Cover: Tuma in costume

A New Viewpoint

by Leo David Orionis

To everyone who helped me root out the crap I was taught as a child,
and become a rational human being.

Previously in Eoverai:

Five years later, Power Ring and Turtle Woman get to brief a new member of the Guard, so I'm going to let them sum up the previous issues.

Imperial Guard headquarters,
pen Galestô Karθao,
Year 10,045 (First History)

Graceful Dancer:

It was a little past noon. On the planet Eoverai, that meant the star Vol was just past its zenith, just beginning to descend into the west. Grace shifted her weight and tried not to be impatient. Perial had said someone would come along and talk with her, but so far, she hadn’t seen anyone.

Wait, voices outside the door, which she’d set to its open state.

“Mara, you packed and ready to go yet?”

“Yes, but Perial asked me to welcome a new member first.”

The first voice laughed. “That must’ve been right after I told him I didn’t have the time to do it today! So where's this newbie?”

“In here,” Grace called, feeling very brave.

Oh, wow, two of her personal heroes entered, first Power Ring, then Turtle Woman. She felt excited, and turned a bright red all over. That seemed to startle them, but then they smiled.

“Oh, pretty!” Power Ring said. "What's your name, sweetie?”

“Very pretty,” Turtle Woman agreed. "Is that your real form?”

“Yes, this is my true shape. My name is,” and she whistled a short burst of sound, using all five sets of her vocal cords. “It means ‘Graceful Dancer’ in T́uliǹgrai.”

“Very pleased to meet you, Grace,” Mara said. “I see that Perial already gave you your member ID, which protects you from Eoverai’s heavy gravity, and translates what you say. Did he also talk about your Guard name?”

“He suggested Tańa,” Grace said.

Turtle Woman closed her eyes, as if in pain. “Of course he did,” she said. She looked at the six-foot long snail, with the vestigial shell on her back, just below the raised “head”. “I swear the man has no imagination!”

Mara said to Grace, who had turned bright yellow in confusion, “It’s a good name, but how about a Guard name that doesn’t mean ‘snail’?”

"I thought the Verē liked slugs and snails, and kept them in terraria as pets," Grace said.

"They do", Power Ring said.

"We do," Turtle Woman said, "and if you're going to stay in that shape, using your Guard ID to fly as well as speak T́uliǹgrai. then your Guard name might as well be Tańa, because that's what everyone, outside of the Guard anyway, will probably call you."

"On the other hand," Mara said, "your power is changing your shape, isn't it? It would be much easier for you, if you assumed a humanoid shape most of the time. Then you could walk on the ground on humanoid legs, interact with people with a human face, and pass through doors built for the Verē. Do you see what I'm saying?"

"You mean I'd fit in better," Grace said.

"Exactly. I don't mean you have to pretend you're anything that you aren't, or that you have to hide the planet you're from, or what your people look like. But Eoverai is the world of the Verē and the Tlâń, and both species have two legs, two arms, a torso, and a head with a face on the front. If you made your "usual" shape something like that, they'd relate to you better."

"That doesn't mean you have to look exactly like a Verē," Wima said. "You could make your skin green, or that bright red you were displaying when we entered, or the pale blue you're showing right now."

"Oh, those are expressions," Grace said thoughtfully, as she considered what Power Ring and Turtle Woman were saying.

"Actually," Turtle Woman said, "there used to be another shape-changer in the Guard. He was on a mission, spying on one of the Orthodox Houses, and they found him out and killed him. He wasn't one of your people, Grace; he came from a planet where all the people could change their shape, a very strange place."

"I never heard about that!" Mara said.

"It was a few years before you joined," Wima said. "This was the humanoid form he wore, when he wasn't assuming some other shape." She used her Guard badge to draw an image from the Guard archives, and display it life-sized in three dimensions. It was as if the deceased Guard was suddenly standing among them, unmoving.

"I like the skin color," Grace said. "That shade of orange is an expression of open friendliness among my own people. No hair on his head, even in humanoid form? What are those fleshy antennae at his temples?"

"He said they were organs that let him sense the makeup of a thing, inside and out, so he could change to be like it."

"Outside of the skull, vulnerable to damage?" Grace said. "That seems very risky to me. Well, let me change to a humanoid form. Feel free to look away, if it makes you uncomfortable."

