Apple’s Real Revolution: iTunes


The media are all focused on the resounding success of the iPod – by all accounts, Apple should reach the 10 million mark by the end of the year, which is great for Apple, for its stock price, and for my forthcoming book on the iPod and iTunes.

But while the iPod has attracted a whole new group of users to Apple’s fold – notably Windows users – the real revolution is not in the hardware, but in the software that manages the iPod. iTunes is much more than simply a tool for managing music, and, in the near future, is likely to spearhead the real digital content revolution. iTunes started out several years ago as a simple program for organizing, managing and playing MP3 files, and for burning CDs from these music files. Apple was not a trailblazer in this area; there had already been several other programs that played music files. As it progressed over the years, it developed powerful new features, such as new file formats like AAC and Apple Lossless, and the ability to sync music to the iPod, when the portable music device was released. But the real innovation – and the part that merits the word “revolution” – came when Apple added the iTunes Music Store.

If you’ve never bought music from the iTunes Music Store (iTMS), the hallmark of the process is simplicity. You create an account, enter your credit card number, find the music you want, then: click! Download. Click! Download. It’s as simple as that. You can buy one song, start downloading it, then go browse and buy more songs. When you purchase music like this, you don’t even notice the time it takes for songs to download (unless you are connected to the Internet with a modem). If you purchase entire albums, it will seem to take longer, but if you have a relatively decent Internet connection, you’ll be able to download an album in minutes.

Revolutionary? Not yet… Because there’s more. Sure, the iTMS lets you download music with a few clicks, but the real revolution will come later, when the iTMS sells more than just music.

It’s tempting to predict the future, though perilous in the computer industry. But looking at the iTMS and the way it works shows that Apple’s real revolution is in having designed a simple, fast, efficient and painless way to sell digital content. Sure, they’re only selling music now. But just wait…

Why does Apple offer movie trailers in the iTMS? Certainly not because they sell movies… yet. But the interface is there; all they need is for users to have broadband fast enough to download movies (and, of course, the MPAA’s acceptance of Apple’s digital rights management (DRM) system). It seems almost obvious that Apple will, in the near future, sell movies through the iTMS. When you’ve gotten consumers used to using a system that works, that is easy to use, and easy to understand, it makes sense to leverage it for other purposes. Those movie trailers are simply a way to get users prepared, to have them think of iTunes as more than just for music.

But why stop there? I’ve already suggested that Apple should make an e-book reader, and focus on selling periodicals. The iTMS could easily deliver that kind of content as well; after all, Apple has already shown that they can deliver PDF files through the iTMS. Why not sell magazines and newspapers using the same interface? Users could buy individual issues, which would download as easily as songs do today; or they could buy subscriptions that are provided through the iTMS. In the latter case, you’d simply need to connect your e-book reader to your computer to get the latest issues that iTunes has already downloaded in the background. Or you could read them on your computer.

The digital content revolution is only just beginning. Music is the first step, since it is one of the most popular forms of entertainment, and it ends up being one of the simplest to transfer over the wires. But anything that can be digitized can be sold in the same way. Of course, there are still limits: music, movies, books, magazines, newspapers; there’s no way to download pizza, at least not yet. But if you look at the numbers that these different forms of content represent, you’ll realize that Apple is on track to becoming much more than a hardware and software company. With iTunes, and the iTunes Music Store, Apple has taken the first steps toward becoming the leader in providing downloadable digital content.


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On My Wish List: the Apple iServe

Apple has regaled us with a new iPod, with a color screen and photo display functions, rounding out the iPod range. There are now three distinct types of iPods: the mini, the 4G iPod and the iPod Photo. So, for a while, we can consider that Apple will rest and allow these iPods to sell a bit.

In the meantime, it is clear that Apple’s recent foray into non-computer devices for consumers has been profitable in many ways. The iPod has boosted Apple’s earnings, profit margin, and share price, and has turned the company, once again, into the darling of the business world.

So it’s time for Apple to release another innovation: the Apple iServe.First, don’t assume that I have any inside information on the possible existance of such a device: this is merely what I would like to see. But this idea is based on existing Apple technology and would follow what seems to be the direction Apple will be taking in the years to come.

The Apple iServe would be a home server, a headless Mac (one without a monitor) that would centralize all the elements that make up a user’s digital hub: music files, photos, and videos. It could also store other personal files such as word processing documents and spreadsheets. Instead of each user storing their files on their own computer, they could put everything in one place, providing simpler access to other users, and allowing for backups of all users’ files simultaneously.

This is most useful for “digital hub” files: music, photos and videos. Why should each user’s computer contain all their music files, many of which may be duplicated on another user’s Mac? (Considering that the iTunes Music Store allows up to 5 computers to play the files, this is not a violation of copyright; the same is true for music files that users rip from their own CDs.)

In this scenario, all the Macs on a home network would be connected to the server via AirPort – the server could contain an AirPort base station, or simply be connected to a base station or an AirPort Express. An Ethernet jack would allow the iServe to be connected to a wired network, which could include other Macs without AirPort or computers running Windows or Linux. Users would be able to access shared files by simply mounting the server on their desktop, or would even be able to play music using iTunes built-in music sharing – the iServe would run iTunes itself, or a simpler version of the program, to provide a shared library to other computers on the network.

