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. First Contact
5. Finding Κtûn
6. The Stone Bow
7. Noon at Midnight
8. Black Dawn
9. The Day Before
10. The Meeting
11. "Who Are You?"
12. Return of the T́ulańē
13. Blue Fire
14. Soko to Suko
15. Everyday Magic

To Be Continued in:
16. Duel to the Death
17. The Long Way Home
18. Speaker to Speaker
19. Redemption
Appendices

Dramatis Personae
Army Ranks and Structure
Cornet 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:

7 Xidestô Karθao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

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 World, 13 Galestô Husao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

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 my father and an uncle to 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 squad 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 father and the uncle 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. "We are all survivors of Loraon, but some of the troops are too damned stupid to know what we owe our dead. But they're going to learn, and 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 his back lying down along his neck and urging him 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 tongue like a sword.

"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 Trooper 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. I don't know what happened to him; the other sailors 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. Suko is apparently his actual name, but everyone on his old ship started calling him "Fool" long before we met him. Now he answers to Soko as readily as Suko."

"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, Trooper 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 bison meat and organs, and the fat from the humps, 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 Trooper 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 Trooper Suko.

"Yes, you may tend the řobē, Trooper 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 pretended 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 World, 11 Galestô Husao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

"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 the powder horn in 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.

"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 for us to hear him, 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!"

"You could get the whole Kingdom habituated, perhaps," 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 wasn't 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; hence his name, Observer.

"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 second 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 out of biting reach. 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 had put the doctor's head too close to the flying hooves. "Clear the area!" she shouted, 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 hiw master had given him. 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 Trooper 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 my 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 belly spills the contents of the guts 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 any 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. Uncertainty makes life possible, 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 universe 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
First Contact

The World, 10 Galestô Husao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

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, had 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 the making 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.

The World, 7 Galestô Husao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

Every eight days or so—a tave (week) or kymgare (week, or 10-day)—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 Trooper 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 Trooper 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 Trooper 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 Trooper 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!" Trooper 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, personally, 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 Trooper 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 Trooper 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 Trooper 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. Saru's 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 sakeθ 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 sakeθ 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 into 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 World, 5 Galestô Ĵimao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

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 World, 4 Galestô Ĵimao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

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 sakeθ, 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 Fourth Squad, First Platoon 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 First Squad, Third Platoon 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 try to remember that, 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—EJAO!" 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 dropped 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!

The men kept running, automatically, but 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 Squad, Second Platoon, was moved to protest, "Hey, I can sing!" in an improvised tune of his own, each note higher than the one before.

"No you can't!" sang his tent mates in unison, at the same pitch as his last note.

"Well, I can—", "I can—", "I can—", and "I can!" sang the troopers of Third Squad, Third Platoon, who often harmonized together. "And so can I," added acting-corporal Pâta in his deep, deep voice; if all but the last note seemed to come out about knee level, then that one was underground.

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

Well, he can, and he can,
—he sang to Deni, using her tune, and 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, delighted that someone had replied with her own tune, 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, with the curved red-and-yellow fans on their heads by which they absorbed energy. All of them were blue-skinned, with three fingers and a thumb on each hand, and 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 before that, 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, it would appear, 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. However, 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, using their 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 one's 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, a neuter. "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 and nerves 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. Thus, when we destroy the universe, we also destroy ourselves."

Chapter 6
The Stone Bow

The World, 3 Galestô Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

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."

The World, pen Galestô Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

Saru got his wish a couple of mornings later. The battle horns, the sakeθ, 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, Trooper 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 don't fall asleep. If they do, they might not wake up."

" '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," he continued. "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 at the sheer ingenuity of it.

"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
Noon at Midnight

The World, pen Galestô Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

Saru sat at his field desk, and opened his journal to a new page. He wrote the banner's table of organization, then put a line through the name of every deserter, followed by the word "deserter". Those who'd died in the battle he also lined out, with the word "deceased" after their names:

Ĺ. Saru
Ĺ. Haθa
K. Paran

First Platoon: K. Paran

First Squad: P. Rama  deserted
T. Muho
T. Comi  deserted
T. Liko  deserted
T. Bore  deserted

Second Squad: P. Jani  deserted
T. Hed́e  deserted
T. Hane
T. Laĵo  deserted
T. Sisu  deserted

Third Squad: P. Seidu  deserted
T. Dire  deserted
T. Lêsi
T. Gala  deserted
T. Meru  deserted

Fourth Squad: N. Stâzo
T. Gama
T. Heki
T. Valta
T. Kraho  deserted

Second Platoon: N. Ĵuha

First Squad: N. Dasa
T. Vese  deceased
T. Xumai
T. Jodi
T. Korva

Second Squad: T. Hala
T. Polu  deceased
T. Voimo
T. Xosa
T. Vale

Third Squad: N. Culi
T. Dole
T. Vero  deceased
T. Hode
T. Xida

Fourth Squad: T. Demi
T. Gaore
T. Dâka
T. Hido
T. Juho  deceased

Third Platoon: N. Mrada  deceased

First Squad: N. Dane
T. Šafi
T. Jedai
T. Zaze
T. Vîd́a  deceased

Second Squad: T. Vyrδe
T. Gare
T. Jořo  deceased
T. Jaze
T. Huse

Third Squad: N. Duna
T. Fare  deceased
T. Lapo
T. Weke
T. Xyře

Fourth Squad: T. Pâta  deceased
T. Dapi
T. Jâve
T. Kâsa  deceased
T. Šâle

Saru's unit had left the kingdom as a short banner of 66 effectives, not counting the scouts and the civilians. Now, with 13 deserted during the battle, 10 killed in action, and Suko serving as an aide to the doctor, they had 42 professionals to carry a rifle. They weren't a short banner any more, but a half-banner, or a double platoon.

"Cornet Haθa requests permission to enter, sir," his staff of one called from just outside his tent.

"Enter, My Lady," he replied. She came in alone.

"Sergeant Paran?" Saru asked, waving her to a chair.

"I returned him to Master Ĵetao's observation," Deni answered. "The last I saw, Sergeant Paran and Trooper Korva were starting a game of taca."

"That should keep the two of them awake, at least," Saru said. "And how is the camp?"

"The men on duty are doing their duty," the Baron's daughter said. "The ones off duty were a bit excited, hashing over the fight, but by the time Paran and I completed the rounds, exhaustion had set in and they were turning in for the night. A couple of the sutlers were drunk, but nothing that required me to take notice."

"Very good," said the acting Legate. "Tell me what you think of this." He shoved his journal across the folding desk/table to her.

"Ehiu," she said, studying the roster. She looked up. "I'm sorry, sir. As your staff, I should have made up this list and presented it to you."

"Or Banneret Paran should've made up a list and brought it to you, and you could've brought it to me in turn. In fact, ideally, each of us would've prepared our own list, and they would've all been the same. But Paran had a head injury, and this was your first battle. Don't beat yourself up about it. Just remember: after a battle, take stock of your command."

"Yes, sir," Cornet Haθa said. "I'll remember."

"Very good," Saru said. "Moving along, as staff, what do you recommend we do now?"

"Do, sir? Forty-two soldiers against half a continent of hostile natives? What can we do but turn back, and report to Sixth Army command?"

"That's one option," the Legate said. "What are the others?"

"Others?" she said. "We lost two squads of men in today's battle. At that rate, four more battles will see the banner wiped out!"

"Yes," Saru agreed. "And for a feudal baron, leading a levy of all the fighting men in his barony, that would be an overriding concern. But we're professional soldiers. To serve the Kingdom under the legal orders of our lawful superiors, appointed by the authority of the Êstâz. That's our oath. That's our duty, not to survive at all costs. Not to throw our lives away for nothing, either, of course."

"Have I been doing badly, sir?" Deni asked.

"No, indeed," he told her. "You've been doing spectacularly well, on the strengths of your noble upbringing and your instincts. But your professional education has been neglected. Perhaps your previous superiors didn't take you seriously because you were a woman, or a noble, thinking the Army was a hobby for you, not a career. But I think you have the makings of a good officer. I want to teach you to think like an officer, not a noble woman."

"I see. Thank you, sir." She hesitated, then went on. "Does that mean you, yourself, didn't take me seriously until now?"

"Perhaps a little bit," Saru said, "but not because you were a woman, or nobility. If I was reserving judgment before, it was because you hadn't commanded men in battle before. Now you have."

"Thank you, sir," the junior Cornet said again. "I see that I've a lot of thinking to do."

"We all do," said Saru. "Thinking is the difference between a warrior and a soldier. A Girē warrior, for instance, is like a child; he's responsible only to his clan, his extended family. He's expected to be brave, to be fierce, to endure hardships, to ride well, to fight well. But he's not required to think—the grandfathers of the tribe do that—and he swears no oath and has no duty, any more than a child does. A Tlâń soldier is all about duty, and his oath requires him to think and render intelligent service, not just blind obedience. The higher his rank, the greater the scope, the wider the range of thought his duty commands."

Deni was looking at him with an expression like awe, or worship, her tendrils standing straight up. "That's… amazing. Inspirational, even. I've never heard… Who taught you that?"

"No one person," Saru said. "It's the product of my experience, of my thought, of the example of the best superiors under whom I've served, including the Êstâz himself. You disagree?"

"Disagree? No! How could I? My whole life… It's like I've been in a fog my whole life, seeing the kingdom, the nobility, the Army, through a haze, dimly. And now you've shone a light on it all. Where I might've approved, or disapproved, of some Count's or some Consul's actions, out of instinct, now you've shown me principles for judgment! You've given me a foundation for duty, a foundation for service to the Army, and to the Kingdom!"

"I'm glad," Saru said. "But let's not get carried away. It's the night after your first battle, which carries its own kind of fatigue, and you need sleep. I want you to think about what I've said, and talk with me about it as part of your professional development. Not tonight, though. Tonight you need to rest, because you have a big day ahead of you tomorrow."

"I do?"

"You do, and so do I. Remember, take stock after every battle, and plan for the future. We're not done taking stock yet, and we can't plan intelligently until we do. We have thirteen deserters out there, with rifles and a limited amount of ammunition, with unknown plans of their own. Do they plan to make common cause with the natives, and set up a kingdom of their own? Do they plan to return at the head of a native force, and attack us for ammunition and supplies and rifles for their followers? They're my responsibility, and I'm not letting them get away."

"Then there are the natives themselves. What do they think of today's battle? Are they enraged? Terrified? Ready to listen to wiser heads, if they have any, and talk to us? Will they attack at dawn tomorrow, or come to us with some sign of truce? Or are they still running for their lives, with the T́ulańē, or the fear of the T́ulańē, hard on their heels?"

"A lot of questions," Deni said. "Some officers I've known would just bull ahead, and hope for the best. Some nobles I've known would start out tomorrow as usual, confident in their superiority and their ability to ride though anything the natives could throw against them."

"Hope isn't strategy, and some unfounded notion of innate superiority isn't armor against overwhelming superior numbers. What is our mission, Cornet?"

"To find Κtûn, sir," the Baron's daughter answered. "To find out who lives in the South. To report back to Sixth Army what we find."

"Correct," Saru said. "In effect, we are a reconnaissance in force, an expedition of exploration. What is the minimum required to achieve our mission?"

"The minimum, sir? I don't understand the question."

"The minimum needed to achieve our objectives would be a single soldier returning to Sixth Army to inform them of what we've found so far, so they can plan a larger expedition, perhaps a regiment, to follow in our tracks. As long as one trooper, or one scout gets back to tell the tale, we've done our duty. You understand?"

"In the writings of the first Êstâz," Deni said slowly, "there's a proverb. Death is as light as a feather, but duty is as heavy as a mountain. My father used to quote it."

"Your father was a good man," Saru said. "I'm glad I got to meet him. If he had seen you today, he would have been very proud of you."

The unexpected personal remark broke through all her defenses. Deni put both hands over her eyes, her tendrils drooping low. Saru let her weep soundlessly for perhaps a minute, then said, "Attention to orders, Cornet."

"Yes, sir!" she answered, sitting up straight. "I'm sorry, sir."

"Wipe your eyes, baronissa. No one expects you to be made of stone, especially among your peers. You've seen my rage, don't be afraid to show me your tears."

"Thank you, sir."

He waved that aside. "Absent an attack at dawn, here's what we're going to do. I'm going to ride out with Paran, the scouts, and a picked squad, and we're going to track down our deserters and see what they're up to. We'll also keep our eyes open for signs of the natives. We should be back by sunset; if we can't make it, I'll send one of the scouts with a message."

"Sir? If we're going to divide the unit, I should be in command of the lesser part. Or Sergeant Paran should be in charge, with you and me remaining here."

"To answer your last objection first," Saru said, "I'm not sure the T́ulańē would obey Sergeant Paran. I'm damned sure the deserters wouldn't. The T́ulańē would listen to you, but Seidu and his misogynists wouldn't, simply because you're a woman. Finally, you haven't the field experience that Paran and I have."

"Yes, sir," she said.

"You will hold the camp, and keep the men busy with repairs and recovery. Make sure Sergeant Stâzo interviews the men of his First, Second, and Third Squads who didn't desert, determines their fitness for duty, and reports to you on that."

"I thought I might attend to that, sir."

"Let the sergeant do his job, Cornet," Saru said. "Your particular task, besides keeping the camp ready for action, is to go over the roster. We're down to 42 effectives; should we remain as three short platoons, or reorganize as two platoons? Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each, and present me with a recommendation when I return."

"And if you don't return, sir?" she asked quietly.

"If I don't return, and I don't send a messenger, you must presume me dead, along with Paran, the squad I take with me, and all three scouts. That will leave you 35 rifles, no scouts, and no other officer. In that case, your clear duty is to return to the kingdom, and report everything to Sixth Army. Do not let the retreat turn into a rout, but abandon everything not essential, and ride as hard and as fast as you can. Is that clear?"

Her expression was almost mutinous. "I understand, sir. I don't like it, though."

He stood up, so she did too. "As heavy as a mountain," he quoted back to her. "Dismissed, My Lady," he said. "Get as much sleep as you can. Dawn will come all too early."

"Yes, sir. Sleep well," she said, and left.

Afterwards, he put his last order to her in writing, so that no one could accuse her of cowardice, or dereliction of duty. He wrote it as a formal order, on the page after the roster he'd prepared earlier, with his signature and the date. Then he tried to sleep, but his mind wouldn’t shut down. Should he really 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 sake rang out, the panic began to yield to training. Saru looked up.

Eight rounded, oblong things, like sleepers wrapped in cloaks, or some of the dosages from the Doctor’s pill press, drifted across the sky from east to west, in no order or 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 bucking 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 cooking smoke in a mean Cundai hovel with no smoke hole in the thatching. Everyone was screaming, even himself, Saru realized. He shut his mouth with an effort. Gradually, as the sergeants and acting sergeants restored order, the camp fell silent.

The top of the apparition continued to spread, and the column below it grew wider and wider. Both grew dimmer, though still bright enough to blot out the stars. Saru became aware, when he could tear his eyes away from the spectacle, that Cornet Haθa, Master Ĵetao, and Sergeant Paran were with him.

"Hell of a thing," Paran said. "What do you suppose it means?"

"Our deaths, perhaps," the Doctor said. "Indeed, we may be dead already."

"What do you mean, Juho?" Saru demanded.

The master's face was pale with shock, but he answered steadily. "What we just experienced matches the description of a kind of weapon used in ancient times to destroy whole cities. What we're seeing is consistent with an explosion as powerful as tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of tons of gunpowder, all going off at once. Anything too close to the blast would have been turned to steam, or reduced to dust. Uncountable tons would have been flung high into the air in a great column, until it hit the top of the world's air, and spread out there. Next, the larger pieces of debris will begin to fall out of the sky, and the dust will flow away downwind."

"Powergiver! But who could create such a weapon today? And who could use it?" Paran said.

"No one that I know of. Some unknown civilization in the South, with a lot more old technology than we have?"

"Why did you say, we may be dead already?" Saru said. "Obviously, the blast didn't reach this far."

"If my guess is right," Juho said, "this was an atomic blast. Besides the damage from the explosion, the effects of radiation can reach much further, and kill people for years."

"Atomic? Radiation?" Deni asked, stumbling over the long, unfamiliar Mižinai phrases. "I don't know what those words mean."

"Neither do I, my dear," Juho said, reaching out and taking her hand. "Not really. But if the libraries are right, the radiation can still kill us, even beyond the range of the blast. Not all at once, but gradually."

"What can we do?" Paran asked.

"Nothing," Juho said. He looked at Saru. "We'll just have to stay here, and wait to see if we start to die."

For a long time, Lara felt nothing at all, not even time passing. Each moment went by without involvement or significance. Was it a second, was it an hour, was it an eon? It mattered as little to her as small fish swimming past might matter to a dead woman at the bottom of an ocean. Her eyes may see them, but they have nothing to do with her.

Ever so gradually, that began to change. Sight began to return; the light flowing into her open eyes became images, intermittently, as her brain began to process the information. Sound waves entering her ears became small, quiet sounds around her as her brain took up that task, too. Smell came back, and taste; an overwhelming smell of molten glass, cooling now, and a taste of burnt things on her tongue. Her kinesthetic sense returned, informing her she had a body, and she was lying on her back. The breeze on her skin, courtesy of her reborn sense of touch, told her she was naked; and the breeze was very, very cold. Her magnetic sense, courtesy of the tendrils on either side of her nose, told her there was a great mountain not too far away, and a mountain range behind it, and on both sides. Her electric sense, which used the same organs, informed her that there were seven other bodies like her own, lying still around her. Finally, with all her passive senses returned to full functioning, her telepathy awoke and reached out. She was on a living world, full of sentient people and less sentient animals, none of them communicating telepathically.

With that realization, her sense of self returned. One moment she was a selfless being, absorbing sensory inputs that didn't concern her. The next, she became aware that she was in a world of living creatures, and no one else was talking to her, mind to mind. "Else" implied "self", and suddenly she was self-aware again. I am Lara, she thought, Speaker of the Iǹgrē. It was like suddenly awakening from a deep sleep. She sat up.

It was daylight. A super-luminous sun lit the world brightly, and her eyes, like Verē eyes, could see all the colors, from the two ultra-violet ones through the infra-red one. Stars shone dimly in the green sky, made pale by that sun, but she couldn't think about that now. Where were her people?

She stood up to look around. She was in the center of a great crater, perhaps fifty miles across and ten miles deep, floored by a thick layer of crude glass with stony inclusions. Even with her ten feet of height, that was all she could see. The bowl curved up around her to the horizon, with nothing showing above it but the pale jade sky, set with stars.

Lara started to rise into the sky, to get high enough to see the whole crater, but felt a sharp pain, as if someone had jabbed a spike through her head. She made a wordless noise of anguish, and crumpled to the glassy ground, where she clutched her skull with both hands, and rocked back and forth, keening. Blood in her mouth told her she'd bitten her tongue, but the pain in her tongue was nothing next to the pain in her head. She curled up and whimpered.

She was suffering from kyĺê, she realized, when she could think again: energy-gluttony. Like an orkē bursting its belly by eating more than its stomach could hold, somewhere, somehow, she had absorbed more energy than her body could handle. That explained her long coma, and her gradual return to consciousness. It explained how cold she felt, too; her body temperature was too high, relative to her surroundings. Where had all this energy come from?

It was precisely then that she remembered that she was supposed to be dead. When they made the universe never to have existed, she should've never existed, either. Yet, somehow, here she was, wherever and whenever "here" was. Did she take all the energy of a destroyed universe full in the face? No wonder she was kyĺol! The real question was, why hadn't she been blasted to atoms?

No telekinesis for her, then, until her body used up or threw off the excess energy. But at least she had telepathy, of a low-level kind. She could tell that the nearest functioning mind was a little south of east of her, judging by her sense of this world's magnetic field, though she couldn't tell whose mind it was or what y, she, or he was thinking. Lara got to her feet again, and wished she had clothes against the cold, cold breeze. Hugging her arms to herself for warmth, she began to walk to the nearest of her people, since she couldn't fly there yet.

Chapter 8
Black Dawn

The World, Galestē Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

There was no attack at dawn, fortunately for the weary troopers peering out over the ramparts, red-eyed from lack of sleep. There was no sign of the natives at all. Nor were there any birds or animals in sight, not even scavengers picking over gobbets of flesh missed by the burial details the day before.

It was, in fact, a corpse-dawn, the air foul with the stench of rotting flesh, which ordinarily the banner would have left behind them when they set out on the day's march. The Daystar was a dim spark in a sky black with smoke, shedding a feeble, eerie glow over a world that showed no sign of life outside the camp's earthen walls. The men had become accustomed to a steady wind from east or west, depending on the time of day; but the apparition during the night had shattered the winds, which gusted now south, now north. When it blew north, it carried stinging ash on it, and the smell of scorched and burning things.

The acting Legate, the acting Banneret, and five men selected by the latter assembled at the south gate, each with a mount and two remounts, and prepared to ride out into something very much like hell. The three T́ulańē were there, too. They'd refused to accept steeds for the day, but each had a fine bow and a quiver of arrows with obsidian points—brown or black, but almost transparent along their edges, so sharp they were. These were hunting weapons, not weapons of war; but Master Ĵetao, with a bow-hunter's expert eye, little doubted that these particular bows, pulled by these particular arms, would have as much range, and do as much damage, as the soldier's rifles.

Saru had all three of his personal string of řobēθ with him today. The ill-tempered Šari bore him and his saddle, and Thunder was his first remount. Since no one was trying to ride him, Thunder was behaving himself, only occasionally hissing and snapping at any mount or trooper who came too close. Saru's other remount was Lightning, whose coat was solid black with a white blaze on his forehead, and white "stockings" on his lower limbs. Lightning wasn't aggressive like the other two beasts, and wasn't a fighting partner in a battle. But he was far and away the fastest steed that Saru's stable had ever produced, as well as the fastest mount in the banner.

The other beasts for today were as carefully chosen as the men themselves. Not only were the most experienced men assembled at the gate, but the fastest animals. Some of them were fastest over a short distance, some over a long one. Sergeant Paran's preferred mount, Giant, and his two remounts, Titan and Monster, were selected for their ability to carry his large frame as much as for speed.

"Cheer up, Doctor," the Legate said. "Just think of all the interesting new symptoms you may see over the next few days, that no one else has seen outside of books, and all the papers you might write for your Order."

"Be damned to the Phoenix! I'd rather see you all back safely, and showing no signs of radiation sickness," Juho said somberly. "I hope I was wrong about what happened last night."

"I'm touched," Saru said. He switched his attention to Cornet Haθa. "Take care of the unit for me, My Lady."

"I will, sir," she said, and saluted him.

"I know you will," he said, returning it. "Banneret, let's get going."

"Yes, sir," Paran said. "Squad! Move out!"

At a fast walk the ten men moved out the gate and headed south, Saru, Paran, and the five men of the ad hoc squad on one řobē apiece, and leading two others; the three scouts on foot, spreading out on both flanks and ahead. In the murky day, they were soon out of sight of the camp.

A few hours later, they reached the fire line. The fires started by the blast, outside the zone where the very earth was turned to glass, and everything organic flashed into steam, had been extinguished by the winds that rushed in to fill the vacuum, and lifted the fireball into the heavens. But the blazing debris, carried to the edge of the atmosphere and dropped when the thin air could no longer support it, had started new fires for dozens of miles downwind.

Downwind was mostly east and west, but gusts of the broken air had carried flames and burning embers to the north, sometimes. Ahead of the squad, everything was burned as far as their eyes could see. The ground was covered with hot ashes, and fitful fires smoldered here and there. With the scouts keeping watch, the soldiers dismounted and put thick leather boots on all the mounts, to protect their hooves and feet from fire and heat.

The T́ulańē, as always, were barefoot. "My Lord Herâk?" Saru said to the chief of the scouts. "We have extra boots, in case these burn through. Would you like some for you and your sons?"

Herâk curled his lip in contempt. "We are not animals. The fire cannot touch us."

Really? thought Saru. Aloud he said, "As you wish, My Lord," and put the matter from his mind. He remounted Šari and said, "Let's go, Paran. But slowly; if there's anything alive ahead of us, I don't want a column of ash announcing our coming."

By noon the soldiers had seen nothing living but themselves, their chargers, and the T́ulańē. The scouts might as well have been ghosts, running back and forth over the hot ashes and the occasional burning coal without concern, and leaving no footprints to mark their passage on the powdery black surface. The squad stopped for a brief, unhappy meal. No water had been found all morning, and the rations tasted burnt. Swabbing their animals' nostrils clear, they went on, coughing black flakes of ash themselves.

"Do you suppose the rest of Kantos is like this now?" Paran said. "Everything to the south burnt to cinders, and everyone and everything dead?"

"Powergiver, I hope not! But wait, if the weapon's effects didn't reach us in our camp, surely it didn't reach any further south than that, either. Call it an area less than 400 miles across, centered more or less on Mount Hârob, where everything's destroyed."

Paran whistled. "That's big!"

"Sure, but it's only twice as wide across as the circle that Κtûn used to fly around the mountain, once upon a time. There's at least as much of Kantos south of that area as north of it, maybe twice as much. Why are you looking at me like that?"

"When did you start believing in magical flying cities?" Paran asked. "You used to be hard-headed and sensible about Râńai fairy tales!"

"When Sixth Army sent me south to look for one, with a map showing where to find it," Saru responded shortly. "If Κtûn's a fairy tale, it's a pretty detailed one, and ten good men have died for nothing. I don't want to think that."

"Good point," Paran conceded. "Still… I wonder if we'll ever know for sure, now."

"What? Why not?"

"Suppose this was a weapon, as the Doctor thinks, a bomb like a trooper throws, or a shell like those hurled with staff slings. Only, instead of iron balls filled with gunpowder, something enormously more powerful," Paran said, gesturing at the desolation around them. "If this was the deployment of a weapon, what was the target?"

"Ehiu," Saru breathed. "I can't believe I didn't think of that… Not us, that's for sure."

"Definitely not," Paran agreed. "You don't use a super-weapon to incinerate an area 400 miles across to wipe out a short banner of riflemen, and then miss them, to boot. The Master said this was a weapon for killing cities. What's the only city we know of, around here?"

"Κtûn!" Saru exclaimed.

"Κtûn," Paran agreed. "Only, there may be nothing left of it, now. And I wonder if we'll ever know for sure whether it was real, if it was the target of what we saw?"

"If someone bombed it," Saru said, "then it was real."

The person nearest to Lara turned out to be Zîvu, one of the two neuters who'd conceived the idea of destroying their universe and that of the invaders, and showed the rest of them how to do it. Like Lara, y was naked and kyĺol; unlike her, y wasn't footsore, having decided to remain where y was until the illness passed, and y had the full use of all ys powers. Lara found ym sitting on the glassy ground, staring at the western horizon. She sank down beside ym and began massaging her feet.

"What are you looking at?" she asked.

Y looked at her, and smiled warmly. "Hello, Lara," y said. Drawing her to ym, y kissed her on the forehead. "I am so glad to see thee."

"Ais k'a*rojazazîvad," And I to see thee, she replied, smiling at the pun on ys name. "So, what's going on? Why are we alive? What universe is this? How did we get here?"

"Good questions, all of them," Zîvu said. "If only I had answers even half as good, or any at all. It appears to be our own universe. That O-type star is Vol, as near as I can tell with my present limited senses; certainly I never heard of any other O star shining on a living world. The planet seems to be Eoverai. In fact, this is Kantos, and that mountain to the south is Mount Hârob."

"But Eoverai is gone!" Lara cried.

"The whole universe is gone," Zîvu reminded her, "and yet, here we are. I have no answers for you."

Lara was silent for a moment, thinking about their situation. Absentmindedly she brushed her long red hair from her eyes, smudging her dirty face a little more. Zîvu marveled that she'd come through the destruction of the Second Universe, and their arrival in this one, with no damage to her person, not even the finest copper-colored hair on her body. Being a hairless neuter ymself, y'd had no data on that point.

"So what can you tell me?" she said at last. "You must have observed something while I was wearing out my feet."

"I saw that I was in a crater, lined with glass," Zîvu said. "At first I thought we were back in time, when the Verē were bombing Tlâń cities; although, if that's Hârob, the target here would have to be Κtûn, and I don't remember that the bombing extended so far south." Y looked at Lara with a question in ys eyes.

"Damn this kyĺê," Lara said. "I can't remember everything, either. But I think you're right, it was Tlâńor and the other northern cities that were hit. I believe the bombs didn't fall on anything south of Haθ, or maybe Stocâsto."

"So, leave the question of the date open. I tried to calculate it by observing the suns, and the positions of the stars, but they're in hiding."

"What? I saw them earlier!" She looked up. No stars, no suns; just Vol, past the meridian now in a sky colored a dirty green, oddly blank of clouds or starsuns. It shocked her deeply, to see the beautiful green sky of the home world disfigured. She'd never been to Eoverai, but she knew what the heavens were supposed to look like.