With that, she began to change. Her flesh flowed, from a tapering brown shape along the floor, with the front part raised into the air, to a conical shape with a wide base. The cone elongated upwards, and the bottom split into two parts, which gradually became legs, with feet at the ends. Flesh sprouted near the top, becoming arms, with hands at the ends. The hands divided into four, becoming a thumb and three fingers. The very top of the pillar contracted, becoming a neck with a head on top. The eyes receded on their stalks, until they no longer stood out from the head, but were seated in the face. Two tendrils erupted from the temples, and yellow hair emerged from the skin of the head. Bones formed, and muscles, giving the body a kind of definition familiar to Mara's and Wima's eyes. In perhaps ten minutes, as Grace worked her way through the changes she wanted to make, the brown snail turned into a naked girl, six feet tall instead of Wima's eight, with four digits on each hand and foot, and the light orange color of the former shape-changing Guard, and even his tendrils showing a couple of inches above her hair.

"She's got your eyes," Turtle Woman said.

"She's got your figure," Power Ring said, closing her blue eyes. "Oof! I wish I could make my breasts bigger, my waist narrower, and my hips wider, just by wishing it!"

"Oh, stop! You're gorgeous, and you know it! Haven't you seen the way all the men's eyes follow you? Now we need to make a costume for this little lady," Turtle Woman said.

"A costume? You mean, dead cloth around me? But what would I do with it, when I changed?" Grace said.

"Well, you can't walk around like that," Turtle Woman said. "Better you kept your real shape, than be humanoid and naked. Believe me, it would really defeat the purpose of fitting in."

Grace didn't reply in words. She studied the late Guard member's costume, and suddenly was wearing a costume similar to his, black and blue-grey, with a scaly texture.

"Beautiful!" Mara said. "But why don't you make your hair white, or silver, or black? That way, it'll complement your skin, no matter what color you express."

"Good point," Grace said. In an instant her skin was a bright blue, and her hair was silver. "How's this?"

"Breathtaking," Turtle Woman answered. "As for a Guard name, the man you're modeling yourself after called himself Tuma, which means 'Change'."

"And since T́uliǹgrai names don't have gender, I can use it too!"

"Passed by acclaim!" Power Ring said.

Fixing the membership list:

"So after I'd proved that I could really, truly use my ring, and that Ašagar, my ring, was as effective for me as he was for a Tlâń, Lord Ekirvai, the Speaker, and the Speaker's wife, got together to decide what to do with me," Power Ring was saying. Mara, Grace thought. She said to call her Mara. She was in a daze of hero worship. She looked at Turtle Woman. And her name's Wima, and she said I could call her by name, too! Wima, who'd been looking a little bored at hearing Mara recount her beginnings, saw Grace turn her head to look at her, and smiled warmly. Grace turned a beautiful rosy pink, and ducked her head.

"So they put you in the Imperial Guard? Or did they try other ideas first?"

"They talked about other possibilities," Mara said, "but they assigned me to the Guard right away. It was almost exactly five years ago that I came here the first time, and met Perial, and got my Guard ID." She fingered the small silver globe on the chain about her neck. "Almost the first thing he did with it was introduce me to all the others, who welcomed me through their own badges. Brought up in isolation, I had no idea who any of them were."

"It was the same for me," Grace said. "You two, and Perial, were the only Guards I knew of. You weren't there, and I was disappointed. But I figured you were on a mission somewhere, and too busy to reply to the call."

"I didn't get the call!" Mara said. "Wima, what about you?"

"No, me neither," Turtle Woman said. She put a hand over her badge, which was embedded in the front of her costume's shirt. Her breasts, larger than the ID, bulged through the shirt above and on either side of the silvery globe, and the rows of scales, each green with a yellow edge, overwhelmed its plain silver. A display formed in the air in front of her, and she frowned at it. Then her brow cleared, and the same display appeared in front of Mara and Grace, projected by their own badges.

"It's because we're not listed as active members any more. Ehiu, couldn't Perial have waited until tomorrow, at least, before writing us off?"

As she said, they were now listed at the end of the member list, under a new hading, Emergency Reserve (Defenders), under their Guard names or official designations: Negative Man, Turtle Woman, and Power Ring.

"Defenders? Emergency Reserve? What does this mean?" Grace asked.

"Just a minute…" Mara said. The display flicked to the list of active members. "There you are, Grace. Perial may be short of imagination, but no one can doubt his efficiency. He's already added you to the roster."

And there she was. Under the code name Tańa, which Perial had suggested, was Ēblesai Sulol jao Sulai, which means "Graceful Dancer or Grace" in T́uliǹgrai, and a link that would play a recording of her saying her name in the whistles and subsonic grunts of her race's language. There was a picture of her as well, in her brown snail form. Her home planet was listed as Eotańai. "Snail World" in T́uliǹgrai, with a recording of its name in the language of Grace's people, and its galactic coordinates. The date she joined the Guard was listed, today, pen Galestô Karθao of the year 10,045. Her power was listed, shape-changing. There was a little paragraph saying that only Grace had this power, and she'd been hatched with it. It also noted that she'd come to Eoverai on her own to join the Guard; she hadn't been sent by the government of her world, or any other agency.

