"Ydrar wants to see you at his office," Heldiss rumbled.
Tchel didn’t turn around, his fore eyes remaining focused on the computer screen. His rear eyes could see his counterpart’s bulk filling the office door just fine. Heldiss was large even for a 17th leveler, his arms as big as Tchel’s forelegs, his forelegs thicker than Tchel’s hind legs. Unlike Tchel, he wore the 17th level body with a heavy grace, maneuvering the low slung form easily. Even after a full term in this form, Tchel found it too big and ungainly, a throwback to early industrialization when the chief engineer needed a strong body to handle the massive machines more than he needed a strong mind. Heldiss would have fit in better then.
"Unending Cycle, Heldiss," Tchel said, turning his head slightly to be heard better. He had seven eyes–including three specialized ones in his forehead that were long obsolete–but only one mouth. His counterpart didn’t reply to his greeting, so Tchel asked, "Why are you telling me? Shouldn’t Ydrar have sent me a message through the Link?" The Link was deeper than face-to-face conversation, communicating ideas and perceptions as well as words. It could be delayed when there were many hops in a connection, but that shouldn’t affect the direct channel between each superior and his two inferiors.
Heldiss tapped his forelegs to show his ignorance, a disgruntled scowl marring his squashed face, which went from yellow to orange. "You can ask him yourself," he said. "He wants to meet you in his office as soon as possible." He turned and left, his rear legs hitting the ground with more force than necessary.
What was Heldiss so upset about? It wasn’t as if he was the one about to be recycled back to the brood pits, so he could try to claw his way back up toward the 17th level again. Even though Tchel did better work than his counterpart, it was clear that their superior preferred Heldiss. Ydrar and Heldiss had been together a long time. As much as the Hierarchy disapproved of favoritism, it was hard to squash when the only relationship that lasted from Cycle to Cycle was between inferior and superior. Tchel hadn’t been close to anyone since Shuan was recycled after many terms as Tchel’s inferior.
Before leaving, Tchel made his own election. Like Ydrar, he had to choose which of his two inferiors would replace him, and which would return to the brood pits. Half the Hierarchy would ascend today to new roles and new bodies, and the other half would have to start over as maggots again. No matter how high you climbed, you always had to begin again at the bottom. With the choice before him, he couldn’t help thinking that Shuan would have done a better job than either of his inferiors. That didn’t make any sense, though. If Shuan had been better than Len, he wouldn’t have lost out six terms ago to the Torian who had later lost his election to Len. After Tchel had made his choice, he informed his candidate and logged it with the Authority. Then Tchel left his terminal’s couch and walked to the Lifter, his left hind leg slightly off rhythm. It did that when he was nervous. He passed Heldiss’s small, windowless office on the way, the only other office on the hallway. Heldiss’s rear eyes followed Tchel as he passed, which made him worry that Heldiss knew something he didn’t.
The Lifter alighted on the highest floor of another skyscraper. He had never been to Ydrar’s building before; he had only met his superior twice, and each time Ydrar had come to Tchel’s office. In contrast, Heldiss had often visited Ydrar.
Signs on the walls told Tchel where to go, guiding him through wide corridors designed to accommodate many different sizes and shapes of Torian. Tchel was far from the largest, so the hallways seemed cavernous to him. At the end of the hall, a smaller door opposite a window led off the hallway, and he ducked to enter his superior’s office.
Ydrar stood to greet him. 18th levelers were smaller than 17th, so Ydrar only came up to Tchel’s chest. He was a lanky biped, with four arms dangling from perpendicular shoulders. His spindly head had an eye in line with each shoulder. If not for the singular mouth and two legs, it would be hard to tell where his front was. Ydrar wore a four-sleeved shirt and trousers, more clothing than the simple vest and belt most 17th levelers wore. Tchel eyed the body curiously, though there was little chance that he would be occupying it tomorrow. The office was spacious, larger than Tchel’s despite the 18th leveler’s more modest proportions, and had tall windows in one of the walls. It would have been quite a step up from his current station.
Ydrar’s foremost arm waved Tchel into the room and indicated a couch where he could rest his lower body. Tchel did so, wondering why Ydrar wasn’t sending him a flurry of messages over the Link.
"Unending Cycle, Ydrar," Tchel said.
"Unending Cycle, Tchel. I wanted to speak to you in person."
"Why?" Tchel asked. "The Link would be easier."
