Mara in flight. Commission by Kurt Wilcken, 4/5/2019

Maiden Flight

by Leo David Orionis

Dedicated to my family, who put up with the nasty little brat I was;
especially to my brother Stephen, who drew things for me despite all that.

Eoverai, pen Numestô Jazao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Everyone in the room was a Verē: roughly like their human ancestors, the Krahos or Old Ones; they had two legs, two arms, and one head each, with an ear on each side of their heads, two eyes on the front, a nose for breathing, a mouth for speaking. But the Krahos had been burdened with complex organs for eating plants and animals, deriving nourishment and energy from them, and excreting what was left. The Verē had none of that. Instead, black loops of horn atop their heads, called vańeθ in their language, drew energy directly from radiant energy sources, like the super-luminous star, Vol, that their world orbited, and the four other giant stars that orbited Vol. The Krahos ranged in height from under five feet to well over six, while their descendants were uniformly eight feet tall, plus or minus half a foot, not counting the vańe that each one bore. Krahos had five fingers on each hand, Verē had four; Krahos eyes used lenses to focus an image, while Verē eyes used different optics and were all one color. The Krahos were weak, sickly, and short-lived, while the Verē were very strong, almost immune to disease, and lived 400-500 years.

But the biggest difference between the two species was that the Krahos were extinct, and the Verē were not. After the Pole Star went supernova and the orbital shields partially failed, working sporadically and erratically, the new folk, the Verē, started being born. The Krahos grew fearful of them and eventually united to enslave them, or exterminate them. The Verē response, at last, was to solve the problem by killing all the Krahos.

The Krahos came in two genders, male and female, and generally mated in couples, usually one male and one female, though same-sex couples weren't unknown, nor asexual individuals. The Verē were born with undifferentiated sexual organs, and chose whether to become neuter, female, or male at puberty. It was a difficult, emotional, and often painful transformation, whatever choice was made. A neuter's sexual tissues atrophied entirely, so that a neuter adult had no sexual organs, and no hair. A female had the sexual organs and secondary characteristics of a female Krahos, and a male Verē was much like a male Krahos, sexually, except that a mask of hair grew around his eyes.

The Verē worship of the Powergiver, who raised them above the Old Ones, included sexism. According to the Book of the Powergiver, choosing one's gender, suffering through puberty to make the change happen, and forming a mated trio that lived according to the roles that the Powergiver decreed, was the price that Y required for the gifts Y gave them. The neuter was the leader and decision-maker for the family; the female came second, as the home-maker, child-raiser, and caregiver; the male came last, being good enough to fight for the family, but too hormonally charged and emotional for his decisions to be trusted. It could be argued, as "moderate" priests did in sermons and books, that neuters, having no sexual impulses or sexual hormones, were naturally more logical and rational, thus the best leaders. Females, having less violent urges than males, and being calmer, naturally came second, each one after her neuter partner, but before her male mate. Males came last, because the Powergiver made them the most emotional, best suited to fight in the family's defense, but too full of lust and rage to make rational decisions.

Thus, according to the priests, God guided you to decide what gender you would be, knowing beforehand what role you would live thereafter. It was up to you to make the decision that the Powergiver urged, and Ys priests and the Verē culture counseled, and then to make a marriage with one each of the other two genders, and live the life that Y decreed for you. Your reward for doing this was to be Verē, the chosen people of the Powergiver, superior to every other species in the Galaxy. (God and Ys priests looked down on aliens.)

It was no surprise, then, that seven of the eight people at this important meeting were neuters, dressed in the loose robes of the Verē neuter, with open sandals on their bare feet. Since they were all members of Great House Ekirvai, or Axe, they all wore the household colors of gold and dark red. The head of the Household, and only ym, wore dark red robes with a big golden double-bladed axe on the front, which was the house's arms. The seven neuters present, not being ym, wore gold-colored robes, with dark red sandals.

The eighth person was a woman, in the traditional female costume of a sleeved top with cuffs, a belt, a skirt that went below the knees, and slippers. Since she, too, was Ekirvao, a member of House Ekirvai, the blouse and skirt were gold-colored, while the belt, cuffs, and slippers were all dark red.

"Let's begin," said Ekirvao *Risu. "I have no time to waste." As a highly-placed person in the Household, y had dark red bands, a couple of inches wide, an inch from the ends of ys sleeves, and another an inch above the hem of ys robe.

"Sit down, everyone," said the project leader, Ekirvao *Latu, suiting ys actions to ys words. The furniture was in the Alteřan style, X-frame chairs on either side of a big, rectangular table 2/3 as wide as it was long, apparently supported by two end-pieces tied together by a rectangular board that passed through slots in the two of them. But the furniture wasn't material, though it felt solid, and supported anything placed on it. Like all Verai furniture, it was made of static pressor fields, projected by a field generator when a Verē activated it telekinetically.

"Introduce your team to me, *Latu," *Risu said. He sat on one long side of the table, with the others across from him. Project leader *Latu sat across from him, with three of his subordinates on either side. "I don't know all of them."

"Certainly, sir," said *Latu. "Ekirvao Juho, Consul of Physics, specializing in plasma fields and state-change dynamics." As y was named, the weapons expert rose, bowed briefly, and sat again. All ys peers did the same as the Ekirvai project leader named ym or her.

"Second on my left, Ekirvao Šimi, Consul of Genetics, specialist in the Krahos; and Ekirvao Mesu, Consul of Genetics, an expert in Tlâń genes and biosystems." (The title translated here as "Consul" was the same word used for a General, equivalent to a Ph.D.)

