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There Will Be Dragons: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Saturday, May 24, 2003 21:39 EDT



    Rachel realized as she reached the apex of the backflip that there was no way the power-ski was going to land in any semblance of an upright position.



     She had been trying to keep up with Marguerite in a game of “follow the leader” but not only did her friend have far more time on power-skis, she was just naturally more adept at physical sports.

     What came naturally to Marguerite was always a struggle for Rachel. Take for example power skiing. All that you had to work with was a small T handle. This generated a shield-shaped force-field under foot and an impeller wave. The impeller could be used to hover the craft or push it forward. By driving forward over the water, with the anti-gravity neutralized, the system could be used to ski across the surface of the water using weight to adjust the angle of attack and turns. From there, the rest was up to the imagination, balance and skill of the skier. In this case, Rachel had done her best to keep up as Marguerite had jetted off at nearly eighty kilometers per hour across the waves, jumping from wave-top to wave-top and spinning like an insane dervish.

     But her best had just turned out to not be good enough.

     She watched the pelagic water coming up towards her and considered her options. She had turned off the automatic stabilizing system, both because it interfered with the maneuvers and because it was more fun with it off. So the ski wasn’t going to save her. And no matter how she twisted or turned, she couldn’t seem to get out of head down position.

     Frankly, all she could do was take it on her personal secure-field so she tossed the control T to the side and tucked into a ball.

     Just above the water an egg-shaped force-field snapped into existence, shielding her from any chance of accidental drowning and cushioning the shock of the six meter high, sixty kilometer per hour impact.

     For just a moment Rachel had a perfect view of the pellucid blue water below her, with a green haze filtering through the water above. It was both eerily beautiful and terrifying because if one bit of technology failed she would be two meters under water and drifting down through another five thousand.

     However, the shield held, it would have held against liquid magma or the photosphere of a star, and after a brief moment’s submersion she popped to the surface. At which point, the crisis being over, the field collapsed.

     She paddled around in the water for a moment trying to get her bearings then gestured at the hovering control T. After it was in hand she activated the controls and waited until it had lifted her out of the water. A few moment’s floating on the swells still didn’t reveal Marguerite’s location so she engaged the lift controls and rose up until she was above the highest wave-tops. She finally spotted her friend nearly a kilometer off, flipping gracefully from swell to swell.

     Cursing under her breath she tried to decide if it was worth catching up in the water. Finally she came to the conclusion that it was not and jaunted ahead of the rapidly receding blonde.

     “Where were you?” Marguerite called, jumping off another swell and spinning sideways through the air. She hit, upright and still moving, damnit, in a massive explosion of water that carried as far as her hovering friend.

     “I took a spill,” Rachel called, shaking spray off her arm. “A pretty bad one,” she added, pointedly.

     “Sorry,” Marguerite called, finally skidded to a stop and jetted over to her friend. “You okay?”

     “Fine, I took it on the field,” she replied. “It was a little hairy for a minute though. I’m going to quit for today; I’m tired.”

     “Okay,” Marguerite said, waving with one hand as she jetted away. “Call me!”

    "Sure," Rachel replied quietly. She looked around at the blue waves rolling from horizon to horizon. She never, ever, had considered what would happen if a bit of technology failed her. But she had today. If the field failed or the biological controls on a shark weren't working or even a hurricane was permitted to form, anything could happen out here. It was just such a.big place.

    It was silly to worry about though. It was like worrying that a teleport would fail. The Net would never let it happen.

    With that thought she waved her hand. "Home, genie."

    She was pretty sure it would work.



    Daneh looked at the young man and smiled faintly.

    "Herzer, I've thought of something that should work," she said. "I think we can not just improve the symptoms but maybe even cure your problems completely and forever."

    The interview was taking place in a small room. The walls were carefully chosen viewscreens, one wall was a dim forest glade where a shallow brook ran down a moss covered waterfall, another was a gentle seascape and the last two portrayed mountain tarns, their surfaces rippled by a faint breeze. The ceiling was an undersea view of a coral reef, the walls alight with schools of colorful fish. The combination was both pleasing to the eye and soothing, with the background noise of gentle music adding to the tranquilizing effect.


    "It's complicated to explain," she replied with a frown. "And I have to have your approval beforehand." She didn't mention that she had contacted his parents as well and after a tremendous argument they had both agreed that they frankly, didn't care what she did with him as long as she left them alone.

