Throne of the Gods
By Brantley Thompson Elkins
With expert assistance from Tarot Barnes
On a certain world in a certain place at a certain time, there was a mountain higher than any other known.
Born of some chance upheaval during the collision of two continents, it towered so far above the world that none could breathe at its summit. From ancient times, it had been known as the Throne of the Gods, and myth had it that any who could reach its peak would become as one of the gods. Many had tried: their bones could still be found on the slopes - some further up than they had any right to be.
In more recent times, the Throne of the Gods had found a more practical use, as the site of the world's leading observatory. With considerable difficulty, and not a few fatalities, a tram line had been built to the summit, where construction then proceeded on the telescope itself and pressurized buildings for the workers and future staff.
By that time, the world had achieved peace and prosperity, and was free to indulge in curiosity for its own sake. For a few happy generations, the world reveled in discovery.
And then one day the universe, which had been the object of curiosity, arrived at the world. Kelsorians, they called themselves. Their visit was taken in stride by the natives, who had already begun manned exploration of their own system and launched robot probes to nearby stars. But they were surprised, and more than a little disappointed, to learn that peace and prosperity were not universal, after all; that a terrible war was raging beyond their ken among godlike powers for causes they could not begin to understand and that any world, even one as remote as their own, might fall victim to that war at any time.
Some years afterwards, there was another arrival, representing one of the powers of which the Kelsorians had warned them: the Velorian Enlightenment. Theirs was a relatively quiet sector, the new visitors told them. The chances of an Aurean invasion were slight. Still, the Enlightenment could not take any chances. One of their people would remain, to ensure their safety.
In any case, the arrival of the universe and all of its knowledge had by then rendered the World Eye obsolete. It was kept up as a museum and a tourist attraction, of course; but now the Throne of the Gods assumed a new function more in keeping with legend: the official residence of the Planetary Protector.
Lady Theel'dara was not pleased. But then she had never expected to be. Especially in light of the events that had brought her here.
The Kelsorian explorers who had been the first humans to arrive at Domyr which meant simply "world" in the local language had exaggerated when they told the natives that their planet was off the beaten track. It was hardly on any track at all.
The wormhole that led to their system led nowhere else of importance for thousands of parsecs. No doubt there were other peopled worlds in this corner of the galaxy, but the Kelsorians had no idea how to reach them. They recorded their observations, traded histories and scientific data and cultural information with the natives, added the Domyran language to their database, and headed home.
In time, the Kelsorian report had reached Velor, where it was duly examined and filed and then totally ignored. The Velorians had more pressing concerns closer to home. A wormhole that was of no strategic value in the Aurean war was of no value at all. Domyr would have never rated an official visit, still less a Protector, but for the unfortunate circumstance of Theel'dara.
As the only daughter of an Important Personage, Theel'dara seemed destined to become an Important Personage herself. But she became an embarrassment instead when, more from a lack of discipline than a lack of talent, she came in last in her class at the Academy. She neglected her studies, instead spending her time merely daydreaming about what her life was to be.
Still, she did pass, just barely, and as a P1 she could no more be denied the Rites than she could deny them. She did well in combat training and other essentials and, thanks to her father's influence, she even secured a plum appointment to a human world. But the same lack of discipline that had served her poorly at the Academy served her even more poorly on the primitive, undisclosed world where she was supposed to remain invisible. She had openly and notoriously enhanced several natives in order to provide herself with suitable companions in truth, with lovers and in so doing caused a public scandal.
Theel'dara was recalled, of course. But what to do with her? Even in her disgrace, it was impossible for the High Council to simply dismiss her the Important Personage stood in their way. Worse, the Protector Corps could not afford to lose anyone with even the least potential for future service. There had been defeats, even casualties, among the best of the best. And the Council had its pride. Despite being stretched thin in some sectors, however, it wouldn't do to assign a disgraced Protector to a world of any importance. What message would that send to the disciplined members of the Corps?
The Council was therefore gratified to find that forgotten file relating to a world of no importance whatever. Given that it was a Disclosed world, she would not have to hide herself. Living among the natives, perhaps she could perhaps learn both humility and restraint, and perhaps someday serve the Enlightenment in one of the inevitable battles that were brewing.
The official announcement about Theel'dara's new posting was both diplomatic and terse, but nobody was fooled. Domyr was exile in all but name. She was thousands of parsecs from the nearest human face or body. She could not even expect a visit from a Messenger, for what message would Higher Authority ever wish to send here?
The natives on Domyr were humanoid enough, but nobody would ever mistake them for human. They were short, gray, furry and six-fingered; energetic but rarely violent. Sexual dimorphism was far less pronounced than among humans, and they apparently had little history of sexual or other conflict. Perhaps it had to do with the planet's near-perfect circular orbit and low axial tilt, which produced a mild and even climate.
They addressed Theel'dara as Lady, which she took for a mark of respect. But it was no more than that. Her red and blue uniform with the emblem of the Enlightenment meant nothing to them. Nor would she ever be an object of worship and desire on Domyr. The glory of her golden body was lost on the natives, who found even her pheromones somewhat disagreeable although they would never have said so to her face.
She had little to do here. There were the occasional rescues during disasters like fires and floods. Domyr had very efficient emergency services, but if they were not up to the task on some occasions, she could snatch the endangered natives from burning buildings or raging waters. She had thought once that she might have to deal with violent crime, but there was scarcely any of that here.
On such occasions as her strength and invulnerability were needed to save lives, the Domyrans were properly and ritually grateful. The first speaker of the local Syndic would assemble the farmers or workers as the case might be, and lead then in formal bows and thanksgiving. But once the ceremony concluded, and she flew home to the Throne of the Gods, she would never hear from any of them again.
She rarely had any contact with the Congress of Federated Syndics that was as close to a world government as Domyr had, although like its member Syndics it relied on consensus rather than coercion. And even on the Throne of the Gods, her relations with the Syndic that owned the observatory-turned-museum were a matter of ritual formality.
The only friend she had was the aging former chief astronomer. As the arrival of the universe had rendered the work of the observatory obsolete, it had also rendered Amsul obsolete. He now held the largely ceremonial title of curator.
At first, Theel'dara wasn't sure why Amsul sought out her company, when others avoided her. But it hadn't taken her long to notice that he too was largely shunned. Was it because of his association with her, or was there some other reason some reason she could not fathom? The social customs of Domyr had always confused her; she had given only cursory attention to the Kelsorian report, and never kept a copy.
"It is nothing," he insisted once when she tried to press the point. "A mere embarrassment of diminished status." And quickly changed the subject to the matter of intergalactic plasma tubes: could she add anything to the knowledge brought by the exploration team?
She was embarrassed that she could not. Astrophysics had not been one of her strong subjects at the Academy. She had never seen much point in such studies: what had they to do with the duties of a Protector? She had learned to navigate wormholes, of course; that was part of her basic training. One can be skilled at navigating ski slopes without knowing anything fundamental about the mathematics of gravity or inertia; so it was with her.
Yet from innocence comes inspiration.
When Theel'dara had first settled at the Throne of the Gods ten years earlier, she would never have guessed that her arrival and her superhuman nature would give Amsul the inspiration for a project by which he hoped to restore the fame and fortunes of the World Eye; and, not incidentally, his own status.
With so little atmosphere above the observatory, there had been no incentive to launch space telescopes after the fashion of less favored worlds. But a near pass by an errant asteroid had convinced the Congress of Federated Syndics to appeal to all its members for contributions towards creation of a deep space tracking network.
A network of observation stations at LaGrange points in Domyr's orbit and similar points in the orbits of two nearby planets assured sufficient coverage for advance warning of any threatening body approaching from any direction. A small fleet of pusher ships had been built to actually deal with such a threat. But, never wasteful, the Domyrans could employ the same ships as mining combines among the asteroids until such time as an emergency might present itself.
Theel'dara had made it known that she herself was quite capable of dealing with such emergencies. The Domyrans had been skeptical. A small object, perhaps, but surely nothing the size of an asteroid. In any event, could she guarantee her continued presence for the indefinite future, or that of a suitable replacement? She could not. Domyr had decided to continue trusting to its own devices.
Yet it was Theel'dara's very presence which had given Amsul the Idea. And the tracking system had given him the means. He asked himself one simple question: What if ordinary Domyrans could "fly" to other worlds like the Protector herself? Finding the answers to that question now became the focus of his life.
It started with downloads from the tracking system. They produced an immense amount of data more than the World Eye itself ever had. He used that data to create a virtual reality environment that immersed viewers in a seemingly live experience of their planetary system
It wouldn't be real time, of course. It would be better.
Real-time data was minutes, even hours old, even as it was received. Real-time journeys were a matter of months. But through a combination of real-time data, recorded footage from spacecraft, CGI effects and seamless editing, Amsul's program would take his fellow Domyrans on a journey through their system to see it as it had never been seen before.
It would be more than a movie. Participants would actually seem to be there, flying past distant worlds, delving into the eternal storms of the gas giants, or landing on the rocky or icy planets and moons to walk their alien landscapes. And they could even travel together; through uploaded personal CGI images and sensory networking, they would see, feel and interact with one another.
All proceeds, of course, would accrue to the Interplanetary Syndic, which had jurisdiction over the deep space network and had succeeded to jurisdiction over the World Eye. It would thus have exclusive rights to the program.
Westwards of the summit of the Throne of the Gods was an escarpment so steep that none had ever climbed it. The eastern slope was difficult, but at least feasible, and rose from a plateau much like that of Tibet on Earth, and similarly nothing much to look at.
From the top of the escarpment, however, the view was like nothing else on Domyr, perhaps like nothing else in the universe.
On a clear day, one could see the green blur of the plains stretching for a hundred miles and, to the far left, the blue blur of the ocean. On overcast days, the cloud layer shone brightly in the sun. Whatever the weather below, the sky above was blue-black, but against the horizon it was azure, or shades of red and orange when the sun set.
Amsul came here often, which was unusual for his kind. It was dawn this time; the Throne cast its shadow immediately below, and in the distance he could see the retreating terminator, the distant plains emerging from darkness into light. He could not spend more than a few minutes; there was work to be done. For the day he had been preparing for so long was now here.
The domed amphitheater where the honored syndics would soon gather had served as a planetarium and museum for many years. But the exhibits had been moved to storage and the floor cleared. A false floor had been installed above the original, fitted with feedback sensors that would link the neural systems of the Domyrans to the synergistic data network below, link reality with fantasy.
Amsul knew it would work. He had tried it, in private, with Theel'dara. They recorded their images beforehand, and he had then programmed them into the system. They had sat together in the amphitheater as the sensors scanned their motor cortexes, judged how they would experience their chosen environment, and fed the data into their sensory cortexes to create the illusion that they stood together on the airless surface of Massaraksh.
It wasn't reality, of course. Amsul could still breathe, could still talk; he could even fly, which had never been the case in the real world. Other than that one time that Theel'dara had tried to take him flying. He hadn't liked it. He soon became dizzy from the height; he wasn't comfortable being held in her arms, and there was her odor.
But here he was in control. He could join her in soaring above the plains and craters and rills without fear, then drop down to show her one of the ancient lava tubes that proved this had once been a geologically active world. "I had this specially mapped for us," he told her as he led her through it. "Of course, the walls don't glow to light our way in the actual tube."
By mid-morning, the Syndic guests were arriving by tram, in orderly groups, each joining their comrades on the floor below the booth where Amsul would supervise the entire operation. For the present, he and Theel'dara joined the First Speaker of the Congress of Federated Syndics in greeting the guests and making appropriate speeches.
That accomplished, the First Speaker drifted away to hold concourse with his fellow Domyrans. There was to be an unexpected visitor, another human, he told them, and then said no more. He did not seem eager to keep company with Amsul and Theel'dara, and no more eager to meet the mystery guest whose shuttle had just landed.
Perhaps a Kelsorian, Theel'dara thought, although they were not known for paying second visits unless they had established trade relationships. Could it be a Messenger? After all these years? A reprieve? But why would a Messenger arrive by shuttle? It was impossible. Even so, an irrational hope sprang into her heart; with a polite but abrupt word to Amsul, she set off to investigate.
By chance, Theel'dara missed the entrance of the strange figure who, after exchanging a few words with the First Speaker, approached Amsul.
He was human, but nothing like Theel'dara; perhaps kin to some of the Kelsorians he had met so long ago. He was a man with dark brown skin that contrasted sharply with his snow white hair and beard. He wore a red costume with white fur trim and a broad black belt "Master Trader Boris Eristratov," he introduced himself, extending his hand. "I bring the gift of commerce."
Amsul knew of the shaking of hands, of course, and responded according to human custom. But knowing little of human history and culture, the symbolism of the costume and the oddity of a man of African descent bearing a Russian name were lost on him.
"What sort of commerce, and what do you wish with me?"
"I had planned on visiting the capital, but I was informed that your planetary executive would be here today. In any case, your little project seemed more interesting than anything they might have to discuss."
"That would be a matter for the Syndic. But I am surprised that the project would be of such interest. Have you nothing like this, then, on your world?"
"But to have invented it yourself, with no knowledge of what has been done elsewhere. The synergy of recorded and real-time images. And the networking, especially the networking. This sort of thing tends to be a solitary exercise among us, except for-"
"Don't pay any attention to this man," interrupted Theel'dara, who had just returned. Her voice was tinged with anger, born of both ingrained prejudice and immediate disappointment, neither of which Amsul could understand. "Don't have anything to do with him."
"He has expressed interest in the project," Amsul explained.
"He wants you to sell it to him, no doubt. So he can then sell it elsewhere, at an inordinate profit."
"Sell? Profit?" She employed ancient usages with unpleasant connotations.
"Nothing of the sort," said Eristratov, turning away from her with difficulty to continue his focus on Amsul. "We only wish to discuss procuring your services as a consultant. Are you free to travel offworld? Assuming that today's demonstration goes well?"
"I think that I am too old for such travel. From what I have heard of it. In any case, as I have said, it would be a matter for the Syndic to decide."
"You would probably never return," Theel'dara warned. "If they found you to be of use to them, you would not be allowed to return. They would find some excuse. That's the way the Scalantrans play their game."
"Why do you speak so ill of me?" retorted the master trader. "Why do you speak so ill of the League? You of all people!"
"Me of all people? I am a Protector. And you are just the sort that this world needs protection against."
"You wound me! But then, you have already wounded yourself. The story is well known to us by now, and the subject of no little amusement."
"I am not amused by you. And any stories you have heard about me must be entirely apocryphal."
"Quite canonical, actually. Before I embarked on this mission, I made all the necessary preparations. Language and culture files, bought from the Kelsorians (through third parties, of course). The Velorian news and rumor mills. Naturally, I was curious about the assignment of a Protector to a world that needed none. And it didn't take long to find the actual reason -- a matter of presuming on your own status to elevate the status of certain natives in order to scratch an itch, was it not?"
Theel'dara glared at him. "Are the Scalantrans now the arbiters of galactic morality?"
Eristratov burst into laughter. "Of course not," he said. "There's nothing the matter with scratching an itch, whenever or with whomever. But it's a question of discretion for someone in your position. You were supposed to be invisible in your previous assignment; it was a Wild planet, after all."
Amsul could understand nothing of this, and looked vainly to Theel'dara for guidance. She seemed to have forgotten him entirely. Her eyes were only for Eristratov, but she said nothing.
"It's ironic, of course," he continued. "Here you serve openly, and yet there is nobody to scratch your itch. Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink."
"What is this business about scratching, and what does it have to do with water?" Amsul asked Theel'dara.
Eristratov beat her to it. "Having sex," he said.
"Oh," said Amsul, taking in that much, although he still couldn't understand what it had to do with water, or the elevation of natives.
Eristratov was leering at Theel'dara, although Amsul failed to sense it. Facial expressions and body language were not quite the same among his people.
"I am too advanced in age, I know, for enhancement," said Eristratov. "Still, we might have fun scratching each other's itches. A pleasant dalliance. There may be snow on top, but there's still fire down below."
"You are a boor," she told him.
"Of course I'm a boor," he said. "And would you believe it? I already knew this. But then, you yourself are a boor. Or should that be booress? In any case, I think I have what you need at the present moment, so why should two boors not enjoy each other's company? There is gold aboard my shuttle."
The unpleasant odor of her pheromones was in the air. Amsul went into a sneezing fit. Theel'dara turned to him with a look of concern, or perhaps just embarrassment.
"I think I had better deal with this man myself," she said. Without any further explanation, she turned to leave. Eristratov followed hoping, Amsul supposed, to scratch her itch.
"We'll continue our discussion at a later time," Eristratov called back.
Theel'dara and Eristratov eventually rejoined Amsul, looking rather pleased with themselves. The master trader appeared to be positively radiant. Amsul failed to notice; he was in the control booth and things were well underway. He rather resented that the Protector had missed the start of the demonstration, but said nothing.
The elderly Domyran wore the chestbox computer with which he rarely parted. He hated missing any input that he might add to his personal database, and although it was a relatively old and unfashionable model it had served him well. He had tweaked its programs to his taste, taught it to respond to his own voice, created his own elaborate codes.
In the amphitheater below, the Domyrans were doing nothing more than sitting motionless in their assigned seats. It didn't make any sense unless you could watch the monitors that showed them flying across other worlds, walking on their surfaces, horsing around, oohing and ahhing at the experience.
"It's rather as I expected," Amsul said. "They're taking part as collectives."
Indeed, the members of the Central Otsark Forest Products Syndic were all visiting Strodin, the icy moon of the gas giant Arkanar, whereas those from the Coastal Grozhny Wind Vane Energy Syndic had gathered on Qhali, the harsh desert planet next outward from Domyr itself.
"It's very windy on Qhali," Amsul observed, turning to Theel'dara and her new-found friend. "Perhaps that's what attracted them. But I didn't have time to program the wind into the sensorium. They may be disappointed."
"Not necessarily," observed Eristratov, chuckling.
Amsul looked back at the monitor. Two of the Wind Vane people had begun having sex, and others began to take up the idea. Like a chain reaction, it developed into a mass orgy, with multiple and changing partners.
Even Eristratov was speechless. After a few minutes, Theel'dara wondered aloud, "Is this customary?"
"Yes and no," said Amsul. "Usually, these things are planned in advance. A concerted effort to relieve any jealousies and tensions that might otherwise threaten the collective peace of mind. Afterwards, everything returns to normal, and nobody talks about it. But they all feel better."
Matter-of-fact as he was in talking about it, Amsul seemed embarrassed by the erotic display. He returned to monitoring the tracking system, plugging the download leads back into his chestbox.
"Something is not right here," he muttered. "Combine Seven has dropped off the screen."
VI (by Tarot Barnes)
In the scale of things, the Event was not significant.
In the scale of things, even that which caused the Event was not significant.
However, in a universe where the difference between vast and minuscule is comparatively very small, significance is relative.
The first person to see It was a small child, living in a coastal fishing syndic just south of the planet's equator.
What she saw wasn't much, merely a star whose twinkle went on for a fraction of a second too long. In the time it took her to realize what she had seen, the star returned to normal. In the time it would have taken her to raise her arm to attract her mother's attention, a previously peaceful world was irrevocably changed.
A million hydrogen bombs seemed to explode in the atmosphere. The sound was solid; by the time it hit the ground, it had become an immutable wall of devastation capable of crushing cities.
In that instant the child, her mother, her friends, family simply ceased to exist. The pressure from the explosion would have left an imprint on the continent had the entire tectonic plate not been ripped from the planet's mantle and then dropped microseconds later. All life for thousands of kilometers was extinguished as a tsunami faster than the speed of sound and tall enough to stretch beyond the atmosphere rushed outwards.
Uncountable fathoms beneath the ocean's surface, tremors ripped oceanic vents open and shattered basalt with such force that the kinetic discharge vaporized a thousand cubic kilometers of seawater.
