A community of archeologists, including Sanja and Arne, have accidentally
awakened a Power that has been dead for five billion years. They realize
what is about to happen, that the evil will destroy their
Straumli Realm, and try to escape on two spaceships, but the Power
is born with terrible force and destroys one spaceship.
The Power knows that it existed before and died, but doesn't remember the reason
for its downfall. Sanja and Arne manage to escape on the other spaceship
with their children Johanna and Jefri.
Their spaceship has 309 children in coldsleep boxes, comatose children who are dying because the spaceship has been put together in a hurry and is not properly equipped.
They barely survive a rough landing on an inhabited planet.
Three travelers on the ground see a falling star.
They are a life-long pilgrim, Peregrine, who has visited all sorts of lands
in his multi-century life, Scriber, who is probably a spy running away from
a war zone, and Tyrathech, another mysterious person (of uncertain gender)
whom Scriber suspects
of being Flenser nobility. They are in Flenser land, headed towards
the castle on Hidden Island. Flenser has tried to invade a neighboring nation
but has failed. Peregrine and Scriber try to approach the fallen star but
see that Flenser troopers are already on the job.
Johanna gets out of the spaceship and walks around but is suddenly struck
by an arrow. Then arrows start flying all over them. Her father tries to
run but is attacked by
wolf-like armored soldiers and killed. Her mother is
set on fire with the spaceship and all the comatose children.
Hundreds of the attackers are killed by her mother's gun but hundreds
more keep coming.
Peregrine can sense Johanna's thoughts. He knows that she's alive.
He and Scriber see soldiers in white jackets taking her away.
Curious to see the alien, Peregrine and Scriber decide to follow them,
but first need to camouflage as soldiers, so they start looking for undamaged
uniforms among the carnage.
Peregrine is actually a creature made of four independent creatures:
Wic, Kwk, Rac and Rum. Rum is severely wounded while trying to steal
a soldier's jacket. The other three parts, however, still function as
Peregrine with a scar: Wickwrackscar.
Peregrine attacks the soldiers that are taking Johanna
to the castle and kills them all. Peregrine and Scriber carry Johanna to
the port and need to avoid the Flenser sentries.
They are helped by a big distraction: the appearance of the nation's leader,
who turns out to be the very
Tyrathech who traveled with them. Peregrine now realizes that
Tyrathech is one of the survivors of the battle in which all of Flenser's
soldiers supposedly died. While the soldiers worship her, Peregrine and
Scriber elope on a boat taking their precious loot (the alien Johanna) with them.
The primitive beings of this planet, the "tines", are not individuals but packs that share a mind. Each mind is made of a number of members.
Meanwhile, Jefri is prisoner in the castle: he lost consciousness but
survived the fire and was found by the long-necked dogs (the "tines") and transported to
the castle. They make a mistake and place him in the wrong room, and the
narrator tells us that this mistake will change the history of the world.
Jefri is locked in the room with a large number of puppies and starts
playing with them, hoping that his parents and his sister and his 309
friends are also in the castle.
Before venturing in his military campaign, five years earlier, Flenser had
created Lord Steel, the perfect ruler. Now this Lord Steel receives his
creator, Tyrathech, but Tyrathech admits that she is not the full Flenser:
when the battle was lost, Flenser disassembled into several members, each of
which fled independently merging with others. Now only two of Flenser's
members are part of Tyrathech, and she doesn't want to be recognized as the
real Flenser until the other members arrive so the whole can be recomposed.
Meanwhile, an ominous message from Straumli Realm announces that the
archeologists have discovered the famed ancient archive and promises to
hook it up to the network; but it also admits that something is gone awry
and all communications need to be stopped for a while.
Ravna is the rare human being in the Relay system, where business consists in
relaying news across the universe, especially for the super-intelligent Powers.
She's a librarian, originally born in Sjandra Kei, 20,000 light years away.
