by Vernor Vinge

“The story is a marvelous mixture of hard-science SF and sword-and-sorcery imagery. Vinge posits that in a direct neurocybernetic interface, the information would be analogized by the brain into symbols it is comfortable with. The “place” in which the Coven “meets,” for example, is or seems to be a castle, guarded by a program which manifests itself as a firebreathing dragon, sitting in a magma moat, wear- ing an asbestos T-shirt. Fail to satisfy it, and it will “kill” you, dumping you back into the real world–a fate most Wizards seem to regard as very little better than death.

“Vinge set himself about fifteen challenges in this story, any one of which might have wrecked a lesser writer, and pulled them all off with appalling ease. No point in listing them all–but the most important one to my mind is this: he succeeded in making me feel, for over an hour, what it is like to be more than human. That is one of SF's major challenges, and it is bloody hard to do.

“Do not miss this ingenious and truly original story–it is one of those that, when you're done, you wish the author were present so you could applaud.”

–Analog Magazine


In the once upon a time days of the First Age of
Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true
name as his most valued possession but also the
greatest threat to his continued good health, for--the
stories go--once an enemy, even a weak unskilled
enemy, learned the sorcerer's true name, then rou-
tine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave
even the most powerful. As times passed, and we
graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the
first and second industrial revolutions, such notions
were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has
turned full circle (even if there never really was a
First Age) and we are back to worrying about true
names again:

   The first hint Mr. Slippery had that his own True
Name might be known--and, for that matter, known to
the Great Enemy--came with the appearance of two
black Lincolns humming up the long dirt driveway
that stretched through the dripping pine forest down
to Road 29. Roger Pollack was in his garden weeding,
had been there nearly the whole morning, enjoying
the barely perceptible drizzle and the overcast, and
trying to find the initiative to go inside and do work
that actually makes money. He looked up the mo-
ment the intruders turned, wheels squealing, into his
driveway. Thirty seconds passed, and the cars came
out of the third-generation forest to pull up beside
and behind Pollack's Honda. Four heavy-set men and
a hard-looking female piled out, started purposefully
across his well-tended cabbage patch, crushing ten-
der young plants with a disregard which told Roger
that this was no social call.

   Pollack looked wildly around, considered making a
break for the woods, but the others had spread out
and he was grabbed and frog-marched back to his
house. (Fortunately the door had been left unlocked.
Roger had the feeling that they might have knocked
it down rather than ask him for the key.) He was
shoved abruptly into a chair. Two of the heaviest and
least collegiate-looking of his visitors stood on either
side of him. Pollack's protests--now just being voiced--
brought no response. The woman and an older man
poked around among his sets. "Hey, I remember this,
Al: It's the script for 1965. See?" The woman spoke
as she flipped through the holo-scenes that decorated
the interior wall.

   The older man nodded. "I told you. He's written
more popular games than any three men and even
more than some agencies. Roger Pollack is some-
thing of a genius."

   They're novels, damn you, not games! Old irritation
flashed unbidden into Roger's mind. Aloud: "Yeah,
but most of my fans aren't as persistent as you all."

   "Most of your fans don't know that you are a
criminal, Mr. Pollack."

   "Criminal? I'm no criminal--but I do know my
rights. You FBI types must identify yourselves, give
me a phone call, and--"

   The woman smiled for the first time. It was not a
nice smile. She was about thirty-five, hatchet-faced,
her hair drawn back in the single braid favored by
military types. Even so it could have been a nicer
smile. Pollack felt a chill start up his spine. "Perhaps
that would be true, if we were the FBI or if you were
not the scum you are. But this is a Welfare Depart-
ment bust, Pollack, and you are suspected--putting it
kindly--of interference with the instrumentalities of
National and individual survival."

   She sounded like something out of one of those
asinine scripts he occasionally had to work on for
government contracts. Only now there was nothing
to laugh about, and the cold between his shoulder-
blades spread. Outside the drizzle had become a misty
rain sweeping across the Northern California forests.
Normally he found that rain a comfort, but now it
just added to the gloom. Still, if there was any chance
he could wriggle out of this, it would be worth the
effort. "Okay, so you have license to hassle innocents,
but sooner or later you're going to discover that I am
innocent and then you'll find out what hostile media
coverage can really be like." And thank God I backed
up my files last night. With luck, all they'll find is
some out-of-date stock-market schemes.

   "You're no innocent, Pollack. An honest citizen is
content with an ordinary data set like yours there."
She pointed across the living room at the forty-by-
fifty-centimeter data set. It was the great-grandchild
of the old CRTs. With color and twenty-line-per-
millimeter resolution, it was the standard of govern-
ment offices and the more conservative industries.
There was a visible layer of dust on Pollack's model.
The femcop moved quickly across the living room
and poked into the drawers under the picture window.
Her maroon business suit revealed a thin and angu-
lar figure. "An honest citizen would settle for a stan-
dard processor and a few thousand megabytes of fast
storage." With some superior intuition she pulled open
the center drawer--right under the marijuana plants
to reveal at least five hundred cubic centimeters of
optical memory, neatly racked and threaded through
to the next drawer which held correspondingly power-
ful CPUs. Even so, it was nothing compared to the
gear he had buried under the house.

   She drifted out into the kitchen and was back in a
moment. The house was a typical airdropped bunga-
low, small and easy to search. Pollack had spent most
of his money on the land and his ... hobbies. "And
finally," she said, a note of triumph in her voice, "an
honest citizen does not need one of these!" She had
finally spotted the Other World gate. She waved the
electrodes in Pollack's face.

   "Look, in spite of what you may want, all this is
still legal. In fact, that gadget is scarcely more power-
ful than an ordinary games interface." That should
be a good explanation, considering that he was a
novelist.

   The older man spoke almost apologetically, "I'm
afraid Virginia has a tendency to play cat and mouse,
Mr. Pollack. You see, we know that in the Other
World you are Mr. Slippery."

   "Oh."

   There was a long silence. Even "Virginia" kept her
mouth shut. This had been, of course, Roger Pollack's
great fear. They had discovered Mr. Slippery's True
Name and it was Roger Andrew Pollack TIN/SSAN
0959-34-2861, and no amount of evasion, tricky
programming, or robot sources could ever again pro-
tect him from them. "How did you find out?"

   A third cop, a technician type, spoke up. "It wasn't
easy. We wanted to get our hands on someone who
was really good, not a trivial vandal--what your Cov-
en would call a lesser warlock." The younger man
seemed to know the jargon, but you could pick that
up just by watching the daily paper. "For the last
three months, DoW has been trying to find the iden-
tity of someone of the caliber of yourself or Robin
Hood, or Erythrina, or the Slimey Limey. We were
having no luck at all until we turned the problem
around and began watching artists and novelists. We
figured at least a fraction of them must be attracted
to vandal activities. And they would have the talent to
be good at it. Your participation novels are the best in
the world." There was genuine admiration in his
voice. One meets fans in the oddest places, "so you
were one of the first people we looked at. Once we
suspected you, it was just a matter of time before we
had the evidence."

   It was what he had always worried about. A suc-
cessful warlock cannot afford to be successful in the
real world. He had been greedy; he loved both realms
too much.

   The older cop continued the technician's almost
diffident approach. "In any case, Mr. Pollack, I think
you realize that if the Federal government wants to
concentrate all its resources on the apprehension of a
single vandal, we can do it. The vandals' power comes
from their numbers rather than their power as
individuals."

   Pollack repressed a smile. That was a common
belief--or faith--within government. He had snooped
on enough secret memos to realize that the Feds
really believed it, but it was very far from true. He
was not nearly as clever as someone like Erythrina.
He could only devote fifteen or twenty hours a week
to SIG activities. Some of the others must be on
welfare, so complete was their presence on the Other
Plane. The cops had nailed him simply because he
was a relatively easy catch.
  "So you have something besides jail planned for me?"
  "Mr. Pollack, have you ever heard of the Mailman?"
  "You mean on the Other Plane?"
  "Certainly. He has had no notoriety in the, uh, real
world as yet."
  For the moment there was no use lying. They must
know that no member of a SIG or coven would ever
give his True Name to another member. There was
no way he could betray any of the others--he hoped.
  "Yeah, he's the weirdest of the werebots."
  "Werebots?"
  "Were-robots, like werewolves--get it? They don't
really mesh with coven imagery. They want some
new mythos, and this notion that they are humans
who can turn into machines seems to suit them. It's
too dry for me. This Mailman, for instance, never
uses real time communication. If you want anything
from him, you usually have to wait a day or two for
each response--just like the old-time hardcopy mail
service."
"That's the fellow. How impressed are you by him?"
"Oh, we've been aware of him for a couple years,
but he's so slow that for a long time we thought he
was some clown on a simple data set. Lately, though,
he's pulled some really--" Pollack stopped short, re-
membering just who he was gossiping with.

   "--some really tuppin stunts, eh, Pollack?" The
ferncop "Virginia" was back in the conversation. She
pulled up one of the roller chairs, till her knees were
almost touching his, and stabbed a finger at his chest.
"You may not know just how tuppin. You vandals
have caused Social Security Records enormous prob-
lems, and Robin Hood cut IRS revenues by three
percent last year. You and your friends are a greater
threat than any foreign enemy. Yet you're nothing
compared to this Mailman."

   Pollack was rocked back. It must be that he had
seen only a small fraction of the Mailman's japes.
"You're actually scared of him," he said mildly.

   Virginia's face began to take on the color of her
suit. Before she could reply, the older cop spoke.
"Yes, we are scared. We can scarcely cope with the
Robin Hoods and the Mr. Slipperys of the world.
Fortunately, most vandals are interested in personal
gain or in proving their cleverness. They realize that
if they cause too much trouble, they could no doubt
be identified. I suspect that tens of thousands of
cases of Welfare and Tax fraud are undetected, com-
mitted by little people with simple equipment who
succeed because they don't steal much--perhaps just
their own income tax liability--and don't wish the
notoriety which you, uh, warlocks go after. If it weren't
for their petty individualism, they would be a greater
threat than the nuclear terrorists.

   "But the Mailman is different: he appears to be
ideologically motivated. He is very knowledgeable,
very powerful. Vandalism is not enough for him; he
wants control..." The Feds had no idea how long it
had been going on, at least a year. It never would
have been discovered but for a few departments in
the Federal Screw Standards Commission which kept
their principal copy records on paper. Discrepancies
showed up between those records and the decisions
rendered in the name of the FSSC. Inquiries were
made; computer records were found at variance with
the hardcopy. More inquiries. By luck more than
anything else, the investigators discovered that deci-
sion modules as well as data were different from the
hardcopy backups. For thirty years government had
depended on automated central planning, shifting
more and more from legal descriptions of decision
algorithms to program representations that could work
directly with data bases to allocate resources, suggest
legislation, outline military strategy.

   The take-over had been subtle, and its extent was
unknown. That was the horror of it. It was not even
clear just what groups within the Nation (or without)
were benefitting from the changed interpretations of
Federal law and resource allocation. Only the deci-
sion modules in the older departments could be di-
rectly checked, and some thirty percent of them
showed tampering. "...and that percentage scares us
as much as anything, Mr. Pollack. It would take a
large team of technicians and lawyers months to suc-
cessfully make just the changes that we have de-
tected."

   "What about the military?" Pollack thought of the
Finger of God installations and the thousands of mis-
siles pointed at virtually every country on Earth. If
Mr. Slippery had ever desired to take over the world,
that is what he would have gone for. To hell with
pussy-footing around with Social Security checks.

   "No. No penetration there. In fact, it was his at-
tempt to infiltrate--" the older cop glanced hesitantly
at Virginia, and Pollack realized who was the boss of
this operation, "--NSA that revealed the culprit to be
the Mailman. Before that it was anonymous, totally
without the ego-flaunting we see in big-time vandals.
But the military and NSA have their own systems.
Impractical though that is, it paid off this time."
Pollack nodded. The SIG steered clear of the military,
and especially of NSA.

   "But if he was able to slide through DoW and
Department of Justice defenses so easy, you really
don't know how much a matter of luck it was that he
didn't also succeed with his first try on NSA .... I
think I understand now. You need help. You hope to
get some member of the Coven to work on this from
the inside."

   "It's not a hope, Pollack," said Virginia. "It's a
certainty. Forget about going to jail. Oh, we could
put you away forever on the basis of some of Mr.
Slippery's pranks. But even if we don't do that, we
can take away your license to operate. You know
what that means."

   It was not a question, but Pollack knew the answer
nevertheless: ninety-eight percent of the jobs in mod-
em society involved some use of a data set. Without a
license, he was virtually unemployable--and that left
Welfare, the prospect of sitting in some urbapt count-
ing flowers on the wall. Virginia must have seen the
defeat in his eyes. "Frankly, I am not as confident as
Ray that you are all that sharp. But you are the best
we could catch. NSA thinks we have a chance of
finding the Mailman's true identity ff we can get an
agent into your coven. We want you to continue to
attend coven meetings, but now your chief goal is not
mischief but the gathering of information about the
Mailman. You are to recruit any help you can without
revealing that you are working for the government--
you might even make up the story that you suspect
the Mailman of being a government plot. (I'm sure
you see he has some of the characteristics of a Fed-
eral agent working off a conventional data set.) Above
all, you are to remain alert to contact from us, and
give us your instant cooperation in anything we re-
quire of you. Is all this perfectly clear, Mr. Pollack?"

   He found it difficult to meet her gaze. He had
never really been exposed to extortion before. There
was something ... dehumanizing about being used
so. "Yeah," he finally said.

   "Good." She stood up, and so did the others. "If you
behave, this is the last time you'll see us in person."

   Pollack stood too. "And afterward, if you're... satis-
fied with my performance?"
Virginia grinned, and he knew he wasn't going to
like her answer. "Afterward, we can come back to
considering your crimes. If you do a good job, I
would have no objection to your retaining a standard
data set, maybe some of your interactive graphics.
But I'll tell you, ff it weren't for the Mailman, nabbing
Mr. Slippery would make my month. There is no way
I'd risk your continuing to abuse the System."

   Three minutes later, their sinister black Lincolns
were halfway down the drive, disappearing into the
pines. Pollack stood in the drizzle watching till long
after their sound had faded to nothing. He was barely
aware of the cold wet across his shoulders and down
his back. He looked up suddenly, feeling the rain in
his face, wondering if the Feds were so clever that
they had taken the day into account: the military's
recon satellites could no doubt monitor their cars, but
the civilian satellites the SIG had access to could not
penetrate these clouds. Even if some other member
of the SIG did know Mr. Slippery's True Name, they
would not know that the Feds had paid him a visit.

   Pollack looked across the yard at his garden. What
a difference an hour can make.



   By late afternoon, the overcast was gone. Sunlight
glinted off millions of waterdrop jewels in the trees.
Pollack waited till the sun was behind the tree line,
till all that was left of its passage was a gold band
across the taller trees to the east of his bungalow.
Then he sat down before his equipment and prepared
to ascend to the Other Plane. What he was undertak-
ing was trickier than anything he had tried before,
and he wanted to take as much time as the Feds
would tolerate. A week of thought and research would
have suited him more, but Virginia and her pals were
clearly too impatient for that.

   He powered up his processors, settled back in his
favorite chair, and carefully attached the Portal's five
sucker electrodes to his scalp. For long minutes noth-
ing happened: a certain amount of self-denial--or at
least self-hypnosis--was necessary to make the ascent.
Some experts recommended drugs or sensory isola-
tion to heighten the user's sensitivity to the faint,
ambiguous signals that could be read from the Portal.
Pollack, who was certainly more experienced than
any of the pop experts, had found that he could make
it simply by staring out into the trees and listening to
the wind-surf that swept through their upper branches.

   And just as a daydreamer forgets his actual sur-
roundings and sees other realities, so Pollack drifted,
detached, his subconscious interpreting the status of
the West Coast communication and data services as a
vague thicket for his conscious mind to inspect, inter-
rogate for the safest path to an intermediate haven.
Like most exurb data-commuters, Pollack rented the
standard optical links: Bell, Boeing, Nippon Electric.
Those, together with the local West Coast data
companies, gave him more than enough paths to
proceed with little chance of detection to any accept-
ing processor on Earth. In minutes, he had traced
through three changes of carrier and found a place to
do his intermediate computing. The comsats rented
processor time almost as cheaply as ground stations,
and an automatic payment transaction (through sev-
eral dummy accounts set up over the last several
years) gave him sole control of a large data space
within milliseconds of his request. The whole process
was almost at a subconscious level--the proper func-
tioning of numerous routines he and others had de-
vised over the last four years. Mr. Slippery (the other
name was avoided now, even in his thoughts) had
achieved the fringes of the Other Plane. He took a
quick peek through the eyes of a low-resolution
weather satellite, saw the North American continent
spread out below, the terminator sweeping through
the West, most of the plains clouded over. One never
knew when some apparently irrelevant information
might help--and though it could all be done automati-
cally through subconscious access, Mr. Slippery had
always been a romantic about spaceflight.

   He rested for a few moments, checking that his
indirect communication links were working and that
the encryption routines appeared healthy, untampered
with. (Like most folks, honest citizens or warlocks,
he had no trust for the government standard encryp-
tion routines, but preferred the schemes that had
leaked out of academia--over NSA's petulant objec-
tions-during the last fifteen years.) Protected now
against traceback, Mr. Slippery set out for the Coven
itself. He quickly picked up the trail, but this was
never an easy trip, for the SIG members had no
interest in being bothered by the unskilled.

   In particular, the traveler must be able to take
advantage of subtle sensory indications, and see in
them the environment originally imagined by the SIG.
The correct path had the aspect of a narrow row of
stones cutting through a gray-greenish swamp. The
air was cold but very moist. Weird, towering plants
dripped audibly onto the faintly iridescent water and
the broad lilies. The subconscious knew what the
stones represented, handled the chaining of routines
from one information net to another, but it was the
conscious mind of the skilled traveler that must make
the decisions that could lead to the gates of the Coven,
or to the symbolic "death" of a dump back to the real
world. The basic game was a distant relative of the
ancient Adventure that had been played on computer
systems for more than forty years, and a nearer rela-
tive of the participation novels that are still widely
sold. There were two great differences, though. This
game was more serious, and was played at a level of
complexity impossible without the use of the EEG
input/output that the warlocks and the popular data
bases called Portals.

   There was much misinformation and misunder-
standing about the Portals. Oh, responsible data bases
like the LA Times and the CBS News made it clear
that there was nothing supernatural about them or
about the Other Plane, that the magical jargon was at
best a romantic convenience and at worst obscuran-
tism. But even so, their articles often missed the
point and were both too conservative and too extrava-
gant. You might think that to convey the full sense
imagery of the swamp, some immense bandwidth
would be necessary. In fact, that was not so (and ff it
were, the Feds would have quickly been able to spot
warlock and werebot operations). A typical Portal link
was around fifty thousand baud, far narrower than
even a flat video channel. Mr. Slippery could feel the
damp seeping through his leather boots, could feel
the sweat starting on his skin even in the cold air,
but this was the response of Mr. Slippery's imagina-
tion and subconscious to the cues that were actually
being presented through the Portal's electrodes. The
interpretation could not be arbitrary or he would be
dumped back to reality and would never find the
Coven; to the traveler on the Other Plane, the detail
was there as long as the cues were there. And there
is nothing new about this situation. Even a poor
writer if he has a sympathetic reader and an engag-
ing plot--can evoke complete internal imagery with a
few dozen words of description. The difference now
is that the imagery has interactive significance, just
as sensations in the real world do. Ultimately, the
magic jargon was perhaps the closest fit in the vocab-
ulary of millenium Man.

   The stones were spaced more widely now, and it
took all Mr. Slippery's skill to avoid falling into the
noisome waters that surrounded him. Fortunately,
after another hundred meters or so, the trail rose out
of the water, and he was walking on shallow mud.
The trees and brush grew in close around him, and
large spider webs glistened across the trail and be-
tween some of the trees along the side.

   Like a yo-yo from some branch high above him, a
red-banded spider the size of a man's fist descended
into the space right before the traveler's face. "Beware,
beware," the tiny voice issued from dripping mandibles.
"Beware, beware," the words were repeated, and the
creature swung back and forth, nearer and farther
from Mr. Slippery's face. He looked carefully at the
spider's banded abdomen. There were many species
of deathspider here, and each required a different
response if a traveler was to survive. Finally he raised
the back of his hand and held it level so that the
spider could crawl onto it. The creature raced up the
damp fabric of his jacket to the open neck. There it
whispered something very quietly.

   Mr. Slippery listened, then grabbed the animal be-
fore it could repeat the message and threw it to the
left, at the same time racing off into the tangle of
webs and branches on the other side of the trail.
Something heavy and wet slapped into the space
where he had been, but he was already gone--racing
at top speed up the incline that suddenly appeared
before him.

   He stopped when he reached the crest of the hill.
Beyond it, he could see the solemn, massive fortress
that was the Coven's haven. It was not more than
five hundred meters away, illuminated as the swamp
had been by a vague and indistinct light that came
only partly from the sky. The trail leading down to it
was much more open than the swamp had been, but
the traveler proceeded as slowly as before: the sprites
the warlocks set to keep eternal guard here had the
nasty--though preprogrammed habit of changing the
rules in new and deadly ways.



   The trail descended, then began a rocky, winding
climb toward the stone and iron gates of the castle.
The ground was drier here, the vegetation sparse.
Leathery snapping of wings sounded above him, but
Mr. Slippery knew better than to look up. Thirty
meters from the moat, the heat became more than
uncomfortable. He could hear the lava popping and
hissing, could see occasional dollops of fire splatter
up from the liquid to scorch what vegetation still
lived. A pair of glowing eyes set in a coal-black head
rose briefly from the moat. A second later, the rest of
the creature came surging into view, cascading sparks
and lava down upon the traveler. Mr. Slippery raised
his hand just so, and the lethal spray separated over
his head to land harmlessly on either side of him. He
watched with apparent calm as the creature descended
ancient stone steps to confront him.

