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Authors: Joan D. Vinge


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Cat, Book 3

Joan D. Vinge



ISBN 0-765-30342-6


Spell-checked up to 5. Cleaned up page breaks, most linebreaks, and many typos. Many errors remain.



Praise for Joan D. Vinge’s Cat Novels




“Vinge displays her potent imagination in the creation of aworld that remains fascinating. She also displays virtuoso quality in herdelving into the emotional torments of her characters, so that one emerges atthe end feeling very satisfied.”



“A powerful book ... Cat (ofCatspawandPsion)isback, and he’s as tough and streetwise as ever.”



“Another well-written SF novel from the Hugo Award-winningauthor ofThe Snow QueenEnjoyable and engaging.”

—The Washington Post Book World


“A tense, lyrical human drama in a complex future setting.Vinge has created a world that is exotic and, more important, believable. Hercharacters come alive through masterly writing.”

—Ontario Whig-Standard




“A rich tale of palace intrigue that is both crisp andcaptivating.Catspawalso comes with enough plot twists to keep you onedge.”

—Providence Journal




“Ambitious, effective science fiction adventure.”



Books by Joan D. Vinge


The Snow Queen Cycle

The Snow Queen

World’s End

The Summer Queen

Tangled Up in Blue


The Cat Novels





Heaven Chronicles

Phoenix in the Ashes(story collection)

Eyes of Amber(story collection)

The Random House Book of Greek Myths



Dr. FrederickBrodsla

Dr. Anna Marie Windsor

Dr. Richard Reindollar



“We arrive at truth, not by reason only, but also by theheart.”



I would like to acknowledge the invaluable input and supportof the following people, without whom neither this book nor my life in generalwould be in such good shape right now—Jim Frenkel, Barbara Luedtke, CarrollMartin, Betsy Mitchell, the Peach-Poznik clan, Mary and Nick Pendergrass, andVernor Vinge. Thanks, guys—you’re the best.


“What’s th’ goal of th’ game, Mr. Toad? Amonsterslain?Amaidensaved? Awrongrighted?”

“A standoff achieved.”

—Bill Griffin


I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.

—W. B. Yeats


The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

—Karl Marx


Five or six centuries ago, the Prespace philosopher KarlMarx said the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Marx understood whatit meant to be human ... to be flawed.

Marx thought he also understood how to end an eternity ofhuman suffering and injustice:Share whatever you could, keep only what youneeded.He never understood why the rest of humanity couldn’t see theanswer, when it was so obvious to him.

The truth was that they couldn’t even see the problem.

Marx also said that the only antidote to mental suffering isphysical pain.

But he never said that time flies when you’re having fun.

I glanced at my databand, checking for the hundredth time tosee whether an hour had passed yet. It hadn’t. This was the fifth time in lessthan an hour that I’d found myself standing at the Aerie’s high parabolicwindows, looking out at a world called Refuge; escaping from the noise andpressure of the Tau reception going on behind me.Refuge from what?For who?The background data the team had been given access to didn’tsay.

Not from Tau’s bureaucracy. Not for us.The researchteam I was a part of had arrived at Firstfall less than a day ago. We hadn’teven been onworld long enough to adjust to local planetary time. But almostbefore we’d dropped our bags here in Riverton, Tau Biotech’s liaison hadarrived at our hotel and forced us to attend this reception, which seemed to betaking place in stasis.

I dug another camph out of the silk-smooth pocket of mybought-on-the-fly formal shirt, and stuck it into my mouth. It began todissolve, numbing my tongue as I looked out again through the Aerie’sheartstopping arc of window toward the distant cloud-reefs. The sun was settingnow behind the reefs, limning their karst topography of ragged peaks andsteep-walled valleys. A strand of river cut a fiery path through the maze ofcanyons, the way it must have done for centuries, transforming the landscapeinto something as surreal as a dream.

Below me, the same river that had turned the distant reefsinto fantastic sculpture fell silently, endlessly over a cliff. Protz, Tau’sliaison, had called this the Great Falls. Watching the sluggish, silt-heavywaterflow, I wondered whether that was a joke.


Someone called my name. I turned, glancing down as I did becausesome part of me was always afraid that the next time I looked down at myself I’dbe naked.

I wasn’t naked. I was still wearing the neat, conservativelycut clothes I’d overpaid for in a hotel shop, so that I could pass for Humanthis evening. Human with a capital H. That was how they said it around here,not to confuse it with Hydran:Alien.

An entire city full of Hydrans lived just across the river.There were three of them here at this reception tonight. I’d watched them comein only minutes ago. They hadn’t teleported, materializing unnervingly in themiddle of the crowd. They’d walked into the room, like any other guest. Iwondered if they’d had any choice about that.

