Sep 302012
 

Read me the story:
Impressionistic landscape with golden and peach hills, and blue-shadowed trees and house in the cleft of the hills.The navlink pinged. They were approaching the point where the stratline’s autonav would drop them. Mohv fed a Kyth shortcode to the interface that enabled them to use the stratline powerlink without the system recording it, and let the flowcar descend slowly to a contour altitude well below the now sparsely-occupied traffic lane.

The evening color display was being replaced by the pale radiance of starblaze. Beyond the Center dome, the tavis fields didn’t dim the blaze for nightcycle except with local overrides, so it was plenty light enough to view the rolling terrain sloping down to the Park on their right, and the widening gaps between dark-shielded or artificially-lit clusters of human habitation.

The clusters grew further apart and they seemed to be navigating across entirely uninhabited territory. Only a faint glow on the far horizon, the Pelarati College domes, gave any hint of why a stratline led in this direction. Mohv glanced down at the position ping on the nav board, then squinted into the hills ahead on their left.

“Says it’s up there.”

A faint blue light appeared in a fold between two ridges. “Must be that.”

Rawls was still staring into the scanfield. “Yeah, the security field is registering on the PPS now. Should I ping them?”

Quiddik shrugged. “Why not.”

“Standard acknowledgement, no voice, no vid.”

“Okay.” Quiddik warmed the aux power battery and released the stratline link. The flowcar slid smoothly out of the traffic pattern, the starblaze giving it a faint shadow on the uneven terrain below.

“Big!” Rawls was surprised. The habitat ahead was dark-shielded, but through the polarized screen faint lights were now visible, indicating a sprawling, many-structured habitat spread along the bank of a stream that fed into the Park’s riparian network. As they got closer the blue light resolved itself to a fieldgate indicator.

At their approach, a pleasant tenor voice, apparently a recording, wafted through the nav board’s speaker. “Hi, welcome to Headwaters. We don’t have accommodation for guest vehicles inside the security field, but you’re welcome to park on the secure pad by the gate. We’ll be with you shortly.”

The two Kyth operatives exchanged glances. Quiddik maneuvered the flowcar gently down on its grav-cushion while Rawls confirmed their arrival for Dispatch, and activated various recording devices.

The fieldgate was a simple archway with a stone pad in front of it. As they stepped onto it, the gate irised open. There was no one on the other side, but a disembodied voice from the stanchion just inside addressed them in a slightly husky alto: “Please come through to the main house, ahead and to your left. I’ll send Stav to meet you.” In the background, they could hear a murmur of subdued conversation, someone playing a vianallo—quite well—and a tenor voice saying “why me?” while another laughed.

Again they exchanged glances. Rawls indicated in Kyth silent-talk that they were in a surveillance field and presumably being recorded, and that their live-transmit recording device was being efficiently jammed, but not the static recorder. Quiddik shrugged and they set off in the direction indicated.

A series of ground lights came on, illuminating a path that wound between a dim-shrouded variety of shapes breathing living scents into the cooling air. The stream in the distance burbled gently over rocks, adding a background soundtrack. Quiddik was conscious of an impulse to relax—but that only made him more alert. He blinked, purposefully, to activate his IR lenses.

With that assistance, the landscape was revealed as strips and patches of garden plots, winding along the path and extending back from it. At least, he assumed they were garden plots. Plants arranged in various configurations, some orderly, some less so, some crowded, some sparse. Here and there a bench or an array of stones or some other apparently purposeful object varied the arrangements.

A bright figure approached along the path, presumably “Stav,” and he deactivated the lenses. As his eyes readjusted, additional lighting activated, this time from above, glare-free but light enough to make out the amiable expression on Stav’s face. He was almost as tall as Mohv, not so muscular around the upper torso, but he moved with supple poise and easy assurance. He might be in his thirties.

He approached, and stopped, unostentatiously out of arm’s reach. “Good evening. I’m Stavann Kassinger. A call came in from Kyth just a few minutes ago. I’m to ask you each for a code?”

Codes given, as well as their names, Stav nodded. “Thanks. This way to the main house.” He gestured, and then stood aside to let them pass him. They walked ahead of him about fifty meters along the winding path, to the single-level, rambling building. Quiddik had the hyper-alert feeling he generally associated with being observed through a range-finder, and wondered why someone had bothered with the Kyth Agency at all.

He and Rawl stopped politely on the stone threshold.

Stav smiled apologetically. “Gentlemen, I’m certain that you’re armed. We have a rather strict policy about who’s allowed to carry weapons indoors at Headwaters, so if you don’t mind, I’ll ask you to leave your weapons in the stash?” He gestured to a recessed panel, with a simple thumb lock on the frame, next to the door on the left.

He’d maintained that unobtrusive, arms-length distance from them, and had quietly dropped into a flanking position that left several possible lines of fire from concealed observers. Somewhat bemusedly, Mohv glanced at Rawl, and the shorter man, with a slight shrug, reached out and activated the thumb lock. The panel slid open; it was a featureless cube, but Mohv knew battlesteel in all its guises.

He and Rawls placed the obvious guns inside, and then, without even a sideways glance, the less obvious weapons each carried. Rawls thumbed the lock again, and the panel closed. Stav smiled at them. “Thanks. We have our little ways. Appreciate your cooperation.”

The door opened. Another man, this one possibly in his late twenties, stockier-built, but with a round, innocent-looking face under a shock of black hair, stepped back and smiled. “Welcome to Headwaters. I’m Chun.” He glanced at Stav. “Ani says take them through to the workroom.”

Their guide nodded, and led them along a convoluted route that included hallways, short staircases, rooms, a few ramps, out through a courtyard with more garden in it, back in, around corners, down another ramp and then through a wide, low-arched doorway into a torrent of sound that resolved itself into two women and a man jamming on vianallos and a set of kanga drums.

There were five other people in the room besides the musicians; three adults, two children in the between-toddler-and-teenager range. One of the adults was a rather thick-set woman who might be in her fifties, possibly sixty—middle age, at any rate. She had a long, gray-streaked braid of hair over one shoulder and wore a loose, colorful coverall in the Parsi style. She looked up, saw the three men in the doorway, smiled, and waved, gesturing to one of the long sofas, and then turned her head back to the musicians, who were reaching some kind of climactic musical moment. Quiddik wasn’t a Vils fan, but he recognized the driving lilt and layered rhythms that characterized the style. He and Rawl sat.

The music drove to a torrential conclusion, with a coda, and a flourish, and the three musicians sat back, grinning and laughing. The others all applauded; the two Kyth men grinned politely. The woman with the braid turned to Mohv and Declan. “You will be Mister Rawl and Mister Quiddik,” she said in Translingue, but with a Parsi lilt to her speech. “I am Anisala.”

She looked around at the others. “Stav and Chun you have met.” She gestured to the male and female vianallo players. “Varanada and Pek, and our kanga player is Tularik.” She indicated the other young woman, who had a scan console in her lap. “Nelauk.” The children were now staring curiously at the strangers. “Come, Gavanne, Hetra, meet Mr. Rawl and Mr. Quiddik.”

The children nodded politely.

“And now, Gavanne, what was the deal?”

The girl, who might have been around ten, looked annoyed, then shrugged resignedly. “One more song, and then bed.”

Anisala smiled, and looked at the remaining adult, a slender man wearing his long dark hair in elaborate Parsi pattern-braids. “Teshi v’arhaql an, Manchiv.”

He grinned. “Only when they’re here, Ani. They’re trying to impress you. Night greets, Hetra, Gavanne.”

The boy, a year or so younger than his sister, reluctantly got to his feet. He put his palms together, fingertips under his chin, and bowed to Manchiv, and then Anisala. “Night keep you, taka, and my father.”

“Oh, courteous young warrior!” applauded the female vianallo player, detaching the keyclamps from her fretboard. She grinned at the boy, and he bowed to her as well, then rather spoiled the gravity of the gesture with a slight bounce. “That’s right, isn’t it, Pek?”

“Just so, Gav. More tomorrow.”

The girl sighed, and stood up as well, and took her brother’s hand. “All right. Night keep, Father, Ani.” She glanced back over her shoulder at the two Kyth operatives as she exited.

It wasn’t lost on Mohv that Stav and Chun’s casual-seeming positions were angled precisely where he and Declan might have been, had they been on alert protecting the target.

Sep 282012
 

Read me the story:

Colorful skyscape with vivid rose, purple, blue lights and stars against night sky.It was around the hub of the evening in glorious Tanhesh, the capital of fabled beauty Siriran, Empress of the Neopars’anii Worlds Federation. The tavis field lightly filtered the last rays of the Peacock Sun, sending random fountains of green-gold and turquoise light flaring through the graceful towers of the Forbidden Hive. Declan Rawl and Mohv Quiddik of the Kyth Agency, in a flowcar negotiating the tail end of mainshift rush hour, were oblivious to the stunning display. It was old stuff to them.

Siriran had originally been the product of a plutocrat’s fancy, purchased as the culmination of a couple of generations’ worth of wealth accumulation in the lucrative interstellar shipping sector. Farahay Nirajin had been the last controlling owner of a Galanian combine that dominated most of the far-flung nexus of daughter and granddaughter colonies. At the end of his life, he’d been consumed with the idea of creating a private colony based on his own artistic concepts.