But let’s not stop there. iPhoto offers photo album sharing, so users can access photos on the iServe from any Mac. Videos would be a bit more complex, since iMovie is merely an editing and authoring tool, but, again, the technology exists to provide shared video in a manner similar to iTunes’ shared music.

If the iServe were to go one step further, it could even be used in the living room to record video from a TV, set-top box or decoder; the Apple version of the TiVo would be a welcome competitor to Microsoft’s forays into this area. Or Apple could simply work hand-in-hand with TiVo to provide a seamless connection to their TV recorder.

The iServe would run a slimmed-down version of Mac OS X Server, one that allows simple management of users and groups, either through an Apple Remote Desktop server or through a web-browser interface. Since the iServe should be small – remember the cube? – it wouldn’t need a monitor, keyboard and mouse, though it should be possible to connect these if desired.

The Apple iServe would be the perfect solution to the once-hyped convergence of computers and other digital entertainment devices. If it were priced right (less than $500; ideally even cheaper than that), Apple could spearhead a new world of home computing. And, with a small business model, offering more advanced server features, the same iServe could help Apple get a stronger foothold in the critical market of businesses who need such features but cannot afford the time or the complication of full-scale server solutions.

This is just an idea, of course, but who knows? Maybe Apple will surprise us…


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Cory Doctorow on Copyright, Piracy and DRM

The fine people at Change This have posted an attractively laid-out PDF of a speech Cory Doctorow gave to Microsoft about DRM (digital rights management). Cory has a way with words, and he puts his words where his mouth is, by giving away the novels and stories he’s written.As the Change This website says:

Usage of Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been hotly debated since a college student threatened to put an entire industry out of business with a little application he built in his spare time, Napster. In this transcript of a speech he gave at Microsoft’s campus, Cory explains why DRM doesn’t work, why DRM is bad for society, bad for business, bad for artists, and a bad move for Microsoft. Using Sony and Apple as examples of companies that are using DRM to *punish* consumers, he suggests Microsoft use the opportunity to once again champion users’ rights. To follow our current path, Cory argues, is to stifle innovation and contradict the purpose of American copyright law: to promote the useful arts and sciences.

There is an irony in this document being made available in a proprietary format: PDF. But since you don’t need Acrobat to read it – there are several other PDF readers, including Preview, if you use Mac OS X – I guess that’s all right.

in any case, it’s an intereting read, as Cory goes over the history of copyright and piracy.

On My Wish List: Nested Folders in iTunes

iTunes is an awesome program. As anyone who uses it regularly knows, it gives you a great deal of power and flexibility to organize your music, and, especially, to organize what you put on your iPod. But when you start putting a lot of music on your Mac (or PC) with iTunes, you run into a problem: you end up with so many playlists that you have to scroll up and down looking for the one you want. And this is even more complicated on the iPod, since you can only see a few at a time.

The solution is pretty simple: iTunes needs nested folders.Ideally, you should be able to create folders to put your playlists in. Think of list view in the OS X Finder: you can have a folder, and, when you click the disclosure triangle, you can see its contents. iTunes needs the same thing. With nested folders you could create as many folders as you want, and reduce the number of playlists you see at the top level.

You could create folders with the names of specific artists, genres, types of playlists (party, chill-out, etc.), music you’re tired of, or whatever you want. You could then group your playlists in whatever way fits your style. Ideally, you’d even want to create aliases for playlists, so you can put some playlists in multiple folders. (The same way you can put songs in multiple playlists.)

Here’s an example of why I’d like to see this. I’m an eclectic listener, and my iTunes library contains rock, jazz, classical music, Grateful Dead concerts and more. I’ve got a lot of live recordings, such as two box sets of Bill Evans concerts that I have grouped into playlists according to the setlists of the original concerts (the songs cover more than one CD for each one). That gives me 14 Bill Evans playlists. I’d find it much easier to have a Bill Evans folder, then have the playlists appear when I click the disclosure triangle. Same for the Grateful Dead – I’ve lots of their live shows, and I don’t need to see one line in my iTunes list for each one.

Naturally, if this were implemented for iTunes it would have to be done for the iPod as well. And it would be just as useful on the iPod – with its limited display – as it is in iTunes.

Will we see this feature soon? I’m sure someone at Apple has already thought of it. If not, I hope they visit this site.


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The Warriors of Silence – Chapter 2

Chapter 2


No one knows how the Scaythes of Hyponeros managed to secure so much influence on the planet Bella Syracusa, the Queen of the Arts.

Or how they infiltrated the entourage of the Ang family, the dynasty that had ruled uninterrupted for 15 standard centuries.

Or how they progressively got hold of key positions within the Empire.

Or how they managed to make themselves indispensable by creating the functions of thought detector and protector.

Or how, feared because of their extraordinary mental abilities, they gradually created a reign of terror.

Who were they?

No one knew anything about Hyponeros, or had even heard of this distant world, so distant that it may only have existed in people’s imaginations. But, it turned out that one of its offspring, Pamynx, was given the supreme dignity of being named Chancellor, an honor which had, up until then, been reserved for the sons of Syracusa’s leading families.

This event took place during the reign of Lord Arghetti Ang.

At the time, few were offended by it. What had become of the proud Syracusans of the days of the conquest? Were they empty shells, shadows, or just puppets of illusion?

Woe to he by whom the offence cometh.

