Kelly 2/1 Ista is an apprentice hypothecary, learning to work with the quasi-living computer programs that live and breed in virtual space. She is also a foundling, the only survivor of a disaster on one of the Night Sky Mining Company's mining platforms, and without a real identity, she will never be able to leave the station. When a second platform is attacked and abandoned in much the same way, she joins forces with a pair of off-station investigators in the hope that she will find her true identity — but there is far more danger waiting for her in both the real and the virtual worlds than she had even begun to imagine.
"Mature, balanced, absorbing work, with a richly detailed, enchanting backdrop: something of a breakthrough in overall technique, and Scott's best so far."– Kirkus Reviews
"Scott explores the ramifications of virtual life through the very human eyes of her principals; this is most artful cyberpunk, told with heart."– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Highly recommended."– Library Journal
The plane stretched empty almost to the virtual horizon, except for the distinctive shape of the parqueter reef in the distance. It was mounded twice as tall as the godwit at each of the living ends, dipping toward the plane in the center where something had attacked it long ago. As the beetle drew closer, Ista could see that the old injury had been hollowed out even further, and a fresh stand of joint grass had appeared to feast on the scraps. The two ends seemed healthy enough, however, and she looked quickly at the string compass. No new icons showed in its display, and she risked a glance at Trindade.
"It looks like something's been nibbling on it again."
"Probably," Trindade agreed. "And it's probably the best thing that could happen. See there?" She leaned over the dome, her long-fingered hand with its dozen thin rings making sudden shadows in the image, and pointed to the arcs of red that were the parqueter's central units. "It looks almost as though it's growing a second stembrain. Eventually, there might be two reefs here."
Ista stared at the image, following the red markings without taking her hands from the controls. It did look as though a second brain was developing in the left-hand end of the reef, and, more than that, the damaged section was fading significantly. Already, the upper levels were the bleached white of dead code, and the joint grasses were reaching hungrily toward it. "Won't that be too much competition?"
"Probably, but not for a while," Trindade answered. "The two are still smaller than the original—but I'd expect to see one of them start to creep in a month or so."
Ista nodded. "Do you think a vetch did that?" It was as close as she dared come to asking why Trindade thought they might find Erramun's vetch here. The hypothecary guarded her sources jealously, even from her apprentice.
"I think it's possible," Trindade answered, and leaned over the dome again. "The marks, the way it's broken out—see, there? That looks like a vetch's fry code."
Ista squinted at the place Trindade indicated, but could see nothing more than dead code. She hesitated, wondering if she could say that, and a red light flared in the string compass's display.
"A vetch," Trindade exclaimed, in almost the same moment. "Subjective west, nine o'clock."
Ista swung the beetle obediently, and saw the faunal program rolling down on them across the featureless plane. It was the biggest vetch she'd ever seen—one of the biggest hammals—a massive, trilobate sphere with all its defensive subroutines in full display, writhing spines forming and vanishing in the greenish haze that surrounded and obscured its shape. "What the hell—?" she began, and Trindade shook her head.
"Get the betterfly on line. Now. I'll take control."
Ista worked her own controls, calling the sleeping hammal from its place in the lens' compressed storage, saw it pop into existence beside the beetle. Trindade controlled its instinctive reach for the nearest program—the VALMUL lens—and swung it toward the vetch, unfurling the first of its trap routines in the same smooth movement.
"Keep the lens steady," she said, frowning at the image. "What's gotten it so upset…?"
Her voice trailed off as the trap routine slid smoothly across the plane, came to a stop almost directly in the vetch's path. Ista held her breath, willing the larger hammal not to see the hair-thin filaments that wove a black tangle across the plane in front of it, but the vetch slowed, spikes waving now in a concerted search pattern. Ista glanced at Trindade, but the hypothecary was smiling, and her hands moved easily on her controls. A second routine unfurled, this one bright, glittering gold against the dark of the plane. She launched it expertly, so that it fell behind the vetch, and the vetch lurched forward in response, directly into the tangle stand in front of it. The vetch convulsed, the haze that had enclosed it exploding in a flash of light that would have overpowered the sensory rack of most other hammals. Ista flinched, and Trindade snapped, "Steady."
Ista froze her hands on the controls, checking her position against the string compass, and was relieved to see that the location numbers had shifted only by a single digit. "Sorry," she said, but Trindade ignored her, her attention fixed on the program in front of her.
At her command, a second routine unreeled from the betterfly, a waving, amorphous cloud of color that floated slowly toward the vetch. The vetch's spikes trembled at its approach, then struck, one after the other, tearing long holes in the cloud. They reformed behind the spikes, the colors a little paler, but still strong, and the spikes struck again. They were shorter now, Ista realized, drained by their own attack, and even as she thought that, the cloud slid smoothly over the vetch, the spikes now too short to penetrate its surface. Through the multicolored veil, Ista could see the vetch's movement slow, grinding down to a complete halt.