"Not bad," Wima said. "You should see all the extra verbiage that came with my original listing in the roster! I guess Perial's learned not to put someone's whole life story in the personnel list. Shall I change your Guard name from Tańa to Tuma?"

"Yes, please. But don't we need Perial's permission to change the roster?"

"This is Eoverai," Turtle Woman said. "Your name is what you say it is. There, done."

"Also, Wima's been a member of the Guard for a long time, almost ten years," Mara said. "Perial trusts her to help new members pick a Guard name, and a costume, and update the roster to match."

"Shall we replace that picture, too?" Wima asked.

"Yes, but instead of replacing it, can we have two pictures, one of me in this shape, and one in my real body?"

"Whatever you want. We could have as many pictures as you wish, there's no limit. Face me and smile, sweetie. OK, but a little stiff. Move around a bit, and we'll add the best picture. There, that should do it."

In the end they added four pictures of Tuma in her humanoid form, and replaced the picture that Perial had taken with a few pictures of Tuma in her native form, in different positions.

The boys get impatient:

Grace was admiring her pictures in the roster, and looking through it to see the pictures of the other Guard members. She came to the end of the list, where Negative Man, Turtle Woman, and Power Ring were listed as "Emergency Reserve".

"You still haven't told me what 'Defenders' means, or 'Emergency Reserve'," she said, not looking directly at either Mara or Wima.

"It's a long story," Mara said. "You see, about the same time I was growing up, given my ring, and going through my test against the Kaitempē, others were growing up, too, and living their own lives. And for some of them, that meant becoming 'super-heroes' of various kinds. So now there's another group, called the Defenders, and Wima and I have joined it."

Grace managed, with great effort, not to turn the forlorn dark grey she felt; but, being new to the body she'd cobbled together from the other two, she couldn't keep her human face from falling in disappointment. "R-really?" She heard the quaver in her voice, and frowned. Clearing her throat, she spoke more firmly. "Really? What does 'Defenders' mean? Whom or what will you be defending?" she asked; but a tear leaked out of one eye, and began to trickle down her cheek.

"Oh, sweetie, don't cry," Mara said. She pulled the girl to her in a hug. "The Guard can still call us if they need us, that's what 'Emergency Reserve' means. And we're not going far, just to Teřańa the city, a little south of Lake Tapa. You can come visit us any time, and we'll be back here sometimes, too."

Before Wima could join the other two in a hug, her Guard ID beeped to indicate that someone was calling. "Ruhyr?" she said, accepting the call, and a screen formed in the air according to her preferences—two hands wide and one high. or about 10 inches square, slanting outward from in front of her chin to in front of her nose, where she could see it readily without her view of her surroundings being blocked. The screen cleared, and Borai Lapo's shoulders and head appeared in three dimensions. "Hello, Turtle Woman," he said. "Will you be here soon? Everyone's here except you and Mara."

"How come I'm 'Turtle Woman' and she's 'Mara', hunk?" Wima said, going on the offensive.

"Oh, sorry, I—"

"Never mind," Wima said, cutting him off in mid-stammer. "Mara's right here," she said, and switched the call from her Guard badge to Mara's, using an override that Mara had given her, years before.

From Lapo's point of view, Wima disappeared from his screen, which suddenly showed Mara hugging a grey-skinned girl with silver hair, in a grey and black and white costume, who was sniffing on Mara's chest. Mara jumped slightly as, from her view, a screen with him in it appeared in the air in front of her; and the girl, also startled, pulled away from her and turned to see what Mara was looking at.

She has Mara's eyes, Lapo thought, as two pairs of blue Krahos eyes regarded him—white eyeballs, and blue irises around a black center. And… tendrils rising from her temples?

"Ruhyr, Lapy?" Mara said. "Well, Lapo?"

"Ah… sorry to interrupt," Lapo said. "I was wondering when you, and Wima, were coming? Everyone else is here already."

"Not today, I'm afraid," Mara said. "Perial asked us to give an orientation to a new Guard member, who just joined today. This is Tuma," she said, turning the girl to face the screen directly. "Tuma, this is Borai Lapo, the leader of the Defenders."

"Be welcomed, Tuma," Lapo said. "I'm pleased to meet you. Why don't you come visit us some time? Any member of the Guard is a friend of the Defenders."

"Thank you, sir," Grace said. "You're the first male Verē I've seen." She looked at him with frank interest, turning a medium orange without realizing it.

