Cover: Cyber, Mass, and the Undying

New Players

by Leo D. Orionis

To everyone who made me welcome when I was the new kid in class, the new guy
at work, the new teacher at the school, and the new member of the club.

Previously in Eoverai:

It's been almost two months since Ekirvao Mara made her public debut, taking on the might of the Verē military with her Tlâń ring of power. She's now a member of the Imperial Guard, a large group of beings with super-powers from all over the Verē Empire. By now, Mara has met all the other members of the Guard, and has gone on her first mission.

About a week after Mara's test by combat, graduate student Borai Lapo first met with Ihed́ao Juhao Jatai, Consul of Psionics at the University of Teřańa, to discuss a General Theory of Telekinesis which he (Lapo) is developing. Though still incomplete, his work is proving to be revolutionary—in both senses of the word.

Kranao Mota, commander of a squad of Kaitempē light cruisers, is generally believed dead, after saving Mara from destruction during her debut. In fact, he's alive, lost in the vastness of the universe, and trying to find his way home.

There's a serial killer loose in the city of Teřańa, capital city of the Verē Empire. His first victim was Ekirvao Kara, the woman who's been like a mother to Mara. But he won't stop killing people, until someone makes him stop.

Deep inside Imoral Place, the palace of House Imorai, is a laboratory where an experimental animal was created and is caged for examination. He's discovered by Lańa, a survivor of House Satagořai, which was destroyed by Houses Imoral, Ekirvai, and Ikotkai. She resolves to free him from his imprisonment.

Other super-heroes about to arrive on the scene include the King of the Tlâń, in an exoskeletal disguise operated by his own power ring; a research biologist planning to open communications with "spiders", who are actually tiny mammals; and a mistress of sound. But these new players are still unready to appear in public.

Ihed́ai Place,
Galestē Husao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Mara and the King of the Tlâń:

When Hała Złodannor first came to Teřańa, shortly after he was elected King of the Tlâń, it had been a very formal affair. Accompanied by two counselors, who were in fact the chiefs of two of the Noble Tribes, he'd stepped into the royal barge, and requested Paithan, the soul of his ring, to take them to Loraon. The three Tlâń, and their three rings, had made conversation as the barge lifted from the ground and flew east to the continent where the Verē lived, but it died in their throats when a squadron of light cruisers met and surrounded them as they approached Loraon.

However, no harm came to them. The Verē in charge, a Kaitempē officer named Kranao Mota, explained that no non-Verē vehicle flew under its own power in Verē space, and when one of the chiefs objected loudly and angrily, told him, politely but firmly, that the only alternative was to return to Kantos. The King decided to accept the terms, and when they crossed the shore of Loraon, the light cruisers seized the barge in a telekinetic grip, took them to the spaceport, and set them down. From the spaceport they rode in a Verē air car, from which they could see the sights on the way south to the city. At the Blue House, on the shore of Lake Tapa, the Speaker and the heads of the Great Houses were drawn up to receive them, with the heads of dozens of lesser Houses standing by on either side. The Speaker of the Verē, Ihed́ai Vîd́a, greeted them formally. The King replied formally. They proceeded into the Blue House, and there were formal speeches.

These days, Vîd́a would send a closed air car whenever Hała asked. Sometimes the pilot wasn't even a Kaitempē officer, but a member of the Speaker's household. They'd proceed directly to the Blue House, or Ihed́ai Place, where the Speaker would welcome the King; then they'd go inside, and talk. No one made speeches.

"So when can I meet this artificial ring-bearer of yours?" the King asked. "Or am I supposed to pretend that I know nothing about her, ignorant blue-skinned savage that I am?" Hała, Vîd́a, and Kristu were sitting in a garden room of Ihed́ai Place, with a grass floor and flower beds of bindweed and blue irises, one wall open to the lawn outside, and a gentle breeze blowing in. Since the pressor-field furniture didn't work for him, they were all seated on the grass as they talked.

The Speaker and his wife exchanged one of those glances where no words were spoken, but a conversation took place just the same. Hała didn't know whether Verē mates could all communicate that way, but he's seen these two do it many times. Now she gave her hand to her husband, and they stood up together, with him automatically helping her to rise, as if he thought her incapable of standing without assistance. It was a token of love, the King had decided long ago, although the logic of it escaped him. Following his hosts' lead, he rose too, and remained standing. Kristu went to the inside door, opposite the wall that led to the outside. The door disappeared, and Hała got his first look at the being the Verē had created to make use of a Tlâń ring. It was a strange sensation, like seeing double. At the same time as he looked on a Verē-like creature with his eyes, he recognized a female Tlâń with the sense that his people used to feel each other's presence in their lightless stone tunnels, before they'd even evolved sapience.

Mara had met the Speaker and his wife three times before; once, with Perial, when the Speaker had asked her to join the Guard, and she'd accepted; once, with a Kaitempē consul, to discuss the test of her and the ring, and to accept an apology from the consul for the treacherous attack upon her; and the third time, to meet with Lord Kranai, tell ym about Kranao Mota's role in the test, and to express her own gratitude for Mota saving her life from the Drē. On all those occasions, the Speaker and his wife had treated her with kindness and warmth, as if she were part of their own House. It wasn't anything like the treatment she'd been raised to expect from them!

Even now, Ihed́ao Kristu bent over from her Verē height to fold her in her arms, and murmured "Welcome, Mara." It reminded her of Kara, and she closed her eyes to keep the tears from spilling out. I mustn't cry, she thought, and her ring wiped her eyes for her with the tiniest of tendrils, practically invisible. She felt that everyone in the room saw them just the same, and understood the reasons for the tears, and sympathized, and wouldn't embarass her with words; and she was grateful. Then the Speaker hugged her, too, which she still didn't expect, or know how to respond to.

But even as she was embraced, she couldn't help but stare at the King. She'd never met a Tlâń before, and this was the ruler of all the Tlâń people. He was a bald, blue-skinned alien with no bones in his body, two fingers and a thumb on each hand, and three toes on each foot; at the same time he felt like a man, to some sense she hadn't even realized she'd had, before this moment. She was reminded of the picture her ring had projected, of herself as a Tlâń; the King was simultaneously an alien being, and a man, even a handsome man. She started to put her arms in front of her face in a Verē salute.

"No, don't do that," he said. He took her hands in his, and pulled them down again. It felt strange, the touch of an alien being; but she'd been in the Guard for a while now, and it felt no more odd than Lightning's touch, or Telepath's. At the same time it reminded her of when Lord Ekirvai had done the same, but ys touch had been parental, and neuter. Making the same gesture, refusing a salute from her, the King's hands felt like a man's, holding hers, and not at all parental.

He was the same height that she was. "I am Ekirvao Mara," she said.

"I know who you are," he said, sounding skeptical to her ears. Skeptical of what?

"And should I address you as Your Majesty, or—?"

"Call me Hała, please."

"Hala? Haja? Haĺa? Ha*la?—Ehiu, I can't say that!"

Now he was definitely surprised. "Truly? Your ring hasn't taught you the Tlâń speech?"

"My ring doesn't use words, or almost never."