Their arrival had crashed every coherent thought in my mind.I’d been watching them without seeming to ever since, making sure they weren’twatching me or moving toward me. I’d watched them until I had to turn away tothe windows just so that I could breathe.

Passing for human.That was what they weretrying to do at this party, even though they’d always be aliens, their psionicGift marking them as freaks. This had been their world, once, until humans hadcome and taken it away from them. Now they were the strangers, the outsiders;hated by the people who’d destroyed them, because it was human to hate the onesyou’d injured.

The butt end of the camph I’d been sucking on dissolved intobitter pulp in my mouth without doing anything to ease my nerves. I swallowedit and took another one out of my pocket. I was already wearing trank patches;I’d already drunk too many of the drinks that seemed to appear every time Iturned around. I couldn’t afford to keep doing that. Not while I was trying topass for human, when my face would never really pass, any more than those alienfaces across the room would.

“Cat!” Protz called my name again, giving it the queruloustwist it always seemed to get from someone who didn’t believe they’d heard allthere was to it.

I could tell by the look on his face that he was coming toherd me back into the action. I could see by the way he moved that he wasbeginning to resent how I kept sliding out of it. I took the camph out of mymouth and dropped it on the floor.

As he forced me back into the crowd’s eye I looked for somebodyI knew, any member of the research team I’d arrived with. I thought I sawPedrotty, our bitmapper, on the far side of the room; didn’t see anyone else Irecognized. I moved on, muttering polite stupidities to one stranger afteranother.

Protz, my keeper, was a midlevel bureaucrat of Tau Biotech.His name could have been anything, he could have been any of the other combinevips I’d met. They came in both sexes and any color you wanted, but they allseemed to be the same person. Protz wore his regulation night-blue suit andsilver drape, Tau’s colors, like he’d been born to them.

Probably he had. fn this universe you didn’t just work for acombine, you lived for it.Keiretsu,they called it: the corporatefamily. It was a Prespace term that had followed the multinationals as theybecame multiplanetary and finally interstellar. It would survive as long as thecombines did, because it so perfectly described how they stole your soul.

The combine that employed you wasn’t just your career, itwas your heritage, your motherland, existing through both space and time. Whenyou were born into a combine you became a cell in the nervous system of amegabeing. If you were lucky and kept your nose clean, you stayed a part of ituntil you died. Maybe longer.

I looked down. The fingers of my right hand were coveringthe databand I wore on my left wrist—proving my reality, again.

Without a databand you didn’t exist, in this universe. Untila few years &go, I hadn’t had one.

For seventeen years the only ID I’d worn had been scars.Scars from beatings, scars from blades. I’d had a crooked, half-useless thumbfor years, because it had healed untreated after I’d picked the wrong mark’spocket one night. The databand I wore now covered the scar on my wrist where acontract laborer’s bond tag had been fused to my flesh. I had a lot of scars.The worst ones didn’t show.

After a lifetime on the streets of a human refuse dumpcalled Oldcity, my luck had finally changed. And one of the hard truths I’dlearned since then was that not being invisible anymore meant that everybodygot to see you naked.

“You’ve met Gentleman Kensoe, who heads our Board ....”Protz nodded at Kensoe, the ultimate boss of Tau, the top of its food chain. Helooked like he’d never missed a meal, or a chance to spit into an outstretchedhand. ‘And this is Lady Gyotis Binta, representing the Ruling Board of Draco.”Protz pushed me into someone else’s personal space. “She’s interested in yourwork—”

I felt my mind go blank again. Draco existed on a whole separatelevel of influence and power. TheyownedTau. They controlled theresource rights to this entire planet and parts of a hundred others. They werethe ultimate keiretsu: Tau Biotech was just one more client state of the Dracocartel, one of a hundred exploiting fingers Draco had stuck into a hundredseparate profit pies. The Draco Family, they liked to call it. Cartel memberstraded goods and services with each other, provided support against hostiletakeover attempts, looked out for each other’s interests—like family. Keiretsualso meant “trust”.... And right now Draco didn’t trust Tau.

Tau’s Ruling Board had drawn the unwanted attention of theFederation Trade Authority. Cartels were autonomous entities, but most of themused indentured workers from the1i11\’s Contract Laborpool to do the scut work their own citizens wouldn’t touch.

Technically, the Feds only interceded when they had evidencethat the universal rights of their laborers were being violated. The FTAcontrolled interstellar shipping, and no combine really wanted to face FTAsanctions. But I knew from personal experience that the way bondies weretreated wasn’t the real issue for the Feds. The real issue was power.

