Festival Season
"In Athens, wealth gives opportunity for action, not reason for boasting, and it is idleness, not poverty, which is disgraceful."

— H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks, -10 A.T.


We lost Lucy Miner glacier riding on Tutanhkamen and I nearly died myself. She went into a crevasse, outside line-of-sight for emergency upload. I was lucky. Even as the air rushed out of my suit I could feel my consciousness pulled free.

They cloned a new body and accelerated its growth. Over a year in the womb, and I came out looking like a ten-year-old. Which was fine by me. I had no desire to go glacier riding again. Every time I remembered the heat inside my suit being flushed out through the tear I never wanted to be the least bit cold again. My celebrity status as a thrillseeker, such as it was, would survive a long sabbatical.

There aren't too many hedonistic pleasures that a young body can handle for very long — or be interested in, for that matter. Immature brains are sponges, however, and I spent a lot of time pursuing new studies and soaking up knowledge. That, and soccer and bash-ball with real children "my age."

Kids that age like to hang around the docks watching the crowds come and go from the freighters and needleships, or watch the ships themselves from the observation deck. With a mere wall's thickness holding back the vacuum of space, a constant chill permeated the docks, and I stayed away. Instead, I'd go for long walks through the town and the souks. Some of the buildings dated from the construction of the habitat five centuries earlier, and architecture always held a fascination for me. The Agora held special interest, with the long and colonnaded arcades harmoniously accommodating the stalls and shops.

I was hanging around the Agora and, amid the hustle and bustle of the artisans setting up booths to display the artistic creations they'd sweated over during the past year since the previous Visitation Festival, I saw a girl about my own apparant age coming barefoot down the wide, stone O'Neil Staircase. Feringji pale, she wore a sheer garment of burgundy muslin wrapped around her torso and reaching to below her knees, but slit up the side to the top of her hip. Glittering rings adorned all her fingers. Oddly elegant for a child, and totally out of place for hanging about the marketplace. Quite a contrast with my own knee breechs, sandals and sleeveless tunic.

Curious, I followed this apparition as she wandered about the Agora. She took special interest in the wares of the artisans, and I decided that she must be an Aristo who'd snuck away from her escort. Not that any fool would dare to touch an Aristo in the heart of the ever-watchful and ubiquitous angelnet. So she was free to get a sneak preview of the paintings, jewelry, pottery, and such that the Lords and Ladies prized so.

At one point she turned around and spotted me. She stared for a moment, then walked straight up to me. "Cristobol Ng?"

I was startled that she knew my name. I nodded, speechless.

"My condolences on the loss of your friend, Lucy Miner."

"Um… thanks. How do you know who I am?"

"Sorry. I should have introduced myself. I am Lemmikki Kauppinen."

After a while I realized that my mouth was hanging open in utter surprise. I shut it with an effort, and swallowed hard. "Your Excellency," I said and bowed.

"No need to be formal. I am incognito until the Visitation Festival."

"It is kind of you to take notice of a mere modosophont."

"I note every sparrow that falls. Come, walk with me."

Which is how I came to be walking through the Agora in company with the Avatar of the Post-Singularity Intelligence that watched over the city-state of Yun Cheng, senior-most of the Lords and Ladies who ruled the polity of Zhao Tiao He Gong Yue (Attaining Harmonious Convention), and all its myriads of habitats and population of billions, in the star system of Huang De.

We left the Agora and passed through the open-air food markets displaying goods from the bubble farms outside the city and into the Ning Ji Plaza where we dallied amongst the flea markets and booths displaying cloths (linens, muslins, brocades, and silks) and jewelry (both metallic and bio). Local hand-crafted goods competed with imports, and hawkers of nian hua woodblock prints called out to passersby. A hundred stalls crowded the Ning Ji, and behind the stalls stood a row of shops.

Kauppinen paused to study a porcelain display in a window.

"I read your thesis on Mythos and Logos back when I was a student." It's always good to butter up the boss. "I know I didn't get everything out of it I should have, and I ought to re-read it."

"The theme was simple enough," she said turning away from the window. "Myth and Logic serve different functions. Myths are true, but they are not factual. Both Myth and Science try to explain the universe, and often seem contradictory. Fortunately, people have the ability to compartmentalize their thoughts. Plaster a label on them and stick them in a box. This is especially true when dealing with conflicting beliefs about how the natural world operates. For instance, one old folktale describes how a warlord asked his god to halt the Earth's rotation so that he'd have more daylight in which to fight and win his battle. Given a supernatural deity who can cancel physical laws with the flip of a switch, and all science becomes meaningless. If the universe can be reset or altered like a software program, then the universe is an illusion, and one might as well believe that it's all a virtual reality or that Brahma is dreaming. So natural philosophers have to set aside the folktales because there is no way to incorporate supernatural deities into any theory based on observation of how the universe functions."

"Is this a virtual reality?" I asked her.

She tugged a corner of her mouth into a sardonic smile. "If I said no, could I prove it? Does it make a difference?"

We moved down the row of windows, pausing this time before a clothier specializing in brilliant blue and red silks embroidered with geometrical patterns and realistic pictures of animals, flowers, and mountains-and-waters landscapes. Kauppinen ran her eye over the designs, and then moved on to the next shop. She stopped to peer in at a row of books on display. Prior to the Festival, writers would post their latest works on the net and hire a bookbinder to make up a fancy hardcover object for a Transapient to purchase if e desired. Kauppinen barely glanced at the books. "The hardcover editions show some skill," she remarked, "but the content is purile." Kauppinen stopped again to admire a display of improbable glass sculptures and vases, then moved on again.

