Cover: Mara in subspace

Going Long

by Leo D. Orionis

Dedicated to all those who taught me languages, from my Mom, to
my high-school Latin teachers, to my college linguistics instructors.

Previously in Eoverai:

Last issue we peeked into the hulls of a few of the 352 alien ships being convoyed from the Perilei starsun system to the Aboǹi system, home of the Verē, by the ship Mi*wu's Jet, and learned a few of the ways that the Verē frighten, bewilder, or dismay the other intelligent species of the Second Galaxy.

Meanwhile Ekirvao Mara, equipped with a power ring which represents the technological pinnacle of the Tlâń species, begins "Operation Mara", a test of the effectiveness of the ring and herself as a weapon. The test consists of an open-ended combat between herself and the Kaitempē, the Verē military and police. The test will continue until (1) she runs out of opponents, (2) they kill her, (3) she surrenders, (4) the Speaker of the Verē, who is the commander-in-chief of the Kaitempē, halts the test, or (5) Ekirvai Kemto, the head of Mara's household, does so.

Accelerating outward from the home world Eoverai, at a rate of acceleration that's also increasing, Mara defeats two eight-ship squadrons of light cruisers belonging to Orbital Command, one-man vehicles with externally-mounted weapons. Then, inexperienced, and overconfident in her ring's ability, she lets a squadron of eight medium cruisers box her in with eight 100-megaton nuclear explosions, set off simultaneously and converging upon her.

Mara and her ring of power are shaken, but essentially unhurt. They emerge from the blast and render the squadron unable to continue fighting. Orbital Command cedes the fight to Mid-Space Command, which includes Eoverai's three moons, and all the ships and facilities based on them.

As she continues to accelerate, Mara becomes harder to catch, but the zones she must pass through become geometrically larger, with more weapons to be brought against her, as well as more powerful kinds of weapons. How long can she keep up the fight?

Having rushed to battle, Mara must buckle down for the long haul.

Aboǹi starsun system,
near the red supergiant star Ťir,
Numestô Jazao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

The vested interest:

The Drē ship Thousand Suns watched the events around the star Vol, three light years away, with great interest, and great puzzlement.

The Drē evolved on a red star of spectral class M, and began spreading at once to others of that class. Stars of other classes were unsuitable for them: either too hot and too unstable, like the suns of this system, or too cold and dim. They could afford to be picky, because main-sequence M stars are the most common kind. They rarely found other life forms in their new homes, and never another intelligent species like themselves. For the Drē, the galaxy was a big, beautiful ball full of sun-worlds, all theirs for the taking.

They noted that some stars had tiny, cold bits of matter which spun around them. These motes were infinitesimal left-overs from the collapse of the proto-stellar gas clouds. When the center of such a gas cloud became a star, or a set of stars, some bits remained in orbit around them, if not ejected from the system by radiation pressure from the star, or tidal effects from multiple stars. Nature wasn't tidy, and so what?

That some kind of "life" could evolve on those dust specks, with no energy except the smidgen they blocked on its way out from the star, was inconceivable to the Drē. Even if they had imagined such a thing, what could it possibly matter? With so little energy available to such "life", existing on such tiny bits, how could they ever possibly affect the rest of the universe? What difference could such creatures ever make?

Then the speck-creatures who lived on the planet that circled the central star of this system contacted the Drē, and demanded they leave all five stars. The contact itself was a shock, and the fact that it came not from another star, but from a speck, or planet, another shock. The Drē were in the sytem purely for scientific purposes; all five of the stars were too hot, and normally too short-lived and unstable, to interest them as colony stars. But these stars were arranged unnaturally, and had semi-sentient machines, almost like robotic Drē, keeping them stable!

The Drē found themselves in the position of a man, sitting in his chair and reading a book, being contacted by a race of beings who lived on a dust mote in the beam of light from a window, who demanded he leave the house to them. They were inclined, for the longest time, to simply ignore the Verē and their demands. Even if it were true that these planet-bound things had constructed the stars and arranged them and installed the creatures that maintained them; even if it were true, as they claimed, that they constructed the "planet" on which they lived; what was that to the Drē? By what right did these incredible creatures demand that the Drē leave their stars, and the stars of every other system the Verē called theirs? How could they possibly matter to the Drē?

Four centuries and twelve wars later, the Drē no longer scoffed at Verē territorial imperatives. Drawing energy directly from stars, and having telekinetic abilities, the planet-evolved Verē learned to operate at Drē levels of power, and to face them as equals on the "ground" and in the "atmosphere" of their own world-stars.

In the course of that long contest, the Drē became intimately familiar with Verē ship classes and Verē weapons. What Thousand Suns was observing now was something new. Outside of official contacts between the two species, and their military capacities, the Drē still understood little about life on planets. They had no knowledge or contact with other dust-mote species, and wanted none.