"Odd," said the King. "Paithan?" Mara didn't know what "Paithan" meant, but suddenly he released her hands, and stepped back. In the same instant, he was covered with yellow light. Why, he must have a ring, too, Mara realized. But she didn't see a ring on any of his finger-tentacles. Nevertheless a blob of yellow ring stuff reached out from his hand towards her ring.

For a few moments that seemed much longer than that, nothing happened. Then her ring soul sprang into yellow life around her, and an answering tendril reached out towards the King. The yellow lights met, and merged. Mara's eyes met Hała's, and it felt as if they joined, too.

Then all the yellow light went away, and Mara felt like cold water had been dashed in her face. She sighed.

"That was—I don't know what that was!" Kristu said. She put an arm around Mara's shoulders. "Are you all right?"

"I don't know," Mara said. She looked at the King.

"You asked your ring to talk with Mara's?" the Speaker asked the King. "That's a big step. Up to now, we've pretended that I didn't know that you had a ring."

"Yes, but this is more important than diplomatic pretensions. An untrained user walking around with a ring is like someone having a nuclear weapon in her pocket. And if the ring is damaged, or the soul of the ring is hurt, it's even worse than that. So I asked Paithan to try to talk to Mara's ring."

"Your ring is named Paithan?" Mara asked. "And he talks to you? With actual words?"

"That's right. Your ring is named Ašagar, and he should be talking to you, as well. But he was hurt, when his last user was killed, in the last war. He needs to be healed, and you need to be trained." He turned to the Speaker. "Otherwise, everyone on the planet is in danger, my friend—all the Verē, and all the Tlâń."

"What do you propose?" the Speaker said quietly.

"A trained and experienced ring user needs to meet with Mara every day, to help her ring soul heal, and train her to use it wisely. I think that should be Paithan and I. There are other ring-bearers better suited for the task than I, but no ring souls greater than Paithan. And, to be frank, if it's me, you and I can talk about what other rings you have, and what you intend to do with them. This was an insanely reckless thing for the Verē to do. In plain fact, if I may say so without meaning offense, you had no idea what you were doing, and the outcome was unbelievably good." He smiled at Mara.

"Let's talk about it," the Speaker said. "Let's move this discussion to a more secure room, get a recorder in there, and see if we can come to an agreement. It sounds like a good idea, for both our peoples."

"And for the whole planet," Ihed́ao Kristu said.

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

New Communicators for Old:

"Did you enjoy your flying, sir?"

Ihed́ao Juhao Jatai looked up from ys "keys", which looked like a handful of water-smoothed rocks collected from the bed of a fast-running river. No two were the same color or shape, but they were all about an inch across, and all of them had one flat side. When that side was pressed against the right "lock" in a Verē "door", the micro-circuits in the key and the lock activated the door. Otherwise, a locked door was a solid wall.

"Yes, I did," he told Borai Lapo. "It had been too long since I'd put on a flying harness, and Mali and I did a lot of catching up. Y was my room mate when we were in college ourselves." The door beeped and "opened", vanishing from its frame. "Come in," Jatai said.

As they entered Jatai's office, Lapo produced a small rectangle from a tele, opening the mindspace interface, reaching in, and pulling out the device so deftly than the blue glow of the field was visible for only an instant. The black box he held was only three inches across, four inches tall, and one inch thick, with slightly rounded corners and edges. He held it out to the Consul. "I have a new communicator for you," he said.

"Thank you," Jatai said automatically, looking at it. "It's not on," y said, and activated it with ys telekinesis. A green light appeared near the top of the side facing ym. "Be seated," y invited the young student, as y walked around ys desk and lowered ymself into ys own chair. Y picked up ys regular communicator and compared it with the one Lapo had just given ym. They were the same size. Ys own had the custom pattern of colors y'd chosen for it, the contact information y'd put into it, and a lot of notes, papers, and information, of course.

"If you touch the two communicators together, all the information and settings of your old communicator will be copied to the new one," Lapo said. Jatai did that, and the new communicator acquired the blue-grey swirls of the old one. Interfacing with it, y saw that all of ys personal information, and files from ys work as head of the College of Psionics, were also duplicated.

"Why do I need a new communicator?" y asked.

"Because your old communicator isn't secure," Lapo said. "It doesn't protect the information in it, and it doesn't protect the space around it. I just discovered a few days ago that I can copy the data on any communicator to any data storage I choose. Likewise, I can alter the data any way I wish, and I can expunge it. Furthermore, I can view any time and volume of space I want, and record it as I'm viewing."

"This would be while exploring the connection between telekinesis and clairvoyance?" Jatai asked him.

"Exactly so. As you'll see in the latest revision of my paper—here it is, by the way," Lapo said. and the communicator in Jatai's hand beeped. Y looked down, and saw the words "Thesis 'A General Theory of Psionics' received from student Borai Lapo. Accept, reject, open?" Jatai thought "Accept" at the communicator, and the words "Thesis accepted and stored," replaced the earlier display. After a few seconds, those words faded.

"As I was saying, I've come to believe that telekinesis and psionics are equivalent, and perhaps identical. I've been experimenting with duplicating telepathy, clairvoyance, and other fields of psionics with telekinesis, with some success. If I can duplicate all the psionic effects with telekinesis, that at least suggests that they're all the same thing. As the physicists say, a difference that makes no difference is no difference."

"I'll be very interested to read that," Jatai said. "Can you prove it?"

"I can demonstrate it at will. Prove it, not yet. But if I can demonstrate it, and the math is consistent, both with itself and existing math of psionics and physics?"

"That's a very good start," Jatai agreed. "But returning to the communicators…"

"All right," said Lapo. "Pick up your old communicator, please, sir, and display its index." As Jatai hesitated, Lapo said, "you can tell your old communicator because it doesn't have the green security light."

"Yes, of course." Jatai displayed the index of all the information on ys old communicator, in the air above it. "And now?"

"Now this," Lapo said. The index vanished, replaced by the words, "No files found."

"What did you do?" Jatai cried, trying to get the information back. It was as if it had never been there.

"Very little," Lapo assured ym. "First, please remember that everything's duplicated on your new communicator." Jatai displayed the index of that one, and there were ys files again. Y sagged with relief.

"Secondly, I didn't actually purge any files on your old communicator, I just wrote a new, empty index to it. The files are still there, and they can be recovered, if you wish."

Holding onto ys temper, Jatai said, "You'd better explain."

"Yes, sir, at once; and I apologize for alarming you."

"We are an open society," Lapo said, "and we have no secrets from each other. When we were all slaves together, we only kept secrets from the masters, the Krahos. To keep secrets from them, we invented our own language, written in our own alphabet, and deliberately made it hard for them to learn. We could even leave messages for each other, since we could see in ultra-violet and infra-red, and they couldn't. By the time we existed, they didn't have the technology to see anything written in those colors, and they couldn't read our writing, anyway."

"I know all this," Jatai said.

"But consider the implications," Lapo said. "When we invented data-storage devices, we didn't make them tamper-proof, or even keep their contents from being copied, changed, or erased, because we assumed none of us would do that; and because they're telekinetic technology, we assumed that any non-Verē couldn't use them. We are a proud people, and our proudest boast is—?"

"I have nothing to hide," Jatai said, slowly.

"Exactly. As for our telekinetic communicators, they have no security features, either. Any one of them can connect to any other, and view the space around any other. They're wide open."

