Lady of Mazes

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Karl Schroeder is one of the new stars of hard SF. His novels, Ventus and Permanence, have established him as a new force in the field. Now he extends his reach into Larry Niven territory, returning to the same distant future in which Ventus was set, but employing a broader canvas, to tell the story of Teven Coronal, a ringworld with a huge multiplicity of human civilizations. Brilliant but troubled Livia Kodaly is Teven's only hope against invaders both human and superhuman who would destroy its fragile ...

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Lady of Mazes

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Overview

Karl Schroeder is one of the new stars of hard SF. His novels, Ventus and Permanence, have established him as a new force in the field. Now he extends his reach into Larry Niven territory, returning to the same distant future in which Ventus was set, but employing a broader canvas, to tell the story of Teven Coronal, a ringworld with a huge multiplicity of human civilizations. Brilliant but troubled Livia Kodaly is Teven's only hope against invaders both human and superhuman who would destroy its fragile ecologies and human diversity. Filled with action, ideas, and intellectual energy, Lady of Mazes is the hard SF novel of the year.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Imagine a world where the smallest whim could be granted with a mere thought, a self-indulgent unreality that conformed to its inhabitants' every desire. Karl Schroeder's Lady of Mazes is set in a seemingly utopian realm of augmented reality where the majority of the populace of has neural and sensory implants -- but what happens when the plug gets pulled?

Teven Coronal is a ringworld inhabited by numerous human civilizations, each living within its own manifold. Most inhabitants are so absorbed with their own versions of reality that they don't even care that other manifolds exist. Livia Kodaly lives in Westerhaven, a high-tech manifold where the populace creates extravagant unrealities. But when mysterious revolutionaries invade and destroy Teven Coronal's fragile way of life, Livia vows to free her conquered homeland and restore Westerhaven to its former glory. But the more Livia learns, the deeper the mystery becomes…

A prequel to Schroeder's critically acclaimed Ventus (2000), Lady of Mazes is a much broader, more ambitious novel that takes on a host of themes and topics including emergent systems, rogue artificial intelligences, nanotechnology, post-humanity, and the future incarnations of politics and religion. Schroeder creates an awe-inspiring future -- the worlds of the coronals -- so richly described, so intensely detailed, that readers will find themselves totally immersed in its brilliance. Schroeder has been compared to master world builders Arthur C. Clarke, Vernor Vinge, and Larry Niven for good reason: This labyrinthine novel will blow hard science fiction fans away. Paul Goat Allen

