Donal Graeme was a Dorsai, a mercenary soldier, and also a mutant gifted with insight into the path forward for the human race. Through his gifts, Donal would come to bend time and live three lifetimes—and, in the process, run into problems he had not expected: first, his own flaws, and second, the existence of another mutant, Bleys Ahrens. Bleys is a man with a clear vision of the struggle in which he's involved—but an increasingly deficient sense of human values. He and his organization, the Others, are tracking down an elusive interplanetary opposition.
Meanwhile, Bleys' own intricate conspiracies and devisings, and his quest for power, which began with the best of motives, have become something darker and fiercer. He's committed to his plans. They may bring about the advent of Homo superior. And they may destroy the human race.
About the Author
David W. Wixon was Gordon R. Dickson's assistant for many years.
Read an Excerpt
From where he knelt on the dirt floor, Bleys could see the soldier's body up against the far wall of the roughly dug, timber-framed bunker. Its uniformed back was to Bleys, but he felt that the body was that of a tall, thin young man—and he found himself thinking about a raccoon that, as a boy on a brief visit with his mother to Old Earth, he had seen lying dead along a rural road in a part of the mother planet where wheeled vehicles could still be found. This body before him had that same curled-inward shape that spoke of a being that, able to accomplish some slight movement before death came, huddled into itself to seek what comfort it could find in the face of its fear and pain. . . .
Abruptly, Bleys was torn out of his near-trance as something pulled at his right hand, and he realized he had been holding someone else's hand—a hand that had just jerked slightly in his.
I must have had another blackout.
He still got them periodically, as his medician, Kaj Menowsky, had warned him would happen. They were one of the by-products of the damage caused by the genetic invader the rulers of Newton had injected into him, in their attempt to get him under their control, back when they still opposed him, a few months ago. The blackouts were becoming less frequent since his body began to recover from both the invader itself and the medician's countermeasures that had killed it; but he had apparently just gone through one.
This experience was alarmingly different, however; he usually came out of his blackouts in his sleep.
The medician had warned him that stress would make a blackout, or any of his other symptoms, morelikely; but Kaj had also said that every human body was slightly different, and reacted to a given stimulus in a slightly different way than any other human body. So perhaps it was also true that the same human body would react differently to different levels of stress.
Bleys could immediately pinpoint one apparent difference between this blackout and his previous blackouts: he seemed to be experiencing some form of amnesia . . . at least, he thought so, since he had the feeling that he was missing a period of time longer than his normal blackouts. In fact, he could not seem to pin down exactly when this particular sequence had started. Always before there had been a clear point prior to which he could, later, remember everything—and after which he could never remember anything, up until his awakening.
Looking about guardedly, to try to learn what had been happening, he saw that the bunker was occupied by a small group of soldiers—and it came back to him that he was on Ceta, that large planet where he had been on a tour of areas where units of Friendly troops were leased out to one or another of the many Cetan states. As First Elder of the government of the two Friendly planets, Harmony and Association, Bleys could find good cover for his visit to this planet, in a junket to visit those troops—a visit the most cynical of observers would believe sufficiently explained by the political need of a Friendly politician to assure the fervently religious folks back home that their leaders cared about their sons in uniform.
The visit might have been less congenially received had his hosts realized that Bleys' interests extended far beyond the Friendly worlds, all the way to their own governments.
The soldiers in this bunker, he saw, were not wearing the black uniforms of the Friendly troops; so he guessed they must be native Cetans. Several were lying about wounded, in addition to the one whose hand he was holding. Toni was nearby tending to one of them. But all of the unhurt soldiers—seven, he counted—were in two groups on either side of the bunker's only entrance.
From where he knelt he could not actually see that entrance, since it had apparently been built on the other side of a barrier wall intended to prevent direct access into the bunker from outside; anyone trying to attack into the room would be slowed by the need to turn either left or right as soon as they came through the doorway. The soldiers were up against the sandbag-reinforced bunker wall in which the actual entrance was cut, and thus a little farther from him than was the barrier wall.
Those soldiers were silent, but they appeared tense as they crouched low against the wall beside the entrance, their eyes flickering between the interior of the bunker, their comrades and the entrance—but always returning to a leathery-looking, brown-skinned man, perhaps in his mid-thirties, whose short, roughly cropped dark hair protruded a little from beneath his fiberglass helmet. The man wore the insignia of some kind of noncommissioned officer—a sergeant of some grade unknown to Bleys—and he was noticeably less nervous than his men. At least, he showed it less.
