Cover: Camouflage

New Experiences

by Leo D. Orionis

To the friends I made and the experiences I had in Guam,
Canada, Korea, Japan, England, Turkey, Greece, Spain, and Mexico.

Previously in Eoverai:

Last issue, Ekirvao Mara, our heroine, got a tour of the headquarters of the Imperial Guard, to which she's been assigned as a new member. The Guard consists of a number of super-powered aliens, no two of them alike. It was created to serve as a backup bodyguard to the Speaker of the Verē, and the Speaker alone approves each member.

Perial. a detective and martial artist, is the leader of the Guard. Besides giving Mara the grand tour, he tells her about the reason the Guard exists, and urges her to design a Guard costume for herself. Earlier that same day, when she rescued some members of a lesser household from abuse, both Liberal and Orthodox Verē recognized her as a member of the rabidly Orthodox House whose colors she wears. And she is—but not when on Guard duty. Turtle Woman, another Guardwoman, takes Mara "under her wing", designs a costume for her, and a "hero name" of Power Ring.

Kranao Mota, the Kaitempē officer who gave his life to save Mara's, turns out not to be dead, after all. Unguessable billons or even trillions of light-years away from Eoverai, he accepts a lifelong symbiosis with the Never-Dying, a mental creature as old as the universe. With the alien's knowledge, Mota hopes to get home, and his new partner hopes to experience the many species and civilizations of the Second Galaxy.

Back at Guard HQ, Mara meets the Absorbing Men, useful androids created by Verē science. Inexplicably, they attack her. She and her ring shut them down, and may have "killed" them.

Elsewhere in the city of Teřańa, psionics student Borai Lapo is about to revolutionize Verē science, with a paper titled "A General Theory of Telekinesis."

Mara meets Negative Man, a former physicist, now transformed into anti-matter and serving in the Guard as a living particle-beam weapon. He's the first man Mara's ever been attracted to, despite the fact that half his body is gone, and they can never touch.

Deep in the laboratories of House Imorai, another Orthodox Household, lies a beast in an iron cage. The beast has no education and no speech; his creators don't care what he knows, only what they learned by making him, and what they can continue to learn. They know that they made him from the genes of a deadly native carnivore. They know just how deadly and athletic he is. They know exactly how long and sharp his teeth and claws are. But they don't know he's planning to escape…

Mara has experienced many new things, since she joined the Imperial Guard: things she could never have imagined back when she was only an experimental creature herself in House Ekirvai, and no one knew if the experiment would be a success. She doesn't suspect that her new experiences have barely begun.

The planet Eoverai,
Loraon continent,
Xidestē Karthao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Escort duty:

South of the Inland Sea, on mainland Loraon in old Eretiǹ, stood a country estate. When Eretiǹ had been a Province of the Alteřan Empire, several generations of a Senatorial family had lived on the estate, with their slaves, herds of eating and riding animals, and vast fields of grain. When the Star burst and the Empire fell, things changed only in detail. Then it was the Kingdom of Eretiǹ, and the head of the family that owned the estate was a Baron, not a Senator. The slaves were the new people, the Strong Ones, but they did the same work as the human slaves they'd replaced.

These days the old people, the Krahos, were extinct. The new people, the Verē, were the only kind of human beings there were. The Verē Empire ruled the Heart Stars at the center of the galaxy, and all of the world except Kantos, which the native Tlâń Kingdom held. The old estate was broken into many smaller estates, and no one raised grain or tended domestic beasts.

The original villa had become vacant twenty years before, when the lesser house occupying it became too numerous for its ancient confines, and moved to Lores-Tara, the old Hekai capital, on the great island. House Pâtao, then a newly-wedded trio, had moved in. There were six trios in the House now, some children, and some unwed singles and couples. Hesu, Dêbi, and Vîd́a spent long stints away in Mi*wu's Jet, but enjoyed the master suite of the villa between convoy runs.

The three mates climbed out of bed. They slept in a regular pressor-field bed, but it sat inside a curtained canopy which, in ancient times, had held the wooden frame, down mattress, and cloth covers of a bed from the royal era. The tiled floors and marble walls were even older, dating from Alteřan times.

They cleaned and dressed themselves by passing through a tele set into the wall between the bedroom and the bath. The marble pools still held heated water, but only for refreshing the spirit in modern times. Naked and yawning, they entered the shining blue patch of wall in their bedroom, and stepped out of its other side in the bath room, clean and awake and dressed in the black clothes of a lesser House, Hesu in ys robe, Dêbi in her dress, and Vîd́a in trousers and shirt. As the head of the House, Hesu wore the white symbol of a locked casket in the center of ys chest, while ys wife and husband wore the same symbol, smaller, over their left hearts.

"Today we need to talk to Persu, Salu, and Vako about the second shift on Jet," Hesu reminded ys spouses.

"Ehiu, is that today?" Vîd́a said, dismayed.

"Well, it was supposed to be," Dêbi said. "Problem?"

"I told Perial I was available for duty a couple of days after we finished the run," he said, "and yesterday he asked me to escort some aliens to see the Speaker, today. I'm sorry, I'd forgotten we had a meeting about the ship."

"I'm sure Persu won't mind doing it tomorrow instead of today," Hesu said. "I'll just tell ym that my flighty husband forgot the appointment, and promised himself somewhere else."

"It won't even be untrue," Dêbi smiled. "Salu will completely understand, since she has a flightly husband of her own!"

"I'm really sorry, darlings," Vîd́a said. He put an arm around a shoulder apiece, for a group hug. "I promise, I'll be here tomorrow for sure."

They hugged him back. "Just stay safe, and come home unhurt," Dêbi said softly, and kissed him on one cheek.

"What she said," Hesu said, and kissed him on the forehead. "Now get going, superhero. We're proud of you."

So he got. Inside their private suite, where no one would come without asking, there was a room that no longer had a door, the ancient walls sealed shut inside and out—appropriate for a House named Sealed or Locked—and unknown to anyone but the three of them. He came and went by tele, so that no one could track or follow him. "Lights," he said, and cold lamps overhead drew a minute amount of power from the planetary broadcast.

"Cruiser," Vîd́a said, "Household meeting tomorrow." The ship, always on unless he explicitly turned it off, replied "Recorded: Household meeting tomorrow." There was no ambiguity in him addressing the ship as Cruiser. The rule was simple; if he spoke to "Cruiser", he was addressing the ship. If anyone else spoke to "Cruiser", they were talking to him. Cruiser the ship responded only to its pilot, except under very specific and clearly-defined circumstances.

Cruiser the ship was in fact a light cruiser, a one-man omnicraft like hundreds of thousands of others in the Verē Empire, but it was a custom design of its engineer pilot. An ordinary light cruiser was shaped like a shoe box, 12 feet high by 18 feet wide by 24 feet long, colored green with yellow trim, with a control cab for its pilot, controls, and communicator, a telekinetic-enhancing dome below and behind the cabin, minimal other supplies and equipment stored inside and many weapons, such as tractor and pressor beams, built in. Other weapons, such as missiles, were normally mounted outside the ship itself.

Cruiser was shaped like a man 10 feet tall, and grossly overmuscled for even that height, and extra thick through the torso, all shiny white metal with gold gauntlets, boots, belt, and helmet. There were no removable parts or ways to get in, get out, or see the man inside. Hidden in the thickness of the ship, behind the pilot, was the dome of the telekinetic amplifier, the most powerful one built to date, which gave him flight and communications, moved the ship's arms and legs for him, and controlled the built-in weapons. In capabilities, Cruiser was halfway in between a light and medium cruiser, say a four-man cruiser, if there had been such a thing. But it was a cruiser that could walk and talk among regular people, shake hands, pick up a baby or a building, escort a civilian to safety or fight an army.

