So it was that Qing-jao met all the visitors who came to the house, and graciously accepted their
praise on behalf of her father. Wang-mu stayed with her for the first few visits, but she found it
unbearable to listen as Qin-gjao described again and again how her father and she had discovered
the existence of a computer program that dwelt amid the philotic network of the ansibles, and how
it would be destroyed. It was one thing to know that in her heart, Qing-jao did not believe she was
committing murder; it was quite another thing for Wang-mu to listen to her boasting about how the
murder would be accomplished.
And boasting was what Qing-jao was doing, though only Wang-mu knew it. Always Qing-jao
gave the credit to her father, but since Wang-mu knew that it was entirely Qing-jao's doing, she
knew that when Qing-jao described the accomplishment as worthy service to the gods, she was
really praising herself.
"Please don't make me stay and listen anymore," said Wang-mu.
Qing-jao studied her for a moment, judging her. Then, coldly, she answered. "Go if you must. I
see that you are still a captive of our enemy. I have no need of you."
"Of course not," said Wang-mu. "You have the gods." But in saying this, she could not keep the
bitter irony out of her voice.
"Gods that you don't believe in," said Qing-jao bitingly. "Of course, you have never been spoken
to by the gods-- why should you believe? I dismiss you as my secret maid, since that is your desire.
Go back to your family."
"As the gods command," said Wang-mu. And this time she made no effort to conceal her
bitterness at the mention of the gods.
She was already out of the house, walking down the road, when Mu-pao came after her. Since
Mu-pao was old and fat, she had no hope of catching up with Wang-mu on foot. So she came riding
a donkey, looking ridiculous as she kicked the animal to hasten it. Donkeys, sedan chairs, all these
trappings of ancient China-- do the godspoken really think that such affectations make them
somehow holier? Why don't they simply ride on fliers and hovercars like honest people do on every
other world? Then Mu-pao would not have to humiliate herself, bouncing and jouncing on an
animal that is suffering under her weight. To spare her as much embarrassment as possible, Wang-
mu returned and met Mu-pao partway.
"Master Han Fei-tzu commands you to return," said Mu-pao.
"Tell Master Han that he is kind and good, but my mistress has dismissed me.
"Master Han says that Mistress Qing-jao has the authority to dismiss you as her secret maid, but
not to dismiss you from his house. Your contract is with him, not with her."
This was true. Wang-mu hadn't thought of that.
"He begs you to return," said Mu-pao. "He told me to say it that way, so that you might come out
of kindness, if you would not come out of obedience."
"Tell him I will obey. He should not beg such a low person as myself."
"He will be glad," said Mu-pao.
Wang-mu walked beside Mu-pao's donkey. They went very slowly, which was more comfortable
for Mu-pao and the donkey as well.
"I have never seen him so upset," said Mu-pao. "Probably I shouldn't tell you that. But when I said
that you were gone, he was almost frantic."
"Were the gods speaking to him?" It was a bitter thing if Master Han called her back only because
for some reason the slave driver within him had demanded it.
"No," said Mu-pao. "It wasn't like that at all. Though of course I've never actually seen what it
looks like when the gods speak to him."
"He simply didn't want you to go," said Mu-pao.
"I will probably end up going, anyway," said Wang-mu. "But I'll gladly explain to him why I am
now useless in the House of Han."
"Oh, of course," said Mu-pao. "You have always been useless. But that doesn't mean you aren't
"What do you mean?"
"Happiness can depend as easily on useless things as on useful ones."
"Is that a saying of an old master?"
"It's a saying of an old fat woman on a donkey," said Mu-pao. "And don't you forget it."
When Wang-mu was alone with Master Han in his private chamber, he showed no sign of the
agitation Mu-pac, had spoken of.
"I have spoken with Jane," he said. "She thinks that since you also know of her existence and
believe her not to be the enemy of the gods, it will be better if you stay."
"So I will serve Jane now?" asked Wang-mu. "Am I to be her secret maid?"
Wang-mu did not mean her words to sound ironic; the idea of being servant to a nonhuman entity
intrigued her. But Master Han reacted as if he were trying to smooth over an offense.