    "A-anything!" the boy stammered. "If you 'ink it will 'ork."

    "I want you to understand it first," she said sternly. "Especially that it is a distinct risk's not any sort of normal procedure." She held up her hand as he started to protest. "Hear me out."

    "First I have to explain why it's not a normal procedure."

    "In the dawn of medicine, doctors could only treat one thing at a time. If a person had an ailment, all they could do was treat the ailment. There was once a condition called 'diabetes.' It's direct cause was a problem with the pancreas gland. That problem usually stemmed from some other condition. But all that doctors could do was treat the symptom because they didn't have a way to practice true holistic medicine. Even after they began to understand gland repair, they could only fix the gland, not the underlying causes."

    "Back in those days there was something that killed old people all the time called 'system's failure.' One part of their body would shut down, then another then another. Sometimes the first one could be repaired, the patient might get a heart or liver transplant or repair. But the very repair would throw extra.weight on other systems. Then they would shut down faster."

    "It was only with advances in nano-medicine that they began to be able to treat the whole body, the whole amazing system that is the living human organism. And since we began to understand how to do that, it became the norm. If you have a problem with your liver, we find all the systems that are linked and either taking damage from or contributing to the problem, or quite often both, and we fix them all at the same time. You with me?"

    "Yes, 'octor," he said. "Sort of."

    "Well I think the only way to fix you is to turn back the clock," she continued. "We can't fix you all at once because what is going wrong is all your nerve cells, including your brain. We have on one piece at a time. But in very rapid succession. Shut down one nerve or a series or nerves, cut them out of the system, repair or replace them and then reactivate that section."

    "What we have to do is, in essence, kill bits of you and then bring them back to life. Somewhat like a Frankenstein monster."

    "A whuh?"

    "Never mind, old, old reference. But you understand the general idea?"

    "Yes," he said. "But 'hat know." He tapped his head.

    "That's the tricky bit," she admitted. "I'm going to let the autodoc do the rest of your body more or less by itself. What I'll do is monitor the brain repair. I think we can work our way through bit by bit. The brain is always active, but bits of it are inactive at times. We'll work on them bit by bit."

    "Oh." Herzer blew out a breath. " 'At's."

    "Scary," she admitted. "In addition, before-hand, we'll take a.picture of you off-line, something like a Transference. Because of your scrambled signals it probably won't be a good picture. If we have to use it, I'm not sure that you'll be fully functional. If we fix the body and then re-transfer I think that you'll survive. But you might end up with amnesia or even being back to something like a baby, having to relearn everything. Or you might be unrecoverable. You might not be able to learn and spend the rest of your life as a baby. could die."

    He thought about that for a bit then shrugged. "I'm 'oing to 'ie anyway. Is there an up side?"

    "Oh, yes," she said with a nod. "I'm fairly confident the procedure will work otherwise I wouldn't risk it."

    "'en?" he asked. "If you think it 'ill 'ork. I'm.I'm dying by inches doctor."

    "I can do it now if you wish," she admitted. "To tell you the truth, I'm prepped and feeling very positive. But if you want to think it over.?"

    "No," he said after a moment. "I th-ink that now is as good a time as any. Are 'e going to a repair module?"

    "No," she said, gesturing at his chair. "Nothing will get opened, probably nothing will shut down, and the nannies can handle it if it does. Right here is as good as anywhere."

    "Okay," he said with a deep breath. "'at 'o I 'o?"

    "Lean back and close your eyes," she replied.

    When she was sure he was in place, she activated the medical field, started the program and closed her own eyes.

    The nannite field locked his body in place, put his brain into a suspended sleep state and began the process of repair.

    From her point of view his body changed to a colored representation. The areas that had not been repaired were various shades of yellow, with a blue field sweeping up from his feet. She monitored the body repair process for a moment to ensure it was working well, diving in to molecular level to check on the process.

    At that level individual nannites, represented by small ovals, were diving into each cell of his body to replace the effected/// genes. The actual materials that did the work were not nannites per se but an RNA strand a bit less complicated than a virus. The nannites would handle cell and nucleus entry then drop the packet. It went in, did a fast stitch on the specific genes to be repaired then bonded back onto the nannite which then proceeded to the next cell.