The next shop specialized in body scuplting and bio-mech implants. Delany's, I realized, where I had purchased my own data-siphons and data-filters. Delany's supplied nanotech implant networks combining the features of communicator, locator, datanet connection, virtual reality interface, computer and database/knowledgebase; artificial immune systems making the user immune to virtually all forms of disease and able to heal/regenerate any wound that is not instantly, splatteringly fatal; various biocybernetic augmentations extending the user's senses, dexterity, resistance to environmental extremes, etc. Everything but a backup implant/memory box to record the owner's mindstate and preserve it in case of a fatal accident so that the owner can be resurrected. It was common knowledge that at least two other star systems in the Empire allowed the backup memory box technology, but such technology was unavailable in the Huang De system.

"May I ask a question, Your Excellency?"

"Certainly."

"Some people say that if we all made periodic backups of our minds we'd never die. You could have brought back Lucy Miner."

"Or ten Lucy Miners. Or a hundred. If I write a self-aware program named Lucy onto a data cube, and then make an exact copy of it onto another data cube, which is the real Lucy? Each copy thinks it is the real thing. I can destroy the original, and lose nothing because I have an exact copy."

"So why then don't we make backups?"

"Because that is machine thinking. We can suck minds out of one life support system and place it into another without, we hope, disrupting the holistic entity that makes up a person. Look at it this way: if I make a copy of you, and that copy walks up and kills you, are you dead or alive? There's a 'You' still here. Does it matter?"

"I think it'd matter to me."

"Right. Because 'You' are gone, replaced by 'You Mark Two.' No one else may notice the difference, but you might. Assuming that there really is an afterlife."

"And if there is no afterlife?"

"Then nothing matters to you anymore. One way of looking at it is that a backup copy that survives your death is a type of immortality similar to begetting offspring to carry on some part of you. One is a 'personality line of descent' and the other is a 'genetic line of descent.' But you are gone. The only solace is that something of you lives on after your demise.

"I have trouble making my colleague Wang Khan understand this. My origin is organic, but Wang is an artificial intelligence. To Wang, one copy is as good as another, or as good as the original, and he sees no problem in discarding one for the other. I once suggested to Wang that he create a backup of e-self and then commit suicide. E's response was, 'Why would I want to do that?' Which only proves my point."

We discussed thrill-seeking, that dangerous collection of sports that challenged the sportsman both mentally and physically, and risked death or maiming. Angelnet surveillance and automatic mind upload took some of the edge off, but it was still an exciting pastime. My club had coined the term Sportsman Uncertainty Principle, and we joked that one had to spin a quark before the event.

"My grandmother — yes, we Post-Singularity Intelligences often have grandparents — had a habit of spouting off proverbs in our native suomen. Things like, 'Life is uncertain, so eat your dessert first.'"

"What is suomen, Excellency?"

"The language common to Marshland, back on old Terra. Around One AT there were over five million people who spoke that language, and another seventeen million who spoke related languages; the majority of those being the fourteen million who spoke Magyar."

"I've accessed the Magyar translation database from time to time," I said. "When I need to talk with someone from új-Budapest. It's kind of a weird language, unlike any of the Han languages, or Indo-Aryan or any of the Feringji languages. Strange, considering that the people of új-Budapest are mostly Feringji."

"That's Lukacs Foldenyi's city. Poor dear won't be at the Festival this year. Foldenyi was called outsystem by The Guo Fu's Chamberlain to explain some stupidity he is supposed to have committed."

Odd to hear the word "stupidity" connected with the name of a Post-Singularity Intelligence. I was smart enough not to query for details, but instead asked about the Higher Post-Singularity Intelligence, the Archailect, who owned sixteen star systems besides this one. "What is The Guo Fu like?"
(literally "father/founder")

"Like a force of nature."

"Does The Guo Fu have a name?"

"Most likely. But that is something E shares with equals, meaning other Archailects. To us E is simply The Guo Fu ." Almost as an afterthought she added, "Lord Kedvez? Sárkány of Novy Moska will be our guest this Festival. He's of Magyar descent, so be prepared to access your language database if the opportunity arises to meet with him."

I did a quick database search of the star system's habitats and came up empty. "What city-state is that? Where is it located?"

"It's not a city, but a starsystem on the other side of the Empire. Lord Sarkany is a city-lord who will be representing the Congeniality of Ozymandius." I re-checked the database, feeling foolish, and found it. The Congeniality lay in a binary star system about thirty-four light-years away as the photon traveled.

Kauppinen stopped to admire a flowering roddenberry bush, then turned to me and said, "Lord Sárkány will no doubt make much of the fact that the overlord who governs the Congeniality has ascended to the next level while I have not. I've given considerable thought to ascension, but I would miss all this." She spread her arm wide to encompass the heart of the city. "I doubt that the Visitation Festival would be of any interest once I ascend."

"But surely the benefits outweigh the losses." She looked at me oddly, and I blushed. It was plain that I didn't know what I was talking about.

"You're correct, of course. I suppose I will ascend someday. When I feel ready for it."

So, her odd look was not because I was off the mark, but because I was right on it. Sometimes the most complex things can be reduced to a simple equation.

From the top of Baker Street one could see the large dome being set up for lantern show. At Festival the interior would be darkened, and thousands of lanterns strung out in clusters to form a spectacular show. Cai and Jafar, a wife and husband of mine, helped the artisans make the lanterns each year. Superb craftsmanship, from what everyone tells me; thin bamboo strips woven together and covered with silk fabrics.

I only got the briefest of glances, though, as Kauppinen led the way down a half-spiral stone staircase beside an ivy-covered stone wall and into a secluded garden that dated back to the San Long, or Three Dragons, Period four centuries ago. Lord Kauppinen gestured for me to sit on the stone bench, but she stood some distance off as a delegation approached. The dozen petitioners were dressed in the most garish outfits, and escorted by a trio of vec Regulators gleaming brilliantly gun-metal blue in the sunlight. (The AI vecs with their robotic bodies made excellent Regulators.) The delegation's spokesman, a short and dark Hindic, frowned at Lord Kauppinen. "This is the Singularity Intelligence?"