"Look at the horizon," Zîvu said. "See the black ring, all around us? That's smoke, a lot of it. Grass fires have been burning all night and all day, out beyond the crater rim, filling the sky with the haze that's covering the stars and the other suns."

"Grass fires? In Kantos?" Lara said. "But—"

"Before the Verē bombed Kantos, it was a lush and fertile land, and its southern parts, particularly, were a sea of grass. Well, not true grass, but the plants that served the same niche in the native, pre-human ecology. It would burn just as fiercely, I suspect."

"So you think we're back before the Verē-Tlâń wars? Then who made this crater? Tlâń technology never went the route of bigger and bigger chemical explosives, and then nuclear explosives, like humans did. And where are the natives, investigating this? Or the bombers, checking out their handiwork? Or are they staying away until the radiation dies down? It would kill them, correct?"

"There's no radiation, Lara," Zîvu said. "You know this, if you think for a minute. If this crater were radioactive, it would be making hash of our magnetic and electric senses. With the kyĺê keeping us from shielding ourselves telekinetically, I suspect it would feel as if our nerves were on fire."

"So you think enough time has passed since this bomb was dropped, that the radioactivity has died out? That would explain why we haven't seen any locals; it would be old news to them."

"There might not be any locals," said Zîvu. "We don't know what we did to the universe. Theory says we destroyed it, but here it is, and we fell into it, in comas from the energy we received. Perhaps this rebooted universe took a different path than the one we know. The whole heart of the Galaxy was hollowed out by the Mižinē, and the suns created and set in place as a beacon to the rest of the galaxy, and this world created for the Old Ones to live on. We know this happened here, too, because our starsuns were up there, before the haze closed in. And we know we're in the center of the Second Galaxy, because the familiar constellations were likewise visible."

"But that's all we know," y went on, holding up a hand to keep her from interrupting. "Maybe the Mižinē, this time around, took a longer jump into the future after creating Aboǹi, and haven't returned to this universe yet. Perhaps they simply aren't interested in Kantos. Perhaps a plague wiped them out, unlikely as that would seem with their high technology. As for the Tlâń, perhaps a divergent ecology never evolved on Kantos in this time line. Or maybe it did, but none of its animals were sentient, so the Mižinē wiped it all out and established the same ecological system here as the rest of the planet."

"So you're saying, we eight Iǹgrē might have this world to ourselves."

"I'm saying, without more data, all we know is that this is the world that the Mižinē made. We haven't seen its inhabitants, if any, any other animals, or any plants. Something is burning all around us, but we don't know what."

"Someone sentient lives here," Lara said. "Glass-lined blast craters don't happen by themselves!"

"Actually, we made this crater, Lara. We started those fires."

Lara could only gape at ym, speechless, for a long moment. Then she couldn't think of anything more to say but, "What?"

Zîvu took her hands. "In a natural solar system, one not constructed by survivors of the previous cycle of the Universe," y explained, "there's always a lot of bits and pieces drifting through space, debris from the process of planetary formation. When one of these cosmic leftovers is swept up in the gravity of a planet, and falls to the ground, it's called a meteor."

"Growing up in the Creche, I've never seen one, of course," Lara said. "And no one on Eoverai ever saw one, because nothing was left over when Aboǹi was made. But I've heard of them, even if I'm not the astronomer you are."

"A typical meteor is an inert, inorganic rock," Zîvu said. "If it's large enough, even with air resistance burning it away, it will reach the ground. If it's really large, as meteors go, the ground won't stop it. It'll plow deep into the earth, building up pressure ahead of it. When the pressure gets high enough, it'll stop the meteor, sometimes blowing the meteorite, the remaining stone, into the air a second time, to fall somewhere else. It may even shatter the stone, so that the pieces fall across a wide area. The shape of the crater will depend on the angle of the meteor's path to the ground, and the size of the crater on how fast the meteor was going. Typically, the crater will be lined with special kinds of rock, created by the transformation of the natural rock under the pressure of the meteoritic event."

"Interesting!" said Lara. "But what's this have to do with here and now?"

"We tried to destroy the universe," y said, "but things didn't go as we planned. As I said at the time, we couldn't exactly experiment! It survived, and we don't know how we affected it. We survived, absorbed enough energy to be rendered senseless from kyĺê, then woke up here, in this crater, lying on glass that's still cooling off and cracking, surrounded by grass fires. These are the observed facts."

"Yes," Lara said. "That's what we know, for now."

"I believe we made a grand, even catastrophic entrance on this world, this stage," Zîvu said. "We entered the universe, or it sucked us in somehow, as a planet sucks in a future meteor; perhaps it was nothing more mysterious than gravity, or perhaps we did that ourselves, even insensible."

"Then, out of all the millions of worlds in each of the literally uncountable galaxies throughout this vast universe, we ended up here, at the world our ancestors made for themselves and their descendants. That's not coincidence. The odds against that are so great that they make 'impossible' an understatement of cosmic proportions. Something or someone brought us here; perhaps ourselves, though unconscious."

"Once here, we fell like meteors. We were shedding energy as fast as our Iǹgrai bodies could do so; the heat of atmospheric entry would've been nothing, next to that. We plunged to the ground, and beneath it, without a check, the earth boiling away before the energy pouring from us. Eventually, the pressure in front of us built so high that the ground erupted, throwing us back to the surface with a force equal to a nuclear weapon. We laid in the crater the blast created, in the molten glass that was still cooler than we were emitting, in the partial vacuum created by many tons of earth and stone vaporized. Then the winds rushed in to fill that vacuum, and lifted the glowing fireball into the sky, with a pillar of blazing debris borne along by the updraft. Most likely, it would've kept rising, until it reached air too thin to support it; then it would have spread out through that layer of the atmosphere. As it continued to cool, fiery debris would fall out of it, starting fires all around, while finer debris would fall downwind for miles and miles."

"But you're describing a nuclear explosion, complete with mushroom cloud!" Lara exclaimed.

"It would've looked like one, certainly," Zîvu said. "But any sufficently large explosion will look like that, on a planet's surface, with an atmosphere, on land—an explosion of tons of powerful chemical explosion, rigged to go off all at once, and confined so it doesn't blow itself out by scattering the explosive; the impact of a kinetic weapon; a large enough meteor strike; an anti-matter bomb. The key differences here is that our bodies protected us, I believe instinctively; and there's no radioactivity from the event."

"Ehiu, ehiu, ehiu!" Lara mourned, weeping slow tears from her closed eyes. "We just arrived, and we've done so much damage already!"

"Perhaps, perhaps not," Zîvu said. "Even in our time line, this wasn't a densely populated area. Maybe we've killed no one at all!"

The scout leader Herâk appeared at Saru's side, startling the Legate so much he almost shot him, and terrifying his mount. Herâk put a hand on the řobē's neck, and the charger calmed at once; the most impressive stunt Saru had yet seen from one of the T́ulańē.

"We found your runaway sons," the scout said. "Will you come?"

"Yes, My Lord. One moment, please," Saru said. "Banneret! The scouts have found our deserters! Troops to remounts, and mount holders to gather the spares!"

For five experienced soldiers, Paran didn't bother to repeat the orders. He just looked them, and said, "You heard him." Everyone dismounted, switched their saddles to their first remounts, and checked the boots on those steeds for signs they'd begun to burn through. The two designated mount holders did the same, then gathered the fourteen animals not being ridden now, checked their boots as well, and tied them to their saddles with long leads, seven beasts to each holder. In a very short time, the squad was ready for an immediate confrontation, all of them riding a fresh animal, and only two of them responsible for the spare beasts.

Paran looked over the picked men. "Rifles at the ready, sir?" he suggested.

"Good idea," Saru said. "And never mind stirring up ash; I doubt it would be visible under these conditions, anyway."

"Good, soldier leader," Herâk said, "Keep up with me. We're going that way," he said, pointing far to the right, or west, of the path the squad had taken up to now. They moved out, following the running scout.

"Your renegade sons chased after the natives," the scout said. "One of them rode out of your camp wounded by a rifle bullet, and bleeding badly; he fell from his saddle, and died. Surâk found where he fell, many miles back," Herâk continued, pointing back over his right shoulder. He was breathing easily as he ran, despite the smoke and ash in the air, and having no trouble keeping ahead of the mounted troopers, Saru noted.

"The rest stopped only long enough to take his rifle and ammunition, then went on. Near the end of the day, the natives laid an ambush for them. The soldiers ran into it, and the natives shot them out of their saddles with their bows. The survivors didn't last long. They were tortured, then they were butchered. After nightfall, the natives slept there, with their stomachs full of soldier meat."

"Cannibalism!" Saru said. It was like a punch in the stomach.

The scout looked aside at him, as he paced Thunder. "It is their way," Herâk said. "Today they can catch or kill other meat, but they prize man meat above all other. When the cities fell, it was all they could catch. All the beasts were too wary, and too swift."

"When the cities fell," Saru repeated. "So you have that legend, too?"

"No legend, soldier leader," Herâk stated flatly. "Plain fact."

He wouldn't say any more about that subject, so Saru gave up on it. "So my deserters are all dead. And their killers? Are they waiting for us, or long gone?"

"They are all dead, too," Herâk said. "They turned in for the night and slept soundly, with full bellies. Then the night turned to day, and they all burned up, like the grass."

And so it proved. That native camp was black with ash, that rose in clouds wherever a trooper stepped. You could tell that a native body had been a man, but his clothing was burned away, and the corpse was a charred, flakey thing that crumbled away if you touched it. They counted twenty dead natives, and 55 of the skinny, half-starved řobē of the south; which meant five animals had escaped the fire in the night, or else five of the natives had only had one remount, not two.

The deserters' heads had been piled up in one place, whether in mockery of the victims or as part of some feast ritual Saru didn't know, and Paran refused to guess. None of them could be identifed by their features in their charred state, with their hair burnt off by nocturnal fire; but there were 12 of them in the pile, which was the right number.

"Sir? Something you ought to see," Paran said, after the general state of the camp had been surveyed.

"Just a moment," Saru said. "I've found one of their bows. I'm trying to make out how it's made, so I can tell the doctor. Look, it has a cage for holding a stone, but only one bow stave. I don't understand how it works." He tried to pick up the bow, and it crumbled to dust in his hands. The cage for the stone did the same. He made a noise of disgust, and stood up.

"All right, Paran, what did you want to show me?" he said.

"I'd rather you formed your own conclusions, sir. If you'll come this way?"

It took Saru a couple of minutes to figure out what Paran was showing him. There was the blackened corpse of a native, and next to him something long, slightly curved, with some small bits lying beside it. It wasn't until his eyes identified a flint in the bits that the picture became clear. "Powergiver! This native had taken the firing mechanism of a rifle apart, and was trying to figure out how it worked!"

"I think so, too," Paran said. "I think we need to recover every one of the lost rifles, and take them back with us."

"I agree," Saru said. "Have the men start looking at once. How did you even recognize this as a rifle, with the stock and sling burned away, the flintlock disassembled, and the barrel melted out of true?"

"I didn't, the first four or five times I walked past it. Then I realized it was metal. The natives don't have much of that, just their knives and their hatchets, and those not very good material."

"Set the men looking for the others," Saru repeated. "There must be twelve others in camp. I'll take charge of this one," he said. He half-expected it to crumble in his hands when he picked it up, as everything else had done; but it remained strong, though useless as a rifle. Saru coughed, and spat blackly.

"Paran," he choked out, then cleared his throat. "Tell the men, the sooner they find the other dozen, the sooner we're out of here and on the way back to our camp."

"Yes, sir!" Paran said, and gave the Legate a salute, which Saru returned. "If the prospect of clean air, water, and good food doesn't motivate them, I don't know what will!"

All of the deserters' rifles were found in short order, and strapped to the side of one of the spare animals. The squad had traveled a long way south, then some distance a little south of west to inspect the native camp that Scout Pâka had discovered. Herâk assured Saru that the scouts could lead the squad directly back to camp on the third side of the triangle, saving them from wasting time retracing their route. The troops gave each of the mounts a mouthful of water in their hats, keeping none for themselves, and put their canteens away empty. Then they rode home, perhaps a hundred miles away, at the best pace they could sustain. They arrived after dusk, and were cheered as they rode in the main gate, tired, thirsty, and covered with ash.

Chapter 9
The Day Before

The World, 7 Numestô Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

With dawn of the next day came rain, as the broken weather began to piece itself back together. All morning it rained, mostly in a light patter that was almost pleasant, with occasional cloudbursts to make sure the troops didn't enjoy it too much. The sentries stood watch in oiled rain capes, their rifles held beneath the capes, with an oiled cloth wrapped around the priming pan. Any temptation they might have indulged to assume that the natives wouldn't be out in the rain was squelched by the sergeants of the watch, who kept them on their toes.

The heavy canvas of the tents shed the rain well, as long as they were pitched with the sides at the correct angle, and there were no slack areas where water could pool and leak through. Saru kept his journal safe in its case just the same, and he and Deni discussed the unit using the official roster, a collection of flat white sticks of a uniform size and shape, one per soldier, with his or her name written on one side. He laid them out on his camp table; the three sticks of the command group, then a column of sticks for First Platoon, Second Platoon, and Third Platoon. Then he took away the sticks for the deserters, and those killed in action, and for Trooper Suko, and put them in the roster bag. The reverse of those sticks said, respectively, "deserted", "killed in action", and "unfit for duty".

The two cornets contemplated the results. It was the same data as Saru's next-to-last journal entry, just presented differently. First Platoon was down to seven men, not counting Sergeant Paran. One man each in First Squad, Second Squad, and Third Squad had refused to desert, had thrown down their rifles to make it clear they would not fire on Fourth Squad, and had been cleared by Sergeant Stâzo of any wrongdoing, Cornet Haθa and the Legate accepting his judgment. In Fourth Squad, Trooper Kraho had already been awaiting trial for stabbing one of the scouts, and had deserted rather than take his punishment. That left First Platoon with the manpower of a slightly overstrength squad, with Sergeant Stâzo as squad leader, commanding six troopers instead of the regulation four. The alternative was to regard it as a one-squad platoon, with Sergeant Stâzo as platoon leader, one of the others (Valta, perhaps?) as squad leader, and a five-man squad.

"That would relieve Sergeant Paran of double duty as a Platoon Sergeant," Cornet Haθa said, "provide additional grounds for promoting Stâzo from Corporal to Sergeant, and justify making Valta a Corporal. It would also keep First Platoon in existence as a living unit with warm bodies in it, not just a blank spot in the roster; which is important for morale."

"All true, but it would still have only the firepower of a squad," Saru said. "You've considered the alternative of using those men to bring the other two platoons up to strength, I trust?"

"Yes, sir. If I may?" At his nod, she deftly rearranged the wands on the table. Picking up those representing the remaining troops of First Platoon, she dealt them into the empty slots in Second and Third. When she was done, First Platoon was gone. The late Corporal Mrada, acting Platoon Sergeant of Third Platoon, she replaced with Sergeant Stâzo. She put Trooper Valta in the corporal's slot in charge of Third Platoon, Fourth Squad, replacing Trooper Pâta, who'd been killed in action. That left eight troopers deceased over both platoons, and five troopers from First Platoon to fill now-empty slots.

"As you see, sir, the casualties were light, and uniform. Once we fit Sergeant Stâzo and Trooper Valta into the empty command positions, each of the squads in the two platoons has three common soldiers, instead of four. Then we can bring five of those squads up to full strength."

"Indeed," Saru said. "We'd only have two platoons instead of three, but they'd be full strength, or nearly so. Very tidy. So, which course of action do you recommend, Cornet Haθa?"

"I think we should leave things as they are," Deni said. "Promote Corporal Dane to Corporal Mrada's place as acting Platoon Sergeant for Third Platoon, and choose one of the three men from First Squad, Third Platoon as squad leader; or leave the slot empty. The same with Fourth Squad, Third Platoon, where Trooper Pâta had his head shattered."

"Very good, My Lady," Saru said. "I accept your recommendation."

"So, it's the right course of action?" she asked him.

The sound of rain pattering on the canvas of the tent was suddenly very loud, as he looked at her in silence, and considered how to answer her. "If this were an officially constituted banner, I its legate, and I had the full complement of cornets," he said, "I might've asked each of them to consider a matter like this, without consulting with each other, and each to give me his or her recommendation. I would still make the final decision, but the exercise would have been beneficial to their decision-making, and it would've told me whether each of them leaned towards being a paper soldier, or a fighting one."

She flushed slightly at the implied compliment that she was a fighting soldier, not a paper one, but said nothing.

"The right course of action can only truly be seen later," Saru went on. "Oh, we try to make the best decisions we can, based on our training and our experience, but our judgment can always fail us on any given occasion. That's why a legate has four cornets, and a banneret, to give him advice. The decision is still his, but he'd be a fool not to ask for, and consider, their opinions. What's the ultimate test of whether this decision was the right one, Cornet?"

"Sir… Whether we succeed in our mission?"

"Exactly so," he said with approval. "Leave out the question mark, next time. Our accomplishment of our mission is always the standard against which our decisions, and our actions, are measured."

"Make no mistake," he went on, "there will always be higher-ranking officers glad, even eager, to tell you and me that it was the wrong decision. But when we return to Sixth Army with our mission achieved, that will show them for the fools they are."

"Sir!" she said, half laughing. "You can't say that!"

"Not to their faces, no," Saru said, frankly grinning. "But you can be sure I'll be thinking it! What I can say, and will, is that in my judgment of the quality of the men under my command, I deemed them capable of achieving our goals despite being short-handed, and seriously understrength, especially in the case of First Platoon. And the men never let me down, but obeyed orders to the best of their considerable ability."

"Very good," Deni said. "But is my recommended course of action what you would have done, or would you have reorganized the banner into two platoons?"

"It doesn't matter what I would have done," he told her. "I asked you to consider the situation, and give me your opinion. It was your decision, and you made it. Often, any decision is better than no decision. Make your decision, give the order; and then make it work. If you don't think you can make it work, then it's the wrong decision—for you."

"Guard, there!" he called, while she was thinking that over. One of the two sentries outside the tent entered at his call, and came to attention. "Pass the word for Banneret Paran and Master Ĵetao, please," Saru ordered.

"What were your plans, in the event I didn't return last night," he asked Deni, "nor sent a messenger to tell you I'd be back this morning?"

"Frankly, sir, I was praying to the Powergiver that I wouldn't be put in that position!"

Saru laughed. "That was my hope as well, My Lady. But hope is not policy, nor can it substitute for planning. As for prayer, even the priests say that the Powergiver helps those who help themselves. Do you know the Sergeant's Prayer?"

"No, sir!" she said, startled.

"It's rather crude, but heart-felt: May the Powergiver send me officers who know what the fuck they're doing!"

"Ehiu," said Deni, shaking her head. "And is there an Officer's Prayer, sir?"

"Not that I've heard," Saru said. "Not that they'd tell me, common-born that I am. If there were, it might be, May the Powergiver send me superior officers who know what the hell they're doing! or May the Powergiver send me superior officers who don't think they know everything! or even May the Powergiver send me superior officers who don't think they're infallible! Take your pick," he invited her.

"But prayers produce nothing in the material world," Saru continued. "My plan for yesterday was to avoid any fight if I could, and run like hell if I couldn't. That's why I took the fastest mounts and the best soldiers. If I'd been trapped by the deserters and couldn't run away, or caught by a grass fire that suddenly flared up around me, or attacked by a native force with overwhelming numbers, my backup plan was the order I gave to you. You remember it, I trust?"

"A hell-for-leather retreat to Sixth Army, abandoning anything non-essential," the Cornet said, shuddering. "How could I forget? No legate, no banneret, no officers but me, only 35 rifles left—"

"Would you have fiddled about with the roster?" Saru asked.

"No, sir," she answered.

"Right," he said, "because your greatest danger would've been not the natives, whose starveling mounts you would've left in your dust, nor their stone bows, which would've been no match for your rifles. Your greatest danger would've been panic, and your 'hell-for-leather' retreat turning into a rout. Unit cohesion is the best answer for that, familiar voices calling orders to the troops. Keep the remains of First Platoon with you, as a kind of headquarters squad; maybe make Corporal Ĵuha the acting Platoon Sergeant for both Second and Third Platoons, a kind of demi-Banneret; at least the men know his voice, and respect his authority. Then bug out, and don't stop for anything!"

Lara and Zîvu spent a miserable night, lying naked on the rough glass, front to front for warmth. Gradually, their high internal temperature bled away, as they continued to recover from the kyĺê, and the world outside their bodies became relatively less cold. Their shivers ceased, and they managed to fall asleep.

"Well, well, well, isn't this a cozy sight," said a familiar voice.

Lara woke, and found herself eye to eye with Zîvu. Y smiled, and patted her cheek. She smiled, too, and kissed ys nose. Then they untangled themselves and sat up, stretching and yawning. Koriu and Dâka stood there, female and male respectively, grinning at them, clothed and clean. That told Lara and Zîvu that those two, at least, had fully recovered from the energy overload; had used a tele, a gateway, to get clothes out of mind space; had found water for washing; and had flown here by telekinesis.

But these deductions were made at the back of their minds, as it were; the fore parts were occupied in gladness, going to and embracing two others that they'd thought they would never see again. Lara hugged her sister Koriu fiercely, buried her hands in Koriu's tumbling black curls, and kissed her on the mouth. Koriu kissed her back, while Dâka and Zîvu hugged, and kissed each other on the cheeks and foreheads.

Then Lara went to her brother Dâka and kissed him just as fervently, and hugged him too, and said, "Sorry about the sweat and dirt, tlak'ařy."

"I'm not," he said grinning. "What's a little grime against the chance to hold a naked redhead in my arms, while she calls me darling?"

"Beast," she said, smiling, and ran her fingers through his blond hair. A few feet away, Koriu and Zîvu had hugged and kissed, and were talking quietly, still in each other's arms.

"Lara," Zîvu said, "Koriu says everyone else has gotten over the kyĺê. What about you?"

"I feel fine," Lara said. "In fact," she said; stepping away from Dâka, she made a tele above her head, and swept it down her body to the glassy ground. All the dirt and sweat vanished from her skin, wastes from throughout her body, her hair was clean and brushed, and she was dressed in a green and white gown that swirled below her knees, with matching ankle and wrist bands. It only took an instant, but it made her feel much better to be clean and dressed again, and to know that she had her powers back.

"Show off," Koriu said.

"Where are the others?" Lara asked her. "Eight of us made it, right?"

"Yes, but the others wanted to let you sleep. I got tired of waiting, sleepyhead."

Lara laughed. Despite everything, it was good to be alive! "And I suppose you just wanted to see me naked," she said to Dâka.

"Why, the thought never entered my mind," he said innocently.

Lara laughed again. Taking Zîvu by one hand, and Koriu by the other, she boosted the four of them into the air. Dâka took Koriu's other hand, and squeezed it. Laughing and joking like children, they flew to join the other four survivors.

"Sergeant Paran and Doctor Ĵetao to see the Cornet," the sentry called.

"Let them enter," said Saru. He and Deni stood as Paran and Juho came into the tent. The banneret braced to attention, and said, "Sergeant Paran, reporting as ordered, sir."

"At ease," Saru said. "In fact, have a seat." As he and Deni sat again, too, he added, "I believe you both have a lot to tell me. Sergeant, how stands the camp?"

"About as you'd expect," Paran said. "All yesterday, the platoon and squad leaders tell me, the men complained bitterly about the ash in the air, and the stink of dead things, and what would happen if the natives attacked while the detachment was out. So now that we have rain washing the ash out of the air and washing away the battle stink, and the detachment is back, they're complaining about the rain, and having to keep watch in it!"

"You were right, that's exactly what I expected. They wouldn't be soldiers if they didn't complain! Let them bitch and moan—as long as they keep a sharp watch."

"Be sure of that, sir," Paran assured him. "Already this morning I've overheard some truly classic ass-chewings being dished out to would-be slackers."

"Excellent," Saru said. He turned slightly to face the Doctor directly. "And how is the banner's health, Master Ĵetao? Are we all dead yet?"

"On the contrary, we're all disgustingly healthy, which I can't account for at all," Juho said. "No bloody stools in the latrines, no one with hair falling out, no one bleeding through their skin, not even any burns. Even you lot, that went another hundred miles closer to the mountain, are showing no symptoms of radiation poisoning whatsoever. I can only conclude that whatever it was we saw, however much it looked like a nuclear weapon, it wasn't. What it was, in that case? I have no idea at all," he said, spreading his hands.

"Then, in your medical opinion, it would be safe for us to break camp tomorrow, and resume our mission?" Saru asked.

"There's certainly no medical reason why not, as far as I can see. And it would be pleasant, and probably healthier, to be away from the recent battle ground."

"It's not that he's squeamish," Saru said to Deni. "I've seen him up to his elbows in the open belly of an animal, tracing how the nerves run, or squeezing the intestines of a large mammal, so he can examine the contents and see what the thing ate in the last day or two. He's only fastidious on occasion, when it doesn't get in the way of his dissection."

The baronissa laughed. "I come from a family of nobles, who hunt their own meat," she said. "I've butchered my own kills, and hung them up to bleed out. As long as he doesn't leave his dissections on the dining table, or practice anatomy during supper, he won't annoy me overmuch."

The Doctor performed a sitting bow. "In this, as in all things, I am your most obedient servant, My Lady," he said.

"And still, I devoutly wish," the Master continued, "that I knew what it was we saw, and what we might expect from it. It's clear that it was a huge explosion, but what kind? I mean," he said, seeing the others' expressions, "what was it that exploded, and in what quantity? And how far away from us was it?"

"Besides that, doctor," Paran said, "If it was a weapon, how was it deployed, and what was the target? Who deployed it? Are they likely to use it against us, or the Kingdom? And do they have more of them, and how many?" The two cornets nodded agreement to his points.

"I can see that's important," said the Doctor. "But it might not have been a deliberate act. It could have been an astronomical event, a cosmic accident: a very large meteor, larger than any other in our history."

"Eight large meteors," Saru said. "I couldn't tell how big they were, or how far away, but I believe I know how to count to eight."

"Whatever it was, or whatever they were, just be glad they exploded, or fell down, as far away as they did. Or we all would've died like the southlanders who killed the deserters," Paran said.

"That reminds me!" Juho said. He turned an eager eye to Saru. "Paran says you found a bow at that camp?"

"Say rather, the charred splinters of one," Saru said. "When I tried to pick it up, it disintegrated."

"Did it have the two cages I described to you? One to hold the stone, and one in front for the stone to fly through?"

"One on the string to hold the stone, though the string was burned away, and the cage fell to pieces when I touched it," Saru said. "No cage in front. In fact, there was only one bow stave in front, not two as you said."

"Ah," the Doctor said. "So it was the other kind of stone bow! The kind with two staves, that throws a stone straight forward through the cage between the two bow staves, is the simpler kind to make, though it requires more material. But some stone-bow hunters use another kind. In that kind, the bow stave is warped, so that the stone is shot around the bow, then yanked back in line once it's in front of the bow. It's harder to make, and harder to learn to aim, but if suitable wood is scarce, that design can win out over the other."

"Certainly, I haven't seen many strong, flexible trees down here," Cornet Haθa said. "Just very hard woods, like ebony and ironwood, and very weak, very flexible woods, hardly more than reeds. And, of course, the endless grass."

"All the grass probably leads to frequent fires, after lightning strikes if not set deliberately by the natives. That would discourage long-term growth of suitable trees. The ironwood trees have probably survived fire season after fire season, as in Gir," said the Girē acting Legate.

"I still want to know," Deni said, leaning her head on one hand as she looked at Juho, "why you said all the data on stone bows was filed under "fashion" by the Anθorâńē! Why Fashion, in the Powergiver's name?"

"Well…" the good Doctor said. "Stone bows aren't very effective weapons, as I'm sure you can appreciate by now. I've never heard of them being used in war before, though my sources are very limited, of course. While a sling bullet hits harder than an arrow, and flies further, and the bullet from a staff sling even more so, the stone from a stone bow has less range and less impact than an arrow. The bows are more difficult to make than regular bows, and more liable to break in use. All of this mitigates against their use in battle."

"But stone bows weren't invented for battle," he continued. "In societies where brightly-colored bird feathers are prized for ornament, especially small, brightly-colored birds that live in dense forests and jungles, getting enough feathers for your feather-covered hats, your feather-lined capes, or whatever fashion decrees this season, can be quite a problem. Birds are smart enough to stay out of traps, and learn that the violent motions of either kind of slinger represents danger. They're also fragile; birds have hollow bones, as part of the adaptations that allow them to fly. An arrow can slice right through them, ruining the feathers with blood. The bullet from a sling, a staff sling, or a gunpowder weapon can blow them to pieces, ruining many feathers and scattering the rest far and wide."

"So, a stone bow?" Deni asked.

"Indeed," said Master Ĵetao. "Like a regular bow, it presents no large, violet motions to scare away the birds; and because the stone doesn't hit as hard, the bird can be killed without breaking its skin and spilling blood on the valuable feathers. It's the perfect solution for gathering plumage, if not for war."

