A Meeting at Κtûn
by Leo D. Orionis

This novel is dedicated to every member of the U.S. armed forces who respects duty,
serves with honor, and refuses to obey unlawful orders.

Table of Contents

1. Command Interview
2. Survivors
3. Sizing Up the Problem
4. Lots of Questions, Some Answers
5. Finding Κtûn
6. The Stone Bow

To Be Continued in:
7. Signs and Portents
8. The Alien Giants
9. Exploring the Ruins
10. The Long Way Home
11. Speaker to Speaker
12. Redemption

Appendices

Dramatis Personae
Army Ranks and Structure
Table of Organization and Personnel, Saru's unit
About This Novel

Chapter 1
Command Interview

Above the plain of gold and green,
A young boy's head is clearly seen.
But no, it's not his lifted head,
It's Κtûn's lofty spire instead.

Ahuja huja hujaja,
Swiftly flowing river!
Ahuja huja hujaja,
Swiftly flowing river!

But when the spire's no longer seen,
When shall our eyes be glad again?
When Κtûn's flown Mount Hârob 'round,
West, south, and east, and back again.

Ahuja huja hujaja,
Waters of the south lands!
Ahuja huja hujaja,
Waters of the south lands!

If Herâk strikes with flaming sword,
Will Κtûn fall upon the sward?
But no, the eagle shall not die,
To nest in Râń she'll swiftly fly.

Ahuja huja hujaja,
Havens of the north lands!
Ahuja huja hujaja,
Havens of the north lands!

A Girē children's song

The Second History,
during the reign of the fourth Êstâz

A generation after the battles that settled the future of the continent of Kantos, the fighting forces at the Êstâz's command were divided into six armies. First Army was the Army of Elarâń, defending the core of the Kingdom if all others failed. Second Army was the Army of Gir, watching over the nomads as they roamed the grasslands with their herds of riding animals. Farther west, the Army of Cunda, Third Army, occupied the enemy heartland. Fourth Army, in the north, made sure the High Tlâń accepted the Êstâz's rule. Fifth Army was the Army of Anθorâń, native to that city-state, the softest duty next to First Army.

Sixth Army was Frontier Command. Established just before the disastrous expedtion to Loraon, it had no well-defined populace to watch or to protect, no well-known area to patrol. Its mission was to learn what lay south of the Road of Wolves, who lived there, and whether they posed a threat or offered an opportunity to the Tlâń Kingdom, as the Êstâz's realm was increasingly being called.

Command headquarters was set up quite deliberately in the middle of nowhere, just beyond the borders of the Kingdom. Due east lay the Wastes where nothing lived; north was Gir Province; northeast, the Peril Gate where the Dukes of Sitašai had spent so much blood defending Elarâń; south and west, with a lot of nothing between, lay the city-state of Anθorâń. But everywhere south of the curve framed by the Wastes, Gir, Cunda, and Anθorâń, the maps were empty. It was Sixth Army's job to fill them in.

The waiting room at Sixth-Army headquarters was always full of young, ambitious officers eager for the opportunity to prove themselves. Those who wished for a posting at a royal court applied to First Army or Fifth; those who sought the knife-in-the-back challenge of garrison duty among a hostile populace, Third or Fourth; while those who found the outdoor life attractive could look forward to lots of mounted patrols through Gir with Second Army. But the call of the unknown kept Sixth-Army HQ busy.

The man who stood at one of the windows that reached from floor to ceiling at intervals down the long hall was dressed in the same uniform as the other officers present, a dark blue tunic of loose cut whose flaring sleeves ended halfway between shoulders and elbows, and whose skirt hung to his knees. Under the tunic a medium grey shirt was visible where its arms hung to his elbows, and its skirts to mid shin. A white robe under the shirt had arms that ended at his wrists, and a skirt that hung to the insteps of his black leather boots. The belt around his waist held a large pouch and a knife in a sheath; the belt, pouch, and sheath were also the uniform black leather.

No uniform, however, could keep Saru son of Peta from standing out from the other officers. For one thing, he was the only Girē in the room. There were perhaps sixty officers sitting, standing, or walking around the hall, some talking in quiet voices, some reading letters, journals, or even books, some staring out the windows or staring at nothing, deep in thought. About forty of them were Râńē, men of Elarâń, six to six and a half feet tall, not counting the tendrils which rose from their temples and added another half a head to their height. Their hair was mostly brown, dark or light or medium, their eyes were mostly brown as well. The other twenty were Anθorâńē. The people from that city-state tended to be tall (six and a half or even seven feet), very slim, with tendrils rising a full head above their light brown, grey, or white hair. Their eyes were blue or an indeterminate grey as often as brown.

But Saru was a typical Girē; five and a half feet tall, with legs and arms shorter in proportion than a Râńē, a stocky torso, and tendrils that stood only a couple of inches higher than his head. The hair on that head was fiery red and curly, his skin so pale it was almost white, and his eyes a brilliant blue.

Besides being of a different physical type than anyone else in the waiting room, Saru also had the dubious distinction of holding the lowest rank present. Most of the other men wore the gold arrowhead of a tribune on both tunic sleeves, signifying command of a regiment. There were also some proconsuls bearing swords on each sleeve, and a few consuls, with the crossed swords, hoping for an Army command or a staff position. But Saru wore the plain gold stripe of a cornet, commanding only a platoon of twenty men. To see a cornet in the waiting room was more unusual than seeing a consul, and to an army man made him stand out as much as his Girē heritage.

Saru was also the oldest person in the hall, relative to his rank. The other men his age were tribunes, two ranks higher than cornet, or even proconsuls if they were lucky or precocious. Saru had been a banneret, a common soldier in charge of a banner of eighty men, at the start of the Loraon Expedition. When it returned to Kantos, the Êstâz Vîd́a knighted him and made him a cornet. Now, instead of taking orders from a legate and his staff of cornets, and overseeing four platoons and their sergeants, Saru commanded a platoon of his own.

The platoon was currently unassigned, but that didn't explain what he was doing here, Saru thought. The normal way for a cornet to learn about his next assignment was for a messenger to bring him written orders. Summoning him to Army headquarters, instead, was like being ordered to attend court. Save a king's life, he thought morosely, and have your own screwed up forever.

As his musings circled back to that point for perhaps the thousandth time that morning, the inner door of the waiting room opened. All the heads in the room turned towards the senior guardian who entered, marked as such by the two gold stars on his sleeves. Unperturbed, the high-ranking commoner called, "Cornet Saru Peta's son?"

"Here I am," Saru said, making his way to the door. Every eye was on him, some resenting that a cornet was called before they were, some because of his name. It was a known name in the army, the name of a survivor of the Loraon holocaust, who had the Êstâz's favor.

"Please come with me, sir," the senior guardian said, holding the door for Saru. Once it had shut out all the staring eyes, he led the way down a hall with six doors on either side, including the one they'd just used. None of them were marked. He knocked on the far door on the opposite side of the hall.

"Come in," called a voice.

"The cornet, Your Grace."

"Thank you, senior guardian."

As the unknighted soldier withdrew, Saru marched in, stopped directly before the big wooden desk inside, and came to attention without saluting—Êstâz's army didn't salute indoors. "Cornet Saru Peta's son, reporting as ordered, sir!"

"At ease, cornet," the man behind the desk said, which gave Saru the chance to take a quick look around the office.

It was a large office, twenty feet deep by thirty wide, but a working office, not just for show. Two wooden file cabinets, four drawers tall, stood in the far left corner; full book cases, man high, centered every wall except the one behind the desk, where a window gave light and displaced the book case to the right. A wooden frame at eye level between the window and book case held a large parchment under glass, with four large wax seals dangling beneath on blue ribbons and protected by brass seal cases.

The man behind the desk wore the crossed gold swords of a proconsul on either sleeve, and no other mark of rank. Despite his ordinary Râńē appearance, the senior guardian's form of address told Saru that the proconsul was entitled to a count's or duke's crown, though it wasn't customary wear in an ordinary army working day. If his personal banner had been displayed on a wall, it might say which he was, if the vexillographer had chosen to use a form of crown that was specific to a count, or to a duke. But the banner was neatly furled in a stand to the right of the door, and wasn't helpful.

The other person in the room, sitting in a chair half-turned to the desk and half to the door, was someone Saru knew. His tunic was bright red, and since he was a civilian it had no rank insignia on its sleeves. An orkē-head brooch in gold, with emerald eyes, was pinned below the neck of the tunic, and a heavy gold chain supported the medallion of the Order of the Phoenix, given by the Royal Academy of the Sciences for distinction. The white belt around his waist matched the white shirt under his tunic, and the cloth pouch on the belt repeated the floral pattern of the bands at the ends of the shirts's sleeves and hem. The brown robe next to his skin was the same color as his hair, his eyes, and the sheathes of the dagger and recorder on his belt. Only the boots on his feet were uniform, being the same black leather as anyone's in the army.

As Saru saw him and smiled, the civilian smiled back and stood up. Though he was plainly Râńē, he was as tall as an Anθorâńē, and nearly as slender. At six feet eight inches, he was over a foot taller than Saru. He held out a hand and said, "Hello, Saru. How have you been?"

Saru's hand disappeared in the other's grip. "Fine, Master Ĵetao, fine. I have fewer men now to ride herd on, but they're mine, not some officer's. I'm the officer now, Powergiver help us all!"

Juho Ĵetao, Doctor of the Royal Academy of the Sciences, and Master of the Phoenix, released his friend's hand. "I trust our half-Cundē friend is still with you?" he asked.

"Can't chase him off with a stick," Saru grinned. "Sergeant Paran will be pleased to hear you were asking about him."

The man in whose office they were holding their reunion coughed politely.

"I beg pardon, Your Grace!" Master Ĵetao cried. "Old friends, you know. Saru, this is Count Persu, the proconsul in charge of intelligence for Sixth Army. He and I have been discussing an expedition to the far south."

Laughing at the way Master Ĵetao had torn military protocol to shreds, all unwittingly, the count stood up and came around the desk. He was also taller than Saru, though still a couple of inches shorter than Juho.

"Be at ease, cornet," the proconsul said, holding out his hand. He had keen eyes, at the moment full of merriment. "I gather he's always like this?"

"Pretty much, sir," Saru said. As he took the hand offered, he was thinking that if Paran had said he'd be shaking the hand of a proconsul today, he'd have laughed in the sergeant's face. "If he can't dissect it, translate it, or unscrew it, Juho generally ignores it," the cornet said.

"I'd resent that if all the experimental evidence didn't back you up," Master Ĵetao said. He picked up something from the corner of the desk by his chair. "Take a look at this," he said, handing it to Saru.

Saru turned it over in his hands while the doctor and the count watched him. It appeared to be black silk, about four feet wide, rolled up in a bundle a couple of inches in diameter, tied with a leather lace around the middle. He hefted it in one hand. It was heavier than he expected, but…

"What is it?" he asked.

"Untie it and see," said Count Persu.

Saru deftly untied the leather lace, thrust it through his belt, and began unrolling the fabric in both hands. It was only black on one side, he saw. On the other—

"What in the world?" he exclaimed.

Unrolled, the material he'd mistaken for cloth was roughly four feet wide by about five and a half feet tall, Saru's own height. The edges were rough, as if someone had cut it out of a larger piece with a knife. He struggled to make sense of what he was seeing. Centered on the material was an irregular white blob surrounded by blue. Superimposed on the white and the blue were a number of glowing yellow ovals of different sizes and orientations that mostly didn't overlap. On each glowing yellow oval was a glowing yellow dot. Writing in the old alphabet, which Saru had never learned, appeared here and there.

"What am I looking at?" Saru said.

"Would you believe a kind of map?" Doctor Ĵetao said.

"Huh?" Saru answered brilliantly.

"Bring it over here, cornet," Count Persu said. He led the way to the bookcase beside the window. The book cases were a uniform six feet tall and four feet wide. The count took the sheet of material from Saru while the doctor removed several heavy books from the book case. Together they hung the picture by placing the books on its top inch, letting it dangle with its bottom edge half a foot from the floor.

"There," said Master Ĵetao. "That will do for now."

"Very neat," Saru said. "But it still makes no sense to me."

"Well," said the doctor, "suppose I hold one arm up in front of it, thus; and another arm straight out, like so. Look in the upper-right area framed by my arms. Does anything look familiar?"

Saru looked for a moment; and then, as the doctor was about to speak again, it suddenly leapt out at him. "Elarâń?" he said. He stepped closer, and peered up at it. Master Ĵetao dropped his arms as Saru reached up with his right hand.

"Yes," the cornet said. "If you ignore the glowing circles… the western arm of the Sealed Mountains would run along here, and the southern arm here, the Wastes would be here, Gir there, Cunda there, Anθorâń—this is like a map of Kantos in outline, without mountains, rivers, or anything—isn't it?"

"It is indeed," said His Grace. "And see how much of the continent we know nothing about. There's easily three or four times as much land south of us as all the present kingdom put together, and all of it unknown."

"So you believe this is accurate, sir?" Saru said.

"It's accurate," Juho said. "After we got back from Loraon, I went to Tlâńor, to see what the Library there had on Loraonai flora and fauna, to compare with my own notes. I had a tough time getting access to their records. Some High Tlâń still resent the loss or failure of their self-imposed duty to save the world, and won't have anything to do with outsiders."

"Some of them do worse than just shut out the world," Count Persu commented. "There are places our patrols dare not go except in strength."

"Yes, yes," said Master Ĵetao, waving one long hand. "But I'm not in the army, and the younger High Tlâń are happy to be free of their parents' burden. A lot of them turn to science as a way to explore the world free of political considerations, where joining the army, for instance, would make them traitors in the eyes of other Tlâńorē. I became acquainted with a number of them with the same goals as myself—comparing the old records from Tlâńor and Anθorâń with the world around us, trying to relearn what the ancients knew, and recover lost arts. Did you know there are people working on flying machines?" he said, dreamily.

"I saw a flying machine once," Saru said.

"What?" said the count and the doctor together.

"Well, the pieces of one, or what I was told had been one, scattered over a large area," Saru amended. "I was with one of the grandfathers of the tribe, and another boy, on a hunting trip. The other boy asked the grandfather if the machine could go to Haĵi, or Gron, if it weren't broken."

"What did he say?" asked Doctor Ĵetao.

"Hell, boy, you don't need a machine to go to a moon," Saru quoted. "I can tell you how to do that. First, you lift your left foot into the air. Then, you lift your right root higher than your left foot. Then you keep on doing that until you get where you want to go."

"But, Grandfather, if I lift both feet at once, I fall down!"

"Well, then, the old man said, that's the part you need to work on, and he winked at me," Saru said, grinning.

The count roared with laughter. The doctor, however, fixed a suspicious eye on the cornet, and said, "Saru, my friend, we were on a ship together for a year, and I never heard that story before."

"There are lots of things you haven't heard," Saru protested. "I was a banneret, for one thing, and had a lot of calls on my time."

"Moreover," Juho said, "that story has the classic elements of a peasant folk tale: the cranky old man, the credulous youth, and the narrator with whom the audience is supposed to identify."

"I don't know anything about literature," Saru said. "I'm just telling you what happened."

The count laughed again. "You were about to tell us where this map came from," he reminded Juho.

"Yes, Your Grace," Master Ĵetao said, still eyeing Saru doubtfully. "Well, after I'd been in Tlâńor for some time, and had made some friends among the intellectuals, one of them told me about a curious artifact in her possession."

"Ah ha!" Saru said, grinning. "Another conquest, Doctor?"

Master Ĵetao flushed. "Nothing like that," he said. "She's just a friend."

"I'll bet she is, too," Saru said to the proconsul. "It never ceases to amaze me how the good doctor is constantly being followed around by this bevy of women taking care of him, feeding him, and sleeping with him. And they don't get jealous of each other, and they remain his friends after he's done with them!"

"Ah," said the count. "That explains the behavior of the unmarried women here these past few days."

"Kašai said that this map was cut out of a wall with a knife by a soldier during the looting of Tlâńor," Juho said, ignoring the byplay pointedly. "When it was part of the wall, the dots moved," he said, tapping one of the dots on one of the ovals.

"Moved?!!" said Saru. "It isn't miracle enough that they shine?" He looked closer. "How could they move? They look painted on, or built in, or however the picture is done."

"Nevertheless, they moved," the doctor said, "until the display was cut out of the wall. Then they stopped moving, though they still glowed. At that point the looter abandoned it, and Kašai's father recovered it. When I realized what she was showing me, I begged her for the loan of it, and brought it here."

"All right, I'll bite," Saru said. "What do the circles and dots represent, and why did the dots move? I assume you don't know how they moved."

"Your assumption is correct," Master Ĵetao said. "Do you read Horiel, Saru?"

"Not a letter of it," Saru admitted cheerfully. "Nor the other kind, I forget what you call it."

"Iriel, not that there's any here," Juho said. "Very well, look down here. See this oval on the side of the map, that loops all over the westernmost part of Kantos? Can you make out what's written next to the dot near the bottom of the loop?"

Saru crouched down and looked. A squiggle that looked a little like a Q, another squiggle that looked like an N with the top flopped over, something very like a Ť, something else he'd never seen before, something else that looked like an R fallen on its back, another Q-like thing, two more N-like things.

"Not a clue," Saru said. "Doctor? If the writing's next to the dot, and the dot moved, did the writing move too?"

"Maybe," said Master Ĵetao. "But that bit of writing says Anθorâń. And this one says Haθ. This one, T́ebai. Sitašai. Tlâńor."

"That old fairy tale," Saru grumbled, as he rose to his feet, brushing off his uniform over his knees.

"Fairy tale, cornet?" the proconsul said. His tone of voice said, Explain yourself, young man.

"Sir," Saru said, "I know that you Râńē believe, or say you believe, that your cities used to fly in the ancient days. And that's fine, believe what you want."

"But we Girē are herders and breeders of riding animals. We turned a wild animal, too small and too slim to carry a man, into something that could run with a fully-armored knight on its back. You don't do that by believing any old story someone wants to tell you. You have to go by the facts, and use what actually works."

"I'm not sure I see your point," the count said.

"Sir, maybe the wrecks rusting here and there across the west were flying vehicles. And maybe the Râńē cities, and Anθorâń, and Tlâńor, used to fly. But I haven't seen them do so. You haven't seen them do so. No one's seen them do so."

"You're a skeptic," Doctor Ĵetao said. "But…"

"And if they flew," Saru went on, "How did they fly? Did they have giant wings, with giant feathers? What held them up? How were they steered? I don't believe in magic!"

"Skepticism is good," Master Ĵetao said. "But disbelief, like belief, has to accomodate the facts. There are too many texts, and too many artifacts, all taking for granted that the cities flew, and smaller vehicles between them."

"How?" Saru said.

"I don't know how," the doctor said. "Nor do I know why they stopped. Old sky maps show a very bright star above the north pole. It disappeared, and the cities had to come down, or crash like your grandfather's wreck."

"I've heard that story," Saru said. "I don't believe in astrology, either."

"Not astrology, but science we've lost," Juho told him. "The records speak of Herâk the pole star "going supernova", and emitting "radiation" and "energetic particles", causing "electromagnetic pulses". We don't know what those words mean—but civilization fell. Literally, for a few cities and countless vehicles."

"As fascinating as this is," Count Persu said sincerely, "perhaps you gentlemen could continue it later. I do have other matters awaiting my attention."

"Yes, sir," said Saru.

"Yes, Your Grace," Master Ĵetao said. "The point, Saru, is that we can account for every city shown on this map, except for this one." He tapped another dot. The legend next to it read:

"I, something, something, something, N?" Saru guessed.

"Provisionally Ištun," the doctor said. "Horiel doesn't distinguish between I and Î, or U and Û, so the vowels are uncertain. For that matter, it could be I-štun as easily as Iš-tun."

"Κtûn?" Saru said. "Like the song?"

"Song? What song?" Juho said.

"The children's round," Saru said. "Surely you know it? Oh," he said, looking at the two blank faces. "Is it a Girē thing only, then?"

"Perhaps you could sing it?" the count suggested. The doctor looked horrified.

"Sing it, sir? Me? You'd regret asking," Saru said. "I'm probably the only Girē who ever lived who can't sing. But in T́uliǹgrai it would go something like," he said, reciting:

Above the plain of gold and green,
A young boy's head is clearly seen.
But no, it's not his lifted head,
It's Κtûn's lofty spire instead.

Ahuja huja hujaja,
Swiftly flowing river!
Ahuja huja hujaja,
Swiftly flowing —

"—Doctor, what did you do?" he said, breaking off with an amazed stare.

"Do?" Master Ĵetao said.

"The map, Doctor!" the proconsul said.