"I'm honored," Lapo said, thinking, Walk the streets of the city looking like that, especially if you can turn Verē brown, and lots of young men will be giving you flowers. He wasn't sure whether he should say it, so he didn't. "I really need to speak with Mara and Wima," he said instead, as gently as he could.

"Of course, sir," Grace said. She sat back upright on her heels on the cushioned floor, no longer leaning forward to peer at the image. "Should I move away?" she asked Mara.

"Têhyr", Power Ring said—Not at all. She put her left arm around Tuma's shoulders to keep her there, and adjusted the screen with a flicker of thought, so that it was as wide as the two of them, and all three pairs of eyes were on a level; their blue Krahos eyes, and his blank, bright green Verē eyes.

"I'm sorry, Lapo," Mara said. "I know I said I'd be there today. But Perial asked me to do this one last thing before I left, and I owe him so much. Also, I remember what it was like to join the Guard, not knowing anyone."

"And you were worse off than Tuma," Lapo said. "She doesn't know Eoverai, and Verē culture, but you were raised with a head full of lies about everything."

"So you do understand."

"I try to," he said. "I suppose we could have our first official meeting tomorrow morning."

The screen split suddenly, with Lapo in the left half, and Wima in the right. "Wouldn't that be better, anyway?" she said. "Tomorrow's Galestē Karθao! Wouldn't the morning of the first day of a new month be more fitting for the official beginning of the Defenders?"

Lapo's half of the screen adjusted to show him from the waist up. It was apparent he was standing, with one hand resting lightly on a pressor-field table next to him; but the adjustment kept his eyes level with theirs, without shrinking what was shown. He frowned slightly. "I suppose it would, at that," he said. "Thanks, Wima. I don't think of social things like that. Until tomorrow morning, then, ladies?"

"Bright and early!" Wima sang.

"May we bring guests?" Mara asked.

"I hadn't planned on being public so soon," Lapo said. "But it's your house, too. Bring whomever you wish. If we need to discuss anything in private, we'll just hold a members-only session."

"Thank you, sir," Grace said, turning bright red.

Lapo seemed startled at her speaking to him, but then he smiled. "Têhyr," he said, as Power Ring had said, bowed to the three of them, and vanished, the screen blinking out.

Secret Origins:

"A lot of things were going on, about that time," Mara told Tuma a little while later. "After Kara was found dead, I went back to my House for comfort. I didn't find it there. Most of the members of the House either didn't know her. The ones who did, like the scientists who'd created me, regarded her as a useful nuisance. It'd been handy to have her around to clean up after me when I was sick, and take care of me as a child, but when she'd stood up for me and interfered with their procedures, she'd been a bother to them. They really didn't consider her as a full member of House Ekirvai, and really didn't mind that she was dead."

"I suppose, from their point of view…" Tuma started to say.

"But no," Wima said. "In a real House, like Ihed́ai, everyone matters. The head of the House has the final say, but if anyone doesn't like what y does, or how y behaves, they can leave, and join another House, or start one of their own. The worst of the Orthodox Houses, like Ekirvai, talk and act like they're special, but they treat most of their members like dirt. The only advantage of being a member is that they treat members of other Houses even worse, so it's safer to be in Ekirvai than not."

"To put it another way," Mara explained, "a member of a Liberal Great House won't attack or molest a member of an Orthodox Great House, but the reverse happens whenever a member of an Orthodox House thinks he can get away with it."

"But why doesn't the government put an end to this?" Tuma asked.

"We don't have a government," Mara said, "and we don't want one. Over the hundreds of thousands of years that the human race has existed, there've been many governments. Sooner or later, someone finds a way to use the government for his own benefit, and turn everyone else into a slave. We don't believe in governments, we believe in Houses."

"I don't understand," Tuma confessed.

"You'll learn how it all works while you're in the Guard," Wima said. "Don't worry too much about it at first, just learn how the Guard works, and do what Perial says. He's a good leader, and his people have been part of the Verē Empire for as long as there's been an Empire."

"Anyway," Mara said, "I saw that Kara hadn't been important to the House when she was alive, even though she was a member of it; and they didn't care that she was dead. Even Lord Ekirvai didn't care, though y tried to pretend that y did; but that was only because Kara mattered to me. And he only cared about me because I had my ring; without Ašagar, I'd've been just another failed experiment, and put to death long ago."

"How awful for you!"

"It was a terrible shock," Mara confessed, "and I left Ekirvai for good, though I didn't tell them for a while. I stayed here, in my quarters, for a couple of months, wondering who I was. If I wasn't Ekirvao Mara, who was I? Was I anyone at all? But Ašagar went on loving me, and Perial and Wima and the rest of the Guard remained my friends. Gradually I realized I was still Mara, just not Ekirvao Mara. And I was still Power Ring, and a member of the Guard."