Romantic Times Bookclub
"Highly recommended to fans of hard science fiction and to those readers who enjoy a good challenge."
Peter Watts
"Lady of Mazes contains more cool ideas than Ventus and Permanence combined."
SFsite
"Karl Schroeder's new novel is the real thing—head-snappingly cool SF."
scifi.com
"A brilliant performance, a novel of high ambition executed with the talent and imagination to match."
Publishers Weekly
Set in the same future universe as Ventus (2000), Canadian author Schroeder's challenging hard SF novel explores the vast potential of artificial intelligence for transforming human culture. On the remote ring world of Teven Coronal, Livia Kodaly and her family inhabit the beautiful Westerhaven manifold, surrounded by a richness of high tech and virtual conveniences. Due to a childhood tragedy, Livia enjoys different consensual realities. The mysterious Book 3340 breaks down the barriers between manifolds, destroying her world, so that she must travel, with a few accomplices, out of Teven Coronal into the Archipelago, where she encounters several models for a perfect human society and examines her own. Her task is to choose among them, but ultimately to ensure that choices are possible by sacrificing herself to prevent the total subjugation of humanity. The interrelationship between technology and philosophy that informs her choice gives depth and breadth to a book that many will want to reread to get all the nuances. Agent, Donald Maass. (July) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The vast ringworld of Teven Coronal holds numerous human civilizations within its structure. Here, humans and their virtual selves, or animas, pass their time dabbling in politics, duels, and gaining or losing authority. When a series of mysterious invasions rocks Coronal, destroying cultures and threatening the fabric of the world's reality, Livia Kodaly, one of Coronal's most brilliant and eccentric individuals, becomes the best hope for defeating the invaders and saving her world. Schroeder (Ventus; Permanence) specializes in far future, hard sf. His lively writing style and cutting-edge visions combine to deliver a topnotch story that emphasizes the human will to persevere even when reality is falling apart. A good choice for most sf collections. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Far-future yarn about competitive multiple realities, godlike posthumans and rogue artificial intelligences, set in the same universe as Ventus (2000). Teven Coronal is one of many ring-shaped habitats orbiting Earth; within it exist multiple realities, or "manifolds," separated only by people's ability to perceive them via their neural implants and the "tech locks" that keep the system functioning. Most people perceive one or perhaps two manifolds, but Livia Kodaly, from technically advanced Westerhaven, can cross into any of them. People from Westerhaven can visit neighboring Raven with its low-tech, Aztec-like "inscape" but few choose to do so, until Livia learns that outsiders have appeared there. She teams up with Raven chieftain Qiingi to study the newcomers, who bring high-tech devices and claim to be "ancestors." Having already invaded other manifolds, the ancestors are now using the forces of Oceanus to destroy Westerhaven. Livia, Qiingi and Livia's scientist friend Aaron flee and eventually make their way to Earth's main civilization, the Archipelago-Teven, they find, is an isolated backwater-with its arbitrary realities, godlike posthumans, strange artificial-intelligence anecliptics, even weirder government and electoral system and individual lives based on interactive "narratives"-including the Good Book with its constantly shifting roles and relationships. Despite their best efforts, the three from Teven can find no clue who the ancestors are, or why they have chosen to invade Teven. Bulging with complex ideas and extrapolations-often as difficult to follow as they are to describe; again, if you disregard the ideas and keep reading, the paucity of the underlying narrativebecomes exposed. Often amazing, but it's a tough slog nonetheless.
Vernor Vinge
"With Lady of Mazes, Schroeder gives us another novel of marvelous insight."
From the Publisher
Praise for Lady of Mazes:

"With Lady of Mazes, Schroeder gives us another novel of marvelous insight — brightest glimpses of where our technology of communication and computation may be taking us."—Vernor Vinge

"A complete original. . . it's the most thought-provoking and interesting work of hard SF that I've read in the past year, and it deserves to be recognized as belonging to the cutting edge of the new far future in SF."—Charles Stross

"Lady of Mazes is Clarke's The City And The Stars re-imagined for a new century. This is hard SF at its best. . . Schroeder belongs to a dynasty that includes Benford, Vinge and Egan. Read this book and reboot your dreams — and your nightmares."—Stephen Baxter

"An astonishing saga. One helluva read!"—Charles Harness

"Karl Schroeder has always had a knack for intelligent and provocative thought experiments, disguised as space opera. Now he ups the ante with a fascinating riff on consensual (and conflicting) realities. Lady of Mazes contains more cool ideas than Ventus and Permanence combined."—Peter Watts

Stephan Baxter
"This is hard SF at its best. . . Schroeder belongs to a dynasty that includes Benford, Vinge and Egan."
Charles Stross
"A complete original. . .thought-provoking. . .the cutting edge of the new far future in SF."
Charles Harness
"An astonishing saga. One helluva read!"
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780765350787
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 6/27/2006
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 4.20 (w) x 6.70 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

KARL SCHROEDER lives in Toronto, Ontario

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Read an Excerpt

Lady of Mazes

PART ONE

The Conquest of Abundance

Different ideas of social and political life entail different technologies for their realization.

 

—Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology, 1977

1

LIVIA KODALY OPENED her eyes to gray predawn light. All was silence within the crumbling stone walls where she had slept.

Real sheets, not virtual, were bunched around her legs; she clutched a pillow and watched the faint radiance of dawn swing down from the eastern sky. Around and about her, within the walls and ceiling and floating on every minuscule speck of dust, a thousand other eyes watched. To them she might seem like a figure of porcelain, her mop of fair hair touched only now and then by an errant breeze. So still was she that to those ubiquitous eyes and monitors, she might seem just another fixture of the room.