"Humor me. You’ll understand why later."
Which meant that he didn’t want a log of what was said. "All right," Tchel said. "What did you want to speak about?"
"Promotion. Today I choose between you and Heldiss."
Tchel felt a sliver of hope. Was Ydrar actually considering him? "Yes, you do."
"You expect me to pick Heldiss, don’t you?" Ydrar said, reading his expression in a way Tchel could not hope to match. After all, he’d never been 18th level, while Ydrar had been 17th level last term.
"It seemed logical, since you’ve been with him several terms."
"Even though selecting the same inferior each term, based on long association rather than merit, is discouraged?"
"It is a common enough… practice"–Tchel had almost said failing–"and you and Heldiss have known each other a long time."
"True enough. But you should know that my predecessor at this level was recycled for playing favorites, as was the one before him."
"It is sometimes punished when higher levels notice it, but–" Tchel stopped, suddenly understanding what Ydrar had implied. "Four of you. It wasn’t just you and Heldiss, but there were four of you?" If Ydrar’s two predecessors had both selected their favorites, that meant they belonged to a pack of four, always promoting each other. There were superiors who always elected their friend, but a string of four of them was beyond anything Tchel had ever heard of. He would have thought that such a thing would be squashed quickly.
Ydrar’s mouth widened, but Tchel had no idea what the expression meant on an 18th leveler. "Oh, there’s more than just four. There are, in fact, nineteen of us."
"Nineteen? But that goes all the way to the bottom! Are you saying that even the 0th leveler is one of you?"
"Yes, my immediate predecessor will be rising to 1st level today. In turn, he will elect me a term from now."
"That’s… " It was horrible, was what Tchel should say. It was a corruption of their entire system; it took favoritism to an ugly extreme. "That’s brilliant," he said instead. And it was, no matter how awful. It created an unbroken line of succession. Those who took part advanced each term, without exception. And it worked, up until 18th level.
"Why are you telling me this?" Tchel asked. "If I exposed this, the whole thing could come crashing down."
"And who would you reveal it to? I doubt my superior would deign to speak with you in person, and I could stop any message you try to send by the Link."
"You would do that?"
"Of course. Why mindlessly pass on Link messages when you can use them to your own advantage?"
Tchel was shocked. The Link tied the whole of Torian society together, connecting each superior to his two inferiors, and they to their inferiors, from the Ultimate Superior and his Penultimates all the way down to the Nursemaids watching over their broods. But a message from the top had to pass through each level on the way, step by step. There were occasional delays and missteps, but to deliberately prevent the message from reaching its destination, or to read or alter it, was a terrible violation, as bad as… as bad as creating an unbroken chain of favorites. "You still haven’t said why you’re telling me," Tchel pointed out.
"I want you to join our Dynasty."
Tchel recognized the word. It was an Outsider term, a line of succession based on the alien concept of family, rather than merit. "Me?" he asked. "But isn’t Heldiss already a member?"
"He is," Ydrar admitted. "But as I said, my predecessor was recycled, and I expect to be as well. We’re stuck. We haven’t been able to get beyond the 18th level. If I elect Heldiss, he’ll be recycled after me. But if I elect you, then you have a good chance of making it to 19th level, and maybe even farther."
"What are you asking me to commit to? I assume that you’ll want me to choose the Torian in the Dynasty next Election Day"–the Torian Heldiss would be electing to succeed him today–"and keep choosing him until I’m recycled."
Ydrar shrugged all four shoulders. It took Tchel a moment to realize that it was a gesture of assent. "Yes, that is how it works. You’ll also have to defend our interests, and keep the higher levels from finding out our secrets. The rest is details I can transmit to you later. You’re very smart, Tchel, and a good worker, which is why I thought you’d be a good recruit for our Dynasty."
"What do I get out of this?"
"Besides unbroken advancement? You should understand that we take care of our own. Have you noticed that Heldiss is larger than the average 17th leveler?"
"I have." Tchel said. "I thought it was just coincidence. Sometimes a brood pit grows a body that is at variance from the template."
"And sometimes the brood pit’s superiors decide to tweak the template a little."
"You can do that?"
"We can," Ydrar said. "Six cycles ago the former 17th level body in line was damaged in a construction accident while expanding the sewage lines. When we received instructions to grow a new body, we decided to make it more durable. We haven’t had a chance to do anything with the 18th level form yet"–his hands gestured to his own lean form–"but I wouldn’t mind a stronger body. Over time, we’ve replaced or improved about a third of the Dynasty’s bodies. And knowing that you’ll eventually be wearing a body again encourages you to take better care of it."