"I am," Kauppinen replied. "You are the Xing from He Xian, come to petition for immigration status."

I'd never heard of He Xian. A quick database query informed me that it was in a neighboring empire.

"Yes, that is correct. Our Overlord has cast us out." He waited for a response, but all Kauppinen did was cock an eyebrow. After a bit, the man added, "Your Magnificence."

The eyebrow came down. "I am aware of your situation, and of the problems that beset He Xian. You Xing are hedonists, and have continually ignored your Lord's warnings to curb your appetites. Your Lord has declared that e will choose twenty or thirty billion citizens at random and force them into a virtual reality while chopping up the vacated bodies for fertilizer to feed the remaining trillions of citizens. Either that, or you must emigrate. You chose the latter option."

"That is true, Your Magnificence. Most of the Xing chose the pleasures of the virtual reality, but to our faction — to us purists — it is a cheat. How can there be pleasure of the body without the body? Therefore, several billion of us have chosen to come here, to Huang De."

"Where you intend to continue your filthy habits, no doubt. We don't have room for you, unless you enter the virtual reality."

"Your Magnificence! We have rights as sentient beings — "

"In this star system, my colleagues and I are the governing body, and we decide what rights are yours."

A dozen voices uttered protests. At a glance from Lord Kauppinen one of the vecs' voices boomed out. "SILENCE!!!"

The petitioners became suddenly quiet. "You are wasteful people," Kauppinen scolded. "You treat your environment as a looter's prize, and turn your resources into garbage dumps so massive that the nanofacs can't process the raw material into new toys fast enough. Your excesses are legendary, you breed like the vermin you are, and you waste resources as if tomorrow didn't exist. But now tomorrow has arrived, and you cannot continue as before. You must give up your bodies and go into the virtual reality."

"Never!" the leader cried out. "It is against our principles."

"Then be damned. Your petition for immigration status is denied. The Regulators will escort you back aboard your ship. We will send a wormhole courier to He Xian to inform your Overlord of our decision."

Kauppinen turned her back on the delegation, and the vec Regulators ushered the angry and protesting foreigners away.

"We have our own hedonists, Your Excellency," I said.

"Yes, but never so many, and not so wasteful. Their Overlord has indulged them far too much, and produced such stupid and selfish children."

I let the matter drop. Who was I to question a Post-Singularity Intelligence? Besides, such a being was better able to understand all the ramifications of the situation better than a mere modosophont. They say that numbers don't lie, and it wouldn't take much effort to calculate the impact these Xing would have on our society. Where the Post-Singularity Intelligences differed from us lay in their ability not only to see into the future — to carry the calculations to the limit — but to understand the need for appropriate action based on what the numbers predicted, and then to formulate the necessary policies. We baseline hu are too short-sighted for long-range thinking on that scale. Which, obviously, is why we no longer held the reigns of government.

We moved on to the street called the Harmonious Way, continuing to window shop. At the end of the row sat a Regulator kiosk, and beyond that a once-vacant lot. Robots no bigger than my hand were scurrying about in the lot constructing a garden that was part biological and part mechanical. Kauppinen stopped to say hello to the vec supervising the construction. "How are you today, Percy?"

"Hello, Lemmikki. It's almost Festival, and you promised you'd have an answer for me by then."

"Has it been a year, then? Well, it's a very difficult decision, and I've been flip-flopping back and forth on it. Unfortunately, I'm sixty percent sure I will have to decline your proposal of marriage."

The vec didn't respond. It's shoulders seemed to droop.

"I know you're disappointed, but if we went ahead people would say that you married me just to acquire status. I don't want people bad-mouthing you."

"Thank you, Lemmikki. I am honored that you at least considered the proposal."

"Not at all. I am honored that you asked." She gestured at the robot workers. "Something for the Visitation Festival?"

"Not really. I purchased the land-use rights and intend to construct a garden of mathematical contemplation. Hey, did you hear what happened to the Chalk Girl?"

"Yes." Well, of course. The angelnet guarantees that the Transapients know everything that goes on.

"A real weird, that," Percy remarked.

"What happened to the Chalk Girl?" I asked. It had to be something other than her perpetual arrest record.

"Forgive me," Kauppinen said. "Cristobol Ng, Sir Percival."

"A pleasure, Mr. Ng. Well. The Hermit came out of her cave and down through Boh-Town on the way to the Agora. And she came upon the Chalk Girl doing a mural on the side of a building. Well, The Hermit scolded the Chalk Girl for vandalizing, and Chalky ignored her. So The Hermit beat the crap out of her. Very unladylike."

"The angelnet had paramedics standing by," Kauppinen said. "But none of the Regulators was about to interrupt or restrain a Transapient whatever e's doing. I had a talk with The Hermit, and this shouldn't happen again."

I swallowed hard. "A Transapient beat someone up?"

"Yes. You wouldn't believe the fine I had to levy against The Hermit on top of the compensation awarded to the Chalk Girl. Quite the scandal."

"Oh, it's all settled, then," Percy said. "I hadn't heard that part of it."

"I haven't heard any of this news," I said. "When did this happen?"

"About fifteen minutes ago, real-time."

"Ready for lunch? There's some nice places on Kazlev Avenue, and I'm buying."

"Your Excellency is most gracious."

We left the Harmonious Way and ducked under the awnings stretched between the flying buttresses of the Exchange, coming out onto Kazlev Avenue beside the Hirsekorn Gardens. In the shade of a Penelope tree the Avatar pretended to be interested in some potted flowers, but it was obvious that she was listening to the Orwellians in the nearby outdoor café bitching about the "insidious" angelnet. The angelnet — the Transapient AI-controlled dense ultratech network of satellites, ground stations, free atmospheric nano, and utility fog (the collective of nanobot "foglets" that link together into a complex network in the air, able to work together to exert force in any direction or transmit information between each other, essentially giving users almost complete control over the local, physical environment) — provided accident and crime prevention, mainbrain processing, virchworlds and what-all. All of the major worlds and capitals governed by Post-Singularity Intelligences were heavily angelnetted.