Excerpt from an apocryphal mental text, received during his wanderings by Messaodyne Jhu-Piet, a Syracusan poet of the first post-Ang period. Some scholars think it may have come from stray thoughts of Naia Phytik, of Syracusan origin herself.

Chancellor Pamynx, his face shrouded in the hood of his blue acaba, appeared from the darkness and joined the Lord Ranti Ang and his young protégé Spergus who were awaiting him, with their thought protectors, on the stationary gravitational platform.

“If my lordship would be so kind as to follow me,” said Pamynx, bowing.

“And none too soon,” scolded Ranti Ang. “Are you coming, Spergus?”

With their thought protectors following them like shadows, they stepped into a dark narrow tunnel. They soon came to a heavy wooden door that was incredibly ancient, blocked by thick metallic bars. After a short while, which seemed interminable to Spergus, the bars slid along their rails, which were sealed inside the walls of the tunnel. The damp, close air made Spergus feel ill at ease. He had the unpleasant feeling that the mold in the rank air was penetrating every pore of his skin.

The door opened onto a wide balcony lit by two floating light-bubbles where a small group of men were waiting, their faces hidden behind white masks. Three crossed silver triangles glimmered on the stiff breastplates of their gray uniforms.

Ranti Ang looked at Pamynx with wrath in his eyes.

“You are the high protector of the law, Chancellor! You are therefore aware that Pritivian mercenaries are forbidden to set foot on Syracusa!”

The restrained impatience that pervaded his words showed that he was on the brink of losing control.

“At least do me the honor of answering! Was it really necessary, for the public good, to retain these adventurers?”

“You will understand why they are here in good time, my Lord,” answered Pamynx in a dispassionate tone of voice.

The balcony overhung a huge empty round chamber; in the middle stood a figure, d*censored*d in the folds of a jet-black acaba.

“This place is sinister, my Lord!”

Spergus suppressed a shiver. The spectacle of this ghostly figure, standing as still as a statue on the floor below, dimly lit by underground water lamps, cause venom of anxiety to spread through his young, impressionable mind. The smell of death wafted through the close air.

“Is that one of your students that you have told me about, Chancellor?” asked Ranti Ang.

Pamynx nodded in agreement.

“May I not see his face?”

“Not for the moment, your highness. But this is not out of a lack of respect for you. The hood of his acaba will cover his head during the experiment to prevent our thoughts from focusing on his image, which could weaken his psychic potential.”

“Good gracious! And he really possesses this”¦ this power that you have told me about?”

Pamynx did not reply to Ranti Ang’s mocking disbelief. He removed a tiny ring of golden optalium from within the folds of his acaba and struck it with a rock crystal. A loud ringing sound spread from the ring, much louder than seemed possible from its size. A part of the wall slid away, as if changed by the lingering sound, and let in a flood of harsh light.

Three new figures were seen entering the room: two Pritivian mercenaries and a man whose coarse canvas clothes gave off a stench that was almost that of an animal. His simian face was ashen with fear.

Ranti Ang’s face showed a faint expression of disgust.

“It looks like a Mikat.”

“A Mikat from the satellite Julius, your highness,” confirmed Pamynx. “He was put on the index and declared raskatta. I thought that”¦ for our experiment”¦”

“From what I see, or should I say from what I hear, you are trying to vindicate yourself again, Chancellor!” said Ranti Ang, mockingly. “In fact, don’t you spend most of your time trying to vindicate yourself? For everything”¦ and especially for nothing!”

Spergus’ bright laughter punctuated the Lord of Syracusa’s comments.

“The Kreuzian Church considers that the Mikats are endowed with souls,” argued the Chancellor. “However, the”¦”

Ranti Ang cut him off curtly.

“Unfortunately for you, Sir, I am not Arghetti Ang but his elder son. My father thought he was doing the right thing when he appointed you to this position of great responsibility, and so be it. But if I must respect his choice, as he made me promise, nothing requires me to give my esteem to the beneficiary of his choice! Do be so kind as to not bring the Church of Kreuz into your sordid schemes! After all, isn’t this Mikat one of my subjects? Isn’t it up to me, and me alone, to decide if his life should be sacrificed for the common good?”

Pamynx kept his resentment hidden behind the impassiveness of his face and bowed ceremoniously. His day of revenge would soon come. This perspective helped him remain patient in spite of this constant harassment, these daily humiliations.

While this was going on, the two Pritivian mercenaries dragged the terrified Mikat to within a few feet away of the motionless black acaba.

“Spergus?” Ranti Ang’s voice was suddenly gentler. “Would it please you to know what this Mikat is thinking about, at this very instant?”

“That would”¦ greatly amuse me, my lord,” mumbled the young man.

A vague smile showed on his painted lips. He tried to hide the intense fear that this gloomy vault aroused in him.

Pamynx was annoyed by Spergus’ presence. Lord Ranti Ang thought it was a good idea to have his young protégé present to witness the key experiment that was about to take place. But it was dangerous to bring affective elements into this first public trial, which required a psychically neutral environment.

“Well, what are you waiting for to reveal to our dear Spergus what is going through the Mikat’s mind? If something is going through it, of course! Is it fear that is causing this horrendous stench?”

Pamynx stared at the Mikat, whose greasy black hair was cut in the traditional manner of the Mikatun of Julius: very short, straight on the neck, and shaved on the sides. Under his protruding eyebrows, the poor man’s bulging eyes flitted back and forth around the chamber as though they were following crazy butterflies. From the balcony to the dark threatening figure; from the dark figure to the two Pritivian mercenaries, anonymous behind their white masks.