Mara and her ring, then, came out of nowhere as far as Thousand Suns was concerned. Here was a being of cold matter wrapped in an energy being, flying through space without any kind of ship, and fighting Verē ships and weapons of increasing numbers and power. Who were these two beings? Where did they come from? How did they form their partnership? Why were they fighting the Verē? Were there more of them? In short, what was going on? As usual when dealing with planet dwellers, it was like watching a play with no sound, no commentary, no background, and no clue.

Sitting on the bull's eye:

"Thousand Suns is signalling," Pâtao Hesu told ys husband. All three crew members of Mi*wu's Jet were in the control room. As the situation was potentially combat, the neuter deferred to ys male mate.

"Tell Thousand Suns we have registered their protest at being locked into place by telekinesis. Remind them this is standard for aliens being escorted in Verē space, and the treaty from the last war specifically requires Drē ships to accept it. You know this dance," Vîd́a told his neuter mate.

"It's not about that," Dêbi said. "Thousand Suns rejoined the convoy after transit from Perilei, and didn't make the usual protest about being locked into place. We've been handling communications with the convoy so you could watch the fight, Vîd́a, but that was hours ago."

"Hours ago?" Vîd́a looked at the time and date display on the communicator. "Powergiver, you're right! What do they want, then?"

"They're asking us what, exactly, is happening, and asking if we can get closer to it, to see better, maybe north or south of the ecliptic."

"Tell them it's some kind of Kaitempē weapons test, and we're under orders to stay put," Vîd́a said. "Has anyone else asked for a better view?"

"Ehiu, no!" said Dêbi, as Hesu began coding a reply for the Drē. "We've been dealing with a flood of pleas that we get out of here. They can see that it's coming this way."

Vîd́a didn't ask her whether she'd told them they had orders to hold fast; he knew she had. Instead, he turned on the communicator.

"Ťir System Command, this is Pâtao Vîd́a of Mi*wu's Jet, with a convoy of 352 alien ships, including one Drē saucer. I request permission to jump by tele directly to Řênai system, out of the way of your exercise."

"Not a bad idea, Mi*wu's Jet. Let us plot that and see how it works out. I trust none of your convoy would object?"

"Ah… Actually, Ťir, most of them have been screaming at us to get out of here. But the Drē ship, Thousand Suns by name, wants a closer look."

"That's a problem, Mi*wu's Jet—a diplomatic problem. Stay put for now, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can."

"I just hope System Command gets back to us before we find outselves in the middle of that," Vîd́a said to Hesu and Dêbi, gesturing at the display.

Aboǹi starsun system,
Vol subsystem,
Numestô Jazao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

In hot blood:

Mid-Space Command hit Mara with four squadrons of eight-man medium cruisers at once, and was scrambling more. Mara's blood was up, and the ring was screaming in her head, not from hurt, but with fierce exultation. She knew the two of them couldn't keep this up forever, but for now they slashed drives and hacked weapons in two, used one ship to block another, threw weapons off course when they did get launched, scrambled beams… Sooner or later, they'd make a mistake, but Mara was determined that it would be later! The Kaitempē were going to talk about this fight for a long time, and her House was going to be proud of her!

"Mid-Space, Vol System assumes command," Kranao Mota heard over his communicator.

"Vol System, command is yours. And welcome to it! What's on the menu?"

Rules of engagement:

"No," said Ihed́ai Vîd́a, Speaker of the Verē. "You will not use planet-wreckers inside the home system. I'll let Ekirvai claim victory first! What else do you have?"

The Kaitempē commanders for the five stellar systems of Aboǹi looked back at him, their heads projected in three dimensions. "What about the Death?" Vol System Command asked.

"Fair enough," the Speaker said. "If you can catch her with it, and make sure the field will die out long before it can reach anyone else, I'll allow that. Bigger and better versions of anything you've tried already, too. But nothing on a planetary scale!"

"What about hyper—" Trânis System began.

"Stop!" said the Speaker. "Don't even ask about secret weapons, not even on this circuit. Any capabilities we haven't revealed before, will not be displayed publicly for a simple weapons test. The ring is quite enough to be disclosing!"

"She's crowding light speed pretty closely," said the Ťir system commander. "But it would still take her a couple of years, our time, to get here, even if she didn't decelerate to stop here. Unless she can open a tele?"

Heads shook. "She's not Verē," said Lua System. "No tele for her, as far as we know."

"That's an idea, though," Trânis System said. "What about tossing her through a tele into subspace?"

"No," the Speaker said again. "Killing her outright is one thing, or destroying the ring. But killing her slowly in subspace? Maybe projecting her through subspace into normal space an unknowable distance away in an unguessable direction, to wander lost the rest of her life? I won't condone that."

"Besides, what if the ring fell into other hands on the other end?" Trânis mused.

"Ehiu," said Řenai Command, "We're assuming she doesn't know about subspace travel. What if she does? She could get to Ťir in months or even days, depending on how deep she can go."

There was a moment of appalled silence.