Far above, the air flowed like a tide, washing ever upwards and out into hard vacuum. Then the surge lost momentum; cohesion and gravity rebelled and the atmosphere snapped like an elastic band pulled too far.
Had any been left to hear it, they would have been unable to distinguish between the second wave and the first. Yet the first wave had merely been the harbinger of what was to come. The second was nothing less than a message carried by two hundred million souls.
On what had once been the ocean floor mile wide bubbles of superheated water rushed upwards, pouring entire seas onto a labyrinth of glowing vents in some attempt to quash the lethal gasses that were flowing from their geological prisons by the megaton.
Along with the water, the sweep flushed life. Untold billions perished as the influx crushed, boiled or vaporized them. Those who weren't killed instantly by the onslaught were slaughtered by the gasses dissolved in the turbulent surges.
Beyond all this, a Planetary Quake broke apart the ground. Viewed from space it appeared as a mere flicker that foretold the death of mountains and collapse of canyons. Far behind, an army moved at an unimaginable pace.
Eating up land, this army was constructed, not of flesh and bone, but rather dirt, rocks, ice, and fire. Beneath the giga-storm, green land liquefied and turned into churning brown mud. The wave of destruction expanded, consuming the planet's surface with such fury that it stripped soil to the rocks.
In the oceans the vast Quake continued to shatter continental shelves, releasing torrents of fire into the aquatic depths and churning seemingly impossible volumes of water into gigantic cyclical disks, tens, occasionally hundreds or even thousands of kilometers across.
When these eventually reached the surface, they would swirl the skies into storms unseen since before the last great extinction. These Hypercanes would ravage lands and devour species. Yet as mighty as they were, each would be swallowed like particles of sand in the megalithic maelstrom.
On those lands that this greater devastation had not yet touched, the seas rose to overrun dams, dykes and coastal defenses as if they weren't there. They swirled over beaches and collapsed geological basins to fall in torrential waterfalls whose splash carved rippled channels hundreds of meters deep in the ground below.
Nearly half a planet had been destroyed, more than a quarter obliterated. And yet few on the far side of the destruction knew about it. In spite of their advanced technology the disaster swept over most of them before they knew it was there.
Those who had access to the satellites, and happened to be tuned in to them, knew. But they couldn't come to terms, couldn't allow themselves to see what was unfolding before them. They looked at the expanding cloud of devastation and failed to accept that more than half their species was either dead, or trapped beneath a suffocating blanket, awaiting the inevitable.
Barely ten minutes had passed. That which had caused the disaster sped away unaware of what it had wrought. Barely larger than a finger, the fragment had once been part of a star. It had remained that way for millennia while forces beyond mortal comprehension gradually worked it away from its surroundings.
Caught in the intense magnetically-focused energy beam of a pulsar, powerful enough to rip apart suns, the Fragment had eventually been accelerated away from its parent at relativistic speed. Like a cannonball shot across a battlefield, it had no comprehension of what it did. It merely was.
During the ages-long flight through the cosmos, it had seen more of the universe and caused more destruction than an Aurean armada. In its wake, stars had gone nova, planets had been ripped apart, moons torn from their orbits or dropped onto the worlds below.
Yet in spite of all this, the incident was unique. Never had it killed before. The sheer abundance of empty worlds worked for the Fragment and its passage had gone unnoticed by history. Now things had changed, it had not only killed, it was killing on a global scale. The merest touch of its influence had signaled Domyr's death as surely as if it had struck the world head-on.
The Fragment continued on its journey. Part of a universe that neither loves nor hates, but is mercilessly impartial.
"A system error, no doubt," said Theel'dara, of the apparent disappearance of the mining combine.
"Our systems do not err," Amsul insisted. "This system, in particular, never errs. There are too many redundancies."
"Famous last words," interjected Eristratov, who had somehow managed to follow their conversation while also talking with his mother ship by comlink. Then, suddenly, his face became a mask of amazement and panic.
"The world is on fire!" he exclaimed. "The world is on fire!
Although they could hear nothing, the crowd below was stirring. Hundreds of comlinks were bearing the same message.
There was a visible reaction among the Domyrans who had a moment before been cavorting offworld as their fantasy selves. On the nearest monitor, those fantasy selves that were now frozen in time and space, whereas their real-life counterparts in the amphitheater were twitching in their seats.
"What is happening?" asked Theel'dara asked.
"This cannot be happening," moaned Amsul, as the data streams from space flooded into his mind, into his chestbox.
"It's spreading!" exclaimed Eristratov, still glued to his comlink. If his dark skin could have turned white, it would have.
Amsul sat paralyzed. On the monitors, the fantasy images had vanished as the Domyrans below had cut their links to the system. They had gotten up from their seats, were milling around, and evidently on the verge of panic, still trying to take it all in.
"What is happening?" Theel'dara practically shouted at Amsul.
Amsul turned to her sadly. "We are dead men. All of us. It would take longer to tell you why than we have to live."
"Could it be an Aurean attack?" she demanded. "Here?"
"No one is attacking us but the universe itself," he cried. "It is all here," he added, gesturing to his chestbox. "But no one else will ever know. Unless-"
"We must leave immediately," said Eristratov, who had somehow recovered possession of himself. "My ship will wait for us."
"I have my duty," said Theel'dara. "My mission as Protector demands-"
"There is nothing you can do," wailed Amsul. "Were there a thousand of you, were there a million, you could still do nothing. Perhaps those in space can be saved, but only if someone brings word. You must bear witness."
"Bear witness to what?"
Eristratov was listening to his ship. "We have only seven minutes at best."
Still, Theel'dara hesitated.
Below, the panicky Domyrans appeared to have reached a consensus. Arms began gesturing towards the booth. The first speaker of the Wind Vane Energy Syndic had somehow found a microphone.
"She has brought this upon us!" he screamed as he pointed. "The demon lady and her acolyte!"
Others took up the cry; Theel'dara could tell that, even if she could not hear the individual voices. These were the people she had been assigned to protect, but she could not protect them. Even if she could have, they would not have allowed her. She and the terror-stricken natives alike were helpless.
As an angry mob rushed to storm the booth, Eristratov talked into his comlink, grabbed a breather, put it on. Theel'dara, finally moved to action, grabbed another, practically forced it on her supposed acolyte. They rushed out of the booth, down a hallway. No time to cycle the lock; the Protector simply smashed through it.
As the air rushed out of the building, she knew that it was death to those left behind. It was a kinder death than they faced otherwise, but she did not think about that: only about the shuttle that was the only hope of escape for those who had suddenly become her charges.
The shuttle was waiting at the landing stage. The pilot had opened the lock for them. But there was more bad news: only three minutes left, and the pilot didn't think he could finish warming up the engines in time.
"Get in, strap down," Theel'dara said decisively. "I'll get us into space."
As the lock closed, she scrambled to grab hold of the docking attachment on top of the shuttle. Gently, she had to remind herself as she began to lift the craft. They're done for if you tear off the attachment.
There was pressure building in the atmosphere, even at this extreme altitude, as Theel'dara rose, bearing the shuttle and its precious cargo. She had only moments to spare before the terrible wave of destruction reached the Throne of the Gods.
The land itself rippled in the distance as the underlying bedrock shifted, but that rippling took only a minute to reach the Throne. The winds driven before it had already scoured the summit of all the works of the Domyrans, but hardly had the first tectonic wave reached it than another from the opposite direction around the world arrived.
Like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, the waves simply passed through each other and continued on their way. Carried by winds that could be measured only in thousands of kilometers per hour, an impenetrable cloud of dust enveloped the mountain. But by then, Theel'dara had brought the shuttle clear of the atmosphere.
Was the cloud rising, or the mountain sinking? Probably both. She could not tell, had not really been able to pay attention. Her eyes were needed elsewhere: to scan the heavens in the right direction, to locate, zoom in on and lock on to the Scalantran ship.
It was something she had never done before. But her eyes served her well, and her course was true.
The Scalantran ship was officially Probe 57, but Eristratov insisted on calling it, in bastardized German-Russian, the Sankt Kommersant. By whatever name, it was a small vessel by the standards of the League, designed only for contact missions.
Its complement numbered a bare half dozen; besides Eristratov, these were the chief pilot, the shuttle pilot, the astrogator, the engineer and a mate who saw to meals and other necessaries. Most of the space, other than the shuttle bay, was devoted to now useless introductory trade goods.
The Scalantrans had once been strictly a race and, on their great trading ships, they still were. But over the last few centuries, they had taken on Adopts from other species for passenger ships and probes, and those who represented the Scalantran League aboard the Sankt Kommersant were a polyglot bunch. Eristratov and the mate Hawley Sibthorpe were the only Terrans; the chief pilot Kor Estis was a born Scalantran, dark red like all his kind, but face conveyed the impression of constant anger to any human who didn't know better. Or perhaps he did harbor a festering resentment; Theel'dara and Amsul had no way of knowing it, but he must have been disowned by his clan or he would never have been serving alone here without access to a mate group.
The shuttle pilot Devrash was an Indran, tall and skinny with multi-colored scales like those of a Terran snake or lizard, although she was nothing like a reptile in any other respect. The arachnoid astrogator, whose name nobody else aboard could pronounce and was thus called simply Spidey, came from a race whose name nobody could pronounce either, so they called him a Pact, as if he were kin to the Pactrellians, even though he was an oxygen breather. And the engineer....
The engineer, to Theel'dara's discomfiture, was a kintz.
"She's perfectly tame," said Eristratov. "As a matter of fact, she's wanted on her own planet for desertion in time of war, an activity for which she had no taste. One thing that seems to unite all of us is that there's no accounting for taste. In any case, she's a good engineer, and she'll have us ready for departure in short order. Won't you, Ashotour?
The cat-like Ashotour purred in the affirmative, and headed for the drive room. The drive room could be a dangerous place to work, and was therefore well-suited to hardy races like the kintzi.
Theel'dara should have been relieved to see Ashotour go, but she was not. She was still in shock. Eristratov talked as if he and his crew were oblivious to the horror they had just escaped. "Survivor guilt profits us not," he insisted. "Neither is it of any profit to the Domyrans of the combines. We must carry on, and hope that our appeals here and in the Enlightenment will be heeded."
Amsul had already broadcast a last message to any surviving Domyrans of the mining combines, advising them to assemble their ships in orbit around Strodin and await rescue there. He also sent a message burst that, unstuffed, would explain to them what had befallen their world.
"Oh comrades, be comrades, even in this desperate hour!" he appealed to them. "Domyr shall live again, in spirit, on some world, somewhere. Believe it. We have friends in far places. You do not know them yet, but you shall. Wait for them. Wait for our return. Wait and hope."
He still thought of hope, but Theel'dara could feel only the bitter taste and crushing weight of defeat. She was a Protector, and she had failed to protect. She knew the feeling was irrational, but she could not shake it.
"You saved me," Amsul had insisted. "You saved Eristratov. Together we may yet save what is left of our kind. You have done what you could. No blame attaches."
No blame... and no understanding. Had she faced death in combat with a Tset'lar, she would at least known what she faced, known her chances, known a course of action that might have saved her life and those of whomever it might be her duty to protect. But there was no place for a "pulsar cannon" in her ethical universe; such a thing denied the very foundation of that universe.
Her strength and invulnerability had meant nothing here. She could have easily survived the holocaust on Domyr, she who could bathe in the fires of its sun. But to what end? She could have carried a few other Domyrans from the doomed Throne of the Gods. But carried them where? And even if there had been others of her kind, it was as Amsul had said: a thousand or a million would have been equally helpless.
Surely they two were not the only ones to be torn emotionally. For all his show of detachment, Eristratov had not looked back at Domyr. Neither had the rest of his crew. There was nothing to see, really: what had once been a blue and green planet was now mostly brown, with spots of grey or black. Beneath the smoke and dust was an inferno; Chief Pilot Estis had known that from his sensors at the outset, when he had warned Eristratov that the world was burning...
Her thoughts were interrupted. Amsul had returned to her side, no sign of hope or any other emotion on his face.
"I should be insane by now," he remarked blankly. "Any true Domyran would be."
"But you must be strong for them, your comrades-"
"I am not a comrade in their eyes. I never was."
He had been only an infant, he explained, when his syndic's factory trawler had gone down after a mysterious explosion. That was what his mother had later told him; he was too young to understand.
The authorities had assumed that all hands were lost, that the syndic itself was lost but for the maintenance crew left on shore. They did not know that Isha and her son had made it to an uninhabited island that was assigned to a wilderness preserve. Nobody came looking for them.
At an age when other Domyran children were learning not only speech but the wordless language of social bonding, Amsul had no company but his mother, the wildlife, the sun and the stars. Isha provided for herself and for him as best she could, but her loneliness eventually drove her to insanity. She imagined that the animals were her lost comrades, and had long conversations with them.
Years later, they were found, during a routine research mission. But it was too late. Isha was hopelessly insane, and had to be put down. As for Amsul, he knew words, but only words. Like a feral child isolated too long to acquire language, he could not learn the rest. He could not truly read his fellows, could not follow the subtle nuances of body language which, in concert with verbal language, shaped the sense of community, allowed each member to sense the needs of the community, contribute to balance and consensus.
"They could have put me down, too; but they showed mercy," he explained to Theel'dara. "They thought I might still be useful, and I made every effort to be useful."
Left with only the company of the stars during his long marooning, he'd naturally developed an interest in and aptitude for astronomy. He had since done well in school and at the Institute, and his handicap had ironically proven an advantage. When he was posted to the World Eye, he had no social or emotional ties below. He could endure devoting nearly all his days to his work at the Throne of the Gods, whereas his colleagues required periodic rotation to warmer emotional climes.
It was Amsul who first began to systematically identify and catalog planets of other stars, a subject that had been of no great interest to his fellows. Some of the nearby planetary systems might harbor life like their own, he suggested. He was wrong, but his work led to the first interstellar probes. Intelligence and industry had at last advanced him to the post of Chief Astronomer.
Through it all, he worked with his colleagues and with the World Physics Syndic in a professional manner. But he was essentially alone. He was attached to the Syndic, but was not truly a member if it. His colleagues respected him, or at least his work, but they were never truly his comrades.
Then, after the arrival of the aliens and their knowledge, there was no longer any great work to be done in his profession. He was no longer useful to the world, however much he wanted to be. By rights, he might still have been put down, but the authorities never sought that. It would have been unseemly, given his past contributions.
So Amsul was suffered to live out what remained of his life. If he was of no real use, he was no great burden. There were, of course, no complications. He had no wife, no children, no family.
Theel'dara had been shocked by this last.
"But don't you see?" he asked. "No woman could or would have me, because of my handicap. Except for the sisters of the Surrogates Syndic. It was their work to teach the arts of sexual intercourse to adolescents. But they took no pleasure with me as they did with others, so I requested medicine. To take away the desire. I have not needed it for some years now, since even before you came."
Had Amsul been human, Theel'dara could have offered him the solace of her body. But his very body chemistry denied him that, even if he had otherwise been capable of sharing her gift. The thought made her feel more helpless than ever.
Amsul could sense that she was distressed.
"Please do not feel badly," he said. "You have been a good 'friend,' my only 'friend'." He used the human word, which had a different context than its nearest Domyran equivalent.
"And yet you never told me any of this."
Theel'dara thought back on their conversations over the years. Amsul had talked endlessly about his work, about the geological history of Domyr and the other planets and moons of its system, about the evolution of life, the origin and fate of the universe. But never about himself, save for the joy of discovery that had blessed him during his youth.
Her own conversation had been of distant worlds, distant peoples, distant times, distant wars. He was fascinated by it, and often appalled. It was past his understanding what some of these peoples lived for, let alone what they fought and killed for, from control of wealth to control of genetics.
The Kelsorians, Amsul had told her, had been different. Like him, they seemed to be motivated only by the love of knowledge and the thrill of discovery. They had chosen their headquarters world, they explained, for its exotic nature, which they considered supremely beautiful although no one else shared that assessment.
They seemed to disdain the racial purity so dear, he later learned, to Velor and Aurea. They welcomed non-humans into their ranks, and the humans came in all sizes, shapes and colors. One of them, he recalled, had resembled Theel'dara, although she had seemed to him at the time no more remarkable than the others. He might not have remembered her so many years later, save for that resemblance. Was it possible that she was Velorian?
Theel'dara had said she doubted it, although in truth she had her suspicions, a bit of gossip she had heard once at the Institute. As for herself, she had never shared with Amsul anything beyond the sketchiest accounts of her life on Velor, her training as a Protector; still less the embarrassments that had brought her here.
"I could see that you had your own pain, although I could not understand it," Amsul said after a few moments. "I did not wish to burden you with mine. Nor did I wish to disrespect my kind by sharing with you what I could not share with them. There was no necessity."
She took his hand, held it. She could think of nothing else. She could see that he was tired beyond tiredness. She held his hand a sign of her presence, nothing more than that until sleep claimed him.
"How many people are we talking about on the combines, and how long can they hold out?" Theel'dara had asked Amsul shortly after they'd boarded the Sankt Kommersant.
"About 3,000," he said. Then he'd consulted his chestbox. "To be exact, 3,079 at last count, on 21 ships. There have been some births and deaths since then, no doubt."
"Births? They have children aboard?"
"Where else would they be? The combines are homes as well as mines and factories. As for how long they can survive, it varies from ship to ship as far as on-board stores are concerned, depending on how long they've been out. Several months, at least, up to a year. More, if they convert their ore bays and smelting rooms to hydroponics."
"Growing food on board. I understand. Perhaps they could--"
"There are still limits. Limits to recycling. Gradual loss of air and water. Whatever they have, they will share equally; that is one reason for them to gather at Strodin. They will lose some air and water during transfers of stores among them, but perhaps they can devise a means of replenishing them from the ice of Strodin without too much expenditure of energy. That is another reason for sending them there."
"They might hold out indefinitely, if what you say is so."
"Such things I could calculate, given more data than I have at hand. But I cannot calculate the effects of prolonged isolation, the constant awareness of a homeworld that is dead while they live, that they can see but never return to. Worse than any loss of resources, at some point, will be the loss of hope."
Theel'dara conveyed Amsul's estimate of the situation to Eristratov. They were continuing the affair that had begun that terrible morning, although it was impossible to be discreet about it. The trader was hardly a Messenger, but he was a man. A man in need of comfort as well as release the more so now, whether he admitted it or not.
As for herself, she could never have imagined, before her exile, of going so long without a man of any kind. She had been enraged at first by the injustice of it; over the years, that rage had faded to dull resentment. She had become auto-erotic. Beyond the soon too familiar strength of her fingers, she had resort to the usual alternatives, from hardened steel sex toys to the lava pools. But they could never make up for the touch of another human.
She could share nothing of this with Eristratov, still less admit to him how she fantasized he that was a young stud, even a Messenger, as they embraced. There was no true emotional intimacy between them, and they would argue during interludes between sex. Knowing no better, entranced beyond reason by her body and her pheromones, he took her combativeness for a come-on, and even encouraged it.
"It is difficult and dangerous work to maintain trade among thousands of civilized worlds," he remarked during the third day of their journey. "Many of them hostile to one another, after all, such as the Enlightenment's and..."
He saw the look in Theel'dara's eyes, relished it, but feigned otherwise.
"Well, that's neither here nor there," he continued. "What I am trying to say is that we of League provide valuable services which no other agency is willing to provide. Without us, there would be no traffic or trade among worlds other than within their own systems. Navigating wormholes is a risky business, as you are surely aware; it would otherwise be done only by such as yourselves and your warships."
"You are forgetting the Kelsorians," Theel'dara reminded him.
"Their efforts are pure research and technology, and they profit inordinately through keeping the secret of a star drive developed centuries ago. The end of the matter is that we are the ones who work hard and take serious risks, whether from your wars or the natural hazards of interstellar travel. For taking these risks, we insist on taking a profit, which would not seem unreasonable to you if you were aware of the extent of the losses we often suffer."