When the rectangle of black from the French doors turned gray, Livia sighed at the ceiling and untangled herself from rest. She walked through the French doors onto the broad stone balcony that encircled the estate's guest apartments. Curled up in one of the old crenels, she looked out over the manicured grounds with their posing topiary and past the indistinct forest tops. Stars still shone, Jupiter on her right, the pastel curves of the Lethe Nebula to her left. It was that time of day when the world seems to pause between breaths—the towering redwood trees that carpeted the hillside were motionless, and all would be silent if not for the chattering of thousands of wakening birds.

When the solitude began reminding her of sadder times, she looked out one last time at the empty gardens and then summoned her Society. A hum of voices welled up around her and ghostly figures began appearing above, below, all about; some seemed to stand on the air above the gardens. Each luminous person acknowledged her with a wave, a smile, or a bow. Some were engaged in conversation, some stood alert but motionless. Livia didn't want to talk to any of the real inhabitants of the estate right now, so she excluded them from her sensorium. For now, she was alone with her phantoms.

Mother's anima waved from an unlikely perch on one of the window lintels. "Up with the dawn today, Liv?" She laughed. "We have to drag you out of bed back home!"

She shrugged. "I need time to review my animas, that's all."

Livia strolled back to her bedchamber, hesitating by the dresser. She slept in the nude, and could easily eschew clothing for the day if it proved to be as hot as it was threatening; by default, she would appear dressed to anyone she met. Such informality didn't feel quite right when she was a guest in this house. Livia donned her shift and tuned it to resemble a Tharsis corset and voluminous silk pantaloons as she walked to the bathroom.

Conversations bubbled around her as she scowled at the mirror. Some dialogues were happening now in the manor, but most were the peers, laughing and chattering in diverse places back home. Some voices were real people's; some were imitations performed by AIs. They were filtered for relevance by Livia's agents so that she only got the gist of what was happening today: "Devari has a new opera, but he won't show it to anyone. Claims he'll fall out of the manifold if he does!" (Laughter.) "We went flying yesterday. You should have seen Jon! He was practically blue." "What, he'd never been before?"

"Livia, we all heard about your performance last night. You've finally mastered that Mozart aria, congratulations!"

"Have you heard? Aaron Varese has vanished!"

Livia had been crossing the room to her door. She stopped, looking for whoever had just spoken. It was raven-haired Esther Mannus, one of the most active peers; not the real woman, for she was back home in Barrastea, but rather her anima, which she regularly updated. She was laughing with an indistinct friend—someone not of Livia's Society, but not hostile to it either.

"Excuse me." The two phantoms swooped into tighter focus, almost becoming real enough to be opaque. Esther covered her smiling mouth with one hand. "Ah, Livia," said the anima. "We thought you'd heard already."

"Heard what?"

"Why, that Aaron has left the city and won't speak to anyone."

Livia had worried that something like this would happen. She said, "I'd wondered why he wasn't with me this morning. What's he working on this time?"

Esther glanced around, then said quietly, "Something to do with 'science,' whatever that is. He was babbling on about traveling through space last time we spoke." She sighed. "We're used to his provocations. But we also know that whatever he's up to, you're involved."

Livia shook her head. "Not this time." She didn't add that she and Aaron had been drifting apart lately. Anyway, it wasn't unheard-of for someone to isolate himself; everybody did now and then, just for sanity's sake. Still, no animas of Aaron had appeared in her Society this morning. Not to leave one behind was definitely an affront and maybe a deliberate insult. It was disturbing.

A tiny whistle sounded from the doorway. She saw a flicker of light there, whirling in circles near the latch.

"Coming," she said. As she went to the door, Livia kept Esther's animabeside her. "I'll go speak to him," she said. "In person. Maybe he has a good explanation for this."

Esther nodded. "I won't downgrade his anima until I hear from you, then," she said tartly. Livia nodded and dismissed the phantom.

Her two favorite agents were waiting at the door. Since they were not physically real, but rather images painted on her senses by her neural implants, she could make them look like anything she wanted. She'd always had them appear as tiny faeries. The first one, Peaseblossom, said, "You were very busy last night!" in a pipsqueak voice. Cicada muscled Peaseblossom out of the way and proclaimed, "You were all over the place!" And in unison: "We think you're in trouble!"