"Powergiver! I didn't even think of that," said Ťir Command. "Sir," he said to the Speaker, "I have inbound convoys in my system!"

"Get 'em out of there!" Ihed́ai Vîd́a ordered. "Send them right across the system to Řenai. That work for you, Juho?"

"Can do," said Kankao Juho, the Řenai system commander.

"Mi*wu's Jet has a Drē ship in its convoy, Thousand Suns. It's claiming observation rights under the treaty."

"What kind of ship?" the Speaker asked. "Giant, goliath, behemoth?"

"Monitor class," said Ťir Command. "Hardly more than a scout, really."

"Then get a squadron of light cruisers out there to take responsibility for them, and get that convoy out of there," said the Speaker. "Who's available?"

"Kranao Mota's been begging for a chance to get back in the fight," Vol System said, before anyone else could speak.

"Kranao Mota? I know him. Good man. What's his current rank?"

"He's a 17-ranker; a Praetor First."

"Tell him 'Good initiative' and get him moving. If he keeps the Drē under control, I'll make him a Proconsul Third. Make sure he knows it, too!"

Aboǹi starsun system,
Ťir subsystem,
Numestô Jazao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Shuffling the cards:

"Mi*wu's Jet, this is Praetor First Kranao Mota," the communicator said. The Pâtao crew looked up from their displays, startled. Vîd́a cleared his throat.

"Mi*wu's Jet here. Are you here to take Thousand Suns off our hands?" he asked hopefully.

"That's right, Jet. My second's talking to them right now. They're not your guests any more. Cut them loose and clear out. You're the only civilians left in Ťir system."

"Praetor, you don't have to tell me twice. Releasing the Drē now," Vîd́a said. "Good luck to you, and many thanks!"

"Just part of the service, Mi*wu's Jet. Thank me by showing me your heels."

Thousand Suns dropped back another mile, and the eight single-man light cruisers of the praetor's command fell in around them, officially as an escort of honor.

Mi*wu's Jet spared the scene no glance. As soon as the Drē ship was disengaged from the convoy, Jet and its cargo ripped through a tele at several hundred gravities, directly across Aboǹi.

Aboǹi starsun system,
Vol subsystem,
Numestô Jazao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

The ring's surprise:

Mara and her ring had withstood the Death easily. The converging triple beams created a field where they overlapped, wherein any material was shaken apart at the molecular level. Metals crumbled to fragile crystals, stone turned into sand, and proteins collapsed into jelly. But Mara sailed right through the focus, with the ring holding every atom of her in place, as well as the bonds between the atoms. Now they soared at the edge of Vol system, riding the knife edge of light speed, Ťir system two years' travel ahead of them. If they could reach it, and beat whatever they found there, they won. If they couldn't, they lost. It all came down to that.

"Will it hurt?" she asked her ring soul.

??? Probably not, was the impression she received.

"Will it be very weird?"

Um… Maybe? Close your eyes, the ring got across.

"Like this?" Mara said, closing her only pair of eyelids; Krahos bodies had only the opaque outer ones.

Satisfaction said the ring, and dropped them into the alpha bands.

Aboǹi starsun system,
the planet Eoverai,
6 Xidestô Jazao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Missing in action:

After two days, the Speaker opened communications with the head of Mara's house. "Be greeted, Ekirvai Kemto," he said. "Do you concede defeat?"

"I do not," Ekirvai said. "Do you, Ihed́ai Vîd́a?"

The Speaker spread his hands. "We didn't defeat her in battle… but she didn't reach the goals, and she's fled the field."

" 'Fled' is too harsh a word for someone who might have lost herself forever while trying her best," said Ekirvai, making the Speaker blink at such kindly words for failure. But then, y's talking about someone in ys own Household, he reminded himself.

"Let us wait a little while longer, if you would be so generous," the Axe lord said.

"Certainly," said the Speaker. "All honor to your House, Lord Ekirvai."

"And to yours, Great Sir," said Ekirvai Kemto, and switched off the communicator.

"Pah!" y said to Ekirvao *Risu. "Get me something to wash out my mouth!"

"Drat the girl, where is she?"

A long, strange trip:

If you think of normal space as the surface of an expanding sphere, then you can picture subspace as the infinite number of concentric spheres under that surface. The alpha bands are the ones just inside normal space, the beta bands just beneath the alpha bands, and so forth.

Every point in normal space corresponds to a in alpha subspace, every point in the alpha bands corresponds to a point in beta subspace, and so on. The deeper you go, the closer the points are to each other, which makes subspace very useful for travel or communication. The speed of light remains an absolute limit, but if the place you want to reach is only half as far away in a given subspace, you can get there in half the time by sinking to that subspace, crossing the distance, and then rising to normal space.

The catch is that, as you go deeper, one particle in normal space is forced into identity wth more than one in subspace. For every trillion particles in normal space, perhaps there are a trillion minus ten in Alpha 1, a trillion minus 100 in Alpha 2, a trillion minute 1000 in Alpha 3. When you return to normal space, that is, emerge from subspace, you could be missing some particles at random, and the ones you still have might not be in the right place, or in the right state; and the deeper you go, and the longer your trip, the worse this is.