Master Ĵetao looked at the map, and gasped. It had changed. The blank white of the continent had given way to colored patterns indicating grasslands and forests; the two arms of the Sealed Mountains were shown, and the great rivers of Elarâń, the Raros and the Serońa; other rivers unknown to Râńē geographers could be seen in the south, and lakes, and mountains.

"I must have activated some control by accident," said the Master of the Phoenix, reaching out. Then he put his hands behind his back. "Your Grace, we must copy this before it disappears again!"

"At once," the count agreed. "Tell Senior Guardian Siθa to give you the services of his two best cartographers for as long as you need them, and tell him the order comes from me."

"On my way!" said the doctor, and sprang for the door.

"Meanwhile, cornet," said the proconsul.

"Sir!" said Saru.

"I believe your platoon is over strength?"

Uh oh, Saru thought.

"Sir, yes sir. I can explain. The remains of my banner naturally stayed together, and then the odds and sods we swept up in the fighting for the ships haven't been reassigned. There are a few bad apples I wouldn't mind losing, but mostly they're good men, sir. And they're just learning to work as a unit," he said desperately.

"No doubt," said the proconsul, "but what kind of unit? I count a good 65 men, cornet. That's nearly a banner!"

"If the proconsul would let me detach three or four useless bodies," Saru began.

"You'd still have three times the men you're supposed to," Count Persu said. "Either we need to split you up, or add more and make up a banner—someone else's banner, cornet."

"Yes, sir," Saru said, the only permissible answer. Cornets didn't command banners, legates did. His only hope of staying with the men was to be assigned to one of the platoons of the new banner.

"Meanwhile, however," the count continued, "I have a mission for your platoon. If you fail, we can try again with a regularly-constituted banner. If you succeed, it will go a long way towards proving the worth of your unit; and your own worth of another stripe, though I make no promises whatsoever."

"I'll do my best, sir!"

"So I'm told, so I'm told. You will take your platoon, with appropriate civilian supply and support, and you will locate and investigate the city of Κtûn. Master Ĵetao will accompany you and you will give weight to anything he says, but mark me, cornet, you are in charge. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir!"

"You will take three T́ulańē scouts. You will be assisted by another cornet, who will be your second in command. Cornet Haθa is almost as highly recommended as yourself; try to get along with her."

"Her, sir?" said Saru, staring.

"That's right, cornet. We're adding our token woman to our misfit platoon, commanded by our token Girē, and sending the whole lot off to get lost, hoping they won't come back. Any questions?"

"Sir… No, sir."

"Good. Pick up your orders from the Senior Guardian on your way out, and tell him to send in the next victim. And good luck to you, cornet," he said, holding out his hand.

"Thank you, sir… I think," said Saru, son of Peta, shaking the proconsul's hand.

The First History,
not long before the end

Panic and madness stalked the Galaxy; and it grew worse exponentially.

When Lara and ys fellows were designed, a single creature from the Long Time had appeared in the Galaxy. It passed through a Verē city, and people died by the thousands. Looking at it was enough to drive them insane, and the chaos that followed was lethal.

By the time Lara and ys companions were made, cosmologists had discovered that the monster was an explorer from another universe, very different from their own. For one thing, time passed at a different rate in each universe. Eborai Lapai and his wife went on a reconaissance mission to the other universe, and returned the same day with a grown son.

Long-Time incursions were frequent by the time Lara and ys siblings reached puberty. While they struggled to find their sexual identities, worlds were being torn apart. Not creatures of space and time as we know it, the extrauniversal explorers roamed without regard for whether they were in space, on the surface of a planet, striding through a star, wandering in the oceans of a living world, or meandering through the raging storms of a gas giant. Wherever they went, if there were living things to see them, insanity and death followed.

The lesser races of the Three Galaxies, especially those who had been so long at odds with the Verē in the Second Galaxy, took advantage of the situation. They discovered they could build ships piloted by arrays of computers, rather than having a sentient being look upon the monsters and lose its sanity. Decisions were made by people inside the ships, who only viewed schematics on the computers. Computer operations were enacted by consensus of three computers at a time; if one was corrupted, it was overruled, shut down, and another brought in from the standby array.

Ships like these could follow the Monsters of the Long Time around, and pounce on worlds of the Verē and their allies while they were wracked with madness. Verē ships, propelled and armed with telekinesis, using Verē telepathy for communications and Verē clairvoyance for navigation, were far superior to the attackers. But in the presence of the creatures, they were blind, or else full of gibbering lunatics; either way, helpless.

While Lara went through the agony of becoming female (and her siblings became neuter, female, or male like their Verē ancestors), and as their education and training proceeded, all the old scores, real and imagined, were settled. Eoverai, the home world, was destroyed. The Defenders of the Covenant were all slain; the Kaitempi, the Verē police and military, died too; the populations they were sworn to protect were murdered by the planetful. The Orthodox, who insisted the Powergiver had ordained their rule over lesser races, died; the Liberals, who wished to treat other species as equals, died; the old people, the young people, the birds and the fish and the great serpents in the oceans, all died.

Q'qq'k the Kaikhlir, one of their teachers, came to Lara and her siblings as they sat in the light of the cosmic discontinuity which both empowered and hid the artificial environment where they had been designed, made, and raised. All their faces turned to (him) as (he) entered.

(There's no point in describing Q'qq'k; (his) part in history, indeed (his) whole species' part, is all but over. I could describe (his) body, built like a hollow reed with flat ribbony arms and legs that coiled rather than bent as a man's does; (his) head, like a wide shallow bowl with another turned over and set on top of it, with eyes, ears, and other organs along the crack between the rims; I could even tell you why (he)'s referred to as (him)—but what would be the use?)

"Be welcome," said Lara; though female, she was the leader of the experimental creatures. Or at least she spoke for them, and among the Verē and their descendants, Speaker meant leader.

"Thank you," said the Kaikhlir. (He) sat, by coiling up (his) legs and resting (his) body on them, and coiling up (his) arms just below where they came out of the shell-shaped horny protrusions at the top of his body—never mind. (He) sat, and regarded the children thoughtfully with several of the eyes on the side of (his) head nearest them.

"The Verē are dead," (he) said without preamble. "The Tlâńē, the Ukkl, the Rulsad are dead. The Drē and the Kox have been destroyed, though they could dance unhurt at the heart of a star, and the Si will delight us no more. The Elihrai are extinct, and the Kaikhlir, though (I) yet speak to you. The allied races that come from other universes may live there still, but we dare not contact them, lest it lead the Monsters of the Long Time to them, and the killers who bay at their heels."

"So we're alone," Lara said. With the general body play of a Verē, the skin and some of the sensory organs of a Tlâńē, she and her kind would have been strange to any of her ancestors. Her muscle efficiency came from the Ukkl, her increased capacity for absorbing and storing energy from the Drē, the Kox, and the Si. All of the allied races contributed genes to them, or genes were designed to emulate desired properties of races that didn't use DNA. They were a new kind, the ultimate achievement of Verē biological science. Ultimate, as in highest; ultimate, as in last.

"You're alone," Q'qq'k said. "You, alone, must decide what you will do with your lives. We your teacher/creators designed you with no purpose in mind. When the Monsters of the Long Time appeared, we thought you could explore where they came from; but that, now, is moot. We thought next that you could fight them; but what is there left to fight for? You must decide yourselves whether to try to blend into the new galactic society that will arise, flee to another galaxy or universe, or pursue some other goal you set for yourselves. We have created you the best we knew how, and we have taught you all we knew to teach. The future is yours, as the past was ours."

(He) uncoiled (himself) to (his) full height—does it matter whether that was one inch or thirty feet? "Let me just say," (he) told them, "that your creators are proud of you. And we love you, and we wish you well."

And (he) walked away; and they sat, and watched, with love and sorrow in their hearts. Knowing (him), knowing the Kaikhlir culture, they knew what would happen next.

"Listen!" said Vîd́a, one of the males. They all reached out with their group mind. Nothing, in all the universe, but themselves, and Q'qq'k and (his) sister-clones and their bud-husbands. Just a faint gabble at the edge of their mental "hearing", the buzzsaw static of alien minds.

"Blend in?" said Mera, one of the females. She held up her hand, three fingers and a thumb, exactly like a Verē's except that it was covered with the blue skin of a Tlâń.

"Protect?" said Culi, one of the neuters, bitterly. They listened as Q'qq'k and his pod went lovingly into oblivion together. One last tender thought for them, and then the experimentals were alone in the universe.

"Flee?!" said Êstâz, a male. He clenched his big fists and curled his lips in contempt.

Lara looked around the group. They were all looking at her, all waiting for her to say the word that no one else had said.

She didn't want to say it. Of all words, that one should never be said lightly or casually. But if she were Speaker, then she must speak for them. She knew what word they wanted her to say. And what other word was there, really, for them?

"Avenge," she said softly; the word fell into their waiting intent, and crystallized it, and decided the fate of the universe.

Chapter 2
Survivors

The Second History,
during the reign of the fourth Êstâz

Saru pulled his mount to the side of the trail and stopped, half-twisting in his saddle, to watch his command approach. The mount, a grey-haired beast with overlapping circles of white, took this for a lapse of vigilance and tried to bite his knee off.

Saru had expected the move. Without taking his eyes off the platoon, he hit his charger across its sensitive snout with the braided leather quirt ready in his hand. "Su, su, Šary," he murmured. The beast squealed in pain and then hissed with anger. After a moment, it dropped its oversized deerlike head to the ground and began ripping up stalks of the tough, thick grass of the South.

Saru smiled a little, and twirled the quirt in his hand. The ugly, bad-tempered řobē did the same thing every time they stopped, and he whacked it in the same place and said the same thing to it. But show it another mount with an enemy riding it, or a foot soldier attacking its rider, and its viciousness became far less perfunctory. It was also fast as lightning when he gave it the signal to run. Its speed and its evil temper were the reason for its name; a šarē is a flying snake. But for now the ritual had satisfied its honor; he tucked the quirt in his belt.

As the proconsul had said, there were 65 men in Saru's "platoon", all headed south towards the most northern point of Κtûn's orbit on the Tlâńorai map. Each man in the platoon had a saddle, a rifled flintlock, and a hooded cape rolled up behind the saddle, ready for one of the rain and thunder storms that burst out of nowhere in these endless flat southlands. Saddle bags carried each man's standard kit—powder cartridges wrapped in waxed paper, spare flints, rifle bullets, dried rations for a day or two, canteens of water—plus personal possessions: a book, a deck of cards, letters from home, candy, liquor, whatever the trooper valued and the regulations permitted, or the trooper thought he could hide. Each trooper's remount, the steed he rode on alternate days, carried his share of his squad's tent, cooking equipment, and even more spare flints, cartridges, and bullets.

One of the approaching figures left the column and came riding his way at a faster gait than the rest. That alone told Saru it had to be either his lead sergeant or the other officer of the command. The sun flashed off the metal cornet bar on the other's hat, and Saru smiled.

A moment later Cornet Haθa reined in and saluted smartly. She wore the same uniform the other soldiers did, but on her it was almost glamorous. The curves of her figure were neither lush nor boyishly slim, perhaps closer to the latter, but very attractive. She rode the standard brown army mount with experienced ease. The round-crowned, wide-brimmed hat hid all of her close-trimmed yellow hair except a little behind delicate ears and on the back of a well-shaped neck. Like him, she wore a pistol on her belt in addition to the rifle that every member of the platoon had in a saddle holster. "Sir," she said as she saluted.

Saru returned her salute and said, "Good morning." They were still working out how to address each other. She could call him "sir", since he was senior to her, both in time in service and experience, and was in command of the expedition. Calling him by his name wasn't out of the question, either, since they were both cornets.

He, on the other hand, could address her as "My Lady," since she was the daughter of the Baron of Haθ. Or he could address her by her given name, Deni, since they were the same rank. So far, neither had been so informal.

"Well, now that we've been under way for a month, what do you make of them?" he asked. At the same time he was wondering why he wasn't more attracted to her. She was fit, razor-witted, professional, fearless as far as he'd seen, with piercing blue eyes. Did her superior birth put him off so much? Or her three inches of height?

Now, despite her birth and her nominally equal rank, she hesitated an instant at his question. Then she said, "Sir, may I be frank?"

"By all means," he said. "And I can do without too many 'sirs' either, My Lady, just between the two of us, with no troopers or other officers to scandalize."

"Well…" she said. "No one's said it in so many words, but you're running a short banner here. You have an unofficial three-platoon organization, with corporals serving as platoon sergeants, Sergeant Paran doubling as your banneret, and you acting as a legate."

"And you serving as my staff of cornets," Saru agreed. "I haven't heard a question, yet?"

"No questions," the other cornet said. "It must have official approval, or two-thirds of the men would've been reassigned. Instead they add me, to serve as your staff. But how did this happen? And if the higher-ups really approve, where's the rest of your staff and the cornets for platoon leaders? For that matter, where are the promotions for you, Sergeant Paran, and—if that's not a sore point," she said belatedly.

"Heh," said Saru, baring his teeth. "Well, maybe a little. The thing is—and I hope this doesn't diminish your respect for my position—I never wanted to be an officer in the first place. So I'm not exactly counting the days until I get that second stripe."

"Not—? I don't understand," she said, frowning. Her tendrils curved forward in speculation, instead of standing straight up. The slight breeze rustled the long grass, rustled their mounts' manes, rustled his curly red hair and her blonde hair, short as it was; but didn't rustle those inquisitive tendrils.

"Eight ships sailed to Loraon," Saru said. "Every ship had a full crew, and a picked banner at full strength. The largest ship had the Êstâz, a sampling of his court, and the proconsul and his staff. The regimental tribunes, their staffs, the guardians of the two regiments, were deployed around the fleet. Everything was well planned and well organized. We had maps, tons of supplies, experienced sailors who'd been part of the way chasing the fish, known ports, and established contacts."

"You were there?" Deni said. "I lost an uncle and an older brother on that expedition."

"Two ships came back," Saru told her, holding up two fingers of his left hand, the little finger folded down and the thumb folded in. "Two; and they weren't exactly overmanned, either. We had the remains of four banners; the other ship had the pieces of the other four, and the survivors of the court. All told we had less than two banners of men, and the highest rank left was a tribune."

"What happened?" she said. "There's the official account, and then there's rumor… What chewed up so many men like that?"

"The Verē happened," Saru said, not seeing her; old blood was in his eyes. "I think we'd forgotten just how strong they were, despite the warning of the name; how bullheaded, how impossible to stop once started… The Êstâz said it best, I think. 'We fulfilled the prophecy—but no one ever said what the prophecy would cost us'."

"Ride with me," he said, pulling Šari's head up from the grass. "Keep your mount's head behind mine; if they come level, mine will take it as a challenge."

"Sir," she said quietly. The two cornets exchanged salutes with the sergeant at the head of the column, and rode back along its length.

"Loraon was a powder keg," Saru said, picking up the pace, "and we were the match. Once we said the name Êstâz, the fuse was lit. What did our intentions matter, once the fire reached the powder? Nothing."

"So…" Cornet Haθa said, "this platoon…"

"I was banneret of a full banner going into Loraon," Saru said harshly. "Paran was one of my platoon sergeants, but as soon as he'd lived down his most recent demotion for cause, he'd be a banneret again too, probably right after we got back."

"Cause?" said Deni.

"Fighting, drinking, and whoring," Saru said. "And not the first time, either. Maybe the first time he combined all three in one incident, and no doubt the biggest mess he'd ever made."

"Sergeant Paran?!" the other cornet said, staring. Her tendrils were bolt upright in shock. "Drinking? Whoring? I can see fighting," she said thoughtfully.

"The point is," Saru said, "we were a full banner, the regulation 85 common soldiers plus officers, when we left Kantos. When we got back, there were 32 of us. Five out of every eight were dead."

He held up his hand when she would have spoken; returned the salute of the corporal in charge of the platoon taking care of the remounts, and spoke with him briefly. Five men seemed few to keep some 80 řobē under control, but řobē were herd animals, and most of these had been raised and trained with this unit. The corporal had the remounts dancing to his bidding, as the cornet did the men.

"Me, Paran, six corporals, 24 privates," Saru said as they moved on.

"I see," Cornet Haθa said.

"Ten survivors from another banner: a sergeant, a corporal, eight privates. Eleven—"

"Ten?! Out of 90-94 men, including the staff officers?"

"We were luckier than most," Saru said. "Eleven left of a third banner, one sergeant and ten privates. Of a fourth banner, only one corporal and four privates. Oh, and seven common seamen who decided they'd seen enough of deep water and exotic foreign ports."

"On ship with you, all the way back from Loraon?"

"With shattered morale, nothing to do, and with great gaping holes in our own ranks. It was either fit them into my banner, ignoring the fact that we had no cornets and no legates…"

"And how did that happen, sir? I heard…"

"They were all rounded up and slaughtered before the rest of us had a clue how the wind was blowing," Saru said harshly. "I know that includes the uncle and the older brother you mentioned, and I'm sorry. If it helps, the ones who weren't slain out of hand gave their lives to keep the Êstâz alive, and to get word to the rest of us."

"So you worked on the voyage back to keep your men from despairing over the worst defeat the army's ever known; and you turned them into a unit. That was very well done, if I may say so. No wonder the Êstâz made you an officer."

"Officer my balls!" Saru said, suddenly sounding like the common soldier he'd been so long. He pulled his mount up so hard it squealed and tried to bite his foot. He kicked it in the snout without bothering to pull out his quirt, and it hissed loudly.

"Fuck all officers," he went on, as the other cornet stopped too, startled at the raw savagery of his expression. Her mount danced nervously under her, unnerved by the rage of the other steed, and the pain and rage in Saru's voice. She soothed it to quivering stillness with the automatic life-long horsemanship of the aristocracy.

"I didn't beat these men into line because I wanted to be an officer," he said, holding up a fist. It was a small fist, but the gesture wasn't even a little bit funny. "I never dreamed Command would be so stupid! I whipped these men into a unit thinking like a banneret, not a fucking officer!"

"There's not a man here who doesn't know that the best men of our banner—of all four of our banners!—were left in Loraon. That's why I accepted this stripe," Saru said, tapping the metal bar on his hat. "Not for me, but for the men who died holding the bridges between Lores and Tara. The men who died with Krahos spears in their guts at the doors of the Chamber of the Lie, before we shot the bastards down with volley fire! The men who were torn limb from limb by bare-handed Verē in the streets of Teřańa! The men who fought for the ships and were crushed between the hulls, or drowned, or devoured by serpents made mad by the blood in the harbor water!"

"So yes, this unit has some problems," Saru said, a little more quietly. "Mostly troopers who are too damned stupid to know what we owe our dead. But they're going to shape up, or by the Powergiver! They'll wish they had."

"Amen," she said. He snorted, yanked his mount's head around again, and took off at right angles to the line of march, at a flat-out gallop, Šari's head stretched out low and mean, the Girē on its back lying down along its neck and urging it on, not a bit like a proper army officer.

Laughter and low-voiced comments made Cornet Haθa leave off watching him, and rein around. The civilian sutlers, tinkers, and quacks had been a little too far away to hear what Saru had said, but they'd enjoyed the show anyway; and were enjoying the sight of him racing away.

"What the hell are you looking at?" said the Baron's daughter, and laid into them with a sharp tongue.

"Now if we were a banner, this would be Third Platoon," Sergeant Paran said. "Probably the best unit we have, or at least the steadiest."

"Why, thank you, 'Banneret'," Corporal Mrada said, grinning. Deni would've thought he was too far away to hear Paran's comments as they passed, but apparently not. The sergeant held up one of his huge fists in semi-mock threat, and the grinning corporal threw him a salute in return.

The endless grass, stretching to the horizon under an immense sky full of mountains of clouds, was calculated to make anyone and anything seem small, especially Râńē whose cultural mindset was still walled in by the Sealed Mountains. The platoon, the unofficial banner, rode south day after day and saw no change at all, as if they were ants crawling across a field.

On a human scale, however, Paran Anĝarat was huge, more like a šâigē, a giant ground sloth, than a man. At six foot ten inches, he was sixteen inches taller than Cornet Saru, and contained in his heavy frame enough bone and muscle to make two Sarus, with a good bit left over. Sergeant Paran had four mounts in the unit's herd, and switched his saddle twice a day. Even so, he walked a lot to wear out boots instead of animals.

His coloring marked him as much as his size. Just as most of the mounts were a uniform brown color and a uniform size, so the men were mostly around six feet tall with brown hair and brown eyes and brown skin. Paran was only part Râńē. His mother had been a Cundē slave, of a long line of Cundē slaves. His father had been a Râńē soldier during the sack of Mašad Anĝar—perhaps even the same soldier who married the ex-slave and raised her son, who knows? That son, now a man, had dark brown skin, like old leather, fine black hair, and black eyes. The tendrils rising from his temples were short and stubby, hardly more than fleshy horns, and his ears came to points that faced the rear. Though he served in the Êstâz's army, he was all Cundē in appearance.