"There," Trindade said, and there was no mistaking the satisfaction in her voice. "Now we just have to record it." Her hands moved as she spoke, and the betterfly moved closer to the encapsulated vetch, the tangle stand vanishing as it passed. She touched more controls, and the betterfly came to a stop with its leading edge just touching the cloud of color. As Ista watched, the cloud, and the vetch within it, began to fade, not toward the white of death, but toward the static-grey of a copy-and-delete.
"I wonder what had it so upset," she said aloud, and Trindade shrugged.
"I don't know. There isn't much that can annoy a vetch—"
She broke off abruptly, and in the same moment another red light flared on the string compass's display. Ista swung the beetle toward it, and caught her breath. In the middle distance, perhaps halfway between the broken reef and the horizon, a shape she had never seen before floated slowly over the plane. It was roughly hexagonal in shape, but each hexagon enclosed another, and then a third and a fourth, each banded in vivid shades of purple and gold. A vivid red-orange cube hung in its center, joined to the inner hexagon of its three corners, and a blue-and-black toothed circle—an adapted vortext, Ista thought, fighting for rationality, a vortext to act as a mouth to break up the code it catches—spun lazily in the center of the inner hexagon, almost hidden by the cube.
"Stay still," Trindade said. "Stay very still."
Ista held her breath as though the distant hammal could hear her, as though she weren't standing in Trindade's shop a world away from the creature in the dome. The hot orange cube shifted on its supports, seemed to sniff the air, but then it turned, slow but graceful, pivoting around the hexagon's currently lowest point, and vanished behind the reef.
"Back to the gate," Trindade said. "Make your best speed."
Ista touched her controls, raising the speed to maximum, and set the beetle to retrace its course. "What is it?"
"That," Trindade said, grimly, "was a mandaleon."
Ista looked up sharply, and Trindade nodded.
"Oh, yes. I haven't seen one on these nets in years."
Ista glanced at the string compass again, searching for any sign of the warning icons—though if it was a mandaleon, she thought, the compass's system probably wouldn't do much good. Mandaleons were some of the most complex fauna ever to have appeared on the wildnets, top predators, completely useless to the program breeders and in fact a danger to the lesser fauna that the breeders used to replenish their own stock. If there was a mandaleon loose on the Company nets, some people were going to be extremely unhappy.
"Do we tell the Company minders?" she asked, and risked a look away from the dome in time to see Trindade smile.
"Ah, that's always the question, isn't it?" She sighed. "Yes, I'll tell them. Though I hate to do it, I like to see the big fauna around. To my mind, it's the sign of a healthy wildnet. But I'd like to keep my license."
Ista nodded, steering the beetle back around the last chogsets that were still squabbling over fragments of the fairweather. There wasn't much left of it beyond the last fading bits that were too small to interest even the chogsets, and she swung the beetle wider still. She understood Trindade's point of view—the wildnets were an environment of their own, subject to quasievolutionary pressures; if a wildnet could produce larger fauna like the mandaleon, it should be allowed to do so, because it was pointless to try to eliminate something that had a place in the invisible ecosystem—but at the same time, she had enough friends from her time at the Company school to know that the Company was desperately and reasonably afraid of contamination. It was an old argument, and one that didn't seem likely to be resolved in her lifetime.
"Warning," the mechanical voice said from the secondary console. "Full scan is now required. Stop here for reading."
Ista brought the beetle to a halt. "Send confirmation package two."
"Confirming," the mechanical voice answered, and Trindade lifted her hands from her own controls.
"Good, it's going through. I'll take over from here, though; it's almost time you were home."
"I'd like to stay," Ista said. "I'd like to finish up."
"You know how to do that," Trindade answered. "And I promised your mother to have you downstation on time this week."
"She's not my mother."
It was the wrong thing to say, even if it was true. Trindade frowned, and waved the girl away from the oracle's controls. "She's as close as you've got—as close as you may ever get—and Travellers respect their parents."
When Trindade invoked Traveller custom in that tone, there was no arguing with her. Ista sighed, and stepped back from the oracle, letting Trindade take her place at the control rosette.
"All right," she said. "I'm going."
"I'll see you tomorrow," Trindade said. "You can help me prep the vetch before Erramun collects it."
That was something, at least, and Ista nodded.
"You did a nice job," Trindade went on. "Not being startled by the mandaleon—you have the makings of a hypothecary, I think."
That, from Trindade, was unprecedented praise. Ista blinked, startled, and then, as the words sunk in, grinned. That made up for being dismissed, made up for having to return downstation to her almost-mother and her second job running the counters in Barabell's Bubble. She slung her trapata back up onto her shoulder, still grinning, and slipped out into the Midway Plaza.