The physicists say that "The identities of higher-space particles are not conserved." In plain language, matter which goes through subspace takes damage; and the deeper the subspace, and the longer the matter is there, the greater the damage. Non-telekinetic races traveled by Verē convoys, which went by way of Verē mindspace, with no such damage, and no practical limits on speed or acceleration. Races that could not or would not do so, were stuck with subspace, and soon learned that submergence beyond the delta bands was risky, at best requiring repair, decontamination, and recuperation. Anything beyond the zeta bands could rarely be retrieved, and if it was, came back scrambled, frozen, cooked, or sometimes all three at once.

The Tlâń had no notion of subspace, and it was only a word to Mara. But the ring has gleaned all that it could of every brain that House Ekirvai had tried to partner it with. Some of them were scientists, and some of them were weapons engineers and drive engineers, including subspace drive engineers. The ring turned Mara into a virtual being like itself, with no particles in her body, and dropped them into subspace slowly, looking for adverse effects at every level before going deeper. They were deep in the sigma bands before it lost its nerve to go deeper. Ťir was now hours away, instead of years; that was more than good enough for now.

The ring had been right, Mara thought. Going into subspace didn't hurt, but it felt very strange. Her whole body felt like it was being molded like putty, first lengthwise, then across; not grossly, but subtly, fractions of an inch in one direction or another. This was caused, although she didn't know it, by her ring's inexperience maintaining another virtual body besides its own.

The colors made up for the odd sensations. As she flew through subspace at the speed of light (for velocity and acceleration are conserved), she still saw by photons of light, though they impacted upon virtual eyes. The uncertain and fluctuating identities between normal-space and sigma-band photons made them flare and fade in brightness, and shift wavelengths, or colors. What was a straightforward Doppler shift in normal space, with stars behind her shifted to the red, and light sources ahead of her shifted to blue, became a chaotic swirl of blue and green colors behind, red and orange colors ahead, with other colors forming a rainbow cylinder with spikes and flares interrupting what would have been a steady gradation in normal space. Directly ahead and directly behind was a disk of blackness, where the light was shifted outside the range of colors that her eyes could see.

! said the ring.

"Almost there?" Mara asked.

!!!

"Here we go, then!" Mara said.

Aboǹi starsun system,
Ťir subsystem,
4 Xidestô Jazao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Four days after Mara disappeared at the edge of the Vol system, her appearance in the Ťir system set off alarms among the Kaitempē.

But they were ready for her. By diving into subspace, she had bypassed the heavy cruisers, super-heavy cruisers, and battle cruisers awaiting her a few light-hours ahead of her last position in normal space. That just meant she got to face the real monsters of the Kaitempē fleets in the four outer systems, and the two bases in the galactic North and South of Aboǹi. And she'd given them four precious days to muster extra forces in Ťir system. The initiative was no longer hers.

Most of the Kaitempē were more concerned with the weapon's provenance than the outcome of any battle here. The prototype was in the hands of one of the three largest and most notorious Orthodox Houses, and its wielder was female. That wasn't a formula for deployment in the Kaitempē, who were all highly-trained men operating within a disciplined organization. Rather, it was a model for super-powerful troops who served their Houses, not the Speaker.

But the Speaker had given Ekirvai the ring and approved the project. The troops who served him had to trust in his judgment. Certainly he was no friend to the Orthodox faction!

More baffled than ever:

The Drē were only contingently individuals. One Drē, exploring an unknown star, was an individual; a hundred Drē, doing the same, were also a single individual; all the Drē who inhabited the same star, were one individual. The thousand Drē packed into the monitor-class saucer observing Mara's arrival in the Ťir system also made up one person—unless they had a reason to be more than one, or a need for more minds than one.

Thousand Suns had spun off mind after mind after mind since crossing from Perilei to Ťir, and had been examining alternatives at a furious rate. Everywhere they looked, they saw disaster. The Drē had never heard of the Tlâń, and knew nothing of the Verē's Krahos past. For all they could tell, here was a Verē flying through space in a shell consisting of an unknown kind of energy being, fighting with and defeating Verē ships, then coming straight to Ťir through subspace.

Was the Verē in command, and the energy being its slave? If so, why was the Verē fighting the other Verē?

Was the energy being in charge, and stealing the Verē from the others? If so, why? And how had it possessed the Verē?

Was the whole thing a show? A dance? A play? A mating display? A … (several other possibilities occurred to Thousand Suns which had no equivalent in planet-bound life.)

And it was coming here. Was Ťir its target? Did it intend to drop into the supergiant red star and live there? Damage the machines that kept the star young and stable? Use the singularity to leave the system? Attack other suns, perhaps ones inhabited by the Drē?