After a quick but thorough external inspection of the ship, Vîd́a ordered it to admit him. A free-floating, robin's-egg blue tele appeared, and he stepped into it. Instantly, he was in the form-fitting pilot's compartment in the ship, his feet on the stirrups, his arms and hands on the rests, the displays arrayed around his head, out to the limits of his peripheral vision. The inputs and outputs were telekinetic, and could change at a thought. The ship read his intentions, almost before he formed them, from his body.

"Autocheck three times. Results consistent and optimal," Cruiser told him when he ordered it. Then it opened a tele to a random spot in one of the omnicraft hangars at Imperial Guard headquarters, and Cruiser stepped through it, ship and pilot and all. Since he was wearing his Guard ID around his neck (he stored it in the ship, for safekeeping), the headquarters systems allowed him to enter, and marked him on duty and present.

"Cruiser, reporting for duty," he said, making it official. "Where do you want me, sir?"

Perial's face appeared in a window in Vîd́a's control array. The ship answered all communications with an image of the front of its head, never the face of its pilot. "Violet Bay, spaceport, soonest. And thanks, Cruiser, we're a little short-handed today."

"My pleasure, sir. On my way."

He could've been there instantly by tele, but Cruiser decided to let them see him coming. He enjoyed low-level flight in the ship. It beat a flight-harness eight ways by eight! He stepped out of the hangar, a thousand feet above the ground, and headed north towards Eoverai Spaceport. It was a short flight, but he enjoyed it. Inside the ship, he was grinning widely.

Mara saw him coming from the south. It was her first mission for the Guard, and she was waiting for an experienced member to tell her what to do next. A dozen alien ships, no two alike, were parked on the open space of the Violet field, with some low nondescript rectangular buildings between them and her. Thirty Kaitempē officers in green and gold stood in ranks nearby, six wide by four deep, wearing flight harnesses and carrying various kinds of shoulder weapons, with waca pistols on their belts.

The aliens stood in another group nearby. They were all the same, except for size. Each one rose from a roundish base, wider than it was deep, with bulges in front and back, in cross-section like an ellipse with a circle imposed on the middle. From there they rose up tapering, with a rounded top, as though they were taffy and had been pulled by a boy. Their only features were two larger light-sensitive eye spots that marked the front of their "heads", and up to a dozen smaller eye spots scattered around the sides and backs. They could, it seemed, extrude tentacles for holding and manipulating things, and they were green all over. There were a hundred of them; one large one about six feet tall, four about four feet tall, forty about two feet tall, and the rest about a foot tall. They were very strange things indeed, but according to the briefing material in Mara's Guard badge, they were sentients, and their worlds, in four starsun systems, belonged to the Verē Empire. Mara's nose itched; the aliens smelled like a fresh-mown lawn.

What seemed like a suit of white armor, if the person inside were twice her height and twice as wide and twice as thick, swooped out of the sky and landed next to her. The white armor was accessorized with a golden helmet, gloves, boots, and belt, Her Guard ID flashed a recognition at her: Cruiser, it said on a little screen projected below her chin, a little in front of her.

“Hello, Mara," said the armor. The voice sounded natural, but she couldn't tell where it came from. "Welcome to the Guard. I’m called Cruiser, and I’m a part-time member. You, me, the Gligo, and the Streak will be escorting these aliens to the Speaker today, and then back to their quarters afterwards.”

“Glad to meet you at last, Cruiser! Wima and Mika have talked about you so much, that I feel almost as if I know you already! I have so many questions to ask you—if you don’t mind?”

“We have a little time yet. Fire away. Any questions I can’t answer, I’ll just tell you so, all right?”

“That’s my first question, right there! Your identity is secret, and no one knows anything about you? How does that work? And how did you join the Guard?”

“Mostly secret,” Cruiser answered. He gestured at the metal that covered him from feet to head. “My ship hides my identity pretty well. The Speaker knows who I am, and we had a long talk. He decided to trust me with membership in the Imperial Guard, so here I am.”

“I see. So what are your powers?”

“I don’t have any powers,” he said. “I’m not super-fast, like Streak, or super-strong, like the Gligo. I’m an engineer, and I designed and built this ship I’m wearing. Basically, I’m an ordinary man in a light cruiser, but it’s an advanced light cruiser of my own design. I have more firepower at my command than an ordinary Kaitempē officer at the controls of a light cruiser, but it’s more compact. I can walk among people and apply that force face to face, and I only take up a little more space than an ordinary person.”

She laughed. “So, where I’m an experimental person wielding a Tlâń weapon whose design is centuries old, you’re an ordinary Verē man in an experimental omnicraft?”

“That’s about it,” he agreed.

“But why not give your technology to the Kaitempē, and upgrade all the light cruisers, medium cruisers, and so forth? And why keep your identity a secret?”

“Because the Speaker’s House was killed,” Cruiser said. “Because some of the Kaitempē must’ve been in on it, or it couldn’t have happened. Because the Speaker doesn’t know whom to trust, which is why he created the Imperial Guard. And because I don’t dare trust anyone completely, except my own ysband, my own wife, and the Speaker.”

Before Mara could reply to that, Turtle Woman appeared behind him and did her best to wrap herself around him. "Cruiser!" she exclaimed, pressing her face against the back of his armor, and wrapping her arms around him. She couldn't quite reach, due to the size of the suit, but she did her best. "Kiss me, you fool!"

Cruiser sighed. "Wima, I've told you a million times, I'm married."

She made a face, and climbed off him. "Pfu on you, and pfu on your imaginary wife," she said. "I've been working with you for a couple of years, and I've never set eyes on this wife of yours!"

"You've never set eyes on me, either," Cruiser pointed out.

"Well, that's true," Wima conceded. "I've only seen your ship. I'll bet you're ugly in there, and that's why you hide your face. Never mind, I don't want you any more!"

"Finally!" Cruiser said. He and Turtle Woman laughed, like the old friends they were.

Power Ring hadn't laughed. Wima was instantly concerned. "Mara, what's wrong?"

"I'm sorry," Mara said. "I'm just a little worried. Don't mind me."

"Worried about what?" Cruiser asked. "Does it affect the mission?"

"He means to say, is it anything we can help with?" Wima said.

"Not really," Mara admitted. "I told you about Kara, who's like a mother to me. I haven't talked to her since I joined the Guard, and no one seems to know where she is. I miss her, and I'm worried about her."

Wima hugged her. "I'm sorry, love. After we're done here, let's see what we can stir up with Guard channels, and if need be, through the Speaker. All right?"

Mara nodded mutely. Wima was a Verē woman, like Kara, and had to bend over to hug Mara. Kara had called her "love", too.

While Wima hugged Mara, the Kaitempē in charge spoke to Cruiser. "Excuse me, sir, could we get some help here?" he said, saluting.

"Certainly, legate, what do you need?" Cruiser answered, returning the salute. The man in uniform wore the rank badge of a Legate Second, two triangles, points down, side by side. No one knew the man in the armor, but Cruiser had been designated the liaison officer between the Guard and the Kaitempē, and was, by order of the Speaker, a Proconsul First. The difference in authority was similar to the gap between a First Lieutenant and a Colonel.