"And yet, if that's the only distance weapon you have, it will be used, regardless," Saru commented. "Once your enemy has stone bows, you must have them, too, or you're dead. Perfect counts for nothing, if imperfect is your only choice."

"Yes," Paran said, "Anything that can be used as a weapon, will be used as a weapon. Any sergeant can tell you that."

Any tendency to excessive mirth died stillborn when Lara saw who waited for her in a grassy meadow on top of Mount Hârob. There had never been more than sixteen of the experimental sentients who called themselves the Ińgrē, but now only eight of them remained. Any survivors at all were more than they'd expected; yet, seeing how few, with her own eyes, grieved her beyond her ability to express.

Only two neuters were left, Zîvu and Sisu, whose names meant "Vision" and "Honor" in the High Tongue; three females, Lara, Koriu, and Susa (Yellow, Gem, and Sweet); and three males, Ĵuha, Persu, and Dâka (Slim, Foundation, and Free). That wasn't even enough for three traditional trios of neuter, female, and male; one trio would be without the wisdom and guidance of a neuter.

Lara went to her siblings, neuter, female, and male, and hugged and kissed each one of them; and if her eyes were blind with tears, no one needed to ask why, or for whom. But they were still the Ińgrē, and she was still their Speaker. After a bit, then, she wiped her eyes, and said to Sisu, "So, we lived through it after all. And the others?"

"I beg your pardon for failing you, Lary," Sisu said. "But I know nothing about this except what Zîvu told us. On this subject, at least, you'll need to direct your questions to ym."

"Zîvu love?" Lara asked, her face still wet. "What are the odds the others also survive?"

The other neuter spread ys hands, ys bald head gleaming in the sunlight. Below them, and all around them to the horizons, rain clouds scudded before moderate winds, washing the smoke of the burning from the air, and putting out any remaining coals and embers. But here on the high mountain, the pure air sparkled in their lungs, and the light shone brightly in the overarching, jade-green sky.

"I have no foundation on which to build a guess," Zîvu said. "From all we know of cosmology, we should all be dead, we eight as well as the other eight, and this universe and the other universe utterly destroyed. And yet—!"

"And yet…" Koriu echoed ym, hands on her hips.

"It's the nature of science that these inconsistencies will be explained by new theory, and then we'll have learned something from them," Zîvu said unhappily. "Until then, talk to the mountain. Its answers will be as good as mine."

"Can't we just go look and see?" Susa said. "We should at least be able to tell whether the other universe still exists, right? Or am I missing something?"

"And if the other universe is still there, we should be able to call the others to us with telepathy, wherever they are within it!" Persu said.

"Wait, wait, I don't know if it's safe to try that!" Zîvu protested. "We don't know why we're alive, why this universe survived, or how we got back here while comatose. Then there are all the differences between this universe and that other, even before we tried to rip it apart!"

"I don't care!" Susa cried. "I want my family back!"

"Well, let's at least make sure we can find our way back, if this universe has changed so much that we can't recognize it," Zîvu said. "Sisu, will you stay here, and serve as our anchor?"

"Gladly," Sisu said, and linked ys mind to Zîvu's. Y clasped Lara's hand. "Bring them back safely, if you can. But above all, come back safely yourselves. We've already lost so much."

"See you soon," Lara said, and kissed ys forehead. Then she rose into the air, saying, "Who's going? Link in with me, and hold hands, too." She reached out and took Zîvu's hand, and one of Susa's. Koriu and Dâka took Susa's other hand, and Zîvu's free hand was claimed by Ĵuha and Persu. In the end, they all went but Sisu, sitting in the meadow on top of Hârob, broadcasting a strong telepathic beacon.

Herâk's head went up, and he peered to his left. Then he stood up, and faced south, where the mountain rose a hundred miles away. The penařobē herd that the scouts had been stalking took fright, and thundered away, whistling and buzzing.

Herâk paid no attention to them, but continued to look towards Mount Hârob, a puzzled expression on his face, that was always so impassive to outsiders. Surâk joined him, the same expression on his.

"Do you hear it?" Herâk said in the T́ulańai language.

"I hear something, yes," Surâk answered in the same tongue. "But what am I hearing, Father?"

Pâka joined them then, limping and beating dust from his breeches. "Why did you stand up so suddenly?" he complained. "I wasn't in position yet. I was nearly trampled by a big stallion!"

Surâk, who was closer to Pâka, hit him in the ear with a massive fist. "Don't boast about being slow and unwary!" he said. "Listen, for once!"

"I can't, you hit me in the ear," Pâka complained.

"Not with the ears, but the mind, you—!"

"Don't hit him again," Herâk said, and Surâk dropped the fist he'd raised a second time.

"Beating the young and stupid doesn't make them old and wise," Herâk went on. "If it did, we'd all be cripples by the time we were grandfathers. —Listen!" he said again.

"What am I hearing, Father?" Pâka asked respectfully.

"Someone on the mountain is saying, "Here I am," Herâk told him.

"What am I looking at?" Lara asked Zîvu.

"You seem to ask me that a lot," y commented.

"Should I stop, then?"

What they'd always seen before, between universes, was like the night as seen from a planet's surface, except that the bright specks weren't stars, but other universes. Up "close", a universe looked like a globe, some dark, some shining; some larger, some smaller; some older, some younger.

No longer. What they saw now was a sheetlike structure, stretching to infinity, not flat, but crumpled into valleys and ridges running in all directions, with deep holes plunging here and there, high spikes rising in others. The surface of the sheet glowed in constantly-changing colors. It was like a four-dimensional graph of some mathematical function, with additional dimensions displayed at various points by the values of the colors. The only thing that could be said of it was that it wasn't chaotic. There were no breaks or discontinuities between points, but a smooth change between each point of the sheet and every adjacent point.

"I don't know what we're looking at," Zîvu told the others. "This looks nothing like anything we've ever seen before, outside the universe. I don't know what the colors, the high points, the low points, the ridges and the valleys of this structure represent. Somewhere in this crumpled fabric, all the universes still exist. But where? And how? And how to find them, and identify one of them, even one we know well?" Y spread ys hands, helplessly.

Susa came to ym, wrapped her arms around ym, and buried her face against ys chest. "Take us home, Zîvu! Please, take us home!"

"Can you take us home?" Lara demanded, intently.

"Thanks to Sisu, I believe I can," Zîvu said. Y manifested a visualization of the mental link between ymself and the other neuter. It shone like a gleaming silver cord from ys forehead to a "nearby" spire-like structure, and thence into it.

"Hold hands again," y said, "if you let loose before. Hold tight, and don't let go for anything! We don't know anything for sure, and we don't know what it will be like to enter what we see ahead of us. Let's at least all get there together!"

Chapter 10
The Meeting

The World, 6 Numestô Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

The war horns sang Break camp! Break camp! Break camp! and the men sprang to work, cheering. They were thoroughly sick of this place, and unused to being in one place for day after day, in any case. The tents came down and went into packs, the poles were bundled, the mounts collected from the handlers. Fires were put out and covered with dirt, trash buried, and the latrines filled in. The sentries went out beyond the walls and collected the stakes in the ditch, and bundled them for transportation. When everyone was out of the camp, the walls were tumbled into the ditch, and tamped down by troopers riding back and forth over them. Then Form Column rang out, and the signals for the order of the column today: First Platoon, remount herd, Third Platoon, civilians, and Second Platoon.

Paran rode up to Saru and saluted. As Saru returned the salute, the acting Banneret said, "Beg to report, sir, no one's seen the scouts at all this morning."

"They didn't return to camp at all?" Saru asked.

"Not that anyone saw, sir," Paran said. "I've asked the platoon leaders, and none of them know anything."

"We need scouts looking for hostiles," Deni advised Saru.

"I agree," Saru said. "Tell Sergeant Stâzo to deploy First Platoon as scouts, front, flanks, and rear," he told Paran.

"I'll tell the column to close up with Command," Paran offered

"I know that you know what to do. Carry on, Banneret." Saru saluted, and Paran returned it, then rode back to First Platoon, where he nodded, and made a sweeping motion all around the horizon. As Stâzo began sending his tiny platoon out to serve as scouts, Paran proceeded down the line of riders to tell them to close the gap the scouts left.

"What does it mean?" Master Ĵetao asked Saru.

"You're the civilian expert—you tell me!" Saru answered. "Ordinarily I wouldn't suppose there was anything down here they couldn't beat or run away from. But, after the last few days, who knows any more?"

Lara and her people rose with the imminent dawn, and called up tele interfaces to cleanse themselves, inside and out, don new clothing, and replenish their energy. All eight of them were standing in a loose circle in the meadow atop Mount Hârob, facing east, as the Daystar broke free of the horizon.

"Âqquq niquq Volâk niquk ha!"

The cry was as shrill as a woman's scream in childbirth. It came from below the mountain's top, but it was loud enough to startle them, despite its distance.

"Âqquq niquq Volâk niquk ha!"

"I'm surprised our visitors from last night are still so close," Zîvu said to Lara. "I would've expected them to report to their superiors, not hang around here." Lara nodded her agreement.

"Ha âqquq niquq! Ha niquk Volâk!"

"I know that language!" Sisu said. "That's Sôcai!"

"Sôcai! Are you sure?" Zîvu said, amazed.

"I know languages the way you know physics," Sisu said. "That's definitely Sôcai, though it's a dialect I haven't heard before. That was a prayer to welcome the sunrise."

"But what are Rulsad doing in this universe?" Koriu wondered.

"They could ask you the same question!" Susa said to her sister.

"So, wait, we had three Rulsad come to our camp last night? Why didn't I see them?" Dâka asked.

"You and Koriu were a bit busy at the time," Persu grinned, holding Susa's hand. "The rest of us pretended to be asleep, and waited to see if they would come forward. But after watching a little while, and circling around the perimeter, they left as quietly as they'd come."

"Come to that, I don't believe any of us actually saw them—they're Rulsad, after all!" Ĵuha said. He looked around for confirmation, and everyone else shook their heads. "For myself, if not for telepathy, I wouldn't have known they were around."

"So why tell us now that they're around?" Koriu said. "An act of defiance? A way of saying good morning? A welcome to the neighborhood?"

"Why don't we ask them?" Lara said. "Everyone ready to meet the locals?"

Saru was facing back along the column, talking to Deni, and didn't see the giants coming. His first inkling was her turning white, her eyes large in her face, as if she were about to faint. It shocked him to see her that way.

"My Lady? Are you quite all right? Cornet Haθa!" he said in his best command voice, when she sagged onto her hands, braced on her saddle horn, and didn't reply. "Ten-hut, Cornet!"

"Sir," she choked out, "behind you!"

He turned, and looked for half a minute, though it seemed like an hour. Then he turned to his signaller. "Attention to Orders!" he commanded. The trooper wet dry lips, and lifted the sake with an effort, as if all the strength had left his body. On the second try, he got the order out.

It wasn't going to be enough, Saru saw. Most of the soldiers had frozen in place, but the Doctor was pounding up the column, Trooper Suko at his heels, and half the sutlers and merchants right behind. Just what the situation didn't need, whatever the situation turned out to be!

"Form square!" he told the signaller, and this time, reassured that someone was giving orders without panic, the man got the order out on the first try. The troops began to move with a purpose, and Saru turned to Deni.

"Take Paran and a squad and get those civilians in the square, out of my way. All of the civilians, the Doctor included, until I say otherwise! Understand?"

"Sir!" she said, and saluted. When he returned it, she raced back along what had been a column of riders, calling for the Banneret in a voice he hadn't known she'd possessed.

Putting his faith in her and in Paran, Saru turned to face the latest crisis.

They descended from the clear green sky, like birds coming to roost in the evening, but with no wings or effort. Down they came, and landed lightly on their strange feet, a hundred yards away; and Saru had the oddest impression that they'd come down so slowly, and so far away, so they wouldn't frighten him! It was an unaccustomed experience; the cornet wasn't sure he liked it.

They were humans, surely, though he couldn't say what kind of humans they were. No kind he'd ever heard of, and the more he looked, the more non-human features he found. They all had two arms, two legs, and a head. But their skin was blue, the deep medium blue of some birds' eggs. They all had eyes, noses, mouths and ears in the expected spots, but they also had what looked like worms hanging down on either side of their noses; he thought three or four on each side, but they moved constantly, making it hard to count. On top of their heads they had no tendrils, but an odd structure, like a fence or a fan, that ran in a curve from the front left of their heads, back to the back of their heads, and then forward to the right. He couldn't tell if they were all wearing the same hat, or what. The things were the same color as their skin on the back and sides, but the inside of the curves, facing him, were yellow with red spines running from their hair to the top of the structures.

They were odd-enough looking, in all truth, but Saru looked within himself and found no fear, only an appreciation of their strangeness, and a vast curiosity. This must be what it feels like to be Juho, he thought in surprise. He urged his mount forward, when the strangers stood there waiting for him. Šari went unhappily, unwilling to walk directly up to them; he walked in little mincing steps, as if he might turn in his own length and run away at any moment.

Knowing the beast, Saru took out his quirt as he approached the point where he intended to stop, twenty feet from the strangers. He'd seen at once that they were tall, twice the height of an average person, but now he saw that all eight of them—and wasn't that an interesting number, he thought, recalling noon at midnight—were the same height, with no variation he could see. That made them seem for a moment like manufactured things, not people.

He reined his mount to a stop. Perversely, now that he wanted to halt, the řobē didn't. He reached around with a snakelike neck and tried to bite Saru's right knee, hissing in anger.

"Su, su, Šary," Saru murmured, and whacked his ride across its tender nose with the braided leather quirt. His mount hissed even louder, and for a moment Saru thought he'd have to hit him again. Then the cantankerous stallion decided his honor was satisfied, and went back to being afraid, trembling slightly. Saru petted him on the neck to comfort him.

Deni rode up beside Saru (actually a little back, to keep the Legate's mount from challenging hers to a fight), just in time to hear one of the strangers, a female, cry out to the one at the front of their little group. "He hit the poor beast!" said the first woman, in a blue dress, to the second one, wearing a green dress with white trim. "Look at the poor thing tremble! Make him stop, Lara!"

Both cornets were speechless for a moment. Then Saru said, "You speak T́uliǹgrai!" cutting off the baronissa as she was demanding, "How do you—oh, sorry, sir."

Lara, Speaker of the Iǹgrē, closed her eyes for a moment in anguish. Not the momentous first words she would've liked to make on an important historical occasion, or the subject matter she would've chosen to broach, either!

"Lara?" Susa said, tentatively.

Lara pointed a minatory finger at her sister. "Not a word. Please." Then she crossed the space between her people and the locals. She supposed she should've made them come to her, but to hell with it!

She reached the two people, a man and a woman in identical costumes, perhaps some kind of military uniform. Sitting astride their animals, their heads were only a little higher than hers. Lara reached out with her left hand to the male, and he took it firmly. She liked a man with a firm grip! Especially when he was so small, and delicate, and yet so brave.

"I don't suppose I could get a do-over?" Lara asked, smiling.

"If you wish, My Lady," he said. "But I think we've made a good beginning!"

The blonde on the other riding animal frankly snorted, but Lara didn't care. The little man had a nice smile, she decided.

"We need to talk, My Lady," Saru said to the giant, red-haired, blue-skinned woman who was holding his hand as if she would never let go. It pleased him, and embarassed him at the same time. He hadn't been so flustered since he received the order to report to Pride of Tlâńor for the Loraon Expedition! He was supposed to be an experienced Army officer in charge of an important mission, not a callow Râńai school boy!

"Indeed we do," she said cheerfully. "But please, don't call me 'My Lady'; I'll think you're talking to someone else. My name is Lara."

Deni almost choked. "Lara? How can your name be Lara, instead of something foreign and strange? I have a cousin named Lara! She's not as tall as you," she added lamely.

Lara laughed, loud and merrily. "I'll bet she's not!" Is she adorable, like you? she thought, but managed not to say that out loud.

"That will be quite enough, My Lady," Saru said to Deni, repressively.

Deni flushed furiously, but said, "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir." At that moment, she almost hated him. Speaking to her like that, in front of this foreign civilian!

"Oh, is she a 'My Lady', too?" Lara asked. She walked in front of Šari before Saru could warn her he might try to bite her, and the normally aggressive beast just stood there, as if asleep! Then she walked up to Deni, and the brown Army mount that the Cornet was on started to shy away. Before he could do more than jerk his head, however, Lara laid a hand on his neck, and he relaxed. She smiled, and looked up. "And what's your name?"

Deni's emotions were all over the place, but she didn't think the Legate would approve of her spitting in the foreigner's face, or saying, 'None of your business, bitch!' Because it plainly was her business, as the leader of these creatures, and unprofessional as all hell to say, besides. She was supposed to be a Baroness of the Court, and an officer of the Army!

Powergiver, she hadn't felt so hot and bothered since the summer she'd had a fling with that other Lara, her cousin, and told her she'd marry her when they were older.

"I—" she said in a strangled voice, then cleared her throat. Still flushing, she swallowed a hundred things she couldn't possibly say, and settled for "Sir, my name is Deni."

"A lovely name, my little Tree," Lara said. Stetching, she kissed the cornet on the cheek, shocking her speechless. "And now I'm a 'Sir'!" she said, turning back to the Legate. "But I still don't know your name, my bold rider!"

"My Lady—Lara," he amended, when she pointed an elegant, if blue, finger at him, "My name is Saru."

"Of course it is!" Lara laughed. "How perfect, my Fierce One! Susa was quite distressed to see you beating your animal, whatever it is, you know." She wagged that finger at him.

"We can talk about that," Saru said, struggling to control his emotions. "For now, I think I should go talk to my people, and you with yours. Here again, in an hour?"

"Assuming we use the same hours?" Lara said, her head clearing a bit. "But, same language, same names… an hour, then. Pen ônyr!"

"Until then," Saru repeated after the blue-skinned woman. It felt like he was recovering from a night of drinking. He watched Lara walk back to her people. Were her steps the least bit unsteady?

"Is she drunk, do you think?" he asked Deni. He clucked his mount into motion. Šari didn't even hiss, just turned around and started plodding back to the banner. He didn't try to bite the Cornet's steed, either. Saru frowned in concern.

"Drunk? She's a maniac, is what she is! What are we going to do, sir?"

"Let's go back to the unit, and talk with the Doctor, and Paran, and figure that out," Saru said, shaking his head. "Ejao… And I, for one, am going to ask Juho for something for this headache I seem to've picked up in the last little while."

Deni started to nod, then stopped, wincing. "Now that you mention it, sir, I seem to have one, myself."

They stopped, staring at each other. Ignoring the hiss from Saru's mount, and the weary sigh from Deni's, they turned in their saddles and looked back at the strangers.

"Help," Lara croaked, staggering back to the others. She practically collapsed into Zîvu's arms, as y reached her first. Y lowered her to the grass, as the others crowded around.

"Lara, are you all right? What did they do to you?" Susa wailed, on her knees beside the Speaker.

"Water, please," Lara said. "Lots of it. Cold!" Koriu gave her an odd look, but drew a cold metal cup out of a tele, almost full of cold water and beaded with drops of condensation. Lara took it gratefully and drank half of it in a single gulp.

"Oh, that was good. Thank you, Kory, you're a life saver." Taking Koriu's hand in one of hers, and Susa's in the other, she said, "I would've gotten my own, but ei-o, such a headache I have!"

"Let me see," Sisu said. He sent delicate telekinetic probes into Lara's head. "Ah… dehydration, constricted blood vessels, overexcited nerve clusters… I can help with that."

"Ah, thank you. That's so much better!"

"Have you been drinking again, young lady?" Dâka said, severely. "What have I told you about that?"

"No!" she said. Sitting up, and freeing her hands, she gave him a little punch. "But you know, I was acting drunk out there. Not like myself at all."

"Not entirely unlike yourself, Lara," Zîvu said, "say more like yourself with all inhibitions removed, as alcohol does."

"Did they drug me, somehow?" Lara asked. "I wouldn't've thought they had the technology for that."

"Not unless they drugged themselves, too," said Zîvu. "Even their animals were acting as if they were under the influence of something."

"Pheromones," Sisu suggested.

"Pheromones, Doctor?" Saru asked. "And what are they?"

The banner was still in square, with the remounts and the civilians inside. Half the men were on duty, the other half at ease. They would switch off halfway through the hour that Saru had suggested to the strangers. Meanwhile he, Deni, Juho and Paran were sitting on their mounts, talking. First Platoon was still doing duty as scouts. The regular scouts, the T́ulańē, still hadn't made an appearance, as far as anyone knew.

"According to the libraries, all kinds of animals emit certain volatile chemicals to influence the behavior of others of the same species. These chemicals can cause other animals of the same kind of feel fear, run away, or be sexually attracted to the one emitting the pheromone. It's part of what causes two people to fall in love," he said, not looking at Deni.

"So, Lara was drugging us, you think?" Saru said.

"From what you've described of your behavior and of hers, I think you were drugging each other!" the Doctor said. "Not deliberately. But these strangers have their pheromones, and we have our own, and it appears that we're closely enough related that ours affect them, and vice versa. Indeed, it would appear that ours affect them more strongly than their own do, and their pheromones affect us more than our own!"

Paran was frowning. "Is there any proof of all this, Doctor, or is this another atomic bomb that isn't what it seems?"

"It matches the facts of how the Legate, the Cornet, and the alien woman behaved," Juho said. "The only other way I know to produce the same effects would be to dose them heavily with alcohol or certain drugs, and that plainly didn't happen."

"But can you detect these 'pheromones' somehow, maybe with a chemical test? Can you give us something to make us immune to them?" Paran said.

"Detect them?" replied the Doctor. He shook his head. "These chemicals are far too complex for our chemical knowledge, and far too volatile to be examined. I mean they evaporate, they vanish into the wind," he said to the others' blank looks. "They're gone before we can test for them, even if we had a way to do that."

"So how do they affect us?" Deni said.

"Oh, good question!" Saru said.

"Through the nose," Juho said, tapping the side of his own. "We don't smell them, as such, but there's an organ in our nose that detects the pheromones of our own species."

"So we put cotton in our noses, and breath through our mouths, when we're near our visitors?"

"That wouldn't help, the mouth and nasal passages are connected. But there are substances we can apply to the insides of our noses, such as a paste of mint oil… I'm not sure how much of the ingredients I have…"

"Can you make enough in half an hour to get the four of us through an hour of talk with the strangers?" Saru asked.

"If I have enough of the right ingredients, and I can get the help of Trooper Korva for the work, yes, I believe so," Juho said.

"Take whatever help you need, Doctor," Saru said. "We must have clear heads to talk to these people."

"So what do you suggest, Sisu?" Lara asked. "Turn off our vomeronasal organs, so we aren't affected by their pheromones? And do the same to them, without their permission? That would be a crime against them."

"It's not as though we can ask their permission," Persu said. "At their level of science and technology, I doubt they even know about pheromones."

"That doesn't make it right," Lara said. "We haven't the right to make changes to their bodies without their informed consent."

"It wouldn't work, anyway," Sisu said. "Oh, for an hour or so, here and now, it would be effective enough. But messing with the hormone balances, either of us or of them, would be life-threatening eventually."

"Not to mention," Zîvu, "there are eight of us, and who knows how many millions of them? If we're going to live on this planet, we need a solution that doesn't involve assault without consent—rape, not to put too fine a point on it—against the entire population of the world."

"The problem isn't the natives," Dâka said. "The problem is we eight, who are different from everyone else."

"Brilliant!" Lara said. "We can change ourselves, and the problem is solved. And we only need our own permission to do that, no one else's."

"We know they have Rulsad scouts working with them," Koriu agreed. "We've heard them! One pass through a tele for the lot of us, and we come out the other side Rulsad. There should be no problem with Rulsad pheromones, or they couldn't be around each other."

"But I like being blue!" Ĵuha protested. He held up one blue hand. "I don't want to be chocolate brown, however lovely a color it is."

"You can be any color you want," Sisu said. "That's just pigments in the skin. Dark blue, light green, black as coal, white as chalk, lemon yellow, rose red, eggplant purple if you like! But Rulsad brown the first time, because our hosts are familiar with it."

"But what about our magnetic and electric senses?" Dâka said, stroking the wormlike face tendrils on either side of his nose. "Rulsad bodies don't have these. That's not superficial. It would be like losing my eyes!"

"Our makers invented many different ways to give us the abilities we have," Sisu said. "Some don't work quite as well, but many others work perfectly, they just made a choice in the end. We don't have to use the magnetic and electric senses of the Tlâńē. The magnetic sense of the Uklē is almost the same, and the electric sense of the Kaikhlir might even be better."

"Show us," Lara said.

Sisu concentrated, and produced an image in their minds; a female Rulsad, her skin a dark chocolate color, her eyes midnight black. On top of her head rose horns like those of a wild řobē, rising from her silky black hair, then each horn branching into two, and each of those into two more, for a total of eight tines. Short conical horns sprouted at her temples, and a line of white disks ran down both sides of her body, from just below her armpits to just above the knees. They looked like scars, but Lara felt, in the display, that they were as soft as the rest of the woman's skin.

"I don't remember seeings those disks on any Kaikhlir's body," she said to Sisu.

"On a Kaikhlir body, they're inside the outermost sheath," Sisu told her. "On us, no reason not to put them right on the outside."

"Those clothes are going to be a problem," Koriu said. "Maybe it's because they're uniforms, but we've already seen that the natives wear quite a lot of clothing. I don't think they'll go for sexual organs covered only by a loincloth, and bare breasts in females."

Lara smiled. "So we'll dress our new bodies in clothing like theirs, only better fabric and brighter colors," she said.

Koriu and Susa began to smile, too. "I'm going to enjoy this, ain't I?" Koriu said.

Saru put a dab of mint-oil paste in each nostril, then closed the bottle of it that Juho had given him, and put it in his belt pouch. Deni, Paran, and Juho did the same. "Are we ready?" he said.

"I hope so," the Doctor said. "I think so."

Paran snorted, then said "Whoof! Don't make the mistake I just did, anybody."

"The question is, are they ready?" Deni said. "We should have arranged a signal."

Saru wasn't listening. He stared at the strangers with a puzzled expression. "They seem further away," he said. "Did they back away while we were busy?"

"Looks like it," Paran said. He laughed. "Or maybe they just shrank, and that's why they look like they're farther away," he said facetiously.

Chapter 11
"Who Are You?"

The World, 6 Numestô Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

During the interval, Lara and Sisu had gone over the design for the new Iǹgrē bodies, looking for possible flaws or inconsistencies between the basic Rulsad genotype, those of the bodies they were used to wearing, and those of the magnetic and electric senses they were grafting on in place of the Tlâń model. All of this work had been done by their own designers, the Kaikhlir among others; but they didn't know whether this combination in particular had been tested, and they wanted no surprises.

While Lara and Sisu were doing that, Koriu and Susa used their long-distance sight, and delicate telepathic probing, to examine the equipment and clothing of the locals. They brainstormed clothing for their family, modeled after the soldiers' uniforms but in many different combinations of colors; and in many different fabrics, such as silks, satins, and fine linens. When they discovered the Doctor, and his mix-and-match assortment of tunics, shirts, and robes, they were overjoyed. His wardrobe completely validated their ideas, and gave them some more.

Zîvu exercised ys authority as a neuter, and put the males, Dâka, Persu, and Ĵuha, to work. They found and duplicated Saru's command tent by the same means that Susa and Koriu were using for the clothing, but made their copy twice as big in diameter, a couple of feet taller, and created it out of fine, but waterproof, white linen. Then they created a framework of aluminum pipes, pinned it to the soft grassy ground with aluminum stakes, draped the pavilion over it, and tied the bottom of the tent to the frame with leather thongs. Last of all they made a big wooden table, long enough for eight people to sit comfortably on each side; and wide enough for a meeting, but not too wide. Instead of Saru's camp stools, they pulled twelve X-frame chairs out of a tele, made of the local ironwood, with a snarling orkē head at the end of each chair arm.

When all was ready, they went through a tele and came out with their new bodies. Now they were all six feet tall, not counting the black, energy-absorbing back horns that stood another 8 inches above their skulls. The four-inch black horns at their temples, circular in section and conical in cross section, contained their replacement magnetic senses, while the white discs down their sides, two inches in diameter, gave them their new electric senses.

"So beautiful!" Ĵuha said, looking down at his own body, and the bodies of his family. "I had no idea that brown could be so deep and rich! I may never go back to being blue."

"You haven't seen anything yet," Koriu said, and kissed him deeply. "Now step this way and see all the fabulous clothes that Susa and I have been slaving over."