"On my right, Ekirvao Cebu, Consul of Psionics, specializing in mind-machine interfaces; Ekirvao Misai, Consul of Psionics, investigator of deep-level telekinetics; and Ekirvao Kaθa, Consul of Psychology and Consul of Cultural Anthropology." The last-named was the female, in female dress, further distinguished from the hairless neuters by her dark black hair down to her shoulders, and her dark black eyebrows. Having two advanced degrees in two different fields explained why she had a place at the table. It also helped that, while the project itself was public, its progress and results were secret, so the fewer who were involved, the better.

"Very good," said Ekirvao *Risu. "Now to business. Tomorrow I'm meeting with Lord Ekirvai ymself, to answer any questions y may have. At that point y will command us to launch, to abort, or continue preparing for a launch. At that point, also, y will decide all of our futures."

The understated threat sent chills down their backs. The head of a Great Household could make anyone in it disappear with a single word, without so much as a question being asked in the Blue House. All houses, greater or lesser, were autonomous. Even the Speaker would only intervene if he were convinced it was important to the race as a whole.

It suddenly occured to project leader *Latu that *Risu could make them all disappear, subject only to Lord Ekirvai's approval. Meeting the household official's eyes, y couldn't see a conscious threat in them. But the other neuter had a reputation for doing whatever needed doing…

"What do you need from us, sir?" y asked through a tight throat. Y resisted the urge to clear it.

"Start with the weapon itself," said *Risu. "Rather, tell me all about the artifact you were ordered to turn into a weapon. I need to make sure I'm clear on every detail."

Ekirvao Juho stood up. "Sir. The artifact was recovered from a field in southern Kantos between the cities of Dadanath and Anhrokor. Apparently the ring's master was in flight between the two cities when they were nuked. The ring shielded itself from the EMP, but couldn't block the effect from two directions at the same time and still maintain other functions. Its master froze and suffocated, being at 35,000 feet above sea level at the time."

"A miserable death," said *Risu. Served the blue devil right, he thought. "And then?"

"With its master dead, the ring did nothing. Ring and body fell onto a typical stony Kantos fell at terminal velocity. The body splashed over quite a distance; the ring, still attached to a finger-tentacle, buried itself twenty feet in the ground. However, it was undamaged."

"Was this the only Tlâń weapon to survive the last war?" *Risu asked.

"No, sir."

"No?!!" said *Risu. "What of the others?"

"Many of them were recovered and interred with their masters, before the Tlâń King and the Noble Tribes realized we weren't going to let them make any more. Once buried, their customs won't let them be exhumed."

"That's correct," Ekirvao Kaθa confirmed.

"Other weapons were captured, but proved to be useless. The beings within them—"

"Taa maa tlath, Kaθa said. "Souls. Ta ma tla, singular. The Tlâń use the same phrase for their own souls."

"Interesting, but my time is limited," the household officer said. "Ekirvao Juho, you were saying that some rings were captured, but the 'souls'—?"

"Sir. Some rings' souls were so traumatized by mass death and destruction, atomic blast or radiation, that they just weren't sane any longer. Catatonic ones, and ones that raved harmlessly, were turned over to the Tlâń to foster the illusion of full cooperation after the treaty. Ones that struck out blindly at everything around them were destroyed, or if possible, returned so they could hurt their own people. Casualties among units returning rings also helped convince the King that we were acting in good faith. Some 'souls' that survived with sanity intact, but with their connection to their rings severed—like a person whose spine has been broken—were interrogated for a while, before they decided their situation was hopeless or they shouldn't give information to the enemy. They killed themselves somehow."

"Duatha maatlath," Kaθa said. " 'The return of the souls'. The flesh-and-blood Tlâń can do that, too. It's an honorable way to die, under certain circumstances."

"All right," said *Risu. "So how many rings survived the atomic bombardment which was specifically executed to blanket Kantos with electromagnetic pulses, and destroy them? How many are intact, today, and fully functional?"

"Just the one, for certain," said Ekirvao *Latu. "But—"

"Among the members of our House who've served in the Kaitempē for more than the minimum training periods," said Ekirvao Juho, "there's a rumor that the Speaker has one, asleep as this one was, that he kept back when he lent this one to our research project. It's even possible that some Liberal house has a project just like ours underway."

"Wonderful! Any other bad news I can give to Lord Ekirvai?—I was being sarcastic!" y said, glaring at the lone woman at one end of the table.

"Nevertheless, sir," she said, "You should know this, so you can do your duty to our Lord. By tradition, the chief of each of the Twelve Noble Tribes has a ring, the most powerful and intelligent that can be made. The very best one is reserved for their King, as well. Most of the chiefs weren't killed in the last war, and they've had two hundred years to make new rings despite the treaty. So there may be a number of functional weapons in Tlâń 'hands'. One bright spot is that the weapons are hand-made; the Tlâń despise the very idea of mass manufacturing. And the 'souls' for the rings, whatever their source, can't be numerous, or they'd have been making many more in times past. Best guess—and it's only a guess—perhaps as few as eight functioning rings, perhaps as many as forty."

"As bad as that—!" *Risu said. "As bad as that!" Y shook ys head.

"What about the test subject itself?" y asked, after a moment of grim reflection.

Ekirvao Cebu, the psionicist who specialized in mind-machine interfaces, stood up. "The present subject was not the first," y began. "At first we hoped to train the weapon to accept a Verē master, or to learn enough to train a Verē to coexist peacefully with it."

Y grimaced. "A number of brave men lost their minds, usually followed by their lives. Most of them were Ekirvao, but some of them were volunteers from other Orthodox Houses. I'd be more than happy to supply their names, if Lord Ekirvai wishes to honor their sacrifice."