"But the world doesn't revolve around me, and while I was grieving for Kara, and for the House I thought I'd been a part of, things went on happening. Borai Lapo was still a student, working on his new unified theory of psionics, and other things I can't talk about because the Speaker told me to keep them secret. Eventually Lapo started the Defenders, whose first official meeting is tomorrow, as you heard. Except for Wima and Mika, who were already in the Guard, all the other Defenders became 'super-heroes' after my test against the Kaitempē. Some of them I learned about right away, because I was a member of the Guard, and some of them I never heard about until Lapo invited Wima, Mika and me to his House to talk about forming the Defenders."

"Mika is Negative Man's real name," Wima told Tuma, seeing her confusion. "Lapo also invited Cruiser, but after attending all the meetings, Cruiser declined to join, the coward."

"Coward? I don't understand," Grace said, for what felt like the thousandth time.

"Cruiser's real name, and everything about him, is private," Mara said. "He's let it be known that he's an officer in the Kaitempē, reporting directly to the Speaker. The suit he wears is his own design for a Kaitempē one-man cruiser, but more flexible, and at least twice as powerful as a standard light cruiser; hence his Guard name. He's also married, with a neuter spouse and a female spouse—" Wima snorted, loudly.

Ignoring her, Mara said to Tuma, "Turtle Woman likes to pretend she's madly in love with Cruiser, even though she's never even seen his face. She also likes to pretend his mates are imaginary, that he made them up so he could pretend not to feel the same attraction for her. It's getting old, Wima," she said to her friend. "Why don't you pick on one of the men in the Defenders? Borai Lapo's very attractive, don't you think?"

Turtle Woman visibly recoiled. "Powergiver, Mara, there's no need to be nasty about it! Do you want to see me dead?"


"Dead!" Wima told Grace. "Sonic has staked out Lapo for hers, and she's a jealous and dangerous woman. Anyone who gets in her way is in mortal peril!"

"I think that's another game of yours," Mara said doubtfully. "I've seen no sign that Lapo feels that way about her."

"Because he doesn't, my clueless friend," Wima said. "He doesn't feel that way, he's infatuated with you! That's why I've joined the Defenders—to watch your back!"

"My hero! What a good friend you are, Wima! Too bad I don't believe a word of it!" Mara said.

"So who's in this new group, the Defenders?" Grace said hastily, before a fight could start. "They sound like interesting people! If Perial says I may, might I come with you tomorrow, and meet them?"

"Of course you may," Mara said.

"In fact…" Turtle Woman said, and looked at her Guard badge. "Ehiu, look how late it's gotten, while we've gossipped away. Perial? Oh, good, you're still up."

"Still up," Perial answered. The 3-D image that appeared in the air before Wima showed the shoulders and head of what resembled a large rabbit, covered with plush black fur, with coiled tendrils that rose above his head, instead of rabbit ears. As Wima had said earlier, he didn't have much imagination about names; his own Guard name was simply Black Rabbit. It didn't matter in his case, because everyone, in the Guard or not, called him by his real name, Perial.

"How did the meeting go?" he asked. "I didn't expect to see you back here today."

"Mara and I got so wrapped up in talking to Grace that we never got over there," Wima said/ "The meeting's been postponed until tomorrow morning; that's one of the things I called to tell you."

"Thank you," he said. "And the other things?"

"We're taking Tuma with us tomorrow morning, so she can meet the Defenders and see the city. We'll bring her back afterwards, but i think all new Guards should meet the Defenders."

"I assume 'Tuma' is the new name you've given our newest member?" Perial asked. "Yes, I see it is," he continued, checking the data base in his Guard ID. "On new members of the Guard meeting the Defenders, I agree. The Speaker agrees, too, and the two groups are going to have a few joint meetings to get acquainted. Go ahead and take Grace with you tomorrow, but look after her. She's completely unfamiliar with Verē society, and needs to be watched over before she can safely venture out on her own."

"I agree. Don't worry, we'll take care of her, and bring her back safe tomorrow."

"Thank you. Tell me all about it afterwards, please. Until then, good night, Wima, Mara, and Grace."

Who's Who in the Defenders:

"That's all arranged, then," Wima said, as she ended the call. "Where were we?"