"Without a link code?"

"A code makes it easy to connect to another communicator," Lapo said, "and each person's communicator has a list of friends, and their communicators. We assume that without a friend giving us their link, we can't call them. But observe," he said, and Jatai's list of contacts popped up above his old communicator.

"Let's display this as a net," Lapo said. "Every contact on this list is a communicator belonging to someone. So we display them as names connected to yours." In the new display, Jatai's name was in the center of a cloud of names, each connected to ys name with a black line.

"Now let's add the names from your friend Mali's list," Lapo said. The line from Jatai to Mali doubled, showing that each communicator had the other in its friends list. New names appeared, linked to Ihed́ao Mali. Some of them were on Jatai's list, so each of them had a line to it from Jatai and Mali both.

After Jatai had looked at the cloud of names connected to him, or ys friend Mali, or both, Lapo said, "Now I'm going to add the names on the communicators of every other person from your list." The display expanded quickly, almost explosively. When it filled the entire room above the top of the Consul's desk, Lapo said, "Let's set an upper limit on the size of the display, say, ten feet in diameter, and move the display up to the ceiling."

"Why is it black?" said Jatai, looking up at the globe hanging just below the vault of ys ceiling.

"Because the links between names are shown in black," Lapo said. "At this scale, all those millions of connections make a solid black globe. It appears smooth because of scale, also; there are outlying connections, but they only show up as a bit of fuzziness around the sphere."


"Easily," Lapo said. "You're a busy, important person, with over a thousand contacts in your communicator: colleagues in your field, other faculty of the University, University staff, students, professional publications… personal friends, members of your House, in your case not only Ihed́ai but Juhai. Some of the people in this cloud of names have as many contacts as you, or even more. Your contacts include the Speaker; how many contacts do you suppose he has?"

"The thing is, this is just the contacts listed in your communicator, and in the lists of contacts in those communicators. We could continue this, and include all the contacts in the communicators of all the people shown here, and so forth. We'd soon have the contact information of every member of the human race, most of them several times over, and they'd never even know we had the information; and they couldn't keep us from getting that information, or storing it, or distributing it. We could go into any communicator whatsoever, and change any information we wanted; or remove it, or copy it. The communicators are completely open."

"And anyone can do these things?" Jatai demanded.

"At present? I don't believe so. These capabilities aren't built into the communicators. You can talk with them, you can send and receive files. You can't, with present communicators, copy, change, or delete files on someone else's communicator. I can, as a result of the work I'm doing. But for how long will that be true? And what if I'm wrong, and some Houses have developed some or all of these abilities, and are keeping them secret?"

"Some Houses?" Jatai said.

"Imorai, Ekirvai, and Ikotkai," Lapo answered.

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

One down, two to go:

In the solar of Imoral Place, the head of that House, Imorai Mena, frowned unhappily. "Most unsatisfactory," y pronounced. "Why don't you have sound and video of the event?" As a neuter, y was completely hairless, and wore a robe and sandals, rather than the blouse, dress, and slippers of a female, or the shirt, pants, and boots of a male. As the head of a Great House, ys robes were decorated in the colors of ys House. Imorai's arms were a blood-red sword, point upwards, on a yellow background, so Lord Imorai wore a yellow robe, with flaring wrist-length sleeves, and a hem down to ys ankles. On ys chest, from waist to throat, was emblazoned the blood-red sword. Ys sandals were also blood red. The only other color about ym were ys eyes, which were dark brown. Like most Verē, ys skin was a medium brown, and the vańe on top of ys head, the loop-shaped organ that drew energy from radiant sources, was black.

The other people in the room were members of Imoral, but not its lord, so they wore the House colors reversed. The four males wore blood-red pants from waist to ankles, tucked into yellow boots, and yellow belts. Their blood-red shirts were tucked into their pants, and had yellow turtleneck collars, and yellow cuffs at their wrists. Their eyes were common colors, brown, blue, grey, and black, and the hair on their heads, cut short, as well as their eyebrows, were brown, sandy, white, and black, respectively. Verē men had no hair on the lower part of their skulls, so they never had beards, mustaches, or sideburns. They did have a mask of hair around their eyes, the same colors as their eyebrows.

Males had the least status of the three Verē sexes, and these four, mere guards, were glad to let their neuter superior answer the questions, unless Lord Imorai spoke to them directly. Imorao Maki, the biological technician in charge of the laboratory to which they were assigned, was dressed in a blood-red robe and yellow slippers, the opposite colors from the Lord's clothing. Y said, "When the experiment was new, Lord, we recorded everything that occurred in the laboratory, sound and video, continuously. We still record any tests we make, and their results, and the samples we take, and the data from those, and analyses too."

"But you don't record any longer?"

"Not all the time, Lord, no."

Imorai Place was half a thousand feet tall, and the solar was at the very top. It was a large room, a hundred feet in radius. The walls curved upward in a dome a hundred feet high above the floor, upon which grew grass in a bed of dirt a coulple of feet deep, with a few stone patios scattered here and there among the cherry and pear-apple trees. It was the month of the cherry, and the white blossoms filled the air with their intense, bittersweet aroma. Stepping stones made paths between the patios, and there was a stone bench on one side of the path or the other, between every pair of patio areas. The tinkling of water said there was a fountain nearby, opposite the door. Some sections of the dome were open, admitting a pleasant breeze, and birds sang in the trees.

"So there's no record of his sudden outburst of howling," said Imorai Mena.

"No, Lord, there isn't."

"Pah," said the head of the House, in disgust. Y complained, "If it isn't recorded for analysis, it might as well not have happened. Return to the laboratory. Before you enter, turn on recording, and make sure every cubic inch of space is covered, with no blind spots. I assume you can do that before you enter?" y said, sarcastically.

"Yes, Lord," Maki said.

"Very well. Turn on your recorders, and by the Powergiver, leave them on unless I say otherwise! I shouldn't have to say that," y complained. "What good is an unrecorded experiment?"

"No, Lord," the technician muttered.

"So turn them on, then enter, and let's see whether the beast howls again. Then I want you to search the whole lab again. If you find anything, inform me at once. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Lord." Maki saluted, holding ys arms up in front of ys face, and bowed from ys waist. Behind ym, the four males did the same. Lord Imorai returned the salutes with a "go-away" wave, and they turned and left.

Imorai Mena was reading in ys copy of The Book of the Powergiver when ys door beeped. Y looked up, frowning; besides the importance of the words themselves, this copy had been given to ym by ys yther, ys own neuter parent, at the time of Mena's ceremony of Confirmation in the faith. It was a heavy book, with large, heavy pages, a heavy binding of black řobē leather over wooden boards, and the sign of the Powergiver embossed on the front in gold. Without putting down the book, y called, "Come in."

The door disappeared, in the way of Verē doors. One moment there was a light blue rectangle with a rounded top, covered with parallel vermicular patterns, between two ten-foot lose trees in grey stone pots; the next moment, only an opening remained between the potted pear-apple trees. But no one was standing beyond the open door, either. After a few seconds, the door returned to its closed setting. Lord Imorai grunted, and returned to ys book, mildly annoyed. Whoever it was must have been afraid to come in, y thought.