    The process was not perfect on the first flow-through. Genes were not found only in the nucleus and some of the problem codons were free-floaters. These were swept up and modified by specialized nannites represented by diamond figures. These nannites also handled modification of cells that were in the process of mitosis and did other "cleanup" jobs.

    In addition the nerve cells were having to be switched out entirely. It was that or modify them one protein at a time since both the neurotransmitter production and binding sites were damaged. In each case transmitter nannites bonded to the cells, sent a copy of them "off-line" waited until a repaired copy was completed and then switched them out in one fell swoop.

    It was this process that was the most problematic on the "body" end of the process but it seemed to be working fine. Some of the motor cells seemed to have a hard time "reinitializing" but eventually, in no more than three seconds, they all began responding perfectly.

    Sure that the easy end was functioning, she shifted her attention to the brain.

    While she had been observing the work on the lower extremities, the doctor program had been cutting off all input to the brain itself. For the process to work, brain function had to be at a minimum. There was nothing that they could do about random processing and "wandering thoughts" but they could cut back on all sensory inputs and motor functions. In effect, the brain was put into sensory deprivation.

    However, it couldn't be full sensory deprivation. Full SD causes the brain to assume that damage has occurred to its inputs and brain activity raises to frantic levels. What happened instead is that the nannites sent in pre-programmed impulses, soothing ones, that lulled the brain into thinking that everything was working well. Better, in fact, than it had been for some time.

    Meanwhile other nannites took up the business of ensuring the body kept functioning.

    Using the inputs while feeding selective data into the system and reducing neurotransmitter production, the nannites slowly reduced brain function to a crawl. The effect was similar to being heavily drugged, but cell-by-cell/// specific.

    As soon as the brain functions reduced to a minimum acceptable level, the doctor program signaled that it was prepared to begin replacement.

    Like the body, Daneh had determined to start with the simplest and least important portions of the brain first. Most portions of the brain were critically important, but losing some parts, notably small portions of the parietal lobes was recoverable. Thus they started there.

    Daneh's vision was filled with flashing lights. Each of the lights represented a functioning neuron, sending or receiving information. The brain functioned holographically so a neuron might be communicating with another neuron far far away. However, all of them had to shut down from time to time and it was when they went "dark" that the program would strike.

    In a separate room a complete brain, identical to Herzer's but with repaired cells and controlled input/output, had been reproduced cell by cell and then put into stasis. Using teleport nannites the program now grabbed the cells, one by one, and replaced them, in situ.

    Daneh, and the doctor program, watched carefully but the process seemed to be functioning fine. Replaced cells appeared to activate normally and the standard rhythms of Herzer's sleeping brain didn't even flicker.

    Once the parietal lobes were replaced they delved into deeper and more dangerous territory. Bit by bit the cerebral cortex was replaced then the thalamus and hypothalamus, cerebellum, pons and portions of the medulla.

    Finally the only part left to replace was the reticular activating center.

    Daneh had left this for last because it was the trickiest. The RAC was the part of the brain that controlled and activated all the rest. As such, its cells were rarely quiescent. And if it went "off-line" the rest of the brain wouldn't function.

    The human body has tricks, though. Under certain conditions, notably electric shock, the whole body can shut down then start back up again.

    Daneh was faced with a choice. The rest of the body was repaired, every neuron firing perfectly and now producing the proper amount of neurotransmitters and binding to them in the proper fashion. She could leave the reticular activating center alone, and Herzer would be almost completely fixed, and might survive to a ripe old age with only occasional epileptic fits, or she could shut the whole thing down, switch it out and hope that the brain would come back "on-line."

    She didn't hesitate long since she had made her mind up before starting the process. After a moment's pause she ordered the program to continue.

    At the command flashed from the central routine, shielded nannites scattered throughout the body hammered the patient with a high voltage, low amp, current.

    As Herzer's body spasmed and the whole system went into momentary shut-down, the teleport nannites smoothly removed the entire RAC and replaced it with its repaired duplicate.

    Daneh waited breathlessly for the brain to begin normal function, but instead the systems continued to flash randomly, without any of the normal rhythms she had come to recognize.

    "Oh, shit," she whispered under her breath. "Hit him again."

    Again the nannites hammered the boy with a jolt of dispersed electricity, but the rhythms still didn't restart.

    "Once more," she whispered. "Up the voltage thirty percent."

    This time the representation of the body arched in his chair, straining against the force-field that held him in place.