"The steadiest, sergeant? I would have thought that would be your unit," Cornet Haθa said.

"No, because I have all the trouble makers and most of the sailors," Paran said. "Cornet Peta's son trusts me to break all our bad mounts and make proper riding animals out of them, so to speak. 'Third Platoon' has four squad leaders from our old banner, and two of them are actually corporals, not just privates acting as corporals. Each of the squads has two privates from our old banner as well, one private from Eagle Banner, and one private from Badger Banner. So everyone in Mrada's unit is an experienced troop, and three out of five have been together since recruitment."

"I see," said Deni. She pulled up where they could watch the central part of the column. "Give me an appraisal of this unit in the same terms, if you would."

"Yes, sir," said Paran; there were few females in the army of any rank, and command had decreed that females were to be treated and addressed as males. So "Yes, sir" was correct and "Yes, ma'am" was not.

"Acting-sergeant Ĵuha's unit is also pretty steady," Paran said. "You have Corporal Ĵuha himself, four squad leaders from our old banner, two corporals and two acting corporals, and one man in each squad as well. Each squad has one man from Eagle Banner that was, and one from Badger. So far, so good."

"But two of the squads are filled out with one man each from Raven Banner, and three of them are saddled with sailors; and that's not so good."

"Was there something wrong with Raven Banner, sergeant?" she asked. She scanned the column as they talked. Every item of equipment was present and in good repair, everything visible was stowed as regulations required. Every man rode with the odd combination of "riding at attention" that the army taught and the boneless ease that countless hours in the saddle insisted upon—except for two, who sat their mounts like sacks of tubers.

"Nothing I ever heard of, sir," said Sergeant Paran. "But there were only five left! Powergiver knows, we all find ourselves looking for buddies who aren't here any more, but those guys are… um… haunted, if you follow me."

Deni smiled; she knew the sergeant had edited himself to keep from saying "fucking haunted" to her. But all she said was, "A corporal and four privates, right? Why didn't our acting legate keep them together as a squad? Wouldn't that have been easier on them?"

"The cornet is pleased to jest," Paran said. "Of course it would've been easier, in the short run. But if they're going to stay in the army, if they're going to join our unit, best to separate them so they learn our ways, not cling to theirs; so they fit in with us, not with each other."

"And the sailors likewise?"

"Even more so," said Paran. "Those guys are worse than civilians. At least a civvie knows that he doesn't know anything, sir. These guys, we had to train them out of the navy way of doing things before we could even start to train them into the army way. And don't even get me started on their riding!"

"The rhythm of a deck and the rhythm of a řobē are very different," Cornet Haθa said diplomatically.

"Tell me about it," Paran groaned. "They're a little better now, but we had to tie them into their saddles the first time we were reviewed as a unit!"

"But the real problem is Private Suko there," he said, nodding towards a big, sloppy trooper ambling at the end of "Second Platoon's" part of the column. He lurched and bounced with every stride of his mount, and a hint of a rag tied around his head could be seen peeking out of his hat.

"A troublemaker?" Deni asked.

"Worse—an idiot. Suko is apparently his actual name, but he answers to Soko [fool, idiot—The Author] just as readily. I don't know what happened to him; his buddies tell different stories, and it was a long time ago. But whatever made that dished-in place in his skull, it left him only a little brighter than a canine. A domesticated canine, at that."

"So why is he here?"

Paran pokered up. "You'll have to ask the other cornet for the answer to that, sir."

"All right," she said. "Now tell me about your 'platoon', sergeant."

"If the cornet will come with me," he said.

They kicked up their mounts and rode up the column. The component parts of the "banner" rode in a different order every day. One reason was fairness; the unit in front ate the least of the dust stirred up by the others, the unit in back the most. Another reason was to confound any potential attackers who might count on the pieces being in a particular order. Today, as it happened, the units were in textbook order: "First Platoon", "Second", "Third", the remounts, and the civilians. Cornet Haθa and Sergeant Paran rode to the front of the column, returned the salute of an expressionless Sergeant Rama, and rode a bit further and off to the left of the column (the east, since the column was headed south) where they couldn't be heard. The steady western wind helped, blowing sound from the column to them, not the other way around.

"What we might call 'First Platoon' is the only one led by an actual sergeant instead of an acting corporal," the sergeant in question said. "That gives him the most rank and the most experience of our 'platoon leaders', so he gets the hardest unit to handle."

"Hardest in what way?" Deni said.

"The most mixed, for one thing. Two privates in each squad are from our old banner, well and good. The third man in first and third platoon is a Raven, and in second and fourth, a Badger. The fourth man in every platoon is a sailor, with all the awkwardness we spoke of."

"Then there are the personnel problems. Corporal Stâzo, the leader of fourth platoon," he said, pointing with his chin, "is the surviving corporal of the 'Ravens'. He seems to be a good man, but he's not quite one of us yet, and his ways aren't quite ours. And, as I said, haunted."

"The sailor in his platoon, Private Kraho, is one of our rotten eggs. Of all the men in this unit, don't ever let that one catch you alone. If he does, you may have to kill him. Good riddance if you do—but I don't like to think what he might do to you first. He doesn't look like much, with that skinny body, but he's tough as a snake, maybe as strong as I am, and he's totally bugfuck nuts, if you'll excuse my language, My Lady."

"Carry on," she said.

"The acting corporal in charge of 'Third Platoon' is Sergeant Seidu," Paran said. "He's not actually dangerous, except to unit morale, but he carries annoyance to stellar heights. He's a long-time soldier, and from casual acquaintance you'd think he was a top troop. His uniform is always just as it should be, and he's always there for assigned duties, and on time, too."

"But?"

"But if you actually observe him, you'll discover that he thinks his duty begins and ends with showing up," Sergeant Paran said in frustration. "Take guard duty, for instance. If you assign him to a post, and then watch him without him knowing, say at night, you'll find he picks a comfortable spot and just sits there the whole time."

"What?" said Cornet Haθa. "Sleeping on guard duty—"

"He doesn't sleep," Paran said hastily, holding up his hand, "he's just useless. Instead of patrolling his area, moving around so no infiltrator would know where he was, and checking on things in his area, he just sits there, staring into the fire if there is one. Reading. Playing cards. Every once in a great while—say once or twice in eight hours—he'll get up, stand in one spot facing the edges of his area for a little while, and then sit down again. I don't know what he thinks that accomplishes, exactly."

"Have you reported this?" Deni asked.

"The cornet knows," Paran said. "I've told him, and he's observed it himself, just checking, you know. He's talked to Sergeant Seidu about it."

"And?"

"Well, according to Seidu, I'm a liar. The specific times and dates, he hates to say it, but I have a tendency to make things up. I must have it in for him for some reason, the cornet knows how it is. Seidu's a threat to my position, both of us being sergeants, so I'm trying to make him look bad."

"And the cornet believes this?" Deni asked.

"No, thank the Powergiver. Saru knows he can believe everything I tell him. Even if he didn't know that, he's checked and seen it for himself. He just adds Seidu's lies to all the other things he doesn't do, or does wrong."

"Saru?" said Cornet Haθa.

Paran looked aggrieved. "Cornet Peta's son, I mean. But bear in mind, My Lady, we were both bannerets when we met, and we've been through hell together—or Lores-Tara, if there's a difference. He's saved my life, and I've saved his, and more than once. So if I slip from time to time, please excuse me."

"It's understandable," Deni smiled. "As long as you don't start calling me by name."

"Sir, without your explicit permission, I don't even know your given name—officially."

"So, if the cornet knows what Seidu is, why doesn't he get rid of him?" Deni said.

"We're in a funny position," Sergeant Paran said. "They'll either restore us to a banner, or break us up into platoons. Until they decide which, personnel actions are frozen."

"I see," said the cornet.

"Meanwhile, if Seidu thinks his rank means he should be in charge of one of our 'platoons', he can think again. No way, as long as I'm 'banneret', is he going to be infecting a whole 'platoon' with his attitudes and his ideas of duty. He stays in an acting corporal slot, in my 'platoon', where I can keep a close watch on him."

"Sergeant Rama's also in a corporal's position," Cornet Haθa noted.

"And it pisses him off no end. But Sergeant Rama and Corporal Jani are the other two trouble makers I need to keep under my thumb. They were the ranking survivors of 'Eagle', and the state those boys were in doesn't bear describing."

"You have to tell me something, sergeant."

"They're sadists, sir, and bullies. They like to inflict the maximum possible penalty for any infraction of any rule, whether it's the army's, or something they made up themselves. They like to beat on people who aren't allowed to hit back. They like to abuse people with words who aren't allowed to reply. They steal things and then, when the theft is reported, they make everyone's lives hell until someone confesses just to stop it. If no one confesses, or the victim decides not to report it, they'll plant the stolen goods on someone and hold a 'surprise inspection' so they can 'discover' it. More stuff like that. An endless stream of stuff like that."

"There will be none of that in this unit," Cornet Haθa said firmly.

Paran grinned. "That's what the acting legate said, sir; word for word, I swear. Rama and Jani are each in charge of a different squad of my platoon, and all the privates from Eagle are in other 'platoons'. If Rama and Jani try their old tricks, they'll find our men, and the men from Badger and Raven, won't put up with it. The word is out to complain if anything out of line happens."

"That seriously undermines their authority with their squads, of course," Deni noted.

Paran snorted. "If they want authority, let them show they deserve it. I won't countenance empty gripes, say from the sailors, who may not understand what's a legal order and what isn't. But Rama's and Jani's games are over."

"Some would say you're babying the troops," Deni said.

"Sir, some would. But in this unit, banner or platoon or whatever the hell it is, we're professionals. A professional will point his rifle when he's told to point it, and pull the trigger when he's told to pull it, wounded, sick, in bad weather, under enemy fire, outnumbered, whatever—because he's a professional. He takes the pay, he does the job. That doesn't mean that wounds, illness, bad weather, and so forth are good things."

"But the men are expected to endure these things, sergeant," Deni said, watching him.

"If they're unavoidable, sure. But the army isn't a punishment detail. The army's job is to fight the kingdom's enemies. It's not a home for bewildered sailors, or a source of new victims for psychopaths in uniform. It's not an easy living for slugs too lazy to work. And it sure as hell isn't a school where bullies and sadists can enjoy themselves while neglecting their real duties!"

"Very good, Sergeant Paran," the cornet said. "I agree with every word. Now tell me something, if you would."

"Sir?"

"You've talked about men from the old Eagle Banner, the old Badger Banner, and the now-defunct Raven Banner. But you haven't said what this unit calls itself."

"Sir," Paran said, poker-faced, "the unit has no present official designation, being unattached to any command except Sixth Army."

"Don't even try that one," Deni said. "I wasn't talking about so-and-so platoon, of such-and-such banner, regiment, and brigade. What was the banner's totem, sergeant? What flag did you show?"

"Sir!" said Paran, trusting his instincts. The totems were unofficial, but they were what mattered to the men. "This was Orkē Banner, sir! And when—not if!—we're a banner again, if some other banner has taken to using that name, there will be fists flying, sir!"

"I'm aware of the custom, sergeant. At ease. Long live Orkē Banner!"

"Long live, sir!"

"And thanks for the briefing, banneret," Cornet Haθa said. She gathered the reins of her steed and urged it into motion to rejoin the column.

Late in the afternoon Paran picked a spot for the night's camp, Saru approved it, and the day's ride ended.

That didn't mean the work was over. Far from it! When the column halted, the men jumped off their steeds and ran to their tasks. Their mounts were tended and added to the unit's herd. A stake was planted in the middle of the camp-to-be, and the same distance measured off to north, south, west, and east. The troops went to work digging ditches too wide to jump and too deep to climb into or out of easily, with sharpened wooden stakes in the bottom and inside wall of the ditches. The dirt from the ditches was piled into walls just inside, and packed hard.

Saru's tent went up in the center of camp, where the roads running in from the gates met, with Deni's tent behind it, just to the north. The dozen civilians were suffered to pitch their tents on either side of the west road and the east road. First Platoon pitched its four squad tents along the center of the back, or north wall, with Sergeant Paran's tent just inside the back gate. Second Platoon's tents ran inside the south wall from the southwest corner to the main gate, and Third Platoon's tents ran from the other side of the main gate to the southeast corner. Two picket lines of twenty mounts each stretched out parallel to the west road between it and Second Platoon, two more between the east road and Third Platoon, two more between the west road and the back wall, and the last two between the back wall and the east road. Sentinels were posted at all four gates and all four corners; the squad leaders for the two squads pulling that duty roved around the perimeter on no set pattern.

It was a lot of work, but every command in the field did it, every day. The resurrection of civilization in Kantos had begun with Êstâz's troops relieving civilian populations besieged in impenetrable cities by howling savages. The savages had been broken, and driven out of Elarâń, which then became one huge fortress behind the Sealed Mountains, with Sitašai as its main gate. When the armies marched out of that gate at last, the habit of fighting from fortified positions was practically written in their DNA. From camps like this one they linked up with Anθorâń, squeezed the Girē into submission, marched on Cunda and reduced it, even, finally, reversed all their long practice and took Mašad Anĝar and Tlâńor from their defenders. Not prepare a camp for the night? Even Sergeant Seidu did his part, if not an inch or an ounce more.

The squad detached as hunters returned in a group, having cut two young calves out of a herd of vadē and butchered them. The meat and organs were divided among the pots of all the squads and the civilians, who provided spices and seasonings. The řobē droppings from a few days before, now completely dry, were piled up for fuel. Dry grass was set blazing with sparks from flints that couldn't be used in the rifles any more, either because constant sharpening had made them too small, or because they'd broken. As the fires began to catch, the three T́ulańē scouts, Herâk, Surâk, and Pâka by name, appeared in the middle of camp without the sentinels having seen them coming. While the corporals of the guard gave their men a perfunctory chewing-out for not having managed the impossible, and the guards stoically endured it, the bare-chested scouts handed over a brace of beitē, grassland woodchucks; a grass net full of pheasants; and an entire penařobē, wild relative of the řobē, eviscerated but otherwise whole. This too was divided among all the cook fires, while the scouts withdrew to the nearby stream to clean up. T́ulańē didn't eat with, or in the sight of non-T́ulańē; nor would they sleep in the camp.

Master Ĵetao came riding in as the evening drew on, a dashing figure with his fine horsemanship and his non-uniform garb, today a bright green tunic over a yellow shirt over a grey robe with black bands at the bottom hem and wrists. The wide straw hat on his head had a high flat crown, totally different from the low round crown of the soldiers' hats, and held a red hatband, into which he'd tucked a yellow prairie flower. Trailed by the two privates he'd requested for assistance, he sprang from his mount at the back gate and greeted the grinning guard there before addressing his helpers.

"Be careful with those baskets," he cried to Private Korva. "I swear that's an entirely new species of plant that I haven't seen in Anθorâń's library, nor Tlâńor's either. You remember how I showed you to press it?"

"I remember, doctor."

"Good man! Do it right and I'll name it after you, see if I won't."

"Řo-Řobē," said Private Suko.

"Yes, you may tend the řobē, Private Suko," the doctor said. "Thank you for your work today. You were a big help." He watched the ex-sailor stumbling away with the mounts in tow, and shook his head sadly.

Saru looked up sharply as the fading southern light was blocked momentarily by a body entering his tent without permission or even being announced, then relaxed when he saw it was Master Ĵetao. "Good afternoon, Juho," he said.

"Good evening, rather," the master said. "Ehiu, it's dark as a cave in here, Saru."

"I hadn't noticed; but you're right. Guard, there!" he called.

"Sir!" said one of the two privates outside the tent, coming in and standing at attention.

"Light my lanterns, please," Saru said.

"Yes, sir," said the guard. He handed his rifle to the other guard outside the entrance, took the two candle lanterns from the rope between two side poles, and left at a run.

"How was your day, doctor?" the cornet asked. "Did you find what you hoped?"

"I did, actually," Master Ĵetao said. "That line of greenery we passed yesterday marked the course of a small stream, just as you thought it might; and I think I may have found a new species of diže growing there."

"Diže, doctor?"

"A medicinal plant; its leaves are good for pain, and the root relaxes constricted blood vessels. At least, the species we know."

The sentinel returned with the candle lanterns. Designed to hang overhead, they had panes of clear horn to protect the candle from wind and the tent from the candle flame, and polished brass backs to magnify and reflect the candle light. The cornet thanked the guard, who went back to his duty; the doctor hung the lanterns in the loops of a rope between center and side poles, where their light shown on the camp table next to the center pole.

Presently Sergeant Paran came by with two privates carrying dinner for three—cuts of meat, stew, fresh biscuits, salad of wild greens. The sergeant and the doctor traded the old jokes of men who are fond of each other but very different, Paran pretending to discover a stork in the tent and asking Saru's permission to bag it for the stew pot, while Juho asked how long Saru expected his poor wild city mutt to keep up with the riders on a long mounted expedition. Then Paran and the privates left, grinning. Cornet Haθa came in as they departed, and the two cornets and the doctor had a good supper with pleasant conversation while the stars began their nightly dance in the endless southern sky.

The First History,
not long before the end

The galaxies rejoiced! The monsters were all dead, and the future looked bright and rosy.

Well, the Second Galaxy rejoiced, anyway. It was true that the Ukkl had never claimed the ownership of the Whirlpool Galaxy the way the Verē hard-liners had the Second; indeed they'd fought the Verē to keep them out. When the war between the two races ground to a halt, the Covenant that resulted gave the galaxy to the Ukkl—but it was just a piece of paper that kept the Verē away, as far as the Ukkl and the other races of that galaxy were concerned. And the Kaikhlir signed on behalf of all the races of the Third Galaxy without having to fight, due to the Ukkl example.

OK, then, the Second Galaxy rejoices that the Verē, the Drē, the Tlâńē, and the rest of the monsters are all dead. But make the rejoicing quick, because there are a lot of serious problems we have to deal with. None of us ever had anything in common except opposing the Verē, and wars are starting over worlds the Verē claimed as their own. Not to mention the disruption of travel and trade by the utter destruction of worlds that were important crossroads for both. And didn't anyone ever realize how much of our technology was Verē hand-me-downs? Or how much of our science depended on things the Verē discovered and passed on?

Can we even get to other galaxies, or the far side of our own, without Verē teles? What's the farthest place you've heard from, since they were killed? Hey, that medicine derives from a plant that grows on a Rulsad world—is there an equivalent in this universe? Well, can we synthesize the active ingredient? What do you mean, you don't know what it is?

Light of Asteroch, I regret to report that the population of your world of Ishchtassh has been reduced by nine-tenths. The sacred blossoms will rot in the fields, for lack of hands to pick them. Plague, Your Radiance? Indeed no, it was the creatures from the Slow Universe. Three of them walked across the Aspirant World, and your people died by the millions. Fight them? How, Your Radiance? Yes, we won several worlds following them, but we can't talk to them, Eye of God. Yes, they're still here…

Wars, diseases, technology fallen apart, science ground to a halt, contact with other galaxies and other universes cut off, and still the Monsters of the Long Time prowl…

What was it we were celebrating, again?

Chapter 3
Sizing Up the Problem

The Second History,
during the reign of the fourth Êstâz

"Âqquq niquq Volâk niquk ha!"

The cry was as loud and shrill as a woman's scream. Saru sat bolt upright in his sleeping bag and grabbed his pistol by instinct. Then he stopped and listened for a moment.

"Âqquq niquq Volâk niquk ha!"

Saru threw himself to his feet and out the door of his tent, wearing nothing but his robe, his pistol in his right hand. He cocked it while he swept the tent flaps aside with his left. "At ease!" he said to the startled sentries, before they could finish presenting arms, and poured powder into the priming pan from the horn he'd snatched up in his left hand.

"Ha âqquq niquq! Ha niquk Volâk!"

The shriek came from the north. Saru hurried around his tent and peered in that direction. All he saw was Cornet Haθa looking the same way. She, too, was wearing only her robe, and holding a cocked pistol. Her left hand was cupped over the pan of the level weapon to protect the powder from wind and rain while she listened intently.

There was nothing to hear but the predawn wind rustling the long grass. A few stars still shone, mostly in the black western sky; but the eastern sky was dark blue and starless, with a spark on the horizon promising the day.

Master Ĵetao came strolling up the west road of the camp, bareheaded but wrapped in his black cloak. "That's it, I believe," he said cheerfully. "Marvelous, wasn't it?"

"What was it?" Saru said, feeling foolish in the face of the doctor's unconcern. He shivered. The dawn air, he suddenly noticed, was very cold.