"The problem, you see, was upbringing. Connecting an adult Orthodox mind to the weapon was a lot like mounting an armed invasion of a hostile country. No one who thinks of Tlâń as slimy, blue-skinned, boneless natives, who have no right to exist on our world, is going to be able to share his head with a Tlâń soul, artificial or otherwise."

"We tried women instead of men, to eliminate the testosterone factor," Ekirvao Kaθa said. "A few of them survived the experiment, but they still couldn't use the ring."

"Attitude aside," Ekirvao Misai said, "male aggression aside, Verē psionics and Tlâń psionics don't mix. The way the Verē mind interacts with the deep structure of the universe, and the way the Tlâń do, are fundamentally different."

"At this point, a completely different approach was proposed," project leader *Latu said. "It seemed clear that no Verē was going to master the ring. We couldn't kidnap a Tlâń child—aside from the risk of war, there was no reason to suppose it would be loyal. So we decided to create a being that could wield the weapon. Consuls?"

Ekirvao Šimi, the geneticist who specialized in the molecular inheritance of the Old Kind, stood up, at the same time as Ekirvao Mesu, the Tlâń biosystems specialist.

"Creating a Krahos body was a trivial exercise," said Šimi, "so we did that first, on the principle that the fewer complications, the greater the chance of success. The girl that resulted—you will remember, sir, that members of the Old Race were male or female from birth, with no choice in the matter?"

At *Risu's nod, Šimi continued. "The manufactured girl child had no problems with the differences between Verē and Tlâń psionics, but the weapon wouldn't interact with her. She might as well have been an animal as a person, as far as the power ring was concerned. It was the same with the others we made as backup subjects. Once this point was proven, all four were disposed of painlessly in their sleep."

"All right," *Risu said indifferently. "And then?"

"Since merely eliminating the Verē psionics wasn't the solution we'd hoped for," said the other geneticist, Mesu, "we proceeded to the far more difficult task of designing a neurosystem that combined Krahos brain and nerves with Tlâń psionics, coding DNA that would express these structures in living cells; and growing living creatures that functioned with such brains and nerves." Y shook ys head. "I still marvel that we managed to accomplish this, let alone in so few years. When we first set out, I seriously doubted it was possible."

"It was years before we got past the stage of nerve tissue in dishes," said Šimi. "Krahos nerves and Tlâń nerves aren't built the same way, don't fire the same way, aren't organized into the same kind of tissues, don't build the same kind of brains…"

"And which differences mattered to the soul of the ring, and which could be ignored?" said Mesu. "Given a set of differences in neurochemistry to test, how do we get Krahos DNA to construct it? How do we keep the rest of the body from rejecting the brain and the nerves as foreign tissue? How do we balance the different elements used by the nerves so that the body doesn't suffer from an excess or deficiency of sodium or potassium?"

"But you solved the problem, I take it," said *Risu.

"Actually, we didn't," Šimi said. Mesu shook ys head.

"Explain yourself!" *Risu said.

"Several subjects died on us," Mesu answered. "We couldn't keep them alive long enough, at first. We weren't going to put a super-weapon in the hands of a child not old enough to speak, or to obey her or his orders."

"But we got better at making them, and better at treating what was wrong with them. Still, the current subject, Mara, was a very sick little girl when someone suggested we expose her to the ring." Y looked at Ekirvao Kaθa.

"But she was a very good little girl," Kaθa said. "Very obedient, very dutiful, never complaining about being sick, or all the tests and treatments she had to endure."

"Finally we reached a point," said Ekirvao *Latu, "where a decision had to be made. She wasn't going to get better, and we still didn't know whether the artifact would recognize her. So we brought her to the vault, and put the ring on her finger."

"I thought we'd killed her," said Kaθa, wiping her eyes. "Not that killing her wouldn't have been mercy, sick as she was, and in so many different ways."

"Couldn't you have tried something else?" said *Risu.

"Sir," said *Latu, "we had nothing left to try. Everything else was a dead end, often quite literally. The genes in the subject were the best we knew how to make. We could've made another set, and hoped for a better outcome, in twelve years or so."

"We put the ring on her finger," said Kaθa, "and her eyes shut. Oh no, I thought, she's dead. Then her eyes opened, and she smiled the most beautiful smile! 'Eio!' she said, 'Eio! It's talking to me! It's singing to me! Ea, so pretty!' "

"So she lived," *Risu said.

"She lived, she thrived, she got quite outrageously healthy," said Šimi.

"The ring fixed everything we'd done wrong, from the DNA on up," Mesu explained. "It didn't just replace her nervous system with a Tlâń one—that would have caused a fatal autoimmune response. It gave Ekirvao Mara a working nervous system, and accepted her as its master."

"It gave WHO?!!" Ekirvao *Risu shouted.

They gaped at ym. *Latu said, "Sir? The project is successful. The weapon—"

"HOW DARE YOU!" *Risu shouted, rising to ys feet. "You created a thing out of Krahos and Tlâń biology, something with not so much as a scrap of Verē in it, and you call it by my Lord's name?!! 'Ekirvao Mara'?!! HOW DARE YOU!"

They covered themselves from ys wrath. The Verē prayed by raising their hands, palms outward, to the symbol of their God, as though Y were the sun and they were shielding their eyes from sunlight. Verē eyes were proof against glare because of the way they worked, but the gesture was older than their species.

So now they cowered before *Risu's anger, and put up their hands before their eyes, for the same gesture was used towards one's superiors, and to salute in the Kaitempē, the Verē police and military.

"Well?" said *Risu. If they had never seen a neuter so angry, neither had y ever been so angry. Amazed at ymself, y said, "Explain yourselves!"