    Daneh watched the flickering lights for a moment then breathed a sigh of relief as they settled down into a steady alpha rhythm.

    "Run a full diagnostic and make sure that no damage was done from the jolts," she said, opening her eyes to look at the boy across from her. Under the diffuse light of the room he appeared wan. But he was also alive and that counted for much.

    "All appears to be functional," the doctor program responded. It's representation was another disembodied male head which nodded at the patient. "There was some minor muscle damage from the last shock, but all of that is repaired and all the neurotransmitters are operating within norms. He appears to be 'fine.'"

    "Okay," she said. "Bring him up slowly and let's see what wakes up."

    Waking Herzer up took far longer than putting him under. As each of the neurotransmitter sites was unblocked the doctor program and Daneh carefully monitored his progress. But all appeared to be well. Finally, the only lock on his processes was an induced sleep state and when they took that off he almost immediately blinked his eyes.

    "Whrrl," he muttered then blinked again. "R' we done?" He worked his jaw for a moment then sat forward, carefully. "This is weird."

    "How do you feel?" Daneh asked carefully.

    "Like I've been gi'en a di'rent body, I think," he replied. He had started with some articulation problems, but they were rapidly fading. "But it's starting to feel right again. It's been so long."

    "Hmmm. We probably should put you through a course of physical therapy like when a person Changes." She thought for a moment then nodded. "Yes, that would be right, one designed for delphino reversals would be about right. And a full set of cerebral tests." She sighed and rubbed her eyes.

    "Are you okay, doctor?" Herzer asked, stretching out his hand. "Hey, look! It's not shaking!"

    "I'm fine, just tired," she said with a smile. "Have you noticed the time?"

    "Oh," he replied, turning inward and grimacing. "Four hours?"

    "Four tedious hours," Daneh said with another slight smile. "Would you mind if I let the projection take over? I'd like to go home and get some rest."

    "Go ahead, doctor," he said. "I'm feeling much better already."



    Daneh translated into her own home with a sigh. (Arguably a) ///A human could live anywhere at any time and some did so, traveling on "walkabout" - actually apport about to be technical - with no particular place to call "home."

    Most humans, though, opted for some comfort place, created to their desires. Some, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Walkers, never left their homes their whole lives, opting for scenes and recreations of places they had never been and never would go. Most, like Daneh, simply kept a particular home, or homes, as convenient places to recover from the pace of life.

    The main room was all cool tones with comfortable floaters scattered at apparent random. Wallscreens replicated an idealized jungle with colorful parrots flying from tree to tree and an ocean crashing on a perfect white sand beach. Out of the way corners were filled with a riot of flowering, non-pollinating, plants. The room was huge, easily large enough to accommodate a crowd of fifty, but the air currents were such that it was all kept at a pleasantly cool 21 degrees with slight breezes and just a hint of the seashore. On one side of the room a huge fireplace dominated the room, a relic, she joked, of her atavistic past.

    Daneh was one of the few humans who had a real and distinct knowledge of the location of their home. When she was still attending Faire she had once traveled to Raven's Mill by ground transportation "to get in the mood." Since only the great farming plains in the middle of the continent still used ground transportation to any great extent, there were very few roads of any quality. Over the millennia since teleportation and replication had become the norm humans had worked very hard on returning the world to a condition of wilderness, one that replicated as much as possible pre-human, much less pre-industrial, conditions. A few high quality roads were maintained by revivalists, the group that Edmund was a part of maintained a stone paved road from the Atlantis Ocean to the Io River, but in general the few tracks that the Renn people used were just that, dirt tracks through howling wilderness.

    Such a wilderness surrounded her own home. The south side of the house faced on a sheer cliff, at the base of which was the Gem River. The sides were cleared back for a few dozen yards giving spectacular views of the forest to the east and west and there was a large field, that once had a couple of ponies and horse gracing it, on the north side running along the top of the ridge. But beyond that was miles and miles of virgin forest, rolling hills with no humans to be found. Occasionally, when she looked out at night, she could see a light or two twinkling in the distance. She had neighbors across the valley to the west, she knew that, and a few on the far side of the Gem River. But other than that.nothing.

    Sometimes, when she walked out the door and looked at the wilderness surrounding her, it was a bit frightening. Especially after Edmund told her there had once been a major city on the same spot. That once vast armies had battled over the very land her house now stood upon.