Remembering some of the more ragged bodies he’d worn during his own advancement, Tchel said, "I can see how that’s an advantage."
"Exactly. So tell me, do you want to join us?"
"I don’t know." If Tchel said no, he’d be immediately recycled, and even if he did rise to this level again, he would never get farther as long as the Dynasty controlled the 18th level. If he said yes, he would always rise, at least until the 18th level, and maybe even higher, spending no more than a single term in the brood pit. Joining the Dynasty was the logical choice, but it betrayed the meritocracy that the Hierarchy was built upon. "I need to think about it."
"You have until the end of the day," Ydrar said. "Then I must make my choice."
Tchel had been too anxious on the way to Ydrar’s office to enjoy the view, but now that he no longer had nervousness threatening to empty his upper stomach, he took the opportunity to watch the cityscape go by as his Lifter navigated the transparent tube which connected the skyscrapers together. Whether imposing stone or gleaming steel and glass, all the new buildings looked ephemeral compared to the massive ziggurats that still made up much of the city. Here and there, swarms of 2nd level Workers still maintained the ancient buildings, repairing them, replacing large stone blocks, carrying away the debris. The Workers were the most commonly seen denizens of the city, as they were more numerous than all but the 1st level Nursemaids, each of whom was too busy watching over his brood pit of 0th level maggots to be seen out in the city. The 2nd levelers were smaller than Tchel, slender but strong, relying on their mandibles rather than their six legs to carry the heavy stone blocks. The 2nd leveler life had been much simpler, without ambition, but not without its joys, such as the parades and dances that were only possible when hundreds of Torians collaborated through the Link. At that level, most Torians knew each other, as few ever got much higher, and thus met the same Torians each time they went through the Cycle. They shared a camaraderie that was lost at the higher levels, where the only lasting relationship was that between the superior and inferior who rose together.
Tchel’s breath stopped as he caught sight of two 20th levelers dancing through the gray sky, their sinuous bodies streaming through the air on triangular wings as large as he was, wide at the shoulder and then tapering to nothing at the end of the tail. The 20th levelers twisted around each other, necks and tails intertwining until, with a powerful beat of their wings, they separated. Tchel let out a slow breath. He had wanted to fly since the moment he had eyes to see the sky. Three more levels: that’s all it would take. But he would never reach 20th as long as the Dynasty blocked the 18th level. And if he was recycled, there was no guarantee he’d even get this high again.
It had been a long, slow climb, as his Self transferred through the Link from one body to the next. For most of that time, Shuan had been with him. As a bloated, sluggish Nursemaid, Tchel had selected the eyeless, limbless Shuan from the brood pit, then chosen Shuan again as a limber Worker, and again when he was a larger, stronger Warrior. He’d always had Shuan to rely on, faithful in performing any tasks he assigned, wise when he needed advice, or patient when he needed someone to listen to him. He’d done the same for Shuan, answering his questions about the next level, passing down his knowledge of the tricks and hazards he’d face along the way.
Shuan was brilliant, diligent, and ambitious. Tchel had no trouble choosing him over his counterpart, level after level, term after term. Even when Shuan and his counterpart were close in performance, Tchel had known that he would work better with Shuan. Then had come Tchel’s 11th level, and Shuan’s counterpart had done a superior job. Not by a lot, just enough that Tchel would have to admit, at least to himself, that he was choosing Shuan because he liked him more. It was hard looking into the same face he’d worn himself the previous term, and telling Shuan that he would be recycled. He had recognized the hurt in the large expressive eyes and the writhing of the many tentacles. He had known how much Shuan had looked forward to trading in the 10th level’s slow crawl for the 11th level’s long-legged speed on four sturdy feet. It was the only time Tchel had ever wondered if affection carried its own duty, an obligation of loyalty to someone other than to the Hierarchy itself.
Tchel had not yet made a decision when he returned to his terminal. He was sure that this Dynasty had to be illegal, but after an hour at his terminal, searching through the relevant laws, he had yet to discover how. It went against the ideals of the Hierarchy. Since the collective will of the first brood pit had given birth to the first Nursemaid to watch over them and selected one of their own to control the body, everyone, once he had risen as high as he could, got a fresh start to prove himself once again. The Dynasty replaced the virtues of hard work and competence with that of loyalty. Was loyalty to other Torians even a virtue? The Outsiders put great value on personal loyalty, but as far as Tchel could tell, it was just favoritism writ large. Calling it a virtue did not make it so.