"Sir," said *Latu, "we have permission."

"Permission! What permission?"

"It's in my office," *Latu said. "If I might take you there?"

"By the Powergiver!" swore *Risu. Y sat down, suddenly tired. Was this what it was like to be a male? "You will show me this permission—and it had better be good! But for now, just tell me."

The hands came down, slowly. Seeing *Risu's still flushed face, *Latu doubted not a bit that y would make them all disappear if they gave ym a reason.

To fly! Not as a kite flies,
Climbing the reluctant air;
To fly! Not as a bird flies,
Flapping wide, weary wings;
But to fly! As light flies,
Soaring, dreaming, free!

—"Joy", by Eborao Mara

Eoverai, Numestē Jazao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

The next day, Mara was concentrating very hard not to let her teachers down. She knew nothing of the meeting that had taken place yesterday, or of how one word from Lord Ekirvai could have destroyed her, and everyone she knew. She did knew, however, what was planned for today, and she was eager to show what she could do.

As soon as she woke that morning, she remembered that a household official was coming to see her, someone who reported directly to Lord Ekirvai ymself! These days she had furniture in her quarters created by her ring and shaped by her will—better than the mindless pressor fields that ignored her, and infinitely better than the primitive contraptions of wood and steel she'd had to endure before she got her ring. Sensing her excitement, the bed practically threw her onto her feet! She laughed, and held out her hand to summon the yellow light-stuff back into the ring.

Then she pulled off the white shift she slept in, and tossed it over her shoulder. Instantly a beam of yellow light shot from the ring, snagged the garment with a hook before it could hit the floor, speared across the room to a disposal slot at chest height in the wall, and stuffed it in. Most mornings, the ring would've waggled the shift before her reprovingly, or given it back to her so she could toss it away in different ways a few times. But this morning, it was as eager as she.

"All right, then," she said. She stood up straight, and held her arms out to the sides. This, too, was often a game. Sometimes the ring soul picked her up bodily and tumbled her over and over, making sounds like water over rocks, and shaping itself into crashing waves of yellow; sometimes it spun around her like a whirlwind. This morning, it shaped itself into a yellow disk above her head, and dropped down her body to the floor. As it went, it cleaned her hair, her skin, in fact her whole body inside and out, removing dirt, dead skin, metabolic wastes, bacteria, and so forth. Mara remembered how it had removed all her hair and fingernails at first—they were dead, weren't they? But the shame she'd felt at being made bald, and the pain from the quicks of her fingernails, had made it sorry; and the clincher had been when the hair and nails grew back, from their living roots.

Mirror, please, she requested.

! the ring responded indignantly.

Please, she said again. I need to see what they will see.

The ring couldn't deny her anything, really, though sometimes it had to be coaxed a bit. Now the yellow soul-stuff drew itself up in a perfectly flat surface, roughtly 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide, and turned perfectly reflective.

In the mirror she saw herself: one of the Krahos, the Old Race, in appearance, a mere six feet tall instead of eight, with no vańe loop on her head, just masses of yellow hair falling past her shoulders. Her eyes were "blue" the way Krahos eyes were "blue": mostly white, with a blue iris around a black pupil in the center, instead of blue all over. They had no translucent inner eyelids to protect them, and the flesh around them was shaped differently, rounder than almond-shaped Verē eyes. Her skin was very pale, almost a light pink, rather than the light brown of Verē skin.

Still, ugly as she was, she was at least a strong Krahos, and a fit Krahos, and right now a very clean Krahos. "Good enough," she said. "My uniform, please?"

If the ring-soul acted like a big, playful dog at times, at others it was like a girl who liked to dress dolls. She had finally trained it not to dress her, but to bring her clothes and let her put them on by herself. First, panties and a minimal bra—very minimal, Mara thought ruefully, but maybe they'd get bigger.

Until today, she would have donned the clothing of an Ekirvao female. First, the golden blouse, with the dark red cuffs on the sleeves. Then the golden skirt, down to a little past her knees, fastened at her waist with a dark red belt. Finally, soft but very tough slippers, ankle-high and dark red. Thus clean, fresh, and armored in the colors of her household and the attire of a woman, Mara would have been ready to face a new day.

But today was a special day, and she'd been told that for today, ordinary clothing wouldn't do. She'd be fighting, and fighting was the privilege and duty of the male of the species. It was one thing to have her legs bare, and her skirt swirling around her as she trained, but to be taken seriously, today, it had been decided she must dress as a male did, so that her male opponents would take her seriously.

For today, then, she had a male uniform to put on: a male shirt, gold, with dark red cuffs at the wrists, and a high, dark red collar. Then she pulled on long, golden pants, and fastened a dark red belt at her waist. Finally, she put her feet into dark red boots that went almost to her knees. The pants tucked into the boots, and the shirt into the pants.

"Don't you look great!" Ekirvao Kara said. Mara turned. The red-haired Verē woman stood just inside the door, beaming. Had anyone else tried to walk in on her unannounced, the ring would've kept ym, her, or him out, and warned Mara.

But Kara, no high-ranking academic but a mere support person, had appointed herself surrogate mother to Mara. She had held the sickly child when she hurt, cleaned up all kinds of disgusting messes, fluffed pillows, smoothed sheets, cleaned clothes and bedclothes, washed Mara's body and hair, lay in her rickety wooden bed with her and read the child stories—and never, ever, looked at her like a freak, a laboratory animal, or a monster.

Not only would the ring let her enter unannounced, she was the only other person, besides Mara, whom it would bear on the furniture it formed of its yellow soul stuff.