One man made a rude remark, then lifted his head and shouted at the sky, "You hear that, Kauppinen, you tin god?"

I glanced at the Avatar, and saw the corner of her mouth twitched back in a half-smile.

"Why do you allow such disrespect, Excellency?"

A shoulder lifted and dropped in a shrug. "It makes them happy to pretend to be free-thinkers and rebels. They don't do anything against the commonality law — can't, really, with the angelnet in place. They may be noisy but, truth be told, they're actually less disruptive than the Chalk Girl. So where's the harm?"

"I understand." Well, I did, sort of. Besides, only a fool tries to second-guess a Post-Singularity Intelligence. "I wonder why these malcontents don't migrate to someplace like the NoCo Zone?"

"They'd have to work for a living in the Non-Coercive Zone. It's easier to remain here and sit around moaning and bitching."

I could understand that. A libertarian capitalist society's sink-or-swim attitude towards life favored doers, not complainers. "Pardon my ignorance, but does it seem odd at all to hear and see things through your avatar's eyes and the angelnet simultaneously?"

"Not at all. My avatar is a separate entity for the most part. The avatar's experiences will be incorporated into my main mind later on."

Avatars are useful things, especially for a big-brained Post-Singularity Intelligence. (Kauppinen's actual body was probably a hundred meters across. Rumor had it that Guo Fu, the Archailect High Overlord of the Empire, was housed in a node 150,000 kilometers in diameter.) Download part of your mind into a physical construct and send it out into the world. There are stories about avatars in the old mythologies. Rama and Krishna as avatars of Vishnu, the Burning Bush and Yashua as avatars of YHWH.

"If I may ask a personal question, Your Excellency, why did you choose an Avatar that is a female child?"

"I am female. And I find that a quiet child can go most anywhere without drawing a second glance. It serves me to go unnoticed through a crowd."

"But the angelnet can provide you with —"

"Oh, come now! You can create a viewscreen out of utility fog and never have to leave your house. Why don't you?"

"I understand. Sorry to appear so stupid."

She patted my shoulder. "Not at all. You just didn't stop to think it through. Quite understandable."

Quite indeed, since my thought processes were probably on the order of a thousand times slower than hers.

For lunch we purchased a pair of Nihonjin kaiseki bento — boxed lunches — and headed for a quiet Zen garden. We took our meals towards the back of the park and the unobstructed view of the Cascade Waterfall a couple of kilometers Outward along the city's axis. This being a popular spot, we settled for sitting on the stone wall. The stream of water in the distance curved counter-spinward to the right, the city's rotation moving the ground out from beneath the falling water.

"When I was a kid we used to tell each other stories about the witch Baba Yaga living in a cave behind the Cascade. When we hit adolescence we used to goad each other into exploring the cave for signs of The Hermit, a transapient rumored to be living out a life of seclusion in the cave. There were also rumors of the cave not being angelnetted, and it was considered risky to venture there."

"Children will invent adventures," Kauppinen remarked. "If there are no dragons to be slain, then we must invent them. But The Hermit would not have harmed you."

"You mean there really is a hermit living behind the Cascade?"

"Yes. A Roos Feringji, hence the stories of the Baba Yaga dwelling there. She contemplates and meditates and composes obtuse mathematical models of weird philosophies."

This information sent a shiver up my spine. We really didn't believe the stories about the witch, and when we dared each other to sneak into the cave we really didn't expect to find anyone there (or anyone other than a harmless crank). If we'd known that we might intrude upon a reclusive Post-Singularity entity, we wouldn't have gone anywhere near the place for love or money. A new thought occurred to me.

"This being living behind the Cascade — would that be the same hermit who beat up the Chalk Girl?"

"The same. I was surprised by her violence towards the Chalk Girl, though."

Wonderful. I could just imagine what might have happened to me if I'd run into the creature in its lair, Kaupipinen's reassurances notwithstanding.

We washed the exquisite food down with bottles of amazake, a sweet, nonalcoholic beverage flavored with ginger. After the meal Her Excellency suggested we go by the site of the new museum. I had no objection, and wouldn't have voiced one if I had. The building was in the shape of a trapezoid, widest side facing Hubward and covered in stained glass windows brilliant in the sunlight. Kauppinen ignored the main entrance and led the way to a door on the Spinward side of the building. "I want to sneak in and get a peak at the progress of the fresco. I commissioned it at the last Visitation Festival based on the artist's designs. It should be nearly done, but he shoos away vistors. We'll have to be quiet and stealthy."

"Pardon my appearing stupid again, but I don't understand why you need to sneak in when the angelnet can provide you with a view of the interior."

She winked at me. "Where's the fun in that?"

The Spinward and Outward walls were finished, but the artist and his team were still working on the Counter-Spin wall. We moved quietly along the completed Spinward wall, and Kaupinnen halted in front of the first scene beyond the door. "This fresco shows the Flaying of Marsyas. According to the old Hellenic myth, he was a satyr-like creature who became so proficient with the flute that he challenged Apollo, god of music, to a duel of flute against lute. Apollo agreed with the stipulation that the winner be allowed to do anything he wanted to the loser. They both played beautifully. To break the tie, Apollo turned his lute upsidedown and continued playing. Marsyas was unable to duplicate this feat with his flute and so lost the competition.

"The contest is seen as a parable for how pride is swatted down by an effortlessly superior being. I really don't like the idea of seeing something like this displayed for public viewing, but I'd only make matters worse if I banned it."

I wisely said nothing, and we continued down the wall. Most of the other scenes were depictions of the "Olympians" who governed our star system. Kauppinen pointed out a pair of gods— he with a golden bow and firing clusters of arrows into the air; she with a pack of mastiffs and panthers at her heel, striding into battle. "The Rook and the Moon Princess as the Hellenic deities Apollo and Artemis. Apt, considering that they run the System Defense Forces."