"The aliens won't move, and we need to get them aboard a flyer," the legate said. "When I tried to ask them what was wrong, I discovered the protocols were missing from my communicator."

"You're only now checking your mission protocols, legate?" Cruiser's voice was mild, but the legate inferred criticism, and flushed.

"No, sir," he responded. "They were there when the tugs were bringing down the pseudo-plantoids' ship, but they're gone now. No one else in my detachment has them now, either."

"Sounds like sabotage," Cruiser said. "Let me check my communicator… No, I don't have them either. On the other hand, I received this mission at the last minute. Turtle Woman, what about you?"

"I'm a last-minute replacement for the Streak and the Gligo, who were called away for emergencies." She looked at Mara. "Power Ring, you're our only hope here and now."

"By 'protocols', you means files on the aliens, and how to communicate with them?" Mara asked. The legate put a hand over his eyes, envisioning a black mark on his record.

"Yes, I think so," she said. She copied the protocols to Wima's Guard badge, and Cruiser's. "Are these what you want?"

"Yes, that's right," Cruiser said, as Wima smiled at Mara. "Here you go, legate—Wait…"

"They vanished!" Turtle Woman exclaimed. "I was looking right at them, and they blinked out!"

"Really? I still have them," Mara said.

After three tries to transfer the protocols to a Guard badge or a Kaitempē communicator, and the transferred files instantly disappearing, Cruiser said, "Definitely sabotage. Someone definitely wants this mission to fail. But why doesn't their hack work on your badge, Power Ring?"

"It must be my ring," Mara said. "I have so much to learn, and I didn't want to lose anything. I told my ring not to let anything go unless I told it to delete the information. That extra layer of defense must be the difference."

"Then you're going to have to be the one to talk to the aliens," Cruiser said.

"All right," Mara said. "You'll have to tell me what to do, though."

Wima put an arm around her shoulders. "We'll walk you right through it," she promised. "Just think of it as a training exercise."

The pseudo-plantoids, called the *Ruhē, or "Grass People" in the protocols, turned out to be cold and scared. Their own little world circled a little yellow main-sequence G star, in a warm, close orbit. Vol, as an O star, radiated mostly in the ultra-violet, which not only damaged the guests, but didn't provide enough light to see in the yellow and green wavelengths they needed for vision. Also, it was very cold for them. Also, the gravity was six times what they were used to; they could barely stand, let alone move.

"We've provided for all of that in that flyer over there," the legate said, "if you can get them to go there."

"Are you sure about that, legate?" Cruiser asked. "Go check whether the environmental conditions in the flyer have been reset to the defaults."

The Kaitempē officer returned in a minute, purple-faced with the effort not to curse. "You were right, sir, it's all wiped. You'll have to reprogram the environmental settings," he said to Mara, "and protect them with your ring."

"Too difficult," Mara said, "and too many other things that could be lying in wait for us."

"What do you have in mind?" Wima asked.

"This," Mara said. She was already standing next to the knot of fearful aliens, to talk to them. Now she called forth her ring soul, and had it form into a disc a little larger than the group of aliens. Then she stepped into the middle of the disk. The ring made the disk pleasantly warm and soft, like the soil of the *Ruhē home planet, and formed a dome, shining with the light of their native sun, and blocking out the ultra-violet. "Come to me," she coaxed them, and they came; fearful at first, then rapidly when the felt the gravity on the disk to be what they were accustomed to, the darkness abated, and the painful burning of the U-V light gone. They stretched to their full heights, and Mara doubled the height of the ring's environmental dome. They twisted their rootlets into what felt like warm soil, and made a noise of contentment, much like the sound of wind blowing through grass.

"I think they like it," Turtle Woman said.

"I think you're right," Cruiser said. "Legate? Fall in."

So Mara took the aliens to meet the Speaker, following the mission parameters her ring had saved in her Guard badge, with Wima and Cruiser on one side of her, and an honor guard of Kaitempē on the other. There were a number of roads, or walkways, leading into and out of the spaceport, one for each month of the year, planted with the flower for each month; 20 altogether in the 2x4 base the Verē used, or 16 in the 2x5 numerical base of their Krahos ancestors. The Grass People's ship had been set down in the Violet bay by Kaitempē tugs; no alien spacecraft operated under its own power in Eoverai's atmosphere. The path from there, eventually joining a ceremonial road to the city, was also lined with violets.

Cruiser sighed. At a look from Wima, he muttered, "My wife loves violets."

So does Kara, Mara thought. Kara, Kara, where are you?

The continent of Kantos,
The Royal Palace, Tlâńor,
10 Galestô Husao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

The king in disguise:

Cruiser wasn't the only person with a dual identity. Hała Złodańor, King of the Tlâń, had one of his own.

The King was elected by the Twelve Noble Tribes of his people. The electors were chosen whenever the monarchy was vacant, usually when the King died. The King couldn't appoint his successor, and in theory anyone in the Noble Tribes could be chosen. The electors could even elevate someone from the Common Tribes to the kingship, though it had never happened.

The chiefs of the Noble Tribes were always electors, and their first duty as electors was to choose others. Any member of the Noble Tribes could be selected for the duty, for his virtue, wisdom, or ability; but he had to be approved by all 12 of the permanent electors, the chiefs. In times past, the council of electors had been as few as 12; on one notable occasion, as many as 52.

Hała's election, a few Tlâń years before, had been an ordinary election by 24 electors, who chose him on the first vote, surprising no one. He was the most thoughtful of the four children of the last king, and had been preparing for this role all his life.

Now he was preparing for another role.

He studied the exoskeleton that hung on its rack in a previously unused chamber of the royal apartments. He took off the elaborately-embroidered stole, inset with gems, that draped across his upper back with its two ends hanging down on either side of his chest. This was the royal insignia, its unique colors and patterns marking him the King of the Tlâń. He folded it and laid it aside.

Without it, he could have been any Tlâń male, especially to Verē eyes. His thin, wiry body had no bones within it, but slats and struts made of a material like cartilage or chitin. Consequently, his torso, arms, and legs were much more flexible than their Verē analogs, and the two fingers and one thumb on each hand were tentacles. The lower body was heavily muscled and adapted for walking, with two long toes pointing forward, and a thick big toe pointing straight back. His blood was oxygenated with copper, which made his skin blue.

His round head had a kind of mask around the faceted eyes, a fleshy rounded rectangle with sensory tentacles all around the outside edges, and hanging down on either side of his nose. His lipless mouth had a "mustache" of tentacles along its top, from corner to corner. Two short hornlike projections, about where a human's temples were, looked like the first stage of a Verē vańe, and served the same purpose, drawing energy from radiant sources.

His sexual organs were contained, when not in use, in a sac between his legs. He had no hair there, or anywhere. The Tlâń were native life forms evolved on Eoverai, with no common ancestry with the Verē from the First Universe, not even the five First-Universe Kingdoms of Bacteria, Protoctista, Animalia, Plantae, and Fungi.

All in all, there was no way a Tlâń could be mistaken for a Verē, even for an instant.

Hała began to don the exoskeleton. The legs were stiff, and bent only at the "knee" joints, just as the arms bent only at the "elbows". The "hips", "shoulders", and "neck" joints would only move as the corresponding Verē joints did.