In the end there was no chance that anyone would mistake them for a military unit wearing uniforms. They were all the same height and build, true. But some of them kept their original hair color, while others changed theirs completely; and the neuters, of course, had no hair at all. The genotypical Rulsad eyes, nearly identical to ancestral human eyes and limited to vision in the wavelengths between purple and red, they replaced with the superior eyes of the Verē, that were immune to glare and could see two ultra-violet colors and one in infra-red, beyond what the Rulsad could see. Then they chose every eye color of the rainbow but one, since there were 9 colors in a Verē or Iǹgrē spectrum, and only eight Iǹgrē to display them. If the locals could only see the ancestral human colors, no doubt the ultra-violet eyes would look white, and the eyes colored infra-red would seem black.

They took their places in a line, facing north to the visitors, Lara in the center of the line, with Zîvu and Sisu on either side of her, for comfort as much as for advice. "Are we ready?" Lara fretted. "Remember, everyone, leave the talking to me. Speak telepathically with each other, and with me, but no outbursts, please."

"You're the Speaker," Sisu said.

"Ehiu," Lara whimpered. This was such an important event, and it all rested on her!

: You'll do fine, : someone said telepathically, and a wave of love and trust and admiration washed over her. She relaxed gratefully, and sent it back to all of them.

: Here they come! : That was Susa, stating the obvious. But at least she hadn't spoken out loud! Maybe this meeting could go as planned.

: Four of them this time, : Lara commented. : The little leader, named Saru… :

: Better stop thinking of them as 'little', : Sisu advised. : We're the same size now, and treating them like children would be a sure way to make them hate us. :

: Your Saru's on a different animal, : Koriu noted. : I wonder if that means anything? :

: The blonde woman next to him is one of his officers, Deni by name… :

: Lovers? : Persu wondered.

: No data, : Lara said shortly. : Maybe, maybe not. :

: The man on her right, with the colorful clothes and the straw hat, is some kind of civilian adviser, : Susa said. : We got a lot of our wardrobe ideas from him! :

Koriu added, : He's a medical doctor, or what passes for one at their level of scientific knowledge, and a noted scholar, from what I picked up from various minds. Most of the men in the unit just think of him as 'the Doctor', so I didn't get a name for him. :

: At this level of technology, they probably don't have an abstract notion of scientific fields, : Zîvu said. : They're likely still collecting specimens of plants and animals, minerals and chemicals, dissecting them and categorizing them. He probably calls himself something like 'naturalist' or 'natural historian', rather than 'scientist'. :

: As long as he doesn't call himself a mage, or a wizard, and say "abracadabra" all the time, : Ĵuho said drily. : Fair warning, Lara. If he threatens to turn me into a toad, I'm going to give him a taste of his own medicine! :

Ignoring the joke, Lara said, : The fourth person, the big man on the big riding animal on Saru's left? I've got nothing, except that he's obviously a soldier, with that firearm on his shoulder. :

Zîvu said, : It's only a guess, but based on the lack of cities in a fertile area like this one, I'd say that civilization took a big hit here, in the past few hundred to a thousand years. Saru's people are probably emerging from a feudal era, where a minority of armed nobles ruled a majority of unarmed 'common people'. Armies from feudal states, or from states divided by class, usually have a dual command structure, where the ordinary soldier is a commoner, and command is divided between career under-officers of the lower class, and higher ranks of the upper class. I suspect that Saru and Deni are nobles, and officers. See how they carry hand weapons, as well as larger firearms? The other military man is probably a commoner, possibly the under-officer who commands the whole unit, subject only to officers like Saru. :

: So, from our left to right, a noble civilian who's a doctor and a scholar, a female noble officer, a male noble officer, and a common-born male of the lesser class of officers? : Lara asked.

: That's my guess, : Zîvu answered. : There are quite a few assumptions in there, of course :

The four natives rode up in line abreast and stopped about six feet away. The civilian was openly gaping at everything. Deni, and the unnamed common soldier, had automatically split the field of view between them; the woman was trying to watch for possible threats on her right, Lara's left, while the man was looking for weapons and danger on his left, Lara's right. Saru apparently had utter faith in the two of them; he stared straight ahead, at her.

Lara cleared her throat. "Welcome, my friends. Well met!"

Saru's face was expressionless, but his gaze was stony; and the emotions he was projecting, no doubt unintentionally, matched the gaze. "Friends?" he said. "Who are you? What are you? What are you doing here?"

"Thank you," Lara said. "Exactly what we need to discuss! Shall I go first? My name is Lara, as I told you and Deni a little while ago. My title is Speaker of the Iǹgrē. All of the people here with me, my family, are Iǹgrē. May I introduce them to you?"

"If it pleases the Lady Speaker to do so," Saru said, easing off on the hostility. Meanwhile Deni was thinking, Ei-o, everyone's acting like sober adults, this time. Maybe we won't have to shoot anyone, after all!

"It pleases me very much, and thank you for your courtesy," Lara said. "Starting on my left, the male at that end of our line, with the light brown hair and the huovol eyes, is my brother Ĵuha."

Huovol? thought the Doctor, What does that mean? They just look white to me. He added one more question to an already long list of them that he was compiling in his head. Meanwhile, the stranger named Ĵuha nodded his head and said, "Simradax! I'm very glad to meet you all."

Perfect! Lara thought, and sent a wave of love, approval, and gratitude his way. Out loud, she said, "To Ĵuha's right, your left, the yellow-haired female with the purple eyes is Susa, my sister, who disapproves of cruelty to animals."

"Yes, I do!" Susa said, drawing herself up and crossing her arms. "You have some explaining to do, mister soldier man."

"I'll be happy to talk with you about our mounts as much as you want, My Lady, and hope to redeem myself in your eyes," Saru replied. "My people breed and raise řobēθ, and all three of the mounts with me come from my stables. I've had them since they were born."

Řobēθ?!, Sisu thought. Those are deer they're riding? If so, they're the largest, sturdiest deer I've ever seen! Although, the heads do look like… Y shook ys head. An awful lot of breeding must have gone into turning deer into these mounts, that could carry a full-grown man and his equipment; especially for people who had no notion of genes, and no way to do genetic engineering except to control the animals' mating, and culling the ones who didn't meet their goals!

"Moving along," Lara said, "next to Susa, the man with the dark blue hair and the light blue eyes is my brother Persu."

"Be welcome, all of you," Persu said. Smiling easily, he put an arm around Susa's waist. Deni felt her eyebrows go up, then schooled her expression to be impassive.

"On my immediate left, with green eyes, is my neuter sibling Sisu," Lara said. "Ys particular interests are biology and linguistics."

Neuter? Ys? Juho wondered, and added some more questions to his list. He noted that the neuter, whatever the term meant, had no visible hair whatsoever. Only one other in the lineup of strangers was bald.

"Or perhaps you call them natural history and philology," Sisu said. "Different words for the same thing, really."

"On my immediate right, with the orange eyes, is my other neuter sibling, Zîvu," Lara continued.

"My ruling passions are astronomy, physics, and cosmology," Zîvu said. "Don't get me started on stars, planets, galaxies, or universes unless you have a lot of time to spare. I'm afraid I'll talk your ears off, if you let me."

"Take ym seriously, my friends," Lara laughed. "Y means it! Beyond ym is my sister Koriu, with the untameable curly black hair and the rose-red eyes. Watch out for her, she's a heartbreaker!"

Koriu laughed. "Thank you, sweet sister! If that doesn't get them interested, nothing will!" She looked directly at Saru. "Do you have a lover at present, fierce Saru?"

Saru colored slightly. Were the strangers succumbing to his, Deni's, Juho's and Paran's pheromones, or were some of them just maniacs, as Deni had said? "I will not discuss that in public," was all he could think to say.

"In private then? Great, it's a date!" Koriu said, and laughed.

"Finally," Lara sighed, "at the right end of our line, right next to my lunatic sister Koriu, is my brother Dâka, with the green hair and the puno eyes. Just one of his many virtues is that, sometimes, he can keep Koriu's worst excesses under control."

"Can't either!" Koriu said, bumping her chest against his and looking at him with a challenge in her eyes.

"Can too—sometimes," Dâka said, put his arms around her, and began kissing her. This time, Deni didn't even try to hide her amazement. This was a family?

"Say hello to the nice people, Dâka," Lara said resignedly. Dâka got one hand free and waved to Saru, Deni, Juho, and Paran, but it was all he could spare for the moment.

Lara looked up at Saru. "You must think we're all insane, but I promise you, it's only some of us, some of the time."

Saru didn't know what to say to that, but the Doctor, more familiar with eccentric nobility, spoke for him. "I believe I understand, My Lady Speaker. I, too, have relatives that aren't fit to be seen in public."

"That's it exactly," Lara said gratefully. "They're sweet people, and I love them dearly," she informed the doctor, "but sometimes I don't know what to do with them."

She could practically feel Deni's mind boiling with suggestions! Ignoring that with some difficulty, she looked at Saru. "Please, won't you let your mounts rest, and come talk in comfort? We've prepared a nice meeting place."

"My mother always told me not to keep a lady waiting, or standing," Saru said. "Prepare to dismount; dismount," he added quietly, and stepped smoothly from the saddle with the last word. Paran and Deni followed his command automatically, and the Doctor wasn't caught by surprise, either, for once.

Lightning was a peaceful beast, so Saru didn't have to curb him with the reins, to keep him from biting someone, as he would have with Snake or Thunder. That didn't mean he wanted to let him wander free in a strange camp. "I hope your meeting place includes a place to tie our mounts?" he asked Lara. "I could have brought another trooper to hold them, but I wanted to keep this meeting small."

"That shouldn't be a problem," Lara said, walking up to him. Telepathically she said, : Quick! Four hitching posts, near the pavilion! :

: Right away! : Ĵuha responded. He turned, and began walking towards the meeting area. As soon as he was hidden by the pavilion, he pulled four ironwood posts from a tele, six inches thick, eight feet long, with iron rings, ten inches in diameter, hanging loosely from holes through the posts, near the top. It was the work of a moment to sink them in the ground for half their length, with telekinesis, and pack the earth around them, so that not even the most panicked beast could rip them up.

"Nice," Susa said, joining him. "But why individual posts? Why not a couple of sturdy posts, maybe six feet apart, with a third post between them?"

"I didn't think of it," Ĵuha said. "I just thought, four animals, four posts."

"I just hope it isn't too specific," Susa said. "Look out, here comes everybody. Try to look nonchalant."

"Not to worry," Ĵuha said. "After the exhibition Koriu and Dâka put on, they probably think we came back here to neck, rather than install my poor, shoddy hitching posts."

"Let's not disappoint them, then," Susa said, and put her arms around his neck. "The hitching posts are beautiful, and so are you," she said, and kissed him.

The mounts were tied up, with long enough reins so they could drop their heads and crop the lush grass, and move about a bit. Lara produced a sugar cube from the white leather pouch on her belt, showed it to Saru, and said, "May I?" He had no need to know that she'd gotten the idea from his head, and that the pouch had been empty a second before.

"Go ahead," Saru said. "One won't spoil him. If you do it too often, though, he'll be your devoted slave."

"I'll keep that in mind," she said, offering the sugar to Lightning, who accepted it gratefully. Lara stroked the long, deerlike neck, fondled his ears, and made silly noises at him.

"I have more," she said then, and held out sugar cubes to Deni, Juho, and Paran. Deni and Juho didn't even think of refusing a gift under these circumstances, but accepted the cubes, and gave them to their mounts. Paran, with Loraon in mind, also took one, but switched it for one in his own pouch to give to Titan, his mount today, in case hers was drugged. It would give the Doctor something to look at later, anyway.

Out in front of the tent, all of the Iǹgrē lined up along the meeting table, in the same order as before, on the inside edge, nearer the tent. That left four chairs on the outside edge for their hosts, or guests, whichever they were. Guests, Lara decided. Whatever the territorial claims of the realm they represented, and however they regarded Mount Hârob and its environs, the natives were visiting the Iǹgrē camp.

"Please, be seated," Lara invited. As soon as her rump touched the seat of her chair, everyone else sat down. She'd never felt so much like a Speaker before.

"For the record," she said, "this is the first official meeting between the Iǹgrē, and military and civilian representatives of a nation north of here." (That much they'd been able to glean from the minds of the banner.) "I'll invite our guests to supply today's date."

"According to my journal, today is garē harol pen Numestô Wekao," Saru said. "Unless I've miscounted a day somewhere?"

"That's correct," the Doctor said. "The sixth day before Numestai, in the month of the tulip."

"Thank you," Lara said. "And the year, by your reckoning?"

"This is the year 413 since the founding of the Kingdom," Deni said.

"Well, we use the same calendar," Zîvu said, "but we'll have to work out our respective chronologies."

"Let that stand for now, to be revisited later," Lara said. "We are meeting on Eoverai, home world of the Verē and Tlâńē, on the continent of Kantos, at the site of the ancient Tlâńai city of Maa a tla, also known as Κtûnai by the Verē. Yes?" she said; all four of the locals had reacted to her statement of their location.

"Nothing, My Lady Speaker," Saru said. "Pray continue."

"Very well. Present are myself, the neuters Zîvu and Sisu, the females Koriu and Susa, and the males Persu, Dâka, and Ĵuha, of my household. We've introduced ourselves, and now our guests will do the same, yes?"

"Right gladly will we," Saru said, at his most courtly and diplomatic, and stood up. "To begin, I am Saru Peta's son, the Legate in command of Orkē Banner, the military unit presently in square to the north of this meeting. So that there's no misunderstanding about our intentions, let me inform our hosts that ours is a mission of exploration, not aggression. We were dispatched by Sixth Army command to discover what lies south of our own Tlâń Kingdom, both the geography and the inhabitants; to make contact with any civilized realms that might exist; and to locate the Mižinai city of Κtûn, and determine its fate. My Lady?" he said to Deni. As she rose, he sat down.

"I am Deni Haθa, Baroness-Designate of Haθ. I hold the rank of Cornet, and I have the honor to be second in command of Orkē Banner, after Legate Saru. Pleased to make your acquaintance," she said, and sat down."

"Thank you, Cornet," Saru said. "Banneret?"

"Yes, sir," Paran said. He stood, and assumed the position of at-ease, looking straight ahead as if addressing an assembly. "I am Banneret Paran Anĝarat, the non-commissioned officer in command of Orkē Banner after the Legate and the Cornet."

: Paran? : wondered Zîvu. : What kind of name is Paran? Have you heard it before, Sisu? :

: No, nor Anĝarat, either. This is getting very interesting, : said the other neuter.

: I like him, he's butch! : Koriu declared, though fortunately not out loud.

"Thank you, Banneret, well done," Saru said. "Doctor? Care to make your bow?""

"Oh, indeed," said Juho. Taking Saru literally, he stood up, stepped back from the table, and favored the strangers with his most elegant bow. His legs extended just so, he folded his right arm across his chest, while he swept off his high-crowned, wide-brimmed straw hat, so different from the Army's round-topped, medium-brimmed head gear, and "swept the ground" with it. His hair, longer than the Army wore it, tumbled forward around his face, and his tendrils sprang up, free of the hat, showing the strangers what the northeners had on their heads, in place of the horns on their own.

Coming erect from his bow, his hat still in his left hand, Juho said, "I am delighted to meet you, my ladies and lords. My name is Juho Ĵetao, which is a noble family, though not a titled one. Personally, I'm a member of the Royal Academy of the Sciences, and I've been awarded the Order of the Phoenix, of which this is the outward sign," he said, holding the jeweled medallion up by its chain, "for my work in interpreting material in the ancient libraries of Tlâńor and Anθorâń. I have degrees in medicine, biology, and chemistry. I'm not in the Army, but I serve the Banner as a doctor, and give advice to the Legate to the best of my poor abilities."

"No need for false modesty, Doctor," Saru said, as the Doctor put his hat back on, and sat. "Master Ĵetao is very learned, as we judge such things, and has been invaluable, not only on this present expedition, but on the Êstâz's expedition to Loraon."

: The Êstâz's expedition? Their king is called the Êstâz? How's he addressed, 'Your Fatness'? : Dâka wondered. The Eretai name Êstâz, like its T́uliǹgrai derivative Stâzo, means "fat."

"So," Saru said to Lara. "Now that we've introduced ourselves, can we move from the question of 'who' to the question of 'what'?"

Chapter 12
Return of the T́ulańē

The World, 6 Numestô Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

" 'What' is difficult to explain, and 'why' even more so, Saru," Lara said. "Let's start with the here and now, and try to expand from there. We are the same eight people you saw before, though our bodies are very different. We changed our bodies, because of the way you, and Deni, and I were acting earlier. You may not believe me, but there are these chemicals called 'pheromones'—"

"We know about pheromones," the Doctor said, and described them to her, briefly.

"Very impressive!" Sisu said. "I would have thought that detecting pheromones, or counteracting them, would be far beyond the state of your chemistry."

"It is," Juho said. "But it wasn't beyond Mižinai chemistry, and we have two great libraries of their science. Working to understand the material in those libraries is why I'm a Master of the Phoenix," he said, tapping the medallion hanging around his neck.

"And yet you came to meet with us a second time," Lara said. "That was very brave of you, especially Saru and Deni, who had personal experience with the effects."

"Juho prepared a paste of oil of mint for us to rub inside our noses," Saru said. "That seems to have worked for us. But you don't seem to've been affected this time, either. At least, not most of you."

"Oh no, Koriu's always been that way," Lara said.

"That's why we changed our bodies from our old ones to these," Sisu said. "We knew that you have Rulsad males acting as scouts, so their pheromones must be compatible with yours. That's why we look like your scouts; we're wearing bodies like theirs, deliberately."

"You mean the T́ulańē?" Paran asked. "That's crap, and I don't care who hears me say it. You don't look at all like T́ulańē, or any other people I've ever seen!"

"What? But we've heard them speaking Sôcai!" Lara said.

"Sôcai? What's that? The T́ulańē speak T́ulańai. Have you ever heard of 'Sôcai', Doctor?" Paran growled.

"No, but we don't know what the T́ulańē call their language, which isn't T́uliǹgrai, or related to it. Can you repeat any Sôcai, sir?" the Doctor said to Sisu. "I do know a few words of the T́ulańai tongue."

"I don't know that a few words will help," Sisu said. "The Rulsad are very secretive around outsiders. How much of their language have you heard? As many as a dozen words?"

"I know two, at least," Saru said. "The T́ulańē don't use their personal names where outsiders can hear them. The head of a group of them is always 'Herâk', and the second in command is always 'Surâk'. These are the names of two stars, in their language; and the rest of a band also call themselves by star names, among outsiders."

"That's true!" Deni said. "Our third scout calls himself 'Pâka'."

"Herâk? Surâk?" Sisu repeated, puzzled. " 'Herâk' is the Sôcai word for the principal heart, the one on the left side of the body, and 'Surâk' means 'the tip', or 'the point' of something. 'Pâka' means a trained dog, that fights alongside its owner. But I don't know any stars with those names."

"Nor do I," said Zîvu, "and I know the names of hundreds of stars, in a dozen languages."

"One word I know is itaq," Juho said. "It means 'It's nothing', or 'Never mind'."

"Or 'Drop it', or even 'Get out of my face'," Zîvu said, nodding. "It's a very common Sôcai word."

"It's cognate with taq, the word for 'no'," Sisu told ym.

"Thank you, Sisu," Zîvu said, pleased. "I didn't know that."

"What was that scream the scouts made, one morning, when they were close to camp at dawn?" Deni asked.

"Ah!" Juho said. "I can't duplicate the high pitch, or the sheer volume of the cry, but I wrote down the words, as nearly as I could discern them, in phonetic signs. Just a moment…" He walked to his mount, and rummaged in a saddle-bag. The beast, his own Observer, nibbled on his ear affectionately, and he stroked the sleek neck while he dug out a notebook. "Here it is!" he said, and a few moments later, found the correct page. "Uh… 'Âqquq niquq Volâk niquk ha!' " he read carefully. "They cried that twice, so I'm fairly confident I got it right. There was a third line, but they only said it once, so I didn't get it," he said, shamefacedly.

"Well, that's Sôcai, all right," Sisu confirmed. "It's the same thing we heard, this morning. It means, more or less, 'The stars are rising, and Volâk is rising, too!' If Herâk and Surâk are the names of starsuns, then it's likely Volâk is also the name of a star, probably Volai. The Rulsad we know about wouldn't need a word for Volai, but these live here, so…" y shrugged.

"What?" the Doctor demanded. "Why wouldn't they need a word for the principal sun? That makes no sense!"

"What makes no sense is that the Rulsad are here at all," Zîvu said. "The Rulsad home world, Sôc, exists in another universe from this one. So you see, they don't need names for starsuns in this universe."

Juho goggled at the concept, not even sure what Zîvu meant by "universe." Paran stuck to his point, saying, "If these 'Rulsad' look like you, they don't exist around here. The T́ulańē look just like us, although their language, clothing, and customs are different."

"He's right, I'm afraid," Saru said.

"I don't know what to tell you about that," Sisu said. "I think we've established that your scouts speak Sôcai, and that's the native language of the Rulsad, who come from another universe. But if you say they don't look like us, I have no reason to doubt your word. We've only heard them crying out at dawn; you've seen them face to face, spoken with them, shared your camp with them, correct?"

"That's correct, Lord Sisu," Saru said. He used the male gender, and addressed Sisu as Tlûk Sisy, as his own people only had two genders, male and female.

"Oh no, Legate, don't call me Tlûk," Sisu said easily. "Zîvu and I are neuters; the correct form is *Rûk, if you insist on being formal. Call Lara, Susa, and Koriu K'ûk, since they're females, and Dâka, Persu, and Ĵuha Tlûk, as they're males; but not us."

Juho was frantically scribbling away in the notebook he'd retrieved from his saddle bag. Paran opened his mouth to ask a question, but Lara said, "Let's not get any more distracted. We'll cover all that, in the days ahead. For now, may I hope for peace between us, Legate? Or at least a truce?"

"Yes, My Lady Speaker, by all means!" Saru said. "I can't speak for the Kingdom; for that you'll have to come to our land, and talk to the Êstâz, one Speaker to another. But where my banner is concerned, yes, let there be peace between us, while we learn each other's ways." He held out his hand.

She took it. Her hand was soft and warm in his. Having no idea of her origins and her life, he vaguely supposed that she'd led a soft and pampered life; he had no notion of the strength she could exert through telekinesis. She smiled, and said, "Peace between us," and it was a promise whose import he had no way to recognize.

"So where are these famous scouts of yours?" Persu said, before Koriu could say something unfortunate about the way Lara was holding Saru's hand, and looking at him. "I, for one, would like to see them, and I'm sure Sisu and Lara, at least, would like to talk to them."

"That's an odd thing, My Lord Persu," Paran said, frowning. "Normally, the T́ulańē come into camp in the morning, take a look around, maybe ask me or the Legate if we have any requests we'd like to make. Sometimes they leave again right away after that, sometimes they wait until we start out and run alongside us for a while. We may not see them all day, but we trust they're out there looking for trouble. Then, in the evening, they'll come in, usually with some game for the camp's cook pots, hang around a while, then leave for the night; they don't sleep in our camp, or eat with us, ever."

"That sounds like a very… loose arrangement," Lara said.

"It's no arrangement at all, if you're thinking of them as scouts in our employ," Saru replied. "They aren't part of the army, nor are they subjects of the Kingdom. The first Êstâz recruited them to his personal service, and they don't answer to anyone else. Maybe the current Êstâz, My Lord Vîd́a, gives them orders, but I sure as hell don't!"

"The point I was getting at," Paran said patiently, "is that we didn't see them yesterday, nor did we see them this morning; and that's unusual. They're very good about checking in with us at least twice a day, although when they do so isn't anything we can set chronometers by."

"That is strange," Lara said. "We slept last night on Mount Hârob, and they came by our camp sometime after midnight. Then, this morning, they were still so close that we heard them acclaim the dawn."

"Did you see them, then?" the doctor asked eagerly. "We never do, unless they show themselves."

"Neither saw them nor heard them," Zîvu said, "except at dawn. Nor smelled them, or detected them by any other physical sense. But we have other senses than physical ones. We could feel their emotions through telempathy, though they were tightly controlled; and hear their thoughts by telepathy, though the content of their thoughts, what they were thinking, was locked away. But our telekinesthetic senses told us there were sentient beings around, and where they were."

Juho shook his head. "I don't know what those words mean, and I've never seen them in either Library," he said.

"The Miẑinē knew a lot," Sisu said. "They had, quite literally, millions of years of human history, human culture, and human science behind them. But there was much they could never learn, because they were Miẑinē, not Verē, with only the same physical senses as yourselves. If our Speaker and your Speaker can reach an accord, it will be our great pleasure to teach you what the records in your Libraries represent, and all the things that aren't in your Libraries, as well. It's more than likely, for instance, that you have at least some tøskê, some psi abilities, yourselves."

"The point is, I think, that we didn't see them," Lara said, "though we knew they were there; and we don't know what they look like, though we heard what language they speak. But they saw us, in our old bodies; we weren't hiding, we were lying in plain sight. If you haven't seen them since then, I wonder what they thought of us, and what they're thinking now."

The twelve of them were silent for a moment. "I couldn't begin to tell you," Saru said. "No one knows the T́ulańē, except other T́ulańē. You can earn their respect, I sometimes think, by being honest and sensible; other times I think I'm deluding myself into believing what I want to believe. Who knows what they consider honest, or think is sensible?"

"Well," said Lara, looking at the sky, "we've half talked the day away, and in less than fifty miles you'll hit the fire line, if you keep going the way you're going; all burnt grass and ash, very unpleasant if you have to walk or ride through it. May I suggest, my friends, that you pitch your camp here for the day, and in the morning we can discuss whether you want to continue south, or return to your kingdom so we can meet your Speaker, or some combination of the two; and how my people and your banner can co-operate to achieve your goals, and ours?"

"That's not a bad idea at all, sir, if I may say so," Cornet Haθa said.

"No, it isn't," Saru agreed. "In fact, may I offer you and your people the hospitality of our camp, My Lady Speaker? If we lay out our camp with your meeting place as the center, it will be right in the central square of our camp, where the principal roads come together, with the tents of myself, the Cornet, and the doctor right there. And you'll be within our walls, and protected by our sentries and our rifles."

Koriu burst into laughter and fell on the ground, kicking her heels and howling. Lara turned her back on her, while saying to her, telepathically, : Shut up, you! He has no idea how powerful we are, or how little we need his protection! It's rather sweet of him to offer, actually. :

"Thank you, Legate," she said out loud. "That sounds perfect. I'm sure we'll all be fascinated to see how your banner makes camp."

"Very good," Saru said. "Banneret Paran."

"Sir!"

"Bring the men here, and have them set up camp. We'll place the center of the camp so that the Lady's pavilion lies immediately south of mine, with its north-facing entrance opposite mine. Does that suit My Lady Speaker?"

"Since you ask," Lara said, "I wonder if I might impose upon your hospitality a bit further, and set up a second pavilion?"

: What? Why? : Koriu said, telepathically.

: Well, for one thing, so that you can have sex in private, instead of rolling on the ground naked in front of our new friends, : Lara answered. : For another, so that we can, officially, sleep with the genders separated—or didn't you see Deni's reaction to the displays of affection when we were introducing ourselves? :

: What business of hers are our sexual relations? : Koriu demanded hotly.

: They don't know anything of genes, or DNA, except what may be in those two Libraries the doctor mentioned : Zîvu said, : and no way to apply any such knowledge, except by selective breeding. Populations at that level of knowledge and technology, and below, have strong prohibitions against 'incest'. In short, Koriu, brothers and sisters don't have sex! :

: Well, why not? I don't understand! :

: Because brothers and sisters may very well carry the same recessive genes, : Sisu said, : and those genes can combine in their children, causing dead babies, and deformed babies, and babies with lifelong handicaps, physical or mental. So they don't allow brothers and sisters, and other close relatives, to have sex. :

: But our genomes are designed; we don't have any bad genes! And we don't get pregnant unless we want to! And if a baby had a bad gene, say by mutation, we could fix ys cells, anyway! :

: But our hosts don't know that, : Lara said, : and we have to fit into their society, at least for now, at least in public. We'll discuss this later, sister. :

All this discussion flickered through their minds like lightning in summer, jumping from cloud to cloud; as Lara returned her full attention to Saru, the Legate was saying, "Whatever My Lady wishes. Can do, Banneret?"

"Can do, sir," Paran said. "We'll still set a central spike, but use an offset from there so there's room for four pavilions the size of the Speaker's. I'd suggest your command tent in the northwest corner, and the cornet's in the southwest, with the entrances facing east, and the Speaker's two pavilions in the northeast and southeast corners, with the entrances facing west. The four roads of the camp can run between each pair of tents, if that's acceptable."

"It sounds good to me," Saru said. "My Lady, have you any objections?"

"Not at all, it seems charming," Lara said.

"Then I think we're agreed," Saru said. He looked at Deni and Juho. "Have I forgotten anything, Cornet? Doctor?"

"First Platoon's been on scout duty all day," Cornet Haθa said, "and no one in the rest of the banner knows what we've decided here, or how to treat our new friends."