Money can buy just about anything. In Nirajin’s case, it bought an Optimal-2 planet charter, a thousand-year premium terraforming package, a top-of-the-line habitat engineering support system, and three of the Hub’s more astonishing habitats, before changes in shipping routes, heedless expenditure, and mercantile mopery and dopery bankrupted the project. And Nirajin.

The planet was a bit of a white elephant—one reason a private buyer had been able to afford it was its lack of any discernible economic assets, another was its (then) inconvenient location in an offshoot node of the Bharagat Circuit, well outside of normal Galanian nexus trade routes. But the relocation of Arvash Galan and expansion of the IPC beacon net routes in the Circuit placed it very favorably indeed when the original Pars’anii terraforming was winding down and the much-expanded colony needed a new home. Parsi culture being given to the extravagant gesture to begin with, it seemed to be, in the native argot, “kazhmé” (fate).

Siriran became the capital world for the growing Federation. Pars’anii being a polyglot bunch to begin with, their open-door policy for long-term visitors, immigrant groups, and habitat sub-lessees produced one of the Hub’s more colorful worlds.

Quiddik eased the flowcar onto the stratline that linked the west end of Tanhesh Center to the meandering series of smaller habitats that fringed the vast Kirancj Park system, built against the foothills of an old, rounded-off mountain range. He selected a departure station two stops up from the stop that served the m’Anhadon compound, and released it to auto. It would ping him when they were approaching the stop. He turned to Rawl, who had activated a scanfield and connected to the Kyth datahub.

“What have we got?”

Rawl’s fingers twitched delicately, manipulating the data returned, adding more levels, re-arranging the relationships. “Something interesting.”

“Interesting how?” Quiddik had enough data handling skills to make him formidable in any average commercial or academic context, but he wasn’t in the lofty data-wrangling class of Kyth’s elite. Kyth had acquired his strategic skills and experience, as well as his general utility in any kind of mayhem, when it had become too dangerous for Quiddik to continue his employment with Tranest Corporation’s Security Division.

A faint line had appeared between Rawl’s thick, straight brows. “Just a minute… Nope.” He angled the display so that Quiddik could view it. It took Mohv a bit longer than it had taken his colleague, but the net result was the same: A very effective, polite lockout on private data of any kind related to Anisala m’Anhadan—including a very effective security screen on the compound itself. “Can we bust that?”

Rawls shrugged. “Well, sure. Anything can be busted. But untraceably? Not from here, and not before we get there. And I’m pretty sure they’d regard the attempt as an unfriendly gesture, which is not the impression we want to make.”

“Huh.” Mohv frowned. “So, what did the public profile generate?”

Rawls called it up. Kyth’s profiling was as thorough a CRAP utility—collection, review, analysis, and presentation—of publicly-available data on anything, as you could get outside of a U-League research lab. And there was a surprising lot of publicly-available data on Anisala m’Anhadan, for such a low-profile individual. Very little of it was directly related to m’Anhadan herself. But the second- and third- order connections were copious, and the patterns were revealing, of… something.

Both men were frowning as the profile marched down the display field. “OK, that’s…” Rawls muttered. “…weird.” Quiddik finished it for him.

“So… is she an academic? Or an entrepreneur?”

“Or an artist?”

“Or an entertainment packager?”

“Researcher.”

“Yeah, but that’s a damn’ peculiar mix of fields.”

Quiddik shook his head. “And a damn’ peculiar mix of first- and second-order associates.”

Declan frowned. “It doesn’t add up. Why would she be going to a Colonial School Small-Cluster Conference?”

Quiddik shrugged. “And why would anyone care? Why would someone want to keep her from going to the Conference?”

Now Declan was shaking his head. “Ours is not to reason why,” he pointed out.

“Yeah. But this is shaping up to be an interesting assignment,” Mohv Quiddik grinned.

Sep 212012
 

Colored chalk sketch in brilliant reds and greens of a highly stylized figure with wings.Excerpts from “Faith and Philosophy: Directions for Hub Culture” by Wenada Thinmark; Kriviti e Filles, pub., Cirpris Minor

All of the dominant religious traditions currently extant in the Hub trace their origins back to the original colonial axes of Altair and Procyon, and fall into three major groupings, with a few outliers. This is not to say that all of them are direct linear progressions of established pre-Hub faith traditions, but most bear some connection to the faiths practiced on the Mothers of Colonies, and claimed to originate directly from Old Terra.

Pan-Scriptic Faiths

These faiths base their doctrine on scriptures claimed to originate on Terra Prime. Some convergence among the current scriptures of each of the four major panscriptic faith groups might be considered to support the claim, but interpretations and millennia of divergent exegesis have all but eliminated any traceable continuity. The major panscriptic faiths include:

Duo-Latteran Extemporalism

A cluster of Theist faiths based around a non-messianic mythos that places existent creation in time through the agency of human will as a divergence from divine intent. A desirable post-existent state of conscious identity outside of time (extemporal) is the result of Duo-Latteran adherence/practice.

Most of the Duo-Latteran traditions trace back to the Procyon Colonial axes, and the Hamartic sects claim to trace their textual origins clear back to Terra Prime, although no evidence of such a succession has ever been verified.

There are three main Duo-Latteran subsects:

Epistemic Duo-Latteran variants comprise by far the largest population of adherents, having traveled widely in the wake of the Procyonic expansion. Epistemic sects promote the integration of theology and phenomenological observation, freely acknowledging large lacunae in theological consistency and accreting texts based on all kinds of traditions, claims of enlightenment, and evolving hermeneutics. Practice tends to the moderate and individual, although some sects have a strong community practice tradition. Epistemic sects rarely proselytize and are strictly non-poligious.

Soteric Duo-Latteran variants exist in the Procyon axis but are found mostly in the Ras Ophiuchi cluster and the Finahaari cultures along the main upwest nexus in the Hub, although a small cluster of rimworlds seems to have adopted variant subcults based on Soteric/Hamartic syncretism. Soteric sects are among the oldest Duo-Latteran traditions and may represent the original pre-dispersion form of the faith. Most Soteric sects proselytize, embrace nonviolence, but require quite strict observance of both community and individual practice. Some sectarian conflict erupts from time to time, as the Soteric variants tend toward poligious practice.

Hamartic Duo-Latteran sects are widely scattered, although the total number of adherents is comparatively small in Hub terms. They tend to sectarian violence, embrace freebirth and manifest destiny, proselytize vigorously, demand strict observance of practice and rigid poligious integration, and reject other Duo-Latteran variants as heretical. Most variants are strongly libristic, with prophetic traditions and beliefs.

Gayesh Voluti

At one time, the predominant faith of the Galanian and Neo-Prime colonial axes. The rigid ethnocultural strictures of early Gayesh contributed largely to Phase One of the Hub Wars and provoked several waves of genocide. After the Gaya-Mirdan Council, Voluti believership contracted to a small minority as most Gayesh embraced the Reform, but a number of Voluti sects survived in tertiary Galanian client colonies. The early Voluti rigidity has been subject to moderating hermeneutical influences, and current observance is non-poligious, although it maintains a high level of ritual and strict observances. Freebirth practices have contributed to a slow re-expansion of Gayesh Voluti in the upnorth nodes and Vieri Rim cluster.

Reformed Gayesh

The second-largest cluster of Pan-Scriptic faiths, Reformed Gayesh sects propagated freely in the wake of the Council and predominates among U-League nexi. Although Reformed Gayesh traces scriptural origins to the same group of texts the Voluti sects claim, an epistemological hermeneutic tradition and a long accretion of exegetical sub-texts to scriptural status has resulted in semi-theist ethosophical character and liberal practice among the various Reformed Gayesh sects.

Diasporic Yesran

Aspecific theist beliefs based in a highly ethnocultural interpretation of its scripture, combined with strict non-proselytization have kept the population of Diasporic Yesrans both comparatively small and genetically distinct. The three main variants, Yesra Jasit, Yesra Savic, and Yesra Zamari, intermingle to some extent, but most Yesran communities are endogamous. Freebirth practices contribute to population maintenance. Yesrans are scattered throughout the Hub, clustering wherever cultural tolerance and freebirth allowance permit them to maintain their idiosyncratic practices. There are no predominantly Yesran colonies known in the Hub.

Ethosophical Faiths

Most ethosophical faiths are aspecific theist or semi-theist in nature, although several have non-theist variants. Some claim scriptural origins and traditions, but rather than basing practice solely on scriptural or theological underpinnings, they relate practice to cultural, ethological, philosophical and/or ideological considerations.

Calichaeism

A widely practiced aspecific Theist faith with many variants and sub-variants, Calichaeism is underpinned by a long tradition of philosopher-sages and their writings. Although not considered explicitly doctrinal in nature, the oldest grouping of these, the ‘Ahpazhadi’, said to date back to the pre-Hub Altair colonies, is accepted by almost all Calichaen variants as foundational.

Calichaen sects are by and large non-eschatological and most presume individual human consciousness to be a finite manifestation of an infinite divinity, working through time and matter to extend the divine in both immanent and transcendent spheres.