"Oh, great," she said. "What did I do?"

"Jachman and his friends were scheming against Rene," said Peaseblossom, its wings a blur. "They didn't know you have the hots for him."

"I do not!"

"You do. Jachman had your anima open while he was talking to the others, and you challenged him."

"To a duel!"

Livia groaned and put her hand to her forehead. "I did what?"

"That's not all!" Cicada puffed out his little chest in pride. "At the selfsame time, you were defending Aaron's honor at a party across town!"

"The duel," she pressed. "What happened with the duel?" She strolled down the manor's marble steps, following the scent of fresh bacon that was drifting toward her.

"You fought Jachman, and he killed you," said Peaseblossom. "It's gonna cost you."

It certainly would. She was bound to lose some authority over this spat. If she'd been there in person ...

She dismissed the idea as wishful thinking. If her anima had fought a duel, then Livia herself almost certainly would have done so had she been there in its place. Animas might only be imitations of people, but they were very accurate imitations.

"Okay," she said. "I'm going to have to visit that incident. You've got it ready for me?"

"Any time you say."

"After breakfast, then."

Cicada made an exaggerated gesture of toeing the ground (he was a meter in the air). "Well, I'm not sure you'll have the time," he said reluctantly.

"What do you mean?" She stopped and glared at the little man. "What else did I do last night?"

"You made a date with Lucius Xavier," said Cicada.

She gaped at him.

Peaseblossom elbowed his companion fiercely. "Not a date," he hissed. "Xavier's not that kind of friend." He cleared his throat and smiled up at Livia. "You agreed to meet him here this morning. In person, that is. You're going hunting Impossibles, remember?"

"No, I ..." Oh. Was that what his visit had been about?

To be strictly polite, Livia should not have had her Society up during last night's soiree. After all, she was a physical guest of the Romanal estate, not just a virtual visitor. She owed her host and hostess her undivided attention at least during supper. Their daughter's confirmation as a true citizen of Westerhaven was important to them and Livia's own family had ties with theirs going back generations.

So she had gone through supper and cocktails completely present, and sung her set with her Society absent. Only afterward had she answered the urgent summons of an old family friend, to take a walk in the estate's garden with his virtual self.

Now she made herself visible and entered the guest house's kitchens. Here was Lady Romanal, her host, cheerfully flipping eggs on the giant gas stove in the corner. This, the real Lady Romanal, was talking to an anima of Livia herself, while her own anima chatted with another of the guests, Livia's violin player. The violin player was a taciturn man who looked uneasy under the lady's microscope. Livia had never really gotten along with him outside of a professional capacity. She split off an anima to join his side of the conversation and walked to the stove, quickly back-stepping through her other anima's conversation with the lady until she felt prepared.

Then she replaced her own image at the lady's side. "Our politics aren't that radical," she said. "Aaron and I simply think Westerhaven's become too complacent. Too ... calm."

Lady Romanal sighed. "But is that a real criticism, or just youth speaking? Bacon?"

"Yes, thank you."

"You know what kind of reputation you'll get if you continue this pointless agitation," continued Lady Romanal. She was sweating from the heat, but seemed to enjoy cooking for these, her least important guests. "Your mother is quite concerned."

"Concern is Mother's chief talent," said Livia as she held out a plate.

"Oh, you are a handful!" complained the lady cheerfully. "Is it true you've been advocating that we should all abandon our manifolds and live together?"

"That was Aaron, not me. He doesn't see why we should deliberately limit our realities."

"Delightful!"

Livia glowered at her. "He takes his politics very seriously. So do I."

Lady Romanal smiled as she piled food on Livia's plate. "Maybe that's your problem. Too serious to be serious, if you catch my meaning." When Livia didn't answer she said, "Perhaps it's time to put the past behind you, Livia."

Livia left her anima to continue the conversation and went to sit down. That was a bit rude, but only a bit. Lady Romanal should know what subjects were sensitive to her.

As the kitchen filled up with other performers and incidental guests, Livia turned her attention to last night's adventures. She should review that duel, but didn't relish the prospect of watching herself lose. She should also loose some agents to hunt for Aaron. Instead, she back-stepped into her conversation with Lucius.

