This novel is dedicated to Jack and Alice Newton, living the dream of astronomy buffs everywhere at their Observatory Bed and Breakfast in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada. Sigh. "I myself am deeply envious."


by Leo David Orionis


1.  A Matter of Philosophy
2.  Reporting to the Captain
3.  My New Notoriety
4.  Questions for Navigation
5.  Alerting the Doctor
6.  The Scourging of Ladoga
7.  The Psychestar Blooms

To be continued in:
8.  Mallulla's Story
9.  Threats and Promises
10.  The Second Vision
11.  Death and Life

Some Dates in the First Universe

Chapter 1
A Matter of Philosophy

Last year, as the 200th anniversary of the psychestar approached, I was asked to speak about the event, as one who was present, and took some small part. Many here tonight weren’t born at that time, and I believe there are fewer than a dozen alive today who saw the psychestar bloom.

It was a very different time back then. When my grandfather was born, and grew to a homme, the fall of the Second Galactic Empire was 500 years in the past. He had no expectation that the darkness of the Fall would lift in his children’s lifetime, let alone his own. Our world, Vannim, had lost the means to travel beyond our own star system, and was rarely visited by ships from outside it. One such ship, however, brought the news that a Parliament of Stars had arisen in the Second Galaxy, and was reaching out to us in the Third.

This was extraordinary news. Our quadrant of the galaxy represented the farthest limits of human expansion during the Second Empire, but things had gone downhill since the Fall, and most human systems were on their own, as we were. The nearest things to an organized human state was the Commonwealth of the Near Stars, a loose association of between 50 to 70 human worlds with a common calendar, a general framework of laws, some regulation of trade, and a general disposition to work together for the common good. It didn't have a capital, but Hanush, which had been the Imperial capital in our galaxy before the Fall, hosted many Commonwealth bureaus and functions.

In 4613, by the Imperial calendar we use today, I had sought and received a commission as a Third Officer on Seffor's Bride, a luxury cruise ship that could carry up to 3000 passengers comfortably, and was often 90% booked. This was a marvelous opportunity for a young homme of 30 years, newly arrived in civilization from his native, backwoods world. As a Third Officer, my position was temporary, subject to dismissal at any time, and my duties were whatever my superiors said they were. The height of my ambition was to secure a permanent position on Bride as a Second Officer, or on one of her sister ships.

Bride ran a regular circuit through some of the Near Stars; we flew from Seffor to Rimiani to Achech to Dariano; on to Oholorim, Mirandol, Lallor, and Hanush; thence to Magnian, Tiete, Bololo, and Firimini. Then, one circuit and two Near Stars years later, the crew took a vacation while the ship was cleaned, restocked, and refitted.

On 40 Ansor, 4613 (again, by today's reckoning), we were three days out of Oholorim, on the way to Mirandol, when my comm beeped. The use of the comm meant it was a matter not to be announced over the ship's speakers, and five beeps meant it was urgent.

"Dear ladies, pray excuse me," I said to Madame Farisen and her two daughters. Madame was a femme of 40 years, her daughters 20 and 21, and they had been stalking me since I had joined Seffor's Bride at Dariano. I won't pretend it wasn't pleasant to be pursued, and all three of them were attractive, educated, cultured, and rich, denizens of Hanush, that richest and longest-civilized world of the Near Stars. My own world was 100 light years closer to the center of the galaxy, and had only regained star flight in my father's time; so it was flattering, as well as pleasant, to have the attention of those noble ladies.

"Duty calls," I said, holding up my comm so they could see it was active. All three Farisens pouted, each in her own so-practiced style.

"Will we see you at dinner, Santandar?" asked Alanna, the youngest. Hanush was the next port of call after Lallor, and the ladies would be leaving us there, after making a full circuit on Bride.

"If duty permits," I said. I kissed each femme's hand, bowed to them all, then turned, and walked away.

"Third Officer Ellios," I said to the comm. The incoming-call pattern changed to the face of Second Officer Hatonsa, Mallulla to her friends, a status I'd not yet achieved. Her accent said she was from some world of the First Galactic Empire, which had fallen several thousand years ago, in the First Galaxy; but as ship's crew, and my senior, her records were closed to me, unlike those of the passengers. All I knew was that she was taller than I, stronger than anyone else I'd ever met, and slender as a reed. Her skin was the color of the hardwood trees we used for musical instruments on my world, and her eyes and hair a lustrous black. She was, quite simply, the most beautiful femme I'd ever seen.

"Ellios," she said now, "see the doctor in Lounge 140, starboard side, deck 450. Take charge and calm the passengers."

The 'tween-decks shuttle took me to S450-L140 in only a few minutes, though it was on the other side of the ship, a hundred decks higher, and two hundred decks aft of where I started. I probably wasn't the nearest officer to the problem; but as a Third Officer, I was used to being thrown at whatever little affairs should need attention.

When I opened the door to the lounge, I was met with a most appalling sight. The normally gay, laughing, not to say smug and supercilious passengers of the Bride were huddled in corners, some of them actually weeping. Others showed frightened faces around the edges of doorways to sublounges, or clutched at each other behind ornamental pillars. And not in passion or gestures of flirtation, mind you, but in anxiety. This would never do! I could practically see shaken passengers departing the ship in droves at Mirandol, and warning all their rich friends of the perils of interstellar cruises.

In the foreground, lying on his back with his expensive clothes awry, was a portly middle-aged man, apparently unconscious but twitching in a disturbing way. A lady his own age, in an equally expensive dress, was kneeling next to him, her hands fluttering uselessly over him in agitation. But where was the doctor I was to see?

Ah, there he was, sitting in a chair near the patient he should have been attending to. He was holding a napkin (cloth, of course) to one temple, which was oozing blood. Two security officers lay near his feet, both out cold. One, lying on his right side, was bleeding from his nose onto the costly carpeting of the lounge; the other, lying flat on her face, was bleeding from her mouth. I spoke to the doctor, as I had been ordered to do.

"But, my dear Sir, what can be the matter here?"

"It's a question of philosophy, I'm told," said the good doctor, looking behind me. I turned.

One of our passengers, that trip, was an Ylhäinen from some backwards world, like my own. He'd told me that ylhäinen, generally, signified a nobleman in his planet's feudal society. But with a capital Y, it meant a follower of some philosophical sect who preached that abstract Truths were important, whereas the gross phyical Universe was not. They sought constantly to convince others of this view; but their form of argument, as I had already learned, involved martial arts, rather than syllogisms.

My friend Juho stood smiling as I turned to find him behind me. How he'd accomplished that, in the space between the door and where the doctor sat, I had no idea. At times I thought he had powers of invisibility! For now, I was grateful that he had not attacked me when I entered. I could only suppose I had earned some respect from him, in the time we had spent together in one of the ship's gymnasiums.

"My dear Juho," I said, "what is this? You would come between a physician and his patient? For what reason?"

"I am not convinced that he is, in fact, a doctor," said the Ylhäinen. "When I addressed him, he couldn't answer the simplest question of Medical Philosophy. If he's false, then it's my plain duty to stand between him and those he's not qualified to treat."

"But he's a ship's doctor. The chief physician, in fact."

"That only means that he's persuaded the ship's officers of his professional standing," Juho said. "But he hasn't satisfied me."

"And the security officers?" I asked.

He waved a hand in dismissal. "I found their arguments weak and lacking in rigor."

I smiled. "Come, my friend, let us reason together. I am sure that with a wide-ranging, frank discussion of the matter, we can come to a happy conclusion that will satisfy all concerned." I held out my hand.

He smiled, and took it.

Then he tried to throw me across the lounge!

But of course I cannot recall the details of a fight that occurred two hundred years ago! That is plain, is it not? I can tell you that my philosopher friend's methods involved a lot of hip and back throws, using his opponent's momentum against him. Once off balance—and a person rushing forward is necessarily off balance, compared to a person standing still—he had numerous ways to convert that rush into an enthusiastic impact with a wall, or the floor. The guards, used to the suasion of their authority, with the further backing of such grasps and holds as their training encompassed, had been no match for him. In addition, he was a passenger, and passengers mattered to the company far more than any employee did.

Fortunately, my own people had long recognized that one's legs have a longer reach than one's arms, and contain much more muscle. Put plainly, a kick will reach one's opposite number before his punch can reach you, and will strike harder than any blow from his arms. We had perfected the art of striking with the feet, with the hands and arms relegated to blocking blows; or grasping objects, as bars or poles, and using them to swing the whole body around, feet first.