Most of the Calichaen variants fall into one of two major strands, each further divided into hundreds of variant sects:

Coherentist Calichaen sects maintain a loosely theological structure based on the assumption that all deities are subsumed in a processionist revelation based on, and reflective of, evolving human understanding of the divine. The central task of the devout, therefore, is the exploration and exposition of the nature of divinity. Different sects regard this from a transcendent or immanent viewpoint, and there are many schools of practice based on or in metaphysical discipline and ritual, all more or less related to the foundational Ahpazhadi writings.

Doxastic Calichaen sects maintain an eccentric theological structure based on the “reverberant” nature of the divine, eschewing any linear or progressive assumptions in favor of an iterative model. The central task of the devout is to achieve a level of personal understanding and practice that will enable the believer to “express the divine” in the immanent state. Most doxastic sects are mildly and unaggressively proselytic. Almost all revere the teachings of the Nineteen Sages, a group of Aurigan philosophers from the mid-second millennium of Hub dispersion.

Zen Lin’rasf

A non-theist philosophical matrix largely restricted to the Ophiuchi Circuit and the Ras Miraman colonial nexi, although spreading slowly among the Central Nexus worlds. Lin’rasf has always had a strong appeal among the higher levels of University League leadership. Lin’rasf emphasizes the achievement of “perfect balance” (zen) between a set of dicta called the “desiderata extant” (lin’annara nexraf in the older versions of Hub Translingue.) Practices of physical and mental discipline allow the believer to ‘balance’ and ‘rebalance’ based on relative ethical and moral imperatives.

Lin’rasi claim that as the practice of Lin’rasf is non-theist, it may be adopted as a form of personal spiritual discipline and enhancement by believers of any religion or sect, and some Reformed Gayesh sects have adopted many Lin’rasi practices.

Libraic Yesran

Although Libraic Yesran theology is more explicitly theist than most ethosophical faith variants, its doctrine is based not on the theology it shares with the Diasporic Yesran sects but on the “writings” dating to the pre-Hub Leksandri Project and representing a series of debates, exegetics, and ethical dicta developed by Yesran Nahin (clerics) in the Leksandri Habitat.

Libraic Yesrans are non-proselytic and largely endogamous, devolving “membership” by birth, but they accept and educate converts. The status of the “Called” (converts) obtains some special obligations as to practice and education. Education is regarded as a prime spiritual duty. Libraic Yesrans do not condone freebirth, placing a high value on practice that maintains the economic viability and cultural coherence of their communities.

Neoprophetics

“Neoprophetics” is essentially a portmanteau term encompassing dozens of faiths that have emerged in the wake of the Hub colonial expansion, originating in the teachings or revelations of specific leaders claiming divine status or inspiration. While new neoprophetic faiths continue to emerge, occasionally branching from established faiths as well as springing from more esoteric roots, three have become fairly well established, with substantial believer communities and influence.

Ummasa Monotheism

Based on the Revelations (Harantha) of Umadhi-Aksad, which he claimed to receive as the “rekindling” of an ancient text supposed to date from pre-colonial Terra. The “six stars” of Ummasa are the profession of Ummasa as the only valid faith, performance of daily religious observance, study of the Harantha, the obligation of charity, the performance of an elaborate ritual called the “Kandach” at least once during the believer’s adult life, and the “Vow of Purity” to procreate only with others of the Faith.

Ummasa was strongly proselytic during the early Hub Wars and in fact drew many of the upeast and downnorth colonies of the Miranthi Union and the (then) proto-Finhaar worlds into the Second Hub War. At one time it was the dominant faith in most of the upeast node as well as the Alamari Rim cluster, and although colonial infill has diminished its influence somewhat it remains one of the larger faith groups in those areas.

Oves

Oves (“Way,” in Shinanese) is the work of the charismatic “prophet” Nishi Uela. It began as an offshoot of a fairly obscure Duo-Latteran sect on Procyon D in the wake of the Third Conference. It swept quickly through the latter Procyon-axis colonies and the Tirvath cluster. In its first hundred years it was the subject of repeated scandal, with accusations that Nishi Uela was in fact a Tranest Corporation agent, pursuing a religio-political agenda with the aim of discrediting the Kim Sons Combine and bolstering Mesram Xina control of several key economic axes in the Ophiuchi Circuit. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to get the Hub Mercantile Council to raise an Adjudicatory Enquiry on the issue of Oves financial practices.

Since Uela’s death a series of “Prophet Heirs” have kept the sect expanding slowly along the Tirvath/Cirpris trade routes.

Descentant Upani

Originally a Calichaen offshoot sect, the Descentant Upani were the result of a schism fomented by Udu Suari me-Varanath, who claimed that a re-examination of the oldest iterations of the Ahpazhadi revealed gross transcription and translation errors, and that the actual source for the writings were ancient Terran texts available in fragmentary form on Tantriga’s University Station. She announced that a combination of scholarship and revelation had enabled her to “restore” the original version.

In addition to taking strong hold in the colonial arms descended from the Nazred-Dinaj system colonies, several Independent Fleet clans recognized the Descentant Upani texts and it is believed to be the second most widely practiced Faith among the Fleets.

Sep 192012
 

Read me the story:
A drawing of a large campus set on a hillside, with solar collectors for power, raised walkways, etc.A little holocon popped up on the corner of Lennath Makforsith’s desk. She caught its eye and nodded. “Ren Dylart of the Kyth Agency,” it announced. Len touched a desk control that would enable Dylart’s visitor tag to guide him through the complicated warren of staff offices, study carrels, work areas, labs, and meeting rooms that formed the History Department. She suspected he didn’t need it. It was a good .15 hour walk, though, so she returned to running simulations based on the latest trend modeling tags.

A polite tap on the side of the doorframe and a simultaneous “ping!” from the tag announced the Kyth operative’s arrival. With a gesture, she retracted the datatap that connected her to the Colonial School’s main History Archive, and re-focused her eyes.

Dylart had the kind of alert, unobtrusive competence she expected, and something about the set of his eyes and the small lines around them argued for a sense of humor, too. She gestured to a chair. “You can move the boxfile. Just set it on top of those others.”

He glanced at the apparent chaos, but complied without comment, and sat. Offering hands wasn’t a custom in the Central Hub nexus, but he nodded politely.

“Professor Makforsith, I’m honored to meet you. I found your comparative analysis of the post-Conference Charter Conventions in the Ophiuchi Circuit most insightful.”

“Indeed. You have an interest in Conflict History?”

He smiled. “An occupational interest. Kyth takes on a good many Private War contracts in downeast, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

She smiled back. “Quite so. I’d be interested, sometime, to hear any commentaries your organization could provide on its involvement in the Wylenth/Kim Sons disputes.”

He didn’t appear surprised. “If such commentaries existed, which of course I cannot confirm or deny, they are naturally restricted to internal distribution.” She was right, there was a sense of humor there.

There was a brief silence. She glanced at the window, where late-afternoon sunlight caught just the right angle to sparkle on the nanofilter screen embedded in the polysilicate. Her office was on the fourteenth level, well below the traffic lanes for stratcars, and far above the pedestrian traffic on the walkways that connected this cluster of Colonial School buildings. The angle of the sun was now such that not even a very good snoopscope filter could enable someone to see into the office from the Culturology building, a hundred and ten meters away.

“Colonial School has a Small-Cluster conference coming up, on Farn-Amli,” she began. “In conjunction with that conference, we’ll be having a series of meetings, sponsored by various commercial entities, to discuss the progress of the Devlin Survey.”

His gaze sharpened. “There is progress?”

“There will be, by then.”

The Devlin Survey was a U-League project, underwritten by a consortium of commercial and political interests, to review the sub-Optimal status of a number of systems in two adjacent star clusters in the downnorth node. If the status was upgraded, the planets in those systems might be released for terraforming and subsequent colonization. Given the comparative scarcity of desirable planetary real estate in that node, there would inevitably be considerable maneuvering to obtain and use the information to the advantage of interested parties.

Potentially bloody, savage maneuvering. It would undoubtedly be one focus of the Conference to minimize the radius and intensity of the anticipated damage.

Dylart’s head angled. “ULeague Security normally handles your conferences, doesn’t it?”

“They do, and they will.”

He waited.

She waited.

His eyes narrowed and the corners of his mouth twitched. “Would it help if I observed that you have a quite astonishing suite of anti-surveillance tools active in this office?” The smile deepened. “Astonishing for a quiet academic, with nothing to hide, that is. Even if I wanted to record this conversation, I’d be unable to do so.”

“I am a quiet academic,” she pointed out blandly. “But who doesn’t have something to hide?”

He nodded. “I imagine that a Colonial School Regent might have one or two items that don’t come under the Information Availability charter clause.”

Lennath didn’t advertise her status as a Regent. It was publicly-available information, of course, but you’d have to know where to look. She nodded, rather abruptly.

“All right. You do your background. If you know that I’m one of Colonial School’s Regents, you probably also know that I have other administrative concerns. One of which is, very specifically, exactly the charter clause you mentioned.”

“Information availability.”