Without power, the disguise felt heavy, stiff, and awkward. He doubted he could walk without falling over. He had to fold his foot-thumbs forward, flat against the palms of his feet, to get the boots on, but the boots had sheaths for all three toes on each food, while looking like Verē boots on the outside. The gloves fit his thumbs and two fingers, but they were wider than his own hands. Next to his first finger was a "middle finger" like a Krahos hand, and outside his other finger a "little finger". Without power, the extra fingers sat lifeless and unbending, but the hands, inside the gloves, were the right size and number of fingers for his height.

Last of all, Hała put the white globe over his head and locked it in place. Now he was totally blind, as well as unable to move. Still, he should look like one of the ancestors of the Verē in a costume with purple shirt and pants, white boots, belt, and gloves, with an opaque white globe over his head, locked into a white circular collar. On the front of his chest, in white, was a representation of an ancient Tlâń hand weapon, a loop, wider than it was tall in perspective, as if it were flying directly towards whoever saw it.

"All right, Paithan," he said, without speaking out loud. "Let's try this again."

"As Your Majesty wishes," replied the soul of the King's Ring. Paithan was hundreds of years old, and his ring had sat on the fingers of many Kings in that time. He was far wiser, and far more experienced, than Hała. But he was the King's servant, whoever the King might be.

The Tlâń King, the Chiefs of the Noble Tribes, and others who had rings, took no chances with their powerful and loyal servants. Since the last war with the Verē no Ring was worn openly. Their masters cut themselves open upon receiving a Ring, and commanded it to seal the wound and serve from inside them. Now the yellow soul-stuff poured out from the king's body, into the Krahos body-suit.

With the ring controlling it, the disguise was a living thing. The king was light on his feet, moving naturally, the suit moving like a Krahos as Paithan responded to the king's body, the two extra fingers on each hand bending naturally. He was as strong as a Verē in the Krahos- or Tlâń-sized suit, and had all the senses of the ring, as though the globe around his head wasn't there.

He went through the motions of the Krahos martial art he'd learned, and the ring reproduced them flawlessly, as it would every time. Movements that had made no sense in his boneless Tlâń body now proved to exert maximum force, using the simulated Krahos limbs as levers, the joints as fulcrums or pulleys, and the muscles as cables. For this body, the ikran art of old Eretiǹ was as effective as the Todanak he'd learned from childhood. And if he combined them, using the Krahos body art with the Tlâń throwing weapons—!

"Weapons now, Your Majesty?" Paithan asked.

"What time is it?" Hała answered. "Teha, no! Some other time. The court must be tearing the palace apart, looking for me!"

"That would be quite a trick," said the King's Ring, his "voice" full of amusement. The Tlâń were descended from predators that chased stone worms through their burrows for food. The royal palace was a maze of chambers carved out for miles in every direction beneath the stony wastes of Tlannor, in the north of Kantos the continent, a quarter of the world west of Teřańa.

"Speaking of finding or discovering things," Hała said, "until and unless I say otherwise, no one must know that this person,"—touching the chest of the costume—"and the King are the same person; nor that 'he' has a ring. You must never allow these things to be discovered, unless I say differently."

"Please clarify, Your Majesty. If you're in battle in the costume, and a little more 'strength' from me would win the victory?"

"Absolutely not, Paithan. If it takes more than Krahos strength or speed to win, then I will lose."

"And if someone is about to unmask you, or kill you?"

"Then you may remove me to here, even if necessary through subspace, which the Verē don't think we know about. Hide the costume, then summon medical aid if needed. But only if I order it, or I'm unable to order it, and the alternative is exposure."

"Your Majesty seems to be placing the keeping of this secret ahead of your own life," Paithan said.

"Indeed I am," Hała said. "Let me be clear. If circumstances are such that you must keep this secret or save my life but not both, let me die."

"Truly?"

"This is a Royal Command, great Paithan. The Tlâń well know how to choose a king, and can do so at any time. But no one knows what the consequences would be, if it were discovered that the King is running around, disguised as a Krahos adventurer. At the very least, it would give the Orthodox houses of the Verē political ammunition against the Tlâń, the Verē Speaker, and the Liberal houses. Keep my secret even if it costs my life, and then serve the next King with an untroubled conscience."

"As Your Majesty commands," the Ring said. "Yet I would miss you."

"And I you," Hała answered. "But cheer up, Old Coil. This is all contingency planning. I may not ever wear this harness in public at all."

"Somehow I feel sure that Your Majesty will find an occasion to do so," Paithan said drily.

Imperial Guard HQ,
Teřańa,
pen Galestô Husao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Foot to the face, punch in the gut:

A left foot bigger than her head punched at Mara's chest. She managed to get her hands in the way of it, but they were too weak to stop it. Pain shot through her forearms. In the following moment, as she staggered back, the foot streaked down, and the right foot jerked up and swept around, slamming against the side of her head. Everything went black, and she fell down dead.

After a moment, Perial said, "You're getting really good at playing dead, but that wasn't the lesson I was trying to teach."

Mara stirred from her prone position, and lifted her face from the exercise mat. As she did so, her ring dissolved the form it had projected around her, which had made her look and move exactly like a duplicate of the black-furred native of the Perilei starsun system. The phantom pain faded from her "broken" arms, and the side of her head, at the same time as her true body appeared. "At least I'm learning something," she said ruefully.

Perial reached down a hand, and she took it. There was no hesitation on her part; a few days of kicks to the head, and sweating together in exercise, had removed any constraint she'd felt. As he pulled her to her feet, he said, "Perhaps we're going about this all wrong."

The Absorbing Men remained dead. No one blamed Mara for defending herself, and no one knew why the artificial creatures had attacked her. The fact remained, however, that they'd been a valuable resource to the Imperial Guard, each one permitting a member of the Guard to be in two places at once. It was the technician, Ronao Vîd́a, who'd suggested a way to get that tactic back, after seeing Mara wrestle with the Gligo.

The Gligo's people were ten feet tall to the Verē's eight, and ridiculously strong. They spoke at a pitch far above human hearing, so that all they said came out as a high-pitched "Gleek!" to human ears. When one of them asked to join the Guard, however, his badge translated his speech for him, both from his language to T́uliǹgrai, and from his range down to what the other Guards could hear. The huge biped was covered in green fur, but his hair in his facial area was black, as well as his hands, feet, and his chest down to his genital area, continuing between his legs and making a black stripe up his back, ending in a black point on top of his head. He wore no clothing, and had no possessions, unless the Imperial Guard badge, worn around his neck on an unbreakable chain, could be considered a possession. The Gligē, it seemed, had no names and no sense of identity. Each was an individual, but the same as every other. The individual wasn't important, not even to the individual himself. They had no sense of self and no names; they didn't defend themselves, but the group they were part of.

Ronao Vîd́a had entered the main gym, a month before, to get his daily exercise, and found a crowd of Guards standing with their backs to him, and shouting encouragement: Turtle Woman and the Negative Man crying, "Go! Go! Go!", the Time Traveler offering bets on who would win (no one would take his bets, of course, since he probably knew the outcome), the Streak racing excitedly all around the area (and up the wall, across the ceiling, and down the other wall) so fast he was a continuous red rope of motion, and the Thunderbolt, the Blaze, Magnet, and Portal blocking his view of what was going on, too.

Rather than trying to push through the crowd, Vîd́a tapped the feed from Wima's badge. He gaped at what he saw. There were two Gligos standing on an exercise mat, hand to hand, the forearm spikes extending past each other, like crossed daggers, as each hand grasped the one opposite. The lips were drawn back in identical snarls of concentration, baring sharp teeth in identical snouts, and both Gligos had their pointed ears entended forward. They were chest to black-furred chest, and neither could move the other.