   Alan--that was the elemental's favorite name--
peered nearsightedly, his head weaving faintly from
side to side as he tried to recognize the traveler. "Ah,
I do believe we are honored with the presence of Mr.
Slippery, is it not so?" he finally said. He smiled, an
open grin revealing the glowing interior of his mouth.
His breath did not show flame but did have the
penetrating heat of an open kiln. He rubbed his clawed
hands against his asbestos T-shirt as though anxious
to be proved wrong. Away from his magma moat, the
dead black of his flesh lightened, trying to contain his
body heat. Now he looked almost reptilian.

   "Indeed it is. And come to bring my favorite little
gifts." Mr. Slippery threw a leaden slug into the air
and watched the elemental grab it with his mouth,
his eyes slitted with pleasure--melt-in-your-mouth
pleasure. They traded conversation, spells, and coun-
terspells for several minutes. Alan's principal job was
to determine that the visitor was a known member of
the Coven, and he ordinarily did this with little tests
of skill (the magma bath he had tried to give Mr.
Slippery) and by asking the visitor questions about
previous activities within the castle. Alan was a per-
sonality simulator, of course. Mr. Slippery was sure
that there had never been a living operator behind
that toothless, glowing smile. But he was certainly
one of the best, probably the product of many hun-
dreds of blocks of psylisp programming, and certainly
superior to the little "companionship" programs you
can buy nowadays, which generally become repeti-
tive after a few hours of conversation, which don't
grow, and which are unable to counter weird re-
sponses. Alan had been with the Coven and the cas-
tle since before Mr. Slippery had become a member,
and no one would admit to his creation (though Wi-
ley J. was suspected). He hadn't even had a name
until this year, when Erythrina had given him that
asbestos Alan Turing T-shirt.

   Mr. Slippery played the game with good humor,
but care. To "die" at the hands of Alan would be a
painful experience that would probably wipe a lot of
unbacked memory he could ill afford to lose. Such
death had claimed many petitioners at this gate, folk
who would not soon be seen on this plane again.

   Satisfied, Alan waved a clawed fist at the watchers
in the tower, and the gate--ceramic bound in wol-
fram clasps--was rapidly lowered for the visitor. Mr.
Slippery walked quickly across, trying to ignore the
spitting and bubbling that he heard below him. Alan--
now all respectful--waited till he was in the castle
courtyard before doing an immense belly-flop back
into his magma swimming hole.



   Most of the others, with the notable exception of
Erythrina, had already arrived. Robin Hood, dressed
in green and looking like Errol Flynn, sat across the
hall in very close conversation with a remarkably
good-looking female (but then they could all be re-
markably good-looking here) who seemed unsure
whether to project blonde or brunette. By the fireplace,
Wiley J. Bastard, the Slimey Limey, and DON.MAC
were in animated discussion over a pile of maps. And
in the comer, shaded from the fireplace and appar-
ently unused, sat a classic remote printing terminal.
Mr. Slippery tried to ignore that teleprinter as he
crossed the hall.

   "Ah, it's Slip." DON.MAC looked up from the maps
and gestured him closer. "Take a look here at what
the Limey has been up to."

   "Hmm?" Mr. Slippery nodded at the others, then
leaned over to study the top map. The margins of the
paper were aging vellum, but the "map" itself hung
in three dimensions, half sunk into the paper. It was
a typical banking defense and cash-flow plot--that is,
typical for the SIG. Most banks had no such clever
ways of visualizing the automated protection of their
assets. (For that matter, Mr. Slippery suspected that
most banks still looked wistfully back to the days of
credit cards and COBOL.) This was the sort of thing
Robin Hood had developed, and it was surprising to
see the Limey involved in it. He looked up question-
ingly. "What's the jape?"

   "It's a reg'lar double-slam, Slip. Look at this careful,
an' you'll see it's no ord'n'ry protection map. Seems
like what you blokes call the Mafia has taken over
this banking net in the Maritime states. They must
be usin' Portals to do it so slick. Took me a devil of a
time to figure out it was them as done it. Ha ha! but
now that I have... look here, you'll see how they've
been launderin' funds, embezzlin' from straight
accounts.

   "They're ever so clever, but not so clever as to
know about Slimey." He poked a finger into the map
and a trace gleamed red through the maze. "If they're
lucky, they'll discover this tap next autumn, when
they find themselves maybe three billion dollars short,
and not a single sign of where it all disappeared to."

   The others nodded. There were many covens and
SIGs throughout this plane. Theirs, The Coven, was
widely known, had pulled off some of the most publi-
cized pranks of the century. Many of the others were
scarcely more than social clubs. But some were old-
style criminal organizations which used this plane for
their own purely pragmatic and opportunistic reasons.
Usually such groups weren't too difficult for the war-
locks to victimize, but it was the Slimey Limey who
seemed to specialize in doing so.

   "But, geez, Slimey, these guys play rough, even
rougher than the Great Enemy." That is, the Feds.
"If they ever figure out who you really are, you'll die
the True Death for sure."

   "I may be slimy, but I ain't crazy. There's no way I
could absorb three billion dollars--or even three
million--without being discovered. But I played it
like Robin over there: the money got spread around
three million ordinary accounts here and in Europe,
one of which just happens to be mine."

   Mr. Slippery's ears perked up. "Three million
accounts, you say? Each with a sudden little surplus?
I'll bet I could come close to finding your True Name
from that much, Slimey."

   The Limey made a faffling gesture. "It's actually a
wee bit more complicated. Face it, chums, none of
you has ever come close to sightin' me, an' you know
more than any Mafia."
  That was true. They all spent a good deal of their
time in this plane trying to determine the others'
True Names. It was not an empty game, for the
knowledge of another's True Name effectively made
him your slave--as Mr. Slippery had already discovered
in an unpleasantly firsthand way. So the warlocks
constantly probed one another, devised immense pro-
grams to sieve government-personnel records for the
idiosyncracies that they detected in each other. At
first glance, the Limey should have been one of the
easiest to discover: he had plenty of mannerisms. His
Brit accent was dated and broke down every so often
into North American. Of all the warlocks, he was the
only one neither handsome nor grotesque. His face
was, in fact, so ordinary and real that Mr. Slippery
had suspected that it might be his true appearance
and had spent several months devising a scheme that
searched secret and US and common Europe photo
files for just that appearance. It had been for nothing,
and they had all eventually reached the conclusion
that the Limey must be doubly or triply deceptive.

   Wiley J. Bastard grinned, not too impressed. "It's
nice enough, and I agree that the risks are probably
small, Slimey. But what do you really get? An ego
boost and a little money. But we," he gestured
inclusively, "are worth more than that. With a little
cooperation, we could be the most powerful people in
the real world. Right, DON?"

   DON.MAC nodded, smirking. His face was really
the only part of him that looked human or had much
flexibility of expression--and even it was steely gray.
The rest of DON's body was modeled after the stan-
dard Plessey-Mercedes all-weather robot.
  Mr. Slippery recognized the reference. "So you're
working with the Mailman now, too, Wiley?" He
glanced briefly at the teleprinter.  "Yup."

   "And you still won't give us any clue what it's all
about?"

   Wiley shook his head. "Not unless you're serious
about throwing in with us. But you all know this:
DON was the first to work with the Mailman, and
he's richer than Croesus now."

   DON.MAC nodded again, that silly smile still on
his face.

   "Hmmm." It was easy to get rich. In principle, the
Limey could have made three billion dollars off the
Mob in his latest caper. The problem was to become
that rich and avoid detection and retribution. Even
Robin Hood hadn't mastered that trick--but appar-
ently DON and Wiley thought the Mailman had done
that and more. After his chat with Virginia, he was
willing to believe it. Mr. Slippery turned to look more
closely at the teleprinter. It was humming faintly,
and as usual it had a good supply of paper. The paper
was torn neatly off at the top, so that the only mes-
sage visible was the Mailman's asterisk prompt. It
was the only way they ever communicated with this
most mysterious of their members: type a message
on the device, and in an hour or a week the machine
would rattle and beat, and a response of up to several
thousand words would appear. In the beginning, it
had not been very popular--the idea was cute, but
the delays made conversation just too damn dull. He
could remember seeing meters of Mailman output
lying sloppily on the stone floor, mostly unread. But
now, every one of the Mailman's golden words was
eagerly sopped up by his new apprentices, who very
carefully removed every piece of output, leaving no
clues for the rest of them to work with.

   "Ery!" He looked toward the broad stone stairs that
led down from the courtyard. It was Erythrina, the
Red Witch. She swept down the stairs, her costume
shimmering, now revealing, now obscuring. She had
a spectacular figure and an excellent sense of design,
but of course that was not what was remarkable
about her. Erythrina was the sort of person who
knew much more than she ever said, even though
she always seemed easy to talk to. Some of her
adventures--though unadvertised--were in a class
with Robin Hood's. Mr. Slippery had known her well
for a year; she was certainly the most interesting
personality on this plane. She made him wish that all
the secrets were unnecessary, that True Names could
be traded as openly as phone numbers. What was she
really?

   Erythrina nodded to Robin Hood, then proceeded
down the hall to DON.MAC, who had originally
shouted greetings and now continued, "We've just
been trying to convince Slimey and Slip that they are
wasting their time on pranks when they could have
real power and real wealth."

   She glanced sharply at Wiley, who seemed strangely
irritated that she had been drawn into the conversation.
"'We' meaning you and Wiley and the Mailman?"

   Wiley nodded. "I just started working with them
last week, Ery," as if to say, and you can't stop me.

   "You may have something, DON. We all started
out as amateurs, doing our best to make the System
just a little bit uncomfortable for its bureaucratic
masters. But we are experts now. We probably under-
stand the System better than anyone on Earth. That
should equate to power." It was the same thing the
other two had been saying, but she could make it
much more persuasive. Before his encounter with
the Feds, he might have bought it (even though he
always knew that the day he got serious about Coven
activities and went after real gain would also be the
day it ceased to be an enjoyable game and became an
all-consuming job that would suck time away from
the projects that made life entertaining).

   Erythrina looked from Mr. Slippery to the Limey
and then back. The Limey was an easygoing sort, but
just now he was a bit miffed at the way his own pet
project had been dismissed. "Not for me, thanky," he
said shortly and began to gather up his maps.

   She turned her green, faintly oriental eyes upon
Mr. Slippery. "How about you, Slip? Have you signed
up with the Mailman?"

   He hesitated. Maybe I should. It seemed clear that
the Mailman's confederates were being let in on at
least part of his schemes. In a few hours, he might be
able to learn enough to get Virginia off his back. And
perhaps destroy his friends to boot; it was a hell of a
bargain. God in Heaven, why did they have to get
mixed up in this? Don't they realize what the Govern-
ment will do to them, if they really try to take over, if
they ever try to play at being more than vandals?
"Not... not yet," he said finally. "I'm awfully tempted,
though."

   She grinned, regular white teeth flashing against
her dark, faintly green face. "I, too. What do you say
we talk it over, just the two of us?" She reached out a
slim, dark hand to grasp his elbow. "Excuse us,
gentlemen; hopefully, when we get back, you'll have
a couple of new allies." And Mr. Slippery felt himself
gently propelled toward the dark and musty stairs
that led to Erythrina's private haunts.



   Her torch burned and glowed, but there was no
smoke. The flickering yellow lit their path for scant
meters ahead. The stairs were steep and gently curving.
He had the feeling that they must do a complete
circle every few hundred steps: this was an immense
spiral cut deep into the heart of the living rock. And it
was alive. As the smell of mildew and rot increased,
as the dripping from the ceiling grew subtly louder
and the puddles in the worn steps deeper, the walls
high above their heads took on shapes, and those
shapes changed and flowed to follow them. Erythrina
protected her part of the castle as thoroughly as the
castle itself was guarded against the outside world.
Mr. Slippery had no doubt that if she wished, she
could trap him permanently here, along with the
lizards and the rock sprites. (Of course he could
always "escape" simply by falling back into the real
world, but until she relented or he saw through her
spells, he would not be able to access any other
portion of the castle.) Working on some of their
projects, he had visited her underground halls, but
never anything this deep.

   He watched her shapely form preceding him down,
down, down. Of all the Coven (with the possible
exception of Robin Hood, and of course the Mailman),
she was the most powerful. He suspected that she
was one of the original founders. If only there were
some way of convincing her (without revealing the
source of his knowledge) that the Mailman was a
threat. If only there was some way of getting her
cooperation in nailing down the Mailman's True Name.

   Erythrina stopped short and he bumped pleasantly
into her. Over her shoulder, a high door ended the
passage. She moved her hand in a pattern hidden
from Mr. Slippery and muttered some unlocking spell.
The door split horizontally, its halves pulling apart
with oiled and massive precision. Beyond, he had the
impression of spots and lines of red breaking a fur-
ther darkness.

   "Mind your step," she said and hopped over a murky
puddle that stood before the high sill of the doorway.

   As the door slid shut behind them, Erythrina
changed the torch to a single searing spot of white
light, like some old-time incandescent bulb. The room
was bright-lit now. Comfortable black leather chairs
sat on black tile. Red engraving, faintly glowing, was
worked into the tile and the obsidian of the walls. In
contrast to the stairway, the air was fresh and clean--
though still.

   She waved him to a chair that faced away from the
light, then sat on the edge of a broad desk. The point
light glinted off her eyes, making them unreadable.
Erythrina's face was slim and fine-boned, almost Asian
except for the pointed ears. But the skin was dark,
and her long hair had the reddish tones unique to
some North American blacks. She was barely smiling
now, and Mr. Slippery wished again he had some
way of getting her help.
  "Slip, I'm scared," she said finally, the smile gone.
  You're scared! For a moment, he couldn't quite
believe his ears. "The Mailman?" he asked, hoping.

   She nodded. "This is the first time in my life I've
felt outgunned. I need help. Robin Hood may be the
most competent, but he's basically a narcissist; I don't
think I could interest him in anything beyond his
immediate gratifications. That leaves you and the
Limey. And I think there's something special about
you. We've done a couple things together," she couldn't
help herself, and grinned remembering. "They weren't
real impressive, but somehow I have a feeling about
you: I think you understand what things up here are
silly games and what things are really important. If
you think something is really important, you can be
trusted to stick with it even ff the going gets a little...
bloody."

   Coming from someone like Ery, the words had
special meaning. It was strange, to feel both flattered
and frightened. Mr. Slippery stuttered for a moment,
inarticulate. "What about Wiley J? Seems to me you
have special... influence over him."
  "You knew... ?"
  "Suspected."
  "Yes, he's my thrall. Has been for almost six months.
Poor Wiley tums out to be a life-insurance salesman
from Peoria. Like a lot of warlocks, he's rather a
Thurberesque fellow in real life: timid, always dream-
ing of heroic adventures and grandiose thefts. Only
nowadays people like that can realize their dreams ....
Anyway, he doesn't have the background, or the time,
or the skill that I do, and I found his True Name. I
enjoy the chase more than the extortion, so I haven't
leaned on him too hard; now I wish I had. Since he's
taken up with the Mailman, he's been giving me the
finger. Somehow Wiley thinks that what they have
planned will keep him safe even if I give his True
Name to the cops!"

   "So the Mailman actually has some scheme for
winning political power in the real world?"

   She smiled. "That's what Wiley thinks. You see,
poor Wiley doesn't know that there are more uses for
True Names than simple blackmail. I know every-
thing he sends over the data links, everything he has
been told by the Mailman."

   "So what are they up to?" It was hard to conceal
his eagerness. Perhaps this will be enough to satisfy
Virginia and her goons.

   Erythrina seemed frozen for a moment, and he
realized that she too must be using the low-altitude
satellite net for preliminary processing: her task had
just been handed off from one comsat to a nearer
bird. Ordinarily it was easy to disguise the hesitation.
She must be truly upset.

   And when she finally replied, it wasn't really with
an answer. "You know what convinced Wiley that
the Mailman could deliver on his promises? It was
DON.MAC--and the revolution in Venezuela. Appar-
ently DON and the Mailman had been working on
that for several months before Wiley joined them. It
was to be the Mailman's first demonstration that con-
trolling data and information services could be used
to take permanent political control of a state. And
Venezuela, they claimed, was perfect: it has enormous
data-processing facilities--all just a bit obsolete, since
they were bought when the country was at the peak
of its boom time."

   "But that was clearly an internal coup. The present
leaders are local--"

   "Nevertheless, DON is supposedly down there now,
the real Jefe, for the first time in his life able to live in
the physical world the way we do in this plane. If you
have your own country, you are no longer small fry
that must guard his True Name. You don't have to
settle for crumbs."
  "You said 'supposedly'."
  "Slip, have you noticed anything strange about DON
lately?"
  Mr. Slippery thought back. DON.MAC had always
been the most extreme of the werebots--after the
Mailman. He was not an especially talented fellow,
but he did go to great lengths to sustain the image
that he was both machine and human. His persona
was always present in this plane, though at least part
of the time it was a simulator like Alan out in the
magma moat. The simulation was fairly good, but no
one had yet produced a program that could really
pass the Turing test: that is, fool a real human for
any extended time. Mr. Slippery remembered the
silly smile that seemed pasted on DON's face and the
faintly repetitive tone of his lobbying for the Mailman.
"You think the real person behind DON is gone, that
we have a zombie up there?"

   "Slip, I think the real DON is dead, and I mean the
True Death."

   "Maybe he just found the real world more delight-
ful than this, now that he owns such a big hunk of
it?"

   "I don't think he owns anything. It's just barely
possible that the Mailman had something to do with
that coup; there are a number of coincidences be-
tween what they told Wiley beforehand and what
actually happened. But I've spent a lot of time float-
ing through the Venezuelan data bases, and I think
I'd know if an outsider were on the scene, directing
the new order.

   "I think the Mailman is taking us on one at a time,
starting with the weakest, drawing us in far enough
to learn our True Names--and then destroying us. So
far he has only done it to one of us. I've been watch-
ing DON.MAC both directly and automatically since
the coup, and there has never been a real person
behind that facade, not once in two thousand hours.
Wiley is next. The poor slob hasn't even been told yet
what country his kingdom is to be--evidence that the
Mailman doesn't really have the power he claims--
but even so, he's ready to do practically anything for
the Mailman, and against us.

   "Slip, we have got to identify this thing, this
Mailman, before he can get us."

   She was even more upset than Virginia and the
Feds. And she was right. For the first time, he felt
more afraid of the Mailman than the government
agents. He held up his hands. "I'm convinced. But
what should we do? You've got the best angle in
Wiley. The Mailman doesn't know you've got a tap
through him, does he?"

   She shook her head. "Wiley is too chicken to tell
him, and doesn't realize that I can do this with his
True Name. But I'm already doing everything I can
with that. I want to pool information, guesses, with
you. Between us maybe we can see something new."
"Well for starters, it's obvious that the Mailman's
queer communication style--those long time delays--is
a ploy. I know that fellow is listening all the time to
what's going on in the Coven meeting hall. And he
commands a number of sprites in real time." Mr.
Slippery remembered the day the Mailman-- or at
least his teleprinter--had arrived. The image of an
American Van Lines truck had pulled up at the edge
of the moat, nearly intimidating Alan. The driver and
loader were simulators, though good ones. They had
answered all of Alan's questions correctly, then hauled
the shipping crate down to the meeting hall. They
hadn't left till the warlocks signed for the shipment
and promised to "wire a wall outlet" for the device.
This enemy definitely knew how to arouse the curios-
ity of his victims. Whoever controlled that printer
seemed perfectly capable of normal behavior. Perhaps
it's someone we already know, like in the mysteries
where the murderer masquerades as one of the victims.
Robin Hood?

   "I know. In fact, he can do many things faster than
I. He must control some powerful processors. But
you're partly wrong: the living part of him that's
behind it all really does operate with at least a
one-hour turnaround time. All the quick stuff is
programmed."

   Mr. Slippery started to protest, then realized that
she could be right. "My God, what could that mean?
Why would he deliberately saddle himself with that
disadvantage?"

   Erythrina smiled with some satisfaction. "I'm con-
vinced that ff we knew that, we'd have this guy
sighted. I agree it's too great a disadvantage to be a
simple red herring. I think he must have some time-
delay problem to begin with, and--"

   "--and he has exaggerated it?" But even ff the
Mailman were an Australian, the low satellite net
made delays so short that he would probably be indis-
tinguishable from a European or a Japanese. There
was no place on Earth where... but there are places
off Earth! The mass-transmit satellites were in syn-
chronous orbit 120 milliseconds out. There were about
two hundred people there. And further out, at L5,
there were at least another four hundred. Some were
near-permanent residents. A strange idea, but still a
possibility.

   "I don't think he has exaggerated. Slip, I think the
Mailman--not his processors and simulators, you
understand--is at least a half-hour out from Earth,
probably in the asteroid belt."

   She smiled suddenly, and Mr. Slippery realized
that his jaw must be resting on his chest. Except for
the Joint Mars Recon, no human had been anywhere
near that far out. No human. Mr. Slippery felt his
ordinary, everyday world disintegrating into sheer sci-
ence fiction. This was ridiculous.

   "I know you don't believe; it took me a while to.
He's not so obvious that he doesn't add in some time
delay to disguise the cyclic variation in our relative
positions. But it is a consistent explanation for the
delay. These last few weeks I've been sniffing around
the classified reports on our asteroid probes; there are
definitely some mysterious things out there."

   "Okay. It's consistent. But you're talking about an
interstellar invasion. Even if NASA had the funding,
it would take them decades to put the smallest inter-
stellar probe together--and decades more for the flight.
Trying to invade anyone with those logistics would be
impossible. And ff these aliens have a decent stardrive,
why do they bother with deception? They could just
move in and brush us aside."