After a certain number of fistic arguments were advanced, and met with pedestrian rebuttals, and some other ballistic theorems were countered by my skill in tumbling, so as to land on my feet, the peroration came to an end. I do recall there were no oral arguments—Juho was a nobleman, after all, and did not resort to biting. Neither did we attempt any scratching or gouging, but kept the debate on a lofty plane. My concluding argument began when I achieved a choke hold on my friend, and ended when he passed out. The security officers, having regained consciousness during our deliberation, promptly secured his acquiescence to their jurisdiction.

That is to say, they trussed him like a hog.

Order thus being restored to starboard deck 450, lounge 140, I began circulating among the other passengers, soothing shaken nerves and reassuring them that there would be no further unpleasantness. To the younger ones, who told me it had been fun to watch, I merely returned a brief grin. The door to the shuttle level opened again, and three more security officers arrived, and the other two Third Officers we had at that time. They began righting overturned furniture, picking up items knocked to the floor, cleaning up spills, and joining me in making the all-important passengers feel better. Second Officer Hatonsa was leading them, but I didn't see her until she tapped my shoulder with a peremptory finger.

"Report," she said.

"Certainly, sir! As soon as I received your order to come here—"

She cut me off with a shake of her head. "Not to me, newbie. Report to the Captain at once!"

"Ah. Very well, sir." I turned to depart. "At once" meant now, or better still, ten minutes ago, on the Bride.

"Wait!" she said, surprising me. "You can't go to the Captain's cabin looking like that. Doctor," she called, "your services are required here."

"Indeed?" said Doctor Muhanian. "Then it's fortunate that I've just finished with the original injury. One moment…" He called two other physicians to the lounge, then turned to me. "Are you hurt, young man? Any broken bones?"

"I think a have a loose tooth," I said, "but it will likely tighten up. I have quite a few bruises, and my nose was bleeding, but I pinched it until it stopped."

"He has to see the Captain," Hatonsa told the doctor. "Make him presentable; you can check him over later."

"I see," said the doctor. "Yes, I'd call that a medical emergency, all right." He looked me up and down. "Well, that uniform's seen better days, but I don't see any tears in it." He dug out a bottle from his kit, poured a little of its contents onto a pad, and wiped my uniform in a couple of places; the swab turned brown. "That takes care of the blood spots on your front."

"What about his eye?" Hatonsa asked.

"Hmmm," Muhanian said. He took an injector out of his kit. "Close both eyes, and hold very still," he told me, and used it a few times around my right eye, which I had neglected to remove from the path of Juho's fist. All I felt from the injector was a puff of air when it drove some liquid into the tissues around my eye, and the soreness began to depart at once. "Thank you," I said.

"No, thank you," he said. "This is no substitute for healing, but at least you'll be able to face the Captain without a shiner. He should be less likely to throw you off the ship without a pressure suit, that way."

"But I don't understand!" I answered, as he began brushing the front and back of my uniform, to make it appear less harshly used. "Why would he do that?"

The Doctor and the Second Officer stared at me, amazed. "Fighting with a passenger, newbie?" Hatonsa said. "Just pray that the Captain's in a good mood, that's all."

"If he asks my opinion," the doctor promised, "I'll tell him that you did the right thing. But he doesn't have to listen to anyone. He's the Captain!"

Chapter 2
Reporting to the Captain

The ships that plied the starways varied widely, not to say wildly. They could be as small as single-hulled vessels with a crew of three or four, that carried no passengers, only mail and very small, very valuable packages between worlds and habitats of a system, or between stars. At the other extreme, they could be flying cities, with a population of tens of thousands, and their own industries and cultures. None of those latter creatures operated in the Third Galaxy, to the best of my knowledge, but they weren't unknown in the Second, and they were common in the First.

The Bride was one of the larger ships in the Third Galaxy at that time, with her four hulls, and the capacity to sustain several thousand people. She also carried mail and small valuables, and one of her hulls was outfitted for large cargo. In addition, she mounted weapons for self-defense, though this was generally unknown, and denied. whenever the occasion arose, by her owners.

The ownership of starfaring vessels also varied considerably. The very smallest ships were generally owned by the crew who ran them, or by a company consisting of the crew plus financial backers on their home world. Very large vessels were incorporated as businesses on their planet of origin, often with the Captain and some of the officers being partial owners or investors in the ship. Truly large corporations might operate on more than one planet, with an office on each, and manage and fund several ships.

In 4613, Bride Cruises had offices in each of the Near Star systems that Bride visited, and maintained six identical vessels: Seffor's Bride herself, the first ship of the fleet, Lallor's Bride, Hanush's Queen, Magnian's Glory, Dariano's Bride, and Oholorim's Miracle. Except for Hanush's Queen, formerly Hanush's King, each of these vessels was built by Bride Cruises. To win a position on any of these great ladies was a proud thing.

Just as ships differed, so did their captains. Bride Cruises' management set the route their ships followed, and their schedules, so that none of "their" systems were visited too often, or too rarely. They were also responsible for the profit of the corporation. They were good managers, and didn't press the captains to squeeze out every millicredit they could. Indeed, as long as the ships kept moving, it was nearly impossible for any of them not to make a fortune on every trip. If it didn't, it was largely because the corporation hadn't booked enough passengers, or had skipped on ship's maintenance and repair. That hadn't happened since the corporation had just two ships, Seffor's Bride and Lallor's Bride. If it should happen again, the corporation was now large enough to absorb the temporary loss of income, and fix the problem.

All of which is by way of saying that the Captain's main responsibility was to manage the ship and its crew, and keep the passengers happy so they'd book another cruise on his ship, or one of her sisters. How he did that was up to him or her. Some captains spent most of their time socializing with the passengers, and dumped most of the paperwork on their First Officers. Others were more remote figures, rarely seen by the guests; these left the socializing to the First Officers. On many ships, the Captain and the First Officer were a team, with the paperwork done by officers not part of the command team, with titles like Purser, Bursar, or Ship's Finance Officer.

The Captain to whom I had to report was Kamuzu Chilembwe, a slim, bald man with skin the color of fine glove leather. The guests (as he invariably called them) were free to call him by either of his names; the ship's crew addressed him only as "Captain" or "Sir", though once I chanced to overhear the First Officer call him "Kamuzu", and another time I heard the Second Officer address him as "Chilembwe". He was a dignified man, who invited no liberties. Still, I'd never imagined he might "space" me, as the expression went, if I failed his expectations!

As soon as the shuttle let me out in the corridor outside the captain's cabin, I took a few steps and knocked on his door. "Enter," said the captain's voice, with an accent I've never heard from anyone else.

I didn't brace to attention; Bride was a civilian ship, and employed no mock-military ceremony. I simply bowed, in the manner of my people, and said, "Sir, I was directed to report to you." I assumed he knew who I was, since I was one of his officers. Better for me if he didn't, perhaps!

He didn't frown at me, but neither did he tell me to sit in one of the chairs in his cabin. Seated himself, behind a desk covered with papers, the Captain said, "Very well, mister. Report, then."

I gave him an honest report, even a blow-by-blow account of my debate with Juho; it was fresh in my mind, then. In truth, it never occurred to me to "shade" the truth, or "slant" it in my favor. "Tell the truth, and shame the Devil" is a saying on my world. Even if I'd thought of telling him what he wanted to hear, I had no idea what that might be; and there were too many witnesses, passengers and officers and cameras, to tell anything but the facts as I knew them.

"Can you give me any reason why I shouldn't dismiss you at Mirandol, Third Officer Ellios?"

At least he wasn't threatening to kick me off the ship here and now! The relief must have shown on my face, for one corner of his mouth twitched, ever so slightly.

"Sir, I know of no reason why you should. Have I not faithfully performed all my duties, not only those in the Articles I signed as Third Officer, but every other duty assigned me by a superior officer? Have I not been cheerful, diligent, pleasant to all, hard-working, and well-mannered?"

"And kind to children and small animals, too, I make no doubt. But fighting with a guest is a major failure on your part."

"Sir, may I beg leave to say that the guest himself would not agree with you? By his lights, we did not fight; we engaged in a discussion of philosophic principles, in the manner of his order. He would have been upset only if I'd refused to engage with him, or had deliberately let him win."

"What about the other guests in the lounge, Third Officer?"

"Sir, I don't doubt many of them were upset; I talked to them myself, and soothed them and their fears. But the ones I talked to weren't upset with me, but with their fellow guest, and his violence towards the doctor and the security officers."

"And what if I told you that I have a complaint against you from Security, mister? What do you say to charges that you should have left security to them?"

I spread my hands. "You amaze me, Sir. When I arrived, the only security officers present were lying on the floor, out cold, and Juho was keeping the doctor from attending a patient who looked to be stricken by some illness. How is he, by the way?"

"That's the doctor's concern, mister! How do you reply to Security?"