“His skin is all black!” whispered Spergus.

“That is because he works outdoors each day that Kreuz gives us with his infinite kindness, under the rays of the fire-star Ahkit,” said Ranti Ang.

The disgust that Spergus felt, induced by this creature from another world and another time, welled up within him like nausea. But he could not take his eyes off that thick neck, the strong arms, wide hands, and stubby fingers with their dust-encrusted nails.

Spergus’ wild uncontrolled thoughts perturbed his concentration and interfered with Pamynx’s mental investigation. The two protectors assigned to Spergus’ security turned out to be incapable of holding back the reckless torrents emanating from his mind. The Chancellor decided to not let anything show – it would be the wrong time to cast doubts on the Scaythes’ efficiency.

Pamynx was, like the thought protectors, a Scaythe from Hyponeros, a paritole, and his origin could bring up the question of the constitutional immunity that his high rank was supposed to confer on him. The great Arghetti Ang had had to stifle the wrath of the Syracusan dignitaries to impose him as the Chancellor, and his position was becoming increasingly insecure as time went by, and as the memories of the current ruler’s father faded away.

But for now, Pamynx needed Ranti Ang’s support: this would guarantee the capital needed for the structure of the Great Project; for the fulfillment of the tremendous secret task he had been given by his masters, the Master Embryos of the Hyponeriate. He would soon have a chance to wipe the grin off the Lord of Syracusa’s face.

“We are still waiting, sir. Could it be that you have lost your so-called powers in one of the brothels of Salaun? Yet, you are sexless, are you not”¦?”

Spergus’s mischievous laugh broke out a second time.

“Fear paralyses the Mikat’s mental potential,” the Chancellor finally said. “He is incapable of formulating the slightest coherent thought. I can tell you, however, that he is trying to recall the face and the body of a woman from Mikatun. Probably his own wife”¦”

“What an extraordinary discovery!” chuckled Ranti Ang. “You don’t need to be learned in the sciences of the mind to figure out that he is thinking of his wife!”

“Why do you say that, my Lord?” Spergus asked naively.

The Lord of Syracusa let out a little sarcastic laugh.

“Before Julius was annexed to Syracusa, these animals, the Mikats, did not marry, and the women of the tribe belonged to all the men of the rural communities. For the last two centuries, the law and the church have required them to take just one spouse. This is the first law of the moral-genetic code governing the satellites. That is why, Chancellor, you revealing no wonders by stating that this sub-human is thinking of his wife!”

Impassive, Pamynx ignored Ranti Ang’s mockery and went on: “I also see the faces of some children. Three boys and two girls”¦”

Subjugated by the importance of the people watching him from the balcony, terrorized by the Chancellor’s words, which were the faithful transcription of the few images that were going through his mind, the Mikat let out a scream like a cornered animal and fell on his knees on the cold tiled floor.

“He has a very crude brain,” added Pamynx.

“If his brain were as simple as you are suggesting, what would be the value of this experiment applied to superior intelligences? We don’t have to bother with this muddle of cheap witchcraft to subdue the Mikatun of Julius! Our ancestors have already taken care of that without violating the precepts of our holy Church!”

Suddenly, Pamynx realized how delicate his situation was. Engaged by so many different projects, he had not paid attention to the rumors that suggested that he had fallen into disgrace. He did not need to slip into Ranti Ang’s mind – a sacrilegious action, which could be punished by death – to understand the deadly intentions that his tone of voice implied.

The Chancellor had underestimated the importance of the conspiracy that had been orchestrated against him by Tist of Argolon, the renowned bard of the Syracusan tradition. Even though he had intercepted some thoughts about the underground actions of his Syracusan rival, Pamynx had not deemed it worth his getting involved, thinking that the quality of his relations with the great Arghetti Ang and the length of his service put him above all of these palace schemes. In fact, his behavior was irresponsible, unworthy of a higher-level Scaythe, of a superior transceiver. This carelessness could compromise the Great Project, the universal plan the Master Embryos of Hyponeros had been preparing for centuries. He now realized that he had much less room to maneuver. The future of the entire project now rested on the success of this one experiment.

“Well, sir, this is no time for daydreaming!”

“My students will not be operational right away,” argued the Chancellor. “This demonstration is only designed to show you the current state of their progress. After this is finished, you will realize that the budget allocated to mental research, which has been disparaged by so many of your counselors, has not been squandered. In the future, we will continue our experiments on complex, refined brains and forge ahead until the technique is fully mastered.”

“What has this Mikat done to be put on the index and declared a raskatta?”

Spergus’ airy voice was a striking contrast to the rich metallic sound of the Chancellor’s voice.

“For goodness sake, Chancellor! Answer his question!”

Ranti Ang’s increasing irritation was slowly breaking through the fragile barrier of his mental control. He was having a terrible time complying with the rigorous code of sycophantic emotion, which was followed at the court of Syracusa. Pamynx remained calm and found that his noble interlocutor’s anger gave him a new source of motivation.

“May I please request that you be patient for just a moment, my Lord? The data about raskattas from your territory has been entrusted to the Scaythe Markyat, who is the archiver of justice. It will just take a moment for me to enter into contact with him”¦”

“Hurry up! We would like to return to daylight soon. We feel like rats wallowing in a squalid sewer!”

