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The Redlanders flooded down the Escarpment toward the forts at the choke point of the River. The donts they rode upon were Valley stock sold to them by the very villagers they were now attacking. It didn’t matter. The Redlanders cut through the villagers like a scythe.

Time to go down, said Raj, and abruptly Abel found himself off the flyer and standing in a village street.

The principle street of Orash in a not-distant future. Observe:

Screaming people were running past him. Babies were crying. Children were yelling for their parents, for their brothers and sisters.

Nobody knew where to go or what to do.

Because there wasn’t anywhere to go.

The rumble of massed riding donts in the distance. Men on dontback. Abel recognized the sound well enough without Center’s data planting.

Screams that were screams of pain.

A single villager charging down the street straight at Abel, a wild look on his face and insanity in his eyes.

It was the eyes that frightened Abel the most.

He’s seen something, Abel thought to himself. Something horrible.

Their eyes locked, and the man headed directly toward Abel at a quick pace, as if tugged by a lanyard.

Abel flinched. The man with the crazy eyes was going to run right over him. There was no time to dodge, no time to jump away.

But then the man stumbled. Slowed.

Still his eyes remained locked with Abel’s.

And then he keeled over and fell on his face at Abel’s feet.

The man’s back was pierced with arrows as if he were a human pincushion. And there was a gunshot to the left shoulder blade. Meat and muscle hung loose, and the ball had wreaked terrible damage to the bone.

It looks like a ragged, bloody cave, Abel thought. Bone glinted within torn skin.

Enough, said Raj.

Abel was back in the storehouse in Hestinga. He stumbled back from the upended flyer he’d been touching. He gasped for air.

“That man—” Abel managed to wheeze.

—one of many, said Raj. Many thousands who will die.

The Redlanders will sweep down Valley. The Second Cataract forts were designed as bases for forays into the surrounding desert, not north-south defense bastions. Their rear works are practically nonexistent. Most of them are unwalled and back up to the River. The Central Granary on Montag Island will burn. Rotten Bruneberg will crumble. Lindron will fall. The priesthood will flee to Mims. Mims will burn along with the priests. Thousands more will die from famine.

How do you know? Abel asked.

I am a fifth-generation artificial intelligence running on a one hundred gigacubit quantum superimposition engine. I complete more calculations per one of your eyeblinks than all the computers of the first millennium of the Information Age could produce together if all of them ran at full power for each of those one thousand years.


Trust me, Abel. I know.

Zentrum will reach an accommodation with the Redlanders, said Raj. As always, Zentrum believes he is taking the long view.

There is a tactical purity to the scheme, said Center. If one’s time horizon does not extend beyond a century or two.

Bloody hell, you sound like you agree with him! Raj practically shouted in Abel’s still spinning mind. Have we not seen this before? Have we not seen where it leads?

Merely tactical, not strategic, Center replied without missing a beat. There is an enormous error at the heart of Zentrum’s calculations. Stasis is error.

Abel pulled himself upright. He started to back away, to back out of the room, but something stopped him. He had another question. More to learn. Even after all this, after seeing the crazy-eyed man and his ripped apart back, Abel still felt—


“H-how?” he said aloud.

How what? said Raj brusquely.

Abel experimented with keeping his thoughts to himself.

Ask. Ask the question. Just because you want to know. Maybe they had heard. Were these his own thoughts, or Center’s, somehow beaten into his mind?

No. No, they weren’t.

Mamma liked it when I was curious. Mamma liked it that I wanted to know everything.

“How is Stasis wrong?” Abel asked.

For many reasons. On a mere physical level, consider: Duisberg has three moons. The gravitational tides created by their interactions have created an enormous debris field in a nearby orbit. The very rotation of the planet, opposite that of the rotational momentum of the system as a whole, speaks to this fact, as well. There have been cataclysmic strikes in the past, and a future meteor strike is a virtual certainty, geologically speaking.

Each unfamiliar word lit up with a definition as Center spoke it. Didn’t help. This was the way all adults were, explaining things that had no earthly use right now.

So what?

I don’t understand your response.

I said, so what?

Rephrase, please.

Am I going to get hit by a giant rock from space?

Unlikely that you yourself will be hit.

Is my father?

Again, unlikely.

You’re stupid, then. And I don’t care.

Human cognitive integration error. Due to your limited experience, you will require time to process.

Raj laughed heartily. It was not a pleasant laugh, either.

There’s no error. He may be six, but he gets it well enough, don’t you, lad? Your mother—there’s the key. Was she not going to always be there for you? Where is she, Abel?


Not fair.

It was one thing to fight, even to get beaten up. He was tough, and, even if he cried, he knew he didn’t really care. But to have a presence in your head that knew the places that really hurt—that wasn’t shy about touching those places if it served a purpose…

Mamma. Sunken eyes. Gurgling breath that smelled like pus. Face twisted in pain at something inside that was eating her, killing her.

That did kill her.

It had only been a toothache.

Only a stupid toothache the week before. And then she left me.

Lad, I’m sorry.

“Not fair,” he whispered. “It was just a bad tooth. She had it out. That was supposed to cure her.”

Bacterial sepsis, no doubt.

I know it’s not fair, lad. It’s not. But there’s your answer. Nothing stays the same.

Zentrum has fallen into a logical trap of his own creation.

“Not. Fair.”

Something heavy in his hands. Abel glanced down. It was the rock, the door stop. He was still clutching it. He’d been clutching it all along.

See there in the corner? See the cone-shaped thing?

Abel looked around. He had to step past the upturned flyer to see what Raj was talking about. It was indeed a cone shape, white with black markings upon it, as if it had survived a terrible fire.

“I see it,” Abel said. “What is it?”

Another laugh, this one not so unsettling.

Why, it’s the spaceship we came in, lad, Center and me.

And Abel understood—because he was made to understand. The capsule speeding through hyperspace in a tunnel of stars, their light extended into lines about the spaceship. This capsule. Hundreds of others on their way to different worlds, other fallen human worlds.

Like puffer-rod seeds, when you blew them, flying every which direction.

“I don’t get it,” Abel said. “I mean, I know what a spaceship is, you just showed me. But why? Why’d you come here?”

Change, replied Center. Change will occur, and if all upward change is blocked, what eventually occurs will be downward. Another Collapse. And this one longer and more complete than any other. Maybe final. This world must be readied to rejoin the awakened Republic. Those ships will come. And when they do, if they find nothing but primitives crawling among the ruins, they will pass by. There is much else to do.

“So what?”

Things can get worse, Raj said. Like they got worse for your mother.

“Leave my mother alone!”

If this society had the most basic antibiotics, your mother would still be alive, said Center. We could have helped her.

“You’re gods from the heavens! If you want to help me, bring her back!”

We can’t do that, Abel. We’re not gods.

“But you are. I know what you say, but you have to be to show me all this. I’ll do whatever you say. Whatever it is you want.” Tears were streaming down Abel’s face. “Just bring Mamma back.”

You don’t understand, Abel Dashian, Center calmly replied. It is we who need you.

He gripped the rock tighter. “Then what good are you?” With all his might, Abel raised the rock over his head. He stepped toward the capsule. “Get out.”

You can’t harm the capsule, said Center. Not with a simple stone, Abel.

“Get out of me.”

A moment of silence. Then Raj’s deep voice, now tight with concern. His plan isn’t to hurt the capsule, Raj said. Abel, lad—

“You don’t scare me,” said Abel. Despite himself, he found himself laughing through his tears. “You don’t scare me, I’m the Carnadon Man.”

Then Abel brought the stone down hard upon his own head and fell into darkness.

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