"I can only say there was no security present and conscious, so I stepped in and did what I could. The security officers in the lounge didn't seem angry with me, when they woke up, but grateful. Indeed, I had the impression that one of them, the lady, might be interested in me personally."

The Captain snorted at that, which took me aback; it seemed inconsistent with his dignity. But it encouraged me to say, "If I hadn't stepped in, Sir, and the distressed passenger had gone on untreated, he, or his heirs, might well have sued the ship and the company."

"Suppose you let me worry about the ship and the corporation, mister!" He drummed the fingers of one hand on his desk. He had six, I noticed for the first time. That's not common, but not extremely uncommon, either. I'd seen the same mutation on my own world.

"I've had other complaints about you," he said at length.

I was astounded. "Truly, Sir? I had no idea. Might I ask, from whom?"

"From another officer, who says you embarass the Second Officer by behaving improperly towards her."

"No, Sir!" I said. "I have not behaved improperly towards the Second Officer, at any time!" Struck by a sudden thought, I asked, "Is the complaint from the First Officer? I've noticed that he seems very interested in her."

"You impugn his motives?" the Captain asked. "I'll speak plainly. She isn't interested in either one of you."

That was hard to hear, but I stayed silent. It wasn't a subject I wanted to discuss with the Captain. He continued, “I've also had several complaints from a guest who says you're bothering Madame Farisen and her daughters."

"I've treated them as the great ladies and honored guests that they are," I said. "I deny any improper behavior towards them. What have they to say?"

"I haven't asked them," the Captain said. He studied me for a moment, as if trying to determine what kind of man dwelt behind my face.

"Very well," he said. "Let me be clear. My ship is not a cattery, where practiced Lotharios may prey on guests for their own pleasure, or even mutual pleasure. Furthermore, romances between crew and guests, or crew and crew, are not permitted on board."

"Yes, Captain, that's clear."

"As for your continued employment aboard Seffor's Bride, I'll let you know my decision before the ship departs from Mirandol. I advise you to do nothing rash while awaiting that decision."

"No Sir, I won't."

"You are dismissed, Third Officer Ellios. See Doctor Muhanian, and have him check you over. Then put on a fresh uniform, and return to your duties."

"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir."

"And tell the Doctor he did a good job. I almost couldn't see that black eye he tried to hide."

"Yes, Sir, I'll tell him," I answered.

"Dismissed," the Captain repeated. I bowed respectfully, and departed.

Doctor Muhanian looked me up and down. "Well, since you're still with us, I suppose I ought to check you for damage," he said. "Sit on that bench and take off your blouse, please."

The military of the Commonwealth of the Near Stars referred to their uniform coats as "blouses", and the lighter garment underneath as "shirts". Bride Corporation, though not military, wore similar uniforms and had adopted the same terms. All of Bride's crew wore short black dress boots, black dress pants, cuffless short-sleeved shirts, and long-sleeved blouses with buttoned cuffs, buttoned collar, and a round patch in the upper left of the chest, featuring the emblem of the Bride Corporation encircled by the words "Seffor's Bride • 4560 • ", that being the year she first took flight.

The blouse I took off and laid aside was white, leaving me in a plain blue shirt. All command crew wore the same, differenced by the braid around our sleeves, just above our cuffs: three stripes for Third Officers, two for Second Officers, one for the First Officer, and none for the Captain.

The Doctor said "hmmm" a few times, and poked me in a few painful places. I ignored it all, unless he asked me a question, as "Does that hurt?" I already knew that there was nothing wrong with me that a few days' healing wouldn't cure.

Since he wasn't part of Command, the Doctor's blouse was blue, with a gray shirt underneath. As the Ship's Physician, his arms were as free of braid as the Captain's. The other physicians on the ship wore one, two, or three rows of braid above their cuffs, and all medical personnel wore the sign of a physician on their collars, the staff of an ancient itinerant doctor. Other specialties, such as Engineering and Finance, had their own collar symbols.

"How are your other recent patients, Doctor?" I asked him.

"They're both doing fine, and they wanted me to convey their thanks to you, since I can do so without their boss making their lives miserable. Open your mouth, please, I want to look at that tooth."

It took me a moment to understand that he was referring to the two security officers. I'd completely forgotten about them. That was quite the feat, with their red, attention-getting blouses, but somehow I had accomplished it. Not only did their blouses distinguish security from both command staff and specialist crew, but the colors were practical for disguising injuries. Their blouses were the sanguine of fresh blood, while the shirts beneath were the brown of dried blood.

When the Doctor had satisfied himself that the tooth that the Ylhäinen had loosened was tightening up again, and I probably wouldn't lose it, I said, "Actually, I was referring to the guest who'd had the seizure, or stroke, or whatever it was; and to Juho, too, of course."

"Your friend's about as bad off as you are," Doctor Muhanian said drily. "You win equal honors for the amount of non-permanent damage you managed to inflict on each other. Of course, he's confined to his cabin until we reach Mirandol, and then he'll be escorted off the ship. The Captain has cancelled his ticket."

"Is he allowed visitors?"

The Doctor looked at me in surprise. "If you're mad enough to visit him, at least don't ask the Captain or the First Officer for permission! I'd suggest the Second Officer. She might say yes or no, but she won't hold the request against you, anyway."

"But yes. Thank you, Doctor."

He looked at me for a second, then spoke. "You'd really be wiser to pursue Master Sergeant Berav, you know. You've made a good impression on her, and the Second Officer?" He shook his head. "That's just hopeless. Believe me, I've seen it tried again and again."

I was beginning to be annoyed. "Assuming I were interested in an onboard romance, why is the Second Officer so hopeless? Is she a non-human, passing as human? Or simply not interested in men?"

"No, not as… Look, I'm sorry I mentioned it. You seem like a decent fellow, and I just wanted to spare you some pain. But it's not my place to discuss the Second Officer's personal business."

"My dear Sir," I said trying to remove any hint of ill-feeling or stiffness from my voice, "let it be forgotten. I quite understand your position. What can you tell me about the stricken passenger? If anyone should ask about him, what am I to say?"

"Best to say nothing," the Doctor advised, as I put my shirt back on. "It's nothing in his medical history, and I found no physical problems. Mr. Hainault appears to be a typical wealthy Hanushman of 131 years. He's resting comfortably in his cabin, and remembers nothing."

"You are not saying there is a problem with the Bride's environment? No," I answered myself, stroking my chin, "or he would not have been the only guest affected."

"Quite so… Well, you seem like a healthy young man. If you have any unexpected pain, dizziness, or any trouble with that tooth, come see me again. For now, you can return to your regular duty."

"Thank you, Doctor." I shook his hand, resumed my blouse, and left as he was reporting me fit for duty.

Chapter 3
My New Notoriety

Despite the best efforts of the Catering and Entertainment staffs, shipboard life can slide into a kind of routine between the stars. The idle rich are easily bored, and no amount of haute cuisine and professional entertainment could disguise forever that the guests were stuck inside what amounted to a hotel, without doors or windows to a living world. It was a very large hotel, with thousands of other people aboard, but after a time, the kind of superficial creatures who booked luxury cruises began to feel that they'd seen every lounge and facility, and met every other person—typically, when he or she had seen about 5 percent of each.

Things always grew more lively before a port. Some guests would be leaving, and new faces would be joining us. If there were multiple inhabited worlds in a given system, we'd spend a while in orbit around each, that passengers might enjoy shore leave. Dead worlds, with the ruins of alien civilizations, were also stopovers, if there was a breathable atmosphere. The very course taken by Seffor's Bride through the outer reaches of a system wasn’t determined by fuel or time; we steered to cruise past ringed worlds at ooh! and aah! distances, or giant planets with banded atmospheres or giant storms. If at present a comet was flaring and outgassing in the light of the local sun, we'd be sure to fly through the tail, to the delight of our guests.

But Mirandol was still three weeks away, and ennui was beginning to weigh heavily upon the passengers, who had few internal resources. One of their fellows being stricken mysteriously was a thrill—provided it didn't strike them! As for a fight, right in the midst of the guests, between two martial artists? Most of the passengers would have paid extra to see such a thing. One of the other Third Officers—I regret that I've forgotten her name, she left us shortly thereafter—said she'd received complaints that the “show” hadn't been broadcast on one of the entertainment channels. More than a few guests, it seemed, believed that Juho and I were entertainers!

"Let them believe what they wish, my dear," I told her, "especially if it amuses or entertains them. Our role is not to educate or correct them, but only to keep them safe and content."

"Muuu,” she said, and walked away, smiling at her jest. Or even baaa, I thought—for even those who don't eat sheep, still fleece them for their wool.

"Who's the blonde?" said a voice. I turned my eyes from their appreciation of the other Third Officer's shapely derriere, to look behind me.