"No, there's no emergency," he'd said as she sat down on a bench in the garden next to his virtual self. "But I'd like you here, if you can oblige me."

Livia had glanced at the party, decided she was safely alone for the moment, and replaced her own sensorium with the one at Lucius's locale. He too stood outside, but on a wide balcony a hundred meters above the city of Barrastea. The buzz of night bugs was replaced here by the incessant murmur of the city, whose glittering lights spread away to the horizon and reared here and there halfway to the zenith. Livia made the anima she now inhabited move to peck him on the cheek.

"How are you, Lucius?" she began.

He smiled at her in a distracted way. In this light he looked like a slightly shabby, careworn Poseidon, his hair and beard all atangle. "It's been too long since we talked," he said at last.

"That wouldn't happen if you didn't travel so much." She sat her virtual self down on a stone seat near him.

"It's my responsibility," he said, frowning into the night. "I sometimes don't like it much. But we're diplomats and ambassadors in Westerhaven, Livia—all of us, whether or not we want to simply stay at home and tend our gardens."

"Is that what you want to do?"

"Sometimes." He brightened a bit. "But not always. Sometimes an adventure beckons. Like tonight. That's why I called you—I wanted a traveling companion for a day-trip, and couldn't think of anybody else who might want to go with me on it."

"No? That seems unlikely."

At about this point Livia had been interrupted by some members of Romanal's party spilling out into the gardens. She had severed her connection to Lucius, leaving an anima behind, so she didn't know what had happened next.

She watched now as Lucius laughed. "You know perfectly well that most people run in tracks. We may be a manifold dedicated to bridging the gaps between other manifolds, but when push comes to shove, nobody you or I know has the courage to travel anywhere really exotic. Not across a real horizon, that's for sure."

Livia's anima (which she now observed from outside) looked intrigued, but a little disturbed. "You want to cross a horizon? To where?"

"I'm not sure. But I'd like you to come with me, if you would."

There was a pause. Livia's anima appeared surprised and confused. After a moment it said, "Please tell me that you thought of me because wherever you're going is a musical manifold."

"No," he said, looking momentarily guilty. "I know you don't like to be reminded of the accident, Livia, but it did give you a unique perspective that—"

Her anima stood up angrily. "Lucius, how could you? I will not travel outside of inscape again for you, or anybody else! Or to any manifold that doesn't use it. You of all people should know ..." She turned away.

Lucius reached out to touch her virtual shoulder. "This won't be like that, I swear. I'm not proposing we leave inscape, or any of the manifolds you know. I just want to take a walk along the border of Westerhaven. Tomorrow. And I think you should come."

She turned, suspicious. "Why?"

He shrugged. "It might improve your authority. Won't hurt mine either. You see, people have been sighting Impossibles near the Romanal estate. It's been going on for several weeks now. So far it's all anecdotal; nobody's inscape has preserved a record. It's as if they're being seen by the eyes only, without the inscape system being aware of them at all."

Livia's anima shuddered. The mere idea of inscape having problems made her nervous—would make anyone raised in Westerhaven squirm. No wonder Lucius couldn't find anyone to join him on his little expedition.

"What are they seeing?" her anima asked, turning back to face him. Livia was a bit surprised that she hadn't turned him down outright; shemight have if she'd been there in person. Then again, she might not. Animas tended to know the personalities of those they modeled better than the people themselves.

"Mythical creatures," said Lucius. "Bears and wolves that walk like men. Giant birds with masklike faces. They sound like Raven's people. All I want to do is verify that the sightings are genuine and not some kind of hysterical meme. I have no intention of going anywhere near one of the things, believe me."

"And you want me along because ..."

"After the things you've seen, Livia, I think you're not too likely to piss yourself and run at seeing an Impossible."

Her anima smiled momentarily. "But I still don't want to."

"If we verify that there's a problem with local inscape, our authority goes up. Not much for me—but the boost could do you good right about now."

Damn him, he knew she was in trouble with the peers. Maybe he'd even set up her encounter with Jachman, knowing she might duel him and lose later that evening. It would be just like Lucius Xavier, who while he might be a friend, was also as sly a political player as Westerhaven had ever produced.