The legal codes continued to flash past his fore eyes. Still nothing. Heldiss approached in his rear vision, and Tchel turned his head enough to speak to him.
"Unending Cycle, Heldiss," Tchel said.
"Unending Cycle, Tchel," he replied. Heldiss was rarely so polite. "How was your conversation with Ydrar?"
"It was enlightening."
"Then he made the offer," Heldiss said, and shuffled a little farther into Tchel’s office. There was barely room for one 17th leveler inside, let alone two. "Did you accept?"
"Not yet," Tchel said. "I’m surprised that I can’t find anything on the legality of this."
"You won’t. Favoritism is discouraged, but it’s too widespread to be outlawed."
"It’s a wonder no one else ever thought of doing something like this." At least Tchel hoped that it had never been tried before; he had certainly never heard of something like it. "I wonder why? Maybe it wouldn’t have occurred to any of us if not for the influence of the Outsiders." Personal loyalty was just one more way the Outsiders were different. Tchel couldn’t even imagine having one body his entire life, or being born into a level based on the work of his predecessors rather than his own. When they had first come, the Outsiders had been confounded by the diversity of the Torians, at first thinking that they were dozens of species, rather than just one. The Torians, meanwhile, had been confused by the Outsiders’ singular shape, and for terms had pressed to see the superiors of the ambassadors, growing more and more frustrated as each superior looked no different than the previous level. It had taken many terms before the two species had truly begun to understand the nature of the other creature.
Heldiss moved forward a few more steps, until his hind legs came through the doorway to the office. He barely fit. "Tchel, you should refuse Ydrar’s offer."
"I thought you’d want me to try to break the 19th level barrier," Tchel said. "Sure, you’d miss out on one level this cycle, but this way you’ll get higher on your next one. Maybe much higher."
"Do you really think that will work? We have a good thing here, but the others are too ambitious. Even if we do manage to break the 19th level barrier, that will only attract more attention from above, and it will be more than they can handle. Better to keep it as is, with a fast climb up 18 levels."
Heldiss’s fingers twitched at his side, as if he were uncertain what to do with them. Tchel knew 17th leveler body language well enough to tell that he was lying. "You’re not worried about the Dynasty. You don’t want me to take Ydrar’s position because you want it."
"And why shouldn’t I? I’ve been part of the Dynasty since near the beginning, when Ydrar first chose me from the brood pit. And now they’re kicking me out."
"Kicking you out? But you’d just go back to the bottom, wouldn’t you?"
Heldiss’s mouth curved upward, an expression of distaste for a 17th leveler. "You haven’t thought this through fully. Where do you go when you’re recycled?"
"I take the place of a maggot in the brood pit where I began."
"But what happens when two Torians from the same brood pit are recycled at the same time?"
"Each brood pit only has a place for one Torian per cycle." Tchel realized what Heldiss was getting at. Not even the dynasty could overcome that limit. "And you and Ydrar came from the same brood pit. Of course. But when you’re both recycled, the lower level Torian gets priority. You’ll go to the Dynasty’s brood pit, and Ydrar will end up somewhere else. That means he’ll have to leave the Dynasty."
"That’s how it should work," Heldiss said. "But the Dynasty controls the Link for every level from 18th to 0th. When you transmit your Self, they can send it wherever they want, and decide who goes to the brood pit , and who gets sent out on the Link to whatever pit will take him."
"I didn’t know they could do that," Tchel said. Diverting messages was one thing, but rerouting the sending of Selves was much worse. The technical aspect wouldn’t be any more difficult than sending a message in the wrong direction, but it required a willingness to deny Torians their proper place. Was he willing to do that?
"You didn’t?" Heldiss stiffened in surprise. "How did you think you’d be sent to the Dynasty’s brood pit when you recycle?"
"I hadn’t thought about it," Tchel said. "But why are you so convinced they’ll choose Ydrar instead of you?"
"Because Ydrar is… I’m…" Heldiss hesitated. "We both know that I never would have gotten to this level without the Dynasty. The others want to climb higher, so they plan to recruit new talent while discarding dead weight. They don’t need me like I need them. If I lose the Dynasty, I’ll never get this high again."