The woman standing there had chestnut-colored hair. which complemented the arterial blood color of her Security blouse. Her complexion was fair, though darker from sun and the outdoors than the ladies Farisen, who went to extreme lengths to protect their skin from radiation and rough weather. A collection of stripes and curves on each sleeve told me that she wasn't an officer of Security, but one of their non-commissioned officers, a concept I've never understood, then or now.

"Master Sergeant Berav, I presume."

"That's right," she said. "And you're Third Officer Ellios. My Chief really disapproves of you, Third Officer Ellios."

"I've heard that, but no one has said why, and I can scarcely ask the man."

"That's your mistake," she said. "Because you don't ask him, he thinks you're afraid of him. He thinks you're avoiding him, and hoping his displeasure will just fade away."

"Truth to tell, I never give him a thought at all," I said.

"Worse than that," she continued, as if I hadn't spoken, "because of your 'mincing manners', and your 'affected speech', he thinks you must be homosexual. And there's nothing Security Chief Salafinu hates worse than a 'fag'. His words, not mine," she concluded.

"Salafinu? That sounds like a Firimini name."

"It is," Master Sergeant Berav said. "But he wasn't born on that planet. He was born and raised on the Firimini colony planet during the reign of the First Tyrant, Sulla."

The reign of the tyrant Sulla was 250 years ago and halfway around the galaxy, so let me interject here that not only did he practice the usual monetary corruption and abuses of power, but he was omnisexual and preyed relentlessly on the women, men, children,, dogs, cats, goats, and ponies of the population. Eventually he was dragged out of his Palace and torn to pieces in the street by some of his victims, but not until he'd done permanent harm to hundreds of people directly, and the entire populace of the planet less directly. Small wonder then, that the Security Chief aboard Seffor's Bride was a homophobe, if he came of age during Sulla's misrule.

"So, if your Chief thinks I'm so despicable, why are you talking to me?" I asked her.

She uncrossed her arms and walked right up to me, closing in from casual-acquaintance distance to a more intimate proximity. Her eyes, I discovered, were bright blue. a color I'd never seen before with red hair.

"The Chief's problems are his own," she said. "I come from a Near Star world you've never heard of, south of here. I don't have a problem with men who speak politely, or who have graceful manners, even if they should turn out to be homosexual. Is that clear?"

"I'm not homosexual, my dear," I said. She was standing so close, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to reach out, and take her into my arms. Unlike the Farisen ladies, who were all three shorter than I by differing degrees, and Second Officer Hatonsa, who was considerably taller, the Master Sergeant seemed about the same height as I was, plus or minus an inch.

"Good!" she said, and smiled. "But the reason I approached you is, I want you to teach me."

"Teach you what?" I asked, though I suspected I knew the answer to my question.

"When Sergeant Namado and I attempted to detain your friend," she told me, "he showed us moves we'd never seen before, and shortly knocked us both cold. Then you came along, and did the same to him. So I'd like you to show us whatever martial arts you know. Would you do that, Third Officer Ellios?"

"Yes, I can do that," I said. "You, and anyone else who wishes to learn. But there's a price for that, Master Sergeant Berav."

She raised her eyebrows, and I went on. "You'll have to stop calling me Third Officer Ellios. My personal name is Santandar."

It was the first time I heard her laugh. "Done! And you can call me Amina, instead of Master Sergeant Berav."

"I should be most happy to do so, Amina."

"Can you come to the Security Gymnasium, tomorrow at 1500?"

"I can," I said. "Will I be admitted, if I do?"

"Don't worry about that," she said, tapping the insignia on her left sleeve with two fingers of her right hand.

I bowed. "Then I am at my lady's service," I said.

"Great, Santandar! It's a date, then!" Amina said, and walked away smiling.

Of a certainty, not all the changes due to my new fame, or notoriety if you please, could be expected to be happy ones. When I spoke to the ladies Farisen at dinner, there was a distinct chill in the air. Madame herself looked down her nose at me, and did not extend the usual invitation to sit and eat with them. After some pleasantries, I prepared to circulate around the dining room, or perhaps some other dining room where the temperature was warmer.

Before I did so, however, I asked Marian—that is to say, Madame herself—if I had said or done anything to offend. "You?" she said. "Offend a guest of the ship? I'm sure that the thought would never cross your mind. We have found you to be the very model of courtesy and gentility, haven't we, girls?"

"Indeed we have!" said Delicia, the older of her daughters. "And conscientious in the performance of your duties, as well. In fact, I'm sure there is some duty you must be seeing to right now, Third Officer Ellios."

I took that with aplomb, but I believe I know when my face has been slapped. I bowed to the three of them, and murmured, "Until we meet again, dear ladies." Then, with a bright smile, I went in search of better climes. I ignored the laughter which pealed behind me.

The "martial arts" are piteously misnamed. In the long history of mankind, on many planets in at least three galaxies, over thousands of years, I suppose it's possible that somewhere, somewhen, a war was fought with hands and feet alone. But mankind is a tool-using animal, and the oldest tools in the record are bits of bone sharpened for stabbing. Even a bone knife does more damage than any punch or kick. Even a wooden spear, with its end filed into a point by stroking it against a hard rock, and hardened by fire, has a longer reach than an arm or leg.

A disciplined body of troops has a great advantage over an undisciplined mob, however, whatever weapons the mob may carry. Surprise is a valuable factor in combat, as well. If you forbid the peasants or the priests to carry the weapons of the upper class, you don't make them helpless. A human being is always a dangerous animal, even if all he has to fight with are empty hands and bare feet. Teach a "harmless priest" or a "worthless peasant" how to fight with the weapons at the ends of his arms and legs, and the most elite warriors can go missing while carrying out the commands of their "noble lords".

There's also the consideration that the most highly-trained and best-equipped soldier can have his weapons taken from him if his unit is captured, or his weapon may break or run out of ammunition. If he's trained in the "martial arts" as well as the weapons of his time and place, he can still fight. To make such a soldier hors de combat, you must kill him. Nothing less will make him stop fighting you.

It was in that spirit that I went to the Security gymnasium Amina had appointed, at 1500 the next day. I expected to find her, and some other Security personnel who were friends of hers. They would show me what they knew, I would show them what I'd been taught, and we'd practice our arts on each other. Bruises would be given and taken, bodies would fly through the air, sweat would run. Everyone would learn something, and some friendships would begin.

However, that isn't what happened.

The session began much as I'd expected. I went to the Security Gymnasium in uniform, carrying workout clothes in a bag, in case I was, after all, turned away. But all was well. Amina was waiting for me outside the gymnasium, and was plainly glad to see me when I arrived, promptly at 1500. Just as I had feared I might be turned away, she had feared I might not show up. Smiling, she opened the door and ushered me in ahead of her.

One of the reasons that Seffor's Bride can accomodate so many people is that rooms can serve multiple purposes: a dining room at meal times, a live play, musical entertainment, or simply a lounge where the passengers can sit, talk, and flirt. Most rooms could be different sizes, depending on which interior partitions were extended and locked in place. Rooms could even be divided into many, as by extending all the interior partitions, and opening exterior doors into the sections thus created. There were permanent designations in the interactive map of the ship, a copy of which was given to every passenger. Changing the partitions changed the maps, so that the guests could always find where an event was held, simply by following their maps.

Including Amina and myself, there were only a dozen Security people in the gymnasium, when most of the crew and guests were eating their midday meal. For myself, I planned to eat after the exercise, rather than be logy with a full stomach, and the others, it appeared, had the same intention. Since there were so few of us, most of the gym was partitioned off, reserved for occasions when all of Security met for a general address, a promotion ceremony, or other large event in their department.

I started with the standard lecture to the effect that legs are longer than arms, and have heavier muscles; and proceeded to demonstrate that I was skilled at walking on my hands and striking with my feet with blows to the face, the side and back of the head, the stomach, the butt (that always got a laugh), and various ways to knock a man off his feet, so that he ended with his face in the dirt, heaved through the air in any desired direction, or slammed against a wall. I invited them to examine the shoes I was wearing, padded like boxing gloves, and asked them to consider the effect of those same blows delivered with heavy leather boots with steel toes, steel heels, and steel plates in the soles.

Perhaps forty minutes had passed. All of my new friends had various contusions, and had had the wind knocked out of them several times, even Amina; but in the fashion of martial artists, they were counting that as the price of admission. They were convinced that I was a real person, not a con man or a fop. The fact that I was unmarked was a convincing argument. Oh, I'd had my fingers stepped on a couple of times, but in light ship's boots, that barely broke the skin. More to the point, I wasn't whining about it.