"One of the T́ulańē praying the sun up," Juho said. "Or 'praying' may not be the right word, 'celebrating' might be more accurate."

Indeed Vol was breaking free of the horizon as they stood there, and the sky was brightening moment by moment. Birds began to caw, chirp, peep, and otherwise sing in their various ways all around the camp.

"So why haven't we heard this before?" Saru demanded. He tilted his pistol and wasted the priming charge into the wind, balancing the waste in a second's unconscious calculation of the expedition's powder, the fact that no inhabitants had been encountered so far, and the lack of time to dry the powder before they set out for the morning.

"It must be the first time one of them's been close enough to the camp when the sun came up," the doctor said. "The sources say every one of them hails the sunrise, wherever he is, every morning."

"I wonder just how far from camp they go at night," Saru speculated. As he spoke, Cornet Haθa turned to go back into her tent, and saw them standing there. She dumped the priming charge she'd been protecting, switched the pistol to her left hand, and saluted Saru with her now-empty right, gloriously unconcerned with the way the wind rustled her robe, and molded it to the curves of her body. Saru hastily switched his own pistol, returned the salute, and indicated with a jerk of his head that he was going into his tent to dress. She nodded, and turned to do the same. Master Ĵetao, unoccupied by military niceties, stood there in his warm cape and watched her until she disappeared into her tent. Then he sighed, and went back to his own.

Perhaps half an hour later, fully dressed now in an orange tunic, a white shirt, and a dark blue robe with white hem and wrist bands, the doctor entered Saru's tent with a nod to the sentries, doffing his high-crowned straw hat as he did so; the hat's band was the same color as his tunic today, with a head of pampas grass adding a jaunty note.

"Good stars, Juho!" Saru said. "How many outfits did you bring, anyway?" He was sipping a cup of blackbrew, made from the black-eyed bean which had survived the fall of civilization only in the greenhouses of Loraon. All of the Loraon-expedition survivors were addicted to the stuff, so it was fortunate they'd found ways to bring some of the plants back with them. In Kantos it could grow outdoors, and needed very little care.

"Not a lot, really," the doctor said. "I brought my own mounts, specimen baskets, a few scientific instruments, and so forth. If I also brought some clothes, it doesn't add much to the load. I just made sure that none of the tunics clash with any of the shirts, and none of the shirts clash with any of the robes. With five of each, that gives me 125 combinations, and one set doesn't have to be packed because I'm wearing it."

"As always, doctor, I see you've planned carefully," the cornet said drily.

"I think so," Master Ĵetao said. "My hat is plain straw, so it goes with everything; and my boots, belt, pouch, even my saddle bags and instrument cases, are all black leather."

"You're aware that every soldier in camp, from me to the privates, has exactly two uniforms, including the one he's wearing?" Saru pointed out.

"My dear Saru," said the doctor, "that's hardly my fault."

The cornet laughed. "I give up," he said. "Have you eaten? Or would you like a cup of blackbrew?"

The doctor's nose twitched at the aroma rising from Saru's cup, but he said, "I don't drink blackbrew any more, my friend."

Saru looked at him in surprise, his cup halfway to his lips. "Don't drink it! Why not? And for that matter," he said, closing his eyes and breathing in the steam from his cup, "how?"

"Let me answer with a syllogism," said Master Ĵetao, folding his arms. "Point the first, blackbrew has a strong and distinctive aroma."

"Indeed it does," Saru agreed, taking a sip from his cup.

"Point the second, those who drink blackbrew every day, smell of it. The aroma, shall we say, comes out of their pores, and their breath smells strongly of it."

"Yes, I remember noticing the way the Krahosē smelled, when we first arrived," Saru said. "After a while, of course, I got used to it."

"Point the third, people who do not habitually drink blackbrew may find its aroma, and the smell of persons who drink it, unpleasant. Or even offensive."

"Um… It's been a long time now, but… Yes, I guess that could be…"

"Point the fourth," Master Ĵetao said with a smirk, "Cornet Haθa has never been to Loraon, and doesn't drink blackbrew."

Saru stopped with his cup halfway to his lips and stared at his friend open-mouthed. "Why, you conniving bastard," he said.

"Me?" said Juho, spreading his hands. "What have I done?"

"Exactly when were you planning to tell me all this?" said Saru. "At the wedding, perhaps?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Master Ĵetao said, his lips twitching. "As for telling you anything, you've known all these facts as long as I have. Should I insult your intelligence by assuming that you're incapable of drawing obvious conclusions?"

"And it isn't even 'just' Cornet Haθa," Saru said mournfully, gazing at the half-full cup in his hand. "It's every woman in the Kingdom, unless she has no sense of smell, happens not to mind the odor, or chooses to become a blackbrew drinker herself!"

"Or you could get the whole Kingdom habituated," Juho said. "If the Êstâz began drinking it, the court would follow; and where the court goes, the people follow."

"He can't stand the stuff," Saru said. "Says it reminds him too much of Loraon. Damn!"

Saru stepped out the door of his tent and flung the rest of the blackbrew in his cup into the road. "Sound 'Break Camp'," he snapped to the sentry.

"Now, sir?" said the sentry; it was only half way through the breakfast time the expedition had been observing.

"Yes, now, damn your eyes!" Saru snarled. The sentry saluted, and raised his horn to his lips. As the loud, low notes blasted out over camp, men reacted in shock as far as the eye could see. In seconds there was hasty activity everywhere.

Deni was as surprised as anyone, but wasted no time. Her tent was the same as every other army tent, only she had it to herself, as Saru and the three "platoon sergeants" did theirs. With long-practiced ease, she and her two sentries broke it down. First she packed the few possessions that were out into her saddle bags, while one sentry rolled her sleeping bag and the other went to get her mount for the day. Then they took down the center pole and carried it outside, and began taking out the side poles and stacking them. When the other sentry came back with her mount, Deni put her saddle and her other gear on it while the two sentries pulled the tent stakes and coiled the ropes. The cornet thanked the sentries and dismissed them; they would put the tent bundle on a remount and then return to their squad, which would have broken the squad tent without them and gotten their mounts for them.

"Good morning, Deni," Master Ĵetao said, riding up to her. His was not an army mount, but one of his own, a black-coated řobē with widely-separated circles of white hair. One of the circles was around the left eye, as if the beast wore a monocle.

"Good morning, Juho," the cornet said, smiling. "You're just in time for the show," she added, nodding towards the space, just south of them, where Saru's tent had stood.

"The—?" said the doctor, and then saw that Saru was putting his saddle on Thunder, his other mount. Thunder was white with grey patches and black dots; and his temper was even worse than Šari's, the steed Saru had ridden yesterday. Already he was hissing in fury, and trembling all over as one of Saru's sentries held his head.

"Ah," said the doctor. "That show. It should be especially interesting this morning. I do hope he doesn't hurt the beast," he added.

"What do you mean?" Deni said, surprise in her bright blue eyes.

Before he could answer, Saru swung into the saddle and nodded to the sentry, who released Thunder's head and stepped back quickly. Thunder began bucking, tucking his head down between his forelegs and kicking his hindquarters up into the air.

"Oh no you don't!" Saru shouted; the next time Thunder's head came up, he pulled the reins in sharply, keeping the mount from tucking his head. Thunder whistled in surprise; usually the Girē cornet just rode him out without bothering to curb him.

Unable to tuck his head, Thunder began doing rocking-chairs, alternating sharp rears of his front off the ground with kicking up his hind legs as his forelegs hit the ground.

"Knock it off, damn you!" the cornet said. Taking his hat off, he began swatting the mount on the top of his head whenever he reared or kicked.

Squealing with rage, Thunder began crow-hopping, jumping with all four feet together, a different direction with every jump. Soldiers scattered as the jumps took the cornet and his mount all over the area.

Saru lost his hat on one of the hops; Juho leaned down from his saddle and snatched it up before the prairie wind could carry it away forever.

"Oh, look out!" Deni cried; the hat rescue put the doctor's head too close to the flying hooves. "Clear the area!" she said, and the gaping soldiers remembered they were supposed to be breaking camp. So they left, not without last looks at the spectacle.

Thunder was spinning around and around now, chasing his own tail. When he judged his rider was dizzy enough, he suddenly spun back 180 degrees, swapping his ends; then did it again, and again, sometimes flipping clockwise, sometimes counter-clockwise, without pattern.

Grey-faced, Saru sank his spurs into the mount's sides. Thunder squealed and went back to rearing and kicking, only instead of rocking straight forward and back, his feet landed to the left or right each time, jerking his rider side to side as well as front to back. Blood flowed from Saru's nose and lips, as well as Thunder's flanks. The Girē's curly red hair flopped with the jerking of his head.

"Ehiu, Saru, make an end of it!" Master Ĵetao breathed in horror. Deni's face was white, and she had one hand over her mouth as she watched.

Saru raked Thunder's sides with both spurs. Hissing, the mount took off down the west road like an artillery rocket, scattering soldiers. Thunder leaped over the sentry at the west gate, who'd thrown himself flat with his arms over his head, and raced away from the sun, his shadow flying before him and his rider low on his back.

The camp was broken and the column under way before Saru came back. Somewhere he'd rubbed Thunder down with the long prairie grass, maybe even taken off the saddle and let him roll; mount and rider were both calm now, and Thunder was crunching an apple. Saru patted the long neck while he talked with Sergeant Paran, and nodded his thanks to Juho for the return of his hat.

"All's well with the world, then?" Cornet Haθa asked. They walked their mounts up and down the moving column, Deni keeping an eye on things, Juho for once not heading out to collect specimens or check features on his paper copies of the orbital map.

"Indeed," he said, "both our daily miracles have now been completed."

"Both?" said Deni. She looked at Saru's multi-colored steed prancing beside Paran's big army-brown mount, Giant, and said, "What's the other one, pray?"

The doctor folded one hand over the other atop his saddle horn, to keep from reaching out and smoothing down the little blonde hairs the breeze was playing with on the cornet's neck. "I refer to the miracle of the army camp," he said. "My previous experience with the army was on ship, and then in quarters in towns when we got to Loraon. So I never saw the army make or break camp every day, before we started south on this trip."

"This is a miracle?" she said.

"A miracle of discipline, at least," Juho said. "Every day you lay out all the tents just so, you stake out all the mounts according to regulation, you mark your camp roads, post your sentries, all of that—but then, just to heap one mountain of labor atop another, you dig this mucking big ditch around the whole thing, heap up the dirt into walls, and plant the pointed stakes you brought with you all this way, knowing wood would be scarce!"

"It's just our way," she smiled. "We're ready to defend ourselves, that's all."

"My dear girl," said the doctor, "I understand the military reasons for it. But have you considered just how much work you all do every time?"

"Not as such," Deni admitted. "The military reasons, as you call them, for making a secure camp are what matter to us. Is it really that much, or does it just seem like a lot from a civilian viewpoint?"

"Actually," said Master Ĵetao, "I can quantify how much work it is—that is, if it won't bore you?"

"Not at all," she said. "This is my profession, after all."

"Well," he said. "First off, work, in the scientific sense, is measured in how much weight is moved, and how far. If you move a one-pound rock one foot, that's one foot-pound of work. Move the same rock two feet, or a two-pound rock one foot, and that's two foot-pounds of work, either way."

"I see," said Deni, nodding.

"Very well," said the master. "Now consider that ditch. It's 128 feet from each corner to the side of the entrance; the entrances aren't dug up, as you know. So that's eight 128-foot ditches." He took out a notebook, sketched in it, and showed her:

"So that's 8 times 128 or 1,024 linear feet of ditch. Each ditch is six feet wide, so that's an area of 6,144 square feet dug up:"

"You've forgotten the corners," she said.

"One thing at a time. Four corners, six feet by six feet and no slacking; I've seen army sergeants chew out privates who thought the corners didn't have to be square. So each corner is another 36 square feet, giving us 6,288 square feet of ditch."

"I thought you said foot-pounds," she said.

"Getting there," the doctor said. "Now the ditch is also six feet deep, and again the sides have to be straight up and down, no sloppiness permitted. So that's 6288 times 6, or 37,728 cubic feet of dirt being moved."

"My," said Deni.

"So how much does that weigh? It depends on the soil," the doctor went on. "Very few rocks here, good soil not too wet and not too dry. Water weighs 62.5 pounds per cubic foot. Let's guess, for now, that the soil here weighs 50 pounds per cubic foot. We may have to modify that later, if I figure out a way to weigh it."

"Of course," said Deni with amusement.

"But if the soil weighs 50 pounds per cubic foot, then your troops are moving 37,728 times 50, or 1,886,400 pounds every afternoon! That's over 94 tons, Deni!"

"My, my," said Cornet Haθa.

"Now if each of those pounds were moved one foot, that would be 1,886,400 foot-pounds of work," said the master. "But consider this diagram:"

"Each bit of dirt, on average, moves from a position below the surface to a position six feet up and six feet back from its original location. The distance X that it moves is the square root of 72…" He looked at Deni with raised eyebrows.

"Um… Somebody's Theorem?" the cornet said. "The square of the length of the hypoteneuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides?"

"Right!" Juho beamed. "For a right-angle triangle, which this is. The square root is 8.5, near enough, so we multiply 1,886,400 pounds by 8.5 feet and get: 16,034,400 foot-pounds!"

"That's a big number," the cornet said. "What does it mean?"

"Mean? It means the unit does a prodigious amount of work every evening, that's what! And then the same amount again in the morning, tearing it all down again!"

"Can't leave fortified positions behind us for an enemy to occupy," Deni said. "But wait… Isn't it easier to tear down the walls and tumble them into the ditch than it is to put them up?"

"Yessss…" the doctor said. "But it's easier to drop them by the same amount it was harder to lift them. It evens out, you see."

"I'll take your word for it," Deni said. "Now, let's see. The cornet, the sergeants, and I don't lift a shovel, but everyone else does. If all 60 men do an equal share, how much work per man?"

"Ah!" said Juho. "16,034,400 divided by 60… just a minute… 267,240 foot-pounds per man."

"And the men, on average, weigh 180 pounds?"

"Well, not exactly," the doctor said. "For living things, there's the Problem of Weight."

"What's that?" said the cornet. "No, never mind, tell me some other time. A standard backpack, fully-loaded, is 60 pounds. Your foot-pounds per man is the same as that man carrying a backpack how far, doctor?"

"Ah, yes," said Juho. "No Problem of Weight there… 267,240 foot-pounds per man divided by 60 pounds is… exactly 4,454 feet," he announced.

"Which is less than a mile. As I thought, Master Ĵetao. A fortified camp looks very impressive, and can be a matter of life and death. But spread over a banner, even a short banner like ours, it's not really that much work."

"Beaten at my own game!" the doctor said. "I'm speechless! I'm flummoxed! I'm all bereft of words, entirely!"

Cornet Haθa laughed and laughed.

Master Ĵetao looked around. They'd been near the end of the moving column when he'd stopped his mount to draw in his notebook, and now the tail was too far ahead for any trooper to hear them.

"I love you, Deni," he said, not for the first time. "Marry me, won't you?"

She looked at him tenderly, her lips still curved from laughing. "I haven't decided yet," she said, "whether you're worth my time and trouble."

She rode right up to him, then, and grabbed an ear. "But if I do," she said, "you'll have to chase away all those other women who hang around you. I'd spoil you for other women, anyway."

Then she kissed his forehead, released his ear, and cantered off to catch up with the column, laughing. Juho felt his ear, watched her ride away, and murmured, "Too late, Baronissa: you already did."

"Good morning, Master Ĵetao. Not foraging for specimens today?"

Juho looked up from his notebook. When they'd set out from Sixth Army, he'd found it difficult to write on the move, despite a lifetime of riding the hunt and visiting other middle- and upper-class families in the countryside. Now the open notebook stayed steady in his left hand, braced against the saddle horn, and the pen in his right dipped into the ink horn on his belt, then flowed smoothly across the page with his thoughts. The little bit of time waiting for each page to dry, before he turned it, let him marshall his thoughts, and add a little water from his canteen to the ink as needed.

"Good morning, Paran. No, I thought I'd make myself available for sick call, work on the specimens I've already gathered, and catch up on my journal. What can I do for you?"

"Well, doctor… I wanted to ask you… How's trooper Suko working out for you?" Paran said, nodding at the private. The ex-sailor still sat in his saddle awkwardly, but had come to love řobē. Hearing his name, he looked up from cooing at his mount and stroking its mane. Then, when no one asked him to do anything, he went back to talking to the animal.

"Surprisingly well," the doctor said. "He's fairly clumsy, doesn't speak very well, can't understand anything long or anything complex, and I often have to explain anything new five or six times. But once he does understand a task, he'll do it exactly the same way every time; that kind of consistency is valuable, particularly in boring little tasks that a brighter mind would find tiresome. And he's good with the animals, not only the mounts but live specimens. And he's a fine cook, if you don't mind a dish always being prepared exactly the same way every time. Why do you ask?"

"Could he be cured?" the sergeant asked. "Or even improved a bit? Is there some potion that would help his wits; or even surgery, where his skull is dented?"

Master Ĵetao looked at Paran for a moment. Without answering, he closed his journal and returned it to its place in a saddlebag, then capped the inkhorn on his belt. Taking an ink-stained rag from the saddlebag, he began cleaning his pen with it while Paran waited patiently.

"I thought we discussed this on the ship," Juho said, wiping ink off the pen.

"We did," Paran acknowledged. "But now you've been in his company a while, and he seems to be… I don't know… calmer, steadier… I thought you might have more to say."

"I see," said the master. He poured a little water from his canteen over the pen, and scrubbed away the last bits of dried ink. He held it up to the light and squinted at the bright steel.

"I should go back to quills and save these for special occasions," he remarked. "They make a beautiful clean letter, but they rust unless they're thoroughly cleaned every time they're used." He wrapped the pen in a scrap of chamois and put it away.

"All right," said Juho. "First, there's been no change in Private Suko's condition. If he—"

"Doc? Tor?" called Suko, hearing his name.

"Never mind, Suko," Juho called. "Go on up ahead, I'll catch up in a little bit."

The private sat on his mount looking uncertain, a kind of worried grin on his face.

"Go on, Suko," Juho said, waving at him—shoo. "Go on. It's all right. Go along, now."

The ex-sailor suddenly noticed Paran and threw one of his sloppy salutes. Paran saluted back crisply. Beaming, the private went on with the rest of the column, bouncing into the air with every step of his mount.

"Powergiver," Paran muttered. "No change?" he said. "But, only a couple of months ago he'd have been crying, maybe shouting, waving his arms all over, snot dribbling down his face…"

"Two months ago, he was being forced from one task he didn't understand to another, all day long, by people who shouted at him. He was mocked, beaten, stolen from, and given orders he couldn't follow, all day long. Now he tends the animals, cooks for me, follows me around and carries things for me. I don't hit him, I don't shout at him, and I use small words. If he seems better, it's because I'm not pushing him past his limits."

"I see," said Paran. "I thought you were giving him some potion to calm him."

"The only decoctions I know of like that, would only make him seem more stupid and less capable. Suko's damaged physically; drugs don't work that way. I can't repair the damage to his head with a potion any more than I could regrow an amputated arm with one."

"What about surgery, then? Could you… I don't know… saw off the part of his skull that's pushed in, and cover the hole with a brass plate or something?"

"It's been too long," Master Ĵetao said gravely. "The damage was old before ever we set out for Loraon. I very much fear that even if I did something like you're suggesting, it wouldn't change anything now—and he might very well die from it."

"Die?" said Paran.

"If the accident had happened yesterday," the doctor said, "and he were lying unconscious, barely breathing and likely to die, as is often the case with such an injury—then, yes, I'd operate, because it would be his only chance. Then I'd watch to see whether he died."

"Died from what?" Paran asked.

"Infection," Juho said.

" 'Infection'? What's that?"

"Well…" said the doctor. "When's the last time you were sick, Paran?"

"Sick? Why, I was just a boy," said the sergeant.

"Right," said Juho. "Children are sick a lot, and some of them die. Really old people start to get sick again, and eventually they do die. In between, illness is very rare. But what happens if a trooper takes a bullet or an arrow in the gut?"

"He dies, usually," Paran said. "It's slow and ugly."

"But a bullet in the arm, now," said Juho, "and most of the time he'll heal fine. Sometimes, though, the arm will begin to rot, and the surgeon has to cut it off to save the man's life."

"I know all this," Paran said. "What's it have to do with Suko?"

"The world around us is full of tiny, tiny creatures," the doctor said. "Neither plant nor animal nor fungus, but an entire separate kingdom of life, according to the old libraries. They look like nothing you've ever seen… Remind me to set up a microscope on our next rest day, and I'll show you some of the things in every breath you take, every drop you swallow, and every bite you eat."