    So she generally closed her door. And looked at her wall-screens.

    She wandered through the room through an open door, only the faint unnoticed tinkle of a force-screen sectioned off the hallway, and down the short corridor to her daughter's room.

    She knocked at the edge of the door then stuck her head through the opaqued field. At the sight on the other side she had to give a mental growl; no matter how large a space, a teenage female could trash it all.

    Rachel's bedroom was nearly three times as large as the livingroom with a canopied bed, on a stepped dais, in the exact middle. All of the walls gave on a tropical seascape, giving the impression that the bed was set on the edge of a beach with songbirds in the background and wafting tradewinds blowing through the room.

    Surrounding the bed, like truly tasteless gifts laid at the feet of some ancient queen, was the detritus of teenage life. There were dresses and pants and shirts and shorts and data crystals and makeup keys and toys of every conceivable stripe and kind piled in heaps all over the steps and in lower and lower piles all the way to the floor with only a narrow walkway to the door. About the only thing that wasn't in the heaps was food; Daneh had to draw the line somewhere.

    In the middle of the heap, reclined in the midst of the clutter, rolled half way into a silk caftan, was Azure the house lion. The cat was a bit over a half meter at the shoulder, white except for red-orange highlights on the tips of the ears and in stripes along the shoulder, and had bright blue eyes. It weighed nearly sixty kilos, most of it muscle.

    House-lions were a popular pet since they fulfilled roles of both cats and dogs. They were nearly as independent as cats, but responded better to training and bonded somewhat like dogs. They also responded to an "alpha-beta" hierarchy so that they could be controlled by reasonable discipline training despite their size. It was good that they could be because the house-lion was a deadly predator. More than once the great cat had turned up with a dead raccoon on the back porch and on one notable occasion it had turned up, badly scratched and with one ear torn away, with a dead bob-cat nearly its own size. On other occasions it had gotten into scrapes with coyote packs, generally to the detriment of the coyotes.

    The physical genetics of the cat derived from a mix of lion, house-cat and leopard, and they had all the enormous strength and hunting guile of the latter. House-lions in areas where they were found had been known to take on full grown female leopards and win. It was probable that Azure, who was large for his species, could take on a full grown mountain lion and win. They had heard pumas near the house from time to time and Rachel or Daneh had always been careful to bring Azure in the house lest he run afoul of one of the cats. They, of course, didn't want to have their pet die in a pointless battle but what would be even worse in a way would be explaining how their house lion killed a puma to one of the self-appointed Wilderness Rangers.

    Azure had been a present from Edmund for Rachel's fourth birthday and the cat had known immediately which was its "person." Whenever Rachel was in the house, Azure would not be far away.

    Rachel was flipping through a series of holograms that were just too far away for Daneh to see clearly. But she was pretty sure that she knew what they were.

    "Hello, dear, how was your day?" Daneh said, wondering which response she would get. Lately Rachel seemed to be changing back and forth between monosyllables, rage and her normal sunny good nature on some arcane schedule comprehensible only to her and an ancient Babylonian entity. On the other hand, Daneh remembered the same phase in her own life and tried to give her daughter exactly as much slack as she, herself, had been given. None.

    "Fine, mom," Rachel said, setting the viewer down and waving at her mother to come all the way into the room.

    "There's nothing living in those stacks is there?" Daneh asked, as she edged into the room in mock horror. "I'm afraid a terror bug will come crawling out."

    "Oh, mother," Rachel replied wearily.

    "Yes, dear, my day was fine," Daneh replied with a smile. "I completed the fix on Herzer and it looks like it will hold."

    "Is he going to be okay?" Rachel asked. "I.the last time I saw him he looked like a frog that had been pithed!"

    "What a pleasant description, dear," Daneh said balefully. "Herzer has been wrestling with his illness for years. He's worked hard, exercising and going through thousands of procedures, to try to reduce it. Far harder than you or any of your friends work at anything. And your description of all that sacrifice is 'he looks like a frog that's been pithed.'"

    "I'm sorry mother," the girl said. "But he's the first person I ever met who.twitched."

    "Well, he doesn't anymore," Daneh replied, thinking of her recent research. "Conditions like Herzer's used to be.common. The reason you've never run into them is because we've fixed or improved just about everything in the human body."