"Kara!" Mara said. She ran to the older woman and embraced her. The eight-foot-tall Verē woman leaned over her and hugged her back; and then they were enclosed in a yellow glow as the ring embraced them both.

"Jealous puppy!" Kara laughed, then said to Mara, "Are you ready, love?"

"Ready!" Mara said, beaming.

To the main lab first, where the doctors and the project administrators waited. They had long ago gotten used to the appearance of the creature they had designed, and permission to wear household colors came with the permission to use the household name; indeed, use of the name required wearing the dark red and gold of Ekirvai. Now they were all skittish again, Mara saw; nervous about what she looked like, and nervous about what she wore. She couldn't guess why, so she ignored it, and tried to listen to the instructions—the very long, very unnecessarily detailed instructions—raining down on her head.

"Enough," said Kara at last.

The bigwigs looked at her as if a chair had reprimanded them. "You forget yourself, Ekirvao Kara," project leader *Latu said, severely.

"I beg your pardon, sir," said Kara. "But stop for a moment. She's ready; you know she's ready. Have faith in yourselves. Trust your work. Making her nervous doesn't improve her chances of doing well, and thus making you look good."

"She's right," Ekirvao Kaθa said. "I'm sorry, sir, but she's right. We're acting like we can teach her everything at the last minute. Either she's ready, or she isn't."

"That's how you train troops," Ekirvao Juho said. "You train them, then you trust the training."

"…All right," *Latu said, after a moment of intense thought. Y looked at Mara. "Are you ready, Ekirvao Mara?"

"Sir!" Mara said, quivering with eagerness.

"Then make the Household proud," *Latu told her.

"Sir!" she responded, and saluted, palms up and forward before her eyes.

In the gymnasium, a big room a hundred feet on a side, she met Ekirvao *Risu, the household official representing Lord Ekirvai ymself. "Be greeted, Ekirvao Mara," y said distantly but correctly, just as if she were a Verē of the household!

"Be greeted, great sir," she responded humbly, looking at the dark red stripes on his golden robe with awe.

The first tests were hand-to-hand combat against her male Verē trainers, all of them in traditional male clothing: a long-sleeved shirt with cuffs, a cuff-like collar, long pants cinched at the waist with a belt, and tucked into boots that came almost to the knee. The colors, of course, were Ekirvao; golden shirt and pants, dark red cuffs, collar, belt, and boots.

None of the trainers were holding back, nor had she expected them to. They had taught her well, and with her ring's yellow glow acting as powered armor, she matched their Verē strength and speed. Indeed, with the ring moving her body and reading the desired moves from her mind and her conditioned reflexes, there was no effective limit to the strength and speed she could exhibit. After beating single opponents, pairs, trios, and quartets, in the final match she took on all of her trainers at once, dancing between their blows when she could, taking them without effect otherwise, and dispatching them with precise blows that stunned or paralyzed without injury.

"And if she's attacked like that without her ring?" inquired Ekirvao *Risu.

Ekirvao Mrada, the head of the combat training department, shrugged. Like every Verē, he was potentially immortal, and absurdly young-looking for all the wars he'd fought in, and all the combat he'd seen. The hair on his head, the "mask" around his eyes, and his eyebrows were the color of sand.

"Then she's suet," he said, looking at his superior with his steel-blue eyes. "Without the ring, she's far smaller and weaker than a Verē, has a shorter reach, and has no armor against blows or weapons. Even her bones are weaker. But she'll still have the training, and the enemy may underestimate her. She could give them some surprises, maybe take a few with her."

Feud weapons followed, the implements allowed by the conventions of the Houses to settle disputes between individuals, or between Households. Axe, sword, thrusting spear and throwing spear, spear and etlatlai, knife, poleaxe, mace, sling, staff sling, stone bow, bow and arrow, were all stopped effortlessly by Mara's ring.

Combat with these weapons had the same outcome as the previous hand-to-hand demonstrations. Mara was trained in the use of feud weapons, and her ring, moving her limbs at her will, like a suit of powered armor, gave her strength and speed with no practical limit, and accuracy like a machine. She only pricked or tapped her opponents, but they counted the blows as fatal, as they would have been, in actual combat.

"More suet?" *Risu asked Mrada.

"In the long run, yes, sir," said Mrada. "There's no single warrior, however strong, however fast, however skillful, who can stand against skilled numbers or superior foes indefinitely. Weapons help smaller, weaker warriors hold their own against larger, stronger warriors with less skill, or against larger numbers. The projectile weapons, especially bow and atlatl and sling, don't care how big and strong you are, as long as you're strong enough to use them. Still, in the end, everybody loses."

"All right," said Ekirvao *Risu. "Enough preliminaries."

"Sir," said Mrada. He pulled a telekinetic communicator from his belt. The featureless rectangle used a Verē's psionic powers to duplicate the sound of his voice to any number of other units, by vibrating the air at the remote locations identically to the air at the sending end. Being telekinetic, rather than a modulation of an electromagnetic beam, it was instantaneous.

"Eoverai Orbital," Mrada said, "This is Proconsul Ekirvao Mrada requesting suborbital clearance, point to point, per the flight plan I filed this morning."

The reply came instantly, as if the male speaking were right beside them, instead of in high orbit, 20 light-seconds away. "Ekirvao Proconsul, this is Praetor Ihed́ao Juhao Sinai for Eoverai Orbital Command. Your trajectory is clear this mark. Please notify when flight is complete."

"Thank you, Praetor. Will do. Ekirvao Mrada out."

"You're welcome, Proconsul. Orbital Command out."

Ekirvao *Risu held up a hand to forestall the other from telling ym what y'd just heard. "Move out, everyone who's going to the island!" y called.