"You are taking no risks with us. Other than what we have already survived."
"And I am taking no profit."
The next day, they reached the wormhole.
There was nothing to see, really, except for the beacons left by the Old Galactics that marked the proper vector of approach. The wormhole itself showed only as a patch of darkness that grew as they neared it. But now it was time to withdraw the scanners and close the shutters over them; such delicate instruments could never have survived the passage.
Everything depended on the beacons, their computer the Vendorian steel hull of their ship, and the shielding. There were pilots who could plot their own courses through wormholes, but Estis was not one of them. Theel'dara could have guided herself through, as she had when she came to Domyr; Protectors and Messengers were trained to feel the right path. But she could never have directed the Sankt Kommersant.
The first sign that they had entered the wormhole was the sense of pressure that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Without input from the scanners, there was no sense of location, no sense of direction, but for the vector that showed on the computer screen. They felt a slight dizziness. Then came the ominous creaking, not unlike that once experienced by submarines nearing their depth limits.
Amsul clutched at Theel'dara for comfort, ignoring her odor, something he had never done before.
Eristratov saw the Domyrans distress.
"This is quite normal," he assured Amsul. "What you are feeling and hearing is only our adjustment to the gravity field. A minor leakage in the shielding. If anything were going wrong, I would not be here to tell you, nor you to hear."
It was true. The sounds ceased after a few minutes; not long afterwards, the Sankt Kommersant emerged into what the redeployed scanners revealed as a new starfield one that Amsul had never seen before. The brightest stars in this region had been pinpoints to the World Eye.
Even so, after a reading from the ships own scanners, he was able to identify the spectrum of the brightest in the archives of his chestbox. He searched for others, lost in the wonder of it all, able for the moment to put the tragedy that brought him here out of mind.
Theeldara had seen these stars before, and they held no interest for her.
"How long until we reach Moslow?"
"A week," said Eristratov.
"It depends on the connections. And your credit."
"Does anyone question the credit of the Enlightenment?"
"They might question yours. Especially if they suspect that you have left your post without being recalled. Which is almost certain to be the case."
"I wanted to do well. I did. As well as any Protector could have."
"They will know only that you left Domyr. We can tell them why, but they may not believe us. Scalantrans are no longer held in high esteem among many of your kind."
"Deservedly so," said Theeldara, and instantly regretted it. After all, the Scalantrans were still bound by the Compact, even if they traded with the Aureans. She wobdered if Eristratov was even aware of that. Whatever. She mumbled her apologies, but she could tell that the conversation was over.
There was worse to come, later, when she confided in Amsul.
"They never really accepted me, did they?" she asked.
"They had no choice but to accept you. They feared to do anything else."
"I never gave them reason."
"Your very existence was reason. Where there was one of you, there must be others. Perhaps you coveted our world, and if you did, we would have been helpless against you. And there were your enemies, the Aureans. You might draw them to our system. That was what the Wind Vane syndics must have thought had happened, at the end."
Theeldara choked back a bitter laugh.
"There was never a chance of that. None. I was sent here precisely because there was no danger to your world."
"But you told the Congress--"
"I lied. It seemed a small lie, to warn of a small danger. But it was a lie, just the same. I wanted them to think that my presence was necessary."
"Yet it was. You performed rescues. Saved hundreds, over the years."
"In vain, as it turns out."
"You could not have foreseen that. All that matters is that you cared enough to make yourself useful."
"It is not the business of Protectors to be useful. Not in that sense. Had Domyr been a Wild world, it would have violated our Prime Directive against interference in your affairs. Such violations are often tolerated elsewhere, but that was not an issue with your world. The Kelsorians had already opened it by telling you about us."
"Still, your heart was in your service to us."
"Do you think so? What do you know of my heart? Can you imagine how often I longed for more disasters, how I even wished there were violent crime or wars among you, so that I could show my power and be admired for it? There was nothing else to do here, except die of boredom. You were the only one to speak to me, except for the officials at formal occasions like the ceremonies honoring their Lady."
She could see the pain in Amsuls face, wishing she could take back her words. He said nothing for a minute, and then:
"We had Ladies once. And Lords. Long ago. Before the syndics. When there were still warring tribes, and the war chiefs would overstay their wars to cling to power in time of peace. They feared that you were as one of those ancient Ladies, come to trouble us again. They sought to propitiate you."
"I should have suspected as much. So I was a failure, even in my missions of mercy."
"No blame attaches," Amsul told her again, knowing that it was scant comfort, if any at all, but knowing nothing else to say.
It was the children of the Domyran combines who were the first to suffer. The adults could at least understand what had happened. But what could parents tell their children, children who were still dutifully studying the history and culture of a world that no longer existed?
Every Domyran was raised to think and feel himself a working part of that history and culture. The teaching materials might have changed over the centuries; from books to tapes to disks to cubes but the essence remained the same. It was that essence which was now threatened. Children might become defective, begin to egoize.
It had begun with the message from an unknown voice that had been traced to an alien ship leaving the system. First Speaker Darfur had disbelieved that message at first, but the Chief Navigator Kanem of his own combine had quickly convinced him.
"Our own observations confirm those in the message burst," Kanem had told him. "The effects on the outer planets that the object later passed are exactly as predicted. It was a natural catastrophe and not some sort of alien attack. I do not dispute the matter. Neither should you."
The first speaker had understood. It would be difficult enough to reach a sense of the meeting, in face of such an unprecedented event, if there were any dispute as to the nature of the event. Such a disagreement, if it were allowed to arise, would have ample time to fester before a virtual mass meeting could take place.
With some of the combines still light hours apart, it would be impossible to hold such a meeting for some time. In light of the situation, he had therefore taken it upon himself to persuade he could not exactly order the combines to gather around Strodin as the voice from the alien ship had advised.
Like Kanem, the crew chiefs of the other combines did not dispute the matter, and the mining and production workers and their families had not disputed it either. But as word reached the children, some of them began to question their elders.
Why were the combines acting without consensus? It was an emergency, they were told. They could understand that, as the extent of the calamity sank in on them; but why were they setting course for Strodin, rather than Domyr? They still could not quite believe that their homeworld was dead, that there was no one left to be saved there. And what authority, they wondered, did a nameless voice have to choose their destination? .
At his office in the Wheel, Darfur himself pondered the same question. Nobody knew the identity of the voice. If it had been the first speaker of the World Congress, or any of his deputies, or anyone at all acting in an official capacity, he would surely have identified himself. And if he were not, how had he come to escape the catastrophe when none else had?
Darfur had only the truth of the voices analysis to rely on. He had shut down his own combines mining and processing operations, and had the immense ship turn about to make course for Strodin. The other combines had respected his position and done the same, although he had spent anxious hours awaiting confirmation from the most distant.
The voice had promised rescue, even a new world for the Domyrans. How could anyone make such a promise? How could anyone dare hold out such hope? From what the Kelsorians had said so long ago, the universe beyond their system did not in the least seem kindly or altruistic. The other alien who styled herself a Protector had confirmed that impression by her title and her alleged mission.
Yet what other hope was there? They could make what provisions they could to survive as long as they could. Darfur had already begun planning for food production, and advised the other combines to do likewise. They must all make the best use of whatever resources they had. Organics were more precious than metal now, and if some combines were short well, theyd have to find a way to share. It wouldnt be easy, and there were limits to what they could do. He dreaded the coming meeting.
They had to leave the Sankt Kommersant at Moslow. It was not Eristratovs ship, after all, only one assigned to him for the mission. Whenever it went on another mission, under whomever, it would doubtless revert to Probe 57. Unless the next master trader was imaginative.
Moslow was a frigid world with a thin atmosphere, orbiting a dim red dwarf called Carldon so closely that the star, small as it was, hung fat and bloated in the sky. It could never have supported life, but during its formative stage, it had accumulated on its surface a greasy hydrocarbon sludge that proved a valuable resource for production of food and chemicals. This was Moslows only resource, save for its location.
Amsul alone took any interest in the stellar system. He sat for hours by a picture window, watching the slow evolution of sunspots on Carldon, easily visible to the naked eye against the dull glow of the disk, and the slow movement of prominences against its blurred edge. He was fascinated even by the contrast in Carldons light where it fell on the few outcrops of rock that poked through the surface sludge.
Eristratov was continuing in the same direction as Theeldara and Amsul. His crewmen were due leave, but he was expected to report to his regional office as soon as possible. The Protector and her ward had urgent cause to be on their way, so they all took passage on the next ship out. So did Estis and, oddly enough, Ashotour. The others were willing to await passage on other vessels to whatever they considered pleasanter climes which would not be the same for each of them.
Theeldara was thinking of more than the climes. She was thinking of her mission, a mission that she had not chosen and yet had been laid on her, like a geas. She could not endure another failure, would not; it was as if not only Amsul himself but the Domyrans of the combines, people she had never even met, were watching her. She seemed to feel their presence, waiting to see if she could become in fact what she was in name: a Protector. For that, she could endure much.
It would not be advisable, she told Eristratov, somehow convincing him that it had been his own idea, for them to continue as lovers on this leg of the journey. Here they were all under scrutiny, and it might compromise his position to be on intimate terms with a Velorian. The Protector and her strange companion must appear to be traveling on their own, as far as the captain and crew were concerned.
A rat-faced steward womps had that look reminded her and Amsul that they were fortunate to have been taken on board at all. The Takhmasib was a commercial vessel, after all, crewed by true Scalantrans, and they had no account with the League, no credit but the good will of the Enlightenment, which might not be of much value here, given that they could show no documentation that they were on official business. Eristratov had let it be known that he was returning a favor by paying their way, but without specifying what that favor was, and had hinted that there just might be trade opportunities with Amsul's world.
The Domyran and the Protector must needs share accommodations, and they were hardly first-class: their cabin was cramped and spartan, hardly bigger than a utility closet. There was a narrow bunk, a small basin and toilet against the wall, and nothing more. Amsul looked blankly at the cabin, and at Theeldara. "Ill take the floor," she volunteered.
Amsul slept fitfully that first time after bunking down.
He dreamed again of a day long, long ago, when he had been working on his first class project: a small telescope. He had put a great deal of work into it, so engrossed that he had failed to notice how poorly built the projects of most of the other children were. They thought it odd that he should build a telescope, rather than something related to their syndic, like a small boat or a miniature fishing net.
Came the day to turn in their projects, their teacher had assembled the class outside, glanced at each of the projects approvingly, but without comment, then casually tossed them on a pile. Amsul, who had always been treated politely by the other children but couldnt quite connect with them, was the only one who didnt realize what the purpose of the whole thing was, until the teacher brought a canister of fuel and a box of lighters from the schools utility closet.
"We are each of small account, and the things we each make are of small account," the teacher chanted as she poured the fuel and handed the lighters to the children. "But together, we are of great account. Together we are made whole. Today we become whole."
As his eager classmates lit the fire, Amsul stood there heartbroken, the lighter dangling from his hand. The others didnt notice until they heard him sobbing uncontrollably. They looked at him without comprehension, and then with disgust.
"But how could you not know?" the teacher asked him later. "How could you not know?"
Amsul subsequently took part of the first collective project of the class, the real project. He worked hard at it, and made a real contribution. The others accepted his ideas without comment when they were good ideas, but they never made either his work or himself feel welcome. It was as if there were an invisible barrier between him and the rest of his people.
Theeldara too slept fitfully.
She dreamed that she was sharing a lava pool with a lover, but not on Domyr. It was just somewhere. Some world she was supposed to protect. But she was focused only on her lover. A Messenger. She could not seem to make out his face, but she knew he was beautiful. And indefatigable. Fueled by the energy of the molten rock, they could pleasure each other without pause for days, weeks.
A massive volcanic eruption beneath them only fueled their passion; they neither knew nor cared that it was the beginning of an upheaval that spread around the globe. As they embraced ever more frantically, as they climaxed again and again, a torrent of fire and ash rained down on the rest of the world annihilating millions and then billions. As they reached plestathy, they were the only living beings left.
She came awake with a start; her hand was between her legs. Above her on the bunk, Amsul was also awake. He was coughing and sneezing uncontrollably; he couldnt manage to speak, but she knew what was happening.
"Im sorry," she said, getting to her feet. "Im sorry."
She left their cabin, paced the corridor back and forth. She was disturbed by her dream, even terrified; and yet she still needed to relieve herself. She finally found a utility room that suited her purpose. Afterwards, she used a cleaning cloth of some kind to wipe away her juices, tried to subdue her pheromones enough for Amsul to suffer her presence without discomfort.
Their luck ran out, three wormholes and nine weeks later, at Tarots World, which as the regional headquarters of the League, was Eristratovs last stop.
Tarots World was nothing like Moslow. Fourth out from its O-type primary, which shone blue in its sky, its magnetic field and ionosphere were sufficient to shield the surface against the worst radiation. It had one thing in common with Domyr: a low axial tilt that made for smaller oceans than on Earth, seasonal ice caps and mild winters.
As such, Tarots World was a hedonists paradise, which appealed as much to the Scalantrans as its strategic location at the nexus of a number of trade routes. That strategic location might also have made it a target for aggression; Freehold worlds were often seen as fair game. But even the Aureans knew better that to risk the displeasure of the League, on which most of the Empires own trade now depended.
While Tarots World was host to a Velorian legation and an Aurean consulate, it was the Scalantrans who pulled the strings through their regional office. Eristratov knew this, so he passed Theeldara and Amsul as well as Kor Estis and Ashotour through Customs as part of his crew for an upcoming trip. The Tarotian officials, beholden to the League, took his word for it.
But he suspected that, once he had presented his official mission report, his word might not count for much. So, after settling the others in a hostel at Barnes Spaceport, he set out to do what was necessary.
The first thing he did was to head for the nearest bank machine and transfer all his credit from electronically from a Scalantran bank to a Velorian institution. The second thing he did was to visit a discreet dealer and convert a substantial part of that credit into portable form: Questenels and Tetrite rose crystals. The third thing he did was to visit the red light district, which was here quite legal and aboveboard.
The most famed bordello on Tarots World, nay even the entire region, was called simply B. It was owned, operated and staffed by Betan emigrés. Betans were prized for their beauty, strength and stamina. They might not be invulnerable to heavy artillery, but heavy action in bed was never a problem for them. They could not only name their own price, but name their own clients. Admission requirements could be as rigorous as those for universities.
With blonde wigs, they could and did indulge fantasies of making it with Vels. Eristratov, oddly, had never been into that, or at least never admitted it. He wasnt going to now, either. Theeldara had been like a bolt out of the blue; he knew that hed never have had a chance with a true Vel, let alone a Protector, under any ordinary circumstances. Whether or not she succeeded in her mission, he would probably never have such a chance with her again. But he could hope .
Xemissa, by contrast, was a known factor, a constant. He knew he could count on her to welcome him whenever he made port at Tarots World, and knew that she enjoyed his company and his ministrations. "Its a business doing pleasure with you," hed kidded her after their first encounter. "And a pleasure doing business with you," shed told him. He had passed the test, and had been blissfully content with that until
Like her fellow courtesans, Xemissa entertained her clients in an elegant glass-walled boudoir. The polarized glass could be darkened or cleared at the touch of a button; if a client wanted to have sex under the open sky, or even in full view of the world, his wish was granted. Xemissa always kept the glass darkened for him, save at night when theyd couple under the stars.
She met him this particular day wearing a leopard skin bikini. It was real, from an animal killed in a licensed hunting park a few hundred kilometers away: She thus indulged the master traders fantasy of a black man making it with a white jungle queen, complete with holographic props. These werent entirely authentic, but as Eristratov had never been to Africa, it didnt matter.
Only the old fantasy had lost its appeal. Now he imagined Xemissa as Theeldara, as his Velorian goddess. He didnt tell her, of course; if he was more energetic than usual, she attributed it to his long absence and her own undeniable skills. After theyd had their fill of each other, Eristratov asked leave to use her terminal, explaining only that he was concerned about some friends he had made on his last mission.
He turned away politely as she entered her codes, then sat down to begin his search. It took only moments to learn that Theeldara had been placed on a watch list since her exile. Should she return to any world of the Enlightenment, unless recalled, she was to be considered a deserter. She was not to be afforded aid or assistance of any kind, and, if possible, should be taken into custody. Velor itself was to be notified by the next outgoing ship, or the next outgoing Messenger.
The Factor Generals office was aware of the watch order, but had word been passed down? It was standard operating procedure, as a matter of security, to handle such communications off the web, by message capsules delivered personally. Eristratov said as much when he delivered the news to Theeldara at the hostel.
Her face sank. She had counted on at least having a chance to make her case at Velor. But she could not approach the legation, or seek passage on any ship bound for Velor. What could she say now? Amsul said it for her.
"We must go to Kelsor 7," he declared. "They will know of me, for I met with their exploration team at length when they first came to Domyr. I will explain things to them, and they will explain to Velor. Surely their word will be honored on your world."
"In all respects scientific," Theeldara agreed, not mentioning that Velor had little to do with them in any other respect. But when they approached the Takhmasib, it was soon clear that the true Scalantrans wanted even less to do with the Kelsorians, or with them.
"We shall not take you to Kelsor 7," Travel Captain Yngvi informed her, after she had explained the situation. "It is not on our schedule, or that of any other League vessel. We have no love for the Kelsorians, nor they for us. In any case, there is no profit to be made there."
Hoping to bluff her way through, Theeldara assumed the Stance prescribed by the Compact for Protectors on such occasions. "Top emergency," she declared.
"Your reputation is known to us," Yngvi retorted. "Furthermore, you have deserted your post as Protector. You are in no position to declare any degree of emergency, whatever the technicalities of the Compact. No doubt word of events at Domyr will reach Kelsor 7, and even Velor, by other means."
"I have deserted nothing. Domyr no longer exists as a viable post, but there may yet be a sufficient number of survivors for its race to continue. Time is of the essence, for them and therefore for us. Furthermore, the nature of the event that led to the destruction of their world is of utterly urgent concern to all high-intelligence life forms. We have promised our assistance. That is why I am here. My companion can attest to all of this. I say again, Top Emergency."
Yngvi looked briefly at Amsul, who cowered at his glance. Then back at Theeldara.
"Your companion is even more pathetic than yourself."
"I could take your ship by force, as you well know."
"But could you pilot it? Could you guide it safely through the wormholes? None of our people will assist you in any manner."
"I could squash them like bugs. I could squash you."
"But you will not. You will do none of the things you threaten. Even such a fool as yourself must realize the consequences."
Theeldara realized the consequences. Such a violation of the Compact would bring down the wrath of the entire Scalantran League. A trade embargo would be the least Velor could expect.
"Such a louse," Eristratov told them when they met again at the hostel. "But Im afraid it was only to be expected. He is merely complying with the will of the Factor General. He will not cooperate with you, but at the same time he will not advertise your presence to the Velorian legation. That is one thing in your favor."
"Can you not intercede for us?" she asked.
"I myself am in rather bad odor at the moment as the leader of a failed mission, no matter that I cannot rationally be blamed for such a failure. Given my age, I may even be forced into early retirement. For the time being, I am under suspension while the Factor Generals office considers my case. Perhaps I should take a vacation."
Ashotour was closing in on her prey when her comlink buzzed. She ignored it. She was in full hunting mode, and nothing could distract her. The imported gazelle ahead of her was swift, but she was swifter.
She was exhilarated by the chase as only a true predator can be. No canned hunts were allowed on the Tarotian reservation, and she would have disdained them had they been permitted. She also disdained even the limited power weapons that were allowed the frailer humans and non-humans; she was her own weapon.
Ashotour ran on two legs, but they were more than a match for the gazelles four. The gazelle must have sensed this; she could smell its fear. As the comlink buzzed again, she closed the gap and, still ignoring the signal, leapt upon the animals back like a trick rider in an Old Earth western mounting his horse. She could feel the gazelles heat under her, the straining of its muscles as it struggled to throw her off. It was almost like sex.