Her library is 1,000 light-years from the residence of
Grondr Vrinimikalir, the intelligence chief of Relay, who belongs to the
Relay's majority race Vrinimi.
As a child, she had dreamed of joining
Straumli Realm, where humans were trying to transcend their humanity.
Grondr tells her that the fall of Straum has become a problem for the Relay.
It is not unusual that a race transcends its intelligence and creates a Power,
but Straum, toying with a lost archive, has created an evil Power.
The problem is that someone is using a lot of the bandwidth of Relay to get
information about this Straum blunder, at the expense of other, more loyal, customers.
The transcendent Powers don't last long: they rarely communicated for longer than ten years. The Power that is sucking up a lot of bandwidth is eleven years old, which makes is "The Old One".
Grondr also tells her that a ship coming from the Powers would like to purchase
a living human. Ravna is not interested, but Grondr is not upset: there is
another human, a human that they resurrected by patching together his dismembered body. This human, Pham Nuwen, comes from the primitive Slow Zone, the
Great Slowness, where races (including humans) can't travel faster than light
(The Relay is part of the Beyond, where faster than light travel is possible).
He was taken on board the spaceships of Qeng Ho, a civilization stretching
for hundreds of light years. The expedition lasted one thousand years before
his ship crashed killing everybody on board, including him.
Ravna and Pham meet
Blueshell and his buddy, who are members of the Skroderider race, a
race of galactic traders that rides on wheels.
They sell cyber-products that now people don't trust because of the Straum collapse.
They are eyewitnesses of what happened on Straumli Realm.
They tell Ravna that the Straum were working with archives millions of years old.
There are thousands of archives in the Beyond, each containing information that
goes back millions of years by thousands of races.
The Known Net has existed for billions of years in the Beyond.
Some of the archives are "advice" that today's races can follow, and occasionally some of the advice leads to the race's extinction because it was a malicious
Straum found this lost archive in the Transcend and trusted it. When they suspected that something was going wrong, it was too late; but some humans managed
to sabotage the evil Power (the "Perversion") and fled with a part of it: the
Perversion is not whole, and is probably hunting for the missing part.
Blueshell wants to convince his customers that the Perversion cannot have
contaminated his merchandise precisely because it is not whole.
Meanwhile, a competitor of the Relay called Windsong has realized that the Relay
is overloaded and cannot provide its customers with the usual service, and is
therefore planning to create a competing service.
By now, the reader has been told that the galaxy is made of four concentric "zones of thought":
the Transcend, where the super-intelligent Powers reside of which nothing can be known to the other zones;
the Beyond, where faster-than-light travel is possible, and where many super-human races live and some humans too (notably Straumli Realm and Sjandra Kei, all descended of an original Norwegian tribe called Nyjora), and where communication takes place thanks to a vast Known Net;
the Great Slowness (including the Earth), where intelligence is limited to human-level intelligence and nothing can travel faster than light;
and the Unthinking Depths (the galactic core), where intelligence becomes unable to operate intelligently.
Ravna has sex with Pham who is gone when she wakes up.
A Skroderider calls her to thank her for mobilizing the organization to
search for the human ship that escaped the Perversion. Ravna has done nothing
of that sort, but minutes later she realizes what has happened: Grondr tells
her that Pham has been placed there by the Old Power, who got immensely
interested in humans after the Straumli Realm's disaster. Pham is basically
the human manifestation of a Power. The Old Power now
knows the story of the survivors and is using all its bandwidth to look for
them (to listen to their signal).
While Jefri is in the dungeon with the puppies, prisoner of the monsters who killed her parents, Johanna, nicknamed "Two-legs", is taken by Peregrine/Wickwrackscar and Scriber/Jacqueramaphan to the castle of king Woodcarver, who has become a queen after decaying physically.
Peregrine has known the king (now queen) for many years. Woodcarver admits
that most people in his castle are his offspring, including his loyal Scrupilo
and Vendacious, as was Flenser. They are fascinated by Johanna's dataset,
the Pink Oliphaunt, which in reality is a portable computer but simply
a picture box to them, a picture box that seems to contain a whole universe.