"You're right!" Saru said. "Where have my wits gone? Banneret…"

"If the Legate will permit," Paran said, "I'll tell Sergeant Stâzo"—Koriu burst into laughter again, at this evidence that the old name Êstâz and the T́uliǹgrai version Stâzai were both in use in Saru's culture, but Paran ignored her—"that he and his are relieved from scout duty and camp-raising, and send them to you for escort duty. While you're briefing them and introducing them and the Speaker's people to each other, I'll brief Sergeants Ĵuha and Dane?" He raised an eyebrow and curved his tendrils into inquiring curves.

"Yes, that's correct," Saru said. "And tell them 'Well done!' from me. I'll talk to each of them this evening, after camp's set up."

"Yessir, I'll do that," Paran said. "They'll be pleased."

"And give them my congratulations as well, please, Banneret Paran," Cornet Haθa requested.

"Yes, sir, I will. Then with the Legate's leave?" He saluted.

Saru returned the salute. "Dismissed, Banneret. And thank you," he said.

Juho knew he was missing something in the military formalities which he's just witnessed. As far as he knew, Corporal Ĵuha was only acting Sergeant of Second Platoon, and Corporal Dane was the head of one of the squads in Third Platoon. Corporal Mrada had been acting Sergeant of Third Platoon until his death in the recent battle; the doctor had written the death certificate himself. Well, no doubt Saru or Deni would explain it to him.

"Sergeant Stâzo," Paran said, "Gather your men. First Platoon is relieved from scout duty and excused from camp duty. Report to the Legate for escort duty."

"Escort duty, sergeant?" Paran asked curiously. He didn't salute; only officers got salutes in the Kingdom's army. His tendrils curved forward in interest, and wonder, as he asked, "Whom are we escorting, then?"

"Very important people," Paran replied. "The Speaker of a foreign nation, no less, equal in rank to the Êstâz himself, and her family, eight of them all told. Until and unless the Legate tells you otherwise, you're at their beck and call, as instructed by the Legate. You understand?"

"I understand that the Banner is now on diplomatic service to a foreign nation," Stâzo said. "That means we're officially a banner now, not just acting as one; the Legate is officially our Legate; and you're officially the Banneret—Congratulations, by the way!"

"And your promotion to Platoon Sergeant, with the rank of Sergeant, is a sure thing," Paran said. "Congratulations right back atcha! When we get back to Sixth Army, they'll replace all of First Platoon's losses, our casualties in Second and Third Platoons, and gives us a Fourth Platoon of fresh faces to whip into shape."

"Ea!" Stâzo responded, applauding visions of glory—or promotion and advancement, which was near enough for a career soldier.

"On the other hand," Paran reminded him, "things won't be quite so free and easy as they have been. The Legate will get three more Cornets for his staff, and each Platoon will have a Cornet in charge, too. Including yours, Platoon Sergeant."

"Ehiu!" Stâzo mourned. "I hadn't even thought of that!"

"You would've, I'm sure," Paran said. "Round up your troops and report to the Legate, at that big tent to the north of us. And congratulations again, Platoon Sergeant."

"Thanks, Banneret!" Stâzo said. "On the way!" He rode off towards Valta, who was a trained signaller, to call his men in from scout duty by battle horn.

"On the way? Indeed you are," Paran said, when Stâzo was too far away to hear him. "Good man."

While Valta called First Platoon to fall in on him and the Platoon Sergeant, Paran went to the bored troops of the banner, still in square, with the civilians and the mounts in the center. His first order of business there was to inform Corporal Ĵuha and Corporal Dane of the banner's new status, congratulate them on their promotions to Platoon Sergeants, with the rank of sergeant, and pass on the messages from the Legate and the Cornet. Then he gave them the bad news, before they could think of it for themselves.

"You realize, of course, that the Banner will also get three more Cornets, to round out the staff positions, and one more for each platoon. That's seven more officers, one the immediate boss of each of you, but all of them entitled to give you orders."

"Oh, my aching back!" Platoon Sergeant Ĵuha said, shaking his head in disgust.

"I suppose it's too much to hope for that any of them will be pretty, and good-natured, and female, like Cornet Haθa," Platoon Sergeant Dane said woefully.

Paran stared at him, too amazed even to be angry. Then he clouted himself on the forehead, afraid that if he hit Dane, he wouldn't be able to stop. "Don't hold your breath on that one, troop. Just don't you do it, or we'll need a replacement for you, after your air runs out."

"March your troops to that big tent to the north of us," he said as he turned away. "First Platoon's put down the stake there, and is putting up the Legate's tent, the Cornet's, and two for our foreign muckety-mucks. Your platoons have surveying and shovel duty; allow for a central square twice as big across as usual, and keep everyone out of it unless the Legate, the Cornet, or I tell you otherwise. Dismissed, sergeants. Congratulations again."

Setting up camp took a little longer than usual; the men were almost rusty, after a few days in the same place, and this new camp wasn't quite regulation standard. They figured it out. While Paran talked to Sergeant Ĵuho and Sergeant Dane, Sergeant Stâzo reported to the Legate with his mini-platoon. While the Legate briefly introduced First Platoon to the Iǹgrē, and vice versa, the rest of the banner broke their square and sorted themselves out for making camp. Saru directed Stâzo to plant the center stake of the camp west of the Speaker's table, and north of it, leaving the pavilion, the table, the chairs, and the hitching posts inside one quarter of the central square, clear of the camp roads. Then four of the troopers ran due north, south, east, and west from the central stake, holding measuring cords, and put down the stakes for the camp gates. Second and Third Platoon took it from there, staking out the camp walls, and breaking out the shovels to dig the ditches outside of them, throw the dirt high and pack it solid, and plant the stakes in the ditches.

Lara, Koriu, Susa, and Zîvu distracted Saru, Deni, Paran, and Juho with questions while Sisu and the men made the table and the hitching posts quietly disappear. Sisu handed Sergeant Stâzo the reins of the four mounts while Dâka, Ĵuha, and Persu pulled the poles and fabric of a second tent out of a tele, inside the cover of the first.

Finally, with a minimum of overt miracles, and leaning heavily on diplomatic niceties to avoid inconvenient questions, the nineteen of them (the Legate, the Cornet, the Banneret, the Doctor, the eight foreign dignitaries and the seven men in First Platoon) got the center of the camp set up. The enlisted men did most of the work, of course. Saru's tent wound up in the southeast quarter, with its entrance facing west; Deni's tent in the northeast quadrant, just across the east road from his, and the doctor's tent north of hers, both with their entrances facing west as well. Lara's pavilion, officially shared with Koriu and Susa, was pitched in the southwest quadrant, directly across the south road from Saru's with its entrance facing his tent's; and the second Iǹgrē pavilion, officially for the neuters and males of Lara's family, stood in the northwest quadrant, across the north road from the Cornet's and the Doctor's tents, its entrance facing theirs.

The ironwood X-frame chairs with the orkē heads at the ends of the arms were scattered around the square, a gift from the Iǹgrē to Orkē Banner—and a marvelous diversion for the disappearance of the big, heavy table.

Saru and his command team took the Iǹgrē on a tour of the camp, with First Platoon along to answer individual questions from Lara's people, plus "extra duties as assigned". They admired the straight, hard-packed roads, the camp gates, the neatly erected tents of the men. They petted and cooed over the mounts, saw the civilians and their sloppy tents, and looked politely at the goods of the sutlers, the ingenious portable tools of the tinkers, and the nostrums and fiendish torture devices, masquerading as surgical implements, that the quacks carried.

"It's very orderly," Sisu said to the Doctor. "And you set this up every afternoon or evening, and erase it every morning?"

"The banner does, yes," Juho said. "I don't lift a finger to that work, myself, let alone a shovel; I'm just a civilian, here to see what I can see, and give medical aid and advice as needed."

"It's almost the same layout that the Alteřan legions used in our history," Sisu told him. "Is that a coincidence, or deliberate?"

"I couldn't tell you," the Master said, spreading his hands. "I've never heard of them."

"Never heard of them?!! The Alteřans invaded Loraon and Syorkai, conquered provinces on both continents, and established an Empire that lasted for hundreds of years!"

"It's news to me," the Doctor told ym. He looked around the camp with fresh eyes. "The first Êstâz set up the Army, when he organized the Râńē to fight the cannibals and blood-drinkers, and drive them out past the Sealed Mountains."

"Who are the Râńē—no, never mind, later for that. Was your first Êstâz an Alteřan, then?"

"No, he was Verē," Juho said. "After the Krahos nations banded together, defeated the Verē, and enslaved them, the High Tlâń queen Morĝai saved him from death, and brought him to Kantos to save her people. Every school child knows the teaching rhyme," he said, and recited:

A star from heaven is fallen,
A star has fallen and crashed.
The fallen star has bloomed,
The seed bears flower at last.
What is the name of the Lady who rules
The present and the past?
What is the name of the Lord who died,
Reborn before the mast?

Morĝai of Tlâńor has restored
Êstâz to life and breath:
She bids him fight her bloody foes
Until victory, or death.

"Êstâz taught us to ride, taught us the bow, gave us the T́uliǹgrai language, the worship of the Powergiver, organized the Army and the Kingdom, and oh, so many other things!" Juho said. "That's why his successors—Lartu, Persu, and Vîd́a, to date—style themselves "Êstâz" in his honor… There's that smile again."

"I'm sorry," Sisu said. "I'll stop doing it. After all, the Alteřan Emperors called themselves Qesø, which was originally their clan name; and 'Qesø' originally meant something like 'Baldy'. So why shouldn't your rulers call themselves 'Fatty'? It's just a name, after all."

Lara's people returned to their tents after the tour of camp, happy with the awe and admiration the troops gave them, but Koriu, and even Susa, were practically beside themselves.

"Did you see the way they looked at us?" Susa cried. "You'd think they'd never seen a woman before in their whole lives!"

"Tell me about it!" Koriu crowed. "When those two soldiers ran right into each other, because both of them were looking at us, instead of where they were going, I thought I'd die from laughing!"

"I'm more concerned with how you looked at them," Lara said. "Can't you at least try to control yourself, until we know where we stand?"

"I don't want to stand!" Koriu said. "All those lovely, lovely men! I want to throw myself naked into the middle of them, and roll around in them!"

"Don't you understand?" she pleaded. "Don't you feel it, Lara? I thought I was dead, and everyone else, and the whole universe. And now I'm here, and I'm alive. I'm alive, Lara!"

"I understand," Lara said. "I think the problem is that you're afraid you're not alive, and you want to grab everything you can before it goes away."

Koriu stared at her with a shocked expression, her skin several shades lighter. "What a nasty thing to say, Lara!"

Susa put an arm around Koriu's shoulders. "She didn't mean it that way, Koriu. She's just trying to be a proper Speaker. Also, she has her eyes set at a higher level. Legate high, I'd say," she smiled, and winked an ear at Lara, where Koriu couldn't see.

"And you don't?" Koriu said, beginning to smile in Susa's embrace.

"Pfu, Legate, what's that?" Susa said loftily. "Personally, I want to see what their Speaker looks like!"

Saru was discussing the state of the camp with Deni and Paran when Lara walked up to them and said, "They're coming!"

"Who's coming, My Lady?" Saru said.

"Your scouts are coming," Koriu said. "I can hear them in my head." She pointed down the south road towards the main gate of the camp. "Your sentries are surprised that they can see them coming, but the scouts aren't being stealthy today. They come openly, three abreast, for all to see."

"Then let's meet them halfway," Saru said.

"Please," Lara said, and laid a hand on his sleeve. It was very warm, even through the regulation cloth. "No, I beg you. They come step by step, in unison, one foot before the other. Soldiers not on duty follow them, curiously, but they pay them no heed. The scouts—Ah, they don't call themselves T́ulańē, did you know that?—march to music, which they hear, and I hear, but your troops do not; it is in their heads."

"You wish us to wait for them here, My Lady Speaker?" Cornet Haθa asked.

"Please," Lara repeated. Her eyes were blind, inwardly seeing. "Each step takes time, and each step represents time. You can't cut short that time, it's already past. So don't cut short the steps; let them come. They intend to come to us here."

"Platoon Sergeant," Paran said. "Make sure your sentries permit the scouts to pass. Stop everyone else. They can watch from the road, but this is a ceremony of some kind."

"Yes, Banneret," Sergeant Stâzo said, and joined the sentries where the south road entered the square. Normally there were only sentries in front of the officers' tents, but with foreign dignitaries in camp, all the rules were changed; now the whole square was guarded.

"Well done, Banneret," Saru said.

"Thank you, sir." Paran reflected that the two of them had come a long way from that day on the docks when he'd been busted from Banneret of Orkē Banner for cause, and had called his replacement "a dirty Girai mount-fucker." He fingered the lump in his nose thoughtfully, where Saru had broken it in that fight. Saru smiled, but didn't say anything. He didn't need to.

Then the three T́ulańē came into sight where the south road entered the square, dressed as they always had been, with buckskin leggings ornamented with quills, knives on their belts, bare chests, and headbands holding their long hair back from their faces. But every inch of their leggings were covered with quills now, dyed quills of many colors, making figures Saru didn't know: a lightning bolt? a running river? a man, an eagle? He could only guess; and they wore arm bands, likewise stiff with quills.

Lara reached out quickly and squeezed Saru's hand, and Deni's. "Whatever happens," she said, "don't worry. Trust me!"

Then she stepped forward, as if she could hear the music to which the scouts marched, as she'd said, and knew when and where it would stop. The four of them halted in perfect unison, the three scouts side by side by side across the road, and just out of arm's reach of the Speaker.

"Well, little brother?" Lara said to Herâk.

"Qa belu', Qibabu," he replied, tapping his forehead.

"I see you as well, little brother. Ma belu' ha. Why do you speak Sôcai to me? You are not Rulsad."

"Qibabu…"

"Please," Lara said, "for courtesy's sake, speak T́uliǹgrai. I know you are fluent in that language, and our hosts don't speak Sôcai."

"Sai taq, Qibabu…"

"Please," Lara said. She reached out, and took his big hands in hers. "As a favor to me."

He looked at her, then at her hands in his. Slowly, he lifted her hands, and bent his head, so that his forehead rested on her hands. "Yes, Grandmother," he said in a voice choked with emotion. Deni, a few feet away, felt tears prickle at the corners of her eyes, though she didn't know why.

"So," Lara said gently. "Not Rulsad, and yet Sôcai speakers. How is this, little brother?"

"Some of our fathers," he said, speaking very softly, "were Rulsad, visiting the Old Ones here for the first time, in their flying cities. Some of them were even Sôcē, from Sôc itself. Some of our fathers were Old Ones, survivors when the city fell onto the mountain. Some of them were New Ones, rescued from the blood drinkers, the eaters of men, the star worshippers. Many of them were New One babies, set out to die in these southern lands by their parents, because they were not Old Ones. We changed our bodies, to be like the New Ones; but we didn't change our ways, or our language. We are all Sôcē now, whatever our fathers and mothers were."

"I understand," Lara said. Gently, she freed her hands from his. "Thank you, little brother, for telling me."

"And you, Grandmother?" Herâk asked. "We saw you on Hârob. You were not Rulsad then. Will you tell us your story?"

"We were Iǹgrē, but found that didn't work among the New Ones. But we had heard you speak, so we thought there were Rulsad here, the old kind of Rulsad. So we changed ourselves, to be like you, as we thought; so that we could make a home here, as we thought you had."

"A home here!" he cried. "Oh no, Grandmother! We are exiles here; we have no home."

Suddenly all three scouts were weeping, tears streaming down their faces, astonishing everyone but Lara and her people. The scouts drew their sharp knives in unison, and slashed themselves across their foreheads, so that the blood flowed freely down their faces, over their eyes and cheeks and mouths, and dripping down their chests. Then they dropped to their knees, and spread their arms wide, the knives lying on the ground in front of them.

"Hold on," Juho said quietly; Saru had jerked when the knives came out. "This is a ritual of some kind."

"I know," Saru said. "The Girē have blood rituals, too."

Koriu and Susa walked up on either side of Lara, and faced the weeping, bleeding scouts with her. A ritual they all know, then, the Doctor concluded wrongly, not knowing that all three women had read the scouts' intention in their minds.

"Grandmother," Herâk began.

"Why do you call me Grandmother, little brother?" Lara asked.

"Surâk and Pâka follow me; I have authority over them; so they are my sons. You have authority over all the Fathers and Mothers of my people; so you are the Grandmother," Herâk said.

"I see," Lara said. "And why do you cut yourselves, little brother?"

"We walked the years away," he said, "one step at a time, the three of us; they are gone. Now we weep the sorrow away, one tear at a time. It is gone. We bleed the pain and the suffering away, one drop of blood at a time. It, too, is gone."

"To what end, little brother? Why have you given up your years, your sorrow, and your pain? What do you wish of us?"

"Take us back, Grandmother!" Herâk cried. "Take us in, and give us a home! Long and long we have been lost on this world, orphans in an ocean of strangers. Oh, take us in, we beg you!"

"Of course I will, little brother," Lara said, enfolding him in a hug. On either side of her, Koriu and Susa followed her lead. "Be lost no longer. I adopt you, and all of your people, as my own. By the peace between our races, by the Rulsad in my veins and my genes, you are orphans no longer. You are mine," she said, kissing the bloody slash on his forehead. "You are home, little brother," she said, kissing him on the mouth. She clasped him to her, ignoring the blood and tears, and rocked him back and forth.

Peace between us, Saru remembered her saying to him, and felt the hairs on his body standing up. What did the word "peace" mean to her, and what did saying it imply? By the peace between our races, you are mine, she told Herâk…

Had she claimed him, too?

"Well, sir," Deni said, "how do you feel about a woman with several hundred children, even if they're all adopted?"

"It hardly matters what I think, Cornet," Saru said.

"Without intending any disrespect at all, sir," Deni said, "you're not a very good liar."

"It's probably his greatest weakness," Paran agreed.

"I'm sorry, Legate," Lara said, "but this is urgent, and important. I'm afraid we won't be availing ourselves of your hospitality tonight, after all. May we resume in the morning, when we return?"

"Of course, My Lady," Saru said. "I'm just concerned; will you be safe out there?"

She put a hand to his cheek. "You have no idea," Lara said. Suddenly she smiled. "But you'll find out!"

"At thy service, My Lady Speaker," Saru said. The words were cold and formal; but his voice was warm.

Chapter 13
Blue Fire

The World, 5 Numestô Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

The attack was well-planned, and carefully executed.

The strangers, with their thundering weapons, had inflicted heavy losses on the People, with only light casualties themselves, so the war chiefs—Grasseater, Blows Cold, Rain, all of them—had ordered the attack broken off. They retreated, but not in panic. They took every follower with them who could ride an animal, and enough animals that every warrior had three. Warriors too badly wounded to ride were blessed, and thanked for their valor, and killed, sparing them the dishonor of the enemy eating their flesh while they were still alive. Every bow was taken, too; they were no match for the invaders' booming weapons, it appeared, but they were all they had. Then they rode away in good order, their heads high. They'd been defeated, but they weren't beaten. They'd learned valuable lessons, and the strangers would see them again. Thunder weapons or no thunder weapons, Monsters scouting for them or not, the People always won in the end. This was their land, and they would keep it.

Luck favored them almost immediately. Some of the invaders split from the rest, to come chasing after the People in their withdrawal. Their number was troubling. Three hands plus one was an ugly number, and a bad omen. But one of them died almost at once, making their numbers 12, a beautiful number. Furthermore, he fell from his mount and the others looted him and left him there with no ceremony. That could only be an omen for all of them falling.

The war chiefs laid an ambush for them, and they rashly ran into it headlong, as if stones couldn't hurt them. So careless were they, that picked bowmen could use their stones to break bones, without risk of killing the fools. Taken alive, they died slowly and painfully, repaying the People for their losses. The war chiefs carved the flesh from their bodies while they screamed, and ate it before their still-living eyes, and every warrior who followed them got at least a small piece of enemy meat, before the victims died. Then the war chiefs rode on to discuss long-term plans, while the ordinary warriors did as they pleased with the rest of the manflesh.

The chiefs rode far, talking as they rode, and were another fifty miles or more from the enemy camp before they dismounted. When the sky broke into eight pieces and fell, burning—a beautiful number, the best number!—the chiefs rose from the ground and stood to face it without fear. When the fallen sky burst into flame that licked out and rose up, looking as if it would devour all the world, still they showed no fear. Many faint hearts failed, and their owners ran away, abandoning their oaths to their chiefs, and no doubt going on to spread panic far to the west and south. Let them; they were weak blood, and their lineage would be removed from the People. And any who believed them, the same.

Many died in the sky fire, and in the grass fires that followed. Certainly the place of the ambush was burned to ash, and the place of the feasting afterwards. So be it. Accept our sacrifice, O Sky! We will give you many more, until the invaders are afraid to come to our land again.

Not a moment was wasted. Mounted messengers went out, switching mounts often for greatest speed. More chiefs were summoned, and their warriors with them. The People's numbers grew again.

Openly attacking the invaders, relying on bows to break into their camp, didn't work. Their thunder weapons had a greater range than bows, and were more deadly. Attacking them while they rode looked no better; their mounts were strong, and fast, and the enemy could probably shoot as they rode, just as the People could. A time for stealth, then; crawl into their camp unseen, and attack them with knife and hatchet, at close range where their thunder weapons were just clumsy sticks. Then everything they had would belong to the People, starting with their living flesh.

The attack was well-planned, and carefully executed…

Saru woke to the sound of a rifle shot. Then a battle horn started to sound, but was choked off; literally choked off, he feared, as if the signaller's throat had been cut. He threw himself out of his bunk.

"Guards, there!" he called. "Sound Enemy in camp!"

As the loud notes of the sake bellowed forth, a shadowy figure rose from the ground and threw itself at the signaller. The attacker was indistinct in the predawn twilight; but a knife gleamed. The other sentry, the signaller's partner, stuck his rifle in the enemy's belly, knocking the wind out of him. Then he pulled the trigger, and the southlander was blasted back, his stomach a bloody ruin.

"To me!" Saru shouted. "Guard each other's backs!" As he spoke, he shot an enemy in the head, the only target he had, as the southerner raised a hatchet overhead to strike down another sentry at another road.

Suddenly Cornet Haθa was beside him, firing one of her pistols past his head. "Watch yourself, sir!" she said, as he whirled and saw that another attacker had come up behind him; dead now, though.

"Yes, Mommy, I'll be careful," he said, grinning.

"Take your own advice, Deni!" the Doctor said, as he pistoled an attacker behind her. The southlander took the bullet between the eyes and crumpled to the ground.

Then it was back to back to back, the Legate, the Cornet, the Doctor, and the six surviving sentries forming a circle and fighting with pistol barrel and pistol shot, rifle shot and rifle butt, knives and a battle horn against attackers with knives and hatchets—and teeth! Deni thought, as she used the butt of an empty pistol to smash the face of a man who was trying to bite her throat out. Before she could hit him again with the other pistol, the Doctor jabbed one of his in the snarling man's ear and blew his brains out the other.

"Did you see that?" Juho cried in amazement. "His teeth were filed sharp!"

"This is no time to be a fucking scientist!" she shouted, as she reloaded one pistol, then the other.

She didn't know if he heard her. The noise of the camp was unearthly, with the gunshots, the cries of the panicked mounts, the screams of the wounded, and the shouts and curses of soldiers, civilians, and southlanders.

Saru shot an enemy in the belly, leaving both his pistols empty. Before he could reload, another threw himself upon him, bearing him to the ground. Saru dropped the pistol in his left hand and strained to hold the knife in the other's right hand away. This is it! he thought desperately, as he felt the southerner's sweaty wrist beginning to slip out of his grasp.

Then Trooper Suko appeared, bleeding from a cut from just below his left eye to the corner of his jaw, and blood all over the front of his uniform. He grabbed the warrior by the back of his buckskin shirt, and punched him hard in the side of the face with one massive fist. Saru heard bones break. As the man sagged, Suko grabbed him, raised him bodily over his head, turned, and threw him a good six feet away.

"Thanks, Trooper!" Saru gasped, jumping up and clapping Suko on the shoulder. "Well done!"

Then all the attackers disappeared, suddenly. The noise was cut in half, and Saru was standing in knee-high grass instead of on the packed earth of the camp. The newly risen Daystar shown on collapsed tents (except for the Iǹgrē tents, which had that internal frame), and confused people waving guns around and shouting to each other, looking for someone to shoot.

"Everyone all right?" Saru asked, reloading his pistols automatically. The cornet and the master, he saw, were doing the same. "Signaller! Let's have All clear and Report Status, if you please."

"Just as soon as I find a working sake, sir," Trooper Valta said. "I'm afraid I've ruined this one, bashing heads in with it."

: Please don't shoot, : said Lara, her "voice" booming in everyone's heads. : The attackers are gone, and we're coming in. :

"Trooper," Saru said, his voice choked with fury, "make that Cease fire and Assembly."

"Yes, sir," Valta said, and raised to his lips the battle horn that he'd just recovered from the body of another trooper.

Saru was talking to Stâzo and Valta as Lara and her people walked into the central square of what had been a camp, before the roads, gates, walls, and ditches vanished. Around them, the men of the banner found their way as well, uncertain how to proceed in this unfamiliar, chaotic environment. When they saw First Platoon in formation in their pitiful numbers, training took over, and they squared off and lined themselves up in their platoons and squads, using First Platoon as a baseline.

Seeing that the Legate was occupied, and seeing the Doctor looking through his fallen tent for things, the Iǹgrē joined the Master to give Saru privacy. They lifted the tent to head height by circling it and pulling on all the bottom edges, so that he could duck under and find pen, ink, and a journal to write in.

"Thank you," Juho said, "you are all most kind."

"Shall we set it up for you?" asked the male Iǹgrē nearest to him.

"Let's see what the Legate decides that the Banner's going to do, first. For now, just let it down again. Thank you for the offer, My Lord."

Then he did a double-take. "But—Surely it is My Lord Herâk to whom I speak?"

"It is," was the answer. The features were unchanged, but the man before Juho now had the same beautiful, deep brown skin as the other Iǹgrē, was dressed in the same civilian-style tunic, shirt, and robe as the others, and had the same four-tined horns atop his head, the same conical horns at his temples, and the same blind-looking eyes, all one color. His hair was still black, and fell below his shoulders, and his feet were still bare. Some habits die harder than others, Juho supposed.

"But I call myself Herâk no longer," the scout (former scout?) said. "Now I'm Alarao Jedai."

"Alarao?" Master Ĵetao asked, his tendrils quivering with curiosity. "That wasn't her idea, I'd bet."

"You'd win your bet," Jedai said. "All the rest of her family insisted. 'Alarai Larai'," he said, and laughed outright, amazing Juho.

"And you chose 'Jedai' for your personal name? Why Jedai, if I may ask without offense?"

"I'm the first of my people to become Iǹgrē," the former Herâk said. "Jedai seemed a good name to me."

"Indeed, first to act, first by name," Juho agreed. "Congratulations, My Lord. And Surâk and Pâka?"

"Those two have all the imagination of a pair of fish," Jedai grumbled. "When I chose Jedai, they chose Ket́ai and Harai. I believe that, had I chosen 'Shitty' as a name, they'd be 'Shittier' and 'Shittiest'."

Juho laughed out loud. "They still look up to you, My Lord. In their hearts, they are your sons."

"It may be so. Thank you, Doctor."

"My pleasure, My Lord 'One'," Juho said. "Please give my regards to My Lords 'Two' and 'Three', as well."

"Get to the Platoon Sergeants," Saru told Stâzo and Valta, "and make sure the sentries come in, too. If they ask you to notify the sentries for them, please do it. I want those men here."

"The sentries, sir?" Platoon Sergeant Stâzo said. "I don't understand."

"You don't need to understand, troop," Banneret Paran said, not harshly, but firmly. "You need to follow the Legate's order, and move."

"My fault, Banneret, but thank you," Saru said. "I'm a little aggravated at present." He looked at the two men from First Platoon. "Without a ditch, without a wall, those soldiers aren't sentries, they're just targets waiting for the enemy to sneak up on them and kill them. Get them in here. Quickly, now."

"Yessir!" said Stâzo. He and Valta threw Saru a salute. As soon as he returned it, they took off running.

"Your sentries are safe," Lara said, walking up to Saru, Deni, and Paran. "The southlanders aren't within 50 miles of here. And all your men are well; we were able to save every one of them, to our joy."

Saru closed his eyes for a moment, his tendrils standing straight up. When he opened them, he said, "Please excuse us, Cornet Haθa; Banneret Paran."

Then he grabbed Lara's arm and all but dragged her half a dozen feet away from anyone else. Had she resisted, he could no more have dragged her than he could have dragged Mount Hârob; but she didn't resist. Then he unloaded on her.

"Listen, My Lady Speaker!" he said, savagely but not loudly. "I don't know who you think you are, but this banner is not yours! These men are my men, and Êstâz's men. Understand?"

"You're angry with me?" she said, her eyes wide. "But we saved your lives! A dozen of your men would be dead, right now, if only the Doctor could tend them, and that only after the battle was over!"