"Not sure I want to know," said the sergeant. "Your point, sir?"

"These creatures, if they get in your body, cause disease," the doctor said. "Some time during childhood your body learns to keep them out, and then you don't get sick any more. Even the creatures in your food and drink are confined to your guts. In extreme old age the body forgets how to do this, and you start getting sick again."

"Really?" said the sergeant.

"What's more," said the doctor, "a bullet to the gut spills the contents of the intestines into the rest of the body, which is why such wounds are usually fatal. And an arrow or bullet in the arm is much more likely to cause rot, if material from a sleeve is carried into the wound by the bullet, or if the arrowhead is dirty—picked up off the ground, or even deliberately smeared with filth."

"The Cundē used to stab corpses with arrows before shooting at the army," Paran said. 'Fighting with blood', they called it."

"The point is, any time a surgeon operates, he risks creatures getting into the wound from the air, the bed clothes, the instruments themselves. Operations have become almost routine since hospitals started changing the bed clothes daily, washing the patients, boiling the knives and other surgical instruments, and a host of other details I won't bore you with. But out here, in the open, with the wind blowing things, under a dirty tent, on the ground or on a table covered with a dirty blanket?" Juho shook his head.

"So you don't think anything can be done for him," Paran said.

"Certainly not under these conditions," Master Ĵetao said. "If it were life or death—but it isn't. The first thing a doctor has to learn is Leave well enough alone, and, If you don't know what you're doing, don't do anything."

"Well then," said the sergeant, "would you accept him as your servant?"

"As opposed to?"

"He's useless to the army, but he's not useless to you. We could discharge him. It won't make any difference right away; but when this little trip is over, and the unit goes one way and you go another, he could go with you, instead of back to an army routine he doesn't understand."

"Huh! Interesting… Let me think about it," Master Ĵetao said.

"Take your time, doctor. Just remember, with nobility comes responsibility."

Juho laughed. "Now I see where Saru learned to fight dirty," he said.

Paran fingered the lump on his nose, where Saru had broken it back when they were both bannerets. "Don't you believe it, doctor. Just don't you believe it, at all."

Cosmogenesis 101

There are different ways to describe the universe, depending on your science. Since it is science, they all describe the same thing, though in different ways, and the descriptions are interchangeable.

What we might call the balloon model invites you to picture the universe as an expanding balloon. The Big Bang is the moment the balloon came into being, and space is the surface of the balloon. Matter and energy exist within space. If there's sufficient mass of matter or energy or both, the expansion of the balloon will halt, then it will contract again to a point, then expand again, over and over. If not, it will expand forever while the stars in it age and die, and everything gets farther and farther apart, and colder and colder.

The weakness of the balloon model is that is has you picturing a material skin holding things together, and prejudices you to think a particular universe will contract. But there is no skin, and only the mass in the universe will determine its fate.

The wavefront model considers a universe an an explosion. Space is the outrushing matter and energy of the blast. The problem with this model is that it predisposes you to believe that the universe will expand forever, like the debris of an explosion in outer space. But some universes do contract. Also, the expansion of a universe is much more smooth and even than an ordinary explosion.

The information theory of the universe is the most abstract of these three, and the one hardest to picture. It starts with a single description point, whole sole property is the total mass of the universe. At that density, there is only one force (all forces are unified). That much force in one point requires the point to multiply; the universe expands. With each moment of expansion more description points are added. Each inherits an equal share of the force and mass of its parent. As the force-density descreases (as the universe cools), the universal force breaks down into lesser forces such as electromagnetism and gravity. Mass can now be expressed as matter, as the new forces interact with each other.

In information cosmology, the universe is a growing collection of description points with a mass property. Nothing else is needed to explain the expansion and eventual fate of the universe. Matter and energy are state changes in the description. Space is the sum of the points. Time is the record of the state changes.

The beauty of information theory is that it doesn't predispose you to believe the universe will expand forever, or that it will contract. Also, it reminds you constantly that time and space are quantized, not continuous. Each description point is a quantum of space, and the moment separating each state check is a quantum of time.

But it's hard to see chance, life, love, and history in information cosmology. You can picture them as you experience them, confined to the balloon skin or the wavefront of the other theories. But how do you observe them in the state changes of abstract description points?

Just as it takes many bits of information (in an Inside Earth's digital binary computers) to represent each pixel of two-dimensional screen and each moment of stereo sound, so the properties of a huge number of description points make up each particle of the physical universe, and the forces acting upon it.

Chance is imposed on the model, as it is on all models, by "rolling the dice" at each step to determine how the state of each point will be written, rather than proceeding to a preordained fate, with each state completely predicted by all states before it. Whatever universe we live in, and however we describe it, chance is real, and destiny is nonsense.

As for us, we are like worms in computer memory. Our actions, like ourselves, are described in the properties of the description points that make up us and the rest of the universe around us. By acting as we choose to act, we determine what will be written in the properties. We alter the world by our thoughts and deeds; if thoughts and deeds and matter and energy are expressions of description points, we write the descriptions.

Or to put it in computer terms, what we think and what we do is the high-level language of experience, while information theory describes the machine and the machine-language instructions that carry out the program of our experience.

The First History,
not long before the end

Lara and her siblings were outside the universe, looking at it. "Were" is a weak verb, but they didn't "float", for there was nothing to float in; they didn't "hang", for there was nothing to hang from. Nor did they "stand"—upon what?

For that matter, what does "outside the universe" mean? Time and space are dimensions of a universe. Time is what keeps things in the balloon model from happening all at once, and space is what keeps things from being all in the same place. Or time is the clock set ticking at the Big Bang, and space is your position on the wavefront of the explosion. Or time is the state of the entropy counter, and space is what separates one description point from another.

But other universes do exist, each with its own physical laws, beginning and end, time and space. Don't they need a spacelike dimension to separate them, and a timelike dimension in which their expansion and/or contraction can occur?

No, say the information-cosmology purists. There is no time, only the entropy counter which we perceive as time passing. There is no space, only the concept of such created by our brains from the data of our senses. Other universes are other sets of description points, abstractions which need no physical separation. Hyperspace and paratime don't exist; they are invalid extrapolations of the familiar onto the unknowable.

If they're right, nothing can exist between the universes, because there is no "between". Even if they're wrong, matter and energy can only exist within a universe; in the skin of the balloon, on the wavefront of the explosion, or in the properties of the description points. If you somehow extract matter and energy from a universe, there's nothing to sustain them for even a moment (whatever "moment" means outside of time). Provide a framework to sustain them, and you're not "between" universes; you've just created a very small one of your own.

Yet Lara and her siblings "floated" outside the universe, as an astronaut "floats" in zero gravity, and looked at the universe. Everything I wrote above is true, yet this is true as well. Perhaps they only imagined they were there. Perhaps their bodies remained in the artificial world, under the actinic light of the cosmic discontinuity, and projected their minds. Perhaps. But the Verē were more than human beings; we Inside human beings are faithful copies of them, but simplified. Their science included a science of telekinesis, telepathy, and clairvoyance, which are nonsense words in our dream worlds. In the generation before, the Verē had learned to travel to other universes by that science. Now Lara and the rest floated outside the universe; and who are we to gainsay them?

Picture them, if you like, as sixteen blue-skinned humanoids floating around a balloon universe; that's probably the easiest to envision. How big a universe? Picture an apple, a beach ball, or one of those huge balls that teams of people rolled around in the Sixties. It doesn't matter. Space exists only inside a universe, and size is irrelevant to the direct perception they were using in place of sight, there being no light between universes either.

As they contemplated their universe, Koriu, one of the females, cried out suddenly. "Look!" she said telepathically, and pointed: there, and there, and there.

If the universe was an apple, there were spots of rot on its skin.

Chapter 4
Lots of Questions, Some Answers

The Second History,
during the reign of the fourth Êstâz

Saru laughed. "So you beat the good doctor with his own numbers!" he said. "Well done, My Lady! Very well done!"

"Thank you, sir," said Cornet Haθa. She reflected that only a month ago she would have been annoyed at him for speaking to her as if he outranked her. The acting-Legate role suited him very well, she thought.

The two of them sat their mounts on a low bluff, watching the unit splash through another of the numerous streams across its path. Upstream of the churning feet the water was blue and pure; downstream it was dirty with the river bottom kicked up by řobē hooves.

Others were watching the circus. One of the T́ulańē scouts stood on the far side of the column, arms folded over his bare chest. The western wind blew his long black hair out in front of him, occasionally obscuring his impassive face; but Deni thought she detected amusement in his obsidian eyes. His pants, his belt with a pouch upon it, the band around his temples that kept the hair out of his eyes, were all soft leather, decorated with beads and cibē quills; they were all he wore. The bare feet, hidden now in the tall grass, has seen uncounted miles of use. While the column proceeded directly south towards a point on Master Ĵetao's map, the three T́ulańē ranged far outside the unit's line of travel, looking for enemies and bringing down game, reporting in the evening and whenever else they thought best, and then sleeping at night far from the camp. It was said they ran their prey down. Scholars might doubt that, but the army didn't. A man on a řobē could outrace a T́ulańē in the short term, but the T́ulańē would keep on coming; the řobē would tire, but the T́ulańē would not.

"What's that?" said Saru.

Deni looked where the other cornet was pointing. The stream flowed from east to west below the bluff where they sat their mounts; beyond it to the southwest was another weathered bluff breaking up the monotony of the endless grass, with a few bushes on top, seeded by the wind.

"I don't see anything," the baron's daughter said.

"Keep watching," Saru said tensely. "I thought I saw something move against the wind—Ea!"

Three human figures broke from cover, leading skinny grey řobē. The strangers were tall and thin, with long feathery tendrils flying well free of their shoulder-length brown hair as they hastened. They were dressed in trousers and long-sleeved shirts of rawhide, and they carried heavy bows on their backs. As soon as they were in the open, they swung up onto their mounts, drummed their heels into the animals' rib cages, and shot off to the south. They had no saddles, only blankets between them and their steeds; no shields, no spears, no swords or clubs.

"Contact!" Saru exulted. "There are people down here!"

"People in a hurry," Cornet Haθa said; the tilt of her eyebrows and the curve of her tendrils both spoke of her puzzlement. "Why did they reveal themselves that way?"

No sooner had she asked than she had her answer. The tall grass parted again, and another of the expedition's T́ulańē scouts stood there, gazing after the strangers thundering away. Though they were armed with bows and mounted, and he was not, the face framed by the long, flowing black hair was not, for once, impassive. Instead it was full of the same hunger a cat shows when the birds it was stalking flutter away.

Camp was always made exactly the same way, but now it assumed a reborn importance. The leaders of the squads pulling sentry duty inspected their men more often than before, and made sure they knew they were being watched. Hunters were given the word as they came in, as was Master Ĵetao, who whistled at the news. The camp buzzed with more talk than usual.

"My Lady, Doctor, I give you the natives!" Saru said at dinner, raising his glass in a toast. "The natives!" they answered him, and took thoughtful sips.

"I'm not sure why this news gladdens you so," the Master said. "For me it's a whole new culture, a whole new set of adaptations to life after the Fall, a whole new language descended from the one spoken before. But what is it to you, besides a chance of dying with an arrow in the gut?"

"Opportunity, my friend," the cornet said. "Sweet, golden opportunity." He took a deep gulp of his drink, then set it down on the camp table.

"For look you," he said, leaning forward earnestly, "there was never a question of the Kingdom not exploring these southern lands, only of when. We have to know what's down here. If there's a kingdom like our own, any kind of power, we must meet it and treat with it, make it an ally if we can, learn its strength and weaknesses and guard ourselves from it if we can't."

"Haven't we had enough war for a generation or two?" Juho said.

"I'm not looking for a war," Saru said. "But if there's any danger to the Kingdom in these unknown reaches, I want to find it and identify it, so we're not caught by surprise."

"Hear, hear," Cornet Haθa said.

"Look at what happened in Loraon," Saru said. "There was a situation we thought we knew, a culture we thought we understood, that we approached with only the best intentions—and it blew up in our faces!"

"A point," Master Ĵetao admitted. "A most definite point." He looked into his cup; the wine was the color of blood. He grimaced, and put it down.

"Closer to home," Saru said, "armed natives mean that the army will be needed to safeguard the Kingdom's interests in the south. Even if they never fire a single arrow at us, just by being there those people ensure that this unit will be kept as a banner and brought up to strength, rather than broken into platoons. I can get rid of my bad apples, get Paran his banneret's chevrons, make my best corporals platoon sergeants, and get more cornets for the platoons and the staff."

"And your legate's bar, too," Deni said. Saru waved a dismissive hand.

"My, my," said the doctor. "All that from three natives riding hard as they could the other way. Imagine the opportunities if they'd attacked!"

They laughed. Then Cornet Haθa said, "The thing I don't understand is why they ran away so fast."

"What do you mean?" Saru said, frowning.

"I mean that we found řobē droppings where they'd been concealed, that indicated they'd been there for a few hours. Why did they spring from hiding like that? If they'd stayed put until we went past, we might not have known they were there at all."

"But one of the T́ulańē was onto them," Saru said, astonished.

"One unarmed stranger on foot," Deni said. "Why didn't they try to fight him? Three to one, why didn't they ambush him and stay hidden from us?"

"A lot of good three-to-one odds would have done them!" Saru said. "As for being unarmed, T́ulańē always arm themselves from their enemies. Everyone knows this."

"No, she's right," Juho said. "You know how dangerous a T́ulańē is; Cornet Haθa knows; I do. But how did they know? Except for serving the Êstâz, the T́ulańē live on a mountain top in Elarâń. So why did the southerners run from him?"

"Maybe they were playing it safe?" Saru suggested. "There was one T́ulańē; maybe there were more? Keeping your distance is just sensible when your only weapon is a bow."

"Did they look like they were playing it safe?" Deni said. "It didn't look like caution to me; it looked like headlong flight!"

"And that's another thing," Master Ĵetao said.

"What is, Doctor?" said his Girē friend.

"The T́ulańē come and go as they please from camp, and the sentries never see them. So how did these southlanders know one was after them?"

"Ehiu!" said Saru.

"That's another very good point," said Cornet Haθa.

Every eight days or so, if the acting legate was satisfied with their progress, the banner stayed put for a day, nominally of rest.

Of course, there still had to be sentries on duty at every moment; the mounts had to be fed and watered; hunters had to bring in game, and meals had to be prepared and eaten. A so-called rest day was an opportunity for tack to be inspected, and repaired if necessary, for uniforms to be washed, rifles cleaned, flints replaced, boots resewn, tent-ropes spliced, all manner of chores hard to fit in between stopping for the day and the fall of night. Mainly it meant a day without riding, a day where the camp didn't have to be broken down in the morning and set up at night. Rest from the saddle and the shovel, then, and maybe a little extra sleep.

Midmorning the day after the southerners were seen, Saru was in his tent, albeit with the sides rolled all the way up, working in his journal. A little distance away, Cornet Haθa also had her tent open to the light and the air, going over unit paperwork. Master Ĵetao had some plant samples spread out on a white cloth between the two, pointing out items of particular interest to Private Korva as he dissected them. A light breeze gently urged white clouds westward through the green sky, and the hum of the camp was peaceful.

"Get your fucking hands OFF me!"

Everyone in the central square of the camp looked up as Sergeant Paran came in from the east road, propelling Private Kraho ahead of him with one big hand on the smaller man's tunic neck, the other holding his left hand twisted up behind his back. Behind the two of them came Corporal Stâzo, all three of the T́ulańē scouts, and a crowd of idlers, both soldiers and civilians.

"Let me go!" Kraho screamed in his high, whiny voice. "You got no call to treat me like this!"

"Move, damn you," said the normally unflappable sergeant, red in the face. He twisted Kraho's arm up until the rat-faced little man gasped and came up on his toes. Some of the idlers gave a cheer.

"What is the meaning of this?" Saru said. He raised his voice just enough to be heard over the noise, which stopped instantly. Sergeant Paran eased up on Private Kraho, without letting go of him, and came to attention.

"Sir! Sergeant Paran Anĝarat begs leave to refer a disciplinary problem to Command!"

Only the wind spoke as Saru put down his journal, put a weight on the half-wet pages to keep them from blowing shut and smearing, capped his ink horn, and tossed the quill he'd been using onto the table. Cornet Haθa did the same, and came over as Saru stood and addressed Paran.

"What is this, sergeant?" the cornet said. His gaze flicked over Private Kraho, sadist and rumored rapist, and noted the empty knife scabbard on his belt. Flicked over Paran and saw the swelling around one eye, not yet black and blue. Flicked over the three T́ulańē, and saw the knife wound in the youngest one's side, bleeding slowly down the bare torso just above the waist.

"Can't you handle discipline in your platoon without calling on higher authority?" he said mildly.

"Sir, the prisoner insists on being heard by you," Sergeant Paran said stiffly.

"That's right!" Private Kraho said. "No damned dirty Cundai ape is going to manhandle me and get away with it! I want to be heard by a Râńē!"

"Silence!" said Saru. "Who gave you leave to speak, you—!" He stopped, and took a deep breath.

"Sergeant Paran," he said, "when the prisoner 'insisted' on being heard by Command, why didn't you just tell him no?"

"Sir, I would have—but the prisoner assaulted one of the T́ulańē."

"I see," said Saru.

The T́ulańē had been recruited by the first Êstâz himself, and served him and his successors as personal bodyguards. Any other duties they assumed were at their assent on each and every occasion; they weren't part of the army.

Furthermore Mount Kalama, on top of which they lived, was in the Kingdom but not formally part of it. The Duke of T́ebai, whose lands surrounded the mountain, didn't go there, and gave no orders to any T́ulańē. No Râńē went to Kalama unless invited by the T́ulańē; and no Râńē was welcome, except (perhaps) the Êstâz himself.

"I didn't assault him!" Trooper Kraho said. "It was self defense!" Then he whined as Sergeant Paran lifted him onto his toes with a wrench of his arm so savage that Cornet Haθa wondered that the arm didn't come off. Doctor Ĵetao, almost done putting his specimens and tools away, winced at the audible crack the private's shoulder joint made.

Saru said, "If you speak again without leave, you will be beaten. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," said the white-faced prisoner.

"Very good," the cornet said, and addressed the most senior of the three T́ulańē. "My lord Herâk, what happened?"

Seeing the three scouts together, Deni could tell which was which by the small differences between them. Herâk was tall, fit and muscular without being too muscular, likewise neither young nor old, fat nor skinny; a perfect example of the T́ulańē, with exactly the same clothing as any other (barring the individual patterns of the ornamental quills sewn on), and exactly the same possessions, namely almost nothing. Surâk, the second scout, could be distinguished by being slightly shorter, slightly more heavily muscled, slightly less fine-featured; but it was only a bit. The wounded one, Pâka, was younger than the other two and notably more slender, even when not standing beside them as he was now.

Meanwhile Master Ĵetao was wondering, not for the first time, what the scouts' real names were. The T́ulańē kept large zones of privacy around their culture that frustrated scientists. Nothing at all was known of how they lived at home on their mountain. Very little was known of the language they spoke, so unlike the other languages of Kantos, that all had a common ancestor. To strangers they wouldn't give their real names, only adopted names of stars; the leader of any group of T́ulańē was always "Herâk".

This Herâk had a lot of experience with Êstâz's kingdom, Saru thought. Kingdom protocol required that a T́ulańē be addressed as "my lord", the same as the ambassador of a foreign power; but he'd never seen the usage fail to cause at least a small smile.

Without a smile, Herâk said now, gesturing at Private Kraho, "He mocks us, and we ignore him. He mocks our ways, and we ignore him. He stabs my son, and we do not ignore him; but the big man, Paran, says we must not kill him."

"Your son?" the doctor said, standing beside the two cornets now. "Oh—sorry," he said to Saru.

Herâk shrugged the question aside. "They follow me, so they are my sons," he said.

"How badly are you hurt, my lord?" Saru asked the wounded scout. "Would you like the doctor to look at your injury?"

Herâk looked at the expression on the doctor's face. "Taq. Samik maq rumok," he said.

Now Pâka shrugged. "Itaq," he said to Saru.

"Meaning 'It's nothing' or 'Never mind'," Ĵetao said resignedly. "The next time a T́ulańē lets a doctor treat him will be the very first."

"Report, sergeant," Saru said.

"Sir!" said Paran. "Making rounds of the camp I became aware of a crowd of troopers and civilians behaving in a disorderly fashion near the mounts in First Platoon's area."

"What kind of disorderly fashion, Sergeant Paran?" Cornet Haθa asked, with a glance at Saru's stony face.

"Sir, they were pushing and shoving at each other to get a better look at something in the middle of the crowd, and yelling."