Looking again at the man whose hand he was holding, Bleys saw that he was somewhat better dressed than the other soldiers, and that his collar bore the tabs of a junior officer. Also, Bleys saw, he was now dead. The blood-soaked bandages across his chest and stomach showed that his wounds had been severe—Bleys' eye caught movement, and he shifted his focus to catch Toni looking up and across at him.
“He's dead,” Bleys reported. “Just now.”
He saw the noncom look across at him bleakly.
“There was no way to stop it,” Toni said. “Not with those wounds.” She paused, and her tone changed.
“How are you doing?” she asked; and he felt the hidden meaning in her words. Antonia Lu was one of the few who knew of the attack on his DNA, and of the occasional relapses he experienced as his body slowly recovered; and although he seemed, when in a blackout state, generally not to show many signs of that state to others, he was not at all surprised to guess she was sufficiently attuned to him, after all these years together, to know when he might be in such a condition.
“I'm all right,” he said. “Do you need any help?”
“No,” she replied. “There's nothing more we can do until we can call for help.” She paused a brief moment, before continuing, almost cheerily.
“Of course, we're cut off, and surrounded, and our communications are totally jammed. I'm pretty sure this isn't the local war heating back up. I think it's an assassination attempt aimed at you.” Her blue eyes were looking into his calmly.
The noncom looked at her curiously, as if wondering why she was rehearsing what they all already knew. But Bleys knew she was using the apparent babble as a way to fill him in on events he might have lost while in his blackout.
She never lost her nerve, he thought.
Dahno Ahrens, Bleys' older half-brother and the nominal head of the Others, the organization of crossbreeds from the major Splinter Cultures that the two of them had led into positions of leadership on five of the Younger Worlds, had objected more than a little when Bleys decided to travel to Ceta—a world not yet under the control of their organization—and check on the situation there. Bleys, Dahno objected strongly, had had them traveling almost nonstop for months now, orchestrating the political alliances that had opened the doors to their control of the latest three of those five and cemented their position on the two Friendly worlds. Moreover, Dahno pointed out, Bleys was still recovering from the effects of the Newtonian Council's attack on his DNA, and was only recently recovered from wounds received during their escape from that planet.
“Why?” Dahno asked again. “Why do you need to do this now? I'll admit you've taken us farther and faster than I ever had dreams of, but don't we have our hands full with consolidating our control of Newton, Cassida and New Earth? And for that matter, there's always work to be done here on Association, and on Harmony as well. You've got this Hal Mayne fellow on the brain!”
Dahno was being as open about his feelings as was possible to him, Bleys thought, which could be a bad sign. Bleys was glad Toni had left before Dahno arrived, because his brother was usually a good deal more circumspect when Toni—or, for that matter, anyone else—was around, and Bleys preferred it when his brother was more open. Still, Bleys wondered if Toni might be listening, somehow . . . he would have been.
“Perhaps,” Bleys replied to his older, larger sibling. “But he's a dangerous man, I've told you that before.”
“Yes, you have,” Dahno said, “but how much of a danger could he really be? He's only one man, and a young one—he's not even in his mid-twenties yet!”
“True,” said Bleys. “But you were around that age when you started to take over the Others social group here on Association, and change it into a tool you could use for your own purposes.”
Dahno had raised his left arm from the elbow in a short, dismissive wave. “You know perfectly well, brother, that I was a special case—as, for that matter, are you.”
“True enough,” said Bleys, “but I think he's what you call a ‘special case,' too.”
Dahno took a moment before answering, more quietly.
“I'll admit it was quite an accomplishment for a sixteen-year-old to elude us after our people took over his estate on Old Earth and killed his tutors,” he said. “And he's managed to dodge your efforts to find him ever since. But he's been in hiding and on the run for most of the six years since, and he's still a lone wolf at best.”
“I don't think so,” Bleys answered. “It was no small feat for him to escape from that prison cell on Harmony after Barbage caught him, and get to the Exotic embassy—he was apparently ill at the time, too. But it ought to be a matter of major concern for us that the Exotics not only took him in, but then smuggled him off the planet before we could take any action—”
“Before your creature Barbage could take any action, you mean,” Dahno interjected.