Tchel shuffled in embarrassment. It was shameful to admit that you had been advanced too far, especially when it was through favoritism. "Everyone has his proper level," he said, reduced to aphorisms.
"Mine was the third," Heldiss replied.
Tchel twitched. The warrior level was very low. While physically powerful, with an armored exoskeleton and arms ending in sharp blades, it was also mindlessly obedient to higher levels.
It didn’t occur to Tchel that Heldiss might be implying something more until the other 17th leveler was already moving. Heldiss rammed into him, forelegs wrapping around Tchel’s middle while his arm seized Tchel’s head and rammed it into the terminal. The console shattered, and sharp pain ran through Tchel’s head, radiating from his tri-eyes.
Panicked, Tchel tried to send a message to Ydrar through the Link, but he got no response. The part of his mind that passed messages was oddly silent. Before he could figure out what that meant, Heldiss almost slammed his head into the console a second time, but Tchel caught himself with his arms and held against the force of Heldiss’s attack.
A jammer! That’s why he couldn’t access the Link: Heldiss was using a jammer. How had he gotten one? They were highly illegal; Heldiss could be erased just for possessing it. Not that body-killing was any more legal. Tchel’s left hind leg beat a tattoo on the floor as he realized that this wasn’t mere body-killing. With a jammer in place, Tchel’s Self would die when his body did. He struggled against Heldiss, trying to break his hold, to hit him with his elbows or hind legs, to buck him off his back. It was useless. The room was too small, and Heldiss’s grip too firm. It was like Heldiss had somehow kept all the Warrior level’s skills.
Where was the jammer? Its range would be very short, so it had to be somewhere on Heldiss’s person. Tchel’s wildly searching rear eyes noticed a bulge in Heldiss’s vest. Before Tchel could decide whether the thick disk shape was the jammer, Heldiss’s fingers were digging into his rear eye sockets. Tchel let go of the console, and Heldiss slammed his face into it again. Tchel’s fingers tore at his counterpart’s vest. He lost track of how many times his head rammed into the terminal before the vest tore and something clunked onto the ground. He gathered his Self for the message he’d have to send. There was so much damage done to his face by then that he couldn’t see out of any of his fore eyes. His forelegs scrambled to find the fallen device by touch, groping until they discovered its smooth surface. He destroyed it with a desperate stomp.
A flood of messages hit him as soon as the Link was re-established. He ignored them all. The only message he sent was to Ydrar.
I accept. Heldiss is killing my body. Sending Self now. The time for moral agonizing was over. He began to send everything that made up his Self, that part of him that persisted throughout all levels: his will, his thought patterns and personality, and as many of his memories as he could send in the short time he had, until only an empty shell remained of his 17th level body.
The next thing Tchel experienced was a loud pounding echoing through his head. For a moment he struggled to separate what was coming to him through the Link from what he was sensing through his unfamiliar body. He could see a door being battered by large fists, but also the interior of a spacious room–Ydrar’s office. He reached out and four hands moved in response. He could see all four of them–no blind spots blocked his vision any longer; but at the same time, visions of the battered door filled his eyes. He finally managed to separate the Link’s input and its images of a battered door from what his new body’s eyes saw, but still the pounding of large fists on metal filled his ears. Then he jumped as a large dent suddenly appeared in the door to his office at the same time that a particularly loud bang thrummed through his body.
His door was the one in the Link messages! There were more messages coming, a rush of them, addressed to Ydrar from Heldiss. They graphically showed what the 17th leveler intended to do to Tchel’s new body. And Heldiss was outside the door already. It would not take him long to get through.
Why was Tchel here? Why hadn’t Ydrar done something about Heldiss? Had he been surprised when Heldiss came after him? Had he not even tried to flee until the 17th leveler was at the door, and then just surrendered his body? Tchel could tell that Ydrar had queued up his Self for transmission, but he hadn’t been able to send it back to the brood pit while Heldiss was blocking messages down. So instead he had put Tchel in charge.
"Coward," Tchel said aloud. He would never have abandoned Shuan the way Ydrar had abandoned him. Tchel could call for help, but there was no time for it to arrive. Besides, he had tied his advancement to the Dynasty, even if it was more an act of desperation than a carefully reasoned decision. He wasn’t ready to confess that to his superiors just so they could arrive in time to avenge him.