"All right. Go on," she said.

"Sir!" said Paran. "I yelled for them to break it up, and pushed my way to the center of the crowd. There I found scout Pâka bleeding from a knife wound in the side; the knife was on the ground. Scout Surâk was holding Private Kraho in the air, with his hands around the trooper's throat, and talking to scout Herâk in their own language."

"Where is the knife now?" Saru asked.

"Sir, scout Herâk picked it up, broke it in two with his hands, and threw the pieces down again. Pursuant to standing orders forbidding the collecting of weapons that T́ulańē have captured from an enemy, and then discarded, I left it where it fell. It was a standard army-issue general-purpose knife, it had fresh blood on it, and Trooper Krahos' knife-sheath is empty."

"Was it your knife, Trooper Kraho?" Saru asked.

"Sir! Trooper Kraho Môdinao, Fourth Squad, First Platoon, sir!" Kraho said, standing in a shambling parody of attention.

When he said nothing more, Saru sighed. His full name, and the unit he was serving in, was all a trooper was supposed to say if captured by an enemy in time of war. But how the crazed little weasel in front of him thought that applied here was beyond the cornet. He tried again:

"If it wasn't your knife, can you tell me where your knife is now?"

"Sir! Trooper Kraho Môdinao, Fourth Squad, First Platoon, sir!"

"You do know that refusing to answer a superior's questions is an offense all by itself, don't you?" Saru said.

"Sir! Trooper Kraho Môdinao, Fourth Squad, First Platoon, sir!"

"Very well," said Saru. "Be silent again until you have leave to speak. Go on, Sergeant Paran. What happened next?"

"I told scout Surâk that if he went on strangling the trooper like that, he would kill him. The scout replied that such was his intention. I stated that it would be bad manners to do so without at least informing you first, Surâk and Herâk spoke back and forth, and Surâk dropped Private Kraho. I helped the trooper up."

"Is that when you got the shiner, sergeant?" Cornet Haθa asked. She sounded amused. Maybe she didn't realize how serious the situation was, or just thought it was funny that the skinny little snake could hang one on the big Cundē.

The sergeant touched the puffy area around one eye carefully. "The trooper started throwing punches as he came to. I don't believe an intentional blow was struck."

"No point worrying about the little things," Saru agreed. "How is it, My Lord Herâk, that the trooper was able to stab scout Pâka? What miracle let this happen?"

"Pâka is young and foolish," Herâk said. "He raised a fist to the snake, the snake backed off, Pâka turned his back. Then the snake drew his knife and stabbed him."

"You saw this yourself, My Lord?"

"I saw it."

"Self-defense?" Saru said to the prisoner.

"Sir! Trooper Kraho—"

"Shut up. My Lord Herâk, what would you?"

"I would kill him. But he is your son, so you may kill him."

There was outright laughter from some of the crowd at the thought of the sadist from northern Elarâń being the Girē cornet's son. His gaze fell on those parties like ice water.

"Thank you, My Lord. I would rather not kill him here and now. It's our custom to have a trial before proper judges, with a proper sentence and a proper execution. All of Êstâz's army needs to be reminded what happens if they attack your people, and aren't killed outright."

"You will let him live?"

"Until we get home, and then he will be judged."

"And if he escapes?"

"If he escapes, there are giant weasels, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and the people who live in these parts. I doubt he would get far."

"No," said Herâk, waving a hand. "I mean: if he escapes, we will find him. Do you want the head?"

The prisoner whimpered. Looking at him, Saru said, "If he escapes, and you find him, I wouldn't need any part of him. Thank you for asking, My Lord."

The prisoner fainted.

The tubae called Assembly, and Full Kit, and Now now now, over and over. Sergeants and corporals were frozen in shock for an instant, then began kicking and cursing the men into action to make up for it. Full Kit meant that a lot of stuff that would ordinarily be carried by spare mounts was stuffed into packs and went on troopers' backs. As if they were abandoning mounts, every other tent, and everything not absolutely necessary, the troops shrugged on the heavy packs, slung on their ammunition belts, picked up their rifles, and ran down the camp roads to the command square. The whole process, from first surprise to last man in formation, took twenty minutes.

"Pathetic," said Saru. He raised his voice so the whole unit could hear.

"Pathetic!" he cried. "I am deeply ashamed. Is this what you learned in Loraon? Your comrades are dying to keep the enemy off your necks, and it takes you twenty minutes to get your shit together? Twenty minutes, while the Cundē are sucking your blood? Twenty minutes, while the Southerners in these parts are filling your worthless carcasses with arrows? Pathetic! Sergeant Paran!"

"Sir!"

"Send them back to whatever they were doing and have them put their gear away, while I figure out where I can get some real troopers."

"Sir!"

So the sergeants and the corporals took them back to their areas—Run, troop, nobody gave you leave to walk!—had them unpack their bags and put it all away in its normal place, and gave their men a heartfelt ass-chewing of their own.

And then the tubae sounded again.

The fourth time, when Saru said, "How long was that, Doctor?", Master Ĵetao looked at his fine pocket chronometer and said, "Seven minutes." He and Cornet Haθa looked at Saru to see what his response would be.

"Thank you for your help, Doctor," the cornet said. For a moment there was silence, as he looked over the red-faced, sweaty troopers before him. Then he looked at the sun.

"You've wasted so much time I've almost forgotten why I called you together," he told them. His tone was conversational, but every man heard him clearly; Saru had been a banneret.

"There was a scuffle today, and a knife was drawn," he said. "No one reported it, no one stopped it; the men present crowded around and watched, and cheered."

"I think you need a reminder of the discipline expected in this camp," Saru told them. "So we're going to run until I think you've gotten the point." He turned and spoke to Sergeant Paran. "Move them out, Banneret."

"Yes, sir!" said acting-banneret Paran. "Thank you, sir!" he said, at the implied permission to maneuver the unit as a banner, instead of pretending it was a giant platoon. He saluted Saru, and Saru returned it. Then Paran turned to the troops.

"Banner!" he bellowed. The sergeants addressed their own units ("Platoon!") and the corporals theirs ("Squad!").

"On the left flank," (the troops were facing north) "by unit, March!"

First squad, first platoon was out the west gate by the time fourth squad, third platoon was in motion. As the last squad cleared the gate, Cornet Haθa saw the front of the column turn sharply to the left at Saru's command. As the last squad turned left on the same spot, the head of the column began to run in step.

They ran for a long, long time. They ran until the weakest runners, ex-sailors to a man, were all but falling headlong under the weight of pack and rifle and ammo. Their squadmates took their arms and practically carried them, and the sergeants said nothing. They ran until every one of them was pouring with sweat, and every one of them hit the wall of exhaustion, including the sergeants, and the Girē plainsman who was their legate. They ran the Daystar out of the sky; and not until they got their second winds, from hardiest to least hardy, did Saru shape their course back to camp, guiding on the stars.

The people left in camp—the doctor, the sentries, the cooks, the mount tenders, the civilians—heard them coming back long before they could see them.

Êstâz's men are looking proud,
Sing it well and sing it loud!

Cornet Haθa, left in charge of the camp, stood at the west gate to meet them. The T́ulańē, normally nowhere to be seen after sundown, waited there too.

Êstâz's men are looking good,
Looking like a banner should!

"WHO ARE YOU?" Sergeant Paran called at the top of his lungs, as the runners came in sight.

"Râńē!" they shouted, to a man; even the ones, like the acting-banneret himself, who hadn't been born in Elarâń.

"WHO ARE YOU?"

"Tlâńorē!"

"WHO ARE YOU?"

"The Kingdom! The Kingdom! The Kingdom!"

"BANNER!" ("Platoon!" "Squad!")

"HALT!"

Leaving the banner where it stood, Saru took a few steps to the gate. Deni saluted, and he returned it. "Welcome back, sir."

"Thank you."

"I'm jealous that I had to stay here while you took the banner for a stroll."

His grin was white in the light of the torches on the gate. "Next time, cornet."

"I'll hold you to that, sir!"

Saru laughed, and turned back to the men. He raised his voice. "Well done, soldiers! Banneret Paran!"

"Sir!"

"Dismiss these troopers to their suppers! They've earned them, by the Powergiver!"

"Sir! Thank you, sir!" Paran turned to the men. "A cheer for the Legate!"

"YOWWWLLLLL!" the men cried, imitating the falsetto hunting-shriek of an orkē.

"Banner!" ("Platoon!" "Squad!")

"Dismissed!"

"They actually cheered him for putting them through that?" Doctor Ĵetao said to Deni.

"He carried the same load they did, and ran the same miles they did," the baron's daughter explained. "If he hadn't, that would have been another matter—but he did. You can't waste energy on resentment, and still keep up on an exercise like that. Around the time you get your second wind, pride of achievement washes everything else away."

"I see," said the doctor. "So you weren't joking when you said you wanted to lead it, next time."

"Absolutely not," said Cornet Haθa. "And he'd better keep his promise, too!"

The First History,
not long before the end

"What are we looking at?" Lara said.

"Something new. Something completely unexpected," said Zîvu, one of the neuters.

"Meaning?"

"In classical theory," y said, "there are no connections between description points except information. A description point may have zero to many descendants at each state change, and zero to many immediate ancestors, but there are no connections between the points of a given moment except information. The transfer of information between points is what we perceive as the motion of matter and energy."

"So what are we looking at?" Lara repeated.

"They look like weak spots," Zîvu said, "where the 'fabric' of the universe, the 'connection' between points of space and time, has been 'weakened' or 'drained'. Only there are no 'connections' and no 'fabric'. Fascinating!"

"Perhaps they're areas where the entropy gradient has been accelerated," suggested Pašo, another neuter. "That wouldn't require any 'fabric' or 'connections'."

"No, look," said Zîvu. "You can see that entropy is proceeding in these areas at the same rate as elsewhere."

"All right, not an acceleration of the rate of change, but a reduction of the value to what it wouldn't normally have until later. The gradient is unchanged, but the value of entropy has been altered."

"Yes, that would—"

"What are we looking at?" Lara demanded, louder than before.

The two neuters stopped and looked at her. Zîvu said, tentatively, "It appears something has sucked energy out of the universe."

"You mean like we do when we absorb energy to live?" asked Dâka, a male. "What's so special about that?"

"And why aren't these spots all over the place, wherever some race taps stellar energy?" asked Kristu, a female.

"No, no," said Zîvu. "I put it badly. Absorbing energy just makes the immediate area colder. The local value for mass/energy is decreased, and the mass/energy value of the absorbing location is increased. This is…" He groped for words.

"Absorbing energy makes the area colder," said Pašo. "These are regions that've been made older."

"Is that dangerous?" said Lara. "Should we be concerned?"

"I don't know," Zîvu said.

"Well, is it permanent? Or will these spots gradually go away?"

"I don't know that, either," said Zîvu. "We'd have to watch them, and see whether they change relative to the rest of the universe."

"We might not know for some time, if they changed slowly enough," Pašo said.

"Slowly…" said Zîvu. "I wonder…"

"What?" said Lara.

"The creatures that killed all the People came from a universe where entropy has a very different value than it does in ours, and a very different rate of change. To exist in our universe as anything but statues, they must have increased their own entropy values and rates to those of our universe. The spots might be places where one of them, or a group of them, absorbed entropy as they came into our universe."

"So big?" Vîd́a said dubiously.

"On the other hand," Pašo said thoughtfully, "we don't know how they came from their universe to ours. What if they actually need to match information points of the two realms so that they can move in an ordinary way, instead of going out of one universe and then into the other?"

"What?" said Lara. "Speak plainly."

"They may not be able to travel among universes the way we do," y said. "They might have to make the two universes 'touch', so they can walk across. We might be seeing the spots where the other universe sucked entropy from ours, hence their size."

"We need to figure this out for sure," Lara said. "This might be a danger to the whole universe, and everything and everyone in it."

"Do we care?" Koriu said bitterly.

"Maybe not," Lara said to the other woman. "But first we learn what's what, and then we decide what we want to do about it."

Chapter 5
Finding Κtûn

The Second History,
during the reign of the fourth Êstâz

The expedition traveled south for another month without incident. The banner caught glimpses of the natives, always mounted and armed with bows, and knew that word of their passage must be spreading through the south, though they had no way of knowing yet how the southerners lived, or in what tribes or nations. The distance the natives kept gave some idea of how far their bows could shoot, assuming they kept just outside the range of their own weapons, and assuming they believed the northerners' rifles had the same range as their bows.

If they thought they were out of rifle range, they were mistaken. But Saru's mission wasn't to start a war, and he knew that the natives might be keeping at a distance that was actually inside the reach of their bows, either to fool him into misjudging that range, or to show defiance or contempt for his force. The banner held its fire, as long as the southerners didn't edge nearer and nearer, or attack.

As they left the equator farther behind them, they encountered rain more often. None of the brief showers did more than inconvenience them. But the rain, and the frequent streams they splashed through, hastened the wear on the pair of uniforms each trooper had. Patches began to appear, and were approved as long as they were square and neatly sewn. Before they got back to civilization they'd all be wearing buckskin, no doubt.

A white bump on the southern horizon resolved into a snow-tipped mountain, the peak and northern edge of a small range curving away east and south. Juho smiled when he saw it. "That's the center of Κtûn's orbit," he told Corporal Dasa. Now that the southerners were shadowing the banner, the doctor no longer rode out with only a pair of troopers, one little more than an idiot. A squad of riflemen escorted him now, usually Dasa's first squad, second platoon, since privates Korva and Suko were in it.

Corporal Dasa was a fair-haired trooper from Mena, with feathery eyebrows and almost colorless eyes. He didn't mind escort duty, but neither was he a budding naturalist like Korva. He spared the mountain a glance, then the southern horizon a quick scan, before returning his attention to making sure his squad stayed alert and kept watch. "So?" he said. "Where's the city, then?"

"It flew in a circle a hundred miles across, centered on that peak," the doctor said. "The nearest point on that circle would be just in sight now, if the ground were flat here. But, as you may have noticed, these southern lands tend to be furrowed west to east by rivers, with swells between the valleys. Things can be invisible until you're right on top of them."

"A hundred miles across?" the corporal said. "And we have to search the whole route? How big is that, sir?"

"The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is 3.1416," Master Ĵetao said. "A circle a hundred miles across is just over 314 miles around."

"314 miles!" said Dasa, staring.

"And the area inside the circle is 7,854 square miles," the master said.

"But, sir!" said Corporal Dasa. "We can't possibly search all that!"

"I know," Juho said, laughing. "Fortunately, we don't have to. The cities wanted to be found, if they couldn't make it to Elarâń. Each of them made an emergency plan, and every city had copies of them all. I got a copy of Κtûn's from the Library at Anθorâń. It said, (1) go straight to the north face of Mount Hârob, and (2) proceed directly to Sitašai, for as far as you can fly safely."

"So that's Mount Hârob?" the corporal said.

"According to our map," Juho said. "I won't trouble you with the geometry, but Κtûn's planning means that if the city could fly even 50 miles after the pole star vanished, it will be on a line between Sitašai and that mountain. Every mile closer to the mountain we get, the fewer the places the city could have started from, and the smaller the distance it was able to travel before it landed or fell."

"If we reach the northernmost point of the orbit without finding the city, it travelled less than 110 miles. If we get all the way to Mount Hârob and haven't seen the city, it travelled less than 50 miles, and started from the southern half of the orbit."

"So then we'd only have to search half the area?" Dasa said. "It's still too much."

"No, no," said Juho. "They thought of that. The rest of Κtûn's plan said, (3) if you can't go 50 miles, land in the best spot you can safely reach, and (4) put a sign at the mountain saying where you are."

"So we go to the mountain, and if we don't find the city on the way, we'll find directions to it," the corporal said.

"Which will be within a hundred miles, even if they went fifty miles the wrong way before coming down," Juho agreed.

"I just hope they were able to follow the plan," Dasa said. "If there's no sign, some later expedition may have to find them."

"My own worry," said the doctor, "is that they might not have anticipated how long it would be before anyone came looking. Wind, rain, or rockslide might have ruined what they left."

The next morning turned bright and fresh after a brief dawn sprinkle. The men got up, washed themselves, ate, and packed things away in anticipation of the order to break camp. Mount handlers traded off, and the new handlers fed and watered their charges, combed and brushed them, checked hooves and tack. The civilians slept late, had a little whiskey to try to settle the hangover from the night before, played cards, or read, according to their inclinations.

Assembly and Full Kit cried the tubae, instead of Break Camp. No one needed to say "hurry!" The cursing troopers dumped their kit and threw it back together for a bugout; then did the same for their mates who were breaking down half the tents and squad gear, leaving the rest in place. Then everyone shrugged into the packs, grabbed rifles and ammo, and ran to the square.

The only common soldier who didn't hurry was Sergeant Seidu. He'd happened to overhear enough of what was said between Saru and Paran, Saru and Deni, and Deni and Juho to guess what was coming. He didn't pass a quiet word to his squad so they could prepare in advance and look good, as, say, Corporal Stâzo of First Platoon, Fourth Squad would have done. Nor did he get his own gear ready in secret and then stand ready to help out his squad, as Corporal Dane of Third Platoon, First Squad would have done. Instead he stood by his pack, holding his rifle, and watched his squad struggle. Then, with the scornful smile they hated so much, he put on his pack and strolled along behind his men as they ran to the assembly.

Cornet Saru and Sergeant Paran watched him saunter into place, long moments after his red-faced men had fallen in. He wasn't the last person to arrive, but he was the only one who wasn't sweating. The acting legate and acting banneret exchanged glances that agreed totally in their assessment of Seidu's style of "leadership."

"Six and one-half minutes," Master Ĵetao announced.

"On the first call?" Saru said. "Now that's more like it! Cornet Haθa!"

"Sir!" she said, coming to attention and saluting.

"Don't be too hard on them," Saru said, returning the salute.

"Sir, no promises."

"You break them, you bought them," he said in an Eokantos shopkeeper's singsong.

Her mouth twitched, but she said only, "I'll bear that in mind, sir," before executing a perfect about-face.

"Back to yesterday's camp, Banneret Paran," she said.

"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir," said Paran, and "Banner!"

("Platoon!")

("Squad!")

"Left face, march!"

Out the east gate of the camp she led them, then they turned left and headed north. Behind them, the cooks finished their cleanup, the sentries of the day stood their watch, and the mount-handlers tended the banner's riding animals, happy that it wasn't a real bugout. If the emergency had been real, everything still in the camp would have been abandoned, down to the cookpots and the mounts; the troopers in camp, and Saru and Juho, would have left with the others; and the civilians would've had to pack and catch up as best they could, or seize the mounts and flee in another direction if that seemed wisest to them.

"This is crazy!" snarled acting-corporal Rama. "Does she really expect us to march all day in the wrong direction? To cover the 60 miles we rode yesterday, on foot?"

"Quiet in the ranks, Rama!" snapped Sergeant Paran. "Better yet, shut up entirely!"

Sergeant Rama glared at the acting banneret, but didn't reply. Once the moving column had passed out of Paran's hearing, however, the ranking survivor of Eagle Banner began muttering to himself. "Uppity Cundē piece of shit… kill the fucking bloodsucker," Trooper Bore heard. The ex-sailor raised an eyebrow at Trooper Muho beside him; just saying such things in the navy would've gotten Rama flogged. Muho, who was Orkē Banner from recruitment, just shrugged.

On the banner marched, shadowed by curious southerners on their wiry řobēθ. Êstâz's army was neither wholly infantry nor wholly cavalry. Every man had to be able to ride and march all day. They fought on foot as often as mounted, even now when sword and shield and armor had been replaced by Anθorâńai rifles. When they stripped to bare necessities, the riding beasts were set free to look after themselves.

After four hours Cornet Haθa halted them and let them fall out for a half-hour break. They sat down, ate from their packs, and drank from their canteens. The more experienced troops ate and drank only a little, suspecting that a hard run was coming next.

But the cornet took Saru's advice to go easy on them. What came next was an hour of drill: march and countermarch, flank and echelon, forming squares and then returning to column. At the end of that, they fell in by squad and platoon, facing east and at attention.

"So far, so good," Cornet Haθa told the troops. "But supper is 20 miles that way," she said, pointing to her left, which was south. "Can we get there before the cooks throw it out?"

"YOWLLL," said the men.

"What?" said Deni. "Did I hear a cub mewl? I said, can we make it?"

"YOWWWLLL!" they said.

"Yowwwlll!" she howled back at them. "All right, boys—let's go!"

"Bitch bitch bitch," cursed Corporal Jani, formerly of Eagle Banner, as the column executed a right turn, and began to run. "Bitch bitch fucking slut—OW!" he said, putting his left hand, the one not holding his rifle strap, to the back of his head.