   "Ah, that's the point, Slip. The invasion I'm think-
ing of doesn't need any "stardrive," and it works fine
against any race at exactly our point of development.
Right: most likely interstellar war is a fantastically
expensive business, with decade lead times. What
better policy for an imperialistic, highly technological
race than to lie doggo listening for evidence of young-
er civilizations? When they detect such, they send
only one ship. When it arrives in the victims' solar
system, the Computer Age is in full bloom there. We
in the Coven know how fragile the present system is;
it is only fear of exposure that prevents some war-
locks from trying to take over. Just think how appeal-
ing our naivete must be to an older civilization that
has thousands of years of experience at managing
data systems. Their small crew of agents moves in as
close as local military surveillance permits and grad-
ually insinuates itself into the victims' system. They
eliminate what sharp individuals they detect in that
system--people like us--and then they go after the
bureaucracies and the military. In ten or twenty years,
another fiefdom is ready for the arrival of the master
race."

   She lapsed into silence, and for a long moment
they stared at each other. It did all hang together
with a weird sort of logic. "What can we do, then?"

   "That's the question." She shook her head sadly,
came across the room to sit beside him. Now that she
had said her piece, the fire had gone out of her. For
the first time since he had known her, Erythrina
looked depressed. "We could just forsake this plane
and stay in the real world. The Mailman might still
be able to track us down, but we'd be of no more
interest to him than anyone else. If we were lucky,
we might have years before he takes over." She
straightened. "I'll tell you this: if we want to live as
warlocks, we have to stop him soon--within days at
most. After he gets Wiley, he may drop the con tac-
tics for something more direct.

   "If I'm right about the Mailman, then our best bet
would be to discover his communication link. That
would be his Achilles' heel; there's no way you can
hide in the crowd when you're beaming from that far
away. We've got to take some real chances now, do
things we'd never risk before. I figure that if we work
together, maybe we can lessen the risk that either of
us is identified."

   He nodded. Ordinarily a prudent warlock used only
limited bandwidth and so was confined to a kind of
linear, personal perception. If they grabbed a few
hundred megahertz of comm space, and a bigger
share of rented processors, they could manipulate
and search files in a way that would boggle Virginia
the femcop. Of course, they would be much more
easily identifiable. With two of them, though, they
might be able to keep it up safely for a brief time,
confusing the government and the Mailman with a
multiplicity of clues. "Frankly, I don't buy the alien
part. But the rest of what you say makes sense, and
that's what counts. Like you say, we're going to have
to take some chances."

   "Right!" She smiled and reached behind his neck
to draw his face to hers. She was a very good kisser.
(Not everyone was. It was one thing just to look
gorgeous, and another to project and respond to the
many sensory cues in something as interactive as
kissing.) He was just warming to this exercise of
their mutual abilities when she broke off. "And the
best time to start is right now. The others think we're
sealed away down here. If strange things happen
during the next few hours, it's less likely the Mail-
man will suspect us." She reached up to catch the
light point in her hand. For an instant, blades of
harsh white slipped out from between her fingers;
then all was dark. He felt faint air motion as her
hands moved through another spell. There were words,
distorted and unidentifiable. Then the light was back,
but as a torch again, and a door--a second door--had
opened in the far wall.

   He followed her up the passage that stretched
straight and gently rising as far as the torchlight
shone. They were walking a path that could not be--or
at least that no one in the Coven could have believed.
The castle was basically a logical structure "fleshed"
out with the sensory cues that allowed the warlocks
to move about it as one would a physical structure.
Its moats and walls were part of that logical structure,
and though they had no physical reality outside of
the varying potentials in whatever processors were
running the program, they were proof against the
movement of the equally "unreal" perceptions of the
inhabitants of the plane. Erythrina and Mr. Slippery
could have escaped the deep room simply by falling
back into the real world, but in doing so, they would
have left a chain of unclosed processor links. Their
departure would have been detected by every Coven
member, even by Alan, even by the sprites. An or-
derly departure scheme, such as represented by this
tunnel, could only mean that Erythrina was far too
clever to need his help, or that she had been one of
the original builders of the castle some four years
earlier (lost in the Mists of Time, as the Limey put
it).



   They were wild dogs now, large enough so as not
likely to be bothered, small enough to be mistaken for
the amateur users that are seen more and more in
the Other Plane as the price of Portals declines and
the skill of the public increases. Mr. Slippery followed
Erythrina down narrow paths, deeper and deeper into
the swamp that represented commercial and govern-
ment data space. Occasionally he was aware of sprites
or simulators watching them with hostile eyes from
nests off to the sides of the trail. These were idle
creations in many cases--program units designed to
infuriate or amuse later visitors to the plane. But
many of them guarded information caches, or peep-
holes into other folks' affairs, or meeting places of
other SIGs. The Coven might be the most sophisti-
cated group of users on this plane, but they were far
from being alone.

   The brush got taller, bending over the trail to drip
on their backs. But the water was clear here, spread
in quiet ponds on either side of their path. Light
came from the water itself, a pearly luminescence
that shone upward on the trunks of the waterbound
trees and sparkled faintly in the droplets of water in
their moss and leaves. That light was the representa-
tion of the really huge data bases run by the govern-
ment and the largest companies. It did not correspond
to a specific geographical location, but rather to the
main East/West net that stretches through selected
installations from Honolulu to Oxford, taking advan-
tage of the time zones to spread the user load.

   "Just a little bit farther," Erythrina said over her
shoulder, speaking in the beast language (encipher-
ment) that they had chosen with their forms.

   Minutes later, they shrank into the brush, out of
the way of two armored hackers that proceeded impla-
cably up the trail. The pair drove in single file, the
impossibly large eight-cylinder engines on their bikes
belching fire and smoke and noise. The one bringing
up the rear carried an old-style recoilless rifle decor-
ated with swastikas and chrome. Dim fires glowed
through their blackened face plates. The two dogs
eyed the bikers timidly, as befitted their present
disguise, but Mr. Slippery had the feeling he was
looking at a couple of amateurs who were imaging
beyond their station in life: the bikes' tires didn't
always touch the ground, and the tracks they left
didn't quite match the texture of the muck. Anyone
could put on a heroic image in this plane, or appear
as some dreadful monster. The problem was that
there were always skilled users who were willing to
cut such pretenders down to size--perhaps even to
destroy their access. It befitted the less experienced
to appear small and inconspicuous, and to stay out of
others' way.

   (Mr. Slippery had often speculated just how the
simple notion of using high-resolution EEGs as
input/output devices had caused the development of
the "magical world" representation of data space. The
Limey and Erythrina argued that sprites, reincarnation,
spells, and castles were the natural tools here, more
natural than the atomistic twentieth-century notions
of data structures, programs, files, and communica-
tions protocols. It was, they argued, just more conve-
nient for the mind to use the global ideas of magic as
the tokens to manipulate this new environment. They
had a point; in fact, it was likely that the govern-
ments of the world hadn't caught up to the skills of
the better warlocks simply because they refused to
indulge in the foolish imaginings of fantasy. Mr. Slip-
pery looked down at the reflection in the pool beside
him and saw the huge canine face and lolling tongue
looking up at him; he winked at the image. He knew
that despite all his friends' high intellectual arguments,
there was another reason for the present state of
affairs, a reason that went back to the Moon Lander
and Adventure games at the "dawn of time": it was
simply a hell of a lot of fun to live in a world as
malleable as the human imagination.)

   Once the riders were out of sight, Erythrina moved
back across the path to the edge of the pond and
peered long and hard down between the lilies, into
the limpid depths. "Okay, let's do some cross-correla-
tion. You take the JPL data base, and I'll take the
Harvard Multispectral Patrol. Start with data coming
off space probes out to ten AUs. I have a suspicion
the easiest way for the Mailman to disguise his trans-
missions is to play trojan horse with data from a
NASA spacecraft."

   Mr. Slippery nodded. One way or another, they
should resolve her alien invasion theory first.

   "It should take me about half an hour to get in
place. After that, we can set up for the correlation.
Hmmm ... if something goes wrong, let's agree to
meet at Mass Transmit 3," and she gave a password
scheme. Clearly that would be an emergency situation.
If they weren't back in the castle within three or four
hours, the others would certainly guess the existence
of her secret exit.

   Erythrina tensed, then dived into the water. There
was a small splash, and the lilies bobbed gently in
the expanding ring waves. Mr. Slippery looked deep,
but as expected, there was no further sign of her. He
padded around the side of the pool, trying to identify
the special glow of the JPL data base.

   There was thrashing near one of the larger lilies,
one that he recognized as obscuring the NSA connec-
tions with the East/West net. A large bullfrog scram-
bled out of the water onto the pad and turned to look
at him. "Aha! Gotcha, you sonofabitch!"

   It was Virginia; the voice was the same, even if the
body was different. "Shhhhhh!" said Mr. Slippery, and
looked wildly about for signs of eavesdroppers. There
were none, but that did not mean they were safe. He
spread his best privacy spell over her and crawled to
the point closest to the lily. They sat glaring at each
other like some characters out of La Fontaine: The
Tale of the Frog and Dog. How dearly he would love
to leap across the water and bite off that fat little
head. Unfortunately the victory would be a bit
temporary. "How did you find me?" Mr. Slippery
growled. If people as inexperienced as the Feds could
trace him down in his disguise, he was hardly safe
from the Mailman.

   "You forget," the frog puffed smugly. "We know
your Name. It's simple to monitor your home proces-
sor and follow your every move."

   Mr. Slippery whined deep in his throat. In thrall to
a frog. Even Wiley has done better than that. "Okay,
so you found me. Now what do you want?"

   "To let you know that we want results, and to get a
progress report."

   He lowered his muzzle till his eyes were even with
Virginia's. "Heh heh. I'll give you a progress report,
but you're not going to like it." And he proceeded to
explain Erythrina's theory that the Mailman was an
alien invasion.

   "Rubbish," spoke the frog afterward. "Sheer fantasy!
You're going to have to do better than that, Pol er,
Mister."

   He shuddered. She had almost spoken his Name.
Was that a calculated threat or was she simply as
stupid as she seemed? Nevertheless, he persisted.
"Well then, what about Venezuela?" He related the
evidence Ery had that the coup in that country was
the Mailman's work.

   This time the frog did not reply. Its eyes glazed
over with apparent shock, and he realized that Vir-
ginia must be consulting people at the other end.
Almost fifteen minutes passed. When the frog's eyes
cleared, it was much more subdued. "We'll check on
that one. What you say is possible. Just barely possible.
If true... well, if it's true, this is the biggest threat
we've had to face this century."

   And you see that I am perhaps the only one who
can bail you out. Mr. Slippery relaxed slightly. If they
only realized it, they were thralled to him as much as
the reverse--at least for the moment. Then he re-
membered Erythrina's plan to grab as much power as
they could for a brief time and try to use that advan-
tage to flush the Mailman out. With the Feds on their
side, they could do more than Ery had ever imagined.
He said as much to Virginia.

   The frog croaked, "You ... want ... us ... to give
you carte blanche in the Federal data system? Maybe
you'd like to be President and Chair of the JCS, to
boot?"

   "Hey, that's not what I said. I know it's an extraor-
dinary suggestion, but this is an extraordinary situation.
And in any case, you know my Name. There's no way
I can get around that."

   The frog went glassy-eyed again, but this time for
only a couple of minutes. "We'll get back to you on
that. We've got a lot of checking to do on the rest of
your theories before we commit ourselves to anything.
Till further notice, though, you're grounded."

   "Wait!" What would Ery do when he didn't show?
If he wasn't back in the castle in three or four hours,
the others would surely know about the secret exit.

   The frog was implacable. "I said, you're grounded,
Mister. We want you back in the real world immedi-
ately. And you'll stay grounded till you hear from us.
Got it?"
  The dog slumped. "Yeah."

   "Okay." The frog clambered heavily to the edge of
the sagging lily and dumped itself ungracefully into
the water. After a few seconds, Mr. Slippery followed.

   Coming back was much like waking from a deep
daydream; only here it was the middle of the night.
  Roger Pollack stood, stretching, trying to get the
kinks out of his muscles. Almost four hours he had
been gone, longer than ever before. Normally his
concentration began to fail after two or three hours.
Since he didn't like the thought of drugging up, this
put a definite limit on his endurance in the Other
Plane.

   Beyond the bungalow's picture window, the pines
stood silhouetted against the Milky Way. He cranked
open a pane and listened to the night birds trilling
out there in the trees. It was near the end of spring;
he liked to imagine he could see dim polar twilight to
the north. More likely it was just Crescent City. Pol-
lack' leaned close to the window and looked high into
the sky, where Mars sat close to Jupiter. It was hard
to think of a threat to his own life from as far away as
that.

   Pollack backed up the spells acquired during this
last session, powered down his system, and stumbled
off to bed.



   The following morning and afternoon seemed the
longest of Roger Pollack's life. How would they get in
touch with him? Another visit of goons and black
Lincolns? What had Erythrina done when he didn't
make contact? Was she all right?

   And there was just no way of checking. He paced
back and forth across his tiny living room, the novel-
plots that were his normal work forgotten. Ah, but
there is a way. He looked at his old data set with
dawning recognition. Virginia had said to stay out of
the Other Plane. But how could they object to his
using a simple data set, no more efficient than mil-
lions used by office workers all over the world?

   He sat down at the set, scraped the dust from the
handpads and screen. He awkwardly entered long-
unused call symbols and watched the flow of news
across the screen. A few queries and he discovered
that no great disasters had occurred overnight, that
the insurgency in Indonesia seemed temporarily
abated. (Wiley J. was not to be king just yet.) There
were no reports of big-time data vandals biting the
dust.

   Pollack grunted. He had forgotten how tedious it
was to see the world through a data set, even with
audio entry. In the Other Plane, he could pick up this
sort of information in seconds, as casually as an ordi-
nary mortal might glance out the window to see if it
is raining. He dumped the last twenty-four hours of
the world bulletin board into his home memory space
and began checking through it. The bulletin board
was ideal for untraceable reception of messages: any-
one on Earth could leave a message--indexed by
subject, target audience, and source. If a user copied
the entire board, and then searched it, there was no
outside record of exactly what information he was
interested in. There were also simple ways to make
nearly untraceable entries on the board.

   As usual, there were about a dozen messages for
Mr. Slippery. Most of them were from fans; the Cov-
en had greater notoriety than any other vandal SIG.
A few were for other Mr. Slipperys. With five billion
people in the world, that wasn't surprising.

   And one of the memos was from the Mailman;
that's what it said in the source field. Pollack punched
the message up on the screen. It was in caps, with no
color or sound. Like all messages directly from the
Mailman, it looked as if it came off some incredibly
ancient I/O device:


   YOU COULD HAVE BEEN RICH. YOU COULD

   HAVE RULED. INSTEAD YOU CONSPIRED

   AGAINST ME. I KNOW ABOUT THE SECRET

   EXIT. I KNOW ABOUT YOUR DOGGY DE-

   PARTURE. YOU AND THE RED ONE ARE

   DEAD NOW. IF YOU EVER SNEAK BACK

   ONTO THIS PLANE, IT WILL BE THE TRUE

   DEATH--I AM THAT CLOSE TO KNOWING

   YOUR NAMES.

   *****WATCH FOR ME IN THE NEWS,

          SUCKER*********


   Bluff, thought Roger. He wouldn't be sending out
warnings if he has that kind of power. Still, there
was a dropping sensation in his stomach. The Mail-
man shouldn't have known about the dog disguise.
Was he onto Mr. Slippery's connection with the Feds?
If so, he might really be able to find Slippery's True
Name. And what sort of danger was Ery in? What
had she done when he missed the rendezvous at
Mass Transmit 3?

   A quick search showed no messages from Erythrina.
Either she was looking for him in the Other Plane, or
she was as thoroughly grounded as he.

   He was still stewing on this when the phone rang.
He said, "Accept, no video send." His data set cleared
to an even gray: the caller was not sending video
either.

   "You're still there? Good." It was Virginia. Her
voice sounded a bit odd, subdued and tense. Perhaps
it was just the effect of the scrambling algorithms.
He prayed she would not trust that scrambling. He
had never bothered to make his phone any more
secure than average. (And he had seen the schemes
Wiley J. and Robin Hood had devised to decrypt
thousands of commercial phone messages in real-
time and monitor for key phrases, signaling them
when anything interesting was detected. They couldn't
use the technique very effectively, since it took an
enormous amount of processor space, but the Mail-
man was probably not so limited.)

   Virginia continued, "No names, okay? We checked
out what you told us and... it looks like you're right.
We can't be sure about your theory about his origin,
but what you said about the international situation
was verified." So the Venezuela coup had been an
outside take-over. "Furthermore, we think he has in-
filtrated us much more than we thought. It may be
that the evidence we had of unsuccessful meddling
was just a red herring." Pollack recognized the fear
in her voice now. Apparently the Feds saw that they
were up against something catastrophic. They were
caught with their countermeasures down, and their
only hope lay with unreliables like Pollack.

   "Anyway, we're going ahead with what you sug-
gested. We'll provide you two with the resources you
requested. We want you in the Other ... place as
soon as possible. We can talk more there."

   "I'm on my way. I'll check with my friend and get
back to you there." He cut the connection without
waiting for a reply. Pollack sat back, trying to savor
this triumph and the near-pleading in the cop's voice.
Somehow, he couldn't. He knew what a hard case
she was; anything that could make her crawl was
more hellish than anything he wanted to face.



   His first stop was Mass Transmit 3. Physically,
MT3 was a two-thousand-tonne satellite in synchro-
nous orbit over the Indian Ocean. The Mass Trans-
mits handled most of the planet's noninteractive
communications (and in fact that included a lot of
transmission that most people regarded as interactive--
such as human/human and the simpler human/com-
puter conversations). Bandwidth and processor space
was cheaper on the Mass Transmits because of the
240- to 900-millisecond time delays that were involved.

   As such, it was a nice out-of-the-way meeting place,
and in the Other Plane it was represented as a five-
meter-wide ledge near the top of a mountain that
rose from the forests and swamps that stood for the
lower satellite layer and the ground-based nets. In
the distance were two similar peaks, clear in pale sky.

   Mr. Slippery leaned out into the chill breeze that
swept the face of the mountain and looked down past
the timberline, past the evergreen forests. Through
the unnatural mists that blanketed those realms, he
thought he could see the Coven's castle.

   Perhaps he should go there, or down to the swamps.
There was no sign of Erythrina. Only sprites in the
forms of bats and tiny griffins were to be seen here.
They sailed back and forth over him, sometimes soar-
ing far higher, toward the uttermost peak itself.

   Mr. Slippery himself was in an extravagant winged
man form, one that subtly projected amateurism, one
that he hoped would pass the inspection of the enemy's
eyes and ears. He fluttered clumsily across the ledge
toward a small cave that provided some shelter from
the whistling wind. Fine, wind-dropped snow lay in a
small bank before the entrance. The insects he found
in the cave were no more than what they seemed--
amateur transponders.

   He turned and started back toward the drop-off; he
was going to have to face this alone. But as he passed
the snowbank, the wind swirled it up and tiny crys-
tals stung his face and hands and nose. Trap! He
jumped backward, his fastest escape spell coming to
his lips, at the same time cursing himself for not
establishing the spell before. The time delay was just
too long; the trap lived here at MT3 and could react
faster than he. The little snow-devil dragged the crys-
tals up into a swirling column of singing motes that
chimed in near-unison, "W-w-wait-t-t!"

   The sound matched deep-set recognition patterns;
this was Erythrina's work. Three hundred millisec-
onds passed, and the wind suddenly picked up the
rest of the snow and whirled into a more substantial,
taller column. Mr. Slippery realized that the trap had
been more of an alarm, set to bring Ery if he should
be recognized here. But her arrival was so quick that
she must already have been at work somewhere in
this plane.

   "Where have you been-n-n!" The snow-devil's chime
was a combination of rage and concern.

   Mr. Slippery threw a second spell over the one he
recognized she had cast. There was no help for it: he
would have to tell her that the Feds had his Name.
And with that news, Virginia's confirmation about
Venezuela and the Feds' offer to help.
  Erythrina didn't respond immediately--and only part
of the delay was light lag. Then the swirling snow
flecks that represented her gusted up around him.
"So you lose no matter how this comes out, eh? I'm
sorry, Slip."

   Mr. Slippery's wings drooped. "Yeah. But I'm begin-
ning to believe it will be the True Death for us all if
we don't stop the Mailman. He really means to take
over ... everything. Can you imagine what it would
be like if all the governments' wee megalomaniacs
got replaced by one big one?"

   The usual pause. The snow-devil seemed to shud-
der in on itself. "You're right; we've got to stop him
even if it means working for Sammy Sugar and the
entire DoW." She chuckled, a near-inaudible chiming.
"Even if it means that they have to work for us." She
could laugh; the Feds didn't know her Name. "How
did your Federal Friends say we could plug into their
system?" Her form was changing again--to a solid,
winged form, an albino eagle. The only red she al-
lowed herself was in the eyes, which gleamed with
inner light.

   "At the Laurel end of the old arpa net. We'll get
something near carte blanche on that and on the DoJ
domestic intelligence files, but we have to enter
through one physical location and with just the pass-
word scheme they specify." He and Erythrina would
have more power than any vandals in history, but
they would be on a short leash, nevertheless.

