The higher its type, always the seldomer doth a thing succeed. Ye higher men here, have ye not all been failures? Be of good cheer; what doth it matter? How much is still possible! Learn to laugh at yourselves, as ye ought to laugh! What wonder even that ye have failed and only half-succeeded, ye half-shattered ones! Doth not man's FUTURE strive and struggle in you? Man's furthest, profoundest, star-highest issues, his prodigious powers—do not all these foam through one another in your vessel?

—from “Thus Spake Zarathustra” by Friedrich Nietzsche

AUGUST KARSH, the Ascendancy's spy-master, was tall and thin, with a narrow, austere face that gave him the appearance of a saint until one saw the eyes. They were cold, blue, and disconcertingly intense. Many men coming away from a meeting with Karsh found they could remember little except his eyes, the ruthless eyes behind which lurked a mind like a titanium trap. He was not a man much given to laughter, and it had been years since Clender, his assistant, had last heard him express his amusement aloud.

Sitting in his office atop the 270-story building that housed the Directorate's headquarters, Karsh sat in his throne-like chair, his hands clasped in a steeple, staring out the window at the rays of the setting sun. These were yellow-golden rays, which fell warmly on the northern hemisphere of the planet called Terra, third of the Class G star Sol.

Clender sat across from him, waiting patiently, sensing what was in the other's mind. The Myranda Flare episode on Valatesta didn't make sense, or did it? Mather Shek was a double agent; he had to remember that. Perhaps this was vengeance on the part of Prince Li-Hu. No, that didn't make sense, either, the timing was too coincidental. But Myranda Flare….

The director swung around without warning. “Flare's movements have got to be connected with the missing cruiser,” he declared. His voice was even and surprisingly soft, considering the hardness of his eyes. “They have to be no matter how absurd they look. There's no other credible explanation.”

“But how?” Clender gestured helplessly.

“Consider these facts, Clender. Right now Golem Gregor is faced with the crisis of his career. His primary concern will be the possibility that House Dai Zhan will obtain the sunbuster. He is aware that once in possession of Shiva, Li-Hu would be inclined to nova the cyborg sun, as a conclusive demonstration of his newly acquired immunity from the Navy as well as to win support for his cause across the galaxy. Many will see him as the champion of the human race, the man who dared to do what House Malhedron would not.”

“Nova Diable?”

“It makes perfect sense, Clender. The Integration is a direct threat to Li-Hu as well as the Ascendancy as a whole. Given their proximity, the worlds of House Dai Zhan would be among the first to be infected if the machine intelligences ever broke free.”

“What about the hit on Mather Shek?” Clender asked.

“Dr. G is attempting to establish ties with Li-Hu,” Karsh declared.

“The Integration… seeks to ally itself with the very man who intends to destroy them?” Clender asked incredulously.

“An alliance of strict pragmatism. Shek's murder was the sales pitch. Look at the timing. Right in the middle of the Rigel crisis, Gregor's best agent somehow shows up on Valatesta and murders one of our best channels into House Dai Zhan? That isn't a coincidence. It's a gift. It's an overture. It's a promise of things to come.”

“Or perhaps it was a warning. But a bomb is such a drastic action! If the cyborgs are seeking a short-term alliance with House Dai Zhan, mass murder would seem to be an undiplomatic way to go about it.”

“Undiplomatic?” Karsh arched his eyebrows. His skeptical attitude towards politicians was notorious. “By the time the diplomats finished negotiating the menu for the dinner after the opening ceremonies, the Rigel would already be stripped for salvage! Killing thirty-seven people in addition to our agent was merely the Integration's way of ensuring the news got to Li-Hu in short order.”

“I still can't believe they got Flare past the blockade,” Clender said.

“Dr. G rolled the dice, Clender. It was a desperate gamble, but what choice does he have? The last report from Xigaze reported ten runners intercepted, but we didn't get them all. Let's not fool ourselves on that score.” Karsh rubbed his hands thoughtfully. “Gregor is as anxious to keep that bomb out of Li-Hu's hands as we are. More anxious, I should think.”

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A Mind Programmed: The Spy-Master