The door was flimsy compared to a 17th leveler’s bulky frame, and Tchel’s fragile new body was even less durable. Tchel hadn’t been able to beat Heldiss when they were nearly the same size; how could he possibly beat him now? With his new vision he could see that there was no door besides the one that Heldiss was breaking down. The only other way out of the office was through the windows.
Tchel looked out the closest one. There was a narrow ledge outside, barely wide enough for his new body to walk along, hundreds of meters above the street below. Tchel hit the button to open the window just as the corner of the door was pried from its frame.
The window slid open with agonizing slowness. He scrambled over the sill as his left eye tracked Heldiss’s progress in tearing open the door, and tapped the close button before snatching his hand out of the way. The window slid shut behind him. Teetering on the ledge, Tchel began to edge sideways, three arms seeking purchase on the smooth stone wall. The ledge was just wide enough for an 18th leveler to stand on, but felt too narrow to Tchel, who was unused to balancing on two legs. The strong wind pushed back at him, and he had to lean against it to make progress.
Thumps echoed through the office, carrying over the wind. Heldiss was through the door now, and from the sounds of it, tearing apart the furniture, but Tchel pressed on. If Heldiss hadn’t seen him go out the window, maybe Tchel could make it around the corner before the 17th leveler looked outside. The corner was only three meters away–just a few seconds. The noise in the office abruptly stopped, but Tchel didn’t pause to learn what Heldiss was doing. He was nearly to the corner when his right eye saw the window slide open. Twisting so he could use all four of his hands, Tchel scrambled around the corner. He caught a glimpse of Heldiss’s head just as he made it. Had the mad 17th leveler seen him? He didn’t have to wonder long, as the image of Tchel disappearing around the corner arrived on the Link.
He peeked around the corner to see what Heldiss would do, but couldn’t see him. He turned back, to where there was another window ahead of him. Tchel skittered towards it.
Just as one hand reached the edge of the window frame, the glass shattered and Heldiss’s head emerged. "Ydrar!" he yelled, his hands grasping for the retreating Tchel.
"I’m not Ydrar," Tchel told him as he clung to the corner.
Heldiss showed his pointed teeth. "Tchel, then. It doesn’t matter."
Heldiss reached back to touch something, and this time Tchel felt it as his Link went down.
"Another one?" Tchel asked. "How did you get two jammers?" A 17th leveler shouldn’t have the skill to make one.
"Do you think the Dynasty has never had to silence someone before? Jammers are just a part of it. There’s a reason I’m larger than most 17th levelers."
Tchel’s new stomach sank. Could it be true? "Ydrar said it was to make you more durable."
Heldiss laughed. "More durable, stronger, more dangerous. 17th was the highest level in the
Dynasty when they got the opportunity to make it a more effective killer."
Tchel had joined the Dynasty despite knowing that they were corrupt, but he hadn’t suspected that they might go so far to protect their secrets. Should he have just walked away when he had the chance? Tchel cursed himself for not contacting his superior when he first woke to find Heldiss at his door.
Heldiss reached for him again, his fingers clawing at the air mere centimeters from Tchel’s arm, reminding him that it was too late to escape his choice.
"You can’t reach me," Tchel said.
"Where are you going to go? You can’t get to the other window before I do."
"You’ll be forced to recycle within the hour!" Heldiss just showed even more of his teeth, and Tchel realized it wasn’t true. With the jammer, Heldiss couldn’t be forced to surrender his body by the Cycle Broadcast. He’d receive the order as soon as the jammer ran out of power, but could Tchel remain secure on this ledge until that happened?
"I’ll race you," Tchel said, swinging around the corner.
There were loud thuds as Heldiss ran for the other window. Tchel swung back, reaching for the window Heldiss had just vacated. He could escape as long as he could make it to the Lifter before Heldiss.
He didn’t get the chance. Even as he grasped the sides of the window in preparation to enter, Heldiss came charging back. Tchel scrabbled away, but his former counterpart didn’t hesitate, flinging himself out the window. His forelegs found purchase on the ledge, and he leaned forward and grabbed hold of one of Tchel’s arms before Tchel could reach the corner.
"I’ve got you," Heldiss said, dragging him back.