"I've been emphasizing the feet," I said, "but in truth, this is a method for fighting with the whole body. The leg and back muscles are the most powerful muscles in the body, so it's only sensible to strike with them, but there's more than the legs involved. You need to develop your arms, so that you can stand on them for hours, so you can defend yourself with them against kicks from an upright opponent, and so you can grab a horizontal or vertical bar and swing your whole body around, to strike feet first. You need to spend enough hours on your hands, or your shoulders, that you don't pass out from blood pooling in your head, or pass out when you spring from hands to feet, perhaps over and over again. When your back muscles become stronger, you'll be able to spring from your shoulders to your feet without the use of your hands, and fall back or roll forward onto your hands the same way, keeping your hands ready for defense at all times."

"TEN-HUT!" shouted an amplified voice.

Bride Corporation isn't a military organization, nor are its ships. But the Security department of Seffor's Bride was, or at least aped, a military command structure. Almost faster than the civilian eye could follow, everyone else in the room turned away from me and braced to attention.

Beyond them, partition doors rolled back to the walls. What looked like all the rest of the Security department was there, including of course the Security chief. I stood there, resting easily on my shoulders in the position from which I'd been speaking to Amina and my other new friends, and wondered what was going on. Since I was not part of the Security crew, but was in fact Command Crew, I felt free to remain in my own relaxed position: resting on my head and shoulders, arms folded, legs bent at the knees and legs behind me. The Security people who'd been listening in all this time were on some sort of stage, and I could see them beyond their fellows with whom I'd been working. Some of them, generally the ones with the highest ranks, were sadly out of shape. Others looked like they'd give me a good fight.

Then I saw that the Second Officer was also on that stage, separate from the Security personnel. That was quite a different matter. I rolled left onto one hip, and then rose to my feet, without using my hands, of course, and bowed to her.

As I said before, I cannot recall all the details of a fight from 200 years ago. Security Chief Salafinu had hidden himself in the then-unused portion of the gymnasium, expecting to "catch me in the act" of speaking against him, and spreading disaffection amongst "his troops". Since I hated and feared him, naturally I wouldn't miss any chance to do so. He required all of his officers to attend, so they could see for themselves what kind of "scheming fag" I was. When the Second Officer asked what was going on, and why all the Security forces were going to be absent for an hour or two, he happily asked if she had the time to attend a martial arts demonstration, surely thinking that the presence of my own superior officer would seal my fate.

All this feverish plotting in the Security Chief's head came to nothing, because it had no basis in fact. As I had told Amina, I never gave Salafinu a single thought. I came to teach the art I knew to anyone who wanted to learn, and to learn from them, as well. For learning and teaching are two sides of the same coin, and you can't learn without teaching, or teach without learning. I spoke no word against the Chief, but spoke about my art, which was the purpose of my visit there. This was apparent; nothing else was "revealed", because I had no other purpose. Furthermore, the security troops watching from behind the movable partition were just as interested, and just as impressed, as the ones whom I knew to be there.

In the end, Security Chief Salafinu had no grounds for complaint or accusation, and had enough sense to realize that. He gave me a mild scolding for not clearing the demonstration with him, first. I touched Amina to keep her from saying that was her fault, and apologized most humbly for my bad manners. Then the Second Officer suggested to the Chief that these sessions should be a regular thing, perhaps once a week, and he had no realistic choice but to agree. He left as soon as he could, and we continued these training sessions for as long as I was with Seffor's Bride.

Chapter 4
Questions for Navigation

Six days after the first meeting in the Security gymnasium, one week closer to Mirandol, I woke up with a strong ginchy feeling. My family has always had a vast weakness towards the ginchy, or a great strength in it, depending on your point of view. I myself was neither weak nor strong that way, and had rarely been affected. But I woke with the ginchy swarming around my head, like bees around a hive; so I went to visit the Navigation Department.

Five billion years ago, a vast cloud of gas, 50,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy, contracted into a number of smaller gas clouds, which contracted further. Some of the mini-clouds turned into two or three stars, whose gravitational interaction ejected the remainder of the nebular material, leaving nothing to form planets. Others formed only one star each, and in the disk of matter around that star, planets were born. On planets in orbits where water was liquid, life evolved.

The stars which the Bride Corporation's ships cruised were all members of the cluster born from the same gas cloud, and inherited its momentum around the center of the galaxy, moving as a group. At an average speed of 132 kilometers per second, they had completed about 7 orbits around the Third Galaxy. The faster had pulled ahead a bit, and the slower had fallen behind, giving them their present formation, resembling a bunch of horses on a race track: some in front, some behind, some on the inside track, some on the outside.

Between Oholorim and Mirandol was the Eagle Nebula, a vast cloud of ionized gas, 12 light years in diameter, that resembled a bird of prey spreading its wings, if you used your imagination a bit, and viewed it in the right wavelengths of light. It was a supernova remnant. After an era when the evolving star had repeatedly blown its surface layers away, in an expanding cloud of gas, the star had finally exploded asymmetrically, ejecting itself from the nebula at high speed. The nebula left behind, lit by radiation from other stars nearby, was a grand spectacle. Whenever Seffor's Bride cruised from Oholorim to Mirandol, it went a little out of its way to pass through the Eagle Nebula, giving the passengers a vast thrill, and a memory for a lifetime.

The Navigation Chief was barely polite when I showed up in his department. While I was Command crew, I was only a Third Officer, and he was a busy man. His department had to scan the Nebula for changes since the last time Bride had passed this way, and decide exactly what course the ship would take, to show the most amazing views on her monitors and ports. He fobbed me off on his chief assistant, a woman who also had the astrolabe pin of Navigation on her collar, but the sleeve markings of a First Officer. She was twice my age, but very attractive, with chestnut hair and brown eyes.

"We make this detour to please the passengers every trip, Third Officer Ellios," she said. "There's no danger in it, it encourages the passengers to book another cruise, and the Captain approved it long ago."

"Dear lady, I have no doubt of that at all, and for my own part, I look forward to seeing it all with vast anticipation. I'm not here to find fault. There are only a few questions I'd like to ask, purely for my own curiosity. If you would be so good as to answer them, I'll tear myself away, and go back to my own duties."

"Well… What did you want to know, Third Officer?"

"I know, from the data given to all the crew and the guests," I said, "that the Eagle Nebula doesn't lie directly between Oholorim and Mirandol. How far off the direct line between the two systems does the Nebula lie, and in what direction?"

She assumed I was ignorant of stellar navigation, and brought up a three-dimensional display showing the ship's course; standard information in the data packet all the guests received on boarding. Then, with a few deft strokes, she expanded it, so that the two systems, and the Nebula, floated alone. A glowing yellow dotted line showed the direct path from Oholorim to Mirandol. A bright blue line went from Oholorim to the Nebula, and then from the Nebula to Mirandol; the course the ship would actually travel.

"We go about 4.3 light years out of our way to pass through the Eagle Nebula," the lady said, "and over the 33.7 light years from one system to another by the direct route, we travel an extra 1.1 light years. Nothing at all, really."

"Hardly a sneeze," I agreed. "But to reach the Nebula, we travel 4.3 light years. In what direction, if you please?"

"I'm… not sure what you're asking," she replied.

"Mirandol and Oholorim are both north of the central orbital plane of the Galaxy, aren't they?" I asked, knowing that the answer was 'yes'; all the Near Stars were. "Were we to go from Oholorim to Mirandol, we'd travel north, up from the galactic plane; and east, farther along the galaxy's direction of rotation; and outward, farther from the center of the galaxy, not so?"

"Yes, Third Officer," she said, after translating the co-ordinates of the two systems into the terms I'd just used.

"So, in heading towards the Nebula, which way are we going? South, or north? East, or west? Inward, or outward? If we kept going that way, instead of bending our course back towards Mirandol, where would we wind up? What lies in that direction, and how far away?"

"An interesting question," she said. "Perhaps it would be best to show you in a diagram." She inserted vectors pointing from both systems and the Nebula to the central plane of the galaxy; another pointing towards galactic center for each; and a third showing orbital velocity and direction. The original lines remained too, of course.

"So," I said, studying the display, "the Nebula is closer to the central plane of the galaxy than either star, and both Mirandol and the Nebula are a bit closer to galactic center."

"A tiny bit, yes," she agreed. "The Nebula is 5 light years farther south than Mirandol, and about 6 light years farther inward. But the center of the galaxy is still 50,000 light years away."

"If we extend this line," I said, ignoring her implied question, "to the central plane and beyond, what systems does it cross, and how far away?"

Curious herself now, she ran the line out, moving Oholorim, Mirandol, and the Eagle Nebula to the top of the display. She extended the line until it crossed the plane, and farther, until it was as far south of the plane as we were to the north.