“That, yes.” She sat back, and let her gaze drop to her desktop for an unhurried breath. “It’s always been a key difference between our responsibilities and those of the Mercantile Council. And a certain amount of…” she paused to select a word.

After a beat or so, Dylart offered one: “Skullduggery?”

“Just so. We expect a few skulls to be dugged, now and then. It runs both ways. We get by on what is essentially a tacit agreement that if anyone can successfully break the rules– and the definition of success is somewhat fluid– it might be added to an account here or there, but it won’t provoke the kind of retaliation that could lead to extended and undesirable levels of conflict.”

“I imagine that both parties put a certain amount of emphasis on preventing those rules from being broken, then.” His brows drew together slightly. “The University League doesn’t necessarily seem to be… er… playing in the same class, when it comes to such objectives.”

“You cannot have thought it through.”

He eyed her speculatively, and did so. The dawning comprehension on his face brought a smile to hers. “Exactly. Where do you think innovative technology comes from? Certainly not from corporate R&D budgets. And also… we have students.”

“Interesting. I must suggest to my analysis division that we restructure some of our models.”

“I expect so. Consider it lagniappe.”

She glanced at the window again; turned back to Dylart. “We have two problems that Kyth can assist us with. One is a perfectly ordinary personal security assignment. There is a guest scheduled to attend the upcoming conference. As she is not associated with the University League, and there is no official endorsement of her views, it would not be appropriate for her to be covered by our security. On the other hand, we have reason to believe that there are those who would prefer she not be present.”

Dylart nodded. “That sounds fairly straightforward.”

“It is. We may not all agree with Anisala m’Anhadan, but it is perfectly consistent that we would enable her to bring the information she and others have compiled to the table for this discussion. No one will be surprised, though there may be –dismay– in some quarters, that we arrange Kyth protection.”

The name conveyed nothing to Dylart. “We’ll need a full threat assessment briefing. When would you like protection to start?”

“Now, if possible. You were certainly seen arriving. By the time you reach the main gate, the reason for your visit will be known.” She held out a mylar wisp. “This is everything we’ve put together on the threat assessment so far, and I or one of my staff will be available if you need additional information.” She touched a sensor faired into her chair arm. “You should be able to call out, now, on a shielded band.”

Dylart reached into the breast pocket of his very conservative business jacket, and extracted a very ordinary-looking viewer. He slid the wisp onto the top sensor, and then tapped in a few codes. “According to your information, m’Anhadan is currently on Siriran, at Tanhesh. We’ll have a team on her in,” he glanced at the readout, “about an hour, allowing for beacon lag at the Auriga nexus relay.”

“Good.” Lennath imagined that the invoice eventually submitted from Kyth would make for some serious heartburn in the Bursary. She restrained a smile, leaned back, and again touched the sensor on her chair arm.

“The other matter is… unofficial.”

“Yes?” Dylart waited politely.

“You’ll receive a request. In the next 48 hours, I should imagine. I’m not at all sure what name will be attached to it, but it will involve a routine background check for a potential senior executive hire, for a new company providing adventure entertainment. The person you assign this to should be someone who is capable of dealing with matters more complex than a routine background check.”

He watched her closely. “But not, for instance, myself. Or any other known senior Kyth operative.”

She nodded, pleased by his comprehension. “Just so.”

It was completely unnecessary to caution him that this conversation had never taken place.

Sep 162012
 

A loan statement document, blank, with boxes for interest, payments, etc.“You’ve always been lazy. Bone lazy.”

It wasn’t necessarily true, Zarel thought, but it was probably fair. She inclined her head, a little stiffly. “As you wish, Brother. You are The Kerant.” She took refuge in formality, but it did not appease him. He glowered at her.

“Dammit, Zar, even if you don’t care about the family obligation, you might consider our duty to the people,” but even as he said it, he flushed, aware he’d overstepped. “I’m not discounting the sacrifices you’ve already made. But do you realize what’s at stake, here?”

Probably better than you, you little smarp, she thought, but allowed her face to show no trace of annoyance. She assumed a feminine meekness which, had Jarvin known her better, would have set off all kinds of alarms. “Brother, I’m well aware that civ is disastrously short of leadership, but so too are the Church and the Military. We are all, as you pointed out so eloquently in your last Emergency Message, in this pod together. You’d be opening yourself to considerable censure putting a female, and one who’s so near a relation, in such a sensitive post at this point— why take the risk? Of course I’ll do what I can to help, behind the scenes, as it were.”

He was mollified. Their brother’s advice, “Never let your guard down with her for an instant,” might have been ash floating in the vortexes that engulfed the ravaged planet below them, for all he remembered. “Trust me, Zar. It’ll work out all right. In this case, it’s not so much a case of having you in the position, as not having someone else there. A Tarvine, for instance. Or a Kleksal. You see? You’ve seen the rosters, you know who we’ve got to work with, reconstituting an Administration. The Tarvines and the Kleks—among others—both have to have significant roles, but can you see the surviving doyens of either family in that Seat?”

He had a point. The Tarvine and The Kleksal had both been killed in the Conflagration, among fourteen of the seventeen Seated Members of the Klarosian Civil Administration. Their responsibilities had necessarily devolved to the senior males surviving in each family, which meant in the case of the Kleks, (who were Kerant allies,) a promising but appallingly inexperienced cadet who’d been completing a Practicum rotation on the Port Authority, and in the case of the Tarvines, (who were Kerant rivals,) a venal time-server in Commerce who’d been “inspecting” some incoming cargoes on Kitran.

“Don’t you see? That hitch you did as Adlitem Trustee for Ranlis and Yallan makes it perfectly reasonable to put you in as Finance Pro Tem. Even Harlis agreed your performance was stellar, and that was a complicated Trust. It’s enough experience to make it a reasonable Pro Tem appointment, and without a Klek or Tarvine capable of contesting it, it will have to stand for now. And at least I won’t have that to worry about. I’ll give you some of the best fixers we’ve got left, all you’ll have to do is keep an eye on things and flag me if anything comes up.”

She surveyed her younger brother for a moment, without letting her amusement at his transparency show. He wanted a puppet in Finance, and would doubtless set her up with some fixer from his staff—Galdrin, maybe, or Porlot—to do all the work, while his “lazy” older sister attended Administrative meetings and looked meek and nonthreatening. She wondered, not for the first time, what Harlis could possibly have been thinking of, to confirm this youngest of their father’s sons to the Seat, rather than appointing a Pro Tem for his own younger son Duglis. Just as well, as it turned out, since Harlis, Duglis and his older brother Teb, their sisters and most of their cousins had been vaporized with Kelarant, the family dome, in the Conflagration. At least the Kerants had an adult, functioning doyen who was already in the Administration, which made him almost an automatic choice for Speaker.

She spared a thought for Wallen Torans, who’d died with his hand on the controls when the Conflagration had engulfed Center. There’d been a window of perhaps an hour or so, once the news of the chain reaction at Rayki had been transmitted. Torans could have evacuated—there was always a surface-to-orbit shuttle standing by for the Speaker’s exclusive use—but he’d chosen to load it, methodically, with crucial data cubes and a few priceless historical artifacts, and then put his Chief of Staff’s three young children, who’d been visiting their father’s office as part of a school project that day, into the passenger seats and ordered the shuttle to launch for Station One with seconds to spare before the Northring jathrin domes had begun to collapse.

Jarvin was no Wallen Torans, and Protectorate Affairs had been the least important Administrative Seat. But he’d always been ambitious, according to Harlis. Zarel hardly knew him, he was the son of their father’s fourth wife, and younger than any of her own children. Almost young enough to be a grandchild. “He’s a scrapper, though,” Harlis had said. “And not as stupid as he looks, which is a valuable thing, even if he does take after his mother. One of us—Teb or I—just has to sit on him from time to time to keep him in line. And the extra vote in a pinch is a Creator’s blessing. I let him vote against us from time to time, just keep them guessing, but I can yank him in whenever needed.”

She’d seen Jarvin less than half-a-dozen times, but had never been particularly impressed. He’d been a greedy, pushy, unattractive little boy, and grown into, so far as she could tell, a greedy, pushy, unattractive little man, acquiring nothing of value along the way except a thin veneer of subtlety and a Parkel wife. And now you’re not around to yank him in anymore, Harlis, and he’s an Oligarch, with his hands on the fate of nearly a million survivors, all that is left of Klaros.

But a Kerant Oligarch, at least. How their father would have laughed. Or maybe raged. It had been nearly a hundred years since the last Kerant had sat in the Speaker’s Chair. Tolvin Kerant had spent his whole life scheming to restore the Kerant fortunes after the disastrous Mutiny and the near civil war that had followed had decimated the family’s holdings, and he’d carefully groomed Harlis to be the next Kerant Oligarch. How bloody ironic that this youngest child, least regarded of his offspring, the late flowering of a final near-senescent fling with a fourth wife who had nothing more than looks to recommend her, would take the Chair.

Zarel stood, in a feminine deference that would have had Harlis’ eyes narrowing in suspicion, as Jarvin rose to take his leave, the cares of state almost visibly weighing on his shoulders. “Thank you, Sister. I knew I could rely on you. You’re not nearly as…” he chose a word, carefully, “…flighty, as family reputation makes you out, you know. Now if you can just, uh, tone down… some of your eccentricities… We have to inspire confidence, you know. We’re all the people have,” he said in his most solemn politician’s manner, seemingly oblivious to the offensiveness of his earnest advice.