   His wings beat briefly, and he rose into the air.
After the usual pause, the eagle followed. They flew
almost to the mountain's peak, then began the long,
slow glide toward the marshes below, the chill air
whistling around them. In principle, they could have
made the transfer to the Laurel terminus virtually
instantaneously. But it was not mere romanticism
that made them move so cautiously--as many a nov-
ice had discovered the hard way. What appeared to
the conscious mind as a search for air currents and
clear lanes through the scattered clouds was a mani-
festation of the almost-subconscious working of pro-
grams that gradually transferred processing from
rented space on MT3 to low satellite and ground-
based stations. The game was tricky and time-
consuming, but it made it virtually impossible for
others to trace their origin. The greatest danger of
detection would probably occur at Laurel, where they
would be forced to access the system through a sin-
gle input device.

   The sky glowed momentarily; seconds passed, and
an airborne fist slammed into them from behind. The
shock wave sent them tumbling taft over wing toward
the forests below. Mr. Slippery straightened his cha-
otic flailing into a head-first dive. Looking back which
was easy to do in his present attitude he saw the
peak that had been MT3 glowing red, steam rising
over descending avalanches of lava. Even at this
distance, he could see tiny motes swirling above the
inferno. (Attackers looking for the prey that had fled?)
Had it come just a few seconds earlier, they would
have had most of their processing still locked into
MT3 and the disaster--whatever it really was--would
have knocked them out of this plane. It wouldn't
have been the True Death, but it might well have
grounded them for days.

   On his right, he glimpsed the white eagle in a
controlled dive; they had had just enough communi-
cations established off MT3 to survive. As they fell
deeper into the humid air of the lowlands, Mr. Slip-
pery dipped into the news channels: word was al-
ready coming over the LA Times of the fluke accident
in which the Hokkaido aerospace launching laser
had somehow shone on MT3's optics. The laser had
shone for microseconds and at reduced power; the
damage had been nothing like a Finger of God, say.
No one had been hurt, but wideband communica-
tions would be down. for some time, and several hun-
dred million dollars of information traffic was stalled.
There would be investigations and a lot of very irate
customers.

   It had been no accident, Mr. Slippery was sure.
The Mailman was showing his teeth, revealing infil-
tration no one had suspected. He must guess what
his opponents were up to.



   They leveled out a dozen meters above the pine
forest that bordered the swamps. The air around them
was thick and humid, and the faraway mountains
were almost invisible. Clouds had moved in, and a
storm was on the way. They were now securely locked
into the low-level satellite net, but thousands of new
users were clamoring for entry, too. The loss of MT3
would make the Other Plane a turbulent place for
several weeks, as heavy users tried to shift their traf-
fic here.

   He swooped low over the swamp, searching for the
one particular pond with the one particularly large
water lily that marked the only entrance Virginia
would permit them. There! He banked off to the side,
Erythrina following, and looked for signs of the Mail-
man or his friends in the mucky clearings that sur-
rounded the pond.

   But there was little purpose in further caution.
Flying about like this, they would be clearly visible to
any ambushers waiting by the pond. Better to move
fast now that we're committed. He signaled the red-
eyed eagle, and they dived toward the placid water.
That surface marked the symbolic transition to obser-
vation mode. No longer was he aware of a winged
form or of water coming up and around him. Now he
was interacting directly with the I/O protocols of a
computing center in the vicinity of Laurel, Maryland.
He sensed Ery poking around on her own. This wasn't
the arpa entrance. He slipped "sideways" into an
old-fashioned government office complex. The "feel"
of the 1990-style data sets was unmistakable. He was
fleetingly aware of memos written and edited, reports
hauled in and out of storage. One of the vandals'
favorite sports and one that even the moderately
skilled could indulge in--was to infiltrate one of these
office complexes and simulate higher level input to
make absurd and impossible demands on the local
staff.

   This was not the time for such games, and this was
still not the entrance. He pulled away from the office
complex and searched through some old directories.
Arpa went back more than half a century, the first of
the serious data nets, now (figuratively) gathering
dust. The number was still there, though. He sig-
naled Erythrina, and the two of them presented them-
selves at the log-in point and provided just the codes
that Virginia had given him.
 ... and they were in. They eagerly soaked in the
megabytes of password keys and access data that
Virginia's people had left there. At the same time,
they were aware that this activity was being monitored.
The Feds were taking an immense chance leaving
this material here, and they were going to do their
best to keep a rein on their temporary vandal allies.

   In fifteen seconds, they had learned more about
the inner workings of the Justice Department and
DoW than the Coven had in fifteen months. Mr.
Slippery guessed that Erythrina must be busy plot-
ting what she would do with all that data later on.
For him, of course, there was no future in it. They
drifted out of the arpa "vault" into the larger data
spaces that were the Department of Justice files. He
could see that there was nothing hidden from them;
random archive retrievals were all being honored and
with a speed that would have made deception impos-
sible. They had subpoena power and clearances and
more.

   "Let's go get 'im, Slip." Erythrina's voice seemed
hollow and inhuman in this underimaged realm. (How
long would it be before the Feds started to make their
data perceivable analogically, as on the Other Plane?
It might be a little undignified, but it would revolu-
tionize their operation--which, from the Coven's
standpoint, might be quite a bad thing.)

   Mr. Slippery "nodded." Now they had more than
enough power to undertake the sort of work they had
planned. In seconds, they had searched all the locally
available files on off-planet transmissions. Then they
dove out of the DoJ net, Mr. Slippery to Pasadena and
the JPL planetary probe archives, Erythrina to Cam-
bridge and the Harvard Multispectral Patrol.

   It should take several hours to survey these records,
to determine just what transmissions might be cover
for the alien invasion that both the Feds and Erythrina
were guessing had begun. But Mr. Slippery had barely
started when he noticed that there were dozens of
processors within reach that he could just grab with
his new Federal powers. He checked carefully to
make sure he wasn't upsetting air traffic control or
hospital life support, then quietly stole the computing
resources of several hundred unknowing users, whose
data sets automatically switched to other resources.
Now he had more power than he ever would have
risked taking in the past. On the other side of the
continent, he was aware that Erythrina had done
something similar.

   In three minutes, they had sifted through five years'
transmissions far more thoroughly than they had origi-
nally planned.

   "No sign of him," he sighed and "looked" at
Erythrina. They had found plenty of irregular sources
at Harvard, but there was no orbital fit. All transmis-
sions from the NASA probes checked out legitimately.

   "Yes." Her face, with its dark skin and slanting
eyes, seemed to hover beside him. Apparently with
her new power, she could image even here. "But you
know, we haven't really done much more than the
Feds could--given a couple months of data set
work .... I know, it's more than we had planned to
do. But we've barely used the resources they've opened
to us."

   It was true. He looked around, feeling suddenly
like a small boy let loose in a candy shop: he sensed
enormous data bases and the power that would let
him use them. Perhaps the cops had not intended
them to take advantage of this, but it was obvious
that with these powers, they could do a search no
enemy could evade. "Okay," he said finally, "let's pig
it."

   Ery laughed and made a loud snuffling sound.
Carefully, quickly, they grabbed noncritical data-
processing facilities along all the East/West nets. In
seconds, they were the biggest users in North America.
The drain would be clear to anyone monitoring the
System, though a casual user might notice only in-
creased delays in turnaround. Modem nets are at
least as resilient as old-time power nets--but like
power nets, they have their elastic limit and their
breaking point. So far, at least, he and Erythrina
were far short of those.

   --but they were experiencing what no human had
ever known before, a sensory bandwidth thousands
of times normal. For seconds that seemed without
end, their minds were filled with a jumble verging on
pain, data that was not information and information
that was not knowledge. To hear ten million simulta-
neous phone conversations, to see the continent's
entire video output, should have been a white noise.
Instead it was a tidal wave of detail rammed through
the tiny aperture of their minds. The pain increased,
and Mr. Slippery panicked. This could be the True
Death, some kind of sensory burnout--

   Erythrina's voice was faint against the roar, "Use
everything, not just the inputs!" And he had just
enough sense left to see what she meant. He con-
trolled more than raw data now; if he could master
them, the continent's computers could process this
avalanche, much the way parts of the human brain
preprocess their input. More seconds passed, but now
with a sense of time, as he struggled to distribute his
very consciousness through the System.

   Then it was over, and he had control once more.
But things would never be the same: the human that
had been Mr. Slippery was an insect wandering in
the cathedral his mind had become. There simply
was more there than before. No sparrow could fall
without his knowledge, via air traffic control; no check
could be cashed without his noticing over the bank
communication net. More than three hundred mil-
lion lives swept before what his senses had become.

   Around and through him, he felt the other occu-
pant--Erythrina, now equally grown. They looked at
each other for an unending fraction of a second, their
communication more kinesthetic than verbal. Finally
she smiled, the old smile now deep with meanings
she could never image before. "Pity the poor Mail-
man now!"

   Again they searched, but now it was through all
the civil data bases, a search that could only be
dreamed of by mortals. The signs were there, a near
invisible system of manipulations hidden among more
routine crimes and vandalisms. Someone had been at
work within the Venezuelan system, at least at the
North American end. The trail was tricky to follow--
their enemy seemed to have at least some of their
own powers--but they saw it lead back into the laby-
rinths of the Federal bureaucracy: resources diverted,
individuals promoted or transferred, not quite accord-
ing to the automatic regulations that should govern.
These were changes so small they were never guessed
at by ordinary employees and only just sensed by the
cops. But over the months, they added up to an
instability that neither of the two searchers could
quite understand except to know that it was planned
and that it did the status quo no good.

   "He's still too sharp for us, Slip. We're all over the
civil nets and we haven't seen any living sign of him;
yet we know he does heavy processing on Earth or in
low orbit."

   "So he's either off North America, or else he has
penetrated the ... military."

   "I bet it's a little of both. The point is, we're going
to have to follow him."

   And that meant taking over at least part of the US
military system. Even if that was possible, it certainly
went far beyond what Virginia and her friends had
intended. As far as the cops were concerned, it would
mean that the threat against the government was
tripled. So far he hadn't detected any objections to
their searching, but he was aware of Virginia and her
superiors deep in some kind of bunker at Langley,
intently watching a whole wall full of monitors, trying
to figure out just what he was up to and if it was time
to pull the plug on him.

   Erythrina was aware of his objections almost as
fast as he could bring them to mind. "We don't have
any choice, Slip. We have to take control. The Feds
aren't the only thing watching us. If we don't get the
Mailman on this try, he is sure as hell going to get
US."

   That was easy for her to say. None of her enemies
yet knew her True Name. Mr. Slippery had somehow
to survive two enemies. On the other hand, he sus-
pected that the deadlier of those enemies was the
Mailman. "Only one way to go and that's up, huh?
Okay, I'll play."

   They settled into a game that was familiar now,
grabbing more and more computing facilities, but
now from common Europe and Asia. At the same
time, they attacked the harder problem--infiltrating
the various North American military nets. Both pro-
jects were beyond normal humans or any group of
normal humans, but by now their powers were greater
than any single civil entity in the world.

   The foreign data centers yielded easily, scarcely
more than minutes' work. The military was a differ-
ent story. The Feds had spent many years and hun-
dreds of billions of dollars to make the military
command and control system secure. But they had
not counted on the attack from all directions that
they faced now; in moments more, the two searchers
found themselves on the inside of the NSA control
system-

   -and under attack! Impressions of a dozen sleek,
deadly forms converging on them, and sudden loss of
control over many of the processors he depended on.
He and Erythrina flailed out wildly, clumsy giants
hacking at fast-moving hawks. There was imagery
here, as detailed as on the Other Plane. They were
fighting people with some of the skills the warlocks
had developed--and a lot more power. But it was still
an uneven contest. He and Erythrina had too much
experience and too much sheer processing mass be-
hind them. One by one, the fighters flashed into
incandescent destruction.
  He realized almost instantly that these were not
the Mailman's tools. They were powerful, but they
fought as only moderately skilled warlocks might. In
fact, they had encountered the most secret defense
the government had for its military command and
control. The civilian bureaucracies had stuck with
obsolete data sets and old-fashioned dp languages,
but the cutting edge of the military is always more
willing to experiment. They had developed something
like the warlocks' system. Perhaps they didn't use
magical jargon to describe their computer/human
symbiosis, but the techniques and the attitudes were
the same. These swift-moving fighters flew against a
background imagery that was like an olive drab Other
Plane.

   Compared to his present power, they were nothing.
Even as he and Erythrina swept the defenders out of
the "sky," he could feel his consciousness expanding
further as more and more of the military system was
absorbed into their pattern. Every piece of space junk
out to one million kilometers floated in crystal detail
before his attention; in a fraction of a second he
sorted through it all, searching for some evidence of
alien intelligence. No sign of the Mailman.

   The military and diplomatic communications of the
preceding fifty years showed before the light of their
minds. At the same time as they surveyed the satel-
lite data, Mr. Slippery and Erythrina swept through
these bureaucratic communications, looking carefully
but with flickering speed at every requisition for toilet
paper, every "declaration" of secret war, every travel
voucher, every one of the trillions of pieces of "paper"
that made it possible for the machinery of state to
creak forward. And here the signs were much clearer:
large sections were subtly changed, giving the same
feeling the eye's blind spot gives, the feeling that
nothing is really obscured but that some things are
simply gone. Some of the distortions were immense.
Under their microscopic yet global scrutiny, it was
obvious that all of Venezuela, large parts of Alaska,
and most of the economic base for the low satellite
net were all controlled by some single interest that
had little connection with the proper owners. Who
their enemy was was still a mystery, but his works
loomed larger and larger around them.

   In a distant corner of what his mind had become,
tiny insects buzzed with homicidal fury, tiny insects
who knew Mr. Slippery's True Name. They knew
what he and Erythrina had done, and right now they
were more scared of the two warlocks than they had
ever been of the Mailman. As he and Ery continued
their search, he listened to the signals coming from
the Langley command post, followed the helicopter
gunships that were dispatched toward a single rural
bungalow in Northern California--and changed their
encrypted commands so that the sortie dumped its
load of death on an uninhabited stretch of the Pacific.

   Still with a tiny fraction of his attention, Mr. Slippery
noticed that Virginia--actually her superiors, who had
long since taken over the operation--knew of this
defense. They were still receiving real-time pictures
from military satellites.

   He signaled a pause to Erythrina. For a few seconds,
she would work alone while he dealt with these per-
sistent antagonists. He felt like a man attacked by
several puppies: they were annoying and could cause
substantial damage unless he took more trouble than
they were worth. They had to be stopped without
causing themselves injury.

   He should freeze the West Coast military and any
launch complexes that could reach his body. Beyond
that, it would be a good idea to block recon satellite
transmission of the California area. And of course,
he'd better deal with the Finger of God installations
that were above the California horizon. Already he
felt one of those heavy lasers, sweeping along in its
ten-thousand-kilometer orbit, go into aiming mode
and begin charging. He still had plenty of time--at
least two or three seconds--before the weapons laser
reached its lowest discharge threshold. Still, this was
the most immediate threat. Mr. Slippery sent a ten-
dril of consciousness into the tiny processor aboard the
Finger of God satellite--

   --and withdrew, bloodied. Someone was already
there. Not Erythrina and not the little military warlocks.
Someone too great for even him to overpower.

   "Ery! I've found him!" It came out a scream. The
laser's bore was centered on a spot thousands of
kilometers below, a tiny house that in less than a
second would become an expanding ball of plasma at
the end of a columnar explosion descending through
the atmosphere.

   Over and over in that last second, Mr. Slippery
threw himself against the barrier he felt around the
tiny military processor--with no success. He traced
its control to the lower satellite net, to bigger proces-
sors that were equally shielded. Now he had a feel for
the nature of his opponent. It was not the direct
imagery he was used to on the Other Plane; this was
more like fighting blindfolded. He could sense the
other's style. The enemy was not revealing any more
of himself than was necessary to keep control of the
Finger of God for another few hundred milliseconds.

   Mr. Slippery slashed, trying to cut the enemy's
communications. But his opponent was strong, much
stronger--he now realized--than himself. He was
vaguely aware of the other's connections to the com-
puting power in those blind-spot areas he and Eryth-
rina had discovered. But for all that power, he was
almost the enemy's equal. There was something miss-
ing from the other, some critical element of imagina-
tion or originality. If Erythrina would only come, they
might be able to stop him. Milliseconds separated
him from the True Death. He looked desperately
around. Where is she?

   Military Status announced the discharge of an Or-
bital Weapons Laser. He cowered even as his quick-
ened perceptions counted the microseconds that
remained till his certain destruction, even as he no-
ticed a ball of glowing plasma expanding about what
had been a Finger of God--the Finger that had been
aimed at him!

   He could see now what had happened. While he
and the other had been fighting, Erythrina had
commandeered another of the weapons satellites, one
already very near discharge threshold, and destroyed
the threat to him.

   Even as he realized this, the enemy was on him
again, this time attacking conventionally, trying to
destroy Mr. Slippery's communications and process-
ing space. But now that enemy had to fight both
Erythrina and Mr. Slippery. The other's lack of imagi-
nation and creativity was beginning to tell, and even
with his greater strength, they could feel him slowly,
slowly losing resources to his weaker opponents. There
was something familiar about this enemy, something
Mr. Slippery was sure he could see, given time.

   Abruptly the enemy pulled away. For a long mo-
ment, they held each other's sole attention, like cats
waiting for the smallest sign of weakness to launch
back into combat--only here the new attack could
come from any of ten thousand different directions,
from any of the communications nodes that formed
their bodies and their minds.

   From beside him, he felt Erythrina move forward,
as though to lock the other in her green-eyed gaze.
"You know who we have here, Slip?" He could tell
that all her concentration was on this enemy, that
she almost vibrated with the effort. "This is our old
friend DON.MAC grown up to super size, and doing
his best to disguise himself."

   The other seemed to tense and move even further
in upon himself. But after a moment, he began
imaging. There stood DON.MAC, his face and Plessey-
Mercedes body the same as ever. DON.MAC, the
first of the Mailman's converts, the one Erythrina
was sure had been killed and replaced with a simulator.
"And all the time he's been the Mailman. The last
person we would suspect, the Mailman's first victim."

   DON rolled forward half a meter, his motors
keening, his hydraulic fists raised. But he did not
deny what Mr. Slippery said. After a moment he
seemed to relax. "You are very ... clever. But then,
you two have had help; I never thought you and the
cops would cooperate. That was the one combination
that had any chance against the 'Mailman.'" He
smiled, a familiar automatic twitch. "But don't you
see? It's a combination with lethal genes. We three
have much more in common than you and the
government.

   "Look around you. If we were warlocks before, we
are gods now. Look!" Without letting the center of
their attention wander, the two followed his gaze. As
before, the myriad aspects of the lives of billions
spread out before them. But now, many things were
changed. In their struggle, the three had usurped
virtually all of the connected processing power of the
human race. Video and phone communications were
frozen. The public data bases had lasted long enough
to notice that something had gone terribly, terribly
wrong. Their last headlines, generated a second be-
fore the climax of the battle, were huge banners
announcing GREATEST DATA OUTAGE OF ALL
TIME. Nearly a billion people watched blank data
sets, feeling more panicked than any simple power
blackout could ever make them. Already the accumu-
lation of lost data and work time would cause a major
recession.

   "They are lucky the old arms race is over, or else
independent military units would probably have al-
ready started a war. Even if we hand back control this
instant, it would take them more than a year to get
their affairs in order." DON.MAC smirked, the same
expression they had seen the day before when he
was bragging to the Limey. "There have been few
deaths yet. Hospitals and aircraft have some stand-
alone capability."

   Even so ... Mr. Slippery could see thousands of
aircraft stacked up over major airports from London
to Christchurch. Local computing could never coordi-
nate the safe landing of them all before some ran out
of fuel.

   "We caused all that--with just the fallout of our
battle," continued DON. "If we chose to do them
harm, I have no doubt we could exterminate the
human race." He detonated three warheads in their
silos in Utah just to emphasize his point. With doz-
ens of video eyes, in orbit and on the ground, Mr.
Slippery and Erythrina watched the destruction sweep
across the launch sites. "Consider: how are we differ-
ent from the gods of myth? And like the gods of
myth, we can rule and prosper, just so long as we
don't fight among ourselves." He looked expectantly
from Mr. Slippery to Erythrina. There was a frown on
the Red One's dark face; she seemed to be concen-
trating on their opponent just as fiercely as ever.

   DON.MAC turned back to Mr. Slippery. "Slip, you
especially should see that we have no choice but to
cooperate. They know your True Name. Of the three
of us, your life is the most fragile, depending on
protecting your body from a government that now
considers you a traitor. You would have died a dozen
times over during the last thousand seconds if you
hadn't used your new powers.

   "And you can't go back. Even if you play Boy
Scout, destroy me, and return all obedient--even then
they will kill you. They know how dangerous you are,
perhaps even more dangerous than I. They can't
afford to let you exist."

   And megalomania aside, that made perfect and
chilling sense. As they were talking, a fraction of Mr.
Slippery's attention was devoted to confusing and
obstructing the small infantry group that had been
air-dropped into the Arcata region just before the
government lost all control. Their superiors had real-
ized how easily he could countermand their orders,
and so the troops were instructed to ignore all outside
direction until they had destroyed a certain Roger
Pollack. Fortunately they were depending on city di-
rectories and orbit-fed street maps, and he had been
keeping them going in circles for some time now. It
was a nuisance, and sooner or later he would have to
decide on a more permanent solution.

   But what was a simple nuisance in his present
state would be near-instant death if he returned to
his normal self. He looked at Erythrina. Was there
any way around DON's arguments?

   Her eyes were almost shut, and the frown had
deepened. He sensed that more and more of her
resources were involved in some pattern analysis. He
wondered if she had even heard what DON.MAC
said. But after a moment her eyes came open, and
she looked at the two of them. There was triumph in
that look. "You know, Slip, I don't think I have ever
been fooled by a personality simulator, at least not for
more than a few minutes."