Tchel held onto the corner with his three free arms, but it was impossible for an 18th leveler to match a 17th leveler’s strength. The 18th level form had been designed in a civilized age, when it was unheard of for a Torian to attack his superior, and Heldiss had regressed to barbarism. Once again, Tchel was at risk of erasure, unable to transmit his Self as long as he was in range of this second jammer. Heldiss no longer wore his vest, and Tchel saw no sign of the jammer. It must be on his belt, far out of reach of Tchel’s arms. If he could just get out of the jammer’s range, then he could send his Self to his superior. He would have to yield the Dynasty’s secrets, but why should he die for them, especially if they were as brutal as Heldiss made them sound? Ydrar hadn’t shown him any loyalty when he’d abandoned Tchel to Heldiss’s vengeance. The only question was whether Tchel would have enough time. He composed the message and prepared his Self for transmission for the second time today even as his fingers’ grasp on the corner began to slip. One hand lost its grip, but by then, all was ready. Instead of trying to grab hold of the corner again, he let go with his other hands and jumped from the ledge.
He was ready to send his message as soon as he left the jammer’s range, but he didn’t get that far. Heldiss held on tightly to his arm, more tightly than he did to the window. Heldiss’s forelegs slipped and he overbalanced. In his thrashing to catch himself, he swung Tchel directly into the window a level below, smashing the glass. Amidst the shower of glittering fragments, Tchel hooked a leg and an arm over the sill just as Heldiss slid over the ledge. Tchel braced for it with every arm and leg available, but he still wasn’t prepared for the pain as the falling Heldiss twisted his arm in a way it was never meant to go. Bones snapped and muscles tore. He was as surprised as Heldiss when his arm came off completely.
Still hanging onto the window frame, he watched as Heldiss kept going, the jammer visible on his belt and Tchel’s arm clutched in his hand. He was too small for Tchel to see long before he hit the ground.
Tchel was looking out his window when he received the message from his superior. Mirn had accepted Tchel’s version of events: a jealous Heldiss had come after both him and Ydrar, then died, his own jammer ensuring that he could not transmit his Self. The physical evidence matched Tchel’s entirely true, if incomplete, story.
Tchel flexed his new arm, a replacement for the one Heldiss had torn off. It had been a straightforward surgical procedure, once the maggots had finished growing it. It would take much longer for them to grow two new 17th level bodies. In the meantime, two Torians selected for 17th level remained in 16th level bodies, and two would-be 16th levelers were in stasis until their new bodies were free.
Tchel had probably made a mistake joining this Dynasty. They had denied what Heldiss had said about silencing Torians who found out, but even if he had lied about that, the Dynasty was far from blameless. They preached loyalty to each other, but when it came time to practice it, they were incapable. They were the ones who had decided to cast out Heldiss, choosing ambition over loyalty. And when he had predictably lashed out, they had left it to Tchel to clean up the mess. And now he was responsible for the whole Dynasty. In some ways he had more responsibility than even the Ultimate Superior, who at least didn’t need to hide his inferiors’ misdeeds from a superior.
If Tchel stayed with the Dynasty, then there was a real chance that he would someday experience the awesome responsibility of the Ultimate Superior for himself. Looking out over the city, he imagined himself in charge of not only all of that, but the whole world. It wouldn’t happen anytime soon–even if he continued to advance, the level of Ultimate Superior was fourteen terms away, and that was if the collective will of the Link did not create a new level or five before he got there. Admittedly, it was hard to imagine how the Link could come up with a better form for the Ultimate Superior than the "Great Dragon" whom the Outsiders held in such awe. But no matter how many levels, with the Dynasty paving the way, and getting a little bit farther each time, Tchel could become Ultimate Superior eventually. That was the ambition shared by all of the Dynasty, wasn’t it? To one day reach the top of the Hierarchy for one glorious term as the Ultimate Superior before returning to the bottom? But in doing so, the Dynasty was corrupting the very meritocracy on which the Hierarchy was based.
He watched the workers swarming over the city, all of them ultimately answering to one superior. He wondered if any of them were Shuan, having begun his cycle anew. And as he wondered, he realized that he had already made his decision. In refusing to advance Shuan, he had chosen the Hierarchy over his closest friend. To turn against it now for the sake of his own advancement and that of strangers would have betrayed Shuan yet again.
For the next term, Tchel controlled the Dynasty and their Link to the rest of the Hierarchy. It would be simple for him to collect the evidence necessary to expose the Dynasty to his superiors. And if Heldiss’s dark hints proved to be true, he would find the evidence of that as well. If he ever did become the Ultimate Superior, it would be because he earned it for himself.
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