"Will you yield?" said one of the furred giants. His voice, produced by his badge, showed no sign of strain or stress.

"This one will not," said the other, also sounding calm and effortless. "Will that one?"

"I will not," said the first. Ronao Vîd́a frowned. The Gligo never used pronouns, because he didn't understand them. "You" and "he" and "we" and "they" made no more sense than "I" to a sentient without a viewpoint; a being without a first person couldn't understand second or third person, either. But the Gligo on his left had said "you" and "I".

That one suddenly seemed to gain strength. He began to press forward, the mat ripping beneath his feet, shredded by his foot-claws. The other one dug in his own claws, sinking them into the floor, but it didn't help. As soon as he stopped his backwards slide, the other bent him back, and back, until he fell, his claws pulling out of the floor, The first one drove his forearm spikes into the floor on either side of the head of the one on his back, and said, "Do you yield now?"

"This one yields," said the Gligo on the bottom.

"Dadili-dedili," said the other—"Okey-dokey,"—and dissolved. One moment his duplicate pinned the Gligo to the floor; the next, Mara was sitting on his chest. She leaned forward and kissed him on his forehead. "Thanks for the exercise," she said.

The other Guards crowded around Mara and the Gligo as they stood up, clapping them on their backs and talking excitedly, except for Cyber, who said, "And who's going to repair the damage?"

Mara looked at the tall, lean, white-skinned alien, than followed his long index finger with her gaze. "Oh, sorry," she said, seeing the ripped-up mat, and the floor with chunks torn from it where their feet had dug in. Her ring flashed, and the rubble and shreds disappeared. Another flash, and the ring had knitted the floor back together, duplicating the missing chunks, as if it had never been broken, and replaced the mat as well.

"Aren't you the useful one?" Wima said. "From now on, I'm going to call you Clean-up Lass!"

Ronao Vîd́a smiled, and went to talk to Perial about Mara taking the place of the Absorbing Men.

"What do you mean, going about it wrong?" Mara asked Perial.

"Taking the place of most Guard members is just a matter of imitating their powers, and imitating their appearance," he said. "If you can look like Blaze, with or without flames around you, and shoot fireballs and sheets of fire, that's sufficient. Likewise, if you can look like Mika, and fire off a stream of negative atoms. But imitating me involves learning the martial arts of my people. Any martial art involves making the moves and counter-moves instinctive—programming your body, your muscle memory."

"True," she said; she'd learned other martial arts in her training. "So?"

"Maybe we're trying to program the wrong person here," Perial said. "What about programming my art into your ring? It has a perfect memory and instant reaction time, doesn't it?"

Mara stared. "Powergiver have mercy! Of course! In fact—"

Perial's badge buzzed. "Excuse me, Mara," he said.

It was a privileged call from the Kaitempē; his badge stopped all sound going in or out of the space between his head and the badge, keeping the conversation private. Mara spoke to her ring. Will it work? she asked. The ring responded with a sense of affirmation, and showed her moving through all the moves that Perial had so far demonstrated, faster and faster.

Perial's call ended. "There's been a murder," he said. "I think you'll want to come with me."

"If you wish," she said. "But why?"

"The victim is someone from your House," Perial told her.

Keikai Place,
Teřańa,
5 Galestô Husao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

The spider man:

Keikao Pilvi didn't teach any more. Y loved to teach, but y refused to tell lies to keep the Orthodox happy with ym. The problem was that Pilvi was a Consul of Biology, and the unifying principle of biology was evolution. Scientists in other fields weren't bothered by the Orthodox. You could be an astronomer, and talk about how stars and galaxies evolved, and no one cared one way or the other. You could be a geologist, and talk about tectonic plates, and you offended no one. A cosmologist could speak about information points, or a chemist about the periodic table of elements, and no one's beliefs were threatened. But evolution was another matter, because the Orthodox believed that human beings were special, and evolution said they weren't.

Pilvi sat in ys rooms at Keikai Place, recalling ys last class. As a neuter of a lesser House, y was had no hair, not even eyebrows, and was dressed in a white robe. Over ys left-hand heart was a rocking-chair in black; the noun stem keike meant a rocking chair.

No, y thought, the problem wasn't evolution. Evolution was scientific fact. The problem was that the Orthodox didn't "believe" in science when it contradicted their religion. "V́wyrδa, the planet on which human beings evolved in the First Universe, was a high-gravity world," y'd told ys class, "the same as our present world, Eoverai, which our ancestors made. If life had adapted to the gravity without psionics, only small, tough creatures would have existed there, probably without intelligence, and the history of the First and Second Universes would have been completely different."

"But the vertebrates developed psionics, including telekinesis. This let them reduce the effects of gravity on them, and grow larger, and develop sentience. Amphibians could colonize the land, reptiles could live and breed outside bodies of water, mammals could run, birds could fly. What's the telekinetic index of a bird?"

"0.5?" ventured one student. They all looked alike to ym, until y got to know them. Just finished or just finishing the transition to neuter, still unsure how to move with their new bodies, and all so terribly young. Young ymself, Keikao Pilvi was still a hundred years older than any of them.

"Correct," y'd said. "With half the telekinetic ability of a human being, a bird feels an effective gravity twice as great. Take a wren, for instance." Y triggered the projector on the table they sat around. A little brown bird appeared on the table, along with a circular patch of grass and dirt. The three-dimensional image hopped around, pecking at the dirt. Ys students leaned forward, some of them smiling. Y increased the magnification so they could see better. Now the ground covered most of the table, and the bird was almost a foot long.

When the wren caught an insect, the students all recoiled in disgust. Most of them closed their eyes, and more than a few looked sick. "Teacher, please!" said one.

"Sorry," y'd said. Y had switched to a line drawing of the same species. "But if you're going to be biologists, you're going to need to understand that animals eat other animals, and accept it without revulsion. Our own pre-Verē ancestors raised, harvested, and consumed plants and animals. If you can't face that without getting squeamish, you can't be biologists."

While they thought about that, y projected two other drawings above the table, and waited until y had their attention. "If a bird were as strong, psionically, as a person, it might look like this," y said. The letters "P. T. 1,00", for "Telekinetic Index 1.00", appeared beneath one image. It looked the same as the real bird, but its wings were only as long as its body.

"Why are its wings so short?" asked one student. Another asked, "Can it fly, with those stubby little wings?"

"It can fly just fine," Pilvi said. "But now it 'weighs' only half what it did before. It can fly with a much smaller wing area, so evolution favors birds with smaller wings. Wings are a burden. The amount of energy it takes to fly is proportional to the area, not the length, of the wing; but so is the ability of the wing to bear the bird's weight in flying."

One of the students asked, "Do their bones get stronger, too?"

"Very good! Yes, one of the adaptations birds have for flight is hollow, light bones, much weaker than mammal bones. With a lighter effective gravity, the bones can get stronger and a bit heavier, though still hollow."

"The other drawing has no wings at all," observed another student.

"That's right," Pilvi answered. The letters "P. T. 0,00" appeared under the image of an upright bird with no tail, no wings, and a very strong beak that barely stuck out, as if it ate nuts and tough seeds. "Under the full force of gravity, a bird with no telekinetic ability loses the ability to fly. It has no wings, not even wing bones. Its other bones grow thicker, and the beak grows shorter, so it doesn't weigh so much. Finally, the birds differ in size."