   Mr. Slippery nodded, puzzled by this sudden change
in topic. "Sure. If you talk to a simulator long enough,
you eventually begin to notice little inflexibilities. I
don't think we'll ever be able to write a program that
could pass the Turing test."

   "Yes, little inflexibilities, a certain lack of imagina-
tion. It always seems to be the tipoff. Of course DON
here has always pretended to be a program, so it was
hard to tell. But I was sure that for the last few
months there has been no living being behind his
mask...

   "... and furthermore, I don't think there is any-
body there even now." Mr. Slippery's attention snapped
back to DON.MAC. The other smirked at the accusa-
tion. Somehow it was not the right reaction. Mr.
Slippery remembered the strange, artificial flavor of
DON's combat style. In this short an encounter, there
could be no really hard evidence for her theory. She
was using her intuition and whatever deep analysis
she had been doing these last few seconds.
"But that means we still haven't found the Mailman."
"Right. This is just his best tool. I'll bet the Mail-
man simply used the pattern he stole from the mur-
dered DON.MAC as the basis for this automatic
defense system we've been fighting. The Mailman's
time lag is a very real thing, not a red herring at all.
Somehow it is the whole secret of who he really is.

   "In any case, it makes our present situation a lot
easier." She smiled at DON.MAC as though he were
a real person. Usually it was easier to behave that
way toward simulators; in this case, there was a good
deal of triumph in her smile. "You almost won for
your master, DON. You almost had us convinced.
But now that we know what we are dealing with, it
will be easy to--"

   Her image flicked out of existence, and Mr. Slip-
pery felt DON grab for the resources Ery controlled.
All through near-Earth space, they fought for the
weapon systems she had held till an instant before.

   And alone, Mr. Slippery could not win. Slowly,
slowly, he felt himself bending before the other's
force, like some wrestler whose bones were breaking
one by one under a murderous opponent. It was all
he could do to prevent the DON construct from blast-
hag his home; and to do that, he had to give up
progressively more computing power.

   Erythrina was gone, gone as though she had never
been. Or was she? He gave a sliver of his attention to
a search, a sliver that was still many times more
powerful than any mere warlock. That tiny piece of
consciousness quickly noticed a power failure in south-
ern Rhode Island. Many power failures had devel-
oped during the last few minutes, consequent to the
data failure. But this one was strange. In addition to
power, comm lines were down and even his interven-
tion could not bring them to life. It was about as
thoroughly blacked out as a place could be. This
could scarcely be an accident.

   ... and there was a voice, barely telephone quality
and almost lost in the mass of other data he was
processing. Erythrina! She had, via some incredibly
tortuous detour, retained a communication path to
the outside.

   His gaze swept the blacked-out Providence suburb.
It consisted of new urbapts, perhaps one hundred
thousand units in all. Somewhere in there lived the
human that was Erythrina. While she had been con-
centrating on DON.MAC, he must have been work-
ing equally hard to find her True Name. Even now,
DON did not know precisely who she was, only enough
to black out the area she lived in.

   It was getting hard to think; DON.MAC was sys-
tematically dismantling him. The lethal intent was
clear: as soon as Mr. Slippery was sufficiently reduced,
the Orbital Lasers would be turned on his body, and
then on Erythrina's. And then the Mailman's faithful
servant would have a planetary kingdom to turn over
to his mysterious master.

   He listened to the tiny voice that still leaked out of
Providence. It didn't make too much sense. She
sounded hysterical, panicked. He was surprised that
she could speak at all; she had just suffered--in
losing all her computer connections--something
roughly analogous to a massive stroke. To her, the
world was now seen through a keyhole, incomplete,
unknown and dark.

   "There is a chance; we still have a chance," the
voice went on, hurried and slurred. "An old military
communication tower north of here. Damn. I don't
know the number or grid, but I can see it from where
I'm sitting. With it you could punch through to the
roof antenna ... has plenty of bandwidth, and I've
got some battery power here... but hurry."

   She didn't have to tell him that; he was the guy
who was being eaten alive. He was almost immobi-
lized now, the other's attack squeezing and stifling
where it could not cut and tear. He spasmed against
DON's strength and briefly contacted the comm tow-
ers north of Providence. Only one of them was in line
of sight with the blacked-out area. Its steerable an-
tenna was very, very narrow beam.

   "Ery, I'm going to need your house number, maybe
even your antenna id."

   A second passed, two--a hellish eon for Mr. Slippery.
In effect, he had asked her for her True Name--he
who was already known to the Feds. Once he re-
turned to the real world, there would be no way he
could mask this information from them. He could
imagine her thoughts: never again to be free. In her
place, he would have paused too, but--

   "Ery! It's the True Death for both of us if you
don't. He's got me!"

   This time she barely hesitated. "D-Debby Charteris,
4448 Grosvenor Row. Cut off like this, I don't know
the antenna id. Is my name and house enough?"
  "Yes. Get ready!"

   Even before he spoke, he had already matched the
name with an antenna rental and aligned the military
antenna on it. Return contact came as he turned his
attention back to DON.MAC. With luck, the enemy
was not aware of their conversation. Now he must be
distracted.

   Mr. Slippery surged against the other, breaking
communications nodes that served them both. DON
shuddered, reorganizing around the resources that
were left, then moved in on Mr. Slippery again. Since
DON had greater strength to begin with, the maneu-
ver had cost Mr. Slippery proportionately more. The
enemy had been momentarily thrown off balance,
but now the end would come very quickly.

   The spaces around him, once so rich with detail
and colors beyond color, were fading now, replaced
by the sensations of his true body straining with
animal fear in its little house in California. Contact
with the greater world was almost gone. He was
scarcely aware of it when DON turned the Finger of
God back upon him--

   Consciousness, the superhuman consciousness of
before, returned almost unsensed, unrecognized till
awareness brought surprise. Like a strangling victim
back from oblivion, Mr. Slippery looked around dazedly,
not quite realizing that the struggle continued.

   But now the roles were reversed. DON.MAC had
been caught by surprise, in the act of finishing off
what he thought was his only remaining enemy.
Erythrina had used that surprise to good advantage,
coming in upon her opponent from a Japanese data
center, destroying much of Don's higher reasoning
centers before the other was even aware of her. Large,
unclaimed processing units lay all about, and as DON
and Erythrina continued their struggle, Mr. Slippery
quietly absorbed everything in reach.

   Even now, DON could have won against either one
of them alone, but when Mr. Slippery threw himself
back into the battle, they had the advantage. DON.-
MAC sensed this too, and with a brazenness that was
either mindless or genius, returned to his original
appeal. "There is still time! The Mailman will still
forgive you."

   Mr. Slippery and Erythrina ripped at their enemy
from both sides, disconnec.ting vast blocks of commu-
nications, processing and data resources. They de-
nied the Mass Transmits to him, and one by one put
the low-level satellites out of synch with his data
accesses. DON was confined to land lines, tied into a
single military net that stretched from Washington to
Denver. He was flailing, randomly using whatever
instruments of destruction were still available. All
across the midsection of the US, silo missiles deto-
nated, ABM lasers swept back and forth across the
sky. The world had been stopped short by the begin-
ning of their struggle, but the ending could tear it to
pieces.

   The damage to Mr. Slippery and Erythrina was
slight, the risk that the random strokes would seri-
ously damage them small. They ignored occasional
slashing losses and concentrated single-mindedly on
dismantling DON.MAC. They discovered the object
code for the simulator that was DON, and zeroed it.
DON--or his creator--was clever and had planted
many copies, and a new one awakened every time
they destroyed the running copy. But as the minutes
passed, the simulator found itself with less and less
to work with. Now it was barely more than it had
been back in the Coven.

   "Fools! The Mailman is your natural ally. The Feds
will kill you! Don't you underst--"

   The voice stopped in midshriek, as Erythrina ze-
roed the currently running simulator. No other took
up the task. There was a silence, an ... absence ...
throughout. Erythrina glanced at Mr. Slippery, and
the two continued their search through the enemy's
territory. This data space was big, and there could be
many more copies of DON hidden in it. But without
the resources they presently held, the simulator could
have no power. It was clear to both of them that no
effective ambush could be hidden in these unmoving
ruins.

   And they had complete copies of DON.MAC to
study. It was easy to trace the exact extent of his
infection of the system. The two moved systematically,
changing what they found so that it would behave as
its original programmers had intended. Their work
was so thorough that the Feds might never realize
just how extensively the Mailman and his henchman
had infiltrated them, just how close he had come to
total control.
 Most of the areas they searched were only slightly
altered and required only small changes. But deep
within the military net, there were hundreds of tril-
lions of bytes of program that seemed to have no
intelligible function yet were clearly connected with
DON's activities. It was apparently object code, but it
was so huge and so ill organized that even they
couldn't decide if it was more than hash now. There
was no possibility that it had any legitimate function;
after a few moments' consideration, they randomized
it.

   At last it was over. Mr. Slippery and Erythrma
stood alone. They controlled all connected processing
facilities in near-Earth space. There was no place
within that volume that any further enemies could be
lurking. And there was no evidence that there had
ever been interference from beyond.

   It was the first time since they had reached this
level that they had been able to survey the world
without fear. (He scarcely noticed the continuing,
pitiful attempts of the American military to kill his
real body.) Mr. Slippery looked around him, using all
his millions of perceptors. The Earth floated serene.
Viewed in the visible, it looked like a thousand pic-
tures he had seen as a human. But in the ultraviolet,
he could follow its hydrogen aura out many thou-
sands of kilometers. And the high-energy detectors
on satellites at all levels perceived the radiation belts
in thousands of energy levels, oscillating in the solar
wind. Across the oceans of the world, he could feel
the warmth of the currents, see just how fast they
were moving. And all the while, he monitored the
millions of tiny voices that were now coming back to
life as he and Erythrina carefully set the human
race's communication system back on its feet and
gently prodded it into function. Every ship in the
seas, every aircraft now making for safe landing, ev-
ery one of the loans, the payments, the meals of an
entire race registered clearly on some part of his
consciousness. With perception came power; almost
everything he saw, he could alter, destroy, or enhance.
By the analogical rules of the covens, there was only
one valid word for themselves in their present state:
they were gods.

   "... we could rule," Erythrina's voice was hushed,
self-frightened. "It might be tricky at first, assuring
our bodies protection, but we could rule."

   "There's still the Mailman--"

   She seemed to wave a hand, dismissingly. "Maybe,
maybe not. It's true we still are no closer to knowing
who he is, but we do know that we have destroyed all
his processing power. We would have plenty of warn-
ing if he ever tries to reinsinuate himself into the
System." She stared at him intently, and it wasn't
until some time later that he recognized the faint
clues in her behavior and realized that she was hold-
ing something back.

   What she said was all so clearly true; for as long as
their bodies lived, they could rule. And what DON.-
MAC had said also seemed true: they were the great-
est threat the "forces of law and order" had ever
faced, and that included the Mailman. How could the
Feds afford to let them be free, how could they even
afford to let them live, if the two of them gave up the
power they had now? But--"A lot of people would
have to die if we took over. There are enough inde-
pendent military entities left on Earth that we'd have
to use a good deal of nuclear blackmail, at least at
first."

   "Yeah," her voice was even smaller than before,
and the image of her face was downcast: "During the
last few seconds I've done some simulating on that.
We'd have to take out four, maybe six, major cities. If
there are any command centers hidden from us, it
could be a lot worse than that. And we'd have to
develop our own human secret-police forces as folks
began to operate outside our system .... Damn. We'd
end up being worse than the human-based govern-
ment."

   She saw the same conclusion in his face and grinned
lopsidedly. "You can't do it and neither can I. So the
State wins again."

   He nodded, "reached" out to touch her briefly.
They took one last glorious minute to soak in the
higher reality. Then, silently, they parted, each to
seek his own way downward.

   It was not an instantaneous descent to ordinary
humanity. Mr. Slippery was careful to prepare a safe
exit. He created a complex set of misdirections for
the army unit that was trying to close in on his
physical body; it would take them several hours to
find him, far longer than necessary for the govern-
ment to call them off. He set up preliminary negotia-
tions with the Federal programs that had been doing
their best to knock him out of power, telling them of
his determination to surrender if granted safe pas-
sage and safety for his body. In a matter of seconds
he would be talking to humans again, perhaps even
Virginia, but by then a lot of the basic ground rules
would be automatically in operation.

   As per their temporary agreements, he closed off
first one and then another of the capabilities that he
had so recently acquired. It was like stopping one's
ears, then blinding one's eyes, but somehow much
worse since his very ability to think was being deliber-
ately given up. He was like some lobotomy patient
(victim) who only vaguely realizes now what he has
lost. Behind him the Federal forces were doing their
best to close off the areas he had left, to protect
themselves from any change of heart he might have.

   Far away now, he could sense Erythrina going
through a similar procedure, but more slowly. That
was strange; he couldn't be sure with his present
faculties, but somehow it seemed that she was delib-
erately lagging behind and doing something more
complicated than was strictly necessary to return safely
to normal humanity. And then he remembered that
strange look she had given him while saying that
they had not figured out who the Mailman was.
  One could rule as easily as two!

   The panic was sudden and overwhelming, all the
more terrible for the feeling of being betrayed by one
so trusted. He struck out against the barriers he had
so recently allowed to close in about him, but it was
too late. He was already weaker than the Feds. Mr.
Slippery looked helplessly back into the gathering
dimness, and saw...

   ... Ery coming down toward the real world with
him, giving up the advantage she had held all alone.
Whatever problems had slowed her must have had
nothing to do with treachery. And somehow his feel-
ing of relief went beyond the mere fact of death
avoided--Ery was still what he had always thought her.


                 *   *   *


   He was seeing a lot of Virginia lately, though of
course not socially. Her crew had set up offices in
Arcata, and twice a week she and one of her goons
would come up to the house. No doubt it was one of
the few government operations carried out face-to-
face. She or her superiors seemed to realize that
anything done over the phone might be subject to
trickery. (Which was true, of course. Given several
weeks to himself, Pollack could have put together a
robot phone connection and--using false ids and pri-
ority permits--been on a plane to Djakarta.)

   There were a lot of superficial similarities between
these meetings and that first encounter the previous
spring:

   Pollack stepped to the door and watched the black
Lincoln pulling up the drive. As always, the vehicle
came right into the carport. As always, the driver got
out quickly, eyes flickering coldly across Pollack. As
always, Virginia moved with military precision (in fact,
he had discovered, she had been promoted out of the
Army to her present job in DoW intelligence). The
two walked purposefully toward the bungalow, ignor-
ing the summer sunlight and the deep wet green of the
lawn and pines. He held the door open for them, and
they entered with silent arrogance. As always.

   He smiled to himself. In one sense nothing had
changed. They still had the power of life and death
over him. They could still cut him off from every-
thing he loved. But in another sense ...

   "Got an easy one for you today, Pollack," she said
as she put her briefcase on the coffee table and
enabled its data set. "But I don't think you're going to
like it."
"Oh?" He sat down and watched her expectantly.
"The last couple of months, we've had you destroy-
ing what remains of the Mailman and getting the
National program and data bases back in operation."

   Behind everything, there still stood the threat of
the Mailman. Ten weeks after the battle--the War,
as Virginia called it--the public didn't know any more
than that there had been a massive vandalism of the
System. Like most major wars, this had left ruination
in everyone's camp. The US government and the
economy of the entire world had slid far toward chaos
in the months after that battle. (In fact, without his
work and Erythrina's, he doubted if the US bureau-
cracies could have survived the Mailman War. He
didn't know whether this made them the saviors or
the betrayers of America.) But what of the enemy?
His power was almost certainly destroyed. In the last
three weeks Mr. Slippery had found only one copy of
the program kernel that had been DON.MAC, and
that had been in nonexecutable form. But the man--or
the beings--behind the Mailman was just as anony-
mous as ever. In that, Virginia, the government, and
Pollack were just as ignorant as the general public.

   "Now," Virginia continued, "we've got some smaller
problems--mopping-up action, you might call it. For
nearly two decades, we've had to live with the tuppin
vandalism of irresponsible individuals who put their
petty self-interest ahead of the public's. Now that
we've got you, we intend to put a stop to that:

   "We want the True Names of all abusers currently
on the System, in particular the members of this
so-called coven you used to be a part of."
  He had known that the demand would eventually
come, but the knowledge made this moment no less
unpleasant. "I'm sorry, I can't."

   "Can't? Or won't? See here, Pollack, the price of
your freedom is that you play things our way. You've
broken enough laws to justify putting you away forever.
And we both know that you are so dangerous that
you ought to be put away. There are people who feel
even more strongly than that, Pollack, people who are
not as soft in the head as I am. They simply want you
and your girl friend in Providence safely dead." The
speech was delivered with characteristic flat bluntness,
but she didn't quite meet his eyes as she spoke. Ever
since he had returned from the battle, there had been
a faint diffidence behind her bluster.

   She covered it well, but it was clear to Pollack that
she didn't know if she should fear him or respect
him--or both. In any case, she seemed to recognize a
basic mystery in him; she had more imagination than
he had originally thought. It was a bit amusing, for
there was very little special about Roger Pollack, the
man. He went from day to day feeling a husk of what
he had once been and trying to imagine what he
could barely remember.

   Roger smiled almost sympathetically. "I can't and I
won't, Virginia. And I don't think you will harm me
for it--Let me finish. The only thing that frightens
your bosses more than Erythrina and me is the possi-
bility that there may be other unknown persons--
maybe even the Mailman, back from wherever he
has disappeared to--who might be equally powerful.
She and I are your only real experts on this type of
subversion. I bet that even if they could, your people
wouldn't train their own clean-cut, braided types as
replacements for us. The more paranoid a security
organization is, the less likely it is to trust anyone
with this sort of power. Mr. Slippery and Erythrina
are the known factors, the experts who turned back
from the brink. Our restraint was the only thing that
stood between the Powers That Be and the Powers
That Would Be."

   Virginia was speechless for a moment, and Pollack
could see that this was the crux of her changed
attitude toward him. All her life she had been taught
that the individual is corrupted by power: she bog-
gled at the notion that he had been offered mastery of
all mankind--and had refused it.

   Finally she smiled, a quick smile that was gone
almost before he noticed it. "Okay. I'll pass on what
you say. You may be right. The vandals are a long-
range threat to our basic American freedoms, but day
to day, they are a mere annoyance. My superiors--
the Department of Welfare--are probably willing to
fight them as we have in the past. They'll tolerate
your, uh, disobedience in this single matter as long
as you and Erythrina loyally protect us against the
superhuman threats."

   Pollack felt a great sense of relief. He had been so
afraid DoW would be willing to destroy him for this
refusal. And since the Feds would never be free of
their fear of the Mailman, he and Debby Charteris--
Erythrina--would never be forced to betray their
friends.

   "But," continued the cop, "that doesn't mean you
get to ignore the covens. The most likely place for
superhuman threats to resurface is from within them.
The vandals are the people with the most real experi-
ence on the System--even the Army is beginning to
see that. And if a superhuman type originates outside
the covens, we figure his ego will still make him
show off to them, just as with the Mailman.

   "In addition to your other jobs, we want you to
spend a couple of hours a week with each of the
major covens. You'll be one of the 'boys'--only now
you're under responsible control, watching for any
sign of Mailman-type influence."

   "I'll get to see Ery again!"

   "No. That rule still stands. And you should be
grateful. I don't think we could tolerate your exis-
tence if there weren't two of you. With only one in
the Other Plane at a time, we'll always have a weapon
in reserve. And as long as we can keep you from
meeting there, we can keep you from scheming against
us. This is serious, Roger: if we catch you two or your
surrogates playing around in the Other Plane, it will
be the end."

   "Hmm."

   She looked hard at him for a moment, then ap-
peared to take that for acquiescence. The next half-
hour was devoted to the details of this week's assign-
ments. (It would have been easier to feed him all this
when he was in the Other Plane, but Virginia--or at
least DoW--seemed wedded to the past.) He was to
continue the work on Social Security Records and
the surveillance of the South American data nets.
There was an enormous amount of work to be done,
at least with the limited powers the Feds were willing
to give him. It would likely be October before the
welfare machinery was working properly again. But
that would be in time for the elections.

   Then, late in the week, they wanted him to visit
the Coven. Roger knew he would count the hours; it
had been so long.

   Virginia was her usual self, intense and all business,
until she and her driver were ready to leave. Standing
in the carport, she said almost shyly, "I ran your
Anne Boleyn last week... It's really very good."

   "You sound surprised."

   "No. I mean yes, maybe I was. Actually I've run it
several times, usually with the viewpoint character
set to Anne. There seems to be a lot more depth to it
than other participation games I've read. I've got the
feeling that if I am clever enough, someday I'll stop
Henry and keep my head !"

   Pollack grinned. He could imagine Virginia, the
hard-eyed cop, reading Anne to study the psychology
of her client-prisoner--then gradually getting caught
up in the action of the novel. "It is possible."

   In fact, it was possible she might turn into a rather
nice human being someday.

   But by the time Pollack was starting back up the
walk to his house, Virginia was no longer on his
mind. He was going back to the Coven!



   A chill mist that was almost rain blew across the
hillside and obscured the far distance in shifting
patches. But even from here, on the ridge above the
swamp, the castle looked different: heavier, stronger,
darker.

   Mr. Slippery started down the familiar slope. The
frog on his shoulder seemed to sense his unease and
its clawlets bit tighter into the leather of his jacket.
Its beady yellow eyes turned this way and that, re-
cording everything. (Altogether, that frog was much
improved--almost out of amateur status nowadays.)

   The traps were different. In just the ten weeks
since the War, the Coven had changed them more
than in the previous two years. Every so often, he
shook the gathering droplets of water from his face
and peered more closely at a bush or boulder by the
side of the path. His advance was slow, circuitous,
and interrupted by invocations of voice and hand.