The FTA was always looking for new leverage in its endlessbalance-game with the combines. Politics was war; the weapons were just betterconcealed.

I didn’t know who had reported Tau to the Feds; maybe somecorporate rival. I did know the xenoarchaeology research team that I’d joinedwas one of Tau’s reform showpieces, intended to demonstrate Tau’s enlightenedgovernmental process. We’d come here at Tau’s expense to study a livingartifact called the cloud-whales and the reefs of bizarre detritus they haddeposited planetwide. The Tau Board was sparing no expense to show the Fedsthey weren’t dirty, or at least were cleaning up their act. Which was a joke,from what I knew about combine politics, but not a funny one.

It was just as obvious that Protz wanted—expected—everyoneon the team to help Tau prove its point.Say something,his eyes begged me,the way I knew his mind would have been begging me if I could have read histhoughts.

I looked away, searching the crowd for Hydrans. I didn’tfind any. I looked back. “Good to meet you,” I muttered, and forced myself toremember that I’d met Board members before. I’d been bodyguard to a Lady; knew,if I knew anything, that the only real difference between a combine vip and anOldcity street punk was what kind of people believed the lies they told.

Lady Gyotis was small and dark, with hair that had gonesilver-white. I wondered how old she really was. Most vips on her level had themoney to get their genetic clocks set back more than once. She wore a long,flower-brocaded robe that covered her from neck to foot. Nothing about her saidcombine vipexcept the subtle, expensive design of her necklace. Itsscrolls were the logos of corporations; I recognized Tau’s somewhere midway upher shoulder.

I also recognized the pendant at the center, a stylizeddragon wearing a collar of holographic fire. I had the same design tattooed onmy butt. I must have been gorked when I’d done it, because I couldn’t evenremember how it got there. I didn’t tell her that wearing Draco’s logo as bodyart was something we had in common.

Lady Gyotis smiled at me, meeting my stare as if she didn’tnotice anything strange about my face, not even the cat-green eyes with theirlong slit pupils: Hydran eyes, in a face that was too human, and not humanenough. ‘A pleasure,” she said. “We are so pleased to have you as a part of thestudy team. I’m sure your unique perceptions will add greatly to whatever discoveriesare made.”

“Thank you,” I said, and swallowed the obedient “ma’am” thatalmost followed it out of my mouth, reminding myself that I didn’t work forher, any more than I belonged to Tau. This time I was part of an independentresearch group.

“We feel his being a part of the team will demonstrate our goodwilltoward the”—Kensoe glanced at us—“local Hydran community.” He smiled.

I didn’t.

“Let us hope So,” Lady Gyotis murmured. “You know, the inspectionteam from the FTA is here tonight.” I’d met the Feds; I didn’t envy Kensoe. Butthen, I didn’t feel sorry for him either.

“Yes, ma’am,” Kensoe said, glancing away like he expectedassassins. “We’ll be ready for them. I think they’ll find the, uh, problemshere have been grossly misrepresented.”

“Let us hope so,” Lady Gyotis said again. “Toshiro!” shecalled suddenly, lifting her hand.

Someone came through the crowd toward us. Kensoe stiffened;so did I. The stranger coming toward us wore the uniform of a combine’s Chiefof Security. I checked the logo on the helmet he hadn’t taken off, even here.It was Draco’s. His business-cut uniform was deep green and copper, Draco’scombine colors. A lot of meaningless flash paraded across the drape he woreover it. His ID read Sand.

There was no way in hell a Corporate Security Chief wouldcross half the galaxy from the home office just to attend this party. Iwondered exactly how much trouble Tau was in.

“Lady Gyotis.” Sand bowed slightly in her direction,smiling. He was still smiling as he followed her glance toward me.

I couldn’t tell what the smile meant.Couldn’t read him.... Stop it—I couldn’t force my own face into an expression that even resembleda smile. I’d met a lot of Corpses in my life. I’d never met one I liked.

Sand’s skin was smooth and golden; his cybered eyes, underepicanthic folds, were opaque and silver, like ball bearings. One glance fromeyes like that could scan you right down to your entrails. The last CorpSecChief I’d known had had eyes like that; they came with the job. The more powera combine vip had, the more augmentation came with it. Usually the mostelaborate wire jobs didn’t show; most humans were too xenophobic to want thetruth visible, about themselves, about each other. There was nothing I couldsee about Lady Gyotis that looked abnormal, even though she had to be hiding alot of bioware. Draco’s subsidiaries made some of the best.

But in some occupations, looking strange was power. Sand’swas one of them.