Heavy greenish eyelids, furrowed with dark veinlets, fell over Pamynx’s uniformly yellow eyes. The hood of his acaba hung on his shoulders, uncovering a deformed face, a long bald head, and rough cracked skin. He looked like one of the monsters from the Osgorite legends, at least the idea that Spergus had of them. A chill went up his spine. The crimson circle of the Round Rouque Moon cut through the haze of his memories. For a brief moment, he was carried away to Osgos, the industrial mother, the largest of Syracusa’s satellites. He was running, naked and free, among the dried grass and the scalding stones of the abandoned gardens, chased by happy, noisy brown shapes that danced in the waves of heat. He breathed in the heavy smells of budding bucanas, and the heady sap of fruit fountains.

Suddenly, he felt cramped in his bodstocking, the Syracusan undergarment, the second skin that covered them from head to foot. His mauve head-cover and its light-band held his hair, his forehead, his cheeks and his chin tightly together. His two braided blond locks of hair, the only extravagance allowed, stuck out under the edge, near his temples, and framed his effeminate face.

Spergus’ skin called out for the fervent caresses of the Round Rouque Moon. Recovering his self-control, he angrily fought off the melancholy that was coming over him. He was not allowed to have regrets: he, the son of humble Osgorite merchants, was treated more considerately than the great courtiers, more than the descendants of the old, illustrious Syracusan families. Even though this preference sometime became a heavy burden; even though he had to put up with the looks and the wounding words of Lady Sibrit, Ranti Ang’s wife; even though he was hardly comfortable among the never-ending schemes and intrigues of the court; even though he was never allowed to go anywhere without his thought protectors, hidden in the red and white acabas of the Royal Protection Corps, those ever-present shadows, silent and intriguing.

He tried to push the nostalgic memories of his youth mercilessly from his mind. He accepted the obligations and the annoyances of the court for the love of his Lord. For the love of the absolute master of the most famous of all the planets of the Naflin Federation, for the love of this century-old man with such delicate features, whose eyes were limpid blue, whose blue-gray locks of hair lay on the shimmering cloth of his hood. For the love of a man who was the living expression of nobility, of grace, of refinement, the cardinal virtues of the Syracusan etiquette and tradition.

The Mikat was convulsitng. The rhythmic banging of his knees on the tiles broke the silence that had become oppressive.

“He is a follower of the religions of the index,” said Pamynx suddenly, turning toward Spergus.

Spergus shuddered in surprise. He could not stand looking into the sharp impenetrable eyes of the Chancellor. He was terrified of the Scaythes’ telepathic powers, and particularly those of Pamynx. An instinctive reflex forced him to turn away, to seek the reassuring presence of his thought protectors.

“Those centers of abomination!” said Ranti Ang. “They should be destroyed once and for all!”

The Lord of Syracusa’s slender fingers, covered with rings of white optalium, were nervously twisting the silvery lock of hair that ran along the black edge of his hood. This tic was a forewarning that he was about to lose his control.

“This Mikat is a member of the Gudurayam heresy,” specified Pamynx. “He adores the effigy of Gudur, a false prophet who was burned on the crucifire three hundred standard years ago. He is venerated now like a martyr.”

“Animals! Stupid fanatics that do not hesitate to sacrifice humans!”

“And where do they hide?” asked Spergus. This information seemed to captivate him.

This question had the unexpected consequence of defusing Ranti Ang’s anger.

“Imagine, my friend, that some of them are found even on Syracusa! In the mountains of Taheu’ing and in Mesgomia, countries that are very difficult to get to and where it is not easy to clear them out. All the same, it is on Julius that the Gudurayam heresy is the most present, though the number of his followers has been greatly reduced since reprisals have been stepped up and crucifires have been used more regularly.”

“Two details, if you will allow me, my Lord,” added the Chancellor. “The first is that the parents of this Mikat were burned on a crucifire during your father, Arghetti Ang’s visit to Julius. The second, more picturesque, is that the person who turned him in is none other than his own wife, the one whose memory he is recalling at this very instant. And all this for the measly sum of one hundred Julian Keulis, the equivalent of a handful of standard units. This insignificant amount of money turned out to be more attractive than the love of her husband!”

The hint of a smile came across Ranti Ang’s face. The Mikat, lying on the floor prostrated, was hit head-on by the force of Pamynx’s words, harrowed by this final, hideous revelation. He stopped trembling. Large tears rolled down his unshaven cheeks.

“But”¦ but he is crying! Do you see, my Lord? He’s crying!”

“Yes, my friend, he is crying!” said Ranti Ang. “He does not, like you or I, have a means of controlling his thoughts. This is how some creatures show their emotions, as unbelievable as that may seem!”

Spergus was leaning over the solid guardrail that ran along the edge of the balcony. His eyes were wide open; he was trying to look more closely at the shiny rivulets which flowed from the Mikat’s eyes.

In response to a discreet sign from the Chancellor, the Scaythe in the black acaba approached the prostrated body. Deep within his hood, Spergus got a quick glance of two flaming red embers, full of energy. Two evil stars in a pitch-black sky.

“We are ready, my Lord.”

“Ready? But for what?”