"They're not your men to save!" Saru snapped. "We're not your pets to protect! We're professional soldiers!"

"You're not being very diplomatic," was the least lame thing Lara could think to say.

"I'm not a diplomat!" Saru said. "I'm not a nobleman! I'm only an officer because I stood over the Êstâz's body with a sword, and protected his life with my own!"

"But how brave!" Lara said. It was all she could do not to say, "But how brave, my Saru!" But he seemed to hear it anyway; and it didn't lessen his anger.

"I'm not brave," Saru said, "I'm Girē! Girē born, Girē raised, Girē fierce, Girē loyal. I have a Girē temper, too, and I am this close," he said, holding up his left hand with the thumb and index finger half an inch apart, "to telling you to go to Hell!"

"I don't even know what 'Girē' means," Lara said. "Please don't be angry with me, Saru. I only meant to help!"

"I know you did," Saru admitted, his tendrils and his eyebrows relaxing a little, now that he'd let off steam. "My mother used to say, 'If you see something bright red and spiky on the ground, pick it up and give it to Saru. But he careful it doesn't bite you!' "

"I don't understand," Lara said.

"It's a Girē idiom," Saru said. "When we get blazing mad, we say we 'lose our temper'. My mother was describing my lost temper as a bright red, spiky thing, liable to bite."

"Oh," Lara said. "And have you found yours?"

Saru closed his eyes again, as if searching inside himself. "Not yet, not quite… Give me time to check on my men, My Lady, and I should be fit to be around after that."

"I wish you would call me Lara," she said, "at least when none of your soldiers are around to be shocked."

"As thou wishest, Lara," Saru said. "One thing I promise thee most earnestly; no matter how angry I should get, no matter the reason, I shall never strike thee."

She smiled, then. "Then I, for my part, shall never rip your arm from your living body, my Saru, and make you eat it, fist, and arm, and all."

He laughed out loud, the last of his temper fading. "I do believe you would! And I would deserve it, too! Please excuse me, My Lady, while I see to my Banner. Of your grace, we will speak again later."

"You have my leave to depart, Legate," Lara said, adopting a regal tone and pose out of ancient history. Saru mimicked the Doctor's best bow, then clapped his round-crowned soldier's hat back on his head and returned to where Deni and Paran were waiting, laughing every step of the way.

The Legate and the Cornet stood before the banner, facing it. Banneret Paran stood facing them. Behind him were the three platoon sergeants, and behind each of them, his platoon, all lined up perfectly and automatically according to regulation, each man the regulation distance from the man to his left, his right, in front of him, and behind him; with twice that distance between the platoons.

It's beautiful, in its own way, when performed by trained soldiers, the Doctor thought. It's almost graceful, as any actions regularly performed are graceful; like a dance, almost.

The Doctor and the Iǹgrē were off to the left of the formation, at right angles, where they were out of the way but could see everything. They were sitting in the X-frame chairs that the Alarē, Lara's household, had given to the banner. Juho was glad that the beautiful ironwood chairs had been saved, rather than left behind for southerners to hack up out of frustration, or burn. Twelve chairs were exactly enough for the Iǹgrē, with the ex-T́ulańē added to their numbers, plus the Doctor. Of the whereabout of the other civilians—the quacks, sutlers, and tinkers—the Doctor had not the slightest clue, but he trusted Saru to have thought of that; or Deni or Paran, at last resort.

"We're ready, sir," Saru's staff of one told him quietly.

"Thank you, cornet," Saru said. Then he nodded to Paran.

"BANNER!" the Banneret called, and

"PLATOON!" the Platoon Sergeants echoed, and

"SQUAD!" cried the squad leaders.

"ATTEN-TION!" Paran bellowed, and all the men snapped to the position of attention in perfect unison, even the sound of their boot heels coming all at once, and the sound of their rifle butts hitting the ground beside each man.

"Beautiful!" Lara thought.

"REPORT!" Saru said.

Platoon Sergeant Stâzo said, "First Platoon, all present, Banneret!"

Platoon Sergeant Ĵuha said, "Second Platoon, all present, Banneret!"

Platoon Sergeant Dane said, "Third Platoon, all present, Banneret!"

Banneret Paran saluted the Legate, and said, "Banner, all present, sir!"

Saru returned the salute, and said, "Thank you, Banneret," but he seemed nonplussed. "All of them? No 'accounted fors', Cornet?"

"The dead from the earlier battle are already off the rolls," Deni answered, "and you ordered the sentries in."

"Well, who's watching the mounts?"

"A couple of the tinkers were sober, and seemed sensible, so I took it upon myself to ask them to watch the mounts during this assembly, sir. I hope that was all right."

"It was more than all right, it was good initiative. Well done, Cornet. Did you pay them?"

"Since they're civilians, yes sir," she said, "five crowns each."

Too much, he thought, but he wouldn't have discouraged her initiative for the world. "Make sure the Army reimburses you, Cornet."

"Oh, I don't need it, sir," she assured him.

"No," he said, "mark me now, Cornet, always recover any expenditures you make. If you let them, the civilians—and the Army, too!—will walk all over you, and rob you blind as they do. And you don't want to encourage them in bad habits; the next Cornet might not be rich."

"Yes, sir," Deni said. "I'll remember."

"Very good," Saru said. "BANNERET!"

"SIR!"

"Open the formation for inspection."

"Yessir!"

As the sergeants gave the orders to space the men out further yet in both dimensions, Saru said to Deni, "You'll need paper, pen, and ink, Cornet."

"Sir?" she said, gaping. "You're not going to gig the men for torn uniforms, blood stains, and dirty rifles, are you?"

"Right after a battle?" Saru said. He shook his head sadly. "You must think I'm some sort of monster, My Lady! Go get writing materials, quick now. If you can't find them in your collapsed tent, I'll bet you those ten crowns that your boyfriend has them. Probably his first order of business after the enemy vanished."

"No takers, sir; that's a sucker bet!" Deni said, and ran off towards the chairs that the Doctor and the Iǹgrē were in. There goes a good officer, Saru thought, not for the first time, and smiled. He saw Lara looking at him, and winked at her. The smile she returned was like Vol rising.

Saru started with First Platoon, the Cornet and the Banneret beside him. "At ease, Platoon Sergeant," he said, returning Stâzo's salute. "I'm not concerned about dirty rifles or torn uniforms today, I just want to look the men over."

"Yessir," the sergeant said. He performed an about-face and addressed his command. "Platoon, At Ease!" he called, and the men of his micro-unit shifted from Attention to At Ease with the smoothness of long practice.

"At Ease" didn't mean standing around in an uncouth slouch like civilians, or talking or cracking jokes. It meant that every man moved his left foot, so that his feet weren't together, and his left arm went behind his back, held parallel to the ground. If he hadn't been holding the muzzle of a rifle with his right hand, both hands would've been behind his back, and clasped. Other than that, "At Ease" meant he didn't have to stand rigidly, and could answer when spoken to.

The very first soldier that Saru looked at, Trooper Muho, caused his eyebrows to fly up, and his tendrils to curl towards the trooper. "That's a lot of blood on your uniform, Trooper."

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir."

"Don't apologize for fighting for the Kingdom, Trooper Muho," Saru said. "That's what we pay you for. How did it happen? Is it enemy blood?"

"I don't think so, sir," Muho responded uncertainly. "All I remember is an arm coming around my throat from behind, and yanking my head back. And then something slashed across my neck. I don't remember anything after that."

"A knife, troop?" Paran said.

"I don't know," Muho said. "It didn't hurt, and it didn't feel sharp. It felt cold, actually." He looked back and forth between Saru and Paran. "Am I dead?"

"Hell no," Paran said easily. "You don't have permission to die; we're not done with you yet!"

"Hold still," Saru said to Muho. "Relax your neck muscles, and let me look at you." He felt the man's neck; no cuts, not even little ones; and no scar, either. The blood down the front of Muho's tunic was consistent, as the Doctor would say, with his throat being cut from ear to ear; but there was no sign of it on his body.

"Did it hurt, anywhere I touched you?" he said, stepping back from the man.

"Honestly, sir, I feel perfectly fine," Muho answered, "only…" and he gestured at the dried blood all over the front of his uniform.

"Well, see the Doctor if it worries you, but you look alive to me," Saru said. "Cornet, take down this man's name."

"Yes, sir," she said.

"Am I in trouble, sir?" Muho said.

"Not even a little bit," Saru said, and clapped him on the shoulder. Then he moved on to the next soldier.

In the end, every single man on the roster was alive and well, but eleven of them, by the evidence of the knife and hatchet slashes in their uniforms, and the dried blood on them, had no business standing upright and drawing breath. A hatchet to the head, a knife in the gut, and slashed throats seemed to be the battle repertoire of the southlanders at close quarters. He would wonder what they did for an encore, except he'd already seen it, in the camp where they'd tortured the deserters to death.

"Write that list in your journal, Cornet," Saru said, as the two of them walked back towards the front and center of the formation, "and then let me have it afterwards, for mine."

"Yes, sir," she said. "What are you going to do with it, if I may ask?"

"I haven't decided," he told her. "What is the proper reward for dying in the service of the Êstâz, and coming back for more? A special medal of some kind? A cash award? A permanent raise in pay?"

"I don't know."

"Neither do I," he said. Then they stopped, and did simultaneous right-faces in front of the banner. Saru nodded to Paran, who brought the formation to attention.

"Orkē Banner," Saru said, and every man could hear him clearly, "you have honored the Êstâz today, and the Kingdom. I am so proud of you that I cannot find the words; and when the Army hears of today, they will be proud of you as well."

"Our noble visitors came to our aid today, and we owe them great thanks. But mark my words, soldiers, it was your victory. We were the ones doing the fighting, as our oaths require us to do. Had it been necessary, it would have been we who did the dying, too. No one can take that away from you. Always remember that! Banneret Paran!"

"Sir!"

"Dismiss the men."

"Yessir!" Paran performed a perfect about-face. "BANNER! DISMISSED!"

"Orders, sir?" Paran asked quietly, as the men dispersed.

"First, let's get a meal in everyone's belly. I don't know about you, but I'm starving!"

"Yes, sir." Paran said.

"And after they've eaten, let's make camp. I feel naked out here, by the Powergiver!"

"Yessir!" Paran said, with an emphatic nod of his head.

"I have a couple of tinkers watching the mounts," Deni said. "Get them relief, please."

"Yes, sir, I'll do that. And I'll let you know how they did, too!"

Even taken by surprise, the invaders had killed many of the People. But that was to be expected, when their thunder weapons were so much more deadly than bows. They fought well, too, much better than the war chief Blue Fire had expected. Their thunder weapons were deadly even at short range, and served as formidable clubs after they were empty, blocking knives and hatchets, breaking heads and faces. Then they reloaded, or drew knives and fought the People's warriors body to body. Truly they were strong, and brave. Blue Fire had looked forward to their defeat, and eating their valor with their living flesh after the fight!

Then they vanished, between one blink of an eye and the next, leaving the People in a frustrated fury of battle. The earthen walls of the camp remained, and the ditch, but everything else was gone! The thunder weapons, the strong, beautiful arhop herd, the tents, all the metal goods; the cheats even took the bodies of their dead with them, so the People couldn't eat them. That was the greatest crime of all!

The warriors wandered aimlessly around inside the walls, white with shock. some even weeping openly. One started chanting a death prayer, and raised his knife to his throat. Blue Fire snatched the knife out of his hand, a shocking violation of a warrior's right to end his life if dishonored. "Stop that!" the war chief snarled.

"I can't live with the shame," the warrior said, his voice full of tears. He wasn't one of Blue Fire's band; the war chief didn't know him.

"You must live!" Blue Fire said. "How will you get even, if you collapse like a woman beaten by her man, instead of fighting back? The cowards ran away! Will you reward them by running away yourself?"

"I have a right to die," the man said sullenly.

"Die fighting, then!" Blue Fire snarled. "Find them! Fight them! Kill them! Never run away from them!"

"But how?"

"Yes, how, Blue Fire?" said Ocher, a chief that Blue Fire hated. Ocher worshipped Blood, and painted his face and hands with ocher in honor of his patron; Blue Fire worshipped Lightning, and painted blue jagged lines across his forehead, and down his torso.

Blue Fire ignored Ocher, and the other war chiefs that had gathered. "Warriors!" he cried. He had a strong voice, and knew how to use it. "The enemy ran away, and took their dead, denying you your meat. WILL YOU LET THEM GET AWAY WITH THAT?"

"NO!" the warriors cried. Well, some of the warriors; others needed to be convinced.

"THE COWARDS HAVE TO BE HERE SOMEWHERE! FIND THEM! FIGHT THEM! KILL THEM ALL!"

"YES!" the men shouted, and began to move with purpose. They knew how to search, by all the gods!

"Those are our warriors you're ordering around," Ocher objected. "By what right—"

Quick as the Lightning his patron, Blue Fire drew his knife and slashed Ocher's throat open, so that the backbone saw daylight. Ocher couldn't speak, couldn't scream; he fell to his knees, his blood pouring out over his clutching hands.

"Anyone else?" Blue Fire demanded. He held his knife ready, dripping with Ocher's blood. No one said anything. A couple of the war chiefs looked down. A couple looked away, not meeting his gaze. A few looked back at him, and grinned in approval, including the great chiefs Grasseater, who worshipped Fire, Blows Cold, who worshipped Winter, and Rain.

"Go!" Blue Fire said, pointing to the searching men with his knife. "Lead those men! Find the enemy! And when you do," he hissed, "Summon all the People to kill them!"

"Saru, we need to talk," Juho said, as Paran departed. Deni's professional expression didn't change, but a flush spread up her neck and across her cheeks.

Saru looked around quickly. No one in sight but the Speaker and her people, staking down their tents and setting out chairs. "Powergiver, Cornet!" he said. "Go ahead and kiss him, already, before you burst!"

"At your command, sir," Deni said, after her own quick look around. Then she grabbed Juho, making him drop paper, ink, and pen, and kissed him. And kissed him. And kissed him some more.

"Congratulations, you two," Saru said. "So when's the wedding?"

The Doctor and the Cornet looked at each other. Deni said, "We haven't talked about that."

"What?" Saru said, amazed. "Whyever not?"

"He hasn't proposed to me," Deni said.

"How can you say that?" Juho cried. "I've proposed to you so many times, my knees are worn out! You always say 'Not yet,' or 'I haven't decided yet'."

"Which means you need to propose again later, you unromantic clod!"

"You mean…" the Doctor got out, before words failed him.

She folded her arms, and looked at him, and didn't say a word.

"If you two will excuse me, I think I'll go talk with the Iǹgrē," Saru said.

"Good luck," Deni told him softly. Then she returned her gaze to Juho's face.

"Thanks," Saru said, touched. Neither of them heard him. As he turned, and walked away, the Doctor sank to his knees, and held out a pleading hand to his lady love.

Lara knew that Saru was approaching her; how could she not know, with his thoughts in the back of her head, and his location shining brightly in her telekinesthetic sense? Should she turn and greet him, and possibly startle him, or should she pretend she couldn't feel him coming, and be "surprised"? The flush on her neck and ears was barely visible on her dark brown skin, but it gave her away, just the same.

"Lara," Saru said, "I've come to apologize to you."

"You don't need to do that," Lara said, dropping the tent-string knot she'd been playing with, and turning to face him. "You explained you have a temper. I understand."

"An explanation isn't an apology," Saru said. "Being angry doesn't excuse laying hands on you, and speaking to you as I did. I'm sorry for it. Will you forgive me?"

"Is it so important to you that I do?" Lara asked, curiously.

"Yes, for professional reasons and private reasons both. Professionally, as an officer and a leader, I should always be in command of myself. Any emotions I feel that aren't appropriate to my rank or my command shouldn't be allowed to show, much less affect how I treat anyone else."

"Very worthy, I'm sure," Lara said. She stepped closer to him, so they were only inches apart. "But the professional reasons don't interest me. You said there were personal ones?"

Now he was flushing, and on his pale skin it was impossible to miss. "I don't want you to think badly of me," he said softly. "I don't want you to think I'm the kind of man who would treat you that way. I'm sorry that I did, and I promise I never shall again."

"You're just afraid I'll rip your arms off and beat you with them," she teased.

"Well, that would certainly be part of it, had I been aware of the possibility," Saru said, startled. "So, am I forgiven?"

"But of course," she said simply. Now kiss me, fool! she thought.

"How sweet!" Koriu said, coming out of the other tent with Ket́ai, the former Surâk, right behind her. "And have you two kissed and made up, then?"

"The lady has accepted my apology," Saru said stiffly. It felt like his ears were on fire!

"What, no kiss? Honestly, Lara, it's criminal how many chances you miss!"

"Kory," Lara said in a strangled voice, "please do me the infinite favor of fucking off!"

Exit Koriu, laughing merrily, with Ket́ai right behind her, after an uncertain glance at Lara and Saru. The Speaker and the Legate watched them go, saying nothing; but after a moment, Lara reached out and took one of Saru's hands in hers.

Chapter 14
Soko to Suko

The World, 5 Numestô Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

The camp had been fed. Oddly, with all that had happened since dawn, it was only noon when Paran informed the Legate that a meal was ready. Saru invited Lara and her people to share the food, but she turned him down, politely but firmly. "We can't," the Lady Alarai said. "No, really, we can not. We'll be in our tents; after you're done, let's talk."

So Paran and two troopers returned to the cooks, and shortly brought hot food to Saru's tent for him, the Cornet, and the Doctor. The three of them had set up their three tents earlier, without help from their distinguished guests or the troopers, and felt absurdly pleased with themselves. Now they sat down around Saru's camp table, and ate and talked with gusto.

Lara lay in Koriu's and Susa's arms and moaned. The entrance of the tent was firmly shut, and her hands were over her ears, which she had shut as well, but it didn't help. "Ehiu ehiu ehiu," she sobbed, "they're animals, just animals! How could I have thought for a minute—Ehiu!"

"They can't help it, darling," Koriu said. "They can't absorb energy from the suns; they don't have the organs for it. They must eat other living things, and process them in their bodies, or they die! Our own ancestors, once upon a time, did the same. Listen to your heart, Lara!"

"I know, I know," Lara said. "My mind understands, but my stomach wants to claw its way out of my body, and run away screaming!"

"You don't have a stomach," Susa said. "None of us do."

"Enough," Zîvu said, firmly. "This hysteria is unwarranted, Lara, and may actually make you ill. Sleep now, and dream sweet dreams." Y touched her forehead with a forefinger, and she relaxed, and sighed, and fell asleep.

"Will she be all right?" Koriu asked the neuter.

"She'll be fine," Zîvu said. "All this means is that she was raised in an artificial environment, with no contact with people of the old kind. It's the conflict between what she knows is natural, and what she feels is disgusting, that's behind this. Let her resolve it as she sleeps; we'll wake her later, when she's needed."

"We were all raised in the same environment, with the same education," Susa said. "Why is she the only one suffering this revulsion of feeling?"

"Because she's the one who's in love with one of them, of course," Zîvu said.

Lara heard Zîvu say "in love", and smiled in her sleep.

Finally, then, with camp re-established and running smoothly under the banneret and the sergeants, talks resumed. Vol, by then, was well past the meridian, but most of the afternoon and evening stretched before them. Somehow two more chairs had been produced, the Doctor noted, identical to the first dozen, which was no more or less magical than before, or anything else the Iǹgrē had done. He had a list, and he meant to get some answers!

They were sitting in a loose circle of chairs, with one half occupied by the Iǹgrē, two rows deep, Lara and her two neuter siblings front and center; and Saru facing her in the other half, with Deni on his left and Juho on his right. The Speaker began as before, speaking for a formal record that no one appeared to be writing down.

"This is the second meeting between the Iǹgrē people and representatives of the Tlâń Kingdom," Lara said, smiling very slightly as she said "Tlâń Kingdom," which meant such a different thing in the universe from which they'd come. "Present are myself, Alarai Larai, Speaker of the Iǹgrē, and the rest of my Household," and she named them, in order by neuters, females, and males. The last three males named were Alarao Jedai, Alarao Ket́ai, and Alarao Harai, the former T́ulańē, now magically Iǹgrē, just like the rest.

"Present for the Êstâz's Kingdom are Legate Saru Peta's son, in command of Orkē Banner, an Army unit; Cornet Deni Haθa, second in command of Orkē Banner and Baroness-Designate of Haθ; and Juho Ĵetao, member of the Royal Academy of the Sciences, Master of the Phoenix, and doctor to the Banner and civilian advisor to its command. Do I have that right, Legate?"

"That's correct, My Lady Speaker."

"And Banneret Paran? Won't he be joining us?"

"The Banneret is overseeing the Banner while we attend this conference, which he is more than capable of doing. He sends his regrets that he can't be here."

Only one lifted eyebrow betrayed her skepticism as Lara went on, "Very well. We are meeting on the planet Eoverai, which the inhabitants of this time line call Habêkai, the World; on the continent of Kantos, on top of the peak called Mount Hârob. Questions?" she asked, when the Tlâńē started.

"We weren't aware that we were on the mountain," Cornet Haθa said. "We've been too busy dealing with the aftermath of the recent battle, and no one thought to tell us."

"I'm so sorry," Lara said. "I assumed that Zîvu or Sisu had told you, and I suppose similar assumptions were made all around. Yes, this is Hârob; it seemed the best way to separate you and the southlanders who attacked you. The mountain is very difficult to climb, and we're warding the last hundred feet below us, all the way around."

Warding? the Doctor wrote in his notes.

Smiling as if she could read what he was writing, Lady Alarao continued, "This is the day 5 Numestô Wekao, in the Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom. Would the Legate care to begin?"

Saru rose. "Since the Speaker permits, I would. First, I would like to thank you, Lady, and all your people, for removing us from the battle in which we were engaged. While I believe we would have won in the end, we would have suffered serious losses. I have seen, myself, signs that eleven of the Banner would be dead without your miraculous rescue and miraculous medical attention; and at least one soldier I saw, Trooper Suko, would be disfigured for life."

"Suko?" the Doctor exclaimed. "I had no notion that he'd been hurt! Oh, sorry, Legate," he said belatedly.

Saru waved that away. "I saw him during the battle," he said. "The left side of his face had been slashed from nose to jaw, and all of his teeth were showing through the wound. … So thank you for everything that you and your people have done for the Banner, My Lady. Truly, we do appreciate it."

"You are most welcome, Legate," Lara said. "We were pleased that we could remove you from the savages who attacked you, and overjoyed that we could keep your men alive and repair their wounds. But I sense some concerns."

"I'm concerned because I don't know who you are, what you are, where you come from, what you can do, or what you're liable to do. If you were another unit of my Army, and I encountered you in the field, I'd know the answers to most of those questions, and I would meet with your commander to discover what your mission was. If you were a party of civilians from my Kingdom, I'd meet with your leader, find out what you were doing here, whether you needed assistance, and act as I judged fit, balancing all that against my orders. But as it is, all I know is that you're seemingly magical creatures with infinite powers. I feel like the little boy who came home with a dragon, and said to his horrified parents, 'Look what followed me home! Can I keep it?' "

Lara thought of the Elihrai she'd met in her lifetime, so wise and serene; and of their remote ancestors, before their people attained that wisdom and that serenity, who had been unstoppable elemental forces of fierce, cruel destruction. All dead now, along with the Kaikhlir who had warred with them for so many centuries in the Third Galaxy, and brought their rampages to a halt.

"I know exactly what you mean," Lara said out loud, "and I've decided that we will tell you everything, holding back nothing. For if we will make your people our own, as a bride in ancient times made her husband's people her own, then we the Iǹgrē people should bring with us all that we are, and all that we know, and bestow it upon the Êstâz's people as a bridal dowry. For you are correct; we do have almost infinite power, though it comes not from 'magic', which is mere fable, but from science, which is real. Knowledge is inexhaustible; it can't be lessened by sharing it."

"You don't fear," Deni said now, "that we might do you harm, once we know what you know? You don't fear that we will discover differences that will compel us to destroy you, once we have the power that you do? I can assure you, if you don't know it already, that there are those in our Kingdom, some quite highly placed, who have hearts full of malice, and will see you as vile creatures, unfit to live."

"Sweet Deni," Lara said, with a loving smile, "thank you for the warning. What you don't understand is that the human race has been here before, thousands, perhaps millions of times. A human civilization will fall, destroyed by human failings, or by some external cosmic event, such as your supernova. Then another human civilization will find them, and lift them from their knees, so that they may stand on an equal footing, and go on as partners, as you and the Doctor propose to do. It's an old, old story, and it only ends badly when it's permitted to end badly, back in the earliest ages of humanity."

"Your words are very pretty, My Lady Speaker," Juho said. "But what do they mean in the real world? People hurt and kill each other; they split into groups that oppose each other; they make war. That is human nature."

"No, Doctor, that is not human nature," Alarao Sisu said. "That is Fear of the unknown, Fear of the alien, Fear of the dark. Trust me in this, we have a science of psychology that's as advanced as our other sciences. Fear can be cured, and Hatred, too, like any other mental illness. We don't need to sit around the ancient fire and shiver in fear of what lurks beyond it, nor strike out at what we don't understand. The fear of death goes away when you don't die. The fear of the unknown dies when you know almost everything. True, you discover new things you don't know. But with the perspective of history, you have confidence that you'll learn to understand them, too."

"That's the great adventure of Humanity," said Alarao Zîvu. "Other species rise from savagery, become civilized, discover science, become masters of many worlds. Then a kind of old age sets in for those species, and they fade away and die out. But human beings rise and fall, rise and fall, over and over. Only the impending death of the universe itself could break the Mižinai spirit; but some of them defied extinction, and learned how to come here. Then the Star burst, and the Mižinai fell, and became Krahos. Became, as well, the Verē in Loraon, you Tlâńē here in Kantos, and we know not what people in Syorkai and the islands; but we hear them; they are there, in their millions."

"What are we, Legate?" Lara said. "We are survivors. Every human being alive is the descendant of the survivors who escaped the death and rebirth of a universe, and countless catastrophes since then. Like every other human being, we are survivors."

"What are we, Legate?" Persu said. "We are refugees. Every human being alive is a descendant of refugees fleeing some disaster, some war, some government preying on its people. Like every other human being, we are refugees."

"What are we, Legate?" Ket́ai said. "We are aliens, with a different way of life. We are the descendants of Rulsad, who came to this universe to meet the Mižinai. We are the descendants of Mižinai, who fell from the skies when the Star burst. We are the descendants of Tlâńē, rescued from human sacrifice at the hands of the blood drinkers. We are the descendants of southlander babies put out to die because they were Tlâńē, not Mižinai. We were T́ulańē, with Tlâńē bodies, Rulsad culture, and many secrets we were forbidden to speak. But all human beings are aliens to other humans, and all human beings have secrets."

"Do you begin to see?" Lara asked Saru.

Saru sat down again, and Deni and Juho sat too. "You are all very eloquent," he said simply.

"Eloquence is easy," Lara said, "when your minds are linked, many minds can provide just the right word, and inspiration leaps from one person to the next."

"For our part, the banner has three objectives here in the south," Saru said. "To find Κtûn the city, and learn what happened to it and its inhabitants when the Star burst; to discover what people live in the south, and make contact with them, peacefully if possible; and to see if the map of the continent which we have is accurate. Since your people live here, you can answer those questions for us, to the extent you're willing to do so, and then we can return to the Kingdom, where you, or some of you, can treat with our Speaker." He stopped. All of the Iǹgrē were shaking their heads.

"I said we would share everything with you," Lara said. "Let it begin now. We could so easily spin for you a tale of great cities full of our people, far to the south, and insist that you might not go there until we had an understanding with your Speaker. We could quickly learn what happened to Κtûn, and compare your maps against the actual continent, and tell you the truth or a lie, whichever seemed best for our purposes; and keep you from ever finding out we had lied, for as long as we wanted. But we won't do that. Zîvu?"

"The fact is," Alarao Zîvu said, "we are not from Kantos. We let you think so, until we decided what policy we'd follow with you. We're only been here four days; you saw us arrive, I'm certain… Yes, I see in the images that you're broadcasting from your minds, that you were very close indeed. I'm very glad that none of you were hurt."

"Yes, indeed!" Lara exclaimed. "When I think what could easily have befallen you—!" She looked at Saru with horrified eyes.

" 'Befallen' seems exactly the right word for it," the Legate said. "Did you intend to announce your arrival so spectacularly? Did you plan to destroy so large an area, and to kill so many animals and southlanders? Was it a kind of pre-emptive strike, to make sure your landing site held no danger? Banneret Paran speculated that the blast was a weapon deployed against Κtûn."

"Nor intention nor plan nor strike," Alarao Sisu said, "nor arrival, but catastrophe. It wasn't the end of a voyage, but the beaching of a ship, or the fall of one of the ancient cities. Indeed, it was involuntary; none of us were even conscious."