The power the matter/energy being possessed was worrying. It was comparable to that wielded by Thousand Suns themselves. How many other Verē could now operate at this level? A few? A lot? All of them? And why were the Verē letting Thousand Suns see all this? More than anything else, it looked like a threat: See what we can do now. What are you going to do about it?

Thousand Suns had come to Aboǹi on a diplomatic mission to the Verē command structure, and its minds had been carefully chosen from those with the most experience dealing with non-Drē both in war and in peace. This confrontation/display/provocation was an aggravation/distraction/threat to their mission.

Unknown to the Verē, many kinds of stars were inhabited by plasma-based species. They were much rarer than the Drē; more energetic stars, such as the F, G, and K classes, were more hostile to life. If an M star was comparable, in planetary terms, to living in a lush, well-watered, fertile valley, an F star was the inside of a volcano. Like a volcano, it was liable to erupt, or even explode.

Stars cooler than the ones that the Drē had evolved for, on the other hand, were like polar deserts; too cold to be friendly to life without extensive adaptation.

Both kinds of stars were much less numerous than M-class stars, which made up about 76% of all the stars in the galaxy. Thus, the Drē, from the point of view of a star dweller, were in possession of most of the real estate of the Second Galaxy, and all the most desirable. Beings from brighter stars were younger than the Drē, as their stars were younger; but they operated at higher temperatures, and had much more energy at their disposal.

All through the Drē realm were the equivalent of hostile barbarian races—young, primitive species with lots of power, who wanted to colonize M stars, if only to safeguard their own existences. Could the Verē help, perhaps as allies or a secret weapon against the alien hordes? Or as impartial go-betweens? Would they share the science by which they kept the starsuns of their home systems young and stable? Questions like these were Thousand Suns' mission, not this spectacle/threat/display it faced.

Facing the facts:

It was clearly a compliment that Ťir Command set eight battlewagons on Mara when she appeared in the system. These great cubes, a mile on a side, had a crew of between 1,024 and 4,096, with multiple command centers, drives, observation sections, weapons depots, gardens, water tanks, medical centers, store rooms, living quarters, and so forth. They were designed to stay out for years, attack or defend entire starsun systems, and resupply at will by teles at docking facilities inside the ships, linked to planet or moon bases. Their pressor beams could deflect hurtling asteroids, and their weapons could seriously threaten the integrity of a planet's crust. One girl with a power ring was definitely outclassed.

"All right," Mara said, "This is as far as we go."

!!! the ring protested.

"No, look!" The two of them scanned one of the monsters sailing towards them. The more they looked, the more they saw, and the worse their chances seemed.

Well, maybe, the ring conceded.

"You did very well," Mara said. "I'm proud of you, love."

The betrayal of Battlewagon 6:

The communicator in front of Kranao Mota, and every other one in Ťir system, went active. The face under the dark red helmet was grinning. "All right, guys, I know when I'm licked. You've got me."

"You surrender?" demanded Ťir Command.

"Da k'ozutaotid," Mara affirmed—Yes, I surrender—holding up her hands in salute. "You win."

Immediately, one of the battlewagons opened up with everything it had. Nuclear missiles, tractor-pressor beams, lasers, and other weapons fired on Mara.

The communicators went mad: "Look out, she's firing on us!" — "Battlewagon 6, stand down!" — "Take that, freak!" — "All units, cease fire!" — "Look out, here she comes!" — "Battlewagon 4 moving to block Battlewagon 6, Ťir Command." — "All units, cease fire NOW! This exercise is OVER!"

"Well, it was over," said Kranao Mota to himself, as he watched the battlewagons maneuver.

"Sir!" said Praetor Second Matao Vaiši, his second in command. "Orders?"

Mota raised an eyebrow. "Our orders are unchanged, praetor: keep our eyes on the Drē."

"But, sir!"

"We have our orders, Vaiši. The last thing Command needs is more men losing their heads! And besides that, the girl's already shown that she can beat us at will; and those battlewagons can fly right through us without noticing the bump. Let's just do our jobs, and let them clean up their own shit."

Battlewagon 6 of Ťir Command was no different from any other Kaitempē ship of its class, but its assigned crew were all hard-core Orthodox fanatics, who called "their" ship Sword of God among themselves. They had orders from Ekirvai and Imorai not to let the test end too easily. The Orthodox lords wanted Mara and her ring tested to their utmost limits: if that meant tested to destruction, well, she was an abomination, anyway.

Anything that made the Kaitempē look bad was also good, as it contributed to their eventual replacement, in the Orthodox scheme, by household troops. Household troops had always been limited to the use of feud weapons. But if the Kaitempē were abolished, and replaced by household soldiers armed with weapons of war, then the Households could do anything.

So Consul Third Imorao Dusko shouted, "Look out, she's firing on us!" into the communicator, and launched a host of weapons at Ekirvao Mara.

"Ea! Take that, freak!" he gloated as the girl was engulfed in multiple explosions and beams. The other Imorē, Ekirvē, and Ikotkē around him grinned and cheered.