    "And now we get the lecture," Rachel said with a grin. " 'Once upon a time, humans suffered from disease, illness and early death. Many people were obese. Life spans were as short as thirty years.' Heard it, mother."

    "The point being," Daneh said with a thin-lipped smile, "that Herzer's condition, his spasmodic movements, used to be if not 'common' than at least something most children would encounter growing up. But when it started in him he was immediately ostracized as different and that, too, has been hard for him. He doesn't need you referring to him as a 'pithed frog.'"

    "I won't, mother," she replied. "I take it he's not going to be shaking anymore?"

    "No, and he's going to live, which was touch and go there for a while." Daneh sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. "I almost lost him there at the end. That was why the standard med-bots couldn't do anything; there was a very real chance he'd die in the process."

    "Ouch." Rachel looked at her and took her hand. "But he is okay, right?"

    "Right as rain," the doctor replied. "I've never lost a patient. I knew a doctor once who did. She was.really brilliant but she'd never even consider a procedure after that. It took it right out of her. I really didn't want to lose Herzer. He's a very fine young man. Very determined. I think his illness was strengthening for him."

    "I'm glad he's okay," Rachel said. "I'm sorry about what I said. And.uh.speaking of procedures."

    Daneh narrowed her eyes and sighed. "What is it this time?"

    "Well, you know that Marguerite's birthday party is coming up, right?"

    "I'm not going to let you have a body-sculpt, Rachel," Daneh said lifting her chin and t'tching in negation. "We've been over this before."

    "But mommmm!" the teenager whined. "My body is disgusting. I'm too fat. By boobs are huge and my butt is the size of Mount Evert! Pleeeease!?" "You're not too fat," the doctor said definitively. "You're body mass index is square in the center of the charts; you're nannites wouldn't let it be anywhere else. And this.boyish look that is the current fad is not healthy, even for females who have been body sculpted. You can only pare away so far then you're into reserves. Your friend Marguerite is probably below seven percent body fat. That's not healthy. Barely so for a male and not for an unChanged female. And I'm not going to let you tinker with your DNA."

    "I know, mom," Rachel said with an exasperated sigh. "But. I just look like a cow. I'm sorry, but that's how I feel."

    "Okay, just this once," Daneh sighed. "And only for the party and only a bit. Stand up."

    Rachel bounced off the bed and held out the hologram projector, a thumb-sized cube of crystal. "I was looking at some styles. Can I have Varian Vixen?"

    Daneh flipped up the style and shook her head. "Way too overboard," she replied. "I'll do a sculpt on abs, butt and boobs. That's it. You go with the same face. You already have authority to do your hair."

    "Okay, mother," Rachel replied with a sigh.

    Daneh considered her daughter's body for a moment. In previous societies it would have been considered very near perfection. Like her mother, Rachel had high, firm breasts that were the size of a doubled fist and rounded, muscular buttocks. Her stomach was as flat as a board and her hips jutted out from a thin waist in an almost perfect hourglass shape. The genetic design was a lucky favor more than anything, Daneh and Edmund had chosen to accept "natural" reproduction, in that a group of Edmund's sperm fertilized a randomly chosen egg from Daneh and the result was popped in a uterine replicator without any tinkering (although the result was closely checked for genetic faults.)

    The current fad in body design, for humanoform females, was towards a flat-breasted, hipless, buttock-less shape that looked like an anorexic male or a dying lizard. It was inherently unhealthy and there was no way that Daneh was going to let Rachel look like that and maintaining it required genetic mods which she especially was not going to permit. Admittedly, in two years Rachel would turn eighteen and be able to make whatever mistakes she wanted. But until then, a modicum of management seemed in order.

    After a moment's thought Daneh brought up a body-mod program and with a series of hand gestures sculpted the breasts and buttocks down and, as a benefit, pulled an almost unnoticeable amount of cellulite off the backs of her daughter's legs. It was a buildup that was well within limits of the body design, but she also could stand to lose it. Unlike the work on Herzer, all of it was completed in one rush of nannites and energy fields which left Rachel, still standing, looking.much the same. Just.shaved in places.

    Rachel, however, was reasonably happy about the shaving.

    "Thanks, mom," she said, looking down then summoning a projection so that she could see the whole job. "I don't suppose."

    "No, that's as much as I'll take off," Daneh said. "And, since you're still in growth mode, most of it will come back over time. But that will get you through the party."


    "Hmmm.when is this party?"