She didn’t call him on it. She had nearly forty years on him, and a much better-developed sense of proportion. “I’ll do my best to be less eccentric,” she said; in a tone of voice dry enough to wrinkle the very air of the tiny cabin. It was wasted on Jarvin. “I knew I could rely on you to look to your duty in this time of crisis,” he repeated, and then, apparently dismissing her from his thoughts, he bowed perfunctorily and left.

Heavenly Bride! If Jarvin hadn’t been gifted with the infamous Kerant nose, it would have been easy to believe that fashionable mopstick of a bride had played her father false. Duty, indeed, and here it was, descending on her like an avalanche, she who had shirked duty and responsibility successfully, now, for nearly fifteen years. With a wry twist to her mouth, she turned to the datapak he’d left on the little fold-down desk, and began to make herself mistress of the financial affairs of a dead planet.

Sep 142012
 

Aerial view of estuarial terrain, with rivers draining into pale blue and lavender marshwater.As soon as the reflection of dawn showed, Captain Matyas lifted the anchors and allowed the ship to drift carefully eastward, although shore was no more than a hint of darker darkness against the farthest horizon. Finally he pointed to a change in the wave pattern. “I daren’t go further. Those are the Grinders… with the tide flowing, less than two meters below the surface.”

The longboat was hauled from its resting place in the waist, and lifted to fix it on an apparatus that hung it over the side of the rail. With half a dozen of the strongest rowers among the crew, we clambered into it and were lowered to the water. Leifara and I took our turns at the oars, spelling rowers as we followed the waves toward the distant shore.

About halfway there, the man in charge of the rowers handed me a signal mirror. If none of the marsh folk could see it, it would be a long and dangerous passage through the maze of twisting channels. Marsh predators are aggressive and deadly.

I took a rowing bench when we reached the Grinders, so that the crewman in charge of the longboat could lean out, over the prow, and call directions to the steersmen. The boat checked, repeatedly, and zigged and zagged amongst row after row of what looked like submerged, needle-sharp mountain tops. The further we went, the more the waves subsided, until by the time we had passed the last ridge, we rowed across a surface like a lake on a calm day. It was hot, too. The rowers were all sweating freely. The Lady called for a halt, and we passed waterskins around.

A rower who had been watching the dark smudges of marsh in the distance started. “There—a flash, I think!”

I glanced up at the degree of the sun. We would need two mirrors to return the signal, now, but with a little angling it was easily done. Anxiously, we scanned the direction the rower had indicated. Finally—more flashes. The crewman nodded. “They will send a guide.” I heaved a sigh of relief. I hadn’t relished the thought of trying to make our way through those fetid, tangled weeds harboring a dozen kinds of death at every turn.

The promised guide was two women, almost naked and smeared with a bizarre pattern of pigments. One had her head shaved and was slung with collectors’ bags, the other wore her long dark hair in marshlocks and had an elaborate neck-collar of claws and teeth. Its center point reached halfway down her breast. They both emerged from a tangle of graysedge and stood silently awaiting the boat.

The crewman standing at the front of the boat gestured for the rowers to stop, and hailed them in Southspeech. There was some rapid back-and-forthing—I don’t have any of the Marshtongue, there were few even in the College of Arms who spoke it—and finally the one with the collecting bags made a gesture.

The crewman turned to us. “We can approach, now. When we are close enough, they will examine us and determine whether they will conduct us to the dry.”

We rowed slowly in. The two women watched, warily. Their appearance was strange, even eerie, although I know that the substances they anoint their bodies with are entirely practical in function—protective coatings against certain types of water parasites, scent-deadening chemicals to make them invisible to some predators, camouflage to reduce their visibility to sight hunters, and other uses. Still, it had the effect of making them look a little inhuman, or like a cross between humans and some marsh creature.

When the prow of our boat was less than a meter from the swaying tips of the young grayreeds, the collector held up her hand, and we stopped the boat. We sat in silence as they looked us over, then the collector leaned closer to the boat and sniffed, several times, smelling us as an animal might. She looked us over, then spoke in the common tongue: “You would go to the dry?”

The Lady answered, in Southspeech. The two women’s eyes widened, and the hunter leaned over, hand cupped, and lifted some of the clear brownish water from among the reeds where they stood. She offered it to the Lady, her eyes wide.

The Lady held out both of her hands to receive the water, then lifted them with a swift, ritualistic gesture to let the water fall on her head and shoulders. She spoke again, and both of the marsh women bowed. The collector gestured, pointing to the open channel, and the two women set off. We followed with only two oars and the steersman—there was barely enough width in the channel to row.

They led us through a shifting maze of channels that sometimes doubled back on themselves, splitting and rejoining and turning this way and that—no one but a marshlander could have found that path. The sun was mostly behind us, but again we turned north, south, sometimes even back on our track into the sun for a time. Now and again we would have to ship the oars, and the collector would slip into the water and tow the boat with a rope, thrown to her by the crewman in front.

We stopped occasionally, for no reason I could discern, and twice the hunter raised an odd, animal- or bird-like cry, which was answered from a distance. We proceeded in silence. When Leifara murmured something to the Lady, the collector turned to her and made an emphatic gesture for silence. Around us, the wind kept up a constant low song in the tangles of marsh growth, underlaid with a slow lapping of water.

Once, the wind dropped, and the collector put out a hand to halt the boat, gesturing with the other for silence. She and the hunter both froze, unmoving as stone, and we tried to do likewise. The silence stretched until our ears, accustomed, began to register the small noises of the marsh—insect song, the rustling of vegetation agitated by the passage of creatures under water or on the surface, the cry of a distant bird. We held that stillness, that silence, for what seemed like a lifetime, until there was a sudden explosion of sound beyond us and to the right among the sedges: A hellish, predatory-sounding cry and a desperate splashing, unbelievably loud.

Some of us started, I know I was among them—I could not help it, the sound was so unexpected. A shadow arose where the sound had been: A nofra, spreading its huge vanes in an attempt to catch and engulf the warm-blooded noisemakers it had sensed in its hunting grounds.

How big is a nofra? I am not familiar with all the varieties; I know some are larger than others. This one was big enough—larger than the mainsail of our ship, it loomed, extended to the point of being semi-translucent, undulating slightly in the still air, seeking a breeze or air current that it could use to waft itself in our direction. It was distant enough, I thought, that it could not engulf us simply by folding over. The hunter’s fingers were working in a pouch that hung at her hip, the motion silent, small enough not to raise betraying air currents.

Even a very huge nofra could not engulf us all—their normal prey is the hyarthem, a big creature of the themfi order, larger than a human, but not by much. But the speed at which those vanes could contract, engulfing the victim and constricting with incredible force, could reduce its prey to a digestible jelly in perhaps fifty heartbeats. They wouldn’t actually eat humans, but by the time they determined that their catch was inedible it was too late for the human in question.

The reed tops rippled—the wind was returning. Now, while the creature was angling its vanes, trying to catch the moving air at an angle that would allow it to lift, the hunter moved with incredible speed, lifting something to her lips and blowing with astonishing force. A fine jet of particles burst from the end of the tube, catching the leading edge of the nofra’s vane.

With a high shrieking keen, it collapsed, shrinking, folding, contracting its vanes; disappearing among the vegetation. I was not the only one to draw a shaky sigh of relief. The Lady murmured something very quietly, and the collector glanced at her, and nodded. The air was alive with windsong again, and we continued on.

Eventually we reached a place where the marsh women instructed us to leave the boat—there were no channels remaining wide enough for its passage. We sorted ourselves into a single file, the hunter at the front, the collector at the tail, and stepped very carefully indeed, following routes as tortuous as the boat channels had been, and even more difficult to discern. Once a crewman stepped unwarily, and sank up to the knee in slimy water, drawing an angry look from the marsh women and condemning us to another long period of stonestruck silence, with the reddening glow of sunset painting the vegetation around us.

It was twilight, with night on the horizon, when we reached “the dry.” The transition was so gradual as to be almost undetectable, but finally we strode on firm ground, among more grasses than sedge and reeds, and a discernable foot trail among them. The marsh women would have left us, then, but after another short conversation with the Lady, they consented to accompany us, although they were plainly ill-at-ease when we reached a road, packed stone and sand. They kept looking about, warily. The predators in the dry were not their predators, they plainly had little trust in the crewmen and myself, although we were all armed.

Along one side of the road, rock cairns appeared at regular intervals, perhaps fifty meters apart. As full dark descended, phosphorescent lichens on these began to glow softly, guiding us until palanahr rose greenly over the flat horizon to our left. It was near the full, and bright enough to pale the lichen-glow and keep us to the road. It had risen a quarter of the sky when a figure appeared on the road before us.

“Who travels Lyrin?” came the challenge, mildly.

I answered for us: “Ilvren, Adept of the College of Arms, in the service of Veran. Who challenges the servant of Veran?”

“Narneth of Lyrin, in service to the Chancel.”