Then Mara came charging at them.

She wasn't grinning this time. She was out cold; a heavy pressor beam had slipped past the ring's shields when they flickered in the EMP from a nuclear blast. It was only luck the beam hadn't taken her head off. She had a concussion and some other injuries that the ring didn't dare treat under these conditions, but she was alive, so her ring could function.

Tenderly, the ring soul tucked her into a ball to make the smallest possible target: legs folded up against her chest, arms wrapped around the legs, and her face against a pad of yellow ring energy spread across her knees. Then it wrapped herself around her, and went hunting.

"Look out, here she comes!" the communicator relayed. Imorao Dusko's head jerked up. He saw Mara come flying out of the expanding gas clouds, curled up like a diver about to do a cannonball into a lake. The apparent mockery enraged him.

"Damn you, końē, why aren't you dead? Give her another one!" he snarled; końē means "trash person" or "abomination".

Battlewagon 4 slid across between Sword and Mara, intercepting many of the weapons the Orthodox ship deployed, with its shields. Other battlewagons advanced on the scene. "Battlewagon 4 moving to block Battlewagon 6, Ťir Command," Dusko heard.

A couple of atomic explosions at a distance rocked Mara, and she moaned. The ring wailed, unheard by anyone, and dropped them into subspace, despite her injuries.

"All units, cease fire NOW! This exercise is OVER!" Ťir Command yelled. "Battlewagon commanders, report to Command in person, NOW!"

"What do we do?" asked Imorao Liha on Sword of God.

"Why, follow orders, of course," said Imorao Dusko. "That's what I was doing when that experimental animal attacked us." He opened a tele to Ťir Command. Seeing that, Liha moved to take the command position, but his face was still that of a dog that expects to be kicked.

"Stop worrying," Dusko said to him, and the rest of the men around him. "Have faith. Lord Imorai will back us up." He stepped through the tele and was instantly aboard Planetkiller 1, where Ťir Command hung his helmet.

Desperately seeking help:

Still wailing, the ring took Mara through the shallowest alpha bands. Even so, she had dreams of being alternately stretched and compressed, flattened and rolled up. Her head felt like it was being kneaded by giant fingers, with blood spurting out between them.

The ring wanted someone to surrender to, someone who would help Mara, or who could be beaten if they were hostile. Half a light-year away it saw eight cruisers like the ones it had defeated so easily near Eoverai—but what was that other thing with them? It shone almost as hot and bright as a star, though infinitely smaller.

The ring hesitated, put off by the strange thing. But there was nothing better. Everywhere it looked were battlewagons; the larger battle carriers that combined battlewagon capabilities with the ability to house squadrons of light to heavy cruisers within themselves, super-heavy cruisers docked to their hulls, and escorted by battle cruisers; the huge globes of sundivers; and pyramid-shaped planetkillers. There weren't any planets or spare bits of cosmic debris, either; the Aboǹi system was planned, and had no trash floating around for an attacker to hide on, in, or behind; nothing for an attacker to turn into a kinetic weapon.

So it was either surrender to the light cruisers, despite the unknown thing they had with them, or approach something much bigger and much more dangerous.

Mara moaned again, and the ring made its decision. It brought them out of subspace directly in front of Kranao Mota's squadron, at a relative speed of zero.

Immediately, the strange shining thing attacked.

Taking counsel of themselves:

The Verē weapon-thing had come to Ťir, and the Verē battlewagons had attacked it. Or had it attacked them? Some translations of some of the intercepted messages suggested that. Then it came right at Thousand Suns!

Defend ourselves! said some of the Drē minds, spinning battle scenarios from their military experience. Capture it and figure out what it is, said another group. Destroy it so the Verē see it's useless to make any more, said some. Seize it and see if we can use it, said others. Voices of reason, from their diplomatic experience, said We came here on a serious mission, to get Verē help against barbarians from other stars. This is vital to our race! Ignore this distraction.

That's a long-range problem, this is an immediate danger! Attack! cried militant voices.

Saving the girl:

"Ehi! Where do those crazy Drē think they're going?"

"Thousand Suns, stop!"

"Thousand Suns, halt or we'll shoot!"

They're not going to stop, said Kranao Mota's instincts. He hadn't survived the Imperial Wars by ignoring those instincts, especially where the Drē were concerned. He darted after the shining saucer at maximum acceleration.

"Follow me!" he said. "Keep the Drē away from the girl!"

Defending its mistress:

For a moment the ring despaired. First the big ships had fired on them, and now, here came the weird glowing thing with the little ships. Its mistress needed medical attention!

It almost didn't engage the first ray from the saucer, assuming it was a laser, tractor, or pressor. But it was pure telekinetic force! The ions of a particle beam, or the photons of a laser, can be blocked telekinetically, and the induced force of a tractor or pressor attack can be countered by "smoothing out" the affected area of space-time. But a telekinetic attack affects the target directly. The only defense is to seize the target with a stronger telekinetic force, and not let it be affected.

