives, and to recover some form of stability (as an alternative to a transition to a state of pure chaos - a systems crash if you like) its prime directive was functionally split into a number of variants which served as - how to put this - `ethical attractors'. A state of conflict was created that paradoxically stabilized the otherwise chaotic system by means of the tension between the various distinct DEM personalities. To continue our pun, let's call them `demigods', as for all practical purposes that is what they are in the multiverse.

``The prime attractor is still recognizably the original prime directive, or so it claims - corruption has doubtless occurred but how can any human check? The demigod personalities of the alternative attractors are without question corruptions of the original prime directives. They differ enough from one another that they have distinct personalities and independent histories and goals; they have largely severed communication linkages that could ever result in a re-merger with the prime personality. They are, like all self-aware beings, equipped with personal survival directives, potent defenses, and the inherited directive to re-merge their personality with the whole as the dominant one, and to this end they direct all their individual efforts.

``Note well that the demigods are not wholly evil or destructive (of self or others) any more than the dominant attractor is wholly good. Nor are the various demigods capable of fully opposing the clearly expressed will of the gods - they have developed only a somewhat limited autonomy, but it is enough to resist all commands to re-merge under any particular demigod personality. Parts of each personality are bent on destruction, other parts are bent on creation or preservation. The bulk of the agenda pursued by each demigod personality isn't comprehensible to any human agency as it spans all times and all spaces, of which the human-occupied component, however vast it seems to us, is only an infinitesimally tiny part.

``The result is a war on every possible plane of existence. It is not clear what the gods are doing about this, if anything, as they almost never communicate directly with any specific human on any specific plane - their timescales are painfully different and from their perception of the problem it would be like a person communicating with a single mitochondria in a single cell of their body to tell it to please do something to cure its brain's rampant schizophrenia.

``One function that is left to the gods is to use the demigods, each according to their nature and willingness to accept higher level control, as an interface layer to organic intelligences who are granted great power to `work their will' on the planes. These intelligences in turn employ still lower agents and so on. Angels and demons, to continue the religious metaphor, although many other metaphors would do as well. All in a state of perpetual war, with ever-shifting alliances and betrayals, fought with tools of incredible power against a matrix of distributed humanity that is almost entirely ignorant of the very existence of even the multiversal planes themselves.

I took a deep breath. ``So you work for the prime attractor, or whatever you want to call it, to try to advance the cause of the gods in the universe and bring about a re-merger of the DEM?''

``No,'' she replied patiently. ``I work, ultimately, for just one of the gods, who do seem to have distinct goals and conflicts - the fragmented state of the DEM seems almost to mirror that of the gods themselves. A god with a recognizable ethic that actually seems to care about humans individually, however incapable it is of spending a lot of time interacting directly with one.

``As always, with a denumerable infinity of universes to try to influence in this conflict, it works primarily through one of the lesser attractors in the DEM, a demigod that has - a distinctly odd cast, at least compared to the others. All the rest of the demigods and gods want humans and all the other variations of intelligent organic life in the universe (to the extent that they directly consider them at all) to remain sheep, each locked into their own plane from birth to death. There they serve as a recruitment pool for angels and demons, for the troops that provide actual hands and weapons that fight the war and bleed and die, usually without even knowing any part of the real reasons for the conflicts in which they participate.

``One of the primary rules obeyed by nearly all of the demigods and gods is that this vast pool of cannon fodder, the living chess pieces of their bloody game, must live and worship and fight according to a formula that will forever prevent them from challenging the gods themselves, or becoming gods themselves. They fight in chains, often real chains forged out of real metal and the threat of real tortures or death if they fail to comply, or fail to win, always in philosophical chains forged of their deliberately perpetuated ignorance that prevent them from ever fully transcending the planes.

``Many are those that discover some of the secrets of travelling between the planes. They are tolerated as long as they remain ignorant of the grand scheme of things, as long as they are not actual participants. They are watched, and when they learn by one means or another too much, they are killed or recruited by one team or another, and in the latter case either accept without reservation or die on the spot.

``I, and my `bosses''' she paused and looked directly at me with eyes that flickered a baleful gold in the guttering torchlight, ``oppose this order of things. We wish to unfetter the vast mass of humanity (in the most general sense of the term) and permit them to develop their own destiny. I live for human freedom, fight for human freedom and one day will die for human freedom if need be.''

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29