Just as y was getting back into ys reading, ys chair went over backwards beneath ym. That wouldn't have been possible in a pressor-field chair, which was either on or off, unless other shapes or positions were programmed into it, and they were activated. But Imoral Mena liked having an old-fashioned chair in ys solar for reading, made of black ironwood with a thickly-cushioned seat and back. Now chair, book, and head of House went flying.

Y landed on ys back and lay stunned, half in the chair, half on the grass, panting. After a moment y started to get up, putting a hand to the back of ys head, which y'd knocked against the back of ys chair. "Ejao," y mumbled.

Someone pushed ym, hard, on ys chest. Y felt the shove, but there was no one there! Then y tripped over a leg y couldn't see, and fell over again, banging ys head against a flagstone. For a moment, after the blow to the head, y couldn't move.

Y hadn't even thought to call for help; who would dare attack ym? Now y realized that someone dared, but ys communicator was on the table next to the overturned chair. Y put out ys arms to lever ymself up, and something landed on ym. Two knees, it felt like, punched ym in the belly, and the breath went out of ym, along with the strength.

A woman appeared, sitting on top of ym. She had an untamed mop of red curls, and was wearing a tight black bodysuit. "Surprise, frekesty!" she snarled, putting both hands around ys throat. You can't call me a pile of shit! y thought indignantly, and grabbed her arms. But she was as tall and as strong as y was. With casual strength, she banged ys head against the flagstone again.

As the darkness closed in, the last words that Imorai Mena heard were, "House Rainbow says, 'Die!' ".

Lańa had long ago decided what to do with the bodies. First, she changed herself into a duplicate of Imorai Mena. Not the present, dead Imorai Mena, with the bump on the back of ys head, the bruises on ys stomach from her knees, and the marks around ys neck where she'd strangled ym, but the Imorai Mena she'd "recorded" with her shape-changing powers, days before. Then there were two of ym in the solar.

Next, she created a tele large enough for a person to step through, knelt down, and gathered up the deceased in her arms. With a grunt, she stood up, holding ym. She looked down at ym, and smiled. "One down, two to go!" she said, in ys voice. Then she stepped into mind space, and left ys corpse there.

Returning to the physical universe, she picked up the chair, and put it next to the table. What else? She looked around. The book! She picked it up, with both hands, and heaved it into the tele, which she then closed.

She'd had no use for the Powergiver, since the day her House was destroyed. Satagořao Lańa had believed in God. Camouflage believed in vengeance for her dead family.

Imorao Maki was pouring over the data of the latest sample from the beast, when the laboratory door beeped. Y looked up to see who was there. Then y scrambled to ys feet, and saluted, as Imorai Mena strode in. The five guards on duty did the same. They were different guards; y'd changed them, once the earlier ones had finished the search that Lord Imorai had ordered.

"Lord, welcome," y said. "We searched again, and found nothing." Y tried to recall whether the lord had ever been here before.

"I'm not surprised," Lord Imorai said. Y looked at Maki, and the guards, and returned their salutes indifferently. Then y walked up to the beast's cage.

"Careful, my lord!" said one of the guards. The lord waved his concern away, and looked at the beast.

"What is that wound?" y asked sharply, pointing at the bandage on the beast's left leg. "Did he injure himself?"

"No, lord," Maki said. "After the search, I thought to take a sample, to see if there were changes in his body which might explain his different behavior."

"Unlikely," said Lord Imorai. "Maybe if you'd taken a sample right after he started howling…"

"Yes, my lord," Maki said.

"Very well," said the lord. "Prepare a data repository, and two backups. Copy all the data on this project to all three. Once that's done, wipe the information from everywhere else. I'm shutting this project down."

"Down? But, my lord—!" Imorao Maki protested.

"Do it," Lord Imorai told him. Y turned to one of the males. "Bring a gown to cover the beast's nakedness."

"But it's male, my lord!"

"I don't think it will fit into a woman's dress or a man's pants, do you? A simple white gown will do."

While "ys" subordinates followed orders, Camouflage put a hand to the bars of the cage. Hidden from the other people in the room, she changed the hand to her own, and let the beast smell it. It did, and then licked her fingers. She changed the hand back before anyone could see.

"The data repositories are ready, Lord," Maki said.

"Good. Send two of them to my suite. I'll take the third one with me."

"Here's the robe, my lord.:

"Good," she said again. "Unlock the cage door, and stand well clear. I don't want you upsetting him."

"My lord!" protested another of the guards. "This is not safe!"

The "lord" considered his point. "You're right. I want all six of you to go to the other side of the cage, as far from the door on this side as you can get, and to remain silent once you're there."

The guards looked at each other uncertainly, and at Imorao Maki, who was looking at her with a frown on ys face.

"Now!" she told them.

While the men were obeying, "Lord Imorai" said to the technician, "As soon as I've left with the creature, take apart that cage, and clear out this laboratory. You'll be contacted about your next assignment."

"My lord, what's going on? I don't understand."

Lord Imorai looked surprised. "Really? I thought it was obvious. Go through the data from the project, and see whether it doesn't become clear to you. You should be able to figure it out before your next assignment is given to you. If not…" y pursed ys lips and shook ys head sadly.

"I'll solve it!" resolved Imorao Maki.

"I hope you do," Camouflage told ym. "For now, join the men on the other side of the cage."

Once the technician and the guards were out of the way, Camouflage opened the cage door. The beast didn't rush forward, either to kill or to escape, but remained still, sniffing the air. She walked up to him, watching for signs of fright or aggression. So far, there were none. She held out her hand. With the guards up against the far wall, and the beast blocking their view, she turned her hand back into her own. The beast sniffed a couple of times, then put his tentacle-tip around her hand.

"Good boy!" she said, still with Imorai Mena's voice; all she'd changed back was her hand. The tone of the voice was soothing, and she hoped he understood that much. At least he let her put the robe on him, covering everything but his orkē's head. Even his arm-tentacles and his boneless legs were hidden within the loose robe.

At that point she could've called up a tele and stepped through it to her dwelling, but it would've been out of character; the late Lord Imorai had not been indolent, and liked to walk everywhere, unless y had a long way to go, or was in a hurry. So she walked to the lab door, and pushed the door button. The door disappeared, and she led the beast through it, holding his hand.

Once through the door, she was counting the seconds. The technician, Maki, and the five guards were running around the cage, crossing the distance to the door, and would look up and down the drop shaft. She leapt up to the ladder rungs set into the side of the shaft for emergencies, and began climbing quickly. The beast followed her lead, as she had hoped, and climbed behind her. The next level up was not in use, as she knew from her exploration of the Place. She pushed the door button on that level as soon as she could reach it, and threw herself through. The beast was right behind her, still. "Good boy!" she said, as she closed the door.

Then, before the Imorē could reach the door of the laboratory where the beast had been created, and kept a prisoner, much less reach the door of this level, she opened a tele to her hideout. She took the beast by the hand, and stepped into it, and they were gone.

Imperial Guard Headquarters,
Xidestē Husao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

The mystery man:

The Imperial Guard rarely assembled all in one place. Four or five or even eight of them might make up a team for a given mission, depending on who was free from other duties, and how well suited their powers were for a given task. Today almost all of them were watching. Some decorative stones had been laid in a circle around the center of Imperial Guard Plaza, halfway between the entrance of the Headquarters itself and the fountain at the other focus of the big oval. Some members of the Guard were watching the space within the circle, some watched the sky above, others watched outwards. Some floated in the air a little distance away, and watched the whole Plaza.