“Yes, again,” Bleys said. “Come on, sit down.”
He moved across the room, in this lounge that doubled as his unofficial office, to the two oversize chairs reserved specifically for their large bodies, and sat in the dark gray one. His brother took the other, blue chair and leaned back, crossing one leg over the other.
“I know,” Dahno said, before Bleys could speak again. “Barbage had no power to stop the Exotics even if he'd known where Mayne was.”
“Don't forget,” Bleys said, “we were away at the time, wrapping up New Earth.”
“That's so,” he said. “Barbage's fanatic nature rubs on me even more than most of the Fanatics I've met.” It was half of an apology, Bleys realized, and the most he would ever get. But Dahno was continuing.
“I suppose it's useful to have an able and ruthless resource like that Militia captain on tap. But you have to realize that the fanaticism must eventually detract from the usefulness. Fanatics never work for you, you know; they're always working for themselves. The best you can hope for is that their goals will match yours—and in the end, there'll always be a point where their interests diverge from yours.”
“Fanatics don't seem to be any more susceptible to our abilities to persuade people than are their direct opposites, the True Faith-Holders,” Bleys said, thoughtfully. He had spent a lot of time pondering why that should be so, since those days when he had realized his own power to make people want to follow his lead. The ability to resist the powers of persuasion he, along with many of his fellow Others, possessed, was a trait those two sorts of ultra-religious Friendlies apparently shared with both the Exotics and the Dorsai, and he was at a loss to explain what those groups had in common.
Hal Mayne had not fallen under his spell, either, on that single occasion when they had met, in Hal's cell on Harmony. Mayne was an Earthman, rather than a member of one of those apparently immune groups . . . and in that moment, Bleys had the feeling he was on the verge of something important.
But Dahno was not the person to explore the matter with, he knew.
“We always use what we have to hand, as you know very well,” he said now, putting speculation aside for more pressing matters.
Not to be diverted, Dahno backtracked to his main point. “Over the years, you've spent a lot of time and resources trying to track Mayne down; and now you're running a little economic extortion on the Exotics, to try to force them to give him up—they won't, you know—but you've never convinced me it was all justified.”
“I know they won't,” Bleys said, referring to the Exotics, still safe on their two worlds under the star Procyon. “I'm just hoping to slow the progress of whatever connection Hal Mayne and the Exotics are building.”
“Is there some justification?”
“Maybe it could be called a hunch,” Bleys said. “But I've been feeling a sense of—call it caution—ever since I learned about his history, even before we got to his estate. I knew from the start there was something unusual about him, even beyond the way he was found as a two-year-old alone on an interstellar ship floating in space near Old Earth.”
“However strange his history,” Dahno said, “what about that past indicates any danger to us?”
“I can't answer that,” Bleys said. “I just feel it, if you want me to admit that. It's a mystery no one has explained, topped by the enigma of the substantial abilities he's shown just by getting away from us—and all that now in an alliance with the Exotics.”
“Mysteries from twenty years ago cut no ice with me,” Dahno said. “I said it earlier—we've got our hands full. Your ability to deduce what really motivates people, and then to convince them that going along with you will give them whatever that is, has made your plans work out for us—better than I ever expected; and our people are showing more ability to do that same kind of convincing than I ever realized they had, in their work on the planets I—we—sent them to. But the number of our people is tiny compared with the populations of those worlds, and all of us are up to our ears in work to do, just to consolidate our control and keep things moving.”
“That's exactly why I need to go to Ceta again,” Bleys said.
“Because of Hal Mayne and the Exotics?” Dahno chuckled, but there was no humor in his eyes.
“Yes,” Bleys said, ignoring the skepticism. Dahno seemed to be baiting him, but he never played his brother's games. “I learned something from Hal Mayne's escape.”
“So the Exotics have been helping him,” Dahno said. “So what? They've never even tried to bother us before.”
“Well, that's true,” Bleys said. “But haven't you ever wondered why? I mean, why they never tried to stop us, in those years when we were just getting set up on the other Younger Worlds? Even though we were barely beginning to gain positions of influence on those planets, starting as lobbyists and information brokers, you know as well as I do that the Exotics, with all those tools of their social sciences, had to have recognized us as a new power that could only be a danger to their own position.”