"You heard ym!" project leader *Latu said. "Through the tele!" A patch of light appeared on one wall of the gym, ten feet wide, robin's-egg blue purely by convention. It was an interface between physical space and Verē mental space, and could be opened wherever there was a member of the race—though some were better than others at opening them and keeping them open. There were telekinetic tools for this purpose, as there were for so many others, products of tøskahôvê, the science of psionics.

Selected members of the project began walking through the tele, simultaneously stepping out of another on Elioteřu, located on the equator east of the continent of Syorkai, a third of the way around the world. Ekirvao *Latu went first, while Ekirvao *Risu waited to go last.

Meanwhile, Kara had touched a control on the gym wall, and a round port on the ceiling had irised open, eight feet across. The jade-green sky of Eoverai showed through it, full of fluffy white clouds.

Mara couldn't go through the tele with the others. A Verē could take inanimate objects through one easily, even living creatures with some care, even sentient non-Verē beings: but Mara's ring would not abide it. Going into Verē mind space was one thing it flatly refused to do.

"Ready, love?" Kara asked. "As soon as Ekirvao *Risu steps through…"

"I know," Mara said. "Get to Elioteřu as fast as I can! I'm ready! We're ready," she said, feeling the soul of the ring quivering with eagerness.

"Aren't you afraid that the hawk, once loosed, won't come back?" said a familiar voice in *Risu's ear.

"No, Lord," *Risu said. "If the hawk's been trained right, she'll always return to her owner's wrist." Y stepped into the tele.

"And if she hasn't been trained right," y said, as y stepped out of the other tele, into the actual physical presence of ys master, Lord Ekirvai, "this is as good a time as any to find out."

Y turned to face west and took a tøska weapon, a wace, from Ekirvao Mrada. "And as good a place as any to bury the body, for that matter."

The moment that Ekirvao *Risu left through the tele, Mara shot through the opening in the gymnasium roof. "As quick as you can," Kara had said. Mara plowed up through the air, with her ring protecting her from the force and heat of air friction; and then out of the atmosphere, into space, with the ring protecting her from cold, and supplying oxygen. Eoverai has a radius of 19,860 miles from the planet's center to sea level, and a circumference of 124,783 miles. Teřańa, the capital city of the Verē, in northern Loraon, is located at 60° north on the prime meridian; the island of Elioteřu at 120° east, on the equator. A straight line from one to the other would've been 46,504 miles—underground, plunging through the curve of the planet from north to south and from west to east simultaneously.

Instead, the flight plan arranged for her ring to transport Mara through nothing more dense than air at hypersonic speeds, which her designers well knew it could do. The first leg of the trip was 23,423 miles downrange, to a point halfway between the city and the island, but ten miles above sea level; the second leg went the rest of the way, descending this time. The total trip was 342 miles longer, but went from sea level to 10 miles up and back to sea level again, rather than crashing through the world, 8,394 miles below sea level at the deepest point!

Distance wasn't the test, however, but speed. Acceleration wasn't a problem, because the ring grasped every atom of her body and moved it all together, just as the Verē did with the telekinetic drives in their vehicles. What kills the passenger and crew of a ship driven by physical drives is that the engine is attached to the vehicle, and the sentients ride in it; acceleration has to be transferred from engine to ship, and from ship to crew. A great enough acceleration or deceleration rips the engine from the ship, or crushes the crew against the front or back of the interior. Mara, like the crew of a Verē ship, felt no acceleration at all, because it was applied instantly and smoothly to every particle of and in her body at the same time.

So she instantly changed her vector at the midpoint of the flight plan, from climbing and accelerating at one angle, to descending at the same angle, and still accelerating. Not until she was most of the way to the island did she flip over, and begin to decelerate at a rate which would bring her to a stop just as she arrived.

Thus it was only a few minutes after Ekirvao *Risu stepped out of the tele, greeted his master, and held out his hand for the weapon that Ekirvao Mrada carried, that all the members of the project saw a blazing meteor screaming down the western sky, directly towards them. A sonic boom signalled that Mara's speed had dropped below the speed of sound. The glowing girl-creature in Ekirvao colors could then be made out as she descended feet first, encased in the yellow glow of her ring. Ekirvao *Risu led her with the weapon until y was sure y had a lock on her, then fired.

The wace wasn't a feud weapon, like an axe, but a telekinetic weapon, the chief means used by the Kaitempē when they acted as police officers against other Verē. Its psionic beam stunned the telekinetic centers of the Verē mind. The least of its effects was rendering the victim unable to use the myriad devices of telekinetic technology: communicators, air vehicles, furniture, doors, personal flight harnesses, windows, lights, interactive books, etc., etc. More serious was the cessation of the field around a Verē's body, that kept out bacteria, viruses, and other foreign matter. A Verē shot by a tøska weapon often became seriously ill with multiple opportunistic infections, and had to undergo prolonged medical treatment. Finally, the victim of a telekinetic weapon was struck down quite literally, yanked to the ground by fives times the gravity that ys, her, or his tøskê was accustomed to supporting. Broken bones, and a humiliating feeling of helplessness, were frequent results.

Mara wasn't standing still when *Risu took aim, but descending at almost a hundred miles an hour. The tøska beam struck a seahawk as the Ekirvao official swept it towards Mara. The bird squawked as its wings suddenly didn't support it, and plunged heavily. Fortunately, it had plenty of height; it spread its wings and glided into a tree, where it sat holding the branches tightly, and shaking its head. Then the beam hit Mara.

Nothing happened. As *Risu had said, Mara had not a scrap of Verē in her, and her Tlâń neurosystems interacted with the infrastructure of the universe quite differently than a Verē's. Neither Mara, nor her ring, realized that Ekirvao *Risu had shot them.