The images combined into one. Viewed at the same scale, the real bird had wings the same length as the bird with a human telekinetic index, but the real bird had a shorter body, and wasn't as tall. The bird with no telekinesis stood only as tall as the legs of the real bird; still big enough to eat bugs, but small enough to be eaten by the other two birds.

Pilvi remembered that class well, probably because it was the last one he'd taught. The next day, after some of the students had told their Houses that he taught that animals had telekinesis, all hell had broken loose. They couldn't fire him, because he didn't have a job. They couldn't take away his salary, because the Verē didn't use money. They couldn't starve him, because they couldn't keep the sun from shining on him. But if the Orthodox Houses boycotted his classes, and threatened any students who would come with violence, then he had no students to teach.

The fact that all vertebrates had genes for telekinesis was one of those inconvenient facts that the Orthodox refused to let get in the way of their religion. All Verē believed, more or less, that God had given them their bodies and their powers, raising them from the Krahos as Ys chosen people, but the Orthodox went further than that.

The Orthodox claimed that the Powergiver cared only about the Verē, and had given telekinesis and other psionic powers only to the Verē, so that the Verē could rule the universe and force all sentient races to worship the Powergiver.

If animals had some degree of telekinesis, it must not be "real" telekinesis, but only "pseudo-telekinesis", similar in effect but a crude imitation of "real" telekinesis. Even the Krahos had only had "pseudo-telekinesis". Never mind that the genes for telekinesis were strongly preserved throughout the vertebrates, and varied only a little. The Verē were the Chosen People of the Powergiver, so of course Y wouldn't give animals Ys greatest Gift!

Some alien species showed telekinetic powers as well, which was even more insulting. How could blasphemous talking animals, descended from the Krahos seeding of the galaxy, possibly possess God's gift? It must be more "pseudo-telekinesis", and not even the same as the kind exhibited by the animals of Eoverai, since they had their own genes for the ability. The Orthodox hated alien species with telekinesis even more than they despised aliens that didn't.

The Tlâń they hated most of all, unless it was the Drē. On many planets in the galaxy, the Seeding had failed; some planets had to be seeded again and again before the effort yielded a living world descended from V́wyrδan microbiology. But one of the worlds where the seeding failed was Eoverai itself. Between one visit from its future inhabitants, and the next, Krahos-related life died out, and new life arose independently. One species of that life was the Tlâń, possessed of telekinesis and completely unrelated to any life from the First Universe. The ancient Krahos were unwilling to destroy a sentient species, and left Kantos alone while they reseeded the rest of the world. The present-day Orthodox would sterilize Kantos in a heartbeat, if they could.

The Drē were even worse. They weren't flesh and blood at all, but energy and plasma; they lived on stars throughout the galaxy, if not the universe; they subsisted on stellar energy, as the Verē did; and telekinesis was how they organized their bodies, how they moved and communicated, how they did everything. If they'd cared about life on planets the way the Orthodox obsessed over them, they would have destroyed the Verē before the latter could develop the technology to fight them.

" 'Pseudo-telekinesis'," Keikao Pilvi said, and snorted derisively. Y adjusted the telekinetic communicator in front of ymself. Communicators like this were used to talk across great distances without a speed-of-light lag, by duplicating the area around one at another, light seconds, light minutes, or hundreds of light years away. Now Pilvi was ready, y hoped, to make first contact with another species, on a different scale entirely.

Pilvi's rooms, including ys lab, were located in House Keikai's modest domicile on the south side of Teřańa the city. Like most houses, it was surrounded by lawn and trees, rivers, lakes, fountains, benches, and other amenities. The Verē walked, flew individually with telekinetic flying harnesses, or flew in groups in air cars containing telekinetic drives. There were no roads carved in the land, no parking lots beside the buildings, and the buildings themselves weren't arrayed along streets. Verē cities weren't like Krahos cities, laid out for the distribution of food and the centralization of essential services. They were more like parks, with buildings here and there.

One common feature was to have one or more side of an outside room open to the outdoors, so that the inside and the outside flowed together, with no definite boundary between them. Pilvi had been watching a colony of spiders in ys garden room. The colony was partly outside, in the shade at the base of a lose tree, and partly inside, under ys roof. It was a large colony, its silken canopy roughly ten feet long by eight feet at its widest, though nowhere more than a foot high. So far y'd been strictly an observer, interfering only to the extent of putting up a sign on the other side of the tree that said, "Biological study in progress. Please do not go beyond this sign."

Y hadn't been in ys garden room since deciding to study the colony. In ys lab, y used the telekinetic communicator to copy the spider colony in real time, displaying it at whatever scale y wished, and recording everything that occurred in it.

Hâmē came from the Eretai language, as most T́uliǹgrai words did, and before that, from Mižinai. In Mižinai it meant a land-dwelling arachnid, an invertebrate animal that preyed on insects and other animals of that size. But the Mižinē hadn't brought any to the Second Universe, for whatever reason. Trilobites, horseshoe crabs, and other arachnids abounded in the oceans of Eoverai, but there were no land-dwelling arachnids.

That left an empty niche in the ecology, which was soon filled. Some species of mammal, already small, became even smaller. DNA said that "spiders" were descended from shrews. They looked less like shrews than whales looked like tapirs, or elephants like hyraxes. Hairless and tailless, with tough skin like rhinos, and with big eyes to gather light in the deep undergrowth, they chased down all kinds of insects and devoured them.

Some kinds did more than that, particularly the communal species. Keikao Pilvi sat at the desk in ys lab, and turned on the display function of the communicator. A tunnel of the colony appeared before ys eyes, with the silken roof just above ys eyes, and the dirt floor just below his nostrils. Nothing in the colony could see, hear, or smell ym, because the communication was one-way. But y could see the light shining through the silk canopy, smell the leaf mould and dirt of the floor, even touch and taste things if he wished. He could "move" through the tunnels made by the domestic insects that raised fungi for their masters, watch the domesticated silk insects keeping the silk canopy in repair, watch tame black-and-yellow honey ants make honey and store it in wax honeycombs. Y could feel the cool breeze that flowed in the entrance of the colony, and out the exit, day or night.

Just how intelligent were they? It was known that spiders patrolled the territory around their colonies, that rival colonies fought wars, and that communal spiders hunted down and killed solitary spiders that lingered in their territory. These patrols, wars, and hunts were highly co-ordinated. Could they be sentient? Pilvi could hear the sounds they made, oddly musical, like doves cooing. Might that be speech?

It was time to open communication with the colony, and find out just how social they were.

The planet Eoverai,
Teřańa the City,
pen Galestô Husao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Monster on the loose:

"On my world," Perial said, "duels and feuds are illegal. On the other hand, murders are more common, and the motives behind the murders can be the same as the motives behind feuds and duels on Eoverai. They're just resolved differently; secretly, and individually, as it were."

"Hmm-mmm," Mara said. "Aren't they ready for us yet?" She had no idea what the Kaitempē were doing inside the force-field pavilion they'd thrown up around the body. Perial had explained that it was standard procedure to keep people away from the scene while they gathered "evidence", an unfamiliar term that seemed to mean information about what had happened, and who had done it. The circular pavilion, forty feet in diameter and flat-roofed, kept anyone from seeing the body, and kept anyone out of the area unless the officer in charge let them in. It seemed excessive; people walked by without a second glance. Perial and Mara were the only people waiting to be admitted to the scene, and the two members of the Guard drew more attention than the Kaitempē investigation. The Verē were not, as a rule, morbidly curious.