She smiled. "I'll think about it. Why don't you drop by tomorrow morning and we'll talk it over."

Livia skipped through the rest of the conversation, which was brief. Then, back in the breakfast room, she scowled at the slanting morning light. Inscape showed Lucius's aircar circling the estate already. So much for the quiet morning she had been planning. She quickly finished her breakfast and walked outside.

The gleaming, lozenge-shaped aircar touched down gracefully near a checkerboard of tennis courts. Lucius climbed out of it and waved brightly at Livia, kissing her lightly on the forehead when she reached him. "Glad you decided to join me," he said with a grin. "This should be fun."

He was dressed for a hike in stout canvas safari gear and solid boots. She was glad she'd worn her shift today; it was the work of a moment to adjust it to something rugged. Lucius was already striding toward the distant line of trees that signaled the end of the estate's manicured grounds. She hurried to join him.

"You really think there's Impossibles here?" she asked as she caught up.

"Six people from the surrounding area have seen them," he said. "The sightings were scattered all over, but the epicenter was near here. There,in fact." He pointed down the gently sloping hillside, bathed in forest, that led to a glistening blue lake.

Past the forest and meandering river the land rolled on in waves of wilderness into hazy vagueness. What looked like towering, half-visible clouds floated above the haze. These were the familiar Southwall mountains, blued to near-invisibility by a distance of over two hundred kilometers. Livia could see the white caps of glaciers atop some of the shortest peaks; snow never fell at the higher altitudes. Above them the sky was a uniform indigo.

Livia knew the lake Lucius was pointing to. There was a boathouse down there, a distant outpost of the Romanal estate. So she took the lead when they reached the trees. "There's the path."

They entered the hushed realm of the trees. Now that the estate was out of sight, Livia began to feel a bit nervous. That was irrational by any ordinary standard: she had her angels to protect her, and her presence in the heart of Westerhaven did not have anything to do with whether she was near some building.

Even so, she awoke her Society and let them walk alongside her as a reassuring crowd. For a while Lucius was silent, and Livia thought about how similar this walk was to her first official journey to a neighboring manifold, which had happened several months before.

It had been an occasion of sorrow. Shortly after her confirmation, the Westerhaven diplomatic corps had contacted Livia asking whether she would agree to help close out the estate of the Drummers. She had studied to be a diplomat like her parents before her, and she was a musician. So the request might seem natural; but she had given up on diplomacy when she realized she had no desire to travel to other manifolds. She suspected the hand of Lucius Xavier in her selection, if not of Mother herself. But she agreed to go, more from curiosity than any desire to improve her authority.

Livia joined the expedition on an empty road outside the city of Barrastea. There were representatives from a number of other manifolds as well as Westerhaven. Jachman was one of the other junior members of the Westerhaven contingent, and it was on this occasion that Livia first met Rene Caiser. He was acting as groomsman, caring for the stamping and proud horses that were to lead their carriages.

Trees towered beyond the carriages, but the slope here was steep enough that Livia could see past them into the deep valley below. Amid the dark, nearly black treetops lay the city of the drummers. To anyone within Westerhaven, it was invisible.

Serena Elesz, the expedition's leader, briefed them before they set out."The last drummer died a week ago," she said from her perch on the step of the lead carriage. "Officially, their consensual reality ends with that death. In fact, everyone who shared some of their values carries a template of the drummers' manifold with them, and these templates still have some authority over inscape and the tech locks. It is up to living representatives of those values to decide the fate of this manifold and its physical manifestations." She meant the land and those aspects of the city that were physically real.

Livia had put up her hand; she was never one to stay on the sidelines. "I was always told that Westerhaven gathers and preserves the cultures of other manifolds."

Serena nodded. "Yes, of course; and we'll try to do that here. We are the great integrators of the many threads of culture in Teven Coronal."

Livia put up her hand again. "I've had six people come up to me and tell me that what I need to do is make sure the drummers are shut down, so Westerhaven can recover their resources."