We paused at the back, Outward wall, the place of honor.

"That's supposed to be me," Kauppinen said in a non-committal tone.

I studied the fresco. It showed two figures, mirror images of each other, against a woodland backdrop with some sort of crystalline structure between the figures. I had a poor aesthetic sense outside the realm of architecture and couldn't say if the mural was any good or not. Considering the fact that the artist was a master of his trade, I'd say it had to be good.

"I don't understand the symbolism," I admitted.

"Neither do I. Not a bad effort, though. Interesting how he darkened the highlights and lightened the shadows. Similar to the negative of a photograph."

I had no idea what she meant by that.

"He may have used the disadvantages of some pigments to achieve the effect he desired. The blue pigment azurite will turn green after coming into contact with the moisture in the plaster. And when ceruse white oxidizes it turns black."

We heard swearing at the other end of the hall. The Master, nicknamed Indigo due to the Papuan blackness of his skin, was yelling at one of his assistants. "We can't be out of volcanic ash! How are we to make the plaster without it?"

I accessed the database and discovered that the plaster layer, called intonaco, upon which the paint is laid was made by mixing lime and volcanic ash. I already knew about the ash, because our concrete used that as an ingrediant. The database also told me that the ancient Feringji Michaelangelo Buonarroti had mixed lime and ash for his intonaco when he painted his famous chapel ceiling. This technique was of Romanoi origin, which is why their ancient monuments lasted as long as they did. (Gaia only knew what had become of them by now.) Our ash came from the volcanoes of Hermes, a small moon that circled within two hundred thousand kilometers of the gas giant Zeus. The tides pulled and pushed on the moon, making it malleable and causing the most spectacular volcanoes in the system of Huang De. And a wonderful source for the ash we needed for our concrete and our frescoes.

"Fresco painting is extremely difficult," Kauppinen remarked, "due to the fact that the paint has to be laid down within twelve hours or so before the plaster dries and makes the pigment part of the wall. The painter needs to work fast, and can't paint over mistakes. If he botches a section, he has to scrape the plaster off and start over. But it's very durable."

"Why not simply use oils or acrylics and lay a film of transparent plaststeel over the painting?"

"For that matter, Mister Ng, why not simply project a hologram onto the wall? Artists choose to paint buon fresco because it is difficult. It's a measure of their ability."

I studied the painting with new appreciation. "Would you say he is a great artist?" I figured he must be, to be given such a commission.

"Not great. Very skilled and competent. Very good. But there's no greatness among our artists."

"Oh. Of course. Only the Transapients can produce great art."

She frowned. "Who told you that nonsense? Creative urban milieux are places of social and intellectual turbulence. Do you know of any place like that in the Manhara Empire?"

"Not off hand. No."

"Creative cities need to be centers of trade and immigration. They have to be in social and economic transition, with an unstable tension between a set of conservative values and a set of radical values. A transitive state between an old order and a new. Add to that a group of artistic people who are also misfits. That is, they belong to society and yet do not belong. The causes vary: they may be young, foreign or provincial, or they aren't part of the established order of power and prestige. And the articulation of these feelings of alienation is what we call Great Art. Alexandros Cheng's treatise The Recurring Renaissance in History is the definitive work on the subject. For the mathematically challenged, there's the Pre-Singularity work Cities in Civilization by Sir Peter Hall."

And down the Avenue of Virtuous Desire, past the intersection with the Harmonious Way, nearly doubling back on our earlier route, heading inward towards the Agora but parallel to its main axis until we hit curvy Helix Street.

A man sat on a bench outside a bistro (one time a tavern called Bilbo's Flagon), whittling. Kauppinen went to stand by his shoulder and examine his work. The man looked up at us. "Hello, children."

I studied his intricate carving. "Are you making something for the Visitation Festival?" I asked him.

"Already have. I carve puppets. I submitted them to the wardrobe mistress who must dress them for the puppet show. I imagine you kids enjoy the puppet shows. They have some excellent ones planned for this Festival." He grinned and winked. "The dragon is particularly impressive, if I do say so."

"Who wrote the play?" Kauppinen asked.

"Zhang Ching-ping. It's called The Mist Demons."

"Oh, I know her," I said. "We grew up together."

The man gave us an appraising look. "You're not children then. New bodies, quick-grown."

"I wrecked my old body glacier riding. The result of overconfidence and carelessness."

"Worth it, if you learned that much," the man said. He shifted in his seat. "So you know Ching-ping. What do you think of her work?"

"She's really good," I said. "Has a real knack for writing."

The man looked at Kauppinen. "And you?"

"She is competent, but I don't particularly care for her stories."

"What writers do you like?"

"Among the Ancients, Homer, Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides and Aristophanes."

"What about modern writers?"

Kauppinen named two playwrights and a novelist who'd died two thousand years earlier, and a Klaus Lubbock who had stopped writing half a century ago.

"What do you think of Shakespeare?" the man asked her.

"Too verbose. He uses ten words where one will do. And many of his stories are childish."

"He was only the greatest Feringji writer of all time."

"Possibly, though the pre-Feringji writers of Hellas were better."

A debate ensued which went way over my head. Tragedy as a dramatic presentation of high seriousness and noble character in which people are tested by great suffering who face decisions of ultimate consequence, the examination of the major questions of human existence, Aristotle's thoughts on the matter, and so on.

They ran out of steam, finally, and the man said, "You mentioned Klaus Lubbock as one of your favorites. Don't you find him a bit melodramatic at times?"

"Not at all." And then they were off on another debate, this time over the merits of Lubbock; the whittler attacking Lubbock's work and Kauppinen defending. The man was particularly insistent on the point that Lubbock's mythical themes were a thinly disguised attack upon the near-gods who ruled us.

"There is one unanswered question," Kauppinen said at the end. "Why did you stop writing, Citizen Lubbock?"