"Not yet," Perial answered. "Maybe I shouldn't have asked you to come. I've a lot of experience with murders, on my own world, but you have none, I believe? I just thought that, since the body was wearing Ekirvai clothing, you might be able to identify the victim. If not, we'll contact the House, of course. I wouldn't want the sight of the body to upset you. Maybe you should leave, on second thought."

"No, I want to stay," Mara said fretfully. "Don't you even know what gender the dead person is?"

"The Kaitempē won't release any information at all until they've finished their initial investigation and informed the victim's House," Perial said.

The man walking on the grass west of the River Hati looked unremarkable. He was neither tall nor short—but then, the Verē were almost all the same height, with maybe half a foot of difference between shortest and tallest. He was neither outstandingly handsome nor ugly—but all Verē tended to be good-looking, and young in appearance, even when they were hundreds of years old. Like most of the population, he didn't wear clothing with the colors of a Great House, but black and white, or white and black. In his case, the shirt and pants were white, with black boots, belt, cuffs, and collar. He had no household badge above his left heart, but people would just assume he didn't belong to any House at all—which was indeed the case. He bore a rather long knife in a scabbard on the left side of his belt, a foot long and slightly curved. That was slightly odd, but not too odd on a world where men openly carried swords, maces, and axes.

The unusual thing about Saru wasn't visible. He really liked to kill people, and he was very good at it. White was the funeral color in Verē culture, as it had been among the Krahos. Saru would have dressed all in white, with the emblem of his knife in the center of his chest, but it would've attracted too much attention.

When he'd begun his career, Saru had left messages for the heads of the three most notorious Orthodox Houses. It was no use contacting any other House; the Liberal Houses, and the moderate Orthodox Houses, had no use for a killer, and if they knew of his existence, they'd set the Kaitempē on his trail. Realistically, Saru knew that he'd be caught eventually; but he wanted to have his fun for as long as he could.

Leaving the messages had been simplicity itself. Despite their claims of being surrounded by enemies, House Imorai, Ekirvai, and Ikotkai weren't actually worried about attack, and had little security. All Saru had to do was get the right clothing for each House, walk in wearing it, and no one gave him a second glance. After a leisurely stroll around the public area of each Place, he'd put down a sealed message labeled "For the Lord's eyes only, Important and Confidential", and sauntered out again. Then he waited for the messages to appear in his tele. On an alien world, like Perial's, most kidnappers were caught when they tried to collect the ransom; most assassins were tracked down through the people who employed them, or their payment for the job; most murderers, through their connection with the victims. But Saru had no use for money, his payment was the job itself; and he had no connection to his "employers", or to the people they wanted dead. It was a sweet setup, for as long as it lasted.

The last job had been lots of fun. He almost never got to kill a member of an Orthodox House. Usually one of the "great lords" fingered someone in a Liberal House who'd said something they disapproved of, or a member of a lesser House that they couldn't declare a feud against, for some reason. He had no idea why Ekirvai wanted one of ys own people dead, or why y didn't just take care of her in-House. Maybe she hadn't jumped high enough when the Lord said "Frog!" Or maybe she just wasn't mean and nasty enough for ys House. Either way, she'd been a special treat for Saru. He'd kept her for a month, having all sorts of fun with her, and ignoring the messages asking why she hadn't shown up dead yet, before he got bored and put his knife through one heart, and then the other.

Today's victim was a member of one of the larger lesser Houses, a musician and composer no less, who liked to walk by the river for inspiration. And here he came now, walking on the other side of the Hati, head down, brows furrowed in thought, his hands clasped behind him. Composing his next work, no doubt. Too bad the world would never get to hear it. Saru hurried ahead to get to the next bridge over the river, where he could wait for his new friend.

The killer had left the face and hair intact. Mara took one look and collapsed in grief. She clutched the body to herself, heedless of the blood. "Kara, Kara!" she wept, over and over.

Perial sighed. If he'd had any idea the scene would be this bad, he'd never have asked Mara to come along. He keyed his badge. "Wima," he said, "could you join me? Mara needs a friend."

Imorai Place,
Teřańa,
7 Numestô Husao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Beauty and the Beast:

Lańa walked the halls of Imorai Place in her invisible form, taking care to move silently and not get too close to anyone. For the first few weeks, all she'd done was learn not to be heard, and not to get caught between people and other people, or people and walls. There'd been a couple of close calls, but she'd managed to keep any of the Imorē from suspecting they had an intruder. Now she was learning her way around, and learning who was who. The palace was huge, and its population large, but she needed to know both, if she were to carry out her mission.

As a girl, Lańa had dreamed of joining the Imperial Guard. With her unexplained ability to change her form, including her form that was invisible in all wavelengths of light, she'd be a shoo-in, she had thought. Her House tried to talk her out of it, not wanting her to build her hopes too high, and be brutally disappointed. "It's impossible," they'd told her. "You're too young, and the Guard doesn't take Verē members. The Speaker wouldn't know he could trust you!"

"I'll get older," she'd told everyone. "And they do have a few Verē members, look at Turtle Woman! And of course the Speaker would trust me, I'm a member of House Satagořai."

She'd even picked a "hero name" for herself, Rainbow, which is what Satagořai meant. For a costume, she choose a form-fitting black body stocking with a pixie collar and no gloves or belt, just black slippers. A rainbow band, in all nine colors from the two ultraviolet colors to the infra-red one, ran up the front of her right leg, curved across her front and her left breast, and continued to the end of her left sleeve. She posed for Satagořao Mera, her mother: putting her right arm, bent at the elbow, behind her mass of fiery red curls, she stood with her feet apart, and her left arm raised so that the rainbow was displayed for maximum effect. "What do you think?" she asked.

"Stunning," her mother said.

Lańa laughed, turned, and walked away a few steps, swinging her hips. She planted her feet wide apart, put her hands on her hips, and looked back over one shoulder. "Do you think the Speaker will trust me?" she asked.

"He might," Mera said drily, "but his wife had better not!"

Laughing harder than ever, Lańa ran to her mother and kissed her, then went to her room to take off her costume and change back to her regular clothing: a white blouse and dress, with black slippers and belt, and a rainbow, in shades of grey, over her left heart.

House Satagořai was being considered for recognition as a Great House. It had over 600 members; many of the men were full-time members of the Kaitempē, many of them with distinguished careers; and the House had more than its share of dancers, musicians, poets, writers, playwrights, actors and actresses, singers, and athletes. It was the very model of a Liberal Great House.

One day it came to a vote in the Blue House. Votes of the Great Houses didn't have the force of law, because the Verē broke all their chains when they rose from slavery, including the chains of law. Law had enslaved them, Krahos law, and government had kept them in chains, Krahos government. So the Verē had no law, and no government. Independent Houses, self- organizing, had co-operated to free the slaves and kill all the masters, under the leadership of House Ihed́ai; since then, the Verē lived in independent, sovereign Houses, and the head of House Ihed́ai was the Speaker for all the People.

But if a vote of the Great Houses had no force of law, it had great moral authority. Custom, standing in for law, said that when a House was proposed for recognition as a Great House, the vote must be unanimously in favor for the motion to succeed. There were eight Liberal Houses and eight Orthodox Houses: all the Liberal Houses voted Yes, and five of the Orthdox Houses. Houses Imoral, Ekirvai, and Ikotkai voted No.