“Then we are well met, for we are bound for the Chancel, Narneth of Lyrin.”

It was only a short trek further, the road curved inland again, around a ridge of upthrust rock, and beyond we could see the lights and bulk of the Chancel against the dark eastern horizon. When we passed through the outer gate, into the light of the globes set on high posts at the entrance to the inner Chancel, we could see the porter plainly, and the porter could see us.

His eyes narrowed as they perceived the marsh women, standing close together a little apart from the rest of us, and then widened again when they rested on the Lady’s face. He bowed. “Lyrin is honored beyond words, Lady.”

She nodded. “You honor me. We are in haste, Wandan. Is Lennari awake still?”

He nodded. “I will conduct you to him.” He glanced at us, at the marsh women. “Um… all of you, Lady?”

She sensed his disapproval of the marsh women, and her own disapproval answered it. “My daughters Inri and Olani, Wandan. Without their guidance we might have perished in the marshes, yes, even me.”

“You… you came from the gulf?” The porter’s astonishment at hearing the Lady speak so of the marshfolk was compounded with amazement at our passage. He bowed to the marsh women. “My pardon, marsh sisters, for discourtesy. I stand in your debt. Lyrin Chancel stands in your debt.”

The collector nodded, gravely. “Debt is taken, pardon is given, dryman.”

The next morning, after we had (thanks be!) bathed, eaten, slept in beds, and eaten again, we assembled in the inmost courtyard of the Chancel, by the young k’blad tree that had been once a limb of the Great Tree itself, in Aurora Chancel’s courtyard. Lennari, Canon of the Chancel, held a length of loose-woven dennicloth, undyed and unmarked. Another Elder of the Chancel held a cushion before him, bearing a very sharp knife. Leifara carried her own yat-akkan in a scabbard by her side, and a sharp, short-handled shearing tool.

The Lady was very pale, and there were dark circles under her eyes. I don’t know if she had slept. She had dismissed us to the care of Adepts of the Cloister, with orders to sleep, but when we retired, she was still closeted with Lennari. She shook her head, and looked at the Canon. “Eldest, there is no tradition for this, thank the Power, and I wish none to arise. But what I purpose here is a very deep and perilous matter, and there would be no harm, I think, in a moment of prayer for those believers among us.”

We bowed our heads, all of us, I think, though I did not look. I am not, myself, a believer, but there is no hypocrisy in showing respect for the beliefs of others. I misspeak. I believe, in my fashion, that there are powers greater than humanity, unsearchable and vast, and perhaps they have something to do with the existence of this universe of matter and energy that we know. But who can say? And whether they concern themselves with the small affairs of humankind—well, there I doubt, in truth. But that is my own feeling, based on my own experience, and I would speak for—or against—no others.

After a silence, heavy with a growing tension, the Lady raised her head, and nodded to Leifara, who stepped forward, and approached the tree. She laid her hand on its bole, and whispered the invocation of the Foresters. With the edge of the shearing tool, she cut her finger, and bent, allowing the blood to drop on an exposed root. Then she stepped back.

The habit of the k’blad tree’s growth is thus: In its youth, its lower branches run long and straight and slender out from the bole in an upward-spiraling pattern. The lowest ones grow very long, eventually bending to touch the ground and root, so that an old k’blad is not one tree, but many, unless a Forester shape it otherwise. The upper branches are shorter, and stouter, but branching more profusely, in contrast to the lower branches’ straight, slender run. Wood from the k’blad tree lives for a very long time, even severed from the parent trunk. If the cut end is buried in earth, the wood will throw leaves, and even shoots, and eventually root itself.

Leifara approached one of the lower branches, and with a quick, hard stroke of the shearing tool, lopped it from the bole, leaving a short collar and a clean cut. She held the branch—now the standard of Veran Banner—in her left hand, and bowed thanks to the tree.

Then Lennari and the other Elder approached the Lady, with the length of cloth and the knife. The Elder murmured something to her, and she nodded, and held out her left arm. The Elder tied a ligature around it, above the elbow, and the Lady picked up the knife. Carefully, she made a small cut—some blood welled, but not much. She stood, holding the wrist upward, blood oozing sluggishly, while the Canon and the Elder unfolded the cloth and spread it, holding it in front of her.

Then she nodded, and with a quick gesture, released the ligature, so that the blood flowed freely, pooling on her wrist and hand, and beginning to drip to the ground. She appeared to set her teeth, and then lifted her arm in a gesture that splattered her blood upon the cloth, making the blood-banner of Veran. She did this three times, then let her arm drop, staring with eyes like stones at the bloody pattern she had made.

The Elder moved forward quickly, and lifted her hand, nodding to an Adept standing nearby. Together, they wiped her arm and hand, and applied a poultice of timik to the cut, binding it.

Leifara, meanwhile, had stripped the shoots from the standard, saving the largest. Now she took the cloth, and with a stout twist of denni, bound it in a long, spiraling stitch to the shoot, and with a thong of tanned talgar hide, bound that in turn to the standard. Then, holding the standard carefully parallel to the ground, she turned to the Lady, and went down on one knee, offering it to her.

And the Lady took the still-damp banner, and raised the standard. The bloody cloth hung unmoving; there was no wind to stir it.

We all dropped to one knee, and then the Lady spoke.

“I, Kuinyvara, fifty-ninth Lady of Veran, raise this banner of blood against the enemies of Veran. Let there be no peace until it is laid down!”

Sep 122012
 

Finger-like dark cloudy masses with irridescent auras rising upward against clouds of light and stars in the background.The advertising for the Pleasuredome’s Homelight Lounge featured the slogan “See the World from Pleasuredome.” It needed just …one… more word.

It was supposed to be their last day at the main Pleasuredome hostel—they’d booked a private cottage in the “wilderness adventure” section of the dome for the next week. Hostin and Demis’ leaves would be up at the end of the week and they’d be leaving, Hostin for deployment on Hecht, and Demis back downside on his regular assignment at the Centrum Bek Home Legion supply office.

They had taken the children to the Grav-Krazee park that afternoon, and mostly stood around while they went on ride after ride. Jamed admitted he was flagging by midafternoon, and although the kids were adamant that they were good until until closing time, Francet and Orshel had vetoed it on the grounds of early bed and an early departure for the cottage next day.

So they’d gone for dinner while it was still daycycle, at one of the restaurants that catered to children with “fun meals” and costumed characters for service and entertainment.

“We’ll meet you in the Homelight,” Jamed had told the two girls as they’d shepherded the youngsters off to bed, and won a grateful glance from his younger son and son-in-law. It was still early enough that they managed to get a domeside table, though the credit chip Jamed had palmed to the maiter hadn’t hurt, either.

“Holy Warrior,” Hostin muttered as they sat down. “I think I’m as tired as you, Fa.”

Demis grunted in agreement. “If I had to ride that TowerTwister one more time, I was seriously considering jumping off.” He caught the eye of one of the servers, and raised an imperative hand.

They gave orders for drinks, Hostin and Demis considerately ordering for the girls. No one had much conversation left, after the strenuous afternoon. They’d eaten all they needed with the kids; no one had the energy for another restaurant, but Jamed ordered a platter of fingernibs to accompany the drinks.

The huge, slightly curved glasteel wall that butted up against the very edge of the tavis field enclosing the Pleasuredome resort was still a trifle opaque from the glare of the fading day lights, but the outline of Reveille C could be discerned, a vast bulk hanging beyond the short horizon. The planet orbited far enough out from the primary that its natural daycycle was all but irrelevant; the jathrin domes that enclosed its two rings of habitats were engineered with supplementary light cycles, just like Pleasuredome. The habitat domes were beads of light, like necklaces draping the poles.

An attractive female server in the brief Homelight Lounge uniform (well, brief for women—the male staff had ordinary service keks and tunics with a formal sash) brought their drinks. Jamed eyeballed her cleavage and had a moment’s dreamy reminiscence of that amazingly nimble and good-natured dancer from the show lounge. Really, it was a shame he wouldn’t have time for another visit… maybe when they returned from the cottage.

“What the…?” he heard Hostin exclaim, and turned.

His son was staring at the planet.

Jamed followed his gaze.

Among the lighted “beads” of the south polar habitat chain, was an expanding, multicolored sparkle effect.

He could feel the color draining from his face. His head felt light, and very far away from the rest of him.

There was a murmur rippling through the lounge, now, and more and more of the patrons and staff were turning to the windowed wall.

Someone muttered, “Creator have mercy…”

But there was no mercy today. The sparkling effect continued to expand, and small strands of incandescence began to form, fringing the main blur.

Not many in the Homelight lounge had ever seen a tavis field in catastrophic failure. But everyone knew that this light show was no part of the Pleasuredome entertainment schedule.

Helplessly, Jamed Ursek watched millions die. “Demis.”

His son-in-law was staring out the window, brows twisted in confused alarm.

“Demis!”

“Wha…” he turned. “Is that…?” His voice was hoarse, a little breathy, his eyes unfocused.

“Demis!”

Abruptly, Demis’ eyes focused. He looked at Jamed with the automatic response of a legionary to a commander. His lips parted, then closed again.