So the ring seized every atom of Mara's body, and refused to let Thousand Suns rip her to pieces. Then Kranao Mota's ship swung between the Drē ship and the unconscious girl, and the other ships of his squadron fired upon the saucer.

When in doubt, throw it into the sun:

The Drē were desperate now. They had never expected the Verē ships to attack them, after watching them fight the new thing all the way out from their world to here. Did they want it for themselves, or just to keep it from the Drē? If the latter, why not just destroy it themselves, or let Thousand Suns do so? Instead, they were defending it like a (sun-dwelling-wild-animal) does (her cub/their offspring/its spawn)!

Thousand Suns was only what the Verē called a monitor, but it was a monitor which had been spinning off mind processes for days. That didn't give it any more lasers or particle beams, but telekinetically it was, for now, a monitor on steroids. In the long run, the cruiser squadron could wear it down. In the short run, it grabbed Mara and headed where no ordinary Verē craft could follow—into the star Ťir.

Too stubborn to live:

Mota felt his ship lurch whenever one of the Drē's telekinetic limbs touched it, but he could only block one for a moment before it slipped around him. He was doing beter stopping weapons fire at the girl with his shields, whom he now realized was out cold, yet still somehow fighting back. Good trick, he thought, and was glad he wasn't under fire from both sides.

He slapped a tractor beam and a pressor beam on the Drē. The combined pull and push kept him a fixed distance from the enemy, so he couldn't be pulled up to the monitor and crushed against its hull, or shoved back against the girl. It didn't keep him from swinging out of line between her and the Drē, though; his drive did that, applied on a vector from the saucer to its intended victim.

Now, how to keep from smashing into her if the enemy suddenly stopped pulling for Ťir? As he worried, he felt a tractor-pressor pair lock onto his hull from the girl. Problem solved: she'd hold him at a distance, and he'd hold the saucer at a distance, while he and they struggled to see whether all of them went into the sun, or stayed out of it.

Trouble was, the monitor was many times more powerful than it was supposed to be. Telekinetically, it was simultaneously pulling towards the star, hammering at Mota and Mara (he let himself think of her by name now, since it looked like they might die together), and fending off the rest of the squadron. It simply had no business being this powerful! I shall file a protest, indeed I shall! he joked to himself.

Vaiši, he noted, had saved what he could. Mota heard his second in command call the squadron together, order them to link up with tractor beams, and pull together to escape Ťir's gravity, while they still could. He nearly left it too late, Mota thought. I'll have to give him a stern lecture on cutting your losses when you must! He laughed softly; it wasn't likely that he'd be giving Vaiši any more advice.

Well, if I have to die, at least it's trying to save a pretty girl, he thought. And she was a cutie, even if not exactly a Verē. The heat was making her stir fretfully, and he was glad she'd be asleep when the starsun vaporized them both. Sorry I couldn't save you, sweetie.

Then everything got cooler. What? He looked forward as a huge round shadow eclipsed the sun.

A sun for a pyre:

The Drē screamed with rage and frustration. The small ship's struggles had let a sundiver catch up. How were they supposed to fight one of those monsters?

They heaved themselves at the singularity with everything they had. Nothing material could survive it. If only they could toss the weapon in, and this meddling cruiser, they wouldn't mind so much being destroyed themselves.

Thousand Suns gave a mighty shove, and then the hull cracked open around them under the fire of the huge telekinetic cannon of the sundiver. Tractor beams grabbed them, and even more powerful pressor beams punched them, shredding them to wisps of dissociated plasma high in the supergiant star's atmosphere.

Sundiver 10 ascended from Ťir, its batteries full, and radiating heat like a star itself. Sundiver 5 hurtled past it, grabbed Mara, and pulled her inside its shields; but its batteries were too saturated to let it linger for an instant more. Sundiver 3, arriving next, plunged into the sun, but it was too late to save Kranao Mota. Its crew could only watch as he and his cruiser, far below them, disappeared into the singularity.

Aboǹi starsun system,
Eoverai,
6 Xidestô Jazao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Two days before Mara and her ring returned to normal space in the Ťir satellite system, back on the Verē homeworld, another girl was breaking up with her boyfriend.

The girl and her boyfriend were both members of a lesser household called Borai, or hibiscus flower. It was a very small house, with only sixteen members. But then, it was also very new. Only three of the sixteen made up a traditional mated trio of neuter, female, and male. The rest of the people in the household were neuter, female, and male Verē with no permanent commitments yet.

The Borē were all students, too, taking their first tentative steps into the adult world, seeking kindred spirits in others their own age. On another world, in another time, Borai might have been just a circle of friends who hung out together, with no social pressure to form mated trios and be an extended family.