“Why should they—try to stop us, I mean?” Dahno answered. “What's it to them, anyway? They could never've guessed we'd manage to take over those worlds, until we'd gone too far to be stopped.” He laughed. “At that point, even we weren't thinking about really taking over any of the Younger Worlds!”
“That's not what you were telling the classes of Others you ran through your training program and sent out to the Worlds to work for you,” Bleys said. Dahno gestured, as if waving his brother's words away from his face.
“You know perfectly well I only told them that to motivate them,” he said. “Greed and ambition make people work harder. I never really intended any such thing, and I figured they'd forget about it, over time . . . until you came along, with your talk about making it happen.”
“There's not much in your secret files about it,” Bleys said, ignoring Dahno's last jab, “but I know that when you started sending your newly trained Others to begin infiltrating the various worlds, you never sent any to Mara and Kultis, the Exotic planets—and not to the Dorsai, either. I think you knew from the start that our abilities to influence and convince people wouldn't work on those worlds.”
“That's so,” Dahno said. “The Dorsai doesn't even have much of a government, and not much by way of a corporate environment, either—so there was just no place for one of our people to get into Dorsai society, even leaving out their notorious clannishness.” He paused; and then uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, putting the points of his elbows on his massive thighs.
“You and I both know,” he went on—his voice was lower and quieter now, his eyes earnest, as his hands moved as if to cup the open air between their two faces—“if only out of our mother's Exotic background, that the Exotics tend to have personalities that are largely immune to our abilities. I certainly wouldn't try to crack a way into either of those societies, and I wouldn't waste my trainees trying it, either. It's a culture-based characteristic that makes them immune to our persuasive talents, I think.”
The mention of their mother, Bleys thought, was intended to emphasize the seriousness of Dahno's words; the subject had always been a flash point for Dahno's temper, and for him to voluntarily bring her up was either a sign of great concern or a calculated arguing tactic.
“I'm sure you're right about that,” Bleys said, controlling an impulse to lean back in his chair, away from his brother, and cross his own legs. “But as I said, why didn't the Exotics ever try to stop our efforts to take control of other worlds? They have a centuries-old position as the major mercantile power among the Younger Worlds, second only to Old Earth itself—and for all their image as philosophers, they didn't get there by philosophy alone. They've always shown themselves to be pragmatic enough to quash potential threats to their position—they were a frequent employer of the Dorsai, remember.”
“What could they do?” Dahno said, leaning back again. “Ours was an attack they couldn't use military force against. And anyway, we weren't acting directly against them, and in fact we were going about it very quietly.”
“I'll tell you why they didn't act,” Bleys went on, once more ignoring his brother's last words. “It's because they couldn't do anything!”
“Isn't that what I said?”
“It's not what you think,” Bleys answered. “They couldn't respond because they were under attack themselves.”
“Attack? By who?”
“That's just it, I don't know,” Bleys said. “The attack, as I called it, hasn't been so major as to make the Exotics totally helpless. I think it's been strong enough, and going on long enough, to at least distract them, or confuse them—but let me tell my story in a proper order.” This time he did lean farther back in his chair, but it was for the purpose of looking up at the great interstellar map mounted on the wall above them, on which he had tried to chart Hal Mayne's movements.
“When I got the news that Hal Mayne had been taken in by the Exotics,” Bleys began, “and then taken to Mara, it suggested to me that maybe the Exotics were going to try to get involved in his campaign against us—”
“‘His campaign against us'?” Dahno echoed. “What campaign is that? I haven't seen him doing much more than just trying to get away from you.”
“He's campaigning,” Bleys said. “Trust me on that.”
Dahno put on his most skeptical expression and re-crossed his legs. Bleys continued.
“You yourself said it,” he went on. “We've got our hands full with those Younger Worlds we've gained controlling positions in. That means we're walking a knife edge in trying to balance the disparate groups we've manipulated, who are still at odds with each other. It's a system of control that might be tipped over with a nudge or two in the right places.”
“All the more reason to stay at home and consolidate our positions as fast as possible,” Dahno said.
“But don't you see,” Bleys said, “that if the reason the Exotics haven't taken a hand against us before is because they're too weak and distracted to do much—and I'll concede that there're more reasons than one for that weakness, and some of it is based in the inevitable changes that come to any civilization in the course of its historic development, but if one of the reasons for that weakness is because they've been under a covert economic attack for more than thirty years—don't you think we should know who's been attacking them?”