She ended it by sliding forward, grabbing and holding the gazelles neck as it bucked in terror, then delivering the coup de grace with her razor-sharp teeth and claws. Her prey went down; she drank and ate of its blood and meat; only when she was sated did she answer the insistent comlink.
"I am in urgent need of an engineer," Eristratov told her. "Only the best qualified need apply."
"I am on vacation," she reminded him.
"So am I," he responded. "An enforced one, Im afraid. But rather than endure it in idleness, I intend to put it to good use, in aid of a good cause. Ill say no more."
"What are you talking about? You havent said anything yet. Unless "
"You will be well paid," the master trader interrupted. "Three times League rate."
That much Ashotour could understand. Anyway, she had satisfied her atavism, and had had her fill. Unlike her orange-furred cousins, she enjoyed other things as well. Perhaps too well; that was why the Empire's eugenic authorities had canceled the project; her spotted kind had proven too independent-minded.
After agreeing to Eristratovs terms and signing off, she called for the meat wagon. Game should never be allowed to go to waste.
Kor Estis was hanging out in a Scalantran bar when the summons came to him. He had been talking for some reason about his uncle Sol, known for activities on many worlds, including Terra itself, that made Scalantrans at their worst seem like saints.
"Now Uncle Sol, his big thing was kitties," Estis remarked to his ad hoc drinking buddies.
"Kitties?" wondered the first ad hoc buddy..
"Like kintzi. Or the lions out on the Reservation. But very, very small," Estis explained, pointing to his beer mug.
"But what would anybody want with them?" asked the second ad hoc buddy.
"What does anybody want with anything from Earth? Its the cachet. Just ask Boris. He got his start in relics."
"Whats a cachet?" interjected first ad hoc buddy.
"Its like a kitty, only bigger. Say, a beer keg."
The ad hoc buddies looked at him doubtfully. Then he burst into laughter and told them the whole story, even the bit about a Vel chasing Sol off when she caught him trying to wheedle a pair of kitties from a pair of Earth children.
Scalantran traders were fond of swapping such stories, challenging each other to top them. That business on Earth about the cats didnt exactly qualify, but Kor thought it might have novelty value. It even drew a few laughs from the ad hocs. Only no more from Kor himself. All of a sudden, it seemed, he didnt think it was funny any longer.
"I served in the Red Army. When there still was a Red Army," Eristratov told the others when they asked him why he had christened their new ship the Zhukov.
Actually, he had intended to call it the Xemissa, but on second thought decided that would seem hypocritical: even if the courtesan did not already sense his feelings for Theeldara, she would surely come to suspect: why else would he be embarking on such a mission.
Xemissa was the buyer of record, and the ship had been registered in her name, even though the funds had come from Eristratovs own account. They would need a cover story, he had explained to her, and her presence on the mission would thus be required. But no complications were to be expected, and at the end of the mission the ship would become hers in fact as well as name.
A conscience offering to her, he mused, surprised that he had a conscience, or that it should trouble him over what was, after all, formally no more than a long-term business relationship.
Thanks to that relationship, in any case, it would not seem odd to Tarotian or Scalantran authorities that she should defer to her best-known client in the naming of the ship. As for his fellow travelers, he explained that Marshal Zhukov had been the greatest of all commanders of the Red Army. None of them could possibly know that Zhukov had been long dead at the time of his own service.
Eristratov had been tank commander during the Afghan campaign when an RPG was fired at his T-54. That would have been the end for him as well as the tank, except that a Scalantran raiding ship had been on a scavenger hunt for classic Earth weapons like T-54s, which could bring a fortune on the interstellar collectors market.
The raider had, of course, been cloaked to the eyes of the mujahadeen, the tank had seemed to disappear into thin air. As for Eristratov, he might have been made to disappear for real, but for two things: first, he had read enough science fiction, even the Western variety, to know what was happening; second, he knew the ins and outs of the black market as only a Russian could.
Give me a chance, hed told him; you wont be disappointed. They did, and they werent. For starters, he was able to help them with their scavenger hunt. Being a military history buff, hed been able to point them to the locations of rare items like Stalin Organ rocket launchers from the Great Patriotic War. They werent missed, given the slovenly nature of Soviet inventory keeping and lack of interest in such relics.
Eristratov had even tracked down one of the prototype landers for a Soviet moon project, scrubbed after the disastrous explosion of the booster for the mission. Neither the disaster nor the mission behind it had ever been officially acknowledged, and nobody was going to acknowledge that the lander had disappeared from a warehouse in the Moscow suburbs, either.
The Scalantrans might not have any scruples, but they knew talent when they saw it. The Russian expatriates rise had been rapid. He was especially adept in the relic business, which soon expanded from weapons to items like vintage cars. He was also a master of subterfuge, managing to create a convincing cover story even for the disappearance of one of the few remaining Tuckers.
Here, the subterfuge should be far easier: Xemissa was simply taking a sabbatical, as courtesans occasionally did. Eristratovs reasons for accompanying her were obvious; as for the others, they already been entered through Customs as crewmen in his service. The Zhukov was cleared for takeoff a week after they had arrived on Tarots World.
They set course for Kelsor 7. It would be a long journey, longer than the others especially Theeldara and Amsul cared for. But it should be uneventful. Eristratov was more concerned about hiding his feelings for the Protector and keeping the peace with his paramour than anything else.
It was frustrating, to say the least. Theeldara would surely have nothing more to do with him after fulfilling her peculiar quest
As it turned out, any potential rivalry between Theeldara and Xemissa became a moot point once they were underway, for now Amsul seemed to be the Protectors center of attention.
Theeldara had assured him that the path was clear, that the end was in sight, but he seemed strangely nervous, as if he had a premonition that some obstacle, or even some danger, might yet lie ahead.
He wanted to teach her what she would need to know, in order that, were he to die before they reached Kelsor 7, the message would still be passed. It was all in his chestbox, but it was more than a matter of teaching her the access codes, the organization of the data, the technical language of Domyr that she had never mastered. She must understand, she must become one with the knowledge, to experience its beauty and its terror.
Theeldara tried her best, but science and mathematics had never been her strong points. The equations that Amsul brought up on his display swam before her eyes, even after he had explained the symbols and system of notation.
Yes, she could understand a fragment from a pulsar being accelerated to near light speed, why it could never have been detected because its radiation could barely outpace the object itself, how its relativistic mass had destroyed a world. But what difference did it make whether she could understand radial gravity or sheer forces and their impact on the shaping of atmospheric waves?
"All the difference in the universe," he told her, and went on to another aspect.
"Did you know that the pulsar fragment itself must store a record of everything it has experienced, a layer of molecules preserved in time? I have worked it all out; I can show you the equations. No matter what else happens, some part of Domyr will survive there until the end of time. I find a strange comfort in that."
The Protector could not, and when she wearied of these sessions, Amsul would try to lose himself in the passing show. It was only in passing that he could experience it, for they could not afford to make any stops, let alone detours to exotic worlds like Shalmirane that might lie within a few days reach. From now on, it was a matter of traveling from one wormhole to the next, as quickly a possible.
Amsul would fain have taken a closer look at Beta Lyrae, with its violet white primary and yellow companion trapped in an orbit so close that they were pulled into teardrop shapes that nearly touched, the smaller and denser ripping material from the other to form an accretion disk and sending some of it spiraling into space. But he had to be content with a distant view by scanners as the Zhukov passed the system by.
Theeldara told him stories of other Protectors even the sad and terrible legend of Novayul the Lost, for whom she seemed to feel a strange affinity, although they had never met. She told him about her childhood on Velor, and her seemingly carefree days at the Academy, which seemed to involve sexual liaisons as much as education. She even told him about her father.
Sigurd Utvandrer, whose proud surname harked back to his Nordic ancestors, signifying that they had come to Velor of their own free will, led the conservative faction of the Velorian Senate. On policy matters, from the Prime Directive to military strategy, he was absolutely inflexible. His only indulgence had been his daughter. For her sake, he had shamed himself by interfering in the judgments of the High Council, which alone was ordained to govern the affairs of the Protectors.
His sacrifice had meant nothing to her at the time; she had thought only of her own suffering; she could not admit, then, that she had brought it on herself. She had hardly thought of her fathers suffering, the suffering of a proud man brought low, of a father who must have still loved her and yet cut himself off from her for what be believed to be the sake of the greater good the honor of Velor.
It was hard for Amsul to grasp. When Theeldara tried to explain the political system of Velor, the intense loyalties and bitter rivalries, why women even Protectors submitted to the authority of patriarchs. He found it all senseless, even mad. It was as hard to understand for him as quantum gravity was for her. But one thing he saw clearly.
"You are feeling hurt," he told her. "Once I would not have believed that you or your kind could be vulnerable to anything. You were a strange visitor when we first met, and yet you became my comrade. You are surely my comrade now, as indeed are the others on this ship, and we are taught to bring comfort and solace to our comrades. But I do not know how to comfort or console you."
To her shame, even at this moment, she thought of another kind of comfort, another kind of solace. But she suppressed the thought and the desire, lest her comrade be discomforted by the odor her arousal.
"To listen," she told him. "It is enough, just to listen."
"As you have listened to me."
Things went seriously wrong two wormholes later. None of them had ever been in the system they were now entering, but records indicated that its only habitable world, Halcyon, had been settled by a community of religious pacifists who had found no peace on their homeworld and had willingly put the comforts of that world behind them in order to live according to their own lights.
Because they were helpless by choice, Velor could not assist them openly. But for some reason, a Protector had been assigned there covertly just the same. Only Theeldara among present company was aware of this, although her knowledge was at least a decade out of date. Therefore, she alone could understand what must be happening when they were hailed by an Aurean cruiser as they approached that world.
The Aurean commander demanded that they identify themselves. After a moment of whispered conversation among his party, it was agreed that Eristratov take charge of the situation. Knowing that the sight of any them and certainly all of them together would trouble the Aureans, Theeldara, Ashotour and Xemissa withdrew from sight before the master trader opened a visual channel.
Eristratov politely recited the name and registration number of the ship, its origin and destination. The commander, naturally a Prime, seemed puzzled as to what business he might have on Kelsor 7, especially in the company of some unfamiliar alien. But he didnt seem concerned or suspicious.
"This is a war zone," the commander declared. "You are in danger here. You are hereby ordered to turn about and land on Satellite Three of Planet Five. You will be advised when it is safe to continue your journey."
"Understood," Eristratov replied. "We will comply, and hope to hear from you as soon as possible."
After signing off, he consulted Theeldara.
"This is not a strategic system," she pointed out. "Neither Velor nor its allies has any military forces here. Only a Protector, unknown even to the natives. But evidently, now, known to the Aureans."
"So they send a warship to deal with her?"
"Not just to deal with her. To make an example. They will kill her, if they have not already done so, and kill as many of the natives as they can find. They will see to it that Velor learns what they have done here. But they will deny it to all others. They will not wish to leave any witnesses. When they think we least expect it "
"And the natives wont even know why they are dying," Eristratov said darkly. "Whereas we "
The others were stoic, for the moment, but Amsul broke.
"We cannot die here," he cried. "We must not."
"And you will not," Theeldara said. "None of us will die. But we must not show any sign that we mistrust the Arions. We must be seen to comply with their wishes. We have no way of knowing the situation on the planet. We may be able to help, or we may be too late. Whatever the case, we can do nothing until I put their cruiser out of action."
"That cant be easy, even for a Vel," said Eristratov. Estis and Xemissa and even Ashotour murmured in agreement. Amsul looked on with an expression between doubt and hope.
"But they dont know they are dealing with a Vel. And they wont. Not until it no longer matters."
She explained her plan. It seemed preposterous, but then so was anything else a Vel might do, if one didnt know better. When she thought they were beyond the range from which the cruisers sensors could detect small objects, she made her farewells and exited the airlock.
The Zhukov continued on towards Satellite Three of Planet Five, a journey that would take several days but, she hoped, never need to be completed.
Everything was proceeding according to plan, Commander Zharptitsa reflected, as his cruiser orbited Halcyon. It was a walkover. But then, what else could it be? True, one his Primes groundside had been a casualty, but the rest had taken out the Protector, and from then on .
Zharptitsa had expected some token resistance, even from self-styled pacifists. He had visions of angry farmers coming at his Betan troops with scythes or pitchforks before they were cut down by GARs. But according to SarLanza, the surviving Prime, they hadnt even offered that much satisfaction. All they could do was run and die. Some tried to hide, knowing nothing of heat sensors, any more than of the reason for their fate
No matter. They were only a message, and he was the messenger. Velor must be reminded, once again, that its pathetic attempts to protect such primitive worlds would bring them only death and destruction. Let the Velorians look to protect themselves, lest that death and destruction reach them, as eventually it surely would.
Zharptitsas thoughts were interrupted by a message that a fast-moving meteor was on collision course with the ship. This was strange, since the area had been scanned less than an hour before and there had been on sign of such a thing. And where could it be coming from? Perhaps it had been thrown off by some collision in the local asteroid belt. At any rate, it could be easily dealt with.
The commander so instructed the weapons master, who immediately had one of the rear heavy GARs trained on the approaching object. It disappeared in a blaze of glory as the gunner fired, a blaze so bright that it momentarily blinded their sensors. End of story, Zharptitsa assumed. Then he felt the cruiser shudder. Alarms began sounding.
"All stations report!" he shouted.
The one station that failed to report was the engine room. It took only moments for those at the nearest other stations to determine that the crash doors had come down all around the engine area, and that the ship must have been holed there. It took a while more for crewmen to suit up, exit the nearest lock, and work their way to the scene.
It was the worst thing that could have possibly happened. The meteor, or part of it at least, had somehow survived and torn completely through the ship, destroying the engines and rendering the ship helpless. They had no way home now, nor even a means of sending a message; their landing craft had neither the strength of Vendorian steel nor the energy to make it through wormholes.
Could this be some sort of enemy action? But the only other ship in the system was that yacht, still in retreat; and the meteor had come from an entirely different vector. When he had the scanners probe in that direction, his consternation turned to panic: there was a whole meteor swarm headed in their direction. Not as fast as the first, but with the engines gone, evasive action was impossible. And with the ship slowly tumbling from the first impact, they couldnt even count on bringing their heavy GARs to bear on all of the objects.
After a moments paralysis, Zharptitsa gave the command to abandon ship. They would have to take their chances on the planet. It would be hard, scratching a living there like peasants, but they could survive in some fashion until Aurea sent another ship to look for them. Time was of the essence now, and they didnt have much.
Two landing craft managed get out of the bays. One, with Commander Zharptitsa aboard, was hit by a meteor that somehow came on an entirely different vector. It even slowed for just a moment before impact long enough for Zharptitsa and his men to see that the "meteor" was red and gold. With that revelation came utter terror. It was the last thing he or any of the Aureans with him saw or felt.
The other landing craft escaped, although its panicked pilot misjudged his angle of entry into the atmosphere.
"We are safe now," Theeldara told the others when she returned to the Zhukov. "But I may have to take you into danger, if we are to have a chance of saving any who may be left alive on Halcyon."
"Surely you do not need any assistance from us, after the way you handled the cruiser," said Eristratov.
"The cruiser could not hide from me. But a Prime operating on Halcyon itself can and would and try to set an ambush if he or she suspected the presence of a Protector. There is surely a Prime groundside, perhaps more than one. I must have the advantage of surprise. I must find him or them before they find me. I cannot accomplish that without help."
"We could leave the natives to their fate," Estis remarked. "They are no concern of ours."
"My oath as a Protector compels me," Theeldara retorted. "The probability that a Protector has already died there compels me even more. I cannot command you, but I can implore you. I have already promised that none of you will die here, and I will keep that promise. Help me honor Velors promise to these people. Have the rest of you any military experience?"
"Do you really need to ask?" Ashotour purred. "But did not Boris also tell you that I have no taste for warfare?"
"Think of it as a hunt," Theeldara suggested.
"Hunting for Betans? An interesting concept. They once tried to hunt us. Then they thought of a better idea. Or so they believed. But our chances with them had been far better than with the Velorians they threw us against. Perhaps I have a taste for evening the odds. We shall see."
"I underwent compulsory military training on Aurea," said Xemissa. "Its like sex: You dont forget, even when you want to."
"Street fighting," Estis volunteered, seeing that he was evidently in the minority here. "Small arms."
Amsul had not figured in Theeldaras calculations, nor in those of any of the rest. They were startled to hear him speak now.
"I know nothing of fighting but what I have read in the histories," he said. "Even so, I am prepared to make my contribution."
"But none of us would expect you to take part," Theeldara protested. "You are too"
"I know this," the Domyran replied quietly. "But you have committed yourselves to me. You have all pledged yourselves to a journey in which you have no interest, which now puts you at risk. You have all been good comrades to me, and I must be the same to you, sharing that risk."
"This is absurd," Eristratov interrupted. "You would only be a burden to us. I once had to fight beside raw recruits. They were worse than useless. They were a greater danger to us than the enemy."
"She has promised to protect us," Amsul argued. "She must know how. I trust her in this. She had told me much of your world over the years. From what I have heard from her of these Betans and their weapons, you and Kor would be hardly more of a match for them than myself."
"You dont have the faintest idea what youre talking about. Youre what we call a babe in the woods here, knowing nothing of wolves. No doubt your own world too has a proverb about wisdom coming from the mouths of babes. And people foolish enough to believe it. Well, Im not one of them. Neither is anyone else here."
Amsul didnt understand all the references, but he got the gist. Theeldara saw his hurt, but could not argue Eristratovs point.
"There is no way, really," she told him.
"Find a way," he pleaded.
Theeldara went so far as to hold the matter in abeyance. She could go no further. There was nothing for the rest of them to do, in any case, until she had scouted the situation on the surface. That could be done under cover of night, which would be no problem for her with her tachyon vision.
While the Zhukov made its approach to orbit, the Protector flew ahead. She soon spotted the heat signature of fire down below, and profiles of two nearby landing craft with heavy GARs at their bows. But she avoided a direct approach to the site, choosing instead to come down in a forest several kilometers away and work her way towards the village through the treetops.
There was a squad of a dozen Betans billeted there, two of them on shift guarding the landers, the rest either asleep or tending to the fire a funeral pyre for dead villagers. She was disgusted and yet surprised that they had even bothered. She scanned them, outdoors and indoors alike. No sign of a Prime; the highest-ranking officer was a Betan sergeant. The main force must have moved on.
So she flew reconnaissance, soon discovering that most of the villages were strung out along a river although there were a few inland like that the Aureans had used for a landing zone. She located the Betan main force, company strength, camped at the third village downstream. Only one Prime, thank Skietra. No sign of fire although, as at the first and second settlements in this direction, there were plenty of dead bodies.
The next village was deserted; its inhabitants having apparently gotten word of the invasion and fled. She scouted the immediate area; no sign of refugees. She extended her search. Several other villages, all deserted, but she could see the heat signatures of their inhabitants, hiding in the woods.
They would all be fair game for the Aureans, who could spot the signatures as easily as she could, if only from the ground. Unless she stopped them. She considered her options. She had to lure the main force back the first village, lay a trap that would confuse the Betan troopers, put them on the defensive, yet still keep the vital element of surprise that she would need against the Prime. But there was something else to do first.
Dawn was breaking now. She continued downstream, taking cursory note of other deserted villages. There was one group on the road, apparently spreading the alarm. Then, at last, a village where the natives were emerging from their homes to go about their daily business in the streets and fields. Warning had not yet spread here.
Theeldara decided to show herself, although that was in violation of the rules for an undisclosed world. But she could face them, at least, as she could never have faced the fugitives who already knew of the invasion even if they had been willing to face her, rather than take her for one of the invaders.