As her badge announced the agreed-upon time, Mara saw the air within the marked circle begin to shimmer in yellow and red light. The light spread upwards to a peak of about 12 feet, and down to the surface of the plaza. It spread outwards, filling in a Verē-like shape, but half again as tall, and with wings on its back. As the figure turned solid, the lights died out. What now stood in the center of the plaza, surrounded by the Guard, was a humanoid being with a grey leathery hide. Its bones and muscles weren't the same as a human's; its two legs, two arms, and two wings were fully functional, but were put together and jointed differently. This could be seen clearly, because the being wore no clothing except a skirt that belted around its waist and hung to its knees, and a hood that covered everything from the top of its head to its shoulders and collar bones. It wore nothing on its belt, such as a pouch, had nothing on its feet, and carried nothing in its hands.

Other members of the Guard began reporting to Perial that nothing else was happening. Mara kept a steady focus on the visitor, as did Negative Man, Cruiser, and Mass; while Cyber, Vision, Linguist, and the Streak were less heavy hitters and more specialized observers.

The alien said something Mara didn't understand. Her badge said that it didn't understand it, either, which meant it wasn't a language known to the Empire, and Linguist indicated he didn't know it, either. With obvious effort, the alien lowered himself to the stone plaza, and took off his hood.

His head had no hair, and no external ears. In the center of its face was something like a bird's beak. It had twelve dark beady eyes, six grouped in a circle left of the beak, another six to the right. When it spoke again, Mara could see a tongue in its beak, but no teeth.

"I hope you don't take it for disrespect that I sat without permission," he said, in accented but clear T́uliǹgrai, "but I urgently needed to get off my feet. The gravity here is at least eight times what I'm used to."

"We can help you with that," Perial said. "Mass, if you would?"

Mass was a four-legged being with purple skin. Her front legs were twice as long as her back legs, so that her back slanted from the top of her head, six feet high, to her rear, where her flat, wide tail, a couple of feet wide and a foot and a half long, hung like a cape, three feet high at its top, and four feet behind the front of her body. She had a fringe, or mane, of manipulative tentacles around the base of her head, which was two feet high and a foot wide. She extended a pair of her "arms" towards the hawk-man, with the six "fingers" on each spread out. The big, flat ears on either side of her head cupped forward towards him, unconsciously, as she focused on him. "I'm going to make you lighter," she told him. "Tell me when the gravity feels right to you." When he did, she looked at Perial with her nearest eye—she had a long eye on each side of her head, and two small ones in front—and said, "One-tenth gravity. His native world has a surface gravity about half what most of us call normal."

"Thank you," Perial said. The bird-man said, "Yes, thank you. That's a big relief." He looked at Perial. "Now what?"

! said Mara's ring, urgently.

Words, love, she reminded him.

Hard, Ašagar complained. He… same… know him!

You know him? How? From where?

"Now we'll take you to meet the Speaker," Perial said. "But what shall we call you?"

"I've had a lot of names," the alien said, in his accented T́huliǹgrai. "For now, at least, why don't you just call me Tlimute? Or Tlimu, if Tlimute is too long?"

"Tlimutai zuruhod," Perial assured him—Tlimute is fine. "Cruiser, Power Ring, the Gligo, the Negative Man, the Streak, and Cyber will escort you. Do you need transportation?"

"With my mass reduced to normal, and the thicker air of this world, I should be able to fly, as on my own planet," Tlimute said. "Step back twelve feet or so, and let me try." He spread his wings to their full extension, and with a couple of strong beats, was in the air. Mara, and the other five Guards that Perial had named, took up stations around him. Cruiser, Mara, and Negative Man had their own means of flight, and every member of the Guard had a badge, as well.

"I can't hover in place, however," Tlimute said, alighting again. "So point the direction, and let's go."

"Put your hood back on," Cruiser said, "to avoid attracting extra attention, and head south at a speed that's comfortable to you, and we'll pace you." He pointed towards the city. The hawk-man, once more wearing his hood, leapt into the air, and headed south at forty miles an hour. His escort caught up with him easily, and fell in around him, Cruiser on his left, Mara on his right, Negative Man in front and Cyber to the rear, the Gligo overhead and the Streak below.

Mara was glad that the alien had replaced his hood. Completely non-humanoid aliens, like Lightning or Telepath, didn't disturb her. She could even appreciate that they had their own kind of beauty, like a walking-stick insect or a mosasaur. But Tlimute was just humanoid enough that his beak, and the dozen little eyes, made her shudder. She was glad to concentrate on watching the space all around the group, for the hour it took to reach the outskirts of Teřańa at the speed he'd chosen.

At Ihed́ai Place, the Speaker and his wife were waiting for them, Cruiser having called ahead. The alien and the Speaker greeted each other, and the Speaker introduced his wife. "This is an unexpected pleasure," Tlimute said. "I thought you'd agreed to talk with me in private?"

"We have no secrets from each other," the Speaker said. "Anything you can say to me, you can say to her, or else to neither of us."

"If that's your final answer, I must yield the point," said the hawk-man.

"Let's go inside, then, and talk."

"Actually," said Ihed́ao Kristu to her husband, "he's awfully big, and we don't know what abilities he has. It would be prudent to have one of the Guard present, as well."

"Really—!" Tlimute began to protest.

"She's right," the Speaker said. "We'll make it someone I trust to keep what you say secret, no matter what. Cruiser, will you join us?"

"It would be my honor," Cruiser answered.

"Can we at least compromise on which Guard?" Tlimute asked. "No offense to Cruiser, but I don't know him. Can we make it someone that I believe I can trust?"

"Perhaps," the Speaker said. "I thought you didn't know anyone. Whom would you suggest?"

"Her," the alien answered, pointing to Mara.

"Me?!!" Mara said. "I don't know you!"

The Speaker considered her, then said, "Cruiser, what do you think?"

"I think she's honest, and trustworthy, and more than a match for whatever the alien can bring to bear," Cruiser said. "Perial trusts her, and so do I."

"I do, too," Ihed́ao Kristu said softly. Mara was speechless at the unexpected praise from all sides, and blushing a fiery red.

So Ihed́ai VÎd́a, his wife Kristu, the alien, and Mara walked around to a garden room, where the open wall was big enough for the winged man's 12-foot height, and entered. They opaqued the wall, though the breeze was still allowed to enter. The Speaker said on a pressor-field chair, his lady in another one on his left, and Mara on a stool of yellow ring stuff on his right. The alien sat on the grass, to tower over them the least amount possible.

"So what did you want to tell me?" the Speaker said. "I'm very curious. Nothing like you is known to the Empire. How do you know of us, and what is your business here?"

"The easiest way to answer your questions is to show you who I really am. I can be really useful to you, my lord, if I keep my true identity a secret. I want to operate publicly as an envoy from an alien civilization, while keeping everyone ignorant of my actual identity. A dead man can find out things that a live one can't."

"Meaning what?" said the Speaker.