The computer also contains a program to teach language, and Johanna, when she
wakes up after the surgery that heals her, realizes that they are learning her
language faster than her brother Jefri ever did.
Jefri, instead, languishes in the dungeon of Flenser/ Tyrathech's castle,
thrown in a dungeon by mistake by a servant of Lord Steel.
Tyrathech knows that, sooner or later, the other fragments of Flenser will
return to the castle and she will be destroyed.
Tyrathech hates Flenser and would love to destroy his movement, which was
founded on deceit.
Steel, on the other hand, knows that the spaceship contains powerful weapons:
two aliens (Jefri's parents) killed so many of his soldiers.
Steel is the only one to know the real extent of the research conducted by
Flenser in the laboratories of the castle. Flenser scientifically dissected
and combined subjects to engineer loyal followers, like Steel's assistant
Shreck. Steel himself is a product of those experiments.
Flenser had reached the conclusion that the most intelligent grouping of
members was a pack of eight packs, and Steel is continuing the experiment in
room number 33. Here he keeps the eight-pack Amdiranifani, derived from
the world's most famous mathematician. By accident, this is precisely the room
where Jefri has been thrown by mistake.
Steel initially punished the servant who threw Jefri with these puppies, but
now he sees that the puppies are learning to communicate with Jefri and hopes
that they, while communicating with Jefri, they will steal the secrets of the spaceship.
Steel has also realized that the children on the spaceship are not dead: they just
breath very slowly. He also has spies in Woodcarver's castle and enjoys reports
on what Woodcarver is learning from the other alien, Johanna: they are
learning very quickly because Johanna's dataset teaches them.
Using Amdi as the interpreter,
Steel brainwashes Jefri to believe that the Woodcarvers are the killers of
his parents and his sister, and that he can take his revenge if he helps
Steel master the spaceship's weapons.
Amdi tells Steel that Jefri cannot operate the spaceship but can operate
a human invention, the radio: Jefri sends out a message asking for help.
Meanwhile, Relay has realized that some civilizations have been wiped out
by the evil power, and that the evil power is trying to infiltrate the
network disguised as a site called Arbitration Arts. Relay then alerts
all the nodes in the network and instructs them to destroy any solar
system infected by this bogus site. In order to understand this perversion,
Relay asks for any information related to Homo Sapiens.
The Skroderiders, the male Blueshell and the female Greenstalk, are chosen for the rescue mission by Vrinimi Org. The mission is kept secret for fear that the perversion, now called the Blight, will learn of it and therefore learn Jefri's location.
The Skroderiders are fully aware of the risk of being destroyed by the Blight,
but they also know that they could profit greatly from it.
Ravna has become even more essential in Relay now that there is so much
interest in Homo Sapiens. She, on the other hand, is emotionally attached to
the story of this child Jefri.
Pham reappears as the messenger of the Old Power. Old One seems to have lost
interest in the story, just when Ravna needs his help to equip the mission
with superpowers. The human messenger Pham is arrogant, but Ravna makes him
doubt of his own identity: Pham's memory could be all fake, a charade created
by Old One when he resurrected the dead Pham. After all, Ravna recognizes
old legends in what Pham claims was his life.
Meanwhile, Ravna keeps talking with Jefri.
The Skroderiders are almost ready to depart on the spaceship prepared by
Vrinimi Org for this expedition when suddenly Old One appears through its
avatar and announces that the perversion Blight is more powerful than
thought: it is killing the Old One itself and it will soon destroy the
Relay. Old One instructs Ravna to jump into the ship and take off
immediately, taking with her his last gift: Pham. Old One is convinced
that Jefri's spaceship contains the weapon capable of defeating the Blight.
Now that the Vrimini Org has been destroyed,
the Skroderiders hesitate to continue the mission, but Ravna reminds them
that the Blight could as well destroy their own civilization.