She landed in the center of the village, just stood there. None of the villagers had ever seen a Protector before. Perhaps they didnt even know what a Protector was. But she was something strange to them, and that quickly drew a crowd. When most of the village had assembled, she addressed them without any preliminaries.
"I bring terrible news," she said.
They were startled at first, then uncomprehending. She had to repeat herself, over and over, her news and her warning. She still wasnt sure if she had been understood.
"Why would these people attack us?" asked a village elder.
"Why would wild beasts?" she responded. She explained about the Aureans, and their war with Velorians, their ethnic cleansing campaigns.
"We had thought to put such madness behind us," said the elder. "And yet, you seem to have brought it here."
"I am here only to stop the killing."
"Do you take us for fools? These people are your enemies, and yet you and they have arrived here at the same moment? By pure coincidence? Your war is nothing new; we came here to escape it centuries ago. Why have you and your kind come to trouble us again?"
Theeldara was speechless.
"You are not welcome here," said the elder. "We shall trust in the Lord, but never in you."
There was nothing more to be said. Grimly, Theeldara returned to the first dead village, flying a wide berth around the Aurean encampment but confirming from a distance that the company was remaining in place for the time being. The Aureans were doubtless in a state of confusion from having lost contact with their cruiser.
Without emotion, with only calculation, she dispatched the Betans quickly and silently with her heat vision, collected their weapons, hid their bodies. Had any of them managed to radio an alarm before she reached him? She thought not, and did not know how often they were supposed to check in with the main force downriver. Whatever, she was counting on that main force returning here to investigate. Now it was time to go to work.
Theeldara chose a spot in the fields a hundred meters or so from the village and, diving into the earth, began excavating a series of small chambers 20 meters underground, connecting them with small tunnels. She used her super-strength to compress the dirt and rock, leaving little or no sign at the surface that the field had been disturbed.
Returning to her entrance tunnel, which descended vertically for two meters before sloping to enter one of the chambers, she refined it into a shaft, smoothing the bottom of the sloping section into a slide, but also punching small slots to serve as handholds for rapid ascent. She excavated more shafts of the same sort, a dozen in all, concealing their entrances with lids fabricated from straw. Then she dug an escape tunnel leading a few hundred meters into the woods.
One last measure: turning one of the landers so that its main battery was trained on the field between the village and the redoubt. Hopefully, none of the enemy would notice. Her labors had taken hours; she had lost track of how many. She checked the time: the Zhukov would be entering orbit about now. She checked the Aurean encampment again from afar. No change there.
It was time to return to space, explain her plan, set things in motion.
"We have to move now," Theeldara told them. "The main force may already have begun its march to Village One even as we speak,"
No one argued with her, but before Estis fired the retrorockets to begin the descent, the Protector exited the airlock and took charge of the landing from outside. Taking hold of the craft, she slowed its descent to sub-mach before it could create a sonic boom and alert the enemy, then lowered it gently into a clearing in the woods hidden from the enemy but near the escape tunnel.
Emergency lamps, something always carried in ships stores but hardly ever used, finally found a use in the redoubt. By lamplight in one of the chambers, the Protector outlined her strategy on hastily-drawn maps. She had intended to send Estis to man the battery on the Aurean lander, but Xemissa volunteered for that assignment, pointing out that she was familiar with the weaponry from compulsory UMT back on Aurea.
"So be it," Theeldara agreed, assigning Estis along with Amsur to reserve detail, Ashotour as the toughest and Eristratov as the most experienced would be first to man the firing stations. But she insisted that the others also practice clambering up the shafts, and making fast slides back down. They got the hang of it pretty quickly; it was almost like a childrens game at a playground.
Each then took turns practice firing from the shaft, trusting the topmost footholds to hold them steady, crouching in positions, then up and fire, down and hide, up and fire again. Maybe they could get away with it twice three times if they were really lucky. Anything beyond that would be foolhardy. But they didnt have to take out more than a few of the Betans; their job was to draw them out in force, as many as possible.
If they did not succeed at first, they had the option of dropping all the way down, scrambling underground to one of the alternate shafts. But they hoped it wouldnt come to that. They were facing professional soldiers, they knew; the Betans might be surprised once, a few twice if Halcyon was their first combat mission. But the enemy troops would figure out soon enough about shooting into the ground as they advanced. What the Betans wouldnt know was that their quarry would be far underground by then, rather than sitting ducks in shallow foxholes.
Amsul was resigned to playing an inactive role. If the plan were to fail, Eristratov and Ashotour couldnt possibly hold off the entire Betan assault force. If the Aureans made it to the tunnel complex, they would all be doomed. Unless Theeldara herself intervened. But that wasnt the plan; her plan was the Prime. If she failed, if the Prime survived, the rest of them were still doomed. But he trusted the Protector to survive, even if he did not.
"If something should go wrong, if the worst should befall me, deliver it to Kelsor," he told her. "Try to remember what I have tried to teach you about the system and the data, and relay it to the Kelsorians. Help them to understand the records. I ask no more. Except for one thing."
"Whatever that be, I shall grant it."
"There is a small chance that I might have to fight," Amsul said, "If I am to do this, you must lead me through the ritual. I shall write it out for you, and then you shall lead me through it, as if you were the first speaker of my Syndic."
The ritual had not been used for hundreds of years, he explained; not since the wars of unification. Yet it was a part of everyones history, a reminder of the terrible past. Amsul inputted the text from memory on the screen of his chestbox and presented to the Velorian. She wasnt sure she understood, but she indulged him in this matter.
"We live for one another. We die for one another. That is the law of life." Theeldara began.
"It is even so," Amsul responded.
"And sometimes we must kill for one another."
"May it not be so."
"When it is time to kill, we become monsters. But only for a time."
"May that time be brief."
"And when we are done with killing, we purify ourselves."
"We return to the law of life."
"We honor the dead, even those we kill, for they were people too."
"And only thus do we ourselves become people again."
It meant nothing to the others. Or perhaps it did.
Theeldara scooped out a small hideaway for the computer, placed Amsul's chestbox within it, covered it over and lightly vitrified the subsoil so that it looked like any other part of the wall. Then her super-hearing alerted her that the Aurean force was approaching. She left for the village to take up her position, and Xemissa headed for hers at the lander.
The master trader and the engineer donned their ear protectors, took up their firing positions at the top of their shafts, ready to pop up from the ground, fire at the Betans and pop back down. Fiber optic periscopes concealed in wisps of straw would tell them when; Amsul and Estis waited below, ready to take their places or try to if it came to that.
Amsul was alone in his post, in his chamber at the bottom of Eristratovs shaft. His GAR was on his lap. Think of it as a telescope, Theeldara had told him. Think of the soldiers heart as a star.
It didnt look anything like a telescope. It didnt look like a flashlight, either. But it was not too heavy for him and, unlike a projectile weapon, it had no recoil. He would never have been able to manage a rifle or a machine gun at his age, perhaps not at any age.
He had practiced with the mini-GAR as much as he could in the limited time he had. His firing position had been awkward, even with the extra footholds Theeldara had cut to his stature. His first practice shot had gone wild; he had been startled by the sharp snap the weapon made as the beam ionized the air. He got over that, managed to hit the windows of buildings in the distance, at least. It will be louder underground, he had to remind himself. Hed have to remember the ear protectors.
Now he was just sitting and waiting in the lamplight. Eristratovs was in position above. The minutes ticked past. He could hear nothing of what was happening above; no ambient sounds penetrated the tunnel complex. Suddenly, daylight entered the shaft; there came a snap and then another and then a third from above, and then, just as suddenly it was back to darkness. Something must he happening outside. But what?
From above, he could hear the snap of the GARs: Eristratov and Ashotour.
Then a cry of pain. A second later, Eristratov came sliding down the shaft, out of control, headed right for him. Amsul scrambled out of the way, landed on his back, almost dropping his GAR, when he saw to his horror that another figure was following the master trader down. No time to think, just to act. Bringing up his GAR, Amsul didnt even try to aim, just played his beam up into the shaft, catching the Betan in its narrow confines.
At that same moment, what they had all been waiting for: the shattering thunderclap of the heavy GAR from the lander, its sound morphing into an insane buzzsaw as it played back and forth across the field above. Violet white actinic light penetrated into the shaft not the beam itself, just the glow from the ionized air. Xemissa was doing her job. It would be over in a moment or two; Theeldaras plan had worked.
Between the noise and the glare, the Domyran wasnt sure where he had hit the enemy, let alone how effectively. He didnt know that the Betan was out of action until he saw that the trooper lay sprawled and unmoving with deep burns, the worst to the face what was left of it and, ironically, the crotch and upper legs. Somehow hed scored the upper chest only lightly.
It was only then that he noticed Eristratov was missing his left arm. There was no bleeding; the beam had cauterized the wound at the shoulder. The arm lay at the far side of the chamber, having apparently fallen down the shaft and slid across the floor without him noticing. Eristratov was stunned but conscious; after a few moments he came back to himself, glanced quizzically at himself, the dead Betan, the arm, Amsul.
"Well!" exclaimed the master trader. "Well! And well met!"
Estis arrived a moment later to report that Ashotour, contrary to orders, had gone over the top, chasing after a few Betans who had escaped the heavy GAR and fled back into the village. From the same direction, there came sounds of combat, muffled by the earth around them, but clear in their meaning: the endgame between Theeldara and the Prime had begun.
While they waited for the outcome, they were joined by Xemissa, who had gone the long way around to work her way back into the warren through the escape tunnel. She too bore the marks of battle: flash burns to her face and body from the Prime, she told them. Eristratov pulled her to him tenderly with his remaining arm. Over his shoulder, she saw the other, still lying on the floor.
"Should we hold a service over it, or just chuck it in the trash?" she asked.
The others were startled, but Eristratov took the black humor in stride. He even laughed. He was still in good humor, as was Xemissa, when Theeldara returned. After all, they had survived.
"I promised that none of you would die," she said. "Nothing less, but also nothing more."
"You have promised, and you have performed," said Amsul. "Perhaps I will no longer have to teach you astrophysics and cosmology. Although I shall endeavor to do so just the same. Once you have unearthed my chestbox."
"Ashotour went beyond the program," Estis observed.
"Cats are like that," the Protector remarked. "Didnt Uncle Sol ever tell you?"
How did she know about Uncle Sol?
XXIV (mostly by Tarot Barnes)
When Sarlanza had left the Landing Post with the main assault force, she hadnt expected to return to anything but a mountain of paperwork. The village was dead. All its inhabitants were dead, scattered haphazardly in the fields and in the streets where they had fallen.
Everything was as it should be. It remained only to repeat the process, one village at a time. But word of the attack must have spread. How? These pathetic frails didnt even have radios. But they did have ears, and eyes; perhaps they had heard the sonic booms of the landing craft. Looked up in the sky. Figured it out.
Whatever, the next village, along the river, had been deserted. And the next. The Betan Troopers had fanned out into the woods, using their heat sensors, tracked down the natives who had thought to hide there. But it was a piecemeal process. Slow. Inefficient. They were falling behind schedule, with at least a dozen more villages to go.
Then theyd somehow lost contact with the cruiser. Typical Betan incompetence; shed executed the chief radio operator immediately. His assistant hadnt fared any better, so shed executed him too. After that, nobody had wanted to go near the radio, despite her threats. Shed tried it herself. Defective equipment, obviously. Some Betan contractor would pay for this, when they got home.
The guard detail at the Landing Post had reported that everything was normal, and that it was still in touch with the cruiser. But somehow theyd had trouble trying to patch her through. The next day, they had failed to report in themselves. Why did she have to suffer such fools? Or were they worse than fools? Could they have deserted? It was never mentioned, it wasnt supposed to happen, but it did.
So she had marched the assault force back to the first village. If any of the guard detail had deserted, they'd suffer for it before they died, and she knew how to make men suffer. Exquisitely. She was almost pleased when there was no sign of the guards, relishing the thought of the punishment she would inflict on them when she found them, as she surely would.
And then the firefight had erupted. Small arms from across the field, taking the troopers by surprise, felling several of them before they could react. But their training and discipline had taken hold; they had begun charging across the field towards their unseen attackers, laying down a withering pattern of GAR beams that none but a Prime could withstand.
Deserters. They had to be deserters. The natives wouldnt know what to do with a GAR and, from all accounts, disdained weapons and warfare out of some silly religious notion. This cannot be happening, she thought; the traitors must know that it was hopeless. But Sarlanza had hardly had time to ponder further on the matter when, from the right, a heavy GAR from one of the landers opened up, cutting through the charging Betans like a scythe through wheat. The few who escaped the beam fled back to the village.
She herself was momentarily blinded by the intensity of the GAR beam when it swung to hit her head on. When she recovered, she was astonished at what she saw. The firefight had been so intense that the soil had been scorched, clay and mineral constituents fused into a hard ceramic that crunched beneath the heavy footfalls of the Primal Warrior as she advanced across what had been a field. And still no sign of the enemy.
She glanced at the landing craft, its GAR apparently spent, tore into it with her heat vision. The heat from her attack was so intense that it blinded her to a smaller heat signature that disappeared behind the lander into the woods. She next turned her attention to the source of the first attack. Something wasnt right; there seemed to have been some sort of a cave-in.
She was about to investigate further when she heard a strange sound from the back towards the village. A huddled shape took form between the wrecked posts that had once framed the village gates. A native? Could some of the natives have worked their way back here and made common cause with the deserters? How could this be?
As it approached the Prime could make out more and more details. An old woman: no guerrilla, surely, just an old woman had somehow escaped the original onslaught and wandered back to the only home she knew. Unfortunately the person she reached for had no desire to lay eyes on her, let alone extend the hand of friendship.
Something held Sarlanza back from simply annihilating the woman where she walked, perhaps it was the strange determination behind the hobbled steps. She clamped down on her instincts for long minutes while the moving pile of rags limped closer, then, when the crone was scant meters away she opened her eyes wide and turned the decrepit female into a burning torch.
The dry rags erupted into roaring flames, instantly consuming the frail in an insubstantial blanket of red and yellow fire. Yet as quickly as her clothes burned, the woman refused to scream in pain. There was no smell of boiling fat; no sound of cracking bones. The woman didnt stop moving, she just continued to place one determined foot in front of the other.
Surprised and more than a little alarmed by such an unnatural display, Sarlanza poured even more energy into the stumbling figure. Only, it wasnt stumbling any more. With every erg of power being fed into its body it stood taller and walked with more confidence. The rags were long since gone but the smoke continued to billow as the strangers reflected heat ignited the waist length grasses.
Finally Sarlanza gave up on her heat vision, determined to see the face of this arrogantly self-assured woman, she used tachyons to pierce the grey veil of voluminous smoke. When she had, Sarlanza had to look twice before she could recognize what she was looking at, and when she did, she shuddered in fear. It was the face of a Protector, and yet she had killed this worlds Protector only days before.
As frightening as the sight was, it was the emotion blazing behind the Velorians eyes that caused Sarlanza heart to quicken in fear. The rest of the face was blank, as if the womans entire energy was focused on a single, accusing stare that burned hotter than any weapons developed by Aurean science.
The smoke thinned as the Velorians amazing genetics absorbed the heat within her body, which she could now see was naked. Sarlanza was left staring into the most intensely blue eyes shed ever seen.
"Who the fuck are you?"
The Velorian allowed her gaze to rake the flawless perfection of the Aureans body before returning to glare her hatred once again. When she spoke her voice was as impassive as her expression.
"Theeldara. Beware my wrath."
Allowing none of the fear she was feeling to creep into her voice, Sarlanza bravely stated. "Your name means nothing. You mean nothing. Soon you will be noth---" Theeldaras punch snapped her head around so hard she was thrown off her feet and knocked into the distant field.
Sarlanza was up again in an instant, crouched like a waiting tigress, her battle senses keened for the tiniest warning in her opponent. There was none. The Velorian refused to adopt any of the fighting stances Sarlanza had been taught to expect and counter in the academy. She merely continued her metronome pace, unpretentious and unassuming but relentless.
The Prime leapt, aiming to drive the base of her hand into the Velorians nose, snap her head back and disorientate her for a few seconds. A hundred possible counter moves were flashing through Sarlanzas mind and she was prepared for all of them, yet no defense could have protected her from the sheer speed with which Theeldara lashed out and smacked her aside.
Sarlanzas head was still ringing from the first blow, the second nearly rendered her unconscious. As it was, she landed in a twisted ball of dysfunctional limbs. Her skull was a lead ball supported by flimsy straw, in her ears, between the pounding roar of battleship guns, she heard the rustling footsteps halt and barely rolled aside in time to avoid Theeldaras foot.
The second time she wasnt so lucky, and the force of the vertical kick drove Sarlanzas head deep into the ash soil her troops had created. Moments later it was free as Theeldara grabbed Sarlanzas ankles and wrenched her body into the air.
In doing so, Sarlanza saw her chance and flung her arms around the Velorians legs, tripping her and sending them both to the ground. Neither woman remained still but instantly renewed their struggle, grappling with one another and driving up trails of infertile dust with missed strikes and kicks.
Clenching her legs around the Primes hips, Theeldara used her flight powers to flip them over so she was straddling her opponent. Raising above her, she balled her fists ready to smash them down into the Primes face, only to feel the world tilt violently as Sarlanzas fist slammed into her jaw.
The punch was nearly enough to tumble her from the Prime, yet she clung on, squeezing even tighter until she actually felt the Aureans pelvis begin to compress and heard Sarlanzas gasp of pain.
Futilely Sarlanza tried to prise the Theeldaras legs apart, only to met the steely determination and indomitable strength of a Velorian Protector. Unable to outmuscle her enemy, Sarlanza strained cramped muscles too sit up and chop her hands into either side of the Protectors tensed stomach.
Theeldara doubled over in pain, her quivering muscles suddenly too weak to stop the Aurean from freeing herself and rolling away. Sarlanzas triumph was short; for no sooner had she stood over the Velorian, ready to stamp on her neck, than Theeldara had lashed out with her legs, knocking the Prime to the ground and pouncing.
Sarlanza very quickly found herself in one of the most dangerous positions an Aurean Prime could be in; lying on her back with a Velorian Protector ready to wrap her legs around her chest.
She earned herself a reprieve, if only seconds, by digging her nails into the Velorians soft breasts. Theeldara threw her head backwards, her mouth open in a mute scream of pain as her body tried to convince her that the Aurean had managed to rip her softest flesh completely off. Yet she resisted the impulse to let go as she had before. Instead she concentrated on using the pain to her own advantage, intensifying her grip on Sarlanzas shoulders and inexorably pulled herself up the Aureans torso by imagining that every centimeter gained meant that the pain hurt one tiny modicum less.
Sarlanza fought like a wildcat, hitting, scratching and punching, using every attack shed been taught in the Academy. Fervently believing the rhetoric of the Academy that stated an Aurean Prime always had the advantage when dealing with Velorians. Even if they werent always stronger than their enemies, Aureans were smarter, faster, and more determined to win.
Her belief seemed to find justification when she was able to plow the heel of her palm into the underside of Theeldaras chin, momentarily dislodging the golden demon. Second and third follow up punches to the Velorian's ribs and midsection further enhanced her freedom, every hit further loosened the Protectors grip.
Eager to finish the battle, Sarlanza sat up, prepared to jab her fingers into the Protectors throat. It wouldnt kill her, but backed by nails harder than diamonds, it was a disabling blow, one that could paralyze even a Velorian with pain. Three minutes was a long time in battle. Long enough to render a Protector unconscious, and once that had happened, her heart was open and vulnerable.
She knew this, it had been taught to her by the Empire.
Unfortunately what hadnt been taught to her was that, with Theeldara floating a few centimeters above her, the action of sitting up and stretching out her arms put her chest directly between the Velorians thighs.
Her thrusting fingers were only halfway to their target when she felt the steel muscles wrap around her chest and the slender ankles lock behind her spine. The pain of constriction began almost immediately. Sarlanzas ribs creaked beneath the irresistible power of a Velorians legs, the sound not so dissimilar from glass under pressure.