"Nothing," she said at last. "The line goes past a few systems, but all of them are uninhabited. There's no record that any humans have ever gone that way."

Not inhabited by humans isn't the same as uninhabited, but I didn't correct her. Instead I said, "Thank you so much, gracious lady, for your kind assistance. I do appreciate the time you've given me and my odd questions. May I ask one more favor? Copy all that you've shown me to my data store, that I may study it at my leisure. And do keep a copy for yourself, in case someone should ask for it at a later date."

"Somebody? Who, the Captain?" she jested. I didn't answer, just looked at her; and her eyes went wide.

Next, I went to the Medical Department.

Chapter 5
Alerting the Doctor

I didn't have enough to take to the Second Officer, let alone the Captain; all I had was the history of my people, which they couldn't readily verify, my own ginchy feeling, which would sound like superstitious hogwash to them, and the data from Navigation. Put together, they suggested that Seffor's Bride was headed towards danger to the ship, its passengers, and its crew, but in total it amounted to little more than hysterical night fears to the hard-headed culture of the Near Stars, which strongly disbelieved in "mind powers" such as telepathy. The Second Empire had established a Bureau of Psionics when it clawed itself free of the wreckage of the Emperor Assinor's reign, and the damage he/she had done with his/her psychic abilities. The Commonwealth, on the other hand, was proud that they "wasted no time or money on such drivel".

"About 350 years ago," I told Doctor Muhanian, a little while later, "my ancestors settled a world, not far from here as galactic distances go, and named it Ladoga. Leaving their starships in orbit, safe from planetary conditions, they shuttled down to their new world and settled in, and thrived peacefully for 150 years."

"I never heard of it," the doctor said. "But even if it were a member of the Near Stars, there's no reason why I should, unless it were very important, or one of the Corporation's ships stopped there, or someone I knew was born there, like yourself."

"No, I wasn't born there," I told him, "and I've never been there. May I show you something that Navigation prepared for me?"

I displayed the diagram that the Navigation First Officer had created, and explained what he was viewing. "So, if we did not turn back to Mirandol, but kept on this course, in about twenty light years we would cross the central orbital plane of the galaxy, and pass among these stars. The four stars arranged roughly in a tetrahedron, with another inside it, would be on our port side as we passed them, at an average distance of about three light years; and this other star, about two light years to starboard."

"And this bit of cosmography is significant?"

"More than significant, Doctor, it's dangerous. This little yellow star, five light years distant from these others? That's the Ladoga system."

"Where your people live," he said.

"Where my people used to live, before the Hlaffith drove us out," I told him.

"I see," he said. "Do you want to tell me about the Hlaffith, or shall I look them up in the ship's systems?" To his credit, the doctor pronounced the unfamiliar word with barely a stumble of the tongue.

"I myself have been unable to find anything in the ship's systems on Ladoga, Vannim, the Hlaffith, or the psychestar," I said. "But I'm only a Third Officer, and I know that there are restrictions on my access to ship's data. If you can find anything on these key words, I hope you'll share it with me—after we're done speaking."

"I will if I can," he said. "Let me write down those words… Very well. You said the Hlaffith drove your people out of Ladoga. Who are, or were, the Hlaffith?"

"The Hlaffith are a non-human race that evolved on a planet of one of those four stars in the tetrahedron," I said, "I don't know which one. They developed their own science and technology independently of human beings, and mastered space travel on their own. All four of the stars in the tetrahedron are single stars, with lovely worlds of their own, and the Hlaffith live on all of them. They've also colonized the fifth star, the one inside the tetrahedron. It doesn't have a living world, but if some enemy occupied that system, they could strike readily at any of the Hlaffith worlds. So they colonized that system, too, and live in artificial habitats in orbit around various bodies, and on the surface of planets otherwise hostile to them."

"They sound wholly admirable," the Doctor said, "inimicable to your people or not, to develop science without human instruction, and to live in five stellar systems. There are many human polities which can't boast as much, these days. I'm curious what they look like."

"A lot of people would find them disgusting, though I don't. The Hlaffith resemble snails. The females lay eggs, about 24 inches across, with a yolk sac inside. This sustains the embryo, as the brain develops, and the other organs, and it secretes a shell. When it's ready to hatch, after about six months, it rips open the egg shell with its egg tooth, which later drops out. It learns the language, customs, and everything else from its parents and family, as a human baby does."

"Interesting!" he said. "I'd love to see a picture."

"Perhaps you can find one," I said. "If you do, I can tell you a great deal about the Hlaffi in it from its appearance."

He raised one eyebrow, and I responded to the implied question. "The Hlaffith are born small, able to tuck themselves into their shells for protection, and jet black in color. They continue to grow for as long as they live, from 24 inches long as babies to maybe five feet long as young adults. Before they reach that age, they can't fit in their shells anymore, which remain on their backs, right behind their heads. They also change color. From shiny black they go to dark brown with black spots or stripes, to a uniform brown, to lighter and lighter browns. Eventually they turn gray, sometimes with white stripes or spots, and eventually, completely white. Some of their rulers and generals, when we fought them, were 26 to 30 feet long."

"I see. So from the size of the individual, and his or her color, you can tell how old he is, or she is. Do you know the ancient poem called Fable?" Without waiting for a reply, he cleared his throat and recited:

Delicate glider, legless dancer,
You slide through life serenely,
Slow to anger or to fear,
Your eyes held out before you.

"Slug" is such an ugly noise
For your translucent elegance!
I put aside the word, and see
The real you, in all your grace.

I am so full of burning anger
At all the world's stupidity,
Like a cup of razor blades
Heaped to overflowing:

But you can slip along an edge
And never take the slightest cut,
So deft your touch, so sure your step.
I slice myself again and again.

A shell-less snail traces lessons
Upon a dew-washed concrete wall:
The humble student stands before him
And seeks to learn serenity.

"Very nice," I said, though I was annoyed at the interruption. I was here for a serious purpose! However, nothing would be achieved by rudeness or impatience. "Fable, you say?"

"Yes. The poem is a couple of thousand years old, written in the time of the First Empire, and the author's name is forgotten. I've always liked it; it helps me keep my patience in times of stress. But, returning to your tale, how did your people come in conflict with these intelligent snails, these Hlaffith?"

"Have you ever heard the word 'psychestar', Doctor?"

"No, I don't believe so. Soul-star? Mind-sun? What does it mean?"

"For us it meant death and madness," I said. "I'm sure, as a doctor, you're familiar with the Founder Effect. Unless a colony begins with a huge population, the limited gene pool will cause unexpected side effects as genes find matching genes in the people, and reinforce each other. They can be harmless, as people with six fingers or toes, or deadly, as people with deformed blood cells that can't transport oxygen as well as standard ones. On some occasions, they may even be beneficial."

"On Ladoga, we developed some psychic abilities, which we called the ginchy. At best, this conferred a limited ability to read surface thoughts, tell when people were lying, and a limited precognition. On the other side of the coin, it meant a lot of still births, and children who had frequent seizures throughout their lives and tended to die young."

"Death is the means by which nature weeds out bad genes," the Doctor said, sympathetically.

"We knew that, but it was little consolation," I said. "Anyway, those with precognition had been forecasting disaster—literal dis-aster, an evil star!—for months, growing more and more agitated. Then the prophecies came to pass. A lot of people with the most ginchy dropped dead in their tracks, like butchered steers. Others went stark, raving, homicidally mad, and had their throats cut by their families. There was no way for a small family, living in a few cabins deep in the woods, to take care of them, you see. It was both self-defense, and a mercy killing, in every case."

"I'm a doctor. I don't judge."

"Thank you," I said. "However, those who had some ginchy, but not so much that they died or went mad, could actually track the source of the death and madness. Independently, they could point to the evil influence as it rose above the horizon, crossed the sky, and set again with the turning of our world. The sky wasn't often clear on our cloudy planet, but when it was, there was nothing to be seen where they pointed, at least not with the naked eye. Since it acted like a star, but affected us mentally, we called it the psychestar, the mind-star, mielitähti or sielytähti in our language."

"Did you still have the starships in which you came to Ladoga?"

"We did. They were 150 years old, but they were built to last forever, and they'd been in orbit, powered down and airless for most of the time. Once a year someone went up to do maintenance, and once every ten or twenty years a new technician was trained in how to use them and keep them running. But they were a backup system, in case we needed to evacuate all of our people, or remove them from a natural catastrophe. We were well and truly settled on Ladoga, with no intention of departing. I don't know whether the ships would have held all of our population any more."

"But before we could do more than go up to see about the ships, the Hlaffith came."