Dahno's face had sobered, but he said nothing.
“I didn't realize it, either,” Bleys nodded. “It's been a very quiet operation, and it's stayed that way for decades, at least. That alone suggests a group so disciplined it can keep its very existence secret for a long time—”
“How could that be possible?” Dahno interrupted. “We've had the best intelligence-collecting organization on the Younger Worlds for the last ten years—well, maybe except for the Exotics themselves—and we've never even picked up a sniff of anyone out there!”
“That's right,” Bleys said, pointing an index finger at his brother for emphasis. “But the author behind that fictional Old Earth detective Sherlock Holmes once put his finger on it, when he spoke of how strange it was that a dog didn't bark. . . .” As Dahno rolled his eyes, Bleys nodded and raised his hands, palm out, to forestall the acid comment he saw coming. Mercifully, Dahno kept his silence, although there was something very near a sneer on his face.
“More technically put,” Bleys went on, “the absence of something that ought to be there is itself a piece of data. . . . At any rate, once I realized that the Exotics might be taking an active role against us, I started to research what the combination of Hal Mayne and the Exotics could do to our plans—which meant I had to understand the bases of the Exotics' power. And that's how I learned more than I expected about what's been happening behind the scenes.”
He paused for a brief moment to marshal his presentation.
“I mentioned the historical forces, a moment ago,” he went on. “And as I said, some of the weakening of the Exotics' position is traceable to those very normal historical forces—the same ones I've told you about in the past. But I've also told you before that I believe our civilization—the whole human race—made a big mistake by going out into space too fast; and that I believe that mistake has accelerated the normal decline that comes to all civilizations over time.”
He could see Dahno's face beginning to take on the bored expression it generally wore when Bleys was giving one of the speeches he had become famous for, around the Younger Worlds, and which had earned him the honorary title of Great Teacher.
“Look at it this way,” Bleys said. “We Others in particular have been helped tremendously by that decay I'm speaking about.”
That got his brother's interest back.
“Decaying societies are more corrupt than their earlier forms,” Bleys went on. “And corruption in the leadership, in particular—in whatever form it may take—exacerbates frictions within the society. And that, in the case of every planet we've taken over, gave us entry and provided a way for us to leverage our relatively weak position into one of control.”
“Does that go for the Exotics, too?” Dahno asked. “I mean, are they decaying, too?”
“In several ways, yes,” Bleys said. “But their decline is not of a form that gives us any power over them. However, it has weakened their ability to oppose us—perhaps even their will—which is to our advantage. Decay at the tops of societies usually means that the richest elements of the society have found a way to take, and keep, control—which in turn means that their planets spend more on keeping the rulers secure, as well as on importing luxury goods, and less on what's needed by the masses. The less well-off get less chance to rise in the society, a comparatively lower standard of living, fewer social services . . . and the gap between rich and poor increases—that's where we got a hook into New Earth, remember.”
“But that hasn't happened to the Exotics,” Dahno said.
“That's right,” Bleys said. “And maybe that's because of those culture-based characteristics you mentioned a few minutes ago. At any rate, the consensual bases of their culture—the things they all live by, deep down inside, whether you mean beliefs or feelings or even instincts—seem to be very different from those of peoples on the other planets. For instance, they've been rich for centuries; but that doesn't seem to have induced any desire for more money or things.”
“And yet you say they've decayed, too?” Dahno asked. “In what fashion? And if they haven't spent their money on luxuries, where has it gone?”
“To answer the last question first,” Bleys said, “they've remained consistent to their purpose of advancing what they regard as the evolution of the human race. Remember, as just one example, that the Exotics provided the funds for the construction of the Final Encyclopedia, possibly the single most expensive project in the history of the race . . . it was almost an act of faith for them, made out.
Copyright © 2007 by Gordon R. Dickson and David W. Wixon. All rights reserved.
Gordon R. Dickson was the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of many classics of fantasy and science fiction, most famously the Childe Cycle, which included such novels as Tactics of Mistake, The Chantry Guild, The Final Encyclopedia, Young Bleys, and Other.
David W. Wixon was Gordon R. Dickson's assistant for many years.