The man raised an eyebrow in surprise and leaned back against the wall. "Do I know you?"

"We met once. Most of your fellow citizens would agree that your plays attacked the natural order of things, and they constantly denied you recognition. The only time one of your plays — The Lonely Dead as I recall — won an award was when I was asked to judge a theatrical competition."

His eyes widened. "Lemmikki Kauppinen." He made to stand, but Lord Kauppinen put a hand on his shoulder and bade him sit. "People who criticize your work do not understand that stories about how wonderful the world is make very boring reading."

"True enough, Your Excellency. I am honored, and a bit overwhelmed, that my work pleases you."

"Why did you stop writing?"

He shrugged. "Ran out of things to write about. I may take it up again some day." He glanced at the piece of wood in his hand. "For now, carving wood is my passion."

"And you do that to perfection as well."

"Your Excellency is too kind."

We moved on, her and I. Once out of earshot of the bistro I asked, "Is this the best of all possible worlds?"

"Of course not. When our society reaches a perfect static Yin-state, The Guo Fu will have to introduce an Adversary to shake things up, 'an adversary to set the heart feeling again by instilling distress or discontent or fear or antipathy.' A quote from Toynbee's A Study of History. Society will then pass from Yin-static to Yang-dynamic. 'Once Yin has passed over into Yang, not the Devil himself can prevent God from completing His fresh creation by passing over again from Yang to Yin on a higher level.' Toynbee, again. Have you read Toynbee?"

"No, Your Excellency."

"An interesting Pre-Singularity philosopher. He tried to describe history as a series of challenges and responses. Not bad for someone pondering the question without the benefit of Metalogical Mathematics. The point is, when society begins to stagnate, The Guo Fu can only recreate a better, more perfect society if E introduces an Adversary to provide the means to achieve a Yang-dynamic state. This is the historical process that enables the Sephirotic Empires to evolve."

Although I'd not heard of the philosopher Toynbee, I had read some history. The Version Wars between standardizationists and revisionists had lasted two centuries and ended the Second Federation. "This was admittedly a time of great uncertainty", so the history went. "At any moment a relativist fleet might come roaring out of interstellar space to wreak total annihilation over everyone — and apocalyptic literature, theatre, virches and interactives, were very popular…. The dark age was largely in the large scale situation, where the breakdown of interstellar economy, communications and cooperation forced many societies back to a mere First Federation interplanetary level." And so on. Disconcerting to think that such things came about by Archailect design.

Kauppinen must have sensed my mood. "I did not mean to worry you, Cristobol. We probably have centuries yet before we need another Yang period."

Somehow, that did not make me feel much better.

"That vec — Sir Percival. Were you seriously contemplating marriage with him? If I'm being too personal — ?

"I didn't want to hurt his feelings."

"He struck me as a bit odd, even for a vec."

Kauppinen jerked in mid-stride, and abruptly sat down. Blood leaked from a hole in her chest. I knelt down beside her.

"Your Excellency?"

"Very clever," she murmured. "Pointless, but clever." She turned to me.

"Don't worry; the vandal is wrapped up in angelnet constraint mode pending arrival of the Regulators."

"What happened?"

"Information is still coming in…. pellet propelled by exploding gases… yes, a makeshift rifle designed to look like something else. Apparently, my assailant built an unusual telescope for bird watching. He's spent the past several months using his equipment and jotting down notes about birds in his journals." A corner of her mouth twitched into a sardonic smile. "If it had looked like he'd pointed it at me, the angelnet would have taken greater interest. But he had installed mirrors so that he could point the telescope in one direction while the bullet fired out the side of the contraption. Quite ingenious, actually. I don't know if I should demand compensation from him for destruction of property or praise his ingenuity."

She paused a moment, then said, "Damn. The angelnet's medical mode has shut off the bleeding, but there's too much damage to this body."

Her eyes glazed over, and she slumped onto her back.

"Lucy!"

Medicos and Regulators joined the crowd that gathered around the prone body. A regulator pulled me aside.

U-fog swirled brightly, and a virtual Kauppinen appeared. "Why so upset? That isn't me. Not really."

"Sorry. Gut reaction, I guess."

"Was it a gut reaction when you called out 'Lucy' instead of 'Lemmikki'?"

I blushed and stared at the ground.

"You haven't finished grieving for Lucy Miner, have you?"

I thought that over. There was shock and grief among our thrill-seeker group following Lucy's death, and a memorial service which I'd missed due to being in statis at the time. The result being … what?

I shrugged. "Big boys don't cry."

"Not in public, no."

Which is when I did start to cry.

A Regulator dropped me off in front of my house. One of my wives, short and wiry Cai, naked and gossamer wings spread wide to catch the energizing rays, sunned herself on the slope beside the walkway. She greeted me and, climbing to her feet, fell into step beside me as we entered the courtyard.

Dark and lanky Tano had set up a target. He and Swaantje fired arrows at it. From the expression on Swaantje's face, I gathered she was in one of her sour moods, probably brought on by a reversal in the Militia's ongoing virch wargames.

Over on the patio, lounging on chairs molded out of utility fog, sat Anaïs and Rohana, the family's twin daughters, their eyes unfocused and indicating involvement in some webbed conversation or entertainment. The twins were going through, at age twelve, an elegance fad. Today one wore a red tunic over black bodystocking with hair and boots matching the tunic, and the other girl in opposition, black tunic over red bodystocking. A while back they'd fixated on a primitivism fad and gone about naked for a whole month. Like a pendulum, those two.

Dinner smelled promising. I spied short and stocky and muscular Jafar through the kitchen's open door. Hair tied back, barefoot, dressed in khaki shorts and shirt, stirring various pots and woks on the stove top. (The stove itself was an old replica of some ancient, Pre-Singularity model.) He looked up and flashed a smile, then spread the fingers of his hand out twice. Ten minutes.

"Swaantje looks unhappy," I murmured to Cai.