"Next time it'll be the butt of my rifle, not my hand," Sergeant Paran said. "Keep your ugly mouth shut, Jani!"

In the late afternoon the sentries saw the banner running towards camp, covered with sweat but breathing evenly, accompanied by the scouts. The T́ulańē had joined the banner almost as soon as it started back; a 20-mile run was an everyday thing to them, about as noteworthy as a farmer's wife walking out to the barn to collect eggs, or a city wife walking to the market. Herâk ran on the left side of the column, Surâk on the right, while Pâka, his knife wound of a month ago healed to a scar, was running circles around the whole formation.

Saru walked up to the north gate before the sentries could send him a message, and watched the column coming. The sky was bright and clear, and flocks of birds flew in all directions: some sailing without effort down the merry breeze, some flapping strongly against it. Split-tailed lapwings darted this way and that after incautious insects exposed by gusts of wind, and a hawk swooped out of the sky onto some small prey: too far away to hear its squeak, or to guess whether it got away.

Cornet Haθa draw a deep breath. The wind was full of the smell of southern grasses and southern flowers, a myriad of scents unknown to her. Juho could probably identify some, and make a guess at the others, she thought, and smiled tenderly.

As if the thought had summoned him, Master Ĵetao walked up beside Saru just as that moment. In contrast to the dark blue tunic over grey shirt over white robe of the banner's uniforms, Juho was today in a puce tunic over a white shirt over a light yellow robe. The braid around the neck, sleeves, and hem of the tunic was an undulating vine with leaves alternating on one side, then the other, embroidered in white. Another band of the same braid encircled the high crown of his straw hat, and a sprig of southern prairie grass was jammed between hat and hat band. He nodded to Saru, who smiled a welcome.

Seeing the doctor in his robes and tall hat, Deni felt her heart lurch. Why, I do love him, she marvelled, and suddenly felt like singing. She broke into the cadence being called by the sergeants:

Now come and be glad, boys,
Why glum now, my bad boys?
The hawk and the swift's a-wing,
So lift up your hearts and sing!

No one was sure how to answer her improvised verse. Singing and playing various small portable instruments was a popular entertainment in the evenings, but her song wasn't a part of the marching repertoire, and even the tune was new to them. But Trooper Voimo of Second Platoon, Second Squad was moved to protest, "Hey, I can sing!" on a rising note.

"No you can't!" said his tent mates in unison.

"Well, I can—", "I can—", "I can—", and "I can!" sang the troopers of Third Platoon, Third Squad, who often harmonized together. "And so can I," added acting-corporal Pâta in his deep, deep voice.

Cornet Haθa laughed. So did Trooper Heki, who was a fine tenor:

Well, he can, and he can,
—he sang to Deni, pointing to Pâta and to Gama, one of the others in his squad,
And they can, and you can,
—indicating the harmony group,
But nobody else can sing,
—he sang,
No, nobody else can sing!

Cornet Haθa laughed again, and replied:

That's sad, boys, too bad, boys,
But try and be glad boys,
The lark and the dove's a-wing,
Even if you poor lads can't sing!

Master Ĵetao looked at all the shining faces as the column came to a halt before the gate. "Great, now they'll all be in love with her," he muttered.

"You poor fool," Saru said to his friend. Juho started, then flushed; he hadn't realized he'd spoken out loud.

"Didn't you know they already were?" the cornet said softly, before walking forward to return Cornet Haθa's salute.

The First History,
not long before the end

Sixteen experimental creatures gathered outside the universe, where no one and nothing could interrupt them. All were ten feet tall, blue-skinned, with three fingers and a thumb on each hand, three large toes and a spiked heel on each foot. There were five neuters, in floor-length robes with big flaring sleeves, hairless not only on their heads but everywhere on their bodies: Culi, Zîvu, Ťora, Sisu, and Pašo. There were six females, in dresses that fell below their knees, and long straight hair: Lara and Mera, Koriu and Lańa, Kristu and Susa. The other five were males, with short hair, wearing short pleated kilts and collared, sleeveless shirts: Vîd́a, Êstâz, Ĵuha, Persu, and Dâka.

Lara looked at her siblings, her people; and they looked back at her. All of Verē history, all of human history, led to this point, this moment waiting for them to speak. The universe hung below them like a planet seen from polar orbit, the spots they'd discovered a month before like islands on an ocean world.

"All right," Lara said. "First we make sure we all understand our choices, then we'll decide what to do."

"I thought we'd already decided," said Persu.

"I think we're mostly in agreement," Lara said. "But let's make sure everyone understands and agrees."

"After all," Pašo said softly, "we've all the time there is." Y looked at the spots on the "skin" of the universe, and others, following ys gaze, nodded one by one.

"So what's the verdict on our 'spots'?" Lara asked. "Pašo? Zîvu?"

Pašo shook ys head, still looking down. With a glance at ys colleague, Zîvu said, "They're real, and they're what we guessed. The creatures of the Long Time apparently can't travel outside universes. So instead of leaving their own universe, and entering ours, they make the two touch, so they can cross over."

"Doesn't that take huge amounts of energy? How can they do that?" Ĵuha said.

"Not at all," said Zîvu. "In one sense, the universe is nothing but a collection of nodes of data. It takes no more energy to link nodes of one set to nodes of another, than it does to speak your name. Knowing how is the key: the protocols for each data set, and the design of the interface between them."

"Then why doesn't everyone do it?" Ĵuha asked.

"Why would anyone want to?" Pašo said.

When Pašo said nothing more, Zîvu patted ys shoulder and said, "It's a bit more complicated than it sounds; we can do it, now that we've studied what they did, but I don't know whether we'd have come up with it ourselves. And as y said: Why would anyone want to?"

"Is it dangerous, then?" Lara said. "Are the spots growing?"

"They're not growing," said Zîvu. "They've neither grown nor shrunk detectably in the time we've observed them. But, by examining space-time around and among them, we can tell that each group of spots was originally a single larger spot. This broke up almost at once and the spots began to shrink; but they do so more and more slowly."

"So there's no danger?" Koriu asked.

"Not from these," Pašo said. "These will die out. But if the creatures did this a lot, that would be another matter. Enough spots could change the whole universe's entropy. Or if they made the connection, and didn't break it, the whole universe would be…"

"Would be what?" Lara said.

"It's hard to put into words," Pašo said. Y looked to Zîvu for support.

"Take two glasses, one full of water, one empty," suggested Zîvu. "Put a siphon between them, and they'll both end up half full. Or put a red-hot stone in a bowl of ice, and everything becomes the same temperature."

"So we're not talking about mutual annihilation," Vîd́a said. "Both universes would exist, same as before?"

"Not the same," said Pašo.

"They'd exist," said Zîvu, "but they might not be habitable any more. If the red-hot stone were inhabited by creatures of fire, and the bowl of ice had ice people, all of them would perish when the temperatures equalized."

"So if we linked the two universes permanently, all the creatures who murdered our people would die, in both of them?" Êstâz asked.

"No," said Lara. "We couldn't keep them linked. The inhabitants of both universes would come to undo our work, and we still can't face the creatures of the Long Time."

"And even if we could, they might escape," Zîvu said. "The universes won't equalize instantly. Some of the killers from our universe might duplicate our ability to travel between universes, with technology. And the creatures of the Long Time need only link to a third universe and cross to it to be safe."

"How do we know they haven't already?" said Mera.

"Because their universe shows the same number of 'new' spots as ours does 'old' spots," Zîvu reminded her. "If they'd linked to another universe any time recently, that event would have left its own marks."

"So what can we do?" Êstâz said. "Is there some way to use this information to avenge our people, and let none of their killers escape?"

"Yes, there is," Pašo said heavily.

"Pašy, you don't have to…" Zîvu began.

"I do!" Pašo said. "It was my idea. The responsibility is mine. The least I can do is explain it clearly."

"Well?" said Lara, as Zîvu nodded ys assent.

"We can link points on our universe to other points on the 'opposite side' of the universe; and we can do that to the Long Time universe as well," Pašo said.

"So?" said Lara.

"So nothing," said Pašo, "if the universe were static. But both universes are expanding. The linkage should destroy them instantly."

"Destroy them? How?" Vîd́a said.

"At the deepest level," Zîvu answered, "mis-linking the information points will corrupt the data inherited from each ancestral node. Information points will suddenly inherit data from two or more ancestors. A given point may adopt any of those values, or a product of them, or a random value; theory doesn't say, and we can't exactly experiment."

"I'm so glad you decided to explain it clearly," Lara said.

"Heh," Zîvu said. "The point is, all the affected information points should randomly adopt different values. Since the smallest particle of mass/energy is transcribed across many information points, mass and energy will disintegrate. There's some question whether time and space will fall apart first, or whether all mass and energy will disintegrate before that can happen. But in either case, it will be too quick for anyone to react."

"In fact," said Pašo morosely, "since time and space are part of the universe, the whole thing should happen in no time at all."

"So," said Lara. "Are we sure about this?"

"We're sure," Zîvu said. "There's some question about how this will destroy the universe, but none about whether it will."

"I meant, are we sure we need to do this?" Lara said.

"What choice do we have?" said Koriu. "We are who we are. Do we just forgive the murder of all our people, and the destruction of the home world itself?"

Êstâz, sitting beside Koriu, put a hand on her shoulder as he said, "And even if we did—Even if we went to another universe entirely, where no one knew our ancestors, and made a life for ourselves—What's to keep the monsters of the Long Time from spreading there? If they aren't stopped now, then when? After they've spread through ten universes? A hundred? A thousand?"

"But what about the moral issues?" said Ťora. "Every person in this universe, on every world of every starsun system of every galaxy; every person in the Long Time universe; how can their murder be justified? All but the tiniest imaginable fraction of them never heard of our people, let alone had anything to do with their deaths!"

"Is it murder?" said Êstâz. "If I understand aright, time is the separation between generations of information points. If we destroy these two universes, their time is destroyed with them. Their inhabitants, innocent and guilty alike, will never have existed. There will be no time for them to have existed in."

"Technically correct," said Pašo, "but…"

"But irrelevant to the moral question," Ťora said. "They exist now. How can we live with ourselves if we destroy them?"

"Oh, if that's your objection, rest easy," said Pašo. "We're part of this universe. If we do this, we won't survive, either."

"We won't?" said Sisu. Y exchanged a glance with Ťora. "I thought we'd be doing this with telekinesis, from outside the two universes. Why would we be affected?"

"Isn't telekinesis, by definition, action at a distance?" Ťora said.

"That's one way of describing it," said Pašo. "But distance means separation in space, and space exists within the universe. Action at a distance still requires us to be part of the universe to affect the universe. So when we destroy it, we destroy ourselves at the same time."

"A better definition of telekinesis is direct action," Zîvu told the group. "Ordinary action is indirect: our minds use our brains to send signals to our muscles, which contract to move our bones. All the tissues of our bodies are made of atoms, whose states and locations are written in the information points of the universe. Action and movement are reflected in changes to the information points through time, through successive generations of information points."

"Telekinesis, on the other hand, is the direct action of the mind upon the data in the information points, without the intermediary of mass acting upon mass. The consequences are the same. To make a change from one moment to the next, we must be part of the universe's time for those moments. So we destroy ourselves along with the universe."

Chapter 6
The Stone Bow

The Second History,
during the reign of the fourth Êstâz

Saru was expecting an attack at any time, on general principle. The southerners had been maneuvering as a hostile cavalry force since they'd first been exposed by the scouts, and had made no attempts at peaceful contact. Daily the number flanking Saru's command had grown, a few at a time, until there were as many natives riding parallel to the column as there were soldiers within it. The platoon sergeants rode herd on their troops, making sure that none of them slacked off or did anything stupid, or the civilians, either, under the notion of opening trade with the southlanders before any contact had been made. Saru consulting daily with Deni, and each of them with Paran, and all three of them with Juho, to make sure they were all on the same page.

"So why don't we drive them off, instead of letting them shadow us?" Juho asked, at dinner one evening in Saru's tent.

"It isn't our purpose to start a war here," Saru said. "If they attack, we'll defend ourselves, but we're here to find Κtûn, remember?"

"Of course I remember!" Juho answered. "But a fat lot of good that does, if the locals attack and swarm us under."

"I almost wish they'd try," Saru said. "The shock they'd get might go a long way towards breaking them."

"The shock they'd get?" the Doctor said. "Are you sure of that?"

"Of course," Cornet Haθa said, putting one hand over his. "Their mounts are skinny, half-starved things, their men not much better, and they've shown no signs of maneuvering in units. Add to that their bows against our rifles, and they'd need at least three times our numbers to have an even chance."

"That's what I make it," Saru agreed. "But what I really wish is that they'd attack us at dawn, while we're in camp. I would bet a year's pay that they think we're afraid of them, because we "hide" from them in camp every night. If they tried to "surprise" us at dawn, they'd need numbers of at least four to one to take the camp. We'd shoot them down with volley fire…"

"…And then we'd turn the T́ulańē loose, and the survivors would run for their lives!" Deni said.

"Maybe so, maybe so," the Doctor said. "I wish we knew what that was all about." He took a sip of wine. "You know what else I wish?"

"No, what?" Cornet Haθa said, ruffling his hair.

He smiled, but said, "Their bows. There's something strange about their bows, that I can't make out at the distance they keep. I wish the scouts could grab one of their bows, and bring it to me to examine. Or get the southerners to fire one, and bring me the arrow."

"And what do you think that would tell you?" Saru asked, watching Deni leaning her head on one fist and watching Juho. Cross that woman off your list, Saru, he told himself. She's gone.

"I have no idea," the Master said. "But I have a feeling it's important."

Saru got his wish a couple of mornings later. The battle horns, the tubae, sounded Defend Camp just before the Daystar was due to rise. Saru threw on his shirt and tunic, grabbed his hat, stomped his feet into his boots, and threw his pistol belt around his hips, all in a couple of seconds with no wasted motion. As soon as he was out the tent flap, one of the sentries threw him a bandoleer of cartridges. "Thanks," he said. "Get to your stations!" While they ran to the main gate, he took a moment to listen to the noises of battle.

Loudest at the east gate, he decided, as his hands loaded his pistol automatically. He saw Juho laying out his tools and medicines, while Suko moved some camp tables together and covered them with a blanket for an operating table. "Where did Cornet Haθa go, Doctor?" Saru asked.

"The east gate, she said," Juho replied. His hands were steady, but his voice trembled the least bit. It was the first time he'd prepared to deal with death, with someone he loved in harm's way.

"Me for the south gate, then," Saru said. "You stay here, and we'll send the casualties to you."

"I know," the Master said. "Get on with you, now."

Saru found Paran at the south gate, defending it and the wall on either side, the twenty men of First Platoon cranking out volley fire like a well-oiled machine. "First and Third Squads", Paran bellowed, "Fire!" Ten rifles barked death, while Second and Fourth Squads reloaded. "Second and Fourth Squads," Paran bellowed, "Fire!" The other ten rifles spoke, while First and Third Squads reloaded. Not a single southerner body had even reached the ditch around the camp, Saru saw. He smiled. Paran saw him then, and threw him a fierce grin. Then he grunted, and fell over.

"Shit!" Saru said. He knew the troops; three bad sergeants, acting corporals, that he'd have gotten rid of months ago if he could, and one good corporal who knew his duty. "Corporal Stâzo! Assume command of the platoon!"

"Yessir!" Stâzo replied. "First and Third Squads! Fire!" The volley fire resumed with barely a break, while Second and Fourth Squads reloaded, including Stâzo himself. "Second and Fourth Squads! Fire!" Stâzo bellowed, and fired along with them.

Satisfied, Saru looked Paran over. He couldn't find a wound, at first. There was no arrow sticking out of the Banneret, and the southlanders had no firearms. Even if they'd seized one—How, when they hadn't gotten inside the ditch?—there was no bullet wound, either. What the hell?

Four more volleys went out while Saru looked for a wound. Then Paran said, "Ehiu, my head hurts, Saru." He put his hand to the left side of his head, then snatched it away, with blood on it. "Powergiver! Am I shot?"

"Hold still," the Cornet said, as the volleys continued to crash. "Not a gunshot wound… Paran, I think you were hit with a sling bullet! Thank the Powergiver for that thick Cundai skull of yours!"

"Fuck," Paran marveled. "I haven't seen any slingers! How have they hidden those from us all this time?"

"We'll figure that out later," Saru said. "Don't try to get up for a minute." He raised his voice. "Status, Corporal Stâzo!"

"They're retreating, Sir!" the Corporal said.

And so they were, Saru saw. They weren't in headlong flight, throwing away their weapons so they could run away faster, but they were leaving, just the same. Here and now, they'd taken all the rifle fire they were prepared to take.

"Good job, Sergeant Stâzo," the acting Legate said. "Keep an eye on them while I take Banneret Paran to see the Doctor, and detail a man to help me with that."

"Yessir! Thank you, sir! PLATOON! Reload and stand ready! Trooper Valta! Assist the Legate with the Banneret!"

Saru, Paran, and Valta had gone less than a dozen steps back towards the center of camp when Saru heard the sound of hooves. He looked up. The prisoner, Private Kraho, had gotten loose somehow. He, Sergeant Rama, and Sergeant Jani, were leading mounts and remounts for First, Second, and Third Squad to Sergeant Seidu. The just-promoted Stâzo was face down in the dirt.

"STOP!" Saru cried. "Rama, Jani, Seidu, you're under arrest!"

Seidu sneered. "Fuck you, 'sir'." He swung into the nearest saddle. "First Platoon, follow me!" he cried. Then he jerked and clapped a hand to his head, where Saru's pistol bullet had taken off half his ear. Beside him, Sergeant Rama cried out and slumped over the saddlehorn of his mount, struck by Valta's rifle bullet. But he stayed in the saddle.

Under fire from Fourth Squad, perhaps a squad worth of First Platoon threw down their rifles and put up their hands. The other ten leaped into saddles, bent low, and followed the mutineer sergeants out the south gate after the fleeing southlanders, deserting their duty.

The taste in Saru's mouth, as he watched them desert, was the most bitter of his life.

The afternoon wore on. All the southlanders withdrew, mounted their gaunt robēθ, and rode off southwest in a disorderly straggle. Paran and the four platoon sergeants, including Stâzo (staggering from the rifle butt to the back of the head that Seidu had given him) spread the sentries farther apart to make up for the losses of the battle, deserters and deaths alike. Camp would be smaller in the future, as the banner was smaller.

Cornet Haθa's eyes were haunted after her first battle, but she had done her duty, and continued to do it. Third Platoon had taken losses under her command at the east gate and wall, and seeing men die under her orders couldn't help but affect a conscientious officer

All the injured were brought to Master Ĵetao, even if they were obviously dead. "The strangest battle I ever ministered to," he told Saru. "Ten of them had their skulls crushed, and for them all I could do was record the cause of death. Mostly I set broken bones, and told people like Paran they had concussions, and needed to stay awake tonight while Suko and I watch them to make sure they do."

" 'Concussion', Doctor?" Saru said. "What's that?"

"If your skull gets hit hard enough," Juho said, "your brain, the organ inside your cranium, can get knocked against the hard bone of the skull. That's an injury to the brain, and it can kill you. We call it 'concussion'."

"So some of our wounded could still die?" Deni asked.

"Not this time, I think," Juho said. "I'll watch them carefully tonight, but I don't expect to lose any of them. Our fatalities must have been struck exceptionally hard, by slingers who got closer than most, or had stronger arms than most."

"But there weren't any slingers, Juho!" Saru said. "Unless—Did you see any, My Lady?" he asked Deni.

"None," she said positively. "And at that range, every sling bullet would have been lethal. Slings hit harder than arrows, everyone knows that. All I saw was them firing bows at us!"

"Those odd-looking bows," Juho mused, "and not a single injured man with an arrow wound. Tell me, did you recover any arrows for me to examine? Or any enemy bows?"

"I haven't seen any arrows," Saru said slowly, "and that is strange. There should be arrows sticking out of every tent and sticking up out of the dirt all over camp, even if somehow they missed every man and every mount inside the walls. I haven't seen the men collecting the arrow-heads for souvenirs or good-luck charms, either." He looked at the other Cornet.

"The details I led outside the camp found plenty of southlander bodies," Deni said, "either killed outright by our rifle fire, or their throats slit because they were too badly wounded to retreat with the others. Not one of them had a bow. Knives, and these little hatchets, yes. But no bows, and no slings or staff-slings, either. Any projectile weapons, the southerners took with them."

"They must value bows more than robēδ," Saru said. "They didn't even butcher the dead animals for meat, just made sure every man had a mount and two remounts, as we've seen this past month, and left the rest to fend for themselves. Nor can I fault them for that. These are poor stock, we haven't seen beasts this unbred in Gir for a century."