   Finally he stood before the towers. A figure of
black and glowing red climbed out of the magma
moat to meet him. Even Alan had changed: he no
longer had his asbestos T-shirt, and there was no
humor in his sparring with the visitor. Mr. Slippery
had to stare upward to look directly at his massive
head. The elemental splashed molten rock down on
them, and the frog scampered between his neck and
collar, its skin cold and slimy against his own. The
passwords were different, the questioning more hostile,
but Mr. Slippery was a match for the tests and in a
matter of minutes Alan retreated sullenly to his steam-
ing pool, and the drawbridge was lowered for their
entrance.



   The hall was almost the same as before: perhaps a
bit drier, more brightly lit. There were certainly more
people. And they were all looking at him as he stood
in the entranceway. Mr. Slippery gave his traveling
jacket and hat to a liveried servant and started down
the steps, trying to recognize the faces, trying to under-
stand the tension and hostility that hung in the air.

   "Slimey!" The Limey stepped forward from the
crowd, a familiar grin splitting his bearded face.
"Slip! Is that really you?" (Not entirely a rhetorical
question, under the circumstances.)

   Mr. Slippery nodded, and after a moment, the other
did, too. The Limey almost ran across the space that
separated them, stuck out his hand, and clapped the
other on the shoulder. "Come on, come on! We have
rather a lot to talk about !"

   As if on cue, the others turned back to their conver-
sations and ignored the two friends as they walked to
one of the sitting rooms that opened off the main
hall. Mr. Slippery felt like a man returning to his old
school ten years after graduation. Almost all the faces
were different, and he had the feeling that he could
never belong here again. But this was only ten weeks,
not ten years.

   The Slimey Limey shut the heavy door, and the
sounds from the main room were muted. He waved
Slip to a chair and made a show of mixing them some
drinks.
"They're all simulators, aren't they?" Slip said quietly.
"Uh?" The Limey broke off his stream of chatter
and shook his head glumly. "Not all. I've recruited
four or five apprentices. They do their best to make
the place look thriving and occupied. You may have
noticed various improvements in our security."

   "It looks stronger, but it's more appearance than
fact."

   Slimey shrugged. "I really didn't expect it to fool
the likes of you."

   Mr. Slippery leaned forward. "Who's left from the
old group, Slimey?"

   "DON's gone. The Mailman is gone. Wiley J. Bas-
tard shows up a couple of times a month, but he's not
much fun anymore. I think Erythrina's still on the
System, but she hasn't come by. I thought you were
gone until today."
  "What about Robin Hood?"
  "Gone."

   That accounted for all the top talents. Virginia the
Frog hadn't been giving away all that much when
she excused him from betraying the Coven. Slip won-
dered if there was any hint of smugness in the frog's
fixed and lipless smile.  "What happened?"

   The other sighed. "There's a depression on down
in the real world, in case you hadn't noticed; and it's
being blamed on us vandals.

   "--I know, that could scarcely explain Robin's disap-
pearance, only the lesser ones. Slip, I think most of
our old friends are either dead Truly Dead--or very
frightened that if they come back into this Plane,
they will become Truly Dead."

   This felt very much like history repeating itself.
"How do you mean?"

   The Limey leaned forward. "Slip, it's quite obvious
the government's feeding us lies about what caused
the depression. They say it was a combination of
programming errors and the work of 'vandals.' We
know that can't be true. No ordinary vandals could
cause that sort of damage. Right after the crash, I
looked at what was left of the Feds' data bases. What-
ever ripped things up was more powerful than any
vandal. ... And I've spoken with--p'raps I should say
interrogated Wiley. I think what we see in the real
world and on this plane is in fact the wreckage of a
bloody major war."

   "Between?"

   "Creatures as far above me as I am above a chimp.
The names we know them by are the Mailman,
Erythrina... and just possibly Mr. Slippery."

   "Me?" Slip tensed and sent out probes along the
communications links which he perceived had cre-
ated the image before him. Even though on a leash,
Mr. Slippery was far more powerful than any normal
warlock, and it should have been easy to measure the
power of this potential opponent. But the Limey was
a diffuse, almost nebulous presence. Slip couldn't tell
if he were facing an opponent in the same class as
himself; in fact, he had no clear idea of the other's
strength, which was even more ominous.

   The Limey didn't seem to notice. "That's what I
thought. Now I doubt it. I wager you were used like
Wiley and possibly DON--by the other combatants.
And I see that now you're in someone's thrall." His
finger stabbed at the yellow-eyed frog on Mr. Slippery's
shoulder, and a sparkle of whiskey flew into the
creature's face. Virginia--or whoever was controlling
the beast--didn't know what to do, and the frog froze
momentarily, then recovered its wits and emitted a
pale burst of flame.

   The Limey laughed. "But it's no one very competent.
The Feds is my guess. What happened? Did they
sight your True Name, or did you just sell out?"

   "The creature's my familiar, Slimey. We all have our
apprentices. If you really believe we're the Feds, why
did you let us in?"

   The other shrugged. "Because there are enemies
and enemies, Slip. Beforetime, we called the govern-
ment the Great Enemy. Now I'd say they are just one
in a pantheon of nasties. Those of us who survived
the crash are a lot tougher, a lot less frivolous. We
don't think of this as all a wry game anymore. And
we're teaching our apprentices a lot more systematically.
It's not near so much fun. Now when we talk of
traitors in the Coven, we mean real, life-and-death
treachery.

   "But it's necessary. When it comes to it, if we little
people don't protect ourselves, we're going to be eaten
up by the government or... certain other creatures I
fear even more."

   The frog shifted restively on Mr. Slippery's shoulder,
and he could imagine Virginia getting ready to de-
liver some speech on the virtue of obeying the laws of
society in order to reap its protection. He reached
across to pat its cold and pimply back; now was not
the time for such debate.

   "You had one of the straightest heads around here,
Slip. Even if you aren't one of us anymore, I don't
reckon you're an absolute enemy: You and your ...
friend may have certain interests in common with us.
There are things you should know about--if you don't
already. An' p'raps there'll be times you'll help us
similarly."

   Slip felt the Federal tether loosen. Virginia must
have convinced her superiors that there was actually
help to be had here. "Okay. You're right. There was a
war. The Mailman was the enemy. He lost and now
we're trying to put things back together."

   "Ah, that's just it, old man. I don't think the war is
over. True, all that remains of the Mailman's con-
structs are 'craterfields' spread through the govern-
ment's program space. But something like him is still
very much alive." He saw the disbelief in Mr. Slippery's
face. "I know, you an' your friends are more powerful
than any of us. But there are many of us--not just in
the Coven--and we have learned a lot these past ten
weeks. There are signs, so light an' fickle you might
call 'em atmosphere, that tell us something like the
Mailman is still alive. It doesn't quite have the tex-
ture of the Mailman, but it's there."

   Mr. Slippery nodded. He didn't need any special
explanations of the feeling. Damn! If I weren't on a
leash, I would have seen all this weeks ago, instead of
finding it out secondhand. He thought back to those
last minutes of their descent from godhood and felt a
chill. He knew what he must ask now, and he had a
bad feeling about what the answer might be. Some-
how he had to prevent Virginia from hearing that
answer. It would be a great risk, but he still had a
few tricks he didn't think DoW knew of. He probed
back along the links that went to Arcata and D.C.,
feeling the interconnections and the redundancy
checks. If he was lucky, he would not have to alter
more than a few hundred bits of the information that
would flow down to them in the next few seconds.
"So who do you think is behind it?"

   "For a while, I thought it might be you. Now I've
seen you and, uh, done some tests, I know you're
more powerful than in the old days and probably
more powerful than I am now, but you're no superman.

   "Maybe I'm in disguise."

   "Maybe, but I doubt it." The Limey was coming
closer to the critical words that must be disguised.
Slip began to alter the redundancy bits transmitted
through the construct of the frog. He would have to
fake the record both before and after those words if
the deception was to escape detection completely.
"No, there's a certain style to this presence. A style
that reminds me of our old friend, REorbyitnh rHio-
noad." The name he said, and the name Mr. Slippery
heard, was "Erythrina." The name blended impercep-
tibly in its place, the name the frog heard, and reported,
was "Robin Hood."

   "Hmm, possible. He always seemed to be power
hungry." The Limey's eyebrows went up fractionally
at the pronoun "he." Besides, Robin had been a fan-
tastically clever vandal, not a power grabber. Slimey's
eyes flickered toward the frog, and Mr. Slippery prayed
that he would play along. "Do you really think this is
as great a threat as the Mailman?"

   "Who knows? The presence isn't as widespread as
the Mailman's, and since the crash no more of us
have disappeared. Also, I'm not sure that... he... is
the only such creature left. Perhaps the original Mail-
man is still around."

   And you can't decide who it is that I'm really
trying to fool, can you?

   The discussion continued for another half-hour, a
weird three-way fencing match with just two active
players. On the one hand, he and the Limey were
trying to communicate past the frog, and on the
other, the Slimey Limey was trying to decide if per-
haps Slip was the real enemy and the frog a potential
ally. The hell of it was, Mr. Slippery wasn't sure
himself of the answer to that puzzle.

   Slimey walked him out to the drawbridge. For a
few moments, they stood on the graven ceramic plat-
ing and spoke. Below them, Alan paddled back and
forth, looking up at them uneasily. The mist was a
light rain now, and a constant sizzling came from the
molten rock.

   Finally Slip said, "You're right in a way, Slimey. I
am someone's thrall. But I will look for Robin Hood.
If you're right, you've got a couple of new allies. If
he's too strong for us, this might be the last you see
of me."

   The Slimey Limey nodded, and Slip hoped he had
gotten the real message: He would take on Ery all by
himself.
"Well then, let's hope this ain't good-bye, old man."
Slip walked back down into the valley, aware of the
Limey's not unsympathetic gaze on his back.

   How to find her, how to speak with her? And
survive the experience, that is. Virginia had forbid-
den him--literally on pain of death--from meeting
with Ery on this plane. Even if he could do so, it
would be a deadly risk for other reasons. What had
Ery been doing in those minutes she dallied, when
she had fooled him into descending back to the hu-
man plane before her? At the time, he had feared it
was a betrayal. Yet he had lived and had forgotten
the mystery. Now he wondered again. It was impossible
for him to understand the complexity of those minutes.
Perhaps she had weakened herself at the beginning
to gull him into starting the descent, and perhaps
then she hadn't been quite strong enough to take
over. Was that possible? And now she was slowly,
secretly building back her powers, just as the Mail-
man had done? He didn't want to believe it, and he
knew if Virginia heard his suspicions, the Feds would
kill her immediately. There would be no trial, no deep
investigation.

   Somehow he must get past Virginia and confront
Ery--confront her in such a way that he could de-
stroy her if she were a new Mailman. And there is a
way! He almost laughed: it was absurd and absurdly
simple, and it was the only thing that might work. All
eyes were on this plane, where magic and power
flowed easily to the participants. He would attack
from beneath, from the lowly magicless real world!

   But there was one final act of magic he must slip
past Virginia, something absolutely necessary for a
real world confrontation with Erythrina.

   He had reached the far ridge and was starting
down the hillside that led to the swamps. Even
preoccupied, he had given the right signs flawlessly.
The guardian sprites were not nearly so vigilant to-
ward contructs moving away from the castle. As the
wet brush closed in about them, the familiar red and
black spider--or its cousin--swung down from above.

   "Beware, beware," came the tiny voice. From the
flecks of gold across its abdomen, he knew the right
response: left hand up and flick the spider away.
Instead Slip raised his right hand and struck at the
creature.

   The spider hoisted itself upward, screeching faintly,
then dropped toward Slip's neck--to land squarely on
the frog. A free-for-all erupted as the two scrambled
across the back of his neck, pale flame jousting against
venom. Even as he moved to save the frog, Mr. Slip-
pery melted part of his attention into a data line that
fed a sporting goods store in Montreal. An order was
placed and later that day a certain very special pack-
age would be in the mail to the Boston International
Rail Terminal.

   Slip made a great show of dispatching the spider,
and as the frog settled back on his shoulder, he saw
that he had probably fooled Virginia. That he had
expected. Fooling Ery would be much the deadlier,
chancier thing.



   If this afternoon were typical, then July in Provi-
dence must be a close approximation to Hell. Roger
Pollack left the tube as it passed the urbapt block and
had to walk nearly four hundred meters to get to the
tower he sought. His shirt was soaked with sweat
from just below the belt line right up to his neck. The
contents of the package he had picked up at the
airport train station sat heavily in his right coat pocket,
tapping against his hip with every step, reminding
him that this was high noon in more ways than one.

   Pollack quickly crossed the blazing concrete plaza
and walked along the edge of the shadow that was all
the tower cast in the noonday sun. All around him
the locals swarmed, all ages, seemingly unfazed by
the still, moist, hot air. Apparently you could get used
to practically anything.

   Even an urbapt in summer in Providence. Pollack
had expected the buildings to be more depressing.
Workers who had any resources became data com-
muters and lived outside the cities. Of course, some
of the people here were data-set users too and so
could be characterized as data commuters. Many of
them worked as far away from home as any exurb
dweller. The difference was that they made so little
money (when they had a job at all) that they were
forced to take advantage of the economies of scale
the urbapts provided.

   Pollack saw the elevator ahead but had to detour
around a number of children playing stickball in the
plaza. The elevator was only half-full, so a wave from
him was all it took to keep it grounded till he could
get aboard.

   No one followed him on, and the faces around him
were disinterested and entirely ordinary. Pollack was
not fooled. He hadn't violated the letter of Virginia's
law; he wasn't trying to see Erythrina on the data
net. But he was going to see Debby Charteris, which
came close to being the same thing. He imagined the
Feds debating with themselves, finally deciding it
would be safe to let the two godlings get together if it
were on this plane where the State was still the
ultimate, all-knowing god. He and Debby would be
observed. Even so, he would somehow discover if she
were the threat the Limey saw. If not, the Feds
would never know of his suspicions. But if Ery had
betrayed them all and meant to set herself up in
place of--or in league with--the Mailman, then in
the next few minutes one of them would die.



   The express slid to a stop with a deceptive gentle-
ness that barely gave a feeling of lightness. Pollack
paid and got off.

   Floor 25 was mainly shopping mall. He would have
to find the stairs to the residential apts between Floors
25 and 35. Pollack drifted through the mall. He was
beginning to feel better about the whole thing. I'm
still alive, aren't I? If Ery had really become what the
Limey and Slip feared, then he probably would have
had a little "accident" before now. All the way across
the continent he sat with his guts frozen, thinking
how easy it would be for someone with the Mailman's
power to destroy an air transport, even without resort-
ing to the military's lasers. A tiny change in naviga-
tion or traffic-control directions, and any number of
fatal incidents could be arranged. But nothing had
happened, which meant that either Ery was innocent
or that she hadn't noticed him. (And that second
possibility was unlikely if she were a new Mailman.
One impression that remained stronger than any other
from his short time as godling was the omniscience
of it all.)

   It turned out the stairs were on the other side of
the mall, marked by a battered sign reminiscent of
old-time highway markers: FOOTS > 26-30. The place
wasn't really too bad, he supposed, eyeing the stained
but durable carpet that covered the stairs. And the
hallways coming off each landing reminded him of
the motels he had known as a child, before the
turn of the century. There was very little trash visible,
the people moving around him weren't poorly dressed,
and there was only the faintest spice of disinfectant
in the air. Apt module 28355, where Debbie Charteris
lived, might be high-class. It did have an exterior
view, he knew that. Maybe Erythrina--Debbie--liked
living with all these other people. Surely, now that
the government was so interested in her, she could
move anywhere she wished.

   But when he reached it, he found floor 28 no
different from the others he had seen: carpeted hall-
way stretching away forever beneath dim lights that
showed identical module doorways dwindling in
perspective. What was Debbie/Erythrina like that she
would choose to live here?

   "Hold it." Three teenagers stepped from behind the
slant of the stairs. Pollack's hand edged toward his
coat pocket. He had heard of the gangs. These three
looked like heavies, but they were well and conserva-
tively dressed, and the small one actually had his hair
in a braid. They wanted very much to be thought part
of the establishment.

   The short one flashed something silver at him.
"Building Police." And Pollack remembered the news
stories about Federal Urban Support paying young-
sters for urbapt security: "A project that saves money
and staff, while at the same time giving our urban
youth an opportunity for responsible citizenship."

   Pollack swallowed. Best to treat them like real cops.
He showed them his id. "I'm from out of state. I'm
just visiting."

   The other two closed in, and the short one laughed.
"That's sure. Fact, Mr. Pollack, Sammy's little gadget
says you're in violation of Building Ordinance." The
one on Pollack's left waved a faintly buzzing cylinder
across Pollack's jacket, then pushed a hand into the
jacket and withdrew Pollack's pistol, a lightweight
ceramic slug-gun perfect for hunting hikes--and
which should have been perfect for getting past a
building's weapon detectors.

   Sammy smiled down at the weapon, and the short
one continued, "Thing you didn't know, Mr. Pollack,
is Federal law requires a metal tag in the butt of
these cram guns. Makes 'em easy to detect." Until
the tag was removed. Pollack suspected that some-
how this incident might never be reported.
The three stepped back, leaving the way clear for
Pollack. "That's all? I can go?"

   The young cop grinned. "Sure. You're out-of-towner.
How could you know?"

   Pollack continued down the hall. The others did
not follow. Pollack was fleetingly surprised: maybe
the FUS project actually worked. Before the turn of
the century, goons like those three would have at
least robbed him. Instead they behaved something
like real cops.

   Or maybe--and he almost stumbled at this new
thought--they all work for Ery now. That might be
the first symptom of conquest: the new god would
simply become the government. And he--the last
threat to the new order--was being granted one last
audience with the victor.

   Pollack straightened and walked on more quickly.
There was no turning back now, and he was damned
if he would show any more fear. Besides, he thought
with a sudden surge of relief, it was out of his control
now. If Ery was a monster, there was nothing he
could do about it; he would not have to try to kill her.
If she were not, then his own survival would be
proof, and he need think of no complicated tests of
her innocence.

   He was almost hurrying now. He had always wanted
to know what the human being beyond Erythrina
was like; sooner or later he would have had to do this
anyway. Weeks ago he had looked through all the
official directories for the state of Rhode Island, but
there wasn't much to find: Linda and Deborah
Charteris lived at 28355 Place on 4448 Grosvenor
Row. The public directory didn't even show their
"interests and occupations."


   28313, 315, 317 ....

   His mind had gone in circles, generating all the
things Debby Charteris might turn out to be. She
would not be the exotic beauty she projected in the
Other Plane. That was too much to hope for; but the
other possibilities vied in his mind. He had lived with
each, trying to believe that he could accept whatever
turned out to be the case:

   Most likely, she was a perfectly ordinary looking
person who lived in an urbapt to save enough money
to buy high-quality processing equipment and rent
dense comm lines. Maybe she wasn't good-looking,
and that was why the directory listing was relatively
secretive.

   Almost as likely, she was massively handicapped.
He had seen that fairly often among the warlocks
whose True Names he knew. They had extra medical
welfare and used all their free money for equipment
that worked around whatever their problem might
be--paraplegia, quadriplegia, multiple sense loss. As
such, they were perfectly competitive on the job
market, yet old prejudices often kept them out of
normal society. Many of these types retreated into the
Other Plane, where one could completely control one's
appearance.

   And then, since the beginning of time, there had
been the people who simply did not like reality, who
wanted another world, and if given half a chance
would live there forever. Pollack suspected that some
of the best warlocks might be of this type. Such
people were content to live in an urbapt, to spend all
their money on processing and life-support equipment,
to spend days at a time in the Other Plane, never
moving, never exercising their real world bodies. They
grew more and more adept, more and more knowledge-
able--while their bodies slowly wasted. Pollack could
imagine such a person becoming an evil thing and
taking over the Mailman's role. It would be like a
spider sitting in its web, its victims all humanity. He
remembered Ery's contemptuous attitude on learning
he never used drugs to maintain concentration and
so stay longer in the Other Plane. He shuddered.

   And there, finally, and yet too soon, the numbers
28355 stood on the wall before him, the faint hall
light glistening off their bronze finish. For a long
moment, he balanced between the fear and the wish.
Finally he reached forward and tapped the door buzzer.

   Fifteen seconds passed. There was no one nearby
in the hall. From the corner of his eye, he could see
the "cops" lounging by the stairs. About a hundred
meters the other way, an argument was going on.
The contenders rounded the faraway corner and their
voices quieted, leaving him in near silence.

   There was a click, and a small section of the door
became transparent, a window (more likely a holo)
on the interior of the apt. And the person beyond that
view would be either Deborah or Linda Charteris.

   "Yes?" The voice was faint, cracking with age.
Pollack saw a woman barely tall enough to come up to
the pickup on the other side. Her hair was white,
visibly thin on top, especially from the angle he was
viewing.

   "I'm... I'm looking for Deborah Charteris."

   "My granddaughter. She's out shopping. Down-
stairs in the mall, I think." The head bobbed, a faintly
distracted nod.

   "Oh. Can you tell me--" Deborah, Debby. It sud-
denly struck him what an old-fashioned name that
was, more the name of a grandmother than a grand-
daughter. He took a quick step to the door and looked
down through the pane so that he could see most of
the other's body. The woman wore an old-fashioned
skirt and blouse combination of some brilliant red
material.

   Pollack pushed his hand against the immovable
plastic of the door. "Ery, please. Let me in."

   The pane blanked as he spoke, but after a moment
the door slowly opened. "Okay." Her voice was tired,
defeated. Not the voice of a god boasting victory.

   The interior was decorated cheaply and with what
might have been good taste except for the garish
excesses of red on red. Pollack remembered reading
somewhere that as you age, color sensitivity decreases.
This room might seem only mildly bright to the per-
son Erythrina had turned out to be.