An awkward silence followed. Serena's take on Westerhaven had sounded like a quote straight out of the Fictional History. Livia had been raised to follow those values, but she was learning that the truth was always more complicated.

Finally Serena shrugged. "You need to vote with your heart, Livia—but remember that everything in Westerhaven is political."

Still chewing on this thought, Livia entered the carriage behind Serena's just as it began to move. They jolted down the dirt track that led off from the main road. Livia reached out with her senses and will, determined not to notice anything of Westerhaven: no buildings, no contrails. Her change of attitude and attention was noted by her neural implants and the mechology known as the tech locks; where there had been impenetrable underbrush, a pathway appeared leading into the woods. The horses joined this road without breaking stride.

She listened for rhythms in the sighing of the breeze, and soon she began to hear them. She listened for patterns in the chirping of the birds, and eventually, she heard music there. Even the clip-clop of the horses' hooves took on a complicated order, as Livia had been told it would. A sense of palpable presence began to build around the carriages, a subliminal excitement. "We're close," Jachman murmured beside her.

Rene was having difficulty making the transition. He began to fade even as the drummers' city appeared around the trunks of the redwoods that walled the road. He tried to speak but no sound reached Livia's ears. The last thing she saw before he vanished was his frustrated, embarrassed frown. She couldn't help but smile at the boyishness of it.

He would be back, as soon as he'd managed to properly purge Westerhaven from his system of habits and responses. Meanwhile, they were at the drummers' ruins.

Once a thriving community had come together here to worship in ways that were difficult or impossible in other manifolds. In some places, such as Westerhaven, the pace of life was wrong for the drummers' style of contemplation; or the attitude to music interfered with what they were attempting. The ancient and powerful religions of Earth still held sway in other manifolds and would not permit any iconoclasts or experimenters. So they had made their own reality, one in keeping with their ideals. And for several generations, it had held strong.

For some reason, they had built on low swampy ground. Water had reclaimed most of the tall brick structures. Marsh grass grew between the houses and waved on their roofs. This place had been in decline for a long time. It was more of a village, anyway, thought Livia; the houses ended not more than two hundred meters away. Once there had been frescoes on the sides of the buildings, and statues, but they had been weathered away long ago.

The drummers' microcivilization had run its natural course, and now uncomprehending outsiders had come to lay it to rest.

The expedition left the carriages and walked, sometimes wading, out into the city. They split up and began to poke about. The place was desolate, like something out of a historical sim. Livia's feet were soon wet and she found herself shivering. When she met Rene coming around the side of a large (and empty) public building, she said, "Why would anyone stay here?"

He shrugged. "There were never many of them. But apparently it was quite the religious center once. Reaching the divine through music. You're a musician, you'd have loved it here."

"But they never wrote any of it down. And they didn't perform for pleasure."

They walked on for a while, but whatever possessions the drummers had once had, they were gone, toppled into the swampy water or taken away by those who had abandoned this place's values. Rene shook his head at last. "They're dead. I dunno about you, but I agree with the others. We should shut it down and reclaim the land."

Livia shook her head. "And just replace their reality with ours? Better if we could all learn to travel here. That would be diplomacy."

"But they're all dead. So what's to stop us?"

Livia opened her mouth to reply, then stopped. She couldn't explain why, but she felt there was still a presence here, however tenuous. Itfelt wrong to simply wipe the place away—but it was hard to justify preserving it; doing so would go against her very public political stance.

She decided to change the subject. "We lost you for a while back there," she said at last. "You're not very musical?"

He grinned. "Maybe I'm not. And you are not nearly as scary up close as I was told you'd be."

Her heart sank. "Who told you I was scary?"

He waggled his fingers in horror-show fashion. "You and Aaron Varese are the biggest political critics of the generation. You fight duels over ideas, for God's sake! And you ... they say you blink out during parties, come out with odd pronouncements at odd times, have strange notions ... You've Seen Things We Were Not Meant To Know. You're the one who led the survivors out of the crash zone, right? They say it changed you."

"But I don't remember doing it," she said seriously. "How can I be a hero if I—" At that moment they both heard the drumming.

It came from somewhere ahead: a single, steady beat, deep and confident. Livia and Rene looked at one another.