Five years later, Lańa was a woman grown, but not in the Imperial Guard. She used her powers for her own purposes, not for her extinct House, or for the Speaker who hadn't kept Imoral, Ekirvai, and Ikotkai from killing so many of them. She wore the Rainbow costume she'd designed, but no one got to see it, except under very specific circumstances, and very briefly; and she called herself Camouflage.

There was a lab level she hadn't seen yet. It was unlikely that anything in it mattered to her, but she had to make sure. A surprise could mean the end of her. Worse still, it could mean the end of her mission, which was more important than her life.

She followed a biological technician into a drop shaft. Y was reading some papers as y stepped off the landing, and never even looked around. Just the same, she entered the shaft after ym, so that instead of floating down side by side, her feet were above ys head. She was also invisible, of course. When y grabbed the bar and swung to the landing, she was right behind ym.

Something howled, a sound like nothing Lańa had ever heard before. She froze, a shiver running down her spine. Everyone else in the room—the technician, and five males armed with various shoulder weapons—jumped in shock. Then they all turned to look at the big steel cage in the center of the room. "Powergiver, he scared the crap out of me!"—"What's got into him, all of a sudden?"—"Ehi, Maki, I think he doesn't like you!"

"Quiet!" snapped the neuter technician, Imorao Maki. Everyone shut up except the beast in the cage, which was growling softly but continuously. Lańa wanted to get a closer look, but she didn't want to set him to howing again, so she kept her distance. He seemed to be smelling her; she kept near the technian (but not too near), so that if they noticed the creature was tracking something with his nose, it would seem that he was tracking the technian, not her.

When they'd searched the whole room, and found nothing, Imorao Maki pulled out a communicator and made a call. Camouflage paid no attention, until y said, "Yes, My Lord. Right away." That's when she realized that y was talking to the head of the House. Before she could decide what to do about that, y put ys communicator away. "All of you, come with me. Lord Imorai wants to hear about this."

"At least one of us should stay here and guard the lab, sir," said one of the guards.

The technician was clearly annoyed, but saw some sense in that. "Very well, you stay. The rest of you, come with me."

As soon as the others had left, and the remaining guard had sat down, Lańa opened a capsule of sleepygas under his nose, and held it there for a few seconds until he was fast asleep. Then she walked over to the cage.

The beast within was like nothing she'd ever seen, or heard of. He was roughly manlike (definitely male; they hadn't provided him with clothes), standing upright on two legs. After looking him over for a minute, she decided he most resembled a whip, a native creature from Kantos that killed its prey with its long, ropelike tentacles. He had the tentacles, and the cartilage in place of bones. But he was covered with a coat of yellow fur all over his body, and he had the head of an orké, a ferocious member of the weasel family. The ears were the same, and the teeth, bared in a snarl. Definitely a predator, she thought.

She'd had a good education before her House was destroyed, and knew that such a combination of features couldn't be natural; nothing in the native life was related to anything from the First Universe. He must be an artificial creature, a chimera constructed from genes from different creatures. Why House Imorai had made him, and for what end, she couldn't guess.

Still invisible, since there might be video recorders around, she reached out with the sense she had, which let her learn something living inside and out, and convert herself into a duplicate. Then she changed herself. This made her visible, since only the one form was invisible; but it couldn't be helped. The effect was the same, to any watching eyes, as if a second beast had appeared out of nowhere outside the cage. The beast jerked back, then came back to the bars, sniffing curiously. He didn't know what to make of her, clearly.

"Pretty boy!" she said. "I've got to get you out of there." She didn't think twice about it; she couldn't leave anyone or anything a prisoner of House Imorai.

"Let's see if I can help you make up your mind about me," she said. What she did next was much more difficult than simply copying someone. Concentrating hard, she changed the male body she wore into a female body, and replaced the yellow fur with her own deep red ringlets, all over her body.

"What do you think of me now?" she said. She glanced down. "Oh yeah, you like that, don't you. babe? And where have you been all my life?"

She put an arm-tip through the bars. He grabbed it with both of his, and began licking it furiously. "Aww," she said.

When she turned to leave, he started to howl. "Shhh!" she said. Amazingly, he stopped. She turned invisible again, and told him, "Good boy! Don't worry, I'll be back with the key to getting you out." She doubted he understood a word of what she was promising him. But she meant every word, whether he understood or not.

The University of Teřańa,
Teřańa,
4 Numestô Husao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

A Consular Consultation:

"You've changed the title," Ihed́ao Juhao Jatai observed. The revised paper Borai Lapo had handed him now had the title, "A General Theory of Psionics."

"Before we speak, sir, let me show you my latest trick," Borai Lapo said. He reached into a tele that appeared next to his right shoulder, and pulled out a black box with his left hand. The box was 8 inches long by 5 inches wide by 4 inches deep. The Consul recognized it as a standard container for experimental prototypes. Lapo placed it on Jatai's desk and activated it with his tøskê, his psionic ability. A green light went on in the top, and suddenly Jatai felt strange. Y felt like ys ears were stuffed up. Y yawned to make them pop. They did, but it didn't help.

"It isn't your ears," Lapo said, standing on the other side of ys desk and looking at him with ys green eyes. "It's your mind."

"What?" said the Consul, shaking ys head. "What is that thing?"

"The end of openness and transparency," Lapo said, sadly. "The mother of secrets and conspiracy."

"What? Speak plainly."

The student picked up the consul's communicator and placed it in front of ym. "Try to call someone," he suggested.

"Whom? About what?"

"It doesn't matter," Lapo said. "If you can talk to anyone, my device doesn't work."

"If?" Jatai said. But y activated ys communicator and began to speak. "Mali? Jatai. Listen—" Y stopped. Instead of a three-dimensional image of ys friend's head, neck, and shoulders, an empty white cube floated above the communicator. Instead of ys friend's voice, a mellow hum, not loud and not unpleasant, droned in ys office.

"What've you done to my communicator?" y asked Lapo. "I need it to do my job, young man."

"This isn't a student prank, sir, I assure you," Lapo said. He deactivated his device. The green light turned red, and the strange background feeling disappeared; but the communicator stayed blank. "Clear your communicator, sir, and try to call your friend again."

Watching Lapo, Jatai ended the failed call, and re-called Ihed́ao Mali, another neuter wearing the brown and yellow of the House to which they both belonged. "Jatai!" said his friend, smiling. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"It's been a while, hasn't it?" Jatai said. "Listen, did you get a call from me just now? Or any kind of strange call?"

"Strange how?" Mali looked at the time display on ys own communicator. "No one's called me in—Eio!— the last seven minutes. I must have died and not noticed it! Did you call to tell me that?"

"No, but I did try to call you. I seem to be having trouble with my communicator."

"Trouble? What kind of trouble? Is it contagious? I could use some communicator trouble myself—I might be able to get some work done!"

"I'm not sure," Jatai said. "It comes and goes. Let me call you tomorrow. Better yet, why don't we get together and go flying?"

"Sounds great!" Mali replied. "I'll throw away this paperwork, and meet you at the gym at noon. We should be able to fly all the way around the Lake before a new pile of crap spontaneously generates itself and fills my desk again."

"I know the feeling," Jatai said. "Noon, then." Y ended the call and looked up at Borai Lapo. "All right," y said, "What just happened?"

Lapo reactivated his device. Jatai winced as the odd sensation returned. "That was the opening shot of the War between the Houses," Lapo said.

Continued next issue!

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