The Mikat, very worried, picked his head up. Seeing the rough, black cloth coming closer, so close that it was brushing against his skin, his eyes opened wide in terror. His arms and legs shook violently.

“This is a great wonderful deed!” said Ranti Ang ironically. “Don’t tell me that you have prepared this grandiose presentation with the only goal of terrorizing a bumpkin!”

“If my Lord would please have a little bit of patience”¦”

The Chancellor’s mind was infiltrated by a pernicious doubt, a slow poison that he could not keep under check. But he had carefully chosen Harkot, the Scaythe doing the experiment, from a hundred handpicked postulants, all of them gifted with extraordinary mental capacities. He himself had overseen the selected student’s training, had carried out animal testing, and then the tests on the manimals of Getablan. However, he had not yet had the time to start working on complex minds, higher up on the evolutionary scale. There was therefore a chance that this experiment would fail. But Pamynx would not be allowed a single failure. He regretted this haste, which was not his usual way of doing things, but the race between his many critics and his few partisans had made it inevitable.

A plaintive gurgling escaped from the Mikat’s throat. Trickles of drool flowed from the corners of his mouth and dripped onto his slightly protruding chin.

“If you will please now remain totally silent,” said Pamynx softly, noting with relief the first signs of the Scaythe’s mental actions.

The Mikat’s convulsions got progressively further and further apart. His breathing turned into panting, then wheezing. Instinctively, he raised his large hands to his neck. Then, in a desperate jump, he tried to grab hold of the black acaba, but his curled up fingers only grabbed the air. There was a death rattle, a final spasm, and he fell motionless on the floor.

The room was shrouded in mortal silence. It was Spergus, who was still leaning over the guardrail, who broke the silence.

“What”¦ what happened to the Mikat? He’s not moving!”

“He… is… dead,” answered Pamynx, separating his words very carefully in order to highlight their terrible simplicity.

“Dead?”

“Dead, my Lord.”

“How is this possible?”

The Chancellor, who had now recovered his serenity, took a perverse pleasure baiting his listeners’ curiosity. He paused for a long while before answering.

“This Mikat was killed merely by the will of Harkot, our Scaythe experimenter. You have just witnessed the first mental execution, my Lord.”

He said these words with an indifferent tone of voice, as if he was talking about a banal, trivial incident. The Scaythe in the black acaba made a slight bow, to which Ranti Ang answered with a brief nod of his head.

“Do you think you can lead us to believe something that ridiculous, Chancellor?”

“Belief is not allowed in my laboratory, my Lord. I leave that to our holy Church. As a scientist, the only thing that convinces me is certainty. Harkot has just imploded this guinea pig’s brain, so to speak.”

“Do you mean that he can kill from a distance with his thoughts?” said Spergus weakly.

“As long as he is not too far away. At least for now. Interference from other thoughts may reduce, even staunch the efficiency of the mental intentions of death. But let us say that Harkot has effectively, to use your words, killed at a distance, without the help of a weapon. Right now, of course, this process is only effective on very simple types of brains, such as that of this Mikat. However, we have no worries about soon being operational with more evolved brains. And even those that are very highly evolved.”

The Chancellor’s self-confidence had come back to him. In spite of the thought protectors, those black and white wraiths whose job was to maintain psychic screens, he picked up some raw fragments of feelings from Ranti Ang; he did not detect the slightest hint of resentment. The perspectives that had been opened by this extraordinary experiment, which had just been carried out under his eyes, were filling the Lord of Syracusa’s mind completely.

“And do all Scaythes have this ability?”

“Only those who have advanced mental faculties.”

“This”¦ this is witchcraft!” cried Ranti Ang.

He uttered this accusation without any conviction, as if he had already guessed the answer.

“You have nothing to fear from the Muffi of the Kreuzian Church, my Lord. These techniques are, I repeat, scientific; developed by our physicists specialized in the field of subtle waves, and not by some village witch or wizard. Witchcraft is a synonym for obscure, subjective practices. It is the exact opposite of our technology, which remains objective, provable and verifiable. In addition, if you so wish, my Lord, our scientists would be delighted to give you a more detailed explanation of the mental mechanisms used by our students. It is therefore out of the question,” and the Chancellor’s tone of voice here was very firm, “that our holy Church class the future mental killers on the index. It goes without saying that we would not have presented this new technique to you if it was found to go against Kreuzian principles.”

Pamynx was not taking too many risks in betting that the clergy would support him: Barrofill the Twenty-Fourth, the Muffi of the Kreuzian Church, had been informed about what was brewing in the Chancellor’s secret laboratory a long time ago.

“I would like you to tell us more about this technique, sir,” suggested Spergus.

“Oh, I am afraid that this would bore you,” answered Pamynx. He was happy to get a small amount of revenge by being begged to continue.

“Go on, Chancellor, please grant our dear Spergus’ request,” interrupted Ranti Ang, in a wily tone of voice.

Even though he avoided showing it, Pamynx was jubilating. His lack of foresight could have fatal consequences for the realization of the Project, but he had managed to turn the situation around, as could be seen by Ranti Ang’s change of attitude and tone of voice. He had just won what he needed most: time. In addition, he now held the courtier Tist of Argolon and his accomplices in the palm of his hand, and this perspective filled him with boundless joy.