Broken glass. The first rib snapped seconds after the attack began, it was quickly followed by another, and then another as uncounted tons of force were applied to a cage that became weaker with every orchestral chime.
Flecks of blood began to decorate Sarlanzas lips as some of the fragments grazed her lungs. Her breathing became ragged with red fluid as another contraction drove those fragments through the soft tissues. Sarlanza ceased struggling. Looking into Theeldaras vengeful eyes she realized that nothing would save her, the Empire had lied to her in its teachings about the ultimate might of Aurean muscle and now she would pay the price.
Another collapse within her chest, another surge of pain and with that the comprehension that the Ministry of Propaganda had also lied in its vehement declarations that the conquest of the Velorians was as inevitable as the suns rising. It had lied when it said that their love for the Frails was a weakness, she could see now that it was actually a strength; what else could have aroused the fury behind this ones attack? A fight between a Protector and a Prime was supposed to take hours, this one had been over in minutes.
Yet there was more that Sarlanza did not comprehend, even now: Yes, Theeldara had been beyond pain, beyond fear of injury, beyond everything but cold rage. Only it was not just her rage against the Aureans for the slaughter of innocents, but her rage against the folly of Velor for having attracted the enemy to this world like a lightning rod, against the universe for what had befallen Domyr, even against herself for her own failings. Only in the moment of her triumph did that rage begin to subside.
A final subsidence within Sarlanzas body brought no more pain, only a sharp pressure deep within her body. Theeldara looked down and for the first time displayed another emotion. It was a smile, small and almost invisible behind the mask of ash and grime kicked up by their struggles, but it was there and it signaled the closing embrace. A vast pressure built up against the soft flesh of her internal organs, a pressure that ended with a soft pop and the sensation of air being let out of a balloon as the rib fragments were finally shoved through her heart.
A strange sense of peace ran through Sarlanza as her body finally gave up the fight and resigned itself to death. The pain of the shattered bones and punctured organs receded to a distant memory, there was a slight tensing in her neck as her head fell at an awkward angle but even that faded into unimportance. A cool pool started to form deep within her chest and she wanted to look up, gaze at the being who had managed to defeat one of the Empires servants so easily, one last time.
Her weakened muscles couldnt even do that small task, it was an effort just to slide her eyes around. Out of her peripheral vision she could barely see Theeldara standing over her, watching her die, and that was enough.
Soon the Velorian fell out of view as her eyes lost the strength to resist gravity and returned to the dry ground. A small beetle that had somehow escaped the energy barrage scuttled through her line of sight. It brought to mind something that shed learned when she was a little girl playing with dolls, before shed ever known that the Empire was something other than a name. She remembered a single line from an antiquated paper book shed read in her uncles library. Itd simply said, "Life survives. No matter what the circumstances or how ferociously attempts are made to exterminate it, there will always be something that goes on."
She hadnt known what those words had meant then; thered been more important things to worry about, like whether there was going to be cake for desert that night, or if her friends would be able to come around to play. But she knew now. Even with the Empires might the inhabitants of this world had managed to survive far longer than they should, slipping through the cracks like that beetle.
The Velorian herself was an example. She had been dead, yet she had obviously survived somehow. That or another Pale had arrived to take her place, the distinction now seemed tiny and, given her circumstances, ultimately redundant.
A tear trickled down the side of her face, an example of muscular relaxation but an expression that portrayed her emotions. A sardonic chuckle echoed through the empty corridors of Sarlanzas mind as her vision slowly closed to a point. Her entire life had been building to this encounter and she had failed. Not just in the execution of her duty, but in her life. She should have seen the flaw in the Imperial dialectic, the pointless waste in this mission. Might even have avoided this encounter all together.
All for naught now.
Darkness consumed everything
Theeldara could not have understood what was going through the dying Primes mind. But it was never a good thing to die, she knew; and, even when the necessity was inescapable, never a good thing to kill. The Prime had been a terrible warrior for an Evil Empire, but now she was only an object of pity. There was no triumph here, after all.
She remembered Amsuls ritual, repeated it silently to herself: " when we are done with killing, we purify ourselves. We return to the law of life. We honor the dead, even those we kill, for they were people too. And only thus do we ourselves become people again."
The Protector made a small bow to her fallen enemy, took the body, buried it deep where none could ever find it. She retrieved her uniform from the village, returned to her waiting friends.
Why couldnt he remember his own name? He remembered everything else, from his childhood to his military training, to his first assignment as one of the reserves on what he was told was a mission against a Velorian base.
He had grown up learning of the Velorian Encirclement, as it had been called in the history books in school. He had read about the Velorians relentless war against his world and his people, from the Genetic Bomb to the Battle of Klasten. He had seen and heard the veterans of distant battles, some missing arms or legs or eyes.
All his life, he had wondered: why cant they just leave us alone?
Hed occasionally heard accounts of enemy propaganda, the kind that made out the Aurean Empire to be a tyranny, that Aureans had committed atrocities, but hed never believed a word of that. His own father had been in the military, served proudly, retired honorably. If you cant believe your own father, who can you believe?
He had believed. Totally. Until this day.
As a reserve, he hadnt been assigned to the first assault team, He hadnt expected to see any fighting, although hed been eager to prove himself. But then his ship had been holed by that freak meteor, and with more on the way, everyone had been ordered to evacuate. They were going to have to go to ground, he was told, live off the land until rescue arrived.
Their landing craft had made it, although other hadnt been so lucky. They hadnt been that lucky themselves in their landing; they had gone off course and come down hard in the wilderness, hundreds of miles from the captured base that had been their target.
Their craft disabled, they had no choice but a forced march to link up with the expeditionary force. They knew the coordinates, they were in radio contact; it was just a matter of time. But then radio contact ceased, and they wondered if there had been some sort of counterattack by the natives. So they marched double time, heedless of obstacles like hills, forest, thickets or rivers.
On the third day, they reached what had been described as the Velorian base. It didnt look like much from a distance. Just a ramshackle collection of buildings, some arranged in rows, surrounded by fields of some sort. There were signs of smoke rising. They approached cautiously, weapons at the ready.
The first thing that hit them was the stench, the stench of rotting and sometimes burning flesh. Scattered through the village itself were the remains of Betans torn apart as if by wild animals. It didnt make any sense; what kind of animals could harm Betans?
In the center of the village were the other bodies, the natives. They had been piled up like cordwood and set afire, burned so badly that none could tell their age or even their sex. Except that many of them were so small that they had to be children. There was no sign of native weaponry.
On the opposite side of the village, there was a field that had been swept by an intense energy beam. Bits and pieces of dozens of Betan troopers, burned, even melted into the ground, could be seen there. The troops looked on in silent fear and confusion. Their sergeant barked an order to search the base, and they reverted do discipline.
The trooper who could not now remember his name entered one of the houses, eager to find some sign of the enemy. What he found instead was just another dead body. A native. An old woman in peasant dress; it wasnt clear how she had died; no sign of weapon burns. Perhaps she had simply died of shock.
Now he too felt a growing sense of shock; he saw that the building was nothing but a primitive home, filled with nothing but primitive rough-hewn furniture and common household possessions. No appliances, no advanced technology of any sort, let alone weaponry nothing more deadly than kitchen knives. And back in the street it hadnt registered at the time, but hadnt that been a wagon next to one of the other buildings?
His mind was too numb to respond, but his body responded by vomiting. When he had vomited everything there was to vomit, he was still so shaky that the sergeant had taken pity on him, told him to sack out get some sleep, take his first watch the next day. But he could find no sleep, no rest.
He felt completely alone, more alone than he had ever been in his life. Without design, he found himself walking out the back door of the house, setting off across the killing field, where none had gone before, just putting one foot in front of the other, his GAR dangling from his arm. The others had averted their eyes from the sight of Betan body parts; he was simply blind to them.
He didnt know how far he had walked when he collapsed onto his knees, holding his GAR loosely by his side, sobbing uncontrollably. It was dark, and his eyes were so filled with tears that he couldnt make out what happened next, couldnt believe what he half saw: people coming out of the ground a few meters before him. He rubbed his eyes, still couldnt believe.
Surely he must be dreaming. At the center of the group was a Velorian Protector but hadnt Zharptitsa told them that the Protector had been killed? Standing next to her, a Betan woman, out of uniform; a man who looked to be of Azizi origin, missing an arm; a rogue Scalantran, huge and red; some furry-little creature he couldnt identify, and it couldnt be, it simply could not be a kintz.
This was madness, total madness. These people could not be real, but he wanted to talk to them anyway, because he had to talk to someone and there was nobody else to talk to. He fell to his knees sobbing uncontrollably, talking incoherently.
"We killed them all, and they killed us all. Only I wasnt there, so I didnt know. I couldnt have, I wouldnt have, or maybe I could have or would have. I dont know what I could or would have done, thats the worst part, not knowing what I would have done."
The others in the group seemed to be looking to the Protector for guidance. They were armed, he saw. Aurean weapons. Captured somehow, he supposed. But they werent raising their weapons. They werent making a move. So he made his.
He got to his feet. He brought his own GAR up. The Velorians companions raised theirs too, but she motioned them to desist, then stood forward.
"Maybe I couldnt have killed them," he told her. "I dont know. But I know I cant kill you. You can kill me. My punishment will be just."
With that, he shot her at close range. She was unharmed by the beam, as he had known that she would be, and her invulnerable body deflected it safely away from her companions. She stepped further forward, the beam heating her chest red hot, until she was close enough to snatch the weapon from his hands and crush it in her own.
She stood there, saying nothing, her expression one not of hate but of sadness. The glow faded from her chest as she assimilated the energy. Then she stepped forward once more, and took him in her arms, kissing him tenderly.
Her breasts were still hot enough to have burned a Terran like Eristratov, but to the Betan trooper they were deliciously warm as they pressed against him. Her powerful embrace was comforting beyond words. Her kiss was a promise of paradise.
The others understood, even Amsul, stepping aside as she led the Betan into the redoubt. They chose another entrance, another chamber, as far away as possible, to grant the new-found lovers their privacy. But they could still hear the Protector and the trooper as she took him from Hell to Heaven, his cries of pain and sorrow turning to cries of joy as she ministered to him.
The next morning, Theeldara approached the village and demanded the surrender of the other Betans. The mere sight of the Protector was enough for them to realize that resistance was futile. She advised them to board one of the landers, which she carried to an island a thousand kilometers away and 200 kilometers away from the nearest other land.
The day after that, a Messenger arrived.
The Messenger was as surprised to find Theeldara and her company as the Betan trooper had been, and saddened to learn that his warning of an imminent attack was too late to save the planetary Protector or thousands of her wards.
"Why was a Protector assigned here in the first place?" she asked, as if he had had anything to do with it.
The Messenger couldnt understand why she would ask such a question.
"To protect this world, of course," he ventured.
"Against an attack that would never have taken place but for her presence, which presence was neither invited nor approved by anyone here. What are we to say to those of the other villages?"
"It is an undisclosed world. We are to say nothing."
"We have already said a great deal, without ever intending to."
"I must still perform my duty," the Messenger responded, abruptly changing the subject, handing over the message crystal.
It turned out to contain nothing beyond further details of the warning he had already delivered in verbal summary. Some of details were unknown to Theeldara the names of the commander and the other primes, for example but irrelevant now.
"This is totally useless," she snapped. "Those who sent it are totally useless. Those who established this protectorate are worse than useless; they are criminals."
The Messenger was positively shocked. Protectors never talked to Messengers in such a manner. They never questioned Higher Authority in such a manner. His training and experience offered no guidance for how to deal with such a situation. So he did the only thing he could: offering to perform his other function, a more pleasurable one.
Theeldara rejected his advance. That shocked him even more,
"It has nothing to do with you," she assured him, as she assumed the Stance that had failed with the Scalantran captain to invoke Top Emergency.
"But Protector, it is unprecedented to command a Messenger in such a manner. No emergency like this"
"Thats right, Messenger, no emergency like this, ever before." And she gave the Sign, "Help I demand in the name of my duty."
That got his undivided attention.
She explained her mission as briefly as possible, warned that her name might not be honored on Velor. He was shocked again to learn of her dubious status, but moved by her plea, especially when she introduced him to Amsul and the others. That a Betan and a Scalantran and even a kintz could find a common cause with her was as beyond precedent as her cavalier behavior towards him.
"What are your orders?" he asked,
"You will travel to Kelsor 7 with all possible speed. You will inform them of the plight of the Domyrans, and appeal to them for assistance, including the choice of a new homeworld for the refugees.
"You will then travel to Velor, again with all possible speed, and inform the Senate of the situation here. You will also advise them of our mission, and that I claim the right to speak on behalf of that mission, though I be condemned afterwards."
When the Messenger had disappeared into the sky, Theeldara awakened the other Betan, who had been recuperating in the redoubt. He had slept more than was customary since that first night; it was if he needed more time for dreaming, time to rebuild his inner resources as well as his strength.
He had given her his parole, an ancient custom still recognized by the rules of war but hardly ever practiced. He had given her much else, easing her own pain even as she had eased his, bringing her the same explosion of pure joy that she had brought him. He remembered his name now: Xikander. She was enchanted by the name, and its bearer.
She had talked with him, after their first wild encounter, longer and with far greater intimacy than she had ever done before with her lovers, at the Academy or during her first assignment or more lately with Eristratov. They had laughed together and cried together, and held each other close when their passion was spent, waiting for that passion to return as it always did, abundantly.
He was beautiful, she thought, as beautiful in his own way as the Messenger. She loved the contrast between them, raven hair against golden, Betan flesh against Velorian, Like night and day. And yet there was nothing in it of some perverse attraction to evil; Xikander was good, she knew that. She had somehow known it from the first moment, known that he was only a lost soul, as she herself had been a lost soul.
He smiled at her now, that irresistible smile that she had known must be in him, that she had brought out with her loving body. She lay down beside him, embraced him again, let their bodies take them where they would.
Outside, Eristratov held Xemissa tenderly. She was worried about her flash burns, how well they would heal. Afraid that her professional career would be over. As for the master trader, he knew that it was over between him and Theeldara. He was not a fool; he could see how she and Xikander looked at each other, hear the joyous sounds they made together, were making now.
Xemissa would heal, he thought. Perhaps not perfectly. What of it? She would not want for anything. He would make certain of that, even if she had not made certain of it herself. And he would love her, as best he could, for however many years he had left. He took her to another chamber now, sealed his commitment to her.
And then it was time to return to the Zhukov, time to leave. Although not for the same reason the Messenger had invoked, Theeldara had decided against approaching the natives again. They would learn that they had been saved, somehow. Let them make of it what they would.
There had been no word from the stars, and the strains were showing among the population of the combines. First Speaker Darfur felt the strain most of all, for the mass meeting had failed to reach consensus something that rarely happened.
Custom was that, if there were no sense of the meeting, no unanimous consent to a course of action on any issue, the matter would be postponed. But here there could be no postponement; their situation was too dire. Therefore he had asked for temporary emergency leave to act in the name of the greatest good of the greatest number, rather than in the name of all the people something unheard of since the first years of planetary unification when syndics replaced tribes.
The mass meeting had assented, seeing no other course. But that did not mean he could wield power in the sense that power was understood on other worlds. Each step he took must have its official justification, and if any step he took aroused dissension, there was always the threat that the disaffected might call for another mass meeting to overturn his action.
It was essential that he be among the people, and today he was among them as they tended the hydroponic farms that had been hastily constructed a few months ago. It was one of his first decisions, having already drawn majority support at the virtual mass meeting. At his direction, but with considerable difficulty involving retooling, the combine machine shops had been turned to fabricating tanks and piping; and the mine and factory workers, hastily instructed by cube, had turned to assembling them.
Hard work had kept the Domyrans together. It always had. Treating farming as a cause had bolstered morale, even among the children. "Study agriculture! Our future lies in food!" became the slogan at the combine schools. Hastily instructed themselves, also by cube, the teachers tried to make the most of it, carried away by their enthusiasm for the cause. It was a cause they could all understand; whether here or on some distant world, food would come first, food would be their only salvation.
But once the equipment had been installed, once the farms were up and running, the hard work was over. Routine maintenance was not enough to engage the workers full time or energy. Darfur set them to training the children, giving them hands-on experience to apply what they had learned in class. But that project too had run its course. There was simply not enough work to be done, and idleness had always the bane of Domyrans.
"Cant we spare a little more water for baths?" one asked him now. "We could connect the tanks with the bathhouse." Indeed they could, Darfur knew, but there would be evaporation, the lost moisture difficult or impossible to recover. The tanks were roofed in glass, to feed them a careful atmospheric mix; the baths were open. He reminded her of that and she demurred. But she wasnt really persuaded, not emotionally.
Others questioned the mix of crops: couldnt they grow more of this, less of that? The plan had been based on strictly nutritional considerations, a careful balance of protein and fat and carbohydrates, of vitamins and minerals. Organic material from carbonaceous meteors combined with human waste had assured sufficient essential nutrients, but taste was sometimes a problem because of other minerals in meteoric material that was too much trouble to remove.
It was the same on the other combines orbiting Strodin, and some were worse off than others, having been caught short of certain raw materials. At the cost of precious fuel and even loss of some air from cycling of the locks, Darfur had followed the mutual aid principle, organizing trade between the combines to equalize their supplies of the most vital items. But some Domyrans on combines required to give more than they received had begun to express resentment. That was troubling indeed, as was the latest suggestion from some quarters that shuttles be sent to Strodin itself to augment their resources.
The people making that suggestion must have known that the idea was irrational, that expeditions to the planets surface would consume far more than they would produce but they were no longer thinking rationally. Darfur considered calling for orgies on all the combines, but decided against it for now. They might relieve internal tensions, for a while, but do nothing for the growing tensions between combines. There had already been calls in Combine 16 one that considered itself shortchanged in trading to secede, form a new syndic, follow a different course. Nobody seemed to have an idea what that course might be. It was just a feeling.
Darfur returned to his office, played the recording for what must have been the hundredth time.
"Domyr shall live again, in spirit, on some world, somewhere. Believe it. We have friends in far places. You do not know them yet, but you shall. Wait for them. Wait for our return. Wait and hope."
There was something in the tone of the message. He trusted the voice. He believed in it. But that too was just a feeling.
Journeys end, the last wormhole, the last emergence. They had made it.
Amsul was tired, but not too tired to breathe a sigh of relief as they entered the Kelsorian system. He had continued working with Theeldara, but still wasnt sure if she could really understand all the physics and the math. No matter; here he was certain to find understanding.
The Kelsorians had told him about their own world when they had visited Domyr so long ago. He knew the basics, that the planet of the scientists orbited an orphan red-brown dwarf that had been captured by Kelsor itself, a vigorous young B2 star six times the mass of Sol.
Strange that they used Sol as a reference, or perhaps not so strange. Humanity had originated on Sol 3, Terra, after all, and the Kelsorians were nearly all of human stock although they welcomed other species. Humans were so resilient, he thought. Successive waves of abductions from Terra had populated dozens of worlds, and descendants of the abductees had settled dozens of others, to ends as different as Halcyon and Kelsor 7.
Terra knew nothing of its far-flung grandchildren, hed been told by the Kelsorians so many years ago. Perhaps it was different now. It was a topic that Theeldara had somehow avoided, and on which he had never pressed her. But the far-flung grandchildren, most of them, knew of their ancestral homeworld, and kept its memory alive: "If I forget thee, O Earth ."
From a distance, at least from above the ecliptic, Kelsor would not have struck an observer as particularly remarkable. Up close, it was rare indeed not for itself, but for its companions.