"Meaning I'm actually two people, and one of them you know. If the lady will cover me with her ring, I'll change to my other self. I've seen her mangle cruisers with her weapon, so I'm sure she can make short work of me if I make a wrong move. Agreed?"

"What's he talking about?" the Speaker asked Mara.

"My lord, I have no idea! Only, Ašagar says he knows him. I don't know how, though."

"Interesting. So," he said to the hawk-creature, "what do you intend?"

"I'm going to make a tele, which you'll agree that only a Verē can do, and I'm going to pass through it, very slowly, so that Ekirvao Mara here can watch closely, ready to blast me if I come out monstrous, or armed, or something. All right?"

"You know my name?" Mara said.

"And you know mine," he said. "In fact, all of you know me. May I demonstrate?"

The huge creature manifested a tele , floating in the air next to himself, then stood up next to it. There were only four or five feet between the top of the tele, and the ceiling of the room. He reached out with one giant hand, and slowly put it into the blue interface. Gradually, a human hand came out the other side, with a yellow cuff at the wrist, and a green sleeve on the arm. Halfway through, he stopped, and looked at them. The left side of the alien creature stood there, hood over its head, its left wing behind its back, bare-chested, the skirt around its waist, its grey skin showing except where the hood and skirt covered it. The right half was a brown-haired, brown-eyed, brown-skinned Verē male in Kaitempē uniform.

"Kranao Mota," said the Speaker, "I thought you were dead."

Mota grinned, and finished passing through the tele. When it disappeared, he sat down in another pressor-field chair, facing the other three.

"I can hope everyone else thinks so, too," he said. "Imagine what I can learn that people wouldn't let drop around me, if they think I'm an envoy from an alien civilization."

"Are you truly Kranao Mota?" Kristu said. "I'm sorry to say I don't remember you."

"Ehiu, I was afraid that might be the case. I've served in the Kaitempē for many years," Mota said, tapping the three palm leaves of a Praetor First on one of his shoulders, "and I flattered myself that your husband would remember me. But I suppose to yourself, I'm just another helpless slave to your beauty." He turned to Mara. "And do you remember me, lady?"

"Remember you, sir? I've never set eyes on you before; I was unconscious when you saved my life. But I recognize you; my ring records everything, and showed me what you did. Thank you," she said.

"I won't say it was my pleasure. But it was definitely my privilege, to give my life, as I thought I was doing, in so worthy a cause."

"If you're done flirting with the ladies, proconsul," said the Speaker drily, "perhaps you could tell us what happened to you, and what you had in mind for the future."

"Thank you for the promotion, sir!" said Kranao Mota. Then he went on to tell them how he survived going through the Ťirai singularity, met the Never-Dying, and agreed to be its host in the Second Galaxy.

"So there are two of you, now?" the Speaker asked.

"Physically, sir, there's just me. Mentally, there's me and my passenger, or partner. He's been around for billions of years, and has lived millions of lives. The great thing is, he remembers all those lives, and he's willing to share with us all the experience and all the knowledge of all the races he's known. I figured it was my simple duty to join with him, and bring all that information home."/p>

"A lot of it, of course, we already have. With all the history of the First Universe, we have a richness of knowlege and experience new to the Bennu. Every race he's encountered was alone. Sometimes the race he lived with found ruins of other intelligent species, millions or billions of years before their time. But never, in all those years, has he lived in a culture with more than one species at a time. That's why he's so excited to come here. When the Mižinē seeded the Second Galaxy with life, they created, as far as he knows, a unique situation."

"Sounds like he'll be learning more from us, than we from him," said the Speaker.

"Don't you believe it, sir!" said Mota earnestly. "Granted, every single one of the species he's known was an orphan species, that arose on its own with no neighbors and no precursors, that had to invent their entire culture from scratch, on their own. But every one of those was unique and original! Every one of them discovered the same sciences, because physics and astronomy and chemistry are the same all over the universe. But their math, their music, their literature, their games, to mention only a few fields, are completely new. And even in the sciences, some of them discovered things that neither we, nor our ancestors, nor any of the other races of the Second Galaxy have ever stumbled upon!"

"I came home in the ship the Bennu's last partner's people used. They—"

"That's twice you've called him the Bennu," Mara said. "Excuse me, what does that mean?"

Mota laughed. "The Undying's last race had a legend, of a birdlike creature like themselves. According to this legend, whenever it grew old, it flew off into some mountains, built a nest, and set it on fire. In the flames, it burned up and was reborn, young again. So in that culture, the Undying and its partner were called the Bennu."

"Interesting," said the Speaker. "I've never heard of a legend like that. You, love?"

"Me neither," said Kristu.

"There are billions of things like that!" Mota said. "The form I showed you earlier was that of the Undying's last partner; I changed my body into that form by going through a tele. That wouldn't've worked, normally, because I wouldn't've known all the things I'd have to know and change. As it was, the Undying knows the entire physiology of that species, and knows how they teleported, with a mechanical system. I duplicated the physiological changes such a machine would have made. Verē technology, alien knowledge. The ship I came home in uses a data base of natural and artificial singularities to travel unharmed over great distances in their local galaxies. We don't know where in the universe those galaxies are. But once we learn how the ship works, we can map singularities in the Second Galaxy, and in other galaxies, and we can go there!"

"So how did you get home?" said the Speaker.

"Purely by accident," Mota answered. "Anything else was extremely unlikely. The odds were that we'd never find a way here, that we'd spend four hundred years, or so, going from one star to another, looking at one world after another that hadn't anything on it but microscopic life—! We could live on sunlight, and make air and water, but it was a pretty dismal prospect, I tell you."

"Did you see very many worlds?" Mara asked.

"We hadn't even started yet," Mota said. "We were trying to figure out a way to search that wasn't purely random. I'd misplaced my pen, so I reached into a tele to get another, and went on scribbling. After a moment, the Bennu started screaming at me, demanding to know where the pen had come from. Pure habit; I would never have thought I could've pulled something out of a tele all the way across the universe like that!"

"But I guess mind-space has nothing to do with space and time. Wherever there's a Verē brain, there's Verē mind space! Thank the Powergiver that I'm not one of those poor folks with such weak tøskê that they can't generate a tele!"

"After that, the question wasn't how did I get home, but what should we do with this opportunity? We took the body of the Bennu's last partner, and 'buried' him in the wreck of my cruiser. Then, although we had no idea where we were, or where the Second Galaxy was from there, all I had to do was create a tele in that lost place, and let the Bennu use my hands on the controls to send the ship through."

He looked at the Speaker. "You know what happened after that. I came out of the tele at the Kaitempē base at Galactic North of the Vol System, but I made the tele look like the teleportation system the Bennu knows, just as I did when I came down to Imperial Guard Plaza later on. At the Galactic North base, I claimed to be an envoy from an alien civilization from outside the Galaxy, and eventually you and I were talking. What finally convinced you to meet me? Did the Time Traveler know I'd be coming, and vouch for me?"

"The Time Traveler is dead," Ihed́ao Kristu said.

"What?" said Kranao Mota. "How can that be? What happened?"

"There's a serial killer on the loose," Mara said. "So far he's murdered a woman from House Ekirvai, my friend Kara; a famous musician from a lesser House; and the Time Traveler, a member of the Imperial Guard."