“These techniques come from a forgotten science that dates back thousands of years before Naflin. The only ancient science that ever really examined the potentials of the mind: Inddic science. We have found traces of it on Terra Mater, a very tiny planet in a solar system on the edge of the Milky Way. It also seems, as astonishing as this may be, that Inddic science originated on Terra Mater.

“To sum up briefly, two Scaythe ethnologists learned by accident that the religious hymns of a tribe of Terra Mater, the Amerynes, were sung in an Inddic dialect, even though this vernacular language had not been spoken for six thousand standard years. Our ethnologists went to Terra Mater, where they discovered a strange phenomenon: these hymns seemed to have geo-climactic repercussions on the environment, and they could cause seasonal upheavals, such as sudden blizzards in summer. When they collated their observations, they discovered the unbelievable properties of certain Inddic sounds, which are called uctras or antras.

“Good heavens, get to the point!” exclaimed Ranti Ang who had noticed that Spergus was no longer paying attention. He, too, was in a hurry to escape from the macabre atmosphere of this cellar.

“I’m getting to the point, my Lord. It was necessary to give you some context in order to help you and Master Spergus understand a little bit more clearly. We quickly realized that the Amerynes were using very specific sounds for ritual animal sacrifices or for punishments given to those who broke the law.

“A concrete example: adultery. The guilty party, or both parties together, were tied up in the middle of a sacred circle. Four Amphanes, or Ameryne priests, would sit at the four cardinal points, singing the death chant, a succession of uctras, which would end up causing irreparable brain damage and bring about death in a few minutes. But one of our physicists recently discovered that these same uctras proved to be more effective, more powerful when emitted at a subtle level.”

Spergus was once again paying unflagging attention to the Chancellor’s explanations.

“We based our work on the following theory: the destructive power of the Inddic uctras depends on the quality of the silence in which they are used. Little by little, the Amerynes forgot this basic principle. Instead of internalizing the uctras, they exteriorized them by chanting them, thereby reducing their power.

“One of the essential qualities of the Scaythes of Hyponeros is that they can attain levels of inner silence that no other living creatures can reach. Excited, superficial minds would not be able to use these uctras correctly. However, our students were trained in the greatest of secret, which is what called for the unpleasant but necessary presence of the Pritivian mercenaries, and they have managed to master them by stabilizing calm states of mind. They first tried them out on embryonic brains, then on mammals, then on the manimals of Getablan, and finally on this Mikat. By the way, I beg you to please clear up the concerns of some Kreuzian missionaries from the satellite Getablan. We had to”¦”

“Already having problems with the Church, Chancellor?” said Ranti Ang. “I thought these experiments were kept totally secret! I imagine, in fact, that if the other member states of the Federation learn that you have been using the services of mercenaries from Pritiv, we will lose all credibility during the next Asma on Issigor.”

“The five-year assembly will not take place, as planned, on the planet Issigor.”

“How? And why?”

The Chancellor’s yellow eyes locked on those of Spergus.

“I will explain that to you later, my Lord. In private. May I continue? In order to have enough guinea pigs, we had to promise the missionaries that we would return these manimals unharmed. But”¦”

“A white lie, but a lie, Chancellor!” said Ranti Ang, making fun of the bombastic tone of the people of the church.

“I thought that for the good of”¦”

“Don’t think anymore, if you please! The noble goal of these experiments was to serve science, was it not? And the fact that a few manimals have disappeared as a result of it does not shock my Kreuzian convictions. I will take care of all that with the Muffi Barrofill. Am I not, after all, his appointed protector and personal friend? But are you absolutely sure that no one else has found out about your experiments?”

“Absolutely sure. The only person who could impede us has been banished from Syracusa. By you, my Lord.”

“By me?”

“I am sure that you still remember the trial of Sri Mitsu, the Mustah.”

“Sri Mitsu? What does he have to do with this?”

Even though Ranti Ang was using all the resources of his mental control to let nothing come through, he clearly loathed recalling this memory.

“Quite a bit, my Lord,” answered Pamynx, almost feeling this discomfort – he knew exactly where it was coming from. “Inddic science had come through space and time, and three great masters are still alive: Sri Mitsu is one of them.”

“If this were so, we would have known!” said Ranti Ang. “Sri Mitsu has always refused mental protection: our inquisitors could read his thoughts as easily as they could read a light-book!”

“The exceptional psychic capabilities he had developed by practicing Inddic science exempted him from protection, my Lord. That, and the fact that he belonged to the brotherhood of Smellas, could have proved to have disastrous consequences for our projects. For that reason, and for that reason only, I insisted to you and to his Holiness the Muffi that he be tried in a sensational public forum. The accusations against him, unnatural sexual practices, were just a pretext, as I am sure you understood. He had to be removed. Fortunately, everything went as planned: his aura as a Smella, his influence on the other member states, his overall good reputation, all these things were turned against him during the trial and he was condemned to perpetual banishment.”

“Why have you hidden these true reasons from me, sir? Do you have such little esteem for me?”

Ranti Ang’s voice was bitter. Pamynx refrained from showing the contempt that he had for the Lord of Syracusa. He thought Ranti Ang was superficial, frivolous, fickle, incapable of handling the heritage that had been left to him by the great Arghetti Ang. Behind the scenes, the Chancellor constantly worked for a more expeditious succession than that which was a part of Syracusan tradition.

“I did not wish to overload your already busy schedule, my Lord.”