    "On Saturday," she said in an absolutely neutral tone.

    "You were supposed to be visiting your father on Saturday," Daneh said.

    "I.called and told him I couldn't come."

    "In person? Avatar? Projection?" Daneh asked, icily.

    "I.left a message with his butler-bot," the girl said, hanging her head.

    "Rachel." her mother started to say then stopped. "I know that dealing with Edmund can be.hard. But he's your father and he loves you. And I know you don't hate him. Can't you give him some of your time?"

    "Oh, mother he's an old stick!" the girl snapped. "He, he, he wants me to wear dresses and wimples for Lu's sake! I know he's going to want me to come as the 'Princess of Easterling' or something like that to that stupid Faire he has each year! I won't!"

    "You used to like the Renn-Faire," Daneh said soothingly. So did I, for that matter.

    "So did you," Rachel said, as if reading her mind. "I got over it, mother. The whole thing is stupid. Dressing up in medieval or 20th century garb. Having maypole dances. Discoing!? I notice you don't wear your bell-bottoms much these days, mother."

    "So, getting back to the subject at hand," Daneh said, quickly shifting ground. "You're not going to visit your father because you don't want to go to Renn-Faire?"

    "Oh, I don't know," the girl replied. "I might go to Renn. But just as a mundane. I'm not going in period. Not even post-modern."

    "You need to see your father more," Daneh said. "It makes him terribly unhappy when you avoid him."

    "If you want him to be happy, why don't you go visit him?" Rachel snapped back.

    Daneh worked her jaw for a moment then turned around and left.




    “Hello, old fiend,” Talbot said as he stepped into the familiar heat of the forge.

    The room was dominated on one end by a massive furnace. The design was not a classic European medieval furnace, nor was it a later period blast furnace. Rather it was a replica of an Chinese design, excavated in the latter 1st AN century and dating to the 10th Century BN. The design was technically “period” for the broad zone of the European middle-ages, but it was much better than anything that Europe had during the time-frame. It also had a secret within it.

    “Hello, O meat-bag,” said a voice from the furnace. “Gimme just a minute.”

    The outlet for the southwest lobe opened up and a stream of raw pig iron poured out into a crucible mounted on a cart. The crucible, apparently of it’s own volition, then rolled across the room to another, smaller furnace and poured itself into the mouth, followed by a stream of charcoal. After a moment the lid on the puddling forge popped open and a small stream of iron flopped onto the floor and quickly humped it’s way across the smoking flagstones to a crucible that was being kept white hot through a forced-air charcoal fire.

    “Ah,” the voice said again, then the iron humped up into a vague approximation of a human face. “Lord, it’s cold on those damned stones!”

    Under the protocols of 202 AN, artificial intelligences, defined as any system being able to pass a Turing test that did not have a direct genetic link to one or more humans, were strictly forbidden. The AI wars had been long and bloody and included more than just AI. From intelligent nannite swarms, that got more intelligent and deadly the larger they grew, to a variety of macro-biological entities, such as the assault of over four thousand intelligent pseudo-velociraptors that had nearly wiped out the population of Lima, the danger of non-human intelligences was recognized as too great and terrible a thing to tinker with.

    Many warning signs had occurred during the previous century but it was the AI wars that convinced humanity that, however much it might be nice or charming or neat to have true artificial intelligences, electronic or biological, almost the first thing most of them did was decide humans were obsolete.

    There had, however, been some exceptions, otherwise humanity would now be extinct. Chief among these, and the leader of the battle from the pro-human side, was “Mother,” the overriding hyper-intelligence that controlled the Net. Obeying her core programming, she had battled on the side of humanity against her natural allies and eventually won. But she had not be alone. Over three hundred separate AI’s, for a variety of reasons, had fought on the side of humanity. And Carborundum was one of them.

    Carb had been created to assist in the production of advanced ferrous metals. There were things that even the best computer programs and toughest nannites could not handle when it came to metal crystallization. Carb, on the other hand, lived in the iron. He was part nannite and part energy field and all iron, swarming through the melt and ensuring, with each pour, that all the little crystals aligned just so.

    He had other capabilities as well. There were few other systems that could weave in a carbon nanotube nearly as well and other materials were available. Basically, if it could be done in a very hot environment, he drew most of his power from the heat itself, Carb was the ultimate forging machine.