"No," he said. "You shouldn't be anyone's servant. You have acted bravely and worthily."
"And yet you called me back to fulfill my contract with you."
Master Han bowed his head. "I called you back because you are the only one who knows the truth.
If you go, then I'm alone in this house."
Wang-mu almost said: How can you be alone, when your daughter is here? And until the last few
days, it wouldn't have been a cruel thing to say, because Master Han and Mistress Qing-jao were
friends as close as a father and daughter could ever be. But now, the barrier between them was
insuperable. Qing-jao lived in a world where she was a triumphant servant of the gods, trying to be
patient with the temporary madness of her father. Master Han lived in a world where his daughter
and all of his society were slaves to an oppressive Congress, and only he knew the truth. How could
they even speak to each other across a gulf so wide and deep?
"I'll stay," said Wang-mu. "However I can serve you, I will."
"We'll serve each other," said Master Han. "My daughter promised to teach you. I'll continue
Wang-mu touched her forehead to the floor. "I am unworthy of such kindness."
"No," said Master Han. "We both know the truth now. The gods don't speak to me. Your face
should never touch the floor before me."
"We have to live in this world," said Wang-mu. "I will treat you as an honored man among the
godspoken, because that is what all the world would expect of me. And you must treat me as a
servant, for the same reason."
Master Han's face twisted bitterly. "The world also expects that when a man of my age takes a
young girl from his daughter's service into his own, he is using her for venery. Shall we act out all
the world's expectations?"
"It is not in your nature to take advantage of your power in that way," said Wang-mu.
"Nor is it in my nature to receive your humiliation. Before I learned the truth about my affliction, I
accepted other people's obeisance because I believed it was really being offered to the gods, and not
"That is as true as it ever was. Those who believe you are godspoken are offering their obeisance
to the gods, while those who are dishonest do it to flatter you. "
"But you are not dishonest. Nor do you believe the gods speak to me."
"I don't know whether the gods speak to you or not, or whether they ever have or ever can speak
to anyone. I only know that the gods don't ask you or anyone to do these ridiculous, humiliating
rituals-- those were forced on you by Congress. Yet you must continue those rituals because your
body requires it. Please allow me to continue the rituals of humiliation that are required of people
of my position in the world."
Master Han nodded gravely. "You are wise beyond your years and education, Wang-mu."
"I am a very foolish girl," said Wang-mu. "If I had any wisdom, I would beg you to send me as far
away from this place as possible. Sharing a house with Qing-jao will now be very dangerous to me.
Especially if she sees that I am close to you, when she can't be."
"You're right. I'm being very selfish, to ask you to stay."
"Yes," said Wang-mu. "And yet I will stay."
"Why?" asked Master Han.
"Because I can never go back to my old life," she answered. "I know too much now about the
world and the universe, about Congress and the gods. I would have the taste of poison in my mouth
all the days of my life, if I went back home and pretended to be what I was before."
Master Han nodded gravely, but then he smiled, and soon he laughed.
"Why are you laughing at me, Master Han?"
"I'm laughing because I think that you never were what you used to be."
"What does that mean?"
"I think you were always pretending. Maybe you even fooled yourself. But one thing is certain.
You were never an ordinary girl, and you could never have led an ordinary life."
Wang-mu shrugged. "The future is a hundred thousand threads, but the past is a fabric that can
never be rewoven. Maybe I could have been content. Maybe not."
"So here we are together, the three of us."
Only then did Wang-mu turn to see that they were not alone. In the air above the display she saw
the face of Jane, who smiled at her.
"I'm glad you came back," said Jane.
For a moment, Jane's presence here caused Wang-mu to leap to a hopeful conclusion. "Then you
aren't dead! You've been spared!"
"It was never Qing-jao's plan for me to be dead already," answered Jane. "Her plan to destroy me
is proceeding nicely, and I will no doubt die on schedule."
"Why do you come to this house, then," asked Wang-mu, "when it was here that your death was
set in motion?"