Scriber, who spent his life studying and inventing on paper, tries to befriend Johanna, but Johanna is hostile to all of them. Scriber tries to explain to her that they, Woodcarvers, saved her, and the others killed her parents and her brother. Johanna's dataset is helping them advance their technology, and they will soon have gunpowder.
Scriber's desire is to wipe out the evil Flenserists from the face of the planet.
Peregrine, who is close to Woodcarver, tells Scriber in secret that Woodcarver's
security chief Vendacious, second in command, has deployed spies in Steel's castle and Johanna is safe under his protection. Scriber meets Vendacious and volunteers to help protect Johanna. Scriber tells Vendacious that he has made detailed notes of all the people who move around the place. Vendacious asks him if anyone else knows about this. Scriber says no and Vendacious order his assassination: as he is being slaughtered, Scriber realizes that Vendacious is a traitor and
Johanna is not safe at all. Vendacious' killers kill all of Scriber/ Jacqueramaphan except one member, Ja. Ja survives with one simple mission: alert Johanna that Vendacious is a traitor and is plotting against her. He reaches Woodcarver's castle but dies before he can communicate.
Therefore: Jefri (convinced that he is helping take revenge on his family's killers) is helping Steel and his primitive Flenserists to acquire human-level technology that Steel plans to use against the Woodcarvers, while Johanna is helping the Woodcarvers with her dataset to develop technology that they want to use against the Flenserists. Furthermore, the Flenserists are learning everything that
the Woodcarvers learn from Johanna because they have a spy at the highest
level: Vendacious himself. Meanwhile, Ravna is leading the rescue mission to
save Jefri and find out what mysterious item in the spaceship can defeat the
Blight that has just obliterated the Relay and other civilizations.
Pham is back alive but has an existential crisis, realizing that his memories
have been implanted by Old One. In fact, Old One has dumped a whole archive
of data into him, a "godshatter".
He is de facto Old One's robot headed for the Slowness
to fulfill Old One's mission. He now knows that the Blight is something very
old, billions of years old.
Ravna continues to communicate with Jefri and learns that Jefri's life is
threatened by the Woodcarvers (that's what Steel told Jefri). Her mission
is to reach him in time to save him from the Woodcarvers.
Steel and Tyrathech discuss the situation.
Tyrathech is afraid that Ravna's spaceship can hurt their tribe, but Steel
tells her they had no choice: Jefri's spaceship was transmitting its location
from the beginning. Steel knows that Ravna wants something else, not just
Johanna regrets that she was mean to Scriber. Now her best friend is
Woodcarver herself, who sleeps in her room. Johanna helps the Woodcarvers
develop a cannon. Woodcarver collapses and Johanna thinks she's dying but
instead Woodcarver is merely pregnant. She has been both mother and father
to hundreds of Woodcarvers over the 600 years of her life, but this is the
first time that the father is someone else:
Peregrine Wickwrackscar, who will add some members to his four (Johanna calls "Scarbutt" one of the four Peregrine members).
Ravna, Pham and the Skroderiders travel twenty thousand light-years until
the spaceship needs repairs. Then they land on Harmonious Repose, where
Rihndell runs a repair shop. Pham is beginning to sense that Steel may be
scheming against them. Pham comes from a similarly primitive world and
can sense how someone like Steel would think of a spaceship like theirs.
Pham cautions Ravna not to tell Jefri that the ship contains the precious
countermeasure to the Blight, because this will encourage Steel to blackmail
Jefri tells them that he has taught them how to build cannons and radios.
Their ship cannot be repaired immediately because a a vicious race of giant butterflies, the Aprahanti, demands urgent service from Rihndell.