“Demis, go and tell the girls to stay in their rooms, and keep the children there, as well. Do it now. Then get your uniform brassard and shockwand, and report to the Security desk in the lobby.”

Another half-second of frozen regard, then a truncated nod, and Demis was gone. Jamed would have been glad to follow, to have something useful to do, to have a need to fill. But there was nothing he could do, not now. Kalven… Pranis… the grandchildren… everyone.

Everyone.

Around them, the murmur was swelling. A woman’s voice rose keening above the crescendo in a high, hopeless descant. The sound of someone retching violently close at hand. Crockery breaking. Something heavy hitting the floor. Splintering sounds.

A man flung himself against the window, fists pounding. “No! No! NOOOOO!!”

Jamed took one last look out the window, then turned to Hostin, watching mesmerized as the incandescent fringe wove itself into twisting tentacles, reaching north… breaking off…

He shook his son’s arm. “Hos!”

Hostin turned his head, looked at his father as though seeing a stranger for the first time.

“What?”

“Hos, we’d better go meet Demis at the Security station. Come on.”

It was something to do. Better than standing, watching.

Hostin looked over his shoulder, more than once, as they left, shoving their way through a growing chaos. As though the view might change. As though it might turn back into the peaceful bulge of Revielle C, with its serene necklaces of habitat domes, homes to half a billion people. As though the nightmare might end.

End. That was it.

“See the World End From Pleasuredome.”

Sep 092012
 

Vividly colored stars clustered together in space.Excerpt from Duenias na-Havk’tan’sOrigins of the Hub,” Vendri & Filles, Tansa Minor

The year the Hajra colonists set foot on Altair III, five years after their arrival in the system, has been designated by Hub historians as RT-1.

Sixty RT years later another of the primitive Terra Prime colony ships reached another star with habitable planets and founded the second viable human colony. Procyon was a fortuitous accident, one of those strokes of serendipity that reinforces belief in a humanocentric Deity. The colony ship Destiny set forth for the star system identified by Terra Prime astronomers as “Procyon.” It was believed, based on microwave spectroscopy and a flawed understanding of planetary morphology, that one satellite of Procyon A might be habitable with the primitive terraforming technology of the era. Destiny’s navigational computer was set accordingly.

The fragmentary log remaining from the voyage showed a relative time (RT) lapse of three years in sublight drive and nineteen years for the subspace transit. What it did not show, because at that time there was no technology capable of tracking it, was the subspace distortion—likely some variety of parabolic current—that redirected the Destiny’s trajectory and flung it far from its original course.

When the ship surfaced, there was indeed a double star “landmark” in the approximate range expected. There were variations in spectral type and rotation, and the local neighborhood was configured differently, but the colonists had no way of knowing the actual relative elapsed time (RET) of their transit, and they ignored the variations. There was a yellow-spectrum star near enough and they were concentrating on finding a viable planet and terraforming it.

We now know that the star they arrived at was nowhere near the actual “Procyon” as designated by Terra Prime astronomers. Which was extraordinarily fortunate for the Destiny, as that star has no planets habitable even with advanced Tavis generators and Ermag conditioners. But the system they arrived at, designated only by a string of numbers and arcane characters on Terra Prime, had four habitables in its primary system, including two Optimal-1 planets, the third and fourth, and two large moons of a gas giant, adjacent to an asteroid belt rich in stable transuranics.

For nearly three hundred years after the founding of Procyon Deliades, as that colony is known, humanity concentrated on conquering its new habitats. It was not until RT 384 that the Procyon engineers, seeking ever more efficient power sources, discovered the properties of transuranic minerals. Thus followed the first great wave of Colonial technology, enabling the development of the first truly efficient subspace drive systems and the discovery of the generators which could exploit the principles of soft-transit waves.

Concurrently, the scientists of Altair were working on mapping what they could grasp of subspace, and testing the hypotheses that would result in the Temporal Prediction Equations. They had no way to harness the knowledge, for although they had developed incremental improvements on their own primitive subspace drive technology, they lacked a power source that would enable them to apply what they had learned.

Both colonies were also, not unnaturally, concerned with re-establishing some form of relation to Terra Prime, if only to communicate the bare facts of their existence. Procyon sent the first expedition, in RT 427 or 429 (the record is unclear.) The expedition was lost. Two more expeditions were lost, presumably due to temporal displacement, before a fourth ship, the Homefall-4 (dispatched in RT 437) managed to fetch up in the rough neighborhood of Terra Prime some six hundred-odd years (local time) after the departure of the Destiny.

The Homefall crew assumed their journey, too, was one-way. None of the eleven expected to see homes and families on Procyon Deliades again, nor did they expect to be able to communicate with home. Few records were kept, and no records regarding the nature of the geocultural profile of Terra Prime of that era survived at all.

What we do know is that some decades after their arrival at their destination, an Altairan ship, the Xing Hikobo, showed up, bent on the same mission—communication with the mother planet. Although they had been in transit for ten years (RET) longer from a star that was considerably closer to Terra Prime, they had arrived within three years (RT) of their temporal destination, the precision made possible by a seat-of-the-pants application of TPE navigation and a good deal of luck.

From the Xing Hikobo records we know that the population of Terra Prime was a small fraction of what it had been at the dawn of the Interstellar Migration, when the two colony ships set out. No other colony ships had reported back. Terrans, absent population pressure (Xing Hikobo records are silent on the reason for the population decline,) had lost interest in the colonization program.

It was the now-aging crew of the Homefall who were most excited to greet the Altair colonists. And the Altairi, in turn, were stunned by the power technology of the Homefall. If such power could be fused with the ability of a TPE-enabled navigation system, purposeful interstellar travel might become possible (if, by the standards of the era, prohibitively expensive.) Even more exciting, one of the Xing Hikobo travelers was Liadatra Kentobo, a researcher from the team that had investigated the anomalies of soft-transit waveforms. Kentobo saw the possibilities of linking the tremendous power generated by transuranic fusion to soft-transit waveform generators. True supralight communications were possible at last.

Five of the Altairians traveled back to Procyon in the refitted Homefall, replacing crew who had died in the decades since their arrival on earth. Using a jury-rigged version of the first true TPE nav computer and the massive transuranic-powered drives of the Procyon ship, they set out for Procyon Deliades.

And arrived, disappointingly, at a point prior to human occupation of the system. The Procyon members of the expedition assumed all was lost. The Altairans convinced them to use the last of their transuranic fuel in another attempt, making their way on insystem drives to a point outside of the system’s gravity distortion, and entering subspace again.

This time they landed within two years of their target, but with their power exhausted. Hanging just outside the system’s gravity distortion, they called for help with virtually the last of their resources. Liadatra Kentobo’s final log, trailing off into incoherence as cold and oxygen deprivation finally killed the scientist, remains as the most precious relic of that doomed attempt.

The Procyon rescue ship arrived almost a year later. With the Homefall’s power exhausted, the ship had drifted from the coordinates they expected and the search took some months.

Nearly four decades later, in RT-518, the Procyon ship Emissary appeared in the Altair system.

Timeline: The Origins of the Hub

Sep 082012
 

Black and white tone drawing of figures carrying a bier through strangely curved structure.“For in the beginning, we were trapped in time.”

“And You opened for us Eternity.”

Father Rillem was performing the Funeral Service, to which he was now so accustomed that it required a stern effort not to allow the familiar words to blur his attention into a rote performance. The congregation needed and deserved better.

“And so we send forth our sons and daughters…” he paused, while the congregation murmured their litanies of names—so many names—and sank into silence again.

“…in the secure hope of being restored unto them in Your Presence.”

“Make it so, Creator, we beseech You.”

“Give us the fortitude to fight on, and let Your Avatars and Handmaidens uphold us, even as they enfold our sons and daughters into Your endless Justice and Mercy.”

“Make it so, Creator, we beseech You.”

Methodically, reverently, he finished the Service, and then, as the congregation sang the final hymn, he returned to the vesting-room and replaced the heavily-decorated robes back in the armoire. Resuming the white-piped dark green duster of a Congregational Pastor, he circled around through the back corridor to be at the sanctuary doors when the congregation left. It was the most exhausting part of the service, acknowledging, looking at, really seeing each person who stopped to greet or thank him, tear tracks on the women’s faces (and even a few of the men—it was no shame to shed a few tears at a Funeral Service, after all,) the still-choked voices, and worst of all, the eyes. Half-blind with grief, or worse, dead of all feeling, bewildered (especially the children, painful stabs of heartbreak each one,) angry, beseeching as though somehow time could be made to run backward…

He felt wrung out, sucked dry and then some, after these Funeral Services. It was what he’d committed himself to as a priest, all those years back, but no one could have seen, then, the magnitude of the demands that would be made on the Church and all of the Creator’s Servants.

Last out was his bride, who wordlessly took his arm as he nodded to Delart Morkam the verger. He put his hand over hers on his arm, patted it gently. Their children, and their two grandchildren, had all been back in West Avart Warren, a bare five hundred klicks from Rayki. He’d tried to comfort her, and himself, again and again, with the reflection that the Conflagration would have come upon them without warning, giving them no time for panic or agony, just a quick and merciful translation to Eternity. She’d pretended to be comforted, and he’d pretended he believed her comforted, and that was all they could do for each other.