Chapter 6
The Scouring of Ladoga

"We weren't prepared for the Hlaffith," I said. "We came to Ladoga to get away from human enemies on our previous home, where we'd lived, a small nation amoung larger nations in the west, east, and south. We purchased our ships and departed, leaving our homeland to our enemies to fight over, sincerely wishing they'd tear each other to pieces without us there to fight them."


"We came to Ladoga not as space explorers, but as refugees, looking for a new home where we wouldn't be surrounded by enemies. As far as we knew, people had never gone there. But astronomical surveys said the star was a G-class sun, and had a planet where water was liquid. Non-humans didn't even occur to us, since there were so few around. The Hlaffith suns were the five brightest stars in our new sky, since they were so close, but we didn't give them a thought. We went straight to Ladoga, shuttled down to the surface, and began spreading out and settling in."

"Were the Hlaffith really so dangerous?" the doctor asked. "Not to doubt your ancestors, but snails, after all. If they had superior numbers, couldn't you just outrun them, and lay ambushes for them?"

"Intelligent snails, with high technology," I reminded him, taking no offense. "We were living a simple life. We didn't foul the skies and waters with factories, and our ships had no space for industry, packed with people as they were. We were farmers, fishers, and hunters, living in wooden cabins mostly, communicating with a few devices brought down from the ships, or by messages carried by foot, or on animal backs. The Hlaffith had combat shuttles with heavy weapons to fight any atmospheric vehicles we had; none, as it turned out. Those same shuttles had infra-rred sensors to locate human settlements. When they landed, they disgorged troop platforms with a weapon mounted in the front, carrying soldiers with individual weapons."

"Were they hover platforms, or did they roll?"

"They ran on steel legs, like centipedes, and they were faster than men, or the mounts we had on Ladoga. Our weapons were gunowder rifles and bows, which didn't kill them, except by accident; we didn't know where their vital organs were. Their return fire was lasers from the hand-carried weapons, or particle beams from the platform weapons/"

"That sounds really bad."

"It was hopeless. We couldn't beat them; we couldn't even slow them down. If we tried to hide, they had shuttles with infra-red sensors to find us. Some of us surrendered, and when they weren't murdered outright, our government followed. In my great-great-grandfather's memoir, he called it the worst day of his life. But it was surrender or die."

"Your great-great-grandfather?"

"He was the elected President, and his oldest son, my great-granduncle I suppose you'd call him, was commander of our army, such as it was. When he was killed trying to keep the Hlaffith away from our city, great-great-grandfather's government surrendered the planet to the invaders."

"Then what? Obviously they didn't kill everyone."

"No, they were very civilized about it, although we had no way to talk to them. They'd already built a number of camps for troops they'd captured in battle. They brought down passenger shuttles and began removing everyone in the city to a ship in orbit. Other shuttles were taking surrendered troops to other ships. Meanwhile, other Hlaffith were hunting down everyone who ran away and tried to hide, capturing them when they could, killing them when they wouldn't quit. We call that, in our history, the Scourging of Ladoga."

We were silent for a moment.

"They treated us well, like civilized people. They'd come with the largest force they could muster on short notice, prepared to fight aliens as advanced as themselves, and kill them all if they had to; but they also brought all those transport ships to carry us all away, if they could. Even though they had beaten us in battle, they didn't abuse us. They didn't hate us or fear us, they just wanted us gone."

"Did they ever tell you why?" asked the doctor.

"They did, once we could communicate. They had linguists on every ship—if 'linguist' is the right word. Speech scientists, anyway."

"I hate to interrupt you, but why not linguists?"

"I'm sorry, I interrupted myself. My apologies. But 'language' and 'linguist' come from root words meaning 'tongue', which in our anatomy is both an eating organ and a speech organ. In the Hlaffith, eating and speech are entirely separate. The tongue is for eating only, a rasp used to tear foot into shreds. The alimentary channel from eating mouth to stomach is completely separate from the speech channels, which run from the speaking mouth to the lungs. In between they have five pairs of vocal cords in the speech throat, and organs in the speech mouth unlike anything human."

"But they had speech, consisting of whistles and grunts from one to five vocal cords at once, and they had machines to record sound, and scientists and communications technologists to analyze the recordings. They studied how we spoke, and began to learn our language. In a few weeks, we began to be able to talk to each other, through translating computers."

"Where are you taking us?"

"But yes," I agreed, "that was the first thing we asked, along with Why did you invade our world? and Why are you removing us from our home?"

"It seems we were polluting the psychestar. The Hlaffith had their own kind of ginchy, and the psychestar was a product of it. The psychestar looked like an angry sun, boiling with flares; it even spilled light, though not nearly as much light as a real, natural sun, or we would have seen it from Ladoga, as a nova. But it was a product of the minds of all the Hlaffirth, and our own minds, so close by, were despoiling it with our human ginchy/

"But what was the psychestar for?" the ship's physician asked.

"They never got that across, according to the histories. There were certain concepts that remained too alien for the other side to understand. We couldn't comprehend what the psychestar meant to them, and the Hlaffith couldn't understand what God meant to us."

"Perhaps if you'd had the psionic science and technology the First Empire developed, you'd have had the knowledge, and the vocabulary, to talk about your ginchy and theirs."

"Perhaps," I shrugged, "but we didn't. All we could do was wait, while the Hlaffith carried us far enough away that they couldn't feel their populace, and then find a world to put us on. They were eager to get rid of us, and go back to take part in the psychestar. They promised to leave us alone, as long as we stayed away from their neighborhood, and we promised we'd stay away from Ladoga and the Hlaffith stars, if only they found us a habitable world."

"Vannim, I take it."

I nodded. "Even so. A hundred light years from Ladoga in the direction of galactic center, Vannim had been settled only seventy years earlier by people fleeing persecution in the Near Stars. They had twice our numbers, but lots of empty spaces. After we talked to them from orbit, our government went down and talked to theirs in their capital. We applied for asylum, and they felt for us, as refugees themselves. In the end they took us in, though we were little more than cheap labor to begin with. Today, we all speak Vannimois; only a few of us, like my family, still speak Ladogan."

"And the ginchy?"

"Ah, that is a different matter. The ginchy has spread to all the Vannimois. With a population today five or six times what we had on Ladoga, most people only have a touch of it. Only a few families, again including mine, have it strongly."

"This is all very interesting," said the doctor, "but I'm not clear why you're telling it to me."

"If a new psychestar has been planted by the Hlaffith," I said, "we are travelling diectly towards it. The closer we get, and the more it grows, the greater the danger, not just to the guest who was felled before, but to others, equally sensitive. Your Department needs to be alert, until we turn away from our present course and head for Mirandol."

"You make a strong case," Doctor Muhanian said, "but not one that any Hanushman like Mr. Hainault can take seriously. He takes pride in his 'business instincts' by which he's made so much money, while firmly disbelieving in 'witch powers' and other 'old wives' tales', at the same time. It's too bad that having been felled once, he didn't acquire an immunity or resistance to that which felled him before."

"It doesn't work that way, alas," I said. "Either he's sensitive, or he isn't; and if he has enough precognition to've made money from his hunches, he's probably very sensitive, even if he calls it 'business instincts'. You'll just have to keep an eye on him. If you sedate him as soon as he begins displaying signs of a seizure, he may 'sleep' through the worst of it. If his wife will approve putting him in a cold sleep pod until we reach Mirandol, so much the better. Anti-seizure medications might be of some use, as well."

"Can you suggest anyone else who may be at risk?"

"We're all at risk," I said. "Particularly so? Myself—but I know the signs, and if I start feeling likely to have a seizure, I'll call your department at once, without any false heroism. Other than me, or the previous victim?" I shook my head, as I thought about the passengers and crew. "I haven't been looking for signs of psionic sensitivity, and my relations with most of the people on board are superficial. Just on a hunch, I'd say the Captain is safe, and the Second Officer. The First Officer, and the Security Chief, I'm not so sure." Then I stopped, as a face floated up before my mind's eye.

"You thought of someone?"

"Alanna Farisen," I said. "Her mother would probably pooh-pooh the notion that she, or either of her daughters, could be affected by anything not solidly material. But her younger daughter, I think, is likely to be the next to suffer an attack."

"Hmmm. What about Master-Sergeant Berav?"

"Amina?" I was surprised. "I really don't know. I'd say even odds. She seems pretty down-to-earth, but red hair and blue eyes? It makes me wonder what other oddities are lurking in her genome."

"Indeed! Well, I'll put my Department on full alert at once. I can do that on my own authority, and if you're right, we've already had one passenger dropped by this new psychestar. I just hope you're wrong."

"So do I, doctor," I said. But the buzzing around my head told me that I wasn't.