"The Green-and-White Regiment took a beating today."

"Well, the defender does have the angelnet advantage."

"The Green and Whites were the defenders."

I winced. "How did they lose?" I didn't add "this time".

"Attackers took out a portion of the angelnet at the same time they released their nano-amucks. Obviously, security teams were immediately dispatched to the areas that lost angelnet capacity, but it was too late. I gather that the battalion leader who was in charge of Port security missed some obvious checks of incoming transients. I couldn't follow her explanation. Too much specialist's jargon for me."

"I think Tano's the only one who half-way understands that stuff, though Jafar's good at faking it. Colonel-Brigadier Swaantje Van der Osten's reputation is taking a beating though, isn't it?

"We should take her out somewhere after dinner." Cai stuck the pinky of her right hand into her mouth and began worrying the nail.

"There's a theater group putting something on this week." I accessed the Cultural Events menu. "Yes, The Meffit Mummers are performing at the Dionysian open-air theater. Show is scheduled to start a half-hour after today's rain." It rained every day at the same time (you could set a clock by it) and only for about ten minutes. "Benches should be dry after half an hour."

"What play?"

"Ramcharitmaanas." (Literally, The Lake of Rama's Deeds.) "A play based on Grierson's version of the classic. The play will last all week, with one book being dramatized each day. They're starting today with the Bal Kand — the Book of Youth."

Jafar finally announced dinner was ready, and the twins helped him carry the trays out while Cai and I morphed some chairs and a table out of the utility fog in the courtyard. An excellent meal, like always and, were our manners less than impeccable, we would have attacked it like piranha.

Cai broached the idea of going out to the play later on, but Swaantje already had plans to join her sister Bregt's soccer team.

"So, what did you do today, Cris?" Tano asked.

"I spend a good part of it hanging around with Lemmikki Kauppinen."

Chopsticks paused in midair, mouths remained opened. The dead silence went on for a long minute, and then everyone exploded into laughter.

"Seriously," I said.

"You are serious, aren't you?" Tano said after a while.

"Yeah. She knew who I was and came over to express condolences about Lucy Miner. We ended up walking around the downtown neighborhoods. Met some interesting people." I put my sticks down. "Lady Kauppinen commented at one point about Yin and Yang principles in history; about how a Yang force needs to generate chaos before the gods can recreate society on a new Yin level of perfection. I think I got that right. I should do some research on the subject."

"Anaïs, you're studying history," Jafar said.

"Yes, Poppo Jafar."

"Could you help your Poppo Cris do his research?"

One shoulder lifted in a shrug. "Sure." She turned to me. "I'm free Wodensdag morning, Poppo Cris. We can go over some basic material then."

"Good."

Following dessert the twins went off to join some friends in a virch game. With the children gone I felt free to express my concern. "I'm worried that the Transapients are planning to rebuild our sociocultural matrix on the ashes of the old. Lady Kauppinen said she believe we were probably centuries away from the introduction of chaotic forces. But I got to thinking —"

"Which is a very bad thing for a thrillseeker to do," Tano commented.

I quirked the corner of my mouth back in acknowledgement of the old joke. "She said probably. As though she herself wasn't sure. Why wouldn't she know? The Lords and Ladies can see farther into the future than we can.

"And she allowed me to observe her handling of a group of foreign petitioners. And by foreign I mean from completely outside the Empire. She took a hardline against immigration with them."

"That worries me," Swaantje said. "Closing the borders usually only happens during times of crisis."

"Kauppinen said it was to prevent a crisis. She also showed me the new fresco being painted and commented on the transapient and modosophont interactions it depicted. And similar themes in literature, and malcontents…. I have a feeling she was trying to tell me something. I just can't … can't get a clear view of what."

In our first session, Anaïs taught me enough to make me realize how little I actually knew.

I also accessed one of Lubbock's novels and read part of the first chapter.

"… I was standing in line behind the woman and her daughter when we were being nailed to the wall prior to exile. I ran into them eight virtual months later in Oglethorpe. After eight months I'd sworn off mixing rebellious metaphysical constructs with activism and was looking for a decent above-subsistence niche. The woman had become a fagan, and her daughter a private sex performer — what they used to call a prostitute. I went to work for the woman as an illicit data miner. None of us expected to get rich. For one thing, those individuals who created criminal mega-corps died mysterious deaths (attributed to the Governors to assure social stability). I'd also taken a local warder as lover; or, to be more precise, she'd taken me as part of the kickback she got for ignoring my fagan's business dealings. It was okay as same-gender sex goes, I suppose."

I put the novel aside and surfed the data banks and message boards for background information. And ran into Rohana researching a paper for her Literature class. "Oh, Poppo Cris! Why are you reading that junk? It's mostly flim and flam. Oglethorpe isn't as bad as the author makes out. For one thing, all the warders are vecs because it's been established that bionts warp into DeSades in that kind of job. And people in penal colonies don't go around hurting each other because empire citizens are muy too polite to do that. Besides, everyone knows that any virch is by definition angelnetted. And the whisper is that Hades and Persephone walk the virtual streets 'incog,' so the person whose body you violate might be one of the Ubermensch governors which can cause serious negative feedback, no foolie. Gotta run now, Poppo. I have to finish my deconstruction of the poem Utility Fog Makes Me Cough."

I also sent a private message to Lord Kauppinen thanking her for the honor of escorting her around town, etc. I told her I'd been thinking of some of the things we'd talked about, and was under the impression — mistaken, perhaps — that she was trying to explain something important to me that I have, unsurprisingly, failed to grasp, and most humbly request clarification. Her reply was short and concise: "Don't let it worry you. If you can't figure it out I'll just find someone who can. (Signed) L. Kauppinen, Prefect."

The reply totally humiliated me. I'd been selected by the Overlord herself for some task and failed to measure up. And it was no big deal to her, anymore than the twins failing their attempts to morph furniture out of u-fog at age six was a big deal to me.