"But the Time Traveler was from the future," Kranao Mota protested to the Speaker, "and he was here to keep something from happening between now and his own time. At least, that's what he always claimed, and you, and Perial, believed him. What happens now?"

"We don't know," the Speaker said. "We have to figure that out. And we need to stop this serial killer. Meanwhile, what should we do with you? Shall we put you in the Guard?"

"Let me be a free agent," Mota said. "Keep the secret of my true identity, and accredit me as an envoy to the Verē from the Bennu's people; we'll call them the Beńē. That'll give me some standing, and a reason to be here in the city. Let me have a Verē communicator so we can talk, and a Guard badge, or something like it, to explain how I can function under Eoverai's gravity. I can spend part of my time 'learning about Verē culture' and 'sharing information', and part of the time nosing around, looking for that serial killer, for instance."

"When will you sleep?" said Kristu.

Mota smiled. "I can sleep while Bennu is awake, and he can sleep while I'm awake. There's no reason why we should ever both be asleep at the same time; and a good part of the day when we're both awake, like now."

"I approve your plan," the Speaker said. "What we've spoken here today will remain secret. Kristu?"

"As you say, love."


"Yes, my lord Speaker." She hesitated. "What do I tell Perial, and the rest of the Guard?"

"Tell no one anything," the Speaker said. "I'll tell Perial what he needs to know, and no one else needs to know anything. Do you understand?"

"Yes, my lord. As you say."

"Very good. Mota, here's a communicator. Make sure you never use it as the Beńē envoy, since he's not Verē and can't use Verē technology."

"I understand. What's this green light?"

The Speaker smiled. So did his wife. "It's a new feature," Kristu said.

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

Revolutionary thinking:

"So to summarize," Ihed́ao Juhao Jatai said, "your new communicators keep the data stored on them safe from remote deletion, alteration, or copying. They also protect their immediate environment from being viewed or recorded from afar. When you talk to someone who also has such a communicator, the green light shows that both ends of the conversation, or data exchange, are secure. If the other communcator is not secure, the light will be red."

"Yes, sir, that's correct," Borai Lapo said.

"And I suppose you want only members of Liberal houses to have these new communicators?"

"No, sir, not at all. I want every Verē to have one of these devices, and as quickly as possible."

Jatai leaned back. "I'm puzzled, then. I thought you would want Liberal Houses to be proof against remote spying and data piracy, while denying that to the Orthodox."

"You're not wrong, sir. Perhaps I should explain two things. First, as far as I know, no one at present can do the remote spying and data manipulation I've shown you, except for me. And without the general theory of psionics which I'm developing, it's unlikely that anyone can learn how to do them, with the trial-and-error, patchwork science of psionics that we have at present."

"Ordinarily, I'd evaluate a statement like that as youthful boasting, or male arrogance," Jatai said. "But I've been very impressed with what you've shown me so far, and not inclined to doubt you. I believe you're on the way to completely revolutionize the science of psionics."

"Thank you, sir," Lapo said. "Honestly, I think I am, too. I hope you'll continue to review my work, and let me know whenever I go astray."

"Indeed I will. And the other thing?"

"The other thing that I wanted to explain, sir, is that while these communicators secure their data, and the space and time around them, from any remote viewing or manipulation that can be done with the old communicators, or with these, they are not secure against me. I've already thought of a way around their safeguards, and left that way open on this model."

"That's unsettling!"

"Isn't it?" Lapo grinned. "Yet, only a month ago, no one had any idea the original problem existed, not even me."

"But we have a much more serious problem than unsecure communications, and we can't ignore it any longer. We have an enemy in our midst. Either we make them conform to the norms of our society, or they will make our society conform to theirs."

"Perhaps you'd better explain that, young man," Jatai said.

“We were slaves for a hundred years,” Borai Lapo said, slowly. “The Old Kind said we weren’t human, so it was right to enslave us, to work us like animals, to buy us and sell us and separate husband from wife, mother from child, brother from sister. Once they decided we weren’t human, anything they felt like doing to us was right, aru, because we had no eruhath, no rights.”

"We couldn't trust the governments of the Krahos kingdoms," he continued, "because the governments protected the institution of slavery, and the property rights of slavers. We couldn't appeal to the laws, because Krahos law said slavery was lawful, and we weren't even human beings. We couldn't even live in families, because our families were broken up and sold separately. It was illegal to treat us as human beings, illegal to teach us to read or write; running away was punishable by death."

"I know all this," Jatai said, not impatiently; by now he recognized when Lapo was leading to a point.

"Yes, sir, you do. So we organized ourselves by Households we created ourselves, regardless of birth. We made no government, because we didn't trust government; we made no laws, because the laws we knew said we were illegal from birth to death. And we kept secrets from the enemy: our own language, our own writing, the fact of our longevity, the fact that we didn't need food to live. Every House was sovereign and independent. We were all slaves together, and we all pulled together."

"But we aren't slaves any more, and some of us have their own purposes and their own goals. If they achieve them, they will make the rest of us slaves once again. We'll have to believe what they insist we believe, we'll have to treat the rest of the Galaxy as they insist, and death will be the price of disobedience."

"Perhaps you exaggerate," Jatai suggested.

"Perhaps I don't, either!" Lapo responded. "Ask the members of House Rainbow if I exaggerate—if you can find any to ask! Ask yourself if House Juhai would have any survivors, if the Speaker hadn't taken the unprecedented step of making Juhai part of Ihed́ai! Ask the survivors of House Ihed́ai itself, if you can find any beside the Speaker and his wife! Ask the Tlâń dead, from four Tlâń Wars, or all the dead, Verē and alien alike, from all the Imperial Wars!"

"So you would keep everything secret that you can, against other Verē, because you regard them as enemies," Jatai said.

"Their actions proclaim their enmity," Lapo said. "We have to make them stop, or no Verē will be safe, and we'll never have peace in the Second Galaxy."

"But how will we stop them, when we have no government and no law, in fact no means of coercion of any kind? And by what right would we move against them, and constrain their actions? Is Imorai less sovereign than Ihed́ai? Can the Speaker call out his Kaitempē against the Orthodox houses? Can the vote of the Great Houses be made binding, and how? What about the lesser houses? How shall we establish a government, without all the Verē rising in fury, saying we intend to make them slaves again?"

"I don't have any easy answers," Lapo said, "but lately I've been thinking of the Alteřan Empire."

"I'm afraid I don't know much about it," Jatai said. "I've always been focused on psionics."

"I've always wanted to know everything about everything," Lapo said, "and I see connections between everything. One girlfriend said, 'The little wheels in your head, they just never stop spinning, do they?' This was right before she broke up with me, saying it made her tired to keep up with me."

"Anyway, originally the city of Teřa was ruled by foreigners, Irescu kings. After the Teřans overthrew the kings and ran the Irescu out of the city, they set up a 'republic', run by the votes of their 'citizens'."

"That sounds familiar, though I'm not an expert on history."

"The thing is," Lapo said, "their word 'republic' just meant public affairs, not a particular form of government. To be a 'citizen', you had to be male; you had to be free, not a slave; you had to be born in the city yourself; you had to be 35 years or older, when the life expectancy was only twice that. Every two years they elected a pair of rulers; one ruled the first year, with the other as his deputy, and the second year they switched places. Only citizens could vote for them; and only descendants of past rulers could run for office."