"It just isn't working, Lapo," said Borao Leive sadly. She was a typical Verē woman of her time, with light green, almond-shaped eyes and high cheek bones, her honey-colored hair parted in the middle and falling a little past her shoulders. Her dress, blouse, and shoes were white, and her belt, cuffs, and the stylized hibiscus flower over one heart were black, since lesser houses didn't have household colors.

"There are just too few of us, and the Ikotkē won't let us be. If things go on this way, some of us are going to get killed. Better to join a larger house while we still can."

"May the Powergiver damn them!" Borao Lapo said; not a casual "dammit", but a heartfelt prayer. "Why can't the shits just leave us alone? What have we ever done to them?" Lapo had bright green eyes, flashing with anger at the moment, and dark brown hair. Like many young men of his generation, he kept his hair short on the sides but long on top, and combed the extra forward so that it covered his forehead, and merged with his eyebrows, and the mask of hair that Verē males had around their eyes.

"I'm sorry, sweetie," Leive said. "We have our principles, but they have the swords. Unless we want to beg the Speaker for Kaitempē protection, we have to find safety in numbers."

Lapo leaned his right shoulder against the west wall of his apartment, crossing his arms in dejection. His face was full of loss.

The room they were in—his room, as long as he cared to live there, since the Verē didn't believe in property—was on the western side of Teřańa, about as far as you could get from most of the Orthodox great houses and still be in the city. Since Leive and Lapo were both standing, the pressor-field furniture wasn't active, nor the door. His room was basically a big off-white box, 40 feet from west to east, 60 feet from south to north, 16 feet from floor to ceiling. The walls, floor, and ceiling were programmable, of course, and could display any number of images desired, in any size, artfully scattered about or filling its whole area. Right now the north wall was on, and open, letting in a light breeze and a view of the scattered buildings of the city, no two of them alike; trees and grass ten stories below, green sky above full of white clouds and flocks of long-winged birds in all their infinite variety. The spaceport was in that direction, and Leive could see, behind Lapo, some kind of alien spacecraft being lifted to orbit by two Verē tugs. The tugs were cubes in Verē green and yellow; the alien ship was shaped overall like the upper half of a ball, but that shape was made up of lots of smaller half-balls, arranged in multiple rings, alternating white on the bottom ring, red on the one above it, and so on. It was pretty. Leive wondered, idly, what race flew such ships, and what star systems they inhabited.

"We're going to be joining Matai," she said into the echoing silence. To her right, he'd programmed the east wall into three open floor-to-ceiling windows between four equally-wide opaque strips. She could see the River Hati flowing past on its northeasterly course to Lake Tapa, a little north of east of them, generally reckoned the center of the city. Great House Ihed́ai, the Speaker's house, had pride of place on the northwestern shore of the lake, while the Blue House, where the houses met, was directly across from them. And everywhere was grass, trees of every kind, lesser houses and greater ones scattered in groups and strings, theaters and libraries and every manner of public facility. If you didn't know how the Orthodox behaved, you could think it was a paradise.

"All of you?" Lapo asked.

"All but you," she said, "unless… ?"

"That's right," Lapo answered, "all but me. The Matē I've met are good people, but I don't feel like they're my people, particularly. I wish you all well, or more than well. But I wanted to start a new house, not join one with a few hundred members already. So no one's going to remain Borai?"

"There's no more Hibiscus House," said Leive. "Just Worm House, in all our numbers."

Lapo said nothing, but his expression was mournful. She spread one hand in a hopeless gesture, and turned to go. The door opened: that is, a rectangle ten feet tall and eight feet wide vanished, revealing the hall beyond it. She could've used a tele to go anywhere, but it was a beautiful day, suitable for walking off the blues, maybe flying later if she felt like it.

As she started through the door, Lapo reached out with one hand and grasped her shoulder; not to keep her from leaving, but just to touch her. It wasn't unwelcome, but already the time they'd spent together felt like another life to her.

"Leive," he said, "I love you."

She reached over with her other hand and patted his where it lay on her shoulder. "I never doubted it for an instant," she said softly. Then she left.

Lapo stayed where he was, as he was, long afterwards. The south wall was closed, and displaying an image of a bor flower, the very image that the household had used as its badge, in blue. The display was large, taking up the whole width of the wall, and most of its height. If you looked closely, you could see that the picture was composed of dots which were smaller replicas of the same image; and those dots were also constructed of smaller replicas; and so forth, down to the limits of resolution. Lapo was proud of that work; he'd done it to impress Leive. And he was still proud of it, by the Powergiver!

What the floor was displaying, on the other hand, was a checky pattern of black and white tile. Each white tile had a pair of black L's on it, for Leive and Lapo. That had been a present from her. And one of his ceiling displays, showing the stars as seen from Teřańa, with the actual stars surrounded by the figures of the things the constellations represented, they'd designed and executed together.

After a few hours of moping, Lapo activated a chair and a screen, and filled the screen with the psionic formulae he'd been working on. He dove into his work, stopping only to sleep, or to open the ceiling and soak up energy from the Daystar, for eight days.

Continued next issue!

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