"So, no need to bury the body," said Ekirvai Kemto to ys deputy. The head of the household wore the house colors reversed, as in the household arms, and with the axe from the arms. Thus, while they all wore gold clothes with dark red details, and no axe, y wore dark red clothes, with gold accessories such as sandals, and the gold double-bladed axe emblem was emblazoned, large, in the center of ys chest.

"Are you sure, Lord?" Ekirvao Mrada said. "If tøska weapons won't stop her, wouldn't it be better to get rid of her now, before she becomes a threat, while she yet loves and trusts us?"

Ekirvai Kemto didn't reply, but gave the male of ys household a single, withering glance. Stepping forward with a broad smile on ys face, ys arms held out in welcome, y cried, "Well done, child! O very well done, indeed!"

Mara froze in shock at meeting the head of her house. It had never happened to her before, and she had never expected that it would. She fell to her knees before ym, and held up her palms before her eyes.

"No, no, rise, my child," said Lord Ekirvai, smiling with love. Ea, what an actor! thought Ekirvao *Risu, ys lieutenant. The Ekirvai lord always referred to aliens as końē, "trash people". Y used the same term for Verē whose political and/or religious opinions differed from ys. Yet now y took Mara's hands in ys, and lifted her to her feet. "I know you're going to make me very proud," y said.

"Thank you, Lord," Mara said faintly. She'd never expected such words, even if, by some strange circumstance, she'd ever come to meet the head of the huge household that had produced her. The House's attitude towards aliens and non-Orthodox Verē was well known; in their mouths, "Liberal" was a curse word. The scientists and administrators, the trainers and support people of the project, had worked without stint to create someone who could use the Tlâń ring, and make her as effective as possible. But they looked down on her from their Verē height and strength, with rock-steady certainty of their Verē superiority, even as they trained her and praised her when she did well. Only the ring-soul, and Kara, had ever loved her unconditionally.

Yet here was the Ekirvai ymself, lifting her to her feet, and even as she grasped that, kissing her forehead! She was overwhelmed. In that moment, she opened her heart to ym, and let ym in, without words.

"Are you ready for what comes next?" y asked.

"Great Lord?" said Mara.

Y chuckled, and said to Ekirvao *Risu and *Latu, standing by anxiously, "Haven't you told her about the next part of her big debut?"

"Yes, Lord," said project leader *Latu, even as Ekirvao *Risu said, "You've rattled her wits, Lord. Pray give her a moment to recover them."

Mara flushed. "I'm sorry," she said to all three neuters. "Of course—fighting the Kaitempē."

"Yes, child," said Lord Ekirvai. "And one day, who knows? You may need to do so in deadly earnest." Y looked her up and down. "But you're missing something."

"Lord?!!" said Mara, in a panic. Surely Kara would've told her if she'd come here in her sleep robe? All her insecurities clawed at her for a moment.

"The Kaitempē wear helmets on duty. Don't you think you should have one, too?" Lord Ekirvai beckoned. Kara handed ym something she'd been hiding behind her back, and Mara gasped.

It was a helmet, round like a Kaitempē's, but with no opening for a Verē vańe on top. It was the proper color for an Ekirvao, dark red, relieved only by a golden axe above the face area.

"Hold this," Kara said, and handed her the helmet. "Now turn around." Her friend's matter-of-fact tone helped Mara keep her composure as she turned the helmet over and over, and traced the raised relief of the golden axe with a wondering finger. No one in the House wore the axe except the Lord ymself—and now, it seemed, so would she! She felt unworthy of such an honor.

Then she felt Kara's fingers in her hair. "I'll show you how to do this later," she said, as she parted Mara's yellow hair down the middle, divided one half into three strands, and produced a perfect braid, which she tied with a soft dark-red cord; and then the other half.

"Excellent!" said Ekirvai Kemto. "Put it on, child."

Carefully, Mara pulled the helmet over her head, with Kara moving the braids so they hung down her back on either side of her neck. There was a strap that fastened under her jaw. It wasn't needed, because the helmet fit perfectly, but Mara fastened it anyway, and turned to face her lord.

"Beautiful," y said. She blinked; no one had ever called her beautiful before.

"Ekirvao Mara," said Ekirvai Kemto, "you understand your mission?"

"Yes, Lord," said Mara. "To demonstrate my abilities, and the abilities of my weapon, by engaging a Kaitempē force in space."

"Exactly so," y said, then "Proceed," y bid Ekirvao Mrada.

A glowing blue tele, ten miles square, appeared 400 million miles from Ťir, the red supergiant starsun of the Aboǹi system, 3 light years from Vol and Eoverai. The Mi*wu's Jet convoy burst out of the tele, then decelerated, coming to rest relative to the starsun.

Pâtao Vîd́a checked the ships of the convoy. They were all there, of course, held in place telekinetically, and of course they'd felt no acceleration or deceleration, but you always had to check, as a matter of simple duty. Now where was the Drē ship? Ah… Even as Vîd́a asked the question, the lens-shaped Thousand Suns, glowing white hot, flew out of Ťir, and resumed its station a thousand miles behind Mi*wu's Jet. Now they could go on.

Vîd́a's telekinetic communicator came alive, which he hadn't expected yet. Almost all of the convoy was either going to Eoverai, or passing through Aboǹi on the way to other systems of the Heart Stars, so all the comm traffic he'd expected to be at the home world, passing clients off to Kaitempē escorts, or to other convoys heading out of the system, while he and his mates took a break at home.