"If the Guard and the Defenders are going to work together, there should be a roster of them in our badges," Mara said. "Yes, here we are!" She flashed their badges from her own:

Borai Lapo: Psionics
The Whip: Close combat
The Loop: Krahos close-combat skills and Tlâń fighting loops
The Reborn (Mota): Close combat, weapons, host of the Never-Dying
The Spider-Master (Pilvi): Communicates with spiders
Sonic (Susa): Mastery of vode as musical instrument and weapon
Power Ring (Mara): Commands Ašagar, a Tlâń power ring
Turtle Woman (Wima): Very fast, very strong, close combat, weapons, ocean expert
Negative Man (Mika): Living particle-beam weapon

Grace meant to say, "Nine people, that's not a very big group," but what her Guard ID said for her was "Eleven people, that's not a very big group." Her species counted in a numeric base which was twice five, the number of pairs of vocal cords they had, but the Verē had four fingers on each hand, and used numbers based on two times four. So their "ten" was her language's "eight", and her "nine" was eleven, to them: ten plus one.

"Not too many, no, but the group is just getting started," Mara replied, while Grace absorbed a little bit of culture shock, "and some of us are very powerful. Lapo, in particular, might well succeed where I failed, if he were to set himself against all of the Kaitempē; and he's getting more powerful all the time, as he continues to explore his powers, and how to use them. I've been one of the Guard's big guns myself, and Mika could probably blow one of the moons into gravel, if he wanted to."

"I haven't met him yet," Grace said. "What's he like?"

"Oh, you'll like him," Wima said.

"He's a sweetie," Mara agreed. "I've had a little bit of a crush on him since I met him. Unfortunately, the accident that gave him his power also turned him into anti-matter, ahd he lives inside a force-field to keep from blowing up." She sighed, and then told Grace all about Mika, and what he'd been through.

"That's so sad," Grace said. "Who is this person, The Whip? Why isn't a name listed? 'Close combat' means unarmed combat, right?"

"Everyone calls him Žanai, the Whip," Mara said. "He's a genetic chimera, like me, created in a laboratory of an Orthodox House. In his case, his genes are Verē, orkē, and žanē. An orkē is a deadly, ferocious member of the weasel family, found mostly in the jungles of Syorkai, the continent east of this one; while a žanē is a native predator from Kantos, the western continent. Like all native beings, they don't have bone, but something more flexible, organized into tentacles. Žanē stand upright on their leg-tentacles and use their arm-tentacles like whips; and so does the Whip. Only, he's covered with short yellow fur, and has a head like that of an orkē."

Grace looked at the picture of the Whip in the Defenders roster in her Guard ID. "Is he safe to be around?" she said. "I mean… is he dangerous?"

Mara looked at her with disappointment, and Grace cringed inside. "He's a monster created by an evil House, to see what they could learn by creating him, and what use they could make of him," Mara said, "the same as I was."

"I'm sorry," Tuma whispered. "I didn't mean…"

"They didn't even teach him to speak, or give him an education," Mara said. "They kept him in a cage, gave him water in a bowl. threw raw meat to him, and took genetic samples regularly. Eventually he escaped, and killed the head of that Household somehow."

"A lot of holes in that story, but that's all anyone's saying," Wima said. "Later, when Lapo was accused of murder, and went into hiding, he found the Whip; and when he was cleared, he brought his new friend back to live with him, and arranged for him to be educated. The Whip's very smart, and has an insatiable thirst for learning."

"Then there's the Loop, and he's another mystery man," Power Ring said. "He appears to be a Krahos, or some other kind of human being; he's Krahos height, shorter than Verē, and he's a master of a couple of kinds of Krahos unarmed combat. But the weapons he throws are ancient Tlâń weapons, throwing loops. He has a variety of them; some have razor edges, some deliver an electrical charge when they hit, and other tricks. And that's all that's known about him, publicly."

"So who approved him joining the Defenders?"

"It's Borai Lapo's group," Mara told Grace. "Lapo asked him to join, and he accepted."

"You're still thinking like a person from a world with a government," Turtle Woman said. "You're thinking, surely someone has to approve of the Defenders, license them to operate, approve who's in the group, check their background and their criminal record. But this is Eoverai. We have no government. There's no one to approve or disapprove, license or forbit, no background to check and no records, criminal or otherwise. If the Loop offended some House, the head of that House could demand reparation, but y and ys house would have no one to enforce their demands except themselves."

"What about your police, the Kaitempē?"

"If the Speaker decided that the Loop was a threat to all the Verē, he might order the Kaitempē to capture the Loop and bring him to him for judgment; otherwise, if any Kaitempē officer saw the Loop being attacked by a bunch of people. he'd be likely to stop the fight, and make the offending House answer for its actions."

"I don't understand!" Grace wailed.

"You'll learn how it all works. Don't try to figure it all out your first day on Eoverai. Watch, and learn, and always ask Perial or some more senior Guard what's going on, and what you should do," Wima said.

"All right," Grace said dubiously. "So, it looks like the Defenders are three very powerful members, and a whole bunch of people with various weapons and unarmed=combat skills. Is that a fair statement?"