Chapter 7
The Psychestar Blooms

Seffor's Bride continued on its course, but the passengers weren't happy. Light years away, the psychic energies of the Hlaffith were gathering, organizing themselves, and preparing the psychestar to bloom. The passengers, without any idea what was happening, reacted to the increasing pressure, in different ways.

Some, keyed up and "jumping out of their skins", expressed the tension as hostility. Security was swamped with an outbreak of fights among the passengers. Others reported to Medical with scabs and raw places where they'd scraped and scratched themselves bloody, feeling that invisible insects were running over their skins. Others reported a persistent delusion; always, they said, out of the corners of their eyes, they saw giant slugs sliding along the corridors, drifting up behind them; but when they turned around, nothing was there!

The Chief Physician went to the Captain, and urged that the ship turn back to Mirandol right away. He reported what I'd told him, plus all that Medical and Security were dealing with. The Captain was reluctant to change the ship's course for such nervous and ethereal reasons, but the Doctor said, "You might we well, Sir. The point of the visit to the Eagle Nebula is to entertain the guests, but no one's in a mood to appreciate it, as things stand."

So the Captain spoke to Navigation, and the Bride swung away from the nebula, and the Hlaffith stars beyond. However, it was too late.

I'd been shadowing the ladies Farisen, out of a conviction that Alanna would fall prey to the psychestar, and fearing lest her mother and older sister would spirit her away to their cabins, to hide the fact that she was afflicted, thus denying her proper medical treatment in the name of a false pride. I didn't say any of that to them, of course, but I kept them in sight. When she suddenly fell down, and began convulsing, I was at her side at once. I made her comfortable on the deck, turned on her side so that she wouldn't choke on her tongue, or on her stomach contents if she should chance to vomit, and ignored everything the other members of her family were saying. Then I made sure she didn't hurt herself in her flinging around.

"Medical, Third Officer Ellios here."

"Go ahead, Third Officer."

"We need a doctor or a med tech at my location, stat. We have a guest having a seizure here. I have her under control, but she needs anti-convulsant medication and a hospital bed."

Ten minutes passed. I continued to keep Alanna from hurting herself, and told Madame to back off; this was a medical situation and I was dealing with it, until a doctor arrived. Later, if she wished, she could complain to the Captain, but right now her daughter was in danger, and nothing else mattered.

Meanwhile, the ginchy was running up and down my spine, cackling and shrieking. Seizures are contagious; if a seizure-prone person is forced to watch or attend someone else having one, he's likely to have one, too. The corridor was beginning to swim around me, and waves of heat and cold were racking my body.

"Medical, this is Third Officer Ellios again. Where's that doctor or med tech?"

"On their way, Third Officer. We've had other calls in the last few minutes."

"You'd better send someone here, right now! I'm seizure-prone, and I'm about to lose it myself!"

"Right away, Third Officer!"

The last thing I saw, as my stomach cramped and I folded in half over Alanna Farisen, was the Second Officer coming out of a doorway and running down the corridor towards me.

Always before, when I'd had a seizure, I recalled nothing when I woke up. The brain isn't still during a convulsion, but firing madly. Maybe every seizure is accompanied by weird visions; if so, I lost them on waking. But the psychestar seizure was different.

All the Hlaffith of five systems retracted their eyes at once. Out in space, mental energies began to gather and swirl, invisible to material senses.

"It doesn't matter what you call yourselves," I told the profiteer in the comm screen. "It's what the Hlaffith call you that you'd better worry about!" And I cut the connection before he could say a word.

Alanna and I were naked in bed, with our arms around each other. She ducked her head, shyly. I cupped one breast in my hand, and captured her gasp with my lips.

The energies swirled in to a center, and began to glow…

I held up one hand, as if swearing an oath. "The word is spoken," I said. The thirty-foot long Hlaffith general, pure white with age, responded in the whistles and grunts of his own language. Wait, that wasn't me. That was an ancestor of mine…

"You say you are gods, and demand the return of your holy relic. You lie! You aren't gods, but people from another world, and the Eye of Ra is no divine artifact, but a weapon you don't know how to make any more. Stay out of my country, from now on, or we'll use the Eye on you!"

Mallulla, magnificently naked, held me effortlessly in her two hands. I was naked, too, terrified and aroused all at once. "I decide, little man!" she said. "I do! No man owns me!" I whispered, "And what have you decided?" She didn't answer in words, but opened her mouth and raised me to her lips…

I hit the emeergency all-channels mode. "Sauve qui peut! Save yourself, anyone who can! All ships, maximum acceleration, now now now!"

The psychestar bloomed! It caught fire, and began to spew light and heat like a real star. All the Hlaffith, everywhere, screamed in agony and exaltation.

"The Dragon Kings are dying out, and rarely come to our world any more. And there are no other aliens ready to take their place. This is our chance! If we seize the alien devices and installations scattered over our world, in orbit, and throughout the systema nd learn to use them, then, when the next set of invaders comes to us, we'll be able to strike them down! Never again will the world be conquered by creatures from outer space!"

Above, the stars watched, wondered, and waited.

I put my hands on Amina's shoulders from behind, and put the tip of my penis in her. She moaned, and shoved back hard, pushing me all the way in. Then it was my turn to moan, as she began to move…

"Our time is done," the Hlaffith said. "The psychestar signals the end of our species, of our kind. But to you who are here at the end, a gift."

The psychestar blazed, and humans fell down, shaking and twitching.

"On this day, the Third Galactic Empire welcomes the people of the Third Galaxy as subjects of His Imperial Majesty, Gannor IV."

Waking was full of pain. It took all my strength of open the canopy of the emergency medical pod I found myself in. The stars whirled about me, as the lifeboat spun rapidly about its axis of flight.

The psychestar blazed, and the Hlaffith died.

"Here and now, we don't know how to go from one Universe to another. But we can flee to the next cycle of the Universe, with what we know of Time."

Mallulla, Alanna, Amina, and I stood at the edge of a vast field covered many layers deep with Hlaffith shells. "We all had to be here," Mallulla said, gravely.

Kusiokirjoitanuo  rebililessasibothoshi  koheyaleikamalilitu,
Kusiosalainasalui  pirasilikukramonoshi  maliluashanikoheya,
Kusiokahapikoheya  kusioharesikoheya  kusiokoheyaviddalo:

Kakaik'oyakirjoitasi  kunolessasibothoshi  koskatalenaleikata,
Kakaisalainasikohaya  burasikukragihonoshi  ashanitalehomarilu,
K'oyalokahapitalena,  k'oyaloharetuatala,  kohayatalenaviddalo.

"Papalo, what's a 'strange visitor'?"

The Psychestar blazed, and my body jerked and spasmed. As it did so, scenes poured through my mind, not only of the near future and the recent past, but of times and places far in the history of the human race, and far in the centuries and millennia to come.

I opened my eyes, unsure who I was, or what was real. Gradually I realized that I was in my cabin on Seffor's Bride, in my bed. Most of the lights were out, making the room dim. I started to sit up, and my head spun with dizziness. I clutched it to keep it from falling off.

There was motion in the corner of the room. The Second Officer (Mallulla Hatonsa, I said to myself) unfolded her tall, strong body and came to the side of my bed. "Good, you're awake," she said. "How do you feel?"

"Like I'm still dreaming," I said. "Are you really here?"

She smiled, and captured my hand with one of hers. "I really am."

To be continued!

Some Dates in the First Universe

1— First Galactic Empire begins, on a world of the First Galaxy, when the first Emperor is crowned.

2300 — Official end, or fall, of the First Galactic Empire.

2850 — Official beginning, or rise, of the Second Galactic Empire, on a world of the Second Galaxy.

3700-3900: Colonization of the Third Galaxy. ViceImperium of the Third Galaxy established, capital planet Hanush.

3970 — Official end, or fall, of the Second Galactic Empire.

3970 — Official end, or fall, of the Second Galactic Empire.

4260 — The planet Ladoga is colonized by refugees tired of being a buffer state between three ethnically-alien larger nations hostile to them and each other.

4340 — The planet Vannim is colonized by refugees from a planet of the Near Stars.

4410 — First psychestar known to human beings. The Hlaffith remove all surviving human beings from Ladoga.

4414 — Santandar’s great-grandfather born, on the planet Vannim.

4430 — Consortium of the Near Stars founded, in a ceremony on Hanush.

4474 — Santandar’s grandfather born, on Vannim.

4501 — Parliament of Stars founded, in the Second Galaxy.

4553 — Santandar’s father is born.

4560 — Luxury cruise ship Seffor's Bride launched.

4583 — Santandar Ellios born, on Vannim.

4613 — The second psychestar ever experienced by human beings blooms, and the other events narrated in “Psychestar” occur.

4813 — 200th anniversary of the Psychestar. Santandar talks about it at a conference.

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