Two huge gas giants circled the star in close orbit, so close that only their intense magnetic fields protected them from annihilation. Even at that, the intense heat of the star was stripping them of their hydrogen, which trailed off behind them in comet-like tails. The inner orbited the star in about five Terran days, the outer in eight, so that Kelsor 1 and Kelsor 2 performed an elaborate dance around their primary with conjunctions and oppositions at 40-day intervals.
Even from their "night" sides, they themselves glowed from the refraction of Kelsors light and the convection of its heat, like golden balls against the black of space, save that the balls had tails of gas ripped from them by the sun's gravity. But their own tidal forces were enough to raise solar flares on Kelsor, so that its apparent luminosity fluctuated almost as if it were a true variable. The transits of the inner planets and their tails separately or in tandem created an elaborate light show for those with eyes to see.
Kelsor 1 and Kelsor 2 were, of course, uninhabitable. So were Kelsor 3, 4 and 5 rocky, barren worlds all. The last was 2,500 kilometers in diameter, merely the largest of thousands of asteroids in a zone where a larger world had never formed, and never could form now because of the influence of Kelsor 6. The captured dwarf, orbiting out of the plane of Kelsor's native planets, was 50 times the mass of Jupiter another odd/not odd reference to the Sol system.
Kelsor 6 radiated largely in the infrared. Its visible radiation was blotted out by the light from Kelsor on the day side; on the night side, when Kelsor was in eclipse, it betrayed a dull red glow at the center, fading to brown at the limb against the surrounding stars.
And then there was Kelsor 7 not the next distant planet, as would usually be the case, but a satellite massing about the same as distant Earth.
A highly eccentric orbit around Kelsor 6 allowed Kelsor 7 to absorb enough heat from the dwarf at periastron to sustain life even at apastron, while at the same time avoiding an atmospheric pressure gradient that would have been inevitable had it followed a close circular path.
Bright light, as opposed to heat, naturally came from Kelsor itself. But the combination of the eccentric orbit and the libration of a world that was otherwise tidally locked made for an elaborate sky show like nothing else in known space. It was a point of pride for the Kelsorians, and one of the reasons they had chosen the world in the first place.
Amsuls eyes were glued to the scanners, lost in wonder, as the Zhukov made its approach. The others had gathered at the front of the bridge, awaiting contact. Theeldara and the rest had expected some gruff, bearded scientist to appear on the viewscreen after they were hailed, opened a channel as requested, and announced themselves and their purpose here. Instead
"Welcome to Kelsor 7," came a magically lilting voice. "Project Director Alisa-zar KimVallara at your service. We have been expecting you, and have much to discuss."
It was a Velorian. None of the others gazing at her face, supernally beautiful and yet somehow worldly wise, recognized it. But Amsul, suddenly torn from the rapture of the scanners, recognized her voice, rushed to see for himself.
It was obvious from her expression that the recognition was mutual. But the thrill of recognition was followed by an even greater thrill, for Alisa fixed her gaze on Amsul and greeted him in his own language. Shed had to take refresher deepteach, she later admitted, but only to bring her learning from decades earlier to full consciousness.
It was too much excitement for the aged astronomer. He fainted.
When he awoke, Amsul was lying in a comfortable bed in a spacious apartment. Through a huge picture window to the left, he could see the glow of Kelsor 6; Kelsor must be in eclipse. He turned to the right and there, kneeling next to the bed, was Alisa. The others of his party hovered behind her.
"You have slept for more than 12 hours," she told him. Standard hours, another Terran import. But the days were 25 hours. Local timekeeping almost like on shipboard: arbitrary short days split into mainday and alterday shifts that had nothing to do with the planet's rotation it had none. The local calendar of Short Years and Long Year was dictated by the planets strange orbit about Kelsor 6, its libration, the orbit of both around distant Kelsor.
Amsul still felt tired, but he was alert. He sat up in bed, greeted Alisa and his comrades.
"We have been working on your project for six weeks, ever since your Messenger arrived," the Velorian scientist told him. "Have something to eat first; then well discuss the options."
She voiced a command, and a robot catering cart approached. A panel slid open to reveal a typical Domyran breakfast. At least it looked like one, although it could not possibly be. It even tasted right. Amsul looked to his benefactor, tears in his eyes.
"Nothing is ever forgotten here," she told him. "We prize even the knowledge that some might consider trivial. As we will prize the knowledge you bring us, as we will prize anything we can to do to help your people."
It was too much for him again; he broke into sobs. But Alisa and his comrades were ready to comfort him, and what followed breakfast offered greater comfort still. Comfort and joy. The Project Director came right to the point.
"The first thing you need to know is that a relief ship is already on its way to Strodin," she told him. A ring on her finger was a miniature remote control; with a simple hand gesture, she made a holographic display appear before him. He recognized it: the design of a Kelsorian research vessel.
"We modified this ship as much as possible on short notice," Alisa continued, and the holographic movie shifted to interior scenes of the refitting work. "It is now equipped to collect water ice and organics from comets or small asteroids. All the necessaries that may be in short supply among the combines. Some of the water, of course, can be broken down to supply oxygen as well, if that too be needed."
Amsul was overwhelmed, but he still had one question on his mind. The Velorian Kelsorian anticipated him.
"Most of those from the original mission to Domyr are retired now," she related. "But a few of them volunteered for this mission just the same, and took refresher deepteach in your language and culture. The rest of the crew has been freshly deeptaught and, with the assistance of the veterans, should have no difficulty dealing with the combines."
Amsul assumed that the demonstration of Kelsorian benevolence was over, but it had only begun.
"We have cross-referenced Domyr against all the worlds in our archives, matching for surface gravity, climate, geography and geology and, of course, DNA compatibility," Alisa said. "We have, naturally, also avoided planets with their own high intelligence life forms. Here are the top five candidates."
She gestured again with her ring, and the holographic projection expanded to fill the apartment. Amsul was surrounded by visions of other worlds, like those he himself had created for his theater back on Domyr. But they were all new to him: the landscapes, the rivers and seas, the skies, and especially the life forms .
There were forests of fern-like trees on one world; on another, trees that stretched as far as the eye could see, with hundreds of trunks but a single network of branches. There were fields of grassy vegetation that was pink instead of green. There were floating islands with complex ecologies that migrated with the ocean currents, with life cycles that followed the currents rather than the calendar. There were animals with six legs, or eight. There were symbiotic creatures: flying animals that scouted prey for their hosts, and were repaid by drinking their blood from specially evolved taps.
Amsul lost track of time, so entrancing were the visions. He heard Alisas voice as from a great distance, but ignored it. Then, of a sudden, the visions vanished and he found himself back in the apartment. At the same time, the picture window depolarized. It was sunlit outside; Kelsor 7 had come out of eclipse and Kelsor the star ruled the sky.
"I think its time to take a break now," said the Project Director. "Besides, its half past lunchtime."
Lunch wasnt really a necessity for her, or for Theeldara. But diving into the sun, or even the brown dwarf, would have been time consuming, not to mention impolite. It was also considered in poor taste, among ordinary Kelsorians, for supremis to open;y use lasers or any other high energy devices for other than their intended purposes.
Alisa led her visitors to a refectory, where they sat together at a round table. Even as she had for Amsul at breakfast, their host found items to meet every taste although Amsul and the Betans averted their eyes from the bleeding haunch of meat that had been ordered up for Ashotour.
Two things they shared: a loaf of bread that was passed around the table, each tearing off a portion; and a pitcher of fruit juice, from which each drank even the kintz. An ancient Terran custom, Alisa explained. Only Eristratov recognized it, although he had never taken part before. But she gave the ceremony an entirely different context.
"The dead are not lost to us," she said. "They speak to us as part of something greater than ourselves, something that we labor here to preserve and to share, even as we share bread and drink. We are known for science, for trade in the fruits of our exploration and technology, which is our livelihood. But we also seek out cultures, living and dead, that they not be lost to us, or to the communion of the universe of sapient life."
Two Terran decades ago, Alisa had been part of an expedition that visited a culture none from the outside universe had seen before. They had documented that culture, not only for its language and social structure but for its art and music and literature, archived it all here. She gestured with her ring, and the sound of an ancient Domyran song filled the refectory and filled Amsuls eyes with sudden tears of joy.
He was overcome by a sense of infinite beatitude. That Alisa could exist, that she could remember him and come to the aid of his people after all these years. That Theeldara and Eristratov and Ashotour and Xemissa and Estis could exist, that they could be together with him here at the end of his journey, sharing his joy as they had shared his hardships. He looked at Xikander, who was flirting unashamedly with Theeldara. Yes, he was grateful even for the Betan soldiers existence.
Conversation here had been small talk, but now it was as if the ice had broken and they could all unburden themselves. Theeldara spoke frankly of her misspent youth at the Academy, of the Hall of the Protectors and its Great Door, of her failure in her first assignment and its aftermath. Alisa confessed how she had cut herself off from her world, even her family, by refusing to enter that Great Door. "I was a refusenik," she quipped, knowing that would get a laugh from Eristratov. She even touched on the stories of her siblings: "The KimVallaras are very strange."
Talk of family moved Eristratov to talk of his roots, which went back to several families of black Americans that had emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s to escape racism at home and take part in the Great Experiment. His grandfather had even adopted a Russian surname before being packed off to the Gulag for "wrecking" a hydroelectric dam that had actually collapsed because the Commissariat had supplied substandard concrete. "But I like to tell people that I am actually a descendant of Pushkin," he winked. "The poet," he added, noting the incomprehension of the others. "He was black."
The master trader touched on his abortive military career, which led Xikander and Xemissa to compare notes on their childhoods in a military state. Xemissa missed nothing of Aurea, it soon developed; she had been orphaned, raised in a creche, trained in the art of war, then drafted to practice another art. The paroled trooper, however, turned sad at the thought that he would probably never see his family again. Theeldara quickly moved to comfort him; Estis took that as a cue to lighten the conversation by telling his anecdote about Uncle Sol -- who, he admitted for the first time, was not his uncle but simply another rogue Scalantran who had taken pity on him and found a place for him on probe ships when his own kind shunned him. Which led Ashotour to purr with delight, a rare thing indeed for a kintz in mixed company. And to tell her own stories about what she called the "dumb cats" of lesser subspecies of kintzi, too outrageous for ordinary company but welcome here.
One by one, they laid down their burdens, and it was time for Amsul to lay down his own, which he did in painful detail. But there was one last burden, he realized now: the chestbox. It had been taken from him as he slept, it must be back in the apartment. Alisa confirmed that his treasured personal computer was safe, with all its data. Ready to download to her own.
The Project Directors computer was a quantum PersComp, hardly larger than a book yet with more memory and greater power than the primitive mainframes of old. "It is already programmed for your language and scientific and mathematical notation," she told him after they all settled down back in the apartment. "All that is missing is your data."
Actually, one other thing was missing: a proper connection: her scuzzy cable wouldnt fit his computer, nor would his fit hers. Frowning for a moment, Alisa examined both with her Velorian vision. Then, with her heat vision and fingers that were as deft as they were powerful, she spliced the cables together. Within seconds, the computers were mated, and Amsuls precious data downloaded. Just like that.
They spent the rest of the day talking, watching more holos of possible worlds for New Domyr. Amsul couldnt choose among them but, he reminded them, it wasnt up to him in any case; the Syndic would decide. That was his thought as he prepared to retire. And surely he had proven himself, surely he would now be accepted as a comrade. But the Syndic would decide that too.
He died in his sleep that night.
The doctor who performed the post-mortem pronounced the cause as simple heart failure, brought on by too much stress for one of his age. Like many doctors, he did not like to face death, particularly in a case like this where, in his estimation, it could have easily been avoided. He knew the story; it was on the local newsnet, and he berated Theeldara for it.
"You took an old man into a war zone, even permitted him to engage in combat? What the hell were you thinking? You could have left him on Tarots World, wherever. Brought his computer yourself. It was only the information that was important, not the bearer. It was totally unnecessary to bring him on this journey."
"You are wrong," the Protector said quietly. "It was absolutely necessary."
He didnt understand. He never would, she realized. He wanted to know whether the body should be cremated, as was customary on Kelsor 7. No, she told him; keep him on ice for now. The Syndic would decide. Whenever. If ever.
Perhaps it was a mercy that he had died here, in his seeming moment of triumph. For that triumph could not be complete unless she convinced Velor. Kelsor 7 could send a resupply ship, but it could never afford to build the transports that would be needed to carry the Domyrans to their new world or prepare that world for their coming.
The Messenger must have long since reached Velor, but there had been no reply. She hadn't expected one: she had no credit with the High Council, let alone the Senate. Neither, she had learned the day before, did Alisa-zar Kim'Vallara. After three decades, Alisa was still considered an outlaw, although no further attempt had been made since immediately after her flight to seek her extradition or otherwise pursue the charges against her.
But the refusenik once again came through for the good of the cause. It was useless, she conceded, to go through the Velorian legation at Varig, which maintained an interest section for Kelsorian matters. But Kelsor 7 had its own interest section in Varig's embassy at Velor. Or rather, in orbit around it; inasmuch as only supremis could endure the planet's crushing surface gravity.
It was a simple matter for her to use her influence to have the Zhukov declared a diplomatic ship on a diplomatic mission, complete with a diplomat: an elegant bearded gentleman named Lionel DeCamp. DeCamp had long served in External Affairs as a Counselor, but had never traveled abroad since his days in the Culture Section of the Survey Service, and was looking forward to the experience.
It was somewhat more difficult to get approval for a strongly worded diplomatic message in support of Theel'dara's mission; External Affairs had rightly pointed out that this smacked of interference in the Enlightenment's internal affairs something Velor would not take lightly. The final draft was worded very carefully to stress the Domyran project, without reference to any charges against Theel'dara as person or Protector.
Alisa herself could not accompany the mission. One disgraced P1 was enough; two might be asking for more trouble than even De Camp could deal with. In any case, she had her work to do, work that she could return to now that Amsuls data was on file and the relief ship safely on its way. Others would examine the data, correlate it with other data, seek connections, search for possible threats.
Kelsor was at apastron when it came time for Theeldara and her company to take their leave. It was pleasantly cool from the receding warmth of periastron, but the sky was too cloudy to make out Kelsor 6 as even a ghostly image. They had left their own ghosts behind; they were no longer haunted. Alisa, golden mane waving in the stiff breeze, bade them farewell.
They would meet again, they had promised each other.
Sigurd Utvandrer had once enjoyed power but no freedom. Now he had no power, but all the freedom in the world: the freedom of a man with absolutely nothing left to lose. His political career should have been at its apogee by now; instead it was at its nadir.
He had maintained his senate office, but none had come to see him. He had taken part in debates, but none had listened to him. He had introduced bills from time to time; they had died. His seat was safe: senators were chosen for life by the family patriarchs of Velor from their own ranks. But the patriarchs had shunned him for many years, as had she who had once been his wife.
When Theel'dara had caused a public scandal, he had derailed his career in order to defend her as best he could. It had been a futile as well as a costly gesture; had he simply assented to her dismissal, he might yet have saved his career and enjoyed her company. And now, after all these years, his prodigal daughter was returning illegally, claiming not only her right in that matter but her right to address the Senate itself.
There was nothing he could do for her now; there was nothing he could do even for himself. And yet, people were now expecting him to do something. Senators were a conservative lot; even those not formally aligned with the conservative faction. They were reluctant to face challenging situations, and he was taking the blame here. Scandals were especially difficult to deal with, and this was certainly one of the worst. For that too, he was being blamed. And asked to act.
Theel'dara was not only defying the High Council, but trying to involve the Senate in the Council's affairs. She was challenging defense policy regarding the assignment of Protectors. On top of all that, there was this quixotic demand that Velor come to the aid of some distant people about whom little was known except that they had had to suffer her protectorate, and then been abandoned.
It was shortly before her birth, he recalled, that the Senate had faced a scandal involving a faction in the Genetic Enforcement branch of Internal Security that had taken it upon itself to liquidate supposedly defective or illegal Velorians on other worlds. Its star chamber proceedings had been exposed by merest chance, but before the Senate could act, someone had tipped off the conspirators and they had fled.
Neither the perpetrators nor any of their victims had been found. The Senate had made a show of pursuing the matter, but it had been only a show. Too timid to even name names in the executive summary of its report, a special subcommittee had chosen to refer to the scandal obliquely as the Deer Meadow Affair, after some village on Terra that had been the home of the last victim. The full Senate had made the whole thing go away.
"Make this go away," the latest of his new crop of visitors was telling him now. It was one of the patriarchs of the Jahr'ling clan, famed across the Galaxy for their Protectors. That very fame had been thrown in his face as a reproach on more than one occasion. But now the Jahr'lings wanted him to come to their rescue, to spare them the embarrassment of dealing again with a scandal long thought buried.
"And what would you have me do? Take a variable sword to her?"
"Sigurd, I hardly think"
"Indeed, you hardly think. Hardly anyone thinks now. I myself havent thought in years. But Ive been thinking this morning. Heres a thought for you: what if my errant daughter is right?"
He didnt believe it himself. He said it only to drive the annoying Jahr'ling patriarch from his office, and it had the desired effect. But the rhetorical question somehow lingered in his mind: What if? What if?
The buzzing of the phone interrupted his reverie. He was surprised to see that his caller was Naomi KimVallara. He hadnt known Naomi back in the day, and if he had he would have shunned her in the wake of her own family scandals. But since the disgrace of Theeldara, hed come to know her. They had a lot in common, if you discounted the fact that ambassadors, unlike senators, did not enjoy life tenure.
"Shes back. Shes here," Naomi told him breathlessly.
"But how? Why havent I heard?"
"Theyre trying to keep it quiet, but Im still on the grapevine. Old girl network. She arrived here today on a Kelsorian diplomatic vessel. Maybe she has news of Alisa. I hear she has some really strange people with her. Shes staying in orbit for now. I think theyre trying to negotiate something."
Why hadnt he been told? But of course. Only, did the Jahr'ling clan already know? Was that why their patriarch had been on his case?
"Perhaps an amnesty," Naomi speculated. "Although what the grounds might be, I couldnt say."
"We have to meet. In a quiet room."
Senatorial phone lines were supposed to be scrambled, secure. But you couldnt be too careful in a situation like this.
The news broke anyway; by the time they could meet, it was all over the nets with the expected negative spin. Surprisingly, Naomi was taking it more badly than he was. Sigurd had never expected anything but the worst, and that was exactly what he was getting. But then, her hurt went back two decades further than his own.
Shed prayed that Alisa would be aboard the Kelsorian ship, but her prayers were dashed by the video feed. So were his own: Theeldara was accompanied by not one but two Betans, and a kintz to boot. No matter how the Kelsorian envoy argued that these were exiles or defectors, the image was that of turncoat Vel bringing the enemy to the very gates of Velor.
Their voices sounded strange in the quiet room, where the walls absorbed every trace of sound, letting nothing intelligible escape. Quiet rooms were expensive to rent. Rightly so.
"What we need," Naomi ventured at one point, after their conversation seemed to have come to a dead end, "is something to magnify our voices."
"The scandal nets!"
"Of course "
Sigurd and Naomi had both been hurt by the scandal nets in their time. They could hardly forget the streaming video of Nikki dancing naked in Terran night clubs on Reigel 5, or the salacious tales of Theeldara and her enhancees supposedly from the enhancees mouths, although they had never been seen in public and nobody seemed to know what had happened to them after the scandal had faded from the headlines.
"Weve got to find out if Alisas involved in this," Naomi said. "Then we play it as two grieving parents longing to exonerate their wronged daughters."
"Perhaps Sara could turn it into a holodrama."
"Too little time. And the Studio would never allow it. But Ill bet that envoy can help. If we can get to him."
They could. They did. It was a public relations marriage made in Heaven.
DeCamp turned out to have a genius for publicity as well as diplomacy, playing ordinary Velorians against the Senate and the High Council in public, while negotiating for a deal with those very bodies in private.