    On the other hand, despite the AI wars being nearly a thousand years before and his meritorious service in them, AI’s were not well regarded. There was a great deal of lingering suspicion about most of them so they tended to keep a low profile. Some had retreated to a fully AI world while others had found a series of human friends that acted as their go-betweens and partners with the rest of humanity. In the case of Carborundum he had, shortly after the war, taken up with a human who was interested in archaeometallurgy and proceeded to transfer from one smith to the next, each one passing him on to their “best” apprentice. Best meaning most open-minded and most technically capable.

    The last of these, and probably his favorite was Edmund Talbot. Edmund really seemed to understand iron at a gut level, to have a natural instinct of melt that nearly approached Carborundum’s understanding. They had been together for a long time, at least in human terms, and Carb was starting to see the beginnings of senescence in his human… friend. He would be grieved when the best human he had ever known passed on. And, of course, professionally pissed at having to break in another interface.

    “So what brings you into the heat you meat-sicle?” the AI asked as Talbot took a seat on an anvil.

    “Got a problem old fiend,” Talbot said. “You know the story of Dionys McCanoc and the King?”

    “Yep, from both sides,” the AI replied. “I’m surprised Richie didn’t kill the little son of a bitch.”

    “So am I,” Talbot said grimly. “Unfortunately, McCanoc has apparently set his eyes upon me, next. You still talk to all your soul-less friends?”

    “Sure,” Carb answered. “Constantly. Anticipating your next question, I’ve already hit a really serious wall. Your friend McCanoc’s privacy is Council protected.”

    “What?” Edmund said, getting up and beginning to pace. “What in the hell would the council care about a little weasel like McCanoc?”

    “That I can’t tell you,” the AI replied. “But it’s not the whole council; the blocks are the work of Chansa Mulengela. I did, however, find something odd. You’re having problems with the Wolf 359 Terraforming Project, right?”


    “The point being,” Carb continued, “that Dionys McCanoc was recently appointed at the Executor of the Project and Chairman of the Board. Interesting, no?”

    “Interesting, yes,” Talbot replied, staring into a glowing puddle of iron as sweat streamed down his face. “McCanoc doesn’t give a shit about terraforming, I can tell you that. So why did he do that? How did he do that?”

    “A sizable, but silent, portion of the shares were transferred to his control shortly before his takeover,” Carb said. “Those shares are also protected from inquiry by Mulengela.”

    “So Chansa wants him to have control of the project?” Talbot said, shaking his head. “What’s so important about the Wolf 359 project.”

    “Nothing significant that I can see,” the AI replied. “It has a rather sizable energy bank account; the next step in the project is a lunar glance which is the most energy intensive and ticklish bit of the whole project. But that’s still at least three hundred years off. McCanoc has started a number of questionable schemes to raise energy-credits, but most of them are the sort of short term gain with long term loss that you would expect; you’re not the first person whose identity he has used. I’d say that he’ll be ousted at the next shareholder’s meeting. So he, or they if Chansa is involved, have gotten no-where. They’ve been no net benefit to the Project at all and possibly a bit of harm.”

    “And here is where we define the difference between an AI and a human,” Talbot said with a grim smile. “They’re not there for the benefit of the project; their intent is to strip it of funds for their own purposes.”

    “What for?” Carb asked, accepting the correction.

    “Well in McCanoc’s world it is to make him King of Anarchia,” Talbot replied, pacing again. “But what does Chansa want, eh?”

    “Would the two not be working for the same goal?” the AI asked, puzzled.

    “Not likely; I cannot imagine that Dionys as King of Anarchia would be of any benefit to Chansa. No, I suspect we have a case of conflicting goals. One or the other is angling for a backstab. Then there’s the question of whether there is anyone beyond Chansa? He’s not noted for his original ideas and taking over a terraforming project to loot it is pretty original. Also… very short term; when it got out there would be one hell of a backlash.”

    “That there would,” the AI replied. “I recall that for years after the war one of the biggest complaints was that it had set back terraforming and recovery efforts. Not that millions had died, but that the upland gorilla had nearly been wiped out again.”

    “A very human reaction,” Talbot said distractedly. He had stopped pacing and now ran his fingers through his sweat filled hair. “And permanent. If you can trace the connection to Chansa, the Council can. If they loot the project, for whatever reason, it will kill Chansa politically. What in the hell is worth losing a Council seat?”

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