A week later I happened by a bistro on the way back from a soccer game. A group of Orwellians sat at a table out front, and one of them remarked to his fellows that it was too bad that Kauppinen was only inconvenienced and not killed.

I went up to them and, placing one hand on the table top and the other on the back of the jerk's chair, I said, "My name is Cristobol Ng. I've recently learned that it is possible to get around the angelnet and kill someone if I'm clever enough. You will now withdraw those remarks you made about my friend Lemmikki Kauppinen if you wish to live to see the next Festival Season, baka boy."

"Get lost, you arrogant, boot-licking puppy."

His features indicated possible Dai or Viet ancestry. I lifted my leg, grabbed the ankle, and set my foot atop the table, the sole facing him. My guess about his cultural background proved correct. His eyes went wide just before his face contorted with anger. "You son of a whore!"

The fight, such as it was, didn't last long, the angelnet converting the local nanbots into restraint mode, and the Regulators were on their way before I even showed him the bottom of my foot. But it took them awhile to break the grip my teeth had on his arm. The arbitrator had a field day with us. I refused to apologize unless the Orwellian withdrew his remarks, which he refused to do. The arbitrator exiled baka boy from the city for a period of ten years. Being a registered parent, I was able to avoid exile, but I was 'bound over' for three years. Another public disturbance during that period and I'd find myself barred from the city for a decade. I promised to be good and went home.

I was sitting in our courtyard and watching a u-fog snake eat a u-fog gazelle (yes, I was in that kind of mood) when Swaantje came home and plopped down on the ground beside me without bothering to morph a chair. "How goes it with you today, Colonel-Brigadier?"

"Colonel-Adjutant," she spat out. "Shifted from line to staff, damn it all. Guardian of virtual file cabinets."

"Well, it's not like you'd have to fight in a real war."

"Ya, but it'd be nice to know I could if I needed to. I'd be better off painting my face black and playing Pieter to Sinter Klaus. Except that Tano does a great Pieter, so I'd be a wash at that, too."

"Tano hasn't played Pieter in years." When the twins were little, Jafar would dress up as Sinter Klaus and Tano as Pieter the Moor for the Feast of the Wise Men. They'd go through town in a mockup of an old Spanic treasure ship and hand out gifts to the city's children.

I reduced the snake and its dinner back into u-fog particles. "We live in utopia, Swaantje. Why aren't we happy, you and I?"

"Happiness is transitory."

"What exactly does that mean?"

"It means, husband, that you and I are having a bad week. Or a bad month. As grandmother used to say, 'He who attempts too much seldom succeeds.'"

"Did we attempt too much, then? But Grandfather Thanh once told me, 'Venture all, and see what fate brings.'"

"Great-grandmother said, 'Little pots soon run over.'"

I glanced over at Swaantje and considered that. "Grandfather Thanh also said, 'The higher you climb, the heavier you fall.'"

"My paternal great-great-grandmother said, 'A handful of patience is worth more than a bushel of brains.'"

"My uncle Ferdinand would say, 'How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterward.'"

Swaantje fought a grin, and said, "Grandfather Wilhelm said, 'The seeds of the day are best planted in the first hour.'"

"Great Aunt Isabel was fond of saying, 'If you can't bite, don't show your teeth.' " Somewhat apt, considering I'd tried to mix it up with an adult while wearing a ten-year-old's body. And sank my teeth into his arm in the process.

"My mother's cousin's great-aunt's grandfather used to say that 'A dog with a bone knows no friends,'" Swaantje said.

"'Life is uncertain, so eat your dessert first.' That's from Prefect Kauppinen's grandmother."

I looked up and saw Swaantje staring at me. "Okay," she said. "You win."

I opened up to Swaantje, then, and told her everything I could remember about the time I spent with Lemmikki Kauppinen and how I felt I'd let the Prefect down.

"Could be you're reading too much into this," Swaantje said after I finished. "It could be more basic. She might have taken a liking to you, and offered a helping hand. Like, um, the twins when they were little — they'd be drawing a picture with carbon pencil, laying down thick and heavy lines and then trying to erase something they didn't like; I'd suggest a lighter line, tell them to sketch it in, make corrections, and only then lay down the thick line over their sketch. The Prefect might have been telling you something like that. Sketch lightly, make corrections, then finalize the concept."

I thought it over. "You could be right. But I have this nagging feeling that it's something more than that."

Festival Day, and the family is running around in last minute preparation before heading downtown. The twins burbling about what to see first — dragon boat races, lantern show, peacock dances, folk music and dances from a score of cultures — and darting this way and that as another adult sent them on an errand ("fetch my comb, please," and "see if my earrings are on my dresser, dear"). Tano and Swaanjte discussing the merits of last year's ceramics exhibition — the porcelain-making demonstrations, study tours, tea ceremonies, symposium — and how hard it would be to surpass it this year. Cai and Jafar urging me to attend the Lantern Show instead of going off to a sporting event, and me agreeing good-naturedly. Tano suddenly announcing we'd best be off or we'd miss the Promenade of the Lords and Ladies through the flower-bedecked streets, and thereby sending the twins into squeals of dismay for fear of not seeing the avatars of the Moon Princess and the Child Empress (their favorites) in the flesh.

And suddenly the family is flowing out the gateway and down the street, like a tidal wave of joy.

"It is theoretically possible to engineer a Renaissance event among modosophonts given certain preconditions and some careful memetic engineering, even but as late as the Early Empires era the necessary memetic conceptual tools had not been fully developed. (The failed FreedomWorld project at the foundation of Daffy is a case in point). Even today, despite huge advances in memetics, most Renaissance events appear to be natural rather than planned. Transapients' explanations as to why this should be so are not consistent with one another."

— Stephen Inniss, "Renaissance Events, Cultural Impacts, & Cultural Refugia From the Nanoswarms," 36 A.T.