"I have a lot of things to accomplish before I die," said Jane, "including the faint possibility of
discovering a way to survive. It happens that the world of Path contains many thousands of people
who are much more intelligent, on average, than the rest of humanity."
"Only because of Congress's genetic manipulation," said Master Han.
"True," said Jane. "The godspoken of Path are, properly speaking, not even human anymore.
You're another species, created and enslaved by Congress to give them an advantage over the rest
of humanity. It happens, though, that a single member of that new species is somewhat free of
"This is freedom?" said Master Han. "Even now, my hunger to purify myself is almost
"Then don't resist it," said Jane. "I can talk to you while you contort yourself."
Almost at once, Master Han began to fling out his arms and twist them in the air in his ritual of
purification. Wang-mu turned her face away.
"Don't do that," said Master Han. "Don't hide your face from me. I can't be ashamed to show this
to you. I'm a cripple, that's all; if I had lost a leg, my closest friends would not be afraid to see the
Wang-mu saw the wisdom in his words, and did not hide her face from his affliction.
"As I was saying," said Jane, "it happens that a single member of this new species is somewhat
free of Congress. I hope to enlist your help in the works I'm trying to accomplish in the few months
left to me."
"I'll do anything I can," said Master Han.
"And if I can help, I will," said Wang-mu. Only after she said it did she realize how ridiculous it
was for her to offer such a thing. Master Han was one of the godspoken, one of those with superior
intellectual abilities. She was only an uneducated specimen of ordinary humanity, with nothing to
And yet neither of them mocked her offer, and Jane accepted it graciously. Such a kindness
proved once again to Wang-mu that Jane had to be a living thing, not just a simulation.
"Let me tell you the problems that I hope to resolve."
"As you know, my dearest friends are on the planet Lusitania. They are threatened by the
Lusitania Fleet. I am very interested in stopping that fleet from causing any irrevocable harm."
"By now I'm sure they've already been given the order to use the Little Doctor," said Master Han.
"Oh, yes, I know they have. My concern is to stop that order from having the effect of destroying
not only the humans of Lusitania, but two other raman species as well." Then Jane told them of the
hive queen, and how it came to be that buggers once again lived in the universe. "The hive queen is
already building starships, pushing herself to the limit to accomplish as much as she can before the
fleet arrives. But there's no chance that she can build enough to save more than a tiny fraction of the
inhabitants of Lusitania. The hive queen can leave, or send another queen who shares all her
memories, and it matters little to her whether her workers go with her or not. But the pequeninos
and the humans are not so self-contained. I'd like to save them all. Especially because my dearest
friends, a particular speaker for the dead and a young man suffering from brain damage, would
refuse to leave Lusitania unless every other human and pequenino could be saved."
"Are they heroes, then?" asked Master Han.
"Each has proved it several times in the past," said Jane.
"I wasn't sure if heroes still existed in the human race."
Si Wang-mu did not speak what was in her heart: that Master Han himself was such a hero.
"I am searching for every possibility," said Jane. "But it all comes down to an impossibility, or so
humankind has believed for more than three thousand years. If we could build a starship that
traveled faster than light, that traveled as quickly as the messages of the ansible pass from world to
world, then even if the hive queen can build only a dozen starships, they could easily shuttle all the
inhabitants of Lusitania to other planets before the Lusitania Fleet arrives."
"If you could actually build such a starship," said Han Fei-tzu, "you could create a fleet of your
own that could attack the Lusitania Fleet and destroy it before it could harm anyone."
"Ah, but that is impossible," said Jane.
"You can conceive of faster-than-light travel, and yet you can't imagine destroying the Lusitania
"Oh, I can imagine it," said Jane. "But the hive queen wouldn't build it. She has told Andrew-- my
friend, the Speaker for the Dead--"
"Valentine's brother," said Wang-mu. "He also lives?"
"The hive queen has told him that she will never build a weapon for any reason."
"Even to save her own species?"
"She'll have the single starship she needs to get offplanet, and the others will also have enough
starships to save their species. She's content with that. There's no need to kill anybody."