Even if those ordinary Velorians were doubtful about the Betans and the kintz and Theeldara herself, there was a ready-made hero in the jovial Eristratov, who never missed a chance to embellish the story of his missing arm. Then there was his love affair with the disfigured courtesan Xemissa. Well, she wasnt that disfigured, but it still made for a good story and made the master trader look romantic as well heroic.
Because the people took to Eristratov, they took to his story, the very story that Theeldara wanted told, Only now she didnt have to tell it herself, not to the scandal nets at any rate. The saga of their escape from a burning world it hadnt really been burning, but never mind that took Velor by storm. Estis and even Ashotour were soon besieged for interviews. There were holo offers.
The Senate and the High Council appeared unmoved. They said nothing at all for weeks. And then, extraordinary news: a public session of the High Council in the atrium of the Hall of Protectors, with the Senate observing. In the entire history of Velor, there had been nothing like it.
There had been a condition, a severe one: Theeldara was to consider herself under arrest, and submit to the judgment of the High Council, a self-perpetuating body that was responsible to no one but itself certainly not to public opinion. Whatever the Senate did, it would have no say in her own fate. But she would make her appeal to both on a live worldwide video feed.
She had seen her father on the nets, alone or in company with Naomi KimVallara, defending her as if the past had never happened. She should have felt joy, but somehow she felt only self-loathing. They had not allowed her to communicate with him; in a way, that was almost a relief, for she would not have known what to say.
But she had watched him, looking for signs of expression in his face, or nuance in his words. She watched Naomi too, wondered what she was to him other than having in common with him the estrangement of children. Little was said of her mother; she had moved to Daxxan, where she was said to be refusing all interviews.
The others in her group were glued to the nets, having quickly become bored with watching Velor from orbit. DeCamp had rented a suite at Hotel Cosmos, part of the station that also housed the legations of Kelsor and numerous other worlds. Unlike the others, she was restricted to quarters while her status being determined; but while the others had the run of the station, they rarely ventured past the nearby food courts and shops.
Theeldara spent most of her time with Xikander, not all of it in bed: their love had grown beyond sex alone. He was become her solace and support, beyond anything that anyone else could give.
Much of the rest of her time, she spent with the World Brain, as Velors universal encyclopedia and database was known. DeCamp had expected her to read up on the law to prepare for her coming ordeal. Instead he found her studying the history and literature of Earth.
"Is this wise?" he asked.
"I know the law already," she replied. "Every Protector knows it. The law is of no avail to me."
"Then what do you seek?"
"To bear witness. I must learn to bear witness. For Amsuls sake. For the sake of his people. For the sake of Velor, too. I have come to believe that their fates are one and the same. Halcyon wasnt alone, you know. There have been other such failures, failures that have eroded faith in the Enlightenment, even on Earth. We are in greater danger of ultimate failure than anyone imagines."
"So you search the annals of Earth, for what?"
"The words. I must find the words. And what lies behind them. What gives them their power."
DeCamp was himself devoted to Terran culture, and he was glad to offer his help, even while still negotiating with Velorian authorities. He was able to help point her to the great philosophers, the great orators, the great poets, the great novelists.
"Dont try to imitate them," he warned her. "Try to distill what you read. Quote if you must, but briefly and to the point. And be brief yourself. Remember the example of Lincoln at Gettysburg. The orator before him spoke for hours, and was forgotten. Lincoln spoke for a few minutes, and will be remembered forever."
Eristratov, the only Earthman among them, encouraged Theeldaras efforts, and served with DeCamp as a test audience. Xikander applauded her efforts, but lacked the cultural background to appreciate them; in any case, he was too in love to be objective. Xemissa was more appreciative; the practice of her profession back on Tarots world had elements of ancient Greek hetaerae. As for Estis and Ashotour, they were supportive but hardly understanding.
To judge from the newsnets, everything was going their way. Even the mainstream channels were beginning to besiege them, and hardly a day went by without one of them appearing on some talk show. Theeldara alone was off limits to the media, but Xikander had taken himself out after one of the cruder scandal nets had pressed him for details about their relationship.
The weeks wore on. DeCamp had tried to talk the High Council down from its dour insistence that she appear before it in gold chains, an emblem of humiliation. But the Council refused to budge.
"It doesnt matter," she told him at last. "Let them do what they will. Im ready."
When she told Xikander, her lover was beside himself, showing fear for the first time since they had left Halcyon.
"If I lose you, I lose myself," he said. "My other self. My perfect other."
"You will not lose me," she said, as much to assure herself as him.
Their parting lovemaking was passionate and desperate.
A thousand-story spire of glass and black stone, the Hall of Protectors was like no other structure on Velor or in the known universe. It was at once a headquarters, a school and a shrine.
On overcast days, its summit, thrusting more than three kilometers into the sky, was lost in the clouds and its obsidian exterior was blacker than coal. On brighter days, its satin finish gleamed like a mirror, reflecting clouds too distant to cast their shadows there. At sunset, it glowed with a reddish light, as if lit from inside. By night, its thousands of windows shone like burnished gold.
Surrounded by carefully tended parks that stretched a kilometer or more in every direction, its base was more than 300 by 200 meters Its public atrium soared 600 meters, surrounded by galleries honoring the heroic dead. There were no elevators leading to those galleries. None were needed, for within the Hall of the Protectors, the inhibiting gold field of Velor was nullified.
Not only Protectors but Velorians of all genetic classes were able to fly, or at least float, within the atrium. Those below P1 rank might be awkward and unpracticed in the art, but some who came here had had the chance to visit other worlds and experience the empowerment denied them on their own. They could make the grand tour, reviewing one by one the floating statues of more than a thousand Protectors who had given their lives in service to the Enlightenment.
But the rest of the Hall of Protectors was denied them, denied to everyone but Protectors, Acolytes, Messengers and those responsible for their initiation, education, assignment and discipline. Above the atrium, above the shrine, were levels upon levels devoted to classrooms, laboratories and training areas, those last often larger than soccer fields. There were vast holodeck simulations of worlds to which Protectors were or might one day be assigned, warehouses filled with every known enemy weapon against which they might test their strength and invulnerability.
Opposite the atrium on the long axis of the Great Hall were the living quarters and administrative offices. These too were denied to outsiders, save on special occasions. The only access was through the Great Door, hidden from the public by an artful maze of hedges, where Protector candidates were received with their sponsors.
Theel'dara had once been received here as an Acolyte, her proud lover having been her Sponsor. His caresses had aroused her to fever pitch, enabling her to tap her Orgonic energy, take hold of the massive ring of the gargantuan gate, and prove her right to enter by forcing it open. Now she was approaching the Great Door again, as a prisoner with no sponsor, no ceremony, none to speak for her.
From up close, the monumental structure seemed to rise forever into the sky. Another Throne of the Gods, she thought. But there were no gods here, any more than there had been on Domyr. Only people. More powerful, but just as fallible. The door was opened for her and the bailiffs this time; she passed through the hazy barrier of the null field, but her gold bonds nullified the nullification for her alone.
The Highest Judge, Erik'atal by name, was by the chambers of the High Council as the bailiffs escorted the disgraced Protector up the drop shaft and led her to a cell, where she was to remain until she was called to make her defense. Ordinarily, the trial would have taken place behind closed doors here, but the diplomatic pressure on the Senate had proven too great.
Well, let the Senate have its day, Erikatal thought to himself. Let the nets and the masses they toadied to have theirs. Let all the fools revel in their folly. The High Council would not be found wavering. The High Council would not be found irresolute. The High Council would preserve what must be preserved, against the faithless, the faint of heart, the slavish of mind.
Iron discipline, that was what was needed to strengthen Velor, to harden its faith, to keep reluctant allies in fear, and to at last prevail in the war with Aurea. There could be no mercy for any who challenged that discipline by word or deed.
Somber music usually filled the atrium, a constant reminder that the number of open galleries, like the number of Protectors, was diminishing. But today, the only sound was the murmur of thousands of voices. Today, thousands of eyes had turned away from the statues, lifelike even to their flowing capes, to watch another spectacle.
Today, the Memorial Plaza had been transformed into a meeting hall. A podium had been erected at the very center. It stood atop a pillar, hastily assembled from blocks on the same black stone of which the outer wall of the monolith itself was built. Senators and councilors hovered at a respectful distance, while the thousands of ordinary Velorians watched from the galleries, trying to keep their balance.
The ritual was as much a religious service as a civil trial. It was conducted by the High Council alone. The Council was here to debate and act, the Senate only to listen, although it too might later take action at its own time and place and according to its own jurisdiction.
Highest Judge Erik'atal, in full ceremonial robes, flew to the podium and took his place. In agonizingly slow detail, he read the charges against Theeldara, which alleged not only the abandonment of Domyr but interference in the protectorate of Halcyon, consorting with the enemy and, worst of all, sexual fraternization with an Aurean a capital crime.
Cries of outrage came from the galleries, until proctors with their glowing rods warned the ordinary Velorians there to silence. The High Council ignored the disturbance and continued with the ritual. The four other High Judges successively took the podium to confirm that they had heard and understood the indictment.
There followed testimony from a past High Chancellor, detailing the conditions of Theeldaras assignment to Domyr: conditions that had clearly been violated when she had left her post without sanction. There was testimony, less willing, from the Messenger as to what he had found on Halcyon. It was clear that he hated being here, hated for his testimony to be limited, twisted.
"Shame!" shouted someone in the crowd. He was hustled out by the proctors.
After further rituals, it was time for Theeldara to mount the podium. Because she was wearing gold, she had to be carried there by the proctors. She ignored the indignity. She had, in theory, the right to cross-examine her accusers and their witnesses. She chose not to. It was her duty to address the High Council in her own defense. She chose instead to address the world.
"I come to you in shame, and yet in pride," Theeldara began. "In shame, because I once betrayed your trust. In pride, because I have since learned what it truly means to be a Velorian, something I learned not here but in the far reaches of space, from people that some of you might think of small account or none at all.
"It began with a man who cannot be here today, for he died in service to his own people and to ours. His world was destroyed before his eyes in a cosmic accident terrible beyond anything you can imagine. It should have destroyed him, and yet his only thought was to save what remained of his people, and to bring knowledge of what had happened to the Enlightenment, that we might take warning and take measures, lest a catastrophe of the same kind ever threaten any of our worlds.
"This man had never left his own world. He knew nothing of the universe beyond his own systems wormhole, save what he had heard from the Kelsorians and myself; and that not all to our favor. Yet he trusted us. He trusted in the Enlightenment. He promised his people our help. It was a promise he had no right to make, and yet I did not gainsay him, for I myself should have made that promise, although I too had no right to make it.
"So began a long and difficult journey, one which could never have been completed but for the aid of others: a renegade trader, a native Scalantran, a Betan, even a kintz: people who had no love for the Enlightenment, any more than the Enlightenment had for them. They owed us nothing, and yet they risked everything and gave their all. I shall not dwell on the details here; they are known to all of you. I ask only that you consider the significance of what they did.
"It began, remember, with a promise, made by a man you have never seen. I ask you to honor that promise now, not for my sake, nor even for his, but for the sake of the Enlightenment itself. You may think that such a distant event and such a distant race are of no concern to us, but I tell you that our very survival depends on showing concern and acting upon it.
"We are engaged in a terrible war, a struggle that will determine the fate of all high intelligence life forms friends, enemies and those who want no part in the conflict but whom we have given no choice. The odds are against us. We are few; the enemy many. Our Protectors are spread too thinly to thwart their fleets and their armies, and on many worlds even old Earth, Manhome Original we are hated almost as much as our foes for having brought them unwillingly into such deadly conflict.
"There was once a writer on Earth, who witnessed the humiliating defeat of his own country by an enemy as terrible and seemingly invincible as the Aureans. Yet he did not blame that enemy; rather, his own countrys lack of faith in itself. A civilization, like a religion, accuses itself when it complains of the tepid faith of its members, he wrote. Its duty is to imbue them with fervor. It accuses itself when it complains of the hatred of other men not its members; its duty is to convert those other men.
"That same writer went on to take part in the struggle against the same enemy by a grand alliance. He was too old to be a warrior, but he volunteered just the same, because of his conviction that he had no right to ask others to risk their lives in that struggle if he were not risking his own. He did not live to see the final victory, but that victory came out of faith and courage and conviction like his own.
"That kind of faith and courage and conviction cannot be commanded; it can only be inspired. And it can be inspired only by example. My own faith was tepid, but now it is strong, and yet it was inspired by no one here. Surely there is a lesson in that. Perhaps we have lost the capacity to inspire ourselves, still less the rest of the universe. If we are to survive, let alone prevail, we must prove ourselves still capable of great deeds that will make the Enlightenment an example to the universe, imbue ourselves and our allies with fervor, even convert our enemies.
"Such a great deed awaits us, a deed that may seem irrelevant to you and yet is essential. It has nothing to do with the war and everything. It has nothing to do with our heritage and everything. It has nothing to do with our mandate from Skietra and everything. If we fail in this, we fail in all."
And that was it. There was silence in the hall; evidently the crowd had expected something more. It was the Highest Judge who broke the hush.
"This is not to the point," he stormed. "This deserter, this renegade, this traitor seeks to make a mockery of our proceedings and hold us in contempt. For this alone, she should stand condemned."
But nobody was looking at him. Nobody was listening to him. They were looking up, into the atrium, where a solitary figure hovered in mute judgment. She was robed in white, her only badge of office a tiara, and terrible in her beauty. She made no movement; but for her attire, she might have been mistaken for one of the statues.
None in the crowd knew her. None in the nets knew her. None of the senators knew her. But as she began to move, as she approached the podium, as she passingly surveyed those of the High Council, the judges and the councilors quailed at her glance.
She halted, gazed at Theeldara, and the very universe balanced on a razor blade. Nothing moved save her robe in the slight breeze. She hovered there for a few moments, this most ancient of beings, she who had given birth to every Protector who had ever risen to the call, since her arrival at a previous time of crisis hundreds of years ago.
She made a small bow, a wordless blessing. Nothing more.
Then she returned whence she had come, the spectators parting before her like the sea before Moses; for none would dare touch the living goddess. Yet all eyes were on her until she vanished. Only later did they notice that Theeldaras chains had also vanished.
Silence reigned once more over the Hall. The Messenger, constrained to remain for possible cross-examination, broke it this time.
There are moments of chaos that, seen and taken to their advantage, can be turned to new patterns. Perhaps better ones.
Sigurd Utvandrer, who had followed the charade of Theeldaras trial helplessly from one of the galleries, knew instinctively that this was one of those moments.
He flew to her side, embraced her, raised her hand with his, shouted to draw the crowds attention. It was not long in coming; they knew his face from the newscasts. So did the newsnetcasters; cameras that had moments before followed the departure of Aphro'dite after her unprecedented appearance were now all trained back on the podium.
"This is my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased," he told the waiting world. "Let all Velorians hearken to her words. Let Velor live up to its high purpose. As for the High Council, it is ended. Let the Protectors rule themselves."
He had no right to end the High Council. No one did. But it was ended; even the judges and the councilors could see that. Their day was done. Followed by curses and catcalls, they left the Hall in shame as great as the pride with which they had entered it.
Feeling the momentum running his way, Sigurd called for an extraordinary session of the Senate then and there. This too was something he had no right to do, but the whole world was watching, and the senators could sense what the world wanted. In moments, a government fell; within an hour, he was Prime Minister.
Like all revolutions, what came to be called Theeldara Initiative although she herself objected to that naming took on a life of its own, beyond any purpose she had ever had intended. Her appeal to come to aid of the Domyrans carried overwhelmingly, but that was just the beginning.
It was as if an icejam had broken: a jam not of frozen water, but of frozen thought. In just ten days, there were sweeping changes that would once have seemed unbelievable. The most unbelievable of all was a constitutional change allowing women to serve in the Senate itself, but other measures just as revolutionary were adopted even before that.
Protectors, freed of the High Council, now became an autonomous body attached to the Department of Defense. There was a new program for the arming and training of allied forces, and creation of a corps of Auxiliary Protectors from ranks below P1 class as shock troops to fight openly beside those allies. Bounties payable in gold, of which Velor was abundantly supplied, were authorized for defectors and defecting worlds.
Sigurd Utvandrer and his daughter filled the newscasts. Neither he nor Theel'dara could escape the media except at the family estate or, in her case, the Hall of Protectors. Would she retire from the Corps and join her father in the Senate, as some were calling for her to do? She demurred, saying the wanted time with her friends. By this time, Xikander was a guest at the Utvandrer estate, and other veterans of the quest were virtual guests.
Then one day, she called a press conference at the public entrance of the Hall of Protectors. Xikander stood beside her. No, she told the net reporters, she would not seek a seat in the Senate. Naomi Kim'Vallara was far better qualified, and had her endorsement. An ambassadorship, perhaps, some other high government position? Someday, perhaps, but not now.
Then why, the newsmen wondered, call a press conference at all?
"I have just been granted official leave to enhance Xikander," she announced.
"Is this part of your Initiative, 'convert your enemies with love?'" one asked
"It is part of nothing," she told him. "I love him, and he loves me. I will have him for my speech friend and darling, as my life's companion, if he will have me."
"Your wish is my command," Xikander said, as if he hadn't already known about it, as if this hadn't all been planned between them.
It wasn't exactly what the nets had come to hear, but it still had its news value. Everyone knew that Protectors often formed liaisons on distant worlds. They were winked at by Velorian authorities, as long as said Protectors were discreet about it, but never officially sanctioned. But for a Protector to declare her love, openly, on Velor itself? And for an Aurean? Unheard of!
Theel'dara and Xikander hugged and kissed and mugged for the cameras.
"Maybe we'll send you a video of the wedding night," she said.
Could she be serious?
Eristratov's celebrity as a hero served him well. The Senate chose him as general contractor for the rescue project, his commission being one percent of the budget, which included construction and outfitting of the transport ships, the building of villages and the initial plowing and seeding of fields on New Domyr, and sundry other expenses.
One percent didn't sound like much, but Eristratov knew that it would mount up. He would come out of the project one of the richest men in the Galaxy. The transports, of course, would be the most modern money could buy and, once they had fulfilled their initial purpose, he could lease them back as the nucleus of a new commercial fleet.
With Xemissa at his side, no slouch in business herself and still fertile as well, he could found a trading empire like none ever yet seen, a business dynasty devoted to the common prosperity that would ensure its own prosperity. Let the Scalantrans beware!
Ashotour had been an object of curiosity when she first appeared on the nets. She had never expected to become an object of lust. The approaches had been very tentative at first, so circumlocutory that she hadnt understood them. When they became more explicit, she was startled at first, then strangely flattered.
It stood to reason, of course, that only a supremis would be safe with her, but would she be safe with a supremis? Well, under certain circumstances, the medical men had told her, taking the right precautions. Velorians could have the kinky thrill of being ravished by a wild beast, while knowing that her teeth and claws couldn't really harm them. As for herself .
Hey, this should be fun. Her pleasures had been solitary since she had left Aurean space. But now . the thrill of the hunt, only with a different reward. She didnt want to handle the business end, however, so she hired Kor Estis as her agent. Just like his Uncle Sol, he was in the kitty business now.
Xikander was in high fever, but that was good: the enhancement was taking. Soon he would be nearly as powerful and invulnerable as herself. He could come with her wherever her duty took her, and never be endangered for her sake; could even share her duty. That too was good.
And yet she still thought of Amsul, the frailest of the frail. This should have been his hour, too. His story, too, should have been on the nets, with him telling it. She ought to visit a Scribe, she mused, tell all she remembered of him. A Scribe could frame his story better, capture its essence.
"The dead are not lost to us." Alisa's words kept echoing in her head.
Not lost, not lost It was at once a pain and a comfort.
The Domyrans buried Amsul on their new world, a world he had never set foot on, never seen live, never chosen. And yet it was his world now. He had come home. In death, as he never could in life, he had joined his people. He was one of them, at last.