They belong to the colossal army assembled by Death to Vermin, a mysterious
alliance that has formed to block the Blight. Its first step is to warn any
civilization with a "human infestation" that it could be next to fall into
the hands of Blight. It therefore proceeds to destroy
Ravna's very homeland, Sjandra Kei, which is one of the three civilizations
inhabited mainly by humans: their last message is that 25 billion people
have been killed in seconds. Some are said to have escaped and the
Aprahanti are eager to hunt down any survivors.
Suddenly Pham is ambushed by Greenstack and other skroderiders who live there.
Blueshell himself is shocked by Greenstack's betrayal. Pham survives the
ambush and wounds Greenstack, and understands what happened: the skroderider
race was created billions of year earlier and has always waited for the
return of its creator, and that creator is the Blight, which programmed
them to obey it when ordered to. Pham tells Ravna that they need to destroy
both Greenstack and Blueshell because the Blight can turn the two against
them at any time. Ravna, however, refuses and threatens Pham himself with
death if he kills her friends.
Tyrathech is no longer Flenser in waiting because news has arrived the the
missing members of Flenser are dead. Now she's just a half Flenser of no
power. She hates Flenser's realm and wants to destroy it but plays along
Steel's plans. She has guessed that Vendacious must be the spy used by
When Jefri and Amdi finally complete the radio, she volunteers to be the first one to test it. She is ecstatic that her members can spread across a large
distance and still think together.
The Woodcarvers army leaves for the military campaign against the Flensers.
Johanna taught Woodcarver's chief engineer Scrupilo how to build and use
the cannons that will be their main weapon against the Flensers. Vendacious
tells his troops that the Flensers know what they are doing, but also that
he has his own spies among the Flensers, so he knows what they know.
Queen Woodcarver, who gave birth to Pilgrim's puppies, keeps the army together
despite the fact that this is a deadly mission and that (for the Woodcarvers)
the goal is vague.
Ravna's spaceship has become the most followed topic in the Known Net: millions
of races are discussing its situation. Ravna has realized that they are being
chased by at least three fleets: the butterflies Aprahanti that serve the alliance Death to Vermin, the Sjandra Kei survivors, and the Blight itself.
The Known Net discusses the fact that the Blight keeps expanding and has already
killed three Powers.
Some speculate that Ravna's spaceship is part of the Blight, but
Sandor cleares any doubt: the Blight has been accidentally recreated by the
humans of Straumli Realm after all its copies were destroyed billions of years
earlier (obviously one copy of the instructions was left in the lost archive that the humans stumbled on), but the Blight needs something in order to avoid being destroyed again as it was in its previous life; at first, the Blight was looking
for it all over the place, but now it stopped searching and it is simply
chasing that spaceship.
Everybody agrees that the spaceship must be on to something that is
Ravna also has a more practical problem: she and Pham now know that the Skroderiders were created by the Blight and that, despite being the sweetest and more
generous of races, they can be turned into deadly robots at any time by the
Blight. Greenstack herself admits that this is what happened to her, and
Blueshell has to accept the painful truth. Pham wants to destroy them before
they can destroy him and Ravna. Ravna, instead, wants to be loyal to the two
beings that have helped her when she needed help. Pham accepts to trust them...
So there are now two races: Ravna and Pham are racing to reach Johanna's
planet before the Woodcarvers attack, and the Blight and the Alliance ships
are racing to catch Ravna in time. Just when Ravna has established
communications with the Sjandra Kei survivors and is asking for help,
the spaceship is hit by a tsunami-like "surge" as it enters the Slowness and they are cut off from
the world. But Ravna and Pham had enough time to understand that Skroderiders
on board the Sjandra Kei main spaceship have probably seized control.
Ravna has no news from Jefri for 70 hours.
Jefri and Amdi are disappointed that communications with Ravna suddenly stopped.
They wait inside the spaceship for a sign from Ravna, and Amdi becomes
curious about the mold that has been growing on the walls. Jefri remembers
that his parents told him not to play with it.
Thanks to radio cloaks,
Tyrathech can now spread through multiple locations. It splits into one
singleton who is scheming with Steel to trap and kill Woodcarver, and also
kill Johanna, two members who hang out with Jefri and Amdi, and two
members who join the troops led by Steel's loyal general Randolith.