“Who are the other two masters of this”¦ Inddic science?” asked Spergus. “You said a minute ago that there were three of them and we have only heard one name.”

“Another Syracusan: Sri Alexu, a very discreet man who we never see in the court. But he lives right here, near Venicia. He is not involved in State affairs. He is only known to have two interests: his daughter, a young beauty named Aphykit, and flowers. He is under constant surveillance.”

“And the third one?”

Spergus’ insistence bothered the Chancellor. Had he underestimated the role of the Syracusan Lord’s protégé? Perhaps this disarming naiveté hid some precise calculated intentions.

“Seqoram the Mahdi.”

Ranti Ang gave an exclamation of surprise, an uncalled-for, indecent showing of his emotions, contrary to the code of sycophantic emotion.

“Good Lord! Do you realize what you are saying, Chancellor?”

“Why? What is it? What has he done?”

“The Grand Master of the Absurate Order. But don’t worry yourself, Spergus: we have compromised the Absurate knights and we have made sure to lead them down the wrong paths. And we go over their reports very carefully.”

“Perhaps! However, attacking the Absurate Order is attacking the very foundations of the Naflin Federation!” objected Ranti Ang. “The knighthood has devoted itself to the study of the arts of war for centuries. No lord, however powerful he may be, would have the recklessness to defy it! Have you lost your mind, Chancellor?”

“The Order knows nothing of the weapon that we are preparing, my Lord.”

Pamynx froze suddenly in a solemn attitude.

“My Lord, the time has finally come to carry out your father’s visionary dream. All the conditions are right: the federal army, the Interlice, is under the command of your brother Menati, and this until the next five-year Asma. We will ensure that this takes place on Syracusa and not on Issigor. In accordance with our advice, Menati has managed to bring the senior officers around to our cause with promises of titles and territorial concessions. Pritivian mercenaries are prepared to grant us unequivocal support, because they long to battle with the Absurate Order that their founders, the knights who broke away from the Order, came from. The Kreuzian Church is expanding thanks to the indefatigable activity of missionaries in the farthest corners of the Federation. Its crucifires and mental inquisitors are already a very useful repressive apparatus. There was only one thing we needed, my Lord, and this thing is what you have just seen materialize in front of your eyes.”

He stopped talking and watched the effects of his words on those in front of him. Spergus, his mouth hanging open, his eyes wide, looked like a holographic mannequin from the pre-Naflin museums. The only thing that made him look alive were his two blond locks of hair, swaying lightly in the air. This young and exuberant boy, who was a victim of his curiosity and of Ranti Ang’s feelings, already knew too much. Whatever part he was playing, whether it had two sides or one, he was a danger. His wheel of fate, the rota individua of the Kreuzians, would soon stop turning.

As for the lord of Syracusa, he was rubbing his lips absentmindedly with his right index finger. His blue eyes wandered over to the body of the Mikat and the black acaba of his assassin. Fleeting bright sparkles came from the dozens of ephemeral gems in the long scarlet cape that covered his white bodstocking.

“We must now act very quickly,” said Pamynx. “We must definitively eliminate Sri Mitsu, who, in spite of being in exile, remains dangerous. The Pritivian mercenaries will take care of that. We must also eliminate Sri Alexu and his daughter. They don’t look dangerous but this is probably just to deceive us. You must use your discretionary power, my Lord, to obtain additional credits so we can perfect our technology of mental execution. Then the Absurate Order must be attacked and destroyed, as well as the obsolete relic of the Federation, the final traces of Inddic civilization. In order to ensure that this is so, the Amerynes of Terra Mater should also be reduced to silence.”

“Do you realize, Chancellor, that if this genocide – because you are suggesting genocide – if this got out, we would be under a direct menace from the Absurate knights!” said Ranti Ang. “And it will get out, because the main member states have eyes and ears all around!”

“We need to learn that the Order is no longer an insurmountable obstacle. Our chances of success rest on speed and precision, on the element of surprise. All we need now is your formal agreement, my Lord. It is up to you to now become the first ruler of a post-Naflin empire.”

As he said this, he was thinking that Ranti Ang would never have this privilege. In the fifth stage of the Great Project, the masters of Hyponeros had planned for the Naflin Federation to be broken up and for power to be taken by a wise tyrant, a unifier. A man of a much different caliber than the current lord of Syracusa.

The four Scaythe thought protectors had slackened their watchfulness. The light from their half-closed eyes, coming from within the darkness of their red and white hoods, was less intense. They were violating the first law of the treaty of the Honorable Code of Protection: At all times day and night, I will be a zealous guardian of the mind of my Lord, because he alone has the right to follow the flow of his thoughts.

Pamynx noticed this inattention. He could have slipped for just a second into Ranti Ang’s mind, which was momentarily unscreened. He preferred to wait for his fellow Hyponerians to realize their unforgivable negligence. Today, the Chancellor would ask for no additional heads to fall. The most important ones would soon be rolling at his feet, and this perspective was more than enough to make him happy.

“My Lord, I would like to discuss the next steps of our undertaking,” he said softly, as if he did not want to awaken Ranti Ang from his daydreaming too suddenly. “Young Spergus should be allowed to avoid this tiresome chore. Send him someplace which is more in accordance with the concerns of his young age.”

Without waiting for Ranti Ang to answer and without paying any attention to the deadly look from Spergus, he walked off into the dark underground corridor with a firm step.