"Exactly so," Zîvu said. "Sisu has the right of it. We meant no harm to anyone. Without going into too much detail too soon, we expected the cosmic event that put us here had already killed us. We were surprised to wake afterwards."

"So the eight of you—Sorry, eleven of you now—are all the Iǹgrē in Kantos?" the Doctor asked. "Do you expect others to find you soon, to rescue you?"

"You fail to grasp what we're telling you, Ĵetao Juho," Lara said, "which is not surprising, because it involves ideas far beyond your culture's knowledge, if you'll forgive me for saying so. Let me be explicit. We Iǹgrē that the three of you see before you, we are all the Iǹgrē that exist. There are no others."

"Let me make certain I understand this, My Lady Speaker," the Legate said, after a moment. His anger was clear in his voice. "You've allowed us to think you were the leader of a mighty people, that you are the equal of the Êstâz, when there are exactly eleven of you?!!"

Sisu spoke to Lara. "The minor point first, I think."

"Yes, I agree," she said. "Jedai, will you tell the Legate how many of our people there will be?"

"Yes, Speaker." He stood, and came forward. Standing between the two groups, he addressed Saru, Deni, and Juho. "There is much your people don't know about the people you call the T́ulańē. Even the first Êstâz, whom we agreed to help in his fight, knew only what we allowed him to know. Even the second Êstâz, the grandfather of the current one, whom we let into some of our secrets, and taught some of our ways, knew very little about us. And as far as what your scientists have discovered?" He smiled, not scornfully; but nevertheless, he smiled.

Then he went on. "How many T́ulańē are there, Doctor?"

"We can only guess," the Master said. "Assuming that most of you live on Mount Kalama most of the time, and based on the arable land on the mountain, and assuming that you get the same efficiency from your cropland as we do, estimates have ranged from 200 to 500 people."

"That many?" Saru said in amazement. "I had no idea! I doubt I've seen more than ten T́ulańē in my whole life."

"You only see them when they want you to see them," Alarao Jedai reminded Saru. "As for you, Doctor, you and your colleagues have made a number of false assumptions, both the ones you've mentioned, and others that you don't even realize you're making. In fact, there are more than 3,000 T́ulańē."

"Thank you, Jedai," Lara said. He nodded, and returned to his seat.

"So you see," she said to the stunned northerners, "while we don't number in the millions yet, there will soon be considerably more than eleven of us."

"You're assuming," said the Baroness-Designate of Haθ, "that all the T́ulańē will choose to join your people, as our three scouts have done."

"No," Lara said, "I'm not. Jedai, Ket́ai, and Harai have talked to the Fathers and Mothers of the T́ulańē, by telepathy, and introduced us to them; and they've already asked that we accept their people as their own. As we encounter them in the flesh, we will convert them to bodies like ours." She smiled joyfully at the prospect.

"It still feels like you deceived us," Saru said. "And I doubt whether many of Êstâz's subjects will want to change their bodies and join your people."

Sisu answered, "Do you? I don't. The old and the sickly will flock to us to receive young, healthy bodies; the poor and the starving will come to us when they learn they need never be poor or hungry again. The young will come, full of excitement, and the scientists, eager to learn what we can teach them. And none of them will be disappointed, because we can and will give them all those things."

"Nor is Kantos the whole world," Zîvu said. "We can show the Verē in Loraon the power we have, which ultimately comes from the Verē of our own time line, and give it back to them. We will share it with the people in Syorkai, and Alteřa, and the islands, whoever they are. Within a generation, everyone will be Iǹgrē, and everyone will be free." Y spoke with the enthusiasm of a visionary.

Saru didn't share the vision. "Free, but under My Lady's rule? I don't doubt your good intentions, My Lady Speaker, but I have sworn an oath to my Speaker, and so have many others. We don't want a foreign ruler imposed on us, however good her intentions may be."

"But I have no intention of ruling the world, Legate!" Lara laughed, "We come to uplift the world, not to rule it! I expect your Kingdom will continue, with an Êstâz ruling it, as long as your people want it that way. I expect the people of Loraon will continue to live as they do now, and the people everywhere else in the world. But they will have Iǹgrē bodies, Iǹgrē science, Iǹgrē history at their command. What they do with it will be up to them! … You don't look convinced, my friends."

"You may not wish to rule the Kingdom, or the World, My Lady," Saru said tightly, "but there are many, many others who would, given the chance. People who would overthrow the Kingdom, take land and food from the people, enslave their children, rape their wives, steal the gold, throw people into prison without just cause…"

"I could name names," Deni said, "and only the power of the Êstâz prevents them."

"But don't you see," Lara said, "such acts depend on an imbalance of power. If a baron has great power, and a peasant has none, he may act badly towards the peasant. But if the peasant has as much power as the baron? If the baron can't hide what he's trying to do, or lie about it, because everyone can read it from his mind, and from the minds of those he wishes to oppress? … Well, enough for now. You'll see. I think this is just fear of the unknown."

"Indeed, let's move on," Sisu said. "We meant only to show you that we are, or shortly will be, far more numerous than you thought, and we'll be happy to talk to you about the power we have, and how it would make us a force to be taken seriously, even if there were only eight or us. Shall we consider the question of who does live in the south of Kantos?"

"Any information you could give us would be greatly appreciated, *Rûk Sisy," Saru said, as diplomatically as he could.

"On that subject I have none," Sisu said, "but your former scouts could have told you all about it, had they been allowed to do so. Harai? Will you speak?"

Harai looked at his two elders, and they nodded. So he came forward in front of everyone.

"I've only been to these southern lands twice before," he said, "both times alone. It's part of our proof of fitness that we travel down here alone, and bring back a stone or some other known token; or, if we find an infant abandoned to die, to bring it back with us. I've never seen a baby left that way; it's my personal belief that they don't do that any more. It may be, however, that now they slay excess or defective babies in their own homes. They know that we've been saving the ones they leave out, when we find them still alive, for a long, long time."

"But I can tell you that all the people in the south are like the ones that attacked you. The first time I went south, I went straight from Sitašai to the ocean at the southern tip of Kantos, picked up a kind of shell that's only found there, and came back up the western coast, until at last I reached Anθorâń. At Anθorâń I turned northeast, taking the Road of Wolves from there to Sitašai to Kalama. No one saw me but others of our people. I showed them the shell, and showed it to the Father who sent me, and was judged a man."

"The second time, I went southeast along the edge of the Wastes where nothing can live, then south along the eastern coast. In the highlands there, emeralds can be found. I searched until I had one as big as my thumb, then brought it back with me up the middle of the continent. I'd seen this land before, so when I found a band of southerners with many mounts—arrop or arroppet, they call them—I killed their herd-watcher and took three of them for myself. They were poor animals, but the southerners have nothing better."

Ket́ai called something in Sôcai. Harai flushed, and said, "I tell you this not to brag, but so you will know that I've been all over these south lands. There is nothing here but what you've seen already. Everywhere south of here, they live in small bands, sometimes setting up a village for a season to grown some crop, sometimes stopping in a place to catch mounts that have escaped and made a wild herd, or to dig for roots in a place that's known for them. Each band is ruled by a chief, and there are also war chiefs who gather young men and lead them in battle. They are a weak people, and sickly. Their mounts are skinny and ill-nourished, the same as themselves. And that is all there is, from the Road to Walamu, where the land ends."

"Thank you, Harai," Lara said.

"Yes, thank you, My Lord," Saru agreed. "I believe we may regard the question of southern inhabitants as settled."

"You really went south a second time, when it wasn't required by your elders?" the Doctor asked curiously. "Just for the adventure of it?"

Harai had begun to return to his seat. Now he stopped, uncertain. Ket́ai called out, making Harai flush again.

"Stop picking on him!" Lara said.

"Not just for adventure, Doctor," Harai admitted. "There was a girl I liked. I wanted an emerald to give her, in hope of pleasing her."

"And was she pleased?" Deni asked.

"She liked the emerald," Harai said. "But she liked another man better." Then he did return to his seat, not looking at anyone.

"As for Κtûn," Lara said, after a moment, "we can find it much more easily than you can. What took Harai months to travel on foot, careful not to be seen, we can fly over in minutes, not caring whether anyone sees us or not, and we have many more senses to search for it. A city, or the ruins of a city, will show up on our electric and magnetic senses like a plate on a table."

"Further," Alarao Sisu said, "if the Doctor will show us his map, we can tell him whether it's accurate or not. We're never been to this world before, but it's the home world of our Verē and our Tlâń, and we know its geography."

"Just like that," Saru said.

"Why not?" Lara said. "We have the power to help you accomplish your mission, and we're glad to do it. Is there any reason we shouldn't do so? Is there any reason you shouldn't accept our help, so we can go meet your Êstâz?"

"And what do I say to Sixth Army command when they ask me why I didn't complete my mission on my own, and 'be damned to the magical creatures who wanted to give you the answers, instead of finding them for yourself?' " Saru asked. "What do I say when a proconsul, or the Êstâz himself, asks me, 'How do I know I can trust these answers?' "

"Sir," said the Cornet, "if they were asking me those questions—which they very well might be, if you fell in battle and I had to lead the banner back home—I would tell them that, in the face of all the warriors of the south rising up against us, without even trying to talk to us, and attacking us at every opportunity, I judged the likelihood of getting those answers on my own, and coming back with them, very slight. This way they get some answers, which they can verify with a follow-up expedition of greater strength; a regiment, perhaps, or a brigade."

Saru looked at her for a long moment. "You've come a long way since we left the Kingdom, Cornet. Well said. Very well said."

"Thank you, sir," she said, flushing. She sneaked a look at Juho. He was beaming with pride.

"But even with that very good response to implicit charges of cowardice, which my record will help me fight," Saru said to Lara and her people, "the fact remains that what you do is magic, or might as well be magic. And I'm a hard-headed Girē. I don't believe in magic, and I don't like it; not the stories of magical flying cities in the old libraries, and not being magically whisked away in the middle of a battle. I have a hard time accepting it's real, even when it happens to me; and an even harder time trusting it, and relying on it."

"Would it help if we explained our 'magic' to you, or to the Doctor?" Sisu asked.

"Can you do that?" Saru asked. "That would help a great deal, especially if you can find a way to explain it to me personally, rather than me taking Juho's word on faith."

"Then let us arrange some demonstrations tomorrow, and show you what we can do, and try to explain how we do it, while some of us are looking for Κtûn for you. If we can verify your maps for you, and maybe broker a peace with the southlanders, we can be on our way to your Kingdom the day after tomorrow, perhaps!"

"I… fear it won't be quite that easy, My Lady. For one thing, you have no authority to arrange any peace between the southerners and the Kingdom. Only the Êstâz could approve any arrangement like that."

"He's correct, My Lady Speaker," the Doctor said. "However good your intentions, speaking in his name, without his permission, would be sure to affront our own Speaker."

"Very well," Lara said. "But I can make any arrangements, as you call them, in my own name, and I can offer to extend the arrangement to your Kindom, when I meet with the Êstâz."

"Please, My Lady, be guided by us," Cornet Haθa said. "The Legate understands military chains of command, and what is and what isn't appropriate speech in such circumstances. The Doctor and I are each, in our own ways, members of the Court. Let us help you avoid… that is, let us help you get off on the right foot with our Speaker."

"They're making good sense, Lara," Zîvu said.

"I know they are. Very well," she said again. "I accept your offer of advice on how to approach and deal with your Kingdom. I just hope it doesn't get you in any trouble."

"It might," Saru admitted, "especially with the kind of high-ranking officer who will automatically assume you're enemies. But I'm the judge of my honor and my duty, no one else."

"In the meantime," Sisu said, "there's no reason why we can't check one of your missions off your list right now! Doctor, you have a map of Loraon to show us?"

"Oh, indeed!" the doctor said enthusiastically. "The largest copy is in my tent… one moment, please, while I get it…" He got up and hurried off to his tent.

The Legate and the Cornet talked quietly about camp matters while he was gone, and the Iǹgrē did the same among themselves. Trooper Suko was in the Doctor's tent, it seemed, for the two of them were talking, though Saru couldn't make out any words. But the soothing tone Juho used with the brain-damaged man was unmistakeable. Presently the Doctor came out of his tent, holding a folded bundle in his arms. Suko, right behind him, turned and headed down the north road, to where the mounts were picketed and cared for.

"Here we are!" the Doctor said. "This is a full-sized copy of the original, painted on cloth, with all the details of the original. I use smaller paper copies most of the time, but this is the best copy I have." He looked around. "We'll need something five and a half feet tall to hang it; perhaps one of the tents?"

"Allow us, Doctor," Jedai said, coming forward, with Ket́ai and Harai behind him. Juho gave him the map, and Jedai unfolded it. Ket́ai and Harai each took a corner, and held it up where everyone could see.

"Oh, this is beautiful!" Jedai said. "Grey for mountains; here are the Sealed Mountains in the west and the south, Hârob and its mountain range farther south, and Kalama. And you have the Wastes marked, and Gir, and Cunda, and Tlâńor, and Anθorâń!"

"And look!" Harai said, pointing, while still holding up his corner. "They have all the rivers that cross the south, and the Emerald Hills in the east, and that huge lake down by Walamu, that the southerners call Odanna! This is the most wonderful map I've ever seen, Doctor!"

"Thank you, My Lords! So you confirm that it's accurate?" Juho said.

"It's not only accurate, but I want a copy! And I want it in this size, too!" Ket́ai said. "Where did you get it?"

"The original comes from Tlâńor," the Doctor said, "and dates from before the Star burst. So in this copy we've added cities that didn't exist or weren't in their present locations, the Waste, the Road of Wolves, and other modern details. But we had no actual confirmation of anything outside the Kingdom, until now."

"And you never thought to ask your scouts for confirmation?" Lara said, coming over.

"We had no idea that the T́ulańē had any knowledge of this land," the Doctor said. "And they never answered questions, anyway."

"I see," Lara said. "Well then, that's two of the Banner's goals achieved; now you know who lives down here, and you know that your maps are good. I just have one tiny little question."

"Yes, My Lady?"

"What the hell is that blob stuck on the side of Kantos!" she cried, jabbing her finger against the map.

"My Lady? That's Elarâń, the heart of the Kingdom. Surely My Lady knows Elarâń?"

"My Lady does not know Elarâń!" Lara said. "All this should be open sea! And what are these grey things west and south of it? Are they the welds where you tacked it on? You missed a spot!" she said, putting her hand on Sitašai, the plain between the western and southern arms of the Sealed Mountains.

"Lara, calm down," Zîvu said. "There's no call for all this. We knew the universe was different as soon as we saw these people here, instead of the Tlâń that we knew."

"But I never expected the geography to be different!" she said. "It's too much!"

Y answered, "Nonsense! Nothing's too much for you! You've survived the end of the universe; who cares if a few continents get shoved around?"

"Survived the end of what?" the Doctor exclaimed.

Lara winced. "Doctor," she said, "Zîvu will tell you anything about astronomy, or for that matter cosmology, that you want to know. But can we table that particular item until after you have a lot more information? Especially since it involves matters that we don't fully understand ourselves yet? Good."

"Sisu," she continued, "any ideas what this is all about?" she said, tapping the map. "Oh, put it down boys, or hang it there. Go on, what's one more miracle after so many others?"

So Ket́ai and Harai let go of the map, and it hung there in the air, with no apparent support. Saru, Deni, and Juho looked at it warily, as if it might swoop down on them.

"I have a hypothesis," Sisu said. "Shall I display it telepathically to you?"

"No, that would be rude to our northern friends," Lara said. "Show us all."

"Very well." Y addressed those same northern friends. "Are you aware that continents move?"

"Move?" said the Doctor. "How?"

"Let's table 'how' for later," said Sisu. "But yes, if a planet has a core of melted rock, continents and islands move across it, over millions and millions of years. Here's what I think happened." A large blue screen appeared in mid-air. "Here's the continent of Kantos as we knew it in our time line, or universe. Note how narrow the northern tip of it is, and how it widens further down. See, no Elarâń. Along comes some large continental fragment from the east, which must've been shaped roughly as in the display, to generate the Elarâń you know. Watch as it collides with Kantos…"

The fragment came closer and closer to Kantos, the ocean between them becoming narrower and narrow, and then shallow, as their continental shelves touched. Then, as they continued to move, a range of mountains formed between them. The mountains moved ahead of the fragment as it came ashore, actually riding up over the eastern edge of the continent. Another range in the south formed, rock buckling and moved southwards as the wider part of the fragment also came ashore. In the end it came to a halt, with a bumper of mountains to the west and another to the south, and a space left empty in between.

"And you have no idea where it came from?" Lara said.

"None. We'll have to survey this world, see how things are arranged, and what's missing," Zîvu said.

"Yes, but perhaps we can account for this piece of the puzzle. The Doctor's never heard of the Alteřan Empire," Sisu said.

"Really?" Lara said, amazed.

"All of Alteřa would be too big," Sisu mused. "But any other island would be too small. Just maybe… If Alteřa got stuck on a tectonic upwelling, unable to move away, and developed a rift that split it unevenly, the smaller part could go somewhere else, while the larger part came to Kantos. But how did it get here from all the way over on the other side of Loraon? Did Loraon duck out of the way?"

"That will have to wait for another day," Lara said. "Thank you, but let it rest for now. The afternoon wears on."

"Indeed it does," Saru said. "Let's adjourn until tomorrow morning. The Cornet and I should at least put in an appearance around camp, before the men decide they don't need us."

"Too late, my friend, far too late for that," Juho joked.

"Permit me my illusions, Doctor," Saru said with a smile. He bowed to Lara, then departed down the east road of the camp. The Cornet talked to the Doctor a moment, then went down the south road to check on the front gate.

"How do I get my map back?" the Doctor asked Jedai. "It won't come down when I tug on it."

"Oh, sorry, Doctor," Lara said, and released the telekinetic clamps that were holding it in place. As it started to fall, Harai and Ket́ai sprang forward to catch it, and folded it up between them.

"Thank you, My Lords. I appreciate it," Juho said.

"Our pleasure," Harai said.

Blue Fire was frustrated and angry. As the afternoon grew later and later, the last scouting parties returned to the deserted invader camp, and told everyone they hadn't found anything. Everyone grew more discouraged and fed up with the whole business of attacking the invaders. The camp itself felt like it was mocking them with its emptiness!

Where could they have gone?

"Where have you looked?" said Falling Tree, coming up to him. Falling Tree didn't name himself after a god, but a boast. He said that being hit by one of his fists was like a tree falling on you; and he'd proven the truth of the brag, too, many times. He was also very good at guessing what another man was thinking; Blue Fire didn't think he'd wondered out loud where the invaders had gone, but with Falling Tree around, it hardly mattered.

"Me personally?" Blue Fire bitterly. "I've had to stay here, and keep fools from cutting their own throats when they couldn't find others to cut, and keep other fools from running home to their mommies and their wifies. I've had to watch the other war chiefs to make sure they don't decide this is all my fault somehow. When we all attacked, it was a joint effort; but when I told them they couldn't quit like women, it became my attack and my failure."

"Cutting Ocher's throat might have had something to do with that, too."

"I didn't know he was Rain's friend. Ocher was my enemy for years, and Rain never said an unfriendly word to me! But now?" Blue Fire spat on the ground.

"Odd how people react to giving a man a new mouth, isn't it?" Falling Tree said.

"Enough of your mouth," Blue Fire snarled. "Were you his friend, too?"

"A friend of that empty bag of wind? Hough! If he'd been on fire, I wouldn't have pissed on him to put him out! But you'd better figure out where the invaders have gone, or run far, far away where no one's heard of you. I don't think you have any other choices, or much time left to make one."

"Doctor, who is that man assisting you, and what's wrong with him?"

Juho and Korva looked up. The Doctor had been showing the trooper how to load the powdered ingredients for a dose of medicine into a pill press, compress them into a pill with one powerful squeeze of the press, then dip the pill in melted gelatin and set it aside to dry. Koriu stood before them in a red tunic, white shirt, and yellow robe, a belt of golden plates around her waist.

"Trooper Korva?" the Doctor asked. "There's nothing at all wrong with him, I assure you. He's a very bright young man, whom I'm hoping to lure out of the army and into science. Korva, the Lady Koriu."

Korva stood and bowed. "The honor is mine, My Lady."

"Pleased to meet you," Koriu said automatically. "But no, Doctor, I meant the big one over there, grooming your řobē and crooning to it."

"Suko? Oh," the Doctor said, shaking his head. He told her how Suko had been a sailor, and had suffered some accident that had damaged his brain; and how he'd been treated ever since, aboard ship and then in the army, because he couldn't understand what was expected of him, or comprehend the orders shouted at him. How, finally, Juho had removed him from the unit, unofficially, and given him simple things to do which he could understand, such as cook, and tend the animals. "He loves animals, especially řobēθ," he concluded.

"But what's wrong with him, Doctor?" Koriu asked.

"Perhaps it would be best to show you," the Doctor said. He raised his voice a little. "Suko? Would you please come here?"

Suko looked up from brushing Observer's right front leg, smiling. In that one moment, he could have been any young man in the prime of his strength, performing a task he enjoyed. Then he caught sight of Koriu, with the horns on her head and the deep brown of her skin, and he froze in mid-motion. His eyes went wide and blank, and his mouth fell open, as if all his jaw muscles had stopped working.

"Suko? It's all right, my friend. She's a nice lady. Come here, please."

Suko didn't move. A wordless "Waaaa…" came from his open mouth, along with a line of drool. Observer nudged his hand with his nose, wanting to be brushed some more, and the curry comb fell from Suko's nerveless hand.

"Is he afraid of me?" Koriu asked.

"He's shy of strangers," the Doctor said, apologetically. "There's no one left in the banner who will torment him, but for a long, long time, his every day consisted of people shouting at him, striking him, sometimes even beating him or flogging him if he did something wrong—and he didn't understand what they wanted from him, so he couldn't do anything right. Mostly he hides from anyone he doesn't know."

"Oh, the poor man!" said Koriu.

"That's why I was so surprised to learn he'd been hurt in the fight," Juho told her. "I could understand him cowering in my tent, and one of the southlanders finding him there and killing him outright. I would have been sad to learn of it, but I would've understood how it happened. But a face wound makes it sound like he stood up to an attacker and fought back! I'd never have expected that of him."

"Oh, is that so!" Koriu cried, her eyes flashing (they were yellow today, Juho noted) and her black curls spinning as she turned on him with rage. "I'll have you know he fought like an orkē! Alone and unarmed, attacked by a southerner armed with hatchet and knife, he picked the man up, and broke him over his knee like a stick, though he got that wound for it. Then he went looking for you, as I suppose, and found the Legate on the ground, about to have his throat cut by a savage on top of him. Suko broke the man's jaw with his fist, picked him up, and threw him away like a used rag!"

"Truly?" said the Doctor. "I had no idea!"

Then Suko was there, shoving Koriu away from the Master, and putting himself between them, facing her. "No!" he said, "No … hurt the Doc Tor! No!"

She laughed at him. "But you're adorable!" she exclaimed.

He didn't understand a word. "No!" he said again, screwing up his face ferociously.

"I won't," she said. "I won't hurt the Doctor. Or you, either." She put her arms around his neck, pulled his face to hers, and kissed him. After a moment, something deep in his body remembered what to do with a woman. He put both of his hands on her butt, and pulled her close. Koriu laughed softly…

Then she freed her mouth and shouted, out loud but also telepathically, "Lara! Sisu! Zîvu!"

The next few moments were very confusing, and frightening, for Suko. Three more horned strangers with skin the color of Banneret Paran's, but even darker, appeared, and there was a lot of shouting at cross purposes which he couldn't understand. Then the Legate and the Cornet came running up, or as Suko thought of them, the Good Man and the Nice Lady. Observer caught fright from all the commotion, and Suko would have gone to him, and calmed him down, but the pretty lady who had kissed him held his hand firmly, and he couldn't move her. Trooper Korva went to the frightened animal and soothed him, and after that Suko just stood there, not understanding what was going on around him.

"So there's nothing you can do for him, correct?" Sisu asked the Doctor.

"That's right," Juho said. "Everything I know how to do, I have done. Anything else I could try, probably wouldn't do him any good whatever. And it might kill him."

"Why is he even here?" Lara asked Saru.

"Anywhere else, he'd be long dead," he told her. "There's no place for him. He has no relatives to care for him, as far as we know."

"Asylums? Hospitals? Homes for the disabled?"

"I don't know those words," Saru said. "Doctor?"

"I've seen them in the libraries," Juho said, "but there's no agreement on what they mean."

"The Order of the Fountain of Flame runs a home where peasants with incurable diseases, or who can't support themselves after losing a limb in a farming accident, can live out their lives," Deni said unexpectedly. "Do you mean something like that? There's only the one, to my knowledge."

The looks that the four Alarē exchanged were eloquent. "We'll return to this subject, I promise you," Lara said. "For now, Legate, you, or perhaps the Doctor, seem to be the guardians, or the acting parents, of this man. May we attempt to undo his injuries?"

"What is the risk for him?" the Doctor asked.

"None whatsoever," Zîvu said. "If we can't cure him, we will restore him to exactly the same condition he's now in."

"Very well," Saru said. "You have my permission. How long will it take? And how can we assist you?"

"Just stand well clear, say six feet back in all directions," Zîvu said. "Yes, Koriu, you can come, but let go of his hand, please. I'm going to make the tele blue, my friends, so you can see it, since you can't see in the ultra-violet. Stay outside of it, please. Consider this the first of the demonstrations we promised you for tomorrow."

A glowing disk, robin's-egg blue and six feet in diameter, appeared above Lara, Koriu, Zîvu, and Sisu, who stood around Suko on every side of him. He looked up, saw it, and gaped in open-mouthed wonder. "Pretty!" he said.

Then it descended, with deliberate slowness. First the tips of the Iǹgrē's horns disappeared, then the top of Suko's round-topped trooper hat, then their shoulders, their waists, their upper legs, their lower legs, and their feet. Then the disk, that Zîvu had called a tele, appeared high in the air above the same spot. This time, as it came down, five Iǹgrē were revealed, from their horns to their feet. The new one had the same horns, eyes, and skin as the others, but was recognizably Suko.

A Suko, however, with the light of intelligence in his eyes, who looked at his hands with amazement. "Fuck me!" he exclaimed in a deep, booming voice. "What have you fucking lubbers done to me?"

"That's right, he was a sailor," the Cornet said to herself.

Suko looked around at all the smiling faces, but didn't see the one he wanted. "Here, you lot. Where's that wench I was kissing?"

"Behind you," Koriu sang, smiling.

He turned around, saw her, and smiled as well. "I prefer you in front of me," he mock-growled.

As she stepped into his embrace, and locked her lips to his, the Doctor said, "And then there were twelve."

Chapter 15
Everyday Magic

The World, 4 Numestô Wekao,
Year 413 of Êstâz's Kingdom

"One of the Iǹgrē to see you, sir," the sentry outside Saru's tent announced.

"By all means, send him in," Saru said, tossing the quill he was using onto the table, and capping the ink.

"Good morning, sir. Banneret Paran said you wanted to see me," said the new Suko.

"Good morning, Trooper Suko," Saru said mildly. "Is that how you present yourself to your commanding officer?"

"Well, sir, it's like this," Suko said. "I don't want to get on your bad side. What few memories I have of when I was injured say that you were always very nice to me, and made sure everyone else was, too, at least when you were around. But I don't remember anything of the army except a few bright spots; working for the Doctor, tending the mounts, and a kind word now and then from the Cornet. Otherwise it's just this fog of fear and pain and confusion. As far as I'm concerned, I'm not in the army. Surely I never had the wit to swear an oath, and know what I was swearing? And I certainly don't remember any training that might have been shouted at me."

"Suppose I accept that all of that is true," Saru said. "And remember, I can check that with the other Iǹgrē. You could be trained now to be a soldier. You were in the navy; you swore an oath there, didn't you?—Sit down, troop, if you won't stand at attention."

"Thank you, sir," Suko said, lowering his frame carefully into one of the folding camp chairs. "The thing is, I wasn't recruited into the navy, I was pressed."

" 'Pressed'?" said Saru. "What does that mean?"

"It means that the navy is a dirty, dangerous place, much worse than the army," Suko told him. "Any time a ship sails into deep water, the men are in constant danger from sea serpent attacks, from battles against the seacoast raiders that we fight, from falls from high in the sails, from scurvy, from starvation or dying of thirst if the wind fails us or blows us away from the land—any number of things. Men are always dying, and new men are always needed. So when a navy ship comes into port, a petty officer, what you would call a sergeant, takes a gang of men ashore, and they kidnap any able-bodied men they can. Civilian seamen are their special targets, because they already know how to work on a ship. They keep these 'pressed' men under the deck, in chains, until they're well out to sea again, then they bring them up and tell them 'Congratulations, you just joined the navy.' "

"And this is legal?" Saru said, incredulously.