Tyrathech thinks the right moment has come and attempts to annihilate
the remnant of Flenser that lives in her, but Flenser wins and exterminates
Vendacious leads Johanna to an ambush in which she is supposed to be killed
by Steel's agents but instead Johanna survives. Johanna senses that Vendacious
is a traitor and that he had Scriber assassinated. Johanna confronts him
and he confesses, and he also tells Johanna that her brother Jefri is alive.
Peregrine arrives just in time to save Johanna, but they need Vendacious
to lead the troops in the war.
Meanwhile the Known Net discusses the Blight, whose expansion has caused a
Great Surge. The Alliance announces that it has given up the chase of
the Sjandra Kei's spaceships. In reality, they are afraid of being trapped
in the Slowness.
The Blight is still spreading in the Top of the Beyond and has killed two
more Powers. But the Blight seems to be less powerful in the Bottom of the
Beyond, where Ravna is headed.
One of the Sjandra Kei commanders, Kjet, has decided to help Ravna, even if
it may destroy its spaceship, just because she's a fellow human.
The headquarters of Kjet's squad are compromised and their orders cannot be
Kjet's spaceship is attacked by the Blight and Pham, using his supernatural
"godshatter" power, orders a strategy of defense; but that turns out to be
a stupid decision that costs huge casualties to Kjet's crew.
Kjet and the survivors rename themselves Aniara Fleet and the majority would
like to settle somewhere where they cannot be found, and forget these cosmic
wars. Ravna says goodbye to her fellow countrymen.
Ravna's spaceship finally lands in Flenser's land and communications with
Jefri are restored. Jefri alerts Ravna that the Woodcarvers are laying
siege on Flenser's land and that Ravna's help is desperately needed.
Ravna and Pham have their own problems though: the Blight's fleet will
arrive in 48 hours.
Tyrathech (who is really Flenser) catches Jefri talking to Ravna and
takes over, creating more anxiety in Ravna.
Then Tyrathech/Flenser de-facto kidnaps Jefri and Amdi into the escape tunnels built
around the spaceship of Jefri's parents.
Tyrathech/Flenser tells Jefri and Amdi that Steel is a traitor, that he (not
the Woodcarvers) killed his parents, and that Johanna is alive.
Steel begs for military help and Pham fires his powerful gun at the Woodcarvers,
but then Pham sees a human among the Woodcarvers: Johanna.
Tyrathech/Flenser wants to kill Steel, hoping that her helping Jefri will win
her clemency with Ravna and Pham.
Flenser tells Steel that he is "whole" again, and there is no more
Tyrathech, and then proceeds to kill him, or at least most of its members;
but Steel's last words are that Tyrathech has taken over Flenser's will and Flenser is now doing precisely what Tyrathech always wanted to do.
Meanwhile, Ravna allies with Woodcarver and Peregrine, protectors of Johanna.
Blueshell and Pham have spent all the time distrusting each other. Pham thinks
that Blueshell is programmed by the Blight, and Blueshell knows that Pham
is programmed by Old One to activate the Countermeasure: each is the program
of a power. But both die heroically: Blueshell burns alive to save Jefri and
Amdi; Pham merges with the Countermeasure (the mold of the old spaceship's walls) to defeat the Blight. Johanna and Jefri are reunited. Ravna meets Amdi.
Later, Flenser surrenders to Woodcarver and offers peace in return for
what is left of Steel.
Woodcarver fears that Flenser wants to rebuild Steel (who, after all, was
his creation), but Flenser promises not to.
Ravna meditates on what has happened. The Countermeasure generated a Surge
that plunge much of the universe into a new Slowness, protecting it from
the Blight, but also causing the annihilation of countless civilizations by
slowing down their machines.
The Blight might have conquered everything outside it, but the
new Slowness was safe from it.