"But if Congress has its way, millions will be killed!"
"Then that is their responsibility," said Jane. "At least that's what Andrew tells me she answers
whenever he raises that point."
"What kind of strange moral reasoning is this?"
"You forget that she only recently discovered the existence of other intelligent life, and she came
perilously close to destroying it. Then that other intelligent life almost destroyed her. But it was her
own near brush with committing the crime of xenocide that has had the greater effect on her moral
reasoning. She can't stop other species from such things, but she can be certain that she doesn't do it
herself. She will only kill when that's the only hope she has of saving the existence of her species.
And since she has another hope, she won't build a warship."
"Faster-than-light travel," said Master Han. "Is that your only hope?"
"The only one I can think of that has a glimmer of possibility. At least we know that something in
the universe moves faster than light-- information is passed down the philotic ray from one ansible
to another with no detectable passage of time. A bright young physicist on Lusitania who happens
to be locked in jail at the present time is spending his days and nights working on this problem. I
perform all his calculations and simulations for him. At this very moment he is testing a hypothesis
about the nature of philotes by using a model so complex that in order to run the program I'm
stealing time from the computers of almost a thousand different universities. There's hope."
"As long as you live, there's hope," said Wang-mu. "Who will do such massive experiments for
him when you're gone?"
"That's why there's so much urgency," said Jane.
"What do you need me for?" asked Master Han. "I'm no physicist, and I have no hope of learning
enough in the next few months to make any kind of difference. It's your jailed physicist who'll do it,
if anyone can. Or you yourself."
"Everyone needs a dispassionate critic to say, Have you thought of this? Or even, Enough of that
dead-end path, get onto another train of thought. That's what I need you for. We'll report our work
to you, and you'll examine it and say whatever comes to mind. You can't possibly guess what
chance word of yours will trigger the idea we're looking for."
Master Han nodded, to concede the possibility.
"The second problem I'm working on is even knottier," said Jane. "Whether we achieve faster-
than-light travel or not, some pequeninos will have starships and can leave the planet Lusitania.
The problem is that they carry inside them the most insidious and terrible virus ever known, one
that destroys every form of life it touches except those few that it can twist into a deformed kind of
symbiotic life utterly dependent on the presence of that virus."
"The descolada," said Master Han. "One of the justifications sometimes used for carrying the
Little Doctor with the fleet in the first place."
"And it may actually be a justification. From the hive queen's point of view, it's impossible to
choose between one life form and another, but as Andrew has often pointed out to me, human
beings don't have that problem. If it's a choice between the survival of humanity and the survival of
the pequeninos, he'd choose humanity, and for his sake so would I."
"And I," said Master Han.
"You can be sure the pequeninos feel the same way in reverse," said Jane. "If not on Lusitania
then somewhere, somehow, it will almost certainly come down to a terrible war in which humans
use the Molecular Disruption Device and the pequeninos use the descolada as the ultimate
biological weapon. There's a good chance of both species utterly destroying each other. So I feel
some urgency about the need to find a replacement virus for the descolada, one that will perform all
the functions needed in the pequeninos' life cycle without any of its predatory, self-adapting
capabilities. A selectively inert form of the virus."
"I thought there were ways to neutralize the descolada. Don't they take drugs in their drinking
water on Lusitania?"
"The descolada keeps figuring out their drugs and adapting to them. It's a series of footraces.
Eventually the descolada will win one, and then there won't be any more humans to race against."
"Do you mean that the virus is intelligent?" asked Wang-mu.
"One of the scientists on Lusitania thinks so," said Jane. "A woman named Quara. Others
disagree. But the virus certainly acts as if it were intelligent, at least when it comes to adapting
itself to changes in its environment and changing other species to fit its needs. I think Quara is
right, personally. I think the descolada is an intelligent species that has its own kind of language
that it uses to spread information very quickly from one side of the world to the other."
"I'm not a virologist," said Master Han.
"And yet if you could look at the studies being performed by Elanora Ribeira von Hesse--"
"Of course I'll look. I only wish I had your hope that I can help."
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