   The woman walked slowly across the tiny apt and
gestured for him to sit. She was frail, her back curved
in a permanent stoop, her every step considered yet
tremulous. Under the apt's window, he noticed an
elaborate GE processor system. Pollack sat and found
himself looking slightly upward into her face.

   "Slip--or maybe I should call you Roger here--you
always were a bit of a romantic fool." She paused for
breath, or perhaps her mind wandered. "I was begin-
ning to think you had more sense than to come out
here, that you could leave well enough alone."

   "You ... you mean, you didn't know I was coming?"
The knowledge was a great loosening in his chest.

   "Not until you were in the building." She turned
and sat carefully upon the sofa.

   "I had to see who you really are," and that was
certainly the truth. "After this spring, there is no one
the likes of us in the whole world."

   Her face cracked in a little smile. "And now you
see how different we are. I had hoped you never
would and that someday they would let us back to-
gether on the Other Plane .... But in the end, it
doesn't really matter." She paused, brushed at her
temple, and frowned as though forgetting something,
or remembering something else.

   "I never did look much like the Erythrina you
know. I was never tall, of course, and my hair was
never red. But I didn't spend my whole life selling life
insurance in Peoria, like poor Wiley."

   "You... you must go all the way back to the begin-
ning of computing."

   She smiled again, and nodded just so, a manner-
ism Pollack had often seen on the Other Plane.
"Almost, almost. Out of high school, I was a keypunch
operator. You know what a keypunch is?"

   He nodded hesitantly, visions of some sort of ma-
chine press in his mind.

   "It was a dead-end job, and in those days they'd
keep you in it forever if you didn't get out under your
own power. I got out of it and into college quick as I
could, but at least I can say I was in the business
during the stone age. After college, I never looked
back; there was always so much happening. In the
Nasty Nineties, I was on the design of the ABM and
FoG control programs. The whole team, the whole of
DoD for that matter, was trying to program the thing
with procedural languages; it would take 'em a thou-
sand years and a couple of wars to do it that way, and
they were beginning to realize as much. I was respon-
sible for getting them away from CRTs, for getting
into really interactive EEG programming--what they
call portal programming nowadays. Sometimes ...
sometimes when my ego needs a little help, I like to
think that if I had never been born, hundreds of
millions more would have died back then, and our
cities would be glassy ponds today.

   "... And along the way there was a marriage ..."
her voice trailed off again, and she sat smiling at
memories Pollack could not see.

   He looked around the apt. Except for the processor
and a fairly complete kitchenette, there was no spe-
cial luxury. What money she had must go into her
equipment, and perhaps in getting a room with a real
exterior view. Beyond the rising towers of the Grosve-
nor complex, he could see the nest of comm towers
that had been their last-second salvation that spring.
When he looked back at her, he saw that she was
watching him with an intent and faintly amused ex-
pression that was very familiar.

   "I'll bet you wonder how anyone so daydreamy
could be the Erythrina you knew in the Other Plane."
"Why, no," he lied. "You seem perfectly lucid to
me."

   "Lucid, yes. I am still that, thank God. But I know--
and no one has to tell me--that I can't support a train
of thought like I could before. These last two or three
years, I've found that my mind can wander, can drop
into reminiscence, at the most inconvenient times.
I've had one stroke, and about all 'the miracles of
modern medicine' can do for me is predict that it will
not be the last one.

   "But in the Other Plane, I can compensate. It's
easy for the EEG to detect failure of attention. I've
written a package that keeps a thirty-second backup;
when distraction is detected, it forces attention and
reloads my short-term memory. Most of the time, this
gives me better concentration than I've ever had in
my life. And when there is a really serious wandering
of attention, the package can interpolate for a num-
ber of seconds. You may have noticed that, though
perhaps you mistook it for poor communications
coordination."

   She reached a thin, blue-veined hand toward him.
He took it in his own. It felt so light and dry, but it
returned his squeeze. "It really is me--Ery--inside,
Slip."
  He nodded, feeling a lump in his throat.

   "When I was a kid, there was this song, something
about us all being aging children. And it's so very,
very true. Inside I still feel like a youngster. But on
this plane, no one else can see..."

   "But I know, Ery. We knew each other on the
Other Plane, and I know what you truly are. Both of
us are so much more there than we could ever be
here." This was all true: even with the restrictions
they put on him now, he had a hard time understand-
ing all he did on the Other Plane. What he had
become since the spring was a fuzzy dream to him
when he was down in the physical world. Some-
times he felt like a fish trying to imagine what a man
in an airplane might be feeling. He never spoke of it
like this to Virginia and her friends: they would be
sure he had finally gone crazy. It was far beyond
what he had known as a warlock. And what they had
been those brief minutes last spring had been equally
far beyond that.

   "Yes, I think you do know me, Slip. And we'll be
... friends as long as this body lasts. And when I'm
gone--"
"I'll remember; I'll always remember you, Ery."
She smiled and squeezed his hand again. "Thanks.
But that's not what I was getting at.... " Her gaze
drifted off again. "I figured out who the Mailman was
and I wanted to tell you."

   Pollack could imagine Virginia and the other DoW
eavesdroppers hunkering down to their spy equipment.
"I hoped you knew something." He went on to tell
her about the Slimey Limey's detection of Mailman-
like operations still on the System. He spoke carefully,
knowing that he had two audiences.

   Ery--even now he couldn't think of her as Debby--
nodded. "I've been watching the Coven. They've
grown, these last months. I think they take them-
selves more seriously now. In the old days, they never
would have noticed what the Limey warned you about.
But it's not the Mailman he saw, Slip."

   "How can you be sure, Ery? We never killed more
than his service programs and his simulators--like
DON.MAC. We never found his True Name. We
don't even know if he's human or some science-
fictional alien."

   "You're wrong, Slip. I know what the Limey saw,
and I know who the Mailman is--or was," she spoke
quietly, but with certainty. "It turns out the Mailman
was the greatest cliche of the Computer Age, maybe
of the entire Age of Science."
  "Huh?"

   "You've seen plenty of personality simulators in the
Other Plane. DON.MAC--at least as he was rewrit-
ten by the Mailman--was good enough to fool normal
warlocks. Even Alan, the Coven's elemental, shows
plenty of human emotion and cunning." Pollack
thought of the new Alan, so ferocious and intimidating.
The Turing T-shirt was beneath his dignity now.
"Even so, Slip, I don't think you've ever believed you
could be permanently fooled by a simulation, have
you?"

   "Wait. Are you trying to tell me that the Mailman
was just another simulator? That the time lag was
just to obscure the fact that he was a simulator?
That's ridiculous. You know his powers were more
than human, almost as great as ours became."
"But do you think you could ever be fooled?"
"Frankly, no. If you talk to one of those things long
enough, they display a repetitiveness, an inflexibility
that's a giveaway. I don't know; maybe someday there'll
be programs that can pass the Turing test. But what-
ever it is that makes a person a person is terribly
complicated. Simulation is the wrong way to get at it,
because being a person is more than symptoms. A
program that was a person would use enormous data
bases, and if the processors running it were the sort
we have now, you certainly couldn't expect real-time
interaction with the outside world." And Pollack sud-
denly had a glimmer of what she was thinking.

   "That's the critical point, Slip: if you want real-
time interaction. But the Mailman--the sentient, con-
versational part--never did operate real time. We
thought the lag was a communications delay that
showed the operator was off-planet, but really he was
here all the time. It just took him hours of processing
time to sustain seconds of self-awareness."

   Pollack opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
It went against all his intuition, almost against what
religion he had, but it might just barely be possible.
The Mailman had controlled immense resources. All
his quick time reactions could have been the work of
ordinary programs and simulators like DON.MAC.
The only evidence they had for his humanity were
those teleprinter conversations where his responses
were spread over hours.

   "Okay, for the sake of argument, let's say it's
possible. Someone, somewhere had to write the origi-
nal Mailman. Who was that?"

   "Who would you guess? The government, of course.
About ten years ago. It was an NSA team trying to
automate system protection. Some brilliant people,
but they could never really get it off the ground. They
wrote a developmental kernel that by itself was not
especially effective or aware. It was designed to live
within large systems and gradually grow in power
and awareness, independent of what policies or mis-
takes the operators of the system might make.

   "The program managers saw the Frankenstein
analogy--or at least they saw a threat to their per-
sonal power--and quashed the project. In any case, it
was very expensive. The program executed slowly
and gobbled incredible data space."

   "And you're saying that someone conveniently left
a copy running all unknown?"

   She seemed to miss the sarcasm. "It's not that
unlikely. Research types are fairly careless--outside
of their immediate focus. When I was in FoG, we lost
thousands of megabytes 'between the cracks' of our
data bases. And back then, that was a lot of memory.
The development kernel is not very large. My guess
is a copy was left in the system. Remember, the
kernel was designed to live untended if it ever started
executing. Over the years it slowly grew--both be-
cause of its natural tendencies and because of the
increased power of the nets it lived in."

   Pollack sat back on the sofa. Her voice was tiny
and frail, so unlike the warm, rich tones he remem-
bered from the Other Plane. But she spoke with the
same authority.

   Debby's--Erythrina's--pale eyes stared off beyond
the walls of the apt, dreaming. "You know, they are
right to be afraid," she said finally. "Their world is
ending. Even without us, there would still be the
Limey, the Coven--and someday most of the human
race."

   Damn. Pollack was momentarily tongue-tied, trying
desperately to think of something to mollify the threat
implicit in Ery's words. Doesn't she understand that
DoW would never let us talk unbugged? Doesn't she
know how trigger-happy scared the top Feds must be
by now?

   But before he could say anything, Ery glanced at
him, saw the consternation in his face, and smiled.
The tiny hand patted his. "Don't worry, Slip. The
Feds are listening, but what they're hearing is tearful
chitchat--you overcome to find me what I am, and
me trying to console the both of us. They will never
know what I really tell you here. They will never
know about the gun the local boys took off you."
  "What?"

   "You see, I lied a little. I know why you really
came. I know you thought that I might be the new
monster. But I don't want to lie to you anymore. You
risked your life to find out the truth, when you could
have just told the Feds what you guessed." She went
on, taking advantage of his stupefied silence. "Did
you ever wonder what I did in those last minutes this
spring, after we surrendered--when I lagged behind
you in the Other Plane?

   "It's true, we really did destroy the Mailman; that's
what all that unintelligible data space we plowed up
was. I'm sure there are copies of the kernel hidden
here and there, like little cancers in the System, but
we can control them one by one as they appear.

   "I guessed what had happened when I saw all that
space, and I had plenty of time to study what was
left, even to trace back to the original research project.
Poor little Mailman, like the monsters of fiction he
was only doing what he had been designed to do. He
was taking over the System, protecting it from
everyone--even its owners. I suspect he would have
announced himself in the end and used some sort of
nuclear blackmail to bring the rest of the world into
line. But even though his programs had been run-
ning for several years, he had only had fifteen or
twenty hours of human type self-awareness when we
did him in. His personality programs were that slow.
He never attained the level of consciousness you and
I had on the System.

   "But he really was self-aware, and that was the
triumph of it all. And in those few minutes, I figured
out how I could adapt the basic kernel to accept any
input personality. ... That is what I really wanted to
tell you."

   "Then what the Limey saw was--"

   She nodded. "Me ..."

   She was grinning now, an open though conspirato-
rial grin that was very familiar. "When Bertrand Rus-
sell was very old, and probably as dotty as I am now,
he talked of spreading his interests and attention out
to the greater world and away from his own body, so
that when that body died he would scarcely notice it,
his whole consciousness would be so diluted through
the outside world.

   "For him, it was wishful thinking, of course. But
not for me. My kernel is out there in the System.
Every time I'm there, I transfer a little more of myself.
The kernel is growing into a true Erythrina, who is
also truly me. When this body dies," she squeezed
his hand with hers, "when this body dies, I will still
be, and you can still talk to me."

   "Like the Mailman?"

   "Slow like the Mailman. At least till I design faster
processors....

   "... So in a way, I am everything you and the
Limey were afraid of. You could probably still stop
me, Slip." And he sensed that she was awaiting his
judgment, the last judgment any mere human would
ever be allowed to levy upon her.

   Slip shook his head and smiled at her, thinking of
the slow-moving guardian angel that she would
become. Every race must arrive at this point in its
history, he suddenly realized. A few years or decades
in which its future slavery or greatness rests on the
goodwill of one or two persons. It could have been
the Mailman. Thank God it was Ery instead.
 And beyond those years or decades... for an instant,
Pollack came near to understanding things that had
once been obvious. Processors kept getting faster,
memories larger. What now took a planet's resources
would someday be possessed by everyone. Including
himself.

   Beyond those years or decades... were millennia.
And Ery.



                         --Vernor Vinge
                           San Diego
                           June 1979-January 1980


   In real life, you often have to deal with things you
don't completely understand. You drive a car, not
knowing how its engine works. You ride as passenger
in someone else's car, not knowing how that driver
works. And strangest of all, you sometimes drive your-
self to work, not knowing how you work, yourself.

   To me, the import of True Names is that it is about
how we cope with things we don't understand. But,
how do we ever understand anything in the first
place? Almost always, I think, by using analogies in
one way or another--to pretend that each alien thing
we see resembles something we already know. When
an object's internal workings are too strange, comp-
licated, or unknown to deal with directly, we extract
whatever parts of its behavior we can comprehend
and represent them by familiar symbol--or the names
of familiar things which we think do similar things.
That way, we make each novelty at least appear to be
like something which we know from the worlds of
our own pasts. It is a great idea, that use of symbols;
it lets our minds transform the strange into the
commonplace. It is the same with names.

   Right from the start, True Names shows us many
forms of this idea, methods which use symbols, names,
and images to make a novel world resemble one
where we have been before. Remember the doors to
Vinge's castle? Imagine that some architect has in-
vented a new way to go from one place to another: a
scheme that serves in some respects the normal func-
tions of a door, but one whose form and mechanism
is so entirely outside our past experience that, to see
it, we'd never think of it as a door, nor guess what
purposes to use it for. No matter: just superimpose,
on its exterior, some decoration which reminds one of
a door. We could clothe it in rectangular shape, or
add to it a waist-high knob, or a push-plate with a
sign lettered "EXIT" in red and white, or do whatever
else may seem appropriate--and every visitor from
Earth will know, without a conscious thought, that
pseudo-portal's purpose, and how to make it do its
job.

   At first this may seem mere trickery; after all, this
new invention, which we decorate to look like a door,
is not really a door. It has none of what we normally
expect a door to be, to wit: hinged, swinging slab of
wood, cut into wall. The inner details are all wrong.
Names and symbols, like analogies, are only partial
truths; they work by taking many-levelled descrip-
tions of different things and chopping off all of what
seem, in the present context, to be their least essen-
tial details--that is, the ones which matter least to
our intended purposes. But, still, what matters--when
it comes to using such a thing--is that whatever
symbol or icon, token or sign we choose should re-
mind us of the use we seek which, for that not-
quite-door, should represent some way to go from one
place to another. Who cares how it works, so long as
it works! It does not even matter if that "door" leads
to anywhere: in True Names, nothing ever leads
anywhere; instead, the protagonists' bodies never move
at all, but remain plugged-in to the network while
programs change their representations of the simu-
lated realities!

   Ironically, in the world True Names describes, those
representations actually do move from place to place--
but only because the computer programs which do
the work may be sent anywhere within the world-
wide network of connections. Still, to the dwellers
inside that network, all of this is inessential and
imperceptible, since the physical locations of the com-
puters themselves are normally not represented any-
where at all inside the worlds they simulate. It is only
in the final acts of the novel, when those partially-
simulated beings finally have to protect themselves
against their entirely-simulated enemies, that the pro-
grams must keep track of where their mind-computers
are; then they resort to using ordinary means, like
military maps and geographic charts.

   And strangely, this is also the case inside the ordi-
nary brain: it, too, lacks any real sense of where it is.
To be sure, most modem, educated people know that
thoughts proceed inside the head--but that is some-
thing which no brain knows until it's told. In fact,
without the help of education, a human brain has no
idea that any such things as brains exist. Perhaps we
tend to place the seat of thought behind the face,
because that's where so many sense-organs are located.
And even that impression is somewhat wrong: for
example, the brain-centers for vision are far away
from the eyes, away in the very back of the head,
where no unaided brain would ever expect them to
be.

   In any case, the point is that the icons in True
Names are not designed to represent the truth--that
is, the truth of how the designated object, or program,
works; that just is not an icon's job. An icon's pur-
pose is, instead, to represent a way an object or a
program can be used. And, since the idea of a use is
in the user's mind--and not connected to the thing it
represents--the form and figure of the icon must be
suited to the symbols that the users have acquired in
their own development. That is, it has to be con-
nected to whatever mental processes are already one's
most fluent, expressive, tools for expressing intentions.
And that's why Roger represents his watcher the way
his mind has learned to represent a frog.

   This principle, of choosing symbols and icons which
express the functions of entities--or rather, their users'
intended attitudes toward them--was already second
nature to the designers of earliest fast-interaction com-
puter systems, namely, the early computer games
which were, as Vemor Vinge says, the ancestors of
the Other Plane in which the novel's main activities
are set. In the 1970's the meaningful-icon idea was
developed for personal computers by Alan Kay's re-
search group at Xerox, but it was only in the early
1980's, after further work by Steven Jobs' research
group at Apple Computer, that this concept entered
the mainstream of the computer revolution, in the
body of the Macintosh computer.

   Over the same period, there have also been less-
publicized attempts to develop iconic ways to represent,
not what the programs do, but how they work. This
would be of great value in the different enterprise of
making it easier for programmers to make new pro-
grams from old ones. Such attempts have been less
successful, on the whole, perhaps because one is
forced to delve too far inside the lower-level details of
how the programs work. But such difficulties are too
transient to interfere with Vinge's vision, for there is
evidence that he regards today's ways of programming--
which use stiff, formal, inexpressive languages--as
but an early stage of how great programs will be
made in the future.

   Surely the days of programming, as we know it, are
numbered. We will not much longer construct large
computer systems by using meticulous but conceptu-
ally impoverished procedural specifications. Instead,
we'll express our intentions about what should be
done, in terms, or gestures, or examples, at least as
resourceful as our ordinary, everyday methods for
expressing our wishes and convictions. Then these
expressions will be submitted to immense, intelligent,
intention-understanding programs which will them-
selves construct the actual, new programs. We shall
no longer be burdened with the need to understand
all the smaller details of how computer codes work.
All of that will be left to those great utility programs,
which will perform the arduous tasks of applying
what we have embodied in them, once and for all, of
what we know about the arts of lower-level pro-
gramming. Then, once we learn better ways to tell
computers what we want them to get done, we will
be able to return to the more familiar realm of ex-
pressing our own wants and needs. For, in the end,
no user really cares about how a program works, but
only about what it does--in the sense of the intelligi-
ble effects it has on other things with which the user
is concerned.

   In order for that to happen, though, we will have to
invent and learn to use new technologies for "express-
ing intentions". To do this, we will have to break
away from our old, though still evolving, program-
ming languages, which are useful only for describing
processes. And this may be much harder than it
sounds. For, it is easy enough to say that all we want
to do is but to specify what we want to happen, using
more familiar modes of expression. But this brings
with it some very serious risks.

   The first risk is that this exposes us to the conse-
quences of self-deception. It is always tempting to
say to oneself, when writing a program, or writing an
essay, or, for that matter, doing almost anything, that
"I know what I would want, but I can't quite express
it clearly enough". However, that concept itself re-
flects a too-simplistic self-image, which portrays one's
own self as existing, somewhere in the heart of one's
mind (so to speak), in the form of a pure, uncompli-
cated entity which has pure and unmixed wishes,
intentions, and goals. This pre-Freudian image serves
to excuse our frequent appearances of ambivalence;
we convince ourselves 'that clarifying our intentions
is a mere matter of straightening-out the input-output
channels between our inner and outer selves. The
trouble is, we simply aren't made that way, no matter
how we may wish we were.

   We incur another risk whenever we try to escape
the responsibility of understanding how our wishes
will be realized. It is always dangerous to leave much
choice of means to any servants we may choose--no
matter whether we program them or not. For, the
larger the range of choice of methods they may use,
to gain for us the ends we think we seek, the more
we expose ourselves to possible accidents. We may
not realize, perhaps until it is too late to turn back,
that our goals were misinterpreted, perhaps even
maliciously, as in such classic tales of fate as Faust,
the Sorcerer's Apprentice, or The Monkey's Paw (by
W.W. Jacobs).

   The ultimate risk, though, comes when we greedy,
lazy, master-minds are able at last to take that final
step: to design goal-achieving programs which are
programmed to make themselves grow increasingly
powerful, by using learning and self-evolution meth-
ods which augment and enhance their own capa-
bilities. It will be tempting to do this, not just for the
gain in power, but just to decrease our own human
effort in the consideration and formulation of our
own desires. If some genie offered you three wishes,
would not your first one be, "Tell me, please, what is
it that I want the most!" The problem is that, with
such powerful machines, it would require but the
slightest accident of careless design for them to place
their goals ahead of ours, perhaps the well-meaning
purpose of protecting us from ourselves, as in With
Folded Hands, by Jack Williamson),--or to protect us
from an unsuspected enemy, as in Colossus by D.H.
Jones, or because, like Arthur C. Clarke's HAL, the
machine we have built considers us inadequate to
the mission we ourselves have proposed, or, as in the
case of Vernor Vinge's own Mailman, who teletypes
its messages because it cannot spare the time to don
disguises of dissimulated flesh, simply because the
new machine has motives of its very own.