“Can you make it back to the Pastorage, my dear? I’m called to a meeting at the Chancery in,” he glanced at his ringwatch, “a quarter hour.”

“Yes, of course, Rillem. I’ve a committee meeting, remember? It’s Daughters of Mercy afternoon,” her shoulders lifted a couple of millimeters. If pastoral work was often a burden for a priest’s bride, it had its mercies, too. Linvet had always been a capable organizer and never had the need for her talents been greater. One could, for a time, overlay grief with the focus on work.

“Yes, certainly. It slipped my mind. You’ll look after the emergency housing recommendations?”

She nodded. “We’ve more than three thousand cubages identified that can be converted. I’ll let you know for the Ecclesial Report.”

“Thank you.” They exchanged a squeeze of hands, and he turned to make his way to the Chancery. Linvet’s handclasp stayed with him, but the warmth it had momentarily evoked faded quickly as he took his comp from the pocket of his duster and called up the figures he had to present at the meeting. It was not good, not good at all. In so many ways. Creator grant them the resources of courage and imagination, not to mention power and cubage and everything else, to deal with the problems.

***************

“I would bring your attention, Reverences,” he was saying, nearly half an hour later, “to the bottom line figures.”

“Of the total eight hundred forty-seven thousand survivors, three hundred and twenty-seven thousand are evacuees. The balance are the population of Moonstation, military and civil servants on outsystem or orbital deployment, and the various populations of colonists, researchers, transients and others who happened to be at extraplanetary facilities.”

“So it should not be surprising that the imbalance between men and women is so great, nor that the number of surviving children is so pitifully low. One hundred and sixty-six thousand women, one hundred twenty thousand or so of childbearing age. But of those, more than eighty-one thousand are married women with living spouses—colonial families, residents of Moonstation, women who joined their husbands on civil service deployments, and so on.”

“Which leaves,” Rillem looked around the table at the lengthening faces of the Ecclesial Council, “about thirty-eight thousand women of childbearing age, single or widowed. And of those,” he shook his head, “a substantial percentage represent women in military service, a good many of whom have experienced radiation exposures at levels placing their childbearing capacities at risk.”

He opened his mouth to continue, then shut it rather helplessly and shrugged. The facts were the facts, and all of the Council members had copies on their comps. He waited for the inevitable questions.

“Father Rillem, what is the margin of error on this census?” the Archprelate of Warrest spoke first, as the senior present.

He shook his head. “Naturally there is some considerable margin for error, Reverence. We have had excellent cooperation from the military authorities, and their data are probably the most reliable. The civs have been most cooperative but only the colonial data and the municipal census from Moonstation can really be considered accurate. Everything else is, well…” he shrugged apologetically, “iffy, at best. The evacuees were counted and re-counted in several locations at several times, consolidating that was a challenge. We tried to err on conservative side, but even if our margin is as high as ten or fifteen percent…” he trailed off. Heads nodded, and faces got gloomier, if possible.

“How recent is the colonial data?” Prelate Edrell of Avatar Kanstan’s asked, hopefully.

Rillem shook his head. “Colonial Affairs had just done their biennial census as part of the appropriations request. The figures are no more than a quarter to a half year out of date.” No hope, there.

There was a long silence. Prelate Viggen of All Martyrs murmured “And more than five hundred and twenty thousand men under sixty, single or widowed.”

Prelate Reervin shook his head, grimly. “It should not surprise us so much. Women do not work at orbital manufacturing facilities. Women are few and far between at the levels of senior researchers, scholars, and students at scientific facilities. We discourage military service for women, and thus less than, what, five percent? –of the surviving military are female. Even in the colonies, we hesitate to send women until the colonial security is assured, and then only as wives of qualified colonists.” He sighed. “A tragic irony, that our care to protect women has resulted in so few survivors.”

“Indeed,” the Archprelate of Stellan Down said dryly, “but it is the corresponding abundance of males that poses the greatest challenge. It’s taken more than a hundred years to transform dueling custom to nonfatal combat. Are we now to see a revival of men killing each other off for the chance at a bride?”

A cold chill seemed to settle in the room. The Archprelate of Warrest broke it, looking from the faces of the Council members, back to the podium, and nodding to Rillem. “Our thanks, Father, for your report, however upsetting the facts. If there are no further questions for Father Rillem?” He verified with a glance at his colleagues, and then nodded again. “Go with the Creator’s blessing, Father.”

Sep 072012
 

A multi-barrel configured ship making insystem transit, showing blue & green energy trails against the background of a major space station.“Sir? I’ve never seen an init code like this before…” The communications technician was an Ensign on his first cruise, so Themat Jurnis wasn’t too surprised. He didn’t hurry as he strolled to the com station, moving only with his customary orderly dispatch. He looked at the codes on the screen and frowned. He’d never seen them either, but better safe than sorry. “You’re relieved of duty, Ensign,” he said formally, as he clicked the log tab.

“Relieved, Sir,” the Ensign left.

The string of initiation codes contained some Jurnis did know, however, including the one that signified that the contents of the message was a triple-encrypt, eyes-only message for the Lord Commander of the Second Expeditionary Legion, in person and with every security bell and whistle the brass could tack on. Too well-trained to even allow himself to imagine curiosity, Jurnis initiated a security trace for the Lord Commander: In the Orbital Command Platform, not unnaturally. He didn’t need to know why or where, merely relayed the message’s init codes to the Lord Commander’s Adjutant, Major Callet, with an “urgent” flag. Then he waited, sternly disciplining himself from even thinking about what could possibly rate such a stew of security.

Callet was inspecting inventory lists when the double tone of the com flag alerted him. What he saw on the scrambler sent him to the next room, in spite of the red “privacy” light on the doorlatch.

The Lord Commander was meeting with Alren Tydar, Hecht’s new Military Governor, and the Regional Command Staff. He looked up with no more sign of annoyance than a minute eyebrow movement, but when he saw Callet, he nodded. Wordlessly, the adjutant circled the meeting table, and handed over the scrambler.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” the Lord Commander stood.

“Lord Commander, I must insist that we resolve this…” Tydar caught the Lord Commander’s eye and trailed off.

The OCP’s secure communications facility was adjacent to the main Situation Room. Karth Tallis placed his palm against the lock, then blinked into the retinal scanner, then spoke a series of nonsense syllables in a precise sequence for the voiceprint analyzer. Triply-encrypted, eyes-only messages were never sent with good news, he reflected, as the doorseal winked green. He prepared himself, he thought, for the worst.

An appreciable time interval later—less than half an hour, although it felt like a day, maybe a year—he sat back and frowned. Whatever he’d prepared himself for, it wasn’t this. Methodically, he re-checked the encryption. Then re-checked it again.

Again he sat back. That was it. Nothing more. Just that bald command. Could it be a trick? Frowning, he ran through the possibilities. None seemed likely, given the initiation codes and routing guide on the message heading. Outside his chain of command, yes, but it did carry the triple sealcode of the Three, the ruling Oligarchy of Klaros. And yet… why, if they bothered to put the sealcode on, would they not sign it? Surely, given the content of the message, they would want to forestall any conceivable doubts about its legitimacy.

He left the communications facility, punctiliously re-engaging the security seal. Callet was waiting in the Situation Room. The only other personnel were the security monitor and the Lieutenants standing watch at the various regional control consoles. Tallis gestured to his adjutant, and gave a few low-voiced orders.

Less than an hour later, the Situation Room was packed. The Expeditionary Legion Command Staff, the Fleet’s Flag Officer In Charge, and the Occupation Administration leadership were all gathered around the main table. Watch functions had temporarily been re-routed back to Combat Command, and the room was secured and sealed.

“We have a directive from the Three,” Tallis wasted no time on preliminaries. They all knew it was an extraordinary conference. Some brows rose. Tydar’s eyes narrowed, but his mouth folded in at the corners. Had he expected this? The Military Governor was not, in spite of his title, a military officer, but an appointee of the Civ, which had no secure communications facilities in the Hecht system yet. Tallis watched him as he continued.

“The directive is unequivocal. We are to withdraw all Klarosian personnel from the Hecht system, evacuating entirely, within four hundred hours. We are to commandeer every functional interstellar vessel in the system, and to load the maximum quantity of transuranics that can be transported by our own Fleet vessels plus all commandeered vessels. We are to return to Orbital One by the shortest possible route, without calling at Bejan Base, with the ker-equipped Fleet vessels preceding the standard-drive vessels, which are to be convoyed by adequate Fleet vessels to ensure they make a safe journey. We are not to discuss these orders with any personnel below Command Staff ranks.”

He touched the tab that relayed the segment of the decrypted message cleared for Command Staff ranks to the wraparound view projector at the center of the table, so that they could all see the sealcode of the Three, and waited. His own Command Staff, and Admiral Destane, the Flag, read the message carefully, but refrained from comment. The Civies, on the other hand, were agog. Amazing that a mere half-dozen individuals could generate such a babble. And, by the expression on Military Governor Tydar’s face as he re-read the message for the third time, whatever he might have been expecting, it wasn’t this.

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