"Fair enough," Mara agreed. "Before you ask what the criteria are for membership, there don't seem to be any. It's almost like a Household; Lapo invites whomever he knows and likes, and if she or he accepts, the Defenders has a new member. There's no elaborate code of rules, or laws, the way the Guard has."

"Most of us are fighters, with a mastery of one or more weapons, or one of more forms of unarmed combat," Wima said. "The Spider Master is an exception; he's a biologist who's learned to communicate with spiders. That's pretty useless in a fight, but spiders are everywhere, and sometimes they'll tell him something useful. But really, I think Pilvi and Lapo are two of a kind, not very sociable scientists who are absorbed in their work. I think Lapo invited Pilvi because he respects his work, and Pilvi accepted because it gives him a place to work without him having to run his own labs, or persuade a scientific community of the value of his work."

"So it's a ragtag band of people that Lapo likes," Grace said. "What's the makeup of the group by species?"

"Very different from the Imperial Guard," Wima said. "In the Guard, almost every member is from a different planet than any other member, with a unique power that everyone else on ys planet has, or with a power that no one else has, like your shape changing. In the Defenders… let's see now…

"I count six Verē," Mara said. "Lapo himself, Mota, Susa, Wima, Mika, and Pilvi. Mota's in symbiosis with the Never-Dying, an immortal mental creature, and Mika was transformed by the accident that gave him his powers, but still, that's most of the membership."

"Which leaves three others," Turtle Woman said. "You, Mara. created from a mixture of Krahos and Tlâń genes; the Whip, made from a mix of Verē, orkē, and žanē genes; and the Loop, who seems to be a Krahos, but uses Tlâń weapons. If Cruiser had joined, that would have been twelve members, seven of them Verē!"

Perchance to dream:

"And then what?" Grace was saying, a little while later. Power Ring and Turtle Woman were telling her about the first time the Loop and the Reborn met. She never wanted the stories to stop!

"The thing is," Mara said, "as long as the two of them were fighting as individuals, the Weather Wizard could send a bolt of lightning, or a gust of wind, or a wave of sleet, at whomever was closer to him. And they ran the risk, that if they both let up the attack at the same time, that he could choose his own target, and maybe kill one of them."

"That's an important lesson to learn," Wima said, "and Perial will begin teaching it to you right away. When you're part of a team, the team must fight together. Taking turns, fighting as individuals, invites your opponent to defeat you one at a time, It wastes the advantage your numbers give you."

"I see," Grace said. "So what did they do?"

"The Never-Dying, the mental creature that Mota hosts, can communicate telepathically," Mara said. "Y put Mota and the Loop in touch with each other, so they could talk without the Wizard hearing. After that, it was pretty easy, really. They both ducked out of sight at the same time, then moved to flank their foe. Mota sprang up with his wings spread, to attract the Wizard's attention; but before he could aim his wand, the Loop, who was off to one side, and seeing through Mota's eyes, jumped up, and threw an electric loop. The massive electrical charge on the loop paralyzed the Wizard, and he passed out. After that, the two of them broke the Wizard's wand, and turned him over to the Kaitempē. It was the first big win for either of them, and they weren't even looking for the Weather Wizard."

"That's right, they were looking for Saru, the serial killer," Wima said.

"Ooh, yes! How did they-ey-USK!" Grace said, yawning so widely it felt like her head had cracked open. She put both of her hands over her mouth, and looked at the other two with wide, frightened eyes.

And they laughed at her!

'Oh ho ho, koisol girl!" Mara chuckled. "That's the biggest-est-USK!" Before Grace's horrified eyes, Mara opened her jaws so wide Grace could see everything inside her mouth, and made the same uncouth noise that Grace had done.

She didn't seem alarmed, or frightened, however. Still chuckling, she said, "Oh, look, now you've got me doing it!"

"It's really late," Wima said. "I guess we'd better get some koisei before dawn." She looked at Grace. "Both of our rooms are packed, sweetie. May we koisi here tonight?"

"Please," Grace whispered. Tears spilled down her face as she reached out one hand to Mara, one to Wima. What's happening? Are we dying? I'm so frightened!"

They gathered her into a hug. "What's the matter, baby?" Mara cooed, as Kara used to say to her, and Wima asked, "What's got you in such a state, sweetie?"

"That thing I did, and that noise I made!" Grace sobbed. "It felt like something forced itself up my throat, opened my mouth, and jumped out! And I'm losing consciousness, as if I were going into estivation, or had a brain injury! Please! What's happening to me?"