“Mez cat,” Lady Gyotis was saying, “may I introduce you toToshiro Sand, Draco’s Chief of Security”—as if the evidence wasn’t obviousenough by itself. She didn’t introduce him to Protz or Kensoe. Protz and Kensoelooked like they wished they were anywhere else; maybe they’d already met him. “Hewas also most impressed by your interpretive work on the Monument.”

I grimaced and hoped he took it for a smile. He held out hishand. I looked at it for a few heartbeats before I realized what it meant.Finally I put out my own hand and let him shake it.

“Where are you from, Mez Cat?” Lady Gyotis asked me.

I glanced back. “Ardattee,” I said. “Quarro.”

She looked surprised. “The Hub?” she said. Quarro was themain city on Ardattee, and Ardattee had taken Earth’s place as the center ofeverything important. “But wherever did you get that charming accent? I’vespent much time there, but yours is unfamiliar to me.”

“Oldcity,” Sand murmured. “It’s an Oldcity accent.”

I looked up to see her glance at him, surprised again. She’dprobably never even seen Quarro’s Oldcity—the slums, the Contract Labor feedertank. I’d tried to get the sound of it out of my voice, but I couldn’t, anymore than I could get the place itself out of my memories.

Sand looked back at me. “Then I’m even more impressed byyour accomplishments,” he said, to my frown.

I didn’t say anything.

“I expected you to be older, frankly. The concepts in yourmonograph suggested a real maturity of thought.”

“I don’t think I was ever young,” I said, and Lady Gyotislaughed, a little oddly.

“Mez Perrymeade told me the original interpretation wasyours,” Sand went on, as if he hadn’t heard me. “That remarkable image about ‘thedeath of Death.’ What was it that gave you the key to your approach?”

I opened my mouth, shut it, swallowing words that tastedlike bile. I didn’t believe that he meant anything he was saying, that theywere really looking at me as if I was their equal. I wished I knew what they reallywanted—

“Cat,” a voice said, behind me; one I recognized, this time.Kissindre Perrymeade was there at my back like the Rescue Service, ready topick up the conversational ball I’d dropped. She’d been cleaning up my socialmesses ever since we arrived; her sense of timing was so good that she couldhave been the mind reader I wasn’t.

I nodded at her, grateful, not for the first time. And wenton looking at her. I’d never seen her dressed like this, for a combineshowplace instead of fieldwork. She’d never seen me dressed like this, either.I wondered how she liked it; if it made her feel the way I felt when I lookedat her.

We’d been friends for most of the time I’d been gettingthrough my university studies. Friends and nothing more. As long as I’d knownher she’d had a habit named Ezra Ditreksen. He was a systems analyst, and fromwhat everyone said, he was damn good at it. He was also a real prick. Theyargued more than most people talked; I never understood why she didn’t jettisonhim. But then, I was hardly an expert on long-term relationships.

Kissindre was the one who’d badgered me until I put into coherentform the ideas I’d had about an artifact called the Monument. Its vanishedcreators had left their distinctive bio-engineering signature scatteredthroughout this arm of the galactic spiral, encrypted in the DNA of a handfulof other uncanny constructs, including Refuge’s cloud-whales.

Kissindre was with her uncle, Janos Perrymeade. He was a vipfor Tau, like most of the warm bodies at this party. It had been his idea tobring a research team here; he’d gotten the permission and the funding for usto study the cloud-whales and the reefs. I looked at Kissindre and her unclestanding side by side, seeing the same clearwater blue eyes, the same shiningbrown hair. It made me want to like him, want to trust him, because they lookedso much alike. So far he hadn’t done anything to make me change my mind.

Ezra Ditreksen materialized on the other side of her, 3tease inside his formal clothes, the way everyone here seemed to be except me.His specialty wasn’t xenoarch; but the team needed a systems analyst, and thefact that he was sleeping with the crew leader made him the logical choice.When he saw me he frowned, something he did like breathing. Not seeing himfrown would have worried me.

I let him claim my place in the conversation, not minding,for once. It didn’t matter to me that he’d never liked me, didn’t bother methat I didn’t know why. For a rich processing-patent heir from Ardattee, theremust be more reasons than he had brain cells. Maybe it was enough that he’dseen Kissindre sketch my face once in the corner of her lightbox instead ofmaking her usual painstaking hand drawing of some artifact. I took anotherdrink off a passing tray. This time Protz frowned at me.

I looked away from him, reorienting on the conversation.Ditreksen was standing next to me, asking Perrymeade how he’d come to be Tau’sAlien Affairs Commissioner. It seemed to be an innocent question, but there wassomething in the way he asked it that made me look twice at him. I wasn’tcertain until I saw a muscle twitch in Perrymeade’s cheek.Not myimagination.