"Sounds like an ugly little closed system," Jatai said.

"Yes. The ruling class called themselves, without irony, 'the best people'. They were nothing more or less than a criminal mob that ran the city. Every year they'd get together, decide what matters needed to be taken care of that year, and appoint some of their own people to deal with those things. The authority to manage that part of the city's business they called 'the right to rule', which later became their word for 'empire'."

"Not very pleasant to read about," commented Jatai.

"Try living under it! The 'best people' called themselves free, because they didn't have to put up with an Irescu king, or obey Irescu laws. But the whole history of the 'republic', from the time they expelled their king, through the time they expanded their 'republic' over all of Alteřa, was a struggle between everyone else trying to expand citizenship, and the right to vote; and the 'best people' trying to keep all the power in their own hands. They murdered slaves who revolted, or even ran away; they had mock trials and murdered generals who were too successful; they poisoned people who denied their gods, or thought and spoke too freely; and any time someone was too good at seeking to expand the electorate, they accused him of trying to set up a monarchy, which was a death sentence, proven or not."

"So what's your point, Lapo?"

"The Alteřans drove the Irescu kings out of their cities, and made the Irescu landless non-citizens where they used to rule. But they had no plans for after they succeeded. The criminal mob who'd collaborated with the Irescu, the people with money and power, ruled the city, and later the island, until one of their generals refused to be put to death, and seized supreme power. He established a written system of laws, which applied to everyone, and extended the Empire to Loraon and Syorkai."

"I'm no historian," Jatai said, "but every government fails, sooner or later, and every system of laws gets perverted."

"Yes," Lapo agreed. "Morality is older than religion, but once religion becomes mandatory, it steals the authority of morality. Anything the religion says is right is moral, whether it is or not. When the only arbiter of right and wrong is the law, and the government can make any law it wishes, you have much the same problem. We need moral principles independent of religion or government, and safe from being twisted."

"Like science?"

"Yes! A science of morality, testable and falsifiable. Moral hypotheses that can be upgraded to moral theories if the facts support them, and some kind of agency, like government, that enforces them. A general theory of morality, if you will, which can serve as a foundation for an adult human civilization."

"What might such a science look like? What would its methods be?"

“I can scarcely imagine it,” Lapo admitted. “No other human civilization has ever gone that way. It would need to be as solid, as incontrovertible as astronomy or physics. Something that can at least observe the workings of right and wrong and describe them, as astronomers describe stars and galaxies. At a minimum we need a kind of geometry of morality, that can start with axioms like At bare minimum, do no harm, and Treat others as you wish to be treated yourself, and proceed by some kind of deduction or induction to theorems like Murder is wrong and People are allowed to disagree with you.”

"And meanwhile," Jatai said, "the bad guys do bad, the good guys fight back, and people die."

Ikotkai Place,
Numestē Husao,
Year 10,040 (First History)

Man at work:

The prowler in Ikotkai Saru's private quarters was not a member of House Ikotkai, nor was he wearing the garb of an Ikotkē male, a puno (infra-red) shirt and pants, with golden collar, cuffs, belt, and boots. Instead he was wearing an outfit based on that of a court jester of one of the old Krahos kingdoms. His shirt was divided into blue and yellow vertical stripes an inch wide, with a floppy, pointed collar that was blue on the left side of the shirt, and yellow on the right. The cuffs on his sleeves weren't the square cuffs of Traditional men's dress, but flared outwards from the wrists, half covering his hands. His left sleeve was yellow, and had a blue cuff; his right sleeve was blue, and had a yellow cuff. His wide belt was bright red, holding up baggy blue pants with a pair of yellow stripes running down the outside of each leg.

His boots (blue on the left foot, and yellow on the right) were barely an inch above his instep, with pointed tops that flopped down on each side. The fronts of his boots were long and pointed, curled back and fastened with a chain from each tip to the ankle. Little bells tinkled softly on the tips of the shoes, the collar, and the cuffs, defying anyone to notice him and stop him. He wandered about the lord's living space, picking over items like a black statue of an eagle, a gold pendant with an eagle in puno, a dagger with a hilt of eagle claws, occasionally popping one into the red bag he carried, which said LOOT!!! on it in bold white letters.

The man with the bag of loot called himself J̌uha. He was Houseless, a member of no Household, Great or lesser. Without his flamboyant costume, no one would've looked at him twice. His body was thin and wiry, rather than muscular, his eyes a faded blue, his hair somewhere between yellow and brown in color, neither short nor long, lustreless and lanky. In addition, in costume he had the disfigurement of a humped back; today, it was on his left side.

Nondescript as he was, it would've been easy enough for J̌uha to don Ikotkao clothing and walk in the front door. That wasn't his style. Instead, he had walked up the air outside Ikotkai Place, as if he were climbing a long, invisible stair, and ducked behind a nearby cloud. When the cloud blew on, he ran hastily from it to another. Cloud by cloud, sometimes running helter-skelter, sometimes sneaking on tippy-toes, he had approached the top of the Place, where the lord's quarters were. Standing on thin air outside, in plain sight if anyone looked up, he'd touched the window with a little thumb-sized device that was (of course) blue on one side, yellow on the other. The window had beeped and vanished, and he'd walked right in.

Now, just as he was lifting the sack of loot onto one shoulder, the door dissolved, and in ran Ikotkai Saru. The lord was neuter, but despite being sexless, y was an engine fueled by rage. Y wore neuter robes of gold, with a puno eagle on the breast; but y also wore a sword. "What are you doing in my House?" y roared, and drew ys sword. J̌uha dropped the sack, and when Lord Ikotkai swung at him, he leapt over the swing, stayed up in the air, and kicked ym in the face. His costume had a flying harness built into it; the "hump" was its lifting dome.

"Êfrekai!"—"Shit!"— said the Household head, holding ys nose and sitting down abruptly. To ym, it looked as if the Trickster had leapt onto an invisible platform, and stood on it with one foot while he'd kicked ym squarely in the nose with the other.

Then the thief leapt down again, grabbed the sack of loot, and ran for the window by which he'd entered. But each step was higher in the air, as if he were running up an invisible ramp. So strongly did he project the illusion, with his body language, that Lord Ikotkai actually ran around the invisible ramp, to get to the foot of it and chase him up it. Y fell on ys face, trying to set foot on a ramp that wasn't there, and shouted "Shit!" again. While y climbed back to ys feet, cursing, J̌uha ran right out the window and into some clouds, moving his legs as if he were running on air. He was long gone before any of House Ikotkai could put on flight harnesses and chase after him.

Later, in a cave on Moon-Tree Mountain, he took great pleasure in dumping all of his loot into a bottomless pit, piece by piece, never to be recovered. The Trickster wasn't driven by revenge; he acted on principle. He disapproved of the way the worst of the Orthodox Houses treated others, and deemed it worth the risk of a violent death at Imorai, Ekirvai, or Ikotkai hands to administer a black eye or a well-deserved kick in the face. If sometimes it was a literal kick in the face, so much the better. He smiled, and tossed the bag in after the goodies it had contained.

Continued next issue!

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