"Aboǹi System Command," said a voice he didn't recognize, "this is Proconsul Ekirvao Mrada, requesting permission to execute Operation Mara, per plan dated this morning."

Vîd́a frowned. A member of House Ekirvai? They were one of the worst of the Great Houses. And some operation involving the whole system? He didn't like the sound of that at all!

"Ekirvao Proconsul, this is Praetor Imorao Rigo for System Command. Wait one."

And then the Speaker himself came on! Where the other broadcasts had been voice only, this included an image of the Speaker sitting on his Throne, wearing the colors of all the Verē people: the bright green shirt and pants, the yellow boots, belt, cuffs, and collar. There was a wide yellow band down the front of his shirt from collar to belt, representing the yellow band that went across the emblem of the Empire, and the whole front of his shirt was filled with three interlocked black rings, one on top and two on bottom, half on the yellow and half on the green. On the Speaker's head was his Double Crown. The green crown of the lesser houses circled his brow, rising to a spine in the back with a squared-off tip. Inside it, the yellow crown of the greater houses hid the Speaker's brown hair and vańe. under a shape that was hard to describe, but instantly recognized by all the people, a kind of convex cone. The Speaker's green eyes, surrounded by the eye-mask of a male Ver in brown, and under brown eyebrows, looked out of the broadcast image. Pâtao Vîd́a had never looked in the eyes of the Speaker before. He found himself wondering whose image the other was seeing.

"System Command, you may proceed according to plan," said the man who Spoke for all the Verē people. Then he added, "Ekirvao Mara, good luck to you."

If Ekirvao Mara, whoever she might be, answered the Speaker, Pâtao Vîd́a didn't hear it. His wife's hand fell on his shoulder, making him jump. "What in the world is going on?" she asked.

"Aboǹi System, attention to orders!" said the communicator. "Eoverai Orbital, intercept missile rising from planetary surface. Moons and Near-Space, execute Operation Mara. Deep Space, you are the reserve. All convoys, attention to orders! All convoys outward bound, proceed with caution. All inbound convoys, freeze in place. All non-Kaitempē ships of any kind or destination, strictly obey the orders of any Kaitempē who gives them, without argument or delay."

"Is Hesu still asleep?" Vîd́a asked his wife.

"Probably," Pâtao Dêbi answered, eyes wide with wonder.

"Better wake ym. I may need ys advice soon."

Mara's eyes were wide. The Speaker had addressed her by name? And he'd wished her luck!

It gave her mixed feelings. Ihed́ai was the greatest House of all, the one that had led the Verē out of slavery, the one the Speaker always came from. Yet the entire household had been murdered, a generation before, by political criminals in the night. Ihed́ai Vîd́a, the current Speaker, claimed to be a survivor who'd been hidden by another House until he reached maturity. He'd claimed the Speaker's Throne, the Double Crown, and the Axe forty years ago, on New Year's Day of the year 10,000, restored his House, and no one disputed his right, but—Was he really Ihed́ai? Why was he, a male, the Speaker? He should have put a neuter of his House on the Throne. It was just wrong for the Speaker to wear man's clothing!

Besides that, he was a Liberal, the worst Liberal of all. He believed that neuters, females, and males had equal rights; that lesser households were equal in dignity and worth to great houses; that all sentient beings should be treated the same, no matter what world or starsun they came from or whether they were the children of the Powergiver or not! He believed that all beings were free to worship God in any way they pleased, or even, as alien creatures did, not believe in Ym at all!

Or at least he said that he believed in these things. But could anyone in his right mind actually think like that?

"Are you ready, child?" Ekirvai Kemto said.

Mara's wandering thoughts snapped back to the here-and-now. "Ready, Lord!" she said, saluting ym. Her shiny new helmet gleamed in the sunlight.

"Make me proud," y said, embracing her. In one ear y said, "Beware. Some of the Kaitempē are Liberal trash, and they may try to kill you in earnest."

"Go get them, child!" y said, smiling fiercely, as y stepped back.

And then Mara was gone, leaving a sonic boom for her farewell, miles up already and accelerating constantly.

Her maiden flight behind her, Mara went to battle.

Continued next issue!

Behind the Scenes

From about 1963 to 1969, my long-suffering brother Stephen and I did a series of homemade comic books, called "Taol Vrydda". I wrote the stories, blocking them out panel by panel with stick figures, Stephen did the pencils, then I inked them, lettered them, and colored them. They were pretty crude; not only did I mess up my brother's drawing with my inking, but the inking and lettering were done with ball-point pen, and the coloring with colored pencils, on both sides of regular letter-sized 20-pound paper. About the only thing that could be said in their favor was, at least it wasn't lined paper!

On top of all that, I micromanaged poor Stephen and treated him as my drawing slave. It's a marvel he put up with me as long as he did, and we got as many comics finished as we did. But he did, right up until he graduated from high school and went off to join the Air Force.

So there I was, without an artist. Still, I went on producing "story boards" (the pages of plot drawn out panel by panel with stick figures and dialogue) for a new, improved version to be called "Eoverai", starting with a new issue #1. I did this for another year or so, until I graduated, myself, and started college.

In 2013, I found my old notes from 1969-1970, and determined to make another stab at them, as stories this time, instead of comic books. I bought a red notebook with 240 lined pages, and began writing those old stories out, by hand, over a period of months.

In 2019, having just finished my third novel, I decided to start typing the stories from the notebook into HTML files, revising them, and publishing them on my web site. This is the first one, from what was originally going to be "Eoverai" #1, 1969. The title of the issue was "Test to Destruction!" I hope you enjoy it. There will be more; at least one each month for the rest of the year.

Copyright © 1969, 2013, and 2019 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.