"Not dead after all!" Rene sprinted in the direction of the sound; more cautiously, Livia followed.

She found him staring up the side of a ten-meter mud-brick tower. The steady drumbeat sounded from somewhere overhead. He looked at her uncertainly. "Do we go in?"

She looked around for footprints on the muddy ground; there were none, not even at the shadowed entrance to the tower. But she would not look weak in front of this young man. "Of course," she said.

Inside, the tower was divided into three levels with ladderlike stairways leading between them. They found large clay pots filled with grain and dried fish; firewood and the hardened, cold remains of a fire; blankets and a crude pillow. But there was no other sign of life. The sound obstinately continued above. "A recording?" Rene whispered. She shook her head: recording equipment of any kind was forbidden by the locks in this place.

Cautiously, they climbed the creaking steps to the top level.

Someone had rigged a barrel on a tripod here to catch rainwater. From the base of the barrel, a spigot dripped steadily onto the taut skin of a large bass drum. The skin was discolored and worn where the water had been hitting it for days—weeks, probably. But the sound was steady, and impressively loud.

Huddled beside the drum was a half-skeletal body: the last inhabitant of the drummers' manifold. Livia couldn't be sure whether this hadbeen a man or a woman. But it was clear he or she had died alone.

It stank up here so they retreated down the ladder almost immediately. Neither spoke until they were outside again. Rene waved to Serena and some others who were walking nearby. As they came over, Livia stood looking up—and listening.

"Why didn't he leave?" Rene asked after a while.

And of course, that was it: to leave this place, all you had to do was wish to be somewhere else. With a little concentration Livia could return to Westerhaven, and these towers would turn into trees, or rocks, or otherwise leave her sensorium. Barrastea's skyscrapers would appear over the crest of the hill. Inscape reticles and Societies would blossom all around her. This person, this last drummer, did not have to die alone. He or she could have chosen, right up until the last second, to abandon the Drummers' ideals—to join another manifold.

Yet the drum still sounded above, slow and steady, like the heartbeat of the world. Livia could not have answered Rene's question; she did not have the words. But, for a moment or two, as she stood within the realm of that beating heart, she thought she understood.

When Serena and the others came running up, Livia announced, "The last drummer may be dead, but the Drummers are still alive. We can't shut down this manifold while the drum still beats."

Unanimity was required for the manifold to be closed. And so the absorption of the drummers' resources into Westerhaven had been postponed—and while Livia's reputation had grown, her authority had begun to deteriorate.

 

"I DON'T KNOW why I did it," she said to Lucius as they walked. They'd seen nothing impossible in the past hour and she was getting tired. She had dismissed her Society, however, and was enjoying this rare chance for a solitary talk with an older male friend. "I think it was just to spite Serena."

He laughed. "A fine reason by itself. But is that all?"

"I don't know. For years now I've felt like an outsider. Ever since the accident. People look at me differently, you know. Since only Aaron and I survived ..." She kicked at a fern. "It's like it was our fault, somehow."

She was used to people trying to reassure her on this point, but Lucius nodded. "It's hypocritical," he said. "People here talk about valuing other manifolds, but really Westerhaven is a culture of butterfly collectors."

"How do you mean?"

"You catch the butterfly alive, then you stick a pin through it and mount it on the wall. That's what we do with other cultures. Like your drummers. You were right to leave their world alone, Liv."

"Well, thank you! Practically nobody else has said that."

"We outsiders have to stick together," he said. "That's why I invited you along today." He hesitated. "Livia. There's something I have to tell you. It's about—"

She threw out her hand to stop him, practically falling herself. Raising a finger to her lips, she pointed ahead along the path.

He scowled, then turned to follow her gaze.

"Lucius, I think something impossible might just be happening." Standing nonchalantly about ten meters ahead was a tall, bronze-skinned man dressed in tanned hides. A dozen beaded necklaces hung around his neck.

He was carrying a spear.

Copyright @ 2005 by Karl Schroeder

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2012

    Ambitious, but flawed

    I only made it halfway through, though i greatly enjoyed related books such as Ventus. This is just too far out to relate to.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted December 26, 2009

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