"So strange," the Master said, "but it's the only hypothesis that fits the facts, so it must be true." He shook his head. "They must be using stone bows."

"Stone bows?" the Baronissa said. "You can't make a bow out of stone! It wouldn't bend!"

"Not a bow made from stone," Juho said, "but a bow that shoots stones. A stone-throwing bow."

Deni gaped in astonishment. Saru said, "Is this something you read about in the library at Anθorâń, Doctor?"

"Actually, no," Juho said. "This is something I read about at Tlâńor Taca." He smiled wryly. "They might not have the information at Anθorâń. The city fathers set priorities on what they printed out for saving on paper, and this wasn't under weapons, or military history, but fashion."

"Fashion?" Deni cried.

"Please, Doctor, the point?" Saru said.

"Yes. Sorry. I must be more tired than I realized," Juho said. "Well, as professionals, you know why the rifle replaced the bow and arrow, I'm sure."

Deni glanced at Saru, who nodded: go ahead. "Of course," she said. "The self bow is a highly effective projectile weapon, but it takes a lot of training to learn to aim it and take care of it. For really heavy weights, the war-bows that will punch through armor, you have to train the archers from a young age and develop their muscles and bones so they can pull those bows over and over. In the end you have archers who can shoot arrows incredible distances, through plate armor, and hit what they aim at; for a score of years, before they end up crippled."

"And each bow is the work of a master craftsman," Saru said, "and each arrow must be perfectly straight, and the right amount of flex for that bow, and the right length for the arms of that archer. That's a lot of exacting labor, and a lot of training and practice, to produce an archer, his weapons, and his ammunition, for a limited span of service."

"Exactly," said Juho. "Whereas a rifle can be mass-manufactured, with every one nearly the same; and its ammunition can be manufactured en masse, and anyone whatsoever can be trained to use it in a short time. And the "bullet" goes further and hits harder than an arrow, or the bullet from a sling or staff sling."

"Every man in the army knows this," Paran said from the door of Saru's tent. "I thought you were going to get to the point, Doctor."

"Paran!" Saru said. "How are you feeling? Should you be standing?"

"No, he should not," Juho said, frowning.

"Take my seat, Banneret," Deni said, starting to rise.

"Thank you, sir," said Paran, "but no. It's my head that's cracked, my limbs are fine. The good doctor says I must stay awake, and standing helps me do that. I heard you all talking, and since I'm relieved from duty, and not allowed to eat, I thought I'd come listen. Or is that another thing I mustn't do?" he asked Juho.

"Not eat! Why not, Doctor?" Saru said.

"Sometimes, brains with concussions swell up," Juho said. "If that happens, I'll need to operate to reduce the pressure. The only anesthetic I have is very crude, and can cause vomiting. It wouldn't help a patient much to reduce the swelling of his brain, if he choked to death on his own vomit. Sorry to be so crude, but there it is."

"So why don't the southlanders use regular bows, Doctor?" Paran asked, leaning against a side pole.

"Remember that every person down here is descended from passengers of flying vehicles that crashed when the Star burst, or perhaps a survivor of the fall of Κtûn," the Master said. "Anything that first generation didn't know, or didn't teach, was gone forever. And bow-making is skilled labor; you must know how to recognize suitable wood, you must know how to carve it; you must know suitable wood for arrows, and how to shape them, and match the arrows to the bow, and both to the user. Except for target shooting, no one had used bows in thousands of years, and their equipment was manufactured, not hand-made. Our bows were made by the High Tlâń, at the request of the first Êstâz; the first time they rode mounts or shot arrows against the savage ancestors of the Cundē and the Girē, neither the city folks nor the savages knew what they were looking at."

"The southerners must not have known about bows. If they had, they'd have used them. Regular bows shoot farther and are more effective weapons that stone bows, and a lot easier to make, too. Some southlander genius must have asked himself, 'How can I throw a stone further, and make it more deadly,' and came up with this out of nowhere. Just amazing!" Juho shook his head.

"So how do you make a stone bow?" Saru asked.

"I don't know how these southlanders do it," the Doctor said, "because I still haven't seen one of theirs. But there are two ways I've read about, each with its own difficulties. One kind involves putting a cage in the middle of the bow string, to hold the stone. Then you need a cage in the middle of the bow, for the stone to pass through when you release the string. That second cage is held between two bow staves, which have to match exactly, so they pull the string straight forward and shoot the stone in the string cage straight through the bow cage."

"So you have two matched bows, fastened together at top and bottom, with a box in the middle; and another box, on the bowstring, to hold a rock. When you pull on the bow string and release, the box on the bow string shoots forward, and the rock goes flying through the middle of the cage between the two bows. Is that right?" said Saru.

"Exactly right," said the Doctor.

"Ehiu!" Deni said: "Yikes!"

"But, Master, if they knew how to make bows, why not use them singly, instead of in pairs, to shoot arrows?" Paran asked.

"Perhaps it just never occurred to them," Juho said. "Lots of human civilizations, at primitive stages on various worlds, never invented the wheel; they had to carry everything on their backs, or drag them on the ground. Some cultures never invented music. Lots of cultures never invented positional notation for numbers, or alphabets where each letter represents a sound. Some never invented swimming. At least one culture starved to death next to an ocean full of fish and shellfish, because they never learned to get food from the sea."

"Or maybe they never learned how to make arrows," he went on. "What happens, Saru, if you try to shoot an arrow that doesn't bend at all? Not a crossbow bolt in a crossbow, but something pointed and unbending from a regular bow?"

"Huh! Doesn't it fly the same as any other arrow?" Saru said.

"Oh, no," Deni said. "You've never hunted with a bow, have you, Sir?"

"That's a noble's sport, My Lady," Saru said. "I'm just a Girē steed-breeder.

"If the arrow's too stiff for the bow," Juho said, "it flies off to the right. If it's too light, it flies off to the left. If bow and arrow are matched, when you release the string, the arrow bends double. It curves around the bow, and leaps straight forward, bending back the other way. It flies straight down the line from string to target, flexing back and forth as it goes, until it hits, humming. That's the Archer's Paradox: Why does the arrow fly forward, when it begins with the arrow-head pointing off to one side? Because it has just the right flexibility for a bow with that pull, is the answer."

"Paradox," Paran mumbled, leaning on the side pole, and resting his head on his hands.

"Wake up, Sergeant Paran!" Saru said.

"Sir!" Paran said, coming to attention.

"Come on, Banneret," Deni said, picking up her hat from the camp table and putting it on her fine blonde curls. "It's time to take a look around the camp and make sure everything's in order."

"Yes, Sir," Paran said, "If the Cornet will come with me."

Deni looked back as she left the tent. Saru nodded: Well done, Cornet.

"That's why I love her," Juho said. "Innate, unthinking nobility of character."

"If you think I'm going to argue with you," Saru said, "you're out of your mind."

The First History,
at the end of everything

So it was decided. They would do it, though it would mean their deaths, too. But what was their death against all the death that had gone before? All of human history, in the First Universe and the Second, would end here. Every living thing in the Second Universe would die, and every living being in the Universe of the Long Time.

They were throwing away all that they could have been, and all that they could have done, as well. But again, what was their potential, against all the potential of every living being in two universes? Their hearts burned for vengeance, even if it cost them everything. And it would. And they knew that it would.

They said their goodbyes. The sixteen of them were all of their kind there were, and all that would ever be. Everyone they knew, and everyone they loved, was right there. The lovers had sex the last time, if they could face the prospect of it, or simply held each other a final time, if they could not. The particularly close friends held each others' hands, and indulged in old memories. Ultimately every one of them said goodbye to every other one; because if they didn't say goodbye now, they never would.

Then they divided themselves into two groups, eight around the Second Universe, and eight around the Universe of the Long Time. "Do it," Lara said.

Under Zîvu's direction, the four pairs of ys group each linked a description point of the Second Universe with another one on the far side of the universe. Pašo, the other neuter who'd come up with the idea, directed the eight in ys group to do the same to the invaders' universe.

Lara felt no pain, experienced no drama. One moment the universe was there, and so was she. The next—but there was no next. The universe had never existed, and neither had she.

Chapter 7
Signs and Portents

The Second History,
during the reign of the fourth Êstâz

Seidu and his squad, and the fools who’d joined him as he counter-attacked the southerners, still hadn’t returned by nightfall. The Doctor was tending the wounded until late, and Saru had consulted with Cornet Hatha, covering every contingency he could think of. In theory she should lead a platoon out tomorrow to try to find the missing men, but he had far more battlefield experience. It would be him, and Paran, and all three Thulannaii scouts leaving camp at dawn with a picked platoon, and if they didn’t come back, Deni had strict orders not to throw away any more troopers, but hasten back to the Kingdom to let Sixth Army know what had happened.

He tried to sleep, but his mind wouldn’t shut down. Should he go out in the morning, or should he lead the banner back north? Was he weakening the unit too much by trying to find out where Seidu and his idiots were? He hated to abandon any troops, even bad ones, but was that his real reason, or was he just unwilling to admit failure? Should he…

The night turned to day, and made him aware he’d fallen asleep. Impossible light, brighter than any he’d ever seen, shone through the fabric of his tent. He threw himself off his bunk and out the tent flap. Troopers were shouting and screaming all over the camp, and the mounts were whistling in terror.

“Sound Assemble for Battle,” he snapped at the sentry. As the loud, low notes of the tuba rang out, the panic yielded to training. Saru looked up.

Eight rounded, oblong things, like sleepers wrapped in cloaks, or the Doctor’s pills, drifted across the sky, in no formation, shining like a thousand suns. They seemed to move slowly, but in mere moments they fell beyond the southern horizon. The sudden return of darkness seemed total.

Then the earth kicked, knocking down every person and every mount in camp, and half the tents. Nor did it cease, but went on rolling and rolling under Saru. That horrible light returned, swelling in a globe to the south, then lifting off the ground into the heavens. As the stars disappeared in the glare, a wind began to blow, hot and urgent. It blew everyone off their feet again, and flattened every camp structure. The globe rose, and rose, and then flattened, as if it had hit an invisible ceiling, and began to spread out, like a mushroom. Everyone was screaming, even himself, Saru realized.

-->

To be continued!

Appendices

Dramatis Personae

Named characters appearing in this story,
in order by first appearance as named individuals.

Chapter 1

Saru, son of Peta, a cornet in Sixth Army.

Siθa, a senior guardian at Sixth-Army headquarters.

Count Persu, proconsul in charge of intelligence for Sixth Army.

Juho Ĵetao, Doctor of Sciences, Master of the Phoenix, a noted civilian scholar.

Lara, a sentient of experimental design, who chose to become female.

Q'qq'k, a Kaikhlir (male), a biological designer.

Vîd́a, another experimental sentient, male.

Mera, another experimental sentient, female.

Culi, another experimental sentient, neuter.

Êstâz, another experimental sentient, male.

Chapter 2

Deni, Baronissa Haθa, a cornet in Sixth Army.

Paran Anĝarat, a sergeant in Sixth Army, acting banneret of Saru's unit.

Mrada, a corporal in Sixth Army, acting platoon sergeant of Saru's unit.

Suko, a private, a former sailor with a head injury.

Rama, a sergeant, acting corporal, a sadist and bully.

Stâzo, a corporal.

Kraho, a private, a psychopath.

Seidu, a sergeant, acting corporal, who believes in doing as little as he can get away with.

Jani, a corporal, Sergeant Rama's buddy.

Herâk, Surâk, and Pâka, three T́ulańē scouts.

Chapter 3

Koriu, a sentient of experimental design, female.

Chapter 4

Zîvu, a sentient of experimental design, neuter.

Pašo, a sentient of experimental design, neuter.

Dâka, a sentient of experimental design, male.

Kristu, a sentient of experimental design, female.

Chapter 5

Dasa, the corporal in charge of First Squad, Second Platoon.

Dane, the corporal in charge of First Squad, Third Platoon.

Bore, a trooper in First Squad, First Platoon; a former sailor.

Muho, another trooper in First Squad, First Platoon.

Voimo, a trooper in Second Squad, Second Platoon; a notoriously bad singer.

Pâta, a trooper, acting corporal, in charge of Fourth Squad, Third Platoon, with a very deep voice.

Heki, a trooper in Fourth Squad, First Platoon; a noted tenor.

Gama, another trooper in Fourth Squad, First Platoon.

Ťora, a neuter sentient of experimental design.

Sisu, a neuter sentient of experimental design.

Lańa, a female sentient of experimental design.

Susa, a female sentient of experimental design.

Vîd́a, a male sentient of experimental design.

Ĵuha, a male sentient of experimental design.

Persu, a male sentient of experimental design.

Army Ranks and Structure

The Êstâz's army at the time of our story had evolved considerably. In the time of the first Êstâz, the Verē Speaker for whom Êstâz was his name, not his title, the army was made up of men brought to the battle by the great men of the realm. The mayors of the various cities brought men from their cities and the lands around them, while Êstâz personally commanded High Tlâń forces given him by Morĝai, and the T́ulańē who had sworn to serve him.

Once the blood-drinkers were driven beyond the Sealed Mountains, the realm was formally constituted and divided into duchies, counties, and baronies. The crowned lord of each swore obedience to Êstâz in return for the rule of his fief. His most important duty was to provide armed men if called upon; the higher the rank, the more men required of him. But they had no uniform rank, organization, or equipment.

Contact between Êstâz's realm and Anθorâń changed all that. Stranded short of the rendezvous with the other cities in the northeast corner of the continent, the city fathers decided their first priority was to print out as much as possible of the city's library before the power failed. The Anθorâńē were able to teach Êstâz's successor things the High Tlâń had reserved for themselves: army staff organization, the manufacture of gunpowder, assembly-line production, and the manufacture of simple firearms.

The Êstâz's army evolved a dual command structure due to the fact that it was comprised of both commoners and nobles. There are severe problems in such a structure, the main one being the divided loyalty of the ordinary soldier who has to obey both his "sergeant" and his "officer", and the contempt many "sergeants" feel towards "officers", particularly young ones. Armies which rise this way from origins in feudal levies of commoners led by nobles can often imagine no other way; but comparison with armies that have no such history, such as the First-History Verē kaitempē, or the Imperial Army of Inside Earths where Rome never fell, shows the weaknesses of such a plan.

However, against enemies inferior in organization, technology, or numbers, or who suffer the same basic organizational flaw, it works well enough for victory. The schema of the Êstâz's army follows. Two important points need to be remembered in examining it:

  1. First, this is the ideal structure, rarely achieved in practice. Actual units could be under or over strength by as much as fifty percent. The needs of combat and recruitment could also make a unit have more or fewer subordinate units than the ideal, so that a banner, for instance, might have as few as two platoons or as many as eight.
  2. Unit strength counts fighting men only! The importance of support and supply were recognized by the Êstâz's army, but they were not carried out by army units. Sutlers, etc. were civilians allowed to accompany the army, and scouts were auxilliary troops outside the regular army structure. As such, they don't appear in this table. A platoon was nominally 20 men; it could easily be 35 if it were overstrength, and accompanying civilian support and scouts could come to twice that number.

List of army units

From smallest unit to largest, the organization of the army was:

Squad (the actual term is name, literally "hand"). Officially comprised of four bottom-rank soldiers of common birth, the same number as the three fingers and thumb of a hand, hence the name. These "E-1s" or "privates" have no specific rank name; they're referred to simply as tanē, "trooper" or "soldier", a term used for any common-born soldier. The leader of a squad is a fifth man, a corporal "E-2" (the actual term is namestē, or "fist"). A corporal wears a single inverted chevron on each sleeve. A squad has no officer in command of it.
Platoon (kehe, literally "body"). Official strength is four squads (nominally 20 men). Led by a sergeant "E-3" (pâhē, "head"), who wears two inverted chevrons, one above the other, on each sleeve. A platoon is commanded by a single knight-officer, a cornet "O-1" (ĺukilē, "under-officer"). A cornet wears a single wide horizontal stripe on each sleeve.
Banner (wise, literally a pennant, a narrow pointed banner affixed to a lance). Officially made up of four platoons, or 84 men. Led by a banneret "E-4" (køsē, "standard bearer"), whose rank is marked with three inverted chevrons, one above the other. A banner is commanded by a legate "O-2" (velē, "captain") who wears two narrow stripes, one above the other. A legate is entitled to a staff of four cornets, who may be separate officers, or he may assign the staff duties to the cornets commanding each of his platoons.
Regiment (nore, literally a standard, a large rectangular banner affixed to a pole by its fly). Officially made up of four banners, or 344-360 men depending on extra staff officers. Led by a guardian "E-5" (jusē, "patron"), whose rank is marked with a star. The commander of a regiment is a tribune "O-3" turē, "horn blower") who wears an arrowhead, point up. A tribune is entitled to a staff of four legates.
Brigade (rēge, literally a gonfalon, a large square banner hanging from its top edge). Officially made up of four regiments, thus 1384-1464 men depending on extra staff officers. Led by a senior guardian "E-6" (humē, "magistrate"), whose rank insignia is two stars, next to each other. The commander of a brigade is a proconsul "O-4" (mainē, "ambassador") who wears the rank insignia of a sword, point up. He's often a count. A proconsul has a staff of four tribunes.
Army (taneste, literally "collection of soldiers" or "army"). Consists of four brigades, thus 5544-5880 men depending on extra staff officers. Led by a command guardian "E-7" (bahē, something which is grand), whose rank insignia is three stars, two on the bottom and one on top. The commander of a brigade is a consul "O-5" (saĝē, "general") who wears the rank insignia of two crossed swords, points up. A consul is often a duke, sometimes a count. He has a staff of four proconsuls.

Table of Organization and Personnel, Saru's unit

(Officially an overstrength platoon, unofficially a short banner)
As of the beginning of the Κtûn Expedition
Key:  [1] Orkē Banner— [2] Eagle Banner— [3] Badger Banner —
[4] Raven Banner— [5] Sailor— [B] Bad soldier— [U] Unfit for duty
Commander (Legate position): Cornet Saru [1]
Staff (4 Cornet positions): Cornet Haθa
Sergeant major (Banneret position): Sergeant Paran [1]

About This Novel

The genesis of this novel came about in three parts, separated by many years.

The first part was a "western," only, because of the geography of Kantos, it was a "southern". A cavalry patrol of the Second History was sent to explore the southern part of Kantos. Some of them were ambushed and killed with sling bullets (sling stones). But all the natives they've seen carry bows. Whodunnit? This was imagined as a short story by itself, provisionally titled "Expedition to the South" or "Southward Ho!".

The second part was a novel about the end of the First History. It would follow the Iǹgrē as they were raised in their secure hideout, while outside all hell broke loose and the Verē and all their allies were exterminated. There would be a twist at the end to keep it from being a complete downer, and because I needed survivors to lift the Second History out of the Dark Ages.

The third part came when I realized, there will be a first meeting between the Iǹgrē and the people of the Second History, an historic moment with utter confusion on all sides. What if the Second-History representatives, at that meeting, were that same patrol from my "southern whodunnit?"

The rest, as they say, is history. Two Histories, in fact.

For a long, long time the working title for this book was "Crown of Starsuns". I really like the word "starsun", which I got from old science-fiction comics like Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures, as it combines "star" and "sun" into one word and reminds you that a star is a sun, and vice versa.

But "Crown of Starsuns" is just clunky, no other word for it. A title should intrigue you and make you want to read the story, not make you go "Huh? Never mind, I don't care." In July of 2018, as I was putting onto my web site the five chapters and four appendices that I'd written back in 2005, I made a list of every title I could think of. The new title is the result. My gratitude to S. M. Stirling, author of "A Meeting at Corvallis," which is not only an excellent novel in a series of excellent novels, but without it, the new title for my own novel might not have occurred to me! So thanks for the inspiration, Steve!

Finally, readers may notice similarities in the relationship between Saru and Sergeant Paran to the relationship between Richard Sharpe and Sergeant Harper in the novels of Bernard Cornwell, and the relations between Saru and his civilian friend Juho may remind them of the relations between Aubrey and Maturin in the novels of Patrick O'Brian. In the same way that one may model the personality traits of a fictional character on a real person, so I have chosen these fictional relationships as the models for two fictional relationships in this novel. They serve as engines to drive the character interactons in the story. I've had to be much more careful with the third arm of the triangle, the relationship between Paran and Juho, for which I had no ready-made model.

Deni, Cornet Haθa, has no personality model of which I'm aware, but walked out fully-formed when she was first called on. There is, however, a definite model for her appearance. I see her, in my mind's eye, as Denise Crosby when she appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Though there are only five chapters so far of this book, and it's been "hanging fire" since 2005, I know exactly how the rest of the story goes. There will be more, I feel certain, and not too much longer delayed.—The Author.

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