   Now, what about the last and finally dangerous
question which is asked toward True Names' end?
Are those final scenes really possible, in which a
human user starts to build itself a second, larger Self
inside the machine? Is anything like that conceivable?
And if it were, then would those simulated computer-
people be in any sense the same as their human
models before them; would they be genuine exten-
sions of those real people? Or would they merely be
new, artificial, person-things which resemble their
originals only through some sort of structural coinci-
dence? What if the aging Erythrina's simulation,
unthinkably enhanced, is permitted to live on inside
her new residence, more luxurious than Providence?
What if we also suppose that she, once there, will be
still inclined to share it with Roger--since no sequel
should be devoid of romance--and that those two
tremendous entities will love one another? Still, one
must inquire, what would those super-beings share
with those whom they were based upon? To answer
that, we have to think more carefully about what
those individuals were before. But, since these aren't
real characters, but only figments of an author's mind,
we'd better ask, instead, about the nature of our
selves.

   Now, once we start to ask about our selves, we'll
have to ask how these, too, work--and this is what I
see as the cream of the jest because, it seems to me,
that inside every normal person's mind is, indeed, a
certain portion, which we call the Self--but it, too,
uses symbols and representations very much like the
magic spells used by those players of the Inner World
to work their wishes from their terminals. To explain
this theory about the working of human consciousness,
I'll have to compress some of the arguments from
"The Society of Mind", my forthcoming book. In sev-
eral ways, my image of what happens in the human
mind resembles Vinge's image of how the players of
the Other Plane have linked themselves into their
networks of computing machines--by using superfi-
cial symbol-signs to control of host of systems which
we do not fully understand.

   Everybody knows that we humans understand far
less about the insides of our minds, than what we
know about the world outside. We know how ordi-
nary objects work, but nothing of the great comput-
ers in our brains. Isn't it amazing we can think, not
knowing what it means to think? Isn't it bizarre that
we can get ideas, yet not be able to explain what
ideas are. Isn't it strange how often we can better
understand our friends than ourselves?

   Consider again, how, when you drive, you guide
the immense momentum of a car, not knowing how
its engine works, or how its steering wheel directs
the vehicle toward left or right. Yet, when one comes
to think of it, don't we drive our bodies the same
way? You simply set yourself to go in a certain direc-
tion and, so far as conscious thought is concemed,
it's just like turning a mental steering wheel. All you
are aware of is some general intention--It's time to
go: where is the door?--and all the rest takes care of
itself. But did you ever consider the complicated pro-
cesses involved in such an ordinary act as, when you
walk, changing the direction you're going in? It is not
just a matter of, say, taking a larger or smaller step
on one side, the way one changes course when row-
ing a boat. If that were all you did, when walking,
you would tip over and fall toward the outside of the
turn.

   Try this experiment: watch yourself carefully while
turning--and you'll notice that, before you start the
turn, you tip yourself in advance; this makes you
start to fall toward the inside of the turn; then, when
you catch yourself on the next step, you end up
moving in a different direction. When we examine
that more closely, it all tums out to be dreadfully
complicated: hundreds of interconnected muscles,
bones, and joints are all controlled simultaneously, by
interacting programs which locomotion-scientists still
barely comprehend. Yet all your conscious mind need
do, or say, or think, is Go that way!--assuming that
it makes sense to speak of the conscious mind as
thinking anything at all. So far as one can see, we
guide the vast machines inside ourselves, not by us-
ing technical and insightful schemes based on know-
ing how the underlying mechanisms work, but by
tokens, signs, and symbols which are entirely as fan-
ciful as those of Vinge's sorcery. It even makes one
wonder if it's fair for us to gain our ends by casting
spells upon our helpless hordes of mental under-thralls.

   Now, if we take this only one more step, we see
that, just as we walk without thinking, we also think
without thinking! That is, we just as casually exploit
the agencies which carry out our mental work. Sup-
pose you have a hard problem. You think about it for
a while; then after a time you find a solution. Perhaps
the answer comes to you suddenly; you get an idea
and say, "Aha, I've got it. I'll do such and such." But
then, were someone to ask how you did it, how you
found the solution, you simply would not know how
to reply. People usually are able to say only things
like this:

"I suddenly realized..."
"I just got this idea..."
"It occurred to me that..."


   If we really knew how our minds work, we wouldn't
so often act on motives which we don't suspect, nor
would we have such varied theories in psychology.
Why, when we're asked how people come upon their
good ideas, are we reduced to superficial reproductive
metaphors, to talk about "conceiving" or "gestating",
or even "giving birth" to thoughts? We even speak of
"ruminating" or "digesting" as though the mind were
anywhere but in the head. If we could see inside our
minds we'd surely say more useful things than "Wait.
I'm thinking."

   People frequently tell me that they're absolutely
certain that no computer could ever be sentient,
conscious, self-willed, or in any other way "aware" of
itself. They're often shocked when I ask what makes
them sure that they, themselves, possess these admi-
rable qualities. The reply is that, if they're sure of
anything at all, it is that "I'm aware hence I'm aware."

   Yet, what do such convictions really mean? Since
"Self-awareness" ought to be an awareness of what's
going on within one's mind, no realist could maintain
for long that people really have much insight, in the
literal sense of seeing in.

   Isn't it remarkable how certainly we feel that we're
self-aware---that we have such broad abilities to know
what's happening inside ourselves? The evidence for
that is weak, indeed. It is true that some people
seem to have special excellences, which we some-
times call "insights", for assessing the attitudes and
motivations for other people. And certain individuals
even sometimes make good evaluations of themselves.
But that doesn't justify our using names like insight
or self-awareness for such abilities. Why not simply
call them "person-sights" or "person-awareness?" Is
there really reason to suppose that skills like these
are very different from the ways we learn the other
kinds of things we learn? Instead of seeing them as
"seeing in," we could regard them as quite the
opposite: just one more way of "figuring out." Per-
haps we learn about ourselves the same ways that we
learn about un-self-ish things.

   The fact is, the parts of ourselves which we call
"self aware" are only a small fraction of the entire
mind. They work by building simulated worlds of
their own--worlds which are greatly simplified, in
comparison with either the real world outside, or with
the immense computer systems inside the brain: sys-
tems which no one can pretend, today, to understand.
And our worlds of simulated awareness are worlds of
simple magic, wherein each and every imagined ob-
ject is invested with meanings and purposes. Con-
sider how one can but scarcely see a hammer except
as something to hammer with, or see a ball except as
something to throw and catch. Why are we so con-
strained to perceive things, not as they are, but as
they can be used? Because the highest levels of our
minds are goal-directed problem-solvers. That is to
say that all the machines inside our heads evolved,
originally, to meet various built-in or acquired needs,
for comfort and nutrition, for defense and for repro-
duction. Later, over the past few million years, we
evolved even more powerful sub-machines which, in
ways we don't yet understand, seem to correlate and
analyze to discover which kinds of actions cause which
sorts of effects; in a word, to discover what we call
knowledge. And though we often like to think that
knowledge is abstract, and that our search for it is
pure and good in itself--still, we ultimately use it for
its ability to tell us what to do to gain whichever
ends we seek (even when we conclude that in order
to do that, we may first need to gain yet more and
more knowledge). Thus, because, as we say, "know-
ledge is power", our knowledge itself is enmeshed in
those webs of ways we reach our goals. And that's
the key: it isn't any use for us to know, unless our
knowledge tells us what to do. This is so wrought
into the conscious mind's machinery that it seems
too obvious to state: no knowledge is of any use
unless we have a use for it.

   Now we come to see the point of consciousness: it
is the part of the mind most specialized for knowing
how to use the other systems which lie hidden in the
mind. But it is not a specialist in knowing how those
systems actually work, inside themselves. Thus, as
we said, one walks without much sense of how it's
done. It's only when those systems start to fail to
work well that consciousness becomes engaged with
small details. That way, a person who has sustained
an injured leg may start, for the first time, con-
sciously to make theories about how walking works:
To turn to the left, I'll have to push myself that
way--and then one has to figure out, with what? It is
often only when we're forced to face an unusually
hard problem that we become more reflective, and try
to understand more about how the rest of the mind
ordinarily solves problems; at such times one finds
oneself saying such things as, "Now I must get
organized. Why can't I concentrate on the important
questions and not get distracted by those other ines-
sential details?"

   It is mainly at such moments--the times when we
get into trouble--that we come closer than usual to
comprehending how our minds work, by engaging
the little knowledge we have about those mechanisms,
in order to alter or repair them. It is paradoxical that
these are just the times when we say we are "con-
fused", because it is very intelligent to know so much
about oneself that one can say that--in contrast merely
to being confused and not even knowing it. Still, we
disparage and dislike awareness of confusion, not real-
izing what a high degree of self-representation it
must involve. Perhaps that only means that conscious-
ness is getting out of its depth, and isn't really suited
to knowing that much about how things work. In any
case, even our most "conscious" attempts at self-
inspection still remain confined mainly to the prag-
matic, magic world of symbol-signs, for no human
being seems ever to have succeeded in using self-
analysis to find out very much about the programs
working underneath.

   So this is the irony of True Names. Though Vinge
tells the tale as though it were a science-fiction
fantasy--it is in fact a realistic portrait of our own,
real-life predicament! I say again that we work our
minds in the same unknowing ways we drive our
cars and our bodies, as the players of those futuris-
tic games control and guide what happens in their
great machines: by using symbols, spells and images--
as well as secret, private names. The parts of us
which we call "consciousness" sit, as it were, in front
of cognitive computer-terminals, trying to steer and
guide the great unknown engines of the mind, not by
understanding how those mechanisms work, but sim-
ply by selecting names from menu-lists of symbols
which appear, from time to time, upon our mental
screen-displays.

   But really, when one thinks of it, it scarcely could
be otherwise! Consider what would happen if our
minds indeed could really see inside themselves. What
could possibly be worse than to be presented with a
clear view of the trillion-wire networks of our nerve-
cell connections? Our scientists have peered at frag-
ments of those structures for years with powerful
microscopes, yet failed to come up with comprehen-
sive theories of what those networks do and how.
How much more devastating it would be to have to
see it all at once!

   What about the claims of mystical thinkers that
there are other, better ways to see the mind. One
recommended way is learning how to train the con-
scious mind to stop its usual sorts of thoughts and
then attempt (by holding very still) to see and hear
the fine details of mental life. Would that be any
different, or better, than seeing them through instru-
ments? Perhaps--except that it doesn't face the fun-
damental problem of how to understand a complicated
thing! For, if we suspend our usual ways of thinking,
we'll be bereft of all the parts of mind already trained
to interpret complicated phenomena. Anyway, even if
one could observe and detect the signals which emerge
from other, normally inaccessible portions of the mind,
these probably would make no sense to the systems
involved with consciousness, because they represent
unusually low level details. To see why this is so, let's
return once more to understanding such simple things
as how we walk.

   Suppose that, when you walk about, you were in-
deed able to see and hear the signals in your spinal
cord and lower brain. Would you be able to make any
sense of them? Perhaps, but not easily. Indeed, it is
easy to do such experiments, using simple bio-feedback
devices to make those signals audible and visible; the
result is that one may indeed more quickly learn to
perform a new skill, such as better using an injured
limb. However, just as before, this does not appear to
work through gaining a conscious understanding of
how those circuits work; instead the experience is
very much like business as usual; we gain control by
acquiring just one more form of semi-conscious
symbol-magic. Presumably, what happens is that a
new control system is assembled somewhere in the
nervous system, and interfaced with superficial sig-
nals we can know about. However, bio-feedback does
not appear to provide any different insights into how
learning works than do our ordinary, built-in senses.
In any case, our locomotion-scientists have been
tapping such signals for decades, using electronic
instruments. Using those data, they have been able
to develop various partial theories about the kinds of
interactions and regulation-systems which are involved.
However, these theories have not emerged from re-
laxed meditation about, or passive observation of those
complicated biological signals; what little we have
learned has come from deliberate and intense exploi-
tation of the accumulated discoveries of three centu-
ries of our scientists' and mathematicians' study of
analytical mechanics and a century of newer theories
about servo-control engineering. It is generally true
in science that just observing things carefully rarely
leads to new "insights" and understandings. One must
first have at least the glimmerings of the form of a
new theory, or of a novel way to describe: one needs
a "new idea". For the "causes" and the "purposes" of
what we observe are not themselves things that can
be observed; to represent them, we need some other
mental source to invent new magic tokens.

   But where do we get the new ideas we need? For
any single individual, of course, most concepts come
from the societies and cultures that one grows up in.
As for the rest of our ideas, the ones we "get" all by
ourselves, these, too, come from societies--but, now,
the ones inside our individual minds. For, a human
mind is not in any real sense a single entity, nor does
a brain have a single, central way to work. Brains do
not secrete thought the way livers secrete bile; a
brain consists of a huge assembly of sub-machines
which each do different kinds of jobs--each useful to
some other parts. For example, we use distinct sec-
tions of the brain for hearing the sounds of words, as
opposed to recognizing other kinds of natural sounds
or musical pitches. There is even solid evidence that
there is a special part of the brain which is special-
ized for seeing and recognizing faces, as opposed to
visual perception of other, ordinary things. I suspect
that there are, inside the cranium, perhaps as many
as a hundred kinds of computers, each with its own
somewhat different architecture; these have been ac-
cumulating over the past four hundred million years
of our evolution. They are wired together into a great
multi-resource network of specialists, which each
knows how to call on certain other specialists to get
things done which serve its purposes. And each of
these sub-brains uses its own styles of programming
and its own forms of representations; there is no
standard, universal language-code.

   Accordingly, if one part of that Society of Mind
were to inquire about another part, this probably would
not work because they have such different languages
and architectures. How could they understand one
another, with so little in common? Communication is
difficult enough between two different human tongues.
But the signals used by the different portions of the
human mind are even less likely to be even remotely
as similar as two human dialects with sometimes-
corresponding roots. More likely, they are simply too
different to communicate at all--except through sym-
bols which initiate their use.

   Now, one might ask, "Then, how do people doing
different jobs communicate, when they have different
backgrounds, thoughts, and purposes?" The answer
is that this problem is easier, because a person knows
so much more than do the smaller fragments of that
person's mind. And, besides, we all are raised in
similar ways, and this provides a solid base of com-
mon knowledge. Even so, we overestimate how well
we actually communicate. The many jobs that people
do may seem different on the surface, but they are all
very much the same, to the extent that they all have
a common base in what we like to call "common
sense"--that is, the knowledge shared by all of us.
This means that we do not really need to tell each
other as much as we suppose. Often, when we
"explain" something, we scarcely explain anything
new at all; instead, we merely show some examples
of what we mean, and some non-examples; these
indicate to the listener how to link up various struc-
tures already known. In short, we often just tell
"which" instead of "how".

   Consider how hard we find it to explain so many
seemingly simple things. We can't say how to bal-
ance on a bicycle, or distinguish a picture from a real
thing, or, even how to fetch a fact from memory.
Again, one might complain, It isn't fair to expect us
to be able to put in words such things as seeing or
balancing or remembering. Those are things we learned
before we even learned to speak! But, though that
criticism is fair in some respects, it also illustrates
how hard communication must be for all the sub-
parts of the mind which never learned to talk at
all--and these are most of what we are. The idea of
"meaning" itself is really a matter of size and scale: it
only makes sense to ask what something means in a
system which is large enough to have many meanings.
In very small systems, the idea of something having a
meaning becomes as vacuous as saying that a brick
is a very small house.

   Now it is easy enough to say that the mind is a
society, but that idea by itself is useless unless we
can say more about how it is organized. If all those
specialized parts were equally competitive, there would
be only anarchy, and the more we learned, the less
we'd be able to do. So there must be some kind of
administration, perhaps organized roughly in hier-
archies, like the divisions and subdivisions of an in-
dustry or of a human political society. What would
those levels do? In all the large societies we know
which work efficiently, the lower levels exercise the
more specialized working skills, while the higher lev-
els are concerned with longer-range plans and goals.
And this is another fundamental reason why it is so
hard to translate between our conscious and uncon-
scious thoughts! The kinds of terms and symbols we
use on the conscious level are primarily for express-
ing our goals and plans for using what we believe we
can do--while the workings of those lower level re-
sources are represented in unknown languages of
process and mechanism. So when our conscious probes
try to descend into the myriads of smaller and smaller
sub-machines which make the mind, they encounter
alien representations, used for increasingly special-
ized purposes.

   The trouble is, these tiny inner "languages" soon
become incomprehensible, for a reason which is sun-
pie and inescapable. This .is not the same as the
familiar difficulty of translating between two different
human languages; we understand the nature of that
problem: it is that human languages are so huge and
rich that it is hard to narrow meanings down: we call
that "ambiguity". But, when we try to understand the
tiny languages at the lowest levels of the mind, we
have the opposite problem--because the smaller be
two languages, the harder it will be to translate
between them, not because there are too many mean-
ings but too few. The fewer things two systems do,
the less likely that something one of them can do will
correspond to anything at all the other one can do.
And then, no translation is possible. Why is this worse
than when there is much ambiguity? Because, al-
though that problem seems very hard, still, even when
a problem seems hopelessly complicated, there al-
ways can be hope. But, when a problem is hopelessly
simple, there can't be any hope at all!

   Now, finally, let's return to the question of how
much a simulated life inside a world inside a ma-
chine could be like our ordinary, real life, "out here"?
My answer, as you know by now, is that it could be
very much the same--since we, ourselves, as we've
seen, already exist as processes imprisoned in ma-
chines inside machines. Our mental worlds are al-
ready filled with wondrous, magical, symbol-signs,
which add to everything we "see" a meaning and
significance.

   All educated people already know how different is
our mental world from the "real world" our scientists
know. For, consider the table in your dining room;
your conscious mind sees it as having a familiar
function, form, and purpose: a table is "a thing to put
things on". However, our science tells us that this is
only in the mind; all that's "really there" is a society
of countless molecules; the table seems to hold its
shape, only because some of those molecules are
constrained to vibrate near one another, because of
certain properties of the force-fields which keep them
from pursuing independent paths. Similarly, when
you hear a spoken word, your mind attributes sense
and meaning to that sound whereas, in physics, the
word is merely a fluctuating pressure on your ear,
caused by the collisions of myriads of molecules of
air--that is, of particles whose distances, this time
are less constrained.

   And so--let's face it now, once and for all: each
one of us already has experienced what it is like to be
simulated by a computer!

   "Ridiculous," most people say, at first: "I certainly
don't feel like a machine!"

   But what makes us so sure of that? How could one
claim to know how something feels, until one has
experienced it? Consider that either you are a ma-
chine or you're not. Then, if, as you say, you aren't a
machine, you are scarcely in any position of authority
to say how it feels to be a machine.

   "Very well, but, surely then, if I were a machine,
then at least I would be in a position to know that!"

   No. That is only an innocently grandiose presump-
tion, which amounts to claiming that, "I think, there-
fore I know how thinking works." But as we've seen,
there are so many levels of machinery between our
conscious thoughts and how they're made that saying
such a thing is as absurd as to say, "I drive, therefore
I know how engines work!"

   "Still, even if the brain is a kind of computer, you
must admit that its scale is unimaginably large. A
human brain contains many billions of brain cells--
and, probably, each cell is extremely complicated by
itself. Then, each cell is interlinked in complicated
ways to thousands or millions of other cells. You can
use the word "machine" for that but, surely, no one
could ever build anything of that magnitude!"

   I am entirely sympathetic with the spirit of this
objection. When one is compared to a machine, one
feels belittled, as though one is being regarded as
trivial. And, indeed, such a comparison in truly
insulting--so long as the name "machine" still car-
ries the same meaning it had in times gone by. For
thousands of years, we have used such words to
arouse images of pulleys, levers, locomotives, type-
writers, and other simple sorts of things; similarly, in
modern times, the word "computer" has evoked
thoughts about adding and subtracting digits, and
storing them unchanged in tiny so-called "memories".
However those words no longer serve our new pur-
poses, to describe machines that think like us; for
such uses, those old terms have become false names
for what we want to say. Just as "house" may stand
for either more, or nothing more, than wood and
stone, our minds may be described as nothing more,
and, yet far more, then just machines.

   As to the question of scale itself, those objections
are almost wholly out-of-date. They made sense in
1950, before any computer could store even a mere
million bits. They still made sense in 1960, when a
million bits costs a million dollars. But, today, that
same amount of money costs but a hundred dollars
(and our governments have even made the dollars
smaller, too)--and there already exist computers with
billions of bits.

   The only thing missing is most of the knowledge
we'll need to make such machines intelligent. Indeed,
as you might guess from all this, the focus of re-
search in Artificial Intelligence should be to find good
ways, as Vinge's fantasy suggests, to connect struc-
tures with functions through the use of symbols.
When, if ever, will that get done? Never say "Never".

 A Hugo and Nebula Award finalist for True Names,

he is also the author of The Peace War, Grimm's World, and a number of short stories. A mathemati- cian and computer scientist, he has published arti- cles in magazines such as Omni. He teaches at San Diego State University.

 His illustrations have graced the pages of SF maga-

zines such as Analog and Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine. He has also done a great deal of scientific illustration for college texts, as well as general advertising illustration. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

 Considered by many to be the father of Artificial

Intelligence, he has written especially for this book an essay on the nature of intelligence, natural and artificial. He is the director of the Artificial Intelli- gence laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


This is as complete and accurate an etext of the 1984 edition of True Names as I can make. I agree with Project Gutenberg, regarding the superiority of hard formatted plain ASCII over other formats. Except that this work requires plain text and HTML. If you want to read it as plain text, the HTML codes for italics are not too annoying; yet in HTML it will still preserve the original work's line formatting (minus right justification). Also included is the Afterword by Marvin Minsky, and .GIFs of all illustrations from the book. These are linked in at the correct places in the etext. One zip file contains the whole lot, for portability.

Enjoy! The Rectifier, Feb 1998