"Oh, fuck no, sir, if you'll pardon my language. But many captains do it anyway; if their petty officers get caught at it, they just discharge them from the navy. Then the petty officers sign on with some other captain, who's glad to get an experienced petty officer who won't ask awkward questions. But, in a lot of ports, they don't have to worry about being caught, because the local baron or count is being paid to look the other way."

"Fuck them all!" Saru said vehemently, struggling with his temper.

"Yes, sir."

After a moment, Saru said, "Returning to the here and now, you're saying that you never swore an oath to the navy."

"Yes, sir, I did," Suko said. "Every man in the navy swears the oath. It's Regulations! But a pressed man swears it with a cocked and loaded pistol held to his temple; if he won't swear, they pull the trigger, and toss the body overboard for the serpents to fight over."

"That's no true oath," Saru said.

"No sir, I didn't reckon so, either. So I acted scared, at first; and then, gradually, less scared, as if I accepted my new job, and figured one ship was as good as another. Once I figured they weren't watching me any more, I started approaching others who I thought would rise against the captain and the officers when the time came, and take over the ship."

"Mutiny? That's what the navy calls it, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir, that's what they call it. I call it slaves rising up against their masters, and to fuck with the pretense of an oath, and to fuck with the pittance we got paid. The army has it easy; anyone who wants to escape can just run away, and shed the uniform. In the navy, the only time you can do that is when the ship's in port, and then the officers and petty officers are watching everyone closely."

"So you have to mutiny at sea?"

"Yes, sir. Which means you have to get enough of the crew on your side to run the ship even after you kill the officers and most of the petty officers, and you have to have a person everyone respects to serve as captain. You have to be in waters someone knows well, so you can steer the ship back to the Kingdom, or into port on one of the islands between Kantos and Loraon. And you have to agree on where you're going. I heard stories of mutineers who couldn't sail the ship, or couldn't agree where to go, who hacked holes in the ship's bottom, and then went their separate ways in the ship's boats. Of course, there are never enough ship's boats for everyone, and the serpents are a constant danger to a small boat…" Suko's voice trailed off.

"So what happened to you?" Saru said, after a moment.

"Well, sir, either I gave myself away somehow, or someone else gave himself away, and me with him," Suko said ruefully. "I never knew. One night, when I was off watch, I was awakened with a pistol under my nose, held by a petty officer, and the four of us—him, me, and two sailors who always volunteered for the press gang, because they enjoyed it so much—went up the main mast. A hundred feet above the deck, the First Officer and the Second Officer tried me for conspiracy to mutiny. The Chief Petty Officer was the prosecutor, presenting the evidence. There was no defense attorney, of course, nor were they interested in what I had to say. They only wanted to see me sweat, hear me beg, get some names of the other mutineers out of me."

"And did they?" Saru asked.

"I forgive you for asking, sir," Suko said. "You're army, you don't know any better. I don't consider myself a particularly brave man, but I like to think I'm not a fucking coward, either. I'd made up my mind long before, that if they caught me, they'd get no satisfaction out of me, even if I had to bite my own tongue off. They wouldn't let me live anyway, no matter what they promised."

"I see," Saru said. "I apologize if I seemed to imply otherwise."

"No sweat, sir," Suko said. "I can tell you're an officer born and bred. I don't expect you to really understand this kind of crap."

You might be surprised, Saru thought. "So what happened?"

"Well, when they saw I wasn't going to give them any fun, they found me guilty, sentenced me to death, and pushed me off the mast head. One hundred feet to the hard, oaken deck!" He smacked his hands together, hard.

"I really have no business being alive," Suko said meditatively. "I can only guess that I caught a lot of ropes on the way down. After a while they would've realized I was still alive, but they didn't cut my throat or throw me to the serpents. I guess they figured that having me around was a good object lesson to other would-be mutineers."

"What happened next?" Saru asked.

"As far as I'm concerned, sir? One moment I was falling to my death, and the next, I was standing in front of the Doctor's tent, with four strange creatures standing around me. Do you know, I don't even know what year it is?"

"Today is 4 Numestô Wekao of the year 413."

"Fuck!" Suko said. "Four years—no, almost five! And I suppose I'll never know what happened to the bastards on that ship, or whether there was a mutiny, whether it succeeded; not to mention how the ship I was working on fared without me, whether the captain and crew of that ship thought I'd deserted, or what happened to anyone else I knew." He shook his head in wonder and sorrow.

"It's only been five years? Surely you could go back and find out?"

"Five years in a sailor's life," Suko said. "Believe me, sir, it might as well be fifty."

"You know best," Saru said. "Would you like to join the army, then, since your old life is gone? Subject to my confirming your story with the other Iǹgrē, of course; but, just between us two, I believe you."

"Sir, I'd like to oblige you," Suko said earnestly. "From what little I can recall, you're one of the few people who've always treated me decently, even after it was clear to you that I was useless as a soldier. Fuck, it's no exaggeration to say that you saved my life. If you hadn't taken me into the banner, worthless as I was, I would've ended up wandering the docks somewhere, until someone cut my throat for the sport of it, or I starved to death in the street. But I really don't want to be a soldier, sir, if you'll forgive me."

"As far as I'm concerned, Suko, you're a civilian," Saru told him. "The Army doesn't 'press' civilians. If they seem like they'd make good soldiers, or they express an interest in army life, we ask them, very politely, if they'd like to join. If they say yes, we train them to be the best soldiers they can be. If they refuse the invitation, that's the end of it." He stood up, and held out his hand.

"That's mighty good of you, sir, fuck me if it isn't!" Suko said, scrambling to his feet and shaking the Legate's hand vigorously. "I knew you were a good man!"

"Thank you," Saru said, coming around the camp table and placing one hand on Suko's shoulder. "It's the least I can do for someone who saved my life in battle. What will you do now?"

"Stay with the Iǹgrē and see what develops, I suppose," Suko said. "Do you realize that I'm the first regular subject of the Kingdom that they've converted?"

"Yes, I realized that," Saru told him. "May I ask a favor of you, not as your commander, but as the friend I hope to be?"

"Of course you may ask, sir."

Saru laughed. "It's nothing too onerous, I promise. Just, while you're with the banner, would you continue to assist the Doctor? He's come to depend on your help, and I believe he would miss having you around."

"Is that all! Yes, sir, he and I have already talked about that. I would miss him, too, and his mounts. I told him he's going to have to let me call him Juho, too, like a friend would."

At the door of the tent, Saru said, "Then perhaps you'll call me Saru."

Suko ducked his head shyly, in a gesture reminiscent of his former, damaged state. "I'll try, sir—Saru, I mean. But it's very hard for me to call a man I respect so much anything but 'sir'."

"Thank you," Saru said, smiling. "Just do your best."

"Yes, sir, indeed I will!" Suko said, and strode off towards the Doctor's tent, whistling.

All the males except Suko, who had no training in or idea of his powers yet, hovered in the air south of Mount Hârob: Persu, Dâka, Ĵuha, Jedai, Ket́ai, and Harai. Lara had put Persu in charge, because his magnetic and electric senses were the most sensitive.

"There's an old air car wreck on the ground below us," Persu said. "Does everyone sense it? Good. Now, each of you go higher until you can just barely sense the wreck. You should be able to go twice as high as this, and still know that it's there. Go ahead."

"Excellent!" he said, when everyone had done as he asked. "I had no idea how much we would vary among ourselves, but it's less than 100 feet, from highest to lowest. Let's all come down to 10,000 feet."

"Now I'm going to arrange you in a line, 20,000 feet apart from each other, and 10,000 feet from the ground. Trust me to handle that, and just concentrate on finding metallic substances like the ones in the air car. That way we have a sensor array 100,000 feet wide, and we'll sweep this continent with it, looking for Κtûn. Questions? Yes, Dâka?"

"Shouldn't we be a little bit closer together? If we're 10,000 feet up and 20,000 feet apart, then the ground halfway between each pair of us is about 14,000 feet. Won't we miss things?"

"Good thinking! Yes, I'm sure we'll miss lots of wrecked vehicles, and pieces of wrecked vehicles. But we're not looking for air cars. We're looking for a city, a couple of miles across, with many tons of imperishable metallic and ceramic components. Trust me," he said again, "if it's there, we'll find it."

"I have a question, Persu."

"Yes, Jedai?"

"We're almost two miles up in the sky. How is it that I'm having no trouble breathing?"

"Your new bodies are much more efficient than your old ones, and do very well on less air than you used to need. If you feel short of breath, let me know telepathically, and I'll send you air. But I don't expect that to be a problem."

"So concentrate on the ground, and let me handle the search pattern. If I'm going too fast, if I'm going too slow, if you have any other problems or questions, let me know. Here we go."

: Persu, : Ĵuha said, : weren't we supposed to make ourselves invisible to the southerners while we conducted this search? :

: I piss on the southerners from a great height! : Persu answered. : Even if they should manage to see us at 10,000 feet, what are they going to do about it? Call us nasty names? :

Blue Fire hated settlements. When the People stayed in one place for a little while, there were customs about what you could bring into a man's tent, what you could do there, and how to behave generally. Pissing and crapping were done in specific areas, and garbage was thrown in a midden, so a man could come out of his tent in the morning without finding camp mutts fighting over a bone right in front of his door.

No one had planned to occupy the invaders' camp for longer than it took to torture any survivors and eat their meat, and maybe preserve some trophies afterwards. But they'd been there a whole day now, after the shock of the enemy's disappearance, and they'd spent the night there too. No one had enforced any kind of camp discipline. He, himself, had only cared to keep the warriors looking for the enemy, and the other war chiefs seemed to feel it was only the northerners' camp, so who cared? Horse shit and people shit were everywhere and anywhere, and the whole place stank of piss. When hunters brought in meat, they butchered it quickly, cooked it on quick fires wherever was convenient, and ate it before anyone else could ask for any of it. Right before his eyes, as he headed to where he'd left his arroppet, Blue Fire saw a warrior undo the rope around his waist, lower his trousers, and piss copiously into a burnt-out fire, not caring what man or god he offended. Scowling, Blue Fire walked on.

His mounts were afraid of him, which was the way it should be. He gave each of them a good clout on the nose to make them hold still, while he made sure the saddle blanket on the one he planned to ride was tied well and wouldn't slip under him. He was about to leap onto its back, holding the leads of the other two, when Grasseater, Blows Cold, and Rain strolled up. "Going somewhere, Blue Fire?" Rain asked.

"Hough! By the Lightning, you'd better believe I am! I am sick of this place, and I am tired of talking sobbing children out of spilling their own weak blood! I'm going to go out there and find the cowards that ran away from battle with me, and to the Hollow Place with any so-called warriors who can't find the traces of sixty-four enemies!"

Only by a flicker of the eyes did Rain acknowledge Blue Fire's claim that the enemy numbered sixty four. If true, it was the best number squared, and a sure omen for victory over them. He couldn't accuse Blue Fire of attacking in the first place without knowing the exact number of the foe, because none of them had known that; they were all guilty of that sin. Instead, he said, "So you weren't just running away from here?"

Blue Fire dropped the reins of all three of his arroppet and faced the other war chiefs squarely. The animals, true to their training, stayed where they were when their reins fell to the ground.

"Rain," Blue Fire said, "you have a reputation as a strong and wise war chief. I've never had a reason to doubt that, and I always counted you a friend. But if you think I've been defeated here, by an enemy that ran away from all of us, including you; if you think I'm afraid of anyone here, including you; and if you think you'll ever see me run away from anything or anyone, then you just made an enemy. Tell me I misunderstood your words, and you didn't mean any of those things, and we can remain friends. Or mark out a circle for a knife fight to the death, and Grasseater and Blows Cold can be our witnesses, until one of us breathes no more. The choice is yours."

Rain looked at Blue Fire without fear, unknown thoughts moving through his eyes, and opened his mouth to speak. But what he would have said would never be known, for at that moment Falling Tree rode up, shouting, "We found them! We found them! Blue Fire, we found them!"

"Where?" Grasseater demanded. "Where are the cowards hiding?"

"The mountain!" Falling Tree shouted. "They're up on the mountain!"

"Get everyone to the mountain at once," Blows Cold ordered, "especially on this side of it, so we can block them from going back north and getting away from us! Tell anyone who asks that all the war chiefs order it."

"Yes, Chief! Right away!" Falling Tree shouted. He jerked his mount's head around and drummed his heels into its ribs to make it gallop.

Blue Fire felt a knot loosen under his breast bone. Grasseater and Blows Cold were taking responsibility for renewing the attack. However it went now, no one would be blaming it on him alone. And Rain?

Rain was looking at him in amazement. "You have the most astonishing luck, my friend."

"Are we friends, then?" Blue Fire asked.

"Who am I to question luck like yours?" Rain said, and held out his hand.

Blue Fire gripped it hard. "When this is over, my friend, let's you and I rip the tongue out of the enemy leader, while he's still alive, and eat it together in honor of our friendship."

"It is a pact," Rain said formally. Then he smiled. "After all, when the Rain and the Lightning strike together, what can stand against them?"

Once again the full banner stood at attention in its squads and platoons before its Legate and Cornet. This time, however, their rifles were stacked off to the right of the formation; and the mounts were picketed in their usual spot, but no one was watching them. The civilian sutlers, tinkers, and quacks stood in an undisciplined gaggle to the left of the formation, or sat on the ground. Of the Iǹgrē, six were present, standing behind the two officers: Lara and her two neuter advisers, Koriu and Suko, and Susa. The other six were out sweeping the continent in a widening spiral with their electric and magnetic senses, searching for Κtûn.

The Doctor was with the Alarē. He had been as unhappy to be asked to leave pen, paper, and ink for note-taking behind, as the troopers had been to be ordered to stack their rifles. But Lara had promised him they would provide him full notes afterwards. In earnest of that, Sisu had handed him pages of the "minutes" of the two meetings they'd had thus far. Juho studied them in growing amazement. Not only were they word for word what had been said, as far as he could recall, but he found the paper—at least, it felt like paper—shed water from his canteen without absorbing any, nor could he cut a corner with his belt knife. On top of that, the calligraphy was perfect; every letter was perfectly formed, and the text marched perfectly straight across the page, perfectly parallel to the top and bottom of each page, with a uniform margin at the left, top, and bottom. The spacing between lines was always the same, too. When he held them up to the light, to see whether the writing on each side lined up, he found he couldn't see any trace of the writing on the opposite side. In his experience, only thick parchment, used for the first time, was that opaque. Reused parchment grew thinnner and thinner as previous layers of ink were scraped off, but not this "paper". Juho thought these "notes" were the most beautiful things he'd ever seen—except for Deni, he thought guiltily.

"First of all," Saru said, after he'd given Paran the nod and the banneret had put the men at ease, "don't worry about your rifles, the mounts, or camp security. The Lady Speaker has assured me that, thanks to her people's 'magic', no one can come within 100 feet of the top of the mountain, in any direction. They've set up 'magic barriers' that can't be gotten through, so to speak. So forget those concerns, for now, and give the Iǹgrē your complete attention. They're going to tell us how their 'magic' works. My Lady? They're all yours."

She stepped forward and gave him a warm smile, then transferred it to the banner. "Indeed, I hope they will be mine, or members of my people, once they've honorably discharged their duty to the Army and to the Êstâz," she said.

"The first thing we want to show you is that our 'magical powers' are not beyond you. Some of the things we can do, you do yourself, every day, without even realizing it. Then Zîvu and Sisu here will show you that none of our powers—or yours!—are 'magic'. They're just applied science, a science that your culture doesn't have yet. We want to share with you, eventually, everything we know." And she smiled that smile again, whose power she didn't know; but they felt it.

"For my first trick, can everyone hear me? You men in the back, you civilians over there? If anyone can't hear what I'm saying, as if I were standing right next to you, raise your hand."

"You may think that's no great trick. After all, the Legate and the Banneret never have any trouble making themselves heard. They—and the Cornet, mustn't ever forget her!—have learned to project their voices, to push the air out with the big muscle that pumps the air in and out of your lungs. Doing that, they can get a very loud volume for their words, and they can keep it up for a long time. It's something anyone can learn. Your officers and your sergeants prove it to you, every day."

"Now, I want you to cover your ears, so you can't hear anything, and keep them that way. Can you do that for me, please? Stick your fingers in your ears, or a bit of rag if you have it, or just press your hands flat over your ears if that works. I know it feels silly, but trust me. I need you to block your hearing, and I need you to know that you're doing it, not someone else. Once you can't hear, sit down to let me know."

After a few minutes, all the soldiers were sitting on the ground, covering their ears. It was hardly the first silly order they'd ever received, and at least this one wasn't uncomfortable or painful or—

"Can everyone hear me? Yes? No, plug your ears again, and I'm sorry I startled you," Lara said. "You're hearing my voice not through your ears, but through your mind. All right, you can take your fingers out of your ears, now. I wanted to prove to you that your ears aren't how you're hearing me."

"Normally, when someone speaks to you, it happens in physical space. Paran speaks, and the sound he makes with his lungs, his mouth and his tongue, travels through the air as sound. Your ears receive the sound, and send it to your brain. Your brain deciphers the sound, and sends it to your mind. Your mind is where you actually hear sound; Paran's body, the air between you, and your body are just a way to get what's in his mind into your mind."

"But what I'm doing now is much simpler. I'm sending my voice directly from the mental space my mind occupies, to the mental spaces where your minds are, and your minds hear me without your physical brains being involved, without your ears hearing any sound, indeed without there being any sound at all. This is the simplest and the easiest of our 'magical powers'. We call it telepathy, but the word is a lot older than our scientific understanding of it; 'direct hearing', or 'direct speaking' is a better name for it. Tøskê is what we call 'powers' like this, powers of the mind; and the science of it is called tøskahôve, 'the science of tøskê.' Big surprise, right?" She smiled brillantly, and everyone smiled back, unable to stop themselves.

"Now here's the best part. You're going to love this! The fact that every one of you heard me, proves that every one of you, and every one of your people, can learn to do what I'm doing. Every single woman, man, and child on Kantos is a telepath, able to send and receive thoughts. You just need to learn how to do it! And after we're done here in the south, and we're in your Kingdom, we're going to show you how." She smiled happily.

"How did you find them?" Blue Fire asked Falling Tree. "Don't tell me someone climbed up the mountain, saw them, and then came back down!"

"One of our unfledged warriors, named Hawk's Eye, saw some of them flying around the mountain, very high up," Falling Tree said.

"You're risking my reputation on the words of a warrior that says the enemy can fly?" Blue Fire asked, his voice full of menace. "On top of that, a boy who hasn't even earned a feather? You don't place much value on your life, do you, Falling Tree?"

"He hasn't won a feather in a fight yet," Falling Tree said, with dignity. "But he found what no one else could find. He really has very good eyes."

"You'd better hope that he does, Tree Waiting for a Hatchet," Blue Fire said. "Show me this prodigy."

Falling Tree led him to a young man, with no feather in his hair, talking to Rain and pointing at the mountain. "They fly around and around the mountain," the young man was saying as they drew near. "Each time, they are farther from it. I think they are searching for something, I don't know what."

"It doesn't matter!" Blue Fire said. "They aren't of the People; they have no right to be in our land. We will kill them!"

"You're right, my friend," Rain answered.

"So where are they?" Blue Fire asked, after a minute.

"Any moment now, great chief," Hawk's Eye said. "They're farther from the mountain every time they go around, so it takes them longer to go around each time, but—Yes! Here they come!" He pointed.

Around the mountain came some specks, maybe fifty miles out from the mountain itself, and so high that Blue Fire could barely see them. "Your eyes are better than mine, boy," he said. "How many are there?" That was the only important question. Did the gods favor the People with the numbers, or…?

"There are six, Blue Fire."

Six, the war chief thought, as the strangers flew directly over him, heading west. He didn't even look up, though some others shot bows at them. He knew they were wasting their time. No bow could shoot that high, nor bird fly. Six; it wasn't a beautiful number, it wasn't an ugly number. The most you could say for it was that it was even. So, no easy victory. But it could be won, if the People fought with cunning. Meanwhile, however…

He took one of the feathers out of his own hair, and held it out to the young man. "You have done well," he told Hawk's Eye. "Be a boy without a feather no longer, but a true warrior, and a man."

"Thank you, Blue Fire! Thank you, great chief!"

Rain, not to be outdone, said, "Join my band, Hawk's Eye, if you wish."

"Thank you, Rain! I would be honored!"

"Keep watching the invaders, Hawk's Eye," Blue Fire said. "Let us know where they fly, and if you discover what they're looking for, tell us at once."

"I will, great chiefs! You may depend on me!"

"How will you kill them?" Falling Tree said, as Blue Fire and Rain went to find Grasseater and Blows Cold, to tell them the news. "How will you kill them, when they can fly?"

"Birds fly, too," Blue Fire said, "and every year, we trap them, kill them, and eat them." He smiled viciously.

"Next," Lara said to the troops, "Zîvu and Juho are going to talk about what things weigh."

"I am?" the Doctor said.

"You're not going to make me do all the work, are you, Doctor?" Zîvu asked. "I don't know what you call it, but you must be aware that a live animal is much lighter than the same animal after you've killed it in a hunt; that a stone falls faster than anything except the simplest of living creatures; that birds can fly, but insects can't; that—

"Oh!" said the Master. "You mean the Problem of Weight!"

"That's right," the Cornet said. "You mentioned that to me once, but you never explained what it meant."

"What it means is that it's hard to weigh things, if they're alive," the Doctor said. "Look, you've gone hunting. When you catch an animal, do you kill it and dress it out right there, or do you take it back to your base camp?" Neither of them realized that Zîvu was broadcasting their conversation, telepathically, to the whole banner.

"Well, unless camp is very near by, you tie it up and take it back, carried on a pole or over the back of a mount. You don't kill it until you get back."

"Right! And the reason is…"

"Because a dead animal weighs more than a live one! But that's only natural. That's what the phrase 'dead weight' means."

"It's what we're used to, yes, but it makes no sense," said the Doctor, contradicting her. "Think about it! The live animal has the same bones, the same hair, the same muscles, the same organs, the same everything as the dead animal. Why does the dead animal weigh more?

"I don't know," Deni admitted. "It just does."

"And that," Juho said to Zîvu, "is The Problem of Weight."

"Thank you, Doctor. Thank you, Cornet. Let me take it from here, my friends," Zîvu said. Y pulled one of the X-frame chairs to ymself, and sat in it. "Everyone and everything is part of the physical universe," y told them. "Every one of you, and your riding animals too, are made of flesh and bone, blood and muscle. Your uniforms are woven from plant fibers, your rifles are made from metals dug out of the ground."

"But you also live in mind space," y said. "Every one of you has thoughts, plans, ambitions. Every one of you dreams when you sleeps. Every one of you remembers things from the past, and hopes for the future. Your bodies live in physical space, but your minds live in mind space, and mind space is every bit as real as physical space, though you don't know how to do anything with it yet. In the future, as Lara promised, we will change that for everyone."

"Imagine for a moment that you have two coins, and you suspected one was made of bad metal, or had been clipped too much. What's the common coin in your Kingdom, Doctor?"

"A crown," Juho said. "I don't know what you mean by bad metal, though."

"A crown, of course," Zîvu said, ignoring the Doctor's other comment. "I might have guessed. All right, here's a scale that you might use to weigh a coin," y said, producing one from thin air. "I'm projecting its image to all of you, so you should be able to see it just as though it were right in front of you. Now I need a crown. Thank you, Cornet. A very handsome coin, and nice and large, too. Is this the Êstâz on this side? He's very handsome, too! Now I'm going to make another crown." Y closed ys hand, and opened it again. Now there were two shiny coins in ys palm. Y held them out to Deni. "Can you see or feel any difference in them?"

After a bit she returned them, shaking her head. Zîvu said, "But there is a difference; the fact that you couldn't tell lets me know that the people who mint coins in your Kingdom are honest, or you would have caught it. One of these crowns is pure gold. The other one is a mixture of gold and a worthless metal. It looks and feels just like gold, but it weighs four percent less; four parts less out of every hundred. That's what we mean by bad metal, Doctor."

"I never heard of such a thing!" Juho said indignantly.

"Oh, happy Kingdom!" said the neuter. "Now I'm going to put both coins on my little scale here; the Cornet's honest coin, and the fraud I made. If they weigh the same, the pans will balance. Watch closely, now."

They didn't balance; one hung lower than the other. "Thank you, my dear, here is your crown back," Zîvu said, handing Deni the heavier coin. He closed his hand on the other one, and it was gone.

"When we compare two unliving objects with the same mass, that is, the same amount of material in them, they always weigh the same. Two identical buckets filled to the top with water, two identical rifles, it doesn't matter. With living things, it does, sometimes. So let's kill a few things and prove it to you."

"Let me put a pair of cages on each pan of a larger set of scales. You can see that the cages are the same, because the pans are level. Now I'm going to put two really big snakes in the cages. Actually, it's one really big snake, I just copied him like the coin. See, the pans are still level. Now, I'm going to instantly and painlessly kill this one—no reason why he should suffer. Watch closely now…"

"You see?" y said triumphantly. "Every one of you who's ever gone hunting for food, knows that a 'higher' animal, say a řobē, weighs a lot more dead than alive. You and your colleagues have done experiments like this, trying to measure this effect, haven't you, Doctor? How much does a wild řobē weigh when dead, as opposed to right before?"

"About four times as much," Juho said.

"But with insects, no difference? With worms, and snails, no difference? With fish, and toads, and lizards, no difference, am I right?"

"That's right," Juho said. "So why, by the Powergiver!"

"There is a force called gravity," Zîvu said. "Never mind exactly what it is, for now; suffice it to say, that when you have really huge amounts of mass, of substance, like a world or a star, it pulls other substance to itself. Gravity, pulling you down, is why you stand on the ground. When you drop something, like the cornet's crown, gravity is what pulls it to the ground."

"But gravity is a physical force," y continued, "and it only pulls on physical things. Some living things dwell in mind space as well as physical space, and without even knowing it, they fight back against gravity. That's why they weigh different amounts living and dead. When they die, they stop fighting; they become 'dead weight'. Many things have no minds to speak of, like snakes. That's why insects can't fly, not even walking-sticks with their glorious wings, or honey ants. But birds can. How well, exactly, my friend?"

"Depending on the kind of bird, it will weigh only half as much alive as dead, or even two parts out of five."

"Human beings, on the other hand," Zîvu said to the fascinated troopers, "fight back best of all. Every one of you weighs only one-fifth of what he would weigh it he didn't have 'magical powers'. If you weigh one hundred fifty pounds, without the 'magical powers' that you didn't even know you had, you would weigh seven hundred and fifty pounds, every minute, all the time, your whole life!"

"Now we're going to show you what that feels like. I want every one of you to take off your belt, anything hanging from your belt, everything except your basic uniform. Doctor, take off your Phoenix medallion. Now, everyone lie down flat on your back, with your arms at your sides, and your legs flat on the ground. Lara, will you and the others check everyone?"

"You don't have to do this," Lara told Saru.

"Of course I do," Saru said. "I'm the Legate; these are my men. If they do this, I do this. That's my duty as an officer."

Meanwhile Juho was telling Deni, "You don't have to do this."

"Of course I do," she answered. "Dear Juho, I'm a Baroness, remember? Noblesse oblige," she said, though she said in not in French, but in T́uliǹgrai.

Zîvu said, "Everyone set? Now, if I were to suddenly block your telekinetic ability, the sudden increase in your weight might crack some ribs, maybe a breastbone or two. So I'm going to block it gradually, for your own safety. Here we go… 1.5 times your normal weight… twice your normal weight… 2.5 times your normal weight… three times… four times… and five times your normal weight. No, don't try to sit up, or lift a finger. You could hurt yourself. Just lie there for another thirty more seconds and feel how heavy you are… fifteen seconds more… OK! On your feet soldiers, and feel how light you are! Feels good, doesn't it?"

"The point of this," y started to say. They weren't listening. They were swinging their arms around, and hopping around in relief. "The point of this," y started again.

"TEN-HUT!" cried Saru, Paran, and Deni at the same moment. The men froze at attention.

Paran and Deni looked to Saru. Saru said, with deceptive mildness, "At Ease, troops. Listen to the man; no one's dismissed you yet."

Zîvu nodded his thanks to Saru. "The point of this demonstration was, that every one of you, and every other human being in the World, has the same 'magical powers' we do. If it weren't so, that weight you just felt would drag you down every minute of every day, every day of your lives. Everything we can do, you can do; and we're going to teach you how."

"Thank you, *Ruk Zîvy," Saru said. "Banneret Paran! Dismiss the men to chow and personal time, pending further orders."

"Sir!" While Paran tended to that, Saru, followed by Juho and Deni, approached Lara.

"And what did you have in mind, Legate?" she smiled.

"I had a few questions I wanted to ask," Saru said. "For one, have your people found Κtûn yet?"

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.

This book was stuck at the end of chapter 5 from 2005 to 2018. I knew how the rest of the story went, but couldn't get past that point. But now it's moving again, and I hope to finish it before the end of the year.—Leo Orionis, September 2018.

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