Perrymeade smiled an empty social smile, one that stopped athis eyes, and said, “I fell into it, really ... An interest in xenology runs inthe family.” He glanced at Kissindre; his smile was real as he looked at her. “Ihad some background in the field. The time came when Tau needed to fill theAlien Affairs position, and so they tapped me.”

“You’re the only agent?” I asked, wondering if there could actuallybe that few Hydrans left on Refuge.

He looked surprised. “No, certainly not. I am the one whohas direct contact with the Hydran Council, however. The Council communicateswith our agency on behalf of their people.”

I looked away, made restless by a feeling I couldn’t name. Isearched the crowd for the three Hydrans; spotted them across the room, barelyvisible inside a forest of human bodies.

“I suppose the job must pay awfully we11,” Ezra murmured,drawing out the words as if they were supposed to mean something more. “To makethe ... challenges of the work worthwhile.”

I turned back.

Perrymeade’s smile strained. “Well, yes, the job has its challenges—andits compensations. Although my family still won’t let me admit what I do for aliving.” His mouth quirked, and Ditreksen laughed.

Perrymeade caught me looking at him; caught Kissindre lookingat him too. His face flushed, the pale skin reddening the way I’d seen hersredden. “Of course, money isn’t the only compensation I get from my work—” Hegave Ditreksen the kind of look you’d give to someone who’d intentionallytripped you in public. “The conflicts that arise when the needs of the Hydranpopulation and Tau’s interests don’t intersect make my work ... challenging, asyou say. But getting to know more about the Hydran community has taught me agreat deal ... the unique differences between our two cultures, and thestriking similarities .... They are a remarkable, resilient people.” He lookedback at me, as if he wanted to see the expression on my face change. Or maybehe didn’t want to see it change on Ezra’s. His gaze glanced off my stare likewater off hot metal; he was looking at Kissindre again.

Her expression hung between emotions for a long second, beforeher lips formed something that only looked like a smile. She turned back toSand, her silence saying it all.

I listened to her finish telling Sand how we’d reached theconclusions we had about the artifact/world called the Monument and about theones who’d left it for us to find—the vanished race humans had named theCreators, because they couldn’t come up with something more creative.

The Creators had visited Refuge too, millennia ago, beforethey’d abandoned our universe entirely for some other plane of existence. Thecloud-whales and their by-product, the reefs, were one more cosmic riddle theCreators had left for us to solve, or simply to wonder at. The reefs were also,not coincidentally, the main reason for Tau’s existence and Draco’s controllinginterest in this world.

“But how did you come to such an insight about the Monument’ssymbolism?” Sand asked—asking me again, I realized, because Kissindre had givenme all the credit.

“I ... it just came to me.” I looked down, seeing theMonument in my memory: an entire artificial world, created by a technology sofar beyond ours that it still seemed like magic; a work of art constructed outof bits and pieces, the bones of dead planets.

At first I’d thought of it as a monument to death, to thefailure of lost civilizations—a reminder to the ones who came after that theCreators had gone where we never could. But then I’d seen it again, and seen itdifferently—not as a cemetery marker, but as a road sign pointing the waytoward the unimaginable future; a memorial to the death of Death ...

“... because he has an unusual sensitivity to thesubliminals embedded in the matrix of the Monument.” Kissindre was finishing myexplanation again when I looked up.

“Yes, well, that is what he’s best at, that sort ofinstinctive, intuitive thing,” Ezra said, shrugging. “Considering hisbackground ... Kissindre and I put in long hours of search work and statisticalanalysis to come up with the data that supports his hypothesis. We constructedthe actual study—”

I frowned, and Kissindre said, “Ezra ...”

“I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve the credit—” Ditreksensaid, catching her look. “Without him, we wouldn’t have had a starting point.It’s almost enough to make me wish I were half Hydran ....” He glanced at me,with a small twist of his mouth. He looked back at Sand, at the others,measuring their reactions.

There was a long silence. Stilt looking at Ditreksen, Isaid, “Sometimes I wish you were half human.”

“Let me introduce you to our Hydran guests,” Perrymeadesaid, catching me by the arm, trying to pull me away without seeming to. Iremembered that he was responsible for overseeing Tau’s uncertain racerelations. “They want to meet you.”

I realized suddenly that I was more than just another interchangeableteam member, a node in an artificial construct created to impress the FTA. Iwas some kind of token, living proof that they weren’t genocidal exploiters—atleast, not anymore.

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