"I think you're just koisol," Mara said, "but hold still, and I'll check for injuries. Though what injuries could suddenly afflict you here in Headquarters, with you in plain sight…" Distract her, she signalled to Wima with her eyes.

"What you did is what we call an uskei," Wima told Grace, "after the noise it makes. It's normal to uski when you're koisol, and quite harmless. If you know you're koisol, and expecting to uski, you can usually keep it from happening, but really, darling, it does no harm."

"There's something wrong with my Guard badge, too," Grace said. "It's not translating those words you're using. I'm hearing koisol and uski, instead of the equivalent words in my language."

Wima frowned, then smoothed it out to keep from frightening Grace. "That should only happen if there aren't any equivalents in your language," she said. "Don't your people dream, girl?"

"Dream? Yes, we dream. "What has dreaming to do with this other thing?"

"Maybe nothing, to your people," Mara said. "But you're in a human-like body, modeled after me and Wima… Does this hurt?"

"No, not at all."

"How about this?"

"Actually…" Grace closed her eyes. "That feels nice, when you rub my head that way," she murmured. Then she yawned again, and sat bolt upright in terror.

"It's all right, I think," Mara said, rubbing Grace's shoulders. "I think you're just koisol, which is normal for us. You've never experienced koisê before, because your species doesn't koisi."

"I don't even know what those words mean," Grace said. "I can see that zakoisix is an intransitive verb, koisê is a mass noun, and koisol is an adjective, but they're just noises to me."

"When do your people dream, Grace?" Wima asked.

"Why, when they need to. Every two or three of our days, a person will go to somewhere private, perhaps in else respects her, or his, privacy, and after part of a day, the dreamer will resume normal consciousness. Dreams are private," she said, turning a rosey pink, "and telling your dreams to another is very intimate."

"But except for dreaming, you never lose full awareness of everything around you?"

"If it gets very hot, or very dry, we estivate. But that's an emergency. If it stays too hot, or too dry, and we don't get medical help, we can die! Likewise, certain deadly diseases, or losing too much blood after a serious injury…"

"No wonder you were so scared!" Mara said, hugging Grace from behind. "For you, and your people, unexpected loss of consciousness means you're in danger of dying!"

"For us," Wima said, "it's not the same. We're awake during the day, normally, but when the night comes, we become koisol. We uski, as you and Mara did, and we begin to lose our ability to stay fully conscious. We lie down in a soft place, either alone or with friends. We cover ourselves with something warm, because our body temperatures go up when we lose awareness, and we let go our hold on full awareness. We koisi, normally for about ten hours, and while we koisi, we pass through a regular cycle of states of consciousness. Some of those states are the only times we can dream, for most of us. For most of us, to dream, first we must koisi, or lose awareness of the world around us."

"How horrible!" Grace said, feeling sorry for her new friends. "So you spend a large part of your lives unaware?"

"Unaware, for the most part, but not dead. Sleep is life, just not conscious life. You can learn to remember your time asleep. And remember, for a human, you must sleep to dream."

"So I'll have to choose," Grace said. "If I wear this form most of the time, I will have to sleep every night; or revert to my real shape whenever I'm in private."

"That's your choice," Mara said. "But try it, first, and experience what it's like to sleep. If you do it regularly, you'll at least understand the Verē much better than otherwise."

"True, the Gligo's race neither sleeps nor dreams. There's a lot about human beings he'll never comprehend." Wima left the room to get some blankets.

"Ašagar, a bed for three, please?" Mara said. Grace watched in fascination as yellow light flowed out of Mara's ring and formed a rectangular platform, with rounded corners and edges, big enough for the three of them to stretch out next to each other.

"Will it support me?"

"He, not it," Mara said. "It's either this or the rugs and pillows on the floor. Wima's true Verē, and sleeps in a pressor-field bed like any other Verē, but they don't work for me, and I prefer this to anything else. Touch him, and see how he responds."

"He's warm," Grace said. "And he's… vibrating?"

"I call it 'purring'," Mara answered. "He likes you. Come lie down."

Wima came back with blankets, and spread them over the glowing yellow bed. Then the three of them lay down, with Grace in the middle and Mara and Wima on either side. Wima left the lights on at 10 percent, so Grace wouldn't wake in total darkness and be frightened.

"What do I do now?" Grace said in a small voice.

"Just relax," Mara said. "Let everything go. You're safe, you're warm, you're with friends. Sleep until we wake you."

After a couple of minutes of silence, a small voice said, "I wanted to hear more stories."

"Once upon a time," Mara said, "there was a girl who loved her brother very, very much."

But Grace didn't hear the rest of that story on that night; for she fell asleep, and had strange dreams, some of which she remembered, and some of which she did not.

Just like a human being.

NOT the end!

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